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Army of the Potomac Trilogy, Volume Two
By Bruce Catton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1952 Bruce Catton
All rights reserved.
1. For What There Was in It
Returning to his regiment in the fall of 1862 after a furlough in his home city of York, the chaplain of the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry looked at the ravaged Virginia countryside and noted in his diary that war was very mysterious. It destroyed and wasted, and wherever the armies had gone "the desolation has become almost complete," but back home it was not like that at all. Pennsylvania had put 150,000 men into uniform, and by now a good many of them had gone under the sod, whether with or without appropriate graveside ceremonies. Yet what one actually saw in that state was the hustle and excitement of boom times. Never (to all appearances) had the country been so well off.
"What a marvel is here!" wrote the chaplain. "Something new under the sun! A nation, from internal resources alone, carrying on for over eighteen months the most gigantic war of modern times, ever increasing in its magnitude, yet all this while growing richer and more prosperous!"
As a summary of the effects of war on the national well-being this was neither complete nor wholly accurate, and it might have been bitterly disputed by some of the chaplain's own fellow Pennsylvanians. In the town of Berkeley, in Luzerne County, little more than one hundred miles from boom-town York, insurgent citizens recently had rioted in protest against the military draft and had subsided only after the militia had fired upon them, with four or five insurgents left dead in the streets. Nor was this spirit of dissent confined entirely to Pennsylvania, where it was noted that the anthracite fields were filled with unrest. Similar riots had taken place in the West, notably in the picturesque lakeside town of Port Washington, Wisconsin, and if the country was in fact benefiting by the war, the benefits seemed to be highly uneven and the distribution of them most inequitable.
Yet in a sense the good chaplain was quite correct. He had put his finger on something which contained the germ of much history. Whether he was in fact commenting on an effect of the war or on a strange, elusive symptom of something which had actually helped to cause the war may be another matter. At the very least he had spotted something important, and he was justified in using exclamation points. He had seen one side of the war very clearly.
The trouble in that autumn of 1862 was that there were so many sides to see. Lord Lyons, British Minister to the United States, was being given a glimpse of quite a different side, and in mid-November he was reporting on it to Her Majesty's Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell. The Federal government had finally nerved itself, once and for all, to remove General McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, and the deep significance of this act had not been lost on various Northern leaders of the Democracy. They had seen it clearly enough as an indication that the administration was now determined to crush the rebellion completely. The last chance for compromise had ridden out of the war on the special train that carried McClellan out of the Virginia theater to his home at Trenton, New Jersey; and these Northern Democrats were dismayed, since a ruthless war to the bitter end might not be a war which they could enthusiastically support.
In his dispatch to Lord Russell, Lord Lyons tried to analyze the attitude of the leaders of the Democratic party, North.
"At bottom," he wrote, "I thought I perceived a desire to put an end to the war, even at the risk of losing the Southern states altogether; but it was plain that it was not thought prudent to avow this desire."
Nothing would come of this immediately, his lordship believed; but the Democrats who quietly confided in him — cautious men who talked obliquely, stopping short of flat commitments, letting inferences and gestures speak for them — had implied that if their party came into power in the North "they would be disposed to accept an offer of mediation, if it appeared to be the only means of putting a stop to hostilities."
Thus a great deal depended on the point of view, for war's different sides had different meanings. To one point of view war meant boom times, intense activities, and good money in the pocket; to another it meant slow death for sacred American ideals. And to still another it meant personal opportunity, with sure advantage coming to him who was canny enough to play the angles correctly. For it was becoming clearer and clearer that the profound changes which were being wrought by this war were in effect creating a new country here, with all of the opportunities that are usually to be found in a new country. There was a folk saying which followed the expanding frontier: "It's good to be shifty in a new country." In 1862 there were any number of openings for the shifty.
As witness the case of Major General Joseph Hooker.
General Hooker that fall had been enjoying a slow recuperation from a light wound received at Antietam. He spent his convalescence in Washington, where he found comfortable quarters in the national insane asylum — a fact of which, luckily, nobody bothered to make anything in particular — and as a wounded hero and a man undeniably gifted with charm he had been lionized to a degree; most especially by certain people who could do an ambitious general a great deal of good.
There had been, for instance, the Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Salmon Portland Chase, who came to see the general bearing a large basket of fruit and accompanied by his daughter, the beautiful Katherine Chase. Pictorially, the meeting was indubitably a success — handsome general, pink and clean- shaven, bandaged foot resting elegantly on a cushioned stool; stalwart cabinet minister looking almost unutterably dignified and distinguished, inclining his head and saying: "General, if my advice had been followed, you would have commanded after the retreat to James River, if not before"; and Katherine, young and tall and altogether lovely, devoted to her father, the most talked-about and ultimately the most tragically unfortunate young woman in wartime Washington.... The American album would be richer if a cameraman had been present.
General and Secretary sparred gently, each one devoting his not inconsiderable talents to the job of finding out where the other stood and just how he could be useful. It seems that they came finally, in this and in later meetings, to an unspoken understanding. Each one was inordinately ambitious, but their ambitions did not conflict — one wanted to lead the country's armies, the other wanted to live in the White House, and it might be that they could rise together. Chase confided to his diary that Hooker struck him as "a frank, manly, brave and energetic soldier, of somewhat less breadth of intellect than I had expected, however, though not of less quickness, clearness and activity" — which was not too bad an appraisal. Hooker, being no diarist, did not record his impression of Mr. Chase. He did, however, shortly after the meeting, issue a public statement strongly supporting the Emancipation Proclamation.
For if Hooker had no great breadth of intellect, he was at least shrewd; shrewd enough, in any event, to perceive the trend of the tide that was setting in just then and to place himself in proper relationship to it. Beginning with the fall of 1862, it was obvious that the great war for reunion was also to be a war against slavery, and the implications of that fact were there for any man to read. What Lord Lyons's confidants had made out, Joe Hooker had made out also. Final control of things was very likely to rest in the hands of men who could forgive any sin to him whose heart was right on the matter of the Negro. If a belief in emancipation were essential to salvation, henceforward General Hooker would have such a belief.
Sign and symbol of his conversion could be seen in his new friendship for the Vice-President, Mr. Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. Mr. Hamlin had no more actual authority than any other vice-president of the United States, and yet he was a man worth cultivating. He was a stalwart among the abolitionists, and if he lacked power he did not lack influence. The group in Congress which was visibly and with apparent success moving to make this war its own personal possession was close to him; it would hear a word spoken in his ear, it would probably show gratitude for any favors which he might receive. So when Vice- President Hamlin visited Hooker's sickroom accompanied by Brigadier General Hiram Berry, seeking a favor, he got an excellent reception.
Hooker and Berry were well acquainted already, of course. Berry had led a brigade in Phil Kearny's division on the peninsula and was by that fact alone marked as a good soldier: in the brief time he had before a Confederate bullet found him, Kearny had made his Red Diamond Division famous, and one of his brigadiers was bound to carry some of that fame with him. Furthermore, Berry reflected some of the glory that had been glimpsed and lost that gloomy June night in front of Richmond, when Kearny and Hooker had gone to McClellan to demand that orders for retreat be canceled. They themselves would lead their troops in a wild assault on the Rebel lines, swords flashing in the smoky dusk along the pine flats, triumph snatched from defeat by a victory-or-death charge at the desperate eleventh hour, destruction for all traitors and everlasting fame for the soldiers who had dared so nobly. Berry had been present when that demand was made, had heard McClellan's icy refusal and Kearny's furious reply that risked a court-martial, and — as a citizen of Maine and a good friend of Mr. Hamlin — had written to the Vice-President some highly informative letters about the whole business, helping thereby to improve Hooker's standing with what was now the dominant group in Washington.
Hooker greeted his callers with warmth. Stretched out on a lounge with his wounded foot on a cushion (the foot now was just about healed), he swung into a breezy discussion of the battle of Antietam. The Vice-President was known to be no admirer of McClellan, and Hooker rose to the occasion, explaining just where and how McClellan's generalship fell short on that bloody field. The subject was a congenial one — Hooker seldom was in better voice than when he was pointing out the defects of his superior officer — and a good deal of time passed. Then at last there was a pause and the inevitable question: Well, gentlemen, what can I do for you?
What he could do, it developed, was to recommend General Berry for promotion. Berry was now a brigadier and wanted to be a major general, and Hooker's recommendation would help. Hooker replied with enthusiasm. The promotion was richly deserved, he declared, and he would do everything in his power to help bring it about. He added that he would even like to see Berry given command of the division which he, Hooker, once had led — a solid testimonial, this last, going beyond mere politics, for it was a crack outfit and still called itself Hooker's division, and a soldier like Hooker was certain to be proud and touchy about such things. It was perfectly characteristic of Hooker to embed one flash of genuine feeling in the middle of a calculated political stroke.
True to his word, when the guests left Hooker at once wrote to Henry Wager Halleck, general-in-chief of the nation's armies. He was quite aware that as far as Halleck was concerned the word of Joe Hooker might not carry too much weight. Halleck had seen a good deal of Hooker in his pre-war California phase, when the dashing army officer had descended almost to the level of beachcomber, and Halleck definitely did not admire him. Indeed, the best surviving evidence that Halleck really did have some of the acumen he was then supposed to have may consist in the fact that from the very beginning he was firmly convinced that sooner or later the flawed character which he had observed along the Sacramento would get General Hooker into serious trouble. Hooker assumed, possibly with some justification, that it was principally Halleck who had kept him from getting command of the Army of the Potomac when McClellan was relieved.
Yet if Halleck was distrustful, he was not opposing Hooker in all things. If the battle of Antietam had had an individual hero, that hero was probably Hooker; and McClellan, either not knowing or not caring that Hooker was one of his bitterest critics, had recommended, before his own removal from command, that Major General Hooker, U. S. Volunteers, be commissioned also as Brigadier General Hooker, U. S. Army — a recommendation which the War Department had accepted and acted upon, so that by the time he returned to active duty Hooker had the new commission in his possession. This was the best possible evidence that Hooker stood well with the administration, for promotion in the regular ranks was the greatest reward the War Department could offer to a professional soldier. Every regular-army officer was at all times conscious that this war, be it nobly won or miserably lost, was in any event going to end someday; and when it ended all of the fine volunteer commissions, with the various perquisites and the increased pay and allowances that went with them, would at once evaporate. Upon that day a regular who had gone to bed a major general might wake up to find himself a mere captain once more, responsible only for one flea-bitten battery of artillery and possessing no more than a captain's pay and prospects. Promotion in the regular ranks represented security. No matter what happened, Hooker would be a general the rest of his life; he could retire as a general and he would infallibly be buried as a general, with a starred flag to mark his gravestone.
From a cold and calculating viewpoint, therefore, Joe Hooker had already made a success out of the war. Yet even though the army contained very few officers who were more completely capable of taking a cold and calculating view of things, Hooker was no man to be satisfied with a partial achievement. As Secretary Chase had seen, his ambition was great. Also, a good part of Joe Hooker was perfectly genuine, and a great deal of the criticism which he so freely bestowed on his superiors came simply because his professional competence was outraged by the blunders he had had to witness. He felt that he could handle things better himself, and he had reason for thinking so. If such blunders continued — and it seemed very likely that they would — it was as certain as anything could be that the high command would someday be groping desperately for a man with military abilities like those owned by General Hooker. When that day came, Hooker proposed to be standing where the high command could not help reaching him.
It was good to be shifty in a new country. The Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, with his hot little eyes, and the fire-breathing abolitionist from Michigan, Senator Zachariah Chandler, followed Secretary Chase's lead, dropping in to sound the general out and to size him up. At the same time obscurer men came in to do what General Berry had done: to seek favors and simultaneously to exhibit political backing. One of these was an Indiana colonel named Solomon J. Meredith, who very much wished to be a brigadier general. He was not especially noteworthy in his own right, but he had political connections as good as the very best.
Meredith was a breezy giant of a man in his early fifties. A North Carolinian by birth, he had moved to Indiana as a young man, settling in Wayne County, near the Ohio line, and getting a firm foothold in county politics. He had a gift for it. During the next two decades, while he developed a prosperous farm, he was twice elected sheriff of his county, was sent to the state legislature for several terms, and finally won appointment as United States marshal for the district of Indiana — the kind of political plum that goes only to a man with first-rate credentials. In addition to a record of loyal service with the new Republican party, Meredith's assets included a firm personal and political friendship with one of the Midwest's most remarkable men, Oliver P. Morton, the famous war governor of Indiana.
Excerpted from Glory Road by Bruce Catton. Copyright © 1952 Bruce Catton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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