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John A. Dix (1798-1879)General John A. Dix never served on the front lines of the Civil War, but he was frequently in the thick of conflict. Whether it was handling disloyal rebels in Maryland or handling rebellious draft protestors in New York, Dix managed to be in the middle of dissent and discord. As a prominent Democrat, he was useful symbol of northern unity although he was of dubious military capacity.
Dix was frequently mentioned for a post in Lincoln's cabinet in Washington. He was also frequently mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate in New York. But Dix's only actual Cabinet appointment came before the Lincoln Administration and his only election as Governor came after it. In early 1861, John Adams Dix served as Secretary of the Treasury at the end of the term of James Buchanan. It was a critical time for federal finances. "The political crisis had resulted in a widespread unwillingness to buy government securities and a decline in tariff receipts," wrote historian James A. Rawley. "Offerings of securities went begging as the necessity of meeting interest obligations loomed at the year's end. When the Southern Secretary of the Treasury, Howell Cobb, resigned, the New Yorker, John A. Dix, had been appointed. Dix soon proposed that the money deposited by the national government with the States be made 'the basis of a loan to meet the expenditures of the Federal Government, and become the means of sustaining the public credit in the present disordered condition of the commercial and political affairs of the country.'"1
Dix's appointment was made on January 11, 1861. "He found the affairs of that department in a disgraceful condition, and at once began, with characteristic energy and ability, to restore the financial credit of the nation," wrote Thurlow Weed Barnes, grandson of Thurlow Weed. "General Dix was a Democrat, and according to radical ideas it was treachery to the Republican party to cooperate with him in these efforts. Disdaining partisan arguments, Mr. Seward and Mr. Weed cordially indorsed the Secretary's plans, which without their aid might have proved futile."2
Dix's patriotism was unquestioned. Congressman Elihu B. Washburne wrote President-election Lincoln at the end of January 1861 after visiting commanding General Winfield Scott: "When in Scott's room, Genl. Dix the new Sec'y of the Treasury came in to consult about certain matters. He is clear up to the handle for the enforcement of the laws and the protection of the public property. The old General was hugely pleased at his firmness and the high ground he took."3 As Treasury Secretary, Dix sent an agent to New Orleans to instruct the revenue cutter stationed there to be sent North. Informed of the refusal by the cutter's commander to obey orders, Dix telegraphed his agent: "Tell Lieut. Caldwell to arrest Capt. Breshwood, assume command of the cutter and obey the order I gave through you. If Capt Breshwood after arrest undertakes to interfere with the command of the cutter, tell Lieut. Caldwell to consider him as a mutineer and treat him accordingly. If anyone attempts to haul down the American Flag, shoot him on the spot".4
Dix had already had a long career in New York politics as New York secretary of state (1833-1839) and U.S. Senator (1845-1850). "By a flirtation with the Free-Soil movement, he estranged Southerners, and injured his political prospects, and Dix was thereafter a strongly reactionary Democrat," wrote historian Margaret Leech.5 When New York City Postmaster Isaac V. Fowler absconded with government funds in 1859, Dix was appointed to replace him. When Howell Cobb later resigned as Secretary of the Treasury, Dix was named to replace him. He continued his pitch-hitting career during the Civil War. He finally was elected Governor of New York in 1872 and served from 1873-1875.
After the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, private citizen Dix was made chairman of the Union Defence Committee in New York. "While waiting anxiously for the arrival of more soldiers from the North to cope with the phantom 'army' of invaders expected from the South, the President seized extraordinary powers and took drastic action so that, in his words, the government would not 'fall at once into ruin.' On April 21, he summoned all of his cabinet secretaries to meet at the Navy Department, safely away from their unanimous concurrence,' he later told Congress, he issued a series of orders for national defense," Frank van der Linden wrote in Lincoln: The Road to War. "Without the required authority of Congress, Lincoln directed Treasury Secretary Chase to advance, without security, $2 million to John A. Dix, the former secretary, and George Opdyke and Richard M. Blatchford of New York, to pay for necessary 'military and naval measures' in effect, a black check. The government departments then had so many 'disloyal persons' on their payrolls that Lincoln believed he could not trust official agents alone for duties which he, therefore, confided to 'citizens favorably known for their ability, loyalty and patriotism.'"6
Although nearly 63 at the beginning of the Civil War, Dix quickly left his voluntary recruiting post and was made a major general. Dix already had a distinguished military career beginning with his service in the War of 1812. He served as an artillery officer until he retired from the Army in 1828 and started a career in business and law. He was initially appointed to commands in and around Washington.
