Grant on Pierce

You have summoned me in my weakness. You must sustain me by your strength.

President Franklin Pierce, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1853

I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.  Today we will look at a President who has vanished from popular memory.

Franklin Pierce was a doughface, the pejorative applied to Northern politicians prior to the Civil War who embraced the South’s view of slavery.  While personally opposed to slavery, where have we heard that formulation before, Pierce also opposed all efforts to restrict slavery, fearing that such efforts would merely antagonize the South and ultimately lead to civil war.  He was thrust into the Presidency as the darkest of dark horse candidates, nominated by the Democrats in 1852 on the 49th ballot, winning easily in the fall against his former Mexican War commander, Winfield Scott, the last presidential candidate of the dying Whig Party.

Historians, the few who have examined his term in office in detail, have been generally scathing about his service as President, as Pierce did nothing to halt the drift towards the civil war he so feared, with his steadfast determination to yield to the South in the face of growing Northern anger.  Perhaps fortunately for his historical reputation, Pierce ranks high on the list of forgotten presidents, his life largely going down the memory hole of the general public.  That process began during his lifetime, as the whirlwind of events that would lead to the Civil War passed him by.  Pierce perhaps sensed this himself, stating as he left office in 1857, that all he had left now to do was to get drunk.  To be fair to Pierce, few men had more to get drunk about, all three of his sons having died in childhood, his last son at eleven years of age after having been almost totally decapitated in a train accident in front of his shattered parents, just before Pierce assumed the office of President.  After his wife died in 1863, his drinking got completely out of hand and he died of cirrhosis of the liver on October 8, 1869.  President Grant, who had served with Pierce in the Mexican War made sure that the forgotten man received the honors in death that he warranted as a former President.  In his memoirs Grant went out his way to praise Pierce and we will let him have the last word on Pierce:

 

General Franklin Pierce had joined the army in Mexico, at Puebla, a short time before the advance upon the capital commenced. He had consequently not been in any of the engagements of the war up to the Battle of Contreras. By an unfortunate fall of his horse on the afternoon of the 19th he was painfully injured. The next day, when his brigade, with the other troops engaged on the same field, was ordered against the flank and rear of the enemy guarding the different points of the road from San Augustin Tlalplan to the city, General Pierce attempted to accompany them. He was not sufficiently recovered to do so, and fainted. This circumstance gave rise to exceedingly unfair and unjust criticisms of him when he became a candidate for the Presidency. Whatever General Pierce’s qualifications may have been for the Presidency, he was a gentleman and a man of courage. I was not a supporter of him politically, but I knew him more intimately than I did any other of the volunteer generals.

Grant reminds us that public service of a President can tell us only so much about the private man, and here endeth the lesson.

 

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Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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April 13, 1865: Holy Thursday in Washington

 

 

One hundred and fifty-two years ago in the Holy Week so fateful to our nation, General Grant arrived in Washington DC.  Anxious to cut costs, he advised Secretary of War Stanton that military contracts for ordinance and most supplies could be canceled and that troops no longer needed to be recruited or drafted and Stanton issued the necessary order the same day.  Grant after he became President appointed Stanton to the Supreme Court although Stanton died before he could join the Court.  Grant and Stanton had had an up and down relationship during the War, typical of the relationships of most high Union officers with the mercurial Stanton.  It is interesting to read Grant’s assessment of Stanton in his memoir:

He was a man who never questioned his own authority, and who always did in war time what he wanted to do. He was an able constitutional lawyer and jurist; but the Constitution was not an impediment to him while the war lasted. In this latter particular I entirely agree with the view he evidently held. The Constitution was not framed with a view to any such rebellion as that of 1861–5. While it did not authorize rebellion it made no provision against it. Yet the right to resist or suppress rebellion is as inherent as the right of self-defence, and as natural as the right of an individual to preserve his life when in jeopardy. The Constitution was therefore in abeyance for the time being, so far as it in any way affected the progress and termination of the war. (more…)

Published in: on April 13, 2017 at 4:22 am  Comments Off on April 13, 1865: Holy Thursday in Washington  
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April 9, 1865: Palm Sunday at Appomatox

 

 

It is poor business measuring the mouldered ramparts and counting the silent guns, marking the deserted battlefields and decorating the grassy graves, unless we can learn from it some nobler lesson than to destroy.  Men write of this, as of other wars, as if the only thing necessary to be impressed upon the rising generation were the virtue of physical courage and contempt of death.  It seems to me that is the last thing we need to teach;  for since the days of John Smith in Virginia and the men of the Mayflower in Massachusetts, no generation of Americans has shown any lack of it.  From Louisburg to Petersburg-a hundred and twenty years, the full span of four generations-they have stood to their guns and been shot down in greater comparative numbers than any other race on earth.  In the war of secession there was not a State, not a county, probably not a town, between the great lakes and the gulf, that was not represented on fields where all that men could do with powder and steel was done and valor exhibited at its highest pitch…There is not the slightest necessity for lauding American bravery or impressing it upon American youth.  But there is the gravest necessity for teaching them respect for law, and reverence for human life, and regard for the rights of their fellow country-men, and all that is significant in the history of our country…These are simple lessons, yet they are not taught in a day, and some who we call educated go through life without mastering them at all.

Rossiter Johnson, Campfire and Battlefield, 1884

I have always thought it appropriate that the national nightmare we call the Civil War ended during Holy Week 1865.  Two remarkably decent men, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, began the process of healing so desperately needed for America on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 at Appomattox.  We take their decency for granted, but it is the exception and not the rule for the aftermath of civil wars in history.  The usual course would have been unremitting vengeance by the victors, and sullen rage by the defeated, perhaps eventually breaking out in guerilla war.  The end of the Civil War could so very easily have been the beginning of a cycle of unending war between north and south.  Instead, both Grant and Lee acted to make certain as far as they could that the fratricidal war that had just concluded would not be repeated.  All Americans owe those two men a large debt for their actions at Appomattox.

Grant recalled the surrender:

APPOMATTOX C. H., VA.,
Ap l 19th, 1865.

GEN. R. E. LEE,
Comd’g C. S. A.
GEN: In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.
Very respectfully,
U. S. GRANT,
Lt. Gen.

When I put my pen to the paper I did not know the first word that I should make use of in writing the terms. I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly, so that there could be no mistaking it. As I wrote on, the thought occurred to me that the officers had their own private horses and effects, which were important to them, but of no value to us; also that it would be an unnecessary humiliation to call upon them to deliver their side arms.

No conversation, not one word, passed between General Lee and myself, either about private property, side arms, or kindred subjects. He appeared to have no objections to the terms first proposed; or if he had a point to make against them he wished to wait until they were in writing to make it. When he read over that part of the terms about side arms, horses and private property of the officers, he remarked, with some feeling, I thought, that this would have a happy effect upon his army.

Then, after a little further conversation, General Lee remarked to me again that their army was organized a little differently from the army of the United States (still maintaining by implication that we were two countries); that in their army the cavalrymen and artillerists owned their own horses; and he asked if he was to understand that the men who so owned their horses were to be permitted to retain them. I told him that as the terms were written they would not; that only the officers were permitted to take their private property. He then, after reading over the terms a second time, remarked that that was clear.

I then said to him that I thought this would be about the last battle of the war—I sincerely hoped so; and I said further I took it that most of the men in the ranks were small farmers. The whole country had been so raided by the two armies that it was doubtful whether they would be able to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter without the aid of the horses they were then riding. The United States did not want them and I would, therefore, instruct the officers I left behind to receive the paroles of his troops to let every man of the Confederate army who claimed to own a horse or mule take the animal to his home. Lee remarked again that this would have a happy effect.

He then sat down and wrote out the following letter:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
April 9, 1865.

GENERAL:—I received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th inst., they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.
R. E. LEE, General.

LIEUT.-GENERAL U. S. GRANT.

While duplicates of the two letters were being made, the Union generals present were severally present to General Lee.

The much talked of surrendering of Lee’s sword and my handing it back, this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance. The word sword or side arms was not mentioned by either of us until I wrote it in the terms. There was no premeditation, and it did not occur to me until the moment I wrote it down. If I had happened to omit it, and General Lee had called my attention to it, I should have put it in the terms precisely as I acceded to the provision about the soldiers retaining their horses.

General Lee, after all was completed and before taking his leave, remarked that his army was in a very bad condition for want of food, and that they were without forage; that his men had been living for some days on parched corn exclusively, and that he would have to ask me for rations and forage. I told him “certainly,” and asked for how many men he wanted rations. His answer was “about twenty-five thousand;” and I authorized him to send his own commissary and quartermaster to Appomattox Station, two or three miles away, where he could have, out of the trains we had stopped, all the provisions wanted. As for forage, we had ourselves depended almost entirely upon the country for that.

