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Gideon Welles on Grant, Republicans and Conscription

Gideon Welles on Grant, Republicans and Conscription

Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (1802-1878), was Connecticut-born, a Democrat until 1848, left for the Free-Soil party and then joined the nascent Republicans in 1854. Claiming to be anti-slavery, his father had been a Connecticut shipping merchant and very likely participated in New England’s transatlantic slave trade. He was appointed to Secretary of the Navy by Lincoln as a reward for past party support.

The following is excerpted from The Diary of Gideon Welles.

August 2, 1864, Tuesday: “[Grant is reticent] and, I fear, less able than he is credited. Admiral Porter has always said there was something wanting in Grant, which Sherman could always supply, and vice-versa, as regards Sherman, but that the two together made a very perfect general officer and [they] ought never to be separated. Grant relies on others but does no know men – can’t discriminate. I feel quite unhappy over this Petersburg [Crater battle] – less however from the result, bad as it is, than from an awakening apprehension that Grant is not equal to the position assigned him.

God grant that I may be mistaken, for the slaughtered thousands of my countrymen who have poured out their rich blood for three months in the soil of Virginia from the Wilderness to Petersburg. Under his generalship[, and who] can never be atoned in this world or the next if he without Sherman prove a failure. A nation’s destiny almost has been committed to this man, and if it is an improper committal, where are we?”

August 27, Saturday: Much party machinery is just at this time in motion. No small portion of it is a prostitution and abuse. The Whig element is venal and corrupt, to a great extent. I speak of the leaders of that party now associated with the Republicans. They seem to have very little political principle, they have no belief in public virtue or popular intelligence, they have no self-reliance . . . [and] little regard for constitutional restraint. Their politics and their ideas of government consist of expedients, and cunning management with the intelligent, and coercion and subordination of the less-informed.”

August 31, 1864, Wednesday: The complaints in regard to recruiting are severe and prolonged. They come in numbers. The impending draft of the army indirectly benefits the Navy, or induces persons to enter it. Their doing so relieves them and their localities from the draft. Hence the crowd and competition. Then come in the enormous bounties from the State and municipal authorities over which naval officers have no control, and which lead to bounty-jumping and corruption.”

(Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, Volume II, Howard K. Beale, editor, W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 92; 122; 129)

A New Nation of Men of Lesser Minds

The brief Gettysburg address of Lincoln was described by listeners as “a wet blanket” after Edward Everett’s stirring oration, but it did announce the end of the original confederation of States. While Northern governors expected words of appreciation for the sacrifices of the various States supporting his war, “Lincoln rose at Gettysburg to talk of the nation.” He did not “mention that four score and seven years before, the Father had brought forth thirteen independent States.”  As Lincoln spoke of government of the people and by the people, few were aware that a hundred miles away General Robert Schenck’s blue-clad soldiers were patrolling the election polls in Delaware.

A New Nation of Men of Lesser Minds

“Only three times did groups of [Northern] governors assemble to formulate policy. The Cleveland meeting of Western governors and [Pennsylvania’s Governor] Curtin in May 1861 came at the height of initial enthusiasm for the war, and the governors merely demanded that more attention be given to the West.  Lincoln accepted their pledge of cooperation and gave the governors so much work in raising troops that they had no time for further consultation over campaign strategy.

The Providence meeting of New England governors sent a committee to Lincoln to demand cabinet changes, but the President skillfully . . . turned them away. [Massachusetts Governor] Andrew led his neighbors from Providence to Altoona, but was unable to get agreement from other governors for schemes to use Negro troops [to avoid drafting white men] and replace McClellan with Fremont.

On the eve of the conference Lincoln issued the preliminary emancipation proclamation and cut the ground out from under Andrew’s radical plot.  Thereafter the governors attempted no meeting, and Lincoln dealt with them separately.

Lincoln had an enormously swollen patronage to dispense . . . but no part of the patronage was at the disposal of the governors. Moreover, the military patronage was at the President’s disposal. Governors might appoint company and regimental officers, but promotions from grade to grade and the selection of general officers depended on the President. The army and the civil patronage – as the experiences in the Border States, in Ohio in 1863, and in the campaign of 1864 proved – put the Republican Party exclusively in Lincoln’s hands.

But in the long run Lincoln’s victory over the governors was the triumph of a superior intellect. Of the sixty-three chief executives of the States only [New York’s] Horatio Seymour could approach the President in quality of mind. Seymour’s partial success in blocking conscription was a tribute to his intellectual power [and he] might have prevented the destruction of States’ rights [in the North].  But Seymour stood alone [and most] of the others were mediocrities who owed their positions to “availability” rather than to ability.

And this, above all, made Lincoln the architect of the new nation. The victory of nationalism over localism, of centralization over States’ rights, was, in the last analysis, a victory of a keener intellect over men of lesser minds. The new nation that emerged from the Civil War was not solely the result of the military defeat of the armies of Robert E. Lee. It was equally the result of the political victory that Abraham Lincoln’s mind and personality won over the governors of the Northern States.”

(Lincoln and the War Governors, William B. Hesseltine, Albert A. Knopf, 1955, pp. 391-392)

Bringing Lincoln’s War to an End

The following are editorials appearing in the February 11, 1863 issue of the Allentown Democrat, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, a newspaper highly critical of Lincoln’s war and impending use of black troops to quiet widespread draft resistance.

“A Question: The Republican party we assert is an Abolition party. If we tell them so, most of them deny it. Now, if they are not Abolitionists, we would ask them to point us out the word or paragraph of any Republican paper that ever opposed Abolition, or that now condemns the 1st of January Abolition Proclamation. Do they not to a man sustain the President in his n****r policy, either by open declaration or by significant silence? Be sure they do, and they only expose their hypocrisy by attempting to conceal it.”

“The Homogenous Army: The administration organs are preparing the way for a general decapitation of all generals who are not abolitionists, and the [New York] Tribune and Wendell Phillips declare any man unfit to lead the Union armies who does not adopt the radical [program] all the way through.

If it be true that no man but an abolitionist should be a general, certainly no man but one of the same faith should fight in the ranks. What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. A general’s ability to lead an army depends on his genius and knowledge of the art of war, and not on his ideas of ethnology and diversity of the races of mankind –

A man may make a good soldier who never voted the abolition ticket, and if conservative sentiments disqualify a general to lead an army, it also disqualifies the soldier from being fit to follow. If we must have abolition generals, let us have an abolition army, and then the war will soon come to an end beyond all manner of doubt.”

(Allentown Democrat, February 11, 1863)

Unceasing Blows and Sheer Attrition

In early May 1864, Grant moved across the Rapidan River in Virginia to pass quickly through the Wilderness before giving battle. Instead, there he lost some 26,000 men in the dense thickets. On June 3rd Grant lost “more men in the eight minutes of hottest fighting than in any period of the war.”  Though this carnage intensified the peace movement in the North, Lincoln provided Grant with an endless supply of immigrants, substitutes and conscripted men to continue this fearful slaughter. Lincoln, despite ruling the North with near-dictatorial powers, was well-aware 1864 was an election year and victories at any cost were needed before November.

Unceasing Blows and Sheer Attrition

“With the spring of 1864, the war entered a new phase. Union victories in the West had cut deeply into the economic and military strength of the Confederacy.  They had done more, for they had associated the names of Grant and his lieutenants with a habit of mind which connoted aggressiveness, strategy on a large scale, and victory.

It was not that Grant was a supreme master of the “science of war,” nor even that he merited full credit for the victories under his command . . . It was rather that a situation had been reached where, with Northern recruiting, Confederate depletion, and Grant’s sledge-hammer blows, the essential conditions of Union triumph had been presented.

Almost immediately [after Grant’s elevation to lieutenant-general] the final grand strategy of the war began to unfold itself, a strategy by which Grant used his numerical superiority and plunged ruthlessly ahead in Virginia, losing an enormous number of men, but wearing out the Confederates by sheer attrition; while in the lower South Sherman attained unenviable laurels by destroying vast amounts of food and other supplies in his “march” through Georgia and the Carolinas.  

It was by these unceasing blows at the heart of the Confederacy that the war, which had dragged on indecisively for three years, was brought to an end in 1865.”

