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Southerners formally declared that they would not regard either negro troops or their officers as pris
war; but that they would execute the officers as ordinary felons, and would hand over the negroes to be dealt with by the state authorities as slaves in insurrection. Painful and embarrassing questions of duty were presented by these menaces. To Mr. Lincoln the obvious policy of retaliation seemed abhorrent, and he held back from declaring that he would adopt it, in the hope that events might never compel him to do so. But on July 30 he felt compelled, in justice to the blacks and those who led them, to issue an order that for every Union soldier killed in violation of the laws of war a rebel soldier should be executed; and for every one enslaved a rebel soldier should be placed at hard labor on the public works. Happily, however, little or no action ever became necessary in pursuance of this order. The Southerners either did not in fact wreak their vengeance in fulfilment of their furious vows, or else covered their doings so that they could not be proved. Only the shocking incident of the massacre at Fort Pillow seemed to demand stern retaliatory measures, and even this was, too mercifully, allowed gradually to sink away into neglect.1
| For account of these matters of retaliation and protection of negroes, see N. and H., vol. vi. ch. xxi.
BATTLES AND SIEGES : DECEMBER, 1862–DECEMBER,
The clouds of gloom and discouragement, which shut so heavily about the President in the autumn of 1862, did not disperse as winter advanced. That dreary season, when nearly all doubted and many despaired, is recognized now as an interlude between the two grand divisions of the drama. Before it, the Northern people had been enthusiastic, united, and hopeful; after it, they saw assurance of success within reach of a reasonable persistence. But while the miserable days were passing, men could not see into the mysterious future. Not only were armies beaten, but the people themselves seemed to be deserting their principles. The face and the form of the solitary man, whose position brought every part of this sad prospect fully within the range of his contemplation, showed the wear of the times. The eyes went deeper into their caverns, and seemed to send their search farther than ever away into a receding distance; the furrows sank far into the sallow face; a stoop bent the shoulders, as if the burden of the soul had even a physical weight. Yet still he sought neither counsel, nor strength, nor sympathy from any one; neither leaned on any friend, nor gave his confidence to any adviser; the problems were his and the duty was his, and he accepted both wholly. “I need success more than I need sympathy," he said; for it was the cause, not his own burden, which absorbed his thoughts.
The extremists, who seemed to have more than half forgotten to hate the South in the intensity of their hatred of McClellan, had apparently cherished a vague faith that, if this procrastinating spirit could be exorcised, the war might then be trusted to take care of itself. But after they had accomplished their purpose they were confronted by facts which showed that in this matter, as in that of emancipation, the President's deliberation was not the unpardonable misdoing which they had conceived it to be. In spite of McCleilan's insolent arrogance and fault-finding, his unreasonable demands, and his tedious squandering of invaluable time, Mr. Lincoln, being by nature a man who contemplated the consequence of an action, did not desire to make a vacancy till he could fill it with a better man.
“I certainly have been dissatisfied, he said, "with Buell and McClellan; but before I relieved them I had great fears I should not find successors to them who would do better; and I am sorry to add I have seen little since to relieve those fears.” One bloody and costly experiment had already failed at Manassas. Two others were soon to result even more disastrously; and still another leader was to be superseded, before the man of destiny" came.
McClellan had thrown away superb opportunities; but to turn him out was not to fill his place with an abler man.
On the evening of November 7, 1862, the dispatch came which relieved McClellan and put Burnside in command. The moment was not well chosen. McClellan seemed in an unusually energetic temper. He had Lee's army divided, and was conceivably on the verge of fighting it in detail. On the other hand, Burnside assumed the charge with reluctance and self-distrust. A handsome, popular gentleman, of pleasing manners and with the prestige of some easily won successes, he had the misfortune to be too highly esteemed.
The change of commanders brought a change of scheme, which was now to advance upon Richmond by way of Fredericksburg. When this was submitted to the President he said that it might succeed if the movement was rapid, otherwise not. The half of this opinion which concerned success was never tested; the other half was made painfully good. Instead of rapidity there was great delay, with the result that the early days of December found Lee intrenching strongly upon the heights behind Fredericksburg on the south bank of the Rappahannock, having his army now reunited and reinforced to the formidable strength of 78,288 men “present for duty.” Burnside lay upon the north bank, with 113,000 men, but having exchanged the promising advantages which had existed when he took command for very serious disadvantages. He had the burden of attacking a position which he had allowed his enemy not only to select but to fortify. Happily it is not our task to describe the cruel and sanguinary thirteenth day of December, 1862, when he undertook this desperate task. When that night fell at the close of a fearful combat, which had been rather a series of blunders than an intelligent plan, 10,208 Federal soldiers were known to be lying killed or wounded, while 2145 more were “missing.” Such was the awful price which the brave Northern army had paid, and by which it had bought nothing! Nothing, save the knowledge that General Burnside's estimate of his capacity for such high command was correct. Even the mere brutal comparison of “killed and wounded” showed that among the Confederates the number of men who had been hit was not quite half that of the Federal loss. The familiar principle, that in war a general should so contrive as to do the maximum of injury to his adversary with a minimum of injury to himself, had been directly reversed; the unfortunate commander had done the maximum of injury to himself with the minimum of injury to his foe.
1 Palfrey, The Antietam and Fredericksburg, 132.