2nd Lt. George Armstrong Custer, Co. G, 2nd U. S. Cavalry, On Traveling to the Field and the Battle (Part 1)

20 09 2017

I left West Point on the 18th of July for Washington, delaying a few hours that afternoon on my arrival in New York to enable me to purchase, of the well-known military firm of Horstman’s, my lieutenant’s outfit of sabre, revolver, sash, spurs, etc. Taking the evening train for Washington, I found the cars crowded with troops, officers, and men hastening to the capital.

At each station we passed on the road at which a halt was made, crowds of citizens were assembled provided bountifully with refreshments, which they distributed in the most lavish manner among the troops. Their enthusiasm knew no bounds, they received us with cheers and cheered us in parting. It was no unusual sight, on leaving a station surrounded by these loyal people, to see matrons and maidens embracing and kissing with patriotic fervor the men, entire strangers to them, whom they saw hastening to the defense of the nation.

Arriving at Washington soon after daylight, Saturday morning, the 20th of July, I made my way to the Ebbit House, where I expected to meet some of my classmates domiciled. Among others I found there was Parker, appointed from Missouri, who had been my room- and tent-mate at West Point for years. He was one of the few members of my class who, while sympathizing with the south, had remained at the Academy long enough to graduate and secure a diploma. Proceeding to his room without going through the formality of announcing my arrival by sending a card, I found him at that early hour still in bed. Briefly he responded to my anxious inquiry for news, that McDowell’s army was confronting Beauregard’s, and a general engagement was expected hourly. My next inquiry was as to his future plans and intentions, remembering his Southern sympathies. To this he replied by asking me to take from a table near by and read an official order to which he pointed.

Upon opening the document referred to, I found it to be an order from the War Department dismissing from the roles of the army Second Lieutenant James P. Parker, for having tendered his resignation in the face of the enemy. The names of two others of my classmates appeared in the same order. After an hour or more of discussing the dark probabilities of the future as particularly affected by the clouds of impending war, I bade a fond farewell to my former friend and classmate, with whom I had lived on terms of closer intimacy than with any other being. We had eaten day by day at the same table, had struggled together in the effort to master the same problems of study; we had marched by each other’s side year after year, elbow to elbow, when engaged in the duties of drill, parade, etc., and had shared our blankets with each other when learning the requirements of camp life. Henceforth this was all to be thrust from our memory as far as possible, and our paths and aims in life were to run counter to each other in the future.

We separated; he to make his way, as he did immediately, to the seat of the Confederate Government, and accept a commission under a flag raised in rebellion against the government that had educated him, and that he had sworn to defend; I to proceed to the office of the Adjutant General of the Army and report for such duty as might be assigned me in the great work which was then dearest and uppermost in the mind of every loyal citizen of the country.

It was not until after two o’clock in the morning that I obtained an audience with the Adjutant General of the Army and reported to him formally for orders, as my instructions directed me to do. I was greatly impressed by the number of officials I saw and the numerous messengers to be seen flitting from room to room, bearing immense numbers of huge-looking envelopes. The entire department had an air of busy occupation which, taken in connection with the important military events then daily transpiring and hourly expected, and contrasted with the humdrum life I had but lately led as a cadet, added to the bewilderment I naturally felt.

Presenting my order of instructions to the officer who seemed to be in charge of the office, he glanced at it, and was about to give some directions to a subordinate nearby to write out an order assigning me to some duty when, turning to me, he said, “Perhaps you would like to be presented to General Scott, Mr. Custer?” To which I of course joyfully assented.

I had often beheld the towering form of the venerable chieftain during his summer visits to West Point, but that was the extent of my personal acquaintance with him. So strict was the discipline at that Academy that the gulf which separated cadets from commissioned officers seemed greater in practice thant that which separated enlisted men from them. Hence it was rare indeed that a cadet ever had an opportunity to address or be addressed by officers, and it was still more rare to be brought into personal conversation with an officer above the grade of lieutenant or captain, if we except the superintendent of the Academy and the commandant of the corps of cadets. The sight of a general officer, let alone the privilege of speaking to one, was an event to be recounted to one’s friends. In those days the title of general was not so familiar as to be encountered on every hotel register. Besides, the renown of a long lifetime of gallantry in his country’s service had gradually but justly placed General Scott far above all contemporary chieftains in the admiration and hero worship of his fellow countrymen; and in the youthful minds of the West Point cadets of those days Scott was looked up to as a leader whose military abilities were scarcely second to those of a Napoleon, and whose patriotism rivaled that of Washington.

Following the lead of the officers to whom I had reported, I was conducted to the room in which General Scott received his official visitors. I found him seated at a table over which were spread maps and other documents which plainly showed their military character. In the room, and seated near the table, were several members of Congress, of whom I remember Senator Grimes of Iowa.

The topic of conversation was the approaching battle in which General McDowell’s forces were about to engage. General Scott seemed to be explaining to the congressmen the position, as shown by the map, of the contending armies. The adjutant general called General Scott’s attention to me by saying, “General, this is Lieutenant Custer of the Second Cavalry; he has just reported from West Point and I did not know but that you might have some special orders for him.”

Looking at me for a moment, the general shook me cordially by the hand, saying, “Well, my young friend, I am glad to welcome you to the service at this critical time. Our country has need of the strong arms of all her loyal sons in this emergency.” Then, turning to the adjutant general, he inquired to what company I had been assigned. “To Company G, Second Cavalry, now under Major Innis Palmer, with General McDowell,” was the reply. Then, addressing me, the general said, “We have had the assistance of quite a number of you young men from the Academy, drilling volunteers, etc. Now what can I do for you? Would you prefer to be ordered to report to General Mansfield to aid in this work, or is your desire for something more active?”

Although overwhelmed by such condescension upon the part of one so superior in rank to any officer with whom I had been brought in immediate contact, I ventured to stammer out that I earnestly desired to be ordered to at once join my company, then with General McDowell, as I was anxious to see active service. “A very commendable resolution, young man,” was the reply; then, turning to the adjutant general, he added, “Make out ;lieutenant Custer’s orders directing him to proceed to his company at once”; then, as if a different project had presented itself, he inquired of me if I had been able to provided myself with a mount for the field. I relpied that I had not, but would set myself about doing so at once.

“I fear you have a difficult task before you, because, if rumor is correct, every serviceable horse in the city has been bought, borrowed, or begged by citizens who have gone or are going as spectators to witness the battle. Beauregard may capture some of them and teach them a lesson. However, I what I desire to say to you is, go and provide yourself with a horse if possible, and call here at seven o’clock this evening. I desire to send some dispatches to General McDowell, and you can be the bearer of them. You are not afraid of a night ride, are you?”

Exchanging salutations, I left the presence of the general-in-chief, delighted at the prospect of being at once thrown into active service, perhaps participating in the great battle which everyone there knew was on the eve of occurring; but more than this my pride as a soldier was not a little heightened by the fact that almost upon my first entering the service I was to be the bearer of important official dispatches from the general-in-chief to the general commanding the principal army in the field.

I had yet a difficult task before me in procuring a mount. I visited all the prominent livery stables, but received almost the same answer from each, the substance of which was that I was too late; all the serviceable horses had been let or engaged. I was almost in despair of the idea that I was not to be able to take advantage of the splendid opportunity for distinction opened before me, and was at a loss what to do, or to whom to apply for advice, when I met on Pennsylvania Avenue a soldier in uniform, whom I at once recognizes as one of the detachment formerly stationed at West Point, who left with those ordered suddenly to the defense of Washington at the time of Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, when it was feared attempts would be made to assassinate the president-elect.

Glad to encounter anyone I had ever seen before, I approached and asked him what he was doing in Washington. He answered that he belonged to Griffin’s battery, which was then with McDowell’s forces at the front, and had returned to Washington by Captain Griffin’s order, to obtain and take back with him an extra horse left by the battery on its departure from the capital. Here then was my opportunity, and I at once availed myself of it. It was the intention of this man to set out on his return at once; but at my earnest solicitation he consented to defer his departure until after seven o’clock, agreeing also to have the extra horse saddled and in readiness for me.

Promptly at seven o’clock I reported at the adjutant general’s office, obtaining my dispatches, and with no baggage or extra clothing to weigh down my horse, save what I carried on my person, I repaired to the point at which I was to find my horse and companion for the night. Upon arriving there I was both surprised and delighted to discover that the horse which accident seemed to have provided for me was a favorite one ridden by me often when learning the cavalry exercises at West Point. Those who were cadets just before the war will probably recall him to mind when I give the name “Wellington,” by which he was then known.

Crossing Long Bridge about nightfall, and taking the Fairfax Court House road for Centreville, the hours of night flew quickly past, engrossed as my mind was with the excitement and serious novelty of the occasion as well as occasionally diverted by the conversation of my companion. I was particularly interested with his description, given as we rode in the silent darkness, of a skirmish days before at Blackburn’s Ford, between the forces of the enemy stationed there and a reconnoitering detachment sent from General McDowell’s army; especially when I learned that my company had borne an honorable part of the battle.

It was between two and three o’clock in the morning when we reached the army near Centreville. The men had already breakfasted, and many of the regiments had been formed in column in the roads ready to resume the march; but owing to delays in starting, most of the men were lying on the ground, endeavoring to catch a few minutes more of sleep; others were sitting or standing in small groups smoking and chatting.

So filled did I find the road with soldiers that it was with difficulty my horse could pick his way among the sleeping bodies without disturbing them. But for my companion I should have had considerable difficulty in finding my way to headquarters, but he seemed familiar with the localities even in the darkness, and soon conducted me to a group of tents near which a large log fire was blazing, throwing a bright light over the entire scene for some distance around.

As I approached, the sound of my horse’s hoofs brought an officer from one of the tents nearest to where I halted. Advancing toward me, he inquired who I wanted to see. I informed him I was the bearer of dispatches from General Scott to General McDowell. “I will relieve you of them,” was his reply, but seeing me hesitate to deliver them, he added, “I am Major Wadsworth of McDowell’s staff.”

While I had hoped from ambitious pride to have an opportunity to deliver the dispatches in person to General McDowell, I could not decline longer, so placed the documents in Major Wadsworth’s hands, who took them to a tent a few paces distant, where, through half-open folds, I saw him hand them to a large, portly officer, whom I at once recognized to be General McDowell. Then, returning to where I still sat my horse, Major Wadsworth…asked me of the latest news in the capital, and when I replied that every person at Washington was looking to the army for news, he added, “Well, I guess they will not have to wait much longer. The entire army is under arms, and moving to attack the enemy today.” After inquiring at what hour I left Washington, and remarking that I must be tired, Major Wadsworth asked me to dismount and have some breakfast, as it would be difficult to say when another opportunity would occur.

I was very hungry, and rest would not have been unacceptable, but in my inexperience I partly imagined, particularly while in the presence of the white-haired officer who gave the invitation, that hunger and fatigue were conditions of feeling which a soldier, especially a young one, should not acknowledge. Therefore, with an appetite almost craving, I declined the kind proffer of the major. But when he suggested that I dismount and allow my horse to be fed I gladly assented.

While Major Wadsworth was kindly interesting himself in the welfare of my horse, I had the good fortune to discover in an officer at headquarters one of my recent West Point friends, Lieutenant Kingsbury, aide-de-camp to General McDowell. He repeated the invitation just given by Major Wadsworth in regard to breakfast, but I did not have the perseverance to again refuse.

Near the log fire already mentioned were some servants busily engaged in removing the remains of breakfast. A word from Kingsbury, and they soon prepared me a cup of coffee, a steak, and some Virginia corn bread, to which I did ample justice. Had I known, however, that I was not to have an opportunity to taste food during the next thirty hours, I should have appreciated the opportunity I then enjoyed even more highly.

As I sat on the ground sipping my coffee, and heartily enjoying my first breakfast inn the field, Kingsbury (afterward Colonel Kingsbury, killed at the Battle of Antietam) informed me of the general movement then begun by the army, and of the attack which was to be made on Beauregard’s forces that day.

Three days before, I had quitted school at West Point. I was about to witness the first grand struggle in open battle between the union and secession armies; a struggle which, fortunately for the nation, the Union forces were to suffer defeat, while the cause for which they fought was to derive from it renewed strength and encouragement.

From Civil War Times Illustrated (submitted there by Peter Cozzens), Custer’s First Stand, Vol. XXXVII, No. 6, December, 1998

Part 2
Part 3

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Winfield Scott’s “Operational Art”

2 12 2010

Dmitri Rotov has this interesting series going on Winfield Scott that looks at what Dmitri calls Scott’s “first two offensives” from a slightly different angle.  Check it out.





JCCW – Gen. Winfield Scott

12 09 2009

Testimony of Gen. Winfield Scott

Report on the Conduct of the War, Vol. 2, pp. 241-242

LIEUTENANT GENERAL WINFIELD SCOTT.

NEW YORK, March 31, 1862.

