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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 21: The Furnace of Civil War, 1861 - 1865


Clement Vallandigham (1820 - 1871)

Vallandigham was the Copperhead Democratic politician who was convicted of treason and exiled by Lincoln, only to return and continue his peace agitation.

Vallandighams family originally came from Virginia, and they romanticized the South as a land of noble social ideals and order. As an Ohio politician and congressman, he was a bitter foe of Republicans and abolitionists. In 1859 he interviewed John Brown in prison and came away convinced that there was a widespread abolitionist conspiracy to bring about a civil war.

He was given direct military orders to stop his calls for resistance to the war before he was arrested, convicted, and exiled to the South. He used a disguise with a false mustache and a pillow to sneak back across the border from Canada in 1864. The government decided not to rearrest him, and he helped push through the peace plank at the 1864 Democratic convention.

Quote: Yes, it is amazing that our peopleAmericans, proud, boastful, freeshould have submitted to usurpation and despotism.I am a Democratfor the Constitution, for law, for the Union, for libertythis is my only crime. (1863)

REFERENCE: Frank Clement, Copperheads in the Middle West (1972).


Robert E. Lee (1807 - 1870)

Lee was the son of Light-Horse Harry Lee, a cavalry hero of the revolution and a member of the great Lee family of Virginia. When Robert was still a boy, his father sank into debtors prison and disgrace, and eventually left the family.

An 1829 graduate of West Point, where he was a distinguished student, the younger Lee married Mary Custis, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, and became master of the Custis estate at Arlington. Lee became a military hero in the Mexican War, and later commanded the soldiers who captured John Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1859.

Politically a strong Whig, Lee was initially very unsympathetic to secession. He always said, however, that he would follow the decision of his home state regarding secession. When offered the field command of the Union Army, he turned it down, and instead assumed command of Confederate forces.

Lee had only 7,800 fully armed troops left with him when he surrendered at Appomattox. Most of them wept when he rode by them on his horse Traveler to say farewell. After the war he served as president of Washington College, which was later renamed Washington and Lee College.

Quote: After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassing courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.Feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. (Farewell Speech to Confederate Troops, 1865)

REFERENCES: Emory Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (1995); George W. Gallagher, Lee the Soldier (1996).


Ulysses S. Grant (1822 - 1885)

Grant was a national hero as the commanding Union general in the Civil War, but his reputation suffered badly from his two unfortunate terms as president.

Born in a log cabin in Ohio, Grant inherited his mothers strong, silent, fiercely determined character but not her marked religious bent. Although officially Hiram Ulysses, he changed his name to Ulysses Hiram at West Point because he was afraid he would be laughed at for his initials HUG. Later a military error substituted Simpson for Hiram, and he left it that way.

Grants drinking bouts in California were partly caused by his having served a horrendous tour of duty in Panama and by his separation from his family. He was totally devoted to his wife, Julia, who often advised him during his years in politics.

After leaving the presidency, he took a grand tour of Europe for two years and lived so lavishly that he was soon poverty-stricken. He completed his memoirs, which are still greatly admired, while dying of cancer of the throat.

Quote: I saw an open fieldso covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without touching a foot on the ground. (After the Battle of Shiloh, 1862)

REFERENCE: William McFeely, Grant (1981).


Salmon P. Chase (1808 - 1873)

Chase was Lincolns politically ambitious secretary of the treasury.

He made his career as an antislavery lawyer in Ohio. Although he aided many fugitive slaves as Ohio attorney general, Chase was actually fearful of large black migrations to the North and hoped that emancipation would keep blacks in the South.

In the 1860 Republican convention, Chase had forty-nine votes before throwing them to Lincoln. He always considered Lincoln a weak leader and in December 1862 conspired with some radical Republicans in Congress to try to take control of the cabinet. But Lincoln invited the conspirators into a cabinet meeting, where Chase was forced to express his support of the president.

He wanted the nomination in 1864 but ran the other way when the movement collapsed. After being extremely unhappy as chief justice of the United States, in 1868 he maneuvered for the Democratic nomination. Chase was self-righteous, opinionated, and difficult to get along with.

Quote: I think a man of different qualities from those the President has will be needed for the next four years. I am not anxious to be regarded as that man. I am quite willing to leave [the choice] to the decision of those who think some such man should be chosen. (Diary, 1864)

REFERENCES: John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography (1995); David Donald, ed., Inside Lincolns Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (1954).


John Wilkes Booth (1838 - 1865)

Booth was the prominent Shakespearean actor who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Booths father was Junius Brutus Booth, one of the most famous actors of his time. Junius Booth eventually went insane, and John Wilkes was always high-strung, moody, and emotionally unstable. Although probably not actually insane, he did experience periods of wild fantasy and irrationality. He would sometimes go into a rage at the sight of cats and occasionally killed them.

The younger Booth was dark, handsome, and always wore a long black cloak. He was especially popular with women and was said to have had numerous affairs. His favorite roles were Hamlet and Macbeth, but he also played popular melodramas.

He had planned to abduct Lincoln as early as 1864. Several of those he gathered for the assassination plot were feebleminded. He visited Lincolns box the afternoon before the performance to arrange the assassination. The barn where he hid after fleeing was set on fire by Union soldiers, and Booth then evidently shot himself.

Quote: I am not a murderer. I have done nothing that a soldier on the battlefield would not do. I do not regret what I have done. (Statement to physician aiding him, April 15, 1865)

REFERENCE: Albert Furstwangler, Assassin on Stage (1991).



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