“Iron-Hearted Democracy:” The Cracker Barrel Congress of July 4, 1863

Beginning with the earliest celebrations of our nation’s independence, the Fourth of July has served as an instrument of reflection on what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America. For many, July 4th is a celebration of some of the foundational values that the country was built upon – freedom, liberty, justice, equality. For others, it strikes a different chord. Frederick Douglass used the holiday as a vessel to reflect on the failure of the people to live up to those lofty values when he questioned, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Perhaps no Fourth better demonstrates the complicated nature of the ever-important anniversary than July 4, 1863.

The Fourth of July 1863 has long been recognized as not only one of the most important Independence Days in the annals of United States and Civil War era history, but as one of the single most crucial days in United States history altogether. The first days of July saw the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere – the Battle of Gettysburg – wreak havoc over south-central Pennsylvania. The brutal three-day struggle ended on July 3rd and the following day Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began their retreat back into rebel-controlled territory. As the defeated force made its way across the Mason-Dixon Line, the Confederate Mississippi River stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi was at long last surrendered to U.S. forces under General Ulysses S. Grant after a prolonged siege of the city. Curiously enough, soldiers on both sides believed that they were fighting to uphold the ideals of the Founders and preserve their legacy.

Thomas Smith Esq., (Courtesy of Mildred Mumford, This is Waverly).

At home in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the war took a heavy toll on area residents. While Union soldiers such as Waverly’s George O. Fell made the ultimate sacrifice and helped secure victories in the field, opposition gathered in the rear to fight back against President Abraham Lincoln’s prosecution of the ongoing conflict. Lincoln’s policies saw a rebuke at the polls the previous year, with pro-administration and pro-emancipation candidates such as Congressman Galusha A. Grow being voted out of office. “A man who cherishes such infernalism in his heart is more dangerous than the highwayman, and it is just such men as he that has brought the country where it is,” commented one local paper on Grow.[i]

Frustrations boiled over as the 87th anniversary of independence from Great Britain approached. Local Democrats rallied against their Republican foes and organized meetings became prevalent throughout the northeastern section of the Commonwealth. A meeting of Wyoming County Democrats in Tunkhannock ratified a constitution establishing a society meant to “disseminate a knowledge of the principles of American constitutional liberty” so that “the blessings of free institutions and public order may be kept by ourselves, and be transmitted to our prosperity.”[i] One of the largest of these gatherings, however, took place in Benton, Luzerne County.

For the thousands gathered in Benton, the typically joyous event was now one of sorrow. The war left many families with fallen loved ones and some of those present, including host and president of the infamously dubbed “Cracker Barrel Congress,” Theron Finn, recently learned of their own kin’s conscription into service.[i] As a local history described it, “At Wallsville Corners (southeast) ‘Congress’ met ‘round the cracker barrel in the back of Finn’s smoke-filled store, dimly lighted by a kerosene lamp. The red hot glare of the pot-bellied stove was met head on by the fire in hearts burning with patriotism. To say these gentlemen were indignant is a masterpiece of understatement. They were just plain mad – infuriated – at conditions in our government.”[ii]

Scranton’s Lackawanna Register, a Democratic newspaper, reported “MORE THAN 6,000 PRESENT!” at the meeting and that representatives of numerous Northeastern Pennsylvania counties gathered “for the purpose of giving expression to their sentiments in relation to our national affairs” and that the speakers garnered universal and grant applause “whenever they expressed sentiments in favor of freedom of speech and of the press, and resistance to tyranny from any source whatever.” President Finn’s address to the audience condemned the war and lamented that “our Constitution is being trodden under the feet of he servants of the people, who swore to preserve, protect, and defend it…Well may we mourn and lament, and bow our faces in the dust imploring Almighty God to stay the hand of the oppressor, and save this country and people from the further desolation and curse of war.”[iii]

One of the elected vice presidents of the “Congress” was Waverly lawyer Thomas Smith. Smith, who also had a son in the Union army, drafted the manifesto passed by the Democratic leaders of the day and was to be read to the massive crowd. The resolutions were clear in their sentiment. The group “most solemnly protest against the further prosecution of this war against Southern States, or any state, for the emancipation of negro slavery, for the subjugation of States, or for any other purpose than the settlement of an honorable peace between the North and South.” Interestingly enough, given the events of the day in south-central Pennsylvania and Mississippi, the manifesto also attacked Lincoln’s military record. “The records of Lincoln aggressions and reverses of his armies already show a state and condition in our national affairs of the most frightful and appalling character, with not one redeeming feature to rest a single hope of success upon.”[iv]

Scorn toward emancipation manifested again later in the resolutions. “Do the people of the North desire such additional burdens of taxation added to what Lincoln’s Abolition war has already brought upon the country, and all for the sake of negro emancipation? We say no.” In the eyes of the leaders of the Cracker Barrel Congress, the country was headed in the wrong direction.

The Union League of Philadelphia (author’s collection).

Word of the meeting quickly got to the local Republican press, which responded in kind. “When Lee with his army marched into Pennsylvania, the leaders of home traitors and border ruffians assumed a position that would have caused Jeff. Davis to blush, if there is one jot of honest principle in his soul,”[i] commented the Pittston Gazette. “We have been credibly informed that the speakers at a Copperhead meeting at Benton Centre, on the 4th inst., openly and avowedly set the Government and Laws at defiance and counseled their hearers to resist the draft and they would back them in it.” According to the Gazette, the best way to fight fire is with fire. Organized opposition to these “home traitors” would be needed.

