James S. Wadsworth (1807-1864)
James S. Wadsworth was an unlikely soldier and an improbable politician. Wadsworth was "a thorough Radical, in favor of every elision of constitutional guarantees that the President had made, and likewise an ardent emancipationist,"according to historian George Fort Milton.1 Historian Sidney David Brummer wrote: "James S. Wadsworth was a gentleman highly respected for his ability, philanthropy, independence, and public spirit. He was very wealthy, having inherited from his father a large estate in the Genesee River valley, He had been educated at Harvard and Yale, and had studied law at Albany and in Daniel Webster's office, though he did not practice. In the days of Martin Van Buren, Wadsworth had zealously supported free soil."2 Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning, himself a moderate, in his diary: "I was much pleased with Genl Wadsworth. He is a calm, sensible, just and reasonable man, intent upon doing his duty in a sensible and reasonable manner, with no tincture of fanaticism about him, but firm in his hostility to slavery and rebellion."3
At the beginning of the Civil War, Wadsworth was named a major general — first by Governor Edwin D. Morgan and then by President Lincoln. He led one of the first contingents of New York troops to Washington — chartering a ship at his own expense to get there. William O. Stoddard was sent by President Lincoln to "inspect" Wadsworth's troops in the fall of 1861. He went, expecting lavish treatment at Wadsworth's headquarters, and was instead treated to "weak whisky and water out of army tin cups. It was difficult for me to make an eloquent response, for I was thinking more of what I would tell Mr. Lincoln about that dinner than of anything I could say."4
Wadsworth was notable for living in the same conditions as his men — and keeping a sharp eye out for his soldier's comfort and health. Stoddard recalled a visit to Wadsworth's military encampment in the fall of 1862. He noted that the general "is known as 'Wadsworth of Geneseo,' and he is about the richest brigadier in this army. When he is at home, he can ride up and down the Genesee, mile after mile, upon the lands of his own fair inheritance, and he is a gentleman of cultivated tastes, polished manners, and excellent mental capacity." When he found Wadsworth's camp, Stoddard was expecting something in line with the military exhibitions then in vogue.
Is this Wadsworth's headquarters. Not in a tent-marquee? Only a little, old, paintless, frame farmhouse. Very well, he can fix it up inside to suit himself. Mrs. Wadsworth is with him, and she is said to be a graceful, dignified, accomplished woman. She, too, was born rich, of a high-caste family, and she was a beauty and a belle in her day.
Wadsworth didn't shy from combat — even with other generals and friends of President Lincoln. On March 15, 1862 General Wadsworth was appointed military governor of Washington. "James S. Wadsworth, a brigadier general in charge of Washington defenses, reported to Stanton that he had only 19,022 green troops available with which to defend the capital," wrote historian Bruce Tap of the general's appointment as military governor in April 1862.6 The report put him into immediate conflict with General George B. McClellan, who commanded the Army of the Potomac and who claimed that more than 70,000 troops were in position to defend Washington.
