Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Bottom Is Out Of The Tub

27th of 45 excerpts from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald:
"The Prest. is an excellent man, and, in the main wise," Attorney General Bates recorded in his final diary entry of 1861; "but he lacks will and purpose, and I greatly fear he has not the power to command." That judgment by one of the most cautious and conservative members of the Lincoln administration represented a widely held opinion. Nearly everybody thought the President was honest and well meaning, and almost everyone who met him liked him. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, who visited with White House with Senator Sumner in January 1862, was not put off by Lincoln's homely appearance, and his awkward movements and gestures; he found the President a "frank, sincere, well-meaning man, with a lawyer's habit of mind, . . . correct enough, not vulgar, as described, but with a sort of boyish cheerfulness." But few thought he was up to the job.

He seemed unable to make things go right. Huge armies, raised at immense expense, lay idle in winter quarters. As the costs of the war mounted, the Treasury lived on credit, and banks throughout the country had to suspend specie payments. In the Northwest farms were suffering as laborers went off to the army, and there was no market for farm produce because the Mississippi River was closed. "The people are being bled and as they believe to no purpose and will not long submit to it," warned one Illinois Cassandra.

So desperate did things look in early January that Lincoln for the first time thought that the Confederates might be successful, and he spoke "of the bare possibility of our being two nations."

At the heart of the problems was the failure of the armies to advance and win victories. Lincoln's general-in-chief was still recovering from typhoid fever and unable to work. When the Committee on the Conduct of the War met with the President on January 6, its members were appalled to learn that neither he nor anyone else knew McClellan's plans. Lincoln told the congressmen that he "did not think he had any right to know, but that, as he was not a military man, it was his duty to defer to General McClellan" (photo, above).

When the informal council of war reassembled, the commanders agreed that a move on Manassass was the best operation at this time, but [Quartermaster General] Montgomery Meigs and [Postmaster General] Montgomery Blair, who had joined the group, vigorously opposed this strategy because it would certainly lead to another Bull Run. Unsure how to resolve the conflict, Lincoln again adjourned the meeting.

On January 13, McClellan rose from his sickbed to join in the discussion. Clearly regarding these meetings as a conspiracy against him, the general-in-chief was suddenly and uncommunicative. When Lincoln again rehearsed the urgent reasons for actions and asked what would be done, McClellan replied scornfully that "the case was so clear a blind man could see it" -- and then diverted the conversation to his perpetual fear that the Confederate forces outnumbered his own. Eventually [Treasury Secretary] Salmon Chase (photo, below) asked him directly what he intended to do with his army and when he intended to move. The general sat silent. When Meigs whispered to him that the President had a right to know his intentions, McClellan responded with a voice inaudible to the rest of the group: "If I tell him my plans they will be in the New York Herald tomorrow morning. He can't keep a secret." After further urging, he said that "he was very unwilling to develop his plans," because he believed that in military matters the fewer persons who knew them the better, but "that he would tell them if he was ordered to do so." All that Lincoln could get from him was a pledge that he did have a specific time in mind for an advance, though he was unwilling to divulge it. With that the President declared he was satisfied.

He was not, in fact, at all satisfied. His unhappiness grew when he discovered a few days after these meetings that a planned expedition to seize the mouth of the Mississippi River would be indefinitely delayed because army authorities had failed to prepare the necessary beds (or racks) for the mortars the ships were to carry. Exasperated, he told [Assistant Secretary of the Navy] Gustavus Fox that he now believed "he must take these army matters into his own hands."

No comments: