In a comment on my previous post [Rattling the Saber], “Let Us Have Peace” suggested I explore further what made the 1859 encampment of the Massachusetts militia different than other militia events. As I see it, the 1859 encampment was significant for its size and its publicity. My theory is that the man at the center of it was advancing a twofold agenda within the context of the time.
State militias had been conducting drills and reviews regularly for many years. In Massachusetts the militia was subdivided into three divisions of two brigades each, each brigade composed of two infantry regiments and a company of dragoons. When the militia conducted their typical annual reviews, they would gather by brigade or division. But in July 1859 Governor Banks issued an order for the entire militia to gather that September. According to the Annual Report of the Massachusetts Adjutant-General, this was the first time any state had held an encampment of all its militia units at once.
The event was set for September 7, 8 and 9 in Concord. Rail transportation was coordinated to bring the troops from across the state. Banks invited Generals Scott and Wool of the US army; Wool attended. The Governors of New Hampshire and Rhode Island were also present as observers. Estimates of spectators ranged from 50,000 to 100,000. Concord resident Louisa May Alcott wrote in her journal “Great State Encampment here. Town full of soldiers, with military fuss and feathers. I like a camp, and long for a war.”
Why such a big gathering instead of the usual smaller ones? Ostensibly it was to expose the regiments to larger drill formations. But I suspect another reason was to generate publicity. So why was publicity wanted? My speculation is that Banks had two purposes, connected to my previous posts on this subject.
I believe that first purpose was to show off the Massachusetts Militia, promoting its image as strong, organized and ready to go. On the final day, General Wool made a speech to the gathered troops in which he expressed his confidence that if called to defend the country, Massachusetts would be ready. The assembled troops cheered. There was a sense that such a call might actually happen in the near future.
My theory is that the other purpose of the event was to promote the image of Banks. At smaller militia reviews there was no real function for the Governor other than as a spectator and speech maker. But with the entire militia gathered, he had a role as Commander-in-Chief. A year and half later, when Lincoln considered candidates for Major General in the volunteer army, Banks was top of the list. Banks would later claim that he never sought a generalship, which seems true — there are no letters from him to Lincoln asking for a generalship and no letters to his political allies asking for their help to get an appointment. Every indication is that Lincoln reached out to him. However, I think Banks had purposefully fostered a public image that made him an obvious candidate. It is hard to say if he was contemplating any specific future roles, such as presidential candidate, cabinet post, or the possibility of a future military assignment, but his role at the 1859 encampment gave him press coverage that enhanced his image as commander material. In May 1861, reporting on Lincoln’s initial selections for generals, the New York Times wrote that “GOV BANKS’ great energy, his well known administrative ability, and the military knowledge which he acquired while Commander-in-Chief of the Massachusetts Militia, fit him admirably for his new duties“.