President Lincoln’s Son Lingers Near Death

February 18, 1862

“The Prest’s 2d son, Willie, has lingered on for a week or 10 day[s], and is now thought to be in extremis[.] The Prest. is nearly worn out, with grief and watching,” wrote Attorney General Edward Bates in his diary.   President aide John G. Nicolay recorded in his journal: “Willie continues to sink and grow weaker and the President evidently despairs of his recovery.”  Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote of this period:

Day follows day, and the shadow deepens, and some who understand its meaning go about as if they did not wish to make a noise in walking.
“Is there no hope?” is the question which has to be asked at last.
“Not any.  So the doctors say.  But the President is in his room over there.  You can send your card in, Mr. Senator, if you wish to see him.  I’ve no doubt he will see you.”
“See him?  Send my card in, at such a time?  God help him! Seems to me he had enough to carry without this.  I won’t add a feather.”  And the kindly hearted Senator stalks out of the northeast room almost as if he had been insulted.

Death was also on the president’s mind regarding the upcoming execution of a convicted slave-tradier. Bates wrote: “Two weeks ago, I warned the Prest. against granting a respite to Nath[anie]l Gordon, under sentence of death, for Piracy (slave trade),”

“It is the first conviction under the act, and nothing shewn to impeach the legality or justice of the conviction.  I was convinced (and told the Prest: so) that the reprieve wd. be taken as an implied promise of pardon or commutation, however strongly he might asserverate to the contrary [.]
“And now, my prediction is verified.  Mrs. White (wife of Judge White of N.Y.) with the mother and wife of Gordon, are here urging both the Prest. and me to commute the sentence to imprisonment for life.
“My ground of objection is that the Prest. has no right to stop the course of law, except on grounds of excuse or mitigation found in the case itself – and not to arrest the execution of the statute merely because he thinks the law wrong or too severe.  That would be to set himself above Congress, to assume the dispensing power, and to commit the very offense which lost one king of the House of Stuart his head, and another his crown.

Published in: on February 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

White House Reflects on Tennessee Victory

February 17, 1862

Even as the Army of the Potomac remained stalled, victories in the West gave hope some comfort.   The ever-optimistic William O. Stoddard one of the handful of aides that assisted Lincoln during the Civil War, wrote: “The victories achieved by the Union forces, by land and water, are of value, not only for their direct bearing upon the military success of this prolonged campaign, but also because they set the Government and its war policy in the true light before the people.  The long delay, the careful preparation, the patient waiting for ‘the inevitable hour,’ are all at last vindicated; and the dullest can see that the President and his advisers have been right, and those who assailed them wrong.”

Stoddard argued that the victories show that there was a Lincoln Administration plan for prosecuting the war: “Sketched in outline long ago by the trained and experienced genius of Scott; completed in its details by the President, and the wise men who have been his councillors; and carried into triumphant effect by the skill, daring and perseverance of our generals and our citizen soldiery.”

According to another presidential aide, John G. Nicolay, President Lincoln placed great faith in the fighting capabilities of his fellow Illinois residents:  “Talking over the surrender, and the gallant behavior of the Ills. Troops, the Prest said: ‘I cannot speak so confidently about the fighting qualities of the Eastern men, or what are called Yankees – not knowing myself particularly to whom the appellation belongs – but this I do know – if the Southerners think that man for man they are better than our Illinois men, or western men generally, they will discover themselves in a grievous mistake.’”

Published in: on February 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fort Donelson in Tennessee Surrenders

February 16, 1862

President Lincoln was delighted by news that Fort Donelson had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.   Three Confederate generals were also captured.  White House aide William O. Stoddard wrote overoptimistically: “The gallant dash of our gunboat fleet up the Tennessee and into Alabama, has struck a panic to the very heart of the rebellion, and the Stars and Stripes have been spread in a region where many men feared they would never shine again.”  Attorney General Bates wrote that Commodore Andrew H. “Foote did wonders, with the iron gun boats – He recd. 2 wounds, but nothing very serious.  The boats did excellent service.”

