I see no way to still the hands of traitors.
Morton S. Wilkinson to Alexander Ramsey, January 17, 1861
It was unavoidable. For all the pandering to the Southerners, the facts clearly showed that they were intent on leaving the Union. In his short time in Washington, Wilkinson had worked among rebel sympathizers in the Senate. He had heard their epithets against the Union and had seen the resolve in the red veins of their eyes. Only a fool would take those men lightly, and Wilkinson was no fool. As early as December 1860, he described all the ominous signs to Mankato law partner Cameron Burt, and predicted that war now was inevitable: “The Republican members here in Congress are firm. They will not concede anything nor will they back down from the position heretofore assured by our party.”
A month later, he observed to Ramsey the curious impact of the treacherous rumblings of the people in the capital, even on the Democratic president of the United States: “[Buchanan] became terribly frightened, so much so, indeed, that I am credibly informed that he was afraid of personal violence.” He saw the same fear within the other senator from Minnesota. “[Democrat Henry] Rice I think is frightened. He told me so also that he feared [there] would be an attack made on the Capitol. There are all kinds of stories afloat of this nature, but still I do not fear any such [event]. I believe the old ship will yet right up and get on her course again.” It was about to be the most meaningful time of his life.
Over the past month news reports from across the South were quite troubling, “an array of facts which startled the country and the ears of the senators as they occurred.” It was no longer a war of words. The assault against the government was not just widespread but also orchestrated; and there was a deepening gnawing sense that the capital was next to be seized, as Rice had predicted. “The clouds are thick enough,” a somber Wilkinson wrote to Ramsey on January 17. “It looks to me as though the Government would be dismembered on the line dividing the free and slave states. . . . I see no way to stay the hand of traitors.”
It seemed that the rebels could appear anywhere. They seemed to strike at will. So far all the targets that rebels seized were in the South, but the worrisome phrase was “so far.” Wilkinson worried for the safety of the home front in Minnesota. “I think soon there should be . . . in our State . . . the organization of a militia. We should have war in all probability.” More immediate was the fact that the nation’s capital was surrounded by slaveholding states. Though he would later hear of citizens of Maryland jeering Minnesota recruits as they marched through to the Potomac—one volunteer would report that Rockville, for example, was “a pleasant village, with a rather disloyal population”—that state had, so far, not seceded. The rebel stronghold of Richmond, Virginia, was less than a day’s ride; and there was diminishing confidence in the Union army. “It is not improbable that there will be difficulty here in the Capitol.” As the fuse burned closer to the powder keg, one month before the Confederates opened fire on the federal instillation of Fort Sumter, Wilkinson delivered a speech of defiance before the Senate in defense of the United States Constitution. “If those who are engaged in the destruction of the Government suppose that their treason will add to the power and dominion of slavery on this continent . . . they are warring with an element too powerful and majestic to be materially affected by any effort they can put forth.” On March 4, two days after Wilkinson’s speech, Lincoln took the oath of office, and a little over a month later, on April 13, Fort Sumter fell. The Civil War had officially begun. Wilkinson accompanied Governor Ramsey, who had just come to town to secure governmental appointments, to meet the governor’s old friend from Pennsylvania, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and offer Minnesota troops.
As more Southern states seceded, Wilkinson hoped that the new administration of Abraham Lincoln was up to meeting the crisis. He knew where Lincoln stood—that the president hated slavery, that he understood the nation was finally at the crossroad when it would either be all free or all slave; and that he stood foursquare for freedom—but Wilkinson was skeptical of the men on the president’s team whose actions may have emboldened the Confederates. By July, even though Union troop strength was nearly 200,000 men, double that of the Confederacy, after the first two months of war, the outnumbered and more poorly equipped Confederate army gave as much as it received. That month, Wilkinson openly questioned whether the administration had the resolve to fight: “If the administration had been true, treason might have been crushed out in the start. But I fear now it has gained great headway.” But he could not have anticipated just which Republican would compromise first.
In late August 1861, two months after the First Minnesota marched out of Fort Snelling to begin the trek eastward to the nation’s capital, guerrilla warfare in Missouri, less than a hard two-day ride on horseback, intensified throughout the state. This emergency was compounded as Confederate forces amassed just across the border with a plan to invade. John C. Fremont, major general in the Department of the West, would have to hold the state for the Union with inadequate troops and matériel. On the thirtieth of the month, hoping to gain a tactical benefit for his position, he issued what would come to be called the Fremont Emancipation, which instituted martial law. But the part of the order that galvanized the abolition community was the declaration that slaves of all Missourians taking up arms against the United States would be freed. The Boston Daily Evening Transcript reported that Northerners took to the streets cheering. Harriet Beecher Stowe exclaimed, “The hour has come, and the man.”
