BY MARGARET LEECH
REVEILLE IN WASHINGTON
BY MARGARET LEECH
The story of our National Capital in its greatest ordeal
FIVE years ago Margaret Leech began collecting from letters, diaries, old newspapers, and memoirs every scrap of information about life in our national capital at the time of the Civil War. Her true narrative begins in December 1860 when General Scott limped into town to suppress the sedition openly threatening that Lincoln would never live to be President. Southerners held key posts in the Army and Navy; with their thoroughbreds, their mansions, and their slaves, they had turned Washington into a Southern town.
To this place of uncertainty and suspicion came the President-elect. A horde of Westerners followed him — office seekers and men loyal to the Union, to replace the Southerners. After the attack on Sumter, Southern sympathizers cut the wires and tore up the rails, and for a few days the capital lived in dread of invasion. To its rescue came the regiments of the North, storming through rebellious Baltimore, landing by ship at Annapolis, striding up the Avenue with bands playing and flags flying. At last General McDowell had strength enough for a mass movement into Virginia. But before he marched his exact plans had been passed through the lines by a spy, Mrs. Greenhow. All Washington turned out to see the spandy regiments in their first engagement; but the picnic parties joined the frightened rabble when the Union forces broke and swirled back in sullen retreat. Desperately in need of a new leader, Lincoln telegraphed to McClellan in the West.
While McClellan prepared the Army of the Potomac for its long ordeal on the Peninsula, Washington entertained the hopes and fears of the nation. For one hectic day the Merrimac threatened to destroy the Federal Navy. Then it met the Monitor, and that fear subsided. The charming Southern spies — Mrs. Greenhow, Mrs. Phillips, and their associates — were rounded up by Pinkerton’s men and interned in the dreary Old Capitol. The country, confident of its new army, chafed at McClellan’s delay. At last, at Lincoln’s insistence, he moved south to lay siege to Yorktown. But from the news which eventually leaked through the censor’s office it was clear that McClellan, with his army of 100,000, had been outfought and outgeneraled during the Seven Days. As the fever-stricken and wounded men were shipped back to Washington, the city suddenly awoke to the fact that it had neither nurses nor doctors nor hospitals enough. The call went out for volunteers — surgeons and doctors — and, privately, for a better general. . . .
REVEILLE IN WASHINGTON: 1860-1865
BY MARGARET LEECH
AFTER the second battle of Bull Run, President Lincoln asked McClellan to take command of Washington and of the troops falling back on it from the front. In the great emergency there was no one else to choose. Halleck had gone to pieces. Pope’s gasconade was over. It was McClellan or chaos. ‘There is no man in the army,’ Lincoln said, ‘who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he.’
The incapacity of the Union commanders was a scandal over which Cabinet members shook their heads. Mr. Welles ascribed their dilatoriness to their West Point education, which instilled a defensive policy, and, quite overlooking Lee and Jackson, declared that ‘no efficient, energetic, audacious, fighting, commanding general had yet appeared from that institution.’ Montgomery Blair blamed Stanton for the defects of the generals, and said that he should not give way to narrow prejudices and personal dislikes, but should search out good officers — ‘should dig up these jewels.’
The reputation of the soldiers of the East, as well as of the officers, was blighted. The ranks of the veterans were thinned, not only by death and wounds and capture, but by the dark contagion of desertion. Exhaustion and hunger and loss of faith had demoralized thousands of the soldiers. They flooded back in disorder on the Alexandria road, flopped down to rest, indifferent to the tumult of the retreating infantry and cavalry, artillery and wagons. Their great fires illuminated the whole countryside. Across the bridges they crowded into the capital, congregating in low groggeries and staggering drunken and loud-mouthed in droves on every street. Hundreds of officers, absent from their commands, were rounded up in Washington hotels and other public places in ‘such general hauls ... as the police of New York are at times compelled to make of the inmates of the notable dance houses.’ Washington saw the ‘dead beats’ and the shirking officers, and believed that they represented the armies of the Union.
Monotonously, every day, the new incoming volunteers lined up at the depot. One morning the Soldiers’ Retreat fed over seven thousand men. ‘We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.’ Into a soured and despairing city they brought their awkwardly held rifles, their inexperienced faces that had never looked on war.
For over a week the wounded came back to Washington by train and boat and in vehicles of every description. The provost guard commandeered private carriages for service between the wharves and depot and the hospitals. To the consternation of the State Department, the Prussian Minister, Baron Gerolt, was unceremoniously deprived of his conveyance and left standing in the street; and, to prevent diplomatic incidents, Frederick Seward hastened to get safeguards for all the foreign ministers from Wadsworth. A horrified sergeant rode up in time to rescue the President’s barouche, stopped by one of the troopers. Lincoln said that the man was doing his duty.
Meanwhile Lee’s army appeared to have withdrawn. Rumors came that it was crossing the upper Potomac. The President, consumed with anxiety to find and hurt the enemy, ordered Halleck on September 3 to organize an army immediately for active operations. Halleck passed the word along to McClellan.
That week McClellan performed something very like a miracle. In the camps and fortifications, the broken brigades seemed to re-form by magic. This had been a conglomeration of soldiers. When McClellan spoke the word, it was an army. Its organization was imperfect, its clothing, ammunition, and supplies were all in sad condition. No commander ever had more excuse for saying that his men were not ready to fight; but for once McClellan was able to lay aside his desire for a perfection not attainable in human enterprise. He took command on Tuesday. On Thursday he threw out the advance of his force to the north. On Friday the army marched.
Every reduced brigade had its iron column of fighting men. With the tendrils of home and family and small ambitions quick about them, they had learned to subdue their strongest traditions and yield uncritical obedience to an arbitrary command. Scarred by war and weather, with their bleached and scanty uniforms and their dirty, shredded flags, they wore a look of hard utility. Their collars had been wilted in the sweat of the Chickahominy, leggings and gaiters had littered the Peninsula from Mechanicsville to Malvern Hill. Men marched in shirt sleeves or blue blouses, open at the throat, with trousers rolled at the ankle and tucked into gray woolen socks. There were worn-out caps of every style, and hats of straw and of palm leaf, of brown and black and soiled white wool. The trappings of the officers’ horses no longer glittered. The gold-embroidered shoulder straps were tarnished, or replaced by common metal, and the crimson sashes were faded or gone. It was a shabby and seasoned army that brought the gaping citizens to the pavements. The troops did not pass the White House, but turned into H Street, to cheer McClellan lustily as they went by his house.
McClellan had been expressly informed that his command was confined to the troops defending Washington. Burnside, again offered the active command, had for a second time declined it. The Army of the Potomac was advancing on Lee’s forces without a leader. McClellan prepared to follow his men. Halleck said that the President told McClellan to take command in the field. Lincoln said that the responsibility was Halleck’s, There was no written order, and McClellan affirmed that he received no directions at all. He thought that, in the excited state of feeling in the capital, he might well be condemned to death if the army were defeated. Firmly and promptly he made his decision; but some puerility in his nature persuaded him to disfigure it with a piece of impudence. Like a gentleman leaving a town where he has been hospitably received, he inscribed on three of his visiting cards the initials, P. P.C. — ‘ Pour prendre congé.’ With his staff and personal escort, he rode on Sunday to the White House, the War Office, and Seward’s house, and left a card at each.
On September 15, Washington had news of a victory at South Mountain, a spur of the Blue Ridge, beyond which Lee’s army was massed. The hotels, public offices, and promenades were filled with smiling Unionists, and ‘McClellan stock went up generally.’ In the evening a large crowd gathered before the bulletin board at the Star office. When a man said that he wanted the news confirmed, for ‘McClellan was no more reliable than Pope,’ he was struck instantaneous blows on each side of the head by two bystanders. ‘Divil take the man who would say a word agin’ McClellan after hearing that news,’ said an Irishman who was one of the assailants.
Two days later there was furious fighting at Sharpsburg, along the Antietam Creek. There, in the golden air of September, for fourteen hours the armies contended; and at the close of day twenty thousand men from North and South lay dead and wounded in the narrow country lanes, the ripe cornfields, and the laden orchards. McClellan claimed a great victory — ‘a masterpiece of art.’ Lee called it a drawn battle. The losses of the Union were a little the heavier. But the tide of gray rolled back from Maryland, and the North went wild with joy.
Lee’s army made its escape into Virginia. McClellan did not follow. His thirst for battle had been quenched in the blood of Antietam. He had learned to fight aggressively, but he could not pursue or destroy. After South Mountain he had received a telegram, signed Winfield Scott. ‘Bravo, my dear general!’ it ran; ‘twice more and it’s done.’ But once more was all that McClellan was able to manage.
