An Instance When he Was More Serious Than the Case Warranted
Story Told by Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.
President Lincoln during the war was very sensitive of the criticisms on his administration by the newspaper press, believing it to be, as he asserted, the true voice of the people. The failures of McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, and Poe with the Army of the Potomac and the criticisms made thereon by the newspapers almost crazed him. Time and again he would free himself from the Executive Mansion and seek my little office, the only place in Washington, he often said, where he could be absolutely free from interruption. When he became closeted with me on these visits Mr. Lincoln would unbosom himself and talk of his cares and woes. Several times he insisted that he ought to resign, and thus give the country an opportunity to secure someone better fitted to accomplish the great task expected of the President. Or, if he did not resign, he thought he ought to impress upon Congress the propriety of giving the absolute control of the army to some purely military man. It was during one of these moods that he conceived the idea of placing Joseph Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac, and of vesting him with such power that, in his opinion, he could not fail of success.
He had a great idea of Hooker's ability as a soldier, and in addition, he believed him to be an honest man and a sincere patriot. He wanted him to fight what he intended should be and what he felt would be, the closing battle of the war. Accordingly, when Hooker got underway, and the news came that at Chancellorsville he would make his fight, Mr. Lincoln was in the greatest state of mental excitement. From the time that Hooker's army began its march until the smoke of battle had cleared from the fatal field of Chancellorsville, he scarcely knew what it was to sleep.
It will be remembered that the fight lasted three days. During the first two days it looked as if Hooker was about to accomplish what so many generals before him had failed to do; but, early on the third day, the usual half-hour dispatches began to make matters look dark and ominous of defeat. The whole day Mr. Lincoln was miserable. He ate nothing and would see no one but me. As it grew dark the dispatches ceased coming at all.
Mr. Lincoln would walk from the White House to my apartment and anxiously inquire for news from Hooker. With the going down of the sun a cold and drenching rain set in, which lasted through the night. At about 7 o'clock Mr. Lincoln ceased his visits to my apartment and gave orders at the Executive Mansion that he, would see no one before morning. An hour afterward a dispatch of indefinite character was received from Hooker, and I hurried with it to Mr. Lincoln's apartments. When I entered I found him walking the floor, and his agonized appearance so terrified me that it was with difficulty that I could speak. Mr. Lincoln approached me like a man wild with excitement, seized the dispatch from my hand, read it, and, his face slightly brightening, remarked: "Stanton, there is hope yet!" At my solicitation, Mr. Lincoln accompanied me to the War Department, where he agreed to spend the night, or until something definite was heard from Hooker. For five hours, the longest and most wearisome of my life, I waited before a dispatch announcing the retreat of Hooker was received. When Mr. Lincoln read it he threw up his hands and exclaimed, "My God, Stanton, our cause is lost! We are ruined—we are ruined; and such a fearful loss of life! My God! this is more than I can endure!" He stood, trembling visibly, his face of a ghastly hue, the perspiration standing out in big spots on his brow. He put on his hat and coat and began to pace the floor. For five or ten minutes he was silent and then, turning to me, he said: "If I am not around early tomorrow, do not send for me, nor allow anyone to disturb me. Defeated again, and so many of our noble countrymen killed! What will the people say?"
As he finished he started for the door. I was alarmed. There was something indescribable about the President's face and manner that made me feel that my chief should not be left alone. How to approach him without creating suspicion was the thought of a second. Going up to him and laying my hand on his shoulder I said: "Mr. President, I, too, am feeling that I would rather be dead than alive; but is it manly—It is brave—that we should be the first to succumb? I have an idea: "You remain here with me tonight. Lie down on yonder lounge, and by the time you have had a few hours' sleep, I will have a vessel at the wharf, and we will go to the front and see for ourselves the condition of the army."
The idea of visiting the army in person acted like a tonic. Mr. Lincoln immediately adopted the suggestion. The next morning we left Washington on a gunboat for Hooker's command. On our return trip Mr, Lincoln told me that when he started to leave the War Department on that evening he had fully made up his mind to go immediately to the Potomac River and there end his life, as many a poor creature—but none half so miserable as he was at that time.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.