Modern history


ELLET PUBLISHED his report as a book and distributed it nationally to politicians and engineers. His stature and triumph grew, driving Humphreys past the point of toleration, making him more determined to produce a masterpiece himself.

In 1853, to escape Ellet’s success, Humphreys, though still recuperating, used his political connections to obtain orders to study European deltaic rivers. He spent eighteen months there, making observations, meeting with Europe’s leading hydraulic engineers. But they asked him about Ellet’s report too. When he returned home, he published—at his own expense—a pamphlet attacking Ellet methodology, calculations, and conclusions.

Upon his return in 1854, Humphreys’ close friend Secretary of War Jefferson Davis gave him a prime assignment: overseeing surveys for transcontinental railroads. This he did well; his office laid out four routes through the mountains, each one of which would later be used. But the Mississippi obsessed him. He continued to follow every development and assemble information, always planning to write his report. In 1857, after several years of intense politicking, Humphreys succeeded in reopening the Mississippi survey office in Washington.

He still had to give most of his time to other assignments, but he obtained all his old data from storage, reviewed it, and hand-picked a young lieutenant named Henry Abbot, whom he sent to the Mississippi to perform new measurements from Kentucky to Louisiana. In 1860, Humphreys was finally ready to begin writing his report. As the nation prepared to go to war, he isolated himself in his office in the new five-story Winder Building, at Seventeenth and F Streets, just behind the War Department. Through the winter of 1860, Humphreys was there, working through the night, night after night, rarely emerging from his office. As the cold weeks turned into spring, as state after state seceded from the Union, as war talk filled Washington, Humphreys worked, his only respite his view of the Mall, an enchanted carpet of green interspersed with great forest oaks and pines and twisting private paths past boscage and flower beds. West Point classmates and friends clasped hands and separated, knowing that they would be called upon to kill each other. Humphreys had no time for such partings. While he made clear to superiors that he was “desirous of taking part at the earliest day practicable in military operations,” he focused only upon his report. He was desperate not to leave “the work of my life in an unfinished condition. I was deeply anxious to complete [it]. A few hours…under such circumstances became important.”

In this, Jefferson Davis ironically helped him again. Hostility lingered in the Union Army over Humphreys’ friendship with Davis. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter and war broke out, but Humphreys was not given immediate combat responsibility.

While the nation went to war, Humphreys engaged in hostilities too, only his were personal. His report was his weapon. He had never been generous to rivals. He now became ruthless. If earlier, while gathering information, Humphreys had pursued pure truth, now he saw himself as having been wronged by Ellet. His own son conceded that his father “schooled” himself “not to feel love, friendship, or sympathy, but wrong, injustice, and misrepresentation.” Ellet had cheated him out of glory. What if Humphreys could show that Ellet was mistaken?

On July 21, 1861, Union forces were routed at the first battle of Bull Run. Soon afterward Humphreys submitted his report to the secretary of war. To prevent its loss in the confusion of war and his own possible death, he also had one thousand copies printed immediately by a Philadelphia publisher.

The report quickly won attention and praise in Europe. In the United States, both the Union Army and the southern states along the river had other priorities. But the war would eventually give Humphreys’ report the greatest imaginable weight.

LIKE VIRTUALLY ALL West Point graduates, Humphreys advanced rapidly, in eight months rising from captain of engineers to brigadier general and commander of a combat infantry division. And in combat Humphreys showed the iciness of a man who saw others as a means to his end. He displayed his temperament chiefly in letters to his wife, where a portrait emerges of a man enormously prideful and enormously sensitive to position, while his desire for glory showed itself in war.

When Theodore Lyman, a young Union officer, encountered him for the first time, he found “an extremely neat man…continually washing himself and putting on paper dickeys…an extremely gentlemanly man…. There was never a nicer old gentleman”—Humphreys was fifty-two—“and so boyish and peppery that I continually wanted to laugh in his face.” Then on December 14, 1862, at Fredericksburg, Virginia, Lyman saw a different Humphreys, a chilling Humphreys, and said of him, “I do like to see a brave man, but when a man goes out for the express purpose of getting shot at he seems to me in the way of a maniac.”

