Abraham Lincoln and Tennessee

Abraham Lincoln and Tennessee

Tennessee copy
 
Abraham Lincoln never visited Tennessee – except perhaps as a young man while rafting down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. As President, Tennessee was a source of concern, consternation and amusement for Mr. Lincoln. Less than two months after Mr. Lincoln took office, he received a letter from Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris which protested the Union seizure of a steamboat. “This seizure was made on the Mississippi River, a short distance above Cairo Illinois. The boat Hillman was owned by citizens of Tennessee, and its cargo was the property of this State and her citizens. It is believed that the force employed in this work is a part of the force recently called into the service by the proclamation of the President,” wrote Isham. “This interruption of the free navigation of the Mississippi river and the seizure of property belonging to the State of Tennessee and her citizens, is aggressive and hostile, and without commenting upon the character and lawlessness of the outrage, it becomes my imperitative [sic] duty to inquire by what authority the said acts were committed. I have therefore respectfully to request that the President shall inform me whether the same was done by or under the instructions of the Federal Government, or is approved by said Government.”1

“He be d___d,” President Lincoln quietly observed,” according to aide John Hay. 2 President Lincoln was probably annoyed by a letter which Governor Isham had sent Secretary of War Simon Cameron a few weeks earlier: “Your dispatch of the 15th inst. informing me that Tennessee is called upon for two regiments of Militia for immediate service is received. Tennessee will not furnish a single man for coercion, but fifty thousand if necessary for the defense of our rights, and those of our Southern Brethren[.]” 3 More formally, the President responded to Governor Isham: “In answer I have to say this Government has no official information of such seizure; but assuming that the seizure was made, and that the cargo consisted chiefly of munitions of War owned by the State of Tennessee, and passing into the control of it’s Governor, this Government avows the seizure, for the following reasons.”

“A legal call was recently made upon the said Governor of Tennessee to furnish a quota of militia to suppress an insurrection against the United States, which call said Governor responded to by a refusal, couched in disrespectful and malicious language – This Government therefore infers that munitions of War passing into the hands of said Governor, are intended to be used against the United States; and the government will not indulge the weakness of allowing it, so long as it is in it’s power to prevent – This Government will not, at present, question, but that the State of Tennessee, by a majority of it’s citizens, is loyal to the Federal Union, and the government holds itself responsible in damages for all injuries it may do to any who may prove to be such.”4

Tennessee fell firmly in the Confederate orbit for the first year of the war, but in February 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant captured two key Confederate forts on the Cumberland River. With the appointment of Andrew Johnson as the Union military governor in March, Isham Harris effectively ceased to function as the Confederate governor, instead acting as a Confederate army officer.

For much of the next two years, Tennessee was the key battleground of the Civil War in the western war theater. Ironically, it was western and central Tennessee, where Confederate sentiment was strongest, that first came under Union control. President Lincoln had special concern to foster Union sentiment in Tennessee – especially in the mountains of eastern Tennessee where Confederate sentiment was weak. In the 1860 presidential election, the state had not shown Mr. Lincoln much support. He got no recorded votes in Tennessee. Unionist John Bell narrowly edged out Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, 48-45% for the state’s votes. Former Tennessee Senator Bell ran on a ticket with Edward Everett in a party organized primarily by former Whigs. Earlier, Bell had served seven terms in Congress as both a Democrat and Whig and had been Secretary of War under William Henry Harrison in 1841. A slave owner, Bell eventually sided with the South in the Civil War.

But several of the eastern Tennessee congressmen remained loyal. Historian Thomas B. Alexander wrote: “Two days after the inauguration, [Thomas A. R.] Nelson and Horace Maynard, Representative from the Knoxville district, sought out the President to add their personal bit to the avoidance of a civil war. Lincoln asked them to return for a private interview the following night and told them that he favored peace and would use his every power to maintain it; that he was not planning to try to collect revenues in Southern ports or even withhold mail facilities; and that he very much hoped the Southern states, after time for reflection, would recede from their position. Nelson and Maynard were both impressed with the President’s frankness, and Lincoln seemed pleased at their visit.”5

President Lincoln had little sympathy for secessionists. Artist Francis B. Carpenter wrote: “On Thursday of a certain week, two ladies, from Tennessee, came before the President, asking the release of their husbands, held as prisoners of war at Johnson’s Island. They were put off until Friday, when they came again, and were again put off until Saturday. At each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious man. On Saturday, when the President ordered the release of the prisoner, he said to this lady, – You say your husband is a religious man; tell him, when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that in my opinion the religion which sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread in the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven.”6

There was little President Lincoln could do until Tennessee was brought under Union military control. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “East Tennessee, harried by irregular warfare, had sent numerous regiments into the Union armies. Though Lincoln’s attachment to it is sometimes dismissed as sentimental, most Northerners lamented that the loyal population had never been brought under Union protection.” 7 It was easier wished than done. Lincoln biographer Isaac N. Arnold wrote: “On the 24th of February [1863], the Union troops occupied Nashville, the capital of the great state of Tennessee, and, in March thereafter, Andrew Johnson, having been appointed provisional governor, arrived, and the persecuted Unionists of the state gladly rallied around him. In East Tennessee – his old home – loyalty was general, and the Union flag was hailed with exclamations of joy and gratitude.” 8 During this period, Mr. Lincoln told Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax, ‘Andrew Johnson has never embarrassed me in the slightest degree.”9 To increase his authority, Governor Johnson was commissioned as a brigadier general.

