Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamations (Article 60)

On October 23, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring the final Thursday in November as a “Day of Thanksgiving” and our nation has ever since celebrated this special day.

The country had heard calls for a day of Thanksgiving before. In 1777, while the Revolutionary War was still being waged, the members of the Continental Congress were grateful that their rebellion still held promise for independence and they issued a proclamation designating Thursday, December 18, as a Day of Solemn Thanksgiving. And, in 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for Thursday, November 26.  Thereafter, a few Presidents and the Governors of several states periodically issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, however none designated a recurring November holiday.

Then Sarah Josepha Buell Hale stepped in!

A well-known editor and novelist, she was a strong proponent of women’s education and was a co-founder of Vassar College.  But few Americans are aware that, beginning in 1838 and for the next twenty-five years, she used her public visibility to lobby for a national Thanksgiving Day in November. As editor of the “Godey’s Lady Book” and “The Ladies Magazine,” which combined had the largest paid circulation of any women’s periodicals, she and her readers began an annual letter-writing campaign to “encourage” (her word) and “pester” (one recipient’s word) Governors to issue a resolution in their respective states; and they petitioned every sitting President to declare a National Thanksgiving Day. By 1858, while no President had created the special day she requested, every state except Virginia had declared a Day of Thanksgiving.

But, in 1859, two years prior to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War, her progress not only stalled, but began to recede. Politicians in some southern states refused to issue their annual Thanksgiving proclamations, with one referring to the holiday as a “Yankee Abolitionist holiday” and another stating that it was a “National Claptrap” started by northerners to hinder the South’s institutions (meaning slavery). But many families in the South continued to observe a day of thanksgiving, keeping the religious aspects, but eliminating the bountiful table, which was seen as a New England custom. While Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued several proclamations for a day of prayer and thanksgiving; his were not in November and were directed as a celebration of military successes over the Union armies.

Despite the setbacks in the southern states, Mrs. Hale did not give up and three times in consecutive years she petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to declare a national Thanksgiving Day. She asked that he set aside a designated day “for all Americans to put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” and “to be thankful for the blessings of life, not of war.”

She would have to wait.

Abraham Lincoln had issued two proclamations calling for a day of thanksgiving and reflection, the first in August, 1861 and another in April, 1863. Each proclamation asked the public to set aside time to reflect upon the challenges the country faced and to follow their own religious creed to express hope for peace and gratitude for the blessings bestowed on the nation.

But, neither was in response to Mrs. Hale’s letters.

In August, 1861, after four months of fighting, the awful realities of the Civil War were coming home to roost. Lincoln felt that the people might be comforted by a special day on which the nation as a whole would turn to their religious faith, in whatever forms that may take, to ask for guidance in restoring the forefathers’ vision for the United States. That Presidential proclamation was officially titled The Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day, and read (in part):

“..And, whereas our own beloved country, once by the blessing of God, united, prosperous, and happy, is now afflicted with faction and Civil War, it is particularly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our faults as a nation, and as individuals, to humble ourselves and pray for His mercy, and that the inestimable boon of civil and religious liberty earned by His blessing and the labors and sufferings of our forefathers, may be restored in all its original excellence.” The Proclamation went on to declare a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting and urged “all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations and the heads of all families to observe and keep that day according to their creeds and modes of worship.”

A good start, but not quite an official Thanksgiving Day. So, Mrs. Hale sent another letter!

The Emancipation Proclamation had become effective on January 1, 1863, changing forever the context of the Civil War. By April, Lincoln believed that the North would eventually prevail and the Union would be restored; but he held little hope that the War would end soon. He decided to issue another “Thanksgiving” proclamation in April, 1863; however, this one was officially titled “Proclamation for a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” and read (in part):

“It is the duty of nations as well as men, to owe their dependence upon the ruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow. We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. But we have forgotten God. We have vainly imagined that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. I do, by this proclamation, set April 30, 1863 as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. And I do request that all the people abstain that day from their ordinary secular pursuits and to unite at their several places of public worship and in their respective homes, in keeping that day Holy. Let us rest humbly in the hope that the united cry of the nation will be heard on High, and (provide) the restoration of our now divided and suffering country.” 

So, Mrs. Hale wrote still another letter, a few months later, but this one finally gave the President pause.

By the fall of 1863, the Civil War was still being fought, but the Union was beginning to see significant victories. Sarah Hale again implored President Abraham Lincoln to designate one day, in November, throughout the entire country, which would be “set aside in perpetuity for prayerful Thanksgiving for the blessings bestowed by the Creator.” Lincoln was persuaded and issued his third “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.” It read (in part):

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies, bounties which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come. In the midst of Civil War of unequaled magnitude and severity, laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has been preserved except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.” Lincoln went on to describe the wealth that was building in the north and advances in bringing in new states from western territories; while still keeping up an aggressive war effort against the Confederacy. But then Lincoln returned to the basic theme of gratitude and Thanksgiving. “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the most gracious gifts of the most High God, who while dealing with us for our sins hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It seems fit and proper that they should solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledge as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens to observe the last Thursday in November as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

With this Presidential proclamation, Sarah Hale saw her vision become a treasured day, which she said, “Would be observed across all lines that, on other matters, may divide us; such as politics, geography, ethnicity, and religion.”

A year later, on October 20, 1864, and without another letter from Mrs. Hale, President Lincoln issued his fourth Thanksgiving Day Proclamation; again, declaring the last Thursday of November as the special day; which read (in part):

“It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs (and providing) to us in his mercy many and signal victories over the enemy who is of our own household. He has augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while he has opened new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards. He has been pleased to inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of Civil War into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity. Therefore I set apart the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise (to) offer up penitence and prayers for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land.” 

Because of an assassin’s bullet a few months later, this became President Lincoln’s last Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.

After the Civil War ended, the northern bureaucrats, politicians and military leaders, who were in charge of “reconstruction” of the occupied former Confederate states, imposed Thanksgiving Day as a November federal holiday. However, it would take another generation (or two or three in some cases) before the holiday was embraced by families throughout south; and so, Mrs. Hale’s hope for national unity, symbolized in part by a Thanksgiving Day celebrated by all Americans, was deferred. But, time can heal the worst of wounds and, in 1905, a Southern minister, referring to a New England staple, said, “I knew Thanksgiving Day was again ours as well, when, after my prayer, I noticed cranberries on the table.”

Mrs. Hale would have been pleased.

The four Lincoln proclamations were all collaborative efforts with Secretary of State William Seward, who was a devout Episcopalian. Seward’s intonements tended to be more ecclesiastical and flourishing, while Lincoln, who was no less spiritual, tended to use simpler wording. But, the two men trusted each other’s ability to communicate, and their combined prose flows seamlessly as if it was the effort of only one person.  Historians still debate which phrases each man may have contributed to the proclamations. In any case, the co-authors left us with elegant, meaningful, and still pertinent, proclamations. Certainly, their calls for humility, unity, and peace seem appropriate today.

Have a wonderful, and reflective, Thanksgiving Day; courtesy of Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, and of course, Sarah Hale.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com

 

 

 

Can We Defend Washington City (Article 59)

The new President, Abraham Lincoln, was worried. For good reason.

There had been wide-spread debates, and intense arguments, for and against secession by the nation’s slave-holding states. The opposing sides raised their voices in the halls of Congress, in many state legislatures, in pulpits, and in newspapers. And, many feared civil war would be the outcome if any or all of the fifteen states where slavery was legal chose to separate from the United States. For months, General Winfield Scott, commanding General of the U. S. Army, knew that war would surely result if the Federal government intervened to prevent secession.

He was forced to ponder a critical question; if war comes, can we defend Washington City from an attack by rebel forces? General Scott was not so sure, especially if the attack would come early in the conflict.

One Washington politician noted in November 1860 that, “The odor of war is in the air, and I fear it is intoxicating.” No one knew then if five, seven, eleven or even all fifteen of the slave-holding states might secede from the Union, but almost all expected that, if there was to be war, and when it came, the nation’s Capital was certain to be a target. If for no other reason, Union officials thought the rebels would want to disrupt the Federal government just when central leadership would be most needed. It could be a quick and easy capture; after all, the city was surrounded by Maryland and Virginia, both slave-holding states, and a vast majority of the city’s citizens were of southern heritage.

Washington was vulnerable.

For the months leading up to the outbreak of war, very little was actually done to prepare a defense, primarily because the responsible parties, including Congress, the preceding President, James Buchanan, General Scott, and new President, Abraham Lincoln, did not want to appear as if all hope was lost for a peaceful solution. Some thought that if Virginia and Maryland remained in the Union, in the event there was war, any rebel forces would be less likely to attack Washington. Others, like President Lincoln, thought (or hoped?) some compromise to avoid war might still be reached which protected slavery from Federal interference in those fifteen states where it remained legal. Still others, many in the South, could not fathom that the northern states would be willing to rally an army to invade any southern state which had seceded; especially because there was valuable commerce between the states as well as many personal relationships among their citizens. So, while tensions rose, only minimal defensive measures to protect Washington were being taken.

At the start of the new year, 1861, the United States Army had about 16,000 enlisted men and 1,100 officers but over the next few months, over 4,000 of the soldiers and over 300 of the officers defected to either southern state militias or to the new Confederate army. In March, General Scott reported to in-coming President Lincoln, that the force of 20,000 southern militia and Confederate troops gathered around Charleston in South Carolina was larger than his entire army. He would be forced to re-assign troops from areas further from Washington to supplement the relatively small Federal garrison in the city; however, that process would take time.  So, the issue was addressed, but not yet solved; because, before any of these troops could defend the city, they had to get there.

The primary rail lines into Washington from the north passed through Baltimore, a place already proven to be hostile. In fact, some of the first casualties of the war occurred in Baltimore as Union troops marched through the town. When a group of secessionist militia challenged troops from the 6th Massachusetts regiment, shots rang out, and before the skirmish was over, three Union soldiers and twelve civilians lay dead in the streets. President Lincoln and General Scott were surprised by the violent incident and there were some calls for retribution against the secessionists in Baltimore by the additional Union forces which were in route. But Lincoln hoped to avoid another confrontation in the city by using a route around the city, and told the mayor and police chief of Baltimore; “I must have troops for the defense of the Capital. Our men are not moles and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march them across, and that they must do. Keep your rowdies in Baltimore and there will be no bloodshed.”

Using secondary routes, over the next few weeks more troops filed into the Capital and defensive preparations began in earnest. But even with those added Union forces, Washington City was still in panic mode! A woman resident of the Capital, who was a Confederate sympathizer, wrote to a friend in Virginia, “We could march right in and take control of the city. Where are our men?”

In late March, General Scott directed his staff to recruit local militias to add to the few Union troops in the city, and to fortify the perimeter, especially the bridges across the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Scott’s officers formed some units from residents of Washington, however, they hardly resembled regular troops. One regiment was composed of older veterans, some in their sixties, and was appropriately called the Silver Brigade. Another regiment was formed by Kentucky native, and ardent abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, who had come to Washington to prepare for his new appointment as the Ambassador to Russia. However, he delayed his departure for two months to form a unit of irregulars, which became known as the Clay Battalion.

Washington began to look like a city preparing for war. Bridges across the Potomac and Anacostia rivers were blocked with guard gates and sufficient soldiers to check every individual going and coming, and thousands of Union soldiers were encamped nearby. Then, finally, both General Scott and President Lincoln felt that Washington could now be defended from, what they assumed would be, an assault by the Confederate Army.

So, they waited!

But the attack about which they worried, and planned to defend against, and for which they tied up so many Union troops and spent so much money, never came.  Why?

In one of those ironies of war, and unknown to Lincoln and his military advisors, the Confederate military leadership had never seriously contemplated an early (and all-out) assault on the Union Capital.  There were a variety of both military and personal reasons for the Confederate’s hesitancy to attack the city; (1) the effort would tie up thousands of their troops, (2) many of the southern generals thought attacks on cities and their citizens were not ‘honorable” war tactics, (3) some did not believe that the city had a strategic importance, and (4) they did not want to alienate those in the North who supported a compromise peace plan.  The Confederate leaders thought there were better uses for their relatively small army, including protecting their lines of supply throughout the south and keeping control of the major ports in the south-eastern seaboard, in the Gulf of Mexico, and along the Mississippi River.

However, to keep the Washington politicians and the citizens concerned and off-balance, the Confederates would occasionally penetrate the city’s outskirts, which had the desired effect; wide-spread panic!  Union military leaders, President Lincoln, and the public were alarmed at each of the nearby small raids, but remained unaware that Washington would not be one of the Confederate primary strategic targets.

The Union Army had swelled to over two hundred thousand men by early 1862; however, Lincoln’s concerns for Washington’s safety were further complicated because he was unsure if the new General of Union Armies, George McClellan, would appropriately defend the Capital City. Lincoln feared that the General might take too many of the Washington based troops for other engagements, which would again leave the city vulnerable. Therefore, in a surprise move, the President ordered a contingent of 40,000 troops to remain in Washington under the command of General Irvin McDowell, who would report directly to the War Department. This order infuriated General McClellan (not the first or last time he and Lincoln would disagree), and that same day, McClellan wrote to his wife, “rascality and traitors are in Washington.”

But, now Lincoln felt that Washington was reasonably secure from any Confederate siege.

However, in hindsight, we know now what President Lincoln did not know then. Throughout the Civil War, while his defensive steps to protect Washington from invasion seemed prudent, he had acted under an erroneous assumption. In fact, the Union’s capital was never in danger of an all-out attack!

contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

They Called Her Moses (Article 58)

She was born a slave in about 1820 but the date is not certain. Her birth name was recorded by her owner as Araminta Ross, but she was known as Minty. As a young woman, she was only about five feet tall, probably never weighed more than one hundred pounds, and suffered seizures due to a childhood injury. She was illiterate until adulthood. She escaped her slave master’s plantation 1848, when she was about twenty-seven; however, legally, she was considered a fugitive slave until 1865.  For nearly twenty years, she risked capture, returning numerous times to the area around her former home in southern Maryland to guide other escaping slaves to freedom in Pennsylvania, New York and Canadian provinces. For her exploits, she was dubbed “Moses,” but at the time most slave-owners thought their nemesis was a man. During the Civil War, she was an armed scout for the Union Army and once participated in a raid to free a group of slaves from several large plantations. After the war and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, she became active in the suffrage movement; but she was never allowed to vote. She remained devoted to her life’s work, which was to improve the lives of former slaves by helping them find work and try to build a life on their own. Then, as she grew older, she formed a retirement home for those with no family to help with their care.

This is the remarkable legacy of Harriett Tubman.

Minty, as she was known then to master and family alike, endured the hardships and degradations that were common for slaves in those days. Always a feisty girl, she was frequently beaten for disobedience, and occasionally rented out to other slave-holders as a form of punishment. Those periods away from her home were especially difficult for Minty because she was very close to her large family. In 1840, her initial owner died and, under provisions of his will, her father was manumitted from slavery; but, Minty, her mother, and her siblings remained slaves; and she was able to observe first-hand the difference freedom made for her father. To drive home their status as slaves, soon after her new master took control, Minty witnessed the horrific effect on her mother and father when three of her siblings were sold, breaking up their family.  As a child, she was once innocently caught in a confrontation between a slave owner and a male slave who was attempting to flee, and suffered a severe head injury when a heavy metal object thrown by the owner at the slave, struck Minty instead. Thereafter, for the rest of her life, she would occasionally have seizures and debilitating headaches. In 1844, her owner arranged for Minty to marry a Black man who had gained his freedom, probably expecting that Minty would bear children. Under Maryland law at the time, any child born to a female slave, became a slave owned by the same master. However, Minty did not have any children and, although she never explained the matter, it is reasonable to assume that she did not want to bring a child into slavery. After her marriage, Minty changed her name to Harriett and soon, unknown to her husband, began to hope for an opportunity to escape!

Late one night, she and two of her brothers took off, with no real escape plan. They were quickly missed and identified in a wanted poster as fugitive slaves, with a reward of $100 each for their return. When the three were unable to find a route to safety and freedom, or even help with food and shelter, they turned themselves in. As they probably expected, they were returned to their owner and beaten before being re-assigned to hard labor tasks.

But Harriett had tasted freedom, if only for a short while, and again thought of escape. Although, this time she did more than just hope. She gathered information from other slaves about possible routes, developed a plan for evasion, including travel only at night through waterways; and her most critical decision was to go alone! She later wrote of her feelings during her preparations to escape: “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

Within weeks, Harriett was again on the run and this time for good. She found refuge in the homes of several Quakers as she travelled at night north along what was becoming known as the Underground Railroad, which was neither a railroad nor underground. She worked her way through Maryland and Delaware (also a slave state), then, finally into Pennsylvania.

When she realized that she was probably safe (for now) she wrote: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

While she was now relatively “free” and had found steady work to build a new life, she missed her family. The following year she slipped back into Maryland to rescue a niece with two small children and, six months later in a return trip, guided other family members to safety. Over the next two years, she made at least ten more clandestine trips bringing over seventy slaves into her “Promised Land.” In fact, one northern newspaper editor, without naming her, or even her gender, began to refer to her as “Moses” and the name stuck. Slave-holders in Maryland who knew of “Minty” never suspected that the small, disabled, girl who had escaped earlier, could possibly be “Moses” and several thought it was really a male abolitionist conducting the group escapes while deceptively leaving the impression it was a woman.

Harriet’s true identity as a primary “conductor” in the underground railroad inexplicably remained unknown to slave-holders despite her growing recognition in the north from numerous appearances at abolitionist society meetings arranged by publisher William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, the nation’s most famous former slave. She even met with John Brown, the violent abolitionist who later led the failed raid against the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, which he had hoped would arm slaves for a rebellion. While many historians believe Harriett knew about Brown’s general plan, most know that she opposed violence, even against White slave-holders, and, therefore, probably would not have supported an attack on U.S. Army troops.

After the Civil War began, she was able to find work as a cook and nurse with various Union Army units, however, her most valuable service to the Army came as a scout. Because Harriett knew the backwoods, rivers and streams so well, she offered her services to guide Union army units on patrol in the area. Accounts written by others make it clear that she was often more than just a scout and was an adept gatherer of intelligence as she would enter Confederate held territory, dressed in the garb of a slave, pretending to be on an errand for a master. She was always armed, but later said she was grateful that she had never had to fire her weapon at another person, even an avowed enemy, because, “Killing someone would have worn on my mind as a Christian.” However, she recalled one situation in which she was prepared to use her small pistol, but the need never arose. In June, 1863, she guided a raiding party of Union troops led by Colonel James Montgomery to liberate slaves from several plantations along the Combahee River, in South Carolina. She had earlier infiltrated the nearby plantations and told the slaves to “run like wind” when they heard steam boat whistles. Then, at the first blast of the whistles, the slave-owners and the few Confederate soldiers in the area could not slow the stampede of slaves running toward the river and the waiting boats. Over 700 slaves were freed in what became known as the Combahee River Raid. Her efforts were recognized by Colonel Montgomery and he petitioned for Harriett to receive regular Army compensation.

It was denied.

In fact, numerous U.S. Army officers supported some form of compensation for Harriett, during and after the War, some even requesting that she receive a pension. All were denied, until 1899, thirty-five years after her Army service ended. However, even then, the Army still refused to recognize her service as a scout; instead, she was given $20.00 per month for her service as a nurse. She was eighty years old.

Along with almost all former slaves, on April 15, 1865, Harriett Tubman mourned the death of Abraham Lincoln and spoke of the grief she felt at his loss. She appreciated his personal beliefs that slavery must be abolished and his efforts to drive the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress; however, she was a stern critic of the President’s earlier policies toward slavery. When Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was first published in September 1862 to become effective on January 1, 1863, it did not include slaves held in the four border states of Maryland (her original home), Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, and Harriett was dismayed. She said: “God won’t let Master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing. Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I am a poor Negro; but the Negro can tell Master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the Negro free.”  Harriett offered to help recruit former slaves into the Army, understanding that the units would consist of only Black enlisted men, commanded by White officers; but, she considered it a start. After several months, Lincoln and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, approved the new regiments and the first real test for Black soldiers in the regular U.S. Army, was about to occur.

In July, 1863, Harriett was providing nursing support as well as guide services to Army units in South Carolina, near Charleston, as the Union Army was mobilizing to assault Fort Wagner, the largest of the nearby installations still held by the Confederates. The unit chosen to lead the initial assault was a regiment of Black enlisted men, led by Colonel Robert G. Shaw, a White officer and avowed abolitionist. The assault was certainly a suicide mission and almost all of Shaw’s men were killed, as was the Colonel. Harriett helped care for the few survivors as some White doctors and nurses refused to aid the Black soldiers. While their assault failed to breech the walls of the fort, the 54th Massachusetts efforts, despite enormous losses, impressed other commanders and there was little hesitation afterward to forming Black units and employing them against Confederate forces.

Harriett wrote poetically of the experience, comparing the fighting to a storm; “We saw the lightening, that was the guns. Then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns. Then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood. And when we went to get the crops, it was only dead men that we reaped.”

Throughout the rest of the war, Harriett would stay close to Army units, helping the growing number of escaping slaves pass through the lines toward safety. Most found themselves, not in northern states building a new home, but in large encampments, with meager rations and tattered tents for shelter. However, they were free and those who worked for the Army received the first wages of their lives.

Except for occasional seizures and headaches from her childhood injury, Harriett remained generally healthy and was active in causes she believed in until well into her eighties. In 1912, at age ninety, Harriett’s health began to fail and she spent the rest of her life at the Harriett Tubman Home for the Aged, the home which she had built for elderly former slaves.

She died on March 10, 1913.

But Harriett Tubman’s legacy lives on. In towns throughout Pennsylvania, New York, and in the Canadian province of Ontario, there are enclaves of families whose forefathers were saved by her many rescue missions into slave territory. Moses was an apt title for this woman who led so many to the promised land and, for over sixty years, from the most humble beginnings, she was a force to be reckoned with, as this country awakened from the era of slavery.

 

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com

 

 

The Descriptive Art of Civil War Letters (Article 57)

The language, especially in written form, used in America during the Civil War era and the rest of the mid-nineteenth century, was more expansive than today, with broad descriptions and less jargon. While some refer to the language of that day as quaint and/or antiquated, others view the use of the lilting phrases from earlier times as more expressive than the “soundbite” linguistics of today. Of course, the newer abbreviated text symbols which dominate social media today, and pass for language, will only exacerbate the distinctive differences.  Reading letters written one hundred and fifty years ago, can help transport a modern reader back to those times. The earlier writers seem more articulate, even those with little or no formal education. Political speech, whether verbal or written, has always been, and continues to be, more flowery and long winded than everyday communications so, with one exception for Abraham Lincoln, no excerpts from speeches are quoted. Instead, these examples are from letters or notes, written between 1861 and 1865, and exchanged between friends; but, in one case, between enemies.

A first-time visitor to the the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia wrote; “Game and fish abound, many objects of interest are close at hand, and the summer fugitive from the ills of city life finds here a pleasant, halting place in his journeying for recreation.”

Upon viewing a battle-field a year after the event, one soldier wrote, “Another year and peace will have hidden the scars that now so sadly mar its beauty. Nature cannot be wholly defrauded of her blossoms, or prevented from drawing her mantle over the deserts that mankind may make.”

Writing of his dismay at the Confederate victory at Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil war, one man wrote to a friend; “Little did I conceive the greatness of the defeat, the magnitude of the disaster which it entailed upon the United States. So short lived has been the American Union, that men who saw it rise may yet live to see it fall.”

A friend wrote about a mother whose son was stationed in Washington DC; “Washington City was no longer a name to the mother waiting and praying in a distant hamlet. Never, till that hour, did the Federal city become, to the heart of the American people, truly the Capital of the nation”

In describing a battle, photographer Alexander Gardner wrote, “The Fifth corps performed one of the most dashing exploits of that campaign. Advancing quickly upon the river, they poured down the steep banks, driving all before them, and dashed across and secured a position on the other side, before the rebels could organize for opposition. The enemy soon commenced a vigorous attack upon the isolated corps; but the Fifth was not disposed to part with its laurels.”

After watching thousands of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate soldiers march past her Maryland home, one woman, a Union Sympathizer, wrote; “This body of men moving along with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two dressed alike, their officers hardly distinguishable from the privates; were these the men who had driven back again and again our splendid legions?”

After finding the body of a young confederate soldier, this was written; “He had been wounded by a fragment and laid down upon his blanket to await death. The disordered clothing shows that his suffering must have been intense. Was he delirious with agony or did death come slowly to his relief, while memories of home grew dearer? What visions of loved ones far away may have hovered above his stony pillow? What familiar voices may he have heard, like whispers beneath the roar of battle, as his eyes grew heavy in their long, last sleep?”

General Ulysses S. Grant, wrote many touching, and personally revealing, letters to his wife. This is part of an early letter; “You can have little idea of the influence you have over me, Julia, even while far away. If I feel tempted to do anything that I think is not right, I am sure to think, ‘Well now, if Julia saw me, would I do so?’ And only then set my mind.”

A person who accompanied Lincoln through the streets after the fall of Richmond wrote; “There is a stillness, in the midst of Richmond, with her ruins. The pavements where we walk stretches a vista of desecration, the loneliness seems interminable. There is no sound of life, but the stillness of the catacomb, as our footsteps fall dull on the deserted sidewalk. This is Richmond, says a melancholy voice. This is Richmond.”

After he was captured by Union forces, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote to his wife; “Dear Varina, This is not the fate to which I invited you when the future was rose-colored for us both; but I know you will bear it even better than myself, and that, of us two, I alone will ever look back reproachfully on my career.”

In an 1855 letter to his good friend, Joshua Speed, who was a slaveholder in Kentucky, Lincoln wrote; “You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ. I suppose we would, not quite as much, however, as you may think. You know I dislike slavery and you fully admit to the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause for difference. But, you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave – especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. It is hardly fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.”

In a follow-up letter to Speed, Lincoln wrote; “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘All men are created equal’ (but) now read it ‘except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings (a growing anti-immigrant political party) get control, it will read, ‘except negroes, foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer immigrating to a country where they make no pretense of loving liberty.”

In 1864, there was a movement to cancel the up-coming election because of the strife and uncertainty of the ongoing Civil War. Lincoln would not even consider it, although at the time, he was expected to lose his re-election bid. He wrote: “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the (Confederate) rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us. No! There will be elections, and we will accept that which the people decide.”

After making that critical election decision, over the next few months, the fortunes of war changed in Lincoln’s favor and he was re-elected. In his second inaugural address, he reflected back to the beginning of the war, four years earlier. “While the (first) inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”

Robert E. Lee agonized over the decision he felt he was forced, by honor, to make if his family’s home country for nearly 200 years, the Commonwealth of Virginia, chose to secede from his family’s newer country (of about 75 years), the United States. He wrote in his letter of resignation to his Union Commander, Winfield Scott; “I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name, and fame, will always be dear to me.” Then to his sister the same day he wrote; “I look upon secession as anarchy. And, if I owned every slave in the South I would sacrifice them all to save the Union. But, how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state. I will retire to my home in Virginia and share the miseries of my people and, save in defense of Virginia, will draw my sword on no one. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feelings of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” And by home, Lee meant the Commonwealth of Virginia!

Four years later, in April 1865 there occurred a most extraordinary exchange of brief letters, over a two-day period, this time between General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee. The letters were delivered by couriers under a white flag, in “no man’s land,” between their two armies, which were locked in brutal combat.

  • On April 7, Grant wrote to Lee (in part); “The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance in this struggle.  I regard it as my duty to shift responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of (your) army.”
  • Lee responded (in part); “I have received your note.  Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood and ask the terms you will offer.”
  • Grant then replied (in part); “I would say that peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist on – namely that the men and officers be disqualified for taking up arms against the government.  I will meet you or any officers you may designate, at any point agreeable to you for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms.”
  • Lee responded to Grant; “General, I received your note of today.  In mine of yesterday, I did not intend to propose the surrender but to ask the terms of your proposition.  To be frank I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as far as your proposal may tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10am tomorrow (April 9) on the Old State Road to Richmond, between picket-lines of the two armies.”
  • Grant immediately wrote (in part); “I have not authority to treat on the subject of peace (meaning an overall settlement of the War). (Therefore) the meeting for 10am today would lead to no good. By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirous event, save thousands of lives, and hundreds of millions of property, not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life.”
  • Lee was startled that Grant would cancel the meeting, as Lee had decided in the meantime to surrender his army and now wanted to assure a meeting with Grant did occur. Lee wrote; “I now ask for an interview, in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday.”
  • Grant immediately replied (in part); “I am at Walker’s church and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting with you.”

The meeting was on! Lee’s men chose the McLean house at Appomattox and a first step in the process of ending the devastating war began.

After the surrender, Lee and Grant each wrote to his respective Commander-in chief. Lee wrote to Jefferson Davis beginning as follows: “Mr. President, It is with pain that I announce to your excellency the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.” Lee then went on, for three more hand-written pages, which included details of placement and troop strength of major units of both armies and the dismal state of supplies, including ammunition, within the Confederate forces. Lee then concluded: “I deemed this course the best under all circumstances. The enemy were more than five times our numbers. If we could have forced our way one day longer it would have been at great sacrifice of life, and at its end, I did not see how a surrender could have been avoided. The men, deprived of food and sleep for many days, were worn out and exhausted.” General Grant simply wrote to Abraham Lincoln; “General Lee has surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon upon terms proposed by myself.”

Later, Lee wrote to a friend, “I surrendered as much to Lincoln’s goodness as to Grant’s artillery.”

And this description of a Confederate hospital ward written by Mary Chesnut, captures not only the scene but the raw emotions of the writer as well. “Who are these southern boys? Sometimes I can barely understand the language they speak, except suffering always sounds the same. The boys just want to go home but I know many will not see their mothers again, so I wash their faces and pray with them.”

Modern writers, including this one, simply do not match such descriptive eloquence.

 

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com

 

 

Bringing the Civil War Home – The Photographers (Article 56)

Bringing the Civil War Home – the Photographers (Article 56) 

The American public, both in the North and the South, had never seen anything like it. Newspapers and periodicals, which carried the images, sold thousands of extra copies compared to those that did not, and people flocked to exhibits to see the pictures first hand. The photographs were of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, taken as they lay, nearly covering the ground, in the distorted postures that only horrific violence against another human being can cause. A New York Times editor said; “(The photographer is bringing) home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them on our door-steps, he has done something very like it.”

Amid the chaos of the War, a few photographers became famous for telling their own stories of that conflict; not with words but with un-edited scenes of the terrible aftermath of war. Photography became a medium for an important message; war was not the grand adventure often described by Victorian era writers and artists. Until the Civil War, most manuscripts and memoirs about war, and oil paintings by artists of the day, glorified warfare as noble and even romantic. But, the photographer’s new message clearly showed that it was dirty, destructive and deadly; and that powerful message began to sway public opinion.

Photography had evolved in the thirty years before the War but was not yet seen as an art form; it was simply a fascinating new way to record events and portraits of people; although only in black and white. The first useful method, daguerreotypes, only provided a single mirror image, was nearly impossible to reproduce, and was easily damaged or completely ruined. However, by the late 1850s, improvements in the process had evolved to make photography more widespread, durable, practical, and reproducible; but it still required professional skills. And, to many, the work of a fine painter was still preferable to photography as the artist could depict a larger scale and with vivid colors. A few artists even began to add tints to photographs to make them appear more lifelike.

Even by the time of the Civil War, successful photographers had to be a combination of chemist, physicist, authoritarian, and laborer. The process required the mixing of several caustic chemicals, including sulfuric acid and silver nitrate, which was then coated onto a glass plate just moments before the photograph would be taken. The treated plate had to be protected from any light source as it was quickly inserted into the body of the large camera box, then a lens cap was removed for a precise amount of time, depending on the light of day, to allow only the correct amount of light to strike the glass plate and cause the desired chemical reaction. A good photograph also required the subject or subjects to remain absolutely still because, if anyone moved, their motion was captured as a blur. One photographer said, “I am the Captain in my studio and I tolerate no movement.” And, another who took many battlefield photographs said, “I take better images of the dead, they lie still.” The equipment was heavy and bulky which required strength and agility to set up the camera and take it down when finished. The process was also accident prone as the dangerous chemicals could spill, or the glass plate would break which usually rendered the image useless.

As a result of the effort and expense required, relatively few people learned the skill.  But those who did, began to make their mark in society. Mathew Brady became the most recognized master of his craft and built profitable businesses from his studios in New York and Washington DC. One of his most trusted employees was Alexander Gardner who was assigned primarily to the office in Washington DC and began to photograph the leading politicians of the day. At that time, Abraham Lincoln was not yet one of them.

However, in 1859, Lincoln was in New York City to present a political speech at Coopers Union, a small Manhattan college, which he hoped would be reprinted by the Eastern press and expand his recognition in the region. He visited Brady’s studio for a portrait, which he intended to use to introduce himself to the Eastern population. He knew that he had to dispel the common notion that he was a simple “western frontiersman” from Illinois. Brady posed Lincoln standing, in a new suit, which was bought and pressed for the occasion, resting his hand on a bookstand. Lincoln’s political instincts were, as usual, very good and the speech solidified his stature as a serious Republican leader. Brady’s photograph was released at Coopers Union and then reproduced in newspapers, campaign pamphlets, and in new copies of the still popular book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The public now had an image of Abraham Lincoln, looking presidential, confident, and, as Lincoln himself joked, not at all as ugly as some had expected.

But then the Civil War started and Mathew Brady recognized the business potential of quickly delivering photographs of the Generals and soldiers taken at the battle-front to newspapers and periodicals.  But Brady did not initially set out to be a messenger warning of the horrors of war; he just wanted to run a successful business and enjoy the profits which would be created.

To cover the wide territory of the Civil War, Brady had to first make a major financial investment. He designed a portable, but very sturdy, dark room that could safely carry all of the necessary photographic supplies, including chemicals, glass plates, and the camera. He then manufactured over twenty large covered buckboards, which would each be drawn by one or two horses. Finally, he trained other photographers who would drive the wagons and follow the Union armies from battlefield to battlefield. He and his crew of photographers, would, for the first time, bring the scenes of the battle-front to the home-front. Among those roving photographers/assistants were Alexander Gardner, Timothy Sullivan and James Gibson, who all became well known in their own right; but, of those, Gardner certainly became the most prominent.

While some of Brady’s photographers were able to cross into Confederate territory to capture images, and a few Southerners also learned the craft and took historic photographs; far more images were taken from the Union perspective. This disparity was partly because both Brady and Gardner supported the War to restore the Union and were admirers of Abraham Lincoln. However, while Brady was generally quiet about his politics, Gardner was outspoken in his advocacy for the Union, support for its use of overwhelming military force, and his respect for the courage of the individual Union soldier. On the other hand, he frequently described the Confederate forces in less complimentary terms and editors would occasionally include his comments about a battle along with his photographs. As an example, after the battle of Gettysburg, Gardner’s photographs of devastated terrain and Confederate dead were accompanied by his words; “Killed in the frantic efforts to break the steady lines of  patriots, they paid with life the price of their treason, and when the wicked strife was finished, found nameless graves, far from home and kindred.”

Abraham Lincoln appreciated the loyalty of both men and frequently gave each of them permission to take photographs of him not only at the White House, but in battle areas as well.  Lincoln understood that images of him near the battlegrounds with soldiers would “play well” in the communities across the North, where such photographs were featured in local newspapers.

In late 1863, Gardner began to realize that, while he had taken many of the more dramatic pictures of the then two-year Civil War, Mathew Brady was given (or took) most of the credit. Gardner was appreciative of Brady’s mentorship and did not resent the existing arrangement, but was ready to break out on his own. The two men reached an amicable settlement with Brady even transferring ownership of some of Gardner’s photographs; and Gardner then opened his own studio in Washington DC.

Gardner became close to Abraham Lincoln, and several of his photographs of the President have become iconic, including one of the most artful images of Lincoln which captured, in the President’s lined and weary face, the enormous toll that the War had taken on the man.

Collectively, the photographers of the Civil War era provided thousands of images of people and places from that great conflict, however, their contributions were possible because Brady and Gardner, with their extraordinary vision and talent, advanced the profession of photography.

Mathew Brady, by his professional foresight and his willingness to invest heavily in the horse drawn photographic studios and in the training and salaries of the several assistants, was critical to the extensive record we have of the Civil War. And, Alexander Gardner transcended mere images and captured the harsh reality of war with his pioneering images of the tragic loss of life, young men left with terrible wounds, and devastated farms and communities.

And both men, by developing a trusting relationship with Abraham Lincoln, left us with unique and deeply introspective portraits, taken over several years, which let us glimpse Lincoln’s heartfelt humanity and the sad evolving effect the War took on this President.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com

 

 

 

Did President Lincoln Offer to Step Aside? (Article 55)

As Charles Allen Thorndike Rice reviewed the numerous replies he had received from Lincoln contemporaries in preparation for his 1885 book “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln,” he noted that, occasionally, there were discrepancies between the recollections of the respondents to the same incident. Usually, he just included the writers’ statements as sent to him, preferring to let the readers sort out which version might be more accurate. However, in one instance, he decided that he must reconcile the differing remembrances of three of the respondents to a unique event in Presidential history.

Prior to the publication of Rice’s book, there had been suggestions that President Lincoln had once offered to resign or to not seek re-election; and would then throw his support behind the politician he had chosen. Biographers in the twenty years after his assassination had offered conflicting testimonies from individuals who claimed to know for certain that he did, and others that he did not, make such an offer. The key word in these speculations was “offer,” and there seemed to be no proof either way as no prominent figure in the political scene at the time had confirmed participation. It was, however, well known that Lincoln had said, at times, that if anyone would come forward who could better unite the Northern citizens and more successfully prosecute the “awful Civil War,” he would yield the office as President. Such an occasional utterance in the face of intense political opposition and a stagnant war effort would be reasonable for any President, but especially one as empathetic to his cause as Abraham Lincoln.

But, did Lincoln take any specific steps to identify, and then encourage, a potential replacement? And, if so, why would he have made such an offer?

In mid-1863, the Republican President was unsure if he would even get his Party’s nomination in 1864, let alone win a national election against a Democratic opponent.  He was concerned that the public in the Northern states seemed to have lost the will to support the fight to restore the Union. There were Democrat and Republican Congressmen, Senators, Governors and newspaper publishers calling for a peace accord with the Confederate government; even if that resulted in two separate nations and the lost opportunity to end slavery. However, Lincoln believed that only a vanquished South, defeated militarily, would ever rejoin the United States; so he wondered if another individual could re-ignite the public’s support for the war effort.

Lincoln was an astute political observer and believed that a new “blended” party would attract both Democrats and Republicans who favored efforts to force the Southern states back into the Union. Then, that new constituency would support a Unionist platform and elect as President a man dedicated to that cause; or at least a man who “said” he was dedicated to that cause.

Of course, any such offers, if made, would have to be kept confidential and could not seem to come directly Lincoln. After all, Lincoln was still the President with obligations as the country’s chief executive and Commander-in-Chief, and the War was still raging.  Also, he was also fearful that such news would be a rally point for the Confederates and such an announcement could boost their morale and likely prolong the War.

Thanks to Mr. Rice’s book, we now know that the President had approached two men, neither a Republican, and notified them that he was willing to not seek re-election and would support their candidacy as the new President; if they would commit to continue the fight for restoration of the Union.  And, the methods Lincoln devised to deliver the offers were indicative of his astute political skills.

One of the men who Mr. Rice interviewed, for his forthcoming book, was Thurlow Weed, a New York based attorney. Mr. Weed had been a political operative for many years before and after the Civil War; usually in the service of William Seward, former New York Governor, who became Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Weed thrived on political intrigue, especially if the task at hand involved a bit of misdirection and back-door negotiations. One New York newspaper declared that, “Weed is the bullet, fired from long distance by Seward.” When Seward went to Washington DC in 1861 to serve under Lincoln, Weed became a frequent visitor. Weed was excellent at his job because he never sought notoriety for his deeds and he assured there was no trail back to Mr. Seward.

And, on at least two occasions, he undertook assignments at the request of Abraham Lincoln!

Weed’s second assignment for President Lincoln was in 1865 when, by offering patronage and other dubious promises, he was instrumental in securing enough votes to get the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which, if ratified by the states, would abolish slavery. But, Mr. Weed’s first assignment for the President was in 1863, when he was asked to approach two men Lincoln had chosen as possible successors.

When Rice was first working on his book, he visited Thurlow Weed at his home, hopefully to hear some Lincoln stories from the eighty-year-old famous (some say in-famous) politico. Rice found Weed in excellent spirits, under the care of his daughter, and “lucid as a gold piece.” At the time, Weed was categorizing his papers, including the many newspaper accounts of his career, and dictating his recollections to add details. Weed told Rice that he had met Abraham Lincoln on several occasions and would be pleased to provide anecdotes for Rice’s new book. First, Weed spoke of Lincoln’s close relationship, both political and personal, with Secretary of State William Seward, who had introduced Weed to the President. Rice already knew of the friendship between Lincoln and Seward and sought to explore, with Mr. Weed, Lincoln’s relationship with other important figures of the day.

