The Campaign Begins (April 30, 1863)

The ruins of the Chancellorsville house as they appeared in 1865 (Library of Congress).

The ruins of the Chancellorsville house as they appeared in 1865 (Library of Congress).

Meade’s letter to his wife is just a short note, but it has big ramifications. Joe Hooker has finally put his army into motion and the Chancellorsville campaign has begun. On April 30 Meade’s V Corps pushed on from Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan; Meade reached the Chancellorsville house  around 11:00. It was at a crossroads in the tangle called the Wilderness and would give its name to the battle fought in the woods and small fields around it. ““It was a large, commodious, two-story brick building, with peaked roof and a wing, and pillared porches on both stories in the centre of the main building,” wrote a member of the 118th Pennsylvania. “Upon the upper porch was quite a bevy of ladies in light, dressy, attractive spring costumes. They were not at all abashed or intimidated, scolded audibly and reviled bitterly.” Before long the young ladies would be fleeing for the lives across a landscape that had been transformed into something that looked like hell.

The papers will of course tell you the army has moved. I write to tell you that there is as yet but a little skirmishing; we are across the river and have out-manceuvered the enemy, but are not yet out of the woods.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 370. Available via Google Books.

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Swagger (April 26, 1863)

As Meade points out in his letter from April 26, Joe Hooker did indeed feel confident on the eve of the Chancellorsville campaign. “I have the finest army the sun ever shone on,” he boasted. “I can march this army to New Orleans. My plans are perfect, and when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”

Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams, a division commander in the XII Corps, was not pleased by Hooker’s statement. “It was known that Hooker had boastingly declared the night before that ‘God Almighty could not prevent his destroying the Rebel army,’” said Williams. “The blasphemy did not please the most irreligious as appropriate to any, and least of all to an, occasion so momentous, but allowance was made for excitement. Still, there was an uneasiness in the best military minds. There was too much boasting and too little planning; swagger without preparation.”

Hooker seems very confident of success, but lets no one into his secrets. I heard him say that not a human being knew his plans either in the army or at Washington. For my part I am willing to be in ignorance, for it prevents all criticism and faultfinding in advance. All I ask and pray for is to be told explicitly and clearly what I am expected to do, and then I shall try, to the best of my ability, to accomplish the task set before me. This afternoon, while at headquarters, I saw the arrival of Mr. Seward with several ladies, and three or four of the foreign Ministers, from Washington. I was not introduced to them, as I was on business and in a hurry to get home.

I have been riding all day and am a little fatigued.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 369-70. Available via Google Books.

Rain (April 25, 1863)

The 110th PA on April 24. According to a regimental history, "Due to reduced numbers, the regiment was consolidated early in 1863 into a battalion of six companies. The 110th, now assigned to the 2nd Brigade (Bowman), 3rd Division (Whipple) of the III Corps (Sickles) moved with Hooker's Army to Chancellorsville. Shifted about several times, on May 3, 1863 the 110th found itself engaged in furious battle near the Chancellor House opposing succeeding waves of Rebel troops. Here the division commander (General Whipple) and Colonel Crowther of the 110th were killed, and the regiment lost almost half its strength on this terrible field." (Library of Congress)

The 110th PA on April 24. According to a regimental history, “Due to reduced numbers, the regiment was consolidated early in 1863 into a battalion of six companies. The 110th, now assigned to the 2nd Brigade (Bowman), 3rd Division (Whipple) of the III Corps (Sickles) moved with Hooker’s Army to Chancellorsville. Shifted about several times, on May 3, 1863 the 110th found itself engaged in furious battle near the Chancellor House opposing succeeding waves of Rebel troops. Here the division commander (General Whipple) and Colonel Crowther of the 110th were killed, and the regiment lost almost half its strength on this terrible field.” (Library of Congress)

The rain that would delay the start of Hooker’s Chancellorsville campaign has begun. As I write in the book, “It seems as though it were never to stop
raining; the longer it rains the harder it seems to come down,” noted one of Hooker’s aides on April 24 as the army waited to move. “Could you come into Headquarters at any time during the day you would see that something was wrong; every one is moving around in an aimless, nervous way, looking at the clouds and then at the ground, and in knots trying to convince themselves that it is going to clear off and they will be able to move day after to-morrow.”

