December 31, 1861— As the first year of his administration drew to a close, President Abraham Lincoln sought to ease the concerns of a small group of meddlesome but highly influential Congressmen that the direction of the effort to crush the Confederacy needed to be changed quickly. Seldom has the Clausewitz dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means been demonstrated so much as in Lincoln’s attempt to maintain unity between the nation’s representatives and its armed forces, as well as among the states.
The postwar public deification of Lincoln should not blind us to the fact that, well into his administration, he had neither a master plan to win the Civil War nor the extensive military experience that provided instant credibility for George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower on national-security issues. His was, inescapably, a reactive Presidency: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” Lincoln wrote in a letter in April 1864.
The subject of this letter was the measures Lincoln had adopted to advance the Union effort. His observation that “indispensable necessity” had guided him throughout, despite seeming policy changes, can be seen nowhere more vividly than with the slavery issue.
As much as he had felt a bone-deep hatred for "the peculiar institution" since a trip down the Mississippi to Louisiana in the early 1830s, Lincoln felt that he had to tread cautiously in stamping it out, and not only because that action would break a campaign promise only to limit its spread, not to interfere where it curently operated. Use of slaves to crush the Confederacy by force might only lead border states such as Kentucky and Missouri to throw in their lot with their secessionist sisters farther south. The President preferred colonization and/or compensation emancipation for slaveholders. The failure of these proposals, along with reverses in the eastern theater of the war, led him to conclude later in 1862 that necessity required “military emancipation.”
But Lincoln had not reached this point when he and his Cabinet met with the Joint Select Committee on the Conduct of the War on the last day of 1861. Only appointed by the House and Senate less than two weeks before, the Republican majority on this group were already giving the President severe agita, and much more would come from them by war’s end. While well-meaning and capable of performing useful investigations (on such matters as military supply abuses, the Fort Pillow massacre, and Union troop deaths in Confederate prisons), they were also already driving the President crazy with their preference for state militias over West Point-trained soldiers, as well as their relentless urging to take Richmond, never mind the preparedness of Union troops for doing so.
Now in their sights was the Army of the Potomac’s new commander, General George B. McClellan. “Little Mac” had long put off any move toward invading Virginia, claiming that the less than two months he had had since being appointed commander was hardly enough time to train, provision, and organize his 100,000 troops. But discussions with other military commanders led the committee to believe that the general could have moved far sooner. This added to their initial grievances against him: his Democratic leanings and his stand against interfering in any way with slavery.
Even McClellan’s latest claim to Lincoln--that he was in bed with typhoid--cut the general little slack with the group. Senator Benjamin Wade from Ohio, the committee chairman whose lack of diplomacy led a reporter to call him "grim as a bear in ill health," got right to the point: “Mr. President, you are murdering your country by inches in consequence of the inactivity of the military and the want of a distinct policy in regard to slavery.”
This put Lincoln in a bind. He did not want to undercut the man he had chosen to succeed General Winfield Scott as America’s leading soldier. At the same time, unlike Confederate President Jefferson Davis—not only a West Point graduate, but also a hero of the Mexican-American War and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce—Lincoln had no sterling military credentials. Not only had he made himself conspicuous by opposing the conflict that started Davis’ upward trajectory, but he liked to joke about the limits of his own service record—three months in the Illinois militia in the Black Hawk War of 1832.
And so, the President chose, when he wasn't cheerleading the war effort, to bring the committee's Republicans and his balky general closer together. On New Year’s Day, Lincoln wrote McClellan to put aside his "uneasiness" about the joint committee's "doings": "You may be entirely relieved . . . The gentlemen of the Committee were with me an hour and a half last night; and I found them in a perfectly good mood. As their investigation brings them acquainted with facts, they are rapidly coming to think of the whole case as all sensible men woud."
Had Lincoln lived in the 21st century, it’s unlikely that this letter, however well-intentioned, would have done him any good. Just imagine this, a scenario repeated, with only slight variations, in recent years: lack of progress in the war leads the Democrats to regain control of Congress. When Lincoln removes McClellan from command, the Senate investigates. McClellan, called to testify, produces the President’s letter. “Honest Abe” ends up looking like a spinmeister, The Great Dissembler rather than the Great Railsplitter.
Over the next two weeks, the joint committee grew increasingly outspoken about the President's trust in his commander. Indiana's George Julian was stunned to find that the President and his Cabinet had no information on any of McClellan's plans, and that "Mr. Lincoln himself did not think he had any right to know, but that, as he was
not a military man, it was his duty to defer to General McClellan."
Even at the time, Lincoln’s trust in his general didn’t sit well with several people, not just the Joint Committee. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase made it plain even during the meeting that he agreed with the Congressmen and Senators.
More influential was Attorney-General Edward Bates. He, like Chase and Secretary of State William H. Seward, had battled Lincoln for the Republican nomination as President, but, with instincts more conservative than Chase’s, could not be written off as a radical abolitionist.
In his diary, Bates confided his dismay over what he had just witnessed: "The Prest. is an excellent man, and in the main wise; but he lacks will and purpose, and I greatly fear he, has not the power to command." In dealing one on one with the President, however, he was far more diplomatic, able to couch his tough love in legal arguments that Lincoln would find compelling.
It would not do for Lincoln to defer so often to McClellan, Bates claimed. The Constitution had explicitly vested in him power as Commander in Chief. Thus, Lincoln should "organize a Staff of his own, and assume to be in fact, what he is in law."
Lincoln was motivated enough by Bates' claims that he took out a book on military strategy from the Library of Congress. He became increasingly wedded to the idea of simultaneous attacks by Northern forces to prevent Confederate troop movements. While he continued to find the committee bothersome, they had shaken him enough that, from this point on, he challenged "Little Mac" more often to take the fight to the enemy.
As for the Joint Committee: They should be given due credit for recognizing early that McClellan was unsuited for his job and that emancipation was not only moral thing to do, but a weapon to destroy the Confederacy. But their thinking on other matters was terribly flawed. Their military favorites were leaders such as John Pope, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker--commanders hardly better than McClellan.
Their thinking about Lincoln was as myopic as it was cruel. After his assassination, several members were delighted that the President's successor, their former Democratic colleague, Andrew Johnson, would be far more vengeful against the South. By the end of Johnson's term, as he opposed one Reconstruction measure after another, Wade and company would have abundant reason to understand how wrong they had been about Lincoln, who, for all his seeming slowness, had embraced emancipation while eventually finding the commander who would put his strategy for dismembering the Confederacy into action.
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