AS THE FIRST DAY of January 1863 approached, the public evinced a “general air of doubt” regarding the president’s intention to follow through on his September pledge to issue his Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day. “Will Lincoln’s backbone carry him through?” a skeptical George Templeton Strong asked. “Nobody knows.”
The cynics were wrong. Despite repeated warnings that the issuance of the proclamation would have harmful consequences for the Union’s cause, Lincoln never considered retracting his pledge. As Frederick Douglass had perceived, once the president staked himself to a forward position, he did not give up ground. The final proclamation deviated from the preliminary document in one major respect. The document still proclaimed that “all persons held as slaves” within states and parts of states still in rebellion “are, and henceforward shall be free”; but Lincoln, for the first time, officially authorized the recruitment of blacks into the armed forces. Stanton and Chase had advocated this step for many months, yet Lincoln, knowing that it would provoke serious disaffection in his governing coalition, had hesitated. Now, as the public began to comprehend the massive manpower necessary to fight a prolonged war, he believed the timing was right.
The cabinet members suggested a few changes that Lincoln cheerfully adopted, most notably Chase’s proposal to conclude the legalistic document with a flourish, invoking “the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God…upon this act.”
On the morning he would deliver the historic proclamation, Lincoln rose early. He walked over to his office to make final revisions and sent the document by messenger to the State Department, where it was put into legal form. He then met with General Burnside, who had readied his army for “another expedition against the rebels along the Rappahannock,” only to be restrained by the president. Lincoln explained that several of Burnside’s division commanders had made forceful objections to the new plan. Troubled by the realization that he had lost the confidence of his officers, Burnside offered to resign. Lincoln managed to assuage the discord temporarily, but three weeks later, he would replace Burnside with “Fighting Joe” Hooker. A West Point graduate who had fought in the Mexican War, Hooker had served under McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign and at Antietam.
Seward returned from the State Department with the formally copied proclamation shortly before 11 a.m. Lincoln read it over once more and made ready to sign it when he noticed a technical error in the format. The document had to be returned to the State Department for correction. Since the traditional New Year’s reception was about to begin, the signing would have to be delayed until midafternoon.
The first hour of the three-hour reception was reserved for Washington officials—diplomats, justices, and high officers in the armed forces. All the cabinet members and their families were there, with the exception of Caleb Smith, who had recently resigned his Department of Interior post to become a district judge in Indiana. Young Fanny Seward anxiously anticipated the occasion, for she had just passed her eighteenth birthday and this was her “coming out” day. Outfitted in blue silk with a white hat and an ivory fan, Fanny was thrilled when the president and first lady remembered her. Between the “full court dress” of the diplomatic corps and the dazzling costumes of the ladies, “the scene,” Fanny recalled, was “very brilliant.” She recorded in her diary that Mary “wore a rich dress of black velvet, with lozenge formed trimming on the waist,” but she was especially captivated by Kate Chase, “looking like a fairy queen” in her lace dress: “Oh how pretty she is.”
At noon, the cabinet members left to prepare for their own receptions and the gates to the White House were opened to the general public. The immense and disorderly crowd surged into the mansion at the cost of torn coattails and lost bonnets. The journalist Noah Brooks was relieved when he finally reached the Blue Room, where a single line formed to shake the president’s hand. He had recently noted how Lincoln’s appearance had “grievously altered from the happy-faced Springfield lawyer” he had first met in 1856. “His hair is grizzled, his gait more stooping, his countenance sallow, and there is a sunken, deathly look about the large, cavernous eyes.” Nonetheless, the president greeted every visitor with a smile and a kind remark, “his blessed old pump handle working steadily” to ensure that his “People’s Levee” would be a success. Benjamin French, standing beside Mary during the first part of the public reception, noted her doleful appearance. “Oh Mr. French,” she said, “how much we have passed through since last we stood here.” This was the first reception since Willie’s death, and Mary was “too much overcome by her feelings to remain until it ended.”
After mingling with the crowd, Noah Brooks took his California friends “a-calling” at the homes of various cabinet members. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the streets were jammed with carriages. At Chase’s mansion, they were greeted by a “young gentleman of color who had a double row of silver plated buttons from his throat to his toes.” Handing their “pasteboards” to the doorkeeper, they were brought into the crowded parlor, where they shook hands with the secretary and his “very beautiful” daughter. Chase was “gentlemanly in his manners,” Brooks noted, “though he has a painful way of holding his head straight, which leads one to fancy that his shirt collar cuts his ears.” Their next stop was Seward’s Lafayette Square house, where Brooks’s eye, initially drawn to the elegant furnishings in the upstairs parlor, came to rest on “the prodigious nose” of the secretary, who greeted each visitor “with all of his matchless suaviter in modo.”
Of all the receptions that day, the Stantons’ was the most elaborate. Brooks was overwhelmed by the abundant supply of “oysters, salads, game pastries, fruits, cake, wines…arranged with a most gorgeous display of china, glass, and silver.” Remarking on Stanton’s “little, aristocratic wife,” Ellen, Brooks wondered if her lavish style was depleting the fortune Stanton had accumulated during his years as a lawyer. His observation was perceptive: while Stanton’s salary had been reduced markedly by his decision to leave private practice, Ellen continued to spend money as though large retainers were still coming in. Yet Stanton refused to puncture Ellen’s dreams, even as his rapidly diminishing wealth stirred old worries about bankruptcy.
At 2 p.m., Lincoln, wearily finished with his own reception, returned to his office. Seward and Fred soon joined him, carrying the corrected proclamation in a large portfolio. Not wishing to delay any longer, Lincoln commenced the signing. As the parchment was unrolled before him, he “took a pen, dipped it in ink, moved his hand to the place for the signature,” but then, his hand trembling, he stopped and put the pen down.
“I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” he said. “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” His arm was “stiff and numb” from shaking hands for three hours, however. “If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation,” Lincoln said, “all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated.’” So the president waited a moment and then took up the pen once more, “slowly and carefully” writing his name. “The signature proved to be unusually bold, clear, and firm, even for him,” Fred Seward recalled, “and a laugh followed, at his apprehensions.” The secretary of state added his own name and carried it back to the State Department, where the great seal of the United States was affixed before copies were sent out to the press.
In cities and towns all across the North, people had anxiously waited for word of Lincoln’s action. Count Gurowski was in despair as the day dragged on without confirmation that the proclamation had been signed. “Has Lincoln played false to humanity?” he wondered. At Tremont Temple in Boston, where snow covered the ground, an audience of three thousand had gathered since morning, anticipating “the first flash of the electric wires.” Frederick Douglass was there, along with two other antislavery leaders, John S. Rock and Anna Dickinson. At the nearby Music Hall, another expectant crowd had formed, including the eminent authors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. “Every moment of waiting chilled our hopes, and strengthened our fears,” Douglass recalled. “A line of messengers” connected the telegraph office with the platform at Tremont Temple, and although the time was passed with speeches, as it reached nine and then ten o’clock without any word, “a visible shadow” fell upon the crowd.
