Posts Tagged ‘Ulysses S. Grant’

Did the American Civil War Ever End?

A giant bust of Lincoln by the artist David Adickes in a field outside of Williston, North Dakota.

A giant bust of Lincoln by the artist David Adickes in a field outside of Williston, North Dakota.Credit Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

disunion45When did the Civil War end? Many have answered never. As late as 1949, in an address at Harvard, the writer Ralph Ellison said that the war “is still in the balance, and only our enchantment by the spell of the possible, our endless optimism, has led us to assume that it ever really ended.”

Still, there was an ending of sorts, in 1865. Sometimes, it came cleanly, as with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9. At other times, the war just seemed to give out, as soldiers melted away from their regiments and began to find their way home. Other generals in more distant theaters fought on gamely: Not until June 23 did Stand Watie, a Cherokee chief and a Confederate brigadier general, sign a cease-fire agreement at Doaksville, in what is now Oklahoma. The last Confederates of all were the furthest away: After evading capture in the North Pacific, the confederate raider Shenandoah sailed all the way to Liverpool, where its crew surrendered on Nov. 6, the fifth anniversary of Lincoln’s election.

Then there was Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This sickening act of violence, when added to all the others, brought a definitive feeling that an era had ended, as surely as Lincoln’s election in November 1860 had precipitated it. The funeral train that carried Lincoln’s remains home to Springfield, Ill., drew millions, and while the tragedy felt senseless, it also offered the nation a chance to mourn something much larger than the death of a single individual. To the end, Lincoln served a higher cause.

After he was laid to rest, on May 4, the armies united for an epic display of glory, worthy of Rome. Over two days, on May 23 and 24, more than 150,000 soldiers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington before a reviewing stand where President Andrew Johnson and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stood.

That was a political as well as a military statement, for this vast army did not exactly disappear. The Grand Army of the Republic, founded in 1866, would become a potent lobbying force for veterans. Its immense gatherings helped to choose Lincoln’s successors for decades.

More than a year later, on Aug. 20, 1866, President Johnson proclaimed that final pockets of resistance in Texas were “at an end.” We could call this, too, the close of the war.

But much remained “in the balance,” as Ellison said; uncomfortable, unfinished. Certainly, the presence of so many veterans was a new fact for Americans, and kept the war alive, simmering, for decades.

More than a few required help to cope with their trauma, and the federal government, which had grown so much during the war, grew again to address their needs. It paid out pensions, it built hospitals, it maintained service records, and it assumed more responsibility for the mental and physical health of those who had given so much. That was an important precedent for the New Deal and the Great Society.

To this day, as a recent Wall Street Journal article reported, an elderly North Carolina woman, Irene Triplett, collects $73.13 a month for her father’s pension. He served in both the Confederate and Union armies: His tombstone avoids that complexity by saying simply, “He was a Civil War soldier.”

Reintegrating these former soldiers took decades. What we now regard as the best Civil War fiction, such as the work of Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce, did not even appear until the 1890s, as if the war’s memory was too potent at first.

A new product, Coca-Cola, was introduced in 1885 by a former Confederate officer, John Pemberton, who had been slashed by a saber in the final fighting of the war, after Appomattox, then wrestled with an addiction to morphine, to dull the pain. A pharmacist, Pemberton experimented with a mysterious formula that derived from the coca leaf and the kola nut, to ease his suffering. The early marketing for the elixir suggested that it could reduce the symptoms that veterans suffered from, including neurasthenia, headaches and impotence.

Many veterans retained their sidearms, including Confederate officers, and weapons were easily available, thanks to an arms industry that had done great service to the Union cause. They could hardly be expected to voluntarily go out of business. With new products (like Winchester’s Model 1866 rifle), sophisticated distribution networks and a public eager to buy, the industry entered a highly profitable phase. Winchester’s repeating rifles needed hardly any time for reloading, and sold briskly in Europe, where American arms tipped the balance in local conflicts.

The Winchester was easily transported to the West, where new military campaigns were undertaken against Native Americans, and few could be blamed for wondering if the Civil War had in fact ended. Many of the same actors were present, and it could be argued that this was simply another phase of the crisis of Union, reconciling East and West, rather than North and South.

