1862: A Year In Lincoln’s Presidency

Aida Kane

Ongoing Woes in Military Matters

Deemed the worst year of the American Civil War by American history professor William D. Carrigan, 1862 embodied grimness and hopelessness for Northerners, the Union Army and Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. The Presidency that began on March 4, 1861 marked its one year anniversary with gloom as the disbelief over secession had sunk in among Northerners. Hopes and illusions of a quick war were washed away by the First Battle of Bull Run. The military battles that followed confirmed the intent of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee to take the Confederate State of America to its end goal of becoming a new nation-state. In the midst of this cataclysmic situation, the federal executive departments were in shambles and completely disorganized. Departments such as the Treasury, led by Salmon P. Chase, lived on credit and were in a calamitous state. Meanwhile, the Department of State, led by William H. Seward, was in a state of confusion over the threats of European intervention into the war. Lincoln's disarray in 1862 came from a combination of the War Department's woes, the challenges of the Union Army and the dreadful relations with General George B. McClellan. In the course of that year, more than 90 battles were fought between the Union Army and the Confederate Army including the fifth bloodiest battle of the entire conflict, Antietam. As part of the Maryland Campaign, the stakes of the battle of Antietam Creek were not only military but also political. When General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac and reached Maryland, his goal was to build on the victory of the Battle of Manassas and gain a win on Northern territory. Lincoln tasked McClellan not only to stop Lee, but to give a severe blow to the Army of Northern Virginia. “You must find and hurt this enemy now,” he demanded of McClellan. Yet, the repeated injunction went unheeded. McClellan's movements were excruciatingly slow and Lincoln was shocked by his inactivity, hesitations, procrastination and fecklessness. He reported that he had 87,000 men before the battle, while General Lee reported that he had 40,000 soldiers at his disposal. McClellan's upper hand didn't stop there. On September 13, the Army of the Potomac arrived in Frederick, Maryland and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell found a copy of General Lee's battle plans. What would come to be known as as Special Orders #191, or the Lost Dispatch, was intended for Confederate officer Daniel Harvey Hill but got lost before it could reach him. It revealed that Lee was outnumbered by McClellan, the Army of Northern Virginia was divided in two forces and was a day's march away. In the book Abraham Lincoln: A History, Lincoln's personal secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay state: “There never was a general so fruitlessly favored by fortune as McClellan, and never was such a piece of good luck offered, even to him, as that which fell into his hands on the 13th of September.” Special Orders #191 was a gold mine which McClellan not only neglected, but also underappreciated. Instead of immediately ordering his army to march to the enemy at Harpers Ferry, he made the order to march to that location the next day. Significant and valuable time was wasted. He would only reach the Antietam Creek on September 15 and would make no movement that afternoon and barely any the following day, while members of Lee's legion were busy taking their positions for the upcoming battle. Lincoln, who received dispatches on the movements of the Army of the Potomac, wrote a note directly to McClellan: “Your dispatch of today received. God Bless you, and all with you. Destroy the Rebel Army if possible.” Unaware of Special Orders #191, Lincoln's hopes relied mainly on the fact that he had given McClellan everything that he had asked for, including more men. Ultimately, the battle took place on September 17. On the 19, McClellan telegraphed Lincoln, “Our victory was complete. The enemy is driven back into Virginia. Maryland and Pennsylvania are now safe.” The battle was more inconclusive than a clear cut victory and for President Lincoln it was a great disappointment. Even though Lee retreated and recrossed the Potomac after three assaults, his army still had the capacities to continue the war.
1862: A Year In Lincoln’s Presidency
Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan at the Antietam Creek

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1862: A Year In Lincoln’s Presidency
British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell

Risks of a European Intervention

Lincoln’s concerns about the military affairs were exacerbated by a risk of the intervention of European nations in the Civil War. Throughout 1862, the President and his Secretary of State were using a multitude of diplomatic leverage tactics to alleviate the risks. Secretary of State Seward transmitted diplomatic circulars instructing U.S. ambassadors at European courts that any country who recognized the independence of the rebels would see their diplomatic ties with the United States severed. From Lincoln and Seward’s perspective, any intervention, whether that be an official recognition or a mediation, would de facto consider the Confederacy and the United States as two sovereign states. Moreover, whether the mediator was Britain or France, Seward and Lincoln knew that they would enter the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. Both Britain and France were sympathetic and favorable to the South and both countries saw a separate Southern nation as an opportunity to build trade agreements and secure cheap cotton. In July 1862, Seward wrote a letter to William L. Dayton, the American ambassador in Paris, to tell him there was no reason for France to interfere in America’s internal affairs. Seward argued that the United States didn’t apply the Monroe Doctrine during the Franco-Mexican War but any attempt to support the South would result in the North’s deployment of extraordinary forces to remove French from North America. As for Britain, Seward made sure that the British cabinet, through their ambassador Lord Richard Lyons, knew that the U.S. would not hesitate to exploit Britain's weaknesses on the North American continent. Indeed, the Canadian provinces that belonged to Britain had very little military protection and were accessible for potential retaliations that the U.S. would deem necessary. Seward instructed the U.S ambassador, Charles Francis Adams, not to entertain any mediation proposals from Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs under Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. As Seward was sending instructions to other European courts, heated debates about the American Civil War were taking place in Britain. On October 7 1862, the British statesman William Gladstone gave a speech at Newcastle-on-Tyne and declared: “We know quite well that the people of the Northern states have not yet drunk of the cup—they are still trying to hold it far from their lips—which all the rest of the world see they nevertheless must drink of. We may have our own opinions about slavery; we may be for or against the South; but there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either, they have made a nation.” Gladstone’s statement captured the core of Britain’s debates over secession. Lord Russell received the U.S ambassador, Charles Francis Adams, on two occasions but the second time came after he received diplomatic representatives from the Confederacy. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs told Adams that he had no intention to receive them again. By this, both Lincoln and Seward were perplexed and suspected that secretive talks between Britain and the Southern representatives were happening. Despite the threat of European interference, the United States had one effective weapon that could discourage France and Britain: Russia. In Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, author Walter Stahr explains that as the Civil War broke, the Russian Foreign minister Alexander Gorchakov sent a letter to Lincoln assuring him that Tsar Alexander II continued to hold "the most friendly sentiment toward the American Union." For the Tsar, the Union was "an element essential to the universal political equilibrium." The fact was that The Russian Empire and the U.S had an entente cordiale. The two nations couldn’t be more different. In 1862, one nation was a thousand year old monarchy, while the other was less than a hundred years old. The American democratic system sparked Russia’s curiosity and, despite various trade disagreements in the first half of the 19th century, the two countries were always able to create a common ground through different trade agreements. Furthermore, during the Crimean War, the American press expressed sympathy to Russia while the government found ways to work around neutrality to provide supplies and arms. The Russian Empire admired how the U.S. held its own against Britain during the revolutionary years and throughout the first decades of the 19th century. For Russia, America wasn’t a rival but rather a young and fierce nation that could weaken Britain. However, when it came to the Civil War, it was the U.S. that used Russia as leverage. In addition to the Russian card, the antagonism between Britain and France hindered them from interfering in the war. Despite having sympathies for the same side in the American Civil War, France and Britain were two superpowers that were in the midst of a century-long rivalry. Consequently, when France, under its Emperor Napoleon III, attempted to draft a mediation proposal, England rejected it. According to Walter Stahr, Lord Russell wrote a letter stating: “There is no ground at the present moment to hope that the federal government would accept the proposal suggested.” With that letter, Seward and Lincoln considered the mediation crisis closed.
Ancestry UK

Cabinet Crisis of 1862

The rivalry between the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Treasury marked 1862 and put Lincoln into an intense puzzle. They both represented the two extremes of the Republican Party’s spectrum. Chase represented the radical Republicans who strongly believed that Emancipation should have been proclaimed at the beginning of the war. Comparatively, Seward's positioning was more complex. In pre-civil war times, he was strongly considered a radical and saw slavery as an ultimate evil. However, by the time the civil war broke, Seward had become less radical and, from the perspective of Radicals like Senator Charles Sumner, he was the main representative of the conservative side of the party. The cabinet crisis reached its peak on December 20 1862, when Lincoln had the resignation letter of Chase in one hand and the resignation letter of Seward in the other. To maintain the war effort, Lincoln had to maintain political balance within the Republican Party. He couldn’t afford to lose either Seward or Chase. The exit of the former would lead to the dominance of the radical side of the party, while Chase’s departure would trigger a power dynamic in favor of the conservatives. The crisis began on Saturday December 6 when the Boston Commonwealth headline read, "Remove Him!" and featured an article blasting Secretary of State Seward, ultimately demanding his removal from the cabinet. Among many accusations, the article stated: “William H. Seward stands before the American people today as the enemy of the public and it is the duty of every patriot to leave no stone within his or her reach unturned to secure his instant removal.” The Boston Commonwealth was one of numerous newspapers that was part of the cabal against Seward. Such harsh words did not only stem from Seward's actions while in the cabinet; his various attempts to keep the Southern States in the Union in December 1860 were also remembered by his critics. This included the infamous Crittenden Compromise that proposed to contain and protect slavery in the United States Constitution. According to them, his missteps during the secession winter were unforgettable and unforgivable. The press were not the only ones to push for Seward's removal from the cabinet. Some radical Republican senators were on the same mission. On December 16, thirty of them met to discuss the affairs of the wars, but the meeting quickly became focused on Seward. The senators believed that as long as Seward was in the cabinet and thus so close to the President, he would continue influencing him and giving bad advice that would have a direct impact on the war. Few defended Seward, apart from the Senator from New York, Preston King. The following day, the senators met again and decided to create a committee to meet with the President. On behalf of the other senators, they would formally ask for the removal of Seward from the cabinet. However, as soon as the meeting was over Preston Brooks rushed to Seward's house to notify him. Whether Seward was completely surprised by the senator's initiative is unknown, but according to his son and private secretary, Frederick Seward, upon hearing the news Seward drafted his letter of resignation and had it delivered to the President. That evening, Lincoln went to see Seward and asked him to reconsider his resignation. The next morning, he met with the committee of Republican senators. They outlined what they reproached to Seward. According to John Hay and John Nicolay, the attacks on Seward were everything but specific. Lincoln stressed that military matters were at the heart of the challenges that the Union was facing and that the measures suggested by the committee would not lead to military success. President Lincoln's attitude towards the committee was largely modeled on his attitude towards the radical Republicans. He was fully aware that the same Republicans had been critical of some of his actions, however, he never ignored or shunned them. Purely strategic and calculating, Lincoln focused on maintaining a multi-factional coalition in the cabinet and on Capitol Hill. On December 20, Lincoln continued his chess game with the senators by inviting them to a joint meeting with the members of the cabinet. Each party was greatly surprised to find the other there. Lincoln began the meeting by stating the unity of the cabinet and the merits of Mr. Seward. Then, Gideon Welles, Edward Bates and Montgomery Blair reinforced the President's sentiment on the state of the cabinet. For Chase, this experience was very different from that of his colleagues. His defense of the cabinet in front the committee was lukewarm and his attitude was clearly uncomfortable and defensive. He stated that he would not have attended the meeting if he expected to be interrogated about the cabinet. The senators were clearly baffled by Chase’s behaviour. They were used to Chase’s constant complaints about Seward. When the meeting finally ended, Senator Trumbull told the President privately that Chase had voiced a different opinion about the state of the cabinet when they last spoke. Caught in a web of contradictions and lies, the Secretary of Treasury went to the White House to give his letter of resignation to Lincoln who saw clearly what he needed to do in order to end the cabinet crisis. Among the members of the cabinet, opinions were more in sync than expected. Most of the cabinet members had a lot to reproach Seward. Welles couldn’t stand Seward’s interference in other departments, Blair thought that Seward wasn’t a statesman and Stanton was constantly bothered by Seward's unreliable and intrusive personality. Despite these opinions, the three men were against his resignation. Welles advised Lincoln that it would be a mistake to let the senators interfere in the affairs of the cabinet. He argued that the executive branch must remain independent. Both Blair and Stanton came to the same conclusion. Lincoln finally sent an identical letter to Seward and Chase advising them that he was declining both resignations and requesting that they each resume their functions. They did, thus ending the crisis.
1862: A Year In Lincoln’s Presidency
William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase
1862: A Year In Lincoln’s Presidency

Aida Kane

Aida Kane is the founder of a small production company called Wallflower Documentaries. Her passion is to tell the great stories of those who came before us in historical art house documentaries. In addition to working on documentaries, she's a bilingual English/French journalist and the founder of an EdTech company called Picnotes.
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