Civil War Era Senators
The following featured biographies provide a look at the varied experiences and accomplishments of members who served during the Civil War era.
In the 19th century the Senate had no majority or minority leaders. Floor leadership was instead exerted by the chairmen of the party conferences. The genial Henry B. Anthony (1815-1884), a Republican senator from Rhode Island, served for several years as president pro tempore of the Senate, but gave up that post when he was elected conference chairman in 1875. As chair, Anthony acted much like the later majority leaders, giving committee assignments to members of his party, calling up bills for debate, and often speaking for his party on the issues of the day. He was also the author of the "Anthony Rule," an early attempt to limit debate in the Senate in the days before cloture. Known as the Father of the Senate, Anthony served from 1859 until his death in 1884.
The only sitting United States senator ever to die in combat, Edward Dickinson Baker of Oregon was killed on October 21, 1861, in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. He led the regiment he had helped to raise when the Civil War began in the spring of 1861. Baker had practiced law in Springfield, Illinois, before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1845, defeating his friend Abraham Lincoln for the Whig nomination. In 1846, he resigned from the House of Representatives to command a brigade in the Mexican War. Baker moved to Oregon in 1860 and was elected to the Senate that same year. A skilled orator, he made a lasting impression upon the Senate when, dressed in military uniform, he delivered his famous call to arms on August 1, 1861. “We will rally the people, the loyal people, of the whole country,” he exclaimed, “they will pour forth their treasure, their money, their men, without stint, without measure.” Senator Baker’s tragic death prompted the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
A New Hampshire Republican, Daniel Clark authored the resolution that expelled ten southern senators for their support of the rebellion during the Civil War. Clark fervently opposed slavery and in 1864 spoke eloquently in support of the constitutional amendment to abolish it: "To restore this Union with slavery in it when we have subdued the rebel armies would be again to build your house on its smoking ruins, when you had not put out the fire which burned it down." His colleagues awarded him the high honor of electing him president pro tempore in 1865-1866. Clark resigned his Senate seat in 1866 to accept an appointment to the U.S. District Court, a position he held until his death in 1891.
Born in Kentucky in 1808 and raised in Mississippi, Jefferson Davis graduated from West Point in 1828. Following brief service in Congress and military duty in the war with Mexico, he served as secretary of war (1853-1857) under Franklin Pierce. In that post he oversaw the construction of the new Senate and House wings of the U.S. Capitol. Davis returned to the Senate in 1857, on the eve of the Civil War, and witnessed some of the most dramatic events in Senate history. As talk of secession filled the Senate Chamber, Davis joined the "Committee of Thirteen" to seek compromise and avoid war. When Mississippi left the Union, however, Davis resigned. He bid farewell to the United States Senate on January 21, 1861. A month later, he became president of the Confederacy. Captured by Union troops in 1865, Davis was indicted for treason and imprisoned for two years. He died in New Orleans in 1889.
Known as “the Little Giant” because his political stature far exceeded his height of five-foot-four, Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas remained a prominent national figure from his first election to the Senate in 1847 until his death in 1861. When the Compromise of 1850, an omnibus bill proposed by Henry Clay, seemed on the verge of collapse, Senator Douglas took the bill apart and built separate coalitions around each of its key provisions, ensuring its passage and holding the Union together. Douglas then undid his own handiwork by promoting the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Designed to promote expansion into western territories, the act further divided the nation over the issue of slavery, spurred the creation of the modern Republican Party, and hastened the rise of Abraham Lincoln. In 1860 Douglas was one of four major candidates for the presidency, running on a Northern Democratic ticket, but he lost the election to his old rival, Abe Lincoln. When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Douglas put aside old rivalries and joined Lincoln to support the Union cause. “There can be no neutrals in this war," he declared, "only patriots and traitors.” As Douglas rallied Northern Democrats to support the president, his health steadily declined. He died in his hotel room on June 3, 1861, at the age of 48.
As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee during the Civil War, William Pitt Fessenden of Maine was the architect of many of the nation's wartime revenue policies. When the Revenue Act of 1861 failed to generate necessary funds, Fessenden revised a House revenue bill in early 1862. After consultation with members, lobbyists, and the Lincoln administration, Fessenden introduced "this infernal tax bill" in May, igniting two weeks of intense debate among senators. The Senate finally approved the bill with more than 300 amendments on June 6, 1862, with only one dissenting vote--an indication of Fessenden's adroit political skill. It was his intimate knowledge of the nation's wartime financial needs that led President Abraham Lincoln to nominate Fessenden as secretary of the treasury, a position he held from July 1864 until March 1865. The Maine legislature returned Fessenden to the Senate in 1865 and he served until his death in Portland, Maine, on September 8, 1869.
Iowan James Grimes served in the U.S. Senate throughout the Civil War and into the Reconstruction period. In 1861 he participated in the Peace Convention in Washington, D.C., which ultimately failed to prevent the Civil War. As chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs, Grimes proposed a naval service award that became the model of the Medal of Honor established by Congress in 1863. Presented by the president, in the name of Congress, the Medal of Honor recognizes "non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguished themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier like qualities." Perhaps most famously, Grimes became one of the seven Republican senators who broke with their party and voted with twelve Democratic senators to acquit President Andrew Johnson in his 1868 impeachment trial.
