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The 39th Congress led the nation through a series of fateful events.

TO SAY THE REPUBLICAN PARTY HAD STRUGGLED a bit since the war began was an understatement. The tenacity of Confederate resistance coupled with the unprecedented body count had tempered support, as had war measures such as draft and the suspension of habeas corpus. A shift in war aims from simply preserving the Union to including the abolition of slavery increased tensions, as did the Union’s military struggles in the Eastern Theater, where most of the population was concentrated. Republicans in Congress had suffered a setback in the 1862 midterm elections, losing 34 seats in the House—although the party made a gain of five seats in the  Senate and still retained a majority in the House.

Greater losses threatened as the 1864 election approached; but as President Abraham Lincoln’s fortunes turned with Union successes in the summer and early fall, voters renewed confidence in his party, expanding the Republican majority  in the House. State legislatures likewise sent more Republicans to the U.S. Senate. This new Congress, which took office  in March 1865, would face monumental challenges: the end of armed conflict with the South, the death of the president  and the inauguration of a Democratic president, sea changes in Constitutional law to grant citizenship to former slaves, implementation of Reconstruction and the continued threat of resistance from Southern states, the restoration of a national economy depleted by four years of devastating war. More than 40 percent were freshmen, and many had served in the Union Army before coming to Congress.

Radicals in Congress seized on their superior numbers to push through an aggressive Reconstruction agenda, which would have both good and bad consequences for the country and put Congress on a collision course with the new president. In years to come, members of the Class of ’65 play pivotal roles in the development of the West and the politics of the nation.

Rep. Charles E. Phelps: Unconditional Unionist-Md.

Honorably discharged shortly before the 1864 election, former Baltimore Councilman Phelps served as a colonel in the 7th Maryland Infantry. He served in Congress until 1869, when he returned to Baltimore to resume his law practice. He served in various civic and judicial offices, eventually teaching law at the University of Maryland. Phelps was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1898 for valor at Laurel Hill during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, where he “placed himself conspicuously in front of the troops, and gallantly rallied and led them to within a few feet of the enemy’s works, where he was severely wounded and captured.”

Sen. John P. Stockton: D-N.J.

Following his father and grandfather as a U.S. senator from New Jersey, Stockton had been President James Buchanan’s ambassador to the Papal States. He was an outspoken opponent of the 14th Amendment, which likely led to a controversy that unseated him a year after he took office. Radical Republican opponents argued his election by a plurality rather than a majority in the New Jersey state Senate was invalid, and his seat was declared vacant in spring 1866. This vacancy helped assure the supermajority needed to approve the amendment. He returned to the Senate in 1869 and served until 1875. He was later New Jersey’s attorney general.

Rep. Rutherford B. Hayes: R-Ohio

Cincinnati attorney Hayes was wounded four times while serving in the Union Army. He eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general and did not take his seat in the House until the war was over. He served two terms in Congress before becoming governor of Ohio. In 1876, Hayes was elected president by one electoral vote in a squeaker over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. During his presidency, the last troops guarding Southern statehouses were reassigned and civil service reforms were initiated. But some Republicans felt he was too soft on the South. Hayes had the first telephone installed in the White House, and began the annual Easter Egg Roll.

Rep. John A. Bingham: R-Ohio

Cadiz attorney Bingham would put his legal training to use in two of the most important post-war judicial proceedings: the trial of Lincoln assassination conspirators and the impeachment of President Johnson. Bingham had served in Congress from 1855 to 1863. President Lincoln appointed him judge advocate in the Union Army in 1864. He helped present the government’s case against the assassination conspirators, and later gave the closing summation in Johnson’s impeachment trial. In 1873, he was appointed minister to Japan, serving for 12 years.

Rep. Columbus Delano: R-Ohio

Delano had served a term in the House during the 1840s and had lost a bid for the Senate in 1862. This time he served two terms, then was briefly commissioner of Internal Revenue. Appointed by President Ulysses Grant as secretary of the Interior, Delano oversaw the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the country’s first, in 1872. Despite that achievement, government agents’ dishonest dealings with native tribes in the West marred Delano’s time at the Department of the Interior. After Ogalala Sioux Chief Red Cloud revealed the agents’ thefts to a researcher, Delano was forced to resign his position in 1875.

