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Mar 24, 1862

The Virtues of Compromise

Charles Ingersoll's "Letter to a Friend in a Slave State," Part Two

“Copperhead” Democrat Charles Jared Ingersoll argues that both warring sections should embrace a large measure of compromise and conciliation.

Editor’s Note

In our second portion from former Congressman Charles Ingersoll’s important Civil War letter, our author begins on a sobering note. Despite the romantic visions of those who rushed to war—even Ingersoll’s fellow Democrats—the war’s reality eventually settled uncomfortably into the public consciousness. The warmongering ex-Democrats were well-represented by men of talent and status like William Cullen Bryant and John Bigelow, and even by more reluctant (but still romantically-inclined and nationalist) pro-war Democrats like Van Buren and Samuel Tilden. The moderate, politically-calculating leadership from the original Second Party System coalition charted what seemed the most appropriate course during difficult times. They joined what was, after all, the old Free Soiler organization which their own people founded, now dressed up as the Republican Party. The early Republican Party included slightly more Free Soiler Democrats (who voted for Van Buren in 1848) than former Whigs (whose party imploded during the years between 1852 and 1856). By 1860, the Whig contingent was much stronger than it had been, but the Bryants and Bigelows were still a distinct, powerful faction within the new dominant party.

Though the southern Democracy abandoned its northern kin in 1861, there remained men like New York’s Fernando Wood and Pennsylvania’s Charles Ingersoll. “Copperhead,” anti-war Democrats like Wood responded to the new administration and partisan abandonment by entrenching themselves in the separatist’s perspective. They longed for an end to the war by whatever means possible, a peace that would once again settle the land in normal relations. Normalcy meant Democratic unity, electoral victory, and the triumph of Democratic-Republican principles.  Against the romantic, ex-Democratic warmongers, Ingersoll leveled a blistering realism: a war of conquest would be extremely costly, long, bloody, and unlikely to end favorably to either side. Civil War would mean the near-absolute destruction of the entire country, and only the compromising, calculating, vote-jockeying, faction-wranglers of the old Second Party System could prevent it. Ingersoll ostensibly wrote his letter to convince a southern friend that brotherhood and voluntary union were the only decent options available to people of both sections. He published the letter to convince an audience of northerners that their Republican leaders did not deserve their support—ex-Democrats should rejoin the fold, renounce their bloodlust, and check their reform-at-all-costs attitude with a healthy dose of compromise.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

LETTER TO A FRIEND IN A SLAVE STATE

By a Citizen of Pennsylvania

We begin, subject to the immense disadvantage of being without the necessary foundation on which to build; for the handful of soldiers who composed the army before these troubles came on us, cannot serve as a frame for a force of 718,000 men…[and] if the whole 718,000 be equally raw and ignorant, they can be educated only by marching and fighting, and must for their primary instruction go through, in the field, a course of reverses and successes. We are now at the second stage of our education, that of successes, on a very long course of schooling that is before us. As to officers, beginning with almost none, which, considering our immense force, may be said to be the case, our condition must needs be much worse than in the department of soldiers.

The invaded South might lose twenty battles and not be conquered, while the loss of one by the invading North, when their work was almost accomplished, might be fatal, and operations to be begun again from the beginning. In 1808, the finest troops in the world were in possession of a great part of Spain, when the battle of Baylen lost them every foot of it but that which was north of the river Ebro, and on the confines of their own country.

Have we then an invading force? one with which to conquer, take and keep military possession? War is a trade, and armies only a machine. Our soldiers are brave, but courage, as was said by one who must have known, is not the first quality of a soldier. The question is, do they, taken together, make that machine so difficult to adjust, a disciplined army –are they a force which can be carried to the field, and relied on to struggle with the realities of war – cold, hunger, fatigue and privation, the miseries of the roadside and the hospital, without becoming disorganized; not merely, though that is not easy, when engaged with the enemy, to advance with alacrity and retire in good order?

The events of the memorable day of Bull Run, answer this question. We may have some better soldiers than then we had; men who have been under fire and done their duty well; but the character of our force must be the same, new levies led by new officers.

It would seem, taking the Southern accounts with our own, that from about 10 o’clock, when the engagement began, to between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, when it ended in a panic rout, we constantly gained ground and lost none, and finally took flight, simply and merely because we were not enough soldiers to make a retreat in the presence of the enemy, when owing to his being reinforced or from some other cause not perfectly agreed on, by both sides, a backward movement had become necessary. Armies have been seized with panic before the 21st of July, 1861. This has happened so often that we were unable to console ourselves, in our disgrace, with instances of it from all countries; but the fact, for it was without necessity, and for no reason in the world than because we did not know how to retire, went to prove, and did prove, that our soldiers were unsure.

But if good troops everywhere have been sometimes panic-struck, good troops nowhere ever acted such a part as did the Southern army when ours fled before it. Their enemy flying, in the last confusion, had scattered themselves, unprotected and uncovered, the capital of their country, distant thirty-four miles, one day’s forced march; and that place, for a certain number of days, if not weeks, they had only to enter and possess, if they had had troops with which, abandoning their position, and the forests and fastnesses under cover of which they fought, they could have ventured the simplest operation in the open field, without incurring the hazard, in their turn, of military disaster. But far from advancing on the place thus lying at their discretion, they did not, in any force, so much as pursue, and the foe was allowed, while they must have had under their hands a very large army, of which any 10,000 men capable of being moved, might have entered Washington, to collect again his disbanded forces, repair his losses, restore his condition, then lie for months opposite them, stronger than he was the day before the defeat took place, and finally to see them retire.

Any general, they say, may gain a battle, for it may be given him by his adversary; the true general is he that can reap the fruits of success; but no want of generalship would explain this most remarkable forbearance, which could be accounted for by nothing but the want of solidity of their soldiers. All kinds of reasons have been suggested for it: a defensive policy, bad weather, imperfect information, ignorance of the extent of their success, that they did not want the seat of government of the United States, with others equally unsatisfactory. If they were all founded in truth, and were combined together, it is not imaginable that that army would not have been in Washington, if they could have been there. When General Ross seized Washington, he did not hold it forty-eight hours; but the political as well as the military effect of its fall was immense. When Wellington, the most cautious of commanders, and not a man to give the substance for the shadow, had the choice, after his victory of Salamanca, to pursue, with the hope of destroying the enemy, or take, and immediately abandon Madrid, at the hazard of being overwhelmed by three armies, then in the field against him, he marched on the capital, although he knew he could not remain there, and, in fact, came within an ace of being cut off, in retiring from it.

The capture of Washington, beside its prodigious military results, would have had such an echo everywhere, both here and in Europe, where it would have been worth to them, probably, the recognition they so much covet, that, granting no more than rationality to the Southern leaders, its remaining in our hands after the day at Bull Run, can be accounted for in one way only. It is altogether incredible that they were so unworthy of their trust, as immediately upon such a success, to remain ignorant for days of the state of things, just on their front, or that they were reluctant to rouse, Maryland behind us, or that their defensive policy would be interfered with by seizing the enemy’s capital, lying before them, any more than his camp equipage or artillery, that he left behind him. The simple truth is, General Beauregard’s troops could not be relied upon; he may explain his course in after-dinner speeches, and quote Alcibiades till doomsday,

                “Audacious drink, and greatly daring dine,”

but turn it as he will, in his carousals in celebration of that to unprecedented event in war, a defeat without a victory, it could have been alone the discretion which is the better part of valor, which, begetting diffidence of the materials of his army, made him forbear to snatch so great a prize.

Here, then, was an army, composed of materials as good as ours, longer than we had been under military organization and discipline, which had defended themselves well in their position, not only wholly unable to invade, as we must, an enemy’s country on a long line of operations, but unwilling to hazard, in the flush of success, a march of thirty-four miles, in the open field, to reach his Capital. How long must it be before an army of such soldiers and such officers could be depended on to make their way through the North to the line of Canada? If the contending parties could have changed laces, and we had been attacked behind cover, and they our assailants, we should have had the victory, and they have undergone the defeat; when they could make no impression on us, instead of retreating, they would have fled in disorder, and we, in our turn, would have been unable to move and gather the harvest of success.

When we march our soldiers against those of the South, while theirs do exactly the work to which they are content – that of making good in the midst of a friendly population, a region fortified by nature with deep ravines, broad rivers, high hills, narrow passes, and the never-ending forest; - we, on the contrary, have to take the open field, and there contend with obstacles at every step. The best troops, in a position fortified by nature or art, and assailed by troops only equally good, may by valor and pertinacity of assault, be overcome: but let both armies be composed of raw soldiers, and the troops behind cover fight well, while those who have to make an assault requiring vigor and determination, cannot be depended on. Jackson, entrenched at New Orleans, with a very imperfect force, successfully resisted excellent troops, but after having cut them to pieces, he allowed them, though a man all fire and action, to retreat unmolested, because he did not deem it safe to move against them in the field. The attacking army at Waterloo, to take another familiar illustration, veterans playing desperately their last stake, under a consummate commander, were very superior to the defending army, composed of soldiers of different nations, hastily brought together, and some of them so lately on the other side, that they were yet in their French uniforms; but the position made the difference, and they fought without decisive advantage until the party assailed was reinforced. Had the assailants been raw soldiers, and had the defences they attacked, instead of being intrenchments, farm buildings, and unevennesses of the ground, been such prodigious works as are everywhere established by nature among us, they would have had no possible chance. When General Braddock, with a regular force, undertook to penetrate the American forest, his army was destroyed by a handful of French soldiers, with a few Canadian militia and Indians.

But a glance at a map, showing the area of the Southern States, which is much greater than that of the territory of any European power, except Russia, the State of Texas alone being as large as France, or Spain and Portugal, will satisfy us that the South have an ally that is altogether invincible, in space. Space, when the scale is great, is, in a war of invasion, too much for any military power that can be brought against it. It had well nigh conquered Napoleon in Russia, who was exhausted in contending with it before he was attacked by the frost and snow. We invaded Canada three several times during the war of 1812, in considerable force, and with the fullest confidence of overrunning the country, but were, each time, quite unable to make any impression on that extended region, defended though it was by but few British troops. Alexander the Great covered space more vast than that which is before our armies, inhabited, however, for the most part, by effeminate nations, but neither Julius Caesar nor Napoleon ever performed such a feat, and, if they could be brought to Washington to advise with Mr. Lincoln, would assure him it was not possible. To keep the line open, if that were all, would be a military marvel; and what would communication be, and transportation, costing as they do now, when we came to reach the Rio Grande?

As to detached expeditions against the coast, which serve to annoy and distress an enemy, but, however gallantly conducted, not to carry us into the country, they exasperate the population against which they are directed, without advancing us an inch beyond the ground we occupy; of which the numerous English expeditions to our own shores and those of Europe are signal proof. If we detach 15,000 men against a given point of the Southern coast, the 15,000 put there by the enemy to defend it, have infinitely the advantage of them, for they are in their own country, and within reach of everything, while we can only communicate with our supplies and reinforcements, at great loss of time, and the largest expenditure of money. We must not be able to possess ourselves of not merely Charleston, Norfolk, New Orleans, and Savannah, but the whole country to which they belong; and establishing ourselves at these places, however important, would give us only a foothold from which to make our progress.

What progress in the conquest of North and South Carolina have we made from Beaufort, from Hatteras, from Roanoke, and in the conquest of Tennessee from Nashville? How much would be furthered the work if we occupied Richmond? If the Southern troops were withdrawn from Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee to the country south of them, leaving us to operate against the cotton States, across a hostile and desolated region, or from the coast, we should only be where we were before hostilities began.

North Carolina and Tennessee were of the Southern states, two of the truest to the Union; North Carolina always the antipodes of South Carolina, and Tennessee by climate, soil, and population, more western than southern, and through the powerful and long-exercised influence of General Jackson, strongly prejudiced against the doctrines of Mr. Calhoun. And now, having occupied the capital of Tennessee, and Newbern and other places on the shores of North Carolina, what have we done towards bringing back those States? If their Union feeling is not to be stirred by the sound of the Northern drum, of which, probably, we are satisfied, we have to bring them back, and then to control them, by arms. Has such a task been begun? Do you expect to see it attempted? Are we to believe it ever will be? And if we are not to think of military reduction of the people, and if they do not voluntarily flock to our standard, are not, to-day, North Carolina and Tennessee further from the Union than before we marched troops on them; infinitely further in Union feeling, and not nearer, militarily?

If, after their success at Bull Run, the South had not only seized Washington, but pushing forward, been able to hoist the Secession colors over the towns along the southern boundary of Pennsylvania, - Philadelphia, Lancaster, York, Gettysburg, Pittsburg, and the rest – is it to be inferred that the people of this State would be coming forward, to swear allegiance to the South; or, that before they could be induced to organize a Secession government, pay Secession taxes, send senators and Members to the Secession Congress, and join the Southern Confederacy, the entire State must not be thoroughly reduced by the power of arms? Would seizing those places have given them possession of Pennsylvania? Would their armies, in holding them, have brought more of our territory under the influence of Mr. Jefferson Davis, than exactly that portion of which it was within their lines? Let those who throw up their hats and cry, the war is over, or that the beginning of the end has arrived, in this or that Southern State, because we have made a lodgment there, ask themselves, taking one reflecting moment to it, what the operation is, by which, and by which alone, the military reduction of a country can be effected, and they will see the emptiness, idleness, and vanity of such a thought.

If having armies on their soil, be not a commencement of the systematic work of military subjugation, how long we can remain at points remote from supply and reinforcement, and what measures of soldierly severity may be, in the meantime, required to keep down discontent and insurrection on the part of the inhabitants, are questions that military men must answer; as the Medical Staff must inform us of the chances of life in the case of northern constitutions, exposed and tried like those of the soldier, in such climates as are found in portions of the southern country, after the hot season begins.

Of what avail would it be, could we navigate, in our gunboats, every stream from the mighty Mississippi to the shallowest of them, if we did not conquer and take military possession of the country which they water? We have been now at war twelve months, and with the best materials for an army, to be found in the world – a free people, accustomed to the use of fire-arms – what have we accomplished? In the hostile country, (I do not speak of semi-friendly countries, like Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, which, before the fighting began, were wholly friendly,) we are at certain points on the coast, carried thither by the navy; we are at Nashville, via, partly, the Cumberland river, and have just begun to penetrate Eastern Virginia; but we have nowhere penetrated, with our bayonets, to the promised stream of Union feeling; and we have everywhere raised against ourselves, in the bosom of the whole invaded population, a feeling of detestation, which, when they can no longer defend them, exhibits itself in burning their houses, crops, towns and villages, before our advancing colors, and in some instances, leaving poison behind them, as they fled, in the wells, and in the food which our troops were to consume; a feeling of deep hate, which no invading army, in any part of the world, ever failed to arouse: for an army is, at best, a terror to the fields and cities it pours its flood over; and which, new soldiers, like ours, of all others, must needs produce in the most frightful abundance. The South are discouraged, no doubt of it; they ought to be; the reality is upon them; they will be unable, unless aided from abroad, to fight us in the doubtful States, and must restrict their operations to territory absolutely their own, where secession is undiluted; and there the tide of battle will roll, with various success, sometimes with us, sometimes with them, but always in brothers’ blood, until both parties, disgusted and shocked by the unnatural controversy, become satisfied, at last, of the truth of what Bishop Berkeley said, that it is not individuals alone, but nations sometimes, that go mad.

Did you ever hear of a people that were conquered? In the great wars of the beginning of the present century, kingdoms where overrun, and peace dictated in the capitals of half dethroned monarchs; but the people made no resistance; it was only to overcome the army; and when it came, in Spain, and to some degree in Russia, to conquering also the inhabitants of the country, military power seemed to be dealing with air or water, on which no lasting impression could be made. Poland was seized ninety years ago, and partitioned by three adjacent neighbors, among them, at that and subsequent periods, so greatly their superiors in strength, that no war for conquest, when the country was entered, took, place; but at this day, if we are to believe the newspapers, the people in parts of Poland are in a state of insurrection. The north of Italy was, during some ten centuries, almost constantly under foreign occupation, so powerful as to be overwhelming; but the people where not changed into Germans, Frenchmen, or Spaniards, when they sate on their necks in turn; they remained Italians, always discontented and revolting, and now seem, with the aid of foreign intervention, to have thrown off the yoke at last. Do we entertain our own blood so poor an opinion, as for a moment to suppose we could ever beat into the Union the people of the South?

The great powers of Europe are constantly fighting, but how often do they make conquest of one another, in Mr. Lincoln’s sense of taking, holding and keeping? Although it is observed that in a war for conquest, they would have the great advantage over us, of operating, not only with long organized armies, supplied with all the material of scientific war, but also in territory, dotted at every strategical point, with fortified places and strongholds, by means of which, when the conquest is made, the country can be held; while our armies, on the contrary, in this, so lately happy and peaceful land of ours, if the South were conquered, would have to keep it, not with soldiers at Dantzies and Magdeburgs, but lying in the fields and open towns. If the Southern country were handed over to us to-day, and we were permitted to put down so many men here, and so many there, at points selected for the purpose, by military skill, how long could we hold it?

When the Cabinet say to an officer, there is the enemy, take an army and operate against him, he obeys, whatever he may think of the chances of success; but that is not enough for the country, whose all is at stake. When the Government shall tell us that a military scheme has been submitted, not for a movement, which may prove useful, on the Potomac, the Cumberland, or the Mississippi, which, or any other such, can be made for the South, as well as for the North, and can only be a victory, more or less serving to keep up the price of public securities, and float the Administration for a certain number of days; but a comprehensive plan for the general subjugation of the Southern States, despite all opposition of the population of that part of the country, then, and not till then, the people of the North will begin to think possible, what they now deem out of the question.

We may not be right, we people of Pennsylvania, who have seen no enemy since Sir William Howe left us; but these are our opinions of the war now waging against our brethren of the South.

And if we be wrong, are not compromise and conciliation better than war? We have, among the powers of the world, one friend, the great head of the Russian Empire: and in the late note of his Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Representative of the Government of the Czar at Washington, on the Mason and Slidell difficulty, he is told to reiterate to the President “the assurance of…the satisfaction with which his Imperial Majesty would see the American Union consolidated by measures of conciliation.”

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