On the night of December 16, the 32 Republicans in the Senate secretly caucused in the 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 caucus was dominated by the Radical Republicans, who wanted a more stringent prosecution of the war that included the abolition of slavery as a war aim. Conservative Republicans wanted a war limited to only interfering with slavery if it helped preserve the Union.
Radicals wanted Secretary of State William H. Seward ousted from President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet because Seward was a conservative and Lincoln’s most trusted confidante in the cabinet. Some even believed that Seward was secretly shaping Lincoln’s war policy behind the scenes, and if so, then Seward was most responsible for the recent military disasters. Among the Radical senators:
- Zachariah Chandler of Michigan 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.”
- 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 (even though 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 get rid of 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.”
Seward sent a message to Lincoln: “I hereby resign the office of Secretary of State of the United States, and have the honor to request that this resignation may be immediately accepted.” His son Frederick, the assistant secretary of state, submitted an identical letter.
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: “Resolved, that in the judgment of the Republican members of the Senate, the public confidence in the present administration would be increased by a change in and partial 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. According to Fessenden, “Common sense, if not common honesty, has fled from the cabinet… I very much fear there will be an outbreak in Congress.” Thirty-one of the 32 senators approved, with King abstaining. The senators then formed a committee of nine, headed by Jacob Collamer, to present this to Lincoln.
When Lincoln learned that the Senate Republicans were caucusing, he was “more distressed” by this “than by any event of my life.” He asked his friend Browning, “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.”
A meeting between the president and the Senate delegation took place in the White House at 7 p.m. on the 18th. It began with Collamer reading 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 alleged that “the conduct of the war was left mainly in the hands of men who had no sympathy with the cause, and the Republicans of the West owed their defeat in the recent elections to Lincoln having placed the direction of our military affairs in the hands of bitter and malignant Democrats.”
Fessenden was more respectful, applauding Lincoln’s patriotism and dedication while voicing regret that “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 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 the following night to resume talks. The men agreed.
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