Category Archives: American history

The Fugitive Slave Law and Runaways

Printed in 1851, this flier was circulated around Boston and warned African-Americans of the Fugitive Slave acts, which legalized the capture and return of any runaway slaves (Source: Harvard Square Library)

This poster was distributed around Boston and warned African-Americans of the Fugitive Slave acts, which legalized the capture and return of runaway slaves. (Source: Harvard Square Library)

In 1850, Congressional leaders made their last valiant efforts to forestall conflict between the North and the South. However, in their attempts to reach some form of compromise, they unwittingly set the stage for the Civil War.

Some might say that civil war was the price the United States paid for orchestrating war with Mexico in 1848. By invading Mexico, or at least by sending troops to contested territory, the United States ultimately gained a huge swath of land that included modern day California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Like Thomas Jefferson before them when he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, most American leaders probably believed it would take generations before much of the new territory would be ripe for statehood. But history is full of unforeseen consequences, and James Marshall’s gold discovery in Coloma, California, accelerated the process by attracting sufficient numbers of Americans who wanted statehood. More importantly, California’s citizens had enacted a constitution that prohibited slavery.

For years, Southern leaders had sought to maintain balance in the United States Senate, admitting a free state to the union only while admitting a slave state at the same time. In 1850, they had many demands on the table: carving up Texas into a number of states in an effort to maintain equal representation in the Senate; continued legality of slavery in the nation’s capital, anathema to antislavery Northerners; and a stricter fugitive slave law to insure recovery of runaway slaves.

Anti-slavery forces in the North also had an agenda: admission of California and other future states acquired from the Mexican War as free states and abolition of the slave trade in the nation’s capital.

1850 also saw the last great stand of the Senate’s most famous orators: Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, John Calhoun of South Carolina, and Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay sought to ease tensions by proposing a series of resolutions. Each resolution offered something to the North, balanced with an inducement to the South. His strategy failed, but Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s chief opponent for the presidency ten years later, succeeded by gathering enough votes from Upper South and Midwest representatives, who approved the package as a whole.

Painting titled "Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law" (Source: Library of Congress)

Painting titled “Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law” (Source: Library of Congress)

Before the Compromise of 1850, a 1793 federal statute authorized Southerners to enter free states to capture runaway slaves, but state authorities were not obligated to enforce the law. Prigg v. Pennsylvania (United States Supreme Court 1842). One of the compromise’s components, the Fugitive Slave Law, sought to remedy Southerners’ dissatisfaction with existing law by creating a category of federal commissioners empowered to arrest and return runaways to their owners. The law also gave the commissioners authority to deputize any citizen to assist in enforcement of the law.

While many Northerners did not object to slavery where it lawfully existed, they took great exception to playing any role in its enforcement. Southern slave owners, who thought they finally had obtained a meaningful process for retrieving their fugitive property, fumed about Northerners’ resistance to the law’s enforcement and Northern states’ passage of personal liberty laws designed to thwart the enforcement of the law. Within a year of the law’s enactment, it became clear that enacting a law is considerably less difficult than executing it. After 1851, few runaways were returned to their owners under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Law.

For a fictional but faithful account of a runaway slave’s stop at an Underground Railroad station, please see the “Runaway” chapter in my historical novel, New Garden, available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel’s “Charleston” chapter about the Democratic Convention of 1860 also depicts Southern politicians’ dissatisfaction with Northerners’ resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law.

For a more detailed historical account of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law, see Professor James McPherson’s Ordeal by Fire, pages 70-89 (3rd Edition, McGraw Hill 2001).

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The Presidential Election of 1876

Regardless of your political affiliation, you certainly remember the Presidential election of 2000, when George W. Bush ultimately prevailed over Al Gore. By a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court ultimately validated the election results certified by a Florida Republican official.

Flash back to the Presidential election of 1876. Inauguration day was set for Sunday, March 4, 1877, giving government leaders four months between November and March to resolve the election results of a hotly contested election. Three former Confederate states were in play: South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida.

