The Newspaper Riot of 1865
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson


All hell broke loose in Portsmouth, NH on April 10, 1865. A mob of upstanding citizens fresh from 50 local bars were celebrating the end of the Civil War. Someone suggested that it was time to teach old Joshua Foster a lesson. Foster was a "Peace Democrat" and editor of the local STATES AND UNION newspaper. Here, in detail, is what happened that day.



READ: Lucy & John Wilkes Booth

On a rainy April 10, 1865, a Portsmouth mob trashed the office of a Democratic anti-war newspaper opposed to a Republican president. During a two-hour melee, a drunken crowd of up to 2,000 citizens, sailors and shipyard workers threatened to lynch the editor of the States and Union. The editor narrowly escaped out the back door clutching his ledgers and subscription list. Local police took no action as the "mobocracy" smashed the printing press and tossed office equipment and files out a second story window onto Daniel Street. One of Portsmouth’s earliest news photographs captured the event. The crowd cheered and later dispersed to attend a patriotic rally in Market Square.

Wait a minute. Let's take a closer look at those facts. The history of the American Civil War is rarely as simple as black and white or north vs. south.

The Copperhead Voice

1865 Newspaper Riot / Strawbery Banke ARchiveEditor Joshua Lane Foster hated Abraham Lincoln with such passion that he started his own anti-Lincoln newspaper. Foster launched the weekly States and Union, not in a Confederate state, but in the Yankee seaport of Portsmouth, NH. It appeared in January 1863 at the height of the Civil War. Portsmouth already had four newspapers -- all generally favoring the Union cause. Foster offered the only radically alternative view. But his taunting, racist pro-slavery newspaper riled many local citizens and tested the bounds of free speech in an era of war.

To most locals, Foster was simply a "Copperhead". The pejorative term now refers to any Southern sympathizer living in the north during the Civil War. There were certainly many New Englanders who opposed the war. Some were willing to see it end at any cost, even if that meant the secession of the Confederacy and the creation of a pro-slavery nation. Many local textile merchants had close ties to cotton production in the South. They were afraid that the Abolitionist movement would wreck the national economy by releasing the enslaved workers who kept cotton prices low. Others were simply attracted to Foster's racist commentary in an era when racial prejudice against blacks was common, even in New England.

The States and Union appeared the day after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Foster's unrelenting attacks on blacks, the church, the military, the president and the war made him a lightning rod for violence during a very stormy time.

Foster described himself as a "states rights" Democrat who advocated the right of each state to embrace or reject slavery. Stephen Douglas of Vermont, Lincoln's presidential opponent, offered a similar view. So had former President Franklin Pierce who was a New Hampshire native. As the horrifying Civil War dragged on, the "Peace Democrats" drew attention to the enormous cost of the conflict in human lives and national resources. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, busy turning out warships, was among Foster's frequent editorial targets. He referred to Americans who favored the war as "loyalists", evoking a Revolutionary War term that, in New England, had implied blind obedience to the British king.

Protesting the Draft

Lincoln, the War PresidentBy his own account Foster said he had few true friends in Portsmouth, but his four-page paper did contain local advertising and clearly attracted readers. The States and Union appeared in Portsmouth as the Copperhead movement was on the rise in America. Those who wanted the war to end for a variety of reasons hoped to prevent Lincoln from being re-elected. In Foster's view, The Portsmouth Chronicle, the NH Gazette, the Portsmouth Journal and the Ballot were all singing from the pro-war abolitionist songbook. To his detractors, Foster's alternative view was nothing short of treason.

When Lincoln was forced to adopt a military draft to shore up the failing Union forces in 1863, Foster howled in protest. He and others were especially angry that wealthy young men could buy their way out of army service for a payment of $300. This was a war, Democrats claimed, fought for the rich by the poor. Like New York and Boston, Portsmouth had its own "draft riot". The protest became a gunfight and a number of men were wounded in the anti-draft uprising. All four men arrested were from Portsmouth's South End, or what politicians called "the Copperhead Ward". Foster, true to form, sided with the anti-draft protestors who were never brought to trial. The only crime they ha committed, Foster wrote, was the crime of being Democrats.

