A Nation Reborn

President Andrew Johnson. By: Mathew Brady.

In the same way that the Second World War would reshape the globe in the Twentieth Century, the Civil War reshaped America for the remainder of the Nineteenth Century. Veterans of both wars came to define their respective generations and rise to positions of power: just as Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s meteoric rise culminated in him becoming President three years after the war, General Dwight D. Eisenhower would find himself being elected President seven years after the war of his generation. Lesser generals also worked their way into office—some of those offices being elected and others being executive offices of companies in the emerging industries following the wars—but that would occur over the course of decades: the last Civil War veteran to reach the presidency, William McKinley, occupied the White House as the Nineteenth Century faded into the Twentieth. As ever, those who held power determined the direction of the country’s future. In the weeks and months following the end of the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, people in power would be sketching out the contours of a post-war America; and it was then, at that nascent stage of the newly reborn nation’s life, that new factions emerged—factions that would vie for weeks, months, and even years to cast the die of America in their own image and either keep, or make, the nation they wished to have.

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Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist XXII

“Publius,” The Federalist XXII [Alexander Hamilton]

New-York Packet, December 14, 1787

A well-functioning democracy must be capable of recognizing and dealing with the friction that occurs between the minority and the majority on any given issue. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, in the Federalist XXII, the difference between a vote requiring a simple majority versus a vote requiring a two-thirds majority is one that—the latter—empowers a small, vocal minority to obtain significant power over two-thirds of the body. Furthermore, it enables foreign powers—who may be seeking to “perplex our councils and embarrass our exertions”—to sway the policymaking of our country by using that method to encourage factions to block legislation that may be harmful to that foreign power but beneficial to us. Read more

The Second Father

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Abraham Lincoln.

In February 1861, Abraham Lincoln traveled to the Western Railroad Depot carrying his trunk tied with a rope and with the inscription, “A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C.” Friends and family prepared him for the train ride from Illinois to Washington which would take twelve days and bring the President-elect into contact with tens of thousands of citizens. Lincoln had been “unusually grave and reflective” as he lamented “parting with this scene of joys and sorrows during the last thirty years and the large circle of old and faithful friends,” and when he went to his law partner for sixteen years, Billy Herndon, he assured him that his election to the presidency merely placed a hold on his partnership role: “If I live I’m coming back some time, and then we’ll go right on practising law as if nothing had ever happened.” As he stood on his private train car and addressed the crowd of well-wishers, the sentiment was no less heartfelt: “My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. . . . I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.” And so, with the crowd moved to tears, Lincoln would leave Springfield for the last time in his life with the train slowly moving “out of the sight of the silent gathering.” Within the train car, furnished with dark furniture, “crimson curtains, and a rich tapestry carpet,” Lincoln “sat alone and depressed” without his usual “hilarious good spirits.” Read more

Constitution Sunday: “Americanus” V

“Americanus” V [John Stevens, Jr.]

Daily Advertiser (New York, December 12, 1787

The structure of the American government, with its division into three branches and its layered arrangement from top (federal) to middle (state) to bottom (local), made it an exception in 1787 from what had been previously known. Even with the Constitution’s framework appearing to better safeguard against the country devolving into a dictatorship or monarchy, there remained the plausible theory that, despite the Constitution’s best features, it would do nothing more than slow, or mitigate, that devolution; it would be unable to prevent it. Read more

Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist XVI

“Publius,” The Federalist XVI [Alexander Hamilton]

New-York Packet, December 4, 1787

When any union or confederacy of states or provinces decide to form a nation, it does so with its citizens knowing that members may “alarm the apprehensions, inflame the passions, and conciliate the good will even” in those states that were not “chargeable with any violation, or omission of duty” but had influence to be obtained. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist XVI, when there are associates not found “at home, recourse would be had to the aid of foreign powers, who would seldom be disinclined to encouraging the dissentions of a confederacy, from the firm Union of which they had so much to fear.” The consequences of such an event are substantial: “When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation. The suggestions of wounded pride, the instigations of irritated resentment, would be apt to carry the States, against which the arms of the Union were exerted to any extremes necessary to revenge the affront, or to avoid the disgrace of submission. The first war of this kind would probably terminate in a dissolution of the Union.” Read more

Appomattox

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A Victory Parade in New York. Harper’s Weekly.