This tragic epilogue does not fit cleanly into the familiar narrative of the Civil War as a war of liberation. Peoples who had lived on ancestral lands for thousands of years were no match for a grimly experienced army, eager to occupy new lands, in part to reward the soldiers who had done the fighting.

Natives called the repeating rifles “spirit guns,” and had no answer for them. They fought courageously, but in the end had no choice but to accept relocation, often to reservations hundreds of miles away. Adolf Hitler would cite these removals as a precedent for the Nazi concentration camps.

In other ways, the war endured. The shift westward created a huge market for building products, furnishings and all of the technologies that had advanced so quickly during the fighting. One skill that amazed observers was the speed with which Americans could build railroads and the bridges that they needed to cross. Between 1865 and 1873, more than 35,000 miles of tracks were laid, greater than the entire domestic rail network in 1860.

This activity was very good for business. Huge profits were made as those who had become wealthy supplying the war effort adapted to the needs of a civilian population eager to start anew. Indeed, it is difficult to tell from the 1870 census that any war had taken place at all. The 1860 census had valued the total wealth of the United States at $16 billion; 10 years later, it was nearly twice that, $30 billion. So many immigrants came between 1860 and 1870 that the population grew 22.6 percent, to 38.5 million, despite the massive losses of war dead.

To careful observers in 1865, it was palpable that something important had already happened during the war. To organize victory, a grand consolidation had taken place, in which leading concerns had improved their organizations, crushed their smaller rivals and strengthened distribution networks. The railroad was a key part of this consolidation; so was the telegraph, often built along the tracks. Military goods needed to move quickly around the country to supply armies, and all of those skills were instantly transferable to private enterprise. One firm, an express freight delivery service founded in Buffalo, moved its goods slightly faster than the competition. It was, and is, known as American Express.

civil-war-sumter75-popupInformation was vital to make all of these systems work. During the war, the Military Telegraph Corps built 8 to 12 miles of telegraph line a day; and the military alone sent 6.5 million messages during the war. By the end of 1866, more than 80,000 miles of line existed, and these were rapidly extended into the West and South, reknitting some of the strands of Union.

Entirely new sectors of the economy had sprung up as well. In 1859, on the eve of the conflict, oil was discovered in northwestern Pennsylvania, and throughout the war, its value became clear to a war economy that urgently needed to lubricate the machinery of production. John D. Rockefeller bought a refinery in Cleveland in 1863, a major step on the way to the creation of Standard Oil. As soon as the war ended, the search for oil in new locations began: The first well in Texas was dug in 1866, in Nacogdoches County.

Many veterans, having paid so dearly for freedom, were troubled to come back from the war, only to find a new economy, dominated by industrial barons, quite a few of whom had paid substitutes to do their army service. Lincoln’s words about freedom continued to move people, but his emphasis on equality seemed to fade as the power of money rose to new heights. It was not only that a small elite had become extremely wealthy; but money itself seemed to move in new ways, fast and loose.

In other words, it was unclear to many Americans what, exactly, they had won. A great evil had been defeated; and Union forcibly defined and defended. But so rapid were the changes unleashed by the war that soldiers blinked their eyes in amazement when they returned home. Like Ulysses, the Greek hero their commander was named after, they often did not recognize the country they came back to.

Perhaps the most complicated legacy of the war was its claim to have liberated millions of African-Americans from slavery. This was not the official purpose of the war when it began in 1861, but it became so, especially after the scale of the war required a cause worthy of so great a sacrifice.

But when did slavery actually end? Was it the national ratification of the 13th amendment, on Dec. 6, 1865? Or the day Mississippi ratified it, in 1995? Or the gift of full citizenship (including voting rights) to African-Americans? There are those who would argue that we are still waiting for that Day of Jubilee. To read the stories that came out of Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Baltimore in the last year — all communities that remained in the Union — is to realize how distant the victory of the Civil War feels to large numbers of African-Americans.

