A History of the Civil War, 1861-1865/Chapter V
THE JUDGMENT of the people at the ballot-box was unfavorable to the President. At the October and November elections, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, all of which except New Jersey had cast their electoral votes for Lincoln, now declared against him. The Democrats made conspicuous gains of congressmen and, if they had had a majority in the other States, would have controlled the next House of Representatives. From such a disaster, Lincoln was saved by New England, Michigan, Iowa, California, Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon and the border slave States. The Emancipation Proclamation was a contributing cause to this defeat: that the war begun for the Union was now a war for the negro was held up as a reproach; and, in contravention, “the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was,” became a maxim to conjure with. And there were other contributing causes. But the chief source of dissatisfaction was the lack of success in the field. Elation over the victory of Antietam had been followed by disappointment at Lee’s army being suffered to recross the Potomac without further loss. But if McClellan had destroyed it and if Buell had won a signal victory in Kentucky, Lincoln would certainly have received a warm approval at the polls.
The view of a Radical, who had a remarkable way of putting things, will give us an idea of the criticism Lincoln had to undergo. “The result of the elections was a most serious and severe reproof to the administration,” wrote Carl Schurz from the army to the President, and the administration is to blame. “It placed the Army, now a great power in this Republic, into the hands of its enemies.… What Republican general has ever had a fair chance in this war? Did not McClellan, Buell, Halleck and their creatures and favorites claim, obtain and absorb everything?” The system should be changed. “Let us be commanded by generals whose heart is in the war.… Let every general who does not show himself strong enough to command success be deposed at once. … If West Point cannot do the business let West Point go down.” Another Radical was more hopeful. “The Administration,” wrote Charles Eliot Norton, “will not be hurt by the reaction (the defeat in the fall elections) if the war goes on prosperously.”
While Lee was advancing the cause of the Confederacy in Virginia, Bragg and Kirby Smith, by their operations in Kentucky, were endeavoring to retrieve the Confederate losses in the West. Smith, defeating the Union force which opposed him, occupied Lexington, the home of Henry Clay and the centre of the Blue-grass region, the garden of the State. “The loss of Lexington,” telegraphed Governor Morton of Indiana to the Secretary of War, “is the loss of the heart of Kentucky and leaves the road open to the Ohio river.” Smith’s army did indeed threaten Cincinnati and Louisville, causing great alarm. In Cincinnati martial law was declared, liquor shops were closed, all business was ordered to be suspended, every man who could fight or work was commanded to assemble at his voting place for the purpose of drill or labor. The street cars ceased to run and long lines of men were drilled in the streets, among them prominent citizens, ministers and judges, many beyond the age of forty-five. A newspaper alleged to be disloyal was suppressed. Tod, the governor of Ohio, hastened to Cincinnati and called out for military service all the loyal men of the river counties. Meanwhile Kirby Smith pushed a detachment to within a few miles of the city. Consternation reigned. Bells were rung in the early morning to summon men to arms and hundreds of laborers were put to work in the trenches. Women were asked to prepare lint and bandages for the approaching battle. The war has come home to us, was the thought of all. The alarm spread through the State. The call of the governor for all the armed minute-men met with a prompt response and thousands with double barrelled shot guns and squirrel rifles, known henceforward as Squirrel-hunters, poured into the city. But Smith did not deem himself strong enough to attack Cincinnati; awaiting a junction with Bragg, he withdrew the threatening detachment much to the city’s relief.
Bragg and Buell had a race for Louisville, but the Confederate, who had the shorter line of march, got ahead and placed himself between the city and the Union Army. It is thought that if he had pressed on vigorously he might have captured Louisville. But Bragg procrastinated. Overawed perhaps by the magnitude of his enterprise, he lost heart and would not press forward. Then Buell came up in his rear. The two armies confronted each other, and, while each commander was willing to fight if he had the advantage of position, neither would risk attacking the other on his chosen ground. There ensued a contest in manœuvring. Buell feared that defeat would result in the fall of Louisville; Bragg feared the serious crippling of his army. Both were short of supplies. Finally when reduced to three days’ rations, Bragg turned aside from the direct road north leaving the way open for Buell, who moved rapidly to Louisville. Thus the Kentucky campaign of the Confederates was a failure even as was their Maryland campaign and mainly for the same reason: that in each case the denizens of the invaded territory were for the most part favorable to the Union. “We must abandon the garden spot of Kentucky to its cupidity,” wrote Bragg. “The love of ease and fear of pecuniary loss are the fruitful sources of this evil.”
Buell, having insured the safety of Louisville, started in pursuit of the enemy; they met in a severe battle at Perryville, both generals claiming the victory. Next day Bragg fell back and soon afterwards took up his march southward. Buell did not make a vigorous pursuit. He failed to overtake the Confederates and bring them to battle but he drove them out of Kentucky.
Western Radicals opposed Buell as their Eastern fellow-laborers opposed McClellan and they had at their head Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, who was the ablest and most energetic of the war governors of the Western States. The governors of the Northern States were important factors in the early conduct of the war because the national Administration was at first dependent on the State machinery for furnishing troops, and, to some extent, their equipment. Owing to the geographical position of his State and the bitterness of the Democratic opposition within its borders, Morton had more obstacles to surmount than any other governor; he threw himself into the contest with a vigor and pertinacity that could not be excelled. Wishing to see operative in military affairs the same force which he put into the administration of his State, he made no secret of his contempt for the generalship of Buell, whom he even accused in his communications with Washington of being “a rebel sympathizer.” Morton, though personally incorrupt, took his coadjutors from amongst the vulgar and the shifty, making his test of fitness for civil and military office a personal devotion and unscrupulous obedience to himself rather than intrinsic honesty and high character. He and Buell became enemies and he held it a duty to his country as well as an offering to his self-interest to crush the man whom he could not use.
Lincoln had been dissatisfied with Buell’s slowness and, influenced by the pressure of Morton and Stanton and the manifestations of public sentiment in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, took the general at his word when, aware of the Government’s discontent, he suggested on October 16 that, if it were deemed best to change the command of the army, now would be a convenient time to do it. Buell was relieved and Rosecrans put in his place. In this decision the President erred, as the opinion expressed by Grant fourteen years after the war is doubtless sound, “Buell had genius enough for the highest commands.”If, now, the scene be changed to the banks of the Potomac, the leading actor is McClellan, the action, much the same: the General did not take the aggressive promptly enough to satisfy the President and the people of the North. On October 1, Lincoln went to see McClellan, remained with the army three days and, as a result of the conferences and observations of his visit, directed the general, after his return to Washington, to “cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south.” Still McClellan procrastinated, aiming always at his “ideal completeness of preparation.” On October 13, Welles recorded, “the mortifying intelligence that the Rebel cavalry rode entirely around our great and victorious Army of the Potomac, crossing the river above it … and recrossing the Potomac below McClellan and our troops.” “This will be a mortifying affair to McClellan,” wrote Meade, “and will do him, I fear, serious injury.” On October 22, Welles set down in his diary: “It is just five weeks since the Battle of Antietam and the Army is quiet, reposing in camp. The country groans but nothing is done.… McClellan’s inertness makes the assertions of his opponents prophetic. He is sadly afflicted with what the President calls the ‘slows.’” Meade had a high respect for McClellan, but held the opinion that “he errs on the side of prudence and caution and that a little more rashness on his part would improve his generalship.”
On October 26, the army, 116,000 strong, began to cross the Potomac and six days later the last division was over. The Confederates fell back. On November 7, the Union Army was massed near Warrenton and received word from the President that he had relieved McClellan and placed Burnside in command. “The Army is filled with gloom,” wrote Meade next day. “Burnside, it is said, wept like a child and is the most distressed man in the Army, openly says he is not fit for the position and that McClellan is the only man we have who can handle the large army collected together.” The pressure of the Radicals led by Stanton and Chase undoubtedly influenced the President to remove McClellan, but he ought not to have issued the order unless he and his Secretary of War knew of a general of equal ability for the command. This obligation he seemed indeed to feel. In a letter to Carl Schurz, he intimated that “the war should be conducted on military knowledge,” not “on political affinity”; and he said to Wade, a leading Radical senator, who pressed him to remove McClellan: “Put yourself in my place for a moment. If I relieve McClellan, whom shall I put in command?” “Why,” said Wade, “anybody”; to which came the reply: “Wade, anybody will do for you but not for me. I must have somebody.”