Fredericksburg was Humphreys’ first real battle. The Confederate Army under Lee sat behind a stone wall atop a steep high bluff, overlooking open ground. The Union General Ambrose Burnside (whose trademark whiskers later became known as “sideburns”) ordered his troops to charge.

It was one of the great bloody blunders of the war. Yet in it a strange detachment surrounded Humphreys, a penumbra of raw ego.

Division after division charged and fell back. Then came Humphreys’ turn. His soldiers fixed bayonets. One of his officers told the rawest, youngest recruits to remain in the rear. Humphreys called them stragglers and ordered them forward with the rest of his troops. He then bowed to his staff, said, “Gentlemen, I shall lead this charge. I presume, of course, you will wish to ride with me?” With him at their head, they started up the hill.

After the battle he wrote his wife: “I led my division into a desperate fight and tried to take at the point of a bayonet a stone wall behind which a heavy line of the enemy lay. The heights just above were lined with artillery that poured upon us round shot, shell, and shrapnel; the musketry from the stone wall made a continuous sheet of flame. We charged within 50 yards of it each time but the men could not stand it.”

Still, he told her, “The charge of my division is described by…some general officers [as] the grandest sight they ever saw, and that as I led the charge and bared my head, raising my right arm to heaven, the setting sun shining full on my face gave me the aspect of an inspired being…. I felt gloriously, and as the storm of bullets whistled around me, and as the shells and shrapnel burst close to me in every direction with hissing sound, the excitement grew more glorious still. Oh, it was sublime!”

To an old friend he added, “I felt like a young girl of sixteen at her first ball…. I felt more like a god than a man. I now understand what Charles XII meant when he said, ‘Let the whistling of bullets hereafter be my music.’”

As an afterthought, he noted, “In ten or fifteen minutes I lost more than 1,000 officers and men.” The casualties exceeded 20 percent of his command. Five of his seven staff officers were shot off their horses. Yet only the glory mattered to him. “The division has made such reputation as will make the fortunes of many of its officers,” he wrote.

Only one thing seemed to have perturbed him. After the battle a fellow officer noted, “General Humphreys with his usual bland smile appeared on a small gray horse, which was of a contrary and rearing disposition; but the General remarked that he had had three valuable horses killed under him, and now he would get only cheap ones.”

More heavy fighting followed. His division shrank from 7,000 men to 3,684. In a series of letters to his wife there is no mention of the horrors they, and he, had gone through, only reports of praise of himself. “It is acknowledged throughout this army,” he wrote, “that no officer ever did as much with troops of short term of service as I did with these, and…that no one else would or could have done as much.”

He was given a new division. At Gettysburg there was more bloodshed. A Union officer watching from a distance reported: “The space occupied by the division of Humphreys was the vortex of a cauldron of fire, the crater of a volcano of destruction…every horse killed and every man in the battery having fallen at his post. Against the weakened, struggling lines of Humphreys…Confederates were pressing with eager yells, trampling the wounded Union men under their feet.”

Humphreys, himself unscathed, only noted with pride, “The newspaper correspondents have congratulated me too and said the handsomest things.” A few weeks later he was promoted to major general and transferred. In his farewell speech to his troops he said nothing of them, their blood, nor even what they had achieved together. He spoke only of himself: “Why, anyone who knows me intimately knows I had more of the soldier than a man of science in me. I did not go to pure science or book science for that would soon have been unendurable, but to science that partook of practicable application, and looked besides to greater application eventually…in the development of the resources of the country.”

Humphreys’ new post was chief of staff to General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac. But staff officers received no glory. Quickly discontented, he complained, “I prefer infinitely command of troops to this position of Chief of Staff. It suits me in nothing, my habits, my wishes, my tastes. I hate to be second to anyone.”

Again: “My mortification at seeing the men over me and commanding me who should have been far below me has destroyed all my enthusiasm and I am indifferent…. How much I could say! I have hardly begun yet.”

And again: “I know that as a Division Commander I have done what no other Division Commander ever has done, and I know that my example has taught others what to do.”

And again: “I have good reason to believe that if it was left to each of the Corps of this Army to say who should command them, I should be chosen in preference to any other.”

