President Anguishes over the Result of the Battle of Fredericksburg

December 14, 1862

Concerned about the results of the Battle of Fredericksburg, President Lincoln wires aide John Nicolay “What news have you?” Nicolay had already left the area where General Ambrose Burnside has ordered Union troops to recross the Rappahannock River after enduring catastrophic casualties.

In the wake of the battle President Lincoln looks for additional guidance – he summons former Secretary of War Simon Cameron to come to Washington.    After his return from the battle area General Herman Haupt, the engineer in charge of the railroads for the army, comes to the White House with Pennsylvania Congressman John Covode.   Haupt goes to the office of General Henry W. Halleck in the Winder Building with President Lincoln Haupt traveled to Aquia Landing on an engine he had commandeered and took a steamboat to Washington.   Haupt later wrote:

The President was much interested in my report, and asked me to walk with him to General Halleck’s quarters…When we arrived he requested Covode and the others present to step into the next room, as he desired to have a private conference, and then asked me to repeat the substance of my report to him, which I did.

On its conclusion, the President asked General haleck to telegraph orders to General Burnside to withdraw his army to the north side of the river.  General Halleck rose and paced the floor for some time, and then stopped, facing the President, and said decidedly: ‘I will do no such thing.  If we were personally present and knew the exact situation, we might assume such responsibility.  If such orders are issued, you must issue them yourself.  I hold that a General in command of an army in the field is the best judge of existing conditions.’

The President made no reply, but seemed much troubled.  I then remarked that I did not consider the situation to be as critical as the President imagined, and proced to describe more in detail the topographical configuration….

When I finished, the President signed and said: ‘What you say gives me a great many grains of comfort.’

Somewhat later in the evening,  New York Tribune reporter Henry Villard is brought to the White House by Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson.   Villard had covered Lincoln when he ran for the Senate in 1858 and the presidency in 1860.  After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Villard evaded Union troops attempting to prevent word of the disaster from leaking out.   He managed to hook a ride on a ship heading up the Potomac to Washington.   He sent his dispatch by train to the Tribune where editors softened its harsh conclusions about the crushing defeat and the ineptitude of Union leadership.   Villard biographers Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen wrote: ““In the dining room of Willard’s Hotel, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, ‘the most persistent news-hunter in Washington,’ observed the mud that still clung to Villard’s clothing, guessed where he’d come from, and asked him for news of the battle.  The disgusted reporter spoke bluntly, and Wilson hastened away.

“Half an hour later, Villard was back in the Tribune’s offices, making out his expense account, when Senator Wilson appeared before him.  Lincoln, Wilson explained with some urgency, wished to speak to the reporter, in person, now; and shortly after ten o’clock the hardly presentable Villard found himself in the White House, being debriefed by the president of the United States.  What had been the disposition of the battle?  What was the extent of the casualties, the strength of the rebel defenses, the morale of the Union troops?  Could a renewed attack succeed?  Unawed – Lincoln was, after all, an old acquaintaince – and never one to mince words anyway.  Villard told the president that the battle had been a crippling defeat for the Union (it was, in fact, the worst defeat in the history of the American army) and that every general officer he had spoken to believed that a second attack would fail as utterly as the first.  The army, Villard declared, must fall back to the north bank of the Rappahannock or risk destruction.  The president smiled sadly.  ‘I hope it’s not so bad as all that, Henry,’ he demurred.

Earlier in the day, Mrs. Lincoln invited Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning to accompany her to church.  Browning writes in his diary:  “Mrs Lincoln sent her carriage this morning for me to go to Church with her which I did. The President did not go.  After Church she rode with me to Capitol Hill.  On our way down she told me the President was ancious to get Secretary Smith out of the Cabinet, and me in his place.  That he was anxious to have Mrs Browning and myself in Washington, and the only thing that would prevent him offering me the place would be the fear of having it said he was giving everything to Illinois, but she thought he would do it — She knew he wished to.”

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Published in: on December 14, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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