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The mercury stood at twenty degrees when daylight woke Washington City on the morning of February 5, 1862. A fringe of snow still decorated the perimeters of buildings and byways, but for the first time in many days a brilliant sun climbed over the unfinished dome of the United States Capitol. Under rising temperatures and endless caravans of army wagons, the streets quickly softened from frozen ruts into rivers of mud, and ambitious boys stood by to maintain the foot crossings in the hope of copper tokens tossed by grateful pedestrians.
Inside the Capitol, the nation’s leaders needed no sunlight to warm them to their work. That morning, in the upper house, forty-seven U.S. Senators impatiently discussed a few momentous issues of taxation and expenditure before resuming debate on a resolution to expel one of their own members. The topic had dominated Senate business for most of the previous fortnight, and the senior senator from New Hampshire feared that it would consume the entire session, yet still his colleagues rose one by one to belabor points that they or others had already hammered home.
For nearly seventeen years had Jesse Bright occupied a desk on the Democratic side of the aisle. He had known and admired Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, and the previous winter Bright had obliged one of his legal clients with a letter of introduction to Davis in his capacity as President of the Confederate States of America. Thomas B. Lincoln wished to market an unspecified improvement in firearms, and Judge Bright gave him a letter similar to others he had supplied Lincoln in recommendation to U.S. military officials. The letter bore a date of March 1, 1861, six weeks before any hostilities had erupted between North and South, when manufacturers and entrepreneurs across the North were seeking an audience with either Davis or his secretary of war. Even the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee found nothing in the letter that could warrant expulsion, and recommended defeat of the resolution, but Bright’s enemies refused to let mere evidentiary deficiency stand in the way of partisan vengeance. They clung to their accusation of retroactive treason, corroborating it with the damning detail that Bright had actually addressed Davis as “President of the Confederation of States.” On January 10 the chamber had expelled both of Missouri’s senators for abandoning their seats to join their state legislature in its struggle against federal authority. There had been little question on that matter: each was removed by a unanimous vote that Bright himself supported. Bright hailed from Indiana, however, and his state remained loyal to the Union. So did Bright, except that he lacked enthusiasm for Abraham Lincoln’s war against the South, and there lay the rub.
Bright regarded compromise as the only possible means of restoring the Union, and he supposed that the attempt to conquer the Southern states by military force had only made permanent division more certain. Most Northerners in and out of office had responded to the attack on Fort Sumter with nonpartisan enthusiasm. A vocal minority of Democrats had warned that the war to restore the Union would turn into an abolition crusade, and others had despaired of ever winning the South back by the sword, but they had railed against a tidal wave of intolerant nationalistic fervor. That fervor had already allowed the government to squelch the most effective and rabid newspaper criticism by stopping distribution, seizing equipment, and arresting publishers. Unionist mobs had collaborated in that suppression of free speech during the summer of 1861, destroying the offices of antiwar journals and attacking the editors. Languishing in the bowels of a coastal fort through the winter, Francis Scott Key’s own grandson understood how dangerous it had become to utter an unpopular opinion in the Land of the Free.
Now, the party that dominated the United States Senate intended to formalize the concept that meaningful dissent amounted to treason. Resignations and military service had reduced attendance in the Senate chamber from sixty-eight to forty-seven, of whom thirty-four either acknowledged or demonstrated allegiance to the Republican Party, and that should have yielded the two-thirds majority necessary to expel any of the remaining Democrats. Undeterred, therefore, by the discouraging Judiciary Committee report, on January 20 Minnesota Republican Morton Wilkinson produced another letter in which Senator Bright had expressed his opposition to the government’s coercive policies. The next day the haughty Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, remarked that Bright and his fellow Democrats had steadfastly opposed every measure thaat Sumner had supported in his ten years as a senator. For a moment he stopped there, as though that alone offered sufficient grounnnnnds to remove a fellow member, but then he concluded the day’s discussion by adding that Bright’s former associates were “now all of them engaged in open rebellion.” With those words Sumner smeared all dissenting Democrats with the taint of treason, and revealed the ulterior motive behind the resolution.
Through the rest of that week and into the next, Republicans parsed every clause of Bright’s letters, insinuating that he had deliberately colluded with men who were plotting to subdue Fort Sumter and denouncing his willingness to acknowledge Jefferson Davis as the president of a competing republic. Timothy Howe, a Republican freshman from Wisconsin, marked Bright as disloyal because “he is not prepared by his legislative action to maintain and uphold this Constitution” — in other words, because he could not be depended upon to vote with the Republican majority on war measures. Pennsylvanian David Wilmot seemed to condemn Bright for his friendship with Davis, the blackest of traitors, and he alleged that similarly diabolical associations had polluted “many gentlemen of the late Democratic party” — as though that organization no longer existed.
