Northern Editorials after the Battle of Chickamauga
By the end of the summer of 1863 the Union seemed well on its way to victory in the Civil War. Two significant losses had sent the Confederacy reeling: defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3 had stopped General Robert E. Lee’s northern invasion and forced his battered army to retreat back to Virginia; and the next day’s fall of the Mississippi River stronghold of Vicksburg on July 4 placed that mighty waterway under Union control and split the Confederacy in two. Surely the end of the war was near.
Then a stunning reversal in northern Georgia lifted Southern morale and stopped the North’s momentum. For several months, Union General William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland had been forcing Confederate General Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee to retreat, first out of middle Tennessee, then out of the strategic railroad junction and manufacturing center of Chattanooga in southeastern Tennessee, then finally back into northwestern Georgia. Rosecrans was convinced his foe was demoralized and would keep retreating all the way to Atlanta, one more major step forward to Union victory in the war.
Then the unexpected happened. Somehow, the Confederacy marshaled its will and resources and sent reinforcements to Bragg’s beleaguered army, pulling troops from western and eastern armies to reinforce the Army of Tennessee and help it make a stand. This concentration of forces worked. The fiercely-fought Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 19-20, 1863, after a staggering combined total of nearly 35,000 casualties, gave the South the victory it desperately needed. The Northern invasion of Georgia was stopped, the Union army sent scurrying back to the safety of Chattanooga, and the Confederacy had reason to hope again.
Not surprisingly, there were cries of indignation and outrage from Northern politicians, the public, and the press. What had gone wrong? How had the South, seemingly whipped, won such a major victory? As the following three editorials from Northern newspapers show, blame was hurled at the Lincoln Administration’s management of the war—accusations which reveal cracks in the façade of Union unity.
Exactly one year before these editorials were printed, President Lincoln had issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, freeing the Confederacy’s slaves. Not everyone in the North was happy about this. For many, the purpose of the war was to restore the Union, not free the slaves. Lincoln himself had earlier declared that his main objective was preserving the Union. He did not want to overstep his constitutional authority, he said, or enrage anyone in the slave-holding border states or Northerners who supported slavery, by freeing all slaves. He clearly expressed his views in a letter he wrote on Aug. 22, 1862, to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who had written a letter lecturing Lincoln that he should free the South’s slaves.
Lincoln wrote a clear, firm response stating emphatically to Greeley that he was waging the Civil War to preserve the Union, not end slavery. Though Lincoln stipulated that he personally wished all men could be free, slavery was not his wartime priority:
“If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union with the freeing of any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union. And what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union…I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”
The first of the following editorials is especially critical of this abolitionist-influenced switch from preserving the Union to ending slavery, railing against “the radical abolition cabal who control the administration” and urging President Lincoln to “abandon the fanatical abolition leaders who have led him astray.” The editorial also criticizes Lincoln’s controversial switch from a volunteer army to one based on the draft, and denounces his decision to suspend habeas corpus. Most stingingly, it (like the other two editorials) criticizes the Lincoln Administration’s handling of the war, saying that if “the wiseacres of the War Office understood their business” they would not be out-thought by the Confederate leaders and out-fought by the Southern armies.
This editorial was printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on Sept. 22, 1863, just two days after the Battle of Chickamauga ended:
The News from General Rosecrans—Another Crisis of Doubt and Danger—What Is President Lincoln to Do!
All the news received at this office to a late hour this morning from the army of General Rosecrans is before our readers. Whatever may be the exact losses to the contending armies from this late sanguinary and desperate fighting for the stronghold of Chattanooga, the all-important facts are established that the advance of Rosecrans into Georgia has been arrested, and that, unless promptly and heavily reinforced, he may be compelled to abandon all the territory and all the advantages of his recent admirably conducted onward movement from Murfreesboro to the Georgia border.
