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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
This bears all the earmarks of a deal that is a little too clever. The Blairs often promised more than they could deliver, and Weed was not the only high Republican to fall into a panic this summer. That Lincoln himself took any stock in this gambit is doubtful. But he knew about it, and he would not have put McClellan’s name on the agenda if he had not intended to discuss the matter with Grant.
And there it was. Grant could not make a routine military appointment without reflecting on the presidential election; indeed, the political tide was so strong and so confusing that routine military acts all became extraordinary, as if something great had to be fought out in men’s minds before anyone could act on the battlefield.
A peace movement was going on, and General Meade remarked that “the camp is full of rumors and reports of many kinds” as a result. The movement was largely the creation of Horace Greeley, the hard-war abolitionist editor of the New York Tribune , who occasionally carried a pundit’s eccentricity to excess and who now had gone off on a tangent. Greeley somehow had got in touch with Confederate agents in Canada and had absorbed the idea that Lincoln could end the war if he would just sit down and talk reasonably with reasonable Confederates about a peace that would be honorable and satisfying to both sides. Greeley wrote despairingly to Lincoln about “our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country”; he failed to realize that the only peace Richmond wanted was one that saved both southern independence and southern slavery … and unfortunately he did not know that the Confederates in Canada had no authorization to talk to Lincoln about anything. Lincoln called his bluff, giving Greeley full power to bring the supposed Confederate emissaries to the White House; Greeley finally learned that he had been talking to the wrong people and went away sorrowing, aware that he had been had and feeling that the President had been too stiff-necked. It all came to nothing, but it was one of the things that had to be thought about when the military campaign was up for discussion.
Another was the state of mind of the Republican Radicals—the real Radicals, harder and less eccentric than Greeley: the people the Blairs wanted to beat. Lincoln had just applied a pocket veto to the WadeDavis Bill, in which Senator Ben Wade of Ohio and Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland, Radicals who burned with an undying flame, had persuaded Congress to lay down stern terms for the eventual restoration of the Union. (It would never be restored on anybody’s terms until somebody got Jubal Early away from the Potomac, but the point was not raised.) Lincoln announced that the measure would never become law with his consent, but remarked that any repentant southern state that wanted to come back into the Union on the Wade-Davis terms could do so, and all of this put the bill’s authors into a great fury. On August 5 they issued a formal manifesto, attacking Lincoln with unmeasured venom. What they and their followers would have said if McClellan had been restored to a high military command just then goes beyond the reach of any normal imagination. Anyway, here was another point to consider.
Which brought to mind, inevitably, General Butler. Nobody really knew what Butler was up to—to this day, nobody really knows—but he was a hard-war man, a Democrat, and a politician with a solid following back home, and the situation offered possibilities. General Patrick noted that Butler visited Meade on July 20, and wrote: “He has been offered the Chicago nomination and is playing everyone to get some power over each individual.” Nobody had actually “offered” Butler anything, but anything could happen, and if he went off the reservation he could almost certainly keep Lincoln from being re-elected. His chief of staff, Colonel John W. Shaffer, went to New York to take soundings, and on August 17 he wrote to Butler assuring him that “the country has gone to hell unless Mr. Lincoln can be beat by a good loyal man.”
Shaffer’s analysis offers a picture of the frenzy that had come upon the political scene. If the Democrats nominated a peace man, said Shaffer, the Republican leaders felt that the Republicans ought to have a new convention and name a candidate other than Lincoln, who was both too warlike for the peaceminded and too lacking in grimness for the warlike. Shaffer said that Thurlow Weed “thinks Lincoln can be prevailed upon to draw off,” and he added that the same feeling had been expressed by Leonard Swett of Illinois, one of the group that had rammed Lincoln’s nomination through the 1860 convention. The leading Republicans, as Shaffer sized things up, agreed that Lincoln must withdraw as soon as the Democratic convention was over: “Nearly all speak of you as the man”—remember, this letter was addressed to Butler—“but I studiously avoid bringing your name in.” The most that could be expected of Lincoln, Shaffer concluded, was that he would help keep other men from running, thereby preserving a clear path for Butler. … If someone, somewhere, had quietly dangled a carrot in front of General Butler’s nose, it can only be said that this was that kind of summer.