Murder, Mayhem, Voter Fraud, and Political High Jinks: The U.S. Army’s Thankless Task in the South, 1865-77

With the Union victory over the Confederate movement in 1865, the federal army was given the task of assisting in the readmission of the southern states into the body politic, and in protecting the newly awarded political and civil rights of the freedmen.

It was a tall order for an army increasingly short of manpower. The calls for economy within the halls of Congress, in the months after Lee’s surrender, led to a reduction of the Army (volunteers and regulars) from a high of over 1.5 million to 54,000 by the end of 1866 – with more reductions to come. (The U. S. Navy fell under a similar axe.)

Approximately one-third of that much smaller force – 18,000-20,000 – was stationed in the former Confederacy, an area the size of Western Europe with a population of eight million people. It was in effect, an occupation force, a role largely unfamiliar to it.

US_Reconstruction_military_districts

Former Confederate states were broken up into five military districts after the Civil War.  Each district was administered by a military governor.   (Wikipedia)

Over the twelve years of the Reconstruction era, the Army executed the political will of successively, President Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans in Congress, and finally Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes.

On May 29, 1865, President Johnson issued two proclamations. One established a loyalty oath to be taken by Southerners, foreswearing any previous allegiance to the Confederacy. The second proclamation made William Holden the provisional governor for the state of North Carolina. Later, other provisional governors were appointed in the South.

The Army was tasked with aiding the process of readmission for the Southern states by overseeing elections for the calling of state conventions to ratify the 15th amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery and pledging loyalty to the Union. The Army also had the duty of protecting freedmen and their white, Republican supporters, aiding the Freedmen’s Bureau, preventing violence, and helping to reestablish civil authority.

One of the problems that the Army faced was the continued resistance of native white Southerners to “domination” by the North. There was also resentment of the presence of black troops. Many were eventually removed in the effort to keep peace.

President Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson was selected as Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 running mate because he was a loyal southern Democrat.  Unfortunately, he was also a virulent racist and white supremacist.  Radical Republicans in Congress soon took control of Reconstruction from Johnson’s hands.  (Library of Congress)

President Johnson’s loyalty oath was problematic. Too many Southerners were disqualified for public office because they could not affirm that they had not come to the political, economic, or military aid of the Confederacy during the war years. Therefore, too few native-born Southerners were available to reestablish civil government. Complicating matters even more, many of those who took the oath were later determined to be disloyal after all, and were removed by Army commanders. These actions created tensions between the Army and the civilian leaders with whom it hoped to cooperate.

Many Army commanders desired to have civil leaders assume responsibility for preventing violence and other criminal acts, rather than having their troops intervening. Army commanders occasionally refused to come to the assistance of civilian leaders, adding to confusion and tension within Southern communities. Meanwhile, Radical Republicans, unhappy with Andrew Johnson’s “lenient” reconstruction policy, wrested control of Reconstruction from the President in 1866 and 1867.

Congressional Republicans established a Joint Committee on Reconstruction to investigate conditions in the South and to propose measures to prevent violence and disorder. The result was the passage of two Reconstruction acts in March 1867. These acts placed the South under military control, and created five military districts with commanders who were given sweeping powers to protect persons and property (meaning blacks and their white Republican supporters), remove disloyal civil officials, and replace civil courts with military commissions when deemed necessary. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 also declared all Southern state governments to be provisional and prohibited the formation of independent militias (most of which were white).

americanreconstructionincolorHarpWeek

“The Freedmen’s Bureau,” from Harper’s Weekly.  The Freedmen’s Bureau was one of the cornerstones of Reconstruction in the South.  It was designed to help African Americans increase their station in life but was opposed by many white southerners.  (HarpWeek)

The Radical Republicans wanted to punish Southerners for the war, and they wanted the Army to occupy and control the political situation in the former Confederacy. As such, commanders were very aware of the need to insure that their troops conducted themselves in ways that did not make the Southern white population needlessly hostile. It was an almost impossible task. Not only did some Union commanders and their troops have an automatically negative view of “former rebels,” but those “former rebels” returned the compliment.

From 1867 to 1870, incidents of violence in the South were sporadic, though frequent enough. Peace was often tenuous as blacks and white Republicans continued to be under threat and white Southerners continued to feel imposed upon by a vindictive federal Congress.

