Sunday, February 2, 2014

‘The reputation of a regiment is always made by the bad men in it’ -- Capt. George F. Towle, 4th N.H.

Unfortunately from Capt. George F. Towle’s perspective, the regiment he joined saw little fighting in its first year. This caused friction within its officer corps. In an idle regiment, promotions were hard to come by. When a opening came, officers made ample time for politics and pettiness. Afterward resentment kicked in . Towle, captain of Co. F, 4th New Hampshire Volunteers, was a first-class “croaker” (complainer, in Civil War lingo) with an overbearing faith in logic and little tolerance for human foibles.

Capt. George F. Towle
His Oct. 30, 1862, letter to his friend Charles W. Brewster illustrates these tendencies. Brewster, editor of the Portsmouth Journal, had helped Towle get his commission after Towle’s harrowing trip from the Texas Hill Country to New Hampshire at the start of the war. This horseback journey is the opening scene of Our War. In his account of it, Towle eloquently expressed his loyalty to the United States and its principles, a personal quality also apparent in the 1862 letter.

Towle proved to be a good officer, and he moved slowly through the ranks from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel. But in this letter he carped bitterly about the process by which officers were promoted. A teetotaler, he also railed about camp rumors asserting that people back home though the officers and men of the 4th drank too much. He seemed impervious to his own ranting, asserting at one point: “I shall make no complaint.”

On Friday I posted Towle’s drawings and account of the 4th New Hampshire’s first battle, at Pocotaligo, S.C. Today I share the rest of the letter:

“I desire to take this opportunity to thank you for the kindness with which you treated me in Concord, in assisting me to procure my commission. If you have ceased to remember it, I have not forgotten it. Certainly when I made my way out of Texas with a brand of Abolitionist upon me, and through 50 days of weary travel 900 miles to Kansas, daily renewing my determination to fight, so long as I should live, for the Union and freedom of speech on southern soil, I did not anticipate the year of inactivity or the next thing to it, which has been my lot in this Department.

“Those who have suffered from those atrocious vigilance committees in the south, as I have – those who have been hunted out of southern states for the ‘crime’ of speaking in favor of free soil, free labor and free institutions, as I was from Texas, may well be pardoned if they sometimes display a little vindictiveness towards the rebellion, its authors, and aiders south or north.

“And this year of inactivity was on this account the more galling to me. Often I was ready to resign and go enlist as a private in regiments in the field; but then they wouldn’t accept resignations from working officers in good health. Some months ago through the influence of a brother of Robert Dale Owen [Robert Dale Owen was the son of a social reformer who started the New Harmony utopian community in Indiana; the brother referred to here is probably Richard Dale Owen, a Mexican War veteran who taught at a Kentucky military academy], who was a professor in the military college where I graduated, I could have had a position as field officer in an Indiana 3 years regiment. But ‘by the order of the war department no resignations accepted’ was the invariable rule.

Gen. Horatio G. Wright
“And to say the truth, I have a feeling of state pride which makes me prefer the regiments of my native state, even with lower rank. Yet I confess I sometimes feel when I hear of my classmates and comrades at the military college lower in standing than myself now ranking as colonels and field officers while I am only a simple captain.

“One method I did much hope they would take in promoting to the field of this regiment. I did hope General Wright [Brig. Gen. Horatio G. Wright was the 4th New Hampshire’s brigade commander in early 1862] would be consulted in filling the vacancy created by Col. Whipples resignation [Whipple, who did have a reputation for drinking, had resigned in March and was soon replaced by Col. Louis Bell]. Gen. Wright knew the officers of this regiment thoroughly. He knew them as soldiers and as officers – and he would have designated for promotion the best soldiers who had also a moral
character without reproach to support his military character. His judgment could have been relied on.

Col. Louis Bell. A native of Chester
and the son of a governor, Bell was a
lawyer in Farmington before the war. 
“Again, if the thing could have been done, I eagerly desired that the officers who wished to go into the field – and some of us did who had no one to speak for us – should be sent before a board of regular army officers who would subject them to a thorough, severe and systematic examination – not only on infantry tactics, but the art of war generally, which I maintain Field officers should be well versed in, and recommend him for promotion who should come best out of it. I suggested both these methods to various officers in the regiment, but, somehow or other, such suggestions met with little favor. At any rate I think it would have been the best way.

“I have been extremely concerned to hear that the 4th has such a bad reputation at home. I hear that its officers are called a drunken set. I know that you shall not suspect me of being in that category. I never in my life was under the influence of liquor in the slightest degree. Most certainly those officers of the regiment who have disgraced it by drunken sprees should be removed from it, and had I any power in the matter it should be very soon done.

“The reputation of a regiment is always made by the bad men in it, and it is hard for those who have always kept a very good character, to be placed in the same class with officers who get drunk and are incompetent. My opinion has always been: that no man who gets drunk should ever have any command over men.

“I hear too, that the 4th is considered in N.H. to be an ‘armed mob’ with no discipline. Now Gen. Terry told me, when he inspected us, that my company ‘was in the best condition of any company he ever inspected in his life.’ This is a high compliment certainly and all say it was well deserved.

Gov. Nathaniel S. Berry of Hebron
“But yet in New Hampshire we share the reputation of the regiment. Is this not harsh? But what can we do? Only let justice be done. This is all I ask. I shall make no complaint – only let us have this assurance. If there are any officers in the regiment who work faithfully & honestly, who maintain good characters, and efficient discipline, who are proficient in military knowledge and have ability to use it – only let us have this assurance, that these officers will be noticed and remembered, even though they have no friends of influence at home to be consistently pressing their claims.

“I have always believed in Governor Berry, and I feel confident that I am and shall be justified in this belief of his wisdom, sagacity and judgment in managing the conflicting interests that must be clashing around him. As for myself, come what will, I shall serve in this way so long as life lasts or till the war ends. The extermination of all white inhabitants of the south, and laying it waste as a desert, rather than let this most atrocious and wickedest rebellion succeed.”

No comments:

Post a Comment