Rice asked Weed’s opinion of General George McClellan, who Lincoln had dismissed in 1862 and who had been Lincoln’s Democratic opponent in the 1864 election. Weed quickly replied, “He might have been President as not!” At first Rice thought that Mr. Weed was referring to the 1864 campaign but, to Rice’s surprise, Weed continued down a different path. “(In 1863) Seward telegraphed me to come to Washington, and he took me right over to the White House saying, ‘The President wants to see you.’

Weed continued, “We found the President deeply distressed. I had never seen him in such a mood. The President said, ‘Everything goes wrong. The rebel armies hold their own; Grant is wandering around in Mississippi; Seymour has carried New York. (Horatio Seymour was a popular Democratic Governor who earlier promoted a peace settlement with the Confederacy, the antithesis of Lincoln’s war policy.) If his party carries many of the Northern states, we shall have to give up the fight, for we can never conquer three-quarters of our countrymen, scattered in front, flank, and rear. Governor Seymour could do more for our cause than any other man living. If he could control his partisans he could give a new impetus to the war. Mr. Weed, I want you to go to Seymour and tell him now is his time. Tell him I do not wish to be President again and that the leader of the party, provided it is in favor of a vigorous war against the rebellion, should have my place. Entreat him to give a true ring in his Annual Message (to the New York Legislature), and if he will, I will gladly step aside and help put him in the executive chair. All we want is the rebellion put down. If there is a man who can push our armies forward one mile further or one hour faster, he is the man who ought to be in my chair.’

Then Weed went on, “I visited Governor Seymour and delivered my commission from Lincoln. When I left him it was understood that his message would breathe an earnest Union spirit, praising the soldiers and calling for more, and omitting the usual criticisms of the President’s policies. I forwarded this expectation to the President. Judge my disappointment and chagrin when Seymour’s message came out- a document calculated to aid the enemy.

This attempt to enlist the leader of the Democratic party having failed, Lincoln authorized me to make the same overture to McClellan. Lincoln said, ‘Tell the General that we only wish the success of our armies and that if he will come forward at the head of a (new) Union-Democratic party, and through that means, push forward the Union cause, I will gladly step aside and do all I can to secure his election in 1864.’

Weed continued, “I opened negotiation through Mr. Barlow, McClellan’s next (best) friend, who shortly afterward told me he had seen him (the General) and secured his acquiescence, saying ‘Mac is eager to do all he can do to put down the rebellion.’ I then suggested a great Union-Democratic meeting in Union Square at which McClellan should preside and this was agreed to by both Barlow and McClellan. I drew up some memoranda of principles to set forth on the occasion and set the meeting for Monday, June 6 (1863). Once more there seemed to be a promise of ending the war by organizing a great independent Union Democratic party under McClellan. On the eve of the meeting I received a formal letter from McClellan declining to preside, without giving any reason. If he had presided at that war-meeting, nothing but death, could have kept him from being elected President in 1864.”

Rice was astounded by the revelations that Lincoln had offered these two different men a similar path to the Presidency. Rice was aware that there had been rumors that Lincoln had possibly made such proposals but, to his knowledge, no politician had ever come forward to claim they were the person who had been approached by the President.  However, Rice was an experienced reporter and could tell by Weed’s mannerisms that he believed his recollections were factual. On the other hand, Rice wondered if the tale was true or was it the muddled thoughts of an elderly man? So, Rice made appointments with the two men Weed mentioned as potential Lincoln replacements; Seymour and McClellan.

In his meeting with McClellan, the former General and former Presidential candidate said, “No such events ever occurred. Mr. Weed is a good old man but he has forgotten. Mr. Lincoln never offered me the Presidency in any contingency and I never declined to preside at a war-meeting. I am sure I never wrote to Mr. Weed in my life.” Rice also called on Mr. Barlow, who Weed said was the messenger; and, Barlow said he could recall no such episode.  Rice then returned to Weed’s home and relayed the conversations with McClellan and Barlow. Weed laughed and said, “The General has forgotten, has he.” Mr. Weed’s daughter then presented the twenty-year old letter from McClellan to Mr. Weed in which the General had written, “I have determined to decline the compliment of presiding over the proposed meeting of Monday next.” (In the letter, McClellan did offer vociferous support for the Union and the military efforts.)

Thurlow Weed, who had spent his political life in the shadows, leaving no paper trail, had saved, at least, this one letter.

Rice made a second appointment with McClellan and showed him the letter. McClellan spent a few minutes looking at the document and finally said, “Well, that is my writing. I wrote that and had forgotten about it.” And with that, one historical puzzle was solved!

Next, Mr. Rice visited former Governor Seymour who, unlike McClellan, readily confirmed Mr. Weed’s account. In fact, Seymour said that years earlier he had once visited with Weed and they agreed as to the general sequence of events, including Seymour’s unexpected change of heart. Seymour told Rice that he changed his mind when he realized that a forceful speech to continue the Lincoln policies would have cost him too much of his support in New York. When Rice said that Weed still believed he could have become President, Seymour replied, “Well it isn’t much matter. I was not in good health and it might have killed me. It is a hard laborious, thankless office and it is just as well as it is.” However, while he passed on the opportunity to become Lincoln’s replacement in 1864, Governor Seymour was evidently in good enough health by 1868 to be the Democratic nominee for President, losing to the Republican candidate, former Union General, Ulysses S. Grant.

But, Mr. Rice now had his last piece of the 1863 puzzle. Thurlow Weed had indeed been Abraham Lincoln’s emissary for his offer to step aside and support either Seymour or McClellan as President of the United States in the 1864 election.

So how did Lincoln go from that level of despair in the summer of 1863, when he thought he could not even win his Republican Party’s nomination for a second term, to a landslide re-election in 1864? Simply put, the tides turned! He found his perfect General in Ulysses S. Grant, the Union began to win more victories, the Confederate armies began to weaken through attrition, and the Southern economy began to collapse while the Northern economy surged.  It was a perfect storm against the Confederacy, but certainly advantageous for the re-election chances of Abraham Lincoln.

However, we now know that, in 1863, Lincoln’s overtures to Seymour and McClellan were sincere, as he placed his country ahead of his own political ambitions.

Isn’t that a unique concept for a politician!

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com

Reminiscences of Lincoln (Article 54)

Charles Allen Thorndike Rice wanted to publish a book to mark the twentieth anniversary of President Lincoln’s death. He wrote to numerous individuals who had known and worked with Lincoln and asked if they would share their recollections of the man. The book, first published in 1885, eventually was titled “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time.” When Rice began to read the responses he had received from some of the men who had known Lincoln, he said he was quickly moved by the kindness and fairness of the man they described. He also noticed that many appreciated his wit, integrity, and friendly nature. A few said they were not initially impressed but only began to understand his leadership qualities after they witnessed his actions and demeanor during crisis.

Although it had been twenty years since their friend died, most of these remembrances seemed, to Mr. Rice, to be eulogies. They offered numerous reflections about Lincoln’s personal attention to an individual who might not have expected it, his objectivity and political tolerance, and his astute political and diplomatic instincts. And, as would be expected, some commented on his penchant for humorous story telling as a means to emphasize a point, which one respondent called “preaching by parables.”

The book became a treasure trove to historians and other authors as soon as it was published because it offered insights into events and conversations that were not widely known at the time. However, after more than a century, many of the anecdotes have been repeated numerous times and now are part of the Lincoln legend and, unfortunately, many of those have been edited over time into more modern vocabulary.  By reading from the original editions, the reader will soon notice the differences in the use of words and phrases between the mid-nineteenth century and today.  The quotations presented herein are printed in the verbiage from Mr. Rice’s manuscript and the anecdotes which are included were chosen because they seem to have escaped multiple repetitions by historians and, therefore, are not as well known.

Kindness and personal attention: One person  recalled a widow from Tennessee, whose son, a 17 year-old Confederate private, was a prisoner of war and lay seriously wounded at Fort McHenry in a make-shift hospital. She gathered letters from friends verifying that her son had enlisted only after the urging of an overly persuasive recruiter for the Confederate army and without her permission, which should have been required as the boy was only sixteen at the time. Further, the letters were testimonies that her family was not secessionist. She had traveled to Washington DC, taking the letters in a large envelope, to appeal to Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War to release the young boy to her care. However, the unsympathetic Stanton, with a brusqueness unusual even for him, ordered the woman out of his office. Through a mutual acquaintance, she was encouraged to try to see President Lincoln and, surprising to her, she was granted a meeting, which  she described in her own words. “The President received me with the kindness of a brother. He immediately rose and pointed to a chair and said, ‘Take this seat madam and then tell me what I can do for you.’ I took the envelope and asked if he would read the enclosures. When he finished reading he turned to me and with great emotion said, ‘Are you madam, the unhappy mother of this wounded and imprisoned son?’ I replied that I was. ‘And do you believe he will honor his parole if I permit him to take it and go with you.’ I replied, I am ready Mr. President to peril my personal liberty upon it. Then the President said, ‘You shall have your boy. To take him from the ranks of rebellion and give him to a loyal mother is a better investment for this government … And God grant that he may prove a great blessing to you and an honor to his country.’ Then taking my envelope, he wrote with his own pencil the order you see upon it.”

Lincoln had written, “To the Commander at Ft. McHenry. You will deliver to Mrs. Winston, her son now held a prisoner of war upon his taking the proper parole (oath) never again to take up arms against the United States. A. Lincoln”

Mrs. Winston took her son back to Nashville where he recuperated; and kept his oath to the Union.

Another respondent to Mr. Rice recalled that he was invited to ride on the President’s train to Gettysburg for the dedication of the new national graveyard. He was with Lincoln when a man approached and said to the President, “My only son fell on Little Round Top at Gettysburg and I am going to look at that spot.” Andrews described Lincoln’s sad face and emotional response to the grieving father: “You have been called upon to make a terrible sacrifice. But, oh my dear sir, if we had reached the end of such sacrifices and had nothing left for us to do but place garlands on the graves of those already fallen, we would give thanks even amidst our tears; but when I think of the sacrifices of life yet to be offered and the hearts and homes yet to be made desolate before this dreadful war, so wickedly forced upon us, is over, my heart is like lead within me and I feel, at times, like hiding in deep darkness.” The following day, President Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, dedicating the hallowed ground to those lost, including the young boy at Little Round Top.

Political Tolerance: One respondent, E.W. Andrews, related a story which described Lincoln’s objectivity when he encountered someone who held a different political point of view. Andrews was an officer in the Adjutant’s office in Washington DC and had met the President on several occasions. As the election of 1864 neared, Andrews attended a Democratic rally where several speakers promoted the candidacy of George B. McClellan, the former union General who was the party’s nominee to oppose Lincoln. In their official duties, Andrews had also met with McClellan while he was still the Commanding General of the Army. Andrews was well known in the city and one of the speakers, recognizing that Andrews was in the audience, pointed him out to the crowd and asked for his thoughts on McClellan.  A bit embarrassed by the unwelcome recognition and question, Andrews felt he could not dodge the issue and said that he held high regard for McClellan and would vote for him. Andrews never mentioned Lincoln and said nothing disparaging about the current President; then he hurried out of the hall. Someone in attendance reported Andrews’ comments to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who then, in a rage, signed an order rescinding Andrews’ commission and mustering him out of the Union Army.

Andrews knew that Stanton would never change his mind and decided to try to reach President Lincoln. Andrews wrote a letter explaining the Democratic gathering and the context of his remarks and asked a friend who was close to Lincoln to appeal to the President. When Lincoln read the letter, he replied to Andrews’ friend. “I know nothing about this. Of course, Stanton does a thousand things in his official character which I can know nothing about and which it is not necessary that I should know anything about.” Andrews’ friend replied that he did not believe that Stanton’s retaliation against the officer was warranted and hoped that the President would over-ride Stanton’s order and restore Andrews’ commission and his position at the Adjutant’s office.  After reading the letter and listening to the friend’s explanation, Lincoln replied: “Well that is no reason. Andrews has as good a right to hold onto his Democracy, if he chooses, as Stanton has to throw his overboard. (Stanton had once been a Democrat!) If I should muster out all my generals who avow themselves Democrats there would be a sad thinning out of commanders in the Army. No! When the military duties of a soldier are fully and faithfully performed, he can manage his politics in his own way. Tell this officer he can return to his post. Supporting (former) General McClellan for the Presidency is no violation of army regulations. And, as a question of taste in choosing between him and me, well I’m the longest but he’s better looking.”

President Lincoln notified Stanton of his decision and Andrews remained in the military. He later wrote, “I resumed my service and was never afterward molested by the Secretary of War.” It is interesting to note that, in his response to Mr. Rice, Andrews did not disclose whether he voted for McClellan as President or for Lincoln, the man who stepped in to preserve his military career.

Political and diplomatic instincts: Charles Dana, an Assistant Secretary of War, related an unusual decision Lincoln made concerning a Union spy who was so trusted by the Confederates that he was asked to deliver a message from a Southern sympathizer in Canada to a Confederate official in Virginia. The letter explained activities in Canada which supported the Confederacy. The spy/courier realized the importance of the document and took it to Mr. Dana, who immediately showed it to Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. Stanton’s instinct was to use the letter to reproach the Canadian government, but wanted Dana to first take the letter to President Lincoln for his concurrence. Immediately, Lincoln had a different idea. He told Dana to have the man “arrested” and taken to prison; however, Dana was also instructed to orchestrate an escape. Lincoln said that, if the ruse worked, the Confederates might use the man’s talents again and the Union could likely obtain another correspondence between Confederates in Canada and Virginia. The escape did not go exactly as planned as a Union soldier shot at, and slightly wounded the Union spy; an unexpected, but fortuitous, occurrence that must have helped convince the Confederates that the man had truly escaped through cunning. As a result of Lincoln’s plan, the Union kept a very useful, and courageous, spy active within the Confederacy.

Mr. Dana also recalled a conversation with Lincoln as the Confederacy was crumbling in early April 1865. Dana reported to Lincoln that he had learned, through another Union spy, that a troublesome Confederate operative named Jacob Thompson was planning to escape into Canada. Secretary of War Stanton wanted to arrest Thompson before he could get away, but again, asked Dana to first check with the President. After hearing Dana’s explanation of the situation, Lincoln indicated he did not think arresting Thompson was worth the effort saying, “When you have an elephant on hand, and he wants to run away, better let him run.” After Lincoln was assassinated, Stanton wanted Dana to arrest Thompson, if he was still in the United States, but Dana never pressed the matter. About five years after the war, Dana and Thompson met and Dana explained how President Lincoln initially prevented Thompson’s arrest; and the fact that Dana, honoring Lincoln’s stance, later chose to not pursue him.  Unfortunately, Mr. Dana did not relate what, if anything, Mr. Thompson said about the episode.

Use of humor: Titian Coffin was an Assistant Attorney General, whose office defended Army Officers against lawsuits brought in local courts by citizens either for confiscation of property or possible improper arrests. Generally, the courts found for the Army officers, and even if not, there was usually no monetary compensation awarded. Congress, wanting to show local constituents their generosity, provided a large fund for future compensation to such aggrieved citizens. Suddenly, the complaints increased dramatically and the officers began settling the cases out of court by simply paying the citizen (and his lawyer) directly from the new fund. Mr. Coffin raised the issue with Lincoln and recalled the President’s reply. “Yes, Coffin, they will now all be after the money and be content with nothing else. They are like a man in Illinois whose cabin burned down and, according to the kindly custom, his neighbors all contributed to start him again. But, they had been so liberal that he found himself better off than before the fire, and he got proud. One day a neighbor brought him a bag of oats but the fellow refused it with scorn. ‘No, said he, I don’t take oats now, I take nothing but money.’ So it is with our Officers.”

And, sometimes Lincoln could make a point; very pointedly! Mr. Coffin recalled a meeting where Lincoln was being “hounded” by three weapons manufacturers who kept arguing their case long past the appointment time, but Lincoln continued to listen to their “over-long, inappropriate and impolite” demands. Then the President interrupted and said; “You three gentlemen remind me of a poor little boy. His father wanted him to have a religious education and placed him with a clergyman. Every day the boy was required to commit to memory a Bible story. Things proceeded smoothly until the story of the trials of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. He was asked to give their names but he had forgotten them. The teacher said he must learn them and gave him another day. The next day he had again forgot them. The teacher then said ‘I will give you one more day and if you do not repeat the names I will punish you.’ The third time, the boy got to the stumbling block and said, ‘Here come those three infernal bores. I wish the Devil had them!’ At that, (Mr. Coffin wrote) the three patriots retired; the President had dismissed his untimely visitors.”

For each person who responded to Mr. Rice’s inquiry the fact that he had known Abraham Lincoln and was left with these recollections was obviously a source of personal pride.

For Charles Allen Thorndike Rice, his book “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished men of His Time” gave him the satisfaction of helping preserve the memory of a man he very much admired. And, coincidentally, cemented his own place in history.

And for me, I am very fortunate to have an original edition of the book and have the privilege and enjoyment of reading these “Reminiscences” from pages which carry the feel and fragrance which can only be found in very old books.

But whether reading Mr. Rice’ book from an original edition or from a modern reprint, we can appreciate that he helped maintain the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com

 

 

 

Remembrances of Lincoln, a Deferred Eulogy (Article 53)

The young man carefully addressed the last envelope:

“Ulysses S. Grant

City of  New York”

He placed it with the fifty other envelopes which he had recently completed. Each contained a letter which, besides introducing himself and outlining his proposed project, requested either a written reply or a personal interview and posed one primary question.

“Sir, as we near the twentieth anniversary of the loss of President Abraham Lincoln, what are the remembrances of him which still fill your mind?”

He was not confident that many of the carefully chosen recipients of his letters would ever respond, and even less hope that any would actually agree to a meeting or provide meaningful observations. He was aware that some of the senior members of Lincoln’s cabinet and other acquaintances had already passed away. Further, many of Lincoln’s living contemporaries were in their seventies or eighties, an advanced age in 1885; and he was unsure if their recollections would be real or imagined.  Also, they had likely given numerous interviews over the years and might not want to indulge his request. And, for some others, the loss of their friend, although so long ago, might still stir sadness best left unmentioned. Further limiting likely responses, was the fact that a few, like Ulysses S. Grant, were writing their personal memoirs and might want to withhold information to protect the value of their own projects.

But Charles Allen Thorndike Rice was on a mission, which he deemed as sacred as those with a religious fervor. He wanted to record for posterity the recollections of Abraham Lincoln by those who were close to him, especially during his political years. He sought to offset the mythical figure created by some devoted admirers soon after the President’s death as well as the picture of a tyrant which continued to be painted by southern sympathizers, who referred to “Lincoln’s War of Northern Aggression” against their homeland.

Over the next few weeks, Rice was pleased by the responses. Although very ill, former President (and former General) Grant responded; as did Walt Whitman (poet and friend), Henry Ward Beecher (minister), Frederick Douglass (writer/orator who was born a slave), Charles Coffin (war correspondent), and Leonard Swett (friend). And, Thurlow Weed, a famous (some say infamous) political operative from New York, who served Lincoln on several confidential matters, was eager to be interviewed. In all, 44 friends, acquaintances, and even a couple political adversaries, responded with reflective commentary.

But, almost as important as the list of those who did respond, was the list of people who did not. Among those were Robert Lincoln (the President’s only surviving son), Hannibal Hamlin (his first Vice-President), William Herndon (law partner), and John Nicolay and John Hay (his two secretaries). Nicolay and Hay had controlled most of Lincoln’s personal and official papers since his death and planned to publish a comprehensive biography; which turned out to be a ten-set edition offered in 1890. William Herndon, in order to prepare for his own biography of Lincoln, had traveled throughout the North during the first few years following Lincoln’s death, to interview acquaintances. This was several years prior to Rice’s effort, and many were the same people now approached by Mr. Rice; but Herndon was also able to interview some who had died before Rice conceived his book. Herndon’s biography was finally published in 1889.

As Rice began to compile the different reflections from the respondents, most seemed to him to be eulogies; but twenty years after the subject’s death. The result was a fascinating book, first published in 1885, titled “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time.” Evidently, long titles were in vogue in the 19th century.

Critics of his book, then and over the years, complained that he edited some of the responses to fit his agenda, and failed to contact several acquaintances; especially certain political opponents who were known to grant such interviews. But, no biographer is above such criticism, as all authors will construct and edit their narrative, not only to fit a point of view, but also simply because of space limitations. Another complaint by some historians is that Rice did not require his subjects to document their recollections, so the book is almost devoid of the verifying footnotes which most historians consider almost as important as the narrative. But, Rice made no illusions that this was to be a historian’s account; he called it “Reminiscences” for a reason.

On the other hand, he did want his book to be as accurate as possible. As his respondents shared their recollections about Mr. Lincoln, Charles quickly noted differences in their descriptions of the same incident. In some cases, he just left their individual recollections alone and let the future reader sort out which was likely more accurate. In other cases, however, he contacted both parties (or multiple parties in a few instances) to try to determine which was historically the most correct. His willingness to shuttle back and forth among these acquaintances of Lincoln helped bring clarity to a few issues that had been debated since Lincoln’s death.

Since he was so involved in the publishing business, Rice was keenly aware that there were several biographies of Lincoln scheduled to be published within the next few years (1885-1890) and some critics claim that he rushed his book to assure it came to market before others. There is no question that he did move quickly to compose and publish his narrative, but there may have been a more profound reason he was in such a hurry. At the time he was approaching his subjects, Rice was not well. He completed his initial work in late 1885 and assured it would be promptly published. Two years later, although his health was rapidly deteriorating, he revised and updated a few sections and re-issued the book. Mr. Rice died in 1889 at the age of only thirty-seven.

We know he was fascinated by the life of Abraham Lincoln, however, Charles Allen Thorndike Rice, Charlie to his parents and close friends, also led an unusual life.

He was an only child and when he was five years old his wealthy parents divorced; but not amicably! Both sued for divorce and both sought sole custody of young Charlie; but after two years of court proceedings, the New York Supreme Court ruled that custody was to be awarded to Mr. Rice. In most cases the story might have ended there; however, Mrs. Rice , who was wealthy in her own right, spirited away (her words) or kidnapped (his father’s words) the boy and escaped first to Canada and then to Europe. Over the next six years, they moved several times among different countries, usually so that his mother could avoid surrendering Charlie to local authorities after his father obtained court rulings affirming his right to custody. Charlie’s father never gave up chasing his former wife and son, filing numerous appeals to the English, German, and French courts.

But she and Charlie always stayed a step ahead.

Charlie’s mother had allowed him to periodically correspond with his father, but insisted that he use the addresses of a group of European aristocrats who sympathized with her cause and who would transfer the messages. Charlie and his mother lived an elegant lifestyle in Europe and he received his early education from outstanding tutors. But, in 1866, his mother became ill and died. His father then quickly arranged for Charlie to be brought back to the United States where he spent the rest of his childhood living with his father. He was a gifted and enthusiastic student and, as a young gentleman of social stature (and wealth), was able to attend the most advanced private schools in New York. Then, at nineteen years of age, Charles returned to England and, over the next five years, received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Oxford.

He began his professional career in the United States when he purchased the “North American Review” and assumed the position of Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He became a prolific writer, often assessing the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, especially his administration during the Civil War; which had occurred while Charlie lived in Europe with his mother.  And, unusual for the times, he was not intensely partisan, often presenting counter-arguments to current popular political thought.

Mr. Rice regarded Abraham Lincoln to be the most consequential political leader of the century and supported that thesis in many of his articles, editorials, and speeches. He also realized that the acquaintances of Abraham Lincoln were aging, that many had already died, and he wanted to capture as many first- hand recollections as possible.  So, he embarked on his mission; and left us “Reminiscences.”

He took great pride in this compilation of anecdotes and he wanted it to be a gift to future generations about Abraham Lincoln’s legacy; but he must have also hoped that it might enshrine, if only in a small way, his own legacy as a writer and publisher.

It seems that Mr. Rice wanted to be remembered too.

Contact the author at gadorris2@gmail.com

(Note: a future article will include a few of those “Reminiscences.”)

 

 

“But Will I be a Good Enough Officer” (Article 52)

He described his life before 1862 as pastoral and tranquil. He had grown up in an academic family, was fluent in nine languages, and had become a professor of Modern Languages at Bowdoin College in Maine. He was 33 years old, was married, and had two children, but three others died in infancy. When the Civil War started in 1861, he did not immediately volunteer to serve; although he believed in the Union cause, thought secession was anarchy, and was strongly opposed to slavery. But he, like almost every American, North and South, expected that the War would not last very long.

But then, as a new year rolled around and President Abraham Lincoln made a second call for volunteers, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain realized the war was going to last much longer, and he sent a letter to the Governor of Maine offering his services. The letter read, “I fear this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until men of the North are willing to leave their good positions and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our country from desolation and defend the national existence against treachery.” Because of his education and maturity, he was offered a commission as a Colonel in the militia, but Chamberlain replied he should receive a lesser rank as he had no military training, so he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel.

From the day he joined the unit, he took his training seriously, read all he could about military tactics, and instilled in his men a sense of pride in their purpose. He also earned the respect of senior career military commanders who were skeptical of most new militia officers because those political appointees often only sought the prestige of a commission.

For the first six months, Chamberlain and his men had trained and had been given important assignments, but always in rearward positions, away from direct contact with the Confederate army. Chamberlain felt confident in these support missions but had concerns about his readiness and aptitude for combat, where his decisions in a ferocious and chaotic situation would determine if his men lived or died. Then, on December 13, 1862, his unit was engaged in the battle of Fredericksburg and, unfortunately, suffered their first casualties. The loss of these men, each of whom he knew so well, weighed heavily on Chamberlain, who wondered if he had made any mistakes which contributed to their deaths. But his superior officers noticed that he had demonstrated effective leadership in the battle, and he was promoted to Colonel.

Throughout the Spring of 1863, Chamberlain’s unit was again given support positions near major battles in Virginia, but not engaged directly against the enemy. Then, in June 1863, Chamberlain was ordered to march his men north into Pennsylvania, along with eighty-five thousand other Union soldiers. They were to form a buffer between Washington DC and a Confederate Army of over sixty-five thousand men, led by General Robert E. Lee, which had recently marched north from Virginia, through Maryland, and then westward into Central Pennsylvania.

Near Gettysburg!

From there, Lee planned to move south toward the Union’s capital city. There were skirmishes in the area on June 27 and 28 between scouting units, but the main Confederate force remained to the north of Gettysburg while the Union army established encampments in and around the small town. Both sides knew that a major clash was eminent, but no one knew exactly where hostilities would begin. On July 1st, the first large engagement occurred and the Union troops retreated to higher ground south of the town and began to fortify positions; effectively blocking the Confederate forces from directly marching toward Washington DC.

Colonel Chamberlain’s unit was assigned to hold a small hill, not in the center of the expected battle lines, but out on the periphery of a nearly mile long Union front. In military terms, he was on the flank. There were several larger hills with entrenched Union forces that the Northern Generals expected to be more likely strategic targets; but Chamberlain’s position was still important because it was his assignment to prevent any Confederate formation from moving around and then behind the Union lines. He did expect that small Confederate units would probe at points to determine exactly how wide (or long) the Union line was and where there might be weaknesses. He was told that he had to hold that position “at all costs” in the event of an attack by a larger force, although such an event was unexpected.

Joshua Chamberlain’s younger brother, Tom, was also an officer in the regiment and recalled a discussion between the two brothers just before the battles at Gettysburg when Joshua expressed continuing doubts about his leadership saying; “I was a good teacher and I will do my duty as best I am able; but am I a good enough officer?”

He was about to find out!

On July 1st, Chamberlain’s regiment was down to 266 men from its usual strength of 400; not so much from casualties but from a small pox epidemic which had recently struck in the Union camps. That day he was also given the task of guarding 120 soldiers from another Maine militia regiment who were accused of “mutiny” for refusing to engage in battle and who were awaiting courts-martial. They were not technically deserters, but they had essentially staged a group sit-down. Their regiment had been disbanded when the two-year enlistment for most of the men had expired and those soldiers were discharged and sent home. Unfortunately, these 120 men had signed three year enlistments, but believed they should have been allowed to return home with the rest of their unit.

Of course, the Army saw it differently and, while they awaited trial, Chamberlain was authorized to execute any of the 120 who tried to escape. But, he had a more thoughtful plan.

Since they were all from Maine, Chamberlain knew relatives of many of the men and was sympathetic to their plight. He reminded them that, if they continued to disobey orders, they would certainly face, at best, a long prison sentence, ruin their own lives and become a disgrace to their families. Instead, he asked them to join his regiment and, in return for their cooperation and willingness to fight along with his other boys from Maine, he would dismiss the charges against them. Further, while he could not guarantee the result, he agreed to write to the Governor of Maine to request his intercession on their behalf to reduce their remaining enlistment period.  After some deliberation among themselves, the 120 men agreed to put their trust in Joshua Chamberlain. His unit now had exactly 386 able-bodied soldiers.

Battle plans are drawn by Generals but they only last until there is an “unexpected event,” then commanders of smaller units make the decisions that lead either to success or to failure.  After several small exchanges along the Union lines, Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided the small hill occupied by Colonel Chamberlain would be advantageous and he ordered a large force to assemble overnight below the hill and to begin an infantry attack the following morning.

An “unexpected event” was about to happen to Colonel Chamberlain and his men.

That morning, over two thousand Confederate soldiers suddenly emerged from a wooded area at the base of the hill which Chamberlain and his men were to defend at all costs. The first attack lasted about fifteen minutes and the Confederates only made it about halfway up the hill before they retreated. Chamberlain’s casualties were few but he told his men the force that attacked them was too large to just be a probe and that he now believed the Confederates intended to try to take the hill. He sent a messenger to the Union headquarters about a mile away but was unsure if any of the Generals would react to what they might still consider only a probe, not an all-out attack. Chamberlain then walked among his men and told them that they would have to hold their position until re-enforcements could arrive.

Then, the Confederates attacked again; and again; and again. Over a two-hour period, they made five assaults on Chamberlain’s position, each one getting closer to the top of the hill before retreating. He could see the lower parts of the hill littered with dead and dying Southern soldiers and knew his men had caused a severe loss to the enemy; however, the toll from successive charges on his men was also devastating. At least 100 were dead or so severely wounded they could not fight, while another hundred were wounded but still on duty. With his ranks thinned by these losses, Chamberlain moved among those soldiers who could still fight and prepared them for what he expected would be one more Confederate assault. He and his men could see the Southern units again massing to charge at his position, but as he walked through his ranks and talked with his men, he realized that they had another serious problem.

Most of his men were out of ammunition! The few men who still had one or two rounds could not possibly defend against the coming attack. But, his orders were to never retreat and, if he simply tried to stand his ground, the Confederates would certainly over-run his position. Either way, he would have failed to carry out his mission to hold the line.

Then, Chamberlain made his unorthodox decision which would give the Confederates an “unexpected event.”

He ordered his men to fix their bayonets to their rifles and to prepare to leave their defensive positions and charge the Confederates.  He hoped to inflict as many casualties among the Southern soldiers as possible in the first few moments of advantage that the surprise attack might provide.  Chamberlain said later that neither he, nor his soldiers, had any expectation except death, but hoped that they might buy enough time for re-enforcements to arrive who could then keep the hill from falling to the enemy.

Chamberlain moved to the front of his men, yelled “bayonets” and leapt over the crest of the hill down toward the approaching enemy. Later he said he could not remember why he did not yell out the more tradition order of “Charge!”

One of Chamberlain’s men recalled, “The sight of the Colonel running headlong at the rebels, yelling ‘bayonets’ again and again, sword waving and pistol firing, made us all join in. There was no thought, just legs running, and yelling, everyone was yelling.”

Startled by the line of blue charging at them, the Confederates began to fall back and Chamberlain and many of his men actually ran so far and so fast down the hill that they pushed through the front of the enemy formation. Suddenly, Chamberlain came face to face with a Confederate Colonel who had a pistol pointed at his head; but the gun misfired. The Confederate officer then dropped his gun, handed Chamberlain his sword, and surrendered. With that, the daring charge began to subside. As the fighting ended, Chamberlain realized there were over a hundred Confederate soldiers stranded behind his position; but they were so disorganized, they dropped their weapons and put up their hands to surrender. He and his men herded the new prisoners back up the hill while the rest of the Confederate troops retreated. Unknown to their prisoners, Chamberlain’s men guarded the captured southern soldiers with empty rifles.

When his position was finally relieved by reserve units, Chamberlain learned that the small hill he had held was named “Little Round Top.” To his great relief, Chamberlain found that his brother also survived the battle and he said later that his brother’s life was more important than his own because he feared his mother would never recover from the loss of her youngest son.

Most historians believe the Union victory at Gettysburg was critical to the outcome of the Civil War. And, the stand at Little Round Top made by the small band of men in Chamberlain’s unit, including the 120 “other Maine boys,” was a turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg.

As the war dragged on, Joshua Chamberlain led his men into seven other major engagements and was severely wounded in 1864; but recovered sufficiently to be at Appomattox Court House for the surrender of Confederate forces in April, 1865. He then went back home to his family and his “tranquil and pastoral” life as a teacher. But, soon after, he was encouraged to enter the race for Governor of Maine; to which he was then elected to four consecutive terms!

Chamberlain later wrote of the bravery of his men that day at Gettysburg in July 1863, and said he was also in awe of the courage of the Confederates who charged his position time after time; despite having seen so many of their ranks fall in previous attacks.  But, others noted Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s own gallantry and leadership on that day as well, and, in recognition, he received his Nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of  Honor.

His personal question had been answered. The good teacher, when tested, had certainly become a “good enough” officer!

 

Contact the author at gadorris2@gmail.com

 

 

Lincoln’s Eagle Quill Pen (Article 51)

Abraham Lincoln had been recently, and surprisingly even to him, elected to become the next President of the United States. This night in early January,1861, he was fretful. For the last several days he had been forced to find quiet working space in the back of a relative’s general store in his home town of Springfield, to avoid the chaos from well-wishers and office seekers who streamed to his office and his home. He needed the privacy to complete the task at hand. He held the latest version of what would certainly be one of the most important speeches he would ever give; and arguably, at that time, the most important speech in American history.

It was to be Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

South Carolina had already declared secession from the country and several other southern states had announced plans to follow. There were fifteen states in which slavery was legal and neither Abraham Lincoln, nor the rest of the nation, knew exactly how many of the slave-holding states would eventually secede. He believed at least seven, but thought probably more, primarily because they feared a new Republican administration would not support expansion of slavery to new territories; and might even try to restrict slavery in the states where it was then currently permitted under the U.S. Constitution.

Lincoln had clearly stated in earlier speeches and writings that he would have no constitutional authority as President to interfere with slavery where it existed, but he believed secession was unconstitutional and illegal; and he intended to so declare in his speech. However, he also wanted to impress upon those states which had already decided on, or were contemplating, secession, that he did not threaten their way of life and wanted to hold open the door for their peaceful reconciliation within the United States. That evening he had considered a few changes to the draft and began to make the corrections which he felt strengthened his message. He dipped the long feather quill into the black inking solution and crossed out a few words and added others. By midnight, he finished, not quite satisfied, but unable to think of any better phrasing. He could do no more, and he put the quill down on the table.

Perhaps he took a moment to admire the long eagle feather, perfectly trimmed to make it a fine writing instrument. At the time, most handwriting was done with quills made from goose or turkey feathers which were dipped into an inkwell; and there was even a new-fangled “fountain” pen made of brass which still used a quill tip but held a reservoir of ink.

But Lincoln was a traditionalist in many ways. He liked the feel of quills and thought the regular pauses to re-ink helped with reflection when writing. And, this pen was special.

The eagle feather quill pen which Abraham Lincoln used to write portions of his first inaugural address was a gift from an Illinois admirer and political supporter, Rufus W. Miles. In one of those many ironies of history, in his letter which accompanied the gift, Mr. Miles seemed to write a eulogy for the new President, four and a half years before his assassination.

Two years earlier the Democratic controlled Illinois legislature had appointed Stephen A. Douglas to a third six-year term as a U.S. Senator, narrowly rejecting the bid by Republican Abraham Lincoln. A few days after Lincoln’s opponent won the appointment, a group of Lincoln supporters met at the State Capitol Library. Among those present was Mr. Miles, a local businessman and ardent abolitionist, who had hoped Mr. Lincoln’s message that slavery should not be expanded to new states in the West would resonate with the Illinois legislators, regardless of party affiliation; and Lincoln would become the new Illinois Senator. After all, Miles reasoned, slavery was prohibited by the Illinois constitution and Douglas, during his previous two terms in the U.S. Senate, was referred to as “The Great Compromiser” for his willingness to extend slavery to new states. However, even though several Democrat legislators did vote for Lincoln, it was not enough for him to be selected.

The men who gathered at the Capitol Library intended to discuss the future of the Republican party in Illinois and had invited Lincoln to attend. On the other hand, some had a very specific agenda for the meeting; to encourage Abraham Lincoln to run for President of the United States.

As Miles later recalled, Mr. Lincoln assured the group that he remained committed to the principals of the Republican party and would willingly support future Republican candidates. At some point in the discussion, one of the attendees declared that he “intended to bring Abraham Lincoln out as a candidate for President” in an editorial in a local newspaper.  After a murmur of approval was heard in the room, Lincoln said, “For God’s sake, let me alone. I have suffered enough.”

To some in the room and a few historical observers, Lincoln, while appreciative of the show of support, was sincerely declining another campaign. However, others present at the meeting, and most historians, believed that Lincoln was mildly protesting only as a courtesy and had an unstated interest in seeking the Republication nomination.

In the latter view, Lincoln believed a new campaign might lead to a Vice-Presidential nomination, or improve his chances if he chose to run for Governor of Illinois; but he did not believe there was even a remote possibility he could become the 1860 Presidential nominee at the Republican National Convention. The Party already had three formidable politicians under consideration, all with more political experience and broad based support than Lincoln; William Seward, former Governor of New York, Salmon Chase, Governor of Ohio, and Edward Bates, Governor of Missouri. Lincoln’s experience as an office holder included four terms in the Illinois Legislature and one term in the U.S. Congress, but he had not held political office for ten years.

Proof for those who believed then, and still believe, that he did indeed hope for his name to be advanced, was the rigorous speaking schedule which he now planned until the Republican convention, including a tour of heavily populated New England. Lincoln may not have called it a “campaign” but it certainly had all of the hallmarks.

And it worked!

One year after that meeting in the Library of the Illinois Capitol, Abraham Lincoln, who had won his party’s nomination in June, was elected President of the United States. After the election, and after the Electoral College vote, Rufus W. Miles wrote a letter to the President-Elect on December 21, 1860, and included as a gift an eagle feather quill, proposing that Lincoln use the pen to write his inaugural address. The letter read in part:

“Hon. A. Lincoln,

Please accept this eagle quill I promised you. The bird from whose wing the quill was taken was shot by Mr. John Dillon, in February 1857. Having heard that James Buchannan (Lincoln’s Democrat predecessor as President) was furnished with an eagle quill to write his inaugural with, and believing that, in 1860, a Republican would be elected to take his place, I determined to save this quill and present it to the fortunate man, whoever he might be. Report tells us that the bird which furnished Buchannan’s quill was a captured bird, a fit emblem for the man who used it. (Mr. Miles believed President Buchannan was another “compromiser” of principles).

But the bird from which this quill was taken, yielded the quill only with his life – a fit emblem of the man who is now expected to use it; for true Republicans believe that you will not think life worth the keeping after the murder of principle. Great difficulties surround you; traitors to their country have threatened your life; and should you be called upon to surrender your life at the post of duty, your memory will live forever in the heart of every free man; and that is a grander monument than can be built of brick or marble.

‘for if our hearts may not our memories keep, oblivion haste each vestige sweep, and let our memories end’

Yours truly,

R.W. Miles”

This letter must have seemed to be a strange and morose reflection upon what was a celebratory occasion; the election of Lincoln as President. Perhaps Mr. Miles, better than most, realized the dangerous waters into which the United States, and President Lincoln, were headed.

That first inaugural address did become one of the most famous speeches in American history and the concluding lines can still stir us today.

“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

On April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died; and as Mr. Miles wrote, Lincoln surrendered his “life at the post of duty.”

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and hundreds of schools which bear his likeness and/or his name, are tangible testaments in “brick and marble” as Mr. Miles suggested. But, most Americans today also have, in their own memories, an image of Abraham Lincoln and some understanding of his lasting value to our nation.

It is up to us to assure that, as Mr. Miles also wrote, his “memory will live forever in the heart of every free man.”

I sincerely hope we are up to the task.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com