Civil War Politics, Nationalism, and Postwar Myths

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  • and Postwdr BY

    M y t h

    FRANK L. KLEMENT

    ISTORY, Napoleon Bonaparte once stated somewhat cynically, is a myth men agree to believe, i.e., lies agreed upon. Thomas Carlyle, dipping his pen in acid ink, offered a similar supposition by defining

    history as the distillation of rumor.* Although American his- torians, preaching probity and extolling objectivity, have elimi- nated many legends and erroneous interpretations from the stream of Civil War history, some myths and incorrect assumptions re- main as pollutants, darkening the waters and affecting its purity.

    Civil War myths and legends gained respectability and ac- ceptance as fact in the years following the conflict partly because nationalism helped to transform partisan and majority views into the correct ideas and interpretations. Nationalism, as a political force and a subtle operative, affects the minds of men and affects the writing of a countrys history. Defined as a psychological phenomenon and a state of mind, nationalism dictates that everyone owes his loyalty to the nation-state and provides a frame- work for consensus history.3 It tends to promote majority con- tentions of an age, or an era, as the true views and proper inter- pretations. It tends to transform historical figures into national heroes, lauding their virtues, effacing their errors, and tarring. their critics. I t even tends to present partisan suppositions and mcor-

    Dr. Klement, Professor of History at Marquette University, served as president of Phi Alpha Theta during the 1974-75 biennium. This topic was his presidential address at the international convention of Phi Alpha Theta in Atlanta on Decem- ber 29, 1975.

    1 J. Christopher Herold, The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from His Writ- ten and Spoken Words (New York, 1955), 50.

    2Thomas Carlyle, The French Rewolution: A History, 3 vols. (London, 1898), I: 256.

    8Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nutionalism, A Study of Its Origins and Back- ground (New York, 1!344), 16. Boyd Shafer, president of Phi Alpha Theta during the 1972-73 biennium, is the author of two books which deal with nationalism as a world force: (1) Nationalism, Myth and Reality (New York, 1935), and ( 2 ) Faces of Nationalism, New Realities and Old Myths (New York, 1972). Also see Shafer, Webs of Common Interests: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Peace, The Historian 36 (May 1974): 403-33.

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  • The Historian rect assumptions of the Civil War years, the majority views of the time, as historical truths and galvanized generalizations. His- torical myths and legends, historian Thomas A. Bailey stated in an address, are needful in establishing national identity and stimu- lating patriotic pride.4

    Some of the Civil War myths and legends arose out of the political contentions and the political stratagems practiced by the majority party which controlled both Congress and the White House during the early 1860s. The Republican party held most of the governorships as well, and party leaders, therefore, had an opportunity to claim that they were the government, present their contentions as the true views, and practice tactics to stifle and suppress the opposlition, i.e., Democratic dissenters who wanted their own views and suppositions to prevail.

    The Civil War years witnessed some despicable political prac- tices or dirty tricks, for the greater the intensity of partisanship, the more likely immoral means will be used to serve partisan ends. Although Democrats of the war years did not have clean hands at all times, Republican practices and political claims had the far greater effect in determining what facts and generalizations weavers put into the fabric of history. Repitblican contentions provided much of the woof, their practices much of the warp.

    Joseph Medill, an influential Republican and editor of the Chicago Tribune, typified party spokesmen whose misrepresenta- tions and practices gave shape and color to the fabric of history. His opinions and assertions, made in the columns of his news- paper, provided documentation for latter-day historians writing consensus history. Patron of a young aspiring politician named Abraham Lincoln, Medill gave his protCgC some confidential ad- vice in 1859: Go in boldly, strike straight from the shoulder- hit below the belt as well as above, and kick like thunder.5 No- body, not even Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune nor Governor Oliver P. iMorton of Indiana, hit below the belt as consistently and effectively as Medill.

    Civil War politics contain countless examples of artful lying, outright forgery, and smear tactics, as well as the use of such devious stratagems as fashioning bogeymen, devising conspiracies and ex- pos&, and using the arms of the government to present falsehood as fact - falsehoods which posterity accepted as correct events, ideas, and interpretations.

    Thomas A. Bailey (presidential address at the 1968 convention of the Or- ganization of American Historians), The Mythmakers of American History, Journal of American History 60 (June 1968): 5.

    &Joseph Medill to Abraham Lincoln, September 10, 1859, Robert Todd Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.

