Hyde at Spotsylvania and Fessenden in the Cabinet
Thomas W. Hyde, of the Bowdoin class of 1861 was among the
members of the reorganized Army of the Potomac, ready to spring forth
against Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in May of
1864. Hyde served as a staff officer to General John Sedgwick, commander
of the Sixth Army Corps. May 4, 1864 was an early morning for the young
Mainer. Awakened before three a.m., Hyde drank coffee and poured water
on his head. After that he was ready to go.
Grant's columns crossed the Rapidan River in Northern Virginia
at numerous points- Hyde probably crossed with the rest of the Sixth Corps
at Germanna Ford. The Union troops were not resisted at any of their crossings.
This seemingly good luck, however, would not hold out for long since the
army was now stuck in the underbrush of The Wilderness- a 72 square mile
stretch of secondary growth woods filled with shrubs and impassable thickets.
Grant had no choice but to stay in The Wilderness until
his supply trains could catch up with him. It was here, in the thickets,
that Lee struck him on May 5th. Of the Battle, Hyde remembered, "I
had dismounted to fix my horse's bit, when a canon-ball took off the head
of a Jerseyman; the head struck me and I was knocked down, covered with
brains and blood."
One of the crucial moments of the Battle was on the evening
of the second day's fight when Confederate General John Gordon led a flanking
attack against the Sixth Corp's line. Hyde was sent down to rally some
troops with other staff members but the strength of Gordon's attack was
such that nothing could hold the men from retreating.
The carnage of the Wilderness was topped off by the fact
that hundreds of wounded soldiers from both sides, who were unable to
move, were burnt alive in the fires that erupted from the dry underbrush.
In the end the casualties of the Battle of the Wilderness reached around
17,000 for the Federals and 7,500 for the Confederates.
This horror, however, would continue as Grant continued
southward, trying to find open ground where he could utilize his superior
numbers. Near the town of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Grant's army dug in
to face Lee's new line of defense. In the early stages of this prolonged
battle the Sixth Corps was brought up to hold the line around Laurel Hill.
Hyde, by this time, the 9th of May, was near exhaustion.
Still, he remembered that day, for it was a day that no one who loved
John Sedgwick could forget. When the corps commander approached a gun
crew and found many of its men lying down, hiding from whizzing bullets,
he laughed. "They couldn't hit an elephant from here," Sedgwick
said, trying to inspire his men. The effect, however, was quite the opposite
when a sharpshooter's bullet slammed into the general's face, below his
left eye. He was dead within minutes.
On both sides there was mourning for the fallen commander.
The greatest sorrow of all, however, must have come from the men who were
closest to Sedgwick- his staff officers. In the days to come there would
be bloodier events that overshadowed the death of one man.
In the United States Senate, William Pitt Fessenden, of
the Bowdoin class of 1823 also felt the heavy hand of war. Two years earlier,
one of his sons, Sam Fessenden, Bowdoin class of 1861, had been killed
at Second Bull Run. Now, in 1864 another of his sons, Frank, had been
wounded in the Red River Campaign. In the end Frank Fessenden's leg had
to be amputated.
Thus, with his family falling apart, William Fessenden returned
to the Senate knowing that his career was also falling into ruin. Once
friends, Fessenden and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had recently
become ideological enemies. The influential Massachusetts man planned
to get rid of Fessenden by using his power to block the re-nomination
of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, in the hopes that Hamlin would
then run for Fessenden's Senate seat and win, forcing Fessenden to retire.
The winds of fate, however, had other plans for Senator Fessenden. That same year Secretary of the Treasury Chase clashed with President Lincoln. In the aftermath, Chase offered his resignation as a gesture, believing that it would not be accepted. To his surprise, the president signed off on it and out went Chase. In his place Lincoln wanted to place David Tod of Ohio.
When Tod declined, however, Lincoln nominated Fessenden
as the new Secretary of the Treasury. The senator was confirmed for the
post in less than two minutes. But Fessenden vigorously protested the
appointment. He sent in a letter declining the position but Lincoln refused
it. When Fessenden spoke of his failing health Lincoln brushed the notion
aside. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom Fessenden turned for advice,
told him simply, "you cannot die better than in trying to save your
country." Pressure from banks and other financial institutes also
mounted as representatives of these organizations informed Fessenden that
he had no choice but to serve, lest he be responsible for a financial
crisis. From the head of the New York Clearing House a telegram declared,
"For your country's sake I beg you to accept the charge; your nomination
is universally approved."
Fessenden, who was the chair of the Senate Finance Committee,
knew all too well that the state of the economy was not great. Eventually
he agreed to the job with the guarantee that he would have complete control
over who served in the Department.
As Fessenden entered into his new position the financial
situation looked was not encouraging. Even though stocks rose when news
of his appointment reached the traders the new Secretary of the Treasury
presided over a government arm, which needed to raise eight-hundred-million
dollars in the next year while trying to handle the national debt, which
had risen to well above one billion dollars.
Next Time: The Horror of War and Secretary Fessenden.
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