Tag Archives: Mary Lincoln

The Grand Federal Military Reorganization

March 10, 1864 – When Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant received official authority to assume command of all Federal armies, he was already in the field with the Army of the Potomac.

After two uncomfortable days in Washington, Grant headed back to the field. He arrived at Brandy Station, headquarters for the Army of the Potomac, late on the 9th in pouring rain. He was greeted by a Zouave regiment and a band playing “The General’s March.” Nobody knew that Grant was tone-deaf. Grant planned to meet with the army commander, Major General George G. Meade, with whom he had been slightly acquainted during the Mexican War, the next day.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meade speculated that Grant would remove him as commander. On the 2nd, he wrote his wife that Grant “may want some one else whom he knows better in command of his army.” A week later, Meade wrote that Grant “may desire to have his own man in command, particularly as I understand he is indoctrinated with the notion of the superiority of the Western armies, and that the failure of the Army of the Potomac to accomplish anything is due to their commanders.”

While at Washington, Grant had considered replacing Meade with Major General William T. Sherman, or perhaps Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith. He discussed the possibility of removing Meade with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Both Lincoln and Stanton opposed removing him, but they would support Grant as general-in-chief if he chose to do it.

The meeting between Grant and Meade went extremely well. Meade said that he understood if Grant wanted to replace him, and he begged Grant “not to hesitate about making the change.” According to Grant, Meade “urged that the work before us was of such vast importance to the whole nation that the feeling or wishes of no one person should stand in the way of selecting the right men for all positions.”

Grant assured Meade “that I had no thought of substituting any one for him,” and Meade’s willingness to sacrifice gave Grant “even a more favorable opinion of Meade than did his great victory at Gettysburg the July before. It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.”

Before coming east, Grant had planned to maintain his headquarters at Nashville. But now, after talking with Meade and assessing the Army of the Potomac, “It was plain that here was the point for the commanding general to be.” Grant proposed guiding the army while Meade retained direct command of the officers and men. Meade said that he would be happy with such a move. Meade later wrote his wife that he was–

“… very much pleased with General Grant. In the views he expressed to me he showed much more capacity and character than I had expected. I spoke to him very plainly about my position, offered to vacate the command of the Army of the Potomac, in case he had a preference for any other. This he declined in a complimentary speech, but indicated to me his intention, when in this part of the country, of being with the army.”

Meade added, perhaps sarcastically, “So that you may look now for the Army of the Potomac putting laurels on the brows of another rather than your husband.”

With Grant now in charge, a massive reorganization took place throughout the Federal military. At “his own request,” former General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck became the army chief of staff. He would be Grant’s political liaison and handle the administrative affairs of the armies, which included channeling communications from the 19 military departments to Grant. This would allow Grant to focus mainly on military strategy. In Lincoln’s general order announcing the change, he thanked Halleck for his “able and zealous” service since becoming general-in-chief in July 1862.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

Major General William T. Sherman replaced Grant as commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Sherman would lead the three armies between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River: Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, and Sherman’s former Army of the Tennessee, now under Major General James B. McPherson. He would also head Major General Franklin Steele’s Department of Arkansas across the Mississippi.

In a move that Grant could not control, Major General Franz Sigel was given command of the Department of West Virginia, replacing Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley. Sigel had spent much of the past year complaining about being overlooked, and, being a German immigrant, he held great political influence over fellow German-Americans (most of whom were Republicans) who would be voting in the upcoming presidential election. Thus, Lincoln made the move.

Sigel was expected to clear the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley. But his military reputation was dubious at best, even among his own staff. One aide cynically wrote of Sigel’s promotion, “The Dutch vote must be secured at all hazards. And the sacrifice of West Virginia is a small matter.”

After meeting with Meade, Grant returned to Washington, having accepted an invitation from First Lady Mary Lincoln to attend a dinner and a presentation of Richard III at Grover’s Theater, starring Edwin Booth. However, Grant changed his mind, opting to leave for Nashville that evening to confer with Sherman instead.

