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150 Years Ago: Connecticut Reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

Acceptance of both the Civil War and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was far from universal by residents of Connecticut.

The gubernatorial election of 1860 in Connecticut gives us a clue about how deeply divided residents of Connecticut were about the impending Civil War. Republican Gov. William Buckingham — a huge supporter of Lincoln and the Union — was re-elected by only 541 votes in a hotly contested election against Democrat and Mexican War hero Thomas Seymour. Seymour, after whom a town in Connecticut is named, vehemently opposed invading the South and advocated for states' rights.

Though many thousands of Connecticut men rushed to volunteer for service to preserve the Union when war broke out in 1861, many residents in the state, like Seymour, were called "peace democrats" and opposed the war on constitutional grounds. White peace flags with emblems such as "Peace and Union" and "Peace and Our Country" were flown in towns such as Ridgefield, Windsor, West Hartford, Goshen, and Avon. Well-attended peace rallies were held in towns such as Stonington, Middletown, Kent and Bloomfield.

The carnage of the Civil War — with more men dying than in the sum total of all of the other wars in our history — served to intensify opposition in some areas. A military draft ordered by Governor Buckingham during the summer of 1863 was very unpopular and was openly flouted in some parts of Connecticut; however, few events would enrage the Peace Democrats — sometimes called "Copperheads" — more than Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect 150 years ago this week.

Peace Democrats such as Thomas Seymour felt that the purpose of the Civil War had been illegally changed by the Emancipation Proclamation from saving the Union to the freeing of the slaves. Having issued it in September of 1862 after the Battle of Antietam to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln felt the backlash against the Emancipation Proclamation in the November elections of 1862. Democrats picked up 28 more seats in the House of Representatives as well as the governorship of New York. This new political reality in the House would make passage of the 13th Amendment much more difficult, as Steven Spielberg's new film Lincoln clearly dramatizes.

The undercurrent of racism and anti-abolitionist sentiment in the speeches and writings of Copperheads was palpable. Ohio Congressman Samuel S. Cox said, " This government is a government of white men; that the men who made it never intended it ... to place the Black race on equality with the White." Cox's friend and fellow Congressman from Ohio was Clement L. Vallandigham, generally recognized to be the most outspoken and vocal leader of the Peace Democrats. Vallandigham spoke at a rally against the war and the Emancipation Proclamation in Stamford, CT, during the spring of 1863, shortly before he was arrested for undermining the government and tried and convicted by a military court in May of 1863. Lincoln had him deported to the South.

Despite the efforts of Thomas Seymour and other Peace Democrats, Connecticut, led by avid Lincoln supporter Gov, William A. Buckingham, embraced the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of slaves in the South. In fact, in a tradition that persists to this day in some parts of the country, "Watch Night" — a midnight vigil held on the night of Dec. 31 to await the freeing of the slaves — was observed. This vigil is usually marked by the ringing of a church bell and a reading of Lincoln's proclamation.

On New Years' Day in the town of Norwich — most appropriately the hometown of Governor William A. Buckingham — a bell-ringing ceremony honoring the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation occurred from noon to 1 p.m., followed by celebratory cannon shots over Norwich harbor. This ceremony was prefatory to the casting of the Norwich Freedom Bell, a 255-lb. bronze bell to be rung annually to commemorate the freeing of the slaves. It is a commemorative event in his hometown about which Gov. William Buckingham would have been proud!

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