The breach between McClellan and the government widened. His partisans included not only patriotic members of the Democratic Party but peace advocates, soreheads with a grudge against the administration, and secession sympathizers. He was being spoken of as the Democratic nominee for President in 1864. The military proclamation of emancipation which the President issued that month was said to have awakened great dissatisfaction among McClellan’s soldiers. There was a story that he did not pursue the enemy because it was not ‘ the game’ to destroy the rebel army and end the war, but rather to bring about a compromise settlement which should preserve the institution of slavery. The President traced the report to a major, who was the brother of one of McClellan’s staff officers, and personally examined and dismissed him from the service as an example.
The President sent McClellan orders to cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. McClellan did not obey. For six weeks the Army of the Potomac lay in Maryland. The country groaned with impatience and dissatisfaction. Stocks declined; volunteering lagged; the State ballot boxes gave a verdict adverse to the administration. The President repeatedly begged, persuaded, and ordered McClellan to advance. McClellan said that the army was not ready. It was true that his soldiers were in need — like those of General Lee, though not so sorely — of shoes, blankets, clothing, horses, and camp equipment. McClellan’s mood was one of proud, dark, brooding resentment. His communications with Stanton and Halleck were few and rigidly formal. He regarded himself as the savior of his country, who should be spared interference. Much of his time was spent in controversies with the quartermaster’s department over his supplies — those supplies that he had been able to forget in his great phase of resolution in September.
At last he got his army across the Potomac. Moving east of the Blue Ridge, it marched slowly down to Warrenton. Lee was at Winchester. The road to Richmond was open to the Federals. A committee of patriotic ladies who paid a visit to the President were shocked by ‘his introverted look and his halfstaggering gait.’ He shook their hands mechanically. He could give them no encouragement, he told them. There was agony ahead for the people, and they were not prepared for it. The army did not realize that they were in a terrible war that had to be fought out.
General Lee brought his army through the passes of the Blue Ridge, and occupied Culpeper Court-House, between the Army of the Potomac and Richmond. For Mr. Lincoln it was the deciding factor. On November 7, General Catharinus P. Buckingham, Stanton’s confidential assistant adjutant-general, took a journey by special train on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. He did not go direct to McClellan’s headquarters, but made his way through a heavy snowstorm to Burnside’s camp. After all, Burnside was the only jewel that the War Department was able to dig up. For the third time the command of the Army of the Potomac was offered to him — it was in the form of an order from Halleck. In agitation Burnside hesitated. Outside his quarters the November gale whirled the snowflakes. In the thick white twilight he made his reluctant decision to obey, and rode with Buckingham to McClellan’s tent. The two officers stood watching while McClellan read the order which relieved him of command. He made no sign while they were there. ‘Alas for my poor country!’ he wrote his wife when they were gone.
In all that stricken and saddened army, the most unhappy man was its new commander. McClellan pitied him. He thought — or so he later said — that his old friend was not competent to command more than a regiment. Of his own incapacity, Burnside had no doubt. He was an honest man, and he went about telling the other officers that he was not fit for the position.
McClellan declared that there were hotheads in the army who were in favor of his refusing to obey the order, who wanted to march on Washington to take possession of the government. But, if revolution might have broken out at a word from him, he never spoke that word. For a few days he remained at his headquarters, helping Burnside with his arrangements. Then he bade farewell to his troops and quietly took his departure. He had been directed to go to Trenton to await orders. There had been no military operations around Trenton since that icy December morning of 1776 when General Washington had marched from the Delaware to capture a thousand Hessians there. Stanton was not a man much given to smiling, but surely his Cupid’s-bow upper lip must have widened over his abundant whiskers when he contemplated that order.
Washington, which had been a camp, had been transformed into a hospital — the vast base hospital of the Army of the Potomac. Clusters of white buildings and tents had changed the aspect of the city and its surrounding hills. The E Street Infirmary, destroyed by fire in the autumn of 1861, had been replaced by the rectangular pavilions of the new Judiciary Square Hospital. Stanton Hospital, at New Jersey Avenue and I Street, was another modern institution, and opposite it on Minnesota Row the former mansions of Douglas, Breckinridge, and Rice now constituted Douglas Hospital. Lincoln and Emory Hospitals were being constructed on the plain to the east of the Capitol. Near the Smithsonian, beside the open sewer of the canal, lay the clean, parallel sheds of the great Armory Square Hospital, conveniently accessible from the Maryland Avenue depot and the wharves. On the distant heights long one-story buildings, lavishly whitewashed and encircled by huts and tents, seemed to bloom like monstrous flowers in the soft light.
In Washington, as well as in Georgetown and Alexandria, sick and wounded men lay in hotels and warehouses, in private houses, schools, and seminaries, and the lodges of fraternal orders. On Independence Day of 1862, it had been observed that the church bells could not be rung because of the suffering that lay beneath them. The seizure of the churches had begun in June, when an officer of General Wadsworth waited on the rectors of Trinity, the Ascension, and the Epiphany, three edifices which, the Star felt, could be occupied with the least inconvenience to loyal worshipers. Carpets, cushions, and hymnbooks were packed away. Carpenters covered the pews with scantling on which floors were laid, and the pulpits and other furniture were stowed underneath. The mains were tapped to supply water for kitchens established in the basement, or in hastily constructed outbuildings. Presently appeared wagonloads of furniture, drugs, and utensils. The flag of the Union was run up. Wardmasters, nurses, orderlies, cooks, and stewards arrived. Ambulances began to stop at the church doors. Last of all came the surgeons, with their knives and saws and dirty little sponges.
Since the preceding year the Patent Office had been used as a hospital. One thousand more beds were placed on the second floor and on the gallery which ran around the lofty hall. At night, in the glare of the gaslight, it was a curious scene. Like some new exhibit of ghastliness, waxy faces lay in rows between the shining glass cabinets, filled with curiosities, foreign presents, and the models of inventions. The nurses’ heels clicked on the marble floor, and over all lay the heavy smell of putrefaction and death.
Yet, as the wounded came in from Pope’s campaign, there was still not room enough. Georgetown College was turned into a hospital; so was the H Street mansion of the rebel sympathizer, Mr. Corcoran. At last it was found necessary to make a temporary requisition of the Capitol, and two thousand cots were placed in the halls of the House and Senate, in the corridors and the Rotunda.
The sick of the early regiments and the beaten stragglers of First Bull Run had been charitably treated. Ladies whose hearts were with the Southern cause joined their Northern sisters in sewing and picking lint for the wounded. As the hospitals multiplied in the capital, so did the visitors who came to tend the soldiers and to bring them presents. These ministrations were not invariably welcome. The hospital doors were wide open, not only to relatives and friends and the agents of relief organizations, but to any strangers who chose to call. Some fed improper food to the sick. Others wearied them with impertinent questions. Even desperately ill men were not protected from the intrusions of the tactless and the curious. When wounded prisoners began to be sent to Washington from the Peninsula, the more virulent secessionist ladies made themselves a nuisance. To the irritation of doctors and attendants, they strolled through the wards casting freezing looks at the Union cots, while they showered the rebels with flowers, fruits, and clothing.
The constant civilian inspection served the purpose of advertising the defects of the institutions. The shortcomings of old hotels and schoolhouses, of churches and public buildings, were glaringly apparent to the most casual caller. The renovated barracks were dark and badly ventilated, and usually lacked municipal conveniences, while their grounds, particularly those of the cavalry barracks, were filthy. Moreover the administration of the hospitals left much to be desired. There was no trained personnel on which to draw. Where institutions were hastily improvised, it was inevitable that some surgeons should be careless and incompetent, many cooks and stewards corrupt, almost all nurses inexpert. Almost as soon as the Washington hospitals opened their doors their abuses became a scandal, to be exposed and deplored by public-spirited citizens.
The new and scientifically planned pavilions were popularly admired. It could not have occurred to anyone that a generation later their fine operating rooms would be considered abominable places. They were scrubbed and odorless. There was running water. Large mahogany boxes held the instruments; and the heavy centre table was covered with a freshly wiped rubber cloth. But asepsis was not understood. The surgeon rolled up his sleeves, gave his knife a last flick on the sole of his boot, and the operation began. His exploring hands wore no gloves. The probe carried the infection deep into the torn tissues. If one of the sponges employed to mop out the wound happened to drop on the floor, it was squeezed in water and used at once; and, in any case, only a cursory washing had cleansed it of the blood and pus of the last operation. In threading the needle for the stitches, it was customary to point the silk by wetting it with saliva and rolling it with the fingers. Cold water was the sovereign dressing; bad wounds were repeatedly drenched to relieve the burning pain. Sometimes the wound was covered with wax; or ointments were applied on lint which had been scraped from cotton cloth by the patriotic but unsterile hands of women and children. Poultices of flaxseed meal or moistened bread were valued for promoting an abundant flow of pus, for all wounds were expected to suppurate. Blood poisoning and tetanus, secondary hæmorrhage and gangrene, were familiar visitors in the finest of the shining, whitewashed new pavilions of which Washington was so proud, and helped to fill the pine coffins which went jouncing in the dead-carts to the cemetery.
