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Chapter 8:

Presidential obstruction.

the Reconstruction policy of Congress was of course galling to the South, and with the knowledge that their hostility was shared by the Head of the State, it was perhaps not unnatural that a population just emerging from armed rebellion should look to seditious action at this crisis. There were indications of such a course, especially at New Orleans, where Sheridan was in command. He so reported to Grant, who laid the matter before the President and the Secretary of War. After consultation with those authorities Grant forwarded the following order to Sheridan. I give the text as he originally penciled it, with his subsequent omissions inclosed in brackets. Together they show both his first impulse and the restraint he put upon himself to convey no false impression of the President's view:

Use the military to prevent conflict or riot (under the authority granted by civil rights bill and recent act of Congress). The law can decide after district commanders are named in relation to legality of measures resorted to by opposing parties in New Orleans. The President [has now under consideration the question of assignment of district commanders] is now taking steps to put the recent act of Congress into effect. The President directs [that you enforce the law and prevent conflict or riot by judicious use of the military] that [law and] order be preserved and the law enforced.

March 9, 1867.
U. S. Grant, General.

The dispatch finally read: ‘The President directs that [65] order be preserved in New Orleans and the laws enforced.’ With this Grant sent a copy of the Reconstruction law. This he had not been directed to do by the President.

The whole force of the Reconstruction measure lay in the power of the District Commanders to remove civil officers who opposed or obstructed the new law. Mr. Johnson at once took the ground, as I have shown, that no such power existed in those commanders. Grant knew personally and positively that Congress had intended to confer this power, for he had been constantly consulted during the preparation of the bill. Indeed, it had been proposed not only to bestow the power on District Commanders, but on himself, as their superior. This, however, he disadvised. He was still unwilling to be placed in open antagonism to the President, and, besides, thought it wise not to provoke him by public humiliations or unnecessary restrictions of his authority. He had therefore urged that the appointment of District Commanders should be left with the President, and that the supervisory authority also should be committed to the Executive rather than to the head of the Army; for he believed that Congress could maintain a sufficient check upon any hostile action of the President.

Johnson, however, at once made it certain that his claws had not been so closely pared but that he could still do serious mischief. Nevertheless, Grant remained averse to taking or advising any step which might aggravate the difficulties of the situation. His policy at this crisis is shown in the following letter of April 21, 1867, to Sheridan:


my dear General,—As yet no decision has been given by the Attorney-General on the subject of the right of District Commanders to remove civil officers and appoint their successors. It is likely, however, that he will give attention to that subject and all other questions submitted to him arising under the Reconstruction act, as soon as he is through with the Mississippi motion to file a bill [66] of injunction against certain parties to restrain them from executing the laws of Congress. In the meantime I would advise that in case any of the civil officers obstruct the laws they be suspended and tried by military commissions. This right certainly does exist on the part of District Commanders, and I have no doubt myself on the subject of their power to remove arbitrarily. The lawmakers clearly contemplated providing military governments for the rebel States until they were fully restored, in all their relations, to the General Government. They evidently only recognized present State governments as provisional, for convenience, to be made use of by District Commanders, just so far as they could be used in carrying out the will of Congress, and no further.

One of the most important matters under the new law was the registration of voters. This was to include all male citizens, without distinction of race, color, or previous condition—except such as had been disfranchised for participation in the Rebellion, or for felony at common law; and every quibble was at once resorted to at the South and indorsed by Johnson, to secure the registration of those whom Congress had intended to disfranchise. The subject was constantly coming up before the District Commanders, who promptly referred all intricate points to Grant. On this head he wrote to Sheridan in the letter already quoted:

On the subject of who can register under the law, I think it was the intention to exclude only those who are excluded from holding office under the Constitutional amendment, and those who have previously been disfranchised for infamous crimes, such as were recognized before the Rebellion as sufficient cause for disfranchisement. Of course there is no greater crime than that of attempting to overthrow the Government. But that is the particular crime which is forgiven by the Reconstruction Act except to certain offenders who are supposed from their previous relations to the General Government to be more guilty than the rest. The supplementary bill, particularly the oath prescribed to be taken before registration, would seem to provide for the disfranchisement of a [67] class of citizens that ought always to be disfranchised in every community, for their gross violation of law, and could not have been intended as a further punishment, or the punishment of other classes, for the crime of treason against the Government. By the same rule of judging I do not think that a class of citizens who heretofore have not had the elective franchise can be excluded for acts which would not have disfranchised them had they possessed the privilege of voting. I give this only as my views on the subject. If I were commanding a district, however, I would require registering officers to keep two lists. On one I would register the names of all about whose right to register there could be no doubt, and on the other all those about whom there might be doubt.