Wadsworth also did not shy from stating uncomfortable truths that annoyed less radical politicians and less competent superiors like George B. McClellan. He "maintained that his troops were so unfit that they could scarcely operate the heavy artillery defending the city. Stanton reacted immediately, detailing Ethan Hitchcock and Adj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to determine whether McClellan had complied with Lincoln's orders to secure the capital. After a quick investigation, they assured Stanton that McClellan had not done so. Shortly thereafter, Wadsworth himself explained the situation to Lincoln. The next day he appeared before the committee, reinforcing its members' intense distrust of McClellan and their suspicions about his loyalty. That same day Lincoln instructed Stanton to hold back McDowell's corps, depriving McClellan of 35,000 men and creating an open rupture between the administration and the nation's top general."7
On April 27, 1862 Wadsworth and Secretary of War Stanton laid out their conclusions about Washington's inadequate defense in a night Cabinet meeting. "From the outbreak of war, Wadsworth had been notable for his patriotism. At fifty-three, he was still lean and active," wrote historian Margaret Leech. "A landed proprietor of political interests he resembled in many ways the Southern planters who had dominated Washington before 1861. There was one conspicuous difference. Wadsworth was an ardent abolitionist, unsympathetic to the slaveholding population of the capital. From the moment of taking command, he showed an intense distrust of McClellan — who expressed the opinion that Stanton had inspired this antagonism. On the other hand, Major [William] Doster gathered from Wadsworth and his staff that there had been ill feeling for some months between the New Yorker and McClellan, because Wadsworth, officially and in conversation, had expressed himself in favor of an advance in Virginia."8
Wadsworth's complaints about the capital's vulnerability "made a bitter enemy of McClellan, and in the fall of 1862, seeing no prospect of serving in McClellan's army, Wadsworth allowed his supporters to run him for governor of New York against the anti-war Democrat Horatio Seymour. He was so intent on being a good soldier, however, that he declined to leave the army to campaign. As a result, he lost the election. He didn't seem to mind, enjoying the excitement and satisfaction of being with the troops in the field," wrote historian Larry Tagg.9 As a result of Wadsworth's report the previous spring, the corps commanded by Irvin McDowell was withheld from McClellan to defend Washington. "A wiser and less arrogant man than McClellan might have anticipated this result. He had not done so. His plans were disarranged, and he indignantly protested that it would now be necessary to lay siege to Yorktown. The War Office saw only that McClellan still had an army of over one hundred thousand men. Smaller armies, with vastly inferior equipment, had been winning important victories, and this fact Stanton proceeded to emphasize in an order giving thanks for the successes of the Union arms," wrote historian Leech.10
Wadsworth seemed to move from one crisis to another during 1862. He was a prominent advisor to President Lincoln in the critical early days of September 1862 when Washington seemed threatened by the Confederate army under Robert E. Lee after the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase recorded in his diary that on September: "After the General left, went to War Department, where found the President, Stanton and Wadsworth. The President said he had felt badly all day. Wadsworth said there was no danger of an attack on Washington, and that he man ought to be severely punished who intimated the possibility of its surrender. The President spoke of the great number of stragglers he had seen coming into town this morning; and of the immense losses by desertion."11
Meanwhile, Wadsworth's role as military governor of the District of Colombia had put him in the middle of a overtly political crisis in "which he had endeared himself to the abolitionists by obstructing the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law in the District," according to historian William B. Hesseltine.12 Historian Margaret Leech wrote: "With the departure of the Army of the Potomac for the Peninsula, the contrabands in the District had come under Wadsworth's charge, together with the control of the provost guard and the military prisons. He had soon moved the blacks from the Old Capitol prison to the near-by houses of Duff Green's Row. To prevent overcrowding, a number of able-bodied men and women were placed in private service in Washington and other cities. In spite of Wadsworth's efforts, conditions at Duff Green's Row were far from ideal. Its constantly changing population lived in miserable poverty. The Negroes had too recently been enslaved to become immediately industrious and self-reliant. They required, not only Government supervision, but philanthropic assistance as well. The Freedman's Aid Association provided them with clothing and sent them teachers. Colored churches in the city contributed to their relief. Missionaries came down from the North to labor among them."13 Wadsworth biographer Henry G. Pearson explained the complicated actions of the District courts, helped put Wadsworth and U.S. District Marshal Ward Hill Lamon on a collision course after Congress passed the First Confiscation Act in 1861:
The incompleteness of the measures of emancipation already passed by Congress became apparent the instant the omnipotence of this remarkable statute was invoked; the marshal and his deputies, impelled by the powerful vis a tergo of heavy fines, overran the town. They could invade the contraband quarters with impunity; they could even make search through the regimental camps, for the article of war recently passed, though forbidding officers to return fugitives, made no provision for keeping out civil authorities bent on such an errand. Wadsworth's military protections counted for naught, and Lamon's promise that a fugitive thus provided should, if apprehended, be turned back to him, in order that the loyalty of the master might again be investigated, was evaded. One negro, arrested in spite of a 'protection,' was tried and returned to his master with such speed that Wadsworth had no opportunity to make his investigation. In other cases Wadsworth was not notified at all.
