Jon Grinspan, a curator at the National Museum of American History, talks about a strange new paramilitary group that emerged in the North on the eve of the Civil War.
BRIAN: But first, let’s turn to the early 19th century. The US military was small, and few American men wanted to sign up for life as a professional soldier. But many American men did serve in local militias.
ED: You know, serving in the militia, Brian, was not really an onerous kind of service. You just showed up a couple of times a year, did some marching probably some drinking, and it was a non-partisan effort. This is something that brought together all the men of a community.
JOANNE: But young men who wanted to join up, found a new option on the eve of the Civil War. American politics was increasingly polarized and violent. During the contentious election of 1860, a strange new military-style organization spread across the North. It’s members called themselves the Wide Awakes. Most Wide Awakes were in their teens and early 20s. Even if they were too young to vote, they were all staunch Republicans determined to elect Abraham Lincoln, and defeat the Democrats at the ballot box. They loved martial displays, and certainly looked like they were ready to rumble.
ED: Tens of thousands of Wide Awakes paraded through small towns and big cities across the North in 1860. They marched at night, moving through the streets in crisp military formation in shiny new uniforms. Historian Jon Grinspan told me that the Wide Awakes attracted a lot of attention, and provoked more than a little annoyance wherever they went.
JON GRINSPAN: We have to imagine it’s midnight, 2:00 in the morning, you’re on the cobblestone streets of New York City. And first, you probably smell them coming a mile away, because everyone in this procession has an oil burning torch that just stinks, like coal oil or turpentine. And then you hear the sound of hundreds of people marching down cobblestone streets.
These large groups of young men, in companies of a hundred, wearing black capes, shiny, shimmering black capes, and caps, militaristic caps, and holding these torches. It’s incredibly striking, they’re usually silent. They’re not even cheering, they’re just usually stirring, silent marchers. And it’s powerful in Manhattan, but you have to imagine, it’s even more powerful in a small town in Wisconsin, where you only see 100, 200 people. And then, all of a sudden, hearing 10,000 people marching down Main Street.
JON GRINSPAN: Yeah. This is a massive movement. Americans in 1860 believe there are half a million Wide Awakes. I think it’s closer to 100,000, but this is a movement that is popular in every northern state, and in a couple parts of the upper South as well.
ED: Well, wide awake sounds kind of like woke today.
JON GRINSPAN: Right.
ED: People really being– people who had been asleep, or who had been unaware, now getting it. Is that what Wide Awake means?
JON GRINSPAN: I never thought of the woke thing, but it’s exactly the same idea. That people who had previously been sleeping, and slumbering, and not paying attention to society are suddenly alert. And it’s a great icon too, all their propaganda and symbols have an open eye on it. Their opponents point to it too and say the Wide Awakes need to go back to sleep, and organize a movement called the Chloroformers, who are supposed to put the Wide Awakes back to sleep. So everyone gets in on the metaphor.
ED: So what’s the deal with the capes?
JON GRINSPAN: They look cool. The capes symbolize militarism. In the 1850s and 1860s, there’s something going on called militia fever, in which Americans and people in Europe are won over to the appeal of military symbols. Not necessarily for going out and fighting wars, but for the way it symbolizes progress, and dynamism, and organization. The young men who are–
ED: And dressing up, apparently.
JON GRINSPAN: Yes, and dressing up, and making a big thing out of an event. It connects to what the Wide Awakes are all about, which is they’re young, northern Republicans, who feel in some ways that their masculinity has been threatened by slave power. And Southerners who they believe dominate the federal government, have been caning northern senators in the Senate. And so getting together and looking as tough, and as bad ass as they possibly can in these uniforms is no accident. They go to the militaristic symbols on purpose.
ED: So we see the allure of the cape. I mean, that goes without saying. And the torch, that’s awesome too, right? But once you get beyond that first thrill of the dressing up, what is it that’s motivating them?
