Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

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“A miserable sense of duty triumphed over pleasure, comfort, advance, knowledge and excitement..,”–Adams Family Letters, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., to his brother, Henry.

April 5, 2013

Adams Family Civil War letters; US Minister to the UK and his sons.

Camp of 1st Mass. Cav’y
Sunday, April 5, 1863

No wonder that I began to write March instead of April, for there is nothing of April in the weather. Your last told me of the delightful weather you were having in London. Here it has been and still is beastly and unbearable. Last night, or April 4th and in Virginia, we had a violent and pelting snow storm and this morning the country is again under water, and hills, forts and camps are white with snow. Yesterday the wind was north all day and cold and violent — such as we remember in early March in Washington — accompanied with clouds of dust. I was out in it all day, for I was sent out to inspect the pickets, and starting at nine A.m. did not get in until half past three P.M. Cold, dreary, uninteresting work, riding from post to post and putting the same questions and receiving the same answers from all manner of stupid men. My escort, as is usual in such cases, consisted of twenty-five men, who served finely to impede my progress, were of no use to any one; and also my bulldog Mac, who frisked along with the column in a state of high enjoyment — in fact he would n’t fight and submitted to insults from divers curs, great and small, with almost abject deprecation of a row. You see Mac’s only idea of fighting is taking hold and then holding on, and as he stands in great fear of being left behind he calculates he won’t have time to finish up the job and make a really neat piece of work before I’m out of sight. So he dares not take hold at all. We finished our work at half past three and at four o’clock Major Higginson and myself rode off to dine with General Griffin and George Bancroft (Tacitus). And hereby hangs a tale.

Friday evening last, as Colonel Curtis, Major Higginson and myself were crooning over the fire in their tent and mourning over the loss of so many old friends, and wondering dismally what was to become of us, I was called on by Captain Bliss — George Bancroft’s step-son — and took him into my tent. He was in company with a Captain Batchelder and soon opened his business. He was sent by General Griffin, on whose staff they both were, to offer me the position of aid on the same staff. General Griffin is a well known officer of the old army, a Brigadier now in command of a Division, a young man and highly reputed. An officer of the old army, he never drinks, and he married one of our old Washington acquaintances, the Carrolls. So much for General Griffin, whom I had never seen but whose staff I should consider one of the most desirable in the army. I intimated to Bliss what my answer would be, and told him that I would express my acknowledgments to the General in person next day. Accordingly Major Higginson and I rode over at four o’clock to dine. Before dinner I had my audience and politely declined the proffered situation. I found Griffin a young, rather handsome man, with a face expressive of a good deal of resolution and energy, pleasant manners and a good deal of conversation. I told him that I was fully sensible of the great advantages and yet greater comforts which the proposed situation offered me. I did not deny that I was uncomfortable and ill at ease where I was, and that my chances of rising and of knowing what was going on would be much greater with him; but I told him I could not accept his offer for two reasons. First, if I did so I must yet retain my commission in my regiment. For a captain to do this I did not consider right. He knew what cavalry service was and how it differed from the other arms. In it all officers had to act for themselves and on their own responsibility. We were always in the face of the enemy and generally in small force. Our responsibility was great both for men and property and we were paid additionally for assuming it. I could not think it right that I should retain my rank and commission, receive the pay and stand in the way of those below me, while I shoved onto them the danger and responsibility, left my men to take care of themselves and went off and enjoyed myself looking only to my own advancement. This objection might however be removed by my receiving a new commission as aid. This he could not offer me, but even if he could, my second objection would still be in the way. He knew how essential in the cavalry officers of experience were and I told him how in our regiment our officers had been weeded out, so that now actually we could not boast of one officer, considered really reliable, to each of our four squadrons and that I was now the third line officer in this part of the regiment. I could not tell him of the sort of indirect appeal Curtis had made to me a few days before when Clapp had decided to leave us. I sustained Clapp in his course and said, that so far as the good of the regiment was concerned no officer had a right to consider himself so valuable to it that he ought to stay. Curtis replied: “That is very well to say, but you know the facts. You know whom we have and you know that if I went, and Higginson went, and yourself and one Captain more, the regiment would be stripped of its reliable officers. You know well enough that we can’t officer our companies, and then what do you want us to say?”

Now I do know all this and unfortunately for me I have not only the highest opinion of Curtis’ judgment and common sense, but the greatest admiration for his pluck and courage and the greatest fear of his censure. I know that he values me more than any line officer he now has left, and, finally, he fairly set it before me as a question of duty. Did I pretend that I could be of more use and service in this war on a staff than in my present position? If so, he disagreed with me. Would I allow myself to be driven from the post of usefulness by a man as radically wrong and dangerous as _______? If so, he could not sympathize with me. Did I go into this war as a soldier to enjoy and benefit myself or to contribute all in my power to a great result? If the last, would I not contribute most by remaining where I was, where I was of use and really essential and respectable in rank, rather than by appending myself to a General, no matter how agreeable or able? He argued in this way, and, while he preached, I felt that he himself was living up to his doctrine. I knew that he was the life and soul of this regiment, that he was doing his share in the war in his place; that Sargent could not drive him from it, and that he himself would not leave it. I felt that among us all he was the one strong, determined, formidable man. All this had its influence on me. Four months ago I should have felt differently and replied that there were better men than I here and my loss will not be felt; but now they are so all gone that I felt that the loss of each one was irreparable.

All this I could not tell Griffin without appearing conceited, and as I spoke in a general way, saying that, under existing circumstances, I felt that I was of more service in this stage of the war where I was than I could be with him and so — a miserable sense of duty triumphed over pleasure, comfort, advance, knowledge and excitement, and I gave up in favor of exposure, discomfort, danger, a contemptible superior, tyranny and hopeless obscurity, all the wished for pleasures and advantages of a Head Quarters’ life. I hope I decided wisely; I know I did honestly, unwillingly and according to my lights. It will cost me all my comfort and most of my pleasures; it may cost me my life, and that too grossly blundered away. It certainly consigns me to hopeless obscurity in this war, but I meant it for the best. When the moment came I did not want to leave my post and I have thought to remain where I believed I could be of most use. Certainly I ought to love this regiment, for certainly first and last I have undergone and sacrificed enough in its behalf.

Such was my decision. Griffin listened and agreed to the force of my reasoning and did not try to dissuade me. He only expressed regret, as he assured me that he had been in it and was well enough aware that mine was the hardest, most trying and most thankless branch of the service in existence. Colonel Williams, he told me, had recommended me to him strongly and had induced him to make the offer; but apart from all I said he evidently considered that he rather offered me a fall from a senior captaincy of cavalry to a position as personal aid to a Brigadier.

Having finished business we went in to dinner. Ah! is n’t it pleasant, this dining at Head Quarters! Line life is indeed beastly and one learns to appreciate glass, crockery and a table cloth. Old Bancroft was there and, as usual, I thought [him] a bore. The General was immensely civil to me and altogether I enjoyed myself very much. It was well I did, for some enjoyment was needed to compensate me for a ride home at nine o’clock, through a pelting, driving snow storm….

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