The Civil War – Thirty years after
“It is always difficult to stop war, and doubly difficult to stop a civil war.” W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1935.
Thirty years after the guns fell silent at Appomatox, Kansas City’s Republican and Democratic newspapers were still firing away at each other in sub rosa continuation of the war's issues. The Democratic Times, for example, celebrated events such as completion of a new home for Confederate veterans in Higginsville, Missouri; the Republican Journal routinely ignored them. James Bannerman of the State Confederate Home Association, in his address at the home’s opening ceremonies in June, raised Confederate icons of womanhood, “the Roman mothers and wives and daughters who sent us to the field where honor lay, and recollections of whose proud eyes and brave and affectionate hearts nerved us to fresh endeavor on many a stricken field during those dreary years.”
Later in the year the Times covered the annual reunion of the Ex-Confederate association of Missouri in HIgginsville, another event ignored by the Journal. The keynote speaker, James Gibson of Kansas City, a judge and former mayor of Kansas City, offered a few sops to the new order – slavery, he said, was “the origin of the trouble,” and “all are now happy that it is forever blotted from our statutes [...]” – before criticizing Northerners for only pursuing abolition after they had been paid for slaves they sold to the South. He activated white stereotypes of black attitudes and behavior by saying African Americans should “recognize the obligation they owe to their country, and should not imagine that freedom consists in idleness and ignorance.” The South, said Gibson, only lost the war because of “overwhelming numbers,” not because of “inferior generalship” or the unrighteousness of its cause.
The Journal, for its part, faithfully covered meetings of the local posts of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army’s veterans’ organization, events typically ignored by the Star and Times. The Admiral Farragut G.A.R. post’s annual New Year’s Day open house featured “a splendid lunch, excellent punch, songs, recitations and reminiscences,” including a skit in which Colonel Theodore Case, a leading Unionist in the run-up to the war and author of a history of Kansas City, played a veteran of the war of 1812.
In a separate Journal article, Case recalled the condition of Kansas City soon after the war’s beginning: “the business was practically gone, one-half of the people had left and the remainder seemed ready and anxious to go at the first opportunity. […] On the bluff overlooking the Missouri river, at Second and Walnut streets,” he recalled, “stood a tall flagstaff from which waved defiantly in the breeze a magnificent rebel flag, while twenty-five or thirty smaller ones fluttered more or less audaciously from housetops and windows in different portions of the city. At this time only two Union flags were openly displayed in the whole place […].” A company of Southern sympathizers, armed with weapons seized from the U.S. arsenal in nearby Liberty, drilled nightly; “Those were the darkest days Kansas City ever knew,” said the Colonel.
In another Journal article a local man recalled the Battle of Westport, a crucial Union victory in the struggle for control of Missouri. A “strip of a boy,” he had gone to the battle to watch, but was conscripted into the militia and had to bribe a soldier to get the assignment of holding the horses instead of marching into combat.
Another article described Fort Prince, or Fort Union, at 10th and Broadway, later site of the Coates House -- “the only fort Kansas City ever knew” -- where the Kansas City Home Guards of the Missouri State militia were stationed. The fort had a cannon brought to the city in 1856 by Georgians for use in the “bloody Kansas” conflict. Called “Uncle Milt” after Milton McGee, a civic pioneer, it was never fired in anger but did explode in 1865, when the fall of Richmond was being celebrated, killing two gunners.
The Journal also commented on the death of an old Union soldier, Colonel Andrew Newgent, who “with no other authority than his own courage and the patriotism of the men” had organized a pro-Union regiment, “Newgent’s Indians,” in Cass County at the beginning of the war: “Unarmed, save as private weapons were in their possession, without a commissariat, rations or anything but loyalty to the flag and personal bravery, they held possession of the country and their homes, and formed the rallying point for a loyal sentiment and actual military service that was a power in the state and a valuable fighting force throughout the war.”
The main source of contention between the papers, however, was pensions for Union veterans. The new Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland wanted to reduce the pension list, which had doubled in numbers and cost between 1889 and 1892, under Republican rule. Democratic newspapers contended that the Harrison administration had been a “reign of extravagance,” as the Star put it, that had depleted the treasury. When Cleveland left office at the end of his first term, there was an “enormous surplus,” to which Republican Speaker Thomas B. Reed’s “billion dollar Congress” had devoted itself to recklessly spending: “the pension list was extended without any regard whatever to the merits of the claims filed with the department.”
The pension bureau under the Harrison administration was a “political machine,” said the Democratic Times, and the increase in the pension rolls “a huge national scandal,” with a yearly appropriation for pensions larger than the payrolls of the standing armies of France and Germany combined:
It has been carried to this enormous sum by the united efforts of a ring of pension agents and pension sharks at Washington and many Grand Army posts, stimulating representatives in both houses to profligate legislation. The idea has already gained a strong hold in the minds of many who are not usually considered dishonest, that any one who wore the union uniform for a week or two […] is entitled to be supported by the taxpayers of the country for the remainder of his natural life.”
