New Birth of Freedom

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We all know the story.

On a mild April night, President and Mary Lincoln attended the final performance of the popular comedy, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln, by all accounts was in a light, blissful mood. A week earlier Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, and except for some dust ups, the Civil War had ceased. We also know that John Wilkes Booth, and fellow conspirators plotted to kill, not only the President, but the whole order of presidential succession; Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, etc . . . but only Booth followed through with that night’s violence.

Andrew Johnson took office in a whirlwind of shifting circumstances. In the year up to President Lincoln’s death a notable power struggle had taken shape between the President and Congress. America had never before endured a civil war, and the path to reunion had never been trod. As President, Lincoln believed the power to restore the Union lay in the executive branch—through presidential pardon. But an emerging faction in the Republican Party, called the Radicals saw the issue differently. These men operated from the premise that the Confederate States had indeed left the Union—committed political suicide at secession—and had to petition Congress for readmission. (Congress approves statehood). And this new president, Andrew Johnson, was determined to follow through with Lincoln’s policies.

Unfortunately, Johnson was by temperament, nothing like Abraham Lincoln. Where Lincoln had a capacity to understand the views of his opponents, and utilize humor and political savvy, Johnson could not. Of prickly character, Andrew Johnson entered the White House possessed by deeply-held rancor against both the South’s Planter Class, and newly freed blacks. This new Chief Executive intended to restore the Union through the use of pardons, then govern through his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Johnson had no use for Radical Republicans, nor their extreme pieces of legislation. Every bill passed through the House and Senate found a veto waiting at Johnson’s desk, including the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and the adoption of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress promptly overrode Johnson’s vetoes.

Reconstruction began with a vicious power struggle. And much of the tumult came from Andrew Johnson’s inability to grasp the transformation Civil War had brought to America. While the new president aimed to keep government limited, the Radicals and their supporters knew the bloody struggle had to mean something more—America had fundamentally changed. Nearly 700,000 dead, the emancipation of slavery, the murder of Father Abraham, and a “New birth of Freedom” had heralded an earthquake of change.

But Johnson was blind to this reality, seeing only an overreaching Congress, (Tenure of Office Act) and Constitutional amendments that had gone too far. And so it was a rigid and stubborn Andrew Johnson who eventually found himself impeached by a fed-up House of Representatives. Johnson holding on to his broken presidency by a single Senate vote.

 

There have been other eras in America’s past that fomented rapid changes. The Revolution to the Constitutional period, the First World War into American isolation, the Vietnam War stirring up protest and social change. All concluding with reactionary presidencies. No less occurred with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

2008 to 2016 witnessed social change of a new order. Administered by America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama, liberty reached further, bringing about change where once-closeted American’s hid. Gay marriage became the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court in Obergefell V Hodges. The trans community found their champion in Bruce, now Caitlin Jenner. Health care became available to those caught in relentless poverty and preexisting conditions. Undocumented young people were transformed into “Dreamers.” And though he didn’t take the Right’s guns, President Obama did successfully direct the mission to nab Osama bin Laden, America’s most wanted man.

So when former students began sending horrified texts to me, their old history teacher on election night, 2016, I gave the only explanation history provided. The Obama years introduced change to America that reactionaries could not stomach. (And yes, racism is certainly a large part of the equation).

So now we deal with a Donald Trump presidency. But, Mr. Trump would be wise to acknowledge and accept what has transpired in the last eight years. The thing about expanding the ‘blessings of liberty,’ is no one is willing to give them back. When push comes to shove, the new president may find himself facing the fate of Andrew Johnson.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.

Mixed Emotions

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It’s been uncomfortable to watch the media coverage from Louisiana about the removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue in New Orleans. As a life-long student of the Civil War the idea of removing reminders of our nation’s past somehow feels misguided. At the same time, with a strong background in African American history, I fully grasp the righteous indignation of having to see that relic in the middle of my city. Robert E. Lee’s prominence as the Confederate commander, and the South’s aim to make war rather than risk Yankee abolitionism places the General right in the crosshairs of modern sensibilities. Still, appropriating the past to wage modern political warfare feels equally amiss.

Robert Edward Lee was a consummate gentlemen, a Virginia Cavalier of the highest dignity. So reserved and deliberate in his life and career, that he was one of a very few who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of Martha Washington, Mary Custis, Lee had American royalty added to his already esteemed pedigree. (The Lee-Custis Mansion, “Arlington House” is situated at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. And yes, this General was a slave holder, however he appears to have found the institution distasteful). When hostilities opened in April of 1861, the War Department tapped Lee first to lead Union forces, so prized were his qualities. But the General declined, stating he could never fire a gun in anger against his fellow countryman, meaning Virginians.

On the battlefield Lee was tough to whip. But he also wasn’t perfect, despite his men seeing him so. Eventually, after four years of fighting, running out of men and supplies, facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate General surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Meeting Lee for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck in the company of the celebrated General, blurting something about seeing Lee once in the Mexican War, years earlier.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Despite outraged cries to arrest and jail Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve. And that’s in the hysterical aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, and John Wilkes Booth’s death. Robert E Lee remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that the General died and is buried.

Lee consciously moved on after the Civil War. He performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what little I have learned regarding General Lee, he would have no problem with the removal of a statue he never wanted.

Moreover, I don’t believe he would have any patience with the vulgar extremists politicizing his name and reputation.

This controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee. It’s about America in 2017.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.

Words of Honor

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Union General, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in a 1901 interview for a Boston newspaper, shared his recollections of the Confederate Army’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.  Tasked by General Ulysses S. Grant with the formal 1865 surrender of Rebel arms and military gear, Chamberlain described that April day in remarkably vivid detail, despite the passage of over 30 years.

