“The Finest Cavalry Display Ever Witnessed”: Lincoln Reviews the Mounted Arm

Abraham Lincoln

The spring of 1863 brought about a season of change in the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac. On St. Patrick’s Day, Brig. Gen. William W. Averell’s division clashed with Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade on the south bank of the Rappahannock near Kelly’s Ford.The battle marked the first time the horse soldiers in blue launched an offensive. While the rest of the army  engaged Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia around the Chancellorsville crossroads west of Fredericksburg, the bulk of the corps undertook an expedition into central Virginia. Named for its commander, George Stoneman, it was the operational making of the force. “Stoneman’s Raid” taught the officers and enlisted men how to function in the field during a campaign. The making of the corps as a combat force came on June 9, 1863 when the Union horsemen engaged Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry near a rail stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad known as Brandy Station. Seemingly lost amidst these events is an episode that took place 155 years ago today, when President Abraham Lincoln reviewed the cavalry in Stafford County.

 The day before Easter, Lincoln, along with a small party left Washington by ship, bound for Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac in their winter encampment. The journey was delayed by snow and the ship did not reach Aquia Landing until the following day. From there, the President traveled by train to Falmouth where he was met by Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield and an escort from the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The group then made their way along the White Oak Road (State Route 218) to army headquarters, located near the intersection of Jenny Lind and Myers Roads in the modern Kendallwood Estates subdivision. Lincoln stayed close by. His temporary Executive Mansion was located just a short distance northwest of the junction of modern White Oak, Ringgold and Ferry Roads near the modern White Oak Volunteer Rescue Squad building.

“The good president had hastened from the White House to visit the army he had helped to create, to see for himself that his soldiers were comfortable, to cheer them by his presence and encourage by kind words,” recalled a member of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.

Early the next morning, the Union troopers assembled on the farm of James Sthreshley (pronounced Thrashley) to be reviewed by Lincoln. The Streshley farm house no longer exists. It stood near the south end of Scott Drive in the modern Grafton Village subdivision.

The south end of Scott Drive.

Among those in attendance were First Lady Mary Lincoln along with Maj. Gens. Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum. Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, the corps commander, waited anxiously for the arrival of Hooker and Lincoln.

“After remaining in line a long time, during which the infantry and artillery were being reviewed, the tall, gaunt form of the President came into view, accompanied by General Hooker and a vast retinue,” wrote the historian of the 10th New York Cavalry. “The latter was kept busy plying whip and spur to keep in company. The President’s face was pale, sad, and care-worn in appearance. He sat his small horse with ease, his long legs hanging straight down, the feet nearly reaching to the ground.”

“Mr. Lincoln wore his customary dress-black frock coat with quite long tails which flapped behind him as he passed at a gallop-black trousers and high silk hat…his tall, gaunt figure, and odd costume gave him a singular appearance,” observed George Sanford, an officer in the 1st U.S. Cavalry.

Approaching Stoneman, Hooker formerly introduced him to Lincoln. “President Lincoln and Generals Hooker and Stoneman start off at a gallop,” wrote Henry Moyer of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, “with about three hundred attendants, first to the right of the line, then along the whole front to the left and thence to the reviewing stand. General Stoneman now leaves the President, and with his staff again takes his position in the centre [sic] of the line, facing the corps.”

Stoneman then gave the command: “Pass in review! Column forward! Guide right! March!” “Ten thousand sabres flashed in the sun, forty thousand iron hoofs spurned the sacred soil and as each bold rider settled himself anew in the saddle, grasping the steed that bore him more firmly with hand or knee, ever and anon taking a quick, stealthy glance to right, the magnificent cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac swept steadily and proudly before the Chief Magistrate of the Nation,” officer in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry proudly wrote. It was “the finest cavalry display ever witnessed in the United States,” recalled a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A sketch of Lincoln inspecting the cavalry.

The review took 4 hours to complete. At the very end, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, armed with nine foot long wooden lances with an eleven inch blade was “brought around the house into the field at full gallop, with company fronts at that gait executed most perfectly one of the most difficult cavalry movements, that of wheeling by companies into regimental line, facing the immense company of military authorities there gathered and forming a most perfectly dressed line on the instant, every horse ready and halted just in the right place , the men looking proud that they were able to accomplish so easily this most difficult maneuver.”

At the conclusion of the review, the corps dispersed and returned to their camps.  The moment was not lost on those who participated.“It was an occasion not to be forgotten, the sight being one of the most magnificent many of us ever saw,” recalled Willard Glazer of the 2nd New York Cavalry “It seemed to do us all good to get a glimpse of the solemn, earnest face of the President, who reviewed us with apparent satisfaction.” “That review made a lasting impression,” Moyer wrote. It “was a notable day in the history of the regiment and the men were greatly enthused.” This spirit would sustain the troopers in the weeks and months to come on battlefields scattered across Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Draft Dilemma in Poweshiek County: The Murder of the Marshals

The newspaper clipping, “United States Marshals Murdered in Iowa” quotes the Chicago Tribune, but the printed source is the Pittsburgh Daily Post, 10/13/1864, located online at www.newspapers.com

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author David Connon

Amid mounting Union Army death counts in summer 1864, Iowa had its first draft. Three men didn’t report for duty on October 1, so the provost marshal in Grinnell sent two deputy marshals to southern Poweshiek County to round up the draft deserters. Bushwhackers murdered the marshals. As the second marshal lay dying, he named the murderers. The killings occurred in an atmosphere thick with fear, that could be traced back to the firing upon Fort Sumter.

Many Iowa Republicans and Democrats had enlisted after Fort Sumter, but many peace-minded Democrats feared a draft. Some conscription-eligible men considered moving to Canada. As the war continued, outraged Republicans blasted Democrats who dissented against the war, President Lincoln, and (as the war progressed) emancipation.  Congressional candidate J.B. Grinnell (who the town of Grinnell was named after) worried  about Iowa’s southern border with slave-holding Missouri. He wrote Gov. Samuel J. Kirkwood in August 1862: “Secret Societies are being organized to defy the draft and collection of taxes. The traitors are armed. Our soldiers are defenseless. We want arms. Can we not have them?”

The next year, in July 1863, thousands fell in hails of bullets at Gettysburg. The Lincoln administration quickly enacted a draft, but it didn’t yet affect Iowa (which had high numbers of volunteers). Conscription sparked several days of deadly race riots in New York City.

Abraham Lincoln

Outspoken editors of dissenting Democratic newspapers denounced the federal government’s tactics. The Muscatine Courier wrote, “Let Mr. Lincoln withdraw his emancipation proclamation and there will be no more riots in New York or elsewhere, occasioned by resistance to the draft.” John Gharkey of the Fayette County Pioneer told Iowan men in September 1863: “You should resist the conscription with your rifles, your shotguns, or whatever weapons you get hold of. If you, young men, do not resist conscription, you are unworthy to be called American citizens.”

Words turned violent outside South English, Keokuk County, Iowa, on August 1, 1863. Gun-toting Peace Democrats, led by Reverend Cyphert Tally, passed through the heavily Republican town. Fiery words flew, gunfire erupted, and Talley dropped dead. His supporters rallied at the Skunk River, some 16 miles away, drawing friends from Poweshiek and other counties. Governor Kirkwood sent in six militia companies, and the mob disappeared.

The next governor, William M. Stone, responded to Tally’s death (and the New York City draft riots) by calling in January 1864 for “loyal men” to “preserve the peace of the state.” Volunteer militia companies in every county were “promptly organized … of loyal and substantial citizens.” This action later bore deadly fruit in Poweshiek County.

J.B. Grinnell (Library of Congress)

As the war continued, Democrat fears of a growing war machine – and opportunities for negroes — became a reality. On Feb. 1, Congressman J.B. Grinnell introduced a resolution to encourage Negroes to enlist in the Union army.

President Lincoln told Grinnell, “I am glad that Congress has endorsed the policy of actively enlisting black men … It is a great day for the black man when you tell him he shall carry a gun … it foretells that he is to have the full enjoyment of his liberty and manhood.”

