It Was Them Darned Rebels (November 30, 1864)

Senator James W. Nesmith, D-OR (National Archives).

Senator James W. Nesmith, D-OR (National Archives).

The “Hon. Nesmith” whom Theodore Lyman mentions in this letter is Senator James W. Nesmith, the Democratic Senator from Oregon. He was born in New Brunswick to Maine parents and gradually made his way out west until he reached Oregon. His witticism about the loss of First Bull Run echoes something George Pickett supposedly said when asked why the Confederate attack at Gettysburg failed on July 3. “I think the Yankees had something to do with it,” Pickett said.

Did you hear how the Hon. Nesmith, whom I have mentioned, discovered the real cause of the defeat at the first Bull Run? He was in Washington at the time, and the military wiseacres, as soon as they got over the scare, were prolific in disquisitions on the topic. One evening Nesmith found a lot of them very verbose over a lot of maps and books. They talked wisely of flank movements and changes of front, and how we should have won a great victory if we had only done so and so; when he remarked solemnly: “Gentlemen, I have studied this matter and I have discovered the real reason of our defeat.” They were all ears to hear. “Well,” said Nesmith with immense gravity, “well, it was them darned Rebels!” . . .

Last night the 2d Corps picket line was relieved by the 9th—a delicate job in face of the enemy, who are pretty close up; but it all was done in entire quiet, to the relief of General Humphreys, who feels the new honor of the 2d Corps. That worthy officer stopped on his way to his new Headquarters and honored me by taking a piece of your plum cake. He was much tried by the noisy ways of Hancock’s late Headquarters. “They whistle of mornings,” said the fidgety little General, “and that Shaw, confound the fellow, amuses himself with imitating all the bugle-calls! Then the negroes turn out at four in the morning and chop wood, so that I am regularly waked up. But I shall stop it, I can tell you.” And I have no doubt he will, as he is wont to have his own way or know the reason why. I rode out with him to his new Headquarters and followed the line afterwards, and was much amused to see them drilling some of the worthless German recruits, in a polyglot style: “Steady there! Mehr heraus—more to the front. Shoulder arms! Eins, zwei! One, two!” etc.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 284-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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