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Civilian Interference

The 1861 military disasters of Bull Run and Ball's Bluff caused the U.S. Congress to create the Committee on the Conduct of the War, a group charged with rooting out corruption and inefficiency in the Union army. In actual practice, the committee, made up of abolitionist Radical Republicans led by Senators Benjamin Franklin Wade and Zachariah Chandler and Rep. George Washington Julian, began a campaign that threatened all the conservative and Democratic generals in the army. Their main target was Gen. George B. McClellan, but they got at him by attacking his subordinate generals.

The first victim was Gen. Charles P. Stone. Although the overall commander of the force defeated in the Ball's Bluff disaster, Stone had almost nothing to do with the battle and had been nowhere near the battlefield. Hauled before a secret session of the committee, he faced an inquisition without benefit of counsel, without being told what charges he was facing, and without knowing his accusers or their testimony. Stone was arrested on the committee's orders at midnight on February 8, 1862, and thrown into prison for 189 days. When he was released, he still didn't know what charges had been made against him, and his military career was ruined.

The next victim was Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, one of the Union army's most successful generals on the battlefield—and an avid supporter of McClellan. He became the scapegoat for the federal defeat in the 2d Battle of Bull Run. Charged with disloyalty, disobedience, and misconduct, Porter was court-martialed and cashiered from the army in disgrace.

The Committee on the Conduct of the War continued its political vendettas throughout the war. They supported Radical and abolitionist generals and attacked conservative ones, regardless of competence. The atmosphere created in the army by the committee's actions and its lack of any real military expertise proved to be detrimental to the Union war effort.

Fascinating Fact: Fitz John Porter struggled for the rest of his life to clear his name. Finally, in 1878, a military board exonerated him of all charges.

Sen. Benjamin Franklin Wade, chairman of the Committee on the Conduct of the War; courtesy Library of Congress Written by Stephen T. Foster
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