“NOTHING BUT A PATENT PILL was ever so suddenly famous,” it was said of George B. McClellan when he arrived in Washington on July 27, 1861, to take command of the Army of the Potomac. “That dear old domestic bird, the Public,” an essayist later wrote, “was sure she had brooded out an eagle-chick at last.” Among the Union’s youngest generals at thirty-four, the handsome, athletic McClellan seemed to warrant the acclaim and great expectation. He was the scion of a distinguished Philadelphia family. His father graduated from Yale College and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. His mother was elegant and genteel. Educated in excellent schools, including West Point, McClellan had served on the staff of General Scott in the Mexican War. Most important, to a public looking for deliverance, he had recently defeated a guerrilla band in western Virginia, handing the North its only victory, albeit a small one.
To the nerve-worn residents of Washington, McClellan seemed “the man on horseback,” just the leader to mold the disorganized Union troops into a disciplined army capable of returning to Manassas and defeating the enemy. Within days of his arrival, one diarist noted, Washington itself had assumed “a more martial look.” Hotel bars no longer overflowed with drunken soldiers, nor did troops wander the city late at night in search of lodgings. The young general seemed able to mystically project his own self-confidence onto the demoralized troops, restoring their faith in themselves and their hope for the future. “You have no idea how the men brighten up now, when I go among them—I can see every eye glisten,” he wrote proudly to his wife, Mary Ellen. “Yesterday they nearly pulled me to pieces in one regt. You never heard such yelling.”
Lincoln hoped that between Scott’s seasoned wisdom as general-in-chief and McClellan’s vitality and force, he would finally have a powerfully effective team. From the start, however, McClellan viewed Scott as “the great obstacle” to both his own ambition for sole authority and to his larger strategy in the war. Less than two weeks after assuming command of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan questioned Scott’s belief that the rush of reinforcements to Washington had secured the capital. In a letter to General Scott, which he copied to the president, he argued that his army was “entirely insufficient for the emergency,” for “the enemy has at least 100,000 men in our front.” Scott was furious that his judgment had been called into question, correctly insisting that McClellan was grossly exaggerating the opposition forces. It would not be the last of the imperious general’s miscalculations.
Lincoln temporarily defused the animosity by asking McClellan to withdraw his offending letter, but the discord between the two generals continued to escalate. Scott wanted to employ “concentric pressure” on the rebels in different theaters of war. McClellan declared that only with an overwhelming force concentrated on Virginia could he put an end to hostilities. All other engagements he considered secondary, dispersing resources needed to “crush the rebels in one campaign.”
In his almost daily letters to his wife, McClellan recognized that his disagreements with Scott might “result in a mortal enmity on his part against me.” Justifying his unwillingness to make peace with Scott, he referred frequently to his sense of destiny. It was his conviction that “God has placed a great work in my hands.” He felt that “by some strange operation of magic” he had “become the power of the land” and if “the people call upon me to save the country—I must save it & cannot respect anything that is in the way.” McClellan told her that he received “letter after letter” begging him to assume the presidency or become a dictator. While he would eschew the presidency, he would “cheerfully take the Dictatorship & agree to lay down my life when the country is saved.”
Frustrated by the lack of response to his constant calls for more troops and equipment, McClellan insisted that Scott was “a perfect imbecile,” a “dotard,” even possibly “a traitor.” Refusing to acknowledge that the dispute represented an honest clash of opinions, McClellan insisted that the root of contention with Scott was the veteran’s “eternal jealousy of all who acquire any distinction.”
As the row between the two men intensified, McClellan decided to ignore Scott’s communications, though the chain of command required that he inform his superior officer of his position and the number of troops at his disposal. Scott was indignant. “The remedy by arrest and trial before a Court Martial, would probably, soon cure the evil,” Scott told Secretary of War Cameron, but he feared a public conflict “would be highly encouraging to the enemies, and depressing to the friends of the Union. Hence my long forbearance.” Instead, he proposed that as soon as the president could make other arrangements, he himself would gladly retire, “being, as I am, unable to ride in the saddle, or to walk, by reason of dropsy in my feet and legs, and paralysis in the small of the back.”
For two months, Lincoln tried to restore harmony between his commanders. He spent many hours at General Scott’s headquarters, listening to the old warrior and attempting to mollify him. He made frequent visits to McClellan’s headquarters, situated in a luxurious house at the corner of Lafayette Square, not far from Seward’s new home. The upstairs rooms were reserved for McClellan’s private use. The parlors downstairs were occupied by the telegraph office, with dozens of staff “smoking, reading the papers, and writing.” Sometimes McClellan welcomed Lincoln’s visits; on other occasions, he felt them a waste of time: “I have just been interrupted here by the Presdt & Secty Seward who had nothing very particular to say, except some stories to tell.” Observers noted with consternation that McClellan often kept Lincoln waiting in the downstairs room, “together with other common mortals.” British reporter William Russell began to pity the president, who would call only to be told that the general was “lying down, very much fatigued.” Nonetheless, so long as he believed in McClellan’s positive influence on the army, Lincoln tolerated such flagrant breaches of protocol.
The first public dissatisfaction with McClellan’s performance began to emerge as the autumn leaves began to fall. While Washingtonians delighted in his magnificent reviews of more than fifty thousand troops marching in straight columns to the sounds of hundred-gun salutes, with “not a mistake made, not a hitch,” they grew restive with the failure of the troops to leave camp. Undeterred, McClellan insisted to his wife that he would not move until he was certain that he was completely ready to take on the enemy. “A long time must yet elapse before I can do this, & I expect all the newspapers to abuse me for delay—but I will not mind that.”
Radical Republicans who had initially applauded McClellan’s appointment began to turn on him when they learned he had issued “a slave-catching order” requiring commanders to return fugitive slaves to their masters. McClellan repeatedly emphasized that he was “fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union & the power of the Govt,” and that to achieve that overriding goal, the country could not “afford to raise up the negro question.” Coming under attack, he sought cover from his Democratic friends. “Help me to dodge the nigger,” he entreated Samuel Barlow of New York, “we want nothing to do with him.”
At the first whiff of censure, McClellan shifted blame onto any other shoulder but his own—onto Scott’s failure to muster necessary resources, onto the incompetence of the cabinet, “some of the greatest geese…I have ever seen—enough to tax the patience of Job.” He considered Seward “a meddling, officious, incompetent little puppy,” Welles “weaker than the most garrulous old woman,” and Bates “an old fool.” He was disgusted by the “rascality of Cameron,” and though he commended Monty Blair’s courage, he did not “altogether fancy him!” Only Chase was spared his scorn, perhaps because the treasury secretary had sent a flattering letter before McClellan was called to Washington in which he claimed that he was the one responsible for the general’s promotion to major general.
Impatience with McClellan mounted when one of his divisions suffered a crushing defeat at a small engagement on October 21, 1861. Having learned that the rebels had pulled back some of their troops from Leesburg, Virginia, McClellan ordered General Charles P. Stone to mount “a slight demonstration on your part” in order “to move them.” Stone assumed that he would have the help of a neighboring division, which McClellan had ordered back to Washington without informing Stone. Colonel Edward Baker, Lincoln’s close friend from Illinois, was killed in action, along with forty-nine of his men when the Confederates trapped them at the river’s edge at Ball’s Bluff. Many more were seriously wounded, including the young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was brought to Chase’s spacious home to recover.
Baker was mourned by the entire Lincoln family. Lincoln later told the journalist Noah Brooks that “the death of his beloved Baker smote upon him like a whirlwind from a desert.” The day before Baker was killed, the two old friends had talked together on the White House grounds. A passing officer recalled the poignant scene: “Mr. Lincoln sat on the ground leaning against a tree; Colonel Baker was lying prone on the ground his head supported by his clasped hands. The trees and the lawns were gorgeous in purple and crimson and scarlet, like the curtains of God’s tabernacle.” Not far away, ten-year-old Willie “was tossing the fallen leaves about in childish grace and abandon.” When the time came for Baker to take his leave, he shook Lincoln’s hand and then took Willie into his arms and kissed him.
Twenty-four hours later, Captain Thomas Eckert, in charge of the telegraph office at McClellan’s headquarters, received word of Baker’s death and the defeat at Ball’s Bluff. Instructed to deliver all military telegrams directly to McClellan, Eckert searched for the commanding general. Finding him at the White House talking with Lincoln, he handed the general the wire and withdrew. McClellan chose not to reveal its contents to the president. Afterward, when Lincoln dropped in at the telegraph office to get the latest news from the front, he discovered the dispatch. A correspondent seated in the outer room observed Lincoln’s reaction. He walked “with bowed head, and tears rolling down his furrowed cheeks, his face pale and wan, his heart heaving with emotion.” He stumbled through the room and “almost fell as he stepped into the street.”
