Charles Francis Adams.

Charles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; online

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Instructions which he characteristically read to Russell, of
the Times, on the evening of April 8th. ^ The crisis of Sumter
came on five days after that reading, and then followed the
brief isolation of Washington. Those Instructions, thus com-
municated in advance to the correspondent of a London
newspaper, did not accordingly reach my father until April
27th, and he sailed four days afterwards. Every stage of our

* My Diary, i. I02.

JVashington^ 1861 1 1 3

action was thus marked by extreme deliberation; and the
Confederate Commissioners took full advantage of the fact.
There can, I think, be no question that my brother John's
marriage on the 29th of April, 1 861, led to grave interna-
tional complications. It is creditable to neither Seward nor
my father that the latter was allowed to dawdle away weeks
of precious time because of such a trifle. It was much as if a
general had permitted some social engagement to keep him
away from his headquarters on the eve of a great battle; and,
in his absence, the enemy secured possession of some coigne
of great vantage. The course of subsequent events, as I have
elsewhere pointed out,^ transformed this apparent mishap
into a fortunate occurrence.

^ Lije of Charles Francis Adams, 173; see also the paper on "The British
Proclamation of May, 1861," in Mass. Hist, Soc. Proceedings, xlviii. 190.



At that time I had already entered into a sort of military-
life. A member of the Fourth Battalion of Massachusetts
Volunteer Militia I was in garrison at Fort Independence, in
Boston Harbor, and a most useful and instructive elementary-
military school that experience proved. Elementary in the
extreme, it was all the preliminary training I ever had. But on
that head I shall have more to say presently — confessions,
I might call them, to record. Sumter was fired on upon a
Friday; but the lines of communication were broken, and
"all day Sunday it was curious to notice the agitation of the
people; there was but one subject of thought or of conversa-
tion. Vague and distressing rumors were flying freely about.
Next morning the head-lines of the daily papers told us that
it was war." The call for troops — the first of many such —
went forth that day; and, my diary fairly admitted, was the
occasion to me of a very uneasy night. Seven months later,
I received my long wished-for commission, and started off
with my regiment, with positive elation. I had in the interim
been educated up to the full fighting figure; but, in April,
it was like an alarm-bell at midnight. It was with a shock
I realized the situation. "War," I wrote that day, "is no
plaything, and, God knows, I have no wish to trifle with it.
I, therefore, shall not now volunteer, or expose myself to
unnecessary service. But I can, and will, obey orders at any
sacrifice, and, if called upon, shall go into active service.
Not to do so, would be to incur lasting disgrace, in compari-

War and Army Life 1 1 5

son with which the hardship and boredom and danger of a
campaign would be a festive pastime. If I must do it — and
I hope I must n't — I may as well put a good face on it. The
back is ever strengthened to the burden. To-day, I shrink
from the idea of a skimiish. Three weeks hence, I doubt not,
my mind will be trained up to fierce battle, if need be." I at
least then understood myself to that extent!

The same day the regiments began to come in from the
countr>^ turning out full ranks. I should think much better
of myself now, if that day I had turned the key in my office-
door and gone off in the ranks of the Quincy company. But
so doing never even occurred to me. I simply was n't equal
to the occasion — my ordinary experience in life — before,
then and since. As it was, I wrote of the regiments that day
pouring into Boston: "They say there were strange scenes
at the country railroad stations — more weeping than is
usual. In Boston here there would have been a tremendous
demonstration, but for the weather; it was sufficiently strik-
ing even as it was. It has been a dreary, dismal day, storm-
ing heavily from the eastward; a day with rain enough to
extinguish any degree of enthusiasm; and, as the poor devils
plashed through the streets, less than half drilled and most
insufficiently clad — for few country companies are supplied
with overcoats — they were greeted with well-deserved
applause. But I could n't help feeling badly for them." A
few days later I wrote: "These be indeed stirring times, and
the age has in it, after all, the elements of the heroic. It is
now three days that our streets have been crowded with
soldiers and draped in flags; while our populace, usually so
staid and quiet, is crazy with patriotism. The contagion is,
in fact, hard to resist; and often, within these three days as

1 1 6 Charles Francis Adams

I have seen these men go by, half armed and a quarter uni-
formed, many of them mere recruits, unarmed and with no
pretence of a uniform, following, carpet-bag in hand, the
rear of the column, I have felt a rising in the throat and been
conscious of a moisture in the eye, which caused me to feel
little of the soldier." Some days later there came along one
of those storms of alarmist rumors that then from time to
time developed, and one evening it was reported at one of
our leisure haunts that every available man was called for,
to be off next morning. " If this was true, it meant fight; and
we received it accordingly. Half of our battalion were new
recruits who had never handled a musket, all our officers
were inexperienced, nor was there a single uniform amongst
us; and yet we were to be ordered into immediate active
service. The men showed their pluck. Among them, there
was an outer gaiety and flow of humor; but it only covered
gravity and dismay. There was n't anywhere the faintest
sign of funk. For myself, though I kept up my spirits as well
as the best, I certainly realized how unprepared I was to go,
and what a doubtful experiment I thought it. As John and I
a little later walked up Beacon Street on our way home, the
sensation was certainly new. How many times we had trod
the same pavements before — ^ grave and gay, drunk and
sober, from weddings and to funerals — but never until now
on the eve of battle."

At last, on the 24th of April, our battalion was ordered to
do garrison duty at Fort Independence, and so, closing my
office, I with the rest reported at the armory. We went down,
and took possession of the fort that afternoon, remaining
there five weeks. A pleas anter or more useful five weeks in
the educational way, I do not think I ever passed than those

TVar and Army Life


during which I played soldier at Fort Independence in April
and May, 1861. I enjoyed the experience thoroughly, and
what I there learned — the details of drill and of guard duty
— proved aftenvards of the greatest value to me. But it was
only a military kindergarten. The first night down I was in
the guard detail. The guard-room — long unused and very
damp — was awful; but my description of my beat was not
bad, and covered many later experiences. My subsequent
brother officer and life-long friend, Harry Russell, and I that
night lay waking side-by-side. "The sky was at first over-
cast; but the clouds scattered after the rising of the moon,
and, as the wind had fallen, I found my first tour of duty on
the ramparts far from unpleasant. The surroundings w^ere
picturesque: on one side, beyond the parapet, the bay was
gently rippling in the moonlight, which flooded the islands
and shipping at anchor in the roadstead; while on the other
were the walls around the parade-ground of the fort, white
in the beams. In front of the guard-room a little knot of the
relief were smoking and chatting, and, now and again, a cold
gleam of light was reflected from the bayonet of the sentry
patrolling the opposite rampart. As I walked my beat, stop-
ping occasionally to admire the scene, I pondered the ques-
tion of active service and reached my own conclusions con-
cerning it in my particular case; and, finally, it struck me
that I had never known two hours pass more rapidly than
did those my two first on guard. Later, I saw the sun rise,
and at six I was relieved."

John was married on the evening of the 29th of April, at
Mrs. Crowninshield's house in Longwood, and my father,
with the remainder of the family, sailed on the ist of May.
That afternoon I went back to Fort Independence, for which

1 1 8 Charles Francis Adams

I already felt homesick; and there, without once even desir-
ing to go to the City, I remained for the next three weeks.
The hint was a most forcible one, and I now wonder that I
did not take it. I then actually loathed my office, and felt no
call to my profession. My new life charmed me. I was young,
strong, loved existence in the open air, was not afraid of
hardship, alone of the whole garrison did I take my daily
plunges from the wharf, and I had in me the elements of a
thoroughly good soldier in the ranks. And yet I lacked the
spirit of adventure, and the daring to throw myself into the
new life. No young fellow there would have enjoyed it more.

We were relieved, and came up to town on the last day of
May. After we had been dismissed at the armory, I went
home to the house in Mt. Vernon Street to don my citizens'
clothes, and, before going out to Quincy where the newly
married John then was, I dropped in at the Parker House,
on School Street, to join some friends. At their request, "I
looked at myself in the mirror, and was amazed. I had in
every respect the aspect of a prize-fighter. My face was
brown and tanned, my hair was cut close to my head, my
loose coat and blue shirt gave me a brawny reckless bearing,
and I thought I had never looked so rollicking and strong, or
felt so well, in all my life."

