- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

President Lincoln and his advisers were perplexed. In March 1862, almost the only good news of the war had come from the western front, where a little-known general, Ulysses S. Grant, had captured two Confederate river defenses in Tennessee: Forts Henry and Donelson. But when Lincoln inquired about Grant, the word was mixed.
Some had said that he had performed capably in the Mexican War, but had later resigned from the Army amid rumors that he drank too much. Now, his recent successes notwithstanding, Grant was an unknown quantity. Where, for instance, did he stand on the sensitive issue of emancipation?
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had a suggestion. He had as an assistant secretary Charles A. Dana, formerly managing editor of the New York Tribune, and he had considerable respect for Dana's judgment. Stanton proposed sending Dana to Grant's headquarters and having him report his findings to Washington.
The 42-year-old Dana was an interesting choice for this task. Born in New Hampshire, Dana was brought up in modest circumstances on a farm in upstate New York. He read widely and was admitted to Harvard University in 1839, but eye problems caused him to leave college after two years. He then joined Brook Farm, a utopian cooperative in Massachusetts, which counted Dana among its most active members over the next five years. Although Dana's outlook would become more conservative in time, he would always speak warmly of his years at Brook Farm, where he came to know literary figures such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller.
When Brook Farm was destroyed by fire in 1846, Dana turned to journalism. He used his acquaintance with Horace Greeley to obtain a position with Greeley's New York Tribune, where he worked for 15 years. In 1848, he traveled to Europe, from where he reported on the popular uprisings in Germany and France. Back in New York City, he took up the cause of Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth, and seconded Greeley's opposition to any expansion of slavery.
When the Southern states seceded in the winter of 1860-61, Dana supported Greeley's position that the "wayward sisters" should be permitted to "depart in peace." But when war broke out, no one was a more zealous hawk than Dana. It was Dana who, over Greeley's misgivings, coined the Tribune's slogan "Forward to Richmond!" a slogan that contributed to the mounting of premature federal offensives in 1861. In March 1862, Dana and Greeley parted company, and Dana was receptive to Stanton's offer of a position with the War Department.
So it was that in March 1863, while Grant mulled his plans to attack Vicksburg, Dana traveled to his headquarters as a spy for the Lincoln administration. The ostensible purpose for Dana's visit was to investigate charges that soldiers were not being paid on time, but neither Grant nor his staff were fooled. Fortunately, Grant viewed Dana's arrival as an opportunity, not a threat. He took the newsman into his confidence, and prevailed on him to help draft dispatches. He explained his forthcoming campaign against Vicksburg, and sold the visitor on its merits.
Although Dana would later become disillusioned with the general, during the Vicksburg campaign he was effectively a member of Grant's staff, which at times involved some unusual duties.
In early June, Grant took a gunboat up the Mississippi to investigate reports of a Confederate advance. He was sick, and sought relief in liquor. When word arrived that the port for which they were heading was no longer secure, Grant was well into his cups, and left it to Dana to decide what to do next. The editor chose the safe course, a return to Haynes Bluff.
Back in Washington, Dana assured Lincoln and others that Grant was committed to emancipation and that he was not a drunkard. Dana called him "the most modest, the most disinterested, and the most honest man I have ever known." In the course of delivering this message, Dana appears to have convinced Lincoln and Stanton of his usefulness as an unofficial inspector general.
Dana was next sent to Tennessee to report on Gen. William S. Rosecrans, who commanded the Army of the Cumberland. Again he was recognized for what he was a War Department spy but Rosecrans dealt with him less tactfully than Grant. Rosecrans subjected him to a tirade on how badly he was being supported from Washington, raising doubts in Dana's mind about Rosecrans' competence. Dana was with the Army of the Cumberland for the Battle of Chickamauga, in which Gen. Braxton Bragg's Confederates inflicted a severe defeat on the federals in Georgia.
In Dana's account, written in the third person, "[Dana] sat up, and the first thing he saw was General Rosecrans crossing himself. 'Hello!' he said to himself, 'If the general is crossing himself, we are in a desperate situation.'"
As he leaped into the saddle, Dana saw "lines break and melt away like leaves before the wind."
Within 24 hours of the battle, Dana was on the wire to the War Department. "Chickamauga," he wrote, "is as fatal a name in our history as Bull Run." The Army of the Cumberland retreated to Chattanooga, where its prospects appeared uncertain. On Sept.23, Dana wrote Stanton that Rosecrans was "obstinate and inaccessible to reason," but the following day he telegraphed a more hopeful report: "This place will hold out. The labors of this army for the past forty-eight hours have been Herculean."
In the end, the Army of the Cumberland was reinforced, Rosecrans was sacked and Dana may have accomplished his most useful mission of the war. He returned to his more mundane departmental responsibilities in Washington, but he spent as much time in the field as conditions permitted.
When Grant took command in the East, Dana gave Stanton an admiring assessment of Grant as a commander, but warned that his staff was inefficient. "When the pinch comes," Dana wrote, "Grant forces through by his own energy & main strength what proper organization & proper staff officers would have done already."
After the war, Dana returned to New York, where he formed a consortium that bought the New York Sun. As editor, Dana promised his readers that his paper would be independent of party but would support Grant for president. Once Grant was elected, however, Dana broke with him and led an unsuccessful movement to deny him a second term.
Elsewhere, Dana professed to favor reform, yet was stridently opposed to organized labor and unsympathetic toward civil service reform. A loose cannon on the editorial page, Dana nevertheless recognized the popularity of human interest stories and featured them in a way that made the Sun a fixture among New York papers.
Dana lived until 1897. In the words of one historian, "He had the faculty of endearing himself to close newspaper associates, but never forgave a grudge or a slight."
John M. Taylor lives in McLean. His books relating to the Civil War period include "William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand."

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