Tuesday, December 18, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Wednesday, Dec. 18, 1861

Oh, to be a general!

Many a Civil War-era lad fell asleep to dream of becoming the heroic commander of a great army. Popular lithographs by Currier & Ives and other publishers pictured warfare in an impossibly romantic way. Under blue skies with only an occasional fleecy cloud, neat rows of soldiers fired at each other on an impeccable landscape. Generals rode prancing white horses and did a lot of waving of swords. Only a few bodies, remarkably unbloodstained, could be seen lying on the grass, and sometimes the grass looked as if it had just been mowed. (Above: Gen. William S. Rosecrans, an Ohioan)


Being a general in the Civil War was tough, dangerous work with very little job security. As the war went on, President Lincoln learned to not tolerate inaction or failure by commanders of the Army of the Potomac and that job took on a revolving-door quality. Very few men were temperamentally equipped to command a large army, anyway, and a West Point education and long service in the military was no guarantee of success. As Ulysses S. Grant and others will show us in days to come, leadership in war requires something innate that is hard to detect in advance.

There is also something innate in the nature of a general’s daily work, and that is tedium. Most of a general’s days are spent shuffling paperwork, administering discipline to recalcitrant underlings, and keeping the wheels of an enormous machine oiled.

On this weekday, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, writes his sister, Mary, and (with original spelling retained) gives us a glimpse of his work life:

I wish you could be here for a day or two to see what I have to go through from breakfast until 12 O Clock at night, seven days a week. I have just got through with my mail for to-night, and as its is not yet 12 and the mail does not close until that time, I will devote the remainder of the time in pening you a few lines. I have no war news to communicate however.

Whilst I am writing several Galena gentlemen are in talking. They will remain until the office closes so you must excuse a disconnected letter….

Apparently, Grant was prompted to write this letter while trying simultaneously to entertain “several Galena gentlemen” because Mary had complained of a lack of mail from her brother. On this day alone, Grant’s other letters show he has to deal with the appointment of a Catholic chaplain, as a result of complaints from the 18th Illinois; information about the enemy brought in by a spy and a deserter; a pass for a soldier needing to go to St. Louis, an appointment related to management of railroad equipment, and an order for reports from a quartermaster.

Oh, to be a general!

Elsewhere in the Western Theater: From the 23rd Ohio’s winter quarters in Fayetteville, western Virginia, Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes writes the very pregnant Lucy Hayes in Cincinnati to tell her, “I suspect I am getting more anxious about you than the people at home. You must keep up good heart. We shall be together pretty soon again.”

And in Washington: President Lincoln and his Cabinet try to figure out what to do about the embarrassing Trent affair, which has angered the British government and public.

The Big Picture: Except for some Union scouting missions in Kansas, Missouri, and Virginia, all is quiet on the front lines. Both sides have shut down most military operations for the winter and are using the time to build up their armies. The United States remains split from East to West along almost exactly the same line it was in September. Will anything change in the next few months?

No comments: