All American sports fans are familiar with the Belmont Stakes Race, the third leg of the Triple Crown. That race was inaugurated by New York financier August Belmont in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War. Long Islanders have likely caught a race at Belmont Racetrack, named in August Belmont’s honor, or picnicked at Belmont Lake State Park, part of his old estate. 1
Today August Belmont is remembered, if he is remembered at all, for his connection to Thoroughbred horse racing, but in 1864 he was one of Abraham Lincoln’s most dangerous political opponents. At a time when Lincoln thought that his prospects of being reelected president were dim, Belmont was the head of the National Democratic Committee. 2
August Belmont could not have been a more unlikely candidate to head a major American political party. Belmont had been born in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars. His family were Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had been forced out of Spain by the 1492 decree of Ferdinand and Isabella expelling their people. 3
At an 1862 meeting of New York Democrats he said; “There is no sacrifice too great, none which we should not most cheerfully make in order to help the Government at this moment. We want more troops, more money, and everything good and loyal citizens can give to their country in this hour of danger.”
August Belmont’s father was prominent in his synagogue and August received a Jewish education. At the age of 15 he went to work running errands for the House of Rothchild, one of Europe’s most important banking firms. He learned the investment business while studying Italian, French, and English in his spare time. By the age of 24, August was considered polished enough to be sent to Cuba to look after the Rothchilds’ investments there.4
On his way to Cuba, Belmont stopped in New York just as the Panic of 1837 played havoc with the American financial markets. Belmont stepped in to rescue the Rothchilds’ assets here and the firm made him their U.S. agent. In the past, The Immigrants’ Civil War has looked at the immigrant as starving Famine refugee, political exile, and young professional. In this installment, we look at the immigrant as investor.5
August Belmont quickly became wealthy in his new post. In 1849 he married Caroline Slidell Perry, the daughter of Commodore Matthew Perry, who opened up United States trade with Japan. Caroline was the niece of Louisiana Congressman John Slidell. The congressman, who encouraged Belmont to join the Democratic Party, would later become a leading Confederate. 6
Belmont’s entry into Democratic Party politics was rewarded by President Franklin Pierce’s appointment of Belmont as United States Minister to the Hague. In 1860, he managed Democratic Presidential Candidate Stephen Douglas’s campaign against Lincoln and he was elected head of the Democratic National Committee. He took over the party’s leadership just as it was splintering into Northern and Southern factions. The Southerners even ran their own candidate for president against the official party nominee, Stephen Douglas, ensuring the election of Abraham Lincoln. 7
This 1860 Democratic cartoon shows Lincoln and the Republican Party being taken to “The Right House”, a Lunatic Asylum, instead of the White House. The woman immediately behind him says she supports him because of his physical attractiveness, a swipe at his well-known ugliness. Behind her is a man who represents the Free Love Movement who says “I represent the free love element, and expect to have free license to carry out its principles.” The next man says: “I want religion abolished.” The black man says: “De white man hab no rights dat cullud pussons am bound to spect’ I want dat understood.” This was the reverse of Chief Justice Roger Taney’s statement on the non-existence of black rights in the Dred Scott decision. The woman to his right raises similar fears that “equality” was really a formula for the subjugation of white men to blacks and women when she says “I want woman’s rights enforced, and man reduced in subjection to her authority.” Socialism is raised by one of the Red Republicans who says “I want everybody to have a share of everybody else’s property.” The cartoon expresses the racial and gender anxieties of white men. While the cartoon shows what we would today consider a diverse Republican Party, in fact, no women and only a tiny number of black men were even allowed to vote in 1860.
After Lincoln’s election, the Southern Democrats led the exit of slave states from the Union. Although Belmont had led the effort to deny Lincoln the presidency, when the Southern states began to secede he became the chief Democratic voice calling for the preservation of the United States. Following Lincoln’s election in November 1860, there was a four-month period before he could take office. States began seceding in December 1860, beginning with South Carolina. Belmont wrote personally to each Southern governor asking them to keep their states in the Union and warning that secession “must end in disaster for the South.” When New York’s Mayor Fernando Wood floated the idea of the city also breaking off from the United States and becoming a wealthy “Free City,” Belmont responded that as an immigrant, what he wanted for his children was not the “gilded prospect of New York merchant princes [but] the more enviable title of American citizens.”8
When Fort Sumter was attacked in April 1861, Belmont abandoned peace making. Although he had led the opposition to Lincoln’s election, he now rallied Democrats to support the Republican war effort. Belmont would soon become the nation’s principal War Democrat, insisting that his party support Lincoln’s effort to suppress the rebellion.9
In the early weeks of the conflict, Belmont funneled his own money to the largely-Republican German immigrant community in Missouri to help them form military units to keep their state from joining the Confederacy. In New York he helped fund the organization of Colonel Blenker’s German First New York Rifles. He even presented the regiment with its new battle flags in a public mass meeting.10
Belmont used his position to pressure the Rothchilds not to loan money to the Confederacy. He employed his European connections to gather intelligence for the Lincoln Administration. He also lobbied English Members of Parliament on behalf of the Union, urging them not to support what he called the “pro-slavery oligarchy” ruling the South. [91-96]11
Peace Democrats, derisively called Copperheads, were depicted by Republicans as trying to poison American democracy.
