Lincoln, the War, and the Elections of 1862: Part One

Abraham Lincoln decided in the fall of 1862 to change generals. In the aftermath of the October elections Don Carlos Buell was stripped of command of the Army of the Ohio, with William S. Rosecrans named to take his place (much to the unhappiness of George H. Thomas, who had previously turned down a chance to command that army prior to Perryville, and who apparently still thought he should be first choice). Several weeks later, with voters about to go to the polls in the November midterm elections, Lincoln sent word to the Army of the Potomac that George B. McClellan’s time in charge had expired … although Ambrose Burnside took the job only after learning that Lincoln would otherwise tap Joseph Hooker for the command.

The midterm elections represented a setback for the administration, although exactly how much of one has been discussed by historians. Certainly Lincoln understood the impact of the results. Some people said that voters had repudiated the administration’s emancipation policy as going too far, while others chided the president for seemingly dragging his heels when it came to an earnest prosecution of the war. One of the latter critics was Carl Schurz, a German immigrant and Republican supporter now in military service as a general. On November 8, in the wake of McClellan’s removal and the election results, Schurz decided to share his opinions with the president in a letter that the general’s wife delivered to the White House.

Headquarters 3d Div. 11. Corps

New-Baltimore Va. Nov. 8th 1862.

Dear Sir,

Will you, after the great political defeat we have suffered, listen a moment to the words of a true friend who means to serve you faithfully, and in whose judgment you once, perhaps, reposed some confidence?

The defeat of the Administration is owing neither to your proclamations, nor to the financial policy of the Government, nor to a desire of the people to have peace at any price. I can speak openly, for you must know that I am your friend. The defeat of the Administration is the Administration’s own fault.

It admitted its professed opponents to its counsels. It placed the Army, now a great power in this Republic, into the hands of its enemy’s. In all personal questions to be hostile to the party of the Government seemed to be a title to consideration. It forgot the great rule, that, if you are true to your friends, your friends will be true to you, and that you make your enemies stronger by placing them upon an equality with your friends. Is it surprising that the opponents of the Administration should have got into their hands the government of the principal states after they have had for so long a time the principal management of the war, the great business of the national government?

Great sacrifices and enormous efforts had been made and they had been rewarded only by small results. The people felt the necessity of a change. Many of your friends had no longer any heart for the Administration as soon as they felt justified in believing that the Administration had no heart for them. I do not speak of personal favors but of the general conduct of the war. A change was sought in the wrong direction. This was the true cause of the defeat of your Government.

You have now made a change. This evening the news reached us that the command of the Army of the Potomac has passed into new hands. But the change of persons means little if it does not imply a change of system. Let us be commanded by generals whose heart is in the war, and only by such. Let evey general who does not show himself strong enough to command success, be deposed at once. Let every trust of power be accompanied by a corresponding responsibility, and all may be well yet.

There is but one way in which you can sustain your Administration, and that is by success; and there is but one thing which will command success, and that is energy. In whatever hands the State-governments may be, — as soon as you are victorious, they will be obliged to support you; and if they were all in the hands of your friends, — if you do not give them victories, they will after a while be obliged to oppose you. Therefore let us have energy without regard to anything that may stand in your way. Let not the Government be endangered by tender considerations. If West-Point cannot do the business, let West-Point go down. Who cares? It is better, that a thousand generals should fall than that the Republic should be jeopardized a single moment.

To-day we are still strong enough to meet the difficulties that stand against us. We do not know what we shall be to-morrow.–

Faithfully yours

C. Schurz.

Everyone is an expert in hindsight, of course. Other people thought the election results were due to opposition to emancipation. Lincoln believed that both the lack of military progress and the divisive nature of his emancipation policy had contributed to the outcome.

Nevertheless, the president thought it worthwhile to respond to Schurz.

Executive Mansion, Washington, Nov. 10. 1862.

“Private & confidential”
Gen. Schurz.
My dear Sir

Yours of the 8th. was, to-day, read to me by Mrs. S[churz]. We have lost the elections; and it is natural that each of us will believe, and say, it has been because his peculiar views was not made sufficiently prominent. I think I know what it was, but I may be mistaken. Three main causes told the whole story. 1. The democrats were left in a majority by our friends going to the war. 2. The democrats observed this & determined to re-instate themselves in power, and 3. Our newspaper’s, by vilifying and disparaging the administration, furnished them all the weapons to do it with. Certainly, the ill-success of the war had much to do with this.

You give a different set of reasons. If you had not made the following statements, I should not have suspected them to be true. “The defeat of the administration is the administrations own fault.” (opinion) “It admitted its professed opponents to its counsels” (Asserted as a fact) “It placed the Army, now a great power in this Republic, into the hands of its’ enemys” (Asserted as a fact) “In all personal questions, to be hostile to the party of the Government, seemed, to be a title to consideration.” (Asserted as a fact) “If to forget the great rule, that if you are true to your friends, your friends will be true to you, and that you make your enemies stronger by placing them upon an equality with your friends.” ‘Is it surprising that the opponents of the administration should have got into their hands the government of the principal states, after they have had for a long time the principal management of the war, the great business of the national government.”

I can not dispute about the matter of opinion. On the the [sic] three matters (stated as facts) I shall be glad to have your evidence upon them when I shall meet you. The plain facts, as they appear to me, are these. The administration came into power, very largely in a minority of the popular vote. Notwithstanding this, it distributed to it’s party friends as nearly all the civil patronage as any administration ever did. The war came. The administration could not even start in this, without assistance outside of it’s party. It was mere nonsense to suppose a minority could put down a majority in rebellion. Mr. Schurz (now Gen. Schurz) was about here then & I do not recollect that he then considered all who were not republicans, were enemies of the government, and that none of them must be appointed to to [sic] military positions. He will correct me if I am mistaken. It so happened that very few of our friends had a military education or were of the profession of arms. It would have been a question whether the war should be conducted on military knowledge, or on political affinity, only that our own friends (I think Mr. Schurz included) seemed to think that such a question was inadmissable. Accordingly I have scarcely appointed a democrat to a command, who was not urged by many republicans and opposed by none. It was so as to McClellan. He was first brought forward by the Republican Governor of Ohio, & claimed, and contended for at the same time by the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania. I received recommendations from the republican delegations in congress, and I believe every one of them recommended a majority of democrats. But, after all many Republicans were appointed; and I mean no disparagement to them when I say I do not see that their superiority of success has been so marked as to throw great suspicion on the good faith of those who are not Republicans.

Yours truly, A. Lincoln

This would not be the end of the exchange, as we shall see. But even this correspondence suggests the difficulties under which Lincoln had to labor … and how many generals (or politicians in uniform) presumed to give him advice.