Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Portrait of McClellan: The Return of the 34th New York, Part 3.

This is the third and final installment in my series about the last days of the 34th New York, a two-year regiment that went home in June 1863. If I’ve determined anything about this regiment, it’s this: the 34th New York always had something to say. It was a regiment that preferred to be heard, and this often put it at odds with Union leadership. For instance, the regiment’s first brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Willis Gorman, hated the New Yorkers. He referred to them as “that New York mob.” Infamously, the officers of the 34th New York led a campaign to get a popular newspaper, the New York Herald, banned from the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac. The New Yorkers also thought highly of themselves. When General Gorman was transferred to another assignment, the 34th New York’s commander, Colonel William Suiter, demanded a promotion to brigadier general in Gorman’s absence. When Suiter didn’t get it, he resigned. Finally, when a discrepancy arose concerning the 34th New York’s date of muster-out, six companies staged a mutiny, stacking arms and refusing to perform duty. Only after Brig. Gen. John Gibbon threatened them with bodily harm—the subject of an earlier post—did they obey orders.

It comes as no surprise that, even after the survivors left for home, the men of 34th New York still had something to say.

As they arrived in New York for their homecoming, the soldiers of the 34th New York chose to make a political statement—an unmistakable one.

They carried a portrait of George McClellan atop their battle flag.

Now, I should make it clear to readers that McClellan-related paraphernalia usually sparked controversy. At the risk of making a presentist comparison, I’d say that carrying a McClellan portrait was akin to wearing a MAGA hat. That is to say, it invited judgment (either applause or scorn). After McClellan’s ouster in November 1862—which followed on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation—the Army of the Potomac’s rank-and-file exhibited split opinions concerning the fate of their former commander. Some soldiers believed Lincoln had done the right thing in removing him. McClellan’s perpetual slowness and his unwillingness to accept the radicalization of the President’s war aims made McClellan’s removal wholly necessary. 

However, others believed the War Department had cheated him, that McClellan was the only leader who could achieve victory. “The enthusiasm of the soldiers has been all gone for a long time,” wrote a Democratic officer in December 1862. “They only fight from discipline & old associations. McClellan is the only man who can revive it.”

When McClellan took his departure on November 10, 1862, thousands of bluecoats expressed anger and grief when he took his leave. A soldier in a newly-raised Pennsylvania regiment stood in shock to see this outpouring of emotion. He remembered, “For the time, the general seemed to have complete possession of thousands of hearts before him.” Another young Pennsylvania officer—a Republican—considered the soldiers’ loyalty to Little Mac a tremendous threat to the war effort. He complained the army was “so attached” to McClellan than none of the succeeding commanders could enjoy any “hearty cooperation and confidence” which a new commander ought to enjoy. “Besides this,” wrote the Pennsylvanian, “that same attachment of the army to McClellan is dangerous to the liberties of the people.”

In short, thousands of soldiers in the Army of the Potomac wanted McClellan recalled at all costs. Apparently, the 34th New York stood among that group. Presuming he spoke for most men in his regiment, Sergeant Henry C. Lyon wrote his brother that, “You have no idea what confidence the Soldiers have in this man. When so worn and tired as to be hardly able to stand, they have always a hearty cheer for the Gen’l when ever he makes an appearance. —Oh! a man must have a fearful and awful responsibility resting upon him who is thus loved and trusted.”

When the 34th New York went home in June 1863, its members still had not gotten past McClellan’s ouster. As they mustered out, they wanted to make sure Little Mac still knew he was loved by Herkimer County.

Here’s how it played out.

After the debacle at Chancellorsville, the 34th New York returned to the north side of the Rappahannock River and made its encampment near the Lacy House. The regiment continued drilling for the next three weeks, and at the end of May, the three-year men—those whose terms of service had yet to expire—were transferred to the 82nd New York. For days, nothing else happened, and it even appeared as if the 34th New York would be ordered on yet another campaign—the one that took the Army of the Potomac to Gettysburg—but then, quite suddenly, on June 9 (the same day that Union cavalry became embroiled at Brandy Station), orders arrived instructing the two-year men—all 427 of them—to pack their things and make ready to march. At last, they were going home.

The soldiers of the 34th New York trudged to Aquia Creek and boarded a ship that took them to Washington. There, they boarded cattle cars and endured a multi-day rail trek through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. All along the way, the New Yorkers became terribly intoxicated, having brewed a slew of homemade gin cocktails and brandy smashes. Wrote Second Lieutenant Louis Chapin, “On the way up, several persons, who had doubtless been drinking too many glasses of ‘strawberry lemonade,’ fell asleep and accidentally rolled off upon the ground, injuring them quite severely, but none I believe mortally.”

On June 12, the veterans reached Albany, the scene of their muster-in two years earlier. The regiment de-trained at the depot and marched to the Delavan House, a temperance hotel located at the intersection of Montgomery Street and Steuben Street. (This intersection doesn’t exist anymore. A parking garage sits over top of it.) There, a fine breakfast awaited the veterans. But I imagine no one from the regiment remembered the breakfast. Instead, they remembered the crowds of well-wishers who turned out to welcome them. Cheering throngs greeted them at the depot, waving and hooting. Lieutenant Chapin wrote, “The men had of course expected that a cordial welcome would be extended to them on their return, but they had not anticipated a reception equal to that which greeted them upon their arrival here. . . . The memory of their kindness will ever be kept green in the hearts of the soldiers, blossoming afresh as each anniversary of the joyous day rolls around.” It must have felt exhilarating to be veteran that day.

As the regiment made its way to the Delavan House, the colors bore an unusual item, a portrait of General McClellan. According to a newspaper correspondent who watched the affair:

They carried with them a framed portrait of Major General McClellan, and this brought out from the people, all along the route, the heartiest cheers, which were responded to by the soldiers with great gusto. As with all the other returned regiments McClellan is their idol, and they avail themselves of every opportunity to testify their unbounded admiration of him.

I’m uncertain about the origins of this portrait, but it appears that the soldiers of Company I (from Cayuga County) procured it during their journey north and then affixed it to one of the 34th New York’s battle flags. Presumably, they had permission from their commander, Colonel Byron Laflin, but I cannot prove this.

Whatever the case, the 34th New York marched through Albany with McClellan’s portrait leading the way, a political statement if there ever was one. By so carrying it, the regiment affirmed their support of McClellan’s vision of the war. They were against radicalization, against confiscation, against territorial reorganization, against treason trials, and quite probably, against emancipation. The regiment marched to the capital where New York’s Democratic governor, Horatio Seymour, greeted them. Lieutenant Chapin recalled that Seymour delivered a real “copperhead speech.” Apparently disgusted by Seymour’s greeting, after the regiment broke ranks, Chapin threw “aside the hated blue,” and remained the rest of the day in civilian clothes.

For the next two weeks, the 34th New York quartered at the Industrial School Barracks, and then, on the morning of June 27, it took a train to Little Falls, where the town’s committee had planned a grand reception. It doesn’t appear that Company I’s portrait made an appearance at this party, but dozens of other McClellans did. Everywhere along the line of march, the residents of Little Falls hung likenesses of Little Mac. 

Apparently, when news of the 34th New York’s McClellan-portrait became known, the Democrats of Herkimer County felt comfortable in sharing their political affiliations with the returning regiment. One of the newspapers at Little Falls cataloged the various decorations that lined the march. A number of residents brought out likenesses to show political solidarity. Here are a few examples:

·         “M. M. Abel had a portrait of McClellan and ‘Welcome 34th’ over gateway.”

·         “Rev. B. F. McLaughlin had flags waving from every window, with photographs of Washington and McClellan.”

·         “At the crossing of the streets was hung a large pencilled likeness of ‘Little Mac’ with the names of the regimental battlefields. Although the likeness was shabbily done, the design of the poles supporting it was very pretty. They were wound with cedar wreaths and stripes of red white and blue cambric.”

·         “Kibbe’s saloon was neatly decorated.—Portraits of Washington and McClellan were hung out and the words, ‘How are you, boys?’ ‘Happy to greet you.’”

·         “A. Zimmerman displayed likenesses of Washington and McClellan and wreaths very tastefully arranged.”

This McClellan love-fest did not end at Little Falls. It continued even after the companies went their separate ways. On June 30, the 34th New York returned to Albany for its muster out. After that, the companies departed, each one enjoying a third reception at their town of origin. For instance, on July 4, Company A reached West Troy and participated in the town’s Independence Day celebration. In front of the Exchange Hotel, the officers delivered a set of “farewell” speeches. Company A’s former commander, William Oswald, who had been dishonorably dismissed in May 1862, showed up and harangued his regiment’s former brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Willis Gorman, calling him a “tyrannical old scoundrel.” Afterward, Company A’s commander, Second Lieutenant John Oathout, delivered a panegyric for General McClellan.

