Columbia County Goes to War, 1861–1862
Three days after Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, President
Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 three-month militia members to suppress
the Southern rebellion. Pennsylvania's quota was fourteen regiments of
infantry, or about 14,000 soldiers. But the response to the insult to the national
flag was so great that the commonwealth sent twenty-five regiments to war
within the space of ten hectic days. Many Democrats who had opposed the
election of a Republican, "abolitionist" president put aside their differences to
unite against the rebellion.
One of the Pennsylvania counties that remained strongly Democratic
was the centrally located Columbia County, astride the main branch of the
Susquehanna River southwest of Wilkes-Barre. White settlers had begun
moving into the future county in the 1770s, when the Susquehanna was the
western limit of European settlement. The majority were Scots-Irish and
Germans, with a smattering of Welsh and Dutch families. Originally part
of a mammoth Northumberland County, Columbia was created in 1813 by
taking twelve townships from Northumberland. Danville became the county
seat of this new county, which was further divided when Montour County
was carved from it in 1850. By that time, the courthouse had been transferred
to Bloomsburg and it remained there after Montour was created. The county's
main occupations were farming and lumbering, with a few coal mines in
the southern townships.
Since its creation, Columbia County had generally voted along Democratic
lines. The county had gone for James Buchanan in the 1856 presidential
election, then voted for Democrat William F. Packer for governor in 1857 and
Henry Foster in the hotly contested gubernatorial election of 1860. Later that
year, county residents voted for president, giving Southern Democrat John C.
Breckinridge 2,367 votes, while Lincoln received 1,873 votes. Democrat Stephen
A. Douglas and John Bell, running on the National Union Party ticket,
received only one hundred votes between them.
The newspapers of Columbia County were heavily Democratic in tone.
The oldest of the three active Bloomsburg papers was the Columbia Democrat,
which had begun publication in 1837. Levi Tate was the editor in 1860, having
purchased the paper in 1847. Tate, originally from Lycoming County, was a
staunch Democrat, as clearly shown in his editorials. A second Democratic paper,
the Star of the North, had appeared in 1849. Williamson H. Jacoby was the
Star's editor. Finally, the Columbia County Republican had begun circulation in
March 1857, with Dr. Palemon John as editor. There was a single newspaper in
Berwick, the Gazette, which had begun publication in 1853 as the Investigator.
Levi Tate purchased this paper in 1855 and changed its name. Tate sold the paper
three years later. When the war began, Jeremiah S. Sanders was the owner.
The two Bloomsburg Democratic papers favored Breckinridge in the 1860
election and, like other such newspapers across the country, doubted president-elect
Lincoln's words that he would not interfere with slavery. Many Democrats
equated Republicans and abolitionists. They were the ones to blame for the
increasing sectional problems, trumpeted the Democratic papers. Slavery was
legal under the Constitution, and if abolitionists were muzzled, the country
would be in much better shape. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 must be upheld
and Southerners allowed to reclaim their property. Abolitionists were acting
against the law by shielding runaways.
However, the Democratic Party was beginning to splinter in 1860. The
Democratic State Convention met in Reading on February 29 to select the delegation
that would attend the national party's April convention in Charleston,
South Carolina. That delegation would pledge its support to the presidential
candidate selected there. But the rancor and partisan bickering in Charleston
derailed the selection of any candidate. The party's leaders instructed delegates
to reassemble in Baltimore in June to resolve this issue. However, this convention
split into two factions, one of which nominated Kentuckian John C.
Breckinridge, the other Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. Pennsylvania's delegation
reflected the national split between the two candidates.
Editor Tate of the Columbia Democrat instructed his readers to cast their
votes for Breckinridge, using two columns to provide a detailed list of reasons
the Kentuckian was more qualified to be president than Douglas. Breckinridge
was the "only candidate in the field worthy the confidence and support of the
party; and the only one that can save the party from destruction." He would
support the Constitution and have only one political theory for the entire country.
Furthermore, Breckinridge was not ashamed of his principles and was "a
sound unflinching Democrat" of the national persuasion instead of a sectional
candidate. Breckinridge opposed disunion but also stood for state sovereignty,
including the right of any person to bring his property into any territory he so
wished. "[A]ll such property is equally entitled to protection from aggression
Tate also warned what would happen should Lincoln be elected president:
There is danger to the Union—imminent danger, and the election of Lincoln
would unquestionably precipitate the crisis. Disguise it as they may—treat it
with levity as our Republican opponents choose—the election of Tuesday next
may sound the death knell to the Union, and many of our Northern people will
repent, when too late, their hasty and inconsiderate action in forcing the issue
upon our Southern brethren. We speak earnestly and feelingly on the subject,
and would urge upon our Democratic friends, and all others who love the Constitution,
and the Union, to turn out in their strength at the Presidential election,
and cast their votes in such a way as will assist in saving the Republic from the
dangers which threaten its continued existence.