Conceptualizing the Civil War’s end, even during the opening months of 1865, was nearly impossible: who could imagine Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering himself and his men to the custody of the Union army? How many members of the Confederate government would be taken prisoner and be tried for treason and any number of other crimes for defying the United States federal government? What would come from an Abraham Lincoln presidency that was not entirely consumed with prosecuting the war? And perhaps the most troubling question of all: how, after all the fratricidal blood shed and destruction wrought against one another, could the Confederate states be readmitted and the country continue to exist? On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, when General Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, the contours of a post-war America were beginning to be defined—and for the Confederates, it appeared, with Lee’s surrender, that the future would be one of subjugation to the northern states. Read more

Tightening the Cordon

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Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and His Staff. By: Mathew Brady.

By the end of 1864—with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman having cut his way through Georgia, Union General Ulysses S. Grant having confined Confederate General Robert E. Lee to a defensive position in Virginia, and President Abraham Lincoln having won his bid for re-election—the Confederacy was desperate for any sign of encouragement. While the rhetoric from Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens had remained buoyant, and despite newspaper headlines throughout the South continuing to cheer for the cause, the Confederacy was nowhere near the crest it had enjoyed in 1863. Having lost the chance to put the Union on the defensive that year, the rebels now found their western and southern borders closing in on them. If ever there was going to be a negotiated peace, the chances of it occurring were rapidly diminishing as 1865 dawned. Read more

Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist XIV

“Publius,” The Federalist XIV [James Madison]

New-York Packet, November 30, 1787

With the draft Constitution having been published for consideration by the residents of each state in 1787 came questions about whether and how the federal government would effectuate its responsibilities given the vast land that the states and territories had already comprised—which James Madison found to be framed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. Madison, in The Federalist XIV, articulated the reasoning behind the Constitution’s model for government, and at the heart of that reasoning was that this new form of government was not going to be a pure democracy of yore but rather a modern republic: “The true distinction” between a democracy and a republic is “that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy consequently will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.” Read more

Andersonville Prison

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The Prisoners in Andersonville.

Throughout the Civil War, there was no shortage of suffering on the battlefield, but even the newest soldier knew that being taken prisoner was likely to lead to more suffering. While a Confederate prisoner may have reasonably expected that he could obtain improved rations in a northern prison—particularly as the war progressed and rebel supplies had become increasingly stretched—a Union soldier could precisely expect the converse: that if he were taken prisoner, he would receive fewer and poorer rations than that of his starving adversary. While any rebel military prison was expected to be an unwelcome place because of smaller rations and numerous other factors, none has had the enduring reputation of being the site of vileness as the prison situated in Andersonville, Georgia, which operated from the Winter of 1864 to the Spring of 1865. Read more

The March to the Sea

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William Tecumseh Sherman on Horseback.

Throughout the Civil War, soldiers and citizens alike could view the events unfolding before them and question whether there was a better alternative than to prosecute the war to its bitter end. What had started as a spectator’s war—with men and women gathering near the battlefields to picnic and take in the action—had morphed, by mid-1864, into slaughter with the only variables being where the slaughter may occur and what magnitude it may reach. One veteran lieutenant recalled after the war, “As we lay there watching the bright stars, many a soldier asked himself the question: What is this all about? Why is it that 200,000 men of one blood and one tongue, believing as one man in the fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man, should in the nineteenth century of the Christian era be thus armed with all the improved appliances of modern warfare and seeking one another’s lives? We could settle our differences by compromising, and all be at home in ten days.”[i] Of all the soldiers that gazed at the bright stars and asked themselves these questions, the men under the command of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman were not a part of that group when they left Atlanta burning and began a campaign through the heart of Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean. Read more