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"No traitor blood lurks in my veins" - George Washington Woodward's Civil War

EJ Murphy is a middle and high school social studies teacher in Scranton, Pennsylvania and tour guide for the Waverly Community House’s Destination Freedom: Underground Railroad Walking Tour.

George Washington Woodward's career up to 1860 had been a mix of incredible success and frustrating defeat at the hands of political rivals. Born in Wayne County, he had carved out a successful early career as a lawyer based out of Wilkes-Barre and judge of the Fourth Judicial District.


The nomination and actions of Woodward, Dr. Andrew Bedford, and other NEPA Democratic delegates at the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1838 would later become a source of attack from enemies. Not only did they successfully lobby and vote to end black suffrage in Pennsylvania but Woodward personally took a staunchly nativist approach to voting rights.

George Washington Woodward (Library of Congress)

"Judge Woodward, when a member of the Convention to revise the Constitution of this State, introduced a resolution which, had it been adopted, would have compelled every foreigner coming to this state, to reside here twenty-one years before he should be entitled to the right of suffrage," the Pittston Gazette noted in 1852 when the state Supreme Court was looking to fill a recently vacated seat. "Now then, for his Native American sentiments, feelings and principles, and will compel our foreign citizens to serve such long, long apprenticeship, this same George W. Woodward is selected...to fill the place for which Judge Campbell was selected and defeated, because he was a Catholic."[i] Despite the attacks Woodward became an associate judge of the court, a position he would hold until 1863.

Pittsburgh Gazette, January 25, 1838

After the convention he had unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1845 and was denied a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court that same year amidst political bickering after being nominated by President James K. Polk. It was during the battle over Woodward's nomination that the judge would form one of his fiercest rivalries, pitting himself against the political machine run by Simon Cameron. Cameron, a Republican most known for his role as Abraham Lincoln's original Secretary of War as well as the charges of corruption that plagued his political career, "construed the nomination as a direct insult to him," according to historian Daniel J. Curran[ii]. This perceived slight by and the resulting relationship with Woodward not only denied the judge his seat but also affected later campaigns of political aspirations.


Woodward's enemies would continue to sharpen their teeth after a famous speech given by the judge at Philadelphia's Independence Square on December 13, 1860 where he blamed abolitionists for bringing on the "irrepressible conflict" tearing the nation apart and claiming that slavery was an "incalculable blessing" to the North.


The recent prosperity and national growth had been built on the back of cotton and the king cash crop of the South was “the product of slave labor” and “has been one of the indispensable elements of all this prosperity.”[iii] His plea fell largely on deaf ears and even Woodward himself knew that the time for compromise had passed. “Lincoln & Seward are right. The conflict is irrepressible,” he wrote a month before speaking in Philadelphia. The speech convinced a local paper that "we see nothing in his position to militate against the idea that he would adopt the Confederate Constitution."[iv]


In the same letter Woodward emphasized the negative impact of abolition on the country’s institutions, describing that "we are a Church going people--and antislavery has become the cherished dogma of northern theology...We are an educating people--and abolitionism born in hell & raised by the non-Episcopal Churches has entered into our schools, school books, & school literature."


He also displayed the sentiment that would later account for accusations of treason. "As a Northern man I cannot in justice condemn the South for withdrawing from the Union. I believe they have been loyal to the Union formed by the Constitution...I wish Pennsylvania could go with them."[v]


Judge Woodward's skepticism of the direction of the country did not dissuade him from attempting to continue his ascent in national politics. Woodward's name had been floated around to oppose Republican Andrew Curtin's bid for re-election as governor of Pennsylvania and played coy when addressed with the issue in June of 1863. "I have no desire to quit the bench for the Governor's chair, but if the democratic people think proper, without solicitations on my part, to make me their Governor I will do my best to administer the constitution & laws as they are written. Whilst I do not seek the nomination I will not decline it." [vi]


Upon his official nomination the Luzerne Union proclaimed that "he is a man whose character is so pure, whose patriotic devotion to the best interests of the country is so patent to almost every citizen of the State, and whose Democratic record is so unblemished, that even the worst of the opposition can use no weapon but meaningless vituperation against him."[vii] In September of 1863 the York Gazette reminded its readers that "Woodward is the white man's friend and belongs to the party that believes this government was made for the white man."[viii]

The York Gazette, September 22, 1863

Throughout the gubernatorial race Woodward would find himself constantly on the defensive regarding his loyalty to the Union. In a letter to Judge Jeremiah S. Black dated September 10, 1863 he pleaded that "if I had not venerated the constitution which established this confederacy of free & slave states...if I have not thank'd God again & again for the men who fixed up this Union...if I had not paid my taxes, contributed money and sons to fight our battles, and in general performed the of an humble but loyal citizen then testify against me." Woodward begged his friend and fellow member of the bar, "can't you convince the people of Penna. that no traitor blood lurks in my veins? I rather think they are the last people I shall prove unfaithful to." [ix]


Woodward’s own son George, a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves, would later come to the defense of his father’s loyalty, curiously stating that “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.”[x] One of the first constitutional issues that would help frame the public perception of Woodward and his loyalty to the Union cause was the issue of the soldier vote.

George A. Woodward (Library of Congress)

Opposed to allowing soldiers stationed outside of their home district to cast a vote on a legal basis, Woodward's resolve in defense of this unconstitutional practice was put to the test May 1862. In the wake of a contested district attorney race in Luzerne County Woodward wrote on behalf of the majority that struck down the soldier vote and placed a fellow Democrat in office. He “derided the soldier voting act as ‘careless legislation,’ ‘repugnant,’ ‘jargon,’ and ‘downright nonsense.’”[xi]


The benefit of this decision to the Democratic cause also echoed sentiment at home. Luzerne County had narrowly voted Republican in the presidential election of 1860 and would later flip Democrat, giving George B. McClellan an almost three thousand vote majority over Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1864. Local troops ironically also aligned with Woodward and the Democratic party with the 143rd Pennsylvania Infantry reporting a 186-100 majority for their former commanding general.


Party loyalty and staunch resistance to the Lincoln administration did no favors for Woodward’s governorship prospects. Military matters strengthened Republican resolve and they rode the loyalty and dedication of Andrew Curtin to the Union cause to victory over Woodward and the Democrats. In late November 1863 the Sunbury Gazette recalled a letter from McClellan to Governor Curtin applauding Pennsylvania's response to the Confederate invasion of Maryland in 1862.


"Fortunately circumstances rendered it impossible for the enemy to set foot upon the soil of Pennsylvania," the general had penned to Curtin referencing the repulse of Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam, "but the moral support rendered to my army by your action was none the less mighty. I again tender to you our acknowledgements for your patriotic course.”[xii] This seeming endorsement of Curtin would later prove detrimental to McClellan’s own political prospects.


If Curtin and the Republicans were steadfast in their support of the Union forces, how could a Copperhead like Woodward take his place? And if Woodward was not fit to carry out the state's prosecution of the war then how could making such a change at the national level help matters? Neither Woodward nor McClellan would get the opportunity to alter the direction of the conflict and McClellan's association with Woodward, and vice versa, played a large role in making sure that they couldn't.


In the weeks leading up to the presidential election of 1864 the Pittston Gazette reminded readers that McClellan, although a military general, was no friend to the soldier or the Union particularly regarding the soldier voting issue. "We need not remind the reader that Judge Woodward decided unreservedly against soldiers voting...When the judge was running for Governor of Pennsylvania, Gen. McClellan wrote a letter to assist his election, in which he said, 'I desire to state clearly and distinctly that having some few days ago had a full conversation with Judge Woodward, I find that our views agree."[xiii]


Woodward's staunch opposition to Republican efforts in Pennsylvania complicate the often-told story of the state as a keystone of the Union and one of the fingers that help form the terrible, swift fist of the northern war machine destined to end slavery and preserve the country. The wartime efforts of Republicans such as Curtin and Thaddeus Stevens often overshadow the convoluted efforts of Democrats such as Woodward to oppose the Lincoln administration, even in the face of charges of treason. After all, "It would not sound pleasant to elect a 'Copperhead' over loyal Andy, the 'soldiers friend,' but the people are going to do that very thing,"[xiv] sarcastically and incorrectly prophesized a Bloomsburg paper in August of 1863.


The story of northern opposition during the war is widely told, but the ideas that formed this opposition and the ideology that drove those ideas deserve a closer look. Even in the wake of the assassination of Lincoln and amidst the upcoming treason trial of Jefferson Davis, Woodward remained steadfast in his questioning of how the conflict had begun. "The doctrine of state rights will have a severe test & may find a strange vindication...Secession has yet to be defined. Hitherto it has been a toy of politicians & they have dodged every thing like a definition. If it can't be proved that the states formed the Union, can't it be proved that the states seceded?"[xv]

George Washington Woodward's Gravesite at Wilkes-Barre's Hollenback Cemetery (Photo courtesy of the author)

[i] “Native Americanism.” The Pittston Gazette, May 14, 1852.


[ii] Curran, Daniel J. “Polk, Politics, and Patronage: The Rejection of George W. Woodward’s Nomination to the Supreme Court.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, July 1997. Accessed via JSTOR.


[iii] Woodward, George W. "Speech Delivered at the Great Union Meeting in Independence Square, Philadelphia, December 13, 1860. Accessed via the Hathi Trust Digital Library.


[iv] The Pittston Gazette, October 1, 1863.


[v] White, Jonathan W. "A Pennsylvania Judge Views the Rebellion: The Civil War Letters of George Washington Woodward." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, April 2005. Accessed online.


[vi] Ibid


[vii] "The Pennsylvania Election." The Luzerne Union, September 2, 1863.


[viii] The York Gazette, September 22, 1863.


[ix] White, "A Pennsylvania Judge Views the Rebellion: The Civil War Letters of George Washington Woodward," p. 219.


[x] White, Jonathan W. Emancipation, The Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014.


[xi] Ibid


[xii] "Gen. McClellan and Gov. Curtin" The Sunbury Gazette, November 21, 1863.


[xiii] "McClellan and the Soldiers." The Pittston Gazette, October 13, 1864.


[xiv] "Meeting in Sugarloaf." The Star of the North, August 19, 1863.


[xv] White, "A Pennsylvania Judge Views the Rebellion: The Civil War Letters of George Washington Woodward," p. 224.

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