War-Time Letters of Charles Eliot Norton to George William Curtis
EDITED BY SARA NORTON AND M. A. DE WOLFE HOWE
OF all the friendships that formed so important an element in the life of Charles Eliot Norton there was none in which long intercourse and essential sympathy were so closely joined as in the friendship with George William Curtis. The biography of Curtis, by Mr. Edward Cary, in the ‘American Men of Letters’ series, has already shown Norton to be the friend to whom he wrote most constantly and frankly. In all of Norton’s voluminous correspondence there is no single collection of letters in which the course of his life — for forty-two years — can be so intimately followed as in the letters to Curtis. The gifts and achievements of this best of friends were preëminently of the sort to win and hold the admiring sympathy of Mr. Norton. The love of letters, the skillful practice of the art of writing, the keen interest in public matters, the independence of political thought and action, the charm of personality expressing itself as clearly in the spoken as in the written word, — all these were attributes upon which a friendship after Mr. Norton’s own heart could be based.
Their friendship began in Paris in 1850. Curtis, with his friend Quincy A. Shaw, was returning from Egypt, where he had gathered the experiences soon to be embodied in his first book, Nile Notes of a Howadji. Norton had been in India, acting as supercargo of a vessel owned by the Boston firm of Bullard and Lee. Hearing at Agra that his father was seriously ill, he set out at once for home. Before reaching Paris more favorable reports came to him, and he remained longer in Europe. Near the end of his life he dictated some recollections of this period, describing first his fortunate establishment in Paris with an older friend, Mr. Joseph Coolidge, of Boston, and proceeding: ‘Another great pleasure which Paris gave me was falling in one evening at the Café de Paris with Quincy Shaw, who introduced me to his companion, long-haired and sweetvisaged George Curtis. We were much together during my stay in Paris, and this was the beginning of the friendship which was so much to me during the remainder of my life.’
In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Curtis was only thirty-six years old, Norton thirty-three. Curtis had written his ‘ Howadji’ books, Lotus-Eating, The Potiphar Papers, and Prue and I. His ‘Works’ had been collected in five uniform volumes, and his recognized place in America was among the popular writers of the day. His reputation as a political writer was still largely to be made. Norton had made a smaller beginning as a writer of books, but had contributed abundantly to the serious periodicals of the time. To his friends he was known as a careful observer of social and political matters, and a faithful lover of his country. To both these young men, as to many others who gave what they could to the physical or spiritual service of the nation, the Civil War came as a great quickening and revealing power. There is a special interest, therefore, in the letters which the young student wrote from Cambridge and Newport to his friend in New York, who in 1863 became the political editor of Harper’s Weekly.
Although the following letters deal chiefly with the public aspects of the war, it should be remembered that to Curtis, — with a brother and three brothers-in-law in the army, the brother and two of the brothers-inlaw, Robert Gould Shaw and Charles Russell Lowell, giving their heroic lives to the cause, — and to Norton, touched more nearly through friends than through kinsmen, a full sense of the meaning of war was inevitable. In selecting the letters to be published at this time, it has not seemed advisable to adhere to the single topic of the war; other interests of life, overshadowed as they were by what was passing in the South, continued their course. Curtis was often with the Nortons at Shady Hill, as he had been in earlier days at Newport. He was a friend of their friends, and familiar with their interests. So tragic an event as the death of Mrs. Longfellow, and its effect upon her husband, naturally found a place in the correspondence of Longfellow’s two younger friends. Books were read and discussed. But the war was uppermost.
In Norton’s view of its progress, there are constant evidences of the deeply patriotic faith and hope that were in him. His personal service to the national cause was rendered chiefly through the second half of the war in his editorial work for the New England Loyal Publication Society, an organization the object of which was officially described as the ‘distribution of journals and documents of unquestionable and unconditional loyalty throughout the United States, and particularly in the armies now engaged in the suppression of the Rebellion.’ Of this good work the letters hold their traces. Most noticeable of all, and most typical of the Northern element which Norton represented, are the signs of the change which came upon men’s view of Lincoln. In November, 1862, Norton is found writing: ‘I am very much afraid that a domestic cat will not answer when one wants a Bengal tiger.’ In December of the next year, he wrote of Lincoln: ‘I conceive his character to be on the whole the great net gain from the war.’ This is but one of many reflections from the mirror in which the progress of national events was solicitously watched.
But the letters will speak best for themselves.
[SHADY HILL], Jan’y 15, 1860.
MY DEAREST George:—A fortnight hence I hope you will be with us. How pleasant it will be to see you once more! We shall all be delighted to welcome you. The years are hardly fair to us that give us but an annual meeting, and I trust that this new one, this I860, will treat us both more kindly by bringing us oftener together than the last. — It is ten years now, or will be in the spring, since we first knew each other. — Paris, Shady Hill, Newport, New York, are the various places which your affection has made happier for me. Do you recall the pleasant spring evening when we first met in the Café de Paris? How young we were then! I am not certain that we have grown very old since then, — but what years of experience these ten have been for us both! The next ten will be shorter, — so love me more during their course to make up for their quicker passage. What you say about the Harpers is
at once satisfactory and vexatious. As long as you feel bound to devote yourself to money-making, and they pay you so well, — so long I suppose you must keep to them, — but I shall be truly glad when the time comes that you can cut loose from them, and work more after your own pleasure, and more in other fields than those which they own and occupy. . . .
SHADY HILL, Dec’r 17, 1860.
MY DEAR GEORGE: — ... In these present times of alarm and suspense my chief fear is lest we of the North should fail to see that the time has now come when the dispute between the North and the South can be settled finally, and therefore ought to be settled and not deferred. I am afraid lest we may yield some part of our convictions and be false to our principles. The longer we stave off settlement by compromises and concessions, the heavier will be the reckoning when the day of settlement at length comes. This is no time for timid counsels. Safety no less than honor demands of us to take a firm stand, and to shrink from none of the consequences of the resolute maintenance of our principles, — the principles of justice and of liberty. I believe that New England is stronger than New Africa. A nominal union is not worth preserving at the price that is asked for it.
