By John E. Carey
Generally unknown, unnoticed and little honored, the provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac proved his worth as an invaluable right-hand man to the commanding general.
During a myriad of sometimes messy, often ugly and usually distasteful assignments, one man acted aggressively, diligently and with integrity, plus a dash of God-fearing, Bible-thumping religion: Marsena Rudolph Patrick (1811-1888).
Before the war, Patrick worked on the Erie Canal, taught school and attended the U.S. Military Academy. He served in both the Seminole War and the Mexican War. During the 1850s, he became an expert farmer, intrigued by the science of agriculture. Ultimately, he became president of the New York State Agricultural College.
When the Civil War began, Patrick offered his services to New York, and the governor appointed him brigadier general and inspector general of the state militia. By March 1862, he was in command of James Wadsworth’s brigade in Rufus King’s division of Irvin McDowell’s 1st Corps.
He first learned the difficulties of managing both Union troops and semi-hostile civilians when appointed military governor of Fredericksburg, Va., in April 1862. Later, Patrick and his men fought at Second Manassas and Antietam. In October 1862, Gen. George McClellan appointed Patrick provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac.
On the march
Patrick’s job as provost marshal began with a marching army. Whether in advance or retreat, a force the size of the Army of the Potomac had to contend with clogged roads, narrow bridges, mud, swift rivers and a host of other situations bound to slow progress.
The provost marshal almost always had troops, both infantry and cavalry, under his direct command to assist him in his duties. Patrick had to keep the army moving while rounding up stragglers, looters or worse.
“Artillery, Packs, Ambulances, Servants, Orderlies & detached commands, with Stragglers of all kinds, began to pour in” as the army approached a narrow bridge, Patrick wrote in his diary. “I was at the Bridge & thereabouts, whip in hand, using it freely & directing the movement successfully, until every wheel & hoof had crossed the bridges.”
As battle neared, Patrick’s job evolved into helping concentrate the army. He had to round up drunks, skedaddlers, looters, stragglers and other unsavory men who were supposed to be in line against the enemy. On June 30, 1863, as the army approached Gettysburg, Patrick wrote, “I was called into town and sent for two Squadrons of Cavalry to go back to Frederick & clean out that town, which was reported full of drunken men & Stragglers.”
During battle, Patrick performed the thankless job of turning around or corralling the men who ran from the battle. He also had to deal with prisoners. During Pickett’s Charge, Patrick and his men were behind the main Federal line. “I had my hands full with those that broke to the rear, but we succeeded in checking the disorder & organized a guard of Stragglers to keep nearly 2000 Prisoners all safe.”
After the battle, Patrick saw to the dead and the mountains of government equipment left on the field. On July 6, 1863, Patrick wrote, “I was soon ordered by Gen. Meade to go into the town & make arrangements with responsible parties for the burial of the dead & Securing of the property on the battle field.”
A town pillaged
Perhaps Patrick’s most controversial action was at Fredericksburg. In November 1862, Union troops commanded by Gen. Ambrose Burnside conducted a 40-mile forced march across rural Virginia to a position on the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg.
Gen. Robert E. Lee pulled the bulk of his army out of Fredericksburg to Marye’s Heights, leaving behind sharpshooters. The 120,000-man Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and began a five-hour house-to-house engagement in the town. By the time Patrick crossed the river and entered the town, he encountered a horrifying scene, which historian Frank A. O’Reilly called “a bizarre, bacchanal carnival kind of atmosphere.”
“The Soldiery were sacking the town!” Patrick wrote, uncharacteristically using an exclamation mark in his diary. “Men with all sorts of utensils & furniture, all sorts of eatables & drinkables & wearables, were carried off. I found the town in a most deplorable state of things. Libraries, pictures, furniture, every thing destroyed & the brutal Soldiery still carrying on the work.”
Patrick described his efforts to restore order with near-melancholy: “Couch sent over for me to clear the town. This was impossible although I put in my Cavalry & 4 companies of Infy.”
Some gave Patrick credit for stopping the looting, but in the post-battle finger-pointing, Army leaders and politicians in Washington wanted Patrick’s head for the “sacking of Fredericksburg.” Messages from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton annoyed and depressed Patrick, who believed he had done his duty to the best of his ability in a miserable situation.
