Saturday, December 29, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Monday, Dec. 30, 1861

A Renaissance Man

And His Men

Col. Jacob Dolson Cox (pictured) was one of those remarkable 19th-century Americans of many talents, unrestrained by professional boundaries or the god of specialization worshipped by later generations. We could call him a “Renaissance Man.”

A graduate of Ohio’s Oberlin College, Cox was a lawyer well read in military literature, fluent in French, a good horseman, and a fine fencer. Author Fletcher Pratt wrote that Cox was “world famous as an authority on microscopy and cathedral architecture, [as well as being a fine writer], politician, soldier, artist—everything.” To top it off, the slim, six-foot-tall Cox was 21st-century handsome, fine featured, with a clear, unwavering gaze that practically demanded you trust him.

Which many people did. At the outbreak of war, Cox was an Ohio state senator who promptly won one of only three brigadier generalships allotted Ohio. It wasn’t long until the 33-year-old Cox was commanding the “District of the Kanawha” and its three brigades. This was the region in western Virginia to which Rutherford Hayes23rd Ohio is assigned.

During the winter of 1861-1862, the Northern public and many soldiers grouse over the apparent lack of action. Instead of leading men into combat, however, many officers are using the winter to tune up their forces, much of the effort going into what Cox called “the work of sifting the material for an army.” A backlog of courts-martial is being cleared up, unsuitable officers are being demoted or dismissed, and bad actors in the ranks are being sent home.

Writing years later about this period of the war, Cox came to some interesting conclusions.

First, “the volunteers were always better men, man for man, than the average of those recruited for the regular army,” he said. According to Cox, this was because volunteers were moved by “patriotic zeal” and a need for “self-respect,” while regulars tended to be the dregs of society, “outcasts, to whom life had been a failure,” men to whom the army is a last resort.

Second, volunteer officers employed “much milder methods of discipline” with volunteer soldiers than regular officers did with regular troops. This was because volunteer soldiers’ “hearts were as fully set [on victory] as the hearts of their colonels or generals.” Regular officers, on the other hand, tended to be “arbitrary, despotic, often tyrannical.”

Cox, of course, was describing western troops, whom he knew best, and what he said applied especially to them: western volunteers followed orders when they believed in what they were doing. An attempt by a foolish officer to treat them unfairly or to force them to do something that didn’t make sense was apt to fail. The best officers in the western armies are respected or even loved, while bad officers risk rebellion in the ranks.

It might be said that western officers governed with the consent of the governed. There’s something very American about that.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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