BUELL WAS NOT THE FIRST NOR WAS HE the last of the blue-clad puppets whose strings had been cut, or would be cut, in what turned out to be a season of dismissals. Others had been or were about to be packed away in their boxes, mute, their occupations gone like Othello’s and themselves removed, like him, from “the big wars, That make ambition virtue.” Halleck, from his position near the vital center, had forecast the political weather at the outset, back in August, when he told a friend: “I can hardly describe to you the feeling of disappointment here in the want of activity,” and added: “The Government seems determined to apply the guillotine to all unsuccessful generals. It seems rather hard to do this where the general is not in fault, but perhaps with us now, as in the French Revolution, some harsh measures are required.”
The ax was descending. Pope’s head rolled before Buell’s; McDowell, too—though admittedly he was more sinned against than sinning—was gone, complaining wistfully as he went: “I did not ask to be relieved. I only asked for a court.” Even the navy, barnacle-encrusted during the nearly fifty peacetime years since the War of 1812, had stretched some necks beneath the blade. Down on the Gulf, glad to be breathing salt air after the Vicksburg-Arkansas fiasco, Farragut gave his late-summer and early-fall attention to the Texas coast, where the blockaders worked without the advantage of a lodgment on the mainland. With this in mind, he sent out three expeditions in as many months. The first attacked Corpus Christi in mid-August but, having no occupation troops, withdrew after giving the place a pounding. Next month the second expedition went up Sabine Pass, wrecked the railroad bridge and the fort at Sabine City, captured a pair of rebel steamers, and retired again to the bay. The third was more ambitious, being aimed at Galveston. It was also more successful. Two regular gunboats and two converted ferries hit the port on October 5, drove the Confederates out with a few well-aimed salvos, then landed a token force of 260 men commanded by a colonel; after which, by a tacit understanding, the warships patrolling the bay refrained from further shelling on condition that the rebels would not move artillery into Galveston over the two-mile-long bridge connecting the island town with the mainland. Alabama was now the only southern state with an unoccupied coast, and Farragut had redeemed, at least in part, his midsummer performance up the Mississippi.
Gratifying as this redemption was to Secretary Welles—whom Lincoln dubbed “Father Neptune” and sometimes “Noah”—it also called attention to the contrast between the Tennessee sailor’s make-up and that of his former upriver partner, the Boston Brahmin Charles H. Davis, who had run into little but trouble since he replaced Foote as flotilla commander on the upper Mississippi, back in May. He was, as one of his officers said, “a most charming and lovable man,” author of two esoteric books, and a member of the commission which had planned the strikes at Hatteras and Port Royal, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that he lacked what Farragut had and what Foote had had before him: a hard-driving, bulldog, cut-and-slash aggressiveness, a preference for action at close quarters, and a burning sense of personal insult at the slightest advantage gained by an opponent at his expense. Since it was this quality, or combination of qualities, which would be needed for the work that lay ahead on the big river, Welles decided Captain Davis had to go. In mid-October he acted. Davis was eased upstairs to the Bureau of Navigation, where he would find work better suited to his intellectual capacities.
There was little that was surprising in this removal. What was surprising was the Secretary’s choice of a successor: David Dixon Porter. Porter was only a junior commander, so that to give him the job Welles had to disappoint and outrage more than eighty senior officers. Besides, there were personal drawbacks. Like his brother Dirty Bill, Porter was not above claiming other men’s glory as his own; he would stretch or varnish the truth to serve his purpose; he would undermine a superior; he would promise a good deal more than he could deliver—all of which he had done at New Orleans, and then had gone on to do them again at Vicksburg. Yet he had virtues, too, of the sort which Othello said proceeded from ambition in “the big wars.” Like Lincoln in his pre-Manassas judgment of John Pope, Welles apparently believed that “a liar might [yet] be brave and have skill as an officer.” Weighing the virtues against the vices, the gray-bearded brown-wigged naval head confided in his diary: “Porter is but a Commander. He has, however, stirring and positive qualities, is fertile in resources, has great energy, excessive and sometimes not overscrupulous ambition; is impressed with and boastful of his own powers, given to exaggeration in relation to himself—a Porter infirmity—is not generous to older and superior living officers, whom he is too ready to traduce, but is kind and patronizing to favorites who are juniors; is given to cliquism, but is brave and daring like all his family. He has not the conscientious and high moral qualities of Foote to organize the flotilla, and is not considered by some of our best naval men a fortunate officer. His selection will be unsatisfactory to many, but his field of operations is peculiar, and a young and active officer is required for the duty to which he is assigned.”
Having decided that the credits overbalanced the debits, in weight if not in number, Welles called Porter into his office and informed him that he was being sent as an acting rear admiral to take charge of the navy on the western waters. The order was dated October 9; Porter, who had come north on leave, hoping to cure a touch of fever he had contracted in the region to which his chief was now returning him, accepted both the assignment and the promotion as no more than his due. Six days later he was in Cairo, where he assumed command of the 125 vessels comprising the Mississippi Squadron, together with 1300 officers, only twenty-five of whom had been in the old navy, and approximately 10,000 sailors. What he would do with these boats and officers and men—and whether Welles would be sustained by circumstance in his choice of a man whose character he doubted—remained to be seen.
At any rate, Buell and Davis had been brought down. And now as October wore toward a close, giving occasion in the East for a mocking revival of “All Quiet Along the Potomac,” Lincoln was after larger game. In fact he was after the top-ranking man in the whole U.S. Army: George B. McClellan. The other two had been wing shots—targets of opportunity, so to speak—but this one he was stalking with care, intending to catch him on the sit.
According to some observers this should not be difficult, since that was the Young Napoleon’s accustomed attitude. The managing editor of the New York Tribune, for example, had written privately in late September, a week after the Battle of Antietam, that one of his reporters had just returned from the army, “and his notion is that it is to be quiet along the Potomac for some time to come. George, whom Providence helps according to his nature, has got himself on one side of a ditch, which Providence had already made for him, with the enemy on the other, and has no idea of moving. Wooden-head at Washington will never think of sending a force through the mountains to attack Lee in the rear, so the two armies will watch each other for nobody knows how many weeks, and we shall have the poetry of war with pickets drinking from the same stream, holding friendly converse and sending newspapers across by various ingenious contrivances.” In other words, this Indian summer, with its firm roads and its fair skies tinged with woodsmoke, was to be wasted, militarily, like the last one, in getting ready for a movement which bad weather would postpone. Whether the country would stand for another such winter of apparent inactivity Lincoln did not know. But he himself could not; nor did he intend to.
On the first day of October, without sending word that he was coming, he boarded a train and rode out to Western Maryland to see the general and his army. McClellan, however, got word that he was on the way and met him at Harpers Ferry. Pleased to find that the President had brought no politicians with him, “merely some western officers,” McClellan wrote his wife: “His ostensible purpose is to see the troops and the battlefield; I incline to think that the real purpose of his visit is to push me into a premature advance into Virginia. I may be mistaken, but think not.”
He was not mistaken. That was precisely why Lincoln had come; “I went up to the field to try to get [McClellan] to move,” he said later. But as usual when he was face to face with Little Mac, discussing military matters, he got nowhere. Apparently he did not really try very hard; the primary inertia was too great. When he urged an advance, McClellan went into an explanation of shortages and drawbacks, and Lincoln dropped the subject. According to the general, “He more than once assured me that he was fully satisfied with my whole course from the beginning; that the only fault he could possibly find was that I was perhaps too prone to be sure that everything was ready before acting, but that my actions were all right when I started.” Later they sat on a hillside, Lincoln with his long legs drawn up so that his knees were almost under his chin, and McClellan afterwards wrote that Lincoln told him: “General, you have saved the country. You must remain in command and carry us through to the end.” When McClellan said that this would be impossible—“The influences at Washington will be too strong for you, Mr President. I will not be allowed the required time for preparation”—Lincoln replied: “General, I pledge myself to stand between you and harm.”
It was a three-day visit, and much of the time was spent reviewing the troops. The President “looked pale,” according to one veteran who saw him, while another remarked that as he “rode around every battalion [he] seemed much worn and distressed and to be looking for those who were gone.” Doubtless he was thinking of the fallen, but he was also thinking of the men he saw—and of what they represented. A Union surgeon noted that Lincoln was “well received” by the soldiers, “but by no means so enthusiastically as General McClellan.” Lincoln did not mind this much. What he minded was the thought that this gave rise to. “The Army of the Potomac is my army as much as any army ever belonged to the man that created it,” McClellan told a member of his staff about this time. “We have grown together and fought together. We are wedded and should not be separated.” The army felt that way, too, and Lincoln knew it. He also knew that if the soldiers felt it strongly enough, mutiny would follow any order for the general’s removal from command. This was much on his mind during the visit, and resulted in a curious scene. Just before dawn of the second morning, he woke O. M. Hatch, an Illinois friend. “Come, Hatch,” he said, “I want you to take a walk with me.” Together they climbed to a hilltop overlooking the camps, and as sunrise lighted the valley where the troops lay waiting for reveille, Lincoln made an abstracted gesture, indicating the tented plain below. “Hatch, Hatch,” he said in a husky voice, barely above a whisper. “What is all this?” His companion was confused. “Why, Mr Lincoln, this is the Army of the Potomac,” he replied. Lincoln shook his head. “No, Hatch, no. This is General McClellan’s bodyguard.”
He returned to Washington, October 4. Two days later Halleck astonished McClellan with a telegraphic dispatch: “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.… I am directed to add that the Secretary of War and the General-in-Chief concur with the President in these instructions.” McClellan replied that he was “pushing everything as rapidly as possible in order to get ready for the advance.” Beyond this bare acknowledgment, however, the only sign he gave that he had received the directive was a step-up in the submission of requisitions for more supplies of every description. He wanted shoes, hospital tents, and horses: especially horses, the need for which was presently emphasized by Jeb Stuart, who once more covered himself with glory at the Young Napoleon’s expense.
Under instructions from Lee to scout the Federal dispositions—and, if possible, destroy the railroad bridge over the Conococheague near Chambersburg, which would limit McClellan’s rail supply facilities to the B & O—Stuart crossed the Potomac above Martinsburg at early dawn, October 10. He had with him 1800 horsemen and four guns. By noon he was across the Pennsylvania line, approaching Mercersburg. Soon after dark, the lights of Chambersburg were in view. Demanding and receiving the surrender of the place, he appointed Wade Hampton “Military Governor,” quite as if he intended to stay there all fall, and bivouacked that night in the streets of the town. There were two disappointments. A bank official had escaped with all the cash in the vault, and the Conococheague bridge, being built of iron, proved indestructible. However, there were material compensations, including the capture and parole of 280 bluecoats, the opportunity to spend Confederate money in well-stocked Pennsylvania stores, and the impressment of more than a thousand excellent horses. Many of these last were draft animals of Norman and Belgian stock, and it was fortunate that they were seized in harness, since no southern quartermaster could furnish collars large enough for the big-necked creatures soon to be hauling rebel guns and wagons. Their former owners, never having seen an actual secessionist, were under the impression that Stuart’s troopers were Federal soldiers, sent to harass farmers suspected of disloyalty, and many of them protested indignantly as the raiders led their heavy-footed animals away: “I’m just as good a Union man as any of you!”
Jeb’s men had come nearly forty miles to reach their assigned objective, stirring up a hive of enemy cavalry in the process, and now the problem was how to get them back. Stuart met it as he had done before. When the column formed outside Chambersburg next morning, he led it, not southwest in the direction he had come from, but due east. Though he would have to ride more than twice as far to reach the Potomac by this route, it gave him the advantage of being unexpected along the way. The gray-jackets whooped at this evidence that they were about to repeat their Peninsula performance by staging another “Ride Around McClellan.” Eastward they rode, beyond the Blue Ridge, on through Cashtown, where they stopped to feed the horses, then turned south, avoiding the college town of Gettysburg, eight miles off. Late that afternoon they recrossed the Pennsylvania line and entered Emmitsburg; beyond which, riding in darkness now and frequently changing to captured horses to spare their own, they forded the Monocacy. Some fought sleep by dismounting to walk a mile or so from time to time. Others slumped in their saddles and frankly slept, their snores droning loud above the hoofclops.
Word of the raid had spread to Washington by now. “Not a man should be permitted to return to Virginia,” Halleck wired McClellan, who replied: “I have given every order necessary to insure the capture or destruction of those forces, and I hope we may be able to teach them a lesson they will not soon forget.” But that was not to be. Sunday morning, October 12, near the mouth of the Monocacy—where Lee had crossed with his whole army, marching north the month before—Stuart broke through a weak link in the cordon, splashed across the Potomac, and regained the safety of the Confederate lines. He had two men missing, victims most likely of commandeered Yankee whiskey, and a handful slightly wounded. That seemed to him a small price to pay for the nearly three hundred bluecoats paroled at Chambersburg and the thirty-odd public officials brought back as hostages to secure the release or considerate treatment of Southerners now in Union hands. More than a quarter of a million dollars in public and railroad property had been destroyed, and in exchange for about sixty lame or worn-out animals abandoned along the way, the gray troopers had brought 1200 horses back from Pennsylvania for service under the Stars and Bars. Most satisfactory of all—at least to Stuart, who thus once more had justified his plume—was the knowledge that all this had been accomplished in the immediate presence of more than 100,000 enemy soldiers whose commander, midway through the raid, had announced his intention to “teach [the rebels] a lesson” by effecting their capture or destruction.
Instead it was McClellan who had been taught a lesson, though whether he would profit from it was doubtful; apparently he had failed to absorb much from the same lesson when it was first administered, four months ago on the Peninsula. Now as then, he was the object of much derision, North and South—only this time Lincoln himself led the chorus. He was aboard a steamer, returning from a troop review at Alexandria, when someone asked him: “Mr President, what about McClellan?” Without looking up, Lincoln drew a circle on the deck with the ferrule of his umbrella. “When I was a boy we used to play a game,” he said, “ ‘Three Times Round, and Out.’ Stuart has been round him twice. If he goes around him once more, gentlemen, McClellan will be out.”
A new and biting note of mockery was coming into the President’s references to the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Formerly this had been restricted mainly to comments on Little Mac’s political suggestions—as when the governor of Massachusetts asked what Lincoln was going to reply to some advice McClellan had offered on a civil matter; “Nothing,” Lincoln said. “But it made me think of the man whose horse kicked up and stuck his foot through the stirrup. He said to the horse, ‘If you are going to get on I’ll get off.’ ” Thus he had dealt with McClellan the would-be statesman, reserving his respect for McClellan the soldier. Now this too was fading. On the day after Stuart got back from his raid, Lincoln sent the circumnavigated Young Napoleon a long letter full of advice, in effect a lecture on strategy and tactics. “You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you cannot do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?… Exclusive of the water-line, you are now nearer Richmond than the enemy is by the route you can and he must take. Why can you not reach there before him, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on the march?… I would press closely to him, fight him if a favorable opportunity should present, and at least try to beat him to Richmond on the inside track. I say ‘try’; if we never try, we shall never succeed.” That was the main thing, as Lincoln saw it: Beat him. A stalemate would not serve. Even a repulse was not enough. “We should not so operate as to merely drive him away. As we must beat him somewhere or fail finally, we can do it, if at all, easier near to us than far away. If we cannot beat the enemy where he now is, we never can, he being again within the intrenchments of Richmond.… It is all easy if our troops march as well as the enemy, and it is unmanly to say they cannot do it.” He added: “This letter is in no sense an order.”
Thus Lincoln. But McClellan apparently had as little respect for Lincoln the would-be strategist as Lincoln had for McClellan the would-be statesman. October’s perfect weather went sliding by, and the army hugged its camps while its commander, despite his own chief quartermaster’s protest that “no army was ever more perfectly supplied than this one has been as a general rule,” continued to call for more and more supplies. He also wanted more soldiers, believing himself outnumbered, though his strength report of October 20 listed 133,433 men “present for duty,” with an “aggregate present” of 159,860. Next day Halleck wired him: “Telegraph when you will move, and on what lines you propose to march.” McClellan replied that he was nearly ready, but when he followed this with an urgent request for more horses, claiming that the ones he had were broken down by arduous service and weakened by foot-and-mouth disease, Lincoln lost his temper. “I have just read your dispatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses,” he wired on October 25. “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?”
McClellan was upset. “It was one of those little flings that I can’t get used to when they are not merited,” he wrote his wife, and he protested at some length to Lincoln the following day, defending his troopers and announcing that the long-awaited movement of his army across the Potomac had begun. Mollified, the President replied that he had “intended no injustice to any, and if I have done any I deeply regret it. To be told, after more than five weeks’ total inaction of the army … that the cavalry horses were too much fatigued to move, presents a cheerless, almost hopeless, prospect for the future, and it may have forced something of impatience in my dispatch.” McClellan had an apology, such as it was, yet his gloom was unrelieved. Through it he saw plainly what was coming. When one of his corps commanders indicated a spot on the map where he thought the next great battle would be fought, he nodded agreement but added sadly: “I may not have command of the army much longer. Lincoln is down on me.”
Lincoln was indeed down on him. Though he wired that he was “glad to believe you are crossing,” privately he was saying that he was tired of trying to “bore with an auger too dull to take hold.” However, he had a final secret test in mind. Lee’s army, drawn up around Winchester, was farther from Richmond than McClellan’s, which was crossing the Potomac below Harpers Ferry; “His route is the arc of a circle, while yours is the chord,” Lincoln had said in the tactics lecture, two weeks before. If, in spite of this disadvantage, the Confederate commander managed to interpose his troops between the advancing Federals and his capital, McClellan would be out. So Lincoln decided, and kept his decision to himself, watching and waiting. He waited long. It took the blue host nine days to cross the river and begin its southward creep, east of the Blue Ridge, toward a concentration around Warrenton. By that time, Lee—unmolested—had shifted half his army to Culpeper, squarely across the Federal line of march. McClellan had failed the test, and Lincoln’s mind was made up. He would remove him.
Fearing that this was about to happen, old Francis Blair pled against it with all the persuasion learned in a lifetime spent advising Presidents. McClellan was the Union’s one best hope for preservation, he declared. Lincoln disagreed. “I said I would remove him if he let Lee’s army get away from him, and I must do so. He has got the slows, Mr Blair.”
He would remove him: but not just yet. November 4 was the first Tuesday in the month, which meant that it was election day in most of the northern states, and therefore not a propitious time for disturbing voters who were disturbed enough already. Even Chase, who vied with Stanton in the intensity of his desire to see McClellan ousted, admitted privately that it was inexpedient to fire the general on the eve of the congressional elections, lest the Administration’s motives be misconstrued as a sop to the radicals. There was a widespread conviction among conservatives that the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had been sop enough in that direction. Political unrest found its basis there, together with objection to arbitrary arrests and the general lack of satisfaction with the prosecution of the war itself, which seemed to have stalled on every front. Nor was this dissatisfaction limited to moderates and conservatives. Iowa Senator J. W. Grimes, a loyal Republican whose constituents had voted heavily for Lincoln in 1860, was saying flatly: “We are going to destruction as fast as imbecility, corruption, and the wheels of time can carry us.” Lyman Trumbull of Lincoln’s home state was complaining bitterly of a “lack of affirmative, positive action and business talent in the cabinet,” while to Governor Andrew of Massachusetts it seemed that “the President has never yet seemed quite sure that we [are] in a war at all.”
Such remarks were straws in the wind, down which Democrats sniffed victory in November. And in many instances they got it. New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana—all of which had gone solidly Republican in the election held two years ago—sent Democratic delegations to the House of Representatives. So did Illinois, where Lincoln’s good friend Leonard Swett went down in defeat to John T. Stuart, the President’s former law partner, who thus made one among the nine Democrats elected as opposed to five Republicans. New Jersey, which had split its vote before, now went solidly Democratic; Wisconsin, on the other hand, now split her six-man delegation down the middle. Although the number of Democratic congressmen increased from 44 to 75 as a result of this election, the Republicans would remain the majority party because they managed to carry three widely scattered regions: New England, the Border States, and the Far West. Such comfort as Lincoln found in this was considerably soured, however, by the fact that most observers saw in the individual defeats a rebuke of the party leader and a rejection of his policies on the conduct of the war. The friendly New York Times ran the election story under the heading, “Vote of Want of Confidence,” and in Lincoln’s own home state the Salem Advocate declared: “We saw the President of the United States stretching forth his hand and seizing the reins of government with almost absolute power, and yet the people submitted. On the 4th day of November, 1862, the people arose in their might, they uttered their voice, like the sound of many waters, and tyranny, corruption and maladministration trembled.”
Lincoln took it philosophically, though he found it hard to do so, remarking that he felt like the boy who stubbed his toe on the way to see his girl; he was too big to cry, he said, and it hurt too much to laugh. One thing it did, at any rate, however it came out. It cleared the way for action on McClellan. November 5, before the election tabulations were complete, Lincoln had the orders for his removal drawn up. The following evening they were given to Brigadier General C. P. Buckingham, the so-called “confidential assistant adjutant-general to the Secretary of War,” who left with them next morning, November 7, aboard a special train bound for McClellan’s headquarters at Rectortown, near Manassas Gap. The first snowfall of winter was whitening the North Virginia landscape and the car in which he rode was drafty; but Buckingham did not wonder that an officer with so much rank as his was being exposed to such discomfort and employed as a sort of overdressed messenger boy, Stanton having explained that McClellan might refuse to relinquish command of his army if the order was presented to him by a man with anything less than stars on his shoulders. Even with them, the Secretary had added darkly, there was a strong possibility of some such mutinous action on the part of the commander of the Army of the Potomac. He advised the brigadier to make his arrival unannounced, thus gaining the military advantage of a surprise attack.
It was still snowing at 11 o’clock that night. McClellan sat alone in his tent, ending the day as usual with a letter to his wife, who was busy getting settled in their new home at Trenton, New Jersey. Nothing in his manner showed that the proposed surprise had failed; but it had. He knew that Buckingham had arrived early that evening, and he knew what his arrival probably meant. Whatever there was of real surprise lay in the fact that, instead of coming directly from the depot to army headquarters here at Rectortown, the War Department emissary had ridden down to Salem, five miles south, where Burnside’s corps was posted. Presently, however, this too was explained. A knock came at the tent pole, and when McClellan looked up from his letter, calling for whoever it was to enter, the canvas flap lifted and there stood Buckingham and Burnside, snow collected on the crowns and brims of their hats and sifted into the folds of their greatcoats. Behind his facial ruff of dark brown whiskers—also lightly powdered with snow, so that it resembled a badly printed trademark—“Dear Burn” looked both embarrassed and distressed.
McClellan knew what that meant, too, but for the present he gave no sign of this. He invited the visitors in, quite as if for an informal midnight chat, and for a time he and Buckingham exchanged pleasantries, Burnside sitting glumly by, looking rather as if he had been struck a hard blow on the head. Finally, though, the staff brigadier remarked that he had come to deliver some papers; and with that he passed them over. There were two of them, both dated November 5. Lincoln having authorized Halleck, “in [his] discretion, to issue an order [removing McClellan] forthwith, or so soon as he may deem proper,” the general-in-chief had deemed it proper to act without delay:
Major General McClellan, Commanding, c.:
General: On receipt of the order of the President, sent herewith, you will immediately turn over your command to Major General Burnside, and repair to Trenton, N.J., reporting, on your arrival at that place, by telegraph, for further orders.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant.
The second was from the Adjutant General’s office, and was a direct quotation of the first sentence of Lincoln’s message to Halleck:
By direction of the President of the United States, it is ordered that Major General McClellan be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and that Major General Burnside take the command of that army.
By order of the Secretary of War.
Neither of the orders being really any stronger than the other, it appeared that the Young Napoleon’s superiors considered two blows likelier to floor him than just one. However that might have been, he kept his balance under the double impact. He read both sheets, then said with a smile and in the same pleasant tone as before: “Well, Burnside, I turn the command over to you.” Close to tears, the Indiana-born Rhode Islander implored McClellan to stay with him for a day or two while he began to get accustomed to handling the reins. He had not wanted this job; had, in fact, refused it twice already, pleading incompetence, and once again this evening when Buckingham first came to Salem—that was why they had arrived so late; he had spent two hours arguing against his appointment—but Buckingham had reminded him that this was no request, it was a double-barreled order; he had no choice. Besides, the staff brigadier had added, if Burnside declined the command it would go to Hooker. That decided it; he had accepted, and all heasked now was that Little Mac stay with him for a couple of days to help him get settled in the driver’s seat. McClellan agreed, and the two generals went back out into the snowy night.
Alone again, the deposed commander took up his pen and returned to his letter: “Another interruption—this time more important. It was in the shape of Burnside, accompanied by Gen. Buckingham.… Alas for my poor country! I know in my inmost heart she never had a truer servant.” He did not say, as he had said before, that this was a temporary step-down, that he would be recalled when things went as wrong for Burnside as they had gone for Pope. He was through and he knew it. But he added: “Do not be at all worried—I am not. I have done the best I could for my country; to the last I have done my duty as I understand it. That I must have made many mistakes I cannot deny. I do not see any great blunders; but no one can judge of himself. Our consolation must be that we have tried to do what was right.”
All that really remained to be done was say goodbye to the army whose affection for him was, in the end, his most enduring monument. Next day, when the order for his removal was published, the reaction combined disbelief and horror, both of which gave way to rage, which in turn was tempered by sadness. The various corps, drawn up for a farewell exchange of salutes, broke ranks as they had done before at his approach. Now as before, they crowded around him, touched his boots, and stroked the flanks of his horse, only this time the tears were produced by sorrow, not by jubilation. Nor had all the anger been drained off. “Send him back! Send him back!” they cried in his wake, as if their shouts could be heard in the capital, fifty miles away. The Irish brigade cast its colors in the dust for him to ride over; “but, of course,” one observer wrote, “he made them take them up again.” The same man heard a general say he “wished to God that McClellan would put himself at the head of the army and throw the infernal scoundrels at Washington into the Potomac.” Another yelled: “Lead us to Washington, General—we’ll follow you!” Burnside shared the prevailing gloom, still so badly choked up that when one division commander, having voiced his regrets to McClellan, turned to him and offered congratulations, the new army head could hardly speak. “Couch, don’t say a word about it,” he implored.
McClellan accepted this adulation with as much satisfaction as ever, possibly more, but he remained strangely calm in the midst of it and did nothing to encourage the various expressions of resentment. “The officers and men feel terribly about the change,” he wrote his wife on the second night after receiving the order for his removal. “I learn today that the men are very sullen and have lost their good spirits entirely.” This was putting it mildly indeed; but the truth was, he had lost much of his former flamboyance. Even his written farewell to his soldiers was comparatively restrained. “In you I have never found doubt or coldness,” he told them, and he added: “We shall ever be comrades in supporting the Constitution of our country and the nationality of its people.”
That was all; or almost all. November 11 he took his final leave of them, riding down to Warrenton Junction, where a train was waiting to carry him away. After receiving the salute of a 2000-man detachment stationed here, he boarded the train and took his seat. But before the engineer could obey the highball, the troops broke ranks, surrounded the car, then uncoupled it and ran it back, yelling threats against the Administration and insisting that McClellan should not leave. “One word, one look of encouragement, the lifting of a finger,” one witness later declared, “would have been a signal for a revolt against lawful authority, the consequences of which no man can measure.” Instead, McClellan stepped onto the front platform and delivered a short address to the men, who had fallen silent as soon as he appeared. “Stand by General Burnside as you have stood by me, and all will be well,” he said. Calmed, the soldiers recoupled the car and the train pulled out, followed by “one long and mournful huzza [as the men] bade farewell to their late commander.” His route led through the capital, but he had already told his wife: “I shall not stop in Washington longer than for the next train, and will not go to see anybody.”
In their tears, in their passionate demonstrations of affection for this man who moved them in a way no other general ever had or ever would, it was as if the soldiers had sensed a larger meaning in the impending separation; it was as if they knew they were saying goodbye to something more than just one stocky brown-haired man astride a tall black horse. It was, indeed, as if they were saying goodbye to their youth—which, in a sense, they were. Or it might also have been prescience, intimations of mortality, intimations of suffering down the years. There had been Pope, and now it appeared that there would be others more or less like him. Knowing what that meant, they might well have been weeping for their own lot, as well as for McClellan’s. “My army,” he had called them from the start, and it was true. He had made them into what they were, and whatever they accomplished he would accomplish too, in part, even though he would no longer be at their head.
That was no doubt his greatest satisfaction; but there were others, no less welcome for being delayed. Five years after the guns had cooled and were parked in town squares and on courthouse lawns, with sparrows building nests in their muzzles, he received what was perhaps his finest professional compliment, and received it from the man who had occupied the best of all possible positions from which to formulate a judgment. Asked then who was the ablest Federal general he had opposed throughout the war, Robert E. Lee replied without hesitation; “McClellan, by all odds.”
McClellan was gone, and others were gone with him: Fitz-John Porter, for example, who was relieved from command by authority of the same message Lincoln had sent Halleck on November 5, relieving Little Mac. His corps went to Hooker, whose own had been severely cut up at Antietam, and Porter himself was brought back to Washington to face charges for having failed to obey Pope’s order for an attack on the Confederate right “at or near Manassas, in the State of Virginia, on or about the 29th day of August, 1862.” The court having convicted him, Lincoln ordered that he be “cashiered and dismissed from the service … and forever disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the Government of the United States.” Winged thus by a stray pellet from the blast that felled his chief, Porter had to wait long for vindication. It came at last, officially, nearly a quarter of a century later, when Congress in 1886 commissioned him a regular-army colonel, to rank from 1861, and permitted him to retire immediately thereafter, without back pay but with honor.
One other major figure was to go, though not entirely: Benjamin Butler was too useful a man, and too powerful a politician, to be assigned to limbo alongside Buell and McClellan. Like them he was a Democrat, but he was blatantly so—with the result that what had been for them a disadvantage was for him a downright blessing. So long as he occupied a high position in the army, the Administration could not be accused of conducting a strictly Republican war, whereas his dismissal would have exactly the reverse effect. Butler of course was aware of this advantage, and operated accordingly. What was more, he was efficient, particularly as an administrator. Yet for all his ingenuity in dealing with the problems attending the occupation of New Orleans (he had not only succeeded in making the Creoles “fear the stripes” in his flag, he had also brought them some of the sanitary benefits of Lowell, Massachusetts, including an intensive flushing-out of their sewers and an equally intensive regulation of their morals) the squint-eyed general had not fulfilled his early promise as a terror to the rebels in the field. Of late, in fact, he had entirely neglected that side of military life, even having gone so far as to pull his troops out of Baton Rouge in order to avoid a return engagement with the Confederates who had attacked the place in early August. Obviously he would not do for the bloody work Lincoln now saw would have to be done if the war was ever to end. However, the disposition of Butler was no large problem. His talents were so manifold that he would be about as useful in one place as another. He could be shifted.
Fortunately for Lincoln’s purpose he had a replacement there at hand, in the form of the commander of the Washington defenses. Banks, like Butler, was a Massachusetts politician, so that to exchange them, one for another, would not upset the voters of their region. Besides, Banks was resourceful, energetic, and pugnacious: a combination of qualities all too rare of late, in more places than New Orleans. In short, he was just the kind of man Lincoln thought he wanted for the job he had in mind. It was true that wherever he had fought he had been whipped, sometimes rather spectacularly, but this had not been the result of any unwillingness to fight; quite the reverse—and generally it had been against Stonewall Jackson, whom he would be unlikely to encounter down in Louisiana or up the Mississippi. That was where Lincoln intended to send him. On November 8, the day after Buckingham left for Rectortown with the orders placing Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln had the Adjutant General issue an order assigning Banks “to the command of the Department of the Gulf, including the State of Texas,” and the following day he had Halleck write the new commander a letter of instructions, explaining the purpose—or, more strictly speaking, purposes—for which he was being transferred so far south.
Vicksburg and Mobile were to be his primary objectives, and he was to have the coöperation of the navy in effecting their reduction. “The President regards the opening of the Mississippi River as the first and most important of all our military and naval operations,” he was told, “and it is hoped that you will not lose a moment in accomplishing it.” Following this, Halleck continued—quite as if the thing had been done already with a flourish of the pen—Banks was to move eastward from Vicksburg to Jackson, “and thus cut off all connection by rail between Northern Mississippi … and Atlanta … the chief military depot of the rebel armies in the West.” This done, he would return approximately to his starting point in order to “ascend with a naval and military force the Red River as far as it is navigable, and thus open an outlet for the sugar and cotton of Northern Louisiana.” Not even then did Halleck allow him time for a breather. “It is also suggested that, having Red River in our possession, it would form the best base for operations in Texas.” There at last he closed with the assurance, “These instructions are not intended to tie your hands or to hamper your operations in the slightest degree … and I need not assure you, general, that the Government has unlimited confidence not only in your judgment and discretion, but also in your energy and military promptness.”
Although this was clearly one of the largest tasks ever assigned a commander in all the history of warfare—and unquestionably the most difficult ever assigned a nonprofessional who, after eighteen months in the field and a major share in three campaigns, lacked so much as a single tactical victory to his credit—Banks shared Halleck’s “unlimited confidence” that the thing could be done and that he was the man to do it. Summoned to Washington and informed that he would be given 20,000 reinforcements to accompany him on the coastal voyage to New Orleans—one expeditionary force would sail from New York, the other from Hampton Roads—the New Englander was delighted. “Everything is favorable for my purpose,” he had replied to an earlier warning order. “I shall obtain troops at once, and be ready for movement as early as you wish.… Requisitions will be made and forwarded by mail. No material delay will occur, unless for want of transports.” Now, having conferred in person with Lincoln and Halleck as to the details of the multi-faceted project, he was more enthusiastic than ever. There was “much to do,” he said as he departed for New York, but he would “lose no time.”
Lincoln was delighted, too: not only by the prospect of seeing so much accomplished, but also by the unfamiliar experience of having sat face to face with a commander who recognized the worth of time and the military fruits that haste could gather. Moreover, it augured well for larger matters. For all the vastness of the project thus assigned to Banks, the main value of his operations would be diversionary, serving 1) to drain off rebel front-line troops by threatening their rear, and 2) to distract the enemy high command from concentrating against the Federal main effort, about to be exerted against their front. After a hundred thousand casualties and a year and a half of successes, near-successes, and sickening failures—the last, as Lincoln saw them, being mainly due to the vacillation and nonaggressiveness of generals like Buell and McClellan, who, desiring combat less than they feared defeat, believed in preparation more than they believed in movement—a victory pattern had emerged. Three southern cities were the three main northern objectives. Richmond, Chattanooga, and Vicksburg were the brain, heart, and bowels of the rebellion. A successful blow struck any one of the three might well prove fatal, in time, to the corpus as a whole; but three successful blows, struck simultaneously, would produce immediate results. Whatever movement followed then, on the part of the creature named Rebellion, would be no more than death throes and the setting in of rigor mortis.
Immediate results being what he was after, Lincoln had assigned these three main objectives to the commanders of the three main armies of the Union: Burnside, Rosecrans, and Grant. He himself had chosen the first and second, and he had sustained the third against strident demands for his dismissal, saying of him: “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” He believed he could say it of the other two as well. Whatever shortcomings they might develop under pressure (Grant’s, for instance, was said to be whiskey; hearing which, the President was supposed to have asked what brand he drank, intending to send a barrel each to all his other generals) it seemed unlikely that a distaste for combat was going to be the flaw in any case. All three had fought, and fought hard: Burnside at Roanoke Island and Antietam, Rosecrans in West Virginia and at Corinth, Grant at Belmont, Donelson, and Shiloh—which was practically to call the roll of all the victories the army could lay claim to, east of the Mississippi, even by stretching the point in an instance or two or three. So had Banks fought hard, and though admittedly it had been with less success, Lincoln believed that the war had reached a stage where hard fighting, sustained by the superior resources of the nation, would create its own success. At any rate, that was what he was asking for now: hard fighting. And with this in mind, as Commander in Chief, he had placed his major armies under leaders he considered most likely to give it to him without delay.
So he thought, this melancholy man with his incurable optimism: only to find that what his high hopes mainly afforded him—once more, alas—was another occasion for exploring the gap that yawned between conception and execution. One by one, two by two, and finally all four together, his hand-picked generals failed his expectations as to haste. And, paradoxically, he discovered that the reason for delay, in all four cases, was just those superior resources which he had thought assured them victory.
Banks was first, the most enthusiastic of the lot. He had scarcely been gone from the capital a week before the President saw a monster requisition the Massachusetts general submitted, calling for mountains of supplies and thousands of horses to haul them through the jungles of the Lower South. Horses were a sore subject with Lincoln just now, anyhow, and when he was assured by the chief quartermaster that the requisition could not “be filled and got off within an hour short of two months,” he wrote Banks a letter in which anger vied with sorrow for predominance. “I have just been overwhelmed and confounded,” he declared, and continued: “My dear general, this expanding and piling up of impedimenta has been so far almost our ruin, and will be our final ruin if it is not abandoned.… When you parted with me you had no such ideas in your mind. I know you had not, or you could not have expected to be off so soon as you said. You must get back to something like the plan you had then or your expedition is a failure before you start. You must be off before Congress meets. You would be better off anywhere, and especially where you are going, for not having a thousand wagons doing nothing but hauling forage to feed the animals that draw them, and taking at least 2000 men to care for the wagons and animals, who otherwise might be 2000 good soldiers.” In closing he added a further admonition: “Now, dear general, do not think this is an ill-natured letter; it is the very reverse. The simple publication of this requisition would ruin you.”
As usual in cases where the offense presaged delay, Banks had what he considered a reasonable explanation. Two days later, November 24, he replied that the request for supplies “was drawn up by an officer who did not fully comprehend my instructions, and inadvertently approved by me without sufficient examination.” In other words, he had signed without looking. “My purpose has not been changed since I left Washington,” he assured Lincoln, “and I have waited [for] nothing not absolutely necessary.” Apparently, though, a great many items fell in that category; for the waiting continued. Banks kept saying he would be off any day now, but the disillusioned President had doubts. And his doubts were valid. Banks’ purpose might not have changed, but his schedule had. November went out; December came in; Banks remained at his New York starting point. Finally, on December 4, he sailed for Fort Monroe. How long he would stay there before continuing on to New Orleans, Lincoln did not know.
Anyhow, he had a good deal more on his mind by then. Troubles of a similar nature, involving delay, but derived from a different and even more unexpected source, were looming in the West: specifically in Grant’s department, and even more specifically in U. S. Grant himself. After the ill-wind fiasco at Iuka and the bloody repulse of the rebels at Corinth, which he had missed, Grant had been sounding oddly unlike himself. When Halleck, after the latter fight, asked why he did not press the defeated and retreating foe—“Why order a return of our troops? Why not … pursue the enemy into Mississippi, supporting your army on the country?”—Grant replied that an army could not “subsist itself on the country except in forage.… Disaster would follow in the end.” This did not sound like the Grant of old, who never spoke of disaster except with the intention of inflicting it, and presently he was sounding even less so, calling urgently for reinforcements in expectation of having to fight another battle. This fall, in fact, his aggressive instincts mostly seemed reserved for the Jews in his department. “Refuse all permits to come south of Jackson for the present,” he wired Hurlbut at that place, adding: “The Israelites especially should be kept out.” He instructed his railroad superintendent to “give orders to all conductors on the road that no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward from any point. They may go north and be encouraged in it; but they are such an intolerable nuisance that the department must be purged of them.”
Lincoln would not have admired this talk of purges, not only because it ran counter to his personal belief in the equality of men before the law (whether the law was military or civil) but also because it could be applied to a father or mother on the way to visit a soldier son; for there were, of course, Jewish soldiers in all the nation’s armies—even Grant’s. In time this would be called to his attention, but for the present Lincoln was disturbed enough at the general’s tone in regard to the pursuit of a beaten foe. One explanation was given by Rosecrans in a private letter to Halleck, written on the day before he was ordered north to replace Buell. He complained of “the spirit of mischief among the mousing politicians on Grant’s staff,” spoke of Grant becoming “sour and reticent,” and asked to be “relieved from duty here.” When a fighter Lincoln respected as much as he did Rosecrans asked for a transfer, apparently all was not well in the area he wished himself away from. Also—as always—there was talk that Grant had reverted to his old fondness for the bottle. Doubtless, too, Lincoln heard gossip similar to what a Chicago reporter heard from his fellow passengers as he rode south about this time on a train bound for Memphis. Officers and men returning from leaves and furloughs declared that Grant “never did amount to anything, and never would. He had been kicked out of the United States Army once, and would be again. He was nothing but a drunken, wooden-headed tanner, that would not trouble the country very long. &c. &c.”
Whatever his past successes, Vicksburg was too important a prize for its capture to hinge entirely on the problematic advance of a man who was the subject of so many ugly rumors and whose character, even aside from the truth or falseness of such talk, seemed to have undergone a discouraging reversal. At any rate, Lincoln in this case had provided not one but two extra strings for the bow that was to be bent in that direction. While Banks was moving upriver against the place, supported by warships from Farragut’s fleet, and Grant was marching overland down the Mississippi Central from Grand Junction, a third force was to descend the river from southern Illinois, its mission being to coöperate with Porter’s ironclad flotilla for an attack on the stronghold which Jefferson Davis had called “the Gibraltar of the West.” This third force was irregular and highly secret in nature, its purpose known only to three men: Lincoln, Stanton, and its commander, John McClernand. They had created it—out of the whole cloth, so to speak. McClernand had come north on leave in late September, saying privately that he was “tired of furnishing brains” for Grant’s army, and had appealed to his friend the President to “let one volunteer officer try his abilities.” In accordance with the plan he submitted, Stanton gave him on October 21 a confidential order authorizing him “to proceed to the States of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and to organize the troops remaining in those States and to be raised by volunteering or draft … to the end that, when a sufficient force not required by the operations of General Grant’s command shall be raised, an expedition may be organized under General McClernand’s command against Vicksburg … to clear the Mississippi River and open navigation to New Orleans.” A presidential indorsement further authorized him to show this confidential document “to Governors, and even others, when in his discretion he believes so doing to be indispensable to the progress of the expedition.”
Armed with this order, which he saw as placing his star in the ascendant—his ambition had not been lessened by the singeing he took at Donelson while seeking the bubble reputation at the cannon’s mouth—McClernand left for his home state in late October, there to begin assembling the force which he believed would put him not only in Vicksburg but also in the White House. Even the first of these steps would take time, however; and time, he knew, was the foe of secrecy. Sure enough, by early November Grant began hearing what he called “mysterious rumors of McClernand’s command.” Glad as he had been to get rid of his fellow Illinoisan, he did not want him back in his department at the head of a rival army. When Halleck—whom the three lawyers had also not let in on their secret—informed him that Memphis would “be made the depot of a joint military and naval expedition on Vicksburg,” Grant took alarm and wired back: “Am I to understand that I lie still here while an expedition is fitted out from Memphis, or do you want me to push as far south as possible? Am I to have Sherman move subject to my orders, or is he and his forces reserved for some special service?” Halleck replied blandly: “You have command of all troops sent to your department, and have permission to fight the enemy where you please.”
That was enough for Grant. Receiving Halleck’s go-ahead message near Grand Junction on November n, he had cavalry in Holly Springs two days later. He followed at once with the infantry, established a supply base there, and continued his advance down the Mississippi Central. By December 1 his cavalry was across the Hatchie, the rebels fading back. Still Grant followed. Within another week he had occupied Oxford, fifty miles beyond his starting point, setting up a command post in the courthouse and repairing the railroad in his rear.… Whatever else McClernand’s behind-the-scenes maneuver might accomplish in the end, it had effected at least one thing before it even got beyond the plans-and-training stage: Grant’s mind had emerged from the tunnel it had entered after Shiloh. He was himself again, or anyhow he appeared to be, and this in itself was encouraging to Lincoln. However, he could also see that in North Mississippi, as elsewhere along the thousand-mile front, the fine autumn weather had mostly gone to waste, so far as offensive operations were concerned. Grant was still 150 airline miles from Vicksburg, and neither Banks nor McClernand had even begun to move.
Here in the East, delay was especially discouraging for being close at hand; Lincoln’s torture, as a result, was not unlike that of Tantalus, who saw the surface of the pool recede each time he bent to drink. In this case, too, he was soon obliged to suspect that he had made an error in personal judgment, no matter how well founded that judgment had seemed at the time he acted on it. In addition to native combativeness, demonstrated on independent service, Burnside had other qualities which had caused Lincoln to overrule his twice-repeated protest that he was not competent to command the Army of the Potomac, despite the fact that his rank entitled him to the post. Less than three years older than McClellan, he had been his friend before and during the war and had taken no part in the bickering that surrounded him. It was Lincoln’s hope that this would ease the blow and soften the reaction when “McClellan’s bodyguard” got the news that its hero had been replaced. Also, Burnside had no political opinions: a lack that might have been expected to spare him the mistrust and enmity of the Jacobins who had hounded his predecessor. Both calculations, one regarding the army, the other Congress, appeared to have been valid at the outset. For a time, they even worked; or else they seemed to. But the President was not long in finding out that both had been something less than inclusive. According to one general in a group who came to congratulate Burnside on his promotion, he thanked them “and then, with that transparent sincerity which made everyone believe what he said, he added that he knew he was not fit for so big a command, but he would do his best.” The witness remarked: “One could not help feeling a certain tenderness for the man. But when a moment later the generals talked among themselves, it was no wonder that several shook their heads and asked how we could have confidence in the fitness of our leader if he had no such confidence in himself?” Such in part was the reaction in the army he was about to lead into battle. As for the radicals in Congress, it soon became apparent that an absence of politics was by no means a recommendation in their eyes. They had no objection to politics, per se; they merely insisted that the politics be Republican. All they really knew of Burnside was that he was the acknowledged friend of the man whose ruin they were proud to have helped accomplish, and they were prepared to do as much for him in turn, if on closer acquaintance it appeared that he deserved it.
Such objections were mainly personal, however, and Lincoln did not share them, or if he did he thought them incidental. His main concern was with Burnside as a strategist, a seeker after battle: which was where his doubts came in. Aware that the President wanted immediate action, and had in fact removed his predecessor for not giving it to him, the new commander immediately prepared a plan which he submitted for approval. Not liking the army’s present location—which seemed to him uncomfortably similar to the one John Pope had occupied before he came to grief—Burnside had the notion of converting the advance just east of the Blue Ridge into a feint, under cover of which he would “accumulate a four or five days’ supply for the men and animals; then make a rapid move of the whole force to Fredericksburg, with a view to a movement upon Richmond from that point.” This was the so-called “covering approach” which Lincoln had always favored, since it protected Washington. But in this case he thought the plan defective, in that it made the southern capital the primary Federal objective, not Lee’s army, which in fact it seemed that Burnside was attempting to avoid. Halleck felt that way about it, too, and on November 12 went down to Warrenton for a talk with the lush-whiskered general, who argued forcefully in favor of the change of base. Still doubtful, Halleck returned to Washington and reported the discussion to the President. Lincoln too was unconvinced, but he was so pleased at the prospect of early action—here in the East, if nowhere else—that he agreed to let Burnside go ahead—or, more strictly speaking, sideways, then ahead—provided he moved fast. Halleck passed the word to Warrenton on the 14th: “The President has just assented to your plan. He thinks that it will succeed, if you move very rapidly; otherwise not.”
Burnside did move rapidly, “very rapidly.” Despite the tremendous supply problems which went with having an “aggregate present” of approximately 250,000 officers and men for whose welfare he was responsible—150,441 in the field force proper, 98,738 in the capital defenses—the fact was, he had turned out to be an excellent administrator. On the day he received Lincoln’s qualified assent to an eastward shift, he regrouped his seven corps into Right, Left, and Center “Grand Divisions” of two corps each, respectively under Sumner, Franklin, and Hooker, leaving the seventh in “independent reserve” under Sigel. With his army thus reorganized for deft handling, he took up the march for Falmouth the following day, November 15. Sumner went first, followed on subsequent days by Franklin, Hooker, and the cavalry. Moving down the north bank of the Rappahannock, which thus covered the exposed flank of the column, the Right Grand Division arrived on the 17th and the others came along behind on schedule. Burnside himself reached Falmouth on the 19th, just in advance of the rear-guard elements. Proudly he wired Washington: “Sumner’s two corps now occupy all the commanding positions opposite Fredericksburg.… The enemy do not seem to be in force.” So far, indeed, except for an occasional gray cavalry vedette across the way, the only sign of resistance had come from a single rebel battery on the heights beyond the historic south-bank town, and it had been smothered promptly by counterbattery fire. Lincoln had asked for speed, and Burnside had given it to him. He seemed about to give him all else he had asked for, too—hard fighting—for he added: “As soon as the pontoon trains arrive, the bridge will be built and the command moved over.”
But there was the rub. Burnside had left the sending of the pontoons to Halleck, who in turn had left it to a subordinate, and somewhere along the chain of command the word “rush” had been dropped from the requisition. The army waited a week, during which a three-day rain swelled the fords and turned the roads into troughs of mud. Still the pontoons did not come. On the eighth day they got there; but so by then had something else; something not nearly so welcome. “Had the pontoon bridge arrived even on the 19th or 20th, the army could have crossed with trifling opposition,” Burnside notified Halleck on the 22d. “But now the opposite side of the river is occupied by a large rebel force under General Longstreet, with batteries ready to be placed in position to operate against the working parties building the bridge and the troops in crossing.” Vexed that his forty-mile change of base, executed with such efficiency and speed that it had given him the jump on his wily opponent, had gained him nothing by way of surprise in the end, he said flatly: “I deem it my duty to lay these facts before you, and to say that I cannot make the promise of probable success with the faith that I did when I supposed that all the parts of the plan would be carried out.… The President said that the movement, in order to be successful, must be made quickly, and I thought the same.”
Lincoln was distressed: not only because of the delay, which he had predicted would be fatal to the success of the campaign, but also because the new commander, in the face of all those guns across the river, seemed to believe it was part of his duty to expose his army to annihilation by way of payment for other men’s mistakes. November 25, the day the first relay of pontoons reached Falmouth, the President wired: “If I should be in a boat off Aquia Creek at dark tomorrow (Wednesday) evening, could you, without inconvenience, meet me and pass an hour or two with me?” He made the trip, saw Burnside and the situation—which he characterized by understatement as “somewhat risky”—then returned to Washington, worked out a supplementary plan of his own, and sent for the general to come up and discuss it with him and Halleck. As he saw it, the enemy should be confused by diversionary attacks, one upstream from Fredericksburg, the other on the lower Pamunkey, each to be delivered by a force of about 25,000 men and the latter to be supported by the fleet. Both generals rejected the plan, however, on grounds that it would require too much time for preparation. So Lincoln, with his argument stressing haste thus turned against him, had to content himself with telling Burnside to go back to his army and use his own judgment as to when and where he would launch an assault across the Rappahannock.
Burnside returned to Falmouth on the next to last day of November. His notion was to strike where Lee would least expect it, and the more he thought about the problem, the more it seemed to him that this would be at Fredericksburg itself, where Lee was strongest. Accordingly, he began to mass his 113,000 effectives—Sigel having been posted near Manassas—along and behind the north-bank heights, overlooking the streets of the Rappahannock town whose citizens had already been given notice to evacuate their homes. November was gone by then, however. In the East as in the West, to Lincoln’s sorrow, there had been no fall offensive, only a seemingly endless preparation for one which had not come off.
Between these two East-West extremes, the trouble in Middle Tennessee, while similar to the trouble in Virginia and North Mississippi, was in its way even more exasperating. Burnside and Grant at least regretted the delay and expressed a willingness to end it, but Rosecrans not only would not say that he regretted it, he declared flatly that he would not obey a direct order to end it until he personally was convinced that his hard-marched army was ready for action, down to the final shoenail in the final pair of shoes. This came as a shock to Lincoln, who had expected Old Rosy’s positivism to take a different form. He would have been less surprised, no doubt, if he had known Grant’s reaction when that general learned in late October that his then subordinate was leaving. “I was delighted,” he later wrote, adding: “I found that I could not make him do as I wished, and had determined to relieve him from duty that very day.”
Whatever reasons lay behind Rosecrans’ reluctance to move forward, they could not have proceeded from any vagueness in his instructions, which were covered in a letter Halleck sent him along with his appointment as Buell’s successor: “The great objects to be kept in view in your operations in the field are: First, to drive the enemy from Kentucky and Middle Tennessee; second, to take and hold East Tennessee, cutting the line of railroad at Chattanooga, Cleveland, or Athens, so as to destroy the connection of the valley of Virginia with Georgia and the other Southern States. It is hoped that by prompt and rapid movements a considerable part of this may be accomplished before the roads become impassable from the winter rains.” After emphasizing “the importance of moving light and rapidly, and also the necessity of procuring as many of your supplies as possible in the country passed over,” the general-in-chief concluded on an even sterner note: “I need not urge upon you the necessity of giving active employment to your forces. Neither the country nor the Government will much longer put up with the inactivity of some of our armies and generals.”
There he had it, schedule and all; even the name of the army was changed, so that what had been called the Army of the Ohio was now the Army of the Cumberland, signifying the progress made, as well as the progress looked forward to. He knew well enough that Buell had been relieved because the authorities in Washington lacked confidence in his inclination or ability to get these missions accomplished in a hurry. That, too—in addition to the reluctance shown in declining the same appointment a month before—was why Thomas had been passed over in order to give the job to Rosecrans, whom they apparently considered the man to get it done. As a sign of this confidence, Halleck at once agreed to let him do what he had been unwilling to grant Buell. That is, he allowed him to return to Nashville with the army, agreeing at last with Buell’s old contention that this was the best starting point for an advance on Chattanooga. Having won this concession, Rosecrans moved into the fortified Tennessee capital, and while butternut cavalry under Morgan and Forrest tore up tracks in his rear and slashed at his front, he set about reorganizing his command, more or less in the manner of Burnside, into Right, Left, and Center “Wings” of four divisions each. Gilbert having faded back into the obscurity he came out of, these went respectively to McCook, Crittenden, and Thomas. The mid-November effective strength of the army was 74,555 men—as large or larger, it was thought, than the enemy force at Murfreesboro, thirty-odd miles southeast—but Rosecrans still had not advanced beyond the outskirts of Nashville. He was hoping, he said, for a sudden rise of the Tennessee River to cut off the rebels’ retreat; in which case, as he put it, “I shall throw myself on their right flank and endeavor to make an end of them.” For the present, however, he confided, “I am trying to lull them into security, that I do not intend soon to move, until I can get the [rail] road fully opened and throw in a couple of millions of rations here.”
