Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Robert E. Lee’s Private Unionist Beliefs

Friends comfort each other in hard times, and sometimes they bare their souls.  Robert E. Lee discussed his Unionist beliefs (held before and after the Civil War) with his friend, former Iowa U.S. Senator George Wallace Jones, who had two sons in the Confederate Army.

Political record

Lee wrote Jones on March 22, 1869:

… I was not in favor of secession and was opposed to war.  In fact, I was for the Constitution and the Union established by our forefathers.  No one now is more in favor of that Union and that Constitution, and as far as I know, it is that for which the South has all along contended; and if restored, as I trust they will be, I am sure there will be no truer supporters of that Union and that Constitution than the Southern people.

But I must not wander into politics, a subject I carefully avoid, and return to your letter.

Robert E. Lee in U.S. uniform (Library of Congress)

Lee added greetings and a benediction:

Please present my kindest regards to every member of your family, especially to your brave sons who aided in our struggle for States rights and Constitutional Government.  We failed, but in the good Providence of God, apparent failure often proves a blessing.  I trust it may eventuate so in this instance …

With my earnest prayers for the peace and happiness of yourself and all your family, I am with true regard, your friend and servant.

R.E. Lee

Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

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No crystal ball for 2018 (or the Civil War): Winston Churchill’s insight for historians

A Swedish proverb says, “Shared joy is a double joy.”  In this season of the year, I share my relish for Winston Churchill in an excerpt from The Last Lion Alone, 1932-1940.

Churchill’s biographer, William Manchester, writes:

He [Churchill] was often called irrational and cheerfully admitted it.  So, he replied, was politics; so was human experience.  It did not, he observed, ‘unfold like an arithmetical calculation on the principle that two and two makes four.  Sometimes in life they make five, or minus three, and sometimes the blackboard topples down in the middle of the sum and leaves the class in disorder and the pedagogue with a black eye.

The element of the unexpected and the unforeseeable is what gives some of its relish to life, and saves us from falling into the mechanical thrall of the logicians.‘[i]

Winston Churchill (by Yousuf Karsh,

Stereotypical, bland expression was anathema to Churchill.  His thinking, writing, and speaking blended together in a grand symbiosis.  Manchester gives a glimpse into Churchill’s speech-writing process. He states:

On the average, he [Churchill] spends between six and eight hours preparing for a 40-minute speech.  Frequently, as he dictates passages which will stir his listeners, he weeps; his voice becomes thick with emotion, tears run down his cheeks (and his secretary’s).[ii]

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My readers, I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2018.

[i]William Manchester, The Last Lion, Alone, 1932-1940 (New York:  1988), 107.

[ii] Ibid., 32-33.

The Grinch who Stole Civil Liberties

Spending Christmas behind bars isn’t anybody’s idea of fun.  That’s what happened to former U.S. Senator George Wallace Jones in late December 1861, after the federal government seized a personal letter to Jefferson Davis.

George Wallace Jones was a pro-slavery Iowa Democrat who was a lifelong friend of Jefferson Davis.  Senator Jones made stump speeches around Iowa.  For example, he said, if civil war broke out, he and his three sons would “be found in the ranks of the Southern Army, and that, altho’ we might be few in number, we would be victorious as our cause would be just.”  Perhaps this was a politician’s bravado, but it was out of step with many Iowa constituents in the 1850s.[i]

George Wallace Jones (Library of Congress)

Compassionate care

Jones served in the U.S. Senate alongside William H. Seward of New York.  They were “brother Senators,” and both were friends of Senator Jefferson Davis.  In early 1857, Jefferson Davis’s “left eye became intensely inflamed.” Wracked with pain, Davis was confined to a darkened room.  Seward visited Davis an hour every day, telling Davis of congressional news and trying to lift his spirits. Davis’s wife, Varina, appreciated Seward’s “earnest, tender interest” in her husband.[ii]

William H. Seward
(Library of Congress)

When he lost his Senate seat, President James Buchanan came to the rescue, appointing him minister, or ambassador, to Bogota, New Grenada (present-day Columbia).  Ambassador Jones was in South America as the United States descended into civil war.

It took weeks for letters to come by ship to New Grenada, and then even longer to be delivered to Ambassador Jones.  Consequently, Jones didn’t know that Confederates had fired upon Fort Sumter when he wrote a fateful personal letter to Jefferson Davis on May 7, 1861.  He also didn’t know that Seward had been intercepting his correspondence since Lincoln was inaugurated.

Absolute power …

Historian Mark E. Neely Jr. notes that “Secretary of State William H. Seward was given control of military arrests of civilians” after Fort Sumter until the War Department assumed control of them in early 1862.  Seward organized a secret service for this purpose.

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that tells of Seward’s power.  He allegedly told Lord Lyon, the British minister in Washington:

“My Lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen in Ohio.  I can touch the bell again, and order the arrest of a citizen in New York.  Can the Queen of England, in her dominions, do as much?”[iii]

A visit with Abraham Lincoln

About this time, the Lincoln administration recalled Ambassador Jones to replace him with a Republican.  When Ambassador Jones returned to Washington in December 1861, his boss, Seward, honored him with a diplomatic dinner.  Seward also introduced Jones to Abraham Lincoln as “my old friend.”  Lincoln invited Jones to visit his home.

Abraham Lincoln
(Library of Congress)

The next night, Jones came to the White House and saw Lincoln with his leg thrown over the side of a chair.  Lincoln said he had met Jones years earlier, when Lincoln was a state representative.  Jones had asked the Illinois State Legislature for permission to operate a ferry from Dubuque to the shore of Illinois.

Lincoln said to Jones, “You were brought to my house one night by our old friend, Judge Pope, of the United States District Court for Illinois, the father of this ‘lying Gen. John Pope’ now of our army.”

Jones said, “Yes, Mr. President, I got that John Pope into West Point Military Academy in 1838 …”

Lincoln said, “Judge Pope said to me, ‘Lincoln, I want you to pass George’s bill granting him a ferry privilege at Dubuque.  I’ll be damned, if you don’t pass his bill tomorrow morning, you shall never come to the Legislature again.”

Lincoln then told some funny stories and suggested that Jones get reacquainted with Mary Lincoln, whom he knew from his college days.

On Jones’s last day in Washington, Seward pulled a bottle out from under his desk and said, “Let’s take a farewell drink.”

The Grinch emerges

The next morning, Ambassador Jones rode a train to New York.  When he arrived, a detective arrested Jones, without formal charges, at the order of his “old friend,” William H. Seward.[iv]

Later that day, Seward told the press that Jones was in Fort Lafayette prison.  Seward publicized one of the Ambassador’s letters to Jefferson Davis, highlighting passages that made him appear disloyal.  Jones had written Davis:

My prayers are regularly offered up for the reunion of the States, and for the peace, concord and happiness of my country.  But let what may come to pass, you may rely upon it, as you say that neither I or mine, ‘will ever be found in the ranks of our (your) enemies.’

May God Almighty avert civil war, but if unhappily it shall come, you may, I think without doubt, count on me and mine and hosts of other friends standing shoulder to shoulder in the ranks with you and our other southern friends and relatives whose rights like my own have been disregarded by the abolitionists.[v]

A Christmas Eve request to the Grinch

Dubuque Attorney Ben M. Samuels asked Seward’s office for details about George Wallace Jones’s arrest and imprisonment.  Samuels wrote on Christmas Eve:

Dear Sir:

The General’s family is in the very depths of distress.  The suspense in regard to the charges against him increases their anguish of spirit.  Certainty will bring to them some measure of relief … Mrs. Jones informs me that she is acquainted with Sec. Seward and has always regarded him as entirely friendly with the General and the family.


A different perspective

Iowa Republicans excoriated Jones and his traitorous sons.  Ambassador Jones had written another letter on the same day, in which he states the cry of his heart.  Unfortunately for him, the second letter slipped past the State Department.  Jones had told a fellow Iowa Democrat:

I tell [Jefferson Davis] he judges me & my friends rightly in supposing that we will not make war against … our own beloved people who are driven from the Union for no other reason than because they were unwilling to submit to insult, injury & a palpable violation of our Constitution.

No, I will not do battle against them & rather than do so I will leave my own beloved home & go South to join Davis … & the true hearted & chivalrous Southerners.

Great God, has it come to this that I am to be impressed into a northern Army, at the bidding of Kirkwood … or other Abolition coward[s], to go down south with a rifle on my shoulder, do battle against the only brother whom I have living … or turn my back upon the State which has honored me so highly?[vi]

Release from prison

Ambassador Jones spent about two months in prison.  After he was released, the New York Times called Jones a minister to “Bogota [Colombia] and Fort Lafayette [Prison].”[vii]

Jones write a letter, defending himself, that was printed in the Burlington Hawk-eye on July 12, 1862.  He said he had intended to fight only abolitionists, through the political process, but not to “break up the Union.”  But he was never allowed to defend himself in court.[viii]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments below.

[i] George Wallace Jones to Jefferson Davis, 11/30/1858, DIY History, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

[ii] William J. Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American (New York: 2000), 288.

[iii] Mark Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York:  1991), 19-21

[iv] Carl Parish, “My Meeting with Abraham Lincoln,” George Wallace Jones, (Iowa City:  1912), 235-243.

[v] George Wallace Jones to Jefferson Davis, 5/17,1861, holographic copy, George W. Jones Vertical File, Center for Dubuque History, Loras College, Dubuque.

[vi] George Wallace Jones to Laurel Summers, 5/17/1861, Laurel Summers Papers, Correspondence, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

[vii] “From our Special Correspondent,” 2/7/1862, New York Times Archive Online.

[viii] George Wallace Jones to the Dubuque Herald, printed as “A Rich Document,” Burlington Weekly Hawk-eye and Telegraph, 7/12/1862.

Traveling through time in an armchair: The joy of historical research

In Ray Bradbury’s short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” a safari company takes visitors to any year in the past.  Visitors can shoot any animal, even prehistoric ones.  They can hear a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s metallic roars, smell its pungent odors, see its pebbled skin, and feel immobilized with terror.  Visitors must, however, stay on a specially designed, modern pathway, lest they change the course of history.

Unlike Bradbury’s story, it’s best when we step off the modern path and see history through “the imperfect eyes of those who lived it,” according to historian David M. Potter.  It also helps to find a tour guide like Samuel K. Fowler, a 20-year-old Confederate from Iowa.

Samuel K. Fowler’s diary cover (Stanford University Archives)

Fowler wrote an unpublished 300-page diary, mainly covering the Vicksburg Campaign, from the vantage point of a private in the 2nd Missouri Infantry.  His diary allowed me to walk beside him as he exalted over Confederate victories or speculated over the next destination, and we both trembled as Union mortars fired and the earth shook under our feet.

Vicksburg house and dug-outs (Library of Congress)


He wrote his entries, expecting that people would read them.  The language may be flowery.  I hope you will settle into a comfy armchair and enjoy the following excerpts.

“A quiet retreat”

One afternoon in September 1862, Fowler wrote:

I am very contentedly reclining upon the side of a precipitous slope, being a quiet retreat I gained by exercising due precaution in my descent … Our Camp is established on the top, extending to the verge of this romantic declivity, at least 100 feet above its base.

I am much pleased with the location as it affords me a place, where I can sit undisturbed and reflect upon the thousands of changes that have figured upon the vast theatre of war, and also indulge in an unbroken reverie of thought.

A retreat in the rain

About sunset the rain began to descend and soon rendered the road exceedingly slippery and difficult to travel either by man or beast.  Our march was much impeded … we were soon enveloped in deep, impenetrable darkness.  The rain continued to pour in incessant torrents upon our devoted heads, thoroughly drenching us from head to foot.  The earth beneath our feet was converted into a vast sheet of water, and in the road the depth attained in many places was near a foot.  Move forward 50 or 100 yards and fall down, roll over once or twice, and up again only to repeat the performance, seemed to be the order of the night …

The darkness was so intense that the use of the eye was of no avail whatever … Still on we went, splashing unceremoniously through mud and water, now and then being greeted with a boisterous explosion of laughter in front or near the convincing evidence that some poor unfortunate was prostrate in the mud.

We continued our march until about 11 o’clock p.m. when we were halted for the night.  The rain had abated, and we rolled up in our saturated blankets and slept sweetly, however remarkable and strange it may appear to the casual reader, to those who have not experienced such exposures and hardship.

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Fowler’s unpublished diary is in the archives of Stanford University.  Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

Hell hath no Fury like an Irishman Scorned

Artillery specialist P.J. Kelly had ten years of experience, serving His Royal Majesty.  When Kelly arrived in Iowa, he probably never imagined he would serve both sides in a civil war.

In 1859, young Iowa men had a “martial spirit” and formed paramilitary companies in many towns.  Besides practicing drills, the companies formed a social group that gave balls, held exhibition drills, and marched in parades.

In 1859, Kelly became captain of the Iowa City Artillery.  The next year, he left (or lost) his job as a postal clerk.[i]

At that time, Iowa was still struggling under the lingering financial Panic of 1857.  In contrast, Memphis, Tennessee, had bounced back rather quickly.

Heading South

Kelly moved to job-plentiful Memphis in late 1860 with his wife and their one-year-old son.  Shortly afterwards, voters elected Republican Abraham Lincoln as President. [ii]

Voices in the Cotton South and even the Upper South expressed concern and outrage about the “Black Republican” (supposedly abolitionist) President-Elect Lincoln.

In response, Iowans gradually became more determined to preserve the Union, according to historian Charles Ray Aurner.  Residents of Johnson County, Iowa, frowned “upon any attempts of sympathizers with the South to express themselves.”[iii]

When Southern troops fired upon Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, Iowans responded with outrage and condemnation.  The next day, President Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to put down the rebellion.

“An Iowa Renegade” ?

Border-state Southerners were alarmed that Union troops would likely cross their states to reach the Confederacy.  A week later, the Dubuque Daily Times (a Republican paper) quoted the Memphis Daily Argus that P.J. Kelly, “late Captain of the Iowa City Artillery,” was raising troops for the “Southern Rights Home Guard.”

Kelly placed a notice calling for every native Irishman in Tennessee to stand “against the attacks of the Black Republican despot of the North!”  He explained:

The Irishman is celebrated for his devotion and loyalty to whatever flag he fights under.  If we are called to defend our newborn and infant flag, let us show ourselves no less patriotic and faithful than the Irish at Bunker Hill.

The Constitution, according to Kelly, ” has been usurped and overthrown by the black-hearted infidels of the North.”  He called for his “fellow countrymen in free States not to take up arms to aid Lincoln and his black-hearted band to lay waste a fair country, and murder a liberal and generous people.”

With a nod to the Know-Nothing roots of many Republicans, Kelly claimed that Lincoln “stands at the head of a political party whose history is full of the grossest hostility to Irish adopted citizens in particular.[iv]

Making enemies in Iowa

In early June 1861, Kelly became 1st Lieutenant of Artillery, basically serving as a recruiting and mustering officer.  He enlisted as many as 50 men a day.[v]

5th Co., New Orleans Washington Artillery (Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War)

He later wrote:

This made more enemies for me in the north, so much so, that they erected a Gallows, for me in Iowa City, to give to the first Regiment who left there for the South & ordered them when they arrived in Memphis to hang me … They had another at Cairo, & detained several men of my name there for many days, thinking they might get me.

Perhaps Kelly had only heard a rumor of a gallows in Iowa City.  Nonetheless, it still reflects the emotional tenor in Iowa.

Unbearable insult

On August 5, 1861, Lt. Kelly enlisted in Co. K, 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery, commanded by Capt. Andrew Jackson Jr.[vi]

Capt. Andrew Jackson Jr. (

A month later, Kelly had a serious run-in with Captain Jackson, so Kelly wrote their commanding General Leonidas Polk:

I would like to see Jackson [Kelly’s superior officer] come out nobly & acknowledge his very ungentlemanly conduct towards me … I am disgraced in the eyes of the people …

I would put a stain upon my honor, my position & my character, to remain quietly in the same command with a man that greatly insulted my Person, character & worth in the most debasing & scandalous manner.  I would feel thankful to him if he shot me thro the heart at once.

Kelly floated the possibility of resigning and being reinstated at a different command.”[vii]

Waiting in limbo

In late October 1861, Lt. Kelly moved to Fort Pillow, Tennessee, waiting for Captain Jackson to apologize or be rebuked.[viii]  Nothing happened, and Kelly submitted his resignation in March 1862.

