This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
  • 1893
Buy it on Amazon FREE Audible 30 days

Postmaster-General Blair and General Meigs being added to the council. The postmaster-general condemned a direct advance as “strategically defective,” while Chase descanted on the “moral power” of a victory. The picture of the two civilians injecting their military suggestions is not reassuring. Meigs is somewhat vaguely reported to have favored a “battle in front.”

McDowell and Franklin had not felt justified in communicating these occurrences to McClellan, because the President had marked his order to them “private and confidential.” But the commander heard rumors of what was going forward,[156] and on January 12 he came from his sick-room to see the President; he was “looking quite well,” and apparently was “able to assume the charge of the army.” The apparition put a different complexion upon the pending discussions. On the 13th the same gentlemen met, but now with the addition of General McClellan. The situation was embarrassing. McClellan took scant pains to conceal his resentment. McDowell, at the request of the President, explained what he thought could be done, closing “by saying something apologetic;” to which McClellan replied, “somewhat coldly if not curtly: ‘You are entitled to have any opinion you please.'” Secretary Chase, a leader among the anti-McClellanites, bluntly asked the general to explain his military plans in detail; but McClellan declined to be interrogated except by the President, or by the secretary of war, who was not present. Finally, according to McClellan’s account, which differs a little but not essentially from that of McDowell, Mr. Lincoln suggested[157] that he should tell what his plans were. McClellan replied, in substance, that this would be imprudent and seemed unnecessary, and that he would only give information if the President would order him in writing to do so, and would assume the responsibility for the results.[158] McDowell adds (but McClellan does not), that the President then asked McClellan “if he had counted upon any particular time; he did not ask what that time was, but had he in his own mind any particular time fixed, when a movement could be commenced. He replied, he had. ‘Then,’ rejoined the President, ‘I will adjourn this meeting.'” This unfortunate episode aggravated the discord, and removed confidence and cooeperation farther away than ever before.

The absence of the secretary of war from these meetings was due to the fact that a change in the War Department was in process contemporaneously with them. The President had been allowed to understand that Mr. Cameron did not find his duties agreeable, and might prefer a diplomatic post. Accordingly, with no show of reluctance, Mr. Lincoln, on January 11, 1862, offered to Mr. Cameron the post of minister to Russia. It was promptly accepted, and on January 13 Edwin M. Stanton was nominated and confirmed to fill the vacancy.[159] The selection was a striking instance of the utter absence of vindictiveness which so distinguished Mr. Lincoln, who, in fact, was simply insensible to personal feeling as an influence. In choosing incumbents for public trusts, he knew no foe, perhaps no friend; but as dispassionately as if he were manoeuvring pieces on a chessboard, he considered only which available piece would serve best in the square which he had to fill. In 1859 he and Stanton had met as associate counsel in perhaps the most important lawsuit in which Mr. Lincoln had ever been concerned, and Stanton had treated Lincoln with his habitual insolence.[160] Later, in the trying months which closed the year 1861, Stanton had abused the administration with violence, and had carried his revilings of the President even to the point of coarse personal insults.[161] No man, not being a rebel, had less right to expect an invitation to become an adviser of the President; and most men, who had felt or expressed the opinions held by Mr. Stanton, would have had scruples or delicacy about coming into the close relationship of confidential adviser with the object of their contempt; but neither scruples nor delicacy delayed him; his acceptance was prompt.[162]

[Illustration: Edwin M. Stanton]

So Mr. Lincoln had chosen his secretary solely upon the belief of the peculiar fitness of the individual for the special duties of the war office. Upon the whole the choice was wisely made, and was evidence of Mr. Lincoln’s insight into the aptitudes and the uses of men. Stanton’s abilities commanded some respect, though his character never excited either respect or liking; just now, however, all his good qualities and many of his faults seemed precisely adapted to the present requirements of his department. He had been a Democrat, but was now zealous to extremity in patriotism; in his dealings with men he was capable of much duplicity, yet in matters of business he was rigidly honest, and it was his pleasure to protect the treasury against the contractors; he loved work, and never wearied amid the driest and most exacting toil; he was prompt and decisive rather than judicial or correct in his judgments concerning men and things; he was arbitrary, harsh, bad-tempered, and impulsive; he often committed acts of injustice or cruelty, for which he rarely made amends, and still more rarely seemed disturbed by remorse or regret. These traits bore hard upon individuals; but ready and unscrupulous severity was supposed to have its usefulness in a civil war. Many a time he taxed the forbearance of the President to a degree that would have seemed to transcend the uttermost limit of human patience, if Mr. Lincoln had not taken these occasions to show to the world how forbearing and patient it is possible for man to be. But those who knew the relations of the two men are agreed that Stanton, however browbeating he was to others, recognized a master in the President, and, though often grumbling and insolent, always submitted if a crisis came. Undoubtedly Mr. Lincoln was the only ruler known to history who could have cooeperated for years with such a minister. He succeeded in doing so because he believed it to be for the good of the cause, to which he could easily subordinate all personal considerations; and posterity, agreeing with him, concedes to Stanton credit for efficiency in the conduct of his department.

It is worth while here to pause long enough to read part of a letter which, on this same crowded thirteenth day of January, 1862, the President sent to General Halleck, in the West: “For my own views: I have not offered, and do not now offer, them as orders; and while I am glad to have them respectfully considered, I would blame you to follow them contrary to your own clear judgment, unless I should put them in the form of orders…. With this preliminary, I state my general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail unless we can find some way of making our advantage an overmatch for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points at the same time, so that we can safely attack one or both if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.”

In a personal point of view this short letter is pregnant with interest and suggestion. The writer’s sad face, eloquent of the charge and burden of one of the most awful destinies of human-kind, rises before us as we read the expression of his modest self-distrust amid the strange duties of military affairs. But closely following this comes the intimation that in due time “_orders_” will come. Such was the quiet, unflinching way in which Lincoln always faced every test, apparently with a tranquil and assured faith that, whatever might seem his lack of fitting preparation, his best would be adequate to the occasion. The habit has led many to fancy that he believed himself divinely chosen, and therefore sure of infallible guidance; but it is observable far back, almost from the beginning of his life; it was a trait of mind and character, nothing else. The letter closes with a broad general theory concerning the war, wrought out by that careful process of thinking whereby he was wont to make his way to the big, simple, and fundamental truth. The whole is worth holding in memory through the narrative of the coming weeks.

The conference of January 13 developed a serious difference of opinion as to the plan of campaign, whenever a campaign should be entered upon. The President’s notion, already shadowed forth in his memorandum of December, was to move directly upon the rebel army at Centreville and Manassas and to press it back upon Richmond, with the purpose of capturing that city. But McClellan presented as his project a movement by Urbana and West Point, using the York River as a base of supplies. General McDowell and Secretary Chase favored the President’s plan; General Franklin and Postmaster Blair thought better of McClellan’s. The President had a strong fancy for his own scheme, because by it the Union army was kept between the enemy and Washington; and therefore the supreme point of importance, the safety of the national capital, was insured. The discussion, which was thus opened and which remained long unsettled, had, among other ill effects, that of sustaining the vexatious delay. While the anti-McClellan faction–for the matter was becoming one of factions[163]–grew louder in denunciation of his inaction, and fastened upon him the contemptuous nickname of “the Virginia creeper,” the friends of the general retorted that the President, meddling in what he did not understand, would not let the military commander manage the war.

Nevertheless Mr. Lincoln, dispassionate and fair-minded as usual, allowed neither their personal difference of opinion nor this abusive outcry to inveigle into his mind any prejudice against McClellan. The Southerner who, in February, 1861, predicted that Lincoln “would do his own thinking,” read character well. Lincoln was now doing precisely this thing, in his silent, thorough, independent way, neither provoked by McClellan’s cavalier assumption of superior knowledge, nor alarmed by the danger of offending the politicians. In fact, he decided to go counter to both the disputants; for he resolved, on the one hand, to compel McClellan to act; on the other, to maintain him in his command. He did not, however, abandon his own plan of campaign. On January 27, as commander-in-chief of the army, he issued his “General War Order No. 1.” In this he directed “that the 22d day of February, 1862, be the day for a general movement of the land and naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces;” and said that heads of departments and military and naval commanders would “be held to their strict and full responsibilities for prompt execution of this order.” By this he practically repudiated McClellan’s scheme, because transportation and other preparations for pursuing the route by Urbana could not be made ready by the date named.