Much of Mr. Lincoln’s reliance was on the Union army for pacifying the state, but President Lincoln also relied on Unionist politicians like Andrew Johnson. Johnson had supported fellow southern Democrat John Breckinridge in the 1860 general election but broke with Southern Democrats on the issue of secession – for which Johnson was widely vilified in the South. A tailor by trade, Johnson served in Congress with Mr. Lincoln before being elected governor and senator in Tennessee. He was serving in the Senate at the outbreak of the Civil War and was the only member of the Senate from a Confederate state to remain at his post. As a Union loyalist during the Civil War, Johnson gained a reputation as a die-hard opponent of secession and its advocates: “Treason must be made odious, traitors must be punished and impoverished. Their social power must be destroyed, and the effects that gave them power must be taken away,” Johnson said in one speech.10

There was some class resentment that may have fueled Johnson’s Unionist sentiment, according to biographer David M. DeWitt: “This champion of ‘the poor whites’ – originally ‘a poor white’ himself – could not but feel an instinctive antagonism to the highborn leaders who for most part represented the Southern States in the Senate. Cradled in ease and affluence; every educational facility afforded them; their hands exempt from labor; endowed with leisure to prepare themselves by study for the practice of politics and statesmanship; courtly yet haughty in bearing; having at their tongues’ end all ‘the grace taught in the schools’ and all ‘the studied contrivances of speed’: they could not but look askance, with sort of contemptuous astonishment, at this untrained offspring of the ‘depths,’ who, though possessed of none of the advantages they had enjoyed, flaunted his own equality with the highest of them, sought out his well-born adversaries in the hurly-burly of debate, yielded not an inch, gave blow for blow, upheld the homely standard of the class he represented against the emblazoned banners of the Southern chivalry.” 11

Other than childhood poverty, there was little to connect Johnson to Mr. Lincoln. Johnson biographer Robert W. Winston wrote: “Totally unlike in mental equipment and in physical proportions, Lincoln and Johnson were nevertheless bound together during the Civil War with hoops of steel. They first became acquainted in 1847, when Lincoln was a Whig Congressman from Illinois, and Johnson a Democratic Congressman from Tennessee. As they were men of small means they set up no establishments in Washington, nor did their wives accompany them during them….Now a Whig Congressman who voted forty-two times for the Wilmot Proviso, as Lincoln did, and a Democratic Congressman who voted forty-two times against that measure, as Johnson did, were not likely to be very intimate. In fact, they seem to have had little acquaintance at that time, certainly no intimacy.”12

Having opposed the Confederacy, Johnson had little impetus to compromise with his southern enemies, noted historian David Warren Bowen. “As a result, Johnson became an unwilling dependent of northern Republicans – particularly the Lincoln administration – for immediate political survival,” wrote Bowen. “The new association was not without its immediate advantages. Johnson’s stand made him a kind of folk hero in the North as well as among loyal southerners, and his papers are filled with letters of praise from correspondents at all levels of society, including prominent northern leaders….Such letters could only have inflated a never inconsiderable ego and helped confirm his determination. Moreover, association with the Republicans in power had more tangible rewards. Lincoln moved immediately to cement Johnson’s loyalty to the Union, and at the same time to himself, by placing Tennessee’s patronage in the Democrat’s hands…”13

If Johnson did not resent Confederate leaders before the outbreak of hostilities, he had reason to resent them afterwards, wrote DeWitt: “The advancing Confederate forces swept over his corner of Tennessee. His home was invaded. His wife and daughters were turned into the street. His house became a barracks. One of his sons-in-law became a prisoner of the war, another a wanderer in the woods.” 14 As military governor, noted Dewitt: “Assassination dogged his footsteps in the streets of Nashville. Notice was given him that he would be shot if he attempted to speak at a certain meeting in the eastern part of the State. When the day arrived, he passed calmly through the crowd, climbed upon the platform, advanced, laid his revolver upon the table and in a low voice said: ‘I have been told that I should be assassinated if I came here. If that is to be done, then it is the first business in order, and let that be attended to;’ and he stood there some moments looking into the faces of the audience, any person in which might have killed him. After a pause he added: ‘I conclude the danger has passed by,’ and proceeded to deliver his speech.”15

Johnson biographer Howard Means wrote: “No politician risked more or endured more during the fighting than Johnson; none was in the thick of it as thoroughly as he….The qualities that plagued his presidency – his obstinacy, an iron will – were his strengths in the midst of combat. Nor was any politician more vocal or insistent that the South be made to pay for its sins. The Confederacy’s leaders were ‘traitors,’ their crimes ‘odious.’”16

Mr. Lincoln’s attitude toward Johnson included a strong dose of irony. Francis Carpenter reported: “When the telegram from Cumberland Gap reached Mr. Lincoln that ‘firing was heard in the direction of Knoxville,’ he remarked that he was ‘glad of it.’ Some persons present, who had the perils of [Ambrose] Burnside’s position uppermost in his mind, could not see why Mr. Lincoln should be glad of it, and so expressed himself. ‘Why, you see,’ responded the President, ‘it reminds me of Mistress Sallie Ward, a neighbor of mine, who had a very large family. Occasionally one of her numerous progeny would be heard crying in some out-of-the-way place, upon which Mrs. Ward would exclaim, ‘There’s one of my children that isn’t dead yet.’”17

Knoxville was finally delivered into Union hands in 1863. Lincoln scholar Samuel Cole Williams wrote: “It was truly an anomalous situation: ‘Middle and West Tennessee, strongholds of Confederate citizenry, were under the control of Federal troops, with the situation completely reverse in East Tennessee. Lincoln in 1861 insisted that East Tennessee be invaded from Kentucky so as to permit the restoration of civil authority in the entire State. Not until early in September of 1863 was Knoxville taken by the Federals and Cumberland Gap occupied. Before the battle of Chickamauga Lincoln thought the time for putting his plan into execution was ripe. To Johnson he wrote: ‘All Tennessee is now cleared of armed insurrectionists. You need not be reminded that it is the nick of time for reinaugurating a loyal state government. Not a moment should be lost.’”18

