Goffstown 1864—The Town faces Its Own Civil War
In her book Goffstown Reborn , Elizabeth Dubrulle recounts a contentious meeting of March 8, 1864. Both Democrats and Republicans, she explains, were convinced that the other party was out to deprive them of their con- stitutional rights. In her research, she unearthed several versions of what happened, one of which is probably right, or close to it. Partisan politics, partisan reportage—so what else is new? She writes:
The details of what actually happened are unknown, but initial newspa- per accounts circulated shortly after election night suggested a mighty battle in Goffstown between members of the two parties that had left at least a hundred people dead and many more wounded. In the days that followed, these reports were proven grossly exaggerated, but because the newspapers themselves openly supported one party or the other, it is difficult to piece together a plausible picture of what really happened.
The Republican Manchester newspaper The Daily Mirror & American reported the day after the election that the town meet- ing in Goffstown had been disrupted when a group of Copperhead Democrats had tried to take over using pistols and knives, although
the Republicans had been able to elect a moderator before the meeting disintegrated into a fracas. Two days later, the same paper provided a fuller report, stating that the Copperheads had unjustly complained that their rights had been violated and seized the moment to surround the ballot box and take control of the meeting. When a Republican constable had tried to push through the crowd to intervene, he had been knocked over the head. The crowd continued to argue for the
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rest of the day, and finally the selectmen adjourned the town meeting until the next morning. By that time, the Republicans had contacted the state militia in Manchester, which turned out to maintain order during the following day’s balloting, resulting in a clear and resounding Republican victory in the town.
The Democratic Concord newspaper The New Hampshire Patriot and Gazette painted a slightly different picture under the headline “War in Goffstown” when it published an account on March 16, more than a week after the election. That paper contended that the Goffstown
Republicans had overreacted to a legitimate concern about the towns- men’s voting privileges and had tried to intimidate the Democrats with threats of violence and retribution, while the noble Democrats stood firmly in defense of their rights.
Both newspapers cite a third paper called the Union, of which apparently no copies survive. It was a Democratic paper from Manchester that painted an even more damaging portrayal of the Republicans’ attempt to subvert American democracy, blaming it all on the “Abolitionist Selectmen.” But the paper also admitted that no one resorted to violence; rather the town meeting had become a stand-off, with “two hundred good Democrats . . . [standing] before the ballot-box and [demanding] their rights.” The state militia, the paper contended, had already been prepared to turn out against the honest citizenry in Manchester if the Democrats caused any trouble there; thus they appeared on the scene at the Goffstown meeting house the next day ready to shoot some Copperheads. Alas, Goffstown Democrats were so disgusted by the whole chain of events they stayed home on the sec- ond day, thus allowing the Republicans to claim victory in the election by default.
The truth is probably some mixture of all these accounts, but all the sources seem to agree on a few points. First, despite the rumors of violence, very little fighting actually occurred, although certainly the situation was tense and had the potential to erupt into violence at any moment. The state militia was posted to town on the second day of voting to maintain order. Second, each side claimed that the dispute in Goffstown was proof of a larger conspiracy to deprive the members of the other party of their constitutional rights. And third, the stories about the disruption of the Goffstown town meeting traveled far and wide in New Hampshire, substantiating the idea that New Hampshire politics were very divisive indeed in 1864.