Johnson’s Battles with Congress Strengthened Office of the President

This sepia-toned photograph of Andrew Johnson, signed as president, sold for $3,346 at a June 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On the night President Abraham Lincoln was shot, John Wilkes Booth and his little band of assassins had also planned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth’s fantasy theory was that decapitating the North’s leadership would cause enough chaos to bring the Civil War to an end. Seward survived a brutal stabbing and Johnson’s assigned assassin, George Atzerodt, got cold feet at the last minute. Johnson had gone to bed at the Kirkwood hotel unharmed.

Awakened by a friend, Johnson rushed to Lincoln’s bedside until the president was declared dead. Johnson then returned to the hotel, where he was sworn in as the 17th president by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. The members of his Cabinet assembled in the hotel parlor, where he told them: “I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.”

Despite Johnson’s humble tone, he was actually a fearless, even reckless, fighter for what he believed in. As a result, he became embroiled in the bitterest intra-governmental conflict the nation had ever seen. Like Lincoln, he favored a “mild reconstruction,” in effect turning state governments over to white citizens, with only the main leaders of the Confederacy excluded. However, the Radical Republican leaders demanded “radical reconstruction,” enfranchising former slaves and barring most former Confederates from government.

Initially, Republicans were pleased with Johnson, mistaking him as weak and easier to control than Lincoln. They were confident he would support their plans for severe treatment of the defeated South. “By the Gods! There will be no trouble now in running the government,” declared Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio. Two years later, this same man, now president pro tempore of the Senate, was so confident the Senate had the votes to evict Johnson from the White House that he had already written an inaugural speech and chosen his Cabinet!

But now, by the time Congress finally met in December 1865, the former states of the Confederacy had elected governors and state legislators. And although they approved the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, they had also passed “Black Codes” binding ex-slaves to working the land. In his first annual message to Congress, Johnson railed against this situation, warning Congress of the dire consequences. But Northern Republicans had no intention of welcoming back Democrats from states that had seceded. Instead, they passed new legislation to reinstate military governments throughput the South. Then they established the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist the 4 million freed slaves.

Johnson promptly vetoed everything Congress had passed.

Republicans were not strong enough to override a presidential veto until early 1867, when they passed into law even more harsh Reconstruction Acts, with military governments replacing civil governments set up by Southern Democrats. Johnson warned they were fostering hatred and creating a state of permanent unrest. Radical Republicans answered by slashing back at Johnson and passing the Tenure of Office Act. This total rebuke now forbade the president of the United States from removing ANY federal official without the express consent of the U.S. Senate.

This was tantamount to a declaration of war and Johnson answered by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The House quickly voted to impeach the president on 11 counts. The Senate trial lasted two months and the final tally was 35 guilty and 19 not guilty … one short of conviction. Johnson served out his term, but his political career was over. His fortitude in the face of overwhelming Congressional pressure strengthened the office of the president and helped preserve the separation of powers intended by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Not bad for a former illiterate tailor who never spent a single day in a formal schoolroom.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

After Civil War, Challenge Was Putting Pieces of Nation Back Together

gen-william-tecumseh-sherman-four-scarce-cartes-de-visite
A set of four cartes de visite of William Tecumseh Sherman, including this image of the general posed like Napoleon, sold for $2,868 at a December 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, the issue of the remaining Confederate armies was now only a question of time. However, the next anticipated surrender of General Joe Johnston and his army of 22,000 soldiers did not go smoothly.

On April 14, General William Tecumseh Sherman received a surprise communique from Johnston asking for a meeting to discuss terms for “exterminating the existing war.” This was a relief for Sherman since he had been concerned about a “guerilla war” and knew how Spain had foiled Napoleon using similar tactics.

Sherman answered immediately and suggested they meet on April 17 halfway between their two armies. However, tragedy struck before the meeting when President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. When Sherman received the news via coded message, he quickly realized this could escalate into a major disaster. Lincoln’s death was calamitous per se, but it also had the potential to plunge the North into a vengeful bloodbath against a prostrated and fearful South. They would, in turn, fight back the only way they had left: chaos, disorder and continued violence. The war could drag out for a long time.

To Sherman it seemed imperative that he reach a prompt accommodation with Johnston and quell any acts of vengeance.

When they finally met, Sherman had apparently misunderstood the limits of his authority. He offered overly generous terms to Johnston and Confederate States Secretary of War John Breckinridge (who had been vice president for President James Buchanan pre-War). Then all hell broke loose in Washington, D.C., when new President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet learned the conditions of surrender. They canceled the armistice, ordered Sherman to resume hostilities and dispatched Grant to modify the terms of surrender.

Fortunately, there was no more fighting and Grant was able to effect the formal surrender. Sherman was infuriated, primarily because Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had insulted him and questioned his motives and loyalty. Things quieted down, but Sherman and Stanton were bitter enemies for the rest of their lives.

Now all that was left to do was to put all the pieces of the nation back together. Some cynics think this work is still under way.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Decision by General Lee Averted Nightmare Scenario for Nation

robert-e-lee-signed-carte-de-visite
This signed carte de visite of Confederate General Robert E. Lee sold for nearly $9,000 at a December 2006 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Civil War was drawing to an end and the first week of April 1865 had been tough on Southern soldiers. After losses at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, Union General Phil Sheridan wired General Ulysses S. Grant: “If this thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.” When President Lincoln read this, he telegraphed Grant, “Let it be pressed!”

On April 7, Grant sent a note to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In it, he stressed the dire situation of the South and tried to convince Lee that further resistance would only result in more useless “effusion of blood.” If Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia, it could be avoided.

Both Lee and General James Longstreet read the note very carefully and finally decided … “Not yet.”

Lee sent a note back to Grant suggesting the South’s assessment was more optimistic, however, he asked Grant to elaborate on the details of a surrender. There were several more notes, but in the interim, the Confederates held one last War Council before making a decision.

A number of Lee’s top lieutenants decried any surrender, pointing out that Joe Johnston still had his entire army intact, as did Nathan Bedford Forrest in the West and Edmund Kirby Smith and John Mosby in Virginia. More importantly, they could disband into the surrounding countryside. Since they knew the terrain, a full-scale guerilla war could last indefinitely. The North would be forced to eventually give up and go home, even if it took 20 years!

This was the nightmare scenario that Lincoln, Grant and all top military minds had dreaded: a guerilla army of tens of thousands, scattered across the South, living off the land. It would be an impossible war to extinguish completely and the nation would slowly unravel. (We learned a similar lesson in Iraq and are still in the Afghanistan quagmire after 15 years and counting.)

Perhaps in his finest act, General Lee decided the restoration of the United States of America was the right thing to do, despite the bitterness of defeat, after all the sacrifices, and the destruction of their society, economy and culture. Historians credit this one single decision as the most important in the entire war.

Grant and Lee met on April 9 and the terms of surrender were very generous. Confederate officers and enlisted men could take their horses home, all arms and munitions surrendered and all troops were disqualified from the war. At Lee’s request, 25,000 rations were given to the half-starved men. The formal surrender continued for seven hours and at 4:30 p.m., Grant wired U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton a simple message: “General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon on terms proposed by myself.”

Yet for the promise of this day, dire questions remained about the rest of the Confederacy. The war was not over.

More tomorrow.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].