Johnson biographer Robert W. Winston wrote: “Lincoln’s letters to Johnson, while Military Governor, were hearty and cordial. Johnson was his ‘good friend.’ Lincoln spoke of him as ‘wise and patriotic.’”19 But the correspondence was also often laced with patient advice and suggestions for action. President Lincoln wrote Johnson in late April 1862: “Your dispatch of yesterday just received – as also, in due course, was your former one. The former one, was sent to Gen. Halleck, and we have his answer, by which I have no doubt he, Gen. Halleck, is in communication with you before this. Gen. Halleck understands better than we can here, and he must be allowed to control in that quarter. If you are not in communication with Halleck, telegraph him at once, fully, and frankly.”20

Johnson was a difficult man to deal with and President Lincoln did so carefully and tactfully. Mr. Lincoln wrote Johnson in early July 1862: “You are aware we have called for a big levy of new troops. If we can get a fair share of them in Tennessee I shall value it more highly than a like number most anywhere else, because of the face of the thing, and because they will be the very place that needs protection. Please do what you can, and do it quickly. Time is everything. A word on another subject. If we could, somehow, get a vote of the people of Tennessee and have it result properly it would be worth more to us than a battle gained. How long before we can get such a vote?”21

A week later, President Lincoln wrote Johnson: “Do you not, my good friend, perceive that what you ask is simply to put you in command in the West. I do not suppose you desire this. You only wish to control in your own localities; but this, you must know, may derange all others parts. Can you, not, and will you not, have a full conference with Gen. Halleck? Telegraph him, and meet him at such place as he and you can agree upon. I telegraph him to meet you and confer fully with you.”22

Artist Francis B. Carpenter recalled being told a story by President Lincoln which Colonel Granville Moody, also known as ‘the fighting Methodist parson, had related to him the night before. It concerned Andrew Johnson and General Don Carlos Buell during the siege of Nashville. “The Colonel happened to be in Nashville the day it was reported that Buel[l] had decided to evacuate the city. The Rebels, strong reenforced, were said to be within two days’ march of the capital. Of course, the city was great excited. Moody said he went in search of Johnson, at the edge of the evening, and found him at his office, closeted with two gentlemen, who were walking the floor with him, one on each side. As he entered, they retired, leaving him alone with Johnson, who came up to him, manifesting intense feeling, and said, ‘Moody, we are sold out! Buel[l] is a traitor! He is going to evacuate the city, and in forty-eight hours we’ll be in the hands of the Rebels.’ Then he commenced pacing the floor again, twisting his hands, and chafing like a caged tiger, utterly insensible to his friend’s entreaties to become calm. Suddenly he turned and said, ”Moody, can you pray?’ ‘That is my business, sir, as a minister of the Gospel,’ returned the Colonel. ‘Well, Moody, I wish you would pray,’ said Johnson; and instantly both went down upon their knees, at opposite sides of the room. As the prayer waxed fervent, Johnson began to respond in true Methodist style. Presently he crawled over on his hands and knees to Moody’s side, and put his arm over him, manifesting the deepest emotion. Closing the prayer with a hearty ‘Amen’ from each, they arose. Johnson took a long breath, and said, ‘Well, Moody, I feel better!’ Shortly afterwards he asked, ‘Will you stand by me?’ ‘Certainly I will,’ was the answer. ‘Well, Moody, I can depend upon you; you are one in a hundred thousand!’ He then commenced pacing the floor again. Suddenly he wheeled, the current of his thought having hanged, and said: ‘Oh, Moody, don’t think I have become a religious man because I asked you to pray. I’m sorry to say I’m not, and never pretended to be, religious. No one knows that better than you, but Moody, there is one thing about it — I do believe in Almighty God! And I believe also in the BIBLE, and I say ‘d—n’ me, if Nashville shall be surrendered!’”23

President Lincoln wanted three things from Tennessee as the Civil War progressed – loyalty, soldiers, and emancipation. Historian Brooks Simpson contended: “Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22 [1862] was an attempt to encourage the revival of unionism in the South by promising that the administration would allow slavery to continue in areas where citizens elected representatives to Congress. Believing that many Southern whites would thus act ‘to avoid the unsatisfactory prospect before them,’ the president instructed military governors and generals to provide for the holding of elections whenever they could do so. Grant doubted that these measures would succeed in West Tennessee, for secessionist crowds mobbed unionist speakers while guerrilla bands terrorized the countryside and disrupted Union military operations, sometimes by firing on unarmed steamers carrying civilians.”24

President Lincoln was particularly sensitive to the impact that emancipation would have on border states, whose support for his policies he had assiduously cultivated. Restoration of Union control over eastern Tennessee was a special priority for him so negative reaction to the Draft Emancipation Proclamation was bound to affect him. Therefore, in the final Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863, Tennessee was exempted. But slavery’s abolition had to be accompanied by a shift in public opinion and a respect for legal impediments to enforcing emancipation in Tennessee. Indeed, there may have been a legal reason for exempting Tennessee from the final Emancipation Proclamation. According to Samuel Cole Williams, “When North Carolina in 1789 ceded to the general government her lands west of the Alleghanies (the Tennessee country) she stipulated in the legislative act and in the deed of cession that ‘no regulation made or to be made by Congress shall tend to emancipate slaves.’ Congress in 1790 accepted the deed without any change, and there was hesitation in bringing about a breach of the condition on which the general government held the soil of Tennessee. That Johnson urged the exception of Tennessee is confirmed by James G. Blaine, and Lincoln readily concurred since it was his theory, consistently held, that as the State had never been out of the Union, her loyal citizens retained their political rights.”25

Historian William C. Harris noted: “The more conservative Unionists even threatened to cast their lot with the rebellion because of the president’s proclamation. [Congressman] Thomas A.R. Nelson… temporarily renounced his Unionism and issued a printed address to the people of East Tennessee attacking Lincoln’s ‘infamous’ proclamation. He charged that it violated the Constitution and opened the way for servile insurrection in the South. Nelson encouraged East Tennesseans to resist ‘the tyrants and usurpers of the Federal administration who have blasted our hopes and are cruelly seeking to destroy the last vestige of freedom among us.’ Many East Tennessee Unionists, however, refused to believe that Lincoln had changed his policy toward slavery; they rejected Nelson’s address as a rebel forgery.”26

Tennessee Congressman Horace Maynard took his complaints directly to Mr. Lincoln. In a letter to the President, Maynard’s fury was obvious, charging that Mr. Lincoln had “satisfied the clamors of a seditious press and the partisans of a seditious leaders [Charles Sumner], at a terrible cost to us.” Maynard was bitter that the Proclamation had been issued before military action was taken to assure Union control of his section of Tennessee. Ignoring Mr. Lincoln’s repeated prods to military commanders to assert such control, Maynard wrote: “For this, you, you Sir, are directly, individually responsible. There has been no time when an important word from you would have sent the people relief. But you have listened to the counsels of men…[who have] frightened you from your purpose.” Maynard continued his arguments in a personal interview with President Lincoln and wrote General Henry W. Halleck that emancipation would be a “cumulative outrage” upon the rights of his neighbors. 27

Another temperamental Unionist was William G. “Parson” Brownlow. He was a “controversial Methodist minister and newspaper editor” who “became something of a national celerity during the conflict itself” for his outspoken opposition to secession, wrote historian Robert Tracy McKenzie. 28 John Hay described Brownlow as “a tall, slender man, dressed in black clothes, like any Southwestern parson; long, black, straight hair, carelessly combed; sallow complexion, beardless cheeks, black sunken eyes, high cheek bones, and an unmistakable expression of fight on lip, cheek and eyes.”29 He toured the north after expulsion from Tennessee, giving speeches against the Confederacy before returning in 1863 to Knoxville to edit his Whig newspaper and win election as governor in 1865.

Historian William C. Harris wrote that Tennessee’s exemption had “produced a sigh of relief among Union leaders in the state. Johnson wrote the president on January 11, applauding his decision to exclude the state from the provisions of the proclamation and declaring that ‘the Exception in favor of Tennessee will be worth much to us.” 30 The governor himself took the initiative in making a state constitutional change to abolish slavery. “Johnson’s grudging conversion to the antislavery cause gradually became visible during 1862. Early in the year the embattled war governor left Nashville for a speaking tour of the North,” wrote historian David Warren. “As always the former tailor’s speeches were delivered in a style typical of the stump speaker infected with demagoguery. Yet the haphazard, seemingly extemporaneous approach to public speaking should not obscure the fact that, as usual, the crafty politician knew exactly what he was saying, especially in relation to delicate questions involving slavery and emancipation.” 31 Among Johnson’s comments was one in Ohio: “But about the President’s proclamation: as for its effect, I care not the snap of my fingers for it; because the laws derived from the nature of things are at work that will work out the same results, whether right or wrong….These, the Proclamation cannot affect, one way or the other. And let me tell, my friends, that to continue this war is to work the end of slavery.”32

President Lincoln meanwhile urged Governor Johnson to become involved in the recruitment of a black regiment in Tennessee among former slaves. He wrote Governor Johnson on March 26, 1863: “I am told you have at least thought of raising a negro military force. In my opinion the country now needs no specific thing so much as some man of your ability, and position, to go to this work. When I speak of your position, I mean that of an eminent citizen of a slave-state, and himself a slave-holder. The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers upon the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once. And who doubts that we can present that sight if we but take hold in earnest? If you have been thinking of it please do not dismiss the thought.”33

According to Lincoln biographers Nicolay and Hay, “There is no record that Governor Johnson ever made any reply to this proposal of the President. The Governor was already rendering important public service, and he perhaps reasoned justly that the time had not arrived when he could undertake a leadership full of such difficulties, uncertainties, and risks; although later in the same year he took hold of the task in a more restricted and qualified way, and cordially gave his personal and executive assistance in organizing colored regiments.”34

In September 1863, President Lincoln’s priorities shifted again. He wrote Johnson: “All Tennessee is now clear of armed insurrectionists. You need not to be reminded that it is the nick of time for re-inaugurating a loyal State government. Not a moment should be lost. You, and the co-operating friends there, can better judge of the ways and means, than can be judged by any here. I only offer a few suggestions. The re-inauguration must not be such as to give control of the State, and it’s representation in Congress, to the enemies of the Union, driving it’s friends there into political exile. The whole struggle for Tennessee will have been profitless to both State and Nation, if it so ends that Gov. Johnson is put down, and Gov. Harris is put up. It must not be so. You must have it otherwise. Let the reconstruction be the work of such men only as can be trusted for the union. Exclude all others, and trust that your government, so organized, will be recognized here, as being the one of republican form, to be guaranteed to the state, and to be protected against invasion and domestic violence.”

“It is something on the question of time, to remember that it can not be known who is next to occupy the position I now hold, nor what he will do.”
“I see that you have declared in favor of emancipation in Tennessee, for which, may God bless you. Get emancipation into your new State government – Constitution – and there will be no such word as fail for your case.”
“The raising of colored troops I think will greatly help every way.”35

On December 8, 1863, President Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction to guide his efforts to reunify the construction. Over the next year, Mr. Lincoln attempted to push reconstruction on a variety of fronts – but especially in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee. The cooperation of Governor Johnson was vital to this work and President Lincoln tended to cajole rather order Johnson in his duties. On December 10, 1863 President Lincoln wrote Johnson: “I still desire very much to se you[,] can you come[?]” Johnson responded: “I will come.”36

Soon thereafter, Mr. Lincoln tried to accelerate the reconstruction effort in Tennessee. In mid-January 1864, Mr. Lincoln wrote Governor Johnson: “I send by Judge John S. Brien a blank book and some other blanks to facilitate the taking oath of Dec. 8. He will verbally explain the mode of using them. He particularly wishes to have Mr. Benjamin C. Robertson to take the oath. I hope you may find Judge Brien useful, in carrying forward the work generally. I assume that anyone in military commission may administer the oaths. 37 Brien wrote President Lincoln on January 30: “On my arrival in the city… I presented your book and letter of instructions to Gov. Johnson and made the suggestions as directed by you. I was soon known all over the city that the book had arrived, and that an opportunity would be afforded the citizens to manifest their desire for the establishment of law and order and the Government of the United States, and to place upon the record the evidence of their true and hearty return to the old Government of the United States…” Brien wanted clarification on the procedures to be used:

