Wednesday, July 07, 2010

This week in the American Civil War: July 1-7, 1860

John C. Breckinridge

This is the first in a new series following the course of the American Civil War to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the war. The purpose of the series is to follow the history of the war as it occurred 150 years ago. Presently our timeline has advanced to the first week of July 1860.

The end of June 1860 saw the kick off of the 1860 presidential election. It had become a four way race, with three of the candidates for the presidency coming from what might be considered the Democratic base. John Bell had accepted the nomination of the Constitutional Union Party back on May 10, 1860. Abraham Lincoln was nominated shortly thereafter on May 18, 1860 by the Republican Party. This is only the second presidential campaign for the Republican Party.

On June 23, 1860, the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore had nominated Stephen A. Douglas for president after just two ballots. On June 28, 1860, Southern Democrats also meeting in Baltimore responded by nominating Vice President John C. Breckinridge for the presidency. Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon was selected as his running mate. On June 29, 1860, Stephen A. Douglas formally accepted his in a letter from Washington, DC. In his acceptance, Douglas pointed out the extreme dangers facing the nation and vowed to campaign for maintenance of the Constitution and prevention of a split in the Union.

Presidential politics are very different in 1860. Of all the candidates, only Stephen A. Douglas will actually go out on the road to campaign for himself. The other candidates will allow campaign surrogates to speak for them. Vice President John C. Breckinridge has a famous supporter in the person of President James Buchanan, but Buchanan's popularity is at a low--he is a lame duck whose party never considered asking him to break his pledge to only serve one term. Abraham Lincoln is coordinating his campaign from Springfield, Illinois, and a steady stream of visitors and correspondence come and go from his law office.

But politics isn't the only thing on the minds of many Americans. One of the most persistent myths of the American Civil War is that a Union general named Abner Doubleday invented baseball as a boy in Cooperstown, New York in 1839. In fact, Abner Doubleday himself never claimed any such thing and there is no evidence to support the belief that Doubleday had anything to do with creating the game. At any rate, by 1860, baseball had already become a popular sport for men in New York City and the surrounding area.

On June 30, 1860, the Brooklyn Excelsiors, also known as the "Excelsior Base Ball Club of Brooklyn"--and nicknamed the "Jolly Young Bachelor Base Ball Club"--decided to take their ball club on tour to seek out competitors beyond what is now the Greater New York City region. In what was the first tour by a baseball team--and therefore the first "away" games--the Excelsiors traveled to surrounding states and throughout New York State and played and defeated the Champion Club of Albany, the Victory Club of Troy, the Buffalo Niagaras, and the powerful Brooklyn Atlantics, among others.

During this same week Abner Doubleday, the putative inventor of baseball, was serving as a captain in the U.S. Army. Doubleday was the second-in-command of a small, obsolete fort named Fort Moultrie, located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

A traveling baseball team wasn't the only novelty available to divert New Yorkers. The largest ship in the world, the gigantic passenger liner SS Great Eastern, had arrived in New York City on her first voyage to the United States on June 28, 1860. The Great Eastern literally dwarfed any other ship of her time. Her great size (692 feet long with a displacement of 32,160 tons) would not be surpassed until near the end of the nineteenth century. By comparison, the largest ship in the U.S. Navy at the time was the USS Niagra, which was 329 feet long and displaced 5,629 tons.

The Great Eastern was something of a white elephant from the very beginning: on her maiden voyage to the United States the ship carried a mere 35 paying passengers, even though she was designed to carry 4,000. Despite her inability to attract paying passengers, the Great Eastern was an imposing sight as she sat tied up in New York City. Huge crowds came to stare at the giant ship as her crew worked to clean and repaint her in advance of the ship being opened for tours on July 3, 1860.

During the presidential election of 1860, all the political parties began to organize their followers into disciplined, quasi-military political clubs. The largest and most distinctive of these political clubs were the Republican "Wide Awake" clubs. These clubs were outfitted with distinctive uniforms, including hats that gave the Wide Awakes their name because their hats "had no nap."

A Wide Awake Club in 1860

The Wide Awakes participated in most Republican demonstrations. They escorted party speakers and kept order at public meetings. The Wide Awakes also staged massive parades and torch-light processions. It is estimated that as many as 400,000 Wide Awakes may have participated in the presidential election of 1860. In one famous political cartoon, Abraham Lincoln himself was portrayed as a Wide Awake.

Also this week, Captain David Glasgow Farragut celebrated his 59th birthday at his assigned post at the Norfolk Navy Yard on July 5, 1860. Farragut had gone to sea in 1810 when he was nine years old. In 1812, during the War of 1812, he had his first command at the age of twelve: a captured British whaling ship. By 1860, Farragut has been in the service of the United States for fifty years.

Captain David Glasgow Farragut

Farragut's posting in his wife's home town of Norfolk is a pleasant break after a year in command of the brand new screw sloop-of-war USS Brooklyn. Farragut had commissioned the new warship on January 26, 1859 and had spent a busy year cruising to Haiti and then off the coast of Mexico, keeping tabs on the deteriorating situation there. After a brief visit to Panama, Farragut had turned the vessel over to Captain William S. Walker and had returned home to his post in Norfolk.

Captain Farragut was born in Tennessee and he is married to a woman from Virginia--his second wife Virginia Loyall Farragut. Because of his Southern birth and marriages (his first wife had also been a Virginian), Farragut was widely suspected to be sympathetic to the South. In fact, Farragut was intensely loyal to the nation he had served since he was a very small child, and he made it known to everyone around him that considered the idea of secession to be treasonable. In the coming years, Farragut will prove to be a scourge to the South.

On July 6, 1860, attorney Edmund Winston Pettus turned thirty-nine. At the time, Pettus was living in the small Alabama town of Cahaba, working as a lawyer, but this image of small town domesticity is misleading. Edmund Winston Pettus was a restless adventurer. Born in Alabama in 1821, Pettus was an attorney by 1842 and was the solicitor general for Alabama's Seventh Judicial Circuit by 1844 at the ripe old age of twenty-three.

Pettus had served as a lieutenant with the Alabama volunteers during the Mexican-American War and after the war he relocated his family to California. By 1853, Pettus was back in Alabama, working as an judge and then going back into private practice as an attorney in Cahaba. In July 1860, Pettus would have been watching the presidential campaign unfold and contemplating the approach of his fortieth birthday. Nearly one hundred five years in the future, a bloody fight for civil rights will take place on a bridge that will bear Pettus' name.

On July 7, 1860, the explorer Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes departed from Boston Harbor in his exploration vessel the United States. Hayes' goal was to discover the farthest north point of land he can find. Previously, in 1854, an expedition led by Hayes had mapped part of the east coast of Ellesmere Island. Hayes was returning to Ellesmere Island to try and find its north coast. Hayes' 1860-1861 expedition was later considered a failure because Hayes' poor navigation and record keeping meant that the maps he created on this trip were inaccurate. In October 1861, Hayes will return to the United States to find that the Civil War had been underway for six months.

This project is part of my commemoration of the American Civil War. You can follow along on a daily basis at my blog The American Civil War here. You can follow along with The American Civil War at Facebook by clicking the "Like" button.

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