December 19, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln met with the secret Senate Republican caucus committee and shrewdly arranged for the committee members and his cabinet to explain their differences face to face.
When Lincoln learned about the secret caucus on the 16th, he was “more distressed” about this supposed conspiracy against him “than by any event of my life.” He asked Senator Orville Browning of Illinois, “What do these men want? They wish to get rid of me, and I am sometimes half disposed to gratify them. We are on the brink of destruction. It appears to me the Almighty is against us, and I can hardly see a ray of hope.”
More bad news came that night, when Lincoln received the resignations of both Secretary of State William H. Seward and his son, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward. Lincoln went to meet with the elder Seward, who was already packing to return to New York. The president refused to accept his resignation and, although Lincoln kept the letter, he told nobody about it as he awaited the caucus results.
The senators resolved to demand that Lincoln reorganize his cabinet, and they deputized nine colleagues to issue this demand at the White House on the 18th. The meeting began at 7 p.m., when Jacob Collamer of Vermont read a statement calling for Lincoln to replace conservative cabinet members with those who agree with Lincoln “in political principles and general policy.” Furthermore, all major military commanders must also be “a cordial believer and supporter of the same principles.”
Various senators delivered speeches “attributing to Mr. Seward a lukewarmness in the conduct of the war.” Benjamin Wade of Ohio accused Lincoln of taking war advice from “men who had no sympathy with it or the cause,” and he alleged that the Republican defeats in last month’s midterm elections were due to “the fact that the President had placed the direction of our military affairs in the hands of bitter and malignant Democrats.”
William P. Fessenden of Maine was more respectful, applauding Lincoln’s patriotism and dedication while admonishing him because “the Cabinet were not consulted as” a group before making crucial decisions about the war. Fessenden then accused Seward of undermining the war effort and claimed that army commanders were “largely pro-slavery men and sympathized strongly with the Southern feeling.” Fessenden singled out Major General George B. McClellan as the prime example.
Lincoln responded by reading copies of letters he had written to McClellan proving that Lincoln had consistently urged him to destroy the enemy as soon as possible. The senators then turned back to Seward, with Charles Sumner of Massachusetts accusing him of writing questionable diplomatic letters “which the President could not have seen or assented to.”
After three hours of discussion, Lincoln pledged to consider the committee’s recommendations and asked the senators to return tomorrow night to resume talks. The men agreed. At next morning’s cabinet meeting, Lincoln informed the members about the committee’s concerns. He said that the senators considered Seward, who did not attend, “the real cause of our failures.” He reported, “While they believed in the President’s honesty, they seemed to think that when he had in him any good purposes Mr. S. contrived to suck them out of him unperceived.”
Lincoln persuaded the members to attend that evening’s meeting with the committee so he could shrewdly put up a unified front against the senators. Before the meeting began, the senators were surprised to see the cabinet members (except Seward) waiting in the anteroom. Lincoln brought them all into the office and announced that his cabinet would be attending to listen to the complaints and testify that the administration was united in purpose.
The meeting began with Lincoln reading a long rebuttal to the committee’s resolutions, which included “some mild severity” against them. Acknowledging that he did not consistently consult with his entire cabinet before making important policy decisions, Lincoln asserted “that most questions of importance had received a reasonable consideration” and he “was not aware of any divisions or want of unity.”
Lincoln then asked his cabinet to say “whether there had been any want of unity or of sufficient consultation.” This put Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase in an embarrassing predicament. As a Radical ally, Chase had secretly told the senators that there was dissension and a lack of communication in the cabinet, but now he had to say so in front of the president. To say so would make him disloyal to Lincoln; to not say so would mean he had deceived the senators.
Chase angrily said that he should not have been placed in this awkward situation. He then “fully and entirely” supported Lincoln’s statement and grudgingly admitted that “there had been no want of unity in the cabinet.” The discussion then turned back to Seward, but Chase’s admission seriously damaged the senators’ case against him.
After five hours, Lincoln asked the senators if they still demanded Seward’s resignation. Four said yes, but the other five were no longer sure. The meeting finally adjourned around 1 a.m. with everyone present fairly confident that Seward would not be removed.
Lincoln noted Chase’s disapproval of how the meeting was handled and, as expected, Chase visited him the next day and explained how he had been embarrassed. He told Lincoln that he had written a letter of resignation. Lincoln quickly asked, “Where is it?” Chase pulled it from his pocket and said, “I brought it with me. I wrote it this morning.” Lincoln replied, “Let me have it.”
Chase reluctantly handed the paper to Lincoln, who read it and said, “This… cuts the Gordian knot. I can dispose of this subject now.” Both Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton also offered to resign, but Lincoln refused. He did not, however, refuse Chase’s because it played right into Lincoln’s hands. If the senators insisted on removing Seward, then their greatest ally in the cabinet, Chase, would have to go as well. As Lincoln said to Senator Ira Harris of New York, “I can ride on now. I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag!”
The Radicals ultimately withdrew their demands, Lincoln refused the resignations of both Seward and Chase, and all cabinet members resumed their duties. Lincoln’s shrewdness in handling this affair diffused the political crisis for now.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 244-46; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8563-85; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 111, 113-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 240-41; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 486-87; Jackson, Donald Dale, Twenty Million Yankees: The Northern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 146-47; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 297-99; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 574-75; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q462