THE ASSAULT ON FORT WAGNER
I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE WITNESSED THE ATTACK ON FORT WAGNER, South Carolina, by Federal troops on the evening of July 18, 1863.
The fort—a massive affair made of logs, earth, and sand—stood at the northern tip of an island that curved around into Charleston Harbor. Its capture was to be preliminary to taking the city.
The assault was led by the 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment recruited in a free state. In command was Col. Robert Gould Shaw, of Boston blue blood and of true heroic character. At starlight, the regiment—600 troops and 22 officers —made for the earthwork at the double-quick, with orders to seize it by bayonet assault. The Confederate forces within opened up a devastating fire from cannons, naval guns, and mortars. Men were falling on all sides; every flash of fire, a survivor would say, showed the ground dotted with the wounded or killed. Colonel Shaw gained the rampart before he was shot through the heart.
Among the 158 wounded from the 54th was Wilky James, 1st lieutenant and adjutant to Colonel Shaw; the eighteen-year-old younger brother of William and Henry James. There were 12 known dead, but there were 100 missing, some dead, some
captured. Half of the 54th Massachusetts was wiped out; successive attacks by other units during the night ended with 1,515 casualties (the Confederates suffered 174).
It was a complete disaster. But something about the “brave black regiment,” as it came to be called, so gallantly leading the way in this venture (at this moment in a war that many believed to be about slavery and freedom) ignited the Northern imag-ination. It was celebrated over the years in poems by Emerson, James Russell Low-ell, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Robert Lowell, and many others, and in essays by Fred- erick Douglass, Justice Holmes, and others. When the memorial frieze to Colonel Shaw and the 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was inaugurated in Boston in 1897, the chief speaker was William James.
R.W.B. Lewis, Neil Gray Professor of
Rhetoric, Yale University. Author of,
Edith Wharton: A Biography.
COMING TO TERMS
I WISH MOST OF ALL that I could have been a listener aboard the steamer transport River Queen, just off Hampton Roads, on February 3, 1865. This, of course, was the conference between Abraham Lincoln, who was accompanied by Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, who represented the Confederate States of America, and was accompanied by Sen. R. M. T. Hunter and former Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell. They were trying to work out some way to quickly end the Civil War and to restore the Union.
I WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN THERE, first, simply to see these leaders of the Union and the Confederacy. Think what a contrast they made! There was the gigantically tall Abraham Lincoln and the minute, wizened Alexander Stephens . Apart from that, I would have been a witness to the one and only time when true leaders of the North and the South sat down seriously to talk about terms of reconciliation and peace. Finally, from witnessing this encounter, I would know what Abraham Lincoln’s real policy of Reconstruction was, and could better judge what he might have accomplished had he not been assassinated. I know of no other single episode in the history of the Civil War that is so significant, and I wish I could have been there.
David Herbert Donald,
Charles Warren Professor
of American History, Harvard
THE LINCOLN CABINET
I WOULD CHOOSE TO BE AT ONE OF THE CABINET MEETINGS OF EARLY 1865, as the Civil War was ending, when Abraham Lincoln, out of all the strange and glorious forces within him, had totally matured as a statesman-saint. An especially revealing meeting must have been the one at which Lincoln talked of an appropriation of four hundred million dollars, an immense sum for the time, to help the South recover. Though Lincoln had assumed virtually dictatorial authority over the conduct of the war, he did listen to his cabinet, even invited them to vote, and then from time to time outvoted them . “Seven no and one aye, the ayes have it,” was his legendary summation of the powers of the President vis-à-vis his cabinet. But the Lincoln cabinet meetings were far from the perfunctory sess-ions of the recent Presidencies. (I worked in the Carter White House for a year; there were four cabinet meetings while I was there, meaningless gatherings of forty to fifty people.) Lincoln’s cabinet dissuaded him from proposing his magnanimous Reconstruction grant. They felt the Congress wasn’t ready. Lincoln made it clear he would set aside the idea only temporarily. The dialogue must have illuminated the ways in which Lincoln, at the height of his powers, could strike the balance between “practical politics” and longer-range purpose and vision. I would like to have listened.
Hedley Donovan, Fellow of the Faculty
of Government, Harvard University.
SURRENDER AT APPOMATTOX
LEE’S SURRENDER TO GRANT AT APPOMATTOX ON APRIL 9, 1865—not the meeting between Lee and Grant at which the terms were discussed, which has become almost legendary and hackneyed, but rather the hours that followed: Lee riding among the remnants of his army, comforting, reassuring, speaking to the men from horseback, and the formal surrender ceremony later, heavy with emotion, when the colors were furled and the arms were stacked. The scene, laden with significance, was one of the truly momentous events in American history for what it symbolized. Men wept, not, I suspect, because of the failure of their cause—for long before that day the cause, if it was understood at all, had ceased to evoke the dedication it once inspired. Rather I think it was because the hardship and sacrifice was suddenly over, because the shedding of blood had ended, and because the mem -ories of all those thousands who didn’t make it to the final day came rushing to the fore . They might also have wept, if they knew what we know, for a world and a time that was now lost forever. Things would never be the same again. The America of the early nineteenth century had passed; the nation left its formative period and entered into a maturity in which the romantic ideals, aspirations, and yearnings of that earlier time would no longer have any place. It was this moment that symbolized, perhaps more than any other, the Americans loss of innocence. It was all put together by Lee in his farewell to his troops, full of pathos and sincerity and impart -ing as few other documents have the meaning of those mid-April days. Lee’s farewell address must be read aloud to capture its real impact; it never fails to touch the heart.
Robert W. Johannsen, James C. Randall
Distinguished Professor of History, University
of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
ALL QUIET IN SPRINGFIELD
IF WISHES WERE HORSES, BEGGARS WOULD RIDE.
I would ride with a young carpenter, Ed Beall of Alton, Illinois, in the last week of April 1865, on assignment for the Chicago & Alton Railroad. In Springfield the Lincoln house at Eighth and Jackson streets was to be draped in mourning. Ed was a rangy youth with a long reach. While comrades on the roof paid out a rope, he slid down, headfirst, to the eaves, where black “droopers” were set in place. Then the crew moved on to the Illinois statehouse to build a catafalque in the assembly hall.
On a railroad siding in Chicago lay a special train, twelve days’ slow journey from Washington. Its black-draped coaches carried a military company in dress uniforms. In the next car were Gen. “Fighting Joe” Hooker, Secretary Edwin M. Stanton, Coy. Richard Yates, and Lincoln’s old friend Chief Justice David Davis. Inside the last car, bearing the President’s seal, a large coffin rested beside a small one. The small casket contained the body of twelve-year-old Willie Lincoln, who had died three years before in Washington. Now he was to be buried beside his father in Springfield.
At midnight the train began to move. It crept through Joliet, Wilmington, and Bloomington, where acres of people waited in silence. The last downgrade carried it into Springfield. There, on the crest of Oak Ridge Cemetery, Ed Beall and his mates were building a platform. At sunrise their work was done.
On an empty lumber wagon Ed jolted through streets thronged with carts, traps, carriages, and folk on foot—all pressing toward the C & A Depot. When the funeral train halted, the multitude engulfed it. From the rear coach strode Ceneral Hooker. He broke stride at a man reaching for a spectator’s wallet. One of his brisk feet sent the pickpocket sprawling. Drums throbbed and bells tolled as thousands moved to the statehouse where Ed Beall in his overalls divided the lines filing past a draped coffin. At noon a final procession marched to Oak Ridge, where the two coffins were placed in a hillside tomb. It smelled of evergreens on the dim stone floor.
Slowly the crowd dispersed, and Springfield grew as quiet as the country town where Lincoln had come in 1837. From his assignment with history, Ed Beall caught a freight train and returned to repairing boxcars on the Chicago & Alton run.
Walter Havighurst, Research Professor
of English, Miami University, Ohio.