Lincoln wrote General Henry W. Halleck, commander of Union armies in the region, to urge a greater follow-up to this victory: “You have Fort Donelson safe, unless Grant shall be overwhelmed from outside, to prevent which latter will, I think, require all the vigilance, energy, and skill of yourself & Buell, acting in full co-operation, Columbus will not get at Grant, but the… force from Bowling-Green will.  They hold the Railroad from Bowling-Green to within a few miles of Donelson, with the Bridge at Clarksburg [Clarksville] undisturbed.  It is unsafe to rely that they will not dare to expose Nashville to Buell.  A small part of their force can retire slowly towards Nashville, breaking up the Railroad as they go, and keep Buell out of that city twenty days.  Mean time Nashville will be abundantly defended by forces from all South & perhaps from here at Manassas.  Could not a cavalry force from Gen. [George] Thomas on the upper Cumberland, dash across, almost unresisted, and cut the Railroad at or near Knoxville, Tenn.?  In the midst of a bombardment at Donnelson, why could not a Gunboat run up and destroy the Bridge at Clarksburg [Clarksville]?  Our success or failure at Donelson is vastly important; and I beg you to put your soul in the effort.”

Published in: on February 16, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

President Meets with Committee on the Conduct of the War

February 15, 1862

“The President will be pleased to see yourself and other members of the Committee [on the Conduct of the War] at 8 o’clock this evening, agreeably to the request contained in your note of yesterday,” presidential aide John G. Nicolay notified Ohio Senator Benjamin F. Wade.  The committee – as was the president– very concerned about the slow progress of General George B. McClellan in initiating an offensive with the Army of the Potomac.

It may have been this meeting that another aide, William O. Stoddard, was referring to when he wrote: “President Lincoln, with a high opinion of McClellan’s abilities, at last decided that he was not sufficiently incisive for a great commander; that he lacked the striking power.  To illustrate this, one day a committee of some sort called on him to urge their complaints against the General in Chief, and he replied nearly in these words: ‘Well, gentlemen, for the organization of an army – to prepare it for the field – and for some other things, I will back General McClellan against any general of modern times – I don’t know but of ancient times either – but I begin to believe that he will never get ready to fight.”

Published in: on February 15, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cabinet Meeting Discusses Burnside Expedition in North Carolina

February 14, 1862

Attorney General Bates reported on the Cabinet meeting at the White House at which the North Carolina expedition led by General Ambrose Burnside was discussed: “The sec: of War read the official report of the Burnside expedition.  The Genl. says that the success at Roanoke Island was complete, the fight lasted near two days. 4 forts (40. guns) taken, near or quite 3000 prisoners and over 3000 stands of small arms.  A few of the enemy, when driven to the north point of the island, escaped to the main[land] by swimming – 30 or 40.”

Bates noted: “I was greatly surprised at one thing – and trusted with the command of the Expedition down the Mississippi from Cairo to N.[ew] O.[rleans]!  Evidently, he has been strongly plied from outside, or he never wd. have thought of it – The President met it in limine saying that was the greatest business of all, and needed the highest general in that region.  He added that it was generally thought that a man was better qualified to do a thing because he had learned how; and that in this case it was Mr. Blair’s misfortune not to have learned.  It is very instructive to consider how much is won in this world, by bold and impudent pretention!  The Messrs Blair gain a great deal by claiming all.”   Bates lamented that Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, always a disputatious man, seemed to disagree with Bates more regularly.

Meanwhile, the Union-Confederate stalemate at Fort Donelson continued as Union gunboats were forced to retreat.

Published in: on February 14, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

President Goes To Congress While Two Sons Remain Ill

February 13, 1862

In the aftermath of a leak of his Annual Message to Congress in December 1861, President Lincoln goes to Capitol Hill to testify before House Judiciary Committee.  At issue was the role of “Chevalier” Wikoff, a close friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, in leaking the message to the New York Herald.  Also at issue was the role of White House gardener John Watts, who was implicated in the theft of the document.  The House had ordered Wikoff to be jailed.  For the first year of the war, there were always questions about the loyalty of federal employees in Washington.

Meanwhile, Willie and Tad Lincoln remained sick on the second floor of the White House.  Union gunboats started bombardment of Fort Donelson while troops clashed outside the fort.

Published in: on February 13, 2012 at 10:19 am  Leave a Comment  

President Lincoln’s Birthday Hard to Celebrate

February 12, 1862

While the Union Army under General Ulysses S. Grant closes in on Confederate-held Fort Donelson, President Lincoln spends much of day with Willie.

Congress, meanwhile, discussed legislation to help fund the war effort.  In the Senate, legislation authorizing the printing of greenbacks was being debated.  Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning, a close Lincoln friend, wrote in his diary: “I cannot believe that Congress has power to make any thing but gold and silver a tender in payment of debts, and if it had I believe it would injure the credit of the Country to do so, and I shall therefore feel constrained to vote against the bill.”

