War I am fully aware is a dreadful thing. But when once we are compelled to resort to the unsheathing of the sword, it should be hard words and harder works. The more bloody, the more humane for it is sooner over with.”
One can easily imagine a grizzled veteran like Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman uttering these words with fierce determination. This sentiment however, flowed from the pen of a pragmatic citizen-soldier from New York City.
James E. McBeth was a modest young man of few words who in 1862 left his job as a law clerk on Wall Street and enlisted in the Union Army. Later, in a series of wartime letters to a friend, he detailed the experiences that sparked his transformation into a military zealot advocating total war.
At first, McBeth supported a moderate approach toward his Southern brethren. In the spring of 1862, as a private in the Fifth New York Infantry, he embarked with the Army of the Potomac on a campaign up the Virginia Peninsula and “On to Richmond.” The movement came to an abrupt halt when enemy forces blocked the way before Yorktown. The federal commander, George B. McClellan, opted for a formal siege, a decision that enraged critics of the infamously cautious general.Collection of the author
The siege ended a month later after the Confederates evacuated their defenses. In a letter dated May 5, 1862, McBeth dismissed newspaper reporters who condemned McClellan for allowing the enemy to escape. The press, he suggested, “ought rather to rejoice that we have gained so important a point without the sacrifice of Union blood, important it unquestionably is, in whatever way we gained it.”
And yet McBeth burned with a more primal urge. Anxious to test his courage in combat, to “see the elephant” in the period vernacular, he longed to fire his weapon in the heat of battle. Instead, he shouldered a shovel and built forts and gun emplacements. He noted with sarcasm that he and his comrades were no more than “general engineers to his Americanic Majesty U. Sam.” Meanwhile McClellan resumed the advance up the peninsula and avoided hostilities whenever possible. Weeks passed before McBeth received his baptism by fire.
The opportunity came on June 27 at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. McBeth recalled how, dressed in the regiment’s distinctive French Zouave-inspired red trousers, white leggings and tasseled fez, he and 450 of his comrades “gave battle to the enemy and fought them for nearly an hour charging upon them three times driving them back into the woods and cutting them up terribly, altho’ our regt suffered severely.”
About a third of the regiment was killed, wounded, captured or missing, but McBeth emerged from the fight uninjured. “My most earnest prayer was that I should have courage to fight & if need be die like a man and I am sure my prayer was answered for I hadn’t any fear whatever,” he wrote. “I was with the colors all the time as they lost five out of eight of the color guard. Our colors were completely riddled, yet our two color bearers escaped without hurt. I felt excited on the 27th yet cool. I loaded & fired my piece without any trouble till we were ordered off the field.”
Despite the success of the New Yorkers, the Confederates won the day, and, ultimately the overall series of engagements that came to be known as the Seven Days Battles. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac ended the Peninsula Campaign without taking Richmond.
McBeth soon left the Fifth and returned home to accept a lieutenancy in the newly formed 131st New York Infantry. The regiment reported to Louisiana for duty, and arrived in Baton Rouge in December 1862. The situation on the ground profoundly disturbed him. “There is a great lack of military caution and prudence on the part of those in command here,” McBeth observed in a lengthy letter in February 1863. “We have made no attempt to fortify the place, nor does there seem to be any intention to move us further on. I am convinced that were an attack here, as we now are, I may say not sufficiently prepared, by a much larger force than we have here, we would get most gloriously whipped.”
What concerned him most, however, was the Union Army’s lenient attitude toward Southern citizens. Men and women were allowed to roam freely about camp, provided they had a pass that could be obtained simply by signing an oath of allegiance to the United States. McBeth distrusted the locals, and believed most of them were rebel informants. “It is a mistaken and absurd policy to suppose that we can bring the Southern people back again to the Union by this Fatherly kindness and consideration,” he wrote. “The time has gone by since the Southern people loved the Union. There are doubtless some who would like to see the old flag floating again over the whole land but they are but a few. The majority are in earnest about this separation.”
The rebels have never been made to feel sufficiently the effects and consequences of this war. Instead of which, wherever our armies have gone, we have protected them in the full and peaceable enjoyment of their houses, property and all the comforts they had, going even so far, as is done at this place, to allow them the privilege to pass outside our lines and communicate all they know of us to their dear friends and fellow patriots.
In response, McBeth declared, the Union must pursue a policy of total war. “It is also absolutely necessary to make the people of the South feel the effects of the war,” he said. “Yes just as we would make a foreign nation feel it. Throw aside all this hackneyed talk and croaking about brothers and countrymen, this fear of hurting their feelings & c. & c. I wonder how much they treat us as brothers & c. or what the devil they care about our feelings. They care so very much that they would cut all our throats if they could attain their wishes by so doing. I set any man, who at this late day raises such objections to our purpose, cutting the war with vigor, down as a damn fool.”
That, however, required a cruel and determined general. “I don’t mean a man dressed up in military clothes, but a soldier, a Napoleon, for it will require such a one to deal with this rebellion,” he said. “If we can find such a one, it will be necessary to invest him with full directing powers.”
In the spring of 1864, more than a year after McBeth called for what amounted to total war, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant lieutenant general and overall commander of federal forces. McBeth immediately recognized Grant as the genius he’d been waiting for. “He is the only one on our side in this war that has practically shown the qualities of a soldier,” he said. “He possesses one quality which will ever ensure success, and that is a bull dog pertinacity and perseverance which renders him ignorant of the fact that he is ever whipped.”
Grant fought the war described by McBeth. The general in chief left a horrific trail of casualties that stunned a weary nation, and kept on fighting until the Confederate Army was neutralized and the Southern people conquered.
McBeth lived to see the end of the war, but not long afterward. Heart disease resulted in his death in 1870 at about age 30. His wife, whom he married in 1865, and two young daughters survived him.
Sources: James E. McBeth Letters, The New-York Historical Society; James E. McBeth military service record, National Archives and Records Service; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Alfred Davenport, “Camp and Field Life of the Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry”; Daily Picayune (New Orleans), Aug. 21, 1870.