Federal troops played a significant role in the South in the years after the Civil War (Reconstruction). The troops protected African Americans from white persecution and guaranteed that Republican officials ran the state governments. White Southerners strongly resented the presence of federal troops within their borders. In the months leading up to election day, organized groups of whites intimidated African Americans, working diligently and violently to suppress black turnout at the polls.

President Hayes (Source: Library of Congress)

President Hayes (Source: Library of Congress)

Republican officials in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida certified the results, in each case tossing out enough votes for the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, to give the state’s electoral votes to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. But the game was not over. On the first Wednesday in December, the Democratic electors met separately from the Republican electors in each of the three states and cast their votes for Tilden. It appeared the country might be at the brink of another civil war.

Justice David Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

Justice David Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and the Republicans controlled the Senate. Ultimately, the politicians agreed to appoint an advisory commission consisting of five members from the Senate (3 Republicans and 2 Democrats), five from the House (3 Democrats and 2 Republicans), and five from the Supreme Court, who were to be selected by agreement of the 10 members from Congress. Two of the justices were Democrats and two were Republicans. Everyone expected the commission to select independent David Davis as the final member. Everyone was wrong.

In those days, each state legislature selected its United States Senator. The Illinois state legislature, deadlocked over its choice, chose Justice Davis as its compromise choice. Davis agreed to take the Senate seat and resigned from the Supreme Court. All of the remaining justices from whom the commission could choose its final member were Republicans. Thus, the commission, with a one-vote Republican majority in the Supreme Court, recommended that Congress accept the election results certified by the Republican election officials in the three contested states.

John Sherman (Source: Library of Congress)

Sen. John Sherman (Source: Library of Congress)

But all was not over. Many Democrats believed they had been robbed of the White House. In an unwritten agreement between the Hayes men and Southern moderates intended to calm the nation, the Hayes men agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, provide no further support for the carpetbaggers in Louisiana and South Carolina, and allow the Democrats to resume control of the state governments. Generations of African Americans paid dearly for the compromise. In the height of irony, the Hayes men included Senator John Sherman of Ohio, whose brother had made Georgia howl, and Senator John Gordon of Georgia, who had served as a general in the Confederate army.

For more information about the 1876 election and its aftermath, please go to the following sources:

H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union, pp. 567-577 (Random House 2012);

John Gordon (Source: Library of Congress)

John Gordon (Source: Library of Congress)

Jean Edward Smith, Grant, pp. 597-605 (Simon & Schuster 2001);

James W. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, pp. 639-646 (McGraw Hill, 3rd Edition 2001)

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The Civil War’s First Ladies

If you are in the Washington, DC area, you should take the opportunity to visit the National Museum of American History. Among the more popular exhibits is one dedicated to the nation’s First Ladies. The displays in the First Ladies Hall include a series of period rooms modeled after rooms in the White House. The rooms serve as a backdrop for the first ladies’ gowns. If you cannot make it to Washington, you can enjoy an interactive experience at http://americanhistory.si.edu/first-ladies/new-exhibition.

Mary Todd Lincoln (Source: Library of Congress)

Mary Todd Lincoln (Source: Library of Congress)

One First Lady you will not find represented in the exhibit is Varina Davis. During the Civil War, America had two first ladies, the first, Mary Todd Lincoln, of course, served as First Lady in Washington, and the second, Varina Davis, served as First Lady in Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.

The two women were similar in many ways. Both were well-educated and had traveled in high social circles, but both were criticized by their social peers for their “rough” western manners. Mary Todd Lincoln had grown up in a prominent Kentucky family but lived in Springfield, Illinois, at the eve of the war. Varina Davis lived in Mississippi. In 1861, both Illinois and Mississippi were considered western states

In an earlier blog article, Washington’s “It Girl” during the Civil War, I discussed Mary Todd Lincoln’s social rivalry with Kate Chase, the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase. Mary suffered pot shots partly due to the Todd family’s divided loyalties and partly due to her husband’s unpolished western speech. (For example, when referring to the “chairman” at an event, Lincoln pronounced the word as “cheerman,” typical of western speech.) Varina Davis, the granddaughter of a New Jersey governor, counted many prominent northerners as friends. She was suspected of northern sympathies and also suffered barbs from Virginia’s and South Carolina’s social elite. After her husband’s death, she spent her remaining years writing and living in New York City.