Critics of the President have pointed to this document as a fine instance of the follies to be expected from a civil ruler who conducts a war. To order an advance all along a line from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, upon a day certain, without regard to differing local conditions and exigencies, and to notify the enemy of the purpose nearly a month beforehand, were acts preposterous according to military science. But the criticism was not so fair as it was obvious. The order really bore in part the character of a manifesto; to the people of the North, whose confidence must be kept and their spirit sustained, it said that the administration meant action at once; to commanding officers it was a fillip, warning them to bestir themselves, obstacles to the contrary notwithstanding. It was a reveille. Further, in a general way it undoubtedly laid out a sound plan of campaign, substantially in accordance with that which McClellan also was evolving, viz.: to press the enemy all along the western and middle line, and thus to prevent his making too formidable a concentration in Virginia. In the end, however, practicable or impracticable, wise or foolish, the order was never fulfilled. The armies in Virginia did nothing till many weeks after the anniversary of Washington’s birthday; whereas, in the West, Admiral Foote and General Grant did not conceive that they were enforced to rest in idleness until that historic date. Before it arrived they had performed the brilliant exploits of capturing Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.

On January 31 the President issued “Special War Order No. 1,” directing the army of the Potomac to seize and occupy “a point upon the railroad southwestward of what is known as Manassas Junction;… the expedition to move before or on the 22d day of February next.” This was the distinct, as the general order had been the indirect, adoption of his own plan of campaign, and the overruling of that of the general. McClellan at once remonstrated, and the two rival plans thus came face to face for immediate and definitive settlement. It must be assumed that the President’s order had been really designed only to force exactly this issue; for on February 3, so soon as he received the remonstrance, he invited argument from the general by writing to him a letter which foreshadowed an open-minded reception for views opposed to his own:–

“If you will give satisfactory answers to the following questions, I shall gladly yield my plan to yours:–

“1st. Does not your plan involve a greatly larger expenditure of _time_ and _money_ than mine?

“2d. Wherein is a victory _more certain_ by your plan than mine?

“3d. Wherein is a victory _more valuable_ by your plan than mine?

“4th. In fact, would it not be _less_ valuable in this: that it would break no great line of the enemy’s communications, while mine would?

“5th. In case of disaster would not a retreat be more difficult by your plan than mine?”

To these queries McClellan replied by a long and elaborate exposition of his views. He said that, if the President’s plan should be pursued successfully, the “results would be confined to the possession of the field of battle, the evacuation of the line of the upper Potomac by the enemy, and the moral effect of the victory.” On the other hand, a movement in force by the route which he advocated “obliges the enemy to abandon his intrenched position at Manassas, in order to hasten to cover Richmond and Norfolk.” That is to say, he expected to achieve by a manoeuvre what the President designed to effect by a battle, to be fought by inexperienced troops against an intrenched enemy. He continued: “This movement, if successful, gives us the capital, the communications, the supplies, of the rebels; Norfolk would fall; all the waters of the Chesapeake would be ours; all Virginia would be in our power, and the enemy forced to abandon Tennessee and North Carolina. The alternative presented to the enemy would be, to beat us in a position selected by ourselves, disperse, or pass beneath the Caudine forks.” In case of defeat the Union army would have a “perfectly secure retreat down the Peninsula upon Fort Monroe.” “This letter,” he afterward wrote, “must have produced some effect upon the mind of the President!” The slur was unjust. The President now and always considered the views of the general with a liberality of mind rarely to be met with in any man, and certainly never in McClellan himself. In this instance the letter did in fact produce so much “effect upon the mind of the President” that he prepared to yield views which he held very strongly to views which he was charged with not being able to understand, and which he certainly could not bring himself actually to believe in.

Yet before quite taking this step he demanded that a council of the generals of division should be summoned to express their opinions. This was done, with the result that McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, and Barnard voted against McClellan’s plan; Keyes voted for it, with the proviso “that no change should be made until the rebels were driven from their batteries on the Potomac.” Fitz-John Porter, Franklin, W.F. Smith, McCall, Blenker, Andrew Porter, and Naglee (of Hooker’s division) voted for it. Stanton afterward said of this: “We saw ten generals afraid to fight.” The insult, delivered in the snug personal safety which was suspected to be very dear to Stanton, was ridiculous as aimed at men who soon handled some of the most desperate battles of the war; but it is interesting as an expression of the unreasoning bitterness of the controversy then waging over the situation in Virginia, a controversy causing animosities vastly more fierce than any between Union soldiers and Confederates, animosities which have unfortunately lasted longer, and which can never be brought to the like final and conclusive arbitrament. The purely military question quickly became snarled up with politics and was reduced to very inferior proportions in the noxious competition. “Politics entered and strategy retired,” says General Webb, too truly. McClellan himself conceived that the politicians were leagued to destroy him, and would rather see him discredited than the rebels whipped. In later days the strong partisan loves and hatreds of our historical writers have perpetuated and increased all this bad blood, confusion, and obscurity.

The action of the council of generals was conclusive. The President accepted McClellan’s plan. Therein he did right; for undeniably it was his duty to allow his own inexperience to be controlled by the deliberate opinion of the best military experts in the country; and this fact is wholly independent of any opinion concerning the intrinsic or the comparative merits of the plans themselves. Indeed, Mr. Lincoln had never expressed positive disapproval of McClellan’s plan _per se_, but only had been alarmed at what seemed to him its indirect result in exposing the capital. To cover this point, he now made an imperative preliminary condition that this safety should be placed beyond a question. He was emphatic and distinct in reiterating this proviso as fundamental. The preponderance of professional testimony, from that day to this, has been to the effect that McClellan’s strategy was sound and able, and that Mr. Lincoln’s anxiety for the capital was groundless. But in spite of all argument, and though military men may shed ink as if it were mere blood, in spite even of the contempt and almost ridicule which the President incurred at the pen of McClellan,[164] the civilian will retain a lurking sympathy with the President’s preference. It is impossible not to reflect that precisely in proportion as the safety of the capital, for many weighty reasons, immeasurably outweighed any other possible consideration in the minds of the Northerners, so the desire to capture it would be equally overmastering in the estimation of the Southerners. Why might not the rebels permit McClellan to march into Richmond, provided that at the same time they were marching into Washington? Why might they not, in the language afterward used by General Lee, “swap Queens?” They would have a thousand fold the better of the exchange. The Northern Queen was an incalculably more valuable piece on the board than was her Southern rival. With the Northern government in flight, Maryland would go to the Confederacy, and European recognition would be sure and immediate; and these two facts might, almost surely would, be conclusive against the Northern cause. Moreover, memory will obstinately bring up the fact that long afterward, when General Grant was pursuing a route to Richmond strategically not dissimilar to that proposed by McClellan, and when all the circumstances made the danger of a successful attack upon Washington much less than it was in the spring of 1862, the rebels actually all but captured the city; and it was saved not alone by a rapidity of movement which would have been impossible in the early stages of the war, but also by what must be called the aid of good luck. It is difficult to see why General Jackson in 1862 might not have played in fatal earnest a game which in 1864 General Early played merely for the chances. Pondering upon these things, it is probable that no array of military scientists will ever persuade the non-military world that Mr. Lincoln was so timid, or so dull-witted, or so unreasonable, as General McClellan declared him to be.

Another consideration is suggested by some remarks of Mr. Swinton. It is tolerably obvious that, whether McClellan’s plan was or was not the better, the President’s plan was entirely possible; all that could be said against it was that it promised somewhat poorer results at somewhat higher cost. This being the case, and in view of the fact that the President’s disquietude concerning Washington was so profound and his distrust of McClellan’s plan so ineradicable, it would have been much better to have had the yielding come from the general than from the President. A man of less stubborn temper and of broader intellect than belonged to McClellan would have appreciated this. In fact, it was in a certain sense even poor generalship to enter upon a campaign of such magnitude, when a thorough and hearty cooeperation was really not to be expected. For after all might be ostensibly settled and agreed upon, and however honest might be Mr. Lincoln’s intentions to support the commanding general, one thing still remained certain: that the safety of the capital was Mr. Lincoln’s weightiest responsibility, that it was a matter concerning which he was sensitively anxious, and that he was perfectly sure in any moment of alarm concerning that safety to insure it by any means in his power and at any sacrifice whatsoever. In a word, that which soon did happen was precisely that which ought to have been foreseen as likely to happen. For it was entirely obvious that Mr. Lincoln did not abandon his own scheme because his own reason was convinced of the excellence of McClellan’s; in fact, he never was and never pretended to be thus convinced. To his mind, McClellan’s reasoning never overcame his own reasoning; he only gave way before professional authority; and, while he sincerely meant to give McClellan the most efficient aid and backing in his power, the anxiety about Washington rested immovable in his thought. If the two interests should ever, in his opinion, come into competition, no one could doubt which would be sacrificed. To push forward the Peninsula campaign under these conditions was a terrible mistake of judgment on McClellan’s part. Far better would it have been to have taken the Manassas route; for even if its inherent demerits were really so great as McClellan had depicted, they would have been more than offset by preserving the undiminished cooeperation of the administration. The personal elements in the problem ought to have been conclusive.

