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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,099

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This is the grave of Adelbert Ames.

Born in 1835 in Rockland, Maine, Ames grew up in an upwardly mobile family. His father was a sea captain who then invested in a mill in Minnesota that many decades later became where Malt-O-Meal was produced. Exciting fact right there! Anyway, Ames grew up mostly on the sea and then went to West Point in 1856, a bit older than most cadets. That meant he graduated in 1861. To say the least, he then had something to do, as the nation had just entered the Civil War.

One did not have to serve a long time to be promoted in the Civil War. Ames was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Artillery. He remained at that rank for all of eight days, when he was promoted to first lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Artillery. He fought at first Manassas and was seriously wounded in that disaster, being shot in the thigh. But he would not leave the field and was considered one of the only officers to have performed well there. In fact, he received the Medal of Honor in 1893 for it, during that period when the Union was honoring its now aging veterans. Now, Ames did have to recover from that wound and that took awhile. He was out of action until the spring of 1862, when he returned. He fought frequently after that, working on the defense of Washington, the Peninsular Campaign, and was at Malvern Hill, among other battles.

Now, Ames was doing well as an officer. But he also was ambitious and he knew very well that the only way to becoming a real officer with real power in the military was to play politics back at home. It took a long time for the politics to be mostly erased from the officer corps. Grant finally made serious progress on this after mid-1864 but he by no means had time and power to complete the job. So Ames returned to Maine so he could receive a commander position of a unit from that state, which became the 20th Maine. This is one of the most famous units in American military history because it was the unit that defended Round Top at Gettysburg. It’s so famous that even I know this, mostly through a Steve Earle reference to it. And yes, I do teach the Civil War course at URI, but I maintain that knowing stuff like this doesn’t matter worth a hill of beans toward understanding the war. Now, Ames did not command the 20th Maine at Gettysburg. He led it very effectively at Fredericksburg, one of the only Union officers to really do this at that disastrous battle. This got him attention from higher-ups and he became George Meade‘s aide-de-camp soon after. So it was Joshua Chamberlain who replaced Ames and became the more famous officer in popular lore.

In any case, not leading the 20th Maine at Gettysburg certainly didn’t hurt Ames’ burgeoning career. Ames did perform quite well at Gettysburg involved on the first two days of the battle. On the first, he led troops to a key retreat after General Francis Barlow, who was his commander, had gotten too far out in front of Union lines and was shot and captured. Ames got the rest of the regiment back intact. Then on the second day, Ames and his troops held East Cemetery Hill under the brutal assault from the vile Jubal Early. He led the assault in the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, surviving when many of his staff died. Finally, near the end of the war, he was promoted to brigadier general.

Ames was a committed abolitionist and his wartime experiences only increased his passion on this issue. He demanded a vigorous Reconstruction and he wanted to be involved in it. Moreover, he knew it would be good for his political career. In 1868, he got Congress to name him governor of Mississippi. This was the opportunity he wanted to reshape southern society. He was also military commander of the Fourth District during the peak of Reconstruction, which included Arkansas as well. He was quite up front about the need to appoint Black officeholders. Of course, this also made him hated among whites and the KKK and other white supremacist violence was launched against those he named to office.

Under his leadership though, Mississippi was readmitted to the Union and Ames was sent to Washington to be one of its senators. He served there a bit under four years. One of the first things to happen in Washington is that he met the daughter of Benjamin Butler and they got married soon after. A politically ambitious man entered a politically ambitious family. He continued to push for an aggressive Reconstruction and then left to go back to being Mississippi’s governor in 1874.

By this time though, Ames was considered the more moderate Republican option. Closely connected by now to major financial people, as befit a good Gilded Age Republican, he soon became more interested in lowering tax rates and cutting state government to promote business than he did to protect Black voters. In fact, his governor election was highly contested and he was the candidate of the moderate white, with most of the more radical freed slaves supporting James Lusk Alcorn. Still, when Ames faced overwhelming Democratic opposition, including what were essentially coups against Republican led city governments, he wanted to do something about it. But what could be done? He didn’t have the power to do much. The Grant administration and congressional Republicans were very rapidly tiring of doing anything more for the freed slaves. Their naive vision of a biracial Republican Party functioning in the South ran ashore on the rocks of white supremacist violence, which they didn’t really anticipate. So Ames could do little but throw up his hands in anger. Democrats then took over the Mississippi legislature as part of their violence. They were going to impeach Ames so he just resigned in 1876.

After his bitter disappointment as a Reconstruction politician, Ames moved his family to Northfield, Minnesota, where the family mill was. This became infamous because it was to target Ames that Jesse James and his band of Confederate thugs targeted that town in their infamous and completely failed raid. This does however get at just how much Ames was hated by Confederates and what I guess were now neo-Confederates. After that, he lived in New York and Massachusetts where we cultivated his business interests, often working closely with his father-in-law.

However, Ames was not done with war. Although fairly old by 1898, he rejoined the military in the Spanish-American War as a brigadier general. He was involved with the Battle of San Juan Hill and the Siege of Santiago. This totally unjust and imperialist war conducted on false grounds should not do anyone’s long-term reputation wonders, even if Theodore Roosevelt managed to rise into power by promoting and exaggerating his actions there through his own personal media network. Ames wasn’t so interested in that kind of thing by this point.

After the war, Ames went back to his business interests, which by this time included a lot of real estate. In fact, he was involved in early developments in Atlantic City and Florida to turn them into tourist resorts. He later moved to Florida, beginning the process by which every old New Englander ends up in dying in that state.

Ames died in Ormond Beach, Florida in 1933, at the age of 97. He was the last official Civil War general to die, though Aaron Daggett lived until 1938 and he was a brevet general. But in terms of real generals, it was Ames. He is also the great-grandfather of the writer George Plimpton. Will try to forgive him for that. Interestingly, since JFK didn’t exactly research Profiles in Courage, he relied on Plimpton, who had pretty well imbibed the Dunning School on Reconstruction, to slam Ames in the book in favor of profiling the loathsome L.Q.C. Lamar. God that’s a terrible, no good, awful book.

Sorry for the long-distance picture; technically this is a private cemetery next to the public one. Obviously you can see the grave, but there is a locked fence that doesn’t allow you to get closer.

Adelbert Ames is buried in Hildreth Family Cemetery, Lowell, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other Reconstruction governors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. DeWitt Clinton Senter is in Morristown, Tennessee and William Woods Holden is in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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