For my own part I think it most likely that we shall come at length to the rifle and the sword as the arbitrators of the great quarrel, — and I have no fear for the result. The discipline of steel is what we need to recover our tone. But I pity the South; and look forward with the deepest sorrow and compassion to the retribution they are preparing for themselves. The harvest they must reap is one of inevitable desolation. . . .
SHADY HILL, March 5, 1861.
MY DEAR GEORGE : — Is it not a great satisfaction to have the dignity and force of the government once more asserted? To feel that there are strong and honest hands to hold it, in place of the feeble and false ones which for four months past have let it fall? Lincoln’s Inaugural is just what might have been expected from him, and falls but little short of what might have been desired. It is manly and straightforward; it is strong and plain enough to afford what is so greatly needed, a base upon which the sentiments of the uncorrupted part of the Northern people can find firm ground; and from which their course of action can take direction. But what will the seceded States say about it? still more, what will they do? I incline to believe that they will not try violence, and that their course as an independent Confederacy is nearly at an end.
Congress could not have done less harm than it has done in passing the proposal for a Constitutional Amendment.1 I am sorry that Lincoln should have volunteered any approbation of the proposal, — though I have little fear that the Amendment can be adopted by a sufficient number of States to make it part of the Constitution. I do not wish to bind the future. I fully adopt the principle in regard to ‘ Domestic institutions’ (what a euphuistic people about slavery we are!) of the Republican platform, but I do not want Congress bound never to pass laws to prevent the internal Slave Trade. Let Slavery alone in each State, — very well; but let us not promise never to try to stop Virginia from being nothing but a breeding ground of Slaves.
The first act of this great play of Destruction of the Union has ended well. It seems now as if before the play were ended it would be generally found out that, as you and I have believed from the beginning, its proper name is, Destruction of the Slave Power.
When the history of American Slavery is written its open decline and fall will be dated from the day in which the South Carolina Declaration of Independence was signed. . . .
SHADY HILL, April 29, 1861.
DEAREST GEORGE: — I wish we could have a long talk together. Your last note found its answer in my heart. Everything is going on well here. The feeling that stirs the people is no outburst of transient passion, but is as deep as it is strong. I believe it will last till the work is done. Of course we must look for some reaction, — but I have no fear that it will bear any proportion to the force of the present current.
It seems to me to be pretty much settled by this unanimity of action at the North that we are not to have a divided Union. I almost regret this result, for I wish that the Southern States could have the opportunity of making a practical experiment of their system as a separate organization, and I fear lest when the time of settlement comes the weakness of the North may begin to show itself again in unmanly compliances.
But our chief danger at the present moment is lest the prevailing excitement of the people should overbear the wiser, slower, and more far-sighted counsels of Mr. Seward, — for it is he who more than anyone else has the calmness and the prudence which are most requisite in this emergency. I am afraid that he is not well supported in the Cabinet, and I more than ever wish that he could have been our President. I am not satisfied that Mr. Lincoln is the right man for the place at this time.
Sumner dined with our Club on Saturday.2 He did not make a good impression on me by his talk. He is very bitter against Seward; he expressed a great want of confidence in Scott, thinking him feeble and too much of a politician to be a good general; he doubts the honor and the good service of Major Anderson. There is but one man in the country in whom he has entire confidence, and in him his confidence is overweening.
After Sumner had gone Mr. Adams 3 came in and talked in a very different and far more statesmanlike way. His opinions are worthy of confidence. I think he is not thoroughly pleased with the President or the Cabinet, — but in him Mr. Seward has a strong ally.
You see that Caleb Cushing has offered his services to Governor Andrew. I understand that two notes passed on each side,— one a formal tender from Cushing of his services, which the Governor replied to with equal formality, stating that there is no position in the Massachusetts army which he can fill. Cushing’s first letter was accompanied by another private one in which he offered himself to fill any position and expressed some of his sentiments on the occasion. To this Andrew answers that in his opinion Mr. Cushing does not possess the confidence of the community in such measure as to authorize him — the Governor — to place him in any position of responsibility, and that, even if this were not the case, Mr. Cushing does not possess his personal confidence to a degree which would warrant him in accepting his services. — This is excellent. It is no more than Cushing deserves. Neither the people nor the Governor have forgotten, and they will never forgive, his speeches last November or December, or his previous course.4 . .
SHADY HILL, June 16, 1861.
MY DEAR GEORGE: — ... Here at home we are all well, — and leading such tranquil lives that the contrast between them and the labors, anxieties and sorrows of the war, is brought very strikingly home to our hearts. I know you must have felt very deeply the death of Theodore Winthrop. The loss of such men as he makes us feel how heavy a price the country has to pay for the support of the principles that are at stake. It is sad that he should have fallen so early in the struggle, and in such fullness of life. But no lover of his country, of liberty or of peace, would desire to change the manner of his death. Few men in our days have been happy enough to be called to die for a principle, or for their country’s sake. There is real glory and joy in dying while doing good service in this war.
I am told that Winthrop’s article which is to appear in the Atlantic this week is as full of spirit and manliness as the one that came out last month. But with what a solemn commentary will it be read.
Our regiments enlisted for the war are going off one after another. The best of them is Gordon’s, 舒 so called from its Colonel who is a West Pointer. It is officered throughout by gentlemen, and its ranks are full of fine fellows. But, I forget, you know all about it, and your hearts will follow it and go with it wherever it goes. . . .
July 10, 11½ A.M. (1861).
DEAREST GEORGE: — You will have heard of the awful calamity that has fallen upon the Longfellows, — and us all.
I have no heart to write, except for the sake of lightening your sorrow. She did not suffer except for the first hour or two after the accident; was conscious, quite calm, strong and patient through the night whenever she was free from the influence of ether. This morning she became unconscious, — and died half an hour ago.
Longfellow is suffering much from his burns, — but they are not alarming. He was sleeping a little while ago. I wish he might never wake.
God help him.
God help us all.
