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The Good Colonel: Rutherford B. Hayes Remembers the Civil War

Presented by Brooks D. Simpson - on the occasion of the 14th Hayes Lecture on the Presidency, February 16, 2003, in the Hayes Museum auditorium.

By Brooks D. Simpson

Historian Brooks D. SimpsonThe most important event in the life of Rutherford B. Hayes was the American Civil War. Far more than his tenure as president, his political service on behalf of his home state of Ohio, or his other worthy accomplishments, Hayes found the war to be the most rewarding and significant endeavor in which he participated. Moreover, Hayes possessed a solid and admirable military record; he had contributed to shaping the policies of Reconstruction that did so much to define the war's achievement and meaning; and in speech after speech to veterans' groups and commemorative gatherings Hayes attempted to define

Although Hayes modestly contented himself with calling himself "one of the good colonels in a great army," his actual military career had its moments of bravery and distinction. Awarded a major's commission at the outset of the war in the Twenty-third Ohio Infantry, commanded by William S. Rosecrans, Hayes participated in Rosecrans's offensive into western Virginia in 1861, led his regiment into southwest Virginia in early 1862 (where on May 10 he was slightly wounded at Pearisburg), and then rushed northward to contest Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland. At South Mountain, Maryland, on September 14, 1862, Hayes fell seriously wounded while leading his regiment into action at Fox's Gap; collapsing from the loss of blood, he found himself in no man's land between the contending forces until a detachment from his command rescued him. Returning to the front at the end of November, Hayes and his men saw little important action in 1863, although they assisted in driving off John Hunt Morgan's raid into southern Ohio; in the spring of 1864 he participated in yet another Yankee thrust into southwest Virginia. That summer the 23rd Ohio came under the command of Major General Philip H. Sheridan, Grant's choice to clear the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley; in September and October Hayes saw action again at Winchester, Fisher's Hill, and Cedar Creek, where the wounded colonel helped to rally routed Union forces before joining in an afternoon counterattack that swept the Rebels from their field. That dramatic clash proved to be Hayes's last major battle; having won promotion to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers and having secured a seat in Congress in the 1864 elections, Hayes resigned his commission effective June 8, 1865 (later winning the brevet rank of major general), and returned to civil life.

For the majority of the next twenty-eight years Hayes played an important role in defining both the meaning and the legacy of the American Civil War. From 1865 to 1867 he served in the House of Representatives, contributing to the critical debates over reconstructing the South, protecting the civil rights of African Americans, and eventually extending the right of suffrage to southern blacks. In 1867 he narrowly secured the governorship of Ohio, and risked much in pushing for the enfranchisement of blacks in his home state. Outraged by the actions of President Andrew Johnson, Hayes favored both impeachment and conviction; he enthusiastically cheered for the presidential candidacy of Ulysses S. Grant, pointing out that a Democratic victory would favor the desires of former Confederates. Winning reelection in 1869 in a contest dominated by wartime conflicts, Hayes worked to secure Ohio's ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. In his mind the reconstruction of the Union and the establishment of the political and civil equality of blacks went hand-in-hand, and he believed that only the Republican party could be entrusted to secure these ends and bring peace and prosperity to the reunited republic. Troubled by signs of dissatisfaction in Republican ranks with the Grant administration, the governor rested comfortable with the realization, as he told Ohio senator John Sherman, that "[n]othing unites and harmonizes the Republican party like the conviction that Democratic victories strengthen the reactionary and brutal tendencies of the later rebel states."

Hayes supported Grant's reelection in 1872; however, during the president's second term Hayes began to express doubts about the continuing policy of federal intervention in the South to protect black voters. It was not that he had found persuasive Democratic criticisms of the administration's actions; rather, he believed that there had to be another way for Republicans to prevail in the South by transforming southern politics in such a way that black political participation would be valued, not contested, as parties shifted away from race toward issues where both parties would compete for blacks' votes. Having retired from public life at the beginning of 1873, he reentered politics in 1875 and narrowly won a third term as governor. The following year he secured the Republican presidential nomination, a compromise choice emerging from a contested convention. At first Hayes hoped to address a number of issues in his campaign, but before long he realized that the key to the fall contest was the notion that "A Democratic victory will bring the Rebellion into power." Thus, as he told James Garfield, the "true issue" was the question, "Shall the late Rebels have the Government?"

