Cabinet Meeting to Discuss West Virginia, Emancipation

December 29, 1862

The Cabinet gathers for an unusual Monday session at the White HouseNavy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “The six members of the Cabinet (Smith absent) to-day handed in their respective opinions on the question of dividing the old Commonwealth of Virginia and carving out and admitting a new State.  As Stanton and myself returned from the Cabinet-meeting to the Departments, he expressed surprise that I should oppose division, for he thought it politic and wise to plant a Free State south of the Ohio.  I thought our duties were constitutional, not experimental, that we should observe and preserve the landmarks, and that mere expedience should not override constitutional obligations.”  Welles added: “At the meeting to-day, the President read the draft of his Emancipation Proclamation, invited criticism, and finally directed that copies should be furnished to each.  It is a good and well-prepared paper, but I suggested that a part of the sentence marked in pencil be omitted.  Chase advised that fractional parts of States ought not be exempted.  In this I think he is right, and so stated.  Practically there would be difficulty in freeing parts of States, and not freeing others,–a clashing between central and local authorities.”

After visiting the White House, Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning writes in his diary about his efforts to see re-enstatement of Major John J. Key: “At night went with Judge Hughes of the Court of Claims to the Presidents to talk over the case of Majr Jno Jas Key who has been dismissed the Service.  After discussing that matter the President took up a pamphlet on the war by Stille and saying it was the best thing he had seen upon the subject added he would read some of it to me.  He commenced and read the entire pamphlet.  It was running a parallel between the condition of this country and England during the Peninsular War and reasoning that there was nothing in events thus far to discourage us.  It was well written, calm, sensible, and entirely free from party politics and fanaticism.”

Spurred on by fellow officers, Generals John Cochrane and John Newton went to Washington to block a planned advance by their superior General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Army of the Potomac.  Historian Stephen Sears wrote in Controversies and Commanders: “Encountering Secretary of State Seward, a political acquaintance from his New York days, [Cochrane] persuaded Seward to obtain an appointment for him with the president, In midafternoon that Tuesday, with Newton in tow, Cochrane hurried to the White House and the president’s office.

General Newton, the senior officer and displaying the more stalwart military presence of the two, made the presentation.  It was a vexing, rather delicate moment for Newton.  Should he phrase the opposition to Burnside in such a way that it appeared he was contriving to have his superior officer relieved (which, of course, was precisely the dissidents’ intention), he could be court-martialed and cashiered under the Articles of War.  As Newton later recounted the conversation for the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, he dared not come out and badly announce, ‘Mr. President, the army has no confidence in General Burnside; that is the whole trouble down there.’  To say that would be manifestly improper,’ although it was in fact what he believed.   What Newton did attempt to say, by talking his way with great caution all around the subject, was that the troops under Burnside’s command were demoralized.  Another campaign like the last one would produce not merely a defeat but the destruction of the army.

Lincoln soon enough saw through Newton’s evasions, and went at him.  ‘At first the President misunderstood our object in coming there,’ was how Newton phrased it,’ and thought we were coming to injure General Burnside, and even to suggest somebody for commander of the army.’  The crestfallen Newton hastened to explain that, no indeed, they had no one in mind for the command; ‘our sole intention was to express the facts as to the condition of the army.’

“At this awkward turn, the more adept Cochrane stepped in to pour oil on the roiled waters.   In phrases soothing and politics, ‘with much feeling,’ he confirmed, from his personal observation, everything Newton has said of the demoralization within the ranks.  In so doing (as he told the Joint Committee), ‘I deemed it the best evidence of patriotism and of my loyalty to the government that I could give.’  Having thus raised the tenor of the conversation to these rarefied heights, Cochrane noted that the president ‘resumed his ordinary manner.’  As he showed the two generals out, Cochrane remembered, Lincoln said ‘he was glad that we had visited him, and that good would come of the interview.’

President Lincoln writes General Benjamin F. Butler, whom Lincoln recently had replaced as the military commander in New Orleans: “I believe you have a family, and I dislike to deprive you of an early visit to them. But I really wish to see you at the earliest moment. I am contemplating a peculiar and important service for you, which I think, and hope you will think, is as honorable, as it is important. I wish to confer with you upon it. Please come immediately upon your arrival at New-York.”

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Published in: on December 29, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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