ECW is pleased to welcome back David T. Dixon.
The day after the news of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election reached San Antonio, handbills appeared on walls and fences around town. The posters called for all Breckenridge men to assemble in Alamo Square and consider next steps in the wake of this momentous event. Within a few days, a second notice appeared extending the invitation to all citizens of Bexar County. Unaware that a meeting was scheduled, Ohio transplant Charles Anderson rode into town the morning of the rally to purchase supplies at George W. Caldwell’s store. Excitement ran high. Several Union men gathered at the store and urged him to stay and speak at the meeting that evening. Anderson’s conscience would not allow him to refuse. Forgoing his usual meticulous preparation, this speech would have to come straight from the heart.
Local secessionists fixed the agenda, but the Unionists had their own plan for the meeting. Celebrated Methodist preacher Dr. Jesse Boring began the assembly with a secessionist speech that was as measured and dispassionate as it was firm and confident. He argued that the Union was, in effect, already dissolved. In the middle of Boring’s address, Union men raised the national banner on a flagpole behind the stage, and the crowd erupted in cheers. As soon as Boring concluded his remarks, prearranged calls for Anderson came from the crowd. Anderson felt inspired. He calmly ascended the ladder to the stage as if he had been the featured speaker.
Almost no one in the audience had heard Anderson speak in public. Before he launched into a refutation of Boring’s central theme, Anderson reminded the audience that he was born and reared in a slaveholding family. He said that his time in the North had given him a broad perspective and a more objective view of the sectional issues. With no political allegiances or entanglements to sway him, Anderson argued that he could divine the truth in this critical matter. He implored his audience to take a deep breath and consider the gravity of the decision they faced. “Have sectional partisans finally dared to make, or devise, an assault upon this beloved and most glorious Union, which our fathers of the South and the North shed their united blood to cement and establish?” This was not a popular revolt brewing in Texas and other Southern states, according to Anderson. It was a power grab by unscrupulous politicians who wanted to establish their own separate government based on slavery.
If the Union really is dissolved, Anderson asked, what happens next? Do they return to the Lone Star Republic? Should Texans form an alliance with a confederation of Southern states that did not yet exist? “In nature,” he explained, “there are no lone stars. They cluster and constellate.” The former Republic of Texas “darted upwards with the speed of a comet” to join with the other United States in its constitutional system. Would they just as rapidly abandon this course without just cause? The idea of a Southern constellation of states was equally abhorrent and unwarranted, according to Anderson. Despite the hype and fear mongering from the fire-eaters, neither Lincoln nor the Republican Party had espoused, in words or platform, any desire to interfere with the institution of slavery where it already existed. To say otherwise, as secessionists claimed, was to create a pretext for disunion based on “the figments of a heated and diseased imagination.”
A voice in the crowd demanded that they hear “no more of these Black Republican arguments,” but Anderson was just warming up. “Nor am I coward enough to fear such taunts, and to prevent me from boldly denouncing such statements,” the speaker exclaimed, “when used for such unholy purposes. I have, I say, met and resented assault in other crowds, where to defend your rights, required, at least, real manhood.” This may have been true, but Anderson had never made such bold statements under such dangerous circumstances. He tried to appear nonpartisan by enumerating the many hostile actions that abolitionist radicals in the North had taken against Southern states. He chastised Massachusetts for repeatedly nullifying fugitive slave laws. This was cause for righteous indignation, Anderson admitted, but not for national suicide.
If Southerners opt for disunion, Anderson maintained, they must be prepared for disastrous consequences. Would slaves left behind on the home front with women and children stand by and be restrained “in their proper bondage and subjection with our left hands, whilst we should smite their pale faced allies with our right?” He begged his listeners not to deplore Northern fanaticism while ignoring the same dangerous folly at home. Northern extremists could not trample the Constitution and its explicit protection of the South’s peculiar institution. Southern extremists must not use lies and distortion to foment revolution where no proximate cause existed. “Must the true, permanent, invaluable interests of the Southern people,” he asked, “be forever made a sacrifice to mere politics?”
