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The Wide-Awake Organization.


September/October 1860

From The Missouri Democrat, Saturday, September 22, 1860.



The Grand National Demonstration in Prospect.

[New York Herald, Sept. 19.]

The greatest feature of the campaign of 1860 has been the introduction of a vast Republican auxiliary, semi-military in character, political in purpose, and daily increasing in strength and influence to an extent unparalleled in the political annals of our country.  We refer to the organization known as the Republican Wide Awakes, who made their first New York demonstration on the 12th inst.  The sleepy Gotham politicians, who were discussing on that evening, over their ale, the all absorbing topics of fusion, squatter sovereignty, secession, Black Republicanism, and the Jones’ Wood demonstration, giving, perhaps, a side thought to the ratification meeting at the Cooper Institute, were startled out of all propriety by the sudden brilliant illumination of our thoroughfares, and the appearance of large bodies of men, bearing blazing torches and ;marching in fine military order towards the assigned rendezvous of their various divisions.  So little notice had been given of the intended parade that the worthy citizens of our metropolis were completely taken by surprise, when the long line of dazzling torches and the sound of military music awoke them from their midnight slumbers.  “Who are these Wide Awakes?”  “Where did they come from?”  were the questions on every side.  None could believe that the vast array before them had been recruited from the Republican ranks of the Democratic stronghold of the East.  “For what purpose are they organized?” was again asked.  Some said to spread incendiarism in Texas; others, to attend the inauguration of Lincoln at Washington, in order to repel any attempts to prevent his peaceable procession to the White House, and many more like amusing answers were given.  Any explanation given by a Republican was regarded with distrust and received cautiously.  In order to answer these questions we have decided to lay before our readers a full account of the origin and history of the Wide Awakes, as nearly as we can gather it from information derived from responsible sources.



New England claims the birthplace of this movement, Hartford being the Connecticut cradle in which the infant was nurtured.  It originated in accident, like many another event fraught with great portent, and rapidly assumed its present gigantic proportions.  It happened in this wise:  On the night of the 25th of February, 1860, the city of Hartford was much moved by the advent of the Hon. Cassius M. Clay, the well-known Republican orator, who was to address the worthy citizens of the vicinity.  Some enthusiastic young Republicans of the neighborhood decided to act as an escort to the distinguished visitor, and in pursuance of this design borrowed from a fire company hard by some of their firemen’s torches.  Being of a rather fastidious turn of mind, and withal inclined to protect their broadcloth from oily innovation, they procured some glazed cloth and cut it out in the form of capes to protect their shoulders.  A few glazed caps completed the preparations, and thus equipped they started to meet the orator.  Their novel half-military appearance attracted considerable attention and drew forth the plaudits of the assembled multitude, rewarding them for their forethought.  On their return home one of the party was attacked by a sturdy Democrat; but a blow from the original Wide-Awake torch stretched him on the ground and stopped all further disturbance.  Before dismissal a meeting was held and after expressing their indignation at the attack, they resolved to form a club of limited numbers, equipped with swinging torches and black capes and caps, to act as a special escort on occasions of public parade and be ready at all times for any like duty that might forward the Republican cause.  In pursuance of these resolutions a meeting of young men was held on the 3d of March following, who resolved to form a “Wide Awake” club of fifty, under the command of Captain James S. Chalker, the gentleman who felled the pugnacious Democrat on the first parade.  A constitution was adopted, officers elected, and all the necessary steps taken.  The opposition press of Hartford, little imagining that this was the initiation of a gigantic movement, made themselves very merry at the expense of the Hartford Wide Awakes, alluding to their uniform, they christened them the “Mantilla Cadets,” and as some of the first members were young men, called them the “Fifty Infants whose mamas didn’t know they were out;” asked that a “stick of candy be presented to each one,” &c., &c.  In spite of their jibes and jeers the movement spread like wildfire, and at the next meeting, held only three days after their organization, they were obliged to dispense with the rule limiting their numbers, and immediately enrolled a number of new members.  At their first parade, held soon after, they counted by hundreds, and their fame noised abroad.  In the course of a fortnight clubs were started in Bridgeport, Waterbury, Norwich, Unionville, and in nearly all the towns throughout the State.  Men of all ages and occupations fostered and encouraged the organization.  On the 27th of March, at the dedication of a camp in Hartford, over two thousand Wide Awakes assembled, parading the streets in torchlight array, and owing to the immense number of torches, making a most brilliant and imposing appearance.  The Republicans of Hartford were overwhelmed with letters from all parts of the Union, asking for information touching their rules, manner of organization, drills, &c.  It was at last found necessary to inaugurate some system by which these letters could be answered, and a notice was inserted in all the Republican journals, that Mr. H. T. Sperry, Corresponding Secretary of the Hartford Wide Awakes, would give all desired information.  In the course of a few weeks that gentleman had received and filed over 800 communications.

Thus the Wide Awake movement was inaugurated, rapidly extending its ramifications from Maine to Missouri.



The companies are all self-sustaining.  The average cost of the uniform is $2 per man.  One dollar initiation fee entitles a member to the use of a torch, which costs wholesale about 70 cents.  Assessments are made from time to time to defray expenses, attending parade, &c.  The estimated cost of a parade, for music, oil, etc., is $60 per 200 men.  There is a loss of 10 per cent. in the wear of uniforms and torches at each parade.



From carefully prepared statistics, it is estimated that there are at present in the Eastern, Northern and Western States, over four hundred thousand Wide Awakes, drilled, uniformed and officered.  They have sprung up in large numbers in some parts of Missouri.  A fine battalion is organizaed in Washington, and another in Wheeling, Virginia.  There are also a few in Kentucky.  They are steadily increasing at the average ratio of 15 per cent. a month.



They are much amused at the various stories circulated in regard to the purpose for which they were organized.  Some journals having asserted that in the event of Lincoln’s election they will replace the army and navy; that they are armed with muskets in order to forcibly prevent Southern secession, and many like assertions.  They state that their principal object is to elect Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin President and Vice President of the United States, according to the Constitution and laws of the country.  For this purpose they are banded together as political brethren, having their interests in common, and going as missionaries among their Democratic friends.  They never carry arms, have no secret society grips or passwords, and admit outsiders to all of their meetings or drills.  They are equally opposed to touching slavery where it exists or allowing its extension, and adopt the Chicago platform as their own.  They are not alone intended for torchlight processions, but are designed to co-operate in the minutiae of political work, and by arguments, documents and all honorable means, to secure the wavering and persuade the hostile, acting as distributors, checkers, challengers and patrolers, bringing every vote to the polls.



A movement was set on foot in the latter part of August to form a Central Wide Awake Committee, to be composed of three delegates from each Wide Awake association in the city, for the purpose of making arrangements for a grand national Wide Awake demonstration and reunion of delegates from every club in the Union.

The Demonstration Committee have formed a number of subcommittee, to each of whom a special duty is assigned.  The sub-committee on transportation are in correspondence with all the principal railroad and steamboat lines, arranging for the issue of the excursion tickets on special trains at reduced rates.  The sub-committees on fire-works, reception, speakers, music, &c., &c., are equally active.

Each club or company of this city will take its share of the visitors to entertain.

From the great numbers who have already signified their intention of joining in the parade, it is estimated that from thirty to fifty thousand men will attend.  One item of expenditure will give some idea of the preparation.  It has been found necessary to purchase 200 barrels of oil to fill the the [sic] torches of visiting companies.