Later, ignoring the illnesses that had forced him to leave active service for long periods, he even bragged of physical superiority, claiming, “I do not believe there was a stronger man physically in the whole Army than myself, and but few equally strong.”

In 1864, General Grant was placed over Meade. Humphreys became even more disenchanted: “The reputation justly due to those labors, responsibility and deeds will go to General Grant, and not to General Meade, much less to myself. General Grant will reap all the glory, all the reputation of success, and share none of the obloquy of disaster if such should befall us.”

IF HUMPHREYS’ HOPES in the war were not realized, neither were his fears. He ended the war not on Grant’s staff but as one of Grant’s corps commanders, chasing Lee down, with considerable power within the Army. His report on the river gave him more.

During the war his report had been hailed throughout Europe. Now, after the war, his own country gave him honors enough to satisfy even him. Every major scientific society in the nation elected him to membership, joining the many in Europe that had already done so. Both the scientific and lay press heaped praise upon him. Dozens of newspapers wrote encomiums like that of the New Orleans Daily Crescent: “Its publication constitutes an epoch in hydrographical science…. General Humphreys, in spite of so many previous failures on the part of so many eminent scientific men, succeeded.”

Humphreys’ report would in fact become the single most influential document ever written about the Mississippi River. Indeed, it would become one of the most influential single engineering reports ever written on any subject. It would have such influence both because of the position Humphreys would soon attain and because of its quality. It included hundreds of pages of drawings, graphs, and raw data on sandbars, on riverbanks, on levees, on every imaginable river phenomenon, along with critical analyses of several centuries of scientific literature.

The title alone was a monument to thoroughness: it began Report upon the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River and went on for ninety words. For brevity, it became known as “Humphreys & Abbot” (he graciously credited his assistant Lieutenant Henry Abbot as coauthor), Physics and Hydraulics, or simply the Delta Survey.

More important, the report appeared in the first great age of science, a time when science was redefining the world, when man believed nature was governable and scientists were daily promulgating new laws to subdue it. The telegraph had made communication virtually instantaneous. Already there were plans to lay a cable across the Atlantic, binding Europe and America unimaginably close. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared. In Europe, Louis Pasteur was probing the world of microbiology, and Pasteur had written, “I am on the verge of mysteries, and the veil is getting thinner and thinner.”

Humphreys saw his own work ripping away the veils that had shrouded the great river, and promulgated his own laws to govern it. He declared that he had found “the crowning proof of the exactness of the new formulae as applied to water moving in natural channels…. It establishes beyond reasonable doubt, first that the same laws govern the flow of water in the largest rivers and in the smallest streams; second, that the new formulae truly express these laws; and, third, that the formulae heretofore proposed do not express them even approximately.”

Humphreys considered his methodology, observations, and conclusions irrefutable, and on his title page indirectly rebuked other engineers—especially Ellet—for theorizing without data, when he quoted Benjamin Franklin: “‘I approve much more your method of philosophizing, which proceeds from actual observation, makes a collection of facts, and concludes no further than those facts warrant.’”

Science, however, is a process. Humphreys considered his own work final, proclaiming, “Every river phenomenon has been experimentally investigated and elucidated. Thus every important fact connected with the various physical conditions of the river and the laws uniting them being ascertained, the great problem of protection against inundation is solved. At the mouths of the river, a similar course has resulted in the development of…the principles upon which the plans for deepening the channels over them should be based.”

TO CONTROL FLOODS, levees-only advocates called for confining the river to increase the volume of water, hence increasing the current velocity and scour, thereby deepening the channel.

Ellet had called for the reverse approach, building outlets and reservoirs to decrease the floodwater the river carried.

Humphreys’ own observations seemed to favor outlets as well. His report repeatedly dismissed the levees-only approach, stating, “The investigations of the Delta Survey have rendered untenable that position [that] the exclusive use of levees…lowered the flood by deepening the bed.” Again, “The legitimate consequences which result from Guglielmini’s theory are all contrary to observation.” Again, “Measurements demonstrate with a degree of certainty rarely to be attained in such investigations, that the opinions advanced by these writers are totally erroneous.”

