Cowardice of Unbridled Ambition? Part 2

Some readers may find the first reported incident of Lt. Col. David Clendenin’s cowardice confusing, because the 8th Illinois, attached to Col. ‘Grimes’ Davis’s brigade, had accompanied Stoneman on his raid. So how had the regiment been in position to fire on Stoneman’s troopers when they returned to Union lines on May 8?

Colonel Davis’s brigade had been temporarily detached from General Pleasonton’s division and attached to Brig. Gen. William Averell’s division for the raid. Though Averell, and especially the 8th Illinois, had been very active during the initial long delay forced by the flooded Rappahannock River, Averell had, in the eyes of his critics, done little once the raiders crossed the river. Sent out toward Culpepper, he never re-joined Stoneman’s main force. Instead, he re-crossed the Rappahannock River on May 4 and returned to the defeated army. General Joseph Hooker, commanding the army, relieved Averell immediately. Maj. William Medill, 8th Illinois, loudly denounced Averell’s apparent timidity. “My opinion is that Gen. Averell is as much to blame as anyone… Through cowardice or something else he failed to join Stoneman…and by this means the supposition was that Stoneman had failed.” Medill accused Averell of being afraid to engage a smaller force and claimed to have heard Stoneman say, “that Gen. Averell should be shot for not joining him.” Warming to his subject, Medill later termed Averell “a dirty coward… or a traitor” who had been frightened into retreating by a close encounter with “a small party of rebels.”

In fairness to Averell, he may have been caught in a confusion of orders from Stoneman and Hooker, but Hooker wanted aggression from his cavalry and Averell’s performance had been uninspired.  Having returned with Averell and ahead of Stoneman’s main force, the 8th Illinois was in position to have fired on Stoneman’s men on May 8. As Major Medill noted in his journal on May 7, “Headquarters at Mt. Holly Church, ½ mile from Kelly’s Ford. Rifle pits all complete.” Medill also notes Stoneman’s arrival at the ford, but he makes no mention of the incident cited in Clendenin’s court-martial.

None of the officers who filed reports for the raid mention the incident either. Nor does Dr. Abner Hard, the regimental surgeon and historian, though he does confirm Medill’s account of the men digging and manning rifle-pits at Kelly’s Ford, Norman’s Ford, and at Rappahannock Station. However, John Bigelow, in his account of the campaign, describes an incident on May 7, in which Stoneman sent Lt. Edwin Sumner, Jr., to alert Union pickets along the river of the column’s arrival. Pursued and under fire from enemy troopers, Sumner spurred his horse into the flooded river at Kelly’s Ford. Bigelow credited an unidentified Union picket force along the river with distracting the enemy long enough for Sumner to reach safety. Had these unnamed Federal pickets been Clendenin’s men?

Beyond this incident, firing at men “about a mile away” with cavalry carbines strikes me as a bit absurd, when the weapons had an effective range of but a few hundred yards. “About a mile” is also a long way from the 80-100 rods mentioned by Clendenin – 100 rods converts to 1,650 feet, or 550 yards, or about one third of a mile. Had the complaining officers deliberately exaggerated the event?

In the absence of several senior officers, the 8th Illinois entered the fight at Brandy Station led by Capt. Alpheus Clark. As senior captain, Clark had been promoted to major to date from May 24 but had not yet been mustered as such. Wounded early in the fight (a minor wound that ultimately proved fatal), Clark was succeeded by several other captains before the fighting closed.

When healthy, Col. William Gamble took command of the brigade, but he remained troubled by a wound received the previous year. Having returned to the army too soon, he had been forced to take additional medical leave. The absence of the next several senior officers has seldom, if ever, been explained. Now, due to the testimony given during Clendenin’s court-martial, we know why both he and Major Beveridge were not in command on the morning of June 9. Because Beveridge went to the hospital along with the wounded from the fight, his name often appears on lists of the wounded, but he had ceded command to Captain Clark due to a painful boil on his thigh. Beveridge had not recovered in time to participate in the fight at Upperville.

Clendenin’s statements regarding the regiment’s fight at Upperville are hard to reconcile with my understanding of how the fight developed and are almost entirely unsupported by the accounts I have located. In fact, little of the testimony clarified the brief but confusing affair along Trappe Road.

Majors Beveridge and Medill both stood to gain if Clendenin had been found guilty and dismissed. William Medill had been in the newspaper business since he was 13. The Civil War found him, along with his brother Joseph, working for the Chicago Tribune. Their association with the paper helped to ensure the regiment received steady positive coverage during the war. Letters from soldiers in the regiment appeared regularly in the Tribune. Medill received very favorable mention in the letters written just after the fight at Upperville, and a cynic might think Medill had assisted in writing some of the letters.

Medill did not testify at the trial as he had been mortally wounded on July 6, during a skirmish near Williamsport. He died ten days later. He had however, left some valuable information regarding the case against Clendenin in his letters and journals. In May, Medill mentioned the theft of $50 that had been left in Clendenin’s desk, while Medill had been absent. The major does not appear, however, to hold Clendenin responsible. Medill returned in time to accompany the regiment on a raid through the Northern Neck of Virginia. In a letter written shortly after he returned, Medill seemed to have enjoyed the raid and he singled out Clendenin as deserving of praise. But he later wrote, “I am very sorry this raid ever occurred. Disgusted.” Had their relationship already begun to sour? Had the theft of the money caused a rift between the men?

Two days after Upperville, Medill described the fight along the Trappe Road as being “by far more severe and fierce than the fight at Beverly Ford. I never saw anything like it, and so say all.” But Medill had not been at Brandy Station. He had, however, directed much of the fight at Trappe Road. So, was he trying to boost his own accomplishments? He also praised his men, stating, “None floundered or showed the white feather with one exception (emphasis is Medill’s). Later, in the same account, Medill explained, “I have spoken of having command all through. Lt. Col. Clendenin had his horse slightly hurt in the beginning of the skirmishing, and he failed to come on the field though he rode his horse all the time during the engagement. It has been the impression in the regiment for some time that he is a coward. Now it is confirmed.”

The nature of the wound/s received by Clendenin’s horse in the fight became a matter of some debate during his trial. A description of the incident written by a soldier, and published in the Tribune, took on new meaning for me after I read Georgiann Baldino’s 2018 book, A Family and Nation under Fire, The Civil War Letters and Journals of William and Joseph Medill.

I had seen the soldier’s letter many years ago without noting an editorial addition made following Medill’s death. The soldier wrote on June 23, “Col. Gamble’s horse was killed under him by a piece of shell, pitching the colonel headlong to the ground. Clendenin’s horse was struck and somewhat (emphasis my own) wounded, and he retired from the fight. Major Medill then took command.” This version appeared in the Tribune of June 30.

Six days after Medill’s death, the editors of the paper re-printed the letter and added an editorial note. The section then read, “Col. Gamble’s horse was killed under him by a piece of shell, pitching the colonel headlong to the ground. (He mounted another, returned to the field, and continued to command his brigade until the battle was over – Ed. Trib.) Clendenin’s horse was struck and somewhatwounded, and he retired from the fight. Major Medill then took command.” Compare these comments with Medill’s words cited above. Though he did not live to testify, the major left no doubt as to where he stood regarding Clendenin’s behavior at Upperville. Writing to his brother at the Tribune ensured that his condemnation would be heard. I only appreciated the significance of the editor’s comment after learning of the court-martial and reading the court transcript.

Likewise, though Medill himself said he missed the fight at Brandy Station due to illness, the editors of the Tribune also amended an article from one of their correspondents regarding the June 9 battle. At the point where the reporter explains the succession of regimental commanders during the fight, the editor inserted, “(Major Medill was on detached duty at headquarters.)” Left alone, the addition raises the question as to why he was not released to take command. Possibly anticipating the question, the editors made another insertion later in the same article. When the reporter referred to the early days of the regiment in 1861 and to Medill as a captain at the time, the editor inserted, “(now Major, and at present on the staff of the corps commander, and down with an attack of fever.)” The man making these editorial changes was almost certainly, William’s brother, Joseph.