Matters only got worse after 1870. All the former Confederate states had by this time ratified the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments abolishing slavery, granting citizenship, and the vote. They were thus readmitted to the Union. Though President Grant pleaded, “Let us have peace,” was president, it was not to be.

benjamin-ryan-tillman-9507546-1-402

“Pitchfork” Ben Tilman of South Carolina was a prominent southern Democrat for decades.  (Biography.com)

Fraud at the ballot box became more common once the Democrats regained political power in the mid-1870s in several states. As South Carolina’s “Pitchfork Ben” Tilden bragged, “How did we recover our liberty [after the ballot box had been given to “our own ex-slaves”]? By fraud and violence.” After the polls closed, ballot boxes were seized. Votes were “counted in” or “counted out,” as need be. Gerrymandering was practiced to reduce Republican voting strength. One black Congressional district in Mississippi was concentrated in a narrow band along the Mississippi River to insure white majorities in five others. Mob attacks and lynching were also employed to discourage black and white Republican voting.

“White Leaguers,” the “White Liners,” the “Red Liners,” and the “Red Shirts” came into being, bent on terrorizing black citizens and white Republicans. The Ku Klux Klan also formed at this time. Violent outbreaks in the streets and at the polls were so frequent that at times, the army was called on to literally form a barrier in public spaces between warring Democrats and Republicans. In Louisiana in 1872/1873 Republicans took possession of the state house and Democrats took possession of a nearby hall. The Democrats attempted to overawe the Republicans with an attack of “militia.” The Army sent troops to regain control over a situation that promised increasing violence.

In the 1876 November elections in Louisiana and South Carolina, a familiar scenario played out: Democrats and Republicans in both states claimed victory, not only in the presidential election, but in the elections for governor and state legislature, too. Each side backed up its claim through the threat of mob violence.  By this time, President Grant had already voiced his concern that, “The whole public are [sic] tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South and… the great majority are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the [federal] government.”

Truce-Not_a_Compromise-Nast

Many Democrats screamed “Tilden or blood!” during the election crisis on 1876, when Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote for president, but Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the Electoral College victory.  (Harper’s Weekly)

Indeed, by the end of 1876 there were fewer federal troops to protect persons and property in the South than at any point since the end of the war. Those overextended troops could no longer effectively monitor elections in that region. Reconciliation between the North and South remained elusive, despite the hopes of men of good will.

The final withdrawal of federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana to their barracks was a concession to the reality that military force to protect persons and property in the South had failed to bring about the social justice that the victors in the late war had sought.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

 

The Remarkable Roscoe, Part II

If Roscoe Conkling’s support of Abraham Lincoln and opposition to Andrew Johnson in the 1860s grew out of an understanding of the needs of the entire country, then it is also clear that his later relations with Grant, Hayes, and Garfield were colored by his preoccupation with the local political machine he sought to preserve. His contemporaries recognized that he was intelligent and capable.

A one-time ally, railroad executive Chauncey Depew, made the point in retrospect. “Roscoe Conkling was created by nature for a great career.” That he wasted his talents “was entirely his own fault. Physically he was the handsomest man of his time. His mental equipment nearly approached genius… His oratorical gifts were of the highest order, and he was a debater of rare power and resources. But his intolerable egotism deprived him of the vision necessary for supreme leadership…. [H]is wonderful gifts were wholly devoted to partisan discussions and local issues.”

The shift in his attention away from national needs toward an increasingly narrow and self-interested point of view manifested itself during the Grant administration. From 1869 onward, the junior Senator from New York was Grant’s most steadfast supporter. In turn, Grant made it possible for Conkling to become the dominant political figure in New York State Republican politics.

Roscoe Conkling found an ally in President Ulysses S. Grant.  The 18th president's friendship and support helped Conkling dominate New York politics for a decade.  (Library of Congress)

Roscoe Conkling found an ally in President Ulysses S. Grant. The 18th president’s friendship and support helped Conkling dominate New York politics for a decade. (Library of Congress)

One of Grant’s early foreign policy initiatives was the annexation of San Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic). Grant’s objectives were many: to establish an American naval station in this island nation, to provide trade opportunities for the Dominicans, to offer “the protection of our free institutions and laws, our progress and civilization,” and to encourage recently freed blacks to emigrate. This last goal might have resulted in the elimination of the race issue in the U.S.; at the least it might have forced white Southerners to treat black Southerners more fairly – at the risk of losing black labor. When Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, Charles Sumner, objected, it was Conkling who, at Grant’s request, took the lead in having Sumner removed from his post.

Conkling’s support of Grant strengthened their bond. Happily for Conkling, Grant’s relationship with New York’s other Senator, Reuben Fenton, was not good. Fenton fawned over Grant, which the latter did not like. Conkling, by contrast, was always respectful, yet stuck to his guns when challenged. Grant liked that!

When it was time to appoint a new Collector of the Port of New York, Grant’s choice favored Conkling rather than Fenton. The Collectorship was the most important appointive post in the nation. More imports came into New York than into any other port in the nation. The job of Collector carried many responsibilities and perks, and presented many opportunities to preside over a workforce that would be loyal to a man who knew how to build a political machine. Conkling and Fenton were rivals to be that man. Each man wanted to dominate New York’s Republican Party. The two men who had the best chance for being appointed were Thomas Murphy and William Robertson. Robertson was an ally of Senator Fenton. Murphy was more of an independent. Conkling threw his support to Murphy. After Grant appointed Murphy, Conkling’s authority in New York increased as Fenton’s withered.

However, Conkling’s rise did not help Republicans nationwide. Historically, a President’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections. In addition, there was dissatisfaction with some Grant policies and appointments. Consequently, Republican majorities in the Congress were reduced after the 1870 midterm election.

Collector of the Port of New York, based at the New York Customs House, was the most lucrativce patronage job in the country.  Senator Roscoe Conkling was determined to always have one of his loyalists in this position.  (Wikipedia.com)

Collector of the Port of New York, based at the New York Customs House, was the most lucrativce patronage job in the country. Senator Roscoe Conkling was determined to always have one of his loyalists in this position. (Wikipedia.com)

Despite the President’s declining prestige, Conkling defended Grant unstintingly. To a correspondent he wrote, “He has made a better President than you and I, when we voted for him, had any right to expect…” Conkling reminded an audience at Cooper Union of Grant’s storied service to the nation. Grant was “honest, brave, and modest, and proved by his translucent deeds to be endowed with genius, common sense and moral qualities adequate to our greatest affairs…” He had “snatched our nationality and our cause from despair, and bore them on his shield through the flame of battle” To a nineteenth century audience, Conkling’s vivid descriptions of Grant most certainly struck a chord. One can only imagine how his physical presence and voice reinforced the sentiments he expressed.

Two developments in 1871 and 1872 illustrate Conkling‘s growing authority, and the political alliances that would in time undo that authority. Late in 1871, Thomas Murphy resigned as Collector of the Port of New York. Conkling recommended the appointment of Chester Alan Arthur as the new Collector. Grant made the appointment.

Arthur was a good choice. He was “honest, efficient and courteous, and unlike Tom Murphy he had none of the air of the party hack.” He was also Conkling’s man. Chester Arthur’s appointment, and the defeat of William Robertson for the gubernatorial nomination in the summer of 1872, outlined the contours of Conkling’s political actions for the next several years. William Robertson blamed Senator Conkling for his defeat. Meanwhile, Chester Arthur became a kind of lightning rod for Conkling. In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes would attack Conkling’s power in New York by firing Arthur. In 1880, Robertson’s actions would assault Conkling’s authority in the Republican Party. In time, their conflicting personalities and goals would clash again – and again.

Future President Chester A. Arthur was Conkling's (and therefore Grant's) choice to become Collector of the Port of New York in 1875.  Arthur was a Conkling loyalist who owed much of his political career to Conkling.   (Wikipedia.com)

Future President Chester A. Arthur was Conkling’s (and therefore Grant’s) choice to become Collector of the Port of New York in 1871. Arthur was a Conkling loyalist who owed much of his political career to Conkling. (Wikipedia.com)

Conkling was steadfast and influential during Grant’s second term. At its beginning, in 1873, a financial panic struck the nation. It was devastating. One response to it among some members of Congress was a bill to issue more paper money so that Americans could pay their debts. Conkling called this proposal “a falsehood and a fraud. It can never be true, and therefore it can never be right or safe.” When the Inflation Act of 1874 was passed, Conkling urged Grant to veto it. After some indecision, Grant followed Conkling’s advice. (James Garfield held the same view of paper money, that it was dishonest and bad for the economy.)

The other major service that Conkling performed for the nation in this period came at the end of Grant’s term. It involved the disputed election of 1876. Was Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee, to succeed Grant, or was it to be the Democrat, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York? Nationwide, Tilden had won a quarter million more popular votes than Hayes. But in three Southern states, (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina) there were charges of fraud and suppression of the black vote. Who had actually won in these states, and how were their electoral votes to be awarded? In all three states, both parties were determined to send their electors to Washington. There was also a disputed elector in Oregon. It was a quandary for the entire country.

To resolve the matter, President Grant favored creating a Congressional Commission that would review the states’ votes and recognize the appropriate electors. Again serving as President Grant’s strongest ally in the Congress, Senator Conkling led the effort that created the Electoral Commission of 1877. The measure was seen as unconstitutional by many, including James Garfield, because it gave Congress a hitherto unwarranted part in the election of a president. The commission bill passed, however, and the Commission that was created (Garfield was a member but Conkling was not) decided the election for Hayes. David Jordan called it Conkling’s finest moment. Perhaps so, but whether it was his finest moment in behalf of the nation, or in behalf of his party, is an open question.

Ironically, the Republican Conkling believed that the Democrat Tilden had carried Florida and Louisiana, and therefore the election – and he said so publicly. Moreover, Conkling’s lack of enthusiasm for Hayes may have caused the Republican to lose New York. After Hayes was declared the winner, Conkling referred to Hayes as “Rutherfraud B. Hayes,” and “His Fraudulency.”

Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes succeeded Grant as President in 1878.  It didn't take him long to run afoul of Senator Roscoe Conkling.  (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes succeeded Grant as President in 1878. It didn’t take him long to run afoul of Senator Roscoe Conkling. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

What transpired next was a mixture of reform-minded idealism and political payback on the part of Hayes, with Conkling doing all he could to preserve his political machine in New York. On the one hand, Hayes the idealist believed that political work done on federal work time was unethical. On the other hand, Hayes the politician, and his Secretary of State, New Yorker William Evarts, wanted to create a political base favorable to the new administration.

Mixing the ideal with the political, Hayes appointed a commission to investigate several major port cities. Among its recommendations were changes at the Port of New York. In June Hayes attempted to replace Conkling’s allies, Collector Chester Arthur and Naval Officer Alonzo Cornell, with recess appointments. This action failed to achieve the desired result, but in 1879, Edwin Merritt and Silas Burt were confirmed by the Senate as permanent replacements for Arthur and Cornell. The fight over the Collectorship dominated and poisoned political relations between Hayes and Conkling.

(Check back soon for the conclusion of “The Remarkable Roscoe”!)

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

“The Most Important Political Change We Have Known”: James A. Garfield, Slavery, and Justice in the Civil War Era, Part II

CONGRESSIONAL CAREER

In Congress, James Garfield was confronted by the war and the reconstruction of the South that followed. His goals for the freedmen were very much in sync with the Radical Republican program, especially the passage of the constitutional amendments designed to elevate the status of blacks in American society and under law. He supported the extension of the Freedman’s Bureau, the Civil Rights acts passed in the late 1860s, and with initial misgivings, the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. In time, he became disillusioned with radicalism, writing to his friend Burke Hinsdale, “I am trying to do two things, viz. be a radical and not a fool – which… is a matter of no small difficulty.”

Even before the Civil War ended, Garfield could be counted among those who favored the confiscation of rebel property in order to secure a Northern victory. He believed that the South had to be “beaten to its knees,” that both slavery and landed estates had to be abolished. “It is well known that the power of slavery rests in the large plantations… and that the bulk of all the real estate is in the hands of the slave-owners who have plotted this great conspiracy… let these men go back to their lands and they will again control the South…” If the slave-holders continued to have power, they would use that power to the detriment of the freed people, and that would call into question all the blood and treasure that had been expended during the war.

Yet, for all his desire to see slavery ended, he did not want to see African-Americans given “special treatment.” Garfield could not agree with Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to equalize the pay of white and black soldiers. Apparently he thought Stevens’ proposal was a ploy to win political points at home. Though he praised black troops for their devotion and service to the Union, Garfield would not “pat the black man on the back merely because he is black,” and he would not attempt to make “political capital by showing an excessive zeal for the black man.”

Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was a fierce abolitionist with whom Garfield disagreed over equal pay for black soldiers.  (Library of Congress)

Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was a fierce abolitionist with whom Garfield disagreed over equal pay for black soldiers. (Library of Congress)

Congressman Garfield would not “condescend” to African-Americans. Yet as a much younger man, having attended a lecture on slavery, he observed, “The Darkey had some funny remarks, and witty too.”  Was this a condescending, consciously racist remark? Or was he paying “the Darkey” a genuine compliment?

Racial prejudice certainly seems to have been a factor in Garfield’s attitude, when in July 1865, he wrote to his friend David Swaim, “It goes against the grain of my feelings to favor Negro suffrage, for I never could fall in love with the creatures…” It was a private comment – condescending perhaps – that by today’s standards seems to be an ugly remark. Still, whether or not to grant freedmen the suffrage – the right to vote, and under what circumstances – was an enduring and controversial issue during Reconstruction.

