Monday, August 15, 2011

August 19, 1861: Veterans Riot in Easton

After the First Battle of Manassas, VA (Bull Run) on July 21, 1861, most of the three months militia soldiers were sent back to their home states since their enlistments were to expire on July 31.  At the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad station in Belvidere, Warren County, NJ and the Lehigh Valley Railroad station in Easton, Northampton County, PA  people welcomed the returning veterans with cheers.  The veterans were happy to be home but they were also angry with several newspapers and the Democratic Party politicians for not supporting their fight to save the Federal Union.  On August 19, 1861, the anger would result in a riot in Easton.

On August 19, the Northampton County Democratic Party met in the Court House in Easton to elect officers and to adopt a policy resolution objecting to fighting a war over political disagreements.  The resolution stated, "Resolved, that while we look upon and condemn secession as revolutionary and as unjustifiable, on the one hand, we do no less disapprove of abolitionism with all its evils on the other; that we are in favor of the Union as our fathers framed it in the spirit of compromise, upon the great basis of justice, equality, and fraternity, that we are now more than ever convinced (and we charge this more in sorrow than in anger) that the sectional doctrines inculcated and taught by the Republican party, of 'no more slave states; no more Union and intercourse with slaveholders; that this Government cannot permanently endure half slave and free - the fugitive slave law must be repealed - the equality of the Negro to the white race, and his right to vote and hold office - denouncing slavery as a great moral wrong and a relic of barbarism,' and kindred heresies so utterly subversive of the Union and at war with the Federal Constitution; pandered to the worst passions of the human heart, around the demon spirit of sectional hatred, fanned into a flame the embers of civil war and brought the nation to the verge of ruin and destruction."

The Democrats pledged their support to the Government inasmuch as civil war had actually commenced.  They agreed to co-operate in a "vigorous prosecution" to bring the war to a quick end but stated they would not support "a war of conquest and subjugation."  The Democrats opposed the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus by the Federal Government.  The group also resolved to favor the passage of a law "to prevent the emigration of Negroes in our State. If slavery should be abolished by the southern States by the Constitutional or unconstitutional action of the present Administration [President Abraham Lincoln] in the prosecution of this war, tens of thousands will find their way in the Free States, to be supported as paupers or take the place of our free white laborers." 

After adopting the above resolution, the Northampton County Democrats adjourned to Center Square, where local Congressman Philip Johnson made a speech to the public in support of the Democratic Party's position.  Johnson's speech against the war created a series of heated debates and rebuttals from other political parties and the returning veterans.  The arguments soon escalated from debates to shoving matches and fisticuffs.  The seeds for the rioting that occurred later in the evening were sown when a man named Mitchel tried to rebut Johnson's speech.  A fight broke out when some Democrats tried to silence Mitchel.

Early that evening, a large group of men, 80 percent of whom were returning veterans, marched out of local saloons and went to the home of Congressman Johnson. They found Johnson sitting on his front porch with a couple of friends.  The crowd assembled in front of Johnson and proceeded to burn Johnson's effigy.  When the effigy had burned out, the mob rushed toward Johnson, who ran into his house.  The crowd shouted to Johnson, demanding he show his colors.

Johnson appeared in a window holding a small American Flag.  Johnson assured the men that he was devoted to the Union.  He said he would gladly convince anyone of his loyalty, if they come to him at calmer moments.  The crowd decided to move on to another target.

Many of the three months veterans were angered by the lack of support they perceived came from several Easton newspapers: The Sentinel, The Argus, and Josiah Cole's German newspaper, The Correspondent & Democrat.  After leaving Johnson's house, some of the veterans yelled, "To The Sentinel office!"  The mob shouted the phrase in unison and marched to The Sentinel office.  The mob broke into the office. Type cases, desks, stands, stoves, the partially printed new edition of the newspaper, cards, books, and any other movable objects were thrown into the street.  The mob completely gutted the newspaper offices.

Next, the mob charged on to The Argus.  the crowd found the second floor offices were well barred, denying entry through the doors.  Rioters climbed onto an awning to enter through a window.  Little was destroyed in The Argus offices because some of the rioters felt it would require too much effort.

The mob had grown to more than 2,000 people in front of The Argus.  The crowd decided to move on to The Correspondent & Democrat. the mob broke down the door and had begun ransacking the offices when someone had suggested giving the owner time to publish a card on which his sentiments about the Union could be stated.  The mob agreed to leave the newspaper and move on to several homes of prominent Democrats.

The mob arrived at the home of the Honorable Richard Brodhead and saw the Stars & Stripes hanging over Brodhead's door.  The crowd decided not to disturb Brodhead.  In front of Brodhead's house, William H. Thompson addressed the crowd urging them not to disturb any more people.  Thompson pointed out that there were other ways of exhibiting their displeasure.

Hutter, a Democratic Party secretary. Seeing the Union flagon display, the crowd moved on to the home of Northampton County District Attorney W. W. Schuyler.  The crowd shouted until Schuyler came out to state his views on the Union.  After stating his "sentiments on the present crisis," Schuyler thanked the crowd for giving him "an opportunity to express his sentiments before so large and respectable a crowd."

At 11:00 p.m., the mob arrived at the Spring Garden Street home of Isbon Benedict.  Benedict was awakened by the pounding of fists on his door.  Benedict came to a window, and the crowd demanded to know his sentiments.  Benedict told the mob, "I am for the Union!  I fought through the Mexican War for the Stars & Stripes and have always been a Union man!"  The crowd moved on.

The crowd moved on to the home of Democratic Party vice-president George Able. Able was awakened by the crowd.  The mob demanded Able display a National Flag. Not owning a flag, Able was asked to address the crowd.  After being convinced of Able's support for the Union, the mob moved toward the home of Oliver W. Meyers.

Meyers talked to the mob from his bedroom window, "I have made Union speeches in the county and in our beautiful borough.  I am a firm Union man!  I have freely expressed my sentiments whenever desired to do so, on the street, at my office, and elsewhere, and I trust that this hideous rebellion might be put down."  The mob gave Meyers three cheers before moving on to the home of John Sletor. Sletor, too, declared that he was always a Union man.

The mob decided to make one last visit before going home.  they marched to the office of Democratic Party secretary Colonel D. H. Neiman, publisher of The Sentinel.  After tossing Neiman's furniture into the street, they set fire to the furniture pile.  At 2:00 a.m. on August 20, the mob broke up and went home.

Fearing a resumption of violence later in the day, business and home owners were quick to display the Union flag or red, white and blue bunting.  Patriotic music filled the air in the evenings as members of various local bands attempted to keep the people calm.

The day after the riot, Hutter, Neiman and Cole wrote letters to the editor of the Easton Daily Evening Express condemning the rioters.  Hutter wrote, "I feel as though injustice has been done me in the attack made on my office last night.  I wish to correct any erroneous impression that may exist in the public mind regarding my views on the war.  I never have had, and have not now, the first spark of sympathy with secessionism.  If I know my own heart, I love our great Union with my whole soul and am willing to make any sacrifice for its preservation.  I have always been devotedly attached to our Union and Constitution and wish to see both preserved for ourselves and posterity.  I would cheerfully grant all the means and men required by the National Administration, for a vigorous prosecution of the War to an honorable conclusion, satisfied that there is now no other mode of settlement and that our existence as a Republic and our liberties as a people, are at stake.  For this purpose I am willing to bear my share of the necessary taxation without a murmur.  I would not throw the slightest obstacle in the way of our Government in its efforts to suppress rebellion and enforce the laws.  I have but one wish in this matter, faithfully to discharge my duty as a loyal citizen and support, as every patriotic American should, the Government under which we live and have so long prospered.  I stand by the flag of my Country, now and forever."

Neiman wrote, "To the Patrons of The Sentinel, In consequence of my office being partially destroyed by a mob, on Monday night, the 19th instant, no 'Easton Sentinel' will be issued this week.  Next week, we will be out again as usual.  Persons having property in charge, belonging to me, saved from the wreck on Monday night, will oblige us greatly by returning it to the old office, on Thursday."

Cole wrote, "The subscriber was in no small measure astonished by the assembling, last night, in front of his office, of a large number of persons, who demanded that he should give expression to his sentiments, both through our journal and otherwise, that we thought they were known to those capable of reading and understanding the German language.  We have always been the firm friend of the Union; its friends we have encouraged and its enemies we have despised.  We now repeat what we have always declared, that 'the Union must and shall be preserved.'  Not only by word, but by deed have we shown our devotion to the Union and its defenders.  We were instrumental in inducing the County Commissioners to pass a resolution making an appropriation for the benefit of the families of the volunteers.  We have also cheerfully contributed for the same purpose.  The flag of our union has floated over our office ever since the beginning of the present difficulties.  While we have acted for the Union both by word and deed, we have done so with the consciousness that such a course was perfectly consistent with our character as a loyal citizen.  The persons who congregated in front of our office last night were evidently misinformed of what we had said and done for the Union, and were driven to extremes, which in calmer moments they must regret.  In the future, as in the past, I shall continue to defend in every respect the National Government."

In anticipation of further rioting during the days that followed, the Northampton County Sheriff called out a posse to assist in suppressing any violence that might flare up.  The slavery dispute remained unresolved.

Copyright 1999-2011: Jay C. Richards


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