L. E. (Lucius Eugene) Chittenden.

Recollections of President Lincoln and his administration online

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when we could not return the blow, and the wrath and
anger of the British lion, all were founded upon a sud-


den and complete abandonment, without notice, of the
principles of international law, for which Great Britain
had always contended, and to which we intended to re-
main loyal. Without comment or objection, Mr. Sew-
ard left to her whatever of honor or credit such conduct
might gain, but his recommendation to his own country
was the pursuit of its own policy without variableness or
shadow of turning.

Contemporaneously with Mr. Seward's letter, sugges-
tions were published which might have had the same
origin. Attention was called .to the fact that, to decline
the surrender of the prisoners, and so make them a casus
belli, would enable them to pose in the character of mar-
tyrs, and give them an importance which they could not
otherwise secure. But, if they were surrendered, they
would drop into obscurity as soon as their admirers dis-
covered that no profit was to be made from them, and
not be heard of again. This prediction was completely

From the publication of Mr. Seward's letter there was
no objection heard in the loyal states to its reasoning or
its conclusions. Citizens saw its wisdom; some of the
newspapers which had been most earnest against the
surrender of the envoys hastened to retract their error,
and range themselves on the side of the secretary and
the country. The Confederate sympathizers saw that
the current of opinion was too strong to be stemmed,
and stood dumb. The course of the English press was
as singular as before the demand. It would have been
scarcely decent not to show some satisfaction at the re-
moval of such threatening differences between the two
countries, and two or three of the leading journals
promptly recognized the statesmanship of Secretary
Seward and the value of the influence of Lord Lyons.



The London Times, the Saturday Review, and other
sheets hostile to the North, attributed the surrender of
the prisoners to American cowardice and fear. Their
success was not encouraging. They were noticed only
to be ridiculed, and very soon subsided into a mortified
silence, occasionally broken by grumbling denials of our
successes in the field. The feeling of sympathy with
the South and hostility to the North continued to exist
in many British minds, but it was more cautious in its
manifestations, and never again had such an opportu-
nity for development as it found in the case of the
Trent. Not many months afterwards France kindly
offered her mediation between the American belliger-
ents, but was promptly informed by Mr. Seward that
no war between belligerents, but only an armed insur-
rection, existed, which the United States was vigorously
and triumphantly putting down ; that we were obliged
to our ancient ally for her good intentions, but as for
her mediation, or that of any other power, we would
have none of it. After this the powers of Europe left
us to settle our own controversies in our own way.

It was found convenient for Lord Lyons to send a
small English steamer to the quiet harbor of Province-
town, on the Massachusetts coast, where our government
undertook to deliver the prisoners, previously confined
at Fort Warren, near Boston. The season and the cir-
cumstances subjected them to some inconveniences. Our
larger steamers were all on duty, and it was therefore
necessary to send the envoys from Fort Warren on board
a tug, not provided with passenger accommodations.
They were sent in charge of Mr. Webster, a subordinate
in the State Department. From him I learned that the
weather was unusually tempestuous, even for December ;
that, in fact, the trip was made in a furious northeast gale.


The prisoners were not good sailors ; the tug rolled and
pitched fearfully, so that the unfortunate envoys were
extremely sea-sick all the way to the rendezvous. There
were times when he feared he would be unable to deliver
them, for they claimed vehemently that life, under such
disagreeable conditions, was undesirable. But, notwith-
standing the difficulties, they succeeded at last in mak-
ing the harbor; the prisoners were delivered into the
charge of the British ship, which they declared was no
better than the tug, and altogether unfit for diplomatic
service. This spirit of captiousness was annoying to the
officers of the ship, who maintained that a vessel which
served as the home of officers of the Royal Navy was
good enough for Confederate prisoners. Their voyage
across the Atlantic did not begin under favorable aus-
pices, but was finally accomplished, and thus closed this
much-talked-of incident in American history. As the
secretary had predicted, the mission of the envoys to the
great powers of Europe was a failure, and their proceed-
ings never afterwards disturbed our peace.