Dix's first posting, however, was in Maryland where he carried out one of the most controversial policies of the Lincoln Administration when he replaced General Nathaniel Banks as Union commander at Baltimore. Habeas corpus was frequently suspended at the beginning of the war as doubts about the loyalty of those in and around Washington were rampant. "The majority of loyal men at first accepted the arbitrary arrests as necessary to the nation's struggle for survival, even when in September of 1861 General Dix and General [Nathaniel] Banks rounded up secessionist legislators of Maryland, and clapped them into prison," wrote historian Margaret Leech. At first, the campaign against disloyalty was run by the State Department but it was transferred to the War Department in 1862 and many of those held without charges were released." Historian Leech wrote: "A commission composed of two prominent New Yorkers, General Dix and Judge Edwards Pierrepont, was appointed to examine the prisoners who raised in custody."7
Political arrests shaped up as a major potential issue in the 1862 elections. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: "Free as yet from the kind of odium that had gathered about Seward, Stanton began with a fairly clean slate. He adopted a sensible course for sifting the great mixed body of prisoners on hand, appointing John A. Dix and Edwards Pierrepont of New York commissioners to examine each case separately and render a verdict. These men held personal interviews, allowed friends of the accused to appear, and invited written statements all with dispatch in one day at Fort Lafayette they handled ten cases. Visiting one jail after another, they completed their work before May, 1862, releasing most of the prisoners."8 The most famous suspect whom the military judges confronted was the unrepentant Confederate spy Rose Greenhow. General Pierrepont said to Dix: "General, I think you had better talk to Mrs. Greenhow. You are an old friend of hers." Replied an embarrassed Dix: "I don't know as I have anything to say."9
For much of the first two years of the war, Dix commanded Fort Monroe at the tip of the Jamestown Peninsula in Virginia. As commander of Fort Monroe Dix came into contact with President Lincoln and other top Administration officials. For example on July 8 1862, President Lincoln conferred with Dix and General Ambrose Burnside at Fort Monroe before proceeding to McClellan's headquarters at Harrison's Landing to review the army.
Dix was one of President Lincoln's most frequent correspondents sending frequent military reports and news from Richmond newspapers to the President when he commanded Fort Monroe. But Dix ran afoul of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in his Fort Monroe posting. Welles complained of Dix's handling of his responsibilities at Fort Monroe. "Dix is, I presume, as clear of pecuniary gain as Chase, but he has on his staff and around him a set of bloodsuckers who propose to make use of the blockade as a machine to enrich themselves. A few favorites design to monopolize the trade of Norfolk, and the Government is to be at the expense of giving them this monopoly by absolute non-intercourse, enforced by naval vessels to all but themselves. As we have absolute possession of Norfolk and its vicinity, there is no substantial reason for continuing the blockade, and it can benefit none but Army and Treasury favorites. General Dix has, I regret to see, lax notions."10 A week later, Welles complained to his diary: "General Dix is pressing schemes in regard to the blockade and trade at Norfolk which are corrupt and demoralizing. Dix himself is not selling licenses, but the scoundrels who surround him are, and he can hardly be ignorant of the fact. The gang of rotten officers on his staff have sent him here. One of the worst has his special confidence, and Dix is under the influence of this cunning, bad man. He has plundering thieves about him, some, I fear, as destitute of position as honesty." Welles thought part of the problem stemmed from politics. He charged that Dix was being used by Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward who had "captured" Dix, whom they are using while D[ix]. supposes they are earnest for him."11
At the time of Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Dix was still in charge of Fort Monroe on the Jamestown Peninsula. At a Cabinet meeting on June 28, the resignation of General Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac was discussed: "Chase immediately interested himself for the future of Hooker," reported Navy Secretary Gideon Welles in his diary. "Made a special request that he should be sent to Fortress Monroe and take charge of a demonstration upon Richmond via James River. The President did not give much attention to the suggestion. I enquired what was done, or doing, with Dix's command, whether that considerable force was coming here, going to Richmond, or to remain inactive. The President thought a blow might at this time be struck at Richmond, but had not faith much could be accomplished by Dix. But, though not much of a General, there were reasons why he did not like to supersede him."12
In other words, Dix's Democratic antecedents were useful to President Lincoln. Although too old to command troops in the field, Dix's military experience and judgment was considered valuable. He succeeded the aged John E. Wool as commander of Fort Monroe and later as commander of the East in New York City after the July 1863 draft riots there. Historian Stewart Mitchell wrote: "The choice of this new commander was unfortunate, for Governor Horatio Seymour and he had never been good friends. The governor saw in the general an adroit politician who had so managed his conscience that he could bolt with Van Buren in 1848 and vote for Breckinridge in 1860." However noted Mitchell, "As soon as he was stationed in a well-garrisoned city Dix felt himself firmly seated in the saddle. A clash with the governor was likely, if not certain."13 For the next two years, Dix commanded the Department of the East in New York. He did indeed come into conflict with Seymour, who objected to resumption of the draft in New York. Dix understood his responsibility as enforcing conscription.
