The Porter Conspiracy: A Story of the Civil War
As the only Southern senator to remain loyal to the Union after his state seceded, Johnson became a hero in the North. As a leader of the "War Democrats," he denounced "Peace Democrats" and defended President Lincoln's use of wartime executive power. Do not talk about Republicans now; do not talk about Democrats now; do not talk about Whigs or Americans now; talk about your Country and the Constitution and the Union. When federal troops conquered Nashville and its immediate vicinity, President Lincoln sent Andrew Johnson back to Tennessee in as war governor.
Johnson still identified himself as a Democrat, but as one who put the Union before party. He denounced the state's aristocratic planting class who had supported the war, and said that if freeing their slaves would help to end the war, then he was in favor of emancipation. Much to Johnson's chagrin, a conservative, proslavery candidate won the race for governor. President Lincoln wired Johnson to ignore the results and not recognize the new governor. Get emancipation into your new state constitution.
Since this meant that only those who had opposed the Confederacy could vote, Johnson's Radical forces swept the next state elections. Lincoln faced a difficult campaign for reelection in , and he doubted that his vice president, Maine Republican Hannibal Hamlin, would add much to his ticket. Officially, the president maintained a hands-off attitude toward the choice of a vice president, but privately he sent emissaries to several War Democrats as potential candidates on a fusion ticket.
General Benjamin F. Butler let the president know he had no interest in the second spot, but Johnson of Tennessee and Daniel S. Dickinson of New York both expressed eagerness to be considered. Secretary of State William Seward, who counted New York as his own political base, wanted no part of Dickinson in the cabinet and threw his weight behind Johnson. The fearless, tough-minded war governor of Tennessee captured the imagination of the delegates.
As John W. Forney judged Johnson's wartime record: "His speeches were sound, his measures bold, his administration a fair success.
The Civil War, by James I. Robertson, Jr.: a Project Gutenberg eBook
The people want to see and hear you. The name of Andrew Johnson has become a household word all over the great West, and you are regarded by the people of Illinois as the grandest example of loyalty in the whole South. Traveling to Logansport, Indiana, in October, Johnson told the crowd that a Democratic newspaper had accused the Republicans of nominating "a rail-splitter" at the head of their ticket and "a boorish tailor" at its tail. Rather than see this as a rebuke, Johnson took pride in having risen up "from the mass of the people. Late in October he addressed a large rally of African Americans in Nashville.
Johnson noted that, since Lincoln's emancipation proclamation had not covered territories like Tennessee that were already under Union control, he had issued his own proclamation freeing the slaves in Tennessee. He also asserted that society would be improved if the great plantations were divided into many small farms and sold to honest farmers. Looking out over the crowd and commenting on the storm of persecution through which his listeners had passed, he wished that a Moses might arise to "lead them safely to their promised land of freedom and happiness. Success on the battlefield brought Lincoln and Johnson victory in the election of As the Civil War approached its end, the equally monumental challenge of reconstructing the Union lay ahead.
In Congress, the Radical Republicans wanted a victor's peace, enforced by federal troops, that would allow the former Confederate states to return to the Union only on terms that protected the rights of the freedmen. They offered their plan as the Wade-Davis bill of , which Lincoln killed by a pocket veto. Lincoln wanted to be free to pursue a more lenient, flexible approach to Reconstruction. Having gotten the United States into the Civil War during a congressional recess in , Lincoln anticipated ending the war and reconstructing the South during the long recess between March and December He presumed that his new vice president would be in sympathy with these plans, since in July Johnson had congratulated Lincoln on his veto of the Wade-Davis bill, saying that "the real union men" were satisfied with the president's approach.
The vice president-elect hesitated in leaving Tennessee. In January , Johnson wrote to Lincoln pointing out that the final abolition of slavery in Tennessee could not be taken up until the new civilian legislature met that April. He wanted to remain as war governor until that time, before handing power over to the elected representatives of the people. Johnson suggested that his inaugural as vice president be delayed until April.
His friend, John W. King were sworn in on dates after March 4.
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With the war still underway, however, Lincoln replied that he and his cabinet unanimously believed that Johnson must be in Washington by March 4. Had Johnson not complied, he might not have taken the oath of office before Lincoln's death on April 14, adding more constitutional confusion to the aftermath of the assassination. During Johnson's six weeks as vice president, he faced greater danger than he knew.
The assassination plot that would make Johnson president included him as a target. The circle of conspirators that John Wilkes Booth had gathered at Mrs. Mary Surratt's boardinghouse had at first planned to capture President Lincoln and whisk him off to the Confederacy. But the war was ending sooner than they anticipated, and when the attempted capture went awry, Booth decided to kill Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, thereby throwing the North into confusion and anarchy.
Booth intended to kill Lincoln himself, and assigned Lewis Payne to assassinate Seward. For the vice president, whom he considered the least important victim, Booth assigned his weakest partner, George Atzerodt. He took a room almost directly above the ground-floor suite occupied by the vice president. So incompetent at conspiracy was Atzerodt that he signed his acttual name to the hotel register. His notion of surveillance was to spend the afternoon in the hotel bar asking suspicious questions about the vice president and his guard.
Sufficiently fortified with liquor, Atzerodt armed himself and asked the desk clerk to point out the vice president's suite. When informed that Johnson had just come back to his rooms, Atzerodt reacted in shocked surprise, and left the hotel. Shortly afterwards, Johnson also left for an appointment with Lincoln. When Booth arrived at the Kirkwood House and learned that Atzerodt was gone, he lost hope that this weak man would have the nerve to carry out his assignment. If he could not have Johnson killed, Booth improvised a way of discrediting him.
He asked for a blank card, which he filled out: "Don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home?
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Wilkes Booth. Fortunately for Johnson, his secretary, William A. Browning, picked up the mail at the desk and assumed that the card was for him, since he had once met Booth after a performance. A pounding at the door later that evening awakened Andrew Johnson. Rather than George Atzerodt with a pistol, the excited man at the door was former Wisconsin governor Leonard Farwell, who had just come from Ford's Theatre and who exclaimed, "Someone has shot and murdered the President. Farwell returned with the District of Columbia's provost marshal, who assured Johnson and the crowd that had gathered in his room that President Lincoln was dying and that Secretary of State William Seward was dead, as part of a gigantic plot.
In fact, Seward had been badly wounded but not killed. Johnson wished to leave immediately to be with the president, but the provost marshal urged him to wait until order had been restored in the streets. At dawn, Johnson, receiving word from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that Lincoln was dying, insisted on going to the president's side.
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Flanked by Governor Farwell and the provost marshal, the vice president walked the few blocks to the Petersen house, just across from Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln had been carried. Admitted to the bedroom where the cabinet and military leaders were gathered around the president's deathbed, Johnson stood with his hat in his hand looking down saying nothing. He then took Robert Lincoln's hand, whispered a few words to him, conversed with Stanton, and went to another parlor to pay his respects to Mary Todd Lincoln.
Somberly, he walked back to Kirkwood House. There, in his parlor, at ten o'clock that morning after Lincoln's death, Johnson took the oath of office from Chief Justice Salmon P. Lincoln's death stunned the nation and elevated the often harshly criticized wartime president to a sanctified martyr.
In Washington, some Radical Republicans viewed Lincoln's death as a godsend. They held, as Johnson's friend Forney wrote in the Philadelphia Press, that "a sterner and less gentle hand may at this juncture have been required to take hold of the reins of Government.
see Johnson also won admiration for his gallant treatment of Mrs. Lincoln, who was too distraught to leave the White House for more than a month after her husband's death. Rather than move into the White House, which served as the president's office as well as his residence, President Johnson worked out of a suite of rooms in the Treasury Department marked today by a plaque on the door.
However, the spirit of good will evaporated almost a soon as Johnson began making decisions regarding Reconstruction. Showing a strange amalgam of political courage and "pigheaded" stubbornness, Andrew Johnson confounded both his supporters and his adversaries.
By the end of May , it became clear that, like Lincoln, he intended to pursue a more lenient course toward Reconstruction than the Radicals in Congress wanted. Members of Congress grumbled when Johnson handed pardons to former Confederate leaders, suspected that the plebeian president took pride in having former aristocrats petition him. Congress was further shocked when the new governments formed under Johnson's plan enacted "Black Codes" that sought to regulate and restrict the activities of the freedmen. There was fear also that the former Confederate states would send Confederate officers and officeholders to reclaim their seats in Congress and undo the legislative accomplishments of the wartime Republican majorities.
When the president opposed granting political rights to the freedmen, white Southerners looked to him as a defender of white supremacy and as their protector against Radical retribution. The Democratic Party considered Johnson as one of their own, who might be induced to return to their fold. The predominantly Republican Washington press corps had at first embraced President Johnson, assuring their readers that he supported black suffrage and other Radical measures. Forney celebrated his old friend as a "practical statesman" whose policies offered a common ground for "all earnest loyalists.
The veto shocked Republican conservatives and drove them into alliance with the Radicals against the president. The press and even Forney deserted Johnson. A barrage of dispiriting uses of the word bloodied me as I combed through the narratives. Perhaps more depressing, ironically, was that circumstances sometimes led them to opt against calling a black person a nigger. There was a colored man in Pulaski, Tennessee, who owned slaves.
She saw me as O. Black people have hurled the infamous word for nearly as long as white folk have. It exists within black speech now because it existed within black speech then. We black folk are reclaiming it not from bigoted white folk but from our ancestors, who, sadly, deemed their blackness a badge of inferiority. I seek not to usher the word to the gallows.