The Great Task Remaining: The Third Year of Lincoln's Warby William Marvel
The Great Task Remaining is a striking, often poignant portrait of people balancing their own values—rather than ours—to determine whether the horrors attending Mr. Lincoln’s war were worth bearing in order to achieve his ultimate goals.
As 1863 unfolds, we see the disaster at Chancellorsville, the battle of Gettysburg, and the end/i>
The Great Task Remaining is a striking, often poignant portrait of people balancing their own values—rather than ours—to determine whether the horrors attending Mr. Lincoln’s war were worth bearing in order to achieve his ultimate goals.
As 1863 unfolds, we see the disaster at Chancellorsville, the battle of Gettysburg, and the end of the siege of Vicksburg. Then, astonishingly, the Confederacy springs vigorously back to life after the Union triumphs of the summer, setting the stage for Lincoln’s now famous speech on the Pennsylvania battlefield. Without abandoning the underlying sympathy for Lincoln, Marvel makes a convincing argument for the Gettysburg Address as being less of a paean to liberty than an appeal to stay the course in the face of rampant antiwar sentiment.
The Great Task Remaining offers a provocative history of a dramatic year—a year that saw victory and defeat, doubt and riot—as well as a compelling story of a people who clung to the promise of a much-longed-for end.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
An Army Stretched Out on the Hills
The expansive Fitzhugh farm, four miles northeast of Fredericksburg, Virginia, had been crawling with Union soldiers since the beginning of 1863. Dan Sickles, formerly a Tammany Hall politician of tarnished reputation and lately the commander of the Third Corps, had occupied the house as his headquarters through the latter half of that winter, but on the cold and lowery afternoon of March 12 he surrendered the grounds to a wedding reception for one of his junior officers. The groom had been unable to secure a furlough to be married, so the ceremony transpired in the camp of the 7th New Jersey, in which the groom commanded a company. Besides the betrothed captain, who hovered within a few days of his twenty-fourth birthday, the wedding party consisted of a bride not yet nineteen and nine adventurous bridesmaids, who had accompanied her on the steamer from Washington City. Chief among the guests stood Major General Joseph Hooker, who for the past forty-five days had commanded the Army of the Potomac. The entire regiment turned out under arms to form a hollow square around them all.
The second week of March had alternated between luscious spring sun and soggy reminders of winter - but, unfortunately for the ladies in their light gowns, March 12 fell on the chillier side of that cycle. Raw winds reddened bare arms and chests, while foreboding Virginia skies demanded a canvas canopy to protect the nuptials. The New Jersey chaplain officiated while Daniel Hart and Ellen Lammond knelt before an altar of stacked snare drums to pledge themselves to each other, and when they arose as husband and wife the brigade band announced it with a blaring processional. Ladies, generals, band, and all then adjourned for a banquet and ball under tents raised in the yard of the Fitzhugh farm, where they prolonged the festivities into the evening. The brassy echo carried far across the hills of Stafford County, serenading thousands of envious soldiers sprawled in their camps above Fredericksburg.
Weddings naturally prompt reflections on the future, but any such thoughts on this occasion could only have dampened the festive atmosphere. The shock of a bloody and lopsided defeat at Fredericksburg, only three months past, had not been forgotten. Just seven weeks before the wedding, a disastrous flank march had sent the dejected army into winter quarters, from which, inevitably, it would soon emerge for another attempt to subdue Robert E. Lee, his Army of Northern Virginia, and the rebellious states of the Southern Confederacy. Another seven weeks would find many of the participants dead, or seriously wounded. Captain Hart would be among the latter, and although he would survive his wounds he would never find successful employment outside the army; by cleaving to him, Nelly Lammond consigned herself to a dozen years on the barren plains of West Texas, sixteen years of widow's weeds, and an early grave.
The celebrants therefore dwelt upon the present. Starved as they had been for distaff company, most of the soldiers doubtless found the present agreeable enough, with the bride's retinue to brighten the affair, and few men in that army appreciated female companionship more than Dan Sickles and Joe Hooker. So appealing were the bridesmaids to Sickles that he persuaded them to stay on another day - inviting them, the newlyweds, Hooker, and a host of Third Corps generals, colonels, and staff officers back to the Fitzhugh farm the next night to celebrate his recent promotion to major general. Detailed soldiers and servants festooned the yard with evergreen boughs and flags, and when the guests arrived that evening, Friday the 13th, the tents all glowed with the glitter of hundreds of candles. Even a couple of somberly clad chaplains sipped some wine and partook of the feast, though they stood aside for the dancing and departed before midnight.
It was perhaps such contrived gaiety, more than the frequently dismal weather, that led one Yankee artilleryman to remark a few days later that their winter along the Rappahannock had been “uncommon pleasant,” and the men wearing shoulder straps let no excuse for merriment pass. Saint Patrick's Day provided an opportunity for epic revelry, and as one might have expected, the Irish Brigade greeted it in that spirit. Outside their camp above Falmouth, enlisted men wielded shovels that their officers might play. On relatively flat ground they cleared a racetrack a mile long, complete with hurdles and ditches as wide as ten feet. Thomas Meagher, the hard-drinking brigadier, appeared in knee breeches, a cutaway coat, and a white stovepipe hat, reminding his troops of a circus ringmaster. He further cultivated that image by barking for donations to fund the frolic, although the facilities had all been produced by the labor of government soldiers. “Here is a large capacity,” he apprised his assembled subordinates and superiors, holding the stovepipe hat upside down; “now fill it.” The donations afforded graduated prizes for the three fleetest horses and riders, but much of that ended up in Meagher's pocket anyway: it was Meagher's Irish adjutant, dressed in bright jockey attire and astride the general's own little grey mare, who took first prize in the steeplechase after three heats. Following the main event Meagher opened the track to anyone else who wanted to ride, at a fee of five dollars dropped in his cavernous hat. That afternoon the reverberations of a heavy skirmish at Kelly's Ford, miles upstream, interrupted the entertainment in the middle of a sack race. “Get out of those bags,” Meagher bellowed at the participants, and the brigade fell in to join the fray, but the alarm subsided before the first man stepped off.
David Birney, commander of a division in the Third Corps under Sickles, refused to be outdone by the loudmouthed immigrant Meagher, and he scheduled his own festival for March 26, to celebrate nothing in particular. The same sports prevailed: horse racing, with and without hurdles; a greased pole; sack races; and “buckfights,” in which men bound in a squatting position tried to knock each other over. General Hooker attended this gathering as he had all the others, and with him came the usual assortment of women. The bridesmaids had all returned to Washington, but scores of officers had brought their wives and daughters down to board at houses around the countryside, or to live with them in tents or stockaded huts, and that population obligingly submitted to corsets and crinoline. Garnering the most attention were the wives of two New York colonels. Both women inspired abundant occupation for the eyes and tongues of the troops, but it was the one who called herself Princess Salm- Salm whom everyone remembered. Formerly an actress under the name Agnes Leclerq, she had recently married Colonel Felix Prince Salm, a Prussian soldier of fortune who had come to America for this war. Princess Salm-Salm insinuated that she had seen only twenty-one winters, but an artillery officer who observed her that afternoon remarked that she and the other colonel's wife “have been very handsome women in their day.” He considered them “still good-looking enough to stand very well in the eyes of General Joe,” but Joe Hooker was nearing the end of his fifth decade. The day closed badly for the erstwhile Miss Leclerq: horses and riders showed less grace, with many a mount balking at the hurdles and numerous horsemen taking dangerous tumbles. Colonel Salm fell so hard that witnesses at first deemed his injuries mortal, but General Sickles gallantly consoled the princess while the surgeons saved her prince for death on another field.
