Mary Lincoln’s Brother-in-Law is Killed

September 21, 1863

Confederate General Benjamin Helms, husband of Mary Lincoln’s favorite half-sister,  is dies – killed at the Battle of Chickamauga.   When he received the news, President Lincoln said of his brother-in-law: “I feel as David did of old when was told of the death of Absalom.  ‘Would to God that I had died for thee!  Oh, Absalom, my son, my son.’”

General William S. Rosecrans reports to President Lincoln on the Battle of Chickamauga: “After two days of the severest fighting I ever witnessed our right and centre were beaten; The left held its position until Sunset. Our loss is heavy and our troops worn down. The Enemy recieved heavy reinforcements Saturday night. Every man of ours was in action Sunday & all but one Brigade on Saturday Our wounded large compared with the killed– We took prisoners from two divisions of Longstreet2 We have no certainty of holding our position here.– If Burnside3 could come immediately it would be well, otherwise he may not be able to join us unless he comes on west side of river

President Lincoln wrote directly to. Rosecrans to encourage him: “Be of good cheer. We have unabated confidence in you, and in your soldiers and officers. In the main you must be the judge as to what is to be done. If I were to suggest, I would say, save your army, by taking strong positions, until Burnside joins you, when I hope you can turn the tide. I think you had better send a courier to Burnside to hurry him up. We can not reach him by Telegraph. We suppose some force is going to you from Corinth, but for want of communication, we do not know how they are getting along. We shall do our utmost to assist you. Send us your present posting.”  John Hay recalls that “morning he [Lincoln] came into my bedroom before I was up, & sitting down on my bed said ‘Well Rosecrans has been whipped, as I feared.  I have feared it for several days.  I believe I feel trouble in the air before it comes.  Rosecrans says we have met with a serious disaster – extent not ascertained.  Burnside instead of obeying the orders which were given him on the 14th and going to Rosecrans has gone up on foolish affair to Jonesboro to capture a party of guerillas who are there.”

White House aide William O. Stoddard writes in an anonymous newspaper dispatch of Rosecrans: “That brave and able general….finds that the rebel leaders are concentrating a large force in his front, for the evident purpose of checking his further advance, or, if possible, of compelling him to some retrograde movement.”  Stoddard writes of Washington: “The various churches are beginning to recover their scattered congregations, and the educational institutions, so long closed by the presence of war at our doors, are beginning to re-open, and call once more for their inmates.”

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “A battle was fought on Saturday near Chattanooga and resumed yesterday.  Am apprehensive our troops have suffered and perhaps are in danger.  As yet the news is not sufficiently definite.

The President came to me this afternoon with the latest news.  He was feeling badly.  Tells me a dispatch was sent to him at the Soldiers’ Home shortly after he got asleep, and so disturbed him that he had no more rest, but arose and came to the city and passed the remainder of the night awake and watchful.  He has a telegram this P.M. which he brings me that is more encouraging.  Our men stood well their ground and fought like Union heroes for their country and cause.  We conclude the Rebels have concentrated a large force to overpower Rosecrans and recapture Chattanooga.  While this has been doing, Halleck has frittered away time and dispersed our forces.  Most of Grant’s effective force appears to have been sent across the Mississippi, where a large force is not needed.  Burnside is in northeastern Tennessee, two hundred miles away from Chattanooga.  While our men are thus scattered, a large division from Lee’s army in our front has been sent under Longstreet to Bragg; and Hill’s and Ewell’s corps, it is reported, are there also.  I trust this account is exaggerated, though the President gives it credence.  I do not learn, nor can I ascertain, that General Halleck was apprised of, or even suspected, what was being done; certainly he has made no preparation.  The President is, I perceive, not satisfied, but yet he does not censure or complain.  Better, perhaps, if he did.

I expressed surprise to the President at the management and his forbearance, and it touched him. I asked what Meade was doing with his immense army and Lee’s skeleton and depleted show in front.  He said he could not learn that Meade was doing anything, or wanted to do anything.  ‘It is,’ said he, ‘the same old story of this Army of the Potomac.  Imbecility, inefficiency–don’t want to do – is defending the Capital.  I inquired of Meade,’ said he, ‘what force was in front.  Meade replied he thought there were 40,000 infantry.  I replied he might have said 50,000, and if Lee with 50,000 could defend their capital against our 90,000,–and if defense is all our armies are to do, – we might, I thought, detach 50,000 from his command, and thus leave him with 40,000 to defend us.  O,’ groaned the President, ‘it is terrible, terrible, this weakness, this indifference of our Potomac generals, with such armies of good and brave men.’