Bigotry Vs. Truth

Joshua Lane FosterIt is still unclear what facts lay at the heart of Foster's strongly held political and racist views. He was born in Canterbury, NH in 1824 and grew up in Chichester. He became a successful architect, designing a number of local buildings. He was also a farmer, carpenter and builder. He bought an interest in his first newspaper, the Dover Gazette, in 1858 and moved to Portsmouth a few years later to start the States and Union.

It is easy, because of Foster's views, to shrug him off altogether. The late Portsmouth historian Raymond Brighton took special delight in continually noting that Foster went on to found Foster's Daily Democrat in 1873. One of the last independent daily newspapers in New England, The Democrat is still run today by the Foster family. When Brighton wrote his history of Portsmouth, he was also the editor of the competing daily paper, The Portsmouth Herald. So his jibes at editor Bob Foster, a direct descendant of Joshua, must be taken with more than a grain of salt.

Yet the States and Union has value today. Foster's lone wolf journalism did represent a howling Yankee minority. When Dover Senator JP Hale uncovered evidence that the Navy Yard was purchasing equipment at outrageously inflated prices, Foster gave the scandal extensive, if not gleeful coverage. When Abolitionists claimed that New Englanders had always been free of slavery, Foster took issue with their reading of history. Our founders, even the holy Puritan fathers, he wrote, often had Indian and African slaves and white indentured servants.

As an independent reporter and publisher, Foster was able to expose hypocrisy where others feared to tread. But when reporting on issues that fired his Copperhead views, he was easily blinded by emotion. Discovering once that a biography on Lincoln had been reduced in price at the local bookstore, for example, he reported that the president’s popularity was plummeting.

When a stray bullet fired by a conscripted black soldier during target practice at the Navy Yard accidentally killed a 12-year old Portsmouth boy, Foster promoted the accident as a racial incident. His racist ranting, over the top even for 19th century journalism, reveals just how hateful the "states rights" movement had become in its last desperate years. Lincoln's victory in the Civil War followed in the same week by his martyrdom set in motion the long slow undoing of American slavery.

CONTINUE the RIOT OF 1865/ much more

Copperhead Rebellion in NH (continued)

A Legend is Born

Local legends tend to oversimplify complex events. One popular story says that the 1865 riot forced Joshua Foster out of town at the close of the Civil War. Portsmouth residents who know local history often add that the mob dragged Foster's printing press down Daniel Street and threw it into the Piscataqua River. None of the local newspapers reported that unlikely detail. But the exaggeration works neatly to round out the elementary myths of the Civil War. In a nutshell -- the Yankees won, the slaves were freed, Lincoln was shot and the Copperhead movement died away.

In its coverage of the riot The Portsmouth Journal referred to editor Foster as " a skunk", but noted that the action of the mob was "more deserving of condemnation than even the vile sheet itself."

The Chronicle noted triumphantly: "The destruction of the office is, no doubt, the death of the paper -- which is no loss to anyone."

But history is rarely tidy and Joshua Foster was far from beaten. On April 19, only nine days after the riot, he published a two-page special edition of the States and Union with help from the Manchester Union press in Manchester, NH. It is a startling document and carried the two biggest stories of Foster's journalistic career. A rare tattered copy of the issue is archived at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. On one side of the broad sheet Foster described in detail his version of the Daniel Street riot. The front side bears the headline: TERRIBLE TRAGEDY! PRESIDENT LINCOLN ASSASSINATED!

Mourning Lincoln in Portsmouth, NH 1865 / Strawbery Banke Museum Archives

Foster's coverage of the assassination of the man he hated appears to be straightforward, respectful and accurate, although without the detail, emotionality and hero-worship evident in other Portsmouth newspapers. Foster's disrespect is embedded in the page design, however. Only two of the seven columns on the page are devoted to Lincoln. Assassination of anyone, Foster noted, is an unacceptable form of political protest.

The rest of the page included a transcript of Robert E. Lee's surrender speech, reports from southern newspapers and a letter from Confederate President Jefferson Davis written on April 7 urging southerners to "meet the foe with fresh defiance." The rest of the page includes largely trivial filler including detailed safety instructions on turning off kerosene lamps, jokes, and the story of a man in France who sold his wife for $650. While other papers outlined the assassination story with thick black borders, Foster gave Lincoln no more ink than the account of the raid on his office.

What Happened That Day

For the record, it is interesting to compare Foster's rarely seen version of the newspaper riot with that of his often-quoted contemporaries. Everyone agrees that the event began when Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender to Gen. Ulysses S Grant at Appomatax on April 9. News reached Portsmouth the following morning and locals immediately began to party. Work at the shipyard was suspended at noon and here, Foster insists, deliberate plans evolved to ransack the States and Union.

Other accounts suggest that the riot was spontaneous, not conspiratorial. Shipyard workers and visiting sailors celebrated at 50 bars open in Portsmouth that afternoon. At a few minutes before 2 pm, Foster says, a man came into the States and Union office and announced that a "committee" was coming to nsist that he hang an American flag out his window. Foster reported that he was happy to do so, as long as there was no compulsion. He told the man that he had no flag in the office and that the one in the Democratic club upstairs in his building had been carried away to another part of the city. Fosters office was on the second floor of a brick building where the US Federal Building now stands. When he looked out the window, he says, a crowd of one or two thousand had gathered below.

"It seemed as if all the inmates of bedlam had been let loose to devour us in their causeless wrath," Foster reported.

Someone got a flag, Foster says, and three men went through the roof "scuttle" in order to attach it to a wire above the office. The scuttle, a wooden trap door in the ceiling, broke off and fell to the street, hitting a bystander on the head and arm. This inflamed the crowd that began shouting for Foster's life. Unsatisfied with the flag, the "mobocrats" insisted that Foster hold the flag himself and make a speech. He refused.

Phillip C. Foster, who in 1973 wrote a response to Brighton's many published accounts, drew his version of the story from his grandmother Lucretia Gale Foster, Joshua's wife. In her words, faced with an angry drunken mob of more than a thousand people, her husband went to the office window and shouted, "Go to Hell!"

At that point a handful of friends convinced Foster to duck out the back way. He did as one group smashed thorough the door and another group scaled the outside wall with ladders and crashed through the front windows. As soon as members of the crowd learned that Foster had left the building, they smashed the printing press and threw the pieces from the window. Some carried the metal type letters down to the river and threw them in, giving rise to the legend that the press itself was cast into the Piscataqua.

Joshua Foster remained defiant. He vowed to continue publishing his States and Union and suggested that Portsmouth would be better off if the "sneaking coward" editor of the Morning Chronicle committed suicide. The Chronicle, Foster said, was little more than "a hideous ulcer on the face of society".

Foster praised the Provost Marshall for his bravery in trying to quell the crowds. He condemned the city for letting the police stand by for two hours before disbursing them. According to local accounts, Foster sued the city for damages and lost. But according to Lucretia Gale Foster, her husband also brought suit against the Navy Yard for its negligence in controlling its workers. Foster was reportedly awarded $2,000 by the government and used that money to get his newspaper back on its feet.

Foster, it seems, was far from dead. In March 1868 Joshua Foster started the Portsmouth Evening Times, a daily designed to compete with the Morning Chronicle. The Chronicle complained bitterly that Foster had become the attack dog of ale tycoon Frank Jones, who later became a Republican. Foster sold his Portsmouth papers in 1870. After a failed publication in Connecticut, he returned to his journalistic starting point to begin a weekly Democratic paper in Dover in 1872. A year later, as Portsmouth Herald editor Ray Brighton loved to remind us, Foster introduced the Daily Democrat.

There is a tiny fact that Brighton failed to mention. Joshua Foster’s daily Portsmouth newspaper continued under different managers until 1925 when it was purchased and consolidated into -- you guessed it -- The Portsmouth Herald.

SOURCES: Constructing Munitions of War by Richard E. Winslow III (1995); Historic Portsmouth by James L. Garvin (1995); Portsmouth: Historic and Picturesque by Caleb Gurney (1902); "Portsmouth Event Affects Local Newspaper," by Phillip C. Foster, Foster's Daily Democrat (1974); They Came to Fish (1973) and Frank Jones, King of the Alemakers (1976) by Raymond Brighton; Granite Monthly (April 1900); plus articles in Portsmouth Journal, States and Union, NH Gazette and Portsmouth Chronicle.