An indication of the error of forcing the President into a course not commended by his judgment, in a matter where his responsibility was so grave, was seen immediately. On March 8 he issued General War Order No. 3: That no change of base should be made “without leaving in and about Washington such a force as, in the opinion of the general-in-chief and the commanders of army corps, shall leave said city entirely secure;” that not more than two corps (about 50,000 men) should be moved en route for a new base until the Potomac, below Washington, should be freed from the Confederate batteries; that any movement of the army via Chesapeake Bay should begin as early as March 18, and that the general-in-chief should be “responsible that it moves as early as that day.” This greatly aggravated McClellan’s dissatisfaction; for it expressed the survival of the President’s anxiety, it hampered the general, and by its last clause it placed upon him a responsibility not properly his own.

Yet at this very moment weighty evidence came to impeach the soundness of McClellan’s opinion concerning the military situation. On February 27 Secretary Chase wrote that the time had come for dealing decisively with the “army in front of us,” which he conceived to be already so weakened that “a victory over it is deprived of half its honor.” Not many days after this writing, the civilian strategists, the President and his friends, seemed entitled to triumph. For on March 7, 8, and 9 the North was astonished by news of the evacuation of Manassas by Johnston. At once the cry of McClellan’s assailants went up: If McClellan had only moved upon the place! What a cheap victory he would have won, and attended with what invaluable “moral effects”! Yet, forsooth, he had been afraid to move upon these very intrenched positions which it now appeared that the Confederates dared not hold even when unthreatened! But McClellan retorted that the rebels had taken this backward step precisely because they had got some hint of his designs for advancing by Urbana, and that it was the exact fulfillment, though inconveniently premature, of his predictions. This explanation, however, wholly failed to prevent the civilian mind from believing that a great point had been scored on behalf of the President’s plan. Further than this, there were many persons, including even a majority of the members of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, who did not content themselves with mere abuse of McClellan’s military intelligence, but who actually charged him with being disaffected and nearly, if not quite, a traitor. None the less Mr. Lincoln generously and patiently adhered to his agreement to let McClellan have his own way.

Precisely at the same time that this evacuation of Manassas gave to McClellan’s enemies an argument against him which they deemed fair and forcible and he deemed unfair and ignorant, two other occurrences added to the strain of the situation. McClellan immediately put his entire force in motion towards the lines abandoned by the Confederates, not with the design of pressing the retreating foe, which the “almost impassable roads” prevented, but to strip off redundancies and to train the troops in marching. On March 11, immediately after he had started, the President issued his Special War Order No. 3: “Major-General McClellan having personally taken the field at the head of the army of the Potomac,… he is relieved from the command of the other military departments, he retaining command of the Department of the Potomac.” McClellan at once wrote that he should continue to “work just as cheerfully as before;” but he felt that the removal was very unhandsomely made just as he was entering upon active operations. Lincoln, on the other hand, undoubtedly looked upon it in precisely the opposite light, and conceived that the opportunity of the moment deprived of any apparent sting a change which he had determined to make. The duties which were thus taken from McClellan were assumed during several months by Mr. Stanton. He was utterly incompetent for them, and, whether or not it was wise to displace the general, it was certainly very unwise to let the secretary practically succeed him.[165] The way in which, both at the East and West, our forces were distributed into many independent commands, with no competent chief who could compel all to cooeperate and to become subsidiary to one comprehensive scheme, was a serious mistake in general policy, which cost very dear before it was recognized.[166] McClellan had made some efforts to effect this combination or unity in purpose, but Stanton gave no indication even of understanding that it was desirable.

The other matter was the division of the army of the Potomac into four army corps, to be commanded respectively by the four senior generals of division, viz., McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, and Keyes. The propriety of this action had been for some time under consideration, and the step was now forced upon Mr. Lincoln by the strenuous insistence of the Committee on the Conduct of the War. That so large an army required organization by corps was admitted; but McClellan had desired to defer the arrangement until his generals of division should have had some actual experience in the field, whereby their comparative fitness for higher responsibilities could be measured. An incapable corps commander was a much more dangerous man than an incapable commander of a division or brigade. The commander naturally felt the action now taken by the President to be a slight, and he attributed it to pressure by the band of civilian advisers whose untiring hostility he returned with unutterable contempt. Not only was the taking of the step at this time contrary to his advice, but he was not even consulted in the selection of his own subordinates, who were set in these important positions by the blind rule of seniority, and not in accordance with his opinion of comparative merit. His irritation was perhaps not entirely unjustifiable.


[146] A reconnoissance or “slight demonstration” ordered for the day before by McClellan had been completed, and is not to be confounded with this movement, for which he was not responsible.

[147] For example, see his _Own Story_, 82; but, unfortunately, one may refer to that book _passim_ for evidence of the statement.

[148] N. and H. iv. 469.

[149] _Ibid._ v. 140.

[150] Letter to Lincoln, February 3, 1862.

[151] _Army of Potomac_, 97. Swinton says: “He should have made the lightest possible draft on the indulgence of the people.” _Ibid._ 69. General Webb says: “He drew too heavily upon the faith of the public.” _The Peninsula_, 12.

[152] The Southern generals had a similar propensity to overestimate the opposing force; _e.g._, Johnston’s _Narrative_, 108, where he puts the Northern force at 140,000, when in fact it was 58,000; and on p. 112 his statement is even worse.

[153] The Southerners also had the same notion, hoping by one great victory to discourage and convince the North and make peace on the basis of independence; _e.g._, see Johnston’s _Narrative_ 113, 115. Grant likewise had the notion of a decisive battle. _Memoirs_, i. 368.

[154] The position taken by Messrs. Nicolay and Hay, I think, fully warrants this language.

[155] General Palfrey says of this committee that “the worst spirit of the Inquisition characterized their doings.” _The Antietam and Fredericksburg_ (Campaigns of Civil War Series), 182.

[156] Through Stanton; McClellan, _Own Story_, 156.

[157] Only a few days before this time Lincoln had said that he had no “right” to insist upon knowing the general’s plans. Julian, _Polit. Recoll._ 201.

[158] It appears that he feared that what he said would leak out, and ultimately reach the enemy.

[159] For an interesting account of these incidents, from Secretary Chase’s Diary, see Warden, 401.

[160] Lamon, 332; Herndon, 353-356; N. and H. try to mitigate this story, v. 133.

[161] He did not always feel his tongue tied afterward by the obligations of office; _e.g._, see Julian, _Polit. Recoll._ 210.

[162] For a singular tale, see McClellan, _Own Story_, 153.

[163] In fact, the feeling against McClellan was getting so strong that some of his enemies were wild enough about this time to accuse him of disloyalty. He himself narrates a dramatic tale, which would seem incredible if his veracity were not beyond question, of an interview, occurring March 8, 1862, in which the President told him, apparently with the air of expecting an explanation, that he was charged with laying his plans with the traitorous intent of leaving Washington defenseless. McClellan’s _Own Story_, 195. On the other hand, McClellan retaliated by believing that his detractors wished, for political and personal motives, to prevent the war from being brought to an early and successful close, and that they intentionally withheld from him the means of success; also that Stanton especially sought by underhand means to sow misunderstanding between him and the President. _Ibid._ 195.

[164] McClellan afterward wrote that the administration “had neither courage nor military insight to understand the effect of the plan I desired to carry out.” _Own Story_, 194. This is perhaps a mild example of many remarks to the same purport which fell from the general at one time and another.

[165] See remarks of Mr. Blaine, _Twenty Years of Congress_, i. 368.

[166] _E.g._, McClellan, _Rep._ (per Keyes), 82; Grant, _Mem._ i. 322; and indeed all writers agree upon this.



The man who first raised the cry “On to Richmond!” uttered the formula of the war. Richmond was the gage of victory. Thus it happened, as has been seen, that every one at the North, from the President down, had his attention fast bound to the melancholy procession of delays and miscarriages in Virginia. At the West there were important things to be done; the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, trembling in the balance, were to be lost or won for the Union; the passage down the Mississippi to the Gulf was at stake, and with it the prosperity and development of the boundless regions of the Northwest. Surely these were interests of some moment, and worthy of liberal expenditure of thought and energy, men and money; yet the swarm of politicians gave them only side glances, being unable for many minutes in any day to withdraw their eyes from the Old Dominion. The consequence was that at the East matters military and matters political, generals and “public men” of all varieties were mixed in a snarl of backbiting and quarreling, which presented a spectacle most melancholy and discouraging. On the other hand, the West throve surprisingly well in the absence of political nourishment, and certain local commanders achieved cheering successes without any aid from the military civilians of Washington. The contrast seems suggestive, yet perhaps it is incorrect to attach to these facts any sinister significance, or any connection of cause and effect. Other reasons than civilian assistance may account for the Virginia failures, while Western successes may have been won in spite of neglect rather than by reason of it. Still, simply as naked facts, these things were so.

