No Southern politician irked his policymaking brethren quite like Virginia-born Henry Stuart Foote, a former Mississippi senator and governor sent by Tennessee to the new Confederate Congress in 1861. Foote was a mass of contradictions—a witty and charming gentleman whose white-hot temper led him into repeated duels; a proslavery Confederate representative who spoke out forcefully against President Jefferson Davis and even tried to negotiate peace with the North; and an activist who sought to reconcile blacks and whites after the war.
By the time of secession, Foote had already forged a combative, controversial reputation. He had fought four duels, earned the nickname “Hangman” for threatening to lynch New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale and nearly pulled a pistol on Thomas Hart Benton on the U.S. Senate floor.
A stalwart Unionist—and therefore a reluctant secessionist—Foote made no effort to win friends in Richmond, irritating his colleagues with long-winded harangues and endless proposals for inquiries into Congressional spending, Army contracts and Jefferson Davis’ war policies.
Davis, in fact, was the target of much of Foote’s ceaseless agitating. The two were longtime enemies, and Foote once disparaged Davis as “an Executive Chief whose incompetency I had long known.” The two had sparred over the Mississippi governorship—which Foote won in 1851 on a pro-Union platform—and in 1847 infamously traded blows on Christmas Day. Throughout the Civil War, Foote blasted what he called the president’s timid military strategy and the government’s assault on individual rights, exemplified by conscription and confiscation acts and the suspension of habeas corpus. He warned against the threat of a possible Davis dictatorship.
Convinced the president stood in the way of a negotiated peace with the North, Foote resigned his seat in the Confederate Congress and went north with his wife in January 1865 in an unauthorized attempt to negotiate with the Lincoln administration. Confederate troops arrested Foote in Occoquan, Va., and sent him back to Richmond, where he was imprisoned but soon released.
Moaned The Richmond Dispatch: “The whole thing is as easy as falling off a slippery log. First, denounce the Confederate authorities. Second, whine about peace, and offer peace resolutions, and then desert to the enemy.”
A month later Foote and his wife again went north, this time through the Shenandoah Valley, and made their way to New York City. He drew a cold reception from the Lincoln administration, however, and was given the choice of returning to Richmond or going abroad. The couple sailed for Liverpool, England, but returned to New York two months later on April 6, three days before Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
Many Southerners considered Foote a traitorous hothead, but he did have his supporters. On February 14, 1865, The New York Times quoted “an admiring correspondent of the exiled rebel” who said: “Though his public life has been a stormy one, in his social relations, no man has been more respected and esteemed. The very pink of honor in his dealings, his deportment was marked by a high-bred courtesy that made him welcome in every circle.” Ironically, Foote went on to work for black rights after the war. He endorsed universal amnesty for the South in exchange for universal suffrage, a resolution introduced in the Senate by his son-in-law, Senator William Stewart of Nevada. Suffrage for men 21 and over would come with the adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870, though black codes continued to stifle African-American voting for nearly another century.
After practicing law for a time in Nashville and Washington, D.C., becoming active in Republican politics and publishing his memoirs, Casket of Reminiscences, Foote was appointed superintendent of the New Orleans Mint by President Rutherford B. Hayes. But even that appointment was controversial because Hayes bypassed the Louisiana congressional delegation, causing Senator William P. Kellogg to wonder why Hayes hadn’t appointed the king of Kamschatka to the post. Foote served as mint superintendent from 1878 to 1880.
Although Foote had a reputation of quarreling with nearly everyone he worked with, he did work hard for reconciliation, particularly between former slaves and their masters. In May 1879, a New Orleans Times editorial that Foote probably wrote called for voluntary associations in each Louisiana parish that would “hear all complaints without respect to color or condition….” The proposal, though—and Foote—soon faded into history.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.