(The Civil War and Reconstruction, James G. Randall, D.C. Heath and Company, 1937, excerpts pp. 539-543)

The Triumph of Industry Over Idleness

Though Lincoln had been dead for a week, numerous Northern abolition and Republican party personages assembled in Charleston “for Lincoln’s elaborately planned ceremonial of retribution.” General Milton Littlefield spoke in Savannah a few days later, after remarks by his commander, General Quincy Gillmore. Both had been instrumental in conscripting black men from overrun plantations and using them for destructive raids in Georgia and South Carolina – and assisting Salmon P. Chase in his presidential ambitions and conquering Florida for its electoral votes. Littlefield is best known for his role in raising black troops and pocketing most of each recruits bonus money for enlistment, as well as his postwar railroad bond frauds in North Carolina and Florida.    

The Triumph of Industry over Idleness

 “[Judge William D.] Kelley, then and long after a Congressman from Philadelphia, was probably more symbolic of the past and future than the others present. A founder of the Republican party, abolitionist advocate for the use of Negro troops, he was to become famous in history as “Pig Iron” Kelley because of his equally earnest advocacy of high tariffs on iron and steel, which the Republican party had won along with the war.

“For both the whites and blacks it was a highly emotional occasion: “from the hysterical contraband to the dispassionate judge there was no reserve or restraint in the general flow of tears.”

Littlefield spoke and tied his fellow Yankees to New England] where that “Christian band of patriots,” the Pilgrims, had planted their feet and the tree of liberty on the rocky shore. Such Yankees, he said, sought liberty, not gold. “In crossing the old Atlantic,” he told the Southerners who had gathered in subserviency, “they were led by no such allurements as guided DeSoto and his followers.” It had been 350 years since the Spaniard had visited Savannah greedy for any treasure. Little gold was apparent there in 1865.

“This principle [of liberty] is what had given New England her fame, the Yankee a name,” he went on in cool instruction, “and this is what the people of the South contended so strongly against, Free Labor.  We have fought for this, and will fight for it still. We know that the Yankee side of the question is Industry and the opposite is Idleness; the contest is over at last, and the question has been decided on the side of self-government and universal liberty.

The people of South Carolina, Georgia and all the Southern States, can have peace if they wish, by simply complying with the laws and showing themselves unconditionally loyal. The United States Government can afford to be generous; she will be so when those in rebellion repent of the errors of their ways, become good peaceable citizens, and prove it by their actions.

If instead, of standing upon a sentiment, mourning for lost aristocracy, you will go at once, like a good businessman, to restore harmony among your people among your people, industry in all classes, there will be no questions of your rights and wrongs. Should you want help to put yourselves in order, we will send down some of our Yankees in blue, to put you in running shape.  

If you cannot do this, do not be at all disappointed if you should find, one of these fine mornings, some of these Yankees filling your places. You have now but a short time to consider. The world moves, and so does the Yankee nation.”

(The Prince of Carpetbaggers, Jonathan Daniels, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1958, excerpt pp. 117-119)

Filling the South’s Decimated Ranks

The enlistment or outright conscription of black troops by Northern commanders was applauded in the North as they were credited to the State which captured and claimed them. Additionally, the black recruits and their families could not vote so Northern politicians feared no election retribution from constituents who avoided military service.

On the other hand, the South considered black agricultural workers essential to the war effort as Southern armies needed the foodstuffs they produced. But as the Northern armies relentlessly grew from infusions of foreigners and black soldiers, however obtained, the South determined to enlist black men who would fight for their homes and freedom.   

Filling the South’s Decimated Ranks

“[Samuel Clayton of Georgia wrote in January 1865: “We should . . . promptly take hold of all the means God has placed within our reach to help us through this struggle – a bloody war for the right of self-government.  Some say Negroes will not fight. I say they will fight. The enemy fights us with Negroes, and will do very well to fight the Yankees.”

Judah Benjamin stated . . . “It appears to me enough to say that the Negroes will certainly be made to fight us if not armed for our defense . . . I further agree with you that if they are to fight for our freedom, they are entitled to their own.  Public opinion is fast ripening on the subject.”