The Democratic House was considering measures to deprive pensioners of payments unless they were wholly disabled or had an income under $600, as well as cutting off payments to widows who had married veterans more than five years after the war’s end. The Times approved of the savings, which it thought would “practically solve the problem of a treasury deficit.”
The Journal regarded the policy as a betrayal engineered by unregenerate Confederates taking over Congress. Before the Cleveland election, the paper commented, even “Bourbon Democrats” had claimed to be in favor of pensioning Union soldiers, “But this thing has changed now,” and the call is now for cutting names from the list, with Democratic papers arguing that the pension rolls had nearly as many names as there were soldiers in the field at any one time: “But not a word is said about other pensioners, those of the Mexican war, for instance,” where nearly fifty years after the conflict there were more pensioners – over twenty thousand – than had been in the war. The reason, the Journal intimates, is that the Mexican war was a Democratic war, “fought to extend the slaveholding territory” with an army made up of men who would fight in the Confederate army. Therefore, claimed the Journal, “nothing is to be said in criticism of the Mexican war pension roll.”
One New York Democratic newspaper contended that pensions had been granted excessively to applicants in western swing states like Indiana and Iowa to win favor for Republicans, which had a disproportionate number of pensioners; the paper called it “wholesale political fraud.” The Journal responded that while it opposed distribution of pensions “except upon the most positive evidences of meritorious claims” – such as war-related disabilities that reduced the veteran’s ability to earn a living – the numbers given by the New York paper overlooked migration of veterans from eastern states to western ones, like Kansas, after the war.
The pension system “reeks with the most scandalous fraud,” editorialized the Times, offering as example an unnamed pensioner in an unidentified place who was drawing a pension for deafness while earning a salary for “working a telephone.” In another example in the Times, a veteran’s widow applied for a pension on the death of her husband, who she said was a Union soldier who had been captured at the battle of Lexington, in Missouri, in 1861. Investigation revealed that after his capture the man had enlisted in the Confederate army and died fighting for the South.
Using such selective examples, Democratic newspapers hammered away at fraudulent claims and the role of pension agents and pension office employees in the Harrison administration in promoting them: “Rules of evidence are so relaxed,” the Times claimed, “that a little influence and a mild perjury will force through any claim. The bummer who has a shrewd agent has a great advantage over the honorable soldier – for the bummer will lie and the honorable soldier won’t. The agent will tell him what lies to tell.” The whole system, said the paper “is rotten and irregular. Millions are going to undeserving recipients. The records are hardly kept.”
It must be reformed, the paper argued, and Cleveland – an exponent of “business honor and business strictness” – was the man to do it, but he was facing the pension agents’ lobby, “unquestionably the most powerful combination in Washington. It is more feared than the lobbies of protected manufacturers or than the steamship subsidy lobbies […].”
A Senate committee on pensions was given the job of weeding out abuses – in effect, removing from rolls the names of “persons utterly unworthy of the national bounty,” as the Times put it: “The pension roll should be purged of the names of all imposters and undeserving pensioners […].” At least one G.A.R. post was reported to be in favor of the policy, “to the end that the reproach may be taken away from the Grand Army, namely that it is a charity seeking organization, and a tool in the hands of the claim agents.”
Selective tales of pension fraud and abuse continued to appear regularly in Democratic papers. One was about a veteran who’d secured a monthly pension of $ 12 with a claim of total disability for lung trouble; he then went on to a prolific career as a miner who “can work more hours a day and more days a month than anybody.” The Times sent a reporter along with a Pension examiner who was interviewing claimants, none of them likely to elicit sympathy from the paper’s middle class readers.
One was a woman who had, according to the examiner, lived “in notorious violation of moral laws;” she was claiming a pension after marrying an old soldier, who had died. The second was an African American woman who only knew her husband’s name was William Johnson and that he had been killed in the war: “There was a score of colored William Johnsons in the Federal army,” the examiner remarked, “and there are 100 or more widows, mothers and so on claiming pensions on the strength of some William Johnson.” In a third case, the veteran had been married simultaneously to two women, one in Tennessee and the other in Missouri, both of them claiming a pension after his death.
The Democratic administration began purging pension rolls, the pension Commissioner claiming that those not entitled to a pension were merely having pensions “suspended” under an Act passed during the Harrison administration, until pensioners could provide evidence to support their claims. The Commissioner insisted, reported the Star, that “not one single pensioner has ever been suspended” except those not entitled to a pension.
The Journal offered a different view: “One thousand a Day,” went its headline: “Swiftly names are being cut form the Pension Rolls. Many false statements made. Pension Bureau officials resort to Gross Misrepresentation.” The paper accused the pension commissioner of minimizing the numbers of those being dropped from pension rolls, claiming that a thousand names were daily being removed, not the 150 the commissioner claimed.
“It is a fact absolutely,” the Journal said; the Democratic officials “are trying to do the old soldiers of the country more injury than they are willing shall be known officially from them. The real fault lies, the paper intimated, with the Secretary of the Interior, Hoke Smith, of Georgia: “The cowardice in withholding the facts makes it clear that even the Georgia secretary is afraid to let out all the facts. He is determined to do all the injustice possible, and at the same time he is trying to keep the matter a secret.” Smith gets his instructions, said the paper, “fresh from Georgia. The whole matter is being systematized for the purpose of mutilating the roll.”
By September, the Journal was claiming that a hundred thousand pensions had been suspended: a “high handed assault upon the needy and deserving old soldier,” said the paper. Perhaps, it said, the object was merely to reduce pension payments to tide the treasury over while the country moved away from high protective tariffs on manufactures, a significant source of government revenue. But “if it was wholly for spite and revenge,” as the paper intimated was the case – for example by regularly referring to Smith as the “secretary from Georgia” – then it was a different matter.
When a bill was introduced in Congress to remove the requirement that veterans of wars previous to the Civil War prove their loyalty, “some of the old war spirit” was aroused, the Journal reported. A Michigan representative, Julius Burrows, thought that the bill’s goal was to get pensions for Confederate veterans: “Call the hell hounds off the track of Union soldiers,” he said, “before you restore men who were false to the Union to the pension rolls.”
Burrows, a Union veteran, called attention to “the peculiar language of the report, which used such phrases as ‘so-called rebellion,’ ‘war between the states,’ etc.” There had never been a war between the states, said Bellows, “except to those who believed in states’ rights.” Nevertheless, he said, to applause from his Republican colleagues, he expected the doctrine of states’ rights would be reasserted, “Confederates would be restored to, and Union soldiers stricken from, the pension rolls.”
Colonel W.C. Oates of Alabama, whom Burrows described as “the one armed ex-Confederate,” denied there was any such intention, claiming that though he had fought in twenty-seven battles “in support of his convictions,” he was now “as devoted to the Union as the gentleman from Michigan.” The bill in question was then modified to exclude pensioners and the contestants retired to their respective corners.
The Journal returned to the pension issue after a rule was adopted removing from the rolls pensioners “living beyond the jurisdiction of the United States,” while foreign countries, such as Germany, continued to pay pensions to their former citizens who had emigrated to the U.S.:
“It should cause every loyal American to blush. How does it look beside the efforts of the present administration to blacken the fame of those who fought for the preservation of the institutions of which their enemies now have control? Was ever one of these pensioners of the German government called a ‘coffee cooler,’ a ‘camp follower,’ a ‘beggar,’ or a ‘deadbeat’? Yet these are the things which go to make up the argument for ‘pension reform’ as practiced by Hoke Smith and his men in control of the pension department at Washington.”
A Nebraska representative, George Meiklejohn, played a transparent political card by pointing out that 83 percent of invalid pension claims had been approved under the Harrison administration but only 28 per cent under Cleveland’s administration. In addition over 120,000 pensions approved by Harrison’s pension commissioners had been “suspended” during the first five months of Cleveland’s administration. Said Meiklejohn:
"This record should put at rest forever all doubt in the mind of the veteran who is his true benefactor, and where in the future he will cast his lot and exert his influence. I know it is fashionable for the controlling spirits in the Democratic majority in Congress to boast of their Confederate record, sneer at the crippled veterans of the civil war and brand them as political frauds and imposters, but the great body of loyal citizens all over this land, always true to principle, never have and never will repudiate the debt of gratitude due our country’s defenders in its hour of peril and need.”
The Journal accused Democrats of deliberately sending aged Union veterans to the poorhouse by underfunding National Soldiers Homes, leaving no room for new arrivals : “the veterans who saved the Union and who are now in straitened circumstances, can see on one side Hoke Smith and on the other the alms house.” Even the Times admitted that old soldiers whose pensions had been “suspended” were trying to get the government to live up to a warrant on their discharge papers promising them 160 acres or its equivalent, $225.
The veterans hoped they would be given priority in land assignments before the opening of the Cherokee Strip land rush in September. The paper depicted old soldiers as “making faces at the young element, who are getting their race horses in trim, and telling them that it’s no use, as they propose to get all the good land and what they leave will not be worth running for.”
As 1893 ended, Congress passed an “urgent deficiency bill” appropriating money for pensions; the New York Times regarded it as a product of the “pension sharks” working hand in hand with Republicans “fighting for the reckless use of money for pensioners that was characteristic of the last administration […].” The Journal, in contrast, touted it as a reproof to the “shameful course that has been followed under the present administration,” since it included a provision that a pension once granted became a “vested right” that could not be suspended before the pension commissioner had made a decision on the validity of the case.
August 14, 2014