by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In this highly charged presidential campaign taking place under the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may well be that we have seen nothing like this election season in American history, though there are some that were very notable and important. One of these was the campaign of 1864, which, coming towards the end of the Civil War, pitted incumbent Republican Abraham Lincoln against his former commanding general of the Union Army, George McClellan, bearing the Democratic Party standard.
McClellan was an unusual Democratic candidate in that he did not hail from a Southern state, but was born in Philadelphia, the son of a doctor. Though he intended initially to follow that profession, he was accepted at West Point, though he was not yet the minimum age of sixteen. He graduated second in his class at just nineteen as the Mexican-American War was being fought. Though affected by dysentery and malaria, with effects continuing throughout his life and commissioned as a lieutenant with the Army Corps of Engineers, he experienced battle and conducted reconnaissance for General Winfield Scott, a friend of his father.
His peacetime service included engineering, and surveying, including early work for a transcontinental railroad route in the Pacific Northwest. He also went on a secret mission to what became the Dominican Republic on behalf of Jefferson Davis, who later became president of the Confederate States of America, and was an official American observer of the Crimean War. McClellan resigned from the Army and became an engineer and executive for two railroad companies in the Midwest, while he also developed a taste for politics. In 1860, he supported Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, who lost to Lincoln in a four-way contest for the presidency.
When the war broke out, McClellan commanded the Department of Ohio, which represented a wide swath of the Midwest and was commissioned a major general. At only thirty-four, he outranked everyone else except Scott, thanks to his ties to the powerful Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury in the Lincoln Administration. Winning his first campaigns in what became West Virginia amid stunning Union losses in the early stages of the war, McClellan became a hero and was referred to as a Napoleon of the conflict.
He was appointed commander of a division of what he retooled into the Army of the Potomac, which protected Washington, and built an impressive force with heavy fortifications for the nation’s capital. McClellan had no sympathy for slaves and advocated a massive campaign against the Confederates that would end the war quickly and avoid emancipation, but he butted heads with Scott and the Lincoln Administration. When Scott retired because of poor health, McClellan, who was widely admired for his command of the Army of the Potomac, became general-in-chief of the Union Army.
That tenure was short, as McClellan was slow to engage Confederate armies and his barely disguised critiques of Lincoln became heavily publicized. When a Confederate force evaded McClellan’s army before the Peninsula Campaign could be inaugurated, he was removed from his command of all Union forces by the president, leaving him in charge of the Army of the Potomac.
After the famed Battle of Antietam, which the Union technically won though it was widely understood that McClellan failed to deliver a crushing blow to Robert E. Lee by retreating from the field after Lee, who invaded northern territory, was driven back into Virginia and for the large Union casualties inflicted in the bloody battle, McClellan was relieved from command by Lincoln and a famous photo of the pair in McClellan’s battlefield tent looks to show the general’s disdain for the commander-in-chief.
McClellan went to Trenton, New Jersey and, though there was talk of returning him to action, including by Ulysses S. Grant when he assumed command of the Union Army. He wrote a lengthy report defending his actions in the two major campaigns he led and blaming the administration for not providing him proper support. After it was submitted, but not published, in October 1863, he announced his entrance into politics as a Democrat and won the nomination for president for the following year’s campaign.
The general ran while remaining in the Army and did not resign until election day, 8 November 1864. While he supported continuing the war and restoring the Union without the abolition of slavery, the adopted party platform was to end the war and negotiate a settlement with the Confederates and the gap clouded his campaign.
In southern California, where southern sympathy was strong with many residents from the states that seceded from the Union, the Los Angeles Star, the first newspaper in the city, debuting in spring 1851, was published by Henry Hamilton, a native of Ireland who entered the United States at New Orleans, but then came to California for the Gold Rush. He became a newspaper publisher in the gold regions and came to the City of Angels in 1856 and took over the Star.
He became a passionate Democrat, which served him well as the region was dominated politically by that party and his support of vigilantism against rampant crime also likely helped him and his business. Yet, when Andrés Pico, the well-respected general who defended Mexican California against the American invasion during the Mexican-American War, introduced a bill in the state Assembly to create the state of Colorado in southern California, Hamilton vigorously opposed it, though it had widespread support locally and passed the legislature, only to stall in Congress as the Civil War loomed.
During the war, however, Hamilton was not only a staunch supporter of the South, he became increasingly agitated and bitter against the Union as it bolstered its military presence locally and statewide. In October 1862, federal agents arrested him and he was to be taken to Alcatraz Island, taken by the federal government from F.P.F. Temple after he was given the island by William Workman, who was granted it in 1846 by Governor Pío Pico. Apparently, Hamilton avoided a stint on the bare island, but was held ten days before being released. He promptly returned south, was feted with a barbeque at El Monte, and resumed his work with the Star.
In 1863, he ran for the state senate against his former journalistic rival, Francisco P. Ramirez, who once ran El Clamor Público, the first Spanish-language paper in the region. Hamilton narrowly prevailed, though Ramirez claimed he was disloyal and could not serve. While Hamilton was permitted to take office, his tenure at Sacramento took most of his attention and he decided to sell the paper and its office and equipment.
Attorney A.C. Russell took over the Star, but it did not last long and the paper folded in October 1864, just after tonight’s featured issue from the museum’s holdings was published. Russell was likely just not up for the job and there are plenty of reprinted articles from other papers and more than the usual amount of filler, with a scarcity of local news. There were, however, a number of items related to the presidential election and a strong defense of the Democrats.
The most notable article concerned a mass meeting held on the 22nd by the party in Los Angeles, with the headline including the phrase “The Democracy on the War Path.” It was claimed that the confab was “the largest meeting ever held in Los Angeles” as it gathered in front of the Montgomery House hotel and then reconvened at the Democratic Party’s headquarters at an unidentified location. There, “cannon boomed, rockets, tar barrels and other combustibles lit up the heavens and a splendid band tuned the evening air to harmony.” Further, balconies on buildings on either side of the street “were filled with the grace and beauty of the town and country.”
At 7 p.m., Damien Marchessault, who was mayor of the city throughout the war years (and committed suicide in city council chambers in early 1868 not long after concluding a short term as chief executive) led a procession that marched through the town’s streets with music, shouting of mottos and other elements displayed. Exhibited as well was the flag, which the Star exclaimed was “redeemed for the time from the dishonorable uses to which it has been prostituted by the ‘Government’ and the loyalists.”
After the parade, the body gathered around a stand erected for the orators of the evening, though it “was lamentably small.” The Democratic Club’s president, County Judge William G. Dryden, a notoriously colorful character in the town’s legal community, was named chair and eleven prominent figures were named as honorary vice-presidents, including Californios Agustín Olvera (a former county judge), Enrique Avila and Antonio Franco Coronel (later state treasurer); and Dr. John S. Griffin, former mayor Benjamin D. Wilson and a trio from the Rancho La Puente, including John Rowland, his son-in-law, John Reed, and William Workman.
Workman was not a particularly political person publicly, with his sole office seeking being an unsuccessful campaign for county supervisor on an alternative Democratic slate in 1859. He did, however, not only take part in this mass meeting, but did so again in 1868. Meanwhile, there were some “young Turks” appointed as secretaries, including Joseph Huber, Jr., Andrew Jackson King (of El Monte, who later became a news publisher and attorney), and Workman’s namesake nephew, William Henry Workman, who went on to be a city council member, mayor during the boom years of 1887 and 1888, and city treasurer from 1901-1907.
Decorating the stand were banners with such sentiments as “No More Military Arrests,” “State Rights For Ever,” “The Union As It Was—The Constitution As It Is,” and “McClellan and Pendleton—The Only Salvation of Our Country.” While there were purportedly “flaringly treasonable sentences” and placed in public defiance of local officials, the Star declared “there was made no attempt to molest them, and thus far we have not heard that any body has been arrested for treasonable practices.”
Mounting the platform to lusty cheers, the first speaker was the inimitable Edward J.C. Kewen, an attorney and firebrand who was known to hurl spicy choice invectives at his opponents in politics and the courtroom and who was a spirited Southern sympathizer with no parallel in greater Los Angeles. Kewen “for an hour and a half enchanted the audience with the fervid eloquence and charming rhetoric for which he has been so long, so justly famed.”
Succeeding Kewen, who was a hard to act to follow, was John G. Downey, an Irish native who came to Los Angeles during the Gold Rush and was a druggist and successful real estate investor. Elected lieutenant governor in 1860, he became chief executive after just a few days when the newly elected governor, Milton Latham, resigned to take a Senate appointment. Downey was governor for two years and, though a Democrat, swore loyalty to the Union when the Civil War erupted. The paper observed that Downey “in his blunt, terse and vigorous way spoke briefly and to the point” in endorsing the party’s platform.
Murray Morrison, who came to the city in 1858 and went on to be a member of the Assembly, Los Angeles city council and district court judge, “made the orgamentative speech of the evening,” according to the Star, though it obviously means “argumentative.” King, who was an under-sheriff and was involved in the spectacular shooting affray involving his brothers and Chino rancher Robert S. Carlisle in July 1865, also “made a capital little speech” and elevated his rising standing in the party.
Not only was the meeting considered the largest in city history, what gave it its “peculiar charm” as well as provided “the most convincing evidence of the strength of the cause” was the conspicuous presence of “the immense number of ladies whose presence sanctified the occasion, and inspired the sterner sex with confidence and courage.” Opining that there are no Democrats anywhere who had to sacrifice so much feeling to principle as have those of Los Angeles county,” the paper declared the rally “a perfect success”, but added a strange conclusion.
Namely, the Star summarized the demonstration as one where Democrats “have shown their devotion to the cause by ratifying an objectionable nomination with a degree of unanimity and energy not excelled if equalled by the Democracy of any other country or State.” That is, McClellan, being a northerner and not in line with the party platform, was hardly the desired candidate, but the faithful in the region demonstrated their unswerving loyalty nonetheless.
McClellan’s candidacy proved to be less than inspiring to many Democrats and, naturally, those states that seceded and formed the Confederate States of America and which were overwhelmingly Democratic, were excluded from the election. Lincoln won about 2.2 million votes to his antagonist’s 1.8 million, a ten point margin, but captured 212 electoral votes to only 21 for McClellan, while 81 electors declined to declare. Not long after his second inauguration in March 1865 and just after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln was assassinated (with some notable public celebration in Los Angeles).
So, as fraught with tension and division as the 2020 campaign is and will be, the 1864 presidential election was very consequential and this surviving issue of the Star is a rare representative artifact about local events pertaining to the campaign, including William Workman’s very public role as an honorary vice-president.