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  • Civil War The manufacture of lies as political propaganda was a most

    commo

  • The Historian received an extensive circulation in the Republican press:

    (1) Vallandighams arrival in Canada coincided with the New York antidraft riots of July 13-16. 1863. Republican editors supposed that Vallandigham had been responsible, in one way or another, for the violence, perhaps conniving with Confederate agents to start the rioting. The suppositions were eventually nurtured by a forged letter, reputedly writ- ten by a man who was aboard the L,ady Davis, which Val- landigham took from Bermuda to Halifax. This forgery implicated the exile, maintaining that he planned the bloody disturbance and that his agents set it in motion.9

    (2) Same Republicans suggested that Lees invasion of Penn- sylvania, culminating in the battle of Gettysburg, had been suggested or encouraged by Vallandigham while an exile in Dixie. A forged letter, supposedly written by an agent who had spent several weeks in Richmond, made the rounds of the Republican press. The anonymous author of the forged letter claimed that he had witnessed a conference between Vallandigham, General Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis and that he had overheard the exile urging an invasion of Pennsylvania to coincide with an uprisilng in the upper Midwest. lo Vallandighams denials, including his assertion that he had never set foot in Richmond, failed to stop the widespread circulation of this forgery.

    (3) Republicans circulated a similar story, one linking Val- landigham to Confederate general John H. Morgans abor- tive raid into Indiana and Ohio. Vallandigham, the myth- makers contended, had helped to plan the daring Confed- erate excursion across the Ohio River, and it was to be timed with an uprising staged by the exiles friends in the hope of establishing a separate Northwest Confederacy. One tangent of the lie was that Morgans men cheered for Vallandigham and instructed those whom they captured and paroled to vote for the exile and against the Republican- sponsored candidate. 11

    (4) The Vallandigham-to-Inshall letter, another forgery, also made the rounds of the Republican press. The letter, re-

    DL)ayton Daily Journal, July 15, 1863, and November 22, 1867. Ditroit Prer Press, September 14, 1863. The Free Prers attributed the forgery.

    which linked Vallandigham to Lees invasion of Pennsylvania, to Henry Reinish. UDayton Daily Journal, July 15 and 16, 1864; CZeueZund Leader, July 30, 1863;

    New Lisbon Buckeye State, August 13, 1863; Bucyriis (Ohio) Weekly Journal, August 14, 1863; Columbus Daily Ohio State Journal, July 20, 1863; and BuffaZo Morning Express, July 18, 1863. This myth is perpetuated in such widely read works as James D. Horan, Confederate Agent: A Discovery in History (New York, 1954).

    422

  • Civil War ports said, had been written by Vallandigham, when an ex- ile in the South, to a rebel friend, Daniel D. Inshall, a colonel in the Eighth Alabama Regiment. The letter, sup- posedly, was discovered when Colonel Inshalls body was searched after his death on a battlefield, and it was plucked from a pocket to become public property. In the letter, Vallandigham called himself a friend of the South, ex- pressed sympathy for the Confederate cause, denounced the U.S. government as hated and tyrannical, and closed with the statement my heart bleeds for Dixie. The forged letter, published a day or two before the fall election, re- ceived a nationwide circulation and gave Democrats and Vallandigham, waiting fitfully in Canada, little chance to denounce or repudiate it.12

    Forged letters, perhaps, had less effect upon election returns than another tactic - devising a bogeyman to scare voters and discredit the opposition. The most popular Republican-devised bogeyman took the form of the Knights of the Golden Circle, portrayed as a subversive secret society composed of Democrats steeped in subversion. Two pamphlets, both claiming to be ex- pos& of the Golden Circle, prepared the way for the use of a bogeyman as an election-eve stratagem. l3

    T h e bizarre story had its setting in Marion County, Ohio, where Thomas H. Hodder edited a Democratic newspaper noted for its vicious anti-Lincoln editorials and its opposition to the war. Known and unknown persons threatened Hodders life and vowed to destroy his printing plant. In turn, Hodder and some of his Democratic friends organized a mutual protection society to defend each other and their property from the hands of the self-styled patriots who talked of using a halter and a torch to suppress dissent. Hodders friends agreed upon a specific signal to be used if one of them needed help or if the office of the Democratic newspaper was threatened.

    On the eve of the October 1861 election, several Republican rascals produced a set of forged documents which portrayed Hod- ders ill-organized mutual protection society as a castle or council

    * Cincinnati Gazette, October 12, 1863; and Columbus Daily Ohio State Journal, October 10, 1863.

    The first, Joseph W. Pomfrey, -4 True Disclosure and Exposition of the Knights of the Golden Circle, including the Secret Signs, GTip.s, and Chnrges, of the Three Degrees, as Practiced by the Order (Cincinnati, 1861), came off the same presses as the Republican-oriented Cincinnati Gazette. The second, credited to a member of the Order, was really written by a young Republican, Dr. John M. Hiatt of Indianapolis. It was entitled An Authentic Exposition of the K.G.C., Knights of the Golden Circle . . . and published by C. C. Perrine & Company of Indianapolis in July 1861.

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  • The Historian of the Knights of the Golden Circle and turned their questionable evidence over to the newspapers. Several Republican editors pub- lished election-eve extras featuring the revelations, and a federal marshal, in on the hoax from the very beginning, arrested Hodder and other Democratic leaders in an attempt to convince the wary public that the Knights of the Golden Circle really existed in Marion County and Ohio. The very wording of the bogus oath should have made it suspect, but war psychosis served as a breeding ground for rumors and made the ridiculous seem commonplace. The bogus loath read:

    And I will further promise or swear in the presence of Al- mighty God, and the members of the Golden Circle that I will not rest or sleep until Abraham Lincoln, now president, shaIl be removed out of the Presidents chair, and I wilI wade in blood up to my knees as soon as Jefferson Davis sees proper to march with his army to take the city of Washington and the White House, to do the same.14

    Golden Circle suppositions spread to other Ohio counties, as well as neighboring states, and proved to be effective political propaganda. Democrats, of course, rushed their denials and de- murs into print. We believe that this secret organization has no existence in reality, wrote one prominent editor, and it is our conviction that the whole affair was concocted by a few dishonest politicians to influence well-meaning men to vote against the Democratic party. l5

    Time and a postelection trial discredited Republicans respon- sible for devising the Golden Circle bogeyman and revealed that the evidence consisted of fraud and forgeries. lo Having found an effective political stratagem, however, Republicans used the Golden Circle bogeyman time and again. Michigan Republicans parlayed Franklin Pierces visit into a K.G.C. scare, even branding the ex-president a prowling traitor spy. l7 -4 Chicago Tribune correspondent, who doubled as an aide to the Republican governor of Illinois, devised an expos6 of the Golden Circle in August of 1862,lS partly to justify a series of arbitrary arrests and partly to influence the fall election returns. lo A politically-minded colonel,

    expose published by the Springfield Daily Ohio State Journal, October 8, 1861. I4The bogus oath and other supporting documents appeared as part of the

    IE (Columbus) The Crists, November 7, 1861. ** Cleveland Leader, October 10, 16, and 18, 1861; and History of Marion County,

    l7 Detroit Tribune, n.d., quoted in the Detroit Free Press, September 25, 1861.

    =The use of the K.G.C. bogeyman in Illinois is treated more extensively in my Copperhead Secret Societies in Illinois During the Civil War, Journal of the IZltnois State Historical Society 48 (Summer 1955): 152-80.

    424

    Oh20 (Chicago, I883), 448-49.

    Chicago Tribune, August 26, 1862.

  • Civil War who played the role of man Friday to the governor of Indiana, repeatedly raised the Golden Circle bugaboo to discredit Demo- crats, cover his errors of judgment, inflnence elections, and justify the arming of the Union Leagues.2O

    When the Golden Circle bogeyman became rather tattered and torn, Republicans sewed on a new coat and brought on new names. A politician hoiding a colonels rank and stationed in St. Louis devised a lengthy revelation about the Order of American Knights in 1864, entitling his expos6 Conspiracy to establish a North- western Confederacy.21 Even the New York Tribune published the startling revelations in full 22 and gloried in the political effectiveness of the revived bogeyman. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Mortons man Friday, Carrington, also put a set of new clothes on the old bogeyman, and the Sons of Liberty made the headlines as the result of a lengthy expos6 published in the Indianapolis Journal. z3

    Even the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, got into the act, instructing his judge advocate general to investigate the secret society suppositions. Judge Advocate General Joseph Hol t pro- duced a fourteen thousand-word report in which he presented the suppositions as facts. Holt claimed that the Knights of the Golden Circle had evolved into the Order of American Knights and even- tually into the Sons of Liberty, all hampering the war effort and plotting...

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