ADELBERT AND BLANCHE
One function that politics serves is to embody, through parties, the sometimes startlingly different ways in which people can perceive the same situation. To a Republican during the Reconstruction era, Adelbert Ames would have seemed to be a very promising young American. He was the son of a sea captain, born in the port town of Rockland, Maine, in 1835; his family had been in America since the seventeenth century and, by the time Adelbert was a young man, had acquired enough influence to get him an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where, when he arrived, the superintendent was Robert E. Lee. Ames had the good luck to graduate in 1861, just one month after Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, and thus he was able to command troops in battle immediately. At the first Battle of Bull Run, a few weeks after his graduation from West Point, a Confederate bullet went through his thigh. He could no longer sit on a horse, but he insisted on remaining in the field, being wheeled about on a caisson by his men. At Gettysburg he led a brigade of Union troops at the front line for all three days of the great battle. He fought at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and Antietam—in sixteen battles in all. And in early 1865 he led the force that finally captured Fort Fisher, a crucial Confederate redoubt at the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, North Carolina, which for four long years had protected the Confederacy’s importation of munitions from Europe. Thirty years later his aide-de-camp at the battle for Fort Fisher described Ames this way for a Maine newspaper:
"He was the beau-ideal of a division commander, and as such there was no more gallant and efficient officer in the armies of the Union. Every one who rode with him soon discovered that Ames never hesitated to take desperate chances under fire. He seemed to have a life that was under some mystic protection. Although he never permitted anything to stand in his way, and never asked men to go where he would not go himself, still his manner was always cool, calm, and gentlemanly. Under the heaviest fire, when men and officers were being stricken down around him, he would sit on his horse, apparently unmoved by singing rifle-ball, shrieking shot, or bursting shell, and quietly give his orders, which were invariably communicated in the most polite way, and generally in the form of a request."
At the end of the war Ames, still not yet thirty, had won the Medal of Honor, the highest decoration for military valor, held the rank of brevet brigadier general, and had attracted the admiring notice of General Grant himself. A photograph taken at the time shows him looking like a dark-haired version of another of the "boy generals" of the Civil War, George Armstrong Custer: he is in a dramatic profile, with long hair brushed behind his ears and touching his collar, a big, bulbous, pale forehead, a prominent brow, a pointed nose, sharp clear eyes, and a luxuriant walrus mustache and goatee.
During the years after the end of the Civil War and before the onset of the Indian wars in the West, most leading officers in the U.S. Army spent time in the former Confederacy; they were there to enforce the peace and reestablish order. This was partly a military task, since the former rebels had by no means all accepted the outcome of the war, and partly a civilian one, involving tasks like trying to help freed slaves get on their feet. Adelbert Ames was posted to South Carolina, where, he wrote his parents, his duties "consist of little more than aiding the agents of the Treasury Department and the Freedmen’s Bureau"—the economic and welfare agencies for the former slaves—"and in trying white men for killing negroes, of which work we have more than we can well do." He went on: "They think about as much of taking the life of a Freedman as I would that of a dog . . . I am in hopes that in course of time the pious people of this State will be convinced that according to our law it is, if not a sin, at least a crime to kill what they term a—‘nigger.’"
In the summer of 1866 Ames obtained a year’s leave from the Army and went on a tour of Europe, traveling both as questing young man and as visiting dignitary. In England he heard Charles Dickens lecture and had audiences with the Prince of Wales and with the American ambassador, Charles Francis Adams. In France he was presented to Napoleon III at court. He kept a diary, in which he occasionally mused on what he had seen in postwar South Carolina. Once he wrote: "In affairs of state, I approve of the policy of taking a half if the whole is unattainable. Yet, I know many say unless we have all we will take nothing. This is illustrated by those who in the present crisis cry for negro suffrage. Foolishly, they would let such a plank in a platform be a source of great insecurity—fatally so. But I do not believe in negro suffrage." Another entry said, of the Radical Republicans who were the leading advocates of Negro suffrage, "The extremists seem to me to be almost crazy on many points."
