Friday, November 30, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Saturday, Nov. 30, 1861

“Occasion for Congratulating Myself”

Col. William B. Hazen and his 41st Ohio Volunteer infantry have just arrived in Kentucky.

By now, hard-driving, tough-minded Hazen has decided that one of the most promising men in his 41st Ohio is a tall, balding ex-storekeeper from Warren, Ohio, named Emerson Opdycke (pictured above). Hazen is keeping an eye on him.

Today, Opdycke writes his wife, Lucy, to tell her of his arrival in Kentucky and to boast of how he has impressed Hazen.

The admiration is mutual. Opdycke likes Hazen’s no-nonsense approach to all things military and he models himself on the West Pointer. Like Hazen, he is strong-willed and quick tempered. Unlike West Pointer Hazen, Opdycke has no prior military experience.

Opdycke is first lieutenant of the 41st Ohio’s Company A. He is vain, covets promotion, and hopes soon to become a captain of Company A. Only time will tell if this volunteer citizen-soldier will prove worthy of Hazen’s trust.

Only five days ago, the 41st was stationed at Gallipolis, Ohio, to help keep an eye on western Virginia, just across the river. Now the regiment is at Camp Jenkins, about 6 miles from Louisville, where Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell makes his headquarters. An Ohioan, Buell commands the Army of the Ohio, of which the 41st is now part.

In his letter to Lucy, Lieutenant Opdycke calls Camp Jenkins “a terrible mudhole.” He mentions the weather (cold, and it snowed last night) but says a stove purchased for $4.50 is keeping his tent warm. Then he gets to the most important news.

In the “regular classes for study and recitation” Hazen requires of his 32 officers, Opdycke ranks highest in Hazen’s grade book. “I see more real occasion for congratulating myself, [now] that I have gained as a honorable position as I...hold, “ he tells Lucy.

In fact, Opdycke is so confident of promotion that he tells Lucy he will turn down an offer—as yet, only hinted at—to join Brig, Gen. Jacob D. Cox’s staff in western Virginia as an aide. That would be an advancement of sorts and he likes Cox, but Opdycke thinks his prospects for advancement are better where he is now. And, although he doesn’t say so, he yearns for combat and considers western Virginia an unappealing backwater of the war—a sideshow.

Back in western Virginia, Rutherford B. Hayes and the 23rd Ohio are settling into winter quarters at Fayetteville in the Kanawha region of western Virginia. In writing his wife today, Hayes betrays the condescending attitude some out-of-staters have developed for the region’s poor, isolated rural dwellers, now crowding into camp to take the oath of allegiance to the Union. “A narrow-chested, weakly, poverty-stricken, ignorant set,” he writes. “I don’t wonder they refuse to meet our hardy fellows on fair terms.”

Hayes’ harsh opinion is not unique. Many Ohio soldiers are dismayed by the poverty and lack of education of the citizenry here. Scattered among the region’s hills and valleys, many western Virginians live isolated lives of unremitting labor, forced to scratch out bare livings from small, hillside farms.

>>> In other news of the day, the British foreign secretary tells his ambassador to the United States to tell the Lincoln administration it must turn over the Confederate commissioners it captured on the high seas and offer an apology for the “Trent affair.” Otherwise, the ambassador will be recalled. In Washington, officials continue to fret over what to do.

As usual, skirmishing between Federals and Confederates continues to break out here and there, with no reports of in casualties in incidents in Missouri and western Virginia.

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