Charles Francis Adams.

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

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Beaufort. I now in my diary described my life as "a very
pleasant and comfortable one." In early June, operations
began on James Island, and, by a fortunate combination
of circumstances which I at the time regarded as most
unlucky, I was sick in the hospital when H Company was
ordered off, and I never again rejoined it. For, when I was
well enough to report for duty, I was assigned as an aid to
Williams, then acting as brigade commander, and I continued
to serve in that capacity until, in early September, the regi-
ment was ordered to Virginia. In that capacity, and under
Williams, I had what they are pleased to call "my baptism
of fire," or, in other words, took part in my first engage-

A day or two later came the James Island fight. We of
the staff knew that something was impending, and we were
called at l a.m. My record reminds me that, as we moved
forward in the grey of the early dawn, I felt in no way heroic.
Presently, Williams, whom we were following, "rode through
a hedge, along a road, and then over a wall into an open field;
and there we were directly in front of the enemy's works.
Here I saw my first shell fall. It did not explode. It fell a

TVar and Army Life 141

few yards to our right, bouncing, and then rolling along in a
very vicious way. It impressed me unpleasantly. Here we
stayed a long time." We of the staff were kept very busy
carrying orders, etc. "Though a heavy and incessant fire
of infantry was going on, the roar of the artillery and the
exploding of shells after they had hurtled and shrieked over
our heads, so completely drowned the musketry that I do
not think I heard the report of a small arm during the entire
engagement. Yet, when I was sent with an order to our
extreme left, I distinctly saw the puffs of dust raised by the
musket-balls dropping about me. But I now found I had
lost all sense of danger, and was thoroughly up to my work.
My little mare did beautifully. Nothing scared her; not
even the explosion of shells close by; and she carried me
handsomely through morasses and over ditches without end;
and she alone of all the staff horses followed the colonel
wherever he went. After the action was well on, I began to
enjoy it." The affair was badly managed, and the single
attack was soon repulsed, our loss being heavy. We had some
queer experiences that day, and it was a wonder we were not
all killed. "Still, it was a pleasant feeling, that of riding out
of my first fight, having done well in it. I don't think I ever
experienced so genial a glow. As we rode out of the woods
we passed our regiment — the cavalry — drawn up behind
them, where they had been waiting the last four hours. We
had been engaged; they had not. We felt, or at least I did,
like a veteran of an hundred fights ; and I got off my horse
with a new and exalted sense of my own importance. It was
very pleasant. In fact, it was not until I had dismounted
that I realized how much I had enjoyed myself that day.
But, honestly and unaffectedly, I do not think I ever passed

142 Charles Francis Adams

a more pleasurable morning in my life. The excitement of a
battle-field is grand."

Such was my contemporaneous record of my first engage-
ment. Afterwards I was in many; and those I do not pro-
pose to particularize, or to give any descriptions of my part
therein. I copy this, a part of the long record of my first
experience in that way, merely because it was written at
the time; also, as showing the extremely adverse and dis-
heartening conditions under which I entered on army life.
That I never for a moment even was sickened of that life, or
looked back regretfully to my office and civilized existence
speaks well, it seems to me, for my robustness ; as, also, it is
highly suggestive of my extreme distaste for the law and for
ofiice routine. But, assuredly, I never at that juncture did
look back regretfully. My only fear was that I might be
forced to give the new life up.

Meanwhile, as usual in face of steady persistence, luck
slowly turned. In August, as a consequence of McClellan's
reverses in Virginia, the regiment was ordered up from South
Carolina; and, so far as I was concerned, it was high time.
There was in my destroyed record a rather curious entry
bearing on this subject. It was under the date of April 19,
1862; just a year from the fall of Sumter. When that
occurred, and the President's call for troops immediately
followed, the object of the muster was declared to be the
re-taking of the captured fort [Sumter] ; and I well remember
the dread I felt of, possibly, being sent down to languish in
what I assumed to be those fever-smitten swamps. And now,
exactly one year from that time, I wrote thus: "A year ago
my great apprehension was lest I might be sent to rot on the
islands before Sumter; but now, here I am, just there, and

JVar and Army Life 143

the 'rotting' process has not yet begun. Again on picket
duty at the Milne plantation; and it is beyond description
beautiful. On my table are three bouquets of magnolias,
roses, and sweet-smelling flowers, a fresh, fragrant atmos-
phere creeps in through the wide-open window, while be-
yond is the soft green foliage, such as we at home see only in
early June. Altogether the spring here, though somewhat
warm, is a pleasant season, and one good to live in."

