Guilderland Wide Awakes help elect Lincoln

— Photo from Mary Ellen Johnson

The original banner carried by Guilderland’s Wide Awakes hung for decades in the cellar bar at the Mynderse-Frederick House. Over time, the deterioration of the fragile fabric led to its disintegration, leaving this circa-1970 photograph as the only visual evidence of Guilderland’s support for Lincoln in 1860.

Splintered over the contentious issue of slavery, the 1860 Democratic convention nominated Stephen A. Douglas as its presidential candidate while breakaway Democrats nominated J.C. Breckinridge and John Bell as alternative presidential candidates.

After Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln in May 1860, jeering Democrats called him nothing but a railsplitter. Describing Lincoln as a “third-rate country lawyer,” the Democratic New York Herald sneered he would be a “nullity” if elected. Others were of the opinion he was a coarse backwoodsman.

Thousands of Republicans rallied to his defense, working to secure a Republican victory in November, among them many Guilderland men. Of the town’s 1,600 males, a sizable number joined the Wide Awake movement to promote The Railsplitter — a Democratic jeer had become a Republican mark of pride!

The Wide Awakes had originated earlier that year in Connecticut when a crowd of supporters at a Republican gubernatorial campaign rally appeared in glazed caps and capes carrying torches, making an impressive display for the crowd. The Hartford Courant complimented them, describing the men as “wide awake.”

As soon as news of Lincoln’s nomination became known, Republican men began forming “clubs” adopting the name “Wide Awakes.” In our area, Albany was the first to organize, mustering in 200 men to march on the Capital for a Republican meeting.

Within two weeks, they claimed 1,000 members in the city. The club’s constitution and background information was printed in a form easily sent out to parties eager to initiate their own group of Wide Awakes. Thurlow Weed’s Albany Evening Journal, the Republican voice of the city, was filled with reports of Wide Awake activities all over the area including Guilderland in the few months before the election.

Near the end of August, a Wide Awake Club had “been formed and uniformed in the neighborhood of McGoun’s [McKown’s] in Guilderland. Three other clubs are to be organized in town, forthwith.”

A week later, another calling itself “Company B,” probably from the Guilderland Center section of town, had organized. The other two clubs were most likely from Dunnsville and Knowersville although there were no further notices of specific Guilderland groups forming.

The officers elected by the first two groups were listed and included several well known local men. “Seventy-four members have been enrolled. Guilderland will do its share in redeeming Albany County,” the Journal wrote.

“Paramilitary” is a 20th-Century term often used nowadays to describe these Wide Awake clubs. Members appeared in a standard uniform of oil-cloth cap and cape, had a hierarchy of officers, and studied Hardee’s Tactics to form lines of march to parade in formation.

However, instead of weapons they carried torches set on poles, the caps and capes meant to protect them from dripping oil and sparks. Disciplined groups of uniformed men marching through the streets could make citizens very uneasy, except as the New York Tribune pointed out, businessmen and professional men, highly respected in their communities, were very much involved in the Wide Awakes.

This was certainly true of Guilderland where M.H.Frederick, the Guilderland Center hotel keeper; Thomas Helme, the McKownville physician; and Peter Shaver and Elijah Spawn, both former town supervisors were Wide Awake club members. Stephen V. Frederick, described as “a worthy scion of the best Republican stock of Guilderland,” was elected supervisor the following year.

To pique everyone’s curiosity, meetings and rallies were announced ahead of time, usually being held at night for maximum effect. When the evening arrived, large crowds turned out to watch the spectacle as the Wide Awakes arrived, marching in parade formation, their oil cloth caps and capes glistening in the light of their torches.

Often they were accompanied by a band or were themselves singing Wide Awake songs such as this one:

       …Lift the banner on high, while from the mountains and plain

          The cheers of the people are sounded again,

          Hurrah! For our cause — of all causes the best!

          Hurrah! For Old Abe, Honest Abe of the West!

In describing a meeting at Princetown, just west of Dunnsville, the Albany Evening Journal reported, “The great feature and attraction of the evening were the Wide Awakes with their neat uniforms, their fine discipline, and their better singing. The clubs of Guilderland can take down the Albany boys in singing, and better yet they can make their own songs.”

