Monday, June 17, 2013

Edward E. Cross: humbug and true grit

Edward E. Cross stood out in a crowd. There was a lot of vertical to him, not much horizontal. He was keen-eyed, fidgety, more graceful on horseback than on foot. Prematurely bald on top, he grew a tawny beard nearly as long as his face. Growing up in Lancaster north of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, he imbibed Shakespeare, went to work for the local newspaper, and took a keen interest in all things military.

Edward E. Cross, ready for the wars.
Cross developed a dualistic world view: Life was full of humbug, one of his favorite words, and yet life demanded discipline and order. He came of age in a young country. He revered its past, especially the Revolutionary legacy of his grandfather, Richard Everett, while embracing Manifest Destiny, the dominant nationalistic idea of his time.

He considered white Protestants superior and thought their values should rule the country. No friend of slavery but no friend of black people or abolitionists either, he also looked down on Mexicans and Irish Catholics. He thought American Indians should either be confined to reservations or wiped out to make room for national expansion. A powerful writer and blunt speaker, he loved to bluster, skewer, and romanticize, but a substantial core lay beneath his posturing and political cant.

Cross was a self-made man in the American mold. Born and raised in a far corner of the United States, he took to the road before he was 20. Curiosity and wanderlust pointed him west, but even as he established himself as a journalist in Cincinnati, he found ways to travel to neighboring states, to the South and to Washington and the other political centers in the East. Eventually he took the first printing press to the Arizona Territory.

In an age of horses and trains, Cross saw far more of the continent during his short life than most Americans do in today's much more mobile society. He was no idle tourist. Without a safety net he had to make his own way wherever he went, in Cincinnati, in Washington, in the Arizona Territory, in Mexico.

By the time the Civil War came, he had made and remade himself several times. He had been a crack political reporter, travel writer, editor, trail hand and silver mine supervisor. He had chased Indians in Arizona with Richard Ewell, the future Confederate general. Experience and study had made him a keen military analyst.

For Cross, the war was the opportunity of a lifetime. He was just 29 when he came home to command the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers, but everything he had done in life had prepared him for the task. He was a leader – all-seeing, demanding, knowledgeable, fearless, and confident. He understood what it took to make a regiment work. He was quick to root out shirkers, malingerers, drunks and men who thought they deserved commissions or promotions on the basis of their fathers’ prominence and political connections.

Because he had conquered difficult challenges as a young man, Cross eagerly chose men of 19 or 20 for positions of authority and trained them to lead. His regiment had the advantage of months in the field before it faced its first battle, and Cross used this time to prepare the officers and men. When the Fifth New Hampshire had to fight, it was ready.

Preparation did not protect Cross’s men from harm, but it gave them their best chance on the battlefield. As he knew, the ability to act as a unit made the whole more powerful than the sum of its parts. The colonel’s response to being in a tight spot was to attack. After the Fifth’s many battles under Cross had reduced its number from a thousand men to a hundred, its corps commander referred to these survivors as “refined gold.” It was no exaggeration.

That commander was Winfield Scott Hancock, and he made the comment at Gettysburg, where the Fifth New Hampshire fought with valor at great cost on July 2, 1863. This was also, as Cross had predicted, his last battle. 

[This post is adapted from my foreword to a new biography of Cross, Colonel Edward E. Cross, New Hampshire Fighting Fifth, a Civil War Biography, by my friend Robert Grandchamp.]


  1. Just the man for the new NH Civil War liquor bottles!

  2. Just as long as they don't call it GENERAL Cross Whiskey.