Your ever loving
C. E. N.
NEWPORT, July 26, 1861.
MY DEAR GEORGE: — I received yesterday from Tom Appleton accounts from our dear Longfellow which you may be glad to hear. He says: ‘Longfellow makes very good progress. The scars on his face have wholly disappeared. The right hand is nearly well, and the left (the worst) is almost painless and the skin forming. He is very comfortable and cared for. His sisters and children are always in the room or near by, and the weather is all we could wish. Lowell, Agassiz and Felton have been to see him several times, and cheer him by their heartfelt sympathy. We are all trying to get used to this terrible change and do our best to bear it.’
I shall go up next week to Cambridge to see them, and I will write to you again from there or on my return.
From the first I have looked on our defeat5 in Virginia as a hard lesson, not as a disaster to be greatly regretted. It has taught us much. Instead of weakening confidence in our troops, the fight of last Sunday, in spite of its issue, will strengthen their faith in themselves. And in its effect on the public sentiment of the North it will be like the fall of Sumter. Everything that makes the attainment of our object in fighting more difficult, makes it at the same time more certain. Had we marched only to easy victory we might have had but half a triumph: now the triumph of our cause is likely to be complete. Nothing tears veils like cannonshot, and the dullest eyes are beginning to see the real cause and the true remedy of our troubles. The emancipation of Virginia from slavery was finally settled, I think, last Sunday.
The New York papers, always excepting the Evening Post, go from bad to worse, the Tribune leading the rest. Fortunately none of them have much effect on public opinion, and they are losing most of what they may hitherto have possessed. ‘Il y a quelqu’un qui a plus d’esprit que M. de Voltaire: c’est tout le monde.’ The downfall of the fourth estate need not be wept over. . . .
NEWPORT, August 1, 1861.
MY DEAR GEORGE: — I was just about writing to you today when I had the pleasure of receiving your more than welcome letter. — I was in Cambridge on Tuesday, and saw Longfellow. He is in just that state of mind and feeling which we who love him could desire. He is perfectly simple and manly in bearing his terrible affliction, — with no exaggeration of grief or of the repression of it. I have never seen anyone under great sorrow who seemed to me to show a more Christian resignation and fortitude. He was quite self-possessed, though now and then his tears for a moment choked his voice. He taught me to love and respect him more than ever. He is still in his room, and for a great part of the time in bed. His hands are almost well, but he recovers very slowly from the prostration of his strength. He said that the visits of his friends did him good; that he liked to see them, and to talk with them. All his usual sweetness and quickness of sympathy was in his words, intensified by a new and most affecting pathos. His thoughts about others were as if he himself were not changed. He spoke of you, of your being at Cambridge, and of his not having been able to see you. He said he found it very difficult to take an interest in anything, — everything seemed very remote. He did not know how he should bear it as he got well. ‘I am very desolate.’
If you can go to Cambridge at any time this summer I am sure it would please Longfellow to see you, and if you will come by way of Newport, I will go from here with you. I shall at any rate go up again to see him before long.
The extracts you sent me from your brother’s6 letter were very interesting. I am more and more convinced that we not only deserved but needed defeat. I hope it is our second Sumter, and that we shall not need another lesson of the same sort to deepen conviction and make the true end of the war — the civilizing of the Southern States — plain to the whole people. I find almost everywhere the right spirit, but not quite enough of it. Men seem determined to secure our triumph, but do not know for what cause, except for the satisfaction of pride, triumph is needed. —Child7 writes to me from Stockbridge. ‘At ten o’clock Monday evening we got the afternoon news, — about as bad as news could be. Hardly anybody could sleep. That might have been thought the unhappy distinction of high-strung nerves, but the next morning the butcher from Lee told us nobody slept in Lee, and when butchers are kept watching by bad news there must be something to pay. It is said that immediately on receipt of the bad news seventy-one men offered themselves to enlist in Lee where no enlistments could be procured before. I saw a man going through the streets crying out loud when the news was confirmed on Monday night.’
The change in the Tribune will not restore the paper to its old place. Greeley’s appeal to the people was more mean-spirited than I would have believed he could write. . . .
NEWPORT, August 24, 1861.
MY DEAR George:— ... I do not agree with you that the war is likely to be short. Its issue may soon become certain, but it will be long before we can lay down our arms. Nor am I ready yet to share in any gloomy prognostications. I believe the people will save the country and the government in spite of all the weakness and mismanagement and corruption at Washington. Nor am I afraid of the effect of another defeat, — if another should come. It will indeed bring to the surface an immense show of cowardice, and meanness; but we have no right yet to believe that the temper of our people is so low that it will not rise with the trial of calamity. I bate nothing of heart or hope, and I grieve to think that you should ever feel out of heart or despondent. We have not yet more than begun to rouse ourselves; we are just bracing to the work; but we are setting to it at last in earnest.
The practical matter to be attended to at this moment seems to me to be the change in the Cabinet. A change must be made, — and it will be made, if not by the pressure now brought to bear, then by a popular revolution. We shall have public meetings of a kind to enforce their resolves in the course of a few days, if Cameron, Welles and Smith are not removed, or the best reason given for retaining them. Mr. Seward ought to understand that it is not safe for him that they should any longer remain in the Cabinet. If another reverse were to come and they still there, the whole Cabinet would have to go; — and then let Mr. Lincoln himself look out for a Committee of Safety.
It is growing too dark for me to write more to-night.
Let me hear from you again soon, — and above all do not begin to doubt our final success.
If the fortunes of war go against us, if all our domestic scoundrels give aid to the cause of the rebels, — we still shall not fail, and the issue will be even better than our hopes.
Most affectionately yours,
CHARLES E. N.
NEWPORT, October 2, 1861.
MY DEAR GEORGE: — ... I sent you yesterday a copy of De Vere’s last volume of poems. There are some very charming things in it. He has genuine poetic sensibility, and with age he gains power of expression and depth of thought. In everything he writes he shows the refinement of his taste, the delicacy of his feeling, and his strong religious sentiment. He is greatly pleased with any expression of appreciation from America, and if you have a fit opportunity I wish you would say something of this volume in print. And if you should do so, please be sure to tell me, (for I do not always see Harper’s Monthly and Weekly), that I may send it to him. De Vere has taken from the beginning the most intelligent and sympathetic view of our great contest. I read you, I think, one of his letters about it; and in later letters he has expressed his convictions still more fully and warmly. Nor is this volume without the marks of his hearty interest in our struggle.
I have great faith in Frémont. But how painfully little we know! and how ungenerously that little is used against Frémont by the public generally in forming their opinion of his course! I earnestly hope that he may soon have a success which shall win back to him the popular confidence. Events prove Lincoln’s modification of his proclamation even more unfortunate than it at first seemed, — and even at first it seemed bad enough. In a fight so desperate as that which is now being waged in Missouri we have need of all our arms, — and Lincoln has compelled us to throw aside the most effective of them all, —he has spiked our gun of longest range. Have I before quoted to you Milton’s sentence about those ‘who coming in the course of these affairs to have their share in great actions above the form of law or custom . . . dispute precedents, forms, circumstances when the commonwealth nigh perishes for want of deeds in substance, done with just and faithful expedition?’ ‘To these,’ as he says, ’I wish better instruction, and virtue equal to their calling.’
It is an unexampled experience that we are having now, and a striking development of the democratic principle, — of great historic deeds being accomplished, and moral principles working out their results, without one great man to do the deeds or to manifest the principle in himself.
The fight in Kentucky seems to me one of the most important phases in the war. Her conduct for the past year has been so mean that she deserves the suffering that has come upon her; but in her borders we have now got slaveholders arrayed against slaveholders, and between them they will kill slavery in her limits. I hope you are wrong in thinking that we shall lose her, — though, if we do, I shall not much grieve, believing that every reverse of ours but makes our final success more certain, and gives to it a solid reality which would not be the result of an easy triumph. . . .
SHADY HILLDecember 5. Thursday eve’g.
MY DEAR GEORGE: — . . . We are very serious over the President’s Message. We think it very poor in style, manner and thought, — very wanting in pith, and exhibiting a mournful deficiency of strong feeling and of wise forecast in the President. This ‘no policy’ system in regard to the conduct of the war, and the treatment of the slavery question, is extremely dangerous, and must at the best produce very unfortunate divisions of opinion and of action among the people; — it is truly a very sad thing to see each successive opportunity for great, decisive, right counsels thus thrown away and worse than lost. — The chances of true success for us are diminishing with alarming rapidity. The Sibyl has burned three, — six, —seven — of her books. How many has she left to offer us? And shall we not have to pay more than we can get, for what are left?
Cameron has saved the gist of the part struck out; — but that is not enough. Nor is he the man to lead this country. He is playing a game, and his principles are as good as, no better than, John Cochrane’s.
I have stopped the publication of my essay on Emancipation, — convinced that the interpretation I had given to the Constitution was not the one truly intended by its framers and that it was not worth while to attempt to overset the common opinion in regard to the relation of the Constitution to slavery. We must get Emancipation — if at all—by war. Shall we ?
Like Mr. Lincoln, to-night I do not like to think of great subjects. . . .
SHADY HILL, December 31, 1861.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: — ... Lowell has been spending the evening with us, and brought up to read to us his new Biglow Paper. It is one of the best things he ever did, — it is a true Yankee pastoral and lyric; — not another letter of B. Sawin, but a poem or rather two poems of Hosea’s own, — the first a dialogue between Concord Bridge and Bunker Hill Monument. — the last a lyric about Jonathan and John, with the most spirited refrain. I am sure that you will be as delighted with it as I am. There is no doubt but that it will touch the popular heart.
I entirely agree with you as to the masterly manner in which Seward has treated the Trent case. If his paper has too much the character of a legal plea for strict diplomatic usage, it is to be remembered that it is in reality addressed to the American people and not to Lord Lyons. — Shall we yet have to fight England? With all my heart I hope not, — but if need be I am ready.
SHADY HILLSunday, February 9, 1862.
MY DEAREST George:— . . . Jane8 and I went to hear Fred’k Douglas. It was a sad though interesting performance. He said very little to the purpose, and nothing that was of worth as helping toward clearer conclusions in regard to the future of the black race in America. There was a want of earnestness and true feeling in his speech. It was discursive, shallow, personal, and though he said some clever things and displayed some power of humorous irony, it was on the whole a melancholy exhibition, for neither the circumstances of the time, nor the immeasurable importance of the topic were enough to inspire him with wise or sincere counsel. I could not but think how far he was from such honesty of purpose and depth of feeling as were in John Brown’s heart. There were several eloquent and well-meant passages in his lecture, but most of it was crude and artificial. We could not but come away disappointed and even disheartened.
How good the news is from Tennessee! 9 We have waited so long for success that we may well be glad when it comes. I trust that this is a blow to be followed up. . . .
Monday evening, March 3, 1862.
MY DEAR GEORGE: — . . . On the day you left us I had a long and most entertaining talk from Emerson about his experiences in Washington. Two things he said were especially striking. ‘When you go southward from New York you leave public opinion behind you. There is no such thing known in Washington.'— ‘It consoles a Massachusetts man to find how large is the number of egotists in Washington. Every second man thinks the affairs of the country depend upon him.' He reported a good saying of Stanton, when the difficulty of making an advance on account of the state of the roads was spoken of. — ‘Oh,’said he, ‘the difficulty is not from the mud in the roads, but the mud in the hearts of the Generals.'
Emerson said that Seward was very strong in his expressions concerning the incapacity and want of spirit of Congress, — and that Sherman and Colfax confirmed what Seward said, ascribing much of the manifest weakness to ’Border State’ influence.
And much more. . . .
SHADY HILL, March 8, 1862.
