Joint Committee On The Conduct Of The War
Created in early December 1861 by the Thirty-seventh Congress and popularly known as the War Committee, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was believed necessary to counteract a rash of Union military setbacks in the summer and fall of 1861. Armed with the power of subpoena, the committee was given broad discretion to investigate any aspect of Northern military affairs, "past, present, and future."
Because the Republican Party controlled the U.S. Congress during the Civil War, Republicans also dominated the committee by a margin of five to two. Senate members included Republicans Benjamin F Wade of Ohio (chairman) and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, two of the most prominent radicals in the Republican Party. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, the only senator from a seceded state, was the sole Democratic senator on the committee. When Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee in March 1862, he was replaced by Joseph Wright, the former governor of Indiana. House members included Republicans George W. Julian of Indiana, John Covode of Pennsylvania, and Daniel Gooch of Massachusetts. Moses Fowler Odell from Brooklyn, New York, was the sole Democratic house member.
Reappointed by the Thirty-eighth Congress, the committees membership was the same with two exceptions. On the Senate side, Democrat Benjamin F Harding of Oregon replaced Joseph Wright. When Harding's senate term expired in 1865, Charles R. Buckalew of Pennsylvania served briefly on the committee. In the House, Republican Benjamin F. Loan replaced John Covode, who had not sought reelection to Congress in 1862. Loan, a brigadier general in the Missouri State Militia, was the only committee member with significant military experience.
Throughout its investigative tenure, the committee delved into many subjects. These included examining allegations of rebel barbarities after the battle of First Bull Run; the administration of specific military departments (John C. Fremont's tenure as military commander of the Department of the West, for instance); contraband trade in enemy districts; government negotiation of ice contracts; the manufacture of heavy ordnance and light draught monitors; the treatment of Union prisoners of war in Confederate prisons; the controversial peace accord negotiated by William Tecumseh Sherman with Confederate general Joseph Johnston; and massacres such as those that occurred at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, and on the banks of Sand Creek in Colorado. The committees principal focus, however, was the investigation of military battles (usually defeats), particularly those involving the Army of the Potomac. During the thirty--seventh session of Congress, the committee conducted major investigations of the battles of First Bull Run and Balls Bluff and the operations of the Army of the Potomac (the Peninsula campaign, the Second Bull Run and Antietam campaigns, and the battle of Fredericksburg). During the Thirty-eighth Congress, the committee again conducted a major investigation of the Army of the Potomac (the Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns) as well as the Red River expedition of Nathaniel Banks and the unsuccessful siege of Fort Fisher by Benjamin E Butler.
Lacking knowledge about warfare and military matters, the committee had simplistic criteria for evaluating military performance. Convinced that Northern superiority in personnel should produce an automatic and quick victory, committee members were often impatient with generals who did not endorse aggressive, offensive operations. Failing to understand the advantage that rifled weaponry afforded tactical defense, committee members often believed that caution on the part of the Unions West Point--educated officers was a sign of cowardice or questionable loyalty. Because the leading spirits on the committee were fervently devoted to antislavery principles, committee members also judged the performance of military leaders in terms of their own commitment to the abolition of slavery. Regardless of competence, the committee tended to support generals associated with antislavery principles and the Republican Party, while attempting to remove officers who attempted to remain neutral on the slavery issue and were identified with the Democratic Party.
For the entire war, the committee quarreled with the Lincoln administration and many of the army's top officers over control of the nations armies, particularly the Army of the Potomac. During the Thirty-seventh Congress, the committee devoted an inordinate amount of time attempting to remove George B. McClellan from command. Convinced that McClellan's Democratic sentiments and style of warfare was counterproductive to Union victory, the leading Republicans on the committee were thoroughly convinced that McClellan and his junior officers should be purged from the Army of the Potomac. In the summer of 1862, Zachariah Chandler delivered a scathing rebuke of McClellan before the U.S. Senate, an unprecedented action, especially considering that McClellan was still in command of the Army of the Potomac at Harrison Landing, Virginia.
To replace McClellan, the committee sponsored a number of different Union generals: John C. Fremont, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker. All of these generals endorsed the Republican position on slavery, although not all had been Republicans before the outbreak of war Although none of these generals were particularly successful in the commands they were given, committee members typically explained their lack of success in conspiratorial terms: a West Point--educated professional soldiery, firmly committed to George McClellan, was responsible for hampering the work of these generals.
During the Thirty-eighth Congress, the committee members spent an inordinate amount of time attempting remove George Gordon Meade from command. As with McClellan, committee members were again convinced that Meade was a Copperhead whose questionable loyalty hampered the effectiveness of the Army the Potomac. As in the Thirty-seventh Congress, the committee also advanced the interest of generals it saw "ideologically correct" for command. Joseph Hooker and Benjamin F. Butler were two such generals. Despite Hookers obvious failings at Chancellorsville, committee members saw him as better suited to command than George Gordon Meade. In the case of Butler, his disastrous handling of the siege of Fort Fisher did not convince committee members that he was unfit for command. Focusing on his antislavery rhetoric and actions earlier in the war as military commander of New Orleans, the committee sang the praises of Butler while criticizing President Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant for removing him from command.
The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was appointed as a way for the legislative branch to check and monitor executive direction of the war. There were a number of different ways in which the committee tried to control President Lincolns direction of military affairs. In some cases, the committee supplied popular daily newspapers with secret testimony to sway public opinion in its direction. Hence, John C. Fremont's testimony was leaked to the New York Daily Tribune. A few weeks later, Fremont, who had earlier been relieved from the command of the Department of the West, was appointed to head the Mountain Department. Individual committee members often made speeches before the House or Senate to advance the committees point of view. House member George W. Julian supplied some (if the most hard-hitting speeches to advance the committees causes. Finally, through the release of its official reports, the committee hoped to sway public opinion in favor of the Republican war program. In this latter regard, the committees most notable successes were in the area of war-time propaganda, particularly with the publication of its reports on the treatment of Union prisoners of war and the Fort Pillow massacre. Intended to portray the Southern as backward and benighted, these reports were important morale building tools.
How successful was the committee in influencing Lincoln in his direction of the Union war effort? The record was mixed. In some cases the president clearly bowed to their pressure and demands. The reappointment of Fremont to a command was the most obvious case in point. The arrest and imprisonment of Charles Pomeroy Stone for alleged disloyalty after the battle of Balls Bluff was another indication of the committees influence. In other respects, however, the president stood firm and was not cowed by his congressional counterparts. When the president removed George McClellan, for instance, he did so on his terms and according to his schedule, not the committees. Similarly, when the committee attempted to force the removal of Meade, Lincoln would not give in--despite the committees threat to go public with damaging information. Fortunately for the nation, the president often held his own against the rash judgment of committee members.
The committees overall impact on Northern military operations is mixed. In some instances, it efforts had positive results. For instance, its investigations of light draught monitors, heavy ordnance, and ice contracts did expose waste, inefficiencies, and bureaucratic red tape. Its report on Union prisoners of war and the Fort Pillow massacre gave a much needed boost to Northern morale at a critical juncture of the war. At the same time, many of its investigations, particularly where the committee was successful in forcing Lincolns hand, had a negative impact on the war efforts. In many cases, the generals the committee endorsed were "correct" on the slavery issue, but militarily incompetent: Fremont and John Pope being two of the most obvious examples. Perhaps the biggest drawback to the committees work was its contribution to an atmosphere of jealousy and distrust among the nations elite officer corps--something that could only detract from waging war. Finally, in many investigations, the impact the committee had was neither positive nor negative. Hour after hour of testimony was taken, witness after witness was interviewed, yet nothing of practical value emerged. in many cases, the committees work was a waste of time, energy, and resources--something superfluous, something that detracted from the Unions ability to wage war. Committee members were motivated by patriotic and humanitarian sentiments; however, lack of military knowledge combined with too broad of an investigative latitude conspired to limit their usefulness to the Union war effort.
Source: "Encyclopedia of the American War" edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, article by Bruce Tap.
This page last updated 06/01/05