“At a distance of possibly twelve feet from our line, the Confederates halted and turned face towards us. Their lines were formed with the greatest care, with every officer in his appointed position, and thereupon began the formality of surrender.

“Bayonets were affixed to muskets, arms stacked, and cartridge boxes unslung and hung upon the stacks. Then, slowly and with a reluctance that was appealingly pathetic, the torn and tattered battleflags were either leaned against the stacks or laid upon the ground. The emotion of the conquered soldiery was really sad to witness. Some of the men who had carried and followed those ragged standards through the four long years of strife, rushed, regardless of all discipline, from the ranks, bent about their old flags, and pressed them to their lips with burning tears.

“And it can well be imagined, too, that there was no lack of emotion on our side, but the Union men were held steady in their lines, without the least show of demonstration by word or by motion. There was, though, a twitching of the muscles of their faces, and, be it said, their battle-bronzed cheeks were not altogether dry. Our men felt the import of the occasion, and realized fully how they would have been affected if defeat and surrender had been their lot after such a fearful struggle.
. . . “But, as I was saying, every token of armed hostility having been laid aside, and the men having given their words of honor that they would never serve again against the flag, they were free to go whither they would and as best they could. In the meantime our army had been supplying them with rations. On the next morning, however, the morning of the 13th, we could see the men, singly or in squads, making their way slowly into the distance, in whichever direction was nearest home, and by nightfall we were left there at Appomattox Courthouse lonesome and alone.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.com

What If?

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My students loved to play “what if,” following lessons on monumental events in my history classes. For example; what if Washington had been captured–or worse–by the British Army during the Revolution? What if the Senate had ratified the “Treaty of Versailles” at the end of World War One? Would there have been a World War Two? Or what if FDR hadn’t contracted polio? Would a walking FDR been as affective? And so on. Following these bird walks into conjecture they would look to me for some definitive answer on alternate outcomes. But I wasn’t much help. Teaching what actually happened was tough enough for this history instructor,

Still, on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s death, “what if’s” might have a place . . . might provide some insight into what might have been.

We all know the story. President Lincoln, in an especially festive mood, joined his wife at Ford’s Theater for a performance of “Our American Cousin.” The nightmare of Civil War had essentially been settled with General Lee’s surrender, a week before, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Union had been preserved, and the President had much to celebrate. Plus as many “Lincolnistas” know, our 16th president loved the theater. Stage productions became a place where a troubled Lincoln became so absorbed in performances, others couldn’t catch his attention. (As a Lincoln-lover myself, I hope “Our American Cousin” so captivated the President that he never felt a thing in his final hours).

Wilkes Booth, the pea-brained zealot who murdered Lincoln had no idea he had also killed the South’s best defender against a vengeful Congress. Had this lunatic-actor paid attention to anything besides the insanity in his head, Booth would have recognized the President as a moderate–a leader who yearned for true national unity with “Charity for all, Malice toward none.”

So, what if Lincoln, this moderate, had survived, or better yet, never been harmed? What would post-bellum America have looked like with President Lincoln at the helm? Tough to judge, but a closer look at the political situation on April 14, 1865, could provide some direction.

First of all, America would have been spared the accession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency. Bum luck for the nation to say the least. Johnson had been selected as Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 because he was a Southerner from Tennessee  who had remained loyal to the Union. Essentially a small minded, white-trash bigot, Johnson despised both the rebellious planter-elite but also newly freed slaves. On the one hand, he wanted former masters to grovel at his feet for presidential pardons, and simultaneously opposed any law that provided aid to former slaves. Where most Americans had come to trust Lincoln in varying degrees, informed Southern leaders like Alexander Stephens, freed slaves, and reluctantly, the Republican leadership in Congress, Andrew Johnson in short order alienated the whole lot.

To be fair, Lincoln was in trouble himself, with his party by 1865. But he did have some momentum going his way after General Grant’s success in Virginia. And though he pocket-vetoed a bill backed by vindictive Radical Republicans in the House and Senate, Lincoln recognized he had some compromises ahead, to settle down his critics. But, of course Lincoln died at the hands of a Southerner, unleashing zealotry on all sides.

Had Lincoln lived, harsh avenging laws aimed at punishing the South, may have taken a lighter tone. The Military Reconstruction Act, that established a military occupation of the South, the 14th and 15th Amendments may have been less forceful and strident. As an astute politician, Lincoln certainly would have avoided the ordeal of impeachment endured by Johnson at the hands of the Radicals.

Yet, there is still  much to say about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the “what if’s” of history. He died on Good Friday, as had Jesus, a point that wasn’t lost on the American public in 1865. Lincoln died for the cause of freedom. He died for the virtuous notion that “All Men are Created Equal.” Lincoln was crucified for the goodness in all of us, his “Better Angels of our Nature.” However, without Lincoln’s martyrdom later legislation may not have found a place in Constitutional law. The Radicals ran roughshod over Andrew Johnson’s stubborn resistance, overriding presidential vetoes that resulted in the 14th Amendment and it’s definition of citizenship with equal protection, and the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of male suffrage.

Unfortunately, these amendments and other less enduring pieces of legislation were often ignored by unrepentant rebels who exacted their own punishment on freedmen. Still the body of law existed and found enforcement one hundred years later. And this same body of law came into existence because Lincoln died on Good Friday, 1865.

So perhaps the “what if” game ought to be left alone. The course of events that actually transpired built an articulate foundation of freedom, premised on human rights, that could have been otherwise absent from our nation’s history. Much as President Garfield’s murder in 1881 brought about Civil Service Reform, and JFK’s murder brought about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, Mr. Lincoln’s death truly gave America a “New Birth of Freedom.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January available at www.river-of-january.com