LINCOLN PINNED HIS HOPES for the victory that would allow him to issue his Emancipation Proclamation on the newly assembled Army of Virginia, headed by General John Pope. In the Western theater, Pope had demonstrated the aggression McClellan lacked. Early August 1862, Halleck ordered McClellan to withdraw his entire army by steamship from Harrison’s Landing to Aquia Creek and Alexandria, thus ending the Peninsula Campaign. Once there, McClellan was to rendezvous with Pope, who would be pushing south from Manassas toward Richmond along the interior route Lincoln had initially favored. Joined together, the two armies would substantially outnumber General Lee’s forces.
But McClellan stalled, fearing that Pope would be placed in charge of the merged army. He argued ferociously against the move, warning Halleck it would “prove disastrous in the extreme.” His only hope, he confided to his wife, was that he might “induce the enemy to attack” before he reached Washington and was relieved of his command. After delaying for ten days with strategic protests and claims of insufficient transports, he grudgingly began his withdrawal on August 14, not reaching Aquia Creek until August 24.
Realizing that he would be overpowered by the combined armies, General Lee moved north from Richmond to engage Pope before McClellan reached him. By August 18, the Confederate forces, under Generals Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet, had come within striking distance of Pope. Only the Rappahannock River, midway between Washington and Richmond, separated the two forces. From the security of the northern riverbank, Pope waited in vain for McClellan’s troops to reinforce what everyone hoped would be a major offensive.
Lee capitalized brilliantly on McClellan’s delay. Leaving Longstreet’s forces in front of Pope, he sent Jackson behind Pope’s lines to capture the Union’s supply base at Manassas Junction and then assemble in the woods near the old Bull Run battlefield. In a state of confusion, Pope left the Rappahannock and headed north, where he would encounter the combined forces of Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson. “What is the stake?” Seward wrote Frances. “They say that it is nothing less than this capital; and, as many think, the cause also.” While soldiers on both sides waited for the fighting to begin, a comet appeared in the northern sky. Lincoln, so familiar with Shakespeare, doubtless recalled Calpurnia’s ominous warning to Caesar: “When beggars die there are no comets seen/The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
Although McClellan agreed to send two corps to Pope, he continued to delay, awaiting word on his own status as commander. If his troops were integrated into Pope’s army, he told his wife on August 24, he would “try for a leave of absence!” Everything would change, however, if “Pope is beaten, in which case they may want me to save Washn again.”
The Second Battle of Bull Run began in earnest on Friday, August 29. When the wind blew from the west, “the smell of the gunpowder was quite perceptible,” the Evening Star reported, and the “distant thunder” of cannonfire was plainly audible throughout Washington. Crowds gathered on street corners and huddled in the great hotels. In the absence of reliable information from the front, rumors flew. At one moment, newsboys announced that “Stonewall Jackson was captured with 16,000 of his men.” Minutes later, it was said that Jackson had crushed Pope and was heading north to capture Washington. Stories of victory and defeat for each side “alternated in about equal proportions.”
These were disquieting days for the president. The manager of the War Department telegraph office recalled that Lincoln spent long hours in the crowded second-floor suite awaiting bulletins from the front, “prepared to stay all night, if necessary.” He wired various generals, including McClellan, who had set up his headquarters at Alexandria, requesting news from Manassas. McClellan responded immediately, providing advice rather than information. The president now had only two options, McClellan counseled. Either he must “concentrate all our available forces to open communication with Pope,” or he should “leave Pope to get out of his scrape & at once use all our means to make the capital perfectly safe.”
On Saturday morning, John Hay met the president at the Soldiers’ Home and rode with him to the White House. During the ride, Lincoln “was very outspoken in regard to McClellan’s present conduct,” saying that “it really seemed to him that McC wanted Pope defeated.” He was particularly incensed, Lincoln told Hay, by McClellan’s advice to “leave Pope to get out of his own scrape.”
Lincoln’s condemnation was mild, however, compared to the rage Stanton directed toward the general he now considered a traitor. McClellan’s delay in bringing his troops to Pope’s defense prompted the secretary of war to approach General Halleck for an official report. He asked Halleck to specify the exact date upon which McClellan had received orders to withdraw from the James, and to render an opinion as to whether the order was obeyed with a promptness commensurate with national safety. Halleck replied that the order given on August 3 “was not obeyed with the promptness I expected and the national safety, in my opinion, required.”
Armed with Halleck’s report, Stanton took Chase into his confidence. The two old friends decided that McClellan must be removed at once, and that they would have to force Lincoln’s hand. Agreeing that verbal arguments with Lincoln were “like throwing water on a duck’s back,” they decided that “a more decisive expression must be made and that in writing.” Stanton volunteered to draft a remonstrance against McClellan, to be signed, if possible, by a majority of the cabinet. They would present it to Lincoln with the inference that General McClellan’s continued command would lead to the resignation of some cabinet members, and even the dissolution of the administration. Meanwhile, Stanton and Chase journeyed to Bates’s F Street home, hoping to enlist his support. Finding that he was out, they left word for him to call on Chase the following morning.
When Bates stopped by the Treasury office early Saturday morning, Chase was delighted to learn that he was in full agreement regarding McClellan. “Never before was there such a grand army, composed of truly excellent materials, and yet,” Bates complained, “so poorly commanded.” To his mind, McClellan had “but one of the three Roman requisites for a general, he is young. I fear not brave, and surely not fortunate.” Moreover, Bates agreed with Chase and Stanton that “unless there be very soon a change for the better, we [the administration] must sink into contempt.” Certain now that Bates was a staunch ally in the cause of McClellan’s dismissal, Chase proceeded to the War Department, where Stanton had completed a first draft of the letter.
The scathing document, written in Stanton’s distinctive back-sloping script with words added and erased, declared that the undersigned were “unwilling to be accessory to the waste of natural resources, the protraction of the war, the destruction of our armies, and the imperiling of the Union which we believe must result from the continuance of George B. McClellan in command.” It charged McClellan with willful “disobedience to superior orders,” which had “imperiled the army commanded by General Pope.” Chase made several suggestions for changes, affixed his signature above Stanton’s, and promised to bring it to Bates, Smith, and Welles.
Having long since lost faith in McClellan, Smith was persuaded immediately to add his signature. Climbing the narrow stairs to the navy secretary’s second-floor office later that afternoon, Chase reached him just as he was preparing to leave for the day. After reading the document, Welles assured Chase that he believed McClellan’s “withdrawal from any command was demanded,” but he “did not choose to denounce McC. for incapacity or declare him a traitor,” as the document seemed to proclaim. Even when Chase repeated the damning facts of McClellan’s fatal delay in moving to reinforce Pope, Welles hesitated. He pointedly asked whether Blair had seen the document. Chase replied that his “turn had not come.” At that very moment, while Welles still held the document, Blair walked in. Sensing Chase’s alarm, Welles kept the paper close to his chest until Blair departed only a few minutes later. With the postmaster general out of earshot, Chase entreated Welles not to mention the document to Blair or anyone else.
While Chase was performing his part in the intrigue, Stanton had invited Lincoln and Hay to his K Street home for an impromptu dinner. No clear information on the course of the battle was yet available, though preliminary reports suggested that Pope had gained the advantage. “A pleasant little dinner,” Hay recorded, “and a pretty wife as white and cold and motionless as marble, whose rare smiles seemed to pain her.” In conversation with Lincoln, Stanton was “unqualifiedly severe upon McClellan,” charging that “nothing but foul play could lose us this battle & that it rested with McC. and his friends.” Both Stanton and Lincoln expressed their strong belief in General Pope.
After dinner, the president and Hay went to army headquarters, where General Halleck appeared “quiet and somewhat confident” about the direction of what he considered “the greatest battle of the Century.” Proceeding to Stanton’s office, they found he had dispatched “a vast army of Volunteer Nurses out to the field” to help care for the sick and wounded. “Every thing seemed to be going well,” Hay reported, “& we went to bed expecting glad tidings at sunrise.”
For Stanton, however, much work was in store that evening. If Pope managed to win without McClellan’s aid, it would only strengthen the argument for the young Napoleon’s ouster. When Welles stopped by to get an update from the front, he found Stanton with Smith. Stanton launched into a long diatribe against McClellan, reaching back to the winter doldrums, the “Quaker gun” affair, and the blunders on the Peninsula. When Smith left, Welles recalled, Stanton lowered his voice to a whisper. He had previously learned from Chase that Welles had refused to sign the document. Welles explained that while he, by and large, agreed that McClellan must be removed, he “disliked the method and manner of proceeding.” It seemed “discourteous and disrespectful to the President.” The president, he declared, “had called us around him as friends and advisers to counsel and consult…not to enter into combinations against him.”
Agitated, Stanton exclaimed that “he knew of no particular obligations he was under to the President who had called him to a difficult position and imposed upon him labors and responsibilities which no man could carry, and which were greatly increased by fastening upon him a commander who was constantly striving to embarrass him…. He could not and would not submit to a continuance of this state of things.” Welles sympathized but was highly reluctant to join what seemed a cabal against the president.
The next morning, bleak news from the battlefield discredited the optimistic reports of the previous day. Pope’s army had been crushed. John Hay recorded in his diary that at “about Eight oclock the President came to my room as I was dressing and calling me out said, ‘Well John we are whipped again, I am afraid.’” Once again, as in the aftermath of the First Battle of Bull Run, Washington braced for attack. As rumors spread that General Jackson was crossing the Potomac at Georgetown, thousands of frightened residents began to flee the city. Soldiers straggled in from the front with tales of a demoralized army and units unwilling to fight under Pope. The losses were immense—out of 65,000 men, the Federals had suffered 16,000 casualties. Momentum now clearly belonged to the Confederacy. At the end of June, the New York Times pointed out, “Jeff. Davis, from his chamber at Richmond, listened to the thunder of the cannon of hostile armies battling before his capital.” At the end of August, “Lincoln, from the White House, heard the deep peals of the artillery of the contending hosts which, having now changed location, are struggling for supremacy before the National Capital.”
The devastating defeat put the president in an untenable position. The more he contemplated McClellan’s delay in sending his troops to Pope, the angrier he became. Yet there was no time to indulge in anger while Washington itself was threatened and he sorely needed the best forces at his disposal. He still believed McClellan was best equipped to reorganize the demoralized troops. During his inspection tours at Fort Monroe and Harrison’s Landing, Lincoln had witnessed the soldiers’ devotion to their commander. “There is no man in the army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he,” Lincoln told Hay. “Unquestionably he has acted badly toward Pope! He wanted him to fail. That is unpardonable. But he is too useful just now to sacrifice.” When Halleck recommended restoring McClellan’s command over both the Army of Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln agreed.
In ignorance of Lincoln’s deliberations, the cabinet vigorously pursued their machinations to oust McClellan. Bates rewrote the protest to soften its tone. Stanton, Chase, Smith, and Bates signed the new document, which Chase again presented to Welles on Monday, September 1. Welles agreed that the new draft was “an improvement,” but still disliked the idea of “combining to influence or control the President.” Chase admitted that the course of action “was unusual, but the case was unusual.” They had to impress upon Lincoln that “the Administration must be broken up, or McC. dismissed.” Furthermore, Chase told Welles that “McClellan ought to be shot, and should, were he President, be brought to a summary punishment.” Welles granted that McClellan “was not a fighting general,” and that “some recent acts indicate delinquencies of a more serious character.” While he would not sign the demand, he told the “disappointed” Chase, he would speak up with “no hesitation” at the cabinet meeting the next day to tell Lincoln that he agreed McClellan should go. Accordingly, Stanton and Chase resolved to withhold their confrontation with Lincoln until the following day.
All the cabinet members, save Seward, gathered at noon on Tuesday the 2nd. The secretary of state had departed for Auburn the previous week for a long-awaited vacation. Welles, perpetually suspicious of Seward, believed “there was design in his absence,” certain he had left town to avoid the messy controversy over McClellan. More likely, personal considerations dictated the timing of Seward’s journey. Jenny was expecting his first grandchild any day. Will was scheduled to leave with his regiment as soon as the baby was born. And Frances’s favorite aunt, Clara, was dying. When he heard about the defeat at Bull Run, however, he cut his vacation short. He was on his way back to Washington as the cabinet meeting convened.
The session had barely begun when the president was called out for a brief interval. In his absence, Stanton took the floor. Speaking “in a suppressed voice, trembling with excitement,” he informed his colleagues that “McClellan had been ordered to take command of the forces in Washington.” The members were stunned. Lincoln returned shortly and explained his decision, which he had communicated to McClellan at 7 a.m. that morning. “McClellan knows this whole ground,” Lincoln said, and “can be trusted to act on the defensive.” He knew all too well that McClellan had the “slows,” but maintained that there was “no better organizer.” Events, he believed, would justify his judgment.
In the general discussion that followed, Welles recorded in his diary, “there was a more disturbed and desponding feeling” than he had ever witnessed in any cabinet meeting. Lincoln was “extremely distressed,” as were Stanton and Chase. Chase predicted that “it would prove a national calamity,” while Stanton, recognizing that the protest was a dead letter, returned to the War Department “in the condition of a drooping leaf.” The episode produced an estrangement between Stanton and Lincoln that persisted for weeks.
Lincoln was deeply troubled by the knowledge that his cabinet opposed him on a question of such vital importance. According to Bates, he “seemed wrung by the bitterest anguish—said he felt almost ready to hang himself.” The cabinet debacle regarding McClellan, Pope’s defeat, and the gruesome, protracted war itself pressed upon him with an appalling weight, leading him to meditate. “In great contests,” he wrote in a fragment found among his pages, “each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party,” and that God had willed “that it shall not end yet.”
Lincoln’s distress may have been assuaged somewhat by Seward’s return to Washington. Lincoln could speak more frankly with his secretary than with any other member of his cabinet. Reaching the capital on the evening of September 3, Seward drove immediately to the Soldiers’ Home. Unfortunately, Fred Seward wrote, “there were visitors, whose presence prevented private talk.”
“Governor,” Lincoln proposed, “I’ll get in and ride with you a while.” For the next few hours, the two friends drove along the winding carriage ways, “while Seward detailed what he had found at the North, and the President in turn narrated the military events and Cabinet conferences during his absence.”
Seward may have revealed to Lincoln the sad, world-wise reflections he expressed to John Hay two days later. “What is the use of growing old?” he asked. “You learn something of men and things but never until too late to use it.” Referring to the antagonism between McClellan and Pope that had contributed to the disaster at Bull Run, Seward admitted that he had “only just now found out what military jealousy is…. It had never occurred to[him] that any jealousy could prevent these generals from acting for their common fame and the welfare of the country.” As an old seasoned politician, perhaps, he reflected, he “should have known it.”
Though Seward was temporarily unnerved by the events at Bull Run, he remained confident that the North would ultimately prevail—a contagious confidence that must have bolstered Lincoln’s spirits. Whenever faced with desolating prospects, Seward turned to history for guidance and comfort. Recalling the difficult days of the Revolutionary War before independence “enables me,” he once said, “to cherish and preserve hopefulness.” Moreover, unlike his colleagues in the cabinet, Seward did not question that Lincoln possessed the prudence, wisdom, and magnanimity needed to carry the country “safely through the sea of revolution.” Seward’s ability to empathize with Lincoln’s unenviable position must have afforded Lincoln some real measure of comfort. Unlike Stanton and Chase, Seward clearly understood that a president had to work with the tools at his disposal. At this moment, McClellan was one of those tools.
Meanwhile, McClellan smugly returned to his old headquarters on the corner next to Seward’s house. “Again I have been called upon to save the country,” he wrote his wife. “It makes my heart bleed to see the poor shattered remnants of my noble Army of the Potomac, poor fellows! and to see how they love me even now. I hear them calling out to me as I ride among them—‘George—don’t leave us again!’ ‘They shan’t take you away from us again.’”
McClellan had been restored to command for only two days when Lee, emboldened by his twin victories on the Peninsula and at Bull Run, crossed the Potomac to begin an invasion of Maryland. The Confederate commander mistakenly assumed that the residents of the slave state would rise up in support of his army. In fact, the Marylanders greeted the rebel army with disdain and reserved their enthusiastic welcome for McClellan’s bluecoats, clapping and waving flags as the Federal troops marched through their countryside to engage Lee in battle. When the two armies met, McClellan had another distinct advantage. General Lee’s battle plans had been discovered. A careless courier had used the orders to wrap three cigars and left them behind.
On September 17, the Battle of Antietam began. “We are in the midst of the most terrible battle of the age,” McClellan wrote Mary Ellen in midafternoon as the fighting raged. By day’s end, 6,000 soldiers on both sides were dead and an additional 17,000 had been wounded, a staggering total four times the number of Americans who would lose their lives on D-day during World War II. In the end, the Union Army prevailed, forcing Lee to retreat. “Our victory was complete,” McClellan joyfully reported. “I feel some little pride in having with a beaten and demoralized army defeated Lee so utterly, & saved the North so completely.”
Lincoln was thrilled by initial reports that indicated Lee’s army might be destroyed. Subsequent telegrams, however, revealed that McClellan, flush with victory, had failed to pursue the retreating rebels and allowed Lee to cross the Potomac into Virginia, where he could regroup and replenish men and supplies.
Still, Antietam was a sorely needed victory for the demoralized North. “At last our Generals in the field seem to have risen to the grandeur of the National crisis,” the New York Times noted. “Sept. 17, 1862, will, we predict, hereafter be looked upon as an epoch in the history of the rebellion, from which will date the inauguration of its downfall.”
The statement would prove prescient for reasons the Times could not have surmised. The victory, incomplete as it was, was the long-awaited event that provided Lincoln the occasion to announce his plans to issue an Emancipation Proclamation the following January. On September 22, he convened a cabinet meeting to reveal his decision. As Chase and Stanton settled on his right and the others sat down on his left, Lincoln attempted to lighten the mood with a reading from the Maine humorist Charles Farrar Browne. Seward alone readily appreciated the diversion, laughing uproariously along with Lincoln at the antics of Artemus Ward. Chase assumed a forced smile, while Stanton’s face betrayed impatience and irritation.
Once his humorous story was done, Lincoln took on “a graver tone,” reminding his colleagues of the emancipation order he had drafted and read to them earlier. He told them that when Lee’s army was in Maryland, he had decided “as soon as it should be driven out” of the state, he would issue his proclamation. “I said nothing to any one; but I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) to my Maker.” While Lincoln rarely acknowledged the influence of faith or religious beliefs, “there were occasions when, uncertain how to proceed,” remarked Gideon Welles, “he had in this way submitted the disposal of the subject to a Higher Power, and abided by what seemed the Supreme Will.” The president made clear he was not seeking “advice about the main matter,” for he had already considered their views before reaching his decision; but he would welcome any suggestions on language. Lincoln then began to read the document that he had revised slightly in recent weeks to strengthen the rationale of military necessity.
Stanton “made a very emphatic speech sustaining the measure,” and Blair reiterated his concerns about the border states and the fall elections, though in the end he filed no objection. Seward alone suggested a substantive change. Wouldn’t it be stronger, he asked, if the government promised not only to recognize but to “maintain” the freedom of the former slaves, leaving “out all reference to the act being sustained during the incumbency of the present President”? Lincoln answered that he had thought about this, but “it was not my way to promise what I was not entirely sure that I could perform.” When Seward “insisted that we ought to take this ground,” Lincoln agreed, striking the limiting reference to the present administration.
The preliminary proclamation, published the following day, brought a large crowd of cheering serenaders to the White House. Though it would not take effect until Lincoln issued the final proclamation on January 1, 1863, giving the rebellious states one last chance to return to the Union, it had changed the course of the war. “I can only trust in God I have made no mistake,” Lincoln told well-wishers from an upstairs window. “It is now for the country and the world to pass judgment on it.” He then called attention to the brave soldiers in the field. While he might be “environed with difficulties” as president, these were “scarcely so great as the difficulties of those who, upon the battle field, are endeavoring to purchase with their blood and their lives the future happiness and prosperity of this country. Let us never forget them.”
The serenaders proceeded to Chase’s house at Sixth and E, where the large crowd listened “in a glorious humor” as Chase spoke. Afterward, an excited group, including Bates and “a few old fogies,” remained inside, drinking wine. “They all seemed to feel a sort of new and exhilarated life,” John Hay observed. “They gleefully and merrily called each other and themselves abolitionists, and seemed to enjoy the novel sensation of appropriating that horrible name.”
Many radicals, including Count Gurowski and William Fessenden, remained wary of Lincoln. Gurowski complained that the proclamation was written “in the meanest and the most dry routine style; not a word to evoke a generous thrill,” while Fessenden remarked that it “did not and could not affect the status of a single negro.” Nevertheless, Frederick Douglass, whose criticism of Lincoln had been implacable, understood the revolutionary impact of the proclamation. “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree,” he wrote in his Monthly.Anticipating the powerful opposition it would encounter, he asked: “Will it lead the President to reconsider and retract.” “No,” he concluded, “Abraham Lincoln, will take no step backward.” Intuitively grasping Lincoln’s character, though they were not yet personally acquainted, Douglass explained that “Abraham Lincoln may be slow…but Abraham Lincoln is not the man to reconsider, retract and contradict words and purposes solemnly proclaimed over his official signature…. If he has taught us to confide in nothing else, he has taught us to confide in his word.” Lincoln confirmed this assessment when he told Massachusetts congressman George Boutwell, “My word is out to these people, and I can’t take it back.”
Opposition came from the expected sources: conservatives feared the proclamation would “render eternal the hatred between the two sections,” while Democrats predicted it would demoralize the army. Needless to say, an outcry arose in the South. The Richmond Enquirercharged Lincoln with inciting an insurrection that would inevitably lead, as with Nat Turner’s uprising, to slaves being hunted down “like wild beasts” and killed. “Cheerful and happy now, he plots their death,” the paper accused. None of this surprised Lincoln. Analyzing the range of editorial opinion, he “said he had studied the matter so long that he knew more about it than they did.” When Vice President Hannibal Hamlin wrote that the proclamation would “be enthusiastically approved and sustained” and would “stand as the great act of the age,” Lincoln replied that “while commendation in newspapers and by distinguished individuals is all that a vain man could wish, the stocks have declined, and troops come forward more slowly than ever. This, looked soberly in the face, is not very satisfactory.”
AS MCCLELLAN RESTED HIS TROOPS in the vicinity of Antietam, he pondered his situation. Convinced that his military reputation had been fully restored by the recent victory, he believed it was his prerogative to insist that “Stanton must leave & that Halleck must restore my old place to me.” If these two demands were not met, he told his wife, he would resign his commission. Furthermore, he could not bear the idea of fighting for “such an accursed doctrine” as the Emancipation Proclamation, which he considered an “infamous” call for “a servile insurrection.” Indignant, McClellan drafted a letter of protest to Lincoln, declaring himself in opposition. After old friends, including Monty Blair and his father, warned him that it would be ruinous not to submit to the president’s policy, he ultimately decided not to send the letter.
McClellan had overestimated his newfound clout. Though Stanton and Chase were so discouraged by the general’s apparently unassailable position that they both considered resigning, Lincoln had made another private decision. If McClellan did not mobilize in pursuit of General Lee, which, as September gave way to October, he showed no sign of doing, he would be relieved from duty.
Hoping that a personal visit would inspire McClellan to action, Lincoln journeyed by train to the general’s headquarters early in October. Though Halleck, fearing danger, opposed the idea, Lincoln was determined to “slip off…and see my soldiers.” As always, he was fortified by his interactions with the troops. As the regiments presented arms to the beating of drums, the president, accompanied by McClellan, slowly rode by, lifting his hat. “The review was a splendid affair throughout,” one correspondent noted. “The troops, notwithstanding their long marches and hard fighting, presented a fine appearance, for which they were highly complimented. The President indulged in a number of humorous anecdotes, which greatly amused the company.”
Sharing McClellan’s quarters for meals and occupying the adjoining tent at night, Lincoln quietly but candidly prompted his general to discard his “over-cautiousness” and plan for future movement. While McClellan conceded in a letter to his wife that Lincoln “was very affable” and “very kind personally,” he rightly suspected that the “real purpose of his visit is to push me into a premature advance into Virginia.”
Lincoln headed back to Washington on Saturday afternoon in high spirits, encouraged by the good condition of the troops. His train stopped at the tiny town of Frederick along the way, where he was greeted by a large crowd of cheering citizens, eager to demonstrate Maryland’s loyalty to the Union. Called upon to speak, Lincoln replied cheerfully that “if I were as I have been most of my life, I might perhaps, talk amusing to you for half an hour,” but as president, “every word is so closely noted” that he must avoid any “trivial” remarks. Nevertheless, before the train pulled away, he delivered a brief, eloquent speech from the platform of his car, thanking soldiers and citizens alike for their fidelity to the Union’s cause. “May our children and our children’s children to a thousand generations,” he said in closing, “continue to enjoy the benefits conferred upon us by a united country, and have cause yet to rejoice under those glorious institutions bequeathed us by Washington and his compeers.”
To ensure that McClellan would not misconstrue their conversations, Lincoln had Halleck telegraph him the following Monday that “the President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good.” Weeks went by, however, and McClellan found all manner of excuses for inaction—lack of supplies, lack of shoes, tired horses. At this last excuse, Lincoln could no longer contain his irritation. “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”
“Our war on rebellion languishes,” a frustrated George Templeton Strong wrote on October 23. “McClellan’s repose is doubtless majestic, but if a couchant lion postpone his spring too long, people will begin wondering whether he is not a stuffed specimen after all.” The army’s inaction combined with conservative resentment against the Emancipation Proclamation to produce what Seward called an “ill wind” of discontent when voters headed to the polls for the midterm November elections. The results were devastating to the administration. Though Republicans retained a slight majority in Congress, the so-called “Peace Democrats,” who favored a compromise that would tolerate slavery, gained critical offices in Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Asked how he felt about the Republican losses, Lincoln said: “Somewhat like that boy in Kentucky, who stubbed his toe while running to see his sweetheart. The boy said he was too big to cry, and far too badly hurt to laugh.”
The following day, with the midterm elections behind him, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac. Though the young Napoleon had finally crossed the Potomac, he had immediately stalled again. “I began to fear he was playing false—that he did not want to hurt the enemy,” Lincoln told Hay. “I saw how he could intercept the enemy on the way to Richmond. I determined to make that the test. If he let them get away I would remove him. He did so & I relieved him.”
McClellan received the telegram in his tent at 11 p.m., in the company of the man Lincoln had chosen to succeed him: General Ambrose Burnside. Known as a fighting general, Burnside had commanded a corps under McClellan on the Peninsula and at Antietam. “Poor Burn feels dreadfully, almost crazy,” McClellan told his wife. “Of course I was much surprised,” he admitted, but “not a muscle quivered nor was the slightest expression of feeling visible on my face.”
“More than a hundred thousand soldiers are in great grief to-night,” the correspondent for the National Intelligencer reported as General McClellan bade farewell to his staff and his troops. With all his officers assembled around a large fire in front of his tent, he raised a glass of wine. “Here’s to the Army of the Potomac,” he proposed. “And to its old commander,” one of his officers added. “Tears were shed in profusion,” both at the final toast and when McClellan rode past the lines of his troops. “In parting from you,” he told them, “I cannot express the love and gratitude I bear for you. As an Army you have grown up under my care…. The glory you have achieved, our mutual perils & fatigues, the graves of our comrades fallen in battle & by disease, the broken forms of those whom wounds & sickness have disabled—the strongest associations which can exist among men, unite us still by an indissoluble tie.”
Lincoln’s choice of Burnside proved unfortunate. Though he was charismatic, honest, and industrious, he lacked the intelligence and confidence to lead a great army. He was said to possess “ten times as much heart as he has head.” On December 13, against Lincoln’s advice, the new commander led about 122,000 troops across the Rappahannock to Fredericksburg, where General Lee waited on the heavily fortified high ground. Caught in a trap, the Union forces suffered 13,000 casualties, more than twice the Confederate losses, and were forced into a humiliating withdrawal.
Lincoln tried to mitigate the impact of the defeat, issuing a public letter of commendation to the troops: “The courage with which you, in an open field, maintained the contest against an entrenched foe…[shows] that you possess all the qualities of a great army, which will yet give victory to the cause of the country and of popular government.” Even as he did the “awful arithmetic” of the relative losses, Lincoln realized, as he told William Stoddard, “that if the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone.”
THE TRAIN OF RECRIMINATIONS that followed the Fredericksburg defeat led to a crisis for the administration that left Lincoln “more depressed,” he said, “than by any event of [his] life.” Radical Republicans on Capitol Hill began to insist that unless a more vigorous prosecution of the war were adopted, conservative demands for a compromise peace would multiply and the Union would be restored with slavery intact. The midterm elections, they argued, demonstrated growing public dissatisfaction with current tactics—the writing, clearly, was on the wall.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, December 16, all the Republican senators caucused in the high-ceilinged Senate reception room, hoping to devise a unified response to the disastrous situation. Without sweeping changes in the administration, they agreed, “the country was ruined and the cause was lost.” Hesitant to publicly attack Lincoln in the midst of war, they focused their fury on the man they considered the malevolent power behind the throne—William Henry Seward. For months, Chase had claimed “there was a back stairs & malign influence which controlled the President, and overruled all the decisions of the cabinet,” a hardly veiled reference to Seward. In private letters that had quickly become public knowledge, Chase had repeatedly griped about Lincoln’s failure to consult the cabinet “on matters concerning the salvation of the country,” intimating that his own councils would have averted the misfortunes now facing the country and the party.
In Republican circles, word spread that Seward was a “paralizing influence on the army and the President.” He was rumored to be the “President de facto,” responsible for the long delay in dismissing McClellan that led to stagnation and loss on the battlefield. Seward was said to have hindered Lincoln’s intention to make the war a crusade for emancipation, and was deemed responsible for the resurgence of the conservatives in the midterm elections. In sum, Seward’s insidious presence “kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose.”
In the minds of the majority of the Republicans gathered together in the reception room that December afternoon, these rumors had congealed into facts. As one senator after another rose to speak of Seward’s “controlling influence upon the mind of the President,” Ben Wade suggested that they “should go in a body and demand of the President the dismissal of Mr Seward.” Duty dictated that they exercise their constitutional power, as William Fessenden professed, to demand “that measures should be taken to make the Cabinet a unity and to remove from it any one who did not coincide heartily with our views in relation to the war.” As the rhetoric grew more heated, Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa introduced a resolution proclaiming “a want of confidence in the Secretary of State” and concluding that “he ought to be removed from the Cabinet.”
Fessenden asked for a vote, which clearly indicated that an overwhelming majority of the thirty-one senators were in favor. Seward’s friend New York senator Preston King objected that the resolution was not only “hasty and unwise” but also “unjust to Mr. Seward, as it was predicated on mere rumors.” Several others agreed. Orville Browning argued that he “had no evidence the charges were true,” and therefore could not vote for the resolution. Moreover, this “was not the proper course of proceeding” and would likely provoke a “war between Congress and the President, and the knowledge of this antagonism would injure our cause greatly.” Recognizing that “without entire unanimity our action would not only be without force but productive of evil,” Fessenden agreed to adjourn until the following afternoon to “give time for reflection.”
Though the proceedings were to be kept secret, Preston King felt compelled to acquaint Seward with the situation. That evening, he went to Seward’s house. Finding his old colleague in the library, he sat down beside him and told him all that had transpired. Seward listened quietly and then said, “They may do as they please about me, but they shall not put the President in a false position on my account.” Asking for pen and paper, he wrote out his resignation as secretary of state and asked his son Fred and King to deliver it to the White House.
Lincoln scanned the resignation “with a face full of pain and surprise, saying ‘What does this mean?’” After listening to Senator King’s description of the overwrought emotions that had created “a thirst for a victim,” Lincoln walked over to Seward’s house. The meeting was painful for both men. Masking his anguish, Seward told Lincoln that “it would be a relief to be freed from official cares.” Lincoln replied: “Ah, yes, Governor, that will do very well for you, but I am like the starling in [Laurence] Sterne’s story, ‘I can’t get out.’”
Lincoln straightaway understood that he was the true target of the radicals’ wrath. “They wish to get rid of me, and I am sometimes half disposed to gratify them,” he told Browning two days later. He described the chatter setting forth Seward’s controlling influence over him as “a lie, an absurd lie,” that one “could not impose upon a child.” Seward was the one man in the cabinet Lincoln trusted completely, the only one who fully appreciated his unusual strengths as a leader, and the only one he could call an intimate friend. Still, he could scarcely afford to antagonize the Republican senators so essential to his governing coalition. He had to think through his options. He had to learn more about the dynamics of the situation.
Seward was greatly “disappointed,” Welles sensed, “that the President did not promptly refuse to consider his resignation.” The hesitation compounded the pain of the unexpected assault from his old colleagues on the Hill, leaving him noticeably “wounded, mortified, and chagrined.” Fortunately, Frances had journeyed to Washington the week before to look after their son Will, who had contracted typhoid fever in his army camp six miles from the capital. Fanny, who had just turned eighteen, remained in Auburn with Jenny and the baby. The two women were due to leave Auburn for Washington a few days later to join the family for Christmas.
As Fanny and Jenny were packing their things, Fred sent a hurried telegram to Fanny: “Do not come at present.” Fred, too, had offered his resignation as assistant secretary of state, and Frances followed his telegram with a letter telling Fanny that her father “thought he could best serve his country at present by resigning,” and that they were all leaving shortly for Auburn. Disconcerted by her father’s abrupt departure, Fanny worried greatly. “It seemed to me that if he were to leave,” she noted in her diary, “the distracted state of affairs would prey upon his spirits all the more. I had a vague fear that he would come home ill, and longed to see him with my own eyes, safe. Spent a restless & uncomfortable night.”
In some ways, Seward had exacerbated his own situation. His gratuitous comments about the radicals had made him enemies on Capitol Hill. Charles Sumner was particularly offended by a careless remark in one of the secretary’s dispatches to London, suggesting that the mind-set of the men in Congress was not so different from that of the Confederates. Furthermore, it is not unlikely that Seward’s pridefulness had led him occasionally to make immodest claims regarding his influence in the administration. Yet, despite such indiscretions, he was steadfast and loyal to the president. Having relinquished his own future ambitions, he had fought tirelessly to advance the fortunes of his chief and serve the country he loved.
When the Republican senators convened again Wednesday afternoon, Ira Harris of New York offered a substitute resolution that received unanimous approval. Rather than name Seward directly as the intended target, the resolution stated simply that “the public confidence in the present administration would be increased by a reconstruction of the Cabinet.” When fears arose that Chase might lose his position as well, the resolution was amended to call for a “partial reconstruction of the Cabinet.” Senator John Sherman of Ohio expressed doubt that any change in the cabinet would have an effect, since Lincoln “had neither dignity, order, nor firmness.” Still, believing that they must take action, the caucus selected a Committee of Nine to call on the president and present the resolution. A meeting was set for 7 p.m. Thursday night, December 18.
Orville Browning came to the White House to see Lincoln shortly before the meeting began. “I saw in a moment that he was in distress,” Browning recorded in his diary, “that more than usual trouble was pressing upon him.” When Lincoln asked, “What do these men want?,” Browning bluntly replied that they were “exceedingly violent towards the administration,” and that the resolution adopted “was the gentlest thing that could be done.” Furthermore, although Seward was “the especial object of their hostility,” they were “very bitter” toward the president as well. Lincoln admitted that he had been enormously upset since receiving word about the caucus proceedings. “I can hardly see a ray of hope,” he confided to Browning.
Concealing his distress, Lincoln greeted the Committee of Nine with his accustomed civility, affording them ample opportunity to speak their minds during a three-hour session. Jacob Collamer of Vermont opened the proceedings with a recitation of their primary contention that a president’s cabinet council should jointly endorse principles and policy, “that all important public measures and appointments should be the result of their combined wisdom and deliberation.” Since this was hardly the current state of affairs, the cabinet should be reconstructed to “secure to the country unity of purpose and action.” In the conversation that followed, the senators argued that the prosecution of the war had been left too long “in the hands of bitter and malignant Democrats,” like McClellan and Halleck, while the antislavery generals, like Frémont and Hunter, “had been disgraced.”
This grim arraignment was attributed to Seward’s domination of policy and his “lukewarmness in the conduct of the war.” While the Republican senators professed belief in the president’s honesty, Lincoln later said, “they seemed to think that when he had in him any good purposes, Mr. S[eward] contrived to suck them out of him unperceived.” Lincoln worked to defuse the anger and tension. He confessed that the movement against Seward “shocked and grieved him,” maintaining that while his cabinet had been at loggerheads on certain issues, “there had never been serious disagreements.” Rumors that Seward exercised some perfidious influence in opposition to the majority of the cabinet were simply not true. On the contrary, the cabinet had acted with great accord on most matters. Indeed, in his most trying days, “he had been sustained and consoled” by their “mutual and unselfish confidence and zeal.” As the conversation continued, Lincoln seemed to sense that the committee members were “earnest and sad—not malicious nor passionate.” He “expressed his satisfaction with the tone and temper” of the conversation, promised to examine the prepared paper with care, and left them with the feeling that he was “pleased with the interview.”
Aware that “he must work it out by himself” with no adviser to consult, Lincoln “thought deeply on the matter.” By morning, he had devised a plan of action. He sent notices to all of his cabinet members except Seward, requesting a special meeting at 10:30 a.m. When all were seated around the familiar oak table, Lincoln asked them to keep secret what he had to say. He informed them of Seward’s letter of resignation, told them about his meeting with the Committee of Nine, and read aloud the paper the committee members had presented to him. He reiterated the statements he had made to the committee, emphasizing how his compound cabinet had worked together “harmoniously, whatever had been their previous party feelings,” and that during the “overwhelming troubles of the country, which had borne heavily upon him,” he had counted on their loyalty and “good feeling.” He “could not afford to lose” any of them and declared that it would not be “possible for him to go on with a total abandonment of old friends.”
Knowing that, when personally confronted, the cabinet members would profess they had worked well together, Lincoln proposed a joint session later that evening with the cabinet and the Committee of Nine. Presumably, they would disabuse the senators of their notions of disunity and discord in the cabinet. Chase was panicked at the thought of the joint meeting, since tales of the malfunctioning cabinet had originated largely with his own statements to the senators. Chase argued vehemently against the joint meeting, but when everyone else agreed, he was forced to acquiesce.
On the evening of December 19, when the members of the Committee of Nine arrived at the White House, Lincoln began the unusual session by reading the resolutions of the senators and inviting a candid discussion of the issues raised. He acknowledged that cabinet meetings had not been as regular as he might have liked, given the terrible time pressures that faced his administration. Nonetheless, he believed that “most questions of importance had received a reasonable consideration,” and that “all had acquiesced in measures when once decided.” He went on to defend Seward against the committee’s charge that he had “improperly interfered” with decisions and had not been “earnest in the prosecution of the war.” He specifically cited Seward’s full concurrence in the Emancipation Proclamation.
The senators renewed their demand that “the whole Cabinet” must “consider and decide great questions,” with no one individual directing the “whole Executive action.” They noted with approval that John Quincy Adams adhered to the majority vote of his cabinet even when he disagreed with them. In like fashion, “they wanted united counsels, combined wisdom, and energetic action.”
Blair followed with a long argument that “sustained the President and dissented most decidedly from the idea of a plural Executive.” Though he “had differed much with Mr. Seward,” he nonetheless “believed him as earnest as any one in the war; thought it would be injurious to the public service to have him leave the Cabinet, and that the Senate had better not meddle with matters of that kind.” Bates expressed wholehearted agreement with Blair, as did Welles. As he contemplated the discussion, Welles wrote the next day, he realized that while he had likewise differed with Seward on numerous occasions, Seward’s faults were “venial.” Moreover, “no party or faction should be permitted to dictate to the President in regard to his Cabinet.”
The course of the conversation had seriously compromised Chase’s position. He noted irritably, recalled Fessenden, that “he should not have come here had he known that he was to be arraigned before a committee of the Senate,” but he felt compelled to uphold Lincoln and his colleagues. Stating equivocally that he wished the cabinet had more fully considered every measure, Chase endorsed the president’s statement that there had been accord on most measures. He grudgingly admitted that “no member had opposed a measure after it had once been decided on.” As for the Emancipation Proclamation, Chase conceded that Seward had suggested amendments that substantially strengthened it. Neither Stanton nor Smith said a word.
After nearly five hours of open conversation, sensing he was making headway, Lincoln asked each of the senators if he still desired to see Seward resign his position. Though four, including Lyman Trumbull, reaffirmed their original position, the others had changed their minds. When the meeting adjourned at 1 a.m., the senators suspected that no change in the cabinet would be made.
The disappointed senators now turned their wrath upon Chase, whose duplicitous behavior infuriated them. When Collamer was asked how Chase could have presented such a different face when confronted in the meeting, the Vermont senator answered succinctly, “He lied.” Lincoln agreed that Chase had been disingenuous, but not on that night. On the contrary, after months of spreading false stories about Seward and the cabinet, Chase had finally been compelled to tell the truth! Lincoln’s political dexterity had enabled him to calm the crisis and expose the duplicity of his secretary of the treasury.
The next day, Welles paid an early call on the president. He said that he had “pondered the events” of the previous night and concluded that it would be a grievous mistake for Lincoln to accept Seward’s resignation. The senators’ presumption in their criticisms of Seward, “real or imaginary,” was “inappropriate and wrong.” In order to “maintain the rights and independence of the Executive,” Lincoln must reject the senator’s attempts to interfere with internal cabinet matters. Welles hoped that Seward would not press Lincoln to accept his resignation. Delighted by these comments, Lincoln asked Welles to talk with Seward.
Welles went at once to Seward’s house, where he found Stanton conversing with the secretary of state. While Stanton had probably joined Chase in airing his frustrations, most particularly when McClellan was restored to command, he had come to see the necessity for solidarity. The cabinet, he said, was like a window. “Suppose you allowed it to be understood that passers-by might knock out one pane of glass—just one at a time—how long do you think any panes would be left in it?”
When Stanton departed, Welles told Seward that he had advised the president not to accept his resignation. This “greatly pleased” Seward, who had been distraught over the whole episode. In short order, another visitor knocked on Seward’s door and Monty Blair entered, also to object to the idea of Seward’s resignation. So Lincoln had brought the cabinet to rally around one of their own. Like family members who would fault one another within the confines of their own household while fiercely rejecting external criticism, the cabinet put aside its quarrel with Seward, based largely on jealousy over his intimacy with Lincoln, to resist the interference of outsiders.
Still, Lincoln’s troubles were not over. The news of Seward’s offer of resignation had produced widespread comment, particularly among radicals who hoped that his departure would signal a first step toward a reconstructed cabinet purged of conservative influences. To refuse Seward’s offer now that its tender was public knowledge would be interpreted as a slap against the radicals. The delicate balance Lincoln had struggled to maintain in his cabinet would be damaged.
Ironically, Salmon Chase unwittingly provided a perfect solution to Lincoln’s difficulty. When Welles returned to Lincoln’s office after speaking with Seward, he found Chase and Stanton waiting to see the president. Humiliated after the previous night, Chase had decided to hand in his own resignation. Word had already leaked out that he had been instrumental in the movement to remove Seward “for the purpose of obtaining and maintaining control in the cabinet.” Were he to remain after Seward’s departure, he told a friend, he would face the hostility of Seward’s many friends. Yet a public offer to join Seward in resigning would put the onus on Lincoln to request Chase’s continued service and “relieve him from imputations of Seward’s friends and clear his future course of difficulties.”
Discovering Chase, Stanton, and Welles in his office, Lincoln invited them all to sit with him before the fire. Chase said he “had been painfully affected by the meeting,” which had come as “a total surprise” to him. He informed the president he had written out his resignation. “Where is it?” Lincoln asked, “his eye lighting up for a moment.” When Chase said he had brought it with him, Lincoln leaped up, exclaiming, “Let me have it.” Stretching out to snatch it, Lincoln pulled the paper from Chase, who now seemed “reluctant” to let it go. With “an air of satisfaction spread over his countenance,” Lincoln said, “This…cuts the Gordian knot.” As he began reading the note, he added, “I can dispose of this subject now without difficulty.”
Chase gave Welles a “perplexed” look, suggesting he was not pleased that his colleague was a witness to this upsetting encounter. At this point, Stanton also offered to submit his resignation. “I don’t want yours,” Lincoln immediately replied. Then, indicating Chase’s letter, he added, “This…is all I want—this relieves me—my way is clear—the trouble is ended. I will detain neither of you longer.”
As soon as they left, Lincoln wrote a letter to both Seward and Chase, acknowledging that he had received their resignations, but that “after most anxious consideration,” he had determined that the “public interest” required both men to remain in office. “I therefore have to request that you will resume the duties of your Departments respectively,” he concluded. Welles immediately fathomed Lincoln’s insistence on keeping the two rivals close despite their animosity: “Seward comforts him,—Chase he deems a necessity.” By retaining both men, Lincoln kept the balance in his cabinet. When Senator Ira Harris called on him shortly after he had received Chase’s resignation, Lincoln was in a buoyant mood. “Yes, Judge,” he said, employing a metaphor shaped by his rural childhood, “I can ride on now, I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag!”
Seward responded to Lincoln with alacrity. “I have cheerfully resumed the functions of this Department in obedience to your command,” he replied. That afternoon, a relieved Fanny received a telegram from Fred instructing her and Jenny to “come as soon as possible” to Washington. Chase, meanwhile, had far more difficulty in determining how to respond. His first reaction was to draft a letter refusing Lincoln’s wish. “Will you allow me to say,” he wrote, “that something you said or looked, when I handed you my resignation this morning, made on my mind the impression, that, having received the resignations of both Gov. Seward and myself, you felt you could relieve yourself from trouble by declining to accept either and that the feeling was one of gratification.” He then went on to express the opinion that he and Seward could “both better serve you and the country, at this time, as private citizens, than in your cabinet.” When Chase received a note from Seward announcing his decision to resume his duties, however, he felt compelled to follow suit. While letting Lincoln know that his original desire to resign remained unchanged, Chase promised that he would do Lincoln’s bidding and return to the Treasury.
At the next cabinet meeting, Welles noted, “Seward was feeling very happy,” while “Chase was pale, and said he was ill, had been for weeks.” Seward magnanimously invited Chase to dine with his family on Christmas Eve. Having achieved what Nicolay termed “a triumph over those who attempted to drive him out,” Seward hoped that he and Chase could now make their peace. Though Chase declined the invitation, he sent a gracious note begging that his “unwilling absence” be excused, for he was “too really sick…to venture upon his hospitality.”
For Lincoln, the most serious governmental crisis of his presidency had ended in victory. He had treated the senators with dignity and respect and, in the process, had protected the integrity and autonomy of his cabinet. He had defended the executive against a legislative attempt to dictate who should constitute the president’s political family. He had saved his friend Seward from an unjust attack that was really directed at him, and, simultaneously, solidified his own position as master of both factions in his cabinet.
Mary Lincoln did not share her husband’s gratification in the outcome. She told Elizabeth Blair that “she regretted the making up of the family quarrel—that there was not a member of the Cabinet who did not stab her husband & the Country daily,” with the exception of Monty Blair. Her protective suspicions were reaffirmed during a visit to a Georgetown spiritualist on New Year’s Eve. Mrs. Laury’s revelations combined comforting communications from Willie with political commentary on affairs of the day. In particular, the spiritualist warned “that the cabinet were all the enemies of the President, working for themselves, and that they would have to be dismissed, and others called to his aid before he had success.”
Lincoln listened patiently to Mary’s concerns, but he knew that he had now balanced his team of rivals and consolidated his leadership. “I do not now see how it could have been done better,” he told Hay. “I am sure it was right. If I had yielded to that storm & dismissed Seward the thing would all have slumped over one way & we should have been left with a scanty handful of supporters. When Chase gave in his resignation I saw that the game was in my own hands & I put it through.”
The happy resolution of the crisis provided an upbeat ending to a very difficult year.
BATTLEFIELDS OF THE CIVIL WAR