Lincoln’s Conciliationist Generals


General Winfield ScottAt the onset of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln had a serious problem. There were not very many Republicans at the higher levels of the Union Army. Most of the higher officers were Democrats. There were very few generals, a mere handful in the antebellum Army. Lincoln was concerned that the war might be seen as a Republican war rather than a war of the united North.

He solved his problem in a variety of ways, some were successful, others were utter failures. The most well-known one was his attempt through General Winfield Scott to recruit Robert E. Lee for a top command. Lee demurred and accepted the commission to command the Virginia state forces.

Other top officers in the U.S. Army left to command Confederate forces. Joseph E. Johnston was the Quartermaster General who left to command Confederate troops in the field. Albert Sidney Johnston left his command of the U.S. Army Department of the Pacific in California for the eventual position as commander of the Western Department.

Many of the men who would command large formations of troops, Brigades, Divisions or Corps, had never commanded much more than a company. They learned on the job, so to speak.

At the start of the war most of the Union generals were Democrats. Some were also conciliationists. Two commanders, Brevet Lieutenant Winfield Scott and Major General George B. McClellan, personified the conciliatory policy at the beginning of the war. Both officers had many differences but on this issue they were complete agreement. They thought of the war as product of political extremism on both sides.

Throughout his military career Scott displayed tact and patience both to his troops and his adversaries. Scott advised President James Buchanan to hold the military posts in the Deep South with overwhelming force to discourage any attack by secessionists. But he was opposed to a military invasion of the South. Instead, he suggested that warships be stationed off the coast of Southern ports to collect import duties. This would establish the continued authority of the federal government.

Many of those who espoused non-confrontation believed that Unionist sentiment in the South would resurface and the seceded states would return to the Union voluntarily. Within Lincoln’s cabinet incoming Secretary of State William Seward was an adherent of conciliation.

Scott sent the following memorandum to Seward with four options for the new government to take against the South.

Hoping that, in a day or two, the new President will have, happily, passed through all personal dangers, & find himself installed an honored successor of the great Washington — with you as chief of his cabinet — I beg leave to repeat, in writing, what I have before said to you, orally, this supplement to my printed “views,” (dated October last) on the highly disordered condition of our (so late) happy & glorious union. To meet the extraordinary exigencies of the times, it seems to me that I am guilty of no arrogance in limiting the President’s field of selection to one of the four plans of procedure, subjoined: –

I. Throw off the old, & assume a new designation — the Union party; — adopt the conciliatory measures proposed by Mr. Crittenden, or the Peace convention, & my life upon it, we shall have no new case of secession, but, on the contrary, an early return of many, if not a;l the states which have already broken off from the Union, without some equally benign measure, the remaining slave holding states will, probably, join the Montgomery confederacy in less than sixty days, when this city — being included in a foreign country — would require permanent Garrison of at least 35,000 troops to protect the Government within it.

II. Collect the duties on foreign goods outside the ports of which this Government has lost the command, or close such ports by acts of congress, & blockade them.

III. Conquer the seceded States by invading Armies. No doubt this might be done in two or three years by a young able General — a Wolfe, a Desaix or a Hoche, with 300,000 disciplined men — estimating a third for Garrisons, & the loss of a yet greater number by skirmishes, sieges, battles & southern fevers. The destruction of life and property, on the other side, would be frightful — however perfect the moral discipline of the invaders.

The conquest completed at that enormous waste of human life, to the north and north west — with at least $250[,]000,000, added thereto, and cui bono? — Fifteen devastated provinces — not to be brought into harmony with their conquerors; but to be held, for generations, by heavy garrisons — at an expense quadruple the net duties or taxes which it would be possible to extract from them — followed by a Protector or an emperor.

IV. Say to the seceded — States — wayward sisters, depart in peace!

The firing on Fort Sumter ended any hope of peaceful compromise. Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion brought the secession of four more states: Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. Scott cast around for a new plan to bring the seceded states back into the Union with a minimum of bloodshed. The centerpiece of his Anaconda Plan was an air-tight blockade of all Southern ports. He also planned to send a strong column from Cairo, Illinois to secure the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two. Scott that these two actions would bring out the Unionists.

Seward asked the well-regarded Montgomery C. Meigs, then a captain, to draft a memorandum on the war in general and the Virginia situation in particular. Meigs endorsed Scott’s view that the government should defer action until the army was better trained.

A split developed within the Union government with Postmaster General Montgomery Blair calling for immediate action. He said that Scott’s group were overestimating the strength of the secessionists. Lincoln, meanwhile, decided on a policy of deliberation. Some Northern newspapers called for immediate action.

The First Battle of Bull Run would put an end to conciliation and any hopes of a rapid Union victory. The defeat of the Union field army led by Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell ushered in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to command the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was a Democrat and a conciliationist. These two facts would impact the Union war effort in the Eastern Theater for some time.