On the statement of Major General Patterson, submitted by him as evidence to the honorable the committee of the House of Representatives on the conduct of the war, I beg leave to remark :

1. That his statement, 148 long pages, closely and indistinctly written, has been before me about 48 hours, including a Sunday when I was too much indisposed to work or to go to church; that I cannot write or read at night, nor at any time, except by short efforts, and that I have been entirely without help.

2. That, consequently, I have read but little of the statement and voluminous documents appended, and have but about two hours left for comments on that little.

3. The documents (mainly correspondence between General Patterson and myself) are badly copied, being hardly intelligible in some places from the omission and change of words.

4. General Patterson was never ordered by me, as he seems to allege, to attack the enemy without a probability of success; but on several occasions he wrote as if he were assured of victory. For example, June 12th he says: he is “resolved to conquer, and will risk nothing;” and July 4th, expecting supplies the next day, he adds: as soon as they “arrive I shall advance to Winchester to drive the enemy from that place;” accordingly he issued orders for the movement on the 8th ; next called a council of war, and stood fast at Martinsburg.

5. But although General Patterson was never specifically ordered to attack the enemy, he was certainly told, and expected, even if with inferior numbers, to hold the rebel army in his front on the alert, and to prevent it from re-enforcing Manassas Junction, by means of threatening manoeuvres and demonstrations—results often obtained in war with half numbers.

6. After a time General P. moved upon Bunker Hill, and then fell off upon Charlestown, whence he seems to have made no other demonstration that did not look like a retreat out of Virginia. From that movement Johnston was at liberty to join Beauregard with any part of the army of Winchester.

7. General P. alludes, with feeling, to my recall from him back to Washington, after the enemy had evacuated Harper’s Ferry, of certain troops sent to enable him to take that place; but the recall was necessary to prevent the government and capital from falling into the enemy’s hands. His inactivity, however, from that cause need not to have been more than temporary; for he was soon re-enforced up to, at least, the enemy’s maximum number in the Winchester valley, without leading to a battle, or even a reconnoissance in force.

8. He also often called for batteries and rifled cannon beyond our capacity to supply at the moment, and so in respect to regular troops, one or more regiments. He might as well have asked for a brigade of elephants. Till some time later we had for the defence of the government in its capital but a few companies of regular foot and horse, and not half the number of troops, including all descriptions, if the enemy had chosen to attack us.

9. As connected with this subject, I hope I may be permitted to notice the charge made against me on the floors of Congress that I did not stop Brigadier General McDowell’s movement upon Manassas Junction after I had been informed of the re-enforcement sent thither from Winchester, though urged to do so by one or more members of the cabinet. Now, it was, at the reception of that news, too late to call off the troops from the attack; and besides, though opposed to the movement at first, we had all become animated and sanguine of success; and it is not true that I was urged by anybody in authority to stop the attack, which was commenced as early, I think, as the 18th of July.

10. I have but time to say that among the disadvantages under which I have been writing are these: I have not had within reach one of my own papers; and not an officer who was with me at the period in question.

Respectfully submitted to the committee.

WINFIELD SCOTT. NEW YORK, March 31, 1862.





“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.





General Scott and Bull Run – Who Is To Blame?

3 02 2009

Scottish American Journal August 1, 1861

GENERAL SCOTT AND BULL RUN – WHO IS TO BLAME? – CURIOUS REVELATIONS

Immediately after the Bull Run disaster, Gen. Scott was universally condemned for sending forth the army numerically deficient and ill-provided with artillery.  General Scott has since explained his part in the transaction, making a dinner-table the opportunity to do so, and a New York newspaper editor, Mr. Raymond, the medium between him and the public.

On the Tuesday preceding the battle (say the New York Times), General Scott, at his own table, in the presence of his aids and a single guest (Mr. Raymond), discussed the whole subject of this war, and stated what his plan would be for bringing it to a close, if the management of it had been left in his hands.  The main object of the war, he said, was to bring nthe people of the rebellious States to feel the pressure of the Government; to compel them to return to their obedience and loyalty.  And this must be done with the least possible expenditure of life, compatible with the attainment of the object.  No Christian nation can be justified, he said, in waging war in such a way as shall destroy 501 lives, when the object of the war can be attained at a cost of 500.