The Confederates might be lulled by his apparent inactivity, but his own superiors were not. Alarmed by this casual reference to “a couple of millions of rations”—followed as it was by urgent requisitions for “revolving rifles,” back pay, “an iron pontoon train long enough to cross the Tennessee,” and much else—Halleck told him sternly on November 27: “I must warn you against this piling up of impediments. Take a lesson from the enemy. Move light.” The Tennessee commander protested that he was asking for nothing that was not “indispensable to an effectual and steady advance, which is the only one that will avail us anything worth the cost.” By now it was December, and Rosecrans had begun to sound more like Buell than Buell himself had done. Halleck lost his temper, wiring curtly: “The President is very impatient.… Twice have I been asked to designate someone else to command your army. If you remain one more week in Nashville, I cannot prevent your removal.” Rosecrans, unintimidated, bristled back at him: “Your dispatch received. I reply in few but earnest words. I have lost no time. Everything I have done was necessary, absolutely so; and has been done as rapidly as possible.… If the Government which ordered me here confides in my judgment, it may rely on my continuing to do what I have been trying to do—that is, my whole duty. If my superiors have lost confidence in me, they had better at once put someone in my place and let the future test the propriety of the change. I have but one word to add, which is, that I need no other stimulus to make me do my duty than the knowledge of what it is. To threats of removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.”
Now Lincoln knew the worst. With autumn gone and winter at hand, not a single one of the three major blows he had hoped for and designed had been struck. Right, left, and center, for all he knew—and he had observed signs of this with his own eyes, down on the Rappahannock—all that had been accomplished in each of these three critical theaters was a fair-weather setting of the stage for a foul-weather disaster. Halleck was saying of him during this first week in December: “You can hardly conceive his great anxiety,” and Lincoln himself had told a friend the week before: “I certainly have been dissatisfied with the slowness of Buell and McClellan; but before I relieved them I had great fears I should not find successors to them who would do better; and I am sorry to add that I have seen little since to relieve those fears.”
These words were written in a letter to Carl Schurz, a young German emigrant whom the Republican central committee had sent to Illinois four years ago to speak in Lincoln’s behalf during the senatorial race against Douglas. Grateful for this and later, more successful work, Lincoln appointed him Minister to Spain in 1861, and when Schurz resigned to come home and fight, the President made him a brigadier under Frémont in the Alleghenies. After the fall election returns were in, he wrote Lincoln his belief that they were “a most serious reproof to the Administration” for placing the nation’s armies in “the hands of its enemies,” meaning Democrats. “What Republican has ever had a fair chance in this war?” Schurz asked, apparently leaving his own case out of account, and urged: “Let us be commanded by generals whose heart is in the war.” Lincoln thought this over and replied: “I have just received and read your letter of [November] 20th. The purport of it is that we lost the late elections and the Administration is failing because the war is unsuccessful, and that I must not flatter myself that I am not justly to blame for it. I certainly know that if the war fails, the Administration fails, and that I will be blamed for it, whether I deserve it or not. And I ought to be blamed if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me.” Having thus disposed of the matter of blame, he passed on to the matter of hearts. “I understand you now to be willing to accept the help of men who are not Republicans, provided they have ‘heart in it.’ Agreed. I want no others. But 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. For be assured, my dear sir, there are men who have ‘heart in it’ that think you are performing your part as poorly as you think I am performing mine.… I wish to disparage no one, certainly not those who sympathize with me; but I must say I need success more than I need sympathy, and that I have not seen the so much greater evidence of getting success from my sympathizers than from those who are denounced as the contrary.”
He closed with a suggestion that the citizen soldier come to see him soon at the White House: which Schurz did, arriving early one morning, and was taken at once to an upstairs room where he found the President sitting before an open fire, his feet in large Morocco slippers. Told to pull up a chair, he did so: whereupon Lincoln brought his hand down with a slap on Schurz’s knee. “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.” He was smiling, but Schurz could not keep from stammering as he tried to apologize. This made the tall man laugh aloud, and again he slapped his visitor’s knee. “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.” Still laughing, he added: “Well, I guess we understand one another now, and it’s all right.” They talked for the better part of an hour, and as Schurz rose to leave he asked whether he should keep on writing letters to the President. “Why, certainly,” Lincoln told him. “Write me whenever the spirit moves you.”
It was Schurz’s belief that the visit had done Lincoln good, and unquestionably it had. Busy as he was with the details of office, not all of which were directly connected with the war, he had all too few occasions for relaxation, let alone laughter, the elixir he had always used against his natural melancholia. Out in Minnesota, for example, John Pope had been more successful against the marauding Sioux than he had against Lee and Jackson. He had defeated Chief Little Crow in battle and brought the surviving braves before a military court which sentenced 303 of them to be hanged. Reviewing the list, Lincoln reduced to thirty-eight the number slated for immediate execution and ordered the rest held, “taking care that they neither escape nor are subjected to any unlawful violence.” This was of course only one distraction among many, the most troublesome being the host of importunate callers, all of whom wanted some special favor from him. Sometimes he lost patience, as when he told a soldier who came seeking his intervention in a routine army matter: “Now, my man, go away. I cannot attend to all these details. I could as easily bail out the Potomac with a spoon!” But mostly he was patient and receptive. He put them at ease, heard their complaints, and did what he could to help them. When a friend remarked, “You will wear yourself out,” he shook his head and replied with a sad smile: “They don’t want much; they get but little, and I must see them.”
One place of refuge he had, the war telegraph office, and one companion whose demands on his time apparently brought him nothing but pleasure, Tad. Often he would combine the two, taking his son there with him during the off-hours, when the place was quiet, with only a single operator on duty. He would sit at a desk, reading the accumulated flimsies, while the nine-year-old went to sleep on his lap or rummaged around in search of mischief, which he seldom failed to find. John Hay once remarked that Tad “had a very bad opinion of books, and no opinion of discipline.” The former was mainly his father’s fault. “Let him run,” Lincoln said. “There’s time enough yet for him to learn his letters and get poky.” So was the latter; for since the death of Willie, eight months before, this youngest child had been overindulged by way of double compensation. “I want to give him all the toys I did not have,” Lincoln explained, “and all the toys I would have given the boy who went away.” Nor would he allow his son to be corrected. Once when they were at the telegraph office Tad wandered into the adjoining room, where he found the combination of black ink and white marble-topped tables quite irresistible. Presently the operator, whose name was Madison Buell, saw what was being done. Indignant at the ruin, he seized the dabbler by the collar and marched him out to his father, pointing through the open door at the irreparable outrage. Lincoln reacted promptly. Rising, he took the boy in his arms, unmindful of the hands still dripping ink. “Come, Tad,” he said; “Buell is abusing you,” and left.
In these and other ways he sought relaxation during this season which had opened with reverses and closed before the big machine could overcome the primary inertia which had gripped it when it stalled. Such large-scale battles as had been fought—Antietam, Corinth, Perryville—had been set down as Union victories; but they had been near things at best—particularly the first and the last, which the rebels also claimed—and what was more, all three had been intrinsically defensive; which would not do. It would do for the insurgents, whose task was merely to defend their region against what they called aggression, but not for the loyalists, whose goal could be nothing short of conquest. Besides, the defensive encouraged the fulfillment of Lincoln’s two worst fears: utter war-weariness at home, and recognition for the Confederacy abroad. Other developments might prolong the war, but these two could lose it, and he had taken their avoidance as his personal responsibility. During the period just past, he had sought to prevent the first by appealing directly to the people for confidence in his Administration, and to forestall the second by issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. How well he had done in both cases he did not know; it was perhaps too soon to tell, though here too the signs were not encouraging. Some said the fall elections were a rejection of the former, while the latter had been greeted in some quarters—including England, so far as could be judged from the public prints—with derision.
He would wait and see, improvising to meet what might arise. Meanwhile, the armies were getting into position at last for another major effort—and, incidentally, fulfilling the Tribune reporter’s prediction about “the poetry of war.” Down on the Rappahannock, for example, another of Greeley’s men overheard the following exchange between two pickets on opposite banks:
“What was the matter with your battery Tuesday night?”
“You made it too hot. Your shots drove the cannoneers away, and they haven’t stopped running yet. We infantry men had to come out and withdraw the guns.”
“You infantry men will run, too, one of these fine mornings.”
The Confederate picket let this pass, as if to say it might be so, and responded instead with a question:
“When are you coming over, bluecoat?”
“When we get ready, butternut.”
“What do you want?”
“Don’t you wish you may get it!”
As if in accordance with the respective limitations of their available resources—which of course applied to men as well as to the food they ate, the powder they burned, and the shoes and clothes and horses they wore out—while Lincoln was getting rid of experienced commanders, Davis was making use of those he had. Yet this difference in outlook and action was not merely the result of any established ratio between profligacy and frugality, affordable on the one hand and strictly necessary on the other; it was, rather, an outgrowth of the inherent difference in their natures. Lincoln, as he said, was more in need of success than he was in need of sympathy. And while this was also true of Davis, he placed such value on the latter quality—apparently for its own sake—that its demands for reciprocal loyalty, whatever shortcomings there might be in regard to the former, were for him too strong to be denied.
Braxton Bragg and R. E. Lee were cases in point. Ever since the western general began his retreat from Harrodsburg, Davis had been receiving complaints of dissension in the ranks of the Army of Kentucky, along with insistent demands that its commander be removed: in spite of which (if not, indeed, because of them; for such agitations often seemed to strengthen instead of weaken Davis’ will) the summons Bragg found waiting for him in Knoxville had not been sent with any notion of effecting his dismissal, but rather with the intention of giving him the chance to present in person his side of the reported controversy. When he got to Richmond, October 25, the President received him with a smile and a congratulatory handshake. On the face of it, both were certainly deserved: the first because it was not Davis’ way to dissolve a friendship or condemn any man on the basis of hearsay evidence, and the second because, of the three offensives designed to push Confederate arms beyond the acknowledged borders of secession, only Bragg’s had been even moderately successful. In fact, “moderately” was putting it all too mildly. Whatever else had been left undone, a campaign which relieved the pressure on Chattanooga and recovered for the Confederacy all of northwest Alabama, as well as eastern and south-central Tennessee, including Cumberland Gap—not to mention the fact that its two columns had inflicted just under 14,000 battle casualties while suffering just over 4000, and had returned with an enormous train of badly needed supplies and captured matériel, including more than thirty Union guns—could scarcely be called anything less than substantial in its results. What was more, Bragg had conceived and, in conjunction with Kirby Smith, executed the whole thing, not only without prodding from above, but also without the government’s advance permission or even knowledge. Initiative such as that was all too rare. Davis heard him out, and though he did not enjoy hearing his old friend and classmate Bishop Polk accused of bumbling and disloyalty, sustained him. Bragg was told to rejoin his army, which meanwhile was moving rapidly by rail, via Stevenson, Alabama, from Knoxville to Tullahoma and Murfreesboro, where it would threaten Nashville and block a Federal advance from that direction.
Polk was summoned to the capital as soon as Bragg had left it. Invited to present his side of the controversy, the bishop came armed with documents—messages from Bragg to him, messages from him to Bragg, and affidavits provided by fellow subordinates, similarly disaffected—which he believed would protect his reputation and destroy his adversary’s, or at any rate neutralize the poison lately poured into the presidential ear. “If you choose to rip up the Kentucky campaign you can tear Bragg into tatters,” Hardee told him. However, Davis urged him to put them away, appealing to his patriotism as well as his churchman’s capacity for forgiveness, and the bishop agreed to go back and do his Christian best along those lines. By way of compensation, the President handed him his promotion to lieutenant general, a new rank lately authorized by Congress at the same time it legalized the previously informal division of the armies into “wings” and corps. That was gratifying. Equally so was the news that his friend Hardee’s name appeared immediately below his own on the seven-man list of generals so honored.
Above them both—next to the very top, in fact—was Kirby Smith, who thus was rewarded for his independent accomplishments in Kentucky, even though he had written to the War Department soon after his return, complaining acidly of Bragg’s direction of the campaign during its later stages and requesting transfer to Mobile or elsewhere, anywhere, if staying where he was would require further coöperation with that general. Davis himself replied to this on October 29. He agreed that the campaign had been “a bitter disappointment” in some respects, but he also felt that events should not be judged by “knowledge acquired after they transpired.” Besides, having talked at length with Bragg that week, he could assure Smith that “he spoke of you in the most complimentary terms, and does not seem to imagine your dissatisfaction.” Davis admitted some other commanders might “excite more enthusiasm” than the dyspeptic North Carolinian, but he doubted that they would be “equally useful” to the country. In motion now for Middle Tennessee, Bragg would need reinforcements in order to parry the Federal counterthrust from Nashville. Where were they to be procured if not from Smith? He asked that, and then concluded: “When you wrote your wounds were fresh, your lame and exhausted troops were before you. I hope time may have mollified your pain and that future operations may restore the confidence essential to cheerfulness and security in campaign.”
That was enough for Smith, whose admiration for Davis was such that, if the President requested it, he would not only coöperate with Bragg, he would even serve under him if it was absolutely necessary. Grateful, Davis sent for him to come to Richmond in early November. Smith went and, like Polk, gave the President his personal assurance that his rancor had been laid by—as indeed it had. A week later he sent Bragg his strongest division, Stevenson’s, and neither Smith nor any member of his staff permitted himself a public word of criticism of the leader of the Kentucky campaign for the balance of the war. Returning to Knoxville by way of Lynchburg (where he had convalesced from his Manassas wound and married the young lady who had nursed him) he had an unexpected encounter during a change of trains. “I saw Gen. Bragg,” he wrote his wife; “everyone prognosticated a stormy meeting. I told him what I had written to Mr. Davis, but he spoke kindly to me & in the highest terms of praise and admiration of ‘my personal character and soldierly qualities.’ I was astonished but believe he is honest & means well.”
Breckinridge was already with Bragg: in fact, had preceded the army to its present location. Following the repulse at Baton Rouge, after wiring Hardee to “reserve the division for me,” he had reached Knoxville in early October with about 2500 men. Reinforced by an equal number of exchanged prisoners, he had been about to start northward in order to share in the “liberation” of his native Bluegrass, when he received word that Bragg was on the way back and wanted him to proceed instead to Murfreesboro, where he was to dispose his troops “for the defense of Middle Tennessee or an attack on Nashville.” He got there October 28, joining Forrest, who had been deviling the Federals by way of breaking in his newly recruited “critter companies.” Bragg’s 30,000 veterans arrived under Polk and Hardee ten days later, and when Stevenson’s 9000-man division marched in from Knoxville shortly afterward, the army totaled 44,000 infantry and artillery effectives, plus about 4000 organic cavalry under Wheeler. This was by no means as large a force as Rosecrans was assembling within the Nashville intrenchments, but Bragg did not despair of whipping him when he emerged. Returning from Richmond with assurances of the President’s confidence, he set about the familiar task of drilling his troops and stiffening the discipline which Buell had admired. Meanwhile, he turned Forrest and Morgan loose on Rosecrans, front and rear. “Harass him in every conceivable way in your power,” he told them. And they did, thus fulfilling the anticipation announced in general orders, November 20: “Much is expected by the army and its commander from the operations of these active and ever-successful leaders.”
Nor were the infantry neglected in their commander’s announcement of his hopes. Having posted Stevenson’s division in front of Manchester, Hardee’s corps at Shelbyville, and Polk’s at Murfreesboro—the latter now including Breckinridge, so that Polk had three and Hardee two divisions—Bragg announced in the same general order that the army had a new name: “The foregoing dispositions are in anticipation of the great struggle which must soon settle the question of supremacy in Middle Tennessee. The enemy in heavy force is before us, with a determination, no doubt, to redeem the fruitful country we have wrested from him. With the remembrance of Richmond, Munfordville, and Perryville so fresh in our minds, let us make a name for the now Army of Tennessee as enviable as those enjoyed by the armies of Kentucky and the Mississippi.”
Presumably this was the best that could be done in that direction: Davis had sustained the army commander and persuaded his irate subordinates to lay aside their personal and official differences in order to concentrate on the defense of the vital center in Tennessee. South and west of there, however, the problem was not one of persuading delicate gears to mesh, but rather one of filling the near vacuum created by the bloody repulse Van Dorn and Price had suffered in front of Corinth. Vicksburg was obviously about to become the target for a renewed endeavor by Federal combinations. What these would be, Davis did not know, but whatever they were, they posed a problem that would have to be met before they got there. He met it obliquely, so to speak, by turning initially to a second problem, seven hundred miles away, whose solution automatically provided him with a solution to the first.
This was the problem of Charleston, where the trouble was also an outgrowth of dissension. John Pemberton, in command there, had been a classmate of Bragg’s and had several of that general’s less fortunate characteristics, including an abruptness of manner which, taken in conjunction with his northern birth, had earned him a personal unpopularity rivaling the North Carolinian’s. Indeed, not being restricted to the army, it surpassed it. He was “wanting in polish,” according to one Confederate observer, “and was too positive and domineering … to suit the sensitive and polite people among whom he had been thrown.” As a result, he had not been long in incurring the displeasure of Governor Pickens and the enmity of the Rhetts, along with that of other Charlestonians of influence, who by now were clamoring for his removal. They wanted their first hero back: meaning Beauregard. It was a more or less familiar cry to Davis, for others were also calling for the Creole, still restoring his “shattered health” at Bladon Springs. In mid-September two Louisiana congressmen brought to the President’s office a petition signed by themselves and fifty-seven fellow members, requesting the general’s return to command of the army that had been taken from him. Davis read the document aloud, including the signatures, then sent for the official correspondence relating to Beauregard’s removal for being absent without leave. This too he read aloud, as proof of justice in his action on the case, and closed the interview by saying: “If the whole world were to ask me to restore General Beauregard to the command which I have already given to General Bragg, I would refuse it.”
In any case, he had decided by then to use him in the opposite direction: meaning Charleston. Orders had been drawn up in late August, appointing Beauregard to command the Department of South Carolina and Georgia, with headquarters in Charleston. Whether he would accept the back-area appointment, which amounted in effect to a demotion, was not known. Yet there should have been little doubt; for the choice, after all, lay between limited action and inaction. “Nil desperandum is my motto,” he had declared, chafing in idleness earlier that month, “and I feel confident that ere long the glorious sun of Southern liberty will appear more radiant than ever from the clouds which obscure its brilliant disk.” He wanted a share in scouring those clouds away. Receiving the orders in early September, he told a friend: “If the country is willing I should be put on the shelf thro’ interested motives, I will submit until our future reverses will compel the Govt to put me on duty. I scorn its motives and present action.” He wired acceptance, took the cars at Mobile on September n, and received a tumultuous welcome on the 15th when he returned to the city whose harbor had been the scene of his first glory.
