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The war officially ended in 1865, but would play a role in politics for the rest of the century as Republicans and Democrats alike urged voters to “vote as you shot”—with Union sympathizers siding with Republicans, and former Confederates leaning toward Democrats. The de facto result, of course, was to keep sectional differences alive for decades despite Ulysses Grant’s famous plea for peace.

The plethora of war veterans produced candidates for political office on every level through the 19th century and into the 20th. Actions during the war could help make or break a veteran’s post-war political career, as Ben Butler discovered, depending on which uniform he wore and whether he was running for a regional or national office. The new 14th Amendment to the Constitution—which gave citizenship to former slaves—prohibited former Confederates from holding political office without the direct consent of Congress.

Reconstruction, industrialization, expansion in the West and new waves of immigration—as well as the evolution of the political parties themselves—weighed heavily on these soldier-statesmen in a country trying to reinvent itself. They faced the challenge not only of representing localized interests, but determining what kind of nation the re-United States would be.

Francis P. Blair Jr.

1868 Democratic candidate for vice president

Result: Lost

The prominent Blair family had been Jacksonian Democrats in the early 19th century, but journalist Francis Blair Sr. became a co-founder of the Republican Party and an adviser to Abraham Lincoln. Blair Jr., an attorney and Republican congressman from Missouri, had chaired the House Military Affairs Committee before joining the Army in 1862, serving with Grant and Sherman in the West. His moderate views earned the ire of Radical Republicans, and he rejoined the Democrats. Chosen as Horatio Seymour’s running mate for the race against his former commander in 1868, he later was elected to the Senate.

Rutherford B. Hayes

1876 Republican candidate for president

Result: Won

In one of the nation’s most controversial elections, Republicans happily waved the “bloody shirt” again in 1876, portraying Democrats as the Rebel party. Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York, had been a Democrat since before the war and had past ties to Tammany Hall. But he had gained fame as a reformer while governor. What he hadn’t done was serve in the military during the war. Hayes, on the other hand, had been wounded at South Mountain and ended the war as a brigadier general. After the war, he served in Congress and as governor of Ohio. Despite veterans’ support for Hayes, Tilden won the popular vote. But disputed votes in the Electoral College resulted in the creation of a special commission that eventually awarded the win to Hayes—by one electoral vote. In return, Hayes agreed to remove Federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction.

Winfield S. Hancock

1880 Democratic candidate for president

Result: Lost

 A career military man, Hancock had seen some of the most vicious fighting in the Eastern Theater—Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor—and distinguished himself as a brave and gifted officer. What he was not, however, was a talented politician. Hancock had no political experience at all, and Republicans exploited his naiveté during what otherwise became known as one of the dullest presidential campaigns in history. “We hold no controversy with General Hancock,” Republicans insisted, “for he is a good soldier. Our only controversy is with the party that nominated him.” Hancock’s moderate attitude toward the former Confederacy during Reconstruction earned him the support of Southern Democrats (and the distrust of Republicans), as did the pre-war “popular sovereignty” stance of his running mate, respected former Congressman William H. English. But he lost a squeaker to fellow veteran James A. Garfield.

James A. Garfield

1880 Republican candidate for president

Result: Won

 Though the Republican Party had been plagued by scandal and faced a resurgent Democratic Party flush with Southern voters, Garfield’s skills as a seasoned politician and his own exemplary war record helped Republicans eke out another victory in 1880. Garfield was a reluctant candidate, however; former President Ulysses S. Grant and former House Speaker James G. Blaine were backed by different factions, dividing the party. Congressman Garfield, House minority leader and head of the Ohio delegation to the Republican convention in Chicago, was “drafted” for the nomination on the 36th ballot. He nonetheless engaged the campaign, maintaining ties with party leaders and in some cases even choosing them. But he was careful to avoid controversial stands, preferring to “say but little, beyond thanks and an occasional remark on the localities through which we pass.” The popular vote was tantalizingly close—48.5 percent to 48.1. Only a few months into his term, Garfield was assassinated.