MY DEAREST GEORGE:舒AS I sit down to thank you for the note that came to me this morning, Jane is reading it aloud to Longfellow, and interrupts me to ask explanations. All you say is very interesting. But can I quite agree with you in confidence in Mr. Lincoln’s instincts? His message on Emancipation 10 is a most important step; but could anything be more feebly put, or more inefficiently written? His style is worse than ever; and though a bad style is not always a mark of bad thought, it is at least a proof that thought is not as clear as it ought to be.
How time brings about its revenges! I think the most striking incident of the war is the march of our men into Charlestown singing the John Brown psalm, ‘His soul is marching on.'
As for Lincoln’s suggestions, I am sure that good will come of them. They will at least serve to divide opinion in the Border States. But I see many practical objections to his plan; and I doubt if any State meets his propositions with corresponding action.
The Tribune is politic in its burst of ardor. Let us make out the message to be more than it is, — and bring the President up to our view of it. . . .
SHADY HILL, March 19, 1862.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: — ... I am not as critical as Iago, but I do not like McClellan’s address to his troops. It is too French in style and idiom. He ‘loves his men like a father’? ‘A magnificent army.' ‘God smiles upon us.' How does he know? And ‘victory attends us ’ ? This last phrase is plainly a mistranslation from the French ‘La Victoire nous attend,’— which means, what our General ought to have said, Victory awaits us.
But I am more than content with our progress. Wendell Phillips in Washington! The new Article of War! The slaves running away in Virginia! Frémont reinstated in command! — Freedom cannot take any backward steps — and it looks as if she would soon begin to move forward with faster and more confident steps than heretofore.
What a fine fight that was in Hampton Roads! Honor to the men of the Cumberland. I heard a most interesting and deeply moving account of the incidents of the fight and the sinking from Dr. Martin, the surgeon of the ship.
And how splendidly the Monitor was managed! . . .
SHADY HILLThursday evening, July 31, 1862.
DEAREST George:—. . . The weather is very beautiful; — such a sunshiny, showery, green, shady summer as it is! But we have no days finer than the 17th. That was fine every way. Your Oration11 lasts in the minds of men. Its praises come to me from all sides. Last Saturday at the Club there was a general expression of hearty admiration of it which would have pleased you to hear. Everyone who had heard it said it was one of the most effective pieces of oratory that had been heard here by this generation, and that its sentiment and doctrine were as noble as your eloquence. Even the ‘conservatives’ give in to its power. ‘Detestable opinions, Sir, but overwhelming eloquence.’
Here we have given up McClellan as a general, and have renewed our original faith in Stanton. It seems to me certain that the President and the Secretary of War have not interfered with McClellan’s plans, but have done everything to forward them. I fear the President is not yet quite conscious of the spirit of the people, and aware of the needs of the time. I have no doubt of his good intention, but I doubt if his soul is open to the heats of enthusiasm for a great principle, or his will quick and resolute enough for a great emergency. I do not believe in any palliatives at present. Will Lincoln be master of the opportunities, or will they escape him? Is he great enough for the time?
Do you think the army 12 on the James River is safe? If it is forced to surrender I think the people generally would be excited to make the cause good, rather than depressed by the calamity. — It looks to me as if Emancipation might come very soon in Kentucky. But what a pity that the President should not have issued a more distinct and telling Proclamation. I think this a great misfortune. However it is not a mere piece of commonplace faith that everything is best, when I say I believe that the issue of the war will be as we desire. — What a lot of capital I’s I have put into this note. . . .
SHADY HILL, September 7, 1862.
MY DEAR GEORGE: — I have not written to you in these past ten days because I have been writing much at my lectures,13 because Susan 14 has been ill with a slight touch of chills and fever, caught originally years ago on Long Island, because, in fine, the times have been so bad that there was no comfort to be found even in you. — I am hopeful still, but less confident than I have been. I think these days since you left us have been in some important respects the most disheartening that we have yet been through. They have been worse than days of more serious disaster, for they have betrayed alike the incompetence of our generals and the vacillations of our administration, at a time when there was special need of good generalship, and of vigorous purpose. It is poor comfort to find Pope such a failure that the reappointment of McClellan, apparently to chief command, seems better than to leave the army in Pope’s hands.
The people as usual have behaved splendidly. We are perishing for lack of that unpurchasable article — genius. The men are fine, — what we want is a man, — and our times do not produce in quantity men who deserve to be spoken of in the singular number.
And yet I feel that we do not know enough to form a positive judgment as to the conduct or abilities of any one of our generals. All are unsatisfactory, but they may, some of them, be less unsatisfactory than they seem to be. It is no use to get big armies if no one of our leaders can set them in the field. It is no use to send our men or to go ourselves to the war, if we are to be shot and not do any shooting.
All which, dearest ‘He of Harper’s Weekly and the Nile,’ is a mystery. I reveal my hidden, partial thoughts to you. There is much to be said (and which I say) on the other side. Our cause remains the same. It will not be lost in the end, and it is a good thing (perhaps) for the nation to have no leaders, but be forced to make its own way. — But, after all, I believe similar troubles attend almost all great wars; ours only seem aggravated by the gossiping intelligence of every fact, and the reiteration of every falsehood by the newspapers.
Have you lately read Carlyle’s account of the battle of Dunbar? — if not, pray read it now. And read too any good account of Hoche’s campaign in La Vendée. Hoche was a man of sense and his policy makes one doubt the advisableness of our advancing army’s living on the enemy. — The best thing for our cause at the present, time would be, I believe, a few days’ invasion of Ohio or Pennsylvania. Our people would really feel war then, and I think the Administration would have to carry on war with vigour after that. But I fear the enemy is not strong enough to invade us. . . .
SHADY HILL, September 23, 1862.15
MY DEAREST GEORGE; — God be praised! I can hardly see to write, — for when I think of this great act of Freedom, and all it implies, my heart and my eyes overflow with the deepest, most serious gladness.
I rejoice with you. Let us rejoice together, and with all the lovers of liberty, and with all the enslaved and oppressed everywhere.
I think today that this world is glorified by the spirit of Christ. How beautiful it is to be able to read the sacred words under this new light.
‘He hath sent, me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.'
The war is paid for.