Upon occurrences outside of Virginia Mr. Lincoln bestowed more thought than was fashionable in Washington, and maintained an oversight strongly in contrast to the indifference of those who seemed to recognize no other duty than to discuss the demerits of General McClellan. The President had at least the good sense to see the value of unity of plan and cooeperation along the whole line, from the Atlantic seaboard to the extreme West. Also at the West as at the East he was bent upon advancing, pressing the enemy, and doing something positive. He had not occasion to use the spur at the West either so often or so severely as at the East; yet Halleck and Buell needed it and got it more than once. The Western commanders, like those at the East, and with better reason, were importunate for more men and more equipment. The President could not, by any effort, meet their requirements. He wrote to McClernand after the battle of Belmont: “Much, very much, goes undone; but it is because we have not the power to do it faster than we do.” Some troops were without arms; but, he said, “the plain matter of fact is, our good people have rushed to the rescue of the government faster than the government can find arms to put in their hands.” Yet, withal, it is true that Mr. Lincoln’s actual interferences at the South and West were so occasional and incidental, that, since this writing is a biography of him and not a history of the war, there is need only for a list of the events which were befalling outside of that absorbing domain which lay around the rival capitals.

Along the southern Atlantic coast some rather easy successes were rapidly won. August 29, 1861, Hatteras Inlet was taken, with little fighting. November 7, Port Royal followed. Lying nearly midway between Charleston and Savannah, and being a very fine harbor, this was a prize of value. January 7, 1862, General Burnside was directed to take command of the Department of North Carolina. February 8, Roanoke Island was seized by the Federal forces. March 14, Newbern fell. April 11, Fort Pulaski, at the mouth of the Savannah River, was taken. April 26, Beaufort was occupied. The blockade of the other Atlantic ports having long since been made effective, the Eastern seaboard thus early became a prison wall for the Confederacy.

At the extreme West Missouri gave the President some trouble. The bushwhacking citizens of that frontier State, divided not unequally between the Union and Disunion sides, entered upon an irregular but energetic warfare with ready zeal if not actually with pleasure. Northerners in general hardly paused to read the newspaper accounts of these rough encounters, but the President was much concerned to save the State. As it lay over against Illinois along the banks of the Mississippi River, and for the most part above the important strategic point where Cairo controls the junction of that river with the Ohio, possession of it appeared to him exceedingly desirable. In the hope of helping matters forward, on July 3, 1861, he created the Department of the West, and placed it under command of General Fremont. But the choice proved unfortunate. Fremont soon showed himself inefficient and troublesome. At first the President endeavored to allay the local bickerings; on September 9, 1861, he wrote to General Hunter: “General Fremont needs assistance which it is difficult to give him. He is losing the confidence of men near him…. His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself;… he does not know what is going on…. He needs to have by his side a man of large experience. Will you not, for me, take that place? Your rank is one grade too high;… but will you not serve the country, and oblige me, by taking it voluntarily?” Kindly consideration, however, was thrown away upon Fremont, whose self-esteem was so great that he could not see that he ought to be grateful, or that he must be subordinate. He owed his appointment largely to the friendly urgency of the Blair family; and now Postmaster-General Blair, puzzled at the disagreeable stories about him, went to St. Louis on an errand of investigation. Fremont promptly placed him under arrest. At the same time Mrs. Fremont was journeying to Washington, where she had an extraordinary interview with the President. “She sought an audience with me at midnight,” wrote Lincoln, “and taxed me so violently with many things that I had to exercise all the awkward tact I have to avoid quarreling with her…. She more than once intimated that if General Fremont should decide to try conclusions with me, he could set up for himself.” Naturally the angry lady’s threats of treason, instead of seeming a palliation of her husband’s shortcomings, tended to make his displacement more inevitable. Yet the necessity of being rid of him was unfortunate, because he was the pet hero of the Abolitionists, who stood by him without the slightest regard to reason. Lincoln was loath to offend them, but he felt that he had no choice, and therefore ordered the removal. He preserved, however, that habitual strange freedom from personal resentment which made his feelings, like his action, seem to be strictly official. After the matter was all over he uttered a fair judgment: “I thought well of Fremont. Even now I think well of his impulses. I only think he is the prey of wicked and designing men; and I think he has absolutely no military capacity.” For a short while General Hunter filled Fremont’s place, until, in November, General Henry W. Halleck was assigned to command the Department of Missouri. In February, 1862, General Curtis drove the only regular and considerable rebel force across the border into Arkansas; and soon afterward, March 7 and 8, within this latter State, he won the victory of Pea Ridge.

In Tennessee the vote upon secession had indicated that more than two thirds of the dwellers in the mountainous eastern region were Unionists. Mr. Lincoln had it much at heart to sustain these men, and aside from the personal feeling of loyalty to them it was also a point of great military consequence to hold this district. Near the boundary separating the northeastern corner of the State from Kentucky, the famous Cumberland Gap gave passage through the Cumberland Mountains for the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, “the artery that supplied the rebellion.” The President saw, as many others did, and appreciated much more than others seemed to do, the desirability of gaining this place. To hold it would be to cut in halves, between east and west, the northern line of the Confederacy. In the early days a movement towards the Gap seemed imprudent in face of Kentucky’s theory of “neutrality.” But this foolish notion was in time effectually disposed of by the Confederates. Unable to resist the temptation offered by the important position of Columbus at the western end of the State on the Mississippi River, they seized that place in September, 1861. The state legislature, incensed at the intrusion, immediately embraced the Union cause and welcomed the Union forces within the state lines.

This action opened the way for the President to make strenuous efforts for the protection of the East Tennesseeans and the possession of the Gap. In his annual message he urged upon Congress the construction of a military railroad to the Gap, and afterward appeared in person to advocate this measure before a committee of the Senate. If the place had been in Virginia, he might have gained for his project an attention which, as matters stood, the politicians never accorded to it. He also endeavored to stir to action General Buell, who commanded in Kentucky. Buell, an appointee and personal friend of General McClellan, resembled his chief somewhat too closely both in character and history. Just as Mr. Lincoln had to prick McClellan in Virginia, he now had to prick Buell in Kentucky; and just as McClellan, failed to respond in Virginia, Buell also failed in Kentucky. Further, Buell, like McClellan, had with him a force very much greater than that before him; but Buell, like McClellan, would not admit that his troops were in condition to move. The result was that Jefferson Davis, more active to protect a crucial point than the North was to assail it, in December, 1861, sent into East Tennessee a force which imprisoned, deported, and hanged the loyal residents there, harried the country without mercy, and held it with the iron hand. The poor mountaineers, with good reason, concluded that the hostility of the South was a terribly serious evil, whereas the friendship of the North was a sadly useless good. The President was bitterly chagrined, although certainly the blame did not rest with him. Then the parallel between Buell and McClellan was continued even one step farther; for Buell at last intimated that he did not approve of the plan of campaign suggested for him, but thought it would be better tactics to move upon Nashville. It so happened, however, that when he expressed these views McClellan was commander-in-chief of all the armies, and that general, being little tolerant of criticism from subordinates when he himself was the superior, responded very tartly and imperiously. Lincoln, on the other hand, according to his wont, wrote modestly: “Your dispatch … disappoints and distresses me…. I am not competent to criticise your views.” Then, in the rest of the letter, he maintained with convincing clearness both the military and the political soundness of his own opinions.

In offset of this disappointment caused by Buell’s inaction, the western end of Kentucky became the theatre of gratifying operations. So soon as policy ceased to compel recognition of the “neutrality” of the State, General Grant, on September 6, 1861, entered Paducah at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. By this move he checked the water communication hitherto freely used by the rebels, and neutralized the advantage which they had expected to gain by their possession of Columbus. But this was only a first and easy step. Farther to the southward, just within the boundaries of Tennessee, lay Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, presenting a kind of temptation which Grant was less able to resist than were most of the Union generals at this time. Accordingly he arranged with Admiral Foote, who commanded the new gunboats on the Mississippi, for a joint excursion against these places. On February 6, Fort Henry fell, chiefly through the work of the river navy. Ten days later, February 16, Fort Donelson was taken, the laurels on this occasion falling to the land forces. Floyd and Pillow were in the place when the Federals came to it, but when they saw that capture was inevitable they furtively slipped away, and thus shifted upon General Buckner the humiliation of the surrender. This mean behavior excited the bitter resentment of that general, which was not alleviated by what followed. For when he proposed to discuss terms of capitulation, General Grant made that famous reply which gave rise to his popular nickname: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

Halleck telegraphed the pleasant news that the capture of Fort Donelson carried with it “12,000 to 15,000 prisoners, including Generals Buckner and Bushrod R. Johnson, also about 20,000 stands of arms, 48 pieces of artillery, 17 heavy guns, from 2000 to 4000 horses, and large quantities of commissary stores.” He also advised: “Make Buell, Grant, and Pope major-generals of volunteers, and give me command in the West. I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson.” Halleck was one of those who expect to reap where others sow. The achievements of Grant and Foote also led him, by some strange process of reasoning, to conclude that General C.W. Smith was the most able general in his department.

