Welcome to "Remembering the 142nd PVI". The purpose of this site is post pictures, information, and the final resting places of this regiment of the American Civil War. It seeks to tell a "bottom up" history, straight from the common soldiers themselves. If you have any information concerning the 142nd, please email me at bmonticue@gmail.com. Thank you and enjoy.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Not REALLY about the 142nd...The Hon. Alexander H. Coffroth

A few months back I went to see Steven Spielberg's film "Lincoln". I know I'm going to write some things that sound contrary to this, but I had a great time and really enjoyed the film. I loved the feel, the look, and the tone of it.

None of the historical inaccuracies throughout are particularly important to the central theme of the film. My biggest complaint about the movie is not important to that theme of determination and justice either. My complaint is simply that of a "homer" who doesn't want to see any of Somerset County, PA's native sons shown in an unflattering light.

The day after I watched the film, in a fit of righteous indignation, I wrote a short essay defending US Rep. Alexander H. Coffroth from what I considered to be an incorrect attack on his reputation. I clicked "save" and said, "There, I feel better now." Realizing that no one else would read it, I filed it and went on with my life. I found it today cleaning off my desktop, and decided that even though Alexander Coffroth was not a member of the 142nd PA Infantry, three companies in that regiment shared the same county home with him, and that I would post it here.

Thanks for reading!

Alexander Hamilton Coffroth (May 18, 1828 – September 2, 1906)

Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site estimates that as of 2012, over 15,000 different books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. That is an average of almost 150 books a year written about our 16th President. Since his death in 1865, President Lincoln has been portrayed in book, film, and stage; by reenactor, and  as a wax figurine. Despite this market saturation, a book entitled “Team of Rivals” by renowned historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin has recently captured the minds and  imagination of America. Published in 2006, Steven Spielberg has recently brought the book to life in the movie “Lincoln”.
The book and movie both focus a lot of time and attention on the arduous task Lincoln had in creating the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. The world of 1865 was much more nuanced than many popular historians would like us to believe. Just because someone would fight for the preservation of their country did not always translate into that person being an abolitionist. This made the task at hand far more difficult than it would originally seem.
The journey to ratify the 13th Amendment would take the work of the President, his advisors, and both houses of Congress. It would take political gamesmanship as well as some soul-searching for politicians. “Lincoln” has its own take on this process, and one of the politicians the movie portrays that would be absolutely essential in making slavery illegal was Somerset, PA native Alexander Hamilton Coffroth.
Jeremiah S. Black
Alexander Coffroth was a Somerset Democrat who was born there in 1828. The son of John and Mary Coffroth, Alexander went to the Somerset public schools, as well as the Somerset Academy. After he was finished with school, Coffroth was the editor of the Somerset Visitor, the Democratic newspaper of the town, before turning his attention to law. He was admitted to the bar in 1851, having studied in the offices of another famous Somerset County native, Jeremiah S. Black. Black became the Attorney-General, and then Secretary of State, under President James Buchanan. 

Alexander lived and practiced law in Somerset, and in 1854 married Nora Kimmel, with whom he would have four children.
It was during the trying times of civil war that Coffroth decided to get into politics. He was a delegate to the famous 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, SC that saw the Party split in two along slave and free state lines. The split caused both sides to nominate different Presidential candidates, which made it easier for Abraham Lincoln to be elected.
In 1862, Somerset County was part of Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District, which also included Bedford, Franklin, Fulton, and Adams Counties. Coffroth squeaked out a victory by defeating incumbent Edward McPherson to become the youngest member of the House of Representatives. 

US Capitol Building under construction in 1861
President Lincoln began lobbying for a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery during the first half of 1864. The Senate passed the bill, but it lost momentum in the House. Alexander Coffroth was one of the many Democrats opposed to this bill. In a speech to the House of Representatives on June 14, 1864, Coffroth stated:
“If slavery is to be abolished, allow it to be done according to the principles of common justice. Allow the people in each State the inalienable right through their legally constituted authorities to control their own domestic institutions in their own way.”
A few months later, President Lincoln was reelected and he again pushed ahead for a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. But it was also during this election cycle that Coffroth found his political life in limbo.
When the votes were tallied in October of 1864, Coffroth had beaten his opponent, William H. Koontz by a few votes. Koontz thought that it was a little too close and contested it. The race was in fact so close that Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin would not certify the results. Finally, in July 1866, Koontz won the recount and took his seat in Congress. 

