A Nation Divided – The Cherokees (Article 64)

For over seven months in 1861, the tension was palpable within the Cherokee Tribal Council. While there was an elected Principal Chief, the position was not autocratic and was only one of about twenty Tribal leaders. On one side of the debates, Chief John Ross urged caution, and believed the Cherokee Nation could avoid conflict by remaining neutral in the “White Man’s War” that had just started. On the other side, Stand Watie, another respected leader, spoke of a new beginning for his people as he urged alignment with the Confederate States of America; although he knew that came with the risk of battle against forces of the United States. Watie argued that, after what would surely be a quick victory over the northern states, the Confederate government would recognize the Cherokee Nation’s sovereignty and provide representation in the new country’s Congress. John Ross countered that the vast resources of the North would prevent an early victory by the South. There was one additional key argument by some Cherokees who urged siding with the Confederate government; a common interest in protecting slavery. Those tribal members wanted retain the nearly 3,000 black slaves they owned, which represented their largest “asset” and most of the Native Nation’s wealth.

The discussions went on for months, and the divisions within the Nation were clear. Again!

The Cherokee Nation had been divided before. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1835, Ross and Watie led opposing factions when White merchants in Georgia persuaded the Federal Government to permit confiscation of tribal lands which held valuable gold deposits, salt mines, timber and other resources. All of the Cherokee leaders realized that they could not win a military battle against Federal forces empowered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830; and other nearby tribes had already agreed to relocation, including Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. The question was not whether they would lose some or all of their lands, but rather which leader could negotiate the best settlement with the United States Government.  Chief Ross, who headed the Union Party, believed he could negotiate an agreement for compensation, in return for giving up a large portion of their land; but would allow the Cherokee to retain some of their property and stay in Georgia. On the other hand, Watie and other Cherokee leaders, including brothers John and Major Ridge, were convinced that Federal forces, joined by Georgia militia, would willingly and readily annihilate the Cherokee to gain all of their land. Watie’s group formed an opposition party, initially called the Ridge Party, but later known as the Treaty Party, specifically to negotiate a treaty with the United States which would avoid war and obtain reasonable compensation for their Georgia lands; but would require relocation to western Indian Territory. Watie and his co-founders of the Treaty Party claimed to represent the majority of Cherokee and signed the Treaty of New Echota with the United States; which called for removal from Georgia to Indian Territory by 1838, in return for promised financial support. John Ross did not sign the treaty and argued in the U.S. Congress and in State and Federal Courts for the next three years that the document was not valid; but he was ultimately unsuccessful.  In a rare instance of political violence among the Cherokee, several founding members of the Treaty Party were found murdered, including the two Ridge brothers; but, whether by design or by luck, Watie was not attacked and no one was ever charged with the crimes.

However, the outcome for the Cherokee people was already set in motion; and, in 1838, nearly 20,000 were removed from their homes by the U.S. Army and Georgia militia and forced to march westward nearly a thousand miles to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).  The government did not bother to keep accurate records, but at least 3,000 thousand Cherokee died on the journey; which became known as “The Trail of Tears” to many Americans, but “The Trail Where They Cried” among their own people. Over time the survivors settled into the Indian Territory and re-built a functioning society; although most relocated Cherokee were now dependent on government assistance, unlike their earlier self-sustaining culture in Georgia.

Even Principal Chief John Ross had to adapt to life in Indian Territory. Born in 1790 to a Cherokee mother and a Scottish father, he was comfortable in both Native and White cultures. He served in the War of 1812, and then began a career as a merchant and lawyer in Tennessee.  Ross became interested in Cherokee politics and relocated to Georgia to participate in the Tribal Council; and, because he was bright, bi-lingual, and energetic, he soon became an influential leader within the Cherokee Nation. John Ross was first elected to his position as Principal Chief in 1828, over thirty years before the Civil War, and continued as Chief until 1866, the year following the end of the War. While he had responsibility for management of the Cherokee Nation’s affairs, he was only one voice in their representative system.

Ross had been deeply affected by the “relocation” to Indian Territory in 1838. His large farm had been confiscated and he lost his prosperous legal practice; but to him, the worst blow of all came when his wife died during the forced march. Despite his contention that the United States had colluded with Georgians to remove the Cherokee Nation from their homeland, he had no trust that the new Confederate Government (of which Georgia was a part) would be any better for his people. So, Chief Ross had argued for the Nation to remain neutral, and, for a few months, he seemed to be holding the Cherokee Nation together. At one point, he was so confident that he notified U.S. Indian Agents in their territory that the Cherokee would not choose sides in the looming civil conflict. Ross knew better than most that the war would not be easily won by either North or South and, as a pragmatist, he wanted to keep his options open. But, he also was simply tired of conflict. He was over 70 years old, had been the Chief of the tribe for thirty years, and he did not want to see the new generation of young men further decimated by war. Some historians claim his arguments for neutrality were staged and that he really supported the Confederacy because he owned slaves; however, Ross had already granted them “freedman” status. But, because the former slaves were the second or third generations connected to the Ross family with whom they had lived and worked their entire lives, they chose to remain with Ross.

Chief Ross’s primary opponent, both in the 1835 relocation debates and now in the Civil War debates, was Stand Watie who argued for the Cherokee to align with the new Confederate government. Like Ross, Watie had lived among White society in Georgia and was educated as a lawyer; but the confiscation of the Cherokee lands and re-settlement to Indian Territory caused him to despise and distrust the United States government. Although he was an astute businessman and became one of most wealthy Cherokee in Indian Territory, Watie blamed the Federal government for numerous broken promises in violation of the New Echota treaty of 1835, which he had supported; and that certainly influenced his support for a treaty with the new Confederate government. But Watie was indifferent to the “States’ Rights” position of the Southerners, or their other political and economic grievances with the United States. He had more fundamental goals in mind! He believed that, after a quick Southern victory over the North, the Cherokee Nation would be rewarded for their loyalty with civil equality and representation in the Confederate Congress, and, at least, a possibility that they might regain some of their ancestral lands in Georgia. Equally important at the time, he fully expected that a Southern government would continue to protect the rights of Cherokee slave owners.

Although a state of War existed between the United States and the Confederate States after the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, not much happened for the next few months. Then, after the decisive Confederate victory at First Manassas (Bull Run) in July, the mood within the Cherokee Nation changed as more of their people became convinced that the Confederates would win the war.

The debates intensified and every participant understood that the stakes were high. Those outsiders who knew about the earlier murders of the members of the Treaty Party, might have expected confrontation, perhaps even violence, between the differing sides; but the Cherokee were respectful people who listened to others and gave open counsel.

And, then, on August 21, 1861, they decided.

The Cherokee Nation agreed to join forces with the new Confederate States of America. As difficult as it must have been for him, Chief Ross accepted the majority’s decision and represented the Cherokee in negotiations with the Confederacy; and then he signed the new treaties. Those agreements ended any obligations between the Cherokee Nation and the United States, and established Confederate obligations to the Cherokee for more rations, farm implements, and defined borders (within Indian Territory which was basically Oklahoma). Further, an amalgamation of Tribes would be given representation in the Confederate Congress; something the United states had discussed but never formalized. In return, the Cherokee agreed to form several Confederate military units to provide protection within their lands, but they were not to be deployed to fight U.S. forces elsewhere. Each Cherokee unit was led by a Native officer, appointed by the Confederate Army. Stand Watie was designated a Colonel and agreed to form, and lead, a unit of at least 1,000 Cherokee Cavalrymen.

In the summer of 1862, Chief John Ross was captured by U.S. Army troops and taken to Washington DC, where, in exchange for a pardon and the promise of future financial considerations for his Nation, he agreed to support the Union cause. Three of his sons even joined the Union Army and one died in a Confederate prison. He came to know President Abraham Lincoln and believed that his willingness to lead those Cherokees he represented to pledge allegiance to the Union would gain favor for his Nation when the war ended. His pledge was not a hollow gesture because he was still considered to be the Principal Chief by many Cherokees and led the largest contingent of the fractured Native Nation.

However, in Ross’s absence, Stand Watie was named a separate Principal Chief. So, the Cherokee Nation was now truly divided; just like the rest of the Country.

Watie immediately called a draft of every Cherokee male from 18-50 years of age into military units of the Confederate Army. Watie was already a strong leader before the war, but his new rank of Colonel and a few early successes against Union forces within the Indian territories, also cemented his reputation as a military commander. In 1864 he was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of a newly formed large unit, named the Indian Cavalry Brigade, which included men from other tribes such as Creek, Osage and Seminole. General Watie then moved out of Indian Territory into Arkansas (a Confederate state under constant attack and occupation by Union Forces), where he led his troops to several victories over the U.S. Army. General Watie was so dedicated to the Confederacy that he and his Cherokee soldiers continued skirmishes with Union troops until June 23, 1865; over two months after Generals Lee and Johnston had surrendered the two largest Confederate armies.

The Civil War divided the United States as a nation and split many families. The War also divided the Cherokee Nation and created familial chasms that would take a century to heal.

At the end of the war, John Ross resumed his duties as the Principal Chief of all Cherokee and began to negotiate with the United States for a new “reconstruction treaty” for his people. He tried for nearly a year to gain some concessions that would lead the Cherokee out of the consistent poverty which they had experienced in Indian Territory since 1838. However, with Abraham Lincoln gone and replaced by a new President, Andrew Johnson, who considered Indian matters less important than others he faced, Chief Ross made little progress. Exacerbating his dilemma, many Union Congressional leaders considered the whole Cherokee Nation traitorous because of the Confederate service by the followers of Stand Watie. Finally, in late 1865, Ross was able to meet with President Johnson, whose administration then recognized Chief Ross as the official spokesman for the Cherokee Nation and granted some assurances for financial aid and the promise of gradual return of control over Native affairs. In August 1866, John Ross was still in Washington trying to negotiate a new treaty for Native Sovereignty when, following another day of meetings with the Federal bureaucracy, he died. He was seventy-six years old.

After the War, Stand Watie formed a mercantile company (primarily trading in tobacco) within the Cherokee portion of Indian Territory. When the Federal government levied excise taxes on his business, he refused to pay believing that the U.S. Government could not tax Native businesses on Indian land.  He lost his case, and his business, in Federal Court. He died penniless in 1871.

The Cherokee Nation had divided over whether the United States of America or the Confederate States of America would most likely honor treaties and give them fair consideration after the Civil War. Neither choice, as events unfolded, would prove to be good for the Cherokee.


Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail .com or see other articles at www.alincolnbygadorris.com





Native American Dilemma – Which Side To Choose (Article 63)

“I am glad to see one real American here.”  – Said Confederate General Robert E. Lee, graciously nodding to Union Army Colonel Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe, when surrendering at Appomattox.

“We are all Americans here.” – Said Colonel Parker, in an equally courteous reply to General Lee.

There are thousands of stories about the Civil War and those who fought for either the Union or the Confederacy and the vast majority tell of the exploits of White men (and women) who chose to serve one side or the other. There are also numerous accounts of the service of Black soldiers, most of whom fought for the Union, but there were some who served Confederate forces.

On the other hand, the service of Native Americans in the Great War, whether for the Union or the Confederacy, has not been as extensively covered. It is estimated that nearly 30,000 members of various Tribes and Nations served in the war, over 20,000 for the Union. (The Union Army records were more thorough than those of the Confederate Army, but, still not very complete, so the exact numbers will never be known). Further, it is likely that over 2,500 Native Americans died in combat, or later from wounds, during the Civil War. Some of the battles in which they participated are famous and familiar, because they involved thousands of troops; such as Antietam, Pea Ridge, Cold Harbor, Second Manassas, and the Battle of the Crater. Others fought in smaller, lesser known engagements; such as Cabin Creek, the battle for Wichita Agency, and the battle of Round Mountain. However, the size of the battle meant little to those individuals who fought close to their enemy, often in hand to hand combat; for death visited the soldiers whether the engagement was large or small and whether it was historically significant or not.

Almost all Native American Tribes and Nations, especially those whose ancestral lands were in the East, had some type of parliamentary process where representatives debated before voting on significant matters involving their people. While some tribes were able to remain neutral throughout the war, many chose one side or the other. Their reasons varied and, because there were sovereignty and existing treaty issues at stake, their choices carried great risk.  Also, mirroring the dilemma faced by many other northern and southern families, several tribes had members who fought for opposite sides; a tragedy of epic proportions for societies in which familial loyalty was so important.

In any event, their choices had severe consequences. So, what factors led certain Tribes to choose to support the Union, and others to support the Confederacy; and, in the case of one major Native Nation, to split their allegiance?

In early 1861, when the Indian Tribes and Nations were deliberating whether to align with one side or the other, or remain neutral, their decisions were not made in a vacuum of information. Every Tribe had at least a few members who were English speaking and who were knowledgeable about the customs, mannerisms, governmental policies, and especially the prejudices, of the White majorities in the North and the South.

In some instances, regional loyalties and familiarities played a part, as certain northern tribes joined the Union Army and other southern tribes fought for the Confederacy.  Also, as in all wars, enlistment into an army was an alternative to poverty; but the Union Army usually offered better, and more reliable, pay. However, there were other reasons. Some tribes chose the Confederacy because that “new” government, unlike the United States, carried no negative legacy of mistreatment of Indian communities or broken treaties. Also, several former “southern” Native Nations were slave-holders, including the Cherokee who held more Black slaves than any other Tribe/Nation, and they believed a victorious Confederacy would protect their “property” after the war.

But, certainly, in all cases, each tribe initially believed that they had chosen the winning side, and if they fought valiantly, they would be rewarded with better living conditions, increased representation, and some, who had been “relocated” to Indian Territory, hoped that they could return to ancestral lands.

The Seneca Nation, still living in New England, unanimously sided with the Union and a significant number of their young men joined the U.S. Army, including the Parker brothers, Ely and Newton. Both men, who were educated as lawyers, became officers, with Ely eventually assigned to General Grant’s staff. It was in his role as Grant’s secretary/adjutant that Colonel Parker assisted with the Articles of Surrender at Appomattox and was in the right place to have his famous exchange with Robert E. Lee. Parker was subsequently promoted to Brigadier General.

Arguably the most famous Native American military unit was Company K of the 1st Michigan regiment which included members of the Ottawa, Huron, Delaware, Oneida, and Potawami tribes, and was quickly labeled the “Sharpshooters” by their officers. The unit was fearless in battle and were known for standing together and laying series after series of clustered fire at Confederate positions. Despite heavy and concentrated return fire usually directed at them, they would not break. In July, 1864, after one such engagement at the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Virginia, an officer observing the “Sharpshooters” wrote in his battle report; “The men did splendid work. They were nearly surrounded, receiving forceful fire from Confederates, but never wavered. Some of them were mortally wounded, and, drawing their blouses over their faces, they chanted a death song and died – four of them in a group” And in another report, wrote “Those living, maintained return fire, until too wounded or until they were out of ammunition. Their position was held. It was bravery by all.” The Michigan Sharpshooters lost so many men in that battle, that they were kept out of further combat through the war’s end.

Other tribes which sided with the Union included the Lumbee, Iroquois, Pamunkey, and the Ojibwa.

The Confederate States of America also attracted several Tribes. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, realized the potential value of Native Americans to supplement Confederate manpower west of the Mississippi River, mainly in Oklahoma, but also in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Davis appointed an envoy to the various tribes and granted him almost unlimited authority to reach treaties, including recognition of Indian sovereignty, representation in the Confederate Congress, and even potential citizenship. These offers enticed the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole tribes to commit their allegiance to the Confederacy.

However, perhaps the Cherokee Nation, residing in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), which split into several factions over the Civil War, suffered more than any other Native American group, both during and after the War. Although once one of the largest Native Nations, the Cherokee only had about 22,000 members (and about 2,000 slaves) when the Civil War began. Many had died during the “Trail of Tears” forced relocation in the 1830s from Georgia and nearby states to Oklahoma Territory; and by the war’s end in 1865, fewer than 15,000 remained. While many non-combatants, women, children, and elderly died of malnutrition and disease in Indian Territory during the four-year Civil War, the Cherokee also lost nearly 1,000 young men as casualties of the War.

The Cherokee Nation had initially voted to side with the new Southern government, against the advice of their elected Chief and President, John Ross; however, various smaller groups, although still loyal to the Confederacy, soon divided into factions, each with their own military leaders. The largest of these break-away groups was led by Stand Watie, who was appointed as a Colonel in the Confederate Army, later promoted to Brigadier General, and who led his forces in a series of successful raids over the next four years. However, a year into the War, Chief John Ross, who had originally argued for the Cherokee Nation to remain neutral and still led the largest contingent of members, was captured by Union troops and, in exchange for a pardon, pledged his loyalty, and the loyalty of the people he represented, to the United States. Ross kept his word and worked tirelessly for the Union cause in Eastern States and in Washington DC. There, Ross became a confidant of Abraham Lincoln and had every right to expect that, after the Union won the War, the Cherokee Nation would be rewarded by the “Great President” he had come to know.

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated near the end of the war, Chief John Ross’s influence in Washington ended, as the new President, Andrew Johnson, had little interest in Indian affairs. Further, the split in loyalties between the Watie and Ross factions caused many other Northern political leaders to mistrust the Cherokee Nation; and even Chief Ross, who championed the Union cause, could not marshal any federal assistance for his impoverished people.

When tribes made their decision to serve either the Union or the Confederacy, they certainly believed that they were backing the side that would win; and they expected (or hoped) for improved conditions for their people.  Unfortunately, whether they chose the Union or the Confederacy, those hopes were not realized. In defeat, the Confederates could offer no solace to their former allies; and the treaties those tribes signed with the South were not only worthless, but the documents labeled them as traitors to most people in the North. For the Native Americans who served the victorious Union, the U.S. government gave only token recognition, and almost no tangible rewards; a tragic disappointment for those who chose the “winning” side.

That makes their sacrifices even more poignant.

Contact the author at gadorris2@gmail.com

General Lincoln? (Article 62)

“General, I have just received your dispatch about sore tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”  –  Abraham Lincoln to General George McClellan after the General said he could not advance that day because his horses were too tired.

“If the General is not going to use his army, I wonder if I might borrow it.”  –  Abraham Lincoln in a staff meeting, talking about General George McClellan.

“Had McClellan followed his advice, he would have taken Richmond. Had Hooker acted in accordance with his suggestions, Chancellorsville would have been a victory for the nation. Had Meade obeyed his explicit commands, he would have destroyed Lee’s army before it could have re-crossed the Potomac.” And, continuing: “The War would have ended two years earlier, President Lincoln would have served his second term, and the nation would be healed.”  – William A. Croffut, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author, writing in 1875.

As the new Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln was constantly frustrated with his Generals. He had given them the largest standing Army in the history of the United States and provided them with the equipment and munitions they requested. But still, no significant progress had been made against the smaller and lesser equipped Confederate Army. But, because he had hardly any military experience himself, he was reluctant to give specific direction to the Generals who had made a career in the Army. After all, his only experience in the military was as an Illinois militia Captain in the 1832 Black Hawk War; thirty years before he became the Commander-in-Chief. He never engaged in any direct action in that short war, and even made fun of his experience saying (paraphrased), “I fought many bloody battles with mosquitoes, I was no hero.”

Later, as a young Congressman in 1847, he had argued against the war with Mexico and showed little interest in the tactics of the Generals who carried out President Polk’s invasion plans. He simply thought the war was a “land grab” by Polk’s administration and opposed the overall mission.

Now, however, as President, he was ultimately responsible for the progress, and the outcome, of the largest military engagement in United States history. And, he was not confident that the senior commanders he had appointed were leading the nation toward a victory and preservation of the Union. Even worse, one commanding General, George B. McClellan, failed to even acknowledge the Commander-in-Chief ’s requests for definitive reports on strategic plans. In fact, McClellan had such disrespect for the President, that he once refused to see Lincoln when he called at the General’s home.

On the other side, when war broke out, the Confederates had attracted about one-third of the officers who had been in the United States Army, and that included many of most experienced and able Generals. Lincoln noted after several early military set-backs, “We were out-generaled!”

In the first year of the Civil War, Lincoln usually deferred to the plans of his generals; even when he noted to others that he disagreed with some of their strategies. Lincoln was a highly intelligent man and was prone to utilize careful logic (and an occasional metaphoric yarn) when presenting his opinion, whether about political issues or military affairs. He recognized his lack of military knowledge, including lessons which might be learned from the study of historic engagements, so he read books on battlefield tactics and strategies and conferred with other Generals. As a result, over time, he gained confidence in his own ability to understand the various military situations.

Only then, did he begin to more forcefully influence the war effort.

His primary concerns were that the Generals were hesitant to take the battle to enemy forces and that they were obsessed with “place”, which meant gaining and holding territory, even if that location held little strategic importance. (The old, “take that hill” military mentality.) And often, satisfied with their occupation of a place, they would wait for long periods before moving to another engagement. Lincoln, on the other hand, felt there were only a few strategic locations worth fighting for and defending; and he wanted the Union army to focus on overcoming rebel forces wherever they were encountered and to pursue them until they were too weakened to resist. He believed that the Union forces held such numerical advantage, in both men and supplies, that a “pursue and conquer” strategy would be successful.

One of his early attempts at directing battlefield strategy was in January 1862, when he suggested that Generals Halleck and Buell merge their two armies which were both operating around Tennessee. Urging cooperation, Lincoln wrote (in part): “We have the greater numbers. We must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points at the same time. And if he weakens one to strengthen the other, seize the weakened one.” Lincoln thought his “overwhelming force strategy” could also prevent the Confederates from re-taking a place they had lost, if the Union would pursue the enemy rather than holding the place until rebels counter-attacked. The two Generals simply ignored the President’s request.

Perhaps his only excursion into a battlefield area to actually give commands, rather than to just counsel and/or observe, occurred in May 1862 when Lincoln felt that General McClellan should reduce his forces around Yorktown in order to send more troops to re-take the nearby Norfolk Naval facilities. Lincoln felt strongly that Norfolk was one on those “places” worth taking and keeping. The Confederates were using Norfolk not only to repair and supply their ships, but also as a staging area for the ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) which endangered Union shipping. Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton went to the area and, leaving McClellan out of the discussion, directed a dual assault against Norfolk, one from gunboats sent up the James River and the other a coordinated ground attack by troops from Fort Monroe. The Confederates quickly abandoned Norfolk and scuttled the famous ironclad.  As was his style, Lincoln did not take credit for the mission’s success; but, General McClellan and his senior staff were still outraged by the interference in their battle plans.

While Lincoln readily conceded that McClellan had created and trained a great army, the President believed he had failed to lead his mass of troops consistently, and aggressively, against Confederate forces. And, eventually, he began to appoint successors.

Some were more aggressive than McClellan, but each was “out-generaled” in Lincoln’s view.

For one, there was General Joseph Hooker, who Lincoln knew would fight, but soon learned that Hooker might not choose the best battleground. When both Hooker and Lincoln realized that General Robert E. Lee was moving a large Confederate army north into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Hooker planned to circle behind and attack Richmond, the South’s Capital city. Lincoln disagreed with Hooker’s plan and gave Hooker different orders. Lincoln said, “Lee’s Army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point. Follow on his flank, shortening your (supply) lines while he lengthens his. Fight him when the opportunity offers.” Then a week later, Lincoln told Hooker, “This invasion gives you back the chance that I thought McClellan lost to cripple Lee’s army far from its base.” To Lincoln’s astonishment, Hooker replied that he would be outnumbered, which Lincoln knew to be untrue, and Hooker would not commit to attack Lee’s army. Hooker then made a devastating tactical error and chose to fight a large Confederate army at Chancellorsville; where he lost the battle and his command.

Lincoln replaced Hooker with General George Meade, and was at first elated when Meade led Union forces to the victory at Gettysburg, but then saw Meade, as had McClellan and Hooker (and others), fail to pursue and destroy Lee’s army; instead Meade allowed a retreat by Confederate forces back into Virginia. Lincoln realized that the Union forces would now be fighting in that battle-weary area between Washington and Richmond, and said, “To attempt to fight the enemy back to his entrenchments in Richmond, is an idea I have been trying to repudiate for quite a year.” While he respected General Meade, Lincoln again looked for another General who would “Chase the Rebels without let-up.”

For the first three years of the War, Lincoln was constantly either unsure if he had the right Generals in place, or absolutely certain he did not.

Until he appointed General Ulysses S. Grant! He had finally found his General.

So, with all of his earlier dissatisfaction with the various Generals before settling on Grant as the Commanding General, why did Lincoln not take an even more direct role in battlefield strategy? There were three primary reasons and all relate to Lincoln’s logical thought process, which usually included trying to anticipate options he might need if an opponent, whether legal, political or military, did the unexpected.

First, he was a master politician and knew there was an advantage to having a barrier (the Generals) between himself and the public. Lincoln did not want to be either a hero, who became Dictator/Emperor (like Napoleon) because he “won” the war, nor a scapegoat if the war were prolonged or eventually lost. But, he also believed in the Constitution’s requirement that the elected civilian President would have authority to over-see the military leadership. To Lincoln, the roles of Commander-in Chief and Commanding Generals were separate, and the Country needed both.

Second, he knew he was a persuasive leader. Lincoln realized that his lack of military credentials would always, at first, elicit skepticism so, with few exceptions, he counseled with his generals, rather than give firm orders. He did a lot of ranting to members of his cabinet, and his two dedicated secretaries, but he was usually restrained when meeting with, or writing to, his Generals.

Third, and perhaps most important, with his limited military experience, he was not always sure he was right! For example, in a telegram, Lincoln admitted to General Grant that he had been wrong to doubt Grant’s plan to invade deep into Mississippi. As usual, with Lincoln, self-doubt almost always resulted in self-control.

President Abraham Lincoln was, however, absolutely convinced that he was right to make one bold strategic military decision.

While not technically a tactical battlefield event, Lincoln’s most significant military directive may have been the inclusion of Black troops into the U.S. Army. He certainly risked the resistance of many Union military leaders, and alienation of those in the North who were opposed to making the war about freedom for slaves.  Lincoln re-enforced his decision with the Emancipation Proclamation, which he declared was a “military necessity.” He then brought thousands of willing (and soon to be proven, able) Black soldiers into the Union Army and that was, by any rationale, a direct intervention by the President in military strategy.

Throughout the Civil War, with few exceptions, Abraham Lincoln did not interfere with battlefield plans or overall military objectives; therefore, in the strictest sense of the phrase, he never really became “General Lincoln.”

But, he certainly asserted himself as “The” Commander-in-Chief.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com



Christmas at the Lincoln White House (Article 61)

No Tree. No Cards. And, the President worked all day. Not unusual at all during the Civil War.

Some historians suggest that Abraham Lincoln was concerned with his public image and did not want to appear frivolous while a war was going on. Others have written that he lacked interest in Christmas and rejected religious rituals, and some even claim that he used work as an excuse to get away from his difficult wife. Actually, these are all unfair criticisms of the man, disguised as historical explanations, by those who want to chip away at his image.

So why then, was the Lincoln White House so stark on Christmas? Foremost, Abraham Lincoln wore the heavy duty of Presidential responsibility like a leaden cloak; it enveloped him and he could only rarely take it off. However, this was self-imposed, not due to any concerns about perceptions by his critics. To him, there was a destructive war tearing the country apart, young men were dying, and there were daily decisions to be made; and, ultimately, he was the one in charge.

However, there were also practical reasons the Lincoln White House did not have a tree, or send cards, for Christmas. First, the placement of large Christmas trees in homes and public places was not a universal custom in the United States during the mid-1800s; more likely found in the northeastern regions and in settlements with a significant German or Scandinavian presence. In fact, there had never been a Christmas tree in the White House; although some false narratives claim that Franklin Pearce had one in 1853. Even if a tree were desired by Lincoln or any of his predecessors, it would not have lasted very long. The White House was more open to the public (and relatively unguarded) in those days and a large Christmas tree in the White house would have been stripped by souvenir seekers; who were already notorious for cutting snips from curtains and carpets and stealing any small trinkets. Also, the concept of sending and receiving Christmas cards was not yet wide-spread, and any Christmas sentiment was usually in the form of personal notes to close friends and family. However, both the customs of decorated trees and pre-printed Christmas cards were already gaining favor in England; in part due to the success of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” published in 1843. Dickens’s book promoted more of a family festival to accompany the solemn religious practices which had been prominent for centuries. The European influences gradually took hold in America and decorated trees, Christmas cards, and gifts for children became the accepted norm later in the century.

But, in the 1840s and 1850s, in Illinois, there were few Christmas trees, holiday cards, or elaborate gifts for children; however, it was a day celebrated by most families, including Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their sons.

Before he became President, previous Christmas holidays were happier, but still restrained, in the Lincoln family home; which, in many ways, reflected the regional customs.  Those who lived in, or were from, the New England and the southern states, celebrated a more robust Christmas season than did most of those on the frontier, which included, at the time, Illinois. Abraham and Mary Lincoln never participated in the relatively new trend of sending out Christmas cards nor did they have a decorated tree; as not very many people in Illinois followed either custom. The Lincolns did give small Christmas gifts to their children, usually fruit and nuts and possibly a book; certainly nothing excessive, but enough to satisfy young boys back then. Mrs. Lincoln, who appreciated the formalities of a prescribed religious service, insisted the family, including her husband, attend a local church. While Lincoln was a very spiritual man, who studied the Bible throughout his life, he never joined any church or espoused a specific religious creed. He once said; “If any church will inscribe over its altar, as the sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement, ‘Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself ’– that church will I join.” However, Lincoln enjoyed Christmas activities with his family and he relished sharing time with friends. He was a popular lawyer and politician, and he and Mary participated in various social functions during the Christmas period in their home and at the homes of friends and political acquaintances. We do not know if Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln exchanged gifts, but, all in all, Christmas at the Lincoln’s Springfield home was quite normal for that period, and in that place.

During the Christmas holiday in 1860, the family was still living at their Springfield home. Lincoln had won the national election to become the sixteenth President of the United States, but would not be inaugurated until the following March. Civil War was being discussed and South Carolina had already declared secession from the Union, with several other southern states expected to follow; however, there was still hope that outright war could somehow be avoided. Mrs. Lincoln held a Christmas Eve reception and many of their friends and political acquaintances stopped by the home, including one of Lincoln’s oldest friends and confidants, Congressman Edward Baker, who Lincoln had asked to introduce him at the coming Inauguration.