There has nothing new transpired affecting you. I think your head is safe above your shoulders, at least so that it cannot be taken off to produce pain.

The last sentence refers to the intention Johnson had already manifested to remove Sheridan, because that officer was evidently determined to obey the law.

On April 21st, the day when he wrote thus to Sheridan, Grant sent the following dispatch to Pope, another of the District Commanders. There are passages in this letter which in ordinary times might have subjected its writer to trial by court martial for insubordination and disrespect to the President. But a court martial must have been composed of men who had fought for the Union, and it is doubtful if one could have been formed to pronounce Grant's course at this juncture other than patriotic and commendable.

General Grant to General Pope.

my dear General,—Having read Governor Jenkins's address to the citizens of Georgia, I was on the eve of writing you a letter advising his suspension and trial before a military commission when your dispatch announcing that the Governor had given such assurance as to render your order in his case unnecessary was received. . . . My views are that District Commanders are responsible for the faithful execution of the Reconstruction Act [68] of Congress, and that in civil matters I cannot give them an order. I can give them my views, however, for what they are worth, and above all, I can advise them of views and opinions here which may serve to put them on their guard. When General Sheridan removed three civil officers in the State of Louisiana, an act which delighted the loyal North, and none more than the supporters of the Congressional Reconstruction Bill in Congress, it created quite a stir, and gave expression to the opinion in other quarters, that he had exceeded his authority. I presume the Attorney-General will give a written opinion on the subject of the powers of District Commanders to remove civil officers and appoint their successors. When he does I will forward it to all the District Commanders. It is very plain that the power of District Commanders to try offenders by military commissions exists. I would advise that commissions be resorted to rather than arbitrary removals until an opinion is had from the Attorney-General, or it is found that he does not intend to give one.

I will say here, General, that I have watched your course closely, as I have that of all the District Commanders, and find nothing you have done that does not show prudence and judgment. Rest assured that all you have done meets with the approval of all who wish to see the act of Congress executed in good faith.

And so, with caution and moderation mingled with decision and determination, he advised the subordinates whom in civil matters he held that he could not command. They all took his advice with the same deference as if it had been an order, and followed it implicitly. Sheridan, Sickles, Schofield, Pope, and Ord, the five District Commanders, all were in harmony with him and with Congress, although all had once been without any tinge of abolition sentiment and all had sympathized fully with the original magnanimity of Grant.

But not only was his influence with the army enormous, his popularity with the entire country was at this time at its height. Doubtless it was the knowledge of this popularity which restrained Johnson from manifesting open resentment [69] at the course of his subordinate. Wherever Grant went he was attended by enthusiastic crowds; audiences at the theatres, and congregations in churches rose when he entered; the actors themselves applauded him from the stage, the preachers prayed for him by name from the pulpit; towns were illuminated because of his arrival; triumphal arches were built for him. The population of the North seemed unanimous in its manifestations of affection and admiration; the supporters of the war because he had been victorious, the friends of the South because he had been magnanimous. It is impossible to understand either Johnson's forbearance or Grant's authority all through this epoch without bearing constantly in mind that Grant was the most popular man in America.

I visited with him every important city at the North, and witnessed the ovations he received from millions. I was constantly at his house in Washington, and saw the thousands who thronged to his receptions there. I gave out the invitations to his parties, and was besieged with requests from the illustrious and the obscure; from foreign Ministers and Southern Generals, from people of highest fashion, who were proud to be seen at his entertainments, and from private soldiers and humble citizens, who were made as welcome as any. Those who had scorned him and the cause that he represented, who had pretended to think him common and plain, were swept along with the current; women of politics opposed to his own, who once had positively refused to be presented to him, now made efforts to obtain admission to his house; and especially every man who had ever fought against him was ready to do him honor, for every man felt that he owed him his parole, and every officer his sword.

All this was known to the President, who came, as I have said, to Grant's parties with all the rest of the world. At one of Grant's receptions at which Mr. Johnson was present, I recollect also Alexander H. Stephens, the Vicedent [70] of the down-fallen Confederacy, recently released at Grant's interposition from his prison; the Minister of the French Emperor, and the family of the Mexican President, Juarez, whom that Emperor had through Grant's interposition resisted in vain; a crowd of fashionable Northern women whose husbands had opposed the war, and every officer of the Union army who was then in Washington. The spectacle of this complex society crowding around the first soldier of the country impressed the Head of the State, and made him understand that it was better to seem, at least, in accord with this man than to be known as his political adversary.

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