“The next day or two, …Gov. Johnson issued the enclosed proclamation, in which you observe, he prescribed an oath to be taken by every citizen in order to [establish] his qualification to vote. This produced considerable confusion…”
“Now, Mr. President, what I ask of you is to state, in some form which made by made public, the necessary steps to be taken by the people of Tennessee to entitle them to the exercise of the elective franchise.”
“Does the taking…the oath prescribed…restore the party to his original status…? If not, to what extent is he benefited?”
“Are the elections to be held under the laws of Tennessee, until they are changed by the people in some proper form? As a matter of course, they must be held under the laws of the state passed prior to the rebellion, or then by some rule established by you.”
“I need not say that you will see the importance of settling these questions promptly…”
“May I ask of you to state as an order what you stated in the letter to Gov. Johnson: that any commissioned officer is qualified to administer to oath, and that he do so whenever called upon by those entitled to its benefits.”
“Please let me hear from you at once, as I write on behalf of the people of the State.”38

The Lincoln Administration clarified the President’s orders in a telegram on January 25 signed by outgoing Congressman Horace Maynard. The original telegram was in President Lincoln’s handwriting: “The oath in the proclamation may be administered by the Military Governor, the Military commander of the Department, and by all persons designated by them for that purpose. Loyal as well as disloyal should take the oath, because it does not hurt them, clears all question as to their right to vote, and swells the aggregate number who take it, which is an important object. This is the President’s reply to your questions of the 14th. I intend to start for Nashville in the morning. Will go directly through – stopping a few hours in Cincinnati, where a dispatch will reach me.39

Maynard, now Tennessee’s attorney general, returned to the state and warned President Lincoln about excessive liberality toward secessionists in reconstruction: “It is galling in the extreme to many of our best union men, officers and soldiers in the army and others, to be [committed?] to posterity, as they express it, on the same record with men reeking with treason – The expressions of repugnance are too strong to be disregarded – ”

“Gov – Johnson has attempted a solution of the difficulty, in a manner quite satisfactory to the Union men, but greatly to the disgust of secesh & semi-secesh – I will enclose you a copy of his Proclamation, for our March election – In all probability you will be solicited to interfere – This I hope you will not do; certainly without a full conference with Gov. Johnson – ”
“If the union men of this state are compelled to go back under the power of the men who precipitated the state into rebellion, or stood by & saw it done without effort or protest, then God help them – ”
“Already they have suffered enough – From East Tennessee they are fleeing in crowds to escape starvation. The policy of your military leaders there has left the rebels a competency for their families and stock; while between the two armies, the union people have been utterly stript. Can you not instruct Gen. Schofield, to look up the friends of the Government and take care of them? The present tendency is to denude the region of its loyal population and to leave the rebels in the numerical ascendent[.]“40

Meanwhile, Johnson’s political life was about to take another turn. Johnson biographer Winston wrote: “The administration of Governor Johnson, by the year 1864, was attracting universal attention. In the North he was lauded; in the South, bitterly denounced. Lincoln and Stanton, as we have seen, endorsed his vigorous policy. Lincoln, who managed men by diplomacy, and Johnson, who drove them by force, were now agreed that force was necessary. Lincoln’s only fear was that Governor Johnson had been high-handed and tyrannical, as the Confederates were charging. If he had not been a tyrant, Lincoln proposed to honor him as he had never honored another, he was going to name Johnson as his next running-mate. Sundry visitors came to Nashville while Johnson was governor, but no one was so vital to Andrew Johnson’s future as General Daniel E. Sickles. In the spring of 1865 Sickles was sent to Tennessee by Lincoln to investigate the Governor’s record. The President’s object, however, was not disclosed to the General. After reflection Lincoln had concluded that Andrew Johnson was, of all others, the man to run on the ticket with him for Vice-president. The Union was going to pieces and Johnson would strengthen the ticket and bring in a new element of voters.” 41 Many historians doubt that President Lincoln was actively engaged in such a selection process although he did have a habit of collecting observations of key leaders in the Union war effort.

Johnson himself was not an unwilling recruit, according to biographer Hans L. Trefousse: “Johnson had always been ambitious, and his ambition grew with each of his successes. He had harbored presidential hopes at least sine 1852, expectations that even his failed bid fore the presidency in 1860 could not dispel. Then after his Union speech in December 1860, when he became a popular hero in the North, the thought of future honors never left him. His friends flattered his aspirations, and it was not surprising that in 1864 he should emerge as a strong contender for higher office.” Governor Johnson was nominated as the Union-Republican candidate for Vice President at the national convention in Baltimore in early June 1864. Some contemporaries and historians have argued that President took an active role in the replacement of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin on the Republican ticket. The story gained credibility from the reminiscences of Pennsylvania journalist Alexander K. McClure and Pennsylvania politician Simon Cameron. Cameron recalled being sent to the Virginia front to check out the willingness of General Benjamin Butler to run for Vice President. Butler reportedly declined. McClure argued more forcefully that Mr. Lincoln had taken a direct but surrepitious role in pushing for Andrew Johnson to replace Hannibal Hamlin on the ticket. Other contemporaries, especially Lincoln aides John G. Nicolay and John Hay, argued just as forcefully that Mr. Lincoln refused to get involved in the selection of his running mate, although he offered no objection to a War Democrat from a Border State being placed on the ticket as a way of broadening its political appeal. Erstwhile Ohio Congressman Albert Gallatin Riddle wrote in his memoirs: “The President favored Johnson, though certain I am that he made no open declaration of his wishes, nor could there have been anyone authorized to speak for him. Lincoln would never permit himself to attempt to influence the convention.”42 Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher has forcefully argued that stories of President Lincoln’s involvement were a myth created years after the fact.43

Johnson biographer Robert W. Winston, however, wrote that one Pennsylvania delegate stopped at the White House on the way to the Union-Republican National Convention in Baltimore. “‘Whom do you desire put on the ticket with you as Vice-president?’ [Solomon] Pettis asked President Lincoln. ‘Governor Johnson of Tennessee,’ Lincoln replied, leaning forward and answering in a low but distinct tone of voice.”44 But journalist Noah Brooks recalled that just before the convention he tried to get the President to clarify his position on the vice presidential nomination: “But he could not be induced to express any opinion on the subject of the selection of a candidate for Vice President.”45 Having refused to confide in close associates like Brooks, Hay and Nicolay, it seem unlikely he would have to others about the matter.

