Heather Cox Richardson
It always surprises me how much I think I know about Civil War history that I really don’t.
What did it mean that Georgia was “remanded to military rule” in 1869? I always thought that phrase indicated that troops marched into the state and took control. That’s wrong. Actually, what being “remanded to military rule” meant was that Congress did not seat the elected representatives from Georgia that session.
What did it mean that President Rutherford B. Hayes “removed the troops from the South” in 1877? That always sounded to me like the soldiers packed up and moved out. That’s wrong, too. Actually, in April 1877, the president removed federal troops from around the South Carolina State House, permitting Wade Hampton’s men to take control of the government from Republican incumbent Daniel Chamberlain. (There were very few troops in the South at that point, in any case, since many had been moved to the northwest plains to fight the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne in 1876. More moved out in summer 1877 to combat the Great Railroad Strike.) Federal troops remained in the South for years after 1877, a nominal number, but enough to be a thorn in the side of Southern Democrats.
Knowing that much we “know” is wrong, I’ve always wondered if Andrew Johnson was actually president during Reconstruction, or if he was only acting president—a legal distinction, to be sure, but an important one.
It turns out that this is a story we’ve gotten right. Johnson did, indeed, take the oath of office and become president, not simply acting president, of the United States.
On Monday, April 17, 1865, the New York Times ran a stark account of the event, the very sparseness of the language conveying some of the reporter’s shock at what had transpired in the past two days.
Shortly after President Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22 on April 15, Attorney General James Speed visited Vice-President Johnson at his rooms in Kirkwood House on Pennsylvania Avenue. The newspaper reporter simply recorded that Speed delivered a message informing Johnson of Lincoln’s death and impressing upon him that “the emergency of the government” required that he take the oath of office immediately. What he did not say was that James Speed was the older brother of Lincoln’s best friend Joshua Speed, and that he was quite likely both in shock and in tears.
Johnson replied that he would take the oath at 10:00 in his rooms.
At that hour, eleven men arrived at Kirkwood House for the ceremony. Curiously, they presented a fair representation of Lincoln’s presidency.
Lincoln had close friends there from the early years in which he had learned his profession and built a political following. James Speed attended, undoubtedly remembering the younger Lincoln who had roomed with his brother and visited the older James at his law office in Kentucky to talk business. Two of Lincoln’s friends from his early days in Illinois also came: Senator Richard Yates, with whom a young Lincoln had plotted for political advancement, and General John F. Farnsworth, who was a fan of the off-color jokes Lincoln used to appeal to rural voters.
There were wartime political rivals like Salmon P. Chase, whom Lincoln had recently neutralized by appointing him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who arrived to administer the oath of office to Lincoln’s successor.
There were political associates who understood the difficulties Lincoln had suffered under for the past four years, and who had wished him well. Frank and Montgomery Blair, father and son, former Democrats and strong Lincoln supporters from border regions had come; hot-tempered Montgomery had been Lincoln’s Postmaster General for three years. Also there was Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch, who had seen Lincoln the morning of the assassination and was relieved to see that that war-weary president seemed happier and more cheerful than McCulloch had ever seen him.
Solomon Foot, president pro tem of the recently adjourned Senate, and Senator Alexander Ramsey of Minnesota, who was not especially close to the president, lent the gravitas of the party organization to the occasion.
Newcomers eager to underline their connection to the famous president were represented by Senator William M. Stewart, of Nevada, who had shaken Lincoln’s hand the night before outside his carriage as he left for the theater, and who later claimed to have received the very last lines Lincoln ever wrote: a note inviting Stewart to bring a friend to meet the president the next morning, a memo whose significance Stewart could not anticipate, and that he threw away as soon as he had read it.
Finally, staunch Republican Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire was there, an unhappy symbol of Lincoln’s assassination. Hale’s daughter Lucy was a Washington belle, and was romantically involved in some fashion with John Wilkes Booth—possibly secretly engaged to the famous actor.
The eleven men gathered in Johnson’s rooms. Chief Justice Chase read the oath of office, and Johnson repeated it. Chase declared Johnson president, and those gathered gave him their best wishes.
“All were deeply impressed by the solemnity of the occasion,” the New York Times reporter wrote.