Red Tape, North and South, in the Civil War

        It is the complaint of soldiers and civilians alike that every war is cursed by red tape. The Civil War was no exception; indeed, in some respects, it was the worst administered of all American wars.
        Samuel Fiske--or Dunn Browne as he was known--was a Massachusetts clergyman who enlisted in the 14th Connecticut Volunteers, became a caprain, fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, spent two weeks in Libby prison, was exchanged, and killed in the Wilderness. During the war he contributed a series of letters to the Springfield Republican; these were published posthumously as Dunn Brownes Experiences in the Army. It is interesting to note that Randolph Shotwells complaints about red-tapism in the Confederacy parallel those of Samuel Fiske.

DUNN BROWNE HAS TROUBLE WITH THE WAR DEPARTMENT

        Judge of this other case I will relate: about a fair specimen of my experience. An errand at the adjutant-generals office. Went up at ten oclock. Found a fat doorkeeper. Asked him if I could see any of the assistant adjutant-generals or their clerks. No: couldnt see anybody on business till eleven oclock. Departed. Came back at eleven. Found a long string of people passing in slowly to one of the rooms. Took my turn. Got a word at last with the clerk. Found it wasnt his specialty to answer questions of the sort I asked him. Was referred by him to another clerk who perhaps could. Went to another room. Stopped by a doorkeeper. Ar last, permitted to enter, after some other people had come out. Stated my case to the clerk at the desk:
        "Pay of certain officers of my regiment stopped by order from your office near four months since. No reason assigned. No notice given. Come to you for reason.
        "Why dont you send up your request through the proper military channels, sir?"
        "Request was so sent up eight weeks ago, enclosing a precise copy of the order issued from your own office to the paymaster. Instead of looking in your own office to find the reason of your own order, you sent our request over to the paymaster-general, asking him why the order was issued. He sent it back indorsed with the statement, that no such order of stoppage was recorded in the pay.~departme1it. This you sent back to us 'through the regular channel as eminently satisfactory. So it would be, only the paymaster, having your positive order not to pay us, and no order countermanding it, refuses to come down with the greenbacks. Another paper came up to you from us several weeks ago, and has not been heard from. This is the progress of eight weeks through the regular channel."
        "Why dont you ask the paymaster to find out about the matter?"
        "We have done so. He says he has been repeatedly to your office, which, of course, is the only place where information can be obtained, and is unable to get any satisfactory reply."
    "Why dont you go to the ordnance and quartermasters departments, and see if your accounts are all right there?"
        "We have done so, and find it a reasonable certainty that no stoppages against us have been ordered there. Moreover, they would not stop through your department. The order came from you. You had a precise copy of it sent you with our application. Where could we apply for information as to the reason of your acts save to you?"
"Very well: we'll try to look it up."
        "But, sir, if you would let a clerk look at your orders of that date, and answer us to-day, we can perhaps get our pay; otherwise we shall not have access to the paymaster again for two or three months."
        The clerk, utterly disgusted at such pertinacity, dismisses us with an appointment to call again at two oclock. He will see what he can do for us. Call again at two oclock. Doorkeeper refuses to let us in. No person seen on business after two oclock. Finally work our way through with the plea of the special appointment. Find, of course, that nothing has been done. "What shall be our next course?"
        "Oh! send up another paper through the regular channel."
[SAMUEL FISKE], Mr. Dunn Brownes Experiences in the Army

A CONFEDERATE LIEUTENANT COMPLAINS THAT RED-TAPEISM WILL LOSE THE WAR

        Red Tapeism at Richmond threatens to work our everlasting ruin! Some of our junior officers say that anyone under the rank of Brigadier-General can rarely gain so much as access to the Departments, and even the Brigadiers got but little attention if they happen to be out of favor with the "parlour Cabinet" at the Executive Mansion. The President now has six aides, ranking as colonels, and decked in all the bravery of gold lace, and feathers, to someone of whom the "commoner, or common soldier" must make the "grande salaam," and have his plea for audience first "vised" by the popinjay before he may approach the "magic circle" within which is his Supreme Excellency--"clothed with the divinity which doth hedge" a "servant of the people."
      All members of this noble Court are beginning to "feel their dignity" in the same manner. Secretary of the Treasury Memminger, (said to be a born Hessian) whose chief duties consist in writing his autograph upon unlimited quantities of half-worthless "bank-notes" "so-called," has adopted a set of rules governing all applicants for permission to interview his Royalty. A favorite clerk named Jacques ---- is posted in the ante-chamber to scrutinize all callers, and vise the talismanic bit of cardboard which shall be your "Open Sesame," to audience with his secretaryship. Some gentlemen are not willing to be catechized by Jacques as to their business, wishes, etc., consequently retire enraged at the Royal customs of our not too firmly established Republic.
      Oh! that Mr. Davis could see and realize, the fallacy of undermining our cause by wearying the people with red tape regulations, and nice points of etiquette, instead of showing common fraternity and sympathy with one and all, the poorest and most tiresome citizen as well as the epauletted Major General.
        General Winder rules Richmond like a military Camp; nay, not like a well-disciplined camp, for his rule gives annoyance merely to honest men and faithful soldiers, while permitting the city to be over-run by rogues, spies, speculators, foreigners, blockade runners, and fellows of that ilk. His police force is mainly composed of ex-"Plugs" and "Roughs" from Baltimore and Washington, who care little for the cause, and less for honesty, so that it is a matter of common notoriety that any one who has a hundred or two hundred in greenbacks, or a less sum in specie, can not only travel over the whole South--spying out the weakness of the land--but pass through the "underground road" to the North whenever so minded.
        Whereas veteran soldiers--armed with furlough, or special order from their general--must lose a day or two--at their own expense--kicking their heels at the doors of the Pass Port Bureau, awaiting the convenience of some dandified clerk within. Is it any wonder that the veteran grows soured, and in telling his family, or his comrades in camp how he had been treated sows the seeds for discontent, and ultimate desertion?
        How sad to see the enthusiasm and energies of a great people gradually relaxing under the ill-shaped, negligent, insensate policy of the appointed agents for the administration of the government!
        I verily believe if we shall ultimately fail in our efforts to secure independence (which God forbid!) the causes of such failure will be found in the fact that all our great military and civil leaders have become infatuated with the idea that success is assured, and that they can conduct the war as if we were an old established nation, or as France and England would conduct it. They do not seem at all aware that if once the spirit and faith of the people is broken all will be lost.
        Instances of mismanagement by the Red Tape-ists are coming to light by every mail. The great "Flour Contract" of Secretary Randolph, giving Crenshaw, Haxall, and Company, an exclusive monopoly of the flour furnishing business is causing much comment. Aside from the reports of undue influences in the execution of the original contract, it is evident that the monopoly thus created is working injury to the people. Flour is now $40, a barrel in Richmond, and cornmeal $3.50 a bushel, and no doubt these prices will be considered cheap before spring.
        "Crenshaw Mills," by the terms of the contract are allowed the preference in the use of the railways in the shipment of grain, so that while the depots are full of goods and flour only $8.00 per barrel in the upper valley, the people of Richmond must pay four times that amount or starve!
        The Government seems to have less discretion and good judgment than would be found in "an old field school" debating society. Thus, for instance, when we lay at Manassas and Centreville last year, and could easily have drawn supplies from the rich regions of Loudon, Farquier, Warren, and from the valley, via the Manassas and Strasburg Railroad--all our rations and stock-provender was hauled all the way from Richmond--to which it must first have been hauled--merely because Red-Tapeism had its "system" and wanted a "regular issue," and to have things done "through proper channels," and as the result the fine resources of the region referred to, were left untouched to be gathered by the marauders of Pope, Fremont, Banks and Sigel, while that portion of Virginia which should have been reserved to feed the besieged city nine months later, was drained of its provisions to ship to an army surrounded by adjacent supplies! ...
        I havent a doubt of Mr. Davis patriotism, or his intention to do right, but he is dreadfully mistaken in his selection of Cabinet officers, and in his whole civil policy of administration.... I am more and more convinced that our chief chance of success lies in a short, sharp, aggressive warfare.
SHOTWELL, "Three Years in Battle"
Source: "The Blue and The Gray" by Henry Steele Commanger

This Page last updated 01/17/04

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