The Soldiers’ “Silent” Defender

By Jacob Ross ’15

In war studies, it is sometimes overlooked that every war is fought on two fronts: military and political. The armed forces fight against a foe across the field, but political warriors face a far messier battleground—a convoluted arena, where the lines are blurred between friend and enemy. Representative Alexander Coffroth of Pennsylvania’s 16th District was one of most paradoxical of the Civil War Era political warriors. Mr. Coffroth was a Democrat from Somerset County, newly incorporated into the legislative district, also including Gettysburg, that he would come to represent. His election in 1862 defeated incumbent Republican Congressman Edward McPherson (namesake of McPherson’s Ridge) and dramatically changed the representation of Gettysburgians.

Congressman Alexander H. Coffroth Taken by Mathew Brady c. 1863.
Congressman Alexander H. Coffroth
Taken by Mathew Brady c. 1863.

The easiest way to sum up Coffroth’s role in the Union war effort is to imagine him as a white hat cowboy riding a black horse. In the congressional session immediately following the Battle of Gettysburg, Coffroth proved to be an ardent defender of the Democratic Party. He called the Republican Party treasonous for using the Constitution to oppress the minority and for pushing Southern rebels to violence through the fear of slave property confiscation. He also called President Lincoln to withdraw his Emancipation Proclamation because it violated the objects of the war and energized the Confederate soldiers.

However, in spite of his ardent support for legal slavery and the demonization of the Republican Party, Coffroth may have been the Union soldiers’ strongest advocate and defender against government abuses. During the first session of the 38th Congress, he pushed for increased soldier pay in order to counteract the effect of inflation created by the newly issued greenback currency, and a repeal of the draft exemption for the vice president and judges—in order to eliminate the unequal privilege of the political elite. He also believed that reenlisted veterans should be credited toward their town or district draft quotas, in order to prevent some communities from having to over-commit their male population to war.

Pennsylvania county political distributions, 1862.
Pennsylvania county political distributions, 1862.

One piece of legislation espoused by Coffroth required army medical personnel to hold physical exams for draftees in every county seat in their district. This was a great relief to Gettysburg’s rookie soldiers; no longer would they have to make the 125-mile trek across the mountainous congressional district to Chambersburg for their physical exams simply because the provost marshal refused to leave his home to administer the exams. This provision also saved tax payer money, considering that the long journey for these new soldiers was paid for with government funds.

Mr. Coffroth’s biggest pet peeve was the drafting of men who were not of legal military age. He passionately told the story of a constituent over the age of 45 who was drafted and discharged by the board of enrollment after proving his age ineligibility. However, this draftee was soon arrested as a deserter. Though he was discharged again after proving his age to the county judge, a lieutenant ordered to arrest deserters in the district disregarded the judge’s ruling and came to the man’s house to take him into custody again. The draftee shot the lieutenant trying to arrest him, surrendered himself to the authorities, and was acquitted of the shooting by a jury. In the congressman’s opinion, the federal government had infringed on the ineligible draftee’s rights three times, leading him to justifiably attack the military officer. Additionally, Coffroth also fought to protect the rights of minors who had been illegally drafted.

During the entire session, though, Coffroth seemed like he wanted to skip out of class. The congressman remarked that he viewed his role as a passive observer to Congress, not an active participant. Out of the scant twenty-eight times he spoke on the House floor during that session, nine of those instances were motions to adjourn (sometimes quite arbitrarily). And his track record for representing his district through voting was atrocious; he missed 35% of votes, which places him in the 85th percentile for missed votes among his colleagues.

The evidence seems to suggest that Representative Coffroth was a single-issue congressman, and a walking contradiction. He abhorred the destruction the war wrought on Gettysburg, but he fully supported the soldiers who fought in the conflict. He had strong opinions, but felt that it was his responsibility to remain relatively silent within the body that had the power to bring about change. And although he vehemently opposed the Republican Party, Coffroth would later have the honor of serving as a pallbearer for the late President Lincoln. Americans tend to complain about the complexity and paradox of contemporary politics, but Mr. Coffroth’s record would certainly make them reconsider their ill will toward twenty-first century politicians.


Sources:

The United States Congress. “Coffroth, Alexander Hamilton, (1828-1906).” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Accessed February 22, 2015.

Civil Impulse, LLC. “Rep. Alexander Coffroth.” GovTrack.  Accessed February 22, 2015.

“The Congressional Globe.” 1866, 38th Congress (1st Session). 1863. Accessed February 22, 2015.


Images:

Alexander H Coffrotts.” By Mathew Brady. Circa 1863. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed February 22, 2015.

Parsons, Stanley B., William W. Beach, and Michael J. Dubin. United States Congressional Districts and Data, 1843-1883. Westport, CT: Greendwood Press, Inc., 1986. Congressional districts colored, and representative information added by Jacob Ross.

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