Just as breathtaking was President Lincoln’s order to modify the declaration; when Fremont refused, Lincoln, using the rationale of Fremont’s incompetence in running the department, removed him from command. He did so to avoid alienating the border states (such as Maryland) and to punish Fremont’s insubordination; and, in doing so, the president alienated the Radicals in his party, including in Minnesota, where Lincoln’s action was viewed as a “cowardly retreat.” Even the moderate St. Paul Press, the leading Republican journal in Minnesota and organ for the Ramsey machine, felt a temporary loss of confidence in the wisdom and ability of the national administration, but upon reflection apprehended “no serious result from this step backward.”
Minnesotans around the state disagreed and they held public meetings to air the issue. On September 27, one such meeting occurred in Plainview, Wabasha County, where a committee was appointed to ask each of the state’s U.S. senators and congressmen his “position on the doctrine enunciated by Gen. Fremont.” Rice’s response was unsatisfying because it was frustratingly ambiguous. In contrast, Senator Wilkinson’s response was both clear and expansive: he endorsed Fremont’s proclamation and strongly criticized Lincoln’s action. The fact that the president saw fit to remove Fremont from command for incompetence—especially in light of the failed leadership of many of the generals in the eastern theater—meant nothing to Wilkinson. “Whether Fremont is successful, as a military commander or not, has nothing to do with this question. I approve of the course he took in his proclamation.” To Wilkinson the president’s action was a compromise with slave interests. No such quarter would be given to anyone who he felt was disloyal to the Union. Indeed, in Wilkinson’s view compromisers and outright rebel sympathizers could be found anywhere provided one was vigilant, even within the U.S. Senate, even among federal lawmakers.
Between December and February, assuming the role of the senate’s chief prosecutor, Wilkinson submitted the first of three separate resolutions that proposed to expel senators for conspiring with a rebel sympathizer. On February 5, the senators voted 32 to 14 to expel Jesse Bright, which prompted applause from the galleries. Fourteen days later, Wilkinson submitted a passionately worded resolution calling for the expulsion of Kentucky senator Lazarus Powell on grounds of disloyalty to the Union. Then, on February 26, a resolution to expel was filed against Benjamin Stark of Oregon. But by now the Senate was running out of resolve. On March 14, 1862, after a long list of duties—receiving, debating, and passing bills—senators, weary over what had become continuous, unconvincing, and increasingly inflammatory debate over the meaning of loyalty and treason, and “free speech” during a time of civil war, turned their attention to the greater concern: the war was not going well.
Earlier that year, on January 27, President Lincoln issued a war order authorizing the Union to launch aggressive action against the Confederacy. General George McClellan, commander of the Union army, simply ignored the order. In March 8, out of impatience with the general’s inactivity, Lincoln issued an order reorganizing the Army of Virginia and relieving McClellan of supreme command. Given command of the Army of the Potomac, he was ordered to attack Richmond. This marked the beginning of the Peninsular Campaign, which would result in a humiliating defeat of the general in July under the aggressive leadership of Robert E. Lee. Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull, chair of the Judiciary Committee, which first vetted the expulsion resolutions, expressed growing concern over the distractions of the debates and wanted to debate the confiscation bill. Taking the property of rebels might prove more effective in prosecuting the war, he argued, than expelling the pro-Confederate Benjamin Stark from the Senate. He was overruled. For the time being, senators balked at confiscating rebel property and emancipating slaves within the nation’s capital even if doing so would disrupt the rebel economy. But Wilkinson, who had brought the charges and participated in the debates, often putting forth detailed, time-consuming, lawyerly, and, when the spirit moved (which was often), ad hominem rebuttals, knew he was ready for that fight.