This not only freed the embittered Charlestonians of Pemberton; it also freed Pemberton for the larger duty Davis had in mind for him, along with a promotion as seventh man on the seven-man list of new lieutenant generals. Slender and sharp-faced, the forty-eight-year-old Pennsylvanian had been pro-Southern all his adult life, choosing southern cadets as his West Point friends and later marrying a girl from Old Point Comfort. He was, indeed, an out-and-out States Righter, and it was generally known in army circles that in making his choice of sides in the present conflict, despite the fact that two of his brothers had joined a Philadelphia cavalry troop, he had declined a Federal colonelcy in order to accept a commission as a Confederate lieutenant colonel and assignment to Norfolk, where he had been charged with organizing Virginia’s cavalry and artillery. Efficiency at that assignment had won him a brigadier’s stars and transfer to Charleston, where his ability as an administrator—whatever his shortcomings when it came to social converse—had won him another promotion and eventually still another, along with another transfer, in connection with the larger duty Davis had in mind. This was for Pemberton to take charge of a department created October 1, consisting of the whole state of Mississippi and that part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River. Instructed to “consider the successful defense of those States”—one already invaded from the north, the other already invaded from the south—“as the first and chief object of your command,” he was told to proceed at once to his new post: which he did. Arriving October 14, he established department headquarters at Jackson, Mississippi.
There were, as usual, objections. Mainly these came from men over whose heads he had been advanced in his rush up the ladder of rank, including Van Dorn and Lovell, here in his own department, as well as others back in the theater he had come from; “officers who,” as one of them protested, “had already distinguished themselves and given unquestioned evidence of capacity, efficiency, and other soldierly qualities.” By this last, the disgruntled observer meant combat—for Pemberton had seen none since the Mexican War. Also, it was felt that he lacked the flexibility of mind necessary to independent command of a region under pressure from various directions. But the fact was, Davis had already taken this into consideration. Pemberton’s main job would be to keep a bulldog grip on Vicksburg and Port Hudson, denying free use of the Mississippi to the Federals and keeping the stretch of river between those two bastions open as a Confederate supply line connecting its opposite banks. Inflexibility in the performance of such a job—even tactical and strategic near-sightedness, of which the new commander was also accused by those who had known him in the East—might turn out to be a positive virtue when he was confronted, as surely he would be, by combinations which well might cause a more “flexible” man to fly to pieces. So Davis reasoned, at any rate, when he assigned the Northerner to defend his home state. And at least one Vicksburg editor agreed, declaring that Pemberton’s arrival at last demonstrated that the far-off Richmond government had not “failed to appreciate the vast importance of preserving this important region” and that Mississippians were no longer “to be put off and imposed upon with one-horse generals.”
Whatever their resentment of his rapid rise, his northern birth, his lack of exposure to gunfire, and his uncongenial manner, Pemberton’s by-passed fellow officers—even Van Dorn, whose ruffled feathers Davis smoothed by explaining that the appointment had been made, not to overslough him, but to unburden him of paperwork and other back-area concerns, in order to free him for the offensive action which he so much preferred—would doubtless have been less envious if they had been able to compare the magnitude of the new commander’s “first and chief object” with the means which he had inherited for effecting it. He had fewer than 50,000 troops of all arms in his entire department: 24,000 under Van Dorn and Price—disaffected Transmississippians for the most part, anxious to get back across the river for the close-up protection of their homes—and another 24,000 mainly comprising the permanent garrisons of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Even without knowledge of the three-pronged Federal build-up now in progress north and south of these two critical points (a combined force of more than 100,000 men, supported by the guns of two fleets) it was obvious that the difficulties of the assignment would be exceeded only by the clamor which would follow if he failed, whatever the odds.
Here too, however, Davis had done what he could and as he thought best. Having sustained Bragg, installed Pemberton, and incidentally disposed of Beauregard, he found it in a way a relief to give his attention to the army closest to the capital: for its troubles, although manifold, were at least of a different nature. Though Lee’s invasion had been less profitable than Bragg’s, and his repulse far bloodier, no one could accuse him of unwillingness to exploit any opening the enemy afforded, regardless of the numerical odds or the tactical risks of annihilation. As a result, such disaffection as arose was not directed against him, either by his army or by the public it protected, but against Congress, which bridled at passing certain measures Lee suggested for the recruitment of new men, the establishment of proper supply facilities for the benefit of the men he had—including the more than 10,000 who now were marching barefoot in the snow—and the authority to tighten discipline.
The President supported Lee in the controversy and wrote him of the scorn he felt for their opponents, who were reacting simultaneously to rumors that the enemy was about to advance on Richmond from Suffolk: “The feverish anxiety to invade the North has been relieved by the counter-irritant of apprehension for the safety of the capital in the absence of the army, so long criticised for a ‘want of dash,’ and the class who so vociferously urged a forward movement, in which they were not personally involved, would now be most pleased to welcome the return of that army. I hope their fears are as poor counselors as was their presumption.” He assured the Virginian, “I am alike happy in the confidence felt in your ability, and your superiority to outside clamor, when the uninformed assume to direct the movements of armies in the field.” Lee replied characteristically: “I wish I felt that I deserved the confidence you express in me. I am only conscious of an earnest desire to advance the interests of the country and of my inability to accomplish my wishes.”
Davis left the field work to Lee, while he himself took up the fight with Congress throughout its stormy second session, which extended from mid-August to mid-October. Two of the general’s recommendations resulted in much violent debate: 1) that a permanent court martial be appointed, with authority to inflict the death penalty in an attempt to reduce straggling and desertion, and 2) that the Conscription Act be extended to include all able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. The first of these suggestions was not only not acceptable to the law-makers, it led to vigorous inquiries as to whether such powers had not been overexercised already. But it was the second which provoked the greatest furor, especially after Davis gave it presidential support. Yancey was particularly vitriolic, shouting that if he had to have a dictator, he wanted it to be Lincoln, “not a Confederate.” Joe Brown of Georgia thought so, too, declaring that the people had “much more to apprehend from military despotism than from subjection by the enemy.” A Texas senator added point to the assertion, as here applied, by recalling that it had been conscription which “enabled [Napoleon] to put a diadem on his head.” Davis met these charges with a bitterness matching that of the men who made them; and in the end he won the fight. Conscription was extended, but not without the estrangement of former loyal friends whose loss he could ill afford. As always, he was willing to pay the price, though it was becoming increasingly steep in obedience to the law of diminishing utility.
At any rate the measure helped secure for Lee the men he badly needed, and while Davis engaged these wranglers in the army’s rear, the bluecoats to its front were obligingly idle, affording time for rest, recruitment, and reorganization of its shattered ranks. The need for these was obvious at a glance. Recrossing the Potomac, only fourteen of the forty brigades had been led by brigadiers, and many of them had dwindled until they were smaller than a standard regiment. Yet the return of stragglers and convalescents, along with the influx of conscripts, more than repaired the shortage in the course of the five-week respite the Federals allowed. By October 10, Lee’s strength had risen to 64,273 of all arms, and within another ten days—on which date McClellan reported 133,433 present for duty in the Army of the Potomac—he had 68,033, or better than half as many as his opponent. High spirits, too, were restored. Pride in their great defensive fight at Sharpsburg, when the odds had been even longer, and presently their jubilation over Stuart’s second “Ride Around McClellan,” solidified into a conviction that the Army of Northern Virginia was more than a match for whatever came against it, even if the Yankees continued to fight as well as they had fought in Maryland. Shortages of equipment there still were, especially of shoes and clothes, but these were accepted as rather the norm and relatively unimportant. A British army observer, visiting Lee at the time, expressed surprise at the condition of the trousers of the men in Hood’s division, the rents and tatters being especially apparent after the first files had passed in review. “Never mind the raggedness, Colonel,” Lee said quietly. “The enemy never sees the backs of my Texans.”
He spoke, the colonel observed, “as a man proud of his country and confident of ultimate success.” However, this was for the southern commander a time of personal sorrow. Soon after October 20 he heard from his wife of the death on that date of the second of his three daughters. She was twenty-three years old and had been named for his mother, born Ann Carter. He turned to some official correspondence, seeking thus to hide his grief, but presently an aide came into the tent and found him weeping. “I cannot express the anguish I feel at the death of my sweet Annie,” he wrote home.
Work was still the best remedy, he believed, and fortunately there was plenty to occupy him. The previously informal corps arrangement was made official in early November with the promotion of Longstreet and Jackson, respectively first and fifth on the list of lieutenant generals. By that time, moreover, the Federals had crossed the river which gave their army its name, and Lee had divided his own in order to cover their alternate routes of approach, shifting Old Pete down to Culpeper while Stonewall remained in the lower Valley, eager to pounce through one of the Blue Ridge gaps and onto the enemy flank. But this was not Pope; this was McClellan. He maneuvered skillfully, keeping the gaps well plugged as he advanced against the divided Confederates. Then suddenly, inexplicably, he stopped. For two days Lee was left wondering: until November 10, that is, when he learned that Little Mac had been relieved. The southern reaction was not unmixed. Some believed that the Federals would be demoralized by McClellan’s removal, while others found assurance in the conviction that his successor would be more likely to commit some blunder which would expose the blue host to destruction. Lee, however, expressed regret at the departure of a familiar and respected adversary. “We always understood each other so well,” he said wryly. “I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find someone whom I don’t understand.”
When Burnside shifted east in mid-November, Lee’s first plan was to occupy the line of the North Anna, twenty-five miles south of the Rappahannock. From there he would draw the bluecoats into the intervening wintry swamps and woodlands, then move forward and outflank them in order to slash at them from astride their line of retreat. If successful, this would have been to stage a Sedan eight years ahead of the historical schedule; Jackson, for one, was very much in favor of it. If on the other hand the Confederates contested the Rappahannock crossing, where the position afforded little depth for maneuver and was dominated by the north-bank heights, it was Stonewall’s opinion that they would “whip the enemy, but gain no fruits of victory.” However, Lee did not want to give up the previously unmolested territory and expose the vital railroad to destruction; so while Burnside balked at Falmouth, awaiting the delayed pontoons, the southern commander moved Longstreet onto the heights in rear of Fredericksburg. This suited Old Pete fine; for the position offered all the defensive advantages he most admired, if only “the damned Yankees” could be persuaded to “come to us.”
Apparently they were coming, here or somewhere near here, but they were taking their time about it. (“When are you coming over, bluecoat?” “When we get ready, butternut.”) For ten days Lee left the vigil to Longstreet, withholding Jackson for a flank attack if Burnside crossed upstream. Then, as the indications grew that a crossing would be attempted here, he sent for Stonewall, whose troops began to file into position alongside Longstreet’s on the first day of December. By that time the army had grown to 70,000 infantry and artillery, plus 7000 cavalry, and its spirit was higher than ever, despite the fact that one man in every six was barefoot. They now bore with patience, one officer remarked, “what they once would have regarded as beyond human endurance.” Even a four-inch snowfall on the night of December 5, followed by bitter cold weather, failed to lower their morale. Rather, they organized brigade-sized snowball battles, during which their colonels put them through the evolutions of the line, and thus kept in practice while waiting for the Yankees to cross the river flowing slate gray between its cake-icing banks.
Lee shared their hardships and their confidence. Sometimes, though, alone in his tent, he was oppressed by sorrow for the daughter who had died six weeks ago. “In the quiet hours of the night, when there is nothing to lighten the full weight of my grief,” he wrote home, “I feel as if I should be overwhelmed. I have always counted, if God should spare me a few days after this Civil War has ended, that I should have her with me, but year after year my hopes go out, and I must be resigned.” Mainly his consolation was his army. Though he told his wife, “I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, and that our only hope is in God,” his admiration for the men he led was almost without bounds. “I am glad you derive satisfaction from the operations of the army,” he replied to a congratulatory letter from his brother. “I acknowledge nothing can surpass the valor and endurance of our troops, yet while so much remains to be done, I feel as if nothing had been accomplished. But we must endure to the end, and if our people are true to themselves and our soldiers continue to discard all thoughts of self and to press nobly forward in defense alone of their country and their rights, I have no fear of the result. We may be annihilated, but we cannot be conquered. No sooner is one [Federal] army scattered than another rises up. This snatches from us the fruits of victory and covers the battlefield with our dead. Yet what have we to live for if not victorious?”
It was this spirit which made Lee’s army “terrible in battle,” and it was in this spirit that he and his men awaited Burnside’s crossing of the Rappahannock.
Off in the Transmississippi, the sixth of the new lieutenant generals, Theophilus Holmes, had established headquarters at Little Rock and from there was surveying a situation which was perhaps as confusing for him as the one near Malvern Hill, where he had cupped a deaf ear in the midst of a heavy bombardment and declared that he thought he “heard firing.” If he was similarly bewildered it was no wonder, considering the contrast between the geographical vastness of his command and the slimness of his resources. In addition to Texas and Missouri, the two largest states of the old Union, he was theoretically responsible for holding or reclaiming Arkansas, Indian Territory, West Louisiana, and New Mexico, in all of which combined he had fewer than 50,000 men, including guerillas. These last were sometimes as much trouble to him as they were to the enemy, especially as an administrative concern, and even the so-called “regulars” were generally well beyond his reach, being loosely connected with headquarters, if at all, by lines of supply and communication which could only be characterized as primitive, telegraph wire being quite as rare as railroad iron. By late October, after three months of pondering the odds, he had begun to consider not only the probability of total defeat, but also the line of conduct he and his men would follow in the wake of that disaster. In this he showed that, whatever his physical shortcomings and infirmities, his spirit was undamaged. “We hate you with a cordial hatred,” he told an Indiana colonel who came to Little Rock bearing messages under a flag of truce. “You may conquer us and parcel out our lands among your soldiers, but you must remember that one incident of history: to wit, that of all the Russians who settled in Poland not one died a natural death.”
Moreover, his three department commanders—John Magruder, Richard Taylor, and Thomas Hindman, respectively in charge of Texas, West Louisiana, and Arkansas—shared his resolution, but not his gloom. All three were working, even now, on plans for the recovery of all that had been lost. Prince John for example, as flamboyant in the Lone Star State as ever he had been in the Old Dominion, was improvising behind the scenes a two-boat cotton-clad navy with which he intended to steam down Buffalo Bayou and retake Galveston, the only Federal-held point in his department. Taylor’s ambition was longer-ranged—as well it had to be; New Orleans was occupied by something more than ten times as many soldiers and sailors as he had in his whole command—but he had hopes for the eventual recapture of the South’s first city, along with the lower reaches of the Father of Waters itself. Meanwhile, having recovered from the mysterious paralysis which had gripped his legs on the eve of the Seven Days, thus preventing any addition to the reputation he had won under Jackson in the Valley, he was working hard with what little he had in the way of men and guns, seeking first to establish dispersed strong-points with which to forestall a further penetration by the gunboats and the probing Union columns, after which he intended to swing over to the offensive and reclaim what had been lost to amphibious combinations heretofore considered too powerful to resist with any substantial hope of success.
Of the three, so far, it was Hindman who had accomplished most, however, and against the longest odds. Operating in a region which had been stripped of troops when Van Dorn crossed the Mississippi back in April, he yet had managed to raise and equip an army of 16,000 men, and with them he had already begun to launch an offensive against Schofield, who had about the same number for the protection of the Missouri border. By late August, Hindman was across it; or anyhow a third of his soldiers were, and he was preparing to join them with the rest. Skirting Helena, where 15,000 Federals were intrenched—they now were under Brigadier General Frederick Steele, Curtis having moved on to St Louis and command of the department, belatedly rewarded for his Pea Ridge victory—the Confederate advance occupied Newtonia, beyond Neosho and southwest of Springfield. All through September they stayed there, 2500 Missouri cavalry under Colonel J. O. Shelby and about 3000 Indians and guerillas, called in to assist in holding the place until Hindman arrived with the other two thirds of his hastily improvised army. Shelby was a graduate of the prewar Kansas border conflict, a stocky, heavily bearded man approaching his thirty-second birthday. Called “Jo” for his initials, just as Stuart was called “Jeb,” and wearing like him an ostrich plume attached to the upturned brim of a soft felt hat, he was a veteran of nearby Wilson’s Creek and of Elkhorn Tavern, forty miles to the south. With him out front, and the stone walls of the town to fight behind, the garrison was more than a match for a 4000-man column Schofield sent to retake Newtonia on the last day of September. The Confederates broke the point of the counterthrust and drove the bluecoats north. However, learning three days later (October 3: Van Dorn and Price were moving against Corinth) that the Federals had been reinforced to thrice their former strength, they fell back next day in the direction of the Boston Mountains, Shelby skillfully covering the retreat with a succession of slashing attacks and quick withdrawals.
Hindman was not discouraged by this turn of events. In fact, he saw in it certain advantages. Schofield should be easier to whip if he advanced into Arkansas, lengthening his lines of supply—and lengthening, too, the distance he would have to backtrack through the wintry woods in order to regain the comparative security of Missouri. Under such disadvantages, a simple repulse might be transformed into a disaster. At any rate, Hindman intended to do all he could to bring about that result. But as he prepared to move forward in early November, consolidating the segments of his army, he received news that was discouraging indeed. It came from Holmes, who had just received in Little Rock a dispatch from Richmond, dated October 27 and signed by the Secretary of War: “Coöperation between General Pemberton and yourself is indispensable to the preservation of our connection with your department. We regard this as an object of first importance, and when necessary you can cross the Mississippi with such part of your forces as you may select, and by virtue of your rank direct the combined operations on the eastern bank.”
This meant, in effect, that Hindman’s offensive would have to be abandoned. And when it was followed in mid-November by a specific request from the Adjutant General (“Vicksburg is threatened and requires to be reinforced. Can you send troops from your command—say 10,000—to operate either opposite to Vicksburg or to cross the river?”) Holmes perceived that it meant the abandonment, not only of his hopes for regaining Missouri, but also of his hopes for hanging onto Arkansas. “I could not get to Vicksburg in less than two weeks,” he protested. “There is nothing to subsist on between here and there, and [Steele’s] army at Helena would come to Little Rock before I reached Vicksburg.”
