The Wide Awakes were a political club that emerged across the North, including in St. Louis, during the election of 1860. They were organized in support of the campaign of Abraham Lincoln.
Appealing mainly to those in their teens, twenties, and thirties, the Wide Awakes took on an organized military form. They wore uniforms and had ranks and duties. These young men were motivated by the contentious sectional politics of the 1850s. Their organization and militaristic nature alarmed the South and helps to explain the fierce opposition to Lincoln’s election, which resulted in the secession of the Southern states and the beginning of the Civil War.
The group began in Connecticut and probably numbered around 100,000 nationwide. This number would be around 1 million in terms of the current-day population. Its organization spread across new communication channels, and in May of 1860 the marching of the Chicago Wide Awakes at the Republican National Convention introduced the organization to the nation.
St. Louis Wide Awakes
In St. Louis, the organization formed under the guidance of Frank Blair Jr. He became an important figure after the nomination of Lincoln because of his close connections with many in his administration including his brother, Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s postmaster general. Blair organized the Wide Awakes in reaction to the heated political opposition faced by the Republican Party. The Wide Awakes served as a counterforce to hecklers who disrupted Republican meetings and rallies.
The Wide Awakes in St. Louis were composed primarily of the German American population. Southern supporters and conditional Unionists with nativist views resented their presence. These forces in St. Louis helped to organize the Minute Men in order to combat the influence of the much larger Wide Awakes.
The Wide Awakes were pivotal in the final slave sale in St. Louis. On New Year’s Day 1861, a crowd gathered for a routine auction of enslaved people. The crowd was dominated by Republican Wide Awakes who kept the bidding under $8. Unable to get a higher price, the auctioneer gave up.
Eventually, the Wide Awakes organized into armed Home Guard units dedicated to keeping Missouri in the Union. They were central in the taking of Camp Jackson and eventually were mustered into Federal service.