It needs no labored argument to show that the work assigned to this officer was difficult, dangerous and of the highest importance. His advance to Chattanooga disclosed at once to the rebel leaders at Richmond their opportunity for a crushing concentration against him from all sides. They saw that the splendid armies of Grant and Banks from Vicksburg and Port Hudson were frittered away in a number of secondary expeditions west of the Mississippi, while Joe Johnston, with his army from Jackson largely increased by accessions from Mobile and from other portions of Alabama, was within supporting distance of Bragg; and they saw that General Lee was sufficiently near to the defenses of Richmond to spare ten or twenty thousand men for this promising enterprise of the destruction of the army of Rosecrans. But had the wiseacres of the War Office understood their business after the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson they would have known that the only way to prevent Joe Johnston from forming a junction with Bragg was with a strong force to menace, if not to move upon, Mobile. This movement, we have no doubt, would have kept away from Bragg the twenty or thirty thousand men brought up to his support by Johnston, and would have given a clear field to Rosecrans from Chattanooga to Atlanta, and thence to Savannah or Charleston.
But the present managers of the war at Washington seem to be incapable of profiting either from a series of disasters or a succession of great victories; and the radical abolition cabal who control the administration, it would appear, are indifferent to victory or defeat in the field, while successful in appropriating the spoils, and in their schemes of emancipation, conscription and all the essential measures of a military despotism. But where is to be the end of this fearful state of things, if many splendid victories, placing the rebellion fairly within our grasp, are still to be lost in a succession of defeats which revive the hopes and prospects of the rebel leaders, and still increase the dangers of foreign intervention? Such alternations of military successes warn us of the final issue of two or three separate confederacies, through the agency of European bayonets, or of a general state of anarchy, North and South, like that which has invited Louis Napoleon into Mexico.
What is the remedy? How are we to secure the profits of one series of victories by gaining another, and so on, to a speedy termination of the war? The remedy is in the hands of President Lincoln. Let him fall back upon his original programme of a prosecution of the war for a restoration of the Union; let him abandon the fanatical abolition leaders who have led him astray, and those radical abolition measures which have only operated to unite the people of the rebellious States and to divide the people of the loyal States; let him abandon this expensive and fruitless system of raising soldiers under an obnoxious conscription, and revoke his sweeping suspension of the writ of habeas corpus; and let him try the virtue of a generous appeal to the patriotism of the loyal States for more soldiers, and we are confident that his administration, and the army, and the great cause of the Union, will be richly rewarded.
Let the people be made to understand that this war is a war for the Union, and not an abolition crusade for the emancipation of the slaves of the South, or the extermination of their masters; let President Lincoln, in a word, release himself from the abolition factions, their war policy, and their war managers, and open a new set of books for a vigorous prosecution of the war simply to put down the armies of the rebellion; and in doing this let him call upon the country for two or three hundred thousand volunteers, and we dare say that within six weeks he will get them. Thus before the expiration of the present visa the rebellion may yet be extinguished; for if North Carolina is inclined to rebel against the rebellion, at the hazard of sacrificing her local institutions for the sake of peace, even South Carolina will be prepared to submit with the promise of her restoration to the protection of the Constitution of the United States.
This pernicious abolition faction, in the policy of the administration, the counsels of the Cabinet and the conduct of the war, has been sufficiently tried, and has proved a deplorable failure. Surely, under other leaders, other counsels and other measures, with the overwhelming forces, materials and resources of war possessed by the loyal States, President Lincoln cannot fail to bring this rebellion to a speedy conclusion.
This editorial was printed by the Hartford Daily Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) on Sept. 22, 1863:
We fear the Federal Government makes a great mistake in scattering its strength by expeditions into Texas. Several strong columns recently left New Orleans for the purpose of penetrating the eastern borders of that State, with a view to the speedy occupation of the principal points of the interior. These troops could be employed to far better advantage elsewhere. The re-opening of the Mississippi River separates the eastern from the western half of the Confederacy. A barrier, to all intents impassable, divides the forces under Magruder, Kirby, Smith and Price, from the forces under Johnston, Bragg, and Lee. The possession of the rivers and ocean renders it perfectly easy for the Federal Government to concentrate at any point within our lines, on either side of the stream. When it is in our power to hurl all our strength against a portion of the enemy, without danger of molestation from the rest, it looks like foolhardiness to imperil the certainty of success by attempting to whip all their armies simultaneously. The capture of Vicksburg liberated the troops under command of Gen. Grant for active service elsewhere. A portion of them, under the leadership of Burnside, captured Knoxville, and now hold East Tennessee. Had the residue joined Rosecrans, as the fragments of Johnston’s army joined Bragg, the hero of Corinth, Iuka, and Murfreesboro, would at this moment hold all Northern and Central Georgia in his grasp. For lack of such support, he has been compelled to fall back before the army of Bragg, which had received accessions from all quarters.
When the rebellion east of the Mississippi is crushed, the rebels west of the stream will give us no further trouble. No sort of strategy justifies the policy of sending troops into the interior of Texas at this time. Let the Government strike with all its might where the blow will count most.
This editorial was printed by the Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts) on Sept. 22, 1863:
The grave intelligence which comes to us from General Rosecrans gives a rude shock to the universal confidence as to the swift and certain progress of our arms in that section. It also justifies, we apprehend, the doubts which have been expressed, particularly in the new Army and Navy Journal, as to the correctness and safety of the plan on which our operations in that quarter have been conducted. Rosecrans and Burnside, while acting for the same general purpose, have been moving at a great distance from each other, with no power of concentration at this stage of the work. At the same time our other forces farther west have not only been too far removed to cooperate with Rosecrans, but have themselves been divided and dispatched on various missions. Thus at the critical moment and at the critical point our army has had its usual fortune of being unable to use more than a fraction of its force, although, we must add, that fraction was so large as to seem to ensure easy victory against anything which it was believed that the enemy could oppose to it.
The enemy, however, had no intention of abandoning the field. It now seems that having resolved to make a desperate effort to free himself from the deadly and tightening embrace of our armies, he selected General Rosecrans’s department as that in which a blow might be struck with the best advantage. He retreated from Tullahoma and from Chattanooga rather than accept an unequal battle, but concentrated rapidly as he fell back, and thus he has at last been able to contest the field with our forces, which were weakened as they advanced and which, as we have seen, could as yet obtain nothing by concentration—and this at the very moment when half the country seemed to doubt whether the fighting was not pretty well finished!
Our information is too imperfect to authorize us to speculate as to the effect of the recent occurrences on the campaign under General Rosecrans. The best things may be hoped, however, from the skill and gallantry of that officer and from of the high spirit of the forces under his command. It is our present purpose only to point out that this gathering of forces under Bragg for a great effort does not seem to us to be merely an effort to regain Chattanooga, to cover Atlanta, or even to protect Georgia. It seems to us to be a deeply concerted effort to dislocate our general plan of operations, and to roll back the whole tide of war from the rebel States. We had occasion lately to explain our belief that such an effort must soon be witnessed, and that it would be made in Virginia rather than in the Southwest. It has come in a different quarter from that in which we looked, but the reasoning which led us to believe that the rebel leaders would stake their fortunes upon a series of decisive movements in the field rather than encounter the slow death of a simply defensive policy, is upon the whole confirmed.
We must add, however, that the reasons which seemed to point out Virginia as the part of the field where such an effort could be made with most advantage, do not seem to us to have been impaired by anything that has since come to light. And we feel no assurance that such an attempt as we anticipated may not yet be made there. In spite of the reported weakening of Lee’s army, we doubt if it has been reduced to that point where it would feel unable to meet our own army in the open field. Forces raised originally in the districts threatened by Rosecrans may have been sent to defend their own soil under Bragg; but we are not yet satisfied that the rebels have no scheme for a fall movement in Virginia, and still less are we prepared to believe that they will leave that State and their capital exposed to our attack. If, however, they have drawn so seriously from Lee’s army as many suppose, and have adopted the policy of risking much in Virginia for the sake of concentrating under Bragg, then we apprehend that the result will show the movement not to have been the most decisive which was within their power. They will have entered upon a campaign of great risks and which offers no great prize, at a time when they are less than ever able to promise themselves any happy result from a protracted and uncertain struggle.
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