If the Democratic Party had not ceased to exist, it had certainly been emasculated. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee exemplified that shift, offering the Senate’s foremost example of those War Democrats who had aligned themselves with the Republicans in an overwhelming new pro- Union coalition. Johnson was the only senator who refused to resign when his state seceded, and he reflected the fierce sentiments of a region that knew no neutrality. Taking his cue from Sumner and Wilmot, Johnson enumerated the resignations and expulsions of various senators who had stood for peace, each of whom had since gone South. The implication emerged clearly in the Congressional Globe, which editors across the nation would quote: only a traitor would advocate peace.
Bright protested that he had heard so many different accusations since disposing of the original one that he hardly knew what to defend himself against. At one point he tried to explain the innocence of the Davis letter by remarking that he would do the same thing again, under identical circumstances. Quickly recognizing how easily his enemies could twist that statement, he asked the recorder for the Congressional Globe to delete it, but Republicans still jumped on it as evidence that he would correspond with the enemy president during active hostilities.
Few stood by him. Most of those who did shared his views, and might find themselves the next targets. The senators from the little slave state of Delaware, both Democrats, called for their fellow members to come to their senses.
“When a people are mad,” warned Willard Saulsbury, “their representatives are seldom wise.” He calculated that a third of the Senate’s surviving membership also believed —with Bright, and with most of the officers in the army —that war was neither a desirable nor an effective solution to the nation’s political difficulties. Would the Senate also vote to expel those other dissenting members? In reminding the chamber of the confused political atmosphere in March of 1861, California’s Milton Latham remarked that Bright was no more guilty of treason for writing to Davis than postal officials of the Lincoln administration were for delivering such letters to Confederate recipients, even after the shooting began.
Each senator had made up his mind by that sunny Wednesday of February 5. Three Northern Republicans and an old-line Whig sent by loyal Virginia’s rump legislature defended Bright, refusing to join the blatantly partisan ploy. Each of the four felt compelled to read last-minute statements justifying themselves to their constituents. Pennsylvania’s Edgar Cowan described himself as “utterly astounded” that so many senators stood ready to pervert the judicial process. John Ten Eyck of New Jersey alluded to friends who had warned him that a vote against expulsion would dig his political grave, and he asked that his epitaph read: “He dared to do what he thought was right.” That raised cheers and applause in one section of the gallery, but Vice President Hannibal Hamlin slammed his gavel down and demanded order. Those four apostates joined ten Democrats, mostly from border states and the West Coast, in voting against Bright’s removal. Andrew Johnson and one other War Democrat sided with the other thirty Republicans, though, and their two votes tipped the scales. The day’s debate ended with one of the most senior members of the U.S. Senate stripped of his office by a bare two-thirds majority — ostensibly because he had betrayed his country, but in reality because he favored peace and lacked the requisite animosity for slavery. This time another quadrant of the gallery erupted in applause, and the gavel sounded again. An Iowa senator rose to introduce a currency bill, but his colleagues refused to hear him; they had accomplished all the work they intended to do that day, and the senators adjourned to the hotels to discuss the effects of their decision.
Some of them wished to end their day early in order to prepare for a grand party that had occupied Mary Lincoln’s attention for some weeks. The Lincolns had hosted a few rather plain dinners and public receptions, but Mrs. Lincoln evidently wanted something more memorable as her own inauguration ceremony. The First Lady, whom White House employees had taken to calling the “American Queen,” laid out an elaborate feast. She received her guests in the East Room, where the bodies of two colonels had lain in state within the previous nine months — both of them friends of the president, killed during invasions of Confederate Virginia. Scores of the five hundred invited guests had declined their invitations, at least some of them because they thought it insensitive to enjoy lavish parties during such a war, but hundreds of the most powerful people in the country attended.
The president’s wife spared little extravagance, as her own attire illustrated. She wore a white gown cut indiscreetly low in the front, trailing a fathom or two of silk behind her, with so ornate a floral headdress that one unfriendly senator described her as wearing a flowerpot on her head. Solons mingled with generals, admirals, Supreme Court justices, and foreign consuls, at least some of whom still considered President Lincoln a vulgar provincial lacking in either sincerity or statesmanlike qualities. The doorman admitted no one without a personal invitation. His own invitation must have offered some comfort to Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, who had run afoul of some of Washington’s more powerful and ruthless politicians. Stone had figured prominently in the city’s security since the first days of secession, but that earned him no gratitude among the radicals who intended to ruin him, and he spent the early part of the levee rubbing elbows with the high and mighty of his country for the last time in his life.
John Charles Frémont, the Pathfinder of Western renown, attended the party with his ambitious wife, Jessie. Frémont had been removed from command of Union forces in Missouri three months before, and he lingered in the capital while awaiting a new assignment. He wore a full dress uniform, with the Prussian Cross of Merit dangling from his neck; Jessie had rifled the trunk of a secessionist Missouri cousin to come up with a stunning dress in white and violet tulle. The couple tried to take their leave in the shank of the evening, but Senator Sumner and the president himself hurried out to call them back: Sumner took Mrs. Frémont by the arm, and the president escorted Frémont back into the East Room. It seemed that Frémont had never met Major General George B. McClellan, and McClellan wished to make his acquaintance. Jessie took McClellan’s hand in cool courtesy, deeming him the man responsible for her husband’s current inactivity.
General McClellan, the thirty-five-year-old commander of the vast Army of the Potomac that sprawled around Washington and northern Virginia, had also assumed control of the rest of the country’s armies at the beginning of November, just as Frémont had been relieved in Missouri. The two generals held conflicting political viewpoints: Frémont had been the Republican Party’s first candidate for president, back in 1856, and McClellan would carry the standard of the Democratic Party in 1864. Frémont had already embarrassed the administration with a premature proclamation emancipating the slaves of alleged Missouri Confederates, while McClellan had already perturbed the more radical Republicans by his reluctance to interfere with slavery at all.
Those radicals had declared war on conservative generals like McClellan, just as they had combined against Senator Bright. Like most of the soldiers in the army that winter, McClellan had donned a uniform solely to defeat secession, rather than to free slaves, but the radicals could fathom no loyalty that resisted abolition. They had descended with full fury upon General Stone, who had been unfortunate enough to lose a battle and then injudicious enough to observe the federal laws governing the return of fugitive slaves to their masters. At McClellan’s headquarters there lay a War Department order for him to arrest General Stone on vague imputations of treason, with no more evidence than hearsay and malicious insinuation. McClellan still hesitated to carry out the order even as he shook Frémont’s hand, for he fully understood that Stone had been targeted in place of himself, and perhaps as a means of marking the commanding general for future disposal.
The East Room doubtless hummed with the stunning news of Senator Bright’s removal, and with speculation on its implications for others who did not share the radical view of slavery and the war. The revelry and ruminations continued into the wee hours of the morning, and when the last of the guests had gone home some of the dining room staff fell into combat over the remaining refreshments, leaving the rest of the kitchen help stepping over broken bottles and battered skulls.
The success of the cabal against Bright seemed to encourage the radicals to further vigor against Stone, whose persecution began almost the moment Mrs. Lincoln’s party ended. A few hours after the White House kitchen fracas, General McClellan’s spy chief, Allan Pinkerton, submitted a report of his interview with a refugee from Leesburg, Virginia, who maintained that General Stone was well respected among the Confederate officers in that vicinity. The refugee’s babble provided no substantive evidence that Stone harbored any disloyalty to his cause or his country, but it gave an opportunistic new chief of the War Department all he needed to sacrifice one of his generals: when McClellan delivered the report to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton a couple of days later, Stanton told him to have Stone cast immediately into Fort Lafayette, where the government confined avowed and suspected secessionists.
Stanton had just taken over the department from Simon Cameron, a machine politician who combined a lack of competence with a tolerance for impropriety. Despite lifelong adherence to the Democratic Party (he had served as attorney general to the hated James Buchanan), Stanton had won Senate confirmation a few weeks before with the full support of the radicals, whom he had met in private to convince them of his conversion.