An example of the attacks on the Republican Party was penned by twenty-one-year-old
law student Charles B. Brockway. Answering a polemical attack
by the Columbia County Republican, Brockway assailed those Republicans
who believed in racial equality and charged the Democratic Party with defending
slavery. Brockway singled out Ohio and Massachusetts as Republican
states that advocated Negro equality. How could Massachusetts give equality
to Negroes and prohibit white foreign immigrants from voting until they had
lived there for seven years? And yet, Brockway wrote, Negroes stolen from the
South could vote in Massachusetts after one year's residence. Even Salmon
Chase of Ohio and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois both advocated Negro equality,
Many Democrats believed that Abraham Lincoln and his abolitionist friends
were responsible for the divided country. An anonymous Pennsylvanian wrote
that President Lincoln had "stultified himself and ignored the truth of history."
This writer complained that Lincoln had uttered numerous falsehoods in his
inauguration speech, daring to proclaim that the South had nothing to fear
from a Republican administration. It was the triumph of the Republican Party
that had wrecked the federal union, declared this writer. A "Benton Boy" wrote
a letter to the Columbia Democrat that appeared in its issue of August 24, 1861,
blaming the war on "black and blue coat preachers" who favored the Negro.
These two examples are only two of many that show how rank-and-file Democrats
had been informed by their editors and leaders that Republicans and abolitionists
were responsible for the country's ills. For a largely racist audience, it
was much easier to cast blame on abolitionists and Republicans—whom they
equated—than to scrutinize the paradox in the Constitution that allowed slavery
in a country that proclaimed "all men are created equal."
When Lincoln appointed Carl Schurz ambassador to Spain, the Star of the
North raised its voice in contempt. Decrying Schurz as an "infidel abolitionist
calumniator of the Declaration of Independence and its signers" (Schurz had attacked
the signers for their inclusion of slavery), the paper could only conclude:
To this end its [administration] first act is to hasten forth its emissaries to defame
the Southern institutions as infamous and unworthy of recognition by a
Christian people, and doing this there is no possible escape from the conclusion
that its own purpose must be to extinguish in its own Union that institution which
it teaches other nations is an abomination with which they should hold no alliance.
Every voluntary act of the Administration, unmistakeably points to the "extinction
And yet, when Fort Sumter was fired upon, most Northerners united against
the rebellion. It was suddenly unfashionable and unpatriotic to criticize the
government. Levi Tate succinctly espoused the mainstream Democratic viewpoint
in the Columbia Democrat on April 20, 1861:
Now that war has commenced—no matter who is at fault—it is the duty of all
our citizens, irrespective of party, to stand by the old flag, with its glorious stars
and stripes, and support the Government in all proper and legitimate efforts to
bring the contest to a successful issue. The first blow was struck by the Secessionists,
and now it becomes the duty of every patriot to lend his aid in sustaining
the honor and glory of our common country. If we have a Government that is
capable of protecting and perpetuating itself, this is the time to exert its strength,
and the people must stand by it no matter who is at the helm. We go for our
country, our whole country, and nothing but our country.
But the paper's editor made it known to all that all good Democrats must aid
the government, no matter who was at the helm.
The Democratic press response in Columbia County mirrored that across
the North during the spring of 1861. In every war, it is hard for the opposing
political party to both support the administration and be critical. The Democratic
Party in 1861 was in this situation. When Fort Sumter was fired upon,
much of the Democratic Party rose to support the Lincoln administration.
The South had fired the first shot, and the honor of the national flag must
be upheld. However, a smaller faction of the party, which became known as
"Peace Democrats" in the fall of 1862, was less enthusiastic about supporting
an administration it held to be an abomination. Many Peace Democrats
were in favor of the ill-fated Crittenden Compromise, a plan engineered by
Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden in December 1860. Crittenden proposed
constitutional amendments designed to protect slavery where it existed and
enforcement of the fugitive slave laws to appease the South and thus keep the
states united. However, the measure failed in the Senate shortly before Lincoln
was sworn into office.
A number of Peace Democrats wished the South well and advocated a peaceful
separation rather than war. These conservatives read the Constitution very
narrowly. This document did not contain any references to secession, so they
reasoned that secession was entirely legal. In fact, some thinkers in this line of
reasoning believed the South was merely continuing the American idea of leaving
a repressive government for a better way of life, as had happened in 1776.
New York City mayor Fernando Wood actually suggested that the city secede
from New York State, which he argued was too closely involved with abolitionist
interests to do the city any good. New York had many commercial ties
with the South and it was in the city's best interests to continue them, argued
Wood. Conservative Democrats also were suspicious of big government and
were among the most vocal Lincoln opponents whenever the administration
made any attempt to curtail civil liberties or tinker with their strict view of the
Many Peace Democrats were also suspicious of the Lincoln administration, a
situation echoed by the Columbia County Democratic newspapers. They simply
did not believe Lincoln's inaugural speech when he said that the South had
nothing to fear from his administration. Peace Democrats equated Republicans
with abolitionists and were suspicious that given the chance, the Republicans
would stop at nothing to get rid of slavery. In turn, Republican editors accused
the Peace Democrats of treason and aiding the enemy by trying to undermine
the administration in a time of crisis. Already by mid-1861, anti-administration
Democrats were being called "Copperheads" by Republican editors looking
for any antiwar instigators across the North.
Criticism of the Lincoln administration was very muted as the war erupted
in April 1861. In Pennsylvania, as noted above, the rush to enlist was so overwhelming
that the state easily filled its quota. A number of companies formed
were turned away after the state raised twenty-five regiments. But the men in
these companies remained together, and when the state legislature authorized
the raising and equipping of the Pennsylvania Reserves, many of these companies
formed the core of this body of troops. One such company was the Iron
Guards from Columbia County. Led by Captain William W. Ricketts, this unit
became Company A of the Sixth Pennsylvania Reserves. This was the first full
company from Columbia County to enter the service. Several men from the
county enlisted in companies raised in adjacent counties, while others enlisted
individually in other units. One such man was law student Charles Brockway,
the letter writer who had so severely criticized the Lincoln administration.
Putting aside his political leanings, Brockway enlisted in the Iron Guards, but
transferred to Battery F, First Pennsylvania Light Artillery, in early July.
The day after the Union defeat at Manassas, President Lincoln issued another
call for troops, the term of service to be three years. During the remaining days
of summer, throughout the fall of 1861, and on into the winter of 1861–1862,
Pennsylvanians continued to enlist, albeit in lesser numbers than at the start of
the war. After this first wave of recruiting and enlisting finally spent itself, the
commonwealth had placed over 130,000 in uniform. Columbia County supplied
Company G of the Fifty-Second Infantry, D of the Eighty-Fourth Infantry,
and part of the complement of Battery F, Second Heavy Artillery.
When active military operations began again in the early months of 1862,
Democratic criticism continued to be muted because of Union military successes.
In February, troops led by Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside
moved into North Carolina and won a victory at Roanoke Island, then in
March fought another battle that resulted in the capture of Newbern, the state's
second-largest city. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant's soldiers
captured Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee, forcing the Confederates to
retreat southward into Mississippi as other Union troops occupied Nashville,
the Tennessee capital. The Battle of Shiloh on April 6–7, though a bloodbath
that shocked the people back home on both sides, resulted in a Union victory
as Southern troops withdrew from the field. Flag officer David Farragut's capture
of New Orleans, the South's largest city, was yet another boost to Northern
hopes that the war would be over in 1862. With Major General George B. McClellan
and the Army of the Potomac on the Yorktown peninsula, threatening
the Confederate capital, it did indeed seem that the Yankees would crush the
Rebellion in the coming months. Anticipating such a result, the War Department
on April 3 ordered recruiters to suspend activities and close their facilities.
There were enough troops in the field to end the Rebellion.
Pennsylvania Democrats continued to criticize the administration when
they got the chance. Existing editorials in state newspapers indicate that much
of the antipathy was the result of the Lincoln administration's eroding of civil
liberties. Article I of the Constitution specified that "[t]he privilege of the writ
of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or
invasion the public safety may require it." Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus
in April 1861 to safeguard the railroads leading to Washington, but when
a Maryland secessionist was arrested, he sued, and the Supreme Court, via
Chief Justice Roger Taney, ruled that Lincoln had acted illegally in suspending
the writ. But Lincoln simply ignored Taney's decision. Newspapers across the
country argued both sides of this civil liberties case. The Constitution compounded
the problem by omitting to specify which branch of the government
could suspend the writ. The Democrats complained that the administration
claimed "military necessity" for its policies. Pennsylvanians were subject to arrests,
insults, mob violence, threats, and abuse. Editor Tate wrote that "Every
true Democrat will exert all his power to crush out the wicked and unholy
rebellion that is now raging, and in bringing traitors North and South to that
just punishment they deserve." By this time, the rallying cry of the Democratic
Party had changed: "The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was."
Excerpted from "The Fishing Creek Confederacy: A Story of Civil War Draft Resistance (Shades of Blue and Gray)" by Richard A. Sauers. Copyright © 0 by Richard A. Sauers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.