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Morton: War committee considered among most abusive

Published: Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

On this day (Dec. 9) in 1861, Congress established The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which was created as a congressional investigating committee to look into possible corruption, profiteering and inefficiency in the federal government and to investigate the loyalty of federal employees, especially Union Army officers.

Established after the humiliating Union defeat at the Oct. 21, 1861, Battle of Ball’s Bluff, the committee conducted a series of witch-hunting hearings that led to the dismissal from the Army of the Union commander at Ball’s Bluff (Gen. Charles Pomeroy Stone) and his incarceration for 189 days in a military prison.

Stone was accused of undue friendliness with the enemy, cowardice in battle, military ineptitude, and even possible treason. It was obvious that Stone was made the military scapegoat, not only for the Ball’s Bluff fiasco, but for the poor showing of the Union armies in and around Washington, D.C., early in the war.

The real culprits for the early federal military defeats, inaction and ineptitude were, more accurately, several Eastern Theatre Union Army commanders (especially Gens. Irvin McDowell and George B. McClellan), not the hapless 15th Massachusetts Division commander Stone, who happily was later returned to active military service.

Originally established to investigate corruption and disloyalty, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War soon got involved in wide range of issues pertaining to the northern war effort that including the minutia of military strategy, the troublesome matter of illicit trade with the Confederacy, the use of African-American soldiers, the medical treatment of wounded soldiers, the urging of the emancipation of all slaves, and prisoner exchange.

During its 272 meetings held between December 1861 and May 1865, the committee became the focal point for Republican and Democratic criticism of President Abraham Lincoln, his Cabinet members (especially Secretary of State William H. Seward), the president’s military strategy and his relatively lenient Reconstruction policies.

The committee’s original House of Representatives members were selected by the speaker, whereas the Senate members were chosen by Vice President Hannibal Hamlin and included, interestingly, the only senator from a Confederate state (Lincoln’s second vice president and presidential successor Andrew Johnson of Tennessee). The leaders, all radical Republicans, of what could be called an early version of the infamous witch-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities of the 1940s and 1950s, were chairman Sen. Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Sens. George W. Julian of Indiana and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan.

The committee issued several official reports, the first of which, published in 1863, delineated the “problems” (inactivity and alleged incompetence) associated with the Army of the Potomac under Gens. McClellan, “Fighting” Joe Hooker, Ambrose Burnside, and George G. Meade, and the Union defeats at First Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff. Subsequent reports dealt with specific issues, such as Confederate mistreatment of captured Union soldiers, the military expedition at Fort Fisher, S.C. (where African-American troops were extensively utilized), the use of Monitor-class warships, and the issuance of government contracts.

These reports, taken altogether, represented a concerted challenge to Lincoln as president and commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy and his assumption of “unwarranted” executive powers. Particularly, the reports criticized, as inept and even treasonous, Union commanders who lost battles and almost everyone else who did not agree with the radical Republican strategy of all-out, aggressive military action and its harsh Reconstruction policies.

This committee is considered, by many historians, to be one of the most abusive, vindictive congressional investigating committees in American history.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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