Hard historical truths

“MORE THAN SIX THOUSAND PRESENT! THE GREATEST ENTHUSIASMS PREVAILED.”

I just came upon that breathless headline while doing research for my next book, which will delve into 19th century black life in the section of northeastern Pennsylvania where I was raised. My hometown, the lovely hamlet of Waverly, north of Scranton, takes pride in the fact that it once harbored a settlement of fugitive slaves. I’ve been drilling down into that history, with a focus on the dozen remarkable black men from the settlement who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

My goal in this latest round of road research was to find verification for a report I recently ran across online (thank you, newspapers.com!) about a rally in Waverly in October 1861, in the early stages of the war. According to the Adams Sentinel of Gettysburg, the rally was held in support of Lincoln’s policies, and it featured speeches by two gutsy officials of the opposition Democrats, representing the faction of “pro-war Democrats.” The article said ten thousand people attended and cheered loudly. Who else spoke, I wondered. Waverly’s black residents must have attended. Did one of their leaders perhaps get a spot on the platform as well? And where could such a massive event even be held in little Waverly?

I hoped the answer might pop up in one of the old Scranton newspapers, which would presumably have covered such a major event in its area. Unfortunately, the archived newspapers at the Scranton public library only go back to 1863, so that part of my search is thwarted for now.

Meanwhile, I dove into newly added microfilm for another Scranton newspaper, The Lackawanna Register, beginning in early 1863. The Register was a hard-core, Lincoln-hating Democratic house organ—and wow, the invective and racism! Its pages were filled with accounts of large antiwar demonstrations throughout the region in the summer of 1863. There was one in Greenfield, and in Scott, in Lenox, in Harford, in Dundaff, in Fleetville.

Wait a second. This picture runs directly counter to the impression I’d gotten before– that the area was in Lincoln’s camp and that its Southern-sympathizing, abolition-loathing “Copperheads” were fringe crackpots who were few in number.

Even if you figure The Register was inflating the size of the turnouts and the level of enthusiasm, the events still must have been galvanizing. For instance, the June 6 “gathering of the yeomanry” in Greenfield drew many “in their four-horse teams, heavily freighted with the Democracy of their immediate neighborhoods. Others with two-horse teams; some in buggies, some on horseback, and hundreds came on foot…Flags and national music enlivened the occasion at intervals.” Resolutions were adopted that denounced both Lincoln’s war powers and abolitionist “fanaticism” (saying the abolitionists “may be hopelessly insane; still, they shall not be permitted to rule or ruin this great nation.”).

Similarly, several thousand in Harford cheered as the speaker blasted away. According to the Register, “the ‘Negro Equality’ doctrine, in connection with the Abolition policy of the Administration, received the largest share of his satire—the tremendous volleys of which frequently call out the most enthusiastic demonstration.”

Then came the one in Fleetville, just five miles north of Waverly, on July 4 (“More Than 6,000 Present!”). A hickory pole, symbol of Jacksonian Democracy, was erected, more fiery speeches were cheered, and “a committee of two hundred ladies presented the gentlemen who addressed them with a most beautiful bouquet.”

Also that day, the crowd affirmed an angry resolution written by Waverly lawyer Thomas Smith. This long manifesto denounced the federal government’s “negro fanaticism” and called for “a speedy deliverance from Abraham Lincoln’s bloody Abolition rule.” It declared the president guilty of treason—and said that “for his numerous wanton violations of the Constitution of the United States he ought to be impeached.”

Contrary to other accounts I’ve read, the so-called “Crackerbarrel Congress” manifesto was not merely the product of a handful of cranky men who met in the backroom of a Fleetville store. They were speaking for thousands of people in that region, dissidents who repudiated “King Abraham”–and also couldn’t stand black people and their white allies in places like Waverly.

Stay tuned for more updates.

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