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Franklin Pierce and the Civil War

Of all the books I've read so far this year, one of the most interesting was The Expatriation of Franklin Pierce by Gary Boulard. The book presents a sympathetic look at Pierce, who is consistently rated among the worst presidents because of his inability to address the issue of slavery or prevent the civil war. He was considered a "doughface", a northerner with southern sympathies.

Pierce's presidency began tragically. On the way to his inauguration, the train that the Pierce family was travelling in derailed and the Pierce's only surviving child, their 11 year old son Benny, died tragically in the crash, right before his parents' eyes. Jane Pierce took it as a sign from God of displeasure over her husband's appetite for the presidency and she returned home to New Hampshire.

Pierce tried to ride the fence on the major issues of the day like slavery and southern discontent but was unable to steer a steady, prudent course that might have sustained a broad measure of support. At the end of his term he was rejected by his own party After losing the Democratic nomination for reelection in 1856, Pierce retired and traveled with his wife overseas.

He returned to the U.S. in 1859 in time to comment on the growing sectional crisis between the South and the North, often criticizing Northern abolitionists for encouraging ugly feelings between the two sections. In 1860 many Democrats viewed Pierce as a solid compromise choice for the presidential nomination, uniting both Northern and Southern wings of the party, but Pierce declined to run.

During the Civil War, Pierce attacked Lincoln for his order suspending habeas corpus. Pierce argued that even in a time of war, the country should not abandon its protection of civil liberties. This position won him admirers with the emerging Northern Peace Democrats, but enraged certain members of the Lincoln administration. In 1862 Secretary of State William Seward sent Pierce a letter accusing him of being a member of the seditious Knights of the Golden Circle. Outraged, Pierce responded and demanded that Seward put his response in the official files of the State Department. When that didn't happen, a Pierce supporter in the US Senate, Milton Latham of California, had the entire Seward-Pierce correspondence read into the Congressional record. Pierce appeared to win the PR war and Seward backed down.

In 1864, friends again put his name in play for the Democratic nomination, but by a letter read out loud to the delegates, Pierce said he would not run.

Pierce's reputation suffered because of his close friendship with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had been Secretary of War in Pierce's cabinet. At the Battle of Vicksburg, Union Soldiers captured Davis' Fleetwood Plantation. Davis' personal correspondence revealed his deep friendship with Pierce. Pierce had written to Davis about "the madness of northern abolitionism." Another letter stated that he would "never justify, sustain, or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless unnecessary war," and that "the true purpose of the war was to wipe out the states and destroy property."

On April 16, 1865, when news had spread of the murder of President Lincoln, an angry mob of young teenagers gathered outside Pierce's home in Concord. The crowd wanted to know why Pierce's house was not dressed with black bunting and American flags, the visual proof of grief being used that day by people across the country. Pierce came outside to confront the crowd and said he, too, was saddened by Lincoln's passing. When a voice in the crowd yelled out "Where is your flag?" Pierce became angry and recalled his family's long devotion to the country, including both his and his father's service in the military. He said he didn't need to display a flag to prove that he was a loyal American. The crowd soon quieted down and even cheered and applauded the former president as he went back into his home.

Pierce died in Concord, New Hampshire at 4:49 a.m. on October 8, 1869, at 64 years old. President Ulysses S. Grant declared a day of national mourning. Newspapers across the country carried lengthy front-page stories examining Pierce's colorful and controversial career. He was buried at the Old North Cemetery, Concord, New Hampshire. Pierce was reported to have become a heavy drinker in his retirement. He is quoted as saying "after the presidency, what is there to do but drink?"


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