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Chapter XXVI

  • The death of General Sheridan
  • -- his successor in command of the army -- deplorable condition of the War Department at the time -- a better understanding between the Department and the army commander -- General Sheridan's Humiliating experience -- the Granting of medals -- the Secretary's call -- bell -- the relations of Secretary and General -- views submitted to President Cleveland -- the law Fixing retirement for age -- an anecdote of General Grant.

again, in 1888, only two years after Hancock's death, another of our most gallant companions, the matchless Sheridan, was suddenly stricken down, and soon passed away, before the expiration of half the term allotted for his command of the army. As next in rank, upon the request of the general's family and upon the order of the Secretary of War it became my duty to arrange and conduct the military ceremonies at the funeral.

We buried our companion in beautiful Arlington, the choicest spot in America for the last resting-place of a soldier. It was a bright summer's day, and the funeral ceremonies, both religious and military, were the most impressive I have ever seen. As a special tribute of respect to my brother soldier, a staff officer in uniform was sent to meet and escort the archbishop who came to celebrate the funeral mass.

The death of General Sheridan placed me in a position which I had never anticipated—that of senior officer on [468] the active list of the army. The President had known little of me either officially or personally, and I had had some grave differences with the Secretary of War upon subjects of great importance in my estimation, though doubtless less in his. I had defended as well as I could, and with some persistence, what I then believed and now know was the right, but had been worsted, as a matter of course. It is due to the Honorable Secretary to say that he disclaimed, many months later, ever having knowingly given his sanction to the document announcing one of the military doctrines which I had so persistently but ineffectually combated. But I did not know that in August, 1888, and he did not then know that he had been thus betrayed. Hence I thought it quite improbable that a general holding opinions so radically opposed to those of the Secretary of War would be called to the command of the army. But I quietly waited in Washington for the President's orders, neither seeking nor receiving any opportunity for explanation of the supposed irreconcilable difference with the Secretary of War. What occurred in that secret council-chamber of the commander-in-chief, where the fate of so many anxious soldiers has been sealed, I have never known or inquired; but in no great length of time came the President's order assigning me to the command of the army,— six or seven hours, as I afterward learned, after it was received in the War Department and given to the press.

It is not too much to say that the condition of the War Department at that time was deplorable. It was the culmination of the controversy respecting the relations between the administration and the command which had lasted, with slight intermissions, for forty years. It is not my purpose to go into the history of that long controversy, but only to state briefly its final result, part of which was perhaps due to General Sheridan's extreme illness for some time before his death, and his retention [469] in nominal command and in the nominal administration of military justice long after it had become impossible for him to discharge such duties intelligently. But that result had been practically reached a long time before General Sheridan became seriously ill. He had long ceased, as General Sherman and General Scott had before him, not only to command, but to exercise any appreciable influence in respect to either the command or the administration. The only difference was that General Scott went to New York and General Sherman to St. Louis, while General Sheridan stayed in Washington.

