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Committee on the Conduct of the War
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Politics
September 11, 1861 President Lincoln orders John C. Fremont to rescind his order freeing some slaves in Missouri and issue a new order conforming to the Confiscation Act passed by Congress Missouri
  Abraham Lincoln
  John C. Fremont
  The Emancipation of Slaves
December 20, 1861 The Select Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War is seated.
  Andrew Johnson

Committee on the Conduct of the War

During The Civil War this Joint Select Committee, whose only actual power was in oversight, influenced the actions of Abraham Lincoln, Edwin Stanton, and the Union command structure, mostly in the East. The amount of influence is still a widely discussed topic. When Ulysses S. Grant became General-in-Chief the committee was a major reason why Grant chose to be in the East. He wanted to relieve Army of the Potomac commander George Meade of dealing with the political pressure from Washington D. C.

The early war went especially bad for the United States and the Radical Republicans. There were the losses at First Bull Run and Ball's Bluff, the two most frequently cited reasons for the creation of the Committee, but there were others -- the loss of Nathaniel Lyon, a staunch anti-slavery advocate, at Wilson's Creek, Lincoln's rescission of John C. Fremont's order to free the slaves in the Department of the West, and the appointment of a Democrat (George McClellan) to be Commander of the Army of the Potomac.

McClellan was of particular concern to two Senators, Benjamin Wade and Zachariah Chandler. In a meeting at Postmaster General Montgomery Blair's house after the battle of Ball's Bluff with McClellan, Zachariah Chandler, Benjamin Wade, Illinois Senator Lymon Trumbull, McClellan stressed that he needed to be General-in-Chief to be responsible for the actions of men in the field. Chandler and Wade, who were decidedly unimpressed with McClellan's credentials, tried to push him towards ending the war quickly. They already knew Lincoln had accepted Winfield Scott's resignation.

After 5 weeks of inactivity on the part of the Army of the Potomac in spite of McClellan being appointed General-in-Chief on November 1, 1861, and the dismissal of Fremont, it was time for the Senate to act. During a special summer session, Congress had rubber stamped everything the President did. Now, they only had questions. Roscoe Conklin introduced a resolution requesting the information on Ball's Bluff. Chandler wanted Bull Run added to the list. James Lane wanted to add Wilson's Creek to the list. James Grimes first proposed a committee, but all were tabled pending investigation. When the matter came up again for a vote, Senator John Sherman of Ohio gave a speech backing the Committee and seemed to influence the members. They voted 33-3 in favor of the Committee. The following day the House adopted the resolution.

Since it combined members from both houses of Congress it was known as a Joint Committee. Since the committee was appointed (by the President of the Senate, Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin, and Speaker of the House Galusha Grow) it was known as a Select Committee. It contained three Senators and four Representatives. From the Senate came Wade (Ohio), who was chairman, and Chandler (Michigan) were the de facto leaders of the group and Andrew Johnson (Tennessee), a conservative Democrat. From the House of Representatives John Covode, (Pennsylvania), D. W. Gooch (Massachusetts), George Washington Julian (Indiana) were Republicans. Moses F. Odell (New York) was the sole Democrat from the House.

The first targets of the committee were Robert Patterson and Charles P. Stone, scapegoats of the Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Ball's Bluff respectively. It is not surprising that both felt conciliation was a wise course for the War. When John Covade attacked Patterson for letting Joe Johnston leave Winchester, Frank Blair defended Patterson's actions, saying Patterson told Winfield Scott and President Lincoln on the day before Bull Run. Although the dispatch was omitted from the Committee's report it does appear in the Official Records. It didn't really matter to Patterson, since he was no longer on active duty.

Stone did not fair as well as Patterson. In the Battle of Ball's Bluff, Patterson sent Ned Baker forward to take command of forces on the Rebel side of the Potomac. Baker, a sitting Senator, had little command experience and made blatant errors that even privates realized were wrong. When bodies from the battle began washing ashore in Washington D. C., Congress wanted an investigation and had no intention of blaming the fiasco on a Senator. Stone, who had been in overall command and given Baker his orders, was chosen as scapegoat. The committee turned its evidence over to Edward Stanton who ordered McClellan to arrest Stone in February, 1862. George Meade and Samuel Heintzelman came to Stone's defense, but it would be a direct appeal to Abraham Lincoln on July 4, 1862 that brought his release on August 16, 1862.

Next for the committee came the difficult task of rebuilding the tarnished image of John C. Fremont. Commander of the Department of the West, Fremont had done a poor job commanding his troops and a miserable job of administering his department. Nicknamed The Pathfinder for his Western Expeditions, Fremont was the pro-abolition Republican candidate for President in the Election of 1856 and shared many of Ben Wade's radical views. In January, 1862, the Committee began taking testimony in regard to Fremont's command in Missouri. Fremont himself testified on January 10, 1862 kicking off what could best be described as a public relations campaign to secure his assignment to a new department.

Lincoln was prepared with the perfect assignment for Fremont, the newly created Mountain Department covering Western Virginia. After the first year of the war the fighting here had stabilized and Fremont would be close enough to be watched but far enough away so that he was not bothersome. There is no evidence that Lincoln appointed Fremont to this position because of the actions of the Committee. When Lincoln place Fremont's command under John Pope's short-lived Army of Virginia in June, 1862, Fremont resigned.