President Lincoln's views upon the "Trent affair"
were promptly expressed with his customary common-
sense and brevity. As soon as the capture was reported,
he said that " it did not look right for Captain WUkes
to stop the vessel of a friendly power on the high seas,
and take out of her, by force, passengers who went on
board in one neutral port to be carried to another. And
if it was, he did not understand whence Captain Wilkes
got the authority to turn his own quarter-deck into a
court of admiralty." With the people, it is not improb-
able that this plain, forcible view was as convincing as
the able legal argument of Mr. Seward.

After Mr. Seward's death, Mr. Gideon "Welles, Mr.
Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, published several mag-


azine articles, afterwards collected in a volume, in which
he claimed that Mr. Seward at first opposed, and only
consented to the surrender of the prisoners when he was
overruled by the President and a majority of the Cabinet,
and consequently was entitled to no credit in the premises.
It is unpleasant to take issue with Mr. Welles, but the first
despatch to Mr. Adams, to which I have referred, shows
Mr. Seward's position ; and I know that his opinion was
unchanged from the first report of the capture to the



THE events of the War of the Kebellion followed each
other in such rapid succession that there was no time for
contemporary examination of their relative importance.
Those who were then in the public service will remem-
ber how, before one occurrence could be dealt with, an-
other pressed upon their attention, so that any event
outside the line of their duties necessarily passed with-
out particular observation. As the general picture of
those terrible years recedes into the past, some of its
points, before unnoticed, rise into prominence. There
were several such incidents which attracted slight atten-
tion while the war was in progress, which, regarded from
a later standpoint, singularly illustrate the powerful in-
fluence for the maintenance of the Union, always exerted
by the strong, native common-sense of Abraham Lincoln.

The heads of bureaus and of divisions in the bureaus
seldom changed with the administration before the year
1864. In the spring of 1861 these positions in the War
and Navy Departments were filled by officers of those
services, usually more than sixty years of age. They
had had but little experience in war. Such as they had
was restricted to the war with Mexico, in which the
fighting was wholly on land and in another country, be-
sides a few local contests with the Indian tribes. There
had been no fighting in the navy since 1815. It was the
fact, however, that officers whose names were scarcely


known to the country were at the head of these bureaus
at the beginning of the War of the Rebellion, and con-
trolled the subjects of arms, munitions, equipment, cloth-
ing, medicine and surgery, hospitals, the construction of
vessels, steam-machinery, and engineering ; in short, the
administration of all the military and naval resources of
the nation. In these bureaus everything was provided
for by " regulations." An application made to the sec-
retary for the introduction of any new arm, invention, or
proposed improvement was by rule referred to the bu-
reau with which it was connected for a report. All the
traditions of these bureaus assumed that their respective
regulations were perfect, that all known sources of in-
formation respecting them were to be there found, and
that any change for the better was impossible. Add to
these traditions contempt for popular ideas as crude and
impracticable, and it is obvious that the accomplishment
of any change in the theory or practice of one of these
departments was a work to be accomplished, if at all,
only by great perseverance and patience.

At the commencement of the war, except a small num-
ber of Colt's revolvers for the cavalry, there was not a
breech-loading gun in the service. The old smooth-bore
musket of the Revolution, modified by a few changes
made in the armories of the United States, was the arm
of the infantry. When the first call for seventy-five
thousand men was made, it became necessary to pur-
chase guns for their use. A large number of muskets,
which Belgium had discarded for an improved weapon,
had been sent over to New York city, where they were
offered to the Government at a very low price about
three dollars each. As these afforded an economical
means of arming the Volunteer Infantry at a small ex-
pense, they were promptly purchased, and issued to the


regiments first mustered into service. Complaint of them
was general. Men who were accustomed to handle the
rifle declared that the least dangerous point of their
effective field was in front of their muzzles.

