Notorious traitors? Let’s look at Benedict Arnold

A May 24, 1776, letter by Benedict Arnold, signed, to Gen. William Thompson, realized $23,750 at an April 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Vidkun Quisling is an obscure name from World War II. To those unfamiliar with some of the lesser-known details, “Quisling” has become a synonym for a traitor or collaborator. From 1942 to 1945, he was Prime Minister of Norway, heading a pro-Nazi puppet government after Germany invaded. For his role, Quisling was put on trial for high treason and executed by firing squad on Oct. 24, 1945.

Obviously better known are Judas Iscariot of Last Supper fame (30 pieces of silver); Guy Fawkes, who tried to assassinate King James I by blowing up Parliament (the Gunpowder Plot); and Marcus Junius Brutus, who stabbed Julius Caesar (“Et tu, Brute?”). In American history, it’s a close call between John Wilkes Booth and Benedict Arnold.

Arnold

The irony concerning Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) is that his early wartime exploits had made him a legendary figure, but Arnold never forgot the sleight he received in February 1777 when Congress bypassed him while naming five new major generals … all of them junior to him. Afterward, George Washington pledged to help Arnold “with opportunities to regain the esteem of your country,” a promise he would live to regret.

Unknown to Washington, Arnold had already agreed to sell secret maps and plans of West Point to the British via British Maj. John André. There have always been honest debates over Arnold’s real motives for this treacherous act, but it seems clear that purely personal gain was the primary objective. Heavily in debt, Arnold had brokered a deal that included having the British pay him 6,000 pound sterling and award him a British Army commission for his treason. There is also little doubt that his wife Peggy was a full accomplice, despite a dramatic performance pretending to have lost her mind rather than her loyalty.

The history of West Point can be traced back to when it was occupied by the Continental Army after the Second Continental Congress (1775-1781) was designated to manage the Colonial war effort. West Point – first known as Fort Arnold and renamed Fort Clinton – was strategically located on high ground overlooking the Hudson River, with panoramic views extending all the way to New York City, ideal for military purposes. Later, in 1801, President Jefferson ordered plans to establish the U.S. Marine Corps there, and West Point has since churned out many distinguished military leaders … first for the Mexican-American War and then for the Civil War, including both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. It is the oldest continuously operating Army post in U.S. history.

To understand this period in American history, it helps to start at the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), which was really a global conflict that included every major European power and spanned five continents. Many historians consider it “World War Zero,” and on the same scale as the two 20th century wars. In North America, the skirmishes started two years earlier in the French and Indian War, with Great Britain an active participant.

The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended the conflict, with the British winning a stunning series of battles, France surrendering its Canadian holdings, and the Spanish ceding its Florida territories in exchange for Cuba. Consequently, the British Empire emerged as the most powerful political force in the world. The only issue was that these conflicts had nearly doubled England’s debt from 75 million to 130 million sterling.

A young King George III and his Parliament quietly noted that the Colonies were nearly debt free and decided it was time for them to pay for the 8,000-10,000 Redcoat peacetime militia stationed in North America. In April 1864, they passed legislation via the Currency Act and the Sugar Act. This limited inflationary Colonial currency and cut the trade duty on foreign molasses. In 1765, they struck again. Twice. The Quartering Act forced the Colonists to pay for billeting the king’s troops. Then the infamous Stamp Act placed direct taxes on Americans for the first time.

This was one step too far and inevitably led to the Revolutionary War, with armed conflict that involved hot-blooded, tempestuous individuals like Benedict Arnold. A brilliant military leader of uncommon bravery, Arnold poured his life into the Revolutionary cause, sacrificing his family life, health and financial well-being for a conflict that left him physically crippled. Sullied with false accusations, he became profoundly alienated from the American cause for liberty. His bitterness unknown to Washington, on Aug. 3, 1780, the future first president announced Arnold would take command of the garrison at West Point.

The appointed commander calculated that turning West Point over to the British, perhaps along with Washington as well, would end the war in a single stroke by giving the British control over the Hudson River. The conspiracy failed when André was captured with incriminating documents. Arnold fled to a British warship and they refused to trade him for André, who was hanged as a spy after pleading to be shot by a firing squad. Arnold went on to lead British troops in Virginia, survived the war, and eventually settled in London. He quickly became the most vilified figure in American history and remains the symbol of treason yet today.

Gen. Nathanael Greene, often called Washington’s most gifted and dependable officer, summed it up after the war most succinctly: “Since the fall of Lucifer, nothing has equaled the fall of Arnold.”

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].