Grant in his memoirs wrote, When Lee and I separated he went back to his lines and I returned to the house of Mr. McLean. Here the officers of both armies came in great numbers, and seemed to enjoy the meeting as much as though they had been friends separated for a long time while fighting battles under the same flag.”

Lee so appreciated the generosity of the terms of surrender given by Grant, that for the remainder of his life he would never allow a word of denigration about Grant to be spoken in his presence.

(Grant) rode on toward his headquarters tent, which had been found at last, along with his baggage, and pitched nearby. He had not gone far before someone asked if he did not consider the news of Lee’s surrender worth passing on to the War Department. Reining his horse in, he dismounted and sat on a large stone by the roadside to compose the telegram Lincoln would receive that night. By the time he remounted to ride on, salutes were beginning to roar from Union batteries roundabout, and he sent word to have them stopped, not only because he feared the warlike racket might cause trouble between the victors and the vanquished, both of them still with weapons in their hands, but also because he considered it unfitting. “The war is over,” he told his staff. “The rebels are our countrymen again.”

Shelby Foote, The Civil War:  A Narrative, volume III

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February 8, 1865: Lincoln to Grant

 

 

Lincoln and Grant

 

As news spread of the abortive Hampton Roads Conference, members of Congress demanded to know what was said.  Lincoln sent the following telegraph to Grant on February 8, 1865:

Lieut. Gen. Grant Executive Mansion
City Point, Va. Washington, Feb. 8. 1865

I am called on by the House of Representatives to give an account of my interview with Messrs. Stephens, Hunter & Campbell; and it is very desireable to me to put in your despatch of Feb. 1st. to the Sec. of War, in which among other things you say “I fear now their going back without any expression from any one in authority will have a bad influence” I think the despatch does you credit while I do not see that it can embarrass you. May I use it?

A LINCOLN

 

Here is the message from Grant to Stanton on February 1:

CITY POINT, VA., February 1, 1865-10.30 p.m.

Honorable EDWIN M. STANTON,

Secretary of War:

Now that the interview between Major Eckert, under his written instructions, and Mr. Stephens and party has ended, I will state confidentially, but not officially to become a matter of record, that I am convinced, upon conversation with Messrs. Stephens and Hunter, that their intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and union. I have not felt myself at liberty to express even views of my own or to account for my reticence. This has placed me in an awkward position, which I could have avoided by not seeing them in the first instance. I fear now their going back without any expression from any one in authority will have a bad influence. At the same time I recognize the difficulties in the way of receiving these informal commissioners at this time, and do not know what to recommend. I am sorry, however, that Mr. Lincoln cannot have an interview with the two named in this despatch, if not all there now within our lines. Their letter to me was all that the President’s instructions contemplated, to secure their safe conduct, if they had used the same language to Major Eckert.

U. S. GRANT,

Lieutenant-General. (more…)

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Grant on the Fort Fisher Fiasco

Fort Fisher

 

Examples of gross military incompetence were not rare in the Civil War.  Perhaps the most outstanding example is the bungling of Major General Benjamin Butler in his handling of the first assault on Fort Fisher, the fort that guarded the last major port open in the Confederacy, Wilmington.  Grant in his Personal Memoirs gives us the details:

 

I selected General Weitzel, of the Army of the James, to go with the expedition, but gave instructions through General Butler. He commanded the department within whose geographical limits Fort Fisher was situated, as well as Beaufort and other points on that coast held by our troops; he was, therefore, entitled to the right of fitting out the expedition against Fort Fisher.   

 
  General Butler conceived the idea that if a steamer loaded heavily with powder could be run up to near the shore under the fort and exploded, it would create great havoc and make the capture an easy matter. Admiral Porter, who was to command the naval squadron, seemed to fall in with the idea, and it was not disapproved of in Washington; the navy was therefore given the task of preparing the steamer for this purpose. I had no confidence in the success of the scheme, and so expressed myself; but as no serious harm could come of the experiment, and the authorities at Washington seemed desirous to have it tried, I permitted it. The steamer was sent to Beaufort, North Carolina, and was there loaded with powder and prepared for the part she was to play in the reduction of Fort Fisher.   