Of course, that does not minimize the importance of the Confederacy’s defeat. It ended forever a way of life and politics that had dominated the United States from its founding. It accelerated the demise of slavery where it still existed, in Cuba and Brazil, and encouraged liberals around the world to push for greater rights. In the fall of 1865, Victor Hugo wrote in a notebook, “America has become the guide among the nations.”

In France, Napoleon III was destabilized by Lincoln’s victory, and pulled back from his adventure in Mexico, where his puppet, Maximilian, was shot by a firing squad in 1867. Three years later, he was removed after his defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and the transfer of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany left a bitterness that would fuel the world wars of the 20th century.

Without the Civil War, and its tempering of the national character, would the United States have been able to mount a great global campaign against fascism? Surely it would have been feebler, without the manufacture of war matériel across all the regions, or the rhetoric of freedom Franklin D. Roosevelt used to inspire the world.

Nearly all of the national triumphs of the last century, from the civil rights movement to the exploration of space to the birth of the digital age, stemmed from the contributions of Southerners, Northerners and Westerners working together. We have had failures too — we see them on a daily basis. But the refusal to fall apart in 1861 made a difference.

Ted Widmer is an assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University, and the editor of “The New York Times Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation.”

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Spectators and re-enactors gathered at Appomattox Court House to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender. CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

ON April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday — Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee negotiated their famous “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of surrender. In the ensuing celebration, a relieved Grant told his men, “The war is over.”

But Grant soon discovered he was wrong. Not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo the gains of the war.

And yet the “Appomattox myth” persisted, and continues today. By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation. It also fosters a national amnesia about what wars are and how they end, a lacuna that has undermined American postwar efforts ever since.

Appomattox, like the Civil War more broadly, retains its hold on the American imagination. More than 330,000 people visited the site in 2013. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” as in many other popular portrayals, the meeting between Lee and Grant suggests that, in the words of one United States general at the surrender, “We are all Americans.”

Although those words were allegedly spoken by Ely Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca Indian, and although hundreds of thousands of African-Americans fought for the nation, the “we” in the Appomattox myth all too often is limited to white Americans. In fanciful stories of Grant’s returning a ceremonial sword to Lee, or of the United States Army’s saluting its defeated foes at the laying-down-of-arms ceremony, white Americans fashioned a story of prodigal sons returning for a happy family portrait.

civil-war-sumter75-popupGrant himself recognized that he had celebrated the war’s end far too soon. Even as he met Lee, Grant rejected the rebel general’s plea for “peace” and insisted that only politicians, not officers, could end the war. Then Grant skipped the fabled laying-down-of-arms ceremony to plan the Army’s occupation of the South.

To enforce its might over a largely rural population, the Army marched across the South after Appomattox, occupying more than 750 towns and proclaiming emancipation by military order. This little-known occupation by tens of thousands of federal troops remade the South in ways that Washington proclamations alone could not.

And yet as late as 1869, President Grant’s attorney general argued that some rebel states remained in the “grasp of war.” When white Georgia politicians expelled every black member of the State Legislature and began a murderous campaign of intimidation, Congress and Grant extended military rule there until 1871.

Meanwhile, Southern soldiers continued to fight as insurgents, terrorizing blacks across the region. One congressman estimated that 50,000 African-Americans were murdered by white Southerners in the first quarter-century after emancipation. “It is a fatal mistake, nay a wicked misery to talk of peace or the institutions of peace,” a federal attorney wrote almost two years after Appomattox. “We are in the very vortex of war.”

Against this insurgency, even President Andrew Johnson, an opponent of Reconstruction, continued the state of war for a year after Appomattox. When Johnson tried to end the war in the summer of 1866, Congress seized control of his war powers; from 1867 to 1870, generals in the South regulated state officials and oversaw voter registration, ensuring that freedmen could claim the franchise they had lobbied for. With the guidance of military overseers, new biracial governments transformed the Constitution itself, passing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The military occupation created pockets of stability and moments of order. Excluded from politics before the war, black men won more than 1,500 offices during Reconstruction. By 1880, 20 percent of black families owned farms.

But the occupation that helped support these gains could not be sustained. Anxious politicians reduced the Army’s size even as they assigned it more tasks. After Grant used the military to put down the Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas in 1871, Congress and the public lost the will to pay the human and financial costs of Reconstruction.