George’s panniers arrived yesterday. They are certainly very elegant affairs and I presume Master George got his pay in Washington to enable him to indulge in such luxuries. I have for my use two champagne baskets covered with canvas, but young lieutenants are far ahead of generals now-a-days.

The extraordinarily bad weather continues. It seems as if it would never stop raining, and until it does, we must remain quiet. I cannot hear anything of the movements of the cavalry. The last I heard they were up the Rappahannock, detained by the rains, and I take it for granted they are there still.

I join most heartily with you in prayers and wishes for this terrible war to be brought to a close; but I fear our prayers and wishes will avail but little. If I could only see the country alive to the magnitude of the war, and efforts being made to exert and use the superior resources in the way they should be employed, I might have some hopes that the war might be terminated by our success. Let us hope matters will turn out better than we have a right to expect. War is a game of chances and accidents. A little success on our part will have a great influence to bring things to a right condition, and I think the spirit of this army is to try hard to be successful.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 369. Available via Google Books.

Guide to Gettysburg Battlefield Monuments

Gettysburg Monuments
The Guide to Gettysburg Battlefield Monuments has been released! It’s a cool little book and I think visitors to the battlefield will find it to be very useful (and informative). So why not buy your copy now? It’s available at all your usual outlets, including Civil War and More in Mechanicsburg, Pennylvania, plus Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Stackpole Books.

The Loyal League (April 22, 1863)

George Meade was essentially conservative politically but he was careful to keep his thoughts on politics close to his vest. In this case he had written a letter to the Loyal League of New-York, in response to its invitation to attend a pro-Union really in the city. New York had strong secessionist tendencies and the city’s Loyal League was one of many similar organizations springing up in major cities to push the Union’s agenda. I don’t know why Margaret objected to her husband’s letter, unless it was because she worried about him being drawn into political controversy or becoming linked to the Republican party. As Meade points out, he didn’t say anything radical. “My views, which you ask for, are very brief and simple,” he had written. “They are, that it is and should be the undoubting and unhesitating duty of every citizen of the Republic to give his whole energies and to contribute all the means in his power to the determined prosecution of the war, until the integrity of the Government is reestablished and its supremacy acknowledged. Deprecating as useless all discussion as to the cause of the war, the fact of its existence and the necessity for its continuance should alone occupy us. For its successful prosecution and termination, I am clearly of the opinion there is only required union and harmony among ourselves, and the bringing to bear men and means proportionate to the power and resources of the country.”

You can find a New York Times article about Meade’s letter here. and even more about the April 1863 event here.

You don’t seem to like my Loyal League letter, or rather you seem to depreciate my writing at all. I could not decline to answer the invitation extended to me, and to decline simply on the ground of public duties would have been refusing to give my views, which undoubtedly was the object of the invitation, as no one could have supposed I could attend. The letter I wrote was carefully worded, to avoid anything like a partisan complexion. I said nothing but what I am willing to stand up to. I am in favor of a vigorous prosecution of the war, and am opposed to any separation of government in what was, is, and should be the, United States. I stated distinctly that I subscribed to the platform because it was national and not partisan. It is impossible to satisfy all parties; the only thing you can do is to give none a reason for claiming you as their own.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 368-9. Available via Google Books.

Flowers from Mrs. Lincoln (April 20, 1863)

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Library of Congress)

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Here Meade continues his discussion of Samuel Du Pont’s failure to subdue Charleston with navy ironclads. The Seymour to whom he refers is Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, serving as Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s chief of staff in South Carolina. Hunter had hoped he navy would use their ironclads to support a landing by his troops. Meade knew—and disliked—Seymour when they both commanded brigades under John Reynolds. Meade particularly resented the way he thought Seymour was sucking up to Reynolds in hopes of advancement.

Meade’s story about getting flowers from Mary Todd Lincoln displays a fine touch of self-deprecation, which I enjoy.

The note about son George hints at one of the upcoming problems with Hooker’s Chancellorsville campaign. George Stoneman’s cavalry, to which young George Meade’s regiment belonged, was supposed to range behind the Confederate army and disrupt its communications and supplies. Torrential storms raised the rivers and severely delayed Stoneman’s operation, putting an early kink in Hooker’s plans.

I can see by the public journals that the navy are in the affair at Charleston about to imitate the bad example of the army by squabbling among themselves after a battle with greater energy than they display fighting the enemy. DuPont will undoubtedly have to bear the brunt of the failure at Charleston, but as I see the Tribune most warmly and energetically espouses his cause, I presume he is all safe. I never had any idea the ironclads would be able to do much more than they did. They are simply able to stand fire, but have no more offensive power, indeed not as much as ordinary vessels of war.

I see Seymour has been sent by Hunter to endeavor to have countermanded the order sending the ironclads to the Mississippi. This order, if ever given, was in my judgment very injudicious, for these vessels will be of no use on that river in reducing the works of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The only service they can be put to there would be to patrol the river between the two places, and prevent supplies to the rebels from the Red River Country.

Yesterday the Richmond papers announced the fall of Suffolk, and we were all pretty blue; but this morning we have a telegram from General Peck reporting that he has stormed and carried a battery of six guns that the enemy had built, and had captured a portion of an Alabama regiment that was defending it. This is great news, not so much for the actual amount of the success, as for the facts—first, that it is the reverse of what the rebels had reported, and, second, because it is the first time in this war that our troops have carried a battery in position at the point of the bayonet, an example, I trust, will be speedily and often imitated by us.

Day before yesterday, I was astonished at receiving a very beautiful bouquet of flowers, which had attached to it a card on which was written, “With the compliments of Mrs. A. Lincoln.” At first I was very much tickled, and my vanity insinuated that my fine appearance had taken Mrs. L’s eye and that my fortune was made. This delusion, however, was speedily dissolved by the orderly who brought the bouquet inquiring the road to General Griffin’s and Sykes’s quarters, when I ascertained that all the principal generals had been similarly honored.

I understand George joined his regiment up the river, the day after he arrived. He went up in a violent storm.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 367-8. Available via Google Books.

Ignorance, Not Bliss (April 18, 1863)

In his letter of April 18 Meade complains about Joe Hooker’s tendency to keep his plans to himself. This is something that would increasingly bother Meade. Only three days before he took command of the Army of the Potomac, as Hooker was following Lee towards Pennsylvania, Meade wrote to his wife, “I hear nothing whatever from headquarters, and am as much in the dark as to proposed plans here on the ground as you are in Philadelphia. This is what Joe Hooker thinks profound sagacity—keeping his corps commanders, who are to execute his plans, in total ignorance of them until they are developed in the execution of orders.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, Davis had signed one of Meade's commissions (National Archives).

Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, Davis had signed one of Meade’s commissions (National Archives).

On April 2 Richmond citizens had rioted over the lack of bread and Meade mentions Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s proclamation about food, issued on April 10. He asked the Southern people to switch production from cotton and tobacco to foodstuffs and fodder. “Let your fields be devoted exclusively to the production of corn, oats, beans, peas, and other food for man and beast,” asked Davis.

To-day is fine and beautiful, and if we only have a continuance of such weather, we shall soon be on the move. I suppose the sooner we get off the better. General Hooker seems to be very sanguine of success, but is remarkably reticent of his information and plans; I really know nothing of what he intends to do, or when or where he proposes doing anything. This secrecy I presume is advantageous, so far as it prevents the enemy’s becoming aware of our plans. At the same time it may be carried too far, and important plans may be frustrated by subordinates, from their ignorance of how much depended on their share of the work. This was the case at Fredericksburg. Franklin was not properly advised, that is to say, not fully advised, as to Burnside’s plan. I am sure if he had been so advised, his movements would have been different.

I suppose you have seen Jeff Davis’s proclamation on the subject of food. It undoubtedly is a confession of weakness, but we should be very careful how we allow ourselves to be led astray by it. Not a single exertion on our part should be relaxed, not a man less called out than before. We might as well make up our minds to the fact that our only hope of peace is in the complete overpowering of the military force of the South, and to do this we must have immense armies to outnumber them everywhere. I fear, however, that this plain dictate of common sense will never have its proper influence. Already I hear a talk of not enforcing the conscription law. Certainly no such efforts are being made to put the machinery of the law into motion as would indicate an early calling out of the drafted men. In the course of the next month and the one ensuing, all the two-year and nine-month men go out of service. Of the latter class there were called out three hundred thousand. How many are in service I don’t know. I do know, however, that this army loses in the next twenty days nearly twenty-five thousand men, and that I see no indication of their being replaced. Over eight thousand go out of my corps alone. These facts have been well-known at Washington for some time past, and pressed upon the attention of the authorities, and perhaps arrangements unknown to me have been made to meet the difficulty.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 366-7. Available via Google Books.

Naval Setback and a Princess (April 17, 1863)

A Currier & Ives print of Samuel DuPont's failed April 7 attack on Charleston, South Carolina (Library of Congress).

A Currier & Ives print of Samuel Du Pont’s failed April 7 attack on Charleston, South Carolina (Library of Congress).

In his letter of April 17, Meade writes about Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont’s failure to capture Charleston, South Carolina, with a flotilla of monitors. The Confederate defenders badly shot up the Union ironclads, which didn’t even make it past Fort Sumter. Du Pont asked to be relieved as head of the blockading fleet and was replaced by John Dahlgren, whose son, Ulric, would later serve as an aide to Meade.

The Princess “Slam Slam” to whom Meade prefers was actually Princess Salm-Salm, the American wife of Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk, Prince Salm-Salm. The Prussian aristocrat and cavalryman had traveled to the United States and volunteered to fight for the Union. His wife was the former Agnes Elizabeth Winona Leclerc Joy, who had been born in Vermont. She met her future husband in Washington. Below Meade’s letter I have included an account of the princess by Noah Brooks, the newspaperman who accompanied Lincoln on his trip to visit the army. He included it in his 1895 book Washington in Lincoln’s Time. I have also included Princess Salm-Salm’s own recollections of Lincoln, taken from her 1876 book Ten Years of My Life.

I regret to see you are in bad spirits and take so much to heart our apparent reverses. The affair at Charleston was pretty much as I expected, except I did think the ironclads would be able to pass Sumter and get at the town. I did not expect this would give us the place, or that they could reduce the batteries. They never have yet reduced any batteries of consequence, except those at Port Royal and Fort Donelson, but they have proved their capacity to run by them and stand being shot at, which I think they did in an eminent degree at Charleston. I see some of the papers are disposed to criticise and find fault with duPont, but I have just read a vigorous defense of him in the New York Tribune, so he is all right. You must not be so low-spirited. War is a game of ups and downs, and we must have our reverses mixed up with our successes. Look out for “Fighting Joe’s” army, for the grand reaction in our favor. A big rain storm we had on the 14th has kept us quiet for awhile, but Joe says we are to do great things when we start.

The great lady in the camp is the Princess Slam Slam, who is quite a pretty young woman. The Prince Slam Slam has a regiment in Sigel’s corps.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 366. Available via Google Books.

Here are Noah Brooks’ recollections of Princess Salm-Salm:

Princess Salm-Salm (Librayr of Congress).

Princess Salm-Salm (Library of Congress).

While the President and his party were with the Army of the Potomac at the time previously referred to, pleasant collations were occasionally served at the headquarters of the various corps commanders whose troops were being reviewed. At a luncheon given by General Sickles at his headquarters, among the ladies present was the Princess Salm-Salm, whose husband was a staff-officer in the army. This lady attracted much admiration by her graceful and dashing riding in the cavalcade that attended the reviews. Before her marriage she was a Miss Joyall of Philipsburg. It was this remarkable woman who astonished the President, on his entering General Sickles’s headquarters, by flying at him, and imprinting a bouncing kiss on his surprised and not altogether attractive face. As soon as he could collect himself and recover from his astonishment, the President thanked the lady, but with evident discomposure; whereupon some of the party made haste to explain that the Princess Salm-Salm had laid a wager with one of the officers that she would kiss the President. Her audacious sally won her a box of gloves.

I have called the princess remarkable; and her career certainly deserves a parenthetical note, for she was a conspicuous figure in some social circles of Washington during Lincoln’s time. Her parents were of humble origin, living in Philipsburg, at the Canadian end of Lake Champlain, called Missisquoi Bay. The girl earned her living by service among the neighboring farmers, but subsequently became an actress in a strolling company of players. From this time her life was picturesque and varied. It was said that her well-known skill and deftness in the care and management of horses were acquired when she was a circus-rider; at that period of her checkered career she was billed as “Miss Leclerq.” Prince Salm-Salm served as a volunteer staff-officer during our war, after which he and his wife went to Mexico, where they identified themselves with the failing cause of the Emperor Maximilian. The lady narrated her remarkable adventures in Mexico in a bright book, and the couple returned to Austria, whence the prince had been previously expelled on account of his profligate habits, but where he was now made welcome and was given a pension and a post in one of the royal palaces near Vienna. It was subsequently reported that this American princess joined herself to the French forces under the Geneva cross, in the Franco-Prussian war, and that her husband was killed while fighting on the same side at the battle of Gravelotte.

 From Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time (New York: Century Co., 1895), pp. 68-70. Available via Google Books here.

The Princess’s account. Curiously, she does not mention the kissing incident.

Prince Salm-Salm (Library of Congress).

Prince Salm-Salm (Library of Congress).

There were, of course, plenty of newspaper reporters in our camp; and as they had not much to write about the war, they described our sports and festivals, which descriptions tempted many people to pay us a visit; and even Mr. Lincoln, or perhaps Mrs. Lincoln, could not resist . The announcement of this visit caused, of course, great excitement; and preparations were made to entertain them as well as possible. They were to stay at General Hooker’s head-quarters; but the real maitre de plaisirs was General Sickles, who had been in Europe, and who knew all about it. He wanted to introduce even some novelties of a monarchical smack, and proposed to appoint for the time of the visit some ladies of honour to attend on Mrs. Lincoln. This plan was, however, not to the liking of the American ladies, each of whom thought herself quite as sovereign as the wife of the President.

President Lincoln’s features are well known. People said that his face was ugly. He certainly had neither the figure nor features of the Apollo of Belvedere; but he never appeared ugly to me, for his face, beaming with boundless kindness and benevolence towards mankind, had the stamp of intellectual beauty. I could not look into it without feeling kindly towards him, and without tears starting to my eyes, for over the whole face was spread a melancholic tinge, which some will have noticed in many persons who are fated to die a violent death.

A German author, I think it is L. Tieck, says somewhere that one loves a person only the better on discovering in him or her something funny or ridiculous, and this remark struck me as very correct. We may worship or revere a perfect person; but real warm human affection we feel towards such as do not overawe us, but stand nearer to us by some imperfection or peculiar weakness provoking a smile. President Lincoln’s appearance was peculiar. There was in his face, besides kindness and melancholy, a sly humour nickering around the corners of his big mouth and his rather small and somewhat tired looking eyes.

He was tall and thin, with enormously long loose arms and big hands, and long legs ending with feet such as I never saw before; one of his shoes might have served Commodore Nutt as a boat. The manner in which he dressed made him appear even taller and thinner than he was, for the clothes he wore seemed to be transmitted to him by some still taller elder brother. In summer, when he wore a suit made of some light black stuff, he looked like a German village schoolmaster. He had very large ears standing off a little, and when he was in a good humour I always expected him to flap with them like a good-natured elephant.

Notwithstanding his peculiar figure, he did not appear ridiculous; he had of the humourous just as much about him as the people like to see in public characters they love. Lincoln was beloved by the Americans more than any other man; he was the most popular President the United States ever had, Washington and Jackson not excepted.

I need not say that everything was done by the commanding generals to entertain Mrs. Lincoln and the President, who on reviewing the troops was everywhere received with heartfelt cheers.

From Agnes Elizabeth W. Salm-Salm, Ten Years of My Life (Richard Bentley & Son, 1876), pages 44-46. Available from Google Books here.

Death and Taxes

Today is tax day so I felt it would be appropriate to say something about the American Civil War’s role in the creation of the national income tax. I’ve adapted this from an article I wrote several years ago when I was doing some P.R. work for the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“Nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes,”” said Benjamin Franklin. The American Civil War was responsible for plenty of both.

Congress passed the first Federal income tax in 1861 to help fund the Union effort. Although Great Britain already had an income tax and some states had experimented with the concept, it was a first for the U.S. government. But the times cried out for innovation. South Carolina had seceded from the Union in December 1860, starting a chain reaction as other Southern states followed its lead. On April 12, 1861, Southern guns in Charleston, South Carolina, opened fire on Union-held Fort Sumter. The Civil War had begun.

Few realized how much it would cost—by 1863 the Union was spending more than $2 million a day on the war. The country’s previous methods of raising money, primarily from tariffs and the sale of public land, were inadequate to handle this new crisis.

Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln's secretary of the treasury and a member of his "team of rivals." Young George Gordon Meade had once been a student at a school that Chase ran. When he later met the treasury secretary during the Civil War, Meade declined to point out their former connection (Library of Congress).

Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury and a member of his “team of rivals.” Young George Gordon Meade had once been a student at a school that Chase ran. When he later met the treasury secretary during the Civil War, Meade declined to point out their former connection (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary was Salmon P. Chase, a former Ohio governor and senator who had been Lincoln’s rival for the Republican nomination in 1860. When Congress returned to Washington in July 1861 Chase told it the government needed $318 million—six times what it had spent the year before. He expected most of it would come from loans and some from land sales and tariffs, but Chase estimated a $20 million shortfall. He asked Congress to use its “superior wisdom” and close the gap.

The income tax was just one way to do that. In August Congress passed a bill that imposed a flat 3% rate on net earnings after an $800 exemption, with taxes due by June 30, 1862. It also introduced the nation’s first tax loophole: Interest from government bonds was taxed at only 1.5%, in an attempt to spur sales.

The 1861 tax was one everyone could love, because Congress created no system to collect it. By the next spring the realities of the war’s costs were obvious to all, and Congress set out to tax with a vengeance. It passed an internal revenue bill that was seventeen pages long—119 sections of tiny type printed in three columns. It included stamp taxes, excise taxes, inheritance taxes, license taxes—taxes, it seemed, on just about everything. President Lincoln signed it on July 1, 1862.

The bill taxed incomes at a rate of 3% on earnings between $600 and $10,000, and 5% above that, with deductions allowed for other taxes paid. The progressive rate was merely a point of practicality. As John F. Witte pointed out in The Politics and Development of the Federal Income Tax, “[P]rogressivity was introduced not out of concern for equity, but rather to increase revenues.” Only a small percentage of Americans paid the income tax, because relatively few earned more than $600 a year. For example, a private in the army earned a mere $13 a month.

To collect all the new taxes, Congress established the first Bureau of Internal Revenue, and Chase asked George S. Boutwell, a former Massachusetts governor, to serve as its first commissioner. Boutwell did not lack self-esteem. “Mr. Chase’s mental processes were slow,” he said of his boss, “but time being given, he had the capacity to form sound opinions.” The new commissioner set himself up in a small office in the Treasury Building and oversaw the creation of a growing bureaucracy that would employ almost 4,000 people by war’s end.

One of Boutwell’s first hires was a cashier to handle the millions of dollars in incoming revenue. The cashier started at a salary of $1,200 a year, $600 of it subject to income tax. As a federal employee, his taxes would have been withheld directly from his paycheck—something we take for granted today.

Non-federal employees dealt with tax collectors, who handed out four-page forms of personal questions. If that weren’t bad enough, until 1870 newspapers printed individuals’ incomes and payments for everyone to see. As one taxpayer wrote, “The satisfaction of knowing how much our neighbor was worth was no compensation for the exposure of our own affairs.”

The Confederacy, in increasingly dire financial straits, passed its own income tax in April 1863, even though it ran contrary to its states’ rights philosophy. The Confederacy’s tax had a $1,000 exemption, a 1% rate for the first $1,500 after that, and 2% for incomes above $2,500. It was too little, too late.

Congress revised the federal tax in 1864. By then the national debt had ballooned to $1.8 billion, so the new tax raised rates to 5% for incomes between $600 to $5,000; 7.5% for $5,000 to $10,000, and 10% above that. Now the idea of progressivity sparked some serious debate. “It is seizing the property of men for the crime of having too much,” protested Vermont Representative Justin Morrill.

Congress began to find ways to fiddle with the tax laws—adding new deductions (for example, rent) and adding exceptions for farmers. And as an emergency measure in 1864 it raised rates for the previous year’s incomes, to 8% for earnings between $600 and $10,000.

Income tax revenues trickled in slowly at first. In 1863 the tax raised only $2 million—enough to fund the war for a day. In 1866 it raised $73.5 million. In the end income taxes accounted for only about 20% of government revenue during the Civil War. By 1867 the war was over and income tax revenues were declining, as Congress raised exemptions and lowered rates, and as more and more citizens simply stopped paying. “Does anybody believe that out of the whole 40,000,000 people in the United States there are only 272,843 who have incomes exceeding $1,000, that only about half that number have incomes not above $1,400?” sputtered an outraged Congressman in 1870.

Congress also began hearing from an ever-increasing variety of “special interests” who wanted the income tax repealed. “They speak through the daily press, from high official stations, from great corporations, from cities where wealth accumulates, and with all the advantages of social, personal, and delegated influence,” complained Ohio Senator John Sherman.

Congress finally killed the income tax in 1872. It lay dormant until 1894, when Congress, after much heated debate, passed a flat 2% tax. The Supreme Court struck down the bill as unconstitutional. Ratification of the 16th amendment in 1913 ended any questions about the tax’s constitutionality and Congress passed a limited income tax that ushered in the age of Form 1040.

The income tax has been with us ever since.

Things to Come (April 14, 1863)

The saga of the sword presentation continues. (See the entry for April 5).  I especially like the way Meade expresses his “horror at the prospect of being made a lion.” In his last line he hints at things to come, as he prepares for the movement that will lead to the battle of Chancellorsville.

Major General Joseph Hooker (Library of Congress).

Major General Joseph Hooker (Library of Congress).

Yesterday I received a letter asking me to appoint a day to receive the sword, etc. I referred it to General Hooker, who replied that it was entirely out of the question, my being absent at this time, and recommending the postponement of the presentation, which I accordingly wrote to the committee. I am just as well satisfied, for I looked with great horror at the prospect of being made a lion, and having to roar for the benefit of outsiders. I trust now they will come quietly down here, make the presentation, and let me send the sword back to you, for it is too precious to carry in the field.

I have been busy all day making preparations for the march.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 366. Available via Google Books.