A racist conspiracy theory found root in Schuylkill County in 1862

In the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The document, slated to go into effect on January 1, 1863, directed that enslaved people living in the rebellious Confederate states were “thenceforward, and forever free.”

The Battle of Antietam marked a change in the Union war effort, with emancipation becoming a Northern war objective. (LOC)

The president’s supporters in Schuylkill County cheered this decision, believing that it was both a strike for the Northern war effort and a measure to begin the end of slavery in America.

But there were many in the county’s mining towns and villages who vehemently opposed the issuance of an Emancipation Proclamation. In the weeks after Lincoln announced his intentions, Irish mineworkers took up arms in rural parts of Schuylkill County in opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation and a new state law that drafted men into the Pennsylvania state militia. 

By November 1862, opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation from the Democratic Party in Schuylkill County reached a fever pitch.* A conspiracy theory had begun to spread among white men, both native-born and immigrant, in the Coal Region that Lincoln and the Republicans intended to bring black laborers from the South to work in the mines. Irish mineworkers felt particularly aggrieved. As the lowest rung on the economic and social ladder in the Coal Region in the 1860s, they felt particularly vulnerable and lashed out in vengeance.

This theory was entirely unfounded. But that didn’t mean it didn’t inspire rage among Democratic mineworkers in the patch towns and villages.

The Democratic leaning Pottsville Standard published the following in November 1862. It was copied in the pages of the Gettysburg Compiler. “Contrabands” were the name given to black refugees seeking shelter from slavery within the lines of the US Army during the Civil War.

Contrabands Coal Region


It is stated that the Government has under consideration a scheme for conveying contrabands to the Coal Mines in Pennsylvania, where there is a great scarcity of work men. –Philadelphia Ledger.

We can tell the President of the United States, and his Abolition advisers, that they must keep their negroes out of the Coal Regions, unless they desire to inaugurate war in the North.

The people of this section of the State will not allow emancipated slaves to be thrown in competition white labor. The statements that there is a scarcity of workmen in the Coal mines of Pennsylvania, has no foundation in so far as Schuylkill county is concerned, and has only been gotten up by the Abolitionists to cover their design to supplant labor by the employment of negroes.

The white men are Democrats–vote the Democratic ticket, and hence the anxiety of Abolitionists to throw them out of employment, and compel them to leave the county. Before the Democrats can be discharged, it is necessary to have on hand a number of negroes for their places, or mines will stop and the Government be want of coal. President Lincoln must keep his pet lambs out of Schuylkill county. –Pottsville Standard.

This racist conspiracy theory found root in the Coal Region, but also in other locations across the North. In the summer of 1863, rioters in New York raged against the Federal government’s efforts to draft men into the US Army. Their target in many cases: New York’s small black community. 

This “replacement” theory put out by the Pottsville Standard in 1862 bears a striking resemblance to theories we hear in our own time. It had no connection to reality in 1862 and similar theories today have little relationship to the facts.

*   While Republican and Democratic parties used those names in the 1860s, it is important to remember that in the 155+ years, the parties’ positions have changed and morphed so much to make them nearly unrecognizable to the political parties of the same name today. 

Featured Image: A colliery in Schuylkill County in the 1860s 

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