‘Why,’ said I, ‘not rid yourself of Meade, who may be a good man and a good officer but is not a great general, has not breadth or strength, certainly is not the man for the position he occupies?  The escape of Lee with his army across the Potomac has distressed me almost beyond any occurrence of the War.  And the impression made upon me in the personal interview shortly after was not what I wished, had inspired no confidence, though he is faithful and will obey order; but he can’t originate.’

The President assented to all I said, but ‘What can I do,’ he asked, ‘with such generals as we have?  Who among them is any better than Meade?  To sweep away the whole of them from the chief command and substitute a new man would cause a shock, and be likely to lead combinations and troubles greater than we now have.  I see all the difficulties as you do.  They oppress me.’

Alluding to the failures of the generals, particularly those who commanded the armies of the Potomac, he thought the selections, if unfortunate, were not imputable entirely to him.  The Generals-in-Chief and the Secretary of War should, he said, know the men better than he.  The Navy Department had given him no trouble in this respect; perhaps naval training was more uniform and equal than the military.  I thought not; said we had our troubles, but they were less conspicuous.  In the selection of Farragut and Porter, I thought we had been particularly fortunate; and Du Pont had merit also.  He thought there had not been, take it all in all, so good an appointment in either branch of the service as Farragut, whom he did not know or recollect when I gave him command.  Du Pont he classed, and has often, with McClellan, but Porter he considers a busy schemer, bold but not of high qualities as a chief.  For some reason he has not so high an appreciation of Porter as I think he deserves, but no man surpasses Farragut in his estimation.

In returning to Secretary Seward a dispatch of Minister Dayton at Paris, in relation to the predatory Rebel Florida, asking one or more fast steamers to intercept that vessel, which is now at Brest, I took a different view from the two gentlemen.  To blockade Brest would require not less than five vessels.  If we could spare five such vessels, whence would they get supply of fuel, etc?  England and France allow only sufficient to take the vessels home; and for three months thereafter our vessels receiving supplies are excluded from their ports.  As England and France have recognized the Rebels, who have no commerce, no navy, no nationality, as the equals of the United States, with whom they have treaties, and professedly, amicable relations, I deem it best under the circumstances to abstain from proceedings, I deem it best under the circumstances to abstain from proceedings which would be likely to complicate and embroil us, and would leave those countries to develop the policy which shall govern themselves and nations in the future.  They must abide the consequences.

President Lincoln sent two telegrams to General Ambrose E. Burnside.  In the first, he wrote: “Go to Rosecrans with your force, without a moment delay.”   A little later, Lincoln re-emphasized urgency: “If you are to do any good to Rosecrans it will not do to waste time with Jonesboro. It is already too late to do the most good that might have been done, but I hope it will still do some good. Please do not lose a moment.

President Lincoln writes General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck: “I think it very important for Gen. Rosecrans to hold his position, at or about Chattanooga, because, if held from that place to Cleveland, both inclusive, it keeps all Tennessee clear of the enemy, and also breaks one of his most important Railroad lines. To prevent these consequences, is so vital to his cause, that he can not give up the effort to dislodge us from the position, thus bringing him to us, and saving us the labor, expence, and hazard of going further to find him; and also giving us the advantage of choosing our own ground, and preparing it, to fight him upon. The details must of course be left to Gen. Rosecrans, while we must furnish him the means to the utmost of our ability. If you concur, I think he would better be informed, that we are not pushing him beyond this position; and that, in fact, our judgment is rather against his going beyond it. If he can only maintain this position, without more, the rebellion can only eke out a short and feeble existence, as an animal sometimes may with a thorn in its vitals.”  That night, Rosecrans responds: “`We have just concluded a terrific days fighting and have another in prospect for tomorrow. The Enemy attempted to turn our left, but his design was anticipated and a sufficient force placed there to render his attempt abortive. The battle ground was densely wooded and its surface irregular and difficult. We could make but little use of our artillery. The number of our killed is inconsiderable, that of our wounded very heavy. The enemy was greatly our superior in number. Among our prisoners are men from some thirty regiments. We have taken ten cannon and lost seven. The Army is in excellent condition and spirits and by the blessing of Providence the defeat of the Enemy will be total tomorrow.”

President Lincoln telegraphed his wife, staying at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New-York City: “The air is so clear and cool, and apparantly healthy, that I would be glad for you to come. Nothing very particular, but I would be glad [to] see you and Tad.”

Published in: on September 21, 2013 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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