Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Political Disturbances in the Streets of Washington City, October 1864

As the presidential election of 1864 drew near, political tensions in Washington City reached a breaking point. Partisans of both President Abraham Lincoln and the Democratic nominee, Gen. George B. McClellan, mobilized to show their support. Although residents of Washington City could not legally vote in the election, their interest in national politics ran deep. Others lived and worked in Washington, but could claim the right the cast their ballots elsewhere, most notably the Union soldiers who garrisoned the defenses around Washington. Lincoln and McClellan supporters attended rallies, paraded through the streets, and debated the issues in barrooms and hotel lobbies. Given the intensity of the passions on both sides, it is perhaps not surprising that the nation's capital witnessed political unrest and violence in the weeks before election day.

On October 21, 1864, thousands gathered for a huge torchlight procession for the Lincoln-Johnson ticket. Only a few days before, Gen. Phil Sheridan had won a stunning victory over the Confederates at Cedar Creek. Among the marchers were government employees, soldiers, delegations from military hospitals, and members of city and state Lincoln-Johnson organizations. They carried elaborate patriotic banners, proclaiming fealty to the President and Union generals in the field.

As the procession neared Democratic headquarters at Parker's Hall, someone threw a stone, cutting one of the marchers above the eye.  The police rushed to calm the crowd and maintain order, but more trouble soon arose in front of the hall, when a young onlooker grabbed a torch from the hands of a solider in the procession.  The soldier retook the torch and began to beat his assailant before the police intervened and arrested the civilian. Just then, someone set fire to the Democratic flag hanging above the street. According to the Washington Evening Star:
. . . the lower portion of muslin, containing the names of McClellan and [George] Pendleton, was consumed before the flag could be drawn in, [and] caused considerable excitement at that point, but the active exertions of the police prevented any serious difficulty. There is some dispute as to whether the flag was fired accidentally or purposely, but the weight of the evidence is that one of the horsemen in the procession in resentment of some provocation, real or imagined, applied his torch to one corner of the flag in passing under it.... (Oct. 22, 1864.)
The flames were extinguished, and "the flag was run out amid cheers from the McClellan men, who afterwards held indignation meetings in the hall and on the sidewalk...." (Wash. Evening Star, Oct. 22, 1864.) The procession finished without any other serious incidents, but tensions were clearly running high.
Poster for Democratic nominees George McClellan (for President) and George Pendleton (for Vice President) (courtesy of Wikipedia)
McClellan-Pendleton flag from the 1864 presidential election (courtesy of Legendary Auctions).

According to the October 22 edition of the Washington Daily National Republican, "[t]he act of burning the McClellan flag last night is universally condemned, and no doubt due reparation will be made by the Union clubs." Although the paper implied that McClellanites had likely provoked the procession, "the act of burning the flag at Democratic Headquarters was as unjustifiable as it was rash." (Oct. 22, 1864.)

A few days later, on October 25, the Democrats held a flag raising in the city's Sixth Ward. As a procession of McClellan supporters neared the event, they shouted "d__d flag burners" and "dirty niggers" to a group of people who had gathered in front of a Lincoln & Johnson Club meeting hall. (Wash. Even. Star, Oct. 26, 1864.) A fight erupted, although the police "succeeded in restoring order." After the McClellan-Pendleton flag appeared above the street, "a number of fights  took place at times, and amid the cheers and groans of the opposite parties, several bricks and stones were thrown." (Oct. 26, 1864.) The Evening Star reported:
Towards 10 o'clock the uproar became so great that it was impossible for the speakers to be heard, and they came down from the stand and attempted to form a procession, when a shower of stones came down--but by which party it was commenced it is impossible to determine, there being so many conflicting report--and quite a number were struck, and some badly injured. (Oct. 26, 1864.) 
A "number of pistol shot were fired," and one of the bullets grazed a young drummer boy. (Oct. 26, 1864.) The police helped to prevent a further outbreak of violence between "Navy Yard boys" and the McClellan supporters.

Another Democratic rally and McClellan flag raising took place on November 1. This time, "there was a large detail of police. . . including a number of mounted, on the ground to suppress any disorder. . . . (Wash. Even. Star, Nov. 2, 1864.) The Evening Star observed that "there were some on both sides who undoubtedly were prepared for a fight," but the strong police presence prevented another outbreak of violence. (Nov. 2, 1864.)

Today, the streets of Washington seem calm compared to the disorder and chaos of 150 years ago. The stakes were high, and political passions erupted in displays of aggression and violence. Within a week of the Democratic rally on November 1, Lincoln would emerge victorious at the polls. The McClellan-Pendleton flag would fly no more.


Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865 (1941); Washington Daily National Republican, Oct. 22, 1864; Washington Evening Star, Oct. 22, Oct. 26, Nov. 2, 1864.

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