The closest the usually matter-of-fact Ames had to an epiphany during his Wanderjahr came during a visit to the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, where, while looking at the works of art, he ran into an old friend from Maine who had moved to Europe, married, and become an aspiring painter. Ames noted that his friend, though he "has not mounted so high the ladder of fame as to attract universal attention yet," seemed completely happy, whereas he—General Ames!—had "accomplished much—but to what end? Instead of having that which gives peace and contentment, I am adrift, seeking for what God only knows. I do not. Thus far life has been with me one severe struggle and now that a time of rest is upon me, I am lost to find my position. I seek to know the particular object of living. I suppose I have to exist yet longer to be fully convinced that to suffer is the beginning and end of life. It is a sad lesson but one I am now being convinced for the first time which must be learned to the very letter."
Ames had the self-awareness to realize that a life of free creative questing like his friend’s was not for him. He needed a mission. He had a particularly Yankee blend of ambition (he devoted a good deal of space in his journal to worrying over his next military promotion) and idealism, almost to the point of aspiring to sainthood. What best united the two traits was an official assignment to a difficult mission. When he returned to the United States in the summer of 1867, he accepted the military rank of brevet major general and an assignment to the Fourth Military District—formerly the states of Mississippi and Arkansas.
Like other Confederate states, Mississippi had, just after the war, with the tacit encouragement of President Andrew Johnson, convened a legislature made up mainly of unrepentant Confederates, and it had passed "black codes" that legislated the freed slaves into a condition as close to their former one as it was possible to get without actually reinstituting slavery. The Mississippi codes essentially prohibited Negroes from renting land or quitting their jobs—the object was to force them to remain as plantation hands instead of becoming independent farmers—and also restricted their rights of assembly and voting. In retaliation for its failure to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, the Republican U.S. Congress, which had impeached President Johnson over his open sympathy for the white South, had refused to readmit Mississippi to the Union as a state: that was why it was still under federal military control.
In January 1868, under the supervision of the occupying federal troops, a Mississippi version of another Southern institution of the time, a black-and-tan convention (in this case, with sixty-eight white and seventeen Negro delegates), convened in Jackson to write a new state constitution in which freedmen’s rights would be protected fully enough to persuade Congress that Mississippi could become a state again. The convention produced a constitution in May 1868, but a month later, because of white intimidation of black voters, it failed to win the approval of more than half the theoretically black-majority Mississippi electorate. After that election, General Grant—then secretary of war, preparing to run for president—appointed Adelbert Ames provisional governor of Mississippi. In March 1869, on the day after Ames was inaugurated as governor in Jackson and Grant was inaugurated as president in Washington, the latter gave the former the additional title of commander of the Fourth Military District. Ames’s main assignment was to supervise—with the backing of a new president, who seemed prepared to be much tougher on the former Confederates than his predecessor had been—a fall election in which Mississippi would approve the new state constitution, accept the new federal Fourteenth and Fifteenth constitutional amendments, which guaranteed Negroes civil and voting rights, and elect state officials, after which it would, at last, be readmitted to the United States.
In late October, a few days before the election, Ames reported to his superiors in Washington that the troops under his command were mainly engaged in putting down violence that was aimed at the two goals, which were actually one goal, of suppressing Negro rights and preventing the Republican victory that a truly open election would almost certainly entail. He wrote:
"By the numerous reports at this headquarters it appears that the disturbances and lawlessness have their origin in political animosities, and the incapacity or unwillingness of many to recognize the change, resulting from the late war, in the condition of the freed people.
"A prevailing sentiment in many sections of the State has been that the whites who entertain political sentiments different from the community should be driven therefrom, and that the blacks should be, if not deprived of rights undeniably theirs by law, at least seriously curtailed in the exercise of them."
Of course Ames was himself one of those whites "who entertain political sentiments different from the community." In the parlance of the former Confederacy, he was a carpetbagger, and as such he belonged to a class whose members, Southern whites supposed, were motivated by anything but idealism. However valorous his record in the war might have been and however upright his bearing and high-minded his expressed sentiments, most white Mississippians at first presumed him to be, like all carpetbaggers, a cynical opportunist, out to attain personal wealth and power by exploiting both the powerlessness of the defeated South and the malleability and pathetic delusions of the freed slaves. Physical threats against carpetbaggers who occupied less elevated positions than Adelbert Ames were driving them out of Mississippi and other Southern states constantly. Whether that would work with a general who was in Jackson on direct orders from the president of the United States remained to be seen.
The country then was lustily political. Newspapers were, unapologetically, party organs. Other than a few major railroad companies, which were new, there was still not much big business or organized labor to counterweight government. There was no federal civil service. Rich "special interest groups" were only beginning to manifest themselves in politics, to the shock of the nation, and the lack of them meant that the parties were all-powerful. Although the federal government was small—the Army was the only "federal agency" in the modern sense, which was why it was running the Freedmen’s Bureau in the South—it controlled much of the country’s land-mass, as well as such vital matters, in a society of farmers, shopkeepers, and craftsmen, as tariffs and the amount of public currency in circulation. Economically well-off people who were in such businesses as railroads, bonds, foreign trade, and mining depended completely on government favor. A government job or contract was a precious thing, and obtainable solely through political influence.
So much was at stake in politics that just about everybody who could vote did. Campaigning was a mass popular activity; officeholders were celebrities who had the oratorical skill to hold a crowd’s attention for hours. Getting the right to vote was quite literally, as Ames reported, a matter of life and death, at least in Mississippi. Many forms of political maneuvering and intrigue short of violence were available to the forces opposing Reconstruction in the South—though that certainly didn’t mean violence wasn’t a constant possibility or that the former Confederates considered it wrong.
Ames’s own view of himself had no room for any consciousness of personal, let alone selfish, interest, but in his journal and his letters home during the years just after the war ended, it is possible to detect, in the growing number of references to Republican Party as well as Army matters, the dawning of his political ambition. In Mississippi he became deeply engaged in his duties as provisional governor, more so than as district commander. Perhaps the core thought process of politicians is to align their sincere convictions as closely as possible with their political interests—an accomplishment requiring not much less creative imagination than an artist would use in getting the world onto a piece of paper. In Mississippi one could envision a political future in which, with Negroes voting freely, the Republican Party would be as solidly in control of the instruments of government as it was in states like Massachusetts and Ohio, because the 445,000 Negroes in Mississippi made up a majority of the population. Nationally, the Confederate states with the biggest Negro populations might become an additional base, after the Northeast and the upper Midwest, for the Republican Party.
The horrors that Ames witnessed in the South—the racial killings with impunity, the physical intimidation at election time, and the unwillingness on the part of the Civil War’s losers to obey law or authority—would only have reinforced the political logic that caused him to reconsider his earlier opposition to Negro enfranchisement. He also had cause to reconsider his earlier opinion that Radical Republicans were crazy, since, in Mississippi, the non-Radical Republicans were led by a very wealthy plantation owner, James Lusk Alcorn, whose recent switch to the Republican Party from the Democratic looked to Ames more like a tactical move meant to keep the state’s elite in power than evidence of a genuine change of heart. Ames the practical-minded military occupation officer was quickly becoming Ames the idealistic Mississippi politician, passionate about bringing rights and education to the Negroes and fully in tune with the Radical ascendancy of his party in Washington.
In November 1869, with General Ames overseeing the election, the new Mississippi constitution and the guarantees of rights for Negroes did pass, and a heavily Republican legislature was elected. It was so obvious that the next election would produce a Republican victory that the Democrats did not even put up a major candidate for governor; instead, the race was between Alcorn, the Democrat-turned-Republican, and Louis Dent, the pathetically weak and exploitable brother of President Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant, whom unrepentant Democrats had put on the ballot as a ruse, believing that naive Negroes would vote for him because of his association with the president, but that as governor he could easily be subverted and Democratic control in fact restored. The embarrassed President Grant publicly disowned his brother-in-law’s candidacy, and Alcorn won.
Those were the days before direct popular election of U.S. senators; since the founding of the nation, senators had been chosen by state legislatures. In January 1870, Mississippi’s new Republican legislature convened and selected two new senators, who of course were both Republicans: a prominent Negro minister named Hiram Revels, who took the seat that had been vacated by Jefferson Davis when he became president of the Confederate States of America, and Brevet Major General Adelbert Ames, who was thirty-four years old at the time.
On a visit back to Washington in the spring of 1868 to consult with his superiors, Ames had dropped by the visitors’ gallery of the Senate to see something of the drama that had the capital transfixed: the impeachment trial of President Johnson, essentially for being too forgiving of the former Confederates and too willing to let the South return to something like its old racial order. Although the impeachment failed by one vote to produce a conviction, it was a sign of the power of the Radical Republicans in national politics. Republicans who hadn’t previously been Radical—like Ulysses Grant and Adelbert Ames, who had earlier written his parents that he was unsympathetic to the impeachment—were moving in the Radicals’ direction.
Everybody who mattered in Washington went to see the impeachment trial, including the city’s most prominent women, who, though they may not have had the right to vote, certainly had the right to be as interested in politics as everybody else in town. One regular attendee was Blanche Butler, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of Representative Benjamin Franklin Butler, Republican of Massachusetts and one of the impeachment managers. Blanche was already a figure in Washington in her own right by virtue of her beauty, her forthright intelligence, and her social prominence. A sketch appeared in a Washington newspaper that spring showing Miss Butler sitting on a bench in the gallery, beautifully costumed in a hat, veil, and gloves, holding a fan in one hand, and, on the bench behind her, General Ames, in frock coat, top hat, and sleek mustache, leaning over the back of Miss Butler’s bench in conversation.
Blanche’s father, Ben Butler, would have ranked at the very top of the South’s pantheon of resentment—or perhaps just behind Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who was believed in the former Confederacy to be a deranged clubfoot who tortured rebels to please his Negro mistress. The rampaging General Sherman was by then well on his way to becoming a Southern sympathizer and opponent of Reconstruction; General Grant, at that point, appeared to be magnanimous in victory; the South had persuaded itself that President Lincoln, had he lived, would have been forgiving (meaning, not inclined to insist on Negro rights) as well. But Ben Butler was a different story. A rich lawyer-politician from the textile mill district of northeastern Massachusetts, he had served as a general in the Union Army during the war. As commander of Fort Monroe, in southeastern Virginia, in 1861, he established the principle that not-yet-freed slaves who managed to make their way into the custody of the Union Army would not be returned to their owners. Of Butler’s many wartime assignments, the one the white South remembered best was his service as commander in charge of the unusually harsh—at least in Southern legend—Union occupation of New Orleans. "The little children of New Orleans, when they are very good, are treated by their grandmothers not to the thrilling adventures of Blue Beard and Jack the Giant Killer, but to tales of the Federal general in command of the city during the war," a local author wrote thirty years later, and the tale-telling went on well into the twentieth century. Butler—who was rheumy-eyed and weak-chinned, rather than being a dashing career officer like Ames—had ordered the society women of New Orleans to register as enemies of the United States, and to surrender their family silver so that it could be melted down into bars that would be sold to finance the Union war effort. This got him the nickname of Spoons Butler, or, putting it more directly, Beast Butler.
All through Reconstruction, opponents of the Radical Republicans accused them of "waving the bloody shirt," meaning, trying to drum up support for their Southern policy by reminding Northern voters that it wasn’t so long ago that their fathers, brothers, and sons had been killed on the battlefield by the people who were now trying to wriggle free from the war’s results. (This worked much better than a direct appeal on behalf of Negro rights would have.) The phrase originated when Ben Butler actually did wave the bloody shirt of a murdered federal tax collector on the floor of the House, as a prop for a speech he was making. To his daughter Blanche, watching from the gallery as her father lengthily accused Andrew Johnson of conduct unbefitting the presidency, Butler may have been a bit distant and forbidding personally—his substantial household operated on the principle of maneuvering around him—but he was one of the great statesmen of the age, a superb political strategist and steadfast opponent of the egregious secessionists.
Soon Adelbert Ames had adopted the same view of Butler. "His great genius—his resources, his tact, his courage strike me as something remarkable and worthy of the highest admiration," he wrote to Blanche, whom not coincidentally he had also begun to admire highly. Ames came from a plainer, more provincial realm than the one the Butlers occupied. General Butler’s air of mastery, his confidential friendships with all the chief Washington figures, beginning with President Grant, his large home near the White House where there were nightly sessions of billiards, cigars, and high-level political talk—all this made a great impression on Ames, and so did Blanche.
Excerpted from Redemption by Nicholas Lemann.
Copyright 2006 by Nicholas Lemann.
Published in First paperback edition, 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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