Congress, highly gratified at these cheering events, ordered a grand illumination at Washington for February 22; but the death of the President’s little son, at the White House, a day or two before that date, checked a rejoicing which in other respects also would not have been altogether timely.

The Federal possession of these two forts rendered Columbus untenable for the Confederates, and on March 2 they evacuated it. This was followed by the fall of New Madrid on March 13, and of Island No. 10 on April 7. At the latter place between 6000 and 7000 Confederates surrendered. Thus was the Federal wedge being driven steadily deeper down the channel of the Mississippi.

Soon after this good service of the gunboats on the Western rivers, the salt-water navy came in for its share of glory. On March 8 the ram Virginia, late Merrimac, which had been taking on her mysterious iron raiment at the Norfolk navy yard, issued from her concealment, an ugly and clumsy, but also a novel and terrible monster. Straight she steamed against the frigate Cumberland, and with one fell rush cut the poor wooden vessel in halves and sent her, with all on board, to the bottom of the sea. Turning then, she mercilessly battered the frigate Congress, drove her ashore, and burned her. All this while the shot which had rained upon her iron sides had rolled off harmless, and she returned to her anchorage, having her prow broken by impact with the Cumberland, but otherwise unhurt. Her armor had stood the test, and now the Federal government contemplated with grave anxiety the further possible achievements of this strange and potent destroyer.

But the death of the Merrimac was to follow close upon her birth; she was the portent of a few weeks only. For, during a short time past, there had been also rapidly building in a Connecticut yard the Northern marvel, the famous Monitor. When the ingenious Swede, John Ericsson, proposed his scheme for an impregnable floating battery, his hearers were divided between distrust and hope; but fortunately the President’s favorable opinion secured the trial of the experiment. The work was zealously pushed, and the artisans actually went to sea with the craft in order to finish her as she made her voyage southward. It was well that such haste was made, for she came into Hampton Roads actually by the light of the burning Congress. On the next day, being Sunday, March 9, the Southern monster again steamed forth, intending this time to make the Minnesota her prey; but a little boat, that looked like a “cheese-box” afloat, pushed forward to interfere with this plan. Then occurred a duel which, in the annals of naval science, ranks as the most important engagement which ever took place. It did not actually result in the destruction of the Merrimac then and there, for, though much battered, she was able to make her way back to the friendly shelter of the Norfolk yard. But she was more than neutralized; it was evident that the Monitor was the better craft of the two, and that in a combat _a outrance_ she would win. The significance of this day’s work on the waters of Virginia cannot be exaggerated. By the armor-clad Merrimac and the Monitor there was accomplished in the course of an hour a revolution which differentiated the naval warfare of the past from that of the future by a chasm as great as that which separated the ancient Greek trireme from the flagship of Lord Nelson.

As early as the middle of November, 1861, Mr. Lincoln was discussing the feasibility of capturing New Orleans. Already Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast, with its uncompleted equipment, had been seized as a Gulf station, and could be used as a base. The naval force was prepared as rapidly as possible, but it was not until February 3 that Captain Farragut, the commander of the expedition, steamed out of Hampton Roads in his flagship, the screw steam sloop Hartford. On April 18 he began to bombard forts St. Philip and Jackson, which lie on the river banks seventy-five miles below New Orleans, guarding the approach. Soon, becoming impatient of this tardy process, he resolved upon the bold and original enterprise of running by the forts. This he achieved in the night of April 24; and on April 27 the stars and stripes floated over the Mint in New Orleans. Still two days of shilly-shallying on the part of the mayor ensued, delaying a formal surrender, until Farragut, who had no fancy for nonsense, sharply put a stop to it, and New Orleans, in form and substance, passed under Northern control. On April 28 the two forts, isolated by what had taken place, surrendered. On May 1 General Butler began in the city that efficient regime which so exasperated the men of the South. On May 7 Baton Rouge, the state capital, was occupied, without resistance; and Natchez followed in the procession on May 12.

[Illustration: The Fight Between The Monitor And The Merrimac]

With one Union fleet at the mouth of the Mississippi and another at Island No. 10, and the Union army not far from the riverside in Kentucky and Tennessee, the opening and repossession of the whole stream by the Federals became a thing which ought soon to be achieved. On June 5 the gunboat fleet from up the river came down to within two miles of Memphis, engaged in a hard fight and won a complete victory, and on the next day Memphis was held by the Union troops. Farragut also, working in his usual style, forced his way up to Vicksburg, and exchanged shots with the Confederate batteries on the bluffs. He found, however, that without the cooeperation of a land force he could do nothing, and had to drop back again to New Orleans, arriving there on June 1. In a few weeks he returned in stronger force, and on June 27 he was bombarding the rebel works. On June 28, repeating the operation which had been so successful below New Orleans, he ran some of his vessels by the batteries and got above the city. But there was still no army on the land, and so the vessels which had run by, up stream, had to make the dangerous gauntlet again, down stream, and a second time the fleet descended to New Orleans.

General Halleck had arrived at St. Louis on November 18, 1861, to take command of the Western Department. Perhaps a more energetic commander would have been found ready to cooeperate with Farragut at Vicksburg by the end of June, 1862; for matters had been going excellently with the Unionists northeast of that place, and it would seem that a powerful and victorious army might have been moving thither during that month. Early in March, however, General Halleck reported that Grant’s army was as much demoralized by victory as the army at Bull Run had been by defeat. He said that Grant “richly deserved” censure, and that he himself was worn out by Grant’s neglect and inefficiency. By such charges he obtained from McClellan orders relieving General Grant from duty, ordering an investigation, and even authorizing his arrest. But a few days later, March 13, more correct information caused the reversal of these orders, and March 17 found Grant again in command. He at once began to busy himself with arrangements for moving upon Corinth. General Buell meanwhile, after sustaining McClellan’s rebuke and being taught his place, had afterward been successful in obtaining for his own plan preference over that of the administration, had easily possessed himself of Nashville toward the end of February, and was now ready to march westward and cooeperate with General Grant in this enterprise. Corinth, lying just across the Mississippi border, was “the great strategic position” at this part of the West. The Mobile and Ohio Railroad ran through it north and south; the Memphis and Charleston Railroad passed through east and west. If it could be taken and held, it would leave, as the only connection open through the Confederacy from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic coast, the railroad line which started from Vicksburg. The Confederates also had shown their estimation of Corinth by fortifying it strongly, and manifesting plainly their determination to fight a great battle to hold it. Grant, aiming towards it, had his army at Pittsburg Landing, on the west bank of the Tennessee, and there awaited Buell, who was moving thither from Nashville with 40,000 men. Such being the status, Grant expected General A.S. Johnston to await in his intrenchments the assault of the Union army. But Johnston, in an aggressive mood, laid well and boldly his plan to whip Grant before Buell could join him, then to whip Buell, and, having thus disposed of the Northern forces in detail, to carry the war up to, or even across, the Ohio. So he came suddenly out from Corinth and marched straight upon Pittsburg Landing, and precipitated that famous battle which has been named after the church of Shiloh, because about that church the most desperate and bloody fighting was done.

The conflict began on Sunday, April 6, and lasted all day. There was not much plan about it; the troops went at each other somewhat indiscriminately and did simple stubborn fighting. The Federals lost much ground all along their line, and were crowded back towards the river. Some say that the Confederates closed that day on the way to victory; but General Grant says that he felt assured of winning on Monday, and that he instructed all his division commanders to open with an assault in the morning. The doubt, if doubt there was, was settled by the arrival of General Buell, whose fresh forces, coming in as good an hour as the Prussians came at Waterloo, were put in during the evening upon the Federal left. On Sunday the Confederates had greatly outnumbered the Federals, but this reinforcement reversed the proportions, so that on Monday the Federals were in the greater force. Again the conflict was fierce and obstinate, but again the greater numbers whipped the smaller, and by afternoon the Confederates were in full retreat. Shiloh, says General Grant, “was the severest battle fought at the West during the war, and but few in the East equaled it for hard, determined fighting.” It ended in a complete Union victory. General A.S. Johnston was killed and Beauregard retreated to Corinth, while the North first exulted because he was compelled to do so, and then grumbled because he was allowed to do so. It was soon said that Grant had been surprised, that he was entitled to no credit for winning clumsily a battle which he had not expected to fight, and that he was blameworthy for not following up the retreating foe more sharply. The discussion survives among those quarrels of the war in which the disputants have fought over again the contested field, with harmless fierceness, and without any especial result. Congress took up the dispute, and did a vast deal of talking, in the course of which there occurred one sensible remark. This was made by Mr. Richardson of Illinois, who said that the armies would get along much better if the Riot Act could be read, and the members of Congress dispersed and sent home.

