“I have never Served a President”

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It may well be supposed that President Lincoln suffered great anxiety during that eventful Sunday;but General Scott talked confidently of success, and Lincoln bore his impatience without any visible sign, and quietly went to church at eleven o’clock.Soon after noon copies of telegrams began to come to him at the Executive Mansion from the War Department and from army headquarters. They brought, however, no certain information, as they came only from the nearest station to the battlefield,and simply gave what the operator saw and heard. Towards three o’clock they became more frequent, and reported considerable fluctuation in the apparent course and progress of the cannonade.The President went to the office of General Scott,where he found the general asleep, and woke him to talk over the news. Scott said such reports were worth nothing as indications either way -that the changes in the currents of wind and the variation of the echoes made it impossible for a distant listener to determine the course of a battle.He still expressed his confidence in a successful result, and composed himself for another nap when the President left.

Dispatches continued to come about every ten or fifteen minutes, still based on hearing and hearsay;the rumors growing more cheering and definite.They reported that the battle had extended along nearly the whole line; that there had been considerable loss; but that the secession lines had been driven back two or three miles, some of the dispatches said, to the Junction. One of General Scott’s aides also brought the telegram of an engineer, repeating that McDowell had driven the enemy before him, that he had ordered the reserves to cross Bull Eun, and wanted reenf orcements without delay.

Quoted in John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 4 (New York: Century Co., 1917), p. 352.

A few days after the battle, in a conversation at the White House with several Illinois Members of Congress, in the presence of the President and the Secretary of War, Greneral Scott himself was so far nettled by the universal chagrin and fault-finding that he lost his temper and sought an entirely uncalled-for self-justification. “Sir, I am the greatest coward in America,” said he. “I will prove it. I have fought this battle, sir, against my judgment; I think the President of the United States ought to remove me to-day for doing it. As God is my judge, after my superiors had determined to fight it, I did all in my power to make the army efficient. I deserve removal because I did not stand up, when my army was not in a condition for fighting, and resist it to the last.”

The President said, “Your conversation seems to imply that I forced you to fight this battle.” General Scott then said, “I have never served a President who has been kinder to me than you have been.” Representative William A. Richardson, who in a complaining speech in Congress related the scene, then drew the inference that Scott intended to pay a personal compliment to Mr. Lincoln, but that he did not mean to exonerate the Cabinet; and when pressed by questions, further explained: “Let us have no misunderstanding about this matter. My colleagues understood that I gave the language as near as I could. Whether I have been correctly reported or not I do not know. If I did not then make the correct statement, let me do it now. I did not understand General Scott, nor did I mean so to be understood, as implying that the President had forced him to fight that battle.”

The incident illustrates how easily history may be perverted by-hot-blooded criticism. Scott’s irritation drove him to an inaccurate statement of events; Richardson’s partisanship warped Scott’s error to a still more unjustifiable deduction, and both reasoned from a changed condition of things. Two weeks before, Scott was confident of victory, and Richardson chafing at military inaction.

Quoted in John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 4 (New York: Century Co., 1917), p. 358.

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