Abraham Lincoln did become the President of the United States in March 1861, and about one month later, the Civil War, which he dreaded so much, began; and his Christmases would never again be the same.

December 25, 1861, was the Lincoln family’s first Christmas in the White House. Since that last Christmas in Illinois, war had indeed struck the country and his close friend, Edward Baker, the former Congressman from back home, was now dead, just one of the many casualties of the Civil War. Therefore, it was a solemn White House, even with two young boys, Willy and Tad, who would run through the halls, and engage in other rambunctiousness; and who probably longed for a happier day. Social activities were almost non-existent since Mrs. Lincoln did not have many friends in Washington, as both she and her husband were considered outsiders by the long-entrenched Senators, Representatives, Judges and career bureaucrats who comprised the Washington elite. (Some things never change).

A White House employee later wrote; “We did not have many doings in those days, there were too many grave things going on.”

December 25, 1862, was the second Christmas the Lincoln family spent in the White House, but this year may have been the saddest of all. Young Willy had died and Mrs. Lincoln could not seem to recover. Further, the war had become a stagnated mess of death and destruction, with some Union victories, but with a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg just before Christmas. Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation to be effective January first, and the public was split on the unilateral move the President had made. If there had been a presidential poll back then, his approval rating would have been very low. On Christmas afternoon, after a morning cabinet meeting, the President and Mrs. Lincoln visited wounded soldiers at several Washington hospitals.

December 25, 1863, was their third Christmas in the White House. Mrs. Lincoln was again receiving visitors and Tad had found some new friends, however, the President was still subdued. Although the war news was better, with several major victories for the Union armies, casualties continued to mount and the President still worked through the day.

December 25, 1864, was their fourth Christmas in the Presidential Mansion and the mood was different. President Lincoln knew that the war would not last much longer, that the Union would be preserved, and slavery would soon be outlawed. (The Senate had passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and he was prepared to press the House of Representatives on the issue.) Also, he had just been re-elected to a second four-year term by a wide margin of both voters and the Electoral College. He even received a welcome telegram from General William Tecumseh Sherman, announcing that Savanah, Georgia was now in Union hands, it read “Mr. President, I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.” Tad, the President’s young son, who still lived in the White house, invited a group of newsboys who sold papers around the area to follow him home for dinner; without telling his parents. He knew his father would not mind, but he must have been at least a little concerned about his mother’s reaction; as she could be difficult at times. Over the holidays, President and Mrs. Lincoln held several receptions for Union military leaders, politicians, and foreign emissaries. This was probably the closest to a “normal” Christmas in the Lincoln White House.

Unfortunately, it would be the last. The President was assassinated less than four months later.

Abraham Lincoln had enjoyed traditional Christmas customs back home in Springfield with family and friends; but, for four years, in the White House, he could not. Instead, he put his country, and his responsibilities as President, first.

For that, he deserves our admiration and gratitude, not criticism.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com



Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamations (Article 60)

On October 23, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring the final Thursday in November as a “Day of Thanksgiving” and our nation has ever since celebrated this special day.

The country had heard calls for a day of Thanksgiving before. In 1777, while the Revolutionary War was still being waged, the members of the Continental Congress were grateful that their rebellion still held promise for independence and they issued a proclamation designating Thursday, December 18, as a Day of Solemn Thanksgiving. And, in 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for Thursday, November 26.  Thereafter, a few Presidents and the Governors of several states periodically issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, however none designated a recurring November holiday.

Then Sarah Josepha Buell Hale stepped in!

A well-known editor and novelist, she was a strong proponent of women’s education and was a co-founder of Vassar College.  But few Americans are aware that, beginning in 1838 and for the next twenty-five years, she used her public visibility to lobby for a national Thanksgiving Day in November. As editor of the “Godey’s Lady Book” and “The Ladies Magazine,” which combined had the largest paid circulation of any women’s periodicals, she and her readers began an annual letter-writing campaign to “encourage” (her word) and “pester” (one recipient’s word) Governors to issue a resolution in their respective states; and they petitioned every sitting President to declare a National Thanksgiving Day. By 1858, while no President had created the special day she requested, every state except Virginia had declared a Day of Thanksgiving.

But, in 1859, two years prior to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War, her progress not only stalled, but began to recede. Politicians in some southern states refused to issue their annual Thanksgiving proclamations, with one referring to the holiday as a “Yankee Abolitionist holiday” and another stating that it was a “National Claptrap” started by northerners to hinder the South’s institutions (meaning slavery). But many families in the South continued to observe a day of thanksgiving, keeping the religious aspects, but eliminating the bountiful table, which was seen as a New England custom. While Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued several proclamations for a day of prayer and thanksgiving; his were not in November and were directed as a celebration of military successes over the Union armies.

Despite the setbacks in the southern states, Mrs. Hale did not give up and three times in consecutive years she petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to declare a national Thanksgiving Day. She asked that he set aside a designated day “for all Americans to put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” and “to be thankful for the blessings of life, not of war.”

She would have to wait.

Abraham Lincoln had issued two proclamations calling for a day of thanksgiving and reflection, the first in August, 1861 and another in April, 1863. Each proclamation asked the public to set aside time to reflect upon the challenges the country faced and to follow their own religious creed to express hope for peace and gratitude for the blessings bestowed on the nation.

But, neither was in response to Mrs. Hale’s letters.

In August, 1861, after four months of fighting, the awful realities of the Civil War were coming home to roost. Lincoln felt that the people might be comforted by a special day on which the nation as a whole would turn to their religious faith, in whatever forms that may take, to ask for guidance in restoring the forefathers’ vision for the United States. That Presidential proclamation was officially titled The Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day, and read (in part):

“..And, whereas our own beloved country, once by the blessing of God, united, prosperous, and happy, is now afflicted with faction and Civil War, it is particularly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our faults as a nation, and as individuals, to humble ourselves and pray for His mercy, and that the inestimable boon of civil and religious liberty earned by His blessing and the labors and sufferings of our forefathers, may be restored in all its original excellence.” The Proclamation went on to declare a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting and urged “all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations and the heads of all families to observe and keep that day according to their creeds and modes of worship.”

A good start, but not quite an official Thanksgiving Day. So, Mrs. Hale sent another letter!

The Emancipation Proclamation had become effective on January 1, 1863, changing forever the context of the Civil War. By April, Lincoln believed that the North would eventually prevail and the Union would be restored; but he held little hope that the War would end soon. He decided to issue another “Thanksgiving” proclamation in April, 1863; however, this one was officially titled “Proclamation for a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” and read (in part):

“It is the duty of nations as well as men, to owe their dependence upon the ruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow. We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. But we have forgotten God. We have vainly imagined that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. I do, by this proclamation, set April 30, 1863 as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. And I do request that all the people abstain that day from their ordinary secular pursuits and to unite at their several places of public worship and in their respective homes, in keeping that day Holy. Let us rest humbly in the hope that the united cry of the nation will be heard on High, and (provide) the restoration of our now divided and suffering country.” 

So, Mrs. Hale wrote still another letter, a few months later, but this one finally gave the President pause.

By the fall of 1863, the Civil War was still being fought, but the Union was beginning to see significant victories. Sarah Hale again implored President Abraham Lincoln to designate one day, in November, throughout the entire country, which would be “set aside in perpetuity for prayerful Thanksgiving for the blessings bestowed by the Creator.” Lincoln was persuaded and issued his third “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.” It read (in part):

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies, bounties which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come. In the midst of Civil War of unequaled magnitude and severity, laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has been preserved except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.” Lincoln went on to describe the wealth that was building in the north and advances in bringing in new states from western territories; while still keeping up an aggressive war effort against the Confederacy. But then Lincoln returned to the basic theme of gratitude and Thanksgiving. “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the most gracious gifts of the most High God, who while dealing with us for our sins hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It seems fit and proper that they should solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledge as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens to observe the last Thursday in November as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

With this Presidential proclamation, Sarah Hale saw her vision become a treasured day, which she said, “Would be observed across all lines that, on other matters, may divide us; such as politics, geography, ethnicity, and religion.”

A year later, on October 20, 1864, and without another letter from Mrs. Hale, President Lincoln issued his fourth Thanksgiving Day Proclamation; again, declaring the last Thursday of November as the special day; which read (in part):

“It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs (and providing) to us in his mercy many and signal victories over the enemy who is of our own household. He has augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while he has opened new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards. He has been pleased to inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of Civil War into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity. Therefore I set apart the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise (to) offer up penitence and prayers for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land.” 

Because of an assassin’s bullet a few months later, this became President Lincoln’s last Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.

After the Civil War ended, the northern bureaucrats, politicians and military leaders, who were in charge of “reconstruction” of the occupied former Confederate states, imposed Thanksgiving Day as a November federal holiday. However, it would take another generation (or two or three in some cases) before the holiday was embraced by families throughout south; and so, Mrs. Hale’s hope for national unity, symbolized in part by a Thanksgiving Day celebrated by all Americans, was deferred. But, time can heal the worst of wounds and, in 1905, a Southern minister, referring to a New England staple, said, “I knew Thanksgiving Day was again ours as well, when, after my prayer, I noticed cranberries on the table.”

Mrs. Hale would have been pleased.

The four Lincoln proclamations were all collaborative efforts with Secretary of State William Seward, who was a devout Episcopalian. Seward’s intonements tended to be more ecclesiastical and flourishing, while Lincoln, who was no less spiritual, tended to use simpler wording. But, the two men trusted each other’s ability to communicate, and their combined prose flows seamlessly as if it was the effort of only one person.  Historians still debate which phrases each man may have contributed to the proclamations. In any case, the co-authors left us with elegant, meaningful, and still pertinent, proclamations. Certainly, their calls for humility, unity, and peace seem appropriate today.

Have a wonderful, and reflective, Thanksgiving Day; courtesy of Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, and of course, Sarah Hale.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com




Can We Defend Washington City (Article 59)

The new President, Abraham Lincoln, was worried. For good reason.