Yet to the wounded soldier, as to the vast fellowship of the sick, the hospitals of Washington seemed havens of comfort to which he had attained after a long delirium of agony and neglect. He could lie still on a bed, instead of the floor of a freight car, the deck of a ship, or a shelf in a jarring ambulance. In Washington he found the stupor of morphine and laudanum, the deep oblivion of chloroform and ether.
The journey by road was the most painful mode of transportation. Yet ambulances in the armies of the United States were a humane innovation; they had never been used before this war. Two years before the outbreak the Medical Bureau, in an uncharacteristic moment of expansiveness, had decided to fall in with the modern European idea of providing wagons expressly planned for carrying the sick and wounded. The design which met with the greatest favor, because it w’as light and intended for only one horse, consisted of a square box mounted on the axle of a single pair of wheels. This absurdly tilting rig made an acceptable pleasure carriage for junketing officers, but for more practical purposes it was useless. As frail as gigs, the two-wheeled ambulances cracked at the first strain, and their rocking motion was unbearable to suffering men. Everyone condemned them; but so many had been ordered that it was some time before they were entirely supplanted. The cumbrous four-wheeled ambulances, which required four horses to draw them, were the most comfortable that could be devised. When the wounded traveled by road, only the worst cases could find a place in them. For men with fresh amputations, with faces shot away, or with lead in breast or belly, was reserved the poor luxury of being bumped and jolted, dashed against each other and against the sides of the vehicle, as they hurtled over the rutted Virginia roads.
The journey by rail was mercifully shorter, if the cars were not sidetracked or delayed. When such accidents occurred, the men suffered bitterly. On a Saturday night in June of 1862, four hundred men arrived unexpectedly from Front Royal, where they had already endured much misery because of the disorganized medical service in the Valley. No ambulances came to meet them, and no hospital official appeared. After a fruitless effort to find the SurgeonGeneral, the doctor in charge deserted them and went off to eat and sleep. Aroused from their beds by the news of the soldiers’ predicament, near-by residents of the Island hurried to the depot with hot drinks, food, stimulants, and fresh bandages. Grace Church, Ryland Chapel, and Potomac Hall were opened, and the wounded were carried in and cared for. Next morning the congregation of Grace Church, coming to worship, took one look at the figures on the pew cushions and dispersed to bring a fresh supply of food and drink. This was an exceptional case of neglect, and resulted in the doctor’s dismissal from the service; but delays and maladjustments were unending.
By ship, as well as by train, the Island received the wreckage of the army in Virginia. Throughout June, hospital ships had come up from the Peninsula. In July the wounded poured in a great tide from the battles of the Seven Days. Crowds gathered at the Sixth and Seventh Street wharves to see the men carried from the ships and loaded on the ambulances. At night there were fewer spectators. In the flaring light of the torches, the workers of the Sanitary Commission moved about the sheds where coffee and beef soup steamed in cauldrons. The watchman’s hoarse voice cried, ‘Steamers in sight!’ Through the mist loomed the white top-heavy shape of a great river boat. In silence, like a ghost ship, it moved alongside the wharf. There were no lights, no figures at the rails, no stir of arrival or greeting. The passengers lay on the decks, in the cabins and the saloons, even on the stairs and the gangway. The light of the relief workers’ candles flickered on beseeching eyes, for these men were pitifully afraid of being stepped on. The business of transferring them to the ambulances went on quietly. There were a few groans. Now and then a man screamed as he was lifted. For the most part, the passengers were as silent as their companions who lay with covered faces in the bow. The ghost ship moved on, to make way for another. All night the ambulances rattled out to the hills beyond the city.
Often, when at long last he lay in a quiet bed, the wounded soldier opened his eyes on a strange apparition — the figure of a woman. The example of Miss Florence Nightingale in the Crimea had made seemly the presence of ladies in hospitals devoted to men. In June of 1861, Miss Dorothea L. Dix of Massachusetts had been appointed Superintendent of Women Nurses, with authority to select and assign them to the military hospitals.
Miss Dix had for many years been engaged in public work. She had devoted her life to lunatics paupers, and prisoners. By her revelations of the inhumane conditions in almshouses and jails, particularly in the treatment of the insane, she had brought about reforms, influenced legislation, and enlarged the social consciousness of the nation. All this she had accomplished without sacrificing her woman’s prerogative of timidity and refinement. She had a low, sweet voice. The knot of hair seemed too heavy for the gentle head set on a long neck. But her mouth and chin were firm, and her blue-gray eyes could dilate with holy indignation. Her reputation cast a final respectability over the position of female nurse; and on the news of her appointment applications flooded into Washington, while many young women came in person to offer their services.
The majority of these thousands of applicants met with a stern rejection. Miss Dix in 1861 was nearly sixty years old. She considered all persons under thirty disqualified for nursing. She requested the provost marshal, who had been receiving a number of aspiring ladies, to send her only those who were able to turn a full-grown man around in bed, and to do the most menial work. This, he remarked, thinned the ranks of the candidates very much. Good looks met with as little favor as youth. Miss Dix had a detestation of wasp waists. A kindly disposed woman said that, to win the superintendent’s approval, an applicant must be ‘plain almost to repulsion in dress.’ Certainly hospital wards were no place for crinolines. The nurses, in their perpendicular skirts, seemed to themselves laughably ‘angular’ and ‘mediæval’ in appearance. But young and personable women showed that they were able to lay off their hoops, forget their vanity, and do good work in the hospitals; while a number of Miss Dix’s elderly frights proved a disgrace to the service for which she had accepted them.
In her long career of public service Miss Dix had always worked alone, and she had no administrative ability. She was elderly, high-strung, and inflexible. In a determination to do everything herself, she was soon involved in a maze of details. She interviewed all candidates, assigned them to their posts, visited hospitals, adjusted disputes, and ferreted out abuses, in addition to supervising the distribution of quantities of supplies. Her authority was ill-defined, and conflicted with that of the surgeons. Most of them did not approve of the newfangled idea of introducing female nurses into the military hospitals. Some conceded that women might have a place in the diet kitchen, the linen room, or the laundry. Others would employ only black-robed, disciplined Sisters of Charity, who did not gossip or fuss, and were not given to writing home that the patients were maltreated or that the surgeons drank and misappropriated the hospital stores. It was not a time when men were accustomed to having their work interfered with by women.
Under the pressure of her multifarious and unsystematized duties, Miss Dix grew overwrought, lost her self-control, and involved herself in quarrels. She remained at her post without a leave of absence throughout the war. Many of the doctors snubbed her and selected their own nurses, and they were supported by the Surgeon-General’s order giving them ‘control and direction’ over the attendants of the cases under their charge. The nurses were never organized. One group continued to report to Miss Dix, others to various surgeons. Some gave their services without compensation, and some received the government allowance of twelve dollars a month and food. There were women sent by State agencies and aid societies, and wives and sisters who came to visit soldiers and remained to care for them. Without training or discipline, they were all set adrift in the hospitals, to learn their duties as best they could. They were overburdened with heavy work because of the infirmity of the male attendants—convalescent soldiers, often too weak to be of any assistance. Women showed courage and initiative in entering this new field of activity, but most of them were of little use. The foolishly sentimental and the incompetent were weeded out. Many fell ill. Only a few heroic women were able to survive the hard work and the bad food, and to conciliate the surgeons and ward masters.
The office of president of the United States Sanitary Commission fell to Dr. Henry W. Bellows, a popular Unitarian minister, and he devoted his eloquence and zeal to the arduous task of raising funds for its work. The chief executive duties were performed by the general secretary of the Commission at its central office in Washington; and presently, to fill this post, a frail little man arrived at the capital on crutches. Before the war, Frederick Law Olmsted had traveled widely in the South, and had written books describing social and economic conditions little comprehended in the free States. The vivid and tolerant pages of A Journey in the Back Country and A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States had given many Northerners their first accurate knowledge of slavery. But aside from his writing Olmsted’s main interest was in farming and horticulture. He was engaged in an unusual profession, that of landscape architect, and he had been made the architect and superintendent of New York City’s Central Park, that project novel in America of a large pleasure ground designed for the use of the people.
