Known as one of the more “radical” of the Radical Republicans, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio was given chairmanship of a new committee that was guaranteed to strike fear in the hearts of many Union generals. On Dec. 9, 1861, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was created.
Since the start of the Civil War, the Union had suffered defeats at the hands of the Confederacy. These defeats at Fort Sumter, Manassas, Wilson’s Creek and Ball’s Bluff were particularly embarrassing because the Union was better armed and had a broader base of soldiers than the fledgling Confederacy.
Wade, a former Whig, joined the Republican Party in 1851. Upon his election, to the U. S. Senate, Wade formed alliances with Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. These men were leaders of a faction within the Republican Party known as Radical Republicans.
The Republican radicals were vehemently opposed to slavery and southern power. They thought President Abraham Lincoln, who was a moderate, was too lenient and slow to react to southern secession.
Wade was especially vocal concerning his dislike for the president, writing that Lincoln’s views of slavery “could only come of one born of poor white trash and educated in a slave state.”
Wade also grew incensed at Lincoln for his slowness to recruit African-Americans into the Union army. Throughout the Civil War, the Radical Republicans continually questioned Lincoln’s leadership, selection of generals and views on Reconstruction.
The Union debacle at Ball’s Bluff brought about the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Slain Union soldiers floated down the Potomac River from Leesburg, Va., to Washington D. C. and Colonel Edward Dickson Baker, a sitting Senator from Oregon, was killed leading Union troops.
Wade had personally witnessed the Union defeat at Manassas in March 1861. He was among a number of politicians who traveled to the Virginia countryside to watch the Confederate army be defeated. By the end of the day, Wade watched as routed Federal soldiers raced away from the battlefield back toward Washington D. C. Near Fairfax Courthouse, Wade leapt out of his carriage and with rifle in hand attempted to rally the panic-stricken Union soldiers.
As with most entities in Washington, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was political in the extreme. The committee had a disdain of Union generals from West Point. They preferred generals, who owed their rank to political connections, over military men trained in the art of war. The committee also distrusted any Union general who were members of the Democratic Party. Many feared the committee would use politics to declare non-Republican generals as traitors, if they happened to lose a battle.
The committee used their power to investigate Union defeats, force their view of the conduct of the war on the Lincoln administration and destroy any general that might cross them. The committee was especially critical of Major General George B. McClellan, who they deemed too slow to attack the Confederate army. They also disliked McClellan because he was a Democrat.
From 1861 to 1866, the Committee had 272 meetings. In these meetings, the committee investigated such battles as First Manassas, Ball’s Bluff, Gettysburg, the treatment of black soldiers by Nathan Bedford Forrest at Fort Pillow, as well as the Mine Crater incident during the Siege of Petersburg. While these meetings were held in secret, their findings were published and could destroy or enhance a general’s career.
The Gettysburg investigation was due to “political” Major General Daniel Sickles accusing Major General George Gordon Meade of not wanting to fight at Gettysburg. Meade was a West Pointer and Sickles a political insider. Sickles hoped to use the committee investigation as a means to diminish his mistake at Gettysburg at the expense of Meade.