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President Grover Cleveland

President Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland and the Rebel Banners
By John M. Taylor
[From the September 1994 issue of Cleveland Family Chronicles.
Reprinted with permission from Civil War Times Illustrated, September/October 1993 issue.]

Grover Cleveland--the first Democrat to occupy the White House after the Civil War--brought important assets to his high post. He was hard-working, stubbornly honest, and independent-minded. He may not have been the first statesman to assert that "a public office is a public trust," but the statement so epitomized Cleveland that it is usually credited to him.

But the New Yorker also exhibited certain weakness, one of which was a remarkable insensitivity to some important political constituencies. When Jacob Coxey led an army of unemployed to protest in Washington, an unsympathetic Cleveland had Coxey arrrested for trespassing on the Capitol grounds. Nor was Cleveland on the cutting edge of the movement for women's suffrage. "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote," pronounced Cleveland. "The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by an intelligence higher than ours."

As for the Civil War, Cleveland's great desire was to preside over a country that was reunited spiritually as well as politically. He appointed two Southerners to his cabinet, giving the South more than token representation for the first time since the war. He endorsed the unveiling of a statue of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, writing that every American could take pride in Johnston's nobility of character. He reveled in the warm welcome accorded him during a tour of the South in 1886.

The following summer, he listened sympathetically when Secretary of War William Endicott suggested that it might be a graceful gesture to return to the erstwhile Confederate states the battle flags that had been captured from the Southern forces during the Civil War, flags that were now moldering in the attic of the War Department. After all, the war had been over for more than two decades.

Cleveland concurred, and the secretary of war moved on to the next item on his agenda. In agreeing to return the Rebel banners, however, Cleveland unwittingly precipitated a rhetorical tempest that would revive wartime passions and damage him politically.

Notwithstanding the passage of time, the Civil War remained vivid in the national memory. Union and Confederate veterans alike looked back with pride on their wartime exploits--and those of their comrades.

Much of a soldier's pride was invested in his regiment. A unit's flag was to be defended to the death, and the flags belonging to the enemy, many of which had been seized in hand-to-hand combat, were the most cherished of battlefield memorabilia.

President Cleveland's decision revealed his imperfect understanding of the martial pride of Civil War veterans. He was the first President since the war not to have served in the Union army. Military service was a politically sore subject for him. As a young man, he and his two brothers had drawn straws to decide which of them would stay home and support their widowed mother. Grover had drawn the short straw and as a result had spent the war as a lawyer in Buffalo, New York. He hired a substitute, probably for $300, to go to war in his behalf. This practice was both legal and widespread; President Abraham Lincoln himself paid for a substitute, doubtless to remove any latent stigma from the practice.

Nevertheless, Cleveland's noncombatant status did not endear him to those who had fought for the North, nor was this the only issue that made him suspect to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the most prominent Union veterans' organization. Even more infuriating was Cleveland's preoccupation with frugality in government. The President vetoed hundreds of private bills designed to place on the pension rolls veterans whose disabilities were unrelated to military service. Cleveland's repeated veto of the pension bills brought forth a clamor from veterans--but the vetoes continued.

Then came the matter of the Rebel banners. Following his meeting with the President in June 1887, Secretary Endicott sent circular letters to the Southern governors, advising them of Washington's plans to return the flags. When the news became public, however, there was a storm of Northern disapproval. The New York Tribune denounced the plan, calling the flags "mementos of as foul a crime as any in human history." Senator Joseph Hawley of Connecticut, himself a veteran, wrote Cleveland that he was saddened by the President's action--that the best way to deal with flags taken from "our misguided brothers and wicked conspirators" was to burn them.

The first Northern governor to raise the alarm was Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio, who faced a tough campaign for reelection. "No rebel flags will be surrendered while I am governor," telegraphed "Fire Engine Joe," ignoring the fact that Cleveland's order applied only to those flags gathering dust in Washington.

Foraker was quickly joined by a formidable ally, the Commander in Chief of the GAR, General Lucius Fairchild. Speaking of Cleveland's order before a gathering of veterans, Fairchild thundered, "May God palsy the hand that wrote that order. May God palsy the brain that conceived it, and may God palsy the tongue that dictated it." Fairchild, who had lost an arm at the battle of Gettysburg, was sometimes referred to as "The Empty Sleeve." Soon the press was citing him as "the Fairchild of the three palsies."

As letters and telegrams--most of them critical--poured into the normally somnolent White House, Cleveland realized he had stirred up a hornet's nest. The New Yorker was a courageous man, but he was not eager to take on the GAR. In a letter to Secretary Endicott on June 15, Cleveland advised that he had reconsidered the matter of the flags, and had decided that their return by Presidential edict "is not authorized by existing law nor justified as an Executive act." Disposition of the flags, he wrote, should be left to Congress.

If Cleveland thought this strategic retreat would bring the matter to a close, he was mistaken. The GAR, which numbered some 400,000 Union veterans, was the most formidable lobby in the country. Democrats and Republicans alike wooed the old soldiers with promises of pensions and other benefits, but in practice the organization was an offshoot of the Republican party. It was the Republicans, "the party of Lincoln," for whom the veterans turned out on election day. Now, with a President in office who was perceived as anti-veteran, the GAR was not prepared to let the flag issue die.

Cleveland had earlier accepted an invitation to visit the GAR at its annual encampment at St. Louis, Missouri. After some strong hints from the GAR leadership, however, the President withdrew his acceptance. At a veterans' reunion in Wheeling, West Virginia, there was a near riot when some of the parading units refused to march under a banner that read, "God Bless Our President, Commander-in-Chief of Our Army and Navy."

Clearly the President had presented his political opponents with an emotional issue. Not everyone in the North, however, was impressed by the willingness of the GAR to revive sectional issues. A respected journal, the Nation, ridiculed Fairchild for his three palsies, and asked if enough killing had not taken place in the war itself to satisfy even the GAR.

Nevertheless, Ohio's Foraker made political capital out of the flag blunder in his 1887 reelection bid. He campaigned that fall on the issue of Cleveland's "insults" to the country's "brave, battle-scarred veterans," insults which, in the view of some veterans, included Cleveland's having gone fishing on Memorial Day. Foraker's easy reelection signaled that the White House had suffered damage over the flag and pension episodes.

According to one study, the battle flag incident took up more newspaper space that any other issue during the summer of 1887. And when Cleveland ran for reelection in 1888, he was defeated by Benjamin Harrison, a decorated veteran and staunch supporter of the GAR. To be sure, Harrison's victory was due to the quirk in the electoral college, for Cleveland, with all his problems, won 100,000 more popular votes than his opponent. But political observers agreed that the veterans' vote--crucial in states like Indiana and New York--had gone heavily against Cleveland.

The passions of any war die hard, and those aroused by a civil war take a particularly long time to heal. As the years went on, however, there was less refighting of the Civil War. Time took its toll on the ranks of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Spanish-American War saw Northerners and Southerners once again fighting under the same flag.

By 1905, forty years after the war, there was a Republican in the White House, one still savoring his landslide reelection. Theodore Roosevelt, acting in close consultation with Congress, set about accomplishing the task that Cleveland had been unable to bring off. It was relatively easy. In February 1905, a bill to return Confederate battle flags passed both houses and was signed into law. It passed unanimously despite the fact that one of the senators was none other than "Fire Engine Joe" Foraker.

When the President Disappeared
By John Stuart Martin
[From the December 1995 issue of Cleveland Family Chronicles. Reprinted from American Heritage, October 1957 issue, via May 1995 Compass Points,
Dorthy M. Ross Editor.]

One hundred and two years ago, the economy of this nation was pretty sad. High protective tariffs had put fat gold surpluses into the Treasury which not even Republican largess to Civil War pensioners depleted. But the tariffs and gold were not good for farmers, just then in a run of their leanest years. Westerners turned to silver, of which some of the newly admitted states had mountains of, and at bargain prices. 1890 had almost seen a change from the gold to a silver standard.

All in all, nobody felt safe about the future.

By putting on the Democratic ticket a former Asst. Postmaster General named Adlai E. Stevenson from Illinois, the party in 1892 was able to re-elect New York's Grover Cleveland to the White House--an address he'd lost four years earlier to Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland believed in "hard" money, refusing to raid the Treasury or allow "soft" money to take over.

But more than $100 million in silver notes had been issued since he last held office, redeemable in gold, and the gold reserve was down from $185 to $101 million: 642 banks closed that year, and savings banks required 30 days notice for withdrawals. In February, the solid old Reading Railroad went into receivership.