Next the Committee on the Conduct of the War turned its investigation towards the Army of the Potomac and its commander, George Brinton McClellan. Ben Wade's Republicans believed that the "Slave Power," a group of powerful planters in each state, controlled the government of the Southern states (the planters did have much more power than their numbers). McClellan believed he could fight the Confederate Army and defeat it while leaving the Southern people (and slavery) alone. Committee members Wade, Chandler and Julian felt they needed to crush Southern society and rebuild it along the Northern model.

Wade and other members of the Committee felt McClellan could advance to Richmond, Virginia with little regard for line of retreat and line of supply if McClellan simply had enough men. Of course, West Point-trained McClellan had different ideas, such as feeding his men and keeping them alive. McClellan felt the Committee's goal was not preserving the Union (Lincoln's stated goal) but "...the permanent ascendancy of the Republican Party."

With the disasters Seven Days the Committee sought to use the testimony they had taken against McClellan in Congress but McClellan got support from an unexpected source - Representative Daniel Gooch argued that testimony given before the Committee on the Conduct of the War could only be heard in executive session, not in the general session.

During this time came the first change in the committee members. Andrew Johnson, the lone Democrat from the Senate had been chosen by Lincoln to become military governor of Tennessee. In his place, Unionist Joseph Wright from Indiana was added. Wright was a wild card and he rose in support of McClellan, claiming attacks against the general only played into the Rebel's hand. Then, as luck would have it, Gooch and Wright were absent on the same day and Zachariah Chandler won a vote on using testimony in a general session. The next day, July 14, 1862, Chandler rose and viciously attacked McClellan in a general session.

John Pope, with his new title Commander, Army of Virginia marched around the Senate and House, giving speeches and generally injecting enthusiasm into the political body tired of war under McClellan. When Pope was defeated at Second Bull Run Lincoln again turned to McClellan, but not for long. After Antietam and the November, 1862 mid-term elections, Lincoln removed McClellan for good. The election also spelled the end for John Covode, who sought the governorship of Pennsylvania and lost.

After the loss at Fredericksburg, the Radical Republicans in the Senate engaged in a little skulduggery known as the 1862 Cabinet Crisis asking Lincoln to "reconstruct" his Cabinet without William Seward. One of the nine Senators sent to Lincoln was Committee chair Ben Wade. In March, 1863, Benjamin Loan of Missouri replaced Covade. Later Benjamin Harding would replace Joseph Wright.

Little was made of Ambrose Burnsides' loss at Fredericksburg and Joseph Hooker's loss at Chancellorsville because both were considered to be friends of the committee. The Committee's support of these men and their short terms of service in the capacity of Commander, Army of the Potomac, are frequently used to show the Committee's lack of effect on Lincoln.

George Meade, however, was not a friend of the Committee and not long after his ascendancy to Commander the Committee began probing into his actions, especially Gettysburg and the Mine Run Campaign. Abner Doubleday and Dan Sickles appeared before the Committee on the Conduct of the War and attacked Meade's performance at Gettysburg. Both had a problem with Meade, but that did not deter the Committee's acceptance of their testimony at face value. Daniel Butterfield reiterated their charges at a later time.

The massacre of Black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow attracted the Committee after Nathan Bedford Forrest attack on the Fort on April 12, 1864. This led them to the atrocities occurring in the Southern Prisoner-of-War camps (without mentioning the Northern Prisoner-of-War camps). When all was said and done the findings were published in a single volume blaming Forrest's men for killing Black soldiers and Southerners in general for the treatment of Northern prisoners.

Finally the committee investigated the Red River Campaign under Nathaniel Banks.

Noted historian James Randall said of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War:
Underlying the activities of the committee, which consisted almost entirely of men who had never been in the army, was an assumption of superiority toward the trained soldier, an impatience to force battles and "get results," and a ruthless determination to bring the power of publicity to bear upon generals who were deemed lacking in zeal or responsible for errors. There was a distinctly partisan tinge to the committee's work. Not only did its members resent the importance given to Democratic generals; they labored to promote one flank of the Republican party, and that the flank opposed to Lincoln and his administration. The committee traveled extensively, summoned numerous witnesses, filled huge volumes with its hearings and reports, investigated Union disasters, and "considered themselves ... a sort of Aulic Council clothed with authority to supervise the plans of commanders in the field, to make military suggestions, and to dictate military appointments.

Links appearing on this page:

1862 Cabinet Crisis
Abraham Lincoln
Ambrose Burnsides
Andrew Johnson
Army of the Potomac
August 16
August, 1862
Ball's Bluff
Battle of Ball's Bluff
Battle of Bull Run
Edward Stanton
Edwin Stanton
Election of 1856
First Bull Run
George McClellan
George Meade
January 10
January, 1862
Joe Johnston
John C. Fremont
Joseph Hooker
July 14
July 4
July, 1862
Mine Run Campaign
Nathan Bedford Forrest
New York
November 1
November, 1861
Official Records
Radical Republicans
Richmond, Virginia
Samuel Heintzelman
Second Bull Run
Seven Days
The Civil War
Ulysses S. Grant
Washington D. C.
William Seward
Winfield Scott

Civil War Encyclopedia >> Politics

Committee on the Conduct of the War was last changed on - January 6, 2008
Committee on the Conduct of the War was added on - October 25, 2007

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