The current presidential contest reminds us that politics is indeed a blood sport. Those expressing regret that negative campaign ads and nasty election rhetoric are unfortunate indicators of a post-modern loss of civility need to examine history. The dire electoral struggle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800, for starters, was rife with character assassination, dirty tricks and copious mudslinging. That landmark election not only created America’s two-party system, it also set the tone for future partisan bickering that has become a staple of American politics.
President Lincoln understood that he was actually fighting two powerful enemies in the middle of the Civil War: Lee’s army and Northern Peace Democrats, who were calling for an immediate armistice by 1862. Constituents were listening and handed the Republican party a series of stunning defeats in the mid-term elections that year. By the time the 1863 gubernatorial contests rolled around, The Lincoln administration was anxious for some wins on the political battlefield.
Ambrose Burnside, the general commanding the Department of Ohio, could not stand idle and listen to prominent Copperheads like Clement Vallandigham criticize the war effort and actively discourage enlistment. He arrested the popular Democrat at home in his nightclothes. A military tribunal convicted the former U.S. representative from Dayton of treason. In his zeal to silence a traitor, the general created a martyr.
Lincoln attempted damage control by altering Vallandigham’s sentence to deportation, but it was too late. Vallandigham was already a folk hero to many war-weary citizens throughout the North. To prove their point, Ohio Democrats nominated the exiled traitor as their candidate for governor, despite the fact that he was living in Canada. The convention vote was 411 to 11. This was turning into a dangerous political nightmare for the president.
Fierce opposition to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, particularly in the border North, caused the Republicans to abandon their party standard and join with so-called “War Democrats”, rebranding themselves as the Union Party. Ohio’s Union Party nominated John Brough, a well-respected Democrat and railroad executive, who had opposed Lincoln’s election in 1860 and had indicated that he would likely do so again in 1864. Brough urged his fellow Democrats to suspend their partisan prejudices and support the administration’s war effort for the good of the country.
Vallandigham’s banishment created an unusual campaign dynamic. The Democrats were forced to rely on their lieutenant governor pick, the tall, attractive forty-one-year-old Mexican War hero George Pugh, to carry their message on the hustings. Brough, whose prosperity had greatly enlarged his waistline, cut a rather portly and ponderous figure compared to the dashing Pugh. The Union party countered by nominating Charles Anderson, a Texas slaveholder in 1861, but an unconditional Union man. Anderson had escaped from a Confederate prison, raised and commanded an Ohio regiment, and had been wounded twice at the battle of Stones River. The six foot, ruggedly handsome Anderson would be the Union party’s mouthpiece as the two candidates for lieutenant governor prepared to square off and barnstorm across the state.
Anderson did not attend the convention. The day after the meeting closed, party leader John Caldwell wrote to the candidate to inform him of his nomination. The following day, Anderson received another letter from an old friend, newly-elected U.S. Congressman William Johnston. The congressman congratulated Anderson on his achievement and proposed a tongue-in-cheek campaign slogan: “Charlie is lean and Jack’s not that. A steak of lean and a steak of fat.”[i] There would be few such humorous moments in this campaign, which has been remembered by many as one of the nastiest gubernatorial races in the history of the country.
The Ohio gubernatorial election became a referendum on Lincoln’s war policy. The Democrats were hurt by bad timing, as Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg added an air of inevitability to the conflict. Confederate general John H. Morgan’s alarming but ill-advised raid through Indiana and Ohio during July 8-26 also helped rally voters behind the Union cause. Brough and Anderson entered the race as the favorites when only weeks before the democrats had held sway with public opinion.
The campaign was fierce, ugly and violent. The pace was relentless. The candidates themselves retained an air of civility, but their minions were crass and even vulgar. One of Salmon P. Chase’s flunkies contacted Anderson, advising him to tone down his refined image on the stump. “Smoke and throw away your cigarettes, “Joseph Geiger wrote to the candidate in July 10. “Use a horse cock,” Geiger bleated, and “look like a man, not a female baby.” The Dayton Empire, Val’s hometown organ, lashed out at Anderson, branding the sectional moderate as an abolitionist. “We cannot conceive how any man can remain in such company,” the Empire sneered, “without becoming black.”[ii]
Senator John Sherman and his brother General William T. Sherman were personal friends of Anderson and lent their support. Senator Sherman ridiculed Copperhead complaints about Vallandigham’s arrest and exile. If Democrats really must vote for someone they feel was wronged, then vote for Anderson, Sherman reasoned, “who suffered ten thousand times more at the hands of traitors” than had Vallandigham in his civilized banishment. General Sherman was typically blunt. Vallandigham’s supporters were cowards, the general insisted. “They try to cover up their cowardice with a plan of peace.” “I have seen such men in battle,” Sherman continued. “When bursting shells and hissing bullets made things uncomfortable, they would suddenly discover that they were sick or had left something back in camp. I am no voter but I have some 20 lb. rifles that have more sense than 4100 of the voters of Ohio,” the general exclaimed. “If you want them say so.”[iii]
This election was the first in which Ohio soldiers in the field could cast a legal vote. Joseph Leeds of the 79th Ohio Infantry wrote that there was not much excitement in camp as all but a dozen soldiers in his regiment were voting for Brough. He described a “frolick” that the men had a few days before the election. “We hung old Val in effigy,” Leeds related, “and if we had the old boy himself we would serve him the same way.”[iv] Numerous officers, like Colonel Stephen McGroarty of the 61st Ohio Infantry, were given furloughs so they could hit the meeting circuit and stump for the Union candidates.