Once white Southern Democrats overthrew Reconstruction between the 1870s and 1890s, they utilized the Appomattox myth to erase the connection between the popular, neatly concluded Civil War and the continuing battles of Reconstruction. By the 20th century, history textbooks and popular films like “The Birth of a Nation” made the Civil War an honorable conflict among white Americans, and Reconstruction a corrupt racial tyranny of black over white (a judgment since overturned by historians like W. E. B. DuBois and Eric Foner).

Beyond the problem of historical accuracy, separating the war and the military from Reconstruction contributes to an enduring American amnesia about the Army’s role in remaking postwar societies. Many of the nation’s wars have followed the trajectory established at Appomattox: Cheers at the end of fighting are replaced by bafflement at the enduring conflict as the military struggles to fill the defeated government’s role, even as the American public moves on. After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the Army undertook bloody campaigns to suppress rebellions and exert control over the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. After World War II, a state of war endured into the 1950s in the occupation of Japan and Germany. And in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military’s work had barely begun when the fighting stopped — and the work continues, in the hands of American-backed locals, today.

While it is tempting to blame the George W. Bush administration for these recent wars without end, the problem lies deep within Americans’ understanding of what wars are. We wish that wars, like sports, had carefully organized rules that would steer them to a satisfying end. But wars are often political efforts to remake international or domestic orders. They create problems of governance that battles alone cannot resolve.

Years after the 1865 surrender, the novelist and veteran Albion Tourgée said that the South “surrendered at Appomattox, and the North has been surrendering ever since.” In so many wars since, the United States won the battlefield fighting but lost ground afterward.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can learn, as Grant did, the dangers of celebrating too soon. Although a nation has a right to decide what conflicts are worth fighting, it does not have the right to forget its history, and in the process to repeat it.

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Lincoln’s Failed Peace Process

The New York Times    February 3, 2015

disunion45On Feb. 3, 1865, a lovely false spring day, the president of the United States traveled south by train and steamboat to a spot near the front lines of the Civil War for a peaceful talk with the enemy. Such high-level negotiations in the middle of a shooting war had never happened before, and have never happened since. After nearly four years of battering, the Confederacy was all but broken – and Lincoln was eager to stop the killing and begin to heal the country with a peaceful reconciliation instead of a military conquest. That’s why, that afternoon, Abraham Lincoln welcomed three Confederate leaders to the presidential steamboat River Queen, the Air Force One of her day, and exposed himself to political attack for the mortal sin of compromise.

Though many in the North wanted to end the war quickly, the dominant, radical wing of Lincoln’s Republican Party had long since determined not to negotiate with the rebel leaders but to hang them. The beaten South, they said, would be governed “as England governs India.” When they learned that the president had quietly slipped away to entertain its emissaries without so much as telling them he was going, the radicals on Capitol Hill and their partisan press exploded.

The meeting had been set in motion through a harebrained scheme contrived by Francis Preston Blair, a longtime Washington power broker, an alumnus of Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” a mentor to Lincoln and a father figure to Jefferson Davis. In 1864, while the proponents of the Monroe Doctrine were otherwise engaged, Napoleon III of France had sent 35,000 troops to Mexico, ousted its elected president and installed a puppet emperor. Now Blair conceived a secret choreography. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would retreat southwest from Virginia and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would pursue him all the way to the Rio Grande. Crossing the Mexican border with Grant on his heels, Lee would pick a fight with Napoleon’s army and Grant would jump in on the side of his fellow Americans. Together they would beat the stuffing out of the French, embrace on the fields of the Second Mexican War and proclaim a joyful reunion. Slavery would be exchanged for a chance to loot Mexico, and the Civil War would end with no loss of face for the South.

Francis Preston Blair Sr.Credit Dickinson College

Francis Preston Blair Sr.Credit Dickinson College

Blair proposed the idea in a month of shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Richmond. Amazingly enough, Davis purported to bless it. Though Lincoln dismissed it out of hand, he invited a conversation with “any agent” of the rebellion who was willing to bring peace to “our one common country.” Under irresistible political pressure with the war all but lost, Davis sent to Lincoln three leaders of Richmond’s growing peace movement and gave them a secret mandate to bring peace to “two countries.” Knowing how Lincoln would respond, Davis hoped to kill the peace conference in its crib, discredit the Southern doves he had sent to it and incite the Southern people to a war of desperation.