Meade, Reynolds and the other generals of their corps called upon McClellan, expressed their deep regret at his departure “and sincerely hoped he would soon return. McClellan was very much affected, almost to tears,” Meade wrote, “and said that separation from this Army was the severest blow that could be inflicted upon him. The Army,” Meade added, “is greatly depressed.” The officers and soldiers undoubtedly felt, as General Francis A. Walker afterwards wrote, that he who could move “the hearts of a great army was no ordinary man; nor was he who took such heavy toll of Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. Lee an ordinary soldier.” This judgment may be supported by a comparison of the losses in battles between McClellan and the Confederates; in nearly every one of them their loss was greater than his. Inasmuch as the number of men fit for military service was greater at the North than at the South, the Confederacy must, if continuing to suffer equal losses in battle, be thrust to the wall provided the Union could and would maintain the contest. “While the Confederacy was young and fresh and rich and its armies were numerous,” wrote Francis W. Palfrey, “McClellan fought a good, wary, damaging, respectable fight against it.” Grant’s candid expression fourteen years after the war is of great value: In any judgment on McClellan, he asserted, there must be considered the vast and cruel responsibility which at the outset of the war devolved upon him, a young man watched by a restless people and Congress. “If he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying. If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman, Thomas or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high distinction as any of us.” Nineteen days after the removal, Lincoln confessed his mistake, writing to Carl Schurz, “I certainly have been dissatisfied with the slowness of Buell and McClellan; but before I relieved them I had great fears I should not find successors to them who would do better; and I am sorry to add, that I have seen little since to relieve those fears.”
Even though Lincoln felt that he must yield his better judgment to political considerations he might have exercised greater discretion in the choice of McClellan’s successor. A certain Radical, reflecting deeply in his quiet retreat at Cambridge, suggested the test that William T. Sherman afterwards applied [in January 1865]—a test that should have been seriously considered by the President, his Secretary of War and Halleck. “Burnside may be able to command one hundred thousand men in the field but is he?” Burnside had given no proof of his fitness, had refused the place twice and had told the President and Secretary of War over and over again that he was not competent to command so large an army and that McClellan was the best general for the position. Had he simply been asked to take it, he would have refused; but as the promotion came to him in the form of an order, he deemed it his duty to obey.
Ropes thought that Franklin should have been given the command. It is among the possibilities that Meade or Reynolds or Humphreys may have been considered. Meade had served with distinction as a brigade commander during the seven days’ fighting in Virginia; at Antietam he and his division were “in the thickest” of the battle and, when Hooker was wounded, he was placed by McClellan in command of the corps. During the President’s visit to Antietam after the battle Meade accompanied him and McClellan on their survey of the battle-field, on which occasion McClellan highly commended the work of his subordinate. If Meade created a favorable impression in the President’s mind, it is surprising that McClellan’s comments did not lead to his being considered for the post of commander of the Army of the Potomac. He would probably have proved as capable at this juncture as he did eight months later.
Burnside was a man of high character and gentle nature; he deserved a better fate but he had not a happy hour during the eighty days of his command. He soon gave evidence of the incompetence to which he had so often confessed. The removal of McClellan implied the ascendancy of the Radicals and the assumption of a vigorous offensive in the conduct of the war. Burnside lent himself to that policy, but neither he nor the President took sufficiently into account the great ability of the commander whom they opposed. By the last week of November, Burnside, with his army 113,000 strong, was on the north bank of the Rappahannock river opposite Fredericksburg where Lee had 72,000. Burnside proposed to cross the river and strike at the enemy in his chosen, strong position. No movement could have given Lee greater satisfaction. The night before the battle, Burnside was bewildered as he found himself committed to a greater undertaking than he had the ability and the nerve to carry through. Contrary to his habit of mind, he became headstrong, irritable, and rash; in a muddled sort of way, he thought out the semblance of a plan and gave a confused order for an attack by his left which, in the manner of its execution was certain to fail. His right with even greater madness he sent forward to a useless butchery. These regiments retiring slowly and in good order, many of the soldiers “singing and hurrahing,” ended the battle. The Confederate loss was 5309, the Union 12,653.
Next day Burnside was wild with grief. “Oh, those men! those men over there!” he wailed, pointing across the river where lay the dead and wounded. “I am thinking of them all the time.” In his frenzy he conceived a desperate plan. He thought of putting himself at the head of his old corps, the Ninth, and leading them in person in an assault on the Confederates behind the stone wall, from which they had done such deadly execution on the soldiers of his right. Generals Sumner, Franklin and a number of corps and division commanders dissuaded him from this undertaking, and, on the night of December 15, during a violent storm of rain and wind, he successfully withdrew his army to the north side of the river.
Burnside’s loss in killed, wounded and missing was heavy but, with regard to the army’s fighting power, this was a small matter in comparison with the loss in morale. Officers and soldiers, feeling that they had been put to a useless sacrifice, lost confidence in their commander. At a review of the Second Corps, Couch and the division commanders called upon the men to give a cheer for their general; they rode along the lines waving their caps or swords but failed to elicit a single encouraging response. Some soldiers even gave vent to derisive cries. Indeed the demoralization of the army was complete. Officers resigned and great numbers of men deserted.
The President was exceedingly perturbed and depressed at the repulse before Fredericksburg, the responsibility for which he must share with his general since he had placed him in command. Nearly three months earlier, he had confessed to his Cabinet that he was losing his hold on the Northern people, which he knew, as we all now know, was the prime requisite of success. Since then he had suffered defeat at the ballot-box and in the field; and the defeat of his army was aggravated in the popular estimation by his mistaken change of generals. Had McClellan appeared to take command once more, those soldiers who had received Burnside so coldly would have rent the air with joyful shouts.
When the full story of Fredericksburg became known, grief wrung the hearts of the Northern people at the useless sacrifice of so many noble lives. Gloom and despondency ensued, taking the religious tinge so common during our Civil War. An Ohio congressman spoke for many people in his diary, “It would almost seem that God works for the rebels and keeps alive their cause.” Some time earlier, Lincoln had given utterance to a similar thought, “Being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father … if I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me He wills it otherwise.” And thus Meade, “It does seem as if Providence was against us.”
The remainder of Burnside’s service is marked by desperate energy on his part, making plans to retrieve the disaster by recrossing the river and attacking the Confederates again, by his officers’ and soldiers’ distrust of him and opposition to his projected offensive movement, by the inefficiency of Stanton and Halleck and the painful perplexity of the President, who restrained his general with this order, “You must not make a general movement of the Army without letting me know.” Lincoln had a conference with Burnside in Washington at which Stanton and Halleck were present; but, being sadly in need of expert guidance which his Secretary and General-in-Chief were unable to supply, failed to reach a positive decision. Afterwards he gave a qualified consent to Burnside, who was still bent on crossing the river and delivering another attack. Very different now was his counsel from that which he had been accustomed to give McClellan. “Be cautious,” he wrote to Burnside, “and do not understand that the country or government is driving you.” Burnside moved his army four miles up the river. “The pontoons, artillery and all other accessories were up in time,” wrote Meade, “and we all thought the next morning the bridges would be thrown over and we should be at it. But man proposes and God disposes. About 9 P.M. a terrific storm of wind and rain set in and continued all night.” For the next two days it rained incessantly, rendering the roads deep with mud and any movement impossible. But the interference of the elements was most undoubtedly to the advantage of the Union side; for an attack of Burnside’s demoralized soldiers on Lee’s compact and devoted army would have been merely a further wanton sacrifice of men. Carl Schurz wrote from the army to the President: “I am convinced the spirit of the men is systematically demoralized and the confidence in their chief systematically broken by several of the commanding-generals. I have heard generals, subordinate officers and men say they expect to be whipped anyhow, ‘that all these fatigues and hardships are for nothing and that they might as well go home.’ Add to this, that the immense army is closely packed together in the mud, that sickness is spreading at a frightful rate, that, in consequence of all these causes of discouragement, desertion increases every day—and you will not be surprised if you see the army melt away with distressing rapidity.”
The disaster of Fredericksburg brought about a Cabinet crisis as it is called by the contemporary authorities in conformity with English political phraseology. But the procedure when a national calamity calls for prompt administrative action reveals a difference between the English and American constitutions. Lincoln was the head of the Administration, the Commander-in-Chief of the army, and, if anyone other than Burnside was responsible for the defeat on the Rappahannock, it was he. So declared the Democrats without reserve. The Republicans, too, in private conversation and confidential letters, expressed the same conviction, although in public they were cautious and reticent. If the American Government had been like the English, with Lincoln Prime Minister, Congress would probably have voted a want of confidence in him and he would then have resigned or appealed to the country. But as Lincoln had said on September 22, and might now have reiterated with equal force: “If I was satisfied that the public confidence was more fully possessed by anyone else than by me, and knew of any constitutional way in which he might be put in my place, he should have it. I would gladly yield it to him. But though I believe that I have not so much of the confidence of the people as I had some time since, I do not know that all things considered, any other person has more; and, however that may be, there is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here. I must do the best I can and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.” In view of this constitutional limitation, the Republican senators in two successive caucuses, assuming to speak for a majority of their party and the nation, reverted unconsciously to earlier English precedents, and by word and deed plainly indicated their belief that the failure to prosecute the war with vigor and success arose from the President being badly advised and dominated by his Secretary of State. A committee of nine was appointed to present their view to the President, who arranged the meeting for the evening of December 18, and who was prepared for the attack, having received Seward’s resignation on the previous day: this the Secretary had sent him immediately on learning of the proceedings of the Senate caucus.
The conversation between the President and the senators was animated and free. Wade said that the conduct of the war was left mainly in the hands of men who had no sympathy with the cause, and that the Republicans of the West owed their defeat in the recent elections to the President having placed the direction of our military affairs in the hands of bitter and malignant Democrats (meaning McClellan, Buell and Halleck). Fessenden said that the Senate had entire confidence in the patriotism and integrity of the President, but that Republican senators were inclined to believe that the Secretary of State was not in accord with the majority of the Cabinet and exerted an injurious influence upon the conduct of the war. The officers of the regular army, largely pro-slavery men and strongly imbued with the Southern feeling, he continued, had little sympathy with the Republican party. “It was singularly unfortunate that almost every officer known as an anti-slavery man had been disgraced”; he instanced Frémont, Hunter, Mitchell and others. Sumner, Grimes and other senators expressed their lack of confidence in Seward.
Next day the President told his Cabinet, who were all present except the Secretary of State, that “the point and pith” of the senators’ complaint was of Seward; they charged him “if not with infidelity, with indifference, with want of earnestness in the war, with want of sympathy with the country and especially with a too great ascendancy and control of the President and measures of administration.” In more homely phrase he described the senators’ attitude: “While they seemed to believe in my honesty, they also appeared to think that when I had in me any good purpose or intention Seward contrived to suck it out of me unperceived.” Finally the President requested the members of his Cabinet to meet the senatorial committee that evening (December 19) at the White House. The senators came in response to his summons to continue the conference of the previous evening, although somewhat surprised at having to treat with the members of the Cabinet (except Seward) as well as with the President. He opened the meeting with a defence of the Cabinet and the Administration. “Secretary Chase endorsed the President’s statement fully and entirely.” This was a surprise to the Radical senators who regarded Chase as their leader and had been influenced by his strictures of the President and the Secretary of State. But Chase when thus brought to bay found himself swayed by esprit de corps and by the thought that he and Seward had for many years wrought together in the anti-slavery cause; he therefore stood up manfully for the Secretary of State and for the rest of his associates. “Grimes, Sumner and Trumbull were pointed, emphatic and unequivocal in their opposition to Seward, whose zeal and sincerity in this conflict they doubted; each was unrelenting and unforgiving.… The President managed his own case, speaking freely and showed great tact, shrewdness and ability.… He considered it most desirous to conciliate the senators with respectful deference whatever may have been his opinion of their interference.” Fessenden objected to discussing the merits or demerits of a member of the Cabinet in the presence of his associates, whereupon the members of the Cabinet withdrew; though it was nearly midnight, Fessenden and some of the senators remained. Fessenden said to the President: “You have asked my opinion upon Mr. Seward’s removal. There is a current rumor that he has already resigned. If so, our opinions are of no consequence on that point.” The President admitted that Seward had tendered his resignation, but added that he had not yet accepted it. “Then, sir,” said Fessenden, “the question seems to be whether Mr. Seward shall be requested to withdraw his resignation.” “Yes,” from Lincoln. “I feel bound to say,” then replied the Senator, “that as Mr. Seward has seen fit to resign, I should advise that his resignation be accepted.” It was 1 A.M. when the senators left the White House.
On this Saturday morning, December 20, the President sent for Chase, telling him on his arrival, “This matter is giving me great trouble.” Chase replied that “painfully affected by the meeting last evening … he had prepared his resignation of the office of Secretary of the Treasury. ‘Where is it?’ said the President quickly, his eye lighting up in a moment. ‘I brought it with me,’ said Chase, taking the paper from his pocket. ‘I wrote it this morning.’ ‘Let me have it,’ said the President, reaching his long arm and fingers toward Chase, who held on seemingly reluctant to part with the letter which was sealed and which he apparently hesitated to surrender.… The President was eager … took and hastily opened the letter. ‘This,’ said he with a triumphal laugh, ‘cuts the Gordian knot.… I can dispose of the subject now without difficulty; I see my way clear.’” Then Stanton, who was in the President’s office with Chase, offered his resignation. “You may go to your Department,” Lincoln replied, “I don’t want yours. This,” holding out Chase’s letter, “is all I want; this relieves me; my way is clear; the trouble is ended; I will detain neither of you longer.” Soon after Chase, Stanton and Welles (who was also present at the interview) had left, Lincoln, still holding Chase’s letter in his hand said to Senator Harris who had called, “Now, I can ride; I have got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”
Lincoln’s elation at having in his hands the resignation of the chief of the Radicals at the same time as that of the chief Conservative is easy to understand. The Radical Senators who had attacked Seward would have viewed with great displeasure the retirement of Chase, but they it was who had brought it to pass that both must go or both remain. “If I had yielded to that storm,” said Lincoln nearly a year later, “and dismissed Seward, the thing would all have slumped over one way and we should have been left with a scanty handful of supporters. When Chase sent in his resignation, I saw that the game was in my own hands and I put it through.” He declined both resignations and asked both men to resume the duties of their Departments, which Seward did cheerfully and Chase reluctantly. The Cabinet crisis was over.
Lincoln had displayed rare political sagacity in retaining in the service of the State the men who could best serve it, notwithstanding the lack of harmony in the Cabinet and the knowledge Congress had of it. His decision that “the public interest does not admit” of the retirement of the State and Treasury secretaries is justified by a study of the existing crisis in the light of subsequent events. In the misfortune and dejection which had fallen upon the country, no voice could be slighted that would be raised for the continued prosecution of the war and, since Seward and Chase represented the diverse opinions of two large classes of men who were at least in concord on the one all-important policy, it was desirable that they should remain in the Cabinet. The loss of either or both of them would have meant a subtraction from the popular support of the Administration that could in no other way be made good.
There were also other reasons why the President did not wish to part with them. Since April, 1861, Seward had rendered him a loyal support; sinking his ambition for the Presidency, he had come to appreciate Lincoln’s ability and to acknowledge in him the head of the Government in reality as in name. He had been an efficient minister. Although slavery in the Confederacy was a stumbling-block in the way of its recognition by England and France, and whilst the influence of Lincoln, Adams and Sumner in foreign relations was of great weight, much credit is still due the Secretary of State for managing the affairs of his Department in such a way as to avert the interference of Europe in our struggle.
Chase was supreme in his own Department and wrote the financial part of the President’s message of December 1, 1862. Lincoln had had no business training and, like many lawyers had little or no conception of the country’s resources and sustainable outlay. Having no taste for the subject, he did not try to grasp the principles of finance, and being obliged to master, as a layman may, the arts of war and diplomacy, he was wise to attempt no more. But Lincoln though unversed in finance had a first-rate knowledge of men, and this it was that led him to retain as his Secretary of the Treasury one whose inflexible honesty and receptive mind justify the popular estimate of him as a strong finance minister. That the war had gone on for nearly two years with an immense expenditure of money, and that the Government could still buy all it needed of food and munitions of war and could pay its soldiers, was due primarily to the patriotism and devotion of the Northern people, but honor should also be given to the manager of the country’s finances.
The Secretary of the Treasury was probably not a pleasant man at the council board. Moreover, his temperament differed so essentially from the President’s that sympathetic relations between the two men were impossible. Chase was handsome, of commanding presence, careful in dress, courtly in manner. A graduate of Dartmouth, he had a fair knowledge of Latin and Greek and the reverence for them of an educated lawyer. He was widely read, and even in his busy life as member of the Cabinet, found his recreation in improving his acquaintance with good English and French literature. He cared neither for cards nor for the theatre. A serious, thoughtful man in every walk of life, he brought to the business of his Department a well thought-out method.
Lincoln, plain and ungainly, gave no thought to the graces of life and lacked the accomplishments of a gentleman, as no one knew better than himself. He had no system in the disposition of his time or in the preparation of his work. During his term of office he confined his reading of books mainly to military treatises and to works which guided him in the solution of questions of constitutional and international law, although he occasionally snatched an hour to devote to his beloved Shakespeare and revealed in his state papers an undiminished knowledge of the Bible. He found recreation in the theatre and has left on record his pleasure at Hackett’s impersonation of Falstaff. As Hamlet had a peculiar charm for him, Edwin Booth’s presentation of the rôle must have afforded him a rare delight. Possessed of a keen sense of humor he was a capital storyteller and in this capacity must often have grated on the serious temper of his finance minister who had no humor in him and but little knowledge of men.
Chase’s private correspondence reveals him to our surprise in friendly communication with many cheap persons, mainly, it is true, political followers, on whose help he counted for obtaining the much-desired Presidency. This ambition, or rather the unseemly manifestations of it, became the greatest hindrance to his usefulness. His opinion of Lincoln’s parts was not high, and could hardly have remained unperceived by the President, who in return made no attempt to conceal his judgment that Chase was a very able man.
At this time the Secretary was by no means alone in his estimate of the President. In the minds of many senators and representatives existed a distrust of his ability and force of character, which had been created in those who met him frequently by his lack of dignity, his grotesque expression and manner and his jocular utterances when others were depressed. These eccentricities, when viewed in the damning light of military failure, could not but produce in certain quarters a painful impression. Of the interview between Lincoln, the Cabinet and the senators during the Cabinet crisis, Fessenden wrote sarcastically, “The President … related several anecdotes, most of which I had heard before.” While his popularity was waning, he was stronger with the country than with the men at Washington. The people did not come in personal contact with him, and judged him by his formal state papers and his acts. Posterity, having seen his ultimate success, judges him on the same ground and looks with admiration on the patience and determination with which he bore his burden during this gloomy winter. The hand that draws the grotesque traits of Lincoln may disappoint the hero-worshipper, but veracity in the narrative demands the inclusion of this touch which helps to explain the words of disparagement so freely applied to him, and serves as a justification for those who could not in the winter of 1862–63 see with the eyes of to-day. Had his other qualities been enhanced by Washington’s dignity of manner, not so many had been deceived; but as it was we cannot wonder that his contemporaries failed to appreciate his greatness. Since his early environment in fostering his essential capabilities had not bestowed on him the external characteristics usually attributed to transcendent leaders of men, it was not suspected that, despite his lowly beginning, he had developed into a man of extraordinary mental power.
Seward, with his amiable and genial manners, was an agreeable man in council. Fertile in suggestion, he must, in spite of his personal failings, have been exceedingly helpful to Lincoln, whose slow-working mind was undoubtedly often assisted to a decision by the various expedients which his Secretary of State put before him; for it is frequently easier for an executive to choose one out of several courses than to invent a policy. The members of the Cabinet who filled the public eye were Seward, Chase and Stanton and they demand a proportionate attention from the historian. It was either on Seward or Stanton that the President leaned the most; and the weight of evidence, confirmed by the fact of his urbanity, points to the Secretary of State as his favorite counsellor.
Though Lincoln made up his mind slowly, once he had come to a decision, he was thenceforth inflexible. By gradual steps he had evolved the policy of emancipation and he was determined to stick to it in spite of the defeat of his party at the ballot-box and of his principal army in the field during the hundred days that intervened between the preliminary proclamation of September 22 and the necessary complement of January 1, 1863. Although the form of the preliminary proclamation implied that some of the Confederates or all might lay down their arms to avoid the loss of their slaves, no such outcome was seriously regarded as possible. Doubt no longer existed that a united people in the South were earnest in their desire to secure their independence and that, if the Proclamation had affected them at all, it had only stiffened them in their resistance by adding force to the argument that the war of the North was a crusade against their social institutions. Regarding the Proclamation “as a fit and necessary war measure,” the President wrote on January 1, 1863, “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves” in the States or parts of States resisting the United States Government “are, and henceforward shall be, free.… Upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
Lincoln had the American reverence for the Constitution and the laws and he could find no authority for the Proclamation in the letter of the Constitution or in any statute; but he thought out what were satisfying reasons to his own mind. “My oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability,” he wrote afterwards, “imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government—that nation, of which that Constitution was the organic law.… I felt that measures otherwise unconstitutional might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation.… I could not feel that to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution, if, to save slavery or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country and Constitution all together.… I think the Constitution invests its Commander-in-Chief with the law of war in time of war. The most that can be said—if so much—is that slaves are property. Is there—has there ever been—any question that by law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?” The Proclamation, making clear as it did, the real issue of the war, was of incontestable value in turning English sentiment into a favorable channel. It already had the approval of the House of Representatives and, when enforced by victories in the field, received the support of the majority of the Northern people.
In addition to military emancipation, the President purposed giving the slaves their freedom in a strictly legal manner and insuring the compensation of their owners by the Federal Government. In his annual message to Congress of December 1, 1862, he took as his text the sound and now familiar proposition that “Without slavery the rebellion [as he and the North called the Civil War] could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” and showed in his argument a grasp of the subject which, in the light of our subsequent experience, has proved him a consummate statesman. He pleaded for gradual emancipation, appointing January 1, 1900 as the time when it should be completed to spare “both races from the evils of sudden derangement.” It is to be regretted that this prophetic appeal was not re-enforced by victories in the field such as were wont to point the utterances of Cæsar and Napoleon. As matters stood, distrust of Lincoln pervaded both the Senate and the House, and for the moment his personal prestige amongst the people had paled because his armies had made no headway; so it was hardly surprising that his policy of gradual and compensated emancipation failed to receive the approval of either Congress or the country. Nevertheless he had been happy in seizing the right moment for issuing his Proclamation of Emancipation, as from Antietam in September, 1862 to Gettysburg in July, 1863 the North gained no real victory and her Army of the Potomac suffered two crushing defeats.
A glimmer of hope from the West lightened the intense gloom following the disaster at Fredericksburg. Influenced undoubtedly by the President’s desire for a victory, and deeming the conditions auspicious, Rosecrans moved out of Nashville the day after Christmas with the intention of attacking the Confederates. For a number of days he advanced, skirmishing as he went, and finally took up a position within three miles of Murfreesborough, Tennessee, where Bragg’s army had gone into winter quarters. On the last day of the year he determined to make the attack; but Bragg had resolved to take the offensive at the same time, and obtained the advantage of the initial onset. The bloody battle of Stone’s River [or Murfreesborough] ensued, wherein 41,000 Union troops were pitted against 34,000 Confederates. The Confederates won the day, but Rosecrans stubbornly maintained his ground. On January 2, 1863, Bragg again attacked the Union Army and met with repulse. On the night of the following day, his troops being somewhat demoralized, he retreated from Murfreesborough. This gave Rosecrans a chance, of which he at once availed himself, to claim the victory in the campaign. The President telegraphed to him “God bless you.” Halleck called it one of the most brilliant successes of the war. Throughout the North it was proclaimed a victory. At last, ran the sentiment of the people, our great general has appeared. The loss on both sides was heavy and both armies were so crippled that a long time was required to repair the damage. Although the casualties of Rosecrans were the larger, the superior resources of the North inclined the balance against the Confederates, who sustained moreover the loss in morale. In 1865, however, Grant declared that “Murfreesborough was no victory” for the North; and William T. Sherman wrote at the time that Rosecrans’s “victory at Murfreesborough is dearly bought.”
If the student confines himself to the literature of this campaign alone, he will feel that the extensive claims of a victory made by the President and the people of the North were a clutching at straws; but if he looks ahead he will see that they were wiser than they knew, for he will then comprehend that to hold Tennessee Bragg needed a decisive success, and that his failure and the serious crippling of his army opened the way for the Union advance to Chattanooga the following summer. The campaigns of Perryville and Stone’s River were moreover a favorable augury to the cause of the North, inasmuch as they showed that in the Army of the West an education of generals was going on, that native military talent was in the process of development. George H. Thomas, a Virginian of the same good stuff as Washington and Robert E. Lee, was serving as second in command to Buell and to Rosecrans; he joined to ability in his profession and a scrupulous loyalty to his superiors, a conviction of the justice of the cause which, contrary to the example of his State, he had espoused. Although at first he had not unreasonably believed that injustice had been done him in that he was not made commander of the Army of the Cumberland at the time of Buell’s displacement, he gave a magnanimous and efficient support to Rosecrans, who could say of him that he was as wise in council as he was brave in battle. Philip H. Sheridan had distinguished himself at Perryville and now did gallant work at Stone’s River.
The immediate results of the campaign were not sufficiently important to lift Congress and the country for more than a brief period out of the dejection into which they had fallen. Sumner, although he realized the peril, had not lost heart. “These are dark hours,” he wrote to Lieber. “There are senators full of despair,—not I.… But I fear that our army is everywhere in a bad way.” Greeley in his journal advocated the mediation of a European power between the North and the South, and to further this end he held private interviews and opened a correspondence with Mercier, the French Minister, intimating that the people would welcome any foreign mediation which should look to a termination of the war. I mean to carry out this policy, he said to Raymond, and bring the war to a close. “You’ll see that I’ll drive Lincoln into it.” An offer of mediation between the two sections from Napoleon, the Emperor of the French, was communicated on February 3, 1863 to the Secretary of State. It was declined at once by the President, the offer and response being published at the same time. Despite the rumors which had somehow prepared the public mind for this step, the actual fact that a powerful nation impelled by motives of material interest was eager to interfere in the struggle startled the people and deepened the gloom.
“The President tells me,” wrote Sumner to Lieber, “that he now fears ‘the fire in the rear,’—meaning the Democracy especially at the Northwest—more than our military chances.” Governor Morton of Indiana telegraphed to the Secretary of War, “I am advised that it is contemplated when the Legislature meets in this State to pass a joint resolution acknowledging the Southern Confederacy, and urging the States of the Northwest to dissolve all constitutional relations with the New England States. The same thing is on foot in Illinois.” The legislatures of these States were Democratic, having been chosen the previous autumn during the conservative reaction. Morton’s grave apprehensions were far from being realized, but his legislature quarreled with him and refused its support to his energetic measures for carrying on the war. The Republican members took his part, and the wrangle became so bitter that finally the legislature adjourned without making the necessary appropriations for the maintenance of the State government during the next two years. In Illinois, resolutions praying for an armistice and recommending a convention of all the States to agree upon some adjustment of the trouble between them, passed the House, but failed to obtain consideration in the Senate. This legislature likewise fell out with its Republican governor.
The Congress which sat from December 1, 1862 to March 4, 1863 gave the President the control of the sword and the purse of the nation. Discouragement over the defeats in the field and a general feeling of weariness over the prolongation of the war combined, with the improved condition of business which opened many avenues of lucrative employment, to bring volunteering practically to an end. To fill the armies some general measure of compulsion was necessary, for the efforts at drafting by the States had not proved satisfactory. The Conscription Act, approved March 3, operated directly on the people of the nation instead of through the medium of the States, which had previously employed their own machinery for raising troops. The country was divided into enrolment districts, corresponding in general to the congressional districts of the different States, each of which was in charge of a provost-marshal. At the head of these officers was a provost-marshal-general, whose office in Washington formed a separate bureau of the War Department. All men fit for military duty were to be enrolled and, as necessity arose, were to be drafted for the service. Anyone drafted could furnish a substitute or pay three hundred dollars to the Government as an exemption.
Financial legislation was equally drastic. One year before the country had been started on the road of irredeemable legal-tender paper: there was now no turning back. The maw of our voracious treasury was again clamoring to be filled. Spaulding, who spoke for the Committee of Ways and Means, said in the House: “Legal-tender notes are not plenty among the people; … they are continually asking for more. Why then should we be alarmed at a further issue of legal-tender notes.… It is much better to stimulate, make money plenty, make it easy for people to pay their taxes and easy for Government to make loans.” Spaulding made it clear to the House that in the next eighteen months $1,000,000,000 must be borrowed. The expenses of the Government were $2,500,000 a day, Sundays included. The receipts from customs taxes and other sources would not probably exceed $600,000, leaving the balance, a daily deficit of $1,900,000, to be met by borrowing of some kind. Congress, in what is known as the nine hundred million dollar loan act, authorized more bonds, more Treasury notes, bearing interest, which might be made a legal tender for their face value, more non-interest bearing United States legal-tender notes and a large amount of fractional currency to replace the existing imperfect substitutes issued for silver change, silver having long since disappeared from circulation. This act gave large discretionary powers to the Secretary of the Treasury. Before the constitutional meeting of the next Congress, he might issue of the different forms of paper obligations authorized a total of $900,000,000.
Congress, in pursuance of the recommendation of the President and Secretary of the Treasury, also passed at this session an act creating National Banks, which was the nucleus of our present system.
It is easier to criticise the legislative body of a democracy than to praise it. Especially is this true in as large a country as our own, with interests apparently so diverse; for even in 1863 when the West and the East were knit together in devotion to the common purpose of the war, the two sections were nevertheless at times involved in disagreement. Under the circumstances, the broadest conception of, and most loyal adherence to, the policy of give and take which is the essence of all legislative theory would have failed to satisfy the ideal of any individual or party, yet as a whole the work of the Republican majority of Congress at this session deserves high commendation. They realized that only by victories in the field could the prevailing gloom be dispelled and confidence revived and that they must show the country an agreement among themselves upon such measures as might contribute to military success. Their distrust of the President’s ministers did not cease with the termination of the so-called Cabinet crisis of December. Thaddeus Stevens thought at one time of moving in a Republican caucus of the House a resolution of want of confidence in the Cabinet. The Radicals were far from being reconciled to the retention of Seward, and continued their efforts to have him removed, but, in spite of the President’s firm resolve to keep him, they voted the Administration ample powers. Most of the Republicans in Congress were of the mind of John Sherman, whose views inclined for the most part to moderation. “I cannot respect some of the constituted authorities,” he wrote to his brother the general, “yet I will cordially support and aid them while they are authorized to administer the Government.” Military success could be obtained only by giving the President extraordinary powers, and both senators and representatives perceived the inevitable and submitted to it. “With all its faults and errors,” wrote Fessenden, “this has been a great self-sacrificing Congress.… We have assumed terrible responsibilities, placed powers in the hands of the government possessed by none other on earth save a despotism. Future times will comprehend our motives and all we have done and suffered.”
The country’s response to the work of Congress was heard in enthusiastic “war” or “Union” meetings held in many cities and towns of different States. Those in New York were characteristic. Distinguished and popular Democrats addressed a “magnificent uprising of the people” at Cooper Institute. “Loyal National Leagues” or “Union Leagues” were formed, of which the test for membership was a brief emphatic pledge that was subscribed to by many thousands. These Leagues held one large meeting at the Academy of Music, another at Cooper Institute, and still another to celebrate the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter. To this period belongs the organization of the Union League Clubs of Philadelphia and New York and the Union Club of Boston, the object of their formation being distinctly patriotic. “But nothing will do for the country,” wrote Norton to Curtis—“neither Clubs nor Conscription Bills nor Banking Bills—nothing will do us much good but victories. If we take Charleston and Vicksburg we conquer—but if not?” Nevertheless, a feeling of comparative cheerfulness began to manifest itself, owing to the energy with which Congress had buckled to the task of rescuing the country from the depression which followed Fredericksburg, to the excellent reorganization of the Army of the Potomac and to the known confidence of the President and his Cabinet in ultimate success.
When Congress had assembled in December, the nation’s finances were at a low ebb. Many of the soldiers had not been paid for five months, and to them all the paymaster was at least three months in arrears, so that by January 7, 1863, the amount due the army and navy had probably reached the sum of sixty millions. The bonds of the government were not selling. Now all was changed. The Secretary of the Treasury had devised a plan for offering the five-twenty bonds to popular subscription through the employment of a competent and energetic general agent, who, by a system of sub-agencies, wide advertising, and other business methods, appealed to the mingled motives of patriotism and self-interest and induced the people to lend large sums of money to the Government. An impetus was given to this process by the general character of the financial legislation of Congress, and in particular by the clause in the nine hundred million dollar loan act which limited to July 1 the privilege of exchanging legal-tender notes for five-twenty bonds. Immediately after the adjournment of Congress the confidence of the people began to show itself through the purchase of these securities. By the end of March, Chase told Sumner that he was satisfied with the condition of the finances, and ere three more months had passed, he could see that his popular loan was an assured success. The subscriptions averaged over three million dollars a day. The Germans were likewise buying our bonds. On April 26, Sumner wrote to the Duchess of Argyll: “The Secretary of War told me yesterday that our rolls showed eight hundred thousand men under arms—all of them paid to February 28, better clothed and better fed than any soldiers ever before.… Besides our army, we have a credit which is adequate to all our needs.”On January 1, 1863, Burnside told the President that neither Stanton nor Halleck had the confidence of the officers and soldiers and in effect urged their removal, saying at the same time that he himself “ought to retire to private life.” Four days afterward by letter from his headquarters, he offered his resignation as Major-General, to which the President replied, “I do not yet see how I could profit by changing the command of the Army of the Potomac.”
Shortly after midnight of January 23, Burnside had an interview with the President, in which he asked him to approve an order dismissing Hooker from the military service of the United States on account of “having been guilty of unjust and unnecessary criticisms of the action of his superior officers … and of having made reports and statements which were calculated to create incorrect impressions” and in short being “a man unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present.” The order further punished by dismissal three brigadier-generals and relieved from duty Generals Franklin, W. F. Smith and a number of others. Approve this order, said Burnside, or accept my resignation as major-general. On the morning of January 25, the President summoned Stanton and Halleck to the White House and told them that he had decided to relieve Burnside and place Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac. He asked no advice from either and none was offered.