However, he need not have worried. He was not going anywhere. Nor was Hindman’s offensive to be interrupted: at any rate not by anyone in Richmond, and least of all by Thomas Jefferson’s grandson George Randolph. Presently it became fairly clear that the original dispatch sent by that official, though couched in the form of a military directive, was in effect an act of political suicide, whereby the Confederacy lost the third of its several Secretaries of War.
Joe Johnston was one of the first to get inside news of the impending disruption in the President’s official family, and what was more he got it at first hand. His Seven Pines wound had proved troublous, resulting in what the doctors called “an obstinate adhesion of the lungs to the side, and a constant tendency to pleurisy,” for which the prescribed treatments were “bleedings, blisterings, and depletions of the system.” All three were stringently applied: in spite of which, having sufficiently recovered by early November to begin taking horseback exercise—“My other occupation,” he told a friend, “is blistering myself, to which habit hasn’t yet reconciled me”—the general called at the War Department on the 12th of that month to report himself fit for duty. Closeted with the Secretary, he learned that the government intended to send him West, where his assignment would be to coördinate the efforts of Bragg and Pemberton for the defense of Tennessee and Mississippi. Perceiving that each was not only too weak to reinforce the other, but also most likely too weak to handle what was coming at him—particularly the latter, since the Federals were certain to make Vicksburg their prime objective in the offensive they were clearly about to launch—Johnston at once suggested that the best solution would be to bring additional troops from the Transmississippi to assist in the east-bank defense of the big river.
Randolph replied that he had reached the same decision, more than two weeks ago, and read to his fellow Virginian the dispatch he had sent Holmes. When he had finished, he smiled rather strangely and took up another document, which he also read aloud. It was dated today and signed by Jefferson Davis: “I regret to notice that in your letter to General Holmes of October 27, a copy of which is before me, you suggest the propriety of his crossing the Mississippi and assuming command on the east side of the river. His presence on the west side is not less necessary now than heretofore, and will probably soon be more so. The coöperation designed by me was in co-intelligent action on both sides of the river of such detachment of troops as circumstances might require and warrant. The withdrawal of the commander from the Trans-Mississippi Department for temporary duty elsewhere would have a disastrous effect, and was not contemplated by me.”
Johnston recognized the tone, having received such directives himself. He knew, too, what response this son of Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter was likely to make to such a letter. The question was, what had made him so deliberately provoke it? Yet Johnston knew the answer here as well. Eight months of service as “the clerk of Mr Davis,” sometimes learning of vital military decisions only after they had been made and acted on, had brought home to Randolph the truth of one observer’s remark “that the real war lord of the South resided in the executive mansion.” The message to Holmes, sent without previous consultation with the Commander in Chief, was in the nature of a gesture of self-assertion, desperate but necessary to the preservation of his self-respect. And now he accepted the consequences. Two days later, having added an indorsement to the offending document sent by Davis—“Inclose a copy of this letter to General Holmes, and inform the President that it has been done, and that [Holmes] has been directed to consider it as part of his instructions”—he submitted his formal resignation.
This had been neither intended nor expected by Davis, who up to now had been highly pleased with Randolph as a member of his cabinet. Except for two particulars, he had not even disapproved of the Secretary’s decision to bring troops across the river to assist in the defense of Vicksburg. In fact, he himself ordered this done that same week, when he had the Adjutant General send Holmes the request for 10,000 men to be used for this very purpose. What he objected to, most strenuously, were the two particulars: 1) that Holmes himself was advised to cross, which would leave his department headless, and 2) that the thing had been done behind his back, without his knowledge. It was this last which disturbed him most. As Commander in Chief he saw himself as chief engineer of the whole vast machine; if adjustments were made without his knowledge, a wreck was almost certain. In this case, however, receiving the tart letter of resignation, he sought to prevent a break by suggesting a personal interview at which he and the Virginian could discuss their differences. Randolph declined, and Davis would bend no further. “As you thus without notice and in terms excluding inquiry retired,” he replied, “nothing remains but to give you this formal notice of the acceptance of your resignation.”
G. W. Smith, recovered from the collapse he had suffered when Johnston’s fall left him in charge of the confused and confusing field of Seven Pines, had been serving as commander of the Richmond defenses ever since Lee and his army departed to deal with Pope, back in August. Now Davis found a further use for the former New York Street Commissioner by assigning him to serve as head of the War Department during the three-day interim, which he himself spent in search of a permanent—if the word could be used properly in reference to a position which, so far, had been so impermanent—replacement for Randolph, who retired at once to private life and subsequently “refugeed” in Europe with his family.
Once more the Old Dominion had been left without a representative among the President’s chief advisers, and once more Davis solved the problem, this time by appointing James A. Seddon to be Secretary of War. A Richmond lawyer who had served two terms as U.S. Congressman from the district, a former occupant of the present Confederate White House, and a descendant of James River grandees, Seddon ranked about as high in the complicated Virginia caste system as even Randolph did, with the result that his selection was a source of considerable satisfaction to those who had become accustomed to looking down their noses at what they called “the middle-class atmosphere” of official Richmond. Moreover, he had a reputation as a scholar and a philosopher, though what service this would be to him in his new position was unknown; he had had no previous military experience whatever. Nor was his appearance reassuring. “Gaunt and emaciated,” one observer called him, “with long straggling hair, mingled gray and black.” He was forty-seven, but looked much older, perhaps because of chronic neuralgia, which racked him nearly as badly as it racked Davis. He looked, in fact, according to the same diarist, “like a dead man galvanized into muscular animation. His eyes are sunken and his features have the hue of a man who has been in his grave a full month.”
At any rate, whatever his lack of the kind of training which would have cautioned him to guard his flanks and rear, it soon became apparent that he did not intend to expose himself to attack from above, as his predecessor had done. Johnston went to him on November 22, the new Secretary’s first full day in office, and renewed his suggestion that troops be ordered east from the Transmississippi. Seddon listened sympathetically. But when Johnston received his orders two days later, assigning him to the region lying between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Mississippi River, he was surprised to find that they contained no reference to troops not already within those limits. “The suggestion was not adopted or noticed,” he afterwards recorded dryly.
Davis had a higher opinion of Johnston’s abilities at this stage than the Virginian probably suspected. “I wish he were able to take the field,” the President had told Mrs Davis during the general’s convalescence. “Despite the critics, who know military affairs by instinct, he is a good soldier, never brags of what he did do, and could at this time render most valuable service.” In no way, indeed, could the Commander in Chief have demonstrated this confidence more fully than by assigning him, as soon as he was fairly up and about, to what was called “plenary command” of the heartland of the Confederacy, an area embracing all of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, together with parts of North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia, including the main regional supply base at Atlanta. Moreover, he placed on him no restrictions within that geographical expanse, either as to his movements or the location of his headquarters, which he was instructed to establish “at Chattanooga, or such other place as in his judgment will best secure facilities for ready communication with the troops within the limits of his command, and will repair in person to any part of said command wherever his presence may, for the time, be necessary or desirable.”
These instructions embodied a new concept of the function of departmental command, which in turn had been prompted by the example of R. E. Lee in his conduct of the defense of his native state. Lee’s achievements here in Virginia, before as well as after he had been given field command, were in a large part the result of a successful coördination of the efforts of separate forces, either through simultaneous actions at divergent points—as when Jackson took the offensive in the Valley, threatening Washington to play on Lincoln’s fears, while Johnston delayed McClellan’s advance up the Peninsula—or through rapid concentration against a common point, as when all available forces were brought together for the attack which opened the Seven Days and accomplished the deliverance of Richmond. Subsequent repetition of this strategy, with a similar coördination of effort, had brought about the “suppression” of Pope and opened the way for invasion of the North, removing the war to that extent beyond the Confederate border. Now it was Davis’ hope that such methods, which had won for southern arms the admiration of the world and for Lee a place among history’s great captains, would result in similar achievements in the West and give to the commander there a seat alongside Lee in Valhalla.
Choice of Johnston for the post was prompted by more than the fact that he was entitled to it by rank. Not only did Davis consider him a “good soldier” who could “render most valuable service,” but the Virginian had also been asked for already by two of the three generals who would be his chief subordinates. During their recent visits to the capital, Bragg and Kirby Smith had both expressed an eagerness to have him over them, and doubtless Pemberton would be equally delighted to have the benefit of his advice, along with whatever reinforcements would become available in times of crisis as a result of the shuttle service the new theater commander was expected to establish between his several departments. How well he would do—whether he was potentially another Lee, and whether Bragg and Pemberton would serve him as well as Longstreet and Jackson had served the eastern commander—remained to be seen. So far, however, the resemblance had been anything but striking. His first reaction, expressed in a letter sent to the Adjutant General on the day he received the appointment, was a protest that his forces were “greatly inferior in number to those of the enemy opposed to them, while in the Trans-Mississippi Department our army is very much larger than that of the United States.” He also complained of the presence of the Tennessee River, “a formidable obstacle” which divided his two main armies, and found it highly irregular that his department commanders—by an arrangement which Davis had designed “to avoid delay”—would be in direct correspondence with the War Department. This combination of drawbacks and irregularities, discerned by him before he even left Richmond, had already led him to suspect what he later stated flatly: “that my command was a nominal one merely, and useless.”
Depressed by these several misgivings, he began at once to make arrangements for his journey west, and five days later he was off, accompanied by his wife and a new staff. In the interim, however, he found time to attend a farewell breakfast given in his honor and also in the hope that it would effect a reconciliation between two of his political friends, Senators Foote and Yancey, who had quarreled despite the common bond of their detestation of Davis. Under the healing influence of their admiration for Johnston, along with that of a bountiful meal accompanied by champagne, the two statesmen forgot their differences. Presently Yancey called for fresh glasses and proposed a toast. “Gentlemen, let us drink to the only man who can save the Confederacy. General Joseph E. Johnston!” All applauded, drank their wine, and took their seats: whereupon the guest of honor rose, glass in hand, and responded. “Mr Yancey,” he said firmly, “the man you describe is now in the field—in the person of General Robert E. Lee. I will drink to his health.” Not to be outdone, the silver-tongued Yancey rose and countered: “I can only reply to you, sir, as the Speaker of the House of Burgesses did to General Washington: ‘Your modesty is only equaled by your valor.’ ” Again the celebrants applauded and drank the balding general’s health. But he remained taciturn and preoccupied, as if his mind was already engaged by the frets he knew awaited him in the West.
In the course of the five-day trip to Chattanooga, delayed by no less than three railroad accidents, Johnston was much wearied, despite the ministrations of his wife and the cheers from station platforms along the way. Early on the morning of December 4 he got there. After resting briefly, he issued an order formally accepting his new responsibilities, although his gloom was unrelieved. “Nobody ever assumed a command under more unfavorable circumstances,” he wrote to a friend in Richmond that same day.
Johnston’s gloom, though it was not shared by the people in general, East or West—nor, for that matter, by those who cheered him from station platforms as he traveled from one to the other—was nonetheless reflected in the value of their dollar. After holding at 1.5 through August, it fell in October to 2, in November to 2.9, and by December it had dropped to 3. Statistics were dreary at best, however, except perhaps for those who dealt in money as a commodity. It was in terms of what the stuff would buy, shoved coin by coin across a counter or laid down bill by badly printed bill, that the meaning of such quotations really struck home. Now with winter hard upon the upper South, coal was $9 a handcartload and wood $16 a cord. Bacon was 75¢ a pound, sugar five cents higher. Butter was $1.25 and coffee twice that. To the despair of Richmond housewives, laundry soap was 75¢ a cake, flour $16 a barrel, and potatoes $6 a bushel.
For those of an analytical turn of mind, accustomed to looking behind effects for causes, it was more or less clear that the cause behind this particular close-to-home effect was the failure of the Confederacy’s one concerted effort at invasion, East and West. Yet even here their reaction contained a good deal more of pride than of regret. “It was to be expected,” Davis had told them, back at the outset, “… that [this war] would expose our people to sacrifices and cost them much, both of money and blood.… It was, perhaps, in the ordination of Providence that we were to be taught the value of our liberties by the price we pay for them.” In the light of this, Bragg’s thousand-mile hegira through Kentucky and Lee’s bloody defense of the Sharpsburg ridge became for their countrymen, not occasions for despair, but instances for the promotion of the growth of national pride and the evocation of applause from those who watched from afar. “Whatever may be the fate of the new nationality,” the London Times was saying, “in its subsequent claims to the respect of mankind it will assuredly begin its career with a reputation for genius and valour which the most famous nations might envy.”
Such public praise was welcome, as were certain private remarks from that same quarter. Thomas Carlyle, for example—though he pleased neither side with a reference to the American war as the burning out of a dirty chimney, a conflagration which could be regarded only with satisfaction by neighbors too long plagued by soot—amused and gladdened Southerners by subsequently professing his impatience with people who were “cutting each other’s throats, because one half of them prefer hiring their servants for life, and the other by the hour.” Most gratifying of all, however, were the observations colorfully expressed in the course of a banquet speech made at Newcastle, October 7, by Chancellor of the Exchequer William E. Gladstone. Professing the kindliest feeling toward the people of the North—“They are our kin. They were … our customers, and we hope they will be our customers again”—he denied that the British government had “any interest in the disruption of the Union.” But he also declared, with particular emphasis: “There is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army. They are making, it appears, a navy. And they have made what is more than either; they have made a nation.” This was greeted with applause and cheers. “Hear, hear!” the diners cried. When they subsided, Gladstone added: “We may anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern States so far as regards their separation from the North.”
Coming as it did from the third-ranking member of the Cabinet, the statement was assumed to reflect the views of the Government: which it did, except that Palmerston and Russell considered it precipitate and unpropitious: which it was, the Prime Minister having recently advised the Foreign Secretary that he thought it best to “wait awhile and see what may follow” Lee’s retreat from Maryland. What had followed was the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and though this document was greeted with sneers on the one hand and confusion on the other, it too provided an occasion for more waiting. Gladstone’s outburst caused an immediate drop in the price of cotton, which apparently would soon be plentiful as a result of the lifting of the blockade, as well as an increase of activity by Members of Parliament sympathetic to the North. On October 22, two weeks after the Newcastle speech, Palmerston wrote Russell: “We must continue to be mere lookers-on till the war shall have taken a more decided turn.”
On that same day, the French Emperor granted Slidell an audience at St Cloud during which he let the Confederate minister understand that he considered the time ripe for joint mediation by France, England, and Russia. “My own preference is for a proposition of an armistice of six months,” he said. “This would put a stop to the effusion of blood, and hostilities would probably never be resumed. We can urge it on the high grounds of humanity and the interest of the whole civilized world. If it be refused by the North, it will afford good reason for recognition, and perhaps for more active intervention.” Eight days later, as good as his word—and with his eye still fixed on the promised hundred thousand bales of cotton—he addressed, through his Minister of Foreign Affairs, a dispatch to his ambassadors at St Petersburg and London, proposing that the three governments “exert their influence at Washington, as well as with the Confederates, to obtain an armistice.” Russia’s answer was emphatic: “In our opinion, what ought specially to be avoided [is] the appearance of any pressure whatsoever of a nature to wound public opinion in the United States and to excite susceptibilities very easily aroused at the bare idea of foreign intervention.” England’s was scarcely less so, Russell declining for the reason “that there is no ground at the present moment to hope that the Federal government would accept the proposal suggested, and a refusal from Washington at the present time would prevent any speedy renewal of the offer.”
Napoleon, then, was as far as ever from those hundred thousand bales, and so was the Confederacy from recognition by the powers of Europe. England was to blame; for France could act without Russia, but not without England; England swung the balance. And yet, admittedly, Southerners already had much to be thankful for, if not from the British government, then at least from British individuals: particularly the owners of and workers in shipyards up the Mersey. Gladstone’s remark that the Confederates “are making, it appears, a navy” was based on solid ground—ground which, indeed, was of his own countrymen’s making. In late July, a powerful new screw steamer known mysteriously as the 290 had steamed down from Liverpool, supposedly on a trial run, but headed instead for the open sea and a rendezvous off the Azores, where she took on provisions, coal, and guns, struck her English colors in favor of the Stars and Bars, swore in a crew, and exchanged her numerical designation for a name: the Alabama. She was the second to follow this course. Four months before, another such vessel, called the Oreto, had accomplished this same metamorphosis from merchantman to raider, and already she was at work as the Confederate cruiser Florida, her mission being the high-seas destruction of Federal commerce. Commanded by Captain J. N. Maffit, she was to take thirty-four prizes before her career ended two years later; but it was the Alabama which did most in this direction, provoking a rise of more than 900 percent in U.S. marine insurance and the transfer of over seven hundred Union merchant ships to British registry. Also, she gave the South another hero in the person of her skipper, Captain Raphael Semmes, a fifty-three-year-old Maryland-born Alabamian, known to his crew—mostly foreigners off the docks of Liverpool, whom he referred to as “a precious set of rascals”—as “Old Beeswax” because of the care he gave his long black needle-sharp mustachios.
He had had considerable experience at this kind of work as captain of the Sumter, the first of the rebel raiders. A commander in the old navy, ensconced in comfort as head of the Lighthouse Board in Washington, he had gone south in February of the year before and offered his services to the new government in Montgomery. Secretary Mallory sent him back north on a purchasing expedition, and when he returned informed him that the Confederacy had acquired a small propeller steamer of 500 tons. She was tied up to a New Orleans wharf, he added, awaiting a chance to slip past the Federal blockaders in order to undertake disruption of the sea lanes. “Mr Secretary, give me that ship,” Semmes said. “I think I can make her answer the purpose.” Mallory gave him what he asked for, along with general instructions: “On reaching the high seas you are to do the enemy’s commerce the greatest injury in the shortest time. Choose your own cruising grounds. Burn, sink, and destroy, and be guided always by the laws of the nations and of humanity.” That was in mid-April; Semmes made his escape from the mouth of the Mississippi on the last day of June, and took his first prize four days later. In the course of the next seven months he took seventeen more barks, brigantines, and schooners, which he captured, burned, or ransomed in the Gulf and the Atlantic. Bottled up in Gibraltar from January to April, he sold the Sumter, discharged her crew, and took passage for Southampton. Late in May he left for Nassau, intending to board a blockade runner there and get back home. If the navy had another ship for him, he would take it; if not, he planned to transfer to the army. What awaited him at Nassau, however, were instructions for him to return to England and assume secret command of the 290-Alabama.
