Tag Archives: Civil War

Rutherford B. Hayes and the disputed election of 1876

It was a disputed election in 1876. While it appeared that the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden of New York, had won the popular vote, neither he nor the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, had enough electoral votes to claim victory. It turned into a long and nasty fight. The dispute focused on the election returns from three Southern states: Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, where there had been widespread racial voter intimidation and fraud.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President book reviewTo resolve the crisis, President Grant helped form a 15-person committee made up of both Democrats and Republicans to decide which candidate would receive the electoral votes from each of the disputed states. The committee consisted of five members from the House, five from the Senate and five from the Supreme Court. The wrangling lasted until early March, just two days before inauguration. The transition was held in early March back then. To secure his path to the presidency, author Ari Hoogenboom writes in “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President,” Hayes himself did not make any concessions, but those working for him did make offers.

Shortly after Hayes became president, he withdrew federal troops that had been stationed in South Carolina and Louisiana to protect voting rights, and the governments in those states immediately flipped from Republican to Democratic control. This effectively ended the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.

As Hoogenboom writes, Hayes really had no choice. By this point there was no longer an appetite in the North for continued troop presence in the South. Besides, Hayes believed that over time, with more education and economic opportunities for all, racism would fade and American society would become more egalitarian. How very wrong he was about that. In actuality, getting the federal government out of the way and allowing the South to establish “home rule” led to almost a century more of racial violence and voter suppression.

During his presidency, Hayes pushed for civil service reform. This was his No. 1 issue. He wanted to upend the established practice of patronage appointments for government jobs. Up until this point, Senators and Congressmen were allowed to dispense appointments to their friends and allies under the “spoils system.” In return, those who received such employment had to give a portion of their pay to the political bosses who had gotten them their jobs. It was all very corrupt.

Hayes wanted to change all that. He wanted civil servants to be hired on the basis of competitive written examinations, and he did not want them to be fired for not making payments to politicians. This turned into an epic battle between Hayes and his party, with Congress, and especially with a powerful “Stalwart” Republican Senator from New York, Roscoe Conkling (not Roscoe P. Conkling, who was someone else). Senator Conkling controlled the lucrative New York Custom House, which was run by his lackey, Chester A. Arthur. Hayes ultimately had Arthur fired, setting up an epic battle with Conkling that would one day have immense consequences for the country that nobody could have imagined at the time.

President Hayes also dealt with violent railroad strikes and disputes over the nation’s money supply and the gold standard. He dealt with Indian affairs and with anti-Chinese immigration fervor. He won showdowns with Congress over “riders” aimed at voter suppression that were added by Southern Democrats to spending bills. Later in his presidency, a commission was formed go back and investigate the 1876 election, but that ultimately led nowhere.

Before Hayes became president, he served in the Civil War. He was an officer, and he fought bravely and was instrumental in some key battles. He was also injured numerous times. He was elected to Congress while he was still serving with the Union army in Virginia, but he did not leave the battlefield to campaign. All he did was write home in a letter: “An officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped,” and when these words were made pubic in the newspapers, he was elected resoundingly. After the war Hayes also served as governor of Ohio. He got his start in politics before the war, when he was elected City Solicitor in Cincinnati.

Here are some additional facts about our nation’s 19th president:

  • From the beginning, Hayes had pledged not to run for a second term. He long advocated for a constitutional amendment giving the chief executive a single six-year term.
  • Hayes traveled extensively while in office. He was the first President to visit the West Coast.
  • He had a full beard.
  • The B was for Birchard, his mother’s maiden name.
  • He was married to Lucy, and they had many children, mostly sons. Some of the children died while very young.
  • He banned alcoholic beverages from the White House. He did so in part to mollify teetotalers who wanted to form a new political party that would have harmed the Republicans.
  • Despite not serving booze, the Hayses were fun people who knew how to entertain. They threw lots of parties. And when they went to parties, they were often the first guests to arrive.
  • His father died when he was very young. He was raised by his mother and his uncle, Sardis Birchard. Uncle Sardis acted as a surrogate father to Hayes, and later to his sons. He built them a house.
  • Uncle Sardis was racist.
  • Hayes was not racist and was anti-slavery. He supported John C. Fremont, the anti-slavery candidate, in the 1856 presidential election. And, like his immediate successor, James A. Garfield, who was also from Ohio and also fought for the Union, he viewed the Civil War as a battle to end slavery in our country once and for all.
  • Hayes believed strongly in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments (the “Reconstruction Amendments”), and felt that these amendments should be enforced in the South.
  • Before and after the Civil War, Hayes had many Southerners as friends. He met them in college. He never understood how they could be opposed to racial equality.
  • Although Hayes attended church regularly, he never joined a denomination and never “drank the Kool-Aid.” In other words, he did not fall for crazy ramblings of any preachers.

After his presidency, Hayes stayed active in public life and championed a number of what we would call today “progressive” causes. Education, especially education for blacks, prison reform, and Native American issues were causes he championed. He was involved on committees and foundations, and he traveled extensively. One of the beneficiaries of an educational scholarship he awarded through a fund he stewarded was W.E.B. DuBois, who would go on to become an influential author and civil rights activist. Hayes also continued to advocate for civil service reform and stayed abreast of politics. He also was active in Civil War veterans associations. He died in 1893 at age 70.

As presidential biographies go, I found “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President” to be well researched and thorough. For some reason though, this was not the most fun book I have ever read. It seemed to take me a long, long time to get through it, and I am not sure why. Despite not enjoying the book much, I did come to like Hayes as a person, especially after he left the presidency and continued to fight for what he believed in.

The reputation of Hayes suffered over time, with many historians considering him a mediocre president. But Hoogenboom argues that this reputation was not warranted. It was not Hayes himself who compromised with the racists in the South over “home rule,” but rather those who had been working on his behalf. Nevertheless, it was the decision of Hayes to pull federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana, effectively ending Reconstruction and leaving the blacks at the mercy of white supremacists and their racial violence, harassment and voter intimidation.

For me, reading about his post-presidency advocacy was most inspiring. Hayes could have simply led a life of leisure after leaving office. He certainly had enough money. Yet, like former President Jimmy Carter does today, Hayes continued to serve. That, for me, counts for so much.

Generations of Captivity by Ira Berlin

Of all the atrocities of slavery — from being forced to work from sunup to sundown, six days a week, with no pay, for life; to being raped, beaten, branded, mutilated and tortured; and to being subjected to all manner of racial degradation and humiliation — none was more horrible than the forced separation from family members. This happened all the time. Young children were literally torn from the arms of their mothers, often never to be seen or heard from again. (Before he even learned to walk and talk, Frederick Bailey, who would later change his surname to Douglass, was taken from his mother to be raised by his grandmother. Later he was separated from his grandmother as well.) Every enslaved person lived in constant fear that a brother or sister, a parent or child, even a wife or husband, could be sold, at a moment’s notice, for any reason — or for no reason at all. Being sold south was the worst.

Ira Berlin book review

For many hundreds of years — from the moment settlers first came to the New World until the end of the Civil War — forced unpaid labor and human exploitation existed in this country. In “Generations of Captivity,” a comprehensive history of slavery in North America, author Ira Berlin describes the difference between free societies, societies with slaves, and slave societies — all of which existed at one time or another, and often simultaneously.

As the author explains, slavery often transformed itself, depending on what crops were being grown and where. In Virginia there was tobacco, and in South Carolina rice. Sugar was grown in the Caribbean, where conditions for the enslaved were most brutal and almost always resulted in death within a few short years. When planters in the tobacco-growing states realized their cash crop was too difficult to grow and that it depleted the soil too much, they gave up on it and switched over to grain crops, which were less labor intensive. But further south, a whole new generation of landowners started growing cotton, so vast numbers of enslaved people were forcibly migrated against their will to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. This great migration, similar to the Trail of Tears that the American Indians were subjected to, resulted in even more forced separation of family members.

Berlin writes that after the Civil War ended, most of the newly freed people immediately began searching for lost family members. Travel, word of mouth, even placing ads in newspapers were some of the methods used to help locate missing relatives. Sometimes those efforts were successful, many other times not. (In another book I read that Harriet Tubman, who had been separated from a sister before she escaped to the north and became a hero of the Underground Railroad, was never able to locate the sister even after slavery had been abolished.)

This book, “Generations of Captivity,” is one of many on the history of slavery. I learned so much from reading this, and I benefited from the helpful maps and tables included in it.

Robert E. Lee

Even before the Civil War ended, many Southerners began to lionize their military leader, looking to him as a mythological hero or even sometimes as a Christ-like figure. In my view, those who would romanticize the Confederate general in such a way were then — as they are today — misguided. Yet those who would demonize him are also mistaken. Robert E. Lee was not a villain.

Robert E. Lee

Reading this fascinating, 400-page biography of Lee, I came to like him in many ways. I also learned many jaw-dropping facts.

Robert E. Lee’s father was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who had fought under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. It was Robert E. Lee’s father who uttered the immortal phrase about the father of our country, at Washington’s funeral, that he was “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” But Robert E. Lee’s connections to George Washington do not end there. He married Mary Custis — who was the step-great-granddaughter of George Washington!

George Washington did not have any children of his own. But Martha was a widow who had children with her first husband, and two of Martha’s grandchildren, including George Washington Parke Custis (also known as “Washy,” who would become Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law) were adopted by George Washington and grew up at Mount Vernon.

Like many of our nation’s founding fathers, George Washington owned slaves. Approximately half were his, but the other half belonged to his wife’s estate. The Custis family estate. When he died, Washington freed all his own slaves in his will. Not only that, he also directed that they be provided with care if they were elderly, that they know or be taught a trade if they were of working age, and that they receive an education if they were children. But Martha’s slaves, which were legally part of the Custis family estate, were legally off limits to Washington and thus passed to George Washington Parke Custis (again remember he is Robert E. Lee’s father in-law) upon Martha’s death. When George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, he named Robert E. Lee executor of his will and he directed that his slaves be freed within the next five years. It actually took Robert E. Lee six years to carry out this directive, and as it turned out it was somewhat of a moot point because the Civil War was going on and the slaves had all escaped to freedom.

