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"The Grave of All My Comforts": William Pitt Fessenden as Secretary of the Treasury, 1864-65 Robert Cook The Union cause had reached its nadir by the summer of 1864. In the field. Gen. Nathaniel Banks's Red River campaign had proved a disaster; Sherman was stalled on the road to Atlanta; and the Armies of the Potomac and Virginia had ground their way to a stalemate on the bloody Eastern front. At home public concern forthe appalling casualty rate increased, and striking workers continued to vent their frustration at declining real wages. Although Northern inflation was less serious than its Southern variant, gold stood at 270 at the beginning of July—testimony to the depressing military situation and, in the view of many Americans, to the evil machinations ofdisloyal speculators.' With the prospects ofaDemocratic victory inNovember and anegotiatedpeace farfrom negligible, the ruling Republican party was in disarray. A majority of congressional Republicans voted for the Wade-Davis bill as an alternative to President Lincoln 's plan ofReconstruction, and not a few ofthem endorsed the scathing tone ofthe subsequent Manifesto. Intense intraparty factionalism persisted in spite of a general awareness among Republican leaders that Lincoln would have to be the party's standard bearer at the forthcoming election. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P Chase remained the focal point for much of the anti-Lincoln sentiment within the union organization. In June Chase found himselfat odds with the president over a New York patronage appointment and, not for the first time, offered his resignation. To his chagrin, Lincoln accepted. Chase's constant sniping had finally convinced the president that his radical cabinet colleague must go. Besides, he needed the support of moderate New York Republicans who had long been seeking to erode Chase's influence in their state.2 I wish to thank my colleague, Richard Carwardine, for his comments on a draft of this paper. 1 Charles A. Jellison, Fessenden ofMaine: Civil War Senator (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1962), 183. Civil War History, Vol. xu. No. 3 © 1995 by The Kent State University Press WILLIAM PITT FESSENDEN209 The dismissal of Salmon Chase caused consternation in the country at large, and Lincoln cast around somewhat desperately for a successor. His first choice as finance minister was "Pot Metal" David Tod, a committed hard money man from Ohio. When Tod declined the appointment, the president initially thought about another Ohioan and then opted to nominate William Pitt Fessenden, a prominent United States senator from Maine, for the vacant post.3 Fessenden had been a member of the U.S. Senate for over a decade.4 His early political career as an antislavery Whig had been built on the base of a lucrative legal practice in the commercial city of Portland and a judicious marriage to the daughter of a wealthy local merchant. Although the strength of Maine's Jacksonian backcountry did much to thwart his political ambitions during the 1840s, Fessenden was elected to the Senate in January 1854 by a coalition of antislavery and antiliquor forces in the state legislature. Once in power he quickly proved himselfto be one of the South's staunchest opponents in Congress. An expert parliamentarian and accomplished debater , he set his face against compromise during the winter of 1860-61 and, after the withdrawal of slave-state senators, was appointed chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which was soon to play a major role in the bitter struggle for national survival. Although Secretary Chase was the prime mover behind the innovative financial measures introduced during the first three years of the war—most notably several issues of legal tenders and the creation of a national banking system—it was Fessenden, the closest approximation to a Senate majority leader during the war years, who piloted this often controversial legislation through the upper house.5 A proponent of financial orthodoxy, he did not always concur with the bills he was required to champion. In early 1 862, for example, he made it clear that he did not approve of the legal-tender clause ofChase's currency bill, but the argument of wartime necessity induced him to vote for the measure. Convinced that "the safety of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 208-226
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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