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Lincoln Supporters Trash Copperhead Newspaper


Copperhead cartoon from Civil War /



Pro-South "Copperheads" desperately wanted to prevent the North from re-electing Lincoln during th Civil War. Yankee New Hampshire had its own pro-South newspaper run by a feisty publisher. On April 10, 1865, the public stormed his office and tore up his printing press. Here’s the story.



With the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, across the nation, every state is scrambling to exhibit its Lincoln artifacts and relive its Lincoln memories. New Hampshire is no exception. The NH Historical Society in Concord has a blood-stained swatch of the president’s coat and a penknife from the fallen leader’s pocket. The Woodman Institute in Dover has Lincoln’s saddle. Candidate Lincoln paused there during a whistle-stop campaign tour in 1860. He spoke briefly in Manchester and Concord, and visited his son at Phillips Exeter Academy.

A drunken mob

Portsmouth’s Lincoln connection is stranger still. On a rainy April 10, 1865 – four days before the assassination -- a Portsmouth mob trashed the offices of The States and Union newspaper on Daniel Street. A drunken crowd of up to 2,000 citizens, sailors and shipyard workers taunted publisher Joshua Kane Foster, threatening to lynch him. The editor 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. The crowd cheered and later dispersed to attend a patriotic rally in Market Square.

Editor Joshua Foster hated Abraham Lincoln. And he was not alone. Many New Englanders opposed the Civil War that left over 600,000 soldiers dead. Local merchants held ties to the southern cotton trade, and feared an economic catastrophe. Others were simply attracted to Foster's racist commentary in an era when racial prejudice against blacks was common, even in New England.

Foster’s pro-South pro-slavery anti-Lincoln newspaper riled many in this Yankee seaport, but his "Copperhead" view was tolerated. The States and Union first appeared the day after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the height of the war in 1863. Portsmouth already had four newspapers, all generally favoring the Union cause. Foster offered the only radically alternative view in town. The editor routinely attacked Republicans, abolitionists, blacks, the church, the military, the president and the war.

The editor described himself as a "states rights" Democrat. He argued for the right of each state to embrace or reject slavery. Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s Vermont opponent, as well as former President Franklin Pierce, a NH native, also espoused states rights. His alternative paper, Foster said, was the voice of "Peace Democrats" who wanted an end to war. He attacked the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for building what today might be called weapons of mass destruction. When Lincoln activated a military draft, Foster howled in protest. When wealthy Union draftees were allowed to buy their way out of military service for $300, Foster howled again.

By his account Foster had few true friends in Portsmouth, yet his four-page paper did contain local advertising and clearly attracted readers. The States and Union appeared in Portsmouth as the Copperhead movement worked in the North 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.



Copperheads hate lincoln /

A New Hampshire Copperhead

It is still unclear what 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 unpopular politics and racism, to shrug him off altogether. Yet this lone wolf sometimes howled the truth. He gave gleeful attention to reports of corruption at the shipyard and corrected the locally held myth that early New Englanders had never practiced slavery.

The late Portsmouth Herald editor and historian Raymond Brighton took special delight in continually noting that Joshua 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. Brighton failed to mention, however, that another of Foster’s newspapers was eventually purchased by the Herald.

More Myths Busted

According to legend, the mob threw Foster’s printing press into the river and put an end to The States and Union. Not true. Reports indicate that rioters did scale the wall of the building, entered the newspaper office, smashed the press and threw pieces from the window. Some reportedly carried the metal type letters down Daniel Street to the Piscataqua River, giving rise to the popular story.

In its coverage of the riot The Portsmouth Journal referred to editor Foster as "a skunk", but condemned the mob action. The Chronicle noted triumphantly that "The destruction of the office is, no doubt, the death of the paper -- which is no loss to anyone."

But the paper lived on. Nine days later, on April 19, Foster published a two-page special edition of The States and Union with help from the Manchester Union press. A rare tattered copy is archived at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. It contains the two biggest stories in Foster’s long career. On one side of the broadsheet Foster described in detail his version of the Daniel Street riot. The front side bears the headline: TERRIBLE TRAGEDY! PRESIDENT LINCOLN ASSASSINATED! Foster gave more ink to telling his side of the riot story than to coverage of the president’s murder.

According to Foster family history, Joshua successfully sued the Navy Yard for $2,000 and used the money to rebuild his newspaper. Joshua Foster remained defiant. Portsmouth would be better off, he wrote, 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".



What Happened That Day?

Abraham LincolnHistorians agree that the Portsmouth Newspaper Riot was triggered by Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender to Gen. Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9. News of the end of the Civil War reached Portsmouth the following morning and locals immediately began to party. Work at the shipyard was suspended at noon on April 10.

Most accounts suggest that the riot was spontaneous, not conspiratorial. In his own special report, Joshua Foster insisted that deliberate plans evolved to ransack his States and Union. His rarely seen version of events that day offers a more detailed perspective.

Shipyard workers and visiting sailors celebrated at 50 bars open in Portsmouth that afternoon. At a few minutes before 2 pm, Foster wrote, a man came into The States and Union office and announced that a "committee" was coming to insist 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 wrote, a crowd of one or two thousand had gathered below. Perhaps the earliest news photograph in Portsmouth history shows the crowd gathered at Foster’s office.

"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 said, 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.

Foster family legend adds one more detail. Lucretia Gale Foster, Joshua's wife, told relatives that -- faced with an angry drunken mob of more than a thousand people celebrating the defeat of the Confederate cause -- her activist husband went to the office window and shouted, "Go to Hell!"

Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

For historic photo and a slightly longer version of this story CLICK HERE

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