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Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War

December 10, 1861 – May 22, 1865

The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was a Congressional committee established in 1861 to "inquire into the conduct" of the American Civil War.

After Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, touching off the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for volunteers to put down the rebellion. Green recruits poured into Washington, D.C., forming the largest army ever assembled on the North American continent up to that time. Many people in the North were convinced that this mighty force would easily defeat the Rebel army encamped near Manassas, Virginia, march on to the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, and quickly end the war. After several months of organizing and training the new Army of Northeastern Virginia, a reluctant General Irvin McDowell succumbed to the public's "On to Richmond!" demands and led his soldiers out of Washington to confront the Rebels on July 21, 1861. Instead of the speedy victory that Northerners expected, the Union army suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Bull Run I. Several members of Congress were so confident of a Yankee victory that they gathered near the battlefield, where they were personally in danger of being captured after witnessing in astonishment the Rebel victory.

Shortly after the Confederate victory at Bull Run, President Lincoln placed Major General George B. McClellan in charge of the Military District of the Potomac, but Union fortunes did not fare much better. Following several more months of perceived inactivity, Federal forces suffered another unexpected defeat at the Battle of Ball's Bluff on October 21, 1861. When Congress reconvened in December, New York Representative Roscoe Conkling introduced a House resolution demanding a report from Secretary of War Simon Cameron about the defeat at Ball's Bluff. Not to be outdone, Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler offered a resolution on December 5, 1861 to create a committee to investigate the debacles at Ball's Run and Bull Run. Iowa Senator James Grimes expanded the scope of the resolution calling for a joint committee to examine all aspects of the war. For the next several days, the Senate worked to establish the limits and responsibilities of the proposed committee, before authorizing its formation. Chandler's resolution was approved by the Senate by a vote of thirty-three to three. The House quickly jumped on board, and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was created on December 10, 1861.

The original members of the Committee consisted of Republican Senators Benjamin F. Wade (Ohio) and Zachariah Chandler (Michigan), Democrat Senator Andrew Johnson (Tennessee), Republican Representatives George W. Julian (Indiana), John Covode (Pennsylvania) and Daniel W. Gooch (Massachusetts), and Democratic Representative Moses Fowler Odell (New York). When Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee in March 1862, he was replaced by Democratic Senator Joseph Wright (Indiana). The five Republicans and two Democrats were authorized to "inquire into the conduct of the present war and to send for persons and papers."

Theoretically, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War served as a mechanism for overseeing the administration's execution of the war. In fairness, it did yield some positive results, especially in terms of uncovering and reducing graft related to war contracts, exposing mistreatment of Union soldiers in Confederate POW camps, advancing the production of heavy ordnance, and maintaining public morale. Nevertheless, the overall impact of the Committee's effect on the war effort is questionable.

Dominated by Radical Republicans, the Committee convened for the first time on December 20, 1861. The members agreed to hold no public meetings and to keep their deliberations secret. The Committee was authorized to subpoena witnesses and documents for examination, however anyone called to testify was forbidden to speak with the press afterwards. Nonetheless, Committee members regularly leaked information to newspapers when it suited their agenda.

Throughout its existence, the Committee was obsessed with second-guessing the performance of Union military commanders (especially in the Eastern Theater), despite the fact that its members had little if any martial expertise. The Committee was notably critical of West Point graduates, while otherwise tolerant of less effective political generals who shared their partisan beliefs. Generals who were conspicuously targeted were Charles Pomeroy Stone, George McClellan, and George Meade. Even General William T. Sherman, fresh after his triumphant campaigns through Georgia and the Carolinas, could not escape the Committee's wrath. On May 6, 1865, with the war over, Sherman was summoned before the Committee to explain the lenient terms he offered Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, after Johnston surrendered his army on April 26, 1865 at Bennett Place, North Carolina.

President Lincoln, himself, was not above the Committee's animus. Led by Wade, who harbored a personal dislike for the president, the Committee closely scrutinized (if not criticized) nearly every move Lincoln made. In addition to his handling of Union generals throughout the course of the war, Radicals also questioned Lincoln's commitment to emancipation because the president delayed issuing the Emancipation Proclamation until after the Union victory at Antietam. There is no doubt that Lincoln was distracted from his duties as commander-in-chief by dealing with the Committee's constant harping and interference. Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, might well have expressed what the president could not, when he described the Committee members as "narrow and prejudiced partisans, mischievous busy-bodies, and a discredit to Congress. Mean and contemptible partisanship colors all their acts."

When the 38th Congress convened in 1863, the Committee on the Conduct of the War was reconstituted. On the House side, Republicans Julian and Gooch continued their assignments. Unconditional Unionist Party member Benjamin F. Logan (Utah) replaced Covode who retired from Congress. Democratic Representative Odell continued his service. Wade and Chandler remained on board to represent the Republicans from the Senate. Democratic senators Benjamin F. Harding (Oregon) and Charles R. Buckalew (Pennsylvania) replaced Johnson and Wright.

The Committee on the Conduct of the War continued to meet regularly until shortly after the war ended, adjourning for the last time on May 22, 1865. During its existence, the Committee convened 272 times and published at least one report each year. In retrospect, its members were no doubt motivated by patriotic intentions. Nonetheless, the Committee's effectiveness and usefulness was hampered by ruthless tactics, partisan politics, and a general ignorance of military science.

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