Friday, November 16, 2012

Little Mac, Lincoln, and Military Reviews: Engravings from Frank Leslie's

My hobby of collecting Civil War newspapers has become quite the obsession.  I often search eBay and other online sites for additions to my collection, which focuses heavily on the lesser-known aspects of the war in and around Washington.  The other day I won an auction for an October 5, 1861 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.  This particular issue contains a multitude of interesting engravings and articles about the time when all was truly quiet along the Potomac.  Two oversized illustrations pertain to military reviews, which were all the rage with the Army of the Potomac in the fall of 1861.

Cover of the Oct. 5, 1861 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, showing "Brilliant Naval Exploit in Pensacola Harbor--Burning of the Rebel War Schooner Judith on the 14th September."
Berdan's Sharpshooters Take Aim
On September 20, 1861, President Lincoln, accompanied by Secretary of State William H. Seward and the Prince de Joinville of France, rode out to Camp Burnside near Washington to review soldiers under the command of Col. Hiram Berdan.  Known popularly as "Berdan's Sharpshooters," this famed regiment was composed of top marksmen from across the Union.  "At a late hour," Gen. George B. McClellan finally arrived on the field and greeted the President and Secretary of State.  (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 326.)  McClellan dismounted and chatted with the Prince and his sons before proceeding to review Berdan's men at target practice.  According to Frank Leslie's:
General McClellan walked down the line of the troops, looking every man in the eye, and afterwards watched with interest the progress of the shooting.  He complimented the men for their skill, and expressed his gratitude to Colonel Berdan at the neatness and excellent discipline that pervaded the camp. . . .  (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 326.)
Other dignitaries were in attendance that day, along with "[a] large number of ladies and citizens of Washington."  (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 326.)  It is unclear whether this is the same review of Berdan's men where Lincoln fired a rifle "to the great delight of the many soldiers and civilians surrounding."  (Stevens 10.)  The President on that occasion apparently remarked, "Boys, this reminds me of old-time shooting."   (Stevens 10.)  The article in Frank Leslie's makes no mention of the President's participation.

"'Sharpshooting'--Trial of Skill of Berdan's Riflemen, Before General McClellan and Staff, Near Washington, Friday, September 20--From a Sketch by our Special Artist Attached to General McClellan's Command," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Oct. 5, 1861.  McClellan is presumably the person standing in uniform talking to the men in top hats.
The newsweekly chose to illustrate the event with a two-page spread of McClellan, his staff, and spectators gathered to watch the sharpshooters engage in target practice.  The paper reported that of 240 shots fired at a distance of three-quarters of a mile, "130 hit the target, and nearly all the other shots struck very near it."  (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 326.)  Overall, the Frank Leslie's correspondent considered that "[t]he affair was successful, so far as the shooting was concerned, and was highly interesting to the spectators."   (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 326.)  Not to be outdone, the rival Harper's Weekly published a front-page illustration of Berdan's Sharpshooters on the same day.

A Grand Review of Artillery and Cavalry

On September 24, McClellan held yet another review of his army in the making.  Frank Leslie's accorded the event a two-page spread in the October 5 edition.  Once again, the accompanying article portrayed  McClellan as the man of the hour.  This grand review involved over 2,000 troopers from "two full regiments of cavalry, the 5th regular and the Kentucky Volunteers, together with such portions of the Lincoln, Ira Harris and Cameron Guards as had their horses and sabres."  (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 327.)  In addition, "there were eight batteries of U.S. Regular Flying Artillery, comprising 48 heavy rifled and howitzer field pieces, with caissons, carriages, horses, riders and gunners, in full quota." (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 327.) 

The artillery and cavalry units were encamped "near the extremities of Seventh and Fourteenth streets" and had to march about three miles to the parade ground, which sat a mile east of the Capitol.  The paper reported that "[t]housands of men, women and children streamed after them" as they made their way through the streets of Washington to the review.  (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 327.)  Many dignitaries assembled on the parade ground, including the President, the First Lady, and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. 

Finally, "at four o'clock General McClellan, accompanied by his staff -- among whom were the Comte de Paris and Duc du Chartres -- rode upon the ground, and were received with six guns."  (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 327.)  The day culminated in McClellan's review of the assembled cavalry and artillery units:
The General rode slowly along the line, and carefully scrutinized the equipment, arms and bearing of the troops.  He then inspected the artillery. . . .  Eight batteries numbering 48 heavy guns, then rode in thunderous line before the young Commander-in-Chief, and elicited his hearty approval.  This closed the review, and by sundown the glorious pageant was over.  (Frank Leslie's, Oct. 5, 1861, 327.)
"Grand Review in Washington of Eight Batteries of Artillery and Three Regiments of Cavalry, by the President, General McClellan, and a Portion of the Cabinet, Tuesday, September 24--From a Sketch by our Special Artist Attached to General McClellan's Command," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Oct. 5, 1861.  McClellan sits mounted at the center of the engraving.  It is unclear which figure is the President.  The person in the black coat and top hat next to McClellan most resembles Lincoln, although according to the accompanying article, the President was seated in a carriage with his wife and Secretary Chase during the review.  In the engraving, a carriage with two men and a woman is visible to the left.  The bearded individual in the carriage could also be the President.  Perhaps Frank Leslie's should have gotten better engravers!
Harper's Weekly was even more effusive, calling the review "[o]ne of the finest displays of cavalry and artillery ever witnessed upon this continent."  (Harper's Weekly, Oct. 12, 1861, 652.)  The New York Times struck a more reserved, if not critical, tone:
The display was most grand and impressive, but it lacked the spirit and hurrah of a European review. Gen. MCCLELLAN reviews very much as if he were minutely inspecting the equipments of the men. This gives him perhaps a very good knowledge of the material which he has in his hand, but it does little or nothing to arouse martial spirit or to awaken enthusiasm. It brings out no evidence of the dashing recklessness which carries all before it, and which nine times out of ten alone wins battles.  (N.Y. Times, Sept. 25, 1861.)
The Times was on to something.  Although McClellan was a superb organizer and administrator, he certainly lacked the aggressiveness it took to crush the Confederacy.  On the other hand, the Times misread Little Mac's ability to inspire his own men, who ended up admiring McClellan perhaps more than any other commander of the Army of the Potomac.

These engravings and related stories make the war seem like a sideshow compared to the carnage that was to follow over the course of four long years.  The nation, however, was hungry for war news, and the papers were there to report on whatever was happening around the nation's capital at the time.  Surely McClellan didn't mind the publicity.  Reviews offered the chance to stir patriotic feelings and showcase the Union's military might.  And the October events were only a preview for what was to come.  A few months later, on November 20, the general would conduct the grandest review of them all at Bailey's Crossroads


Adam Goodheart, "Killing Jeff Davis," N.Y. Times Disunion Blog, Aug. 6, 2011; Harper's Weekly, Oct. 5, 1861; Harper's Weekly, Oct. 12, 1861; New York Times, Sept. 25, 1861; C.A. Stevens, Berdan's United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865 (1892).

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