About Me

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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. My perspective comes from a 28-year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Monday, April 17, 2017

He Beat Robert E. Lee at West Point

Charles Mason
Both Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan were graduates of the United States Military Academy.  Lee graduated in 1829 and McClellan graduated seventeen years later in 1846.  Both ranked second in their respective classes.   Today, Lee and McClellan overshadow and outshine the two men who beat them out for top honors.  Charles Mason and Charles Stewart are not names that resonate in the history of the Civil War.  Most people don't even know them.  But both men deserve a better fate than to be considered obscure and unimportant.  Their contributions to Civil War history are significant and indeed surprising.  This is the first of two posts that consider the careers of the men who lead the West Point classes of 1829 and 1846.
Charles Mason was born on October 24, 1804 in Pompey New York, a small town near Syracuse. He was a full two years older than Robert E. Lee who was born on January 19, 1807.  Charles was the fifth of six children born to Chauncey and Esther Dodd Mason. Unlike the highbred Lee’s of Virginia, Charles’ father up to the end of his life was a carpenter.[1]  Mason attended local schools and at the ago of 19 was admitted to West Point.  Douglas Southall Freeman described Mason at West Point as “invincible”, a man “ of studious habits and uncommon ability.”[2] No matter how hard Lee worked, he was never able to academically supersede the young New Yorker. Like Lee, Mason never earned a single demerit in his four years at the Academy.   In July of every year, the position of adjutant was filled.  This was the highest-ranking cadet in the Corps.  It went to the man who manifested the finest military bearing and best record on the drill ground.  It is here that Lee came out on top, being appointed to that position in July of 1828. One year later, the men parted ways upon their graduation on July 1, 1829.  Marshall was number one and Lee number two.  Their high class standing destined both men for appointment to the elite Corps of Engineers.  Lee’s orders sent him to Fort Monroe.  He served his first assignment as an assistant engineer in the construction of that fort.  Mason remained at the Military Academy as Principal Assistant Professor of Engineering for two years. 
Mason did not elect to make the Army a career.  He resigned on December 31, 1831 and returned to Newburgh New York where he studied law and eventually joined a law firm.  Two years later he moved to New York City and became acting editor for the New York Post, a pro-Democratic paper.
            While Lee was establishing a reputation as a skilled military engineer, Mason moved in 1836 to Des Moines, then a small village in the Wisconsin Territory.  Governor Henry Dodge appointed him county attorney and Mason settled down on a farm at Burlington.  He married Angelica Gear a local girl and the couple had three daughters.  In 1838 when Iowa became a territory, President Van Buren appointed him Chief Judge of the Territorial Supreme Court.  In that role, Mason was instrumental in writing the criminal code for the new territory. 
Eighteen years before the famous Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Mason in 1839 heard the case of Ralph, a Missouri slave who had been allowed by his master to come to Iowa in exchange for a promise of payment to buy his freedom.  Ralph did not pay and when his owner tried to force him back into slavery, Mason ruled that under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery in Iowa was forever prohibited.  A master who permitted a slave to become a resident in Iowa could not exercise any acts of ownership within Iowa.[3] 
Mason served on the Supreme Court until 1848 when he was commissioned to chair a panel that prepared a code of laws for the new state of Iowa.  By now, Captain Lee was a bona fide war hero of the Mexican War.  Serving on Winfield Scott’s staff, Lee earned three brevets for gallantry at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, and Chapultepec. 
            In April 1853 President Pierce appointed Mason as the U.S. Commissioner of Patents in Washington D.C.  He was an energetic reformer who reorganized the system for applying for patents and inaugurated a system for obtaining weather information by telegraph.  Mason also hired the first woman to regular employment in a federal office.  This determined young Massachusetts woman was Clara Barton, future Civil War humanitarian and Red Cross founder.  Lee was back at the two men’s alma mater as Superintendent of West Point. 
            In August 1857 Mason resigned as Patent Commissioner, unhappy with the politics of the Buchanan administration.  He returned to Iowa and was elected to the state’s Board of Education.  Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Lee commanded the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Texas.  He returned that year to Washington to settle his father in laws tangled estate at Arlington.  Undoubtedly Mason who was back in Iowa read of Lee’s lead role in the capture of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859.
In 1861, Mason unsuccessfully ran as the Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa.  The former army officer from New York opposed secession but stood up for the constitutional rights of the southern states.  He cast his lot with the Peace Democrats declaring that the Union “can never be perpetuated by force of arms and that a republican government held together by the sword becomes a military despotism.”[4]  Mason’s only overt support of the war was his appointment by Iowa governor Samuel Kirkwood to a state war bond commission.  Lee likely had similar sentiments to Mason on the issue of secession and the rights of South. Promoted to Colonel, of the 1st U.S. Cavalry on March 16, 1861, he was now one of only 19 regimental commanders in the Army.[5]  His command of that regiment would last one month. Turning down an offer of a senior command in the Federal Army, Lee resigned on April 25, 1861 to follow Virginia into the Confederacy. 
            Mason returned to Washington in 1862.  By then, Lee was remaking the Army of Virginia in his own image and emerging as the preeminent military leader of the Confederacy. Mason leveraged his political connections, to establish the lucrative patent law firm of Mason, Fenwick and Lawrence.  He was active in Democratic circles determined to oust Lincoln in the 1864 campaign.  Among other roles, he chaired the Democratic National Central Committee.  Lee was also determined to see Lincoln defeated in the 1864 elections.  Mason no doubt followed the military successes of his former classmate.  Lee, an avid reader of Northern newspapers was no doubt aware of his former rival’s partisan activities in Washington as well.
            Mason ran again for governor of Iowa in 1868 and lost convincingly.  As he grew older, Mason remained active in local affairs in Burlington serving as president of the local water company and several railways.  He returned to the national scene as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1868 and 1872.  Throughout his long life, Charles Mason retained a great interest in farming and agricultural science and the farm at Burlington was the center his family life.   
While Charles Mason did not offer his services to the Union war effort, his son-in-law had a distinguished military career. George Collier Remey from Davenport Iowa was an 1859 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.  Like Charles Mason, he graduated with honors.[6]  Though born far from the ocean, Remey served with great distinction on the seas during the Civil War.  He was on the gunboat Marblehead during the Peninsula Campaign and subsequently a part of the Union blockading squadron off Charleston South Carolina.  In the ill-fated attacks against that city in September 1863, Lieutenant Remey commanded a division of landing boats.  His was the only one to make it ashore and was smashed by Confederate gunfire.  Remey was captured and spent 13 months in a Confederate prison.  In 1873 Remey married Mary Josephine Mason.  In his long illustrious career, he served in the Spanish American War and commanded the United States Asiatic Fleet before retiring as a Rear Admiral in 1903.
Later in life, Charles Mason reflected about the war years, and his role as a leading Copperhead.  Writing in his diary he said "I played the game of life at a great crisis and I lost. I must be satisfied."[7] One can only wonder if his classmate ever harbored similar sentiments.
Twelve years after Robert E. Lee’s death and 53 years after the two young men graduated from West Point, Charles Mason died on February 25, 1882 at his beloved farm at Burlington Iowa.  He was 78 years old.

[1] 1850 Census
[2] R.E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman Pulitzer Prize Edition Volume 1 page 80; New York Charles Scribner’s Sons 1947
[3] Acton, Richard. “Charles Mason” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web 14 April 2017.
[4] Ibid
[5] At the start of the Civil War, there were ten infantry regiments, five cavalry regiments, and four artillery regiments in the regular army.
[6] Remey graduated fourth in his class.  At 17 years of age, he was also the youngest graduate. 
[7] The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa