Thursday, July 14, 2016

Major Wilder Dwight: March 15, 1862

camp Near Winchester, March 15, 1862.

Of all the platitudes and jingles that ever amused and deluded a chivalrous people, the assertion, “You can't subjugate a State,” is the wildest. These people were first subjugated to secession, and now they are rapidly being subjugated back to loyalty. Subjection is what vast numbers of them sigh for. If only they were sure that the Union authority would last. Therein lies McClellan's wisdom. No step backward, is his motto. With such tactics, and with a bold and confident advance, I care not whether we fight battles or follow retreats, though the former is far better, we restore the Union.

I fear the people will regard the retreat from Manassas as a disappointment to our arms, and almost a Rebel success. I fear that they will think McClellan's preparation and generalship wasted. A little patience, however, may show that they are wrong. We have gained an immense moral victory over the Rebellion, and a short time hence we shall begin to see palpable material results. Only let us not, by a sudden and rash revulsion, begin at once to undervalue our foe. Nothing but the presence everywhere, in the seceded States, of Union bayonets will accomplish the Union's restoration. That is a work of some time and struggle, yet it must be done. The most dangerous heresy seems to me to be the suggestion that the States, having gone out, are to be governed as Territories. This involves the admission of the theory we went to war against. Martial law may be necessary within the States for a time; but the State, as well as the national government, is to be restored, or our contest is fruitless. Changes, rapid and unexpected, are the order of the day. Heintzelman's promotion to a corps d’armée leaves open his division. Yesterday, when I went to town, I found that General Hamilton was promoted to the command of that division. He went off yesterday afternoon, regret following him from every one. He is a great loss to us. His departure leaves a brigade vacant; accordingly our regiment is to-day transferred to Hamilton's old brigade, and Colonel Gordon, as senior Colonel, assigned to its command, as Acting Brigadier. This is a pleasing change, and it gives the Colonel room to show himself. It probably, for the present, may find me in command of the regiment, as Colonel Andrews is still on detached duty; but I shall make every exertion to have him returned to the regiment, in justice to him. He has fairly earned the right to the command, and I should not feel content to have him or the regiment deprived of it, though my own personal ambition might be gratified by so desirable a command. I hope I can sink myself in seeking always the welfare of the regiment, and the interest of so faithful an officer and friend as Colonel Andrews. I think more and more, though I am unwilling to write about it, that we missed the cleverest chance at cutting off and bagging Jackson and his force that ever fell in one's way. Caution is the sin of our generals, I am afraid; but military criticism is not graceful, and I will waive it for the present. Yet if you knew how we ache for a chance at fighting, how we feel that our little army corps out in this valley has no hope of it, you would not wonder that a leaden depression rests heavily upon us, as we think of our hesitating and peaceful advent to Winchester. And now why we do not push on upon Jackson at Strasburg passes my limited conjectural capacity to guess. I presume the reason to be that his evanescent tactics would be sure to result in his evaporation before we got there.

This morning a few companies of cavalry, four pieces of artillery, and five companies of infantry, Massachusetts Thirteenth, went out on an armed reconnoissance, and chased Colonel Ashby's cavalry several miles. The cavalry were too quick for them, and our own cavalry has no more chance of catching them than the wagon train has. They are admirably mounted and thoroughly trained. Where our men have to dismount and take down the bars, they fly over fences and across country like birds.

General Banks has just gone off to Washington. Conjecture is busy, again, with “why”? My guess is, that we have outlived our usefulness in the Shenandoah Valley, and that we shall make a cut through the gap into the path of the Grand Army. At any rate, nothing more can happen this side the mountains, and I certainly hope we shall not be absorbed into any force that is to be handled by General Fremont.

Our little town of Berryville is also called, as you may see on some of the maps, Battletown, probably with prescient sarcasm on –––'s anticipated cannonade of that peaceful agricultural implement, the threshing-machine. Who shall say that we are not engaged in the noble task of fulfilling prophecy and making history!

It is now Sunday morning. After two days' cloud and rain, we have bright sunshine. Colonel Andrews comes back to the regiment, and Colonel Gordon assumes his slippery honors as provisional brigadier.

I should like to go to church with you this morning, even in an east wind. Instead of it, however, I must content myself with thinking of you in my wind-swept camp near Winchester. I see that Governor Letcher appoints Winchester as a place of rendezvous for his new levy of militia. I only wish they would obey his order.

SOURCE: Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, Editor, Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight: Lieut.-Col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols., p. 211-3

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