Mary was similarly distraught. She had named her second son, Edward, in honor of Edward Baker. Now both her child and his dear namesake were lost. Willie and Tad, who had likewise adored Baker, were heartbroken. For Willie, much like his father, writing provided some measure of solace. He composed a small poem, “On the Death of Colonel Edward Baker,” which was published in the National Republican. After two stanzas recalling Baker’s patriotic life and celebrated oratorical skills, he wrote:
No squeamish notions filled his breast,
The Union was his theme.
“No surrender and no compromise,”
His day thought and night’s dream.
His country has her part to play,
To’rds those he has left behind,
His widow and his children all,—
She must always keep in mind.
The child’s homage to a cherished friend reflected a depressingly common circumstance as the war left mounting casualties and desolation in its wake. Ten-year-old Willie’s words would be echoed in his father’s memorable plea in the Second Inaugural Address, when he urged the nation “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”
McClellan straightaway denied responsibility for the defeat at Ball’s Bluff, characteristically insisting that the “disaster was caused by errors committed” by the leaders at the front. “The whole thing took place some 40 miles from here without my orders or knowledge,” he told his wife; “it was entirely unauthorized by me & I am in no manner responsible for it.” The person “directly to blame,” McClellan said, was Colonel Baker, who had exceeded General Stone’s orders by crossing the river. Rumors then began to spread that Stone himself would be court-martialed.
When frustrated congressional leaders, many of whom were longtime friends of Baker, decried the defeat at Ball’s Bluff and the general stagnation of the Union troops, the president defended McClellan. When these same leaders approached McClellan, he unleashed a diatribe against Scott, accusing him of placing obstacles at every step along his way. The congressional delegation left, vowing to remove Scott. “You may have heard from the papers etc of the small row that is going on just now between Genl Scott & myself,” McClellan wrote his wife, “in which the vox populi is coming out strongly on my side…. I hear that off[icer]s & men all declarethat they will fight under no one but ‘our George,’ as the scamps have taken it into their heads to call me.”
On November 1, Lincoln regretfully accepted the veteran’s request for retirement. The newspapers released General Scott’s resignation letter along with Lincoln’s heartfelt reply. The president extolled Scott’s “long and brilliant career,” stating that Americans would hear the news of his departure from active service “with sadness and deep emotion.” At the same time, Lincoln designated McClellan to succeed Scott as general-in-chief of the Union Army.
Two days later, his objective accomplished, McClellan confessed to conflicted emotions when he accompanied Scott to the railroad station for his departure from Washington. “I saw there the end of a long, active & ambitious life,” he wrote his wife, “the end of the career of the first soldier of his nation—& it was a feeble old man scarce able to walk—hardly any one there to see him off but his successor.” The truth, as the newspapers reported, was that a large crowd had assembled at the depot, despite the train’s leaving at 5 a.m. in a drenching rain. All the members of Scott’s staff were there, along with McClellan’s complete staff and a cavalry escort. Secretaries Chase and Cameron had come to join the general on his journey to Harrisburg. Moreover, “quite a number of citizens” had gathered to pay their respects, belying the ignominious farewell that McClellan depicted. Once again, the young Napoleon erred in his calculations.
As winter approached, public discontent with the inaction of the Union Army intensified. “I do not intend to be sacrificed,” the new general-in-chief wrote his wife. Now that McClellan could no longer blame Scott for his troubles, he shifted his censure to Lincoln for denying him the means to confront the rebel forces in Virginia, whose numbers, he insisted, were at least three times his own. In letters home, he complained about Lincoln’s constant intrusions, which forced him to hide out at the home of fellow Democrat Edwin Stanton, “to dodge all enemies in shape of ‘browsing’ Presdt etc.” He reported a visit to the White House one Sunday after tea, where he found “the original gorrilla,” as he had taken to describing the president. “What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now!” he ranted. “I went to Seward’s, where I found the ‘Gorilla’ again, & was of course much edified by his anecdotes—ever apropos, & ever unworthy of one holding his high position.”
On Wednesday night, November 13, Lincoln went with Seward and Hay to McClellan’s house. Told that the general was at a wedding, the three waited in the parlor for an hour. When McClellan arrived home, the porter told him the president was waiting, but McClellan passed by the parlor room and climbed the stairs to his private quarters. After another half hour, Lincoln again sent word that he was waiting, only to be informed that the general had gone to sleep. Young John Hay was enraged. “I wish here to record what I consider a portent of evil to come,” he wrote in his diary, recounting what he considered an inexcusable “insolence of epaulettes,” the first indicator “of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities.” To Hay’s surprise, Lincoln “seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette & personal dignity.” He would hold McClellan’s horse, he once said, if a victory could be achieved.
Though Lincoln, the consummate pragmatist, did not express anger at McClellan’s rebuff, his aides fumed at every instance of such arrogance. Lincoln’s secretary, William Stoddard, described the infuriating delay when he accompanied Lincoln to McClellan’s anteroom. “A minute passes, then another, and then another, and with every tick of the clock upon the mantel your blood warms nearer and nearer its boiling-point. Your face feels hot and your fingers tingle, as you look at the man, sitting so patiently over there…and you try to master your rebellious consciousness.” As time went by, Lincoln visited the haughty general less frequently. If he wanted to talk with McClellan, he sent a summons for him to appear at the White House.
DURING THESE TENSE DAYS, Mary tried to distract her husband. If old friends were in town, she would invite them to breakfast and dispatch a message to his office, calling the president to join the gathering. Initially irritated to be taken from his work, Lincoln would grudgingly sit down and begin exchanging stories. His “mouth would relax, his eye brighten, and his whole face lighten,” Elizabeth Grimsley recalled, “and we would be launched into a sea of laughter.” Mary had also introduced a therapeutic “daily drive,” insisting that the two of them, and sometimes the children, take an hour-long carriage ride at the end of the afternoon, to absorb “the fresh air, which he so much needed.”
More than most previous first ladies, Mary enjoyed entertaining. She had never lost her taste for politics. On many nights, while her husband worked late in his office, the first lady held soirées in the Blue Room, to which she invited a mostly male circle of guests. Her frequent visitors included Daniel Sickles, the New York congressman who recently had murdered the son of the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Philip Barton Key, who was having an affair with Sickles’s wife. Defended by a team of lawyers including Edwin Stanton, Sickles had been found innocent by reason of “temporary insanity.”
Another flamboyant figure at Mary’s salons was Henry Wikoff, who had published an account of his picaresque adventures in Europe. He had been a spy for Britain and had spent time in jail for kidnapping and seducing a young woman. Mary enjoyed people with scandalous backgrounds, and delighted in the lively conversation, which ranged from “love, law, literature, and war” to “gossip of courts and cabinets, of the boudoir and the salon, of commerce and the Church, of the peer and the pauper, of Dickens and Thackeray.”
While Mary charmed guests in her evening salons, she gained respect for the energy and aplomb with which she hosted the traditional White House receptions for the public. She believed that these social gatherings helped to sustain morale. Most important, her husband was proud of both her social skills and her appearance. “My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl,” he said at one White House levee, “and I a poor nobody then, fell in love with her and once more, have never fallen out.”
When Prince Napoleon, the cousin of Napoleon Bonaparte III, visited Washington in early August, Mary organized an elaborate dinner party. She found the task of entertaining much simpler than it had been in Springfield days. “We only have to give our orders for the dinner, and dress in proper season,” she wrote her friend Hannah Shearer. Having learned French when she was young, she conversed easily with the prince. It was a “beautiful dinner,” Lizzie Grimsley recalled, “beautifully served, gay conversation in which the French tongue predominated.” Two days later, her interest in French literature apparently renewed, Mary requested Volume 9 of the Oeuvres de Victor Hugo from the Library of Congress.
Nor did Mary Lincoln confine her abundant energies to social ventures. A month after the French dinner, she strenuously pressured her husband on a matter of state—the pending execution of William Scott. A soldier from Vermont, Scott had fallen asleep during picket duty. His dereliction of duty had occurred during the predawn hours of his second straight night of standing guard. As the story was told, he had volunteered the first night to replace a sick friend, and then was called to duty the next night on his own. According to Lizzie Grimsley, the severity of the soldier’s sentence distressed both Tad and his mother. “Think,” Tad entreated, “if it was your own little boy who was just tired after fighting, and marching all day, that he could not keep awake, much as he tried to.” Mary joined in, begging her husband to show mercy to the young soldier. The situation was not easy for Lincoln. While he understood the human circumstances that led to the soldier’s lapse, he also recognized that his intervention might undermine military discipline. In the end, Mary’s arguments apparently swayed him.
