February 21 1862
After the death of Willie Lincoln, concern continued over the health of Tad Lincoln. “The Presidents youngest Son is very ill, and they would not consent for Mrs Browning to leave them this morning,” wrote Illinois Senator Orville Browning. “ I remained till 12 Oclock — then came to the Capitol leaving Mrs Browning there Returned at night and sat up part of night.” Mrs. Lincoln was inconsolably distraught and Mrs. Browning’s presence was needed to comfort her and nurse Tad.
“The Executive Mansion is in mourning in consequence of the death of the President’s second son ‘Willie,’ a bright little boy of about twelve years, which happened yesterday afternoon,” wrote presidential aide John G. Nicolay. “He had been very low for a number of days so that his death was not altogether unexpected….” Another Lincoln aide, William O. Stoddard, wrote: “So, little Willie is dead! An awful blow to Lincoln! He was fonder of that boy than he was of anything else. I remember, away back in Springfield, I’ve seen him – well – I don’t want to say any more – it’s an awful blow to the old man. Good morning. I guess I’ll go. And an old Illinois neighbor walks out, with his head bowed.”
Stoddard wrote: “The President at work in his room to-day? Why, the coffin is in the house! So it is; the casket is here, waiting to receive its treasure, while the general now crossing the hall goes into the bereaved father’s office to carry to him the information that the army cannot move, and that the plan of the winter campaign is frustrated by the mud.”
While the First Family grieved, concern about the conduct of the war continued. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wrote General Henry W. Halleck: “Your plan of organization has been transmitted to me by Mr. Scott and strikes me very favorably, but on account of the domestic affliction of the President I have not yet been able to submit it to him. The brilliant results of the energetic action in the West fills [sic] the Nation with joy.” President Lincoln has a long conversation with General Benjamin F. Butler about the expedition to capture New Orleans on which Butler is about to embark. As Butler recalled his meeting at the White House:
“There was understood to be some feeling between General McClellan and the President because McClellan did not move, his excuse being all the while the small number of his troops and the great excess of those of the enemy. McClellan, however, held everything with a high, strong hand, and what he wanted he had. The Committee on the Conduct of the War were known to be very much opposed to him, as he certainly was to them. This fact is now known, but at that time it was only conjectured. A short time after it became known that I had give my testimony before the committee, General McClellan asked me if I had any objection to telling him what the substance of my testimony was. I told him that I had not the slightest objection. I Did not know at that time what his testimony had been, and certainly not what his estimate was, for while in Washington I had been very busy about my own affairs. He appeared very much surprised at my testimony. He questioned me as to the source of my knowledge. I told him that of personal knowledge I knew nothing of course, but I sketched to him how I made up my calculations. He said that I must be wrong, that he knew that there were a great many more troops than that. I answered squarely: ‘Well, your knowledge of course ought to be vastly superior to the best verified calculations upon which I have come to my opinion.”
I handed him my analysis of the number of troops which had been in the battle of Bull Run, which number had been substantially verified by actual reports, and then added my further calculations upon the same basis, and made in two different ways, to show that those rebel troops could not have been much more than doubled within the succeeding six moths. My conclusion was that there were not more than sixty-five thousand effective troops opposite Washington.
The rebel general, Joe Johnston, moved his movement from Washington against them, and Johnston’s report as published in the “War Correspondence” now shows that I was not five thousand out of the way, not reckoning the small force that was below Alexandria. But I did not include the “Quaker” guns, i.e. the wooden ones, that were mounted in the rebel intrenchments near Centralville, and McClellan’s bureau of information had evidently included in their estimate the number of men required to man these. I thought as we parted that General McClellan did not seem quite as cordial as when we met.
When I saw Mr. Lincoln, as I did within less than two days, he put to me the same question as to the number of troops. I told him that if he would take it without asking my reasons for it I would be glad to tell him, but if he required me to go over the reasons, I must get the paper containing my calculations, or a copy of it. He said that was not worth while. I briefly sketched the reasons, and in answer to his questions I replied, in a very emphatic manner, that I felt as certain of my estimate within a few thousand as I could of anything in the world.
“Assuming that you had one hundred thousand effective men in Washington,” he said, “and were permitted to move over the river to attack, would you do it?”
