During the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1863, a letter from the Army of the Potomac made a splash in the local newspapers. It was written by Lieutenant Colonel George Abisha Woodward, the son of Judge George Washington Woodward, the Democratic candidate for governor.
Judge Woodward faced a tough campaign. He was a Copperhead—meaning he opposed the war—and he had earned notoriety a few months earlier for striking down Pennsylvania’s soldier voting law of 1839, a decision that did not earn him friends in the army. Further, Woodward had to challenge the Republican incumbent, Andrew Curtin, who presented himself as “the soldiers’ friend,” a moniker he received for his tireless efforts to provide aid to returning veterans and to the families of soldiers who were fighting at the front. Throughout the campaign, Republican newspapers made especial effort to paint the election as a simple contest. Voters, they said, had to choose between a candidate who diligently supported the troops (Curtin) and another who did his best to discourage the bluecoats by taking away their constitutional rights (Woodward).
Yet, the Republicans had to deal with one troublesome fact. Two of Woodward’s sons served in the Union army. One had gone out with the Emergency Militia and the other, George Abisha Woodward, had served for two years with the hard-fighting Pennsylvania Reserve Division. The Republicans could not simply brush this fact under the rug. Instead, one of them chose to tackle it head-on. On September 16, 1863, one Republican newspaper editor, Thomas J. Bigham, concocted a story at a Pittsburgh rally. Bigham noted that George Abisha Woodward had been wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. He claimed that when Judge Woodward learned this news, he declared that his son should have “been wounded in the heart for fighting in such a cause.” To Bigham, this seemed like a plausible way to slander the Democratic candidate. No one would doubt that a soldier-hating judge could be estranged from his uniform-wearing son.
Bigham, it seems, did not expect Lieutenant Colonel Woodward to reply. In that, he miscalculated. When George A. Woodward read the statement that appeared at the Pittsburgh rally, he seized on it as an opportunity to prove that his father loved and supported Union soldiers. Woodward was then serving with the Invalid Corps, his Gettysburg wound having recently prevented him from commanding his former regiment, the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves. Writing from Meridian Hill, outside of Washington DC, Woodward addressed his letter to Bigham, but sent it to the Philadelphia Age, the only Democratic newspaper in Philadelphia. Here is what Woodward said:
Sir: I have noticed in the newspapers a report of a mass Convention held at Pittsburg on the 16th instant, in which you are represented to have said in response of one Mathew; as to where Woodward (meaning Judge Woodward, the Democratic nominee for Governor) was when Curtin was attending to the soldiers’ wants; “that when Judge Woodward’s son came home from Gettysburg, wounded in both legs, his father might be thankful he got off so well—that he ought to have been wounded in the heart for fighting in such a cause.”
As my only brother capable of bearing arms, who has made two campaigns with the State Militia, has never been wounded, I presume that I am the son of Judge Woodward alluded to in the foregoing statement—which statement I desire to brand, as you knew it to be when you made it, a wicked and deliberate falsehood. A cause so weak as to need such assistance must be weak indeed. A man so lost to honor and decency as to use means for partisan ends deserves to be drummed out of respectable society.
As the Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 2d Pennsylvania Reserves, I participated in the battle of Gettysburg, but was fortunate enough to escape unharmed, except a slight injury to my right foot, in which I had been wounded during the Peninsular campaign.
Just after the fall of Fort Sumter, in the spring of 1861, finding the war between the two sections of our common country was inevitable, under the call of the President for three years’ volunteers, I raised a company in Philadelphia, which afterwards became incorporated with the 2d Regiment Pennsylvania Reserves. Anyone familiar with the business of raising volunteer organizations knows it to be an expensive undertaking. Every cent that my company cost, with the exception of the small amount that my limited means enabled me to devote to the purpose, came from my father, Judge Woodward. During all the time that elapsed before my company was mustered into service, I lived in his house, and had, so far as I needed it, his co-operation in my enterprise.
As Major of the 2d Pennsylvania Reserves, I participated in the Peninsular campaign, and was wounded at Charles City Cross Roads, in the right foot and left leg—by which wounds I am crippled for life—was taken prisoner, confined in the Libby Prison in Richmond, and, after being parolled, was taken to my father’s house in Philadelphia where, for four weary months I was confined to my bed, suffering intensely, but with that suffering alleviated and finally relieved, not only by the best medical skill, but also by the constant, kind, unwearying attention of my father, mother and sisters. During all that time, as indeed during my whole life, no father could be more kind, more solicitous for a son’s welfare, than was mine. Almost daily conversations occurred between us, in which the war, and the future of our country were discussed; and although he freely criticised, and often condemned, the manner in which the war was managed by the Administration, never did he utter a sentiment in sympathy with the doctrine of secession, nor a syllable of approval of the course taken by the people of the South; and never did he say ought which was not calculated to encourage me in the performance of my duty as a soldier.
I have been thus full, sir, in the refutation of your slander, not because you need or deserve this kind of attention at my hands, but because this refutation must be made as public as was the calumny, and I desire the public have the exact truth in regard to the matter.
In conclusion, sir, I will remark that it is poor encouragement in our soldiers in the field to find that while they are toiling and fighting for their country, lying politicians at home are using them as the instruments of their partisan malice, and such an instrument of this is a fair illustration of the pretended love for soldiers which certain parties parade so constantly. That love must be sincere indeed which, while it overlays the soldier with fulsome adulation, stabs to the quick all that he holds near and dear.
It did not take long for other Democratic newspapers to pick up on the story. They reprinted Lieutenant Colonel Woodward’s letter over and over again, and by the first week of October (and just one week before Election Day), the Democrats had a useful story, one they used to tear down their political opponents. Most headlines began with, “Nailed to the Counter” or, “Another Abolitionist Lie Exposed.” However, these last-minute jabs at the Republicans did not change the outcome of the election, although it was a close call. When all ballots were tallied, fewer than 16,000 votes separated Curtin from Woodward.
From this incident, it is interesting to see the relationship between the Army of the Potomac and the press. When one newspaper attempted to use a soldier’s opinions for political gain, that soldier stood the issue on its head, using it for his own political purposes. Say what you will about the Army of the Potomac’s officer corps. They were a clever bunch.
(Here is Lt. Col. George Abisha Woodward, author of the letter to Thomas J. Bigham.)