|Unit History Project|
1st Artillery Regiment (Light)
“Does the word conciliation frighten any of my readers, or excite symptoms
of indignation, or taint of “Copperheadism?” No restoration of
the Union without it, mark that, and that’s what we are contending for
as soldiers, the preservation and maintenance of the unity and perpetuity of
the American Republic. Nothing less, nothing more.”
That, in a nutshell, was George Breck’s reason for going off to fight in the Union army during the American Civil War. The Rochester, N.Y., druggist-turned-artillery officer was not interested in freeing the slaves. Indeed, he opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, fearing it would only strengthen the Confederacy’s resolve to fight to the finish. That, in turn, would surely make it more difficult to eventually reconcile the two warring factions, Breck reasoned. And a national reconciliation, he contended, was, in the end, all that really mattered. Restoring the Union. Nothing less, nothing more.
But in Breck’s case, there is something more – a great deal more – to be found in the 141 columns he wrote for the Rochester Union and Advertiser from 1861 to 1865. First and foremost, they tell the exploits of the hometown volunteer artillery battery he eventually commanded. Battery L, 1st New York Light Artillery, was involved in most of the major campaigns against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, including Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and the siege of Petersburg. Breck’s columns vividly describe the battery’s harrowing battlefield experiences, amid some of the fiercest combat of the war.
However, his columns are more than a mere recital of battle. Breck was, to borrow one of his own phrases, a “thinking soldier.” Even as he faithfully chronicles the daily movements, personnel changes and other concerns of his battery – in sufficient detail that his columns serve very nicely as a history of the unit – he also tries to interpret for his readers the bigger universe of people, places and events in which his small battery orbits. And so Breck treats us to firsthand glimpses of such luminaries as Lincoln and Grant, Sheridan and Hooker. We are allowed to eavesdrop on Breck’s conversations with the “secesh” he encounters in the Virginia countryside; we are privy to the latest rumors heard at headquarters or circulating through the ranks. Even when stationed away from the field of battle, Breck finds endless subjects of interest. During the battery’s stay in Baltimore, for example, we visit the stately monuments that Breck so admired, take a guided tour of a beautiful park where young “secesh” women make snide remarks about the “nasty” Yankees, and even learn the secrets of making “aerated” bread!
And always we hear about the weather. If Breck’s preoccupation with the elements seems obsessive to the modern reader, it is all the more instructive. Nothing, not even the enemy, could so profoundly, suddenly and unexpectedly restrict a Civil War army’s freedom of movement – or create such misery for its soldiers. That may be hard to fully comprehend in this age of satellite- and computer-assisted forecasts. But this, too, is instructive, showing how relatively insulated we modern Americans are, inhabiting our climate-controlled homes, workplaces and vehicles, and driving on paved streets and highways that would have seemed simply fabulous to Breck and his comrades.
Above all else, Breck never forgets that he is writing for a newspaper, for a very public audience. This has its pitfalls for casual readers and serious historians alike. It requires Breck, at times, to be more circumspect – i.e, less truthful – about certain sensitive matters than he might be in a private letter. At other times, he is not above using this bully pulpit to put his own “spin” on events for ulterior motives. Whenever dealing with Civil War narratives written for public consumption, James McPherson warns, we must “subject them to critical standards to filter out some of the distortion.”(1) But in this case, I believe, the effort is justified. When we apply critical standards to Breck’s battle accounts, for example, we find they are consistent with what other reliable witnesses tell us. Not the least of these witnesses is Charles Wainwright, commander of the artillery brigade in which Breck’s battery served for much of the war. When we turn to Wainwright’s classic war diaries, which were not written for publication, and to his official reports, we find Breck corroborated on many key points.
Aside from the pitfalls, there are also distinct advantages to Breck’s mode of writing. The mere fact of writing for publication necessitates readability; how else is one to appeal to the widest possible audience? At this, Breck succeeds admirably. His columns, despite the occasional cumbersome, overly long sentence, are generally a “good read.” And if we tire of his hero worship of the flawed McClellan, well, we are also spared so much of the mundane that can creep into a soldier’s private correspondence.
