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The Engineer Regiment.


September 1862

From The Missouri Democrat, Wednesday, September 17, 1862.

The Engineer Regiment.

Editors Missouri Democrat:

Will you please to publish the following statement of facts connected with the history of the “Engineer Regiment of the West,” as an act of justice to the men, and to prevent further frauds from being perpetrated.

All of your readers are probably not aware of the manner in which this regiment was enlisted; I will therefore state, in as short and plain terms as possible, its history:

J. W. Bissell, with the design, as appears, of forming for himself a command, had a circular struck on the 14th of July, 1861, stating that he had been authorized by Major-General Fremont to raise a regiment of sappers and miners, to be called the “Engineer Regiment of the West,” and stating that he expected them to be employed most of the time on extra duty, as mechanics, artificers and laborers; and when so employed each laborer would receive twenty-five cents per day, and each mechanic or artificer forty cents per day, extra pay—thus making the pay about double that of ordinary soldiers.  There were also advertisements and large handbills issued in his name, and letters written bearing his signature, in some instances giving the matter a still brighter coloring; and, assuming those as a basis, parties desirous of forming companies made promises to men which induced them to enlist, on terms represented as insuring them they would have no guard duty to perform, no marching of any account, nor any knapsacks to pack, thereby securing the enlistment of many who, from age or constitutional disability, were entirely unfit for service.  Thus matters passed on until through his own exertions and those enlisting for him they had procured over eight hundred men.  By this time, having become convinced that General Fremont knew nothing about Col. Bissell’s circular, he not having been appointed to command until the 15th of July, one day after the circular was issued, and that Congress had passed no law authorizing the enlistment of men for that branch of the service, nor provided any means authorizing the payment of extra duty to sappers and miners or engineer soldiers; and it being asserted by some of the officers that we were only infantry on extra duty, it became evident to many of the men that we had intentionally been defrauded in our enlistment, and gave rise to a fear that it was the intention of the officers to disregard the principles of civil and military law, entitling volunteers to a choice of that branch of the service for which they enlisted, (a right which had always been recognized by the Government,) thus giving rise to an excitement, which was only quelled by the positive assertions of Colonel Bissell and Major Adams, that we were engineer soldiers or sappers and miners, and could be nothing else.  Thus matters stood, the feeling of the men occasionally heaving up and trembling like the first signs of a volcanic eruption, whenever rumor said there was any ground for a fear of losing our rights, the men wishing only for those rights, and determined to maintain them at all hazards, if necessary, until it became necessary to pay them, the payment having been deferred for the evident purpose of keeping the men blinded as long as possible as to their actual position.  But when on receiving only infantry pay, that position, as recognized by the Government, became known, they became impatient of restraint, declaring they would serve no longer; but being advised by those wishing to adopt only legal means for redress, they returned to duty, without having created any greater misdemeanor, in most instances, than an expression of opinion, and those coming from Illinois sent a petition to Governor Yates, asking him to intercede for them to obtain redress.  Others did the same to the respective Governors of States in which they were enlisted, and in the latter part of the same month, five companies being encamped together, combined in sending a petition to General Halleck, stating in general terms their wrongs, and asking that they might be redressed.  Not hearing from General Halleck, and having obtained legal advice that they might not infringe on military law or discipline, they again addressed him a petition, bearing over five hundred signatures, asking an investigation, and that, in consideration of the fraud of their enlistment, with new field and staff officers, or disbanded and allowed to join such other regiment or branch of the service as we might choose.  This we sent to our attorneys, who presented it to General Halleck, and were by him referred to General Cullom, Chief of Staff and Engineers, and he in a letter replying to them, dated about January 15, 1862, assured them that an investigation had been ordered, and that our rights would soon be investigated.  Accordingly, about the 10th of February, there was an informal investigation held before Brigadier General Palmer, at Otterville, Missouri, resulting in a decision which, (as has been asserted in a letter to Gen. Halleck and never denied,) was that there had been fraud used in our enlistment, and that we were entitled to an honorable discharge from the service, but gave it as his opinion, that if we could have new field and staff officers, we would be willing to remain.  For some cause unknown to the men that decision was never carried into effect; and although it was well known that they were not notified of the investigation, and had no chance to bring forward the testimony which they desired, and their wish to be taken to St. Louis, where they could have a fair investigation and permanent decision,  they were by means taken through that place and down to New Madrid without being allowed that privilege, and from that time they have been shoved around as best suited their officers, whether to the benefit of the Government or not; and although their protests have been many, they have generally promptly complied with all requirements, and have shown a strong desire to serve in every thing that advanced the army, or interests of the Government, until Col. Bissell informed them, about the first of August, that “he was going to give them the privilege of being infantry or engineers as they chose, saying, if they became engineers they would receive no extra pay, and if they became infantry, he could ensure them no extra duty, and therefore no extra pay.”  They then positively refused to become either, and sent in a protest, asking the terms of their enlistment, or that they might be discharged from the service.  Again quietly returning to their work, but soon becoming satisfied that it was the intention of the officers, through their quiet performance of duty, to so misrepresent matters, as still to detain them illegally in the service, and satisfied that it had become necessary to adopt some more decisive means to insure themselves justice, and an investigation or discharge from the service, most of the companies in camp drew up a paper, declining to perform extra duty, and offering to deliver themselves up for arrest, until they could have a trial, or be honorably discharged from the service, which they presented to their officers, on August 31st.  On that evening, companies C and G, being called on detail, refused to go, and were immediately sent to the Provost Guard-house, under arrest, and reported to Acting Brigadier General Lawler, commanding post, as mutineers.  But he, knowing something of their wrongs, and needing the men, sent down to ask them if they were willing to assist in defending the post against an expected attack.  The boys never having refused to bear arms, assured him they would, but didn’t wish to be commanded in battle by the officers of their own regiment, but that they would go with him, and as soon as relieved from duty return to arrest, as they wished an investigation and their rights.  Informing them that he couldn’t see any signs of mutiny, and assuring them of his assistance to obtain their right, he released them and came with them to camp, and in accordance with his request they were placed on picket duty next morning, where they remain patiently, awaiting Secretary Stanton’s decision, having been informed by a telegram from Brig. Gen. McPherson that the matter had been laid before him.

