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Chapter II

  • On graduating leave
  • -- Brevet second lieutenant in the 2d artillery at Fort Moultrie -- an officer's credit before the War -- second lieutenant in the 1st artillery -- journey to Fort Capron, Florida -- a reservation as to whisky -- a trip to Charleston and a troublesome money -- Bag -- an ‘affair of honor’ -- a few law -- books -- an extemporized ‘map and itinerary’ -- yellow fever -- at A. P. Hill's home in Virginia -- assigned to duty in the Department of philosophy at West Point -- interest in astronomy -- marriage -- a hint from Jefferson Davis -- leave of absence -- Professor of physics in Washington University.

an old army colonel many years ago described a West

Point graduate, when he first reported for duty after graduating leave, as a very young officer with a full supply of self-esteem, a four-story leather trunk filled with good clothes, and an empty pocket. To that must be added, in my case, a debt equal to the full value of trunk and clothes and a hundred dollars borrowed money. My ‘equipment fund’ and much more had been expended in Washington and in journeys to and fro during the period of administrative uncertainty in respect to the demands of discipline at West Point. Still I had as good a time, that graduating leave, as any millionaire in the United States. My good father was evidently disturbed, and began to fear—for the first time, I think—that I was really going to the bad! His worst fears as to [17] the possible effects of a military education had, after all, been realized! When I showed him the first check from New York, covering my pay account for July, he said that it was enough to ruin any boy in the world. Indeed, I myself was conscious of the fact that I had not done a stroke of work all that month for those sixty-five and a half dollars; and in order that my father might be convinced of my determination not to let such unearned wealth lead me into dissipation, I at once offered to lend him fifty dollars to pay a debt due to somebody on the Freeport Baptist meeting-house. Confidence was thereby restored.

My first orders assigned me to duty at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, as brevet second lieutenant in the 2d Artillery. The steamer landed me at Charleston, September 29, 1853, the day I became twenty-two years of age. The next morning I found myself without money enough to pay my hotel bill and take me over to Sullivan's Island, but pay was due me for September. Upon inquiry, I found that the paymaster was not in the city, but that he kept his public funds in the Bank of South Carolina. Being unacquainted with any of the good people of Charleston, the well-known rules of banks about identification seemed a serious obstacle. I presented my pay account at the bank, informing the cashier with a confident air that I was well aware of the fact that the major's money was there, but that the major himself was out of town. The accomplished cashier, after scrutinizing me for a time, handed me the money. My older brother officers at the fort had a good laugh at what they were pleased to call my ‘brass’; but I consoled myself with the reflection that I had found out that my face was good for something. It is an instructive fact that before the Civil War an officer of the army needed no indorser anywhere in this country. His check or his pay account was as good as gold. All that was [18] required was identification. It is lamentably true that such has not been the case since the war.

I found only one officer on duty with my battery at Fort Moultrie, and he was awaiting my arrival so that he might go on leave. He turned over the command with a manifestation of confidence which surprised me at the time, but which was fully explained the next day. In the morning the first sergeant reported to me, with the quarterly and monthly returns prepared for my signature, and made out more beautifully than anything in writing I had ever before seen, and explained to me in detail all the business affairs of the battery, as if he were reporting to an old captain who had just returned from a long leave of absence. Next to General Scott and Colonel Lee, with whom I had had the honor of some acquaintance, I was quite sure there stood before me the finest-looking and most accomplished soldier in the United States Army. What a hard time young officers of the army would sometimes have but for the old sergeants! I have pitied from the bottom of my heart volunteer officers whom I have seen starting out, even in the midst of war, with perfectly raw regiments, and not even one old sergeant to teach them anything. No country ought to be so cruel to its soldiers as that.

