A few weeks ago I posted several entries having to do with the Republicans, black rights, and northern racism. Basically, I’m arguing that a solid majority of Republicans came to advocate equal rights for African Americans both in the South and in the North, but that they discovered that basing their appeal on equality before the law did not fare well with the northern electorate. The vast majority of Democrats opposed black equality, and so did some conservative Republicans, many of whom were slowly finding their way back into Democratic ranks with the conclusion of the Civil War.
One of the questions sure to spark a sharp debate is the question of whether secession was constitutional at the time of the secession crisis of 1860-61. Yes, I know there’s an argument on whether secession’s constitutional today, but, frankly, that’s a different argument, given a few events such as Texas v. White (1869). To this day, however, people flatly declare that secession is or is not constitutional, followed by comments that suggest that they question the sanity if not the intelligence of anyone who holds a contrary view.
As a historian, what’s important to me is that Americans in 1860-61 disagreed over whether secession was constitutional. Some people said yes, some people said no. There had been much discussion of this issue ever since the framing of the Constitution itself, and no one emerged with an argument that was satisfactory to all. Read more
Today is the anniversary of the worst day in American history.
Yes, I know that it’s the traditional income tax due day, although that has been moved this year to April 18, because of a Civil War-related holiday: Emancipation Day in the District of Columbia. Traditionally that’s celebrated on April 16, but since that falls on a Saturday this year, DC employees have Friday off, which in turn moves tax day to the following Monday. And yes, the RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg late the previous night. That tragic event led in turn to an equally tragic movie starring that kid from Growing Pains. Historical note: Henry Adams, the American historian who accompanied his father to London in 1861, had booked return passage on the ill-fated vessel.
Moreover, good things have happened on April 15. Today Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day.
Oh, I’m sure some people will point to what happened 150 years ago today, when Abraham Lincoln made his initial call for troops to quell a certain rebellion. But we all know that mobilizing state militia for ninety days was not going to be enough, although the call did have ramifications down the line as the clock was ticking on the expiration of this call as opposing forces converged at Bull Run.
And no, sad as it may have been, April 15 is not the worst day in American history because it’s the day that Lincoln died. Yes, that was a tragedy, at least to many people, although apparently not to all, then and now.
No, April 15 is the worst day in American history because Read more
Much has been said about the meeting between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, in Wilmer McLean’s parlor. Much less is said about their second meeting at Appomattox Court House, which took place on a wet April 10 in a field not far from what was to become known as Surrender Triangle. Yet that meeting was important in its own way, both in terms of what might have been as well as misunderstandings about what might have been.
On April 6, 1865, Robert E. Lee watched as his army was smashed at Sayler’s/Sailor’s Creek (oh, yes, another battle that goes by many names). “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” he asked as he saw what remained of his Army of Northern Virginia come toward him. That bad moment soon passed, but one wonders what impression remained.
The following day the Confederates made their way through Farmville. Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, who met with Lee that day, reported, “The straggling has been great, and the situation is not favorable.” That evening, Lee opened a dispatch that had been drafted hours before in Farmville. It was a letter from Ulysses S. Grant, calling on Lee to surrender.
Over the next thirty-six hours Lee pondered what to do. He rejected Grant’s first offer, observing that he did not believe further resistance was “hopeless,” an observation open to question. Still, he was curious as to Grant’s terms, suggesting that perhaps pride and pragmatism were wrestling in his mind and heart. Grant’s reply outlined the terms he would reduce to paper in Wilmer McLean’s parlor and proposed a process to arrange for the terms. For a moment pride won out: Lee snapped in his reply, “I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army,” he declared. Then pragmatism regained the upper hand, because Lee was willing to meet Grant on April 9, for his counterpart’s “proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command & tend to the restoration of peace.”
