The laughing stock of the whole brigade…

The Civil War saw scores of politicians and would-be politicians don the uniform of an army officer. Some found success as a military leader such as future President of the United States Rutherford B. Hayes, Colonel of the 23rd Ohio Infantry. Hayes, city solicitor of Cincinnati from 1858 to 1861, was unafraid to stand up for the welfare of his soldiers even when faced with the wrath of a fiery professional officer and he proved himself in battle. On September 6, 1862 during McClellan’s march out of Washington in pursuit of Lee’s invading army, Hayes’ men were readying their camp for the evening by taking straw from the field of a nearby farmer to feed the horses of an artillery battery and making beds for themselves. Hayes confessed in his diary and letters that he saw nothing wrong with the practice as it was a military necessity to accommodate the needs of his regiment. However, the Ninth Corps commanding general, Jesse Reno, had a much different view of the situation as he rode into the camp of the 23rd Ohio.

Hayes did not immediately notice the arrival of the general at his campsite but soon heard a stream of profanity being directed toward his soldiers who were gathering the straw. Reno referred to Hayes’ men as “damned black sons of bitches” and proceeded to lecture them on the evils of pilfering the farms of the friendly state of Maryland. Hayes intervened on behalf of his men explaining to Major General Reno of the need for the straw and even offered to ensure the farmer was properly compensated. Reno would have none of it. Hayes, who claims to have remained respectful throughout the encounter, retorted with “”Well, I trust our generals will exhibit the same energy in dealing with our foes that they do in the treatment of their friends.” Reno departed in a huff as the men of the 23rd Ohio cheered loudly for the moxie of their commander. The general would continue to harbor ill feelings toward Hayes in the days that followed.

 

R_B Hayes CW uniformJesse Reno CW uniform

Fiery West Point general Major General Jesse Reno (b) met his match in Rutherford B. Hayes (t), commanding officer of the 23th Ohio and future President of the United States

 

However, Hayes’ soldiers now had the highest respect for the young politician turned army colonel. They would fight hard for him just eight days later at the Battle of South Mountain where Hayes would be wounded and Major General Reno would be killed by a Confederate bullet effectively ending the animosity between the politician-soldier and the professional officer.

And then there were the politicians who fancied themselves as officers leading their men to great victories in battle…

Oliver Case and his comrades in the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment were not so fortunate to have a Hayes-like officer in the person of Peter L. Cunningham of Norwalk. Born in New York City in 1814, Cunningham relocated to Norwalk, Connecticut in 1834 and was always “prominently identified with local public affairs” including becoming an active campaigner in the 1840 elections. He also rose to notoriety in state political matters prior to the war and was elected as both councilman and mayor for post-war Norwalk. Cunningham was heavily involved in both the Odd Fellows and the Masonic Fraternity obtaining several high-ranking positions in both organizations.[1]

Already 47 years old when the Civil War began, Cunningham was appointed by Governor William A. Buckingham as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 8th Connecticut. He was not without military experience as he had served in Connecticut state militia organizations for the previous 20 years rising to the rank of Colonel as a member of the governor’s staff prior to his appointment in the 8th Connecticut. These largely ceremonial state positions seem to have done nothing to prepare him for becoming the second-in-command of an infantry regiment with over 1,000 soldiers assigned.

A Lieutenant Colonel’s role in a Civil War regiment included assisting the Colonel of the Regiment with his duties and being prepared to assume command of the regiment should he be killed or wounded. The Lieutenant Colonel was also expected to help command and control the formation during combat situations. In this YouTube clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rvYtoy1NUM) from the movie Gods and Generals, you will see Lieutenant Colonel Chamberlain of the 20th Maine performing the important function of positioning the regimental formation for battle in accordance with instructions given by the commander, Colonel Adelbert Ames. This obviously required the Lieutenant Colonel to be highly proficient in drilling the soldiers (marching and maneuvering the formation) for endless hours on the parade field to be prepared to do the same during battle.

It became clearly evident to all his subordinates that Lieutenant Colonel Cunningham of the 8th Connecticut was no master of the drill. In a letter written Christmas Day of 1861, Oliver Case describes for his sister a camp rumor that his Lieutenant Colonel will soon leave the regiment.

There is a report that our Lieut. Col. [Cunningham] is soon to resign, I hope it is true for he does not now, nor ever did and I think never will learn about the military. He is the laughing stock of the whole brigade when he tries to drill the Regt. There are very few orders that he can give correctly.[2]

Peter L Cunningham

Peter L. Cunningham whose service as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 8th Connecticut would only last four months due to his lack of military skill particularly in drilling troops

 

So, after only four months of service, the politician-soldier returned to Connecticut. His official biographical sketch puts a better face on his military service with only one sentence, “…he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the Eighth Connecticut Volunteers, resigning the latter office, however, after a service of four months and receiving an honorable discharge.”[3] Cunningham’s lack of success in the military arts did not deter his success in business or his political career when he returned to Norwalk. In business, he became a director in two local banks and for the Norwalk Gas Company. His elected political career consisted of multiple terms as a city councilman in the 1870s and he was elected as the mayor of Norwalk for one term in 1883.

In modern military terms, Peter Cunningham failed to adapt to military service which in today’s Army can get you discharged within the first 180 days of your service. Even in the civil war, military service was much more than just a job; it was truly a way of life. Rules, regulations, traditions and customs all helped to shape a culture that required adaptation by men who only weeks before lived in a different world. For an officer like Peter Cunningham, this meant additional pressures created by an expectation that you would become inculcated in this new culture and that you could step forward to lead your subordinates in learning its ways.

Oliver Case viewed Lieutenant Colonel Cunningham’s problem as a failure to learn himself so that he could teach others. This failure manifested itself publicly on the parade field as Cunningham could give the correct orders to his men thereby making himself the brigade’s laughing stock.

Parade Annapolis Burnside

Soldiers of Burnside’s Expedition on parade at Annapolis in December 1861

 

This certainly must have been a leadership challenge for his regimental commander, Colonel Edward Harland. Harland’s previous military experience was limited to service as a company commander at First Bull Run in a three-month Connecticut regiment. However, his time directing troops under combat conditions prepared him for the challenges of higher level command. Harland and the brigade commander, John Parke (a West Point graduate), must have approached Cunningham with the cold, hard truth that he was not compatible with military service and should offer his resignation immediately. To his credit, Cunningham may have realized this himself and preempted such a conversation.

Whatever the case, the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut must have felt relief that “the laughing stock of the whole brigade” would not be leading them into battle.

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] Adapted from Commemorative Biographical Record of Fairfield County, Connecticut, J.H. Beers & Company, Chicago, 1899.

[2] The Letters of Oliver Cromwell Case (Unpublished), Simsbury Historical Society, Simsbury, Connecticut.

[3] Commemorative Biographical Record, page 12.

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