To the cheers of the combatants on both sides, Grant let the Southern peace envoys across his lines from the rebel fortifications; ignored his orders to keep them there; entertained them profusely at his headquarters; introduced them to his generals, his family and his horses; helped them craft conciliatory messages to the North; and convinced his embattled president that they were ready to accept reunion, Jeff Davis notwithstanding, and give peace a chance. Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, a world-class charmer and a prewar friend and colleague of all three rebel emissaries, joined the president for the peace talks.

The conference on the River Queen was a gathering of old friends. The leader of the Confederate delegation, the 90-pound paradox Alexander Stephens of Georgia, was Davis’s political nemesis as well as his vice president; he was also a friend and ally of Lincoln’s in the Congress of 1848 in a movement against the Mexican War. Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia had been close to Seward in the old Senate. The brilliant Alabamian John A. Campbell, a former justice of the United States Supreme Court, had attended Lincoln’s inauguration and tried to help Seward stop the war before it started.

Their reunion at Hampton Roads began in a glow of nostalgia, descended into threats and ended with a glimpse of Lincoln’s simple compromise: the restoration of the Union, a gradual abolition of slavery, the return of all forfeited Southern property, a $400,000,000 payment to the slave states to offset the loss of their slaves, and pardons for their leaders. The conference ended inconclusively and the participants returned to their capitals, determined to keep hope alive.

But peace was not at hand. As rumors of peace brought hope to their suffering people, militants North and South condemned the very idea of negotiation itself. In the exhausted Confederate capital, The Richmond Sentinel told its readers what peace would bring: “All the dark and malignant passions of a vindictive people, drunk with blood and vomiting crime, will be unloosed on us like bloodhounds upon their prey.” On the floor of the United States Senate, Benjamin Wade, a Republican from Ohio, proclaimed that “this nest of vipers at Richmond” must be crushed, not reasoned with, for negotiation “would be disgrace, dishonor, contamination in the eyes of our own people and in the eyes of the civilized world.”

Explosive though he knew it would be, Lincoln would have brought his generous peace plan to a Congress bent on revenge if a single member of his Cabinet had endorsed it. Not a single member did. “You are all against me,” he said, and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference went for naught.

Its failure had consequences. Some 10,000 men and boys alive and well when their leaders clasped hands on the River Queen were corpses three months later. Instead of a voluntary reunion, the South endured the only existential defeat that Americans have ever suffered. A century of bitterness followed.

James B. Conroy is the author of Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865.”

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The Political War

Allen C. Guelzo

The New York Times  June 5, 2014

A Union artillery battery at Cold Harbor. Library of <Congress

A Union artillery battery at Cold Harbor. Library of <Congress

Pity Abraham Lincoln. Everything that should have gone right for the Union cause in the spring of 1864 had, in just a few weeks, gone defiantly and disastrously wrong.

For two years, the 16th president had toiled uphill against the secession of the Confederate states, against the incompetence of his luckless generals and against his howling critics from both sides of the congressional aisle. Finally, in the summer and fall of 1863, the course of the war had begun to turn his way. Two great victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg staggered the Confederates, and those were followed by a knockdown blow delivered at Chattanooga by the man who was fast becoming Lincoln’s favorite general, Ulysses S. Grant. “The signs look better,” Lincoln rejoiced, “Peace does not appear so distant as it did.”

Peace was not the only thing that would be brought closer by victory. The presidential election of 1864 was looming, and if Lincoln had any desire for a second term, a victorious end to the war was the surest way to secure it. He had never seriously considered taking what appeared to some people as an obvious shortcut to remaining in office – declaring the war to be a national emergency and suspending elections for the duration, though two Union governors, in Indiana and Illinois, had done what amounted to that on the state level. That only made the need for military victory all the more urgent, and so Lincoln installed Grant as general in chief of all the Union armies in March 1864, and Grant obliged him with a comprehensive strategic plan that united Union assaults in Georgia, Alabama and, under his own direct command, in Virginia.