[I recently ran across a blog called "Battlefield Back Stories" that digs in way deeper and does much more justice to the issue of Coffroth vs. Koontz than I did here. Please check those articles out HERE and HERE ]

This period of uncertainty was when Alexander Coffroth changed his mind on the question of amending the Constitution to outlaw slavery. During the January 31, 1865 debate on the subject, Coffroth told the House:
“Mr. Speaker, I desire above all things that the Democratic party be again placed in power. The condition of the country needs the wise counsel of the Democracy. The peace and prosperity of this once powerful and happy nation require it to be placed under Democratic rule. The history of the past demonstrates this. The question of slavery has been a fruitful theme for the opponents of the Democracy. It has breathed into existence fanaticism, and feeds it with such meat as to make it ponderous in growth. It must soon be strangled or the nation is lost. I propose to do this by removing from the political arena that which has given it life and strength.”
The movie Lincoln tells the story (incorrectly, I believe) that Alexander Coffroth was bullied into changing his position and that he felt compelled to change parties to save his political life, but there is absolutely no evidence that this ever happened. He was a Democrat before he took office. He was a Democrat in Congress. He was Democrat when he was finished in office.
It does seem, though, that he was prepared for his Democratic colleagues and his constituents to be unhappy with his decision.
“Many of the honorable gentlemen of this House with whom I am politically associated may condemn me for my action to-day. I assure them I do that only which my conscience sanctions and my sense of duty to my country demands…If by my actions to-day I dig my political grave, I will descend into it without a murmur, knowing that I am justified in my action by a conscientious belief I am doing what will ultimately prove to be a service to my country…”
Coffroth’s vote, along with the few other Democrats that crossed party lines, helped pass the 13th Amendment by a count of 119-56, a mere seven votes above the necessary two-thirds majority. His vote garnered the attention of many. After the assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865, Coffroth was chosen from among all the Pennsylvania Congressmen to be the President’s honorary pallbearer.
After his removal from office in 1866, Alexander Coffrorth moved back to Somerset and returned to practice law until he was again elected to Congress for one term in 1878, still as a Democrat.
His most famous post-political job was as defense for the Nicely Brothers in their 1889 murder trial. This trial gathered national attention and had such a monopoly on the local newspapers that the great Johnstown Flood of that same year played second fiddle to it. The Nicely brothers, David and Joseph, were later hanged in Somerset for the murder of Herman Umberger. Coffroth teamed up with his 1864 political rival, William H. Koontz for this high profile job.
At the time of his death at the Markleton Sanitarium on September 2, 1906, Alexander Coffroth was the last living pallbearer from Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. His is a uniquely American story. From his birth in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania, to studying law under the Attorney General, to amending the United States Constitution so that no one in America again suffered the indignity of slavery, Alexander Coffroth took advantage of his opportunities and lived life with a purpose greater than himself. But he always remembered his home.  His burial in Somerset’s Union Cemetery ended the story of one of the most interesting, important, and forgotten public servants in Somerset County’s rich history. 

 Works Cited:
Ancestry.com. The Indiana Democrat (Indiana, Pennsylvania) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2006.
Original data: The Indiana Democrat. Indiana, PA, USA. Database created from microfilm copies of the newspaper.
Biographical Review, Vol. XXXII, Containing Life Sketches of Leading Citizens of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania. Boston, Biographical Review Publishing Company: 1899, pp. 17-21
Blackburn, E. Howard and Wefley, William H. History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania, Volume 3. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company: 1906, pp. 1-7.
Coffroth, A.H. Speech of Hon. A.H. Coffroth, of Penna., Delivered in the House of Representatives, June 14, 1864. Digitized by Friends of The Lincoln Collection of Indiana, Inc.
Congressional Globe, 38th Congress, 2nd session (January 31, 1865), 524.
Doncaster, Jr, William Trall. Legends from the Frosty Sons of Thunder. White Stone, VA, Brandylane Publishers, Inc: 1999, pp. 63, 65-67.

No comments:

Post a Comment