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September 27, 2011
Touched with fire (2)By Greyhawk
Charles Carleton Coffin rode into camp in the immediate aftermath of a battle lost, when visible evidence of the disaster included corpses laid out in line awaiting burial, and the memory of their first defeat at the hands of Johnny Reb was still fresh in the minds of the young men who'd fought it. "I enlisted to fight," a soldier told him, "but I don't want to be slaughtered. O my God! shall I ever forget that sight..." "He covered his face with his hands," Coffin reported, "as if to shut out the horrid spectacle."
The Civil War was something new at that point, few could even agree if that was what it should be called - or if it should be fought at all. Many had abandoned hope for a swift victory following the battle at Bull Run exactly three months before, some joining the ranks of those calling for an immediate end to it now. Even before this battle things had been going badly for the Union, if not everywhere then certainly where it mattered - and just now in this war few things mattered more than the area immediately around Washington, D.C., or the minds of many elected representatives of the people who called it home at least part of the year.
Still others had been eager for action on the part of the new commander of the federal forces - but General George McClellan (called to Washington following his success in western Virginia after the disaster at Bull Run) was apparently not one of them. Now, at a place on the Maryland side of the Potomac River opposite a point in Virginia called Ball's Bluff, Coffin (whose dispatches from the front lines would be published in newspapers under the byline "Carleton") was surrounded by evidence that long-awaited action had been taken at last - and that things were going from bad to worse.
One could sense - but not know - there were years of war ahead, and battles with casualty lists that would dwarf those produced in its opening months. Few reporters would cover it from start to finish as Carleton would. Other men his age - just slightly too old to join the army and effectively fight in it - might have had the calling, but most would lack the mental and physical fortitude to endure the repeated scenes of battle and aftermath they were free to walk away from whenever they wanted. Yet not only would Carleton witness much of it first hand, he would seek out survivors for decades beyond to document their stories. Years later, when the echoes of shots and screams had faded everywhere but in the memories of those who'd heard them, he would interview one who'd been but a private in this day's fight - and who lived to see action in many others to come.
"I have been in over 80 battles," the older veteran would assure him, "but I never knew such absolutely vicious firing as that at Ball's Bluff. The air was just chock full of bullets. It seemed like hell let loose and there we stood, just simply targets for the rebel riflemen. The nearest approach that we ever had to that firing was at Gettysburg, but even that was nothing so vicious as this."
But those who'd fought it had nothing yet to compare it to when Coffin, who had accompanied the army on its ill-fated march to Manassas, arrived on the scene of his second battle and second Union defeat. What exactly had happened here would take time to sort out, but it seemed likely to prove worse than the first. The young men whose names filled the lists of missing, wounded, and dead had not yet had opportunity to make their own mark on the world, but those names were distinguished in their own right. They'd been inherited from ancestors who'd gained prominence among the first pilgrims to these shores, or before, during, and after the American Revolution, and were maintained by eminent men of the current day - Coffin could see the surgeons attending some of their sons even now. There was one enduring a limb amputation, while over here one refused all treatment - knowing he was a goner and believing the effort would simply make his final hours more agonizing than he already expected them to be. Over there was another with his intestines dangling from an open wound... no use pretending anything could be done for him.
As for the older men who'd led those youngsters, one, at least, was part of the reason he made the trip out from Washington to see things for himself. Coffin had been alerted to developments earlier that day, upon seeing a man emerge from a telegraph office "with bowed head, and tears rolling down his furrowed cheeks, his face pale and wan, his heart heaving with emotion." This man had sought news of the ongoing battle, and in the casualty list he'd gotten the worst. So shaken was he by the name of a friend that he almost fell as he stepped out into the street - a character performing an anguished public drama, a sort of tragic street theater that, with hundreds of thousands of different featured players, became painfully familiar to Americans as it was repeated in towns and cities North and South, large and small throughout the long bloody years of the war.
But those were years still to come. Now the war was something new - and if it wasn't the first battle Ball's Bluff was one of the first. And this man - who walked home to the White House "with both hands pressed upon his heart" as if to keep it from breaking - was Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States. The name that so upset him was that of Colonel Edward D. Baker, a sitting US Senator (and the only one ever killed in combat) who a few weeks earlier had "expressed a conviction that he would soon be shot in battle" - a "gloomy foreboding" that his friend the President (though he had believed it likely) tried to convince him to dismiss. This night Lincoln, himself one of those who'd grown increasingly restless for action in the previous weeks, would pace the floor in grief, unable to sleep - later he would describe Baker's death as the keenest blow he suffered through the war. So it is with the first such, the sharpest - the one death that defines tragedy, with each of the thousands of individual tragedies to come simply yet one more.
"My friends," the President-elect had said to the citizens of Springfield, Illinois who'd come to the train station to see him off to Washington just a few months before (though by now it would have seemed an eternity) - "no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting..."
"To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell."
Those many friends were distant memories now, but here in Washington was Baker - in 1861 a U.S. Senator, and a friend at a time and place where such a friendship was inestimably valuable to the man on whose shoulders rested no less a burden than the future of the Republic. Ned, they had called him back home in Springfield - where Abe Lincoln had known Ned Baker for a quarter century. He'd named his second son (tragically, the one who had died in childhood there) Edward Baker Lincoln, and at the end of that train trip when he delivered his first inaugural address it was Baker who introduced him to the masses gathered to listen.
Years later William Herndon, Lincoln's Springfield law office partner, would share a story of the two men in their younger days, from the time of the 1840 election campaign:
The two friends had their differences over the years. At one point they would compete for their party's nomination for office, and later, as the US waged war with Mexico, Lincoln opposed it from his seat in the US House of Representatives while Baker answered the call of the drum and joined those marching on the Halls of Montezuma. When it was over the future president's political career appeared to be a casualty of that war, but their friendship survived.
