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Author: A. James Fuller
Date: Summer 2019
From: Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History(Vol. 31, Issue 3)
Publisher: Indiana Historical Society Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,245 words
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On June 20, 1866, Oliver P. Morton declared war by another name when he returned to politics after a year spent recovering from a stroke that had left him paralyzed and unable to walk. In a speech delivered at the Masonic Hall in downtown Indianapolis, the Hoosier governor first used the political tactic that became his standard method in the bitter partisan battles he fought over the next decade as a U.S. senator and leader of the Republican Party. By "waving the bloody shirt," Morton repeatedly reminded voters that Democrats were responsible for the Civil War and the ones to blame for the many thousands of dead and wounded Union soldiers.

Although the metaphor of waving the bloody shirt was originally a derogatory term used to describe overly partisan political rhetoric, it fit well with Mortons blasts against his foes, as he saw Reconstruction as a continuation of the war and thought that the issues at stake were the same for which the conflict had been fought. Freedom and the nation were still at risk if his opponents won the fall election. Only by voting for the Republicans and allowing them to use the power of government could voters preserve their hard-won victory and maintain both freedom and the Union. In his Masonic Hall speech he faced off against an enthusiastic Democratic Party that hoped to sweep the 1866 elections and take control of the Indiana state legislature, as well as Congress at the national level. The Democrats had aggressively attacked Morton and the Republican Party, charging them with corruption and setting the incumbent party back on its heels as the campaign began. Then Morton returned to the fight and began to attack the Democrats with such ferocity that he inspired his fellow Republicans and led them to victory in the fall.

The Masonic Hall speech was personal for Morton, as he hoped that the Republicans would hold their legislative majority and elect him to the Senate. And he was responding to the charges that his opponents had leveled against him. Even though their own investigations of the books had shown that the governor's administration had not misused funds during the war, the Democrats argued that Morton had stolen money meant for the soldiers and used it to buy his large house on the southeast corner of New York and Pennsylvania Streets. They claimed that he was a sexual predator who granted commissions to men who allowed the governor to sleep with their wives. Related to such scandalous accusations, they alleged that his stroke had been caused by syphilis and that Morton had caught the venereal disease during his many sexual escapades. Obviously, this was dirty politics. Careful to deny the financial corruption, Morton reminded voters that an investigation had shown that he was honest with the state's money. But instead of trying to defend himself against the other accusations, he went on the attack. As he prepared his speech, he told his brother-in-law, William R. Holloway, "We must remind...

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Source Citation

Source Citation
Fuller, A. James. "WAVING THE BLOODY SHIRT: OLIVER P. MORTON AND RECONSTRUCTION." Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, vol. 31, no. 3, 2019, p. 18+. Accessed 25 May 2020.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A602995372