Civil War Has Left a Lasting Scar on This Country

Four scarce cartes de visite of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman sold for $2,868 at a December 2006 auction.

“General Grant stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk. Today we stand by each other.” – Paraphrasing General William Tecumseh Sherman

By Jim O’Neal

Among the towering figures of the Civil War, none is more enigmatic than General W.T. Sherman. Widely denounced as fiendishly destructive for his infamous “March to the Sea” across Georgia, Sherman was a brilliant commander and strategist who helped bring the bloody war to a faster and surer end. Yet he left a legacy of “total war” against unarmed civilians and their property that has haunted military leaders and many Americans to the present time.

William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) was born in a simple frame house in Lancaster, Ohio, the sixth of 11 children. His father died suddenly in 1829 and the 9-year-old boy was forced to live with his more affluent neighbors, the Ewings, since his mother was destitute. Thomas Ewing Sr. was a senator, Secretary of the Treasury, and the first Secretary of the Interior for presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.

Ewing used his influence to get Sherman into West Point, where he finished sixth in his 1840 class. He left the Army along with many other officers when it seemed civilian life offered a greater chance for success. After a string of failures in banking, real estate and law, Sherman was in Louisiana just before the war began, running a military academy that would later become the foundation for Louisiana State University.

Though he had great friendships with many who joined the Confederacy and had no moral qualms about slavery, Sherman shared the view of many professional soldiers that secession was treason. He returned to Missouri when Louisiana seceded.

When the Civil War arrived right on schedule, one only has to read his comments to appreciate his insight and candor: “You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly. Madness. A crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you are talking about. War is a terrible thing. You mistake, too, the people of the North … you are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on Earth – right at your doors. You are bound to fail!”

And fail they did.

But it was more than a lost war. So great was the sense of gloom that some wondered if we could ever reconcile. Over 620,000 lay dead – 1/12 of the North and a staggering 20 percent of the South. It was more battle deaths than all of our nation’s other wars combined. An astonishing two-thirds of Southern wealth simply disappeared, but the more daunting challenge was the emotional carnage and pure generational hatred. Said one woman rather simply: “Oh, how I hate the Yankees. I could trample on their dead bodies and spit on them forever.”

Psychologists who have studied the impact of natural disasters on society – earthquakes, hurricanes, fires and floods – speak bleakly of a broad and terrible social numbing that occurs, afflicting not simply those directly affected, but whole generations living in a disastrous, merciless waste. It is impossible to measure the full-fledged effect on the Southern psyche … their incoherent grief, their land diseased, their way of life obliterated – all without a cure.

Yet today, we still see the scars and do little to avoid the current generation of schisms that are being fed by forces seemingly determined to divide us … the most blessed people that have ever lived on this tiny planet. Tsk, tsk on us.

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].

Fillmore Often Makes the ‘Forgettable Presidents’ Club

Millard Fillmore appears on the lower right corner of this Union Bank of Missouri $100 Color Proof. It realized $61,687.50 at an October 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Millard Fillmore, the 13th president, was the last not affiliated with either the Democrat or Republican parties. Born in a log cabin, he developed slowly since he did not read well and was apprenticed when he was 14 years old. After several years, he bought out his indenture for $30, but never saw a map of the United States until he was 19.

However, he learned to love books and spent a lot of time just reading.

Later, his entry into politics was through the New York State Assembly as an anti-Mormon candidate. Eventually, he made it into the U.S. House by following Whig Party policies. He even made a run at being the Whig Party VP candidate in 1844, but finished a weak third. Then, to top it off, he was defeated for governor of New York that same year.

It looked like his career had peaked.

However, his luck changed in 1848 when the Whigs picked General Zachary Taylor to run for president. Taylor was a slaveholder from Louisiana, had never run for office, and had never even voted.

Taylor and Fillmore had also never met, but the Whigs hoped Fillmore would help balance the ticket … a strategy that worked!

Vice President Fillmore was largely ignored when the administration finally took office. That is until President Taylor died unexpectedly and Fillmore was thrust into the Oval Office.

Alas, he gradually lost support of the Whig Party and was unable to generate a lot of support for reelection. One major cause was signing and then enforcing the proslavery Fugitive Slave Law, which alienated Northern Whigs.

During the 1852 convention, Fillmore made a valiant effort, but on the 53rd ballot, Winfield Scott finally prevailed as the Whig Party candidate. He would go on to lose the general election to Democrat Franklin Pierce.

In 1856, the American Party (“Know Nothings”) convinced Fillmore to make another run for the presidency; he won a single state. Curiously, many historians argue that Fillmore was never an actual American Party member, never attended a single meeting, and was even out of the country when all this happened.

All of this is true, but they overlook the fact that he did mail a letter affirming his acceptance of the nomination. So, I say he was an official candidate despite the unusual circumstances and the rather obvious lack of any real interest.

Fillmore often makes the “Forgettable Presidents” club … but we remember him because he was the first president to turn down an Honorary Degree … a Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford. His reason was a little hokey (he could not read or understand it since it was in Latin), but that only makes him more qualified for our club.

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 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].

Only Four Presidents Never Appointed a Supreme Court Justice

An 1840 silk banner depicting William Henry Harrison realized $33,460 at a May 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Donald Trump’s appointee fills the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the chief executive will escape from a small group of presidents who did not appoint a single nominee confirmed by the Senate. Trump’s pick will join the other 117 justices, 17 chief justices and four women who have served on the court.

Presidents without a Supreme Court appointee:

  • William Henry Harrison (1841) – Died only 31 days after being inaugurated.
  • Zachary Taylor (1849-50) – Died 16 months after inauguration.
  • Andrew Johnson (1865-69) – Victim of a hostile Congress that blocked several nominees.
  • Jimmy Carter (1977-81) – The only president to serve a full term with no vacancies during his four years in office.

