Editor's note: This
article is an excerpt from Dr. James Bissland's latest book, Blood, Tears, & Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War,
published in 2007, and appears here through the courtesy of the
author. Dr. Bissland will be speaking before the Cleveland
Civil War Roundtable at its November 2008 meeting.
Sometimes it seemed as if the nation had split in half, the old
sense of common purpose gone, replaced by two countries with the
same name. One America, mostly quiet, rural, and sure of its
goodness, was proudly conservative, and revered the values of the
past. The other America was more urban and industrialized,
disputatious, and irreverent. It considered itself progressive and
looked to the future. The conservative America was firmly rooted in
the South, while the other America was populated mostly by
Northerners. After years of suspicion, fear, and name-calling
between the two Americas, the United States—united more in name than
fact—teetered on the edge of violence. It was April 1861.
In the town of Galena, Illinois, in
the spring of 1861 there lived a man who had failed at almost
everything except for one thing. Midway through each day he would
leave the leather goods store where he was a clerk and tramp up a
steep hillside to his small, rented house for a meal with his
family. Every night he would return to play with his four children
and read out loud to his wife, Julia. He spent little time
elsewhere, had only a few friends, and even after a year in Galena
thought himself “a comparative stranger.” He treasured his time at
home, for his only real success in adult life had been to marry the
woman he loved and raise a family.
Grant in 1843 at the age of 21. He was born Hiram
Ulysses Grant April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, moving
with his family to Georgetown, Ohio in 1823 where he lived
until enrolling at West Point in 1839 at the age of 17.
This was Ulysses S. Grant, a broad-chested,
stolid man of few words and no great height, reduced at age
thirty-eight to what must have seemed his last, best chance in life.
Born and raised in southern Ohio, son of a tanner, he had glumly
attended West Point because his father willed it. In 1843 young
Grant began an Army career with no enthusiasm. Stationed far from
home, lonely, and still a junior officer after eleven years of
service, he drank to ease the pain and in 1854 resigned, possibly to
escape a court martial for drunkenness.
Almost penniless, the civilian
Grant rejoined his family near St. Louis, Missouri, “to commence, at
the age of thirty-two, a new struggle for our support.” The struggle
would last six years and be fruitless. Grant failed at farming,
could not make a go of selling real estate, and was passed over for
a position with the county government. Finally, he humbled himself
to ask his father for a job—signifying he couldn’t support a family
on his own. In April 1860 Ulysses and Julia Grant and their four
children left St. Louis and, led by Ulysses wearing his old army
coat and lugging the family’s chairs, arrived by steamboat in the
northwestern Illinois town of Galena.
For the next year, ex-Captain Grant
led the humdrum life of a clerk, waiting for a partnership in a
store managed by his two younger brothers and owned by his absentee
father, now living in Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River
from Cincinnati. Every day he trudged the steep hillsides of Galena
from home to store and back again. Occasionally he traveled the
surrounding territory on store business, finding the rising tensions
between North and South discussed wherever he went. Grant would
listen quietly and now and then speak, measuring out the words as if
he was putting money on the table, stopping exactly when he had
One day someone said, “There’s a
great deal of bluster about these Southerners, but I don’t think
there’s much fight in them.” Grant—who had married a woman with
Southern roots and knew a great deal about them—replied concisely.
Southerners liked to “bluster,” he agreed, but he warned, “[I]f they
ever get at it, they will make a strong fight.” One more thing:
“[E]ach side underestimates the other and overestimates itself.”
There was something about this
quiet man that commanded respect, but to his listeners he was no
more than a clerk who had once been in the army. In three years, he
would command all of the nation’s armies. In eight years he would be
president of the United States.
Tecumseh Sherman, born February 8, 1820 in Lancaster, Ohio
where he lived until leaving for West Point at the age of 16
A year after Grant left the St.