Olmsted had proved to be an able public servant who tenaciously developed the park in the face of unceasing opposition from corrupt politicians. His health had suffered from the strain; and a fall from his horse, while inspecting the work, had given him a badly broken thigh. Yet his leave of absence for patriotic duty brought him no rest for two laborious years. In July of 1861, he shared with a competent doctor the labor of inspecting twenty camps near Washington. That year the servants often found him still at work when they came to set the breakfast table. In the spring of 1862 he went to the Peninsula to spend himself in untiring service. His wasted, autocratic face, with its feminine features and straggling moustache, burned with the same harsh flame of consecration that lighted the features of Miss Dix. But Olmsted had a genius for organization; and, backed by the gentlemen of his board, he developed the Sanitary Commission into an immense and powerful agency for the relief of suffering among the soldiers.
Theirs were the plans for the new pavilion hospitals; theirs too were the monographs that acquainted country practitioners turned army doctors with hygiene and vaccination, with the treatment of dysentery and malaria and venereal diseases. They forced the necessity for camp sanitation on the government’s attention. Their barrels of potatoes and onions abated scurvy in many regiments. They equipped and staffed the hospital ships, and later built hospital cars, with swinging litters, kitchens, and dispensaries.
For all this great work, however, the Sanitary Commission might have remained little known to the general public had it not been for the secondary phase of its activities — the distribution of supplies. By the sheer force of their patriotic benevolence, the ladies overwhelmed the scientific preoccupations of Dr. Bellows and Mr. Olmsted and their associates. Everywhere the war was bringing women out of the seclusion of domestic life. Timid ones grew bold as lions. Invalids arose from their sofas.
To the astonishment of men, they were able to draft constitutions and bylaws, to serve on committees and preside at meetings, even to raise and handle money. From thousands of aid societies in all parts of the Union a steady stream of stores flowed to the Sanitary Commission. Enriched by large donations, it established enormous storehouses and then administered them efficiently. It organized a relief service for hospitals and camps and installed its own refreshment saloons. Trained agents, in charge of the Commission’s wagonloads of supplies, moved with every army. The name, which had been derived from an interest in preventive hygiene, became a household word; and everything sent to the soldiers, from currant wine to Canton flannel drawers, went by the name of ‘sanitary stores.’
At Antietam the Sanitary Commission first developed its system of relief on the battlefield. The reforms in the army medical department never made civilian assistance superfluous in alleviating the sufferings of the wounded; and to the end of the war the Sanitary Commission continued to labor at the front, as well as in hospitals and camps. Another group, the United States Christian Commission, also went with supplies to Antietam. This organization was an outgrowth of the Y. M.C.A.
Before either of these large organizations had found means of reaching the front, they had been anticipated by a solitary little maiden lady — Miss Clara Barton, who had singlehanded succeeded in forcing her way through official red tape and military restrictions. The April evening of 1861 when she had sprung forward at the Washington depot to dress the wounds of the Sixth Massachusetts with handkerchiefs had marked a turning point in a hitherto obscure and unrewarded life.
Miss Barton had many temperamental resemblances to Miss Dix. She too was timid, high-strung, and willful; but, unlike the other spinster from Massachusetts, she had no national reputation and no background of public service. From schoolteaching she had gone to the job of Patent Office clerk at a salary of $1400 a year. It was unusual for a female to be employed by the government, particularly at a wage which equaled that of a man, but Miss Barton was well qualified for the work by her fine, copper-plate handwriting. Although she was morbidly sensitive and shy, suffered agonies of self-consciousness and was subject to nervous breakdowns, the soldiers in the Senate Chamber were only the first of many audiences she would address in a long career as an eloquent and dramatic public speaker.
After First Bull Run, she advertised in the Worcester Spy for provisions for the wounded. As quantities of boxes were shipped to her from Massachusetts, she established her own distributing agency; but she was not satisfied with the rôle of dispensing supplies.
In the hospitals and on the wharves she heard many heartbreaking stories of the neglect which had preceded the soldiers’ arrival in Washington. Miss Barton began to badger the SurgeonGeneral’s office for permission to carry her supplies to the front. In some manner she secured an authorization from Hammond, who asked the Assistant Quartermaster-General, Colonel Daniel H. Rucker, to give her every facility for taking supplies to the sick. Her eloquent plea touched Rucker’s heart. He arranged for transportation by boat and train, and helped her with the complicated business of obtaining the various passes necessary to permit her to travel with her stores and a lady companion through the army lines between Washington and Fredericksburg.
On a Sunday morning in early August of 1862, Miss Barton, in a plain black print skirt and jacket, climbed over the wheel of an army wagon in full view of the Washington churchgoers, plumped herself down beside the Negro driver, and drove off to take a government transport for the camps near Aquia Creek. A few days later she was ministering to the wounded of Banks’s corps on the battlefield of Slaughter Mountain.
Clara Barton was a shining exception to the useless civilians who went out from the capital to tend the wounded of Second Bull Run. Few timid women have spent such a week-end as that she passed near Fairfax Station. The disgruntled male nurses, drunken and otherwise, who reached that point on the Sunday morning after the battle might have found plenty of opportunity to be of service on a hillside near the little depot. All day wagonloads of wounded arrived from the battlefield. The men were laid among the trees on the ground, where hay had been scattered to make an immense bed. That night, in the mist and darkness, Miss Barton, with a little band of helpers, prepared to feed the crowd. She had almost no utensils, but she had many boxes of preserves, and as jam jars and jelly tumblers were emptied she filled them again and again with soup or coffee or broad soaked in wine. Monday brought many wounded who had lain three days without food. To ensure that none should be loaded on the cars without receiving nourishment, Clara Barton personally fed that day’s arrivals in the wagons, climbing from wheel to brake. By evening her supplies were almost gone. As the wounded still came in she stirred the leftovers together; and in the pouring rain, amid the uproar of the thunder and the artillery at Chantilly, the famished men greedily ate a concoction of hard crackers pounded into crumbs and mixed with wine, whiskey, brown sugar, and water.
Informed by this experience, Miss Barton made thorough preparation for the next battle. An army wagon, drawn by a string of frisky mules, was assigned to her by the Quartermaster’s Department. Her own baggage was contained in a handkerchief, but the wagon bulged with stores. She had even had the forethought to bring lanterns, so that the surgeons could see to work at night. In the middle of September, a solitary woman in the wagon train of an advancing army, she journeyed over the hills of Maryland, slicing bread and passing it out to the stragglers along the road. Progress was slow; and, pushing on at night while the drivers of the other wagons slept, this indomitable lady reached the artillery by morning and followed the cannon to Antietam Creek.
The work she did on that field caused the Quartermaster’s Department to capitulate to her completely. When the Army of the Potomac advanced in Virginia, Clara Barton accompanied the Ninth Corps with her own train of four heavily laden wagons and an ambulance. She treated her rough teamsters like gentlemen, and they became her devoted servants. This shy little lady had overridden the regulations of the army and the conventions of society. Hardship and danger had cast out all her nervous fears; and, in the giddy elation of service and self-sacrifice, she bumped triumphantly to Warrenton.
The army, which had been advancing, was now halted stock-still. Presently, a presage of activity, the sick began to come up from Warrenton on the cars. The army was marching toward the Rappahannock. On November 18, the Star was confident that General Burnside had crossed the river and made his headquarters in Fredericksburg, and would take Richmond in less than ten days. On November 21, that newspaper admitted that the rebels still occupied Fredericksburg; Lee’s army was firmly entrenched on the heights around the city. On the twenty-fifth, the Star conceded that the rebels apparently designed making serious resistance to the Federal army’s crossing the Rappahannock.
The officers of the Army of the Potomac had been peremptorily ordered to rejoin their commands, but the city was still filled with shoulder straps. There were the officers of the large force left for the protection of Washington under the command of General Heintzelman, who had succeeded General Banks in command of the defenses. Staff officers were legion, as were those of the Commissary and Quartermaster’s Departments. There were paroled prisoners and members of courts-martial, convalescents and a multitude of surgeons. Handsome Fitz-John Porter was there, to learn the verdict that would wreck his career. Irvin McDowell had come to hear his name traduced at the court of inquiry which he had demanded.
