Who were the Wide Awakes?

1860 Read more from
Chapter Lincoln’s Election, Southern Secession: 1860 to April 1861

It is easier to say when and where they appeared: the spring and summer of 1860. At about the time that Lincoln commenced his short speaking tour in New England in February, small groups of men began nighttime marches in Northern cities. Their activities were so secretive that we might almost compare them—in some respects—to the Ku Klux Klan, which came after the Civil War.

One of the most famous rallies was on Boston Common. At something like 9 P.M. on a certain night, thousands of young men—dressed in semimilitary apparel—were assembled, and at a prearranged signal, thousands of them suddenly lit candles and pressed them upwards, chanting that they were wide awake! Most people who saw the Wide Awakes were both impressed and frightened. It was impossible to say exactly what being wide awake meant, but over time, the movement became associated with Lincoln’s election campaign.


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