Fessenden & Hyde
In the Union trenches around Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia,
members of the Sixth Army Corps mourned the passing of their beloved commander,
General John Sedgwick, who was recently killed by a sniper's bullet. Thomas
Hyde, a graduate of Bowdoin College and, at the time, a staff officer,
mourned with his friends. Despite this general sadness, the Civil War
continued, and the time for grieving soon passed. Under the direction
of the Sixth Corps' new commander, General Horatio G. Wright, Hyde continued
to serve as a staff member for headquarters.
Since the beginning of May 1864, Ulysses Grant had been
hammering, the Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee's Confederate
Army of Northern Virginia in one continuous struggle to gain an advantage
over Lee's stubborn troops. After some intense fighting and strategic
maneuvering, the armies met again at Spotsylvania Courthouse, where Lee
dug in. While piecemeal fighting went on for days, the main thrust of
the Battle of Spotsylvania came on May 12. The initial federal assault
was successful. When both sides brought in reinforcements, however, the
horror of the Battle finally showed itself.
The Sixth Corps had been ordered up to hold the ground around
"the bloody angle." For twenty-two hours in pouring rain, the
Northern and Southern armies collided violently with one other. Hyde later
recalled that day:
Its memories are of bloodshed surpassing all former experiences,
a desperation in the struggle never before witnessed, of mad rushes, and
of as sudden repulses, of guns raised in the air with the butts up and
fired over log walls, of our flags in shreds, and at the short intervals
which show what small regiments are left.
Perhaps one of Hyde's most haunting memories of that battle
is when he ordered an artillery section to go and help some infantrymen.
He remembered how the gunners went as ordered, crossing over a crest.
But there was no firing from the guns. Hyde did not learn the reason for
this until the following morning when he found the battery's crew, along
with all their horses, dead.
The fight on May 12 was one of the worst in American history.
Rain kept pouring down as the two sides engaged in hand to hand combat.
As Hyde surveyed the damage the following morning, he came across places
where wounded and dead rebels were laying, sometimes four bodies deep
in blood and water. When Hyde tried to rescue a rebel officer from a tangled
mass of muddy bodies, the man refused his aid by saying, "You have
conquered; now I die."
Despite the carnage, Lee did not retreat. He merely redrew
his line of earthworks, which signaled that the fight was not over yet.
More terrible things were to follow that summer.
However, just a few weeks later in Washington D.C., another
Bowdoin graduate was fighting the Civil War in his own way. William Pitt
Fessenden was named Lincoln's new Secretary of the Treasury. Fessenden
assumed command of the office on July 5, 1864. The nation's economic situation
was not good. The national debt was inching closer to two billion dollars.
An estimated eight hundred million dollars was required by the next year,
but the government's projected income was only three hundred million dollars.
Additionally, it took three million dollars daily to run the War, and
the army and navy had not been paid in months.
Before accepting his post in Lincoln's cabinet, Fessenden
had already been working a grueling fourteen-hour workday. Now with the
Union in financial crisis, he would need to rely even more on his strength.
Knowing that his failing health was an impediment, Fessenden reasoned
I do not feel like complaining when I think of Frank's [his
son] amputated limb, or the many thousands of glorious fellows who bear
wounds and suffer patiently and cheerfully because their country demands
the sacrifice. All I can do and bear is trifling in comparison.
What Fessenden was doing, however, was far from "trifling
in comparison." The Secretary began his tenure by suspending the
issuance of currency. The halt in production of paper money helped to
curb currency inflation. The Secretary kept a lid on the production of
currency until the end of his tenure.
The "seven-thirty" loans were, however, not so
successful when they were being sold to civilians. Fessenden's loan package
did not catch on. Entering into an alliance with Philadelphia banker Jay
Cooke, Fessenden tried selling his "seven-thirty" loans once
again. With Cooke's expertise and aid, the loans finally began to yield
money for the treasury. This sucess, of course, was also due to military
victories in the field at crucial moments, alongside with Lincoln's reelection.
Looking back at Fessenden's brief tenure in the Treasury
Department, the Secretary's biographer, Charles Jellison, noted that his
performance "had been in no way spectacular." Fessenden, Jellison
argued, stuck mostly to his predecessor's policies in many ways. Still,
the Bowdoin graduate held the nation's finances together during a difficult
period. He had been instrumental in the functioning of the Northern war
effort, had helped rid the Treasury Department of corrupt officials, and
had also been responsible for petty office tasks, such as being responsible
for the sale of confiscated cotton from the South.
As William Pitt Fessenden stepped down from the Lincoln
cabinet in the early days of 1865, he left knowing he did all that was
asked of him. As he returned to the Senate, there was no way Fessenden
could have forseen the trials that the nation would soon face following
the death of Abraham Lincoln.
Next Time: Hyde's Last Campaign.
Some editing (by the Orient staff) may have occurred before
this piece was published. To view a full version of the entire series
(including source citations) please visit my website. (This site includes
the Chamberlain and Howard Series and is updated weekly during the school
year) at: http://www.bowdoin.edu/~kwongsri
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