By Dr. James H. Bissland
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Dr. James Bissland’s latest book, Blood, Tears, & Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War, published in 2007, and appears here through the courtesy of the author. Dr. Bissland will be speaking before the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable at its November 2008 meeting.
Sometimes it seemed as if the nation had split in half, the old sense of common purpose gone, replaced by two countries with the same name. One America, mostly quiet, rural, and sure of its goodness, was proudly conservative, and revered the values of the past. The other America was more urban and industrialized, disputatious, and irreverent. It considered itself progressive and looked to the future. The conservative America was firmly rooted in the South, while the other America was populated mostly by Northerners. After years of suspicion, fear, and name-calling between the two Americas, the United States—united more in name than fact—teetered on the edge of violence. It was April 1861.
In the town of Galena, Illinois, in the spring of 1861 there lived a man who had failed at almost everything except for one thing. Midway through each day he would leave the leather goods store where he was a clerk and tramp up a steep hillside to his small, rented house for a meal with his family. Every night he would return to play with his four children and read out loud to his wife, Julia. He spent little time elsewhere, had only a few friends, and even after a year in Galena thought himself “a comparative stranger.” He treasured his time at home, for his only real success in adult life had been to marry the woman he loved and raise a family.
This was Ulysses S. Grant, a broad-chested, stolid man of few words and no great height, reduced at age thirty-eight to what must have seemed his last, best chance in life. Born and raised in southern Ohio, son of a tanner, he had glumly attended West Point because his father willed it. In 1843 young Grant began an Army career with no enthusiasm. Stationed far from home, lonely, and still a junior officer after eleven years of service, he drank to ease the pain and in 1854 resigned, possibly to escape a court martial for drunkenness.
Almost penniless, the civilian Grant rejoined his family near St. Louis, Missouri, “to commence, at the age of thirty-two, a new struggle for our support.” The struggle would last six years and be fruitless. Grant failed at farming, could not make a go of selling real estate, and was passed over for a position with the county government. Finally, he humbled himself to ask his father for a job—signifying he couldn’t support a family on his own. In April 1860 Ulysses and Julia Grant and their four children left St. Louis and, led by Ulysses wearing his old army coat and lugging the family’s chairs, arrived by steamboat in the northwestern Illinois town of Galena.
For the next year, ex-Captain Grant led the humdrum life of a clerk, waiting for a partnership in a store managed by his two younger brothers and owned by his absentee father, now living in Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Every day he trudged the steep hillsides of Galena from home to store and back again. Occasionally he traveled the surrounding territory on store business, finding the rising tensions between North and South discussed wherever he went. Grant would listen quietly and now and then speak, measuring out the words as if he was putting money on the table, stopping exactly when he had spent enough.
One day someone said, “There’s a great deal of bluster about these Southerners, but I don’t think there’s much fight in them.” Grant—who had married a woman with Southern roots and knew a great deal about them—replied concisely. Southerners liked to “bluster,” he agreed, but he warned, “[I]f they ever get at it, they will make a strong fight.” One more thing: “[E]ach side underestimates the other and overestimates itself.”
There was something about this quiet man that commanded respect, but to his listeners he was no more than a clerk who had once been in the army. In three years, he would command all of the nation’s armies. In eight years he would be president of the United States.
A year after Grant left the St. Louis area, a tall, lanky, talkative man with red hair arrived in the city. He, too, had been born in Ohio and attended West Point, graduating three years before Grant. Like Grant, he had become an army captain, but then he married and left the service. His father had named him Tecumseh in the hope that he would become a great warrior, but by April 1861 William Tecumseh Sherman’s only battle was with boredom. Trained to be a military officer, he now, at age forty-one, was running a horse-car line.
Sherman’s civilian career had paid more than Grant’s, but was just as filled with roadblocks and dead-ends. He had managed the San Francisco branch of a St. Louis bank until the bank gave up on it. A real estate law venture in Kansas failed. Next, army friends helped Sherman win the job, in 1859, of superintending the newly established Louisiana State Seminary and Military Academy (today’s Louisiana State University). But within a year and a half Louisiana seceded from the Union, putting Sherman’s loyalties to the test. Sherman liked Southerners and he liked his job but he was a loyal Union man, so he resigned and returned north in March 1861.
On his way home, Sherman was introduced to the newly inaugurated president, Abraham Lincoln. A jocular remark by Lincoln offended the highly sensitive Sherman, a man as tightly wound and delicately balanced as a watch spring. He went huffing back to Lancaster, Ohio, to pick up his wife and five children, who, after more than a year, he still had not brought to Louisiana. The Sherman marriage was less serene than Grant’s, for the tirelessly Catholic Eleanor (called “Ellen”) Ewing Sherman had dedicated herself to bringing her husband into the faith, while he was just as dedicated to remaining unchurched.
