1860’s Politics: Ellsworth on the Stump

Emerging Civil War 1860's Politics HeaderAbe LincolnAs the tumult and the shouting of the Republicans in the Wigwam dimmed, the election of 1860 began in earnest for Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln himself was stuck in Springfield, Illinois because it was not common for the actual candidate to hit the road urging folks to vote for him. The prevailing attitude was to appear to have greatness, or the possibility thereof, thrust upon you. A gentleman did not seek attention or request adulation–or votes–and a candidate must appear to be a gentleman at all costs. Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas claimed to be on his way to “visit his mother” as he traveled the countryside discussing politics, to good-natured derision all around.douglasmother

Instead of politicking in person, Lincoln, with the help of Judge David Davis, put together an engaging team of men to do the campaigning for him. The election season was much shorter in the mid-1800s than it is now, where sometimes it seems as if it goes on forever. Just a few weeks before the election, stump speakers hit the road, speaking to voters at Sunday picnic rallies, evening town meetings, and Fall-themed community get-togethers. Sometimes the speakers actually stood on a real stump, but more often they stood on the porch of a building or an improvised stage. A political rally was an exciting event, then as now. There were traditional, festive activities such as the raising of a political pole, and music by marching bands. According to one newspaper, the participants at a Lincoln Pole Raising in Jackson Township, Henry County, Iowa included “many ladies” who “graced the occasion with their presence, good looks, and smiles of approval.”

George Caleb Bingham's "Stump Speaking"
George Caleb Bingham’s “Stump Speaking”

David Davis, Lincoln’s campaign manager, was no fool: he used his best men to spread out from Springfield to rouse voters to the Republican side. Northern Illinois was considered politically safe for the Republicans, and Southern Illinois was thought to be pretty much Douglas country, but Central Illinois was up for grabs, so to speak. The Republican machines in other states had tooled things up in their areas. Douglas did the same in Illinois.

Elmer Ellsworth, not yet a colonel
Elmer Ellsworth, not yet a colonel

After the convention, Elmer Ellsworth had some personal and militia business to attend to, but as soon as he finished things up in Chicago, he came to the Springfield-based Lincoln-Herndon law office to see what was up. He was supposed to be there to study law, but even Lincoln declared Ellsworth the worst law student ever. It is not known whose decision it was to use Ellsworth “on the stump” to rally votes for candidate Lincoln. Perhaps Lincoln, an unusually tall lawyer, was hoping that the popularity of Elmer Ellsworth, an unusually short military drillmaster, would rub off on his candidacy. Judge Davis knew that excitement of the campaign, with fireworks, flags, and parades, was familiar territory to the soldier. Ellsworth had proven his political worth at the Wigwam in May, and now here he was again–a famous and brilliant young man, a popular idol, handsome and charismatic, thoroughly devoted to Lincoln, willing to make campaign speeches, and good at it. The idea was a brilliant, no matter whose it was.

Ellsworth wrote to his fianceé, Carrie Spafford, about the idea: “I had the distinguished honor of quite a chat with Mr. Lincoln yesterday, he is as unconcerned and calm as if he had nothing at stake in the coming contest. He is a glorious good man.”

By October 1860, his letters announced his new responsibilities.

        Yesterday I launched my bark on the troubled sea of politics. That means, in plain English, that I made my maiden speech (on political topics I mean). I had no intention of engaging in this campaign as I thought it would require at least two months hard application to the study of political matters to fit myself for speaking. But   . . . I sat down to work, studied very closely for eight days and made my debut yesterday . . . I am to speak every day untill (sic) the election, in the county precincts.   Hurrah for the next President.

Elmer Ellsworth, often accompanied by John Hay, spoke primarily in Sangamon County. The Springfield Illinois State Journal lists a series of speaking engagements:

October 24–Chatham

October 25–Dawson

October 26–Wolf Creek, Constant’s

October 27–Williamsville

October 29–Breckinridge’s Mill

October 30–Buckhart

October 31–Brennan’s School House

November 1–Auburn

November 2–Mt. Pleasant


The only day of rest, apparently, was Sunday, October 28.

The Springfield Illinois State Journal described another Ellsworth rally at Dawson for its readers as being held on Monday evening, November 5. This was the last rally of the Lincoln presidential campaign, and everyone–Republicans and Democrats–were “cordially invited to be present.”

Wide Awakr for Lincoln!
Wide Awakr for Lincoln!

The Wide-Awakes will all be on hand!

The meeting will be addressed by Col. Ellsworth, and other able and eloquent speakers.



John Hay
John Hay

Obviously, the efforts of John Hay, Elmer Ellsworth, Judge David Davis and others was successful–Abraham Lincoln won in Illinois by over 50% of the popular vote, although Douglas was not far behind. Without the televised 24-hour news we will never know how Colonel Ellsworth sounded as he spoke for his friend and mentor, candidate Lincoln. All we have to go by are the words of John Hay from his elegant “Obituary of Elmer Ellsworth,” written on June 3, 1861. Hay remembered:

            It was not possible for Ellsworth to be neutral in anything, or idle while others were working. With the whole energy of his nature he entered into the struggle. He became one of the most popular speakers known to the school- houses and the barns of Central Illinois. The magnificent volume of his voice, which I never heard surpassed, the unfailing flow of his hearty humor, and the deep earnestness of conviction that lived in his looks and tones, were the qualities  that struck the fancy of the Western crowd. Besides, it was very novel and delightful to see a soldier who could  talk.

Personally, I am sorry to have missed hearing him. It must have been great fun to see the Lincoln pole, eat picnic food, listen to the speeches and watch the fireworks. I missed all the fun!


4 Responses to 1860’s Politics: Ellsworth on the Stump

  1. Huzza! Your unearthing of new (at least to me) info on Ellsworth adds a new aspect to the man. This also adds another dimension to the question–“What if ” Ellsworth had not been shot…? Major General Ellsworth takes Richmond in ’63?
    President Elmer Ellsworth? What a waste of talent in removing a flag!

  2. SO glad to read your comment, good sir! I spent some of the summer in Kenosha, WI at the Kenosha Civil War Museum. I had spoken to Doug Damman about Ellsworth’s political work, and he agreed with me that there had to be more evidence than just his letters to Carrie and the reference to it by Hay. We worked together to go over newspapers looking for such information, and found the schedule above. Doug was the one who talked politics as well as history to help me see why and where Davis chose to use EE.

    You are correct–the information is new. It is just part of what is in the Ellsworth bio I have been working on. And I agree, of course, with the waste of talent . . .. I ask myself if, after losing his son, and losing his friend Edward Baker, and then the Todd family relatives–would Lincoln have let Ellsworth be truly involved, or would he have kept him close? Nevertheless, Major General Ellswrth has such a nice ring!

  3. Nice to hear you are working on a biography of Elmer Ellsworth..a very charismatic individual and one that is overlooked and forgotten. Thank you for the very interesting post. I look forward to your book.

    1. Any reader of ECW knows that WE have not overlooked or forgotten Ellsworth! The book is in Book Limbo,which is better than an outright rejection–fingers crossed!

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