The Wide Awakes and the Antebellum Roots of Wokeness

Wide Awakes picket sign that Reads “Wide Awakes,” with an eye between the two words, and the date, 1860, below it. Public domain.

On October 3, 1860, 10,000 men and boys marched in a three-mile procession through Chicago. Many were immigrants from Europe, veterans of the Revolutions of 1848. They wore capes and military-style hats, and carried six-foot long torches. Some marched with guns. Others held signs with the image of a large eyeball. They were the Wide Awakes, a Radical Republican abolitionist militia, active in the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War.

Their name, Wide Awakes, like today’s use of the word “woke,” was meant to convey that they were awake or alert to racial and other social injustices. However, the Wide Awakes were also on the lookout for secessionists, racists, and others who wanted to keep African Americans enslaved and oppressed, and they were ready and willing to battle them in the streets, which they did on several occasions.

I should clarify here that I meant the title of my piece to be somewhat tongue and cheek, and provocative. As far as I know, there is no direct historical or political connections between the word “woke,” which originated among African Americans, possibly as far back as the 1920s (e.g., Marcus Garvey used it in speeches), and the Wide Awakes, which were created by white men sixty years before that. However, the Wikipedia article on “woke” does point out this connection, and that both uses were meant to convey similar ideals, particularly liberation and equal rights for African Americans. And, like wokism, which has evolved to mean an awareness and disapproval of other forms of oppression and injustice, the Wide Awakes were often involved in other social justice movements, as well, particularly the labor movement.

A Wide Awakes parade in Lower Manhattan, one of a series of political rallies held in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston during the first week of October 1860. Image shows large group marching down the street, with tall building on one side fo them. Many carry torches. They’re wearing capes and caps. Some have standards that say Wide Awake. By Internet Archive Book Images - book page:, No restrictions,
A Wide Awakes parade in Lower Manhattan,

Historical Roots of the Wide Awakes and Wokism

Wide Awakes banner, on display at the Old Capitol building, Springfield, Illinois. Shows a shield with 3 eyes on it with 2 dancing weasels beside it. Reads: Lincoln Wide Awakes. Mind Your eye.By Michael Christensen - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Wide Awakes banner, on display at the Old Capitol building, Springfield, Illinois.

The Wide Awakes were created in March 1860, during a rally in Hartford, Connecticut, where Abraham Lincoln spoke out against the spread of slavery, and in support of workers’ right to strike. Several supporters, who called themselves Wide Awakes, joined in the march that followed, carrying torches and escorting Lincoln back to his hotel. The Lincoln campaign saw the propaganda potential of this group, and its effectiveness at rallying the youth. So, they started developing plans to create Wide Awake organizations across the country. By election day, there were 500,000 Wide Awake members nationwide, with chapters in most counties of the North.

The Wide Awakes started as a marching club that appealed to the youth, like many of the other marching clubs that were popular in the 1850s, with their uniforms, titles, and social dances. And they structured themselves like a military organization, with captains and lieutenants. However, the Wide Awakes were also activists. They used social events, like dances, competitions, rallies, and even comic books, to encourage political participation and voting, and to promote the abolitionist cause. They also acted as the Republican Party’s political police, escorting and defending Republican speakers, ensuring that order was kept at Republican meetings and rallies, and generally working for the good of the Republican Party.

Backlash Against the Wide Awakes

Like wokism, the Wide Awakes provoked a violent backlash from the racist right, particularly in the South. Indeed, many Southerners saw them as an oppressive force hellbent on freeing their slaves, stealing their land, and crushing their “way of life.” One Southerner wrote that “they parade at midnight, carry rails to break open our doors, torches to fire our dwellings, and beneath their long black capes the knife to cut our throats.”

In response, the South started creating their own militias, the Minutemen being the most well-known of these. Southern politicians also made bogus accusations to inspire fear and hatred of the Wide Awakes among their residents. For example, in 1860, Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall claimed that Wide Awakes were committing arson and vandalism in his state. However, the Wide Awakes were not even active in the South in 1860.

Revolutionary Immigrant Roots of the Wide Awakes

Origin of the Flag of Germany: Cheering revolutionaries in Berlin, on 19 March 1848. By Unknown author - im Original: "Erinnerung an den Befreiungskampf in der verhängnisvollen Nacht 18.-19. März 1848", Kreidelithographie, koloriert, gedruckt im Verlag Winckelmann, Eigenth. v. C. Glück, Berlin, Signatur rechts unten nicht lesbar, wohl Blatt II, post-1848 und zeitgenössisch (genaues Datum unbekannt), gescannt von User:APPER, siehe, Public Domain,
Cheering revolutionaries in Berlin, on 19 March 1848.

In 1848, revolutions broke out throughout Europe, particularly in the regions affiliated with the German Confederation and Austria. The middle class fought for a unified German state and increased civil liberties. The working class had much more revolutionary aspirations, fighting for universal suffrage, and an end to feudalism and religious authority. Both communists and anarchists participated, including Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Mikhail Bakunin, as well as artists, like the composer Richard Wagner.

The authorities eventually suppressed the revolutions, slaughtering and imprisoning thousands. Many of the revolutionaries fled to the U.S. and became known as “Forty-Eighters.” They moved to places like Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood, Milwaukee, the Texas Hill Country, and Saint Louis. However, after risking their lives fighting against serfdom in Europe, many were so horrified by the persistence of slavery in their new country that they dedicated themselves to the cause of abolition and free thinking. And they joined organizations like the Freimenverein (Society of Freemen), and the Wide Awakes. 200,000 German-born men joined the Union Army during the Civil War, making up 10% of the entire Northern armed forces.

