Union General Nathaniel McLean, Extensive Civil War Archive Including Correspondence, Photographs, and War-Date Sketch
This massive lot is comprised of almost 400 paper items, consisting of 339 letters and covers sent by McLean to his wife, during the war years from June 1861 through February 1865. The majority of letters are four pages in length on a single folded sheet, with some letters of greater length with additional sheets. Almost every cover is intact, yet absent their postage stamps, victims of an early family philatelic (twenty-seven of these are Western Union telegrams bearing shorter messages, also with original covers.) Accompanied by 3 CDVs and a pencil sketch.
McLean was a consistent correspondent, writing sometimes every day or every-other-day, and at least once a week during periods of greater army activity. The result is a rich treasure of wartime detail, penned from the perspective of a field-grade and later, general officer’s point-of-view. The market abounds in enlisted and line-grade officer letter collections – McLean’s uncatalogued correspondence offers historians a fresh look at such controversial engagements as Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville, where fate placed his regiment at critical positions on those fields.
Additional correspondence pertains to Virginia battles at McDowell and Cross Keys and north Georgia operations during the Atlanta Campaign, including Resaca, New Hope Church and numerous daily engagements that characterize Sherman’s campaign. A penciled five-page Memorandum of McLean’s Brigade itinerary runs from May 15 through June 17, 1864, the day McLean was reassigned to Kentucky. Also included is an unpublished, hand-written report dated May 24, 1864, detailing McLean’s Brigade operations for its first three weeks in-the-field.
The collection is chronologically arranged in four three-ring binders, the first three containing the General’s correspondence with Mrs. McLean. A fourth binder contains 55 military documents – pertaining to army business such as requisitions for his horse and forage, receipts from sutlers and Cincinnati merchants, and an interesting letter from a frustrated Quarter Master explaining the procedure by which a Surgeon is to be reimbursed. Original and period copies of General and Special Orders pertaining to McLean are also present, some fourteen in all, including two Courts Martial assignments.
Of greater historical value are papers pertaining to McLean’s military career, that includes a Memorandum of Agreement between the officers of the 75th and 79th Ohio, in the event of consolidation of the two regiments and how respective positions would be filled. Another interesting letter requests McLean’s help in providing medical treatment to a Confederate Captain held in Cincinnati. A similar letter from a Cincinnati officer’s father, requests an exchange for his injured son, at a time when the POW exchange had stopped in 1864.
Several letters or period copies of letters from fellow general officers are of greatest interest to students of Mclean or the campaigns in which he participated. There is a period copy of a letter by Major General John C. Fremont to Secretary of War Stanton, dated after the battle of Cross Keys, recommending McLean for promotion. Another highlight of the collection is a series of handwritten orders from the Atlanta Campaign, including Field Order No 103 with cover, completely penciled in General Jacob D. Cox’s hand.
Towards the end of McLean’s military career, there are three insightful letters between he and General Cox, as McLean expresses frustration at remaining in the same rank for over two years. His letter to Cox is a copy from his files, Cox’s original reply and a period copy of Cox’s letter to War Secretary Stanton are all present. In essence, Cox wrote a soothing letter, explaining why other general officers were entitled to the promotions they received, based on length of time they served in-the-field. These remarkably candid letters between general officers are seldom found in period collections. McLean’s frustration over Cox’s brotherly response seems to have contributed to his resignation less than two months later.
The following is a typical sample of McLean’s writing to his wife, dated May 30, 1864, from a camp at Burnt Hickory, GA:
Again darling wife I have opportunity of writing you a letter. I am just at this moment indulging in most luxurious soldiering. Seated in an ambulance writing to you under the shade of a tree, without fear of an immediate attack from the enemy and this after having eaten a hearty dinner of side meat, corn bread & coffee. Yesterday afternoon, by order, we left the breastworks we had built of rough logs and rails, within close musket shot of the enemy, in their earthworks, and where we were subject to constant firing [illegible] the least exposure was made of our persons, and where it was impossible to sleep for the incessant noise of musketry, and constant vigilance necessary to guard against a sudden attack, for our present position of comparative safety. We all feel the change to be very great, and already experience great relief in all respects. The great and constant excitement under which we have been during this campaign has told upon us all with great force and the present rest we now have is enjoyed and esteemed as a great luxury. Today we have heard from the troops who took our place in the front. I hope they may bear it as well as we have done. How the rebels get along I can only imagine. They must feel it as much as we do, with the additional depression of having been defeated. I do not believe they can hold out much longer unless they receive reinforcements. They must either whip us or retreat. Day before yesterday they made two attacks upon our lines at different points and were repulsed with great slaughter. Last night also we had very heavy fighting all along the lines but I have yet heard no particulars. I hope you will be able to read my letter, but I can scarcely do so myself. The hardship and fatigue which I have gone through makes my hand tremble so that I can scarcely guide my pen. I am not sick, only exhausted and with a few days rest which I hope to get here, will be all right. My duty is to protect this point from a flank movement in our rear which the enemy might possibly make, if they could get around us with their cavalry. Our supply trains are near me in any quantity and my position here is one of great importance to our army. I hope to be able to keep all things right until I am relieved by some other brigade. As yet I have seen nothing in Georgia which would tempt me to wish for a change from Ohio. In truth everything which I have seen of the South so far, has only made me more contented with my own state. It is true that as yet we do not appear to have penetrated into that position where the richer classes live and therefore perhaps cannot rightly judge of the state. The class of people we have come across so [far] are poor and ignorant, without the least refinements. We have seen but two of their houses with any pretensions to elegance and they were unfinished. We have seen some fig trees with fruit half grown, but nothing else in the way of advanced vegetation to remind us of the sunny south. It is hot enough [illegible] to melt us down and it has done so to me, as I feel much lighter than when I started. Every morning I tighten my belt to make up for loss by want of appetite or the wherewith to gratify it. No letters from you for a longtime, I suppose on account of your sickness, which I thank God you have recovered from. I enclose you a note to a paymaster in order to enable you to draw my pay for your use. I as yet have enough. Love to Eliza and all the children with kisses for babies and darling wife. N.C. McL.