None of it worked, and the place where it seemed to work the least was under Grant’s own nose. Crossing the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864, Grant’s army entered at once into a series of head-to-head contests with Robert E. Lee’s fabled Army of Northern Virginia. Fighting three pitched battles – at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and the North Anna River – and enduring numerous smaller collisions, Grant worked his way down toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, which he got within 10 miles of by the end of the month. But the fighting had cost a colossal total of 40,000 dead, wounded and missing, and Lincoln gloomily understood that the Northern public “hold me responsible.”

They weren’t the only ones. Radicals within Lincoln’s own Republican Party in Congress had long been convinced that Lincoln’s preference for a soft postwar Reconstruction was dis-heartening the Republican base. They were further angered when the Republican national committee, headed by Lincoln’s ally Edwin D. Morgan, met in late February 1864 and announced that the party would hold its presidential nominating convention in Baltimore in June, not as “Republicans,” but as the “National Union Convention.” As Grant’s campaign in Virginia ground agonizingly forward, the most vehement of the Radicals – led by Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips and Horace Greeley – staged a protest convention in Cleveland’s Cosmopolitan Hall, and on June 4 nominated the Radical darling, John Charles Fremont.

If ever there was a moment when Lincoln needed good news from the battlefield, it was now, and Grant wanted to deliver it. The staggering blows he had dealt the rebels convinced him a little too easily that the Confederates were “really whipped,” that “our men feel they have gained morale over the enemy and attack with confidence,” and that with one more blow, “success over Lee’s army is already assured.” On June 1, Grant launched a hasty strike at Cold Harbor, before the bulk of his army could get into action. Even so, the attack cracked the Confederate defenses on the Cold Harbor road and forced them to fall back. With another good push, Grant might just be able “crush Lee’s army on the north side of the James, with the prospect in case of success of driving him into Richmond, capturing the city perhaps without a siege, and putting the Confederate government to flight” – not to mention providing a rousing military endorsement for Lincoln’s renomination.

But Grant, in his eagerness, had badly misread the Confederates, and when he launched a full-dress attack at Cold Harbor on June 3, it resembled (as one Confederate general put it) “not war but murder.” Well-prepared Confederate infantrymen mowed down federal at-tackers. Grant’s army sustained 3,500 casualties in the main attack and another 2,500 in related actions that day, and the armies settled into a miserable standoff.

Yet Grant carefully limited his report of the Cold Harbor debacle to four terse sentences, including the claim that “our loss was not severe.” And in the official report of the campaign he filed after the war, Cold Harbor consumed just three sentences in 51 pages. For years afterward, Grant’s doubters wondered whether he had deliberately soft-pedaled the failure at Cold Harbor in order to limit political damage to Lincoln on the eve of the Baltimore convention. There is no direct evidence of such collusion; still, Grant’s dismissal of his losses as “not severe” is peculiar.

Even more peculiar, newspaper reporting from the field was shut down by the War Department because of “a violent storm.” The New York Times (whose editor, Henry Raymond, was the new chairman of the National Union Party’s national Committee) did not publish an ac-count of the June 3 attack for three more days, and even then, merely observed that “losses were inconsiderable.”

Strangest of all, however, was Grant’s refusal to propose a truce to recover the wounded from the battlefield until June 7. Military tradition dictated that only the loser of an engagement asked for such a truce. Even though there could not have been much debate about who had won and who had lost at Cold Harbor, Grant delayed the truce agreement (and any public admission of defeat) for four days, while men suffered and died from thirst, blood loss and exposure.

By June 7, however, any anxiety that bad news from Cold Harbor would endanger Lincoln’s nomination was past. That same day, the Union National Convention opened at the Front Street Theater in Baltimore, with Robert J. Breckinridge asking triumphantly, “Does any one doubt that this convention intends to say that Abraham Lincoln shall be the nominee?” They did not, and the next day, undisturbed by any news of Cold Harbor, Lincoln – described by one state delegation as “the second savior of the world” – was unanimously renominated by the convention.

