Saturday, July 23, 2011

In the Camps of the Defeated

In which Sherman tells a lie and our blogger returns to his post.

A quick note before beginning: after over 10,000 words written from July 18 to July 21 a few days off were necessary. But no days off occurred for our historical neighbors. While Living in the Past was off: in Manassas, Joe Johnston resumed command of the combined force and arranged for burial of the dead and feeding of the living, both equally challenging. Throughout Northern Virginia, Confederate brigades fanned out again to seize strategic points, and Johnston and Beauregard began a debate on the next proper course of action. In Washington, Abraham Lincoln resisted the urgings of Winfield Scott to send his family away from Washington until the city could be secured. Before McDowell even returned to Arlington House, Scott had sacked Robert Patterson and ordered George McClellan to leave his army with his second-in-command and come to Washington. The ends of battles are never as neat as the restrictions of publishing demand.


At Fort Corcoran in Rosslyn, Cump Sherman's brigade was reeling from the battle. The 69th New York had lost 192 men killed, wounded, or captured (collectively referred to as "casualties", that number of men lost for further operations), including the fort's namesake, Colonel Corcoran who now sat in a Confederate jail, and his second-in-command, shot dead by a Louisiana Tiger shortly after the regiment forded Bull Run. The 79th New York lost 198, including Colonel James Cameron, the Secretary of War's brother, who was killed on Henry Hill. The 2nd Wisconsin had 115 casualties and the 13th New York had a relatively light 58 casualties. It all added up to 564 men out of Sherman's 3,400, or 16.6 percent casualties (by comparison, Americans landing at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 suffered 10 percent casualties, though with a much higher percentage confirmed killed or wounded).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the 69th New York who believed their term of service had already expired and only War Department deviousness had kept them in the army, and the 79th New York who were due to end their service in a few days, experienced massive numbers of missing men (95 and 115, respectively). Historical records don't show how many of those men would be found in New York and how many would be found in Confederate prisons or shallow graves in Prince William County.

The morning of July 23, Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward asked to visit the troops at For Corcoran, partially in deference to the mourning Secretary Cameron, unaware yet of the explosive situation brewing there. Sherman recorded later in his memoirs that he asked that there be no cheering, that "what we needed were cool, thoughtful, hard-fighting soldiers--no more hurrahing, no more hum-bug." Lincoln gave an appropriately sober speech to the men and Sherman wrote that when "the soldiers began to cheer... [Lincoln] promptly checked them, saying 'Don't cheer, boys. I confess I rather like it myself, but Colonel Sherman here says it is not military; and I guess we had better defer to his opinion.'"

The Memoirs continue with the most well-known account of the tour where an officer from either the 69th or the 79th New York pushed his way up to the president and complained that Sherman had threatened to "shoot him like a dog." The President then leaned down to the man and loudly whispered in a conspiratorial tone, "Threatened to shoot you? Well, if I were you, and he threatened to shoot, I would not trust him, for I believe he would do it." The men burst into laughter and the tension dissipated.

As Lee Kennett points out in his biography of Sherman (see the books section), there are no corroborating accounts for the story and he didn't record the event for his wife in his letters, as was his habit for amusing anecdotes. There are, however, many other accounts of that day, the rest of them much darker and revolving around the two New York regiments that had suffered the most casualties.

It began in the massive thunderstorm of July 22, while the men were still stunned by the lost battle. A group of them, their regiment not recorded, took refuge in a barn near Fort Corcoran. Sherman burst in on them and demanded to know why they were there. Without tents or food or blankets, they explained (abandoned in the fields around Centreville), they had no shelter from the rain. Sherman then either told them to go down to the woods and build stick huts or to go stand in the rain, depending on which account one believes, but either way he kicked the men out of the barn so he could stable horses.

The story spread like wildfire at Fort Corcoran and collided head long into another rumor being told by the men of the aggrieved 79th New York. During the campaign, the men alleged, Sherman had denied them their supply wagons, preventing them from resupplying except through great difficulty. Then, when the battle became most tumultuous, right before the army broke, they said he had abandoned the brigade. Captain James Kelly, acting commander of the regiment, would take the bridge-burning step of writing about the denial of wagons in his official report, though Sherman would dutifully forward it without comment to Winfield Scott's chief-of-staff, Edward Townsend. Kelly had the sense not to accuse him of abandonment in the report, but the rumors nevertheless reached his ears and he furiously denied them (while admitting they may have been separated in the confusion).

One of the men of the 79th confronted Lincoln about the barn incident, saying "Mr. President, we don't think Colonel Sherman has treated us very well." Rather than the humor of Sherman's account, the President chose to take the path of a vague warning. "Well, boys, I have a great deal of respect for Colonel Sherman, and if he turned you out of the barn I have no doubt it was for some good purpose; I presume he thought you would feel better if you went to work and tried to forget your troubles."

When Sherman would write to his wife the next day, he would record "I am sufficiently disgraced now... I suppose soon I can sneak into some quiet corner." Winfield Scott, who had learned of the grievances when a delegation of the 79th New York had visited Secretary Cameron, immediately transferred them out of Sherman's brigade, and they marched out of Fort Corcoran July 24.

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