While Kelly waited to hear that he was out of the Confederate Army, he groused to General Polk:

I am being sick in body and mind to think after raising so many soldiers in Memphis, I had not the happiness of being present with them at any of our engagements … God will, I hope, attend to those who are wrongfully oppressed.  I consider myself one of this number …

I have a family to support.  All I have in the world is gone in defense of this country.  I am only 18 months in the South.[ix]

Within a month, Kelly left the Confederate Army, blaming his troubles on “a few petty enemies,” but he wanted another commission.  General Polk observed, “He [Kelly] was in my command, has no special merit as an officer.”

General Leonidas Polk
(National Park Service)

Kelly told a staff officer, “It seems that my services are not needed in this country … Should the Yankees find me here, I will be badly off as I am only 16 months out of their service.”[x]

Surprise, surprise

On July 13, 1862, the New York Times reported that Union authorities were organizing an artillery company in Memphis.  The authorities planned to raise 15,000 troops in Tennessee to suppress “guerrillas and home traitors.”

The Times noted, “Several of the most powerful and experienced men in the state are at the head of this most excellent movement … Capt. P.J. Kelly has also been commissioned to raise an Artillery Company.”

Kelly explained his new job in the Union service:

I accept the above appointment that I may have an opportunity of wiping out the stain that lies on my very soul in taking part in this unholy rebellion … Every one remembers the horrible treatment I received from Jailor JACKSON and his mob on the public streets of Memphis … No man, poor or rich, but will acknowledge that I have been badly treated for no reason whatever.  

I call upon all oppressed to rally to the support of that Government which always protects its subjects alike, let them be poor or rich, of native or foreign birth; let us return to our allegiance with a determination never to wrong, by word or deed, that noble country, which is now like a kind and indulgent parent, with hands stretched forth to receive and forgive his offending children.[xi]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[i] John E. Briggs, “Enlistment of Iowa Troops During the Civil War,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 15. P. 333; Charles Ray Aurner, “Johnson County in the Civil War,” Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, History, Vol. I (Cedar Rapids:  1912), 507; 1860 U.S. Census, Iowa City, Iowa.

[ii] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 9/6/1861, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[iii] Charles Ray Aurner, “Johnson County in the Civil War,” Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, History, Vol. I (Cedar Rapids:  1912), 507.

[iv] “An Iowa Renegade,” Dubuque Daily Times, 5/7/1861, drawing upon Memphis Daily Argus, 4/22/1861.

[v] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 4/11/1862, Compiled Confederate Service Records, National Archives.

[vi] P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[vii] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 9/6/1861, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[viii] P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[ix] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 4/11/1862, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[x] P.J. Kelly to George Williamson, 5/16/1862, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records

[xi] “Recruiting for the National Service,” the New York Times, 7/13/1862.

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Shrewdly seizing power

The presidency is a traditional American square dance, involving a second partner (Congress), sometimes a third partner (the Supreme Court), and occasionally many others (state and federal officials).  They all perform in front of a huge audience (the general public).

Said to be gawky and inept, Lincoln stunned the audience, turning the square dance into a solo interpretive dance.  He glided across the floor, with freewheeling moves, for two-and-a-half months, until Congress joined him on the floor – at his request – on July 4, 1861.

Lincoln (Library of Congress)

A way to think about Lincoln

Historian Phillip Paludan writes:

Lincoln is a giant in almost every respect.  If ever a man deserved admiration, Lincoln does.  But he deserves it as a man.  And that man made mistakes, [and he] was devious and oppressive at times even while he was insightful and honest and struggled to preserve ‘liberty and union, one and inseparable.’ [i]

Early views

Historian David Herbert Donald writes that when Lincoln was a congressman in 1847, “He [Lincoln] claimed that the Constitution gave the war-making power to Congress, not to the Chief Executive.”  Lincoln reportedly said that the Founding Fathers called the war-making power  “the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions,” and they “resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”[ii]

Lincoln completely reversed his position when he became President.

Calling Congress into session

Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher writes:

Coming as it did when Congress was not in session, the Fort Sumter episode gave Lincoln the opportunity to seize the initiative from the legislative branch—an initiative that he never relinquished.[iii]

On April 15, 1861, “the day after Fort Sumter surrendered, Lincoln issued a proclamation,” calling for 75,000 militiamen and summoning Congress into special session on July 4, 1861.

Fehrenbacher continues:

The very confusion of circumstances, the very uniqueness and urgency of the problems confronting him, amounted to a slate wiped clean, offering an extraordinary opportunity for the exercise of leadership. How did Lincoln respond? Decisively, beyond question.[iv]

Historian and Professor Eric Foner said in a lecture:

From Fort Sumter to July 4, 1861, when Lincoln calls Congress to meet in special session, for three months Lincoln runs the government all by himself.  There’s no Congress meeting, he doesn’t have to listen to the Judiciary, he appropriates money by himself, he raises troops by himself, he suspends the writ of habeas corpus by himself.

Key question

Foner asks:  “What authorized him [Lincoln] to do this?  He’s doing things which the Constitution says other branches of the government are supposed to do.”[v]

Envelope (Library of Congress)

Lincoln’s source of power

Legal historian James G. Randall notes:

The President’s sources of power must be found in the Constitution or in some act of Congress.  Yet the President has large discretionary power – a power which assumes great importance in times of emergency … latent powers which in time of war are capable of wide expansion. [vi]

Foner describes Lincoln’s idea of being a war-powers President:

War power justifies almost anything.  Lincoln understands that war power is this tremendous reservoir of presidential power, and he uses it, and he relies on it … If this is necessary for the war, then it’s unassailable.[vii]

A violation?

Foner states:

When Congress meets, he [Lincoln] says, ‘Well, I’ve done all this.  Have I violated the Constitution?’  He says, ‘No, I have not violated the Constitution.  I have gone beyond the Constitution …

With merit he [Lincoln] says the Constitution was not conceived for a situation like we face, and therefore, it [the Constitution] is irrelevant to the situation I faced when war began and Congress was not in session.  Of course, he [Lincoln] could have called Congress immediately, but he waited for it to meet on July 4, which was of course a very symbolic day.[viii]

Definitions of dictator

Foner said Lincoln wasn’t a dictator.  Undoubtedly, if one defines “dictator” by the examples of iron-fisted, murderous, 20th’Century leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, then Abraham Lincoln pales in comparison.  But in the context of the Constitution, jurisprudence, and the traditional balance of powers, surely Lincoln was, in William A. Dunning’s words, a “temporary dictator.” ”[ix]

Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Faustian bargain?

Lincoln later used his self-proclaimed war powers to emancipate millions of slaves behind Confederate lines, paving the way for abolishing slavery.  His action violated the very fabric of the Constitution as it pertains to the states, Congress, and the judiciary.  Nonetheless, emancipation was a noble, even a righteous deed.

Lincoln also used war powers as a basis for suspending habeas corpus.  Foner paraphrases Lincoln as asking, “Is it legitimate to violate habeas corpus in order that the entire edifice of the law survives?”

Foner states:

This is an impeccable argument, but it is also a loaded gun which passes down from generation to generation, which is seized upon by subsequent wartime Presidents, to justify egregious violations of civil liberties in wartime, such as happened in World War I, in World War II with the internment of Japanese-Americans, [and] has happened during the War on Terror.[x]

Somber warning

Andrew C. McLaughlin states in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Constitutional History of the United States:  “A president armed with the ‘war power’ may some day wreck the whole constitutional system … The dictator, if he ever appears, may discover precedents in the conduct of Lincoln.”[xi]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[i] Phillip Paludan, “Toward a Lincoln Conversation,” a review of Lincoln in Text and Context:  Collected Essays by Don E. Fehrenbacher, Reviews in American History, Vol. 16, No. 1 (March 1988), 38.

[ii] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York:  1995), 296.

[iii] Fehrenbacher, “Lincoln’s Wartime Leadership:  The First Hundred Days,” pgs. 2-18.

[iv] Fehrenbacher, pgs. 2-18.

[v] Lecture, “The Civil War and Reconstruction with Eric Foner: The Civil War, 1861-1865, Section 2, The First Year of the War:  Seeking a Union Strategy, CWR 2.2.4 Lincoln and Congress, Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning,

[vi] James G. Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln (New York:  1926), 35-38.

[vii] Eric Foner interview, CWR 2.2, Lincoln a dictator? , Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning,

[viii] Foner Lecture.

[ix] Foner lecture; Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, 226, quoting William A. Dunning, “Disloyalty in Two Wars,” American Historical Review, XXIV (October 1918), 625, 630.

[x] Foner lecture.

[xi] Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty, 230, quoting Andrew C. McLaughlin, Constitutional History of the United States (New York:  1936), 623.

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Even geniuses can make mistakes

It is hard to deny Abraham Lincoln’s political acumen.  He understood his constituents, and he sagely analyzed his political opponents, including Republicans and Northern Democrats.

Lincoln combined his knowledge of human nature, Northern voters, and national issues to win the Republican nomination for president.  However, he didn’t anticipate that Southern states would secede.  This blog post will discuss Lincoln’s miscalculation and a possible link to the topic of Southern honor.

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

A contentious time

Historian David M. Potter states that Republicans saw recent history as “one long shameful record of concession after concession to the insatiable Slave-ocracy.  The annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, all were designed to buy off the South.”[1]

Insights into Lincoln’s convictions

President-elect Lincoln told one of his Republican allies in December 1860:  “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery … The tug has to come, & better now, than any time hereafter.”[2]

A candid, prophetic statement

A year earlier, before Lincoln was a presidential candidate, he told a crowd in Leavenworth, Kansas:

If constitutionally we elect a President, and therefore you [Southerners] undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with.

His listeners remembered that federal troops stopped the insurrection.  Lincoln hastened to add his hope that “extreme measures” wouldn’t be necessary.[3]

Southerners crying “Wolf”

By the 1860 campaign season, according to Potter, “All parties at the South were agreed in either threatening to leave or reserving the right to leave a government administered by Republicans.”  Potter explains that Republicans “were able to ignore the whole thing.  The constantly reiterated threats of secession … had, to all intents and purposes, ceased to be audible to them.”

Senator Henry Wilson had expressed a typical Republican attitude:  “Sir, you cannot kick out of the Union the men who utter these impotent threats.”

Republican confidence

Potter continues:

The Republicans … still felt confident that the latent mass of the Southern people were devoted to the Federal government, and that any overt attempt at secession would arouse this large and heretofore inarticulate majority to violent opposition, thus destroying secession by local action.[4]

Cries for help

In contrast with Republican confidence, Unionist Southern Democrats fought for their political lives against Ultra-Secessionist Democrats (“Fire-eaters”).  The Unionists cried for President-Elect Lincoln to give tangible signs that he would protect slavery.  Lincoln kept public silence, but he wrote a few Unionists of his kindly intentions.

Private, revealing letters

Unionist Southern Democrat Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia exchanged letters with Lincoln, shedding light on Lincoln’s thinking shortly before, and shortly after, Southern states started to secede.