Given how diligently the National Union Party’s staff had worked to ensure Lincoln’s renomination in the months before the Baltimore assembly, even the freshest news from Cold Harbor might not have made much difference. But keeping the ill wind at bay certainly did not hurt. Nor was it uncommon in this war for the impact of bad military news to be blunted by creative hesitation. One of Grant’s corps commanders was overheard telling a staffer not to report actual casualty figures: “It will never do, Locke, to make a showing of such heavy losses.” After that, wrote the officer who overheard him, “I always doubted reports of casualties.” It irked one Philadelphia newspaper on June 9 to admit that “we can scarcely find out that there was fought one of the bloodiest battles of the war, yet, until yesterday, no one knew its result.” This was, in the end, a highly political war, in which military decisions frequently turned before the winds of politics. And in the coming months, Lincoln would find far greater political challenges in the path of re-election than the ones presented by Cold Harbor.

Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook.

Sources: R.P. Basler, ed., “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”; Larry T. Balsamo, “’We Cannot Have Free Government without Elections’: Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 94 (Summer 2001); Gordon C. Rhea, “Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864”; Ralph Morris Goldman, “The National Party Chairmen and Committees: Factionalism at the Top”; Andrew F. Rolle, “John Charles Fremont: Character As Destiny”; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series One, 37 (pt 1); Gordon C. Rhea, “The Overland Campaign,” Hallowed Ground 15 (Spring 2014); The New York Times, June 6 and 8, 1864; Ernest B. Furgurson, “Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor, 1864”; D.F. Murphy, “Proceedings of the National Union Convention Held in Baltimore, Md., June 7th and 8th, 1864”; Morris Schaff, “The Battle of the Wilderness”; David E. Long, “Cover-up at Cold Harbor,” Civil War Times Illustrated 36 (June 1997).

Allen C. Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, is the author, most recently, of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”

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October 17, 2013

The Indian at Appomattox


Secretary of State William H. Seward thought the Union Army was no place for an Indian.

In September 1861, Ely S. Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca from western New York and a close friend of the Union general Ulysses S. Grant, approached Seward requesting a commission. He refused, telling Parker that the war was “an affair between white men.”

“Go home, cultivate your farm,” Seward instructed. “We will settle our own troubles among ourselves,” he explained, “without any Indian aid.”

This was the third time Parker had attempted to volunteer for service and the third time he had been rebuffed. Years later, perhaps still angry from the numerous rejections, Parker recalled, “I did go home and planted crops and myself on the farm.”

Not only were Seward’s words insulting, but in retrospect they were also myopic. Parker later came to perform a key role in the Civil War. He ably served as General Grant’s aide and confidant, and on one occasion, saved the general from capture — perhaps even death.

Most memorably, Parker played a vital part in the final days of the war; it was by his own hand that the terms of surrender were inked at Appomattox Court House.

Despite these examples, Parker, like most Indians, has been almost entirely excised from our commemoration of the Civil War. If native contributions are remembered at all, they appear quietly on the margins. But they shouldn’t.

Parker’s long and often colorful relationship with the Union Army’s most revered general began before the war. The Seneca leader worked for the Treasury Department as a civil engineer in the 1850s; among other projects, he built a customs house and post office in Galena, Ill. There he befriended Grant, at the time a down-on-his-luck former Army officer.

In the years after the Civil War, Parker often told a story about an early encounter with the future war hero and president. One evening, as he walked past a barroom, he heard raucous noises. Upon further inspection, he soon realized that one of the voices belonged to his new friend, who was engaged in a fight against practically everyone else in the bar. Parker rushed to his aid and, in a scene reminiscent of later western films, the two men, pressed back-to-back, fought their way out of the establishment.

Eventually, Parker sidestepped the intractable Seward, and received a commission in the Union Army through another Galena friend, John E. Smith, who was a brigadier general and division commander in Grant’s army. Grant endorsed the commission request himself, noting, “I am personally acquainted with Mr. Parker and I think [he is] eminently qualified for the position.” Shortly after the fall of Vicksburg on July 7, 1863, Parker joined Smith’s Seventh Division, 17th Army Corps at the rank of captain, serving as assistant adjutant general of volunteers. Smith, concerned that his division lacked an engineer, soon assigned Parker to that duty as well. Parker was no doubt enthusiastic to serve in a capacity that so fully matched his training and previous experience, but he saw little action in the weeks after Vicksburg. Finally in September, he was transferred directly to Grant’s personal staff.