General Grant found that General Halleck was even more obstinately in the way of his winning any success than were the Confederates themselves. As commander of the department, Halleck now conceived that it was his fair privilege to do the visible taking of that conspicuous prize which his lieutenant had brought within sure reach. Accordingly, on April 11, he arrived and assumed command for the purpose of moving on Corinth. Still he was sedulous in his endeavors to neglect, suppress, and even insult General Grant, whom he put nominally second in command, but practically reduced to insignificance, until Grant, finding his position “unendurable,” asked to be relieved. This conduct on the part of Halleck has of course been attributed to jealousy; but more probably it was due chiefly to the personal prejudice of a dull man, perhaps a little stimulated by a natural desire for reputation. Having taken charge of the advance, he conducted it slowly and cautiously, intrenching as he went, and moving with pick and shovel, in the phrase of General Sherman, who commanded a division in the army. “The movement,” says General Grant, “was a siege from the start to the close.” Such tactics had not hitherto been tried at the West, and apparently did not meet approval. There were only about twenty-two miles to be traversed, yet four weeks elapsed in the process. The army started on April 30; twice Pope got near the enemy, first on May 4, and again on May 8, and each time he was ordered back. It was actually May 28, according to General Grant, when “the investment of Corinth was complete, or as complete as it was ever made.” But already, on May 26, Beauregard had issued orders for evacuating the place, which was accomplished with much skill. On May 30 Halleck drew up his army in battle array and “announced in orders that there was every indication that our left was to be attacked that morning.” A few hours later his troops marched unopposed into empty works.

Halleck now commanded in Corinth a powerful army,–the forces of Grant, Buell, and Pope, combined,–not far from 100,000 strong, and he was threatened by no Southern force at all able to face him. According to the views of General Grant, he had great opportunities; and among these certainly was the advance of a strong column upon Vicksburg. If he could be induced to do this, it seemed reasonable to expect that he and Farragut together would be able to open the whole Mississippi River, and to cut the last remaining east-and-west line of railroad communication. But he did nothing, and ultimately the disposition made of this splendid collection of troops was to distribute and dissipate it in such a manner that the loss of the points already gained became much more probable than the acquisition of others.

Early in July, as has been elsewhere said, Halleck was called to Washington to take the place of general-in-chief of all the armies of the North; and at this point perhaps it is worth while to devote a paragraph to comparing the retirement of McClellan with the promotion of Halleck. Some similarities and dissimilarities in their careers are striking. The dissimilarities were: that McClellan had organized the finest army which the country had yet seen, or was to see; also that he had at least made a plan for a great campaign; and he had not suppressed any one abler than himself; that Halleck on the other hand had done little to organize an army or to plan a campaign, had failed to find out the qualities of General W.T. Sherman, who was in his department, and had done all in his power to drive General Grant into retirement. The similarities are more worthy of observation. Each general had wearied the administration with demands for reinforcements when each already outnumbered his opponent so much that it was almost disgraceful to desire to increase the odds. If McClellan had been reprehensibly slow in moving upon Yorktown, and had blundered by besieging instead of trying an assault, certainly the snail-like approach upon Corinth had been equally deliberate and wasteful of time and opportunity; and if McClellan had marched into deserted intrenchments, so also had Halleck. If McClellan had captured “Quaker guns” at Manassas, Halleck had found the like peaceful weapons frowning from the ramparts of Corinth. If McClellan had held inactive a powerful force when it ought to have been marching to Manassas, Halleck had also held inactive another powerful force, a part of which might have helped to take Vicksburg. If the records of these two men were stated in parallel columns, it would be difficult to see why one should have been taken and the other left. But the explanation exists and is instructive, and it is wholly for the sake of the explanation that the comparison has been made. McClellan was “in politics,” and Halleck was not; McClellan, therefore, had a host of active, unsparing enemies in Washington, which Halleck had not; the Virginia field of operations was ceaselessly and microscopically inspected; the Western field attracted occasional glances not conducive to a full knowledge. Halleck, as commander in a department where victories were won, seemed to have won the victories, and no politicians cared to deny his right to the glory; whereas the politicians, whose hatred of McClellan had, by the admission of one of themselves, become a mania,[167] were entirely happy to have any one set over his head, and would not imperil their pleasure by too close an inspection of the new aspirant’s merits. These remarks are not designed to have any significance upon the merits or demerits of McClellan, which have been elsewhere discussed, nor upon the merits or demerits of Halleck, which are not worth discussing; but they are made simply because they afford so forcible an illustration of certain important conditions at Washington at this time. The truth is that the ensnarlment of the Eastern military affairs with politics made success in that field impossible for the North. The condition made it practically inevitable that a Union commander in Virginia should have his thoughts at least as much occupied with the members of Congress in the capital behind him as with the Confederate soldiers in camp before him. Such division of his attention was ruinous. At and before the outbreak of the rebellion the South had expected to be aided efficiently by a great body of sympathizers at the North. As yet they had been disappointed in this; but almost simultaneously with this disappointment they were surprised by a valuable and unexpected assistance, growing out of the open feuds, the covert malice, the bad blood, the partisanship, and the wire-pulling introduced by the loyal political fraternity into campaigning business. The quarreling politicians were doing, very efficiently, the work which Southern sympathizers had been expected to do.


[167] George W. Julian, _Polit. Recoll._ 204.



To the people who had been engaged in changing Illinois from a wilderness into a civilized State, Europe had been an abstraction, a mere colored spot upon a map, which in their lives meant nothing. Though England had been the home of their ancestors, it was really less interesting than the west coast of Africa, which was the home of the negroes; for the negroes were just now of vastly more consequence than the ancestors. So even Dahomey had some claim to be regarded as a more important place than Great Britain, and the early settlers wasted little thought on the affairs of Queen Victoria. Amid these conditions, absorbed even more than his neighbors in the exciting questions of domestic politics, and having no tastes or pursuits which guided his thoughts abroad, Mr. Lincoln had never had occasion to consider the foreign relations of the United States, up to the time when he was suddenly obliged to take an active part in managing them.

At an early stage of the civil dissensions each side hoped for the good-will of England. For obvious reasons, that island counted to the United States for more than the whole continent of Europe; indeed, the continental nations were likely to await and to follow her lead. Southern orators, advocating secession, assured their hearers that “King Cotton” would be the supreme power, and would compel that realm of spinners and weavers to friendship if not to alliance with the Confederacy. Northern men, on the other hand, expressed confidence that a people with the record of Englishmen against slavery would not countenance a war conducted in behalf of that institution; nor did they allow their hopes to be at all impaired by the consideration that, in order to found them upon this support, they had to overlook the fact that they were at the same time distinctly declaring that slavery really had nothing to do with the war, in which only and strictly the question of the Union, the integrity of the nation, was at stake. When the issue was pressing for actual decision, each side was disappointed; and each found that it had counted upon a motive which fell far short of exerting the anticipated influence. It was, of course, the case that England suffered much from the short supply of cotton; but she made shift to procure it elsewhere, while the working people, sympathizing with the North, were surprisingly patient. Thus the political pressure arising from commercial distress was much less than had been expected, and the South learned that cotton was only a spurious monarch. Not less did the North find itself deceived; for the upper and middle classes of Great Britain appeared absolutely indifferent to the humanitarian element which, as they were assured, underlay the struggle. Perhaps they were not to be blamed for setting aside these assurances, and accepting in place thereof the belief that the American leaders spoke the truth when they solemnly told the North that the question at issue was purely and simply of “the Union.” The unfortunate fact was that it was necessary to say one thing to Englishmen and a different thing to Americans.

That which really did inspire the feelings and the wishes, and which did influence, though it could not be permitted fully to control, the action of England, had not been counted upon by either section of the country; perhaps its existence had not been appreciated. This was the intense dislike felt for the American republic by nearly all Englishmen who were above the social grade of mechanics and mill operatives. The extent and force of this antipathy and even contempt were for the first time given free expression under the irresistible provocation which arose out of the delightful likelihood of the destruction of the United States. The situation at least gave to the people of that imperiled country a chance to find out in what estimation they were held across the water. The behavior of the English government and the attitude of the English press during the early part of the civil war have been ascribed by different historians to one or another dignified political or commercial motive. But while these influences were certainly not absent, yet the English newspapers poured an inundating flood of evidence to show that genuine and deep-seated dislike, not to say downright hatred, was by very much the principal motive. This truth is so painful and unfortunate that many have thought best to suppress or deny it; but no historian is entitled to use such discretion. From an early period, therefore, in the administration of Mr. Lincoln, he and Mr. Seward had to endeavor to preserve friendly relations with a power which, if she could only make entirely sure of the worldly wisdom of yielding to her wishes, would instantly recognize the independence of the South. This being the case, it was matter for regret that the rules of international law concerning blockades, contraband of war, and rights of neutrals were perilously vague and unsettled.

Earl[168] Russell was at this time in charge of her majesty’s foreign affairs. Because in matters domestic he was liberal-minded, Americans had been inclined to expect his good-will; but he now disappointed them by appearing to share the prejudices of his class against the republic. A series of events soon revealed his temper. So soon as there purported to be a Confederacy, an understanding had been reached betwixt him and the French emperor that both powers should take the same course as to recognizing it. About May 1 he admitted three Southern commissioners to an audience with him, though not “officially.” May 13 there was published a proclamation, whereby Queen Victoria charged and commanded all her “loving subjects to observe a strict neutrality” in and during the hostilities which had “unhappily commenced between the government of the United States and certain States styling themselves ‘the Confederate States of America.'” This action–this assumption of a position of “neutrality,” as between enemies–taken while the “hostilities” had extended only to the single incident of Fort Sumter, gave surprise and some offense to the North. It was a recognition of belligerency; that is to say, while not in any other respect recognizing the revolting States as an independent power, it accorded to them the rights of a belligerent. The magnitude very quickly reached by the struggle would have made this step necessary and proper, so that, if England had only gone a trifle more slowly, she would soon have reached the same point without exciting any anger; but now the North felt that the queen’s government had been altogether too forward in assuming this position at a time when the question of a real war was still in embryo. Moreover, the unfriendliness was aggravated by the fact that the proclamation was issued almost at the very hour of the arrival in London of Mr. Charles Francis Adams, the new minister sent by Mr. Lincoln to the court of St. James. It seemed, therefore, not open to reasonable doubt that Earl Russell had purposely hastened to take his position before he could hear from the Lincoln administration.

When Mr. Seward got news of this, his temper gave way; so that, being still new to diplomacy, he wrote a dispatch to Mr. Adams wherein occurred words and phrases not so carefully selected as they should have been. He carried it to Mr. Lincoln, and soon received it back revised and corrected, instructively. _A priori_, one would have anticipated the converse of this.

The essential points of the paper were:–

That Mr. Adams would “desist from all intercourse whatever, unofficial as well as official, with the British government, so long as it shall continue intercourse of either kind with the domestic enemies of this country.”

That the United States had a “right to expect a more independent if not a more friendly course” than was indicated by the understanding between England and France; but that Mr. Adams would “take no notice of that or any other alliance.”

He was to pass by the question as to whether the blockade must be respected in case it should not be maintained by a competent force, and was to state that the “blockade is now, and will continue to be, so maintained, and therefore we expect it to be respected.”

As to recognition of the Confederacy, either by publishing an acknowledgment of its sovereignty, or officially receiving its representatives, he was to inform the earl that “no one of these proceedings will pass unquestioned.” Also, he might suggest that “a concession of belligerent rights is liable to be construed as a recognition” of the Confederate States. Recognition, he was to say, could be based only on the assumption that these States were a self-sustaining power. But now, after long forbearance, the United States having set their forces in motion to suppress the insurrection, “the true character of the pretended new state is at once revealed. It is seen to be a power existing in pronunciamento only. It has never won a field. It has obtained no forts that were not virtually betrayed into its hands or seized in breach of trust. It commands not a single port on the coast, nor any highway out from its pretended capital by land. Under these circumstances, Great Britain is called upon to intervene, and give it body and independence by resisting our measures of suppression. British recognition would be British intervention to create within our own territory a hostile state by overthrowing this republic itself.” In Mr. Seward’s draft a menacing sentence followed these words, but Mr. Lincoln drew his pen through it.

Mr. Adams was to say that the treatment of insurgent privateers was “a question exclusively our own,” and that we intended to treat them as pirates.[169] If Great Britain should recognize them as lawful belligerents and give them shelter, “the laws of nations afford an adequate and proper remedy;”–“_and we shall avail ourselves of it_,” added Mr. Seward; but again Mr. Lincoln’s prudent pen went through these words of provocation.

Finally Mr. Adams was instructed to offer the adhesion of the United States to the famous Declaration of the Congress of Paris, of 1856, which concerned sundry matters of neutrality.

The letter ended with two paragraphs of that patriotic rodomontade which seems eminently adapted to domestic consumption in the United States, but which, if it ever came beneath the eye of the British minister, probably produced an effect very different from that which was aimed at. Mr. Lincoln had the good taste to write on the margin: “Drop all from this line to the end;” but later he was induced to permit the nonsense to stand, since it was really harmless.

The amendments made by the President in point of quantity were trifling, but in respect of importance were very great. All that he did was here and there to change or to omit a phrase, which established no position, but which in the strained state of feeling might have had serious results. The condition calls to mind the description of the summit of the Alleghany Ridge, where the impulses given by almost imperceptible inequalities in the surface of the rock have for their ultimate result the dispatching of mighty rivers either through the Atlantic slope to the ocean, or down the Mississippi valley to the Gulf of Mexico. A few adjectives, two or three ever so little sentences, in this dispatch, might have led to peace or to war; and peace or war with England almost surely meant, respectively, Union or Disunion in the United States. In fact, no more important state paper was issued by Mr. Seward. It established our relations with Great Britain, and by consequence also with France and with the rest of Europe, during the whole period of the civil war. Its positions, moderate in themselves, and resolutely laid down, were never materially departed from. The English minister did not afterward give either official or unofficial audiences to accredited rebel emissaries; the blockade was maintained by a force so competent that the British government acquiesced in it; no recognition of the Confederacy was ever made, either in the ways prohibited or in any way whatsoever; it is true that bitter controversies arose concerning Confederate privateers, and to some extent England failed to meet our position in this matter; but it was rather the application of our rule than the rule itself which was in dispute; and she afterward, under the Geneva award, made full payment for her derelictions. The behavior and the proposal of terms, which constituted a practical exclusion of the United States from the benefits of the Treaty of Paris, certainly involved something of indignity; but in this the country had no actual _rights_; and to speak frankly, since she had refused to come in when invited, she could hardly complain of an inhospitable reception when, under the influence of immediate and stringent self-interest, her diplomatists saw fit to change their course. So, on the whole, it is not to be denied that delicate and novel business in the untried department of foreign diplomacy was managed with great skill, under trying circumstances. A few months later, in his message to Congress, at the beginning of December, 1861, the President referred to our foreign relations in the following paragraphs:–

“The disloyal citizens of the United States, who have offered the ruin of our country in return for the aid and comfort which they have invoked abroad, have received less patronage and encouragement than they probably expected. If it were just to suppose, as the insurgents have seemed to assume, that foreign nations, in this case, discarding all moral, social, and treaty obligations, would act solely and selfishly for the speedy restoration of commerce, including especially the acquisition of cotton, those nations appear as yet not to have seen their way to their object more directly or clearly through the destruction than through the preservation of the Union. If we could dare to believe that foreign nations are actuated by no higher principle than this, I am quite sure a sound argument could be made to show them that they can reach their aim more readily and easily by aiding to crush this rebellion than by giving encouragement to it.

“The principal lever relied on by these insurgents for exciting foreign nations to hostility against us, as already intimated, is the embarrassment of commerce. Those nations, however, not improbably saw from the first that it was the Union which made as well our foreign as our domestic commerce. They can scarcely have failed to perceive that the effort for disunion produces the existing difficulty; and that one strong nation promises more durable peace and a more extensive, valuable, and reliable commerce than can the same nation broken into hostile fragments.

“It is not my purpose to review our discussions with foreign states; because, whatever might be their wishes or dispositions, the integrity of our country and the stability of our government mainly depend not upon them but on the loyalty, virtue, patriotism, and intelligence of the American people. The correspondence itself with the usual reservations is herewith submitted. I venture to hope it will appear that we have practiced prudence and liberality toward foreign powers, averting causes of irritation, and with firmness maintaining our own rights and honor.”

While this carefully measured language certainly fell far short of expressing indifference concerning European action, it was equally far from betraying any sense of awe or dependence as towards the great nations across the Atlantic. Yet in fact beneath its self-contained moderation there unquestionably was politic concealment of very profound anxiety. Since the war did in fact maintain to the end an entirely domestic character, it is now difficult fully to appreciate the apprehensions which were felt, especially in its earlier stages, lest England or France or both might interfere with conclusive effect in favor of the Confederacy. It was very well for Mr. Lincoln to state the matter in such a way that it would seem an unworthy act upon their part to encourage a rebellion, especially a pro-slavery rebellion; and very well for him also to suggest that their commerce could be better conducted with one nation than with two. In plain fact, they were considering nothing more lofty than their own material interests, and upon this point their distinguished statesmen did not feel the need of seeking information or advice from the Western lawyer who had just been so freakishly picked out of a frontier town to take charge of the destinies of the United States. The only matter which they contemplated with some interest, and upon which they could gather enlightenment from his words, related to the greater or less degree of firmness and confidence with which he was likely to meet them; for even in their eyes this must be admitted to constitute one of the elements in the situation. It was, therefore, fortunate that Mr. Lincoln successfully avoided an appearance either of alarm or of defiance.

