What Brought the Lady Elgin to Chicago?

Gazette Column by Susan Whitcomb
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2010

Often ignored in the retelling of the Lady Elgin disaster is the reason that over 300 people from Milwaukee’s Irish Third Ward came to Chicago on September 7, 1860. Although some accounts claim the travelers were going to see the Lincoln-Douglas debates, this is historically inaccurate because the famous debates took place during 1858 as part of the Illinois U.S. Senate race in which Stephen Douglas was the victor.

It has also been written that the Lady Elgin passengers came to a political rally featuring Democratic presidential candidate Stephen Douglas. Irish Americans of the time had Democratic political leanings and would have been interested to hear Douglas’s oratory.  Thanks to the digital archives of the New York Times, this story too can be put to rest:  Stephen Douglas spoke to a crowd in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on the day the Lady Elgin docked in Chicago.

The true chronicle offers a microcosm of the political tensions that existed in the United States in the time leading up to the Civil War.  While Wisconsin was very much an anti-slavery state (it would elect Lincoln two months later by a margin of 14 percent over Douglas), there were differing views as to how American slavery issues should be settled.  These political conflicts would launch the Lady Elgin on an excursion to Chicago.

In March 1860, a Wisconsin assemblyman introduced a resolution in the legislature that directed the Governor to declare war against the United States unless the federal government took action to abolish slavery.  The resolution echoed prior statements made by Republican Governor Alexander Randall, an abolitionist and strong advocate of states’ rights. When secession became probable, Randall quietly sent his minions out to local militia groups to see whether they would support such action.  At the time, militia groups were independent formations of citizens recognized officially by the state if they could exhibit discipline and organization. Those recognized were supplied federal arms.  In Milwaukee, there were four militia groups and all but one agreed to act in support of a state rebellion.

Captain Garrett Barry, leader of the Third Ward’s Irish Union Guard, said that although he supported the abolition of slavery, declaring war against the union would be an act of treason. Barry had served with the Union Army in the war with Mexico and believed that preserving the nation was paramount. When Governor Randall received this news, he promptly disbanded the Union Guard and confiscated their weapons.

Determined to maintain their unit, the Union Guard organized the Lady Elgin trip as a fundraiser. They hoped to raise awareness of their cause and generate funds to rearm the Union Guard. Passengers were militia members, their family and friends; they represented much of Milwaukee’s Irish leadership. After their day in Chicago, the Tribune reported on the Union Guard visit: “We had no opportunity of seeing them [march] in a body, but from the few we met, we should judge they formed a fine company. They left for Milwaukee at 11 on the Elgin.”

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