The Writings of Carl Schurz/To President Lincoln, November 20th, 1862


Headquarters 3d Div., 11th Corps,
Centreville, Nov. 20, 1862.

To the President of the United States.

Dear Sir: Your favor of the 10th inst. did not reach me until the 17th. If there was anything in my letter of the 8th that had the appearance of presumption I ask your kind indulgence. You must forgive something to the sincerity of my zeal, for there is no living being on this continent, whose wishes for the success of your Administration are more ardent than mine. The consciousness of perfect good faith gave me the boldness to utter my honest convictions without reserve. I do not know how many friends you have sincere enough to tell you things which it may not be pleasant to hear; I assure you, they are not the worst. In risking the amenities of undisturbed private relations they fulfil a duty, which many, who call themselves friends, have not the courage to understand and appreciate. In this spirit I wrote to you, with full confidence in the loftiness of your own way of thinking. If the opinions I expressed were unjust, it will be a happy hour for me when I shall be able conscientiously to acknowledge my error. But whatever I may have said it was but a mild and timid repetition of what a great many men say, whose utterances might perhaps have more weight with you than mine.

I fear you entertain too favorable a view of the causes of our defeat in the elections. It is of the highest importance, that, amidst the perplexities of your situation and the enormous responsibilities of your office, you should sift the true nature of the disaster to the very bottom. I throw myself upon your patient kindness in replying to some of your statements.

That a large proportion of Republicans have entered the Army, and that thereby the party vote was largely diminished, cannot be doubted. But you must recollect, that at the commencement of the war you were sincerely and even enthusiastically sustained by the masses of the people, and that the “Administration party” was not confined to the old Republican ranks. You had the people of the loyal States with you. This immense Administration party did not insist upon your regulating your policy strictly by the tenets of any of the old party platforms; they would have cheerfully sustained you in anything and everything that might have served to put down the rebellion. I am confident, you might have issued your emancipation manifesto, you might have dismissed your generals one after the other, long before you did it—and a large majority of the people would have firmly stood by you. All they wanted was merciless energy and speedy success. You know it yourself, there are now many prominent Democrats supporting you, who go far beyond the program of the Chicago platform.

Whatever proportion of Republicans may have entered the Army,—if the Administration had succeeded in preserving its hold upon the masses, your majorities would at any moment have put the majorities of 1860 into the shade and no insidious party contrivances could have prevailed against you. But the general confidence and enthusiasm yielded to a general disappointment, and there were but too many Republicans, who, disturbed and confused by the almost universal feeling of the necessity of a change, either voted against you or withheld their votes. I know this to be a fact.

That some of our newspapers “disparaged and vilified the Administration” may be true, although in our leading journals I have seen little else than a moderate and well-measured criticism. I know of none that had ever impeached your good faith or questioned your motives. If there were no real and great abuses, the attacks on your Administration were certainly unjustifiable. But if there were, then, I think, the misfortune was not that the abuses were criticised, but that the responsible individuals were not promptly and severely held to account. It is my opinion, and I expect I shall hold it as long as I live, that a party, in order to remain pure and efficient, must be severe against its own members; it can disarm the criticism of its opponents by justly criticising and promptly correcting itself. But however that may be, I ask you in all candor, what power would there have been in newspaper-talk, what power in the talk of demagogues based upon newspaper-talk, had the Administration been able to set up against it the evidence of great successes?

I feel that in regard to one important point I have not been quite clear in my letter of the 8th. When speaking of “your friends,” I did not mean only those who in 1860 helped to elect you; I did not think of old, and, I may say, obsolete political obligations and affinities. But I meant all those, who fully understanding and appreciating the tendency of the revolution in which we are engaged, intend to aid and sustain you honestly in the execution of the tremendous task which has fallen to your lot. Nor did I, when speaking of the duty and policy of being true to one's friends, think of the distribution of favors in the shape of profitable offices. But I did mean that in the management of the great business of this revolution only such men should be permitted to participate, who answer to this definition of “friends” and on whose sympathies you can rely as securely as upon their ability.

I am far from presuming to blame you for having placed old Democrats into high military positions. I was also aware that McClellan and several other generals had been appointed on the recommendation of Republican governors and Members of Congress. It was quite natural that you appointed them when the necessities of the situation were new and pressing and everybody was untried. But it was unfortunate that you sustained them in their power and positions with such inexhaustible longanimity after they had been found failing—failing not only in a political but also in a military sense.

Was I really wrong in saying, that the principal management of the war has been in the hands of your opponents? Or will anybody assert, that such men as McClellan and Buell and Halleck and others of that school have the least sympathy with your views and principles, or that their efficiency as military leaders has offered a compensation for their deficiency of sympathy, since the first has in eighteen months succeeded in effecting literally nothing but the consumption of our resources with the largest and best appointed army this country ever saw;—since the second by his criminal tardiness and laxity endangered even the safety of the metropolis of the Middle States, and since the appearance of the third on the battlefield of Shiloh served suddenly to arrest the operations of our victorious troops and to make shortly afterwards the great Army of the West disappear from the scene as by enchantment, so as to leave the country open to the enemy? Has it not been publicly stated in the newspapers and apparently proved as a fact, that the enemy from the commencement of the war has been continually supplied with information by some of the confidential subordinates of so important an officer as Adjutant-General Thomas? Is it surprising that the people at last should have believed in the presence of enemies at our own headquarters, and in the unwillingness of the Government to drive them out? As for me, I am far from being inclined to impeach the loyalty and good faith of any man; but the coincidence of circumstances is such, that if the case were placed before a popular jury, I would find it much easier to act on the prosecution than on the defense.

You say that our Republican generals did no better; I might reply, that between two generals of equal military inefficiency I would in this crisis give a Republican the preference. But that is not the question. I ask you most seriously—what Republican general has ever had a fair chance in this war? Did not McClellan, Buell, Halleck and their creatures and favorites claim, obtain and absorb everything? Were not other generals obliged to go begging merely for a chance to do something for their country, and were they not turned off as troublesome intruders while your Fitzjohn Porters flourished?

No, sir, let us indulge in no delusions as to the true causes of our defeat in the elections. The people, so enthusiastic at the beginning of the war, had made enormous sacrifices. Hundreds of millions were spent, thousands of lives were lost apparently for nothing. The people had sown confidence and reaped disaster and disappointment. They wanted a change, and as an unfortunate situation like ours is apt to confuse the minds of men, they sought it in the wrong direction. I entreat you, do not attribute to small incidents, the enlisting of Republican voters in the Army, the attacks of the press etc., what is a great historical event. It is best that you, you more than anybody else in this Republic, should see the fact in its true light and acknowledge its significance: the result of the elections was a most serious and severe reproof administered to the Administration. Do not refuse to listen to the voice of the people. Let it not become true, what I have heard said: that of all places in this country it is Washington where public opinion is least heard, and of all places in Washington, the White House.

The result of the elections has complicated the crisis. Energy and success, by which you would and ought to have commanded public opinion, now form the prestige of your enemies. It is a great and powerful weapon, and, unless things take a favorable turn, troubles may soon involve not only the moral power but the physical existence of the Government. Only relentless determination, heroic efforts on your part can turn the tide. You must reconquer the confidence of the people at any price.

One word in vindication of myself, the writer of this letter. I pray you most earnestly not to attribute the expressions of grief and anxiety coming from devoted men like myself to a pettish feeling of disappointment in not “seeing their peculiar views made sufficiently prominent.” When a man's whole heart is in a cause like ours, then, I think, he may be believed not to be governed by small personal pride. Besides, the spectacle of war is apt to awaken solemn and serious feelings in the heart of one who has some sympathy with his fellow-beings. I command a few thousands of brave and good fellows, entitled to life and happiness just as well as the rest of us; and when I see their familiar faces around the camp-fires and think of it, that to-morrow they may be called upon to die,—to die for a cause which for this or that reason is perhaps doomed to fail, and thus to die in vain, and when I hear the wailings of so many widows and orphans, and remember the scenes of heartrending misery and desolation I have already witnessed—and then think of a possibility that all this may be for nothing—then I must confess my heart begins sometimes to sink within me and to quail under what little responsibility I have in this business. I do not know, whether you have ever seen a battlefield. I assure you, Mr. President, it is a terrible sight. I am, dear sir,

Truly your faithful friend.