The Senate radicals were led by the likes of Ben Wade, of Ohio, and Zachariah Chandler, of Michigan, both of whom sat on the newly formed Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Wade struck some colleagues as more interested in winning the presidency than the war, and he chaired the committee, which scrutinized military operations from a blatantly partisan perspective reflecting its domination by Radical Republicans. These men had come to loathe the Democrat McClellan: Wade and Chandler had both been told (and now seemed to believe) that McClellan and his coterie held strong proslavery sentiments, and that McClellan refrained from waging aggressive war lest it interfere with that institution. On the evening of his first official day in office, Stanton invited the entire joint committee to meet with him; their late- night discussion may have inspired Chairman Wade’s official inquiry, the next day, about the statutory legitimacy of McClellan’s assignment as general in chief. A week into Stanton’s tenure Wade sent the three most ardent Republicans on his committee to ply the new secretary with a sheaf of hearsay testimony against General Stone, and the following morning Stanton wrote the initial order for Stone’s arrest. The peremptory order that later sent Stone to Fort Lafayette apparently represented Stanton’s fulfillment of a venal compact with the radicals, for the secretary was too astute a lawyer to consider the evidence against Stone sufficient for arrest, let alone conviction.
Stanton would exercise a cool, dictatorial demeanor when he came to feel secure in his power, but during the first few weeks after his appointment he devoted much time to ingratiating himself with those whose hostility could harm him as much as their good will might help him. He made an early friend of Charles A. Dana, who managed Horace Greeley’s influential New York Tribune, and Dana published a flattering piece introducing Stanton as the new head of the War Department. Stanton replied in gushing gratitude, and the two corresponded every few days thereafter, with Stanton characterizing their aims and reasoning as virtually identical. Recalling that the Tribune had always demanded aggressive military action from the administration, Stanton lamented the lassitude of the army around Washington. In a letter to Dana dated February 7, Stanton remarked that “we have had no war; we have not even been playing war.” He told the Tribune’s managing editor that the government should have an army of a hundred thousand men sweeping through Kentucky and Tennessee to crush rebellion there.
As it happened, some Union soldiers were playing rather seriously at war in Kentucky and Tennessee while Secretary Stanton courted his newspaper advocate. For nine months the more prominent battlefield confrontations had all gone to the Confederates, who fought defensively on home territory, and that trend had helped weaken public enthusiasm for the struggle. Suddenly the tide seemed to turn. Within days of Stanton’s confirmation, a Union division thrashed a couple of Confederate brigades in a fight near a collection of log cabins known as Logan’s Crossroads, in southern Kentucky. In the ensuing darkness the Southerners fled south of the Cumberland River and headed toward Nashville, leaving behind their artillery, their wagons, and all their horses, thereby abandoning the right flank of the entire Confederate defensive network across lower Kentucky.
Early in February, near the western end of the Confederate line, a larger Union army from Cairo started up the Tennessee River under Brigadier General Ulysses Grant. This Grant had not done well in life, and he did not enjoy the complete confidence of his professional peers. Major General Henry Halleck, Grant’s immediate superior in St. Louis, had been observing the brigadier at a distance for nearly six months when he revealed privately that Grant, though brave enough under fire, seemed not to know how to organize troops for action or how to conduct a campaign. A Regular Army colonel who may have known of Grant in the Mexican War, and who retired to St. Louis while Grant lived there, remarked that Grant owned a long-standing reputation for being “little better than a common gambler and drunkard.” He had not entirely shed that reputation, either: a quartermaster whom he arrested at Cairo filed formal charges accusing Grant of becoming “beastly drunk” during a flag-of-truce cruise to Columbus, Kentucky, as well as drinking with Confederate officers there and imbibing heavily in Cairo since.
The previous November, Grant had led an amphibious expedition down the Mississippi to Belmont, Missouri, where his command attacked a small Confederate camp but accomplished little of substance. They captured some ordnance and prisoners, but rebel reinforcements counterattacked and Grant’s troops abandoned nearly everything. They fled precipitously back to their boats, leaving behind almost half their wounded and a thousand muskets, complete with ammunition and accoutrements. Grant tried to buff his account of Belmont by exaggerating his trophies and minimizing his losses, and Union veterans of the battle kept looking for something positive about it into the next century, but in fact they and Grant had narrowly averted disaster. The raid has been credited with some arguable advantages of an indirect and intangible nature, but objective contemporary observers must have seen it as a pointless and fairly costly frolic.
This time, several ironclad gunboats of the U.S. Navy accompanied Grant’s convoy up the Tennessee. A poorly designed earthwork known as Fort Henry blocked the river just as it crossed into Tennessee, but the gunboats beat the place into submission on February 6, before Grant’s army could even surround it. Less than a dozen miles to the east, Fort Donelson guarded the Cumberland River, which ran parallel to the Tennessee. Confederate troops concentrated at Donelson for a more spirited defense while all but two of the gunboats turned back down the river to the Ohio, then up the Cumberland in a roundabout route more than 120 miles long. The other two gunboats steamed upriver all the way across Tennessee to Florence, Alabama, destroying and capturing Southern steamboats on a reconnaissance intended more for psychological effect and propaganda value than for military advantage. During their foray the naval officers found the citizens of Tennessee and northern Alabama at least pretending to harbor warm Union sentiments in those communities where they docked.
