Archive for the ‘People and Biographies’ Category


Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson
17th President of the United States

150 years ago this weekend saw the national convention of the “National Union Party” in Baltimore. An alliance of Republicans (excepting the disgruntled Radicals who had nominated John Fremont about a week before in Cleveland) and War Democrats, the National Union Party’s major task was not renominating Abraham Lincoln. That master politician had sewn up his renomination long before, so that act was merely ceremonial.

Instead, the main duty was making the different party factions with a replacement for Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and the choice made was Andrew Johnson, the Unionist Senator and Military Governor or Tennessee. Ever since my teens, I’ve puzzled over whether Johnson was the best choice.

I understand Lincoln’s reasoning behind Johnson, who was perhaps the only man in the country with appeal to both War Democrats (Johnson was one of them) and Radical Republicans, the latter approving of Johnson’s hardline approach to running occupied Tennessee.¬† Yet as a politician, Johnson had little to recommend him beyond a talent for invective.

Of course, vice presidents were basically cyphers until the last couple of decades. If lucky a vice president might be called upon for advice, but the role of veep as chief lieutenant is a creation of only the last few decades. I also doubt Lincoln was thinking at all of Johnson as his successor, since his health was basically sound.

Even so, one of those little rules of American Presidential contests — that a veep can’t help, but only hurt your chances at election — was as true in 1864 as it is today. I doubt Johnson’s place as literally the only man in America who was easily passable to everyone from Radicals to border state Republican conservatives who were softer on the war than any War Democrat was that vital. There were other ways to appease the disaffected, something Lincoln well knew. His choice of Johnson reflects how secondary the choice was in the first place.

It was Johnson’s lack of political skill that ultimately got him impeached and damn near removed from office, as he clumsily upset the Radicals over Reconstruction, so whenever that convention or Johnson come up I wonder about whether there might have been someone better. Perhaps a border state Republican, one whose political skills ran deeper than merely smearing the opposition?

Yet at the same time, Johnson accidentally stumbledupon  one measure that effectively derailed the Radical agenda for wreaking vengeance on the South: by the time the Radicals tamed Johnson with impeachment and then got Grant into office, Johnson had already demobilized most of the wartime army, largely as a budget-cutting measure. The Radicals could pass as many vindictive laws or enact measures to build up a voting base of landed, emancipated slaves as they wished, but without bayonets on the ground to repress popular white resentment such actions would go nowhere.

The result I think was certainly not the worst thing that could have happened, but not very constructive either. The Radical agenda was partially enacted, more in spirit than in fact, and as such was neither clement or severe, but somewhere in between. Like most half-measures, Reconstruction as it actually played out failed to achieve very much one way or the other, and with it a lot of social and political problems came to fester in America over the course of the next century, all of them going back to that choice of Andrew Johnson and whether someone else might have been able to have deflect more of Radical wrath.

Battle and massacre at Fort Pillow

Engraving of the Fort Pillow massacre from 1894.

As today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow, and I’ve spent a lot of time researching and thinking about Nathan Bedford Forrest so as to use him as a character in my book, I thought I would dwell on what is unquestionably the most infamous event of Forrest’s career. During his raid of West Tennessee in 1864, Forrest, overseeing Chalmer’s Division of cavalry, attacked Fort Pillow near Memphis. The several hundred-man garrison was half-white and half-black, and most of the latter were massacred in the carnage that ensued when the Rebel troopers stormed the fort.

Here are some of my takeaways on the massacre:

