The North’s “Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War” is considered a sinister “court of the star chamber” and American equivalent of the inquisition. Though the committee was highly critical of Lincoln’s actions, the latter eventually cooperated with Radical demands and to his political advantage. Neither Grant nor Sherman experienced duress from the committee, most likely due to their total war policy against the South, though others who faced their wrath faced accusations of treason and were consigned to obscurity. The committee’s wartime propaganda regarding Fort Pillow and Andersonville resonate to this day.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
A Splendid Propaganda Agency
“When the Joint Committee was established on December 10, 1861, it was empowered “to enquire into the conduct of the present war.” Consisting of three members of the Senate and three representatives, it could “send for persons and papers, and sit during sessions of either House of Congress.” After 1864, it was also given power to investigate war contracts and expenditures . . .
[The] committee was co-sponsored by Radicals and conservatives, but because the chairman and leading members were Radicals, it was soon identified with the extremist branch of the Republican party and became its principal agency of pressure and propaganda.
Possibly because of their radicalism and because of their desire to function effectively, the members decided to hold their meetings in secret. In their room in the capitol basement they ceaselessly interrogated contractors, public officials and military personnel of all ranks, seeking reasons for failure and delay and ferreting out corruption and inefficiency.
I carrying out these activities, the members . . . sought to remove conservative generals from active command, especially George B. McClellan and his supporters. Lincoln was by no means indifferent to [Radical demands] . . . and decided to dismiss him.
[The] committee was a splendid propaganda agency. Its investigations of “rebel barbarities,” first at Manassas and then at Fort Pillow (to say nothing of its revelations about the treatment of Union soldiers in Southern prison camps), resulted in fiery pamphlets calculated to stir the spirit of the North. The members excelled in this work, and there is little doubt that their reports accomplished their purpose.
General Fitz-John Porter, one of McClellan’s supporters and an outspoken critic of the Radicals, was court-martialed and dismissed from the service after Second [Manassas] for alleged failure . . . and the Radicals were looking for a scapegoat . . .
After [Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s] disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg, [he testified before the committee] and fully restored their faith in the general who talked like a Radical. Interested in blaming his conservative subordinates for Burnside’s misfortunes, the committee sought to refurbish his reputation by writing a favorable report about him and generally lauding his good qualities.
The accession of Andrew Johnson seemed to give the committee one last opportunity to gain influence. Having once been a member of the group, the new President was considered favorably inclined toward [Radical] views . . . [and] who agreed that treason must be made infamous and traitors impoverished.”
(The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Hans L. Trefousse, Civil War History, The Journal of the Middle Period, Kent State University Press, March 1964, Volume 10, No. 1, excerpts, pp. 6; 8-9, 16; 18)