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Notable Scumbags Of The Civil War VII: Henry S. Foote

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Notable Scumbags Of The Civil War – The Seventh In A Series
Sen. Henry S. Foote 1804-1880

“The prince of Congressional villains.” – Prof. E. Merton Coulter

Although largely a footnote in modern Civil War history, usually mentioned only in connection with his longstanding feud with Jefferson Davis, Henry S. Foote in his own right possesses sufficient despicable qualities to deserve a place in our roll of mid-19th Century American dishonor. Stone bald, rail thin, and pursed lipped, quarrelsome and as prone to violent dispute as Louis Wigfall, Foote was a caricature of the antebellum, honorable Southern gentleman, ever on the prod, sensitive to slights real or imagined, and ready to settle the matter with fists or pistols, including a brawl with the aforementioned JD himself. A U.S. Senator who played a key role in the Compromise of 1850, Foote was a Unionist who opposed secession, but nonetheless sided with the Confederacy when the break came, as did many other Southerners like Davis. As a Confederate Congressman, again like Wigfall he was more the Confederacy’s foe than friend, his opposition driven largely by spite against Davis (both men hated each other like poison). He had an even worse failing, however. While the previously discussed Judson Kilpatrick had the scandal to his name of being caught twice by the enemy with his pants down, Foote bears the disgrace of being a DOUBLE traitor, first to the Union and then to the Confederacy. To put it briefly, oy vey, what a pisser this guy was! All of this and other wretched behavior will be related in greater detail below.

Foote was born in Fauquier County, Virginia. He went to college at what is now Washington and Lee University and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1823 at the tender age of 19 after “reading law” at a practicing attorney’s office. As I noted before with Wigfall, it really didn’t take much to be a lawyer in those days. Loose footed and restless like so many Americans of that era, Foote moved to Alabama and then Mississippi. He published a newspaper in Alabama, worked for higher education, and practiced law in both states. His practice in Mississippi took him from the capital, Jackson, to river towns like Natchez and Vicksburg where he litigated over slaves and cotton on wealthy planters’ behalf. Like other ambitious lawyers in the antebellum South, he was inevitably drawn into politics.

Despite his personal and professional success, Foote had a hair trigger temper. He was more than ready to meet any gentleman on the field of honor, to duel in other words like Wigfall and other fire eaters. He traded shots with other idiots four times. His first duel arose from a melee between Foote and two scions of the Washington family (for shame!) with young bucks of the prominent Winston clan. The fracas ended with his side getting the worst of it, the Washingtons badly beaten and Foote determined to have blood. He met Edmund Winston and they both proceeded to blow a hole in one another at short range. Foote took it in the shoulder, Winston in the hip. Like I said before, there was just something wrong with these people. Another duel arose from a lawsuit where Foote, with appropriate civility and decorum for an officer of the court, threw an inkstand at the opposing counsel. Rather than follow the time honored legal adage, he didn’t pound the law, the facts or the table, but instead hurled the nearest handy object. I don’t know about you, but if I’d been in court when Foote pulled that cute little stunt (which plenty of folks did in those days without TV, Internet, or even radio), I’d have bust out laughing. That’s just the Irishman in me, I suppose.

Foote and his colleague squared off on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi. Guess what, the sap took another bullet in the shoulder. After being shot twice, you’d think a man with a grain of common sense would learn his lesson and hang up his dueling pistols, but not Foote. The combative fool’s sense of honor burned like an unquenchable volcano. The quarrel with the other attorney, Prentiss, continued despite honor being satisfied by all standards of the code duello. Foote insisted they duel again and Prentiss readily agreed. In his third wager of battle, at the close range of ten paces, Foote sustained his worst wound of all, a pistol shot above the knee that almost killed him. The bullet probably came close to severing a major artery. Let me note that after all this vicious, homicidal nonsense, the two men reconciled and became intimate friends afterward. Such were the vagaries of Southern honor in those days, impenetrable to the modern mind. A few years later, yet again Foote faced down another man, a retired naval officer. The combatants traded five shots. Foote managed to slightly wing his opponent three times. He was apparently a miserable shot, another reason to query why he still wanted to duel after already being wounded multiple times. Did he have some sort of death wish? Like the samurai said in the movie, there’s no helping stupid people.

