SOLD Abraham Lincoln Stands Up For Generals Sherman and Grant in the Famous Worthington Incident

“Today I verbally told Colonel Worthington that I did not think him fit for a Colonel; and now, upon his urgent request, I put it in writing.”.

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Thomas Worthington was a West Pointer and experienced military man who raised a regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War – the 46th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The regiment reported for its first assignment at Savannah, Tennessee, on March 8, 1862, and right away Worthington was squabbling with his fellow officers. Gen....

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SOLD Abraham Lincoln Stands Up For Generals Sherman and Grant in the Famous Worthington Incident

“Today I verbally told Colonel Worthington that I did not think him fit for a Colonel; and now, upon his urgent request, I put it in writing.”.

Thomas Worthington was a West Pointer and experienced military man who raised a regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War – the 46th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The regiment reported for its first assignment at Savannah, Tennessee, on March 8, 1862, and right away Worthington was squabbling with his fellow officers. Gen. William T. Sherman arrived at Savannah three days after Worthington, and the latter’s high-handiness and self-centered attitude caught his attention. Sherman stated in his memoirs that Colonel Worthington was "stalking about giving orders as though he were commander-in-chief," and that being senior in age to Generals Sherman, Henry Halleck and U.S. Grant, Worthington "claimed to know more about war than all of us put together."

After Grant’s successes in February 1862 at Forts Henry and Donelson, which secured both the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, he was reinforced by Sherman and his troops continued to advance. They threatened the Confederate hold on all of Tennessee, and Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston determined to retrieve the situation by launching a major attack. He made his move in early April when Grant’s army was encamped at Pittsburg Landing (or Shiloh) with its back to the Tennessee River; Sherman’s Division, including Worthington’s Regiment, was positioned on its far right. There was enough Confederate activity on the Union front for suspicions to be aroused about an enemy presence in force, and Grant and Sherman knew that there were Confederates nearby. However, they appear not to have understood that an army of 30,000 was there ready to attack, as their troops were not deployed as they would have been if they had that realization. Worthington, however, suspected the possibility of an attack and had his men sleep on their arms. On April 6, 1862, about dawn, the Confederates began their action with a heavy assault on the Union right flank (Sherman’s command), with an eye to crashing it in and rolling up Grant’s entire army. They found the Federals unprepared to adequately meet them and began pushing them back. At 7 a.m., Sherman arrived on the scene, realized “We are attacked!”, and issued orders to hold the line and bring in support. By mid-morning, the Confederates seemed within reach of victory as many frontline Union troops fled. Other regiments, however, did not break altogether and were fighting hard before retreating. Men in those units, as they fell back, came through Worthington’s lines saying a massive attack on him was imminent. By noon, Worthington’s unit held the farthest right Union position remaining. Recognizing a Confederate movement to flank him, Worthington turned his men to meet the assault. They performed very well and held off the larger enemy force for two hours. Throughout the day, Johnston’s army hammered the Federal right, but Union units that resisted, like Worthington’s, bought valuable time and prevented a complete Confederate victory. By the next day, an additional Union army under General D.C. Buell arrived to reinforce Grant, and a counter-attack drove the Confederates back to their original positions. The battle ended as a tactical draw but was a Union strategic victory, as the Confederates failed in their attempt to hold back Union progress in that portion of the Confederacy.

Shiloh was the first of the war’s immense battles where casualties were staggering (23,000 as opposed to 4,700 at Bull Run), and the public outcry over the heavy Union losses resulted in claims that the incompetence or even purposeful negligence of Grant and Sherman resulted in their men being unready, poorly positioned, surprised, and left to their own devices. One of the prime accusers was Colonel Worthington, who on April 15, 1862, wrote a letter claiming that Grant, and to a greater extent Sherman, was guilty of “imprudence, mismanagement and neglect,” and saying that Sherman could have prevented or repelled the attack but had failed to do so because he had not followed “defensive measures which I had urged over a month ago.” The Colonel asserted that it was due to his leadership, not Sherman’s, that the right of the Union line repelled the superior rebel attacking force. That General Sherman claimed credit for holding back the Confederates enraged Worthington, and he determined to bypass the proper chain of command and levy his allegations against Sherman directly with Gen. Halleck in Washington, writing “General W.T. Sherman did more to prepare the Army of Tennessee for a defeat” than anyone else. This implied that Sherman was incompetent and had caused the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Union soldiers. Were Worthington’s charges justified? The study of the Battle of Shiloh indicates that he was right that he had performed well, that his superiors were insufficiently prepared for such an immense battle and that they had made mistakes, yet he overstated the case to claim they were grossly negligent or incompetent.

This was a level of insubordination unacceptable to Sherman and he had Worthington arrested, charged with drunkenness, making false and libelous statements designed to injure his superior officers, and conduct unbecoming an officer. Worthington was brought before a court martial in August 1862, one in which Sherman had appointed the judges and before whom Sherman was the main witness. The Colonel was convicted in early September, declared unfit for service and relieved of his command on September 6. His resignation from the army was requested and tendered. Soon after, Worthington appealed to the Judge Advocate General, Joseph Holt, to review the case, and in October the sentence of the court was declared null and void for irregularities. By December 1, 1862, Worthington was out of the army but received an honorable discharge.

The Colonel was determined to be reinstated and see his persecutors exposed. He received letters recommending that he be restored to the service from Ohio generals C.P. Buckingham and Robert Schenk plus one from W.S. Rosecrans. His old roommate from West Point, Robert Anderson (the hero of Fort Sumter), spoke up for him also. He took these to Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, in late February 1863 and waited to be reinstated. However, with Grant and Sherman before Vicksburg, Stanton hesitated to antagonize them by reappointing Worthington.

That reluctance became even greater as the summer wore on, as Vicksburg fell on July 4 in one of the most significant Union victories of the entire war (making claims of incompetence against Grant and Sherman seem misplaced). In early 1864, still awaiting action, General Schenk suggested that Worthington seek an audience with President Lincoln on the matter. This he did and a date of March 31 was set. A book on this controversy, Tom Worthington’s Civil War by James D. Brewer, states “Lincoln appears to have…received negative recommendations from both General Halleck and, surprisingly, Judge Advocate General Holt – the man who declared Worthington’s court martial illegal. An adverse recommendation by Holt would seem to suggest that his declaration of a nullity in Worthington’s trial had not prevented him from digesting the evidence that pointed to the Colonel being unfit for service.” Lincoln knew that reinstating Worthington would be an insult to Grant (whom he had just named to command the Union war effort) and particularly to Sherman (whom Grant placed in command of Union forces in the West), and would come just months after their joint successes at Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. The President told Worthington, face to face in the White House, that he would not overturn the finding that he was unfit for command and reinstate him. Worthington was furious and demanded that Lincoln put his position in writing, a move that was in a sense a threat to the President because it implied that Worthington would use the statement to make Lincoln share the responsibility for the cover-up of Shiloh as well as the injustice to him.

Being confronted do directly by Worthington clearly irritated the generally mild-tempered Lincoln, who always tried to avoid being overly critical of others. He responded with what was likely the most derogatory message he composed during the entire war, one which became quite well known.

Autograph Memorandum Signed on Executive Mansion letterhead, Washington, March 31, 1864, which he wrote out in front of Worthington and handed to him. “Today I verbally told Colonel Worthington that I did not think him fit for a Colonel; and now, upon his urgent request, I put it in writing.” So now Worthington had in hand a written denunciation from Abraham Lincoln, and that is the very document we offer. While the content of this memorandum is noted in Basler’s Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, the location of this original was unknown and Basler relied on a copy in a secretarial hand.

After Worthington left, remembering that his sponsor, General Schenk, was headed to Congress and that Worthington had other powerful friends, Lincoln decided that, notwithstanding the harsh note he had been goaded to write, he still needed to out-maneuver Worthington politically. The same day, March 31, he wrote Worthington a letter designed more for General Schank’s eyes than his, saying, “If Major General Schenck will say in writing upon this sheet that he believes the public service would be advanced by your being placed at the head of a Regiment in the field, I will remove any legal disability resting upon you so that the Governor of Ohio may appoint you to so command a Regiment.” This meant, in effect, that if Schenck took full responsibility for antagonizing Grant and Sherman, and risking Worthington’s potential instability by placing him in a senior command, and Lincoln ally Governor John Brough of Ohio actually wanted to appoint him, Lincoln would not stand in the way. Neither Schenk nor Brough would want that level of responsibility and no letter from either on the subject has been discovered. In fact, not wanting to place the two men in a position where they would turn him down, Worthington wrote Lincoln on April 12, 1864, “On full consideration I have declined urging on Gen Schenck, the responsibility of my possible return to the service…”

Worthington returned to the White House in August, as Lincoln wrote Grant on August 29, 1864, “Col. T. Worthington of Ohio is here wishing to visit you. I will send him if you say so; otherwise not.” Grant replied the same day: “Your dispatch of 1:40 p.m. in relation to permitting Col. Worthington to come here is received. I should be very sorry to see the Col. He has nearly worried the life out of me at times when I could not prevent an interview.” Not content to give up, for years after the war had ended and Grant and Sherman were icons of victory, Worthington continued to skirmish with them, seeking his own brand of justice. Included is a copy of Brewer’s book on the Worthington affair.

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