Indeed, we learn virtually nothing about Breck’s private life in these columns. He was born on Aug.18, 1833, in Newport, New Hampshire, to James and Martha Breck, whose 58-year marriage produced 10 other children. James was in the mercantile trade and active in politics, serving in the New Hampshire state legislature. “Mr. B was, in his early years, a Whig, but, naturally conservative in his views, when that party relinquished the field he identified himself with the Democrats,” a later account of his life noted. In 1840, James brought his family to Rochester, N.Y., and was in the grocery business for a few years before retiring. (2) The western New York community was thriving, thanks to three bodies of water. The Genesee River provided the falls that powered Rochester’s flour mills. The Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, provided access to distant markets. And Lake Ontario, just seven miles to the north, buffered the fertile lake plain from temperature extremes, creating ideal conditions for a soon-to-be-booming nursery trade. (3)
The 1850 census lists seven people in the Breck household at 179 Main Street. In addition to George and his parents, there were four sisters, Mary, 24; Martha, 22; Ellen, 19, and Emma, 14. An older brother Martin was following in his father’s footsteps as a grocer; another brother William was city attorney. (4)
“The youthful George joined and became president of the Orion Debating Society and took a lively part in other activities enjoyed by young men in Rochester,” according to a Rochester Historical Society publication. (5)
Breck’s pension application files indicate he was a druggist when the war began, standing five foot ten with blue eyes and light hair when he enlisted on Sept. 17, 1861.
But what of the inner man? Excerpts of his wartime letters to his sisters, printed by the historical society, provide some of the answers. In them we glimpse a young man eager to court the opposite sex. “You make mention of a very nice married lady, how about the young, unmarried ladies in Buffalo?” he inquires of Ellen in 1863. “Are there any in market, or are they picked up as fast as they ‘come out’ in society? I merely ask in consideration of a termination of the war, when I may wish to ‘take up arms’ in another cause.” (6)
In another letter, he notes that “The mail that brought your letter also brought one from Marion Warren. I think my chances are still good in that locality.” (7)
We also find a young man of strong religious convictions, utterly dismayed by the profanity that surrounds him in the army. “How strange that men, so exposed to death as soldiers are, should be so utterly regardless of the fear or love of God, should so disregard all His commands, as to profane his Holy name, with the grossest freedom, and indulge in vices of the most immoral character,” Breck wrote to Ellen in 1862. “Better a thousand times that I lose my life on the battlefield, than lose purity of character or the fear of God.”
What is a Christian to do in such a setting? It is not clear that Breck ever resolved this, telling Ellen “I feel conscience smitten in that I have not spoken and labored for Christ and his cause as I ought to have done.” (8)
He professes to abhor slavery, calling it a “great evil, and a great blight to our nation,” and insisting “a happy day it will be to our nation when this black curse shall be wiped out.” (9) But this may need to be qualified. It appears, in light of his occasional, seemingly condescending remarks about contrabands and black soldiers in his printed columns, that Breck was less concerned with the welfare of blacks as individuals, as he was with the divisive impact of slavery as an institution.
He shared the Democrats’ dismay over wartime threats to constitutional liberties. “My Commission reads that I am to ‘aid in enforcing the laws’ etc. of our country,” Breck explained in an impassioned letter to his brother in law. “That’s the idea, the great principle which should stimulate and animate a patriot’s heart. Constitutional law! I love it, I revere it and I will fight for it. Not what A. says, or B says, or what Either thinks, but what the Constitution says. I neither go back of that instrument, nor in advance of it. I know of no other law for the guidance and supreme control of our Government but that. It defines clearly our political system. It embodies all there is of our Government, and a departure from any of its provisions, from motives of safety or from any other motives, endangers and is liable to ruin our free and republican form of government, invites the reign of despotism.” (10)
There can be no doubt about his patriotism. “Never has there a nation existed, so glorious as ours, so fraught with the blessings of institutions, ecclesiastical, civil, social and domestic, which are in advance of all others, tending to the elevation and happiness of the race,” Breck wrote to Ellen in 1862 (11) And therein lies the basis of Breck’s firm conviction that nothing – certainly not emancipation – should stand in the way of what he considers the overriding goal of the war: Reconciling the warring parties as quickly as possible. Winning back the hearts and minds of the southern people, not simply beating them into submission. Restoring the Union precisely as it was established by the Founding Fathers.
