Anger at Lincoln Administration for Mismanaging the War
The five-day Battle of Fredericksburg ended Dec. 15, 1862, a crushing defeat for the Union army and a dismal end to a year that had begun so brightly for the North. Despite having superior numbers and far better equipment and supplies, the Union army had once again been defeated in Virginia by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his smaller yet determined army. When word reached the North that Union General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Potomac had been hurled back from Fredericksburg, suffering a ghastly 12,653 casualties (as opposed to 5,377 for the Confederates), howls of indignation and protest rose from the public and press.
The common perception was that the main force stopping Union victory in the Civil War was the bungling of the war effort by the Lincoln Administration, especially Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Part of the North’s frustration with the Lincoln Administration’s war management was the way President Lincoln kept appointing new generals to lead the march on Richmond. At the outset of the war, Lincoln appointed the aging Winfield Scott to be his general-in-chief. After defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), Lincoln decided on a change. On July 26, 1861, he placed McClellan in charge of the Military Division of the Potomac, which became the famous Army of the Potomac. On November 1, McClellan replaced Scott as general-in-chief—“Young Napoleon” was now in charge of all Northern armies.
Then after the failed Peninsula Campaign and the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln decided McClellan was too cautious and removed him from command on November 5, giving General Burnside command of the Army of the Potomac two days later. Now Burnside’s aggression had cost the North dearly at Fredericksburg, and Lincoln’s reaction was to replace him with General Joseph Hooker on Jan. 26, 1863. Secretary of War Stanton kept his position throughout the Civil War.
The change the press and public wanted was not a new general, however; it was a change in Lincoln’s war cabinet. There is no denying that a big part of the Northern defeat at Fredericksburg was the fault of the War Department. Lincoln approved Burnside’s plan to attack Fredericksburg on Nov. 14, 1862. It was a good plan, contingent on speed and surprise made possible by rapidly building pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River and attacking Fredericksburg before Lee had time to move his army into position.
Burnside immediately set his men in motion on November 15, but the War Department completely botched the delivery of the pontoon bridges. Weeks dragged by. By the time Burnside’s engineers had the parts they needed and began building the pontoon bridges on December 11, Lee had his entire army entrenched in the heights behind Fredericksburg. From this impregnable position they mowed down the 14 desperate, uphill charges Union troops made on December 13, the climax of the battle, and thoroughly whipped Burnside’s army. The Northern public and press were furious.
A Southern newspaper published an editorial after the Battle of Fredericksburg astutely observing that the Confederate victory was more than just another loss for the Union army—it was a major defeat for President Lincoln’s management of the war and his public support and approval. The Macon Daily Telegraph editorial bluntly stated:
“We are inclined to regard the victory at Fredericksburg as more important in a moral point of view than any which has yet been achieved. It has been an easy, cheap and sudden prostration of the grand military enterprise of the winter’s campaign, and of the war—to take our capital. It is the fourth and perhaps most complete failure of that enterprise. It happens at a time when the Northern mind is sick of the war—discouraged at the prospect—suspicious of its ends—dissatisfied with its management—weary of the party in power and longing for peace. It comes, too, as the result of an unwarrantable and unpopular interference of the President in the conduct of the war. It is the administration’s own campaign. They planned it and turned out McClellan because he would not advance to fight it out. Since then, every forward movement of the Yankee army has been in response only to a pressure in the rear from the Lincoln administration, and today, we see, even after the army of Burnside had crossed the Potomac and were standing within gunshot of the point of fatal collision, comes another blast from a Lincoln organ calling upon Burnside to go on “whatever may be the result!” Thus, from first to last, these vile and unlucky invaders have been victims to the indecent haste of the Lincoln party and administration, urging them forward—forward, no matter what happens or who may be sacrificed; and this from men who had torn from the Northern army its only trusted leader, and took good care to keep themselves out of the danger into which they were so zealous to thrust others.”
