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Analyzing a Political Rally Tintype

November 18, 2019

We recently came across a quarter plate tintype of what appears to be a Civil War-era political rally. It’s provenance has been lost to time. The obvious questions that arise are: What year was it produced and what was the location of the event?

In such cases, the item needs to be examined closely, under magnification, to discern any clues. The photograph was taken outdoors. A two-lane country road appears to the far left. There are three men on horseback plus a group of men milling about in the background, standing on a porch or platform. The central image shows a horse-drawn wagon filled with civilians, the sides and wheel hubs covered in red, white and blue bunting. The passengers hold a draped American flag, a banner or placard showing a stand of cannon balls captioned “Grant’s Pills” and another one showing a discharging cannon captioned “Our Compromise”.

The background appears somewhat like a carnival midway, adorned with hand-painted canvas banners. The first, akin to a theatrical backdrop, looks like the facade of a building, inscribed “Coat Room”. The next one clearly shows a rooster with a fox and two possums perched on an overhead branch. The last banner shows a standing figure which may be General U. S. Grant. There is no indication of the location.

The key clues rest in the placards displayed in the wagon. The symbolism of cannon balls as “medicine” dates back to the beginning of the Civil War, epitomized by the patriotic cover showing Lincoln as an apothecary, preparing potions and pills to administer to the rebels, including “Butler” and “Schenkl” pills. Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General on March 9, 1864, assuming overall command of all Union forces. He became the central figure in Lincoln’s policy of a vigorous prosecution of the war. His name appears on the classic Lincoln “Peace Commissioners” campaign ribbon of 1864 as well as the popular “God GRANT Them Victory” campaign ribbon. His “pills” were grapeshot, canister and cannon balls.

The notion of a peace settlement with the rebels goes back to February 1861, even before Lincoln’s first inauguration. It gained traction in 1863 with the rise of the Copperhead faction of the Democratic Party, culminating in late August 1864 with the nomination of McClellan for President and the adoption of the “Chicago” or “Peace Platform”. The prospect of a cessation of hostiles and a negotiated settlement, based on the demands of the South for independence and slavery, was anathema for many. Exemplifying that is the shield-shaped campaign badge shown here, worn by a member of the “Union No. 1” Club with slogan mirroring the parade float banner captioned “Our Compromise”.

Based on this information, it seems fairly safe to date this tintype as 1864. Pinpointing the location & date, though, is entirely speculative. There are many web sties (“find a grave”, “ancestry”, “newspapers”, etc.) utilized by researchers that sometimes provide pieces to the puzzle. The first “result” provided by the “newspaper” site seems a good possibility. The “Burlington [VT] Daily Times” of October 4, 1864 announces a Union rally “at Plattsburgh to-morrow afternoon and evening”. A steamer and half-fare excursion trains were arranged, allowing for attendees to arrive on time and return home by 10 P.M. after the torch-light procession. “Such influential and eloquent advocates of the Union cause as Horace Greeley and Congressmen Woodbridge and Kellogg ought to draw an immense audience, for we know they will handle the Copperhead candidates and platform ‘without mittens’ and scientifically. We can assure our neighbors over the Lake, that they can rely on a tall outpouring of ‘Green Mountain Boys’ to make the welkin [sic] ring for ‘Abe and Andy’ and the ‘Union with no compromise’ tomorrow… all the towns in the County should send ‘bully’ delegations.” The fact that the Plattsburgh rally began in the afternoon was an unusual aspect, as most political rallies were exclusively evening affairs. In addition, most rallies were held in local hotels, campaign headquarters or meeting halls. The location of this rally seems to be on the outskirts of town (perhaps at the fairgrounds) or at the edge of town. In any event, it would have to be a daytime rally in order to be photographed.

Hopefully, more definitive information may be forthcoming. But, absent such information, this tintype may qualify as the earliest photograph of a political rally IN PROGRESS.