Monday, December 16, 2019

The winter before the war in Washington: The Civil War era recollections of Henry Laurens Dawes

Henry Laurens Dawes

This paper was presented to the Club by Henry Laurens Dawes on Monday evening, November 22, 1886, at a meeting of the Club he hosted at his home in Pittsfield, Dawes presented this paper about events in Washington, D.C. between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November, 1860 and his inauguration in March, 1861. 

Dawes (1816-1903) was a founding member of the Monday Evening Club in 1869 and remained a member until his death, hosting and presenting papers often.

As Dawes notes in the paper itself, “some of the incidents of those days [were] not recorded in the history of the time and … will soon be beyond recall if left alone to the memory of contemporaries and participants.” In this paper Dawes presents many details that only an eyewitness and participant could know.

According to notes on the manuscript, Dawes later presented this paper to the Wednesday Morning Club[1] (also of Pittsfield) on November 28, 1886; to the Social Senior Club of Ware, Mass. on November 20, 1888, and at a public meeting at South Congregational Church in Pittsfield on Saturday, May 10, 1890.

Judging by the manuscript (a copy which was obtained from the National Archives where the original is among its holdings of Dawes’s papers), for these subsequent presentations, Dawes made small edits and appears to have inserted some new passages. In transcribing the paper, we have generally included these changes, but have retained some passages that Dawes bracketed —‘ he appears to have intended to skip over for brevity. In other instances Dawes made changes for modesty — for example, changing “I” to “one of the committee” or the like. In those cases we’ve generally retained the original first person version. Because of these changes and interpolations made over time this final version differs somewhat from the original presentation to the Monday Evening Club.

The first half of this paper was published, under the same title, in the Atlantic Monthly of August, 1893. The text of that article very closely follows the manuscript text we have used here. A small portion of this article has been used here to fill in a gap where one or two pages of the original manuscript are missing. The second half is published here for the first time.

For the reader’s convenience we have added a few subheadlines not found in the original manuscript. For some events, dates have been added in brackets to help illuminate the timeline. A few spelling corrections and punctuation and capitalization changes have been made for clarity.

Thanks to Megan Hoffenberg for her transcription of the manuscript.

Looking back over the graves of more than a million brave men who, on the one side or the other, laid down their lives in the struggle for mastery which began at Washington in the winter of 1860-61, the recollection of the flippancy and air of lightness and almost sportiveness with which it was entered upon fills me with a shiver of amazement. How great things were trifled with as if they were playthings and great stakes were played for as boys play for pennies, no one could now, in the lurid light of subsequent events, ever be made to believe, had not his own eyes been the witness. Much that happened would have been impossible but for the impenetrable veil which shut out the future. What seemed to us before whose eyes they were enacted as absurdities, arrant nonsense, and which it is difficult to recall after thirty-five years, with a sober face, were in truth the beginnings of Andersonville and Gettysburg and the assasination of Lincoln. I sometimes think it almost wicked to hold up their ludicrous side to public gaze, in the light of such a terrible realization. It is with no purpose to belittle the great events, the beginnings of which I saw that winter, that I venture, for your entertainment if not instruction, to present some of the incidents of those days not recorded in the history of the time and which will soon be beyond recall if left alone to the memory of contemporaries and participants.