For five former American presidents,
the Civil War was a heartbreaking
trial of loyalty and emotion.
Zachary Taylor’s death from acute gastroenteritis in the middle of his presidential term spared him the heartbreak of having to choose sides in the Civil War a decade later. He would never know that his only son, Richard, would later serve as a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army, or that his grandson John Taylor Wood (story, P. 46) would become one of the South’s most successful sailors. Five ex-presidents still living at the outset of the war, however, did have to face just such a choice. And their experiences, varied though they were, reflected the maddening difficulties of attempting to steer a moderate course in the midst of a decidedly immoderate civil war.
In a curious irony, as many ex-presidents were living at the start of the Civil War as at any other time in the nation’s history. The five included Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, the latter two having presided over the disintegrating political landscape during the eight years preceding Abraham Lincoln’s polarizing election in 1860.
Van Buren, the oldest living ex-president, was 78 when the war began. As one of the founders of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party, he had run as a third-party candidate in 1848, drawing off just enough Northern votes to ensure the election of the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor. But over the years, Van Buren returned to the Democratic fold, endorsing Stephen Douglas for president over Lincoln in 1860. Still, when Fort Sumter was fired upon the next April, Van Buren asserted his unqualified support for the Union.
The next oldest ex-president, and the only other one to die during the war itself, was Virginia-born John Tyler. Like Millard Fillmore, Taylor’s vice president, Tyler succeeded to office after the death of a sitting president–in Tyler’s case, William Henry Harrison. Reviled by many fellow Whigs for opposing the creation of a national bank, Tyler was decisively rejected in his bid for a new term of office. For that reason, perhaps (as well as his slave-holding Virginia roots), Tyler came to support the cause of secession. He was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives in November 1861, but died of a stroke before he could take his seat in the rebellious new government.
Even so, Tyler’s Civil War years were less controversial, in a way, than those of Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, whose well-meaning attempts to speak for non-Republican Northerners resulted instead in their being branded as traitors by a large segment of the Northern public. Fillmore, in retirement in Buffalo, N.Y., at first threw himself into the war effort, helping to recruit a Union company, the “Fillmore Guards,” and organizing a local militia for overage men. But as the war dragged on and casualties mounted, the former president lamented, “I sincerely feel the country is on the verge of ruin, and unless the policy which governs national affairs can be changed, we must soon end in national bankruptcy and military despotism.”
Fillmore publicly broke with the Lincoln administration in February 1864, during a speech before the Ladies’ Christian Commission in Buffalo. Bemoaning the terrible changes being wrought in the country, he charged that the war was entirely unnecessary and had been provoked by “partisan prejudice, petty jealousies, malignant envy, and intriguing selfish ambition.” Northern newspapers denounced Fillmore as a pro-Southern Copperhead who had been motivated to speak out by “an insane craving after a local political position.”
Pierce, a New Hampshire native, had become embittered by the war, which he said had been caused “to a great extent by the wrong and persistent moral aggression of the North.” He, too, provoked massive Northern animosity by speaking out against the war in an ill-timed Independence Day speech in 1863. He did irremediable damage to his popularity in that speech to a
Democratic gathering in Concord, N.H. In the speech, Pierce denounced the war as “fearful, fruitless [and] fatal,” and charged that it was being prosecuted “upon the
theory of emancipation, devastation, subjugation.” Coming one day after the twin Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Pierce’s call for “peaceful agencies” to end the war fell on deaf ears.
James Buchanan, true to form, involved himself less in the Civil War than any of his fellow ex-presidents. His administration’s failure to reach a middle ground between extremists in both the North and the South had contributed greatly to the advent of the war one month after he left office, but Buchanan characteristically took vacillating positions on the issue during the war itself. He spent most of his time writing a defense of his actions–or inactions–in the years immediately preceding the war, a war that Lincoln’s postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, said, with some justice, Buchanan’s policies had “rendered inevitable.”
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War