Boring’s tired assertion that the Constitution gave each state the right to secede for any reason was easy fodder for Anderson’s sharp wit. The mere thought of such a no-fault divorce in a bond of national matrimony was unthinkable in nineteenth-century America. “Secession,” Anderson explained, “was what General Jackson proclaimed it: only revolution.” He finished his speech with the same passionate and eloquent appeal for the Union that his former Ohio neighbors had so often heard. “Let us look again on that banner of beauty and glory,” Anderson pleaded. “Oh! May this flag of our Father’s Union—our Union—no sister star bedimmed or gone rayless and lost in outer darkness, our whole constellation complete. Oh! May it thus stand and remain the most loved and treasured legacy to our latest posterity, co-existent with the earth, the air, the very sun himself.” The Germans and Irish in the crowd, who had cowered in fear of being branded abolitionists, burst into cheers as Anderson walked from the stage. The Union banner fluttered in the moonlight. The celebration soon died down as the next scheduled speaker took the stand.
Colonel John A. Wilcox, a former Methodist preacher turned Know-Nothing politician, resumed the tirade against the supposed plans of Lincoln’s abolitionist allies. Unlike Boring, Wilcox was a bombastic fire-eater of the first stripe. His role in the proceedings was to excite the secessionists. He attacked Anderson and all appeals to a conservative path forward with ferocious fury. Wilcox made point after point, ending with references to “the gentleman” from Ohio. Phrases like “abolition politicians,” “stealing niggers,” and “nigger equality in railroad cars” dominated his harangue. Wilcox’s supporters gathered around the stage and shouted in chorus with each charge: “This no cause for secession? The gentleman from Ohio says not.” When the colonel finally accused Anderson of being in friendly alliance with Ohio’s most infamous abolitionists, Charles lost his composure. Fuming with indignation, he rushed the stage and pushed his way to the foot of the ladder, intending to physically assault Wilcox for this egregious insult. Fortunately, Daniel Story, a friend and fellow rancher, grabbed Anderson and prevented him from starting a melee. With bloodshed narrowly averted, Union supporters broke up the meeting and signaled a band to strike up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” marching through the town singing till the wee hours of the morning.
Anderson’s speech to the citizens of Bexar County made national headlines. Lincoln and his advisers praised the oration as eloquent, courageous, and truthful but were concerned that it was not vindictive enough toward the South. “It distributes too equally and too justly both blame and censure,” said publisher George W. Pendleton, paraphrasing the president-elect’s camp. Despite his reservations, Pendleton ordered six thousand copies of Anderson’s speech to be printed and distributed to Congress and the public. Before his speech at the Alamo, Anderson had always acted on the principle of unswerving loyalty to one country. After the speech, he became not just a national figure but also a potential tool of the Lincoln administration.
David T. Dixon is the author of The Lost Gettysburg Address: Charles Anderson’s Civil War Odyssey. His biography of German revolutionary and Union general August Willich will be published by The University of Tennessee Press in September, 2020.
1. Charles Anderson, Speech of Charles Anderson, Esq., on the State of the Country, at a Meeting of the People of Bexar County, at San Antonio, Texas, November 24, 1860 (Washington, D.C.: Lemuel Towers, 1860). Charles Anderson, A Paper Read before the Cincinnati Society of Ex-Army and Navy Officers, January 3d, 1884 (Cincinnati, Ohio: Peter G. Thomson, 1884).
2. Charles Anderson to Rufus King, December 2, 1860, Rufus King Papers, Cincinnati Historical Society Library, Ohio. San Antonio Ledger and Texan, December 1, 1860. Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, December 18, 1860. George W. Pendleton to Rufus King, December 25, 1860, Rufus King Papers, Cincinnati Historical Society Library.