JON GRINSPAN: It’s funny, they don’t even care about Lincoln that much. I mean they want him to be elected, and he’s their guy, but what they care about is the Republican Party. These are people who grew up– if you think, the average Wide Awake is 21 years old or so, they’ve grown up in an environment where they feel as if Northerners are being stepped all over and bullied by a southern minority.
Politics has failed this young generation, but militarism has been really successful. They’ve looked at the Mexican-American War, which happened in their childhood, added hundreds of thousands of miles of land to America. So they see militarism as really compelling, and politics as really weak. And so, what they want ideologically is to stand up for the North, stand up for the Republican Party, defeat the Democrats, especially locally. They really see local Democrats in their communities as the main villains in all this.
ED: Did everybody welcome the sight of these marching silent men in torches and capes?
JON GRINSPAN: No, a portion of the country is thrilled by the Wide Awakes, and sees them as Batman, sees them as these caped Avengers who are going to solve their country’s problems. And then another portion of the country, people living in the South, people who support the Democratic Party, see them as an ominous sign of what’s happening to the country and what’s happening to democracy. They look like a military threat, and they look like a permanent paramilitary organization that’s taking over a peaceful democracy. And is more threatening to the Union than anything else at the time, as far as people who hate the Wide Awakes are concerned.
ED: So we know that the Civil War follows on this with remarkable speed, are the wide awakes playing in to that? Are they helping to foment militarism, or are they just partaking of this play militia fever that you’re talking about? How would you parse that relationship?
JON GRINSPAN: I think it’s both. I think the Wide Awakes are a good example of the power of military symbols to enlist people in a movement and to terrify everyone else who’s not in that movement. That for those people who join the Wide Awakes, they’re not preparing for a civil war, they’re not preparing for violence, they’re not any more violent than the Democrats or the know-nothings or any other party at the time, or organization. They think it’s a compelling symbol to organize a movement around.
But for people– if you live in South Carolina or Texas, and all you do is you read newspapers about a paramilitary movement marching down the streets in Manhattan, and Philadelphia, and Chicago, it looks really ominous and really threatening. And they don’t do it intentionally, but it definitely helps set the stage for people in the South to interpret the election of Abe Lincoln as a bridge being crossed. And as a moment when abolitionists have seized control of the federal government, and are running a permanent militaristic campaign against your interests. So they really scare people, people they don’t know, and can’t communicate with that well.
ED: So even though they did not intend it, they were literally playing with fire. And not intending war to result from this, and everybody is surprised that despite this kind of behavior, that it does somehow eventuate in war. Do the Wide Awake membership eagerly rush into the army?
JON GRINSPAN: As far as we know, yes they do. And they also– individuals, who are Wide Awake organizers and activists, set up their own militias that become part of the Union Army. And actually, some of the first bloodshed of the Civil War in St. Louis, the fight at Camp Jackson, to get the arsenal away from the potentially secessionists, governor of the state, is organized by Wide Awakes. They’re German-American Wide Awakes who are organized from a political movement into a military movement. Which brings about a battle, I think 75 wounded and 28 dead. Some of the first bloodshed of the war is Wide Awakes.
ED: Do you think that the war fulfilled this longing that they had before, to prove their manhood?
JON GRINSPAN: Yeah, they’re volunteering excitedly, and the war– it seems like a great opportunity to live that out. I think most people who experience a war give up on that that romantic view of it pretty quickly. But in 1860, 1861, it seems very compelling, it seems like the future of the country. And for those people who hate the Wide Awakes too. For Southerners who enlist in the Confederate Army, they are just as compelled by the sense that they are defending their homeland from this invading force.
ED: Jon Grinspan is a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and author of The Virgin Vote. Earlier, we heard from Michael McDonnell, a historian at the University of Sydney in Australia. And historian Michael Blaakman at the University of St. Thomas.
JOANNE: It’s time to take a short break. When we get back, just what did all those local militias actually do in the early republic? But first, a word from today’s sponsor.