There had been wide-spread debates, and intense arguments, for and against secession by the nation’s slave-holding states. The opposing sides raised their voices in the halls of Congress, in many state legislatures, in pulpits, and in newspapers. And, many feared civil war would be the outcome if any or all of the fifteen states where slavery was legal chose to separate from the United States. For months, General Winfield Scott, commanding General of the U. S. Army, knew that war would surely result if the Federal government intervened to prevent secession.

He was forced to ponder a critical question; if war comes, can we defend Washington City from an attack by rebel forces? General Scott was not so sure, especially if the attack would come early in the conflict.

One Washington politician noted in November 1860 that, “The odor of war is in the air, and I fear it is intoxicating.” No one knew then if five, seven, eleven or even all fifteen of the slave-holding states might secede from the Union, but almost all expected that, if there was to be war, and when it came, the nation’s Capital was certain to be a target. If for no other reason, Union officials thought the rebels would want to disrupt the Federal government just when central leadership would be most needed. It could be a quick and easy capture; after all, the city was surrounded by Maryland and Virginia, both slave-holding states, and a vast majority of the city’s citizens were of southern heritage.

Washington was vulnerable.

For the months leading up to the outbreak of war, very little was actually done to prepare a defense, primarily because the responsible parties, including Congress, the preceding President, James Buchanan, General Scott, and new President, Abraham Lincoln, did not want to appear as if all hope was lost for a peaceful solution. Some thought that if Virginia and Maryland remained in the Union, in the event there was war, any rebel forces would be less likely to attack Washington. Others, like President Lincoln, thought (or hoped?) some compromise to avoid war might still be reached which protected slavery from Federal interference in those fifteen states where it remained legal. Still others, many in the South, could not fathom that the northern states would be willing to rally an army to invade any southern state which had seceded; especially because there was valuable commerce between the states as well as many personal relationships among their citizens. So, while tensions rose, only minimal defensive measures to protect Washington were being taken.

At the start of the new year, 1861, the United States Army had about 16,000 enlisted men and 1,100 officers but over the next few months, over 4,000 of the soldiers and over 300 of the officers defected to either southern state militias or to the new Confederate army. In March, General Scott reported to in-coming President Lincoln, that the force of 20,000 southern militia and Confederate troops gathered around Charleston in South Carolina was larger than his entire army. He would be forced to re-assign troops from areas further from Washington to supplement the relatively small Federal garrison in the city; however, that process would take time.  So, the issue was addressed, but not yet solved; because, before any of these troops could defend the city, they had to get there.

The primary rail lines into Washington from the north passed through Baltimore, a place already proven to be hostile. In fact, some of the first casualties of the war occurred in Baltimore as Union troops marched through the town. When a group of secessionist militia challenged troops from the 6th Massachusetts regiment, shots rang out, and before the skirmish was over, three Union soldiers and twelve civilians lay dead in the streets. President Lincoln and General Scott were surprised by the violent incident and there were some calls for retribution against the secessionists in Baltimore by the additional Union forces which were in route. But Lincoln hoped to avoid another confrontation in the city by using a route around the city, and told the mayor and police chief of Baltimore; “I must have troops for the defense of the Capital. Our men are not moles and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march them across, and that they must do. Keep your rowdies in Baltimore and there will be no bloodshed.”

Using secondary routes, over the next few weeks more troops filed into the Capital and defensive preparations began in earnest. But even with those added Union forces, Washington City was still in panic mode! A woman resident of the Capital, who was a Confederate sympathizer, wrote to a friend in Virginia, “We could march right in and take control of the city. Where are our men?”

In late March, General Scott directed his staff to recruit local militias to add to the few Union troops in the city, and to fortify the perimeter, especially the bridges across the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Scott’s officers formed some units from residents of Washington, however, they hardly resembled regular troops. One regiment was composed of older veterans, some in their sixties, and was appropriately called the Silver Brigade. Another regiment was formed by Kentucky native, and ardent abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, who had come to Washington to prepare for his new appointment as the Ambassador to Russia. However, he delayed his departure for two months to form a unit of irregulars, which became known as the Clay Battalion.

Washington began to look like a city preparing for war. Bridges across the Potomac and Anacostia rivers were blocked with guard gates and sufficient soldiers to check every individual going and coming, and thousands of Union soldiers were encamped nearby. Then, finally, both General Scott and President Lincoln felt that Washington could now be defended from, what they assumed would be, an assault by the Confederate Army.

So, they waited!

But the attack about which they worried, and planned to defend against, and for which they tied up so many Union troops and spent so much money, never came.  Why?

In one of those ironies of war, and unknown to Lincoln and his military advisors, the Confederate military leadership had never seriously contemplated an early (and all-out) assault on the Union Capital.  There were a variety of both military and personal reasons for the Confederate’s hesitancy to attack the city; (1) the effort would tie up thousands of their troops, (2) many of the southern generals thought attacks on cities and their citizens were not ‘honorable” war tactics, (3) some did not believe that the city had a strategic importance, and (4) they did not want to alienate those in the North who supported a compromise peace plan.  The Confederate leaders thought there were better uses for their relatively small army, including protecting their lines of supply throughout the south and keeping control of the major ports in the south-eastern seaboard, in the Gulf of Mexico, and along the Mississippi River.

However, to keep the Washington politicians and the citizens concerned and off-balance, the Confederates would occasionally penetrate the city’s outskirts, which had the desired effect; wide-spread panic!  Union military leaders, President Lincoln, and the public were alarmed at each of the nearby small raids, but remained unaware that Washington would not be one of the Confederate primary strategic targets.

The Union Army had swelled to over two hundred thousand men by early 1862; however, Lincoln’s concerns for Washington’s safety were further complicated because he was unsure if the new General of Union Armies, George McClellan, would appropriately defend the Capital City. Lincoln feared that the General might take too many of the Washington based troops for other engagements, which would again leave the city vulnerable. Therefore, in a surprise move, the President ordered a contingent of 40,000 troops to remain in Washington under the command of General Irvin McDowell, who would report directly to the War Department. This order infuriated General McClellan (not the first or last time he and Lincoln would disagree), and that same day, McClellan wrote to his wife, “rascality and traitors are in Washington.”

But, now Lincoln felt that Washington was reasonably secure from any Confederate siege.

However, in hindsight, we know now what President Lincoln did not know then. Throughout the Civil War, while his defensive steps to protect Washington from invasion seemed prudent, he had acted under an erroneous assumption. In fact, the Union’s capital was never in danger of an all-out attack!

contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com






They Called Her Moses (Article 58)

She was born a slave in about 1820 but the date is not certain. Her birth name was recorded by her owner as Araminta Ross, but she was known as Minty. As a young woman, she was only about five feet tall, probably never weighed more than one hundred pounds, and suffered seizures due to a childhood injury. She was illiterate until adulthood. She escaped her slave master’s plantation 1848, when she was about twenty-seven; however, legally, she was considered a fugitive slave until 1865.  For nearly twenty years, she risked capture, returning numerous times to the area around her former home in southern Maryland to guide other escaping slaves to freedom in Pennsylvania, New York and Canadian provinces. For her exploits, she was dubbed “Moses,” but at the time most slave-owners thought their nemesis was a man. During the Civil War, she was an armed scout for the Union Army and once participated in a raid to free a group of slaves from several large plantations. After the war and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, she became active in the suffrage movement; but she was never allowed to vote. She remained devoted to her life’s work, which was to improve the lives of former slaves by helping them find work and try to build a life on their own. Then, as she grew older, she formed a retirement home for those with no family to help with their care.

This is the remarkable legacy of Harriett Tubman.

Minty, as she was known then to master and family alike, endured the hardships and degradations that were common for slaves in those days. Always a feisty girl, she was frequently beaten for disobedience, and occasionally rented out to other slave-holders as a form of punishment. Those periods away from her home were especially difficult for Minty because she was very close to her large family. In 1840, her initial owner died and, under provisions of his will, her father was manumitted from slavery; but, Minty, her mother, and her siblings remained slaves; and she was able to observe first-hand the difference freedom made for her father. To drive home their status as slaves, soon after her new master took control, Minty witnessed the horrific effect on her mother and father when three of her siblings were sold, breaking up their family.  As a child, she was once innocently caught in a confrontation between a slave owner and a male slave who was attempting to flee, and suffered a severe head injury when a heavy metal object thrown by the owner at the slave, struck Minty instead. Thereafter, for the rest of her life, she would occasionally have seizures and debilitating headaches. In 1844, her owner arranged for Minty to marry a Black man who had gained his freedom, probably expecting that Minty would bear children. Under Maryland law at the time, any child born to a female slave, became a slave owned by the same master. However, Minty did not have any children and, although she never explained the matter, it is reasonable to assume that she did not want to bring a child into slavery. After her marriage, Minty changed her name to Harriett and soon, unknown to her husband, began to hope for an opportunity to escape!

Late one night, she and two of her brothers took off, with no real escape plan. They were quickly missed and identified in a wanted poster as fugitive slaves, with a reward of $100 each for their return. When the three were unable to find a route to safety and freedom, or even help with food and shelter, they turned themselves in. As they probably expected, they were returned to their owner and beaten before being re-assigned to hard labor tasks.

But Harriett had tasted freedom, if only for a short while, and again thought of escape. Although, this time she did more than just hope. She gathered information from other slaves about possible routes, developed a plan for evasion, including travel only at night through waterways; and her most critical decision was to go alone! She later wrote of her feelings during her preparations to escape: “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

Within weeks, Harriett was again on the run and this time for good. She found refuge in the homes of several Quakers as she travelled at night north along what was becoming known as the Underground Railroad, which was neither a railroad nor underground. She worked her way through Maryland and Delaware (also a slave state), then, finally into Pennsylvania.

When she realized that she was probably safe (for now) she wrote: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

While she was now relatively “free” and had found steady work to build a new life, she missed her family. The following year she slipped back into Maryland to rescue a niece with two small children and, six months later in a return trip, guided other family members to safety. Over the next two years, she made at least ten more clandestine trips bringing over seventy slaves into her “Promised Land.” In fact, one northern newspaper editor, without naming her, or even her gender, began to refer to her as “Moses” and the name stuck. Slave-holders in Maryland who knew of “Minty” never suspected that the small, disabled, girl who had escaped earlier, could possibly be “Moses” and several thought it was really a male abolitionist conducting the group escapes while deceptively leaving the impression it was a woman.

