Perceptions of Emancipation in Gettysburg, Part Three

ECW welcomes back guest author Jon Tracey

The conclusion of a series (Part One, Part Two)

Henry J. Stahle, editor of the Democrat Gettysburg Compiler.

As seen in Part One and Part Two, Gettysburg was a border town caught directly in the midst of national debates on emancipation during the Civil War. In early July 1863, the small town became national news as the Union and Confederate armies dueled over the fate of the nation from the 1st to the 3rd. As the town struggled to put itself back together in the aftermath of the battle, the political duel continued. Now, however, the town had changed. On July 4th, Stahle was arrested by Union soldiers as a presumed spy charged with pointing out hidden troops to Confederates. As the editor of the Democrat paper, he was one of the most influential Democrats in Adams County, and his fiery rhetoric may have caused some to doubt his loyalty.[1] Though Stahle had likely been accused by a politically motivated Republican, this action shows the growing frustration against what some had called a “noted organ of treason.”[2] After signing a parole, Stahle was released as no charges were sent with him. Stahle returned to town and continued to serve as the editor of the Compiler. Though not punished militarily, his reputation remained damaged. The anti-Lincoln and anti-emancipation rhetoric continued through the war, and the Compiler continued to serve as the major Democrat paper. Yet, it no longer held the same power over the community as it once did as opposing papers grew more and more established.

The Sentinel began to more openly express ideas of racialized freedom and liberty. Mere weeks after the battle it returned to press, and printed a letter to the editor that stated “Slavery, in its nature, is the mortal antagonist of Democratic Institutions… Never, never may my eyes behold any country severed or united on the basis of human inequality.”[3] The battle and the realities of war had turned many in the town towards more radical beliefs. In October, it expressed joy that “Delaware, although a Slave State, is wheeling into the line of Freedom,” as it had recently endorsed the Emancipation Proclamation “in resolutions as strong as language can make them.”[4] No longer would the paper carefully avoid attacking slavery or praising emancipation. Instead, the attacks became more pointed against Democrats, slavery, and disloyalty. Formerly, the Sentinel wrote, members of the “so-called Democratic party” had to show “entire subserviency[sic] to the slave interest,” and this was still true even in the North. “No wonder that modern Democracy, with its admiration for slavery, and sympathy for treason, has become almost synonymous with infidelity and disloyalty,” it continued, “No man who values his fair fame should allow his name to be connected with it for a day.”[5] Supporting the Democrat party, supporting slavery, and being disloyal to the Union were seen as one and the same; to do one was to do all the others as well.

In addition to the changes seen in how the newspapers approached the topic, the 1864 presidential election served as an additional test of the town’s support of abolition. That fall, townspeople had the choice between Democrat candidate George B. McClellan and incumbent Abraham Lincoln running under the temporary National Union party.  Generally, this election was seen as a referendum on Lincoln’s handling of the war; voters were either supporting Lincoln’s policy of continuing the war as one of emancipation and reunion or supporting McClellan’s call for a negotiated peace. Though the Republican party had previously run on tickets opposing the spread of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, enlistment of African American soldiers, and calls for what would become the 13th Amendment meant that this election rested on the basis of continued war and “the immediate and uncompensated end of slavery.”[6] Though Adams County as a whole went to McClellan with 2,886 votes to Lincoln’s 2,362, it was a different story in the small town of Gettysburg itself.[7] In Gettysburg, the vote was 259 for Lincoln and 178 for McClellan.[8] The Compiler had often previously urged the readers not to vote for candidates who would “degrade the white man by giving the negro the right to vote,” but the paper had lost public respect and its rhetoric no longer held as much sway in 1864.[9] Adams County as a whole may have flipped support away from Lincoln during the war, but Gettysburg remained supportive of Lincoln. Though Lincoln votes matched those in 1860, votes for other candidates in Gettysburg sharply declined from 225 in 1860 to only 178 for McClellan in 1864.[10] Although a decrease in overall votes could be explained by the fact that many residents left before the destructive battle and never returned, the fact that most of those who stayed and worked past the devastation still supported Lincoln and the continuation of the war is significant. This victory in Gettysburg echoed what one Illinois paper had called a dramatic change in the opinion of emancipation; the Illinois State Journal wrote that had the referendum occurred one year earlier “there is little doubt that the voice of the majority would have been against it. And yet not a year has passed before it is approved by an overwhelming majority.”[11] Though in a Democrat county, Gettysburg was shifting towards Republicanism and Emancipation.

Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg was an everyday Pennsylvania town with average split opinion and a deep political divide. Adams County was a borderland, quite near to slavery, and tended to have Democrat leanings. Gettysburg, the county seat, barely supported Lincoln in the 1860 election. As the war drug on and emancipation became a war goal, the Democrats like Henry Stahle and the Compiler were infuriated. Yet, Democrat beliefs in Gettysburg decreased over the war within Gettysburg. The Sentinel became more supportive of emancipation and even hinted towards racial unity, and although the Compiler’s harsh rhetoric continued, Stahle’s imprisonment tells a great deal about how the town felt about him. Many residents of Gettysburg were lukewarm about emancipation, but even after experiencing the horror of war in their backyards were nevertheless willing to support Lincoln, the continuation of the war, and the movement towards emancipation.


Jon Tracey holds a BA in History from Gettysburg College and is currently pursuing a MA in Public History and Certificate in Cultural Resource Management from West Virginia University. He has worked as a park ranger for three seasons at Gettysburg National Military Park, and previously worked at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, and Eisenhower National Historic Park. His primary focuses are historical memory, veterans of the war, and Camp Letterman.

[1] John Rudy, “’Slanderer in his Tongue’: H.J. Stahle, David McConaughy and the Battle for Meaning” (Unpublished manuscript, December 15, 2009), 7-9, 12-13.

[2] “Fludgeons to Editor John T. McIlhenny,” Star and Banner October 1, 1863, quoted in John Rudy, “Slanderer in His Tongue.”

[3] “To the Editor of the Sentinel,” The Adams Sentinel, July 21, 1863.

[4] The Adams Sentinel, October 20, 1863.

[5] The Adams Sentinel, December 29, 1863.

[6] Ayers, 285-287.

[7] Glatfelter, 27.

[8] “Adams County – Official,” Gettysburg Compiler, November 14, 1864.

[9] Gettysburg Compiler, October 28, 1863.

[10] Glatfelter, 58.

[11] Illinois State Journal, December 1st, 1863, quoted in McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 688.

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