Civil War Vets in the White House, Part 1


In an earlier series of articles, we examined the military records of the Presidents. But one group deserves a closer look. From the end of the Civil War until Teddy Roosevelt took the oath of office, every President save one served in the army during the war. Most of them compiled a very impressive war record, several distinguishing themselves for ability and bravery. Since the Civil War continued to play a part in every campaign for the rest of the century, we should take a closer look at these men and their records.

Andrew Johnson (President from 1865-1869) was a political general. He never took the field or commanded troops in action. Andrew Johnson had settled in a non-slave holding area of Tennessee, and worked his way up the political ladder eventually becoming Governor of Tennessee and then U.S. Senator from Tennessee. When Tennessee voted to leave the Union, Johnson returned home at the very real risk of his own life to try to persuade them to remain. On at least one occasion, he narrowly escaped a lynch mob by ducking out the back door of the train station as the mob entered the front door. He returned to Washington, and refused to leave the Senate when his state seceded, the only southern member of Congress to remain loyal. On March 4, 1862, President Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson a brigadier general of volunteers and military governor of Tennessee, which had been mostly recaptured.

General Johnson re-established a loyal civilian government. He accomplished this in much less time than expected, and was justly proud of his work in Tennessee. He resigned his commission on March 3, 1865. The next day, he was sworn in as Vice President of the United States, having been elected with Lincoln on a wartime coalition ticket under the banner of the National Union Party. He very much wanted to be present on the same day at the inauguration of the new civilian government in his home state of Tennessee in order to turn over power from the military government to the civilian government. He had worked for this moment for two years, and thought his presence important. He went so far as to ask Lincoln if he could be sworn in as Vice President in Tennessee and miss the inauguration in Washington. Lincoln, rightly feeling the presence of both halves of the coalition ticket important to the appearance of a unified spirit of nationalism, refused Johnson’s request and called him to Washington. Thus ended Johnson’s brief but important military career. Although not a combat officer, his work did much to help the war effort by providing a secure and stable Unionist government in the strategically located state of Tennessee. Andrew Johnson became the 17th President of the United States after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Ulysses S. Grant (President from 1869-1877), called Sam by his friends, was elected President solely on the basis of his Civil War record. Working his way up the chain of command, Grant became the commanding general of all Union armies and directed the last year of the war. He justly received much of the credit for winning the war.

Grant had not wanted a military career, but his father secured for him an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point through Congressman Washburne who was a family friend. He did only fair work at West Point, graduating 21st in a class of 39 in 1843. Three years later, he saw action in the Mexican War, which he felt was “one of the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” In spite of his feelings about the war, Grant did very well, receiving two citations for gallantry and one for meritorious conduct. He received one promotion and two brevet promotions. (A brevet promotion was an honorary promotion received for bravery of achievement before the creation of a system of medals. It was strictly an honorary title and had none of the authority or pay of real rank.)

After the Mexican War, Grant was stationed out west. He did not handle well the homesickness (his wife and family were not able to join him), monotony or boredom of frontier garrison duty during peacetime, and began drinking. Grant was, unfortunately, one of those who got drunk from one or two drinks. He simply could not hold his liquor. There were several instances of neglect of duty and disorderly conduct, one of which involved Grant driving three horses in tandem down a street at very high speed, with their carriages still hitched to them. To avoid a court-martial, Grant resigned from the army and returned to his home and family in Missouri. He then suffered a period of failure, losing first his farm and then several businesses that went broke. At the start of the Civil War, he was earning $40 a month as a clerk in a leather goods store run by his brother. He was considered a disappointing failure.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant tried to get back into the regular army. With former officers with less experience than Grant returning to the army as generals, Grant offered his services hoping to get a regimental command. He never heard from the War Department. While waiting, he helped form volunteer companies in Springfield. Illinois, as they prepared to enter the militia. He was offered several regimental commands in the Illinois militia, but declined them hoping to get a regular army commission. He finally accepted an appointment as colonel of volunteers (a militia rather than regular army commission) from the governor of Illinois. He quickly brought under control a regiment (the 21st Illinois) known for its lack of discipline. With the support of Congressman Washburne, Grant was promoted to brigadier general and given a district command.

After several minor independent commands, his first big opportunity came when he led forces against Forts Henry and Donelson. He worked very effectively with the naval commander, a trademark of his future operations along the Mississippi. He also gained national fame for his response to the Confederate commander’s request for surrender terms. Grant replied, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” For this, he earned a nickname to match his initials: Unconditional Surrender Grant.

Grant was caught by surprise at Shiloh, but recovered and won a great but very bloody victory. Critics argued that his leadership had cost many lives and called for his removal. President Lincoln answered these critics with a simple statement saying, “I cannot spare this man. He fights.” From there, Grant was given command of the operations against Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate stronghold on the river that prevented the Union from using it. In a brilliant campaign, Grant broke free of his supply line, a very daring gamble, and beat back the defending Confederates forces in the area, eventually taking Vicksburg by siege. After that, he was made commanding general of all forces in the western theater. He immediately took action to relieve the Confederate siege of Union forces in Chattanooga, eventually defeating them as well.

In March 1864, he was given command of all armies and direction of the entire Union war strategy. He conducted a campaign of attrition against the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee, which had badly beaten every Union commander sent against it. Of his planned campaign, he told Lincoln “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Horrendous casualty figures alarmed the northern population. His opponents gave Grant a new nickname: “Grant the butcher.” But when he won, and Lee surrendered, he became a national hero. He continued after the war as general in chief of the army until he was elected President.

Grant remained honest and modest, but his Presidency was not as successful as his Civil War career. He appointed many old friends to office, and his administration was marked by amazing corruption caused by men who violated his trust.

A famous picture of Grant taken during the war showed him smoking a cigar. He was sent thousands of boxes of cigars as gifts, and became a heavy cigar smoker. He died of cancer of the throat in 1885. Shortly before his death, he finished his memoirs, which were published by Mark Twain. It is considered one of the greatest autobiographies in the English language and earned his widow a large fortune.

Next time, we will examine the Civil War records of Rutherford B. Hayes and James A, Garfield. These men were genuine heroes who distinguished themselves by their courage and ability.