Varina Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

Varina Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

The ladies Lincoln and Davis received similar “titles”: Lincoln often was referred to as the Republican Queen (see Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Lincoln) while Davis was called the Confederate Queen. Mary went over-budget while decorating the White House; Varina’s critics chided her social gatherings as either too lavish in a time of sacrifice or too informal for FFV (First Families of Virginia) standards. George Rable sums up Varina Davis’s dilemma:

Many old-line Richmond families watched the arrival of Confederate politicians, generals, and their wives with a mixture of bemusement and contempt. To members of this closed society, Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, seemed like unrefined westerners at best and ambitious parvenus at worst. Although Varina had been a successful Washington hostess [when her husband served, on different occasions, as United States Senator and Secretary of War], the haughty Virginians, and especially the hypercritical South Carolinians, remained cool and aloof. — Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Other than attacks about their questioned loyalties, the ladies Lincoln and Davis endured what many people under the spotlight suffer as the price for fame. As you will see if you visit the National Museum of American History or its website, at least our nation’s First Ladies have dressed well for the critics.

For more about Mary Todd Lincoln’s social life, I recommend Vidal’s Lincoln, acknowledging that it is a historical novel but contending that Vidal got the history right. For more about Varina Davis, I recommend Rable’s Civil Wars.

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Alexander Stephens – Friend of Lincoln and Vice President of the Confederacy

I can name every United States president. But the vice presidents? No. They have rarely commanded the respect of historians, unless, that is, a president died and the VP took over the Oval Office. Vice President John Nance Garner once referred to the role as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Alexander Stephens (Source: Library of Congress)

Alexander Stephens (Source: Library of Congress)

If a man who occupied the office held the position in such low regard, why would anyone remember the man who held the same position in the Confederacy? One might respond, well, there was only one Confederate vice president after all, so that really is not so hard to remember. And that, perhaps, is why I remember Alexander Stephens was the only Confederate VP. (If the Confederacy had survived, he would have served a six-year term.)

Just as many of the war’s opposing generals had been colleagues before the war, at West Point and/or during the Mexican War, many of the politicians had been former colleagues. Among these were Stephens and Lincoln, both of whom belonged to the Whig Party when they served in the House of Representatives.

Of Stephens, Lincoln said “[A] slim, pale-faced, consumptive man . . . has just concluded the very best speech, of an hour’s length, I ever heard.” Years later, Stephens spoke equally kind words about Lincoln:

“Mr. Lincoln was careful as to his manners, awkward in his speech, but was possessed of a very strong, clear and vigorous mind. He always attracted the riveted attention of the House when he spoke; his manner of speech as well as thought was original . . . his anecdotes were always exceedingly apt and pointed, and socially he always kept his company in a roar of laughter.” [as quoted by Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals, p. 130]

Another photo of Alexander Stephens (Source: Library of Congress)

Another photo of Alexander Stephens (Source: Library of Congress)

In 1860, Stephens spoke bitterly of the Fire Eaters and the split in the Democratic Party. He supported northern Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas for the presidency and argued that the South would be better served by remaining in the Union rather than by seceding from it. Nevertheless, his primary loyalty was to Georgia, not the Union, and he accepted his new role. As vice president of the Confederacy, Stephens got along poorly with Jefferson Davis and was very critical of the Confederate government for suspending habeas corpus and invoking a draft. Stephens spent most of the war in Milledgeville, Georgia, rather than in Richmond. He retained fond memories of Lincoln, although the two men differed in very important respects, especially African-American slavery, which Stephens considered essential to the welfare of the white race.

