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Chapter 34: first year in the Cabinet.

Mr. Davis's first report as Secretary of War was transmitted to Congress on December 1, 1853. Like all his public documents, it was marked by a lucidity and dignity of style which not only invested the dead facts with living interest, but added an irresistible force to his arguments and recommendations.

The report showed that, during the preceding year, the War Department, with an army the actual strength of which was only a little over 10,000 men, actively and constantly employed, had been unusually successful in protecting the inhabitants of the frontier; that Indian depredations had been infrequent; that new posts were being established, west of the Mississippi, for the protection of emigration across the plains; that in Texas, Indian hostilities had diminished both in frequency and importance; that permanent positions on the Rio Grande, the boundary between Mexico and the United States, had been strengthened, especially a strong post opposite El Paso; that it was in [482] contemplation to establish a large post at the point where the great trail of the Comanches crossed the Rio Grande; that other dispositions for the control of the Indian in Northern Texas were in progress, so as to entirely prevent Indian depredations. As small posts had been proven to be injurious to discipline, instruction, and efficiency, and to invite aggression, it was the intention of the Department to post troops, in large bodies, at commanding positions among the Indians, and to restrain aggression by the exhibition of a power adequate to punish. “The Indians will not be likely to engage in hostilities if their families are in the power of the troops in their absence.”

He urged that armament for the most important points in Texas and the Pacific coast should be forwarded at the earliest practicable period, and that there should also be sent to the Pacific coast, and stored at suitable points, the ordnance and ordnance stores needed for its defence, and to the arsenals on the Columbia River, and on the Bay of San Francisco, the machinery and other means needed for the construction, equipment, and repair of the materiel of war. He recommended that depots should be formed of such other supplies as are not perishable in their character. “With a water [483] transportation of sixteen thousand miles, and land routes impracticable for the transportation of heavy supplies, it will be too late to adopt these measures when the communication by sea is liable to interruption; and no prudent nation should trust, in matters of such vital importance, to the chances of a future that no human sagacity can foresee.”

The Secretary next recommended a reform suggested by the statistics of the recruiting service. Recruiting had been unsuccessful during the preceding year, owing to the great demand for labor. Four thousand six hundred recruits were required for the next year, and at the current rates of pay it was not expected to obtain them. He showed that from 1826 to the opening of the war with Mexico, the average excess of the legal over the actual strength of the army was eighteen per cent. of the latter; that the average actual loss by desertions had been twelve and three-fourths per cent.; by discharges from disabilities and other causes, seven per cent.; by death, only four per cent., so that the actual loss, independent of discharges by expiration of service, had been twenty-three and three-fourths per cent. of the actual strength of the army. Since the close of the war with Mexico the excess of the legal over the actual strength of the army [484] had been nineteen per cent., and the average losses from all causes twenty-eight per cent. Desertions gave sixteen per cent.; but a part of the percentage of the desertions was due to the excitement on account of the discovery of gold in California--the excess from that cause, in one year alone, being fifty-three per cent. over the average of the three succeeding years.

An analysis of the desertions from 1826 to 1846 shows that there was a gradual diminution in the proportion of desertions as the condition of the soldier was ameliorated by increase of pay, etc.; and that when the difference between the pay of the soldier and the value of the corresponding class of labor in civil life was slight, desertions were comparatively infrequent, being, at two different periods, only seven and one-half and four and one-half per cent. of the actual strength of the army, and that they were increased in a direct ratio with the increasing prosperity of the country; reaching, where the disproportion was greatest, twenty-one per cent. The same causes influenced the number of re-enlistments — the proportion, during the last four years, being only seventeen per cent., while, in the three years before the war with Mexico it was twenty-five per cent. of the number of discharges by the expiration of service. [485]

These results being traceable to the disparity between the pay of the soldier and the value of labor in civil life, and the fact that length of service carried with it no reward, either in increased pay, rank, or privilege, the Secretary recommended an increase of the existing pay; an additional increase for each successive period of five years, so long as the soldier shall remain in the army; and provision for the promotion to the lowest grade of commissioned officers for such of the non-commissioned officers of the army as might be found qualified for, and by their conduct, character, and services entitled to such advancement.

“It has been the policy of our Government,” argued the Secretary,

to maintain only a small army in peace; but it should also be our policy to be prepared for the event of war by making that army as effective as possible-efficient not only in the operations required of it in the field of battle, but in the various duties of a campaign, including economy of life and health; and in its capacity of disseminating instruction and discipline among those whom the emergencies of war call into the field unprepared to meet its hardships and ignorant of the means of guarding against its vicissitudes. In the operations of war efficiency and economy, if [486] not synonymous, are, at least, correlative terms; and the army which is the most efficient will at the same time be the most economical.

To attain this efficiency it is essential that the personnel of the army should be intelligent and capable; but it is idle to hope that men of this character can be obtained unless their pay bears a fair proportion to that which they would receive in the corresponding employments of civil life. Patriotism, or a sense of duty, will not, in time of peace, fill the ranks of an army; nor will pay alone be sufficient to develop all the elements of efficiency. The hope of advancement is the foundation of professional zeal and success, and this incentive should exist in the army as well as in civil life. Its honors and distinctions should be open to all.

The Secretary also urgently recommended that there should be added to the existing military establishment two regiments of riflemen and one regiment of dragoons, and an additional company of sappers and miners. He furthermore advocated an extension of the pension system to the widows and orphans of officers and soldiers of the regular army; the creation of a retired list for disabled and superannuated officers; the increase of the pay of officers, which no longer bore the same [487] relation to the value of money that it bore when the compensation was fixed; for the increase of the comforts of troops in barracks; and for the distribution of United States arms to the several States according to Congressional representation instead of in proportion to the number of militia in each. He drew attention to the need of supply of the militia of the country with the proper books of tactical instruction, and recommended that an annual appropriation of $20,000 for a few years should be made for the purpose. He recommended the increase of the academic term at the Military Academy at West Point to five years, and again called attention to the exposed and defenceless condition of the Pacific coast.

The Secretary also recommended that power be given the President to attach non-commissioned officers who distinguished themselves in the war with Mexico, by brevet of the lowest rank, to any company, and to bestow certificates of merit upon soldiers who were in like manner distinguished; also to grant certificates of merit to distinguished non-commissioned officers who were not considered eligible for the position of commissioned officers.

He also made a full and lucid statement of the explorations that had been made, and [488] were making, in order to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, describing the character of the country and the difficulties to be overcome. Copies of the instructions given to the explorers of the War Department were appended to the report. From these it appears that the officers were directed to observe and note all the objects and phenomena that had an immediate or might have a remote bearing upon the railroad, or which might serve to develop the resources and make known the peculiarities and climate of the country. For this purpose they were supplied with full sets of instruments for determining the latitude and longitude of places, the courses and distances of the routes, and the topography of the country on either side within accessible distances; with the means of ascertaining the variation of atmospheric pressure, and other meteorological phenomena. Two of the parties were supplied with instruments to determine the force and direction of the magnetic current. They were instructed to observe the prevailing direction of the wind, the amount of rain, the degree of temperature, and the humidity of the atmosphere. They were also required to report on the geology of the country, to gather specimens of different [489] rocks and soils, to make collection of plants and animals, and to collect statistics of the Indian tribes found in the regions traversed. The information to be derived from this series of observations were expected to be of much value in establishing the capacity of the country to sustain population and furnish articles of commerce. The astronomical observations were indispensable to fix the geographical position of the principal points of the route, and for improving the map of our Western possessions. The magnetic observations were of importance in accurately tracing the line between the points determined by astronomical observations. It is well known that the magnetic needle has an irregular and sometimes fitful variation, amounting to a difference of eighteen degrees between Washington City and the Western coast of Oregon, and the law by which this variation is increased or diminished had not yet been ascertained.

The meteorology of the country has a direct bearing on the question of the construction of a railway. The probable amount of snow should be ascertained and this depends on the temperature and humidity of the place. It was therefore deemed proper that the hygrometrical state of the atmosphere should be measured by suitable instruments, [490] and the mean temperature ascertained by thermometrical observations of the soil at a few feet below the surface.

A knowledge of the geology of the country was important, as affording essential data relative to the construction and use of the railway.

Observations as to the zoology and botany of the country were ordered to be made, as indicative of the capacity of the country to sustain and furnish materials for construction.

Thus, with an educated prevision, was every essential fact sought that might be useful in determining the best route for the great national enterprise projected.

In considering the dangers to which the Pacific coast would be subjected in case of a war with a maritime power, the Secretary stated that the projected railroad would but partially remove the difficulty of sending across the continent the troops, munitions, and provisions that in such an emergency would be required, and he recommended the introduction of a sufficient number of camels and dromedaries for expresses and reconnaissance, and for transporting troops rapidly across the desert.

Under Mr. Davis's energetic direction the pending works of harbor and river improvements [491] made satisfactory progress during this his first year in the department.

In obedience to a law directing the Secretary of War to report to Congress whether, in his opinion, it would not be more economical, proper, and advisable to cause all the arms of the United States to be made by contracts, Mr. Davis declared it essential that the army should be under the control of the War Department, and advantageous, if not necessary, that such establishments should exist under the charge of competent and experienced officers of the army, to the end that a uniformity may be obtained and all the improvements and efficiency secured which professional zeal and skill would seek and produce — a decision approved by all experts who considered solely the interest of the Government, but not acceptable to the lobbyists and manufacturing corporations who are usually so unanimous in declaring that the Government should undertake nothing that “private enterprise” can accomplish. Mr. Davis elaborately gave the reasons for his decision, nor have they been controverted nor has the policy been reversed to this day.

Mr. Davis went further, and as heavy guns and cannon had never been made by the Government, but by contract, in consequence of the failure of Congress to make [492] a provision for a national foundry, took this occasion to recommend an appropriation for that purpose. He also showed the need and urged the establishment of a national armory on the Western waters, and the removal of one of the two existing armories of the East. This action, as well as every act of Mr. Davis's administration of the War Department, show how baseless-was the slander asserting that years before the outbreak of the war between the States, Southern statesmen, when in office, prepared the way for it by strengthening the South in its military works at the expense of the North and West. No single act of Mr. Davis in office shows the faintest trace of any desire to take advantage of the power entrusted to him for any sectional aggrandizement. Representing in his office the entire Union of States, he was equally mindful and watchful of the interests and rights of every section of it.

Under the supervision of the War Department, also during this first year of Mr. Davis's administration, the work for the extension of the capitol was energetically prosecuted, under the special charge of Captain M. C. Meigs, of the Corps of Engineers, detailed by the Secretary for the purpose.

The War Department was also intrusted with the work of bringing an adequate supply [493] of water into the city of Washington. It was necessary to bring this supply from the great Falls of the Potomac through a conduit nine feet in diameter. The work was energetically prosecuted, and when finished was found capable of delivering nearly seventy million gallons of water, at an elevation of fourteen feet above the upper floor of the Capitol.1 Mr. Davis recommended the erection of a fire-proof building adequate to the needs of the War Department; but this work was not undertaken until after the inauguration of the war against the Southern States.

1 A splendid stone aqueduct, a few miles from Washington, built during Mr. Davis's term as Secretary of War, still remains a monument to his earnest labors for the benefit of the Capitol. It is known as “Cabin John Bridge,” it has a span of 220 feet, and is the longest in the world.

During the war between the States his name, deeply cut in the solid granite blocks, was, either by the order of Secretary of War Stanton, or the Secretary of the Interior, Caleb B. Smith, erased.

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