[pg. 11] GRANT’S FIRST NEWSPAPER CONTROVERSY *** “You have probably seen dearest Julia a publication reflecting upon the officers of the 4th Inf.y while crossing the Isthmus…. It is stated that even Capt. Grant ran off, and left the men to take care of themselves.” In reporting this to his wife from Oregon Territory in 1852, Ulysses S. Grant added that he had just attended a meeting of the indignant officers of the regiment and that “You will soon see in the papers a very flat contradiction, with the actual facts given.”1 Unfortunately, Grant did not supply enough clues to permit either article to be exhumed. Just recently, Karl L. Trever, whose remarkable work in searching the National Archives for Grant documents has supplied unexpected riches for the Grant Association, was working with the files of the adjutant general in the somewhat less noble endeavor of locating documents concerning Jefferson Davis when he happened upon an unidentified newspaper clipping which supplied the essential clues to the entire controversy.
The Panama Herald, a newspaper published on the Pacific side of the Isthmus, turned out to be the culprit, and it began its criticism with an editorial on July 27, 1852.
During all the week the troops of the United States, accompanied in many instances with the families of the soldiers, have been pouring into this city and passing on board the Golden Gate en route for California. A portion of these troops came through in good time, and apparently in the enjoyment of health. A goodly number, however, sickened and died on the road, very many suffered all but death, especially the women and children.[pg. 12] We have no account of the number who have died on the road, and after their arrival in this city, but it must have been considerable. Many children have been left without fathers or mothers and but for the kind attention of casual friends must have perished.
There is great fault somewhere, and just censure should be meted out to the government or to individuals for the manner in which these troops have been treated while on the Isthmus. Nearly all have had to endure hardship on account of neglect, in some quarter, to make necessary provisions for their sustenance and comfort between this and Cruces. No provision appears to have been made for the sick and disabled to reach this city, and if they got on at all it was by the assistance of their comrades. Some were left in a dying state in the road to the tender mercies of the natives.
The whole business reflects great discredit upon the United States, because things were conducted in such haste, as it would appear, that no places were provided where proper refreshments could be obtained along the road and attention in cases of sickness. A little care and expense would have erected tents or some shelter on the line of travel at which food and rest might have been obtained, and a few animals might have been hired for the conveyance of the sick, and arrangements made for medical attention. A proper agent sent in advance could have made every arrangement at a very trifling expense to the United States, and the result would have doubtless saved many lives.
This government should have been officially informed of the intention of the United States to send these troops by way of the Isthmus, and had such been the case every thing would have been done in the power of the authorities here to facilitate the object.
On August 17, however, the Panama Herald shifted its attack from the government to the officers of the regiment. Although the conduct of all the officers was generally condemned, only Grant was specifically excoriated.
On the 5th of July, eight companies of the Fourth Regiment of United States Infantry under the command of Lieut. Colonel BONNEVILLE, left New York en route for California via the Isthmus. These companies consisted each of about one hundred men and officers, with an unusual large number of women and children. The officers were:Lieut. Col. Bonneville, Col. Wright, Major Alvord, Capt. Grant, Regimental Quartermaster, Lieut[.] Montgomery; Capt. McConnell, Adjutant; Lieuts. E. Russel, Scott, Underwood, Collins, Bonneycastle, Slaughter, Withers, Bates, Macfeely, and Hodges[;] Dr. Tripler, Surgeon of the command.
Mrs. Gore, Mrs. Wallen, Mrs. Collins, and Mrs. Slaughter accompanied their husbands.
These troops were ordered to various posts in Oregon, if the Commander of the Pacific division at San Diego, where the steamer was to stop, should not requre their services in the southern section of Colifornia. The other two companies of the regiment under command of Major Rains, [pg. 13] were to leave in the United States store-ship Fredonia, to sail round the Horn.
At the time these companies left New York no appropriation had been made by Congress for their transportation to the place of their destination. By the request, as we understand the matter, of the heads of the War Department in the United States, the U. S. Mail Steamship Company on the Atlantic and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company on the Pacific, agreed to convey these troops and their officers over the Isthmus to California for the sum of $120,000 and wait the action of Congress in making the appropriation to pay them. The troops embarked under the contract and reached Navy Bay in good health and without the loss of a single man! Before leaving the steamer Falcon, at Navy Bay, four days provisions were prepared for each soldier by the officers of the Steamer, and these rations were served out for their sustenance on the Isthmus.