But, difficult as it may have been skillfully to compose the sentences of the message so far as it concerned foreign relationships, some occurrences were taking place, at this very time of the composition, which reduced verbal manoeuvring to insignificance. A sudden and unexpected menace was happily turned into a substantial aid and advantage; and the administration, not long after it had firmly declared its resolution to maintain its clear and lawful rights, was given the opportunity greatly to strengthen its position by an event which, at first, seemed untoward enough. In the face of very severe temptation to do otherwise, it had the good sense to seize this opportunity, and to show that it had upon its own part the will not only to respect, but to construe liberally as against itself, the rights of neutrals; also that it had the power to enforce its will, upon the instant, even at the cost of bitterly disappointing the whole body of loyal citizens in the very hour of their rejoicing.

The story of Mason and Slidell is familiar: accredited as envoys of the Confederacy to England and France, in the autumn of 1861, they ran the blockade at Charleston and came to Havana. There they did not conceal their purpose to sail for England, by the British royal mail steamship Trent, on November 7. Captain Wilkes of the United States steam sloop of war San Jacinto, hearing all this, lay in wait in the Bahama Channel, sighted the Trent on November 8, fired a shot across her bows, and brought her to. He then sent on board a force of marines to search her and fetch off the rebels. This was done against the angry protests of the Englishman, and with such slight force as constituted technical compulsion, but without violence. The Trent was then left to proceed on her voyage. The envoys, or “missionaries,” as they were called by way of avoiding the recognition of an official character, were soon in confinement in Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor. Everywhere at the North the news produced an outburst of joy and triumph. Captain Wilkes was the hero of the hour, and received every kind of honor and compliment. The secretary of the navy wrote to him a letter of congratulation, declaring that his conduct was “marked by intelligence, ability, decision, and firmness, and has the emphatic approval of this department.” Secretary Stanton was outspoken in his praise. When Congress convened, on December 1, almost the first thing done by the House of Representatives was to hurry through a vote of thanks to the captain for his “brave, adroit, and patriotic conduct.” The newspaper press, public meetings, private conversation throughout the country, all reechoed these joyous sentiments. The people were in a fever of pleasurable excitement. It called for some nerve on the part of Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward suddenly to plunge them into a chilling bath of disappointment.

Statements differ as to what was Mr. Seward’s earliest opinion in the matter.[170] But all writers agree that Mr. Lincoln did not move with the current of triumph. He was scarcely even non-committal. On the contrary, he is said at once to have remarked that it did not look right to stop the vessel of a friendly power on the high seas and take passengers out of her; that he did not understand whence Captain Wilkes derived authority to turn his quarter-deck into a court of admiralty; that he was afraid the captives might prove to be white elephants on our hands; that we had fought Great Britain on the ground of like doings upon her part, and that now we must stick to American principles; that, if England insisted upon our surrendering the prisoners, we must do so, and must apologize, and so bind her over to keep the peace in relation to neutrals, and to admit that she had been wrong for sixty years.

The English demand came quickly, forcibly, and almost offensively. The news brought to England by the Trent set the whole nation in a blaze of fury,–and naturally enough, it must be admitted. The government sent out to the navy yards orders to make immediate preparations for war; the newspapers were filled with abuse and menace against the United States; the extravagance of their language will not be imagined without actual reference to their pages. Lord Palmerston hastily sketched a dispatch to Lord Lyons, the British minister at Washington, demanding instant reparation, but couched in language so threatening and insolent as to make compliance scarcely possible. Fortunately, in like manner as Mr. Seward had taken to Mr. Lincoln his letter of instructions to Mr. Adams, so Lord Palmerston also felt obliged to lay his missive before the queen, and the results in both cases were alike; for once at least royalty did a good turn to the American republic. Prince Albert, ill with the disease which only a few days later carried him to his grave, labored hard over that important document, with the result that the royal desire to eliminate passion sufficiently to make a peaceable settlement possible was made unmistakably plain, and therefore the letter, as ultimately revised by Earl Russell, though still disagreeably peremptory in tone, left room for the United States to set itself right without loss of self-respect. The most annoying feature was that Great Britain insisted upon instant action; if Lord Lyons did not receive a favorable reply within seven days after formally preferring his demand for reparation, he was to call for his passports. In other words, delay by diplomatic correspondence and such ordinary shilly-shallying meant war. As the London “Times” expressed it, America was not to be allowed “to retain what she had taken from us, at the cheap price of an interminable correspondence.”

December 19 this dispatch reached Lord Lyons; he talked its contents over with Mr. Seward informally, and deferred the formal communication until the 23d. Mr. Lincoln drew up a proposal for submission to arbitration. But it could not be considered; the instructions to Lord Lyons gave no time and no discretion. It was aggravating to concede what was demanded under such pressure; but the President, as has been said, had already expressed his opinion upon the cardinal point,–that England had the strength of the case. Moreover he remarked, with good common sense, “One war at a time.” So it was settled that the emissaries must be surrendered. The “prime minister of the _Northern States of America_,” as the London “Times” insultingly called Mr. Seward, was wise enough to agree; for, under the circumstances, to allow discourtesy to induce war was unjustifiable. On December 25 a long cabinet council was held, and the draft of Seward’s reply was accepted, though with sore reluctance. The necessity was cruel, but fortunately it was not humiliating; for the President had pointed to the road of honorable exit in those words which Mr. Lossing heard uttered by him on the very day that the news arrived. In 1812 the United States had fought with England because she had insisted, and they had denied, that she had the right to stop their vessels on the high seas, to search them, and to take from them British subjects found on board them. Mr. Seward now said that the country still adhered to the ancient principle for which it had once fought, and was glad to find England renouncing her old-time error. Captain Wilkes, not acting under instructions, had made a mistake. If he had captured the Trent and brought her in for adjudication as prize in our admiralty courts, a case might have been maintained and the prisoners held. He had refrained from this course out of kindly consideration for the many innocent persons to whom it would have caused serious inconvenience; and, since England elected to stand upon the strict rights which his humane conduct gave to her, the United States must be bound by their own principles at any cost to themselves. Accordingly the “envoys” were handed over to the commander of the English gunboat Rinaldo, at Provincetown, on January 1, 1862.

The decision of the President and the secretary of state was thoroughly wise. Much hung upon it; “no one,” says Arnold, “can calculate the results which would have followed upon a refusal to surrender these men.” An almost certain result would have been a war with England; and a highly probable result would have been that erelong France also would find pretext for hostilities, since she was committed to friendship with England in this matter, and moreover the emperor seemed to have a restless desire to interfere against the North. What then would have been the likelihood of ultimate success in that domestic struggle, which, by itself, though it did not exhaust, yet very severely taxed both Northern endurance and Northern resources? It is fair also to these two men to say that, in reaching their decision, instead of receiving aid or encouragement from outside, they had the reverse. Popular feeling may be estimated from the utterances which, even after there had been time for reflection, were made by men whose positions curbed them with the grave responsibilities of leadership. In the House of Representatives Owen Lovejoy pledged himself to “inextinguishable hatred” of Great Britain, and promised to bequeath it as a legacy to his children; and, while he was not engaging in the war for the integrity of his own country, he vowed that if a war with England should come, he would “carry a musket” in it. Senator Hale, in thunderous oratory, notified the members of the administration that if they would “not listen to the voice of the people, they would find themselves engulfed in a fire that would consume them like stubble; they would be helpless before a power that would hurl them from their places.” The great majority at the North, though perhaps incapable of such felicity of expression, was undoubtedly not very much misrepresented by the vindictive representative and the exuberant senator. Yet a brief period, in which to consider the logic of the position, sufficed to bring nearly all to intelligent conclusions; and then it was seen that what had been done had been rightly and wisely done. There was even a sense of pride in doing fairly and honestly, without the shuffling evasions of diplomacy, an act of strict right; and the harder the act the greater was the honor. The behavior of the people was generous and intelligent, and greatly strengthened the government in the eyes of foreigners. By the fullness and readiness of this reparation England was put under a moral obligation to treat the United States as honorably as the United States treated her. She did not do so, it is true; but in more ways than one she ultimately paid for not doing so. At any rate, for the time being, after this action it would have been nothing less than indecent for her to recognise the Confederacy at once; and a little later prudence had the like restraining effect. Yet though recognition and war were avoided they never entirely ceased to threaten, and Mr. Chittenden is perfectly correct in saying that “every act of our government was performed under the impending danger of a recognition of the Confederacy, a disregard of the blockade, and the actual intervention of Great Britain in our attempt to suppress an insurrection upon our own territory.”


[168] Lord John Russell was raised to the peerage, as Earl Russell, just after this time, _i.e._, in July, 1861.

[169] An effort was made to carry out this theory in the case of the crew of the privateer Savannah; but the jury failed to agree, and the attempt was not afterward renewed, privateersmen being exchanged like other prisoners of war.

[170] Mr. Welles declares that Seward at first opposed the surrender; but Mr. Chittenden asserts that he knows that Mr. Seward’s first opinion coincided with his later action; see Mr. Welles’s _Lincoln and Seward_, and Chittenden’s _Recollections_, 148.