What exactly was Lee trying to achieve? Each expression of defiance was followed by a expressed willingness to negotiate. Within hours it was evident that the vise was closing, and the following morning it would become painfully evident. The emergency seemed apparent to all, and one wonders what was to be gained once Grant revealed his terms. After all, as of the morning of April 9 (and people forget this), Lee’s offer to meet that day was still open, and he had yet to receive a response from Grant. The notion that Lee chose to negotiate only after assessing the situation on the morning of April 9 is wrong; Lee was approaching the location where he had proposed to meet Grant when he received Grant’s reply, in which Grant said that he had “no authority to treat on the subject of peace.” It was at that point that Lee sent a note saying that he was willing to meet “in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose” — that purpose being surrender. When it looked as if there would be a fight anyway, Lee wrote a second time to “ask for a suspension of hostilities”–apparently the man who had stood on the process of how to request a truce at Cold Harbor now found it difficult to ask for one himself–”pending the adjustment of the terms of the surrender of this army.”
It must have hurt to write that message. And yet it is worth asking what was going through Lee’s mind during the last three days. What other option did he really have? Or was it a case of just finding it a little too difficult to accept the end? For in delaying to act as he finally did, Lee’s indecision resulted in the deaths of more of his beloved men and might indeed have led to a horrendous bloodbath on April 9 had messages not made their way back and forth in timely fashion.
What do you make of Lee’s behavior, keeping in mind that we know know that the story about Lee discussing (and declining) the chance to continue the war as a guerrilla operation is a rather bad misreading of the sources?
Today marks the 149th anniversary of the opening day of the battle of Shiloh. To my way of thinking, the memory of the battle (a process that started while bodies were still being buried) is an interesting one, because most of the issues, at least from the Union side, were already framed within days of the battle.
Contrary to myth, Henry W. Halleck had always planned to journey to Pittsburg Landing once Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio linked up with Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Halleck looked for this large army to make its way south to Corinth to take that critical railroad junction. His greatest fear was that Grant might get involved in some sort of battle or go off on his own prior to his arrival, and so he sought to restrain Grant from probing south. After all, Grant had gone on to Fort Donelson on his own after the fall of Fort Henry, and we all know how that worked out.
If Abraham Lincoln made a choice that he knew might risk war in 1861 when he decided to resupply the garrison at Fort Sumter, Jefferson Davis made a choice that ensued the commencement of hostilities. There were alternatives before him. He could have allowed Fort Sumter to be resupplied; he might have ordered the commander of Confederate forces at Charleston, Pierre G. T. Beauregard, to fire on the relief expedition; or he could choose (as he did) to authorize firing on Fort Sumter itself. The first choice would have prolonged the stalemate in Charleston Harbor; the second would have been a repeat of the Star of the West incident in January 1861, when South Carolinians fired upon a vessel approaching Sumter to resupply and reinforce the garrison; the third was clearly the most provocative and confrontational response.
Much is made of the notion that Lincoln somehow forced Davis’s hand. Read more
In April 1861 Abraham Lincoln made a choice to resupply Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Harbor. In so doing he was fully aware that he risked having the convoy fired upon by Confederate forces in and around Charleston. He also knew that he risked having the fort attacked by those same Confederates.
We know that Lincoln could have made a different choice, because he considered alternatives. He had done so for weeks.
Given Lincoln’s commitment to reject secession, why did he make the choice he made? What other choices were there? Did he make the right choice?
Republicans entered the presidential election year of 1868 aware of the lessons taught them by the outcome of the elections of 1866 and 1867. Basically, emphasizing wartime sentiments bolstered the party’s chances, while emphasizing the party’s commitment to black rights chipped away at the party’s base in the North, where not all that many Republicans had to defect in closely-contested states in order for Democrats to secure a triumph. Moreover, in the last presidential election, the enormity of Lincoln’s triumph in the electoral college obscured the fact that 45% of the northern electorate preferred George B. McClellan and the Democratic party in the wake of a series of important Union victories in the three months prior to election day. One could treat the election of 1864 as demonstrating Republican maximum strength in the North. With the war over, that strength might well decline … unless you could convince enough voters that the war wasn’t really over, that the fruits of Union victory might be sacrificed should the Democrats (supported by the votes of former Confederates) gain office.
