Wide Awake insignia available on tee shirts on Amazon today.

A Newport Mercury account from 1860 details an excursion the Newport Wide Awakes made to Portsmouth Grove. I came across this article while researching George Manchester, a prominent citizen who will be featured in our History Comes Alive 2017 presentation on Oct. 8th. George was part of the group credited with organizing the event. He was part of the crowd that give the men “an honest farmer’s welcome” as they arrived on the steamer Perry at the dock to the Portsmouth House. They Wide Awakes performed a short drill and the men formed a line to listen to the speeches. The article mentions “blazing torches” revealing the military discipline and “noble appearance” of the men. It seems that George made a “brief, pithy, hearty speech” welcoming the companies of Wide Awakes to the hospitality of Portsmouth.  Major Paine of Johnston  gave  the principal speech which concerned Mr. Douglas, the Democrat candidate for President.  The group was treated to a bountiful supply of food.

I had never heard of the Wide Awakes, but the article gave me a few clues to what they represented. “The four companies were out in full ranks, making a fine show, while thee were many others present in citizens dress, who were unable to appear in the ranks from the want of uniforms.” This sounded like a military organization. The article quotes someone as saying “We hope that by efficient drilling..our boys can make themselves, as they can, the best in the state.

A Providence Evening Press article from September of 1860 provided information on the origin of the “Wide Awakes.”  In February of 1860 some young men were excited by Cassius Clay, a well known Republican orator.  These young men decided to act as an escort for Clay.  They borrowed torches from the fire department.  They cut capes out of glazed cloth to protect their clothes from the torches.  Some glazed caps as well.  Their makeshift uniform drew attention to the group.  On their way home they were attacked by a sturdy Democrat; but a blow from a torch stopped him from disturbing them.  They were angry at the attack so they formed a club equipped with swinging torches and black capes and caps to promote the Republic cause at public events.  The name “Wide Awake” came from the name of John Brown’s Company in Kansas.  There were about 400,000 “Wide Awakes” in the Northern States and they drilled, wore uniforms and had officers.  This military or militia like experience created a group of young men ready to volunteer for battle when the Civil War began.

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