Eyewitness 1866: Raucous welcome for an unpopular president


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President Andrew Johnson wasn't feeling the love when he arrived in Steubenville, Ohio, on Sept. 13, 1866. His reception there should have given him a hint of what he had to look forward to when he arrived later that day in Pittsburgh.

Johnson was a Tennessee Democrat who joined Abraham Lincoln as his vice-presidential running mate on a National Union Party ticket during the dark days of the Civil War. He became president upon the death of Lincoln, but he quickly had run into a buzz saw of Republican criticism that he was too forgiving of the recently rebellious South.

Just before the midterm congressional elections, he undertook a whistle-stop campaign to build support for his policies. He arranged to be accompanied by several Civil War heroes, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Admiral David Farragut and Gen. George Custer.

When Johnson was introduced in Steubenville by Custer as "the chief magistrate of the nation," he stepped forward and bowed.

"While Mr. Johnson was bowing there was a perfect stillness, but when he attempted to speak there was some confusion in the crowd," a reporter for the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette wrote the next day. "[I]mmediately after there were loud cheers for the president, intermingled with hisses, groans and cries of 'Grant, Grant.' "

Things were to get much worse in Pittsburgh.

After the presidential party arrived at Union Depot, which was very near the site of the modern Amtrak Station, Johnson and the other visitors transferred to carriages for a procession through crowded city streets. It became clear that most people had not turned out to see the president.

"The carriage containing Mr. Johnson was frequently permitted to pass almost unnoticed ... while the carriage in which Grant and Farragut rode was greeted with the wildest enthusiasm."

The parade ended on Wood Street at the St. Charles Hotel, now the site of Point Park University's Lawrence Hall. The first lines of Johnson's speech there were greeted by cheers, according to the newspaper, but as he made his case for easing the return of the Southern states into the union, many in the crowd grew hostile. "What about Jeff Davis?" someone in the crowd yelled.

"The friends of President Johnson on the platform with him urged him to go on and not mind the interruption, but the confusion was so tremendous that it was impossible." For the next 10 minutes, "Every imaginable cry resounded on every side."

Johnson tried several times to continue, but the noise from the crowd did not abate.

Another 15 minutes passed, and "the whole space about the hotel was a moving sea of men and boys, each individual in it crying out at the top of his voice. Calls for Grant became louder and more frequent, until at last no other word could be heard."

Grant, who was a serving military officer, was in a sensitive position, because Johnson was his commander in chief. Finally, he came forward, bowed and waved to the crowd, but he said nothing. Johnson then gave up and left the platform, "followed by cries and groans, mingled with a few cheers."

His reception in Pittsburgh was a sign of worse things to come. In 1868, he was impeached by the House of Representatives, but GOP leaders in the Senate could not muster the necessary two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office. Denied renomination by the Democrats, Johnson was followed in 1869 as president by, no surprise here, Gen. Grant.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series can be read at www.post-gazette.com/pgh250


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