On March 26, 1862, Wilkinson rose in the Senate chamber to speak on the emancipation of slaves within Washington, D.C. The otherwise unsentimental senator from Minnesota was about to contribute to a family legacy that had advanced the cause of freedom. Until 1827, when slavery was finally abolished, and years later, his father had spirited fugitives through central New York State to Syracuse, from which his uncle, a leading businessman in the region, took them to Canada; his extended family included noted abolitionist Reverend Samuel May and novelist and poet Louisa May Alcott. But until now, the senator had not distinguished himself beyond the small political world of Minnesota, where Democrats had largely been in control, where compromise was unavoidable, where principles were expendable: the voice he was now about to unleash had before been tactically muted. In calling for freeing slaves, he was freeing himself. This was his moment, a rare moment in which principle and practical military benefit were conjoined; but he knew it needed to be the “practical” argument that would win the day.
“Mr. President [the presiding officer of the Senate], I am prepared upon this, as upon all other questions, to conform my action to the plain dictates of justice and of right.” Slavery, he argued, was not only morally repugnant, but the very act of slaveholding was so immoral that it even corroded the soul of the master. “Believing, as I do, that human slavery is the great sin of this country, that it is in violation of every principle of justice and of truth, that its influence upon this country, and upon this world, has a tendency alike to encourage everything that is evil, and to repress everything that is good in the State; that its evil influences are visited alike upon the master and slave; that it affects us for evil in our political as well as in our social relations, and that it is the primary cause of this wicked rebellion which has risen up against the constitutional authority of the Government, I feel bound, by every vote which I am called upon to give, and by every word which I may utter upon this question, to do everything in my power towards its final extinction; and, so far as my influence goes, to blot out the last remains of slavery on this continent.”
He reminded the opposition, especially the senators of slaveholding states, that the bill only sought to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. “It goes no further; it does nothing more; it does not propose to interfere with the institution in any of the States, nor does it in anywise affect the relation of master and slave in any portion of the communities beyond the limits of this District.” But, he said, “If there is a place upon the face of the earth where human slavery should be prohibited, and where every man should be protected in the rights which God and nature have given him, that place is the capitol of this great Republic. . . . It is an insult to the enlightened public sentiment of the age, and those who meet here from the free States of the Union, and the representatives of the free Governments of the earth—lovers of Liberty—should be compelled in the capitol of this free Republic daily to witness the disgusting and shocking barbarities which a state of human slavery continually presents to their view.”
The travesty of it all, he argued, was that those who had perpetrated the insults and threats on the representatives of the nation had actually benefited from the bounty of the nation. “Yes, more, when the hour of peril came upon the country, when acts of treason followed each other in quick and rapid succession, when the slaveholders were stabbing at the very heart of the nation, when the heavens were all black with the impending storm, and no one knew wither to return to escape the coming danger, we were here surrounded by slaveholding traitors who were daily plotting for the destruction of the Government which had fed them.”
He reminded the senators how dangerous it had been for antislavery senators in the city. “A little more than a year ago these galleries were daily filled with a mob ready to cheer every eulogy pronounced for slavery and to applaud every utterance of treason. Senators well remember the terrible sense through which we passed when vile traitors as Toombs, Davis, Wigfall, and Breckinridge were lionized by the slaveholders of this; and when, upon this floor, these men defiantly proclaimed their treason, there was no power to check them, for the whole authorities of the city were on their side. The city police was in sympathy with the traitors, and there was no security until the freemen of the North rushed to the defense of the Capitol.” And why, he asked, “Had this Government been unkind to the people of this District? No; the Government had built them up. It had given them all the prosperity they had. Why, then, were they opposed to its existence?” The answer was simple: “This District is under the influence of slaveholders. That is the reason why so many people here were on the side of treason.”
He reminded the senators of the night during the earliest days of war, when he and other Union men realized the extent of the danger they faced within the city, and the determination they felt to defend the national edifice against what they were certain would be an imminent rebel attack. “We all remember the fearful night when members of Congress and other citizens of the free States then in this city met in the large hall of one of the hotels here, and, organizing themselves into a company under the lead of the noble and brave Cassius M. Clay, and sending to the War Department for arms, they resolved that they would peril their lives in the defense of the Capitol. This little company was nearly all the defense against treason that this city at that time had. But, sir, they were not long held in suspense. The telegraph conveyed to them the cheering intelligence that the freemen of the North were rushing to their support.”
But it was not an easy march, for the earliest troops had to traverse the hostile soil of Maryland, “now claiming to be loyal; now interposing her objection to the passage of the [confiscation] bill; now asserting her right to prevent the abolition of slavery in this District, and the progress of free sentiments here, then lay as a wall of fire between the seat of Government and those who were determined to uphold it, determined to repel and drive back the loyal people of the North.” He then told of the violent assault of a massive Baltimore mob on federal troops marching to Washington. “I believe that the first blood shed in this wicked rebellion was poured out in Baltimore by the brave troops of Massachusetts while a little band of them, not more than one hundred in number, were forcing their way through the maddened and infuriated mob of from eight to ten thousand, which resisted their passage through the city on the 19th of April, ‘the first slaughter that took place in this war.’ ”
When information was received at the depot of this attack, the Pennsylvania regiment, which had just arrived in the city and which was unarmed, was sent back. Some were also wounded in the melee. Wilkinson reported that the governor and the mayor, “entirely at the mercy of the secessionists,” ordered that no more troops pass through town, and requested the owner of the railway to transport the troops to the border of the state. Such was the level of chaos in the city that the bodies of the dead soldiers, wrote the mayor in his letter of sincere regret to Massachusetts governor John Andrew, could not be sent home for burial. Wilkinson said, “The people, debauched by slavery, corrupted by its degrading influence, and maddened by the evil passions which it engenders, broke lose from all the restraints of law, and wildly trampled civil authority under their feet. . . . There is nothing in it to cheer the heart of the true patriot; there is no bright spot here upon which the eye of the lover of the Union rest.” Only coercion, Wilkinson insisted, worked with traitors.
Wilkinson reported on the massacre of Union troops in Guyandotte, Virginia, on the Ohio River, in the extreme western part of the state, loyal soil that soon would become West Virginia. The tragedy occurred on Sunday night, November 10. Two hundred and fifty federal troops composed of loyal Virginians were bivouacked in town. Rebel civilians established friendly relations with the soldiers, eventually inviting them to their homes on various pretexts. The invitations were accepted by all of the men who were off duty; and while they were being entertained, at about half past eight that night, the rebel cavalry dashed into town. “Signals were displayed from every house where the loyal Virginians were unsuspiciously enjoying themselves, and into these the rebels rushed, murdering the unarmed solders in cold blood. The rebel citizens, men and women, rushed to arms, and aided the cavalry in the slaughter.” Wilkinson’s point was simple: “Nothing but the barbarity of human slavery could ever so turn men and women into brutes! . . . There is no way to defeat their designs but to meet and rush them in the storm of battle; and that, sir, is what we northern men propose to do.”
His blood was up when he then took on Unionist Virginia senator John Carlile, pro-slave Unionist Garrett Davis from Kentucky, and Republican conservative John Cowen of Pennsylvania. Days later, when Davis heatedly responded to Wilkinson’s attack, the senator from Minnesota felt no need to respond, confident in the fact that the votes to pass the measure had been secured. “Mr. President, I regard this measure to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia as eminently just, humane, and Christian, and as tending to obliterate all treasonable sentiments in this District, and to rear up here the standard of the Constitution and the Union. For this reason, I support the measure.” When all had been said, it was time to vote for the bill.
On April 16, President Lincoln signed what would be known as the First Confiscation Act and issued the following message: “The act entitled ‘An act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,’ has this day been approved and signed.” As Lincoln noted in signing the bill, Congress had used its lawful authority to emancipate slaves, a provision that opponents of the bill had asserted in debate, and that he was “gratified that the two principles of compensation and colonization are both recognized and partially applied in the act.” Wilkinson had supported neither principle. But in the name of emancipation, and the opportunity to drive a stake into the heart of the slavers he hated, compensation and colonization were two concessions he reluctantly made. “I am,” he said, “for stripping these rebels of everything they possess.”
On April 23, one week after Lincoln signed the First Confiscation Act, Democratic senators, in their own rear-guard action, began attacking the new law on the grounds of its being unconstitutional. Wilkinson, expecting this reaction, declined to engage the principal proponent of the issue—his “dear and respected friend” Senator Garrett Davis from Kentucky. However, when Republican senator Orville Browning joined Davis, Wilkinson went on the attack. The chief villain in Wilkinson’s eyes was Browning, moderate Republican from the state of Illinois.