Once again, friendship helped Sherman get a new job, this time as president of the Fifth Street Railroad in St. Louis. Except for the title, with salary to match, it wasn’t much of a job; the horse-car line was already up and running smoothly. As Sherman remembered it, “[A]ll I had to do was to watch the economical administration of existing affairs.” And so, in April 1861, as Civil War loomed, the man with the name of a famous Indian warrior was not preparing for battle but making sure the horse cars kept plodding on their endless rounds. Eventually, his fame as a general would rival Grant’s, and for years after the war he would have to fend off urgings to run for president.
In the nation’s capital, seven hundred miles from Galena and St. Louis, a third Ohio-born man was drumming his fingers and fuming during April 1861. Short, pudgy, myopic, and asthmatic, he was a brilliant lawyer known for his bad temper. Until Lincoln’s inauguration he had been the nation’s attorney general and in the hapless Buchanan administration probably had been the smartest man in the room. With the change of administrations from Buchanan’s to Lincoln’s, however, he had been returned to the sidelines.
The man was forty-six-year-old Edwin McMasters Stanton, a lifelong Democrat who did not fit the Democratic stereotype, for he was strongly pro-Union and thoroughly opposed to slavery. Faced with the prospect of the South seceding while a fractured Democratic administration argued with itself, Attorney General Stanton had had to choose among his loyalties. As the nation slipped into chaos while Buchanan dithered, Stanton had secretly begun subverting his own president.
Openly, Stanton worked to stiffen Buchanan’s wobbly backbone in defense of the Union, but unbeknownst to the president he was passing inside information to the Republican opposition in Congress. When he could, Stanton also sabotaged efforts by disloyal Cabinet members to secretly divert the nation’s military resources to the nascent Confederacy.
Now, in April 1861, Buchanan was gone, replaced on Inauguration Day the month before by Abraham Lincoln—and former Attorney General Stanton was growing angrier by the day. Contrary to Stanton’s expectations, the new Republican president was making conciliatory noises toward the South. Expected to act decisively for the Union, Lincoln seemed to be temporizing, and that made Stanton even madder at Lincoln than he had been at Buchanan. “There is no settled principle or line of action,” he complained of the new administration. “What but disgrace and disaster can happen?” But Stanton’s opportunity for a settled principle would come soon enough.
Stanton’s irritability drew from a deep well of tragedy and loss, aggravated by severe asthma. While Stanton was living in Ohio, his fifteen-month-old daughter Lucy died in 1841, followed in less than three years by his beloved wife, Mary. Then, in 1846, Stanton’s brother Darwin cut his own throat—“The blood spouted up to the ceiling,” a doctor recalled.
So many losses in so short a time changed Stanton’s personality, replacing a hearty good humor with a brusque, even rude, intensity. He moved to Pittsburgh, lost himself in legal work, and turned into a ferocious litigator. Andrew Carnegie, then only a telegraph messenger boy, recalled Stanton was “ever deeply serious.” The Ohio-born lawyer re-married, this time to a much younger woman, Ellen Hutchison. A member of a prominent Pittsburgh family, Ellen matched Stanton in aloofness.
In 1856, the Stantons moved to Washington, where Stanton had a growing clientele. After solving some legal problems for the Buchanan government, Stanton was appointed attorney general in 1860. Until Lincoln’s ascension to the presidency the next year, Stanton was the nation’s top lawyer, recognized in high circles, but only a name, and little known at that, to most Americans.
So it was, on the eve of the Civil War, that Ulysses S. Grant in his old army coat silently trudged the hills of Galena while William Tecumseh Sherman idled in his St. Louis office and Edwin McMasters Stanton smoldered in Washington. All had been born in Ohio within the span of a generation, but didn’t know each other. Few outside their own circles knew them, either, and for that matter, with their depths unplumbed, they scarcely knew or understood themselves. They had been traveling bumpy roads from plain beginnings and, having been tested but little for greatness, seemed unlikely candidates for it.
And yet, by the end of the war, they could be called saviors of the nation, three of the four most important leaders who saved a threatened America and the promise it held out to everyone. All came from the region known then as “the West” and we know today as the Midwest. The fourth of these rescuers was Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, yet another obscure Midwesterner, a gawky rube (“I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh”), the man with the plainest beginning of all.
Proof for all time that any boy can grow up to be president in this land of opportunity, the story of Lincoln’s rise from rail-splitting poverty to national father figure, may be, as one historian has said, “the great American story.” But there are others.
Novelist Allan Gurganus calls his fellow Southerners “championship grudge-bearers,” but points out, “True, we lost once, big-time. But our concession prize? The stories.” Take those tales—many romanticized, some bitter—that Southerners tell about the Civil War, add the fascination many of us have with eastern battles like Gettysburg, and the examined result is this: we’ve missed some of the most important stories of the Civil War. Among them are true accounts of how the Civil War was decided mostly west, not east, of the Appalachians, how rough-hewn, hard-to-discipline “Westerners”—especially those from the sister states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois—did the fighting that made the difference, and how Western commanders finally had to go east to finish the war the Easterners couldn’t.