Chester A. Arthur

1880 Republican candidate for vice president

Result: Won

As a young New York attorney, Arthur was involved in high-profile civil rights cases before the war. During the war, he was appointed quartermaster general in the New York Volunteers with the rank of brigadier general. He never saw combat, but proved himself as an administrator. President Grant appointed him collector of the Port of New York. Citing political patronage, President Hayes removed him. Thrust into the White House upon the death of James Garfield, Arthur surprised everyone by committing to civil service reform. He served only one term.

John A. Logan

1884 Republican candidate for vice president

Result: Lost

Logan entered Illinois state politics as a Democrat before the war, and was elected to Congress in 1858. Congressman Logan followed the Union Army onto the field at First Manassas, shot at the enemy and aided the wounded. He then officially joined the Army, serving in the West with William T. Sherman, who called him “perfect in combat.” He eventually attained the rank of major general of volunteers and after the war was offered—and declined—the rank of brigadier general in the Regular Army. He was elected to Congress again, this time as a Radical Republican, and pursued the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. A cofounder of the Grand Army of the Republic and proponent of a national Memorial Day, he was elected three times to the Senate and easily won the Republican nomination for vice president with nominee James G. Blaine in 1884. In one of the muddiest election seasons to that time, Blaine, tainted by questionable business dealings, narrowly lost to reformer Grover Cleveland, who had hired a substitute to serve in the Army for him.

Benjamin Butler

1884 Greenback Party candidate for president

Result: Lost

Like many other pre-war Northern Democrats, Butler believed secession was a step too far for Southern states. A longtime Massachusetts politician, Butler became one of the Union’s most controversial politically appointed generals. Though he had backed Jefferson Davis for the Democratic nomination in 1860, Butler’s wartime measures made him a marked man in the South. Switching parties after the war, he was elected to Congress as a Radical Republican. He served five terms in Congress and one as governor of Massachusetts—once again a Democrat— and in 1884 was the nominee of the fledgling Greenback-Labor Party. Polling fewer than 200,000 votes, he hoped to disrupt the election of Grover Cleveland by throwing his votes to James G. Blaine.

Benjamin Harrison

1888 and 1892 Republican candidate for president

Result: 1888 Won, 1892 Lost

Colonel Harrison, an Indiana Republican and the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, was known as a strict disciplinarian. Serving with Sherman in the Atlanta and Carolinas campaigns, he was breveted brigadier general in 1865. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1876, but was elected to the Senate in 1880 and became an advocate for Native Americans and veterans. In 1888, Republicans nominated Harrison and spent unprecedented sums to take the White House back from Grover Cleveland and the Democrats. Cleveland’s insistence on lower protective tariffs against foreign business competition and his image as a “shirker” sullied him in the minds of many of the nation’s 1 million war veterans. And when they learned the British ambassador believed Cleveland’s re-election would be in the best interest of England, Irish immigrants were incensed. He still won the popular vote, but Harrison netted more electoral votes. Cleveland, however, won a rematch in 1892.

Clinton B. Fisk

1888 Prohibition Party candidate for president

Result: Lost

A brigadier general of volunteers in the West during the war, Fisk, the namesake of Fisk University in Nashville, was an assistant commissioner in the Freedmen’s Bureau in Tennessee and Kentucky during Reconstruction and later appointed by President Grant to the Board of Indian Commissioners. A leader in the temperance movement, Fisk placed third behind Harrison and Cleveland in 1888. Yet his 2.2 percent of the popular vote remains the highest tally of any candidate of the Prohibition Party, which formed in 1869 and is still in existence.

William McKinley

1896 and 1900 Republican candidate for president

Result: Won

McKinley served with fellow future President Rutherford B. Hayes in the 23rd Ohio, and was remembered at Antietam for feeding troops under fire as commissary sergeant. By 1896, the nation was reeling from a depression that had especially gripped the South and West. McKinley, a former congressman and governor of Ohio, and fellow Republicans insisted on maintaining the nation’s gold standard for its monetary system. Hurting farmers believed silver would put more currency into circulation and raise prices for crops, and found their champion in the Democrats’ nominee, former Congressman William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. A gifted orator, Bryan invented the “stumping” campaign—and his “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention remains one of the most memorable convention speeches in U.S. history. But the Democrats were outspent and McKinley, hero of the protective tariff while in Congress, easily defeated Bryan both in 1896 and when they met again in 1900. An assassin abruptly ended McKinley’s second term in 1901.


Originally published in the November 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.