Professor of History James Fuller recently gave a lecture on Indiana’s Civil War governor, Oliver Morton on Sept. 19 in UIndy Hall C. While some may not have heard of him, Oliver Morton is recognized across Indiana and in Indianapolis. A statue of Morton actually sits on the circle in downtown Indianapolis and streets are named in his honor.
Fuller’s lecture focused on Morton not only as Indiana’s Civil War governor, but also his efforts during Reconstruction as a senator. The lecture was based on the biography Fuller wrote titled “Oliver P. Morton and the Politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” This was the first biography written about Morton in more than 100 years.
Fuller spoke about how Morton was different than Indiana’s previous governors. Many of them acted as figureheads while the legislature held most of the power.
One of the ways Morton moved the power to the governor’s office was during his fight against the Democrats in the legislature. According to Fuller, the Democrats resented the growing power of the national government and Morton’s centralization of power in Indiana.
The Democrats won a majority in both houses of the state legislature, leading Morton and the Republicans into altercations with the Democratic majority.
Morton still was able to find ways to run the state government from his own office without calling a special meeting of the legislature similar to a state dictator of sorts, according to Fuller.
“To pay for running the state government out of his own office, Morton borrowed money from banks, county governments, the State Arsenal (which was illegal at the time) and $250,000 from the War Department to run the state government for two years until the Republicans won back the majority in the election of 1864,” Fuller said.
Morton not only battled the Democrats, but also Democratic-affiliated parties, such as the Copperheads, during the war, Fuller said. The Copperheads were Democrats in the Midwest who opposed the war and had plans to take over the state government and help Confederate raiders.
“There’s a lot of dispute about the Copperheads—with some historians saying the Republicans made them up. But there is a great deal of evidence they did exist, with leaders of the party claiming they had 40,000 members at one point,” Fuller said. “Many of those members may have only been affiliated with the group, because of one shared belief, and did not actually support a majority or all of the Copperhead positions.”
Fuller also spoke about the hours Morton spent recruiting, training and taking care of the soldiers Indiana sent to the Union army.
“Morton ensured that Indiana recruited soldiers, trained soldiers and sent them off to fight the rebellion,” Fuller said. “He would send agents to Europe to gain supplies for his soldiers, as there was a shortage of supplies early during the war… he would also hire steamboats, using his own money on some occasions, to bring wounded soldiers back after large battles to get better treatment.”
Some of the material covered in Fuller’s book talks more in depth about Morton being a radical Republican in the Senate, even after his stroke in 1865, which left Morton paralyzed from the waist down.
“Morton served in the Senate from 1867 to his death in 1877—and was a leading candidate for president in 1876 but likely did not get the nomination because he was one of three leading candidates that were all very similar in being radical Republicans,” Fuller said.
After attending the lecture, sophomore experience design major McKinsey Simmons said she was surprised to hear about Morton’s acts and methods during his time as Indiana’s governor during the Civil War.
“I thought it was really interesting to hear about all of the things Morton did for his soldiers and his political party and how he helped put more power into the governor’s office,” Simmons said.
According to Fuller, he first became interested in Morton after visiting downtown Indianapolis with his son. They saw the Oliver P. Morton Monument, located on the east side of the Indiana Statehouse. After reading the plaque on the back of statue, Fuller became interested in Morton and his legacy.
Fuller said that his biography of Morton provides readers with a new perspective on the man who sat in the governor’s chair from 1861 until 1867.
“[The biography] gives a new interpretation of him [Morton],” Fuller said. “In the past, he’s been seen as an opportunist who did whatever it took to get elected…. I actually argue that he was consistent in his thinking and his actions over the course of his career.”