“I Am the Biggest Coward in the World”

5 02 2009

The details of the newspaper article posted here are nothing new.  The story of Scott’s exclamation, Lincoln’s challenge, and Scott’s response are well known.  Richardson’s interpetation of what the exchange showed is more in line with my own thoughts on the matter (to which I alluded here).  Probably the most quoted version of the incident is from Nicolay & Hay’s 10 volume Abraham Lincoln: A History (Vol. 4, pp 358-361):

A few days after the battle, in a conversation at the White House with several Illinois Members of the Congress, in the presence of the President and the Secretary of War, General Scott himself was so far nettled by the universal chagrin and fault-finding the he lost his temper and sought an entirely uncalled-for self-justification.  “Sir, I am the greatest coward in America,” he said.  “I will prove it.  I have fought this battle, sir, against my judgement; I think the President of the United States ought to remove me to-day for doing it.  As God is my judge, after my superiors had determined to fight it, I did all in my power to make the army efficient.  I deserve removal because I did not stand up, when my army was not in a condition for fighting, and resist it to the last.”  The President said, “Your conversation seems to imply that I forced you to fight this battle.”  General Scott then said, “I have never served a President who has been kinder to me than you have been.”  Representative William A. Richardson, who in a complaining speech in Congress related the scene, then drew the inference that Scott intended to pay a personal compliment to Mr. Lincoln, but that he did not mean to exonerate the cabinet; and when pressed by questions, further explained: “Let us have no misunderstanding about this matter.  My colleagues understood that I gave the language as near as I could.  Whether I have been correctly reported or not I do not know.  If I did not then make the correct statement, let me do it now.  I did not understand General Scott, nor did I mean so to be understood, as implying the the President had forced him to fight that battle.

I’m not so sure.  Lincoln’s former secretaries went on:

The incident illustrates how easily history may be perverted by hot-blooded criticism.  Scott’s irritation drove him to an inaccurate statement of events; Richardson’s partisanship warped Scott’s error to a still more unjustifiable deduction, and both reasoned from a changed condition of things.  Two weeks before, Scott was confident of victory, and Richardson chafing at military inaction.

Historical judgement of war is subject to an inflexible law, either very imperfectly understood or very constantly lost sight of.  Military writers love to fight over the campaigns of history exclusively by the rules of the professional chess-board, always subordinating, often totally ignoring, the element of politics.  This is a radical error.  Every war is begun, dominated, and ended by political considerations; without a nation, without a Government, without money or credit, without popular enthusiasm which furnishes volunteers, or public support which endures conscription, there could be no army and no war – neither beginning nor end of methodical hostilities.  War an politics, campaign and statecraft, are Siamese twins, inseparable and interdependent; and to talk of military operations without the direction and interference of an Administration is as absurd as to plan a campaign without recruits, pay, or rations.

Applied to the Bull Run campaign, this law of historical criticism analyzes and fixes the responsibilities of government and commanders with easy precision.  When Lincoln, on June 29, assembled his council of war, the commanders, as military experts, correctly decided that the existing armies – properly handled – could win a victory at Manassas and a victory at Winchester, at or near the same time.  General Scott correctly objected that these victories, if won, would not be decisive; and that in a military point of view it would be wiser to defer any offensive campaign until the following autumn.  Here the President and the Cabinet, as political experts, intervened, and on their part decided, correctly, that the public temper would not admit of such a delay.  Thus the Administration was responsible for the forward movement, Scott for the combined strategy of the two armies, McDowell for the conduct of the Bull Run battle, Patterson for the escape of Johnston, and the Fate for the panic; for the opposing forces were equally raw, equally undisciplined, and as a whole fought the battle with equal courage and gallantry.

But such an analysis of causes and such an apportionment of responsibilities could not be made by the public, or even by the best-informed individuals beyond Cabinet circles, in the first fortnight succeeding the Bull Run disaster.  All was confused rumor, blind inference, seething passion. That the public at large and the touch-and-go newspaper writers should indulge in harsh and hasty language is scarcely to be wondered at; but the unseemly and precipitate judgements and criticisms of those holding the rank of leadership in public affairs are less to be excused.  Men were not yet tempered to the fiery ordeal of revolution, and still thought and spoke under the strong impulse of personal prejudice, and with that untamed extravagence which made politics such a chaos in the preceding winter.

More on this later…probably.