Despite their differences, Stephens and Lincoln fondly recalled their earlier friendship when peace commissioners from the North and South met in Hampton Roads in January 1865 in an unsuccessful effort to reach peace without further conflict. Stephens, prone to cold in all but the warmest weather, bundled up for the occasion. As Stephens peeled off “a voluminous floor-length overcoat fashioned from blanket-thick cloth, a long wool muffler, and several shawls wound round and round his waist and chest against the cold,” Lincoln realized his former colleague was still the tiny man (under one hundred pounds) he recalled from years earlier. “’Never have I seen so small a nubbin come out of so much husk,’ Lincoln said with a smile as they shook hands.” [Shelby Foote, Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 775-776 (First Vintage Books Edition 1986) (Copyright 1974 by Shelby Foote).

Although the peace commissioners were unable to agree to terms, largely because Lincoln insisted on union and an end to slavery while Davis insisted on separation and perpetuation of slavery, Lincoln granted Stephens a welcome personal accommodation, ordering the release of Stephens’s nephew from a Lake Erie prison camp. Lincoln welcomed the nephew at the White House and gave him a pass through Union lines.

For more information about Alexander Stephens, please refer to Foote’s three-volume opus on the Civil War, Bruce Catton’s three-volume opus on the Civil War, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

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Thomas Day – “A Free Person of Color”

In my novel New Garden, p. 140, I make a brief reference to Thomas Day:

Ellen McAllister had selected all of the home’s furnishings with the exception of those in her husband’s study. Some came from her childhood home in southside Virginia, but most were made by Thomas Day, a free African-American furniture maker who operated a shop in Milton, North Carolina.

Statue of Thomas Day

Statue of Thomas Day (Source: NCPedia.org)

Anyone familiar with the work of Thomas Day knows that antebellum wealthy citizens of North Carolina and Virginia, especially tobacco plantation owners in the Dan River Basin on the Virginia-North Carolina border, prized furniture manufactured by Day.

Day was born in 1801 in southern Virginia, the child of “free persons of color.” He learned his cabinet making skills from his father, who moved the family to Warren County in 1817. In 1825, Day moved to Milton in Caswell County on the Virginia border.

Day quickly acquired a reputation for excellence. Buyers sought not only his furniture, but also fireplace mantles, stair railings, and newel posts for their homes. His pieces were largely of the popular Empire style, but some details often deviated from the norm, giving them a unique sought-after Thomas Day touch. Demand grew to a point that by 1850, he operated the largest furniture factory in North Carolina. He used the latest tools of the period, including machinery powered by steam engines. His employees included slaves that he owned, who worked alongside white employees. In 1838, his white employees included five Moravians of German descent.

As was true in many other states in 1830, North Carolina law prohibited free blacks from migrating into the state. Day had fallen in love with a free black Virginian, Aquilla Wilson. Day’s reputation within North Carolina’s elite was such that 61 white citizens of Milton signed a petition to the state legislature asking that an exception to the law be made for Miss Wilson. The exception was granted, allowing Thomas and Aquilla Day to live together as man and wife.

Milton Presbyterian Church

Milton Presbyterian Church (Source: LearnNC.org)

Day straddled two worlds. He catered to the white elite while negotiating the laws that restricted the movements of persons of color. He sent his children to Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts for their education. He attended at least one abolitionist meeting in New York City in 1850. On the other hand, his shop built the pews for Milton Presbyterian Church, where his family sat among the white parishioners while slaves and other free persons of color sat upstairs. By 1850, he also owned fourteen slaves, but they likely were slaves in name only, as North Carolina law placed severe restrictions on manumission of slaves. New Garden, p. 202.

Like most American businesses, Day’s enterprise suffered from the economic downturn brought on by the Panic of 1857. Day died in 1861, but he had left an indelible mark on the North Carolina economy, an example of what a free African American could accomplish if given only the slightest chance to succeed.

Thomas Day's workshop in Milton, NC

Thomas Day’s workshop in Milton, NC (Source: LearnNC.org)

For more about Thomas Day, go to the following sources:

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Gideon Welles – On Lincoln’s Team, But Not Lincoln’s Rival

Gideon Welles House (Source: Historic Buildings of Connecticut)

Gideon Welles House (Source: Library of Congress)

This week, I continue with the theme of Cabinet officers, this time with Gideon Welles, who along with Secretary of State William Seward, were the only Cabinet officers to serve Lincoln throughout his presidency. Unlike Seward, Welles never considered himself better suited than Lincoln for the Oval Office.