Disappointed, President Lincoln told him, “We can’t excuse you. Mrs. Lincoln’s dinner without you would be Hamlet with Hamlet left out.” Grant replied, “I appreciate the honor Mrs. Lincoln would do me, but time is very important now. And really, Mr. Lincoln, I have had enough of this show business.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 165-66; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 384; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10594; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 125-83, 233-62, 496-516; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 407-08; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24-25; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 473-74; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 817; 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), Q164

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Lincoln Travels to Gettysburg

November 18, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln boarded a special train to attend the dedication of the new Gettysburg National Cemetery.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By the morning of the 18th, Lincoln had contracted varioloid, or a mild smallpox, and his son Tad was very ill. But the president refused to cancel his trip. First Lady Mary Lincoln, having lost two young sons already, became hysterical at the prospect of losing a third while her husband was away.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had scheduled a special train to take Lincoln to the ceremony and bring him back to Washington on the day of the event, but Lincoln told him, “I do not like this arrangement. I do not wish to so go that by the slightest accident we fail entirely; and, at the best, the whole to be a mere breathless running of the gauntlet. But any way.”

Stanton instead booked a special four-car train to leave Washington at noon on the 18th, the day before the ceremony. Lincoln left with his three most conservative cabinet members–Secretary of State William H. Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and Interior Secretary John P. Usher. Other travelers included Lincoln’s secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s black manservant William Johnson, Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, and Benjamin B. French, who had written a hymn for the event. Military officers, foreign dignitaries, newspaper correspondents, the Marine Band, and the Invalid Corps also joined the presidential party.

The train stopped at Baltimore, where it had to be pulled by horses from Camden Station to Bolton Station. It then continued to Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, where Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin boarded. During a brief stop at Hanover, Lincoln posed for a photo by Mathew Brady and addressed a gathering crowd:

“Well, you had the rebels here last summer. Did you fight them any? I trust when the enemy was here, the citizens of Hanover were loyal to our country and the stars and stripes. If you are not all true patriots in support of the union, you should be.”

As the train was about to leave, Lincoln said, “Well, you have seen me, and, according to general experience, you have seen less than you expected to see.” The train reached Gettysburg around 6 p.m., where it was greeted by event organizer and local attorney David Wills, and keynote speaker Edward Everett. They handed Lincoln an encouraging telegram from Stanton: “Mrs. Lincoln informed me that your son is better this evening.” Lincoln went with them to Wills’s mansion, where they would be spending the night.

The town was crowded with visitors fueled by patriotic enthusiasm. Word quickly spread that Lincoln and other Washington luminaries were in town, and people soon gathered to serenade the president, joined by the 5th New York Artillery Band. When they called on Lincoln to give a speech, he came out and said:

“I appear before you, fellow-citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.”

A man shouted, “If you can help it!” Lincoln continued, “It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further.”

The group then moved on to Seward, who came out and obliged them with a speech. Seward lauded the United States as “the richest, the broadest, the most beautiful, the most magnificent, and capable of a great destiny, that has ever been given to any part of the human race.”

Some time that night, Lincoln finished writing the address he would deliver the next day.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 342-43; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9827-49; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 830; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 373; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 307; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 434-35

The Army of the Potomac: The Grand Review

April 4, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln headed a group leaving Washington to review Major General Joseph Hooker’s revamped Army of the Potomac.

Lincoln boarded the steamer Carrie Martin to go to Hooker’s headquarters at Falmouth in northern Virginia. He was accompanied by First Lady Mary Lincoln, his son Tad (celebrating his 10th birthday), Attorney General Edward Bates, old Springfield friend Dr. Anson G. Henry, Sacramento Union correspondent Noah Brooks, and others. The trip began amidst a heavy snowstorm.

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

At Falmouth, Hooker proceeded with plans to destroy the Confederate army and march on Richmond. He directed all corps commanders to move surplus baggage to the rear and notified the War Department to have siege equipment ready for when the army arrived outside the Confederate capital. This included shovels, picks, axes, and sandbags, along with a naval flotilla to bring 1.5 million rations up the Pamunkey River for the troops.

