Oliver P. Morton (1861 – 1867)
I won’t do Morton or the Civil War any sort of justice with this entry. There is just too much going on. If history were a landscape, most of the time, you’d be looking at plains or maybe a forest. Suddenly you get into something like the Civil War or World War II, and it becomes an incredibly dense jungle. And I don’t have a machete. So, if most of this bicentennial series has been going an inch deep, now we’re down to a quarter inch or something. But, in any event, here is a very cursory overview.
Oliver Hazard Perry Throck Morton probably had the most middle names of any Hoosier governor and was the first who was born in Indiana. He, like me, was born in Wayne County, attended Miami University, and practiced law. But, that’s mostly where the similarities end.
Early on, Morton spent some time as a hatter but then went to Miami and Cincinnati to study law before returning to Wayne County and setting up practice in Centerville. He was a Democrat in a strongly Whig area of the state. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and Jesse Bright’s heavy handed efforts to command loyalty had created that deep rift in the Democratic Party, and Morton became part of the embryonic Republican Party. He went to the Philadelphia Convention in 1856 and became the party’s unsuccessful candidate for governor against Ashbel Willard.
In 1860, Morton was Henry Lane’s running mate and, as mentioned above, had an agreement with Lane that — if the Republicans controlled the General Assembly after the election — Lane would be elected to the U.S. Senate, and Morton would become governor. The Republicans did well in the election of 1860. While expansion of slavery into the territories was unpopular in Indiana, Republican success in the state was more of an embrace of self-determination and dislike of the Southern slave power. There was no great love of black people in the state (as the provision in the 1851 constitution excluding black people from the state demonstrates all too well). The Republicans, therefore, were careful to avoid any hint of abolitionism or assertions that black people were equal to white people. They campaigned on stopping the extension of slavery in the territories (and took advantage of the surprisingly strong anti-temperance movement of the time.) Democrats were deeply divided, and their appeals to racism and attempts to brand Republicans as abolitionists were unsuccessful. Indiana’s electoral votes went to Abraham Lincoln. The state sent seven Republicans to Congress. The state’s four Democratic Congressmen came from the southern areas of the state. Republicans also controlled the General Assembly.
Then, on December 20, 1860, members of the South Carolina government purported to secede from the United States; soon followed by other southerners. Morton became governor on January 16, 1861. On April 12, 1861, southerners attacked the United States, opening fire on federal property at Fort Sumter. I’ve read that tensions were so high for so long, the onset of war was almost a relief for many.
The beginning of war was met with unity and enthusiasm in Indiana. It was an opportunity for patriotism and all of the pomp and martial grandeur of military activity. Hoosiers backed their leaders and flocked to the cause. Most thought the struggle would be short and relatively bloodless. As we know in retrospect, it turned into a meat grinder. Over the course of the war, something like ? of Indiana’s 300,000 military age men would serve. When Fort Sumter was attacked, Lincoln announced a need for troops. Morton telegraphed him the same day, offering 10,000. Morton had made clear in a November 1860 speech that he regarded secession as lawless, not permitted under the U.S. Constitution and that supporters of the U.S. would be doing a disservice to their birthright if they allowed Southerners to break the law and remove their states from the Union. “If it was worth a bloody struggle to establish this Nation, it is worth one to preserve it, and I trust that we shall not, by surrendering with indecent haste, publish to the world that the inheritance our fathers purchased with their blood we have given up to save ours.”
The state’s initial quota was about 4,600 men; but, within a week, Indiana had 12,000 volunteers. Lew Wallace was appointed Indiana’s adjutant general and began organizing “Camp Morton” at the Indiana fairgrounds as a mustering spot and training grounds.
In the beginning, Democrats and Republicans were united behind the Union cause. Morton called the legislature into special session in April 1861, and the legislature approved funds for the war effort. However, before long, Morton faced opposition to both sides. Within his own party, George Julian did not feel that Morton went far enough. Julian was a radical Republican and a Quaker, a rigid man who invited comparisons to the Cromwellian Puritans who executed King James I. For example, in the April 1861 session, Morton supported a General Assembly resolution stating that the state’s money and military forces should not be used in any aggression upon slavery. Julian and like-minded Republicans wanted to do just that.
However, Morton’s main opposition would come from Indiana Democrats. While there were some Democrats who stuck with the war effort and joined with the Morton-Republicans and there were also Democrats who favored ceding the Southern territories to the rebels, for the most part Indiana Democrats supported efforts to preserve the Union but objected strongly to Morton and Lincoln’s tactics — which they saw as, not only exceeding their legitimate powers, but also as self-serving efforts to expand the power of their party. One of Morton’s tactics was to paint all Democrats who opposed him as Confederate-sympathizing Copperheads.
Indiana’s slave-holding Democratic Senator did not fare well during this early period of the war. Most of the Senate Democrats left or were ejected as the Southern states issued articles of secession. He had antagonized the northern, Douglas Democrats. Then, it was discovered that he had written a letter recognizing Jefferson Davis as President of a foreign nation. Even worse, it was a letter of introduction attempting to acquaint Davis with a Texas arms dealer.
The discovery of Bright’s March 1861 letter to the president of the seceding Southern states provoked calls for his expulsion from the United States Senate:
Washington, March 1, 1861
MY DEAR SIR: Allow me to introduce to your acquaintance my friend Thomas B. Lincoln, of Texas. He visits your capital mainly to dispose of what he regards a great improvement in fire-arms. I recommend him to your favorable consideration as a gentleman of the first respectability, and reliable in every respect.
Very truly, yours, JESSE D. BRIGHT
To His Excellency JEFFERSON DAVIS,
President of the Confederation of States.
Bright testified that he didn’t remember writing the letter, and the Senate Judiciary committee recommended that the resolution of expulsion not pass. However, on February 5, 1862, the full Senate voted 32-14 to kick him out. Bright was the only Senator from a non-slave holding state expelled and the Senator in U.S. history to have been expelled.
Back in Indiana, the beginning of the draft intensified Democratic opposition to Morton and the war. As the war ground on, the luster wore off and, beginning in October 1862, conscription would become necessary. This became a major political issue for the 1862 elections. Later in the war, and more in the southern counties, resistance to the draft intensified — in one or two cases even resulting in the death of the local commissioner responsible for administering the draft. (In each county, the local commissioner would create ballots for the abled bodied men in each of the townships, and then a blindfolded person would draw out as many ballots as was required.)
The election of 1862 was a bad one for the Republicans. Hoosiers were nervous about the progress of the war, and the abolitionist trajectory the Republicans were taking. The Democrats regained control of the legislature. They promptly began the process for passing resolutions favoring an armistice and criticizing Lincoln policies concerning emancipation and suspension of habeas corpus. When they attempted to pass a bill that would have reduced Morton’s control over the state militia, rather than acquiesce to the legislative process, the Republicans in the General Assembly bolted and prevented a quorum. Morton had a problem. The General Assembly had not passed an appropriation bill before the Republicans fled the State House. No problem. The governor just charged it. He was able to rely on loans from friendly bankers and financial help from the Lincoln administration. He kept the money in his office safe rather than in the Democratically controlled state treasury. He paid bills as he saw fit, and the legislature was a non-factor for a couple of years. To justify his almost certainly unconstitutional actions, Morton trumped up the threat of Democratic copperheads in the State.
The lack of robust Copperhead activity in the state was illustrated to some extent by the lack of support Morgan’s Raid when the Confederate marauder attacked Hoosier territory in July 1863. He was able to damage Hoosier property and steal supplies, but was unsuccessful in raising any kind of organized support from the supposedly pervasive Copperhead community. That said, in 1864, there were aborted plans by Harrison Dodd to seize the state arsenal and free Confederate prisoners. Dodd fled to Canada before he could be arrested, but several co-conspirators, including Lambdin P. Milligan were arrested. Dodd was convicted by a military tribunal in absentia and sentenced to hang. Milligan was also convicted in December 1864 and sentenced to hang on May 19, 1865. However, in April 1865, the southern rebels had surrendered and President Lincoln was assassinated. President Johnson commuted the execution to life imprisonment. And, in April 1866, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Ex Parte Milligan determining that, because civil courts were in operation, conviction of a civilian in a military tribunal was unconstitutional because the tribunal had no jurisdiction over the individual.
However, in the fall of 1864, ex parte Milligan was still well in the future, and the sensation of a Democratic/Copperhead plan to seize the state armory played into Morton’s hands. Initially, there was a question as to whether Morton could run for Governor because the Constitution of 1851 permitted only one term. However, because he had technically been elected as lieutenant governor he was allowed to run (even though he had been governor for all but two days of the term.) The elections of 1864 went much better for Morton and the Republicans than the 1862 election had gone. Republicans won 8 of the 11 Congressional districts, Morton was re-elected, and the Republicans won majorities in the General Assembly.
By the time the war ended, Morton and the Republicans were ascendent. The troops returned from war, and the Democrats struggled with their legacy as the party of the South and opposition to the war. Republicans would wrap themselves in the bloody shirt for quite some time to come.
In October 1865, after the war, Morton suffered from a stroke. He went to Europe for several months seeking treatment. During that period, Lieutenant Governor Conrad Baker served as acting governor and oversaw the demobilization of Indiana’s military service. Morton returned to office in March of 1866, but was unable to walk without assistance. In 1867, the Indiana General Assembly elected Morton to the U.S. Senate. Morton resigned the governorship, and Baker served the remainder of Morton’s term.