 
  General Butler chose to go in command of the expedition himself, and was all ready to sail by the 9th of December (1864). Very heavy storms prevailed, however, at that time along that part of the sea-coast, and prevented him from getting off until the 13th or 14th. His advance arrived off Fort Fisher on the 15th. The naval force had been already assembled, or was assembling, but they were obliged to run into Beaufort for munitions, coal, etc.; then, too, the powder-boat was not yet fully prepared. The fleet was ready to proceed on the 18th; but Butler, who had remained outside from the 15th up to that time, now found himself out of coal, fresh water, etc., and had to put into Beaufort to replenish. Another storm overtook him, and several days more were lost before the army and navy were both ready at the same time to co-operate.  

 
  On the night of the 23d the powder-boat was towed in by a gunboat as near to the fort as it was safe to run. She was then propelled by her own machinery to within about five hundred yards of the shore. There the clockwork, which was to explode her within a certain length of time, was set and she was abandoned. Everybody left, and even the vessels put out to sea to prevent the effect of the explosion upon them. At two o’clock in the morning the explosion took place—and produced no more effect on the fort, or anything else on land, than the bursting of a boiler anywhere on the Atlantic Ocean would have done. Indeed when the troops in Fort Fisher heard the explosion they supposed it was the bursting of a boiler in one of the Yankee gunboats.    

 

 

 
  Fort Fisher was situated upon a low, flat peninsula north of Cape Fear River. The soil is sandy. Back a little the peninsula is very heavily wooded, and covered with fresh-water swamps. The fort ran across this peninsula, about five hundred yards in width, and extended along the sea coast about thirteen hundred yards. The fort had an armament of 21 guns and 3 mortars on the land side, and 24 guns on the sea front. At that time it was only garrisoned by four companies of infantry, one light battery and the gunners at the heavy guns less than seven hundred men with a reserve of less than a thousand men five miles up the peninsula. General Whiting of the Confederate army was in command, and General Bragg was in command of the force at Wilmington. Both commenced calling for reinforcements the moment they saw our troops landing. The Governor of North Carolina called for everybody who could stand behind a parapet and shoot a gun, to join them. In this way they got two or three hundred additional men into Fort Fisher; and Hoke’s division, five or six thousand strong, was sent down from Richmond. A few of these troops arrived the very day that Butler was ready to advance.  

 
  On the 24th the fleet formed for an attack in arcs of concentric circles, their heavy iron-clads going in very close range, being nearest the shore, and leaving intervals or spaces so that the outer vessels could fire between them. Porter was thus enabled to throw one hundred and fifteen shells per minute. The damage done to the fort by these shells was very slight, only two or three cannon being disabled in the fort. But the firing silenced all the guns by making it too hot for the men to maintain their positions about them and compelling them to seek shelter in the bomb-proofs.    

 
  On the next day part of Butler’s troops under General Adelbert Ames effected a landing out of range of the fort without difficulty. This was accomplished under the protection of gunboats sent for the purpose, and under cover of a renewed attack upon the fort by the fleet. They formed a line across the peninsula and advanced, part going north and part toward the fort, covering themselves as they did so. Curtis pushed forward and came near to Fort Fisher, capturing the small garrison at what was called the Flag Pond Battery. Weitzel accompanied him to within a half a mile of the works. Here he saw that the fort had not been injured, and so reported to Butler, advising against an assault. Ames, who had gone north in his advance, captured 228 of the reserves. These prisoners reported to Butler that sixteen hundred of Hoke’s division of six thousand from Richmond had already arrived and the rest would soon be in his rear.  

 
  Upon these reports Butler determined to withdraw his troops from the peninsula and return to the fleet. At that time there had not been a man on our side injured except by one of the shells from the fleet. Curtis had got within a few yards of the works. Some of his men had snatched a flag from the parapet of the fort, and others had taken a horse from the inside of the stockade. At night Butler informed Porter of his withdrawal, giving the reasons above stated, and announced his purpose as soon as his men could embark to start for Hampton Roads. Porter represented to him that he had sent to Beaufort for more ammunition. He could fire much faster than he had been doing, and would keep the enemy from showing himself until our men were within twenty yards of the fort, and he begged that Butler would leave some brave fellows like those who had snatched the flag from the parapet and taken the horse from the fort.  

 

 

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Published in: on December 29, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Grant on the Fort Fisher Fiasco  
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Palm Sunday One Hundred and Forty-Eight Years Ago

I have always thought it appropriate that the national nightmare we call the Civil War ended during Holy Week 1865.  Two remarkably decent men, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, began the process of healing so desperately needed for America on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 at Appomattox.  We take their decency for granted, but it is the exception and not the rule for the aftermath of civil wars in history.  The usual course would have been unremitting vengeance by the victors, and sullen rage by the defeated, perhaps eventually breaking out in guerilla war.  The end of the Civil War could so very easily have been the beginning of a cycle of unending war between north and south.  Instead, both Grant and Lee acted to make certain as far as they could that the fratricidal war that had just concluded would not be repeated.  All Americans owe those two men a large debt for their actions at Appomattox. (more…)

Published in: on March 24, 2013 at 5:25 am  Comments (2)  
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February 25, 1863: National Bank Act

Greenback

Originally called the National Legal Currency Act, the National Bank Act was signed into law on February 25, 1863.  The Act created National Banks that could issue notes printed by the United States Treasury that would serve as currency, the famous Greenbacks.  Precisely one year before the Congress had authorized the treasury to issue paper currency in an amount not to exceed 150 million dollars.  Although the move to a fiat currency not backed in gold was widely unpopular around the country, the nickname of the notes, Greenbacks, coming from people complaining that the notes were backed only by the green ink used to print the backs of the notes, when the economic house did not fall in from the issuance of the Greenbacks in 1862, Congress placed no limits on the issuance of the currency in February of 1863. (more…)

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John B. Gordon on General Grant

When Ulysses S. Grant was dying from cancer, he made this prediction in the concluding paragraphs of his brilliant Personal Memoirs:

I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so. The universally kind feeling expressed for me at a time when it was supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to “Let us have peace.”

The expression of these kindly feelings were not restricted to a section of the country, nor to a division of the people. They came from individual citizens of all nationalities; from all denominations—the Protestant, the Catholic, and the Jew; and from the various societies of the land—scientific, educational, religious or otherwise. Politics did not enter into the matter at all.

I am not egotist enough to suppose all this significance should be given because I was the object of it. But the war between the States was a very bloody and a very costly war. One side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end. I commanded the whole of the mighty host engaged on the victorious side. I was, no matter whether deservedly so or not, a representative of that side of the controversy. It is a significant and gratifying fact that Confederates should have joined heartily in this spontaneous move. I hope the good feeling inaugurated may continue to the end.

The prediction came true as the whole nation soon mourned his passing and former Union and Confederate generals rode together in Grant’s funeral procession.

I have always been struck by these words of John B. Gordon, former commander of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, after Grant died: (more…)

Published in: on February 17, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on John B. Gordon on General Grant  
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Grant, Grant, Grant!

Something for the weekend.  Grant, Grant, Grant the campaign song for Ulysses S. Grant when he ran for President in 1868.  Unsurprisingly Civil War themes were hit hard, along with Republican rage against what they perceived as the soft Reconstruction that Andrew Johnson attempted to give to the South.  The song is sung to the tune of Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching!, (Originially entitled Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (The Prisoner’s Hope) which would have had huge emotional connotations in the North as that song was written in 1864 to give hope in ultimate liberation to Union POWs. (more…)

Published in: on October 27, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Grant, Grant, Grant!  
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American Aid to Benito Juarez

One of the more interesting periods in American-Mexican relations was during the occupation of Mexico by Napoleon III beginning in 1862, followed by the imposition of Maximilian I of Austria as Emperor of Mexico through a rigged plebiscite in 1864.  From the beginning, the Lincoln administration looked askance at the French attempt to transform Mexico into a French colony.  In the midst of Civil War all Lincoln could do was to convey his best wishes to Mexican President Benito Juarez who was carrying out a guerilla war against the French occupation.

After the War President Andrew Johnson sent General Phil Sheridan to the Rio Grande as a sign of American displeasure with the French occupation.  Secretary of State Seward, fearing a war with France, opposed attempts to pressure France or to supply the Juaristas.  Generals Grant and Sheridan, recalling with ire the desire by Emperor Maximilian to have an alliance with the Confederacy, clandestinely supplied the Juaristas with funds and weapons, Sheridan noting in his journal the supplying of 30,000 rifled muskets.  3,000 Union veterans went south of the border to join Juarista armies. Johnson privately approved all of this, even clandestinely meeting with an ambassador from Juarez, while publicly merely indicating that the US wanted France to withdraw from Mexico, and that what happened after this was a purely internal Mexican matter. (more…)