This lot also includes a wartime CDV of N.C. McLean posed full length as colonel of 75th O.V.I. wearing frock coat and forage cap with 75th Inf. bullion device on cap front. With imprint on verso for Hoag & Quick’s, a well-respected Cincinnati gallery. Verso signed in period pencil, N.C. McLean in the General’s own hand. Deep rich tones distinguish this unpublished and previously unseen portrait.
Two ca 1875 copy cartes of McLean also accompany the lot. The first carte shows Mclean seated in his colonel’s frock coat with his characteristic full beard. On verso in period ink McLean captioned the carte: N.C. McLean, Col. 75th O.V.I., Sept 18th 1861. The second carte is a bust portrait in brigadier general’s frock coat. On verso in period ink appears McLean’s caption: N.C. McLean, Brig. Genl. U.S.V., Nov. 29 1862.
Artist’s pencil sketch of Brook’s Mansion, Gen. McLean’s Headquarters, Aquia Creek, Va. Feb. 1863. Sketch is surrounded by original 1890s mat and ink-captioned in artist’s hand: Compliments of Wm. C. Margedant, Late Capt. Supt. Topo. Engr. Dept., Army of the Cumberland and on the staff of Gen. McLean. Aquia Creek, Army of the Potomac. Sketch is done in primitive style with architectural details finely rendered. As explained in the artist’s letter to McLean, this is an 1890s hand-drawn copy of the original sketch, as originally drawn by Margedant (and retained by him.) Overall size of mat is 9 x 12 in., with interior opening of 4.75 x 7.75 in. Mat and sketch are repaired on reverse with non-archival tape – yet fit cleanly together.
Enhancing the sketch’s historical value is a typescript letter from Margedant dated Oct, 26, 1895 at Hamilton, Ohio, in which he writes in part: I suppose you do not remember me, the writer of this letter, but you surely remember Brooks Station near Aquair Creek, and the Architect of your bridal Chamber at Brooks Station. Dear General, I often think about Brooks Station and your Headquarters at that point; my work as topographical engineer in your division and the surveys I made up to Petersburg, Va. Among my letters I have one with a sketch of Brooks Mansion at the Station in which you had your Headquarters, and I will with great pleasure make you a copy of the same and send it to you sometime when I have a little time to sketch.
When Margedant sent the sketch five weeks later, he included a 7pp typescript letter with inked corrections and addenda, providing recollections of his topographical duties on McLean’s Staff and of his life since the war. Of particular interest is a description of the house’s interior, which was defaced by Confederate soldier graffiti and unsuited for the eyes of a visiting General’s wife. As Margedant describes in fascinating detail, he and fellow soldiers set about to redecorate Brooks Mansion … one of the old southern houses with porch in front, very narrow and small windows and the rooms of medium size. It had the dark, gloomy appearance of southern houses at that time, and it made a person feel very disagreeable in such buildings.
What could be done to improve the appearance … and make it worthy the reception of a bride? Many suggestions were made which did not meet the approval of the officers in charge, because our transportation was very short, and we could not even secure the necessities of life. It would’ve been impossible to buy furniture and have the same transported to the camp; neither could we buy wall-paper or carpet, or anything of that kind which makes a residence pleasant. The solution was to make-do with material and skills available among Mclean’s Brigade personnel, including hand-made furniture and carpets, and candle-soot decorations to cover the defaced walls.
