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The Civil War: The Senate's Story

Victory, Tragedy, and Reconstruction
Union Victory and National Tragedy
The war’s end was in sight when President Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Crowds gathered on the muddy Capitol grounds while ceremonies marking the start of a new Congress took place in the Senate Chamber. Following the inauguration of Vice President Andrew Johnson and the swearing in of senators, all proceeded through the Rotunda to the eastern portico of the Capitol. With the now-completed dome towering above him, the president made his appeal to the country to move forward, “with malice toward none . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds.” One month later, the war was over.
On April 4, 1865, as news of the fall of Richmond spread, public buildings throughout Washington were illuminated in celebration. “The Capitol made a magnificent display—as did the whole city. . . . It was indeed glorious, all Washington was in the streets,” wrote Benjamin Brown French, commissioner of public buildings in Washington, D.C. To celebrate the event, French “had the 23rd verse of the 118th Psalm printed on cloth, in enormous letters, as a transparency, and stretched on a frame the entire length of the top of the western portico, . . . ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.’” A week later, after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, crowds of Washingtonians again took to the streets in jubilation. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered that guns be fired in salute to commemorate the day.
The euphoria of Union victory came to a sudden halt on the night of April 14, 1865, when President Lincoln was shot while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre. As the president lay dying in a house across the street from the theater, Senator Charles Sumner appeared at his bedside. Keeping his deathbed vigil throughout the long night, the Massachusetts senator was one of the few present when Lincoln died on the morning of April 15. “Mourn not the dead,” Sumner later wrote in his eulogy to Lincoln, “but rejoice in his life and example . . . . Rejoice that through him Emancipation was proclaimed.” Having just days before taken to the streets in joyful celebration, Washingtonians now solemnly lined Pennsylvania Avenue as the massive funeral procession made its way to the Capitol. In the Rotunda, the body of the martyred president lay in state upon a hastily constructed catafalque. Reporter Benjamin Perley Poore described the dramatic scene:
The procession was two hours and ten minutes in passing a given point, and was about three miles long. The centre of it had reached the Capitol and was returning before the rear had left Willard’s [Hotel]. In one single detachment were over six thousand civil employees of the Government. Arriving at the Capitol, the remains were placed in the centre of the rotunda, beneath the mighty dome, which had been draped in mourning inside and out.
The death of the president muted the celebrations of Union victory. “It seems even yet a frightful dream, rather than a reality,” said Senator James Dixon of Connecticut, “in the hour when his wisdom and his patriotism were about to be crowned with the success they deserved.” With the prospects for peace finally at hand, Dixon thought it especially tragic that Lincoln, “the humane, the forgiving, the patient, the forbearing, has been stricken down by the hand of an assassin. That voice is silent.” The Capitol was still draped in mourning in late May when Washingtonians witnessed the Grand Review of the Union armies. The Senate doorkeeper, Isaac Bassett, captured these emotional two days in his diary:
No nation ever looked on such a triumphal procession as railed through the 150,000 strong and twenty miles at least in length. The soldiers were returning from the longest marches, the severest exposures which any armies in modern times have passed through, their tattered banners told the tale of their prolonged hardships. This was no holiday parade of soldiers. Here were our fellow citizens who had for four long woeful years left home and all that makes home dear and risked all. Sacrificed for law and liberties for us and our children. . . . As far as the eye could see up Pennsylvania Avenue seemed like a river of life. . . . There were the old banners first blessed at home and consecrated with the prayers of wives and mothers. Now shorn to shreds, scarce able to cling to the flagstaff. How glad they seem to be—their work well done, their homes secure, their nation saved.
