It is four days after arthroscopic knee surgery, and my turtle-speed with a metal walker is steadily improving. Pauli stopped by with a card and a bouquet of yellow and orange begonias from her garden, the lovely sort of thing neighbors do when one is incapacitated.
I suggest we go sit on my porch on this golden afternoon, a mid-October glory with gilded trees, a pale blue sky clear of clouds, and warm, light breezes that lift the leaves of the morning glories still blooming high on the stanchions. I thump over the wooden porch boards with the walker, drop heavily in one of the rocking chairs, and Pauli sits opposite me in a white wicker chair. We catch up on grandchildren, mutual friends, trips, and the price of pumpkins.
Carol from across the street walks over with groceries she has picked up for me. I invite her to join us, and we three old friends of 30 years sit together chatting on my porch. The conversation gets around to the 2016 presidential election just weeks away. With varying degrees of agreement, we bandy about the topics of gossip, accusation, and hard facts making the rounds on print, network and cable news.
But one remark stayed with me.
A commentator noted recently, Carol observed, that no matter who wins, the worst day is not going to be November 8, but November 9, the day after the election. Then the people who have reviled and loathed the opinions of friends, neighbors, families, colleagues, and peers will have to regroup, reconsider, and reconcile. “It will be like it was after the Civil War,” she said.
I thought about that later. My house was built around 1835, so it was 30 years old when the 1864 election determined who would lead the country at a terrible time when brother fought brother and state fought state, but with guns, cannons and swords, not newsfeeds and polls.
People may have sat on this same porch in the October sun that year, talking about the promises, opinions, health, and political record of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, who vowed to bring the Civil War to a conclusion, and his Democratic opponent John B. McClellan who advocated a negotiated peace. But perhaps politics was a forbidden topic in this Sandwich house, for the mother of Louisa Gibbs who owned it then was a Southerner, and Louisa’s husband Charles Gibbs was an officer in the US Navy.
Like today, the election in 1864 was uncharted territory. Kansas, Nevada and West Virginia had become states during that election period, so residents would be voting there for the first time. The Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia had seceded from and were at war with the Union; they did not participate in voting in the 1864 election. For the first time, soldiers in the field were allowed to cast a vote.
It was anticipated that Lincoln would lose the election. He was running for a second term, and the last nine presidents had all served only single terms. He supported Emancipation which was not universally popular in the northern states. However, the main issue for the country at the time was the war, and until General Sherman’s appalling “March from Atlanta to the Sea” in September, it was not going well for Union forces. Casualties that summer had been more than half those in the previous three years. In July Southern forces advanced to within miles of Washington and nearly captured the capitol; Lincoln himself watched the battle and had been shot at.
In mid-October 1864, then, perhaps people sat on my porch at 6 School Street discussing the divisive, polarizing and intensely personal issues of the election to come, as my friends and I did today with the approach of the election of 2016.
And if, 150 years ago, those same people grew weary of rehashing the qualifications/lack of qualifications of Lincoln and McClellan and the merit/lack of merit of abolition, states’ rights, war, and negotiated peace, perhaps the conversation turned, as ours eventually did, to the fine fall day, the blue of the morning glories, and what was planned for dinner.
NOTE: www.ushistory.org <http://www.ushistory.org/> was a source of information for this post. To read a fascinating article on General Jubal Early’s attack on Washington, D.C., check out Smithsonian.com for the July 1988 article by Thomas A. Lewis.