General Ulysses S. Grant and Staff: Ely Samuel Parker (left sitting), Adam Badeau, General Grant (at table), Orville Elias Babcock, Horace Porter. WIKIPEDIA

General Ulysses S. Grant and Staff: Ely Samuel Parker (left sitting), Adam Badeau, General Grant (at table), Orville Elias Babcock, Horace Porter. WIKIPEDIA

The “Indian at headquarters,” as many common soldiers referred to Parker, drew quite a bit of attention and became a noticeable fixture within Grant’s inner circle. In his mid-30s during the war, Parker stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and weighed about 200 pounds. Despite his robust frame, those who knew him well commented on his quiet and calm demeanor. Some remarked about his uncanny memory and knowledge by calling him “200 pounds of encyclopedia,” but Parker self-deprecatingly referred to himself as “a savage Jack Falstaff.” Although he served primarily as an “indoor man,” drafting orders and handling correspondence for Grant, he saw action at Chattanooga and later during the Wilderness Campaign in Virginia.

On May 7, 1864 — the night after the Battle of the Wilderness — Parker accompanied Grant and Gen. George Meade, along with a few others, in moving the general’s headquarters. As they traversed the roads and paths around the battleground, they found themselves surrounded by smoldering thickets and congested main paths. They took a side route to avoid these obstacles. Unbeknown to Cyrus Comstock, the aide-de-camp who was leading the group, they had stumbled dangerously close to the Confederate line.

Parker, riding in the rear, realized the perilous predicament and warned Grant and the others ahead. Before long, he took the lead, and, as he later wrote, “put the spurs to my black horse and galloped off in another direction and they full tilt after me.”

Parker spoke with a captured Confederate captain shortly after the ensuing Battle of Spotsylvania. The man had watched the Union officers gallop a mere 200 yards from his post and admitted that he and his compatriots were planning to ambush Grant and the rest of the men “in the next five minutes,” had Parker not led them away.

At the end of the war, Parker again demonstrated his poise and composure, this time in the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home at Appomattox Court House. After Grant had drafted the terms of surrender, he “called Colonel Parker to his side and looked it over with him.” Shortly thereafter, Grant asked his senior adjutant general, Theodore S. Bowers, to pen the final terms in ink. Bowers was too nervous to write, destroying several sheets of paper in the process. Grant then turned to Parker, who quietly transcribed the final copy, thus being the last person to put ink to paper before the two famous generals scrawled their names.

Native communities and the Civil War share a curious history. Native Americans largely disappear from our recollection of those events, save for the marginal locations where they act as sidebars to the events happening on major battlefields and campaigns. Or, when native people do appear in the geographic center of the war, they are depicted as people thrust into daunting and precarious positions, such as those of Southern Indian nations — the Choctaw especially.

All of these stories are important, but others are, too. Although Parker’s wartime career may have been exceptional, owing in part to antebellum friendships with men who found themselves in positions of power during the war, Native American contributions to the war should be highlighted more often and in the same breath as those of men like Grant, Meade and countless others. Indigenous men from across the United States joined both Union and Confederate armies and participated in ways far more meaningful than most Americans have remembered. During these sesquicentennial years of Civil War commemoration, it is important to remind ourselves that it was more than an “affair between white men.”

Sources: Ely S. Parker, “Writings of General Parker,” Proceedings of the Buffalo Historical Society 8 (1905); Horace Porter, “Campaigning with Grant”; Sylvanus Cadwalader, “Three Years with Grant”; Arthur Parker, “The Life of General Ely S. Parker”; William Armstrong, “Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief”; Laurence Hauptman, “The Iroquois in the Civil War: From Battlefield to Reservation.” The author would like to thank James J. Buss, Boyd Cothran, Betsy Hall and Steve Hochstadt for sharp and insightful suggestions.

C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa in an assistant professor of history at Illinois College and the author of  Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War.

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