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President Lincoln's Coup-D'Etat

The Illustrated London News, vol.41, no.1176, p.565.

November 29, 1862


It is with some reason supposed that there is a growing body of persons in the States of America which looks at every political and military movement of either of the contending parties from what may be called a mediation point of view. But it is quite certain that in this country every one, whatever may be his proclivities, whether he inclines to the North or to the South scans eagerly every act of importance which is reported in order, if possible, to extract from it some hope, however faint or remote, of a pause in the terribly sanguinary arbitrement to which the differences between Federals and Confederates have been referred. To say the truth, the news of American battles has lost much of its interest, since it has been invariably found that nothing decisive ever comes of them, and that mankind in general are by no means accurately informed as to which side even ostensible victory has inclined. Many of those who must gather their opinions from such accounts as they receive of stricken fields are now apt to think that the resultless character of this internecine war has become confirmed, and that the questions involved are not very likely to be soon settled by the rude process of fighting. It is, therefore, not

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surprising that more attention has been recently fixed on the elections which have been going on in the Federal States, and which are a kind of battles that Englishmen of the present generation understand better than the gladiatorial combats of hundreds of thousands of armed men, the object of which seems to be, or at least the result of which is, only the slaughter of so many of the combatants on either side. It is quite intelligible how the return to Congress and to the offices and Legislatures of the different Federal States of men who belong to a party which, if it has a creed, is opposed, we will not say to the policy, for that word in the sense in which we use it is hardly expressive of the sources of political movement in America, but to the personal presence in the Presidential chair of Mr. Lincoln, would seem to us on this side of the water to have assumed the aspect of a vote of want of confidence in the Government. In our own more concentrated mode of conducting the business of the State this would have been done by a vote of the House of Commons directed against the Ministry in office, and would have brought new men into their places and raised hopes of the inauguration of a new policy. There is, however, no means that we know of by which a President of the United States can be called on to resign because of the expression of opinion by an elective majority condemnatory of his mode of conducting the affairs of the country. No such sudden fall from power can come on Mr. Lincoln except by his own act or by the exercise of something akin to physical force. But it would be very strange if the fact of strong reaction in public opinion, as indicated by a series of elections carried on avowedly on the principle of Lincolnism or no Lincolnism, did not create an uneasy sense of insecurity at Washington. There has been, doubtless, due counsel taken by the President and his advisers as to how they might best guard themselves from the danger which threatens them. In such a case one of the first steps taken by men who, in a certain sense, are beleaguered, is to eject from amongst them any of their number who, wielding power, are not deemed heart-whole in their cause. This is one of the first symptoms of preparation for defence, and it has not been wanting in the care of the Executive at Washington. The first symptom of alarm has been duly exhibited by the deposition of General M'Clellan from the command of the army in the field, which is really face to face with the Southern forces, a circumstance which would have been of little consequence before the recent elections, but which now is full of significance.

This act, if it means anything, signifies that the authorities at Washington are conscious that the party of which they are the representatives is no longer triumphant, and that while Mr. Lincoln continues to hold power, it may be in defiance of opinion, it is necessary that he should use it in every way for the purposes and the support of the cause of which he is the outward and visible sign. We in this country are generally in a somewhat foggy state on the subject of American parties; and few of us comprehend exactly what is meant by the terms Republican and Democrat. If the latter is interpreted by the word Conservatism we believe it goes as near to its meaning as it can be brought; but it has a strange sound to our ears when used in that sense. It would seem, however, that the Democrats are the party of law and order; earnest for the preservation of the Union, if it can be preserved by legitimate and constitutional means; and up to the present time they have not been opposed to war as a means of conserving the grand federation of the United States. The Republicans, as we understand them, are abolitionists of slavery and Unionists at any cost and by any means, and therefore they are supporters of all the recent acts of the Executive at Washington, which have made Old-World despotism and European states of siege hide their diminished heads. Hitherto, the Democrats have not been a peace party; but it is believed that they are fast coming to that conclusion, and are--we will mot say drifting--but being driven into the consciousness that separation between North and South is inevitable, and that it would be better to yield their wishes for the totality of the Union in order that anarchy might not become chronic in their country.

