Charles Sumner and “the oblivion of past differences,” Part 1

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Charles Sumner statue by Anne Whitney. Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Wikimedia Commons

Charles Sumner, the antislavery Republican Senator from Massachusetts, supported a strong Northern war effort, espoused radical ideas about Reconstruction, and promoted his equal-rights racial views in the face of great hostility. It sounds implausible that Sumner would want to coddle unreconstructed Confederates or insult Union soldiers. Let us look at a key sectional-reconciliation idea of Sumner’s which provoked precisely those sorts of accusations.

In spring 1862, General McClellan asked whether, like “other generals,” he could place, on regimental flags, the names of victories over Confederates. In a proffered resolution of May 8, Senator Sumner offered his answer with a proposed Congressional resolution: “RESOLVED: That, in the efforts now making for the restoration of the Union and the establishment of peace throughout the country, it is inexpedient that the names of victories obtained over our fellow-citizens should be placed on the regimental colors of the United States.”[i]

The venerable General Winfield Scott approved the idea of the resolution. Sympathetic Sumner biographer Edward Lillie Pierce wrote that Sumner was “[l]ooking forward to a time when soldiers now in hostile ranks would serve under the same colors.” It is fair to say that not everyone in Congress was that forward-looking. Senator John P. Hale (R-NH), Sumner’s fellow antislavery crusader, blocked the resolution by objecting to its consideration. Sumner’s Massachusetts colleague, Republican Henry Wilson, offered a counter-resolution to allow the names of victories against Confederates to be placed on regimental banners. The Senate did not approve either Sumner’s or Wilson’s resolutions.[ii]

It is not as if Sumner was indifferent to Union soldiers. For example, four days after his unsuccessful flag resolution, Sumner proposed that the select committee on confiscating Rebel property consider giving Union troops “bounty lands out of the real estate of the Rebels.”[iii]

This Northern regimental banner has the names of Civil War battles in which the regiment fought (including Chickamauga where the regiment fought valiantly during the defeat).[iv]

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10th Wisconsin Infantry 1863 battle flag, Additional honors added 1 Dec 1864, Wikimedia Commons

So it seems Sumner did not prevail on this issue during the war.

Let us go to February 27, 1865, when the Senate was debating whether to award a painting commission at the Capitol building to William Henry Powell, an Italian-trained American artist. Sumner opposed the bill because he was against spending money on art during wartime and because he objected to giving Powell a no-bid contract. Sumner was also concerned that Powell would end up painting a work celebrating a Northern victory in the current war. “I doubt if it be desirable to keep before us any picture of war, especially of a war with fellow-citizens. There are moral triumphs to which art may better lend its charms. I need only refer to the Proclamation of Emancipation, which belongs to the great events of history.”[v]

Sumner offered an amendment to the bill by which “in the National Capitol, dedicated to the National Union, there shall be no picture of a victory in battle with our own fellow-citizens.” This amendment lost. The Senate also rejected a proposal by Sumner that other American artists be allowed to compete with Powell for the commission. Finally, Sumner only got a couple votes for an amendment to use Francis. B. Carpenter’s painting “The Emancipation Proclamation” instead of a work by Powell (Congress accepted Carpenter’s painting for the Capitol in 1878, after Sumner’s death).[vi]

In March, 1865, Congress commissioned Powell to do a painting at the Capitol – Powell had to portray an American naval victory (the battle to be approved by the Joint Committee on the Library). Fortunately from Sumner’s standpoint, Powell chose to re-create a subject he had painted for the Ohio state house – The Battle of Lake Erie – portraying a War of 1812 naval victory over the British, not a Civil War triumph over Confederates.[vii]

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William Henry Powell, Battle of Lake Erie, U. S. Senate Collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By 1872, the political climate toward Sumner had grown more hostile among many of his traditional allies. This was because the Massachusetts Senator joined the political coalition promoting the Presidential candidacy of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. An opponent of the Grant administration’s corruption and foreign adventurism, Sumner joined other “Liberal Republicans” to support Greeley against Grant. The Democratic Party supported Greeley, too, leading Sumner to naively hope that the Democrats had come around to Greeley’s racial egalitarian ideas. Most Bay Staters, in contrast, remained Republican and were disappointed, to say the least, in Sumner’s actions. The unkindest cut was the correspondence Sumner received from black people accusing their erstwhile champion of betraying the only party committed to their rights – the Republicans.[viii]

Sumner proclaimed to the public, just before embarking on a European trip for his health, that “[v]ictory over fellow-citizens…should not be inscribed on regimental colors, or portrayed in pictures at the National Capitol.” Sumner was using a provocative figure of speech about the incumbent President. Grant, said Sumner, “is a regimental color with the forbidden inscription…it is doubtful if such a presence can promote true reconciliation.” Grant turned out to be more popular than Sumner had hoped, and after Grant’s re-election, Greeley supporters faced retaliation from regular Republicans. Returning to the Senate after his trip in late November, soon after Greeley’s defeat, Sumner pre-emptively refused committee assignments on grounds of his ill-health, preventing the pro-Grant Republicans from excluding him.[ix]

Among the bills the Senator introduced right after his return were a civil rights bill (which he had long championed) and a revival of his opposition to memorializing Civil War Union victories. Sumner put forward a resolution declaring in its preamble that “Whereas the national unity and goodwill among citizens can be assured only through the oblivion of past differences, it was therefore contrary to the usage of civilized nations to perpetuate the memory of civil war.” The resolution went on to say that “the names of battles with fellow-citizens shall not be continued in the Army Register, or placed on the regimental colors of the United States.” Sumner later said that he had filed this bill in response to a suggestion from a reporter. The reporter was supposedly looking at Sumner’s papers, found the 1862 battle-flag resolution, and asked Sumner to file it again. Sumner’s more cynical biographer, David Donald, dismisses this explanation out of hand and says the “resolution was in fact part of [Sumner’s] general campaign to harass the Grant administration.” Sumner had denounced Grant by comparing him to a Union regimental banner, and now the Senator’s resolution went after real banners.[x]

The New York Herald praised Sumner’s resolution. The ancient Romans hadn’t commemorated victories in their civil wars, and neither should the United States. In fact: “Every celebration of victories in our civil war, by emblems on the flag, by combinations or associations of the victors, by parades, gatherings or public dinners or in any other way, is wrong.”[xi]

A southern newspaper took a different course. Said the Richmond Enquirer: “We are perfectly aware of the passions that will be excited by this movement, and in the discussion the South, as usual, will be the sufferer.” It was too early to ask the exited Northerners to forget the war. “The resolution of Mr. Sumner was a very mischievous one, and the subject ought not to have been brought up until the people had been better educated in forgetfulness of the past.” Still, “we are quite sure there are things connected with the heroic deeds of that struggle the South will not be content should die and be forever lost to posterity.”[xii]

Cartoonist Thomas Nast savagely attacked Sumner’s stance:

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In this cartoon for Harper’s Weekly (December 18, 1872), Thomas Nast shows Sumner urging that the only record of the war be the Senator’s own speeches. Sumner is surrounded by widows and orphans of Union soldiers, as well as a wounded veteran. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Memphis Daily Appeal, supporting Sumner’s resolution, quoted the Senator with approval: his purpose was not to “erase the names of battles” from regimental flags “now so carefully preserved,” but to omit the battles from “flags now actually carried.” Such was “but an act of justice to the young men of the South, sons of Confederate soldiers, who are annually graduated at West Point and assigned to these regiments.” Such young officers “ought to be spared the humiliation of marching under flags inscribed with the names of battles in which their fathers were defeated.” The Appeal, in its own voice, complained that “Radical Senators” – among whom they apparently did not count Sumner – were ready “to make a great deal of capital” against the resolution.[xiii]

The U. S. House passed a countervailing resolution to Sumner’s unsuccessful Senate resolution – the House resolution would have protected battle names from being removed from regimental flags.[xiv]

The Massachusetts legislature was meeting at the time in special session. A fire had devastated Boston on November 9-10, and the governor called the lawmakers together to deal with the aftermath. The emergency nature of the special session didn’t stop the solons from considering Sumner’s action. George Henry Hoyt, a Massachusetts native who had returned to the state after a political and military career as a Kansan, was now a key Republican leader in the House (Hoyt had also been one of John Brown’s lawyers). Hoyt introduced a resolution to censure Sumner for his reconciliation proposal. The New York Herald paraphrased the debate in the Committee on Federal Relations. Hoyt spoke “as a citizen and an old soldier.” He believed that “[t]he proposition was to reduce the Union [soldier] to the level of the Confederate soldier.” The legislature, which had elected Sumner, was the only vehicle to express the people’s indignation, Hoyt added. Mr. Nutt of Natick said that “the levelling of monuments would follow” adoption of Sumner’s resolution. Mr. Porter of Revere said that Sumner “had only been a man of words,” and that soldiers’ “record should not be obliterated.” Mr. Thompson of Gloucester countered that getting rid of divisive Civil War battles from regimental flags could encourage “the brave men of the south [to]…enlist in the army.” Hoyt replied that “[t]hese men should have the blazonry of their infamy perpetuated to the latest generation.”[xv]

The resolution rushed through both houses with the speed of a conflagration, and on December 18, 1872, the legislature of Sumner’s beloved home state now called his sectional-reconciliation proposal “an insult to the loyal soldiery of the nation” which should get “the unqualified condemnation of the people of this Commonwealth.” Copies were sent to the Massachusetts Congressional delegation.[xvi]

To be continued…


[i] Charles Sumner: His Complete Works, volume VIII (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1900), 361.

[ii] Ibid., 361-62; Edward Lillie Pierce, Memoirs and Letters of Charles Sumner, Volume IV (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1894), 77; David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 563; “Hale, John Parker,”

[iii] Complete Works, Volume VIII, 36.

[iv] For an account of the Tenth Wisconsin, see William DeLoss Love, Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion (Chicago: Church and Goodwin, 1866), 607, 612, 617-18 (Chaplin Hills), 622, 626-28 (Stones River), 678, 681, 688, 684 (Chickamauga), 693-94 (Missionary Ridge), 716 (Kennesaw Mountain), 727-28 (Peach Tree Creek). I have not “vetted” this book for accuracy, so I’m only citing it to indicate a contemporary author’s account of this regiment for “Civil War Memory” purposes.

[v] Complete Works, volume XII, 201-203; Kent  Ahrens, “Nineteenth Century History Painting and the United States Capitol,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 50 (1980), 191-222, at 202-02; “William Henry Powell,” The Art Journal, New Series, Vol. 5 (1879), 351.

[vi] Complete Works, volume XII, 203; Ahrens, 212-14.

[vii] Ahrens, 210.

[viii] Donald, 551-55.

[ix] Donald, 553, 561-62, 564; “Loyal Memories Forbidden,” Lewiston, Maine Sun-Journal, September 24, 1872, p. 2.

[x] Donald, 563, 564n5; “Sumner’s Patriotism,” New York Herald, January 31, 1874, p.3.

[xi] “A Noble Proposition from Mr. Sumner,” December 3, 1872, p. 6.

[xii] Reprinted in Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, December 11, 1872, p. 3.

[xiii] December 20, 1872, p. 2.

[xiv] Donald, 564.

[xv] “Sumner’s Flag Fight,” New York Herald, December 14, 1862, p. 8; “George Henry Hoyt,” Kansas Historical Society,; “Marking them Down,” Selinsgrove Times-Tribune, May 2, 1873, p. 2 (quoting the New York Tribune). For the fire and the special session, see F. E. Frothingham, The Boston Fire (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1873); Russell H. Conwell, History of the Great Fire In Boston, November 9 and 10, 1872 (Boston: B. B. Russell, 1873).

[xvi] Donald, 565; “Sumner Rebuked,” The Burlington Free Press, December 19, 1872, p. 3; “Sumner’s Battle Flag Resolution,” New York Herald, January 3, 1873, p. 4.





2 Responses to Charles Sumner and “the oblivion of past differences,” Part 1

  1. Thanks. Today we have a similar question over whether the battle “Chancellorsville” is too toxic to have a ship named for it.

  2. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

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