Louis area, a tall, lanky, talkative man with red hair arrived in
the city. He, too, had been born in Ohio and attended West Point,
graduating three years before Grant. Like Grant, he had become an
army captain, but then he married and left the service. His father
had named him Tecumseh in the hope that he would become a great
warrior, but by April 1861 William Tecumseh Sherman’s only battle
was with boredom. Trained to be a military officer, he now, at age
forty-one, was running a horse-car line.
Sherman’s civilian career had paid
more than Grant’s, but was just as filled with roadblocks and
dead-ends. He had managed the San Francisco branch of a St. Louis
bank until the bank gave up on it. A real estate law venture in
Kansas failed. Next, army friends helped Sherman win the job, in
1859, of superintending the newly established Louisiana State
Seminary and Military Academy (today’s Louisiana State University).
But within a year and a half Louisiana seceded from the Union,
putting Sherman’s loyalties to the test. Sherman liked Southerners
and he liked his job but he was a loyal Union man, so he resigned
and returned north in March 1861.
On his way home, Sherman was
introduced to the newly inaugurated president, Abraham Lincoln. A
jocular remark by Lincoln offended the highly sensitive Sherman, a
man as tightly wound and delicately balanced as a watch spring. He
went huffing back to Lancaster, Ohio, to pick up his wife and five
children, who, after more than a year, he still had not brought to
Louisiana. The Sherman marriage was less serene than Grant’s, for
the tirelessly Catholic Eleanor (called “Ellen”) Ewing Sherman had
dedicated herself to bringing her husband into the faith, while he
was just as dedicated to remaining unchurched.
Once again, friendship helped
Sherman get a new job, this time as president of the Fifth Street
Railroad in St. Louis. Except for the title, with salary to match,
it wasn’t much of a job; the horse-car line was already up and
running smoothly. As Sherman remembered it, “[A]ll I had to do was
to watch the economical administration of existing affairs.” And so,
in April 1861, as Civil War loomed, the man with the name of a
famous Indian warrior was not preparing for battle but making sure
the horse cars kept plodding on their endless rounds. Eventually,
his fame as a general would rival Grant’s, and for years after the
war he would have to fend off urgings to run for president.
In the nation’s capital, seven
hundred miles from Galena and St. Louis, a third Ohio-born man was
drumming his fingers and fuming during April 1861. Short, pudgy,
myopic, and asthmatic, he was a brilliant lawyer known for his bad
temper. Until Lincoln’s inauguration he had been the nation’s
attorney general and in the hapless Buchanan administration probably
had been the smartest man in the room. With the change of
administrations from Buchanan’s to Lincoln’s, however, he had been
returned to the sidelines.
McMasters Stanton was born December 19, 1814 in Steubenville,
Ohio and attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio before being
admitted to the Ohio bar in 1836.
The man was forty-six-year-old
Edwin McMasters Stanton, a lifelong Democrat who did not fit the
Democratic stereotype, for he was strongly pro-Union and thoroughly
opposed to slavery. Faced with the prospect of the South seceding
while a fractured Democratic administration argued with itself,
Attorney General Stanton had had to choose among his loyalties. As
the nation slipped into chaos while Buchanan dithered, Stanton had
secretly begun subverting his own president.
Openly, Stanton worked to stiffen
Buchanan’s wobbly backbone in defense of the Union, but unbeknownst
to the president he was passing inside information to the Republican
opposition in Congress. When he could, Stanton also sabotaged
efforts by disloyal Cabinet members to secretly divert the nation’s
military resources to the nascent Confederacy.
Now, in April 1861, Buchanan was
gone, replaced on Inauguration Day the month before by Abraham
Lincoln—and former Attorney General Stanton was growing angrier by
the day. Contrary to Stanton’s expectations, the new Republican
president was making conciliatory noises toward the South. Expected
to act decisively for the Union, Lincoln seemed to be temporizing,
and that made Stanton even madder at Lincoln than he had been at
Buchanan. “There is no settled principle or line of action,” he
complained of the new administration. “What but disgrace and
disaster can happen?” But Stanton’s opportunity for a settled
principle would come soon enough.
Stanton’s irritability drew from a
deep well of tragedy and loss, aggravated by severe asthma. While
Stanton was living in Ohio, his fifteen-month-old daughter Lucy died
in 1841, followed in less than three years by his beloved wife,
Mary. Then, in 1846, Stanton’s brother Darwin cut his own
throat—“The blood spouted up to the ceiling,” a doctor recalled.
So many losses in so short a time
changed Stanton’s personality, replacing a hearty good humor with a
brusque, even rude, intensity. He moved to Pittsburgh, lost himself
in legal work, and turned into a ferocious litigator. Andrew
Carnegie, then only a telegraph messenger boy, recalled Stanton was
“ever deeply serious.” The Ohio-born lawyer re-married, this time to
a much younger woman, Ellen Hutchison. A member of a prominent
Pittsburgh family, Ellen matched Stanton in aloofness.
In 1856, the Stantons moved to
Washington, where Stanton had a growing clientele. After solving
some legal problems for the Buchanan government, Stanton was
appointed attorney general in 1860. Until Lincoln’s ascension to the
presidency the next year, Stanton was the nation’s top lawyer,
recognized in high circles, but only a name, and little known at
that, to most Americans.
So it was, on the eve of the Civil
War, that Ulysses S. Grant in his old army coat silently trudged the
hills of Galena while William Tecumseh Sherman idled in his St.
Louis office and Edwin McMasters Stanton smoldered in Washington.
All had been born in Ohio within the span of a generation, but
didn’t know each other. Few outside their own circles knew them,
either, and for that matter, with their depths unplumbed, they
scarcely knew or understood themselves. They had been traveling
bumpy roads from plain beginnings and, having been tested but little
for greatness, seemed unlikely candidates for it.
And yet, by the end of the war,
they could be called saviors of the nation, three of the four most
important leaders who saved a threatened America and the promise it
held out to everyone. All came from the region known then as “the
West” and we know today as the Midwest. The fourth of these rescuers
was Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, yet another obscure Midwesterner, a
gawky rube (“I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in
flesh”), the man with the plainest beginning of all.
Proof for all time that any boy can
grow up to be president in this land of opportunity, the story of
Lincoln’s rise from rail-splitting poverty to national father
figure, may be, as one historian has said, “the great American
story.” But there are others.
Novelist Allan Gurganus calls his
fellow Southerners “championship grudge-bearers,” but points out,
“True, we lost once, big-time. But our concession prize? The
stories.” Take those tales—many romanticized, some bitter—that
Southerners tell about the Civil War, add the fascination many of us
have with eastern battles like Gettysburg, and the examined result
is this: we’ve missed some of the most important stories of the
Civil War. Among them are true accounts of how the Civil War was
decided mostly west, not east, of the Appalachians, how rough-hewn,
hard-to-discipline “Westerners”—especially those from the sister
states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois—did the fighting that made the
difference, and how Western commanders finally had to go east to
finish the war the Easterners couldn’t.
To fight this war came the
citizen-soldiers—in one Midwestern state alone, Ohio, 300,000 men,
roughly one of every ten citizens. Another 450,000 came from Ohio’s
sisters, Indiana and Illinois, meaning these three raw-boned,
relatively young and still-developing states by themselves supplied
a fourth of the Union’s soldiers. They came from every corner of
their states and from every walk of life, putting down their law
books and ledgers, pens and plows to become colonels and captains
and sergeants and ordinary infantrymen for three or four years. They
streamed off farms and out of offices, shops, and classrooms to wear
uniforms for the first time in their lives and learn war the
hardest, most dangerous way: on the battlefield. They encountered
lives of hardship unimaginable by our modern high-tech,
well-supplied military. The men of the Civil War ate gut-grinding
food (and sometimes didn’t even have that), drank bilious water, and
frequently slept on the ground. They went unwashed for weeks, wore
ragged, faded clothing, sometimes marched shoeless, and most of the
time were infested with lice.
For all that, the privates were
paid $13 a month, if they even got it on time. But they were
sustained by wives and sweethearts and mothers and sisters and
children and all those who nursed the sick and wounded or wrote the
letters and packed the food parcels and held the soldiers in their
hearts. And they were sustained by a great sense of purpose: this
was a citizen’s fight to save their country, a sacred cause that
would take almost every ounce of energy the nation had. It was not
war on the cheap.
The Unionists of the 1860s
believed, first of all, that this was one nation, indivisible, a
place unique in world history, illuminated by the Enlightenment,
created by and for all the people, not just the privileged. For the
South to reject that and deny, by their breaking away, what so many
had worked and fought so hard to create was wrong. “The cause of
America,” Thomas Paine wrote in his commonsensical way more than 230
years ago, “is in a great measure the cause of a mankind,” and a
century and half before that, John Winthrop famously told us we were
a city upon a hill.
In their schools, political arenas,
and cultural artifacts, the Americans of 1860 were endlessly
reminded of the greatness of their forefathers and how they had made
a land that was like no other, a beacon for the world. And, for the
sake of all mankind, Unionists believed and the Confederates denied,
the United States had to be defended.
There was something else, something
that made that city upon a hill possible and kept its light shining.
The generator of the American ideal, the wellspring of the American
Dream, is the “equality promise” the Founding Fathers had made in
the Declaration of Independence and of which Lincoln kept reminding
everyone: All men are created equal, endowed with certain
inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness. Burdened with inherited prejudices and occupied with
their chores, most nineteenth-century Americans did not so much
understand the equality promise as sense it, meaning in its most
elemental terms, “I am a free man in the land of opportunity.”
In time, though, with the help of
the Railsplitter, Americans would come to understand the equality
promise applied to others, and most immediately it meant this:
slavery, human bondage, the owning of one human being by another,
not only was inhumane, but a denial of the promise of America, and
it had to be ended.
In 1853 a Northern senator whose
sentiments lay southerly declared, in sneering tones that the phrase
“all men are created equal” was not a “self-evident truth,” but “a
self-evident lie.” Rising to answer, Sen. Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio
thundered, “The great declaration cost our forefathers too dear to
be lightly thrown away by their children.”
And it would not. We of the
Twenty-first Century have been disappointed by too many leaders to
quickly remember there was a time when millions of Americans
volunteered not only to defend the nation but, implicitly, to keep
the equality promise. They risked their lives, their health, and
their own futures to protect the nation and the covenant it had made
with them…and us. And that may be the greatest American story of
About the book: Next
to Lincoln, the war’s most important leaders were three men with
Ohio roots: the first, a silent, slouchy little man who hated the
sight of blood and loved his family more than anything; the second,
a jittery lover of literature who was once thought to be insane; the
third, a sickly lawyer known for his mysterious ways and ferocious
temper. And, far more than we realize, women and blacks played major
roles in the drama. Together, the men and women of the Civil War era
form one of our greatest generations, and their many stories of
heroism and heartbreak, brilliance and stupidity, compassion and
cruelty, come together for the first time in one great story:
Blood, Tears, & Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War.
(From the publisher.)
the author: Dr. James Bissland is an associate professor of
journalism emeritus at Bowling Green State University and the author
of several books and many articles. For years his primary
focus as a journalist was as a human interest feature writer. In
addition to Blood, Tears, & Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War
(2007), Dr. Bissland also has written Long River Winding: Life, Love, and
Death Along the Connecticut (2003) and co-authored Bountiful Ohio:
Good Food and Stories from Where the Heartland Begins (1993). Dr. Bissland was born in New
England and moved to the Midwest in 1976, settling in Bowling Green
in 1976. He is a graduate of Cornell University,
University of Massachusetts - Amherst, and the University of Iowa.
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