There was a problem seating Tennessee’s delegation at the 1864 Republican National Convention. Brooks wrote that there was a “bone of contention was the claim of Tennessee, then in an inchoate condition, to be admitted to participation in the doings of the convention. In the middle of the voting, Tennessean Horace Maynard made a stirring speech on Johnson’s behalf that helped turn the tide toward him.” sup>46 When Brooks reported back to the President after the convention, “Mr. Lincoln appeared to have accepted the result, saying, ‘Andy, Johnson, I think, is a good man.’ Nevertheless, I have always been confident that Lincoln, left to himself, would have chosen the old ticket of 1860 – Lincoln and Hamlin – should be placed in the field.”

Meanwhile, Johnson had other worries. Historian Hans L. Trefousse wrote: “It was hardly surprising that Johnson’s nomination complicated the process of restoring the civilian government of Tennessee. Determined to reconstruct the state in accordance with Lincoln’s Amnesty Proclamation, conservatives accused the governor of being the principal obstacle to their plans. And to some degree, they were not wrong. Not willing to entrust his future to the conservative Unionists of Tennessee, Johnson had indeed delayed and complicated the Reconstruction process. But now that he had been selected for higher office, he permitted the state executive committee to call a convention of loyal men to discuss the problem. Over fifty counties were represented when the delegates met in September 1864 at Nashville; by careful preparation, Johnson had seen to it that the radicals were in control and that his friend [Sam] Milligan was elected president.”47

Lincoln biographer Josiah G. Holland wrote that “under [Johnson's] sanction a convention was called, to reorganize the state, that it might take a part in the presidential election. This convention prescribed the form of an oath, that the body deemed proper for those to take who desired to vote. Governor Johnson ordered the election to be held, in accordance with the plan of the convention; and adopted its oath. The oath was one which no heartily loyal man would refuse to take, unless he should object to the following clause: ‘I will cordially oppose all armistices and negotiations for peace with rebels in arms, until the Constitution of the United States, and all laws and proclamations made in pursuance thereof, shall be established over all the people of every state and territory, embraced within the national Union.’ No man, of course, who heartily believed in the peace doctrine of the Chicago platform could take the oath; and there were evidently many men in Tennessee who would not subscribe to another clause – men who could not heartily say: ‘I sincerely rejoice in the triumph of the armies and navies of the United States.’”48

In October 1864, a controversy erupted over the conduct of the presidential election in Tennessee. A group of Tennessee politicians brought President Lincoln a protest against Johnson’s interference “with the freedom of the elective franchise in Tennessee” in the fall of 1864. The protesters reminded Lincoln that ‘many of our citizens have complied in good faith with the terms of amnesty proposed in your Proclamation…” 49 Lincoln biographer Josiah G. Holland wrote: “Against this oath of General McClellan’s friends protested; and they bore their protest to the President. Mr. Lincoln did not receive the paper good-naturedly. He undoubtedly regarded it as an attempt to get him into difficulty, and to make political capital against him. He had faith in the genuine loyalty of the man who would not take the oath. He furthermore felt that it was a matter with which he had not right to interfere, and believed it to be one which John Lellyett, the bearer of the protest, knew he would not undertake to control. Under these circumstances, and in the condition of nervous and mental irritability, to which all the latter part of his life was subject, he gave a reply which was not at all in his usual manner, and which pained his friends quite as much as it rejoiced his foes. The answer, as reported by Mr. Lellyett, was: ‘I expect to let the friends of George B. McClellan manage their side of this contest in their own way, and I will manage my side of it in my way. The committee asked for an answer in writing. ‘Not now,’ replied Mr. Lincoln. ‘Lay those papers down here. I will give no other answer now. I may or may not write something about this hereafter. I know you intended to make a point of this. But go ahead; you have my answer.’”50

President Lincoln concluded a letter to these complainants: “I presume that the conducting of a Presidential election in Tennessee in strict accordance with the old code of the State is not now a possibility. It is scarcely necessary to add that if any election shall be held, and any votes shall be case in the State of Tennessee for President and Vice President of the United States, it will belong, not to the military agents, nor yet to the Executive Department, but exclusively to another department of the Government, to determine whether they are entitled to be counted, in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States. Except it be to give protection against violence, I decline to interfere in any way with any presidential election.” Biographer Holland noted: “The action of the convention and of Governor Johnson was nothing which had been inspired by the national Executive. The Governor, he believed, had the right to favor any plan he might choose to favor, which had been adopted by the loyal citizens of Tennessee; and the President did not see, in the plan adopted, ‘any menace, or violence, or coercion towards any one.’ If the people should vote for president, under this plan, it would neither belong to the President, nor yet to the military Governor of Tennessee, to say whether the vote should be received and counted, but to a department of the government to which, under the Constitution, it was given, to decide.”51

