Chestertown History, Civil War, Journalism, politics

President Garfield in Chestertown. The Great Copperhead Riot of 1863.

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Back in 2008, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at George Bush during a press conference.  I had to give the President points for coming back with a joke, “All I can report is, it is a size 10.”  OK it’s not that funny, but he seemed to handle himself pretty well at that moment.  He went on to say something about living in a free society — while Iraqi security guards kicked the crap out of the journalist.

A few years later, somebody in Philly threw a book at Obama, but apparently he was just a desperate author following a suggestion from a blog called “Low Cost PR You Can Do Yourself.”

Going farther back, when Richard Nixon was Eisenhower’s VP, he was hit by a rock, while trying to talk to a crowd of college students in Lima, Peru.  Nixon also wins some points, for standing his ground and yelling “What’s the matter?  Are you afraid to talk to me?”  His car was also egged, during a South American goodwill tour that didn’t go so well.  Nixon would have also have rocks and tomatoes thrown at his car during his inauguration.

And going even farther back…we arrive in Chestertown, with another egging and a future President.

General Garfiled LOC

General Garfield Library of Congress

In 1863, James Garfield was Chief-of-Staff for the Army of the Cumberland, fighting in Tennessee.  Despite the army’s bloody defeat at Chickamauga, he actually enhanced his military reputation by helping to stabilize the Union forces, after the general in command had decided the battle was lost, and left for Chattanooga.

That fall, Garfield was promoted to major general, but resigned his commission, as he’d been elected to Congress as a “Radical” Republican.  (In those days, “Radical” meant he was anti-slavery.)   Another Ohio politician-soldier, General Schenck, who had been assigned to keeping Maryland’s secessionists under control, was also elected to Congress.

Garfield and Schenck traveled through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, speaking at Republican rallies.  On October 28, 1863, along with Salmon Chase, Garfield attended a mass pro-Union meeting and procession in Baltimore, promoting emancipation in the city that had attacked Union troops only two years before.

But on 11/6/63, the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial printed this one-sentence news item:

“On Saturday night General Garfield was mobbed by a gang of Copperheads at Chestertown, Md.”

A few days later, another Pennsylvania paper reported

“Gen. Garfield, while speaking for the Union, in a strong slave-holding locality, in Maryland, was mobbed by a crowd of copperheads”.

This sounded exciting – – a pro-slavery mob in Chestertown, attacking a future President!

The only problem – – it just wasn’t true.

A few days later, a Cleveland paper printed a retraction:

Your correspondent telegraphed you…that General Garfield was mobbed…by a few Copperheads and slaveholding ruffians…it appears…that [this] was incorrect…”

 

The mob attack had been somewhat scaled back.

To one guy.

And a single egg.

So, mostly, a “cautionary tale” as they used to say.  The incident reveals a bit about taking news reports (then and now, in the Age of The Internet) with a grain of salt.  And a bit about Chestertown, and about Garfield — when he handled it with aplomb.  The reporter could not remember Garfield’s exact language, but reported the gist of it:

 

One scoundrel threw a bad egg at the General, whereupon…he coolly remarked that a few weeks since he was face to face with the companions of the miscreant on the field of battle.  “They carried more dangerous weapons,” said the General, “and as I did not run there, it is not probable that I shall run now;  and as I fought then, if necessary, I shall fight now!” 

 

The Cleveland Daily Leader reported it this way:

When somebody aimed a missile at General Garfield, during his speech in a pro-slavery Maryland neighborhood, the General quietly remarked that not long ago he had been meeting men on ‘Chickamauga creek, who defended the same cause with more dangerous weapons, and if it became his duty, he supposed he might renew the fight.’ 

They cheered the soldier politician to the echo, flogging some fellow soundly on suspicion,  though he earnestly protested that he didn’t throw the egg, and wound up by going off into a regular emancipation jubilee.  Residents, understanding the temper of the crowd, declared the rotten egg had made them dozens of votes in the immediate vicinity.

 Apparently, the crowd blamed the wrong person for the egg-throwing, but the beating he got from the Unionists “had an excellent moral effect upon the Copperheads present.”

egg beater 1885 patent

U.S. Patent Office

I believe attacks on politicians should be limited to debate, and maybe sarcasm, or even mockery — but not eggs, not spit, not rocks, not violence.

Garfield and daughter LOC

President Garfield with one of his children

Garfield deserved better.  He was smart, honest, and progressive.  He grew up poor, and worked his way through college, where he rose from janitor to president in just a few years (no wonder Horatio Alger wrote his campaign biography!) and also became both a minister and attorney.  As a volunteer soldier, who quickly became a respected general, he survived Shiloh and Chickamauga, and then campaigned for the civil rights of African-Americans.  He took office as President on his birthday, started reforms immediately…and 120 days later was shot in the back.

An insane person was able to walk into a store, buy a $10 handgun, and shoot President Garfield.  It took him another 80 days to die.

It’s too bad that people in our country don’t stick with words, and honest, courteous debate, face-to-face.  And if that’s just too old-fashioned, at least, stick to eggs.

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