Lincoln concluded: “Now, tell your people in Iowa … the time has come when I am for everybody fighting the rebels. Let Indians fight them; let the negroes fight them; and if you have got any strong-legged jackasses in Iowa that can kick rebels to death, they have my hearty consent.”

Southern-sympathizing congressmen described Grinnell as being ‘drunk with blood.’  Grinnell retorted that Democrats were “in league with slavery and the Devil.”

In early May, Union troops entered the Wilderness Campaign. Turning his face like flint toward Richmond, Grant said he would “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Over the next six weeks, more than 60,000 Union soldiers died, were wounded, or missing. Meanwhile, Sherman’s troops moved toward Atlanta.

The war came home to Grinnell when Provost Marshal James Mathews quietly announced a draft. Grinnell Republican men formed a militia and began to drill. Mathews, located in Grinnell, “spoke of the necessity of dealing with severity with the rebel sympathizers at the north.”

Fourteen miles south of Grinnell, men formed a militia in Sugar Creek Township. That part of the county had most of its southern-born population. Elizabeth D. Williams, wife of a Union Army soldier, said the neighborhood “contained numerous sympathizers with the South,” and she said they harassed her, killed their cows, and destroyed other property.

The Sugar Creek militiamen called themselves the “Democratic Rangers.” Said to be Democrats, its members took an oath to support the United States Constitution and the State of Iowa — but with a twist. They reportedly “would resist the draft … shoot any Marshal or officer who would come for them … and assist the rebels if they should come into Iowa.”

The fifty or so Democratic Rangers drilled twice in September 1864. Many of them carried arms. In mid-September, Provost-Marshal Mathews issued draft notices to three of them, requiring them to appear in Grinnell by September 30. One draftee, Joseph Robertson, said that if he were forced into the army, he would “shoot the officers.”

Democratic Ranger Michael Gleason, a native of Ireland, said he was “not in favor of forcing men to fight in a nigger war.” He bragged that “if the Marshals came to Sugar Creek Township to take men, he was ready to help kill them.” He added, “If the Marshals came into Sugar Creek township to take men out, he … had plenty of backing.”

10/1/1864 letter from Provost Marshal James Mathews to Gov. William M. Stone. The letter is contained in the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Archives.

The draft deadline passed, and on October 1, Provost Marshal.Mathews sent Deputy Marshal John L Bashore and Special Agent Josiah M. Woodruff to locate and arrest three draft deserters. Bashore and Woodruff rode a buggy into Sugar Creek, unaware that the Democratic Rangers planned to drill that afternoon.

The marshals began looking for draft-deserter (and South Carolina native) Samuel A. Bryant. Two brothers, John and Joe Fleener, rode up to the marshals, opened fire, and killed one instantly. A third bushwhacker, Irish native Michael Gleason, ran up and started hitting the surviving marshal in the head with a rifle. Someone shot Gleason in the leg during the melee. The Fleeners rode away, never to be seen again. A local man found Gleason and Marshal Bashore.  The dying marshal identified his killers (and Gleason as an assailant), and he said bushwhackers (who “had sworn resistance to the draft”) had come directly from the drilling site.

Provost Marshal Mathews suspected the murders were planned and that all Democratic Rangers were accessories to the crime. He called up militias from Grinnell and Montezuma and asked Governor Stone for help. Mathews set up roadblocks into Grinnell, and he sent militiamen to capture the Fleeners, Gleason, and the draft-deserters.

Three days later, Governor Stone arrived, passing out new Springfield rifles to the militiamen, who rode off to arrest the remaining Democratic Rangers. Grinnell militiamen bagged six Colt revolvers, a pistol, a horse pistol, 15 rifles, eight shotguns, and ammunition. They also arrested 16 men.

Second view of 10/1/1864 letter from Provost Marshal James Mathews to Gov. William M. Stone. The letter is contained in the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Archives.