He took over, officially, off the island of Terceira on August 24, when the cruiser was formally commissioned. Having named the Florida for his native state, Mallory had named this second English-built warship for the state in which the Confederacy itself was born. Bark-rigged, with handsome, rakish lines, she was 235 feet in length, 32 feet in the beam, and displaced a thousand tons. Her armament was eight guns, three 32-pounders on each broadside and two pivot guns on the center line, one a 7-inch rifle and the other an 8-inch smoothbore. Two 300-horsepower engines gave her a speed of ten knots on steam alone, but with the help of her sails and a friendly wind she could make nearly fifteen, which approached top speed for sea-going ships of the time. When traveling under sail alone—as she often would, to conserve fuel; the 275 tons of coal in her bunkers were barely enough for eighteen days of steaming at moderate speed—her two-bladed screw could be triced up into a propeller well, clear of the water, and thus afford no drag. To her crew of 24 gray-clad officers and 120 men, she was a beautiful thing on her commissioning day. Her brass was bright; her decks were clean and fragrant; her taunt-hauled rigging gleamed with newness. To Semmes himself she seemed “a bride with the orange wreath about her brows, ready to be led to the altar.”
Led instead on her shakedown cruise, she took her first prize twelve days later, the whaling schooner Ocmulgee of Edgartown, Massachusetts, caught with her sails furled, a dead whale moored alongside, and her crew busy stripping blubber. Brimming with sperm oil, she was valued at $50,000 and made a spectacular conflagration. Semmes took her crew aboard the Alabama, released them next day within sight of land, their whaleboats loaded to the gunnels with all they had managed to salvage before their ship was burned, and continued his search for other prizes. Before September was over he had taken ten. In October he took eleven. By early December he had raised the total to twenty-six, removing from each its chronometer, which he added to the others in his collection, including the eighteen transferred from the Sumter, and wound them regularly by way of counting tally.
By now his fame, or infamy, was established. To Northerners, despite the invariable courtesy and consideration he showed his temporary captives, he was a bloodthirsty pirate, an “Algerine corsair.” To his crew, often vexed that he allowed no individual pillage, he seemed no such thing. In time, despite the strangeness of his manner, including the fact that he seldom spoke to anyone, and the tightness of his discipline—“Democracies may do very well for the land,” he once explained, “but monarchies, and pretty absolute monarchies at that, are the only successful governments for the sea”—the officers and men of the Alabama paid him not only his due of absolute obedience, but also the homage of genuine affection. It was not a question of patriotism. Few of the officers and none of the men were even Americans, let alone Southerners; they were mostly English, Welsh, and Irish, with a scattering of French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian sailors among them. Their allegiance was to him and the Alabama. They liked to watch his gray eyes glint blue when he sighted a prize off on the bulge of the horizon, and they approved of his Catholic devoutness, knowing that he began and ended each day on his knees before the little shrine in his cabin.
Blurred by distance, to his countrymen he was something less—and also something more. He was, in fact, a member of that growing band of heroes who, as the Alabama began her career with the burning of the Ocmulgee, seemed about to make good the impossible claims and threats with which the fire-eaters had prefaced the reality of war. Lee was crossing the Potomac, Bragg was on the march for Kentucky, and Kirby Smith was in Lexington; Semmes was therefore proof that the South could take the offensive at sea as well as on land. Moreover, though those others had been turned back, he kept on, taking prizes which he burned or sank or, if it was impractical to remove their crews and passengers to safety, released on “ransom bond.” This last, sometimes resorted to when the cruiser was crowded to capacity with captives, was an agreement between Semmes and the master of the vessel, whereby the latter pledged the owner to pay a stipulated amount “unto the President of the Confederate States of America … within thirty days after the conclusion of the present war.” It was, in effect, a bet that the South would win, and as such it did much to increase the pride of Southerners in their lawyer-raider, who thus expressed before the eyes of the world their confidence in the outcome of their struggle for independence.
Another cause for pride in southern arms derived from an older source: in fact, from the oldest source of all. Though Lee and Bragg and Kirby Smith had returned from their expeditions, disappointing the hopes that had gone with them, Beauregard—the original hero, back on the scene of his original triumph—had not been long in justifying the cheers with which Charlestonians had greeted his return. October 22, five weeks after his arrival, a Federal attempt to cut the Charleston & Savannah Railroad at Pocotaligo, midway between those two coastal cities, was foiled when 4500 bluecoats under Ormsby Mitchel—within eight days of sudden death from yellow fever—were thrown back to their landing boats by half as many rebels. Casualties were 340 and 163, respectively. “Railroad uninjured,” Beauregard wired Richmond. “Abolitionists left dead and wounded on the field. Our cavalry in hot pursuit.” Old Bory was himself again.
Slight though they were—by comparison, that is, with the resounding double failure, East and West, of the Confederacy’s first concerted attempt at all-out invasion—these late fall and early winter successes, afloat and ashore, did much to sustain or restore the confidence of the southern people. Besides, they could tell themselves, the strategic offensive was for extra: a device to be employed from time to time, not so much with the intention of keeping the graybacks north of the Potomac or the Cumberland, but rather of establishing an interlude for harvesting the crops in forward areas and thereby gaining a breathing spell in which the natives could enjoy at least a temporary freedom from the oppressive presence of the bluecoats. It was the strategic defensive that counted; it was this they had been pledged to by their President when he told the world, “All we ask is to be let alone.” And in this—considering the odds—they had been singularly successful: especially in the East, where three full-scale attempts at invasion had been smashed and a fourth halted dead in its tracks when its commander was retired for the second time. In the West, too, there was occasion for rejoicing and self-congratulation. After a long season of reverses, a series of collapses under inexorable pressure, the front of the principal sector had been advanced a hundred and fifty miles, from North Mississippi to Middle Tennessee; on the Mississippi itself, the upper and lower Union fleets, conjoined triumphantly above Vicksburg, had been sundered and sent their separate ways by a single homemade ironclad; while across the river, in Arkansas, an army created seemingly out of thin air was on the march for Missouri.
All this was much, enough indeed to satisfy the hungriest of seekers after glory, and the thought of such accomplishments went far toward offsetting the pain of earlier reverses. However, to ease the ache was not to cure the ailment; the effect of the worst of the early reverses still remained. Norfolk was lost, and with it the one hope for the home construction of a Confederate deep-sea navy. So—continuing clockwise, down and around the coast—were the North Carolina sounds, Port Royal and Fort Pulaski, Brunswick and Fernandina, Jacksonville and St Augustine, Apalachicola and Pensacola, Biloxi and Pass Christian, Ship Island and Galveston. All these were tangent hits, mainly painful to southern pride (and to southern pocketbooks, augmenting as they did the effectiveness of the Federal blockade) but there were others that hurt worse, being vital. Nashville was gone, and so were New Orleans and Memphis. At the time of their loss, people had told themselves that these cities would be recovered, along with the outlying points around the littoral, once the pressure in front had been relieved. Apparently, though, that had been mere whistling in the dark. Four times now the pressure had eased up: after First Manassas, Wilson’s Creek, the evacuation of Corinth, and Second Manassas: yet in all four instances the southern commanders who tried to take advantage of the respite gained were either repulsed when they moved forward or else they fell back eventually of their own accord. In fact, of the four advances which had followed these events—Johnston’s into northern Virginia, Price’s into northern Missouri, Bragg’s into Kentucky, and Lee’s into Maryland—all but Bragg’s had wound up south of the point from which they had been launched. It was small wonder then, at this stage, that Southerners discounted the advantages of the offensive, considering how little had been gained from three of these four attempts and how much had been lost by two others, Shiloh and Baton Rouge, even though both were generally referred to as tactical victories and were prime sources of the glory, which, so far, had been the South’s chief gain from twenty months of war.
Yet glory was a flimsy diet at best, containing far more of what Southerners called “suption” than of substance. No one realized this better than Davis, who had had an overplus of glory down the years and who, familiar with it as he was, knew how little real sustenance it afforded. Moreover, as a professional soldier, in touch with every department of the army he commanded, he not only recognized the odds his country faced in its struggle for independence; he saw that they were lengthening with every passing month as the North’s tremendous potential was converted into actuality. In that sense, not only was time against him; even success was against him, for each northern reverse brought on a quickening of the tempo of conversion. And yet, paradoxically, it was time for which he was fighting. Time alone could bring into being, in the North, the discouragement—the sheer boredom, even—which was the South’s chief hope for victory if foreign intervention failed to materialize, as now seemed likely.
Meanwhile, there were the odds to face, and Davis faced them. He did not know what future combinations were being designed for the Confederacy’s destruction, but he knew they would be heavy when they came. Here in the East, Lee could be trusted to cope with whatever forces the Union high command might conceive to be his match. Likewise in the Transmississippi, though the outlook was far from bright, Hindman’s improvisations, Magruder’s theatrical ingenuity, and Taylor’s hard-working common sense gave promise of achieving at least a balance. It was in the West—that region between the Blue Ridge and the Mississippi, where Federal troops had scored their most substantial gains—that the Commander in Chief perceived the gravest danger. Whether Johnston would prove himself another Lee, coördinating the efforts of his separate armies in order to frustrate those of his opponents, remained to be seen. So far, though, the signs had not been promising. A gloom had descended on the gamecock general, who seemed more intent on acquiring troops from outside his department than on setting up a system for the mutual support of those within it. Also, there were continuing rumors of dissension in Bragg’s army. All this seemed to indicate a need for intervention, or at any rate a personal inspection, by the man who had designed the new command arrangement in the first place. Davis had not been more than a day’s trip from Richmond since his arrival in late May of the year before, but now in early December he packed his bags for the long ride to Chattanooga and Vicksburg. Thus he would not only see at first hand the nature of the problems in the region which was his home; he would also provide an answer to those critics who complained that the authorities in the capital had no concern for what went on outside the eastern theater.
One drawback this had, and for Davis it was of the kind that could never be taken lightly. The trip would mean another separation from the family he had missed so much while they were in North Carolina for the summer. “I go into the nursery as a bird may go to the robbed nest,” he had written his wife in June, and he added: “My ease, my health, my property, my life I can give to the cause of my country. The heroism which could lay my wife and children on any sacrificial altar is not mine.” For all the busyness and anxiety of those days and nights when McClellan’s campfires rimmed the east, the White House had seemed to him an empty thing without the laughter of his sons and the companionship of the woman who was his only confidante. “I have no attraction to draw me from my office now,” he wrote, “and home is no longer a locality.”
In September they returned, to his great joy. Mrs Davis found him thinner, the failing eye gone blinder and the lines grooved deeper in his face. “I have no political wish beyond the success of our cause,” he had written her, “no personal desire but to be relieved from further connection with office. Opposition in any form can only disturb me inasmuch as it may endanger the public welfare.” But the critics were in full bay again as the fall wore on, including his own Vice President, and it was clear to his wife that he was indeed disturbed. At the outset, back in Montgomery, he had spoken of “a people united in heart, where one purpose of high resolve animates and actuates the whole.” Lately this evaluation had been considerably modified. “Revolutions develop the high qualities of the good and the great,” he wrote, “but they cannot change the nature of the vicious and the selfish.” He had this to live with now, this change of outlook, this reassessment of his fellow man: with the result that he was more troubled by neuralgia than ever, and more in need of his wife’s ministrations. Present dangers, front and rear, had given even pretended dangers an increased reality and had added to his sympathy for all sufferers everywhere, including those in the world of light fiction. One day, for example, when he was confined to bed with a cloth over his eyes and forehead, she tried to relieve the monotony by reading to him from a current melodramatic novel. He was so quiet she thought he was asleep, but she did not stop for fear of waking him. As she approached the climax of the story, wherein the bad man had the heroine in his power and was advancing on her for some evil purpose, Mrs Davis heard a voice exclaim: “The infernal villain!” and looking around saw her husband sitting bolt upright in bed, with both fists clenched.
Whether this was the result of too much imagination, or too little, was a question which would linger down the years. But some there were, already, who believed that nothing except short-sightedness could hide the eventual outcome of the long-odds struggle from anyone willing to examine the facts disclosed in the course of this opening half of the second year of conflict. Senator Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia, Stephen Douglas’s running-mate in the 1860 election and now a prominent member of the Confederate Congress, replied to a question from a friend in late October: “You ask me if I have confidence in the success of the Southern Confederacy? I pray for success but I do not expect success.… The enemy in due time will penetrate the heart of the Confederacy … & the hearts of our people will quake & their spirits will yield to the force of overpowering numbers.” He saw the outcome clearly, and he found it unavoidable. “The enemy is superior to us in everything but courage, & therefore it is quite certain, if the war is to go on until exhaustion overtake the one side or the other side, that we shall be the first to be exhausted.”
Whether or not this would be the case—whether the South, fighting for such anachronisms as slavery and self-government, could sustain the conflict past the breaking point of northern determination—Davis did not know. Much of what his dead friend Albert Sidney Johnston had called “the fair, broad, abounding land” had already fallen to the invaders. How much more would fall, or whether the rising blue tide could be stemmed, was dependent on the gray-clad men in the southern ranks and the spirit with which they followed their star-crossed battle flags. Just now that spirit was at its height. “We may be annihilated,” the first soldier of them all had said, “but we cannot be conquered.” Davis thought so, too, though he offered no easy solutions in support of his belief. Now in December, as he prepared to leave on his journey to the troubled western theater, he could only repeat what he had told his wife in May: “I cultivate hope and patience, and trust to the blunders of our enemy and the gallantry of our troops for ultimate success.”
“Our cause, we love to think, is specially God’s,” the Connecticut theologian Horace Bushnell told his Hartford congregation. “Every drum-beat is a hymn; the cannon thunder God; the electric silence, darting victory along the wires, is the inaudible greeting of God’s favoring word.” His belief that the evil was all on the other side was based on a conviction that war had come because willful men beyond the Potomac had laid rude hands on the tabernacle of the law. “Law … is grounded in right, [and] right is a moral idea, at whose summit stands God, as the everlasting vindicator.” Thus the logic came full circle: “We associate God and religion with all we are fighting for, and we are not satisfied with any mere human atheistic way of speaking as to means, or measures, or battles, or victories, or the great deeds to win them.”
The assertion that this was a holy war—in fact, a crusade—was by no means restricted to those who made it from a pulpit. “Vindicating the majesty of an insulted Government, by extirpating all rebels, and fumigating their nests with the brimstone of unmitigated Hell, I conceive to be the holy purpose of our further efforts,” a Massachusetts colonel wrote home to his governor from Beaufort, South Carolina, and being within fifty airline miles of the very birthplace of rebellion, he added: “I hope I shall … do something … in ‘The Great Fumigation,’ before the sulphur gives out.” Just what it was that he proposed to do, with regard to those he called “our Southern brethren,” he had announced while waiting at Annapolis for the ship that brought him down the coast. “Do we fight them to avenge … insult? No! The thing we seek is permanent dominion. And what instance is there of permanent dominion without changing, revolutionizing, absorbing, the institutions, life, and manners of the conquered peoples?… They think we mean to take theirSlaves. Bah! We must take their ports, their mines, their water power, the very soil they plough, and develop them by the hands of our artisan armies.… We are to be a regenerating, colonizing power, or we are to be whipped. Schoolmasters, with howitzers, must instruct our Southern brethren that they are a set of d—-d fools in everything that relates to … modern civilization.… This army must not come back. Settlement, migration must put the seal on battle, or we gain nothing.”
Tecumseh Sherman, biding his time in Memphis—where sharp-eyed men with itchy palms had followed in the wake of advancing armies, much as refuse along the right-of-way was sucked into the rearward vacuum of a speeding locomotive—threw the blame in another direction. “The cause of the war is not alone in the nigger,” he told his wife, “but in the mercenary spirit of our countrymen.… Cincinnati furnishes more contraband goods than Charleston, and has done more to prolong the war than the State of South Carolina. Not a merchant there but would sell salt, bacon, powder and lead, if they can make money by it.” So the volatile red-haired general wrote, finding his former nerve-jangled opinion reinforced by the difficulties since encountered all along the fighting front. “If the North design to conquer the South, we must begin at Kentucky and reconquer the country from there as we did from the Indians. It was this conviction then as plainly as now that made men think I was insane. A good many flatterers now want to make me a prophet.”
Prophet or not, he could speak like one in an early October letter to his senator brother: “I rather think you now agree with me that this is no common war.… You must now see that I was right in not seeking prominence at the outstart. I knew and know yet that the northern people have to unlearn all their experience of the past thirty years and be born again before they will see the truth.” None of it had been easy thus far, nor was it going to be any easier in the future. The prow of the ship might pierce the wave, yet once it was clear of the vessel’s stern the wave was whole again: “Though our armies pass across and through the land, the war closes in behind and leaves the same enemy behind.… I don’t see the end,” he concluded, “or the beginning of the end, but suppose we must prevail and persist or perish.” He saw only one solution, an outgrowth of the statement to his wife that the Federal armies would have to “reconquer the country … as we did from the Indians.” What was required from here on was harshness. “We cannot change the hearts of the people of the South,” he told his friend and superior Grant: “but we can make war so terrible that they will realize the fact that however brave and gallant and devoted to their country, still they are mortal and should exhaust all peaceful remedies before they fly to war.”
For Lincoln, too, it was a question of “prevail and persist or perish.” For him, moreover, there was the added problem of coördinating the efforts—and, if possible, reconciling the views—of these three random extremists, together with those of more than twenty million other individuals along and behind the firing line. The best way to accomplish this, he knew, was to unite them under a leader whose competence they believed in and whose views they would adopt as their own, even when those views came into conflict with their preconceptions. In facing this task, he started not from scratch, but from somewhere well behind it. “The President is an honest, plain, shrewd magistrate,” Harper’s Weekly had told its readers a year ago this December. “He is not a brilliant orator; he is not a great leader. He views his office as strictly an executive one, and wishes to cast responsibility, as much as possible, upon Congress.” This tallied with the view of Attorney General Edward Bates, who wrote in his diary after attending a cabinet meeting held at about the same time, “The President is an excellent man, and in the main wise, but he lacks will and purpose, and I greatly fear he has not the power to command.”
