11/12/12

Was Ulysses Grant Anti-slavery?

One of the primary issues that I have grappled with in my four years as a Park Guide at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, the place the Grants called White Haven, is the question of what Grant’s personal views on slavery actually were in the years before the Civil War. I do not believe the issue has any direct bearing on what caused the war, as Grant was not really involved in the political debate that led to secession. Nevertheless, given his prominent role in suppressing the slaveholders’ rebellion it is a question that is often raised. Grant scholars, or anyone interested in Grant the man, must tackle it.

In a letter written to Elihu Washburne in August, 1863, Grant explicitly stated, “I was never an Abolitionest, [n]ot even what could be called anti slavery.” In his Memoirs he wrote, “For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that ‘A state half slave and half free cannot exist.’ All must become slave or all free, or the state will go down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time.” These would seem to be pretty straightforward statements directly from Grant himself.

According to some, Grant was instilled with anti-slavery views by his father, Jesse Grant. Jesse Grant indeed held anti-slavery views which he expressed in newspaper articles written for an anti-slavery newspaper. As a child Ulysses undoubtedly was taught his father’s political views and those of Jesse’s political friends and allies. Whether or not he adopted his father’s political principles as his own is far more problematic; examples abound of men who completely reject their father’s beliefs and opinions. During the Civil War, fathers and sons often found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Grant’s letters to his father show respect and a desire for approval, yet his relationship with his father was often strained, and his letters show no indication of shared political views. In fact, in a letter written to his father in April, 1861 following the attack on Fort Sumter, Grant began with the statement, “Whatever may have been my political opinions before…” This could easily be interpreted as an apology of sorts for not following in Jesse’s political footsteps.

Young Ulysses never ran for political office, never gave a speech, never wrote a letter to a newspaper, never even voted prior to 1856, by which time he was 34 years old. Grant did criticize the Democrat President Polk’s handling of the Army in letters written during the war with Mexico, and in later years he would argue that the war had been an unjustified pro-slavery land-grab. There are, however, no known letters written by Grant prior to the late 1850s that mention politics, political parties, specific individual candidates, or the controversy over slavery. Grant voted for James Buchanan in 1856, and rejected the Free Soil arguments of Frank Blair and others in St. Louis in the late 1850s. As a result, historians searching for evidence that Grant was personally opposed to the institution of slavery before the Civil War have had to rely on post-war reminiscences of Grant’s family and acquaintances, and on Grant’s actions rather than his words.

However, the historic record is mixed. Grant was reported to have treated the slaves he worked with at White Haven humanely; he was reputed to have paid free blacks whom he hired the same wages as whites; the Dent’s slave cook, Mary Robinson, remembered Grant saying he would free his wife’s slaves when he could (see here and here); in letters written to his father he carefully avoided the term slave, calling them servants instead. He freed the one slave he is known to have owned, a man named William Jones, rather than selling him, however there is only one piece of primary documentary evidence available to historians regarding Jones; the manumission paper written in Grant’s own hand. Grant never referred to Jones in any other known writings. Exactly when, how, or why Grant acquired Jones in the first place is uncertain. Grant’s actual motivations in freeing Jones are also uncertain. See here.

Despite this limited evidence of a personal antipathy to slavery, the fact remains that Grant accepted the role of slaveholding planter-farmer at White Haven until it became economically untenable to continue. Grant biographer Jean Edward Smith described Grant’s antebellum views on slavery as “ambivalent.” In Triumph Over Adversity, Brooks Simpson wrote that Grant was “confused about the peculiar institution” after quoting Grant’s sister-in-law: “Emma recalled that he opposed the institution of slavery, yet added, ‘I do not think that Grant was such a rank abolitionist that Julia’s slaves had to be forced on him.’”

There is no question Grant recognized immediately that slavery was the root cause of secession, as his April 19, 1861 letter to his father-in-law clearly acknowledged. “In all this I can but see the doom of slavery.” The letter, however, showed no personal objection to slavery; only that it was slavery that was causing the disturbance. Pam Sanfilippo, Site Historian at U.S. Grant NHS, wrote in a Historic Resource Study, “It seems that war made Grant realize what slavery really was, and he did not want to see it continued in the country…like Lincoln, he thought first of the union of the states, and what was necessary to keep the country whole…this could only happen with the abolition of slavery…A national resolution to the issue of slavery would, in Grant’s view, restore peace and re-unite the North and South.”

The views of many people regarding slavery changed during the war – some radically. John Logan, Benjamin Butler, and George Thomas come to mind. In his later years Grant would recall that slavery was a stain on the republic. Whether he only saw this in hindsight, or believed it all along, does not change the fact that it was Grant who led the country to victory in a war that abolished slavery. Nor does it undo his postwar record of fighting for the equality of all Americans.

10/20/12

Missouri and Southern Identity

 

This video and the following commentary were posted by my friend Dr. Joan Stack on Facebook today and I am reposting them here with her permission.

