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Lincoln Takes Charge
His shrewd handling of the Radical Republican bid for power at the end of 1862 established him as the unquestioned leader of the Union
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
The North sustained its most tragic single defeat in the Civil War on December 13, 1862, when waves of blue infantry under General Ambrose E. Burnside, in assault after assault, were flung back from the heights behind Fredericksburg, Virginia. The total battle casualties of the Union Army reached nearly thirteen thousand; never were men left in bloody windrows by a more senseless and futile operation. As the news and casualty lists fell upon the Union, the press, politicians, and public burst out in clamorous denunciation of the Administration. A great storm was plainly rising.
Too late in the war for either, an improvised general had fought a rash, improvised battle. The debacle at Fredericksburg brought Union fortunes to their lowest ebb; a black winter lay ahead, in which the political mischief-makers would make the most of the public chagrin and resentment. On the Democratic side these included men like Horatio Seymour, just elected governor of New York, who adopted the watchword, “the Union as it was” ( i.e., without Reconstruction) “and the Constitution as it is” ( i.e., recognizing slavery); James A. Bayard, senator from Delaware, who would rccognize southern independence; and the noisy Ohio demagogue Clement L. Vallandigham, who did everything he could to impede enlistments. On the Republican side were troublesome and often irresponsible men like Senators Benjamin Wade of Ohio, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, and James W. Grimes of Iowa.
Many Radical Republicans—men who called for unlimited warfare against the southern people, confiscation of all Rebel property, speedy liberation of slaves, and use of Negro soldiers—denounced Lincoln with special fervor. The previous summer a deputation of western Radicals had called at the White House with harsh demands. When Lincoln replied that he was following the policy he thought wisest, and that if he found the country would not support him he would be ready to resign, one of the delegates ejaculated: “I wish to God you would, Mr. President!”
Looming behind the Republican Radicals was the portly form of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury. Consumed with ambition, he believed (and frankly said) that he would make a better President than Lincoln. Detesting all slow, cautious men, all compromisers, all leaders who longed for a restoration of fraternal relations with the South, he wanted to destroy the supposed influence on Lincoln of Attorney General Edward Bates, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and above all William H. Seward, Secretary of State. If the former two were snakes in the grass, Chase regarded the third as a cobra of boa constrictor proportions. Only new plans, new energy, and new men (like himself), he felt, could save the Union.
As the storm moved toward Lincoln, the danger was that a wave of popular anger and defeatism would sweep Congress into rash measures. This defeatism made many men in both parties despair of the executive branch. “How can we reach the President with advice?” demanded the historian George Bancroft. “He is ignorant, self-willed, and surrounded by men some of whom are as ignorant as himself.” At the other political extreme Zach Chandler was writing his wife—hysterically but honestly: “The fact is that the country is done for unless something is done at once.... The President is a weak man, too weak for the occasion, and those fool or traitor generals are wasting time and yet more precious blood in indecisive battles and delays.” In between, Harper’s Weekly was declaring that the people had borne imbecility, treachery, and failure with grim patience. “But they cannot be expected to suffer that such massacres as this at Fredericksburg shall be repeated. Matters are rapidly ripening for a military dictatorship.”
There was no danger of a military dictatorship, for the people would not have tolerated a Cromwell even had one stood on the horizon. But other dangers were very real.
Such defeatism seized many citizens that even firm patriots were heard to talk of giving up the conquest of the Confederacy, and fighting only for favorable boundaries. The chief danger that threatened Lincoln, however, was a forced reorganization of his Administration, which Chase and the Radical senators would compel if they could. They regarded Seward as their archfoe and a menace to the nation. Had he not wished to coax the South back instead of coercing it? Had he not stood for half measures in making war? And the Radicals had much general support. In New York the Democratic World beseeched Lincoln to get rid of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at once and call the best men to his side in a final effort to save the Republic. Henry J. Raymond of The New York Times, without suggesting names, wanted new Cabinet personnel. American opinion seemed to have gone beyond the point it reached in 1814 when it compelled John Armstrong, Secretary of War, to resign after the capture of Washington.