The Turners

St. Louis Turnverein, 1860. Image shows large group of people in a park, reclining against trees, standing, socializing. By St. Louis Turnverein -, Public Domain,
St. Louis Turnverein, 1860

Many of the Forty-Eighters joined gymnastic clubs known as turnvereine. These clubs were not only athletic, but also political, cultural, and social, too. The Turner movement in the U.S. was predominantly liberal. Many of the Turners were active in the U.S. public education, labor, and abolitionist movements, and in their local Wide Awakes militias. Turners in the U.S. tended to support the election of Abraham Lincoln and several served as his bodyguards at his 1861 inauguration.

Henry Boernstein

One of the Wide Awakes leaders in St. Louis was Henry Boernstein, a German who had participated in the 1848 Paris Revolution. Prior to that, he had published the radical journal Vorwärts! in Paris, with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Karl Ludwig Bernays, the poet Heinrich Heine, and others. Boernstein idolized Bernays, who helped radicalize him. At the same time, Bernays simultaneously had affairs with both Boernstein’s wife and daughter. Marx joked that Bernays was a prisoner of love, being kept by a cabal of calculating Boernstein women.

Engraving of Henry Boernstein, from a photograph by Brown found in Edwards's Great West of 1860. By engraving based on photograph by Brown (see Edwards's great west, p. 558) - Walter Barlow Stevens (1911). St. Louis, the fourth city: 1764-1911. 1. p. 165., Public Domain,
Engraving of Henry Boernstein, 1860

The police shut down Vorwärts! in 1844 and imprisoned Bernays after he published articles encouraging the regicide of European royalty. Marx went into exile in Brussels. The authorities let Boernstein remain free, if he refrained from political activity. However, when revolution broke out in Paris, in 1848, Boernstein became president of the Société des Democrats Allemands. He also helped to organize a military unit to aid the revolt in Baden.

Marx considered Boernstein to be a petty bourgeois democrat and anti-clerical agitator, which he was. In Paris, he quit the revolution when working-class socialists started to dominate it. And when the authorities finally crushed the rebellion, he blamed the loss on the socialists for trying to take things too far.

Boernstein in St. Louis

When Boernstein immigrated to St. Louis, he began buying up properties there. He eventually owned a brewery, hotel, and numerous saloons. He also published the newspaper, Anzeiger des Westens (“Western Reporter”). There, he promoted a sensationalist style of journalism that was at the same time rabidly anti-Catholic, yet also anti-slavery and pro-immigrant (assuming the immigrants were Protestant). In 1855, a nativist thug named Ned Buntline, and his gang, attacked the Anzeiger office. Prior to this, the authorities had hanged Buntline twice for murder. Both times his gang cut him down before he had died. Buntline also led anti-German pogroms in St. Louis in 1852. And then he moved to New York and started a gang in Five Points, where he instigated the Astor Place Riot, which killed 100 people.


Missouri was officially a slave state. Many of their leaders favored joining the confederacy. However, only a minority supported succession, in part, because of their physical vulnerability as a border state. Nevertheless, secessionists met in Jefferson City, Missouri on February, 1861. And on April 20, they seized the Liberty Arsenal, in Liberty, Missouri.

Word got out that they were planning on seizing the federal arsenal in St. Louis next. In fact, Missouri Governor, Claiborne Jackson, had contacted Confederate President Jefferson Davis and requested heavy artillery to breach the thick walls of the St. Louis arsenal. So, pro-Union military leaders in St. Louis began placing explosives beneath the arsenal to destroy it if the secessionists tried to seize it. And they brought in extra cannons to defend it. Henry Boernstein, now an officer in the pro-Union Missouri Volunteers, helped to secretly transfer the majority of the weapons up river, to Alton, Illinois, so the secessionists wouldn’t be able to get their hands on them. At the same time, Wide Awakes began to secretly train for battle in warehouses near the Turner Hall. And they began smuggling weapons into the city. 80% of the soldiers in the first Missouri Volunteers regiments were foreign-born Germans.

The Saint Louis Riots of 1861

"Terrible Tragedy at St. Louis, Mo.", wood engraving originally published in the New York Illustrated News, 1861. Depicts a man being bayonetted and shot amidst a heavily armed crowd. There is an American flag in the background. By Unknown author -, Public Domain,
The Camp Jackson Affair (St. Louis Riots, 1861)

The head of the pro-Union Missouri Volunteers, General Nathanial Lyon, disguised himself as an old woman. He snuck into Camp Jackson, to spy on the secessionist Missouri State Militia that was camped there. When he arrived, he confirmed that they were preparing to attack the arsenal. And on May 10, 1861, he led 6,000 Missouri Volunteers to arrest the secessionists. 80% of these troops were German-born Wide Awakes. However, as they marched the captured soldiers toward prison, supporters of the secessionists began to riot. They threw rocks and shouted insults, like “Damn the Dutch!”

When a drunk broke through and fired at the pro-Union troops, killing an officer, the Wide Awakes and federal troops opened fire. As a result, they killed twenty-eight civilians, including women and children, and injuring nearly 100 more. This event became known as the Camp Jackson Affair, or the St. Louis Riot of 1861. Days of rioting followed, with many people who had been pro-Union switching to the secession side out of disgust with the federal government. On May 11, secessionists and their sympathizers shot at Missouri Volunteers from the windows of downtown buildings. Henry Boernstein said that he had given his men leave that morning, and that several never returned. Of those who did, most returned with their clothing ripped and their faces beaten to a pulp.

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