The day before the scheduled execution, Lincoln walked over to McClellan’s office and asked him to issue a pardon, “suggesting,” the general recollected, “that I could give as a reason in the order that it was by request of the ‘Lady President.’” Vermont senator Lucius Chittenden, who had also interceded on young Scott’s behalf, apologized for the imposition, recognizing “that it was asking too much of the President” to intervene “in behalf of a private soldier.” Lincoln put Chittenden’s mind at ease, assuring him that “Scott’s life is as valuable to him as that of any person in the land. You remember the remark of a Scotchman about the head of a nobleman who was decapitated. ‘It was a small matter of a head, but it was valuable to him, poor fellow, for it was the only one he had.’”
The renovation of the White House and its surrounding landscape engaged Mary throughout the summer and fall of 1861. She raved to a friend that she had “the most beautiful flowers & grounds imaginable, and company & excitement enough, to turn a wiser head than my own.” Yet with each passing month, she spent less time with her husband, whose every hour was preoccupied with the war. Though he still took the afternoon drives she had prescribed, he often invited Seward along so the two men could talk. In late August, when Seward’s wife and daughter arrived in Washington to spend several weeks, Lincoln took them for drives nearly every afternoon. Frances took an immediate liking to the president, whom she described as “a plain unassuming farmer—not awkward or ungainly,” who talked with equal ease about “the war & the crops.” Fanny was captivated. “I liked him very much,” she recorded in her diary. She was especially delighted when the president showed her the kittens her father had given to Willie and Tad and told her that “they climb all over him.”
During these pleasant interludes with the Seward family, Lincoln stopped to visit the various encampments in the surrounding countryside. Halting the carriages, he and Seward would talk with the soldiers. A veteran reporter who had watched every president since Jackson wrote that he had never seen anyone go through the routine of handshaking with the “abandon of President Lincoln. He goes it with both hands, and hand over hand, very much as a sailor would climb a rope.” The affable Seward was equally at ease. Fanny took particular delight in watching them greet troops from the 23rd Pennsylvania Regiment. “With one impulse” the men cheered Lincoln’s appearance so loudly that the horses were “somewhat startled”; then they “began cheering for ‘Secretary Seward’ passing his name from mouth to mouth.” Fanny proudly confided in her diary that “I love to remember all Father says and does.”
Frances Seward was happy to be reunited with her husband for the first extended period in almost a year, but she found the frantic pace of wartime Washington life enervating. Nor did she feel at home in the “palatial” house her husband had taken on Lafayette Square. In a letter to her sister, she wistfully confessed that Henry was never “more pleased with a home—it accommodates itself marvelously to his tastes & habits—such as they are at this day.” She praised Fred and Anna, who were so “gifted in making their surroundings…tasteful & attractive.” But it was a home designed for the three of them—her husband, son, and daughter-in-law—not for her. It perfectly fitted the constant round of entertaining that Seward so enjoyed. And Anna was far better suited to the role of hostess than Frances—confined to her bed by migraines for several days every week—could ever hope to be.
As she readied herself to return to Auburn, Frances was concerned that she had not yet called on Mary Lincoln. The first lady had just come back from a three-week vacation in upstate New York and Long Branch, New Jersey, and Frances felt it her duty to visit, “especially as I went to see her husband.” On the Monday before Frances was due to leave, word came that Mary would receive her and her family that evening. After dinner, John Nicolay arrived to escort the Sewards to the White House. The little group included Henry, Frances, Fred, Anna, and Fanny, as well as Seward’s youngest son, Will, and his new bride, Jenny. They were shown into the Blue Parlor by Edward, the Irish doorkeeper who had worked in the White House for nearly two decades. “Edward drew a chair for Mrs. L.,” Fanny recalled, and then arranged the chairs for the rest of the party, before leaving to inform Mary that her guests had arrived. “Well there we sat,” Fanny recorded, until “after a lapse of some time the usher came and said Mrs. Lincoln begged to be excused, she was very much engaged.”
“The truth,” Fanny wrote, “was probably that she did not want to see Mother—else why not give general direction to the doorkeeper to let no one in? It was certainly very rude to have us all seated first.” Referring to Mary’s celebrated salons, Fanny archly added that it was “the only time on record that she ever refused to see company in the evening.” In fact, Mary detested Seward and had most likely contrived to snub the entire Seward family. From the outset, she had resisted Seward’s appointment to the cabinet, fearing that his celebrity would outshine her husband’s. “If things should go on all right,” she warned, “the credit would go to Seward—if they went wrong—the blame would fall upon my husband.” Contrary to Mary’s suspicions, it was Seward who received much of the censure incurred by the administration, as his fellow cabinet members tended to blame him more than Lincoln for whatever displeased them. Long after Seward had come to respect Lincoln’s authority, however, many observers, including Mary, mistakenly assumed that the secretary of state was the mastermind of the administration. “It makes me mad to see you sit still and let that hypocrite, Seward, twine you around his finger as if you were a skein of thread,” Mary fumed to her husband.
Furthermore, Mary resented the long evenings Lincoln spent at Seward’s Lafayette Square mansion rather than remaining home with her. Warmed by Seward’s fireplace and gregarious personality, Lincoln could unwind. Though he himself neither drank nor smoked, he happily watched Seward light up a Havana cigar and pour a glass of brandy. And while Lincoln rarely swore, he found Seward’s colorful cursing amusing. On one occasion, as Lincoln and Seward were en route to review the troops, the driver lost control of his team and began swearing with gusto. “My friend, are you an Episcopalian?” Lincoln asked. The teamster replied that he was, in fact, a Methodist. “Oh, excuse me,” Lincoln said with a laugh. “I thought you must be an Episcopalian for you swear just like Secretary Seward, and he’s a churchwarden!”
Lincoln and Seward talked of many things besides the war. They debated the historical legacies of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Quincy Adams. Seward argued that neither Clay’s nor Webster’s would live “a tithe as long as J. Q. Adams.” Lincoln disagreed, believing that “Webster will be read for ever.” They explored the concept of “personal courage.” When Lincoln spoke admiringly of the intensity of a particular soldier’s desire to take on the enemy in person, Seward disagreed. “He had always acted on the opposite principle, admitting you are scared and assuming that the enemy is.” They traded stories and teased each other.
One night when John Hay was also present, another guest brought up the Chicago convention. Hay feared that reminding Seward of his loss was in “very bad taste,” but Lincoln used the remark to tell a humorous story about 1860. At one point, he related, the mayor of Chicago, John Wentworth, had feared that Lincoln was oblivious to shifting opinion in Illinois. “I tell you what,” Wentworth advised, referring to Thurlow Weed. “You must do like Seward does—get a feller to run you.” Both Lincoln and Seward found the story “vastly amusing.”
Lincoln’s buoyant mood plummeted an hour or so later that evening when he received General Thomas W. Sherman’s request for more troops before his advance upon Port Royal, South Carolina. Frustrated by repeated calls from every general for reinforcements, he told Seward he would refuse Sherman’s request and would telegraph him to say he didn’t have “much hope of his expedition anyway.” Now it was Seward’s turn to moderate the president’s reply, much as Lincoln had softened Seward’s language in the famous May 21 dispatch. “No,” Seward replied, “you wont say discouraging things to a man going off with his life in his hand.” Lincoln rejected Sherman’s request for more troops but expressed no pessimism about the mission.
The long evenings of camaraderie at Seward’s, where interesting guests wandered in and out, probably rekindled memories of Lincoln’s convivial days on the circuit, when he and his fellow lawyers gathered together before the log fire to talk, drink, and share stories. Between official meetings and private get-togethers, Lincoln spent more time with Seward in the first year of his presidency than with anyone else, including his family. It was not therefore surprising that the possessive Mary felt rancor toward Seward and his family.
WHILE LINCOLN ENDURED complaints about the lack of forward movement in the East, he was forced to confront an equally thorny situation in the West, where the fighting between secessionists and Unionists in Missouri threatened to erupt into civil war. Though a majority of the state supported the Union, the new governor, Claiborne Jackson, commanded a sizable number of secessionists intent upon bringing the state into the Confederacy. Missouri initially succeeded in thwarting the rebel guerrillas, largely through the combined efforts of Frank Blair, who had left Congress to become a colonel, and his good friend, General Nathaniel Lyon. They had prevented rebel troops from seizing the St. Louis arsenal, and ingeniously captured Fort Jackson, where the Confederate troops were headquartered. Lyon had entered the rebel camp on a scouting mission, disguised as the familiar figure of Frank’s mother-in-law, a well-respected old lady in St. Louis. He wore a dress and shawl, with a “thickly veiled sunbonnet,” to hide his red beard. Hidden in his egg basket were revolvers in case he was recognized. The following day, with knowledge of the camp and seven thousand troops, Lyon marched in and took the fort.