In June, we lay before Sumter. After the failure of the
expedition and our return to Hilton Head, I continued acting
as aid to Colonel Williams. My duties were nominal only;
but, in camp, my commander forswore sack and lived cleanly,
and I certainly had nothing to complain of. But Hilton Head
in July and August I found a wholly different place from
Port Royal Island in April. The heat was great; also, con-
tinuous. I was young, and had never known what it was to
take care of myself physically; so I neglected all precautions
of diet and exposure; of course, with the usual result. The
beach was directly in front of my quarters, and the bathing
was superb; but the heat was as great by night as by day;
and, gradually, I broke down under it. By the middle of
August, though fit for duty, I was in a bad way. The news
from home was, also, depressing; a succession of reverses;
and, on the i8th of August, I thus wrote, hearing of our
reverse at Cedar Mountain — when Banks came up against
"Stonewall" Jackson — "the Massachusetts Second has
been badly cut to pieces, and I have lost several old friends,
and, among them, one, the first of our old Fort Independence
mess, Harry Russell. More, and most of all, Stephen Perkins
is reported killed ; and if that be true, the ablest man I ever
knew, the finest mind I ever met, is lost forever in the briefly

144 Charles Francis Adams

reported death of a second lieutenant of volunteer Infantry.
It is indeed bitter."

The news proved true of Perkins, but not of Russell. He
was captured, and did not die till 1905 — over forty years
aftenvards; and I heard of his death at Assuan, in our second
visit to Egypt. But in August, 1862, we did not have much
time to count losses or lament the dead; our turn had come!
For, only six days later I made the last diary record I was
to make for twenty-six years, while lying on the transport
McClellan, off Fort Monroe, on our way to Alexandria.
There was one portion of that final record which tends to
show that at the time I was at least in a recipient mood. It
was rather creditable. On the voyage up, time hanging
heavily on my hands, I chanced upon Tom Hughes's story
of Hodson, in his Twelve Years of a Soldier^ s Life in India. It
made a deep impression on me. We, too, were on our way to
the 2iwiu\ fighting ground, and Hodson's experience and let-
ters seemed strangely applicable. I remember writing to my
people in London about it; and now I find this other record:
"One lesson I wish I could learn from Hodson — that of
patience and subordination. He makes me ashamed of my-
self. He, a captain at thirty-five and when he had long been
the first soldier in the Indian army; and here am I, impatient
and reckless, with that same rank in my grasp at the close of
seven months of service. I am a very ordinary man; he was
a most uncommon one: it would be well for me and my
happiness could I take many pages from his book. Is it not
possible for me also to do my duty unreplningly in the place
where I find myself, and, by doing it well, fit myself for
higher? Cannot I too take fortune's buffets and rewards
with equal grace .^ It does not seem so. Yet it is strange that

W^ar and Army Life 145

one small feature In Hodson's anny career in India should
produce such an effect on me here!"

This is the last quotation I have to make from my con-
temporaneous records; and it is not my purpose to write a
book of war reminiscences. From this point, therefore, I go
on rapidly. The regiment was forced at once into the most
active of campaign work — the Antietam episode. We were
wholly unprepared, and Williams at once became completely
demoralized — went all to pieces ! I was now made the regi-
mental adjutant; and a lovely time I had of it! Something
had happened at Washington, I never quite knew what.
But Williams disappeared altogether for two days, during
which he was very much wanted. The regiment meanwhile
was kicked about in a state of orphanage; and, when
Williams turned up, looking very shame-faced, his chance
of a higher command was gone. Consequently, he took the
field in a totally demoralized frame of mind. Then came
that awful campaign. Williams did not appear well, or do
well. I was wholly inexperienced. He then gave us the
benefit of his regular army jealousies; for he had a great
contempt as well as dislike for his commanding ofiicer —
Pleasanton, in fact a decidedly poor stick — and an angry
flare-up took place, with a fine display of West Point

Williams, very wisely, decided to resign his Massachusetts
commission, and return to his desk In the Adjutant-General's
office at Washington. He did so, and his career as a cavalry
officer, or in the field, then came to a close. It was well for him
it did. He was utterly unfitted for the stress and excitement
of active service; while, in his office, he acquitted himself
well. He rose to be Adjutant-General of the Army, and died

146 Charles Francis Adams

somewhere about 1902 or 1903, on the retired Hst, utterly
broken in health.^

Sargent succeeded WiUiams, I remaining adjutant. This,
however, lasted only a few weeks, when I got my company.
It was a happy day for me. Meanwhile, forced into active
campaign immediately on landing from South Carolina, the
regiment, naturally, went all to pieces. Of our original excel-
lent mount, there was hardly a horse left. The officers were
disheartened; the men demoralized. So we went into camp
to await a new mount and reorganize. Greeley Curtis had
now become second in command, with Henry Higginson
next to him. Both good officers, though with no more experi-
ence than I, strong personal friends, fearless and with some
sense; much trouble was soon lifted off my shoulders, and
assumed by them. As adjutant, I knew my duties fairly
well; and did them.

In his Memoir of Colonel Henry Lee^ published in 1905,
John T. Morse, Jr., says that Harry Lee "said what others
knew and liked to have said by some one, though themselves
shirking responsibility"; and as illustrative of this he repeats
a terse characterization of Colonel Lee's, made to his kins-
man, T. Wentworth Higginson, when editing the Harvard
Memorial Biographies. Harry Lee then said to Colonel
Higginson: "Put it down that it will always remain an
uncertainty whether it was the insane vanity of the elder
brother, or the drunken insanity of the younger, which
utterly ruined the finest regiment that ever left Massachu-

The two Sargents were the only superiors I had during my
entire army experience with whom I was wholly unable to

* He died August 24, 1901.

IVar and Army Life 1 47

get on, or to whom I failed to give satisfaction. Subse-
quently, I was urged for promotion, out of course, over the
head of Captain Sargent, by Curtis and Higginson; but I
refused to allow myself to be considered. I afterwards always
had a good reputation as an officer; and, at the end of six
months of excellent opportunity for observation, General
Humphreys tendered me the highest position on his corps

The winter following the Antietam campaign was passed
by the regiment in camp at Acquia Creek. Sargent, now
become colonel, was in conamand, and we learned nothing;
unless it were to carry insubordination to a fine art. I now
got my captaincy; and I must do myself the justice to say
that, while my company was an excellent one, I took great
pride in it and devoted myself to my duties and its improve-
ment. Between me and it the most friendly relations existed.
The trouble, however, was that we were all so inexperienced;
we knew nothing of the laws of health and self-preservation,
and we thought those laws not worth knowing. Why any of
us survived, I cannot now see; but we were young and robust
as a rule; we lived in the open air; and we were at least tem-
perate. On the other hand, we had no schools of instruction;
the regimental quarrels were incessant; the spirit of insub-
ordination was rife and in the air. None the less, the material
was all there, and it would assert itself. When the Spring
came, it was a superb regiment.

Then followed the long Gettysburg campaign in which we
were veterans — always, as I now see, self-taught. In the
very height of it Colonel Sargent somehow got a leave-of-
absence, and went to Europe. Curtis broke down, poisoned
by malaria; Higginson and Chamberlain, the two majors,

148 Charles Francis Adams

were both Incapacitated by wounds; so also was Captain
Sargent. So a few of us, boy-captains, ran what remained of
the regiment. Curtis and HIgginson — my old friends, with
whom my campaign life was happiness — never came back.
So, on the whole, this was my best period in the service.
Somehow, the life agreed with me; I actually enjoyed Its
hardships, its adventure. Its nearness to Nature and men.
I alone of the officers asked for no leave of absence; I desired
none. Perfectly well physically, I was In every way develop-
ing. That dreary Court Street office seemed a disagreeable
dream; I was separated from It by a whole existence; I was
never going back to It; It was the only period of my life in
which I lived for the present, and took no thought of the
future. It was a truly glorious existence.

It was now autumn (November, 1863), and I had been
nearly two years In the service without a break. That
autumn campaign was continuous and very severe; and,
when we went Into winter quarters at Warrenton — some-
where In early December — the regiment was reduced to a
skeleton. Well do I now recall my tour of picket duty the
night the brigade arrived there. The days were the shortest
of the year, and a heavy freezing rain was falling. My line
of outposts covered a broken, unsheltered country, and my
reserv^e was stationed among the stumps of a recently felled
grove. It was dark as Egypt, and all was desolation; and
so the dreary hours wore themselves away. Late the next
morning I was relieved; but for what? The newly formed
camp was, I well remember, as comfortless and dreary as the
outpost. How we stood It, I do not now see; but, as I have
repeatedly said, we were young and strong, buoyant and full
of resource.

W^ar and Army Life 1 49

That winter I got a leave of absence; my company re-
enlisting and going home — the first in the regiment to do
so — while I, seeing them to Boston, went to Europe. This
closed my severe military experience; and it was enough.
Two full years of company life had completely exhausted it;
more would have been mere repetition. My letters, doubt-
less, give a vivid enough picture of what that experience
was — and it was far and away the greatest of my life — nor
have I any disposition to indulge in reminiscence. Three
episodes I have since at different times set down, and they
are the most striking I recall.

The first describes the march of the Sixth Corps to Gettys-
burg on the 2d of July, '63. That was the finest thing in a
military way I ever saw. There was in it more of the spirit
and splendor of war. I included it in the Fourth of July
Address I delivered at Quincy, in 1869, and it has since been
reprinted in the papers frequently, even in the West. In-
deed, I came across it somewhere, not long ago. The passage
is as follows, and I recall the scene now, after an interval of
close on fifty years, as if of yesterday: "It was late on the
evening of the first of July, that there came to us rumors of
heavy fighting at Gettysburg, near forty miles away. The
regiment happened then to be detached, and its orders for
the second were to move in the rear of Sedgwick's corps and
see that no man left the column. All that day we marched
to the sound of the cannon; Sedgwick, very grim and stern,
was pressing forward his tired men, and we soon saw that for
once there would be no stragglers from the ranks. As the
day grew old and as we passed rapidly up from the rear to
the head of the hurrying column, the roar of battle grew more
distinct, until at last we crowned a hill and the contest broke

150 Charles Francis Adams

upon us. Across the deep valley, some two miles away, we
could see the white smoke of the bursting shells, while below
the sharp incessant rattle of the musketry told of the fierce
struggle that was going on. Before us ran the straight, white,
dusty road, choked with artillery, ambulances, caissons, am-
munition trains, all pressing forward to the field of battle,
while mixed among them, their bayonets gleaming through
the dust like wavelets on a river of steel, tired, foot-sore,
hungry, thirsty, begrimed with sweat and dust, the gallant
infantry of Sedgwick's corps hurried to the sound of the can-
non as men might have flocked to a feast. Moving rapidly
fonvard, we crossed the brook which runs so prominently
across the map of the field of battle and halted on its further
side to await our orders. Hardly had I dismounted from my
horse when, looking back, I saw that the head of the column
had reached the brook, and deployed and halted on its other
bank, and already the stream was filled with naked men
shouting with pleasure as they washed off the sweat of their
long day's march. Even as I looked, the noise of the battle
grew louder, and soon the symptoms of movement were
evident. The rappel was heard, the bathers hurriedly clad
themselves, the ranks were formed, and the sharp, quick
snap of the percussion caps told us the men were preparing
their weapons for action. Almost immediately a general
officer rode rapidly to the front of the line, addressed to it a
few brief energetic words, the short, sharp order to move by
the flank was given, followed immediately by the 'double
quick,' the officer placed himself at the head of the column,
and that brave Infantry which had marched almost forty
miles since the setting of yesterday's sun; which during that
day had hardly known either sleep, or food, or rest, or shelter

War and Army Life 1 5 1

from the July heat, now, as the shadows grew long, hurried
forward on the run to take its place in the front of battle and
to bear up the reeling fortunes of the day. . . .

"Twenty-four hours later we stood on that same ground.
Many dear friends had yielded up their young lives during
the hours which had elapsed; but, though twenty thousand
fellow creatures were wounded or dead around us, though
the flood-gates of heaven seemed open and the torrents fell
upon the quick and the dead, yet the elements seemed elec-
trified with a certain magnetic influence of victory, and, as
the great army sank down over-wearied in its tracks, it felt
that the crisis and danger was passed — that Gettysburg
was iraimortal."

