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Chapter 11: the disbandment.

The last days of our encampment before Washington gave us plenty of work, especially for the officers, making up returns of government property: arms, clothing, tents, supplies of all kinds, for which they were responsible and must give satisfactory account before they could be honorably discharged. For the most part the men were to take their equipments with them, as a matter of courtesy, I suppose, as these belonged to the United States. It was fair that these veterans should be allowed to take to their homes the arms they had honored, and permission was given them to purchase at a nominal value, it would not have been too much if the Government had granted these with such proud associations, to cheer the soldier in his resumed citizenship, rather than consign them to rust and oblivion in government stores. What I think very reprehensible was the practice permitted of selling overcoats at a cheap rate among workmen willing to buy them. This was a degradation of the uniform and of the men, and [376] should never have been permitted. A soldier's overcoat should stand for honor and not for poverty.

The men were kept at such work, whether of drill or other military duty, as the situation allowed. But it will be understood that it was no easy matter to keep things smooth, when so many men were congregated, and the imperative motive for discipline and good order was overpassed. The visitors became embarrassing. It was well and it was pleasant to afford to soldiers and their friends an opportunity to compare the methods of army life and home life. But these “friends” became a very extensive immigration, and some of them disturbed our soldiers with temptations of things that could not be tolerated either in camp or home. It was necessary to send some of these out of camp limits under escort and sometimes to greater distance; and finally to establish rigorous regulations about visitors.

On the other hand, visits of our officers and men to the city soon became a feature of importance. Fair attractions across the river, dinners, parties, receptions, and other social entertainments, broke in upon the monastic habits of even the higher officers. A pleasant evening found most of them on the civil side of the river. Applications for leave of absence swelled to an inundation, and had to be met with restrictions. At last the War Department took notice of it; and one night at about two o'clock an order came from Stanton requiring every commanding officer to sign a receipt, on [377] the order presented; and the result showed that only two generals of our camp were in their quarters.

Now that the approaching close of our long and eventful career brought upon us a mood of reflection, we gave more free thought to many things we had “pondered in our hearts.” Our minds were still affected by disturbing impressions as to the peculiar management of tactics in our campaign of the Appomattox. We could not understand why the Army of the Potomac was so broken up and buffeted about. No merely military reasons for this could be conceived by us who certainly were interested parties, and competent witnesses, if not admissible as judges. This latter function was not part of our duty, but to some degree our privilege, and perhaps our right. We would not criticize our orders when received, but were not readily reconciled to measures which contradicted common sense and, as we thought, military economics. Why was the Army of the James marched a long, hard jaunt from its position on the right of the Petersburg lines and put in between the Sixth and Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac? Why not hold that army where it was next to the James River, and let our Sixth and Ninth Corps close in upon its left, and thus bring the Army of the Potomac together, instead of wedging it apart, and breaking up its continuity and identity? And why, in the early operations of the campaign, were matters so managed that the Fifth Corps, which had by hard fighting made an important [378] break on the right of the enemy's defenses, should in the midst of this success be suddenly withdrawn, abandoning all its advantages to go to the support of Sheridan's cavalry, which was not at any strategic front,--instead of having this cavalry support and follow up our infantry advance as the exigencies of the situation, specific field orders, and the main objective of the campaign justified and required? And why, in the pursuit of the broken enemy, were the Fifth and Sixth Corps time and again transposed from extreme right to extreme left, and the converse, now under Meade, now under Sheridan, they hardly knew at any moment which? And why was the Fifth Corps halted six miles short of Appomattox Station, to let the Army of the James pass it to join Sheridan at the front? There was another matter which perplexed our thought, although it brought honor rather than injury to the Fifth Corps. Why did Grant leave the front of Meade and the Army of the Potomac where the principal negotiations with Lee had already begun, make the journey to Sheridan's front where Ord of the Army of the James was in chief command, and arrange for the formal surrender to be carried out at this point? And why were the two remaining corps of the Army of the Potomac dispersed and detailed elsewhere, leaving its commander to exercise the functions of a mere adjunct office? Was this because the sterling Humphreys and Wright could not be made prominent without bringing in Meade, already doomed to the shades? We were left to [379] our own opinions on these unanswered questions,and we took them home with us.

One question frequently brought to our minds by outside inquirers was whether from our observation and experience we regarded Grant as a great general,--particularly in comparison with Lee. While our opinion could in no degree affect the reputation of either of these generals, it might disclose our own competency as judges. Hence, as these memoirs are supposed to reflect the intellectual as well as the military character of our soldiers, it may be proper to express what I understood to be their sentiment on this question.

But first let us understand the meaning of our principal term. There are two conceptions of great generalship: one regarding practical material effects; the other essential personal qualities. In the former view we regard Attila, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane as great generals. In the latter conception,--that of intrinsic qualities,--there are two views to be taken. This rank may be accorded to one who has the ability to accomplish great things with moderate means, and against great disadvantages; of this William of Orange is an example. Or, on the other hand, it may be applied to one who can command the situation, gather armies, control resources, and conquer by main force. Examples of this are familiar in history: Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon.

A current and I think correct definition of great generalship regards not so much the power to command resources, or the conditions of a grand [380] theater of action, as the ability to handle successfully the forces available, be they small or great. And this, it will be seen, involves many qualities not readily thought of as military. Among these is economy in the expenditure of force. Another is foresight, the ability to count the cost beforehand and to discriminate between probabilities and possibilities,--prudence might be the word for this, did it not border on hesitation, which has wrecked some reputations, if it has made others. There is also astuteness, the ability to judge characters and the probable action of an adversary in given conditions. And we may add humanity, regard for the well-being of the men employed in military operations, which might come also under the head of economics.

Having thus considered the qualities involved in the term generalship, we will take up our opinion of the title to it on the part of the two opposing generals.

Grant was a strategist; he was not an economist. He saw what was to be done, and he set himself to do it, without being much controlled by consideration of cost or probabilities. His mechanical calculations often failed to hold good,--flank movements were often belated, and so anticipated and neutralized by the enemy's vigilance and celerity; direct front attacks often proved direful miscalculation and murderous waste. Great cost of human life involved in a proposed plan was not taken into the reckoning beforehand; though regretted afterwards, it was not given weight in laying plans following. [381] Though he studied lines of operations, foresight was not a characteristic of his; the resolve to do overbore all negations, and obliterated the limits of the possible. He so bent his energies on the main object ahead that he did not consider the effect of subordinate movements. He never seized the moment to turn disaster into victory. He seemed to rely on sheer force, rather than skillful manoeuvre. Grant kept his own counsel, almost to the extent of stolidity. He was rather critical in his estimates of subordinates; but did not study sufficiently the abilities and temperaments of his antagonists; so he was sometimes out-generaled — we do not like to say outwitted-by them. We would rather say he was checkmated by his own moves. He was tender-hearted, but did not admit that sentiment into his military calculations. We could see why he wanted Sheridan and not Meade for his executive officer.

But for all this, and perhaps because of it, Grant was necessary to bring that war to a close, whether by triumph of force or exhaustion of resources. His positive qualities, his power to wield force to the bitter end, must entitle him to rank high as a commanding general. His concentration of energies, inflexible purpose, unselfishness, patience, imperturbable long-suffering, his masterly reticence, ignoring either advice or criticism, his magnanimity in all relations, but more than all his infinite trust in the final triumph of his cause, set him apart and alone above all others. With these attributes we could not call him less than great. [382]

Then looking at the question on another side, the great scale of action and its incalculable results, we shall find this judgment abundantly corroborated. He had a great problem before him, involving issues which the wrestlings of nations and of ages had left unsolved,--the confirmation of a new world in its service to mankind and the purposes of God. Grant was a chosen minister of the Divine will, and in a manner was the responsible agent for the execution of this vast design. He doubtless felt this.

And what was revealed from on high he realized in fact. What other men could not do, he did. And to one who did this, to one who led these mighty hosts to mighty ends, we must accord the rank of great, whether as general or as man. This is the verdict of those who were witnesses,servants and sufferers,--and it is our proud remembrance.

Our estimate of General Lee was that he exemplified remarkable ability as a commander. In military sagacity and astuteness we recognized his superiority. In singleness of purpose, and patient persistence, like our own great commander, he was remarkable. In his constant care for his men, and especially in conduct after disaster, he won our respect and in some ways our sympathy. We regarded him as a master in military economy, making best use with least waste of material. And in defensive operations we looked upon him as a skilful tactician, taking best advantage of a situation. [383]

In offensive operations, however, involving strategic considerations, he seemed to us not to reach the ideal of generalship. His two positive operations in Maryland and Pennsylvania, culminating in the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns, must be accounted at best as failures, detracting, we must say, from the highest conception of military ability.

At Antietam, where he made us the attacking party, he showed his tactical skill in subjecting us to terrible losses; at Gettysburg, where he chose to take the offensive, he showed much less of that skill; and the result in each instance reflects on his strategic ability, in not taking into account the probabilities in such an enterprise. However, in the main, considering the great responsibilities with which he was charged and the great difficulties which he had to meet and did meet so successfully and for so long a time, we cannot consider him as ranking less than great among generals, and of the best of them.

As to personal qualities, Lee's utter unselfishness, in fact his whole moral constitution, appeared to us singularly fine. In his high characteristics as a man he compelled admiration among those who knew him,--even as we did,--and he will command it for all the future.

We do not consider these statements of characteristics as complete or conclusive. Whatever may be the general or permanent estimate as to the place of these great commanders, we simply record this testimony from our own point of view. [384]

A consideration which had great influence on the habits of thought which go to confirm character, was the cause in which each side was engaged. On both sides we had been fighting for what we respectively held to be the nature of our political life as a people. On the Confederate side they were fighting for existing institutions, having historic warrant, and, as they claimed, constitutional warrant also. As the war had to be carried on in the territory whence the challenge came, there was opportunity to make the gist of their cause very clear and expressible in quite concrete terms. They could say, for instance, that they were fighting for their homes.

On our side the same general principles were affirmed; but their application was not limited to the existing status or institutions; rather to guiding and germinant ideals: the expressed intent and purpose of our fathers in establishing the government of one great people, and the inborn right of every human being to make the best of himself, and the duty of all to help him to this. That is indeed a high ideal.

It was night around us; but overhead were the stars. Things were in a chaos of transition; but the forward look was clear. If in these later days they have not yet been fully realized, these principles have been clearly reaffirmed, and our consecration has been made more binding by the priceless cost of the vindication.

This vast concourse of citizen soldiers was now about to be broken up, its individual constituents [385] scattered widely over the land, to resume their part in the wholesome and helpful activities of social life. Going forth from their homes at the call of a supreme duty, should they return home better or worse men than they went? It had been a careful and congenial effort of those charged with the care of the men in the field, not only to provide for their personal material comfort and well-being as far as possible under the circumstances, but also to encourage the keeping up and even the growth of the nobler qualities of character. The narrow and rude life of the field in warfare, so far from the saving and salutary influences of home, does not tend to promote the highest personal elements of character. Not that this life necessarily leads to vice; but no doubt it gives place to negligence of the better social instincts, and thus tends to narrow and harden the better sensibilities. Hence the great care that should be taken that our young men who sacrifice so much for the country's well-being shall suffer no detriment to their manly worth. Such care was manifest in the army life within our knowledge,--both in our army and Lee's, and presumably in others.

Then as to the reactionary effect of warfare on the participants,--in the first place we cannot accept General Sherman's synonym as a complete connotation or definition of war. Fighting and destruction are terrible; but are sometimes agencies of heavenly rather than hellish powers. In the privations and sufferings endured as well as in the strenuous action of battle, some of the highest [386] qualities of manhood are called forth,--courage, self-command, sacrifice of self for the sake of something held higher,--wherein we take it chivalry finds its value; and on another side fortitude, patience, warmth of comradeship, and in the darkest hours tenderness of caring for the wounded and stricken-exhaustless and unceasing as that of gentlest womanhood which allies us to the highest personality. Such things belong to something far different from the place or sphere assigned in the remark of the eminent exemplar of the aphorism. He was doubtless speaking of war in its immediate and proximate effects as destruction. He did not mean to imply that its participants are demons. As to that, we may say war is for the participants a test of character; it makes bad men worse and good men better.

After a while we were not looked upon with such wondering interest as at first. Nay,--we began to be feared as likely to be in the way of those who had a preemption right to civil favors. Now our camps were thinning; our army was melting away. We too, in this fading camp, had opportunity to observe many things. Most manifest and largely shown it was that not a few about the capital were sorry the war was over; for this took the “soft snaps” away from them, and the soft spots out from under them. These persons soon pretended to be sole judges and champions of loyalty. There was a certain Demetrius once who made silver shrines for Diana, and did not like Paul because his teaching disturbed this sinecure. He [387] skillfully therefore turned the issue upon religious loyalty. “Not only is this, our craft, in danger to be set at nought,” he cries, “but also the temple of the great goddess Diana would be despised, and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshipeth.” And they all cried, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” There were some loud-mouthed “patriots” about the capital whose zeal was rooted in the opportunity given by the country's distress for their own personal greed, and whose part in the service had been to get government contracts, and furnish cheap meats and musty and wormy hardtack and shoddy clothing to our worn, suffering soldiers, and even defective arms elsewhere rejected, to fail them in the desperate moment of the country's defense. There were concerns there and in some of the loyal States who made it their business to furnish even “bogus” men,--men never born, and christened only by them in lists of fictitious names, sold to recruiting agents for towns trying to fill their quota of men for the depleted army in the darkest moment of the country's need,--and appropriate to themselves the high bounties paid by towns to “avoid the draft.” Under the loud professions of such as these, it was easy to see the real regret and disgust they felt when the country had won its deliverance and the war was over, and their opportunity gone, --until they could get a chance at new commissions and agencies in the whirlpool of reconstruction then setting in.

Disturbed at the thought that some deserving [388] soldiers might be found by the Government for places of trust and honor, these patriots began to detract and undermine, by suggestions of “disloyalty,” --an ambiguous phrase, meaning to them not blind following of some party chief and boss.

The story that could be written of these things — will not be written. Even the proofs have disappeared in the free opportunities for this so easily obtained. It was well known to some of us that the records at the War Department had been rummaged and that documents important for truth and dangerous for pretenders had been withdrawn and doubtless destroyed. It came to our knowledge that even Treasury vouchers had been tampered with and the rascality undetected.

The Government was kind: it meant to be just. But in its great burden of responsibilities it could not consider minor matters. The country had been saved; other interests must adjust themselves as best they could.

I feel that I must not omit to mention here a species of injustice which affected us within strictly military aspects. I refer to the inconsiderate or reckless bestowal of brevets. This was very unjust to merit as well as injurious as policy. We had seen considerable lack of equity in this matter before the close of the war in the unevenness of scale on which different commanders secured brevets for their subordinates. One result of this was the relative injustice among those holding similar commands in different corps. Warmhearted generals like Sheridan would be generous [389] in their recommendation. Others of a severer temperament would move more slowly. Clearseeing Humphreys, just and zealous for truth, protested against this inequality and tried to resist it, by recommending only for distinguished merit. But the key-note had been set; and to grant brevets for merit only would work practical injustice considering that others had been so promoted on other grounds. I have to confess that in some vexation of spirit I resolved to keep up with the best in recommending this honor for the officers of my division at the close of the war. But in the meantime the Government at Washington was adopting this sweeping policy. Everybody was breveted one grade who asked for it,one general order embracing very many ranking at one and the same date, which being arbitrarily fixed at a time previous to the heavy fighting of the last campaign, antedated the commissions of several who had won that honor as a special distinction in battle. The meaning of the brevet is honorable distinction; this leveled all distinction. It destroyed the value of the brevet as recognition of past service or incentive for the future. There were those who had won their brevets while the life blood ran from their veins, at the deadly front, only to find themselves now equaled, parodied, outranked even, by their own subordinates and men who had scarcely seen the field at all.

I may remark that being included in that general list referred to, although I had not asked for it or in any manner suggested it, I declined this [390] brevet, but in the first battle of the last campaign receiving the brevet of Major-General for special service reported by my corps commander, I did not officially accept the latter until we reached Washington, and the army was about to be mustered out. So this brevet was not officially recognized by the Government in the final orders for the disbandment of the army and my assignment to another corps. In truth I did not feel it now as a token of honor or an object of desire. The Government, however, thereupon sent me the later commission, which purported to be something worth receiving with responsive regard.

Only the “Congressional Medal of honor” had been held sacred,--not to be bought or sold, or recklessly conferred. It was held to be the highest honor,--recognition of some act of conspicuous personal gallantry beyond what military duty required. Knowing what has happened with the cross of the “Legion of honor” in France, and how sacred the “Victoria cross” is held in England, we trust that no self-seeking plea nor political pressure shall avail to belittle the estimation of this sole-remaining seal of honor whose very meaning and worth is that it notes conduct in which manhood rises above self. May this award ever be for him who has won it, at the peril of life, in storm of battle, but let us not behold the sublime spectacle of vicarious suffering travestied by the imposition of vicarious honors.

To resume the narrative, on the first day of July, while encamped before Washington, we received [391] an order, which, though expected, moved us most deeply. The first paragraph was this:

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, June 28, 1865.
By virtue of special orders, No. 339, current series, from the Adjutant General's office, this army, as an organization, ceases to exist.

What wonder that a strange thrill went through our hearts.

Ceases to exist! Are you sure of that? We had lately seen the bodily form of our army, or what remained of it, pass in majesty before the eyes of men; while part of it was left planted on the slopes of the Antietam, on the heights of Gettysburg, in the Wilderness, on the far-spread fields and lonely roadsides of all Virginia,--waiting the Resurrection.

The splendor of devotion, glowing like a bright spirit over those dark waters and misty plains, assures us of something that cannot die! The sacrifice of the mothers who sent such sons was of the immortal. All this must have been felt by those who gave the order. The War Department and the President may cease to give the army orders, may disperse its visible elements, but cannot extinguish them. They will come together again under higher bidding, and will know their place and name. This army will live, and live on, so long as soul shall answer soul, so long as that flag watches with its stars [392] over fields of mighty memory, so long as in its red lines a regenerated people reads the charter of its birthright, and in its field of white God's covenant with man. Military order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Commandery of the State of Maine

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