Lincoln stood wisely for civil control. But even he could not resist the perverting pressure in favor of the disastrous Red River Expedition, against which even Banks protested. Public and Government alike desired to give the French fair warning that the establishment of an imperial Mexico, especially by means of foreign intervention, was regarded as a semi-hostile act. There were two entirely different ways in which this warning could be given: one completely effective without being provocative, the other provocative without being in the very least degree effective. The only effective way was to win the war; and the best way to win the war was to strike straight at the heart of the South with all the Union forces. The most ineffective way was to withdraw Union forces from the heart of the war, send them off at a wasteful tangent, misuse them in eccentric operations just where they would give most offense to the French, and then expose them to what, at best, could only be a detrimental victory, and to what would much more likely be defeat, if not disaster.
Yet, to Grant's and Farragut's and every other soldier's and sailor's disgust, this worst way of all was chosen; and Banks's forty thousand sorely needed veterans were sent to their double defeat at Sabine Cross Roads and Pleasant Hill on the eighth and ninth of April, while Porter's invaluable fleet and the no less indispensable transports were nearly lost altogether owing to the long-foretold fall of the dangerous Red River. The one success of this whole disastrous affair was the admirable work of Colonel Joseph Bailey, who dammed the water up just in time to let the rapidly stranding vessels slide into safety through a very narrow sluice.
Even the Red River lesson was thrown away on Stanton, whose interference continued to the bitter end, except when checked by Lincoln or countered by Grant and Sherman in the field. When Grant was starting on his tour of inspection he found that Stanton had forbidden all War Department operators to let commanding generals use the official cipher except when in communication with himself. There were to be no secrets at the front between the commanding generals, even on matters of immediate life and death, unless they were first approved by Stanton at his leisure. The fact that the enemy could use unciphered messages was nothing in his autocratic eyes. Nor did it prick his conscience to change the wording in ways that bewildered his own side and served the enemy's turn.
When Grant took the cipher Stanton ordered the operator to be dismissed. Grant thereupon shouldered the responsibility, saying that Stanton would have to punish him if any one was punished. Then Stanton gave in. Grant saw through him clearly. "Mr. Stanton never questioned his own authority to command, unless resisted. He felt no hesitation in assuming the functions of the Executive or in acting without advising with him . . . . He was very timid, and it was impossible for him to avoid interfering with the armies covering the capital when it was sought to defend it by an offensive movement against the army defending the Confederate capital. The enemy would not have been in danger if Mr. Stanton had been in the field."
Stanton was unteachable. He never learnt where control ended and disabling interference began. In the very critical month of August, '64, he interfered with Hunter to such an extent that this patriotic general had to tell Grant "he was so embarrassed with orders from Washington that he had lost all trace of the enemy." Nor was that the end of Stanton's interference with the operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln's own cipher letter to Grant on the third of August shows what both these great men had to suffer from the weak link in the chain between them.
"I have seen your despatch in which you say, 'I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself south of the enemy, and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.' This, I think, is exactly right, as to how our forces should move. But please look over the despatches you may have received from here, even since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here of "putting our army SOUTH of the enemy," or of 'following him to the DEATH' in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done or attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.'
The experts of the loyal North were partly comforted by knowing that Davis and his ministers had interfered with Jackson, that during the present campaign they made a crucial mistake about Johnston, and that they failed to give Lee the supreme command until it was too late. But no Southern Secretary went quite so far as Stanton, who actually falsified Grant's order to Sheridan at the crisis of the Valley campaign in October. Here are Grant's own words: "This order had to go through Washington, where it was intercepted; and when Sheridan received what purported to be a statement of what I wanted him to do it was something entirely different."
Nor was Stanton the only responsible civilian to interfere with Grant. There was no government press censorship--perhaps, in this peculiar war, there could not be one. So the only safety was unceasing care, even in cases vouched for by civilians of high official standing. When Grant was beginning the great campaign of '64 the Honorable Elihu B. Washburne, afterwards United States Minister to France, introduced one Swinton as the prospective historian of the war. On this understanding Swinton accompanied the army. One night Grant gave verbal orders to the staff officer on duty. Three days later these orders appeared in a Richmond paper. Shortly afterwards, in the midst of the Wilderness battle, Swinton was found eavesdropping behind a stump during a midnight conference at headquarters. Sent off with a serious warning, he next appeared, in another place, as a prisoner condemned to death for spying. Grant, satisfied that he was not bent on getting news for the enemy in particular, but only for the press in general, released and expelled him with such a warning this time that he never once came back.