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Calling the 1860 Presidential election 'divisive' would be a massive understatement, considering that the outcome was a civil war. The four-way contest stirred up feelings throughout the (still, just barely) United States. Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrat, shocked the nation by becoming the first presidential candidate to go on a speaking tour. Of course, he claimed he was only trying to visit his mother, and if his fans wanted him to speak along the way, how could he refuse? Douglas must have had a bad railway map: he started near Chicago, and his mother lived in upstate New York, but before he got to her house, he was haranguing crowds in Maryland, 400 miles away and in the South. Once he had picked the lady up at her Northern home, he headed south again with her to North Carolina, 'to settle family business'. This was getting interesting. Abraham Lincoln took the high road, and followed tradition by campaigning from his front porch in Springfield, Illinois.
A political party with a paramilitary support group is unnerving – but they all had one. The Republican Wide-Awakes, a volunteer campaign support group, marched 10,000 strong in a torchlight parade through Chicago. They were supposed to ensure order at political rallies. The fact that they were all in uniform and likely to intimidate the opposition was, of course, strictly unintended.
There was a lot of disagreement in 1860: Lincoln's opponents tried to warn Northerners that Lincoln's election would split the Union, which sounds to modern ears like a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was something called 'sectionalism', which meant that people in one part of the country suspected the other sections of being disloyal and untrue to the principles of the Republic for one reason or other. Republicans (the anti-slavery party) weren't even on the ballot in most of the South, so it was no surprise that when Lincoln won the election by capturing the necessary number of votes in the Electoral College, carrying only the North, and with less than 40% of the popular vote, some people were bound to cry foul.
Lincoln was elected in November 1860, and by Christmas, South Carolina had seceded from the Union, inviting the other slave-holding states to join her in forming what South Carolina called 'the Confederate States of America'. Most were reluctant to take this risky step – until the government in Washington called up the state militias. Forced to choose between fighting against their neighbours and leaving their country, they chose to join South Carolina in secession.
It was a bold step, and one with serious consequences. Northern politicians claimed that you couldn't legally leave the Union – once in, always in. Confederates said otherwise. The issue was debated across the land, in town halls and legislatures. Then someone started shooting, and – legal or not – the War Between the States was on. It took four years to end the fighting, and the Constitutional issues were never completely resolved.
All of which may or may not have something to do with why Town Line, New York, a tiny hamlet near Buffalo, decided to join the Confederacy in 1861. Their leaving and re-entry to the Union 85 years later is an interesting story. It even involves Harry Truman, Cesar Romero, and a barbecue.
Why Did They Go?
Nobody is really sure why Town Line voted to secede. Town Line is close to the Canadian border. It is very far away from the South. The 125 eligible voters in Town Line were mostly farmers from Vermont or Germany. It is a safe bet that not one of them approved of the institution of slavery. They had no economic interest in the cotton industry, but we know they liked to argue. All we know for sure is that one night in 1861, these 125 men gathered in the schoolhouse and voted 85-40 in favour of a resolution severing their connection with the Union.
There is a hint, though, in what some of the old folks told nosy reporters back in the 1930s1. Those who were kids back in 1860 remembered how it was: how all the men sat up until midnight sometimes, debating the news and arguing their points of view. The biggest hotheads, apparently, were George Bruce and Thurston Carpenter.
According to eyewitnesses, banker Bruce, a Southern sympathiser, or 'Copperhead', 'held court' on the bank steps, while Carpenter, 'an argumentative invalid', represented the Republican view from in front of his store on the opposite side of the road. As neighbours took their traditional evening strolls, they would gravitate to the passionate discussion. When the debate got hot enough, words threatened to give way to blows.
Finally, they voted to leave the Union. Did it make any difference? Not really. They kept paying their taxes. Five boys ran off to join the (Confederate) Army of Northern Virginia, while 20 joined the Union Army. A few families migrated north to Canada to get away from it all, especially when they felt threatened by angry neighbours as the miserable war dragged on and on. In 1865, the war ended, and embarrassed Town Line people tried to forget about the unpleasantness. Nobody wanted to talk about it – which might be why they forgot to vote themselves back into the Union.
Oh, I'm a good old Rebel,
Well, that's just what I am,
For this fair land of freedom
I do not give a damn...
I hates the Yankee nation
And everything they do,
I hates the Declaration
Of Independence too... – attributed to Major James Randolph, CSA2.