Dearest George, I was very glad to see that your brother was safe, and to hear of his gallantry in the late actions.16
Love and congratulations from us all to all of you.
C. E. N.
SHADY HILL, November 12, 1862.
MY DEAREST George:—. . . Were it not for one or two ifs, I should feel much better about the state of affairs than I have for some time. The worst of the ifs is the one concerning Lincoln. I am very much afraid that a domestic cat will not answer when one wants a Bengal tiger. It is encouraging that Congress meets so soon again; the President will be helped by it.
Another if must go before Burnside’s name. He may be able to command one hundred thousand men in the field, but is he? He, like our other generals, is on trial. How we shall rejoice if he succeeds.
You are certainly right in your view of the elections. The Administraion will not be hurt by the reaction if the war goes on prosperously. If we have a vigorous, brilliant and really successful winter campaign there will be not much opposition left next spring; but if otherwise — if we have successes that lead to nothing, and victories that are next door to defeats, if the influence of Washington air follows and paralyzes our armies, then I think it will be hard times for us and all honest republicans, who hope for the country and believe in its institutions and its people. . . .
SHADY HILL,January 30, 1863.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: — One busy day has succeeded another since you were here till I am at last reduced to a condition in which I am fit for no work, and so set about writing a note and sending my love to you.
The Hero of one hundred ungained Victories, — the conqueror in his own bulletins, is at present in Boston, and but a few people remain calm. Some are excited with enthusiastic admiration of their own imagination of McClellan; some busy with wire-pulling; some active to prevent others ‘without distinction of party’ gaining any advantage out of relations with the disgraced Captain and candidate for the next Presidency; and some very much disquieted by all this folly. So you see those who keep quiet and innocent minds are in a despicable minority.
I have just finished the volume of Russell’s Diary that you left here. It is a very valuable and useful book; but he is a pretty small Irishman after all, and his style is as amusing sometimes as his ignorance. But I really like the book and have been greatly interested in it.
The new Army Bill is just what is needed, and in general Congress seems to be doing its work well. The Negro Soldier bill must pass, and I trust it is an efficient one. The getting ready a Negro army is the need beyond all others of this moment; and I am afraid from what I hear that the inexplicable President ‘does n’t see it.’ Mr. Sedgwick writes that he wishes two hundred good men would come on to Washington to press the matter forward, and to labour with Mr. Lincoln.—As to the Potomac Army I wish it could be sent South and West, and that Richmond could be captured by successes not in Virginia.
We are making arrangements here to secure the circulation of good telling articles from foreign and our own newspapers, to influence and direct public opinion.17 We propose to secure from one hundred thousand to five hundred thousand readers for two articles per week, and perhaps more. I shall be the ‘ editor ’ so to say, with John Forbes and Sam Ward as advisers. Please bear this in mind and send to me, marked, articles which you think should be thus circulated. I shall have frequent occasion to borrow from Harper, — or rather from you in Harper.
SHADY HILL,June 28, 1863.
MY DEAREST George:—. . . I want very much to talk over public affairs now with you. The course and the prospects of the parties no less than of the war seem likely to be very much determined by the events of the next few weeks. I trust solicitously. — The President’s letter struck me just as it had struck you. It is eminently characteristic of his better qualities of mind, — those which he shows when pushed hard, or really touched. It is a pity that he does not sustain himself at this height. He will not, I trust, make any elaborate answer to the Ohio Copperheads.
I am glad that the lines are being so clearly drawn. We had best understand the real amount and character of the Northern force against us. . . .
SHADY HILL,February 1, 1863.
MY DEAR GEORGE: — Here is our prospectus. If at any time you want to secure a still wider circulation for any one of your articles than their appearance in Harper affords, please send me from one hundred to five hundred slips, which can be cheaply enough struck off if done before the form for the paper is broken up.
McClellan is still here, and has been causing people to break the Sabbath to-day. Agassiz is a devoted admirer of his, and said yesterday that ‘he was a great but not a towering man.’ Dr. Holmes, studying him physiologically, talks of ‘broad base of brain,’ ‘threshing floor of ideas,’ no invention or original force of intellect, but compact, strong, executive nature, ‘with a neck such as not one man in ten thousand possesses,’ ‘muscular as a prize fighter,’ etc. etc. . . .
SHADY HILL,February 26, 1863.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: — ... It was pleasant to hear from you of your visit to Philadelphia, and to hear from John,18 on the same day, his glowing account of it. What a loyal place Philadelphia has become! We should be as loyal here if we had a few more out-and-out secessionists. Our Union ‘Club’ — we have dropped the offensive word ‘ League ’ — promises well — two hundred members already, and Mr. Everett and his followers pledged to principles which suit you and me. We are proposing to take the Abbott Lawrence house on Park St., and to be strong by position as well as by numbers. But nothing will do for the country,— neither Clubs nor pamphlets nor lectures, nor Conscription Bills (three cheers for the despotism necessary to secure freedom), nor Banking Bills, nor Tom Thumb, nor Institutes, — nothing will do us much good but victories. If we take Charleston and Vicksburg we conquer and trample out the Copperheads, — but if not?
I confess to the most longing hope, the most anxious desire to know of our success. I try to be ready for news of failure: indeed I shall be ready for such news if it comes, and we must all only draw a few quick breaths and form a sterner resolve, and fight a harder fight.
Where is the best statement, in a clear and quiet way, of the political necessity of the preservation of the Union, its vital necessity to our national existence? Seward has done harm by keeping up the notion of the old Union, — but who has seen clearest the nature of the new Union for which we are fighting? . . .
SHADY HILL,September 3, 1863.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: — It is pleasant to think of you as so near us. It would be much pleasanter to have you with us, — especially this morning, that we might congratulate each other on the extraordinary excellence of the President’s letter.19 He rises with each new effort, and his letters are successive victories. Indeed the series of his letters since and including the one to the Albany Committee are, as he says to General Grant of Vicksburg, ‘of almost inestimable value to the country,’ — for they are of the rarest class of political documents, arguments seriously addressed by one in power to the conscience and reason of the citizens of the commonwealth. They are of the more value to us as permanent precedents — examples of the possibility of the coexistence of a strong government with entire and immediate dependence upon and direct appeal to the people. There is in them the clearest tone of uprightness of character, purity of intention, and goodness of heart. . . .
SHADY HILLMonday evening, September 21, 1863.<br/> DEAREST George:— ... A ring at the door bell is the occasion of that [ink spot], — and I hear William James’s pleasant and manly voice in the other room from which the sound of my Mother’s voice has been coming to me as she read aloud the Consular Experiences of the most original of consuls. Tonight I am half annoyed, half amused at Hawthorne. He is nearly as bad as Carlyle. His dedication to F. Pierce — the correspondent of Jefferson Davis, the flatterer of traitors, and the emissary of treason — reads like the bitterest of satires; and in that I have my satisfaction. The public will laugh. ‘Praise undeserved’ (say the copybooks) ‘is satire in disguise,’ — and what a blow his friend has dealt to the weakest of exPresidents. . . .
SHADY HILL, September 27, 1863.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: —. . . Charles Eliot is going abroad with his wife and children, and proposes to spend the next six or eight months in Paris. He means to study Chemistry, and is also desirous to become thoroughly acquainted with the system and management and organization of some of the public institutions of France. He has a genius for such matters, and is well fitted by his training here to discover in the foreign institutions the points of most practical importance as capable of adaptation to our needs.20
He wants a letter to John Bigelow, and I have promised to get it for him. Will you write one or ask Godwin for one? And will you let me have it in the course of the week ? . . .
SHADY HILL, October 16, 1863.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: —I heartily and with all my heart rejoice with you in the result of Tuesday’s elections. All our confidence in the intelligence and patriotism of our people is justified. The victory is the moral Waterloo of the rebellion. The end is in view, — with Union and freedom and peace. . . .
I have just undertaken, in company with Lowell, the editorship of the North American Review. The arrangement with the publishers is a tolerably liberal one, and I think we can put some life into the old dry bones of the Quarterly. Will you sometimes write an article? Will you in the course of the next six weeks write one, — on any national question you choose, or on any other subject if you are tired of politics, — letting us have it for the January number? Do if you can do it. We can pay you two dollars and fifty cents a page. . . .
SHADY HILLThursday, December 10, 1863.
MY DEAREST George:— . . . Last night we went to hear Beecher. He spoke admirably, and it was a great pleasure to hear him. It was not great oratory, but it was a fine, large, broad, sensible, human, sympathetic performance. Tomorrow we have a dinner of our Dozen Club for him.
Once more we may rejoice that Abraham Lincoln is President. How wise and how admirably timed is his Proclamation.21 As a state paper its naïveté is wonderful. Lincoln will introduce a new style into state papers; he will make them sincere, and his honesty will compel even politicians to like virtue. I conceive his character to be on the whole the great net gain from the war. . . .
SHADY HILL, February 23, 1864.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: — . . . It is a great mistake, but let us trust not a great misfortune, that Chase should thus put himself forward against Lincoln as a candidate for the next Presidency. It is a position by no means creditable to him, nor can I well see how, if he has any self-respect, he can longer retain his position in the Cabinet. The address of the Committee who have his Presidential interests in hand is a most unprincipled document. Mr. Lincoln’s public conduct has given no grounds for the main charges contained in it against him, and it is disgraceful to insinuate charges which no man has a right to assert.
It would not be surprising if such an attack upon him were rather to strengthen Mr. Lincoln with the people than to weaken their confidence in him. I think the people generally trust his ability and his judgment no less than his good intentions. They see that he is honest in his devotion to their cause, they feel that he is in full sympathy with them, and they cannot be persuaded that, having served them so well, he will fail them hereafter. The democratic instinct is with him, and he has the hearts of the people as no public man in our time has had them. Mr. Chase has no hold on the popular affections, and it will not be strange if this early and unprincipled pushing of his candidacy should destroy his future chances of obtaining the great object of his ambition.
The radicals, the extreme radicals, make an enormous but characteristic mistake in ranging themselves in opposition to the President. He has done their work for them far more speedily and successfully than they could have done it for themselves. He has gone as fast as safety would permit, and it is difficult, to understand how men really desirous to advance the cause of liberty and of the Union, can, with the remembrance of the two hundred thousand votes cast for Woodward, Slavery and Disunion last October in Pennsylvania, think it desirable to support a candidate whose only claim to superiority over Mr. Lincoln lies in the fact of his being supported by a smaller party. But the extremists as usual remember nothing, learn nothing from experience, and have no gratitude except for future benefits. In Mr. Lincoln’s words, — ‘It is very difficult to do sensible things.’ . . .
SHADY HILL Class Day. June 24, 1864.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: — . . . The Baltimore Convention 22 did its duty well, and the air has cleared a good deal since it was held. I should have been glad if a more solid democratic plank had been inserted in the platform, — but our politicians do not yet begin to understand the distinctive, essential feature of our institutions, and have only a distant, theoretic comprehension of the meaning and worth of truly democratic ideas. This war is a struggle of the anti-democrats with the democrats; of the maintainors of the privilege of a class with the maintainers of the common rights of man. This view includes all the aspects of the war, and it is the ground upon which the people can be most readily brought to the sacrifices still required, and to the patient bearing of the long and heavy burdens it imposes upon them.
I have great confidence that the summer’s campaign will end well for us. If we have, as we may have (though I shall not be disappointed if we do not have it), a great victory, then the rebellion as a military power will be nearly at an end. But if we merely take Richmond, one more serious campaign at least will be before us, and the country will feel the weight of the war more than ever before. . . .
ASHFIELD, MASS., July 24, 1864.
MY DEAREST George:—. . . This week, let us hope, we shall hear that Sherman is in Atlanta, and that he is breaking up the army opposed to him. His work is not better done than Grant will do his. But I do not want peace till there is certainty of our carrying the Amendment to the Constitution. We must have that to make peace sure.
