Pennsylvania editor Oramel Barrett consigns Lincoln’s Gettysburg remarks to oblivion.
It’s been 150 years now since Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, the “few appropriate remarks”—just 10 sentences in all—that are today acclaimed as a masterpiece of political oratory.
Many in the audience at the Soldiers’ Cemetery in Gettysburg that day knew at once they were hearing history being made. “The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln,” declared the Chicago Tribune, “will live among the annals of man.”
But chroniclers of Lincoln’s presidency usually cite a jarring dissent among the accolades. It came from the Daily Patriot and Union in Harrisburg, Pa.
“We pass over the silly remarks of the President,” the Patriot sneered. “For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.” In the writer’s view, the embattled president was disgracing his office by using a memorial service to kick off his re-election campaign.
In Civil War histories, this dyspeptic Lincoln-basher is usually unnamed. Some accounts identify him as O. Barrett, the Harrisburg newspaper’s owner and editor. He was, in fact, Oramel Barrett, and he was my great-great-grandfather.
According to family lore, Oramel’s belittling of Lincoln’s speech got him hauled off to prison. My grandfather, Arthur Barrett, said Oramel was a Democrat in a Republican town, so he had a lot of enemies. Trashing the Gettysburg Address was the last straw.
Late in life, Arthur’s Aunt Kate could still recall the day her father was arrested. She was 10 at the time; he was 60. In the middle of the night, soldiers carrying rifles with bayonets banged on the door of the family’s home in Harrisburg. A small crowd of neighbors gathered to see what the commotion was about. Kate remembered her father holding her hand on the front steps, assuring her he would be back. Then he disappeared into a clump of soldiers, which closed ranks around him and marched off into the darkness. Two weeks later, the family still had no idea where Oramel was or why he had been seized.
The arrest without charge of a dissident Northern newspaper editor, along with three colleagues, caused a sensation. Even The New York Times covered the event. The radical wing of the Democratic Party, sidelined in the North since Lincoln’s election, saluted Oramel and company as the latest “martyrs” to the Republican administration’s assault on freedom of the press.
But my great-great-grandfather’s arrest, in fact, had nothing to do with what he had published. Nor, despite family lore, was it related to his disparagement of the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln had yet to deliver. Even so, the trouble he caused for himself shows how easily mischief could veer toward treason in the contentious political world of Civil War Pennsylvania.
Oramel Barrett was born in the village of Norwich, Vt., in 1801. He dabbled in school- teaching and newspaper work before moving to Pennsylvania, where he gravitated to Harrisburg, the state capital, in the 1830s. Dignified, cocksure and combative, Oramel soon made a name for himself as a ferociously loyal partisan of the state’s Democrats. With a well-connected lawyer friend, Thomas C. MacDowell, he published a propaganda sheet in the 1840s and ’50s called The Keystone that promoted states’ rights and attacked abolitionists.
The pair, under the name O. Barrett & Co., in 1858 began publishing the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, a daily newspaper with statewide aspirations. Appearing six days a week, it was four dense pages of wire-service bulletins and crime news mixed with political opinion and high-spirited vitriol, all set off with ads for hair restoratives and notices about stolen mules. With its office just two blocks from the state capitol building, the Patriot prided itself on its political coverage, which had an unwavering Democratic slant. The paper routinely referred to President Lincoln, with his fondness for humorous parables, as “the jester.”
o. Barrett & Co. had been ridiculing Lincoln as a corrupt hick since before he had been sworn into office. In early 1861, the Patriot lambasted Lincoln’s plan to give campaign-style speeches as he slowly wound his way east to the White House—at taxpayer expense!— instead of proceeding directly from Illinois to Washington. The latter course would spare the nation “the mortification of seeing the elected President of the country making one of the most puerile and disgusting displays of mountebankism that were ever given by any harlequin who ever strutted upon a stage or gambolled in a circus ring.”
Much of what Barrett published was openly racist and hostile to emancipation (as was much of the Democratic press in the North before and during the Civil War). Shortly after Lincoln’s election in 1860, the Patriot informed its readers that the president-elect’s party had originated as “a band of organized agitators in the Northern States devoted to running away negroes and inciting servile insurrections at the South—and the evil has been growing and extending.”
Two years later, on October 14, 1862, Oramel devoted two columns of his front page to a detailed account of atrocities committed against white planters in Haiti by rebelling slaves—in 1794. Oramel intended the item, headlined “Look on this Picture,” as something for readers to think about as they headed to the polls that day for state and congressional elections.
Abolishing Southern slavery was indeed a divisive issue in the North and particularly in Pennsylvania, the second most populous state in the country. At the outset of the war, state Republican leaders were clinging to a fragile majority. They framed the military campaign as a constitutionally sanctioned response to the Southern rebellion, not as a moral quest to free the South’s slaves.
The state’s Democrats, meanwhile, were splintered. Some backed Lincoln. Others favored a grand compromise, as in 1820 and 1850. Oramel Barrett belonged to the radical, peace-at-any-price wing of the Democratic Party. In his horror of the war’s destruction, he had plenty of company, of course. But his relentless insistence that the Union sue for peace with the Confederate states by “consenting to an adjustment satisfactory to them”—like letting them keep their slaves—sounded to many people like treason.
It certainly sounded that way to George Bergner, the irascible owner-editor of Harrisburg’s rival daily, the Telegraph. Bergner was a pious, thin-skinned abolitionist whose staunchly Republican paper bore the motto: “Independent in all things—neutral in none.” To Bergner, never had a newspaper been so grievously misnamed as the Patriot. The wartime public, he wrote, was “disgusted and outraged” by the “open and shameless treason” of O. Barrett & Co. In a more personal vein, he accused my great-great-grandfather of writing his columns while drunk.
Oramel evidently enjoyed his little newspaper war. In page-one stories, he tweaked his rival as “Deacon Bergner” or sometimes just “the Hessian” (he was a German immigrant) and reported that Bergner, who served as Harrisburg’s postmaster, was stealing stamps. Bergner sued Barrett for libel. Barrett sued Bergner right back.
On August 6, 1862, Bergner suggested that the Patriot’s editors should have joined a regiment to battle Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (soon to be menacing southern Pennsylvania) instead of “guzzling whisky in the saloons of Harrisburg.”
It’s unlikely that Bergner’s targets noticed his barbs that Wednesday morning. Barrett and MacDowell, along with assistant editor Montgomery Forster and city editor Uriah Jones, were just then traveling by rail under armed guard to Washington, D.C. There they were confined without a hearing in the city’s Old Capitol Prison (where the Library of Congress now stands).
The man who ordered the arrests was Henry W. Halleck, the pop-eyed general-in-chief of the Union Army. President Lincoln had installed Halleck in the job only two weeks earlier, and the erudite, ambitious general, nicknamed “Old Brains,” was eager to make his presence felt. Rounding up traitors seemed like a good start.
To underscore his seriousness, Halleck had directed the capital’s military governor, James Wadsworth, to oversee the arrests in person. At dawn on August 6, the uniformed brigadier-general had been waiting aboard a train at the Harrisburg station as the arresting troops arrived with their prisoners. Even for a self-assured man like Oramel Barrett, it was an intimidating experience.
The newsmen were detained not for condemning the Gettysburg Address, still 15 months away, or for the contents of their paper, but for a handbill their office had printed. Posted all over Harrisburg two days earlier, it had announced that “the great Gen. James Lane” was in town to recruit local black men for the Union Army. Lane was a militant abolitionist and U.S. senator who championed full political equality for blacks—a view not shared by most white Pennsylvanians in 1862. The announcement promised “Arms, equipments, uniforms, pay, rations, and bounty the same as received by White Soldiers, and no distinction will be made.”
But the handbill was a hoax. There was no recruitment rally that afternoon, nor was General Lane anywhere near Harrisburg. Rumors had quickly spread that the Patriot and Union was behind it. The day after the arrests, the staff’s remaining journalist, a young man named Harry Ward, conceded that the handbill had come from the Patriot’s press but insisted it was a practical joke “got up by frolicsome printer boys without knowledge of the editors or proprietors.”
That Oramel and his fellow editors had no hand in the affair is possible, if unlikely. And even if the handbill was a joke, it wasn’t very funny. Black recruitment was a volatile subject in 1862. Though President Lincoln had wanted to recruit black soldiers from the start, he’d faced opposition from his Cabinet, his generals (except for Grant and Lane), the Democratic press and the public. White Northerners were ambivalent about fighting a war to free slaves. Many were aghast at the idea of handing weapons to freed slaves and instructing them to kill white Southerners.