Rather than confine Foote in a mental institution or a prison, Mississippi rewarded him with high political office. He was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat by the Mississippi legislature in 1847. Foote saw out the end of the year in a Washington, DC boarding house. In the 19th Century, the nation’s capital had more boarding houses than any other city in the country, due to the largely itinerant lives legislators and lobbyists then led. Appointed by the governor to finish the term of a deceased Senator, the Mexican-American War hero Jefferson Davis was also a resident. On Xmas Day, the two Mississippi Senators observed the Prince of Peace’s birthday with a vicious, bloody fistfight in the parlor after breakfast. Gentlemanly and proper, Davis offered to take the matter outside, but Foote said some variation of the sad, old retort, “If you’re near enough, there’s room enough,” and they fell to it hammer and tongs. Sensitive to how bad it would look if the public learned that the senior Mississippi delegation to Washington brawled with one another, the two men agreed to drop the matter after mutual friends urged them to do so. Ever spiteful, however, Foote was heard to boast two years later about striking Davis. Hyper-sensitive, Davis seriously considered calling Foote out, but ultimately refrained. The men remained bitter, hostile political and personal rivals to the end of their days.

Davis wasn’t the only colleague Foote irritated beyond control. To give him his proper due, Foote worked closely with Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas to help pass the several statutes that constituted the Great Compromise of 1850 that staved off civil war for another decade, repulsive as it was to liberty and democracy. During the course of the tempestuous proceedings that led to this major legislative work, the intemperate and vituperative Foote was foolish enough to revile Thomas Hart Benton from the well of the Senate. The Missouri Senator was a giant with a notorious temper and his own history of bloody duels. Enraged by the abuse, he rose from his desk and stormed toward Foote. Terrified by the advancing behemoth, Foote reached into his coat, pulled out a pistol, and leveled it at Benton. Other Senators grabbed Foote and wrestled him to the ground. This is the only instance in the Senate’s long, turbulent history of a Senator pulling a piece on a colleague. A motion was made to censure Foote, but failed to move beyond the committee level.

Foote resigned from the Senate in 1851 to run for Governor of Mississippi. He was opposed by Davis in a campaign distinguished by bitterness and personal spite between the two contestants, virulent even by the high standards of old style Dixie politics. Mississippi elections in those days were firmly based on the Jacksonian concept of white male suffrage. Every backwoods hick considered himself any planter’s equal on that score and consequently expected any candidate for office to personally plead for his vote. Each man tirelessly canvassed the state and harangued bearded Uncle Hirams in town squares and from church pulpits. They viciously slandered one another in the process. Foote squeaked out the narrowest of victories. He prevailed by a measly 999 votes.

He’d won the election largely due to his support for continued adherence to the Union, but his victory’s narrow margin was a telling sign how that support was swiftly ebbing. Unhappy about increasing secessionist sentiment and aware he’d largely worn out his welcome in Mississippi, after his term ended Foote moved once again, this time to California. Ever itchy, Foote tired of the Golden State and returned to Vicksburg in 1859, but found himself still as popular as crotch rot and eventually went to Nashville. When the Civil War began, Foote was elected as a Tennessee delegate to the First and Second Confederate Congresses, despite his avowedly Unionist sympathies and the fact that Tennessee was never completely under Confederate control. Safe in his perch in Congress, Foote was free to snipe at his old playmate Jeff Davis any time he wanted, a privilege he abused to the fullest. Any move Davis made to win the war from conscription to suspending habeas corpus was scathingly criticized by Foote in the most abusive terms possible. The former opponent of states’ rights denounced Davis’s efforts at centralizing power, an ironic reversal of positions and a policy that undoubtedly contributed to the Confederacy’s downfall.

Foote’s animosity wasn’t directed only at Davis, but his minions also. In a heated debate, Foote vilified the Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin, as “Judas Iscariot Benjamin.” The former Louisiana Senator and brilliant attorney came from Charleston’s small Jewish community. Anti-Semitism was rife in the South, but rarely expressed publicly by purported gentlemen in such bald, stereotypical terms. It was gratuitous and vicious, a personal slander with no relevance to any serious policy discussion. This is without a doubt the most disgusting thing Foote ever did in a life filled with questionable behavior. As with other, previous incidents, Foote never bothered to apologize or explain. He simply continued on his obnoxious way.

