Friday, January 21, 2011

First hand accounts of the 19th century

Slow as I am to catch on to some technologies, one thing has delighted me about email that I discovered a few years ago, about a year after I started blogging. You can write to professors, who are often authors, or even reporters, and they write back to you, often gregariously and personally. My experience in life has taught me that sometimes it takes people a while to get to know me (a morbid sense of humor, lack of common social skills and asking questions a little to direct at the wrong time – your basic Asperger Syndrome symptoms – might be the cause), but somehow in emailing, none of that is a problem.

A week or so ago I was communicating (email, of course) with an author of one of my favorite American history books, Joanne Freeman of Yale University, who wrote Affairs of Honor. I was asking her about something I had read in an article she had just published in The New York Times and she recommended to me a diary of a congressional clerk whose diary had been published under the name Witness to the Young Republic (1989). I Amazoned it and saw it was a truncated version of the diary of Benjamin Brown French, who I vaguely remembered reading about in Lincoln books. I only recollected that he was one of the few people I could think of who was quoted as actually having liked Mary Todd Lincoln and I knew he was at Lincoln's deathbed, but I couldn’t remember who he was otherwise. I plied through a few of my books and found a few quotes. It’s not that he had a very dramatic public life and I don’t think you would say anything he accomplished was “great.” His high point was as Commissioner of Public Buildings, first under his friend, Franklin Pierce and then others, including Lincoln. But he personally knew John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zack Taylor, Millard Fillmore, James Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant. He had the right to name drop and dramatic things happened around him all the time.

Anyway, Witness was whittled down from about 4000 pages to a little over 600 and I’m grateful. Exciting things can’t have happened everyday and there is more than enough here to enjoy of the first hand accounts that have so much more authority than the second or third hand biography. And, it has provided for me this week’s post, combing through my bookshelf for interesting little first hand observations from history.

I’ll start with Mr. French’s observations about a fight in congress he observed, violence in congress being the topic of Professor Freeman’s article I had read:

During Thursday another of those scenes, so disgraceful to the House of Representavies, occurred in that body. Mr. Wise had made some remarks to which Mr. Stanly alluded in a manner that W. thought malevolent & unkind. He went to Mr. Stanly’s seat to remonstrate with him when angry words passed between them, and Wise, as he says in his statement to the Committee, since called Stanly “ a mean, contemptible puppy and miserable wretch,” to which Stanly replied[.] “You are a liar,” when Wise struck him, and fight instantly ensued. Nearly all the members rushed to the spot where they were engaged. The House was in Committee[.] Mr. Samson Mason endeavoured for two or three minutes, in vain, to restore order. I was at the Clerk’s table where I could see & hear all that transpired. The Speaker crying at the entent of his voice[.] “Order – order – order,” exclamations from the crowd of “Damn him[,] down with him” –“Where are your Bowie knives”—“Knock him down,” etc. Mr. Clarke, the Clerk of the House, seized the mace & went into the midst of the melee & exclaimed[,] “Gentlemen, respect the symbol of authority, respect yourselves.” Mr. Arnold & Mr. W. O. Butler of Ky. Were seen in violent personal contest, & Mr. Houston of Ala. Held an uplifted cane over Mr. Arnold’s head, which some member arrested in its descent, & thus, probably saved Mr. A. a bloody coxcomb. In two or three minutes order was restored, mainly, I believe, by the exertions of Dixon H. Lewis, whose seat was at the head of the aisle where the tumult occurred, & who, as soon as he could[,] moved his tremendous form into the middle of the fight & instantly separated the first belligerents, & there he stood like an elephant among a parcel of dogs, keeping them all at bay, & separating any who seemed inclined to fight, until the House came to order.”

I can’t help smiling thinking of Dennis Kucinic clinging to the leg of Marsha Blackburn as she pulls Barney Franks hair, Boehner and Pelosi having a slap fight and Debbie Wasserman Schultz karate chopping Dan Issa, but, unfortunately for C-Span, we have become a very civilized nation.

In the midst of this, an officer from my center informed me that some important movement of the enemy was going on in his front, beyond that of the line with which we were engaged. Mounting a large rock, I was able to see a considerable body of the enemy moving by the flank in rear of their line engaged, and passing from the direction of the foot of Great Round Top through the valley toward the front of my left. The close engagement not allowing any change of front, I immediately stretched my regiment to the left, by taking intervals by the left flank, and at the same time “refusing” my left wing, so that it was nearly at right angles with my right, thus occupying about twice the extent of our ordinary front, some of the companies being brought into single rank when the nature of the ground gave sufficient strength or shelter. My officers and men understood my wishes so well that this movement was executed under fire, the right wing keeping up fire, without giving the enemy any occasion to seize or even to suspect their advantage. But we were not a moment too soon; the enemy’s flanking column having gained their desired direction, burst upon my left, where they evidently had expected an unguarded flank, with great demonstration."