“On the side of doubt,” Douglass recalled, “it was said that Mr. Lincoln’s kindly nature [toward the South] might cause him to relent at the last moment.” It was rumored that Mary Lincoln, “coming from an old slaveholding family,” might have stayed his hand, persuading him to “give the slaveholders one other chance.” These speculations, which “had absolutely no foundation,” hurt Mary “to the quick,” her niece Katherine noted. In fact, Mary had rushed a photograph of her husband to Sumner’s abolitionist friend Harvard president Josiah Quincy, hoping it would “reach him, by the 1st of Jan” to mark the joyous occasion.
Finally, at roughly 10 p.m., when the anxiety at Tremont Temple “was becoming agony,” a man raced through the crowd. “It is coming! It is on the wires!!” Douglass would long remember the “wild and grand” reaction, the shouts of “joy and gladness,” the audible sobs and visible tears. The happy crowd celebrated with music and song, dispersing at dawn. A similar elation poured forth in the Music Hall. “It was a sublime moment,” Quincy’s daughter, Eliza, wrote Mary; “the thought of the millions upon millions of human beings whose happiness was to be affected & freedom secured by the words of President Lincoln, was almost overwhelming…. I wish you & the President could have enjoyed it with us, here.”
In Washington, a crowd of serenaders gathered at the White House to applaud Lincoln’s action. The president came to the window and silently bowed to the crowd. The signed proclamation rendered words unnecessary. While its immediate effects were limited, since it applied only to enslaved blacks behind rebel lines, the Emancipation Proclamation changed forever the relationship of the national government to slavery. Where slavery had been protected by the national government, it was now “under its ban.” The armed forces that had returned fugitive slaves to bondage would be employed in securing their freedom. “Whatever partial reverses may attend its progress,” the Boston Daily Evening Transcript predicted, “Slavery from this hour ceases to be a political power in the country…such a righteous revolution as it inaugurates never goes backward.” Ohio congressman-elect James Garfield agreed, though he retained a low opinion of Lincoln, doubtless shaped by his close friendship with Chase. “Strange phenomenon in the world’s history,” he wrote, “when a second-rate Illinois lawyer is the instrument to utter words which shall form an epoch memorable in all future ages.”
Lincoln did not need any such confirmation of the historic nature of the edict. “Fellow-citizens,” he had said in his annual message in December, “we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
When Joshua Speed next came to visit, Lincoln reminded his old friend of the suicidal depression he had suffered two decades earlier, and of his disclosure that he would gladly die but that he “had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.” Now, indicating his Emancipation Proclamation, he declared: “I believe that in this measure…my fondest hopes will be realized.”
GRAVE QUESTIONS REMAINED: Had Lincoln chosen the right moment to issue his revolutionary edict? Would the Union cause be helped or hindered? Even Republican papers worried that the edict would create “discord in the North and concord in the South,” strengthening “the spirit of the rebellion” while it diminished “the spirit of the nation.” Lincoln’s most intimate counselor, Seward, repeatedly warned that the situation demanded “union and harmony, in order to save the country from destruction.”
All his life, Lincoln had exhibited an exceptionally sensitive grasp of the limits set by public opinion. As a politician, he had an intuitive sense of when to hold fast, when to wait, and when to lead. “It is my conviction,” Lincoln later said, “that, had the proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it.” If the question of “slavery and quiet” as opposed to war and abolition had been placed before the American people in a vote at the time of Fort Sumter, Walt Whitman wrote, the former “would have triumphantly carried the day in a majority of the Northern States—in the large cities, leading off with New York and Philadelphia, by tremendous majorities.” In other words, the North would not fight to end slavery, but it would and did fight to preserve the Union. Lincoln had known this and realized that any assault on slavery would have to await a change in public attitudes.
The proposition to enlist blacks in the armed forces had required a similar period of preparation. “A man watches his pear-tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit,” Lincoln explained. “Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap!” He had watched “this great revolution in public sentiment slowly but surely progressing.” He saw this gradual shift in newspaper editorials, in conversations with people throughout the North, and in the views expressed by the troops during his own visits to the field. He had witnessed the subtle changes in the opinions of his cabinet colleagues, even those who represented the more conservative points of view. Although he knew that opposition would still be fierce, he believed it was no longer “strong enough to defeat the purpose.”
Events soon tested Lincoln’s belief. In the weeks that followed the issuance of the proclamation, the tenuous coalition of Democrats and Republicans that had supported the war showed signs of disintegration. In New York, the newly elected Democratic governor Horatio Seymour denounced emancipation in his inaugural message. In Kentucky, Governor James Robinson recommended that the state legislature reject the proclamation. Heavily Democratic legislatures in Illinois and Indiana threatened to sever ties with abolitionist New England and ally their states with the states of the lower Mississippi in order to end the war with slavery intact. “Every Democratic paper in Indiana is teeming with abuse of New England,” Indiana governor Oliver Morton warned Stanton. “They allege that New England has brought upon us the War by a fanatical crusade against Slavery.” As reports filtered into the White House, John Nicolay feared that “under the subterfuge of opposing the Emancipation Proclamation,” a portion of the Democratic Party was “really organizing to oppose the War.”
The “fire in the rear,” in Lincoln’s phrase, was fed by the lack of military progress. Heavy rains in January followed by a succession of snowstorms in February and March forced the demoralized Army of the Potomac into winter quarters on the north side of the Rappahannock. Nature conspired against Grant’s Army of the Tennessee as well. Between February and March, four different attempts to capture Vicksburg failed, preventing the Union from gaining control of the Mississippi River. “This winter is, indeed, the Valley Forge of the war,” one officer wrote.
In the Congress, the Peace Democrats, popularly known as Copperheads, thought war measures had strayed too far from simply repressing the rebellion and restoring the Union as it had been, and thus vigorously opposed legislation to reform the banking system, emancipate the slaves, and curtail civil liberties. They especially railed against the conscription law, which authorized provost marshals in every congressional district to enroll men between twenty and forty-five for a term of three years. As the March 4 date of adjournment neared, they engaged in a variety of tactics to suppress votes on all of these key measures. They hid out in the House lobbies and cloakrooms during quorum calls, attached unacceptable amendments onto each of the bills, and kept the Senate up day and night with filibusters.
In the House, Copperhead Clement Vallandigham, a lame duck congressman from Ohio, took the lead. He delivered a series of violent antiwar speeches that attracted national attention. As he warmed to his theme, Noah Brooks observed, his face “fearfully changed,” his agreeable smile gave way to “a vindictive, ghastly grin,” his smooth voice rose “higher and higher” until it reached a piercing shriek that echoed through the chamber. “Ought this war to continue?” Vallandigham thundered, depicting a war purportedly waged to defend the Union, now become “a war for the negro.” He answered: “no—not a day, not an hour.” The time had come for the soldiers on both sides to go home. Let the Northwest and the Old South come together in compromise. If New England did not want to remain in a Union with slavery intact, then let her go.
In the Senate, Willard Saulsbury of Delaware took to the floor to prevent a vote sustaining the administration on the suspension of habeas corpus. He could hardly keep his footing during a liquor-fueled harangue, while he inveighed against the president “in language fit only for a drunken fishwife,” calling him “an imbecile” and claiming that he was “the weakest man ever placed in a high office.” Called to order by Vice President Hamlin, he refused to take his seat. When the sergeant at arms approached to take Saulsbury into custody, he pulled out his revolver. “Damn you,” he said, pointing the pistol at the sergeant’s head, “if you touch me I’ll shoot you dead.” The wild scene continued for some time before Saulsbury was removed from the Senate floor.
The brouhaha on Capitol Hill troubled Lincoln less than repeated reports of growing disaffection in the army. Admiral Foote claimed that the proclamation was having a “baneful” impact on the troops, “damping their zeal and ardor, and producing discontent at the idea of fighting only for the negro.” Orville Browning, who considered the proclamation a fatal mistake, warned Lincoln that recruiting new volunteers would be nearly impossible and that “an attempt to draft would probably be made the occasion of resistance to the government.” Browning had talked with some friends upon their return from the front, where they had “conversed with a great many soldiers, all of whom expressed the greatest dissatisfaction, saying they had been deceived—that the[y] volunteered to fight for the Country, and had they known it was to be converted into a war for the negro they would not have enlisted. They think that scarcely one of the 200,000 whose term of service is soon to expire will re enlist.”
Patiently, Lincoln weathered criticisms from Browning and a host of others. He listened carefully when David Davis, who, more than anyone, had helped engineer his victory at the Chicago convention and whom he had recently appointed to the Supreme Court, warned him about “the alarming condition of things.” Yet when Davis told Lincoln to alter his policy of emancipation “as the only means of saving the Country,” Lincoln told him it was “a fixed thing.” And when Browning raised the specter that “the democrats would soon begin to clamor for compromise,” Lincoln replied that if they moved toward concessions, “the people would leave them.” Through the worst days of discord and division, Lincoln never lost his confidence that he understood the will and desires of the people.
“The resources, advantages, and powers of the American people are very great,” he wrote the workingmen of London when they congratulated him on emancipation, “and they have, consequently, succeeded to equally great responsibilities. It seems to have devolved upon them to test whether a government, established on the principles of human freedom, can be maintained.”
While his anxious friends observed only the rancor on Capitol Hill, Lincoln noted that before Congress adjourned on March 4, the people’s representatives had passed every single one of the administration’s war-related bills. They had supported the vital banking and currency legislation that would provide the financial foundation for a long and costly war, as well as the conscription bill, called by the New York Times “the grandest pledge yet given that our Government means to prevail.”
Moreover, with Lincoln’s blessings, monster mass rallies in city after city throughout the North were organized to express popular support for the war against the defeatism of the Copperheads. In New York, the Times reported, the “largest popular gathering ever held in this City” thronged Madison Square to hear General Scott speak and to “cheer with hearty voice each testimony of fealty to the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In Washington, Lincoln and his cabinet attended a giant Union rally at the Capitol, hailed as “the greatest popular demonstration ever known in Washington.” A journalist noted that while Lincoln was dressed more plainly than the others on the platform, with “no sign of watch chain, white bosom or color…he wore on his breast, an immense jewel, the value of which I can form no estimate.” She was speaking of little Tad, snuggled against his father’s chest. Though he occasionally grew restless during the long speeches and jumped off his father’s lap to wander along the platform, Tad quickly returned to the security of his father’s embrace.
Scheduled for early April, the congressional and state elections in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire would be a test case in the battle for the heart of the North. Lincoln sent a telegram to Thurlow Weed at the Astor House in New York, requesting that he take the first train to Washington. Weed arrived the next morning, had breakfast with Seward, and met with Lincoln at the White House. “Mr. Weed, we are in a tight place,” Lincoln explained. “Money for legitimate purposes is needed immediately; but there is no appropriation from which it can be lawfully taken. I didn’t know how to raise it, and so I sent for you.” The amount needed was $15,000. Weed returned to New York on the next train. Before the night had ended, “the Dictator” had persuaded fifteen New Yorkers to contribute $1,000 each. Although Weed later claimed that he was ignorant of the purpose of the secret fund, it is most likely, as Welles speculated, that it helped finance a plan worked out between Seward and Lincoln “to influence the New Hampshire and Connecticut elections.”
It was money well spent. Voters in both states defeated the Copperhead candidates by clear majorities, ensuring that the great war measures would be sustained in the next House of Representatives. The results were “a stunning blow to the Copperheads,” the New York Timesnoted. The surprising triumph “puts the Administration safely round the cape, and insures it clear seas to the end.” John Hay reveled in the thought that the elections had “frightened” and “disheartened” the rebels and their sympathizers, who had expected war weariness to depress voter sentiment. “I rejoiced with my whole heart in your loyal victory,” Stanton told an administration supporter in Connecticut. “It was in my judgement the most important election held since the War commenced.”
“The feeling of the country is I think every day becoming more hopeful and buoyant,” Nicolay told his fiancée, “a very healthy reaction against Copperheadism becoming everywhere manifest.” Noah Brooks detected a similar shift in mood. “The glamour which the insidious enemies of the Union had for a while cast over the minds of the people of the North is disappearing,” he noted. The Copperheads “find that they have gone too fast and too far” in talking of a compromise peace, “and they have brought upon themselves the denunciations” of Republicans and loyal “War Democrats” alike.
This was precisely what Lincoln had anticipated in the dark days of January when he told Browning that “the people” would never sustain the Copperheads’ call for peace on any terms. He had let the reaction against the defeatist propositions grow, then worked to mobilize the renewed Union spirit.
AMID THE CLAMOROUS OPPOSITION in Congress, the continued threats of intervention from abroad, and the stalemate in the war, Lincoln remained remarkably calm, good-natured, and self-controlled. While Chase confessed to an unremitting anxiety and Stanton suffered from repeated bouts of exhaustion, Lincoln found numerous ways to sustain his spirits. No matter how brutally trying his days, he still found time in the evenings to call at Seward’s house, where he was assured of good conversation and much-needed relaxation.
