Table of Contents
The middle period of the war was gloomy and discouraging. Though the Confederates made no substantial progress they certainly held their own. Time is an important factor in all history, and the fact that the Confederates at least gained time counted heavily against the Union. There were no decisive victories gained by the Federal troops. Antietam, to be sure, was won, but the fruits of the victory were lost. For many months the two armies continued facing each other, and for the most part they were much nearer Washington than Richmond.
Meantime the summer, fall, winter were passing by and there was no tangible evidence that the government would ever be able to maintain its authority. All this time the Army of the Potomac was magnificent in numbers, equipment, intelligence. In every respect but one they were decidedly superior to the enemy. The one thing they needed was leadership. The South had generals of the first grade. The generalship of the North had not yet fully developed.
Lincoln held on to McClellan as long as it was possible to do so. He never resented the personal discourtesies. He never wearied of the fruitless task of urging him on. He never refused to let him have his own way provided he could show a reason for it. But his persistent inactivity wore out the patience of the country and finally of the army itself. With the exception of northern democrats with southern sympathies, who from the first were sure of only one thing, namely, that the war was a failure, the clamor for the removal of McClellan was well-nigh unanimous. To this clamor Lincoln yielded only when it became manifestly foolish longer to resist it.
A succeeding question was no less important: Who shall take his place? There was in the East no general whose record would entitle him to this position of honor and responsibility. In all the country there was at that time no one whose successes were so conspicuous as to point him out as the coming man. But there were generals who had done good service, and just at that time. Burnside was at the height of his success. He was accordingly appointed. His record was good. He was an unusually handsome man, of soldierly bearing, and possessed many valuable qualities. He was warmly welcomed by the country at large and by his own army, who thanked God and took courage.
His first battle as commander of the Army of the Potomac was fought at Fredericksburg on the 15th of December and resulted in his being repulsed with terrible slaughter. It is possible, in this as in every other battle, that had certain things been a little different,–had it been possible to fight the battle three weeks earlier,–he would have won a glorious victory. But these thoughts do not bring to life the men who were slain in battle, nor do they quiet the clamor of the country. Burnside showed a certain persistence when, in disregard of the unanimous judgment of his generals, he tried to force a march through the heavy roads of Virginia, as sticky as glue, and give battle again. But he got stuck in the mud and the plan was given up, the only casualty, being the death of a large number of mules that were killed trying to draw wagons through the bottomless mud. After this one battle, it was plain that Burnside was not the coming general.
The next experiment was with Hooker, a valiant and able man, whose warlike qualities are suggested by his well-earned soubriquet of "fighting Joe Hooker.” He had his limitations, as will presently appear. But upon appointing him to the command Lincoln wrote him a personal letter. This letter is here reproduced because it is a perfect illustration of the kindly patience of the man who had need of so much patience:
“EXECUTIVE MANSION, WASHINGTON, D.C., January 26, 1863.
GENERAL: I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which of course I like. I also believe that you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not indispensable, quality. You are ambitious, which, within reason, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success can be dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit you have aimed to infuse into the army, of criticising their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it. And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but, with energy and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.
Yours, very truly, A. LINCOLN.”
The first effect of this letter was to subdue the fractious spirit of the fighter. He said, “That is just such a letter as a father might write to a son. It is a beautiful letter, and although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”
But later his conceit took possession of him. According to Noah Brooks he said to some friends: “I suppose you have seen this letter or a copy of it?” They had. “After I have been to Richmond I shall have the letter published in the newspapers. It will be amusing.” When this was told Lincoln he took the good-natured view of it and only said, “Poor Hooker! I am afraid he is incorrigible.”
It was in January, 1863, that Hooker took command of the army. Three months later he had it in shape for the campaign, and Lincoln went down to see the review. It was indeed a magnificent army, an inspiring sight. But it was noticed by many that Lincoln’s face had not the joyous radiancy of hope which it had formerly worn; it was positively haggard. It was plain that he did not share his general’s easy confidence. He could not forget that he had more than once seen an army magnificent before battle, and shattered after battle. He spent a week there, talking with the generals, shaking hands with “the boys.” Many a private soldier of that day carries to this day as a sacred memory the earnest sound of the President’s voice, “God bless you!”
Then came Chancellorsville with its sickening consequences. When the news came to Washington, the President, with streaming eyes, could only exclaim: “My God, my God! what will the country say?”
The next we hear of Hooker, he had not entered Richmond nor had he found the amusement of publishing the President’s fatherly letter. He was chasing Lee in a northerly direction,–towards Philadelphia or New York. He became angry with Halleck who refused him something and summarily resigned. It was not, for the country, an opportune time for changing generals, but perhaps it was as well. It certainly shows that while Lincoln took him as the best material at hand, while he counseled, encouraged, and bore with him, yet his diagnosis of Hooker’s foibles was correct, and his fears, not his hopes, were realized.
He was succeeded by George C. Meade, “four-eyed George,” as he was playfully called by his loyal soldiers, in allusion to his eyeglasses. It was only a few days later that the great battle of Gettysburg was fought under Meade, and a brilliant victory was achieved. But here, as at Antietam, the triumph was bitterly marred by the disappointment that followed. The victorious army let the defeated army get away. The excuses were about the same as at Antietam,–the troops were tired. Of course they were tired. But it may be assumed that the defeated army was also tired. It surely makes one army quite as tired to suffer defeat as it makes the other to achieve victory. It was again a golden opportunity to destroy Lee’s army and end the war.
Perhaps Meade had achieved enough for one man in winning Gettysburg. It would not be strange if the three days’ battle had left him with nerves unstrung. The fact remains that he did not pursue and annihilate the defeated army. They were permitted to recross the Potomac without molestation, to reenter what may be called their own territory, to reorganize, rest, reequip, and in due time to reappear as formidable as ever. It is plain that the hero of Gettysburg was not the man destined to crush the rebellion.
Here were three men, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade, all good men and gallant soldiers. But not one of them was able successfully to command so large an army, or to do the thing most needed,–capture Richmond. The future hero had not yet won the attention of the country.
In the meantime affairs were very dark for the administration, and up to the summer of 1863 had been growing darker and darker. Some splendid military success had been accomplished in the West, but the West is at best a vague term even to this day, and it has always seemed so remote from the capital, especially as compared to the limited theater of war in Virginia where the Confederate army was almost within sight of the capital, that these western victories did not have as much influence as they should have had.
And there were signal reverses in the West, too. Both Louisville and Cincinnati were seriously threatened, and the battle of Chickamauga was another field of slaughter, even though it was shortly redeemed by Chattanooga. But the attention of the country was necessarily focussed chiefly on the limited territory that lay between Washington and Richmond. In that region nothing permanent or decisive had been accomplished in the period of more than two years, and it is small wonder that the President became haggard in appearance.
He did what he could. He had thus far held the divided North, and prevented a European alliance with the Confederates. He now used, one by one, the most extreme measures. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, declared or authorized martial law, authorized the confiscation of the property of those who were providing aid and comfort for the enemy, called for troops by conscription when volunteers ceased, and enlisted negro troops. Any person who studies the character of Abraham Lincoln will realize that these measures, or most of them, came from him with great reluctance. He was not a man who would readily or lightly take up such means. They meant that the country was pressed, hard pressed. They were extreme measures, not congenial to his accustomed lines of thought. They were as necessities.
But what Lincoln looked for, longed for, was the man who could use skillfully and successfully, the great Army of the Potomac. He had not yet been discovered.