Soldiers in Suits: Politicians during the Civil War | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150


Soldiers in Suits: Politicians during the Civil War

Political battles during the period immediately preceding and through the Civil War were essentially waged between two parties: a longstanding party of Democrats and an upstart Republican party, which had just run its first candidate for President (John C. Fremont) in 1856.

The new Republican party was divided into two factions in the Civil War era. The Radical Republicans pushed for immediate emancipation during the war, while members of the moderate or conservative wing of the party argued that they only wanted to contain slavery in the states where it already existed. Many moderate Republicans hoped that slavery would eventually be completely abolished, but their first priority in the war was preservation of the Union. In Pennsylvania, Simon Cameron headed the radical wing of the party, while Governor Andrew Curtin and newspaperman Alexander K. McClure led the moderate wing.

In 1860, the Democratic party split into northern and southern wings, with the northern wing running Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for president, and the southern wing running Vice President John C. Breckinridge. Northerners who supported the southern wing of the party prior to the war - such as President James Buchanan of Pennsylvania - were called Doughfaces. During the war, Democrats who appeared disloyal or pro-South were called Copperheads.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Democratic party splintered into roughly three groups. Peace Democrats opposed the war, emancipation, and Lincoln's restrictions on civil liberties. Many Peace Democrats, in fact, were willing to allow the South to secede. Moderate Democrats supported the war but sought to maintain a legitimate opposition to the president, opposing such policies as the Emancipation Proclamation, the confiscation acts, the draft, and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. The third group, the War Democrats, supported the war and the Lincoln administration's policies for winning it.

In an effort to mobilize a broad coalition in support of the war, Lincoln and the Republican party styled themselves the Union party during the Civil War. Many War Democrats joined the Republicans in this new Union party and ran as Unionist candidates or gave stump speeches for Republicans running as Unionists. Still, most Democrats doubted the sincerity of the Republicans in their efforts to rise above party differences.

In the weeks prior to Pennsylvania's October 1861 state and local elections, party organizers tried to supersede partisan bickering, urging voters to “unite all parties in a vigorous and cheerful support of the Government.” In Philadelphia, a “No Party” or “Citizens' Union” ticket endorsed both Democrats and Republicans whose loyalty to the Union was without question. The “No Party” ticket included an equal number of candidates of both parties. But the “No Party” had its critics. One Democrat, calling himself “Fair Play,” accused Republicans of organizing the ticket in such a way as to win more seats for Republicans. He concluded that their motto, “Union for the sake of Union,” really meant Union for the sake of the Republican party.

By the time of the state and congressional elections of 1862, partisanship had returned to normal. Aside from the War Democrats, few Democrats were willing to support Republican candidates.

The Democrats won handily in 1862, and overconfident, ran George W. Woodward, a conservative, seemingly-antiwar candidate in 1863. Woodward lost the election by a mere 15,000 votes, but it was a symbol of the changing political tide. Following several important federal victories on the battlefield in the late summer and early autumn of 1864, Republicans won the October 1864 state and congressional elections by a landslide, and Lincoln easily won reelection in November 1864.

Politicians in Pennsylvania worked in many ways to win the votes of their friends and neighbors. They gave long speeches from “the stump” and harangued audiences at rallies or from the steps of the county courthouse. They treated voters to liquor, held picnics and barbeques, and marched in daytime parades and massive nighttime torchlight processions. Most importantly, politicians relied on the support of their partisan newspapers. Unlike today, when journalists are expected to be impartial and to suppress personal bias in their reporting, newspapers in the nineteenth-century were overtly partisan organs. In most counties, towns and villages throughout Pennsylvania, each party had a newspaper, and the editors battled one another for the hearts, minds, and votes of the local citizenry. The party press, in short, was one of the indispensable weapons of Pennsylvania politicians during the Civil War era.

Information for this section was contributed by Jonathan W. White, University of Maryland.


William Blair, “We are Coming, Father Abraham–Eventually: The Problem of Northern Nationalism in the Pennsylvania Recruiting Drives of 1862,” in The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War, ed. Joan E. Cashin (Princeton University Press, 2002), 183-208.

Mark E. Neely Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North (Harvard University Press, 2002).

Robert M. Sandow, Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians (Fordham University Press, 2009.

Adam I. P. Smith, No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Primary Sources
  • Jonathan W. White, ed., “A Pennsylvania Judge Views the Rebellion: The Civil War Letters of George Washington Woodward” in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 129 (April 2005): 290-316.
  • A Philadelphia Perspective: The Civil War Diary of Sidney George Fisher (Fordham University Press, 2007).

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