Category Archives: U.S.

Foreign Effects of Hard Soviexit, 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 44-46:

Yeltsin’s team has already taken possession of the Soviet foreign ministry in Moscow, seized its bank accounts, evicted the last Soviet foreign minister of the Gorbachev era, Eduard Shevardnadze, and installed Yeltsin’s foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev. Throughout the day, Soviet embassies in different time zones around the world receive a communique from Kozyrev informing them that they all are about to become the foreign missions of Russia. Non-Russian Soviet diplomats will have to set up separate embassies for their own republics, which is the privilege and price of their independence. The communique instructs the diplomats that by December 31 the Soviet flag is to be lowered for the last time on every embassy building around the world and the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. Some envoys are anxious to declare their allegiance to the new order without delay. Already the white, blue, and red emblem is flying prematurely at the embassies in New Delhi, Teheran, and Kabul.

In Washington, DC, on Christmas morning the red flag with hammer-and-sickle emblem is hanging limply from the mast above the first floor of the Soviet embassy on Sixteenth Street. It is a still, mild day with the temperature 12 degrees above freezing. Inside, the three hundred staff are dividing themselves into ethnic groups and claiming temporary diplomatic space by putting up the names of their republics on office doors. There is considerable chaos, compounded by a shortage of cash. Senior diplomats have had to give up comfortable homes in Maryland and Virginia and move into rooms in the embassy compound because there is no hard currency available from Moscow to pay their rents. Ambassador Viktor Komplektov has been in office only nine months, and he knows that, unlike his counterpart at the United Nations, his days are numbered. He is not trusted by Yeltsin because of his failure to condemn the coup in August. For three days before it collapsed, he enthusiastically disseminated the press releases of the putschists to the American media and peddled their lie to the U.S. government that Gorbachev was ill and unable to continue his duties. The fifty-one-year-old ambassador decides to use the remains of his Soviet-era budget to hold the embassy’s first ever Christmas party as a “last hurrah” for the USSR.

With caviar, sturgeon, champagne, and vodka, the Soviet embassy in Washington goes down like the Titanic. “Enjoy yourselves,” Komplektov tells the four hundred guests. “This is the way we celebrate a grand occasion.” Afterwards the red flag is lowered, and the Russian colors are raised in its place, signifying it is now the Russian embassy. Komplektov is recalled within three months.

Perversely, in Israel a new Soviet mission opens this morning. As if nothing has changed in Moscow, the first Soviet ambassador in thirty-four years presents his credentials to President Herzog, and the red flag with hammer and sickle is hoisted over the ancient Russian Compound in Jerusalem. This anomaly arises from a promise Mikhail Gorbachev made two months previously, when he still had some authority, to his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Shamir, that he would restore Soviet-Israeli relations broken off at the time of the 1967 Middle East War. The credentials of the envoy, Alexander Bovin, are the last to be signed by a Soviet leader. Bovin’s destiny is to be Soviet ambassador for a week and then become ambassador of Russia, based in Tel Aviv, where he will remain in office for a further six years.

In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest port of the Canary Islands, a Soviet cruise ship docks this Christmas morning. The passengers disembark for a day’s sightseeing. When they return they find that the hammer and sickle on the side of the funnel has been prised off by the Russian crew, and they sail away, citizens of a different country than when they boarded.

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U.S. Grant in China and Japan

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 879-881:

This closing phase of Grant’s journey proved important as he became the first ex-president to undertake personal diplomacy abroad. Meeting with Prince Kung, the Chinese regent and de facto head of state, he touted the benefit of railroads and warned against excessive reliance on foreign debt. Then the prince directed Grant’s attention to the fate of the Loo Choo (Ryukyu) Islands over which Japan and China had sparred for control, a conflict that had brought them to the brink of war. The Japanese had deposed the local sovereign and occupied the islands and Prince Kung wanted Grant’s aid in reversing this. At first Grant begged off as someone out of office. “But we all know how vast your influence must be,” the prince urged, “not only upon your people at home, but upon all nations who know what you have done.” Acknowledging that war between China and Japan would be a grave misfortune, Grant volunteered to serve as mediator between the two nations during his stop in Japan, invoking the Alabama settlement as his model. “An arbitration between nations . . . satisfies the conscience of the world, and must commend itself more and more as a means of adjusting disputes,” he declared.