The conflict between Marshal Lamon and General Washington was partly political and partly personal. "The arrest of the mulatto girl, Alethia Lynch, precipitated the conflict between the civil and military jurisdictions. There was a story that she was General Wadsworth's cook. In any case, she carried one of his military protections when the constables seized her. Wadsworth sent a peremptory demand for her release. When this was refused, his aide and a squad of the provost guard marched on the jail, took possession of the keys and delivered Alethia by force. The jailer and Deputy Marshal Phillips were arrested and taken to the Central Guard-house; while two lawyers who had arrived on the scene — one was the counsel for the girl's Maryland owner — were shut up in the Blue Jug," wrote historian Margaret Leech.15
Historian James G. Randall described the conflict as "an amazing opera bouffe war between conflicting authorities. The combination of martial law, inefficient local government, and unsettled procedures offered the setting for this melodrama; its cast included Maryland slaveholders of doubtful loyalty, a pro-slavery circuit court in the District, a swashbuckler of a Federal marshal (Ward H. Lamon ) whose hatred of abolitionists coexisted with a much-advertised intimacy with Lincoln, bands of rowdies seeking deviltry for its own sake, and on the other side a vigorous anti-slavery general, James S. Wadsworth, in command of United States troops as military governor of the District. It was a degrading spectacle, unworthy of a controlled democracy. Slaves pouring from Maryland into the District constituted a daily annoyance, and the laws on the subject were not clear. Slaveowners claimed that the fugitive slave law of 1850 applied to the District, but this was stoutly denied, and the question was so unsettled that Governor Bradford of Maryland wrote to Attorney General [Edward] Bates to know where the law officers of the government stood. The governor wanted to know whether it was true that the United States government had forbidden the execution of warrants for the arrest of these alleged escaping slaves, not omitting to state that slaveowners and politicians were excited about it. As for the Attorney General, he could give little satisfaction; he was himself struggling through a maze of puzzles concerning wartime legal aspects of the fugitive slave question."16
Historian Margaret Leech wrote: "In July , smallpox broke out among the families huddled in the little rooms of Duff Green's Row. The sick were left there, while the rest were transferred to the camp on North Twelfth Street, formerly occupied by the dragoons of McClellan's bodyguard. No Maryland fugitives were allowed in this camp, but Lamon's constables hung around it. In protecting his charges, Wadsworth remained defiantly paternal. He had two county constables arrested as kidnapers. In November, and again in December, there were spectacular jail deliveries of Negroes by the provost guard. The civil and military authorities were as much at odds as ever, when Wadsworth left to take command of a division of the Army of the Potomac, and the post of military governor fell to a less impetuous western New Yorker, General John A. Martindale."17 According to historian James G. Randall, "When, late in 1862, Wadsworth was transferred from the military governorship of the District to the Army of the Potomac under Burnside, the issue was still unsettled. It disappeared only with the repeal of the fugitive-slave laws in 1864 and the progress of emancipation."18
While dealing with the fugitive slave problem and the vulnerability of Washington, DC to Confederate attack, Wadsworth had to deal with his own campaign for governor of New York. In August 1862, he wrote a friend, James C. Smith: "I do not find any sufficient reason for absolutely refusing to accept the nomination for governor, but I unaffectedly dread it, and long to be at home and rid of public cares. While I do not seriously doubt that I can get on reasonably well with the ordinary duties of the office, I know that a candidate coming in by common consent, as it were, must disappoint many of his supporters. 'Availability' is very pleasant while running, but greatly increases the embarrassment of executing the duties of an office." Wadsworth also wished his friend Smith to be elevated to the Senate and worried that his own nomination would hurt Smith's chances. Wadsworth already knew he had prominent supporters, including Treasury Secretary Chase. In the letter to Smith, he mentioned that Secretary of War Stanton also wanted him to become Governor of New York. "He is out and out of our views on the slavery question, and wishes New York to stand unequivocal in that question."19