The editor of the Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, a Republican paper, assumed the worst. He wrote, “The Unionists of Poweshiek are naturally a good deal stirred up, and if the long-threatened Copperhead war is now to begin, they are ready.” He also demonized leading Democrats as being “armed and ready, with murder in their hearts … but waiting the opportunity to deluge the country in blood. Our safety is in their cowardice and want of opportunity.”

The Montezuma Republican editor made political hay, calling Poweshiek County Democratic leaders “more guilty in the sight of God, and more deserving of punishment, than the three men who committed the murder[s].”

The evidence suggests that the Fleeners murdered the marshals to keep their uncle Joseph Robertson from being impressed into the U.S. Army. Gleason, on the other hand, was a Democratic Ranger who expressed drunken bravado (about the marshals) to the Fleeners. He unwittingly stepped into a nightmare that spun out of control. The Democratic Rangers as a group just happened to be drilling the day of the murders.

Authorities in 1867 released every Democratic Ranger except Michael Gleason, who was tried and sentenced to death by hanging. President Andrew Johnson commuted his sentence to life in prison, where Gleason died in 1875. The Fleeners escaped justice.

Tempers and emotions had dissipated by 1911, and Sugar Creek Township’s odious Copperhead reputation faded. Poweshiek County historian Leonard F. Parker wrote that the former Democratic Rangers “were evidently misled. We are glad to accord them an honorable place among good citizens since that unfortunate hour in 1864 … The war is over. Neighborly relations have been restored.”


David Connon has studied pre-war and war-time Iowa for the past 15 years.  A bleary-eyed veteran researcher, he has found that primary sources sometimes lead to rich stories. He has documented 76 Iowa residents who left that state and served the Confederacy. He shares some of their stories on a blog, Confederates from Iowa:  Not to Defend, but to Understand. The blog also delves into the Iowa Underground Railroad, the Iowa home-front, war-time violations of civil liberties, and book reviews. He speaks to audiences across the state through the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau, and he works as a historical interpreter at Living History Farms. He has a master’s degree in Education from Northern Illinois University.

From the ECW Archives: Creating the Medal of Honor

Civil War-era Army Medal of Honor.

March 25 is Medal of Honor Day.

When the Civil War began, the U.S. military had few medals or awards to recognize bravery or exemplary conduct.  General George Washington created the Purple Heart in 1782 to recognize “singularly meritorious action;” a Certificate of Merit recognized bravery under fire during the Mexican-American War, but it did not provide for any medal.  Recipients of the Certificate of Merit later received extra pay of two dollars per month—if they were still serving on active duty.

During the Civil War’s first winter, Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa introduced a bill to create a Navy Medal.  The bill easily passed through Congress, and President Abraham Lincoln affixed his signature on December 21, 1861.  This Medal of Valor, as it was called, was the first authorized decoration to recognize gallant actions by American fighting men, but it applied only to the Navy.  Two months later, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts introduced legislation calling for the creation of a similar medal for enlisted men of the Army.  Lincoln signed that bill into law on July 12, 1862—155 years ago today.  This date is considered the birth of what we now know as the Medal of Honor.  An amendment was added in March 1863 to make the award available to officers as well as enlisted men and making its availability retroactive to the beginning of the Civil War.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles contacted James Pollock, Director of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, about designing the Navy medal shortly after Lincoln approved creation of that decoration.  Pollock had already submitted five designs to the Navy when he learned of the creation of the Army medal.  Pollock wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to inform Stanton that one of his Navy medal designs would actually be appropriate for the Army as well.  The Navy approved one of Pollock’s designs in May 1862, and the Army followed suit six months later.  The firm of William Wilson and Son of Philadelphia was contracted to make 2,000 copies of each medal.

Both medals were star-shaped and consisted of a figure representing the Union holding a shield against a crouching attacker holding striking serpents.  In the left hand, the Union held a fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of unified authority consisting of an ax bound in staves of wood.  The medal was surrounded by 34 stars, representing the nation’s then-34 states.  The medal’s reverse was blank to allow for the engraving of the recipient’s name and the date and place of action.  The only difference between the two medals was the manner by which it was connected to the ribbon: on the Navy medal, it was suspended by an anchor, on the Army medal by an American eagle standing atop crossed cannons.