In spite of these early successes, daring rebel raids soon destroyed bridges, roads, and property, and threw the state into a panic. To take charge of this perilous situation and command the entire Department of the West, Lincoln appointed General John C. Frémont, the dashing hero whose exploits in 1847 in the liberation of California from Mexico had earned him the first Republican nomination for president in 1856. Lincoln later recalled that it was upon the “earnest solicitation” and united advocacy of the powerful Blair family that he made Frémont a major general and sent him to Missouri.
Frémont’s appointment was initially greeted with enthusiasm. “He is just such a person as Western men will idolize and follow through every danger to death or victory,” John Hay wrote. “He is upright, brave, generous, enterprising, learned and eminently practical.” Frémont’s staunch antislavery principles found favor among the German-Americans who comprised a large portion of the St. Louis population. “There was a sort of romantic halo about him,” Gustave Koerner recalled. His name alone had “a magical influence,” inducing thousands of volunteers from the Western states to join the Union Army.
Within weeks of Frémont’s arrival, however, stories filtered back to Washington of “recklessness in expenditures.” Tales circulated that the Frémonts had set themselves up in a $6,000 mansion, where bodyguards deterred unwanted visitors, including Hamilton Gamble, the former Unionist governor of Missouri and brother-in-law of Edward Bates. Some worried that Frémont, like McClellan, had chosen to stay in the city to prepare for a move against the rebels rather than join his troops in the field. These unsettling rumors were followed by the shocking news of General Lyon’s death in a struggle at Wilson’s Creek on August 10. Weeks later, the Union forces suffered another devastating defeat when they were forced to surrender Lexington to the rebels. Among Missouri’s loyalists morale plummeted.
In late August, realizing he must act before the situation deteriorated further, Frémont issued a bold proclamation. Without consulting Lincoln, he declared martial law throughout the state, giving the military the authority to try and, if warranted, shoot any rebels within Union lines who were found “with arms in their hands.” Union troops were directed to confiscate all property, including slaves, of all persons “who shall be directly proven to have taken an active part with their enemies in the field.” These slaves, Frémont proclaimed, “are hereby declared freemen.” Frémont’s policy far exceeded the Confiscation Act passed by the Congress earlier that month, which applied only to slaves supporting Confederate troops and did not spell out their future status.
Lincoln learned of Frémont’s proclamation by reading it in the newspapers along with the rest of the nation. With this announcement, Frémont had unilaterally recast the struggle to preserve the Union as a war against slavery, a shift that the president believed would lead Kentucky and the border states to join the Confederacy. Lincoln wrote a private letter to Frémont, expressing his “anxiety” on two points: “First, should you shoot a man, according to the proclamation, the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best man in their hands in retaliation; and so, man for man, indefinitely.” Even more troubling, he saw “great danger” in “liberating slaves of traiterous owners,” a move that would certainly “alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us—perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky. Allow me therefore to ask, that you will as of your own motion, modify that paragraph so as to conform” to the recent Confiscation Act of Congress. Lincoln was anxious that Frémont change the language of his own accord, so that the president would not be officially forced to override him. He understood that if the controversy became public, radical Republicans, whose loyalty was crucial to his governing coalition, might side with Frémont rather than with him.
Moreover, as Lincoln later explained to Orville Browning, “Fremont’s proclamation, as to confiscation of property, and the liberation of slaves, is purely political, and not within the range of military law, or necessity.” As chief executive, he could not allow a general in the field to determine the “permanent future condition” of slaves. Seward fully supported Lincoln on principle as well as policy. “The trouble with Fremont was, that he acted without authority from the President,” Seward later maintained. “The President could permit no subordinate to assume a responsibility which belonged only to himself.”
Lincoln’s fears about the reaction to Frémont’s proclamation in the border states were justified. Within days, frantic letters reached Washington from Unionists in Kentucky. Joshua Speed wrote to Lincoln that Frémont’s proclamation had left him “unable to eat or sleep—It will crush out every vestage of a union party in the state—I perhaps & a few others will be left alone.” He reminded his old friend that there were “from 180 to 200000 slaves” in Kentucky, of whom only 20,000 belonged to rebels. “So fixed is public sentiment in this state against freeing negroes & allowing negroes to be emancipated & remain among us,” he continued, “that you had as well attack the freedom of worship in the north or the right of a parent to teach his child to read—as to wage war in a slave state on such a principle.”
Meanwhile, events in Missouri took a strange turn. On September 1, the same day that Frémont made his proclamation public, Colonel Frank Blair penned a long letter to his brother, Montgomery, that would lead to the colonel’s arrest and imprisonment two weeks later. “I know that you and I are both in some sort responsible for Fremonts appointment,” he admitted, but “my decided opinion is that he should be relieved of his command.” Blair was not reacting to the proclamation, as was assumed by contemporaries and historians alike. On the contrary, he told Monty he agreed with the proclamation, believing that stringent measures, including the liberation of slaves, were necessary to dispel the illusions of impunity the marauding bands of rebel guerrillas seemed to harbor. He wished only that the proclamation had been issued earlier, when Frémont “had the power to enforce it & the enemy no power to retaliate.”
But since Frémont had taken command, Frank told his brother, the situation in Missouri had grown increasingly desperate. Through “gross & inexcusable negligence,” the rebels had accumulated a substantial following. “Oh! for one hour of our dead Lyon,” he lamented, adding that many now ascribed Lyon’s death to Frémont’s failure to reinforce him. Moreover, in the camps around St. Louis, there was “an active want of discipline” reminiscent of the disorganization in Washington that led to Bull Run. If his brother had information absolving Frémont, Frank continued, if the government knew more of Frémont’s plans than he, then Montgomery should “burn this paper and say that I am an alarmist”; but at this moment, his faith was shaken “to the very foundations.”
Monty Blair showed his brother’s frank letter to Lincoln and added a letter of his own. He asserted that he himself had reluctantly concluded that Frémont must be dismissed. He acknowledged that he had sponsored Frémont at the start, having enjoyed a warm friendship with the celebrated explorer, “but being now satisfied of my mistake duty requires that I should frankly admit it and ask that it may be promptly corrected.” Like Frank, he took no issue with the proclamation, believing a show of strength was necessary. Frémont’s removal, he concluded, was “required by public interests.”
Hearing similar testimony from other sources in Missouri, Lincoln sent General Meigs and Montgomery Blair on September 10 to talk with Frémont and “look into the affair.” At this point, the president still had not received confirmation from Frémont that he would modify the proclamation as requested.
That evening, Frémont’s spirited wife, Jessie, the daughter of former senator Thomas Benton, arrived in Washington after a three-day trip on a dusty, cramped train to hand-deliver Frémont’s delayed response. She sent Lincoln a card asking when she could see him and received the peremptory response: “A. Lincoln. Now.” Straightaway, Jessie left her room at the Willard in the wrinkled dress she had worn during her sweltering trip. As she later reported, when the president came into the room, he “bowed slightly” but did not speak. Nor did he offer her a seat. She handed him her husband’s letter, which he read standing. To Lincoln’s fury and dismay, Frémont had refused his private request to modify the proclamation, insisting that the president must publicly order him to do so. “If I were to retract of my own accord,” the general argued, “it would imply that I myself thought it wrong and that I had acted without the reflection which the gravity of the point demanded. But I did not do so.”
When Lincoln remarked that Frémont clearly knew what was expected of him, Jessie implied that Lincoln did not understand the complex situation in Missouri. Nor did he appreciate that unless the war became one of emancipation, European powers were more than likely to recognize the Confederacy. “You are quite a female politician,” Lincoln remarked. He later recalled that Jessie Frémont had “taxed me so violently with many things that I had to exercise all the awkward tact I have to avoid quarelling with her…. She more than once intimated that if Gen Fremont should conclude to try conclusions with me he could set up for himself.” As Jessie left, she asked Lincoln when she might return to receive his reply. He told her he would send for her when he was ready.
The next morning, Lincoln wrote his reply. This time, he issued “an open order” to Frémont to revise his proclamation to conform to the provisions of the Confiscation Act. Rather than allow Jessie to hand-deliver it, he sent it to be mailed. In keeping with Frémont’s own tactics, he made the reply public before Frémont would receive it.