I have always understood, but do not know the fact, that in former times the Secretary of War had exercised some intelligent control over military affairs, so that there was at least unity in the exercise of military authority. But in 1888 even that had ceased, and it had been boldly announced some time before that each departmental chief of staff, in his own sphere, was clothed with all the authority of the Secretary of War. All that a major-general as well as an officer of lower grade had to do was to execute such orders as he might receive from the brigadiers at the head of the several bureaus in Washington. It was not even necessary for those mighty chiefs to say that their mandates had the sanction of any higher authority. Their own fiat was allsuffi-cient for a mere soldier of the line or for his commanding general, of whatever grade of rank or of command. It is not strange that the Secretary was finally unable to admit that he, great lawyer as he was, could possibly have given his sanction to such an interpretation of the law as that; but the decision was given by his order, and it governed the army for a long time. Of course the adjutant-general became by far the chiefest of those many chiefs; for it is his function to issue to the army all the orders of both the Secretary of War and the commanding general. Be it said to his credit [470] that he did not assume to issue any orders in his own name, after the manner of the other chiefs. Like a sensible man, he was content with the actual exercise of power, without caring to let the army know that he did it. He had only to use the name of the Secretary or the general, as he pleased; either would answer with the army. Of course I knew something of this before I went to Washington, for the evidence of it was sometimes too plain to be ignored. Yet it did seem to me passing strange to sit in my office about noon, where I had been all the day before, and learn from the New York papers what orders I had issued on that previous day! Upon inquiry I was told that that was only a matter of routine, and a rule of long standing. But I mildly indicated that such a practice did not meet my approval, and that I wished it changed, which was finally done, as explained in a previous chapter. But even then I had no means of knowing whether an order sent to me in the name of the Secretary of War had ever been seen by him, or whether it was the work of the adjutant-general, or the product of some joint operation of two or more of the several chiefs, each of whom had the Secretary's authority to do such things. At length the Secretary, though with evidently serious misgivings respecting some deep ulterior purpose of mine, consented that I might have an officer of the adjutant-general's department, whom I knew, in my own office, to keep me informed of what I was to do, and, if possible, what orders I might actually receive from the Secretary himself, and what from the several other heads of that hydra called the War Department.

After that change things went on much better; but it was at best only an armed truce, with everybody on guard, until the end of that administration, and then it came very near culminating in a pitched battle at the very beginning of the next. By what seemed at the time [471] a very sharp trick, but which may possibly have been only the natural working of the vicious system, I was made to appear to the new Secretary of War as having failed promptly to give effect to an order authorized by his predecessor, but on which no authentic marks of his authority appeared, only such as might indicate that it came from another source. But if it was a trick, it signally failed. A few candid words from one soldier to another, even if that other had not been a soldier all his life, were quite sufficient to dissipate that little cloud which at first had threatened a storm. Then sunlight began to appear; and when, in due time, by the operation of some natural laws, and some others happily enacted by Congress, certain necessary changes came about, the sky over the War Department became almost cloudless, and I trust it may never again be darkened as it had been nearly all the time for forty years.

General Sheridan had entered upon his duties with all the soldierly courage and confidence of his nature, declaring his purpose to regain the ground lost by General Sherman when, to use Sheridan's own expressive words, ‘Sherman threw up the sponge.’ He announced his interpretation of the President's order assigning him to the ‘command of the army’ as necessarily including all the army, not excepting the chiefs of the staff departments; and he soon gave evidence of his faith by ordering one of those chiefs on an inspecting tour, or something of that kind, without the knowledge of the Secretary of War. Thus the Secretary found the chief of one of the bureaus of his department gone without his authority, he knew not where. It was not difficult for the Secretary to point out to the general, as he did in writing, in a firm, though kind and confidential way, that such could not possibly be the true meaning of the President's order. No attempt appears to have been made to discuss the subject further, or to find any [472] ground broad enough for both Secretary and general to stand upon. Nothing further appears to have been said or done on that subject during that administration. But upon the inauguration of the next, the Secretary of War sent out to all the commanding generals of the army copies of that letter of his predecessor, in which the general-in-chief had been so mildly and respectfully, yet so thoroughly, beaten. The army was thus given to understand that on that occasion their senior in command had not even been given a chance to ‘throw up the sponge,’ as his predecessor had done, but had been ‘knocked out’ by the first blow.

As if that was not humiliation enough for a great soldier to bear, whenever the Secretary went away one of the same chiefs of bureaus that the general thought he had a right to command acted as Secretary of War, to dominate over him! But the loyal, subordinate soldier who had commanded great armies and achieved magnificent victories in the field while those bureau chiefs were purveying powder and balls, or pork and beans, submitted even to that without a murmur, for a great lawyer had told him such was the law, and how could he know any better? It was only when the adjutant-general, his own staff-officer, so made by the regulations which the general knew, was thus appointed over him, that his soldierly spirit rebelled. The humblest soldier of a republic could not endure that. All this was based upon the theory that the general of the army was not an officer of the War Department, and hence could not be appointed acting Secretary of War. What other great department of the government could recognize the standing army as belonging to it, if not the Department of War? Surely the little army had a hard time while it was thus turned out into the cold, not even its chief recognized as belonging to any department of the government of the country which they were all sworn to [473] serve, but subject to the orders of any bureau officer who happened to be the senior in Washington in hot summer weather, when nearly all had gone to the mountains or the sea!

That same great lawyer announced in my hearing, very soon after his accession to power, in response to a suggestion that war service was entitled to weight in appointments and promotions, that in his judgment ‘that book was closed.’ Could any one of the million of soldiers still living, and the many more millions of patriots who are always alive in our country, be expected to support such a policy as that? In my opinion, that one short speech cost the national administration more than a million of votes. Soldiers don't say much through the press, but they quietly talk things over around their campfires. And I hope many generations will pass away before they and their sons will cease thus to keep alive the fires of patriotism kindled by the great struggle for American Union.

Thank God, that ‘law’ did not last many years. There was great rejoicing throughout the little army when it was again recognized as belonging to the Department of War. But that cause of rejoicing was soon beclouded. By another of those inscrutable dispensations of Providence, another superior, under the title of Assistant Secretary of War, was interposed between the commander-in-chief of the army and the general appointed to assist him in the command. It had been thought, and so stated in writing, that the major-general commanding, and the ten heads of staff departments and bureaus, with their many assistants, all educated men of long experience in the several departments of military affairs, and some of them tried in war, might give the Secretary all the assistance he needed, if they were permitted to do it. But no; it appears to have been thought that some other, who had had no education or experience in the affairs of the War [474] Department, could better assist a Secretary who to similar acquired qualifications for his office added far greater natural endowments and the just confidence of his country. Thus the major-general was treated as much worse than the lieutenant-general had been, as he was inferior to him in rank. But I also submitted without a word, because it was this time unquestionably the law as well as the will of my lawful superiors in office. I waited as patiently as I could, as the lieutenant-general had done, the time when by operation of law, human or divine, welcome relief from a burdensome duty would come, upon the official declaration that I had done, as best I could, all the duty that God and my country required of me.

One illustration will suffice to show the working of this new invention by which the general-in-chief was still further removed from the commander-in-chief, whose chief military adviser he was supposed to be. An act of Congress authorized the President to confer medals of honor upon soldiers of all grades who might be most distinguished for bravery in action. It is the most highly prized of all military rewards because given to the soldier, without regard to rank, for that service which every true soldier regards as of the greatest merit. The standard of merit deserving that reward is essentially the same in all the armies of the civilized world, and the medal is made of iron or bronze, instead of anything more glittering or precious, to indicate the character of the deed it commemorates. That standard of merit is the most heroic devotion in the discharge of soldierly duty in the face of the enemy, that conduct which brings victory, honor, and glory to the country for which a brave man has devoted his life in obedience to the orders which have come down to him from the head of the nation, which spirit of obedience and devotion creates armies and saves nations from defeat, disaster, or domestic convulsion. These highest tokens of a nation's honor had for many years [475] been given with the greatest care, after most rigid scrutiny of the official records and all other evidence presented, laboriously reviewed by the general-in-chief in person, recommended by him under the universal rule of civilized nations, and approved by the Secretary of War, whose approval is considered equivalent to the order of the President, by which alone, under the law, a medal of honor can be granted. But at length these carefully considered recommendations were disapproved by the Assistant Secretary of War, on the ground that the soldier had only done his duty! He had only done, or heroically tried to do until stricken down by the enemy's fire, what his commander had ordered! Some other standard of soldierly honor was set up, not involving obedience to orders nor discharge of duty, but instead of that some act of each soldier's own volition, as if what a nation most highly honored was independent action of each one of its million of soldiers, without any special regard to the orders of the commander-in-chief or any of his subordinate commanders! Thus the most dearly bought honor of a citizen of this great republic, intrusted by Congress to the commander-in-chief of the army, to be duly awarded to his subordinates, passed into the hands of an Assistant Secretary of War, to be awarded by him under his own newly invented theory of soldierly merit! After a laborious but vain attempt to obtain recognition of the time-honored standard of soldierly honor and merit, the general-in-chief was forced to admit that the new standard set up by the Assistant Secretary of War did not afford him any intelligible guide by which he could be governed in making his recommendations, and hence he requested to be relieved by the Secretary of War from consideration of such cases in future, presuming that the vital question would thus, as a matter of course, receive the personal consideration of the Secretary. The formal action of the ‘Secretary of War,’ relieving the [476] general from that important duty involving the honor of those under his command, was very promptly made known to him. But now there is very good reason for the belief that the honorable and very worthy Secretary knew nothing at all of the whole transaction!

