Union officers often found themselves in an uncomfortable position before the Committee. Since this was a civil war, pitting neighbor against neighbor (and sometimes brother against brother), the loyalty of a soldier to the Union was simple to question. And since Union forces had very poor luck against their Confederate counterparts early in the war, particularly in the Eastern Theater battles that held the attention of the newspapers and Washington politicians, it was easy to accuse an officer of being a traitor after he lost a battle or was slow to engage or pursue the enemy. This politically charged atmosphere was very difficult and distracting for career military officers. Officers who were not known Republicans felt the most pressure before the Committee.
During the committee's existence, it held 272 meetings and received testimony in Washington and at other locations, often from military officers. Though the committee met and held hearings in secrecy, the testimony and related exhibits were published at irregular intervals in the numerous committee reports of its investigations. The records include the original manuscripts of certain postwar reports that the committee received from general officers. There are also transcripts of testimony and accounting records regarding the military administration of Alexandria, Virginia.
One of the most colorful series of committee hearings followed the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, where Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, a former congressman, accused Maj. Gen. George G. Meade of mismanaging the battle, planning to retreat from Gettysburg prior to his victory there, and failing to pursue and defeat Robert E. Lee's army as it retreated. This was mostly a self-serving effort on Sickles's part because he was trying to deflect criticism from his own disastrous role in the battle. Bill Hyde notes that the committee's report on Gettysburg was edited by Wade in ways that were unfavorable to Meade, even when that required distorting the evidence. The report was "a powerful propaganda weapon" (p. 381), but the committee's power had waned by the time the final version of the report was released on May 22, 1865.
Bruce Tap finds, "the committee's investigations, its leaks to the press, and its use of secret testimony to discredit generals such as McClellan certainly were instrumental in creating hostility between the army's West Point officers and the nation's civilian leaders." Finally, because of its collective ignorance of military science and preference for the heroic saber charge, "the committee tended to reinforce the unrealistic and simplistic notions of warfare that prevailed in the popular mind," writes Tap (pp. 165-66).
The Committee on the Conduct of the War is considered to be the toughest congressional investigating committee in history. While a senator from Missouri, future President Harry S. Truman cited this committee's style as an example he did not want to follow in shepherding the so-called "Truman Committee", which investigated military appropriations during World War II. Truman stated that he did not want to second guess war strategy. His committee succeeded in demonstrating government waste and inefficiency in order to assist the war effort.