Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Talk with Eugene Schmiel, Author of "Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era"

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Gene Schmiel during a Savas Beatie Author Enclave at South Mountain and Antietam. At the time, Gene was putting the finishing touches on his biography of Union Gen. Jacob Cox. The book, Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era was published by Ohio University in 2014. Gene's biography received many favorable reviews and has been featured as a History Book Club Reading Selection. Gene was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions about his book and Cox. I think you'll find his responses interesting, to say the least. And if you'd like to meet Gene and hear him speak about "Jacob Cox and the West Point-'Political General' Divide in the Union Army," be sure to head to the Loudoun County Civil War Rountable next Tuesday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m.

Q. First off, tell readers a little about yourself.

A. I am a retired U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer who served overseas in Sweden, South Africa, Djibouti, Kenya, and Iceland. I was Charge’ d’Affaires at three embassies and Consul General in Mombasa, Kenya. I now work part-time at the State Department on international political-military and terrorism-related issues.

Before joining State, I was an Assistant Professor of History at St. Francis University (Pennsylvania). I earned my Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, where I met my wife, Bonnie Kathryn. We have two children, David and Jennifer, and five grandsons. My wife and I wrote a book in 1998 about our life in the Foreign Service entitled, Welcome Home: Who are You?  Tales of a Foreign Service Family. We live in Gainesville, Virginia

Q. Why did you choose Jacob Cox as the subject for a biography? 

A. My focus in grad school was 19th century U.S. history, and Jacob Cox’s life (1828-1900) was in many ways a microcosm of the most important developments during that era. His military career, his role in Ohio and national politics, his tenure as both a railroad and a university president, and his authorship of highly-respected histories of the Civil War all made him one of the most important figures from the era about whom no one had written a biography. He even became one of the world’s most renowned amateur microscope scientists and wrote thirty-two articles about that topic for scholarly journals. In sum, he was a “Renaissance Man in the Gilded Age.” My dissertation was the “first draft” of that biography, and my book Citizen General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era was the conclusion of that process.

Q. What sources helped you the most? 

A. The Cox papers at the Oberlin College archives were by far the most important. Cox was not only an avid correspondent, but also someone with a sense of history, who saved his letters and most of those he received from other prominent individuals. Thankfully, he also had good handwriting! Among other important sources were the Official Records, the papers of Cox’s contemporaries and friends such as James A. Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes, and Cox’s writings, especially his histories and extensive number of reviews of Civil War books.

Q. How would you describe the thesis of your book?

A. In my preface I noted that in his book, The Civil War Dictionary, Mark Boatner wrote that it “might well be titled, ‘What ever happened to J.D. Cox?’” His thesis was that Cox, like many others in the war, had served well, but had been forgotten. So, in effect, my goal was to answer Boatner’s question, as follows: Jacob Cox was one of the best Northern “citizen generals” in the Civil War, an influential postwar political leader, and the ablest participant-historian of the war, one whose writings have been both recognized as authoritative and objective and quoted by serious Civil War historians ever since.

Q. How do you rate Cox among Civil War Union generals?

A. I think it would be fair to say that a consensus of Civil War historians would place Cox in the top five of the “political” generals, along with men such as “Black Jack” Logan, Joshua Chamberlain, and Alpheus Williams. [William T.] Sherman clearly agreed – he thought so much of Cox’s ability that not only offered him a chance to command the 23rd Corps on the March to the Sea, but he also offered Cox a brigadier generalship in the Regular Army at the end of the war. The fact that Sherman and Grant both suggested to President Andrew Johnson that he choose Cox as Secretary of War to resolve the dispute with Congress over the “Tenure of Office” Act is additional evidence of Cox’s abilities and reputation.

Q. What sets Cox apart from other political generals in the Civil War? 

A. One key difference was that Cox was not politically prominent before the war, having served just one term as a back bencher in the Ohio Senate. Most historians, when using the term “political generals,” point to men like Logan, Butler, and Banks, all of whom were prominent already in national or state politics, and who could “demand” senior positions and commands. By contrast, Cox worked his way up and was given increasingly important positions by the senior generals whom he impressed with his ability, e.g. Rosecrans, McClellan, Burnside, Sherman, and Schofield.

Secondly, Cox was not a self-promoter – often to his detriment.  In his letters to his wife he often expressed dismay that incompetents (both political and West Pointers) were getting good press and that others were more successful in lobbying Congress for promotions.

Third, he always sublimated his political views to military necessity.  For example, when he served under John Schofield, a Democrat, during the Atlanta, Franklin-Nashville, and North Carolina Campaigns, Cox wrote to his wife that Schofield’s views were irrelevant on the battlefield and that he would carry out his orders without question.

Fourth, whereas McClellan and Sherman, among others, looked down on volunteer officers, they seemed to make an exception for Cox, whose abilities they respected as they offered him substantive responsibilities. They knew that Cox was, as I put it in the book, the “quintessential subordinate” officer, and that they could rely on him totally.

Q. Tell us about Cox’s relationship with Gen. George McClellan. 

A. In the beginning the two were very close, but after the war, Cox adjudged both that McClellan had critical weaknesses as a commander and that he was two-faced when dealing with his subordinates and superiors.

McClellan began the war as commander of Ohio’s troops and Cox was the military chief of staff of Ohio Governor William Dennison. They clearly got along well, and McClellan was impressed by Cox’s study of military tactics and history, as well as his intellectual command of military matters. McClellan, despite his prejudice against “volunteers,” chose Cox to command troop training at Camp Dennison and gave him an autonomous command in the West Virginia Campaign.

During the Maryland Campaign, Cox’s “Kanawha Division” was the advance element of the Army of the Potomac in taking Frederick and helping win the Battle of South Mountain. At the Battle of Antietam, Cox was tactical commander of the Union left wing, and he came within minutes of sweeping Lee’s forces from the field. McClellan praised him for his efforts and supported his promotion to Major General, even as he regretted Cox’s orders that October to go back to West Virginia to push back a Confederate offensive.

Cox noted in his letters and writings that he always respected McClellan during the war and believed he was the general best qualified to command Union troops. However, when he began doing research for his book reviews and his books, he came to a very different set of conclusions. He was especially taken aback when reading McClellan’s Own Story, from which he discovered that McClellan was two-faced and inclined to blame others for his failings. While preparing his review of that book, Cox made multiple notes in the margins of his copy of the text. Among his outraged comments were, “I don’t believe a word of it”; “Quintessence of nonsense!”; “What Stuff;” and “Always a lion in the way!” In his review, his wrote that that the book was “full of blinding self-esteem,” in which “everyone is a rogue and incapable except McClellan.”

In many ways Cox’s review and his articles about McClellan in West Virginia and the Battle of Antietam in the Battle and Leaders of the Civil War, and his section on the latter battle in his Military Reminiscences set the historiographical foundation for the judgment about McClellan’s shortcomings as a commander. As he wrote in the Antietam article, noting acerbically McClellan’s claim in his memoirs that because he led the Maryland Campaign without written orders, the administration could have charged him with usurpation of command, “The suggestion of McClellan twenty years afterward that it had all been a pitfall prepared for him, would be revolting if…the absurdity of it did not prove that its origin was in a morbid imagination.” Finally, underscoring that throughout his campaigns McClellan’s army greatly outnumbered the enemy and his equipment and supplies were far better, Cox commented that “McClellan’s persistent outcry that he was sacrificed by his government destroys even that character for dignity and that reputation for military intelligence which we fondly attributed to him.”

Q. Why do you think Cox hasn’t attracted the attention of other Union generals like Winfield Scott Hancock? 

A. Not being a West Pointer, he had no major command positions, and partly as a result he suffered from what he called the problem of being a second in command and being forgotten in the writing of history. In fact, that was a key impetus to his career as an historian.

Also, Cox was what might be called “colorless.” That is, he was a staid, stoic, and unemotional intellectual who lacked the common touch.  He had been a divinity student at Oberlin, and for some time a career as a minister and professor of theology seemed likely in his future. While his men respected him, they never “loved” him in the way McClellan’s did. These characteristics made him an effective commander since he never lost control of himself and was always a voice of calm reason, even during the most tempestuous moments of the conflict – except once (see the next item).

