President Lincoln’s Frustration Boils Over

July 14, 1863

President Lincoln writes his son Robert in New York: “Why do I hear no more of you?”  He wants Robert in Washington to help with his ailing mother, who is still recovering from a carriage accident earlier in the month. Meanwhile, President Lincoln is doing everything possible to try to prod General George Meade into pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

President Lincoln sent Noah Brooks and Vice President Hamlin to Meade’s Headquarters.  “I remembered the anxiety, almost anguish, with which Lincoln had said before I left Washington that he was afraid that “something would happen” to prevent that annihilation of Lee’s army, which, as he thought, was then certainly within the bounds of possibility. But the last hope of the Confederacy had not failed them yet. The desperate venture of an invasion of Pennsylvania and Maryland had failed, it was true. But the fatal blow which seemed to hang in the air when I left Washington did not fall. As I rode down the hill and through the undulating fields beyond, the blue-coated soldiers, jolly and insouciant, greeted the solitary civilian horseman with jocose remarks about the “Johnny Rebs” who had so cunningly run away from them. Many of these men had enlisted “for the war,” and when I stopped to exchange salutations, they goodnaturedly said, “Well, here goes for two years more.” I noticed a curious effect of whispering speech as I rode through the woods. Two or three thousand men waiting for orders were scattered over the ground among the bushes, beguiling their time by eating, drinking, and talking in low tones. The curious fluttering noise of this wide conversation of so large a body of men was something like that undistinguishable chorus which we have heard in one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas, when the girls on the beach sit down and “talk about the weather”; but this was a prodigious chorus — it was the gabble of two or three thousand men, all talking at once, and producing an undulating volume of sound like the noise of birds seeking their roosts at night.

Noah Brooks encounters Vice President Hannibal Hamlin:  “Meade’s headquarters, on my return, presented a chopfallen appearance; probably the worst was known there before I had left on my own private and special reconnoissance. Here I met Vice-President Hamlin, who was also a visitor at Meade’s headquarters, and who had been taken out to see the fight (which did not come off), at a point nearer Williamsport. As we met, he raised his hands and turned away his face with a gesture of despair. Later on, I came across General Wadsworth, who almost shed tears while he talked with us about the escape of the rebel army. He said that it seemed to him that most of those who participated in the council of war had no stomach for the fight. “If they had,” he added, ” the rebellion, as one might say, might have been ended then and there.”

Vice-President Hamlin and myself were despatched by General Meade in an ambulance under the charge of a young lieutenant of cavalry by the turnpike road to Frederick, where we took a train for Washington. Columns upon columns of army wagons and artillery were now in motion toward Frederick, crossing the fields, blocking the roads, and interlacing the face of the whole country with blackened tracks which heavy wheels cut in the rich, dark soil of Maryland, saturated with days of rain. Here and there one passed a knot of wagons inextricably tangled or hopelessly mired by the roadside. At one point, I was amused by seeing an eight-mule team thus stalled in a marshy piece of ground, every animal being on its back with its four legs motionless in the air. Whenever a teamster essayed to touch any part of the harness, all

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: The Cabinet-meeting was not full to-day.  Two or three of us were there, when Stanton came in with some haste and asked to see the President alone.  The two were absent about three minutes in the library.  When they returned, the President’s countenance indicated trouble and distress; Stanton was disturbed, disconcerted.  Usher asked Stanton if he had bad news.  He said, ‘No.’  Something was said of the report that Lee had crossed the river.  Stanton said abruptly and curtly he knew nothing of Lee’s crossing.  ‘I do,’ said the President emphatically, with a look of painful rebuke to Stanton.  ‘If he has not got all of his men across, he soon will.’

The President said he did not believe we could take up anything in Cabinet to-day.  Probably none of us were in a right frame of mind for deliberation; he was not.  He wanted to see General Halleck at once.  Stanton left abruptly.  I retired slowly.  The President hurried and overtook me.  We walked together across the lawn to the Departments and stopped and conversed a few moments at the gate.  He said, with a voice and countenance which I shall never forget, that he had dreaded yet expected this; that there has seemed to him for a full week a determination that Lee, though we had him in our hands, should escape with his force and plunder.   ‘And that, my God, is the last of this Army of the Potomac!  There is bad faith somewhere.  Meade has been pressed and urged, but only one of his generals was for an immediate attack, was ready to pounce on Lee; the rest held back.  What does it mean, Mr. Welles?  Great God!  what does it mean?’  I asked what orders had gone from him, while our troops had been quiet with a defeated and broken army in front, almost destitute  of ammunition, and an impassable river to prevent their escape.  He could not say that anything positive had been done, but both Stanton and Halleck professed to agree with him and he thought Stanton did.  Halleck was all the time wanting to hear from Meade.  ‘Why,’ said I, ‘he is within four hours of Meade.  Is it not strange that he has not been up there to advise and encourage him?’  I stated I had observed the inertness, if not incapacity, of the General-in-Chief, and had hoped that he, who had better and more correct views, would issue peremptory orders.  The President immediately softened his tone and said: ‘Halleck knows better than I what to do  He is a military man, has had a military education.  I brought him here to give me military advice.  His views and mine are widely different.  It is better that I, who as not a military man, should defer to him, rather than he to me.’  I told the President I did not profess to be a military man, but there were some things on which I could form perhaps as correct an opinion as General Halleck, and I believed that he, the President, could more correctly certainly more energetically, direct military movements than Halleck, who, it appeared to me, could originate nothing, and was, as now, all the time waiting to hear from Meade, or whoever was in command.

I can see that the shadows which have crossed my mind have clouded the President’s also.  On only one or two occasion shave I ever seen the President so troubled, so dejected and discouraged.

Two hours later I went to the War Department.  The President lay upon a sofa in Stanton’s room, completely absorbed, overwhelmed with the news.  He was, however, though subdued and sad, calm and resolute.  Stanton had asked me to cover over and read Dana’s Report of the materials found at Vicksburg….

Presidential aide John Hay writes:  “This morning the Prest seemed depressed by Meade’s despatches of last night.  They were so cautiously & almost timidly worded — talking about reconnoitering to find the enemy’s weak place and other such.  He said he feared he would do nothing.

About noon came the despatch stating that our worst fears were true.  The enemy had gotten away unhurt.  The Prest was deeply grieved.  “We had them within our grasp,” he said.  “We had only to stretch forth our hands & they were ours.  And nothing I culd say or do could make the Army move.”

Several days ago he sent a despatch to Mead which must have cut like a scourge, but Meade returned so reasonable and earnest a reply that the Prest concluded he knew best what he was doing & was reconciled to the apparent inaction which he hoped was merely apparent.

Every day he has watched the progress of the army with agonizing impatience, hope struggling with fear.  He has never been easy in my own mind about Gen. Meade since Meade’s General Order in which he called on his troops to drive the invader from our soil.  The Prest says, “This is a dreadful reminiscence of McClellan.  The same spirit that moved McC. to claim a great victory because Pa. & Md. were safe.  The hearts of 10 million people sunk within them when McClellan raised that shout last fall.  Will our Generals never get that idea out of their heads?  The whole country is our soil.”

President Lincoln addressed a strong letter to George G. Meade, but later decided not to send it: “I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine.  I am very – very – gratefully to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you.  But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it.  I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles of Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that yourself, and Gen. Couch, and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle.  What these evidences were, if you please, I hope to tell you at some time, when we shall both feel better.  The case, summarily stated is this.  You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours.  He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him, but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him.  You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridge be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him.  And Couch and Smith!  The latter left Carlisle in time, upon all ordinary calculation, to have aided you in the last battle at Gettysburg; but he did not arrive.  At the end of more than ten days, I believe twelve, under constant urging, he reached Hagerstown from Carlisle, which is not an inch over fiftyfive miles, if so much.  And Couch’s movement was very little different.

Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the  misfortune involved in Lee’s escape.  He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war.  as it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.  If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand:?  It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much.  Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasureably because of it.

I beg you will not consider this a prossecution, or persecution of your. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.

General Henry W. Halleck instead followed up with his own telegraph to Meade: “The enemy should be pursued and cut up, wherever he may have gone. This pursuit may or may not be upon the rear or flank, as circumstances may require. The inner flank toward Washington presents the greatest advantages. Supply yourself from the country as far as possible. I cannot advise details, as I do not know where Lee’s army is, nor where your pontoon bridges are. I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.”   General Meade replied: “Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p.m. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel  compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.”  Halleck added: “My telegram, stating the disappointment of the President at the escape of Lee’s army, was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit.  It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.”

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