“I then wrote [to Stanton] saying that So far as the Pillage of [Fredericksburg] was concerned,” Patrick wrote in his diary on March 19, 1863, “I had nothing further to say, and that the Court of Inquiry would elicit the facts in the case.”
A myriad of tasks
Despite criticism, Patrick kept to the task at hand, performing any number of unusual and often unseemly, yet necessary, duties.
In camp, his “routine” was never routine. “I have been overrun with applications for Bakeries, for Agencies, for Eating Houses, for any and every thing in fact, even to holding my horse, if I pay, roundly,” the provost marshal wrote.
Often, he had to deal with cheaters, moneymaking schemes and the like. “We have made a large number of arrests today, of Soldiers selling [stolen] passes [to return home from the army].” One unusual diary entry is unexplained, but it certainly entailed malfeasance: “I drove up to the Hospital to see about some charges against the embalmers.”
Some complaints Patrick encountered give insight into the lively camp life of the Army of the Potomac. He wrote on Sept. 22, 1864: “This Evening I have had Rev. Mr. Burdick, Chaplain of the 61st New York here, for the 2nd time, in regard to a gross outrage committed upon him by Capt. & Lieut. Ames of a Battery in the 1st N.Y. Artillery, in the 2nd Corps – They tied him up to a Battery Waggon & the trial seems to be a farce.”
Newspapermen were not always treated well by the army. Negative reports from the front could mean banishment, or worse, for the offending scribe. Patrick wrote about “a Man named Cropsey of the Phil. Inquirer, who is to be sent off on account of a Libel on [Army commander George] Meade.” Patrick describes Mr. Cropsey’s punishment: “He was placed on a horse, with breast and back boards Marked ‘Libeller, of the Press’ & marched in rear of my flag, [through] the army, after which he was sent North.”
Patrick frequently interrogated the prisoners in his charge. He nicknamed the holding pen for these men the “Bull Ring”: “I went over to the Bull Ring and brought out a number of cases for examination.” He commented that many commanders found no value in Allan Pinkerton’s detectives and their intelligence. Many believed that between the interrogations of the prisoners and other information dug up by Patrick and his men, all intelligence to be had was obtained.
No alcohol, please
Practically every unwanted and difficult task, it seemed, wound up in Marsena Patrick’s hands. Just before Christmas 1863, he wrote: “I have had the Oyster business in hand, it having been referred back to me by Gen. Meade. I have, this evening, sent down an Advertisement, to appear in the Chronicle, & it has been telegraphed to the Associated Press. The bids are to be opened on Saturday the 2nd of January ’64.”
A teetotaling Presbyterian, Patrick took a stern approach to any amusement, especially involving alcohol, that made him both a pain in the neck and the perfect rule enforcer. On one St. Patrick’s Day, Patrick wrote: “In accordance with a Special request from [Gen. Joseph] Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters – Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me – so I came home.”
Patrick investigated his boss’s own servant for misuse of alcohol. “There has been a court Martial over at headquarters today to try Meade’s Steward, E.A. Paul for Selling Whiskey to Soldiers.” Later, Patrick enforced a “no alcohol” order by the notoriously non-teetotaling Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
Picture of honor
More than once, Patrick officiated at an execution, taking the opportunity to address the troops on the value of good conduct and discipline. On July 15, 1864, Patrick wrote: “I read the Order of the Court & Sentence – The Clergy talked with them a few moments & at their request the feet were tied, the eyes bandaged, the ropes adjusted, the tap upon the drum & the drop fell! I remounted the Scaffold & said such words of warning, of reproof & of correction as seemed proper.”
After Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox, Mathew Brady posed Grant and his staff for one final photograph in the field. On April 12, 1865, Grant, the hero of the hour, posed in a high-backed chair. All his other staff officers stood on either side. The bald, well-built Patrick, wearing a startling 6- or 7-inch white beard, draped his right arm over the left shoulder of Grant’s chair. Patrick appears calm, serene and in command of the minutiae no other general needed or wanted.
As provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac, Patrick had served Gens. McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade, the enforcer of discipline, the repairman of messes, the handler of the distasteful.
He did his duty honorably and well. Every large military unit requires a man like him.
John E. Carey writes history in northern Virginia.