Harriet’s true identity as a primary “conductor” in the underground railroad inexplicably remained unknown to slave-holders despite her growing recognition in the north from numerous appearances at abolitionist society meetings arranged by publisher William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, the nation’s most famous former slave. She even met with John Brown, the violent abolitionist who later led the failed raid against the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, which he had hoped would arm slaves for a rebellion. While many historians believe Harriett knew about Brown’s general plan, most know that she opposed violence, even against White slave-holders, and, therefore, probably would not have supported an attack on U.S. Army troops.

After the Civil War began, she was able to find work as a cook and nurse with various Union Army units, however, her most valuable service to the Army came as a scout. Because Harriett knew the backwoods, rivers and streams so well, she offered her services to guide Union army units on patrol in the area. Accounts written by others make it clear that she was often more than just a scout and was an adept gatherer of intelligence as she would enter Confederate held territory, dressed in the garb of a slave, pretending to be on an errand for a master. She was always armed, but later said she was grateful that she had never had to fire her weapon at another person, even an avowed enemy, because, “Killing someone would have worn on my mind as a Christian.” However, she recalled one situation in which she was prepared to use her small pistol, but the need never arose. In June, 1863, she guided a raiding party of Union troops led by Colonel James Montgomery to liberate slaves from several plantations along the Combahee River, in South Carolina. She had earlier infiltrated the nearby plantations and told the slaves to “run like wind” when they heard steam boat whistles. Then, at the first blast of the whistles, the slave-owners and the few Confederate soldiers in the area could not slow the stampede of slaves running toward the river and the waiting boats. Over 700 slaves were freed in what became known as the Combahee River Raid. Her efforts were recognized by Colonel Montgomery and he petitioned for Harriett to receive regular Army compensation.

It was denied.

In fact, numerous U.S. Army officers supported some form of compensation for Harriett, during and after the War, some even requesting that she receive a pension. All were denied, until 1899, thirty-five years after her Army service ended. However, even then, the Army still refused to recognize her service as a scout; instead, she was given $20.00 per month for her service as a nurse. She was eighty years old.

Along with almost all former slaves, on April 15, 1865, Harriett Tubman mourned the death of Abraham Lincoln and spoke of the grief she felt at his loss. She appreciated his personal beliefs that slavery must be abolished and his efforts to drive the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress; however, she was a stern critic of the President’s earlier policies toward slavery. When Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was first published in September 1862 to become effective on January 1, 1863, it did not include slaves held in the four border states of Maryland (her original home), Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, and Harriett was dismayed. She said: “God won’t let Master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing. Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I am a poor Negro; but the Negro can tell Master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the Negro free.”  Harriett offered to help recruit former slaves into the Army, understanding that the units would consist of only Black enlisted men, commanded by White officers; but, she considered it a start. After several months, Lincoln and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, approved the new regiments and the first real test for Black soldiers in the regular U.S. Army, was about to occur.

In July, 1863, Harriett was providing nursing support as well as guide services to Army units in South Carolina, near Charleston, as the Union Army was mobilizing to assault Fort Wagner, the largest of the nearby installations still held by the Confederates. The unit chosen to lead the initial assault was a regiment of Black enlisted men, led by Colonel Robert G. Shaw, a White officer and avowed abolitionist. The assault was certainly a suicide mission and almost all of Shaw’s men were killed, as was the Colonel. Harriett helped care for the few survivors as some White doctors and nurses refused to aid the Black soldiers. While their assault failed to breech the walls of the fort, the 54th Massachusetts efforts, despite enormous losses, impressed other commanders and there was little hesitation afterward to forming Black units and employing them against Confederate forces.

Harriett wrote poetically of the experience, comparing the fighting to a storm; “We saw the lightening, that was the guns. Then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns. Then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood. And when we went to get the crops, it was only dead men that we reaped.”

Throughout the rest of the war, Harriett would stay close to Army units, helping the growing number of escaping slaves pass through the lines toward safety. Most found themselves, not in northern states building a new home, but in large encampments, with meager rations and tattered tents for shelter. However, they were free and those who worked for the Army received the first wages of their lives.

Except for occasional seizures and headaches from her childhood injury, Harriett remained generally healthy and was active in causes she believed in until well into her eighties. In 1912, at age ninety, Harriett’s health began to fail and she spent the rest of her life at the Harriett Tubman Home for the Aged, the home which she had built for elderly former slaves.

She died on March 10, 1913.

But Harriett Tubman’s legacy lives on. In towns throughout Pennsylvania, New York, and in the Canadian province of Ontario, there are enclaves of families whose forefathers were saved by her many rescue missions into slave territory. Moses was an apt title for this woman who led so many to the promised land and, for over sixty years, from the most humble beginnings, she was a force to be reckoned with, as this country awakened from the era of slavery.


Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com



The Descriptive Art of Civil War Letters (Article 57)

The language, especially in written form, used in America during the Civil War era and the rest of the mid-nineteenth century, was more expansive than today, with broad descriptions and less jargon. While some refer to the language of that day as quaint and/or antiquated, others view the use of the lilting phrases from earlier times as more expressive than the “soundbite” linguistics of today. Of course, the newer abbreviated text symbols which dominate social media today, and pass for language, will only exacerbate the distinctive differences.  Reading letters written one hundred and fifty years ago, can help transport a modern reader back to those times. The earlier writers seem more articulate, even those with little or no formal education. Political speech, whether verbal or written, has always been, and continues to be, more flowery and long winded than everyday communications so, with one exception for Abraham Lincoln, no excerpts from speeches are quoted. Instead, these examples are from letters or notes, written between 1861 and 1865, and exchanged between friends; but, in one case, between enemies.

A first-time visitor to the the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia wrote; “Game and fish abound, many objects of interest are close at hand, and the summer fugitive from the ills of city life finds here a pleasant, halting place in his journeying for recreation.”

Upon viewing a battle-field a year after the event, one soldier wrote, “Another year and peace will have hidden the scars that now so sadly mar its beauty. Nature cannot be wholly defrauded of her blossoms, or prevented from drawing her mantle over the deserts that mankind may make.”

Writing of his dismay at the Confederate victory at Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil war, one man wrote to a friend; “Little did I conceive the greatness of the defeat, the magnitude of the disaster which it entailed upon the United States. So short lived has been the American Union, that men who saw it rise may yet live to see it fall.”

A friend wrote about a mother whose son was stationed in Washington DC; “Washington City was no longer a name to the mother waiting and praying in a distant hamlet. Never, till that hour, did the Federal city become, to the heart of the American people, truly the Capital of the nation”

In describing a battle, photographer Alexander Gardner wrote, “The Fifth corps performed one of the most dashing exploits of that campaign. Advancing quickly upon the river, they poured down the steep banks, driving all before them, and dashed across and secured a position on the other side, before the rebels could organize for opposition. The enemy soon commenced a vigorous attack upon the isolated corps; but the Fifth was not disposed to part with its laurels.”

After watching thousands of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate soldiers march past her Maryland home, one woman, a Union Sympathizer, wrote; “This body of men moving along with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two dressed alike, their officers hardly distinguishable from the privates; were these the men who had driven back again and again our splendid legions?”

After finding the body of a young confederate soldier, this was written; “He had been wounded by a fragment and laid down upon his blanket to await death. The disordered clothing shows that his suffering must have been intense. Was he delirious with agony or did death come slowly to his relief, while memories of home grew dearer? What visions of loved ones far away may have hovered above his stony pillow? What familiar voices may he have heard, like whispers beneath the roar of battle, as his eyes grew heavy in their long, last sleep?”

General Ulysses S. Grant, wrote many touching, and personally revealing, letters to his wife. This is part of an early letter; “You can have little idea of the influence you have over me, Julia, even while far away. If I feel tempted to do anything that I think is not right, I am sure to think, ‘Well now, if Julia saw me, would I do so?’ And only then set my mind.”

A person who accompanied Lincoln through the streets after the fall of Richmond wrote; “There is a stillness, in the midst of Richmond, with her ruins. The pavements where we walk stretches a vista of desecration, the loneliness seems interminable. There is no sound of life, but the stillness of the catacomb, as our footsteps fall dull on the deserted sidewalk. This is Richmond, says a melancholy voice. This is Richmond.”

After he was captured by Union forces, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote to his wife; “Dear Varina, This is not the fate to which I invited you when the future was rose-colored for us both; but I know you will bear it even better than myself, and that, of us two, I alone will ever look back reproachfully on my career.”

In an 1855 letter to his good friend, Joshua Speed, who was a slaveholder in Kentucky, Lincoln wrote; “You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ. I suppose we would, not quite as much, however, as you may think. You know I dislike slavery and you fully admit to the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause for difference. But, you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave – especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. It is hardly fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.”

In a follow-up letter to Speed, Lincoln wrote; “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘All men are created equal’ (but) now read it ‘except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings (a growing anti-immigrant political party) get control, it will read, ‘except negroes, foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer immigrating to a country where they make no pretense of loving liberty.”

In 1864, there was a movement to cancel the up-coming election because of the strife and uncertainty of the ongoing Civil War. Lincoln would not even consider it, although at the time, he was expected to lose his re-election bid. He wrote: “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the (Confederate) rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us. No! There will be elections, and we will accept that which the people decide.”

After making that critical election decision, over the next few months, the fortunes of war changed in Lincoln’s favor and he was re-elected. In his second inaugural address, he reflected back to the beginning of the war, four years earlier. “While the (first) inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”

Robert E. Lee agonized over the decision he felt he was forced, by honor, to make if his family’s home country for nearly 200 years, the Commonwealth of Virginia, chose to secede from his family’s newer country (of about 75 years), the United States. He wrote in his letter of resignation to his Union Commander, Winfield Scott; “I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name, and fame, will always be dear to me.” Then to his sister the same day he wrote; “I look upon secession as anarchy. And, if I owned every slave in the South I would sacrifice them all to save the Union. But, how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state. I will retire to my home in Virginia and share the miseries of my people and, save in defense of Virginia, will draw my sword on no one. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feelings of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” And by home, Lee meant the Commonwealth of Virginia!