Rep. Henry J. Raymond: R-N.Y

Journalist Raymond had co-founded the New York Daily Times in 1851 as its first editor, and was a founding director of the Associated Press. He had also been involved in New York politics, serving as the state’s lieutenant governor in 1854 and twice as speaker of the New York State Assembly. During the draft riots in the summer of 1863, the pro-Union and antislavery Times became a target; Raymond and others held off the mob with rifles and a Gatling gun obtained from the Army. Raymond served only one term in the House, and returned to editorial duties at the Times. A Friend of Abe, Raymond wrote a biography of Lincoln.

Rep. Lovell H. Rousseau Unconditional Unionist-Ky.

Maj. Gen. Rousseau had seen action at Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro and the Tullahoma Campaign. But his time in Congress was nearly as combative. A disagreement with Radical Republican Josiah Grinnell of Iowa over the power allotted to the Freedmen’s Bureau escalated until Rousseau approached Grinnell on June 14, 1866, demanding an apology and, receiving none, thrashed Grinnell with a cane. Grinnell’s injuries were minor, but Rousseau was reprimanded and in July, resigned—only to be elected to fill his own vacancy. He was sent to take possession of Alaska from Russia in 1867, then commanded occupation of Louisiana.

Rep. Roscoe Conkling: R-N.Y.

Radical Republican powerbroker Conkling returned to Congress in 1865 after a two-year absence. A champion of civil rights for African Americans, he also was a master practitioner of political patronage. He was elected to the Senate in 1867 and re-elected twice. A presidential hopeful in 1876, he was passed over in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes’ investigations of patronage and resulting civil service reforms cost Conkling ally and future president Chester A. Arthur his position as collector at New York’s Custom House, although it did not appear Arthur was involved in any scandal. President James A. Garfield also ignored Conkling’s attempts to influence appointments, and Conkling resigned from the Senate in protest in 1881.

Sen. Richard Yates: R-Ill.

As governor of Illinois for the bulk of the war, Yates had recruited more than 200,000 soldiers for the Union cause and early on appointed Ulysses S. Grant as a colonel in the volunteer army. Democrats and draft resistance in his own state caused some consternation, and partisan squabbling in the Legislature led Yates to dissolve it for a time in 1863.He was a longtime Friend of Abe, and a staunch supporter of Lincoln’s war aims, but their relationship could at times be strained. Nonetheless, after he arrived in Washington, Yates and Lincoln socialized. In fact, Yates was one of the president’s last visitors before he died.

Sen. James Guthrie: D-Ky.

Secretary of the Treasury in the Franklin Pierce administration, Guthrie had excelled in the role, overhauling regulations and paying down the national debt. Though he opposed a national bank, he favored uniform currency. He resigned at the end of Pierce’s term and turned his attention to railroads. Guthrie opposed secession and was a leader of the failed Peace Conference of 1861. Lincoln offered him a Cabinet position, which Guthrie declined, citing ill health. But he accepted his appointment to the Senate, where he opposed Radical Reconstruction. He did not complete his term, resigning in 1868 as his health declined.

Rep. Thomas W. Ferry: R-Mich.

Having served in both houses of the Michigan Legislature, Ferry was just beginning a federal career that would put him right in the middle of one of the most controversial presidential elections in American history. Sent to the Senate in 1871, Ferry served as president pro tem—and acting vice president as a result of the death of Henry Wilson in 1875—when electoral votes in the disputed Hayes-Tilden race were tabulated, and presided over 16 joint sessions of Congress to resolve it. Ferry also presided over the Senate trial of Secretary of War William Belknap for corruption in 1876. Belknap was acquitted, but had already resigned.

Rep. Hamilton Ward Sr.: R-N.Y.

A recruiter of Union troops during the war, Allegany County District Attorney Ward was elected to the first of three terms in Congress in 1864. During his time in the House, Ward served both on the Committee on the Assassination of President Lincoln and as a member of the special committee appointed to draw up articles of impeachment against Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Ward left Congress in 1870 and later became attorney general for New York, serving from 1880 to 1881. From 1891 to his death in 1898, Ward served as a justice on the New York Supreme Court. His son, Spanish-American War veteran Hamilton Ward Jr., also served as New York’s attorney general during the administration of Gov. Franklin Roosevelt.


Originally published in the November 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.