Over 1,500 Medals of Honor were awarded to Union soldiers for actions during the Civil War.  While many were issued for conspicuous gallantry under enemy fire and at great risk to (and sometimes at the cost of) the recipient’s life, others were issued as incentives for reenlistment or to politicians-turned-soldiers that brazenly campaigned for them.  Not until decades later, after additional decorations for valor had been created and the Medal of Honor rose to become the military’s highest award, did the reverence we now hold for this particular award emerge.  In conflicts after the Civil War, many more Medals were awarded to servicemen killed during the performance of their Medal of Honor action.

The standards of valor and personal risk that must be demonstrated for an action to be deemed worthy of the Medal of Honor have risen sharply since the Civil War.  Perhaps this is best encapsulated in the comment President Harry Truman made in 1946 as he prepared to present two Medals of Honor for actions during World War II: “I’d rather have a Medal of Honor than be President of the United States.”  Truman, a World War I combat veteran, understood better than most what the young men standing before him had done and endured to be there to receive the nation’s highest award.

To date, just over 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded.  Nineteen men have received two Medals of Honor, the most famous being Thomas Custer during the Civil War.  Thomas Custer died in 1876 with his brother and fellow Civil War veteran George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn.  Only one Medal of Honor has been awarded to a woman: Dr. Mary E. Walker, a Civil War nurse and the U.S. Army’s first female surgeon.  In 1917, the Army Medal of Honor review board revoked the Medals of 911 recipients whose actions it deemed unworthy of the Medal.  Dr. Walker refused to return her Medal as instructed and continued to wear it for the rest of her life.  President Jimmy Carter posthumously restored her Medal in 1977.  In recent years, many Medals of Honor have been awarded to African Americans and Asian Americans whose combat actions decades before were worthy of the Medal but were never recognized due to racial discrimination.

Only one President of the United States has been a Medal of Honor recipient: Theodore Roosevelt.  President Bill Clinton presented this Medal in 2001, over a century after Roosevelt’s actions at the Spanish-American War battle of San Juan Hill and 82 years after Roosevelt’s death.  Two father-son duos have received the Medal of Honor: Arthur and Douglas MacArthur (Civil War and World War II, respectively); and Roosevelt and his son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (Spanish-American War and World War II, respectively).  The Medal of Honor is presented to recipients or their family members by the President of the United States in the name of Congress (which is why it is often called the “Congressional Medal of Honor”).  Today, the Army, Navy, and Air Force all have their own versions of the Medal; members of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard receive the Navy version.

The last Civil War soldier to receive the Medal of Honor was First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing for his actions during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.  Cushing was killed while performing the action that would result in President Barack Obama’s presentation of the Medal of Honor to his distant relative on November 6, 2014, over 150 years later.

For those of us that live and breathe Civil War history, it seems appropriate that the nation’s highest military award was created during this conflict.  After all, when did the country have more at stake—not only the freedom of millions held in bondage, but the survival of the very nation itself?



February 27, 1860: Lincoln at Cooper Union

On this day 158 years ago-February 27, 1860-Abraham Lincoln of Illinois delivered an invited speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City. Lincoln had gained a reputation and a following among some Republicans in 1858 when he skillfully debated Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois (a Democrat) as the two ran against one another to represent Illinois in the United States Senate. Though Lincoln lost that election to the incumbent Douglas, he gained important exposure as a skilled speaker and an articulate voice against the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Lincoln wisely arranged to have the texts of the his debates with Douglas published, and by the time he arrived in New York City 158 years ago some thought he might be a potential Republican presidential candidate for 1860. The speech he delivered at the Cooper Institute, now commonly referred to as the Cooper Union speech, solidified Lincoln as a candidate in the minds of many. Less than three months later, the Republican National Convention nominated Abraham Lincoln as its presidential candidate.

The Cooper Union speech was over 7,000 words long, making it one of Lincoln’s longest speeches. Here are some of the key excerpts from the speech in which Lincoln persuasively argues against slavery’s expansion into the West. Notice, however, that he does not call for abolishing slavery where it exists or for an invasion of the South to free slaves-two of the most common complaints from southerners about Lincoln during the 1860 campaign.

