Image: Capt. Barton Stone Alexander, Chief Engineer, Tyler’s Division

6 11 2020

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6 11 2020
Rich Davis

Noveber 6, 2020

Harry,

Thanks again for remembering me and for posting the message from Captain Alexander. The Wikipedia article on Bull Run indicates that this message was in the form of a telegram—is that your understanding?

Also, as to the interpretation of the sentence “Save Washington and the remnants of this army.” If that sentence stands alone, it suggests that the verb “save” is used in an imperative tense suggesting grave danger to the Capital, in other words “Do whatever you need to do to preserve the Capital and the remnants of the Army.”

On the other hand, the word “save” could also be interpreted in its meaning of “except,” and this would make more sense if the period after “The day is lost” was a mistake. In other words, disregarding the period, the phrase could be read as “The day is lost except for Washington and the remnants of this army.”

Looking at it a second time, the imperative reading “Save Washington” seems more likely but you are more familiar with Army correspondence of that era than I. What do you think?

One more question—the telegram is clearly posted by Alexander himself on his own authority; he does not indicate that he is sending the message under orders from either General Tyler—his immediate superior—or from General McDowell. Does this seem meaningful to you? Would be curious to get the benefit of your thought on this.

My own take is that this message adds further evidence to my characterization of Captain Alexander as an experienced, resourceful and unflappable veteran officer –with experience in the Mexican War—who exerted his influence on his own initiative, at two or three key moments before, during, and after the battle. As you know probably better than anyone, such poise, self-confidence, and leadership on the part of senior Union officers—including those who would go on to higher command like Sherman and Howard—was in very short supply on July 21. My understanding of Barton Alexander’s character is illuminated by the high regard in which he appears to have been held by his peers from that moment on, especially by McDowell .

Footnote: In 1873, Alexander wrote on familiar terms to President Grant (based on acquaintance dating back to West Point and also their service in the Mexican War) asking for an appointment for his son Walter (Class of ’79), and that direct appointment was duly granted. * Alexander graduated in the Class of 1842 and Grant in 1843, so the two may have known each other from West Point days.

Again, many thanks for this dramatic addition to the B.S. Alexander biography –

Rich Davis

*Text of Lt. Col. Barton Alexander’s letter to President Grant: “I would like to send my oldest son to West Point, and I write to you to ask you to give him a Cadet’s appointment if you can do so….I have based this application to you on the ground of ‘auld lang syne’. Were I writing to a President of the United States whom I had not known intimately in the days of our youth, and to whom such an appeal could not be made, I would place it on the ground of my long service in the Army. Perhaps, however, it may not be out of place to mention to you that I have served thirty one years since leaving West Point, and that I have never had a leave of absence.: RG 94, Correspondence, USMA, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 24: 1873. Prepared under the auspices of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. Edited by John Y. Simon. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, p. 436.

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6 11 2020
Harry Smeltzer

Short answer – I don’t know! Good questions, though.

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