The fundamental problem of the Lincoln Government was the raising of armies, the sudden conversion of a community which was essentially industrial into a disciplined military organization. The accomplishment of so gigantic a transformation taxed the abilities of two Secretaries of War. The first, Simon Cameron, owed his place in the Cabinet to the double fact of being one of the ablest of political bosses and of standing high among Lincoln's competitors for the Presidential nomination. Personally honest, he was also a political cynic to whom tradition ascribes the epigram defining an honest politician as one who "when he is bought, will stay bought." As Secretary of War he showed no particular ability.
In 1861, when the tide of enthusiasm was in flood, and volunteers in hosts were responding to acts of Congress for the raising and maintenance of a volunteer army, Cameron reported in December that the Government had on foot 660,971 men and could have had a million except that Congress had limited the number of volunteers to be received. When this report was prepared, Lincoln was, so to speak, in the trough of two seas. The devotion which had been offered to him in April, 1861, when the North seemed to rise as one man, had undergone a reaction. Eight months without a single striking military success, together with the startling defeat at Bull Run, had had their inevitable effect. Democracies are mercurial; variability seems to be part of the price of freedom. With childlike faith in their cause, the Northern people, in midsummer, were crying, "On to Richmond!" In the autumn, stung by defeat, they were ready to cry, "Down with Lincoln."
In a subsequent report, the War Department confessed that at the beginning of hostilities, "nearly all our arms and ammunition" came from foreign countries. One great reason why no military successes relieve the gloom of 1861 was that, from a soldier's point of view, there were no armies. Soldiers, it is true, there were in myriads; but arms, ammunition, and above all, organization were lacking. The supplies in the government arsenals had been provided for an army of but a few thousand. Strive as they would, all the factories in the country could not come anywhere near making arms for half a million men; nor did the facilities of those days make it possible for munition plants to spring up overnight. Had it not been that the Confederacy was equally hard pushed, even harder pushed, to find arms and ammunition, the war would have ended inside Seward's ninety days, through sheer lack of powder.
Even with the respite given by the unpreparedness of the South, and while Lincoln hurriedly collected arms and ammunition from abroad, the startled nation, thus suddenly forced into a realization of what war meant, lost its head. From its previous reckless trust in sheer enthusiasm, it reacted to a distrust of almost everything. Why were the soldiers not armed? Why did not millions of rounds of cartridges fall like manna out of the sky? Why did not the crowds of volunteers become armies at a word of command? One of the darkest pages in American history records the way in which the crowd, undisciplined to endure strain, turned upon Lincoln in its desire to find in the conduct of their leader a pretext for venting upon him the fierceness of their anxiety. Such a pretext they found in his treatment of Fremont.
The singular episode of Fremont's arrogance in 1861 is part of the story of the border States whose friendship was eagerly sought by both sides--Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and those mountainous counties which in time were to become West Virginia. To retain Maryland and thus to keep open the connection between the Capital and the North was one of Lincoln's deepest anxieties. By degrees the hold of the Government in Maryland was made secure, and the State never seceded. Kentucky, too, held to the Union, though, during many anxious months in 1861, Lincoln did not know whether this State was to be for him or against him. The Virginia mountains, from the first, seemed a more hopeful field, for the mountaineers had opposed the Virginia secession and, as soon as it was accomplished, had begun holding meetings of protest. In the meantime George B. McClellan, with the rank of general bestowed upon him by the Federal Government, had been appointed to command the militia of Ohio. He was sent to assist the insurgent mountaineers, and with him went the Ohio militia. From this situation and from the small engagements with Confederate forces in which McClellan was successful, there resulted the separate State of West Virginia and the extravagant popular notion that McClellan was a great general. His successes were contrasted in the ordinary mind with the crushing defeat at Bull Run, which happened at about the same time.
The most serious of all these struggles in the border States, however, was that which took place in Missouri, where, owing to the strength of both factions and their promptness in organizing, real war began immediately. A Union army led by General Nathaniel Lyon attacked the Confederates with great spirit at Wilson's Creek but was beaten back in a fierce and bloody battle in which their leader was killed.
Even before these events Fremont had been appointed to chief command in Missouri, and here he at once began a strange course of dawdling and posing. His military career must be left to the military historians--who have not ranked him among the great generals. Civil history accuses him, if not of using his new position to make illegitimate profits, at least of showing reckless favoritism toward those who did. It is hardly unfair to say that Lincoln, in bearing with Fremont as long as he did, showed a touch of amiable weakness; and yet, it must be acknowledged that the President knew that the country was in a dangerous mood, that Fremont was immensely popular, and that any change might be misunderstood. Though Lincoln hated to appear anything but a friend to a fallen political rival, he was at last forced to act. Frauds in government contracts at St. Louis were a public scandal, and the reputation of the government had to be saved by the removal of Fremont in November, 1861. As an immediate consequence of this action the overstrained nerves of great numbers of people snapped. Fremont's personal followers, as well as the abolitionists whom he had actively supported while in command in Missouri, and all that vast crowd of excitable people who are unable to stand silent under strain, clamored against Lincoln in the wildest and most absurd vein. He was accused of being a "dictator"; he was called an "imbecile"; he ought to be impeached, and a new party, with Fremont as its leader, should be formed to prosecute the war. But through all this clamor Lincoln kept his peace and let the heathen rage.
Toward the end of the year, popular rage turned suddenly on Cameron, who, as Secretary of War, had taken an active but proper part in the investigation of Fremont's conduct. It was one of those tremulous moments when people are desperately eager to have something done and are ready to believe anything. Though McClellan, now in chief command of the Union forces, had an immense army which was fast getting properly equipped, month faded into month without his advancing against the enemy. Again the popular cry was raised, "On to Richmond!" It was at this moment of military inactivity and popular restlessness that charges of peculation were brought forward against Cameron.