The Other General: Cassius Clay and the politics of command

by Ned B. on February 15, 2015 · 0 comments

October 30, 1862 – General George Thomas was annoyed. Thomas believed strongly in the traditions and protocols of the regular army: seniority and service should matter. After learning that his new boss was going to be William Rosecrans, he wrote to General Halleck that “no just cause exists for overslaughing me by placing me under my junior, I feel deeply mortified and aggrieved at the action taken in this matter.”1 Trying to fix matters, Lincoln backdated Rosecrans promotion so that at least on paper his date of rank appeared earlier than Thomas. Obviously just a work around, it still bothered Thomas but he decided to suck it up, writing “I have made my last protest while the war lasts.” 2

Halleck sought to placate Thomas by telling him that “When it was determined to relieve General Buell another person was spoken of as his successor and it was through my repeated solicitation that you were appointed.You having virtually declined the command at that time it was necessary to appoint another, and General Rosecrans was selected.”3 Halleck had let slip that there might have been a worse outcome that he had fought to avoid: ”another person was spoken of”. Who had this other person been? I believe it was Cassius Clay.

Cassius Marcellus Clay was a Kentucky politician, cousin of the more famous Henry Clay, and part of a wealthy land and slave owning family. He left Kentucky to attended college at Yale where he heard William Lloyd Garrison speak. Clay would later describe that moment “as water to a thirsty wayfarer” — for the next quarter century he was an anti-slavery crusader. He returned to Kentucky and was elected to the state legislature but gradually lost voter support because of his anti-slavery stance, finally losing re-election in 1841. In 1843 he was shot while giving a political speech; despite taking a bullet to the chest, he tackled his attacker and stabbed him with a bowie knife. In 1845 he started an anti-slavery newspaper but his office was attacked by a mob so he moved publication across the river to Ohio. In 1849 he was again attacked while giving a speech and again used his knife to fight off his attackers, killing one of them.4

During the 1850s Clay led the Republican party in Kentucky and in 1860 he was considered for the Vice President spot. Between the 1860 election and his inauguration, Lincoln received recommendations that he should appoint Clay to his cabinet. Instead he chose to appoint Clay as Minister to Russia. Clay journeyed to Washington DC to report in person.5 Thus it so happened that he was in Washington right after the bombardment of Fort Sumter when the city was seized with panic. He organized and led the ‘Clay Battalion’, a group of volunteers that helped guard government buildings during late April.

In May he set off for Europe, but had second thoughts on the way, writing to Lincoln: “When I spoke to you last, I felt it to be my duty to my family to discourage the idea of my being made a General. But reflection and the sentiment of very distinguished gentlemen in N. York and elsewhere have caused me to change my mind. Volunteers must have confidence in their leaders — they press me on all sides — make me a general in the regular service (which must hereafter be large) and Ill return home at once upon notice. I think my talent is military — and that I will not fail the public expectation. God defend the Union.”6 Lincoln also received recommendations from others that Clay be made a general.7 But Lincoln held back for the moment.

For the rest of 1861 Clay was in Russia. Then in January 1862, Lincoln relieved Simon Cameron as Secretary of War and sought a new position for him. He sent Cameron to Russia and recalled Clay, submitting his name to Congress as a Major-General. When Congress approved, Clay outranked numerous generals then actively serving in the war including Thomas. By the time Clay returned to the US it was summer and, without an immediate command for him, Lincoln sent Clay to Kentucky on a fact finding mission. His timing was fortuitous. The Confederates had invaded the state and were advancing toward Louisville when Clay arrived. General Lew Wallace, the local commander, called on Clay to assist him in preparing the defense of the place.

Clay’s movements drew the attention of the press. On August 7 the NY Times reported “CASSIUS M. CLAY is expected here speedily to receive an assignment to a command as Major-General. He has been much talked of as likely to be sent to Cincinnati, to assume command of the new Department of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.” But the next day, the NY Times reported that “there is violent opposition from Kentuckians who retain the old bitterness arising from his prominence in emancipation controversies, and it is believed this opposition will insure his being sent to some other command.” In late August the NY Times reported “It is believed that CASSIUS M. CLAY’s present position in command of a brigade in Kentucky, is only to last through the temporary emergency. It is still stated that as soon as relieved there, he is to proceed to Kansas, and organize an expedition to go down through Arkansas and the Indian country.“8

In September, Gen. Halleck complained that ”friends of Governor Morton, of Ex-Governor Dennison, of Cassius M. Clay, and of Colonel Blair were pulling all kinds of political wires to cut up the West into departments for the benefit of each. I was very much in hopes that some of the generals out there would gain some brilliant victory, so as to cut oft these pretensions of outsiders. But unfortunately nothing of the kind has occurred, and the cry is, Why keep in men who accomplish nothing? The only answer I can give is, Why put in men who know nothing of military affairs? Under these circumstances I have been obliged to leave things as much as possible in status quo.”9

Halleck finally found a way to get Clay out of the way by ordering him to Gen. Butler in New Orleans.10 This didn’t suit Clay; he objected to Lincoln who overruled Halleck. At the end of September, after just a short time of being back in the US, Clay submitted his resignation as general, stating “I do this, to avail myself of your kind promise to send me back to my former mission to the Court of St Petersburg; where I flatter myself that I can better serve my Country than in the field, under Genl Halleck, who cannot repress his hatred of liberal men into the ordinary courtesies of life.” 11 In early 1863 Clay would return to Russia where he served through 1869.

I don’t think it a coincidence that during that same August the Secretary of War issued an order which read: “Hereafter no appointments of Major Generals or Brigadier Generals will be given except to officers of the regular army for meritorious and distinguished services during the war, or to volunteer officers who, by some successful achievement in the field, shall have displayed the military abilities required for the duties of a General officer.”12 The period of the war in which Lincoln might appoint as a Major-General someone like Clay had come to an end. Still there seems to have been a possibility in the summer of 1862 that, if not for Halleck’s opposition, Clay might have received command of what became the Army of the Cumberland. Thomas would have been really miffed.


  1. Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Volume 16, part 2, page 657
  2. The Life of Major-General George H. Thomas, Thomas Budd Van Horne, Scribner 1882, page 88
  3. Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Volume 16, part 2, page 663
  4. Most of the background information throughout this post is derived from The life of Cassius Marcellus Clay written by Clay and published by Brannan & Co, Cincinnati Ohio, 1886
  5. Clay to Lincoln, March 28, 1861 found in Library of Congress online collection of Lincoln papers
  6. Clay to Lincoln, May 11, 1861 found in Library of Congress online collection of Lincoln papers
  7. James Millward Jr. to Abraham Lincoln, Wednesday, April 24, 1861 and Telegram from New York Citizens to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, April 29, 1861 found in Library of Congress online collection of Lincoln papers 
  8. Articles retrieved through NY Times online archive
  9. Official Records, Series 1 – Volume 13 p 654
  10. Official Records, Series 1 – Volume 15 p 568
  11. Clay to Lincoln September 29, 1862
  12. War Department General Order 111, August 18, 1862, The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies; Series 3 – Volume 2 page 401

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