United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War

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The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was a government panel in Washington during the American Civil War, whose most controversial function was to investigate the cause of Union battle losses. This provided a forum for generals to try to deflect blame, at a time when accusations of disloyalty were hard to disprove, and it encouraged an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. The committee was dominated by Radical Republicans of no military experience, urging rash movements, at odds with Lincoln's more considered strategies.


The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was a United States Congressional investigating committee created to handle issues surrounding the American Civil War. It was established on December 9, 1861, following the embarrassing Union defeat at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, at the instigation of Senator Zachariah T. Chandler of Michigan, and continued until May 1865. Its purpose was to investigate such matters as illicit trade with the Confederate states, medical treatment of wounded soldiers, military contracts, and the causes of Union battle losses. The Committee was also involved in supporting the war effort through various means, including endorsing emancipation, the use of black soldiers, and the appointment of generals who were known to be aggressive fighters. It was chaired throughout by Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, and became identified with the Radical Republicans who wanted more aggressive war policies than those of Abraham Lincoln.

Union officers often found themselves in an uncomfortable position before the Committee. Since this was a civil war, pitting neighbor against neighbor, the loyalty of a soldier to the Union was simple to question. And since Union forces had mostly performed badly against their Confederate counterparts early in the war, particularly in the Eastern Theater battles that held the attention of the newspapers and Washington politicians, it was easy to accuse an officer of being a traitor after he lost a battle or was slow to engage or pursue the enemy. This politically charged atmosphere was very difficult and distracting for career military officers. Officers who were not known Republicans felt the most pressure before the Committee.

During the committee's existence, it held 272 meetings and received testimony in Washington and at other locations, often from military officers. Though the committee met and held hearings in secrecy, the testimony and related exhibits were published at irregular intervals in the numerous committee reports of its investigations. The records include the original manuscripts of certain postwar reports that the committee received from general officers. There are also transcripts of testimony and accounting records regarding the military administration of Alexandria, Virginia.

One of the most colorful series of committee hearings followed the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, where Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, a former congressman, accused Maj. Gen. George G. Meade of mismanaging the battle, planning to retreat from Gettysburg prior to his victory there, and failing to pursue and defeat Robert E. Lee's army as it retreated. This was mostly a self-serving effort on Sickles's part because he was trying to deflect criticism from his own disastrous role in the battle. Bill Hyde notes that the committee's report on Gettysburg was edited by Wade in ways that were unfavorable to Meade, even when that required distorting the evidence. The report was "a powerful propaganda weapon" (p. 381), but the committee's power had waned by the time the final testimony was taken of William T. Sherman on May 22, 1865.[1]

The war it was investigating completed, the committee ceased to exist after this last testimony, and the final reports were published shortly thereafter.[1] The later Joint Committee on Reconstruction represented a similar attempt to check executive power by the Radical Republicans.[2]


37th Congress

The committee's original Senate members were selected by the Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin; House members were selected by Speaker of the House Galusha Grow.[3]

Majority Minority
Senate members
House members

38th Congress

In January 1864, committee chairman Wade introduced a resolution broadening the committee's powers to include the oversight of military contracts. Both the House and Senate passed like resolutions by mid-January.[6]

Majority Minority
Senate members
House members


The committee took testimony from witnesses, mostly Union Army officers, in private session, often when a quorum of members weren't present.[9] The committee had been active for over a year before its first report was published in 1863.


The committee's first report was issued in three parts. Part 1 covered the Army of the Potomac. Part 2 covered the Union's 1861 Eastern Theater losses at First Bull Run and at Ball's Bluff. Part 3 covered the war's Western Theater.


The 1864 report was given in two parts. The first presented reports and testimony taken involving the alleged Confederate mistreatment of USCT soldiers following their surrender at Fort Pillow. The second part related to the condition of returned Union soldiers after their imprisonment in Confederate POW camps.


The 1865 report was more comprehensive than the first two years' works. the report covered a wide variety of issues: The Mine Crater incident during the Siege of Petersburg, the Fort Pillow episode, the military expeditions at Fort Fisher and up the Red River. Extensive testimony was taken on the subject of ordnance, contracts to supply ice for the war effort, turreted Monitor-class warships, and the massacre of friendly Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado.


A two-volume supplement was published in 1866 in order to present reports of several witnesses: major generals Sherman, Thomas, Pope, Foster, Pleasanton, Hitchcock, Sheridan, and brigadier general Ricketts.


Tap shows that Radical Republicans challenged Lincoln's role as commander-in-chief through the Joint Committee. During the 37th and 38th Congresses, it investigated every aspect of Union military operations, with special attention to finding the men guilty of military defeats. They assumed an inevitable Union victory, and failure seemed to them to indicate evil motivations or personal failures. They were skeptical of military science and especially the graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, many alumni of which were leaders of the enemy army. They much preferred political generals with a known political record. Some committee suggested that West Pointers who engaged in strategic maneuver were cowardly or even disloyal. It ended up endorsing incompetent but politically loyal generals.[10] Tap finds, "the committee's investigations, its leaks to the press, and its use of secret testimony to discredit generals such as McClellan certainly were instrumental in creating hostility between the army's West Point officers and the nation's civilian leaders." Finally, because of its collective ignorance of military science and preference for the heroic saber charge, "the committee tended to reinforce the unrealistic and simplistic notions of warfare that prevailed in the popular mind," writes Tap.[11]

The Committee on the Conduct of the War is considered to be among the harshest congressional investigating committees in history; Gershman says it conducted witch hunts rather than fair inquiries.[12] Senator Harry S. Truman cited this committee's style as an example he did not want to follow in leading the Truman Committee, which investigated military appropriations during World War II. Truman stated that he did not want to second-guess war strategy. His committee succeeded in demonstrating government waste and inefficiency in order to assist the war effort.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Tap, Over Lincoln's Shoulder, p. 251
  2. Tap, Over Lincoln's Shoulder, p. 252
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Tap, Over Lincoln's Shoulder, p. 24
  4. Resigned his Senate seat after becoming military governor of Tennessee in March 1862; Tap, Over Lincoln's Shoulder, p. 27
  5. Replaced Johnson; Tap, Over Lincoln's Shoulder, p. 24
  6. 6.0 6.1 Tap, Over Lincoln's Shoulder, p. 175.
  7. Resigned in early 1865; Tap, Over Lincoln's Shoulder, p. 176.
  8. This member replaced Harding, but "scarcely attended the committee's meetings at all"; Tap, Over Lincoln's Shoulder, p. 176.
  9. Williams, T. Harry, Lincoln and the Radicals, Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, (1972) [1941]
  10. Bruce Tap, "Inevitability, masculinity, and the American military tradition: the committee on the conduct of the war investigates the American Civil War," American 19th century History, July 2004, Vol. 5 Issue 2, pp 19-46
  11. Bruce Tap, "Amateurs at War" pp. 165-66
  12. Gary P. Gershman, The legislative branch of federal government (2008) p. 209


  • Hyde, Bill. The Union Generals Speak: The Meade Hearings on the Battle of Gettysburg. Louisiana State University Press, 2003, ISBN 978-0-8071-2581-6.
  • Reid, Brian Holden, "Historians and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War," Civil War History 38 (1992): 319–41.
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  • Tap, Bruce, "Amateurs at War: Abraham Lincoln and the Committee on the Conduct of the War" in Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association v 23#2 (2002), online
  • Tap, Bruce. "Inevitability, masculinity, and the American military tradition: the committee on the conduct of the war investigates the American Civil War," American 19th century History, July 2004, Vol. 5 Issue 2, pp 19–46
  • Tap, Bruce. Over Lincoln's Shoulder: The Committee on the Conduct of the War (1998)
  • Trefousse, Hans L., The Radical Republicans: Lincoln's Vanguard for Racial Justice (1969)
  • Trefousse, Hans L., "The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War: A Reappraisal," Civil War History 10 (1964): 5–19.
  • Williams, T. Harry, Lincoln and the Radicals (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1941).

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