Friday, November 4, 2016

Listen to the Wise Sergeant

So,  . . . there is a Presidential Election here in the United States, and as we count down the hours to Election Day, naturally, our anxiety and animosity increases. To help readers through this restless period, I thought I’d share a short story about the one Presidential Election witnessed by the Army of the Potomac. We must remember, of course, that the soldiers from that army had to consider carefully the two controversial candidates who ran in the pivotal Election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan.

How did the soldiers weigh the candidates’ abilities?

Well, one soldier wrote a letter describing a political debate in the field. In early October 1864, while the 6th Corps was encamped at Front Royal, Virginia, a cluster of Yankees gathered around a spring, initially to collect water for their canteens. While there, a debate arose concerning the two Presidential candidates. One of the participants in that conversation, Private Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont, wrote home that he “never enjoyed a better discussion.” As they filled their canteens, the bluecoats voiced their opinions. Although Lincoln had the most supporters, “The McClellan men were noisy and defiant, and their arguments were of the old, stereotyped order, the sum and substance of which usually is, ‘Damn the niggers’.” Fisk wrote that it wasn’t worth his time to record what the McClellan men said, but he attempted to describe the loudest of them, saying, “One of them would vote for McClellan because he was the best General the world had ever produced, and had been so shamefully abused. The President, his General in Chief, his Secretary of War, and the greater portion of Congress, he said, had been ‘down’ on him, because they were afraid of him, and it would do his soul good to see him raised to the supreme control of our affairs.” Frighteningly, the McClellan man suggested prosecutorial retributions as soon as McClellan came into office. Fisk related, “The first thing he wanted to see him do then, was to put old Abe and Stanton and Horace Greeley, and a few other abolition criminals into Fort Lafayette. A long list of other grievances were enumerated, which he hoped McClellan’s statesmanship would discover some way to punish, and he wanted he should do it with a vengeance.”

After two McClellan supporters had railed against Lincoln and the abolitionists for a few minutes more, a “well dressed, fine looking” orderly sergeant belonging to the 139th Pennsylvania stepped into the cluster of soldiers and started speaking on behalf of Lincoln. Particularly, the unnamed sergeant hated the Democratic Party’s “peace plank,” its plans to call for armistice talks to force a reunion of the states under negotiated conditions. Fisk recorded what the sergeant said. Here’s what he wrote. (Keep in mind that Fisk switches between his own voice and that of the sergeant’s):

If we are willing to stop the war for the sake of talking this matter over with the South, we recognize them at once. If we are willing to negotiate with Jeff Davis, England will claim the same privilege, and so will France, and what can suit the rebel President better than that[?] His government will then be fully recognized, and we can’t help ourselves. . . . A convention of all the States now, he thought, was the greatest absurdity of the age. He believed the South, unless their case was entirely hopeless, would scorn to have anything to do with it. At best, it would only be a scene of crimination and recrimination, of jargon and confusion, and end in a grand fizzle, leaving our ship of state without chart, or compass, or principle, or purpose to guide her. South Carolina would want redress of Massachusetts for the indignity she suffered when black men stormed her forts on Morris Island, and Jefferson Davis would probably ask to have ‘Beast Butler’ hung as a guaranty of our good faith in calling a convention. All the results that could be obtained now might have been obtained four years ago. Now, after we have lost 500,000 men slain by this rebellion, he would not call it a joke and come back to that, and nobody but a coward would think of it.

After ridiculing the peace plank thoroughly, the Pennsylvania sergeant cut to the heart of the matter. He explained why an armistice would allow the dangerous principles of secession to stand:

No sir, said he, there is no use in talking of armistices and conventions. We have got to fight this thing out. There is no other way. The North and South must find out who is master. . . . The South had rebelled against our common Government, and the Government must compel them to cry Enough, or it would be no Government at all. A Government that couldn’t vindicate itself, wasn’t worth having, and he didn’t believe the people of the North was [sic] quite ready yet to vote for any such.

At this point, the sergeant pointed out that his family had already sacrificed blood in the war, telling listeners that he had already lost two brothers. He hated to think that the Democratic Party would dishonor their memory by refusing to see the war through to its conclusion. Fisk explained, “It made him provoked, he said, that men of the North, who ought to know better, should encourage the South to hold out by talking of propositions for peace. It was only prolonging the war, and killing so many more of our men.” He said that every man who would vote for the Chicago platform “ought to be made to go in front of the whole length of our army drawn up in line, with a board strapped to his back marked COWARD in big letters, and every soldier ought to hiss at him as he passed.”

The debate at the Front Royal spring went on for a few more minutes, but the Pennsylvania sergeant closed the discussion. Fisk argued that he was the most impressive speaker at the unplanned deliberation. “His ideas appeared to be well digested,” he wrote, “and being the ranking man, his opinions had greater weight with us than those of any other one in the crowd.” Happy with the way the dialogue turned out, Fisk wrote home to his local newspaper, concluding, “What I have written is a true index of ‘what the soldiers think’ of the great political contest now pending.”

Who was the eloquent sergeant? Fisk never caught his name, but he gave us a few clues which helped me pin him down. Most likely, he was First Sergeant Samuel B. Thompson, age twenty-four, from Company G, 139th Pennsylvania. Thompson’s two brothers were Cyrus and William. Cyrus died of disease at Downsville, Maryland, on October 18, 1863, and William was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5, 1864. Although wounded at the Wilderness, Sergeant Thompson survived the war and mustered out with his regiment in 1865.

When it came to the election, Fisk and his comrades made the right choice. They went to the polls on November 8 and re-elected Abraham Lincoln and history applauds them for it. As Fisk would have us believe, Lincoln’s victory among the 6th Corps soldiers came from the words of the wise sergeant. Perhaps we should take that advice. To those caught up in the throes of this 2016 contest, to those who are noisy and defiant, to those who are eager to see vengeance meted out after electoral victory arrives: perhaps you should reconsider your choice and heed the wisdom of the Sergeant Thompsons of the world.

This is Pvt. Wilbur Fisk, 2nd Vermont, who recorded the persuasive language of Sergeant Samuel B. Thompson, a grizzled veteran who chose to stump for Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

1 comment:

  1. Wise. Sergeant. I see what you did there. The Wise/Sergeant/Meade connection...