Tuesday, March 11, 2008

1864: "Clear Before My Own Conscience"

Ulysses S. Grant

The president needed a general.

Though he “never professed to be a military man or to know how campaigns should be conducted,” Abraham Lincoln was nonetheless frustrated by the inaction of Generals George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and George Meade. Too often, these procrastinating generals forced him into issuing ill-conceived military orders. By 1864, he was eager to find a general who saw the war the way he did, someone who was willing to take advantage of the Union’s vast resources, and ultimately, end the rebellion once and for all.

Lincoln had never met Ulysses S. Grant, but he liked what he read about him. Grant was a fighting general from the West. The president summoned him to the White House.

When Grant arrived in Washington, news of his new assignment had already leaked out. Grant would be promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, a position last held by George Washington.

Grant and the president held a brief interview. They discussed overall strategy, but did not talk specifics. In the past, the president had taken a very hands-on approach to the war, but necessity had required it then. Now, Lincoln was eager to relinquish some of that control to a military man who would “take responsibility and act.”

The president had finally found a general who understood that "awful arithmetic" of Union resources, but implementing that advantage would be gruesome. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the war occured in 1864. Northern newspapers soon dubbed Lincoln's new general "Grant the Butcher."

Politically, 1864 would not be any easier. By late August, the president feared he would not win reelection. He drafted a particularly gloomy memo, folded it in half, and sealed it. During the next Cabinet meeting, he asked each of his Cabinet members to sign their name to it.

Of course, we know how the story turns out. Atlanta fell a little more than a week later. When Northern voters went to the polls in November, they believed that victory was possible and Lincoln was indeed reelected for a second term.

About a week after the election, the president held another Cabinet meeting. The president's secretary, John Hay, recorded the events in his diary:

At the meeting of the Cabinet today, the President took out a paper from his desk and said, "Gentlemen, do you remember last summer when I asked you all to sign your names to the back of a paper of which I did not show you the inside? This is it. Now, Mr. Hay, see if you can get this open without tearing it?" He had pasted it up in so singular style that it required some cutting to get it open. He then read as follows:

Executive Mansion

Washington, Aug. 23, 1864.

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards. A. LINCOLN

The president went on to explain why he had written the document:

"You will remember that this was written at a time (6 days before the Chicago nominating Convention) when as yet we had no adversary, and seemed to have no friends. I then solemnly resolved on the course of action indicated above. I resolved, in case of the election of General McClellan, being certain that he would be the candidate, that I would see him and talk matters over with him. I would say, "General, the election has demonstrated that you are stronger, have more influence with the American people than I. Now let us together, you with your influence and I with all the executive power of the Government, try to save the country. You raise as many troops as you possibly can for this final trial, and I will devote all my energies to assisting and finishing the war."

At this point in the conversation, Secretary of State William H. Seward interrupted the president:

And the General would answer you "Yes, Yes;" and the next day when you saw him again and pressed these views upon him, he would say, "Yes, Yes;" & so on forever, and would have done nothing at all.

With the other Cabinet members nodding in agreement, Lincoln conceeded the point, but added:

At least I should have done my duty and stood clear before my own conscience.

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