Seward appreciated Lincoln’s original mind and his keen wit. Fanny told of an intimate evening in their parlor when Lincoln engaged the entire family with an amusing tale about young women during the War of 1812 who made belts with engraved mottoes to give their lovers departing for battle. When one young girl suggested “Liberty or Death!,” her soldier protested that the phrase was “rather strong.” Couldn’t she make it “Liberty or be crippled” instead? Although Seward laughed as uproariously as Lincoln, it is certain that neither Chase nor the serious-minded Stanton would have enjoyed such broad humor. Nor would either have approved of the grim levity of Lincoln’s response to a gentleman who had waited for weeks to receive a pass to Richmond. “Well,” said Lincoln, “I would be very happy to oblige you, if my passes were respected: but the fact is, sir, I have, within the past two years, given passes to two hundred and fifty thousand men to go to Richmond, and not one has got there yet.”
Like Lincoln, Seward usually possessed a profound self-assurance that enabled him to withstand an endless, savage barrage of criticism. Noah Brooks noted that he was unfailingly cheerful, “smoking cigars always, ruffled or excited never, astute, keen to perceive a joke, appreciative of a good thing, and fond of ‘good victuals.’” Newsmen loved to hear Seward’s stories and he loved to tell them. At one dinner party, he talked nonstop from five-thirty to eleven o’clock. What left the deeper impression upon his listeners, however, was Seward’s unconditional love for Lincoln, whom he praised “without limitation” as “the best and wisest man he [had] ever known.”
On the nights he did not spend with Seward, Lincoln found welcome diversion in the telegraph office, where he could stretch his legs, rest his feet on the table, and enjoy the company of the young telegraph operators. He sought out Captains Dahlgren and Fox, whose conversation always cheered him. Describing a pleasant evening in Captain Fox’s room, Dahlgren remarked that “Abe was in good humor, and at leaving said, ‘Well I will go home; I had no business here; but, as the lawyer said, I had none anywhere else.’”
Occasionally, late at night, Lincoln would rouse John Hay. Seated on the edge of his young aide’s bed, or calling him into the office, the president would read aloud favorite passages ranging from Shakespeare to the humorist Thomas Hood. Hay recorded one occasion, “a little after midnight,” when Lincoln, with amused gusto, read a portion of Hood, “utterly unconscious that he with his short shirt hanging about his long legs & setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at. What a man it is! Occupied all day with matters of vast moment…he yet has such a wealth of simple bonhommie & good fellow ship that he gets out of bed & perambulates the house in his shirt to find us that we may share with him the fun of one of poor Hoods queer little conceits.”
Lincoln’s evening rambles suggest that Mary’s continuing depression over Willie precluded easy relaxation at home. “Only those, who have passed through such bereavements, can realize, how the heart bleeds,” Mary admitted to Mary Jane Welles. Yet despite the desolation that still tormented her, Mary had gamely resumed her duties as first lady, telling Benjamin French that she felt responsible to “receive the world at large” and would endeavor “to bear up” under her sorrow. French, in turn, marveled at the “affable and pleasant” demeanor the first lady regularly displayed in public. “The skeleton,” he noted, “is always kept out of sight.”
As the anniversary of Willie’s death approached, Robert came down from Harvard to spend a few weeks with his family. Encountering him at a number of parties, Fanny Seward found him to be a delightful young man, “much shorter than his father,” with “a good, strong face,” though not an especially handsome one. “I talked some time with him. He is ready and easy in conversation—having, I fancy, considerable humor in his composition.”
With the official mourning period behind them, the Lincolns resumed the weekly public receptions they both enjoyed despite the exhausting rounds of handshaking. In gratitude to Rebecca Pomroy, the nurse who had cared for Tad after Willie died, Mary arranged for all the nurses, officers, and soldiers at Pomroy’s hospital to attend a grand White House reception in early March. Mrs. Pomroy instructed the soldiers “to provide themselves with clean white gloves, and to look their best.” The White House that night was “brilliantly lighted and decorated with flowers in the greatest profusion.” Pomroy was certain that her soldiers would remember this night, declaring that if they survived the war, “they will tell their children’s children” of their enchanting evening at the White House.
The abolitionist Jane Grey Swisshelm had initially been reluctant to join her friends at one of these Saturday receptions. She had no interest in meeting Mary Lincoln after the tales suggesting the first lady’s sympathy with the Confederate cause. Yet when she was actually introduced to Mary, she realized at once that the stories were slanderous gossip. “When I came to Mrs. Lincoln, she did not catch the name at first, and asked to hear it again, then repeated it, and a sudden glow of pleasure lit her face, as she held out her hand and said how very glad she was to see me. I objected to giving her my hand because my black glove would soil her white one; but she said: ‘Then I shall preserve the glove to remember a great pleasure, for I have long wished to see you.’” Over time, as the two women developed a close friendship, Swisshelm came to believe that Mary was “more staunch even than her husband in opposition to the Rebellion and its cause.”
In February, Mary was delighted and surprised by Lincoln’s impulsive agreement to attend a séance in Georgetown featuring a celebrated medium, Nettie Colburn. The good-looking young woman’s sessions attracted many distinguished people, including Joshua Speed, who described Nettie and a fellow medium to Lincoln as “very choice spirits, themselves. It will I am sure be some relief from the tedious round of office seekers to see two such agreeable ladies.” When the president and first lady arrived, the host said: “Welcome, Mr. Lincoln…you were expected.” Lincoln stopped short. “Expected! Why, it is only five minutes since I knew that I was coming.” The guests settled into chairs for the presentation, which, according to the Philadelphia banker S. P. Kase, included a piano that “began to move up and down in accord with the rise and fall of the music.” Intrigued by the mechanics behind such spectacles, Lincoln told one of the soldiers present to sit on the piano to weigh it down. When it continued to move, the president himself “stepped to the end of the piano and added his weight to that of the soldiers.” When the rise and fall of the piano persisted, Lincoln “resumed his seat in one of the large horse hair easy chairs of the day.”
At this juncture, Nettie Colburn entered the room, and Lincoln addressed her cheerfully: “Well, Miss Nettie, do you think you have anything to say to me to-night?” There is no evidence that Lincoln believed in spiritualism. On the contrary, after hearing the mysterious clicking sounds in the presence of another medium the previous summer, he had asked the head of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, to discover how the noises were produced. Henry interviewed the medium, Lord Colchester, who, unsurprisingly, revealed nothing. Not long afterward, Henry happened to be seated on a train beside a young man who revealed that he manufactured telegraphic devices for spiritualists. Placed around the biceps, the instrument produced telegraphic clicks when the medium stretched his muscle. Asked if he had sold one to Lord Colchester, the young man said yes. Lincoln was reportedly “pleased to learn the secret.”
Lincoln’s lack of belief did not prevent him, however, from enjoying the evening’s entertainment. Nettie was an accomplished actress, ably mimicking the booming baritone of Daniel Webster or the frail voice of an Indian maiden. She spoke for an hour, channeling one voice and then another as she related historical episodes from the landing of the Pilgrims to the current war. Her oration, which carried a passionate abolitionist message, seemed to S. P. Kase “the grandest” he had ever heard. When the spirits left her, she departed as abruptly as she had arrived. All was silent for a while, then “the President turned in his seat, threw his long right leg over the arm of his chair,” and exclaimed, “Was not this wonderful?” He seemed to have viewed Nettie’s performance with the same pleasure he derived from the theater—respite from the cares of the day.