Going back to my ofiice and its inanimate routine, the five
ensuing months, though I did not then realize it, were edu-
cational. I was a conscientious young fellow in a way, with
a sufficing sense of my obligation to others, especially my
father. In reality everything then combined to carry me into
the army. I was young, unmarried, vigorous, and, in a sense,
in the way in my father's house, which my brother then
occupied with his newly married wife; moreover, I was doing

War and Army Life 1 1 9

nothing in a profession profoundly distasteful to me. But I
fostered a delusion that my presence in Boston was very
essential to the proper conduct of my father's affairs, and I
felt no call to arms from any love of adventure. So, ashamed
to stay at home, conscious that one at least of the family
ought to be with the colors, I argued the matter continually
with myself. But it was only slowly, and by increasing
attacks, that the ever-spreading epidemic got possession
of me.

In June, I was suffering from an earlier and Intermittent
attack, and wrote to my father. Presently I got a letter from
my brother Henry, who was with him In London. This letter
has disappeared, together with all my correspondence and
papers of the years before the war. I am sorry to have lost
that particular letter, for it now would have an almost his-
torical value. Few points in connection with my work on my
father's life have more deeply Interested me than the study
of Seward's foreign-war panacea for the cure of civil dissen-
sion, in April-June, 1861 ; and my diary, under date of June
25, 1 861, contained a reference to this letter, written by
Henry the day after the receipt by my father of that despatch
No. 10, of May 21st, from Seward, which Lincoln emascu-
lated: "Tcnday I received a letter from Henry which fell on
me like a thunderbolt from a clear sky; for, after six pages of
general matter, he closed In a grand panic, telling me that
the day before a despatch had been received from Seward
which meant European war — that It would come within
two months. His own faith In Seward was, he said, shaken,
for he seemed resolved to lash the country Into a foreign war.
As for me, he advised me to keep cool, not gratifying my
military ardor at present, but holding In reserve for a great

1 20 Charles Francis Adams

Canadian campaign. This letter almost terrified me, chiefly
because of Seward. Would it not be foolish under present
circumstances, and wicked under any, to force a third party,
against its will and without provocation into a bloody war,
merely because domestic contentions were getting too hot.?'*

But, all the same, the letter served to cool my immediate
ardor. The struggle in which we found ourselves engaged was
at that time just beginning to assume its correct proportions
in our eyes; and I chafed bitterly over the empty escort duty
I was doing as one of the rank and file of the Fourth Battalion
— tramping the streets continually, seeing the three-year
regiments from Maine and New Hampshire off on their way
to Washington; and I wrote In reply to Henry that I was
"still eager for release. And why should I not be.? Have I
not failed in my profession.? Am I not continually hungry
for some outside stimulus ? Is it not now offered me.? And in
what respect has my past been so successful, or in what way
is my future so brilliant in promise, that I should so long
hesitate to risk my life In this quarrel?"

A few weeks later my diary recorded a portent I still well
remember; though I have never seen it alluded to In any book
on that period. One evening early In July we had been drill-
ing in the armory of the Battalion, then In the old Boylston
Market Building, corner of Washington and Boylston Streets.
As we left it, turning towards the Common, the exclamation
burst from several at once, "Why, there's a comet!" It was
the great comet of i86l — the comet which took the whole
scientific world by surprise; for Its advent had not been fore-
told, and of it nothing was known. As striking as it was un-
foreseen, it fairly burst on a startled world. The next day
the astronomers confessed themselves as much at a loss con-

TVar and Army Life


cerning it as the most superstitious layman, and I wrote of
it: "Close to the Dipper and, as it were, in the centre of our
Heavens, with its head not far from the North-star, its trail
streamed away to the southward like a milky way. But the
question which perplexed all — astronomers and laymen —
was: Where did it come from, and how did it get here? But
here it is, brilliant beyond description as it streams across
the sky. Already it is vanishing, and in a few nights will be
invisible. What a curious coincidence! In Europe, it can
hardly have been seen at all, for it shone high in our Heavens.
It has come on our National Anniversary, bursting upon us
unheralded and in the midst of our civil commotions. Its
stay seems likely to be as short as it is brilliant. Who can
read us the riddle?"