Interestingly, in the same Brandy Station account, the author erroneously said of Clendenin, “Before the retrograde movement commenced, Col. Clendenin…came up and took command of his regiment, he having been sick when the regiment left, and hurried to the front at the first prospect of an engagement, like a true Illinoisan, being unwilling to be absent from his command in battle.”

In his post-Upperville accounts, Medill denounces the other senior officers in the regiment. He termed Colonel Gamble’s drinking as “becoming notorious.” He claimed Major Beveridge had “never been under fire, and there are many who think he doesn’t intend to get hurt.” Medill spoke of near constant quarreling among the senior officers and said he had spoken to Pleasonton regarding the matter. Medill needed a change and told his brother, “I have the blues about half the time.” In his journal entry for June 25, Medill wrote, “Col. Clendenin was ordered to the rear. Officers had a meeting and expressed a want of confidence in him.” But the identity of the officers who attended the meeting remains a mystery.

Medill strikes me as a complicated man and difficult to understand at this remove. He had no qualms about calling officers cowards, as he had labeled Averell and Clendenin. And, in a letter written in March to his sister, Medill had termed Gen. David Gregg a coward. Gregg, he wrote, “is made a brigadier for gallant and meritorious conduct at Fair Oaks, when he and his regiment were not near that fight. He is a coward, and I have always thought him to be a traitor. His talk would indicate that, and his officers are full of it. His regiment [the 8th Pennsylvania] certainly is the poorest in the army, but [he] was a regular and McClellan recommended him.” One could not damn a soldier more severely or permanently than to label him a coward or a traitor.

Though a strong Republican, Medill had been an early supporter of George McClellan. However, once the Army of the Potomac reached the Peninsula, Medill quickly found himself politically and militarily opposed to the army commander, repeatedly referring to him a ditch digger. Disgusted, the younger officer often spoke of leaving the Army of the Potomac. And, though he privately spoke of McClellan as a traitor (he also termed his advisers traitors), he did not care to see him denigrated in the press, as he believed it injured the morale of the army. But Medill despised West Point graduates in general.

One West Pointer he admired was Alfred Pleasonton and Pleasonton reciprocated. According to the Tribune, upon learning of Medill’s wounding, Pleasonton “rode twenty-five miles to see him, expressed his most sincere regrets, and an earnest hope for his recovery. He complimented …[Medill] for his bravery and his sterling qualities as a man and a soldier, and assured him that upon his recovery, he should be rewarded by a handsome and deserved promotion.” Pleasonton also authorized a captain from the regiment to stay with Medill and see to his needs, and upon learning of Medill’s passing, ordered the officer to accompany his body home.

Medill had struggled with his health and repeatedly lost money and personal property to theft, enemy action, or the mail system. Worn down physically and mentally, he sent his resignation to his superiors in the last days of the Peninsula Campaign, but Clendenin had refused to forward it. Had this incident sparked Medill’s animosity toward his superior officer? Medill’s spirits improved during the Maryland Campaign, however, as he found himself commanding the regiment.

He wanted to fight. He supported Gen. Ambrose Burnside as a man who would fight, even if he might lose, and he firmly supported Hooker. He believed western men to be better fighters than easterners and he would have preferred to have been sent to a western command. A supporter of total war before the idea fully took hold in the administration, Medill reveled in watching the destruction of Fredericksburg. He delighted in emancipating the enslaved and viewed slavery as “an infernal institution.”  Following his death, an editor for the Chicago Tribune (again, almost certainly his brother) credited the regiment with having freed 5,000 enslaved people by the summer of 1863 and 2,000 while under Medill’s direct command. But William remained conflicted in his opinions. He seemed to want to free African Americans more as a means of hurting their owners than for the benefit of the people themselves.

With Hooker in command of the army, Medill’s spirits soared. Even after the defeat at Chancellorsville, the major remained a firm supporter of ‘Fighting Joe.’ Unlike Major Beveridge, Medill does not appear to have sought command of a new regiment. Indeed, he did not favor raising new regiments, preferring instead to rebuild the veteran commands. But he enjoyed his time in command of the regiment and probably thought he had performed better than his superiors. Thus, he also stood to gain if Clendenin had been found guilty of cowardice.