Like Lincoln, his principal rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination – William Seward and Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s first secretary of the Treasury – established successful law practices before entering politics. While Gideon Wells obtained a legal education, he left the practice of law at twenty-four years old to run the Hartford Times, a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. He served in Connecticut’s General Assembly and also was appointed as the state’s postmaster by President Andrew Jackson. In the mid-1850s, he tired of the South’s control over the party and joined the Republican Party. He was 59-years-old when Lincoln chose him to serve in his Cabinet as secretary of the Navy.

Whatever Welles’ talents, historians are unflattering in their physical descriptions.  One describes him as wearing “a wig [that was] a poor match for his voluminous whiskers.” [Catton, The Coming Fury, p. 54 (1961) (2009 Fall River Press edition)] Another says he was “a peculiar-looking man with a curly wig perched on his outsize head, and a flowing white beard.” [Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 232 (2005) (2006 Simon & Schuster paperback edition]

Gideon Welles House (Source: Historic Buildings of Connecticut)

Gideon Welles House (Source: Historic Buildings of Connecticut)

Welles’ Navy included both a “blue water navy” and a “brown water navy,” the latter often supplementing Union armies on America’s rivers, such as on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh, and on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg and New Orleans.

One incident during the Civil War illustrates the contrasting demeanors of Secretary of War Stanton – mercurial, temperamental, prone to panic – with that of cool, calm, and collect Gideon Welles. After the Confederacy’s ironclad, the Merrimack, sank two Union ships in Hampton Roads, Stanton famously panicked at a hastily called Cabinet meeting:

[C]rossing to a window which commanded a long view of the Potomac, he looked out and, trembling visibly, exclaimed: “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or a cannonball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room.”

Welles assured Stanton that the Merrimack would draw too much water if its commander tried to make such a cruise. He also calmly assured President Lincoln and the entire Cabinet that the Navy already had an answer in the form of its own ironclad, the Monitor, which had already reached Hampton Roads. Of course the two ships would fight to a draw, marking the end of the age of wooden warships. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville, p. 258 (1958) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Not only did Welles serve in the Cabinet throughout Lincoln’s presidency, he was there at Lincoln’s end when the president succumbed to an assassin’s bullet at a small townhouse across from Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 981-982 (1974) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

When he took office, Welles “hardly knew one end of a ship from the other.” [The Coming Fury, p. 283], But this was an age when men took on great tasks without any prior experience in the work they set out to accomplish. (One need only look at the California storekeepers who eight years later would complete the western leg of the transcontinental railroad and meet their eastern counterparts at Promontory Summit, Utah.) Four years after Gideon Welles took office, the United States Navy grew from 76 ships to a fleet of 671 and from 7,600 seamen to 51,000. [Team of Rivals, p. 672]. By all accounts, Welles ably served Lincoln and the country, helping to transform the navy from an insignificant flotilla to a fleet worthy of a world power.

You can gain a clearer understanding of how the brown navy worked hand in hand with General U.S. Grant’s troops by reading about the battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in my novel, New Garden, available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing.

You can find more information about Gideon Welles at the National Parks Service’s website, www.nps.gov/resources, and at www.biography.com.

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Judah Benjamin – Indispensable Adviser to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s second Secretary of War was the North’s most brilliant legal mind of the Civil War era. The South’s most brilliant legal mind of the era was Judah Benjamin, former United States Senator from Louisiana. Benjamin served Davis, first as Attorney General, then as Secretary of War, and finally as Secretary of State. He easily was the most prominent Jewish politician of his day (and, yes, I repeat, from Louisiana).

Benjamin was the second Jewish United States Senator, the first being David Levy Yulee of Florida. Both men were born outside the United States, Benjamin in St. Croix and Yulee in St. Thomas.

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator (Source: bioguide.congress.gov)

Benjamin served as Davis’s most trusted adviser throughout the war. Like his Northern counterpart Stanton, Benjamin succeeded an administrator who was not up to the task. As Secretary of War, he butted heads with many of the South’s strong-minded generals, including Joe Johnston and Stonewall Jackson. Jackson submitted his letter of resignation after one such incident, only to have the letter returned to him.  [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville, p. 224 (1958) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

As Secretary of State, Benjamin joined a unanimous cabinet recommending that Davis dismiss General Joe Johnston during the Atlanta campaign. Of Johnston, Benjamin said, “[he] is determined not to fight, it is of no use to re-enforce him, he is not going to fight.” [Catton, Never Call Retreat, p. 330 (1965) (2009 Fall River Press edition)] Davis’s decision to replace Johnston with John Bell Hood proved disastrous. Hood “was determined to fight,” but suffered twenty thousand casualties in the process, troops the South could ill afford to lose, leaving Georgia and the Carolinas largely defenseless against Sherman’s army. [Id., p. 383]

More in line with his duties as Secretary of State, Benjamin attempted through his ministers to obtain Great Britain’s and France’s official recognition of the Confederacy as a nation independent of the United States. Twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, 1863, doomed any such aspirations. Afterwards, Benjamin expressed his belief that the South never had much hope of securing such recognition from Great Britain:

When successful fortune smiles on our arms, the British cabinet is averse to recognition because “it would be unfair to the South by the action of Great Britain to exasperate the North to renewed efforts.” When reverses occur “it would be unfair to the North in a moment of success to deprive it of a reasonable opportunity of accomplishing a reunion of the States.”

[Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fredericksburg to Meridian, p. 655 (1963) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Benjamin remained loyal to Davis to the end, traveling with him and his “cabinet on wheels” from Richmond, to Danville, to Greensboro, to Charlotte, and finally into South Carolina. Finally concluding that the cause was lost, Benjamin conferred with Davis and then traveled “south to the Florida coast, then Bimini, and he set out disguised variously as a farmer and a Frenchman, with a ramshackle cart, a spavined horse, and a mismatched suit of homespun clothes.” Remarkably, Benjamin ultimately landed in Great Britain where he enjoyed a long and successful career as a British barrister. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 1007 and 1049 (1974) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Truly, Judah Benjamin was a remarkable man in a remarkable time.

For more information about Judah Benjamin, see Jonathan Tilove, “Judah P. Benjamin, ‘the Confederate Kissinger,’ Featured in Louisiana State Archives Exhibit,” The Times Picayune (April 20, 2010), www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/04/judah_p_benjamin.

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Civil War Personalities – Simon Cameron

Cameron LOC

Simon Cameron (Source: Library of Congress)

One of the more colorful politicians of the Civil War era was Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, once accused of being so corrupt that the only thing he would not steal was a red hot stove.

Another politician, Edwin Stanton, served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War, but before assuming that position in February, 1862, he served as legal adviser to his predecessor, Simon Cameron.

When Lincoln’s political managers worked for his nomination at the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, they made many promises, some overt and others subtle, to secure the delegates needed for the nomination. They desperately needed Pennsylvania’s delegates, and no one questioned U.S. Senator Cameron’s ability to deliver them, with the understanding that Pennsylvania would cast its votes for favorite-son Cameron on the first ballot and for Lincoln on subsequent ballots.

Stanton Library of Congress

Edwin Stanton (Source: Library of Congress)

The leading contender, Senator William Seward, thought he had secured Cameron’s support in a visit to the Pennsylvanian’s home in the spring of 1860, trusting the quote often attributed to Cameron that “an honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.” [Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 217]. But when the Republicans convened in May, many Pennsylvania delegates thought Seward was not electable.

