Sunday, August 23, 2009

'There Was Panic In Washington'

30th of 45 excerpts from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald:
At the time of [son] Willie's death [in February 1862], Lincoln's optimism about military affairs also began to vanish. There still were some successes to celebrate. In the West the Union victory at Pea Ridge, Arkansas (March 6-8), ended the threat of a Confederate invasion of Missouri. In the East, Ambrose E. Burnside, after capturing Roanoke Island, moved inland to New Berne, North Carolina, which could serve as a base for future operations. But elsewhere there was no progress. After the victories at Forts Henry and Donelson the armies in the Mississippi Valley seemed unable to advance. Receiving no dispatches from Grant for two weeks, Halleck assumed that his subordinate was demoralized by victory and removed him from command. Reports spread that Grant had gone back to his old habits, and in Washington he was no considered "little better than a common gambler and drunkard." Eventually Halleck learned that Grant had been in Nashville conferring with Buell about a joint advance and that a telegraph operator failed to transmit his dispatches. The controversy was important only in that it entailed further delay before the army pushed south. . . .

Lincoln's iritability was undoubtedly related to the excitement he and everyone else in the cabinet felt about a conflict about to take place in Hampton Roads, near Norfolk and Fort Monroe. The former USS Merimack, now heavily armored and rechristened the CSS Virginia, steamed out of Norfolk Harbor and, virtually immune to shot and shell from the wooden ships of the Union navy, rammed and sank the Cumberland, burned the Congress, and damaged the Minnesota and other vessels. If unchecked, the Confederate ironclad could break the blockade. There was panic in Washington. Stanton (photo, above), always excitable, broke out in recriminations against Gideon Welles and the navy and predicted that the Merrimack would soon send a cann shot into the cabinet room. Lincoln, too, was clearly troubled, but he tried to conceal his agitation by eagerly reading the dispatches and interrogating the navy officers who brought news of the engagement. That evening the Monitor, a Union ironclad of such unusual design that it looked like a cheese box on a raft, appeared at Hampton Roads, ready to give battle the next day. In the engagement on March 9 the Merrimack was badly damaged and forced back to Norfolk.

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