Charles Francis Adams.

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

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now, though more than fifty years have since passed on,
I look back on that ride as at the moment of an inspiration
— the time when I resolved to burst the bonds, and strike
out into the light from the depth of the darkness. No wiser
determination did I ever reach.

In November the news one day reached Boston of the

IFar and Army Life 1 2 7

stopping of the Trent by Captain Wilkes, and the seizure of
Mason and Slidell, the Confederate "envoys." In vievy of
my subsequent investigations of this affair, and conclusions
thereon as set forth in the elaborate paper contained in the
published Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical So-
ciety for November, 191 1,' my contemporary record was
rather curious, reflecting the tempestuous character of the
time: "I have never known news spread so quickly, or seen
people so astonished, so delighted and so perplexed. First
came a cackle of joy; and then, immediately on its heels, the
question, What will England do? Immediately on hearing the
news I went round to Dana's (R. H.) office, and asked about
the law. The common fear as to England's attitude was
I found, not shared in that quarter; for Dana crowed with
delight as I told him, declaring that 'the Ambassador' could
on that issue 'blow Earl Russell out of the water'; and pro-
nouncing himself ready to stake his 'professional reputation
on the proposition.' " During the ensuing days, the seizure,
and the law relating to it, were the sole subjects of conver-
sation, and the newspapers were prolific of arguments and
precedents; "but," I wrote, "no argument or citation of
authorities could shake off the sense of alarm, and, in the
face of the law, stocks would fall; which last fact clearly
showed that our talk of going to war with England had in it
a considerable infusion of brag. Still, our friends 'the Am-
bassadors' were in durance vile, which was a solid comfort;
and, in sleet and snow, in chilling winds and under cheerless
skies, my spirits rose as I walked to and from the railroad
station (for we were still at Quincy, and my walk to the
train was over the hill and commanded a full view of Boston

1 XLV. 35.

1 2 8 Charles Francis Adams

Bay), and looked at the low, distant walls of Fort Warren,
surrounded by the steel-blue sea, and reflected that those
amiable gentlemen were there; and there they would remain!
I remembered the last exhibition I saw Mason make of
himself in the Senate-chamber; and I smacked my lips with


It was on the 19th of December that I at last learned
definitely that my name had been sent in for the commission
of first lieutenant. That evening, in the exuberance of my
joy, I wrote: "Well, at last my commission! Within the
next four days I shall leave this room, and my native city.
My office will know me no more, and to my profession I shall
bid a long farewell. A new existence opens before me; and,
when I return to the old haunts, I hope it will at least be in
more prosperous times and with more sanguine feelings."
My surprise would have been considerable, had I then been
informed that five full and eventful years — eventful to me
no less than to the community — were to pass away, before
I, then married and in my thirty-first year, was again to
find myself a resident in Boston. But, none the less, it was,
for me, a great, a blessed break in life!

Meanwhile, at the moment, I bothered myself not much
over the future. The cavalry regiment had that day come
into town to show itself and be reviewed. I saw it pass
through the streets; and, finally, by chance merely, went to
the Common. "There I found an immense crowd; but I
could not help being struck by the change. The enthusiasm
and glow of the spring and summer were gone. It was the
same place, and there were the outgoing soldiers and there
were the people; but the spirit was gone. It was December;
and very different from those pleasant days in June. I got

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within the lines, and went to headquarters. There I fell in
with Colonel Harrison Ritchie, who astonished me by the
information that my name had, the day previous, been sent
in to the Governor, for a commission. Rarely have I ever
felt more elated. I almost gasped with delight. I w^as then
really off! Law and office seemed at once to vanish into a
dim distance, as a new life opened. Its exposures, hardships
and dangers I gave no thought to in my burst of genuine

Looking back now, fifty years after, were I asked whether
I w^ould give up as an experience of subsequent value, both
educationally and in the w^ay of reminiscence, my three years
at Harvard or my three and a half years in the army, I would
have great difficulty in reaching a decision. On the whole, I
am inclined to think that my three and a half years of mili-
tary service and open-air life were educationally of incom-
parably the greater value of the tw'o. And especially was
this so for me, constituted as I was and yet am. It gave me
just that robust, virile stimulus to be derived only from a
close contact with Nature and a roughing it among men and
in the open air, which I especially needed. The experiment
was, it is true, a somewhat risky one, and involved not a few
hair-breadth escapes; but I succeeded in getting through
without sustaining any lasting personal or physical injury,
or any moral injury at all. I never was wounded; and though,
w^hen mustered out of the service in the summer of 1865 I
was a physical wreck, eighteen months of change and a sub-
sequent temperate and healthy life repaired all waste and
injury. Thus, so far as physique is concerned, I from my
army experience got nothing but good. I was, and at seventy-
seven am, in every way the better for it. Otherwise, that

130 Charles Francis Adams

experience was not only picturesque, but of the greatest pos-
sible educational value. For two years enjoying it keenly, it,
so to speak, made a man of me.

And yet, somewhat paradoxically, I have never looked
back on that army experience with any degree of unalloyed
satisfaction. During my service — and it was a very active
service — I did my duty as well as I knew how, and to the
best of my ability. I never shirked, and never got into any
trouble from which I did not extricate myself with a reason-
able degree of credit, if not in every instance altogether to
my own subsequent satisfaction. In many cases what I ought
to have done or said was much clearer to me afterwards than
at the time. And yet, in connection with that whole experi-
ence I am conscious of being more and more impressed with
a sense of my own limitations, deficiencies and shortcomings.
Not soldierly by nature, or of a daring and aggressive temper,
I have come more and more to recognize that not only had
my previous training in no way fitted me for the severe
experiences I then challenged, but also I have grown pain-
fully and ever increasingly conscious of the fact that I was not
aware of my own lack of preparation and any preliminary
training. So to me now it is simply shocking to think of the
responsibilities we then lightly assumed, and the absence in
us of any adequate realizing sense of the nature of those
responsibilities. When I went into active service and the
command of men, my sole acquaintance with military life
and its duties was derived from my four weeks' tour of duty
at Fort Independence, where, a member of the Fourth Bat-
talion, M.V.M., I acquired a little knowledge of the manual
and a smattering of the details of guard duty and of company
and battalion drill. It amounted in fact to nothing at all —

JVar and Army Life 1 3 1

not even the alphabet of a calling; and yet in my estimate it
seemed all that was needful. If in 1861, instead of passing
the summer at Quincy and in my office, I had servxd an
apprenticeship for three months in any military school, no
matter what, it would afterwards have been to me of infinite
service and incalculable value. As it was, I, like all the rest,
was a mere tyro, without even an adequate sense of my own
utter insufficiency, and the consequent desire to be better

This lack of preliminary training affected also my whole
subsequent military life. I never was properly qualified as
an officer; and yet, before I got through, I performed, and
in doing so acquitted myself quite as well as the average, the
duties and obligations of a colonel of a regiment of twelve
hundred men. But as I think of the risks I in so doing ran,
not only for myself, but for my command, I am dismayed.
Still, what I most needed I never had — a competent and
kindly instructor, a military preceptor and model. At the
very outset ill fortune placed me in this respect in one of the
most unfortunate and altogether trying positions any young
fellow could have been projected into. I was put under
the immediate command of two men even less qualified to
instruct than I myself; and who together probably were as
unfitted for the work to be performed as was possible. And
these were my military preceptors! The constitutionally
unqualified were to instruct the uninformed. Into that pain-
ful portion of my experience I do not care to enter. Let it
pass into oblivion. I staggered and blundered through it.
Nevertheless, educationally, my ill luck was indeed phenom-
enal; and so impresses me even more now than at the time.
But that episode constitutes a page in my experiences to

132 Charles Francis Adams

which I refer in extenuation, as it were, of my own short-
comings. As an officer, all I ever learned I learned from
rough experience and as an outcome of my own blunders.
Nevertheless, though my case was in all these respects
exceptional, I was as an officer indisputably one of the better
class ; for, though I did not appreciate my own deficiencies, I
at least had a sense of obligation, and a high standard of
duty. Nor did I ever try to advertise myself or to exploit
my services. Considering everything, I think I may say I got
out of it uncommonly well.

