The Democratic Soldier: The life of General Gustave P. Cluseret

The Democratic Soldier: The life of General Gustave P. Cluseret

by William J. Phalen

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By definition, a mercenary is a person who fights for personal gain or money instead of fighting for the ideological interests of a country. Since this individual also could serve in several foreign army’s, he could also be considered a professional soldier. Gustave Cluseret does not fit into this classic definition. While, as a soldier he served in foreign armies, his professionalism came from his academic background at St. Cyr, rather than from battle. He did not fight for personal gain or money and he did fight for the ideological interests of the armies he joined. Throughout his military career, he fought for the good: with the Irish to gain their freedom from England, with Garibaldi to unify Italy, and with the North in the American Civil War in their struggle against secession and slavery. It was not that he was without ambition, he wished to command at the highest levels, he was trained for the task, and he was an excellent soldier. He was additionally a multifaceted individual. He was also: a newspaper editor, a writer, a spy, and finally an elected official. And all of this spanned much of the nineteenth century, from his birth in 1823 to his death in 1900.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789384464950
Publisher: VIJ Books (India) PVT Ltd
Publication date: 01/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 104
File size: 269 KB

About the Author

William Phalen teaches American History as an adjunct in colleges and universities in the New York metropolitan area. Academically he has a B. S from Fordham University, masters from Hunter College and PhD from Rutgers University is a Teacher of American History.

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In 1861, Abraham Lincoln began calling for volunteers to support the Union cause. Secretary of State William Seward believed that it was the public interest to bring foreigners, "friends of freedom and the unity of the American Republic," into the armed forces. Satisfactory positions had been assigned to all who offered, but the army was rapidly filling up. The United States had no dire need to offer special inducements beyond the compensation prescribed by the laws of Congress. As an example, the Department of the Army could not authorize George P. Marsh, the American ambassador to Italy to advance money to defray the expenses of volunteers from that country, although those who came would be accepted. But when self-appointed "generals" began to clutter departmental desks with applications, the official attitude slowly became less generous. By October 1861, Seward was writing that competition for commissioned officers would soon be so great as to leave latecomers unrewarded. Officers would be carefully screened for experience, good character, and conduct. Those who came soon might reasonably expect employment; those who should delay would probably find the armies filled, and Seward hoped, "the great battle won." Seward's pronouncement reached one of the most hopeful aspirants, Gustave-Paul Cluseret, considering this to be a better opportunity than his service in Italy, Cluseret, a brigadier-general in the forces of Gussepi Garibaldi, marshaled his arguments for the attainment of a superior rank in the Union Army of the United States and began by importuning George P. Marsh, the American ambassador to Italy to this end.

With Ambassador Marsh's support, Cluseret arrived in the United States in 1862 armed with letters of introduction from Garibaldi and such leading bourgeois republicans as Henri Martin, Emile Girardin, and Karl Blind. The support of these republicans was extremely important because in addition to the fact that Cluseret was closely associated with them, they were also highly regarded by the Senate Armed Services Committee, who looked upon them as "our friends" in Europe and anyone recommended by them was likely to receive special consideration at the hands of its' chairman, Elihu B. Washburne. Fortunately for him, Cluseret also gained the attention of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. A relationship formed between Sumner and Cluseret that resulted in the sending of 116 letters from Cluseret to Sumner from 1861 to 1873 that are preserved among Sumner's papers.

Because of these connections, Cluseret was offered a position on the staff of Major General George B. McClellan, as aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel, he accepted and the promotion was made effective on March 10, 1862. This placement was not acceptable to McClellan however as he noted in his biography:

Cluseret-afterwards Minister of War under the Commune- brought me a letter of introduction from Garibaldi, recommending him in the highest terms as a soldier, man of honor, etc. I did not like his appearance and declined his services; but without my knowledge or consent Stanton appointed him a Colonel on my staff. I still declined to have anything to do with him, and he was sent to the Mountain Department [commanded by Major General John C. Fremont], as chief of staff, I think.

In writing his autobiography, McClellan obviously forgot that a month before Cluseret officially joined his staff; he wrote a letter to Seward describing Cluseret in favorable terms.

Hd Qtrs of the Army Wash Feby 11 1861 [1862]


William H Seward Hon WH Seward Secty of State

Dear Sir:

I had an interview with Col. Cluseret, late of the Italian Army, introduced to me by Capt Mohain of the Suite of Prince de Joinville. Col C also brought me a letter of introduction from General Garibaldi. Col C whose "etat de service" is good informs me that he resigned his commission in the Italian army upon the insistence of Mr. Marsh, who had corresponded with the late Secty of War and yourself upon the subject. That he resigned after receiving what he regarded as a promise that he should have the grade of general of Brigade in our service.

He seems to be a gentleman and good soldier. He has been waiting here many weeks so that his slender means have been exhausted. May I ask you to inform me whether your records throw any light on the case and whether the good faith of the Govt is pledged to this officer?

The Sect of War being absent from his office it seemed better to address you direct without delay as Col C has been waiting a long time.

Very truly and respectfully

Geo. B. McClellan Maj Genl Comdg USA

By the summer of 1862 Cluseret began looking for something better than a staff position with McClellan, as a professional soldier, soldiering was in his blood and the Frenchman took extraordinary pride in his martial skills. As he explained to Sumner, "I have a military reputation to preserve, [for] I have studied much and experienced much, [and] I am known in France and Italy as an up-and-coming officer." At first, his prospects in America looked just as good. He had joined McClellan's staff and this combined with his recommendations from Europe and the contacts that he had established with Sumner, Seward, and the Secretary of War should have given him what he wanted, a commission as a brigadier general, a rank he deemed commensurate with his past experiences and his ties to French republicanism.

Fortunately, Cluseret was sent to John C. Fremont's command in the Mountain Department of western Virginia by Senator Sumner who believed that the Pathfinder's Radical Republicanism would be more in line with Cluseret's political tastes than the more conservative McClellan. This posting became an opportunity for Cluseret since although Fremont joined the American military in 1838, most of his experience had been in exploration rather than fighting. President Lincoln had tendered him a commission as a major general in May of 1861 due to his political reputation and influence. Whatever benefits the president hoped to derive from the appointment nearly disappeared altogether that August when Fremont imposed martial law in Missouri and declared free slaves who belonged to any secessionist. Coming at a time when Lincoln was anxious about the allegiance of the Border States, the proclamation portended disaster on both the military and political fronts. After Fremont refused Lincoln's request to modify the proclamation, the president ordered that the section in question be struck. Later Cluseret would also have a problem with a superior over civilians. At this time however, Cluseret, still a Colonel, was made aide-de-camp to Fremont, given the 8th West Virginia Infantry and the 60th Ohio Infantry, and placed in charge of Fremont's advance guard. In this position, two of his character traits emerged that would eventually lead to his advancement on the one hand and his loss of his command on the other. The first was his foreignness that was probably responsible for a lack of communication between Cluseret and his officers leading to a breakdown of discipline and morale in his unit (although it should be noted that both the 8 West Virginia and the 60th Ohio were new regiments that had just been recruited and sent to Fremont). This situation would be repeated when he was under the command of General Robert H. Milroy. The second was his assertiveness; given the opportunity to use his skills and because Fremont's forte was not military organization and who failed to delineate properly the advance guard's role and position within his command, Cluseret proceeded as if the army were on the offensive. Pushing forward with his cavalry on June 1, in disregard of orders to hold back, he ascertained that Stonewall Jackson's army, contrary to the impression at headquarters, was actually in retreat. Unfortunately, his dispatch, written in French arrived too late to be acted upon. The following is an account of the actions of Cluseret's unit that evening as seen by Major and Brevet Colonel Theodore F. Lang of the 6th West Virginia Cavalry.

A reconnaissance by Colonel Cluseret with the 8th West Virginia and 60th Ohio pushed rapidly towards Strasburg [Virginia], when within a short distance of the town he learned that the enemy had vacated the place. So, with the addition of a battalion of cavalry and a section of artillery, he was ordered to take possession of the town. Night brought with it one of those terrible storms that had become so frequent of late, and this one excelled in its downpour of rain, and the lightning and thunder were indescribable. It was simply terrifically grand.

A thrilling incident, in which Colonel Cluseret and his command were the actors, is worthy of mention. The night just referred to was simply black in its darkness, and but for the vivid flash of the lightning for the moment one could not see his outstretched hand. Colonel Cluseret, being without guides and unfamiliar with the country, passed through the town, which was in darkness, and marching on saw lights in the distance, which he supposed was the town, but upon approaching the same, about 11 o'clock, the lights proved to be the enemies campfires, and he found himself in the midst of Ashby's cavalry, which was the rear-guard of Jackson's army. Colonel Cluseret at once gave the order to charge, but at the sharp fire of Ashby's men the cavalry broke in a shameful panic, carrying back with it the artillery. To the honor and praise of the 8th West Virginia and 60th Ohio, not a man of them followed the disgraceful example, but stood their ground like veterans, and delivered such a steady and well-directed fire that the movement of Ashby was checked.

Colonel Cluseret, having accomplished the objectives of his reconnaissance, withdrew his men and returned to the main column ... this battle in the dark was [Cluseret's regiment's] first introduction to powder and bullet at the hands of the enemy; they were, therefore, the more to be praised for their gallantry.

On June 2 Fremont's army was again in motion, and now realizing that Jackson was retreating, closely pursued the Confederates. As before, Cluseret's units were in the van, continuously following and engaging the enemy's rear. In one of Fremont's engagements with Jackson, Union Brigadier General George D. Bayard was ambushed in a wooded area southeast of Harrisonburg, Virginia

At the critical moment in this episode, Colonel Cluseret, with his brigade, came to the relief [of] General Bayard, when the enemy retreated in disorder, leaving our forces in possession of their camp, with their dead and wounded left in our hands.

For days several from this point on, Jackson continued to retreat, harassed by Fremont. On June 8th the Battle of Cross Keys took place, Major Lang–

About 8 a.m. heavy musketry firing was heard in our front, indicating that Colonel Cluseret [now commanding the 39th New York (the Garibaldi Guards) as well as the 8th Virginia and the 60th Ohio] was engaging the enemy. The effect of this firing accelerated the step of the whole command, and we soon learned that the enemy had placed a regiment – the 15th Alabama, Colonel Cantey- as outpost at Union Church, and it was this force that Cluseret was engaging.

The enemy stubbornly fell back through the timber at a distance of a mile or more, Cluseret vigorously advancing. At this point Jackson's main force was found in the line of battle, which was naturally a strong one, and selected at leisure on the preceding day, which gave to Jackson a great advantage over General Fremont; but this is one of the inevitable conditions in war, and General Fremont had no choice but to go in and make the best of it.

The placing of his command in line of battle was regarded by all as especially skillful, and was about in the following order: Colonel Cluseret's brigade, which had pushed the forces opposed to it back upon the enemy's main line, held their position, which was well to the front and near the center.

In the Cross Keys engagement, Cluseret performed very energetically, and possibly insubordinately. Early in the battle after striking the Confederate left-center, he apparently ignored orders to pull back into line with the rest of Fremont's command, instead holding the forward position for many hours despite repeated counter-attacks. Cluseret sensed, as did other high-ranking officers, that a vigorous offensive would very likely dislodge the southerners. Fremont's timidity during and immediately after the battle of Cross Keys was incomprehensible to Cluseret and puzzling to other high-ranking officers. In later years he labeled Fremont an incompetent for his mishandling of the battle of Cross Keys.

Cluseret's poor opinion of Fremont did not extend to the Union soldiers, whose performance during the Cross Keys engagement left an indelible impression on him. Drawing a subsequent comparison between regular troops trained in Europe with his command in the Union army, he declared:

I have served in many armies, I have seem armies put to rough tests under difficult climates, but never have I seen troops submitted to as adverse conditions as those of Fremont's army in the Shenandoah in 1862: They lacked cover, food, were faced with torrential rains ... yet marched and fought equally day and night. The discipline and training of the barracks would never have inculcated in regular troops the feeling of abnegation and the strength of resistance that the Virginia mountaineers displayed in their love of liberty and country.

Because of Cluseret's actions at Cross Keys, Fremont sent the following message to Stanton:

Headquarters Mountain Department Harrisonburgh, Va., June 9

Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War:

In my dispatch of yesterday I omitted to state that Col. Cluseret's brigade, consisting of the Sixtieth Ohio and Eight [West] Virginia, afterward supported by the Garibaldi Guard, formed our advance and commenced the battle of Cross Keys, by sharp skirmishing, at nine o'clock in the morning. During the day they obtained possession of the enemies ground, which was disputed foot by foot, and only withdrew at evening when ordered to retire to a suitable position for the night.

The skill and gallantry displayed by Cluseret on this and frequent former occasions during the pursuit in which we have been engaged deserve high praise.


J.C. Fremont, Major-General

Due to support such as the above coupled with his own self promoting efforts, as in a letter that he sent to President Lincoln informing him that "as the grandson of one by the side of Lafayette nearly a century ago fought for the stars and stripes," he felt rightly entitled to a brigadier generalship. The promotion was given to him by Fremont, and supported by Lincoln, through a personal appeal by Sumner in which he described Cluseret as a "gallant Frenchman." The promotion came on October 14, 1862, however it was not permanent because it lacked senatorial conformation, a prerequisite for this rank.

In June of 1862, the Union army underwent a major command change. A new army group entitled The Army of Virginia was created under the command of Major General John Pope, which would include Fremont's forces. General Fremont stood the Second Major General on the list of the Regular Army – ranked only by McClellan. This change could take place because of a law passed during the previous April providing that the President might, at his discretion, assign in the field, the command of forces, "without regard to seniority of rank" as between any two officers present, of the "same grade." Allowing Pope, the junior, to supersede Fremont, the senior. Fremont believing that he was superior to Pope retired.

Cluseret was put under the command of Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy, with whom he had fought at the Battle of Cross Keys. While Pope was as incompetent as Fremont, Milroy was an experienced military leader who had a penchant for fighting and loved combat as much as Cluseret. Both were ambitious, and they both wrote a copious amount of letters to those who could be of service to them. Most of Cluseret's letters went to Senator Charles Sumner, Milroy's to Republican Congressman Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, Speaker of the House of Representatives, trying to convince him to speak with General McClellan to see if "Little Mac" might be able to find Milroy a better command, one in which he could see more action.

At first Milroy was a supporter of Cluseret, writing to Brigadier General Jacob Dolson Cox after the Battle of Cross Keys, Milroy said of Cluseret

General Cluseret is forty years of age; was general of a French military school in which he afterwards taught for several years; served fourteen years in the French army, ten in Algiers and through the Crimean War; received the star of the Legion of Honor for distinguished service in the French revolution of 1848, and a badge of honor for distinguished service at Sebastopol; served through the campaigns of Fremont and Siegel as Colonel, and was made a Brigadier General for his gallantry at Cross Keys. Being an ardent admirer of our government and having come to fight for its existence, and being a gentleman of fine intellect and splendid military knowledge, I think his opinion worthy of consideration

This high opinion of Cluseret on the part of Milroy continued through the fall and winter of 1862, and then changed. According to Cox:

Milroy was for a time loud in his praises of Cluseret as the beau ideal of an officer, and their friendship was fraternal. In the winter, however, their mutual admiration was nipped by a killing frost, and a controversy sprung up between them which soon led to mutual recrimination also in the superlative degree. They addressed their complaints to General Halleck, and as the papers passed through my headquarters, I was a witness of their berating of each other, but I cannot recall anything very serious in their accusations.


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Copyright © 2015 William J. Phalen.
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Table of Contents

Introduction, The United States, The Fenians, The Paris Commune 1871-1900, Epilogue, Bibliography

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