Mathew Brady took this photo of Lincoln on the day of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech-Feb. 27, 1860. (Library of Congress image)

“In his speech last autumn, at Columbus, Ohio, as reported in The New-York Times, Senator Douglas said: “Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.” I fully indorse this, and I adopt it as a text for this discourse. I so adopt it because it furnishes a precise and an agreed starting point for a discussion between Republicans and that wing of the Democracy headed by Senator Douglas. It simply leaves the inquiry: “What was the understanding those fathers had of the question mentioned?” … The sum of the whole is, that of our thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution, twenty-one—a clear majority of the whole—certainly understood that no proper division of local from federal authority, nor any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories; while all the rest probably had the same understanding. Such, unquestionably, was the understanding of our fathers who framed the original Constitution …”

“It is surely safe to assume that the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution, and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live”. And so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. I go a step further. I defy any one to show that any living man in the whole world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century, (and I might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the present century,) declare that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. To those who now so declare, I give, not only “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live”, but with them all other living men within the century in which it was framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find the evidence of a single man agreeing with them. …”

“I do not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience—to reject all progress—all improvement. What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we. …”

“If any man at this day sincerely believes that a proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbids the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories, he is right to say so, and to enforce his position by all truthful evidence and fair argument which he can. But he has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it, into the false belief that “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live” were of the same opinion—thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument. If any man at this day sincerely believes “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live”, used and applied principles, in other cases, which ought to have led them to understand that a proper division of local from federal authority or some part of the Constitution, forbids the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories, he is right to say so. But he should, at the same time, brave the responsibility of declaring that, in his opinion, he understands their principles better than they did themselves; and especially should he not shirk that responsibility by asserting that they “understood the question just as well, and even better, than we do now.”

Cooper Union in 2007. (Wikipedia)

“Let all who believe that “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now”, speak as they spoke, and act as they acted upon it. This is all Republicans ask—all Republicans desire—in relation to slavery. As those fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity. Let all the guarantees those fathers gave it, be, not grudgingly, but fully and fairly, maintained. For this Republicans contend, and with this, so far as I know or believe, they will be content. …”

“But you say you are conservative—eminently conservative—while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live”; while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new. True, you disagree among yourselves as to what that substitute shall be. You are divided on new propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers. Some of you are for reviving the foreign slave trade; some for a Congressional Slave-Code for the Territories; some for Congress forbidding the Territories to prohibit Slavery within their limits; some for maintaining Slavery in the Territories through the judiciary; some for the “gur-reat pur-rinciple” that “if one man would enslave another, no third man should object”, fantastically called “Popular Sovereignty”; but never a man among you is in favor of federal prohibition of slavery in federal territories, according to the practice of “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live”. Not one of all your various plans can show a precedent or an advocate in the century within which our Government originated. Consider, then, whether your claim of conservatism for yourselves, and your charge of destructiveness against us, are based on the most clear and stable foundations. …”

“Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed. There is a judgment and a feeling against slavery in this nation, which cast at least a million and a half of votes. You cannot destroy that judgment and feeling—that sentiment—by breaking up the political organization which rallies around it. You can scarcely scatter and disperse an army which has been formed into order in the face of your heaviest fire; but if you could, how much would you gain by forcing the sentiment which created it out of the peaceful channel of the ballot-box, into some other channel? …”

The February 28, 1860 edition of the New York Times reported on Lincoln’s address at Cooper Union the previous evening. (New York Times)

“When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours, to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such a right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication. …”

“Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events. …”

“An inspection of the Constitution will show that the right of property in a slave is not “distinctly and expressly affirmed” in it. …”

“But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!” To be sure, what the robber demanded of me—my money—was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle. …”

“Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored—contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man — such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care — such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance — such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did. …”

“Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

An Unusual Valentine: Elmer E. Ellsworth, Esquire

Elmer Ellsworth about 1860

Every biography or biographical article about not-yet-colonel Elmer Ellsworth says the same thing: It is not known if Ellsworth passed, or even took, the Illinois State Bar Examination. I know this is not a bombshell issue for most people, but some of us care. I care. And, I am working like a madwoman to finish up my biography of Colonel Ellsworth before the next full eclipse of the sun. So imagine my surprise when . . .