“TO SHOW WHERE THEIR FLAG HAD BEEN....”
THE TRIUMPHAL VICTORY PARADE OF THE UNION ARMIES in Washington, May 23 and May 24, 1865, is the scene that would have given me the most pleasure. There is an unforgettable description in The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams: “A lovely summer afternoon—blue sky overhead—roses everywhere all over the houses—regiment after regiment came marching past, bands playing— squads of contrabands looking on. We sang out as each regiment passed, “What regiment are you?’ ‘Michigan!’ ‘Wisconsin!’ ‘Iowa!’
“...... We were early and got nice seats ..... and eighty feet from us across the street sat the President, Cenerals Grant, Sherman, Howard, Hancock, Meade.....
“About nine-thirty the band struck up ‘John Brown,’ and by came Meade with his staff, splendidly mounted. Almost all the officers in the army had their hands filled with roses..... . And so it came, this glorious old Army of the Potomac, for six hours marching past, eighteen or twenty miles long, their colours telling their sad history. Some regiments with nothing but a bare pole, a little bit of rag only, hanging a few inches, to show where their flag had been. Others that had been Stars and Stripes, with one or two stripes hanging, all the rest shot away.
“Wednesday, another glorious day—bright and cool, and we sit in the same place as before and see Sherman ride by at the head of 70,000 men, who, in physique and marching, surpass decidedly the Potomac Army.
Alfred Kazin, Distinguished Professor of
English, City of New York Graduate Cen-
ter. Author of An American Procession.
I would like to have witnessed Jacob Brodbeck’s FIRST MANNED AIRCRAFT FLIGHT over Luckenhack, Texas, in 1865. Newspaper clippings attest to the fact that there were witnesses, but they do not describe what the craft looked like, except to say that it was powered by a large clock spring. Brodbeck decided to call his machine an airship.”
William Goetzmann, Stiles Professor of
Anwrican Studies and History, University -
of Texas, Austin
GRANT PUTS THE ARMY IN ITS PLACE
WASHINGTON, D C , JANUARY-—FEBRUARY 1868:
The War Department office of Ulysses S. Grant, who then wore two hats, one as interim secretary of war and the other as the commanding general of the United States Army. Grant, the most popular living American by far, at least outside the ex-Rebel states, had a visitor, his most popular contemporary Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Grant had learned that President Andrew Johnson was trying to entice Sherman into cooperating in a scheme by which Johnson apparently hoped to create, without constitutional or legislative sanction, a new army department under Sherman’s command. It was to number perhaps ten thousand men, be directly linked to the White House, and would be stationed near Baltimore. Evidently Johnson envisaged this new military department as being wholly under his own authority and outside the chain of command going through the War Department, as statutes pursuant to the Constitution required. Johnson apprehended impeachment. His efforts to deflect the Army in the South away from obedience to statutes favoring racial equality had become increasingly frantic. Now Johnson was willing to risk Balkanizing the regular army into a President’s force and a congressional one . And Sherman. deeply conservative on matters of race equality, was willing at least to entertain the notion of cooperating with the President in this risky enterprise.
Sherman and Grant were old friends and combat comrades. Grant invited Sherman, recently in from the field, to his War Department office for what became an hours- long, closed-door, off-the-record session. The usual rumor experts of army head-quarters and the War Department were frustrated as, at times, the voices of the two generals penetrated the heavy doors to Grant’s rooms, but so dimly that the most acute ears bent that way could make out few words. Finally Sherman emerged. He looked shaken. Soon after this meeting he took the train out of Washington to St. Louis and, except for brief ceremonial occasions, did not return to Washington’s dangers for almost twenty years.
What, I dearly want to know, did Grant tell Sherman? How did the latter respond? Sherman’s decision not to play the President’s hazardous game and to listen to his immediate superior officer—who was soon to he his commander in chief—helped to keep the American army subservient to all its constitutional masters, not to one alone.
Harold M. Hyman, William Pettus Hobby
Professor of History, Rice University.
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993