The two other passages of war reminiscence are contained
in my "Fenway" Address of April 13, 1899, before the
Massachusetts Historical Society, and those, also, holding
the journalistic stage in the usual limited and transitory
fashion, were extensively printed at the time of delivery.
They are as follows:

"As I have already mentioned, it was my fortune at one
period to participate in a considerable number of battles —
among them none more famous, nor more fiercely contested,
than Antietam and Gettysburg. The mere utterance of
those names stirs the imagination — visions arise at once of
attack, repulse, hairbreadth escape, carnage and breathless
suspense. There was, indeed, on those occasions enough and
to spare of all these; but not, as it chanced, in my particular
case. Some here will doubtless remember that English fox-
hunting squire, who has gained for himself a sort of immor-
tality by following his hounds over Naseby's field, I think
it was, while the epoch-marking battle was going on. More

1 5 2 Charles Francis Adams

yet will recall that ploughman, twice referred to so dramati-
cally by Zola, intent upon his uninterrupted day's work near
Sedan, when a dynasty was reeling to its fall. So my abiding
recollection, as a participant in both Antietam and Gettys-
burg, is, not of the fierce agony of battle at its height, but
the enjoyment of two exceedingly refreshing naps. As a
statement, this, I am aware, is calculated to startle rather
than to excite admiration; but, to the historian, truth is
sacred; and the truth is — as I have said! Neither does the
statement imply any exceptional nerve or indiiTerence to
danger on my part: I make no claim to anything of the sort.
It happened in this wise. In the campaigns of both Antietam
and Gettysburg I was an officer in a regiment of cavalry,
a mere subordinate, responsible only for obedience to orders.
At Antietam, in the height of the engagement, the division
to which my regiment belonged was hurried across the narrow
stone bridge at the point where the little river intersects the
Sharpsburg road, and deployed on its further side. We were
then directly in front of Fitz-John Porter's corps, and between
it and the Confederate line, covering Sharpsburg. A furious
artillery duel was going on, to and fro, above our heads, be-
tween the batteries of Porter's command and those of the
enemy, we being down in the valley of the river, they on the
higher ground. The Confederate batteries we could not see;
nor could they see us. When we first deployed on the further
side of Antietam Creek, it seemed as if we were doomed —
so deafening was the discharge of artillery on either side,
and so incessant the hurtling of projectiles as they passed
both ways over us. Every instant, too, we expected to be
ordered to advance on the Confederate batteries. The situa-
tion was unmistakably trying. But no orders came; and no

TVar and Army Life 1 5 3

one was hurt. By degrees it grew monotonous. Presently,
to relieve our tired horses, we were ordered to dismount,
and, without breaking the ranks, we officers sat down on
the sloping hill-side. No one was being struck; I was very
tired; the noise was deadening; gradually it had on me a lull-
ing effect; and so I dropped quietly asleep — asleep in the
height of the battle and between the contending armies!
They woke me up presently to look after my horse, who
was grazing somewhat wide; and, after a time, we were
withdrawn, and sent elsewhere. I believe that day our
regiment did not lose a man, scarcely a horse. Such is my
recollection of that veritable charnel-house, Antietam; —
and I was a participant — indeed in the fore-front of the


"Gettysburg was different; and yet, as respects somno-
lence, in my case much the same. During the days preceding
that momentous struggle, my command had been frequently
engaged, and suffered heavy loss. We who remained were
but a remnant. On the 3d of July the division to which we
belonged occupied the high, partially wooded ground on the
right of the line, covering the army's flank and rear. It was
a bright July day; hot, and with white clouds slowly rolling
across the sky, premonitory of a thunder-storm during the
later afternoon. From our position the eye ranged over a
wide expanse of uneven country, fields broken by woods,
showing nowhere any signs of an army movement, much
less of conflict. A quiet, midsummer, champaign country.
Neither our lines nor those of the enemy were visible to us;
and the sounds of battle were hushed. Waiting for orders
and for action, we dismounted, out of regard for our horses

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 15 of 21)