December 9, 1861 – The U.S. Senate approved a measure creating a joint House-Senate military oversight committee whose investigative methods quickly proved controversial.
The recent Federal disaster at Ball’s Bluff had prompted many congressmen to push for creating some kind of a committee to investigate and hold someone responsible. Before such a committee had been formed, Congress sent messages to both Secretary of War Simon Cameron and General-in-Chief George B. McClellan “to ascertain who is responsible for the disastrous movement of our troops at Ball’s Bluff.” Both men similarly responded that “an inquiry on the subject of the resolution would, at this time, be injurious to the public service.” Forming a committee could be more effective in getting answers.
The day after Senate approval, the House of Representatives unanimously approved what became known as the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Present War. This committee would “have power to send for persons and papers, and to sit during the recess of either house of Congress.” It consisted of three senators:
- Republican Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio
- Republican Zachariah Chandler of Michigan
- Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee
And four representatives:
- Republican George Julian of Indiana
- Republican Daniel Gooch of Massachusetts
- Republican John Covode of Pennsylvania
- Democrat Moses Odell of New York
Most Republicans on the committee identified themselves as Radicals, including committee chairman Wade. The Radicals distrusted McClellan, not only because he was a Democrat, but because he had not waged war against the Confederacy aggressively enough for them. Many Democrats denounced the committee as a “Jacobin” body intending to discredit military commanders who did not share their political views. Others praised the committee as a necessary organ to investigate widespread allegations of military incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption.
Committee members held secret hearings in the Capitol basement, divulging only selected portions of testimony to the press. Many witnesses were denied their basic constitutional rights, such as the right to legal counsel or to face accusers, and “evidence” was often based more on rumor than fact. The committee targeted several military commanders for removal more for their political beliefs than their performance in the field.
Nobody was beyond the committee’s reach, including President Lincoln himself. Lincoln had to testify in response to allegations that First Lady Mary Lincoln was “two thirds slavery and one third secesh” because she had several relatives in the Confederate army. Although Lincoln expressed relief that the members were “in a perfectly good mood,” Wade told him, “Mr. President, you are murdering your country by inches in consequence of the inactivity of the military and the want of a distinct policy in regard to slavery.”
This marked just the beginning of the committee’s reign as top inquisitor of the Federal war effort.
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