Wadsworth had become close to Chase, who wrote in his diary in September 1862: "Coming from Cabinet, I found a letter from [Hiram] Barney to make it unanimous, if it is not to be considered as a triumph over him; and wrote a note to the General asking him to dine. Both he and the Judge [Pierrepont] came, and we had a pleasant time. Wadsworth has but has one objection to saying he would be Governor, if at all, of the state and not of a section of a party, which was, that it might be considered as in some sort a pledge, which he would not give to anybody. Told Wadsworth, in confidence, that the Proclamation might be expected tomorrow morning — which surprised and gratified him equally."20 A week earlier, Wadsworth had written his friend Smith — before President Lincoln issued his draft Emancipation Proclamation:
I find myself growing quite nervous as the day for the gathering of our convention approaches. I sincerely trust that my friends or my enemies will give the nomination some other direction. I do not like the idea of leaving the military service at this time, or of leaving the Capital. While my main duties are unimportant I hold a position which gives me some influence here which I do not like to relinquish. I should probably be succeeded by a pro-slavery general; moreover, great changes have got to be made in the command of the army before any good will come of it. While I should not anticipate or desire any very responsible position, in the event of these changes I might find a position where I could render service in the line which I prefer and which would carry me 'down South' where Military Governorships will be plenty and of some avail. I trust that you and my other friends who may meet at our convention will well consider the matter in this point of view.
Republican boss Thurlow Weed opposed Wadsworth's nomination. He preferred the nomination of War Democrat John A. Dix, another Union general closer to Weed's own conservative views. Dix was respected but lacked Wadsworth's Republican roots while Weed's own roots in the party were beginning to rot. At the Republican convention in Syracuse, Wadsworth's strength overwhelmed Dix.
According to Wadsworth biographer Henry Greenleaf Pearson: "As it turned out it was Lincoln's change of attitude on the subject of Emancipation that determined Wadsworth's nomination. In the convention, meeting when the news of the proclamation was barely forty-eight hours old, the Greeley and the anti-slavery men had things their own way. Since to support the policy of Emancipation was now to support the President, they were in no mood to listen the counsels of the moderates and under no necessity to bargain for their help. Weed, who on the failure of his overtures to Wadsworth had renewed his advocacy of [John A.] Dix, could make no headway against the cry for a leader who could rally the State to strengthen the hands of the President in his new policy. On the first ballot Wadsworth was nominated, two hundred and thirty-four votes having gone to him, while Dix received only one hundred and ten."22
During the gubernatorial campaign, Wadsworth stayed at his military post in Washington and at the President's side. Democratic State Chairman John Van Buren berated McClellan as "an open, notorious, bitter enemy of George B. McClellan...It is our purpose to stand by Mr. Lincoln so far as he will let us, and to stand by General McClellan whether he will let us or not.'"23 According to historian Sidney David Brummer, "The Unionists apparently felt this charge, for they found it advisable during the course of the campaign to deny that their candidate was unfriendly to McClellan and to aver that Wadsworth had simply been anxious for the Union army to make a forward movement during the preceding winter when McClellan persisted in remaining inactive."24
At the end of October, Wadsworth delivered his one and only speech of the entire campaign. According to historian William Hesseltine, "The climax of the campaign brought the contestants together at Cooper Institute a few days before election. At the beginning of the contest the radical managers had rejected Thurlow Weed's practical and experienced advice. But as the campaign went badly, they had invited him to their councils. Weed raised money and did what he could to revive the hopeless cause. When Wadsworth arrived for the Cooper Institute speech, Weed advised him to speak for Lincoln and the Union. But Wadsworth's principles were sounder than his judgment. He would have none of such 'infamy.' 'We have paid for peace and freedom in the blood of our sons,' he said, 'let us now have it. His speech had fervor without poise, passion without compromise."25 Disregarding Weed's advice, Wadsworth spoke out forcefully in favor of emancipation rather than stick strictly to Weed's save-the-Union script. Wadsworth's outspoken advocacy of abolition cost him sufficient votes that Democrat Horatio Seymour was elected governor by 11,000 votes.
Wadsworth's brief campaign was plagued by splits within the Republican Party. According to historian Stewart Mitchell, "Thurlow Weed was long suspected of the treachery he denied by letter of November 4, 1862. [Customs official] Henry B. Stanton, in Random Recollections...declares that Seward was 'dead against' Wadsworth 'all through the campaign.' [New York Evening Post editor] W. C. Bryant wrote Lincoln what is 'generally agreed to be the major cause of this great reversal':Bryant thought Seymour's election would be a public calamity but might happen if the army were kept idle".26
In October 1862, Mr. Lincoln had discussed the military situation with Wadsworth and told him that he was "tired" of McClellan's "excuses; he'd remove him but for the election; thought it not best to do it till after November's voting."27 After Wadsworth was defeated in his political campaign and McClellan was dismissed from his military mission, Wadsworth was placed in command of a division of the First Corps in the Army of the Potomac.
General Wadsworth served with that division in the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. After Gettysburg, Wadsworth became a reliable presidential informant for the Union army's failure to follow up and crush the Confederate army. According to the diary of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on July 17, 1863: "In a conversation with General Wadsworth, who called on me, I learned that at the council of the general officers, Meade was disposed to make an attack, and was supported by Wadsworth, Howard, and Pleasonton, but Sedgwick, Sykes, and the older regular officers dissented. Meade, rightly disposed but timid and irresolute, hesitated and delayed until too late. Want of decision and self-reliance in an emergency has cost him and the country dear, for had he fallen upon Lee it could hardly have been otherwise than the capture of most of the Rebel army."28 Indeed, Wadsworth was clearly distressed by the July 14 vote by Meade's Council of War. On July 14 at Meade's headquarters, newspaperman Noah Brooks met Vice President Hannibal Hamlin , who "raised his hands and turned away his face with a gesture of despair. Later on, I came across General [James S.] General Wadsworth, who almost shed tears while he talked with us about the escape of the rebel Army. He said that it seemed to him that most of those who participated in the council of war had not stomach for the fight. 'If they had,' he added, the rebellion, as one might say, might have been ended then and there."29
Wadsworth had been an antislavery leader and a leader in the Free Soil party before he became a Republican in 1856. With some 'political generals" like Carl Schurz, President Lincoln occasionally took time to address non-military issues. In early January 1864 President Lincoln wrote General Wadsworth:
You desire to know, in the event of our complete success in the field, the same being followed by a loyal and cheerful submission on the part of the South, if universal amnesty should not be accompanied with universal suffrage.
Wadsworth was shot through the head on the second day of the Wilderness Battle in early May 1864. His death drew an outpouring of grief and recrimination from Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. He wrote in his diary that "few nobler spirits have fallen in this war. He should, by good right and fair-dealing, have been at this moment Governor of New York, but the perfidy of Thurlow Weed and others defeated him. I have always believed that [William H.] Seward was, if not implicated, a sympathizer in that business. No purer or more single-minded patriot than Wadsworth has shown himself in this war. He left home and comforts and wealth to fight the battles of the Union."31 In New York City George Templeton Strong wrote in his own diary: "We have lost a brave and useful man, but this is just the death Wadsworth would have ordered of the destinies had they consulted him on the subject."32
John A. Dix
John A. Dix (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Ward Hill Lamon (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
Ward Hill Lamon (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
George Meade (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Edwin D. Morgan
Edwin D. Morgan (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
Edwin D. Morgan (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
William H. Seward
William H. Seward (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
William H. Seward (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Thurlow Weed (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
Thurlow Weed (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Gideon Welles (Mr. Lincoln's White House)