Political Imbroglio (November 11, 1864)

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

George Meade continues to worry about his oldest son, who is slowly dying in Philadelphia. He also follows up on the ballot controversy he wrote about on the previous day. Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman goes into greater—and more comic—detail about the election scandal and other incidents of camp life.

I note all you write of dear Sergeant, and of his condition. It is hard for me to know that he continues so sick, and that I cannot be with you to assist in taking care of him and in trying to keep up his courage and spirits. I never doubted Sergeant’s firmness of purpose and moral courage. He had too often exhibited these qualities in the highest degree. I fully sympathize with you in your anxiety, but can only urge you to watch him closely. I am glad Mr. Keith goes to see him; the intercourse of good and liberal men and women cannot but be beneficial, and I consider Mr. Keith one of the best of men.

The Secretary of War relieved me of my political imbroglio by ordering me to send the persons arrested to Washington. From all I could understand of the matter, these people are innocent of any wrong intended; it is known no wrong was actually perpetrated. Still, when they were charged by others with intent to commit fraud, I was compelled, under the orders of the Department and my own sense of duty, to hold them in arrest until the matter could be investigated.

Mr. Johnny Reb has been moving about to-day, as if he had taken it into his head to do something. I am sure I would be very grateful to Lee if he would try his hand at the offensive for awhile.

To-day’s papers say Sherman has burned Atlanta and moved on Charleston. This is a bold move, the success of which will depend on Thomas’s ability to keep Hood out of Kentucky and Ohio.

Theodore Lyman (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman (Library of Congress).

In his letter, Lyman waxes philosophical, puts a comic spin on the ballot incident, and describes a contretemps in the headquarters kitchen.

The McClellan procession might have spared their tapers, as he has gone up, poor Mac, a victim to his friends! His has been a career manque, and a hard time he has had, and low he has fallen. The men who stood, as green soldiers, with him in front of Yorktown, where are they? Many thousands lie in the barren land of the Peninsula and the valley of Virginia; thousands more in the highlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania and in the valley of the Shenandoah. Many are mustered out—their time expired—or sick, or crippled. The small remnant are sifted, like fine gold, through this army, non-commissioned officers, or even full officers. What an experience it is for an infantry soldier! To have carried a musket, blanket, and haversack to the Peninsula, and to the gates of Richmond, then back again to the second Bull Run; up to Antietam in Maryland; down again to Fredericksburg; after the enemy again to the Rappahannock; and at last, the great campaign, like all others concentrated in six months, from the Rapid Ann to Petersburg! All this alone on foot, in three long years, at all seasons and all hours, in every kind of weather, carrying always a heavy load, and expecting to fight at any moment; seeing so many men shot in each fight—the great regiment dwindling to a battalion—the battalion to a company—the company to a platoon. Then the new men coming down; they shot off also. Till at last the infantry-man, who left Boston thinking he was going straight to Richmond, via Washington, sits down before Petersburg and patiently makes his daily pot of coffee, a callous old soldier, who has seen too many horrors to mind either good or bad. It is a limited view of a great war, but, for that very reason, full of detail and interest.

Of course we might have known that this pack of political “commissioners” could not get down here without a shindy of some sort. The point they brought up was fraudulent votes. A long-haired personage, fat and vulgar-looking, one of that class that invariably have objectionable finger-nails, came puffing over to General Meade’s tent, with all the air of a boy who had discovered a mare’s nest. He introduced himself as a Mr. Somebody from Philadelphia, and proceeded to gasp out that a gentleman had been told by an officer, that he had heard from somebody else that a Democratic Commissioner had been distributing votes, professedly Republican, but with names misspelled so as to be worthless. “I don’t see any proof,” said the laconic Meade. “Give me proof, and I’ll arrest him.” And off puffed Mr. Somebody to get proof, evidently thinking the Commanding General must be a Copperhead not to jump at the chance of arresting a Democrat. The result was that a Staff officer was sent, and investigation held, and telegraphs dispatched here and there, while the Somebody puffed about, like a porpoise in shallow water! Finally, four or five people were arrested to answer charges. This seemed to please Stanton mightily, who telegraphed to put ‘em in close arrest; and, next morning, lo! a lieutenant-colonel sent, with a guard of infantry, by a special boat from Washington, to conduct these malefactors to the capital—very much like personages, convicted of high treason, being conveyed to the Tower. Were I a lieutenant-colonel, I should feel cheap to be ordered to convey a parcel of scrubby politicians under arrest! But that is the work that Washington soldiers may expect to spend their lives in. General Meade, I fancy, looked with high contempt on the two factions. “That Somebody only does it,” he said, “to appear efficient and get an office. As to X____, he said he thought it a trying thing for a gentleman to be under close arrest; and I wanted to tell him it wasn’t so disgraceful as to have been drunk every night, which was his case!” That’s the last I have heard of the culprits, who, with their accusers, have all cleared out, like a flock of crows, and we are once again left to our well-loved ragamuffins, in dirty blouses and spotted sky-blue trousers.

The day was further marked by an emeute in the culinary department. I would have you to know that we have had a nigger boy, to wait on table, an extraordinary youth, of muscular proportions and of an aspect between a drill sergeant, an undertaker and a clergyman—solemn, military and mildly religious. It would, however, appear, that beneath this serious and very black exterior worked a turbulent soul. The diminutive Monsieur Mercier, our chef, had repeatedly informed me that “le petit” (the unbleached brother is about a head taller than Mercier) was extremely indolent and had a marked antipathy to washing dishes—an observation which interested me little, as my observation went to show that the washing of dishes by camp-followers tended rather to dirty than to cleanse the platter, and that the manifest destiny of the plate military was to grow dirtier and dirtier, till it at last got broken. However, Anderson was reproved for not washing his crockery, and replied with rude words. On being reproved again, he proposed to smite Mercier, remarking, he “would as soon knock down a white man as a nigger.”

At this juncture the majestic Biddle interfered and endeavored to awe the crowd; but the crowd would not be awed, so Biddle put Anderson at the pleasant occupation of walking post with a log on his shoulder. Upon being liberated from this penalty, he charged upon Mercier, giving him the dire alternative of “Pay me mer wages, or I’ll smash yer crockery!” This being disorderly, I allowed him to cool his passions till next morning in the guardhouse, when he was paid off.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 240-1. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 262-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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