James Murray Mason: A Featured Biography
In the Senate, James Murray Mason of Virginia resolutely defended southern interests. On January 4, 1850, he introduced the Fugitive Slave Act to strengthen existing law regarding runaway slaves. Henry Clay included the measure in his Compromise of 1850, a set of resolutions aimed at diffusing the sectional crisis. Eventually, the Senate approved five of Clay’s resolutions, including Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act. Although such measures maintained a fragile peace for a decade, ultimately they could not stave off civil war. On March 28, 1861, two weeks before the firing on Fort Sumter, Mason withdrew from the Senate to join the Confederacy. Four months later, on July 11, the Senate expelled Mason and nine of his southern colleagues. On November 8, 1861, the U.S. government arrested Mason and former senator John Slidell as they traveled to Europe to serve as diplomatic commissioners for the Confederacy, an incident known as the Trent Affair.
John Sherman was born in Lancaster, Ohio, on May 10, 1823. He was the younger brother of Civil War-era general William Tecumseh Sherman. After working as an engineer on canal projects and as a lawyer, he was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1854, where he served until elected in 1861 to fill the Senate seat vacated by Salmon P. Chase. Between 1861 and 1897, John Sherman interrupted his tenure in the Senate only to serve in the cabinets of two presidents, both from Ohio. He acted as Rutherford B. Hayes's secretary of the treasury (March 10, 1877-March 3, 1881) and William McKinley's secretary of state (March 6, 1897-April 27, 1898). During his time in the Senate Sherman chaired numerous committees, was Republican Conference chairman (1884-1885, 1891-1897), and acted as president pro tempore during the 49th Congress (1885-1887). On June 17, 1894, John Sherman broke the Senate service record, previously held by Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton. With nearly 32 years in the Senate, John Sherman is perhaps best remembered for authoring the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), the first federal law targeting monopolies and anti-competitive behavior. John Sherman died in Washington, D.C., on October 22, 1900, and is buried in Ohio.
William Sprague (1830-1915) lived a life fit for novels. His father, a rich mill owner, was murdered when the boy was just 13. William inherited the family fortune at age 26. Elected governor of Rhode Island in 1859, he was among the first to respond to Lincoln's call for troops. He fought valiantly in the Battle of Bull Run. Sprague resigned as governor in 1863 to become a U.S. senator. That same year, he married beautiful Kate Chase, daughter of Secretary of the Treasury (later Chief Justice) Salmon P. Chase. Sprague's life seemed charmed. It did not last. The "Panic of 1873" wiped out his family's wealth, and his marriage ended in divorce after Kate's notorious affair with New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. Sprague eventually remarried and retired to his beloved Rhode Island estate, Canonchet. In 1909, an elderly Sprague, the "last of the Civil War governors," watched Canonchet burn to the ground. He spent his final years in Paris, where he died on September 11, 1915.
As Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner sat writing at his desk in the Senate Chamber on May 22, 1856, he was brutally assaulted by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Angered by Sumner's "Crime against Kansas" speech, in which Sumner criticized South Carolina senator Andrew Butler, Brooks struck Sumner repeatedly with a heavy cane. During the long recuperation that followed, Sumner's empty desk in the Senate chamber stood as a powerful symbol of the tensions between North and South in the years before the Civil War. This dramatic event was just one episode in a long Senate career that lasted from 1851 to 1874. When Sumner returned to full-time Senate duties in 1859, he continued to fight for abolition. With the end of war and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, he concentrated on providing full political and civil rights to African Americans and went on to author one of the nation's first civil rights bills. He died in 1874.
Ohioan Benjamin Wade was one of the most influential members of the Civil War and Reconstruction-era Senate. Like his other Radical Republicans, Wade supported the abolition of slavery and called for civil rights for freedmen. He chaired the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, which analyzed a broad range of issues, including Union military losses, the mistreatment of Union prisoners by Confederate forces, and the massacre of Cheyenne Indians. He co-authored the Wade-Davis Bill with Representative Henry Davis of Maryland to provide for the readmission to representation of rebel states upon meeting certain conditions, such as providing African American men the right to vote. President Lincoln pocket-vetoed the bill, preferring a more moderate reconstruction plan. Elected president pro tempore by the Senate in 1867, Wade was the next in line of presidential succession during President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial.
Henry Wilson’s opposition to slavery drove him to enter politics. “Freedom and slavery are now arrayed against each other,” he declared in 1844. “We must destroy slavery, or it will destroy liberty.” In 1855 the Massachusetts legislature elected Wilson to the Senate where he joined the new Republican Party. Wilson influenced Civil War legislation as chairman of the Military Affairs Committee and continued to call for the abolition of slavery. In April 1862 Congress passed and the president signed the DC Emancipation Act, originally written by Wilson, freeing slaves in the nation’s capital. Wilson introduced the first post-war civil rights bill in 1865 and influenced Congress’s passage of constitutional amendments to guarantee citizenship rights to African Americans. Elected vice president in 1873, he became ill shortly after taking office and died on November 22, 1875. The Senate commissioned a marble bust of Wilson in 1885, as recognition for his service to the institution, marking the beginning of the Vice Presidential Bust Collection.