    [The video above is] a lecture by historian Christopher Phillips. Some of you may know that I have problems with Phillips’ interpretation of the life and career of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon in his book, Damned Yankee. I was surprised to find that I liked this lecture, although I disagree with a few points (specifically with the suggestion that artist G. C. Bingham identified with the Confederacy after the war). Phillips actually has some pretty great research and references in his talk. I will be looking for some of these citations when his book comes out next year. HOWEVER, while I like many of the specific examples and points that he makes in his lecture, I have some problems with the overarching argument. In the presentation and in his upcoming book, The Rivers Ran Backward (Oxford University Press), Phillips argues that after the Civil War Missourians came to identify themselves as Southern.

      In an interview, Phillips summarized this thesis as follows, “Before the war, loyalties and how people defined their local communities and regions ran in one direction. After the war, they largely ran in an opposite direction. The war caused a seismic shift that still echoes today, where states like Kentucky and Missouri became ‘southern,’ and Ohio, Indiana and Illinois became ‘northern,’ or, for others, ‘Midwestern.’”

      Phillips presents a persuasive argument that the rebel-leaning, white supremacist element in Missouri had a powerful resurgence from the 1880s onward. However, I would argue that there has also been continued resistance to this element among the majority of Missourians. As a lifelong Missourian I have NEVER identified as Southern or Confederate. Phillips’ attempt to force a Southern identity on Missouri reminds me of the earlier attempt by another focus of Phillips’ research, Missouri’s rebel Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, to drag the state into the Confederacy against the will of the majority of Missourians!

     In an informal survey of people that I know, the only Missourians who consider themselves southern come from southern Missouri. Most others feel uncomfortable with any regional identity and if they had to pick one, would consider themselves Midwestern.

     Many Missourians, including myself, have a split or schizophrenic identity. This fractured understanding of self gives many people from my state insight into a variety of regional allegiances. I believe Missourians’ complex identity has sometimes allowed them to understand the multifaceted nature of America as a whole better than residents of other states (think Mark Twain, G. C. Bingham, and Thomas Hart Benton).

With that said, Missouri’s recent entrance into the SEC supports Phillips’ argument, (but remember, we almost joined the Big Ten!)

07/20/11

Was Grant a Democrat? (part two)

Notice the slogan on the banner, "The Union-It Must Be Preserved"

     The other day I spent some time at the Missouri Historical Society looking through their collection of the papers of Thomas Hart Benton where I found this campaign circular from the state election of 1856. This would be the last campaign of the man who had so much influence on Missouri’s early history, and on the nation at large. Benton, a slaveholder from Tennessee, had been an advocate of slavery in Missouri during the debates over the Missouri Compromise, and had become Missouri’s first U. S. Senator, serving nearly thirty years from 1821-1851. In 1852, he won a term in the House. These years of Benton power coincided with the years of Colonel Frederick Dent’s arrival in Missouri (1817), his financial success as a merchant in the fur trade in St. Louis, his purchase in 1820 of the White Haven farm, and the time when U. S. Grant courted and married Julia, Colonel Dent’s first born daughter.

     Benton, as I wrote in an earlier post, was a dedicated Democrat and supporter of Andrew Jackson. Benton was a leading champion of westward expansion and a dedicated Unionist. It was his strong belief in the United States as a nation that led him to oppose South Carolina’s Democrat Senator John Calhoun during the debates over the Wilmot Proviso. Benton, a slave-owner himself, had no sympathy for the abolitionist cause, but he was also afraid that Calhoun’s unceasing attempts to protect slave-holders’ rights by uniting the southern slave states against the free states of the north threatened the disunion of the states. His fear that the Union was threatened by extremists on both sides of the slavery issue led him to oppose the expansion of slavery into the new territories. Missouri’s other Senator, David Rice Atchison, was firmly pro-slavery and quite willing to cooperate with Calhoun. Benton’s opposition to Calhoun, Atchison, and the expansion of slavery caused a bitter divide in the Democratic Party in Missouri between Benton and anti-Benton factions. (This division of the party over slavery issues wasn’t just limited to Missouri. There was a time when some prominent Democrats believed their party would actually become the anti-slavery party; Salmon P. Chase, for example.)   

       By the time of the elections of 1856, Benton’s influence had waned in Missouri. Partly this was due simply to the fact that he had been around so long, but also he found himself caught between the strongly pro-slavery faction of the Democratic Party in Missouri, led by Atchison, Claiborne Fox Jackson, and others, and the increasingly strident anti-slavery faction. Benton’s chief political lieutenants, Frank Blair and B. Gratz Brown, with their St. Louis German constituency, were becoming more and more outspoken in their opposition to slavery. To an extent, Benton had been with them, which is why the pro-slavery faction hated him. Benton opposed the expansion of slavery into new states and territories, but as Brown and others began agitating for the abolition of slavery in Missouri as well, Benton felt betrayed. What Benton really wanted was to just have everyone shut up about the slavery issue so the country could get on with its business growth and westward expansion. 

     Benton did not win the Governor’s seat in 1856. On August 4th he garnered a majority of votes in the St. Louis area, but out-state Missouri was overwhelmingly in favor of the proslavery anti-Benton faction. He lost to the proslavery Trusten Polk. 1856, of course, was the same year that the Republican Party ran its first candidate for President, John C. Fremont, Benton’s own son-in-law. Yet despite the high hopes of Blair and Brown, Benton refused to endorse his son-in-law. On November 3, 1856, Benton addressed a crowd in St. Louis. As one of Benton’s biographers wrote, “Frank Blair had built a strong following for Fremont, and the city’s vote might change the fate of America. Thomas Hart Benton knew this and had come for a last persuasive effort.” He endorsed James Buchanan, saying that although he loved and had supported Fremont in his western explorations,

“…knowing from the first that Mr. Fremont was to be the candidate of a sectional party, I told him that it was impossible that I could support any such nomination. No matter what came, he must be national, he must have a vision that could look over the Union. He must not be a dividing line, he must be national, or I [sic] cannot only not endorse him but I must take ground against him.”

When Buchanan won, Benton’s daughter, Jesse was convinced it had been her father’s influence that had cost her husband the White House.

     What is striking about this is how similar Benton’s views were to the explanation Ulysses S. Grant gave for voting for Buchanan. From his Memoirs:

     “It was evident to my mind that the election of a Republican President in 1856 meant the secession of all the Slave States, and rebellion. Under these circumstances I preferred the success of a candidate whose election would prevent or postpone secession, to seeing the country plunged into a war the end of which no man could foretell. With a Democrat elected by the unanimous vote of the Slave States, there could be no pretext for secession for four years. I very much hoped that the passions of the people would subside in that time, and the catastrophe could be averted altogether; if it was not, I believed the country would be better prepared to receive the shock and to resist it. I therefore voted for James Buchanan.”

    Did the great Democrat Thomas Hart Benton have an influence on Ulysses Grant? Grant himself wrote that he “was a Whig by education and a great admirer of Henry Clay.” But, in Missouri, the Whig party had never commanded a very large following, and over the years had either sat out elections or sided with one faction or another of the Democrats. By the mid 1850’s when Grant came to farm White Haven the Whig Party was disintegrating. As Grant wrote, “the Whig Party had ceased to exist before I had the privilege of casting a ballot.” (Note also that B. Gratz Brown had come from a strong Whig family background in Kentucky and had become a Benton Democrat.)

     In examining Benton’s possible influence on Grant, it is also intriguing to consider the views of Colonel Dent, but this is a challenge because there appears to be only second hand accounts of Colonel Dent’s politics, and often these are post-war reminiscences. Without doubt, Colonel Dent considered himself a Democrat. It has been said that this is why Grant did not get the County Engineer position in 1859; because he had been residing at White Haven living and working with his slave-holding Democrat father-in-law. But which faction of the Democrats in Missouri did Colonel Dent actually identify with? There are some clues. For example, as early as February 5, 1846, Grant wrote a letter to Julia from Texas in which he asked her, “Has John [Julia’s older brother] made application for an appointment in one of the new Regiments that are to be raised I hope he has not let the opportunity slip. With Mr. Benton’s influence he could probably get a Captaincy.”  Years later in January of 1854, Grant wrote Julia from Ft. Humboldt, California: “Hunt is making application for promotion in a new Regiment, should be raised this Winter, and any assistance that could be given by your father, or brother Lewis, in the way of writing to Col. Benton he would gladly receive, and, appreciate.” Clearly, Grant believed that there was a relationship of some importance between Benton and the Dents from early on. Was Dent still listening to Benton as Benton began to argue against the expansion of slavery?

     Colonel Dent is often painted as a fire-eating secessionist in complete opposition to his son-in-law, but the true picture of Colonel Dent and his relationship with his son-in-law is more complicated. On May 10th, 1861, the very day of the Camp Jackson affair, Grant was at the White Haven farm and wrote to Julia back in Galena: “Your father says he is for the Union but is opposed to having an army to sustain it. He would have a secession force march where they please uninterrupted and is really what I would call a secessionist.” On May 15, Grant wrote Julia, “As I told you your father professes to be a Union man yet condemns every measure for the preservation of the Union.”  Obviously, Grant and his father-in-law were not on the same page in 1861, but it is interesting to note Dent’s insistence that he is for the Union. Benton had died in 1858, and many of his supporters, under the leadership of Blair and Brown, became Republicans. One of the more fascinating what-if questions in American history is how would Andrew Jackson have responded to the secession crisis in 1861? This is equally true of Thomas Hart Benton. Was Colonel Dent, by this time an aging patriarch with a declining fortune, left politically rudderless with the passing of Benton? In her Memoirs, Julia recalled the scenes of patriotism she witnessed in Galena, Illinois in the spring of 1861. She remembered a torchlight parade and thought of it as a serpent out to “crush in its folds the beloved party of my father, of Jefferson, of General Jackson, of Douglas, and of Thomas Benton.”  And as I noted in an earlier post, there is the passage where she quotes her father in the midst of the war saying: “Good Heavens! If Jackson had been in the White House, this never would have happened. He would have hanged a score or two of them and the country would have been at peace. I knew we would have trouble when I voted for a man north of Mason and Dixon’s line.”

     I am not aware of any extant direct correspondence between Benton and Colonel Dent. Perhaps someone who has done more research knows of more evidence of the relationship between the two, but I think in some cases the differences of opinion between Grant and Dent in the 1850s have been exaggerated and I would like to know more about all this. As slim as the evidence appears to be, I don’t think we can have an accurate picture of Grant without a study of antebellum Missouri politics. Yesterday I asked, was Grant a Democrat? I still think the answer is…not really. But if he was, what kind of a Democrat was he?

