In the Senate, Wilson was compared somewhat unfavorably to the other Massachusetts Republican Senator, Charles Sumner. Sumner was a powerful, eloquent orator with great dignity. Wilson spoke plainly and without emotion. In summing up Wilson, one observer said, “He was not learned, he was not eloquent, he was not logical in a high sense, he was not always consistent in his political actions, and yet he gained the confidence of the people, and he retained it to the end of his life. His success may have been due in part to the circumstance that he was not far removed from the mass of the people in the particulars named, and that he acted in a period when fidelity to the cause of freedom and activity in its promotion satisfied the public demand.” He and Sumner, both strongly opposed to slavery, worked together very well. Even when others distrusted his political maneuvering, they always gave him credit for the sincerity of his opposition to slavery.
At the start of the Civil War, Wilson was very active in the preparations for war. After resigning his commission as colonel and commanding officer of the 22nd Massachusetts, he served as a volunteer aide-de-camp to General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac. When he reported to camp, he was ordered to accompany other officers on a tour of inspection on horseback of the defenses of Washington. In the words of Benjamin Perley Poore, a Boston newspaper reporter, “Unaccustomed to horsemanship, the ride of thirty miles was too much for the Senator, who kept his bed for a week, and then resigned his position.”
Radical Republicans established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, partly because Wilson, as chairman of the Military Affairs Committee, was not radical enough. Wilson at first defended the army, but eventually became just as discouraged and impatient at the slow progress of the war as other Radicals. He, unlike the other Radical Republicans however, never criticized specific generals or military operations. Still, Wilson was one of the inner circle of Radical Republicans. It was Wilson who introduced bills to end slavery in the District of Columbia, to permit blacks to serve in the army, and to give black soldiers pay equal to white soldiers. Wilson also pressured President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and came out in favor of Lincoln withdrawing from the Republican ticket in 1864 rather than running for re-election.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Wilson had high hopes that President Johnson would support Radical Reconstruction. Johnson’s efforts to bring southern states back into the Union quickly helped push many moderate Republicans into the Radical camp. Wilson helped pass the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments and supported the use of federal troops to enforce Radical Reconstruction in the South. When President Johnson resisted Radical efforts, Wilson came out in support of impeaching the President.
Prior to the 1868 election, Wilson made a speaking tour through the southern states. He was convinced that the Republican Party must be truly biracial if it was to survive in the southern states. He told a black audience in New Orleans, “I warn you tonight, as I do the men of this country everywhere, to remember this: that while a black man is as good as a white man, a white man is as good as a black man. See to it that while you are striving to lift yourselves up, that you do not strive to pull anybody else down.” This conciliatory approach surprised and angered Radical Republicans who did not understand or agree with his southern strategy for the Republican Party.
Wilson supported General Ulysses S. Grant for the presidential nomination, and hoped to secure the vice presidential nomination for himself. President Pro Tem of the Senate Ben Wade also wanted the vice presidential nomination. Already defeated for re-election to the Senate, lame duck Wade had placed all his political hopes on gaining the nomination. But after each prevented the other from winning the nomination, they both lost to Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax. When Grant won, it was assumed that Wilson would be offered a cabinet post, but he asked that he not be considered and remained in the Senate. Through Grant’s first term, Wilson remained highly respected and was often consulted by the administration.
Now a powerful leader in the Senate, Wilson was reputed to have more influence over the Senate than any other Senator at the time. He advocated reforms such as civil rights for the freedmen, voting rights for women, federal aid to education, federal regulation of business, and the prohibition of liquor. He was certainly a man ahead of his times.
In 1872, Vice President Colfax, who had been tainted by scandals, announced that he would not stand for re-election. Senator Sumner, involved in a feud with President Grant, created considerable concern that he and his allies might join the Liberal Republican Party, which had merged with the Democrats. By turning to his fellow Massachusetts Senator Wilson, the Republican Party solved this problem. Grant and Wilson were easily elected. The campaign emphasized their working class background, calling them the Galena Tanner and the Natick Cobbler, as shown in this campaign poster.
At the start of the 1872 election season, the New York Sun reported that members of Congress had accepted stock at little or no cost in a company called Credit Mobilier, a railroad construction company making vast profits building the transcontinental railroad system. The stock gifts were allegedly to guarantee favorable legislation, and minimal oversight, for Credit Mobilier. On the list of names of those who had accepted the stock were Grant’s current Vice President, Schuyler Colfax (one of the reasons Colfax stepped down) and his new running mate Henry Wilson. Wilson had accepted the stock, purchasing it in his wife’s name, but had shortly thereafter returned the stock. An investigating committee of Congress cleared Wilson of any wrongdoing in the Credit Mobilier scandal.