Recurring now to the course of events, it was on a Sun-
day, the 28th of December, 1861 — a very dull, gloomy and
generally forbidding day — that the First Massachusetts
Cavalry was loaded on to railroad cars, and started for New
York as its first stopping place, and subsequent point of
embarkation for Port Royal, then recently fallen into our
hands. I had reported for duty a day or two previous only,
and as first lieutenant been assigned to a company. Going
from a city house in Boston into a canvas camp at Christmas,
in Massachusetts, is, as I see it now, rather a severe experi-
ence. Then I was young and full of ardor, and disposed to
take everything in an uncomplaining spirit. But, certainly,
as compared with what I remembered of the same sort of
thing during the sunamer months, our home parting was to
the last degree dreary. So far as my own position was con-
cerned, it was by no means so bad as it might have been.
I was not the utter greenhorn in uniform I would have been
but for my experience at Fort Independence; and I took hold
as one somewhat familiar with camp routine. None the less,
it was the very close of the year — cold, drear and pitiless;
and it required youth and health and buoyancy to stand it.

TVar and Army Life 1 3 3

My description at the time of that Sunday of camp-breaking
was not bad. My brother John came out from Boston to
bring Caspar Crowninshield, his wife's brother, and me, some
articles and bid us good-bye. He found us busy with prepara-
tion; but, at last, all was ready. "What a dreary three hours
followed! A cold, grey sky overhead, with ice and frozen
mud underfoot. In the distance, the familiar Blue Hills
looked black and cheerless, their sides patched with snow.
The air was rough and biting, and we, tired, hungry and
impatient, waited for the ending of inexplicable delays. John
alone was there to see me off; and, for this, I was thankful.
I felt in a mood neither regretful nor sentimental; and, so
far from lingering over farewells to home, I asked only to
get away. It was dreary enough. Little knots of friends were
collected everyv\^here; but no one seemed to care for anything.
Grief and joy alike were frozen out. Finally, John gave out,
and declared he could stand the dreary discomfort no longer;
and I must say it was not without a sensation of envy I in
thought followed him back to his comfortable dinner. At
last we found ourselves on board the cars. I can pretend no
sentiment at leaving home behind me; I felt none. The only
strong sensation I had was one of relief at getting in motion
and, at last, having something to eat."

I have dwelt in detail over this period of my life simply
because, passing it in an eventful time, I then kept a contem-
poraneous record. That record extended through the larger
part of the following year, until my regiment reached Virginia
in early September, 1862, and I went into active field serv^ice.
I then almost perforce discontinued it, nor was it renewed
for twenty-six years; though I believe I always kept a brief
daily memorandum of where I was, and what I was doing.

1 34 Charles Francis Adams

During my years of active service in the war, my corre-
spondence with my family supplied, however, the place of a
daily record, and much better than a diary; my letters have
also been preserved. I have never looked them over except
casually, one or two; but those I have looked over I found
natural, vivid and extremely interesting. It has always been
my intention to go over my family correspondence of that
period, and prepare portions of it for publication as a con-
temporaneous war record, carried on, half in London and
half from the camp. I have no doubt it would make a
most interesting narrative, by no means without historical
value; but now (1912) whether I ever get to it is more
than doubtful. So much to do; so little done!

That, however, is no part of my present plan; but those
letters, unlike my diary, I do not propose to destroy. For
present purposes, from this point on what I have to say is
mere reminiscence, and that at long range. Consequently,
of small value. My army experience comes first, extending
over three years and a half.

