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150 Years Ago: Saturday, December 20, 1862


Salmon P. ChaseSource: Library of Congress

Salmon P. Chase
Source: Library of Congress

This morning U.S. President Abraham Lincoln receives the resignation letter from an embarrassed Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase. He now holds the resignations of Chase and Secretary of State William Seward in his hands. As he sits there with their resignations, one in each hand, he tells visiting New York Senator and friend Ira Harris that “I can ride now – I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.

He laughs it off; Seward and Chase might not get along, but they balance each other out. Lincoln refuses to accept either resignation. Lincoln knows how Seward is perceived to be in control of everything, but Lincoln knows that is not the case and values his contributions. Though Chase is untrustworthy in his lust for power and Lincoln is well aware that Chase has such strong ambitions to become President that he is even willing to switch parties to run against him in 1864, Chase has proven to be invaluable in the Treasury Department, where he has made it an efficient and organized “machine” and he has done an outstanding job selling war bonds and managing the finances of the U.S. government during a time of war. Neither man argues with the President’s decision and the rest of the Cabinet supports it. The “Cabinet Crisis” is officially over.

Confederate cavalry under Major General Earl Van Dorn raid U.S. Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s secondary – yet crucial – supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi, capturing the entire 1,500 man garrison and destroying ammunition and food. Combined with recent similar actions by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry in Tennessee, Grant finds his communications and supply lines with the North temporarily suspended. He stops his movement toward Vicksburg and decides to withdraw to Oxford, Mississippi. While his men ask him what they are to do, Grant responds “We had endeavored to feed ourselves from our own northern resources, but our friends in gray have been uncivil enough to destroy what we had brought along, and it could not be expected that men, with arms in their hands, would starve in the midst of plenty.” Grant sends troops and wagons to collect all the food and forage they can find for fifteen miles on each side of the road, along with “assisting in eating up what we left.

One of Grant’s generals is unaware of this development: U.S. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who is aboard the Forest Queen and leaving Memphis today with 20,000 men towards Vicksburg. They will stop at Helena to pick up 12,000 more. Sherman writes to his brother John, an Ohio Senator:

Of course the pressure of this force acting in concert with Grant must produce good results. Even if we don’t open the Mississippi, by the way an event not so important as at first sight, until the great armies of the enemy are defeated – we are progressing. I wish Burnside and Rosecrans were getting along faster, but I suppose the encounter the same troubles we all do…

The great evil is absenteeism, which is real desertion and should be punished with death. Of course I would have the wounded and sick well cared for, but the sick list real and feigned is fearful. More than one-half the paper army is not in the enemy’s country and whilst the actual regiments present for duty are in arrears of pay and favor, sick and discharged men are carefully paid and provided for. Unite with other and discriminate in favor of the officers and soldiers who are with their companies. The “absent and sick” should receive half pay because of the advantages they receive of fine hospitals and quiet residence at home. The “absent without leave” should be treated as deserters and in no event receive a dollar’s pay – clothing or anything else. In course of time we may get an army. Finance is very important but no use of discussing that now; we must fight it out if it devastates the land and costs every cent of the North…

I rise at 3 a.m. to finish up necessary business and as usual write in haste… I am very popular with the people here and officers and indeed with all my men. I don’t seek popularity with the “sneaks and absentees” or the “Dear People”…

Former U.S. Commander of the Army of the Potomac George B. McClellan writes to U.S. Brigadier General Fitz John Porter from the 5th Avenue Hotel in New York City. Porter has been recently arrested and court-martialed for his actions at the Second Bull Run battle in August (he did not follow orders to attack) and is awaiting a hearing. McClellan has always had a close personal relationship with Porter, who he considers his protege. Unable to keep his feelings quiet about the recent Fredericksburg defeat, he writes:

The monied men & the respectable men of this city are up in arms, their patience is exhausted & unless the President comprehends the gravity of his situation I see great danger ahead.

Burnside must have conducted his withdrawal very skillfully to have succeeded so well – poor fellow how I pity him! I have defended him to the best of my ability.

The sacrifice of Saturday was an useless one – nothing gained, not even honor. Banks ought to have gone to the James River, & to the last moment I hoped that it was so.

The future looks dark & threatening – alas for our poor country! I still trust in God & bow to his will – he will bring us victory when we deserve it. A change must come ere long – the present state of affairs cannot last.

I shudder, Fitz, when I think of those poor fellows of ours so uselessly killed at Fredericksburg!

McClellan also asks Porter if he wants him as a witness in front of the court, as McClellan is willing to go to Washington to defend his friend’s actions.

U.S. Major General Ambrose Burnside travels to Washington at Lincoln’s request; tonight he meets with him and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to personally review his report on what happened on the Fredericksburg battlefield.

U.S. First Lieutenant Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. writes to his father back home in Massachusetts from Falmouth, Virginia:

After the inspiration of a night which would have been rather a nipper in your furnace-warmed house with double glass, passed here with a couple of blankets in one of the tents which I suppose General Halleck (whom may the Lord confound) would enumerate among the “luxuries” of the Army of the Potomac. I sit down to give you the benefit of my cheerfulness. U always read now that the Advertiser religiously as well as other papers and I was glad to see that cheerful sheet didn’t regard the late attempt in the light of a reverse. It was an infamous butchery in a ridiculous attempt in which I’ve no doubt our loss doubled or tripled that of the Rebs. However that’s neither here nor there. I’ve just been reading Mr. Motley’s letters to Billy (William) Seward. What a noble manly high-toned writer he is. I always thought his letters to you were more thoroughly what a man should write than almost any I ever saw. I never I believe have shown, as you seemed to hint, any wavering in my belief int eh right of our cause. It is my disbelief in our success by arms in which I differ from you & him. I think in that matter I have better chances of judging than you and I believe I represent the conviction of the army & not the least of the most intelligent part of it.

The successes of which you spoke were to be anticipated as necessary if we entered into the struggle. But I see no farther progress. I don’t think either of you realize the unity or the determination of the South. I think you are hopeful because (excuse me) you are ignorant. But if it is true that we represent civilization in its nature, as well as slavery, diffusive & aggressive, and if civilization and progress are the better things why they will conquer in the long run, we may be sure, and will stand a better chance in their proper province – peace – than in war, the brother of slavery – brother – it is slavery’s parent, child and sustainer at once.At any rate dear Father don’t, because I say these things imply or think that I am the manner for saying them. I am, to be sure, heartily tired and half worn out body and mind by this life, but I believe I am as ready as ever to do my duty. But it is maddening to see men put in over us & motions forced by popular clamor when the army is only willing to trust its life & reputation to one man.

About thecivilwarproject

Like many others, I have a passion for the Civil War era, and for decades have chosen to spend my much of free time researching this topic - particularly the people, as the human component is what I find most fascinating. The site is not a source of revenue for me, nor is it tied in with a company or individual behind the scenes. It is my own personal venture. It is because of this genuine bond of respect and affection I feel towards this period in our history that I created "The Civil War Project." If this is your first time visiting the site, I welcome you and thank you for your interest. If you have any feedback or questions, please feel free to contact me at thecivilwarproject@yahoo.com.

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