Home > 1856-1892 Campaigns, 1876 Campaign > By Hannah Richardson–Waving the Bloody Shirt, 1876

By Hannah Richardson–Waving the Bloody Shirt, 1876

The election of 1876 is one of the closest and most disputed elections in American history. The nation was nearing the end of the Reconstruction era and coming out of an administration accused of corruption. The Grant presidency had brought on poor economic conditions and was full of scandal. The Republican Party nominated Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democratic Party nominated Samuel J. Tilden. The Republican campaign used a tactic many call “waving the bloody shirt” to influence the election.

Like all elections prior to 1876, candidates were not going out and campaigning for themselves. Other prominent members of parties would go out and give speeches to try and influences voters. One famous example of this and of the tactic of “waving the bloody shirt” in the election of 1876 was done by Colonel Robert Ingersoll (below, right). Ingersoll was a Civil War veteran, famous orator and Radical Republican known as “The Great Agnostic.”  He had extremely radical views on religion, slavery, and woman’s suffrage. On September 21st, 1876, Ingersoll gave a speech in Indianapolis, Indiana, endorsing the Hayes campaign. The speech begins by assigning blame for all the horrors from war and slavery to the Democrats and then goes into talking about why the Republican Party is great. He uses several devices to get his message across and the large crowd of Union veterans cheers along with him. In his speech, he said the following:

Every man that tried to destroy this nation was a Democrat. Every enemy this great Republic has had for twenty years has been a Democrat. Every man that shot Union soldiers was a Democrat. Every man that denied to the Union prisoners even the worm-eaten crust of famine, and when some poor, emaciated Union patriot, driven to insanity by famine, saw in an insane dream the face of his mother, and she beckoned him and he followed, hoping to press her lips once again against his fevered face, and when he stepped one step beyond the dead line the wretch that put the bullet through his loving, throbbing heart was and is a Democrat.

This is an example of the Republicans “waving the bloody shirt.” He is continuing to bring up the Civil War, slavery, and secession and assigns blames to the Democrats for all the horrors of the war. His word choice is extremely important in this speech. When he is trying to show the horrors of the Democrats he uses words and phrases like “destroy this nation,” and “enemy.” To inspire his followers he continuously talks of the Union and uses the word “patriot.” At the end of this excerpt he gives an anecdote that involves a solider dreaming of his mother to evoke a feeling of strong familial bonds being broken. Throughout the speech there are other phrases like, “Every man that loved slavery better than liberty was a Democrat.” When contrasting the words slavery and liberty side-by-side he is making a starker divide between the two parties. He says that the man that assassinated Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat which brings up sad memories of a beloved leader being killed by someone from the opponent’s side. One of the most interesting phrases that is an example of “waving the bloody shirt” is when he says, “Soldiers, every scar you have on your heroic bodies was given to you by a Democrat.” Ingersoll is trying to cast blame on the Democrats for every bad thing that has happened to a Republican and trying to glorify the Republican Party at the same time. To promote and inspire the Republicans he says things like, “In the Republican Party there are no followers. We are all Leaders.” This type of rhetoric was a major setback for the Democratic Party.

While the Republicans were trying to run a campaign that strayed away from the scandal of the Grant years, the Democrats were trying to remind people of them. The Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden was a New York native and opposed the Radical Republican approach to Reconstruction. A major issue surrounding the Democratic campaign was voter intimidation. White Democrats actively suppressed black and white Republican voter turnouts by disrupting meetings and rallies and using violence and intimidation. The  cartoon titled, “Of Course He Wants to Vote the Democratic Ticket” shows what the southern intimidation tactics looked like. The two white men are holding on to a black man and pointing guns at his head. The black man looks frightened. There is a crowd behind them smiling and watching on and it is clear that the man is about to vote. The text at the bottom says “Democratic ‘Reformer.’ ‘You’re as free as air, ain’t you? Say you are, or I’ll blow yer black head off!’” This quote shows that African Americans were not actually free at the time, especially in southern states. The quote “free as air” is making fun of a quote made by the parliamentary Waterson, who actually said that the “negroes of the South are free- free as air.” The voter intimidation that happened in the election of 1876 had a major impact on the results of the election and on the culture in the south.

On Election Day, Samuel J. Tilden had the majority of the popular vote and had 184 of the 185 necessary for a majority of the Electoral College. Rutherford B. Hayes had about 166 electoral votes and the nineteen votes from the Republican controlled southern states, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were in dispute. At the time, Congress was split with a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. Congress created a Federal Electoral Commission that had fifteen members of Congress and Supreme Court justices. In closed door meetings, the Democrats agreed to accept Hayes as president in return for Federal troops withdrawing from South Carolina and Louisiana. Had the Republicans not used rhetoric looking back on slavery and the Civil War, then perhaps Samuel J. Tilden could have received that one additional electoral vote to become the 19th President of the United States. And if southern Democrats would not have intimidated hundreds of black voters then perhaps the results would have been drastically different.

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