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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
Lincoln, half prostrated by Fredericksburg, felt with keen anxiety the approach of the crisis. After the defeat his early news from Burnside was fragmentary and misleading: but he obtained a complete account of the disaster from the war correspondent Henry Villard, who called at the White House the evening of December 14. When official confirmation came next day, Lincoln, according to a reporter, was “awfully shaken.” He told a friend: “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” Sleepless and haggard, he knew that the Radicals would try to remake the Cabinet so as to give themselves full sway and rob him of control, or at any rate proper freedom to formulate policy.
And almost immediately, the storm broke.
On Tuesday, December 16, immediately alter the Senate adjourned in early afternoon, the Republican members met in secret caucus. As soon as the doors were shut, Senator H. B. Anthony of Rhode Island asked someone to state the purpose of the gathering. Thereupon Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, rising, set the stage for action by asking what the Senate could do to rescue the nation: and Morton S. Wilkinson of Minnesota, taking the cue, launched into an invective against Seward, saying that he had ruined the country by his halfhearted, compromising views. Other senators followed in a vehement clamor against the Secretary. Some who had supported him for the Presidency in 1860 now spoke of him with angry disillusionment. Zach Chandler, a frantic extremist, believed that he was actually a traitor; that he was plotting the dismemberment of the land. The general view was that he had obstructed a vigorous prosecution of the war, had constantly advocated a patched-up peace, and had overruled the demands of such earnest Administration members as Chase for larger armies and sterner measures.
The caucus did not hesitate to criticize Lincoln for his mildness and hesitancies. But the majority held that it was Seward who had blunted the President’s purposes. The able but rather waspish William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, a tall, angular Yankee of blunt speech, was a close friend of Chase: and in indicting Seward he made it plain that he was using information derived from Chase and Stanton. Indeed, he used a phrase about Seward’s “back-stairs influence” which came straight from Chase’s lips. Chase had also been in communication with Chandler, writing the rough-hewn Zach: “There is no Cabinet except in name. The heads of departments come together now and then—nominally twice a week; but no reports are made; no regular discussions held; no ascertained conclusions reached. Sometimes weeks pass by and no full meeting is held.” Chase had complained to others, and had written General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, that if he had been given a proper voice in affairs, “some serious disasters would have been avoided.”
SIDEBAR: THE BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG
Grimes of Iowa, who also was a close friend of Chase, spoke against Seward in the same vein as Fessenden. He believed that the nation was going to destruction as fast as imbecility and corruption could carry it. Senator Jacob Collamer of Vermont lent his voice to the attack. It must be remembered that the Senate at this time kept the special prestige which it had gained in the days of Webster and Clay, Calhoun and Benton; it regarded itself as the balance wheel of government. Nearly everyone in the caucus agreed that in so terrible a crisis, it should not keep within its tight constitutional sphere, but should intervene in executive affairs.
But how? Ben Wade of Ohio proposed that the senators go in a body to Lincoln to demand Seward’s removal. Grimes, knowing that this would offend both the President and the country, suggested that the caucus instruct Anthony to present a resolution in the Senate expressing want of confidence in Seward.
For a few minutes it seemed that the Senate and President were about to collide head-on. But Preston King of New York and others protested against Grimes’s proposal, and several members agreed with Orville H. Browning of Illinois that the best course would be to send a deputation to call on the President, learn the true state of affairs, and give him a frank statement of their opinions. The caucus broke up to sleep on the matter. When they met next day, feeling against the Administration had hardened. Several senators even wished to propose a resolution calling on the President to resign. Trumbull, like Browning the first day, warmly defended Lincoln, extolling his high character, asserting that he wished to fight the war with all his might, and declaring that only a bad Cabinet and worse generals had thwarted his purpose. The conservative Ira Harris of New York proposed a resolution for general reconstruction of the Cabinet. But to this John Sherman of Ohio objected that it sounded as if the whole body were to go: “No one wishes Mr. Chase to leave the Treasury, which he has managed so ably.” And, added Sherman, merely changing the Cabinet would not help, for the root-trouble was with Lincoln, who lacked proper dignity, orderliness, and firmness.