After Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, touching off the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for volunteers to put down the rebellion. Green recruits poured into Washington, D.C., forming the largest army ever assembled on the North American continent up to that time. Many people in the North believed that this mighty force would easily defeat the Rebel army encamped near Manassas, Virginia, march on to the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, and quickly end the war. After several months of organizing and training the new Army of Northeastern Virginia, a reluctant General Irvin McDowell succumbed to the public’s “On to Richmond!” demands and led his soldiers out of Washington to confront the Rebels on July 21, 1861. Instead of the speedy victory that Northerners expected, the Union army suffered a humiliating defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. Several members of Congress were so confident of a Yankee victory that they gathered near the battlefield and witnessed the Rebel victory in astonishment.
Shortly after the Confederate victory at Bull Run, President Lincoln placed Major General George B. McClellan in charge of the Military District of the Potomac, but Union fortunes did not fare much better. Following several more months of perceived inactivity, federal forces suffered another unexpected defeat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861.
When Congress reconvened in December, New York Representative Roscoe Conkling introduced a House resolution demanding a report from Secretary of War Simon Cameron about the defeat at Ball’s Bluff. In the upper chamber, Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler offered a resolution on December 5, 1861, to create a committee to investigate the debacles at Ball’s Run and Bull Run. Iowa Senator James Grimes expanded Chandler’s resolution calling for a joint committee to examine all aspects of the war. For the next several days, the Senate worked to establish the limits and responsibilities of the proposed committee before authorizing its formation. The full Senate approved Chandler’s resolution by a vote of thirty-three to three. The House quickly adopted the Senate resolution creating the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War on December 10, 1861. The resolution creating the committee authorized the members to “inquire into the conduct of the present war and to send for persons and papers.”
Five Republicans and two Democrats comprised the membership of the original committee. They were Republican Senators Benjamin F. Wade (Ohio) and Zachariah Chandler (Michigan), Democrat Senator Andrew Johnson (Tennessee), Republican Representatives George W. Julian (Indiana), John Covode (Pennsylvania) and Daniel W. Gooch (Massachusetts), and Democratic Representative Moses Fowler Odell (New York). After President Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee in March 1862, Democratic Senator Joseph Wright (Indiana) took his place on the committee.
Theoretically, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War served as a mechanism for overseeing the administration’s execution of the war. In fairness, it yielded some positive results, especially uncovering and reducing graft related to war contracts, exposing the mistreatment of Union soldiers in Confederate POW camps, advancing the production of heavy ordnance, and maintaining public morale. Nonetheless, the overall impact of the Committee’s effect on the war effort is questionable.
Dominated by Radical Republicans, the Committee convened for the first time on December 20, 1861. The members agreed to hold no public meetings and to keep their deliberations secret. The Committee had the authority to subpoena witnesses and documents for examination; however, the group did not allow anyone called to testify to speak with the press afterward. Yet, Committee members regularly leaked information to newspapers when it suited their agenda.
Second-guessing the Military
Throughout its existence, the Committee second-guessed the performance of Union military commanders (especially in the Eastern Theater), even though its members had little if any martial expertise. The Committee was notably critical of West Point graduates, while otherwise tolerant of less effective political generals who shared their partisan beliefs. Generals who they conspicuously targeted included Charles Pomeroy Stone, George McClellan, and George Meade. Even General William T. Sherman, fresh after his triumphant campaigns through Georgia and the Carolinas, could not escape the Committee’s wrath. On May 6, 1865, with the war virtually over, the Committee summoned Sherman to explain the lenient terms he offered Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, after Johnston surrendered his army on April 26, 1865, at Bennett Place, North Carolina.
Scrutinizing the President
President Lincoln, himself, was not above the Committee’s animus. Led by Wade, who harbored a personal dislike for the president, the Committee closely scrutinized (if not criticized) nearly every move Lincoln made. Besides his handling of Union generals throughout the course of the war, Radicals also questioned Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation because the president delayed issuing the Emancipation Proclamation until after the Union victory at Antietam.
There is little doubt that the Committee distracted Lincoln from his duties as commander-in-chief by dealing with their constant harping and interference. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, might well have expressed what the president could not when he described the Committee members as “narrow and prejudiced partisans, mischievous busy-bodies, and a discredit to Congress. Mean and contemptible partisanship colors all their acts.”
When the 38th Congress convened in 1863, it reconstituted the Committee on the Conduct of the War. On the House side, Republicans Julian and Gooch continued their assignments. Unconditional Unionist Party member Benjamin F. Logan (Utah) replaced Covode who retired from Congress. Democratic Representative Odell continued his service. Wade and Chandler remained on board to represent the Republicans from the Senate. Democratic senators Benjamin F. Harding (Oregon) and Charles R. Buckalew (Pennsylvania) replaced Johnson and Wright.
The Committee on the Conduct of the War continued to meet regularly until shortly after the war ended, adjourning for the last time on May 22, 1865. During its existence, the Committee convened 272 times and published at least one report each year. In retrospect, its members were no doubt motivated by patriotic intentions. Still, ruthless tactics, partisan politics, and general ignorance of military science hampered the Committee’s effectiveness and usefulness.