It always helps to have friends in high places, and the United States Army’s generals in the Civil War were no exception to the rule. Nor should the danger from enemies in high place be underestimated. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan made the mistake of thinking Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was a friend—an illusion the dissembling Stanton did nothing to dispel. Meanwhile, Stanton was dissecting McClellan in secret conferences with McClellan’s critics in Congress. Stanton took office in January 1862; by March, McClellan had lost his title as general-in-chief of all the armies, and by November he would be removed from all command. President Lincoln, who was perfectly capable of making up his own mind, made the final decision in both cases, but his thinking certainly was encouraged by Stanton.
Other generals, such as Don Carlos Buell and William S. Rosecrans, made the mistake of getting crossways with Washington with no advocate to plead their case. They, too, would pay the price. On the other hand, Ulysses S. Grant, by nature one of the most straight-forward and least political of men, repeatedly benefitted from the influence of Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois (pictured above).
Both Grant and Washburne lived in Galena, Illinois, at the outbreak of the Civil War. Grant initially avoided special help in finding a longed-for appointment to command, but, unable to secure a place, he finally acceded to Washburne’s assistance. Discovering that Grant had military experience, the Congressman requested his appointment as colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, and by July, Grant—in well-worn civvies, lacking a uniform—took command of the fractious regiment and soon tamed it. And the rest is history.
Fortunately, the military command and political systems of the time (fortified by the wisdom of Lincoln and Stanton) allowed talent to trump political influence. The meritorious cream often rose to the top, as Grant’s performance will stunningly demonstrate. But Washburne’s help was always useful, when, for example, Grant’s forces needed better weapons, more manpower, or a well-earned promotion here and there.
Today, Grant sits down at his field headquarters at Savannah, Tennessee, to write three long letters. One goes to his superior, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, in St. Louis, who Grant is making sure to inform of every smidgen of intelligence to be found along the Tennessee River. (“The temper of the rebel troops is such that there is but little doubt that Corinth will fall much more easily than Donelson did, when we do move,” Grant tells Halleck. We shall see about that.) Grant also writes an affectionate letter to his wife, Julia (“Give my love to all at home and kiss the children for me….Kisses for yourself dear Julia.”) Finally, he writes his patron, Congressman Washburne, in Washington: “There are some things which I wish to say to you in my own vindication, not that I care one straw what is said individually, but because you have taken so much interest in my welfare that I think you are entitled to all the facts connected with my acts.”
Grant then tells Washburne the other side of the story in his falsely reported failure to report regularly to Halleck as requested. He clarifies some other issues and concludes, “I will not tire you with a longer letter but assure you again that you shall not be disappointed in me if it is in my power to prevent it.”
There will be more letters, and Washburne will not be disappointed.
IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
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