VOICES: 1863 saw racism, hyper-polarization, dishonesty and a missile attack in downtown Dayton

Clement Laird Vallandigham, 1863

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Clement Laird Vallandigham, 1863

At this moment in 1863 – halfway through the Civil War – the eyes of the nation were on Ohio. A political war was being fought that might determine the course of the military war.

The central figure was Clement Vallandigham, the congressman from Dayton when the war broke out. He had emerged as the most prominent opponent of the war. He was pro-slavery. He insisted that the war could be ended if the Republicans simply abandoned their hostility to slavery, including their opposition to its extension to new states.

Anybody confronting his story will be struck by the similarities between the issues then and now: race, war and peace, civil liberties, hyper-polarization, lies and more. This column highlights three most specifically: redistricting (hot in Ohio even now), the importance of state elections in national affairs, and disputed election outcomes.

Vallandigham had lost his re-election bid in 1862. Because of his relentless and high-profile opposition to all things Lincoln, he had been especially targeted by the Republicans. For one thing, they redistricted him.

In those days, districts followed county lines. Vallandigham’s district was originally Montgomery, Preble and Butler counties in their entirety. After the 1860 census, the Republicans added Warren County. They had good justification; the country was enlarging districts lest the House of Representatives become unwieldy as the nation grew.

But Warren leaned Republican, in part because a fair number of Quakers had moved there from the South, in opposition to slavery. The addition of Warren made the district tilt slightly Republican, as opposed to slightly Democratic before.

Despite his loss in 1862 – or because of it – Vallandigham ran for governor in 1863. He was not expected to win the nomination. But that changed in May, when he was arrested by the army for a speech he gave that the army deemed an expression of sympathy for the enemy.

The arrest was part of the most eventful, newsworthy week in the history of Dayton before the 1913 flood. It happened 50 years before the flood, to the season.

Vallandigham was arrested at his home on First Street downtown after midnight by troops coming by train from Cincinnati. The next day, Democrats threw various kinds of missiles at the Republican paper, the Dayton Journal, and it burned down. The troops came back from Cincinnati and imposed martial law.

Vallandigham’s arrest made him a hero to Democrats in and out of Ohio. He was nominated for governor overwhelmingly. By that time, Vallandigham had been convicted and exiled to the South on the order of Lincoln. Eventually Vallandigham made his way to Canada and ran his campaign from Windsor.

The election would happen on Oct. 13. The campaign was a phenomenon. Crowds were huge all over the state, sometimes surpassing the local population in size, because people would come from counties around. Parades would last hours. There was violence. There was rampant racism on the Democratic side. There was a preposterous level of dishonesty.

Lincoln was desperate to see Vallandigham lose, because the election was widely seen as referendum on the war itself. Concretely, a Vallandigham victory might have encouraged major troop desertion, a deep worry for Lincoln. Moreover, if Vallandigham had won, he would have become the presidential candidate of his party’s base.

Vallandigham got swamped. Still, his nearly 40 percent of the vote was pretty remarkable, when you figure that he had been thrown out of the country for, in effect, treason.

His campaign was hurt by an upturn in the North’s battlefield fortunes. Another political problem for Vallandigham: Many people worried that if he won, a civil war could develop in Ohio when he tried to make his way to Columbus.

Turnout surpassed that of presidential elections – which was as unheard of then as now – at over 80 percent of eligible voters.

When his supporters saw the incredible turnout figures, they cried foul. They asked where all those voters came from. And they answered: Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Indiana. It was nonsense. Both sides had been on intense guard against such things, and both knew how to run elections by then. But the Vallandigham people wanted to say it, so they said it.

Martin Gottlieb retired in 2011 after 27 years on the editorial page of the Dayton Daily News. He recently published “Lincoln’s Northern Nemesis: The War Opposition and Exile of Ohio’s Clement Vallandigham” (McFarland Publishing).

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Martin Gottlieb

Martin Gottlieb

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Martin Gottlieb

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