Town Line was not the only area not located in the contiguous South to have found secession attractive in those heady early months of 1861. Rough and Ready, California, for instance, a small mining town, had seceded, largely over an argument with the US Post Office, which objected to the name. Rough and Ready rejoined a few months later, when it occurred to the citizens that leaving the US had a dampening effect on the Fourth of July picnic.
Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a different kettle of fish. Vicksburg had been besieged by Ulysses S Grant's troops for two months. When the city fell on the Fourth of July, Vicksburg did not appreciate the irony. Not only did the city refuse to celebrate the holiday for the next 80 years, it didn't rejoin the Union, at least, not officially.
Rally Round the Flag
Three-quarters of a century can make a big difference in the political landscape. There was a lot of celebrating going on in 1945, World War II was finally over. Troops came home to a jubilant welcome. Communities all over the US were eager to honour their returning soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Any excuse to bring out the bunting and dust off the flags was welcome. In the general spirit of civic and national pride, even Vicksburg relented. The city, along with Dade County, Georgia, another holdout, decided to join the 20th Century and reapply for admission to the Union. They were graciously accepted.
In the midst of all this jollification, an enterprising reporter in the Buffalo area noticed something: with Vicksburg back in the fold, that meant that Town Line, NY, in the snowy North, was now the last bastion of the Confederacy. Was this an opportunity to display boosterism3 and foster new solidarity with other regions of the US, to show that sectionalism was gone, once and for all? Reporters got a buzz going in the local papers.
'It's about time we did something about it' Supervisor John H Cooke of Alden said yesterday. 'Both Supervisor Joseph F Schaefer of Lancaster and I have decided we should take steps immediately to bring Town Line back to the Union. If Georgia and Mississippi feel the war is over, so do we in Lancaster, Alden and Town Line.' – Buffalo, New York Courier Express, 6 July, 1945
Down in Georgia, they were quick to respond:
The Georgians couldn't hold back comment, when they learned Town Line, which seceded from the Union in 1861 to join the Confederacy, was considering voting itself back into the Union. The consensus was expressed by Gen TW Dowling of Valdosta Georgia, 97-year-old Confederate veteran. He said: 'We been rather pleased with the results since we rejoined the Union. Town Line ought to give the United States another try.'... Another 'authority', Judge AL Townsend of Trenton, Georgia, also believed 'Town Line ought to give the United States a good second chance.' – Buffalo Evening News 2 October, 1945
It sounded like a good idea. Somebody wrote to the President.
Welcoming the Prodigals
Harry Truman must have had a better day when he got this letter than he'd had in quite a while. After all, this was the man whose desk sported the sign, 'The buck stops here' – and with good reason. Being called on, suddenly, to take over the reins of an unfinished global war, and then being told, 'oh, by the way, we need to read you in on the Manhattan Project', was the sort of hideous crisis the man from Missouri had got used to. Now all he had to do was answer the question, 'How do we get back in the Union?'
Truman's answer involved barbecue:
Dear Mr Feeley:
'There are few controversies that are not susceptible to a peace time resolution if examined in an atmosphere of tranquility and calm rather than strife and turmoil. I would suggest the possibility of roast veal as a vehicle of peace.
Why don't you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbecue it and serve it with fixin's in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started? Who can tell? The dissidents might decide to resume citizenship.'
Very Sincerely Yours,
Harry Truman – letter dated from the White House, 2 October, 1945
The President's friendly suggestion was welcome. And so it came to pass that on 24 January, 1946, the citizens of Town Line, New York, met at the old blacksmith's shop, which used to be a schoolhouse in 1861. They had a barbecue lunch. They watched the première of a Civil War film called Colonel Effingham's Raid. Smart 20th-Century Fox promoters had sent along a few actors, and handsome Cesar Romero helped count the votes.
The result? 90-23 in favour of rejoining the Union.
What did they have to do? Well:
- Renounce the Confederacy along with Jefferson Davis and all his works and pomps. (Which is more than the Confederate government ever did4.)
- Petition the US government for readmission.
- Ask New York State Governor Thomas Dewey for 'protection' in the interim.
And so it was done, to the satisfaction of everybody concerned. The morals? All politics are local. And as time passes, the questions change. One century's hot-button issue can – with luck – be another's excuse for a party.