Like that friendship, Baker's competitive instinct had not cooled over the intervening years. When the Civil War broke out he raised a regiment of volunteers (mostly in Pennsylvania; although that state had met its recruiting goal the unit was allowed to fill a troop quota for far-off California, and fought its earliest battles as "the California Brigade") and he declined a higher commission in order to keep his place as its commander, and lead men into battle. Still, as the battles would be fought nearby, he kept his seat in the Senate, where he appeared in uniform that summer between the disaster at Bull Run and the debacle at Ball's Bluff.
There he'd listened to Democrat John C. Breckinridge, Vice President under Buchanan, one of three men who ran against Lincoln in the previous year's elections and now US Senator from Kentucky (birthplace of Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis) "bitterly denouncing the war and opposing its prosecution" - predicting that waging war would only result in more regions separating from the already diminished Union. Baker rose in response, demanding clarification of the meaning of those words: "Are they not words of brilliant, polished treason*?" What if a Senator of Rome had risen "in that distinguished council of old," he wondered, "and declared that the cause of advancing Hannibal was just, and that Carthage ought to be dealt with in terms of peace?"
"Does not the Senator from Kentucky know," Baker asked with obvious contempt, "that every word he has uttered will be an inspiration to every Confederate ear?"
Ever a good judge of character, on the day of the battle the President had good reason for concern. "Baker is in the fight," Lincoln had said earlier in the day, "and I am afraid his impetuous daring will endanger his life."
He was right. And he couldn't save him this time. Though the place where Ned had died was close by there was no trap door from which Abe could drop and rescue his friend - his body would be returning to Washington soon.
Whispered news of some sort of disaster nearby passed through Washington earlier that day; Charles Carleton Coffin heard the rumors, and "Riding at once with a fellow-correspondent, Mr. H. M. Smith of the Chicago Tribune, to General McClellan's head-quarters, and entering the anteroom, we found President Lincoln there..."
"He stumbled upon the outer steps, but did not fall," Coffin recalled later. "He passed down the street towards the White House, carrying not only the burden of the nation upon his heart, but a heavy load of private grief, which with swiftness of a lightning flash had been hurled upon him."
At McClellan's headquarters the two journalists would hear only sketchy details, the limits of early reports and the fog of war. "A disaster..." they were told. And "we have lost a large number of men, possibly fifteen hundred," and "Colonel Baker is killed." They determined to make the brief journey to the scene of the battle by horseback, and arrived there at sunset - but they'd already had their first confirmation of something gone horribly wrong while still on the way. Riding along the banks of the Potomac "I saw the bodies floating in the stream of those that were killed at Ball's Bluff, or who were drowned while attempting to gain the Maryland shore."
At camp, Coffin could see more dead and wounded, but their numbers were eclipsed by a larger figure - the number missing. Among them, Colonel Lee, commander of one of the Massachusetts regiments, last seen on the opposite shore refusing space on one of the few available boats while there were wounded still in need of evacuating. Missing with him were members of his staff, including the Major and one of the regiment's surgeons. Those two were brothers, grandsons of a man whose Revolutionary War-era exploits were long-remembered - at least in the Boston area. More recently though that name had been popularized across the nation when Cambridge resident and former Harvard professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about his midnight ride, published just prior to the outbreak of the current war.
Major Paul Revere, 20th Massachusetts Infantry
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
In fact Major Paul Revere was named for his grandfather, so when his capture was reported Americans everywhere would recognize the name that so recently personified their call to arms - as they would those of so many of the other recent Harvard graduates (like young Wendall Holmes - '61, now lying on the floor wounded but perhaps soon to be numbered among the dead) who dominated the junior officer corps of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, Volunteer. Coffin couldn't see the missing troops - but anywhere he cared to look he'd have ample evidence that the term "blue blood" was inaccurate; pools of the stuff were drying everywhere, and quite red after all.
Back in Washington Lincoln's grief kept him up, pacing the floor. As if the loss of Baker wasn't enough, he knew who those "perhaps 1,500" other men were, too. Elements of the 20th and 15th Massachusetts had crossed that day, along with companies from the 42nd New York - a unit of volunteers raised by Tammany Hall, the political machine through which Democrats controlled New York City. It was no mistake, no mere clerical happenstance that had placed these units with Senator Baker's "California" at a spot removed from the greater concentration of opposing forces nearer Washington. They were positioned down the line, with the river separating them from the enemy. It was the perfect ground, strategically important, but easier to defend - though no enemy could possibly be foolish enough to attempt a crossing for a battle there.
And no enemy had. No - it was Baker who'd gone to the Virginia side, on a mission that proved every bit as suicidal as anyone would have expected before it was launched. What had happened? Lincoln wondered - and he was wise enough to know that in this modern age of high-speed communication that same question would be asked throughout the entire nation tomorrow. As for answers, well, many would have those, too - each assured his was best, and the telegraph could disseminate them just as fast as it did the question. As to whether any might be right answers... as marvelous an invention as it was it could do nothing to facilitate discovery of that.
William Henry Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Herndon's Lincoln; the True Story of a Great Life (1889)
Michael Burlingame, Lincoln's Journalist: John Hay's Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860 - 1864 (1998) and Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2006) (Unedited manuscript of chapter 24 here.)
* Breckinridge - whose home state of Kentucky remained in the Union - was expelled from the Senate for treason by resolution on December 4, 1861. By then he'd joined the Confederate Army; he would fight for the South throughout the war.
Posted by Greyhawk / September 27, 2011 1:33 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
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