In New York General Dix also resumed his role in the city's civic affairs. General Dix was a member of the vestry of Trinity Church on downtown Broadway where his son Morgan was an assistant rector during the war. In May 1864, fellow vestry member George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary: 'During our vestry meeting, General Dix received and read the President's announcement of success and recommendation of public thanksgiving. If this good news wear a day or two longer, there should be a special service in Trinity."14
On December 5, 1863, General Dix escorted Mary Todd Lincoln to a reception of Russian naval officers aboard the frigate Osliaba. George Templeton Strong wrote "The Russian Ball Thursday night was well managed and successful. Ellie and I joined General Dix's party at his house, and went thereto in great glory, staff and all half a dozen captivating creatures in epaulets with nice Mrs. Blake and Miss Kitty. I like all that family very much. They seem up to the standard of the General and Reverend Morgan Dix, and that is saying a great deal. The crowd was dense; shoddy, largely represented. I could find no one I cared to discourse with and soon sank into depths of boredom."15
General Dix also played an important role in national affairs as president of the Union Pacific Railroad. He wrote President Lincoln in late November 1863: "If the Engineers are ready, it is proposed to break ground on the Pacific Rail Road, on the 1st or 2nd day of next month, at some point in Nebraska, through which, under the Act of Congress, the line will pass. This inauguration of the work will be followed up by early measures to complete, as soon as possible, the grading of one hundred miles of road authorized by the Board of Directors to report under contract. In view of the vastness of the enterprise, and its probable influence upon the political and commercial prosperity of the country, it would be gratifying to receive a communication from you to be read on the occasion."16 Because of illness, President Lincoln was unable to write the requested statement for the groundbreaking in Omaha, Nebraska.
In May 1864 Dix was called upon to respond to the publication in the New York World and the New York Journal of Commerce of a phoney presidential proclamation designed to scare the gold markets and reap a quick profit for its authors. President Lincoln ordered General Dix:
Whereas, there has been wickedly and traitorously printed and published this morning, in the "New York World" and New York 'Journal of Commerce' newspapers printed and published in the city of New York,a false and spurious proclamation, purporting to be signed by the President, and to be countersigned by the Secretary of State, which publication is of a treasonable nature, designed to give aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, and to the rebels now at war against the Government, and their aiders and abettors: you are therefore hereby commanded forthwith to arrest and imprison in any fort or military prison in your command, the editors, proprietors and published of the aforesaid newspapers, and all such persons as, after public notice has been given of the falsehood of said publication, print and publish the same, with intent to give aid and comfort to the enemy;and you will hold the persons so arrested, in close custody, until they can be brought to trial before a military commission, for their offense. You will also take possession by military force, of the printing establishments of the 'New York World' and 'Journal of Commerce,' and hold the same until further order, and prevent any further publication therefrom.17
The result of the suppression of the newspapers was to place Dix at legal odds with World editor Manton Marble and Governor Horatio Seymour, both of whom had reasons to want to make Dix's actions into a Democratic political issue. "Governor Seymour, always ready to strike the Lincoln administration, caused the case to be presented before a grand jury, hopeful of an indictment against General Dix and members of his staff. The grand jury found no indictment but passed a resolution saying the matter should be investigated, wrote Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press. "Seymour then ordered the district attorney of New York County to prosecute the officers before a city magistrate. Warrants were issued, charging Dix and members of his staff with kidnaping and inciting to riot. There were no actual arrests, but they were claimed to have been made technically."18
Historian Allan Nevins wrote: "This suppression gave Horatio Seymour an opportunity to attack the Administration afresh, and to instigate legal proceedings in the local courts against General Dix and his subordinates, all of which only deepened the general conviction that Seward lacked judgment. Worst of all, it reminded the country of numerous other instances in which editors had been disciplined and their papers stopped on charges that they were interfering with enlistments or otherwise hampering the war effort. And the fact that three of the ablest newspapermen of the country, Henry Villard, Adam Hill, and Horace White, were needlessly harassed Villard ordered under arrest by Stanton, and White sharply questioned added to the general feeling of uneasiness.'"19
