A plethora of Civil War stories has flooded the media during this lengthy sesquicentennial. Folks whose roots are in the North often take comfort and perhaps pride that their ancestors were on the right side of the conflict. “Rightness” is still an issue in several former members of the Confederacy, but even if some in the South claims the issue was states’ rights, it was the right of a state to deprive certain humans of their own humanity. And if you’re wrong, you’re wrong. No amount of arguing will change that fact.
However, northern descendants may be a bit hasty in taking credit for the presumed correctness of their ancestors. While the record shows the country was split between North and South, we pay much less attention to the divisive effect the war had on individual towns and villages, even in the North Country.
In the early 1930s, Chester Lord, a highly accomplished newspaper editor from the late 1800s, provided a stirring first-hand account of the strife that tore northern New York communities apart during the war. The story appeared in Editor and Publisher magazine and was excerpted in many dailies.
An unnamed writer for the Fairport Herald-Mail aptly summarized Chester’s impressions of such a difficult time: “Ah! The Civil War! Not many remain to paint a true picture of the ugly madness that swept this nation, tearing brother from brother, turning father against son, making enemies of husband and wife. Chester S. Lord retains a vivid panoramic impression of the life-and-death struggle of a peace-loving people suddenly toppled into a whirling, seething, bottomless inferno.”
Lord spent much of his youth in Fulton (between Oswego and Syracuse), a community far from the fields of battle yet deeply divided over the conflict. Seven decades after the war began, Chester retained clear memories of the turmoil in Fulton at the time, even though he was only 11 years old when the fighting broke out. And now, 150 years after the war, his words educate us on the realities of life in the North―on the “right” side of the issues.
“The town was a hotbed of politics in those days, and the war caused violent disputes in which almost everybody participated. Directly after the first battle, the community was almost equally divided into four factions: the peace Democrats, called ‘copperheads,’ who wanted the war stopped on any terms; the peace Republicans, milder in their demands, who wanted to stop the fighting first and talk it over afterward in the hope of settling the dispute; the war Republicans or ‘Unionists,’ who were for fighting to a finish at whatever cost of life, property, or money; and the war Democrats, who, while disposed to continue fighting, were angry critics of the conduct of the war and of the Lincoln administration.”
His account reminds us how quickly things can change and deteriorate. If a downslide is unchecked, it can lead to deep, lasting divisions. A fine example is today’s gridlock in Washington, where the goal is to defeat the opposing party on every issue, with little regard for how the common man in affected.
The scene Lord describes certainly parallels the bitterness and incivility that exists in politics today. “Almost the entire male population assembled in front of the post office every evening, waiting for the Syracuse Evening Journal, which brought the latest war news, and the New York morning newspapers that came on the same train. …The crowd filled the street from sidewalk to sidewalk―a pulsating, angry, excited crowd boiling over with political excitement―the four factions disputing in the most violent language, calling each other cowards, traitors, Black Republicans, copperheads, and murderers, and accusing each other of most every known crime.”
“Some of the most influential and most conspicuous residents were in the thick of it. Fistfights were frequent; the battles of the war literally were fought over in the streets of Fulton. I can see Dick Van Valkenburg, the village constable―he was a young giant―tearing apart angry men who had come to blows, slinging one of them in one direction and the other in an opposite one.”
It is interesting to note how America has changed in that regard. Daily events of the Civil War and both World Wars were followed with great passion by the majority of American citizens at home. Newspapers of the day might feature 20 or more front-page headlines, and in many cases, every last one referred to a war story. It was without question the nation’s primary issue of importance.
This contrasts sharply with how the modern-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been addressed by the media and the public. War news is hardly prominent, instead sharing the headlines equally with sports and entertainment “news” about faux celebrities.
Lord noted that during the Civil War, people from all walks of life were concerned and involved, leading to scenes reminiscent of the Vietnam era of the 1960s. He noted, “The recruiting offices were surrounded by crowds, and when a man appeared and wanted to enlist, the Union men cheered and encouraged him, while the ‘copperheads’ hooted and mocked. Mass meetings were held across the street, urging enlistment, and I remember at one of them, George Sanders of Springfield, Illinois, started a speech by saying: ‘We in the West were shocked to learn that your governor, Horatio Seymour, has addressed a draft riot crowd as ‘my friends.’ We were shocked . . . That was as far as Sanders ever got with that speech, for a bunch of his hearers made a rush for the platform, swept him off, and broke up the meeting. The copperhead element did all they could to discourage enlistment. The factions were rather evenly divided as to numbers, but the antiwar element was more aggressive.”
Men died by the thousands on the battlefield, and as bodies arrived home for burial, people were further enraged. Said Lord, “Each funeral served only to increase the excitement, to elicit fresh demands to end the war. ‘Let the South go where it will and do what it will, only stop the slaughter of our people,’ was the cry of one side. And the other side echoed back: ‘Fight it out at any cost until the South lays down its arms and the Union is saved.’ Thus for four years, the war stirred up the bitterest of feeling, friendships were broken, and men came to hate each other with a hatred that was not soon forgotten.”
Chester’s own family did not escape the turmoil that injured so many. His father, a Presbyterian minister, took a year hiatus from church duties at home to serve as an army chaplain. Upon returning to Fulton, he took to the pulpit, and with fiery intensity, Chester’s father began preaching.
The Union cause was justified, he said, and support for President Lincoln was the only honorable choice. But as he soon learned, his own church was as divided as the country. As the sermon’s tone became evident, a prominent church member rose from his seat and stomped angrily from the building. And while Lord continued speaking, fifteen others departed in like manner.
Shortly after, the congregation demanded Mr. Lord’s resignation. He surrendered his position―one that he had held for 14 years―and later moved to Adams in Jefferson County, continuing his ministry in the Presbyterian Church there. Chester never forgot how his family was virtually driven from Fulton by anger and bitterness related to the war. It was a terrible time for all.
When the war finally ended, exuberance suddenly ruled the day. Nearly 70 years later, Lord recalled a scene that had remained firmly imprinted on his mind. “The people thronged the streets. They rang the church bells all day long for joy. A procession was formed and led by Professor Fletcher Slee of Falley Seminary, carrying a big American flag. Men, women, and children, simply delirious with gladness, marched from one part of the town to another, singing and capering, and waving hats and banners.”
Lord’s vivid recollections remind us that while the theater of war was far to the south, conflict reigned in all quarters, and Northerners were not of one mind. Many who didn’t fight in military units were otherwise victimized, and in one way or another, all Americans shared the pain.
Photos―The types of headlines that spawned action in the streets. Top: The names beneath this headline filled 1.5 columns of a large-format newspaper. Bottom: This listing filled 2 columns with names.