That near tragedy may have diluted enthusiasm for further orchestrations. Colonels were paid too well to have them lying about for months, recuperating from foolish accidents while lesser field officers oversaw their regiments. The Potomac army was growing short of officers that winter in any case, as many of those who had escaped the slaughter at Fredericksburg exercised the privilege of resigning their commissions, but the popularity of that avenue was not confined to the eastern theater. Lieutenants and captains from Maine to the Mississippi made their excuses as the spring campaigns drew nigh, or they dragged out convalescent furloughs for nebulous varieties of indisposition. “I don't believe the 'young patriots' will ever come back,” said a Regular Army captain of some freshly appointed lieutenants on sick leave, “as they didn't come into the service except to draw their pay.” Some enlisted men who had just obtained commissions soon surrendered them for a discharge, and some applied for commissions precisely so they might exercise that very privilege. One of the senior captains in a Maine regiment found it difficult to resign because his services were deemed so crucial, and when ordered to rejoin his regiment he sought a presidential appointment as quartermaster so he could “get a Com[mission] to resign.” Large numbers of men in the ranks had also decamped on the sly, choosing more informal and risky means of separation by overstaying their furloughs, disappearing into the army's byzantine medical system, or simply walking away from camp in a suit of civilian clothing. Sympathetic relatives filled the express trains with boxes of such clothing to help their soldier boys desert.
One Connecticut colonel tried repeatedly during the winter to recover men who had slipped away from his command, but sometimes he gave up on them. After months of chasing several furloughed convalescents, he dropped them from the rolls of the regiment only to hear, soon afterward, that some of them had inveigled a surgeon into awarding them certificates of disability for their sundry ailments. The colonel ruled those tardy documents invalid, and declared the men deserters. Another private who appeared to enjoy good health left camp without permission and headed home, where he visited around enough that reports leaked back to regimental headquarters. He, too, attempted to absolve himself on a belated plea of illness, but the frustrated colonel would hear none of that, either.
William Greene, of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, typified this more casual deserter. After nearly a year of service, during which he had indignantly castigated those who failed to answer their country's call, Greene seemed to experience a conversion that became apparent late in the summer of 1862, when his regiment wandered into its first major battle at Second Bull Run. The sharpshooters fled the field and abandoned the battery they were supposed to support. Greene left the ranks soon thereafter because, as he explained it, he “got tired out,” but that fatigue did not prevent him from walking all the way to Alexandria, where he sought a hospital bed. The surgeons sent him north to a hospital in Rhode Island. He schemed persistently for a discharge without success, but finally he left the hospital on a furlough and neglected to return. First he went home to southern New Hampshire, but over the winter he migrated to south-central Wisconsin. His sister and brother-in-law had moved out there to start a farm, and late in March he began working for them at $14.50 a month, plus keep. His infrequent letters bore no signatures, lest a prying postmaster report his whereabouts; it may have been fear of discovery that eventually prompted him to leave his sister's house and start drifting.
A private in a new regiment from central New York appealed for a furlough, but his request was not among the few that his colonel granted, so he circulated the news that his mother was dying, or had died, and one of his comrades gave up his own furlough so the bereaved private might attend the funeral. No good turn goes unpunished, the generous comrade found, and late in March he remarked that the beneficiary of the sacrificed furlough “got on the wrong train” for the return trip, grumbling that “it took him to Canada instead of Washington.”
Soon after the glorified skirmish that served as his maiden battle, a Massachusetts shoemaker named Andrew Grover had inexplicably gotten himself captured in a locale completely dominated by the Union army. In July of 1862, as soon as the opposing forces agreed on a system of prisoner exchanges, Grover was released from Southern custody under the customary parole precluding him from bearing arms against the Confederacy until a rebel soldier of equal rank had been freed in formal exchange. He took that as license to return North, and like many former prisoners he simply stayed there, dodging the government's haphazard pursuit of such truants. In the spring of 1863 he was making his way northward from Massachusetts, supporting himself by selling bootleg liquor. He had just crossed the New Hampshire border into Fryeburg, Maine, when he ran into trouble, for Maine was a dry state and some abstemious resident turned him in. A transient miscreant of military age bore some investigation, with thousands of deserters roaming the country, and by the time the grand jury indicted Grover on liquor charges, his secret had been found out: at his court appearance an army officer took charge of him.
Some men seemed to disappear into thin air. The previous autumn Francis Richards had straggled behind the 11th New Hampshire during the march across northern Virginia, and when he failed to answer the roll call that evening, everyone supposed he had been scooped up by Confederate cavalry. Then the wife of one of his neighbors saw Richards at home and wrote about it to her husband, who served in the same company. The husband expressed considerable surprise that his comrade had deserted, but he revealed nothing like disapproval: he merely assured his wife that he would never abscond without consulting her first. By March of 1863, he added, desertion from camp had become almost impossible, so vigilantly did the perimeter guards and the provost details monitor the peregrinations of solitary soldiers.
None of these men endured more than a taste of the battlefield: they may have forsaken their commitments over personal or political epiphanies inspired by a few months of service in the field. For thousands of other soldiers who had borne the brunt of the fighting, it was perhaps the sheer brutality of the conflict that had impelled them on clandestine journeys homeward, and especially from the Army of the Potomac, where stunning carnage seemed to produce the least tangible results. The previous December, waves of blue infantry had swept up Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg against raking Confederate artillery and a well-protected tier of blazing rifles, all without the slightest effect beyond depleting Southern ammunition. On the plain below Fredericksburg, William B. Franklin had sent out a feeble assault that nevertheless managed to crack Stonewall Jackson's line, but Franklin failed to support that breakthrough sufficiently and it was driven back with heavy losses. Well over a thousand Union soldiers had been killed on the field that bleak day, and the death toll neared three thousand after the worst-wounded had succumbed, but all those lives had not bought an inch of ground. Ambrose Burnside finally withdrew everyone to the left bank of the Rappahannock, and six weeks later, after deep mud doomed his last attempt to wield his unlucky army, he turned it over to Joe Hooker.
No wonder, then, that company clerks in the Army of the Potomac tallied such voluminous absentee lists. Winter conditions, poor food, political discouragement, and a burning desire to go home bred widespread dissatisfaction, leading to a mutiny in at least one Pennsylvania regiment. By the end of January, 31 percent of the troops who came under Hooker's authority were absent for reasons mostly unknown: 85,000 all told, including many thousands who had deliberately deserted or who actively avoided duty on inventive pretenses. Hooker's reforms, including the introduction of regular, rotating furloughs, helped lessen the flight noticeably - suggesting that homesickness and unattended personal business also played a part in it - and by the end of February absenteeism had been reduced to barely 27 percent. At the end of March it was down to 24 percent, but that was still higher than in other armies. The forces operating on the Mississippi River under Ulysses Grant began that same period with fewer than 21 percent of their men absent, and despite rampant disease, that proportion had risen barely half a percent by March 31. President Lincoln issued an amnesty proclamation on March 10, exempting all deserters who returned to their units by April 1 from any punishment beyond loss of pay for the time they were gone. A couple of weeks later, when newspapers published the official reports that had inspired Lincoln's act of combined magnanimity and desperation, an astonished public learned that 125,000 officers and men were absent from their commands.