Margedant’s account should have been published by the Ohio Commandery, M.O.L.L.U.S., of which he was a respected member. Here is a present-day historian’s opportunity. The entire archive is an important historical find and worthy of book-length publication.
Nathaniel Collins McLean, Brigadier General, USV
Nathaniel Collins McLean was born in Warren County, Ohio in 1815 to a prominent family, whose father was John McLean, a member of Congress, a future Postmaster General and later an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. His most famous opinion was a dissent from the majority in Dred Scott vs Sandford, in which the justice spoke out against slavery. Young McLean was educated at Augusta College in Kentucky and received his law degree from Harvard College in 1838, when he married Judge Burnett’s daughter and began his own practice in Cincinnati.
In Autumn 1861 McLean helped organize the 75th Ohio Infantry at Camp John McLean and became its first Colonel, leading the regiment gallantly at the battle of McDowell, Virginia in early May 1862. Following Robert Schenk’s promotion at the battle of Cross Keys, McLean commanded the Ohio Brigade, consisting of the 25th, 55th, 73rd and 75th Regiments. Following the battle, General John C Fremont wrote to Secretary of War Stanton, stating McLean “distinguished himself by cool and steady courage and skillful handling of the troops under his command.”
His warmly praised conduct in action at Second Bull Run, where his brigade stubbornly held a difficult position on Chinn Ridge, led to his promotion to Brigadier General in November 1862. In that fight, “McLean [saw] a Union battle flag [and] realized that the flag’s wounded bearer was sitting upright supporting the colors of the 75th Ohio. McLean, Capt. Andrew Harris and a few men ran back to retrieve the colors. Although mortally wounded, Brady refused to release his grip. Harris pried each finger off the staff to free it from Brady’s devoted grasp.”
At the battle of Chancellorsville McLean’s Brigade was part of Howard’s 11th Army Corps and charged with anchoring the Army of the Potomac’s right in the woods west of the crossroads village. All through the afternoon of May 2nd, 1863, reports of Confederates marching to the right were sent to both corps and army headquarters, finally warning of a massive Confederate attack, which shortly thereafter crushed the Union Right. As second brigade from the right, McLean’s men were unable to stem Jackson’s onslaught.
In the aftermath of high-level finger-pointing, Howard averted culpability and shifted blame to his immediate subordinates and the German-American troops of his corps. In reality, few troops so positioned and greatly outnumbered could have stopped the unexpected early evening assault. Discouraged by his superior’s criticism, McLean requested reassignment to the Department of the Ohio, to which he was appointed Provost Marshal General, a post he retained for nearly a year. In this assignment McLean was based near his Cincinnati home and enjoyed the affections of his large family.
On May 19, 1863, McLean bid farewell to his command, with Lieut. Ladley recalling: The whole brigade was drawn up in mass, the General mounted on a splendid gray horse which the 75th presented to him, rode in front and rear of our line, then halted in front of center. He then made a short and affecting speech, spoke of our trial and hardships, and especially of his old Regiment the 75th. Tears came in his eyes and he was much moved. When he had closed he passed down the line of officers and shook every one by the hand. So ended the farewell of Gen. N. C. McLean, a noble, brave and patriotic Soldier, one who was beloved by all, and especially by his old regiment.
During Sherman’s campaign for Atlanta, McLean commanded a brigade of Kentucky and Tennessee regiments in Schofield’s 23rd Corps. General Jacob Cox later wrote to Secretary Stanton: In the battle of Resaca, Gen. McLean displayed great gallantry in leading his brigade in an assault of the Enemy’s line, where the circumstances made one of remarkable peril. His horse was shot under him at that time and though the division in which he was in was repulsed, he gained great credit for his own conduct, as did the subordinate officers and troops of that whole command.
In the operations near New Hope Church, McLean again fell under criticism from General Howard, who commanded the 4th Corps, for allegedly failing to properly support troops of Howard’s Corps. On June 17th, 1864 McLean requested reassignment to district command in Kentucky and from there took part in operations against Saltville, Virginia. Late in 1864 he again took over a brigade in the 23rd Corps and led it from Tennessee to North Carolina, where a rendezvous with Sherman’s Army was made in March 1865.
The following month, with Confederate defeat assured, McLean resigned his commission on April 20, 1865, having served continuously throughout the war. His law practice was revived, but his interests soon turned to farming and he moved to Minnesota, where he purchased land. During the post-war years he maintained contact with officers of his command and joined the 11th Army Corps Association, Society of the Army of the Potomac. Relocating east, McLean died on January 4, 1905 at Bellport, Suffolk County, New York (Long Island) at the age of 89 and was buried in Woodland Cemetery.
Carte showing Mclean seated in his colonel’s frock coat with his characteristic full beard: tones are lighter and details are consistent for a period-copied photo. Carte showing a bust portrait in brigadier general’s frock coat: tones are stronger for this carte as are the general’s facial features.