Fessenden and Hyde
March 1862. The Union Army of the Potomac under the command
of General George McClellan set off for the York-James Peninsula to advance
against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. In this army was
young Major Thomas W. Hyde of the Bowdoin class of 1861. His regiment
was the Seventh Maine, a part of the Sixth Army Corps. An enthusiastic
supporter of the War, Hyde had volunteered early on but had seen no action.
It was on the Peninsula that Hyde first came into contact
with rebel troops. At Yorktown, his men skirmished with the enemy defenders.
"I saw my first man killed that day," Hyde later wrote about
his adventures in front of Yorktown, "a shell cut him in two. I think
he was the first man killed in the Army of the Potomac-Joe Pepper, of
Bath. He used to work for us at home, and when I went out to help bury
him that night and took his wife's picture from his bloody pocket, for
a moment I would have given all I had in the world to get out of the army;
the horror of it was so cruel."
George McClellan set down to put Yorktown under siege. At
the time, the city was defended by a mere ten thousand men, but the Union
commander did not know that. McClellan kept guessing the true Confederate
strength till the rebels pulled out of Yorktown on their own. The armies
met again at the town of Williamsburg.
The Seventh Maine along with other elements of a force commanded
by General Winfield Hancock, moved towards the left of the rebel line
and finding it unoccupied, advanced towards the exposed Confederate flank.
The Confederates slowly became aware of their exposed flank and sent troops
to fight off the threat. The Seventh Maine was ordered to lie flat on
the ground, and thus it was concealed as the rebels collided with elements
of two other Union regiments. As the Union troops fell back and the rebels
came forward across the Seventh's front, General Hancock signaled for
the Maine men to charge. Hyde followed his regiment as it went forward.
He later wrote that, "the foe
seemed to dissolve all at once
into a quivering and disintegrating mass and to scatter in all directions.
Upon this we halted and opened fire, and the view of it through the smoke
was pitiful. They were falling everywhere; white handkerchiefs were held
up in token of surrender."
"I went over the field," Hyde recalled, "and
tried to harden myself to the sights of horror and agony. One gets accustomed
to such things, just as doctors get accustomed to the dissecting table
That night as the men bedded down, "beside their dim watch-fires
murmurs of hushed conversation arose, and the phosphorescent flow on the
faces of the dead in the fields beyond became more weird as the night
As the rebels retreated to Richmond the Union army followed.
McClellan was still overly cautious even though he had scored a victory
at the Battle of Fair Oaks. When the rebel army's commander was wounded,
Virginian Robert E. Lee was put in his place.
The Union army would not stay long in front of Richmond
for Lee counter-punched McClellan's superior forces until the Union general
went trembling back down the Peninsula to his new base on the James River.
The Union advance had halted. The initiative was now all
Lee's, for McClellan was stuck in the mud, crying for more troops.
Earlier that year, smaller defeats in other theaters of
the War had caused concern for the future of the nation. William Pitt
Fessenden, himself a Bowdoin graduate (18 years before Hyde was even born)
was by now a senior Republican senator who was in control of the powerful
Senate Finance Committee. To him fell the task of funding the entire war,
and, thus, he had reason to be unhappy with the military's lack of progress.
Fessenden was thus more than happy to lend his support to the founding
of the Committee on the Conduct of the War.
With three of his sons (all Bowdoin graduates, the youngest
being Sam Fessenden, who was a classmate of Thomas Hyde's) in the armed
forces, Fessenden also felt a need to see to it that the War was being
run by someone who knew what he was doing. He interviewed Lincoln's second
Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, before he approved of him as a replacement
for the incompetent Simon Cameron.
It was also during this time that the purpose of the War
itself came under discussion in Washington. Fessenden was beginning to
have ideological disagreements with some of the more radical members of
the Republican Party who believed the War should only be about the abolition
of slavery. For Fessenden, it was still about preserving the Union and
staying strictly within the bounds of the Constitution.
On the Senate floor, Fessenden supported the Internal Revenue
Bill, which increased taxes on a number of items. The funding of the War
was his top priority as he stated early in 1862. "My great anxiety
now is about money
A few months will, I fear, see the country bankrupt
Fessenden worked hard as Chairman of the Senate Finance
Committee and soon after Congress closed its doors for recess, the senator
sat back to watch the military situation unfold. "I have no confidence
in McClellan," he confided and later, after the failure of the Peninsula
Campaign was evident, "Richmond could have been taken in three weeks
from the time he landed. His caution, however, amounts to timidity and
has well nigh ruined one of the noblest armies in the world."
But there was another fight coming, and this time it would
involve another Union army in the lead role. Its adversary was of course
Robert E. Lee and, as the nation braced for the new surge of Confederate
arms and confidence, William Pitt Fessenden must have shivered for perhaps
he was aware that something catastrophic was in the air.
Next Time: Death at Bull Run
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