The First Vermont Kegiment was one of the earliest
regiments mustered into service after the call. It com-
prised several uniformed companies, drilled and disci-
plined, in which were to be found merchants, manufact-
urers in short, the very best native Yermonters. Its
colonel (Phelps) had been educated at West Point ; after
long and gallant service in the regular army he had re-
signed, leaving a most creditable record. Governor Fair-
banks, who was aware that the personnel of the regiment
was well known to me, sent one of his aides to say that it
was rumored that the regiment was to be armed with
the Belgian muskets ; that Colonel Phelps was of opin-
ion that they were unfit for use ; that the government
had new Enfield rifles, then on shipboard in the harbor
of New York, of which the First Yermont would make
as good use as any other regiment ; that he respectfully
requested the delivery of one thousand of these rifles to
the regiment ; that if this request could not be complied
with, the state preferred to purchase good arms for the
regiment if the Secretary of War would authorize him
to do so. He added that immediate action was neces-
sary, as the regiment would arrive in New York city on
the following day.

Taking a personal interest in the regiment, and desir-
ing to promote the object of Governor Fairbanks, I im-
mediately laid the facts before Secretary Cameron, who
referred me to Colonel Thomas A. Scott, then the Assist-
ant Secretary of War. Colonel Scott said that I must
know that such a request was required by the regula-
tions to be made in writing to the secretary, who must


have a report upon it from the proper bureau, before he
could either grant or reject it, adding that an officer of
one department ought not to request an official of an-
other to violate its rules. I replied that I would have
taken the usual course if I had wished to have Governor
Fairbanks's request denied, as applications from civilians
invariably were, but that, as I wanted the rifles, I had ap-
plied to those who had the power and sometimes the wijJL
to grant such requests ; and that, moreover, I had no
time to waste in applications which we both knew would
be refused. Finding that I was rather persistent, Colonel
Scott finally said that the application must be made
to the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, but if he re-
fused it I might return, and he would see what could be
done ! I told him that I would go through the formal-
ity if I must, but that I should certainly return within
half an hour.

I found the Chief of the Ordnance hedged in by more
successive guards than the Secretary of War. Disre-
garding their remonstrances, I went directly to the chief
official, apologizing that my own duties prevented me
from giving time to the usual formalities of his ap-
proach. I found an elderly gentleman, who would never
see seventy again, with very white hair and a very red
face. I replied to his inquiry, " What I wanted," in the
fewest possible words : " An order from the War De-
partment on the proper office in New York, to deliver
one thousand Enfield rifles to the governor for the use
of the First Vermont Regiment." The scarlet hue of
his face deepened into crimson, as he exclaimed : " Such
an application was never heard of ! Why was it not
made regularly through the Secretary of War ?" " Be-
cause there was no time," I was about to say, when he
fiercely continued : " It is too late. The guns for that


regiment have been issued and the orders signed. They
will not now be changed."

" I supposed the order had been issued," I said, " and
that it was to arm the regiment with the Belgian mus-
kets. It is that order which I wish to have changed. I
know that the Department has Enfield rifles ; the Yer-
monters want them. The emergency is pressing, and I
cannot waste any time in mere formalities. I have come
to you at the request of Colonel Scott, who, I under-
stood, was your superior officer. I assured him that my
application to this bureau would be unavailing ; but the
Vermonters must have the rifles. If I cannot get the
order for them here or elsewhere, I must go to the Pres-

The shock of the intimation that an order of his bu-
reau, once signed, could be recalled, or of the proposition
to ask the President to overrule it, appeared for a mo-
ment to arrest the action of his organs of speech, or I am
certain he would not have listened to so long a state-
ment. His face and hands turned to a dark purple, as
his words vainly struggled for expression. He bounded
from his chair and made a rush, which I thought was in-
tended for my person. But the impetus carried him by
me to a corner of the room, where stood a musket of the
old Springfield pattern, the stock of which was held to
the barrel by the well-known iron-bands. Except that
it had a percussion lock, it was the identical arm which
frightened the crows from the cornfields in my boyhood.
This gun he seized with both hands, raised it above his
head, and shook it furiously. He had gained command
of his voice now, for he roared, rather than exclaimed :
" These volunteers don't know what they want ! There
is the best arm that was ever put into the hands of a raw
volunteer ! "When he throws that away, as they gener-


ally do, he does not throw away twenty-five dollars'
worth of government property !"

I remarked that the Vermonters had no use for guns
to be thrown away, and retired. Returning to Colonel
Scott, I related my experience, and obtained the order
for the rifles without further difficulty. The fact that
President Lincoln could be reached in this case was con-
trolling. But for that the First Yermont would have
carried Belgian muskets through their nine months'

I had taken note of the excited bureau-chief's remark,
that "the First Yermont had already got its orders."
This might mean that they had been ordered to some
disagreeable post, when I knew that they preferred ac-
tive service. I therefore, before leaving the department,
determined to call on General Scott, and see whether I
could not influence the destination of the regiment. I
obtained access to him without any delay. The gallant
old hero of Lundy's Lane at once recognized the name
of Colonel Phelps, and said : " Write to Colonel Phelps
that I have not forgotten him ; your request in behalf
of his regiment shall be attended to." As I was taking
my leave Colonel Townsend requested me to wait a few
moments in his office. He was one of the aides of the
Commander of the Army. His consultation with Gen-
eral Scott occupied but a few moments. He then came
to me in his own room, and said : " I cannot inform you
where the regiment of Colonel Phelps will be sent. He
will receive his orders to-morrow in New York, and he
will be quite satisfied with them." The regiment was
ordered to Fortress Monroe, the post which Colonel
Phelps would himself have selected.

In this instance the accessibility of the President and
the use of his name sufficed to overcome the hard-shelled


formalities of the War Office. In other instances that
Department resisted every influence but the active inter-
vention of Mr. Lincoln's common-sense. The next expe-
rience in attempting to introduce a change was with the
bureau of the Surgeon-General of the Army.

If seventy-five thousand volunteers were suddenly
called into active service in the swamps and marshes of
the South, subject to the diseases incidental to constant
exposure in a new climate, together with the casualties
of battle, it was obvious to everybody except the Sur-
geon-General that the ordinary resources at his com-
mand would be wholly inadequate to preserve their
health or secure their comfort. The recent experiences
of European nations in war, which had availed them-
selves to the fullest extent of the assistance of private
organizations to supplement the deficiencies of a better
service than our own, had demonstrated the great value
of such organizations, if any proof had been needed. As
if by a common impulse, the charitable and benevolent
of all the loyal states contributed large sums of money,
and organized that magnificent charity, now well-known
in history by its excellent work in saving lives, the Sani-
tary Commission. Dr. Bellows, of New York, accompa-
nied by equally eminent citizens from other large cities,
proceeded to Washington, and tendered their organiza-
tion, with its abundant resources and supplies already
accumulated, to the War Department for the use of the
army. In the regular course of such human events their
offer was referred to the bureau of the Surgeon-General
of the Army. To their surprise and confusion, their offer
was rejected with undisguised contempt. They were
told, in substance, that they were interfering with mat-
ters which did not concern them, about which they knew
nothing ; that the Department was able to perform its


own duties, and wanted none of their assistance. In
short, they were, figuratively, turned out of the office
and told to go home and attend to their own affairs, for
their volunteered assistance was an annoyance, the repe-
tition of which would not be tolerated.

The indignant mortification of these eminent citizens
may be imagined. They had previously supposed them-
selves engaged in an honorable public service they were
told now that they were impertinent intermeddlers with
matters beyond their sphere. Upon one conclusion they
were agreed : they would shake the dust of the War
Office from their feet, go home, and supply their com-
forts directly to the soldiers, without the endorsement
or intervention of the fossils of that department.