On the 4th of July, Gordon's regiment, afterwards the
memorable Second Massachusetts Infantry, went oflF, we,
the Fourth Battalion, doing escort service. It was largely
oihcered by my old friends, who crowded the platforms of the
cars and waved salutes as the train got in motion. It was a
day of great heat; and " then, as usual after thus seeing others
on their way to the real strife, we quietly marched back to
our armory — and were not ashamed!" A few days later
" Stephen Perkins, one of the very few close friends of my
own I ever had, went off, too; and I did not even see him
before he went. At the last moment he accepted a second
lieutenant's commission in the Gordon regiment, and fol-
lowed it two days after. I had advised his going; but, when
he departed so suddenly, his going fell heavily on me.
Whether I ever see him again depends on the fate of war."
I never did see him again. Thirteen months later he was
killed at Cedar Mountain, in Virginia. I realized that a place


Charles Francis Adarris

was made vacant in my circle not again to be filled. I have
the sense of that loss still.

The Bull Run experience came a few days after the de-
parture of the Second. My diary contained a long entry
relating to it, simply setting forth the sensations of one
individual American far removed from the scene of action.
That incident of the war and the ensuing stampede occurred
on a Sunday. I passed the day at Quincy, and the battle,
well known to be impending, was the one topic of thought or
talk. Monday morning the papers were full of encouraging
reports; but very general. Getting to my office I had just
finished a letter, when "my heart sank within me as I sud-
denly heard the newsboys shout in the street, 'Retreat of the
Federal Army!' Just then Dana (R. H.) came in on some
business; often have I seen Dana under trying circumstances,
but never before distrait, or outwardly flustered. But now
the tidings of a reverse weighed heavily on him, and he
could n't even pretend to think or talk of anything else. At
that time we supposed it was simply an orderly retreat
to Centreville, which seemed bad enough; and, though I
could n't work, in this pleasant faith I remained until, leav-
ing the office, I met Caspar Crowninshield looking abso-
lutely pale, and he then poured out to me the frightful tale
of running men, captured artillery, abandoned arms and
blasted honor. I too turned pale as I listened. We started
for the news-room, and, passing through State Street, we
could not help observing those strange and significant little
knots of men with troubled faces, so suggestive of times of
deep excitement." Dining at Quincy, we were unable to
resist the desire to know what further tidings might have
come, and Caspar and I drove back to town to see Boston in

War and Army Life 1 2 3

the hour of bitterest defeat. "The news we found, in some
respects, a Uttle less discouraging; but, as for the city, its
quiet was remarkable. A few crowds lingered about the tele-
graph offices and the newspaper buildings, long closed, and
those composing them stood in small knots, talking in sub-
dued tones, and circulating the most awful rumors as to the
dead and missing. Nervous excitement was the feature of the
night; but the city was wholly quiet, and no news could be

Bull Run was followed by a regular panic — one of many,
preceding and following, in which Washington either was,
or was believed to be, in danger of capture. During it, my
mind was always balancing arguments, should I go, or stay?
I then began to realize the mistake I had made in not going
earlier, and I wrote: "Would to God now that I had been
ordered away, or had of my own accord joined some organ-
ization sent forward to Washington in April last, that I too
might have been found ready, when to be ready was the
duty of every man. But not," etc., etc., through the whole
gamut of honest self-deception. There was then, as subse-
quent events showed, no earthly reason why I should not
have gone, and the best of reasons why I should go, and go
at once; but, I argued, if I now go, "I do so because I am
carried away by the enthusiasm of those around me, or ia
the desire of a new and exciting life, with a chance of mili-
tary distinction. I feel that war is not my vocation; and
that, In deserting the law for It, I should give up a profession
for which I am little adapted for one to which I am adapted
even less. This disposes also of my chance of military dis-
tinction, and leaves only the question of yielding to the
contagion about me. That a soldier's life would give a new