The Grants steamed toward Japan aboard the Richmond in mid-June and at their first port of call, Nagasaki, received a twenty-one-gun salute—Julia’s gold standard—in the harbor. Emissaries of the emperor escorted them to a fifty-course meal at an ancient temple. The Grants were invited to plant banyan trees at a local park to honor their visit, and Grant minted a beautiful message that would be etched in stone nearby: “I hope that both trees may prosper, grow large, live long, and in their growth, prosperity and long life be emblematic of the future of Japan.” Of all the countries included on his worldwide caravan, none captivated Grant quite like Japan, which he found a model of beauty, balance, and cultivation. He loved the green hills, fertile valleys, and fine streams and found the people “the most kindly & the most cleanly in the world.” The Japanese, he believed, had perfected their school system, educating all classes, male and female, and producing “the superior people of the East.” So smitten was Grant that he wanted the United States to negotiate a commercial treaty with the country.

The Japanese reciprocated his affection. After his arrival in Tokyo on July 3, a high-level reception committee paid homage to Grant’s accomplishments: “How you crushed a rebellion, and afterwards ruled a nation in peace and righteousness, is known over the whole world.” The emperor wanted to receive his illustrious visitor on the Fourth of July, and Grant’s carriage, flanked by cavalry, had to penetrate an enormous crush of people and ride under floral arches before reaching the emperor’s summer palace. The young, slim emperor then did something unprecedented: he strode up to Grant and shook his hand in profound respect, after which Ulysses and Julia Grant exchanged bows with assorted princes. The emperor later said nobody during his reign had impressed him more than “the unassuming bourgeois Civil War hero and president.”

At a subsequent meeting with the emperor, Grant decried colonial exploitation of Asian countries, making an exception for British rule in India. “But since I left India I have seen things that made my blood boil, in the way the European powers attempt to degrade the Asiatic nations.” Grant made good on his pledge to mediate the dispute over the Loo Choo Islands, showing a deft, diplomatic touch. He succeeded in getting negotiations started between the two sides, and the Chinese acceded to Japanese control of the islands. Grant became the first American president to accomplish such a solo feat, and the Chinese and Japanese were deeply grateful, even though talks later foundered. Grant contrasted his selfless diplomacy with the self-interested approach of European powers who “have no interests in Asia . . . that do not involve the humiliation and subjugation of the Asiatic people.” It formed a fitting finale to a trip in which Grant defined a new role for ex-presidents abroad, showing how they could use their prestige to settle intractable foreign conflicts and promote peaceful arbitration.

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Pres. Grant vs. the Ku Klux Klan

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 706-708:

On April 20, 1871, Grant returned victorious to Capitol Hill to sign the third Enforcement Act, commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. He had planned a California trip that spring, but canceled it in the belief that he couldn’t sidestep this historic moment. The strong new measure laid down criminal penalties for depriving citizens of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, including holding office, sitting on a jury, or casting a vote. The federal government could prosecute such cases when state governments refused to act. The law also endowed Grant with extraordinary powers to suspend habeas corpus, declare martial law, and send in troops. To halt night riders, the act made it illegal “to conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway . . . for the purpose . . . of depriving any person . . . of equal protection of the law.” However loathed in the South, the law stood as a magnificent achievement for Grant, who had initiated and rallied support for it, never wavering. To further strengthen it, he issued General Orders No. 48, allowing federal troops to arrest violators of the Ku Klux Klan Act and break up and disperse “bands of disguised marauders.”

The man who implemented this bold agenda was Akerman, who thought Reconstruction best served the long-term interests of the enlightened South, properly understood. To those who protested its severity, he responded that nothing was “more idle than to attempt to conciliate by kindness that portion of the Southern people who are still malcontent. They take all kindness on the part of the Government as evidence of timidity.” For Akerman, the Klan’s actions “amount to war, and cannot be effectually crushed on any theory.” The metaphor didn’t seem excessive, for the Klan resisted by force any effort to restrain it, reflected in Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bloodthirsty injunction to his followers: “If they send the black men to hunt those confederate soldiers whom they call kuklux, then I say to you, ‘Go out and shoot the radicals.’”

On May 3, Grant issued a proclamation containing a ringing defense of the Ku Klux Klan Act, calling it a “law of extraordinary public importance.” Never mentioning the Klan by name, he alluded to “combinations of lawless and disaffected persons.” To those who bridled at the enhanced use of federal power, denounced “bayonet rule,” and brandished the states’ rights banner, he implored them to use local laws to suppress the Klan and obviate the need for federal troops. If that didn’t happen, the inaction of local communities “imposes upon the National Government the duty of putting forth all its energies for the protection of its citizens of every race and color.” If states abdicated responsibility, Grant was prepared to use the full panoply of federal power in response. At the same time, he issued orders to federal troops in South Carolina and Mississippi “to arrest disguised night marauders and break up their bands.” In countering the Klan, Grant found himself back in familiar territory, operating as general in chief. Whenever he returned to war-related issues, Grant showed a sure grasp of both his values and methods. He knew that the Klan threatened to unravel everything he and Lincoln and Union soldiers had accomplished at great cost in blood and treasure.

When a joint congressional committee traveled to South Carolina to gather testimony on the Klan rebellion, many of the witnesses were threatened. They made it abundantly clear that the Klan’s word was law in many counties. As one witness from Union County testified, “The county was in effect under Ku-Klux rule; that no order issued by the Klan would be disregarded.” Grant received the same message from petrified citizens, such as Javan Bryant of Spartanburg County, who assured Grant that “it is a common thing for men to say in the country that they will kill anybody who reports them as Ku Klux.”

To aid the anti-Klan effort, Akerman fielded a vast array of resources, including federal marshals and attorneys of the brand-new Justice Department. Members of the nascent Secret Service pitched in with undercover detective work. On September 12, Akerman left for South Carolina to take personal supervision of the campaign, Grant placing federal troops at his disposal. The following month, Akerman sent him a sobering report on Klan activity in South Carolina that portrayed the Klan not as bands of isolated, wild-eyed ruffians but as a comprehensive movement that spanned the entire white community. It embraced “at least two thirds of the active white men of those counties, and have the sympathy and countenance of a majority of the other third. They are connected with similar combinations in other counties and States, and no doubt are part of a grand system of criminal associations pervading most of the Southern States.” Bound by secret oaths, Klansmen perjured themselves to escape prosecution and terrorized witnesses and juries. Akerman estimated that the Klan had committed thousands of criminal acts during the previous year.

On October 12, the anti-Klan assault entered a new phase when Grant, at Akerman’s bidding, issued a proclamation calling upon “combinations and conspiracies” in nine South Carolina counties to disperse and retire peacefully to their homes within five days. Five days later, when the groups did not disarm, Grant suspended habeas corpus there. Akerman explained to Grant the legal rationale for doing so: it was impossible to prosecute Klan members if witnesses dreaded reprisals. With habeas corpus suspended, those threatening reprisals could be held in custody long enough to protect witnesses and obtain convictions. Akerman greeted Grant’s move, saying blacks can “sleep at home now.” By late November, he informed the cabinet that he had taken two thousand prisoners in South Carolina for violating the Ku Klux Klan Act.

Under Akerman’s inspired leadership, federal grand juries, many interracial, brought 3,384 indictments against the KKK, resulting in 1,143 convictions. The conviction rate was even better than it sounded. The federal court system was burdened with cases and many federal judges, appointed before Grant, didn’t sympathize with the anti-Klan crusade. Furthermore, the act that created the Department of Justice had reduced the federal legal staff by a third and curbed its ability to hire outside lawyers as needed. With witnesses offered protection, Klansmen began to name other Klansmen, stripping off the secret veil that cloaked their activities. Many Klansmen, facing arrest, fled their states. Several hundred pleaded guilty in exchange for suspended or lenient sentences. Sixty-five Klansmen wound up in the federal penitentiary in Albany, New York. The goal was not mass incarceration but restoring law and order. To his district attorneys, Akerman made plain that more than convictions were at stake: “If you cannot convict, you, at least, can expose, and ultimately such exposures will make the community ashamed of shielding the crime.”

