Looking back

It had never been done before, this tour that President Andrew Johnson planned to undertake. Traditionally, no previous president had undertaken a political campaign tour, and his action was seen as undignified and beneath the office. Knowing Johnson’s tendency to get carried away, even his advisors begged him to stick to the speeches that had been prepared for him, if he insisted on going. They would be only slightly successful.

Johnson had originally intended to support Abraham Lincoln’s approach to Reconstruction following the Civil War, but Lincoln was gone now. His assassination had catapulted Johnson into the presidency, and the new president had his own agenda. A former slave owner, Johnson resented the actions of Congress to extend rights to former slaves. Johnson’s focus leaned toward issuing vetoes on any civil rights legislation, pardoning former Confederate officials, and appointing high-ranking Confederate officials to prestigious positions. He would push this throughout the tour as he tried to gather support for his policies.

His 1866 tour would take him by train from Washington to New York, west to Chicago, south to St. Louis, and east through the Ohio River valley on its way back to Washington. He planned to stop in 22 cities in 18 days, including Johnstown.

Secretary of State William Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles would accompany him, as would war heroes David Farragut, George Armstrong Custer and Ulysses Grant. The planned route led to the derogatory nickname: the Swing Around the Circle.

The tour went reasonably well at the beginning. Enthusiastic crowds greeted him in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. His advisors breathed a sigh of relief when he stuck to the script in those cities. However, those cities were in the east. As he got into the Midwest he began to encounter more hostile crowds. His advisors had warned him that this part of the country was a Radical Republican stronghold. Johnson ignored their concerns.

The crowd in Cleveland was much the same in size as Johnson had seen in the eastern cities, but the Radical Republicans had planted hecklers in the crowd. They taunted him throughout his speech, and Johnson took the bait. He figuratively threw away his speech, choosing instead to argue with those who heckled him. When he mercifully left the balcony from which he had been speaking, his advisors immediately reminded him to maintain his dignity when he spoke. Johnson, still angry about the treatment he had received from the crowd, retorted, “I don’t care about my dignity.” Unfortunately for Johnson, several reporters overheard the remark and it became front page news across the nation.

This led to even more hostility, with the governor of Illinois and the Chicago city council boycotting his appearance there.

In St. Louis he engaged once again with planted hecklers, going so far as to compare himself to Jesus when his “I don’t care …” remark was hurled back at him.

When he got to Indianapolis, the crowds became so vocal that he was unable to deliver any remarks, and fighting in the streets between his supporters and those who opposed him resulted in one man’s death after gunshots were fired.

From then on, spectators drowned him out at every stop, often with calls for Grant to speak instead of the president. Grant wisely refused the requests.

As unpleasant as the tour had become, it was about to get even worse.

On Sept. 14, 1866, he arrived in Johnstown to an enthusiastic crowd of about 3,000.

A temporary wooden scaffold supported a platform that had been constructed for his visit, with an estimated 400 spectators on it.

Senator Edgar Cowan made the introductions, and Grant and Farragut were greeted with loud cheers. As Johnson was being introduced, however, the platform and scaffold collapsed, sending those on it plunging about 20 feet into the old Pennsylvania Canal, which by now had been drained.

A second part of the scaffold collapsed onto the first as rescuers were attempting to assist the injured from the first collapse. Men, women, and even children were among the victims. Thirteen people died, and hundreds were injured.

Because the tour was on a tight schedule, and to avoid hindering other rail traffic that was already being delayed for the tour stops, Johnson and his party left Johnstown with rescue operations still underway.

The president directed several of his party to remain behind, including Deputy Marshal O’Beirne, to extend whatever aid they could.

The departure of the train, however, did not make a good appearance, and Johnson was soundly berated in the press. The disaster only added to the negative impression the tour had already made.

Whether the tragedy in Johnstown had anything to do with it or not, Johnson’s reputation took a devastating hit, and his reputation was not stellar to begin with. Already known for his heavy drinking (he was said to have been drunk at his inauguration) he saw former allies turn against him.

He was defeated by Grant in the 1868 election and would be remembered more for being the first president to be impeached than for anything he accomplished in office.

In 1869, the new president, Grant, made another stop in Johnstown.

Remembering his earlier visit with Johnson, Grant began his remarks by saying, “This day three years ago I was one of the executive party which stopped at this place. I trust that no catastrophe like that which occurred that day will happen today. I thank you, fellow citizens, for your cordial greeting.”

Unlike his earlier visit with Johnson, Grant’s appearance was uneventful, but the 1866 tragedy weighed heavily on him, and he often referred to it throughout his remaining days.

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