Published in: on February 12, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Washington Awash in Rumors and Frustration

February 11, 1862

Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning went to the White late in the day. He reported that General George B. “McClellan came in whilst there.   He said but little.  Does not seem to be big enough for his position.”

In the wake of the Union defeat at Balls Bluff the previous October (during which the President’s close friend Edward D. Baker had been killed), General Charles P. Stone was arrested on February 8 – although no charges were lodged against Stone.  Presidential aide John Hay wrote in an anonymous newspaper article: “One would think that the arrest of a Major General of a Division, on charges amounting to a direct allegation of disloyalty, would be a sufficient stimulus to the gossip of a quiet little town, without the necessity of any further augmentation of the statement.  But people think different in this base village.  No rumor is able to stand alone long.  Popular fancy begins to add a lively series of supports and amplifications to the original story, until the nucleus is lost in the extent of the periphery.”

When it began to be whispered on Sunday night that General Stone was under arrest, the statement fanned into the liveliest action the imaginations of all the Washington gossips.  General Stone was added to the list of the proscribed, probably from that live of alliteration that pervades literature….

The case is most strange and peculiar.  Stone was born in Massachusetts, drank in with his mother’s milk devotion to his country, and learned nothing from earliest youth but lessons of patriotism and honor among the New England hills.  In the dark days that closed the ill-starred reign of Buchanan, there was not in all the District of Columbia a man so earnest, so active and so effective in defense against the anticipated attacks of the traitors, as Charles Stone.  Gen. Scott repeatedly said, that more to Stone than any other we were indebted for the safety of the Capital.  On the organization of the additional regiments to the regular army, he was made Colonel of the Fourteenth Infantry, and three days afterward, on the 17th day of May, he was made a Brigadier General of Volunteers.  At West Point, he bore a fine character for scholarship and good conduct.  When he resigned, he carried into civil life a reputation for energy and ability.”

A few days earlier, Attorney General Edward Bates had written in his diary: “The thing struck me painfully, not that I understand the merits of Gen Stone’s case, or undertake to accuse or acquit him, but I feared the establishment of a precedent for congressional interference with the command of the army, which might lead to the terrible results seen in France, in the days of the revolution.”

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President Lincoln Tries to Sort Out Military Command in Kansas

February 10, 1862

President Lincoln wrote to General David Hunter, a professional soldier and General James Lane, who was also a U.S. Senator from Kansas: “My wish has been,–and is, to avail the government of the services of both Gen. Hunter and Gen. Lane; & so far as possible, to personally oblige both.  Gen. Hunter is the senior officer, and must command when they serve together; though, in so far as he can, consistently with the public service, and his own honor, oblige Gen. Lane, he will also oblige me.  If they can not come to an amicable understanding, Gen. Lane must report to Gen. Hunter for duty, according to the rules, or decline the service.”

Presidential aide John Hay was less sanguine and less diplomatic about the possibility of a ceasefire between the Union commanders in Kansas.  In an anonymous newspaper dispatch that day, Hay wrote: “The West is still troubled with feuds, and the craft of demagogues.  I believe no good thing will come out of Kansas until Jim Lane has retired to private life and the cormorants that surround him see no prospect for further plunder in his train.  The man and his history form a marvel of unmerited distinction and utterly baseless success.  Low, vulgar, and coarse, he has gained the plaudits of the polished fanatics of Boston Illiterate and narrow minded, he retains a seat in the Senate of the Republic.  Tricky and unprincipled in politics, he has somehow gained a reputation for bluff honor and frankness.  With no military ability, he has succeeded in impressing the public with the idea that he is a thunderbolt of war.  Crafty, cruel, and remorseless, and only half civilized, he has fostered the idea in the mind of his deluded adherents that on him alone rest the hopes of endangered civilization, and that in his success are contained the grand possibilities of aroused and regenerate humanity.”

Published in: on February 10, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

White House Concerned with German-American Support

February 9, 1862 

President aide John G. Nicolay wrote diplomat Carl Schurz regarding German-American affairs: “I brought the subject of our conversation to the notice of the President and Secretary of War last night.  The latter promised to write this morning to Gen. Halleck, and urge the utmost prudence and caution.

“At the President’s request I enclose you Gov. Koerner’s report to the President, together with copies of the correspondence, which will enable you to understand the exact condition of things.

Assure the editor of the Anzeiger of the President’s entire confidence and high esteem of Gen. Sigel. Please preserve and return to me the enclosed papers.

Published in: on February 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment