President Abraham Lincoln Directs and Manages the Appointment of Officers at a Crucial Moment in the Civil War

Days After Signing the First Conscription Act, "The nomination fell, with many others, because the number nominated exceeded the law"

Key Facts

  • Lengthy ALS on Lincoln's imprinted stationery

On March 3, 1863, because of the great recruiting difficulties caused by the long duration and heavy toll of the war, the government passed the First Conscription Act, making all men between the ages of 20 to 45 liable to be called into service.  Service could, however, be avoided by paying $300 or hiring a substitute, a practice criticized as unfair to the poor.  It led to riots in New York City, when the working class subject to the draft caused mayhem, and Union Army troops fresh from Gettysburg had to he called to restore order in the city.

At the same time as soldiers were in need, officers exceeded the number of places available by law.  At the start of the war, the creation of ad hoc units was not uncommon, at the head of which would sit an officer. As the war continued and a quick victory did not materialize, officers and their civil leadership gained more experience in the proper organization and maintenance of a military apparatus. This meant matching the number of recruits to the appropriate number of officers, and that appointments be made consistently and through proper channels.

Ward Burnett was a New Yorker who had served with distinction in the military for years, most recently in the Mexican War.  However, he had not remained with the military after that, so there was a gap in his service of almost a decade.  In 1862, he was nominated for a position as Brigadier General, but the appointment did not materialize, the Union not having enough enlistees to sufficiently expand the officer corp. Following that, Burnett began a behind the scenes campaign to gain his appointment, evidently sending a Col. Diven to speak directly to President Lincoln on his behalf.  Lincoln held office hours from 1 until 3 PM at the White House on March 7, 1863.  During this time he saw Col. Diven.  When Diven left, he sat down and wrote directly to Burnett.

Autograph Letter Signed, on Executive Mansion letterhead, Washington, March 7, 1863, to Burnett. "Col. Diven has just been with me seeking to remove a wrong impression which he supposes I might have of you, springing from a report he had once made in the New York Senate, as I understood him. I told him, as I now tell you, that I did not remember to have ever heard of the report, or any thing against you. As I remember, you were nominated last year, and the nomination fell, with many others, because the number nominated exceeded, the law. I call to mind no reason why you have not been re-nominated, except that you have not been in active service, while others more than sufficient to take all the places, have been. Yours truly A. Lincoln."

Not content with this refusal, Burnett enlisted the support of New York Mayor George Opdyke, who wrote to Secretary of War Stanton in June requesting that Burnett be placed in command of a regiment. Stanton replied in this Letter Signed (included), Washington, June 20, 1863 to Mayor Opdyke, saying that if "such power be given to General Ward B. Burnett, to muster men into the United States service, as was given to the late Colonel Baker and others, I have to state, that the request having been considered by the Department, it is not deemed expedient to grant it, great inconvenience and prejudice to the service, having been experienced from irregular authority to muster in recruits. The Department is informed that the force of recruiting officers is amply sufficient to muster in the recruits as fast as is consistent with due examination and proper regard to the interests of the United States..."

In May 1861, Edward Baker, referenced in Stanton's letter, was authorized to organize a regiment.  Baker was a friend of Lincoln and fellow attorney in Illinois.  In October of that year, he was killed at the Battle of Ball's Bluff.

Interestingly, although Burnett was never given his commission, he served among the troops used to suppress the riots in New York that coincided with Lincoln's letter to him, riots caused by the forcible recruitment of more active duty soldiers.

A rare letter showing Lincoln engaged in the direction and management of his wartime officer corps.