The Editor of the Roanoke Times has a bee in his bonnet to get something named for John C. Underwood (1). Underwood was a US District Judge in Virginia during Reconstruction who was to preside over the trial of President Jefferson Davis before charges were dropped by the US Supreme Court, and who did preside over the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867. He was described as a “semi-”carpetbagger, as he had resided in Virginia for a time prior to the war (2). Personally, he has been described as “repellant; his head drooping; his hair long; his eyes shifty and unpleasing, and like a basilisk’s...” (3)
Underwood was a native of New York who moved to Northern Virginia several years before the war, and had a farm in Clarke County, but he was a radical abolitionist and got run out of the State. During the war he returned under the protection of Governor Francis H. Pierpont’s Unionist government, where he was appointed US District Judge (4).
Pierpont’s “government,” founded by the Wheeling Convention early in the war and consisting of Pierpont as “governor” with three senators and nine delegates as the “General Assembly,” and ensconced in Alexandria across the river from Washington, was recognized by Lincoln, giving him “Virginia’s” electoral votes in 1864, as well as the votes of “West Virginia,” a new state separated from Virginia with the permission of the Pierpont government. After the war, the Pierpont government moved to Richmond, and Underwood went with it. In 1867, under the Reconstruction Acts, the Southern States lost their identities and were placed under martial law and an Army of Occupation, (Virginia being designated as “Military District No. 1,”) and all Confederate soldiers and any who gave aid to the Confederacy disfranchised (5). Blacks, on the other hand, were enfranchised (but not in the North) and under the control of the carpetbaggers and their Union Leagues, who taught them how to hate, and to vote the Radical Republican ticket (6).
Confederate President Jefferson Davis had been vindictively enchained at Fortress Monroe for the two years since the war. He was supposed to die there, but he did not. He was then supposed to be hanged for treason by military tribunal but he was not, as the civil courts had resumed jurisdiction (7). In the Spring of 1867, Judge Underwood was to bring him to trial in Richmond with a jury he selected. Perhaps more in the prevailing spirit of Northern vindictiveness rather than for any altruistic solicitude for civil rights, Underwood seated Blacks on the jury and, abandoning all regard for judicial decorum, harangued them with inflammatory lies against the Confederacy. “The Confederates had been motivated by the ‘fiery soul of treason.’ Southern ‘assassins’ had been guilty of murdering Federal prisoners of war deliberately by starvation; of practicing germ warfare by scattering yellow fever and smallpox germs among helpless civilians; of striking down Abraham Lincoln, ‘one of the earth’s noblest martyrs of freedom and humanity’...” etc. (8)
The editor of the Roanoke Times accuses the Virginia textbooks from the 1950s of “indoctrinating schoolchildren.” With the truth, perhaps, instead of with “The Myth of American History,” as now. Of course no charges of indoctrination could conceivably be made against newspaper editors at the Roanoke Times – pure and pristine as the new-blown snow as they are – or of their pandering to the mob during the “Woke Revolution” to sell newspapers. As part of the Lee Enterprises News Cabal, headquartered in one of those square-shaped states out there in the Midwest somewhere and answering to Warren Buffett, they could not possibly have any affiliation with The Ministry of Propaganda. But as Tennyson wrote, “they, sweet soul, that most impute a crime are pronest to it, and impute themselves” (9).
As for Judge Underwood’s demagoguery, the Confederacy had been motivated not by “the fiery soul of treason,” but by the same desire for independence as in 1776. Scanty rations in Southern POW camps were the same scanty rations that starving Confederate soldiers subsisted on, and Union POW deaths were due to the North’s refusal to exchange prisoners. In fact, according to the Official Records, the mortality rate among Confederate POWs in Northern camps was higher than the mortality rate among Union POWs in Southern camps (10). As for Underwood’s charges of germ warfare, it is on record that between 1862 and 1870 perhaps as many as one million freedmen, or twenty-five percent of the population, died or were in mortal peril from starvation, epidemics and neglect under the hands of their Northern “liberators” (11). As for the assassination of Lincoln, the South had everything to lose and the Radical Republicans had everything to gain by it (12).
