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Congress Fights the Civil War

June 2024
12min read

Histories written about the nation's greatest crisis focus on Lincoln and the military campaigns. But an intriguing group of characters in Congress also played a major role, advising and prodding the President.

America faced its greatest crisis in 1861 as the nation literally unraveled and the rest of the world wondered whether its experiment in self-determination would succeed. 

Books about the period have generally focused on the efforts of Abraham Lincoln and the military to fight the Civil War. Much less recognized is that for four long and unpredictable years, Congress played a fundamental role in the waging and winning of the conflict, sustained the Union effort, and gave it lasting meaning. What happened in the political realm is an epic as gripping and fraught with uncertainty as what took place on the battlefield between the opposing armies. 

It’s a human story of how men faced the worst crisis in the nation’s history. As Rep. Albert Riddle, a radical Republican, wrote: “Mr. Lincoln, his cabinet, and the 37th Congress were elected to do anything, everything, except what fell to them to do—fight the greatest civil war of history. It came upon them as an utter surprise.” 

After Lincoln was elected, a pall hung over Washington in January of 1861 as rain turned Pennsylvania Avenue into a muddy trough. Even in the best neighborhoods, yards stank from privies and putrifying household slops. The rooming houses where most members of Congress lived, and the halls of the Capitol itself smelled of wet woolen clothing, cigars, and the charcoal that struggled to warm the under-heated chambers of Congress. Slavery pervaded the city like the stink of horse manure that everywhere bedunged the streets. 

Although free blacks now outnumbered slaves in the capital, investors in human flesh had merely to cross the Potomac River to the markets of Alexandria to shop. The 3,100 enslaved men, women and children who were still inextricably woven into the fabric of Washington life – holding doors, driving carriages, cleaning the mud from boots, hawking oysters, tending stables, suckling white babies, waiting on tables, toting trunks – reminded whites at every turn that the institution that was fissuring the nation was alive and thriving in its capital. 

There was a still tentative, only semi-urban quality to much of the city. At the western end of the National Mall – really just a field where sheep and cows grazed – rose the ugly stump of the aborted Washington Monument, like a finger lopped off at the first joint, abandoned for lack of financing. Little had changed since 1849, when the visiting Charles Dickens sarcastically described its nondescript dwellings and its wide streets that petered out in empty fields as “a city of magnificent distances.” Nothing more aptly epitomized the unfinished city than the Capitol itself, surrounded by the marble blocks for its new dome strewn around the building, like the symbolic fragments of a nation in pieces. 

Washingtonians felt a palpable sense of doom. The city, Jefferson Davis’s wife Varina felt as her husband’s last days in the Senate slipped away, was “like some kind of mausoleum,” with no one visiting, no dinners or parties, “just a sullen gloom impending over all things.” On January 27, Ohio Rep. Clement Vallandigham wrote to his wife, “I am able to do no good here—no man can. So I sit, and am obliged to sit, quiet and sorrowful, condemned as one who watches over the couch of a loved mother slowly dying with consumption, to see my country perish by inches.” Americans who had taken their nation’s immortality for granted knew that things would never be the same again. 

The empty seats in the House and Senate bespoke a revolution in terms more graphic than any of the stormy words that had been spoken during the months past. With the departure of the southerners, gloom shaded inexorably into fear that events were spinning out of control, and that the worst might really come to pass. Worrying rumors flew through the air: that the defenseless capital would be attacked by a Virginia mob…that a coup d’etat would come any day…that unexplained fires around the city were part of a terrorist plot. Vallandigham warned his wife that an uprising was so likely that he might have to send her to safety somewhere in the mountains. Others dispatched their wives and children to Philadelphia or New York for safety.  

Of the nation’s entire army of 16,367 men, few were stationed east of the Mississippi River, and most of them were in the seceding states. Even the army’s general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, who loathed President Buchanan, made his headquarters in New York City. Scott quickly recognized the gravity of the danger to the capital, however. Although Washington boasted several militia companies, they were more social clubs than military units, and many of their members were sympathetic to the Confederacy. The National Rifles, in particular, had quietly been supplied with arms and artillery by Buchanan’s disloyal former Secretary of War, and its commander openly admitted that he intended to prevent Union volunteers from reaching the capital. Government spies also reported a plot to seize government departments, including the Treasury, and then form a provisional government. 

Three companies of light artillery were ordered back from the frontier, and another contingent from West Point, but it would take weeks for them to arrive. Where would the crisis end, unnerved citizens asked each other. Rep. John McClernand of Illinois worried, “Not only will states secede from the Union, but counties from states, and cities and towns from both; and this the work of disintegration and dissolution will go on until the whole frame of society and government will be ingulfed in one bottomless and boundless chaos of ruin.” 

The panic wasn’t limited to Washington. Coastal shipping shrank by half. Shipyards and iron works went bankrupt. In New York City, commercial firms laid off hundreds or collapsed entirely as trade with the South suddenly disintegrated. Bonds secured by property in slaves crashed. Commercial traffic began to halt on the Mississippi. Grain prices fell by twenty percent, and cotton even further. Even the ice industry, which shipped New England ice to the South, was crippled by the disappearance of southern orders. 

Banks failed all over the Midwest, eventually including nearly half of those in Wisconsin, and as many as three-quarters in Illinois. Financiers prayed for a ray of hope but found none. Rumors multiplied of a secret pro-southern organization that would seize the armories, break into banks, and sack the homes of prominent Republicans. “Depression today deeper than ever,” the New York diarist George Templeton Strong recorded. “Most people give up all hope of saving the government and anticipate general bankruptcy, revolution, mob-law, chaos, and ruin.” In the White House, Buchanan remained supine. “Had this old mollusk become vertebrate, the theories by Darwin would have been confirmed,” Strong scowled.  And in the echoing halls of Congress, Republicans and the remaining southerners side-stepped each other with their eyes averted, too angry or too ashamed to speak.
Congress faced a multitude of existential challenges that spring: How could the North be mobilized for a war of unimaginable magnitude? Was Congress or the president responsible for leading the war effort? Could the Republicans – who were completely untried – manage to govern? Should war be fought with respect for the sanctity of southern property – including slaves – or with a ruthlessness that would bring the seceded states more quickly to their knees? Could the Constitution survive the suspension of civil rights in the name of national security? How would the war be paid for? Would its financial burden break the northern economy? What should white Americans do about slavery? Could Republicans prevent their party from splitting between antislavery radicals and those who were willing to tolerate slavery as long as it was contained in the South? (The Democrats had already broken in two.) Should African Americans be recruited to serve in the army? Would white soldiers refuse to fight alongside them? After the war was won – assuming that the North triumphed – should the southern states be broken up? Should ex-Confederates be prosecuted as war criminals? 

There was no consensus on any of these questions and many others. Suspicion of central government in general, distrust of a strong executive in particular, and embedded traditions of states’ rights – in the North as well as the South – threatened to undermine the country’s war-making ability. Deep-seated racism threatened any attempt to emancipate slaves. Many Unionists, especially in the border states, regarded any kind of tampering with slavery as a threat to basic property rights. Rep. John Crisfield, for one, a pro-slavery Unionist from Maryland declared: “If you take from us today our right to hold slaves, how long will it be before you will take from us some other constitutional right.” 

With Southerners gone, the Republicans for the first time held decisive majorities in both houses of Congress. A third of the seats in both chambers were empty, abandoned by members who had defected to the Confederacy. Their departure began an era of legislative activism that would change American society beyond recognition. During the next four years Congress would help win the war, craft the peace, reinvent the nation’s financial system, and enact a raft of forward-looking legislation that had long been blocked by southern intransigence. In the course of doing so, Congress laid the foundation for the strong activist central government that came fully into being in the twentieth century. It also permanently altered the relationship between the states and the federal government, and enshrined protection of civil rights as the responsibility of the federal government. 

Measured by the urgency of what they faced and by their astonishing productivity, the two wartime congresses were among the most effective in American history. Ohio Sen. John Sherman – the brother of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman – predicted that the landmark laws they passed “will be a monument to good or evil. They cover such vast sums, delegate and regulate such vast powers, and are so far-reaching in their effects, that generations will be affected well or ill by them.” 

Congress raised hundreds of thousands of troops for the Union, instituted the nation’s first military draft when volunteers were no longer sufficient, and pushed consistently against Lincoln for more aggressive generals, harsher strategy against the South, and the recruitment of African-Americans. In providing financing for the war, Congress created the country’s first national currency, the forerunner of the Internal Revenue Service, and the foundation of the Federal Reserve system. 

Long before Lincoln became willing to contemplate the emancipation of slaves, members of Congress demanded it, enacting a series of laws that turned abolitionism from a fringe belief into public policy. The Homestead Act changed the face of the West. The Pacific Railway Act committed the government to linking the country’s heartland with California by rail, the largest and most expensive infrastructure project undertaken in the United States up to that time. The Land Grant Colleges Act would lay the groundwork for public state university systems nationwide. Although these last three are not commonly recognized as war measures, it was the war that made them politically possible. Less happily, the widespread monitoring of antiwar dissidents created a precedent for the government surveillance of private communications and allegedly unpatriotic political activity that has become a feature of present-day life. 

Not least, Congress also began a racial and economic revolution that overthrew the South’s cotton economy and transformed 4 million slaves from pieces of property into soldiers, and free women and men, culminating in the Thirteenth Amendment. As Frederick Douglass said at one point during the war, “The Angel of Liberty has one ear of the nation and the demon of slavery the other.” Both of them whispered and shouted into the ears of Congress as it struggled forward. 

In my recent book, I treated Congressional politics as a dynamic art, full of maneuver for advantage, the endless seeking for compromise, the transmutation of hopes and ideals into policy. I generally try to keep the story within the historical present. That is, I want you to feel the anxiety and uncertainty, and sometimes fear and despair, and well as the patriotic fervor and sometimes irrational confidence, that characterized almost every stage of the war, when no one knew what its outcome would be. The Union victory was never foreordained, nor was emancipation, nor even Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. 

But this is not a book about politics in the abstract, but about the men who practiced it. I’ve tried to capture the sound of their voices, their passions, and the urgency of their battles over issues that still stir our emotions.

Like every Congress in American history, both the Senate and House of Representatives included the brilliant, the mediocre, and the incompetent. The great majority were imbued with a passionate patriotism that befitted a generation mostly born while the republic’s founders still lived, a few during Washington’s presidency, and many more during John Adams’s and Thomas Jefferson’s. Virtually all could remember – and some had served with – Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, the last three dead barely a decade.

Most members were professional politicians and lawyers, with a sprinkling of businessmen, farmers, and journalists. They were opinionated, often brilliantly eloquent, and colorfully combative. Of the House of Representatives, Rep. James G. Blaine, later wrote, “There is no place where so little deference is paid to reputation previously acquired, or to eminence won outside; no place where so little consideration is shown for the feelings or the failures of beginners. What a man gains, he gains by sheer force of his own character, and if he loses and falls back he must expect no mercy and will receive no sympathy.” Manners were only notionally better in the Senate. 

By the way, members of both houses enjoyed none of the resources that Congressmen would take for granted: no staffs, no private offices, no research facilities apart from the Library of Congress on the Capitol’s second floor, where members might be seen poring over back copies of the Congressional Globe, old legal texts, or volumes of Classical history to lend heft to their orations. Despite the Capitol’s grandiose interior décor, the atmosphere inside was democratic and informal, often rough in its manners, and perfumed with the aroma of cigars, whiskey and, in the sweltering summer particularly, sweaty male bodies. Strangers wandered in and out of the chambers and sprawled at members’ unoccupied desks; “Finding the coast clear, I gamboled up and down, from galley to gallery, sat in Sumner’s chair, examined Wilson’s books, & pocketed a cast away autograph or two,” one Yankee tourist wrote home to his family. Contractors and petitioners flooded the rotunda, plucking at members’ purse strings, begging an annuity for an aged veteran of the War of 1812, a subsidy for a proposed canal or railway spur, or a federal job. 

Visitors packed the galleries to hear the debates in which orators, like gladiators of the spoken word, spoke sometimes for hours on end without notes. Increasingly, members were speaking not only to their colleagues on the floor, but also to the nation’s newspapers, whose reporters peered down on them from the press gallery, and to Americans across a nation recently wired for telegraphy which within hours of their delivery carried speeches to voters in the nation’s parlors, churches, and taverns. 

I’ve built my story mainly around four men. Three of them were Republicans. Of these, two were outspoken radicals. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania was probably the fiercest abolitionist in Congress as well as a master of parliamentary strategy, and the de facto majority leader in the House. Ben Wade of Ohio – often called “bluff Ben” – was a driving force in the Senate for a hard war against the Confederacy and chaired the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which oversaw the Union war effort. Sen. William Pitt Fessenden of Maine was a conservative by nature, and only cautiously aligned himself with the radicals. But more than any other man, he was responsible for the legislation that enabled the North to pay for the war. 
The fourth, Ohio Rep. Clement C. Vallandigham, was a northern Democrat with southern sympathies and the leading advocate of a negotiated peace – a “Copperhead.” As the spokesman for the antiwar opposition, his views often came perilously close to treason, at least in the view of Republicans. Although Vallandigham’s racial beliefs in particular are repugnant to present-day values, he nonetheless was one of the most provocative dissenters in American history, and a self-described martyr to the administration’s determination to squelch views that threatened the Union war effort.

So far I haven’t mentioned Abraham Lincoln. He is largely an off-stage presence during most of this story. There’s an abundance of excellent books about Lincoln’s presidency – by Harold Holzer, Sidney Blumenthal, David Herbert Donald, and others. I saw no need to add another one. I present Lincoln mainly through the eyes of his political contemporaries, many of whom were very harsh in their judgment of him. Like most historians, I regard him as probably our greatest president and a more skillful political man than many of his contemporaries gave him credit it for. But in 1861 he was no more prepared for war than were most Americans, and considerably less so than some members of Congress. And for much of the war, he remained very much a work-in-progress. Although the war drove Lincoln to attempt to govern more by executive order than had any of his predecessors, he depended on the Republicans in Congress who often led him as much as they followed him, and who insisted that the power to shape the course of the war resided on Capitol Hill, not in the White House. 
One might ask, does my book have anything to say about today’s Congress, or today’s politics? Well, no, and well, yes. 

Truth is often distorted by our desire to enlist the past on behalf of our present concerns, by changing moral values, and by the difficulty of figuring out what our ancestors really meant even when we hear their literal words. That said, perhaps they have something to say to us about how our government can function at its best in challenging times, and how crisis may even make it stronger.  

The arguments that were made by the men of the wartime Congress still speak to us. Many of the issues they wrestled with then are still with us: the racial divide, civil rights, the meaning of the Constitution, freedom of speech in wartime, the struggle between Congress and the presidency, war powers, and other things. They argued all this bluntly and often profoundly. 

The book is also – tacitly – a brief for Congress and representative government, despite its frustrations and disappointments. That’s not something I initially intended. But the appeal of the authoritarian style has taken on new life here and elsewhere, and contempt for Congress has dangerously grown. According to some polls, less than 10 percent of Americans profess confidence in Congress, and almost one-third of young Americans say they don’t think it’s important to live in a democracy.  

Disdain for Congress flourishes alongside the belief that the presidency has always been the main engine of government, rather than an office whose power is deliberately circumscribed by the Constitution. Nineteenth century Americans, including those of the Civil War era, by contrast believed that the real seat of power lay in Congress. 

During the Civil War Democrats in Congress repeatedly attacked Abraham Lincoln as a “tyrant” and even fellow Republicans questioned his competence and investigated his generals. As beleaguered as he felt, Lincoln never claimed that Congress lacked the authority to challenge his actions or declined to answer legislators’ requests for information. He recognized Congress as the primary repository of the people’s will, and he understood that the Founders never intended the president to be beyond the reach of its authority. 

To us, Congress may seem needlessly inefficient, but its workings are just the cacophony of our multitude of American voices distilled to a cadre of 535 Representatives and senators. Senator Fessenden – one of the heroes of my book – understood that Congress was a stew of self-interests seasoned with passions, and that to accomplish anything required creative skill, tolerance, and immense patience. Republican politics is always messy. The Founders knew it. They’d fought a revolution not to tame politics but to put it – with all its often frustrating turbulence – into government. 

As Fessenden put it, “I would not have perfect quiet always, in a republic especially. You never find quiet except under a tyranny.”

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