Yet both see the need to accommodate a prominent Democrat supporting the war.
As a young lawyer, Sidney Breese prepared and published the first volume of decisions of the Illinois Supreme Court, which is said to be the first book published in the state. In the coming years, he sat as a judge and presided as speaker of the Illinois House. Breese was a Democrat,...
As a young lawyer, Sidney Breese prepared and published the first volume of decisions of the Illinois Supreme Court, which is said to be the first book published in the state. In the coming years, he sat as a judge and presided as speaker of the Illinois House. Breese was a Democrat, and from 1843-1849 served in the U.S. Senate alongside his colleague, Stephen A. Douglas. For two of those years, fellow-Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln was in Washington serving his one term in Congress. In 1857, Breese was appointed Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, a position he held until his death in 1878. Thus, Lincoln and Breese would have been well acquainted as lawyers, neighbors and political opponents.
On April 27, 1859, Judge Breese wrote his old friend, President Buchanan, and requested that the name of his son, James Buchanan Breese, be placed on the list of applicants for an nomination to West Point. The younger Breese in fact entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1860 as one of the at-large appointments, probably through the efforts of the President. When the Civil War broke out, Judge Breese followed the path of opposing secession and supporting the government, and his sons went into the Union service (in this he took the opposite position of his cousin, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, who attacked both the war and the President who led it). Perhaps impatient to serve at the front, James B. Breese left West Point in 1862. There is mystery surrounding his military career for the next two years, as records are missing or imcomplete. We have his father’s statement that he fought at Shiloh but have no other details. We know that in July 1862 he was commissioned adjutant in the 70th Illinois Infantry but the unit was mustered out October 23, 1862. We have two representations that he then served in the 10th United States Infantry, though we lack records to document this. There is ample evidence, however, that young Breese liked the service but found marching a trial. This finally led his father to intervene for him, using as a conduit a man who had been the Illinois Supreme Court reporter throughout his chief justiceship, Ebenezer Peck. A personal friend of President Lincoln, Peck had just been named judge of the Court of Claims in Washington.
Autograph Letter Signed of Judge Breese, Ottawa, Illinois, May 4, 1863, to Peck. “I have this moment received another letter from my son Lieut. Breese of the 10th U.S. Infantry, and he assures me he will ‘have to resign’ if he cannot get some relief, which he and I would regret above all things. He is disabled from marching and still is devoted to the service. Can’t you get him leave of absence or a staff appointment in which he will not have to march on foot much? He is a brave fellow, fought well at Shiloh and likes the Army. Do help him if you can. I know the President would take pleasure in obliging him if he knew his condition. Many officers less meritorious than he is have had no trouble in getting temporary relief. Do the best you can for him and I know you will succeed…” The request seems reasonable enough, though it was clearly outside of normal military channels for an officer to write his father to get the President to have him transferred to lighter duty. Peck wrote a note on the back of the letter and sent it to the President, suggesting “I wish very much that Judge Breese’s desires should be gratified. If nothing [else] can be done, assign him to Gen. J.D. Webster.” Joseph D. Webster was Grant’s chief of staff and chief engineer from 1861 until Vicksburg fell in July 1863. He then held the same positions for General Sherman. Sending Breese to Webster was the equivalent of finding him a non-strenuous but high-level staff position.
On May 12, Lincoln added his endorsement, addressed to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. “The writer of this letter is a Justice of our Illinois Supreme Court; and I would like for him to be accommodated in the matter he requests for his son, if the thing can be consistently done.” Saying straight out that he wanted Breese to be accommodated was actually very strong terminology for Lincoln to use with Stanton, as the sensitive Stanton considered such military details his bailiwick, and did not much like the President’s interference. Lincoln was thus forever couching requests in diplomatic language that would move Stanton to agree without getting offended, with phrases like “if the thing can be consistently done.”
Here, in addition to seeing Lincoln at work, we see Stanton also. He certainly saw the wisdom of assisting a prominent Democrat who supported the war in such a small matter, yet he appeared peeved (perhaps by the young Breese going outside of channels for a personal favor) and unwilling to be too forthcoming. So he exerted his authority and complied with the letter though not perhaps the spirit of the request. “Referred to the Provost Marshal Genl. to assign Lt. Breese to some duty if his service be needed on report.” So Breese would be taken off heavy duty, but rather than assign him to some interesting post like on Webster’s staff, he ordered that he be sent somewhere only if “his service be needed.” On May 15, 1863, the Provost Marshal General, James B. Fry, reported the resolution – Breese was to be sent to a unit stationed at home! “Respectfully referred to the Adjutant General of the Army with the request that he will order Lieut. Breese to report to Lt.-Col. Oakes, 4th Cav. at Springfield, Illinois.”
Between marching and protocol, James B. Breese seems to have lost his taste for the Army but not for the military. On March 18, 1864, he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps and served with the Marines for 15 years. In that time, he was assigned to several ships, including the USS Pontiac (which was actively involved in the Civil War), the USS Alaska (which took part in a naval engagement in Korea), and the USS Constitution.
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