Jefferson Davis was offered a pardon by President Andrew Johnson, but he refused it and demanded a trial. It might have been the most important trial in the history of the United States, but the prosecutors were afraid that the uncomfortable facts of the Declaration of Independence and the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution might come up, Davis would be acquitted, and the North would lose in court what it had won in war. Worse yet, since Abraham Lincoln had never recognized the Southern States as being out of the Union, the embarrassing fact might be exposed that it was Lincoln – not Davis – who was the one who had committed treason under Art. III, sec. 3 of the US Constitution by invading them. So US Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had the case dropped on a technicality and Davis went free (13).
But Judge Underwood was not finished. He was to preside over the Constitutional Convention that met in December of 1867, also known as the “Black and Tan” or “Underwood” Convention. With most White Virginians disfranchised, the delegation was comprised of 32 conservative Whites, and 70 Radical Republicans, which were composed of 25 Blacks, 17 scalawags and native Virginians, 6 from foreign countries, 13 New Yorkers, and the rest carpetbaggers from other Northern States. Some Whites and most Blacks were illiterate (14), fresh from the corn, cotton, and tobacco fields, decked out in silk hats and broadcloth suits, and reading newspapers upside down (15). A White conservative delegate from Augusta County described (among many other sketches of the Convention) Judge Underwood: “The president of the Convention is, apparently, a gentleman of great amiability. When I observed the other day the suavity of his deportment in the chair, and thought of the shocking harangues he was lately wont to deliver to his grand juries, I was reminded of Byron’s description of one of his heroes, - ‘as mild-mannered man as ever scuttled Ship,’ etc.” (16)
The Underwood Convention framed a Northern constitution, with secret ballots and an increase in local officeholders at taxpayer expense. It required free public schools and heavy taxes on land, which would compel the disfranchised Virginians to pay for the carpetbaggers’ programs. It gave the right to vote to every adult male who had resided in the State for six months, except those thousands who had been Confederate leaders. And it provided that no one could be an office holder or a juror unless he could swear that he had not supported the Confederacy. The Underwood Convention went on until the per diem ran out, and General Schofield, commander of Military District No. 1, finally compelled it to adjourn in April of 1868 (17), when “The Midnight Constitution” came into birth (18).
The editor of the Roanoke Times wants to have something named after John C. Underwood to pay him “tribute.” A portrait of his character by one who was knowledgeable of him at the time of the opening of Jefferson Davis’ trial in Richmond is offered here: “Reporters for Northern papers were present with their Southern brethren of scratch-pad and pencil. The jury-box was a novelty to Northerners. In it sat a motley crew of negroes and whites. For portrait in part of the presiding judge, I refer to the case of McVeigh vs. Underwood, as reported in Twenty-third Grattan, decided in favor of McVeigh. When the Federal Army occupied Alexandria, John C. Underwood used his position as United States District Judge to acquire the homestead, fully furnished, of Dr. McVeigh, then in Richmond. He confiscated it to the United States, denied McVeigh a hearing, sold it, bought it in his wife’s name for $2,850 when it was worth not less than $20,000, and had her deed it to himself. The first time thereafter that Dr. McVeigh met the able jurist face to face on a street in Richmond, the good doctor, one of the most amiable of men, before he knew what he was doing, slapped the able jurist over and went about his business; whereupon, the Honourable the United States Circuit Court picked himself up and went about his, which was sitting in judgment on cases in equity. In 1873, Dr. McVeigh’s home was restored to him by law, the United States Supreme Court pronouncing Underwood’s course ‘a blot upon our jurisprudence and civilization’” (19).
So name something after John C. Underwood, or perhaps build him a monument on the Capitol grounds. He is of low degree but eminently worthy of our times, and the carpetbaggers and the scalawags who have overrun Virginia are in need of love, too. But know that it takes more than a zip code to make a Virginian.
A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, the author graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1967 with a degree in Civil Engineering and a Regular Commission in the US Army. His service included qualification as an Airborne Ranger, and command of an Engineer company in Vietnam, where he received the Bronze Star. After his return, he resigned his Commission and ended by making a career as a tugboat captain. During this time he was able to earn a Master of Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, with an international focus on war and cultural revolution. He is a member of the Jamestowne Society, the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Society of Independent Southern Historians. He currently lives in Richmond, where he writes, studies history, literature and cultural revolution, and occasionally commutes to Norfolk to serve as a tugboat pilot