CHASE, UNLIKE LINCOLN, was never able to forgo his statesmanlike persona and simply enjoy conversations and lighter amusements. He was inclined to let things fester, brooding over perceived slights and restlessly calculating the effect of every incident on his own standing. Weeks after the cabinet crisis had been resolved, he questioned his own decision to stay on board. “I have neither love nor taste for the position I occupy,” he told Horace Greeley, “and have only two great regrets connected with it—one, that I ever took it; the other, that having resigned it I yielded to the counsels of those who said I must resume it.”
Chase became physically ill during the tumultuous debate on Capitol Hill over his banking bill, terrified that the measures necessary to finance the war would not make it through. When the bills passed and the new greenbacks were ready for distribution, he momentarily basked in the knowledge that the Treasury was full for the first time since the war began. He was also pleased by the fact that his own handsome face would appear in the left-hand corner of every dollar bill. He had deliberately chosen to place his picture on the ubiquitous one-dollar bill rather than a bill of a higher denomination, knowing that his image would thus reach the greatest number of people. His mood quickly darkened when he contemplated his own strained finances, however, and feared that his personal investments with Jay Cooke and his brother, Henry, might be misconstrued. Their virtual monopoly over the government bond business was beginning to attract negative newspaper comment, though they had succeeded brilliantly in selling the war bonds to the public.
The stormy and irascible secretary of war also seemed unable to relax or distract himself from the incessant pressures of his office. Stanton’s clerk, Charles Benjamin, recalled that “a word or a gesture would set [Stanton] aflame in an instant. He would dash the glasses before his eyes far up on his forehead, as though they pained or obstructed his vision; the muscles of his face would become agitated, and his voice would tremble and grow intense, without elevation.” Though “the storm would pass away as quickly as it came,” and though Stanton would quickly make amends to victims of his ill humor, the employees in the War Department, while respecting Stanton greatly, never loved him as Lincoln’s aides loved their president.
Stanton also lacked Lincoln’s ability to put grudges behind him. When asked why he disliked the Sanitary Commission, which had done so much to promote healthy conditions in the army camps, Stanton replied that the commission had persuaded the president and the Senate to appoint a surgeon general against his vigorous objections. “I’m not used to being beaten, and don’t like it,” he said, “and therefore I am hostile to the Commission.” In fact, Stanton admitted, he “detested it.”
Those who worked with Stanton attributed his “nervous irritability” to the combination of overwork and poor health. At times, his asthma became so severe that he collapsed in “violent fits of strangulation.” Still, he refused to take a break. When doctors pleaded with him to get some rest and exercise, he insisted that he wanted only to be kept alive until the war ended and then, and only then, would he consent to seek rest. Though he loved good conversation and had built his large house in order to gather interesting people around his table, he stayed in the War Department day and night, rarely enjoying the convivial evenings that replenished Seward and Lincoln or that Kate provided for Chase. And while he enjoyed reading novels, with a special preference for Dickens, Stanton seldom found the time to unwind with a book. Instead, one of his clerks recalled, when he wanted “an hour’s rest,” he would lock his door, lie on his couch, and peruse English periodicals sympathetic to the Confederate cause, endeavoring to better understand the British attitude to the war.
Unlike Seward, who had promptly brought Fred into the State Department and relished the professional and personal support of his own son, Stanton had no family member or intimate friend to rely upon for daily counsel. Except for the initial appointment of his brother-in-law Christopher Wolcott as assistant secretary of war, Stanton refused to bring any of his relatives into his department. When Senator Ben Wade recommended an appointment for Stanton’s capable cousin William, the secretary angrily declared that no relative would have any “office in his gift” so long as he remained at his post. John Hay went so far as to remark that he “would rather make the tour of a small-pox hospital” than be forced to ask Stanton for a favor. Even when Stanton’s own son, Edwin Junior, wanted to serve as his private secretary after graduating from Kenyon, Stanton refused to bend. Only after months of unpaid labor for an assistant secretary did the boy receive his father’s consent to an official appointment.
Stanton rarely returned to Steubenville during the war. During the winter of 1862, Christopher Wolcott had become seriously ill. When he died in April 1863, Stanton and his son boarded a special train to join Stanton’s sister for the funeral in Ohio. Pamphila’s conviction that her husband had died from overwork must have made Stanton’s attempts at consolation difficult. Though he tried to relax on his old home ground, revisit the places he had loved, Stanton returned to Washington more exhausted than restored.
As the pressure on all the key administration officials mounted, Lincoln, with the hardest task of all, maintained the most generous and even-tempered disposition. Even he, however, was sorely tried on occasion. After recommending that the War Department utilize the services of a meteorologist, Francis Capen, Lincoln was exasperated when none of Capen’s presumably scientific predictions proved correct. “It seems to me Mr. Capen knows nothing about the weather, in advance,” Lincoln wrote three days after Capen had assured him it would not rain for five or six days. “It is raining now & has been for ten hours. I can not spare any more time to Mr. Capen.” He was more irritated when warring factions in Missouri refused to reconcile. He informed the recalcitrant groups that their continuing feud was “very painful” for him. “I have been tormented with it beyond endurance for months, by both sides. Neither side pays the least respect to my appeals to your reason. I am now compelled to take hold of the case.”
But Lincoln refused to let resentments rankle. Discovering that a hastily written note to General Franz Sigel had upset the general, he swiftly followed up with another. “I was a little cross,” he told Sigel, “I ask pardon. If I do get up a little temper I have no sufficient time to keep it up.” Such gestures on Lincoln’s part repaired injured feelings that might have escalated into lasting animosity.
The story is told of an army colonel who rode out to the Soldiers’ Home, hopeful of securing Lincoln’s aid in recovering the body of his wife, who had died in a steamboat accident. His brief period of relaxation interrupted, Lincoln listened to the colonel’s tale but offered no help. “Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this?” The disheartened colonel returned to his hotel in Washington. The following morning, Lincoln appeared at his door. “I was a brute last night,” Lincoln said, offering to help the colonel in any way possible.
Republican stalwart Carl Schurz relates an equally remarkable encounter in the wake of an unpleasant written exchange that initially seemed to threaten his friendship with Lincoln. Discouraged by the lack of progress in the war, Schurz had blamed Lincoln’s misguided appointment of Democrats “whose hearts” were not fully “in the struggle” to top positions in the field. Lincoln had responded testily, telling Schurz that he obviously wanted men with “heart in it.” The question was “who is to be the judge of hearts, or of ‘heart in it?’ If I must discard my own judgment, and take yours, I must also take that of others; and by the time I should reject all I should be advised to reject, I should have none left, Republicans or others—not even yourself.” Schurz, at the army camp in Centreville, Virginia, where he led the Third Division of the 11th Corps, detected in Lincoln’s long reply “an undertone of impatience, of irritation, unusual with him.” Though he had been encouraged by the president to correspond freely, he feared that his letter had transgressed.
Several days later, a messenger arrived at Schurz’s encampment with an invitation from Lincoln “to come to see him as soon as my duties would permit.” Obtaining permission to leave that same day, Schurz reached the White House at seven the next morning. He found Lincoln upstairs in his comfortable armchair, clad in his slippers. “He greeted me cordially as of old and bade me pull up a chair and sit by his side. Then he brought his large hand with a slap down on my knee and said with a smile: ‘Now tell me, young man, whether you really think that I am as poor a fellow as you have made me out in your letter!’” Flustered, Schurz hesitantly explained the reason behind his tirade. Lincoln listened patiently and then delineated his own situation, explaining that his terse reply had been provoked by a hailstorm of criticism that had been pelting down on him. “Then, slapping my knee again, he broke out in a loud laugh and exclaimed: ‘Didn’t I give it to you hard in my letter? Didn’t I? But it didn’t hurt, did it? I did not mean to, and therefore I wanted you to come so quickly.’” Lincoln and Schurz talked for an hour, at the end of which Schurz asked whether his letters were still welcome. “‘Why, certainly,’ he answered; ‘write me whenever the spirit moves you.’ We parted as better friends than ever.”
TO CELEBRATE Tad’s tenth birthday on Saturday, April 4, Mary Lincoln proposed a family excursion by steam and train to the Army of the Potomac headquarters in Falmouth, Virginia. Delighted by the chance to escape from Washington, Lincoln organized a small traveling party, including his old Illinois friend Dr. Anson Henry, Noah Brooks, and, at Henry’s suggestion, Edward Bates. Dr. Henry had maintained a friendship with Bates over the years and considered him “one of the purest and best men in the world.” Bates agreed to the foray, hoping to visit his son Coalter, who was with Hooker’s army; as it happened, Coalter had just left to pay a final visit to the family in Washington before the expected spring battles began.
The little party left the White House in the midst of a furious blizzard. Gale winds blew clouds of dust and snow in all directions as they boarded the steamer Carrie Martin at sunset. They headed south past Alexandria and Mount Vernon, where, according to the custom of the river, a bell tolled a salute in honor of George Washington. The steamer was due to reach the army supply depot at Aquia Creek that evening, but the escalating storm required them to cast anchor in a protected cove for the night. Undeterred by the falling snow and the howling winds that drove everyone else to the warm comfort of the cabin, Tad remained on deck with his fishing line, determined to provide food for supper. Racing in to announce every bite to his parents, Tad finally caught a small fish that, much to his delight, was added to the dinner menu. Brooks marveled at the simplicity of the scene, watching “the chief magistrate of this mighty nation” relax with family and friends, “telling stories” and conversing in “a free and easy way,” with no servant standing by and no guard on deck. Had the rebels known their whereabouts, Brooks mused, they “might have gobbled up the entire party without firing a shot.”
The snowstorm was “at its height” when the Carrie Martin pulled into the busy dock at Aquia Creek, where, on Easter morning, the presidential party boarded a special train for Falmouth Station. Along the way, with “snow piled in huge drifts” and “the wind whistling fiercely over the hills,” they passed one army camp after another. Each encampment along the thirty miles had hundreds of campfires surrounded by tents, fortifications, and stockades. Disembarking at Falmouth Station, they were taken by closed carriage over rough roads to Hooker’s headquarters a half mile away. Situated about three miles from the Rappahannock, the headquarters resembled a small city, complete with telegraph office, printing establishment, bakery, post office, and accommodations for more than 133,000 soldiers.
General Hooker, tall and broad-shouldered, awaited them in front of his tent, which stood at the end of a wide street flanked with officers’ tents on both sides. He greeted the party of six and beckoned them into his comfortable quarters, furnished with a large fireplace, two beds, chairs for the entire party, and a long table covered with papers and books.
Lincoln liked and respected Hooker. When he had tendered him command of the Army of the Potomac ten weeks earlier, he had sent along a remarkable letter of advice. “I believe you to be a brave and a skillful soldier,” the letter began. “You have confidence in yourself, which is valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.” Lincoln continued with an admonition about Hooker’s recent comments suggesting the need for a dictator to assume command of “both the Army and the Government.” He informed Hooker that “it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.” The president closed with shrewd words of guidance: “Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.” Aside from the wisdom of the advice, the letter clearly manifests Lincoln’s growing confidence in his own powers.
Hooker took the advice in stride. In fact, he was so moved by the kindhearted tone of the letter that over the next few days he read it aloud to various people, including Noah Brooks and Dr. Henry, who thought it should be printed in gold letters. “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son,” Hooker fervently told Brooks as the young journalist sat with him before a fire in his tent. “It is a beautiful letter,” Hooker continued, “and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”
Reporters noted Mary’s curiosity about every aspect of camp life; they commented on her simple attire and speculated that this was her first experience sleeping in a tent. In fact, the first couple’s tent was far more elaborately outfitted than an ordinary one. It boasted a plank floor, a stove, and beds especially constructed for the occasion, complete with real sheets, blankets, and pillowcases. As the days went by, the weariness that had marked Mary’s face upon arrival began to fade, and “the change seemed pleasant to her.” Brooks reported badinage between husband and wife occasioned by a photograph of a Confederate officer with an inscription on the back: “A rebellious rebel.” Mary suggested that this meant he “was a rebel against the rebel government.” Lincoln smiled, countering that perhaps the officer “wanted everybody to know that he was not only a rebel, but a rebel of rebels—‘a double-dyed-in-the-wool sort of rebel.’”
Stormy weather postponed the first grand review from Sunday to Monday afternoon, leaving the president and first lady free to talk at length with the members of Hooker’s staff. The irrepressible Tad, meanwhile, inspected every facility in the compound, zealously racing from one place to another. A reporter present at the meetings with Hooker’s officers and aides noted that “Lincoln was in unusual good humor,” lightening the atmosphere “by his sociability and shafts of wit.”
The roar of artillery at noon the next day signaled the start of the cavalry review. With General Hooker by his side, Lincoln rode along serried ranks that stretched for miles over the rolling hills. The soldiers cheered and shouted when they saw the president and cheered even louder when they saw Master Tad Lincoln bravely attempting to keep up, “clinging to the saddle of his pony as tenaciously as the best man among them,” his gray cloak flapping “like a flag or banneret.”
The boy’s “short legs stuck straight out from his saddle,” Brooks noted, “and sometimes there was danger that his steed, by a sudden turn in the rough road, would throw him off like a bolt from a catapult.” Much to the relief of onlookers, Tad made it through “safe and sound,” his reckless riding steadied by a young orderly who remained faithfully by his side. “And thereby hangs a tale,” noted a New York Herald reporter. The orderly was a thirteen-year-old boy, Gustave Shuman, who had left home when the war began to accompany the New Jersey Brigade. General Philip Kearny had made him his bugler. The boy rode in front of the troops throughout the Peninsula Campaign. When General Kearny was killed in the late summer of 1862, the new commander, Daniel Sickles, retained the boy as bugler. So, though not much older than the president’s son, Gustave was a hardened veteran, quite capable of containing the impulsive Tad. Reporters noted that from that first review on, the two boys became inseparable, roaming about the camp like brothers.
Over the next few hours, tens of thousands of troops passed in front of the president and first lady, sweeping one after another “like waves at sea.” From atop the little knoll on which the Lincolns were stationed, the endless tiers provided a majestic vista. When the sun came out, one reporter observed, “the sunbeams danced on the rifles and bayonets, and lingered in the folds of the banners.” At the review of the infantry and artillery, artists sketched the spectacle of sixty thousand men, “their arms shining in the distance and their bayonets bristling like a forest on the horizon as they disappeared far away.”
Lincoln so enjoyed mingling with the men—who appeared amazingly healthy and lavishly outfitted with new uniforms, arms, and equipment—that he extended his visit until Friday. After one review, someone remarked that the regulars could be easily distinguished from the volunteers, for “the former stood rigidly in their places without moving their heads an inch as he rode by, while the latter almost invariably turned their heads to get a glimpse of him.” Quick to defend the volunteers, Lincoln replied, “I don’t care how much my soldiers turn their heads, if they don’t turn their backs.”
During a break from the reviews, several members of the presidential party, including Noah Brooks, journeyed down to the Rappahannock for a glimpse of the rebel camps across the river. With the naked eye, they could see the houses and steeples of Fredericksburg. The wooded hills and the renowned plain that had become “a slaughter pen for so many men” in the December battle were also clearly visible. Binoculars allowed a view of the ridge on which thousands of unmarked graves had been dug. Beyond the ridge, smoke rose from the rebel camps with elaborate earthworks, a myriad of white tents, and the flag of stars and bars. At the shoreline, the Union pickets paced their rounds mirrored by rebel sentries across the narrow river. Honoring the “tacit understanding” that sentries would not fire at each other, they bandied comments across the water, hailing each other as “Secesh” or “Yank,” and conversing “as amiably as though belonging to friendly armies.” At one point, Brooks noted, a Confederate officer “came down to the water’s edge, doubtless to see if Uncle Abraham was of our party. Failing to see him, he bowed politely and retired.”
Both sides knew that as soon as the weather cleared, the brutal fighting would resume. “It was a saddening thought,” Brooks remarked after one impressive review, “that so many of the gallant men whose hearts beat high as they rode past must, in the course of events, be numbered with the slain before many days shall pass.” Yet despite the awareness that a major engagement was not far off, “all enjoyed the present after a certain grim fashion and deferred any anxiety for the morrow until that period should arrive.” Before he departed, Lincoln issued one final directive to Hooker and his second in command, General Darius Couch. “Gentlemen, in your next battle put in all your men.”
Tremendously heartened by the splendid condition of the army and the high spirits and reception of the troops, Lincoln boarded the Carrie Martin at sunset on Friday for the return trip to Washington. The Herald noted that he “received a salute from all the vessels in port and locomotives on shore, whistles being blown, bells run, and flags displayed.”
LINCOLN RETURNED to the White House to find Blair enraged with Stanton, Welles feuding with Seward, and Chase threatening once again to resign. The Blairs, father and son, were defending James S. Pleasants, a Union man from Maryland who was related to Confederate John Key. Key had sought refuge at Pleasants’s house, begging food and shelter. Reluctantly, the loyal Marylander had allowed him to stay at his home. Stanton insisted that such treason deserved the gallows. “The skirmish was sharp & long,” Elizabeth Blair told her husband, but finally, the president commuted the sentence to imprisonment. Furthermore, when Lincoln learned of the man’s poor health, he agreed, at the Blairs’ request, to reduce the sentence. All of this left Stanton “very bitter.”
The quarrel between Seward and Welles concerned an English ship captured in neutral waters by a blockade runner. Suspecting that the cargo aboard was meant for the Confederacy, the Union Navy sent the Peterhoff to New York for disposition by a prize court. Long-standing tradition dictated that the ship’s mail be opened by the court to determine the true destination of the vessel and its cargo. The controversy had aroused strong protest from Britain regarding the sanctity of its mails. Seward, wanting to avoid British intervention at all cost, had agreed to surrender the mails unopened. Furious, Welles claimed that surrender was in violation of international law and would set a terrible precedent. Moreover, Seward had no basis meddling in this issue, since jurisdiction belonged to the Navy Department.
For days, as the unresolved matter led to rumors of war with England, the two colleagues argued the case before Lincoln. They visited him late at night armed with letters explaining their positions, argued in cabinet council, and solicited allies. Sumner backed Welles in the fray, maintaining that England would never go to war over this issue. The president, however, concurred with Seward that at this juncture good relations with England must supersede the legal questions surrounding the mails. Sumner left much disgruntled, considering Lincoln “very ignorant” about the precedents involved. Welles agreed, blaming Seward for “daily, and almost hourly wailing in [Lincoln’s] ears the calamities of a war with England,” thus diverting the president “from the real question.” Montgomery Blair also sided with Welles, telling him after a cabinet meeting that Seward “knows less of public law and of administrative duties than any man who ever held a seat in the Cabinet.” In the end, as Seward had advised, the president determined that the mails would be returned unopened to the British government.
Chase’s disaffection also weighed heavily on Lincoln that spring. For the third time in five months, Chase threatened to resign his position in the Treasury. His first resignation during the cabinet crisis had been repeated in March when Lincoln, bowing to pressure from a Connecticut senator, had decided not to renominate one of Chase’s appointees for collector of internal revenue in Hartford. Livid, Chase informed the president that unless his authority over his own appointments could be established, he could not continue in the cabinet: “I feel that I cannot be useful to you or the country in my present position.” Lincoln managed once again to placate Chase, only to receive another threat in short order. This squabble was provoked by Lincoln’s removal of one of Chase’s appointees in the Puget Sound district who had been accused of speculating in land. Enraged that he was not consulted, Chase argued that he could not function in his department if decisions were made “not only without my concurrence, but without my knowledge.” If the president could not respect his authority, Chase wrote, “I will, unhesitatingly, relieve you from all embarrassment so far as I am concerned by tendering you my resignation.”
Understanding that “Chase’s feelings were hurt,” Lincoln set about once again to sooth his ruffled pride. That evening, he later recounted, he called at Chase’s house with the resignation in hand. Placing his long arms on Chase’s shoulders, he said: “Chase, here is a paper with which I wish to have nothing to do; take it back, and be reasonable.” He then explained why he had felt compelled to make the decision, which had taken place in Chase’s absence from the city, and promised his touchy secretary that he would have complete authority to name the removed appointee’s successor. “I had to plead with him a long time, but I finally succeeded,” Lincoln happily noted.
Though irritated by Chase’s haughty yet fundamentally insecure nature, Lincoln recognized the superlative accomplishments of his treasury secretary. In the two months since Congress had adjourned, Chase had sold more than $45 million in bonds, and the demand for the bonds was steadily increasing. “Never before did the finances of any nation, in the midst of a great war, work so admirably as do ours,” the New York Times noted in a laudatory article on Chase. Even as Lincoln deferred to Chase, however, he placed his prickly secretary’s third resignation letter on file for future reference.
Monty Blair, meanwhile, resented Chase and showed little respect for his remaining colleagues. He considered Seward “an unprincipled liar” and Stanton “a great scoundrel.” In fact, Blair thought the entire cabinet save Welles, and perhaps Bates, whom he liked but did not consider a stalwart ally, should be replaced, and that his father, “the ablest and best informed politician in America,” should become Lincoln’s “private counsellor.” And so one personal struggle succeeded another, complicating the president’s job, absorbing his energies.
Lincoln’s uneasiness about his warring cabinet colleagues paled in comparison, however, to his disquietude about the impending movements of the Army of the Potomac. On April 13, 1863, three days after Lincoln returned from his trip, Hooker took the first step in what would become known as the Battle of Chancellorsville. He dispatched ten thousand cavalrymen under General George Stoneman to head south and insert themselves between Lee’s army and Richmond. With the Confederate supply lines to Richmond severed, Hooker intended to cross the Rappahannock, draw the enemy away from Fredericksburg, and engage him in battle. Heavy rains and impassable roads delayed the advance, but finally, during the last week of April, Hooker’s men began crossing the river.
For Lincoln and his cabinet, anxious days followed. “We have been in a terrible suspense here,” Nicolay wrote his fiancée on Monday, May 4. Fighting had begun, but there was no “definite information” on the battle’s progress. Welles joined Lincoln in the War Department to wait for news that did not come. Bates was particularly tense, knowing that his son John Coalter was with Hooker “in the most active and dangerous service.” Lincoln admitted to Francis Blair, Sr., that nobody seemed to know what was going on. Welles found it odd that “no reliable intelligence” was reaching them, correctly surmising that this boded ill. “In the absence of news the President strives to feel encouraged and to inspire others,” he wrote, “but I can perceive he has doubts and misgivings, though he does not express them.”
“While I am anxious, please do not suppose I am impatient, or waste a moment’s thought on me, to your own hindrance, or discomfort,” Lincoln had written Hooker at the outset of the campaign. Even when disturbing fragments filtered in, Lincoln refused to pressure Hooker. “God bless you, and all with you. I know you will do your best,” he wired his general on the morning of May 6. “Waste no time unnecessarily, to gratify our curiosity with despatches.”
At 3 p.m. that afternoon, the suspense ended with an unwelcome telegram from Hooker’s chief of staff. The Union forces had been defeated. The army had retreated to its original position on the north side of the Rappahannock, and seventeen thousand Union soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing. Hooker’s second in command, General Darius Couch, later claimed that Hooker was simply “outgeneraled” by Lee. Assuming that Lee would “fall back without risking battle,” Fighting Joe was “demoralized” by the fierceness of the Confederate attack. Had he committed all his troops, as Lincoln had directed him to do, the course of the battle might have been different. By immediately assuming a defensive stance, however, Hooker gave the initiative to Lee and never regained his footing. An injury sustained on the battlefield further dulled Hooker’s perceptions. Though his subordinates wanted to press the battle, he issued the order to retreat.
Noah Brooks was with Lincoln when the news came. “I shall never forget that picture of despair,” he later wrote. “Had a thunderbolt fallen upon the President he could not have been more overwhelmed.” His beloved army, so healthy and spirited weeks earlier, had been “driven back, torn and bleeding, to our starting point, where the heart-sickening delay, the long and tedious work of reorganizing a decimated and demoralized army would again commence.” Observing the president’s “ashen” face, Brooks “vaguely took in the thought” that his complexion “almost exactly” matched the French gray wallpaper in the room. “Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying, ‘My God! my God! What will the country say! What will the country say!’”
The news traveled fast. The president informed Senator Sumner, who rushed to tell Welles. “Lost, lost, all is lost!” Sumner exclaimed, lifting both hands as he entered the navy secretary’s office. Welles went to the War Department, where Seward was with Stanton. “I asked Stanton if he knew where Hooker was. He answered curtly, No. I looked at him sharply, and I have no doubt with some incredulity, for he, after a moment’s pause, said he is on this side of the river, but I know not where.” As the afternoon wore on and endless casualty lists began streaming in, Stanton could no longer hide his despair. “This is the darkest day of the war,” he lamented. At the Willard Hotel, Brooks observed, secessionists suddenly “sprang to new life and animation and with smiling faces and ill-suppressed joy” moved openly through the gloomy crowds.
Within the hour of receiving the news, Lincoln ordered a carriage to drive him to the Navy Yard. Accompanied by General Halleck, he boarded a steamer bound for Hooker’s headquarters, a grim counterpoint to his joyous April visit. Once again, Lincoln found some redemption in the resolute determination of his troops. “All accounts agree,” one reporter wrote from army headquarters, “that the troops on the Rappahannock came out of their late bloody fight game to the backbone.” Though “fresh from all the horrors of the battlefield, with ranks decimated, and almost exhausted with exposure and fatigue,” they remained “undaunted and erect, composed and ready to turn on the instant and follow their leaders back into the fray.”
Moreover, while the Confederates had lost 4,000 fewer men, their casualty list of 13,000 represented a larger percentage of their total forces. In addition, they had lost one of their greatest generals: Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Returning from a reconnaissance mission, Jackson had been mistaken for an enemy and was fired upon by some of his own men. His left arm was amputated in a nearby field hospital, but he died of pneumonia eight days later. The South went into mourning. “Since the death of Washington,” the Richmond Whig proclaimed, “no similar event has so profoundly and sorrowfully impressed the people of Virginia as the death of Jackson.”
Lincoln remained at army headquarters for only a few hours. Before leaving, he handed Hooker a letter expressing confidence in the continuing campaign. “If possible,” the president wrote, “I would be very glad of another movement early enough to give us some benefit from the fact of the enemies communications being broken, but neither for this reason or any other, do I wish anything done in desperation or rashness.” Lincoln made it clear that he stood ready to assist Hooker in the development of a new plan of action. As he had done so many times before, Lincoln withstood the storm of defeat by replacing anguish over an unchangeable past with hope in an uncharted future.