December 16, 1862 – Republican senators gathered in an extraordinary caucus to determine how to better manage the war effort after the terrible defeat at Fredericksburg.
The northern press howled with indignation and outrage after Fredericksburg. Many correspondents and pundits were reluctant to blame Major General Ambrose E. Burnside because he was still new to his job and generally not hostile to the press. Instead they went straight to the top, condemning President Abraham Lincoln and his top subordinates (i.e., Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck) unmercifully.
Many Radical Republicans in Congress agreed with the press criticisms. Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan declared, “The fact is that the country is done for unless something is done at once… The President is a weak man, too weak for the occasion, and those fool or traitor generals are wasting time and yet more precious blood in indecisive battles and delays.” Prominent historian George Bancroft called Lincoln “ignorant, self-willed, and is surrounded by men some of whom are as ignorant as himself.”
Lincoln offered a general response to his critics and the situation of the time: “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”
Joseph Medill, the pro-Radical editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote an editorial that summed up why the public was so irate:
“Failure of the army, weight of taxes, depreciation of money, want of cotton… increasing national debt, deaths in the army, no prospect of success, the continued closure of the Mississippi… all combine to produce the existing state of despondency and desperation.”
Medill alleged that the “central imbecility” of the Fredericksburg campaign belonged to Lincoln, who often received bad counsel from cabinet members that were too conservative to effectively wage war against the Confederacy. Medill singled out Secretary of State William H. Seward: “Seward must be got out of the Cabinet. He is Lincoln’s evil genius. He has been President de facto, and has kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose.”
Many Radicals agreed with Medill, based on Seward’s tendency toward moderation in the war effort:
- He had tried negotiating with the Confederate envoys during the Fort Sumter crisis before the war.
- He had opposed supplying the Federals at Fort Sumter.
- He had consistently backed Major General George B. McClellan despite all his shortcomings.
- In a recent letter, he had blamed “the extreme advocates of African slavery and its most vehement opponents (i.e., the abolitionists)” for starting and continuing the war.
- He had long resisted allowing blacks to take up combat duty in the military.
- His political benefactor, Thurlow Weed, had worked to defeat Radical Republican James Wadsworth for governor in Seward’s home state of New York.
Wild rumors began circulating that Lincoln would resign, he would reorganize his cabinet, he would reinstate McClellan as a sort of military dictator, and so on. The 32 Senate Republicans secretly caucused in the Senate reception room to discuss how they could help “secure to the country unity of purpose and action” and save the war effort from doom.
The Radicals pushed for a harsher, more stringent prosecution of the war, which conservatives such as Seward had resisted. The senators ultimately agreed that Seward was responsible for the military failures because he exerted more influence over Lincoln than any other cabinet member. Chandler wrote his wife accusing Seward of “plotting for the dismemberment of the government.” Morton S. Wilkerson of Minnesota stated that Seward held “a controlling influence upon the mind of the President,” and “so long as he remained in the Cabinet nothing but defeat and disaster could be expected.”
Jacob Collamer of Vermont declared that “the President had no Cabinet in the true sense of the word,” and William P. Fessenden of Maine claimed that “there was a back-stairs influence which often controlled the apparent conclusions of the Cabinet itself.” James Grimes of Iowa called on his colleagues to approve a resolution demanding that Lincoln fire Seward.
The Radicals’ disdain for Seward had been partly caused by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, their ally in Lincoln’s cabinet. Chase had been telling them that Lincoln seldom sought his cabinet’s advice, except for adhering to Seward’s “malign influence” on him. Chase accused Seward of using his relationship with Lincoln for political gain, while Chase used his relationship with the Radicals for the same purpose. Orville Browning of Illinois felt confident that the country could be saved by removing conservatives from high positions and replacing them with “a cabinet of ultra men,” led by Chase.
Seward’s allies among the Republican senators worked to postpone the motions for a day, giving Preston King of New York time to inform Seward that a caucus had been formed “to ascertain whether any steps could be taken to quiet the public mind and to produce a better condition of affairs.” When King told him the real reason for the caucus was to oust him, Seward said, “They may do as they please about me, but they shall not put the President in a false position on my account.”
Both Seward and his son, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward, drafted identical letters and sent them to Lincoln: “I hereby resign the office of Secretary (and Assistant Secretary) of State of the United States, and have the honor to request that this resignation may be immediately accepted.”
The next day, the Republican senators caucused again and modified their stance against Seward. Without directly naming him, the senators approved a resolution drafted by Ira Harris of New York stating “that in the judgment of the Republican members of the Senate, the public confidence in the present Administration would be increased by a reconstruction of the Cabinet.” The resolution included:
- Formation of a new cabinet fully dedicated to prosecuting the war with the utmost vigor
- Congressional approval of each cabinet member before they assumed their posts
- Unanimous agreement among all cabinet members on all war policies
This resolution had no basis in the Constitution, which allows the president full authority over his own cabinet and the extent of its power. Thirty-one of the 32 senators approved, with King abstaining. The senators then formed a committee of nine to present this to Lincoln and demand that he fire Seward.
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