Viewing the election in this way made it a referendum on the results of the war, a perfect setting for waving the bloody shirt North and South. As Hayes told a group of veterans, "The men who maintained the cause of nationality and freedom on so many battlefields are not willing to see the results of the war imperiled by neglect or misconduct at the ballot-box." The fruits of Union victory were still up for grabs in 1876. Or so Hayes thought. When the negotiations that led to the Compromise of 1877 were complete, Hayes's presidential victory came at a significant cost: he had agreed to withdraw federal support from the remaining Republican regimes in the South as a first step in attempting to foster a realignment of parties in the South, an effort that soon collapsed. Try as he might to make black equality a result of the war, the best Hayes could vouch for was the destruction of slavery. His hope to destroy the color line in southern politics had faded in the face of white majorities enhanced by force and intimidation.

For years to come Hayes would struggle to alter this legacy--of a cause half realized, of a revolution unfinished--especially in his efforts to support the education of African Americans. But it was too little too late to resuscitate prospects for black equality or to counter white terrorism and intimidation. Hayes might thwart a Democratic-controlled Congress's attempt to curtail his ability to use federal forces to intervene to put an end to political violence, but he did not use the weapons he had protected. Perhaps he had indeed contributed to the legacy of the Civil War, but it was not in ways he had intended; he would have been chagrined to learn that many people remember him as instrumental in betraying black aspirations when he believed he was trying to do what he could to secure them.

But for Rutherford B. Hayes the Civil War was many things. If it became a war to destroy slavery, it was always a war to preserve the Union. If the war had ended on the sour note of Reconstruction, it also sounded the call for change and progress; it also imparted lessons for Americans to learn. The war was also perhaps the high point of his life, and one to which he returned to with fondness and conviction. In letters, writings, and especially public addresses, Hayes relived, reviewed, and reassessed the conflict, conjuring up memories of the battlefield and campsite as he offered his understanding of what the war meant in ways that may have somewhat softened the blow of the failure of Reconstruction to achieve meaningful black equality in American society.

For Hayes, the war was on one level a tremendously important personal experience. During his presidency he addressed several commemorative gatherings; upon his retirement from the presidency in 1881, however, he immersed himself in veterans' societies, reunions, and other ceremonies commemorating the conflict. He kept track of the anniversaries of significant events, including his wounding at South Mountain and the dramatic victory at Cedar Creek. In 1891 he confided to his diary, "Twenty-nine years ago this morning we marched up the old National Road. In the evening I was hauled back in an ambulance to Middletown with a shattered arm and bruised ribs, suffering pain enough but very happy. We had gained the victory!"

Attending meeting after meeting of veterans in numerous associations, Hayes found these encounters enjoyable, meaningful, and important for the purposes they served. Traveling to a reunion of his old regiment in 1891, he remarked, "We must shake hands oftener, and with more warmth, as our numbers grow less." He keenly felt the bond of camaraderie forged by the war, even in cases where he had little or no contact with the men he met at these meetings. While always willing to draw connections between service in the Union cause and Republican affiliation, he never let partisan allegiances strain his devotion to his fellow veterans. A case in point was William S. Rosecrans, the first colonel of the 23rd Ohio, who had joined the Democratic party after the conflict and served in Congress, using his position to cast obstacles in the way of placing Ulysses S. Grant on the retired list in 1885. Although Hayes held Grant in high regard, he would not retaliate against Old Rosey. Attending a meeting of the Army of West Virginia in 1892, Hayes and the other veterans proceeded with business as usual after the electric lights failed. However, when Rosecrans rose to address the gathering, a veteran shouted that he would like to see his old commander's face. Hayes quickly obliged by holding a lighted match by Rosecrans's face, eliciting great applause.

Nor would Hayes stand for squabbling between veterans' organizations. When the Union Veterans' Union challenged the Grand Army of the Republic's claim to be that organization best fitted to represent Union veterans, Hayes declined to become involved in the fracas, sharing his opinion that it would be best if there were but a single organization. Over time he grew impatient with the tenor of some reunion addresses. "There are two tendencies in all our war talk & especially strong in us as we grow older, " he remarked in 1889. "One, comparatively harmless, involving little moral turpitude; the other, often cruel and always to be avoided. The first is to boast, if not of ourselves and our deeds, at least of our army, our corps, our regiments. The other is to find fault with, to criticize, to censure, to condemn others. If there is a victory, we gained it and must have the credit of it. If there is a failure, it was the fault of the other fellow,--he must be blamed for it. Let us try to avoid both; but if either is to be indulged, let it be the spirit of boasting."

If Hayes never forgot the veterans, he was also intent on making sure that the nation remembered and honored their service. Dedications of markers and monuments served that function of reminding everyone of the sacrifices veterans had made; so did pensions. "If I talk to the Tenth Ohio Cavalry," he wrote, "I will advise union [and] charity for the sake of just, liberal, and equitable pensions for the soldiers. The great fact which this rich, prosperous, and fortunate nation has to regard, consider, and deal with is that the [time] draws near when these veterans can no longer provide by their daily labor for their daily wants. The great body of them stand today on the threshold of that dreaded period of their lives. It comes to them earlier because of their exposures to hardship, to suffering, to mental and bodily strain in their country's service. They need help because they devoted themselves to their country's service." No veteran "who fought in that war on the right side," he believed, "ought ever to be forced to choose between starvation and the poorhouse"; neither should his widow or orphaned children. After all, Lincoln in his second inaugural address had pledged the republic "to care for him who hath borne the battle and for his widow and his orphans"; was it not right and just that such a "sacred pledge be sacredly kept"?

The former president showed a rare trace of temper when it came to noticing the opposition offered by some well-off people to giving veterans their just financial due. "No capitalists after any war were ever so well paid for money loaned to the nation that carried it on," he snapped. "No class of money-makers ever gained such prosperity by any other war, as our War for the Union brought to the money-getters of America. All this was due in a great measure to the rank and file of the Union army. Now let no rich man haggle with a needy veteran of that war about his right to a pension!" And when it came to the treatment of veterans, Hayes was willing to note partisan divisions. On the occasion of Benjamin Harrison's triumph over Grover Cleveland in 1888, Hayes observed that he was pleased, not only because he was a Republican but also because "I do hate Cleveland's course towards the veterans of [the] war."

Hayes was willing to credit the triumph of the cause of the Union with any significant national achievement or advance. In accepting an office in the Loyal Legion in 1885, he prepared the following remarks:

"All know how much I value the services we rendered together during those long, anxious, critical but golden years from 1861 to 1865. Tested by its results it is the greatest war of all history. America was indeed the cradle of the future. In great peril, our Republic and our America might have been destroyed and would have been destroyed but for the work we did. After that work, it no longer was a cradle - it was no longer a possibility; it became a probability; with wisdom and moderation it became a certainty, and that certainty was and is that America is the impregnable fortress of whatever is best in the world, in government, in society, and in civilization. "Our society, the most permanent of all soldier organizations, stands on this matchless service as its origin, its foundation, and its reason for being. It also perpetuates all that is dearest and most tender and most precious in our past lives and transmits what it is possible to transmit to our children of that which is best in our lives and deeds. I value above all price your kindness in permitting me to be so honorably associated with you."