Panic gripped not only the rich, but the working people. Some actually starved. Grover Cleveland was sick at heart. He also had other problems--personal problems.

June 30 and August 7, 1893 are dates worthy of scrutiny.

One June 30, 1893, the President disappeared. On June 18, he had asked the White House physician, Dr. Robert M. O'Reilly, to take a look at a "rough place" in the roof of his cigar-chewing mouth. Dr. O'Reilly took tissue samples and sent them anonymously to the Army Medical Museum, as well as to Dr. William H. Welch of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Past President Ulysses S. Grant had died recently, painfully and slowly, of mouth cancer, probably from his years of cigar-chewing. So it was not a complete surprise to the President or his doctor when the pathologists' reports agreed: "Malignant."

A hurried visit from his very good friend Dr. Joseph Bryant of New York--a hunting and fishing crony of the President--caused no suspicions, for Cleveland knew he dare not let the world know he was suffering from cancer. Dr. Bryant, too, agreed with the diagnosis, urging immediate surgery. The next problem--if the secrecy was to be maintained--was to find a hospital where Cleveland's surgery could be performed without his identity being revealed.

Immediately after issuing a call to Congress for a date six weeks later, President Cleveland boarded a northbound train. If his move was discovered, the press was to be told he was slipping away to rest at Gray Gables, his summer home, where his young, pregnant wife Frances currently resided.

Arriving at dusk, the President and Dr. Bryant traveled in a common carriage to NY's Battery, where Commodore Elias C. Benedict's yacht Oneida was anchored just offshore. A small tender carried them to the yacht, just as it had, earlier, taken Dr. O'Reilly, Dr. Edward G. Janeway, the country's foremost physiologist; Dr. William W. Keen of Philadelphia, an oral surgeon of high repute; Dr. Bryant's assistant, Dr. John F. Erdmann; and Dr. Ferdinand Hasbrouch of Manhattan, a young dentist who was needed for his knowledge of the new "laughing gas," nitrous oxide, for anesthesia.

The President met them all aboard the ship, smoking one last cigar. About midnight, the NY doctors went ashore to spend the rest of the night in their nearby homes, returning early the next morning. The Oneida sailed up the East River and into a glassy Long Island Sound. The Commodore and Dan Lamont remained on deck, so to curious eyes it would seem an ordinary cruise over the July 4th weekend.

But inside the main saloon, things were not as usual. Fitted into a floating surgery, a straight-backed chair was lashed to the mast for the patient. Sheeted paraphernalia ranged about, including Dr. Hasbrouch's gas machine, a standard ether-giving rig, a manually operated generator for magnetocautery, tables for surgical instruments, and a chair for Dr. Janeway, who would monitor the patient's vital signs throughout the surgery.

Cleveland's mouth was washed out and disinfected several times during the morning. This was important, because, deep under heavy ether, oral patients were known to choke to death on their own blood. From the lighter gas, they could more easily be aroused to cough it up. And, Cleveland was the type--overweight, hypertensive--to go into apoplexy if he choked at all.

Under the gas, the President was removed of two bicuspids to make room for the surgical work. Dr. Keen's specialty--an ingenious cheek retractor he had recently brought back from Paris--gave Dr. Bryant's fingers enough room to work rather than having to cut a hole in the face.

Bryant grimly, but expertly carved with his white-hot electric knife, excising a section of the mouth's roof out to the midline, and back to an apparently unaffected portion of the palate. His great concern was to avoid hitting the orbital plate, i.e., the eye socket.

Half through cutting, Hasbrouch warned that the gas was about to wear off and the patient awaken. Ether was administered so the work could continue.

A lethal sarcoma was revealed, and Dr. Bryant scraped and scooped carefully to remove as many wild fringe cells as possible. Bleeding was kept to a minimum--about 6 ounces--and by 2 that afternoon, the cavity was stuffed with gauze and the patient put back in his bed. About 3 he started coming to, and 1/6 grain of morphine was administered. Pulse, blood pressure, and temperature all remained within normal degrees.

While the President slept, his doctors ate a late lunch and took a well-deserved drink. They knew what no one else in America knew--that the President of the United States had confronted a mortal enemy and in all likelihood, defeated it for himself--and the nation.