Alexander H. Stephens (Library of Congress)

After Lincoln’s election, Stephens told the Georgia Legislature on November 14, 1860:

My object is not to stir up strife, but to allay it; not to appeal to your passions, but to your reason … Before looking to extreme measures, let us first see, as Georgians, that everything which can be done to preserve our rights, our interests, and our honor, as well as the peace of the country in the Union, be first done … To make a point of resistance to the government, to withdraw from it because a man has been constitutionally elected, puts us in the wrong …

But it is said Mr. Lincoln’s policy and principles are against the Constitution, and that, if he carries them out, it will be destructive of our rights. Let us not anticipate a threatened evil.[5]

President-Elect Lincoln read Stephens’s speech.  On December 22, 1860, two days after South Carolina seceded, Lincoln wrote Stephens:

I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me.  Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with the slaves, or with them about the slaves? … I wish to assure you … that there is no cause for such fears …

You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.  That, I suppose, is the rub.  It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.[6]

Stephens responded to Lincoln on December 30, 1860:

In my judgment, the people of the South do not entertain any fears that a Republican Administration, or at least the one about to be inaugurated, would attempt to interfere directly and immediately with slavery in the States. Their apprehension and disquietude do not spring from that source …

The leading object [of Republicans] seems to be simply, and wantonly, if you please, to put the institutions of nearly half the States under the ban of public opinion and national condemnation. This, upon general principles, is quite enough of itself to arouse a spirit not only of general indignation but of revolt.

Lincoln may not have properly reckoned with inflamed Southern honor.

An under-appreciated factor

Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown explains:

In 1860-61, the lower South separated from the Union out of a sense of almost uncontrollable outrage.  To be sure, slavery was the root cause of sectional conflict … The threat to slavery’s legitimacy in the Union prompted the sectional crisis, but it was Southern honor that pulled the trigger …

At the heart of the conflict was Southern fear of free-state political and economic power and what that portended for the future of the peculiar institution.[7]

The complexity of honor and shame

Wyatt-Brown explains the connection between white liberty and Antebellum slavery:

Racism, white freedom and equality, and honor were not discrete concerns in the Southern mind.  They were all an inseparable part of personal and regional self-definition.  White supremacy, as Ulrich B. Phillips maintained long ago, was the ‘central theme’ of Southern culture.  Yet the language for expressing it was largely framed in terms of honor and shame.

To put it another way, white liberty was sustainable, it was thought, only on the basis of black slavery.  Black freedom, on the other hand, necessarily meant white disgrace because it placed the Southerner on a level with African Americans and Republicans.[8]

According to Stephens and many other leaders, Southerners perceived a long-term threat to the peculiar institution through the Republican Platform of 1856.

Piercing complaints

Historian Wyatt-Brown explains the impact of decades of abolitionist complaints:

Criticism of the South – its slave system, morals, and culture – had so vastly expanded that Southern whites increasingly felt deeply insulted to the point of disunion and war.  They reacted in the language they knew best – the rhetoric of honor – whose use provided the Southern cause with moral urgency and self-justification.[9]

Another motive for slavery in the territories

Wyatt-Brown suggests a connection between reputation and political battles:

Anti-slavery attacks stained the reputations by which Southern whites judged their place and power in the world.  Such, for instance, was the reason why slaveholders insisted on the right to carry their property into the free territories at will.  It was not solely a matter of expanding slavery’s boundaries, though that was of course important.

No less significant, however, was Southern whites’ resentment against any congressional measure that implied the moral inferiority of their region, labor system, or style of life.[10]

Historian Wyatt-Brown continues:

Just as personal insults could lead to duels, so could Northern assaults on Southern reputation for honesty and Christian bearing result in civil conflict.  John Brown’s raid and Lincoln’s election seemed a culmination of Northern contempt, hostility, and determination to destroy Southern wealth and power, all of which Republicans considered dependent upon that corrupting national canker, slavery.[11]

In retrospect, it seems that Lincoln didn’t anticipate secession, in part, because he misunderstood the importance of Southern-defined honor.

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[1] David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (Baton Rouge:  1995), 47.

[2] Lincoln to Lyman Trumbull, 12/10/1860, Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln vol. IV (New Brunswick, NJ:  1953-1955), 149-150.

[3] Abraham Lincoln speech, 12/3/1859, George W. Martin, Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1901-1902, Vol. VII (Topeka:  1902), 540-544.

[4] Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, 6, 9, 16-17.

[5] Stephens to Georgia Legislature, 11/14/1860, in Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private, 695-697.

[6] Abraham Lincoln to Alexander H, Stephens, L12/22/1860, found on Lincoln/Net, Northern Illinois University, University Libraries Online Digital Collections,

[7] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture:  Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s – 1880s (Chapel Hill:  2001), 177-178.

[8] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 199-200.

[9] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 178.

[10] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 198.

[11] Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture, 78.

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: The journey from Hard War to Soft Peace

“There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’ … for the times they are a-changin’.”  Bob Dylan could’ve sung these words about Abraham Lincoln and the nation after Fort Sumter.

