Grover Cleveland and the Confederate Flags

The president was a busy man; perhaps no other chief executive has paid more attention to the details of office than Grover Cleveland. So when Secretary of War William Endicott went over the business of the day, he spent little time on the matter of the old Confederate flags. The Adjutant General of the Army had suggested that it would be a "Graceful gesture" to return to the erstwhile Confederate states those battle flags that had been captured from the Southern forces during the Civil War. It was 1887, after all, and the war had been over some 22 years.

Cleveland nodded his assent, and the Secretary moved on to the next item of business. In agreeing to the return of the "rebel banners," however, Cleveland precipitated a political tempest that revived the passions of wartime and even contributed to the President's defeat in his bid for reelection.

Notwithstanding the passage of time, the Civil War remained vivid in the national memory. Future Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was three times wounded as a Union officer, would later write that "our hearts were touched with fire." There was a tremendous pride in both armies, and much of it was focused on a soldier's own regiment. A unit's flag was to be defended to the death, and flags of the enemy - often seized in hand-to-hand combat - were the most prized contraband.

Not all of this was apparent to Grover Cleveland. Diligent and honest, he was nevertheless the first president since the war not to have served in the Union armies. It was a sore subject. As a young man, he and his two brothers had drawn straws to decide which of them would stay home and support their widowed mother. Cleveland had drawn the short straw, and as a result spent the war years as a lawyer in Buffalo, New York. He hired a substitute, George Brinski, a Polish immigrant. The practice was both legal and common; President Lincoln had himself hired a substitute, to remove any stigma from the practice. Nevertheless, Grover Cleveland's noncombatant status was not calculated to endear him to Union veterans.

Cleveland's war record was not the only issue that made him suspect to the Grand Army of the Republic. He had appointed two Southerners to his Cabinet, giving the South more than token representation for the first time since the war. Even more infuriating to the G.A.R. was Cleveland's preoccupation with economy in government, which led him to veto hundreds of private bills designed to place favored individuals on military pension rolls. Most of these bills were clearly without merit, but Cleveland's free use of the veto nevertheless brought forth a clamor from the veterans.

Still, agitation over Cleveland's vetoes would pale by comparison to that over his proposal to return the rebel flags. Following his meeting with the President, Secretary Endicott sent circular letters to Southern governors, indicating the government's willingness to return the flags. The first Northern politician to see political potential in Cleveland's proposal was Governor Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio, who faced a tough campaign for reelection. "No rebel flags will be surrendered while I am governor," telegraphed "Fire Engine Joe," ignoring the fact that Cleveland's order applied only to those flags gathering dust in Washington. "The patriotic people of this state are shocked and indignant beyond anything I can express."

Foraker was quickly joined by a formidable ally, the Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, General Lucius Fairchild. Speaking of Cleveland's order before a gathering of veterans, Fairchild thundered, "May God palsy the brain that conceived it, and may God palsy the tongue that dictated it!"

As letters and telegrams - most of them critical - poured into the normally somnolent White House, Cleveland realized that he had stirred up a hornet's nest. The New Yorker was a courageous man - many thought him stubborn - but he was not eager to take on the G.A.R. In a letter to Secretary Endicott on June 15, Cleveland advised that he had reconsidered the matter of the flags "with more care than when the subject was orally presented to me." As a result, he had decided to return of the flags by presidential edict "is not authorized by existing law nor justified as an Executive act." Disposition of the flags, he wrote, should be left to Congress.

If Cleveland thought that this strategic retreat would bring the matter to a close he was very much mistaken. The G.A.R. - numbering some 400,000 Union veterans - was at this time the most formidable lobby in the country. Democrats and Republicans alike wooed the old soldiers with promises of pension and other benefits, but in practice the G.A.R. was an offshoot of the Republican party. It was the Republicans - "the party of Lincoln" - for whom the G.A.R. turned out the vote. Now, with a Democratic president in the White House, the veterans' organization was not prepared to let the matter of the flags die away.

Cleveland had previously accepted an invitation to visit the Grand Army of the Republic at its annual encampment at St. Louis. After some strong hints from the G.A.R. leadership. however, Cleveland withdrew his acceptance. At a G.A.R. reunion in Wheeling, West Virginia, there was a near riot when some parading units refused to march under a banner that included a portrait of Cleveland. It was clear, moreover, that the President had provided his opponents with an election issue. The Democratic "New York Sun" observed that there was obviously "a great deal left" in the sectional issue in terms of political exploitation. The "Atlanta Constitution" warned that Republican extremists "have put the South on notice that the next campaign is to be fought on sectional issues."

Not everyone in the North was impressed by the level of invective, nor by the G.A.R.'s zeal to join the fray. A respected monthly, the "Nation," ridiculed Fairchild for invoking God Almighty "to help him in this matter by killing the President with two strokes of paralysis." The editors suggested that enough killing had taken place in "the slaughter of 300,000 young men in the four years between 1861 and 1865."

It was "Fire Engine Joe" Foraker who made the most political hay out of Cleveland's blunder. He campaigned that fall on the issue of Cleveland's "insults" to the country's "brave, battle-scarred veterans," insults which, in the G.A.R.'s view, included the President's having gone fishing on Memorial Day. Foraker's easy reelection signaled that the White House had suffered damage over the flag episode.

When Cleveland ran for election the following year, he was defeated by Benjamin Harrison despite a margin of nearly 100,000 in the popular vote. Clearly, not everyone had succumbed to the waving of the "bloody shirt" by Foraker and his cohorts. Still, while there were no reliable polls a century ago, it was conceded that the veteran's vote had gone strongly against Cleveland, in part as a result of the battle of the flags.

The passions of any war die hard, and those aroused by a civil war take a particularly long time to heal. As time went on, however, there was less refighting of the Civil War. Time took its toll of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Spanish-American War saw Northerners and Southerners once again under the same flag.

By 1905, 40 years after Appomattox, there was a Republican in the White House, one still savoring his landslide reelection. Theodore Roosevelt, acting in careful consultation with Congress, set about accomplishing the task that Cleveland had been unable to complete. It was remarkably easy. In February 1905 a bill to return Confederate battle flags passed both houses unanimously and was signed into law. It passed unanimously despite the fact that one Ohio senator at the time was "Fire Engine Joe" Foraker.

(article by John M. Taylor, 1987 Old Farmer's Almanac)