Monday, December 15, 2008

"All Men of Decency Ought to Quit the Army"

In honor of finishing up my essay, "'All Men of Decency Ought to Quit the Army': Benjamin F. Buckner, Manhood, and Pro-Slavery Unionism in Kentucky," for The Register last night, I decided to post Ben's letter to Helen, his fiancee, from which I took my title. It also happens to be one of his most concise (but certainly not only) articulations of his opinions about the propriety of African Americans as soldiers and the actions of the Lincoln administration.

Bowling Green, Ky.
Feby. 1, 1863

My Dear Helen,

I received a very long and interesting letter from you yesterday evening, and as the mails have at last commenced coming with some regularity, I shall doubtless have the pleasure of hearing frequently and of writing to you as often. I cant tell you when I am coming home as that depends on Col Hansons stay. When he comes I am going home on leave for a while, and just as soon as we are paid off I am going to try General Wright with a resignation.
The papers come quite regularly and we are very much edified by reading the proceedings of the Congress upon the Negro Soldier bill. All men of decency ought to quit the army if that bill becomes a law.
What is to become of Kentucky it is impossible to tell. All is dark in her future. I am sick at heart with the prospect before us. We who are in the army feel that we have been grossly deceived by the President and the party in power and what to do is the question that disturbs us all. We are all opposed to secession, and believe that it is no remedy for any of the evils that beset us. At the same time, we are uncompromising in our opposition to the infamous and disgraceful measures originated by the President & his party. The fact [is] that the Army and the Country are brought into disrepute both at home and abroad by the adoption of measures totally unfit for the accomplishment of any useful purpose. ...
Col Hanson’s time is up in the 5 or 6 of this month. You must be sure and keep me posted up as to your whereabouts for I dont want to have to go all over the Country hunting you up like I did before. I am going to send this letter by Capt Williams of Mt. Sterling[.] He is on duty in the Provost Marshall’s office, and is going home to see his wife. I hope to get my resignation through Genl Wrights head quarters. We are in disputed jurisdiction Rosecrans and Wright both claim us and having tried Genl Rosecrans I intend to try the other.
I hope soon to see you at any rate and we can then arrange for the future.
Goodbye the train is whistling & I have no time to write further [at] this time.

Ever yours

Though he had first stated his intention to resign back in June of '62 because of preliminary anti-slavery measures, the threat of social contamination-by-association with blacks in the military was too much for him to bear. Standing in integrated ranks was no way to preserve the "decency," honor, community esteem, or whatever else you might call it that a young lawyer needed to successfully build a practice and win a sweetheart. Of course, even had he stayed in the army he would have likely never seen, associated with, or formed alongside African American soldiers. But the pollution to the institution of the army and the country were too great to risk personal miasma.

Interestingly, just like Gorgas in the (apparently firebrand of a) post from the other day, he seems to suggest that despite the radical step taken by the Republicans, the USCTs would still be "unfit for the accomplishment of any useful purpose" as soldiers. But numbers might disagree with Ben. 23,000 black Kentuckians did things like relieve white troops from garrison duty, allowing the Ben Buckner-less 20th KY to return to active service the field in the Summer of '63 and again in '64.


Wayne Fielder said...

Heh. Yeah, the USCTs certainly the paid a heavy price at places like Saltville as well.

Patrick Lewis said...

Certainly, Wayne, and thanks for that important note. Not only did the USCTs catch some inglorious behind-the-lines duties, they faced heightened dangers on the battlefield as well. Always glad to see Saltville mentioned, too. It tends to get lost in the Wagner-Crater-Pillow shuffle.