Voices from the Past: “Sagacious Military Conjecture”

Wilder Dwight was a Lieutenant Colonel inthe 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Prior to dying September 19, 1862 from wounds at the Battle of Antietam, Dwight wrote some conjectures about the events at the Battle of Port Royal.

Camp near Seneca, November 16, 1861.

The difference between our actions in this war seems to be, that we don’t half do our Ball’s Bluffs, and we do half do our Port Royals. Fruit ripe in South Carolina, and no one to pick it. That’s the way I read the news from the scene of our late success. Where are the next twenty thousand troops? They should be within an hour’s sail of Port Royal. Is it a sagacious military conjecture, that a victory at that point would strike terror and panic to the neighboring cities? If so, should not that conjecture have anticipated the result of which we are just beginning to hear? Should it not have provided a force to enjoy and intensify that panic? I know of a whole division, which, instead of shivering in the mud of Maryland, would gladly be pursuing a panic-stricken multitude with fire and sword. Why not? Of course, we are much in the dark, but my guess is, that twenty thousand good soldiers could to-day enter either Charleston or Savannah. If they could not occupy and hold, they could burn and destroy. ‘Rebels and Traitors,’ I would head my proclamation. Not ‘Carolinians and Fellow-citizens.’ Not peace, but the sword. There is cotton to tempt avarice, negroes to tempt philanthropy, Rebels to tempt patriotism, — everything to warrant a great risk. As I read the Southern accounts, they seem to me to indicate the presence of panic. From that, I infer a weak and exposed condition. We shall leave them time to recover their courage, and strengthen their defences. I do not know what is possible to our ‘Great Country,’ but, possible or impossible, I would pour an avalanche on that shore forthwith.

You see that reflection and conjecture are the only amusements of our rainy days. So I must fill my letters with guesses and hopes. I advise you to read McClellan’s Review of the War in the Crimea. One could wish that his pen were free to criticise his own campaign. Could he not expose, here and there, a blunder? Perhaps the answer is, It is not his campaign…

I see by to-night’s Clipper (it is Saturday evening while I write), that a delegation from Baltimore goes to ask the President for government patronage for the repentant city. This fulfils a prediction I had the honor to make. I see, also, that the landing of our force at Beaufort was a scene of disorder and confusion. That comes of sending the rawest troops to the hardest duty. I am puzzled to know why this is done to such an alarming extent. But tattoo is just beating. It is a raw and gusty night. The air bites shrewdly. I think I will leave that puzzle unsolved, and get within the warm folds of my constant buffalo-robe. Good night…

Source: Dwight, Wilder. “Letter from Wilder Dwight, November 16, 1861,” in Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight: Lieut.-Col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols (Boston: Ticknor & Co., 1891).

Image Credit: U.S. Naval History Center.

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