If Garfield’s discomfort with the idea of unrestricted black suffrage was based in the race prejudice of his day, it seems likely that his own experience influenced his thoughts just as much. His background was one without advantages, but he acquired education and had abiding interests in history, religion, philosophy, literature, science and the theatre. He grew knowledgeable about the world around him, and felt informed about how it worked and what its needs were. In his eyes, he was fit to exercise his voice and vote in public affairs. Not so every recently freed slave.

A young James A. Garfield, who overcame extreme poverty to obtain an education and careers as a teacher, college president, soldier, congressman, lawyer, and president.  Though some of his private remarks about blacks seem harsh today, his public support for black suffrage was consistent.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

A young James A. Garfield, who overcame extreme poverty to obtain an education and careers as a teacher, college president, soldier, congressman, lawyer, and president. Though some of his private remarks about blacks seem harsh today, his public support for black suffrage was consistent. (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Whatever may have been his private reservations, James Garfield was consistent in his public support for African-American suffrage. He condemned the idea that race should determine the right to vote. “Let us not commit ourselves to the senseless and absurd dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage…” he said in a speech at Ravenna, Ohio on July 4, 1865.

In the same speech Garfield spoke of the common cause of the black and white soldier: “In the extremity of our distress,” he said, “we called upon the black man to help us save the Republic; and amid the very thunders of battle, we made a covenant with him, sealed both with his blood and with ours… that, when the nation was redeemed, he should be free, and share with us its glories and its blessings”.  And he warned, “[God]… will appear in judgment against us if we do not fulfill that covenant. Have we done it? Have we given freedom to the black man? What is freedom? …Is it the bare privilege of not being chained – of not being bought and sold, branded and scourged? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery…” In expressing these thoughts, Garfield was referring to the mistreatment of blacks in the South, and the racial prejudice they experienced even with emancipation.

Garfield’s support for black suffrage was tied to goals that combined a sincere concern for the welfare of African-Americans with his nationalist point of view incorporating the economic unity of the country and a desire to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party in the South. Without black suffrage, these goals could not be achieved. Like many Republicans, Garfield saw voting was an economic right, as much as a political one. Without the vote, Garfield feared that the freed Negroes would be unable to control their own destinies. They would be left “to the tender mercies of those pardoned rebels who have been so reluctantly compelled to take their feet from his neck and their hands from his throat.” If blacks could not vote, they would “have no voice in determining the conditions under which they are to live and labor…” Under these circumstances, “what hope have they of the future?”

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans.  (icivics.org)

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. (icivics.org)

The mix of idealism and political pragmatism embodied in this idea took concrete form in the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments abolished slavery, conferred citizenship to the freed people, and guaranteed a right to vote for adult Negro males. Subsequent legislation passed in the early 1870s was designed to reinforce those amendments.

During the debate over passage of the 14th Amendment, the necessity of abolishing the three-fifths clause in the Constitution was obvious. While slavery was constitutional, that clause had worked to the advantage of the Southerners in Congress. It counted as three-fifths of a person every enslaved individual, artificially inflating Southern influence in the House of Representatives. By abolishing the three-fifths clause, the influence of the landed whites who had brought on the rebellion was reduced. By conferring citizenship on blacks, their influence was increased. Of the necessity of removing the three-fifths clause, Garfield said, “If the Negro be denied the franchise and the size of the House of Representatives remain as now we shall have fifteen additional members of Congress from the states lately in rebellion… This… will place … the destiny of 412,000 black men in the hands of 20,000 white men. Such an unjust and unequal distribution of power would breed perpetual mischief…”

Throughout the 1870s white Southern racists constantly attacked African-Americans and their Radical supporters, politically, physically, and psychologically. Violence in Louisiana and Mississippi in the mid-1870s was particularly galling, but these events only seemed to encourage Northerners to withdraw from the racial and political problems of the South. Supreme Court decisions nullified civil rights protections and permitted restrictions on the right to vote. James Garfield’s response was to plead for additional civil rights legislation. “God taught us early that in this fight the fate of our own race was indissolubly linked with that of the black man. Justice to them has always been safety to us.” To a friend he wrote in January 1875: “I have for some time had the impression that there is a general apathy among the people concerning the war and the Negro. The public seems to have tired of the subject and all appeals to do justice to the Negro…”

The harsh Reconstruction imposed on the South by Radical Republicans led to the creation of  racist resistance groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  Members of these groups used fear tactics and terrorism to attempt to keep blacks from enjoying the full rights and opportunities of freedom and citizenship.  (www.learnnc.com)

The harsh Reconstruction imposed on the South by Radical Republicans led to the creation of racist resistance groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Members of these groups used fear tactics and terrorism to attempt to keep blacks from enjoying the full rights and opportunities of freedom and citizenship. (www.learnnc.com)