[Jefferson] Davis in a letter to John Forsythe in February 1865: “It is now becoming daily more evident to all reflecting persons that we are now reduced to choosing whether the Negroes shall fight for us or against us, and that all arguments as to the positive advantage or disadvantage of employing them are beside the question, which is simply one of relative advantage between having their fighting element in our ranks or in those of the enemy.”

The Confederate Congress authorized on March 3rd, 1865, the raising of 300,000 blacks as soldiers. On April the 28th, the major-general commanding in Florida directed ten prominent citizens of Florida each “to proceed at once to raise a company of Negroes to be mustered into the service of the Confederate States for the War.”  But Lee and Johnston had already surrendered. The dissolution of the Confederacy defeated this last desperate measure to recruit the decimated ranks of the Southern army.

The black recruit was sought in Florida assiduously for the Union army after the first year of the war. When the Federal forces quit [Jacksonville’s occupation] in the autumn [of 1862] they carried some Negroes away with them.  Invasion of East Florida by Negro troops under Colonel [T.W.] Higginson quickly followed. “The object of this expedition, “ reported General Saxton, Higginson’s chief, “was to occupy Jacksonville and make it the base of operations for arming the Negroes and securing in this way possession of the entire State of Florida” – in other words, inciting servile insurrection.

The Federal army failed to obtain many black recruits, but Higginson concluded that black troops “were the key to the successful prosecution of the war for the Union.”

(The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida, William Watson Davis, Columbia University, 1913, excerpts pp. 227-228)

Lincoln’s Lights

By capturing, confiscating and conscripting black men for his war effort, Lincoln greatly succeeded where earlier British emancipation efforts to thwart American independence failed.  Had Cornwallis won victory at Yorktown, would George III and Parliament have hung Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Henry and the rest of American leadership, and rewarded black slaves with political rights and the land of rebels?

Lincoln was certainly appreciative of the black military labor gained from captured Southern territory, and depriving the South of agricultural workers which was the primary target of earlier British emancipation efforts in 1775 and 1814. At the same time Lincoln had to face political reality once the Southern armies and leadership were dispensed with, and the votes of his freedmen were required to insure permanent Republican party hegemony.

Lincoln’s Lights

“While there is endless speculation about how Lincoln felt in the recesses of his heart and about what he would have done had he lived, it is usually agreed that he never gave his support to full equality for Negroes. Nor is there one shred of credible evidence that he ever modified his fundamental racial attitudes, in spite of his gentle nature, his kind feelings for Negroes, and his appreciation for their military prowess.

Beyond signing the bills that came before him and aiding the struggle to equalize military pay rates, the President generally stood aloof from the campaign being waged in Congress for more rights and advancement for Negroes.

Moreover, he never so much as hinted that the ballot be given to Negroes living in the North, and he apparently assumed no leadership in the battle to eliminate the Black Laws in Illinois and elsewhere in the Middle West.

Although he assented to the repeal of his colonization program in 1864, it is likely he never gave up the idea completely. As prospects for deportation dimmed, he suggested at various times that an apprenticeship system ought to be established to prepare for racial coexistence.

But it was the need to found a loyal political organization in the South, rather than his compassion for the Negro, that absorbed most of his attention, and the party he envisaged was to have a white base.  At one time the President suggested that the Unionist government in Louisiana might consider enfranchising “some of the colored people . . .”; but he steadily turned down demands that equal suffrage be imposed on the South and used his influence in Congress to block such legislation.

According to his lights, the freedmen were to be entrusted to the care of those conservative white Southerners whom he hoped would control politics in the new South. As Kenneth M. Stammp has said, “The Negroes, if they remained, would be governed by the white men among whom they lived, subject only to certain minimum requirements of fair play.”

(Free But Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro During the Civil War, V. Jacque Voegeli, University of Chicago Press, 1967, excerpts pp. 168-169)

Undisciplined Troops

The 4th US Colored Infantry was recruited in Baltimore with enrollment agents scouring the city, though “many of the city’s residents . . . reluctant to enlist – perhaps [because] so many had been dragooned into service by [General Robert] Schenck.” The latter impressed local slaves and free blacks into service at will to defend the city from liberation.

Many of the black recruits were forcibly removed from area farms and plantations, and in late July 1863 authority was granted to remove the inmates of a slave prison in the city for use as soldiers.

