The Committee on the Conduct of the War was as much a foe of wayward Union generals as it was of Confederates.
The Committee on the Conduct of the War, which moved quickly and eagerly to investigate reports of Confederate forces deliberately slaughtering black and white soldiers at Fort Pillow, was hardly an impartial deliberative body. Indeed, one modern scholar has termed the panel “the most influential, meddlesome, mischievous and baneful committee in the legislative history of the United States.” Not even the president’s wife was exempt from the committee’s prying eyes, and more than one high-ranking Union general felt his legs buckle when he was summoned to appear before the committee in its dusty basement meeting room in the bowels of the Capitol.
The seven-man committee, formed in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October 1861, was dominated from the start by its fearsome chairman, Ohio Senator Benjamin F. “Bluff Ben” Wade. A self-taught farm boy from western Massachusetts, Wade had prospered in the rough-and-tumble political climate of frontier-era Ohio. Short and stocky, with a barrel chest, bushy eyebrows and a long upper lip that curled down at the corners, Wade closely resembled a bulldog, both literally and figuratively. His favorite parliamentary tactic was to pound on his wooden desk and curse at the top of his lungs until he got his way, which he generally did. Except for President Abraham Lincoln and possibly Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Wade was the most powerful figure in wartime Washington.
Other committee members included Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler, Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson and Congressmen George Julian of Indiana, John Covode of Pennsylvania, Daniel Gooch of Massachusetts and Moses Fowler Odell of New York. All except Johnson and Odell were Republicans and, with the possible exception of Gooch, belonged to the radical, abolitionist wing of the party.
The committee’s first act of business was investigating the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Va., which had resulted in a stinging Union defeat and–incidentally–the death of Abraham Lincoln’s close friend, Colonel Edward Baker. With Baker dead and instantly transformed into a martyr, the committee’s attention fell on his immediate superior, Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone. Meeting in secret, the committee heard highly spurious testimony alleging Stone to be a traitor, testimony it passed along unchallenged to Secretary of War Stanton. Subsequently, Stone was arrested and held without formal charges for six months at Fort Lafayette, N.Y., before being released. Despite his frequent pleas for a public hearing, Stone was denied a forum in which to confront his accusers. He later resigned from the Army in disgust.
The committee’s treatment of Stone served as an object lesson for other erring Union commanders, and the panel continued to use its investigative powers to demote or defame any and all officers who failed to meet its exacting standards of political loyalty and abolitionist sentiment. The committee’s favorite target was Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, a well-known Democrat and potential presidential candidate whom the committee believed to be soft on slavery. Conversely, Republican Party stalwarts such as John C. Frémont, Benjamin Butler and Joseph Hooker consistently enjoyed committee support, even after they committed repeated grievous military errors.
The capture of Fort Pillow in April 1864 gave the committee a volatile new controversy to investigate. The apparent murder of black soldiers after they had surrendered–an issue about which there continues to be much debate–inspired the committee to hurried action. Within a week of the battle, Wade and Gooch undertook a lengthy trip to Cairo and Mound City, Ill., and Fort Pillow, Union City and Memphis, Tenn. In all, they interviewed more than 70 survivors of the battle, black and white. As modern scholar Bruce Tap has noted, “A great deal [of the testimony] was exaggerated and undoubtedly elicited by suggestive leading questions to witnesses, many of whom were illiterate.”
The committee subsequently ignored or suppressed testimony that put the Confederate actions at Fort Pillow in anything but the worst possible light. At the same time, it accepted as fact statements that clearly were false, including one from a witness who claimed to have seen Forrest personally ordering the killing of helpless soldiers. The so-called eyewitness described the 6-foot, 2-inch Forrest as “a little bit of a man.”
Despite such obvious inconsistencies, the committee issued a final report accusing the Confederates of “an indiscriminate slaughter, sparing neither age nor sex, white or black, soldier or civilian. No cruelty which the most fiendish malignity could devise was omitted by these murderers.” Going even further, the report declared, “The atrocities committed at Fort Pillow were not the result of passions excited by the heat of conflict, but were the results of a policy deliberately decided upon and unhesitatingly announced.”
The committee’s findings served the panel’s chief purpose, which was to inflame public sentiment against the Confederacy at the exact moment that Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was leading the nation’s largest army into a deadly new round of fighting in northern Virginia. Meanwhile, the fallen at Fort Pillow, particularly the black soldiers who by all accounts had fought fiercely and bravely against overwhelming odds, were reduced to the role of mere passive victims. Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war–and sometimes the last, as well.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War