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Civil War Sesquicentennial Approaches

A photograph of Abraham Lincoln), the 16th president of the United States from March 4, 1861, until his assassination on April 15, 1865
WHI 70759

Abraham Lincoln was elected president 150 years ago this week, launching a series of catastrophic events that broke the country apart and culminated in his assassination five years later. Many Wisconsin residents participated in his nomination and election and, of course, in the tragic war that followed. Starting in 2011, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War promises many opportunities for us to follow Lincoln's career and explore Wisconsin's role in the most pivotal event in American history.

Lincoln's Rise to Fame

Lincoln's national reputation was born during his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in the Illinois Senate race of 1858. Wisconsin reporter M.P. Rindlaub attended one of those contests and left this account. Although Lincoln lost that 1858 election, he remained active in politics and delivered a speech at the 1859 Wisconsin State Fair.

The following year, when Lincoln's name was floated for the presidency, the 1858 debates were published in book form. He inscribed a copy (now in the Society's rare book collection) to Watertown resident Carl Schurz, one of his most loyal supporters.

Nomination and Election in 1860

In May 1860 Wisconsin Republican activists attended the Chicago convention where their party nominated Lincoln on the third ballot. During that summer Schurz crisscrossed the country campaigning for Lincoln, and is widely credited with delivering the immigrant vote on November 6.

On that night party loyalists in Milwaukee clustered around incoming telegraph messages to follow the popular vote as it was announced. At 2 am, when reports confirmed Lincoln's election, "The crowd went wild with shouts and cheering; hats were flying to the ceiling, against the walls, and to the floor..." Joyful Lincoln supporters hauled a cannon into the streets and shot it off to celebrate their victory.

Inauguration and Beyond

Of course, not everyone was happy. Southerners were outraged and appalled. Eight weeks later Frank Pond, a Wisconsin teenager, worked on the train that carried the president to his inauguration in Washington. He later recalled how hostile mobs en route to the inauguration almost assassinated Lincoln before he took office.

At the time, no one imagined that five years of carnage and tragedy would follow. Many predicted war, but the pundits all thought it would be quick and easy.

Plans for the Sesquicentennial

Society staff are already at work on a large digital collection of eyewitness accounts, galleries of historical images, museum exhibits, public programs and new books about the war. Watch this space or subscribe to our email newsletters to stay informed.

:: Posted November 1, 2010

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