Petty Tyranny (October 17, 1864)

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman grumbles about what he sees as political favoritism and retribution within the Army of the Potomac. Colonel Collis was Charles Collis, who had commanded the 114th Pennsylvania, the zouave regiment that served as Meade’s headquarters guard. McMahon is Martin T. McMahon, whose brother James had, indeed, fallen at Cold Harbor (which Lyman insists on calling Cool Arbor). His other brother, John, died of wounds he received while in command of the 164th New York. The problem with Lyman’s story about Martin being dismissed from the army for his pro-McClellan talk, though, is that McMahon was not mustered out until February 1866. There’s an interesting article about the McMahon brothers here.

In his next letter Meade will mention the dignitaries who graced the army with their presence, but the general will not be nearly as amusing in his descriptions as Lyman. I particularly like Lyman’s remark that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton “looks like his photographs, only more so.” The Fessenden with the “Palmer leg” (an artificial limb that included a knee joint) was Francis,  the son of Maine senator William P. Fessenden, who had replaced Salmon Chase as Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury. Young Fessenden had lost the leg while commanding a brigade under Nathaniel Banks during the Red River Campaign. Once again Lyman provides an anecdote about hapless aide James C. Biddle.

It is indeed not difficult to get material for a grumble, if one will but look about in this world. You see I can’t be enthusiastic about such a government as Lincoln’s, when I see, under my nose, the petty tyranny and persecution they practise against subordinate officers. Now there is Colonel Collis, a petty, scheming political officer; he sends letters to newspapers and despatches to Mr. Stanton about the enthusiasm for Lincoln in the army, etc., etc. Nothing is said to him; that is all right; he has an opinion, as he ought to have. But there is Lieutenant-Colonel McMahon, lately Adjutant-General of the 6th Corps, an excellent soldier, whose brother fell at the head of a charge at Cool Arbor, and who himself had been in all the battles: he is a McClellan man, as was natural in one of General Sedgwick’s Staff. He talks very openly and strongly about his side, as he has a right to do. What is the consequence? He is, without any warning, mustered out of the service! That is to say, a soldier who don’t agree with the Administration must be got rid of; it is nothing in his favor that he has exposed his life in twenty different actions. You would scarcely credit the number of such cases as this, cases of petty spite, fitting rather to a bad-tempered child than to a great and dignified cabinet minister. They suffer chances of victory to pass, rather than take voters from states. They send down three brevets of brigadiers, only one of which has been recommended by General Meade; and all three are men from the much dreaded and uncertain state of Pennsylvania. Don’t think I am a grumbler; all this wickedness and smallness and selfishness is a part of humanity, and to be expected; but don’t ask me to be enthusiastic for such people. There were a parcel of them down here to-day; bah! the sight of them is enough!

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Francis Fessenden (Library of Congress).

Francis Fessenden (Library of Congress).

As we sat at breakfast there came a despatch saying that Hon. Secretary Stanton, with a long tail, might be looked for, per rail, very presently. It is an historical fact that General Meade expressed his gratification at this deep honor, in the following terms: “The devil! I shan’t have time to smoke my cigar.” Immediately I got on my double-barreled coat, with a sash withal, and a pair of white cotton gloves; but there was plenty of time to smoke a cigar, for they didn’t get along for an hour or two, and then the greatest posse of large bugs! First, on horseback, Generals Grant, Meigs (Quartermaster-General), Barnard, Eaton (Commissary-General), Barnes (Surgeon-General), Fessenden (with a Palmer leg). Then, in ambulances, Fessenden’s papa, the Secretary of the Treasury, a sharp, keen, quiet-looking man; Hon. Secretary Stanton, who looks like his photographs, only more so; Hon. Sim. Draper and Mr. Barney, twin New York politicians. The former had a very large, long nose, and a very round and abrupt waistcoat, so that he resembled a good-natured pelican, just after a surfeit of sprats. General Meade received them with his usual high ceremony. He walked out of his tent, with his hands in his pockets, said, “Hullo, how are you?” and removed one hand, for the purpose of extending it to Grant, who lighted down from his horse, put his hands in his pockets, and sat down on a camp chair. The pelican came up and bobbed at the Meade, as did his friend. We carted them all to see Fort Wadsworth, where Rosencrantz swears that Mr. Stanton, on being informed that there was only a picket line between him and the enemy, pulled out his watch and said they really must be going back! which indeed they did. When the train started with its precious freight of military and diplomatic jewels, General Meade accompanied it, with Biddle, Mason and Rosencrantz. It would appear that they encountered, at City Point, Admiral Porter with Mrs. P. and another lady, who came, on their return, as far as Hancock’s Headquarters. The hospitable H. did thereat cause supper to be set forth, for it was now dark, and the General, with much talk and good humor, took root there; for he is death to hold on, when he gets talking and in company he likes. At nine o’clock came the galliant Generale, with his aides, whereof Rosencrantz and Mason were bursting to tell something good; whereas Biddle had a foolish and deprecatory air. It immediately was related, midst loud shouts, how, at City Point Grant had given General Meade a bunch of cigars to beguile the way of himself, Admiral Porter, and some other guests going to the front. The Chief handed them to Biddle, asking him to take charge of them for the present. Now B. has few equals in the power of turning things end for end; and so he at once and clearly understood that he [was] made a sort of almoner of tobacco, and proceeded to distribute the cigars in the most liberal manner, to everybody who would either smoke or pocket them! The Staff and bystanders asked no questions, but puffed away at Grant’s prime Havanas. Arrived at Hancock’s and supper done, the General said to Porter: “I think now is the moment to enjoy those good cigars!” Out comes “Shaw,” the faithful servitor. “Oh, if you please, Major, the Gen’ral sends his compliments, sir: and would like that bunch of cigars, sir.” Biddle immediately assumed the attitude indicated in the accompanying drawing! and the curtain dropped. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 247-50. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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