If taken seriously, the handbill might have sparked a race riot. Its overall effect would have been to hurt enlistment, not encourage it. Finally given a hearing after 16 days in prison, the Harrisburg men swore before JudgeAdvocate Levi C. Turner that they had nothing to do with its printing. After they pledged their loyalty to the Union, Turner let them go.
Democratic leaders discerned an ulterior motive in Halleck’s “kidnapping” of the Harrisburg Four. To them, it smacked of an administration bent on muzzling a free press, abrogating the right to trial by jury, and forcing allegiance to a questionable war. Antiwar editors in border states, in fact, were being jailed for “disloyal” commentary and their newspapers suspended.
When the Patriot’s editors returned to Harrisburg in late August 1862, “Both sides of Market Street were lined with ladies and gentlemen” (according to the paper’s own coverage) “and the men who went out of the city under an escort of soldiers, returned amid the plaudits of the men, and the waving of handkerchiefs by the ladies.”
Jail didn’t make Oramel contrite. In the first issue of the Patriot after his return, he characterized Lincoln’s proposed Emancipation Proclamation as a “cold-blooded invitation to insurrection and butchery.” Shown a copy of the editorial in Washington, a furious Judge Turner demanded the editors be rearrested for treason and their printing press seized. His order was apparently never carried out.
When emancipation became official at the start of 1863, Democrats complained that the Republicans had shifted their justification for the war. Now, they argued, instead of waging war against the Confederacy to keep the Union intact, state-sanctioned abolitionism threatened to do the opposite.
It was this perceived shift that earned the Gettysburg Address scorn from Oramel Barrett and like-minded Democrats that fall. Lincoln’s opening words (“Four score and seven years ago”) cited the Declaration of Independence—a proclamation of personal liberty—as the war’s essential justification, not the Constitution with its careful delineation of states’ rights and obligations. Lincoln knew what he was doing, and his opponents didn’t like it.
My great-great grandfather wasn’t on hand for the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg. He had no reason to attend the ceremony. He’d made up his mind years before that Abe was a fool, and he and his newspaper weren’t about to change course. –
As the Union Army began rolling up victories after the Battle of Gettysburg, the Patriot and Union avoiding mentioning them. They didn’t suit the paper’s editorial stance, which was that Lincoln and his generals were callow and inept, and that a negotiated peace with the Confederates was still possible, “taking from them no other conditions than return to the old order of things.” After Confederate raiders in July 1864 burned to the ground much of nearby Chambersburg, Oramel told his readers, using tortured logic, “Abraham Lincoln is the principal cause of this calamity.”
At this point, it was Oramel Barrett, not Abraham Lincoln, whose remarks sounded silly. Readers dropped away as they realized, at last, that the Patriot and Union was an untrustworthy guide to the nation’s wartime affairs. Oramel’s longtime partner, Tom MacDowell, quit the newspaper business soon after reading Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862. Oramel soldiered on until late 1864, continuing to advocate conciliation with the slave-owning South. As it became clear that Lincoln would be reelected, Oramel sold his interest in the newspaper and left town for good.
With Robert E. Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, the nation’s mood abruptly changed. Criticism of Lincoln and the war now sounded like sacrilege. According to Arnold Shankman, author of The Pennsylvania Antiwar Movement, 1861-1865, many of the state’s peace-at-any-price editors made sure to burn their personal papers. I don’t know if Oramel did, but I haven’t seen any of them.
Oramel ended up in Pittsburgh, where he worked for a time at the Pittsburgh Post before retiring. He died in 1887. Reading his Civil War–era newspaper online, I enjoy its liveliness and unabashed love of politics, but I’m appalled by its reliance on slander as entertainment and its in-your-face racism. Oramel obviously never foresaw a day when an African American would be president. As I read his cantankerous editorials, I’m comforted—and more than a little surprised—to realize how momentously our national discourse has changed for the better in just four generations.
Doug Stewart is a Massachusetts freelance writer. He has written for Smithsonian, Military History Quarterly and Time.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.