While Seward waited at his Auburn, New York estate for word of his nomination, the anti-Seward forces were hard at work in Chicago. In exchange for Pennsylvania’s support, Cameron wanted Lincoln to give him the Treasury post and sole control of all political patronage in Pennsylvania. [Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury, pp. 60-61 (1961) (2009 edition).] Cameron was known as the “Winnebago chief” for purportedly swindling the Winnebago tribe in a supply contract [McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 260 (1988)], and any suggestion that Lincoln would agree to give a reputed crook control of the government’s purse strings is disingenuous. But Lincoln’s men at least gave a wink and a nod of some sort assuring Cameron of a position in the Cabinet. Pennsylvania delivered its support and Seward would have to be satisfied with the State Department rather than the White House.

Interestingly, during the first year of the war, many military contracts went to manufacturers in Cameron’s home state of Pennsylvania. In addition, military supplies traveled inordinate distances on Pennsylvania railroads. There were also many complaints about the quality of materials furnished to the troops. The war added new words to the vernacular, including “shoddy,” charges of pressed scraps of wool used to make uniforms that fell apart after a few weeks’ wear. [McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, p. 183 (Third Edition, 2001)]

Because he received intense criticism for his poor management of the War Department, Cameron sought to secure his fragile position by kowtowing to the Radical Republicans in Congress. In the War Department’s December 1861 annual report, he advocated freeing and arming slaves who escaped into Union army lines. [Ordeal by Fire, p. 291] This early in the war, Lincoln was struggling to keep the slaveholding border states in the Union. Cameron’s report did not help.

In January, 1862, Lincoln let Cameron know his services in Washington were no longer needed. The President ultimately accepted Cameron’s letter of resignation and appointed him as Minister to Russia, thereby sending him where he could do no further harm to the war effort. [Team of Rivals, pp. 410-412]

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The Willard Hotel and the Civil War

The Willard Hotel

The Willard Hotel, Washington, DC

Every theatrical performance requires a cast and a set. In the never-ending drama that is our nation’s capital, the Willard Hotel has served as one of the sets for Washington’s cast of politicians, generals, and lobbyists for well over 150 years, but perhaps most dramatically since the years leading up to the Civil War. People inside the Washington Beltway and Civil War buffs probably are familiar with the luxury hotel, which sits two blocks east of the White House. Most other Americans probably are not.

I spent three years working in Washington as a young attorney, and I recall the first time I saw the Willard in 1978. I was one of fifteen passengers in a vanpool that operated between D.C. and Columbia, Maryland. One evening, our driver drove past a massive, twelve-story Beaux Arts-style structure that I thought was beautiful but needed some work. I asked another passenger about the building and he said “It’s a dump full of nothing but rats.” I later learned he was not exaggerating.

Lobby of the Willard decorated for Christmas

Lobby of the Willard decorated for Christmas

The current hotel was built in 1901. Its predecessor was a four-story structure built in 1847 (which was preceded by a collection of six buildings built in 1816). The Lincolns lived in the Willard for ten days before Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. (The Twentieth Amendment, adopted on February 6, 1933, changed the inauguration date to January 20. Inauguration takes place on January 21 if the 20th falls on a Sunday.)

In February 1861, the Willard hosted the obviously unsuccessful Peace Convention, held by delegates from 21 states, in hopes of averting war.

The Willard also served as U.S. Grant’s lodging in March, 1864, when he went to Washington to accept his promotion to Lieutenant General, commander of all the Union armies. In my novel, New Garden (Chapter 76, “A Third Star”), I include a scene where the protagonist, Major Jack Grier, accompanies Grant to the Willard, where Grier meets an old friend, Senator Eli Monroe.

Grant’s registration at the Willard is humorously depicted in Shelby Foote’s three-volume opus on the Civil War (Volume 3, Red River to Appomattox, pages 3-4):

A short, round-shouldered man in a very tarnished major general’s uniform, he seemed to a bystanding witness to have “no gait, no station, no manner,  … as if he was out of office and on half pay, with nothing to do but hang around the entry of Willard’s, cigar in mouth.” *** Still, bright or tarnished, stars were stars; a certain respect was owed, if not to the man who wore them, then in any case to the rank they signified; the clerk replied at last that he would give him what he had, a small top-floor room, if that would do. It would, [Grant] said, and when the register was given its practiced half-circle twirl he signed without delay. The desk clerk turned it back again, still maintaining the accustomed, condescending air he was about to lose in shock when he read what the weathered applicant had written: “U.S. Grant & Son – Galena, Illinois.”