It was a difficult time in Tennessee, according to historian Winston: “In the fall of 1864, whenever political meetings were held scenes of wild disorder occurred. With pistols, clubs, and stone, Radicals broke up Conservative meetings and Conservative dispersed Radical meetings. Governor Johnson now the object of more bitter attack on the part of the rebels than ever before, but his friends came to his rescue. On the night of October 24 a torchlight procession in his honor was staged. Thousands of people lined the streets of Nashville – mostly laborers, mechanics, and slaves. As Andy Johnson rose at the south entrance of the beautiful Capitol to address that mottled assemblage, the poverty-stricken condition of the poor southern whites, under years of slavery, rushed in upon him – lords and overlords, masters and slaves, but no place for the poor white. In that highly organized society the poor white had been but a mud-sill, a something upon which a civilization for the few might be built. Johnson’s early life rose before him and he recalled the slurs, insults, threats and sufferings of later days. ‘What crime have I committed to merit such treatment?’ he asked, addressing the crowd. ‘Has not my life been devoted to uplifting my fellow man, and to improving the general average? As the least of you, my countrymen, have I not conducted myself? Does my fight to save the Union deserve rebuke? Perhaps as Military Governor I may have ‘appeared to be brandishing a club to frighten the people into submission,’ but is that not necessary? How else can rebellion be crushed?”52

On October 18, 1864, President Lincoln drafted but did not issue a proclamation regarding the upcoming vote: “The people of Tennessee, in the year 1861, through the action of their corporate authorities, rose into armed insurrection against the United States and deliberately committed themselves to revolution.” After quoting from a letter from Governor Isham in April 1861, Mr. Lincoln wrote:

“The People of Tennessee have hitherto neglected to comply with the proclamations by which they have been invited to return to their allegiance and resume their constitutional functions in the Union. They still allow pretended Agents to represent them in the revolutionary assemblies held at Richmond. Owing to this condition of affairs the State has been occupied by the military forces of the United States, and the essential powers of municipal administration have been confided by this Government to Andrew Johnson as Military Governor of the aforesaid State. Some of the citizens of that State now manifest a desire to hold elections for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States, although it is manifest that such elections could only be conducted through the superintendence of the military authorities.”
“In view of the facts thus recited, it is apparent that a considerable portion of the people of Tennessee must be regarded as being disloyal insurgents, and while voluntarily remaining in that attitude not entitled to vote for agents to administer the government which they are attempting to overthrow by force. It is understood that the Military Governor has adopted certain regulations designed to prevent such disloyal insurgents from exercising the right of suffrage. A written complaint has been submitted to the President with a view to show that some of these regulations are improper and ought to be modified. The question thus raised is, under the circumstances, a military one, and is to be decided exclusively with regard to the security of the military situation in the State of Tennessee and throughout the United States. For this reason the remonstrance before mentioned is referred to Major General [William T.] Sherman commanding, with instructions to approve or disapprove or modify the regulations prescribed by Gove[r]nor Johnson, as in his judgment, the interests of the military service require. It is hardly necessary to add that if any election shall be held and any votes shall be cast in the State of Tennessee for President and Vice President of the United States, it will belong not to the military agents nor yet to the Executive Department but exclusively to another department of the Government to determine whether such votes were lawfully cast and whether they are entitled to be counted in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”53

The progress of reconstruction did not meet with universal approbation, but Johnson mobilized Union sentiment in a way close to President Lincoln’s heart. On January 13, Johnson wired President Lincoln: “The Convention composed of more than five hundred delegates from all parts of the State have unanimously adopted an amendment to the constitution forever abolishing Slavery in this State and denying the power of the Legislature passing any law creating property in man. Thank God that the tyrants rod has been broken. This amendment is to be submitted to the people for ratification on the birth day of the Father of his Country, when, without some reverse of arms, the state will be redeemed and the foul blot of Slavery erased from her escutcheon.” President Lincoln replied the next day: “Yours announcing ordinance of emancipation received. Thanks to the Convention and to you. When do you expect to be glad to have your suggestions as to supplying your place of Military Governor.”54

Reconstruction issues obsessed Johnson in early 1865 and he was reluctant to leave the state capital for the nation’s seat of government. Historian Eric Foner wrote: “Before leaving for Washington, Johnson took direct action to reconstruct the state. Bypassing elections, he endorsed the assembling of a self-appointed convention of unconditional Unionists. This, in turn, adopted a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery that won the nearly unanimous approval of the 25,000 white Tennesseans permitted to vote in a February 1865 referendum.”55

Johnson wrote President Lincoln January 13: “The Convention composed of more than five hundred delegates from all parts of the State have unanimously adopted an amendment to the constitution forever abolishing slavery in this State and denying the power of the Legislature passing any law creating property in man. Thank God that the tyrants rod has been broken – This amendment is to be submitted to the people for ratification on the birth day of the Father of his Country, when, without some reverse of arms, the state will be redeemed and the foul blot of Slavery erased from her escutcheon – I hope that Tennessee will not be included in the bill now before Congress and be made an exception if the bill passes. All is now working well and if Tennessee is now let alone will soon resume all functions of a State according to the genius and theory of the Government.”56

The next day, Johnson wrote President Lincoln confirming “The ordinance abolishing slavery will be adopted by the people on the 22d of February. Legislature and the Governor will be elected on the 4th of March, and will meet on the first Monday in April, when the State will be organized and resume all the functions of a state in the Union. I would prefer remaining where I am until that time, and then hand it all over to the people….” Johnson went on to state: “I would rather have the pleasure and honor of turning over the state, organized…than be Vice President of the United States. At some convenient time after the first Monday in April, I could be qualified &c. There are precedents for qualifying Vice Presidents after the fourth of March. Give me your opinion on the subject.”57 President Lincoln was insistent on Johnson’s presence in Washington: “Several members of the Cabinet, with myself, consider the question to-day as to the time of your coming on here. While we fully appreciate your wish to remain in Tennessee until her State-Government shall be completely re-inaugerated, it is our unanamous [sic] conclusion that it is unsafe for you to not be here on the fourth of March. Be sure to reach here by that time. 58 Tennessee’s vote for ratification was overwhelming – 25,293 to 48.”

On February 13, President responded to military officers who requested “relief which the people of the District of West Tennessee ask at your hands…” He wrote: “While I can not order as within requested, allow me to say that it is my wish to for you to relieve the people from all burthens, harrassments, and oppressions, so far as is possible, consistently with your Military necessities; that the object of the war being to restore and maintain the blessings of peace and good government, I desire you to help, and no hinder, every advance in that direction. Of your Military necessities you must judge and execute; but please do so in the spirit and with the purpose above indicate.”59

When Johnson did arrive in the nation’s capital in March 1865, he quickly got into very public trouble. Johnson was not a drinking man but an unfortunate swig of brandy raised questions of his sobriety. Johnson was sworn in the Senate by the Chief Justice an hour before the Inauguration outside the Capitol. He announced he was a humble man whom had been blessed by the American form of government: “here even the humblest has a chance wit the mightiest.” Johnson was tired and sick from his trip from Tennessee. When he explained on the carriage ride to the Capitol that his doctor had prescribed liquor, outgoing Vice President Hamlin served him some brandy.

Journalist Noah Brooks wrote listeners found it difficult “to follow the incoherence’s of this maudlin speech. For twenty minutes he ran on about Tennessee, adjuring senators to do their duty when she sent two senators here, urging that she never was out of the Union, etc. In vain did Hamlin nudge him from behind, audibly reminding him that the hour for the inauguration ceremony had passed. He kept on, though the President of the United States sat before him patiently waiting for his tirade to be over. The study of the faces below was a curiosity; Seward was as bland and serene as summer; Stanton looked like a petrified man; [Gideon] Welles never has any expression; [James] Speed sat with his eyes shut; [William] Dennison was red and white by turns. Among senators, [Henry] Wilson was as red as a turkey cock, [Charles] Sumner was smiling, and the rest turned and twisted in long drawn agony. Of the supreme bench [Justice Samuel] Nelson of New York was only moved, apparently, his lower jaw being dropped clean down in blank horror; Chase was marble, adamant, and granite in immobility, until Johnson turned his back to take the oath, when he exchanged glances with Nelson, who then closed up his mouth.” 60 At the end of his remarks, Johnson said:

“Before I conclude this brief inaugural address, in the presence of this audience – and I, though a pleb[e]ian boy, am authorized by the principle of the government under which I live to feel proudly conscious that I am a man, and grave dignitaries are but men – before the Supreme Court, the representative I have been is free. She has bent the tyrant’s rod, she has broken the yoke of slavery, and to-day she stands redeemed! She waited not for the exercise of power by Congress; it was her own act, and she is now as loyal, Mr. Attorney General, as is the State from which you come [Kentucky]. It is the doctrine for the Federal Constitution that no State can go out of the Union; and moreover Congress cannot eject a State from the Union. Thank God, Tennessee has never been out of the Union! It is true the operations of her government were for a time interrupted: there was an interegrum [sic]; but she is still in the Union and I am her representative. This days she elects her Governor and Legislature, which will be convened on the first Monday of April, and again her Senator and Representatives will soon mingle with those of her sister States; and who shall gainsay it; for the Constitution requires that to every State shall be guaranteed a republican form of government.”61

After the Senate ceremony, according to Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, “As Senator [John B.] Henderson offered his arm to Lincoln for taking their place in the march to the inaugural platform outside, Henderson heard Lincoln say to a marshal, ‘Don not let Johnson speak outside.” Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch met several days later with President Lincoln and the subject of Johnson’s inebriation came up. “Oh, well, don’t you bother about Andy Johnson’s drinking. He made a bad slip the other day, but I have know Andy for a great many years, and he ain’t no drunkard.”63

Nevertheless, historian William C. Harris wrote: “Johnson’s tipsy behavior caused Lincoln a great deal of silent grief, so much so that, despite his earlier practice of holding frequent conferences with the Tennessean, he did not meet with him again until April 14 – the day of the assassination.”64

Former Wisconsin Governor Leonard J. Farwell was at Ford’s theater on the night of President Lincoln’s assassination. After John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln, Farwell rushed from the theater back to the Kirkwood House, where he had a suite. Farwell went immediately to the suite of Vice President Johnson: “I rapped and received no answer. I then rapped and said in a loud voice, ‘Governor Johnson, if you are in the room, I must see you’.” The noise woke Johnson from a deep sleep. He opened the door and Farwell gave him the news: “Someone has shot and murdered the President.” Overcome with emotion, the two men embraced and then Farwell arranged for a bodyguard to be posted outside Johnson’s room.65 Fortunately for Johnson, George Azerodt had failed to carry out the assassination to which he had been assigned by Booth. The next day, Andrew Johnson took the oath of office as the 17th President of the United States.65


 
References

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  2. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, May 3, 1861, p. 17.
  3. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Draft of Proclamation regarding votes cast by Tennessee in upcoming presidential election, October 18, 1864).
  4. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Isham G. Harris, May 11, 1861).
  5. Thomas B. Alexander, Thomas A. R. Nelson of East Tennessee, p. 73.
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  13. David Warren Bowen, Andrew Johnson and the Negro, p. 90.
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  31. David Warren, Andrew Johnson and the Negro, p. 101.
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  39. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, pp.149-150 (Letter from Horace Maynard to Andrew Johnson, January 25, 1864).
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  46. Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time, p. 142.
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  53. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Draft of Proclamation regarding votes cast by Tennessee in upcoming presidential election, October 18, 1864).
  54. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, pp. 216-217 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Andrew Johnson, January 14, 1865).
  55. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, p. 44.
  56. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Andrew Johnson to Abraham Lincoln, January 14, 1865).
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  59. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected works of Abraham Lincoln,Volume VIII, pp. 294-295 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Military Officers Commanding in West Tennessee, February 13, 1865).
  60. Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time, p. 212.
  61. David M. DeWitt, “Vice-President Andrew Johnson,” Publications of the Southern History Association, March 1905, pp. 440-441.
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  65. Howard Means, The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days that Changed the Nation, pp. 15-16.

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