October 2017

White Backlash in the Land of Lincoln: The Civil War Years

White backlash was never limited to the southern states. Vast and sudden changes after 1865—especially implied by the prospect of emancipating four million black people—stirred ugly counterattacks and racial backlash against the nation’s free black northern population.

by Alonzo M. Ward

White backlash during the Civil War and Reconstruction era is generally associated with the South. For example, the Ku Klux Klan emerged during the late 1860s in Tennessee as an attempt to circumvent alleged “Negro rule” while simultaneously reinstating white supremacy in southern states. While these efforts to intimidate and terrorize freedpeople and northern Republicans were eventually snuffed out by the federal government in the early 1870s, racist vigilante groups remained (in fact, the KKK reemerged by 1915). The south is also associated with an equally vicious campaign to disenfranchise African Americans after Reconstruction. Along with its slave institution (and the lengths at which they sought to protect it), violent vigilante groups, and a Democratic political machine hell-bent on reinstating and upholding white supremacy, the south has truly staked its place in the annals of the Racism Hall of Fame (there is no such place, but perhaps we could start here).

Yet white backlash was never limited to the southern states. Vast and sudden changes after 1865—especially implied by the prospect of emancipating four million black people—stirred ugly counterattacks and racial backlash against the nation’s free black northern population. In President Lincoln’s home state, white Illinoisans’ growing animus towards any perceived black advancement had become apparent. Once insulated from the threat of a massive influx of free blacks into the state due to the proliferation of anti-black legislation (the so-called Black Laws), white Illinoisans perceived that events relating to the Civil War threatened their position in the racial hierarchy.

Lincoln posing for a portrait in early 1864. Though he gained a strong anti-slavery reputation, Lincoln hailed from a deeply racist state. Courtesy Civil War Daily Gazette.

As issues involving the impending war became increasingly polarized, white supremacy provided a common ground upon which white Illinoisans could successfully interact and protect what they perceived as a threat to their advantageous position. In 1856, the Cairo Weekly and Delta Times reported that the southern Illinois city was “almost entirely overrun with free niggers.”[1] Less than a year later, the Mound City Emporium reported that a number of angry white citizens were enraged by “disrespectful behavior” of Cairo’s African American population. Approximately twenty African Americans were attacked with the “intent of expelling them from Cairo.” Although the scheme was eventually aborted due to fierce resistance from Cairo’s black population, it displayed the lengths that Cairo whites were willing to go to protect the racial status quo.[2] In a display of support for white supremacy, The Emporium editor issued a clarion call to neighboring whites:

“Negro war!—Come to the Rescue!

The citizens of Union and Perry townships are in great peril, and most earnestly call for aid. Property is at the mercy of an ignorant and merciless set of barbarous negroes, who have for years trampled with impunity upon the rights of many and all of our citizens, and often threatened and assaulted their persons, and of late attempted to kill…

Come one! Come all! It may require a very heavy force.

Agents will be permitted to dispose of negro property, but no negro must remain!” [3]

Backlash against the presence of free blacks was not limited to the southern portion of the state—nor was it limited to the pre-war years. In the summer of 1862, a group of white laborers in Chicago became irate when black workers underbid their effort to unload a ship’s cargo. The white men felt they were cheated out of a day’s work and attacked the black laborers; a riot ensued.[4] Issues over labor were exacerbated in industrial centers like Chicago due to the extreme competition for work. Later that fall, a group of Chicago South-side meat packers pledged not to work for any packer who would “bring negro labor in competition with our labor.” They accused the owners of conspiring to bring in black workers simply to reduce the wages of the white workers. The workers pledged to do their best to drive the black workers away from the packing houses. Commenting on the affair in his newspaper, the Douglass Monthly, the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, warned that the white workers would one day “be ashamed of the disgusting meanness of daily fanning the flame of prejudice and persecution against the humblest and least protected class of the community.” [5]

The Chicago Tribune reported that white men in Ottawa were “amusing themselves just now by maltreating the poor negroes who happen to be stopping in that city.”

Conflict in the northern portion of the state was not limited to Chicago either. Farmers in Ogle County, located in the Northwest district of Illinois, formed an organization resolved to oppose any further immigration of black workers into the county. In March 1863, the Chicago Tribune reported that white men in Ottawa were “amusing themselves just now by maltreating the poor negroes who happen to be stopping in that city.” These men combined in squads, and “hit every woolly head that presents itself.”[6]

While working class white Illinoisans played a vital role in stirring up trouble with the state’s small black population, the Prairie State’s politicians did their share by fanning the flames of anti-black sentiment. During the titanic struggle for Congress in 1858 (and again in 1860 for the presidency of the United States) a rising star in the Republican Party ranks, Abraham Lincoln challenged the Democratic stalwart, Stephen A. Douglas. The famous debates were instrumental in setting the partisan tone for the Civil War. At the core of these debates were the issue of African Americans and whether they should be freely admitted to Illinois. “What shall be done with the free negro?” asked Douglas. The “Little Giant” garnered the support of the vast majority of southern Illinoisans, and much of the racial sentiment he utilized during the debates reflected the anti-black feelings of the region. Appealing to the basest racialized thought of the day, he asked Illinoisans if they were willing to eliminate the Black Laws, “and allow the free negroes to flow in, and cover your prairies with black settlements?” Ending black exclusion, he continued, would result in turning the state into a “free negro colony.” Would residents of Illinois permit emancipated slaves from slave states to migrate north “to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves?”[7]

lincoln douglas debates 3
Lincoln debates Steven Douglas at Knox College on October 7, 1858. Courtesy Vox.

During the war, Democratic Congressional candidate, J.C. Allen, running on an anti-black platform in Illinois, lamented that no “greater curse” could befall the people of Illinois than the “pouring into it of a flood of free negroes, who are without effort or provision for taking care of themselves.” Ex-slaves “have to be fed, or they will starve,” he continued, and every one of them you employ…drives a white laborer away.” The Chicago Times also warned that the policy would result in a “negro colony,” and if work was scarce and wages low, immigration of African American workers would somehow hurt white workers because they would consume as much labor as they produced.[8]

Despite overwhelming odds, the Afro-Illinois population fought valiantly against increasing discrimination and physical intimidation.

Despite overwhelming odds, the Afro-Illinois population fought valiantly against increasing discrimination and physical intimidation. As the certainty of war loomed, African Americans became even more resolute in their collective goal of economic and political empowerment. Expunging the state’s Black Laws, they maintained, was paramount to their collective survival, and the only way they would be able to thrive within a white-dominated capitalist economy. The increasingly militant attitude amongst Afro-Illinoisans during the Civil War years was a conducive breeding ground for the emergence of activist such as H. Ford Douglas and John Jones. Their unrelenting dedication to the destruction of both the Illinois Black Laws and slavery catapulted them to the forefront of African American leadership in Illinois. Douglas and Jones were both instrumental in achieving their goals—the Black Laws and slavery were officially ended in 1865.


Massive changes resulting from the early stages of the Industrial revolution during the late nineteenth century produced a devastating effect on working class white Illinoisans while it also created whole new categories of workers displaced and disposed by economic forces. Because of these economic changes and the cataclysmic effects of the Civil War, white workers could no longer depend on their race to protect them from the effects of economic restructuring. To stake their claim of superiority over African Americans, then, white Illinoisans waged a virtual war against Afro-Illinoisans through a searing campaign of anti-black rhetoric, intimidation, violence, and exclusion. To be sure, racist violence remained a southern staple throughout the nineteenth century as African Americans continued to suffer from disenfranchisement and violence. Black people eventually “protested with their feet” by leaving the south and migrating to northern urban centers. However, racial backlash not only occurred throughout northern states during the nineteenth century, it persisted (and, dare I say, expanded) as the northern black population grew during the early twentieth century. [9]

IMG_20150818_152143 (1)Alonzo M. Ward is an Assistant Professor of History at Illinois College who specializes in African American and United States history. He recently completed his dissertation from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign entitled “The Specter of Black Labor: African American Workers in Illinois before the Great Migration.” This research focuses on the actions, reactions, and opinions of Afro-Illinoisans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in relation to their own position as laborers. The research has been well-received, having been recognized in state-wide fellowship competitions, including the King Hostick award through the Illinois State Historical Society.

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[1] Cairo Weekly and Delta Times, October 8, 1856; also, see Christopher K. Hays, “Way Down in Egypt Land: Conflict and Community in Cairo, Illinois, 1850-1930” (PhD Dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 1996).

[2] “The Kidnapping and Shooting Affair at Cairo,” Daily Quincy Whig, August 5, 1857; Cairo Weekly Times and Delta, July 20, 1857.

[3] Mound City Emporium, August 6, 1857

[4] “A Riot Among Laborers,” Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1862

[5] “Butts and Pork-packers and Negroes” Douglass Monthly, November 1862.

[6] Dennis F Ricke, “Illinois Blacks through the Civil War: A Struggle for Equality” (master’s thesis, Southern Illinois University, 1972); “The Only Safe Policy” Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1862; “The Contrabands,” March 31, 1863

[7] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), 246.

[8] “Shall Negroes Come to Illinois?” Chicago Times, November 16, 1862; October 8, 1862, pg 2, col. 2

[9] For an excellent examination on the expulsion and exclusion of African Americans from towns and cities throughout the United States, see James Lowen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, New York, 2005.

1 comment on “White Backlash in the Land of Lincoln: The Civil War Years

  1. Pingback: Mapping White Supremacy – The Activist History Review

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