Long before the Union victory, Congress had been preparing for the many challenges the nation would face at war’s end, particularly the integration of four million newly emancipated African Americans into the political life of the nation. Led by the Radical Republicans in the House and Senate, Congress passed the Wade-Davis bill on July 2, 1864—co-sponsored by Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Davis of Maryland—to provide for the admission to representation of rebel states upon meeting certain conditions. Among the conditions was the requirement that 50 percent of white males in the state swear a loyalty oath, and the insistence that the state grant African American men the right to vote. President Lincoln, who had earlier proposed a more modest 10-percent threshold, pocket-vetoed the Wade-Davis bill, stating he was opposed to being “inflexibly committed to any single plan of restoration.” When the 38th Congress came to an end on March 3, 1865, the president and members of Congress had not yet reached an agreement on the terms of Reconstruction. Then, on April 9, General Lee surrendered. Less than a week later President Lincoln was assassinated and Vice President Andrew Johnson, a former senator from Tennessee, became president.
President Johnson implemented his own reconstruction plan during the summer of 1865. Eager to include Southern states, he appointed provisional governors, many of whom were former Confederates, and empowered them to call state constitutional conventions. After ratifying new constitutions and electing new state governments, Johnson promised that the states could regain full federal recognition within the Union. A former slaveholder, the president did not support black suffrage. When the 39th Congress convened on December 4, 1865, some of the newly elected legislators from former Confederate states presented credentials, expecting to be seated in the Senate. Questions about the validity of the credentials prompted the House and Senate to establish a Joint Committee on Reconstruction. This 15-member committee, composed of 9 representatives and 6 senators, investigated “the conditions of the States which formed the so-called confederate States of America” to determine whether they “are entitled to be represented in either House of Congress.” Following its investigation, the committee refused to admit the Southern members.
Both moderates and radicals in Congress opposed the president’s lenient reconstruction plan. Many Republicans, such as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator William Pitt Fessenden, demanded that rebel states be admitted to representation only after adopting state constitutions that provided full citizenship to African Americans and granted black men the right to vote. The president’s plan, explained Senator Timothy Howe of Wisconsin, seemed “to deny to the Senate of the United States certain prerogatives,” including its constitutional right to “be the judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own members.” Senator Fessenden argued that the president’s position implied that “Congress, as at present organized, has no right to pass any bill affecting the interests of the late confederate States while they are not represented in Congress.” To the contrary, Fessenden insisted, “I could not rest . . . if I yielded for a moment to the idea, come from what source it may, that anybody but Congress had the right . . . to settle preliminarily the question whether the States that sent them here were entitled to have Senators and Representatives or not.”
The Senate responded with its own reconstruction bills. Senator Lyman Trumbull introduced the Freedman’s Bureau Bill in 1865, which extended the provisions of the earlier Freedmen’s Bureau by expanding the power of military governors to enforce provisions to protect African Americans. The bill also defined the organization of interim governments under conditions prescribed by Congress. President Johnson vetoed the bill. He resisted all congressionally driven reconstruction programs, denouncing those who stood “opposed to the restoration of the Union,” and calling the “indefinite or permanent exclusion of any part of the country” an “unwise and dangerous course.” He urged Congress to restore representation to the 11 states of the rebellion, arguing that they were “entitled to enjoy their constitutional rights as members of the Union.”
The president clashed again with Congress over Senator Trumbull’s civil rights bill, a proposal to confer citizenship on African Americans and grant them equal protection under the law. Even moderate Senate Republicans believed the bill was, in John Sherman’s words, “clearly right.” The bill prompted another presidential veto, but in April 1866 both houses mustered sufficient votes to override the veto. The Civil Rights Act, which set the foundation for the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granted citizenship and due process of law to every person born in the United States. Congress’s ability to override Johnson’s veto emboldened its members. Senator James Grimes declared that the “President has no power to control or influence anybody and legislation will be carried on entirely regardless of his opinions or wishes.”
The following year Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, establishing the terms of formal Reconstruction and admission to representation. At that time, only Tennessee had been readmitted. In order to protect African Americans and their property, that bill divided the former Confederate states, except for Tennessee, into five military districts. Each state was required to write a new constitution, which needed to be approved by a majority of voters—including African Americans—in that state. In addition, each state was required to ratify the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. After meeting these criteria, the former Confederate states could gain full recognition and federal representation. The act became law on March 2, 1867, after Congress again overrode a presidential veto. Admission to representation of the Confederate states under these terms began the next year, with Arkansas leading the way on June 22, 1868. Formal Reconstruction had begun.
The battles over Reconstruction-era policies severely strained relations between the executive and legislative branches. Throughout 1866 and 1867, Radical Republicans in the House considered impeaching the uncompromising president. After Johnson defied the Tenure of Office Act—a congressional attempt at keeping Lincoln appointees in office—the House impeached him on February 24, 1868, sending 11 articles of impeachment to the Senate. The first presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history began when the Senate convened as a High Court of Impeachment on March 5, 1868. This unprecedented event resulted in a public spectacle, with so many people seeking to view the proceedings that for the first time the Senate had to issue tickets for admission to its galleries.
After nearly two months of dramatic testimony, on May 16 the Senate conducted a “test” vote on the 11th article of impeachment. Seven Republicans joined all of the Democrats to support Johnson and voted not guilty, resulting in a roll-call vote of 36 guilty to 19 not guilty—one vote short of the necessary two-thirds vote required by the Constitution to convict the president and remove him from office. Subsequent votes on two other articles produced identical results. Despite the high level of frustration with President Johnson’s tactics, 19 senators concluded that the president’s actions did not warrant removal. “I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution,” explained Senator Grimes, “for the sake of getting rid of an unacceptable President.” With conviction on other articles even less likely, the Republican majority adjourned the court of impeachment and the trial of the president ended.
Congressional Reconstruction continued for another decade, producing such notable legislative achievements as the establishment of the Department of Justice (1870), the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The greatest successes of this period included establishment of citizenship and voting rights through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. A visible sign of progress during the Reconstruction era was the election of African Americans to Congress. On February 25, 1870, onlookers in the Senate galleries cheered as Hiram Revels of Mississippi strode into the Senate Chamber to take the oath of office as the first African American senator. In 1875, Senator Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi became the first African American to serve a full term and, on February 14, 1879, the first to preside over the Senate. Bruce had a personal background that no other senator, before or since, could claim: he had been born into slavery. Despite such accomplishments, the legacy of congressional Reconstruction was mixed, for it failed to fully establish equal rights for all citizens.
Throughout the tumultuous Civil War years the Senate remained steadfast in fulfilling its constitutional duties. It took the initiative in completing landmark legislation and providing congressional oversight of the executive branch. Senators also continued to shape important national issues in the aftermath of war, especially the evolving debate over civil rights in America.
Influencing such debates were the memories of war and Reconstruction that lingered as 63 Confederate and 81 Union veterans became U.S. senators. The last Civil War veterans were Charles S. Thomas, who had been born in Georgia and fought for the Confederacy, then served as a senator from Colorado until 1921, and Francis E. Warren, who later won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service to the Union. He served as a senator from Wyoming until his death in 1929.
Civil War veterans also filled positions as Senate officers and staff. As late as 1911 the Senate adopted a resolution that any staff member who served in the Union army and was not otherwise provided for could retain his post until he voluntarily retired. Subsequently, an “Old Soldier’s Roll” appeared in the Senate patronage reports.
As the effects of the war continued to reverberate through American political life, the Capitol became a venue for displaying symbols of reconciliation. Congress purchased a statue of Abraham Lincoln in 1871. In 1899 the Grand Army of the Republic contributed a likeness of General Ulysses S. Grant. In 1909 Virginia sent to the Capitol a marble statue of General Robert E. Lee. Mississippi donated a bronze likeness of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in 1928. The statues of many Civil War era soldiers and statesmen still line the corridors of the Capitol, where they stand as a reminder of the nation’s worst crisis, as a testament to the reuniting of the nation, and in recognition of the Senate’s pivotal role in the wartime experience.
Adapted from The Senate's Civil War. Senate Historical Office. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2011.
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