Grant had the shorter route: he simply faced his troops about and marched overland to snare the Fort Donelson garrison. In a February 14 attack on the fort, the gunboats fared much worse than they had at Fort Henry, and ultimately Grant had to take Donelson himself. That did not turn out to be especially easy. Knowing that they would be trapped inside the fort, the Confederate garrison hit Grant’s lines hard on the morning of February 15, trying to open an escape route to the south; the attack caught his troops by surprise while he was away from his headquarters. The Southerners flung back Grant’s right wing, and when he arrived on the scene, half his army was falling back in disorder. He had taken a significant risk in isolating his army on the peninsula between the rivers, and he seemed about to reap the fruits of that recklessness, as though to confirm the doubts about his capacity.
Friendly observers might lionize Grant for rapidly assessing the situation and arranging a counterattack, but his major contribution lay — as it always would — in his failure to panic. Against a more competent opponent there might have been little he could have done to salvage the situation. He called for a charge to “save appearances” after sending a desperate dispatch to the commander of the gunboats. His call for aid from the navy revealed that he feared defeat without some outside help, but the principal help of that sort came, finally, from the Confederate leadership. Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, whose troops had driven Grant from the field at Belmont, inexplicably squandered the initiative. Just as his road to safety lay wide open, and Pillow might have turned on the Yankees to threaten their supply line, he called his men back to their trenches around the fort. Union troops swept back across the roads Pillow had opened, sealing Donelson’s fate. The two senior Confederate generals — Pillow and Virginian John B. Floyd, who had served with dubious distinction as James Buchanan’s secretary of war — commandeered the only available steamboats; on these they slipped away with some of their troops. Most of the Southern cavalry also avoided the trap by wading through icy marshes, but on February 16 Grant demanded and received the unconditional surrender of Fort Donelson with some twelve thousand prisoners. In four short weeks all Kentucky had been liberated from Confederate grasp, and Tennessee lay ripe for invasion.
While Grant seized the rivers leading into Tennessee, Ambrose Burnside began taking control of the North Carolina coast. The evening after Fort Henry capitulated, Burnside landed an amphibious force on Roanoke Island. The following morning he maneuvered his untried troops through knee- deep water and a murderous fire, finally dispersing the ill-equipped Confederate garrison and capturing nearly three thousand more of the enemy. That gave Burnside a base for operations against North Carolina’s sounds: with Grant breaking through to the west and Burnside gnawing away at Confederate territory on the east, it appeared that Virginia might be cut off completely. Those dual incursions cast a somber atmosphere over the Confederate capital, where some began wondering whether independence would be worth a long and devastating struggle.
Northern citizens who had nearly given up hope for Mr. Lincoln’s war rejoiced even at the first word of Fort Henry’s fall, which had yielded fewer than a hundred prisoners and only limited strategic significance. Charles Eliot Norton, one of the Cambridge literati who had considered the prospect for victory fading fast in December, remarked gleefully on the Tennessee tidings as early as February 9. Commanding a brigade in an isolated corner of Kentucky, Colonel James A. Garfield wrote a friend that he was “beginning to feel encouraged in regard to the war.” A Pennsylvania soldier who would die on a Georgia battlefield nineteen months hence told the folks at home that the war was essentially over, and seriously announced that the family might expect him home around the first of April. The complete triumphs at Roanoke and Donelson set bells to ringing throughout the loyal states; ceremonial cannon disgorged robust salutes from the Mason-Dixon Line to the Canadian border, and the bigger towns hosted eerie “illuminations.” A young Quaker woman from Delaware who vacillated between instinctive pacifism and nationalist inclinations welcomed an end to “the winter of our discontent.” Southern hopes ebbed as the Union star rose. A Maine woman who had cast her lot with a Southern husband shared the gloom of her Georgia neighbors over the rash of Union successes. From her Shenandoah Valley farm the wife of a Confederate soldier in the Stonewall Brigade reacted venomously to the victories of those “murdering vandals,” and while she still hoped for independence she shuddered at the slaughter and sacrifice it would require. South Carolina churches announced two days of fasting and prayer within a single week, while many among those thousands of discouraged Confederate prisoners seemed ready to take the oath of allegiance and resume their former citizenship.