Wednesday, May 04, 2005

"I Believe He Would Do It!"

Here's a humorous anecdote (but with serious import) from William Tecumseh Sherman's Memoirs. I've been enjoying the book for a couple of nights now and though I do not find it nearly as informative, inspiring and eloquently written as are the war memoirs of U. S. Grant, it remains an important work for all who are interested in the American Civil War.

The story Sherman tells gives insight into his strong character -- and the equally strong character of the nation's President, Abraham Lincoln. The story involves a certain "ninety-day" man who wrongfully construes the date of his dismissal from the army. Sherman writes:

“By the 25th I had collected all the materials, made my report, and had my brigade about as well governed as any in that army; although most of the ninety-day men, especially the Sixty-ninth, had become extremely tired of the war, and wanted to go home. Some of them were so mutinous, at one time, that I had the battery to unlimber, threatening if they dared to leave camp without order, I would open fire on them.

Drills and the daily exercise were resumed, and I ordered that at the three principal roll-calls the men should form ranks with belts and muskets, and that they should keep their ranks until I in person had received the reports and had dismissed them. The Sixty-ninth still occupied Fort Corcoran, and one morning, after reveille, when I had just received the report, had dismissed the regiment, and was leaving, I found myself in a crowd of men crossing the drawbridge on their way to a barn close by, where they had their sinks. Among them was an officer who said: ‘Colonel, I am going to New York to-day. What can I do for you?’

I answered: ‘How can you go to New York? I do not remember to have signed a leave for you.’

He said, ‘No; he did not want a leave. He had engaged to serve three months, and had already served more than that time. If the Government did not intend to pay him, he could afford to lose the money; that he was a lawyer, and had neglected his business long enough, and was then going home.’

I noticed that a good many of the soldiers had paused about us to listen, and knew that, if this officer could defy me, they also would. So I turned on him sharp, and said, ‘Captain, this question of your term of service has been submitted to the rightful authority, and the decision has been published in orders. You are a soldier, and must submit to orders till you are properly discharged. If you attempt to leave without orders, it will be mutiny, and I will shoot you like a dog! Go back into the fort now, instantly, and don’t dare to leave without my consent.’ I had an overcoat, and may have had my hand about the breast, for he looked at me hard, paused a moment, and then turned back into the fort. The men scattered, and I returned to the house where I was quartered, close by.”

A day or two afterwards, there was a surprise visit to the camp by President Lincoln. He made a fine speech, was roundly cheered by the men, and bade Sherman take him on a tour of the camp. Along the way, the offended captain found the chance to put Colonel Sherman in trouble with the Commander-in-Chief...

“The officer forced his way through the crowd to the carriage, and said: ‘Mr. President, I have a cause of grievance. This morning I went to speak to Colonel Sherman, and he threatened to shoot me.’

Mr. Lincoln, who was still standing, said, ‘Threatened to shoot you?’

‘Yes, sir, he threatened to shoot me.’

Mr. Lincoln looked at him, then at me, and stooping his tall, spare form toward the officer, said to him in a loud stage-whisper, easily heard for some yards around: ‘Well, if I were you, and he threatened to shoot, I would not trust him, for I believe he would do it!’ The officer turned about and disappeared, and the men laughed at him.”