Finally, as noted above, he was not a self-promoter, so while others sought and got the limelight, the reticent Cox always said he would rely on history to recognize his contributions.

Q. In your view, what was Cox’s most important military accomplishment during the Civil War?

A. If I had to pick one, it would be his command of the defensive line at the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864. His commander, John Schofield, made Cox acting commander of the 23rd Corps and most of the 4th Corps and ordered him to set up a defensive line to protect the withdrawal of troops and the wagon train on its way to Nashville. Schofield did not even visit Cox during the day, so confident was he that Cox would, as always, perform his responsibilities effectively.

When John Bell Hood decided to attack frontally at Franklin, most generals on both sides were surprised. Cox too thought Hood would try to outflank the Union forces, but having seen Hood attack frequently on the Atlanta Campaign, he decided to set up a strong bulwark against a frontal attack. The only problem was that he had to leave a gap in the line for the wagon train and withdrawing troops.  He set up a second line behind the first in case Hood did in fact attack. When that happened and fleeing Union troops, with rebels just behind them, poured through the opening, Cox faced a major challenge. At that moment, everything he had fought for and all of the contributions he had made to the Union war effort were at risk.

In the book I wrote that it was at that moment that, for one of the few times in his life, Cox dropped his stoic veneer and became an emotional “warrior” – though even then in a controlled manner. He rode to the front, waving his sword and screaming at his men to meet the challenge. But he still was calm enough to, at one point, calm his nervous horse, which was bucking wildly because of the noise. The Union forces met the challenge, and Cox’s leadership was the critical element of their success.   He was the “unsung hero” of the Battle of Franklin.

Q. What were Cox’s most enduring contributions outside of the war? 

A. Cox was the ablest participant-historian of the Civil War, and his books and articles about the war are his enduring legacy. His two-volume Military Reminiscences, in particular, is frequently cited by modern Civil War historians not only because it is a primary source, but also because Cox has been shown to be a superb historian. His books on the Atlanta Campaign, on the Battle of Franklin, and on Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Franklin-Nashville Campaign, and the North Carolina Campaign all have stood the test of time. His five articles in the Battles and Leaders of the Civil War volumes, as well as his 161 reviews of books for the Nation magazine from 1874-1900, are further evidence of the quality of his research and historical writing.

Q. Why didn’t Cox ultimately succeed in politics like some other well-known Ohioans?

A. When the war ended, most political observers would have said that Cox was someone whose rise to national political prominence was inevitable. He had a sterling war record, was one of the founders of the Ohio Republican Party, and had close friends in the national political and military leadership. Also, his home base of Ohio was important because that state was the home of five of the next six presidents, all of whom had war records (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley). When Cox was elected Governor of Ohio in 1865, he could have used that position as a springboard to be as Grant’s ultimate successor. (In fact Grant’s successor was Cox’s successor as governor, Rutherford B. Hayes).

Instead Cox’s established reputation as an uncompromising intellectual intent on speaking his own mind at all times proved to be his political downfall. He also lacked charisma and tended to give political speeches which were academic-oriented.  His first political problems came when he suggested in the Ohio campaign (in his famous “Oberlin Letter”) that a possible solution to the racial problems of the postwar South was the creation of a special area where blacks would be given special privileges and protected from white reaction. The practical politicians all told him to say nothing about the issue, but he insisted that he wanted to contribute to the national debate. The plan was considered too radical – even if the blacks would not be forced to go there – and political leaders now knew that Cox had a strong independent streak.

Then, as the division between Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans widened, Cox supported Johnson for some months, and then tried to play a peacemaking role between the two. He was soon seen as insufficiently “loyal” by both sides, and decided not to run for re-election. Finally, in 1870 Cox resigned from Grant’s Cabinet on another matter of principle, civil service reform, and became a leader of the Liberal Republican party. Its loss meant that whereas in 1865 his political future seemed wide open, by 1873, he was in permanent national political exile. He did serve one term in the House of Representatives, where he hoped to help implement the policies of his wartime subordinate, Rutherford B. Hayes, but again his stubborn commitment to principle and refusal to become a “practical politician” convinced him to leave politics.