The presidential party arrived on the 5th, Easter Sunday. They disembarked at Aquia Creek, which had been decorated with patriotic bunting and flags to welcome them. A special train took them to Hooker’s headquarters, three miles from the Rappahannock River. Hooker’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, showed the guests to their quarters, which consisted of three large hospital tents.

Lincoln met with Hooker and began discussing strategy. When Lincoln said, “If you get to Richmond, General,” Hooker cut him off: “Excuse me, Mr. President, but there is no ‘if’ in this case. I am going straight to Richmond if I live.” Lincoln later told Noah Brooks, “That is the most depressing thing about Hooker. It seems to me that he is over-confident.” The president later added, “The hen is the wisest of all the animal creation, because she never cackles until the egg is laid.”

Lincoln also disapproved of Hooker’s ongoing debate with his commanders on how best to get around the Confederate army and take Richmond. Hooker’s recent request for siege equipment indicated that his grand objective was the enemy capital and not the enemy army. Lincoln tried settling this matter with a memorandum making it clear that “our prime object is the enemies’ army in front of us, and is not with, or about, Richmond…”

Hooker planned a cavalry review of the “finest army on the planet” for his visitors that day, but the snowstorm postponed it to the 6th. On that date, the presidential party watched over 15,000 horsemen pass them in the largest concentration of cavalry ever assembled on the continent. This was the new Cavalry Corps that Hooker had created, led by Major General George Stoneman.

Attorney General Bates called the cavalry parade “the grandest sight I ever saw.” Young Tad especially enjoyed the pageantry. Hooker made sure to stage the review in plain sight of the Confederates across the Rappahannock as an impressive show of force. Hooker also hoped that staging such reviews would boost army morale. He told Lincoln, “I only regret that your party is not as large as our hospitality.”

Lincoln and the other guests spent the next few days observing more reviews and riding among the troops. Hooker staged a “Grand Review” of the infantry on the 9th, which a Pennsylvania officer called “the most magnificent military pageant ever witnessed on this continent.”

Nearly 85,000 troops marched past President and Mrs. Lincoln and their son in lines stretching for miles on Falmouth Heights. A correspondent on the scene reported that “the President merely touched his hat in return salute to the officers, but uncovered to the men in the ranks.”

Lincoln and Hooker sat upon their horses beside each other, with Lincoln in his usual tailcoat and stovepipe hat, and Hooker in full dress uniform. Many soldiers considered Lincoln “an ungainly looking man,” but they cheered him out of respect “for his integrity, and good management of the war.” A soldier described the first lady as “a pleasant, but not an intelligent looking woman.”

The president met with Hooker and Major General Darius N. Couch, the senior corps commander, before returning to Washington on the morning of the 10th. The Army of the Potomac now numbered 133,450 effectives and 70 batteries totaling 412 guns. The Confederates had less than half this strength. Lincoln told Hooker and Couch, “I want to impress upon you two gentlemen, in your next fight, put in all your men.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 271-72; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9192-203, 9214-25; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 235, 249-51; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 278; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 513-16; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 102-03, 111; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 335-36; 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. 585; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 127-29

The Death of Willie Lincoln

February 20, 1862 – President and Mrs. Lincoln’s 12-year-old son died of what doctors called “bilious,” or typhoid, fever.

Willie Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Willie Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln had been critically ill for most of this month, with First Lady Mary Lincoln becoming increasingly hysterical as his condition worsened. Doctors tending to him speculated that the unsanitary conditions in the White House may have caused his illness. Willie finally succumbed at 5 p.m. on the 20th. This was the second of four sons the Lincolns lost; Edward Baker Lincoln had died of “consumption” at age three in 1850.