For a really considerable time I was now suddenly brought
into close touch with Nature and man; and, in so far, I have
not passed my entire life under conventional conditions.
Yet, as I have already said, I had no particular military
aptitude. Far from being a born soldier, 1 was in many
respects unfitted for such a career. Not quick, daring or
ready-witted, robust but not muscularly agile, I could not
take advantage of sudden or unforeseen circumstances. With
no personal magnetism, I was rather deficient in presence of
mtind in time of peril. The most that could be said of me
was that, as a camp ofiicer, I was distinctly above the aver-
age. I was conscientious, understood my duties fairly well,

War and Army Life 1 3 5

and cared anxiously for my men and horses. But I did not
understand myself, nor did I take in the situation. Unseeing
of my opportunities, I quite failed to realize in any broad
way the nature of the occasion. I went into the service with
a strong sense of duty, and a desire to see hard work, in no
way seeking to save myself. I had no conception of ajmy
functions, or of the relative fields of usefulness of the staff
and line. In common with most of my friends, I had rather
a contempt for the staff positions; we wanted to be where
the work and hardship were, and where the knocks were to
be looked for. It was in some respects a praiseworthy feeling,
and I lived up to it; but living up to it involved much
hardship and danger, besides leaving out of sight, in my own
individual case, that, while I had no particular aptitude for
line work, I would have made a really valuable staff officer,
had I only diligently qualified myself for the position. But
on this subject, and my own insufficiency so far as my correct
understanding of myself and the situation, and myself in
connection with the possibilities of the situation, were con-
cerned, I a few years ago set forth my more enduring con-
clusions in the Memoir I prepared of my friend Theodore
Lyman, for the Historical Society. ^ He was more mature;
I was like all the rest. As it was, I had to learn by hard
experience that, in warfare on a large scale, a regimental
officer, no matter how high his grade, sees nothing and knows
nothing of what is going on. He is a mere minor wheel, when
not simply a cog, in a vast and to him in greatest part unin-
telligible machine, moving on given lines to a possible result;
wholly regardless of his comfort or even life. Obedience, self-
sacrifice and patient endurance are the qualities most in

' 2 Proceedings, xx. 1 5 8-6 1.

136 Charles Francis Adams

demand for him; but as for any intelligent comprehension
of the game in progress, that for the regimental officer is
quite beyond his ken. Even a colonel of cavalry — in many
respects a most delightful grade — knows only his own com-
mand, and is acquainted with nothing beyond his brigade
front. He and his are but one small factor in an immense
whole. A well-organized staff, on the contrary, constitutes
the army's brain, and everything centres at Headquarters.
There, and there alone, you know and see. So, the ideal
position at which I should have aimed, had I only known
enough, would have been the inspector-generalship of an
army corps under a well-qualified corps commander. For
this part, had I only realized it, I was well qualified; I needed
only a well-defined plan in my own mind, and a patient
study of functions. My lack of an early training was to be
supplied by close observation and constant tact. At the
close of the war, in February, 1865, that very position was
offered to me, and by A. A. Humphreys, the best corps com-
mander in the whole army; and I declined it! I stand aghast
now at my own folly; I threw such a chance away! But I
will do myself the justice to say that I did so most regret-
fully; and only from a strong sense of obligation to the regi-
ment of which I had then just been made colonel. Duty or
no duty, I have regretted it ever since. Though now I realize
how little qualified I was for the position, had I accepted it.
As I have already intimated, my initiation into military
life was most unlucky — that is the only word to apply to
it. It was a case of hard luck! I set out wrong; and my mis-
takes and misfortunes followed me. It is all plain enough
now; but then I blunderingly groped my way, and the course
of events was dead against me. It is a long, disagreeable

War and Army Life 1 3 7

stor}-; and, while I do not propose unduly to dilate upon it,
it has its interest. Then, as ever since, my great misfortune
lay in my utter lack of a nice, ingratiating tact in my deal-
ings with other men and difficult situations. I was born
deficient in true objectiveness. It is an inherited deficiency,
a family trait; but it has been my great handicap and hin-
drance in life, and never so much so as in the army. Interfer-
ing with my success, it destroyed my comfort; and help it
I could not. Well-meaning, conscientious, kind-hearted as I
felt myself to be, it was not in me — it never has been in
me — instinctively to do or say the right thing at the proper


This fact undoubtedly aggravated my difficulties, and
prevented me from extricating myself from them, as any
more adroit man would readily have done. On the other
hand, I was extremely unlucky; and, wholly by accident,
found myself during the first six months of my army life —
my initiation period — in the most trying and spirit-breaking
position I have known. Looking back on it now, I do not
see how I stood it; nor, on the other hand, do I now quite see
what I could have done other than I did do. It came about
in this wise.

