We have accounts of mobs, riots, and disturbances in New York and other places in consequence of the Conscription Act. Our information is very meagre; two or three mails are due; the telegraph is interrupted. There have been powerful rains which have caused great damage to the railroads and interrupted all land communication between this and Baltimore.
There are, I think, indubitable evidences of concert in these riotous movements, beyond the accidental and impulsive outbreak of a mob, or mobs. Lee's march into Pennsylvania, the appearance of several Rebel steamers off the coast, the mission of A. H. Stephens to Washington, seem to be parts of one movement, have one origin, are all concerted schemes between the Rebel leaders and Northern sympathizing friends, — the whole put in operation when the Government is enforcing the conscription. This conjunction is not all accidental, but parts of a great plan. In the midst of all this and as a climax comes word that Lee's army has succeeded in recrossing the Potomac. If there had been an understanding between the mob conspirators, the Rebels, and our own officers, the combination of incidents could not have been more advantageous to the Rebels.
The Cabinet-meeting was not full to-day. Two or three of us were there, when Stanton came in with some haste and asked to see the President alone. The two were absent about three minutes in the library. When they returned, the President's countenance indicated trouble and distress; Stanton was disturbed, disconcerted. Usher asked Stanton if he had bad news. He said, “No.” Something was said of the report that Lee had crossed the river. Stanton said abruptly and curtly he knew nothing of Lee's crossing. “I do,” said the President emphatically, with a look of painful rebuke to Stanton. “If he has not got all of his men across, he soon will.”
The President said he did not believe we could take up anything in Cabinet to-day. Probably none of us were in a right frame of mind for deliberation; he was not. He wanted to see General Halleck at once. Stanton left abruptly. I retired slowly. The President hurried and overtook me. We walked together across the lawn to the Departments and stopped and conversed a few moments at the gate. He said, with a voice and countenance which I shall never forget, that he had dreaded yet expected this; that there has seemed to him for a full week a determination that Lee, though we had him in our hands, should escape with his force and plunder. “And that, my God, is the last of this Army of the Potomac! There is bad faith somewhere. Meade has been pressed and urged, but only one of his generals was for an immediate attack, was ready to pounce on Lee; the rest held back. What does it mean, Mr. Welles? Great God! what does it mean?” I asked what orders had gone from him, while our troops had been quiet with a defeated and broken army in front, almost destitute of ammunition, and an impassable river to prevent their escape. He could not say that anything positive had been done, but both Stanton and Halleck professed to agree with him and he thought Stanton did. Halleck was all the time wanting to hear from Meade. “Why,” said I, “he is within four hours of Meade. Is it not strange that he has not been up there to advise and encourage him?” I stated I had observed the inertness, if not incapacity, of the General-in-Chief, and had hoped that he, who had better and more correct views, would issue peremptory orders. The President immediately softened his tone and said: “Halleck knows better than I what to do. He is a military man, has had a military education. I brought him here to give me military advice. His views and mine are widely different. It is better that I, who am not a military man, should defer to him, rather than he to me.” I told the President I did not profess to be a military man, but there were some things on which I could form perhaps as correct an opinion as General Halleck, and I believed that he, the President, could more correctly, certainly more energetically, direct military movements than Halleck, who, it appeared to me, could originate nothing, and was, as now, all the time waiting to hear from Meade, or whoever was in command.
I can see that the shadows which have crossed my mind have clouded the President's also. On only one or two occasions have I ever seen the President so troubled, so dejected and discouraged.
Two hours later I went to the War Department. The President lay upon a sofa in Stanton's room, completely absorbed, overwhelmed with the news. He was, however, though subdued and sad, calm and resolute. Stanton had asked me to come over and read Dana's1 report of the materials found at Vicksburg. The amount is very great, and the force was large. Thirty-one thousand two hundred prisoners have been paroled. Had Meade attacked and captured the army above us, as I verily believe he might have done, the Rebellion would have been ended. He was disposed to attack, I am told, but yielded to his generals, who were opposed. If the war were over, those generals would drop into subordinate positions.
1 Charles A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 369-71