- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

Most Americans rightfully associate the Civil War with one U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln.

His monumental role in that conflict preserved the Union and set the stage for the United States to become a world power in the 20th century. However, few recall that there were five living ex-presidents at the outbreak of war in 1861. They were Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

It is worth noting their contributions to the Union at its time of greatest peril, which ranged from loyal support to outright treason. Max J. Skidmore and William A. DeGregorio help shed some light on this subject in their books “After The White House: Former Presidents as Private Citizens” and “The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents.”

The elder of this group, Martin Van Buren, was nearly 80 years old at the beginning of the war. Serving as president from 1837 to 1841, this native New Yorker and protege of Andrew Jackson spent his initial retirement years pursuing farming, traveling, and dabbling in state and national politics.

Van Buren did not support Lincoln in the 1860 election, opting instead for fellow Democrat Stephen Douglas. However, after South Carolina’s secession, he declared the Constitution a “perpetual and irrevocable contract” and wholeheartedly supported Lincoln and the Union cause.

He even went so far as to rally New York Democrats to support the new Republican president. However, Van Buren did not live to see the end of the war, passing away in July 1862.

John Tyler, president from 1841 to 1845, pursued a different course in the Civil War era. This Virginian spent his entire public career supporting slavery and states’ rights, and gradually alienated himself from all major political parties because of his famous independent streak.

However, Tyler was no “fire-eating” secessionist, and consequently spent the months prior to the war attempting to negotiate a settlement. He chaired a multi-state peace conference in 1861, which passed a series of resolutions meant to prevent war while maintaining slavery. But when Lincoln refused to accept these proposals, Tyler threw up his hands in disgust and openly aligned with the Confederacy.

He served in the Provisional Confederate Congress and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives in late 1861. However, he died before he could take his seat in 1862. For these actions, Tyler was branded a traitor in the North and is remembered in part as the only American president to support an enemy of the United States. It was not until 1915 that Congress authorized a memorial at his gravesite.

The remaining three ex-presidents lived through the entire Civil War and were known collectively as “doughfaces,” or Northerners with Southern principles.

Millard Fillmore, another New Yorker, served as president from 1850 to 1853. Although he was a Unionist, Fillmore did not support Lincoln and actually voted for Democrat George McClellan in 1864. Fillmore was also the only member of this group of presidents to serve in the Union Army.

Early in the war, Fillmore organized the Union Continentals, a home-guard unit of older men based in Buffalo that assisted with troop recruiting and military funerals.

Fillmore held the rank of major. Because he supported the Fugitive Slave Law, Fillmore was not popular in the North during the war. After Lincoln’s assassination, a mob attacked his house because he neglected to drape it in black for mourning. Fillmore died in 1874.

Franklin Pierce faced similar treatment for his pro-Southern views. A native of New Hampshire and president from 1853 to 1857, Pierce was bitter upon hearing of Lincoln’s election. He later opposed the Emancipation Proclamation because, in his opinion, it interfered with states’ rights and property laws.

Although Pierce was a Unionist and opposed secession, he viewed the South as a victim and felt that anti-slavery forces were to blame for bringing about the war.

Pierce was also a close friend of Jefferson Davis, who had served in his Cabinet as secretary of war. For these reasons, Northerners regularly accused Pierce of being a Confederate sympathizer.

At one point, Pierce was accused of belonging to the Knights of the Golden Circle, a mostly legendary secret, pro-Confederate organization. Although Pierce vigorously denied these charges, his reputation in the North was irreparably harmed.

He spent his final years as a heavy drinker and died in 1869.

James Buchanan of Pennsylvania was arguably the most respected of the “doughface” ex-presidents in the North. He served as president from 1857 to 1861, leaving Abraham Lincoln with a nation on the brink of Civil War. Although he was a Democrat, Buchanan loyally supported Lincoln and the Union cause after the fall of Fort Sumter.

Buchanan later supported the draft and was known to contribute money to the war effort. For his loyalty, Buchanan did not face the same harsh Northern criticism as Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce. He died in 1868.

Sean Heuvel works at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. He and his wife live in Williamsburg.

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