Lincoln’s Wide Awakes
Like never before, the 1860 presidential election inspired the enthusiasm and patriotism of young Americans. Spurred by an interest in the most important issues of the day—namely the enslavement of Black Americans and the threat of civil war—young men (and occasionally women) came together in northern cities to march in support of the Republican Party and its new presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Recognizing the immense opportunity, Republican Party leaders sought to entice potential voters who were swept up in the energetic new movement.
Known as the Wide Awakes, the first group organized in Hartford, Connecticut in March of 1860 and quickly experienced growth among their ranks. Within weeks, Wide Awake clubs became well known across the northern states and were soon characterized by their adoption of paramilitary-style uniforms and torch lit marches.
As the Wide Awake movement swept across the Northeast, clubs formed within communities. With names such as the Rail Maulers, Lincoln Rangers, and Rail Splitters, Wide Awake clubs played on Lincoln’s upbringing on the American frontier and called on his reputation as “Honest Abe” to attract disaffected Americans of voting age, particularly farmers and wage laborers. Through regular meetings, public demonstrations of support, and social appeal, the Wide Awakes electrified the 1860 presidential campaign, strengthening the Republican Party and contributing to high voter turnout on Election Day. Many members of the Wide Awakes and similar paramilitary groups answered Lincoln’s call for troops at the outbreak of the Civil War in April, 1861.
Carried by John E. Edmunds of the Rail Splitters’ Brigade, this wooden ax was one of many accessories used by Wide Awakes during the campaign. Organized along military lines, Wide Awake clubs were led by captains and lieutenants who carried red or blue glass lanterns, while members carried banners, double-swivel Pitkin torches, rifle torches, and other similar accoutrement. Wooden axes, like this one, were symbolic of the “Rail Splitter” persona associated with Abraham Lincoln throughout the campaign. Believed to have organized in Massachusetts, the Rail Splitters’ Brigade were one of many Wide Awakes club to adopt the image.
The acquisition of this artifact was made possible by generous donors to the 2021 Watchorn Lincoln Dinner Sponsorship Fund.