Any “able-bodied black male of military age owned “by an avowed Confederate or Rebel sympathizer” was subject to impressment. Lincoln’s proconsul in Maryland was “Governor” Augustus W. Bradford, a slave owner and committed Unionist who was allowed to keep his slaves.

These black recruits received no bounty as white troops had, and only white officers were allowed to command black units.  Lincoln added black men to his conscription net, and poor black men could not afford the $300 substitute fee to avoid service.  

Undisciplined Troops

“[General Joseph E.] Johnston’s surrender immediately placed the Union forces in North Carolina on occupation duty. Now that hostilities were officially ended, it was feared the USCT might break free of wartime restraints to trespass, assault and loot. [Colonel Samuel] Duncan was enjoined to place a guard at virtually every house on his route [to Goldsboro . . . [indicating] the low opinion that their own commanders sometimes entertained of the discipline and deportment of the USCT.

By the end of 1865 – five months after the XXIV Corps had officially ceased to exist – only a handful of Caucasian regiments in the Army of the James remained in the field. These units would be mustered out the following January and February. Much of the army’s USCT strength, however, would be kept on active duty for almost another year.

The War Department knew that if it were to keep white volunteers in service well beyond their appointed term of “three years or the duration of the war,” it risked the wrath of voters and their political representatives.

Not surprisingly, the War Office preferred to alienate African American troops, few of whom could vote and even fewer who wielded political power. Moreover, many black soldiers – especially former slaves – had no homes to return to once they left the service. They would be unlikely to object to being kept on the army’s payroll indefinitely. The 4th USCI served out its two final months of garrison duty in relative tranquility [at Washington]. There the formal process of mustering out the regiment took place on the morning of May 4, 1866.”

(A Regiment of Slaves: The 4th United States Colored Infantry, 1863-1866, Edward G. Longacre, Stackpole Books, 2003, excerpts pp. 165; 170-171)

Immigrants, Riots and Cannon Fodder

For five bloody days in mid-July 1863, armed mobs of draft resisters, mostly immigrants, fought on New York City streets against enforcement of Lincoln’s conscription law – what began as a simple demonstration on July 13 devolved into wholesale destruction of property and life – 120 black people were killed and many fled the city in fear of their lives. This carnage was the result of Lincoln’s insatiable need for troops, as volunteers were coming to the end of their enlistments, horrifying news came from the front, and the State drafts of 1862 met with widespread evasion. Also unpopular was Lincoln’s new war aim of freeing slaves. 

To combat the rioters, nearly ten thousand Northern troops and artillery units were brought in from Gettysburg to patrol the streets.

Immigrants, Riots and Cannon Fodder

“[The] film [Gangs of New York] gives a glimpse of the rather nasty nativism among Northerners, a great many of whom hated Catholics and immigrants as much or more than they hated Southerners. None of the above fit into the Yankee ideal of true Americanism. Nativist gangs burnt down convents in Philadelphia and Boston when such things were never dreamt of in the South.

The film can open the door to another dirty little secret. We have heard a lot about immigrant criminal gangs. The fact that vigilante law prevailed over much of the North during the War has been conveniently forgotten. Besides the thousands of his critics Lincoln jailed without due process, thousands more were killed, injured, intimidated, and run out of town by proto-fascist gangs of Republican bully boys called “Wide Awakes.” They played a major role in making sure Northern elections turned out right, i.e., Republicans won.

The “riots” did not start out as race pogroms, though they degenerated into that. They started out as organized civic resistance to the draft, encouraged by the Democratic State government. Everyone knew that the Lincolnites enforced the draft at a much higher rate in areas that opposed them than they did in friendly areas – according to forthcoming studies by the New York playwright and historian John Chodes, the draft was imposed at four times the rate for Massachusetts. And the conscripts were well aware that they stood a good chance of being used up as cannon-fodder by Republicans who knew if they lost four men for every Southerner killed they would still end up on top, as long as the immigrant flow kept up.

About a fourth of the total enrollment of Lincoln’s armies were immigrants, many of whom were brought over and paid bounties for enlisting. The situation was so bad that the Pope sent one of his most persuasive priestly orators to Ireland to warn the people about being used up for Union cannon fodder.