In September we had the usual artillery target practice, which was afterward recalled to my mind many times by the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861 by the same guns I had used in practice, and at the same range. Then came the change of stations of troops, which took the Moultrie garrison to Florida, and some of the 1st Artillery to their place. For a time the fort was left without garrison except a few officers who were awaiting the arrival of their regiment. I also was ordered to remain until I ‘got off my brevet’ and was appointed ‘full second’ in the 1st Artillery. It had been a yellow-fever summer, and the cottages on Sullivan's [19] Island were even more fully occupied than usual, mostly by families of planters from the rice plantations of South Carolina. Hospitality was unbounded, and of the most charming character. Nothing I have experienced at home or in the great capitals of Europe has surpassed or dimmed the memory of that first introduction to Southern society.

In December, 1853, the order came announcing my appointment as second lieutenant, 1st Artillery, and directing me to join Battery D at Fort Capron, Indian River, Florida. A steamer took me to Palatka, stopping a short time at Jacksonville, which was then little more than a landing on the St. John's River. After a week's delay at Palatka, another little mail-steamer carried me and a few other passengers up the river to Lake Monroe, whence a mule served for transportation across to New Smyrna, on Mosquito Lagoon, opposite the inlet. It was a great day's sport going up the river. The banks seemed almost lined with alligators, and the water covered with water-fowl of all kinds, while an occasional deer or flock of turkeys near by would offer a chance shot. At New Smyrna Mrs. Sheldon provided excellent entertainment during the ten days waiting for the mail-boat down Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River, while Mr. Sheldon's pack of hounds furnished sport. At length old Captain Davis took the mail and my baggage and me on board his sloop, bound for Fort Capron, opposite the mouth of Indian River. He divided his time fairly between carrying the United States mail and drinking whisky, but he never attempted to do both at the same time. I am not sure but it was the captain's example which first suggested to me the rule which I adopted when commanding an army in the field—to do no drinking till after the day's fighting was over. But, in fact, I never liked whisky, and never drank much, anyhow. [20]

We arrived in twenty-five days from Charleston, which was regarded as a very satisfactory journey. At the fort I found Captain and Brevet-Major Joseph A. Haskin, commanding; First Lieutenant A. P. Hill, afterward lieutenant-general in the Confederate army; Dr. A. J. Foard, assistant surgeon; and my classmate Livingston, brevet second lieutenant; besides sixteen enlisted men —rather a close approximation to the ideal of that old colonel who once said the army would be delightful if it were not for the—soldiers. But that was changed after a while by the arrival of recruits—enough in one batch to fill the battery full. The battery had recently come from the gulf coast, where yellow fever had done destructive work. I was told that there happened to be only one officer on duty with the battery—a Lieutenant somebody—when the fever broke out, and that he resigned and went home. If that is true, I trust he went into the Civil War and got killed in battle; for that was the only atonement he could possibly make for leaving his men in that way. But such cases have been exceedingly rare, while those of the opposite extreme have not been uncommon, where officers have remained with the sick and died there, instead of going with the main body of their men to a more healthy place. The proper place for a line officer is with the fighting force, to care for it and preserve its strength by every means in his power, for war may come to-morrow. The surgeons and their assistants must and do fully care for the sick and wounded.

Life at Fort Capron was not by any means monotonous. It was varied by sailing, fishing, and shooting, and even the continuity of sport was broken twice a month, generally, by the arrival of the mail-boat. But at length this diversion failed us. Some difference occurred between the United States Post-office Department and the mail-contractor on the St. John's River, and we got no [21] mail for three months. Then the commanding officer ordered me to go to Charleston by the sloop that had brought us supplies, and bring back the mail by the regular route. I made the round trip in little more than a month. That same paymaster whom I had found away from his post on my first arrival in Charleston intrusted to me a carpet-bag full of gold and silver, to pay off the garrison for the past six months, with as much advance pay as the officers would consent to take, so that he would not have to make the trip down for a long time to come. I had to carry the money-bag and a revolver about with me for twenty-five days or more. I have never consented to handle Uncle Sam's money since that time.