Wilbur Fisk, a Vermont private in that army who wrote occasional columns for a Montpelier newspaper, adopted what would become an enduring excuse for poor morale in the ranks: in a mid-March epistle he informed his readers that it was all the fault of civilian croakers, and especially those who denounced Abraham Lincoln's emancipation policy. “It is not the army that is demoralized,” he asserted, “but the citizens at home.” It required a generous measure of hypocrisy for Fisk to pontificate so self-righteously on the evil of desertion and its causes, but he may have felt a particular need to mitigate the responsibility of those who shirked their duty, for as he wrote that letter he had just returned from French leave himself. In his diary and his letters he tried to justify the excursion as a misunderstanding, but in fact he had pursued the same devious course as legions before him, leaving his unit without notice and finding his way home by way of a hospital and a convalescent camp. The principal difference in Fisk's case was that he courted and married a girl during his absence, and that required a return to respectability if he was to be able to support his wife.
Private Fisk's self-serving opinion did reflect a growing discontent with Mr. Lincoln's war. Opponents had begun to make themselves heard in the summer of 1862, when Congress gave the president authority to demand levies of state militia from the governors. The announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of autumn sorely aggravated political differences, alienating many dedicated Unionists, and toward the end of the following winter Congress had empowered Lincoln to bypass the governors altogether and draft citizens directly. Such drastic departure from the democratic process alarmed some of the president's own closest supporters. By late March the dissenting chorus approached a crescendo.
Over the winter Isaac Welch, a state senator from Ohio, lamented to his counterpart in the U.S. Senate, Ben Wade, that the militia draft and the emancipation controversy had interposed a deep rift in the loyal population. “With a divided north,” he wondered, “can anyone entertain a well grounded hope that we will ultimately succeed in putting down the rebellion: I think not.” Democrats who had turned against the war, or had opposed it from the start, might soon gain enough control of state and federal governments to impede military efforts against the Confederacy, Welch warned, but the armies seemed to accomplish nothing as it was: Grant's ambitious campaign against Vicksburg lay stalled amid high water after successive failures, and William Rosecrans had burrowed his Army of the Cumberland into a Tennessee encampment after fending off a determined attack. The Army of the Potomac, which drew more than its share of attention, had disheartened the entire North with its last defeat. “If our arms are not attended with better success against April or May,” Welch remarked, “especially the Potomac Army; how can we recruit the army?”
Shortly after leaving his own seat in the U.S. Senate, and his role as President Lincoln's closest Washington confidant, Orville Hickman Browning listened to a depressing assessment of the war from an Iowa general who felt he was fighting not only against armed rebels but against a tide of incompetence in his own government as well. On the last Saturday in March this officer dropped into Browning's Chicago hotel room for an hour and painted the president as a political weakling whose pronouncement on slavery had galvanized Southern resistance. The secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase, was bankrupting the country and depreciating the currency, he added, while the armies roamed almost wild, marauding against friend and foe alike without effective interference from their officers. The general could not see how the war would be won.
George Templeton Strong - elitist New York City lawyer, advocate of vigorous war, and treasurer of the U.S. Sanitary Commission - had also begun to entertain serious doubts about the chances of victory by February. A month later his dejection lingered, although he noted an unaccountable “sanguine fit” among the Gotham gentry. “I can't tell why,” he added, nor did there seem to be any reason for it. The war news continued to disappoint: Rosecrans's Tennessee army had stirred from its winter torpor just long enough to lose an entire brigade on what should have been a routine reconnaissance, and every few days a small band of Virginia cavalry would descend on the multitude of Yankees guarding Washington, with humiliating effect. Trouble was also brewing with England over British-built Confederate cruisers and parliamentary debate over recognition of the Confederacy. Some public satisfaction may have attended the adjournment of the Thirty-seventh Congress, which had earned a reputation for either reform or repression, depending on one's viewpoint. More likely, though, the sudden pulse of buoyancy among New Yorkers may have had something to do with a 20 percent drop in the price of gold over two business days, to $150 an ounce, which produced a flurry of enthusiasm on Wall Street.
The course of the war weighed little on the personal lives of the wealthy, save when the resulting inflation shrank the value of their fortunes. Only collateral traces of the conflict flavored the diary of Lizzie Corning, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a well-heeled railroad administrator in New Hampshire's capital city. Her days passed in romantic reveries of stage actor John Wilkes Booth, afternoon visits from admiring young businessmen or government officeholders, and shopping for dresses selling at three times the monthly salary of a soldier, with the occasional surprise of a diamond ring from her indulgent father. On rare occasions she might accept a carriage ride through the camp of some regiment bound for the war, as a pleasant diversion from the ennui of her comfortable existence. Few of her male acquaintances faced military service even after the advent of conscription, and for her circle the divisive politics of the struggle appeared to provide little more than an engaging form of amusement.
For those women who toiled more and frolicked less, the affairs of state inflicted a direct influence that provoked more passion. That passion diverged, however, over the ultimate merits of preserving the Union and (assuming that such an effort was worth the increasingly burdensome price) how it could best be accomplished. Daniel Coler had no sooner left New York's Chenango River valley for the war than his wife began deluging him with news of neighbors who had found a way out of uniform, and while she cast no overt aspersions on the cause, she implied that it hardly merited the personal cost to them. Emily Harris, whose husband had been gone over a year and a half, showed more of her teeth. She boiled with indignation over the government's inconsistent attitude toward secession: bumptious administration regents declared secessionists traitors and proclaimed it a criminal act to criticize Lincoln's war, she ranted, but they studiously ignored stinging invective from the more rabid abolitionists, some of whom still advocated secession themselves. Mrs. Harris deeply regretted and clearly resented her husband's decision to enlist, which left her flaying her fingers at shoemaking and other piecework to feed herself and her children at wartime prices. To her, the seceded states did not seem worth the sacrifices she and others were forced to make. “As a wife and mother,” she told her stolid husband, “I should say let them go rather than have so many precious lives lost.”
The women who corresponded with Private Lewis Smith represented nearly the entire spectrum of opinion. His sister Lucy, a persistent Lincoln supporter, remained deliberately optimistic about the prospects for victory in the face of the worst news, and she damned the war's opponents up and down; sometimes she passed along the nationalistic comments of her husband, a mildly prosperous farmer who sat out the war at his village home. Smith's wife, Mary, who stayed on their hardscrabble hill farm with their six children, scorned those outspoken advocates of the war who lounged at home, and she hoped the new draft law would sweep those men into the army. His sister-in-law Hepsabeth, meanwhile, labored in a textile mill where cotton shortages frequently brought the machinery to a standstill. She urged Lewis to seek a discharge any way he could, so he might come home to his family and stop fighting for the “damed Negrows.” By good fortune Smith, who had enlisted under the middling bounties of the previous August, entered a regiment that saw no action for more than two years. His family survived on the pay he sent home, supplemented by relief money from their community, and he made no appeal to go home.
Plenty of his compatriots throughout the army did scheme for discharges, and squads of them bid farewell to each company that winter. The attrition naturally struck hardest among regiments in the field. The colonel of the 11th New Jersey described a stream of “miserable dishartning letters” from parents who begged for their boys' release - often at the instigation of their soldier sons, who knew that tales of hardship at home might do the trick. A Pennsylvanian who desperately wanted out of the army hinted that letters documenting the impending death of family members might at least yield a furlough, but to his bitter disappointment such a ploy failed to free him from his regiment. A Maine soldier who had served faithfully from the outbreak of the war conspired with his wife on how to get a furlough, admitting that if he could reach home he planned to persuade their local doctor to grant him a certificate of disability that he might parlay into a discharge.
The rising clamor to get out of the army itself seemed to arouse administrative skepticism, and the War Department grew more reluctant than ever to part with its soldiers. A Pennsylvania captain who had lost his arm at Fredericksburg won presidential sanction for his attempt to raise a brigade of disabled men like himself, to perform light duty that would free others for the front, and that notion rooted quickly in government minds. The War Department gave medical officers authority to assign convalescents to hospital duty, and issued an order forming them into detachments for use as guards, clerks, and nurses; surgeons in need of stewards sometimes used that new authority to hold on to a good man long after even the convalescent thought he was fit to return to duty. The Conscription Act of early March had created scores of new provost marshals across the land, each of whom would need some troops to call upon, and partially disabled men seemed perfect for that duty, so Secretary of War Edwin Stanton formally established what he would later repent calling the Invalid Corps.
The need for men to fill that corps abruptly slowed the migration homeward from the hospitals, and men suffering obvious, permanent disabilities waited interminably for official disposition. An Illinois private who had been wounded through the wrist in the December drive against Vicksburg languished in a hospital on Bedloe's Island five months later; his left hand dangled limp and useless, but he was told that no one who could walk would be discharged. Another ailing soldier in Grant's Vicksburg force informed his father that the surgeons would spare only those who were too severely impaired to perform any duty, like those with discernible ruptures. A middle-aged recruit in a new Pennsylvania regiment wasted away in the hospital for more than four months before army doctors relented. The father of a fourteen-year-old runaway had to appeal to Senator Lyman Trumbull before he could liberate his son from the 14th U.S. Infantry, although the underage lad suffered visibly from Saint Vitus's Dance.
Rumors purported that a substantial sum of money might convince army surgeons or contract physicians to declare individual soldiers unfit for even limited service. Few soldiers owned the resources to deliver a bribe, even if an accommodating surgeon presented himself, but if one served under sufficiently corrupt officers it was possible to buy a commission that one might then resign. A New York captain who constantly sought promotion for the money it would bring admitted to his family that he also promoted his men in return for favors, and that he would advance one man to the next vacant lieutenancy if the aspirant would “give me something handsome.” A colonel in the Irish Brigade invited suspicion that he was selling commissions by finagling the appointment of officers from outside his regiment, some of whom had left dismal records under earlier commissions.
Now and then a common soldier tried to buy his way out by means of a less furtive enticement. One member of the 40th Massachusetts who had served only five months on a three-year term offered three hundred dollars to a Connecticut fifer whose regiment was due to go home in the spring, proposing that the musician fulfill the last two years of his commitment as his substitute. With the scent of home in his nostrils the would-be substitute declined, but the arrangement would not have worked in any event: the provision for substitutes applied only to draftees under the new conscription law, and no longer could a Union soldier procure a substitute after he had begun his enlistment.
Millions of letters flowed home from the Union armies that winter and spring. The vast majority of them were later tossed into stoves, fireplaces, and furnaces, but most of those that survive depict the authors as resolute, devoted to the basic cause of national union, and confident of ultimate success. Newspapers friendly to the administration tried to cultivate that confidence by dismissing defeats as insignificant, all the while emphasizing whatever optimism they could draw from events. When poor women went on a rampage in the Confederate capital, breaking into stores in broad daylight, Richmond newspapers characterized them as a greedy mob of base criminals. Efforts to conceal the incident from Union soldiers failed, and Northern papers exploited it as a bread riot that betokened a starving nation. Combined with the steady trickle of hungry, promiscuously clad Confederate deserters drifting into Union lines, the story spawned the immediate impression that the Confederacy was about to implode. That in turn initiated another round of hopeful predictions that the war was nearly over, and that it would end in a ridiculously specific number of months, ranging from three to eight. Most who believed those bright forecasts seemed willing to stay on that much longer, and they assumed that similar good cheer flourished among all the troops around them.
The patriotic tenor of such letters may have increased the odds that they would be preserved and made public by descendants, and discontent may have infected a greater proportion of the troops than the available fragment of surviving correspondence suggests. Some of those more determined soldiers, in fact, inadvertently described an epidemic of disaffection. The volume of complaint had reached such a din by the spring of 1863 that some regiments tried to turn the tide by sending home resolutions of continued support for the administration, but sometimes those efforts backfired. A disappointed Iowa captain reported that his regiment flatly refused to adopt such a token, and Brigadier General James Garfield learned that his former regiment had drawn precisely the opposite conclusion, questioning the moral rectitude of the war as well as its political wisdom and chances of success. A Maine private whose nine-month regiment was about to muster out after a tour of easy duty explained that many of his comrades shared his enthusiasm for the administration and the war, but he also heard a thunder of venomous denunciation: large numbers of his comrades vowed they would never serve under arms again, he wrote, “if the rebels came right into Maine,” and plenty of other regiments harbored similar cynics.
Thousands of soldiers who firmly embraced the cause of reunion anticipated that the new element of abolition would instill fresh spirit in the Southern armies, and some of the more recent recruits felt thoroughly betrayed by the administration. A furious Massachusetts mechanic who had enlisted two months before the Emancipation Proclamation gave a crude example of that common expression when he told his brother that he had enlisted for his “Cuntrey,” and not “to fight for the damed nigers.” “Old Abe was pretty sharp -” snorted an Ohio soldier in a pestilential camp on the Mississippi; “he never issued his proclamation until after he had us all by the necks.” This soldier assured his readers that he would never have joined the army had he known the war was going to be bent toward such goals. Wives vilified Lincoln's action, as well, like the Vermont virago who shrank from the idea of her husband “becoming a sacrifice for the devilish blacks.”
Edwin O. Wentworth, another recruit from the previous summer, corroborated the breadth of that feeling in the army with a letter to his hometown newspaper, in which he alleged that the peace movement on the home front had finally aroused the hopes of a dejected and disgusted army. Soldier correspondents who portrayed rosy pictures of the war felt safe enough signing their names to their newspaper submissions, but superiors usually pounced on those who submitted unflattering political comments, and uniformed critics of the war soon learned not to identify themselves. Wentworth injudiciously appended to the letter his distinctive initials and the number of his regiment, and a couple of weeks after its publication the provost marshal appeared at his tent to arrest him.
On village greens, the war had assumed a far more partisan tone since the previous spring. In their zeal to crush the Confederacy and restore the antebellum Union, Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of war had trod squarely and deliberately on numerous treasured elements of constitutional doctrine, and many of those who had once stood by him now recoiled at his methods. Foremost among the objectionable practices, perhaps, were the administration habits of ignoring due process and usurping the authority of the congressional and judicial branches of government. That had led to thousands of arbitrary arrests, mostly of Democrats, at the whim of federal officials who were usually Republicans, and some of the victims of those illegal arrests had spent weeks or months behind bars without charges, or on dubious accusations disguising purely political motives.
Then had come the Emancipation Proclamation, announced the previous September with an effective date of New Year's Day. By its nature that document violated the U.S. Constitution in a manner that Lincoln himself had acknowledged, by overriding state sovereignty on the issue, and for many opponents that was enough. For most, it was the practical application of executive emancipation that stuck in the craw. If liberated en masse, as Lincoln's proclamation proposed, many of the South's four million destitute, illiterate slaves would inevitably flee to the North, creating a glut of cheap labor. Already, former slaves were making their way up the Mississippi and the Ohio looking for work, and military recruitment had stripped the Midwest of so much surplus labor that Ohio farmers snatched them up as soon as they appeared. One Quaker hired two such men, and sent one of them back downriver to retrieve his whole family.
The proclamation had also swollen the “contraband” camps on the fringes of army posts. Thousands of slaves who had heard of the decree swarmed into Helena, Arkansas, from plantations on the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Some walked, some rode horses or mules taken from their masters, and some ferried in on U.S. gunboats. A small delegation of the U.S. Sanitary Commission tried to feed and clothe them all. Freedmen signed on as crewmen in the steaming ironclads, or took over the heavy labor formerly performed by soldiers: that soon extinguished a lot of the enlisted men's objections to emancipation, and drove home the advantage those same slaves had given the Confederates. Each slave's departure left an acre of some Southern plantation untilled, an Ohio surgeon ultimately calculated, and Confederate soldiers would eventually have to go home to keep their families from starving.
Thus were some of the more prejudiced of the troops convinced of the wisdom of abolition as a means of hurting the enemy, or moved by pity for the abuse and outrages recounted by the newly freed slaves. Ironically, the presence of slaves still in bondage could exert the opposite influence. A Maine soldier serving in Florida declared himself and most of his fellow Yankees “converted” from their abolition principles after six months' proximity to the Gulf Coast variety of slavery. A captain from New Hampshire found the infamous institution much less horrendous than he had been led to believe, at least in loyal Kentucky, where the proclamation had no effect; slave men and women alike were dressed better than most New Hampshire farmers, he noted, and they seemed not to work nearly as hard as he and his brother did on their own farm. His description of Bluegrass slavery sounded so inviting that he felt constrained to add that he was not advocating it, but he doubted the enslaved population's condition would improve with freedom. The teeming contraband camps, meanwhile, peeled away any such illusions of lassitude and comfort.
It took a little longer for the popular mind to embrace the concept of putting former slaves in uniforms and giving them guns: that proposal initially angered many of the same white soldiers whose burdens and dangers would have been lessened by the reinforcements. Border-state Unionists turned from the enterprise in high dudgeon, but the administration worried progressively less about popular acceptance, and a War Department desperate enough for troops to mobilize the army's cripples could not afford to ignore hundreds of thousands of healthy, unemployed black men. That spring individual regiments of freemen and freedmen were gathering under state designations outside Boston and on the South Atlantic coast. Edwin Stanton sent Lorenzo Thomas, the army's adjutant general, into the Mississippi Valley to recruit whole divisions of displaced slaves, if possible, under the authority of what would soon become the Bureau of Colored Troops, and to examine white soldiers willing to serve as officers in those new regiments.
Recruits for the 54th Massachusetts consisted primarily of free black residents of the eastern half of the state. The regiment filled slowly at first, as did the white regiments raised early that year. One exceptionally literate new corporal from New Bedford credited the lethargy to the absence of a threatened draft and the resulting stinginess regarding bounties. “So long as patriotism was made a purchaseable article there were plenty of men to fill the ranks,” he contended, “but now, when it is not a 'paying concern,' nobody cares much about going.” James Montgomery, an old Kansas jayhawker, had better luck in the Department of the South. He exercised an informal draft of his own by simply forcing reluctant young men into his black South Carolina regiment, and he collected prospective recruits on forays from Hilton Head, South Carolina, all the way to Key West, where he enlisted 130 without resistance. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Harvard-educated abolitionist, shared with Montgomery in that coastal market, and by April his own novice regiment had completed its first amphibious campaign in Florida.
One regiment at Helena, Arkansas, drew recruits from the great encampment of contrabands there. As elsewhere, white troops in the Mississippi basin largely frowned on the experiment, except for those who deemed it their only opportunity for commissions. “I do despise them,” wrote the teenaged sergeant major of an Indiana regiment when he encountered an entire brigade of erstwhile slaves; “the more I see of them, the more I am against the whole black crew.” The sergeant major might well have expected a captain's commission if he had been so inclined. Men applied by the hundreds - as many as fifty from a single Iowa regiment badly thinned by fever - and junior officers put their names in for field commissions. Some of those supplicants were merely trying to escape unpleasant relations with their superiors, and others disguised ambition for an office in which they might resign from the army, but to the disgust of many of their comrades most seemed motivated by the increased pay and prestige. “Excuse me from military honors,” sneered an Illinois private, “if I have to go among the niggers to get them.”
In addition to these offenses to conservative sensibilities, Congress had armed the president with authority to collect internal revenue and to draft citizens at will, both of which circumvented state prerogatives and smacked of Old World autocracy. Many observers were pointing out both privately and publicly by early March of 1863 that Lincoln held firm control of both the purse and the sword: he could theoretically continue the war as long as he pleased, against the will of the people. As loyal a general as William Tecumseh Sherman had to concede that Mr. Lincoln had been granted unprecedented power - “he now is absolute Dictator,” Sherman admitted.
For those who envisioned the Republic less as a confederacy of states and more as the embodiment of democratic ideals, the accumulating executive usurpation constituted an ominous tilt toward centralized, authoritarian despotism. For those idealists, the Lincoln administration presented a more chilling threat to liberty and free government than the withdrawal of a few slave states. At the same time, alternative interpretations of the military map suggested a stagnation that seemed to confirm opposition warnings about the fruitlessness of coercion. For many who took that view, the war itself became the enemy, since it could bring no good and produced so much evil. Others still favored prosecution of the struggle, but without sacrificing the constitutional freedoms that distinguished the nation: rather than imposing a radical agenda and conscription on a reluctant population, they would have had Lincoln rescind the proclamations that had made the war so obnoxious to prospective recruits; rather than making war on Northern Democrats in and out of the army, they would have targeted the Confederate armies and government with the same nonpartisan spirit with which they had begun the conflict.