Early on, Lincoln told Congress that he had been careful to not let the war “degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.”[i]

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Lincoln changes his mind

However, things changed after the slaughter at Shiloh.  Historian James McPherson states:

Willy-nilly, the war was becoming a remorseless revolutionary conflict, a total war rather than a limited one.[ii]

Pressure from Radical Republicans

Thaddeus Stevens, congressman from Pennsylvania, thundered, “We must treat this [war] as a radical revolution.”  Stevens called for the Union troops to “free every slave, slay every traitor – burn every rebel mansion, if these things be necessary to preserve [the nation].”[iii]

Thaddeus Stevens
(Library of Congress)

By the fourth year of the war, Lincoln believed in a hard war.  He reckoned that God had allowed “this mighty scourge of war” as the consequence of slavery.  Lincoln was prepared to see “every drop of blood drawn with the lash” (by slave overseers) be “paid by another [drop of blood] drawn with the sword.”[iv]

Critics cry out

When Northern armies carried out what Lincoln envisioned, his critics complained about outrages such as burning of civilian homes, forced evacuations of entire neighborhoods or districts, and alleged rape.  When victims and concerned Union Generals contacted Lincoln, Lincoln was often silent about the outrages or he sometimes praised the commanding generals for their military success.[v]

Few of Lincoln’s generals outshone Sherman, who wanted to “make Georgia howl.”  Sherman succeeded in hastening the end of the war.  He also left a legacy of multi-generational pain.[vi]  A United States military veteran in 2014 said that he couldn’t sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” knowing what Sherman’s troops had done 150 years earlier.

William T. Sherman
(Library of Congress)

Lincoln’s paradox

After Sherman captured Atlanta, Lincoln envisioned the end of the war.  In his Second Inaugural Address, this believer in a hard war called for a soft peace:

With malice toward none; with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.[vii]

Lincoln’s last portrait
(Library of Congress)

Apparently, Lincoln saw healing as finishing the “work” of war.  Lincoln drew upon his King James Bible for a tone of mercy that evoked Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul, both of whom taught that God wanted to make his enemies his friends.

The nation’s loss

After the surrender at Appomattox, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln.  When his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, heard the news, he reportedly said:

I am sorry.  We have lost our best friend in the court of the enemy.[viii]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any questions and comments below.


[i] Abraham Lincoln, First Annual Message to Congress, 12/3/1861, The American Presidency Project,

[ii] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York:  1990), 32.

[iii] Thaddeus Stevens to Lancaster County Republican Convention, Lancaster, PA, 9/3/1862, Beverly Wilson Palmer, ed., The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, Vol. I, January 1814-March 1865 (Pittsburgh:  1997), 322, 323.

[iv] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln, First and Second Inaugural Addresses (Washington, 1909), 40.

[v] William A. Blair, With Malice Toward Some:  Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill:  2014), 134-137, 145-146, 151.

[vi] William T. Sherman to Ulysses S. Grant, 10/9/1864, in The Civil War:  The Final Year Told by Those who Lived it (Library of America, New York:  2014), 362-364.

[vii] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 40.

[viii] Burke Davis, The Long Surrender:  The Dramatic Account of the Collapse of the Confederacy and the Pursuit of Jefferson Davis (New York:  1985).

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Persuader in Chief

Lincoln had the consummate skills of a lawyer, a politician, and a storyteller.  Added to those skills, he had impressive logic.

In many cases, Lincoln served himself, the Republican Party, and the country well.   But in some cases, Lincoln (and his subordinates) violated civil liberties.

One of Lincoln’s defeated Union Generals, Ambrose E. Burnside, inadvertently sparked a controversy, involving a vocal Peace Democrat.  Amid a public outcry, Lincoln defended his views on civil liberties in wartime.

Imprudent edict

Historian Frank L. Klement writes:

[Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio] regarded all criticism of the President as unpatriotic and traitorous … Since Burnside believed that Copperhead speeches and editorials gave encouragement to the enemy, he issued his well-known ‘General Orders, No. 38’ on April 13, 1863.


General Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress)

General orders No. 38 stated that “the habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy” would no longer be tolerated.  Burnside would discern between criticism and treason.  Civilians who disobeyed Burnside would be arrested and subjected to military procedure (that is, denied rights in the civil courts).[i]

Incendiary arrest

Almost immediately, Peace Democrat (and former congressman) Clement L. Vallandigham gave a speech, defying Burnside’s edict and suggesting that voters use “the ballot-box” to hurl “King Lincoln” from his throne.

Clement L. Vallandigham (Library of Congress)

Burnside arrested Vallandigham.  A military tribunal found Vallandigham guilty and put him in prison.

Democrats cried foul, and Lincoln ordered that Vallandigham be exiled to the Confederacy.  The level of outrage increased as Northern Democrats held mass protest meetings.

Corning Letter

A committee of Democrats of Albany, New York, chaired by Erastus Corning, wrote Lincoln on May 19, 1863.    They demanded that the Federal Government “maintain the supremacy of the civil over military law.”[ii]

Military arrests in the North were unconstitutional and eviscerated the Bill of Rights, according to the Albany Democrats.  They also claimed that Vallandigham was seized and tried “for no other reason than words addressed to a public meeting, in criticism of the course of the administration, and in condemnation of the military orders of the general [Burnside].”

Lincoln’s public reply

President Lincoln on June 12 wrote that he had lawfully suspended the writ of habeas corpus earlier in the war.  The Constitution allowed the suspension “when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.”

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Lincoln then commented on the former Ohio congressman:

Mr. Vallandigham avows his hostility to the war on the part of the Union; and his arrest was made because he was laboring, with some effect, to prevent the raising of troops, to encourage desertions from the army, and to leave the rebellion without an adequate military force to suppress it.

He [Vallandigham] was not arrested because he was damaging the political prospects of the Administration, or the personal interests of the commanding general, but because he was damaging the army, upon the existence and vigor of which the life of the nation depends.

He [Vallandigham] was warring upon the military, and this gave the military constitutional jurisdiction to lay hands upon him.