While Jessie waited vainly at the Willard for word from Lincoln, Francis Blair, Sr., visited her room. “He had always been fond of me,” Jessie recalled, “I had been like a child in their family; but Mr. Blair was now very angry.” He told her that she and her husband had made a great mistake in incurring the enmity of the president. Talking too freely over a two-hour period, the elder Blair revealed that Frank had sent a letter to Monty describing the situation in Missouri, and that the president had sent Monty to St. Louis to “examine into that Department.”
Jessie was infuriated, assuming that Frank’s letter had precipitated the investigation. She “threatened the old man that Fremont should hold Frank personally responsible expecting that she could make [him] quail at the thought of losing the son of whom [he] is most proud in a duel with a skilled duellist.” Blair Senior told her “that the Blairs did not shrink from responsibility.” Frank’s sister, Lizzie, who, like the rest of the family, adored her high-spirited brother, believed her father had been “most incautious” in discussing Frank’s letter with Jessie, rightly fearing that the Frémonts would retaliate.
Meanwhile, Meigs and Monty Blair had assessed affairs in Missouri and were heading home. Meigs had come to the clear conclusion that Frémont was not fit to command the Department of the West. “The rebels are killing and ravaging the Unionmen throughout the state,” he wrote; “great distress and alarm prevail; In St. Louis the leading people of the state complain that they cannot see him; he does not encourage the men to form regiments for defence.” Monty Blair agreed. After what he described to Lincoln as “a full & plain talk with Fremont,” he claimed that the general “Seems Stupefied & almost unconscious, & is doing absolutely nothing.” Rumors circulated that Frémont was an opium-eater. “No time is to be lost, & no mans feelings should be consulted,” Blair concluded.
The day after Monty Blair and Meigs departed for Washington, Frémont imprisoned Frank Blair, claiming that the letter he had written his brother on September 1 was an act of insubordination. By criticizing his commanding officer “with a view of effecting his removal,” Frank was guilty of conduct “unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.”
Frémont and Jessie had concluded that the Blairs had betrayed them. Monty interceded, writing a conciliatory letter to Frémont that led to Frank’s release from jail. Frank insisted on fighting the charges, however, and was soon arrested again. Opinion in Missouri was equally divided between Frank Blair and General Frémont, each intent on destroying the other. General Scott had finally stepped in, ordering a suspension of Frank’s arrest and postponing the trial, which would never take place. But the quarrel between the two old allies would have serious consequences in the years ahead.
Lincoln’s public abrogation of Frémont’s proclamation produced a sigh of relief in the border states but, as Lincoln had apprehended, it profoundly disappointed radical Republicans and abolitionists. Only days earlier, Frances Seward had happily asked her sister, “Were you not pleased with Fremont’s proclamation?” Now Lincoln had once again dashed her hopes. In Chicago, Joseph Medill lamented that Lincoln’s letter “has cast a funeral gloom over our patriotic city…. It comes upon us like a killing June frost—which destroys the comming harvest. It is a step backwards.” Senator Ben Wade blamed Lincoln’s “poor white trash” background for his revolting decision, while Frederick Douglass despaired: “Many blunders have been committed by the Government at Washington during this war, but this, we think, is the largest of them all.”
While radicals hoping to make emancipation the war’s focus rallied behind Frémont, his antislavery credentials could not compensate for his flagrant mismanagement of the Department of the West. On September 18, Monty Blair and Meigs delivered their negative report to the cabinet. Still, Lincoln hesitated. The president “is determined to let Fremont have a chance to win the State of Missouri,” the frustrated postmaster general told Francis Blair, Sr. Bates, too, was irritated by the president’s lack of resolution. With much of his large family still in Missouri, Bates had followed the state’s troubles closely. He had spoken against Frémont on numerous occasions in the cabinet, certain that Frémont was doing “more damage to our cause than half a dozen of the ablest generals of the enemy can do.” Having assured Unionist friends in his home state that Frémont’s removal was imminent, Bates felt “distressed & mortified” by the president’s inaction.
Anxious about Missouri’s troubles and anguished by the illness of his wife, Julia, who had suffered a slight paralytic stroke, Bates uncharacteristically lashed out at Lincoln. “Immense mischief is caused by his lack of vim,” he wrote his brother-in-law, the former governor of Missouri; “he has no will, no power to command—He makes no body afraid of him. And hence discipline is relaxed, & stupid inanity takes the place of action.”
Frank Blair was more scathing in his criticisms of Lincoln and his cabinet. “I think God has made up his mind to ruin this nation,” he wrote his brother Monty. “The only way to save it is to kick that pack of old women who compose the Cabinet into the sea. I never since I was born imagined that such a lot of poltroons & apes could be gathered together from the four quarters of the Globe as Old Abe has succeeded in bringing together in his Cabinet.” His anger was focused on Seward and Cameron, and indirectly, of course, on Lincoln himself.
In fact, Lincoln had already dispatched Secretary of War Simon Cameron, accompanied by Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, to St. Louis to examine the situation once more and deliver, at his discretion, “a letter directing [Frémont] to surrender his command to the officer next below him.” When Cameron arrived in St. Louis, he talked with Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis, who “spoke very freely of [Frémont’s] qualities and conduct” and warned the secretary of war that Missouri’s safety could be guaranteed only by the termination of Frémont’s command. Upon receiving the letter of dismissal, Frémont “was very much mortified.” He told Cameron that “he was now in pursuit of the enemy, whom he believed were now within his reach, and that to recall him at this moment would not only destroy him, but render his whole expenditure useless.” Cameron was swayed to withhold the order until he returned to Washington and talked with the president.
By this point, Lincoln had little doubt that Frémont should be discharged. In addition to the impressions of Meigs, Monty Blair, and Cameron, he had received a blistering report from Adjutant General Thomas detailing the sorry “constitution of Fremont’s army, its defective equipment and arming, its confusion and imbecility, its lack of transportation,” a catalogue of items leading to the unassailable conclusion that “its head is wholly incompetent and unsafe to be instructed with its management.” Yet Lincoln still “yielded to delay,” Bates angrily confided in his diary, holding Seward responsible when the president hesitated a few days longer. “The President still hangs in painful and mortyfying doubt,” Bates wrote. “And if we persist in this sort of impotent indecision, we are very likely to share his fate—and, worse than all, deserve it.”
The Attorney General’s impatience was understandable, but Lincoln’s reasoning behind the delay was far shrewder than Bates realized. Two days after Bates made his angry entry, Lincoln dispatched his friend Leonard Swett to hand-carry a removal order to Frémont. Before Swett reached St. Louis, however, the War Department released the damning report of Adjutant General Thomas to the press. Published on October 31, the detailed report was considered by the New York Times “the most remarkable document that has seen the light since the beginning of the present war.” So damning were the revelations about Frémont, the Times continued, that it was mystifying why the Lincoln administration had allowed their publication.
In fact, the decision to publicize the report was both calculated and canny. By the time the message was delivered to Frémont, the public had been primed with powerful arguments for his dismissal. Had Lincoln acted earlier, people might have concluded that Frémont was sacrificed to the Blairs or, worse still, cashiered because of his proclamation emancipating the slaves. By leaking the facts in the report, Lincoln had adroitly prepared public opinion to support his decision.
When Swett reached Missouri, he wisely anticipated that Frémont would suspect his mission and refuse him entry into camp. So he gave the dismissal order to an army captain, who disguised himself as a farmer. With the document sewed into the lining of his coat, the messenger reached Frémont in person shortly after dawn on November 1, the same day that General Scott’s resignation was announced. When Frémont opened the order, the captain recalled, a “frown came over his brow, and he slammed the paper down on the table and exclaimed, ‘Sir, how did you get admission into my lines?’”
By November 2, when the news was made public, the general reaction was that Lincoln was “justified” in his decision. Frémont no longer had “apologists or defenders” in Washington, the correspondent for the New York Times wrote; “the evidences of his unfitness for command have naturally so accumulated here—the headquarters of the army—that no defence of him is possible.” The Philadelphia Inquirer agreed. “Slowly and reluctantly we are forced to the conviction that General Fremont is unequal to the command of the Western army. The report of Adjutant-General Thomas, which we publish this morning, settles the question in our judgment.” In an unusually pro-administration editorial, the Democratic New York Herald noted with approval that while “Lincoln is not the man to deal unjustly or ungenerously with any public officer,” his firing of Frémont “had become a public necessity, to which the President could no longer shut his eyes; and this tells the whole story.”
Even Chase had to admit that Lincoln had handled the tangled situation admirably. “I am thoroughly persuaded,” he wrote a friend, “that in all he has done [concerning] Gen. F. the Prest. has been guided by a true sense of publ[ic] duty.”
ONE WEEK AFTER the resignation of General Scott and the dismissal of General Frémont, the administration faced a pressing new dilemma. Seward had received word that the Confederacy had dispatched two prominent Southerners, James Mason and John Slidell, to England to argue its case for formal recognition. Seward hoped to intercept the Confederate ship carrying the two former senators, but they had escaped the Union blockade in Charleston and reached Cuba, where they boarded the Trent, a British mail ship. On November 8, Union captain Charles Wilkes, in command of an armed sloop, encountered the Trent. Acting without official orders, he fired a shot across the bow and then proceeded to search the vessel. When Mason and Slidell were found, they were courteously escorted back to the Union sloop San Jacinto and taken to prison at Fort Warren in Boston. The British ship was allowed to continue its journey.
Captain Wilkes became a national hero to a North desperate for good news. “We do not believe the American heart ever thrilled with more genuine delight than it did yesterday, at the intelligence of the capture of Messrs. Slidell and Mason,” the New York Times reported. “If we were to search the whole of Rebeldom, no persons so justly obnoxious to the North, could have been found.” Wilkes was fêted at Faneuil Hall in Boston, and a great banquet was given in his honor. Cameron appeared before a throng of happy Washingtonians and led “three cheers for Captain Wilkes.” Bates recorded “great and general satisfaction” in his diary, while Chase reportedly said he regretted only that the captain had not gone one step further and seized the British ship.
Lincoln, too, seemed pleased at first. In a letter to Edward Everett, he spoke happily of “the items of news coming in last week,” first the Union victory at Port Royal, and “then the capture of Mason & Slidell!” His gratification was soon mingled with anxiety, however, when Britain’s furious reaction to the incident became known. It took nearly three weeks for news of Mason and Slidell’s capture to reach London, but, as The Times reported, the “intelligence spread with wonderful rapidity.” The complex situation was promptly reduced to a slogan: “Outrage on the British flag—the Southern Commissioners Forcibly Removed From a British Mail Steamer.” The London press fulminated against the incident as an explicit violation of the law of nations, demanding “reparation and apology.” Fabricated details of the capture depicted a brutal removal of the Southern commissioners.
Looking to give the supposed transgression a face, the British press focused upon Seward. Though the secretary of state told British officials confidentially that Wilkes had “acted without any instructions from the Government,” thereby sparing the government “the embarrassment which might have resulted if the act had been specially directed by us,” he decided not to speak publicly on the matter. The first public response should come from the British government, Seward maintained. Seward’s silence troubled Thurlow Weed, whom Seward had sent to Europe as an unofficial representative. In one of his daily letters to Washington, Weed warned his oldest friend that “if the taking of the rebels from under the protection of the British flag was intended, and is avowed, and maintained, it means war.” Newspapers reported that steamers in every dockyard were being equipped with troops and supplies, ready to leave at the government’s order. The press continued “fanning the popular flame by promising to clear the sea of the American navy in a month; acknowledge the Southern Confederacy; and, by breaking the blockade, letting out cotton, and letting in British manufactures.” Secessionists in Europe, Weed reported, were “certainly jubilant.”
Moreover, Weed anxiously wrote, word circulated in “high places” that Seward hoped “to provoke a war with England for the purpose of getting Canada.” Animosity toward Seward was widespread, he continued, “how created or why, I know not. It has been skillfully worked. I was told yesterday, repeatedly, that I ought to write the President demanding your dismissal.”
Agitated by the vituperative attacks by the British press, Seward burst into Lincoln’s office on Sunday afternoon, December 15. Orville Browning, who was taking tea with the president at the time, dismissed Seward’s worries, insisting that England would not do “so foolish a thing” as to declare war. Lincoln was not so sure. He recalled a ferocious bulldog in his hometown. While neighbors convinced themselves that they had nothing to fear, one wise man observed: “I know the bulldog will not bite. You know he will not bite, but does the bulldog know he will not bite?”
The American press hounded Seward with questions about the affair, but both he and Lord Lyons, the British minister to Washington, remained silent as they awaited the official British response. On December 19, nearly six weeks after the initial incident, “Her Majesty’s Government” finally declared the seizure of the envoys from the British ship “an affront to the national honor,” which could be restored only if the prisoners were freed and returned to “British protection.” In addition, Britain demanded “a suitable apology for the aggression.” If the United States did not agree within a few days, Lyons and the entire British delegation were to pack up and return to Britain. Lyons carried the document to the secretary of state’s office, where he discussed the inflamed situation with Seward. Before presenting the document formally, he agreed to leave a copy so that the secretary and the president might have more time to consider their response. “You will perhaps be surprised to find Mr. Seward on the side of peace,” Lord Lyons wrote to the British foreign minister.
Fred Seward recalled that his father shut himself off from all visitors and “devoted one entire day” to drafting a reply. The astute secretary understood the dilemma perfectly. As a practical matter, the United States could not afford to go to war with Britain. “With England as an auxiliary to rebellion,” Weed had forewarned, “we are ‘crushed out.’” It was necessary that the government release the prisoners and allow them to continue their journey to England. Yet, overwhelming popular support in the North for the seizure of the rebels had to be taken into consideration. “They can never be given up,” one newspaper protested. “The country would never forgive any man who should propose such a surrender.” Lincoln himself, though resolved to avoid war with England, was reportedly unhappy about submitting to the British demands, which many considered humiliating.
Seward composed an ingenious response, arguing that while Captain Wilkes had acted lawfully in searching the Trent, the legality of seizing contraband prisoners should have been decided by an American Prize Court. He recognized, he wrote, that he appeared to be taking “the British side” of the dispute “against my own country,” but he was “really defending and maintaining, not an exclusively British interest, but an old, honored, and cherished American cause.” The principle of referring such disputes to a legal tribunal, he reminded Britain, had been established nearly six decades earlier by Secretary of State James Madison when Britain had seized contraband from American ships in similar fashion. To “deny the justice” of the present British claim would be to “reverse and forever abandon” the very rationale upon which the United States had proudly stood in those earlier disputes. Therefore, in defense of “principles confessedly American,” the government would “cheerfully” free the prisoners and turn them over to Lord Lyons.
Seward presented his arguments in an extraordinary cabinet session on Christmas morning. The discussion continued for four hours. “There was great reluctance on the part of some of the members of the cabinet—and even the President himself” to accept Seward’s argument, Bates recorded. They feared “the displeasure of our own people—lest they should accuse us of timidly truckling to the power of England.” The prospect of returning the prisoners was “gall and wormwood” to Chase. “Rather than consent to the liberation of these men,” he wrote, “I would sacrifice everything I possess.” Only Monty Blair, the consummate realist, stood firmly with Seward at the start. At Lincoln’s invitation, Charles Sumner joined the session. As chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, he had conferred with Lincoln frequently during the crisis, asserting that the government should not risk war with England. Sumner had read letters from two respected London officials to Lincoln and Seward, revealing that Britain did not want war and that “if the present dispute were settled amicably Britain would not interfere further in the North’s problems.” The presentations by Seward and Sumner gained some support; but the cabinet, unable to reach a conclusion, decided to meet again the following day to hear Seward present a new draft.
As the meeting adjourned, Lincoln turned to his secretary of state. “Governor Seward, you will go on, of course, preparing your answer, which, as I understand it, will state the reasons why they [the prisoners] ought to be given up. Now I have a mind to try my hand at stating the reasons why they ought not to be given up. We will compare the points on each side.”
Seward finished his twenty-six-page dispatch that night and read it to Chase at his house the next morning before the cabinet convened. After brooding through the night, Chase had concluded that Seward was right. “I am consoled by the reflection that while nothing but severest retribution is due to them, the surrender under existing circumstances, is but simply doing right,” he recorded in his diary.
When the cabinet met the following day, Seward presented his final draft. Though disturbed by the prospect of surrendering the prisoners, the members were relieved that no apology had been rendered and, as Seward boasted, “a great point was gained for our Government.” The dispatch was unanimously adopted. After the meeting, Seward asked Lincoln why he had not presented “an argument for the other side?” With a smile, Lincoln replied, “I found I could not make an argument that would satisfy my own mind, and that proved to me your ground was the right one.”