Perhaps we can begin to recognize the historical fact that millions of Northern citizens did not willingly go along with Lincoln’s War. And the opponents were not limited to the New York City draft rioters.

The truth is that Lincoln’s party did not save the Union and the Constitution. It was a Jacobin party that seized power and revolutionized the North as well as conquering the South. The Gangs of New York can perhaps open a window that will encourage further historical discovery along these lines.”

(Scorcese’s Gangs of New York; Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture, Clyde N. Wilson, Foundation for American Education, 2006, excerpts pp. 220-221)

Carnage at New Market Heights

By mid-1862 enlistments had virtually ceased and Northern defeats aroused intense opposition to Lincoln’s war. The latter admitted that “We had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the war.” Reminded of Lord Dunmore’s freeing of slaves in 1775 who would fight against American independence, Lincoln issued his own proclamation in 1863 doing the same to raise troops to fight against American independence.

The Sixth US Colored Infantry was organized in Philadelphia, a city where black people could not ride on most streetcars. Though black recruits were usually denied bounties for enlisting, Pennsylvania was desperate for troops and offered a $10 bounty, and the city an additional $250 per recruit. It should be pointed out that only 43%of the Sixth were actually volunteers, while 31% were conscripted, and over 25% were substitutes for a $300 fee.

Few were residents of Pennsylvania and listed 23 States as their origin. In the forlorn attack described below, Company D of the Sixth lost eighty-seven percent of its men, the heaviest loss of any company in the Northern army.

Carnage at New Market Heights

“On the morning of September 29 [1864], the Sixth finished their march and formed a line of battle. It held the left of the line, the Fourth Regiment forming up just to their right . . . the first signs of sunrise began to appear. The men could make out the enemy picket line falling back toward their entrenchments as they advanced. The field initially stretched downward toward the enemy, but the Confederates were well-positioned in the heights beyond . . . from which riflemen could pour devastating fire on any attack.

[General Benjamin] Butler personally addressed his black troops before the attack. Pointing toward the enemy he exhorted: “Those works must be taken by the weight of your column; not a shot must be fired.” They were not to stop to fire . . . to prevent it from happening they were ordered before the charge to remove the percussion caps from the locks of their rifles.

As they started down the field First Lieutenant John Johnson began excitedly to swing his sword in circles over his head . . . a Rebel bullet tore through the wrist of his sword arm. The rest of the regiment pressed on as the Texas Brigade poured murderous fire on them.

Rebel fire was bringing down many officers. [Colonel Samuel A.] Duncan was wounded four times . . . The smoke had grown so thick that no one could see more than a few feet ahead. [Colonel John] Ames said: “We must have more help, boys, before we [advance]. Fall back.”

So many bullets had ripped through the [regimental] flags that they had both been turned into mere strips of cloth.

The men started back, flags still flying to rally them. Companies C and F lost all their officers by the end of the assault, leaving the black non-commissioned officers or the men themselves to direct their safe return to friendly ground. Some companies began to withdraw in good order, others began rushing back in a complete rout.

General John Gregg’s Texas Brigade counterattacked, swarming out of their rifle pits onto both flanks . . . Many of the black troops were killed, while other threw down their weapons and surrendered. An uncomplimentary Texan described the black troops as being “hurled upon us, driven on by white leaders at the point of the sword.”

He continues to describe the heavy fire into the advancing infantry until, as he says, “They reel and fall by the scores; now they waver and now they run, and they go to the rear as fast as their – legs can carry them & the artillery opened with terrible slaughter.”

A Union officer then shouted the order to charge, but only those Union troops directly in front of the First Texas Regiment obeyed. They rushed the breastworks and in some places crossed them, and plunged into the Texas troops. But after less than three minutes of struggle all these attackers were casualties, half shot or bayoneted, and half taken prisoner.

Sergeants [Alexander] Kelly and [Thomas] Hawkins bore the two flags safely back from the field of battle in spite of wounds. For the heroism that they displayed in this battle, these two . . . would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

(Strike the Blow for Freedom: The 6th United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War, James M. Paradis, White Mane Books, 1998, excerpts pp. 70-72; 74-75)

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