06/11/11

The Fateful Meeting

     June 11, 1861. Planters House Hotel, St. Louis, Missouri. 150 years ago today, Claiborne Fox Jackson, Sterling Price, Nathaniel Lyon, and Frank Blair met to discuss the precarious situation in the state of Missouri. The above image is from John McElroy’s 1909 book, The Struggle For Missouri. I was going to include some of McElroy’s text on the Planter’s House meeting , but instead I will direct you to this website where it is already provided. 

     I’ve read a number of historians’ descriptions of this meeting. It is difficult to imagine how the two sides could have come to a workable agreement. Jackson and Price wanted Missouri to join the other slave states in secession. Lyon and Blair were not going to let that happen. Jackson and Price claimed to want peace and neutrality for Missouri, but their prior actions belied their assurances that they would protect loyal citizens and keep Missouri neutral. As McElroy wrote, Jackson “entered the conference full of his official importance as the head of the great Sovereign State, braving the whole United States…” Lyon saw right through him. Lyon understood what President Lincoln understood; that the national government could not survive if the individual state governments could dictate what the national government could or could not do.

     The absolute worst interpretation of this meeting is found in Christopher Phillips’ Damned Yankee. Not because Phillips fails to explain Lyon’s careful and reasonable arguments, but because Phillips inserts his psychological attacks on Lyon again. Phillips:

“Though he couched his objections to Jackson’s proposals in terms of federal authority, in truth Lyon now refused to accept any restriction of his own omnipotence. Once he had no power. Now Lyon was the power. His duty was not- and never had been – to make peace with the secessionists. His duty, his calling, was to punish them. No one else knew how. And now, no one could stop him. God was in him.”

In Truth? Whose truth? What utter poppycock! There is not a shred of evidence to support this description of Lyon’s state of mind or his motivations. How can there be? Could Phillips actually read Lyon’s mind more than a hundred years after he died?

Thomas L. Snead, who was present at the meeting as an aid to Jackson, had this to say about Lyon:

“In half an hour it was he that was conducting it [the meeting], holding his own at every point against Jackson and Price, masters though they were of Missouri politics whose course they had been directing and controlling for years while he was only captain of an infantry regiment on the Plains. He had not, however, been a mere soldier in those days, but had been an earnest student of the very questions that he was now discussing, and he comprehended the matter as well as any man, and handled it in the soldierly way to which he had been bred, using the sword to cut the knots that he could not untie.”

Snead, who fought with Price and the Confederacy throughout the war, said nothing about any “God-complex” in Lyon. On the contrary, his words indicate a deep respect for Lyon.

05/21/11

Jo Shelby – Repentant Border Ruffian?

     In an early post I noted that in 1841, at the age of fifteen, B. Gratz Brown went to reside with his namesake great uncle, Benjamin Gratz, in Lexington, Kentucky, while attending Transylvania College. Brown’s cousin, Frank Blair was also in residence at the Gratz home and attending Transylvania. At the time, four of Benjamin Gratz’s sons were there, ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-one. They were Michael Barnard Gratz, 21, Henry Howard Gratz, 19, Hyman Cecil Gratz, 16, and Cary Gist Gratz, 14. Benjamin Gratz’s first wife, Maria Gist Gratz, the mother of these boys, died in 1841, and Uncle Benjamin soon re-married. His new wife, Anna Boswell Shelby, was a widow who brought another son to the family, Joseph O. Shelby, 11 in 1841.[1]

    Brown’s biographer stated that despite the four year age difference between Brown and Shelby, they became “devoted friends.”  And yet, the two could not have taken more divergent paths. I have been reading Daniel O’Flaherty’s 1954 biography of Shelby which was re-printed in 2000 with a new foreword by Daniel E. Sutherland which you can read here. It is actually quite incredible to think of these young men at the Gratz home in Lexington debating the politics of the time and listening to visitors like Henry Clay, John J. Crittendon, and Francis Blair, Sr., Frank’s father, and then to think of the impact they had on the nation and on Missouri in particular. While later in the 1850s, Gratz Brown and Frank Blair fought slavery and its extension from their political base in St. Louis, Shelby and Henry Howard Gratz had also moved to Missouri and were engaged in very profitable hemp growing and rope manufacturing in the heart of Little Dixie on the Missouri River, heavily invested in the institution of slavery. While Brown and Blair were planting seeds for an anti-slavery Republican Party in Missouri, Shelby became a dedicated border ruffian, aligning himself with Claiborne Fox Jackson, David Rice Atchison, and other pro-slavery leaders in western Missouri. In 1855 he raised a group of volunteers to ride into Kansas for the purpose of fraudulently voting to make Kansas a slave state. [2]

     When the Civil War started in Missouri, Shelby quickly joined the fight and was present at Wilson’s Creek as a captain in the Missouri State Guard. Sadly for the Gratz family, the youngest Gratz son, Cary, had enlisted as a captain in the First Missouri Volunteers and was also at Wilson’s Creek on that hot August morning. As O’Flaherty wrote:

     “There was not half a mile’s distance between Captain Cary Gratz and Captain Jo Shelby when Lyon struck at Wilson’s Creek. It is possible that Shelby saw the face of his stepbrother and cousin amid the smoke that rolled across the field that morning, without recognizing it. Whether he did or not will never be known; but undoubtedly he saw it afterward on the battlefield stilled in death.”[3] 

     Shelby went on to earn a reputation as the premier cavalry commander in the Trans-Mississippi. When Lee surrendered in Virginia, Shelby refused to give up, and instead headed for Mexico. He was immortalized by Hollywood in the 1969 film The Undefeated starring John Wayne. A character played by Rock Hudson in the film was purported to be based on Jo Shelby.

     I want to write more about Shelby’s post war activities, but for now I want to consider this excerpt from a letter he wrote in 1882 in response to one he had received:

     “…We failed but we (the South) have the satisfaction of Knowing that no people on Earth endured or fought more from patriotic desires – We were overcome by the hirelings of the World, who were avaricious, Mercenary, ignorant of our people, devoid of honor and patriotic duty. It is over, and as we all surrendered it behooves us all to abide by the terms imposed. As to the institution of slavery, nobody cares that it is obliterated. All the world is opposed to it, and in due time the South would have abolished it – So it was not the loss of it we objected to, but the manner in which it was taken from us. The War has demonstrated that so far as the Constitution is Concerned, it amounts to Naught – It is force that frames Constitutions and fanatics when they can exercise the power over the Masses will by force break Constitutions. After all it is the greatest number of bayonets…”[4]

     Coming from a man who had been a leader of men who had violently fought all democratic efforts to thwart the extension of slavery this is a remarkable statement. I can’t help but wonder what Frank Blair and B. Gratz Brown would have thought of this letter if they had ever seen it. Regarding the Constitution, it seems to me that his assertion that “fanatics when they can exercise the power over the masses will by force break Constitutions” could really be applied to the pro-slavery fanatics like himself. But what really intrigued me was his assertion that the South would have ended slavery on its own “in due time.” This is an argument still made today. Of course, one may ask exactly how long is “due time,” but also what evidence is there that the South had any intention of abolishing slavery at any point in the future in the 1850s or 60s?  While contemplating Shelby’s letter I came across this article by James Loewen in which he wrote:

     “Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them — or forced them to abandon slavery?

     To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it.”

     In 2009 the town of Waverly, Missouri, where Shelby had enslaved people working his rope factory in the 1850s, dedicated a statue of their famous Confederate. You can read about it at this SCV website. Note that they place the blame for the Kansas-Missouri border war squarely on the Kansans. I’m sure they would appreciate the above quoted letter, but I wonder if they know that Shelby, a few weeks before his death in 1897, discussed the sacking of Lawrence with Kansas historian William E. Connelley and said this:

     “I was in Kansas at the head of an armed force at that time. I went there to kill Free State men. I did kill them. I am now ashamed of myself for having done so, but then times were different from what they are now, and that is what I went there for. We Missourians all went there for that purpose if it should be found necessary to carry out our designs. I had no business there. No Missourian had any business there with arms in his hands. The policy that sent us there was damnable and the trouble we started on the border bore fruit for ten years. I should have been shot there and John Brown was the only man who knew it and would have done it. I say John Brown was right. He did in his country what I would have done in mine in like circumstances. Those were days when slavery was in the balance and the violence engendered made men irresponsible. I now see I was so myself.”[5]


[1] Daniel O’Flaherty, General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel (Chapel Hill and London: the University of North Carolina Press, 2000, reprint of 1954 publication), 15; Norma L. Peterson, Freedom and Franchise: The Political Career of B. Gratz Brown (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1965), 4-5.

[2] Ibid, 18, 21-43.

[3] Ibid, 79.

[4] Ibid, 353-354.

[5] Ibid, 44.

05/12/11

Adam Arenson’s New York Times Article

     There have been some outstanding articles in the Disunion series the New York Times is running on the Civil War.  Unfortunately, today’s offering on St. Louis by Adam Arenson falls short. Adam Arenson is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of a new book “The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War.” Arenson recently was a guest speaker at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. I was working that day, so I was unable to attend, but I was told he gave an excellent talk. I am planning to read his book, but I hope this article is not an indication of what to expect.

     Arenson begins the article with this assertion:

     “But in the second week of May 1861, St. Louisans could imagine what the end of the Civil War might bring as well: after a bloody skirmish between Confederate sympathizers and federal troops in St. Louis, city leaders sought to instill a new order, one that would maintain the property rights of Confederate sympathizers while guaranteeing Union control of the city. Some called it victory; some called it occupation. With the perspective of 150 years, we might call it the beginnings of Reconstruction.”

     An explanation of this would have made an interesting article. Who were these “city leaders” to whom he refers? What exactly is this “new order”?  And, I think he is referring to the war years here, but if so, he skips over the period of the Price-Harney agreement, which kept an uneasy peace until after Jackson and Lyon met at the Planter’s House in June. At any rate, none of this is explained because he backtracks to talk about Camp Jackson.

      There are several factual errors in the article. The arsenal seized on April 20 was at Liberty, Mo, not Lexington. Lyon was a captain at the time of the Camp Jackson affair, not a general. Lyon was kicked by his horse before the riot even began. Grant went to the St. Louis arsenal before the Camp Jackson seizure and riot, not after.*** It was Lyon who said “this means war,” not Jackson. The state offices were declared vacated and the provisional government was established before Jackson’s rump legislature passed the secession ordinance, not the other way around as this article seems to imply.

     Furthermore, sometimes brevity leaves too much unsaid, as in the one sentence regarding Fremont, Lincoln and emancipation. I intend to write more about that in future blogs.

***NOTE*** Grant said in his Memoirs: “I had seen the troops start out in the morning and had wished them success. I now determined [after the seizure] to go to the arsenal and await their arrival and congratulate them….The next day I left St. Louis…”  (Vol. 1, pg. 236-238) Also see this earlier post.

05/9/11

Missouri’s Statues In The U. S. Capitol

      Several years ago my wife and I visited Washington D.C. for the first and only time. We took the tour through the Capitol building which was a thrilling experience for us, having both spent our entire lives on the west coast. Prior to this visit I did not know about Statuary Hall or that each state has contributed two statues of important people. You can read about the history of Statuary Hall here. My guess is that there are many people who don’t know about this and that few can name the two people representing their state. How many Missourians know that the two statues contributed by Missouri are Thomas Hart Benton and Frank Blair?

     The law that created Statuary Hall was passed in 1864 and reads:

…the President is hereby authorized to invite each and all the States to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each State, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration; and when so furnished the same shall be placed in the Old Hall of the House of Representatives, in the Capitol of the United States, which is set apart, or so much thereof as may be necessary, as a national statuary hall for the purpose herein indicated.

 This is a rather vague criterion, hence there are, what I would term, some highly questionable choices; for example, Virginia has none other than Robert E. Lee standing there in the Capitol of the government he made war upon. Somehow I doubt that the men who passed the law in 1864 would ever have expected to see Lee included. It is also interesting to note that the states may at any time change the statues. This has happened recently; Michigan replaced Zachariah Chandler with Gerald Ford and California replaced Thomas Starr King with Ronald Reagan. These are interesting and debatable choices. The process by which the choices are made is also interesting, as noted by the bloggers to which I linked.

     All of this has had me wondering about the selection of Benton and Blair. Certainly, there are any number of Missourians who might have been or could be honored with a statue, so why Blair and Benton?  To this end I sent an e mail to the Missouri State Archives and received this very kind reply:

Dear Mr. Pollock:

 I have checked the Journals of the Missouri House and Senate during the period 1893 – 1899.   The bill to set up a commission to carry out the directive to have statues of Benton and Blair passed in 1895 and the commission reported that the work was completed in 1899.  I can tell you that the bill was sponsored by Rep. John L. Bittinger, Republican, of Buchanan County, but I didn’t find any information about why Benton and Blair were chosen or if others were considered.

 The bill itself has only general language – which I think came from the federal act – that Benton and Blair were “illustrious for their historic renown and distinguished for their civil and military services.”  We don’t have legislative records other than the published journals for this time period because so many records were lost in the 1911 Capitol fire.

 In 1899 there was also legislation to pay for a cemetery memorial for Benton and in that case there was a statement entered in the journal about Benton’s contribution to the state.  It’s not directly on point to your inquiry but I suppose it illuminates something of the esteem in which he was held at the time.  I could send you a copy of that document if you’d like to see it.

 I don’t know if there has ever been consideration given to replacing either statue and it wouldn’t be practical to try to search for that in archival records without a specific date range to search.

 You might find more information in a search of historical newspapers.  Here’s one site you might take a look at if you’d like to attempt that: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/search/pages/

 Thank you for your inquiry.  Please let us know if we can be of further assistance.

Sincerely,

 Robyn B.

 Reference

 Missouri State Archives

 What a shame that the legislative records were lost to a fire! I have not yet tried to search for newspaper accounts on this, but I might at some point. I did do a quick google search for John Bittinger, who turned out to be quite a fascinating individual himself. This from an 1881 biographical sketch caught my eye:

 “Mr. Bittinger, while in no sense a partisan, has always taken an active part in politics as a member of the Republican party.  In 1862, he was a delegate and Secretary of the first Emancipation State Convention ever held in Missouri, and has been chosen a delegate to every Republican State Convention since the organization of the party.  In 1872, he was a delegate to the National Republican Convention held in Philadelphia, which nominated President Grant for a second term, and was also a member of the Republican State Central Committee for many years.”

So, Bittinger, a Republican, was instrumental in having Benton (a life-long Democrat) and Blair (who, although a founding member of the Republican party in Missouri, quickly reverted back to the Democrats after the war) chosen to represent Missouri in the U. S. Capital. I also find it intriguing that Bittinger attended the Emancipation Convention which was a creation of B. Gratz Brown. I will be writing about that later.

Finally, I wonder how long it will be before someone or some group decides that Missouri should change their statues. I’m actually a bit surprised Benton and Blair (Blair in particular) have stayed so long.

05/5/11

Ulysses Grant On Camp Jackson

     By May of 1861, Missouri, and St. Louis in particular, was a boiling cauldron of political, ethnic, religious, class, and racial tensions. Violence had been endemic for years, especially on the western border. If there is one incident that historians point to, however, as the spark that started the Civil War in Missouri, the Ft. Sumter of the West if you will, it would be Camp Jackson. Much ink has been spilled over the years in arguing whether or not the camp was a threat to the United States government,  just how pro-secession its militia actually was, whether or not its capture was Constitutional, etc., etc. It is also often said that Nathaniel Lyon decided to act almost completely on his own authority, and therefore, as his biographer Christopher Phillips alleges, Lyon alone was responsible for starting the Civil War in Missouri. I heard a lot of this line of interpretation at the Camp Jackson re-enactment this past weekend. It is interesting, though, that these interpretations of Camp Jackson date all the way back to the actual event in 1861. Ulysses Grant had obviously heard them all by the time he had this conversation with John Russell Young during his trip around the world. Here is what he had to say on the subject:

     “We owe the safety of St. Louis to Frank Blair and General Lyon – mainly to Blair. That one service alone entitles Blair’s memory to the lasting respect of all Union men. The rebels, under pretext of having a camp of instruction, sent their military regiments into a camp and called it Camp Jackson. The governor did it, as was his right. But the governor was in sympathy with the rebellion, and he had never done such a thing before. The purpose, of course, was evident. Under pretext of a militia camp, he would quietly accumulate a large force, and suddenly proclaim the Confederacy. At this very time the rebel flag was hanging out from recruiting stations, and companies were enrolled for the South. The best families, the best young men in the city, leaned that way. There were, no doubt, many Union men in the ranks of Camp Jackson; but when the time came they would have been taken into the rebellion at the point of a bayonet, just as so many of their brethren were carried in East Tennessee. It was necessary to strike a decisive blow, and this Blair resolved to do. There were some regular troops there under the command of Lyon. Blair called out his German regiments, put himself under the command of Lyon, went out to the camp, threatened to fire if it did not surrender, and brought the whole crowd in as prisoners. That was the end of all rebel camps in St. Louis, and next day the rebel flags all came down.”

     “I happened to be in St. Louis,” said the General, “as a mustering officer of an Illinois regiment at the time. I remember the effect it produced. I was anxious about this camp, and the morning of the movement I went up to the arsenal. I knew Lyon; but, although I had no acquaintance with Blair, I knew him by sight. This was the first time I ever spoke to him. The breaking up of Camp Jackson had a good effect and a bad effect. It offended many Union Democrats, who saw an invasion of State rights, which,” said the General, with a smile, “it certainly was. It was used as a means of exciting discontent among these well-disposed citizens, as an argument that the government was high-handed. Then the fact that Germans were used to coerce Americans – free Americans in their own camp, called out by the Governor of the state – gave offense. I knew many good people, with the North, at the outset, whose opinions were set Southward by this incident. But no really loyal man, to whom the Union was paramount, ever questioned the act. Those who went off on this would soon have gone on something else – emancipation or the use of troops. The taking of the camp saved St. Louis to us, saved our side a long, terrible siege, and was one of the best things in the whole war. I remember how rejoiced I was as I saw Blair and Lyon bring their prisoners into town.”

    

04/27/11

Carl Schurz

     The New York Times piece today, written by Ted Widmer, focuses on the most prominent German-American of the 19th century. Carl Schurz was one of the most dedicated and hard-working supporters of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in 1860. At the Republican national convention, the ambitious German immigrant was appointed a member of the official notification committee which travelled to Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, to formally tender the party’s nomination for President of the United States.  Schurz had been a supporter of Lincoln’s rival for the nomination, William Seward, but he quickly set about campaigning for Lincoln’s election. As his biographer wrote,

     Schurz promptly went about establishing his planned speakers’ network. His wide-flung correspondence attests to his efforts from Connecticut to California and the hard work of the Republican National Committee’s foreign department. It was the first systematic attempt to corral the ethnic vote.[1]   

     Traveling from city to city, he covered over twenty-one thousand miles, giving speeches that were often reprinted as pamphlets. In late summer, Schurz returned to Springfield for a speaking engagement. Lincoln called on Schurz at his hotel, invited him to his home for supper, and accompanied him to the hall where Schurz gave speeches in both English and German. Lincoln stayed for both, even though he couldn’t understand German. From Springfield, Schurz crossed the Mississippi to St. Louis, where he gave a speech he titled “The Doom of Slavery.”

     He minced no words. The “Irrepressible Conflict,” he said, was not a mere quarrel between North and South, but a struggle between two societies, one slave and the other free. In the long run, slavery could not exist without encroaching upon freedom; consequently, it must be contained. As the nineteenth century was the century of progress, could slaveholders really believe that the peculiar institution could last forever? “Slaveholders of America,” he explained, “I appeal to you. Are you really in earnest when you speak of perpetuating slavery? Shall it never cease? Never? Stop and consider where you are and in what day you live.”[2]

The Germans of St. Louis would have been a receptive audience because, in addition to their natural enmity to aristocracy which is how they viewed the slaveholding planter class, they had already been fed a steady diet of Free-Soil anti-slavery rhetoric from their political leaders, B. Gratz Brown and Frank Blair, for several years.

      As Widmer’s article relates, Schurz was rewarded for his efforts with an appointment as Minister to Spain. Interestingly, in light of later events, Schurz was given the appointment at a time when relations between the United States and Spain were strained because of Spain’s reannexation of Santo Domingo. Upon arrival in Madrid, Schurz was presented at court immediately after the United States had lodged a strong protest against this. Schurz realized that the United States could ill-afford a complicating foreign war, however, and he therefore advised Secretary of State Seward to let the matter slide. By the time Schurz left Spain, newspaper attacks on the United States had stopped and Spain had refrained from intervening in the Civil War.