Previously Lincoln had talked more than once with members of his Cabinet concerning Hooker. “Who can take command of this Army?” he asked Welles after the second Battle of Bull Run. “Who is there among all these generals?” Without much consideration Welles replied, “Hooker.” The President looked approving, but said, “I think as much as you or any other man of Hooker but—I fear he gets excited.” Blair remarked, “He is too great a friend of John Barleycorn”; whereupon Welles: “If his habits are bad, if he ever permits himself to get intoxicated, he ought not to be trusted with such a command.” After the appointment, Welles wrote in his Diary, “I am surprised at his selection.”
In his discouragement and growing irritability, Lincoln permitted himself to be guided by public sentiment which had been so serviceable in political affairs; he felt that a vote of the rank and file of the army and of the Northern people would have plainly indicated, “Fighting Joe Hooker.” It is true, as Lincoln wrote in a private letter, that “in considering military merit the world has abundant evidence that I disregard politics”; and up to this time and afterwards, he showed his respect for the West Point education, although he did not rate it as high as we do at the present day. But in forming our opinion we have behind us the total experience of the Civil War and the records of both sides which attest by severe and thorough practice the in-estimable value of the training of our Military Academy.
Although Hooker was a graduate of West Point and had proved an excellent division and corps commander, his appointment to the chief command should never have been considered. Halleck was opposed to it and Stanton, it is said, backed him in his opposition. Most of the “old regular officers” were “decided in their hostility to him.” Meade, whose opinion was more favorable than that of his associates, thought Hooker “a very good soldier and a capital officer to command an army corps,” but doubted “his qualifications to command a large army.”
All the objections to Hooker were known in Washington, and it is surprising that they were not formulated to the President, inasmuch as there were two generals in the Army of the Potomac, John F. Reynolds and George G. Meade, either of whom in respect of character, training and ability was properly qualified for the command. After Fredericksburg it was evident that a change should be made and these generals were both talked of for the place. Reynolds did not want the command and probably would not have accepted it, but if he, Couch and Sedgwick had been called in council by the President or by Stanton and Halleck (an easy matter, as they were only a few hours’ journey from Washington), they would unanimously have recommended Meade and, though his seniors, would have offered cheerfully to serve under his command. Meade’s correspondence with his wife and son is crowning evidence that he would have been an admirable selection. Devotion to his wife and children and religious faith were the distinguishing marks of his private character; and his earnest thought on the conditions of the conflict remind one of the commonsense view of Lincoln and of Grant. “This war will never be terminated,” he wrote, “until one side or the other has been well whipped and this result cannot be brought about except by fighting.” He was popularly known as a “fighting general” and stood well with the officers of the army. On the other hand, Wade, Chandler and Covode, Radical members of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, treated him with “great distinction,” for he was sound according to the Radical touchstone by virtue of his willingness to command negro troops. Meade could have been better known in Washington in January, 1863, than we can now know him up to that time through his private correspondence; hence it must be concluded that Hooker’s appointment was an instance of the popular voice overbearing expert opinion. “A superior intellect and long and hard study are required to make an efficient commander,” wrote William R. Livermore. Doubt could not exist on January 1, 1863, that, as tried by this standard, Meade’s worth was much greater than Hooker’s.
When Hooker took command, the Army of the Potomac was depressed to a degree that seemed almost hopeless. Desertions were of “alarming frequency.” The new general went energetically to work to alter this condition and made his eminent talent for organization felt throughout the army. “The sullen gloom of the camps soon disappeared,” wrote Schurz, “and a new spirit of pride and hope began to pervade the ranks.” “The morale of our Army is better than it ever was,” wrote Meade to his wife on March 30, “so you may look out for tough fighting next time.” Early in April the President looking “careworn and exhausted” paid Hooker a visit, reviewed the whole army and said that he was “highly delighted” with all that he had seen. The people of the North, too, gained some comprehension of the general’s work and its results and showed the resiliency of their temper by taking fresh hope and talking of success to come.
Soon after the President’s visit, Hooker considered his army in condition to take the offensive. He had been somewhat hurried in his preparations because the term of service of 23,000 nine months’ and two years’ men was soon to expire. Encamped on the north bank of the Rappahannock River, he had 130,000 troops to oppose Lee’s 60,000, who were at Fredericksburg: the Army of Northern Virginia had been weakened by the detachment of Longstreet and part of his corps. Hooker ordered his cavalry to advance towards Richmond for the purpose of severing the Confederate communications, but owing to heavy rains and high water in the river these troops were delayed and proved of no assistance to him in his operations. On April 27, unable to wait longer for them to perform their part, he set in motion three corps who crossed the Rappahannock about twenty-seven miles above Fredericksburg, then forded the Rapidan and marched to Chancellorsville on the south side of these rivers. “The Army was in superb condition and animated by the highest spirits,” wrote Carl Schurz. “Officers and men seemed to feel instinctively that they were engaged in an offensive movement promising great results. There was no end to the singing and merry laughter relieving the fatigue of the march.” In order to mask the main movement, General John Sedgwick with the Sixth Corps forced the passage of the Rappahannock a short distance below Fredericksburg. On April 30, Couch with the Second Corps crossed the river at the United States ford, marching to Chancellorsville, and next day Sickles with the Third Corps followed. By the morning of May 1, Hooker, had assembled five corps under his immediate command. “We are across the river and have out-manœuvred the enemy,” wrote Meade to his wife, “but we are not yet out of the woods.” Hooker, however, was full of confidence and issued a boastful order. “The operations of the last three days,” he said, “have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly or come out from behind his defences and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” Hooker had said to the President, “I have under my command the finest army on the planet;” and on May 1 he began to use it by attacking the Confederates, of whose strength he had a pretty correct idea.
Lee was nowise perturbed at the successful crossing of the Rappahannock by the Union troops, although he wished that he had Longstreet and his two divisions back; he had Jackson, however, and the two wrought together in perfect accord. They feared Hooker no more than they had feared McClellan and, if they knew of his boastful order, must have felt that they had a braggart to deal with like Pope. The story of May 1 is a simple one. Hooker attacked. Lee made a counter-attack. Hooker lost his nerve and ordered his men to fall back. Meade wrote of his own corps, “Just as we reached the enemy we were recalled.” Had Hooker rested on his first order for an advance and left it to be carried out by his corps and division commanders, a sharp battle would have ensued, of which the result would of course have been dubious; but the army would not have been demoralized by having to retreat so soon after they had taken the offensive, and Hooker would not have lost the confidence of his officers by the vacillation exhibited in his actual orders of that day. Couch saw him soon after the retreat and got the impression that he was a “whipped man.”
The story of May 2 is that of a contest between Lee’s and Hooker’s brains; between Jackson’s and Howard’s execution. In the course of this History, we have gained some acquaintance with the two Confederates; but if more is needed, William R. Livermore’s technical analysis of their qualities and Hooker’s should enable us to realize that the result could have been no other than the one we have actually to record. History seemed to be repeating itself, for here was another general who knew not how to handle a hundred thousand and more men, who made furthermore an unfortunate choice for the commander of a corps (the Eleventh) that was to be terribly exposed in the ensuing action. Howard did not impress Schurz who commanded a division under him “as an intellectually strong man. A certain looseness of mental operations, a marked uncertainty in forming definite conclusions became evident in his conversation.”
After his retreat Hooker decided to remain on the defensive. He expected that Lee would make a frontal attack on his centre, to repel which he had made adequate preparation. But Lee was not the man to do what his enemy desired. He saw that such an attack “would be attended with great difficulty and loss in view of the strength of Hooker’s position and superiority of numbers.” Indeed, if a study of efficiency is desired, it may be found in the Confederate camp. Lee and Jackson considered an attack on Sedgwick in the plain of Fredericksburg but abandoned this as impracticable. But they were bent on an attack at some point, for they had no idea of an “inglorious flight.” On the night of May 1, sitting on two old cracker boxes, they had their last conference. Lee had “resolved to endeavor to turn Hooker’s right flank and gain his rear, leaving a force in front to hold him in check and conceal the movement”; the execution of this plan he intrusted to Jackson. He could not more strikingly have evinced his contempt for the generalship of his adversary, as, in the presence of superior numbers, he was willing to divide his own force.
Early on the morning of May 2, Jackson, “the great flanker,” started on a march which took him part way around the Union Army to carry out the design of attacking its right, which was held by Howard and his Eleventh Corps. Jackson had 31,700 men; Lee was left with 13,000. Lee had given to his lieutenant two-thirds of his infantry and four-fifths of his artillery, retaining the rest in order to demonstrate against Hooker’s centre. “Never can I forget,” wrote Dr. McGuire, “the eagerness and intensity of Jackson on that march to Hooker’s rear. His face was pale, his eyes flashing. Out from his thin compressed lips came the terse command, Press forward, press forward!” The commander in dingy clothes and wearing an old cap, the men ragged and unkempt, bearing tattered flags, had the appearance of an “undisciplined rabble”; yet steadily they marched through the heat of the day suffering from thirst and hunger. Three times the column halted for a rest of twenty minutes. During one of the halts, Fitzhugh Lee, commanding a cavalry brigade, took Jackson to the top of a hill, whence could be seen a line of entrenchments of the Eleventh Corps, and behind them the soldiers, some of whom, having stacked their arms, were chatting, smoking and playing cards, whilst others were butchering cattle for the supper near at hand. Jackson’s eyes flashed and his cheeks colored, as he perceived the unreadiness of his foe for the imminent fray, but his lips moving in silent prayer showed that he was supplicating the God of Battles. From this hilltop he reckoned that, by a farther march of two miles or more, he would be able to take Howard’s corps in the rear. Forward then was the word and when he had completed his fifteen miles of march, he wrote the last note that he ever sent to General Lee: “I hope, so soon as practicable, to attack. I trust that an ever kind Providence will bless us with success.” He was now west of the Union Army, on the side of it directly opposite to the position occupied by General Lee.
Meanwhile Hooker was up at daybreak making an examination of his right wing and when he returned to headquarters he found couriers waiting to tell him of Jackson’s movement; he could himself see a portion of Jackson’s column on the march turning southward which was suggestive of a retreat toward Richmond. Nevertheless, he thought for the moment that the aim of the Confederates might be to attack his right, a natural conclusion, as Lee was playing with him as he had played with Pope during the previous year. At 9:30 A.M., Hooker sent a word of warning to Howard, and a little later a joint despatch to Howard and Slocum (the commander of the Twelfth Corps), suggesting that they be prepared for a flank attack, as “We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right.” Additional reports of the Confederate movement continued to be received. “This continuous column—infantry, artillery, trains and ambulances—was observed for three hours moving apparently in a southerly direction,” wrote Sickles in his report. Acting on information to this effect, Hooker ordered Sickles to harass the movement. Sometime after noon the impression gained ground in the army that the Confederates were in full retreat and Hooker, vacillating as ever and ignoring the importance, if he were to act on the defensive, of being defended at all points, finally adopted this hopeful view, sending at 4:10 P.M. this despatch to Sedgwick: “We know that the enemy is fleeing, trying to save his trains. Two of Sickles’ divisions are among them.”
An able and vigilant corps commander could have done much to repair this error of his chief, but Howard was no less infatuated than Hooker. Schurz, the general of a division in his corps, plainly observed large columns of the enemy moving from east to west two miles or more away and urged Howard to make arrangements to repel a flank attack. “Our right wing stood completely in the air with nothing to lean upon,” he wrote in his report of May 12. “Our rear was at the mercy of the enemy.” He suggested a certain disposition of the force, “if it was really the intention that we should act on the defensive and cover the right and rear of the whole army. As we were actually situated, an attack from the West and Northwest could not be resisted for any length of time without a complete change of front on our part.” Schurz urged such a disposition upon Howard who, believing that Lee was in full retreat, was averse from the trouble of preparing for an attack that he had no idea would ever be made. Feeling very tired, he composed himself for a noonday nap, asking Schurz to wake him, if any important despatch should arrive. When Hooker’s first warning came of a possible attack on the flank, Schurz roused Howard, read the despatch aloud and put it in his hands. While they were discussing it a young officer delivered the second. Here was warrant enough for the action that Schurz desired, but Howard was unmoved; later on, in response to an order from Hooker, he sent his strongest brigade to the assistance of Sickles, who had now been despatched on the fruitless mission of harassing the supposed Confederate retreat. That the retreat was actually in progress seemed clear to Howard after the perusal of Hooker’s third order, and he accompanied the supporting brigade to assist in the capture of Lee’s rear. Nevertheless, warning after warning of Jackson’s real movement came from different points and “the danger gathering about the Federal right flank should have been well known to Howard and to Hooker.”
Meanwhile Jackson had formed his troops in battle array. “The men took their positions in silence, orders were transmitted in a low voice, the bugles were still; the soldiers abstained from saluting their general with their usual cheers.” The Eleventh Corps lay quietly in position, with no sense of the impending disaster. The opinion at headquarters which was shared by their own commander governed the men, and with a few exceptions, their officers. Some of the men were getting supper ready, others were eating or resting, some were playing cards. Shortly before six o’clock the Confederate bugles sounded. Jackson hurled most of his 31,000 upon the hapless 9000 of the Eleventh Corps, whose first warning was the wild rush of deer and rabbits driven by the quick march of the Confederates through the wilderness. Then came the “rebel yell” and a withering fire from cannon and rifles. After a brief resistance they ran. “No troops could have acted differently,” wrote General Alexander, who was with Jackson. “All of their fighting was of one brigade at a time against six.”
For the Confederates the victory was dearly bought. Jackson, busy in the endeavor to re-form his troops who had fallen into confusion from the charge through the thick and tangled wood, then eager to discover Hooker’s intentions, rode forward with his escort beyond his line of battle. When fired upon by Federal troops the little party turned back, and as they rode through the obscurity of the night, were mistaken for Union horsemen and shot at by their own soldiers, Jackson receiving a mortal wound. The disability of the general undoubtedly prevented his victory from being more complete. Sickles was in jeopardy, but the night being clear and the moon nearly full, he managed to fight his way back and re-occupy his breastworks.
Hooker, anxious and careworn, despondent at the rout of the Eleventh Corps, was in mind and nerve unfit to bear his great responsibility. On Sunday, the 3d of May, we find our general, incompetent at his best and now reduced to a state of nervous collapse, blundering through a hopeless contest with his able and confident adversary. Early in the morning Jackson’s corps, yelling fiercely and crying “Remember Jackson,” delivered an attack, supported by the troops under Lee’s immediate command. The Union soldiers resisted bravely. Officers and men made praiseworthy efforts, but there was no guiding head; nothing was effective that emanated from headquarters. Thirty to thirty-five thousand fresh troops, near at hand and eager to fight, were not called into action. Lincoln’s parting injunctions to Hooker on his visit to the Army of the Potomac in April, “In your next battle put in all your men” had gone unheeded.
Shortly after 9 o’clock in the morning, Hooker was knocked senseless by cannon-ball striking a pillar of the Chancellor House veranda against which he was leaning; but at that time the battle was practically lost. “By 10 A.M.,” said Lee in his report, “we were in full possession of the field.”
The rest of the Battle of Chancellorsville need not detain us. At midnight of May 4, Hooker assembled his accessible corps commanders to consider the question whether he should withdraw the army to the north side of the river. Couch and Sickles voted for its withdrawal. Meade, Reynolds and Howard favored an advance which would bring on another battle. Then Hooker said he should take upon himself the responsibility of recrossing the river. This movement was accomplished safely and without molestation. The loss of the Union Army in the Chancellorsville campaign was 16,792; that of the Confederate 12,764.
Hooker throughout was free from the influence of alcohol. Accustomed as he was to the use of whiskey, he had entirely stopped drinking probably at the outset of this campaign or, at all events, not later than the day when he reached Chancellorsville. His defeat was due to lack of ability and nerve. Meade’s account of him at this time explains the whole episode. “General Hooker has disappointed all his friends by failing to show his fighting qualities at the pinch,” Meade wrote to his wife on May 8. “He was more cautious and took to digging quicker than even McClellan, thus proving that a man may talk very big when he has no responsibility, but that it is quite a different thing, acting when you are responsible and talking when others are. Who would have believed a few days ago that Hooker would withdraw his army, in opposition to the opinion of a majority of his corps commanders? … Poor Hooker himself, after he had determined to withdraw, said to me, in the most desponding manner, that he was ready to turn over to me the Army of the Potomac; that he had enough of it and almost wished he had never been born.”
But when all is said Chancellorsville remains a brilliant victory for Lee. To have overcome with his hungry ill-clad troops an army double their number and abundantly supplied could only be the work of one who mastered men by his intellectual and moral greatness. Sound reasoning, ceaseless vigilance and unusual self-sacrifice were conspicuous on the Confederate side; not on the Union. Jackson, on the night before his flanking march, lay down to sleep at the foot of a pine tree and was covered by his adjutant with the cape of his overcoat; but when the adjutant fell asleep the general arose, spread the cape over him and slept without covering, awakening chilled and with a cold. Then declining a family breakfast that was being prepared for him, he gave his whole attention to pushing forward his troops. Howard, on the eve of a “ridiculous and stupid surprise,” although only in his thirty-third year, could not forego his noonday nap.