Recently I discussed how speaking about “the North” during the Civil War era without distinguishing between Republicans and Democrats offers a distorted view of that period, especially when it comes to matters of race. Democrats were far more unified when it came to their views on race and slavery than were Republicans, those Democrats who did defect to the Republican coalition in 1861 did so because they believed, first and foremost, in the Union. Only a few of those Democrats (and here the much-maligned Benjamin F. Butler takes pride of place) changed their minds about race and racial prejudice. Moreover, many of the Democrats who defected to Republican ranks in the 1850s held fast to their attitudes on race, including the Blair family and Gideon Welles.
It’s an accepted interpretation of Civil War historiography that the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation caused many war Democrats to reconsider their support for the Lincoln administration’s conduct of the war effort. I think that assumption is worth some reexamination, because I wonder how much people like Horatio Seymour, who was elected governor of New York in 1862, were really supportive of the Lincoln administration in the first place. A more notable erosion of Republican strength started in 1865, when some conservative Republican leaders began making their way back to the ranks of the Democracy as the war came to an end and Andrew Johnson replaced Abraham Lincoln as president. These people cared little for the cause of emancipation and racial equality and showed little concern for the fate of the freedmen. Of equal importance was the fact that in the North, while one could muster a majority for Republicans in 1864 on the issues of waging war and destroying slavery, with war’s end those two goals appeared to be accomplished, leaving some voters to reassess their allegiances.
Republicans understood that equality before the law for African Americans in the North was going to be a hard sell in several northern states, especially outside New England. This was especially true when it came to suffrage. Most Republican voters might support equal rights and enfranchisement, but there were enough defectors to make those positions difficult to sustain through to victory at the polls. However, the response of white southerners to the opportunity given them through Johnson’s Reconstruction policies to reshape their own world gave white northerners, especially Republican and Republican-leaning voters, pause. The rise of antiblack violence, the election of former Confederates to office, and the generally recalcitrant attitude of former Confederates, combined with Johnson’s decision to back the results of self-reconstruction under his policy, gave Republicans an excellent opportunity to argue that a Democratic victory would mean that the sacrifice of the Civil War had all gone for naught. News of the Memphis and New Orleans riots simply advanced that case, and Johnson’s bizarre behavior during the Swing Around the Circle helped Republicans secure an overwhelming victory in the off year elections of 1866, complete with veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress. In short, refight the war and Republicans would prevail. Make the elections a struggle to prevent former Confederates and their northern Democratic allies/pawns from regaining power as a means to undoing the results of the war, and Republicans would win. Make race relations a “southern thing,” and one could rest satisfied that, at least for now, that would be enough to secure a Republican triumph.
In the wake of the elections of 1866 Republicans proceeded to pass what became known as the Reconstruction Acts after southern state legislatures failed to follow Tennessee’s lead by rejecting the Fourteenth Amendment. The initial act basically enfranchised southern blacks, and provided the foundation for equality before the law coming from southern state constitutional conventions (as opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which established some federal safeguards to protect equality before the law). But what Republicans did after that eventually caused them to pause and reflect on political strategy. In 1867 the party pushed again for equality before the law and enfranchisement in the North in several key northern states, including Ohio. Recall that civil rights and suffrage were still issues addressed at the state level: the Civil Rights Act kicked in only in cases of state inaction when it came to equality before the law. This time there were no major race rots in the South (although white supremacist violence continued) and no Swing Around the Circle.
Democrats staged a comeback in 1867, especially in Ohio, where a proposal to enfranchise blacks failed and the Democrats took over the state legislature, meaning the end of Radical Republican Benjamin F. Wade’s tenure in the Senate. Chaistened, Republicans learned that in closely competitive states, proposals for black suffrage would not fare well. Although a significant majority of Republicans were willing to support such measures, just enough voters defected (either by sitting out the election or voting alongside Democratic opponents of such measures) to ensure the defeat of these initiatives.
As Michael Les Benedict pointed out years ago, the elections of 1867 demonstrated the limits of radicalism for Republicans. The lesson seemed clear: a move back to the center featuring an antiSouth appeal promised better electoral prospects than did continuing to advocate black equality. The elections of 1868 and the decision to return once more to the constitutional amendment process illustrated what they learned, as we shall see shortly.