The following night, Seward hosted a dinner party to which he invited Senators Crittenden and Conkling and their wives, Orville Browning, Charles Sumner, Preston King, and English novelist Anthony Trollope, whom Fanny described as “a great homely, red, stupid faced Englishman, with a disgusting beard of iron grey.” The conversation at dinner was lively and contentious. Kentucky’s Crittenden became enraged when Seward pronounced John Brown “a hero.” Fanny was upset when Crittenden criticized Florence Nightingale, the celebrated British nurse of the Crimean War, saying, “he thought it a very unwomanly thing for a gentle lady to go into a hospital of wounded men.” Fanny saved her retort for her diary. “That was enough of you, Mr. C. if I hadn’t seen you at the table turn your head an[d] spit on the floor cloth.” After dinner, Seward took the men into the cloakroom, where he read his Trent dispatch. The listeners generally commended Seward’s handling of the crisis, though at the end of the reading, Crittenden “swore vehemently.” Everyone assumed the public would be infuriated by the decision and that the publication of the dispatch would “doom [Seward] to unpopularity.”
In the end, the public greeted the dispatch with relief, not anger. Compared to the prospect of fighting both a civil war and a foreign war at the same time, the release of the two prisoners seemed inconsequential. “The general acquiescence in this concession is a good sign,” George Templeton Strong observed. “It looks like willingness to pass over affronts that touch the democracy in its tenderest point for the sake of concentrating all our national energies on the trampling out of domestic treason.”
Lincoln himself finally recognized both the diplomatic logic and the absolute necessity of giving up the prisoners. And he was willing to admit that, in this case, his secretary of state had pursued the right course all along—a characteristic response that Fred Seward fully appreciated. “Presidents and Kings are not apt to see flaws in their own arguments,” he wrote, “but fortunately for the Union, it had a President, at this critical juncture, who combined a logical intellect with an unselfish heart.”
WITH THE RETURN OF CONGRESS for the winter session, the pace of social life in Washington quickened. “Houses are being fitted for winter gayeties, rich dresses and laughing faces pass on every side,” reported Iowa State Register columnist Mrs. Cara Kasson, wife of the assistant postmaster general, who wrote under the pseudonym of “Miriam.” The city is “thronged with strangers, every nook and corner is occupied with…lookers-on at this swiftly-moving Panorama of life in the Capital.”
The crowds who streamed into the White House receptions that winter found a mansion transformed by Mary Lincoln’s tireless efforts. Peeling walls had been stripped and covered with elegant Parisian wallpaper. New sets of china adorned the tables. Magnificent new rugs replaced their threadbare predecessors. Even one of Mary’s severest critics, Mary Clemmer Ames, grudgingly admitted that the new rugs were magnificent. She considered the velvet one in the East Room the “most exquisite carpet ever” to cover the historic floor. “Its ground was of pale sea green, and in effect looked as if [the] ocean, in gleaming and transparent waves, were tossing roses at your feet.” A California journalist praised the finished product highly: “The President’s house has once more assumed the appearance of comfort and comparative beauty.”
The historian George Bancroft reported favorably to his wife about a visit with the first lady, who was able with equal charm to discuss her plans for the “elegant fitting up of Mr. Lincoln’s room” and to “discourse eloquently” on a recent military review. Bancroft “came home entranced.” Mary “is better in manners and in spirit than we have generally heard: is friendly and not in the least arrogant.”
As the bills came in, however, Mary discovered that she had overspent the $20,000 allowance by more than $6,800. Afraid to inform her husband, she inveigled John Watt, the White House groundskeeper, to inflate his expense accounts and funnel the extra money over to her. She had replaced her first Commissioner of Public Buildings after he refused to pay for an elaborate White House dinner from the manure account. She exchanged her patronage influence for reduced bills, and accepted gifts from wealthy donors. At one point, she asked John Hay to turn over the White House stationery fund for her use, and later to pay her as the White House steward. “I told her to kiss mine,” Hay jokingly informed Nicolay. “Was I right?” Mary was irate when Hay denied her requests. She tried to have him fired, forever losing his goodwill. “The devil is abroad, having great wrath,” he confided to Nicolay. “His daughter, the Hell-Cat…is in ‘a state of mind’ about the Steward’s salary.”
Despite her finagling, Mary found herself in trouble shortly before the New Year when more bills arrived with no money left in the account. She had no recourse but to tell her husband what had happened and to beg him to ask for an additional appropriation. To bolster her case, she asked Benjamin French, the new Commissioner of Public Buildings, to speak with her husband. French caught up with the president shortly after he returned home from a memorial service in the Senate for Edward Baker. The juxtaposition between the moving eulogies for his old friend and the unpleasant topic of decorating bills provoked in Lincoln an unusual display of anger.
The president was “inexorable,” French recalled; “he said it would stink in the land to have it said that an appropriation of $20,000 for furnishing the house had been overrun by the President when the poor freezing soldiers could not have blankets, & he swore he would never approve the bills for flub dubs for that damned old house!” Moreover, Lincoln angrily pointed out, the place was “furnished well enough when they came—better than any house they had ever lived in—& rather than put his name to such a bill he would pay it out of his own pocket!”
French was nonetheless determined to aid Mary’s cause. He liked her “better and better the more I see of her,” he admitted, “and think she is an admirable woman. She bears herself, in every particular, like a lady and, say what they may about her, I will defend her.” He succeeded in convincing a friendly congressman to hide a deficiency appropriation in a complex list of military appropriations. The crisis was resolved, at least temporarily, until Mary’s continued spending produced another round of bills.
Mary was not alone in her worries about money. In the fall of 1861, Kate spent several weeks in Philadelphia and New York on a mission to purchase new furnishings for her father’s mansion. Merchants gladly extended lines of credit for Kate as they had for Mary, creating great anxiety in her father’s mind. “I need hardly caution you to avoid extravagance, as it is going to be hard work to make both ends meet here; and if any circumstances should compel me to resign before long my expences shall have far exceeded my income. It does seem a little hard that one who has so much & such important work to do as I have had for the past twelve years should all the time have to pay such a large part of his own expences.”
The sense of injustice Chase felt in having to bear the burdens of public life lured him into a questionable relationship with a wealthy Philadelphia banker, Jay Cooke, who had been granted a lucrative contract from the Treasury Department for the sale of government bonds. Perceiving both Chase’s financial strain and his aggrieved pride, Cooke began to send valuable gifts to the Chase household, including an elegant open carriage for Kate and a set of bookcases for the parlor. As the relationship warmed, Chase borrowed money from Cooke, and eventually, Cooke took it upon himself to set up his own investment account for Chase. “I will take great pains to lay aside occasionally some choice ‘tid bits’ managing the investments for you and not bothering your head with them.” If all went well, Cooke hoped, the profit earned would make up “the deficiency” between Chase’s salary and his expenses, “for it is a shame that you should go ‘behind hand’ working as you do.” In the smooth Philadelphia banker, the Chases had found what Mary Lincoln unsuccessfully sought—a reliable source to fund the high cost of being a leader of society in wartime Washington.
BY THE END OF 1861, Lincoln realized that he had made a serious mistake in placing Simon Cameron at the head of the War Department. For many decades, Cameron had maintained his power base in Pennsylvania through the skillful use of patronage to reward loyalists and punish opponents. Unfortunately, the expertise of a wily political boss proved inadequate to the tremendous administrative challenge of leading the War Department in the midst of a civil war. A central system of civilian command was essential to construct a machine capable of providing strategy, supplies, logistics, and training for an army that had grown from 16,000 in March to 670,000 in December. Careful record keeping was indispensable when contracts worth millions had to be negotiated for rifles, cannons, horses, uniforms, food, and blankets.
As Lincoln confided to Nicolay, Cameron was “incapable either of organizing details or conceiving and advising general plans.” His primitive filing system consisted mainly of scribbled notes. According to Ohio congressman Albert Riddle, when Cameron was asked about the progress of a particular matter, “he would look about, find a scrap of paper, borrow your pencil, make a note, put the paper in one pocket of his trousers and your pencil in the other.”
The war was less than two months old when detailed accusations of corruption and inefficiency in the War Department began to surface in newspapers. In July, the Congress appointed a committee to investigate charges that middlemen had made off with scandalous profits on contracts for unworkable pistols and carbines, blind horses, and knapsacks that disintegrated when it rained. Though Cameron was not charged with pocketing the money himself, several of his political cronies had grown rich, vast public funds had been wasted, and the lives of Union soldiers had been jeopardized. As the charges multiplied, Republican newspapers began to call for his resignation, lest the entire administration become tainted by the scandal. “It is better to lose a mortified finger of the right hand at once,” the New York Times declared, “than to cherish it till the arm is full of disease, and the whole system threatened with dissolution.”
