Controversial governor’s recruitment efforts during war helped save union

Ask historians to name Indiana’s greatest governor, and most will answer Oliver P. Morton.

He was the first governor born on Hoosier soil. He played a critical role during the Civil War, backing the policies of President Abraham Lincoln and supplying troops for the Union Army. He was driven more by principle than political considerations, and because of that he was not always popular.

“Morton was a polarizing figure who many people liked or disliked,” notes Ball State University history professor Ronald V. Morris, who owns and is restoring the home in Centerville where Morton lived and practiced law prior to becoming governor.

“He was a person dealing with issues in society that are very similar to issues we wrestle with today,” Morris said. “I am not sure I would want him as a friend, but I certainly would not like him as an enemy.”

Indiana historian James Madison calls Morton “the most powerful, important and controversial governor in Indiana’s history.”

Morton seemed destined for a life in politics. His full name was Oliver Hazard Perry Throck Morton, after Oliver Hazard Perry, a naval hero of the War of 1812 credited with the famous line, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Morton was born in 1823 in Salisbury on Indiana’s eastern border. After the death of his mother in 1826, he went to live with his grandparents on a farm in Springfield, Ohio. At age 15, he returned to Indiana, attended a city school in Centerville and briefly clerked for a doctor. He enrolled at Miami University in Ohio, where he determined to become a lawyer.

Originally a Democrat, Morton joined the new Republican Party in 1856 because he felt more comfortable with its positions on slavery. He ran for governor that year and was defeated.

In 1860, Morton was elected lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket with Henry S. Lane. When Gov. Lane left after two days in office to serve as U.S. senator, Morton was elevated to governor. Three months later, the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter launched the Civil War. Morton quickly proved to be one of President Lincoln’s best recruiters, supplying the second-highest percentage of troops to the Union cause.

In the midterm elections of 1862, Democrats took control of the Indiana General Assembly, in part due to Hoosier discomfort with the war’s duration and distrust of Lincoln’s abolitionist agenda. Democrats introduced a bill to reduce Morton’s authority over the Indiana militia. In response, Republican lawmakers bolted to Madison to deny a quorum. With the legislature unable to pass a budget, Morton kept government operating by obtaining loans from friendly bankers.

Democrats called Morton a dictator, comparing him to the likes of Caesar, Cromwell and Charles I. Though certainly unconstitutional, Morton defended his actions as necessary in a state filled with Southern sympathizers — known as Copperheads — whom he considered traitors.

With the military campaign decidedly favoring the Union by the fall of 1864, Morton was re-elected by a 20,000-vote margin. Soon after, Morton suffered a debilitating illness that caused partial paralysis from the hips down.

Despite his disability, Morton was chosen in 1867 to complete Henry Lane’s term as U.S. senator and was elected to a full term in 1873. While on Senate business on the Pacific Coast in the summer of 1877, the paralysis spread to other parts of his body. He died on Nov. 1, 1877, and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

If you go

Oliver P. Morton is buried in Lot 37, Section 9, of the Crown Hill Cemetery at 3400 Boulevard Place, Indianapolis.