The next afternoon--July 2--Cleveland walked around his room a bit, and through the packing in his mouth, he thanked those who had cared for him, never complaining.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hasbrouch was in a bind. He was already 48 hours late for critical surgery for another patient. He needed to go ashore, but in his absence, the President's life could possibly be jeopardized by hemorrhaging, which would require more gas. Finally, all agreed the doctor could leave and he went ashore at New London.

On July 3, Cleveland was up all day, belatedly signing the ship's register with a firm hand. On July 4, the Onieda sailed to Sag harbor, where Dr. Keen was put ashore. Late on July 5, the yacht moored at the President's summer home, and a squat, limping figure wrapped in a cloak made his way up the private dock at Gray Gables.

The world was told he had been treated for two ulcerated teeth, and a recurrence of his rheumatism. Friends mounted guard, keeping the nation's press at bay. They had been kicking their heels for 5 days and nights, with no word at all as to the President's location. When the yacht was spotted offshore, their frustration turned into fury and they confronted Lamont in an old gray barn on the Cleveland estate. Lamont sent the reporters away silenced, if not mortified with his story of rheumatism, etc. routine. But the next day they were on the attack once more.

VP Stevenson, they said, had heard the President's condition was so serious that he, Stevenson, was on his way to investigate. The reporters were advised that Stevenson (who had been in cahoots with the silver advocates) was neither invited nor expected at Gray Gables.

In July 7, a NY dentist came up to make impressions, quickly fashioning a hard-rubber plug for the gaping hole in the President's jaw.

Despite his discomfort, Cleveland was back at work by July 12, working on his upcoming message to Congress. Pain did not cease, so on July 17, Dr. Bryant again advised a trip on the Oneida. The plug was removed where they found, to their dismay, that patches of evil tissue were regrowing. With a make-shift gas job, Dr. Bryant again scraped the President's mouth.

The Attorney General, Richard Olney, was invited to come up and help with the message. Totally unprepared for the President's appearance, he was visibily shocked. They went to work together on the draft speech Olney had brought, retaining about 1/6 of it, and the President himself wrote the remaining 2,800 words in his own laborious longhand.

On August 7, Congress heard the President's uncompromising message concerning the monetary system of the nation. Four days later, Cleveland crept back to Gray Gables to recuperate.

Meanwhile, on the very day he went to Washington, Cleveland's secret was almost unmasked.

Dr. Hasbrouch, disgruntled at not being able to leave the yacht when he wanted, to save his own skin told a high-toned doctor, Leander P. Jones, just who and what had detained him. Jones tipped off a newspaper friend, E.J. Edwards, a reporter for the Philadelphia Press. Edwards, who used the single name "Holland" for his writing, interviewed Hasbrouch, receiving full details.

Thus, four days before his fight in Congress, and in time for the grave question about his health to affect the fight perhaps fatally, Cleveland's secret was indeed out.

But not quite. A conscientious Holland checked his colossal scoop, eying Drs. Bryant and Keen, Dan Lamont, and the White House itself. He was rebuffed by all of them, who cast serious aspersions on Hasbrouch's reputation.

The Press would not print the story, without proper confirmation. Four weeks later, when they finally did, the huge white lie that it exposed had succeeded, changing places with the truth.

Congress' William Jennings Bryan orated for 3 hours for the silver backers, but on August 28, the House voted 239 to 108 in Cleveland's favor. When the Holland story came out the next day, it made little impact. Meanwhile, Cleveland's health had rebounded and on September 5, after rest, fishing and sea air, he addressed a Pan-American Medical Congress in Washington, where all agreed he'd never looked better!

On September 9, Frances was delivered of another baby girl, and the final victory of gold over silver occurred in the Senate on October 30th.

So ended an arch cabal in allegiance to the nation's well-being. Cleveland died of heart trouble (with nary another sign of cancer) in 1908, and in 1917 an aging Dr. Keen published the entire story. Holland was long dead, too, never having regained his former prominence. But the press that had reviled him put into effect a paramount policy from which it is doubtful any President will ever find it possible to again escape: the full and instant truth about the White House occupant's where-abouts and health.

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Colonel Benjamin Cleveland
"Sweet Lips: The Battle of King's Mountain"
Early History of the Cleveland Family
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