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Gen. U.S. Grant vs. Pres. A. Johnson

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 570-571, 580-581:

Grant returned to a capital preoccupied with the civil rights bill introduced by Radical Republicans to nullify Black Codes in the South that prevented freedmen from owning property, making contracts, and filing lawsuits. Though silent on voting rights, the bill sought to bring the full blessings of citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including blacks, protecting them by the “full and equal benefit of all laws.” (Native Americans were excluded.) This landmark legislation defined citizenship rights in a new manner that made the federal government, not the states, the guarantor of basic liberties.

On March 27, Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill, denouncing it for trespassing on states’ rights. Instead of viewing it as a brave attempt to remedy historic injustice, he denigrated it for surpassing anything the federal government “has ever provided for the white race.” Perversely, he interpreted it as a case of reverse discrimination “made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” He heaped further insults on the black community by stating that immigrants had superior claims to American citizenship because they better understood “the nature and character of our institutions.” The veto was a reckless move by Johnson, the original bill having passed both houses by overwhelming margins. In a stunning rebuke, Congress dealt a resounding defeat to Johnson by overriding his veto. Johnson had damaged his standing, leading even moderate Republicans to distance themselves from him. “The feud between Johnson and the ‘Radicals’ grows more and more deadly every day,” observed George Templeton Strong, “and threatens grave public mischief.”

Grant was caught in the dispute as both sides worked hard to lay claim to his incomparable prestige. Thinking it improper for army officers to take public stands on legislation, Grant had kept a punctilious silence on the civil rights bill, but Johnson was bent on enlisting his support whether he liked it or not. When Grant threw a glittering soiree at 205 I Street, President Johnson ventured outside the White House to stand between Ulysses and Julia Grant on the receiving line, and Radical Republicans were taken aback by his presence.

Grant’s team of commanders in the South enforced the new Civil Rights Act. General Daniel Sickles abolished South Carolina’s Black Code, stating that “all laws shall be applicable alike to all inhabitants,” while General Alfred Terry barred Virginia’s vagrancy law as an effort to restore “slavery in all but its name.” A backlash arose among white southerners, producing stepped-up vigilante activity as robed, hooded figures beat and murdered blacks. White northern teachers working with the Freedmen’s Bureau faced death threats and black schools and churches were burned with impunity in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama. Grant continued to present Johnson with statistics documenting racially motivated violence against blacks and added two new categories of coercion: driving off blacks “without compensation for labor” and “retaining freedmen without compensation.”

On September 22, Grant performed an act that spoke volumes about his secret sympathies: he quietly ordered the chief of ordnance, General Alexander Dyer, to empty surplus weapons from five southern arsenals and send most of their small arms to New York Harbor. He also spurned a request from Virginia to furnish ten thousand weapons for white militias to confront a supposedly better armed black population. In addition, he opposed rearming former Confederate states. Writing confidentially to Sheridan, Grant warned that few people who fought for the North exerted any influence over the pro-southern president. Johnson, he feared, would declare Congress as a body “illegal, unconstitutional and revolutionary. Commanders in Southern states will have to take great care to see, if a crisis does come, that no armed headway can be made against the Union.” The outside world may have wondered about Grant’s sympathies, but his private statements leave no room for conjecture about his inexorable drift toward Radical Republicanism. Welles later speculated that by fall 1866, Grant “was secretly acting in concert with the Radicals to deceive and beguile the President.” Grant didn’t regard it as deception so much as adhering to bedrock principles, telling Badeau he had “never felt so anxious about the country.”

As it happened, Grant swam in a strong political tide. Johnson’s “swing around the circle” [election campaign tour] was such an indescribable fiasco that Republicans registered stunning gains in the fall elections, winning substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. The election also resoundingly endorsed the Fourteenth Amendment. These electoral gains prompted speculation about whether Johnson would seek by force to block the new Congress from meeting. Taking advantage of their election mandate, Radical Republicans planned to initiate a period of Congressional Reconstruction, helping blacks and white Republicans in the South and supplanting Presidential Reconstruction, with its heavy bias toward southern white Democrats.

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Collapse of the Confederacy

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 469-471:

EARLY 1865 WITNESSED the slow-motion unraveling of the Army of Northern Virginia, which was gradually thinned out by massive desertions amounting to about a regiment per day. Tattered men in large groups appeared in Grant’s camps, surrendering their weapons. “Hundreds of men are deserting nightly,” Lee confessed to Jefferson Davis as such departures shaved off 8 percent of his army in January, followed by a further 8 percent in February. Driven by poor food, withheld pay, and rapidly depreciating Confederate currency, rebel soldiers were rendering their own bleak verdict on the war’s future course. In early February, Grant obtained a poster showing Lee reduced to begging from local farmers, pleading with them “to sell or loan as much Corn Meal & Molasses as they Can spare.” Southern conscription covered boys as young as fourteen and men as old as sixty.

Grant believed the southern people, once ardent to fight, had shed their taste for bloodshed. “Everything looks to me to be very favorable for a speedy termination of the war,” he predicted in mid-February, wondering whether rebel leaders would flee or be ousted by their citizens. Inside the Confederate cabinet, Secretary of State Judah Benjamin argued strenuously that blacks must be recruited or Lee would have to abandon Richmond. The Confederate legislature approved a bill to enlist slaves in the army, sidestepping the explosive question of whether to emancipate them. Its most eloquent proponent was Lee, who urgently needed fresh troops. “I think those who are employed [as soldiers] should be freed,” he argued. “It would be neither just nor wise, in my opinion, to require them to serve as slaves.” The Charleston Mercury noted the absurdity of the whole enterprise: “Assert the right in the Confederate Government to emancipate slaves, and it is stone dead.” After the Virginia legislature endorsed the bill for recruiting black soldiers, one or two black companies were assembled and briefly paraded in the Richmond streets, but they came too late to prop up the beleaguered cause. Grant tracked with consuming interest this controversy in Richmond newspapers. Slavery was slowly crumbling, as evidenced by a precipitous drop in the market price for slaves. As the Richmond war clerk John Jones indicated in his diary, “Here the price of slaves, men, is about $5000 Confederate State notes, or $100 in specie. A great depreciation. Before the war they commanded ten times that price.”

All the while, plowing remorselessly through the Deep South, Sherman eradicated supply bases and transportation networks that kept Lee’s army alive. By early January, with Savannah secure, Sherman was ready to “sally forth again,” telling Grant of his plans to carve a path of destruction through Columbia and Camden, South Carolina, followed by Wilmington and Raleigh in North Carolina. “The game is then up with Lee,” Sherman stated, “unless he comes out of Richmond, avoids you, and fights me: in which event, I should reckon on your being on his heels.” His options vanishing, Lee would soon face an unpalatable choice: either stay in Richmond and sacrifice the rest of the South, or head southward, fight in the open, and be squeezed between Sherman’s and Grant’s converging armies. Lincoln allegedly gave humorous expression to this by saying, “Grant has the bear by the hind leg while Sherman takes off the hide.”

Rolling through Georgia, Sherman’s army had collected fugitive slaves at every turn…. Sherman still complained that jubilant blacks flocking to his army hampered its progress. To deal with this surplus population, he devised one of the war’s most innovative measures. The federal government had confiscated four hundred thousand acres of land. In mid-January, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which set aside the Sea Islands and a large strip of territory along the Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida coasts for settlement by landless black families. They would be offered forty-acre plots in self-governing communities. By June, this remarkable experiment in reconstruction offered new life to forty thousand former slaves, although the land titles given out had not yet acquired lasting legal power. Sherman was an improbable author for this most progressive order and later explained that he had done it as a temporary wartime measure at the behest of [Secretary of War] Stanton.

