Today marks the 156th anniversary of the surrender of the rebellious “Army of Northern Virginia,” under the command of a renegade U.S. Army colonel, Robert E. Lee, to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the U.S. armies fighting to preserve the Union and end slavery.
It had been a long, bloody conflict, by far the deadliest in U.S. history, but with Lee’s surrender, the few remaining rebellious Southern forces likewise surrendered and the war was over.
But while the military phase of the war was over, the political phase was far from finished. Indeed, the previously rebellious Southern states immediately began organizing against the reconstruction plans of the victorious North.
President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Southerners just days after the end of the war, and his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, took over the reins of government. Johnson proved an ineffective replacement for Lincoln. In the election of 1868, Johnson didn’t succeed in gaining the Democratic nomination. Instead, it went to Horatio Seymour, former Democratic governor of New York. The Republican nomination went, by acclamation, to Ulysses Grant, the victor of the Civil War.
The Democrats based their campaign on outright racism, and violence across the South was widespread and vicious. By the summer of 1868, in fact, Union veterans were beginning to wonder if the war, despite all of the death and privation, had ended too soon. While the South’s armies had been vanquished, Southern citizenry had not and the rise of armed White racist terrorists was creating chaos across the region.
It is with that backdrop that John Redmon Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record, decided to write an editorial wondering whether more organized violence against the South might be warranted. A Civil War veteran himself, Marshall was alarmed at the viciously racist attitude of Southerners and their growing reliance on violence as the campaign continued. In the Record’s Aug. 13, 1868 edition, Marshall laid out his thinking to his readers—including his former comrades-in-arms—here in our little corner of northern Illinois:
“Many Union men assert that the war of the rebellion ended two years too soon. That the rebels were overpowered but not conquered. It is becoming public opinion that the assertion is true and that the aim of the Democratic party is to revolutionize the country if it gets into power. The South threatens to appeal to the bayonet at any rate, whether it is successful at the polls or not
“The Democratic platform is revolutionary. The leaders of the party desire the success of the South to overthrow the reconstructed States, and they are revolutionary. Shall we have another war? Do the people of this Country wish to engage in another deadly strife? If not, let them give no countenance to the Copperheads or to their plans. Harper’s Weekly says: ‘The Democratic party proposes to reverse all the national legislation of three last years, to subvert the reconstruction which the country has approved, to disperse organized State governments by the bayonet; by the same means to reinstate those who, for the highest crime against the Commonwealth, have been temporarily disfranchised; to deprive hundreds of thousands of new citizens of the ballot, and thrust them back into a semi-enslaved condition—a project which can not be accomplished but by the most sanguinary measures. Proclaiming a wholly arbitrary test of citizenship in color—a test involving caste and inconceivable injustice, which embraces the entire disaffected class, and excludes a large body of the loyal people—it announces that if its claim is disregarded, it will appeal to physical force,’ and pass its candidate in the White House at the point of a bayonet.
“‘It will not be forgotten that the party which thus enters into a political campaign with a loud threat of civil war is the one that has previously made the same threat and fulfilled it to the letter. In 1860 the Democratic orators said that ‘the South could not be expected to submit to the election of Mr. Lincoln.’ In 1856, Mr. Filmore, absurdly called Conservative, had said the same thing in view of the election of Mr. Freemont. It was not bravado merely. Whatever the Northern portion of the party may have thought or intended, the Southern portion was sincere and resolved; and it was that portion which had entirely controlled the party and dictated its policy, because it was the positive element.’
“Mr. John Forsythe, of the Mobile Register, thus candidly states the propose of the South, and gives a fair warning to the Northern people:
“’If by any species of chicanery or fraud the legitimate voices of the majority of the whole people of the United States are condemned, and the Radical candidates are pronounced elected by the Radical Congress, the Democracy of the country will not submit to it, and will take arms to sustain the decrees of the ballot box.
Now, if civil war comes out of this conflict of political forces, the white men of the South cannot be worsted; for war and its terrors, in their deadliest form, are not comparable to the evils they will have to endure under a perpetuation of scalawag and carpet-bag rule. And here we may as well say that the people of the South do not intend to submit to that permanent rule, result as the Presidential election may. And they have only submitted to its indignities and insults so far because they have been waiting for the good sense and justice of the American people to relieve them from it, and restore them to their civil rights in the November elections.’
“Did not the war end too soon? Is the cursed spirit of rebellion crushed? Are we to be threatened with the bayonet at every Presidential election? If the Democrats are defeated in November they threaten the bayonet. If they are successful, they will overthrow the acts of Congress passed during and since the war. Slavery or serfdom will be re-established and the country will be placed back to where it was in the days of Pierce and Buchanan. Then the five years’ war will have been a failure and this progressive people will have once more to contend with the devils of treason and slavery.
“Then defeat Seymour and Blair, the devil and his angel, and let the South, backed by the Copperheads of the North, endeavor to revolutionize the country. But they will not do it. They dare not do it. Southern braggadocio and copperhead threats are too well know by the loyal millions to frighten them.”
Given the violence of last year’s Presidential election, as well as the violence of the post-election period that was instigated and encouraged by the former President, it may be useful to contemplate that there were misgivings about the end of the Civil War at the time. That the racist attitudes of that era are coming to the fore once again suggests that Marshall and the “Union men” he referenced were not being overly alarmist.