Tolerably Able (November 10, 1864)

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

The editor of Theodore Lyman’s letters. George R. Agassiz, thought the entry for November 10, 1864, was so unusual it required a bit of a disclaimer. “Some parts of the following letter make curious reading now,” he wrote. “They are, however, interesting, not merely as an individual opinion at that time, but as reflecting the contemporary sentiments of a large body of intelligent men.” I assume Agassiz felt compelled to add his note because of Lyman’s qualified praise for Lincoln. Today Lincoln is lionized as one of America’s greatest presidents, comparable only to Washington. During the Civil War, however, Lincoln had yet to acquire his veneer of greatness. For many, calling him “tolerably able,” as Lyman does in this letter, was giving him more credit than he was due. Lyman and Meade were both politically conservative and would have had doubts about Lincoln. Lyman’s conservatism explains his condescending reference to Theodore Parker, a noted transcendentalist and abolitionist. Parker’s grandfather had led the Minutemen at the Battle of Lexington. In this letter Lyman also notes an incident of “acoustic shadow,” in which atmospheric conditions mask the sounds of battle.

They have been singularly niggardly to us about election returns; but we have reliable intelligence to-night that Lincoln is re-elected, the coarse, honest, good-natured, tolerably able man! It is very well as it is; for the certainty of pushing this war to its righteous end must now swallow up all other considerations. I am still more content that there has been a powerful opposition to him, even from respectable men, an opposition strong enough to carry several states. This will caution him, or better, his party, to proceed cautiously and to make no fanatical experiments, such as we too often have seen, but to proceed firmly, and according to rule and law. Lincoln has some men of ability about him—pre-eminent, Mr. Seward, whom the ultras have thrown over, but whom I think the strong man of the cabinet. Mr. Fessenden is said to be a very superior person, and his face is certainly a bright one, very. There is another important advantage in keeping on as we are: the machine is in running order and it is always a drawback to change midst a season of public trial. And again we have done with Lincoln what the Rebels have successfully done with their generals, let him learn from his own misfortunes and mistakes; not a bad school for a sensible man. So you see, I am inclined to make the best of what I deem is the best, albeit not very good. . . .

Have you read an article from Fraser, in Littells, called “Concord Transcendentalists.” It is a singular production, rather entertaining some of it, and interspersed with the weakest, sweetened warm milk and water. The place where it says that Theodore Parker hid two slaves in his study, and nightly sat writing at the door of it, with several pistols and the gun that had belonged to his grandfather, would be a funny passage at any time, but, written so gravely in these war days, it is quite irresistible! If you see any number, in future, containing the tale of Tony Butler, you might send it to me, though it is no great matter. I have read a number or two, the last chapter being in this very number where the Transcends flourish. Which reminds me of what a West Point professor said, according to the solemn Duane. He was hearing a recitation in philosophy, and would fain illustrate how the body might slowly change, yet the individual remain the same. “Now,”said he,” if I have a knife and lose a blade and get it replaced, it is still the same knife.” “Well,” said a stupid-looking cadet, “and suppose you lose the other blades, one after another, and get them replaced, is it the same knife?” “Certainly,” replied the Professor. “And suppose the handle should get rather ricketty and you replaced that?” “Yes, it would be the same knife.” “Well, now,” cried the stupid one, suddenly brightening up amazingly, “suppose you took the old handle, and found the old blades, and put ‘em all together, what would you call that, hey?” Poor Major Duane! he can’t do much but talk and tell stories, for he is quite miserably yet and is not fit for duty, though he is improving. . . .

Last night, with a mild south wind, we had a singular example of the stopping of sound. Our batteries near the plank road, some three miles off, may usually be heard with perfect distinctness; not only the guns, but the explosion of the shells; and the replies of the Rebels also. At night we can see the shells going over, by the burning fuse, that looks like a flying spark. The deception is very singular in the dark, for, though the shell may be passing at the rate of 1200 feet a second, in the distance the fuse seems to go slowly and in a stately curve. This is because 1200 feet looks very small, three miles away, and the eye gets an idea of rapidity by the space travelled over in a given time. Well, last night, they opened a somewhat brisk discharge of mortar shells from both sides; but though we could see them go through the sky and burst below, not the faintest sound reached the ear! At other times these same guns will sound quite close to us. I could cite many such contrasts.

I rode forth with good Duke Humphrey, to see the dress-parade in the 9th Corps. That and the 5th, not being in the immediate presence of the enemy, have a good chance for drill. The 9th Corps, in particular, have gone into the evolutions to an alarming extent, an exercise which, like Wistar’s balsam of wild cherry, can’t do harm and may do good. Around General Parke’s Headquarters there is a chronic beating of drums and fifing of fifes and playing of bands. We sat some time and watched the drilling; it was quite fun to see them double-quicking here, and marching there, and turning up in unexpected positions. At last the gallant Colonel McLaughlen, after many intricate manoeuvres, charged and took a sutler’s tent, and the brigade was then marched to its quarters. As we returned, there was a nig brigade, having its dress parade in fine style. They looked extremely well and marched in good style. The band was a great feature. There was a man with the bass drum (the same I believe that so amused De Chanal) who felt a ruat-coelum-fiat-big-drum sentiment in his deepest heart! No man ever felt more that the success of great things lay in the whacking of that sheepskin with vigor and precision! Te-de-bung, de-de-bung, bung, bung! could be heard, far and near. . . . The nigs are getting quite brisk at their evolutions. If their intellects don’t work, the officers occasionally refresh them by applying the flats of their swords to their skins. There was a Swede here, who had passed General Casey’s board for a negro commission. He was greatly enraged by a remark of the distinguished Casey, who asked him what Gustavus Adolphus did, meaning what great improvements he introduced in the art of war. To which the furriner replied: “He was commander-in-chief of the Swedish army.” “Oh, pooh!” said Casey, “that’s nothing!” Which the Swede interpreted to mean that Gustavus was small potatoes, or that the Swedish army was so. Really, most foreign officers among us are but scapegraces from abroad. The other day the Belgian Minister Sanford sent a letter asking for promotion for private Guatineau, whose pa had rendered us great service by writing in the French press. The matter being referred to his commander, the reply was: “This man deserted to the enemy from the picket line.”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 259-62. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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