150 years ago in 1861, the United States was literally being torn apart by the issues of slavery and states’ rights. In November, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States, defeating Democratic candidates Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge. By the beginning of March 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—and in February, Jefferson Davis was elected President of the Confederate States.
The people of Middletown, Connecticut were deeply concerned about the possibility of civil war. But they were also thinking about upcoming state elections, taxes, the local economy, and of course the weather. In 1861 Middletown was a city of 8,620 inhabitants. In addition to the river trade and agriculture that had existed since Middletown’s founding in 1650, manufacturing was becoming increasingly important in the city’s economy. The Savage Firearms Company was one of several firearms and ammunition factories in Middletown. Benjamin Douglas, who had been mayor of Middletown in the 1850s, headed the W & B Douglas Company with his brother William, manufacturing pumps and other tools.
Excerpts from The Constitution (Middletown, Conn.), February 20, 1861 (volume 24, number 1208)
The Votes Counted
On Wednesday last the electoral votes were counted in the presence of both Houses of Congress and Vice President Breckenridge declared Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin duly elected President and Vice President of the United States for four years from 4th of March next. Thus is safely passed an occasion which has been looked forward to with some solicitude by very many. Southern traitors had threatened that Lincoln should never be declared President. And such intimations were given that the public authorities thought it best to fortify the city and entrust the safety of the capital to the vigilance of Lieut. Gen. Scott. On account of the precautions which were taken no outbreak could have been successful, and none was attempted.
Secretary Holt on Coercion
The style in which South Carolina is coerced [to remain in the Union] is aptly and forcibly shown by the following significant sentence in the letter of Secretary Holt [United States Secretary of War] to the seceders:
“At the present moment it is not deemed necessary to reinforce Major Anderson, because he makes no such request, and feels quite sure in his position. Should his safety, however, require reinforcements, every effort will be made to supply them.”
Such language is very explicit, and shows precisely what the Secretary means. It is the best definition of coercion we have seen. If South Carolina lets Uncle Sam alone she won’t get hurt. But if she attacks Fort Sumter, she will receive a sufficient degree of coercion to prevent her from accomplishing her design. The country is indebted to Secretary Holt for the best practical view of coercion which has been given. It is presumed that South Carolina understands exactly what he means.
The ice in the [Connecticut] river broke up last week in a very quiet manner. The warm weather and the rain carried off the snow and ice, and produced a rise in the river of about seven feet. The ice broke up opposite this city on Thursday. For two or three days it came down, as it broke away at different points above. It is now clear above Hartford.
The birthday of George Washington occurs next Friday, February 22d. Congress has voted to make this a national holiday. It is already established as a holiday in Massachusetts. At this time there would be a propriety in observing the day as it has never been observed before. It is a day in which Union men may appropriately speak their sentiments, and a spirit of conciliation and harmony may be cherished and promoted.
The New Steamer Mary Benton
This fine new steamer, built by the Goodspeeds of East Haddam, is now receiving her machinery at Morgan Ironworks, New York. She will be finished and ready for use about the middle of March. This will be a staunch, safe and handsome boat, and will take the place of the L. Boardman, between Hartford, Greenport, and Sag Harbor. Her engine is a powerful one with a 38 inch cylinder and ten feet stroke.