James Freeman Clarke, Reminiscences of William B. Greene

From James Freeman Clarke’s Diary and Correspondence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891)

[Col. William B. Greene’s Army command outside Washington, DC, November, 1861 – pages 278-282]

The whole aspect of the city is changed. It is like a city of Europe,–like Berlin, or Vienna, or St. Petersburg,–but with a difference. For this of ours is not a mere standing army, to be wielded blindly in the interests of despotism, but an intelligent army of freemen, come to protect liberty and law. It is the nation itself which has taken up arms, and come to Washington to defend its own life and the ideas of the fathers. It has come to defend the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, laws, and traditions of the land.

Therefore the most interesting thing in and about Washington is the army, considered as a collection of individuals. I enjoyed talking with the soldiers in the camps, in the hospitals, and in Washington. I talked with many of them from all parts of the land,–Michigan, Minnesota, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York; Irish also, and Germans; and I never talked with men who seemed animated by a more earnest purpose; never with men more serious, manly, and unpretending. Rogues and villains there doubtless are in this, as in all armies; but they are a small minority. The mails go from every camp, weighed down with letters for friends at home. From Port Royal, the other day, the steamer brought fifteen thousand letters, an average of one for every man.

In Fort Runion which is the tete du point of the Long Bridge, there is a company of Marblehead men in garrison. Nearly every one of them has had fever and ague, for the fort is on the edge of a swamp. But the men said they were very willing to stay there, since any other company would have to be seasoned as they had been, and they were already acclimated. There was true heroism in this. . . .

Saturday, November 16, —. Went in a carriage with three friends (one of them being W. H. Channing, and another the Boston correspondent of the “New York Tribune”) over the Long Bridge, on a visit to some of the camps in Virginia. Our passes, good for ten days, and admitting us everywhere within the lines, had been procured from General McClellan. We first went to Fort Runion and Fort Albany, both garrisoned by the Massachusetts Fourteenth, and under the command of Col. William B. Greene. Colonel Greene is a graduate of West Point, and has been successively in the Florida War, as United States officer of regulars; student of theology in the Baptist Seminary, Newton; Unitarian minister at South Brookfield, Mass.; and author of various profound metaphysical, theological, and politico-economical works. From Fort Albany one overlooks the Potomac and a wide extent of country. It is a powerful fortification, defended by high earthworks, deep ditches, a tangled abattis of limbs of trees, and heavy pieces of artillery. The colonel summoned his regiment together, and asked them to sing some of their songs and hymns for the party; introducing to them more particularly Mrs. John A. Andrew. Among these songs the most conspicuous was the famous John Brown song,–

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
His soul goes marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!”

Several times afterward did we hear this song sounding among the woods of Virginia; and surely it seemed true in the deepest sense. John Brown’s soul is marching on! For what is the soul of John Brown but his unconquerable hatred of slavery, and his fervent desire of seeing it abolished ? And is not that desire and feeling marching on? Is not slavery recognized more and more as the cause of the war, the deadly foe of the Union, the poison in our cup, the enemy of true democracy and true Christianity, and something which must be destroyed, if the life of the nation is to be saved ? . . .

To say this, or something equivalent, to Massachusetts men, on the banks of the Potomac, in Old Virginia, was accounted by me a privilege. The colonel asked us to address the men, and we did; but at this time we spoke of the pride which Massachusetts took in her soldiers,–of the credit they brought to the old State by their discipline in camp and courage in the field. We told them of the women at home, who could be happy only when doing something for their soldiers; and of the heroic deaths of the brave officers, Massachusetts boys, who, amid their own sufferings, thought only of the welfare of their men, and of their heroism. A lady of the party said a few words, suited to the scene and hour. . . .

During the evening, Governor Andrew took me, with two other gentlemen, to call on the President. The porter at the White House told us that he had gone out, but would soon be back. So we went on through gallery and corridor; blue room, council room, and parlor;–all lighted, and all empty. The doors stood open; but not a soul could be anywhere seen. The only signs of occupancy which we found were two pairs of little shoes standing outside a door, indicative of children sleeping quietly within. Happy children, who can play all day in a palace as in a cottage, and sleep all night undisturbed by the uneasy cares which deny rest to kings and presidents!

Selecting the room which best suited us, we talked together until the President, returning home and hearing our voices, came where we were. What is the impression which his appearance, manner, and conversation make on one? This: of an unassuming country gentleman, modest but self-possessed, with sagacity and full powers of observation, but without the least touch of political manoeuvring. Mr. Lincoln is no politician; does not pretend to be a great and accomplished statesman; but is an honest, candid, modest, sagacious American citizen. who means to do his duty as well as he can. . . .

Sunday, November 17. In the afternoon of this sunny Sunday, I walked over the Long Bridge to hold a religious service with the Massachusetts Fourteenth, in Fort Albany, in compliance with an invitation brought to me on the previous evening by three of the soldiers. It so happened that I stood to address the troops with my face to the Potomac and the city of Washington; and the soft lights of evening gathered over the scene as the service went on, and the voices of the soldiers arose in song, while “the sounding aisles of the dim woods” of Virginia rang to the anthem of the free soldiers of Massachusetts. It was a thrilling scene, and one long to be remembered by me.

After preaching, parade-drill; and after this came what the colonel called the “cultus of the flag.”

The soldiers were drawn up around the flag-staff: the band saluted the flag; the men presented arms. Then the flag was lowered by four men, and carefully folded into a triangular form; then carried by one of them in his arms reverently, while the others walked beside him; and the soldiers formed an escort for it to headquarters, where it was put away for the night on a shelf. . . .

The result of this visit to Washington was, on the whole, gratifying. Far more gratifying was this visit in 1861, in time of war, than the other in 1851, in time of peace. Then all was outward prosperity; but inwardly all was corruption. Now outwardly everything denotes disaster and calamity; but inwardly there is a brave and generous purpose. Soldiers go to the war impelled by this motive; their friends at home feel its influence. . . .

It is very sad to go through the hospitals, and see the young men maimed for life; unable any more to take part in youthful sports; never again to ride or run or swim or skate or dance. They go out with a youthful beauty which touches all hearts; they come home disfigured and deformed. What does not the nation owe to those who incur these risks for its sake?

Nevertheless, war is like a fever, in which nature makes an effort to throw off some deep-seated evil worse than the fever. Our nation was gradually becoming corrupt. The poison of slavery was penetrating every part of the social system. It corrupted the great political parties, it polluted the church, it demoralized trade, it debased society.

Is it not a grand thing to see all this flood of evil checked, even by the storm of war ?

Thus may Washington, redeemed and purified, yet become our holy city! God grant that the immense woes and wrongs of war may at least produce this happy result, a community saved from the corruptions of prosperity and peace.