“Tremont in a Blaze,” screamed a headline in the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville on September 15, 1860. But the Schuylkill County mining village wasn’t on fire. It was ablaze with passionate support for a tall, lanky former candidate for the United States Senate named Abraham Lincoln. Schuylkill County, the Miners’ Journal declared, was “Wide Awake.”
A week earlier, more than a thousand people gathered into the coal town to celebrate champion the cause of Abraham Lincoln. On September 6, 1860, Lincoln supporters from neighboring patch towns and villages came pouring into Tremont to celebrate their candidate and to intimidate their opponents. The crowds gathered at Ensberger’s National Hotel on the southwestern corner of Hotel Street and Main Street.
Schuylkill County was participating in a national fad that was sweeping in the nation in the autumn of 1860. As the nation prepared to vote to elect a new president in November, a strange movement began across the North.
Groups of young men had begun marching in the streets of Northern cities late at night, clad in black with lanterns, and called themselves “Wide Awakes.” They were supporters of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party and they demonstrated it by silently marching in the streets, torches ablaze, in numbers that seemed to grow ever larger.
Historian Adam Goodheart described the phenomenon in his book, 1861: A Civil War Awakening:
A first glimpse of a Wide Awake battalion on parade was a strange, even frightening, experience. Late at night, city dwellers would be startled from their sleep by the rhythmic crashing of a drum drawing closer and closer. Rushing to the window, they would see the darkened street below them suddenly blaze up with fire as a broad row of men with torches rounded the corner in marching formation, and more followed, rank upon rank, their boots striking the cobblestones in perfect cadence. The marchers wore military-style caps and were shrouded in full black capes of a shiny fabric that reflected the flames. Some carried rail-splitter axes strapped to their backs. Perhaps most chilling of all, they marched in complete silence, their eyes fixed straight ahead, the only sound the beating of drums and the tramp of boot heels.
Goodheart summarizes the strangeness of these marchers in a broader sense: “They were unlike anything ever seen in American politics, unlike the boisterous parades, rowdy songs, and brass bands of elections past.”
And in September 1860, the Wide Awake movement descended upon the Coal Region and swarmed into western Schuylkill County. The marching Wide Awakes of several towns entered Tremont by train as night fell upon the tiny village. They were joined in their march with dozens of miners from local collieries, who instead of torches, marched with their miner’s caps ablaze.
A correspondent for the Miners’ Journal tells the story, from the perspective of a pro-Lincoln newspaper.
Tremont in a Blaze!
Thousands of Miners and Mechanics in Line!
Tremendous Demonstration of the People!
Thursday night last will be memorable in the history of Tremont, as the occasion upon which was witnessed in that place the largest and most enthusiastic demonstration of the people ever held there.
About 9 o’clock, just after the meeting organized, the Pottsville Legion and Continentals, Minersville Supporters, Port Carbon Rail-Splitters, and Cass Township Lincoln Club, marched into town, with some 700 men in line. They were welcomed by a salvo of artillery; the cheers of the Pine Grove, Donaldson, Swatara, Middle Creek, and Tremont Clubs, as they countermarched in front of the National Hotel, where the stand for the speakers was erected. The stand itself was unique. It was surrounded by an arch, beautifully decorated, and having in the centre a large and fine portrait of Lincoln. During the speaking a large truck passed the meeting, on which a man was engaged in splitting rails. This was a decided hit. The speakers on the occasion were ex-Governor Pollock, Hon. Joseph Casey, Hon. James H. Campbell, Hon. R.M. Palmer, Lin Bartholomew, Esq., and others. They produced a great effect, speaking as they did freely, on the vital question of Freedom and Protection.
When the meeting adjourned, the visiting Clubs were escorted to the cars, and it is estimated that there were near a thousand men in line. Marching with the Tremont Club was a large body of miners, with their lamps they use in mining, lit.
This was a very attractive feature, proving as it was, that in this contest the intelligent and thinking portion of the miners are with the party of Protection to their Industry.
The Pottsville Clubs reached home about 1 o’clock yesterday morning. The unanimous decision is that Tremont bears off the palm in this campaign, so far, in respect to the hugeness and brilliancy of the meeting of Thursday night. In enthusiasm every part of the County is on a par. All are in earnest; all are working hard for Victory.
Now boys, for Saturday next. Roll in your legions, Wide Awakes, until our old hills shake under the tread of thousands.
The details of the event take the Wide Awake movement and give it a uniquely Coal Region flair. The miners with their caps alight was a scene surely witnessed in few other places across the North. The rail-splitters (a reference to Lincoln’s nickname as the “Rail-Splitter Candidate) were a common scene in Northern political rallies that fall, but the ravings about protectionist economic policies likely were not. Republicans in the Coal Region supported tariffs to protect the anthracite industry and the nascent industrialization it supported.
On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln blasted to victory in Schuylkill County, winning by more than 2,000 votes. The Wide Awakes had helped to ensure the Rail-splitter would be headed to the White House.
Within a few months, however, as the country descended into chaos amid a secession crisis, the Wide Awakes were called upon once again. Only this time, instead of oil-cloth and torches, they’d be donning blue uniforms with muskets in their hands and headed for Southern battlefields.
Featured Image: Wide Awakes on the march in 1860 (Wikimedia Commons)