On their way over the Isthmus the hardships and troubles of these poor soldiers commenced. Deserted, as we believe, by every commissioned officer, and left alone in command of the non-commissioned officers, it is no wonder that they gave way, to every species of indulgence. The rations which had been prepared on the steamer at Navy Bay were either thrown or given away, or sold for liquor by those who were too lazy or too feeble to carry them on the road. Coming, as these men did, from a temperate, at once in a torrid zone, their systems, unless properly cared for, were susceptable of contracting any disease. Without officers, and consequently without discipline, they were their own ignorant guide, reckless of consequences, sleeping in the open air on the damp ground, drinking noxious and poisonous liquors, and going without food, excepting fruit, it is no wonder that something like the cholera broke out among them. On the road over the Isthmus some died by the road side, some in the rude huts of the natives, without medicine or medical attention. One soldier and his wife died on the road, leaving four or five little children, the oldest not over five years of age, the youngest a nursing babe! The woman was left in a native hut in a dying condition! The mortality on the Isthmus was not great, but the seeds were sown which ripened their deadly fruit in Panama Bay.
The officers and their wives came over in the usual time, on mules, in good health and condition. Even the regimental Quartermaster, Capt. GRANT, could not tarry to attend to his duty, but must come through and await the arrival of the troops on this side!–Many of these troops came in, three days or more after leaving Cruces, wet, and almost famished, having had nothing to eat for twenty-four hours, but probably plenty to drink. It may be said it was their own fault; so it was, still had the officers remained at their posts they could have kept them in order and prevented their running into such excesses, but this, the sequel will show, they had no desire to do.
On the fact being known at the office of the P. M. Steamship Company, in this city, that sickness and distress existed among the troops on their way over, the Agent, Mr. Edward Flint, of the Company here, humanely despatched mules and provisions to those sick and famishing; thus a number of women and children were saved from a horrid death. Comforts were provided in some instances by the agent after their arrival in this city.
[pg. 14] The whole force was embarked upon the Golden Gate, but disease had been engendered on the Isthmus, and in the face of every attention and care from the officers of the Gate it spread to such an extent that fears began to arise among the officers and others in the cabin of the steamer, that it would reach them, and Capt. PATTERSON conceived that all would be benefitted by disembarking the soldiers on Flamenco Island, which was accordingly done. Here again the neglect and unofficerlike conduct of the commissioned officers was conspicuous. None could be found willing to perform his duty at the Island by taking command; and if any were detailed for such service, sudden indisposition prevented their fulfilling the task.
To Captain Patterson, of the Golden Gate, and his officers and the surgeon Of the ship, too high a meed of praise cannot be awarded; he and they were assiduous in their attention to the sick on board and at the Island, while the soldiers were almost wholly deserted by their officers. The acknowledged mortality was fearful in the extreme. One hundred are said to have died out of the seven hundred enlisted in New York! Only one of the commissioned officers died.2 While seven per cent. of the poor soldiers lost their lives–only one per cent. among the officers laid their bones in this place. This we rejoice at, and only allude to it to show that proper care and attention would have ensured a much smaller bill of mortality among the common soldiers. The survivors and their officers are now on their way to Binecia, California; where we think a court martial should be convened at once to try the officers above named for their dereliction of duty.
With Quartermaster GRANT, we have not done: Unfitted by either natural ability or education for the post he occupied, he evinced his incapacity at every movement. Totally inefficient himself he left his business to his Sergeant, and then repudiated the expense he had incurred at a Hotel for necessary comfort and attention to sick men, women and children, though promising to settle the account before he left, yet in the end sneaking off on board without even calling at the Hotel to see the bill, and when caught on board the steamer, refusing to pay but a moiety of the expenses ordered by his official! But the most brutal neglect is yet to be mentioned. The report was handed to the agent of the P. Mail Steamship Company, that the soldiers were all over the Isthmus, while one poor fellow had been left in Cruces in charge of the government property; this man was taken sick, and had to lay himself down in a deserted hut on some of the tent-poles and the tent-cloths, without any one to bring him a drink of water. In this condition he was found by a benevolent physician of this city who administered to his wants at his own expense, and left him on his return here in somewhat improved condition, feeling assured that he would die from necessity in Cruces,–he believed his life might be saved if brought to this city. The facts were communicated to Mr. Corwine, U. S. Consul, who immediately let them be known in the proper quarter, but no effort was made by any of the officers here to procure any attention for the sick man or have him brought across the Isthmus[.] He lived three or four days, as we are informed, and then expired from want of proper medicical and other attention. Thus has ended a fearful tragedy, which we hope may never be enacted on this Isthmus, or any other place.
