The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Theodor Petrasch, October 12th, 1864


Bethlehem, Pa., Oct. 12, 1864.[2]

My dearest Friend: . . . Now I must give you a little lecture. I do not share your opinion as to what we should not do in the present crisis. You would surely not have judged so if you had shared in the great struggles which are now over. You may have been surprised when I defend the present Administration in public. But I believe that a few words regarding my way of looking at matters will make things clear to you. Every crisis in human affairs has one principal question to which all minor questions must be subordinated. We are engaged in a war in which the existence of the Nation, indeed, in which everything is involved. A party has risen in this country that threatens to overthrow all the results of the war, and that at a moment at which the final outcome is hardly doubtful, if the policy introduced is firmly adhered to. There can be no doubt that the Government has made great mistakes; persons who are directing the fate of the country are certainly far from ideal statesmen, though not nearly as insignificant as their critics would represent them to be. But that is of minor importance. The most vital thing is that the policy of the party moves in the right direction, that is to say, that the slaveholder be vanquished and slavery abolished. Whether this policy moves in that direction skilfully or awkwardly, slowly or rapidly, is a matter of little consequence in comparison with the question whether a policy should be adopted that would move in another, a wrong and disastrous, direction. Accordingly, it was easy for me to choose. I did not hesitate one moment. If Frémont and McClellan had been my bosom friends and the members of the present Administration had been my deadly enemies, I should nevertheless have supported the latter.

Counter-considerations of a personal nature, which you mention, such as vindictive criticism, could have no weight. If one wants to accomplish something worth while, one must not allow trifles to interfere. I have long since risen above that sort of thing. People may say what they like of me. I do not expect thanks nor even appreciation. The only true reward is within ourselves. The satisfaction I crave, I have at all times, to-day as well as formerly; it consists in having my ideas, which I have expressed in my own manner, repeated and disseminated by many persons in their own manner. Whether my patent rights are respected by them, is a matter of indifference to me. Indeed, the real purpose of the propagation of ideas is best attained if their origin is forgotten. In this respect, I have seen and experienced much that afforded me great satisfaction. The signs of the times are now very favorable. The reëlection of the President is almost certain unless some great military misfortune overwhelms us and that is not to be expected. The results of the election will determine the results of the war, and the worst will then be over. I am sending you one of my speeches, which has been published by the Congressional Committee, and in which, if you will take the trouble to read it, you will find my opinion on the nature and real object of the present party strife elucidated more clearly than I could possibly do it in a letter.

I wish to enlighten you on two other points. You are underrating the President. I grant that he lacks higher education and his manners are not in accord with European conceptions of the dignity of a chief magistrate. He is a well-developed child of nature and is not skilled in polite phrases and poses. But he is a man of profound feeling, correct and firm principles and incorruptible honesty. His motives are unquestionable, and he possesses to a remarkable degree the characteristic, God-given trait of this people, sound common-sense. Should you read his official documents and his political letters, you would find this verified to a surprising extent. I know him from personal observation as well as anyone, and better than the majority. I am familiar with his motives. I have seen him heroically wage many a terrible struggle and work his way through many a desperate situation with strength born of loyalty to conviction. I have criticised him often and severely, and later I found that he was right. I also know his failings; they are those of a good man. That he has committed great errors in the endless embarrassments of his position, cannot be denied, but it can be explained. Possibly other persons, if in his position, would not have committed the same errors, but they would have committed others. Moreover, Lincoln's personality has a special importance in this crisis. Free from the aspirations of genius, he will never be dangerous to a liberal government. He personifies the people, and that is the secret of his popularity. His Administration is the most representative that the history of the world has ever seen. I will make a prophecy that may now sound peculiar. In fifty years, perhaps much sooner, Lincoln's name will be inscribed close to Washington's on this American Republic's roll of honor. And there it will remain for all time. The children of those who persecute him now, will bless him.

I wish to enlighten you on another point. You believe that this Government has treated me with great lack of consideration. These are the facts: I had rather a serious disagreement with my commander, General Hooker. He is a man with no firm moral force but he is a good soldier and in addition has the talent publicly to display his achievements in the most favorable light. Because of a wrong which he did me, I demanded an investigation, at which I fared very well and he very ill. But naturally I had to resign my command under him, so as to protect my own safety. Unfortunately, just at that time the reorganization of the Western Army was completed and the campaign about to begin, so that Sherman was unable to carry out his promise to give me a new command at once. Accordingly I voluntarily decided, while I waited in Nashville, to assume direction of a recruiting-camp in order not to be idle. The Government had nothing to do with this. When I finally requested permission to report at Washington, the Government immediately placed a command at my disposal which was much larger than my former one. There are two reasons which prompted me to decline this offer; in the first place, my wife s health made it desirable that I remain with my family for a time; and furthermore, the political situation was such that I had a more important field of action here than any where else. Therefore, I am where I am, voluntarily. That these matters have been misrepresented in German newspapers, is not surprising. This gives me no concern. I never think of publicly refuting such misrepresentations. However, even if there had been ground for complaint, my acts would have been the same. In times like these, more important matters than individual interests or sensitiveness are at stake. He who cannot rise above them, should content himself with selling peanuts. I feel myself so uplifted by the splendid and hopeful trend of affairs that I could make far greater sacrifices than those which fate has demanded of me. This is a great people and this is their time of greatest trial. We are in the smelting-furnace, and the metal flows richly while the dross turns to ashes. We shall have a great future. But I must not begin this chapter.

  1. Petrasch had been like a sympathetic older brother to Schurz in their school-boy days. Schurz's lasting gratitude and affection were beautifully expressed in his letters. Petrasch had lately come to the United States to live.
  2. Translated from the German.