     Schurz returned to the United States to “get his military experience.” He was eventually appointed Major General and put in charge of the Eleventh Corps, but his quick rise in rank was resented not only by West Pointers, but also by many of the Germans. There were rumors that Schurz had used his good political connections to have the popular Franz Sigel removed from command. At Chancellorsville, Schurz’s division sustained 23 percent casualties, and the New York Times blamed the entire calamity on the Eleventh Corps in general and Schurz in particular. Schurz personally protested that the accusations were unfounded.

     The fair-minded Chicago Tribune might come to the corps’ defense; most later historians might absolve it from blame, but the controversy about the Germans at Chancellorsville was never fully laid to rest. “I fights mit Schurz und runs mit Schurz” sneered the army.[3]  

     Widmer concludes:  

     Following the war, Schurz pursued a long and brilliant political career that included stints as Senator from Missouri, an enlightened secretary of the interior, and an important role as a government reformer and anti-imperialist at a time when those principled stands were not especially popular.

 I would argue that to call Schurz’s post-war political career “brilliant” is a stretch. But I will save that for future posts.


[1] Hans L. Trefousse, Carl Schurz: A Biography (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 87.

[2] Ibid, 89-90.

[3] Ibid, 135.

04/13/11

Grant and Gratz Brown; How Well Did They Know Each Other?

     In writing about Ulysses and Julia and their enslaved people I was checking the sources cited by various historians. One of these was William McFeely, who cited John W. Emerson’s “Grant’s Life in the West and His Mississippi Valley Campaigns.” This was a source I had never looked at before, so I went to our park library to check it out. It turns out that it was actually a series of articles published in Midland Monthly magazine in St. Louis in 1896-7.

     John Emerson was a contemporary of Grant. Here is a short bio on him. Emerson himself made a point of stating that his was not a scholarly study and there are no footnotes or other formal source citations. It is a wonderfully readable account of Grant’s life with interesting anecdotes and detail, but it is wholly uncritical. It therefore must be taken for what it’s worth and like all sources, checked with other known information. Having said that, I was very surprised to find references to none other than B. Gratz Brown. Anyone who has been following this blog knows of my interest in Brown.

     B. Gratz Brown was a prominent political figure and well known editor of the Missouri Democrat during the years that Ulysses Grant was farming at White Haven. He was later a U.S. Senator from Missouri and Governor of the state. He also was a major figure in the Liberal Republican movement that tried to unseat Grant as President in 1872. Brown, in fact, was the Vice-Presidential candidate under Horace Greeley that year. In the last years of his life, Brown lived in Kirkwood and is buried in a small cemetery there. Kirkwood is only a few miles from Grant’s White Haven farm. I recently gave a talk to the Kirkwood Historical Society about Brown. I told them, “I am a great admirer of Ulysses Grant, but apparently Brown was not. I find much admirable in Brown also, which leaves me trying to reconcile my opinions or interpretations of these men and trying to understand what made them political opponents.”  

     I have been trying to determine how well Grant and Brown knew each other. I would especially like to know if they knew each other personally before the war. There is no question that Grant would have been at least aware of Brown and his politics. It seems likely that Grant would have read Brown’s editorials. In his Memoirs Grant noted: “In St. Louis City and County, what afterwards became the Republican party was known as the Free-Soil Democracy, led by the Honorable Frank P. Blair.” Grant did not mention Brown’s prominence in the Free Soil movement at this time. In fact, the only time Grant mentioned Brown in his Memoirs is when, in August of 1861, he was promoted to brigadier-general and was ordered to Ironton, Missouri. Grant had this to say: “Ironton is on the Iron Mountain Railroad, about seventy miles south of St. Louis, and situated among hills rising almost to the dignity of mountains. When I reached there, about the 8th of August, Colonel B. Gratz Brown – afterwards Governor of Missouri and in 1872 Vice-Presidential candidate – was in command.” Grant then made the wry observation: “Brown himself was gladder to see me on that occasion than he ever has been since.”  

     I have found only a couple of references to Brown in Grant’s Papers, and they do not indicate that Grant knew Brown as an intimate friend. So, getting back to Emerson, I was surprised to read in one of his articles: “Gen. Frank P. Blair, and Gov. B. Gratz Brown, knew Grant intimately while he lived in St. Louis, and later in the army.” Emerson even included a photograph of Brown with the caption: “Hon. B Gratz Brown. One of Grant’s staunch friends in Missouri.” I just don’t know if this can be believed. In John Russell Young’s Around the World with General Grant, Grant is quoted as saying that he did not meet Frank Blair personally until the day of the Camp Jackson affair in 1861. This would not preclude him from knowing Brown, but casts some doubt on the accuracy of Emerson’s statement.

     It is interesting to note also, that in Young’s Around the World Grant talked about Horace Greeley and said: “If he had been elected President [in 1872] he never could have lived through his term, and the government would really have been in the hands of Gratz Brown.” Unfortunately, Grant did not further elaborate on whether that would have been good or bad.

     I will continue to look for clues to the relationship of these two men and there will be future posts on the Liberal Republicans and the election of 1872.