Thus speaks Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Infantry of a little piece of action named Little Round Top, one of the most dramatic actions at Gettysburg, where he had his troops perform the “right-wheel forward” maneuver to head off General Le Bell Hood’s Alabamians charging up the hill to their front and flank. Let's keep going:

It was imperative to strike before we were struck by this overwhelming force in a hand-to-hand fight, which we could not probably have withstood or survived. At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward upon the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy’s first line threw down their arms and surrendered. An officer fired his pistol at my head with one hand, while he handed me his sword with the other. Holding fast by our right, and swinging forward our left, we made an extended “right wheel,” before which the enemy’s second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade.

Meanwhile, Captain Morrill with his skirmishers (sent out from my left flank), with some dozen or fifteen of the U.S. Sharpshooters who had put themselves under his direction, fell upon the enemy as they were breaking, and by his demonstrations, as well as his well-directed fire, added much to the effect of the charge.”

This from Chamberlain’s own papers, collected in Through Blood & Fire by Mark Nesbitt. Chamberlain, later a Major General and four time governor of Maine (beating the same poor guy three times in a row), and there for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, got the Medal of Honor for Little Round Top, and we want our heroes to deserve their laurels. But, naturally, nothing can be simple, and Captain Holman S. Melcher later claimed that he was responsible for the famous bayonet charge, and there is some reason to believe it. Chamberlain acknowledges that his brave captain asked permission to charge and that he told Melcher that had already decided to give the order. Melcher ran to his troops and the “Bayonet” was very quickly heard down the line. Even Chamberlain stated in a speech that his order to charge with bayonets was never given or given imperfectly.

At Appomattox, he had his troops stand at attention and "carry arms" in tribute to the marching Confederate soldiers. It was not appreciated by Union soldiers, but, did not hurt his career or his popularity. I’ve been to Gettysburg three times now, to Little Round Top thrice, and along with the long rising plain where Pickett’s Charge failed, is my favorite spot - beautiful and interesting in its own right. I tried to imagine the scene where Chamberlain had his men honor their enemy, but wasn't sure where it took place. Probably should have asked.

Here’s a little Lincoln legend which came from the work of his law partner, Billy Herndon, a fascinating, if not so great western figure in his own right:

He [Lincoln], in the years . . . 1833 & 4 was in love with a young lady in New Salem by the name of Mis[s] Ann Rutledge. She accepted the overtures of Lincoln and they were engaged to be . . . married. This young lady was a woman of exquisite beauty, but her intellect was quick – sharp – deep & philosophic as well as brilliant . . . a short time before the marriage was to be she took sick with the brain fever and died in 4 or 5 days. Lincoln went & saw her during her sickness – just before her death. Mr Lincolns friends after this sudden death of one whom his soul & heart dearly & [?] loved were compelled to keep watch and ward over Mr Lincoln, he being from the sudden shock somewhat temporarily deranged. We watched during storms – fogs – damp gloomy weather Mr Lincoln for fear of an accident. He said “I can never be reconcile[d] to have the snow – rains & storms to beat on her grave.”

David Donald, the late renowned Lincoln scholar, shows how Herndon, set on making his career on his late partner’s biography ferreted the story out from old timers and Ann’s own family. Herndon sometimes thought his older partner’s glumness was due to constipation, but turned to the Rutledge story for an explanation. It was quite controversial as Mrs. Lincoln, no friend of Herndon’s, was still alive. Professor Donald is very skeptical of the whole story, which he describes as a “floating rumor” that grew into a “fixed romance.”

Bad as all slaveholders are, we seldom meet one destitute of every element of character commanding respect. My master was one of this rare sort. I do not know of one single noble act ever performed by him. The leading trait in his character was meanness; and if there were any other element in his nature, it was made subject to this. He was mean; and, like most other mean men, he lacked the ability to conceal his meanness. Captain Auld was not born a slaveholder. He had been a poor man, master only of a Bay craft. He came into possession of all his slaves by marriage; and of all men, adopted slaveholders are the worst. He was cruel, but cowardly. He commanded without firmness. In the enforcement of his rules, he was at times rigid, and at times lax. At times, he spoke to his slaves with the firmness of Napoleon and the fury of a demon; at other times, he might well be mistaken for an inquirer who had lost his way.”

. . .

I was glad to learn, in your story, how early the most neglected of God’s children waken to a sense of their rights, and of the injustice done them. Experience is a keen teacher and long before you had mastered you’re ABC, or knew where the “white sails” of the Chesapeake were bound, you began, I see, to gauge the wretchedness of the slave, not by his hunger and want, not by his lashes and toil, but by the cruel and blighting death which gathers over his soul.”

. . .

My term of actual service to Mr. Edward Covey ended on Christmas day, 1833. The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased. Those of us who had families at a distance, were generally allowed to spend the whole six days in their society. This time, however, was spent in various ways. The staid, sober, thinking and industrious ones of our number would employ themselves in making corn-brooms, mats, horse-collars, and baskets; and another class of us would spend the time in hunting opossums, hares, and coons. But by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whisky; and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feeling of our masters. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered by our masters as scarcely deserving them. He was regarded as one who rejected the favor of his master. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas; and he was regarded as lazy indeed, who had not provided himself with the necessary means, during the year, to get whisky enough to last him through Christmas.”

These are all from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which details his life in slavery through his escape. Almost every paragraph of the book is interesting, but much of it painful to read. His real last name was not Douglass, but Bailey. When he was safe in the north, he let a host, Mr. Johnson, chose his name (Johnson was much too common). Mr. Johnson was reading The Lady of the Lake, a poem by Sir Walter Scott, and he chose the name of a father and daughter in it, James and Ellen Douglas, Douglas being a well known Scottish clan. I have no idea why Frederick's last name had two s’s at the end. I guess someone didn’t spell so well. Douglass escaped long before the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. It is ironic that he became free not by escaping or when all others did, but when he was purchased from his owner by European friends.

November 13, 1861

I wish here to record what I consider a portent of evil to come. The President, Governor Seward, and I, went over to McClellan’s house tonight. The servant at the door said the General was at the wedding of Col. Wheaton at General Buell’s and would soon return. We went in, and after we had waited about an hour, McC. Came in and without paying any particular attention to the porter, who told him the President was waiting to see him, went up stairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated. They waited about half-an-hour, and sent once more a servant to tell the General they were there, and the answer coolly came that the General had gone to be.

I merely record this unparalleled insolence of epaulettes without comment. It is the first indication I have yet seen of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities.

Coming home I spoke to the President about the matter but he seemed not to have noticed it, specially, saying it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette & personal dignity.”

The legendary snub of President Lincoln by General McClellan, who must rank as one of the most arrogant and incompetent generals in our history. We must, excepting those who still wish the Confederacy a different result, be glad for the day the President had it and busted him (although he briefly let him back) and that he was able to defeat him in the 1864 election.

John Hay was a fascinating fellow and I read a volume of his diaries and letters edited by Tyler Dennett under the title Lincoln and The Civil War long ago. The fact that his father had an office next door to Lincoln’s in Springfield, Illinois and that he himself was a school buddy of Lincoln’s private secretary, John Nicolay, made his career. Serving as a secretary of Lincoln’s might have been the highlight of any man’s career, but he was in government except for a few years ever after and was McKinley’s and TR’s Secretary of State.

October 19, 1863

The President told me this morning that Rosecrans was to be removed from command of the Army at Chattanooga. Thomas is to take his original army and Grant to command the whole force, including Hooker’s and Burnside’s reinforcements. He says Rosencrans has seemed to lose spirit and nerve since the battle of Chickamauga. I told him that I believed Thomas would fail in attack, like Meade and others. The vis inertiae which prevents those fellows from running when attacked will prevent them from moving in the initiative.”

What a propitious moment – Grant to command the whole Military Division of the Mississippi! Some thought General George Thomas was slow to move, others that he was a, if not the, main reason for Grant’s success, though they were not on great terms. But, Hay was certainly wrong about Thomas that day as Chattanooga was probably his greatest moment. Thomas’ lack of interest in self-promotion or military promotion, for that matter, makes him even more sanguine than his boss and may be why most people have never heard of him (although this blog’s incendiary commenter, Bear, is a big fan).

April 28, 1864

The Pres tells a queer story of Meigs. When McClellan lay at Harrison’s landing, Meigs came one night to the President & waked him up at Soldiers’ Home to urge upon him the immediate flight of the Army from that point – the men to get away on transports & the horses to be killed as they
c[ould] not be saved. ‘Thus often,’ says the President, ‘I who am not a specially brave man have had to sustain the sinking courage of these professional fighters in critical times.’”

And well presidents might always have to, I think, as it is the general, not they, who is sacked and ridiculed when things don’t go well and bears the images of his dead troops ever after.

Here’s one about family love and respecting your elders:

The picture you have drawn of that slovenly German Gelehrte whose highest delight is to lecture boys about a rhetoric of which he never could practice either the style or the action or the voice or the art, and then gloating over his own foolish production in private, instead of rolling on the ground with mortification as his grandchildren would do – this picture grinds the colery into my esophagus, but it is not so hideous as the picture of his voting for the Embargo under the preposterous and the dishonest pretene that it was a measure of resistance, although he knew Jefferson was a temporizer by nature. Even that is not so bad as his voting for the Embargo under the preposterous and dishonest pretence that it was a measure of resistance, although he knew Jefferson better than anyone else did, and (like Hamilton) knew that Jefferson was a temporizer by nature. Even that is not so bad as his going to caucus to nominate a candidate for the opposition party, an act which scandalized even his admiring mother to hot and just remonstrance. And even this is not so bad as his jumping at the Russian mission and deserting his self-evident duty in Massachusetts at the time of the utmost difficulty and under the hottest kind of fire, avowedly because he wanted to escape attack – my teeth chatter at this exhibition. Yet worse follows! To see him dawdle on in Russia under one pretense or another when his mother and father pray him to come home, and he had ceased to be useful where he is, but during all these years, while the young Americans like Clay are forcing the country to assert some shadow of self respect, I do not see J. Q. A. open his mouth, and his one allusion to the war is to call it a rash act. Finally, I see him find his chief delight in quarreling with foes and friends alike, but still clinging to Europe, until Monroe makes him his tool to break down treacherously the Virginia dynasty which gave Monroe all the credit the idiot ever had.”

That’s from ground breaking historian Henry Adams’ critique of his brother Brooks’ biography of their grandfather, former President John Q. Adams. Henry spent 80 pages tearing it apart. You can tell there is some warmth lacking in this relationship. Gelehrte in the first sentence means academic, pundit, savant or scholar. JQA taught rhetoric at Harvard and Henry doesn't seem to have much appreciation for him there either. I think the grinding "colery" in his esophagus is celery, but that neither makes much sense or is certain.

Last, this is from the diary of Zenas Leonard, who spend over 5 years as a mountain man including in the service of Joseph Walker, in my opinion the greatest of mountain men for reasons stated in my post of February 28, 2008, King of the West. This memoir, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard, is filled with his participation in Indian fights, a bison hunt, getting chased by a grizzly, a bear and bull fight, river crossings and all the other things you usually only read about in adventure novels. He lived it.

Capt. Walker then gave orders to some of the men to take the bows of the fallen Indians and put the wounded out of misery. The severity with which we dealt with these Indians may be revolting to the heart of the philanthropist; but the circumstances of the case altogether atones for the cruelty. It must be borne in mind, that we were far removed from the hope of any succour in case we were surrounded, and that the country we were in was swarming with hostile savages, sufficiently numerous to devour us. Our object was to strike a decisive blow. This we did – even to a greater extent than we had intended.”

Leonard returned home five and a half years later to shocked parents who had believed their son long dead on his adventure. After a visit he returned west, but only as far as Missouri where he became a trader servicing those still trapping and adventuring. The era of the mountain men was nearly over, but the trails they blazed were the paths of later pioneers who crossed the west with their wagons and boots on the way to Oregon and California. When the so called “Great Pathfinder,” John Fremont, made his first trip out west, Leonard had been back from his trip with Cap’n Walker for seven years.


  1. Conchis11:57 AM

    David -- Thanks so much for this one. I would have enjoyed it no less even if you had omitted all references to Joshua Chamberlain -- very high on my list of heroes (maybe even my hero of heroes). Chamberlain's academic career -- interupted by his military and political ones -- was no less astounding. He taught himself ancient Greek -- surely you appreciate the difficulty of this -- to gain admission to Bowdoin College. He was fluent in about ten languages. He was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin and eventually taught every non-science subject in the college's curriculum. After serving as Maine's governor, he returned to Bowdoin as its president. Not too shabby.

  2. George Thomas is the most underrated military leader of the Civil War,maybe all of American military history.
    Chamberlain, huge, though all the little round top stuff gets annoying because the fight on the opposite flank (Culp's Hill, me thinks) was even more ferocious and more critical to the outcome at Gettysburg. Great job, Frodo, love the arcane stuff on French and Leonard. You really should teach this stuff somewhere.

  3. Thanks for the compliment. Let me know when credentials are no longer required for teaching and I'm there.

    I noted above that you are a big Thomas fan. I appreciate him, but I never had the same appreciation as you. However, I have never read a biography solely about him.

    Isn't anyone going to argue with me about my Asperberger's like personality? I mean, c'mon, you could at least lie.

  4. Odd that my previous response to Conchis was not published. I can't even run my own blog right.

    I know Chamberlain spoke several languages, but according to Cap'n Melcher, one of them was Pig Latin and in another he was fluent in only every other word.

    Chamberlain died in 1914, the last soldier to actually die from his war wounds, and, this is a bit of trivia, if true, one of the doctors tending to him had tended to those same wounds on the battle field 50 years earlier.

  5. What's wrong with Asberger's?? It's better than other possibilities like dolt, cretin, lunatic or moron, isn't it?

  6. Yeah, not really the protest I was hoping for. Thanks for trying.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .