December 1862: “Dark & difficult it all is but not hopeless.”

By Claire Arnold, Intern

Letter from William Howard Gardiner to [William Nye Davis and Mary Gardiner Davis], 7 December 1862

Letter from William Howard Gardiner to [William Nye Davis and Mary Gardiner Davis], 7 December 1862

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    Writing from his home on Temple Place on 7 December 1862, Boston lawyer William H. Gardiner relays news from home to his "dear travellers," daughter Mary and her husband William Nye Davis. Flavored by his conservative politics, Gardiner’s accounts of political and military activities reveal his assessment of the Union's prospects as 1862 draws to a close, carrying with it dissension among the Union Army’s generals, questions about how to finance the war, and the prospect of immediate emancipation in January 1863.

    This letter is one of a series that the 65-year-old Gardiner wrote to his daughter and son-in-law as they traveled to the Caribbean and Europe. The couple left the United States in 1861 seeking a better climate for William’s health, and by 1862 had settled in France. Abroad, they were frustrated by a lack of reliable news about the progress of the American war. According to Mary, her father’s detailed accounts of military and political happenings were her only trusted source of information on events of crucial importance at home. Writing in her diary in January 1863 Mary noted that his “letters bring us a sense of the condition of things at home, which no papers ever give us; for either we are altogether successful and the rebels are just about giving in, or they are just about to settle in Washington, and Jefferson Davis is to be proclaimed president and Lincoln to be dethroned.”

    In this letter, after informing his daughter that her uncle Samuel Cabot has been “struck with paralysis,” Gardiner dismisses recent “military movements” as providing “not a scrap of intelligence worth reporting.” He then provides a long and detailed account of recent and planned movements in and around Richmond, Virginia, and criticizes the management of the army by Lincoln, his Cabinet, and General Henry Halleck, who had been appointed General-in-Chief in July 1862.

    Gardiner is frustrated by what he sees as “a sad want of unity” within the army. Only a few weeks before, President Lincoln had removed General George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac after 15 tumultuous months and appointed General Ambrose Burnside in his place. Gardiner clearly sympathizes with “Little Mac” as he recounts for his daughter the details of General Halleck’s report on McClellan’s final campaign and expresses doubts about Burnside’s abilities (pages 1-6). Gardiner ends the letter with a note, added on 9 December, stating that “some portion of Burnside’s army” has crossed the Rappahannock River “some distance from Fredericksburgh.” This mobilization was the beginning of the disastrous and costly Battle of Fredericksburg, 11 – 15 December, in which Gardiner’s doubts about Burnside proved prescient (page 10).

    In the final pages of the letter, Gardiner turns to another critical issue, that of “immediate emancipation as a war measure.” Gardiner is clearly skeptical of the wisdom of Lincoln’s shift from a plan of gradual emancipation to the Emancipation Proclamation, viewing it as encouragement for slaves behind Confederate lines to rebel. He states it is “a quietus to radical pressures” on Lincoln’s part and expresses doubt that any slaves will flee “except where he has our soldiers to protect him.” Instead, he feels the Union should remain focused on “the legitimate object of the war,” namely “peace on terms that will reduce the rebellion without absolutely revolutionizing either South or North.” Although Massachusetts and her citizens are often thought of as being wholly in support of abolition, this letter provides the insight of a Massachusetts citizen who, while not pro-slavery, did not support Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or other “radical measures.”

    William Gardiner supported George McClellan in his bid for the presidency in 1864 and remained an active citizen in Boston until his death in 1882. Mary Gardiner Davis died tragically when her clothing accidently caught fire while living in France in February 1863. Her husband died of pulmonary difficulty two weeks later.

    Sources for Further Reading:

    This letter is one of a series of letters, all written in 1862 and 1863, from William H. Gardiner to Mary and William Nye Davis contained in the William Howard Gardiner Letters in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. A separate collection of William Howard Gardiner Papers contains letters from a variety of correspondents, including George B. McClellan, as well as two volumes of Gardiner’s diaries. The MHS also holds a typescript copy of Mary Gardiner Davis’s travel diary capturing her and William Nye Davis’s experiences between 1861 and January 1863.

    The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University holds a large collection of Gardner Family papers, which contains letters from Mary Gardiner Davis to her father, a handwritten transcription of her travel diary, and a scrapbook containing photographs taken during those travels.

    Biographical Sketches of Representative Citizens of the State of Maine. Boston: New England Historical Publishing Company, 1903.

    Palmer, Joseph. Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College, 1851-52 to 1862-63. Boston: John Wilson and Son, 1864.

    Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2005.