In May of 1861, Melvin Dwinell let loose a typical broadside at the North in his Rome, Georgia Courier newspaper under the headline: How to Take Old Lincoln — A Rich Idea.
A friend of ours proposes, that, if allowed by their masters and authorities to do it, he will raise an army of slaves and take Washington City and Abe Lincoln prisoner in less than thirty days. Wouldn’t it be fun for the colored boys to “trot him out,” and they would do it, if they had half a chance.
The only odd thing about the trash talking was it didn’t come from a southerner. Melvin Dwinell was a born and bred New Englander who hailed from Vermont, the state that actually banned slavery in its first Constitution.
Dwinell taught school for two years in Vermont after graduating from the University of Vermont. Then he followed several school chums south. After two stints teaching in the South, Dwinell purchased the Courier in 1855 and became a successful publisher – in part because of his fiery rhetoric.
The Burlington Free Press lost no time in blasting back at Dwinell: Who do you think owns and edits the paper which is so elated with the thought of having Washington taken and the President of the United States “trotted out” for “fun” by an army of slaves? Why it’s a Vermonter — one who from infancy till grown up to man’s estate — breathed the pure air and drank of the sweet water of the Green Mountains, who learned his school-boy lessons in Vermont free schools, and was taught philosophy and morals in our own Vermont University. But he “went South” to seek his fortune and became editor of a southern newspaper, and now he shames the land of his birth, the mother who nursed him, and teachers who taught him by praising slavery, which he knows to be a curse, repeating slanders about the free North which he knows to be false, and advocating treason which he knows to be a crime.
The fight didn’t end there. The Courier replied with another blast:
We think . . . (it is) preposterous to suppose because a man or boy has “breathed the pure air and drunk of the sweet waters of the Green Mountains” of Vermont, that he must of consequence become as blackhearted as the Black Republican editor of the Free Press…. Mr. Dwinell was educated at the University of Vermont before the “philosophy and morals” taught at his Alma Mater were so completely “negro-pholized” and demoralized as they are at present, and before the puritanical atmosphere of the N. E. States was so putrid with the poisonous malaria of Abolition as it is now. Having voluntarily cast his lot with the genteel Christian white people of Georgia and thoroughly studied and familiarized himself with the institution of negro slavery, he has become convinced that instead of its being a curse, it is a blessing not only to the black and white races of the South, but preeminently a blessing to the Yankees of New England who have hitherto enjoyed the monopoly of manufacturing our goods out of slave grown cotton.
Dwinell, however, did not write his own defense (and probably didn’t pen the original attack, though he no doubt supported its content) because by May of 1861 he was enrolled as a lieutenant in the Rome Light Guard in the Confederate Army. It was a stand-in editor at the newspaper who wrote Dwinell’s defense.
Melvin was the odd man out in his family, the only one who took the side of the Confederates in the Civil War. The talk of capturing Lincoln was not as farfetched as it may seem today. The plot to assassinate Lincoln actually started out as a plot to kidnap him and swap him for confederate prisoners of war, though the Courier probably only intended its editorial as a political jibe.
There’s not much known that would explain Melvin Dwinell’s radicalism. He was born in 1825 into a family of nine sons and one daughter from Calais, Vt., and he stayed in contact with his family during his two years with the army.
He crowed with delight in July of 1861 as he told them of the victory of Confederate troops at Manassas:
Dear Parents – On last Sunday I was in the midst of one of the hardest fought battles that has ever occurred in America. I am without a scratch or even a bullet hole in my clothes. Five of our men fell dead by my side – four were totally wounded—and six or eight more severely. It seems a miracle that I escaped unharmed. The Confederate Army was victorious and completely routed Lincoln’s forces. We took 64 cannon of the best kind, 100 heavy baggage wagons, about 600 prisoners and drove the enemy back some 12 or 15 miles and would have pursued them to Washington but our men gave out from sheer exhaustion.
And he provided warnings, too, lest his northern family think the South would soon be whipped: It would be as easy for Abe Lincoln to reduce the White Mountains to the level of the ocean as to conquer these states and then it would do him quite as much good when accomplished.
And in another letter he warned: If I should meet any of my relatives on the battle field in Lincoln’s army they will there be considered as my enemies and treated as such. My whole heart is with the South.
Dwinell lasted two years in the army, fighting in three battles and suffering a minor bullet wound at Gettysburg. Throughout his time in the army, Dwinell also served as a war correspondent, sending frequent dispatches to be published in his newspaper – more than 200 in all.
His news reporting was somewhat less upbeat as he recorded the struggles of the Confederates. In one dispatch he wrote of picket duty: This duty is telling fearfully upon the men. Beside the great fatigue to which they are subjected, the want of sleep and exposure, the most trying of all is the continuing expectation of an attack, which seems imminent all the time.
Many have not had clean clothes in two weeks, have been sleeping on the mud . . . and eating fat meat, when they could get it, with their fingers after broiling it on a stick.
In another he wrote of the calm that came over him in battle.
As the dangers really increased, and friends were seen falling thick upon either side, the apprehension or rather the fear . . . became strangely less, and without feeling secure there was a sort of forced resignation to calmly abide whatever consequences should come.
When he resigned the military, Dwinell, by then a captain, served in the Georgia legislature until the state fell to General William Sherman. His newspaper stopped publishing while Union troops occupied Rome and his offices were used to publish a Union newspaper.
At the end of the war, he reported his offices were trashed by the departing Union soldiers and his equipment stolen or ruined. The war took the fight out of Dwinell and he quickly signed a loyalty oath.
He wrote to his brother Albert in September of 1865:
Well, we Rebs, “so-called,” have been “overwhelmed,” “crushed out,” “subdued,” “defeated,” or by whatever other name you please to call it except disgraced. In the face of the civilized world the honor of the South stands untarnished and her sons will live in the world’s memory as a chivalrous, gallant and brave people.
The war impoverished Dwinell. His business, which he valued at $10,000 at the war’s start, was worth $300, he estimated. But he applied his Vermont energy and persistence and rapidly rebuilt his fortunes, making large investments in Rome as the South rebounded from the war.
Despite making the south his home, Dwinell always retained a love for Vermont and rarely did a year pass when he didn’t make a trip north to visit family and friends. He died after a short illness in December of 1887. His brothers travelled to Rome, Georgia and returned to Vermont with his body. Dwinell was afforded two funerals, one in Georgia and one in Vermont.
Vermonter In Gray: The Story of Melvin Dwinell, by Harold A. Dwinell
Letters of Melvin Dwinell, Yankee Rebel by Virginia Griffin Bailey
Civil War Journalism by Ford Risley