Democratic antipathy for administration methods seethed to overflowing that spring. In newspaper editorials, legislative debate, and party meetings from the pine forests of Maine to the plains of Iowa, Democrats raged at the war powers Lincoln had assumed and accepted, and at the Radical Republicans whose policies he appeared to favor. Disgruntled Democrats convened in central Illinois, a mere twenty-five miles from Lincoln's home, on March 14; the biggest political meeting that ever assembled in Crawford County, Wisconsin, met on March 26 to approve of speakers who belabored the war. Indiana had seen a spate of antiwar meetings since the beginning of the year, most of which had denounced the government's suspected aims on principle, but on March 20 a Wayne County meeting agreed that Lincoln's war measures threatened the very survival of constitutional government, and demanded an end to them. If Lincoln used the new provost marshals to further his arbitrary arrests of citizens, the Wayne County men added, “blood will flow.”
A massive, boisterous assemblage filled the Cooper Union in New York City on the evening of April 7. The crowd spilled over into another impromptu convention outside, while inside the Great Hall speakers took the podium amid cheering and shouting silenced only by burly ushers' cries of “Order, God damn you!” Congressman Fernando Wood, the city's former mayor and a wily politician in his own right, disparaged Abraham Lincoln's presidency from the same stage where Lincoln had forged his campaign for that office barely three years before. Wood called for an immediate armistice and negotiations with the Confederacy - either overtly or covertly - and if the South refused to settle short of independence, then Wood proposed a binding referendum on whether the war should be resumed. He was followed by Senator John Carlile of West Virginia, a stubborn Unionist who had nonetheless considered the war unconstitutional from the outset. Lincoln loyalists who boycotted the event pronounced it a disappointing affair, but the attendance demonstrated surging power behind the new peace movement.
Newspapers unfriendly to the Democratic view buried their coverage of the Cooper Union meeting behind pages of cheerier copy, including exaggerated, falsified, or perfectly apocryphal stories of brilliantly successful cavalry skirmishes, reports of military movements that had merely stalled, without retreating, and descriptions of invincible naval expeditions that had not yet been driven back, sunk, or captured. The most popular news of the day was the Republican victory in the Connecticut elections. Like the New Hampshire elections ofMarch, the Connecticut races indicated that the opposition had reached a slight majority: not all Republicans prevailed, and those who did had to resort to manipulative or underhanded tactics.
New Hampshire Republicans had lobbied to bring home an entire regiment that had been raised in largely Republican districts, both to vote and to intimidate any opponents of the war. Most of the furloughed soldiers performed the former task and some attempted the latter, threatening to mob a Democratic newspaper as an earlier Granite State regiment had done. The most effective Republican strategy lay in splitting the Democratic ticket: the colonel of a regiment in the field, formerly a Democrat, ran as a “Union” candidate, stripping away several thousand Democratic votes. The legitimate Democratic nominee still outpolled the Republican, but he fell short of a majority, and New Hampshire law required a majority no matter how many candidates ran, so the election went to the Republican-dominated state legislature with predictable results.
Connecticut governor William Buckingham had held office since 1858, but after a thorough canvass of the state in early 1863 he calculated that he would lose to his Democratic challenger by two or three thousand votes. A spoiler candidate apparently would have lent him no statutory means of foiling the popular will, so the Connecticut regiments became involved in a little plot to throw the election Buckingham's way. Resolutions denouncing the antiwar inclinations of Connecticut's Democratic Party went out to each of the state's military units with the ulterior motive of drawing out the individual soldiers' party loyalties. Officers in those units - every one of whom had been appointed by Buckingham - paid careful attention to which of their soldiers voted for and against the resolutions. The 14th Connecticut, for instance, considered its resolution on March 24. Of those soldiers who supported the statements, ten voting-age men from each company were selected to go home on furlough early in April with free transportation - and twenty men from the big heavy artillery companies. No one who could not vote, or who had opposed the resolutions, was chosen to receive that precious gift, and at that time Connecticut fielded enough regiments and independent companies to have provided 2,920 soldiers at those quotas. So ambitious a scheme could not have been accomplished without War Department complicity, and abundant testimony to the partisan furloughs implies that the government abetted them. Ultimately Buckingham survived with a majority of barely 2,500 votes: that was better than he expected, but he would probably have lost the election without the ballots of those handpicked soldiers. The ploy worked so well that Buckingham tried it again, successfully, the next year.
More voting irregularities surfaced in an election at Indianapolis a few days later. Furloughed soldiers and Republican “rounders” reportedly descended on individual Democrats there, threatening them with bluster and numbers at first and finally persuading them to leave without voting: if their victims approached the polls, the bullies allegedly warned, they would be falsely reported to the sentries at the ballot box for “disloyal” remarks. In an atmosphere where government authorities habitually accepted unfounded accusations, that sort of browbeating proved somewhat effective.
Victories won by such means only infuriated the opposition, and escalated tensions between Republicans and Democrats - or, as administration officials and their editorial friends began to characterize the factions, the patriotic “Union” and treacherous “Copperhead” parties -Copperhead being the slur applied to Peace Democrats and, eventually, to anyone who disagreed with the administration. Intimidation and retaliation had evidently become the order of the day. A prominent Connecticut Democrat claimed that in his state's industrial centers wealthy manufacturers sent their clerks to the polls as conspicuous registrars of local voting, both to pressure employees and purveyors into voting “the flag” and to establish an economic blacklist. The adjutant general of the U.S. Army personally intervened to punish a New Hampshire lieutenant for helping distribute Democratic ballots on Election Day, summarily dismissing him from the service “for circulating Copperhead tickets, and doing all he could to promote the rebel cause in his State.” Edwin Stanton, an apostate Democrat himself, had allowed soldiers of exalted grades to praise the war, the administration, and the Republican Party in myriad public venues; his War Department actively used soldiers (like the Connecticut faithful, and the troops who had “monitored” the Maryland polls in 1862) to bend state elections in favor of Republican candidates. Therefore the lieutenant's dismissal, couched in language implying the outright disloyalty of the entire Democratic Party, seemed to signify Stanton's declaration of war against mainstream Democrats. It also vindicated early critics who had perceived the war as little more than an exercise in partisan domination.
Democratic rallies thus grew in frequency and rose in temper, especially after their strident objections attracted violent reaction. An indignation meeting in eastern Iowa in mid-April prompted a Davenport editor to howl about the “Scott County Disunionists,” whom he described in viperous analogies. A similar demonstration a few miles farther down the Mississippi brought out wagonloads of armed Republicans who hooted and jeered the speaker before pelting him with eggs and at least a few stones. A New Jersey doctor paid a hundred-dollar fine for orchestrating the disruption of a purported Copperhead meeting and silencing the speaker in April. Democratic editors advised against reciprocal attacks, arguing that Union meetings merely degenerated into abolition harangues, but frustrated Democrats occasionally responded in kind. An army captain and a sergeant appeared at an April 19 meeting south of Indianapolis, ostensibly looking for deserters, where they were confronted by a group of Democrats who had brought their own guns. A scuffle ensued, and a former state representative killed one of the soldiers before he was shot, in turn, by the other. That same weekend, just west of Indianapolis, another meeting erupted in gunfire that left five men wounded, at least one of whom died.
Pejorative nicknames like “Copperhead” and “Butternut” served to smear the peace faction to the ear of the war's supporters, for they conjured images of deadly snakes and dingy rebel uniforms (dyed with butternut extract), but those who professed that faction's principles took little umbrage at the slurs. Many conservatives reveled in the names: Samuel Medary, editor of the Crisis in Columbus, Ohio, advertised the Copperhead emblem, or “Badge of Liberty,” consisting of the head of Liberty neatly cut from a U.S. large cent, the prewar penny: this pin could be had for fifteen cents. An entire congregation of New Hampshire ladies showed up for church one Sunday wearing those political tokens on their breasts. Others cut a cross-section from a butternut and mounted it on their lapels.
New Hampshire ran thick with antiwar sentiment, and that was especially true in the village of North Conway. That relatively affluent community provided only one volunteer during the entire war - a three-month man who enlisted in the hysteria after Fort Sumter - and the citizens openly embraced the name that was intended as an epithet. At the annual school meeting of District 8, just a couple of weeks after the state elections, the clerk recorded a decision to hire a female teacher, adding “that said teacher shall be a good Copper head.”
Still, Democrats shuddered at the ferocity of the names and threats cast their way - in print and in person. Soldiers who had never done much damage to the enemy boasted that they would “have a settlement” with those who opposed their war, up to and including returning home to “hang the whole concern.” A Pennsylvania private imbued with equal portions of vengefulness and greed proposed stringing up the discontented element and distributing their property to the soldiers. General Sherman seriously considered the propriety of stripping the right to vote from men who did not support the war, including those who simply failed to enlist. Perhaps forgetting that many of the war's worst critics had objected to it from the start, supporters and soldiers scolded the peace men for not abandoning their seemingly validated objections and helping the war party out of the very predicament those peace men had foreseen.
Some in the army made common cause with the peace movement, finding worse fault with abolitionists for bringing on the crisis, but even many of those soldiers who entertained their own doubts about the struggle appeared not to comprehend the similarities between their concerns and those of the antiwar element at home. Writing home from camp, many soldiers plainly refused to recognize any civilian's right to an opinion about a war he had not witnessed personally, while exaggeration and innuendo about Democratic aims and actions broadened the gulf between those in and out of uniform. Many soldiers credited the opposition with having prolonged the fighting, either by depriving the army of men and materials or by encouraging the enemy to hold out longer, and men who had taken up arms out of sincere national devotion held their critics in bitter contempt.
Political differences frequently wrought sharp family rifts. Private Christopher McCracken, of the 20th Ohio, disowned his brother after an exchange of views on the war: “Sam need not call him Brother,” explained a common friend. “He claims no connection with one who holds such opinions as Sam does.” A lieutenant in an Indiana regiment on the Rappahannock learned that spring that the Copperheads included his own brother, who promised that Democrats along the Wabash would resist the draft by force, if they had to, and that he would join them: the lieutenant and his fellow officers agreed that the draft should be enforced at all hazards, no matter who rose up against it. An Iowa woman divorced her husband after their antagonistic views on the war turned violent. In the Washington garrison, a nineteen-year-old Vermont sergeant jousted heatedly with his father, who fumed at the excesses of the Lincoln administration. The youth took his father to task for subscribing to the New York Herald, and hoped that on the way back to Vermont his regiment would stop to tear the Herald building to pieces. He dismissed his father's political complaints as “sneaking pretenses,” and likened him to a traitor. Eventually the sergeant referred to himself sarcastically as “your scapegrace of a son,” hypothesizing that their antithetical views could align them on opposite sides of a battlefield if the troops had to turn back to fight an internal uprising. Eventually the boy apologized for his insolence and reconciled with his father, at least temporarily, before borrowing money from him to buy his lieutenant's outfit.
New York socialites like George Templeton Strong seldom stooped to insulting language. The glee of an obvious snub pleased his circle better, and few could inflict one more deftly than Strong. Taking his evening meal at the Century Club after its monthly meeting, Strong chatted with a number of New York's most esteemed citizens, but he pointedly turned his back on one Augustus MacDonough, who was believed to be the author of some minor reviews in the fiercely captious New York World. Strong justified the discourtesy with some high-minded nitpicking of his own. “No one in any degree accessory to the daily treason of that infamous paper,” he wrote, “even as a mere contributor of opera and theatre criticism, should be cordially recognized by any loyal citizen of the United States.”
The battle lines lay at the edge of each faction's position, but it was the self-styled “loyal” citizens who seemed to guard their intellectual perimeter with the greater jealously, branding all who disagreed as traitors of the vilest stripe. Not that many weeks later, a New York colonel assessed the malicious impact of that relentless slander. “Copperhead” had become synonymous with “rebel sympathizer,” the colonel recognized, and it incensed him that “the name is so freely applied to anyone who dares to have an opinion in the slightest degree of variance with those in power, that few have strength of mind enough to utter them.” Name calling served as the first line of control for those who would accept nothing short of cheerful cooperation in their insistence on war; later conflicts would revive that tactic, producing pithy slogans designed to obscure the more substantive issues. Partisan pressure ultimately demanded such complete concurrence, the colonel observed, that Republicans had to tolerate some amusing inconsistencies to avoid contradicting or criticizing their leaders' actions.
Unionists countered the welling opposition with rallies of their own, but those Unionists included firm Democrats who found Lincoln weak and his party corrupt. An enthusiastic convention of that loyal opposition met at Democratic Union Hall in New York City on March 9, and many of those Democrats participated in the formation of the city's first Union League chapter a few days later. For all their ardent prosecution of the war, their willingness to find fault with the president and the government irritated lockstep Republicans, who, when elections drew near, tried to stigmatize all Democrats as traitors. The keynote speaker at the Union Hall meeting, Ohio congressman George Pendleton, would become one of the principal targets of Republican traduction.
The idea of an alliance between Republicans and War Democrats took hold nationwide. Brooklyn Academy filled to overflowing with a Union meeting on March 16, and others quickly followed in Toledo, Ohio, and New Haven, Connecticut, where another new Union League sprang to life. An event advertised as a “Union” rally drew a respectable audience to the German Theatre in Davenport, Iowa, on April 2, and that same evening New York's Union League sponsored another well-attended meeting at the Academy of Music, with speeches by major generals of national reputation, if not of particular genius. An activist coalition calling itself the Loyal National League sprang up in Portland, Maine, and others congregated under different names in most Northern cities of any size. A Union Club formed in faraway Brownville, Nebraska, complete with secret signs and passwords, and the commanding general in New Orleans provided space for a similar organization in that occupied metropolis.
