General John Dix on a Command that Never Was

10 09 2009

New York 11 December 1878

Dear Sir,

I have received your favor of the 3rd inst. asking me why Genl. Scott’s instructions in the following telegraphic despatch were not carried out.

“Headquarters, June 19th, 1861

Come to me at the first convenient moment.  I shall charge you with the command of the Alexandria and Arlington Department, the next to the enemy, containing five brigades.  I shall do what I can to give you some regular staff officers.  Bring horses with you.

Winfield Scott”

On receipt of the forgoing despatch I purchased horses and repaired without delay to Washington.  About the time of my arrival it had become known that I was, in pursuance of Genl. Scott’s orders and by virtue of my rank as Major General, to assume command of the forces referred to as the senior of Brig. Genl. McDowell.  I had reason to believe that several members of the cabinet were opposed to the change; and an active movement was set on foot through the correspondents of the New York press to aid in defeating it.  Perceiving from all the indications that the opposition would succeed, I decided to let the matter take its course.  The arguments of the newspaper correspondents were in substance that I had not for many years been in the military service[;] that Genl. McDowell had been while I had been in civil life, and that it was unjust  to him, to use the [?] of one of the letter writers, to deprive him “of the glory of a victory” over the enemy, which was considered so much a matter of certainty as to have led to the Congressional cry of “On to Richmond”.  The result was that Genl. Scott was overruled, and he was soon afterwards [superseded?] by Genl. McClellan.  It is not impertinent to the subject in hand to mention that Genl. Scott had previously named me for another active command that he was in like manner overruled.  I remained in Washington awaiting orders until the morning of the day when the forces I was to have commanded fled in disorder from Bull Run, and I was then sent to Baltimore to relieve Genl. Banks.  The disaster was communicated to me at midnight by telegraph.  Genl. McDowell is a gallant and accomplished soldier; and so far as I know there was nothing on his part, in [regard?]  to the proposed change in command, to impair the sincere respect which I have always had for him.  I might not have had any better success had Genl. Scott’s purpose been carried out; and I had reason to be consoled for the chagrin I naturally felt at the time, when after three or four months of active and earnest work, military and political, in Maryland, which was in a state of semi-insurrection, when I took command at Baltimore, I succeeded in gaining for the Union at the November election a majority of more than thirty thousand.  I had the gratification afterwards of receiving a letter from Mr. Lincoln, now before me, in which he said: “It affords me great pleasure to say that no officer has performed the duties assigned him to my more entire satisfaction than has Genl. Dix.”  In the same letter he referred to the failure to carry out Genl. Scott’s purpose and stated as the “sole reason ever mentioned” to him a representation, which was wholly without foundation & of which I had never heard until I received his letter. —

I have thought more than once of writing an account of my service during the war of the rebellion for publication.  If I had done so, it would have contained the statement of a similar change of purpose on a subsequent occasion of equal importance.  But these are matters of personal rather than public history and have no bearing on the great objects and [?] of the war.  Of the friendly feelings of the President & Secretary of War I never had a doubt.  The changes of purposes referred to were due, as I always believed, to the activity and influence of the friends of commanders more ambitious than myself of military glory.  Throughout the war I can sincerely say, I had but one feeling—to accept without resistance any service the government would see fit to assign to me, and to discharge  it to the best of my ability.  The only request I ever made of the President was early in 1862, after I had [disbanded?] the Confederate troops on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and brought it into the [?] of the Union.  It was to be permitted to organize an expedition in the purpose of replacing the old flag on Fort Sumter.  To this request I received a very kind, but not a favorable, answer from Mr. Lincoln & Mr. Stanton.

I have never until now written a line on this subject or spoken of it except in confidence to intimate friends.

I am Dear Sir

Very truly yours,

John A. Dix

Genl. E. A. Carman

Courtesy of Dr. Thomas Clemens, Keedysville, MD

Original in Carman Collection, New York Public Library

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