To fight this war came the citizen-soldiers—in one Midwestern state alone, Ohio, 300,000 men, roughly one of every ten citizens. Another 450,000 came from Ohio’s sisters, Indiana and Illinois, meaning these three raw-boned, relatively young and still-developing states by themselves supplied a fourth of the Union’s soldiers. They came from every corner of their states and from every walk of life, putting down their law books and ledgers, pens and plows to become colonels and captains and sergeants and ordinary infantrymen for three or four years. They streamed off farms and out of offices, shops, and classrooms to wear uniforms for the first time in their lives and learn war the hardest, most dangerous way: on the battlefield. They encountered lives of hardship unimaginable by our modern high-tech, well-supplied military. The men of the Civil War ate gut-grinding food (and sometimes didn’t even have that), drank bilious water, and frequently slept on the ground. They went unwashed for weeks, wore ragged, faded clothing, sometimes marched shoeless, and most of the time were infested with lice.
For all that, the privates were paid $13 a month, if they even got it on time. But they were sustained by wives and sweethearts and mothers and sisters and children and all those who nursed the sick and wounded or wrote the letters and packed the food parcels and held the soldiers in their hearts. And they were sustained by a great sense of purpose: this was a citizen’s fight to save their country, a sacred cause that would take almost every ounce of energy the nation had. It was not war on the cheap.
The Unionists of the 1860s believed, first of all, that this was one nation, indivisible, a place unique in world history, illuminated by the Enlightenment, created by and for all the people, not just the privileged. For the South to reject that and deny, by their breaking away, what so many had worked and fought so hard to create was wrong. “The cause of America,” Thomas Paine wrote in his commonsensical way more than 230 years ago, “is in a great measure the cause of a mankind,” and a century and half before that, John Winthrop famously told us we were a city upon a hill.
In their schools, political arenas, and cultural artifacts, the Americans of 1860 were endlessly reminded of the greatness of their forefathers and how they had made a land that was like no other, a beacon for the world. And, for the sake of all mankind, Unionists believed and the Confederates denied, the United States had to be defended.
There was something else, something that made that city upon a hill possible and kept its light shining. The generator of the American ideal, the wellspring of the American Dream, is the “equality promise” the Founding Fathers had made in the Declaration of Independence and of which Lincoln kept reminding everyone: All men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Burdened with inherited prejudices and occupied with their chores, most nineteenth-century Americans did not so much understand the equality promise as sense it, meaning in its most elemental terms, “I am a free man in the land of opportunity.”
In time, though, with the help of the Railsplitter, Americans would come to understand the equality promise applied to others, and most immediately it meant this: slavery, human bondage, the owning of one human being by another, not only was inhumane, but a denial of the promise of America, and it had to be ended.
In 1853 a Northern senator whose sentiments lay southerly declared, in sneering tones that the phrase “all men are created equal” was not a “self-evident truth,” but “a self-evident lie.” Rising to answer, Sen. Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio thundered, “The great declaration cost our forefathers too dear to be lightly thrown away by their children.”
And it would not. We of the Twenty-first Century have been disappointed by too many leaders to quickly remember there was a time when millions of Americans volunteered not only to defend the nation but, implicitly, to keep the equality promise. They risked their lives, their health, and their own futures to protect the nation and the covenant it had made with them…and us. And that may be the greatest American story of all.
About the book: Next to Lincoln, the war’s most important leaders were three men with Ohio roots: the first, a silent, slouchy little man who hated the sight of blood and loved his family more than anything; the second, a jittery lover of literature who was once thought to be insane; the third, a sickly lawyer known for his mysterious ways and ferocious temper. And, far more than we realize, women and blacks played major roles in the drama. Together, the men and women of the Civil War era form one of our greatest generations, and their many stories of heroism and heartbreak, brilliance and stupidity, compassion and cruelty, come together for the first time in one great story: Blood, Tears, & Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War. (From the publisher.)
About the author: Dr. James Bissland is an associate professor of journalism emeritus at Bowling Green State University and the author of several books and many articles. For years his primary focus as a journalist was as a human interest feature writer. In addition to Blood, Tears, & Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War (2007), Dr. Bissland also has written Long River Winding: Life, Love, and Death Along the Connecticut (2003) and co-authored Bountiful Ohio: Good Food and Stories from Where the Heartland Begins (1993). Dr. Bissland was born in New England and moved to the Midwest in 1976, settling in Bowling Green in 1976. He is a graduate of Cornell University, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and the University of Iowa.
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