Mary Lincoln was inconsolable, prompting some to wonder if she had gone insane. For President Lincoln, this tragedy offset the recent military victories in the Western Theater. He visited his secretary, John Nicolay, after Willie’s death and said, “Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone–he is actually gone!” Sobbing, Lincoln went to tend to his eight-year-old son Tad, who was also suffering from Willie’s illness. Tad eventually recovered.

The president conducted no official business for four days, during which time he received a letter of condolence from General-in-Chief George B. McClellan:

“You have been a kind true friend to me in the midst of the great cares and difficulties by which we have been surrounded during the past few months. Your confidence has upheld me when I should otherwise have felt weak. I am pushing to prompt completion the measures of which we have spoken, and I beg that you will not allow military affairs to give you a moment’s trouble.”

Funeral services for Willie took place in the White House at 2 p.m. on the 24th. Congress adjourned for that day so members could attend the services in the midst of one of the worst wind and rainstorms in Washington history. Willie was temporarily interred in Oak Hill Cemetery at Georgetown before he could be permanently buried in Springfield. The president quickly returned to work while he continued grieving.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 74; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 122, 131, 133; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7076-87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 251; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 112; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 418-19; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 167-68, 173-75; 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), Q162

Mrs. Lincoln’s White House Ball

February 5, 1862 – First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln held a grand ball for 500 guests at the White House, despite the continuing war.

First Lady Mary Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

First Lady Mary Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Mrs. Lincoln’s idea to hold a gala event only for selected invitees disregarded advice from State Department protocol officers, who urged her to either hold small private affairs or open the White House to the public. All guests were required to present a ticket to gain admittance, and several took offense at not being invited. Attendees included members of the cabinet, military (including General-in-Chief George B. McClellan), diplomatic corps, Congress, Supreme Court, and prominent social circles, along with their spouses.

Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, insulted by the ticket of invitation advertising a “dancing party,” sent a message: “Are the President and Mrs. Lincoln aware there is a Civil War? If they are not, Mr. and Mrs. Wade are, and for that reason decline to participate in feasting and dancing.” The first lady relented and removed dancing from the program.

Guests began arriving in carriages at 9 p.m. They were allowed into the Green, Red, and Blue parlors, and the Lincolns received them in the East Room, with the president wearing a black swallowtail coat. Mrs. Lincoln showed off the newly refurbished White House residence, with the U.S. Marine Corps Band playing a new song, “The Mary Lincoln Polka.” Both President and Mrs. Lincoln periodically disappeared upstairs to check on their son Willie, who lay seriously ill with typhoid and was being tended by doctors.

The dining room doors opened at midnight for the guests to indulge in an enormous buffet provided by Maillard’s of New York, America’s most lavish caterer. The New York Tribune reported that it was “one of the finest displays of gastronomic art ever seen in this country.” The correspondent for the Washington Star called the ball “the most superb affair of its kind ever seen here,” with the buffet featuring “turkey, duck, venison, pheasant, partridge and ham.”

Despite criticisms about the first lady holding such a lavish ball while Americans languished in the despair of war, social circles generally praised her efforts.

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References

Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7066-76; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 413-17; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 167; 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), Q162

The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War

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
Senator Benjamin Wade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Senator Benjamin Wade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65-66; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 100; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6883-94; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 108; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 89; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 425; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 147-48; 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. 362; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 188-89; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 80-81; 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), Q461

The Ball’s Bluff Aftermath

October 23, 1861 – The Federal defeat at Ball’s Bluff outraged northerners, sent the Lincolns into mourning, and increased calls for Major General George B. McClellan to wage “all-out war” against the Confederates.

Stone, McClellan, and Baker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Stone, McClellan, and Baker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

On the rainy morning after their horrific defeat, about 3,000 Federals remained on the Virginia side of the Potomac, mostly south of Ball’s Bluff at Edwards’s Ferry. Brigadier General Charles P. Stone received reinforcements from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, overall commander in the region. As Stone and Banks debated whether to withdraw to Maryland, they remained unaware that Brigadier General George A. McCall’s Federals, who were supposed to have made the main demonstration against Leesburg, had fallen back from Dranesville the previous day in accordance with orders from Major General George B. McClellan.

The Federals drove off a Confederate assault around 4 p.m., with many using their bayonets and wielding their empty muskets like clubs. Around the same time, President Lincoln received the official notification of the Ball’s Bluff defeat at Washington: “We have met with a sad disaster. Fifteen hundred men lost, and Colonel Baker killed.” Lincoln, who had named his second son after Baker, wept at the loss of his close friend. The Lincolns went into mourning and received no visitors at the White House on that day.

Meanwhile, the northern press began publishing damning reports on the fiasco. Harper’s Weekly opined: “History affords few examples of such slaughter.” Leslie’s Illustrated concluded: “This time military incompetence must accept its own responsibilities. The battle was not a great military blunder, but a great military crime.” McClellan arrived at Stone’s headquarters on the night of the 22nd, where Stone expressed concern that he would be blamed for the disaster. McClellan assured Stone that the fault had been Baker’s, not his.

The next day, McClellan posted more troops at Harrison’s Island and Edwards’s Ferry, leading many to believe that he planned to avenge the defeat. An article in the New York Herald stated that the Ball’s Bluff engagement “was undoubtedly but the prelude to an advance of General Banks’ army, which in all probability will be made to-day.” However, the Potomac soon rose to an unfordable level, and McClellan issued orders to withdraw.

Funeral services for Colonel Baker took place at the White House on the 24th. The Lincolns’ eight-year-old son Willie wrote a poem in Baker’s honor and submitted it to the National Republican. When Mrs. Lincoln was criticized for wearing lilac instead of black, she replied, “I want the women to mind their own business. I intend to wear what I please.” Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist belonging to the Radical faction of Republicans, used the service to blame slavery for being “the assassin of our children, and the murderer of our dead senator.”

The Ball’s Bluff disaster infuriated the Radicals, many of whom distrusted McClellan’s motives since he was an avowed Democrat. A group of senators met with the general on the night of the 25th and demanded answers as to why the defeat had been so severe. They also demanded that McClellan lead the army into battle, overlooking that the defeat indicated the army may not be ready for offensive operations. McClellan refused to take responsibility for the defeat, instead arguing that General-in-Chief Winfield Scott had impeded his plans and made it impossible for him to coordinate his forces.

Based on this, the Radicals turned to Lincoln and began pressuring him to remove Scott from command. The Radicals demanded an “all-out war” to destroy both the Confederacy and slavery. They asserted that an immediate defeat would be no worse than McClellan’s stationary posture. Lincoln defended McClellan before visiting the general to see if any movement could be made. McClellan told the president that the army was not ready, and Lincoln concluded, “you must not fight until you are ready.”

But Lincoln wanted to know when the army would be ready, and he and Secretary of War Simon Cameron visited McClellan on the 30th to see if the general could provide more details on his military situation (i.e., troop strength and positions, and McClellan’s plan of attack). The next day, McClellan enlisted the help of close friend Edwin M. Stanton, former U.S. attorney general, in preparing a formal report.

The report concluded that McClellan could either take the time to strengthen the army until spring for an offensive that would most likely succeed, or he could lead an advance now that would most likely fail. McClellan recommended the former, while transferring all available troops in the other theaters to his command in the meantime.

Estimating General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac to number “not less than 150,000 strong, well drilled and equipped, ably commanded, and strongly entrenched,” McClellan asserted that he needed at least 240,000 men to attack. However, McClellan relied on faulty intelligence reports from Allan Pinkerton to calculate enemy strength; in reality Johnston had less than 50,000 men in northern Virginia. This began a trend in which McClellan resisted taking the offensive by consistently overestimating enemy strength.

Stanton wrote on McClellan’s behalf: “No time is to be lost–we have lost too much already–every consideration requires us to prepare at once, but not to move until we are ready.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 67; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 89; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6709; 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. 362; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 130, 132; 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. 361; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 80; 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), Q461