  • From a military historical point of view, storming a fortification has always been a terrifying, bloody business for both the attacker and defender. When such an assault is successful, massacres of a defending garrison are commonplace even without the racial animus that Confederate troops had for blacks in blue uniforms. Although such incidents were uncommon in the Civil War (proving once again how civil the Civil War often was), history in general is replete with them.
  • The attack on Fort Pillow has been raked over ever since the war, and no solid evidence has ever been uncovered to indicate Forrest gave a “take no prisoners” order. Quite the contrary, it has been very well established that he sought to stop the massacre once he was aware of what was happening. While no evidence has ever come to light that General Chalmers ordered the massacre, there is some to suggest he condoned it once it was under way.
  • Between the above two points, I think the business was a soldiers’ affair. The greybacks slaughtered the black troops once they got them in a more or less helpless position because: 1) they were inclined to do so out of sheer racial animosity anyway; and 2) men storming a fort are prone to run wild and slaughter the fort’s defenders in any case.
  • Forrest’s prominent role in the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan gave the Fort Pillow massacre a bigger identity than it otherwise would have enjoyed. Although Forrest left the KKK long before it gained anything like the identity it would take on later as a nationwide white supremacist organization, the fact is that that very same KKK always pointed to a man who was a former slave trader, prominent Confederate general, and who presided over an infamous massacre of black troops as their founder. For them, all those things were a point of pride, lumping the entire package together into the same simplified, ugly light.

Ulric Dahlgren as a captain

As today is the 150th anniversary of the inglorious end of Judson “Kil-Cavalry” Kilpatrick’s raid on Richmond, and with it the start of the Dahlgren Affair, I thought I would share my thoughts on the latter. Briefly, the Dahlgren Affair stems from the alleged discovery of documents on the corpse of Ulric Dahlgren, a Union cavalry colonel and the son of the Union admiral who invented the bottle-shaped Dahlgren gun.

The documents in question described orders for Kilpatrick’s troopers to burn Richmond and assassinate Jefferson Davis and other high officials.¬† Abraham Lincoln and the Army of the Potomac’s commander, George Meade, immediately denied any knowledge of the papers, and in the North they were immediately decried as forgeries. The matter of whether the papers were genuine, and if so who authorized either Kilpatrick or just Dahlgren to undertake such a savage operation, has remained a controversial subject to this very day.

The Case For Forgery
The case for forgery isn’t a bad one, although it suffers from a number of problems. Producing forged documents to incriminate the enemy is hardly the worst crime in the arsenal of a propagandist, and so many in Confederate governing circles had shown themselves capable of such skullduggery as to defy listing. The known chain of custody for the Dahlgren papers is a long one, so they could have been swapped or doctored at any point and by most anyone.

The Case For Legitimacy

The fanciful depiction of Kilpatrick’s Raid in Harper’s Weekly

Against this, it must be noted that many contemporaries on the Union side testified to seeing the documents, although there is some dispute over what they originally said. Kilpatrick himself said he saw them, but claimed the Confederates added a forged assassination order. Officers in Dahlgren’s company from the Bureau of Military Information also claim to have seen the papers.

Finally, the most suspicious part of the entire Dahlgren Affair is what happened to the original papers and all lithographic and photographic copies made of them. U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered them all collected for his office in 1865, at which point they disappeared. Presumably, Stanton destroyed them.

My Take
In my mind, the Dahlgren case begins with Judson Kilpatrick, the man the author and leader of the raid. “Kil-Cavalry” was a narcissist and politically ambitious, and I wouldn’t put it past him to past such a miscreant to gleefully participate in a scheme involving assassination and putting an entire city indiscriminately to the torch if he thought it would benefit him. I also find it highly unlikely that orders like those would be issued to Dahlgren alone, who could hardly carry them out without at least the passive cooperation of his superior officer, Kilpatrick.

Edwin Stanton, the likely author of Dahlgren’s (and Kilpatrick’s) orders

Even George Meade, Kilpatrick’s superior, thought it there was something to the Dahlgren papers and that it was very likely that Kilpatrick, with his low character, was involved. While he was dismissing the documents as forged in public, he privately shared his doubts about the matter in letters to his wife.

I also wouldn’t put such a scheme past Edwin Stanton, who clearly implicated himself by destroying the relevant documents. I do not believe for a second that Kilpatrick and Dahlgren would have forged their own false orders, because to do so would serve no purpose. If they returned to camp having committed atrocious, nefarious war crimes, producing obviously fake orders would hardly shield them if the infamy attached to their actions came to outweigh any acclaim they might have thereby won.

Kilpatrick was something of a buffoon, but he wasn’t stupid, and I doubt he would have gone so far out on a limb without some kind of cover. My belief is that Stanton, acting on his own, told Kilpatrick to destroy Richmond and kill Confederate leaders if practicable. Dahlgren’s infamous orders came from Stanton’s office.