Significantly, he warned that calls by levees-only advocates for closing natural outlets of the Mississippi, especially the Atchafalaya River, “would, if executed, entail disastrous consequences.” Regarding artificial outlets, he wrote: “The investigations of the Delta Survey prove that outlets, in the few localities where they are practicable, may be made to reduce the floods to any desired extent in certain divisions of the river…. [S]o far as the river itself is concerned, they are of great utility. Few practical problems admit of so positive a solution.”

Since this analysis suggested that Ellet was correct, Humphreys demolished Ellet personally. “The task of criticism is always ungrateful,” Humphreys wrote unctuously, “and had [Ellet’s report] been proposed by an obscure writer, it would have remained unnoticed. Coming, however, from a civil engineer so well known as Mr. Ellet, and furnishing, as it does, the basis [of] practical conclusions believed to be most erroneous and most mischievous, it cannot be passed by in silence.”

Then he attacked. He damned Ellet with a mocking faint praise, calling Ellet’s work on the Ohio River “admirably executed, as far as the field work was concerned, but…the computation…seems to be a repetition of Destrem’s misapplication of Prony’s rule.” He also lashed out: “Mr. Ellet shows he does not understand the essential requirements”; “the exactness of measurement deemed essential in the operations of this Survey was not attempted by Mr. Ellet”; “Mr. Ellet’s opinion is based on erroneous measurements”; “the discharge of the Mississippi calculated by Mr. Ellet, cannot be relied upon as very accurate.”

Finally, after reviewing recommendations made over the course of three centuries by engineers from Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Britain, and the United States, Humphreys concluded, “Mr. Ellet’s is the worst ever suggested.”

Ellet had called for outlets. If Ellet’s recommendations were the worst ever suggested, how could Humphreys recommend outlets?

He could not.

Humphreys had begun his survey with intellectual curiosity and honesty. But he had also always intended to write a masterpiece. No masterpiece can merely confirm another’s findings. I hate to be second to anyone, he had said. He would not be second. Instead, he would become corrupt. The corruption did not infect his data—even today his data are considered reliable and instructive—but it did infect his reasoning and his recommendations.

The reasoning was key. He convinced himself of the validity of two new arguments against outlets that not even levees-only advocates had raised. Like a deus ex machina, they allowed him to alter the direction in which his own scientific observations pointed.

First, he claimed that outlets risked creating a new main channel for the river. Humphreys’ own deputy Forshey, the man who provided the raw data that went into the analysis, had earlier called this fear “groundless,” but Forshey was now, after the war, relying on Humphreys for patronage and did not protest.

Second, Humphreys insisted that creating outlets would cost too much for the benefits gained. There may have been considerable validity to this argument in 1861, but the cost-benefit equation would change as more land was developed. Humphreys made no mention of that.

So Humphreys rejected outlets, and Ellet with them. “It has been demonstrated,” he concluded, his italics implying that no reasoning man could dispute him, “that no advantage can be derived either from diverting tributaries or constructing reservoirs, and that the plans of cut-offs, and of new and enlarged outlets to the Gulf, are too costly and too dangerous to be attempted. The plan of levees, on the contrary, which has always recommended itself by its simplicity and its direct repayment of investments, may be relied upon for protecting all the alluvial bottom lands liable to inundation below Cape Girardeau.”

Humphreys continued to reject the engineering hypothesis that underlay the levees-only idea. He continued to warn that the closing of natural outlets would be disastrous. Yet he was recommending that levees, and levees only, be used to contain the Mississippi River and its floods. He had found a facile way to reconcile his conclusion with seemingly contradictory analysis and data.

And who could challenge him? Certainly no one in the South. People along the river were destitute, exhausted physically, emotionally, and financially. The war had ripped enormous gaps in the levees, either through erosion or sabotage by Union forces. Humphreys’ first assignment after the war was to inspect the Mississippi levees, and he recommended the federal government spend several million dollars to rebuild them. Though Congress did not appropriate the money, no southerner would antagonize this new friend. And behind him he had the weight of the U.S. Army.

Ellet could not protest. He had been killed during the war, commanding a Union ram on the Mississippi. Humphreys seemed to stand alone, where he had always wanted to be. And he would soon have the power to enforce his will upon the nation.

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