Needless to say, the clerk abruptly changed his attitude.  He suddenly found that he could upgrade Grant and his son to the same suite the Lincoln family had enjoyed four years earlier.

The Willard has hosted many celebrities and politicians over the years, including Jenny Lind, Julia Ward Howe, General Pershing, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.

Now, back to when the Willard fell on hard times. The hotel closed in 1968, but was restored to its prior grandeur and reopened on August 20, 1986, as the Willard InterContinental. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one who thought it was a magnificent building well worth preserving.

For more information about the Willard, please go to the hotel’s website at http://www.washington.intercontinental.com. Additional information may be found at www.historichotels.org. The hotel is also used as a backdrop for many scenes in Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Lincoln.

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The 1860 Democratic National Convention: Seeds of Self-Destruction

1860 DNC in Charleston, SC (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society)

1860 DNC in Charleston, SC (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society)

It sounds outrageously preposterous today, a Democratic national convention held in Charleston, South Carolina. But the Democratic party of April 1860 was very different from the one of today.

Northern and Southern Democrats were fiercely anti-abolitionist, the primary difference being that Northern Democrats supported Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine, whereby federal law would not protect slavery in any territory where the people did not want it. Southern Democrats would hear none of it, demanding a government that supported the rights of masters to employ their slaves wherever, whenever, and however they wished. They were accustomed to a Southern-dominated Supreme Court, a Southerner or a Southern sympathizer in the White House, and an equally divided Senate that protected slave owners’ rights as new states were admitted into the Union. They feared the prospect of new states tilting the balance in the Senate as Americans settled territory not conducive to a slave-based economy.

Senator Stephen Douglas (Source: The New York Times)

Senator Stephen Douglas (Source: The New York Times)

The Democratic delegates expected Senator William Seward of New York to win the Republican nomination. Republicans accepted slavery where it was already legal, but opposed its further expansion. A unified Democratic Party could win the White House only by winning some states outside the South’s borders.

Many Southern delegates saw little difference between Seward’s position and that of Douglas if future states were likely to outlaw slavery anyway. The Southern “Fire Eaters” wanted more and were prepared to go their own way if they didn’t get it. They demanded a plank in the party platform providing:

. . . that the Democracy of the United States hold these cardinal principles on the subject of slavery in the Territories; First, that Congress has no power to abolish slavery in the Territories; Second, that the Territorial Legislature has no power to abolish slavery in any Territory, nor to prohibit the introduction of slaves therein, nor any power to exclude slavery therefrom, nor any right to destroy or impair the right of property in slaves by any legislation whatever.

It was too much for the Northern delegates to swallow. The Douglas forces won a hollow victory when the plank was voted down. But Douglas needed two thirds of the delegates’ support to win the nomination. The Fire Eaters walked out when they did not get their way and the chairman ruled a candidate had to win two thirds of the delegates including in that number the delegates who had walked out. The delegates agreed to reconvene in Baltimore in June.

Senator William Seward (Source: About.com)

Senator William Seward (Source: About.com)

In Baltimore the Douglas forces got a new chairman, new rules, and pro-Douglas delegates from the cotton states, thereby securing the nomination. The Fire Eaters held their own convention, nominating the sitting vice-president, John Breckinridge. The party had split, paving the way for Lincoln’s, not Seward’s, election. Six months later, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.

Thus, although the first shots were not fired until April 12, 1861, the seeds of self-destruction were sown in the same city one year earlier.

For an excellent historical account of the Charleston convention, see chapter 1 of Bruce Catton’s The Coming Fury (1961). For a fictional account (with the same results), see chapter 62 of my novel, New Garden (2013), where one of the principal characters serves as a North Carolina delegate.

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