It was my good fortune to have had, by close personal association, exact knowledge of the difficulties which my predecessors had encountered, as well as, perhaps, a more modest ambition, and hence to avoid some of those difficulties. Yet in view of the past experience of all commanders of the army, from that of George Washington with the Continental Congress down to the present time, I advise all my young brother soldiers to limit their ambition to the command of the Division of the Atlantic or Department of the East. But since some of them must in all probability be required to discharge the duties of the higher position, I trust the varied experiences of their predecessors may serve as some help to them in the discharge of those duties, which are vastly more difficult and far less agreeable than any other duties of an American soldier. They are the duties which most closely concern the subordinate relation of the military to the civil power in a republic. In that relation I had the great good fortune to enjoy most cordial and considerate personal treatment on the part of my distinguished associates representing the civil power. Hence my advice to my young military friends may be fairly regarded as based upon the most favorable view of what any of them may reasonably expect. It is the one position of all in the army which most severely tries the spirit of subordination which is so indispensable in a soldier of a republic. I have not thought it surprising that none of my great predecessors were quite able to endure the trial.

It is there where the polished surfaces of military etiquette and military methods come in contact with the [477] rough cast-iron of those which often prevail in civil administration, and the former get badly scratched. Military rules are invariable, with rare exceptions understood and observed by all, while civil practice varies according to the character and habits of the chief in authority, from those of the illustrious Stanton, now well known in history,1 to the opposite extreme of refined courtesy. Long observation and experience have led to the belief that such rasping of feelings, too sensitive perhaps, even more than substantial difference, has often been the cause of discord. A single example may suffice to illustrate what is meant. In the arrangements of the room especially designed for the office of the Secretary of War in the splendid new State, War, and Navy Departments building, was a great table-desk on which was a complete system of electric buttons connected with wires leading to bells in all the principal offices in the department, the buttons bearing the titles of the officers at the head of the several bureaus, etc., so that the Secretary could ‘ring up’ any colonel, brigadier-general, or majorgen-eral whom he wanted to see, just as a gentleman in private life does his coachman, butler, or valet. To an army officer who had for many years, in lower grades, been accustomed to the invariable formula, delivered by a well-dressed soldier standing at ‘attention’ and respectfully saluting, ‘The commanding officer sends his compliments to Captain B—, and wishes to see the captain at headquarters,’ the tinkling of that soft little bell must have sounded harsh indeed after he had attained the rank of brigadier-general. Twice only, I believe, my own old soldier messenger who attended in the room where the telephone and bells were located, came to my room, with an indescribable expression on his face, and said, ‘The bell from the Secretary's office is ringing!’ I replied, ‘Indeed? Go up and inquire what it means.’ Presently the Secretary's [478] own messenger appeared, and delivered a message in courteous terms—whether the same the Secretary had given to him I did not know, but had reason to doubt, for I had seen and heard the Secretary violently ring a certain bell several times, and then say with great emphasis to his messenger, ‘Go and tell M—to come here,’ not even using the high military title by which ‘M—’ was habitually addressed in the War Department. But those uncivil methods of an imperfect civilization are gradually passing away, and the more refined courtesies, taught, I believe, in all our great schools as well as in the military and naval service, are taking their place. It is now a long time since that reform was practically complete in the War Department.

Thus it appeared, when I went into the office in 1888, that of my predecessors in command of the army, Scott and Sherman had given up the contest, Sheridan had been quickly put hors de combat, while Grant alone had won the fight, and that after a long contest, involving several issues, in which a Secretary of War was finally removed from office with the consent of his own personal and political friends, a President was impeached and escaped removal from office by only one vote, and the country was brought to the verge of another civil war. As I had helped Evarts, Seward, and some others whose names I never knew, to ‘pour oil on the troubled waters’ in the time of Grant and Stanton, and to get everybody into the humor to respond heartily to that great aspiration, ‘Let us have peace,’ I thought perhaps I might do something in the same direction in later years. Be that as it might, I had no desire to try again what so many others had failed to accomplish, but thought it better to make an experiment with a less ambitious plan of my own, which I had worked out while trying to champion the ideas entertained by all my predecessors. At the request of General Grant and General Sherman, when the one was [479] President and the other general of the army, I studied the subject as thoroughly as I was capable of doing, and formulated a regulation intended to define the relations between the Secretary of War, the general of the army, and the staff departments. I still think that plan of my great superiors, only formulated by me, would have worked quite satisfactorily if it could have had general and cordial support. Yet I do not think it was based upon the soundest view of the constitutional obligations of the President as commander-in-chief of the army, nor at all consistent with the practice in this country of giving the command of the army to the officer happening to be senior in rank, without regard to the ‘special trust and confidence’ reposed in him by the President for the time being. It was based too much upon the special conditions then existing, wherein the general of the army, no less than the Secretary of War, enjoyed the confidence of the President in the highest degree. The plan proposed to give far too great authority to the general, if he did not, for whatever reason, enjoy the full confidence of the President. It also trusted too much to the ability and disinterested fidelity of the several chiefs of the staff departments. In short, it was based upon a supposed higher degree of administrative virtue than always exists even in this country.

However all this may be, the proposed regulation did not meet with cordial support, so far as I know, from any but General Grant, General Sherman, and General M. C. Meigs, then quartermaster-general. The other bureau chiefs earnestly opposed it. It was near the end of General Grant's second term, and no effort was made, so far as I know, to adopt any regulation on the subject in the next or any succeeding administration. The personal controversy between General Scott and the Secretary of War many years before had resulted in the repeal, through revision, of the old and quite satisfactory regulation [480] on the subject, and no other worthy of the name has ever been adopted in its place.

Soon after I was assigned to the command of the Army I submitted, in writing, to President Cleveland my own mature views on the subject. They received some favorable consideration, but no formal action, in view of the near approach of the end of his first term. From that time till near the present the paper was in the personal custody of the Secretary of War. What consideration, if any, it ever received, I was never informed. But it was the guide of my own action, at least, while I was in command of the army. It is now on file in the War Department. It is to be hoped that some future military and administrative geniuses, superior to any of the last hundred years, may be able to solve that difficult problem. I can only say that my own plan worked well enough so long as I helped to work it. How it may be with anybody else, either under my plan or some other, only the future can determine. I so far succeeded that the most intelligent staff officers used to say, ‘For the first time the general actually does command the army.’ They saw only the results, without exactly perceiving the nature of the motive-power.

The way to success in rendering efficient public service does not lie through any assumption of the authority which the nation may have given to another, even if not most wisely, but rather in zealous, faithful, and subordinate efforts to assist that other in doing what the country has imposed upon him.

A soldier may honorably crave, as the dearest object of his life, recognition of his past services by promotion to a higher grade. That is his one reward for all he may have done. But the desire for higher command, greater power, and more unrestrained authority exhibits ambition inconsistent with due military subordination and good citizenship. It is a dangerous ambition in a republic. [481] The highest examples of patriotism ever shown in this country have been in the voluntary surrender of power into the hands of the people or of their chosen representatives, not in efforts to increase or prolong that power. Following those highest examples, in the year 1882 all the senior officers of the army, including Sherman, Sheridan, and Hancock, united in advocating the measure then pending in Congress, to fix a limit of age when every officer should relinquish command and return to the ranks of private citizenship. In doing so, nearly all of those seniors, especially Hancock, relinquished forever all hope of rising to the command of the army. My case was not so strong as that of Hancock, because I was younger. But Sheridan was only six months older than I, and his ‘expectation of life’ was far beyond the time when I should become sixty-four years old. Hence I cheerfully relinquished in 1882 any reasonable ambition I may ever have had to command the army. My ultimate succession to that command in 1888 was, like all other important events in my personal career, unsought and unexpected. Hence whatever I did from 1888 to 1895 was only a little ‘extra duty,’ and I have had no reason to find fault on account of the ‘extra-duty pay’ which I received, though none of it was in money. I am inclined to think it a pretty good rule for a soldier to wait until he is ‘detailed,’ and not to try to put himself ‘on guard.’ I do not know any case in American history where the opposite course has not resulted in irretrievable injury to him who adopted it. Temporary success in gaining high position, before education and experience have given the necessary qualifications, necessarily results finally in failure; while slower advancement, giving full opportunities for education and experience in the duties of each grade, insures full qualification for the next higher. American history is full of such examples, as it is—alas! too truly—of those cases where the highest qualifications [482] and most becoming modesty have not met with any appropriate advancement or other recognition.

In the official intercourse of a soldier with the great departments of government, he often finds useful those maxims which have served him as commander of an army in the field. The most important of these is, not to enter a combat where he is sure to be beaten, as, for instance, where his opponent is the judge who is to decide the issue. As in war, so in administration, battle once joined, questions of right become obscured. The most powerful guns and battalions are sure to win. It is much wiser to seek an ally who carries a heavier armament. Some subordinates of mine—clerks and messengers, I believe—were once required to refund some money which had been paid them on my interpretation of the law and regulations. My careful explanation of the ground of my action was promptly disapproved. I then requested that the money be charged to me and the whole matter referred to Congress, in reply to which request I was informed that the accounts had been settled. In another case I requested that my appeal from adverse action be submitted to President Grant, who had had occasion to know something about me. I was requested by telegraph, in cipher, to withdraw that appeal, as it was liable to cause trouble. Being a lover of peace rather than war, I complied. In that perhaps I made a mistake. If I had adhered to my appeal, it might have saved a public impeachment. Again, I was called upon by one of the Treasury bureaus to refund some money which had been paid me for mileage by order of the Secretary of War, on the alleged ground that the Secretary could not lawfully give me such an order. I referred the matter to the Secretary, as one that did not concern me personally, but which involved the dignity of the head of the War Department as compared with that of a subordinate bureau of another department. The Treasury official soon notified [483] me that the account had been allowed. To illustrate the application of the same principle under opposite conditions, I must relate the story told of President Grant. When informed by a Treasury officer that he could not find any law to justify what the President had desired to be done, he replied, ‘Then I will see if I can find a Treasury officer who can find that law.’ Of course no change in the incumbent of that office proved to be necessary. I have thought in several cases in later years that Grant's military method might have been tried to advantage.

‘Be ye wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove’ is the only rule of action I have ever heard of that can steer a soldier clear of trouble with the civil powers of this great republic. Yet he must sometimes, when his honor or the rights of his subordinates are involved, make the fight, though he knows he must be beaten. A soldier must then stand by his guns as long as he can, and it has happened that such a fight, apparently hopeless at the time, has given victory to a future generation.

1 Sherman's ‘Memoirs,’ second edition, Vol. II, p. 422.

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