March 30, 2017–the news breaks. “Joint Secretary of State & Supreme Court Restoration Project of Illinois Attorney Oaths Complete” is the headline of the For Immediate Release memo from the desk of Jesse White, Secretary of State for the great state of Illinois. This, apparently, had been a long-term project that sought to discover, restore, and preserve the attorney oaths for the Illinois Supreme Court. “Approximately 142,000 oaths, some preceding the Civil War, have been restored,” according to White. As explained in the memo, signing the Attorney Oath is the final step a newly minted lawyer takes before practicing law in Illinois. One must pass the bar exam before signing this oath.

The project was begun in 2009 and took until last year to complete. The Illinois Supreme Court was preparing to completely restore their building and needed a place to keep the court records while this was happening. Carolyn Taft Grosboll, current clerk of the Court stated, “Among the records were these historic oaths, so we contacted the State Archives. The State Archives graciously agreed not only to store the oaths for the Court but also to restore them.”[1] Most were in good condition, but some had been affected by mold or deteriorated by water damage. The amazing archivists in Illinois were able to restore almost all the badly damaged oaths using modern techniques, including the digitalization of some of the badly eroded signatures.

Clarence Darrow

Among the oaths in the Supreme Court’s collection are those for famed attorney Clarence Darrow, former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Robinson Obama, former U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Arthur Goldberg, 12 U.S. Senators, 12 Illinois governors, 59 Illinois Supreme Court justices and five Chicago mayors. Oaths from attorneys licensed before the Civil War, such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, were incorporated into the law license itself; therefore, no separate oaths for Lincoln and Douglas are included in this collection.[2]

And whom else did they find? Yes. Elmer Ellsworth. In 1860, Ellsworth began studying law with Abraham Lincoln, although he had studied with a couple of other men in Chicago before leaving with the Chicago Zouave Cadet Tour in the summer of 1860. Lincoln asked Ellsworth personally to study in Springfield at his law office. During the time he worked there, he became friends with Lincoln secretaries George Nicolay and John Hay, Mary Lincoln, the Lincoln children, and many of the movers and shakers in the Illinois political scene. Ellsworth worked the Republican Convention in Chicago for the Lincoln supporters, he walked with Mr. Lincoln to cast his vote in the presidential election, and he celebrated with the Lincolns on the night of Lincoln’s election.

History left an Ellsworthian blank between November 6, 1860, and February 11, 1861,

Lincoln in Illinois

when Elmer Ellsworth accompanied Lincoln on the Inaugural Express train from Springfield to Washington. We know that before Ellsworth left, he presented a bill for the organization of the Illinois State Militia to the state legislature. It passed several reviews and committees, but was never brought to a vote because within weeks of Lincoln’s inauguration, Fort Sumter had been fired on, and all available militia members were being asked to go to Washington.

Now, the blank has been filled in–between November 6 and February 11 Elmer Ellsworth was passing the bar exam in Illinois, and we have proof! A letter was found from Judge Pickney Walker to the Clerk of the Supreme Court William Turney that said to create a law license for Ellsworth. On the back of the letter is a note by Turney saying that the license was sent. Elmer Ellsworth’s documentation allowing him to practice law in Illinois became official on February 14, 1861. Now we know.


John Lupton

I will be interviewing John Lupton of the Illinois Supreme Court Historical Preservation Commission in the next couple of months for emergingcivilwar.com. Mr. Lupton worked with me to get all the right documents signed that permit me to tell this story, and it is only because people like Mr. Lupton exist that the tiny-but-strong unifying threads of the past are able to be teased out of the huge historical knot we love so well. Stay tuned!


Happy Valentine’s Day.

[1] https://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/news/2017/march/170330d1.pdf

[2] Ibid.