- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to occupy the White House after the Civil War, brought important assets to the presidency. He was hardworking, stubbornly honest, and determined to give his best. He may not have originated the aphorism “A public office is a public trust,” but the statement so epitomized Cleveland that it is usually attributed to him.

Cleveland’s great desire, two decades after Appomattox, was to preside over a country that was reunited spiritually as well as geographically. He appointed two Southerners to his Cabinet, giving the South more than token representation for the first time since the war. And in 1886 he made a personal tour of several states of the former Confederacy, the first postwar president to make such an extended visit.

The next summer, Cleveland’s secretary of war, William Endicott, came up with an interesting suggestion. Given the warm reception Cleveland had received on his trip, would it not be a graceful gesture for the federal government to return to the former Confederate states the battle flags that had been captured from Southern units during the war? Endicott had scores of such flags gathering mold in the attic of the War Department.

Cleveland thought this was a fine idea.

In agreeing to the return of the banners, however, Cleveland precipitated a tempest that would threaten his presidency.

Notwithstanding the passage of time, the Civil War was vivid in the national memory. Union and Confederate veterans alike looked back with pride on their wartime service.

Much of a veteran’s pride was invested in his unit. A regiment’s flag was to be defended to the death, and many of them had been. By the same token, the enemy’s banner, often seized in the closest combat, was the most cherished of battle memorabilia.

The president’s decision revealed an insensitivity to the pride of Northern veterans. Cleveland was the first president since the war not to have served in the Union Army, and this was a sore subject. As young men, he and his two brothers had drawn straws to determine which of them would stay home to support their widowed mother.

Cleveland drew the short straw and, as a result, had spent the war years practicing law in Buffalo, N.Y. He hired a substitute, probably for $300, to fight on his behalf.

This noncombatant status did not endear Cleveland to Northern veterans. Neither did his penchant for vetoing bills designed to place on the pension rolls veterans whose service records were suspect. Then came the matter of the Rebel banners.

A circular letter from secretary Endicott to Southern governors, informing them of the proposed return of the battle flags, ignited a storm of protest.

The influential New York Tribune denounced the proposal, calling the Confederate flags “mementos of as foul a crime as any in human history.” Sen. Joseph Hawley of Connecticut, himself a veteran, wrote Cleveland that he was saddened by the president’s proposal; the best way to deal with the flags borne by the South’s “wicked conspirators” was to burn them.

Speaking before a gathering of veterans, the commander of the organization the Grand Army of the Republic, Lucius Fairchild, thundered, “May God palsy the hand that wrote that order. May God palsy the brain that conceived it, and may God palsy the tongue that dictated it.”

Fairchild had lost an arm at Gettysburg, but this was fairly strong stuff. Soon, reporters were calling him “the Fairchild of the three palsies.”

With letters and telegrams flooding the White House, Cleveland realized that he had stirred up a hornet’s nest. The president was courageous enough, but he was not eager to take on the GAR.

In a letter to Endicott on June 15, Cleveland wrote that he had reconsidered the matter of the flags and decided that their disposition should be left to Congress.

If Cleveland thought this strategic retreat would bring the matter to a close, he was mistaken. The GAR, which numbered some 400,000 Union veterans, was the most powerful lobby in the country.

Cleveland had earlier accepted an invitation to appear at the GAR’s annual encampment, but after some strong hints from the GAR leadership, the president sent his regrets.

Obviously, Cleveland had presented his political opponents with an emotional issue. However, not everyone was impressed by the GAR’s eagerness to revive sectional antagonism. A respected journal, the Nation, ridiculed Fairchild for his three palsies and asked whether there had not been enough killing in the war to satisfy even the GAR.

Nevertheless, the flag flap took up more newspaper space than any other issue in the summer of 1887. When Cleveland ran for re-election the following year, he was defeated by Benjamin Harrison, a decorated veteran and a staunch supporter of the GAR.

To be sure, the Republican victory was due to the electoral college, for Cleveland gained 100,000 more popular votes than his opponent. But political observers agreed that the veterans’ vote — crucial in states such as Indiana and New York — had gone heavily against Cleveland.

The passions of any war die hard, and those aroused by civil war take a particularly long time to heal. As the years went on, however, the issues that had brought on America’s Civil War lost some of their immediacy.

Time took its toll on the ranks of the GAR, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 saw Northerners and Southerners fighting under the same flag.

By 1905, four decades after the war, there was a Republican in the White House, one still savoring his landslide election. Theodore Roosevelt, acting in close consultation with the Congress, set about accomplishing the task that Cleveland had been unable to bring off.

It was easy, and in February 1905 a bill to return Confederate battle flags passed both houses and was signed into law.

John M. Taylor, a historian who lives in McLean, has written extensively on the Civil War period.

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