Book Review: Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War

Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War. By Jon Grinspan. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2024. Hardcover, 352 pp. $32.00.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

With politics, one just never knows what candidate issue, gaff, or past misstep may emerge to change the direction of an election. Similarly, spontaneous grass-roots movements can catch spark, help sway voters, and bring significant change. Such was the case in 1860, when a small group of young men from Connecticut started a club called the Wide Awakes, which way before the days of the internet, “went viral” and assisted the relatively infant Republican Party and its presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln attain the highest office in the nation. In addition, the Wide Awakes helped other Republican candidates fill numerous national and state offices through their efforts, and in doing so set the United States in a new direction and toward civil war.

With his lively new book Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force the Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War, Jon Grinspan, who serves as curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, chronicles the influential Wide Awakes and fills a glaring void in Civil War era scholarship. This study serves as a counter to the often heard expression that, “everything Civil War-related has already been covered.” Like many books that finally expose the conflict’s students to new subject matter, this work will leave readers wondering why has it taken until 2024 for someone to document such an important topic.

Grinspan informs readers that the Wide Awake movement began at Hartford, Connecticut, in February 1860, during a speaking engagement by Cassius Clay, an anti-slavery Kentuckian, who was in town for the beginning of the Constitution State’s gubernatorial race. To prepare for the evening event, a young textile clerk named Eddie Yergason, who was yet too youthful to actually vote but who wanted to join the political process in some proactive way, took an oil lamp torch while no one was looking. The torch oil stained his shirt, so Yergason designed a waterproof cape cover. His politically like-minded friends thought the design looked smart, so they soon copied the original. A political moment and movement was born.

Grinspan’s impressive research into the Wide Awakes goes back almost two decades. He notes in the book’s Preface: “The Wide Awakes were a militaristic youth movement. They marched to protest against slavery’s death grip on democracy. Though not all abolitionists, most were antislavery in one way or another. They united around a fear that a small minority of enslavers, aided by northern allies, were perverting America’s fragile politics. After watching their elders slumber for decades, a rising generation was eager to wake up.” (xi)

The Wide Awake movement spread like wildfire. They formed clubs in cities, towns, and even rural communities in the Free States and in some Border State locations during the 1860 campaign season. They dressed in period martial attire, often donning glossy rubberized or oilcloth capes and cap covers, carrying lanterns, and drilling and marching in close-order formations that previewed the armies that some Wide Awakes would soon enough join during the Civil War.

Wide Awakes sought to offer Republican Party candidates opportunities to express their freedom of speech and limit interruptions from opposition hecklers. They attended political rallies in force to provide a peaceful environment that many Democratic Party policemen were unwilling to enforce. They wished to make a show of force and demonstrate that a political majority will would not submit to the violence a political minority. While the Wide Awakes began primarily among white working-class young men in northern urban areas, it soon spread to include some ethnic groups, including African Americans, and also received support from some women. Importantly, the author takes the Wide Awake story past the 1860 presidential election and into the secession crisis and the Civil War.

Grinspan’s research is impressive. Over 50 pages of endnotes demonstrates the book’s depth and breadth of evidential sources, focusing heavily on primary source newspaper accounts. But just as impressive as the research is Grinspan’s writing style. This is not a laborious academic tome by any means. Wide Awake is written in an active style that makes readers feel like they are caught up in the times in which the Wide Awakes exerted so much sway. The book is also richly illustrated with a center section of images—many in color—that allows readers to better understand the political organization so thoroughly covered throughout the book.

Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War is a book that not only students interested in Civil War era politics will enjoy. It is a well told, timely, and important story about common people who exerted an unexpected influence on the events that led to the defining moment in United States history. This is a book that every Civil War enthusiast should read.

2 Responses to Book Review: Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War

  1. I am a CW enthusiast and will follow your good counsel to read this book … many thanks for this fine review!

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