[pg. 15] The Mail Companies on either Ocean, performed their whole duty as far as we could learn, and here, we feel confident the Agent and the officers of the Golden Gate done more than was required or could have been expected from them under the circumstances.
The resolutions drawn up by the indignant officers of the 4th were apparently first printed in the San Francisco Herald on November 1, 1852.
At a meeting of the Officers of the Fourth Regiment of United States Infantry, at the headquarters of the regiment, Columbia Barracks, Oregon, the following preamble and resolutions were adopted:–Whereas, An article has appeared in the New York Express, copied from the Panama Herald of August 17th stating that while the Fourth Regiment of Infantry was crossing the Isthmus of Panama, in July, the men were “deserted by every commissioned officer, and left alone in command of the non commissioned officers;” that the men “gave way to every species of indulgence[;]” that “the rations which had been prepared on the steamer at Navy Bay were either thrown away or sold for liquor by those who were too lazy or too feeble to carry them on the road[;]” that at Flamenco Island “the neglect and unofficerlike conduct of the commissioned officers was conspicuous,” &c., thereby intending to reflect injury on [t]he character of the officers–Therefore,
Resolved, First–That the article which appeared in the Panama Herald of August 17th in reference to the Fourth Infantry is a scandalous and malicious falsehood.
Resolved, Second–That the following are the facts concerning the passage of the troops across the Isthmus:–
1st The Pacific Mail Steamship Company received the contract for transporting the troops from New York to California, but failed to transport the baggage of the regiment from Cruces to Panama. In consequence of this failure the Quartermaster of the regiment was obliged to enter into a contract for its transportation with the Alcalde of Cruces,3 and while the troops left with the baggage were waiting at Cruces, a number of them died of cholera.
2d. All the officers of the regiment with the exception of three–one who was sick, another who escorted the families of the officers, and the Regimental Quartermaster, who was detained at Cruces to take charge of the baggage–accompanied the troops, and slept with them “in the open air and on the damp ground,” and shared with them the fatigues of the march.
3d. Every possible effort was made to prevent the troops from indulging in eating fruit or drinking liquor, and in but few instances were these efforts unsuccessful.4
4th. The Regimental Quartermaster was the last officer who left Cruces, he having been obliged to stay there five days in the discharge of his official duties.
5th. Two officers, besides a physician, staid with the sick at Flamenco Island night and day. As several of the officers were sick, one of whom died, this duty was in every instance cheerfully performed by those who were well.
[pg. 16] Resolved, Third–That these resolutions be forwarded to the Adjutant General, with the request that they be published in the National Intelligencer, and that we deem it justice to the regiment that they be published by the New York Express, and other papers into which the article from the Panama Heraldhas been copied.
H. D. WALLEN, Capt. 4th Infantry,
President of the meeting.
THOS. R. MC CONNELL, Adj’t 4th Infantry, Sec’y.
Thus ended what seems to be the earliest newspaper controversy involving Grant. Though undoubtedly pleased that his fellow officers defended him, Grant did not publish a word in his own behalf, a pattern he invariably followed in later controversies. It was ironic that the Panama Herald should have condemned Grant for his conduct on the Isthmus, for he probably displayed more personal bravery and calm thinking in the fever-ridden backwater of Cruces than was called for on the major battlefields of the Civil War. It was understandable, however, that the paper would try to place the blame for the disastrous loss of life on the Isthmus on something other than the unhealthy climate or local business interests; the paper could lose heavily if the experience of the 4th Infantry influenced future travelers to use other routes to the Pacific Coast. The charges against Grant served a temporary purpose, then were forgotten so completely that they eluded Grant’s political foes and his biographers as well. Finally there was only one man who remembered, and this may explain why the crossing of the Isthmus is the only event between the Mexican War and Civil War discussed at length by Grant in his Memoirs. 1. Oct. 26, 1852, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 1967), 1, 270-271. Hereafter Papers.
2. Brevet Major John H. Gore died on Aug. 1, 1852. The death of one officer does not, of course, justify the statement that one per cent of the officers died.
3. Printed in Papers, 1, 249-250.
4. Surgeon Charles S. Tripler reported that the order to avoid fruit and liquor was not observed. Ulysses S. Grant Association Newsletter, V, 1 (Oct., 1967), 3.