A Soldier Looks at Politics

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by Andy Hall

Charles C. Cone was the son of a wealthy attorney in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. He was sixteen years old when the war began in 1861, reading law with another attorney in town. He enlisted in the 5th Pennsylvania Reserves, eventually rising to the rank of sergeant. In late 1863, he was appointed first lieutenant, Company I, in the 8th U.S. Colored Troops. He was wounded in action with the 8th USCT at the Battle of Olustee in Florida, in February 1864. After a long convalescence, he rejoined his regiment, now with Ben Butler's Army of the James, advancing on Richmond.

In the Field, September 20, 1864

I am happy to know that the wicked prosper not, and that the traitorous schemes of our political antagonists, the enemies of our country and our cause, are in a fair way to come to naught.

How sublimely ridiculous has been the performance of the whole farce -- the terrific splutter and fizzle at Chicago -- the high horse which they rode after "little Mac" was announced as the nominee of the party, and their subsequent great trepidation and disgust upon the receipt of the letter of acceptance of the little saint! I have always thought that the true and loyal men of the North would prove sufficient in the contests between parties, where the questions at issue are of so great and vital importance, involving, as they do, the principles upon which our government is based, and we exist as a free people, independent and united; besides the consideration of the great problem of humanity and morality which is now being solved, and which is to affect the whole human race, and influence the destiny of coming generations.

When I read the proceedings of the Chicago Convention, during its organization and continuance, crouching as I was behind a friendly heap of dirt, which only protected me from the balls of the sharp-shooters -- amid the roar of cannon, the bursting of bombs, the screeching of shell, and hurtling balls and hissing of bullets -- tons of iron and lead being pitched about in a most promiscuous and careless manner -- my heart almost failed me. I was fain to give up in despair and disgust. Then, in a day or two we got more particular accounts -- the speeches, platform, and nominations --  and my blood boiled in my fierce wrath and impotent rage!

I have no doubt but I made some wicked and foolish remarks and resolves, but I finally cooled off a little, and took a more extensive and reasonable view of the matter. I thought of the character of the men engaged, compared them with many others enlisted in the good cause and true party; compared platforms & c., and came to the conclusion that the thing wouldn't work. The people wouldn't swallow it, and although the party might cause us much trouble and sorrow, yet the mass of the people would, all in good time, show the true mettle and come to time.

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." We must use every means of an honorable character to controvert and overthrow the designs of our enemies. Grant and Sherman are great generals; Farragut is king of his craft or art -- yet, would they make good presidents? It demands different qualities to constitute a soldier and a statesman and ruler of a nation; much besides scientific knowledge, or the great qualities even of patriotism, determination, and strong will.

Please excuse this hastily written letter; it is after tattoo, and I am sleepy.

I remain your affectionate cousin,

C. C. Cone

Lieutenant Cone would not live to see the election in November. Nine days after writing this letter, he was hit and severely wounded at the Battle of Chaffin's Farm, where his regiment, along with other USCT units, successfully stormed and held Confederate lines on the approach to Richmond. Evacuated to the military hospital at Fortress Monroe, Lieutenant Cone died on October 23, 1864 of "exhaustion from Amputation of left Thigh." Among Cone's personal effects inventoried after his death were one box of buttons, two novels, two tooth brushes, three New Testaments, five photographs, twenty-two 3-cent stamps, a broken watch and $20.90 in cash.

Letter from Soldier's Letters from Camp, Battlefield and Prison, ed. by Lydia Minturn Post (New York: Bunce & Huntinton, 1865).

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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