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Grant And The Politicians
It was almost election time, the unpopular war was stalemated, the casualty lists were growing, and the President’s opponents cried “Peace!” Then the new commanding general moved with consummate political as well as military skill
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
Grant understood this, and he wanted to win the victories that would ensure Lincoln’s re-election. But he saw, too, that if the political price for these victories was too high Lincoln might lose. A case in point was Grant’s recent attempt to shelve General Butler, who was a military incompetent. He had been unable to do it because Butler had political power which the administration simply dared not alienate. Similarly, politics kept Grant from naming General William Franklin to the top command of the fragmented levies that were trying without success to defeat General Early. In the same way, it was not possible to touch the command structure of the Army of the Potomac without sending political tremors all across Washington.
The whole problem came to a head on July 31, when Grant and Lincoln had a face-to-face, unpublicized meeting at Fort Monroe. The meeting was called to discuss Grant’s desire to get a good commander for the campaign against Early, but it ranged on and gave Grant a full picture of the claims of politics in a presidential year.
Neither Lincoln nor Grant ever said much about the meeting, but what took place is fairly clear. On July 30 Grant had telegraphed to the President, promising to meet him at Fort Monroe the next day, and on the back of this telegram Lincoln scribbled a few words that could only be a listing of the points to be discussed: “Meade & Franklin / McClellan / Md & Penna.”
The “Meade & Franklin” bit came first. Lincoln apparently told Grant what Grant already knew: he could not have Franklin. Then he went on to Meade, asking Grant whether Meade would be willing to leave the Army of the Potomac and take command of the forces opposing General Early Grant had mentioned this to Meade a few days earlier and had received no reply except the remark that Meade was “ready to obey any order that might be given me.” Actually, Meade rather liked the idea; he had told his wife that “so far as having an independent command, which the Army of the Potomac is not, I would like this change very well,” although he confessed that the notion of taking charge of all the different generals who held forth in the Washington area and dealing directly with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the Chief of Staff, General Henry Halleck, was somewhat sobering. In any case, the President pointed out that in recent months there had been a good deal of agitation for Meade’s dismissal, and if the transfer were made now it would look as if the President had given way under pressure. However all of this may have been, Grant after this chat with Lincoln gave no more thought to the plan for sending Meade to the Potomac.
That Lincoln included a “Md & Penna” item is not surprising. He understood the need for a unified command and was ready to go along with it, the only question being the choice of the man to hold that command. It is here that his jotted “McClellan” becomes of interest. A note in General Marsena Patrick’s catchall diary of headquarters understandings provides a clue. Shortly after this meeting, Patrick wrote: “The same proposition of consolidation was urged in behalf of [General George B.] McClellan by very strong Republicans for two reasons. One, that by giving him military position it would dispose of him politically—the other, that his name would bring forward a host of volunteers.” Patrick added that “the plan was rejected at Washington,” but either the rejection had not yet been made final, or some of Lincoln’s official family had not got the word. More was going on here than Patrick realized.
The Democrats were to hold their convention at the end of August in Chicago, and it was generally assumed that McClellan was going to be the nominee. Various Republican leaders wanted to head this off; in May, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair had begun writing letters to the New York financier and Democratic party notable, S. L. M. Barlow, who was close to McClellan. In these letters Blair had suggested a clever deal: let the Democrats and moderate Republicans make common cause against the Republican Radicals and unite behind Lincoln, with McClellan removing himself from the political race and accepting for recompense a high command in the army. This would ensure Lincoln’s reelection and would also be good for McClellan: “He is young, and there is a great future opening to one of his genius and antecedents”—and, in fine, he could run for the Presidency after the war was over and Lincoln had finished his second term.
Barlow said that Thurlow Weed, Republican leader in New York, had made the same suggestion to him, and later in the summer he told McClellan that reliable sources said Lincoln was looking for Democratic support, offering to put McClellan back in high command in return. On July 20—less than two weeks before Lincoln and Grant had their meeting—one of Barlow’s informants reported that Blair’s father, Francis P. Blair, Sr., was in New York, trying to get an appointment with McClellan. This appointment Blair presently got, and he urged McClellan to apply for a military assignment, remarking that if Lincoln refused to give it to him “he would then be responsible for the consequences.” McClellan gave him a noncommittal answer, and if the plan interested him he never did anything about it. Presumably he thought it best to go ahead with the political race, especially since the war was going badly and a useful political issue was the fact that McClellan was not being used. (Barlow had wondered if anyone “will forgive Mr. Lincoln for the monstrous crime of permitting the great fight of the war to take place without the benefit of his personality.”)