With the loss to Lee’s much smaller Army of Northern Virginia at Chancellorsville after a weeklong campaign between April 30 and May 8, and now the Peninsula Campaign just then being waged and not looking good for the Union army, Wilkinson’s blood boiled over. More than 18,000 federal troops, to 11,400 Confederates, died at Chancellorsville; 15,000 (to 19,000) would die on the peninsula. The day before, June 27, he swiped at the incompetence of the administration’s prosecution of the war effort, when, after expressing support for a bill to proscribe favoritism, he quipped, “I wish they were guilty of a little more such malfeasance in office, if . . . this war would go on a little better than it is going on now, and I think that in this case we should have a set of men at the head of the war who believed in it, and that we should have the contractors who were anxious to furnish the Army in the field to the end that this rebellion should be put down.”
Now, Wilkinson was saying that Senator Browning, as reflected in his criticism of the confiscation bill, was not one of a set of men at the head of the war who believed in it. “Gentlemen are found here in the Senate, who seemingly close their eyes to the monstrous wrong of this rebellion, and the terrible sacrifices of our people in their efforts to suppress it, and they seem anxious to avail themselves of all excuses and subterfuges in order to evade or defeat such a revolt.” Congress, Wilkinson argued in support of the president’s position, had the constitutional authority to free slaves. In this, he had shifted his position from a year earlier when he criticized Lincoln for reversing Fremont’s emancipation order in the military district of Missouri. Lincoln, Wilkinson reasoned, was no longer the man who had sought to appease the slaveholders in the border states by reversing Fremont’s order, but rather was now viewed to have acted in the defense of the constitutionality of congressional authority. “He places himself, in regard to the legitimate prerogative of Congress, on the platform where every man who was acquainted with him knew he would stand.” Conjuring the spirits of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Wilkinson declared, “The liberties of this country, if they were defended at all, must be defended by the immediate representatives of the people. The sovereignty of this nation lies buried with the people of this country. It is not in the President, nor is it in the judicial department of the Government. It rests with the people.”
By June, the “people” as represented in the United States Senate spoke again by enacting the Second Confiscation Act “to suppress insurrection, to punish treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate the property of rebels, and for other purposes.” As the law moved forward to approval, Wilkinson, now seeing the exigent need to compromise, argued that $500,000 be allocated to facilitate Lincoln’s plan for colonization. He detested this portion of the First Confiscation Act, but here he was apparently reversing himself, just as he seemed to do in the debate to expel Lazarus Powell from the senate. Rather, it speaks to a special trait in Wilkinson’s unique character as an advocate: even in the heat of battle, he listened to the opposing argument, sometimes imperiling the alliances he had struck. If colonization was to be the law, the allocation could make relocation more humane.
Born in the tradition of his father, who spirited fugitive slaves through Skaneateles, New York, to Syracuse and from there to Canada, was the notion that the African American—especially one recently out of slavery—might never find acceptance and opportunity within a society that so long had condoned his enslavement and the stigma of his race in Southern and Northern states alike. If freed slaves elected to go elsewhere, the nation owed them resources to get them set up in their new homes. With this, Wilkinson moved to amend the confiscation bill with a provision that allocated sums “not to exceed $500,000” for colonization “to lands or countries in Mexico, Central America, or South America, or in the islands of the Gulf of Mexico.” His intent was to draft an amendment that was “broad enough to enable the President to accomplish what is desired; but it seems to me there should be some money appropriated.” However, Wilkinson received no support from his allies, who made up the voting majority.
On Monday, June 30, the Senate approved the Second Confiscation Bill by a vote of 28 to 13. Senator Edgar Cowan, acting under pressure from Pennsylvania officials, voted with the majority that included Senators Charles Sumner, Trumbull, David Wilmot, and Wilkinson. Browning voted with the minority that included Senators Davis, Carlile, Powell, and Stark, the last two of whom had escaped Wilkinson’s efforts to have them expelled from the Senate. In the end, when the bill became law in July 1862, the impact was more symbolic than real. Slaves were taking fate into their own hands by leaving the fields to pour into Union camps for sanctuary, and the president, increasingly criticized by Republicans for not prosecuting the war more aggressively, would in time be poised to elevate the struggle to a higher plane of human freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation. But Wilkinson was not waiting for that day, for two days after the Second Confiscation Act was signed into law, he argued for black enlistment into the army. If slaves should be able to fight, their families should go free. Wilkinson took it further when he, a lawyer by profession, argued that a man defending the Union should have the right to give testimony in court. With these positions, he fully embodied the concept of a champion of the black man. But it was only this one class of man of color to whom he could show benevolence; with the Indian, it was much more complicated.