Powerful, homespun argument

Lincoln asked:

Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?

This is none the less injurious when affected by getting a father or brother or friend into a public meeting, and there working upon his feelings till he is persuaded to write the soldier boy that he is fighting in a bad cause, for a wicked administration or a contemptible government …

I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional but withal a great mercy.

Preventive arrests, assumption of guilt

Lincoln stated:

Arrests [in cases of rebellion] are made, not so much for what has been done as for what probably would be done …

The man who stands by and says nothing when the peril of his country is discussed cannot be misunderstood.  If not hindered, he is sure to help the enemy; much more, if he talks ambiguously – talks for his country with ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’.

Lincoln explained the value of his policy by citing Confederate generals who hadn’t been arrested before they entered the Confederate service.  He stated, “I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.”

Clarifying Lincoln’s words

The Albany Democrats on June 30, 1863, responded to Lincoln’s letter.

Your claim is, that when the writ of habeas corpus is suspended, you may lawfully imprison and punish for the crimes of silence, of speech, and opinion …

Your doctrine denies the freedom of speech and of the press.  It invades the sacred domain of opinion and discussion … even the refuge of silence is insecure.

They mentioned that the previous Congress (on March 3, 1863) had voted to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.[iii]  The Albany Democrats explained:

This [congressional] statute promptly removes the proceeding in every case into the courts where the safeguards of liberty are observed, and where the persons detained are to be discharged, unless indicted for criminal offense against the established and ascertained laws of the country.

Cross-examining Lincoln

The Albany Democrats pressed Lincoln for an explanation:

Upon what foundation, then, permit us to ask, do you rest the pretension that men who are not accused of a crime may be seized and imprisoned, or banished at the will and pleasure of the President or any of his subordinates in civil and military positions?

Where is the warrant for invading the freedom of speech and of the press?

Where is the justification for placing the citizen on trial without the presentment of a grand jury and before military commissions?

Lincoln never responded to these questions.  His words and actions suggest that for him, saving the Union (and preserving enlistments) “covered a multitude of sins.”

Historians weigh in

Historian Philip Paludan observes that President Lincoln made a more extreme defense of military arrests of civilians than necessary.[iv]

Historian Mark E. Neely Jr. writes:

If a situation were to arise again in the United States when the writ of habeas corpus were suspended, government would probably be as ill-prepared to define the legal situation as it was in 1861.

The clearest lesson is that there is no clear lesson in the Civil War—no neat precedents, no ground rules, no map.  War and its effect on civil liberties remain a frightening unknown.[v]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any questions or comments below.

[i] Frank L. Klement, The Copperheads in the Middle West (Chicago: 1960), 89; Frank L. Klement, The Limits of Dissent:  Clement L. Vallandigham & the Civil War (New York:  1998), 149.

[ii] Frank Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record, Vol. VII (New York:  1864), pp. 298-308.

[iii] Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York:  1991), 68.

[iv] Phillip S. Paludan, “Toward a Lincoln Conversation,” Reviews in American History, XVI (March 1988), 40-41.

[v] Neely, 235.

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Softly disarming his opponents

I was a member of the Abraham Lincoln fan club as a boy.  Dad was a member, too.  He taped a Lincoln quote to his bedroom mirror: “My father taught me to work.  He did not teach me to love it.”

My elementary school class made a pilgrimage to Lincoln’s bronze bust in Springfield.  We stood in line to rub his now-shiny nose.  As I’ve reflected on Lincoln over the years, I’m still drawn to his ability to tell stories.


A new series

In order to understand the Civil War and its causes, it’s good to look closely at Abraham Lincoln, his words, and his actions.  And so, I am starting a new blog series, Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln.

Responding with humor

When a political opponent accused Lincoln of being two-faced, Lincoln supposedly said, “If I had two faces, would I wear this one?”

Lincoln, who knew his King James Bible, used humor to fulfill the verse, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”

An example

Lincoln received a lot of criticism for Secretary of War Simon Cameron.  When Lincoln dismissed Cameron, a group of visiting politicians said the president should go further and replace the whole cabinet.  Lincoln replied:

Gentlemen, when I was a young man, I knew one Joe Wilson who was very proud of his chickens, and he built a fine henhouse.  Skunks started raiding his hens, and he got annoyed.     One night, unusual cackling and fluttering woke him up.  It was a bright moonlit night.  Joe snuck outside with a shotgun.  He saw six skunks running in and out of the shed.  Enraged, he put a double charge in his gun to blast the whole tribe of skunks.  Somehow, he killed only one, and the rest ran off.

When Joe told this story, he paused here and held his nose.  The neighbors asked, ‘Why didn’t you run after them and kill the rest?’  ‘Blast it,’ Joe said.  ‘It was eleven weeks before I got over killin’ one.  If you want any more skirmishing in that line, you can just do it yourselves!’[i]


Starting young

Historian James M. McPherson explains Lincoln’s fondness for animal metaphors and parables.  McPherson states:

This derived in part from his own rural background [and] the many boyhood hours he spent with Aesop’s Fables.  During one of those long hours, his cousin Dennis Lincoln said to him, ‘Abe, them yarns is all lies.’  Lincoln looked up for a moment and replied, ‘Mighty darn good lies, Denny.’

McPherson continues:

As an adult, Lincoln knew that these ‘lies,’ these fables about animals, provided an excellent way to communicate with a people who were still close to their rural roots and understood the idioms of the forest and barnyard. [ii]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[i] Paraphrased from Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln:  The Story of a Picture (New York, 1866 ), 139.

[ii] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York:  1990), 99-100.

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