Determined to protect his position, Cameron sought to ingratiate himself with the increasingly powerful radical Republicans in Congress, led by Massachusetts’s Charles Sumner, Ohio’s Ben Wade, Indiana’s George Julian, and Maine’s William Fessenden. Though known as a conservative on the issue of slavery, Cameron began by degrees to embrace the radicals’ contention that the central purpose of the war was to bring the institution of human bondage to an end. While he had allied himself initially with Seward, Cameron turned increasingly to Chase, the single cabinet member at the time not only in favor of allowing fugitive slaves to stay within Union lines but also of enlisting and arming them. “We agreed,” Chase later recalled, “that the necessity of arming them was inevitable; but we were alone in that opinion.”
Acting without Lincoln’s approval, Cameron publicly endorsed the position of an army colonel who had sanctioned seizing slaves and using them for military service as one step in a more general policy of deploying “extremist measures against the rebels, even to their absolute ruin.” In cabinet sessions and at private dinners, he instigated heated arguments with Bates, Blair, and Smith, who fiercely assailed his position. Cameron maintained that black soldiers would add an essential weapon in the quest for victory. Blair claimed that Cameron was riding the “nigger hobby” for his own political advantage.
The situation came to a head in early December. Each department customarily presented an annual report to the president as he prepared his own yearly message. While drafting the War Department report, the war secretary resolved to officially advocate arming slaves who came into Union lines. Well aware that he would ignite controversy, Cameron read his draft to a series of friends, most of whom urged him to keep silent on the contentious issue.
At this point, Cameron recalled, “I sought out another counsellor,—one of broad views, great courage, and of tremendous earnestness. It was Edwin Stanton.” Cameron had called on Stanton during the summer and fall for legal advice on various contracts. This matter, however, was more delicate. Stanton “read the report carefully,” according to Cameron, and “gave it his unequivocal and hearty support.” In fact, he suggested his own provocative logic, which served to strengthen the argument for arming slaves: “It is clearly a right of the Government to arm slaves when it may become necessary,” the addition read, “as it is to take gunpowder from the enemy.”
It remains unclear whether Stanton offered his deliberately incendiary advice to encourage the war secretary openly to defy Lincoln, hoping that if Cameron were dismissed, he, Stanton, might be called upon to replace him. Perhaps he was “an abolitionist at heart,” simply waiting for the right moment to reveal his honest convictions. He had, after all, given his boyhood pledge to his father that he would fight slavery until the end of his life, and had expressed similar sentiments to Chase in the bloom of their friendship in Ohio. More significant, Charles Sumner considered Stanton “my personal friend,” who “goes as far [as] I do in directing the war against Slavery.” Yet when Stanton talked with fellow Democrats during this same period of time, including McClellan and his former cabinet colleague Jeremiah Black, he expressed decidedly more conservative views on the issue of slavery. Whatever Stanton’s purpose, his approval emboldened Cameron, who sent out advance copies of his report to a number of newspapers before submitting it to the president.
When the government printer brought the War Department report to the president for approval, Lincoln discovered the inflammatory paragraph. “This will never do!” he said. “Gen. Cameron must take no such responsibility. That is a question which belongs exclusively to me!” He deleted the paragraph and issued orders to seize every copy already sent. While Lincoln understood that the slaves coming into Union hands “must be provided for in some way,” he did not believe, he later wrote, that he possessed the constitutional authority to liberate and arm them. The only way that such actions, “otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful,” was if those measures were deemed “indispensable” for “the preservation of the nation,” and therefore for “the preservation of the constitution” itself. At this juncture, he was not convinced that arming seized slaves was “an indispensable necessity.” Moreover, he was undeniably aware that such a measure at this time would alienate the moderate majority of his coalition.
Lincoln informed Cameron of his action at the next cabinet meeting, emphasizing, as he had with Frémont, that any decision regarding the future of slavery rested with the president, not with a subordinate official. Although Cameron immediately conceded and agreed to delete the vetoed language, he complained that his excised recommendation was no different from the suggestion Welles had made in his annual report. “This was the moment that Welles dreaded most,” his biographer observed. Like the secretary of war, the secretary of the navy had felt compelled to make some provision for fugitive slaves who “have sought our ships for refuge and protection.” In such cases, Welles declared, the slaves “should be cared for and employed” by either the navy or the army (depending on which branch had greater need), and “if no employment could be found for them in the public service, they should be allowed to proceed freely and peaceably, without restraint, to seek a livelihood.”
Certain that he, too, would be commanded to revise his report, Welles resolved that he would resign before doing so. But to his bewilderment, Lincoln allowed the navy report to be printed without change. Shrewdly, Lincoln had recognized at once the political difference between the two situations: the army occupied territory in the border states, while the navy did not. Allowing blacks to find employment on naval ships or in surrounding harbors on the coast was fundamentally different from providing weapons to blacks in the slave states of Kentucky or Missouri, whose continued loyalty was critical to the Union. Lincoln still believed that such a step would drive the loyal citizens of these states into the Confederacy.
In fact, the president had developed his own policy for the increasing numbers of fugitive slaves who had come into Union lines. As members of Congress gathered on Capitol Hill for the opening of the winter session, he outlined his ideas in his annual message. He recognized, he wrote, that under the Confiscation Act, when Union armies secured territory where slaves had been used by their masters “for insurrectionary purposes,” the legal rights of the slaveholders were “forfeited”; slaves “thus liberated” had to be “provided for in some way.” He was hopeful that some of the loyal border states might soon “pass similar enactments.” If such actions were taken, Lincoln recommended that the Congress compensate the states for each freed slave.
Lincoln still believed that both classes of freed slaves should be colonized on a purely voluntary basis, “at some place, or places, in a climate congenial to them. It might be well to consider, too,—whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization.”
So long as Lincoln remained hopeful that the Union could be restored before the conflict “degenerate[d] into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle,” he was unwilling, he said, to sanction “radical and extreme measures” regarding slavery. Despite this assertion, he closed his message with a graceful and irrefutable argument against the continuation of slavery in a democratic society, the very essence of which opened “the way to all,” granted “hope to all,” and advanced the “condition of all.” In this “just, and generous, and prosperous system,” he reasoned, “labor is prior to, and independent of, capital.” Then, reflecting upon the vicissitudes of his own experience, Lincoln added: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.” Clearly, this upward mobility, the possibility of self-realization so central to the idea of America, was closed to the slave unless and until he became a free man.
Abolitionists condemned Lincoln’s message. “Away with the unstatesmanlike scheme of Colonization, thrust so unfortunately into the face of the nation at this juncture!” the abolitionist Worthington G. Snethen wrote Chase. “Let the sword make a nation of four millions of black men free, and let them be free, as free as the white man.” Frederick Douglass was so outraged both by the idea of colonizing freed slaves, and by the president’s refusal to enlist blacks into the army, that he was close to losing all faith in Lincoln. The president did not understand that the black man was an American with no desire to live elsewhere; “his attachment to the place of his birth is stronger than iron.” Moreover, why such fearful concern about the destiny of the freed slave? “Give him wages for his work, and let hunger pinch him if he don’t work,” Douglass declared. “He is used to [work], and is not afraid of it. His hands are already hardened by toil, and he has no dreams of ever getting a living by any other means than by hard work.”
Since the beginning of the war, Douglass had avowed that nothing would terrify the South like the vision of thousands of former slaves wielding weapons on behalf of the Union Army. “One black regiment alone would be, in such a war, the full equal of two white ones. The very fact of color in this case would be more terrible than powder and balls.” Predicting that a “lenient war” would be “a lengthy war and therefore the worst kind of war,” Douglass contended that the survival of the nation depended upon enlisting the “slaves and free colored people” into the army. In a speech in Philadelphia, he proclaimed: “We are striking the guilty rebels with our soft, white hand, when we should be striking with the iron hand of the black man, which we keep chained behind us. We have been catching slaves, instead of arming them…. We pay more attention to the advice of the half-rebel State of Kentucky, than to any suggestion coming from the loyal North.”
While the radical press criticized Lincoln’s message, moderate and conservative Republicans lauded his tact. “It appeals to the judgment,—the solid convictions of the people, rather than their resentments or their impatient hopes and aspirations,” the New York Times concluded, and as “the moderate men compose nine-tenths of the population of the country, the message will doubtless meet with popularity.” Even the normally critical New York Tribune conceded that the “country and the world will not fail to mark the contrast” between the magnanimity of Lincoln’s message and a recent “truculent” address by Jefferson Davis. Though Davis was “commonly presumed the abler of the two” statesmen, and “certainly the better grammarian,” the Tribune observed, the address of the Confederate chief was “boastful, defiant, and savage,” whereas Lincoln “breathes not an unkind impulse” and “deals in no railing accusations.”