Northern editorials also blamed the Lincoln Administration, not the generals or the fighting men of the Army of the Potomac. This editorial was published by the Hartford Daily Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) on Dec. 18, 1862:
Mismanagement in the War Department
There is no mistaking the fact that the people of the United States are enraged at the blundering and incompetency of the War Department. No one questions the integrity of Mr. Lincoln. Though nominally Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, he cannot directly plan campaigns, or guide the movements of our forces. The experiences of a civilian do not fit one in a month or a year to exchange peaceful pursuits for supreme leadership in war. The multiplicity of other duties, too, compels the Chief Magistrate of the nation to rely on the honesty and wisdom of his immediate advisers. The generous heart of the people attributes the errors of the Administration to the misplaced confidence of the Executive. Dependence upon subordinates is an inseparable condition of the Presidential office, and especially is this true in the midst of a terrible civil war, like that now convulsing the nation, giving rise as it does to an infinitude of new duties and new responsibilities.
From the beginning, as our readers will bear witness, we have never surrendered our columns to the adulation of imaginary heroes. We have endeavored to know but one cause—the cause so precious to every patriotic heart. The fate of party measures, the prospects of individual men, sink into utter insignificance when the life of the rising nation of the world is imperiled. Politicians will pass into oblivion. The achievements of their ambition will be forgotten, and their names will rot their bones. But this noble land will either continue entire, scattering blessings among long lines yet unborn, and holding up the beacon light of liberty for the guidance of the nations, or it will crumble into contemptible fragments. In a crisis of such magnitude every man, woman, and child, forgetful of self, should burn the incense of pure patriotism on the altar of their country.
Last spring our arms were prosperous everywhere. The people were full of hope. The rebels were discouraged and demoralized. Our legions swept triumphantly into the very heart of the Mississippi valley. We had victories almost to satiety. To fight was to win. The enemy lost heart. Despair was fast sapping the last lingering remnants of courage in the rebellious states.
So far the plans devised at headquarters were crowned with admirable results. While cheering news from the South and the West was daily giving us fresh cause for rejoicing, Gen. McClellan left Washington to finish the grand and comprehensive campaign which thus far had progressed so magnificently. Scarcely had he left when Mr. Stanton took the bits in his teeth. Intoxicated by the consciousness of power, he staggered into monstrous absurdities. He tacked rotten rags to a sound garment. He presumed to meddle with matters where he was profoundly ignorant. The army of the Potomac, which according to the original design was to have been hurled unitedly and irresistibly upon Richmond, was divided, and a portion of it left unsupported, to contend alone against the combined hosts of the Confederacy.
The campaign at Fredericksburg will bring down a storm of indignation upon the heads of the military managers at Washington, which will probably compel Mr. Lincoln to throw them overboard. General Burnside, with the gallant officers and men under him, have done nobly. When the change of base was determined on, he moved rapidly to the banks of the Rappahannock. From lack of foresight at the War Department, the means of crossing the river were not provided till Gen. Lee had been allowed sufficient time to mass his troops and render the heights beyond Fredericksburg impregnable. Had the promptitude of the War Department equaled the celerity of Gen. Burnside, the army of the Potomac ere this would have reached the precincts of Richmond.
Many thousand lives and many millions of treasure have been thrown away already, through imbecility, chicanery, and general mismanagement. Neither the patriotism nor the patience of the people can long endure such exhausting and fruitless drains. A land of unrivaled power and resources, impelled by a spirit of consecration to a noble cause, has unquestioningly placed its wealth of men and means at the disposal of the Government. Though matters have gone badly, the strength of our army is by no means materially impaired. It far outnumbers the rebel army, and in all respects is incomparably better supplied. The soldiers fight like veterans. Our generals in the field are gallant and true. What we need is intellect and honesty at headquarters. Let Mr. Lincoln repudiate all political plotters. Let him entrust the momentous interests of the hour to those who have genius to plan, and the fidelity to execute, with an eye single to the good, the honor, and the happiness of the land.
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