Hayes very consciously drew such links between the war, national achievements, and the need to do more. In 1887, for example, he contemplated which themes to feature in his remarks at various reunions. Although at that moment the United States seemed to be at peace with the world, Hayes wanted to warn his listeners that it was an ideal time to prepare for war, not through a military buildup, but by pursuing policies to strengthen the nation in other ways, including military instruction in colleges, educating students "by training of brain and hand and eyes," and providing federal aid to improve education in the South. These themes, of course, were part of Hayes's continued interest in public education, but his writings that year reveal that he was not cynically manipulating memories to gain support for his preferences.

Hayes was also careful enough not to assail white Southerners or the Confederate cause. Such rhetoric would merely inhibit the growth of true sectional reconciliation, which Hayes believed might be channeled in such a way as to assist black aspirations once the old hatreds had faded away. It was, of course, something of a neat truck to celebrate one's own cause without denigrating that of the opposing side. He supported private efforts to raise money for the relief of Confederate veterans, although he was careful to add that they should not look to the federal government for assistance; at one reunion he regretted the tendency of a few speakers to lash out at the South and "discuss irritating topics in an ill-tempered way." Hayes found this to be in bad taste and criticized it as "bad policy and bad in principle." After all, "The Southern people are our countrymen. They displayed great endurance and courage & great military traits of character--during the war. Let us now, as soon as possible, bring them into good relations with those who fought them. Let us become one people." Coming as these comments did in the wake of the defeat of the Lodge Elections Bill of 1890, Hayes's hopes for harmony seemed someone one-sided and unreciprocated by the very people he wanted to pacify. But Hayes persisted. He deplored the criticism that several members of a G.A.R. meeting expressed about purchasing portions of the Chickamauga battlefield and the emplacement of Confederate monuments. "The truth is," he reflected, "the men of the South believed in their theory of the Constitution; there was plausibility--perhaps more than plausibility--in the States' rights doctrine under the terms, and in the history, of the Constitution." No one should equate Robert E. Lee with Benedict Arnold; the Confederates "fought for their convictions, for their country as they had been educated to regard it. Let them be mistaken, and treated accordingly." It was unclear as to whether Hayes was more interested in demonstrating the mistaken nature of the Confederate understanding of the conflict or in honoring the intensity and fervor with which it was exposed by its adherents; nor did he reflect on how to reconcile that attitude with his interest in promoting black advancement. More than most people, Hayes was able to hold contradictory views without ever bringing them into focus.

At other times Hayes was eager to detach the war from its causes and focus on its consequences as if they stood in a vacuum from the issues of reunion and emancipation. "Test this war by its results," he once declared. "It is the greatest war in history. Never before was there a war in which the object of the war was so fully and so completely achieved. Consider exactly what it was you were thinking of & what we thought to do & what we wished, what we hoped for & what we fought for." Lest one forget exactly what was the objective of the Union war effort, Hayes helpfully provided the reminder that it was the issue of national unity. "We went to war to settle that question," he continued. "We fought to save the Union." Only later did he suggest that there might have been another issue, namely slavery. Still, Hayes was willing to overlook what followed during the dozen years after Appomattox when he returned to his main theme: "Was there ever a war in history in which the results were so exactly obtained as in this war for the Union?"

For Rutherford B. Hayes, the Civil War was "the divinest war that was ever waged. Our war did more for our country than any other war achieved for any other country. It did more for the world--more for mankind--than any other war in all history." The war had not only made America great, it had made it an example for the world to follow. In 1887 he went so far as to assert that it had made the United States "the guardians of the peace of the world & if we intelligently and wisely take advantage of the results of the War for the Union." In short, it was a great crusade, the catalyst for great and good change. "Let the American people remain steadfastly true to the ideas for which they fought in the sacred war," he declared on Memorial Day in 1892, less than a year before he died, "and we shall thus do all that in us lies to link the destiny of our country to the stars, and to entitle her institutions to share in that immortality which, under the allotment of Providence in the affairs of nations, belongs always and only to eternal wisdom and eternal justice." One must appreciate Hayes's optimism and confidence, twin hallmarks of his life; and yet it must be admitted that those same traits led him to obscure or altogether overlook some of the Civil War's more troubling legacies, unmet obligations, and incomplete accomplishments.