In an introspective letter written to a friend in 1885, Cox said that he well knew that he had a golden political future in 1865, but that:
My experience of public life had probably been about as great as may come unsought to one who has stubbornness of opinion.  Enough, at best, to warrant me in thinking that I too could have cut a more prominent figure had I thought the game worth the candle…and so without disappointment or envy, regret or longing, I have been able to go my way thinking my own thoughts, advocating my own opinions, calling no mob master.
Q. How did Cox’s early Whig views influence his stance on issues like racial equality?

A. Cox’s first political affiliation was with the Whigs, which he joined just as it was undergoing its death throes in the early 1850s.  He joined the Whigs rather than the Free-Soilers, in great part because the former’s membership was representative of Anglo-Saxon elites with moderate views on slavery and its expansion. Despite Cox’s education at Oberlin College, he was not a radical on racial issues, though he was, of course, intensely anti-slavery.

Like other Whigs who joined the Republicans, he believed that blacks should be free, but that they would inevitably be second-class citizens. Unlike many Whigs, he didn’t support overseas colonization, but during the war he suggested in a letter that black soldiers who performed well might be given land in Texas which would be off-limits to whites. That idea was the germ of his proposal in the “Oberlin Letter.” Cox, who as a former divinity student and potential professor always wanted to stimulate intellectual thought, saw this as an attempt to stimulate a dialogue about possible solutions. His political friends, including Garfield, warned him not to do it, but his instinct was always to be “tutelary.” It was exactly the wrong approach at that point in his political career – he paid the price, but as noted above, he was always his own man.

Q. Are there any other Civil War books on the horizon?

A. Not for a while, if at all. I do have an article coming out in October in an Ohio history magazine, Timelines, about Cox’s near-miss at Antietam, when his forces, on the verge of taking Sharpsburg and breaking the Confederate right wing, were hit in the flank by A.P. Hill’s men and forced to halt their advance.

I also might do some articles about related topics from Cox’s life. One would be about his close friendship with Jack Casement, who was his subordinate during the war. Casement, who was the main builder of the Union Pacific Railroad, was Cox’s complete opposite in personality: brusque, abrasive, coarse, etc., but also, like Cox, a quintessential subordinate.   It was a friendship of complete opposites.
Thanks so much to Gene for taking the time to answer my questions. Cox is truly a fascinating subject for a biography, all the more so given his relative obscurity among Civil War generals!


Lee Lawrence said...

I attended this Round Table discussion about General Cox, very informative and interesting. Gen. Cox was a thoughtful academic, truly an intellectual who rather surprisingly reminded me of Confederate General Thomas Jackson. Mr. Schmiel is a good speaker, and his enthusiam for his subject is appealing.

Mr. Baumgarten, I am researching two diaries, one written in Middleburg, one in Paris, Virginia. You might be familiar with both of them (Broun and Edmonds) I am also researching the Underground Railroad connections with the Quakers in the Lincoln and Purcellville area, near where I live. I've been particularly interested in an escape from Townsend McVeigh's and William Rogers' properties. I read your wonderful posting from a year or so ago about the McVeigh property near Lewinsville, which I didn't know about. Have you seen the 'Escaped Slaves' poster pertaining to the Chrismas Eve 1855 escape from Middleburg of slaves belonging to McVeigh, Rogers and possibly the Edwin Brouns? Pease let me know if you'd like me to send you the information I have. Plus, I want to read your book about Contraband, and find out if you have come across any slave stories about involvement with the Quakers in northern Loudoun. sincerely, Lee Lawrence

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for writing. I am glad you were able to attend the lecture at the LCCWRT. I will have to catch Gene at one of his other engagements.

I have heard of Edmonds, but not Broun. I think I saw the poster about the runaways in a Loudoun County history once. I'd be intereted in seeing what you've found, however! You subject is interesting and one with which I am not too familiar.

I haven't yet done a book on the contraband camps, but you can find everything I've done so far on the blog. Incidentally, I will be speaking to the LCCWRT in the fall about the camps.

I haven't had a chance to look at slavery stories in Loudoun County. And as you know, there really weren't any contraband camps here like in Fairfax and Arlington. However, I have a feeling that some slaves may have escaped their masters in Loudoun and taken up residence at the camps closer to DC.

I'd be happy to correspond further. Please feel free to contact me at