January 12, 1862 (Sunday)
Though Union commander General George McClellan was recovering from typhoid fever and even doing some light ordering, he was still confined to his sickbed. In great distress, Lincoln had tried several times to visit with him, but was turned away (this time for good reason). In being turned away, he turned to others.
The war was not going well. There was no money, little credit, the Trent Affair made sure that diplomatic relations were touchy at best and Congress was urging him to order some kind of military action. In the west, Generals Halleck and Buell seemed unable to cooperate, while, in the east, nothing, aside from Burnside’s Expedition to North Carolina, was happening at all.
More recently, however, Lincoln had begun to take charge. He had personally communicated with both Halleck and Buell and was now looking to take hold of the Army of the Potomac.
On the 10th, he even told General McDowell (McClellan’s rival) and several Cabinet members that “if General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it, provided I can see how it can be made to do something.”
McDowell, the General who lost the Battle of Manassas, itching to redeem himself, wanted another shot at the Rebels under Joe Johnston. Actually, he wanted command of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln, several Cabinet members, as well as Generals McDowell, Meigs (now the quartermaster for the entire army), and Franklin (a McClellan protégé), met to discuss McDowell’s plan. The General, seeking redemption, wanted first to advance upon Manassas and then, once the Rebels were defeated, to move to the Rappahannock River.
Though Lincoln said few words, some of the Cabinet members spoke up. Attorney General Blair was flat out against it, warning that a “plan of going to the front from this position is Bull Run all over again.” Secretary of State William Seward and Treasury Secretary Chase Salmon Chase just wanted a victory.
With McClellan out of the picture, possibly for up to three more weeks, everyone, including Lincoln, knew that something had to be done. Everyone, that is, except George McClellan. After McDowell had met with Lincoln and others, the man who would soon become the next Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, informed McClellan of the intrigue and of a meeting happening the next day (this date) that might decide the fate of his beloved Army of the Potomac.1
McClellan was furious and believed that McDowell was trying to usurp his command. On the morning of this date, he got out of bed, looking reasonably well, and went straight to the White House. His appearance, at least according to McClellan, “caused very much the effect of a shell in a powder magazine.” By the looks on the faces of those he met (possibly just Lincoln and Seward) that “there was something of which they were ashamed.”
The General made no mention of why he suddenly felt the need to recover and neither was anything said of McDowell’s plan. In all likelihood, nothing had to be said. Lincoln did, however, inform him that there was a meeting planned for the following day and that he might want to attend. McClellan most certainly didn’t want to miss it.2
Cameron and Chase’s Night of Pointless Drama and Intrigue
But General McClellan’s immaculate recovery wasn’t the only drama in Washington on this day. Secretary of War Simon Cameron had read Lincoln’s short, terse note relieving him of his position. He read it, put it down and wept, convinced that it was a personal slight.
His tears were short-lived and was soon in the company of Treasury Secretary Chase. Thinking that they should involve Seward, they engaged in a bit of pointless intrigue. Together, they devised a plan that Chase would go to Seward’s house and Cameron would soon after drop by unannounced in a fit of anger over Lincoln’s letter.
Chase first dropped Cameron off and then went to Seward’s. Before too long, Cameron was on the front stoop. He was in a mixture of real and enacted foul spirits, exclaiming that the letter was “intended as a dismissal, and, therefore, discourteous.” Seward was able to convince him to see Lincoln about it in the morning.
Seward, it seems, figured out that something about the whole of the evening’s affair was fishy. Chase, confiding in his diary that evening, believed that Seward “may think Cameron’s coming into his house pre-arranged, and that I was not dealing frankly.”
Pointless (and dangerous) intrigue or not, by the next day, it would all be smoothed over.3