Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
Antique Flags > American Flags



Web ID: pat-587
Available: In Stock
Frame Size (H x L): 59.75" x 84"
Flag Size (H x L): 49" x 73"
This rare political flag is an extremely important object in the worlds of American flag and political campaign collecting. Made entirely of fine, plain weave silk, with a long, silk fringe, indicative of the pre-Civil War era, the lustrous navy blue ground is endowed with hand-gilded, whimsically scrolling text that reads: “Rockford Wide Awakes,” in Roman style letters, shadowed with chrome yellow paint.

The Wide Awakes was a Republican fraternal organization, the members of which were Abraham Lincoln’s foremost supporters. Not to be confused with a New York organization by the same name, loosely associated with the American Party and part of the nativist movement of the 1840’s and early 50’s, this Wide Awakes was born in Hartford, Connecticut, about a week before Lincoln arrived there for a campaign speech in 1860. When Kentucky emancipationist Cassius Clay, politician, general, and friend of the future president, came to speak on February 25th of that year, he was escorted by a group of young men from the city. This was as much for Clay’s own protection as it was to demonstrate support of abolition. Political talks could be especially dangerous, and many such rallies were held at night, accompanied by torch-lit parades. There was, as of yet, no secret service.

In the procession that took place that evening, some of the torch-carrying men were employed at a local dry goods store. When they passed the storefront, legend has it that they rushed inside and emerged with lengths of black, glazed, cambric cloth, draped over their heads to keep whale oil from dripping on them. The darkly cloaked men attracted such attention that they were asked to move up to the lead. Little did they know that these industrious outfits would cause such a stir in the press that black, glazed caps and capes would soon become the official dress of their emerging club.

The following week, on March 5th, Lincoln himself came to Hartford to kick off Republican campaigning in the state. When he did, the same men turned up to offer support and protection, as they had for Clay, wearing the same garb. The next morning, the Hartford Currant reported that “The Republicans are wide awake” for Lincoln-Hamlin, addressing its readership with the following plea: “Citizens of Connecticut, this is no time to hesitate! This is no time to sleep!”

The term “Wide Awakes” was not brand-new. It had, in fact, been used by some Republican groups since at least 1856, when the newly formed party’s first nominee, John Fremont, sought to gain the White House. Other independent organizations bore a variety of names, but after news of the Hartford Wide Awakes spread across the country like wildfire, in support of Lincoln’s candidacy, many changed their names, submitting application for membership through the Hartford chapter. The result was one of the most powerful campaign organizations in American political history.

Militaristic in nature, the Wide Awakes adopted a prescribed structure and bylaws. Officers assumed military titles, such as Captain, Lieutenant, etc.. Though sometimes categorized as paramilitary, the efforts were overwhelmingly for protection as opposed to aggression. In fact, period newspaper announcements, in places where club activities and events were communicated through the press, (there were sometimes thousands of members in a single chapter,) all of those involved were formally directed to steer clear of violence and reminded to raise no hand in physical aggression towards the opposition.

In such a heated moral and political climate, the military-related purpose of the Wide Awakes was primarily in the role of citizen-organized police. Members were generally known to stand their ground, as all over the nation the Wide Awakes escorted Lincoln and other Republican politicians to their various destinations, spread the message of the party’s purpose, and provided security at the polls, as well as oversight for fair election. In an era before such things as Secret Service, these were important functions. It was primarily the group’s Southern membership that was often blamed for arson and other crimes toward slave owners and secessionists. Here the opposition was undoubtedly stronger and fallout more aggressive, as chapters stood in direct opposition to pro-slavery organizations, such as the Klu Klux Klan.

Known for their torchlight parades, the seventy-five cent dues charged by some chapters was slated for the provision of a parade torch. The watchful eye that became their logo was a long-popular symbol of the Masons, and is still present today on the U.S. dollar. Representing the eye of God, this was an obvious fit with both the name and ideological purpose of the group.

This particular banner was either commissioned by or presented to a Wides Awakes chapter in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, in the town of Rockford. The Rockford Wide Awakes assembled in August of 1860 and was, in part, the outgrowth of a local militia unit known as the Rockford Grays. The Grays dissolved under that title soon after an enthusiastic new member, Upstate New York-born photographer Garrett Vorhees Nevius (Jul. 8, 1838 – May 22, 1863), joined the organization. Nevius tried to revive the struggling group, but clashes between himself and its uncharismatic leader, led to its dissolution. Then Nevius crossed paths with New York-born militia commander, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth (Apr. 11, 1837 – May 24, 1861), a resident of Chicago, who made the 90-mile trek to Rockford frequently to court the daughter of a local businessman. When Nevius and Ellsworth, both good looking and popular and being just a year apart in age, with similarly fanatical interest in the militia movement, discovered that each of their families had roots in Ellsworth’s home town of Malta, NY (near Saratoga), they soon became fast friends.

At this time in 19th century America, militia units were the most popular type of social/fraternal organization for young men nationwide. Ellsworth had recently gained national fame as the 1859 organizer of the United States Zouave Cadets (a.k.a., the “Chicago Zouaves”). With uniforms patterned after the French Foreign Legion—the first of their type in America--and a unique, rail fence style marching regimen that drew passionate attention from onlookers, the Chicago Zouaves were perhaps the most envied and fancifully-dressed military drilling companies, travelling widely to perform.

While leading and traveling with the Chicago Zouaves, Ellsworth had met and befriended Abraham Lincoln, becoming a staunch supporter. From May to September of 1860, Wide Awakes clubs were established in nearly every village and hamlet in Illinois, save for the Southern-leaning portion, known as “Lower Egypt." By early June, Chicago had become home to a large chapter, already 1,000 members strong. Clubs flooded every Northern State, as well as some cities of the upper-South, such as Baltimore, Wheeling, and St. Louis.

No-doubt taken by their effective presence in parades, and simultaneously approving of their militaristic structure, with attention-drawing gear that included semi-circular, glazed cotton capes and kepi’s (low, short-brimmed, military style hats), Ellsworth witnessed the popularity of the organization among young men and the value of their efforts. Processions of 500 to 1,000 marchers were common, each one with a blazing torch or lantern.

The Chicago Zouave commander urged Nevius to assemble and lead a chapter in Rockford, in support Lincoln’s candidacy, which he did in mid-late August of 1860. The following appeared in the September 4th issue of the Chicago Tribune, p. 4: “The Wide Awakes formed an organization in Rockford a fortnight ago, and have nearly 400 young men enrolled, and half that number are already provided with uniforms and are under drill instruction.”

By the time of the election, in the brief, eight-month period between the emergence of the Hartford Wide-Awakes in March, and the presidential election in November, national membership of the organization swelled to half a million. A procession of 10,000 marchers, three miles in length, paraded in Chicago on October 3rd, 1860. Dramatic accounts of their presence were reported elsewhere, particularly in New York. One night a band of political bosses gathered in a Manhattan tavern, ordered ale and settled into a debate about their usual topics. They are said to have cursed the Republican Party, and analyzed the ticket while fearing the likelihood of secession. It is said that “They first heard the noise around midnight. From uptown came the clash of a marching band, followed by the advancing tread of hundreds of boots on the cobblestones of the Bowery. Soon the stench of burning oil filled their nostrils and the tavern's dark windows began to glow from the outside. The insiders spilled out onto the street to join a throng of dazed New Yorkers. There they watched as large formations of young men, clad in shimmering black capes and soldiers' kepi's, marched stalwartly down the middle of their island. Each bore a blazing torch, though none said a word. Pushing through the crowd, the politicians shouted, "Who are these Wide Awakes?”

Following his win, Lincoln attributed much of the driving force behind Republican victory to their actions. In deep gratitude, he invited the Hartford chapter to march with him at his inaugural parade.

In spite of the scope of the organization, with thousands upon thousands of members, and hundreds upon hundreds of chapters, hats and cloaks are extremely rare, as are flags and banners. What does exist is highly coveted, falling among the holy grails of Lincoln campaign objects.

Fraternal/social organizations often morphed from one thing into another, as need presented itself. A Republican club in Steelton, Pennsylvania, for example, reorganized as a volunteer fire company, as there was none yet located in that community. After the election, Ellsworth convinced Nevius to rekindle the Rockford Grays, but in a style patterned after his own group. On December 26th, 1860, with Ellsworth’s support and guidance, Nevius reorganized some of his Wide Awake companions as the Rockford Zouaves, formally accepting this title on January 17th, 1861, with officers selected and announced. In doing so, Nevius changed his name to Nevins and assumed “L.” as a middle initial, in order to downplay his Dutch ancestry. When the war broke out, both militia units and Wide Awakes clubs, better suited to the tasks of parading and protection than the average citizen, often mustered into volunteer service as entire companies. It was thus that the Rockford Zouaves and Wide Awakes mustered into Company D of the 11th Illinois Infantry. It is possible that, when they did, they took this flag with them.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert trained staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.

This is a pressure mount between 100% hemp fabric, ivory in color, and U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas). The black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed molding is Italian.

Condition: A pieced-and-sewn, 33 star American National flag, with an exceptionally rare diamond medallion configuration of stars, formerly comprised the reverse side. The flag was constructed separately and was joined around the perimeter, so that the fringe was viewable from both sides, as would be expected. After long and careful consideration, because the flag and the banner wide with the “Rockford Wide Awakes” text were each so spectacular, and there was no way to display both simultaneously, I made the painful decision to separate the two.

Further notes forthcoming.

Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use. The banner presents exceptionally well and its extreme rarity and desirability warrant almost any condition.
Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 33
Earliest Date of Origin: 1860
Latest Date of Origin: 1860
State/Affiliation: Illinois
War Association: 1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
Price: Please call (717) 676-0545 or (717) 502-1281