One of the RedState Department of History’s favorite authors is the late Shelby Foote. The author of the epic three-volume series “The Civil War: A Narrative”, Foote was the star of Ken Burns’ ten-part series on the conflict which established his reputation as a documentary film maker.
Foote covered virtually every aspect of the war, North and South – and one of the key governmental units of that war observes an anniversary today.
The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a bi-partisan group of Congressmen who in essence appointed themselves the guardians of the Union war effort, met for the first time on this day in 1861.
The committee was the brainchild of Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler, and it was borne out of Union defeat.
While many members of Congress gathered to observe the Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas in the Confederate lexicon), and to watch General Irvin McDowell’s army give the rebels an expected thrashing, the result wasn’t what they anticipated. In fact, it was the opposite.
McDowell’s army was routed and the result among the politicians was what you might have expected. Journalist Benjamin Pooley Poore remembered:
“Near the battlefield, a group of senators heard a loud noise and looked around to see the road filled with retreating soldiers, horses, and wagons. “Turn back, turn back, we’re whipped,” Union soldiers cried as they ran past the spectators. Startled, Michigan senator Zachariah Chandler tried to block the road to stop the retreat. Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, sensing a humiliating defeat, picked up a discarded rifle and threatened to shoot any soldier who ran. While Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts distributed sandwiches, a Confederate shell destroyed his buggy, forcing him to escape on a stray mule. Iowa senator James Grimes barely avoided capture and vowed never to go near another battlefield. Dismayed, senators returned to Washington to deliver eyewitness accounts to a stunned President Lincoln.”
That was bad; but when the Union army’s fiasco at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff became public knowledge, Chandler introduced a measure to create his committee but deferred to Wade to run it, due to Wade’s legal background. And soon, the Committee began issuing reports.
In essence, they looked for scapegoats at a time when loyalty was always being questioned. They also presumed to advise Abraham Lincoln on his role as Commander-in-Chief.
Careers could be made or broken depending on the findings of Wade’s committee, which at first was comprised of two Republican and two Democrat senators and three Republican and one Democrat representatives. One of the senators was Andrew Johnson, the only US Senator from a seceded state, and who would eventually become Lincoln’s second Vice President and of course President upon Lincoln’s assassination.
The Joint Committee distrusted officers it didn’t consider politically loyal, and it also distrusted West Pointers, many of whom had gone South to lead the Confederate armies. It held meetings in secret, did not open its proceedings to the public and forbade anyone who testified before it from speaking to the press — a restriction committee members did not place upon themselves.
The Committee was particularly distrustful of General George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. His inactivity in the winter of 1861 and early 1862 drew the ire of the elected, who urged Lincoln to replace him with McDowell, who had already fought and lost a major battle.
Lincoln thus had to fight two battles: one against the Confederates and another against politicians in his own Congress.
Lincoln’s conflicts with McClellan were well known, but when Wade attempted to influence the President in choosing a new commander, it didn’t go as he had hoped:
In early March, Chairman Benjamin Wade had a particularly stormy interview with the president. Telling the president that McClellan should be removed from command, the president asked Wade who should replace him. When Wade retorted that anyone would do, Lincoln snapped back, “Wade, anybody will do for you, but I must have somebody.”
Eventually, McClellan was relieved not once but twice as the Army of the Potomac went through a series of commanders including John Pope, Ambrose Burnside and Joe Hooker in addition to McDowell and McClellan. Finally George Meade was appointed to command the Army just before the Battle of Gettysburg and even then there was political intrigue.
After that battle, Dan Sickles, a Union major general and Tammany Hall politician, tried to influence the committee against Meade, claiming he had wanted to retreat after the first of three days’ battle. However, Meade’s army won the battle and Sickles’ own role, which was quite controversial due to his decision to advance his corps ahead of the Union line and into the now-famous Peach Orchard, where it was hurled back with grievous losses.
Sickles lost his leg in the battle – and also his corps command, which Meade refused to restore after his singular action. That prompted Sickles to seek redress through the Committee — a rather egregious violation of channels. However, committee members wanted to restore Hooker to command of the Army of the Potomac, despite his fighting and losing a major battle at Chancellorsville.
Lincoln resisted this temptation as well, appointing U.S. Grant as Lieutenant General and commander of all Union armies in 1864.
The Committee reported regularly through May 1865, as the Army of the Potomac continued to suffer setbacks against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia including at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and even during the Overland Campaign of 1864, where the Battle of Cold Harbor resulted in 6,000 Union casualties in twenty minutes of fighting.
With the end of the war, the committee ended as well — but was reconstituted in a way during the Reconstruction period which followed. The Joint Committee on Reconstruction attempted to bind Johnson’s hands as the original committee had attempted to bind Lincoln’s.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!