“Certainly I would, Mr. President, and if it was of any use I would ask for the privilege. But you have abler commanders than I, Mr. President, and what I want is to go off with my command to New Orleans.”
“I won’t say, General, whether I will let you go or not.”
I then began to plead a little and said: “Why not let me go? You have got enough troops here, and I am only to have some regiments from Baltimore.”
“I agree with you,”he answered, “as to the number of troops we have got here; that is not the reason for your detention.”
I at once pressed for the reason why I was not permitted to go, and thereupon I found that an order had been issued by General McClellan to disembark my troops at Fortress Monroe, and to return them to Baltimore.
I immediately began to look the matter up. I telegraphed to Fortress Monroe, and was told that no such order had come there. Adjutant-General Thomas told me that such order certainly had been issued and forwarded by General [John A.] Dix to General Wool, at Fortress Monroe. I applied to General Dix, and he said that he had sent such an order forward. Looking farther, I found that one of General Dix’s staff officers had put it in his coat pocket and forgotten it, — a most inconceivable thing.
I determined to bring the matter to a focus at once. I went to General McClellan told him about the order and asked him to revoke it.
“Why are you so anxious about this expedition?” he said to me.
“Because I think I can do a great deal for good for the country. Besides, I want to get away from Washington: I am sick for the intrigues and cross purposes that I find here. Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Stanton seem to me to be about the only persons who are in dead earnest for a vigorous prosecution of the war.”
“A,” said he, “and what evidence have you of that?”
“What both say and how they say it,— although I do not put too much confidence in what any man says. The President asked me how many troops I believed there were on the other side of the river, and I gave him the number as I gave it to you.”
“What did he say to that?”
“He asked me how certain I felt, and I told him I felt very certain. He asked me whether I felt so certain that I would be willing to lead an army of one hundred thousand troops from Washington to make an attack on the rebels in Virginia.”
“What did you say to that?”
“I said I did not desire to have anything to do with the Army of the Potomac; that I wanted to get away from here, and I then renewed my application to him to give me my order to go to New Orleans.”
“He did not give you the order?”
“No; he told me he did not know yet whether he would or not. I said to him in substance that I hoped he didn’t detain me because it was a necessity to have around Washington the few troops that I should take away from Baltimore. He said that was not the reason, that regarding the number of troops opposed to us across the river he believed nearly as I did. He told me that I might call any day after to-morrow, being the 22d of February and a made to-morrow.’ He said: ‘Well, General Butler, I think you had better call on me the day after to-morrow, and we will see what will come out of this.’”
I looked General McClellan in the eye and said: “General, shall I call on you before or after I call on the President?”
“Better come before,” said he.
I went to my hotel, and after listening to an address in the House, I spent the next day in packing up my effects, not many, because I had come to the conclusion that I was going somewhere. I also notified two of the gentlemen of my staff who came with me, and two more who were in Washington, that I wanted them ready to go with me at a day’s notice.
On the morrow I took a carriage and drove to the headquarters of the army shortly before ten o’clock. I was admitted to the general’s presence, and he met me very cordially, and handed me a sealed envelope.
“Therein,” said he, “you will find your instructions about your expedition to New Orleans, and you may go as soon as you can get ready to so do.”
“I thank you very much, General,” said I, “for the relief you have given me in letting me go away from here. I will endeavor by my actions to do you and the army all the credit I can.”
I called on the Secretary of War, and found the President with him. I stated to them the facts. Mr. Stanton was overjoyed. The President did not appear at all elated, but shook hands with me with a far-off, pensive look.
“I shall need some funds undoubtedly,” I said to Mr. Stanton. “Please ascertain how much and send to me by the quartermaster and commissary, who will follow me and bring whatever it is supposed I will need.”
“Why not take your requisition yourself?”
“In the first place, I do not want any charge of the money. In the second place, Mr. Stanton, to be honest with you, my orders cannot be countermanded after I get to sea, for I am going to take New Orleans or you will never see me again.”
“Well,” said he in the presence of Mr. Lincoln, “you take New Orleans and you shall be lieutenant-general.”
I bowed and left.
I stayed in Washington long enough to have a little bird sing to me that General McClellan’s father-in-law and chief of staff, R.B. Marcy, had said: “I guess we have found a hole to bury this Yankee elephant in.”