They were about to depart from the capital, when
some happy thought or fortunate suggestion turned
their minds to Abraham Lincoln. They called upon him
and related their experience. He " sent for" the Surgeon-
General. A request for his immediate attendance at the
Executive Mansion was one which even that exalted of-
ficial did not think it prudent to decline. " These gen-
tlemen tell me," said the President, "that they have
raised a large amount of money, and organized a parent
and many subordinate societies throughout the loyal
states to provide the soldier with comforts, with mate-
rials to preserve his health, to shelter him, to cure his
wounds and diseases, which the regulations of the "War
Department do not permit your office to supply that
they offer to do all this without cost to the government
or any interference with the action of your department
or the good order and discipline of the army, and that
you have declined this offer. With my limited informa-
tion I should suppose that this government would wish
to avail itself of every such offer that was made. I wish


to have you tell me why you have rejected the proposals
of these gentlemen ?"

Had the President realized the cruelty of confronting
an old bureau officer of the War Department, encrusted
with all the traditions of " how-not-to-do-it," suddenly
and without previous opportunity to frame an excuse,
with the hard, inflexible sense of such a question, he
would have been more merciful. The officer was con-
founded. He could only mumble some indefinite ob-
jections to outside interference with the management of
the War Office, and claim that the Department could
take care of its own sick and wounded in short, his at-
tempts at excuse were failures. " If that is all you can
say," remarked the President, " I think you will have to
accept the offer, and co-operate to the extent of your
ability with these gentlemen in securing its benefits to
the army." Bureaucracy struggled against common-
sense no longer. The Sanitary Commission was the
greatest, the most active charity of the war. Tens of
thousands of saved lives, of naked men clothed, of
wounded men sheltered and made comfortable, had good
reason to bless the name of Abraham Lincoln, whose
common-sense secured for them the benefits of such an
invaluable organization.



I HAD some opportunities, particularly during the first
few months of my residence in Washington, of observ-
ing the influence upon the colored race of their pros-
pective emancipation, which were very interesting at
the time. I transcribe from my journals some of the
notes which I thought were worthy of preservation.

In the first month of my official life, an old resident
and former official of the city, Ex-Mayor Wallach, called
to ask me to appoint a colored man as a laborer in the
register's office. He was a slave, whose master was a
Virginia Secessionist ; he was out of employment, and in
absolute want. Mr. Wallach recommended him highly,
saying that, besides making himself useful in the office,
he was perfectly competent to assist, if any one wished
to entertain dinner or other company, by taking charge
of the entire affair making provision for, cooking,
and serving a dinner to the satisfaction of the most
exacting. Besides, he was thoroughly honest, for the
ex-mayor and his friends had employed and trusted him
for many years. In view of so high a recommendation,
I promised to give him a trial. His name, Mr. Wallach
said, was Walker Lewis.

The next morning Lewis called upon me. He was
about forty years of age, and, except for his color,
had few of the characteristics of the negro. He was


erect, rather slim, with a face and lips which would not
have discredited any white man. He was neatly dressed,
and in manner and conversation a gentleman. I addressed
a few inquiries to him, and by degrees drew from him
the history of his life. From boyhood his master had
hired him out as a servant at hotels and watering-places.
He had been for many seasons at the White Sulphur
Springs and Old Point Comfort, and during the sessions
of Congress he had been employed by one of the Wash-
ington hotels patronized by Southerners. He had been
married once, when quite young, but his family had
become separated, and he never expected to see them
again. Asked if his master allowed him to have any
part of his wages, he replied no, that he had to pay
to him not only his wages, but all the gratuities which
gentlemen gave him. He was acquainted with many
leading Southern statesmen, and had served some of
them. He had been steward for President Tyler and
several others. When I asked him what his last em-

Online LibraryL. E. (Lucius Eugene) ChittendenRecollections of President Lincoln and his administration → online text (page 11 of 35)