In rural areas such as Guilderland, these meetings were held at local hotels. Kelly’s in Princetown is mentioned twice, Frederick’s Hotel in Guilderland Center and McKown’s Tavern in McKownville are also noted. Additional meetings were held in Dunnsville and Knowersville, where the location was called the “village hall,” most likely referring to the Inn of Jacob Crounse, the local community center in those times.

Crowds were so large that inevitably the gathering moved outdoors for the spectacle and speeches. The Oct. 26 Albany Evening Journal reported:

“The meeting at Knowersville last evening was the largest, most enthusiastic and effective meeting ever held in town. A fine Pole was raised, surmounted by a Beetle and Wedge, (both were tools used by railsplitters) and a magnificent banner, bearing the names of Lincoln and Hamlin was run up among cheers of the crowd. In the evening, the meeting was attempted to be held in the village hall, but it was found wholly inadequate to accommodate the multitude.

“On discovering there were more outside than inside the hall, the meeting was adjourned out of doors when stirring and eloquent speeches were made by Messrs. Raines of Ontario, Watson of California and Gerhard and Benedict of his city.

“The Town of Guilderland is in excellent trim. It will give the Republican Ticket a large majority.”

Frequently occurring at these meetings was the raising of a pole. In addition to the pole at Knowersville, one was erected at Kelly’s in Princetown, attended by Guilderland Wide Awakes, “from the top of which a streamer was thrown to the wind on which was inscribed the names of LINCOLN AND HAMLIN. That being done the pole was duly consecrated with three hearty cheers.”

Always part of the program was the presence of two or more speakers. Sometimes they were local men of prominence such as Dr. Fred Crounse Jr. who addressed the crowd at Kelly’s Hotel or Mr. Benedict, the district’s candidate for the State Assembly. Every now and then, an outsider like Mr. Watson of California was on the program. These local rallies often attracted large crowds; one at Kelly’s Hotel was estimated to be in the hundreds.

Think of the novelty, the excitement, the entertainment of torchlight parades, bands and male voices raised in song, speakers who sometimes came from far away, and poles being raised in these small hamlets. But the real spectacle was to be had when a nearby city hosted a huge rally and local Wide Awakes from the nearby towns of Guilderland, New Scotland, Bethlehem, and Knox were invited to join the big parade.

Hudson held the first out-of-town rally attended by Guilderland Wide Awakes when 21 “packed” railroad cars left Albany to take part and, among the hundreds on board, were 25 uniformed Guilderland Wide Awakes under Captain Martin J. Blessing. Shortly afterward, Albany scheduled its own rally.

The day after this event, the Evening Journal’s headlines screamed, “The Grand Wide Awake Demonstration,” “The Capital of the Empire State in a Blaze of Light,” and “Most Thrilling Torchlight Parade Ever Witnessed on the Continent.”

Claiming 50,000 people witnessed the 7,000 Wide Awakes who were marching in a “line of glittering torches, the river of dancing fire, roman candles without number were discharged.” The houses and businesses of sympathetic Republicans were illuminated along the parade route the paper said, and “Cheers and huzzas resounded and echoed, at times almost deafening.”

All that, and 19 brass bands of martial music accompanied Wide Awakes from as far away as Canajoharie, Gloversville, Saratoga, Ballston, and Kingston who came to parade. “Thousands of persons” came from country towns and surely the Wide Awakes and spectators from rural Albany County were there as well.

In the days immediately preceding the election, the Albany Evening Journal sternly preached to area Wide Awakes, “The time has gone by for mass meetings and big parades … attention to detail is needed.”

Wide Awakes were instructed to see that all Republicans were registered, act as poll watchers, challenge irregularities, and go out to bring in delinquent Republican voters. Election Day came and went.

Lincoln was victorious, but not in Albany County. In spite of their disappointment, the Wide Awakes marched in a victory parade in Albany, a notice in the Albany Evening Journal calling for Wide Awakes from city and county to participate. Numerous Wide Awake balls were planned.

Guilderland’s Republican men had been part of a national movement in one of this nation’s most important elections.