The battle over civil rights protections for blacks was a subtext for political control between Democrats and Republicans. In a highly partisan speech, “The Democratic Party and Government,” Garfield lamented, “that a people, accustomed to [the] domination of slavery, reenacted in almost all of the Southern states… laws limiting and restricting the liberty of the colored man – vagrant laws and peonage laws, whereby Negroes were sold at auction for payment of a paltry tax or fine, and held in a slavery as real as the slavery of other days.” Garfield thought that the “experiment” of allowing Southern whites to have control over the political culture was “a failure.” He condemned “those dreadful scenes enacted by the Ku Klux organization,” calling them “shocking barbarities,” and “sufficient proof …of that great conspiracy against the freedom of the colored race.”  He was witnessing the beginning of what historian Douglas Blackmon has chronicled in his book, Slavery by Another Name – the “re-enslavement” of African-Americans by means of forced labor for “crimes” committed. Indeed, as Garfield feared, the freedom won by war was lost in peace.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

An 1880 “October Surprise”

Last minute tricks have long been a part of presidential politics, going back at least to the 1844 campaign, when James K. Polk was accused of branding his slaves. Most sources date the use of the phrase “October Surprise” either to the election of 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson declared a bombing halt in Vietnam on October 30th, or to Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State who declared, “Peace is at hand” in Vietnam on October 26, 1972. In both cases, the announcements were immediately seen by the press and the public as intending to influence the outcome of the presidential election. Because both were announcements by members of the current administration, just a few days before people voted, it was nearly impossible for the opposing party to respond. Especially when the country is closely divided, October Surprises have the potential to turn elections.

When James A. Garfield ran for president in 1880, tradition dictated that a candidate write a formal letter to the chairman of his party accepting the nomination. The letter addressed the major issues that were most likely to be discussed during the campaign and set out the candidate’s positions and feelings on those topics. The acceptance letter was the only direct communication from the candidate to the electorate; campaigning was done by party regulars directed by state and national party committees. The candidate stayed at home maintaining a dignified silence. Much rested on the content of the acceptance letter, and candidates always took time to prepare it carefully. Garfield was officially notified on June 8, 1880, that he had been nominated at the Republican convention in Chicago. His letter of acceptance was dated July 12, 1880.

The letter addressed several important issues—civil and voting rights, education, public finance, and internal improvements. These were followed by a very carefully written paragraph on the question of Chinese immigration. 120,000 Chinese, mostly young men and boys, had come to the United States during the 1870s. Almost all of them came as contract workers for the railroads, who paid them just pennies a day to do some of the most dangerous tasks involved in the construction of transcontinental rail lines. Especially in the west, these immigrants were seen as a threat to American labor. In his acceptance letter Garfield said that the contract system used to bring in Chinese labor was “too much like an importation to be welcomed without restriction…” He encouraged negotiation with the Chinese government to “prevent the evils likely to arise from the present situation.” And if negotiations failed, “[I]t will be the duty of Congress to mitigate the evils already felt, and prevent their increase, by such restrictions as, without violence or injustice, will place upon a sure foundation the peace of our communities and the freedom and dignity of labor.”

The question of Chinese immigration did not come up again until October 20. Garfield received a telegram that day asking about a letter the congressman had supposedly written on “the Chinese question.” Within hours he was sent the text of the letter. Written on House of Representatives stationery and dated January 23, 1880, it was addressed to an H. L. Morey of the Employers Union in Lynn, Massachusetts. In the letter, Garfield allegedly said that “individuals and companys [sic] have the right to buy labor where they can get it cheapest.” Further, the letter says that the treaty with China should remain in effect “until our great manufacturing and corporate interests are conserved in the matter of labor.” Garfield immediately denied that he had written it.

The Morey Letter, supposedly written by James A. Garfield on January 23, 1880. Quickly proved to be a forgery, the letter’s true author has never been identified. (www.handwritinganalysis.ca)

A New York newspaper called Truth published the letter the next day, saying that a friend of the Republican candidate—a prominent Democrat—had confirmed that the handwriting was Garfield’s. Democrats pounced, printing and circulating half a million copies. Letters were nailed to signposts and pasted on store windows. Thousands were sent to every town in California, where Chinese labor was the central issue of the campaign. The letter could also be a threat in working class neighborhoods in eastern industrial cities and towns. Some called it “Garfield’s death warrant.”

The Republican National Committee sent detectives to Lynn, Massachusetts where they could find no trace of a person named H. L. Morey, or of the Employers Union. Garfield meanwhile asked to see a photo reproduction of the letter, and he sent a secretary to Washington to comb his files for any correspondence from Morey or the Employers Union. Nothing was found in the files, and after seeing a facsimile of the Morey letter, Garfield finally felt able to denounce it as a “manifestly bungling attempt to copy my hand and signature.” He authorized the Republican National Committee to reproduce and distribute the letter he had sent days before, denying its authenticity. Nearly a week went by before Garfield’s handwritten response was published in newspapers, often side by side with the Morey forgery. Democrats used the delay as evidence of Garfield’s guilt, but given the visual evidence before them, most voters concluded that the Morey letter was “a stupid forgery.”

James A. Garfield’s October 23, 1880 response to the forged Morey Letter. (www.handwritinganalysis.ca)

Despite all the investigations, the author of the Morey Letter was never found. Both the newspaper, Truth, and the Democratic National Committee were suspected, but there was never enough evidence to convict anyone of fraud or forgery. The incident certainly harmed the Garfield campaign, especially on the west coast where the Democrats won Nevada and all but one electoral vote in California. But the perpetrators of the Morey hoax failed to follow the first rule of October election surprises—don’t give your opponent time to respond. There were twelve days between the appearance of the Morey letter and Election Day, plenty of time for the Republican campaign to thoroughly investigate, vigorously reply, and assure that the response reached every corner of the nation.

Puck Magazine’s July 14, 1880 issue demonstrated that both parties agreed on the need to limit Chinese immigration. This issue of Puck came out three months before the Morey Letter became an “October surprise.” (Library of Congress)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

Was the Civil War a “War of Choice?”

        David Goldfield, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, recently penned a column that has appeared in several major newspapers this summer, including the July 22 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (Link is to fredericksburg.com, where Goldfield’s article first appeared.) http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2012/062012/06242012/707305

        In the column, entitled “Give Peace a Chance: Avoid the Carnage of War,” Goldfield bluntly states, “The Civil War was not a just war. It was a war of choice brought on by the insidious mixture of politics and religion that caused our political process and, ultimately, the nation to disintegrate.” As the U.S. commemorates the war’s 150th anniversary with battle reenactments, scholarly lectures, new books, and feature films, the question Goldfield poses is a legitimate one: was the Civil War truly necessary?

        Obviously, Goldfield believes it was not. His objection to the war stems from his belief that by the year 1861, “the Bible had replaced the Constitution as the arbiter of public policy, particularly over the issue of extending slavery in the Western territories.” The Second Great Awakening had swept across the United States in the early nineteenth century, and the evangelical Protestantism that resulted was a leading cause of the rise of social reform movements, including abolitionism. At the same time, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant groups emerged as well, eventually resulting in the creation of the so-called “Know Nothing” political party. Evangelicals and Know Nothings sought to spread democracy across North America, and to do so meant that, in Goldfield’s words, “America must expiate its sins, foremost among them slavery and the Roman Catholic Church—two forms of despotism that undermined democracy and Christianity.”

Camp Meeting by A. Rider, ca. 1835. Collection of the New York Historical Society.

        Professor Goldfield makes some very compelling points about the ties between early political parties and evangelicals, and such observations are still relevant today. But are these ties the only reasons the nation went to war with itself in April 1861? To argue that they are greatly oversimplifies a century of conflict over the presence of slavery in America. It also seems to place the blame for the war directly at the feet of Republicans like Abraham Lincoln simply because they were Republicans. While Lincoln the politician was deft with his pen and able to incorporate biblical ideas and verses into many of his speeches, Lincoln the man was not an overly devout Christian and was certainly no evangelical. He is also the president that told the South in his March 4, 1861 inaugural address, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.” However, according to Goldfield, “When the Republicans, avowedly evangelical and proudly sectional, took control of the government in March 1861, Southerners were rightly concerned to expect the worst. And the worst happened.”

Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Currier and Ives. University of California-Davis.

        The worst did happen, and the war began on April 12, 1861. If one reads Goldfield’s assessment, one might be led to believe that Lincoln ordered the U.S. Army to invade the South as soon as he finished his inaugural speech. In fact, southerners fired on Fort Sumter, a federal bastion in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor. Regardless of how “evangelical” or “sectional” the Republicans were, the South fired the first shot of the war that would last four years and claim approximately 750,000 lives. And for what? Why did the Confederates in Charleston attack Fort Sumter? Why did southerners feel compelled to secede in the first place? In sum, for what did the South fight? Perhaps understanding this will shed light as to whether or not the war was truly necessary.