While calmly awaiting the result of Jackson’s flank movement and on the alert for any chance, Lee wrote a remarkable letter to Davis, from which may be seen his appreciation of the risk that he was taking and his resource in the event of failure. “If I had with me all my command,” he wrote, “and could keep it supplied with provisions and forage, I should feel easy, but, as far as I can judge, the advantage of numbers and position is greatly in favor of the enemy.” While Jackson was crushing the right of the Union Army, “Hooker with his two aides, sat on the veranda of the Chancellor House, enjoying the summer evening”; his first warning of the actual disaster was the flight of disordered fugitives from his Eleventh Corps.
The news from the battle-field received by the War Department and the President was meagre and unsatisfactory. Welles wrote in his Diary on May 4, “I this afternoon met the President at the War Department. He said he had a feverish anxiety to get facts; was constantly up and down, for nothing reliable came from the front. There is an impression which is very general that our Army has been successful, but that there has been great slaughter, and that still fiercer and more terrible fights are impending.” When the President received the telegram announcing the withdrawal of the army to the north side of the Rappahannock, he cried out, “My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!” On the same day [May 6] Sumner came from the “extremely dejected” President to Welles’s office and “raising both hands, exclaimed ‘Lost, lost, all is lost!’”
Owing to the censorship of the telegraph by the War Department, the news of the disaster at Chancellorsville reached the North slowly. When its full extent became known, discouragement ruled. Many men who were earnest in support of the war now gave up all hope that the South could be conquered. Nothing demonstrates more painfully the sense of failure of the North to find a successful general than the serious and apparently well-considered suggestion of the Chicago Tribune that Abraham Lincoln take the field as the actual commander of the Army of the Potomac. We sincerely believe, the writer of this article concluded, that “Old Abe” can lead our armies to victory. “If he does not, who will?”
Nevertheless, the gloom and sickness at heart so apparent after the first and second Bull Run, the defeat of McClellan before Richmond and the battle of Fredericksburg, are not discernible after Chancellorsville in nearly the same degree. It is true that the newspapers were now become a less accurate reflection of public sentiment than in the earlier stages of the war. A great deal of editorial writing was being done unmistakably for the purpose of keeping up the readers’ hope; but even after the evidence of the newspapers is corrected by the recollections of contemporaries as printed or as existing only in tradition, it is impossible to escape the inference that the depression was different in kind and in measure from that which had prevailed on other occasions. Business, which had begun to improve in the autumn of 1862, was now decidedly brisk. An era of money-making had opened, manifesting itself in wild speculation on the stock exchanges, in the multiplication of legitimate transactions and in the savings of the people finding an investment in government bonds. A belief is also noticeable that the war had helped trade and manufactures. The Government was a large purchaser of material; one activity was breeding another; men honestly, and in some cases dishonestly, were gaining profits, although the State was in distress. When the news of the defeat at Chancellorsville reached New York, gold rose in price temporarily, but railroad stocks, at first unsettled, soon resumed their active advance, while government bonds remained steady and the subscription of the public to the five-twenties still went on. That men had ceased to enlist was an indication not alone of the people’s weariness of the war, but also of the many opportunities of lucrative employment offered by the improvement in business. The war, so far as getting privates into the army was concerned, had become a trade. Men were induced to shoulder the musket by bounties from the national government, States, towns and city wards.
- See IV, 164.
- Schurz, Speeches, etc., I, 209, 210, 211, 217, 218.
- C. E. Norton, I, 258.
- IV; Foulke, I.
- Welles’s Diary, I, 169.
- General Meade, I, 320. On 318 is a partial apology for McClellan.
- Welles’s Diary, I, 176, 177.
- General Meade, I, 319.
- Ibid., I, 325.
- Schurz, Speeches, etc., I, 213.
- Nicolay, 255.
- Schurz, Speeches, etc. I,220.
- “I have commanded one hundred thousand men in battle,” wrote General Sherman to the Senator on Jan. 22, 1865, “and on the march, successfully and without confusion, and that is enough for reputation.” Sherman Letters 246.
- C. E. Norton, I,258.
- Ropes, II, 442.
- General Meade, 1,317.
- See Meade’s idea of an offensive campaign. General Meade, 1,330.
- Now commander of the Second Corps.
- Contrariwise. General Meade, I,348.
- Forbes, I,343.
- Lincoln, C. W., II, 243.
- Nov. 13, General Meade, I,327.
- General Meade, I,348.
- Schurz, Speeches, etc., 1,221.
- Warden, 482.
- Fessenden, 1,240.
- Welles’s Diary, 1,195.
- N. & H., VI, 265.
- Welles’s Diary, I, 196.
- Ibid., I, 197.
- Fessenden, I, 247.
- Welles’s Diary, I, 201.
- N. & H., VI, 271.
- J. Hay, I, 114.
- Welles’s Diary, I; Fessenden, I; N. & H., VI; IV; J. Hay, I; Bancroft, II; Hart’s Chase; Forbes, I.
- Fessenden, I, 245.
- IV; Lect.
- T. L. Livermore, 97.
- Union 12,906, Confederate 11,739. T. L. Livermore, 97.
- N. & H., X, 281.
- Sherman Letters, 182.
- Fessenden, I, 254.
- C. E. Norton, I, 261.
- O. R., XXI, 941, 944, 954, 998, 1004, 1009; C. W., Pt. 1, 718. Burnside was persuaded to withdraw his resignation and the order therefore ran that he was relieved at his own request from the command of the Army of the Potomac.
- Lincoln, C. W., II, 252.
- C. W., 1865, I, 175; B. & L., III, 239.
- General Meade, I, 318, 351.
- Sedgwick commanded the 9th corps at the time of Burnside’s resignation. Hooker took command on Jan. 26, 1863, and Sedgwick was transferred to the 6th Corps (with which his name is usually associated) on Feb. 5.
- Sedgwick and Couch having been made major-generals on July 4, 1862 outranked Meade. Reynolds and Meade became major-generals on Nov. 29, 1862; but Reynolds is placed just ahead of Meade in the rank list.
- Published in 1913.
- General Meade, I, 340, 347, 349, 356, 365.
- Letterman, 101.
- Schurz, Reminiscences, II, 403.
- General Meade, I, 362.
- General Meade, I, 364.
- Schurz, Reminiscences, II, 408.
- Sedgwick with the Sixth Corps was about 111/2 miles away. Reynolds with the First Corps about 13, but the enemy was between. Their marching distance was probably 23 miles.
- April 30. General Meade, I, 370.
- J. Bigelow Jr., 130, 236, 237. General Meade, I, 369.
- J. Bigelow, Jr., 130.
- Ibid., 112.
- W. R. Livermore, I, 114, 178.
- J. Bigelow, Jr., 41.
- Schurz, Reminiscences, II, 405.
- Lee’s report, O. R., XXV, Pt. 1,798.
- Lieut.-Col. Henderson, II, 512.
- Lee’s report, O. R., XXV, Pt. 1,798.
- J. Bigelow Jr., 273.
- Russell; III.
- Hamlin, 13; J. Bigelow Jr., 276.
- Fitzhugh Lee, 247.
- J. Bigelow Jr., 276.
- O. R., XXV, Pt. 2,360.
- O. R., XXV, Pt. 1,651.
- Schurz, Reminiscences, II, 416.
- J. Bigelow Jr., 287.
- Ibid., 292.
- Alexander, 337.
- He died eight days later.
- Hooker recovered and directed the retreat of his army.
- Couch, B. & L., III, 171.
- T. L. Livermore, 98.
- IV, 264 n.; General Meade, I, 365.
- General Meade, I, 372, 373.
- Dabney, 675, 677.
- Hamlin, 50.
- O. R., XXV, Pt. II, 765.
- J. Bigelow Jr., 301.
- Authorities: O. R., XXV, Pts. I, II; W. R. Livermore, I; J. Bigelow Jr.; General Meade, I; Hamlin; B. & L., III; C. W., 1865, I; Welles’s Diary, I; Schurz, Reminiscences, II; Alexander; IV; Dabney; Lieut.-Col. Henderson; Fitzhugh Lee; Pennypacker; Bache; Smith, Milt. Hist. Soc., V.
- Welles’s Diary, I, 291.
- Noah Brooks, 58.
- Welles’s Diary, I, 293.
- May 23.