George W. Dyer
November 19, 1862
Late in 1862, George Dyer, of Calais, was on his fourth assignment to Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon. This time, Dyer was scouring Washington County for men to serve in the military. Hodsdon wanted to know if each town has filled its quota under the latest call for troops, or whether a military draft will be necessary.
"I sympathize with you General, in your trials and afflictions in regard to quotas," Dyer writes to Hodsdon on November 19. While the Adjutant General was concerned with finding enough men, Dyer worried about finding the right men.
Dyer was aware that 10 days earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had dismissed General George McClellan as Commander in Chief of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln had appointed Major General Ambrose P. Burnside to succeed McClellan, but Dyer was skeptical. Burnside was said to be dutiful, genial, friendly, always courteous – and seemingly incapable of back-biting animosity.
"He is too modest for a General. A Gen’l who is not as vain as a peacock never was, or can be a General," Dyer writes of Burnside.
McClellan, who was jealous and contemptuous of nearly all of his fellow high-ranking officers, liked Burnside, and affectionately called him "Burn." But Burnside seemed to be curiously unlucky.
John Pullen, in his history of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment writes of Burnside that he "belonged to that most sorrowful classification of the unlucky – the man who is both unlucky and stubborn. Driven by his sense of duty, he would push through all obstacles and plunge into the soup."
Dyer shares with Hodsdon that, "Vanity alone won’t make a General – example, General Webster. Neither will learning - example McClellan. Neither will brains – example Frank Blair."
(General Joseph Dana Webster was serving as General Ulysses S. Grant’s Chief of Staff with the Army of the Tennessee. McClellan was indeed learned, having studied military strategy and tactics in France and Prussia. And Frank Blair, brother of U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and a member of a politically powerful family, was close to President Lincoln.)
"Good reasoning facilities, enormous perceptive facilities, the vanity of a pretty girl, and the energy and stoutness of a stud horse – these make a General. Wherefore I don’t believe in B." Dyer concludes.
- Can you think of an officer who fits Dyer’s description of what it takes to be a General?
- Less than a month after Dyer wrote this letter, unlucky Burnside led the Union Army into a disaster. What happened?