February of 1860 was cold in Jefferson County, Georgia, especially in the slave quarters where fires were used only on the coldest nights. It was not a particularly good place or time to be born, but here he was anyway, Peter Thompson—first and only child of his father and Polly Thompson—taking his first breath.
The women who helped with the birth had gone to their cabins or to work, and her husband had also been called to work, as usual. Polly, though, had been allowed a few days lying-in time to get the baby off to a good start. She hugged the baby to her chest and tucked the blanket in around them as best she could. As she drifted back to sleep, she wondered briefly what life would have in store for her son. But not in her wildest dreams could she have imagined the turbulent times into which he had been born.
Unknown to the Thompsons, within days of Peter’s birth, Illinois lawyer and politician Abraham Lincoln would make a speech in New York City at a private college called The Cooper Union. His goal was to introduce himself to New York as a candidate for Republican nomination for President of the United States. He spoke of his opposition to slavery and to its spread into new territories and states that would be created from America’s expansion into the West.
The speech would achieve his goal beyond all expectations. The New York Times and the New York Tribune both published the speech, and the Tribune hailed it as “one of the happiest and most convincing political arguments ever made in this City . . . No man ever made such an impression on his first appeal to a New-York audience.” To top it off, prior to the speech Lincoln had visited the photography shop of Matthew Brady and sat for a few photos. Four days after the speech, one of these photographs of Lincoln appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly magazine.
Two months later, Lincoln won the nomination as the Republican candidate for President, and six months after that he was elected President of the United States. Lincoln later remarked that Matthew Brady and his day at The Cooper Union had made him President.
Back in Georgia, slaves on the plantations had still heard almost nothing about Lincoln. But soon the talk among the whites was about little else than Lincoln and his enmity towards slavery. Indeed, prior to the election, several of the slave states had vowed to secede if he was elected. By the time of Peter Thompson’s first birthday, slave owners across the South were in an uproar, and nearly every slave had heard of Abraham Lincoln. Seven states, including Georgia, had seceded from the United States, and four more would soon follow.
Surviving records show Georgia originally hoped for a peaceful and legal separation from the Union. But when South Carolina attacked Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, that possibility was lost, and conflict was made inevitable. Georgia’s governor called for volunteers six days later and the Civil War was on. Peter Thompson was fourteen months old. (continued…)