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Notable Scumbags Of The Civil War VI: Fernando Wood

Never Fear, Boys. The Gravy Train Will Flow.

Notable Scumbags Of The Civil War – The Sixth In A Series

Cong. Fernando Wood 1812-1881

“An aptly named, dense obstructive object.” Cong. Thaddeus Stevens on Wood.

While the previous subject, Louis Wigfall, acted from honest idealism, however misguided, no one ever accused our current Civil War jerk of that failing. Fernando Wood was undoubtedly one of the coldest, most corrupt, self-interested operators in the entire history of New York City politics. I acknowledge that this claim stakes out a lot of ground, but I believe the biographical facts as related below will bear me out.

From his official positions as New York mayor and Congressman, Wood expertly ran an incredibly corrupt political machine. He cannily played one faction against another, stirred white workmen’s resentful anger against their black competitors, and openly advocated treason and secession at the Civil War’s start and defeatism throughout its course, purely to advance his own personal ambitions. During his career, he openly consorted with the lowest, most violent criminal elements, just as he did with the city’s power elite, for he had a hold over them both. Thugs stood ready at his beck and call to thrash opponents and worse, not flinching from murder. Voting fraud, police corruption, and a blind eye to vice and crime were his tried and true tactics. Originally associated with Tammany Hall, but too egotistic and independent to ever be truly subordinate, he formed his own political machine and milked it for profit and power until his death. Considered handsome in his day, well spoken with fine, patrician manners, and devoid of personal vices, the chief forces driving Wood were greed and the will to power. He was a rotten, cold, self-centered bastard and completely deserves the scorn I heap upon him. Yet, like other nasty people from this era (e.g., Benjamin Butler), Wood paradoxically brought some good into this sad old world, as will be discussed below.

Wood’s rather absurd, Spanish first name was taken by his mother from a novel popular at the time of his birth. His brother and partner in crime had the more prosaic name of Samuel, but went by Sam. There was nothing romantic about Wood, however. Originally from Philadelphia, he moved to New York as a young man. Some sources say Wood got his start as a bar owner, others characterize him as a cotton merchant. If he plied the former trade, that would explain his familiarity with criminals. He went into shipping and made a considerable fortune from the ’49 Gold Rush. Wood also involved himself in politics through the only viable political outlet New York City had at the time, Tammany Hall, first and greatest of the American political machines. Wood proved an adept operative and was rewarded at the young age of 29 with a seat in Congress. He left business to devote his full time to politics in the 1850’s.

His efforts were rewarded when he was elected mayor for the first time in 1854. Some newspapers were naive enough to hail his election as the advent of an honest administration, but anyone who knew Wood dismissed this as the pipe dream it was. He was hand in glove with the worst thugs in town. This included the Dead Rabbit Gang, the biggest. most ferocious band of Irish hooligans in New York. They stuffed ballot boxes, voted repeatedly, and beat up opponents on his behalf. Wood was open to bribes. The city police, the Municipals, were hopelessly corrupt and brutal, more likely to help a criminal mugging a citizen in the street than arrest him. Gangs had a field day, looted and robbed with impunity in broad daylight, saloons stayed open on Sunday in defiance of the law, and the streets were crowded with whores openly trolling for johns. Rather than try to protect honest citizens and establish law and order so the city and commerce could properly flourish, Wood piously, hypocritically deplored the situation and cried out for reform while he presided over and profited from the whole shady, vicious mess.

Wood cunningly allied himself with two key voting factions, recent German and Irish immigrants. While he played to their aspirations for equal status and full participation in American society, he also appealed to their worst instincts as unscrupulous politicians have since the time of ancient Athens. He was especially adept at stirring up racial resentment toward blacks who performed the hard labor (road and sewer work) and service jobs (laundresses, hotel maids) also sought by the Irish, forced by religious and ethnic prejudice to compete against blacks in America’s lowest socioeconomic rung. Wood’s ward heelers did their work. Loyal voters were rewarded with city jobs, baskets of coal, and turkeys on Xmas. Demagoguery and graft went hand in hand to propel Wood to a second term in 1856.