The Rebel self-appointed peacemakers took nothing by their move, and Lincoln showed as usual his straightforward good sense. What a contrast between him and the politicians who fancy themselves his superiors in insight and shrewdness! What does Raymond 23 mean by his Saturday’s article on Lincoln’s statement of terms? Is he hedging for a reconstruction with slavery? If so, he is more shortsighted and more unprincipled than I believed. I never fancied, indeed, that he had principles, and I thought he had learned enough not to confess such bad ones. . . .
HOME, September 6, 1864.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: — I have just read your paper on Hawthorne, and am greatly pleased with it. Your analysis of his mental and moral character, and of its intellectual results seems to me eminently subtile, delicate, and tender. I regret only that it is so short, — for there is much suggested in what you have written that might well be developed, and there are some traits of Hawthorne’s genius which scarcely have justice done them in the brevity of your essay. The one point which I should like to have had more fully brought out is the opposition that existed between his heart and his intellect. His genius continually, as it seems to me, overmastered himself, and the depth and fulness of his feelings were forced into channels of expression in which they were confined and against which they struggled in vain. He was always hurting himself, till he became a strange compound of callousness and sensitiveness. — But I do not mean to analyze. Your paper is a delightful one and I am very glad to have it.
And now let us rejoice together over the great good news. It lifts the cloud, and the prospect clears. We really see now the beginning of the end. The party that went for peace at Chicago24 has gone to pieces at Atlanta. — The want of practical good sense in our own ranks pains me. The real question at issue is so simple, and the importance of solving it correctly so immense, that I am surprised alike at the confusion of mind and the failure of appreciation of the stake among those who are most deeply interested in the result. Even if Mr. Lincoln were not, as you and I believe, the best candidate, he is now the only possible one for the Union party, and surely, such being the case, personal preferences should be sunk in consideration of the unspeakable evil to which their indulgence may lead. I have little patience with Wade, and Sumner, and Chase, letting their silly vexation at not having a chance for the Presidency thus cloud their patriotism and weaken the strength of the party. . . .
Sunday evening, September 25, 1864.
MY DEAREST GEORGE: — . . . We had a pleasant Club dinner yesterday. . . . Sumner has toned down greatly since it seems certain that Lincoln is to be reëlected. His opinion of Lincoln ’is at least not higher than it was three years ago.’ An officer just from Atlanta came in and told us some good stories of Sherman, — and of the transportation department of the army. There has been a corps of six thousand men detailed to keep the railroad from Nashville to Atlanta in order. The bridge across the Chattahoochie — a railroad bridge seven hundred and eight feet long, and ninety-three feet high — was built in four days. The army has been well supplied, in great measure with canned food. — ‘Yes,’ said Sherman, ‘I am perfectly satisfied with the transportation service, — it has given us abundance of desecrated vegetables and consecrated milk.’
This as a pendant to his recent letters. — What a week this last has been for good letters! Two from Lincoln, that are worthy of the best letter-writer of the time, — so simple, manly, and direct; one from Grant, not less simple and straightforward, clearing the air with its plain frankness from rumors and innuendoes, and affording a most striking contrast to the letters which Mr. Lincoln was in the habit of receivingfrom a formerCommander-in-Chief; and two from Sherman, masterpieces of strong sense in strong words. How his wrath swells and grows till it bursts in ‘Tell that to the Marines,’ and with what indignant common-sense does he reject the canting appeal to God and humanity of the Southern slave-drivers ! He writes as well as he fights. . . .
In the existing letters from Norton to Curtis there are only four, beyond this last, that fall within the period of the war; and they are unimportant. One could wish for some record of the impressions made by the closing scenes of the great drama. But that which we have yields its contribution to a fuller knowledge of the period, and at the same time reveals Norton as one whose confidence in the national life of which he was a part stood firmly and deeply rooted.
- The proposed Thirteenth Amendment recommended to the States by Congress on the eve of Lincoln’s inauguration.↩
- The Saturday Club of Boston.↩
- Charles Francis Adams was appointed minister to England, March 20, 1861.↩
- Cushing had presided at the Democratic National Convention which nominated Breckenridge to run against Lincoln.↩
- At Bull Run.↩
- Joseph Bridgham Curtis, 4th R. I. Regiment; killed at Fredericksburg.↩
- Professor F. J. Child of Harvard.↩
- Mr. Norton’s older sister.↩
- Fort Henry had just been taken, and Fort Donelson was about to fall.↩
- The special message urging ‘gradual abolishment of Slavery’ was sent to Congress March 6.↩
- The Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard.↩
- The Army of the Potomac, under McClellan, after the disastrous Seven Days’ battles.↩
- A course of Lowell Institute lectures on the characteristics of the twelfth century, delivered in the following winter.↩
- In May, 1862, Mr. Norton and Miss Susan Sedgwick had been married.↩
- The day after Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet.↩
- At Antietam, where Lieut. J. B. Curtis’s regiment was cut to pieces and driven back, he seized the colors, and shouted, ‘I go back no further! What is left of the Fourth Rhode Island, form here!’ For the rest of the day he fought as a private in an adjoining command. See Cary’s Curtis, p, 161 n.↩
- The first allusion to the work of the New England Loyal Publication Society.↩
- Their common friend, and later their Ashfield neighbor, John W. Field of Philadelphia.↩
- Presumably Lincoln’s letter of August 26, 1863, to J. C. Conkling, in answer to an invitation to attend a mass-meeting of unconditional Union men at Springfield, Ill., on Sept, 3.↩
- Six years later Mr. Eliot became President of Harvard.↩
- This proclamation, transmitted to Congress with Lincoln’s Third Annual Message, Dec. 8, 1863, provided both for the renewal of allegiance by persons in rebellion and the restoration of state governments under the Union.↩
- The National Union Convention, held early in June at Baltimore, had renominated Lincoln for the Presidency.↩
- Henry J. Raymond, Editor of the New York Times.↩
- The Democratic National Convention, which nominated McClellan for the Presidency. It met at Chicago, August 29.↩