It seems clear that the Founding Fathers did not spend a lot of time considering the importance of the Supreme Court as an equal branch of government. That would come later during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall, who many credit with providing the balance to ensure that our fragile democracy survived.

One example is there are no legal or constitutional requirements for a federal judgeship. There does exist an unwritten prerequisite to have practiced law or to have been a member of the bar, but it is not mandatory. As a matter of historical record, no non-lawyer has ever been a member of the Supreme Court – and it is a virtual certainty that none ever will.

And, although the methodology for judicial appointments was subject to intense debate, the criteria for such appointments was apparently not a matter of significance. Those few delegates who did raise the issue of criteria did so by assuming merit over favoritism. Congress also did not foresee the role political parties would very soon come to play in the appointment and confirmation process.

Only John Adams clearly anticipated the rise of political parties but, of course, he was not a member of the Constitutional Committee. He summarized it rather well: “Partisan considerations, rather than the fitness of the nominees, will often be the controlling consideration of the Senate in passing on nominations.”

I suspect they would all be disappointed by the dramatic, partisan “gotcha” grilling that nominees face today.

Personally, I would prefer the old process the Scots used to select Supreme Court justices. The nominations came from the lawyers, who invariably selected the most successful and talented members of the legal community. This effectively eliminated their most fierce competition, which then allowed them to solicit their best customers. The court would then truly be assured of getting the best-of-the best, while the profession competed for clientele.

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].

Zachary Taylor was First President Elected With No Political Experience

zachary-taylor-half-plate-daguerreotype-from-the-taylor-family
A half-plate daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor circa 1844, once owned by the Taylor family, sold for $47,800 at a November 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Washington, D.C., that said farewell to James Polk in 1849 and greeted General Zachary Taylor was similar to many American cities with a combination of town and pasture. However, even after 50 years, it still looked unfinished. Pennsylvania Avenue was the principal commercial street, lined with buildings from the Capitol to the White House. But beyond, it was a town of monotonous red brick houses interspersed with seas of grass.

There were schemes for improving public lands in various places, but only one was significant to the White House. The marshy expanse to the south was believed to give off vapors, especially in the summer. In 1849, the most feared disease was cholera – particularly from May to November when the first frost quelled it. Those who could afford it left town for the summer and President Polk’s insistence on staying probably contributed to his early demise.

Taylor was the first president elected to office with no political experience. He was ill-prepared for the politics and problems involved. Like William Henry Harrison, Taylor was chosen by the Whigs as their presidential candidate solely because he was a war hero. Taylor spent 40 years in the Army, fighting Indians and winning glory in the war with Mexico. He was called “Old Rough and Ready” by his men. He preferred civilian clothes to military uniforms, even in battle. Short and plump, he had none of the appearance of a military hero and had to be given a leg-up when he mounted a horse.

Taylor was inaugurated in March 1849 and as he moved from the Capitol to the WH, the police had trouble holding back the throngs. Nodding and smiling, he waved his hat and seemed approachable, if not particularly presidential. Those who got a close look found him heavy and scruffy, his face deeply wrinkled, gray hair tousled. After four years of the dour Polk, the public was eager to idolize someone friendly.

But Taylor was an odd hero. Lacking the presence of General Jackson or General Harrison, he looked more the Louisiana planter he was in private life. The general had become president at age 64 and was considered an old man. The hope was that he would prevail through the sheer force of his prestige. Plus, Taylor’s greatest asset was his integrity, which he wore like a medal. Voters seem to have willingly accepted that he would allow his advisers to run the government. It seemed logical to have a chain of command with an honest, experienced general at the head.

The strategy failed since their hero-president provided little leadership and Democrats controlled Congress. The Taylor family circle included few intimates with one notable exception: Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. He had been their son-in-law after he married the second-eldest Taylor daughter in 1835, but she died three months later of cholera.

Then it was suddenly 1850, a most pivotal year and possibly the last chance to prevent a civil war. The slavery issue came to a boil and debates raged in Congress over allowing the people of California and New Mexico to determine their own status. Perhaps with a different president, a workable solution could have held the Union together, but Taylor scorned compromises.

On July 4, 1850, at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, President Taylor remained in the hot sun for many hours and became ill. He died five days later. The winds of war only became fiercer and there was nobody on either side who could temper them.

Next stop: an all-out Civil War that would come close to permanent disunion.

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].

Tilden a Brilliant Intellectual on Path to the Presidency

An engraved portrait of Samuel J. Tilden, about 10 by 8 inches on card, went to auction in September 2001.

By Jim O’Neal

Samuel J. Tilden got robbed in the 1876 presidential election.

But then again, his life was full of conflicts and ironies:

  • A brilliant intellectual with a tired, battle-worn body at age 62
  • Intense loyalty to the Democratic Party that was crushed by prosecuting the Boss Tweed gang in NYC
  • A cold, unapproachable man that tens of thousands of Americans revered for his reform efforts
  • A hypochondriac who was always searching for medicines and cures, but with the stamina to work healthy men to exhaustion

His legal practice and shrewd investments made him both rich and influential. He managed the finances for many friends, relatives and political allies … including Martin Van Buren.

In 1848, he helped ex-President Van Buren snag the Free Soil Party nomination for president (he lost), and in the process helped ensure the election of the Whig Zachary Taylor.

Tilden (1814-1886) became the 25th governor of New York in 1875 … and then immediately took on the Canal Gang that was systematically robbing the state through fraudulent construction and maintenance on the New York State Canal System.

His success earned him the 1876 Democratic nomination for president … ugh.

To be continued …

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].