President Confers on Military Situation in Virginia

June 14, 1863

“Sunday, June 14, was one of the bad days.  It started with word from Pleasanton that Negroes had seen Ewell with one of the outsize corps of Confederate infantry, bound for the Shenandoah, two days before,” wrote historian Fletcher Pratt. “As the day wore on, the rumors became so thick that Mr. Secretary Welles went over to the War Department to find out what was going on.  He found the President there, and Halleck, smoking a cigar.  Stanton fussed in and out, his jaw set like a snapping turtle’s; and there was a telegram from General R.H. Milroy, who had a garrison at Winchester in the valley, relayed through from Baltimore, the direct wires being out.  A ‘mighty raid’ was in progress, Milroy thought, into Pennsylvania; he could hold out where he was for five days, a remark which caused Lincoln to say sadly that probably Milroy would soon be captured.  ‘It is Harpers Ferry over again.’”

President Lincoln writes General Joseph Hooker: “So far as we can make out here, the enemy have Milroy surrounded at Winchester, and Tyler at Martinsburg. If they could hold out a few days, could you help them? If the head of Lee’s army is at Martinsburg and the tail of it on the Plank road between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?”  At almost midnight, President Lincoln telegraphs Hooker a second time: “Yours of 11.30 just received. You have nearly all the elements for forming an opinion whether Winchester is surrounded that I have. I really fear—almost believe, it is. No communication has been had with it during the day, either at Martinsburg, or Harper’s Ferry. At 7 P.M., we also lost communication with Martinsburg.

The enemy had also appeared there some hours before. At 9. PM. Harper’s Ferry said the enemy was reported at Berryville & Smithfield. If I could know that Longstreet and Ewell moved in that direction so long ago as you stated in your last, then I should feel sure that Winchester is strongly invested. It is quite certain that a considerable force of the enemy is thereabout; and I fear it is an overwhelming one, compared with Milroys. I am unable to give any more certain opinion.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “Scary rumors abroad of army operations and a threatened movement of Lee upon Pennsylvania. No doubt there has been a change. I fear our friends are in difficulties. Went to the War Department this evening. Found the President and General Halleck with Secretary of War in the room of the telegraphic operator. Stanton was uneasy, said it would be better to go into another room. The President and myself went into the Secretary’s office; the other two remained. The President said quietly to me he was feeling very bad; that he found Milroy and his command were captured, or would be. He (Milroy) has written that he can hold out five days, but at the end of five days he will be in no better condition, for he can’t be relieved. “It is,” said the President, “Harper’s Ferry over again.”

I inquired why Milroy did not fall back, — if he had not been apprised by Hooker, or from here, what Lee was doing, etc. I added, if Lee’s army was moving, Hooker would take advantage and sever his forces, perhaps take his rear guard. The President said it would seem so, but that our folks appeared to know but little how things are, and showed no evidence that they ever availed themselves of any advantage.

How fully the President is informed, and whether he is made acquainted with the actual state of things is uncertain. He depends on the War Department, which, I think, is not informed and is in confusion. From neither of the others did I get a word. Stanton came once or twice into the room, where we were, in a fussy way. Halleck did not move from his chair where he sat with bis cigar, the door being open between the two rooms. From some expressions which were dropped from H., I suspect poor Milroy is to be made the scapegoat, and blamed for the stupid blunders, neglects, and mistakes of those who should have warned and advised him.

I do not learn that any members of the Cabinet are informed of army movements. The President is kept in ignorance and defers to the General-in-Chief, though not pleased that he is not fully advised of matters as they occur. There is a modest distrust of himself, of which advantage is taken. For a week, movements have been going on of which he has known none, or very few, of the details.

I came away from the War Department painfully impressed. After recent events, Hooker cannot have the confidence which is essential to success, and all-important to the commander in the field. Halleck does not grow upon me as a military man of power and strength; has little aptitude, skill, or active energy. In this state of things, the able Rebel general is moving a powerful army, and has no one to confront him on whose ability and power the country relies. There was confidence in McClellan’s ability to organize, to defend, and to repel, though he was worthless in attack, but there is no such feeling towards Hooker. He has not grown in public estimation since placed in command. If he is intemperate, as is reported, God help us! The President, who was the first person to intimate this failing to me, has a personal liking for Hooker, and clings to him when others give way.

The letter to Erastus Corning and others is published and well received.

President Lincoln writes Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase: “Your note of this morning is received. You will co-operate by the revenue cutters under your direction with the navy in arresting rebel depredations on American commerce and transportation and in capturing rebels engaged therein.”

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