Monday, May 25, 2009

An Iowa Memorial Day, 1895

The Rev. George E. Mitchell presided at the Memorial Day observance in Davis City, Iowa, in 1895.

More than thirty years after the guns fell silent at Appamottox, memories of the Civil War remained fresh in the market towns and county seats of the rural Midwest.

In late May, 1895, the residents of Davis City, Iowa, prepared to honor the veterans of that conflict and remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to preserve the Union. The solemnity of the occasion trumped the partisan and sectarian differences that otherwise divided the Decatur County community.

Those differences were significant. With a population of 600, Davis City featured two newspapers (!) -- the Republican Davis City Rustler and the stoutly Populist Davis City Advance. Methodists and Reformed Latter-Day Saints filled the local churches.

The Advance made no secret in other columns of its contempt for President Grover Cleveland (calling him "Old Tub-of-Fat" in one memorable quip). It showed no less disdain for Republicans. As Memorial Day approached, however, partisan sniping ceased. The Advance reported that local residents formed committees responsible for music, the decoration of graves, and the arrangement of children in a procession to the local cemetery. A ritual Grand Army of the Republic service for the decoration of soldiers' graves was planned, followed by a program of music, prayer and reminiscence at the local Latter-Day Saints church.

One of the leading figures in the day's ceremonies was my great-great grandfather, the Rev. George E. Mitchell. As a 19-year-old in 1861, Mitchell enlisted in an Illinois infantry regiment and marched across Missouri to northwest Arkansas. There, in early 1862, he fought in the battle of Pea Ridge, an engagement that halted the Confederate advance into Missouri and kept the border state in the Union.

Mitchell paid a painful price for his service, however. Wounded in battle when a musket ball shot through his foot and exited at the heel, he was hospitalized and eventually discharged. He brought the family to southern Iowa in 1872, and by the middle of the 1890s the Mitchells were well established in Decatur and neighboring Clarke counties.

My ancestor took enormous pride in his war-time record. He was active in the Grand Army of the Republic and local Republican politics. In many ways, and in other contexts, Mitchell was just the sort of figure who might have been expected to drive the Populist editors of the Advance to distraction. But his service on this day won nothing but praise.

"The memorial services conducted Sunday afternoon by Rev. Mitchell were highly appreciated," the paper reported on May 30. "About thirty soldiers marched from the G.A. R. hall to the church headed by the stars and stripes to half-mast. Rev. Mitchell is an old soldier who knows how to touch the hearts of the comrades."

Similar scenes unfolded other in many other Northern states on Memorial Day in 1895, but the ceremonies resonated with particular poignancy in Iowa, which sent 70,000 soldiers to fight for the Union. "Of the soldiers and sailors sent to war, few states paid a higher cost in lives than did Iowa," writes Joseph F. Wall in Iowa: A History. The state lost 3,540 in battle, 8,498 to disease, and 515 in prison or due to starvation.

No wonder, then, that Wall concludes that the war for Iowans "was the great determinant of our political structure and in many important ways of our social attitudes for the next 100 years. In these respects, the war was as important to Iowa as it was to Mississippi or Alabama."

Beginning with John Fremont in 1856, the Hawkeye State voted so regularly for Republican presidential candidates that the quip was that "Iowa will go Democrat when Hell goes Methodist." Not until 1912 would Iowa leave the Republican fold, when Woodrow Wilson carried the state. In 1895 the joke remained not only funny but accurate.

One year later, Davis City and Decatur County would be riven by the dramatic presidential campaign of 1896. Republican William McKinley carried the Hawkeye State but lost Decatur County, where sympathies for the Populists and their third-party antecedants ran strong, by a small margin.

But for one day, partisanship was set aside as the town's residents came together to remember the sacrifices of those who took up arms for the Stars and Stripes.


Davis City Advance, May 23, May 30, 1895.

Wall, Joseph F. Iowa: A History. New York: W. Norton & Co., 1978.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Behind the Scenes

The inauguration of President Grant in 1873. Washington at the beginning of the Gilded Age is the topic of Eward Winslow Martin's Behind the Scenes in Washington. Library of Congress.

Explaining the peculiar ways of Washington has been the preoccupation of authors and journalists since the swampy lands along the Potomac were designated as the nation’s capital.

In the early 1870s, Americans who wanted to know more about the District of Columbia could turn to Edward Winslow Martin’s Behind the Scenes in Washington for an in-depth look not only at the often sordid business of government but also its more inspiring features – the architecture of the U.S. Capitol, the city’s churches and historic cemeteries, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress.

“The city of Washington, the Capital of the Republic, is the most interesting place in the Union to the American people,” Martin writes in his preface. “It is not only the seat of Government, but it is the centre from which radiate the varied influences which affect every citizen of the Republic, from the millionaire to the man dependent on his daily earnings.”

With its mixture of patriotic pride, earnest interest in the operations of the federal government, and outrage at the malfeasance of lawmakers, Martin’s book strikes a familiar chord for modern readers. Decades before Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart dramatized these themes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Martin captures the enduring fascination and disgust with the capital.

Martin's book appeared in 1873, at the height of public outrage over the Credit Mobilier scandal, and he devotes considerable attention to the affair that colored American politics for a generation.

The complicated story is boiled down thusly: “The men entrusted with the management of the Pacific Road made a bargain with themselves to build the road for a sum equal to about twice its actual cost, and pocketed the profits, which have been estimated at about Thirty Millions of Dollars – this immense sum coming out of the pockets of the tax payers of the United States.”

He reviews the evidence against the major figures in the affair – Rep. Oakes Ames, the Massachusetts Republican who sold the stock to other members of Congress; Rep. James A. Garfield, R-Ohio, who would be elected president seven years later; Rep. Glenni W. Scofield, R-Pa..; Vice President Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, and a host of other congressmen and senators.

He absolves Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, then speaker of the House and the Republican nominee for president in 1884, but shows no such inclination when it came to the congressional committee established to get to the bottom of the affair. Martin directs some of his most withering criticism at the findings of the panel led by Luke Potter Poland of Vermont.

“It is a miserable business,” Martin concludes of the committee's findings. “The country expected of Mr. Poland and his associates a manly and straightforward investigation, and not a miserable effort to hunt up a couple of scape goats to bear the sins of those who were to be saved from expulsion.”

On the other hand, his review of the case against Colfax is tinged with sincere regret. “He is still entangled in the terrible web of circumstantial evidence against him,” Martin writes. “That he may escape from it and vindicate himself is the wish of all good men.”

Martin paints a colorful but not terribly flattering portrait of Congress. The House of Representatives is plagued by poor oratory and bad manners, he writes. “Members are very unruly, and give the Chair a world of trouble. You seem them obstructing the aisles, talking and laughing in a tone which is audible in any part of the hall, or sitting with their feet elevated on their desks, oftentimes fast asleep.”

He is no less impressed by the Senate. “The chief qualification demanded of the aspirant for Senatorial honors is a devotion to party; and men who are not fit, either by reason of intellectual gifts, or the administration and confwidence of the people, to represent the great States of the Union, have found their way into the Senate …”

There is more than a little of the Sodom-on-the-Potomac motif that has been a recurring theme of Washington observers for more than a century. Martin’s chapter on “The Lobby,” begins by describing the influence of special interests on Congress but devotes an inordinate amount of time describing the nefarious influence of women of easy virtue on the legislative process.

Despite Martin's regrettable but predictable Victorian moralizing, his description of the influence peddlers who flocked to Washington with their hand out has a timeless ring. “People know that shrewd men and women are sent to Washington every year, and bountifully supplied with money by parties and associations whose habit is not to be so liberal without receiving an equivalent …” That suspicion is no less widespread today than in 1873.


Martin, Edward Winslow. Behind the Scenes in Washington. The Continental Publishing Co., and National Publishing Co., 1873.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ulysses S. Grant and His Madoff

The ably written and entertaining A Boat Against the Current features this item about the financial troubles that plagued Ulysses S. Grant in his final years:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

From Promontory to Omaha

The joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869 thrilled the nation. But jubilation gave way to anger at the railroads in the years to come. Library of Congress.