It was during that short visit to Charleston that I became engaged, for the first and only time, in an ‘affair of honor.’ A young man who had been in my class at West Point, but had resigned before the class had graduated, came to me at the hotel, and asked me, as his ‘friend,’ to deliver a note he held in his hand. I replied: ‘Yes. If you will place yourself in my hands and do what I decide is honorable and right, I will be your friend. Tell me all about it.’ My condition was accepted without reserve. My friend, whose home was in a distant city, had been in Charleston some weeks, and had spent all the money he had and all he could borrow. He was on the eve of negotiating a further loan from a well-known banker when the son of that banker, who had met my friend about town, told his father the plain truth about my friend's habits and his probable value as a debtor. The negotiation was ended. My friend had become a stranger in a strange land, without the means to stay there any longer or to go home. It was a desperate case— one which could not be relieved by anything less than the blood of the young ‘villain’ who had told his father that ‘infamous’—truth! I replied: ‘Yes, that is a bad case; we will have to fix that up. How are you off at [22] home?’ He said the ‘old man’ had plenty of money, but had sent him enough to come home once or twice before, and would not send any more. Upon further inquiry, I found that my friend's hotel bill and expenses home would amount to a little less than the sum I had just drawn on my pay account up to date; so I handed him the money, saying that he could return it when convenient, and his ‘honor’ was fully satisfied. I never afterward heard anything from him about that money, and my tailor had to wait a little longer for his pay; but I had done my duty, as I understood it, under the code of honor. I saw that friend once afterward. He went into the army in 1861, accidentally shot himself, and died miserably on the march, an old musket-barrel, placed there by my order, marking his grave by the wayside. It was not granted to him, poor fellow! to fight a battle for his country.

I took with me to Florida some law-books—Blackstone, Kent, and a few others: so few, indeed, that I learned them nearly all by heart; then, for want of anything better, I read over the entire code of the State of Florida. Several times in after years I found it necessary, in order to save time, to repeat to great lawyers the exact words of the Constitution of the United States; but their habit was much the better. It is seldom wise to burden the memory with those things which you have only to open a book to find out. I recollect well the answer once made by William M. Evarts, then attorney-general of the United States, to my inquiry whether he would give me, offhand, the law on a certain point, to save the time requisite for a formal application and answer in writing. He said if it was a question of statute law he would have to examine the books, but if only a question of common law he could make that as well as anybody. But I had nothing better to do for a time in Florida, and when I got out I did not find my memory [23] half so much overloaded with law as my blood was with malarial poison. Luckily, I got rid of the poison after a while, but held on to the law, and I never found it did me any harm. In fact, I would advise all young officers to acquire as much of it as they can.

In the winter of 1853-4 there was an armed truce between the United States of America and the Seminole nation. A new policy was soon inaugurated, which had for its object to establish a complete line of posts across the State from Jupiter to Lake Okeechobee, and thence westward to the gulf, so as more securely to confine the Seminoles within the Everglade region, although, so far as I know, nobody then wanted the use of that more northern part of this vast territory. The first step was to reopen the old military road from the mouth of Indian River across to the Kissimmee River, and thence to Tampa. Being the second lieutenant of the single company, I was given the privilege of doing that work, and nine men and one wagon were assigned me for that purpose. I spent the larger part of my time, going and coming, in hunting on either the right or the left of the road, thereby obtaining all the deer and turkeys the command could consume, but paying very little attention to the road itself, in utter disregard of the usual military rule which requires that a sketch be made and an itinerary kept of all such marches. Hence I was a little puzzled when Acting-Inspector-General Canby, from Washington, wanted to go across from Indian River to Tampa, and called on me for a copy of my map and itinerary. But I had stood very high in drawing at West Point, and could not allow myself to be disturbed in any such way as that; so I unlocked what little recollection I had of the route and my general knowledge of the country, and prepared a very beautiful map and a quite elaborate itinerary, with which the inspector-general seemed greatly pleased. But I took great care, in addition, to send [24] a man with him who had been with me, and who was a good guide, so I felt quite safe respecting any possible imperfections that the inspector-general might find in my work. I never heard anything more about that matter until General Sherman and I met General Canby at Portland in 1870. At that time we had a little laugh at my expense respecting the beauty of that map of mine, and the accuracy with which I had delineated the route. But as I was then a major-general, and Canby was a brigadier-general under my command, I was not subjected to the just criticism I deserved for having forgotten that map and itinerary at the time I made the march.

The next step in the strategical operations designed by the War Department for Florida was the occupation of Fort Jupiter, and the construction of a new post there, reopening the old military road of General Jesup and building a block-house on the bank of Lake Okeechobee, similar work to be undertaken from the other shore of the lake westward. The work was commenced about midwinter of 1854-5, and it was my privilege to do it. When the hot weather came on at Jupiter, fever began to break out among the troops. Jupiter Inlet had been closed for several years, and the water had become stagnant. Within a very few weeks, every man, woman, and child was down, or had been down, with fever. The mortality was such that there were hardly enough strong men remaining to bury the dead. As soon as I had sufficiently recovered to go in a boat to Fort Capron, the major sent me back with all the convalescents that were fit to be moved, and soon afterward broke up that pest-house at Jupiter and moved the command back to Capron. So far as I know, Fort Jupiter was never again occupied, and I think the block-house on Lake Okeechobee was never completed. At all events, as good luck would have it, I got through with my part of the work and was ordered out of Florida before the Seminoles [25] found out what the plans of the War Department were. My old friend and companion George L. Hartsuff, who had like duty to perform on the west side of the lake, was attacked by the Indians and severely wounded, several of his men being killed. He and a few others made their escape. Hartsuff was one of the strongest, bravest, finest soldiers I ever knew, and one of my most intimate friends; but, unlike myself, he was always in bad luck. He got caught by the Seminoles in Florida; was shipwrecked on Lake Michigan; came very near dying of yellow fever; and after organizing the Twenty-third Army Corps and commanding it for a time, finally died of the wounds he had received in Florida.

I had a new and peculiar experience at Fort Capron during my convalescence. I had there twenty-five or thirty convalescent soldiers, and no doctor, but an intelligent hospital steward. I was like the lawyer who was asked to say grace at the table of one of his wealthy clients, and who was unwilling to admit, under such circumstances, that there was any one thing he could not do. So I had sick-call regularly every morning, carefully questioned every patient as to his symptoms, and told the steward what to give him, taking care not to prescribe anything which some doctor had not tried on me. All my patients got well. At length A. P. Hill came up from Jupiter, on his way home on sick-leave. At Capron he had a relapse, and was desperately ill. I had to send a barge to Jupiter for some medicine which he knew was necessary. Mr. Jones, the sutler, and some of the men helped me to nurse him night and day for a long time. At length he recovered so far as to continue his journey.

About the same time came orders promoting me to first lieutenant and detailing me for duty at West Point. So Hill and I came out of Florida together. On board the St. John's River steamer I had a relapse, and was [26] very ill. Hill cared for me tenderly, kept me at Savannah awhile, and then some days at Charleston, where I became so much better that he ventured to leave me long enough to go over to Fort Moultrie to see some of our brother officers. While he was away I became so ill again that the doctor had to put me under the influence of chloroform. When Hill came back in the evening he cursed himself for all that was mean in the world for having left me even for an hour. That'sthe kind of friends and comrades soldiers are! As soon as I was well enough to travel, Hill took me to his home at Culpeper Court-house in Virginia. There they kept me quite a long time. That dear old gentleman, his father, brought to my bedside every morning a brandy mint-julep, made with his own hand, to drink before I got up. Under its benign influence my recovery was very rapid. But let none of my young friends forget that the best gifts of Providence are those most liable to be abused. The wise Virginian never offered me too many of them. By the first of December Hill and I went together to West Point, I to report for duty, and he to visit his numerous warm friends at that delightful station. There we parted, in December, 1855, never to meet again. With the glad tidings from Virginia that peace was near, there came to me in North Carolina the report that LieutenantGen-eral A. P. Hill had been killed in the last battle at Petersburg. A keen pang shot through my heart, for he had not ceased to be esteemed as my kind friend and brother, though for four years numbered among the public enemy. His sense of duty, so false in my judgment, I yet knew to be sincere, because I knew the man. I wish all my fellow-citizens, North and South, East and West, could know each other as well as I knew A. P. Hill.

I was assigned to duty in the department of philosophy, under Professor W. H. C. Bartlett, one of the ablest, most highly esteemed, and most beloved of the great men [27] who have placed the United States Military Academy among the foremost institutions of the world. At first it seemed a little strange to be called back, after the lapse of only two years, to an important duty at the place where my military record had been so ‘bad.’ But I soon found that at West Point, as elsewhere, the standard of merit depended somewhat upon the point of view of the judge. A master of ‘philosophy’ could not afford to look too closely into past records in other subjects. Besides, philosophers know, if others do not, that philosophers are sure to profit by healthful experience. I never had any more trouble at West Point, though I did have much difficulty in helping younger men out. I had the great good fortune never to be compelled to report a cadet for any delinquency, nor to find one deficient in studies, though I did sometimes have, figuratively speaking, to beat them over the head with a cudgel to get in ‘phil’ enough to pass the academic board.

I had then a strong impression, which has grown still stronger with time, that ‘equations A and B’ need not be developed very far into the ‘mechanics of molecules’ to qualify a gallant young fellow for the command of a squadron of cavalry; but this is, in fact, generally and perfectly well understood at West Point. The object there is to develop the mental, moral, and physical man to as high a degree as practicable, and to ascertain his best place in the public service. It is only the hopelessly incorrigible in some respect who fall by the way. Even they, if they have stayed there long enough, are the better for the training they have received.

In this congenial work and its natural sequence I formed for the first time the habit of earnest, hard mental work to the limit of my capacity for endurance, and sometimes a little beyond, which I have retained the greater part of my life. After the short time required to master the ‘Analytical Mechanics’ which had been introduced [28] as a text-book since I had graduated, and a short absence on account of my Florida debility, which had reduced me to 120 pounds in weight, I began to pursue physics into its more secret depths. I even indulged the ambition to work out the mathematical interpretation of all the phenomena of physical science, including electricity and magnetism. After three years of hard labor in this direction, I thought I could venture to publish a part of my work in book form, and thus submit it to the judgment of the able scientists whose acquaintance I had made at the meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.1

While I was engaged in this work upon physics, a young gentleman named Drown came to West Point, and asked me to give him some private lessons in mechanics and astronomy, to perfect his qualifications as a teacher. I went over those subjects with him in about one hundred lessons, including a few in practical astronomy. He was the most ardent student I have ever known. Like, I doubt not, all the most earnest seekers for divine truth, in whatever way revealed to man, he would not be satisfied with his own perception of such truth unless he could feel it ‘burn in his brain.’ In that brief experience I became for the first time intensely interested in practical astronomy, about which I had thought little before, although I had had sole charge of the observatory for some time. I have always since given Professor Drown credit for teaching me practical astronomy by first leading me to the discovery that I had a natural taste and aptitude for such work, theretofore unsuspected. That new ‘lead’ was followed with all possible zeal, day and night, for many months, until all the instruments in the observatory, [29] fixed and movable, including the old mural circle, had gone through a season's work. Although my scientific experience has been very limited, I do not believe anything else in the broad domain of science can be half so fascinating as the study of the heavens. I have regretted many times that necessity limited my enjoyment of that great pleasure to a very few years instead of a lifetime.

In that West Point observatory I had one of the many opportunities of my life—one which I always enjoyed—of protecting the unfortunate from the stern decree of ‘justice.’ The old German custodian came to me one morning in great distress, saying that he had let the ‘astronomical chronometer’ run down, and that the professor would kill him. I went with him to the transit tower, made an observation, and set the chronometer. The professor never knew the difference till I told him, after the lapse of time named in the military statute of limitations. Then he seemed to rejoice as much as I over the narrow escape of his faithful subordinate. The professor was not half as stern as he sometimes appeared to be.

I need hardly say that in the midst of these absorbing occupations I forgot all about the career I had chosen in my boyhood. The law had no longer any charms for me. Yet I found in after life far more use for the law than for physics and astronomy, and little less than for the art and science of war.

In June, 1857, I married Miss Harriet Bartlett, the second daughter of my chief in the department of philosophy. Five children were born to us, three of whom—two sons and one daughter—grew to maturity and survive their mother, who died in Washington soon after I was assigned to the command of the army, and was buried at West Point by the side of our first-born son, who had died in 1868, soon after I became Secretary of War.

In the summer of 1860 came the end of my term of [30] duty at West Point. My taste for service in the line of the army, if I ever had any, was gone; and all hope of promotion, if I ever had any, was still further away. I had been for more than four years about nineteenth first lieutenant in my regiment, without rising a single file. I was a man of family, and had already become quite bald ‘in the service of my country.’ There was no captaincy in sight for me during the ordinary lifetime of man, so I accepted the professorship of physics in Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. But Mr. Jefferson Davis, an intimate friend of my father-in-law, gave me a timely hint that promotion might be better in a year or two; and his bitterest personal enemy, General Scott, gave me a highly flattering indorsement which secured leave of absence for a year. Thus I retained my commission.

As the period of the Civil War approached a very large part of my time was occupied in reading and studying, as coolly as possible, every phase of the momentous questions which I had been warned must probably be submitted to the decision of war. Hence, when the crisis came I was not unprepared to decide for myself, without prejudice or passion, where the path of duty lay, yet not without some feeling of indulgence toward my brother officers of the army who, as I believed, were led by the influence of others so far astray. I took an early occasion to inform General Scott of my readiness to relinquish my leave of absence and return to duty whenever my services might be required, and I had the high honor of not being requested to renew my oath of allegiance.

My life in St. Louis during the eight months next preceding the Civil War was of great benefit to me in the delicate and responsible duties which so soon devolved upon me. My connection with Washington University brought me into close relations with many of the most patriotic, enlightened, and, above all, unselfish citizens of Missouri. Some of them were of the Southern school [31] of politics, but the large majority were earnest Union men, though holding the various shades of opinion then common on the question of slavery. By long and intimate intercourse, in the joint prosecution of work of the highest philanthropy, such men had learned to respect the sincerity of each other's adverse convictions, and had become the exact exemplars of the many shades of honest, patriotic Unionism so clearly described in 1863 by President Lincoln in his letter to a delegation of partizans who had not learned that principle of charity which seems to have been born in the great martyr of freedom.

Would that I could do fitting honor to the names of those patriots, nearly all of whom have gone to their rest, including Dr. Elliot, President of Washington University. James E. Yeatman, President of the Sanitary Commission, still lives to honor his country and the great cause of humanity of which he was the faithful and efficient servant. I did not meet Hamilton R. Gamble until after he had become governor. I shall have occasion to say more of him later. He was the foremost champion of the Union cause in Missouri, and the most abused by those who were loudest in their professions of loyalty. Of the younger generation, I will mention only one, whose good deeds would otherwise never be known. While himself absent in the public service, wherein he was most efficient, he made me occupy his delightful residence near Lafayette Park, and consume all the products of his excellent garden. We knew each other then only as fellow-workers in the Union cause, but have been the most devoted friends from that day to this. The name of that dear friend of mine is Charles Gibson. Among the earliest and most active leaders in the Union cause in Missouri, I must not fail to mention the foremost—Frank P. Blair, Jr. His patriotism and courage were like a calcium light at the head of the Union column in the dark days and nights of the spring of 1861.

1 Much of my time in St. Louis during the winter preceding the Civil War was spent in revising this work, preparing illustrations, and getting it ready for the press. Then it was packed up in a box, and carefully stored away in the St. Louis Arsenal, to abide the results of war.

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