Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Politico Tells a Warm, Fuzzy Story for Christmas

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 30, 2018

There’s an article from Politco by Andrew Glass going around on social media, “All Confederate soldiers gain presidential pardons, Dec. 25, 1868.” It’s one of those pieces that news outlets prepare long in advance to be published over the holidays, when the beats they regularly cover are slow and the office is short-staffed.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson on this day in 1868 issued pardons to all Confederate soldiers who fought in that conflict. The president extended “unconditionally, and without reservation … a full pardon and amnesty for the offence [sic] of treason against the United States, or of adhering to their enemies during the late Civil War, with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws.”

In his Christmas Day Proclamation, Johnson said his action would “renew and fully restore confidence and fraternal feeling among the whole, and their respect for and attachment to the national [e.g., federal] government, designed by its patriotic founders for the general good.”

I’m sure it seemed a good idea to post on Christmas, in the spirit of the season. But it’s a very misleading piece, in terms of history. Johnson was a Tennessee Unionist who, somewhat famously, had said soon after being sworn in as president that “treason is a crime, and all crime must be punished. Treason must be made infamous, and traitors must be impoverished.” Johnson never did have Lincoln’s sense of magnanimity in victory.

The Politico piece ignores this, and most importantly, omits any mention of Johnson’s actions regarding amnesty and pardons for former Confederates from the end of the war until December 1868. At the end of May 1865, Johnson issued a general amnesty for those who had served the Confederacy; under this amnesty, all rights and property (except for slaves) were to be restored upon taking the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. But fourteen categories of persons were explicitly excluded from this blanket amnesty, including army officers above the rank of colonel and naval officers above the rank of lieutenant, graduates of West Point and Annapolis, U.S. officers who had resigned their commissions to “go South,” civilians who had served as public officials in the Confederacy, and any civilian worth $20,000 or more in property. In short, the Johnson administration exempted from his general amnesty virtually everyone who played, or might have played, a significant role in supporting or promoting the Confederate cause. These excluded persons were required to submit a formal application for pardon, “and so realize the enormity of their crime.” While there was never any real doubt that the vast majority of former Confederates would eventually be eligible for pardon, Johnson was determined to use the pardon process to make manifest his point about what he viewed as treason, and to underscore the deeply serious nature of that act. Over the next three years, the Johnson administration issued about 13,500 individual pardons. (There’s a whole section of them online at Fold3; you can see Nathan Bedford Forrest’s pardon application here [5MB PDF].) It was only after reviewing and granting these thousands upon thousands of pardons that Johnson, three-and-a-half years after the end of the war and with Ulysses S. Grant soon to move into the White House, granted a general pardon to any who remained.

One can debate whether Johnson’s approach was the correct one, whether the leaders of the Confederacy “got off easy,” or whatever. But what’s not debatable is that even if there weren’t going to be the trials for treason that many in the North wanted to see, the Johnson administration took the actions of Confederate leaders very seriously as a legal matter, and obligated them to go through at least a pro-forma acknowledgement of their offense.

The Politico piece, like so many, completely elides that fact, one made quite clear to all involved at the time, and in doing so maintains a happy fiction that the Civil War was just a big ol’ misunderstanding, let bygones be bygones, hands-across-the-wall, etc. It’s the sort of essay that contributes to the general public’s deep misunderstanding of the conflict and its aftermath, and doubly unfortunate that it comes from a news outlet that (fairly or not) considers itself knowledgeable about the currents and undercurrents of modern politics.

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Image: “President Andrew Johnson Pardoning Rebels at the White House”, Harper’s Weekly, October 14, 1865

 

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2 Responses

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  1. Meg Groeling said, on December 30, 2018 at 2:03 pm

    A while ago there were bits & pieces about how few graduates had degrees in history, and how–back in some day–historians were parts of think tanks and held respect from politicians, etc. Apparently, this is no longer the case and seeing this in Politico makes it very obvious that no historian vetted this article before it saw print. Maybe historians need to hire an agency to make their/our worth apparent to potential hirers. Or something.

  2. Matt McKeon said, on December 30, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    My own fantasy of Reconstruction is that the Confederate leadership was exiled. Robert E. Lee lectures at Sandhurst. Beauregard opens a restaurant in Paris, Davis drives a cab in Rome for the Anglophone tourists. Their estates are divided among the freedpeople. I don’t know if it would have worked any better than the historical timeline, but it couldn’t have been much worse.


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