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

Carl Schurz was a rather headstrong individual who could be rather insistent when he thought he was right. Thus when he read Abraham Lincoln’s November 10 reply to his criticism of the administration in the wake of political and military defeat, it did not take him long to respond, and to do so in rather pointed fashion.


Headquarters 3d Div. 11. Corps

Centreville Nov. 62

Dear Sir

Your favor of the 10th inst. did not reach me until the 17th. If there was anything in my letter of the 8th that had the appearance of presumption, I ask your kind indulgence. You must forgive something to the sincerity of my zeal, for there is no living being on this continent, whose wishes for the success of your Administration are more ardent than mine. The consciousness of perfect good faith gave me the boldness to utter my honest convictions without reserve. I do not know how many friends you have faithful enough to tell you things which it may not be pleasant to hear; I assure you, they are not the worst. In risking the amenities of undisturbed private relations they fulfill a duty, which many who call themselves friends, have not the courage to understand and to appreciate. In this spirit I wrote to you, with full confidence in the loftiness of your own way of thinking. If some of the opinions I expressed were unjust, it will be an happy day for me when I shall be able conscientiously to acknowledge my error. But whatever I may have said, it was but a mild and timid repetition of what many men say, whose utterances might perhaps have more weight with you than mine.

I fear you entertain too favorable a view of the causes of our defeat in the elections. It is of the highest importance to yourself and to the people, that amidst the perplexities of your situation and the enormous responsibilities of your office, you should sift the true nature of the disaster to the very bottom. I throw myself upon your patient kindness in replying to some of your statements.

That a large proportion of Republicans have entered the army, and that thereby the party-vote was largely diminished, cannot be doubted. But you must recollect, that at the commencement of the war you were sincerely and even enthusiastically sustained by the masses of the people, and that the “Administration-party” was not confined to the old Republican ranks. You had the people of the loyal states with you. This immense Administration-party did not insist upon your regulating your policy strictly by the tenets of any of the old party-platforms; they would have cheerfully sustained you in anything and everything that might have served to put down the rebellion. I am confident, you might have issued your emancipation-manifesto, you might have dismissed your Generals one after the other, long before you did it — and a large majority of the people would have firmly stood by you. All they wanted was merciless energy and speedy success. You know it yourself, there are now many prominent democrats supporting you, who go far beyond the programme of the Chicago platform.

Whatever proportion of Republicans may have entered the army, — if the Administration had succeeded in preserving its hold upon the masses, your majorities would at any moment have put the majorities of 1860 into the shade, and no insidious party-contrivances could have prevailed against you. But the general confidence and enthusiasm yielded to general disappointment, and there were but too many Republicans, who disturbed and confused by the almost universal feeling, that there must be a change, either voted against you or withheld their votes. I know this to be a fact.

That some of our newspapers “disparaged and vilified the Administration” may be true, — although in our leading journals I have seen little else than a moderate and well-measured criticism. I know of none that had ever impeached your good faith or questioned your motives. If there were no real and great abuses, the attacks on your Administration were certainly unjustifiable. But if there were, then, I think, the misfortune was not that the abuses were criticised, but that the responsible individuals were not promptly and severely held to account. It is my opinion, and I trust I shall hold it as long as I live, that a party, in order to remain pure and efficient, must be severe against its own members; it can disarm the criticism of its opponents by justly criticising and promptly correcting itself. But however that may be, I ask you in all candor, what power would there have been in newspaper-talk, what power in the talk of demagogues based upon newspaper-talk, had the Administration been able to set up against it the evidence of great successes?

I feel, that in regard to one important point I have not been quite clear in my letter of the 8th. When speaking of “your friends” I did not mean only those who in 1860 helped to elect you; I did not think of old, and, I may say, obsolete political obligations and affinities. But I meant all those, who, fully understanding and appreciating the tendency of the great revolution in which we are engaged, intend to aid and sustain you honestly in the execution of the tremendous task which has fallen to your lot. Nor did I, when speaking of the duty and policy of being true to ones friends, think of the distribution of favors in the shape of profitable offices. But I did mean that in the management of the great business of this revolution only such men should be permitted to participate, who answer to this definition of “friends”, and on whose sympathies you can rely as securely as upon their ability.

I am far from presuming to blame you for having placed old democrats into high military positions. I am also aware that McClellan and several other generals had been appointed on the recommendation of Republican Governors and members of Congress. It was quite natural that you appointed them, when the necessities of the situation were new and pressing and everybody was untried. But it was unfortunate that you sustained them with in their power and positions with such inexhaustible longanimity after they had been found failing; — failing not only in a political but also in a military sense.

Was I really wrong in saying that the principal management of the war had been in the hands of your opponents? Or will perhaps anybody assert, that such men as McClellan and Buell and Halleck have the least sympathy with you or your views and principles?– Or that their efficiency as military leaders has offered a compensation for their deficiency of sympathy, since the first has in 18 months succeeded in effecting literally nothing except the consumption of our ressources with the largest and best appointed army this country ever saw; — since the second by his criminal tardiness and laxity endangered even the safety of Cincinnati; and since the appearance of the third on the battlefield of Shiloh served suddenly to arrest the operations of our victorious troops and to make shortly afterwards the great Army of the West disappear from the scene as by enchantment, so as to leave the country open to the enemy? Has it not been publicly stated in the newspapers and apparently proved as a fact, that from the commencement of the war the enemy was continually supplied with information by some of the confidential subordinates of so important an officer as Adjutant General Thomas? Is it surprising, that the people at last should have believed in the presence of enemies at your own headquarters and in the unwillingness of the Government to drive them out? As for me, I am far from being inclined to impeach the loyalty and good faith of any man; but the coincidence of circumstances is such, that if the case were placed before a popular jury, I would find it much easier to act on the prosecution than on the defence.

You say that our Republican generals did no better; I might reply that between two Generals of equal military efficiency I would in this crisis give a Republican the preference. But that is not the question. I ask you most seriously — what Republican general has ever had a fair chance in this war? Did not McClellan, Buell, Halleck and their creatures and favorites claim, obtain and absorb everything? Were not other Generals obliged to go begging merely for a chance to do something for the country, and were they not turned off as troublesome intruders while your Fitzjohn Porters flourished?

No, sir, let us indulge in no delusions as to the true causes of our defeat in the elections. The people, so enthusiastic at the beginning of the war, had made enormous sacrifices. Hundreds of millions were spent, thousands of lives were lost apparently for nothing. The people had sown confidence and reaped disaster and disappointment. They wanted a change, and as an unfortunate situation like ours is apt to confuse the minds of men, they sought it in the wrong direction. I entreat you, do not attribute to small incidents, as the enlisting of Republican voters in the army and the attack of the press, what is a great historical event. It is best that you, and you more than anybody else in this Republic, should see the fact in its true light and appreciate its significance: the result of the elections was a most serious and severe reproof administered to the Administration. Do not refuse to listen to the voice of the people. Let it not become too true what I have heard said; that of all places in this country it is Washington where public opinion is least heard, and of all places in Washington the White House.

The result of the election has complicated the crisis. Energy and success, by which you would and ought to have commanded public opinion, form now the prestige of your enemies. They are a great and powerful weapon. Your enemies will not stop where they are, and, unless things take soon a favorable turn, not only our troubles may soon involve not only the moral power but the physical existence of the government. Only relentless determination on your part can turn the tide. You must reconquer the confidence of the people at any price, or your administration is lost.

One word in vindication of the writer of this letter. I pray you most earnestly, not to attribute the expressions of grief and anxiety coming from devoted friends like myself to a pettish feeling of disappointment for not “seeing their peculiar views made sufficiently prominent.” When a man’s whole heart is in a cause like ours, then I think, he may be believed not to be governed by small personal pride. Besides, the spectacle of war is apt to awaken solemn and serious feelings in the heart of one who has some sympathy with his fellow beings. I command a few thousands of brave and good fellows, entitled to life and happiness just as well as the rest of us; and when I see their familiar faces around the campfire and think of it, that to-morrow they may be called upon to die, — to die for a cause which for this or that reason is perhaps doomed to fail, and thus to die in vain; — and when I hear the wailings of so many widows and orphans, and remember the scenes of heart-rending misery and desolation I have already witnessed — and then think of a possibility, that all this may be for nothing, — then, I must confess, my heart begins sometimes to sink within me and to quail under what little responsibility I have in this business. I do not know, whether you have ever seen a battlefield. I assure you, Mr. President, it is a terrible sight.

Truly and faithfully yours

C. Schurz.

Those historians who criticize George McClellan for being a bit too blunt in some of his correspondence might do well to read Schurz’s letter, especially the concluding paragraph. Even Schurz had cause to reread and rethink it, or at least his editor did, as a comparison of the text that later appeared in Schurz’s published writings with the original suggests.

A patient if somewhat frustrated Lincoln responded to Schurz again:

Executive Mansion, Washington, Nov. 24. 1862.

Gen. Carl Schurz
My dear Sir

I have just received, and read, your letter of the 20th. The purport of it is that we lost the late elections, and the administration is failing, because the war is unsuccessful; and that I must not flatter myself that I am not justly to blame for it. I certainly know that if the war fails, the administration fails, and that I will be blamed for it, whether I deserve it or not. And I ought to be blamed, if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me. I understand you now to be willing to accept the help of men, who are not republicans, provided they have ‘heart in it.” Agreed. I want no others. But who is to be the judge of hearts, or of ‘heart in it”? If I must discard my own judgment, and take yours, I must also take that of others; and by the time I should reject all I should be advised to reject, I should have none left, republicans, or others—not even yourself. For, be assured, my dear sir, there are men who have ‘heart in it” that think you are performing your part as poorly as you think I am performing mine. I certainly have been dissatisfied with the slowness of Buell and McClellan; but before I relieved them I had great fears I should not find successors to them, who would do better; and I am sorry to add, that I have seen little since to relieve those fears. I do not clearly see the prospect of any more rapid movements. I fear we shall at last find out that the difficulty is in our case, rather than in particular generals. I wish to disparage no one—certainly not those who sympathize with me; but I must say I need success more than I need sympathy, and that I have not seen the so much greater evidence of getting success from my sympathizers, than from those who are denounced as the contrary. It does seem to me that in the field the two classes have been very much alike, in what they have done, and what they have failed to do. In sealing their faith with their blood, Baker, an[d] Lyon, and Bohlen, and Richardson, republicans, did all that men could do; but did they any more than Kearney, and Stevens, and Reno, and Mansfield, none of whom were republicans, and some, at least of whom, have been bitterly, and repeatedly, denounced to me as secession sympathizers? I will not perform the ungrateful task of comparing cases of failure.

In answer to your question “Has it not been publicly stated in the newspapers, and apparantly proved as a fact, that from the commencement of the war, the enemy was continually supplied with information by some of the confidential subordinates of as important an officer as Adjutant General Thomas?” I must say “no” so far as my knowledge extends. And I add that if you can give any tangible evidence upon that subject, I will thank you to come to the City and do so.

Very truly Your friend A. Lincoln

Lincoln’s response must be read in in multiple contexts. After all Schurz was not aware of all the paperwork that crossed the president’s desk. Among those letters presented to him that he chose to address the day he wrote Schurz was a letter to Major John J. Key, recently dismissed from service as a staff officer for McClellan.

Executive Mansion, Washington, Nov. 24, 1862

Major John J. Key 
Dear Sir:

A bundle of letters including one from yourself, was, early last week, handed me by Gen. Halleck, as I understood, at your request. I sincerely sympathise with you in the death of your brave and noble son.

In regard to my dismissal of yourself from the military service, it seems to me you misunderstand me. I did not charge, or intend to charge you with disloyalty. I had been brought to fear that there was a class of officers in the army, not very inconsiderable in numbers, who were playing a game to not beat the enemy when they could, on some peculiar notion as to the proper way of saving the Union; and when you were proved to me, in your own presence, to have avowed yourself in favor of that “game,” and did not attempt to controvert the proof, I dismissed you as an example and a warning to that supposed class. I bear you no ill will; and I regret that I could not have the example without wounding you personally. But can I now, in view of the public interest, restore you to the service, by which the army would understand that I indorse and approve that game myself? If there was any doubt of your having made the avowal, the case would be different. But when it was proved to me, in your presence, you did not deny or attempt to deny it, but confirmed it in my mind, by attempting to sustain the position by argument.

I am really sorry for the pain the case gives you, but I do not see how, consistently with duty, I can change it.

Yours, &c.

A. Lincoln.

Some two months before Lincoln penned this letter, he had met with Key to discuss a report that Key had explained why the Army of the Potomac had failed to pursue and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia after Antietam. As the New York Times later reported it:

Maj. KEY responded, that “the immediate destruction of the rebel army was not the programme.” It would be better, he said, to let the war linger on indecisively, and with advantages to both aides, until the end of Mr. LINCOLN’s term, when it “could be settled on a compromise which would save Slavery.”

Upon hearing Key’s explanation, Lincoln dismissed him from the service. That Major Key’s brother, Colonel Thomas M. Key, was on McClellan’s staff made this even a bigger story in the minds of many observers.

William Styple’s McClellan’s Other Story offers new information on exactly the game in question, and I highly recommend it.

In short, the president had much to put up with that November, and the end was not yet in sight.