The First Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry
was essentially a body of picked men. I have seen many
military organizations, and soldiers of all kinds and climes;
and I do not believe there ever were twelve hundred better
men got together than those composing that regiment. It
was the first complete cavalry regiment ever organized in
New England. It was made up largely of Americans, young,
athletic, ingenious, surprisingly alert and very adaptive.
I always got along well with my men. We were kith and kin.

1 3 8 Charles Francis Adams

Not that I was popular or adored by them, as was Caspar
Crowninshield, for instance; but they respected me, and I
did well by them. I had a thoroughly good company — con-
sidered the best in the regiment. That was "D" Company;
but originally I was assigned to "H." The colonel of the
regiment was a Virginian — Robert Williams, a West Point
graduate and officer of the regular army, strongly recom-
mended by General Scott, and carefully selected by Gover-
nor Andrew first to organize and then command the initial
cavalry regiment. Perfectly trained, and a gentleman of the
Virginia school, very striking in appearance, Robert Williams
may then have been some thirty-two years old, and he was a
good organizer as well as a severe disciplinarian. I propose
to deal kindly with him; but, in point of fact, he was all-out-
side ! There was no real stuff in him, and — he could n't help
drinking! Brought up in the regular service, he did not under-
stand our Massachusetts men, and his discipline was severe
to brutality. He had a set of us young Harvard fellows for
officers, who served him like dogs, who bowed before him in
blind, unquestioning obedience. Better material out of which
to make officers never existed; but we needed kindly, sym-
pathetic instruction. We did n't get it! Still, Williams did
know his business, and was a good officer in camp; but in
the field he got speedily demoralized, and, in moments of
emergency, invariably drunk. Later, I was his personal aid,
and the adjutant of the regiment; and, first and last, I went
through incredible experiences with him. As an officer in
presence of the enemy or under the stress of campaign,
Williams was an utter failure; and so recognized. Prone to
quarrel, he never got any promotion; and, shortly after
Antietam, left the regiment, and returned to his adjutant-

JVar and Army Life 1 3 9

generalcy, in Washington. Still, from Williams I did learn

Williams, as I have said, was a Virginian and a West
Pointer; typically, both. I got along fairly well enough with
him; but in no single respect was he a man I took to, or who
took to me. He was far, very far, from my ideal of the head
of a military family. He lacked innate courtesy as well as
stability; and, above all, he was wholly deficient in character
and in the sterling qualities. Still, I got on with him. My
trouble, curiously enough, came from Massachusetts men
— men I ought to have known all my life and been as of one


Leaving Massachusetts at the close of December, and
after a short stay in New York, we were shipped to South
Carolina, where we arrived about the middle of January.
Two battalions went into camp at Hilton Head. Company H
was in the Beaufort battalion; and there I remained four
months. It was my apprenticeship. I was starting in on a
new life; I had everything to learn. I look back on it now
with a shudder of disgust. Fortunately, I liked the life; and
the climate, after Boston, was delightful. I had, too, among
the officers many friends ; but, in spite of all that, it was the
worst experience I ever had. Colonel Sargent was in local
command of the Battalion; Captain Sargent commanded H
Company. I was the only lieutenant of that company on
duty; Davis, the second, shrewdly getting himself detailed
as battalion adjutant. Lucius Manlius Sargent, their father,
was well known in Boston, a great antiquarian and news-
paper writer ("Sigma" and "A Sexton of the Old School"
in the columns of the Evening Transcript) — a man of stand-
ing and wealth. Horace and Manlius were children by dif-

140 Charles Francis Adams

ferent mothers. Both brothers were men of large figure and
great muscular strength ; very proud of their physique and,
unquestionably, men of courage. Manlius, a graduate of
Harvard in the class of '48, had studied medicine, and, in
1862, must have been about thirty-five.

In May, Williams was made commander of the post at
Hilton Head; Sargent was transferred to the command of
the two battalions there stationed, and my old and life-
long friend — before, then, and now — Henry L. Higginson,
recently made major, came up and assumed command at

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 14 of 21)