Image via Princeton Archives

Last June, working at the Rare Books and Special Collections Department hidden within Firestone, I found myself tearing up as I sifted through pages just shy of 150 years old. I had been processing the Civil War Letters of Adam Badeau for nearly a month, my longest and most meticulous project to date. My task was to read through Badeau’s correspondence in order to fill the gaps in the collection’s finding aid. Adam Badeau is best known for his companionship with Ulysses S. Grant, whom he served as secretary during the war and as his biographer after it. As part of his duties, he met with a variety of generals and soldiers, William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas being the most famous of the lot. Badeau’s historical significance, however, had very little to do with my fascination with him. He was a witty intellectual type and I found myself charmed by his commentary on army life, the purpose of the war, and the fate of slavery. He wrote to his old friend James Harrison Wilson, a Union General and topographic engineer who also served under Grant.

The correspondence picks up in 1863 after Badeau has been wounded fighting with General Grant at Port Hudson. Over a few months New York and New Port, with little company besides his caretakers and surgeons, he writes to Wilson constantly. His recovery is a slow and painful one, as his wounds must be kept open for his bones to properly reset. Disabled and separated from his friends, he found it difficult to socialize with others, exemplified by an episode in which he attends his first party in years and ends up holding the fans of two women while they dance with more able men. “I suspect I am a wall-flower for the rest of my life”, he remarks (December 15, 1863). Solitary moments like this are scattered throughout his letters. However, his character cannot be simplified to that of a whiner. Among his reports on military affairs is a clever, even flirty, banter on their intimate correspondence. When it comes to Wilson, Badeau’s writing is much more lively. As I read through the letters, the extent of his pain accentuated how meaningful their friendship was to him. Writing was not only a form of escapism from his uncomfortable and lonesome circumstances. Badeau lets loose; he is never afraid to write in complete honesty. Even in its lighter moments, Badeau’s correspondence carries a rich emotional weight. On September 10th, 1863, he writes, “Writing to you provokes me to disclose all. I almost think at times you see my naked soul.” Wilson is elevated to an impossible standard as the sole interpreter of Badeau’s woes. By the end of reading his first year of letters, I understood why Badeau referred to him as his “Left Arm.” Yet without Wilson’s half of the correspondence, I was unsure if Wilson reciprocated the dependency. Badeau slowly recovers from his injury and is soon appointed military secretary of Grant in March of 1864.

I was not prepared for their argument mentioned in Badeau’s letter of August 29th, 1864. While the details are vague, I know that Wilson at some point expressed an objection to the honesty with which Badeau had been writing. Badeau’s defensive response, “You misunderstand me. You think I am making vain efforts to revive past,” immediately raises the questions: why is Wilson embarrassed? What exactly is the past they shared? One can tell from Badeau’s affectionate tone that he cares for Wilson dearly, but until this point their history has not been elaborated on. I do not know how harsh the words that Wilson wrote must have been, but the response evoked suggests that he has tarnished something precious. Bewildered and offended, Badeau lashes out against Wilson, revealing a previously unseen vindictive side: “…I find it pleasant to notice that you still feel the need of a constant sympathy and interchange of thoughts such as no one else ever gave you; and that you miss what no one else ever will give you—such a wealth of affection and entirely of devotion as you had and appreciated.” The vindictive Badeau is also assertive; there is no doubt, according to Badeau, that he is as important to Wilson as Wilson is to him. Despite the way he belittles Wilson in this letter, I do not think Badeau’s motive is to hurt him. Like his earlier correspondence, Badeau simply wants to be understood. He has no intention of giving up on Wilson, or of restoring their relationship to what is once was. Behind his rash tone, Badeau demonstrates a surprisingly sober understanding of the situation before him. He ends his tirade looking toward the future: “Harry, say nothing bitingly, nor reproachfully, but I know that one day you will feel keenly how you have wronged your friend. Pardon all this. I will not soon recall to the painful subject, nor will I promise absolute silence. You must take me as I am. I have no Left Arm now.”

As I read through this letter I could not stop thinking about the romantic past Badeau and Wilson shared. The problem with peering into this correspondence is that Badeau is never explicit. The poetic style in which he writes is a product not only of his personality but his goal in writing Wilson. In placing such importance on their relationship, he leaves no room for the little sweet moments you might experience in a romantic movie or novel that help would help an outside reader sympathize with his affection. However, once one accepts that they will never know the full story, his letters become all the more valuable. Badeau’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to capture raw feeling without using storytelling.

Intrigued, I pressed on. Badeau returns to describing his injury and life in the military, but it is not long before he breaks his promise to “recall the painful subject.” When he writes on September 13th, 1864, he lacks the indignation that characterized his letter of August 29th. He is not responding to a recent letter of Wilson’s, but is prompted to write while rereading letters from previous years, reliving the past. He asks Wilson to the remember “the history” he told him when they first met, “the disgust with life…the distrust of men, the belief in friendship—and how you strove at first only to soothe and then to console?” Badeau experienced some sort of heartbreak or betrayal before meeting Wilson, and fearing a “second disappointment” was hesitant to love again. It is perhaps due to this past experience, after which he was “loathe to test the constancy of anyone,” that Badeau is able to so quickly reconcile with the breakdown of his friendship with Wilson.