On Saturday, December 13, the rumbling rumors from Fredericksburg culminated in the report of a heavy engagement. The story unfolded slowly. ‘When I get nothing clear and explicit at the War Department,’ Welles wrote in his diary, ‘I have my apprehensions. . . . Adverse tidings are suppressed with a deal of fuss and mystery, a shuffling over of papers and maps, and a farreaching vacant gaze.’
The military censorship was suppressing the news of the losses at Fredericksburg, but the War Department was actually uninformed of the outcome of the engagement. From early morning until night the President sat in suspense in the telegraph office. Burnside, with every one of his generals opposed to him, wanted to renew the assault. The uncertainty at the War Department lasted until the early hours of Tuesday morning.
The border town of Washington had access to first-hand information. On Sunday night a steamerload of officers and soldiers arrived from Aquia Creek — men who had been slightly wounded in the battle, who were able to walk, who were able to tell of the hopeless courage and the slaughter of the repeated assaults which Burnside had ordered on the Fredericksburg fortifications. That same evening the correspondent, Henry Villard, reached Washington from the front. The censor refused to pass his dispatch to the New York Tribune, which Villard then represented. He sent it off by messenger on the night train, but the Tribune, in advance of confirmation, was afraid to print the full story, which told of the blundering command and the perilous situation of the army. Villard’s beat was wasted — a fate which frequently overtook early reports of bad news during the war.
After his story was written, Villard went into Willard’s to get some supper, and, meeting Senator Henry Wilson, told him that Burnside was defeated. Wilson hurried to the White House. A little before ten o’clock he came to the Tribune office to take Villard to the President. Still in his soiled campaign clothes, the young correspondent answered Lincoln’s anxious questions. He spoke of disaster to the army if the attack were renewed. ‘I hope it is not so bad as all that,’ the President said with a sad smile. Senator Wilson was pleased that Villard had spoken so frankly, and, though his report did not cause the government to take action, Villard felt proud that he had performed a patriotic duty.
From the accounts of eyewitnesses, the Washington newspapers on Monday began to rumor defeat and fearful losses. On Tuesday the whole Union learned that the battle of Fredericksburg had been a costly proof of Burnside’s incapacity for high command. More than twelve thousand Federal soldiers had been killed and wounded, and the Army of the Potomac had staggered back across the Rappahannock in retreat.
The Senate met, but had no heart to do business and adjourned. The Republicans gathered in caucus, to air, apart from the Democrats, their criticisms of Lincoln and his Cabinet. At the wharves the stir of trade ceased, as out of the Potomac mist moved the white and silent transports. Thousand after thousand, men littered the landings, like spoiled freight. First the lesser injuries arrived; then the more serious; at length the frightful cases, the thigh amputations and the belly wounds.
After Fredericksburg, Burnside came to Washington in anguish of mind. He took on himself the full blame for his ill-judged attack; yet the responsibility fell heavily on the administration. Many believed that Burnside was a scapegoat, that his manly and disarming attitude had been assumed to protect the government. The want of faith that had long been in evidence in Washington had crept insidiously throughout the country.
The official New Year’s festivities at the White House took place in the midst of grave and painful perplexity. At noon, after the official calls, the gates were flung open, and the scuffle of the public reception began. In struggling installments the crowd was admitted to the mansion, whose elegant carpets had been covered to protect them from the mud. In the midst of the mêlée in the Blue Room, Lincoln stood serene, but his eyes often looked over the heads of the greeters as though they were fixed on something far away. He had a proclamation to sign, after the crowd was gone.
McClellan arrived in Washington to give testimony before the Fitz-John Porter court-martial. Such crowds turned out to see him that it was difficult for him to pass from the courtroom to his hotel. The most popular song in the capital was ‘McClellan Again at the Head of His Men.’ When it was sung in the music halls, every bluecoat in the audience sprang to his feet, with three times three and a tiger.
Desertions in the Army of the Potomac occurred at the rate of about two hundred a day. Many resulted from loss of morale and discontent over the Government’s delay in paying the troops. Other deserters belonged to a new class of soldiers who had never had any morale to lose — the bounty jumpers, who had enlisted with the intention of seizing the first opportunity to run away after pocketing the large State and local bonuses. In the face of all the disaffection, Burnside stubbornly persisted in a plan he had formed to cross the Rappahannock a few miles below Fredericksburg. The march began in a deluge of rain. The army — men, guns, wagons — stuck fast in the glutinous mud; and, as it struggled back into camp, Burnside’s reputation petered out to the sound of the nation’s bitter laughter. In agitation, Burnside journeyed again to Washington, with his resignation in his pocket. As an alternative he had prepared an order dismissing the antagonistic generals of his command. It was a sweeping list — Hooker, Franklin, Newton, Cochrane, Baldy Smith, Sturgis, and others. Lincoln accepted Burnside’s resignation. Late in January the Chase interests had their way, and Hooker was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac.
While the blond war god, Hooker, rode out on his milk-white horse, a big, blowzy fellow in a gray suit was beginning to be known in the streets and the hospital wards of Washington. He had been one of a crowd of anxious people who rushed to the capital after Fredericksburg, as after every great battle of the Army of the Potomac. His brother, an officer in the Fifty-first New York, had been wounded, and he was seeking word of him. After a reassuring visit to Falmouth, he returned to linger in Washington, looking for an office.
Even in the heterogeneous company of the capital, Walt Whitman had no counterpart. His scarlet face, bushy beard, and wide-brimmed sombrero gave him a delusively robust and rural aspect which caused one politician to tell him that he looked like an old Southern planter. Whitman’s home was in Brooklyn, and he loved the life of cities. Though he was stout and gray and slowmoving, with opaque, heavy-lidded eyes, he was only forty-three years old. A friend compared him to ‘some great mechanic, or stevedore, or seaman, or grand laborer of one kind or another.’ The word ‘grand,’ with its hint of apotheosis, betrays that the resemblance is not to be taken quite literally. In his youth, Walt had been a dandy. His rough garments were carefully selected. He never wore a tie, but his spotless shirt, with its open collar, was Byronic rather than proletarian. There was a queer daintiness about this big, bluff man. He looked as though he had just taken a bath. He wore a flower or a green sprig in the lapel of his coat. His flesh was soft and rosy, like a woman’s. In his strolls about Washington, Whitman was impressed by the low white buildings that housed thousands of suffering men. Soon he started to visit the hospitals, to talk with the soldiers and give them little presents.
As Whitman wrote to his family and friends and to the newspapers about his hospital work, people began to send him money. He dispensed it carefully, making it go as far as possible. Through the wards on Sundays, and some weekday afternoons, he trudged with his slow, rolling walk. A haversack hung heavy on his shoulder, and the pockets of his cheap gray suit were bulging. To one man he would give an orange, to another an apple or a small quantity of pickles or horehound candy. He brought pens and pencils, writing paper and envelopes. Sometimes he carried a good-sized jar of jelly, and spooned it out to the occupants of a ward. He did not encourage the use of tobacco, but he had a store of cut plugs in his pocket, to dole out to men who craved it. Often he left money, in ‘bright new ten-cent and five-cent bills.’ Sick men longed for the fresh milk that was carried for sale through the wards, and Walt thought that it raised their spirits to have a little cash by them.
The penuriousness of his own life was reflected in his tiny gifts; but the recipients were simple men — poor, often destitute. They understood Walt, and were grateful to him. He regarded his presents as a means of making friends with the soldiers. Once a relationship was established, he talked with them, wrote their letters home, read aloud, or played Twenty Questions. Between him and some of the very young soldiers a deep tenderness developed. In gifts of the heart, in love and tact and sympathy, Walt was lavish. As fervently as the most sentimental of the women nurses, he believed in the curative properties of affection. His hands were gentle. His red face bent kindly over the sunken, childish features on the pillow. Sometimes it pressed close. ‘Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.’
Anxiety about the demoralization of the Army of the Potomac had subsided. Hooker had worked wonders in restoring the spirit and confidence of the troops. He had judiciously administered punishment, and granted furloughs and leaves of absence. Increased drill and field exercise kept the soldiers fit and lively. Their health, under intelligent medical supervision, was excellent. Staff departments were reorganized. The units of cavalry in the various corps were consolidated in one effective force and placed under the command of Major-General George Stoneman. To fix responsibility for straggling and marauding and to stimulate morale, Hooker assigned to each corps a distinctive device. Its color — red, white, or blue — differentiated the divisions. The emblems were proudly painted on the wagons and ambulances of the respective corps, stenciled on all articles of public property, and sewn on the caps of every officer and soldier.
Early in April, Hooker said that he had ‘a living army.’ He was boastfully certain of success, and the reinvigorated troops shared his high spirits. At this time he received a visit from the President, Mrs. Lincoln, and Tad. Lincoln, riding at the head of the cavalry, watching the parade of the troops, or visiting the hospital tents, was received with tremendous enthusiasm. Before his eyes passed in grand review the six magnificent infantry corps, the large and disciplined cavalry corps, and the great reserve artillery force of the Army of the Potomac.
The fame of Hooker’s army circulated in Washington. The entire country, primed by an optimistic press, had grown elated and hopeful. War industries flourished, business was booming. A prosperous people invested confidently in the new issue of government bonds.
The upturn in business had conspired with the defeats of the last year and the weariness of the long war to discourage volunteering. The State militia drafts had been a failure. In March, Congress passed the Enrollment Act, applying to men between the ages of twenty and forty-five. New regiments were not needed, but replenishments for the depleted organizations already in the field. The measure, which provided for a military draft when necessary, removed prospective levies from State control, centralizing all authority over them in the Federal Government. The Union was divided into districts, under provost marshals who reported to a ProvostMarshal-General, at the head of a special bureau of the War Department. Conscription, dreaded by the country, did not affect the man who was well-todo. If drafted, he could avoid service either by furnishing a substitute or by paying $300. This sum, when the first draft was ordered in May, became the purchase price of the substitute soldier, who also received the Federal bounty of $100, paid to those drafted and their substitutes, as well as to volunteers. In 1863, able-bodied men were plentiful, and $400 was a good sum. To obtain it, worthless soldiers crowded into the Federal ranks, while the swindling and extortionate brokers, who traded in men, multiplied and flourished in every State of the Union.
April ran out on a tide of rumors that General Hooker had crossed the Rappahannock. Washington clacked with reports of fighting, all vague, all unofficial. The first five days of May passed in uncertainty, in growing uneasiness, in the fear that victory had been purchased at a terrible price; and still the military telegraph was muffled and the press was jubilant. The War Department was only half informed. The President was feverishly anxious for facts. Gideon Welles picked up tidbits of news from correspondents and naval officers who came up from Aquia Creek. In spite of the general impression that the Federal arms had had a great, if costly, triumph, Welles was not satisfied. ‘If we have success,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘the tidings would come to us in volumes.’ On Wednesday, May 6, the Secretary of the Navy saw a letter from Dahlgren’s boy, Ulric, who was on Hooker’s staff. He had telegraphed his father that he was ‘all right,’ and the message came from headquarters near Falmouth, on the north side of the Rappahannock. Stanton, when Welles questioned him, said that he had no information that Hooker had retired across the river. An hour later Senator Sumner strode into Welles’s room with raised hands, crying, ‘Lost, lost! All is lost!’ In a White House bedroom the President stood, with a telegram from Butterfield in his hand. His face was the color of the French gray paper on the walls. At Chancellorsville the Army of the Potomac had paid a terrible price; but it was the price of defeat.
Confronted by an aggressive enemy, Hooker had lost his impetus. He ordered the army to fall back, astounding his vigorous corps and division commanders and disheartening the troops. On May 2, Stonewall Jackson attacked the Eleventh Corps, and the German soldiers, surprised and unprepared, were routed. The next morning Hooker had been knocked insensible by a cannon ball that struck a verandah pillar against which he was leaning. The great defeat of that day was ascribed to the effects of this accident; but in fact the battle was already lost. Soon afterward General Stoneman, dining in Washington with the Pennsylvanian, A. K. McClure, gave his explanation of Hooker’s failure: ‘He could play the best game of poker I ever saw until it came to the point when he should go a thousand better, and then he would flunk.’
As the tale of incompetence and vacillation unfolded, there was only one detail which might bring comfort to the Union. At Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson had been wounded. The week after the battle, it was known that his sombre figure would ride no more at the head of his ragged rebel troops.
Though the calamity of this defeat appalled and discouraged the nation, there was not the black despondency that had followed the Seven Days, Second Bull Run, and Fredericksburg. Business was good. Factory wheels were turning. There was wild speculation on the Stock Exchange. The humblest man could pocket a large bounty by donning the uniform of his country. If the people of the Union could not win this war, at least they were making money out of it. Two bitter years had made them callous to the loss of thousands of men; and above the sighs and the weeping arose a shrill new noise of laughter. People were beginning to spend money, to give parties, to dine and dance and be merry.
Again the wounded cumbered the Washington wharves, but few sightseers gathered to see the transports arriving, day after day, with the men from Chancellorsville. Now each of those prostrate young bodies seemed the very figure of the Union itself, and people turned away from the heart-sickening, habitual scene. The compact caravans of the ambulances had become a monotonous part of the pageant of the streets. The procession of the maimed, with their empty sleeves and trouser legs, no longer attracted attention. Even death had grown commonplace. There had been a time when the loss of one young Ellsworth had thrown the capital into mourning. Now, from the silver-mounted rosewood of the higher officers to the cheap pine slats of the ordinary soldiers, the business of death was plied like any other prosperous trade. There was a section of the city where the rat-tat of the coffin makers’ hammers sounded all day, and the stacks of long, upended boxes rose and fell outside their doors, like a fever chart of the battles. The capital had had a surfeit of misery; and, if the horror of blood beat like a wound in the back of every mind, the faces on the streets were smiling.
The soft spring air carried the plaintive mechanical melodies of the organ grinders; and on the Avenue, under the huge transparency which advertised embalming, the promenaders sauntered in the sunshine. Busy hacks rolled among the wagons and the caracoling horses of the officers. Fashionable ladies drove in barouches, with black coachmen and footmen. On the sidewalks, salesmen cried the merits of patent soaps, and proprietors of telescopes and lung-testing machines clamored for customers. Pineapples, oranges, and tomatoes were piled in colored pyramids, ice-cream dealers were stationed in the shade of the trees, and Italians roasted chestnuts in little portable stoves. Children shrieked for pieces chipped from big, variegated rocks of candy and for the artificial bugs which were swung enticingly up and down on strings, while sharper children bawled the evening newspapers, and swarmed at the crossings to polish muddy boots.
The Avenue wore a cosmopolitan air. Every nationality seemed to be represented in the gaudy crowd. The swords and sashes, plumed hats and riding cloaks of the army officers, the gold lace of the naval officers, the outlandish dress of the Zouaves, gave Washington the look of a carnival, a huge and lively masquerade. The spring bonnets of the ladies were fantastic, extravagantly high and narrow, ‘with overhanging balconies of flowers.’ They were wearing much red that season, for the color of the Garibaldians’ shirts was still the fashion. There was a shade called Magenta, and another paler red called Solferino — warm, bright, amusing names. Those smiling ladies knew that they were the names of battlefields, where alien men had died for some vague cause. But no one named a shade of red for Fredericksburg; and the silliest of the officers’ trollops would have shrunk from a scarlet dress that bore the name of Chancellorsville.
In contrast to the demagogues and fanatics of his party, Lincoln viewed the slavery problem as a statesman. Above all things he desired to save the Union, and in his mind emancipation was always subsidiary to this great central ambition. Neither sentimentality nor vindictiveness blinded him to the social upheaval which a sudden overthrow of the institution would entail. He had repeatedly voiced his cherished hope that the loyal slaveholding States would voluntarily adopt some plan of gradual emancipation with compensation to the owners from the Federal Government.
In March 1862, to the accompaniment of heated oratory, the Senate took up the bill for emancipation in the District. The slaves were to be freed immediately, but loyal masters were to receive compensation at an average of $300 per slave. Moreover, an amendment appropriated money for a project dear to Mr. Lincoln’s heart, one to which he strongly adhered and with which he unsuccessfully experimented — the colonization of such freed blacks as might wish to leave the country.
Neither compensation nor the hope that some Negroes might take their departure calmed the anxiety of the capital’s citizens. In their eyes the abolitionists were bent on making the District ‘a hell on earth for the white man.’
The Emancipation Bill was passed in both Houses, and on April 16, 1862, was signed by the President. Early in May, the commission was receiving the petitions of the owners, while the long lists of itemized human property, to be examined and valued by a Baltimore slave dealer, began to appear in the newspapers. Eventually, 979 persons in the entire District presented claims for 3128 slaves. Among those who received their money was a free Negro, who asked compensation for a wife he had purchased and for the half-dozen children born of the union. At least this fact was vouched for by Horace Greeley, the pink-faced, goggle-eyed, anti-slavery editor of the New York Tribune.
Although the congressional legislation on behalf of the Negroes created much commotion in the District, it brought little immediate change to the colored people themselves. For the most part, the manumitted slaves continued to work for their masters. They were not assertive in laying claim to their new civil rights. They were not permitted to ride inside the Washington streetcars, although special labeled cars were presently provided for them. This discrimination became nearly a personal issue between Senator Sumner and the street railway company, and was at length abolished. A year and a half after Congress provided public schools for Negro children, none had been opened in the District. The expected revenues from taxes on Negro property and philanthropic contributions proved disappointing, and the community had no mind to saddle itself with the expense. The Freedman’s Aid Society, formed by sympathetic persons in the capital, set up schools in shabby rooms and church basements on the Island and in the Northern Liberties. Teachers volunteered their services. The pupils in the night classes, from ten years old to sixty, supplied their own books and lights.
That same month, May 1862, a proclamation of military emancipation was issued in the Department of the South. It was the act of Lincoln’s old friend, Major-General David Hunter, who, after serving for some time in the West, had been placed in command of the coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, which had passed under Union control as the result of successful military and naval expeditions. The department was under martial law, and the white population had fled, abandoning their slaves. These thousands of blacks were cared for by the government and by private philanthropy, and it was their freedom which Hunter, in all sincerity exceeding the powers of a military commander, proclaimed. On reading of this order in the press, the President publicly annulled it, with the quiet consistency which allied him in abolitionist minds with the slave-catching Lamon. To Hunter himself Lincoln expressed no disapprobation, and their friendship was not disturbed by the incident.
At this same time the President again besought the loyal slave States to adopt gradual and compensated emancipation, ‘not rending or wrecking anything.’ Against the conservatism of his course the radicals of Congress fulminated. The President signed the bill prohibiting slavery in the territories; but when he forced the modification of a second Confiscation Bill, more drastic and explicit than the first , the relations between Mr. Lincoln and his party leaders were strained to the breaking point.
In public speech or writing the President made no sign. Yet, after a hopeless conference with the representatives of the loyal slave States, his resolve was taken. The reverses on the Peninsula and the fierce political pressure forced him to the precipitate act of military emancipation of the rebels’ slaves. It was designed to weaken the Confederacy by drawing off the Negro laborers who released their men for military service. In July of 1862, Mr. Lincoln had come to believe that this war measure was the alternative to surrendering the Union. He said as much to Mr. Seward and Mr. Welles, as they drove out to the funeral of Stanton’s baby, James. A week later he discussed the subject with his Cabinet. In September, after Antietam, he issued his preliminary proclamation: on the first day of January, 1863, the slaves of persons in rebellion against the government were to be proclaimed forever free.
The country, in the main, received the proclamation without enthusiasm. Democrats interpreted their gains in the State elections which soon followed as a protest against the President’s capitulation to the radicals. Abolitionists, on the other hand, were still dissatisfied with Mr. Lincoln’s moderation. His wholehearted support came from the Negroes themselves. From the beginning his name had been to the race the simple synonym of their deliverance. Colored folk, when crowds gathered at the White House, wildly demonstrated their love for the President, shouting and swinging their hats with abandon. In long columns the contrabands came toiling over the dusty roads to the city he inhabited. Some were in rags, some wore the rough and sweat-stained garments of the field, some were decked in the antique finery of their masters and mistresses. The pickaninnies who rode their fathers’ backs, the tiny black Abraham Lincolns who nuzzled at the breast, were scarcely more helpless than those who carried them.
For these were primitive and childlike people, adrift without a plan from the dependence of slavery. They understood nothing of the political complexities in which their destinies were involved. They took no account of the abolitionists who pressed the President to his reluctant decision. They knew only that Lincoln was a man raised up by God to work the miracle of their deliverance. Their simple imagination had its own power. They and other millions like them, flocking to the Union armies of the West and South, or waiting on the plantations of their masters, impressed their faith on a nation’s mind. The abolitionists of Congress — Wade, Stevens, Chandler, Wilson, Lovejoy, even the lofty Sumner — have been all but forgotten by their countrymen. The Lincoln who lives in the American legend was shaped in the slave’s long dream of a kindly master who should set his people free.
In their crowded and comfortless barracks, the contrabands patiently awaited the coming of the day of jubilee. On New Year’s Eve they filled the chapel to overflowing. An old man named Thornton arose to testify. ‘I cried all night. What de matter, Thornton? Tomorrow my child is to be sold, neber more see it till judgment — no more dat! no more dat! no more dat! . . . Can’t sell your wife and children any more!’
Ecstasy mounted with the passing hours, and the silent prayer enjoined by the superintendent at midnight gave place to fervent invocations and hallelujah hymns. Young and old wrung one another’s hands, dancing and shouting in a frenzy of joy. Around the bleak, dark camp they paraded, singing. Many marched until daybreak.
The sun rose on the first day of January, 1863. The air was clear and brilliant. The President opened his tired eyes on a momentous day. Since he had issued his preliminary proclamation, the defeat of his party in the State elections had been followed by the military disaster of Fredericksburg. The radical Senators, demanding the removal of the conservative Seward, had nearly wrecked his Cabinet. The thing he was about to do had alienated some of his warmest adherents among moderate men. In Washington, that winter, he seemed to stand alone, almost without friends.
Threading his way through the mob of New Year’s callers about the White House came the slender, amiable man whom the radicals hated, with his slender, amiable son by his side. William and Frederick Seward climbed the stairs to the President’s office. There were less than a dozen persons in the room to witness the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Conscious of a moment of history, the President closed his aching fingers on a pen. His whole right arm was numb from the ordeal of the morning’s receptions. He feared his hand might tremble; but he signed his name firmly.
All day, while an artificial conviviality surrounded the bowls of eggnog in the Washington parlors, the wastes of North Twelfth Street rang with the choruses of the contrabands. ‘I’m a free man now,’ they sang, ‘Jesus Christ has made me free.’ At last the beautiful word was spoken, as potent and as incomprehensible as a magician’s spell. At seven in the evening a bellman made the rounds of the quarters, to summon them to the chapel for a reading of the President’s proclamation. In droves they came from the cabins which surrounded the muddy quadrangle of the camp. A grizzled old Negro in a military overcoat, known to all as John the Baptist, led them in prayer. Twin lamps suspended from the low chapel roof and a candle or two set on a rafter cast a dim light on their dark, expectant faces. The superintendent, Dr. Nichols, entered, bringing the white man’s quibbling precision to their unclouded jubilance. He explained that the proclamation did not free all slaves, but only those in the States and parts of States which were in rebellion. In Virginia, where this audience had many loved ones, he enumerated, county by county, the sections in which freedom was declared. Joyful cries arose. ‘Dat’s me!’ ‘Dar’s where I’s come from!’ Some sat in hurt and puzzled silence.
In spite of antagonism and doubt, in spite of Confederate threats of retaliation, the government carried out its policy of organizing Negro regiments. In the spring of 1863, Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas was sent to the Mississippi Valley to promote enlistments from the multitude of slaves, advancing, ‘like the oncoming of cities,’ to the Union lines. For service to their country, Negroes were not offered the same inducements as white men. They received no bounty. Although the fact was widely misunderstood by the first colored recruits, they were paid less than white soldiers — $10 a month without clothing, instead of the customary $13 in addition to clothing. As a protest against this discrimination, the Negroes of the Fiftyfourth Massachusetts Regiment refused for more than a year to accept pay. In 1864, Congress after much discussion and dispute passed a bill providing white man’s pay and bounty for all Negro soldiers who had been free on April 19, 1861. This was, however, construed by the Attorney-General to the advantage of all the colored troops.
By the time that the wounded began to come up from Chancellorsville, recruiting for the first colored regiment in the District was under way in Washington. It made slow progress. When two companies were at last mustered in, they were hurriedly taken from Washington to Analostan Island, opposite Georgetown. There, out of sight, they were clothed in the army blue. Their removal was a discouragement to the white recruiting officers, who wanted to use them to stimulate enthusiasm and reassure the doubtful. These officers were not permitted, under penalty of arrest, to visit Analostan Island. One of them said that the President himself did not know where the colored soldiers were encamped, but had been driving around Washington with Mrs. Lincoln trying to find them. The strictness and secrecy of the seclusion on the island may have been prompted by a fear of race riots and bloodshed, once the Negroes were armed, for civilians and soldiers continued their persecution of colored men. Early in June a disorderly gang made an attack on the contraband camp, and seriously wounded several Negroes before a detachment of Massachusetts troops arrived to protect them. So numerous were the assaults on colored soldiers that a special military commission was appointed to examine the cases.
A few days later a company of blacks was permitted to parade through the city. Fully armed, uniformed, and equipped, they attracted a curious crowd. Little boys and an eager following of colored people trailed behind them, and the bearers of advertising banners for places of amusement kept step with their ranks, to engage the attention of the public. Later in the month five colored companies, almost all jet black, — ‘real Negro,’ the Star commented, — marched down the Avenue to attend prayer meeting. There was something formidable in their appearance. No insults or outbreaks were reported in the press. By that time Washington, scanning the news of the fierce fighting on the Mississippi, had learned that at Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend colored regiments had fought with desperate bravery and suffered heavy losses. The disciplined, dark-faced men in blue were beginning to be accepted as soldiers.
By mid-June of 1863, the capital had cause to welcome new defenders. Louder and more perilous to the city than the distant roar of guns at Vicksburg, an ominous rumble had sounded beyond the Blue Ridge. Raids and skirmishes had at first been ascribed to the rebel guerrillas, who hovered in small squads along the Federal lines across the Potomac. But a hundred startling rumors flew along the Avenue. The details were various and contradictory, but they had one constant theme: General Lee was marching north. The rebel cry of ‘On to Washington!’ echoed up from Richmond.
To the north the city looked in fear, as well as across the Potomac. The Shenandoah Valley, guarded by mountain ridges, formed a great fertile corridor to the Cumberland Valley of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Running from southwest to northeast, it brought an invading army closer to Washington with every mile of its advance. Once in Maryland, the enemy could easily descend on the fortifications of the capital.
There was a scare at Harper’s Ferry. Somewhere on the upper Potomac, rebel troops had crossed into Maryland. Alarm was spreading in Pennsylvania. June 14 was one of the capital’s ‘rumor Sundays.’ Some said that Hooker’s army was protecting Washington, others that Hooker was retreating. An evening visit to the War Department left the Secretary of the Navy ‘painfully impressed.’ Lincoln quietly said that he was feeling very bad. Stanton, uneasy and fussy, communicated nothing. Halleek sat in silence, puffing his cigar. His relations with General Hooker were strained. They had known and disliked each other in California before the war. It had been a long time since Hooker had ‘enjoyed the confidence’ of the generalin-chief.
On Monday morning there was something close to panic in Washington. Rebel troops were said to be at Hagerstown in Maryland, at Chambersburg in Pennsylvania. There were rumors of a fight at Aldie, in Virginia, east of the Blue Ridge. It was a day of oppressive heat. At the bars, men turned from their long, cold glasses of whiskey punch and sherry cobbler to read the President’s proclamation calling out 100,000 militia for six months from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the new State of West Virginia, formed of the Unionist counties beyond the Alleghenies. The week passed in a cloud of menacing reports.
On Sunday, June 21, Washington listened to heavy artillery fire from the direction of the Bull Run Mountains. It gradually receded, ending at six o’clock. Ambulance trains moved across the Long Bridge to Virginia, and every day wounded troopers were brought in, many Ohio men among them. The cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, led now by General Alfred Pleasonton, boldly engaged Stuart’s horsemen in the gaps of the Blue Ridge. So far, it was noted, not a single Union straggler had limped into Washington. Rebel prisoners arrived from the mountain passes.
Unexpectedly, Hooker had appeared in town. After a conference with him at the War Department, the President’s face was careworn. The newspapers spread headlines that Lee’s entire army was in motion, advancing on Harrisburg. The enrollment of Washington citizens for conscription began in an atmosphere of tension. Confederate cavalry were in Maryland now, seizing horses. The announcement came abruptly that Hooker had been relieved of his command and replaced by General George G. Meade. A little-known commander, with a bleak scholar’s face, was to lead the Federal forces in the imminent battle on which the safety of the East depended.
Above the line which halved the hard gray boulders of the MarylandPennsylvania border, the Union cavalry moved through the dusty green hills in search of the enemy. They found him on the outskirts of the comfortable, redbrick town of Gettysburg. On Thursday morning, July 1, the battle opened; and before a rainstorm swept across the ridges on Saturday night 160,000 men had fought with rifles and rocks and bayonets and new long-range British cannon among the wheat fields and the peach orchards. Outnumbered and bleeding, Lee’s army fell away southwest, along the Hagerstown road. In the seminary yard, in the cabbage patches, and among the graves of the hillside cemetery of Gettysburg, boys of the Army of the Potomac lay bloating in the rain. For a second time they had thrown back the invasion of the North. The gallant soldier, General John Reynolds, had fallen on the first day. He had been born near Gettysburg.
For three days Washington had held its breath, waiting for the outcome of the thunder and the slaughter on the free soil of Pennsylvania. All during the evening of July 3 and for most of the night, the burning of firecrackers, squibs, and rockets ushered in the celebration of Independence Day, and early on the morning of the Fourth powder was exploding all over Washington. Excitement was fanned by whispers that Lee’s army had been terribly whipped. At ten, a bulletin put out at the Star office on the Avenue announced the victory, and the city was aroused to an enthusiastic rejoicing which it had not known for years. Great crowds gathered in the grounds south of the White House— citizens, volunteer regiments, veterans of 1812, the Odd Fellows, the mayor, and members of the city councils. The Declaration of Independence was read, there were speeches, and Mayor Wallach gave out the Star’s bulletin of the stirring news from Meade’s army. The hot air shook with three times three and a tiger, and the Marine Band played ‘The StarSpangled Banner.’
The District militia regiments assembled on Monday, in response to the President’s call, but the emergency was past, and they were permitted to disband. Dan Sickles came to Washington on a stretcher, one leg shot off and amputated above the knee. Bystanders marveled at his imperturbable face, as he lay with folded arms on the stretcher.
Next day brought news that on July 4 Vicksburg had fallen to the forces of General Grant. The double victory sent the nation reeling in a heady celebration. Across the North boomed the salutes of the guns. Bells rang, buildings flared with garish illuminations, and people cheered the name of Grant and his righthand general, Sherman. Headed by the band of the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts, thousands went to the White House to serenade the President, surged on to Stanton’s residence on K Street, to Seward’s on Lafayette Square.
But the first exultation wan succeeded by a soberer mood. In Washington doubt began to dull the hope that, abetted by the flooded Potomac, General Meade would destroy Lee’s army. The Federals crept forward under hesitant and cautious leadership. Meade, after his magnificent success, seemed to be cut from the very pattern of all generals of the Army of the Potomac, and memories of past delays came back to haunt the capital. The fall of Port Hudson brought the assurance that throughout its length the Mississippi was open to the Union; but by the middle of July the noise of riots racketed down from the North as the enforcement of conscription was resisted. New York was possessed by mobs, which burned and pillaged, and murdered innocent Negroes. In the uproar of anarchy and faction, the Union learned that General Lee’s forces, with all their guns and all their plunder, had splashed across the Potomac.
For a moment the North had dared to hope that the end of the rebellion was in sight. As the Secretary of the Navy walked slowly across the White House lawn, the President overtook him. They stood talking at the turnstile gate. Mr. Welles would never forget Lincoln’s voice and face as he said that he had dreaded yet expected Lee’s escape. ‘And that, my God, is the last of this Army of the Potomac!’the President cried, in the first pain of his disappointment. ‘There is bad faith somewhere. . . . What does it mean, Mr. Welles? Great God! What does it mean?’
‘Your golden opportunity is gone,’ Mr. Lincoln wrote General Meade; but he did not send the letter. That conscientious soldier had been so offended by the criticisms of his delay that he had asked to be relieved of his command. His request was refused, but his achievement at Gettysburg had been permanently clouded by a dilatoriness that painfully recalled McClellan’s after Antietam.
The Union was not yet saved, either from the armies of the Confederacy or from those more insidious enemies who spread disaffection at home. But, in spite of Copperheads and peacemakers and narrow partisans, there was a growing confidence in the country. The Emancipation Proclamation was increasingly popular. The Army of the Potomac had an awakening loyalty to the administration, did not like to hear it censured. The relation of slavery to the war no longer seemed remote. It was coming to appear the hateful source of the division of the country and the wastage of men and money. Before the need of replenishing the depleted armies— the losses at Gettysburg had been over 23,000 men—the prejudice against enlisting Negroes faded. Late in the summer General Grant wrote the President that the arming of the Negro, with the emancipation of the slaves, was ‘the heaviest blow yet given the Confederacy.’
A disillusioned nation had lost its capacity for easy optimism; but it had learned to hold a grim and steadfast resolve. By the time that Mr. Lincoln journeyed up to Gettysburg in November, to read his short and simple speech over the vast graveyard of the battlefield, the Union was strong in the determination that, at whatever cost, white and black together would win this brothers’ war.
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