In 1858, young men from Hartford, Conn., organized bodyguards for Republican candidates campaigning through the streets of the Democratic city. They called themselves the Wide Awakes.
Two years later hundreds of thousands of Wide Awakes in military gear were practicing infantry drills, marching in torchlight parades and helping to elect Abraham Lincoln. Their drills became so ubiquitous that when a minor earthquake struck Boston, many assumed it was just the Wide Awakes marching on the Common.
They liked military regalia, and wore military-style caps and sashes along with shiny oil-cloth capes. The capes protected them from the leaky, six-foot whale oil torches they carried on parade.
The spectacle of large, torch-bearing paramilitary units supporting Abraham Lincoln alarmed southerners. To them, the Wide Awakes represented northern aggression.
The Wide Awakes
In March of 1860, five young Wide Awakes went to hear Abraham Lincoln speak at Hartford City Hall. He said he opposed slavery and supported workers’ rights to strike. The young men liked what they heard, and after the speech they escorted him by torchlight to the home of Mayor Tom Allyn.
The Lincoln campaign team knew a good thing when they saw it. They started to organize Wide Awake clubs for young Republican men to register and to get out the vote.
By November, hundreds of thousands of young men throughout the country donned Wide Awake uniforms and performed military maneuvers in torchlight parades. Many were clerks, farmers and factory workers, and nearly all had a fascination with martial culture.
They called their clubs ‘companies,’ and they had ranks, officers, duties and a drill manual. They adopted the image of a large eyeball as their standard bearer.
And they had mottoes: “Free soil for Freemen,” “The Territories must be free to the people,” “Free Homesteads,” “River and Harbor improvements,” and “Protection to American Industries.”
How It Began
It started in Connecticut with the race for governor pitting Republican William Buckingham against Democrat Thomas Seymour. The campaign generated excitement because political observers considered it a preview of the presidential election.
The Wide Awakes began to escort Republican speakers through the streets of Hartford with flaming oil torches. The torches leaked, so they wore shiny oilcloth capes to protect their clothes.
The Republican narrowly won, and credit went to the Wide Awakes.
Then came 1860 and the campaign for president. Soon after Lincoln’s speech in Hartford, the Wide Awakes started receiving unsolicited letters from people wanting to start their own company. Henry Sperry, a 23-year-old aspiring newspaper editor, wrote hundreds of fliers, letters and editorials.
James Chalker, a 28-year-old textile salesman, sold 20,000 Wide Awake uniforms during the campaign. Oil cloth for shiny capes grew scarce because of such high demand.
Where the Fight Is Hottest
The clubs spread through central Connecticut and wherever the contests were close between Democrats and Republicans: New Hampshire, southern New York, southern New Jersey and central Illinois extending to Wisconsin. In Republican strongholds like Massachusetts and Vermont, the Wide Awakes didn’t do so well.
Sperry wrote a letter explaining why: “Wherever the fight is hottest, there is their post of duty, and there the Wide Awakes are found.”
Each company had about 100 enthusiastic young men. They met several times a week in headquarters, often above a storefront. The clubs provided excitement and camaraderie. A 20-year-old Connecticut carriage maker jotted that he’d “had a very fine time” at a Wide Awake torchlight procession.
In May, the Wide Awakes made a splash in Chicago during the Republican convention with a torchlight parade. Afterward, a company started in Bangor, Maine. A local druggist marketed Dr. Allen’s Balsamic Cough Lozenges to cure the hoarseness caused by shouting at political rallies.
On July 26, 1860, the Hartford Wide Awakes held a banquet for 5,000 fellow members from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
As the election neared in October, 10,000 Wide Awakes marched in a torchlight procession three miles long. The Chicago Tribune devoted eight columns to the spectacle.
The Democrats tried to find an answer for the Wide Awakes. They formed their own marching clubs, called the Ever Readys, Douglas Guards, Little Giants and Invincibles.
But none of the Democratic clubs packed the impact of the Wide Awakes. By November, the torch-bearing, oilcloth wearing club had hundreds of thousands of members. Some estimates put their numbers at 500,000. Contemporary politicians credited them with bringing young voters into the Republican fold.
After Lincoln won the presidential election, some of the Wide Awake companies disbanded. Others offered to escort him to Washington. Southerners viewed their persistence with alarm, thinking it a prelude to an invasion of their region. South Carolinians formed Minute Men militias to counteract the Wide Awakes.
Perhaps the southerners weren’t far wrong. When Civil War broke out, 80 percent of the original Hartford company volunteered for military service.
With thanks to Jon Grinspan, “Young Men for War”: The Wide Awakes and Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential Campaign, Journal of American History, Sept. 2009. You can still buy a Wide Awake hat.
Images: Wide Awake banner By Michael Christensen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53164849. This story was updated in 2021.