Lincoln as President-elect, Chicago, Ill., November 25, 1860. Photograph by Samuel G. Alschuler, courtesy of Library of Congress.

        Despite former Confederates’ postwar assessments that the South fought merely to defend itself from a tyrannical North or for the always vaguely-defined “states’ rights,” the war was fought primarily because the South wanted no part of a nation that questioned the value, morality, or legality of slavery. When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, southern leaders—despite Lincoln’s constant assurances that he sought only to contain slavery in the South, not abolish it—convinced themselves and their constituents that the so-called “Black Republicans” would soon cross the Potomac and march through the South, freeing slaves and encouraging the twin horrors of black civil rights and miscegenation. Secession movements began in earnest before Lincoln’s election but picked up steam after it was confirmed that Lincoln would become president in 1861. Regardless of how passionately abolitionist they may have been, few northerners had ever openly threatened secession in response to outrages such as slaveholders being elected to the presidency or appointed to the Supreme Court.

        The South fought to preserve and expand the institution of slavery. While it is true that the majority of Confederate soldiers and sailors were not slave owners, they did fight for a government and a socioeconomic system built on slavery. If a war to preserve the world’s only working democracy and free people from bondage is not necessary or justified, then what war is? “I believe the war will soon take the shape of Slavery and Freedom,” wrote future Union General and President of the United States James A. Garfield just two days after Fort Sumter. “The world will so understand it, and I believe the final outcome will redound to the good of humanity.” Garfield also shared his opinion that “I hope we will never stop short of complete subjugation. Better lose a million men in battle than allow the government to be overthrown.”

        As further proof of his opinion that the Civil War was a conflict of choice, Goldfield includes this statement: “And what of the former slaves, on whose behalf this carnage was allegedly undertaken? The Civil War sealed their freedom, but little else. It would be more than a century before African-Americans attained the basic rights of that freedom.” True, but does Goldfield actually believe that the failures of the post-war era—which, of course, no one could know or envision before or during the conflict—negate the war’s necessity in the first place? Based on this line of reasoning, African Americans would have been better off to remain as slaves than to be free in an admittedly imperfect and unfriendly atmosphere at war’s end. One wonders how many slaves would have volunteered to stay in bondage had they known how difficult their path to equality under the law would be after the war. Goldfield appears to believe that since the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address was not immediate, it was not worth fighting for at all.

Union soldier reads Emancipation Proclamation to newly freed slaves. National Archives.

        Finally, Goldfield asks if peace, not war, might have ended slavery sooner and guaranteed the legal and political equality of African Americans. He does not define what he believes “peace” to be. Is it merely the absence of war? Or is there more to it than that? Consider that the North and South argued (relatively) peacefully about the existence, boundaries, and morality of slavery from before the Constitutional Convention until “Bleeding Kansas” in 1856—a period of 70 years. During that time, Congress forged many compromises that appeased both northerners and southerners, but none ever permanently held. Peaceful legislative compromises and solutions were pretty well exhausted by 1856, when pro- and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas brutally fought over whether that territory’s constitution would allow or outlaw slavery. This mini civil war was merely a preview of things to come on a national scale five years later. “Give peace a chance” is a great slogan and a great John Lennon song, but peace merely for the sake of avoiding war was tried for three-quarters of a century before the Civil War. As John Brown—one of the most violent of those who fought on either side in Bleeding Kansas—predicted on his way to the gallows in December 1859, “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Confederate dead on the field at Gettysburg, July 5, 1863. Photo by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, courtesy of Library of Congress.

        This blog post does not mean to glorify or advocate war. David Goldfield is correct when he writes “Wars are easily made, difficult to end and burdened with unintended consequences and unforeseen human casualties.” As the Union General William T. Sherman told the citizens and leaders of Atlanta in 1864, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” This quote would help make Goldfield’s case if it ended there. But Sherman continued: “…but you cannot have peace and a division of our country…I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war.”

        Perhaps David Goldfield is appalled by war in general and not just the Civil War specifically. If so, few would disagree. Based on his criticisms of the early Republicans’ ties to evangelicalism, he also appears to be repelled by religion. He is certainly not alone in that, either. However, is it possible that he is taking his personal distastes for war and religion in 2012 and using them to oppose the Civil War, which started over 150 years ago?

        The United States has unquestionably fought wars during its history for dubious reasons and unclear goals, but the Civil War was not one of them. That war began as a fight to preserve this union, but evolved into a conflict that sought to ensure that union’s liberties and freedoms were and are made available to everyone—thereby making it better by forcing it to live up to the promise of its Constitution. That is worth fighting for.

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation & Education