Meanwhile, Company I—the unit that had procured the McClellan portrait—pulled it out again. The soldiers affixed it to their company emblem and paraded McClellan’s likeness when they arrived at Penn Yan and Hammondsport. As soon as Company I landed at Hammondsport (having come from Penn Yan via ferryboat), they gave two loud cheers for McClellan. As a newspaper correspondent wrote, the cheering soldiers showed “that they are no exception to the prevailing sentiment about the Army of the Potomac, of enthusiastic commitment to ‘Little Mac.’” Clearly, the McClellan-portrait had already gained some negative press, and the people of Hammondsport worried that local Republicans might spoil Company I’s homecoming by complaining about it. The correspondent opined:

Altogether, the reception was highly enthusiastic and successful. In one respect it was unlike the ovation here in honor of our Company ‘I,’ as nobody made a fool of himself about the McClellan portrait on the flag; and the company carried the same in the procession on the Fourth of July, immediately succeeding; without any loud murmurs from the anti-McClellan Radicals. Perhaps this harmony was due to the absence of any arrogant Abolition Congressman. It is fortunate for Hammondsport that she has no such characters in her midst!

In short, when the 34th New York returned home, the soldiers turned it into a public demonstration to vent their feelings about the removal of McClellan. Although the returning veterans made certain to reflect upon their services and upon the sacrifice of their fallen comrades, the McClellan pictures overshadowed all other matters. The soldiers—and the citizens who supported them—felt it necessary to complain long and loudly about the McClellan-less way the war had, so far, turned out.

However, at least one company didn’t experience any McClellan panegyrics, Company H. When that unit arrived at Crown Point, State Assemblyman Palmer E. Havens delivered a stirring address to the men, one that reminded them of the long-term good they had accomplished by participating in the war. Havens explained:

You have been engaged in no war of conquest incited by ambition and lust of power, but in the holy work of maintaining the only government on the face of the earth based upon the principles of equal rights and equal justice to all who seek its shelter and protection—the only government where freedom and constitutional liberty can have an untrammeled and luxuriant growth—a government which none but the corrupted and debased devotees of slavery would ever have incurred the awful guilt of attempting to destroy.

Havens warned his listeners—the men of Company H and the people of Crown Point—not to put any stock in the mutterings of rancorous Democrats who were too stubborn to accept the positive forces of abolition. The soldiers may not have enlisted for abolitionist reasons back in 1861, he declared, but as of 1863, they fought for an abolitionist cause, and that was nothing of which to be ashamed:

The cry that this is a needless war of abolition has lost all its power and political significance—is dying away with the gust of passion and political excitement that gave it birth, and is now heard only from lips accustomed to the dialect of treason and disloyalty. Nor can it be charged that this is a war of conquest and subjugation or a war to spread carnage and bloodshed over the states in revolt—but on the contrary, it is a war to stay the hand of violence which those states have raised against us,—it is bringing them back to their allegiance and to maintain the government of the country which they have wickedly conspired to overthrow, and thus to preserve the Constitution and the laws which we and they have sworn to support. I deny that this war has any other avowed or real object than this, but I hail with inexpressible delight the great truth that as an inevitable result of the conflict, the dark blot of human slavery is to be forever wiped out on this continent, and if there is a man who hears me today whose eyes are so blind to the endless train of evils which slavery has inflicted upon our nation and whose heart is so insensible to the cries of suffering, oppressed humanity, that he will not also rejoice with me, that the triumph of our arms, while it restores the nation to its integrity, removes forever the great cause of all our troubles, I will not say whether I have the more of pity or contempt for that poor benighted man. . . . We should not forget that this war is not for ourselves alone or our posterity, but for the world and for all time. The question of the possibility of maintaining free institutions is now on trial before the nations,—the problem of free government is now to be settled, and if we fail—if the grand experiment inaugurated by our fathers, and so long and so successfully carried on in our hands shall now fail and our country sink into a state of anarchy or be divided into separate sovereign states—contiguous, jealous and ever exposed to make war upon each other, for one I should feel that the sun of freedom had gone back on the dial plate of time for generations and for centuries, and might never rise again.

I do hope that Havens’s words resonated with the men of Company H. I’d prefer to believe that when the soldiers of the 34th New York dispersed for the final time, they pondered their role in the great crusade against slavery and didn’t mutter petty recriminations under their breath concerning the removal of McClellan. Approximately 160 soldiers from the 34th New York had given their “last full measure of devotion” during the Civil War. I hope that, in this last hour, when they were all ready to say farewell and go their separate ways, they contemplated the worth of ending the scourge of slavery.

But of course, the cynic in me remembers how the other companies all vented their frustrations by mindlessly cheering for Little Mac.

A thousand curses upon McClellan and his ego!

This portrait of George McClellan may have been similar to the one carried by the 34th New York during its homecoming to Albany.

This depicts the flag of Company I, 34th New York. (Baron Von Steuben is the man depicted in the wreath.) During the homecoming to Penn Yan and Hammondsport, the soldiers of Company I decorated this flag with their McClellan portrait.

This is the commander of Company A, 34th New York, 2nd Lt. John Oathout. He was one of the regiment's fervent McClellan supporters. When his company returned to West Troy, he delivered a long speech in favor of McClellan.

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