While New York City was solidly under Tammany Hall’s control, the state government was run by their bitter opponents, first Whigs and then Republicans as the 1850’s wore on and sectional tensions grew. Disgusted with Wood’s corruption and probably envious of his political success, the state assembly shortened his term in 1857 from two years to one, determined to have him out as soon as possible. To further defang him, the state assembly voted to create a new police force to replace Wood’s hopelessly corrupt Municipals. In response to this open attempt at political castration, Wood simply refused to acknowledge the latter statute’s legality, even in the face of a unfavorable decision upholding it from New York’s highest court. Anxious to keep the gravy train rolling, the men and commanders of the Municipals stood solidly behind him.

On June 16, 1857, members of the newly constituted Metropolitan police went to City Hall with the specific task of arresting Wood on a charge of selling the position of city street commissioner for a bribe of $50,000 (let’s say about $5 million in modern terms, a hefty wetting of Wood’s beak). They were swarmed by hundreds of Municipals and thrown out of City Hall. More Metropolitans charged with their nightsticks only to be outnumbered and overwhelmed again by Muncipals. Picture the scene, a police riot, a disorganized, sprawling melee in front of City Hall between two groups of uniformed men, locked in violent struggle for control of the nation’s richest, biggest city and it’s fantastic opportunities for graft and corruption, something more appropriate for late Republican Rome than a supposedly modern, democratic republic. That’s American history, folks, such as it is.

Wood’s shortened term came to an end and he ran for mayor again. The Dead Rabbits did their part and laboriously copied down thousands of names from tombstones, transformed by the miracle of voting fraud into Wood supporters, but still came up short. Embittered by his defeat, Wood split from Tammany and organized his own political machine, called “Mozart Hall” after the concert hall where they met. Wood managed to get elected to a third term in 1860. Restored to power, he played a key role at the Democratic convention in Charleston. Fearful of Lincoln being elected with devastation of the cotton trade as a potential result, Wood tried to broker a deal between Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge, the respective northern and southern Democratic candidates. As you can probably guess, the deal fell through, Douglas and Breckinridge both ran, and Lincoln won by an electoral majority.

As the crisis mounted, Wood kept his eye on the important things as always, himself and any opportunity for seizing the main chance that came along. This all consuming drive for personal aggrandizement and enrichment no doubt contributed in large part to what has to be the most outrageous act in Wood’s long, gall-steeped career and also one of the more outlandish political moments in Civil War history. In January 1861, with South Carolina and other states already seceded and the abyss of disunion and internecine civil war looming before the nation, Wood’s patriotic response to the crisis was to urge the City Council to also consider secession from the United States. Deeply concerned about the loss of the cotton trade that powered so much of New York’s commercial and financial might, Wood proposed the establishment of the Republic of Tri-Insula (Latin for “three islands”), composed of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island. This independent city-state would throw in its lot with the new Confederacy by imposing nominal duties on imports, flooding the South with the cheap manufactured goods they wanted.

Wood’s bizarre proposal, for there’s really no other way to characterize it, was properly denounced as the basest treason by Horace Greeley and others. Yet, it must be noted that his plan wasn’t unprecedented. The New England states seriously considered secession during the War of 1812 for reasons similar to Wood’s, concern the end of commerce with their principal trading partner Britain would mean economic disaster. Secession has been bandied about in almost every state or portion of one at some time in our history. This is especially true currently. Nations aren’t as permanent or cohesive as their citizens would like to think.

A consummate politician, Wood rolled out a red carpet welcome for the President-elect in February 1861, scant weeks after he proposed secession. Another fascinating scene from the era, the refined, well tailored Wood with the raw-boned, downstate Illinois lawyer on a platform before a cheering crowd, each the slickest of items in his own distinctive way, carefully sizing one another up, seeking weaknesses, chinks in the armor. Wood trimmed his sails after hostilities actually broke out, but soon returned to form. He disparaged Republicans in general and Lincoln specifically and advocated defeatism and appeasement. His views were echoed and reinforced by his brother Ben who ran the Daily News (no connection to the current paper, but just as vile a rag) where he regularly denounced Lincoln and the war effort in abusive editorials. Schizophrenically, however, Wood tacked between openly treasonous behavior and frequent communications with the Lincoln administration in which he protested his loyalty and offered himself for military service.

