Sunday, March 9, 2014

Stepping into the Square

At 4 P.M., March 8, 1863, at Stafford Court House, Virginia, Lieutenant Colonel William Burr Wooster called out his regiment, the 20th Connecticut Volunteers, without arms, ordering his men to form into a hollow square. Wooster, a New Haven lawyer, had plenty on his mind. In a few weeks, Connecticut expected to hold its election for governor. If the Democratic Party unseated the Republican incumbent, William Buckingham, Wooster might lose his chance at receiving a promotion to colonel. As regulations prescribed, all officers’ commissions from second lieutenant to colonel had to come from the governor’s office at Hartford. Thus, if a Democrat won the election, Wooster—who was a Republican—might find his path to promotion blocked.

To further complicate the picture, Connecticut's Democrats had nominated a Copperhead, Thomas Seymour, as the party's frontrunner. As a matter of policy, Seymour disliked Emancipation and hated the fact that the U.S. Army enforced it. If he won the election, Seymour might respond by promoting Democrats over the heads of the Republicans, thus using his office to alter U.S. military policy.

A solution to Wooster’s problem came from the mind of Captain Oliver R. Post of Company C. Prior to the war, Captain Post had worked as a type-setter for the Hartford Press, a Republican newspaper. Eager to chastise Connecticut's Democrats, Post drafted a set of resolutions that condemned Seymour’s candidacy as a treasonous act. After crafting this overtly political document, Post took it to Wooster and suggested that he submit these resolutions to his men. If they passed unanimously, Post promised to send them home to be reprinted in the columns of the Hartford Press and various other Republican papers. That way, the voters of Connecticut could learn a cold, hard fact: the soldiers wanted the voters to re-elect Buckingham. Not a single vote should be cast for Seymour. (At the time, Connecticut’s constitution disallowed absentee voting. The soldiers of the 20th Connecticut—and all Connecticut regiments for that matter—could not vote for themselves, not if they encamped outside of the state.)

When Lieutenant Colonel Wooster formed his men into the square, he stepped forward and read the resolutions aloud. He reminded his soldiers that if the people of Connecticut voted for Seymour, their regiment would suffer, for Seymour would surely replace all of the experienced officers with Democratic placeholders. As one soldier described it, “We were told by the Lieut. Colonel . . . that if the Democrats should elect Seymour, and if any vacancies should occur in our regiment, officers would be sent from Connecticut to fill their places!—that no matter how fit a man might be, or how well or how bravely he had won his promotion, he would be crowded out, and that men who had never seen danger or shared the penalty and hardship of a soldier’s life, would be put in.”

Captain Post followed by delivering a short, political speech. After this, Lieutenant Colonel Wooster invited any soldier who objected to the resolutions to step into the square and let his protests be heard. Naturally, this move angered the 20th Connecticut's Democratic soldiers. One of them wrote:

Lieut. Col. Wooster then said he wanted his address to be sent home, endorsed by every member of the regiment. And the way he had us vote was this: We were formed into a military square. Col. Wooster said, any one who is opposed to the address, will step into the square! There were plenty of such present; but who do you suppose was fool enough ‘to step out’ there? What should we have gained by doing so? I will tell you. We should have gained the ill-will of our officers—and soldiers know the suffering that they must endure when they displease their officers. So we thought it best for us to keep still, and let them have it all their own way. But I can safely say that if the address had been voted upon, by secret ballot, by the entire regiment, it would never have been sent to Connecticut.

Another soldier claimed that Wooster even indulged in threats to get his men to endorse the resolutions. He declared, “The Colonel prefaced with a few remarks, in which he desired all who were opposed to their adoption to step four paces to the front, that they might at the next action be placed in the front ranks, AND OTHERWISE BE PUNISHED IF THEY SURVIVED.  With this understanding none marched to the front, and some fifteen or twenty of the regiment voted for the resolutions, and thereupon they were declared unanimously adopted.”

The resolutions of the 20th Connecticut went home to the newspapers and they claimed that the soldiers had endorsed them without a dissenting voice. That assertion was true, but it stretched the truth. Some men from the 20th later claimed that they had disapproved of the anti-Seymour resolutions, but kept silent to avoid punishment. After the anti-Seymour resolutions appeared in print, one Democratic soldier from the 20th Connecticut wrote, “I would like to be at home at the April election. T. H. Seymour would, at least, get one more vote[.] . . . If he is elected the air will resound with the cheers of the soldiers.” Another soldier from the 20th wrote similarly, stating, “Had three cheers been proposed for Thomas H. Seymour, the woods would have rung—for the men ached to spit it out.”

Probably, the Democratic soldiers in the 20th Connecticut overestimated Seymour’s popularity. All evidence suggests that the majority of Connecticut’s soldiers favored Buckingham over the controversial Copperhead. Still, a minority of the 20th Connecticut’s soldiers had their political opinions stamped out by two ambitious Republican officers and the threats they unleashed against them. Wooster and Post invited political debate by allowing the Democrats to step into the square, but they knew that none would dare to do it.

The 20th Connecticut was just one example of a Union regiment that endured internal strife during the gubernatorial elections of 1863. Many other regiments faced similar circumstances. That year, the Army of the Potomac was alive with debate. Sadly, those with power wielded it to drown out dissent.

(In March 1863, Lt. Col. William B. Wooster forced his men to endorse anti-Democratic resolutions. Some soldiers claimed that he threatened those who might not support them.)

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