March 24, 1862 (Monday)
More than most other Northern cities, Cincinnati, Ohio had quite a bit to lose when it came to severing ties with its Southern contacts. Though Cincinnati sat just up the Ohio River from Louisville, a city that was technically still loyal to the Union, trading with any state in rebellion was strictly forbidden.
It was not that Cincinnati was a pro-Southern state. During the 1860 election, Southern Democrat John Breckenridge received a shabby 1% of the vote, while Lincoln won the plurality of votes, taking ten of the seventeen wards.
When Lincoln called for Ohio to provide 13,000 troops at the beginning of the war, Cincinnati herself could provide nearly that much. The city seemed to view itself not as pro-Southern or Northern, but as Western, Unionist and comfortable with the way things had been. Wishing to retain the status quo, the citizens were largely in favor of, or indifferent to, the institution of slavery, which could be seen right across the river in Kentucky.
And right across the river is exactly where most of Cincinnati’s residents wished to keep the slaves. If the slaves were emancipated, they feared that tens of thousands of freemen would cross the river and steal their jobs.1
Measures were already being taken to make sure such a travesty did not happen. Whites in Cincinnati, mostly Irish and Germans, attacked free blacks throughout 1861 and 1862. They believed that the free blacks were enticing Kentucky’s slaves to escape, come to Cincinnati and take the low paying jobs away from the white immigrants.2 The city’s newspapers, conservative as they were, fueled this line of thinking.
It wasn’t, however, just a question of labor, it was absolutely a question of supremacy. At the start of the war, when the city’s black men wished to show their patriotism by organizing a militia unit, they were thwarted at every step by the white authorities. The group was, at first, disallowed to meet, and when they finally found a space to recruit black men for the Union, they were forced to remove the United States flag they had hung above the door. Blacks at another recruitment were told by police: “We want you damned niggers to keep out of this; this is a white man’s war.”3
This was the atmosphere that abolitionist Wendell Phillips found when he arrived in town on this date to give a speech at Pike’s Opera House. Phillips was famous not only for being anti-slavery, but for being pro-secession, believing that the Union could not win the war.4 Holding these views won him few friends in Cincinnati.
When Phillips took the stage at 8pm, he asked his audience three questions. First, he asked, how long is the war to last? Second, what will become of slavery? Lastly, what will become of the Union? When he next said that he had been an abolitionist for sixteen years, many in the crowd hissed.
As he continued, people from the balcony began lobbing rotten eggs at the podium, striking Phillips on his right side. He went on as if nothing had happened, the eggs, and even stones, falling faster about his feet.
Even when someone in the crowd hurled a paving stone at him, missing its mark only slightly, he remained focused upon his words, which were constantly being accented by boos and cat calls from the balcony. Upwards of 400 dissenters were becoming more and more enraged by Phillips’ speech, and it became clear that they were quickly devolving into a mob.
There were no police inside the building and but few supporters to hold back the throng. Several were injured in the melee that followed. Some of the ladies left their seats, as, for ten minutes, Phillips tried to make it through his address.
The jeering and hissing grew louder and rowdier, as they shouted, “Put him out,” “Tar and feather him,” and gave groans for the “nigger, Wendell Phillips.” Soon, the entire mob burst down the stairs into the middle aisle as one of their leaders yelled “to the stage!”
Somehow they were held back, but chairs and canes were thrown at Phillips, who was rushed off the stage by a few supporters.5
The mob took to the streets, but Phillips and his supporters were gone. The mayor, who was not quite a southern sympathizer, made no effort to suppress the crowd as they searched the area, calling for Phillips’ life.6
The next day, in a letter written to a friend, Phillips seemed to laugh it off. “The Cincinnati Opera House suggested Tremont Temple,” he wroterecalling similar riots in New England, “the rats of the West closely resembled those of the East. These and those alike nibble, gnaw – and run.”7
- The Impact of the Civil War on Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, 1861-1865 by Matthew Elrod, 2006. [↩]
- On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley by Darrel E. Bigham, University Press of Kentucky, 2006. [↩]
- We are the Revolutionists: German-Speaking Immigrants & American Abolitionists after 1848 by Mischa Honeck, University of Georgia Press, 2011. [↩]
- See Wendell Phillips’ speech in New Bedford, April 9, 1861. [↩]
- Cincinnati Gazette, March 25, 1862. As well as the New York Times, March 25, 1862. [↩]
- Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens, Volume 1 by Charles Theodore Greve, 1904. [↩]
- Wendell Phillips: The Agitator by William Carlos Martyn, Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1890. [↩]