MICHIGAN AND THE CIVIL WAR: Senator Zachariah Chandler

Feb 9, 2012

WKAR's Scott Pohl has been periodically talking with Michigan State University historian Roger Rosentreter about the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, with an eye on Michigan's role in the war.

Today, they discuss the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War. Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler was an outspoken member of the committee.

ROGER ROSENTRETER:The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War is organized in late 1861. This is a very politically charged Civil War, and there are members of Congress who believe that the war needs their impetus. They need to be involved, and as a result, they will investigate a variety of things, not the least of which is battlefield defeats and military contracts, medical treatment of wounded soldiers, and they'll also become associated with the radical Republicans, certain members in particular.

SCOTT POHL:This committee has a reputation for being extremely tough, maybe the toughest investigatory committee ever formed by the U.S. Congress. How does it come to that sort of reputation?

ROSENTRETER: I suspect part of it has to do with membership. Chandler is an outspoken abolitionist Republican who is intolerant of just about anybody who isn't like he is. And as a result, they will look at certain generals in particular, and many of the professional generals early on in the war are Democrats, and again, in a politically charged Civil War like the one we were experiencing, particularly early on, when in the eyes of a number of people this would be a short war, this was one where we needed to be aggressive. And generals in some cases, like a George McClellan, simply were not aggressive enough.

POHL: In what way, if any, did this committee influence the conduct of the war as things progressed, either in terms of influence on the generals, or on President Lincoln?

ROSENTRETER: The most recent history of the Joint Committee is entitled Over Lincoln's Shoulder, and maybe that's one way to answer it, which is to say that they were out there, and Lincoln is yet a strong enough President to be able to ward off the committee, recognizing yes, the committee is there and can't completely ignore it, does have to be somewhat sympathetic. Some generals will clearly be replaced. Yet, Lincoln is in charge, and he will fire, for example, a George McClellan, not as early as the committee would have liked McClellan to be fired, but I guess the best way to maybe phrase it is that the committee is out there as a nuisance in certain respects, but Lincoln is clearly in charge.

POHL: Chandler's place in Michigan history was secured when selected for Michigan's statue in the famous hall in the U.S. Congress. Can you explain how he came to be that revered in Michigan history?

ROSENTRETER: Chandler is one of our two most prominent politicians of the 19th century. The other would be Lewis Cass. So, Lewis Cass and Chandler are in Statuary Hall. Chandler is New Hampshire born. His father had offered him a college education, or $1,000. He took the $1,000, moved to Detroit, set up a dry goods business, very successful, and ran for mayor in 1851, was elected, and then left the Whig Party and helped form the Republican Party in 1854. As a result, he is nicely positioned in 1857 to become a U.S. Senator, and is, again, very outspoken. With southern secession and the formation of the Confederate States of America, he's talking about bloodletting. He wants to take care of the issue and take care of it quickly.

POHL: His statue in Statuary Hall was replaced recently by a statue of Michigan's only U.S. President, Gerald Ford.

ROSENTRETER: The statue has come home, and it is in Constitution Hall here in Lansing. I think it was a good move, because Gerald Ford certainly represents Michigan and deserves recognition in Statuary Hall. On the other hand, Zachariah Chandler certainly was a prominent politician who has a number of accomplishments. As a matter of fact, he serves in the post-Civil War period as Secretary of Interior under the second Grant administration, and gets credit for having cleaned up that department which was fraught with corruption. And when he passes on in 1879, there is a good eulogy that appeared in the Detroit newspaper. Chandler was, quote, among the men of strong frames, sinewy arms, and pugnacity of spirit, unquote.