At 12:47 p.m. on May 10, 1869, a telegraph operator’s simple message – “done” – thrilled a nation wearied by civil war and its aftermath.

The message signaled the joining of the eastbound tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad and the westbound Union Pacific in Promontory, Utah. A trans-continental railroad, the dream of speculators, politicians, and journalists for decades, had finally become a reality.

The ceremonial driving of the Golden Spike culminated frenetic years of railroad construction by Irish and Chinese laborers. Crews laid up to ten miles of track per day and worked off their frustrations in the saloons and dance halls that migrated along the construction route. Toil and back-breaking labor, along with engineering skill, made the triumphant moment possible.

Chicago greeted the news with a seven-mile celebratory procession. Other cities were no less jubilant. New Yorkers fired hundreds of guns, attended church services, and hung bunting. Philadelphia rang the Liberty Bell. “Well might a war-torn people cheer the forging of a new bond of union,” historian Ray Allen Billington observed.

But the jubilation that surrounded the driving of the Golden Spike dissipated quickly. Before the century ended, celebration had given way to hostility. Railroads once cheered for linking the continent and opening distant markets were widely viewed as malevolent forces that threatened the livelihood of farmers and corrupted state houses and Congress.

By 1892, public hostility toward railroads reached its zenith at the People’s Party convention in Omaha, where Populists warned in their party platform that “the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.”

The evolution of public opinion regarding railroads in the years between Promontory and Omaha is one of the most important political stories of the Gilded Age.

That shift began shortly after the rails joined in Utah, due in part to the actions of one of the dignitaries present at Promontory, Rep. Oakes Ames. The Massachusetts Republican sold discounted stock in the Credit Mobilier Company, formed to aid the Union Pacific in the financing and construction of the railroad west from Omaha, to other members of Congress as they considered subsidies for railroad construction.

Those implicated in the purchase of Credit Mobilier stock, or the receipt of money from railroad executives, constituted a Who’s Who of American politics in the years after the Civil War. Rep. James A. Garfield, R-Ohio, Rep. James Brooks, D-N.Y., Sen. James Harlan, R-Iowa, and Vice President Schuyler Colfax of Indiana numbered among those whose names were linked to the Credit Mobilier affair.

The bearded Ames came to personify the scandal. “He has a hard, rugged face, and one not calculated to win him the confidence of strangers,” journalist Edward Winslow Martin wrote in Behind the Scenes in Washington. “It is a determined face, and he looks as though he could be a dangerous man if pushed too far.”

As the Credit Mobilier scandal rocked Washington, farmers outraged by seemingly arbitrary freight rate pricing practices flocked to a new organization known as the Grange, which quickly took a leading role in advocating state regulation of railroad freight rates.

Anger at freight rates was widespread. Farmers in the Midwest wondered why it cost more for them to ship goods east than it did for goods to come to them. Merchants in small towns fumed as railroads charged less per mile to ship goods to distant cities such as Chicago than to send freight to towns such as Keokuk or Des Moines.

Citizens throughout the country were appalled by the Credit Mobilier disclosures as well as simpler forms of graft, such as free travel passes distributed by railroad lobbyists to legislators.

Granger-led “anti-Monopoly” movements swept to power in Iowa and other states, but the “Granger laws” these movements produced proved ineffective and were ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Wabash v. Illinois.

Congress grudgingly responded to the growing public outcry with creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. Agrarian critics of the railroads hailed Washington’s decision to embrace the commerce clause of the Constitution, but soon became disenchanted with the agency.

As the Populist declaration shows, discontent with the railroads remained a constant factor in American politics throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Golden Spike commemorated the heroic feats of engineering and endurance that linked east and west, but also marked the beginning of a new era of tension between concentrated corporate power and the public.


Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1974.

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Musuem:

Martin, Edward Winslow. Behind the Scenes in Washington. The Continental Publishing Co. and National Publishing Co., 1873.

Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, MN.: Edinborough Press, 2008.