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Gen. Grant and the Longest Pontoon

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 411-412:

By June 12, the weather had turned cool and windy. That night, after dark, Grant began to march his army toward the James. Staff officers noticed the tense way Grant relit cigars constantly and reacted with monosyllables. “Yes, yes,” or “Go on—go on.” On this splendid night full of moonlight, the tramp of feet lifted swirling dust that soon obscured the stars. By the next morning, in a logistical masterpiece, the Army of the Potomac had vacated the Cold Harbor trenches. Lee was completely fooled by the exodus and thunderstruck to discover that Grant’s entire army of 115,000 men had vanished in the night. While he had a hunch that Grant would swerve toward the James River, he could not be certain. To confound Lee further, Grant ordered some units to conduct diversionary feints toward Richmond.

Meanwhile, Grant’s main army crossed the Chickahominy River and reached the formidable James River barrier. Grant needed to take his massive army across a waterway two thousand feet wide and eighty-four feet deep. To Julia, he described the operation as “one of the most perilous movements ever executed by a large army” since it involved “crossing two rivers over which the enemy has bridges and railroads whilst we have bridges to improvise.” Ever the optimist, he shook off the settled gloom of Cold Harbor. “I am in excellent health and feel no doubt about holding the enemy in much greater alarm than I ever felt in my life.”

On the morning of June 14, Grant’s engineers began to span the majestic James with a pontoon bridge measuring 2,100 feet in length and 13 feet in width, making it the longest such bridge in military annals. It was anybody’s guess whether such a lengthy bridge, buoyed by 101 floats, could withstand tidal currents or gusts sweeping inland from Chesapeake Bay. Miraculously, the entire bridge was completed shortly after midnight. The next day, his hands joined behind his back, Grant gazed silently from a bluff on the river’s north side as cavalry and artillery trains moved rapidly across the river. “He wore no sword or other outward trapping except his buttons and plain shoulder straps,” one soldier had observed a day earlier. “His pants were tucked inside of a pair of long dusty boots and his whole attire looked dirty & travel stained.”

Grant officiated at one of the war’s most stirring spectacles. On this cloudless day, brilliant sunshine sparkled off the water, gun barrels, and cannon trundling across the bridge. To the crisp beat of marching bands, troops stepped briskly onto ferry boats that plied the river at a dizzying pace. Nearby gunboats kept a watchful eye on any threatening enemy movements. Before the operation was over, an enormous herd of cattle swam across the river. From the capital, Lincoln applauded Grant, telegraphing at 7 a.m. on June 15: “I begin to see it. You will succeed—God bless you all!” By around midnight the next day, the last remnants of Grant’s army had crossed the river. Incredibly, Lee still had no idea Grant’s army had slipped across the James in an operation so stupendous even one Confederate general dubbed it “the most brilliant stroke in all the campaigns of the war.”

On the day the pontoon bridge was laid down, Grant and Rawlins traveled by steamer up the James to Bermuda Hundred to consult with Ben Butler. As a general, Butler hadn’t covered himself with glory, but as a noted Democratic politician, he was too useful for Lincoln to scrap. Grant found Butler covering the Appomattox River with another amphibious bridge to carry his men on a raid into Petersburg, only six miles away. Grant hoped to take Petersburg before Lee was alerted to his whereabouts. On the evening of June 15, Baldy Smith and Winfield Scott Hancock achieved startling success when they overran the outer defensive rim of northeast Petersburg, seizing rifle pits, artillery, and several hundred prisoners. General Beauregard fielded a meager force to defend the town. Had Smith marched straight into the defenseless city, he might have scored a radical breakthrough and altered the war’s course. Grant always believed that with such a move, “Lee would have at once been obliged to abandon Richmond.”

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Grant’s Vision of Emancipation

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 228-230:

Every northern commander was sucked into the vortex of the fugitive slave issue, none more so than Grant in the heart of the cotton kingdom. As plantation owners fled his advancing army, thousands of slaves raced to freedom in Grant’s camps. Temporary towns of makeshift dwellings, overcrowded with frightened black refugees, sprang up on the fringes of army posts. The slaves’ lamentable condition demanded urgent attention. “There were men, women, and children in every stage of disease or decrepitude, often nearly naked, with flesh torn by the terrible experiences of their escapes,” wrote John Eaton, who saw slaves dropping by the wayside. “Sometimes they were intelligent and eager to help themselves; often they were bewildered or stupid or possessed by the wildest notions of what liberty might mean . . . Some radical step needed to be taken.”

At first Grant was perplexed by these masses of dislocated people. “Citizens south of us are leaving their homes & Negroes coming in by wagon loads,” he wired Halleck, adding plaintively, “What will I do with them?” Many northerners feared an abrupt influx of blacks, making it essential to employ them in the South. Nobody stood under any illusions about the extent of northern bigotry. On November 13, 1862, Grant took his first historic step in dealing with runaway slaves, naming Eaton as superintendent of contrabands for the Mississippi Valley—“contraband” of war being the term of art for runaway slaves coined by General Benjamin Butler in 1861 as a way to bypass the Fugitive Slave Act, then still in effect. A farmer’s son, born in New Hampshire, Eaton had graduated from Dartmouth College and served as school superintendent in Toledo, Ohio. After attending Andover Theological Seminary, he was assigned as chaplain to the Twenty-Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry. A caring, passionate advocate for the former slaves, he faced the daunting need to shelter, employ, and prepare them for the demands of freedom. He set up large contraband camps where slaves could be educated, treated for medical problems, and set to work picking cotton as hired hands. Eaton felt awed by the godlike responsibility thrust upon him—“There was no plan in this exodus, no Moses to lead it”—and sensed it would be “an enterprise beyond the possibility of human achievement.”

When Eaton first met Grant at La Grange, Tennessee, he expected to find “an incompetent and disagreeable man” whose weather-beaten face would betray signs of dissipation. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised to discover Grant’s innate modesty, simplicity, and sobriety. Other than the shoulder straps that signified a major general, Grant was indistinguishable from his officers. Grant knew that the deeper his army penetrated into cotton country, the more he would have to grapple with the destiny of a slave population fast emancipating itself. Eaton was stunned that Grant’s thinking already “far outstripped” the “meager instructions” he had received from Halleck.

In fact, Grant’s imagination had charted the entire arc of the freed slaves from wartime runaways to full voting citizenship. This man who had so recently balked at abolitionism now made a startling leap into America’s future. To Eaton, Grant delineated a lengthy list of useful tasks that “contrabands” could perform, with the men building bridges, roads, and earthworks or chopping wood for Mississippi steamers, while women worked in kitchens and hospitals. But this merely served as prelude to something much bigger. “He then went on to say that when it had been made clear that the Negro, as an independent laborer . . . could do these things well, it would be very easy to put a musket in his hands and make a soldier of him, and if he fought well, eventually to put the ballot in his hand and make him a citizen. Obviously I was dealing with no incompetent, but a man capable of handling large issues. Never before in those early and bewildering days had I heard the problem of the future of the Negro attacked so vigorously and with such humanity combined with practical good sense.” This sudden enlargement of Grant’s thinking and concern for the ex-slaves shows how the war had reshaped his views on fundamental issues.

Grant gave Eaton orders to establish the first contraband camp at Grand Junction, Tennessee, where thousands of former slaves had congregated. A central aim was to have newly liberated blacks work on abandoned plantations, picking cotton and corn that could be shipped north to assist the war effort. “We together fixed the prices to be paid for the negro labor,” Grant recalled, “whether rendered to the government or to individuals.” It was a remarkable moment—the sudden advent of a labor market for former slaves, who would now be rewarded for picking cotton. Grant found himself overseeing a vast social experiment, inducting his black charges into the first stages of citizenship. Taking the proceeds from their labor, he created a fund that was “not only sufficient to feed and clothe all, old and young, male and female, but to build them comfortable cabins, hospitals for the sick, and to supply them with many comforts they had never known before.” This brand-new Grant never wavered in his commitment to freed people. It would be army commanders in the field, not Washington politicians, who worked out many of the critical details in caring for the recently enslaved. Frederick Douglass never forgot the service Grant rendered to his people, arguing that General Grant “was always up with, or in advance of authority furnished from Washington in regard to the treatment of those of our color then slaves,” and he cited the food, work, medical care, and education Grant supplied in the months before the official Emancipation Proclamation.

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