This is what makes Breck so interesting. His sentiments on emancipation, to be sure, were shared by many other Union soldiers. Bell Irvin Wiley doubted that even one in ten soldiers in the Union army had “any real interest” in freeing the slaves. They were fighting, as Breck was, to save the Union. (12) However, McPherson, in his fine study of the motivation of Civil War combatants, contends that by the end of the war most Union soldiers had changed their minds about emancipation and slavery. How did this happen? It began when Northern soldiers, stationed in the South, saw firsthand the brutality of slavery and its blighting impact on southern society. It continued with the alarming rise of “Copperheadism” on the home front in early 1863, when Peace Democrats “zeroed in on the Emancipation Proclamation” in attacking Lincoln’s war policies and urging a negotiated peace. This attack on the Union war effort caused a backlash among many Northern soldiers, converting some of them to emancipation. Others came to support emancipation for pragmatic reasons, realizing it hurt the enemy and helped their own side, by depriving the south of needed manpower, even as it allowed black soldiers to help fill Union ranks. And, finally, “by the war’s last year, the example of black soldiers fighting for Union as well as liberty had helped convince most white soldiers that they should fight for black liberty as well as Union.” (13) Breck’s inability or refusal to acknowledge this, even in the final months of the war, will be troubling to many readers.
As the critical presidential elections neared in 1864, Breck was firmly in the McClellan camp, desperately trying to drum up support among his soldiers and his readers for the Democratic Party. No doubt this pleased the Union and Advertiser immensely. (14) However, for all Breck’s assertions to the contrary, he was clearly out of step with his fellow soldiers. They wanted no part of a Democratic Peace Platform that branded the war a failure, and called for an immediate armistice and peace negotiations. Nearly 78 percent of them voted in favor of Lincoln. (15)
By December 1864, with Lincoln re-elected and the abolition agenda
affirmed, with Breck’s own term of enlistment about to expire, there was every
reason for him to return home. His family urged him to. He gave it serious
thought. Perhaps it was time for a “real” patriot, yes, a “bona
fide, out and out Republican, who abominates a Copperhead,” to come and
take his place, he wrote to Ellen. But he stayed at his post. Never mind that
the war’s agenda had changed. Two years of hardship and fighting had
not diminished what he had earlier described as his “absolute duty, of
being enlisted in the cause of my country.” (16)
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. One of those “other activities” that young Breck entered in Rochester included membership in the Union Grays, the artillery company of the 54th New York Militia. Militia, as a rule, constituted a home guard during the Civil War, but a great many militia officers and soldiers joined and led the volunteer regiments that went to the front.
So it was with the Union Grays. They immediately volunteered after Fort Sumter, but as artillery was not being recruited at that time, preferred to wait rather than enter the service as infantry. (18) The call came soon enough. The Union defeat at First Bull Run demonstrated that larger, well-equipped armies would be needed to suppress the rebellion. That August, a New York state regiment of volunteer artillery was authorized, and Capt. John A. Reynolds, the Grays’ commander, was asked to organize one of its batteries. Many of his fellow Grays, including Breck, formed the battery’s nucleus. The battery departed Rochester on Oct. 7, 1861, bound for the Elmira, N.Y., recruit depot to be mustered into service. (19)
Let’s join Breck there, at the start of a long and often arduous journey. For Breck, there will be but one beacon to guide him through all the dark and trying months ahead: The hope that his beloved, now sundered Union will soon be restored.
Nothing less, nothing more.
Robert E. Marcotte
(Marcotte is author of Where They Fell: Stories of Rochester Area Soldiers in the Civil War and has written articles for Rochester History quarterly. He has been a Rochester newspaperman since 1976, and writes a weekly Just Ask column for the Democrat and Chronicle.)
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military