Such is a simple history of the regiment so far as I can learn  With three companies I have had but slight acquaintance until recently, but believe theirs to be nearly the same as the others.

Now, Messrs. Editors, it is not my design nor the men’s desire, to be exonerated from any offence they may have committed against military law, believing their enlistment to have been fraudulent, and having claimed their discharge on those grounds, they look upon their detention as illegal, and are willing to leave their acts to the decision of civil or military law; are their officers willing to do the same?  Yet we await with some anxiety the decision of Secretary Stanton, trusting it may be given on the plain merits of the case, without regard to the pressure for men in the field, and that he will in that decision declare the supremacy of those laws for the maintenance of which we came to fight, punishing those who have defrauded us, for we yet wish to have the privilege of again coming to our country’s support with that knowledge which renders such support a double pleasure; that is, that the laws which we came to support are still honored by the nation, and that it still maintains those great cardinal principles, which are the foundation of our liberties, and had not become the truculent tool, (through the existence of a bloody war for power,) of fraud and corruption, but if contrary to their expectations the men should be driven to adopt a course which might bring dishonor to them or their country, in the endeavor to obtain redress for the wrongs which they have suffered quietly for months, and obtain those rights to which they are justly entitled, then let those who have wantonly trampled on the laws, in the attempt to crush down to servitude those born to freedom, bear the blame which they so justly merit.

It matters not what may have been my course; whether with the design of bringing on a test as to the legality of our detention before a military court, I have infringed on military law; the men are not responsible for my acts, nor I for theirs; of one thing you may be assured, that they will never be satisfied until Government gives them a fair trial, or acknowledges their rights by discharging them from the service—and when that act of justice is done, I have good reason to believe that most of them will return to the service under officers they can respect, and cheerfully serve their country until this rebellion is crushed out.  Claiming that most of the enlistments in the regiment have been procured by fraud or false pretenses, and that we are not legally in the service unless Government recognizes and carries out the terms of our enlistment—an act of which it cannot perform under existing laws.  Or if, as I expect to prove, Government has by forcibly detaining men in the service, so far recognized the contract as to become bound for its fulfillment, and having for months refused to pass laws, or in any other way to comply with the contract, it has so far broken it as to release us from all liability for our performance, and that our present detention is a violation of all law, and, believing the regiment as at present organized to have been conceived in iniquity, born of deception, and reared to its present age by fraud, used to swindle the Government and men, and a disgrace and reproach to both.  An illegitimate child, like others of its class, it is endeavoring to edge itself into Uncle Samuel’s large and respectable family, and claim Abraham for its father; but I have too much respect for him, when he once obtains sight of its hydra head to suppose that he will, for a moment, allow it to remain and stain, with its presence, his family circle, but that he will send it back with a rebuke which will cause it to vanish to the abode of darkness and crime from which it sprung, and if government or any one yet doubts that frauds and abuse connected with the regiment, I ask but fair opportunity, when I pledge myself to prove them in character so plain and striking that even the blind may read.

And now, sirs, asking no palliation of any offense I may have committed against the laws of my country, I stand ready to answer for them all at the bar of a civil or military court.  Are those who have for months pursued me willing to do as much?

With great respect, I remain ours, &c.

JACKSON, TENN., Sept. 10, 1862.