To the Democrat party General M'Clellan avowedly belongs. When he took the command-in-chief of the army of the North such a position was quite consistent with the principles of his party, and he might well have believed that he was best serving its views by endeavouring to create an army out of the armed mob which he found at Washington. Whatever other merit may be denied him, and we do not profess to hold his qualitie[s] as a General in the field at all high, at least he must be allowed the credit of having done much towards that organisation of a huge mass of men called an army, the absence of which in general has been the main element of all the disaster of this unhappy war. But it was not unreasonable for the President and his advisers to suppose that the change which had come over M'Clellan's party would reach him, and this at the most critical moment of the contest. In fact, it is on all hands allowed that he held the issue of the struggle in his hands; and that, once more in the history of the world, the General of an army might have been the arbiter of the fortunes of his country. That an attempt to remove him from his command should have been made is not surprising; and the moral courage which dictated and carried it out is not undeserving of admiration.

The case of the Republicans against M'Clellan, however, goes further than that which we have stated above. They say that, as a politician, his sympathies have always been with the South, and that he has believed that party wronged by Northern sentiment and Northern action; that he hoped and believed that a time would come when the war could be arrested, and when the Southern leaders, backed by a powerful party in the Northern States, would listen to terms of accommodation; and that nothing would stand in the way of such a compromise more than a victory which should crush the power of the South. Hence his dilatory proceedings, his apparent dallying with the war, his reluctance to measure his strength at all opportunities with the foe before him, and the conduct of the campaign in Virginia, which ended in the withdrawal of the Northern troops from aggressive action in the territory of their opponents. In short, the accusation must be summed up in the simple phrase that M'Clellan was a traitor. For our own part, we believe nothing so decided of him. He is a mediocre man, a doctrinaire in a military as well as a political sense, who might have been well employed in drilling recruits at Washington, but who was wholly unfitted by temperament or quality to be placed in the situation of a General on whose activity, resource, and military genius so much depended.

It is true that the extreme section of the Northern party has long been demanding his deposition from the command of the army of the Potomac; and it may be true that on more than one occasion the President has personally written to his General, remonstrating with him for his military conduct; and there may also be truth in the statement of General Halleck, of something like positive disobedience to orders by M'Clellan, and which is put forward as the ostensible reason of his recall; but there are few impartial persons who will not hold that the real cause of his removal lies deeper, and that the sudden action of the President has been prompted by a very excusable alarm at the turn which political affairs have taken. If all that is stated be fact, the President was long ago satisfied that M'Clellan ought to be removed, and, if so,his being retained could only have been a temporising with that feeling of insecurity which has culminated in an act almost of desperation. The quiet submission of M'Clellan to his relegation, with something of ignominy, into private life, when, if his partisans are to be credited, he might have set himself up as a military dictator and brought the affairs of his country to a settlement, is characteristic of the man, whom a mixture of constitutional principle and timidity renders wholly unequal to the adopting of the part which has been played before now in the civil convulsions of a nation by the head of an army. Despite of some peculiarly American talk with regard to him, we venture to prophecy that the world has heard the last of M'Clellan as a public man.

The appointment of General Burnside to the command of the Northern army is perhaps the best that could be made. He is by profession a soldier, and he has been tolerably successful in some small affairs in which he has been engaged. But, whatever his military capabilities may be, what seems to be certain is that he has undertaken the command of the army of the Potomac on the condition of meeting the enemy in the field; that his tactics are to be the opposite of those of his predecessor. It seems likely, therefore, that ere long a state of things will be attained in which the small voice of reason and of good sense, which is very faintly heard in America now, will swell into a demand for peace and negotiation. We hear that that peculiar season of the American continent which is called the Indian summer has arrived, and it will afford opportunity for General Burnside to do anything he proposes to do; and if a great battle is fought, whatever may be its result in a military sense, we have a confident hope that its effects on the public mind in the States will be what we should call satisfactory--that is, it will produce such a pause in the action of the war as to allow the suggestions of reason and common sense to be listened to, coming, as they will, from an unlooked for quarter--namely, from the majority of the American people themselves.

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