As the miserable, incredibly destructive war dragged on and the North’s continuous, ever strengthening onslaught took its toll on Dixie, the writing on the wall in letters of flame burned too brightly for anyone with a scintilla of insight to ignore. The looming inevitability of defeat grew more certain with each passing day. Foote knew it as did so many of his fellows. Yet, rather than do the right and proper thing as the rigid code of Southern honor demanded and stand by the Bonnie Blue Flag, Foote decided to put his own person above patriotism and to do a bunk. In other words, aware the jig was up and always focused on the main chance, he decided to bail like the skunk he was.

Under the guise of conducting peace negotiations with the Federal government, Foote left his Congressional post in January 1865, simultaneously resigning his position. His colleagues rejoiced at his departure. Congressman Akin, the man who sat next to him, wrote his wife “Most of the members will be glad. When he left he gave his seat to Mr. H. W. Brace of Ky. who is a nice man, and I am delighted with the change.” The sixty year old man was caught at Occoquan, a short distance from Union lines by the Army provost marshal and sent back in disgrace to Richmond. Upon his arrest, Foote retracted his previous resignation and asserted immunity from arrest and trial due to his position as a Confederate legislator. He may not have had much hair, but crust Foote had in plenty. He was given a chance by the House to explain his extremely problematic conduct and, in the process, severely insulted and abused the aforementioned Akin so badly the Speaker of the House finally silenced him. The motion to expel Foote failed by one vote. Another motion to censure him succeeded.

Foote later managed to escape North in April 1865, just before everything went to hell. He made overtures to the Federal government, preaching reunion like the sedulous trimmer he was. Disgusted by his open sycophancy and certain by now of victory, rather than respond positively, Lincoln refused to meet him and officials threatened to have him arrested and imprisoned for treason. Foote sensibly moved on, this time to Canada and then London, both the immediate, post-war refuges for many prominent Confederates, fled from their native land in fear of being hanged as traitors.

You would think that after so much seriously bad, false behavior, to include outright defection to the enemy, Foote’s remaining years would be marked by disgrace, calumny, and poverty. Instead, like so many of our other prominent examples of Civil War human garbage, he not only lived for many years after the war, but prospered during them. Once sure he was no longer in any legal jeopardy, Foote returned to Washington, DC. He became a Republican with the same opportunistic shamelessness that prompted him to desert and was rewarded for his hypocrisy in 1878 with a post as superintendent of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans by President Rutherford B. Hayes (also known as His Fraudulency, the only chief executive to win by an electoral instead of a popular majority beside George W. Bush). In a town as rife with Confederate sentiment as the Crescent City and with Reconstruction a thing of the past at that point, Foote’s reception by most of New Orleans’s society must have been frosty to say the least. I seriously doubt he gave a damn by that point. Old and infirm, he only held the job two years, returned to Nashville in 1880, and died shortly thereafter. He lies in an unmarked grave, doubtlessly done deliberately on his part to make sure nobody could spit on it.

To sum up, like some other Southern politicians I’ve discussed in this series, Foote did try to promote some worthwhile measures, higher education at the local level, and, most significantly, preservation of the Union at the national level in his capacity as Senator. At the same time, however, Foote went about things in such a wretched, abrasive, short-tempered way that he was bound to only stir up trouble and reap the whirlwind for his efforts. By the genteel standards of mid-19th Century Southern society, he was exceptionally disagreeable and even more so in modern terms. Self-centered to an extreme degree, he allowed his personal enmity toward Davis to outweigh considerations of state and in doing so, irretrievably harmed the cause of Confederate independence he’d been elected to support. Worst of all, when he knew defeat was certain, he jumped like a rat from a sinking ship. As readers of the series well know, Foote has a lot of competitors, but when it comes to Confederate churls, he stands in a class of his own.

Bibliographical note: My information on Foote has been drawn from a number of Internet sources, to include the official censure passed against him by the Confederate House. The Wikipedia entry on him provides only the most basic information and Foote is apparently either too insignificant or odious to merit his own full-length biography. Much of the facts about his obnoxious career and life can be found, however, in William J. Cooper, Jr.’s biography of his detested foe: Jefferson Davis, American. This is considered by many scholars to be the most balanced, authoritative modern biography of this truly important Civil War leader. The link below will take you to the Amazon page for the bio:

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