124 Charles Francis Adams

impetus to my energies, I know; that in it I should be happy
and grow, I am well enough aware; incidentally, also, it
might, and, I fancy, would lead to many advantageous
things; but these possible advantages, though they weigh
heavily enough with me, will not justify my leaving the
manifest duties which ought to keep me here. My father
has entrusted me with the care of the bulk of his property,
and never was property so difficult to manage as it now is,"
etc., etc., "and these considerations of real duty must out-
weigh the possible advantages to result from novelty, excite-
ment and activity. Yes ! this chance is gone by, and I feel
that I shall not take part in the war." All of which shows
that at twenty-five I was a good deal of a prig, as well as
addicted to a mild form of sophistry. The fact was that my
father, with the coldness of temperament natural to him,
took a wholly wrong view of the subject and situation, did
not believe in any one taking a hand in actual fight, and
wholly failed to realize that it would have been an actual
disgrace had his family, of all possible families American,
been wholly unrepresented in the field. And I was the one
to go ! At the same time, I did understand myself, and rec-
ognize my own limitations. I had no natural call to a mili-
tary life.

Early in September the Twentieth broke camp at Read-
ville, and went to the Potomac. The Twentieth was largely
officered by my friends. Frank Palfrey, wounded and dis-
abled at Antietam, was its lieutenant-colonel ; Paul Revere,
killed at Gettysburg, was major. I saw them ofi". With them
went Caspar Crowninshield, my household companion during
the summer, destined to be my camp companion later on,
and friend for long years. He died early in 1897, while I was

War and Army Life 1 2 5

living in Florence. It was a thoughtful day for me — that
pleasant, soft September noon when I shook hands all around
in the bustling camp, and then rode home to Quincy; and I
wrote In my diary that "I tried to feel satisfied with Quincy
and myself. I might have commanded the right of the line
of that regiment; and, instead, I am scolding tenants, audit-
ing bills, discussing repairs, rendering accounts, and so —
doing my duty ! — Pshl"

This was In September, and the struggle w^ent on all
through that month and the following. At last things were
ripe, and what may be termed the psychological crisis came
about. On the 30th of October, I thus recorded a very mem-
orable event in my life: "I have astonished myself within
forty-eight hours. I have applied for the commission in
the cavalry regiment, which, on Saturday last, I declined!
Monday afternoon I went out to ride. It was a clear, windy
afternoon, and the autumn leaves gleamed through the crisp
October air In the afternoon sunshine. As I was walking my
horse through the Braintree woods and meditating on my
enforced staying at home, it suddenly flashed across me.
Why do I stay at home? And sure enough the reasons that,
two months ago, seemed so strong, all had vanished. The
business questions were all disposed of; nothing more re-
quiring my presence here seemed likely to arise; and so,
Why should I not got The first sensation was not pleasant;
and I found myself instinctively clinging to my old, old
reasons, now only excuses; but. In another moment, I was
all aglow. During that ride, I thought of nothing else; and,
when I got home from it, my mind was made up. I said
nothing to any one; but, yesterday, I sent a note to Sargent,
asking for a captaincy." The regiment in question was the

1 2 6 Charles Francis Adams

First Massachusetts Cavalry; Sargent was its lieutenant-
colonel — Horace Binney Sargent, of the class of 1843; in
1 861 a man of a little less than forty, whom I had known
rather well for some years back; and, for some reason, had
of him conceived a good opinion, which subsequent events
in no way confirmed. Meanwhile, my delay had been pro-
ductive. In one respect at least, of fortunate results. In
the earliest stages of the war the powers that were had been
slow in reaching any adequate conception either of its mag-
nitude or of the time it would occupy. It had been assumed
that no volunteer mounted regiments would be called into
the service, as the preparation and training of cavalry re-
quired more time than could be given in view of the early
ending of the conflict then anticipated as of course. No
cavalry regiment from Massachusetts was called for until
August; and though, like so many other of my friends, I
might not improbably have then been transferred to it from
an earlier Infantry organization, I was in October just in
time. Meeting Sargent in one of my afternoon rides, it had
occurred to him to offer me a commission; which I, at the
time, declined, in accordance with my earlier theory of duty
at home. A few days later the cogitations of that afternoon
ride through the Braintree woods in the October atmosphere
settled the question. From that moment I did not again
hesitate. The relief of a resolution taken was great. Even

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 13 of 21)