Although Badeau never holds back when he scolds Badeau, he delivers gracefully. For all the pain he endures, he has a fundamental belief in the value of human experience, and he does not allow his hardships to eclipse his own existence. He is a grateful soul, one who never allows the suffering of the present to discredit the gifts of the past. “I had had experience of the evanescence of human affection, before…” he begins as he reiterates his motive for writing:

“I did not suffer the poignant agonies you once knew me to endure. Nor do I write with any bitterness. I have the stolidity of knowledge, I have no hope ever to renew that delicious intercourse which in its entireness and absolute confidence was all your work, and in its annihilation was the work of fate, jealous that men should be so purely happy, and so happily pure—so nearly good…It is not with the idea of accomplishing its return that I write now.”

I am still unsure whether I feel Badeau’s attribution of their companionship’s dissolution to fate to be wise or foolish. His reason for invoking fate is to absolve Wilson of guilt for their falling out. Perhaps he does not really believe it, but knows that unadulterated anger will get him nowhere. Regardless, in his effort to better understand what has transpired, he gives Wilson the benefit of the doubt:

“I know you honest in your intents…I want you to search your own conscience, and try your own conduct—and now that half a year or more has intervened—to examine again the memories of one night—its preludes of two years…and consider whether you did not err in act, no matter how earnest your motive seemed…erred in repelling what is rare in this world-—a fervent, devoted, unselfish friend…”

Their affection, which had previously been unexpressed in definite terms, is finally given the “one night” with which Wilson’s regrets can be associated. While there is no explicit mention of sex, the singularity of this night implies an act atypical of their discourse as friends. This night is significant enough that Wilson shies away from it. Wilson’s original complaint (from what I have gathered) is that Badeau writes too honestly and affectionately. Even an inconsequential mention of companionship by Badeau conjures shame and regret in Wilson. Badeau not only addresses his own dissatisfaction with Wilson’s behavior, but also attempts to convince Wilson of the value of their relationship. He then extends his metaphor of “Left Arm” and “Right Arm” for the sake of illustrating how they once supported each other, but how he is stronger from experiencing this intimacy even though it has escaped him, going so far as to say “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” and to compare their relationship to that of Brutus and Caesar. Any hint of desperation in this letter is minimized by the thanks Badeau shows for having ever met Wilson in the first place. Badeau has a talent for communicating pain, but his most powerful statements are those in which he describes the importance of others:

“You—Harry Wilson, have left a mark on my life, my character, that can never be effaced. You have made me forever better, truer, purer, nobler than if I had not known and loved you. Your influence has not passed, though your affection has withered—like the scent of some flower that lingers long after the plants themselves have been blighted, it is present with me still…”

With this confession, one can read Badeau’s previous letters in a new light, picking up on their peculiarities. Badeau uses the word love a few times in these most juicy letters, but throughout the rest of the correspondence he restrains himself to “friendship.” Unlike Wilson, he is relatively comfortable with his feelings, but is still hindered by the lack of proper vocabulary with which to express his feelings. In this sense, his letter of September 13th is triumphant. Although the circumstances that surround it are dire, Badeau succeeds in expressing the extent of his affection for the first time since duty brought the two men to separate parts of the country. Before sending this letter he receives one from Wilson and is faced with the decision of whether to rewrite accordingly. He opts to write another and attach it, as an afterword. Having poured out his heart, he reconciles himself to silence: “…I do not imagine we shall look at the matter with the same eyes. I have never felt that you understand all my sentiments, therefore have not been willing to be silent. I think now I have succeeded in setting myself really before you; and I shall now be readier to conform to your wish of burying the dead.” (September 14, 1864)

Wilson ultimately gets his “wish” and their relationship is hardly mentioned in the following years of correspondence. They do become friends again, and Badeau writes mostly about the war and the generals he serves. A year later, Wilson writes that he intends on marrying a woman named Ella Andrews and asks Badeau to visit her. Badeau is delighted with the prospect, even though he unsure how to react to Wilson’s interest in marriage. He assures Wilson that he will not mention their history when he meets Ella. Here he remarks on his feelings one final time before letting it rest, “I wanted to say it, and I did. I wrote it confidentially to my Left Arm, and I have a right to say what I please of him.” (November 5, 1865)

Reading Badeau’s correspondence, I was devastated by his words. He was a tremendously strong man, accepting and cherishing his queer feelings in spite of the inhospitable time he lived in and rejection from the one he loved. I am lucky to have found his letters and witnessed his heartbreak. There is so much I do not know about Adam Badeau, but luckily one does not need to see the whole picture to tap into his experience. His torment is captured just as well in his simplest sentiments. I end with my favorite quote of this correspondence, which prompted the tears mentioned at the beginning of this note: “I’d give ten years of my life to annihilate one day and its consequences.” (September 14, 1864)

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.