“We again call the attention of all Union men in the free States to the importance of forming Union Leagues in every Borough and Township. We are glad to see the good cause progressing, but not as fast as it should.”[i] The Union League movement took root statewide. The largest and most influential Union League in the Commonwealth was that of the Union League of Philadelphia. The Union League of Philadelphia served as one of the most useful instruments in supporting the Lincoln administration and the president’s efforts to put down the rebellion. One of the most important services that the League rendered was the recruitment, enlistment, and training of African American troops after Congress enacted the Militia Act of 1862 which allowed for Black men to serve as soldiers in the United States Army for the first time.

John T. Sampson Memorial Obelisk and Military Headstone, Hickory Grove Cemetery (author’s collection).

Also on July 4, 1863, as the Cracker Barrel Congressed denounced Lincoln’s “Abolition war,” some of Waverly’s African American men took advantage of the opportunity to serve and lend their hand in the fight to end slavery. Brothers Peter and Joshua Norris, sons of one of Waverly’s longest-residing formerly enslaved persons, Lott Norris, joined John T. Sampson (born in Binghamton) on the trek to Philadelphia and mustered into service at Camp William Penn with the 3rd United States Colored Troops regiment.[i] All three men would survive the war and see the abolition of slavery in the United States, and Sampson’s final resting place can be found in Waverly’s Hickory Grove Cemetery. After Sampson’s death in 1869, Peter and his wife took in his old comrade’s family until they were able to land on their feet.[ii]

The Recruiting Office for Black Troops, 1216 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia (courtesy of Maxwell Whiteman, Gentlemen in Crisis: The First Century of the Union League of Philadelphia).

The speeches given at, and the resolutions passed by The Cracker Barrel Congress did not fall upon deaf ears. The Republican party would see success statewide in the 1863 gubernatorial race that pitted ardent Lincoln administration supporter Andrew Curtin against mainstay in antebellum and Civil War era Democratic politics, George Washington Woodward. Northeastern Pennsylvania, however, proved stubborn in its opposition with Woodward winning Luzerne County by almost 3,000 votes.[i] The Presidential Election of 1864 also saw Luzerne County go in favor of the Democrats. Abraham Lincoln would lose his re-election bid at the county level against his former commanding general, George B. McClellan, also by nearly 3,000 votes.[ii]

The events of July 4, 1863, serve as an important reminder of the complicated nature of the history of the holiday and of our nation’s history altogether. As we approach yet another Fourth of July weekend, it is crucial to remember that those values the holiday commemorates – freedom, liberty, justice, equality – were and still are interpreted in many different ways. While actions such as emancipation and African American military enlistment helped bring about positive change and “a new birth of freedom,” as described by President Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address, not everyone saw it that way. “How much longer are we to suffer, Heaven only knows…we can hope, but it is like hoping against hope. More than half in despair, we must resign ourselves as best we can, ‘And let fate do her worst.’”[i]

Today’s blog post was written by Destination Freedom Coordinator EJ Murphy.

On display in the forthcoming Destination Freedom Special Exhibitions Gallery will be a copy of the Lackawanna Register cited in this blog post. Stay tuned for more information about the gallery and when it will be open to the public!

[i] The Luzerne Union, July 15, 1863, page 2.

[i] The Luzerne Union, October 21, 1863, page 2.

[ii] The Carbondale Advance, November 19, 1864, page 2.

[i] Bates, Samuel P. “Third United States Colored Regiment.” Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65. Harrisburg, PA: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.

[ii] Remsen, Jim. Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North.

[i] Ibid

[i] The Pittston Gazette, July 16, 1863, page 2.

[i] Remsen, Jim. Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North. Mechanicsburg: Sunbury Press, 2017.

[ii] Mumford, Mildred. This is Waverly. Published by the Waverly Women’s Club, 1954.

[iii] The Lackawanna Register, July 16, 1863, page 2.

[iv] Ibid.

[i] The North Branch Democrat, July 22, 1863, page 2.

[i] “Infernal.” The Luzerne Union, September 24, 1862, page 2.

2 thoughts on ““Iron-Hearted Democracy:” The Cracker Barrel Congress of July 4, 1863

  1. Thank you for your detailed study of the local history in Waverly at the time of Gettysburg. I have been doing something similar for the village of Goshen, Orange County, New York, by reading two local newspapers, The Goshen Democrat and the Independent Republican, during the War Years 1862 – 1864. In spite of their names, the Democrat was a Republican paper, while the Republican was in strong opposition to the Lincoln Administration and the Government. Feelings were oftentimes inflamed over the issues of the Union and Negro Equality. A “war of words” was taking place in these Northern weeklies outside the one in the fields of battle. Very interesting are the soldiers’ letters, personally I have followed the men of the 124th Regiment New York State Volunteers as closely as I possibly could. They fought heroically at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, as well as in nearly thirty engagements, and made great personal sacrifices in defence of the Union. I think it’s important to follow the thoughts of people in times of dissent and distress. There are many parallels with what divides America today.


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