January 1865: "War is cruel in all its parts..."

By Sara Georgini, Adams Papers

Letter from Charles Francis Adams, Jr. to Abigail Brooks Adams, 8 January 1865

Letter from Charles Francis Adams, Jr. to Abigail Brooks Adams, 8 January 1865

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    Writing across the Atlantic to his family stationed in Europe, Union soldier Charles Francis Adams, Jr., reports here on his new duties commanding an African-American regiment at the Confederate prisoner-of-war hospital in Point Lookout, Md. With his own health nearly broken by a recent bout with malaria, Adams struggles to professionalize his new corps. And, as the conflict winds to a bloody close, Adams reassures his mother that Southern prisoners are receiving adequate treatment from a federal government still capable of "Christian spirit & forbearance." Knowing that "war is cruel in all its parts," Charles was determined to confirm that years of bloodshed had been followed by measures of Northern mercy.

    Charles Francis Adams II (1835-1915) was a soldier, businessman, historian, and president of the Massachusetts Historical Society from 1895 until 1915. The son of Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886), the American minister to Great Britain, and Abigail Brooks Adams, he served with distinction as a Union officer during the Civil War. Then Charles entered the railroad industry, rising to the presidency of the Union Pacific Railroad from1884 to 1890. From 1890 to 1915, Adams spoke and wrote widely on historical, educational, economic, and political subjects as an active member of the Harvard Board of Overseers and the Anti-Imperialist League. Adams's works include biographies of Richard Henry Dana and of his father, as well as two key contributions to local history entitled Massachusetts: Its Historians and Its History and Three Episodes of Massachusetts History.

    The young cavalryman's path through the war had been an unusual one. He punctuated long months of battle with periods to rest from severe illness, and took a Continental hiatus to visit family. Longing for a career in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry over more predictable genteel skirmishes in the family field of law, Charles reported for duty in Boston in late 1861. His enlistment enraged brother Henry and deeply alarmed their parents. As the cavalryman later confessed in his Autobiography, he was, from the start, an unlikely soldier. He was "not quick, daring, or ready-witted, robust but not muscularly agile." Adams claimed "no personal magnetism" and was, he thought, "rather deficient in mind in time of peril."

    The Civil War reshaped Charles as a soldier, historian, and leader. A few miles outside Boston, Adams's commanding officer proved too drunk to guide the handpicked corps of Brahmin rookies, and Charles found himself at the regiment's head. Though he felt "in no way heroic," Adams saw plenty of action. He solicited management tips as a general's aide. He learned to survive on black coffee and half-rotten beef. When winter quarters permitted, Adams holed up in his tent, poring over biographies of British generals who conquered India, soaking up their professional inspiration. After two full years of service, Charles took a quick leave to spend Christmas 1863 in London with Henry and the rest of the family. Then he plunged back in. When Charles suffered on the battlefield, he pulled out rosier memories of Queen Victoria's London and replayed the happy reunion in his mind. "I would like to act it all over again & do not know of one thing I should desire to change from the moment I got up feeling rather blue & that in which Henry put his hand on my shoulder to the last moment where I went to sleep in London," Charles reflected later, on picket in Virginia. "It is all gone now like a dream, but it has left a pleasant track behind it." By January 1865, Adams believed that three years of intermittent conflict had hardened him into, at the very least, an "above average" soldier. At Antietam and Gettysburg, waiting wearily in the deafening dark with his troops; the drone of cannons lulled Charles into a heavy doze.

    Another furlough in late 1864, this time to the Adams family farm in Quincy, helped Charles to convalesce from malaria. Like many of his peers, Charles showed signs of difficulty in reconciling the regimen of war with daily life on the Northern home front. At the ancestral home, the same ornaments and paintings lined the walls, and every morning Charles awoke to the excited babble of his nieces and nephews. But Charles, articulating the trauma of the generation of Northern and Southern soldiers who returned to a drastically changed America, already felt like the war had made him a man set apart from society: "I am a solitary, restless stranger visiting the cradle of my [early] life & the grave of my race," he wrote. Again, Charles returned to the now-familiar scene of war, accepting command of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. When Richmond fell, he swept into the desolate city, riding proudly at the head of an African-American regiment.

    Back at the American legation in London, Charles's dispatches from the Southern front were shared, discussed, and addressed by family members with greater attention than most. Letters to and from Charles stitched together popular literary quotes, philosophical musings culled from the Harvard recitation drills that all Adams men endured, and snippets of Scripture. One of Charles's final missions before his August 1865 discharge came at the special request of his mother, Abigail, who was horrified by newspaper reports of prisoner abuse and photographs of coffins stacked at Point Lookout. The site, where prisoners more often died from malaria or scurvy than hunger, lacked regular supplies of clean water, and the professional medical staff were few. Point Lookout inmates, who built stoves to heat their tents, suffered from the same illnesses—exhaustion and vitamin deficiency—as did their guards, like Charles.

    Acting at Abigail's request, Charles inspected the camp hospital and interviewed prisoners, at least one of whom he remembered capturing three years earlier. Then Charles wrote to reassure his mother that Confederate prisoners of war—enduring a state that he called the "purest form of squalid misery to which God's image is anywhere reduced" in any war—were treated with "liberal" and "Christian" standards of care. The young soldier's mission resonated with the needs of the hour, and also with the social concerns of the day: to provide adequate Christian succor to those in suffering. The rise of Civil War memorial societies, along with professional morticians and sanitary aid commissions, would radically alter American politics within a quarter-century.

    Readied for public service by his days of war, Charles Francis Adams moved on, too. That November, he married Mary Hone Ogden, and commenced a prolific career in civil leadership.

    Sources for Further Reading:

    The Adams Family Papers contains the correspondence, letterbooks, diaries, literary manuscripts, speeches, legal and business papers, and other papers of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Charles Francis Adams, as well as papers of many other Adams family members and incoming correspondence from hundreds of major and minor figures in America and Europe.

    Family dispatches about the Civil War era are found in the Adams Family "All Gens." section. Although Charles Francis, Jr., destroyed the bulk of his wartime diary while writing his Autobiography, his papers, pamphlets, and diaries, are held here.

    Adams, Charles F., Jr. Charles Francis Adams by His Son. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1900.

    ----. Charles Francis Adams, 1835-1915: An Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916.

    ----. Massachusetts: Its Historians and Its History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1893.

    ----. Richard Henry Dana: a Biography. Boston: Hougton Mifflin, 1890.

    ----. Three Episodes of Massachusetts History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892.

    Ford, Worthington C., ed. A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861-1865. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920.

    ---. "Charles Francis Adams (1838-1915)." Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 53 (1918):776-780.

    Gillispie, James M. Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2008.

    Perkins, Elliot, John A. Abbott, and Thomas B. Adams. "Three Views of Charles Francis Adams, II." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3d ser., 72 (1960):212-237.