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Chapter 38: Secretary of War, 1853-57.

“While in the Senate,” Mr. Davis wrote,
I had advocated the construction of a railway to connect the valley of the Mississippi with the Pacific coast; and, when an appropriation was made to determine the most eligible route for that purpose, the Secretary of War was charged with its application. We had then but little of that minute and accurate knowledge of the interior of the continent which was requisite for the determination of the problem; several different parties were, therefore, organized to examine the various routes, supposed to be practicable, within the northwestern and southern limits of the United States. The arguments which I had used as a Senator were ‘ the military necessity for such means of transportation and the need of safe and rapid communication with the Pacific slope to secure its continuance as a part of the Union.’

In the organization and equipment of these parties, and in the selection of their officers, care was taken to provide for securing full [519] and accurate information upon every point involved in the determination of the route. The only discrimination made was in the more prompt and thorough equipment of the parties for the extreme northern line, and this was only because that was supposed to be the most difficult of execution of all the surveys. In like manner, my advocacy, while in the Senate, of an extension of the Capitol, by the construction of a new Senate Chamber and Hall of Representatives, may have caused the appropriation for that object to be put under my charge as Secretary of War.

During my administration of the War Department, material changes were made in the models of arms. Iron gun-carriages were introduced, and experiments were made, which led to the casting of heavy guns hollow, instead of boring them after casting. Inquiries were made with regard to gunpowder, which subsequently led to the use of a coarser grain for artillery.

During the same period the army was increased by the addition of two regiments of infantry, and two of cavalry. The officers of these regiments were chosen partly by selection from those already in service in the regular army, and partly by appointment from civil life. In making the selection for the Army I was continually indebted to the assistance of [520] that pure-minded and accurately informed officer, Colonel Samuel Cooper, the Adjutant-General, of whom it may be proper here to say that, although his life had been spent in the army, and he, of course, had the likes and dislikes inseparable from men who are brought into close contact and occasional rivalry, I never found, in his official recommendation, any indication of partiality or prejudice toward any one.

When the first list was made out, to be submitted to the President, a difficulty was found to exist which had not occurred either to Colonel Cooper or myself. This was that the officers, selected purely on their military record, did not contribute a roster conforming to that distribution among the different States which, for political considerations, it was thought desirable to have; that is to say, the number of such officers of Southern birth was found to be disproportionately great. Under instructions from the President, the list was therefore revised and modified in accordance with this new element of geographical distribution. This, as I am happy to remember, was the only occasion in which the current of my official actions, while Secretary of War, was disturbed in any way by sectional or political considerations.

Under former administration of the War [521] Office, it had not been customary to make removals or appointments upon political grounds, except in the case of clerkships. To this custom I not only adhered, but extended it to include the clerkships also. The Chief Clerk, who had been removed by my predecessor, had peculiar qualifications for that place; and, although known to me only officially, he was restored to the position.

Upon my first entrance upon duty as Secretary of War, General Jessup, the Quartermaster-General, presented me a list of names from which to make selection of a clerk for his department. Observing that he had attached certain figures to these names, I asked whether the figures were intended to indicate the relative qualifications and preference, in his estimation, of the several applicants; and upon his answer in the affirmative, without further question, authorized him to appoint ‘ No. I’ of his list. A day or two afterward, certain Democratic members of Congress called on me and politely inquired whether it was true that I had appointed a Whig to a position in the War Office. ‘Certainly not,’ I answered. ‘We thought you had not been aware of it,’ said they, and proceeded to inform me that Mr. (the recent appointee to the clerkship post) was a Whig. After listening patiently to their [522] statement, I answered that it was they who were deceived, not I. I had appointed a clerk. He had been appointed neither as a Whig, nor as a Democrat, but merely as the fittest candidate for the place, in the estimation of the Chief of the Bureau to which he belonged. I further gave them to understand that the same principle of selection would be followed in similar cases, so far as my authority extended. After some further discussion of the question, the visitors withdrew, dissatisfied with the result of the interview.

The Quartermaster-General, on learning of this conversation, hastened to inform me that it was all a mistake — that the appointee to the office had been confounded with his father, who was a well-known Whig, but that the son was a Democrat. I answered the General that ‘ this was altogether immaterial,’ adding that ‘it was a very pretty quarrel as it stood,’ and that I had no desire to effect a settlement of it in any inferior issue.

Thenceforward, however, I was but little troubled with any pressure for political appointments in the department.

Thus did Mr. Davis, as Secretary of War, practically inaugurate the reform now so popular in theory the elimination of partizan considerations from official appointments, or, [523] as the proposed policy is now termed, “Civil service reform.”

Mr. Davis concluded this brief record of his brilliant administration of the War Department with these modest words:

The reader desirous for further information relative to the administration of the War Department during this period, may find it in the various official reports and estimates of works of defence prosecuted or recommended, arsenals of construction and depots of arms maintained or suggested, and foundries employed, during the Presidency of Mr. Pierce, 1853-1857.

Of the Cabinet of which he was so distinguished a member, Mr. Davis said:

The administration of Franklin Pierce presents the only instance in our history of the continuance of a Cabinet for four years without a single change in the personnel. When it is remembered that there was much dissimilarity, if not incongruity, of character among the members of that Cabinet, some idea may be formed of the power over men possessed and exercised by Mr. Pierce. Chivalrous, generous, amiable, true to his faith, frank and bold in the declaration of his opinions, he never deceived anyone. And, if treachery had ever come near him, it would have stood abashed in the presence of his [524] truth, his manliness, and his confiding simplicity.

He revised the system of tactics, and sent an accomplished soldier, afterward General Hardee, of the Confederate service, to Paris, to study the best mode of doing so. He lent his powerful aid to the perfecting of a signal corps; fixed four years as the time for the frontier service of officers; thus making rotation the rule, and leaving them independent of the favor of officials at headquarters. He sold the military reservations not needful for the uses of the United States, and thus rendered great service to the States within which they were located, and thereby also added much money to the treasury.

Foreseeing frequent interruptions by ice and snow of trains for the Pacific shore by the contemplated northern route, he sketched out a southern route, very nearly the one now adopted, and had it surveyed. All these good works, and more than I can cite, he performed with all his might, and that which was necessarily left unfinished when he retired from office he took up as chairman of the Military Committee, where he was at once placed when he re-entered the Senate. His experience with unscientific inventors who knew nothing of the laws of matter or exact [525] science, would of itself make a book; but one anecdote must suffice here.

An old man, who had invented a cannon that would carry an enormous ball, came to the Secretary of War to get his recommendation that Congress should appropriate a large sum for the purpose of having one cast for experiment. In conversation, the Secretary found that he knew little, if anything, of the laws of physics, and nothing of the expansion and contraction of metals under heat and pressure. The Secretary declined to commend the plans and specifications to Congress, for he saw that the gun must burst when fired. The inventor took his papers to Congress, and succeeded in getting an appropriation of $7,000. He then made requisitions on the War Department for assistance, which was accorded without a demurrer. When the gun was finished he applied for a gunner to fire it. The Secretary said, “I cannot give you a man's life, and you must find someone else to fire it. I will not order a soldier to do so.” The consequence was, as the inventor did not feel willing to do it himself, it was never tried, and was at the navy yard the last Mr. Davis heard of it.

In addition to these labors, many of which were finished successfully in his period of service, he gave such valuable suggestions to [526] workmen at Colt's Armory that they made him a pistol, on the silver breech of which they engraved the words, “To a brother inventor.”

He had numberless forts repaired and rehabilitated, notably the one in Portland harbor, for which, at one time, it seemed impossible to construct a solid foundation. He enabled his Government to settle the boundary of San Juan De Ulloa by his judicious choice of the admirable officer whom he sent to make the survey. In the evenings at home, he personally translated a book on the service of camels, from the French, and succeeded in getting them brought out for the uses of army transportation across the arid prairies, and if the experiment had been properly and persistently pushed to its legitimate results, we should now have the prairies covered with these “ships of the desert,” and the facilities for the transportation of armies much increased.

The following notice is extracted from the Florida Herald, Jacksonville, Fla.:

During Mr. Pierce's administration an effort was made by Mr. Benton to have the work of the coast survey divided into several independent bureaus, his special purpose being to place his son-in-law, then Captain J. C. Fremont, as Superintendent of the Bureau [527] proposed to be established on the Pacific coast. To attain his object, he made a deliberate and violent attack on the coast survey, fortified himself in the reports of surveys carried on under the Ordnance Bureau in England, and encyclopaedia skimming of similar works on the continent.

The ablest and best-posted defender of the superintendent was Mr. Jefferson Davis, then Senator from Mississippi. He graduated in the same class with Professor Bache, and was his life-long friend.

With far more accurate knowledge of the subject than Mr. Benton, and advised by Professor Bache, he made a searching and exhaustive review of the coast survey, and a close comparison of its results, both in time of execution and quality of work, with the English survey. The result was greatly to the advantage of Professor Bache. His reputation was not only vindicated, but it was shown that he surpassed the work of the English Government in some important particulars, especially in economy, and in the adoption of the most modern improvements.

The public first became aware, by this ventilation of the question on the high arena of the Senate Chamber, of the value and importance of the survey, and American pride was gratified at the high standard maintained [528] by the United States, both in the scientific and practical development of a great enterprise. The impression made upon the Senate was shown in the vote. Mr. Benton's bill received only two votes, his own being one of the two.

Some years ago, when it was thought that Mr. Davis had passed from earth, John W. Forney used the following language:

Jefferson Davis was blessed with many accomplishments. He was alike a soldier and statesman. No public man of my acquaintance was more devoted to scientific pursuits, and more familiar with the abstruse teachings of political philosophy. No branch of human knowledge seemed to be unworthy of his investigation. He was equally attentive to classical literature, to the details of military life, to the doctrines of political parties, to the study of men, and if Professor Bache, of the coast survey, could speak, he would say, of the fine work of which he was the accomplished head, and which has latterly proved its incalculable usefulness, that Jefferson Davis was as conversant with the smallest minutiae of the noble institution as any man not directly connected with it. He was passionately devoted to the Smithsonian Institute, of which he was a regent in former times. He devoted himself to the decoration [529] of the capital, and stood by Captain (now General) Meigs in all his efforts to construct the waterworks, finish the Capitol building on the grandest scale, and to push forward the extension of the interior of the Treasury department. He was undoubtedly a great Secretary of War, and in this high office nothing delighted him as to take young men by the hand, and, when worthy, advance them.

In summing up the many services rendered by Mr. Davis when Secretary of War, a writer in a Northern paper says:

He revised the Army Regulations; he introduced light infantry, or the rifle system of tactics; he caused the manufacture of rifles, muskets, and pistols, and the use of the Minie ball; he induced the addition of four regiments to the army, and organized a cavalry service peculiarly adapted to the wants of the country; he augmented the sea-coast and frontier defences of the country, and had the western part of the continent explored for scientific, geographical, and railroad purposes.

On the morning of March 4, 1857, at nine o'clock, he had a long and tender interview with his friend and superior officer, President Pierce, who received his resignation, the first presented by any member of his Cabinet, and [530] grasping his hand, said, “I can scarcely bear the parting from you, who have been strength and solace to me for four anxious years and never failed me.” At twelve o'clock he was sworn in to take his seat in the Senate.

The city was full to overflowing; the President-elect was expected to stay at the old National Hotel, three squares from the Capitol; but, fortunately, went to Willard's Hotel. However, great numbers of the leading men from all quarters of the country came to the National to consult with Mr. Buchanan on the many points of interest which were then at issue. In some mysterious way (it was suggested by some that the water had stood in the lead pipes too long) all who partook of food or drink there for two weeks or more were poisoned. At first it was bruited abroad that an effort had been made to poison the incoming President and his Cabinet, that he was only saved by the chance of his going to another hotel, etc.; but at last the lead poison was ascertained to be a fact, and the excitement quieted down, but the accident plunged many families into mourning. Mississippi lost a gallant soldier, a faithful advocate, and useful citizen from this cause, General John Anthony Quitman, and she mourned him with a deep sense of his rare moral qualities and great civil and military services. [531]

The day of the inauguration I went to Willard's Hotel parlor to see the procession, and Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Cass, and Governor Marcy came to speak to me. I was much impressed with Mr. Buchanan's kind, deferential manner, and the friendly way in which he inquired for Mr.Pierce and Mrs. Pierce. He was gracious because he felt kindly. After the ceremony, Mr.Pierce and Mrs. Pierce returned at once to Concord and resumed the course of their former quiet and uneventful lives. In the summer, Mr.Pierce and Mrs. Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne made the tour through Europe of which Hawthorne, in his published diaries, wrote so charmingly.

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