Telegram Pushed War-Weary America into World War I

A British recruiting poster issued in the wake of the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915 was offered in a December 2016 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

World War I officially began in Europe on July 28, 1914, but the strong isolationist sentiment in the United States prevented our involvement for nearly three years. The U.S. economy was booming and the tragic events in Europe were broadly viewed as a “foreign affair,” 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and something to be avoided. Further, it had only been 51 years since our Civil War had ended, with General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. The United States had not fully recovered from a military readiness standpoint and another war would be hard to sustain. The rebuilding of the South simply added to the problem.

Then there were the American bankers, who would make massive loans to Great Britain and France that would produce a nice, steady stream of profits. They were more than content to stay on the sidelines as long as their capital seemed secure. Show me a war and I will bet there are always groups profiting from making the bullets and bombs that create jobs. Other industries like steel or food production generally end up on the positive side of the export equation. Twenty-five years later, gearing up for World War II would help the country break the grip of the Great Depression. (Our military budget is currently over $700 billion … and growing.)

Another important factor were the immigrants in the United States, whose support was dependent on their country of origin. Most had left behind family and friends who would end up in harm’s way if America escalated the war. Naturally, there were also the permanent peaceniks like the Quakers and other religious groups who were simply pacifists by virtue of their beliefs. Two million socialists could be lumped into this group, as well as numerous women’s organizations.

The 8 million German-Americans had little loyalty to Germany, and were surprisingly neutral in addition to being strongly against any war, especially if it involved Germany. Their primary concern if the United States entered the war revolved around the reprisals against them as questions about their allegiance to America were already at a simmering level. This apprehension had been growing since the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania and German U-boats sank six American merchant ships, including the Housatonic – all without any warning.

On Nov. 7, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected on an anti-war platform and a campaign slogan of “He kept us out of war” (note the past tense). He had defeated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes Sr. by dominating the Southern vote and in the run-up to the election knew it would be a competitive battle. With a war raging in Europe, Wilson was concerned that if he lost, he would be a lame-duck president for four long months. He devised a clever plan that involved making Hughes the Secretary of State and then he and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall would immediately resign and Hughes would become president, as the rules of succession applied at that time.

Wilson was the first sitting Democratic president to win re-election since Andrew Jackson in 1832. Six months later, we would be in World War I due to a quirk of fate or a German blunder: the Zimmermann Telegram.

In January 1917, a coded message was sent from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Germany’s Ambassador to Mexico that was to be relayed to Mexican President Venustiano Carranza. “We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor to keep the United States neutral … If not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal on the following basis; make war together, make peace together, generous financial support … Mexico is to re-conquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The settlement detail is left to you.”

On Feb. 1, 1917, Germany began unrestricted U-boat warfare in the Atlantic. U.S. ships came under attack and the USA broke off diplomatic relations with Germany.

March 1, President Wilson authorized the State Department publication of the Zimmermann Telegram in the press and, as intended, it inflamed American public opinion against Germany.

April 2: Wilson addressed a special session of Congress to declare war.

April 4: Senate approved 82-6 (the House concurred 373-50).

April 6: Wilson signed a formal declaration of war on Germany.

And so war came again to America despite the reluctance of many people.

BTW: On April 14, after the formal declaration of war, President Carranza formally declined the German proposal. It is interesting to speculate on the outcome if the decision had been in the affirmative. I suspect we might have ended up with a few more stars on the flag.

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].

General Lee’s Decision Avoided the ‘Vietnamization of America’

Robert E. Lee declined President Lincoln’s offer to head up the Union Army since it would require him to bear arms against his home state of Virginia.

By Jim O’Neal

In late 1955, the Tappan Zee Bridge – spanning the Hudson River in New York – was opened with seven lanes for motor traffic. Two months ago, it was closed and is systematically being demolished. The deteriorating bridge, known in the governor’s office as the “hold-your-breath bridge,” was featured in the documentary The Crumbling of America, the story of the infrastructure crisis in the United States.

Also in this same category is the Arlington Memorial Bridge, which connects the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington National Cemetery and is metaphorically described as what rejoined the North and South after the Civil War. First proposed in 1886 as a memorial to General Ulysses S. Grant, it was blocked in Congress until President Warren G. Harding got snarled in a three-hour traffic jam in 1921 en route to the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Congress quickly approved his request for $25,000 to build the bridge and it finally opened in January 1932.

Nearby is Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. This was the home for the Lee family for 30 years and where R.E.L. made the fateful decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army on April 21, 1861, and join the Confederate States. He had declined President Abraham Lincoln’s offer to head up the Union Army since it would require him to bear arms against his home state of Virginia.

In June 1862, Congress enacted a property tax on all “insurrectionary” land and added an amendment in 1863 requiring the tax to be paid in person. Ill and behind Confederate lines, Mary Lee was unable to comply and the Lees never slept there again. The property was auctioned off on Jan. 11, 1864, and the high bidder ($26,800) was the U.S. government.

Secretary of War William Stanton approved the conversion of the Lee estate to a military cemetery in 1864. On May 13, a Confederate POW was buried there (renamed Arlington National Cemetery) and more than 400,000 have joined him, including President Taft, President JFK and my dear friend Roger Enrico.

For 15 years, I passed a statue of Robert E. Lee driving to my Dallas office. It invariably invoked memories of the wisdom of this soldier who surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomattox in April 1865. Most of his top aides tried to dissuade Lee from surrendering, arguing they could disband into the familiar countryside and hold out indefinitely in a stalemate. Eventually, Northern soldiers would simply return to their homes and then the South could regroup.

Thus did Robert E. Lee, so revered for his leadership in war, make his most historic contribution – to peace! By this one momentous decision, he spared the country the divisive guerilla war that would have followed … a vile and poisonous conflict that would have fractured the country perhaps permanently. Or as newspaper columnist Tom Wicker deftly put it, “The Vietnamization of America.”

Alas, Dallas city leaders recently removed the Lee statue and I sincerely hope they find some relief from the anguish they have suffered from this piece of marble sequestered so long. However, I suspect they will just move on to some other injustice. It reminds me of feeding jellybeans to pacify a ravenous bear. When you (inevitably) run out of jellybeans, he eats you.

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].

Henry Wirz Among Most Notorious Confederate Prison Officials

This Civil War-period unmounted albumen print of Andersonville Prison by A.J. Biddle went to auction in June 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

Henry Wirz (1823-65) was born in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of a tailor. He grew up with an abiding passion for medicine, however, his family had limited resources and his father insisted on a more pragmatic mercantile career. After migrating to America, he ultimately claimed to be a physician and successfully started assisting doctors, despite most certainly lacking any formal training or medical degrees.

At the start of the Civil War, he was living in Louisiana. He enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry and became a sergeant. At the important Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in 1862, Wirz was wounded above his right wrist, which incapacitated him for life. Seven Pines was strategically important since it led to the appointment of Robert E. Lee as Confederate Commander, which had a profound effect on the duration of the war.

In April 1864, (now) Captain Wirz was ordered to Camp Sumter near Anderson in Georgia, where he was given command of the prison that would become known as the infamous Andersonville Prison. It was already crammed with war prisoners and low on critical supplies that would only worsen as the war dragged on. Wirz made a feeble attempt to reorganize, but he lacked the necessary authority and all attempts to gain a promotion were denied. He had the support of superior officers, who called him “major,” but it is not clear if he attained that rank.

Henry Wirz

As the war continued, conditions at Andersonville deteriorated and many prisoners blamed Wirz, describing him as a brutal tyrant. Observers were critical of his accent, excessive use of profanity and outbreaks of rage. By the end of the war, he was among the most notorious Confederate prison officials.

Perhaps because of naïveté or unaware of the North’s anger over prison conditions, he made a tactical blunder and did not join the other prison officials who fled. Instead, he stayed at Andersonville, where he was arrested, taken to Washington and tried on charges of murder and mistreatment of prisoners. A hostile military commission limited his defense against conflicting testimony, found him guilty, and hanged him on Nov. 10, 1865, in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison (near the site where the U.S. Supreme Court stands today).

It was a messy hanging since his neck did not break and he was strangled to death. The trial is controversial yet today. In 1909, the Georgia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a memorial to him at Andersonville. It may be a while before monument protestors figure out who he was.

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].

Webster Certainly Belongs on the List of Our Greatest Senators

This 1853-dated bronze statue of Daniel Webster, measuring 29.75 inches, sold for $11,950 at a March 2008 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

American poet Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) is perhaps best known for his book-length narrative poem “John Brown’s Body” (1928), about the Civil War abolitionist who raided the armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown and a group of 20-plus co-conspirators captured several buildings and weapons they hoped to use to start a slave uprising.

U.S. Army Lieutenant Robert E. Lee led a contingent of Marines to quell the insurgency. Brown was captured, tried for treason and hanged. Harpers Ferry was at a busy crossroads, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and was the site of at least eight skirmishes while changing hands several times during the Civil War.

Benét also authored “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936), a fictional story about a farmer who sells his soul to the devil (Mr. Scratch) and then refuses to pay up even after receiving a three-year extension on the agreement. Benét has Webster defend him in court due to his prodigious real-life record as a famous lawyer, statesman and orator. There are many other films, books and stories about similar Faustian-type bargains, but the use of Daniel Webster was a brilliant choice due to his superior debating skills and outstanding oratory.

In Benét’s trial, despite overwhelming evidence, the jury finds in favor of Mr. Webster’s client.

In virtually every aspect, the real-life Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was almost a true larger-than-life character, at least in American politics and especially in the formative era between 1812 and the Civil War. He played a critical role in virtually every significant issue confronting the new United States government.

Webster had no equal as an orator, either in those turbulent times or in the 200 years since then. Whether in the Supreme Court (240-plus cases), the U.S. Senate, or out on the political stump, he was simply the finest; a golden-tounged spellbinder. He enthralled audiences three to four hours at a time, always in defense of the Union and the sacred U.S. Constitution.

He generated almost god-like respect and was universally considered to be a cinch to be president; particularly in his own mind. His weakness was aligning with the Whigs and a seemingly improvident inability to manage personal finances (and alcohol, as usual). He was also an elitist at a time when Andrew Jackson’s brand of populism was growing, much like the present. He was often referred to as “Black Dan” because of his political conniving.

He missed a perfect chance to be president by refusing to run as vice president in 1840 with William Henry Harrison, who defeated Martin Van Buren but died 31 days after his inauguration.

1841 was the first “Year of Three Presidents.” It began with the defeated Van Buren, followed by Harrison, and then Vice President John Tyler, who had himself sworn in immediately as president after a brief Constitutional crisis following Harrison’s death.

This phenomenon occurred again in 1881. After Rutherford B. Hayes finished his term, new President James A. Garfield took over. When Garfield succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in September, VP Chester A. Arthur moved into the White House … this time with little controversy.

So Daniel Webster never realized his ambition to become president, but any time there is a discussion about our greatest senators, you may be assured that Daniel Webster will be on everyone’s Top 5, along with Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun … two more who never quite got to wear the Presidential Crown. Sadly, we do not have any actual recordings of these great orators, but it is tantalizing to think of them in today’s contemporary politics and to judge them in this age of new media.

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 chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

General Longstreet at Center of One of Civil War’s Greatest Controversies

A signed carte de visite of Confederate General James Longstreet sold for $3,250 at a June 2015 Heritage auction.

“Bring me Longstreet’s head on a platter and the war will be over.” – President Abraham Lincoln

By Jim O’Neal

Confederate General James Longstreet (1821-1904) was born in South Carolina and his mother sent him to live with an uncle who decided his should have a military career. He received an appointment to West Point, where he underperformed academically. However, he made many lifelong friends, including future President Ulysses Grant.

Commissioned into the infantry, he served until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. From 1847 to 1849, he served under generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, was wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, and finally resigned from the U.S. Army in June 1861. It was nearly a month after Fort Sumter.

Like many of his southern colleagues, he joined the Confederacy and ended up in the Army of Northern Virginia after Robert E. Lee declined Lincoln’s offer to head up the entire Union Army. Almost inexorably, this led to the most famous battle of the Civil War. On July 1, 1863, Longstreet rode onto the battlefield of Gettysburg as infantry units were cleaning up after a decisive day-one victory. He was 42 years old.

After surveying the Federals rallying on Seminary Ridge, he lowered his field glasses, turned to General Lee and spoke – launching one of the greatest controversies of the entire Civil War. “General Lee, we could not call the enemy to position better suited to our plans… all we have to do is to flank his left…” The words either surprised or angered Lee, who pointed a fist toward the ridge beyond town: “If the enemy is there tomorrow, I will attack him!”

Despite the open disagreement, Longstreet reluctantly supervised the disastrous infantry assault known as Picket’s Charge (the high-water mark of the Confederacy) as ordered. The date was July 1863, and despite being preceded by a massive artillery bombardment, its futility was an avoidable mistake: 12,500 Confederate soldiers in nine infantry units advanced over three-quarters of a mile – charging into a withering hail of Union pure death. The staggering 50 percent casualty rate resulted in a defeat that the South never recovered from – either militarily or psychologically.

Noted historians are still debating who to blame: Lee, for overriding the advice of his most-trusted second-in-command, or Longstreet for being too slow to carry out a direct order.

Personally, I side with General George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who led the assault under Longstreet and who was bitterly unequivocal: “That old man [Lee] destroyed my division.” His regular daily report is missing and is believed to have been intentionally destroyed, perhaps by Longstreet personally. It was now just a matter of time until the South’s war machine gradually came to a stop. The war would continue until April 1865, but the end was never again in doubt.

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 chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

In Weeks Before Gettysburg, Lee was Supremely Confident

A carte de visite of Union General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, signed, went to auction in June 2015.

By Jim O’Neal

In May 1863, General Robert E. Lee and his nimble Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defeated the Union Army at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The North’s Army of the Potomac was twice the size of Lee’s forces and led by General “Fighting Joe” Hooker. This stunning defeat would result in President Lincoln replacing Hooker just before the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.

At Chancellorsville, Lee lost his most trusted general, Thomas Jonathon “Stonewall” Jackson, when Confederate pickets accidentally shot him. He survived the initial wound, but died eight days later of pneumonia. In one of life’s little ironies, Jackson also had an arm amputated. General Lee always complained that he (Lee) had “lost his right arm” when Jackson died.

The supremely confident Lee then turned north to replenish rapidly dwindling supplies and further undermine Union morale. Another convincing victory would surely accelerate the growing anti-war sentiment and erode Lincoln’s declining support. What actually followed was the Battle of Gettysburg, the most famous battle in the entire Civil War.

The battle started on July 1, 1863, with Lee intent on inflicting severe damage to the Union Army. Had he been successful, it is highly likely that the war would have ended much differently. However, after two days of fighting, it was clear that the outcome was in doubt and Lee’s invincibility was at risk since attacks on both Union flanks had failed.

In an act of uncharacteristic desperation, Lee ordered an all-out assault on the middle, with a massive artillery bombardment followed by an attack using nine infantry brigades totaling 12,500 men. Major General George Pickett was one of three Confederate generals who led the assault and “Pickett’s Charge” is now commonly called the “High-water Mark of the Confederacy.” It turned out to be a crushing defeat and the Southern forces never fully recovered.

General Lee, who had turned down an offer to head Union forces, whose ancestors included two signers of the Declaration of Independence, and was himself the son of a Revolutionary War hero, had led the entire Army of Northern Virginia to an open-field defeat in a high-risk gamble that failed spectacularly.

Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle in American history and one to spawn the most enduring controversies, would be Lee’s last offensive operation in the Civil War.

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 chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Lincoln’s Assassination Shows How Nation Has Survived Perilous Times

john-wilkes-booth-cabinet-card
An 1863 John Wilkes Booth cabinet card sold for $1,912 at a December 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre while the Lincolns were enjoying the play “Our American Cousin.” A Confederate sympathizer, Booth was the younger brother of famed Shakespearian actor Edwin Booth and had become a popular actor himself. A meticulous planner, he had attended a rehearsal the day before and devised his escape plan.

There is a fascinating backstory to this tragedy that started on April 3 when news of the surrender of Richmond was received at the War Department. The telegraph operator had jumped to his feet, opened a window and shouted out “Richmond has fallen!” This extraordinary good news spread quickly and almost by magic the streets were filled with noisy, jubilant people. Among the talking, laughing and shouting, the local newspaper reported that “many wept like children.”

People were convinced that this long nightmare was nearly over. Generally, they were right, except for a series of dramatic events that could have altered the future in any number of possible ways.

It started the following day when Secretary of State William Henry Seward was critically injured in a carriage accident. He was with his son Fred, daughter Fanny and her friend Mary Titus. When the driver stopped to close a carriage door, the horses bolted and Seward jumped out to stop the runaway horses, caught his heel and landed violently on the pavement. After regaining consciousness, he was carried to his home severely injured.

Then on April 11, two days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, several thousand people gathered at the White House to hear Lincoln give a speech about returning the Southern states, extending suffrage to blacks and the benefits of school to all children. JWB was in the crowd and furiously declared, “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.”

Earlier, Booth had planned to kidnap Lincoln, but now he was determined to kill him, along with Vice President Andrew Johnson and Seward in a choreographed decapitation of the Union government. The triple assassination was set for 10:15 p.m. on Good Friday. His accomplice, George Atzerodt, was assigned to kill the VP and Lewis Powell was to kill Seward in his bed while he was recovering.

Only JWB was successful. Atzerodt lost his nerve, got drunk and left the Kirkwood hotel where the VP was in suite 68. Powell went on a rampage in Seward’s house, stabbing him three times in the throat and neck. A metal brace on his neck miraculously saved his life.

The world would now know the power of a single gunshot, yet for America this was a first. Never had a president been assassinated or even died during a war. As sorrow gradually spread throughout the nation, there remained one more haunting question: Would it all come undone and devolve into an endless conflict?

We know the answer now, but it was a perilous time for our troubled nation.

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].

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].