The end of the Civil War was in sight. But, of course, that wouldn’t be the end of America’s sectional crisis. Reconstruction posed its own set of challenges. Let’s find out how Americans faced this new era!
The Last Four Years
After four years of war, things were finally looking up for the Republicans. Lincoln won in a landslide and the tide of war had finally turned in the Union’s favor. General Sherman followed his conquest of Atlanta with a “March to the Sea” to Savanah. His Scorched Earth policy meant destroying everything in his path, including infrastructure and civilian property. Soon after, General Grant had the Confederate capital of Richmond surrounded. General Lee was forced to evacuate, leaving the city in Union hands. Notably, the first soldiers to occupy the city belonged to the XXV Corps, composed of all African American troops. Grant chased Lee to the village of Appomattox Court House. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered. Confederate President Jefferson Davis escaped to Georgia and initially planned to rebuild the Confederacy west of the Mississippi River. He was captured a month later. Over the next few months, the remaining Confederate forces surrendered and the Civil War came to an end.
On April 14, 1865 (Good Friday), Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater in Washington to see the play Our American Cousin. General Grant was also meant to join, but chose to visit his children at the last minute. During the play, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth snuck up to the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Booth jumped from the box to the stage and escaped. Lincoln died in a bedroom across the street the following morning. Booth had two accomplices plotting assassinations on the same night. One was sent to murder Secretary of State William Seward at his home. He made it into the house, but his gun misfired and he was stopped by Seward’s family. The final would-be assassin targeted Vice President Andrew Johnson at a hotel. Instead, he got drunk and fell asleep. The manhunt for Booth ended twelve days later with federal troops surrounding him in a barn. In the ensuing skirmish, Booth was shot in the back of the head and died.
Lincoln’s death made War Democrat Andrew Johnson president. Unfortunately, Johnson was not the great man that Lincoln was. Remember how Lincoln was preceded by two of the worst presidents of all time? Well Johnson can join that list, too. Johnson’s goal was to re-admit the Southern states into the Union as quickly as possible. He felt that the Southern states could be responsible for Reconstruction on their own, with little federal intervention. Of course, this meant that a lot of the same racist Confederates were being elected to public office again. In contrast, the Radical Republicans in Congress wanted continued military occupation of the South and to establish more local Republican parties. They also wanted to protect the rights of African Americans. They passed the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship to former slaves, which was opposed by Johnson. Johnson vetoed many of the Republicans’ bills, though they were able to override him in some cases.
The Republicans were sick of battling Johnson. They set a trap for him with the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented the president from firing cabinet members without Congressional approval. Johnson took the bait when he attempted to fire Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, during a Congressional recess. He appointed General Grant in Stanton’s place, but Grant immediately complied with calls to resign when Congress returned, putting him in good graces with the Republicans. Johnson’s continued attempts to exert power led to a stand-off in which Stanton barricaded himself in his office. Even though the Tenure of Office Act was later ruled unconstitutional, Johnson’s violation of it was used to justify the first ever impeachment of a president. He survived removal by the Senate by only one vote. Most votes were split among party lines, though seven Republicans voted in Johnson’s favor. Many believed they had been bribed. During the remainder of his term, Johnson pardoned the last of the high-profile Confederates, including Jefferson Davis.
With the Civil War over and the slavery debate finally settled, Reconstruction was the hot topic. The Radical Republicans wanted to set harsh rules for the South’s re-admittance into the Union. Johnson and the Democrats wanted to let the states have more control of their destiny.
Party Watch & The Candidates
When General Ulysses S. Grant identified himself as a Republican, his nomination was inevitable. The Republican Convention selected him on the first ballot. Grant was now a war hero who was credited with saving the Union. Oddly, his real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, which had been mistakenly written as “U.S. Grant” on his application to West Point. There, his friends joked that the initials stood for “Uncle Sam.” Like most of the generals-turned-nominees before him, Grant was not previously interested in politics and his policy views were mostly unclear. The only time he had previously voted was for James Buchanan in 1856, because he personally knew and disliked John Frémont. As expected, the Republican platform was pro-Congress and anti-Johnson. They chose Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, from Indiana, as his running mate. Colfax was a true Radical Republican and had been one of the most prominent anti-slavery politicians before the Civil War.
The remnants of the Democratic Party had difficulties finding a nominee that would please everyone. What they did agree on was that Andrew Johnson was far too unpopular to be considered. ohio Congressman (and 1864 VP wannabe) George Pendleton was a leading candidate, but he had questionable economic views that didn’t sit well with Eastern businessmen. The only candidate that everyone liked was former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, a Peace Democrat during the war. Seymour did not want the nomination and made this abundantly clear in his speeches. For this, he earned the nickname, “The Great Decliner.” The Democrats ignored his wishes and nominated Seymour anyways. His running mate was former Missouri Representative Francis Preston Blair, Jr, who had been instrumental in preventing Missouri from seceding. The Democratic platform called the Republicans’ Reconstruction plans unconstitutional and stated that former Confederate states should immediately regain all rights.
Republicans attacked Seymour and the Democrats as traitors. One of their lines was, “Scratch a Democrat, and you’ll find a rebel under his skin.” They also accused Seymour of supporting the Draft Riots in New York City during the war. Their dirtiest attack was that mental instability ran in Seymour’s family because his father had committed suicide. In keeping with his usual aversion to politics, Grant refused to do any campaigning. However, supporters were able to repurpose a phrase from his nomination acceptance letter, “Let us have peace,” as a slogan. Grant supporter clubs were called “Tanners,” a reference to his father’s business.
Democrats, of course, got nasty too. They attacked Grant’s heavy drinking habits. They also said his lack of campaigning and unclear views meant that he had nothing to say. At their lowest, Democrats argued that Republicans were trying to “Africanize” the South. VP nominee Blair, in particular, was known for getting too aggressive in his speeches. Despite his support for the war, he was a raging racist. He gave several angry speeches against emancipation that were seen as too radical, even for the Democrats. Seymour, reluctant to even be the nominee, had to step in and campaign to make up for Blair’s divisive outbursts.
The new state of Nebraska has been added and most of the South is back in! The only exceptions were Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia, who still hadn’t gained their voting rights back. This was the first election in which African Americans could vote in the South. Republicans also benefitted from the fact that most former Confederates still could not vote. In Georgia and Louisiana, however, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan contributed to greater Democratic support.
Ulysses S. Grant won! He became America’s 18th president. The final electoral score was 214-80. Even though the electoral college was a blowout, Grant only won the popular vote by 300,000 votes, much closer than anyone anticipated. Without the African American vote in the South, Grant would likely have lost the election. Republicans recognized this and proposed the 15th Amendment (protecting voting rights for all races) just a few months later.
What Did It Say About America?
After all the war, assassination, and impeachment, voters did, in fact, want peace through Grant. Also, the strategy of nominating America’s most famous general proved to be viable once again. Although the Republicans were at the beginning of a period of dominance, the close popular vote proved that the Democrats weren’t going away.
In other news, the Beard Era continues! Lincoln had been the first bearded president and Grant continued the tradition. Get used to it!
Was It The Right Decision?
Yeah, for the most part! Grant will prove to be a better general than president, but it wasn’t all bad! As president, he would be instrumental in expanding civil rights for African Americans, but there were several political scandals on the horizon…