Wainwright’s Diary, March 10, 1864, Part II: USCT, General Grant, and consolidation

Picking up on the later portions of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright’s lengthy diary entry for March 10, 1864, the subject turned to the US Colored Troops.  Though these troops were not at that time assigned to the Army of the Potomac, Wainwright did have observations based on newspaper reports:

My copy of the Herald the last week has been like a daily edition of Punch to me.  Each number has had some very clever articles on the negro regiment which the Union League in New York have been getting up; and each night as I read them I have roared with laughter.  The hits on ex-Governor [John A.] King “the pink of propriety” and “flower of aristocracy,” were capital.  As it has been decided to employ [negroes] as soldiers, do it by all means; but why make more fuss over them than if they were white? No regiment leaving New York since the spring of 1861 has had such an ovation.  Really respectable ladies presented the colours, and threw bouquets to great buck [negroes]. William saw the regiment marching down Broadway, and says that had they been white men under the same length of drill, they would have been thought to march badly; being black, the Times and Tribune say they surpassed the Seventh.  For my part, I wish all the negroes in the country were safely back in Africa.

The regiment mentioned here was the 20th USCT.  That regiment, along with the 26th and 31st USCT were organized in New York.  I’ve modified a couple of Wainwright’s words here.  I’m not so concerned with blog statistics to invite visitors just looking for salacious wording in the wartime accounts.  If one wishes to discuss Wainwright’s prejudices, I prefer to start the conversation at a more productive level than a subjective judgment on right and wrong.

For the troops in Culpeper County that March, two other events dominated the “army news” – the arrival of Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant and reorganization of the Army of the Potomac.  In the next paragraph, Wainwright made light of Grant’s coming east:

It is now certain that Grant is to have the new post of lieutenant-general, just created by act of Congress. This marks him officially as our major-general “most distinguished for courage, skill, and ability.” I trust that he may prove himself so, and not only that, but equal in all respects to the greatest generals of history.  But it is hard for those who knew him when formerly in the army to believe that he is a great man; then he was only distinguished for the mediocrity of his mind, his great good nature, and his insatiable love of whiskey.  He will doubtless now be placed in supreme control of all the armies; and as the radicals must see that they have nothing more to gain by prolonging the war, we shall probably have matters pushed with great energy the coming campaign.

Again, there is somewhat a salacious side to the story.  And one discussed here before.  If you carefully read Wainwright here, it’s clear he had no first hand, intimate knowledge of Grant at that point in the war.  Much of what is said in the paragraph was from “those who knew him when…” and there were certainly many of Grant’s acquaintances from the old army days for Wainwright to gather an opinion.

But what Wainwright relates here stands in contrast with a Cattonesque (If I may… And I don’t mean that as direct criticism of Bruce Catton.  Rather at those who’ve presumed a lot from bits and pieces from those still very pertinent trilogies….) notion that Grant showed up in the east and magically everything started turning upright.  When Grant accepted his new post that spring, he did bring an air of success.  But he also lacked experience commanding at the level.  We might work back from Appomattox to measure Grant as the commander of armies. But I’d say the better measure is to work forward from Culpeper.

As to the reorganization, Meade had already submitted his plan. But that was not yet on the streets of camp, pending approval.

We are all agog now with regard to consolidation; the order carrying it out was expected today for certain.  The division generals and all staff officers are shaking in their shoes for fear that they will be dropped from their present high estate.  It is certain that this and the Third Corps will be sunk, but whether they will be absorbed bodily or broken into fragments is not known.  My good friend Dr. [E.E.]  Heard will certainly lose his position as he is junior corps medical director in the army.  I shall be sorry to be separated from him, but there is not another member of the corps staff who could not easily be improved upon.  For myself, it is a mere choice of commanders. At present I lean towards Hancock and the Second Corps, though when the time comes I shall probably leave it to chance to decide for me.  I intended riding up to see [Brigadier-General Henry] Hunt about it today, but the rain has prevented….

Certainly there were many misgivings within the ranks about this consolidation. Many will argue this reorganization hurt the morale of the army by ripping units out of their proud legions into unfamiliar formations.  Some would say the poor performance of the army, at the regimental and brigade levels, was directly due to this reorganization.  I don’t set great stock by that line.  Instead, I’d argue the change was a healthy evolution of the command.  If you wish to argue the famous Iron Brigade was worsted by the reorganization, then you must make the argument it was better led in a small corps under Major-General John Newton.

Closing, Wainwright wrote:

Congress has again extended the time for paying the extra bounties to the first of April. All ladies are ordered home out of camp: the first step towards activity.

Activity that was but weeks away in those closing days of winter 1864.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 328-9.)

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