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The Tour Of Prince Napoleon
A FRENCH VISIT TO CIVIL WAR AMERICA Selections from the letters of Lieutenant Colonel Camille Ferri Pisani, who accompanied Prince Napoleon on his state visit, touring the fronts, both North and South, visiting the West and meeting Lincoln and the men around him during the Union’s darkest days
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
I was seated at the table between General McClellan and Lord Lyons, British Ambassador, the son of the valorous admiral in charge of the British fleet at Sevastopol. Since the American general showed pleasure in answering, I pressed him with questions, first on what was done at the Army, and then on his own plans. I even took the liberty of telling him how surprised we were, as Frenchmen, to see the complete lack of a hierarchical constitution for the command of higher officers, in other words the complete lack of a permanent military organization beyond the regimental organization.
“Thus,” I said to him, “it is impossible for us to believe that regiments form organized brigades with titular generals; that brigades constitute divisions, and divisions armies with invariable generals of brigades, divisions, armies and staffs. It seems to us—until proved differently—that when it is a question of any military operation—such as the occupation of a border, the attack or defense of a position, and even a battlethe General in Chief, sometimes even Congress, appoints a General who assumes the temporary command of the regiments assembled for said operations. As a result, American Generals pass and pass again in front of our eyes, without us being able to follow them closely in their campaign, as we can do with ours, whose military destiny is invariably linked to that of the troops under their titular command.”
The General did not let me complete the development of my thoughts, and interrupted to tell me that he was perfectly aware of this defect in the military organization, and that in assuming the over-all command his first task was to remedy it. He added that the President and the Senate were dealing at this very moment with a promotion of 100 Generals of brigades; that more than Go of those had already their commissions, and that out of these 60 men, he had chosen about 15 of them for his Army, and that half of these were former regular army officers. He added also that his command included 60 regiments (one battalion to a regiment); that the 15 Generals of Brigades were each to be given a brigade (composed of four regiments), and that he would then wait a while with this temporary organization before completing it with the formation of divisions—he intended to choose Generals of Divisions from his Generals of Brigades after testing and judging them. “With this last phase of our military constitution,” he concluded, “we will have, at least for the higher organization, an army copied on the most perfect in the world, the French Army.”
Developing his point further, General McClellan let me understand that for the present war as well as for the future of the Union, it was necessary to abandon the old erroneous idea of a national force resting on militias or volunteer groups, armed and disarmed according to the needs of politics, and that the formation of a great permanent army would necessarily come out of the present crisis. All his efforts tend to pave the way for the transformation of the irregular elements they give him—soldiers with three-year contracts, elected officers, temporary generals—into definite and regular elements, so that when the country feels the need to end the dangerous, temporary present organization, they will only have to move these elements already militarized from the vague frame of the present organization into the fixed frame of a permanent army.
Lord Lyons, noticing the animation of our conversation, leaned toward me and said: “You are aware that you are talking with the next President of the United States?” Smiling, I repeated this comment to the General who, in turn, answered with a fine, modest and silent smile. The conversation, then, took a more intimate turn. He gave me many interesting details on his former friends, some now his enemies, others his own lieutenants: Beauregard, Lee, Jefferson Davis, Johnston, McDowell. He talked about himself, his military service, the Mexican war. He related his trip to the Crimea, where his government had sent him and two of his friends to study the organization of the French, Russian, and English armies in the field. Though he remembers having more difficulty in penetrating the French army than the other two, he nevertheless professes more admiration for the former.
The day following Mr. Lincoln’s dinner, Mr. Seward took the Prince for a long visit to the Federal Army Camps on the right bank of the Potomac. I believe about 40,000 soldiers were gathered there. This army group directly protects the Capital; it is the largest single body of troops at the disposal of the Union, the rest of the federal armies being scattered over a large territory, on the Upper Potomac, in West Virginia and on the Mississippi around Saint Louis—.
Cavalry is very scarce. As for campaign artillery we saw practically none, which proves that this branch of the service has not yet recovered from the heavy losses suffered at Bull Run. What of the Infantry? It is poorly distributed from a military point of view, but very practically with respect to the welfare of the soldiers and the facility of the service. The dress is very poor, as much by the soldiers’ own fault—they seem to ignore the needs of military cleanliness and the care of weapons—as by the powerlessness of the administration. So far little has been achieved concerning the uniform, the headdress and the shoes of the troops. The military instruction of the soldiers seemed rather deficient and nothing seems to be done to remedy it. On the whole, the camps look gloomy, both because of the sad condition of the clothes and their general dark color, and also because of the attitude of the men themselves, who are lacking in spirit, animation and joy.