If the matter had been left to him, he said, he would have commenced by a perfect blockade of every Southern port on the Atlantic and the Gulf.  Then he would have collected a large force at the Capital for defensive purposes, and another large one on the Mississippi for offensive operations.  The Summer months, during which it is madness to take troops south of St. Louis, should have been devoted to tactical instruction; and with the first frosts of Autumn he would have taken a column of 80,000 well-disciplined troops down the Mississippi, and taken every important point on that river, New Orleans included.  It could have been done, he said, with greater ease, with less loss of life, and with far more important results than would attend the marching of an army to Richmond.  At eight points the river would probably have been defended, and eight battles would have been necessary; but in every one of them success could have been made certain for us.  The Mississippi and the Atlantic once ours, the Southern states would have been compelled, by the natural and inevitable pressure of events, to seek, by a return to the Union, escape from the ruin that would speedily overwhelm them out of it.  “This,” said he, “was my plan.  But I am only a subordinate.  It is my business to give advice when it is asked, and to obey orders when they are given.  I shall do it.    There are gentlemen in the cabinet who know much more about war than I do, and who have far greater influence than I have in determining the plan of the campaign.  There never was a more just and upright man than the President – never one who desired more sincerely to promote the best interests of the country.  But there are men among his advisers who consult their own resentments far more than the dictates of wisdom and experience, and these men will probably decide the plan of the campaign.  I shall do, or attempt to do, whatever I am ordered to do.  But they must not hold me responsible.  If I am ordered to go to Richmond, I shall endeavor to do it.  But I know perfectly well that they have no conception of the difficulties we shall encounter.  I know the country – how admirably adapted it is to defense, and how resolutely and obstinately it will be defended.  I would like nothing better than to take Richmond; now that it has been disgraced by becoming the capital of the rebel Confederacy, I feel a resentment towards it, and should like nothing better than to scatter its Congress to the winds.  But I have lived long enough to know tha[t] human resentment is a very bad foundation for a public policy; and these gentlemen will live long enough to know it also.  I shall do what I am ordered.  I shall fight when and where I am commanded.  But if I am compelled to fight before I am ready, they shall not hold me responsible.  These gentlemen must take the responsibility of their acts,as I am willing to take that of mine.  But they must not throw their responsibility on my shoulders.”

In Congress a few days after the battle, Mr. Richardson “stood up” for General Scott.  He said: “General Scott was forced to fight this battle” (Bull Run); and then he proceeded to detail the following strange revelations:

My colleagues (Logan and Washburne) and myself were present with the President, Secretary of War and General Scott.  In the course of our conversation, Gen. Scott remarked, “I am the biggest coward in the world.”  I rose from my seat  “Stay,” said Gen. Scott; “I will prove it.  I have fought the battle against my judgement, and I think the President ought to remove me to-day for doing it.  As God is my judge,” he added, after an interval of silence, “I did all in my power to make the army efficient, and I deserve removal because I did not stand up when I could, and did not.”

Mr. Washburne – As my colleague has referred to Gen. Scott’s remarks, he might also allude to what the President said.

Mr. Richardson – I will do so.  “Your conversation implies,” said the President to Gen. Scott, “that I forced you to battle.”  To which Gen. Scott replied, “I have never served under a President who has been kinder to me than you have been.”  But Gen. Scott did not relieve the President from the fact of the latter having forced him to fight the battle.  Gen. Scott thus merely paid a compliment to the President personally.

[Photcopy courtesy of Terry Johnston]

{See also this post}





A Few Washington, DC Civil War Sites

28 01 2009

A couple weeks ago my son received an invite to tour the White House, so on the spur of the moment we headed on down that way (see here).  We didn’t have any time to visit with any friends, but we did manage to squeeze in some sightseeing.  Click smaller images for great big giant ones.   First up was the Blair House, across Pennsylvania Ave from the White House:

dscn0077

This was the home of publisher Francis Preston Blair, Sr., adviser to Presidents back to Andrew Jackson, and father of Montgomery (Lincoln’s Postmaster General) and Frank Jr. (Union Major General who commanded a corps under Sherman during the March to the Sea and Beyond).  Frank Sr. was also the great-great-great grandfather of actor Montgomery Clift, who served in the Union Army in Raintree County:

raintree1

The Clift-Blair relationship is murky – Clift’s mother claimed to be the illegitimate child of Montgomery’s son Woodbury, but it was never proven beyond a shadow.  Photos show a strong resemblance between an older, beat-up Clift and Great-Grandpa Montgomery Blair.  At least, I think so:

clift blair 

It was here in the Blair House that Colonel Robert E. Lee, prior to his resignation from the United States Army, was “felt out” for command of a Union army (not “the” army, as is commonly said, but as Lee himself said, the army that was to take the field – probably either Patterson’s or McDowell’s army) by Frank Sr.

Today, the complex of houses (four, I think) makes up the President’s guest house, used by visiting heads of state.

After that we took a walk around the White House…

white-house

…via the Treasury Building, behind which is this monument to Uncle Billy:

sherman

We took a long walk to the Mall and the Lincoln Memorial, which was the one place other than the White House my son wanted to see (there’s a good boy):

lincoln

I’m always better for visiting the memorial.  This time I had a nice conversation with the ranger on duty, while my wife and son were in the gift shop. 

We returned to the White House via 17th St., and stopped briefly at F to take a picture of The Winder Building.  Today the building serves as the headquarters of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).  When it was built in 1848, at five stories it was the city’s first skyscraper.  In 1854, it was purchased by the Federal government, and during the war served as the headquarters of Winfield Scott, Henry Halleck, the Quartermaster General, the Army Ordnance Department, and the Bureau of Military Justice.  This is where the President lamented that “the bottom is out of the tub”, and where JAG Holt conducted the investigation into Lincoln’s assassination.

winder1

The Winder building plays a prominent role in the often used account of First Bull Run written fifty years after the battle by Peter Conover Hains, whose 30 pdr Parrott opened the fight.  At the beginning of the Cosmopolitan Magazine article Hains recounted that his June, 1861 West Point class mustered into Federal service “in the old Wilder [sic] Building, opposite the war department” on June 25th, 1861.  He wrote that there President Lincoln shook hands with each member of the class.  I’ve been annotating the article – very, very slowly – and have found a number of problems with it, including this otherwise innoccuous episode.  More on that later, but keep in mind that Cosmo published much of the writings of one Sally “LaSalle” Pickett.  The army also had its central signal station on the roof of the building:

signal

I’m hoping to get down to Washington in the spring or summer, and hope to have a few days to spend sightseeing and visiting friends and e-quaintances.  So much to see, so little time.





Mark Grimsley on the Impetus for the Advance on Manassas

3 06 2008

The Hard Hand of War - Mark GrimsleyMark Grimsley has been discussing his book The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians 1861-1865 over at Civil Warriors (see here and here).  I read the book recently after it sat on my bookshelf for a few years, and I’m one of the folks who sent the emails to which Prof. Grimsley referred in his post.  I won’t go into all the reasons why The Hard Hand of War is one of the most important books on the American Civil War of the last 25 years.  But I’ve been meaning to mention something covered in it, as it directly deals with First Bull Run.  I just hope I can do it justice.

A component of the traditional narrative of the campaign is that the Federal advance on Bull Run was prompted by pressure from the Northern public as expressed via the press.  While some historians have removed the President from the equation by saying that the army was prompted to advance by this pressure, or that Winfield Scott was induced to advance by it, or even that McDowell was compelled to advance by it, to me it has always seemed obvious that the moving force behind the advance was Abraham Lincoln.  I think Lincoln himself sought to distance himself after the fact, if the story of his reaction to Scott’s post battle lament about Scott’s allowing himself to be pressured to send the army to the field before it was ready is to be believed (AL basically said “surely you’re not blaming me for pressuring you” – Scott’s response, interpreted by most as backing down, was to me delightfully sarcastic and probably not lost on a sharp wit like Lincoln’s).  But that’s neither here nor there as far as Grimsley’s book is concerned, and I’ll discuss the Scott-Lincoln exchange more fully in a post some other time.

Grimsley’s work does not run counter to the idea that the primary force behind the advance on Manassas was Lincoln.  Where he differs with the accepted story line is in the influence on Lincoln of a supposedly unified, howling Northern press.  This discussion is in Chapter 2, Conciliation and its Challenges.  It begins (italics are extractions from the text):

Conciliation formed the dominant Union policy for the first fifteen months of the war.  It not only characterized the way in which Federal forces were to deal with Southern civilians, it also shaped the Federal strategy to defeat the Confederacy.  Northern officials instinctively grasped the truth of Treitschke’s statement that “Again and again, it has been proved that it is war that turns a people into a nation.”  The slave-holding aristocrats had made a rebellion; they must not be allowed to make a nation.  Conciliation on the one hand, and a sweeping military effort on the other, seemed the keys to preventing this.  Together these two approaches would sap Southern resistance and make possible an early victory.

(One of the great things about this book is that it was written by that rarest of birds in Civil War literature, an honest to God military historian – see here for what I mean by historian)

Winfield Scott was on board with the idea of a combination of conciliation and military effort.  As Grimsley points out, tact and patience characterized Scott’s behavior over the years in things military and diplomatic (if not personal).  Concerns in the early days of the rebellion were for the promotion of pro-Union sentiment in the southern states, and Scott was of the opinion that this could best be done through the adoption of a policy that might defeat the Confederacy without the bloodshed, devastation, and bitterness that would accompany a major offensive.  In May of 1861 these thoughts manifested in Scott’s overall strategy for victory, dubbed by the press The Anaconda Plan.  Note that Scott’s plan was born of experience and not, as has been stated by some, of his fondness for his native South.

Initially the press was unanimously behind Scott, because he was Winfield Scott, after all; because they were patriotic, of course; because many believed the idea that victory could and should be won with as little loss of life and property as possible; and because rumors also circulated that Scott’s deliberation would extend no further than mid-July at the latest.  Criticism came not from people who thought Scott was wrong about the potential of pro-Union sentiment in the South, but rather from those with different ideas concerning the best way to tap it.  To them, only quick action could ignite Southern Unionists; delay would leave them correspondingly discouraged.

Within Lincoln’s cabinet, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair was one whose thoughts on the best way to encourage Southern Unionists opposed those of Scott.  Blair felt that the regular army officers grossly overestimated the strength of secessionist spirit in the South.  “This,” he declared (in a mid-May 1861 letter to Lincoln), “is a fundamental and fatal error and if our military movements are predicated on it & we fail to go to the relief of the people of the South they will be subjugated and the state of consolidation now falsely assumed will be produced.”  Immediate, offensive action was what was needed to best encourage Southern Unionists, and it could be accomplished by a very small portion of the army. Blair wasn’t questioning Scott’s patriotism, just his ability to grasp the true state of affairs.  He recommended that the President should adopt a policy independent of the General-in-Chief.

Despite Blair’s advice, Lincoln decided to bear with Scott’s policy for awhile.  But as time dragged on (and we’re talking mere weeks here – the definition of dragging time would change dramatically by 1865) without any significant offensive action, elements in the Northern press began to express opinions more similar to those of Blair.  Then, on June 26, Horace Greeley’s Republican paper New York Tribune declared:

Forward to Richmond!  Forward to Richmond!  The Rebel Congress must not be allowed to meet there on the 20th of July!  BY THAT DATE THE PLACE MUST BE HELD BY THE NATIONAL ARMY!

The Chicago Tribune jumped on the bandwagon the next day, echoing Blair’s sentiment:

The Union men of the South, to whose relief the loyal army is marching, will be crushed out, or forced into cooperation with the rebels, long before the anaconda has got the whole country enveloped in its coils.

But a number of Northern newspapers were still backing Scott’s plan, and their editorials ridiculed the “Forward to Richmond” cries of the two Tribunes.  The New York Times reported on June 27 that the General was still committed to the conciliatory plan, concluding that By January, he [Scott] thinks that the rebellion will be entirely defeated, and the Union reconstructed.  On July 1 that paper responded to a letter critical of Scott it had printed two days earlier, stating:

The South must be made to feel full respect for the power and honor of the North: she must be humbled, but not debased by a forfeiture of self-respect, if we wish to retain our motto – E pluribus unum – and claim for the whole United States the respect of the world.

Grimsley points out that:

With public opinion on its efficacy still divided, the popular notion that Lincoln was somehow forced to launch an immediate offensive is untenable.  It is much more likely that the President himself embraced the Blair thesis that an early offensive offered the best way to encourage the Southern Unionist sentiment that, he hoped, would then overwhelm the slaveholding aristocracy.  

Fully embracing Blair’s thesis required the adoption of a policy that was independent of Lincoln’s General-in-Chief.  It wouldn’t be the last time the President would make that choice.

At a meeting with his cabinet, Scott, and Irvin McDowell on June 29, Lincoln directed – despite Scott’s objections – that an advance be made within a few weeks.  He issued positive orders to that effect to McDowell on July 8.  On July 16, McDowell put his army in motion.

Grimsley concludes that the repulse of McDowell’s offensive ended any hopes of a rapid Confederate collapse.  It also destroyed whatever promise the Anaconda held out, for the South had been further united by the nationalistic pride generated by the victory.

Talk about a turning point.