Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Wide Awakes and the Lincoln Election


Lincoln Museum entrance

I’ve lived in Illinois for most of my life. And my husband and I enjoy exploring museums and historical sites of our state. Springfield is not only the state capital but also the home of the Lincoln Library and Museum. His home and a recreation of New Salem, where he spent his childhood, are also near there.

One exhibit in the museum always intrigued me. What if there had been TV during the campaigning of the candidates in 1860? The display has video clips of actors portraying the candidates and a variety of political ads as well. There were four candidates and Lincoln was the dark horse candidate of a newly formed political party, the Republican Party. 

TV ads campaign imaged

I discovered as I wandered through the museum that Lincoln had a following of young adults who helped with his campaign. The Wide Awakes were a group of young men from teens to thirties that were looking for change. They were anti-slavery and excited about the new party forming. One of the ways they served the Republican party was security during political rallies.


Members received certificates and wore uniforms imitating the military by having ranks and learning march formations. 

 There were chapters all over the north. 

Their mission statement:

1.To act as a political police 

2.   To do escort duty to all prominent Republican speakers who visit our place to address our citizens. 

3.   To attend all public meetings in a body and to see that order is kept and that the speaker and meeting is not disrupted.

4.   To attend the polls and see that justice is done to every legal vote 

5.   To conduct themselves in such a manner as to induce all Republicans to join them. 

6.   To be a body joined together in large numbers to work for the good of the Republican Ticket.


Wide Awakes acting as security at a Lincoln Rally

The Wide Awakes kept hecklers from disrupting meetings. They marched as a group to the rallies and held torchlight marches to draw attention to the Republican party. Although they worked to keep order, there were times of discord.

The Stone Prairie Riot

In Adam’s County, Illinois, near modern day Plainville, a rally was planned. At first, the organizers invited the democratic candidates then withdrew the invitation. But that fact was never revealed to the public, so when the Democrats showed up to a Republican rally, hecklers found themselves surrounded by the Wide Awakes.

The Wide Awakes had traveled toward the rally carrying a banner that depicted Stephen Douglas as a drunk tripping over rails, while the Democrats in a nearby town had Lincoln hanging in effigy on a pole.

It was a common pre-election tactic to erect poles as high as 150 feet to hang the opposition in effigy.

At the end of the rally, as the Wide Awakes were heading home, the Democrats came out in mass to guard their pole. Because this area of Illinois borders Missouri, pro-slavery sympathy ran high. The riot was an opportunity for those who opposed Lincoln to make a statement and get media coverage.

Lincoln’s campaign encouraged the Wide Awakes and their influences encouraged Lincoln to move from a moderate stance on slavery to an abolitionist one. These young men were the future, and Lincoln knew their enthusiasm would bring in lots of new voters.

There was a social aspect to the Wide Awakes. They would invite “the ladies” to their meetings. Most of the Wide Awakes were single men and they would put on balls in order to meet eligible like-minded females. These balls were held during a slower time of the year when there were fewer activities to attend to meet young women.

The military style of the organization required its members to drill and be prepared to defend their country. The Wide Awakes were the first to join the Union Army after the south secession.

The south’s concern that the Wide Awakes would inspire an anti-slavery movement caused them to create their own para-military group the Minute Men. Texas claimed the Wide Awakes were responsible for the arson in their state. But historically no Wide Awakes were ever in the south. Their 100,000 membership remained in the north.

The southern media portrayed the Wide Awakes this way. “Abhorrence of the rapine, murder, insurrection, pollution and incendiarism which have plotted by the deluded and vicious North, against the chastity, law and prosperity of innocent and unoffending citizens of the South.” And based on this perspective, they formed the Minute Men in expectation of an armed conflict.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the St. Louis Wide Awakes chapter became part of a paramilitary operation. Captain Nathaniel Lyon and Francis Preston Blair Jr. worked with the St. Louis Wide Awakes to smuggle armaments into the city and train secretly in a warehouse. When the time was right, they would defend the St. Louis Arsenal from the Confederate supporters. Lyon managed to get appointed as commander over the armory, and under cover of night, he moved the Wide Awakes inside the arsenal. The Wide Awakes had enlisted in the Union Army and were used to arrest The Missouri State Militia station there. As they marched the prisoners toward the arsenal, a riot broke out, and scores of civilians were shot or killed. It became known as the Camp Jackson Affair. And it was the official start of the Civil War in Missouri.

As in any political election, candidates seek the youth of the nation votes and support. I remembered the TV news display at the Lincoln Museum, and my mind takes it one step further. I wonder what it might have been like if there had been social media during the election of 1860s. The explosion of opinions and debate online would be quite interesting.

What are your thoughts on the Wide Awakes? 

Have you ever been to the Lincoln Museum and Library?

Cindy Ervin Huff is an Award-winning author of Historical and Contemporary Romance. She loves infusing hope into her stories of broken people. She addicted to reading and chocolate. Her idea of a vacation is visiting historical sites and an ideal date with her hubby of almost fifty years would be live theater.

Visit her website and sign up for her newsletter and receive some free short stories as a thank you.  www.cindyervinhuff.com 


Angelina’s Resolve: Book 1 of Village of Women

Proving her skills are equal to a man’s may cost her more than she ever imagined.

Modern-thinking Angelina DuBois is determined to prove her cousin Hiram wrong. He fired her from the architect firm she helped grow when her father’s will left the business to Hiram. Using her large inheritance and architectural degree, she sets out to create a village run by women—Resolve, Kansas.

Carpenter and Civil War veteran Edward Pritchard’s dream of building homes for Chicago’s elite must be put on hold until he gains references. Serving as a contractor under Angelina’s well-known DuBois name provides that opportunity. But can Angelina trust her handsome new carpenter to respect her as his boss? Will the project take Edward one step closer to his goals, or will it make him a laughingstock? Can these two strong-willed people find love amid such an unconventional experiment? 





  1. Thanks for posting today. This was very interesting! I found the name in itself interesting...is this where the term "woke" came from? I might have to look this up myself, there's a lot I don't understand. But it goes to show that young adults have always had a desire to be active in calls for change, in this case the "new" Republican party.

  2. I wondered the same about the term "woke".