From the Custis family estate, Robert E. and Mary Lee inherited a plantation in Arlington and moved into the mansion there, but when the Civil War started it was quickly occupied by the Union army, and Mary and the children had to leave. The Union army began using the property to bury their war dead, including on the front lawn of what had been Robert E. Lee’s house. This would become the site of Arlington National Cemetery, where Arlington House still stands.

Like many others of his day both from the North and the South, Robert E. Lee had what can only be called today racist views. He felt that blacks were inferior to whites. (He felt that Comanche Indians were even more inferior.) After the Civil War Lee was summoned to testify before a congressional committee and he was asked if blacks should be given the right to vote. Lee said no. Yet the author also recounts a story of Lee going to church after the war and sharing the communion rail with a black man, thus setting an example for other whites in attendance.

Here are some additional facts about Robert E. Lee:

  • He graduated from West Point and was second in his class. Not only that, but he did so without receiving a single demerit during the entire four years!
  • He was a U.S. Army engineer, and his early assignments included surveying work in Michigan and Ohio, building a fort in Georgia, and getting the Mississippi River to flow better around the port at St. Louis.
  • Later, Lee became superintendent of West Point. He hated to expel cadets but every once in a while there was one who just would not follow any rules no matter what he tried. One cadet Lee kicked out was James McNeill Whistler — who would go on to become the famous American painter, known for “Whistler’s Mother.”
  • Lee fought in the Mexican-American War under general Zachary Taylor, who would go on to become our nation’s 12th president. Lee’s future foe, Ulysses S. Grant, also served in the Mexican-American War under Taylor.
  • Lee was a really good letter-writer, and he carried on lifelong pen-pal relationships with a number of younger women.
  • He had a sense of humor.
  • He was shy, he hated to give speeches, and he avoided personal confrontations. This latter characteristic was a liability during the war, when he often had a difficult time getting his generals to do what he wanted.
  • As a military strategist, he was quite good in that he was able to carve out victories (or prevent losses) despite being vastly out-numbered in terms of resources and troop strength at almost every turn. I am certainly no expert, but in my view many of his battle plans were too complicated.
  • Philosophically, he was aligned with the Federalists, even though that political party had essentially ceased to exist by the time Lee came of age.
  • After the war, Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia.

As books about historical figures go, I thought that “Robert E. Lee: A Biography” by Emory M. Thomas was a good one. When I was trying to decide which book on Lee to read, I wanted to find one that neither lionized nor demonized the subject, something this author purported was his goal. I think for the most part he did a good job with this. I also wanted a one-volume, cradle-to-grave biography that was comprehensive, yet not too exhaustive. As I discovered recently at Barnes and Noble, there are multi-volume books on individual Civil War battles! I’m not that dedicated. For me, reading about the actual battles can be rather tedious and even confusing at times. A few criticisms of this book include its rather quick treatment of the battle of Petersburg, which was really a 10-month siege. I would have liked to learn more about Lee’s reaction to big events like the Emancipation Proclamation and the assassination of Lincoln. At times, especially in the closing chapters, I found the author repeating himself. But most importantly, I do think that Thomas presented a good portrait of Lee as a human being, including many of his complexities and contradictions. I am so glad I took the time to learn more about Robert E. Lee, and I am glad I picked this book in particular.

Jefferson Davis

As president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis was under almost constant criticism from members of the rebel congress, from many of the newspapers in the South, and from his military. There were bread riots and protests over the draft. At one point, Arkansas even threatened to secede from the Confederacy! Davis had lots of trouble with his generals, but he worked the best with Robert E. Lee.

More facts about Jefferson Davis:

  • Graduated from West Point!
  • He fought in the Mexican-American War.
  • He was Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce
  • His first wife was the daughter of Zachary Taylor.
  • He was often sick in bed, and at some point he lost an eye.
  • He was elected to a six-year term as president of the Confederacy. He ran unopposed.
  • He was a micromanager and a bit of a control freak.
  • He was said to be grumpy.

Jefferson Davis book review

I’m not a huge fan of the Confederacy, and I think anyone who flies a Confederate flag today, in 2018, is a racist. But I wanted to read more about the Civil War. “Embattled Rebel: Jefferson David as Commander in Chief” by James M. McPherson was on the bargain table at Barnes and Noble, in hardcover, for six bucks. It’s by the same author as the book I completed immediately before this one, “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief,” and I found it was an interesting follow up.

Rather than being a “cradle-to-grave” biography that I prefer reading, this book focuses almost exclusively on the war from the South’s perspective. There is not much about the upbringing of Jefferson Davis, his family life, his career leading up to the Civil war and what happened to him after. The author describes the immense disadvantages the South faced, and he describes the three times that the South came closest to winning the Civil War.