GOP Has Betrayed Its Heritage
John J. Dunphy
(This column originally appeared in the 6/19–20 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL)
My column for the July 25, 2020 edition of The Telegraph, “Eddington Civil War memoir pulls no punches,” dealt with William R. Eddington, an area resident who served in Company A of the 97th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Since I wanted to concentrate on Eddington’s wartime experiences, I omitted a rather interesting section of his memoir that expressed his political views.
Eddington concluded his account by stating “In politics I am a Republican. I have voted seventeen times for president and always for a Republican.”
The Democratic party for Eddington and his fellow veterans was the party of treason and slavery. “I believe in freedom and liberty and this is something we get very little of under a Democratic administration.” Writing 71 years after the Civil War’s conclusion, Eddington was still bitter over what he saw as the treachery of the Democratic party. “The war of their party rebellion took the lives of 640,000 of the boys of the North and it can never be known how many Mothers died from worry and broken hearts against that party’s great rebellion against liberty and freedom.”
Eddington was mistaken, of course, when he claimed that 640,000 “boys of the North” died during the Civil War. His 640,000 figure is close to the total number of Civil War casualties on both sides: 624,511. Had some historian corrected Eddington’s figure, however, it wouldn’t have lessened his anger at the Democratic party. Indeed, most Union veterans associated the Republican party with loyalty to the nation and victory in the Civil War.
Its support for the Union during that bloody conflict defined the Republican party during the late-nineteenth century. From 1868 to 1900, every GOP presidential candidate save one was a Union army veteran. That single exception — James G. Blaine — who was nominated by the Republicans as their presidential candidate in 1884 lost to Grover Cleveland, his Democratic opponent.
The successful Republican presidential candidates could indeed boast of their wartime service. Ulysses Grant, who won the presidency in 1868 and 1872, had been the Union army’s premier general. Rutherford Hayes, elected in 1876 to our nation’s highest office, had also served as a general. James Garfield, elected in 1880, served as a general. Benjamin Harrison, yet another general, defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888 but lost re-election to Cleveland in 1892.
Cleveland, the only Democrat to win the White House during the period 1860 to 1908, didn’t serve in the Union army. The Enrollment Act of 1863 required able-bodied men between the ages of 20 to 45 “to perform military duty” when called by President Lincoln to do so. A man with money, however, could hire a substitute to serve for him. Cleveland indeed hired a substitute. He paid a Polish immigrant to take his place. Such a move did little to endear Cleveland to veterans such as Eddington.
General Winfield Scott Hancock, nominated in 1880, was the only Democratic presidential candidate to enjoy the distinction of having served in the Union army. He lost the election to James Garfield, who was assassinated during his first year in office. Garfield was succeeded by Vice-President Chester Arthur, who had served in the New York Militia during the Civil War.
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a fraternal organization composed of Union army veterans. Its members strongly supported the Republican party. Grant, Hayes, Garfield and Harrison were all members. In his capacity as commander-in-chief of the GAR, Illinois native John A. Logan issued General Order №11 in 1868, which called for decorating with flowers the graves of the Union dead on May 30. This order helped to create Memorial Day. Logan, a Union general, later became Illinois’ U.S. senator and served as the 1884 GOP vice-presidential candidate.
These gallant Republicans helped to preserve the Union by defeating the Confederacy. Today’s Republican party is led by a demagogue who incited his followers to storm the Capitol. And some of those zealots had the audacity to carry Confederate flags. Old-time Republicans such as Eddington must be turning over in their graves.
John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL. He is the author of Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials, Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and several other works of history.