Four years later, in April 1865 there occurred a most extraordinary exchange of brief letters, over a two-day period, this time between General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee. The letters were delivered by couriers under a white flag, in “no man’s land,” between their two armies, which were locked in brutal combat.

  • On April 7, Grant wrote to Lee (in part); “The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance in this struggle.  I regard it as my duty to shift responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of (your) army.”
  • Lee responded (in part); “I have received your note.  Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood and ask the terms you will offer.”
  • Grant then replied (in part); “I would say that peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist on – namely that the men and officers be disqualified for taking up arms against the government.  I will meet you or any officers you may designate, at any point agreeable to you for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms.”
  • Lee responded to Grant; “General, I received your note of today.  In mine of yesterday, I did not intend to propose the surrender but to ask the terms of your proposition.  To be frank I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as far as your proposal may tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10am tomorrow (April 9) on the Old State Road to Richmond, between picket-lines of the two armies.”
  • Grant immediately wrote (in part); “I have not authority to treat on the subject of peace (meaning an overall settlement of the War). (Therefore) the meeting for 10am today would lead to no good. By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirous event, save thousands of lives, and hundreds of millions of property, not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life.”
  • Lee was startled that Grant would cancel the meeting, as Lee had decided in the meantime to surrender his army and now wanted to assure a meeting with Grant did occur. Lee wrote; “I now ask for an interview, in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday.”
  • Grant immediately replied (in part); “I am at Walker’s church and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting with you.”

The meeting was on! Lee’s men chose the McLean house at Appomattox and a first step in the process of ending the devastating war began.

After the surrender, Lee and Grant each wrote to his respective Commander-in chief. Lee wrote to Jefferson Davis beginning as follows: “Mr. President, It is with pain that I announce to your excellency the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.” Lee then went on, for three more hand-written pages, which included details of placement and troop strength of major units of both armies and the dismal state of supplies, including ammunition, within the Confederate forces. Lee then concluded: “I deemed this course the best under all circumstances. The enemy were more than five times our numbers. If we could have forced our way one day longer it would have been at great sacrifice of life, and at its end, I did not see how a surrender could have been avoided. The men, deprived of food and sleep for many days, were worn out and exhausted.” General Grant simply wrote to Abraham Lincoln; “General Lee has surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon upon terms proposed by myself.”

Later, Lee wrote to a friend, “I surrendered as much to Lincoln’s goodness as to Grant’s artillery.”

And this description of a Confederate hospital ward written by Mary Chesnut, captures not only the scene but the raw emotions of the writer as well. “Who are these southern boys? Sometimes I can barely understand the language they speak, except suffering always sounds the same. The boys just want to go home but I know many will not see their mothers again, so I wash their faces and pray with them.”

Modern writers, including this one, simply do not match such descriptive eloquence.


Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com



Bringing the Civil War Home – The Photographers (Article 56)

Bringing the Civil War Home – the Photographers (Article 56) 

The American public, both in the North and the South, had never seen anything like it. Newspapers and periodicals, which carried the images, sold thousands of extra copies compared to those that did not, and people flocked to exhibits to see the pictures first hand. The photographs were of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, taken as they lay, nearly covering the ground, in the distorted postures that only horrific violence against another human being can cause. A New York Times editor said; “(The photographer is bringing) home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them on our door-steps, he has done something very like it.”

Amid the chaos of the War, a few photographers became famous for telling their own stories of that conflict; not with words but with un-edited scenes of the terrible aftermath of war. Photography became a medium for an important message; war was not the grand adventure often described by Victorian era writers and artists. Until the Civil War, most manuscripts and memoirs about war, and oil paintings by artists of the day, glorified warfare as noble and even romantic. But, the photographer’s new message clearly showed that it was dirty, destructive and deadly; and that powerful message began to sway public opinion.

Photography had evolved in the thirty years before the War but was not yet seen as an art form; it was simply a fascinating new way to record events and portraits of people; although only in black and white. The first useful method, daguerreotypes, only provided a single mirror image, was nearly impossible to reproduce, and was easily damaged or completely ruined. However, by the late 1850s, improvements in the process had evolved to make photography more widespread, durable, practical, and reproducible; but it still required professional skills. And, to many, the work of a fine painter was still preferable to photography as the artist could depict a larger scale and with vivid colors. A few artists even began to add tints to photographs to make them appear more lifelike.

Even by the time of the Civil War, successful photographers had to be a combination of chemist, physicist, authoritarian, and laborer. The process required the mixing of several caustic chemicals, including sulfuric acid and silver nitrate, which was then coated onto a glass plate just moments before the photograph would be taken. The treated plate had to be protected from any light source as it was quickly inserted into the body of the large camera box, then a lens cap was removed for a precise amount of time, depending on the light of day, to allow only the correct amount of light to strike the glass plate and cause the desired chemical reaction. A good photograph also required the subject or subjects to remain absolutely still because, if anyone moved, their motion was captured as a blur. One photographer said, “I am the Captain in my studio and I tolerate no movement.” And, another who took many battlefield photographs said, “I take better images of the dead, they lie still.” The equipment was heavy and bulky which required strength and agility to set up the camera and take it down when finished. The process was also accident prone as the dangerous chemicals could spill, or the glass plate would break which usually rendered the image useless.

As a result of the effort and expense required, relatively few people learned the skill.  But those who did, began to make their mark in society. Mathew Brady became the most recognized master of his craft and built profitable businesses from his studios in New York and Washington DC. One of his most trusted employees was Alexander Gardner who was assigned primarily to the office in Washington DC and began to photograph the leading politicians of the day. At that time, Abraham Lincoln was not yet one of them.

However, in 1859, Lincoln was in New York City to present a political speech at Coopers Union, a small Manhattan college, which he hoped would be reprinted by the Eastern press and expand his recognition in the region. He visited Brady’s studio for a portrait, which he intended to use to introduce himself to the Eastern population. He knew that he had to dispel the common notion that he was a simple “western frontiersman” from Illinois. Brady posed Lincoln standing, in a new suit, which was bought and pressed for the occasion, resting his hand on a bookstand. Lincoln’s political instincts were, as usual, very good and the speech solidified his stature as a serious Republican leader. Brady’s photograph was released at Coopers Union and then reproduced in newspapers, campaign pamphlets, and in new copies of the still popular book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The public now had an image of Abraham Lincoln, looking presidential, confident, and, as Lincoln himself joked, not at all as ugly as some had expected.

But then the Civil War started and Mathew Brady recognized the business potential of quickly delivering photographs of the Generals and soldiers taken at the battle-front to newspapers and periodicals.  But Brady did not initially set out to be a messenger warning of the horrors of war; he just wanted to run a successful business and enjoy the profits which would be created.

To cover the wide territory of the Civil War, Brady had to first make a major financial investment. He designed a portable, but very sturdy, dark room that could safely carry all of the necessary photographic supplies, including chemicals, glass plates, and the camera. He then manufactured over twenty large covered buckboards, which would each be drawn by one or two horses. Finally, he trained other photographers who would drive the wagons and follow the Union armies from battlefield to battlefield. He and his crew of photographers, would, for the first time, bring the scenes of the battle-front to the home-front. Among those roving photographers/assistants were Alexander Gardner, Timothy Sullivan and James Gibson, who all became well known in their own right; but, of those, Gardner certainly became the most prominent.

While some of Brady’s photographers were able to cross into Confederate territory to capture images, and a few Southerners also learned the craft and took historic photographs; far more images were taken from the Union perspective. This disparity was partly because both Brady and Gardner supported the War to restore the Union and were admirers of Abraham Lincoln. However, while Brady was generally quiet about his politics, Gardner was outspoken in his advocacy for the Union, support for its use of overwhelming military force, and his respect for the courage of the individual Union soldier. On the other hand, he frequently described the Confederate forces in less complimentary terms and editors would occasionally include his comments about a battle along with his photographs. As an example, after the battle of Gettysburg, Gardner’s photographs of devastated terrain and Confederate dead were accompanied by his words; “Killed in the frantic efforts to break the steady lines of  patriots, they paid with life the price of their treason, and when the wicked strife was finished, found nameless graves, far from home and kindred.”

Abraham Lincoln appreciated the loyalty of both men and frequently gave each of them permission to take photographs of him not only at the White House, but in battle areas as well.  Lincoln understood that images of him near the battlegrounds with soldiers would “play well” in the communities across the North, where such photographs were featured in local newspapers.

In late 1863, Gardner began to realize that, while he had taken many of the more dramatic pictures of the then two-year Civil War, Mathew Brady was given (or took) most of the credit. Gardner was appreciative of Brady’s mentorship and did not resent the existing arrangement, but was ready to break out on his own. The two men reached an amicable settlement with Brady even transferring ownership of some of Gardner’s photographs; and Gardner then opened his own studio in Washington DC.

Gardner became close to Abraham Lincoln, and several of his photographs of the President have become iconic, including one of the most artful images of Lincoln which captured, in the President’s lined and weary face, the enormous toll that the War had taken on the man.

Collectively, the photographers of the Civil War era provided thousands of images of people and places from that great conflict, however, their contributions were possible because Brady and Gardner, with their extraordinary vision and talent, advanced the profession of photography.

Mathew Brady, by his professional foresight and his willingness to invest heavily in the horse drawn photographic studios and in the training and salaries of the several assistants, was critical to the extensive record we have of the Civil War. And, Alexander Gardner transcended mere images and captured the harsh reality of war with his pioneering images of the tragic loss of life, young men left with terrible wounds, and devastated farms and communities.

And both men, by developing a trusting relationship with Abraham Lincoln, left us with unique and deeply introspective portraits, taken over several years, which let us glimpse Lincoln’s heartfelt humanity and the sad evolving effect the War took on this President.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com




Did President Lincoln Offer to Step Aside? (Article 55)

As Charles Allen Thorndike Rice reviewed the numerous replies he had received from Lincoln contemporaries in preparation for his 1885 book “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln,” he noted that, occasionally, there were discrepancies between the recollections of the respondents to the same incident. Usually, he just included the writers’ statements as sent to him, preferring to let the readers sort out which version might be more accurate. However, in one instance, he decided that he must reconcile the differing remembrances of three of the respondents to a unique event in Presidential history.