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote of a July Cabinet meeting: "The subject of the arrest and trial of General Dix in New York for suspending the publication of the World and Journal of Commerce was brought forward. There was a little squeamishness with some on the subject. The President very frankly avowed the act to be his, and he thought the government should protect Dix. Seward was positive and bold on that."20
The Dix case went before Judge A. D. Russell, who objected to the Habeas Corpus Act: "If that provision is constitutional, it assimilates the President of the United States, during the existence of the present rebellion to an absolute monarch, and makes him incapable of doing any wrong. This is a very novel and startling doctrine to advance under a republican form of government."21 According to historian Sidney David Brummer, Russell "instructed the grand jury that, if the laws of the State in reference to the protection of person and property had been violated, the parties concerned, no matter what their station, must answer for the wrong; nor could any order of the President of the United States or other official be any protection to those executing it; if those who took and maintained forcible possession of the newspaper establishments numbered three or more, they were liable as for a riot. The gand jury, however, refused to bring in an indictment, declaring that it was inexpedient to inquire into the subject."22
Brummer wrote: "Seymour promptly enjoined upon District Attorney [Abraham Oakley] Hall to lay the matter before a proper magistrate. Hall accordingly went before Judge Russel[l] and formally accused General Dix and his subordinates concerned in the seizure, of kidnapping, inciting a riot, and forcibly entering and detaining property. Russel[l] thereupon granted warrants for the arrest of General Dix and others. Dix's counsel announced that the General was willing to submit himself to the civil authorities; but subsequently Lincoln directed Dix not to relieve himself of his command during the war or to permit himself to be deprived of his liberty because of obeying a military order of the President. Seymour now wrote to the District Attorney to enforce the laws of the State irrespective of the orders of the President. Argument was heard in court, Dix's counsel, Edwards Pierrepont and William M. Evarts, pleading the act of March 3, 1863 as protecting their client. Judge Russel[l]'s decision referred the case again to the grand jury, and that was as far as the matter went."23
The prosecution maintained that the Indemnity Act of March 3, 1863, was unconstitutional," wrote Seymour biographer Stewart Mitchell. "The defense argued that the law was fully vindicated because the grand jury had failed to indict Dix or his subordinates. Judge Russell rendered what has been called a 'harmless decision,' affirming the unconstitutionality of the Indemnity Act and decreeing that Dix and the others who had executed Lincoln's order should be held 'subject to the action of the grand jury of the city and county.' No action was ever taken. Dix, however, became the implacable enemy of Seymour."24 Historian Brummer wrote: "The Governor, after so much bluster, once more disappointed the Copperheads. Whatever political capital the Democrats might have gotten, the arbitrary suppression of the two newspapers was probably lost by a weak endeavor in the midst of a civil war to arrest and punish the military commander of the district for obeying the orders of his official superior."25
Later in 1864, Dix became the target of a different kind of assault. "The impending Lincoln victory meant the war would go until the South capitulated, and it would be Republicans who would guide the reconstruction of the postwar political order. Some desperate Confederates decided to disrupt the election process by terrorizing northern cities," wrote historian Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. "The idea was to have Confederate sappers team up with disaffected Copperheads to wreak havoc. For New York City the plans were particularly grandiose. Confederate Secret Service men would infiltrate the country from Canada, make their way to the metropolis, and set off fires around town, hopefully triggering another uprising like the draft riots. Copperheads then would seize federal buildings, throw General Dix in a dungeon, raise the Confederate flag over City Hall, and take New York out of the Union and into an alliance with the Richmond government."26 General Benjamin Butler was sent to New York with several thousand troops to help maintain order for the elections and the arson spree that occurred several weeks later.
According to his Dix's son Morgan, the general would have become a gubernatorial candidate in that election had Republican boss Thurlow Weed had his way. Morgan Dix wrote that Weed had "by a combination of untoward circumstances been placed in a position in which he was unable and unwilling to act."27 Dix's name was introduced at the Republican State Convention in September, but Congressman Reuben Fenton received the nomination for governor Dix had sought. Both Weed and Dix apparently underestimated Dix's support. 'Had he [Dix] simply said, 'I am of and with the Union party, and will serve it as it shall deem best,' he would have been nominated by acclamation," editorialized the New York Tribune.28
Dix confronted yet another controversy in early 1865 when President Lincoln's friend Orville H. Browning and other influential Northerners sought the commutation of the death sentence of Confederate Captain John Y Beall, a Confederate privateer who had wrecked havoc on the Great Lakes. Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: "Over and again Lincoln and Major General John A. Dix, commanding the Department of the East, gave the same answers. Lincoln saying, General Dix may dispose of the case as he pleases I will not interfere!' General Dix saying, 'All now rests with the President as far as my action rests there is not a gleam of hope." Beale was executed on February 24, 1865. Although President Lincoln often sought reasons for leniency, in the Beall case, Mr. Lincoln said "there had to be an example. They tried me every way. They wouldn't give up. But I had to stand firm. I even had to turn away his poor sister when she came and begged for his life, and let him be executed, and he was executed, and I can't get the distress out of my mind yet.'"29
Dix's ongoing feud with Governor Seymour was reflected in a letter Dix wrote President Lincoln in mid November 1864.
I write you thus early after the overwhelming defeat of the peace party on which I sincerely congratulate you because I wish you to understand correctly the state of things here. We know from information derived from all parts of the State that the number of votes drawn off from [George B. ]McClellan by the meeting of the War Democrats at the Cooper Institute was much greater than the majority for the Union ticket. This encourages us to believe, as we had only a fortnight for work, that we can bring to your support a large majority of those, who voted against you at the election. We are not willing that this large body of men should remain neutral a mere dead weight but we wish to make it a working & efficient element in support of the war.
Dix could be tone deaf to political and diplomatic realities. In the fall of 1864, a group of Confederate raiders launched a raid on St. Albans, Vermont, and then retreated into Canada, where they were arrested. Historian Glyndon Van Deusen noted: "General Dix, Commander of the military District of the East, issued orders to pursue future raiders into Canada, and either destroy them or bring them back to be tried by martial law. Norther public opinion approved this hot-headed zeal but Seward was cautious, for he knew that action of this sort might well mean war with England. He refused to support Dix, and eventually obtained from Lincoln a revocation of the general's orders."31
Dix wrote: "I take the liberty to enclose an extract from a debate in the Canadian Parliament at Quebec, from which it appears pretty distinctly that the reaction of the authorities was caused rather by apprehension than any better motive. This view of the subject is confirmed by all my information from Canada, both before and after the promulgation of my order. In your modification of it I acquiesced, not merely because it was my duty, but because the larger view of our international affairs, which your position enabled you to take, demanded a cheerful concurrence on my part."32 Dix's wife herself wrote President Lincoln to urge him to support her husband.
Dix wrote President Lincoln in February 1865 to request the President's intervention in the dismissal of his brother from a Boston patronage post:
My brother, T. Brown Dix was a clerk in the Warehousing Dept. in the Boston Custom house when your administration began in 1861 and had been for the previous sixteen years, filling the office acceptably and honorably. Soon after the appointment of Mr. [John Z.] Goodrich as Collector, he notified my brother that he would be removed unless he could procure for a relative of Mr. Goodrich an office in the New York custom house a proceeding which Mr. Collector [Hiram] Barney pronounced offensive to his sense of propriety. Mr. Goodrich then asked my brother to resign, which he of course refused to do. The Collector then removed him upon the pretext that he had given a wrongful decision on a question affecting the payment of duty against the government and in favor of an importer. No hearing was allowed him on this false accusation. Upon a subsequent examination of the facts in the case by Mr. [Samuel] Hooper[,] M.C. from Boston, it appeared that my brother had given no decision whatever, that he had only expressed to one official, not under his control or direction, an opinion, in the correctness of which, Mr. Hooper concurred, as did also the preceding Collector, Mr. Austin and the late Deputy Collector Andros, whose opinion on the matter Mr. Hooper, like every other Boston merchant and officer of the customs, regarded as of the highest authority. It also appeared that it was wholly unimportant to the revenue how the question was answered or decided.
Whatever President Lincoln did in his brother's case, General Dix has one last fraternal duty to perform for the Commander in Chief presiding over New York's mammoth outpouring of grief when the body of the martyred President passed through the city on April 24 and 25.
John A. Dix, United States Congress
Henry Ward Beecher
Orville H. Browning (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
Orville H. Browning (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Benjamin Butler (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
William H. Seward
William H. Seward (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
William H. Seward (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Edwin M. Stanton (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
Edwin M. Stanton (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Thurlow Weed (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
Thurlow Weed (Mr. Lincoln's White House)