From mid-August to the middle of September, Anderson gave 19 speeches in 34 days. George Pugh’s voice gave out during an exhausting campaign schedule as he stood in for his exiled running mate. As victory for Brough and Anderson neared, the election rhetoric grew more personal. Vallandigham gained a coup of sorts on August 21, when Anderson’s brother Marshall declared for the Democrats. Marshall’s logic was simple. Whoever supports the war effort, by virtue of the Emancipation Proclamation, supports abolitionism. ”Abolitionism,” Anderson’s brother declared, “is the sire and dam of disunion.” Marshall had worked hard early in the war to enlist troops and willingly sent two sons into Union service. His nephew died at Vicksburg. What he could not abide, however, was the loss of civil liberties that Lincoln’s wartime actions foreshadowed. He supported Vallandigham, he declared, “because I prefer the principle of Liberty to the price of blood.”
Marshall went on to compare the Union ticket to a jockey and his horse. “Smiling Jack” left Anderson carrying the heavy speaking load during the campaign. If the former slave owner was not kept to a focused message, Marshall claimed, “just as sure as the glowing hide of the fat knight emits the odors of Africa, so surely will Charley fly the track, and then ‘farewell, a long farewell to all your hopes and glory’.” Vallandigham sent the same message about Anderson in a less brotherly tone: “Charles is a very uncertain quantity – a filthy gentleman whose brain is not very securely anchored in his skull cap.”[v] Political independence was not something that many politicians or even brothers understood or respected.
Brough and Anderson won the day by over 100,000 votes amid the largest turnout in Ohio electoral history. They won the solider vote by a majority of nearly 40,000, while winning both Vallandigham’s home county and the city of Dayton. Officials in the Lincoln Administration celebrated. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase said that the Union could “count every ballot a bullet fairly aimed at the heart of the rebellion.” Lincoln himself admitted that he was more anxious about the Brough-Vallandigham contest than he had been over his own election in 1860.When Ohio Governor David Tod wired the good news to the president, Lincoln reportedly responded, “Glory to God in the highest; Ohio has saved the Union.”[vi]
The Ohio election results were widely publicized, thrusting Anderson into the national spotlight. New York’s Union Party faced a tough battle with Democrats for control of the state legislature. Party leader William P. Wellen reached out to Anderson, asking him to speak before the November 3 contest. He declined. Anderson had made it clear to anyone listening during his own campaign that he was in the race for one purpose only: to win the war and save the Union. “I am and expect to be neither a Republican nor a Democrat,” he declared. “The one is not better than the other.”[vii]
Lincoln’s political allies had one final request that Anderson could not resist. Governor Tod asked Anderson to be the keynote speaker at a rally following the dedication of the new soldier’s cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19. The meeting would be attended by Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and other important dignitaries. The lieutenant-governor-elect accepted and gave a fiery oration in a forty-minute address which concluded the day’s events. It was a fitting epitaph to a raucous election season, when the most notorious Copperhead in the North threatened the fragile political coalition that Lincoln and his friends had worked so hard to maintain; but it was just the beginning of yet another momentous campaign, as Lincoln sought the re-election he felt was essential to winning the war and preserving the Union.
David Dixon earned his M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts. His articles appear in numerous scholarly journals and magazines. David Dixon hosts “B–?List History,”a website celebrating obscure characters and their amazing stories. http://www.davidtdixon.com/
[i] John Caldwell to Charles Anderson, June 18, 1863, William Johnston to Charles Anderson, June 19, 1863, Richard Clough
Anderson Papers, Huntington Library.
[ii] Joseph Geiger to Charles Anderson, July 10, 1863, Richard Clough Anderson Papers, Huntington Library. Dayton Empire,, March 27, 1863.
[iii] Cleveland Morning Leader, October 8, 1863. William T. Sherman to Charles Anderson, August 13, 1863, , Richard Clough Anderson Papers, Huntington Library.
[iv] Joseph Leeds to Liberty Ball, October 13, 1863, Cincinnati Historical Society Library.
[v]Daily Ohio Statesman, August 27, 1863. Daily Empire (Ohio), August 29, September 2, 1863. Belmont (Ohio) Chronicle, October 1, 1863.
[vi] The telegram, repeated in countless histories as addressed to either Tod or Brough, is not found in the voluminous records of Lincoln correspondence.
[vii] William P. Wellen to Charles Anderson, October 19, 1863, Richard Clough Anderson Papers, Huntington Library.