I believe Medill instigated the proceedings against Clendenin. If not the instigator, he took no steps to quell the matter. But all is speculation. One thing is certain, when General Buford sent the paperwork back to be corrected, William Medill already lay in his grave. If he did not ‘fix’ the irregularities, who did? The most likely candidate is Maj. John Beveridge.

Surgeon Hard states Beveridge had returned to the regiment by June 25. Medill does not mention his return and the exact date remains uncertain. But Medill did not think much of Beveridge, who had already approached the governor of Illinois regarding the colonelcy of another regiment. Did Medill know of Beveridge’s ambitions? If so, pulling Beveridge into his camp held little risk to Medill’s own ambitions, as Beveridge might just as quickly depart the 8th Illinois, leaving Medill as the senior officer.

John Beveridge had practiced law with John Farnsworth, who had raised the regiment in 1861. Beveridge may have expected to receive the senior major’s position that year but lost out to Clendenin in a regimental vote. Still, he may have believed he had Farnsworth’s support for a promotion if he could oust Clendenin. Interestingly, Beveridge had not been present at any of the three instances cited in the specifications and no one ever asked him directly for his opinion of Clendenin’s actions. If he was the instigating officer, one might think the officers called by the prosecution would support him but none of the three captains called to testify appear to agree with the charges against Clendenin. Of the four lieutenants called, three clearly did not sustain the allegations. The opinion of the fourth officer is hard to determine. Further, testimony from defense witnesses suggests Beveridge perjured himself regarding the events of June 9. Still, as senior major, Beveridge took command when he returned from his medical leave and led the regiment through the Gettysburg Campaign.

He resigned in November 1863 to accept the colonelcy of the 17th Illinois Cavalry. When several officers formed a committee to recognize Beveridge for his service, Clendenin’s name did not appear in published versions of the committee’s resolution of thanks.

From the surviving record of the testimony, the court-martial appears to have been very superficial, especially when one considers the gravity of the charges. The officers who questioned the witnesses appear to have been doing nothing more than going through the motions, in a matter they may have found distasteful. None of the examiners show any curiosity or desire to get at the truth by asking follow-up questions or pressing witnesses. And maybe they were simply going through the motions. If the now deceased Medill had precipitated the case, then they may have seen no reason to pursue the matter. But someone, given the opportunity by General Buford to let the matter go, had forced the trial in Medill’s absence. Beveridge seems the likely choice. Afterall, Medill had spoken of a meeting of disgruntled officers in the immediate wake of Upperville. But we should not dismiss the idea that Clendenin may have demanded a trial as the only means of clearing his name and restoring his reputation.  

David Clendenin or ‘Clen,’ as some referred to him, returned to the regiment and without his two ambitious subordinates. The stain of the charges may have lingered over his wartime career, as he remained a lieutenant colonel, though he received late-war brevets to colonel and brigadier. Following the fight at Monocacy in 1864, Gen. Lew Wallace termed Clendenin “as brave a cavalry officer as ever mounted a horse.” He later served on the commission that tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators, before returning to civilian pursuits. After a year in the mercantile business, Clendenin sought and received a commission as a major in the 8th U.S. Cavalry. He also served as lieutenant colonel of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry and colonel of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry before retiring in 1891. Following a long battle with Bright’s Disease, David Clendenin died on March 5, 1895.


Documents in the National Archives

Woodstock Sentinel

Chicago Tribune

Official Records

Georgiann Baldino, editor, A Family and Nation Under Fire, The Civil War Letters and Journals of William and Joseph Medill

John Bigelow, The Campaign of Chancellorsville

Abner Hard, History of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment Illinois Volunteers

Memoriam Bulletin, David Ramsey Clendenin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, courtesy of the late Marshall Krolick

One thought on “Cowardice of Unbridled Ambition? Part 2

  1. Pingback: Casualties – An Explanation to Accompany Appendix B | Small But Important Riots

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