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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 22: The Ordeal of Reconstruction, 1865 - 1877


Andrew Johnson (1808 - 1875)

Even after Johnsons wife taught him to read as an adult, he frequently misspelled words. He once said, It is a man of small imagination that cannot spell his own name in more than one way.

As a representative of poor mountain whites, he hated slaveholders, blacks, and abolitionists. Even though he hated slavery, he opposed emancipation because, he said: What will you do with two million Negroes in our midst? Blood, rape, and rapine will be our portion.

The attacks on Johnson during his swing around the circle were partly orchestrated by Republican newspapers, which played up his vulgar language and behavior. Once they discovered that Johnson would go out of control, radical hecklers baited him at every stop.

Johnson remained a political hero to the plain whites of Tennessee following his departure from the presidency. After several tries he was reelected to the Senate in 1875 but attended only one session before he died.

Quote: (In reply to hecklers shouts of Judas!): There was a Judas, and he was one of the twelve apostles.If I have played Judas, who has been my Christ that I have played Judas with? Was it Thad Stevens? Was it Wendell Phillips? Was it Charles Sumner? (Swing around the circle, 1866)

REFERENCE: Hans Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: A Biography (1989).


Oliver O. Howard (1830 - 1909)

Howard was the Civil War general who became head of the Freedmens Bureau during Reconstruction.

In the Battle of Fair Oaks, Howard lost his right arm. His Civil War record was somewhat mixed: he bungled several operations and once refused to obey an order from General Hooker. Considered a Christian officer, he was shocked by the destruction inflicted on Georgia by Shermans army, even though he justified it as militarily necessary.

After leaving the Freedmens Bureau, he founded Howard University in Washington, D.C., and served as its president from 1869 to 1874. He caused a split in his church in Washington by demanding the admission of black members.

Howard later returned to active military duty and commanded the 1877 expedition against the Nez PercÚ Indians in the West. He wrote frequently for newspapers and magazines and was a popular lecturer.

Quote: A brief experience showed us that the negro people were capable of education, with no limit that men could set on their capacity. What white men could learn or had learned, they, or some of them, could learn. (Autobiography, 1907)

REFERENCE: William S. McFeely, Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen (1968).


Hiram Revels (1822 - 1901)

Revels, a clergyman, became one of the two black senators from Mississippi during Reconstruction.

Born a free man in Kentucky, Revels was of black and Indian ancestry. He first worked as a barber but then attended Knox College in Illinois and became a minister of the African Methodist Church.

He organized two black regiments in Maryland during the Civil War and then traveled widely in the South promoting religion and education for blacks. He was first elected an alderman in Natchez, Mississippi, despite his concern about mixing religion and politics. Many whites as well as blacks liked him, and he was elected to take Jefferson Daviss seat in the Senate. During his brief term he supported the moderate Republicans and not the radicals.

He later came under white Democratic influence and joined in the overthrow of Republican Reconstruction in 1875. Quiet and mild-mannered, he disliked political conflict.

Quote: The colored members, after consulting together on the subject, agreed to give their influence and votes for one of their own race, as it would in their judgment be a weakening blow against color line prejudice, and they unanimously elected me for their nominee.Some of the Democracy favored it because they thought it would seriously damage the Republican party. (1884)

REFERENCE: Julius Thompson, Hiram R. Revels, 1827 - 1901: A Biography (1973).


Thaddeus Stevens (1792 - 1868)

Stevens was the Republican congressman who led radical Reconstruction and engineered the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Often sickly as a child, Stevens was partially physically disabled as an adult. He hated slavery from an early age and occasionally purchased fugitive slaves in order to give them their freedom.

In Congress Stevens constantly attacked Southerners in scurrilous language, and some of his speeches nearly provoked riots on the floor of the House. As soon as the Civil War broke out, he advocated arming the slaves and encouraging a slave insurrection. His hatred of the South was increased when Confederate soldiers destroyed his ironworks during Lees invasion of Pennsylvania.

Stevens was well read and eloquent but relied heavily on vituperation and sarcasm and seemed in a constant state of barely suppressed rage. He died shortly after the Johnson trial, but only his nephew and his black housekeeper attended his funeral. He chose to be buried in a black cemetery.

Quote: I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but, finding other cemeteries limited by charter rules as to race, I have chosen this, that I might illustrate in my death the principle which I have advocated through a long lifeEquality of Man before his Creator. (Inscription on Stevenss tombstone, written by himself, 1868)

REFERENCE: Hans Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (1997).



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