Since then, a good many high-placed men—including Bates, who had seen Cameron banished and the bricks applied to Stanton—had had occasion to learn better: though not all. The poet Whittier, for example, saw victory only through a haze of ifs. “The worst of the ifs is the one concerning Lincoln,” he privately declared. “I am much afraid that a domestic cat will not answer when one wants a Bengal tiger.” His fellow poet William Cullen Bryant agreed. “The people after their gigantic preparation and sacrifice have looked for an adequate return, and looked in vain,” he editorialized in the New York Evening Post. “They have seen armies unused in the field perish in pestilential swamps. They have seen their money wasted in long winter encampments, or frittered away on fruitless expeditions along the coast. They have seen a huge debt roll up, yet no prospect of greater military results.” Wendell Phillips, bitter as ever, continued to aim an indignant finger at the White House. “The North has poured out its blood and money like water; it has leveled every fence of constitutional privilege,” he declaimed, “and Abraham Lincoln sits today a more unlimited despot than the world knows this side of China. What does he render for this unbounded confidence? Show us something,” he cried in the direction he was pointing, “or I tell you that within two years the indignant reaction of the people will hurl the Cabinet in contempt from their seats.”
Confronted with such judgments handed down by public men, who thus came between him and his purpose of unification, Lincoln kept his temper and his poise. If he failed in his attempts to win these critics over by means of personal discussion, face to face in his office—“What is he wrathy about? Why does he not come down here and have a talk with me?”—he went beyond them to the people. Sometimes he did so in cold print, as in the case of his answer to Greeley’s “Prayer of Twenty Millions,” but generally he proceeded in a manner that was strangely intimate in its effect, acting on a larger stage the role he had played in Illinois. In Washington, as in Springfield, he received all comers, and for the most part he received them with a sympathy which, by their own admission, equaled or exceeded their deserving. He shook their hands at frequent public receptions held in the White House, which was his home and yet belonged to them; he attended the theater, a form of relaxation which kept him still within their view; he drove or rode, almost daily, through the spokelike streets of the hive-dense city, returning the looks and salutes of men and women and children along the way. Thousands touched him, heard him, saw him at close range, and scarcely one in all those thousands ever forgot the sight of that tall figure, made still taller by the stovepipe hat, and the homely drape of the shawl across the shoulders. Never forgotten, because it was unforgettable, the impression remained, incredible and enduring, imperishable in its singularity—and, finally, dear.
Millions who did not see him saw his picture, and this too was a part of the effect. Widely broadcast as it was—the result of recent developments in photography and the process of reproduction—his had become, within two crowded years, the most familiar face in American history. At first sight this might appear to be a liability. The Paris correspondent of the New York Times, for example, sent home a paragraph titled “Lincoln’s Phiz in Europe,” in which he suggested the wisdom of declaring an embargo on portraits of the President, at least so far as France was concerned: “The person represented in these pictures looks so much like a man condemned to the gallows, that large numbers of them have been imposed on the people here by the shopkeepers as Dumollard, the famous murderer of servant girls, lately guillotined near Lyons. Such a face is enough to ruin the best of causes.… People read the name inscribed under it with astonishment, or rather bewilderment, for the thing appears more like a hoax than a reality.” Yet here, too, something worked in his favor. It was as if, having so far overshot the mark of ugliness, the face was not to be judged by ordinary standards. You saw it not so much for what it was, as for what it held. Suffering was in it; so were understanding, kindliness, and determination. “None of us to our dying day can forget that countenance,” an infantryman wrote on the occasion of a presidential visit to the army. “Concentrated in that one great, strong, yet tender face, the agony of the life and death struggle of the hour was revealed as we had never seen it before. With a new understanding, we knew why we were soldiers.”
Herein lay the explanation for much that otherwise could not be understood—by Jefferson Davis, for one, who had expressed “contemptuous astonishment” at seeing his late compatriots submit to what he called “the mere edict of a despot.” They did not see their submission in that light. “I know very well that many others might … do better than I can,” Lincoln had told the cabinet in September, “and if I were satisfied that the public confidence was more fully possessed by any one of them than by me, and knew of any constitutional way he could be put in my place, he should have it. I would gladly yield it to him. But … I do not know that, all things considered, any other person has more [of the confidence of the people]; and, however this may be, there is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here. I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.” Though these words were spoken in private, their import carried over: with the result that such power as he seized—and it was much, far more in fact than any President had ever had before, in peace or war—was surrendered by the people in confidence that the power was not being seized for its own sake, or even for Lincoln’s sake, but rather for the sake of preserving the Union. They gave him the power, along with the responsibility, glad to have a strong hand on the reins.
This fear of weakness had been the source of their gravest doubt through the opening year of conflict, as well as the subject of the editors’ most frequent complaint—Lincoln was lacking in “will and purpose.” Now they knew that their fears had been misplaced. A Kentucky visitor, turning to leave the White House, asked the President what cheering news he could take home to friends. By way of reply, Lincoln told him a story about a chess expert who had never met his match until he tried his hand against a machine called the Automaton Chess Player, and was beaten three times running. Astonished, the defeated expert got up from his chair and walked slowly around and around the machine, examining it minutely as he went. At last he stopped and leveled an accusing finger in its direction. “There’s a man in there!” he cried. Lincoln paused, then made his point: “Tell my friends there is a man in here.”
Something else he was, as well—a literary craftsman—though so far this had gone unrecognized, unnoticed, and for the most part would remain so until critics across the Atlantic, unembarrassed by proximity, called attention to the fact. Indeed, complaints had been registered that he wrote “like a half-educated lawyer” with little or no appreciation for the cadenced beauties latent in the English language, awaiting the summons of the artist who knew how to call them up. That there was such a thing as the American language, available for literary purposes, had scarcely begun to be suspected by the more genteel, except as it had been employed by writers of low dialog bits, which mainly served to emphasize its limitations. Lincoln’s jogtrot prose, compacted of words and phrases still with the bark on, had no music their ears were attuned to; it crept by them. However, an ambiguity had been sensed. Remarking “the two-fold working of the two-fold nature of the man,” one caller at least had observed the contrast between “Lincoln the Westerner, slightly humorous but thoroughly practical and sagacious,” and “Lincoln the President and statesman … seen in those abstract and serious eyes, which seemed withdrawn to an inner sanctuary of thought, sitting in judgment on the scene and feeling its far reach into the future.”
Here was a clew; but it went uninvestigated. Apparently it was miracle enough that a prairie lawyer had become President, without pressing matters further to see that he had also become a stylist. In fact, so natural and unlabored had his utterance seemed, that when people were told they had an artist in the White House, their reaction was akin to that of the man in Molière who discovered that all his life he had been speaking prose. “I am here. I must do the best I can,” Lincoln had said, and that best included this. Natural perhaps it was; unlabored it was not. Long nights he toiled in his workshop, the “inner sanctuary” from which he reached out to the future, and here indeed was the best clew of all. For he worked with the dedication of the true artist, who, whatever his sense of superiority in other relationships, preserves his humility in this one. He knew, as a later observer remarked, “the dangers that lurk in iotas.” There were days when callers, whatever their importance, were turned away with the explanation that the President was at work: which meant writing.
A series of such days came in November, and the occasion was the preparation of a message to Congress, which would convene December 1. Lincoln saw already what would later become obvious, but was by no means obvious yet: that the war had ended one phase and was about to enter another. This message was intended to signal that event, bidding farewell to the old phase and setting a course for the new. Basically it was dedicatory, for there was need for dedication. The fury of Perryville, the blood that had stained the Antietam and sluiced the ridge in front of Sharpsburg, had reëmphasized the fact disclosed on a smaller scale at First Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, then augmented at Shiloh and the Seven Days, that both armies were capable of inflicting and withstanding terrible wounds. Though it was incredible that the ratio of increase would be maintained, there would be other Shilohs, other Sharpsburgs, other terrors. Men in their thousands now alive would presently be dead; homes so far untouched by sorrow would know tears; new widows and new orphans, some as yet unmarried or unborn, would be made—all, as Lincoln saw it, that the nation might continue and that men now in bondage might have freedom. In issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation he had made certain that there would be no peace except by conquest. He had weighed the odds and made his choice, foreseeing the South’s reaction. “A restitution of the Union has been rendered forever impossible,” Davis said. Lincoln had known he would say it; the fact was, he had been saying it all along. What he meant, and what Lincoln knew he meant, was that the issue was one which could only be settled by arms, and that the war was therefore a war for survival—survival of the South, as Davis saw it: survival of the Union, as Lincoln saw it—with the added paradox that, while neither of the two leaders believed victory for his side meant extinction for the other, each insisted that the reverse was true.
On the face of it, Davis had rather the better of his opponent in this contention, since the immediate and admitted result of a southern defeat would be that the South would go out of existence as a nation, however well it might survive in the sense that Lincoln intended to convey. The threat of national extinction was a sharper goad than any the northern leader could apply in attempting the unification he saw was necessary; therefore he determined to try for something other than sharpness. It was here that his particular talent, though so far it had gone unrecognized in general, could most effectively be brought to bear. As he had done against Douglas in the old days, so now in his long-range contest with Davis he shifted the argument onto a higher plane. Douglas had wanted to talk about “popular sovereignty,” the right of the people of a region to decide for themselves the laws and customs under which they would live, but Lincoln had made slavery the issue, to the Little Giant’s unavoidable discomfort. Similarly, in the present debate, while Davis spoke of self-government, Lincoln—without ever dropping the pretense that Davis was invisible, was in fact not there at all—appealed to “the mystic chords of memory” and “the chorus of the Union,” then presently moved on to slavery and freedom, which Davis could no more avoid than Douglas had been able to do. Lincoln tarred them both with the same brush, doing it so effectively in the present case that the tar would never wear off, and managed also to redefine the Davis concept of self-government as destructive of world democracy, which was shown to depend on survival of the Union with the South as part of the whole. In thus discounting the claims of his opponent, he rallied not only his own people behind him, but also those of other lands where freedom was cherished as a possession or a goal, and thus assured nonintervention. Davis in time, like other men before and since, found what it meant to become involved with an adversary whose various talents included those of a craftsman in the use of words.
A case in point was this December message. It was a long one, nearly fifty thousand words, and it covered a host of subjects, all of them connected directly or indirectly with the war. “Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives,” it opened. “Since your last annual assembling another year of health and bountiful harvest has passed, and while it has not pleased the Almighty to bless us with a return of peace, we can but press on, guided by the best light he gives us, trusting that in his own good time and wise way all will yet be well.… The civil war, which has so radically changed, for the moment, the occupations and habits of the American people, has necessarily disturbed the social condition and affected very deeply the prosperity of the nations with which we have carried on a commerce that has been steadily increasing throughout a period of half a century. It has at the same time excited political ambitions and apprehensions which have produced a profound agitation throughout the civilized world.… We have attempted no propagandism and acknowledged no revolution; but we have left to every nation the exclusive conduct and management of its own affairs. Our struggle has been, of course, contemplated by foreign nations with reference less to its own merits than to its supposed and often exaggerated effects and consequences resulting to those nations themselves. Nevertheless, complaint on the part of this government, even if it were just, would certainly be unwise.”
After this rather mild and dry beginning, he passed at once—or the clerk did, for Lincoln did not deliver the message in person—to matters drier still. A new commercial treaty had been arranged with the Sultan of Turkey, while similar arrangements with Liberia and Haiti were pending. Financially, he was pleased to report, the country was quite sound. Treasury receipts for the July-through-June fiscal year were $583,885,247.06, and disbursements totaling $570,841,700.25 had left a balance of $13,043,546.81 to be carried over. Restlessness among the frontier tribes perhaps indicated that the Indian system needed to be remodeled. The Pacific Railway was being pushed toward completion. A Department of Agriculture had been established.… The clerk droned on, advising the squirming congressmen that these details “will claim your most diligent consideration,” though this could hardly have been easy, comprising as they did nearly half of the long document. By now, the assembled politicians were nearly as restless as the red men on the frontier. Presently, however, approaching its mid-point, the message changed its tone.
“A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws. The territory is the only part which is of certain durability. ‘One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.’ It is of the first importance to duly consider and estimate this ever-enduring part. That portion of the earth’s surface which is owned and inhabited by the people of the United States is well adapted to be the home of one national family, and it is not well adapted for two or more.… There is no line, straight or crooked, suitable for a national boundary upon which to divide. Trace through, from east to west, upon the line between the free and slave country, and we shall find a little more than one-third of its length are rivers, easy to be crossed, and populated, or soon to be populated, thickly upon both sides; while nearly all its remaining length are merely surveyors’ lines, over which people may walk back and forth without any consciousness of their presence.”
Such an argument might have been advanced in support of the unification of Europe or the annexation of Canada, but presently the listeners saw what Lincoln was getting at. He was talking to the inhabitants of the region to which he himself was native, “the great interior region, bounded east by the Alleghenies, north by the British dominions, west by the Rocky Mountains, and south by the line along which the culture of corn and cotton meets.… Ascertain from the statistics the small proportion of the region which has as yet been brought into cultivation, and also the large and rapidly increasing amount of its products, and we shall be overwhelmed with the magnitude of the prospect presented. And yet this region has no seacoast, touches no ocean anywhere. As part of the nation, its people now find, and may forever find, their way to Europe by New York, to South America and Africa by New Orleans, and to Asia by San Francisco.… These outlets, east, west, and south, are indispensable to the well-being of the people inhabiting, and to inhabit, this vast interior region. Which of the three may be the best is no proper question. All are better than either, and all of right belong to that people and to their successors forever. True to themselves, they will not ask where a line of separation shall be, but will vow rather that there shall be no such line.” After a pause, he added: “Our national strife springs not from our permanent part, not from the land we inhabit, not from our national homestead.… Our strife pertains to ourselves—to the passing generations of men; and it can without convulsion be hushed forever with the passing of one generation.”
This brought him at last to what he considered the nub of the issue. “Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.” So far, he had not mentioned the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation except to note that it had been issued; nor did he return to it now. What he returned to, instead, was his old plan for compensated emancipation, the one way he saw for bringing the war to an end “without convulsion.” His plan, as expanded here, would leave to each state the choice of when to act on the matter, “now, or at the end of the century, or at any intermediary time.” The federal government was to have no voice in the action, but it would bear the total expense by issuing long-term bonds as payment to loyal masters. To those critics who would complain that the expense was too heavy, Lincoln replied beforehand that it was cheaper to pay in bonds than in blood, as the country was doing now. Besides, even in dollars and cents the cost would be less. “Certainly it is not so easy to pay something as it is to pay nothing; but it is easier to pay a large sum than it is to pay a larger one. And it is easier to pay any sum when we are able, than it is to pay it before we are able. The war requires large sums, and requires them at once. The aggregate sum necessary for compensated emancipation of course would be large. But it would require no ready cash, nor the bonds even, any faster than the emancipation progresses. This might not, and probably would not, come before the end of the thirty-seven years.”
At this point, apparently—at any rate, somewhere along the line—the President had done some ciphering. By 1900, he predicted, “we shall probably have 100,000,000 of people to share the burden, instead of 31,000,000 as now.” This was no wild guess on Lincoln’s part; or as he put it, “I do not state this inconsiderately. At the same ratio of increase which we have maintained, on an average, from our first national census of 1790 until that of 1860, we should in 1900 have a population of 103,208,415. And why may we not continue that ratio far beyond that period? Our abundant room—our broad national homestead—is our ample resource.” The past seventy years had shown an average decennial increase of 34.6 percent. Applying this to the coming seventy years, he calculated the 1930 population at 251,680,914. “And we will reach this, too,” he added, “if we do not ourselves relinquish the chance by the folly and evils of disunion, or by long and exhausting war springing from the only great element of national discord among us.”
Descending from these rather giddy mathematical heights, Lincoln continued his plea for gradual emancipation, not only for the sake of the people here represented, but also for the sake of the Negroes, whom it would spare “the vagrant destitution which must largely attend immediate emancipation in localities where their numbers are very great.” Whatever objections might be raised, he wanted one thing kept in mind: “If there ever could be a proper time for mere catch arguments, that time surely is not now. In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity.” And having thus admonished the assembly, after forcing it to accompany him on an excursion into the field of applied mathematics, he thought perhaps some note of apology—if not of retraction—was in order. “I do not forget the gravity which should characterize a paper addressed to the Congress of the nation by the Chief Magistrate of the nation. Nor do I forget that some of you are my seniors, nor that many of you have more experience than I in the conduct of public affairs. Yet I trust that in view of the great responsibility resting upon me, you will perceive no want of respect to yourselves in any undue earnestness I may seem to display.” Apparently, however, this was intended not only to make amends for what had gone before, but also to brace them for what was to come. Nor was it long in coming. Hard on the heels of this apology for “undue earnestness,” he threw a cluster of knotty, rhetorical questions full in their faces:
“Is it doubted, then, that the plan I propose, if adopted, would shorten the war, and thus lessen its expenditure of money and of blood? Is it doubted that it would restore the national authority and national prosperity, and perpetuate both indefinitely? Is it doubted that we here—Congress and Executive—can secure its adoption? Will not the good people respond to a united and earnest appeal from us? Can we, can they, by any other means so certainly or so speedily assure these vital objects? We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘Can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘Can we all do better?’ Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, ‘Can we do better?’ ”
As the long message approached its end, Lincoln asked that question: “Can we do better?” Oratory was not enough. “The North responds … sufficiently in breath,” he had said of the reaction to the September proclamation; “but breath alone kills no rebels.” He knew as well as Sherman the need for the nation to be “born again,” and he would also have agreed with the New England major who this month wrote home that he sometimes felt like changing the old soldier’s prayer into “O God, if there be a God, save my country, if my country is worth saving.” A majority of 100,000 voters in Lincoln’s own state, fearing the backwash of liberated slaves that would result from Grant’s advance, had approved in November the adoption of a new article into the Illinois constitution prohibiting the immigration of Negroes into the state. He knew, too, the reaction of most of the lawmakers to the proposal he was now advancing—including that of Senator Orville Browning, his fellow Illinoisan and confidant, who would write in his diary of his friend’s plea when he went home tonight: “It surprised me by its singular reticence in regard to the war, and some other subjects which I expected discussed, and by the hallucination the President seems to be laboring under that Congress can suppress the rebellion by adopting his plan of compensated emancipation.” Yet according to Lincoln it was not he, but they, who were hallucinated and enthralled, and he told them so as the long message wore on toward a close: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Then came the end, the turn of a page that opened a new chapter. And now, through the droning voice of the clerk, the Lincoln music sounded in what would someday be known as its full glory: “Fellow-citizens, 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. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”