The Lessons of the Elections of 1866 and 1867

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.


Not too long ago we had a rather lively exchange in the comments section in which a commenter saw much in common between Lincoln’s plans for colonization, Grant’s plans for annexation, and a series of proposals to relocate African Americans within the United States (somewhere in the South).  My position was (and continues to be) that the differences in these plans are critical to understanding them, and that while Lincoln publicly supported the relocation of freed blacks outside of the United States, he was far quieter about resettlement within the United States: what we have on that issue is based largely on the recollections of others some time after the fact.  Lincoln himself seemed rather non-committal about the notion, and as of now we lack the documentation on his views about internal relocation that we have for his views on colonization outside the United States.  Moreover, many of those people who developed resettlement plans within the boundaries of the United States opposed Grant’s plan of annexation, suggesting that they saw the two ideas as vastly different.

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Slavery, Emancipation, and the Sesquicentennial

Several weeks ago in Fredericksburg Remembered John Hennessy offered a thoughtful post on the experience of leading a tour of slavery-related sites in Fredericksburg to a group of people, the majority of whom were African American.  The topic, which John has returned to in other posts, concerned the role of the National Park Service in privileging the story of reconciliation over the issues of slavery and emancipation.  There is something to that, perhaps, although, as John had pointed out elsewhere, the NPS often mirrors the mainstream approach rather than drives it, and when it has driven it, as in the case of the new NPS museum at Gettysburg, it gets flack from some quarters for introducing questions of why they fought as opposed to how they fought.

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The North, Politics, and Race: Some Observations

Sometimes people are prone to group together that which should be kept distinct.  For example, then folks often speak of “southerners,” they overlook the fact that such a term should include blacks as well as whites, and that not all white southerners supported the Confederacy, so one should not equate “southerner” with “Confederate.”  Much the same can be said about “northerner.”  True, there were fewer free blacks in the North, but white northerners were quite divided during the Civil War era, and one must understand those divisions in order to understand what happened.  For our purposes, the most important division is partisan: Democrat versus Republican.  Even those divisions changed in the years leading up to the war, the war itself, and after the war.

Those divisions in turn had a great deal to do with the politics of race.  Continue reading

So Your Ancestor Fought For the Union …

Some time ago, in the comments space of a post that explored the meaning of having had ancestors fight for the Confederacy for some folks, a contributor to the comment section suggested that it would be a good idea to explore the meaning of having an ancestor fight for the Union.

Two of my direct ancestors fought for the Union, also known, by the way, as the United States.  One served as a drummer boy in the 23rd Pennsylvania, while the other served in the 5th and 146th New York — all three were Zouave outfits, thus establishing a tradition of sharp and snappy dressing for descendants.  The drummer boy signed up in 1861, while the New Yorker signed up in the summer of 1862 and joined the 5th New York in the wake of Second Manassas, where it had suffered heavy losses defending John Pope’s left flank against James Longstreet’s devastating assault.  His first chance for action came at Shepherdstown, just a few days after Antietam.  The drummer boy was captured at Stone House Mountain, Virginia, in September 1863, by none other than Mosby’s men, but escaped; he mustered out on September 8, 1864.  The New Yorker served until the end of the war, transferring to the 146th New York during Chancellorsville.

I have visited several of the battlefields where both ancestors saw action (although one might want to qualify that in the case of the drummer boy).  For the New Yorker, that includes being among one of the last men to recross the Rappahannock after Fredericksburg; defending Little Round Top right in front of the Warren statue; and charging across Saunders Field in the Wilderness.  The 23rd Pennsylvania was on Culp’s Hill, although it appears to have moved between several positions during Gettysburg.  Outside of that, however, I can’t tell you much about their service, what they believed, and so on.  After the war the New Yorker spent some time in Florida before returning north, and, as he was there after the end of Reconstruction, I would not necessarily count him as a carpetbagger, although the family seems to have voted Republican in later generations.

Now, given what I know about the Civil War, I can speculate as to motives for joining the army on the part of these two fellows, but, lacking any other documentation, that’s as far as I can go.  Nor can I infer much about their politics outside of what I know about how political affiliation tends to be passed down from generation to generation (my grandmother adored Theodore Roosevelt, whom she met, and so I’d suspect that her roots were Republican, and that’s where we find these ancestors).  So, for me, the disconnect is obvious.  Any effort I made to project certain interpretations of what the war was about by relying on the story of these two ancestors would tell us more about me than about them.  Others may have more information about their ancestors.

In any case, the question that comes to mind is whether having ancestors who served in the Union army materially affects how I view the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I’d have to say no.  Rather, I view the fact of their service as separate and distinct from matters of motivation, causation, and meaning.  I can take pride and interest in their service without having that affect what I have to say about the Civil War era.

What about you?

More Than a Question of Counting?

The news is that in North Carolina and Virginia researchers are recounting the number of Civil War soldiers from each state who died in the Civil War.  These reports suggest that while fewer Tar Heels may have given their lives for the cause of southern independence, more citizens of the Old Dominion sacrificed all in the line of duty in the Confederate military services, enough so that the one-accepted claim that North Carolina suffered the highest number of military war dead might be set aside in favor of Virginia.

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The Confederacy and State Rights

One of the arguments one always hears is that the southern states seceded to protect state rights … sometimes as a way to counter claims that white southerners seceded to protect slavery.  Anyone familiar with American history knows that white southerners were far more consistent in their protection of slavery than state rights, and that they had no problem violating state rights in their efforts to protect slavery, a clear recognition of the relationship of means (which might, or might not, include state rights) and ends (the protection of slavery).

Once the Confederacy was established, however, it soon found its commitment to state rights challenged by war.  Continue reading