The Union League of New York planned an immense demonstration in the city for April 11 (which organizers mistook for the anniversary of the April 12, 1861, attack on Fort Sumter), and Washington officials hoped to amplify that observance with news of a substantive accomplishment by the navy. In mid-March, navy secretary Gideon Welles received a naval officer bringing dispatches from Admiral Samuel DuPont and the squadron off Charleston: the department had been planning to strike a staggering blow there, and had been collecting an armada of heavily armored monitors like the formidable, double-turreted monster called the Keokuk. DuPont and the local army commanders wanted to change the program from a massed assault of ironclads pushing straight into the harbor to a more gradual series of attacks on the batteries posted around the mouth of the harbor. Welles preferred not to wait, and President Lincoln, who stopped in at the Navy Department while the courier was still there, firmly agreed. Resisting delay in his naval commanders as he so often had in his generals, Lincoln sent the officer back to Charleston with orders to get on with it. Then Welles dashed up to New York in secret, returning the night of March 16. Two days later Senator Edwin Sumner, of Massachusetts, learned that a fleet of nine ironclads, some steam transports, and a number of troopships had left New York Harbor, headed for Charleston. The following day the New York Times announced to the world that preparations were nearly complete for an attack on the birthplace of secession, but more than two weeks passed without further news. Welles expected the fight to take place a few days into April, but he went to bed the night of April 6 still curious and anxious, fearing the reluctance of his senior officers as much as the chance of failure.
For his reading material that evening Welles selected the first volume of the report of the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which had been released only that day by the Government Printing Office. The committee, chaired and dominated by Radical Republicans, had sprung from dissatisfaction and suspicion over the small but devastating defeat of Union forces at Ball's Bluff. The committee had already avenged itself on the commander there, Charles Stone, who had dared to criticize the congressmen's hypocrisy and had challenged their competence to judge strategic decisions: after six months of solitary confinement without charges and eight more months of enforced inactivity, Stone still sat idle at the Washington home of his father-in-law, awaiting an assignment in which he could use his considerable talents.
In its final report from the Thirty-seventh Congress, the committee turned on its most coveted victim, George B. McClellan, who was gaining popularity as a potential Democratic champion. Democratic newspapers gave the report a hostile welcome, finding in it “abundant evidence of malice against Gen. McClellan,” and indeed the evidence pointed to that bias. Although the committee had collected more testimony on other, earlier episodes of the war, the first volume focused primarily and pejoratively on McClellan and his command of the Army of the Potomac from July of 1861 until November of 1862, and most heavily on the operations of 1862. It began with the committee's very critical 64-page report and ended with 642 pages of testimony. By contrast, the committee's Radical majority supplied only four pages of strained flattery as a preface to the third volume of its report, which examined the chaotic and corrupt tenure of fellow Radical John C. Frémont as commander of the Department of theWest.
Private citizens, army officers, and government officials like Welles began devouring the report the moment it was released. The New York Times had already been publishing excerpts from galley proofs for a few days, warning of the document's intimidating bulk and announcing it, for those who preferred not to invest the time to read it, as a condemnation of McClellan's course. If anyone still doubted that assessment, the Times summarized the committee's jaundiced conclusions in an editorial blaming McClellan for virtually everything that had gone wrong while he commanded the army.
The accumulated denunciation worked the desired effect: within forty-eight hours of the report's release even those who had heretofore kept an open mind now seemed persuaded of McClellan's incompetence, or even treachery. Secretary Welles himself recognized the intensely partisan nature of the committee, as well as its dubious fitness to appraise the decisions of military operations, but his initial browsing of the report moved him to regard it as more accurate than he had expected. A Massachusetts surgeon skimmed the committee's findings and came away convinced of McClellan's “weakness.” A Maine lieutenant who had fought at Antietam under McClellan concluded, after reading the report by candlelight in his hut, that the committee had good reason to censure him. Responding only to the headlines of those papers that embraced the report, Washington's commissioner of public buildings defended McClellan in a letter to his brother: “Poor McClellan was ostracized for not doing what nobody else seems able to do,” remarked Benjamin Brown French, but then he dove into that first volume, the narrative portion of which consumed four hours alone, and a few weeks later he revised his impression. “I take back every word I ever said in favor of 'Little Mack,'” he confessed to his McClellan-hating sister-in-law. “I . . . have come to the deliberate conclusion that he is a mixture of coward, traitor, and imbecile, . . . It is now perfectly evident that, but for him, this war would now have been among the things that were.”
The committee report illustrated and aggravated the divergent public perception of the conflict that spring. With some cause, Democrats viewed the assault on McClellan as an attack on their party and its conservative principles. With equal partisan suspicion, Republicans saw the Democrats' defense of McClellan as an indication of deteriorating national loyalty in the opposition party. A similar rift had afflicted the Army of the Potomac for several months, beginning when McClellan was superseded by Ambrose Burnside, and McClellan's partisans among the generals had badly undermined Burnside's performance with their discouraging talk, hesitancy, and outright interference.
William B. Franklin fell into the vortex of that controversy. He had permitted two generals to leave the army on the eve of a major movement so they could lobby the president to countermand Burnside's orders, and Lincoln had injudiciously allowed their insubordination to succeed, thereby ending Burnside's effectiveness as a commander. Franklin's perfidy in that instance caused Burnside and others to look back on Franklin's lackluster performance at Fredericksburg and wonder whether he had not held back much of his strength to assure Burnside's failure there, too. In fact Franklin's relative lethargy on the left wing in the battle had originated in miscommunication between himself and Burnside, but political animosities had also played an indirect role through the excessive caution they prompted Franklin to exercise. McClellan's closest confidant, Major General Fitz John Porter, was then on trial in Washington on a thickly embroidered charge of battlefield disobedience that disguised his real crime of contempt for the Radical agenda: as one of Franklin's more dispassionate division commanders noted, in the event of disaster Franklin might have feared similar retribution if he had exceeded his orders. Republican papers used Burnside's committee testimony to blame Franklin for the defeat at Fredericksburg, and a letter promptly appeared telling Franklin's side of the story, including the not-quite-accurate explanation that he had failed to attack because he lacked any orders to do so. Waiting for orders in New York, Franklin hastily prepared a more extensive defense, publishing it a month after the report came out in a fat pamphlet with maps that demonstrated a slight, but critical, misunderstanding of the battlefield.
The dispute with Franklin merely echoed the greater one over McClellan, and the reciprocating volleys of recrimination that spring ended lifelong friendships, like the one between McClellan and Burnside, each of whom felt betrayed by the other. Common friends strove to avoid the two generals' conflict - not always with success - and the controversy split the Army of the Potomac even more sharply than it did the public. The professional soldiers in particular still judged McClellan the best of the generals they had yet seen, cherishing “the greatest regard and admiration for him” long after he left the army. Vast numbers of enlisted men hoped for his reinstatement, resenting both Lincoln's decision to remove him and the Radicals' campaign against him. The McClellan loyalists in the ranks included many whose politics clashed with the general's, but who remembered him as the man who had led them to their only semblance of victory. “Only give him back to us,” wrote a private in the Vermont brigade, where McClellan retained enormous popularity, “and we will follow him to the end of the earth if nead be.”
The improbability of McClellan's return bore less on his military competence than on his politics, for despite his fervent Unionism he failed to embrace the goal of emancipation so ardently sought by the Radical Republicans. The Radicals viewed that sort of disagreement as a disloyalty akin to treason, and the antagonism between their motivation and McClellan's defined an internal civil war that would plague the nation as long as the shooting lasted.
Meet the Author
WILLIAM MARVEL’s many acclaimed books on the Civil War include The Great Task Remaining, Lincoln's Darkest Year, Mr. Lincoln Goes to War, and Andersonville. He has won a Lincoln Prize, the Douglas Southall Freeman Award, and the Bell Award.
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