Prior to the publication of Rice’s book, there had been suggestions that President Lincoln had once offered to resign or to not seek re-election; and would then throw his support behind the politician he had chosen. Biographers in the twenty years after his assassination had offered conflicting testimonies from individuals who claimed to know for certain that he did, and others that he did not, make such an offer. The key word in these speculations was “offer,” and there seemed to be no proof either way as no prominent figure in the political scene at the time had confirmed participation. It was, however, well known that Lincoln had said, at times, that if anyone would come forward who could better unite the Northern citizens and more successfully prosecute the “awful Civil War,” he would yield the office as President. Such an occasional utterance in the face of intense political opposition and a stagnant war effort would be reasonable for any President, but especially one as empathetic to his cause as Abraham Lincoln.

But, did Lincoln take any specific steps to identify, and then encourage, a potential replacement? And, if so, why would he have made such an offer?

In mid-1863, the Republican President was unsure if he would even get his Party’s nomination in 1864, let alone win a national election against a Democratic opponent.  He was concerned that the public in the Northern states seemed to have lost the will to support the fight to restore the Union. There were Democrat and Republican Congressmen, Senators, Governors and newspaper publishers calling for a peace accord with the Confederate government; even if that resulted in two separate nations and the lost opportunity to end slavery. However, Lincoln believed that only a vanquished South, defeated militarily, would ever rejoin the United States; so he wondered if another individual could re-ignite the public’s support for the war effort.

Lincoln was an astute political observer and believed that a new “blended” party would attract both Democrats and Republicans who favored efforts to force the Southern states back into the Union. Then, that new constituency would support a Unionist platform and elect as President a man dedicated to that cause; or at least a man who “said” he was dedicated to that cause.

Of course, any such offers, if made, would have to be kept confidential and could not seem to come directly Lincoln. After all, Lincoln was still the President with obligations as the country’s chief executive and Commander-in-Chief, and the War was still raging.  Also, he was also fearful that such news would be a rally point for the Confederates and such an announcement could boost their morale and likely prolong the War.

Thanks to Mr. Rice’s book, we now know that the President had approached two men, neither a Republican, and notified them that he was willing to not seek re-election and would support their candidacy as the new President; if they would commit to continue the fight for restoration of the Union.  And, the methods Lincoln devised to deliver the offers were indicative of his astute political skills.

One of the men who Mr. Rice interviewed, for his forthcoming book, was Thurlow Weed, a New York based attorney. Mr. Weed had been a political operative for many years before and after the Civil War; usually in the service of William Seward, former New York Governor, who became Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Weed thrived on political intrigue, especially if the task at hand involved a bit of misdirection and back-door negotiations. One New York newspaper declared that, “Weed is the bullet, fired from long distance by Seward.” When Seward went to Washington DC in 1861 to serve under Lincoln, Weed became a frequent visitor. Weed was excellent at his job because he never sought notoriety for his deeds and he assured there was no trail back to Mr. Seward.

And, on at least two occasions, he undertook assignments at the request of Abraham Lincoln!

Weed’s second assignment for President Lincoln was in 1865 when, by offering patronage and other dubious promises, he was instrumental in securing enough votes to get the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which, if ratified by the states, would abolish slavery. But, Mr. Weed’s first assignment for the President was in 1863, when he was asked to approach two men Lincoln had chosen as possible successors.

When Rice was first working on his book, he visited Thurlow Weed at his home, hopefully to hear some Lincoln stories from the eighty-year-old famous (some say in-famous) politico. Rice found Weed in excellent spirits, under the care of his daughter, and “lucid as a gold piece.” At the time, Weed was categorizing his papers, including the many newspaper accounts of his career, and dictating his recollections to add details. Weed told Rice that he had met Abraham Lincoln on several occasions and would be pleased to provide anecdotes for Rice’s new book. First, Weed spoke of Lincoln’s close relationship, both political and personal, with Secretary of State William Seward, who had introduced Weed to the President. Rice already knew of the friendship between Lincoln and Seward and sought to explore, with Mr. Weed, Lincoln’s relationship with other important figures of the day.

Rice asked Weed’s opinion of General George McClellan, who Lincoln had dismissed in 1862 and who had been Lincoln’s Democratic opponent in the 1864 election. Weed quickly replied, “He might have been President as not!” At first Rice thought that Mr. Weed was referring to the 1864 campaign but, to Rice’s surprise, Weed continued down a different path. “(In 1863) Seward telegraphed me to come to Washington, and he took me right over to the White House saying, ‘The President wants to see you.’

Weed continued, “We found the President deeply distressed. I had never seen him in such a mood. The President said, ‘Everything goes wrong. The rebel armies hold their own; Grant is wandering around in Mississippi; Seymour has carried New York. (Horatio Seymour was a popular Democratic Governor who earlier promoted a peace settlement with the Confederacy, the antithesis of Lincoln’s war policy.) If his party carries many of the Northern states, we shall have to give up the fight, for we can never conquer three-quarters of our countrymen, scattered in front, flank, and rear. Governor Seymour could do more for our cause than any other man living. If he could control his partisans he could give a new impetus to the war. Mr. Weed, I want you to go to Seymour and tell him now is his time. Tell him I do not wish to be President again and that the leader of the party, provided it is in favor of a vigorous war against the rebellion, should have my place. Entreat him to give a true ring in his Annual Message (to the New York Legislature), and if he will, I will gladly step aside and help put him in the executive chair. All we want is the rebellion put down. If there is a man who can push our armies forward one mile further or one hour faster, he is the man who ought to be in my chair.’

Then Weed went on, “I visited Governor Seymour and delivered my commission from Lincoln. When I left him it was understood that his message would breathe an earnest Union spirit, praising the soldiers and calling for more, and omitting the usual criticisms of the President’s policies. I forwarded this expectation to the President. Judge my disappointment and chagrin when Seymour’s message came out- a document calculated to aid the enemy.

This attempt to enlist the leader of the Democratic party having failed, Lincoln authorized me to make the same overture to McClellan. Lincoln said, ‘Tell the General that we only wish the success of our armies and that if he will come forward at the head of a (new) Union-Democratic party, and through that means, push forward the Union cause, I will gladly step aside and do all I can to secure his election in 1864.’

Weed continued, “I opened negotiation through Mr. Barlow, McClellan’s next (best) friend, who shortly afterward told me he had seen him (the General) and secured his acquiescence, saying ‘Mac is eager to do all he can do to put down the rebellion.’ I then suggested a great Union-Democratic meeting in Union Square at which McClellan should preside and this was agreed to by both Barlow and McClellan. I drew up some memoranda of principles to set forth on the occasion and set the meeting for Monday, June 6 (1863). Once more there seemed to be a promise of ending the war by organizing a great independent Union Democratic party under McClellan. On the eve of the meeting I received a formal letter from McClellan declining to preside, without giving any reason. If he had presided at that war-meeting, nothing but death, could have kept him from being elected President in 1864.”

Rice was astounded by the revelations that Lincoln had offered these two different men a similar path to the Presidency. Rice was aware that there had been rumors that Lincoln had possibly made such proposals but, to his knowledge, no politician had ever come forward to claim they were the person who had been approached by the President.  However, Rice was an experienced reporter and could tell by Weed’s mannerisms that he believed his recollections were factual. On the other hand, Rice wondered if the tale was true or was it the muddled thoughts of an elderly man? So, Rice made appointments with the two men Weed mentioned as potential Lincoln replacements; Seymour and McClellan.

In his meeting with McClellan, the former General and former Presidential candidate said, “No such events ever occurred. Mr. Weed is a good old man but he has forgotten. Mr. Lincoln never offered me the Presidency in any contingency and I never declined to preside at a war-meeting. I am sure I never wrote to Mr. Weed in my life.” Rice also called on Mr. Barlow, who Weed said was the messenger; and, Barlow said he could recall no such episode.  Rice then returned to Weed’s home and relayed the conversations with McClellan and Barlow. Weed laughed and said, “The General has forgotten, has he.” Mr. Weed’s daughter then presented the twenty-year old letter from McClellan to Mr. Weed in which the General had written, “I have determined to decline the compliment of presiding over the proposed meeting of Monday next.” (In the letter, McClellan did offer vociferous support for the Union and the military efforts.)

Thurlow Weed, who had spent his political life in the shadows, leaving no paper trail, had saved, at least, this one letter.

Rice made a second appointment with McClellan and showed him the letter. McClellan spent a few minutes looking at the document and finally said, “Well, that is my writing. I wrote that and had forgotten about it.” And with that, one historical puzzle was solved!

Next, Mr. Rice visited former Governor Seymour who, unlike McClellan, readily confirmed Mr. Weed’s account. In fact, Seymour said that years earlier he had once visited with Weed and they agreed as to the general sequence of events, including Seymour’s unexpected change of heart. Seymour told Rice that he changed his mind when he realized that a forceful speech to continue the Lincoln policies would have cost him too much of his support in New York. When Rice said that Weed still believed he could have become President, Seymour replied, “Well it isn’t much matter. I was not in good health and it might have killed me. It is a hard laborious, thankless office and it is just as well as it is.” However, while he passed on the opportunity to become Lincoln’s replacement in 1864, Governor Seymour was evidently in good enough health by 1868 to be the Democratic nominee for President, losing to the Republican candidate, former Union General, Ulysses S. Grant.

But, Mr. Rice now had his last piece of the 1863 puzzle. Thurlow Weed had indeed been Abraham Lincoln’s emissary for his offer to step aside and support either Seymour or McClellan as President of the United States in the 1864 election.

So how did Lincoln go from that level of despair in the summer of 1863, when he thought he could not even win his Republican Party’s nomination for a second term, to a landslide re-election in 1864? Simply put, the tides turned! He found his perfect General in Ulysses S. Grant, the Union began to win more victories, the Confederate armies began to weaken through attrition, and the Southern economy began to collapse while the Northern economy surged.  It was a perfect storm against the Confederacy, but certainly advantageous for the re-election chances of Abraham Lincoln.

However, we now know that, in 1863, Lincoln’s overtures to Seymour and McClellan were sincere, as he placed his country ahead of his own political ambitions.

Isn’t that a unique concept for a politician!

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com