Overly-organized talk show appearances this past weekend by White House spokesmen prompted historians at the Brookings Institution to dig into archives. They unearthed the following remarkable news story from the New York Times, May 7, 1863:
(Washington, D.C.) As the nation passed the two-year anniversary of peacekeeping in the South, Administration officials made a directed effort this weekend to dismiss concerns that the United States was on the verge of civil war.
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, speaking to reporters following skirmishes the last few days at Chancellorsville, Virginia, said that rebels "wanted to provoke civil war, but I don't think they've been successful."
"That's been their strategy all along," the Vice President reiterated, "but my view would be they've reached a stage of desperation from their standpoint."
The scrap at Chancellorsville took 17,200 Northern lives, and those of 12,900 Confederates.
"I'm encouraged by the progress," President Abraham Lincoln noted. "The Secretary of War was encouraged by it, as well."
Union troops have managed to keep the country stable ever since Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, providing water and telegraph service to almost 30 percent of the South.
Less upbeat was word directly from Richmond, Virginia. "It is unfortunate that we are in civil war," said Mr. Jefferson Davis, one-time United States Senator, now interim President of the Confederacy. "We are losing each day, as an average, 50 to 60 people through the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."
Nonetheless, Mr. Davis's assessment was strongly contradicted by General George McClellan, senior American commander of the Army of the Potomac. "The United States is a long way from civil war," said McClellan, who was accompanied by his young nephew, Scott.
Reporters called upon General McClellan to find if he would be enforcing the President's controversial suspension of habeas corpus. His nephew quickly interrupted, stating that "The General doesn't comment on ongoing legal matters. Most especially this one."
The Administration is, however, anxious to comment on the wealth of good news that Vice President Hamlin insists is occurring daily, though he complains it hasn't been reported by newspapers. "There's a constant sort of negative public perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy to reporters is munitions depot explosions at Manassas. And Fredericksburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Ball's Bluff and Harper's Ferry," the Vice President said. "Not the great work that's gone on in the Oregon Territories in terms of making progress toward rebuilding the United States."
Despite such good news, protests have begun in New York City and other pockets of the country. In a commentary published yesterday in the Chicago Tribune, Secretary of War Edward Stanton dismissed calls for withdrawal by comparing the current situation to the War of Independence and Genghis Khan's campaign for world domination. "Turning our backs on the South today would be the modern equivalent of handing the American colonies back to the Mongols," he wrote. "Providing that the Mongols had ever been in America, and that we would have mistaken the British for Mongols."
As events transpired at the White House, Mr. Lincoln was preparing for a short vacation in Gettysburg, to clear some brush. The President insisted that his Administration would never submit to a timetable, but had a strong battle plan. "I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators," he emphasized, standing before a banner emblazoned "Mission Accomplished." "When Union forces march into Atlanta, the Confederates will have parades and throw rose petals at us."
Before waving goodbye to reporters, the president added. "If there are any problems in the country today, it's Bill Clinton's fault."