Late in 1862, Wood engineered another peculiar scheme to bring peace between the warring sections. He seized upon blatantly fraudulent Southern peace terms and used them as the basis for a proposal, conveyed in frequent, importunate letters to Lincoln that, among other terms, would restore the Union as it was before the war, allow the Confederacy to send representatives to the next Congress under a general amnesty, and have the U.S. Government assume the Confederate national debt. Wood worked every contact he had to pressure Lincoln into responding to his eminently ridiculous proposal based entirely on lies. This isn’t an original observation on my part, but they sure do make them brassy in New York City. Like the old country fox he was, Lincoln fended Wood off.

Wood continued to try to make his political way through the course of the war, but found the going more difficult than in the 1850’s. Many Democrats turned on him, alienated by his open self-seeking and disloyal, anti-Union sentiments. Despite this new opposition, he secured election to Congress for another term in 1863 where he continued to denounce the war and the administration, always careful, however, not to cross the line and commit open treason. During this time, the New York City Draft Riot occurred, the worst civil disorder in the nation’s history where Irish mobs hunted down and killed every black person they could find, to include burning down an orphanage. No direct guilt can be laid at Wood’s feet for the riot, but he was foremost among the vile demagogues who created the poisonous atmosphere that led to such sick, miserable, mass violence. I sincerely doubt he lost any sleep over it, other than regret over any damage to commercial property.

Wood continued to bait and oppose the administration even as the war wore on and eventual Union victory became steadily more apparent. Indifferent to official censure, his rhetoric was personal and abusive. He deliberately inserted obscenities into his speeches, shocking his colleagues. Among other sobriquets, he called Lincoln “King Abraham Africanus The First” and reserved special venom and abuse for blacks and abolitionists. He was an infamous Copperhead, an open supporter of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a more or less organized group of pro-Confederate Yankees. Wood seized on the administration’s difficulties with Clement Vallandigham, the North’s most notorious Peace Democrat, as a cause cèlebré. I’ll omit the complicated details, but Wood essentially sought to use Vallandigham as a rallying point while simultaneously supplanting him as leader of the Democratic Party peace faction. At the same time, while he publicly insulted the man in the worst terms, he pestered Lincoln continuously, constantly paying visits to the White House to badger the President to provide amnesty for Vallandigham and other avowed traitors. As with so many other nuisances who plagued him, Lincoln must have sighed and expertly fended him off.

In the 1864 presidential election, Wood tried to keep his foot in both camps. Sure the Democrats would lose, he endorsed McLellan, but at the same time assured Lincoln that several Northern states were in the bag thanks to his efforts. This blatant, two-faced maneuvering for personal gain cost him political support. Tammany Hall tired of his inconstancy and turned him loose. Without their imprimatur, he went lost in 1865. There’s an old Russian saying, however, “Salt water or fresh, shit floats.” The irrepressible Wood returned to Congress in 1867 and clung to office for another fourteen years, to the moment of his death. Wood stayed true to type, a dyed in the wool, obstructionist, racist reactionary. He bitterly opposed Reconstruction, but was sensible enough to vote for administration budgets. In 1868, he was officially censured for using language so abusive that the subsequent uproar shut down the House. Despite the fact that he was anything but a team player and his continued unprofessional behavior, Wood was elected majority floor leader and chairman of the prestigious and important Ways and Means Committee. He died in 1881 while on vacation in Hot Springs, Arkansas, probably while trying to have some excess gall sweated out of his system.

Fernando Wood was a race baiting, corrupt, slick political hack of the lowest order who not only turned a blind eye to corruption and violence, but actively fomented them, to include a police riot and the almost complete breakdown of law and order in New York City. Most despicable of all, he was a traitor of the lowest water who thought only of his own personal advancement during the worst crisis in the nation’s history. He openly advocated disunion and defeatism while he hedged his bets by simultaneously sucking up to Lincoln. Widely regarded with suspicion, distrust, and outright fear and one of the most prominent names on Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s shit list, it would be easy to dismiss him as a completely horrible person, but in all fairness, I must note that Wood advocated some sensible legislation and was reportedly a key figure in the creation of Central Park, one of the most magnificent features of what is still today, in my opinion, the greatest, most beautiful city in the world.

Even taking this into account, I can only say, to use an expression from my parents’ generation, Fernando Wood was a real stinker.

Bibliographical note: This sketch was drawn from Wikipedia (natch!) among other sources, but a large part was extracted from a very interesting website, Mr. Lincoln And New York, pertaining among other subjects to the President’s relations with prominent politicians from this key Northern state:

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