Belmont’s next fight was to try to organize a loyal opposition party. The Democrats had lost nearly half of their members when the Confederacy was formed. The remaining Northern Democrats split into two factions, the War Democrats led by Belmont and others, and the Peace Democrats, or Copperheads. The Peace Democrats blamed the abolitionists for the war and called for an immediate cessation of all military actions against the South, even though this would have resulted in a disunited country. Belmont would describe these days as the “most disastrous epoch in the annals of the Democratic Party.” 12
Belmont was able to pull the Democrats together enough to win some electoral victories in the 1862 Congressional races. Unfortunately, by the following year, Clement L. Vallandigham, a Congressman who led the Peace Democrats, was gaining in popularity within the party as weariness set in. Vallandigham was an Ohio politician who voted against every war measure proposed by the Lincoln administration. He used the harshest language against the president, saying that Lincoln presided over “one of the worst despotisms on earth.” When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued at the beginning of 1863 and the Draft was introduced soon thereafter, Vallandigham charged that Lincoln was freeing blacks and enslaving whites. He became an outspoken supporter of resistance to the Draft. 13
On May 1, 1863 Vallandigham delivered an anti-war speech in Ohio that was reported to the military authorities. He was later arrested, tried by a military commission, and deported to the Confederacy. Two newspapers that published articles in his support were temporarily suppressed by the army. Vallandigham soon left the Confederacy for Canada where he exercised his influence over the Peace Wing of his party. Anti-war Midwest Democrats saw him as a martyr to their cause who had been a political prisoner and was now an exile. 14
The arrest of Clement L. Vallandigham was big news throughout the United States.
Unknown to his rank-and-file supporters, Vallandigham met with Confederate agents while in Canada to discuss a plan to violently seize power in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky and set up a new Midwest confederacy separate from the United States. 15
In the spring of 1864, just as the presidential campaign was getting underway, a disguised Vallandigham slipped over the border and back into the United States. On June 15, 1864 he appeared publicly at a convention of Ohio Democrats. He was soon elected to represent Ohio at the coming Democratic national convention where the party’s presidential candidate would be selected. 16
Vallandigham headed to the Democratic convention dedicated to rolling back emancipation and restoring peace even if it meant the breakup of the nation. August Belmont understood that if Vallandigham’s program was adopted at the convention, it would destroy the party, and possibly the Union.17
Lincoln’s campaign appealed to patriotism and support of the men in the army. By implication, Democrats were disloyal.
Resource: Speeches and Letters of August Belmont
1. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968); Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency by John Waugh published by DeCapo Press (2001); Abraham Lincoln: Volume 2 by Michael Burlingame published by Johns Hopkins Press; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald published by Simon and Schuster.
2. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968)
3. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) pp. 3-5.
4. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) pp. 4-5.
5. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) pp. 1-6.
6. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) pp. 1-6.
7. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) pp. 31, 74, 82.
8. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) p. 86.
9. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) p. 86.
10. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) p. 86-90.
11. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) pp. 91-96.
12. August Belmont: A Political Biography by Irving Katz published by Columbia University Press (1968) p. 91.
13. Speech of Clement L. Vallandigham “The Constitution-Peace-Reunion” January 14, 1863.
14. The Trial Hon. Clement L. Vallandigham by a Military Commission: and the Proceedings Under His Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of Ohio. Cincinnati, OH: Rickey and Carroll, 1863; Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency by John Waugh published by DeCapo Press (2001) Kindle Location 1983-1985.
15. Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency by John Waugh published by DeCapo Press (2001)
16. Ohio Politics During the Civil War Period by George Henry Porter (1911); Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency by John Waugh published by DeCapo Press (2001) Kindle Location 2190-2210.
17. Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency by John Waugh published by DeCapo Press (2001) Kindle Location 3888-3900.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites