“Unmistakable Evidences of Despondency” (November 13, 1864)

Confederate President Jefferson Davis (National Archives).

Confederate President Jefferson Davis (National Archives).

In his annual address to the Confederate Congress on November 7, 1864, President Jefferson Davis raised the troubling (for the South) question of arming slaves to aid in the war. He approached the subject delicately, suggesting that maybe 40,000 slaves could be used only as pioneers and engineers. “If the recommendation above made for the training of 40,000 negroes for the service indicated should meet your approval, it is certain that even this limited number, by their preparatory training in intermediate duties, would  form a more valuable reserve force, in case of urgency, than threefold their number  suddenly called from field labor, while a fresh levy could, to a certain extent, supply  their places in the special service for which they are now employed.” Meade was correct that this indicated a greater desperation on the part of the Confederacy. However, it wasn’t until March 1865 that the Confederate Congress approved the use of African-Americans as soldiers. By then it was too late.

See below for Theodore Lyman’s impression of the British visitor.

To-day I had a visit from a Colonel Coles, of the English Army, who is the Military Commandant of New Brunswick. He was quite a gentlemanly person. I took him around our lines and showed him all that was to be seen.

Grant has gone to-day to pay a visit to Admiral Porter, at Fortress Monroe, and as Butler is absent, this leaves me in command of all the forces operating against Richmond.

I suppose you have seen Mr. Davis’s Message to the Confederate Congress. Although a dignified and well-written document, to my mind it betrays unmistakable evidences of despondency. His proposition to arm and free forty thousand slaves, to make engineer soldiers, is most significant, for nothing but an acknowledged exhaustion of the white race could ever make him willing to free and arm the black race. The idea of limiting the number to forty thousand, and making them engineer soldiers, simply means that this is an experiment, the result of which is doubtful, and until the fidelity of the race is tested, it is better not to have too many. I think this is prudential on their part, for I cannot believe they will get the blacks to fight for them.

Gibbon was here to-day, the first time I have seen him since his return.

I judge from the tone of the Tribune, Washington Chronicle, and other Administration papers, that there is a disposition on the part of the successful party to be magnanimous and invite harmony among all the friends of the Union. I see it reported the President has declined McClellan’s resignation, and it is said is going to give him a command. I doubt the latter part, but think the former very probable. I have no means of hearing or knowing anything that is going on till it is made public. I never go to City Point, and Grant does not come here, so that I am not au courani des affaires.

In his letter today, George Meade mentioned the visit of Colonel Cole from the British Army, the latest European to show up and observe the Army of the Potomac. Meade doesn’t spend much time on the visit, so we must rely on Theodore Lyman for a more expansive (and typically comic) account. He also provides a snapshot of John Gibbon, who commanded a division in the II Corps.

We had a Lieutenant-Colonel C___, a Britisher, up for a visit; he is commander of the forces in that tropical climate of New Brunswick. In aspect Colonel C____ was not striking; he had done injustice to what good looks he had by a singularly shapeless suit of city clothing, which I judge must have been purchased ready made from a village tailor in New Brunswick. He had a sort of soft cloth hat, an overcoat of a grey-rhubarb tint and trousers which once might have had a pure color, but seemed to have become doubtful by hanging in the sun outside a shop. I don’t think the gallant Lieutenant-Colonel was much interested in matters military. Perhaps he had read out, perhaps he had no natural taste that way, or perhaps he felt cold and uncomfortable. At any rate he looked bored, and his only military remark did not indicate deep reflection. “This,” said I, “is what we call a corduroy road.” “Oh! ah! Indeed; yes, well, it’s very well now, you know, but what will you do when it comes wet weather?” I was too much overcome at this putting the cart before the horse, to inform him that the corduroy was built for no other purpose than for wet weather. After this I confined myself to considerations of the state of health of the Hon. Mr. Yorke (he who came back with us from Liverpool). He is under the command of the Colonel, it would appear, and afforded an innocent topic of conversation. Since then two other English officers have been entrusted to the fatherly care of Rosencrantz, and diligently shown round. When they got near the end, they said: “Now we are much pleased to find you are a foreigner, because we can frankly ask you, what you consider the general feeling towards the English in this country.” To which Rosie (who don’t like to miss a chance) replied: “Vell, I can tell you that, so far as I have observed, some Americans do just care nothing about you, and many others do say, that, when this war is over, they will immediately kick you very soon out from Canada!” When the horrified Bulls asked: “Aw, aw, aw; but why, why?” Rosie replied in the following highly explanatory style: “Be-cause they say you have made for the Rebs very many bullets.”

John Gibbon (Library of Congress).

John Gibbon (Library of Congress).

General Gibbon dined with us and was largely impressed by our having oysters on the shell, which he pitched into with the fervor of a Baltimorean long separated from his favorites. Gibbon is by birth a Pennsylvanian, but lived, since boyhood, in North Carolina. When the Rebellion broke out, two of his brothers went into the Rebel service, but he remained loyal. One of his sisters was in the South but could not escape, and it was only the other day that they allowed her to come on board the flag-of-truce boat and come down the river to our lines, where her brother met her and took her North. He had sent word to his younger brother to meet him on the same occasion, but the young gentleman sent word, “It would not be agreeable”; which shows they are pretty bitter, some of them. Gibbon has an Inspector named Summerhayes, who is of the 20th Massachusetts, and who has got so used to being shot at, that he seems not to be able to do without it, and so gallops along the picket line to rouse the foe to pop at him. Which reminds me of what Grant said (either by accident or on purpose). He had come out, with a great crowd of civilians, to ride round the lines. Someone proposed to go out and visit the pickets. “No,” said Grant, innocently, “no; if I take a crowd of civilians, the enemy may fire and some of the soldiers might get hurt!”

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. 241-2. 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. 267-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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