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Lt. Redwood on Black Confederates

Whenever I come across references to Black Confederates in the primary sources, I am always taken aback a bit. After all, why would any African American willingly, or semi-willingly, serve a cause which had to have been hateful to any thinking Negro of the time? That is the real issue when studying the anomalous cases of Black Confederates. Unfortunately, instead of serious discussion of the issues this entails, it has of late become a question of political correctness, where the truth is lost in rhetoric and propaganda, projecting modern attitudes onto an earlier era.

Mainstream historians, when faced with a changing political landscape—and with grant monies or academic tenure on the line—have, more often than not, chosen to take a politically correct stand, to the extent of denying that there even was such a thing as Black Confederates. Some argue that it is just a confabulation by right wing pundits wishing to justify their covert racism or neo-Secessionist views. While there are, no doubt, some fringe advocates out there for whom that may be true, the truth behind Blacks in the Confederate army is a far more complex question than most political pundits are willing to concede.

The modern political rhetoric largely revolves about sensibilities of people today and almost always ignores the actual situation which African Americans during the Civil War had to face.

What about these soldiers as individuals? How did they feel about the war and their role in it? How did they respond to all the rapid changes in condition of their servitude and the promise—but not yet the reality—of freedom?

These, and similar questions, apply with equal force to both Black Confederates and to the much greater number of African Americans who rallied to the Union cause in various capacities—most notably as volunteers in the USCT, who fought for freedom with rifle & bayonet, artillery & saber.

I have previously documented some incidents regarding Blacks in the War in one of my previous books, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, which, despite its title, is firmly based on primary sources and which reflects, to great extent, attitudes of that era.

Towards the goal of more fully documenting Black participation in the Civil War, following is one first-hand account about Black Confederates, written by a member of the 55th Virginia Infantry, a regiment with the Army of Northern Virginia. Lieutenant Redwood was an eloquent writer and an even more talented artist. One thing that is clear from his first-hand account of Blacks in the Confederate Army, he distinguishes between those Negroes who, although of great value to the war effort, did so involuntarily, versus those whom he unquestionably regarded as soldiers.

While Redwood expresses his admiration of these soldiers, he does so in terms which today might bring condemnation for racial stereotyping and political incorrectness. In the context of his own day, however, his attitude would have been regarded as far more tolerant and enlightened than that of most Whites, North or South. Also note that Blackwood does not segregate his subjects as “Black Confederates” simply as Confederates.

That Redwood had been a member of Stonewall Jackson’s command may have had something to do with his enlightened racial attitudes, since in his day, General Jackson was widely regarded as “peculiar” because he treated Blacks in his home town of Lexington, Virginia, with humanity and grace—to the point of risking imprisonment to educate them, something strictly prohibited by Virginia law before the war.

While this account is but one primary source of many which document Black Confederates and their service in the war, it is important evidence that such persons did exist, even if many modern ideologues refuse to recognize their existence.

THE COOK OF THE CONEEDERATE ARMY

Century Magazine, Vol. XVIII, 560-568

In the grand total of events which we sum up comprehensively as ” the war,” the negro was no insignificant figure, and the part actually played by him was far less passive than a stranger might have inferred. The enlistment of negro troops, with all the complications to which it gave rise, was still a wise stroke of policy on the part of the Federal administration, while, on the opposing side, the peculiar institution was made available for the performance of numerous offices which would otherwise have withdrawn many muskets from the ranks. Vast tracts of fertile country, whence the able-bodied white population had been called away to other sowing and harvesting, were still made to yield sustenance for the armies by slave labor under direction of the few exempts left at home; and in constructing fortifications, and as teamsters at depot posts, the blacks did yeoman’s service.

But, in contradistinction to these compulsory Confederates who went to the wars only in the equivocal sense in which the mountain came to Mohammed, there was a large class who found a service eminently congenial to the erratic habits of their race in attendance upon their masters in the army. Whatever possibilities there might be for him in the issue of the contest, the army darky was in the enjoyment of the nearest approach to perfect bliss of which he had any conception, and of a larger liberty than was vouchsafed to his superiors pending its continuance. There was sufficient pomp and circumstance even in the Southern army to tickle his taste for display; the nomadic, happy-go-lucky mode of life suited him to a fraction. His duties were light and irregular, and his perquisites large. His love of novelty and change was continually being gratified, and his social instincts found infinite scope amidst the large following of his own class which the Southern forces brought into the field. In the earlier days of the war, and in the mounted service especially, this often exceeded in number the muster of fighting men. The mode of its organization naturally attracted the wealthier class into the ranks of the cavalry, and there were entire companies in which each trooper was attended by his swarthy Sancho, for the performance of stable duty. Throughout all arms of the service, indeed, and until within a year of the termination of hostilities, these retainers were still to be found in the proportion of one to each mess, in many regiments. Their ranks represented as many social sorts and conditions as did those of the fairer race, and distinctions of caste were alike observed : from the gentleman’s gentleman— whether the bearer of the grand old name in the possessive sported the stars of a general or carried a musket in the ranks— down to the rude field-hand transformed through stress of military necessity into a cook, the pas was rigorously exacted by each in his turn throughout the descending scale according to a code whose binding force was quite independent of formulation. But native talent will push its way through all obstructions of rank, and ignore distinctions of race, color, and ‘previous condition of servitude,’ and one or two such pronounced types have been selected for treatment here, partly because of their prominence but mainly because they have happened to come under the personal observation of the writer, who undertakes to declare only the things whereof he knows.

Dress Parade A
DRESS PARADE

In the 55th Regiment of Virginia Infantry, there was no character more widely known than ” Bill Doin’s.” That was not his real name, by the way, but a nom de guerre—acquired through a habit the owner had of designating his personal belongings, and especially the utensils peculiar to his calling, by the generic tide of “my doin’s”—and there are probably not a dozen men of the regiment who ever knew him by any other. He was a cream-colored fellow, loosely hung together, lanky and long drawn out as to figure, and with a physiognomy the sides of which were as distinct, one from the other, as the tones of ” Orator Puff,”—one being normal, and the other disfigured by a scar which had drawn up the wing of the nose, given a cock to the eye and a twist to the corner of the mouth, and imparted to his countenance on that side a sinister cast, suggesting the Mephistopheles of the operatic stage. But “handsome is as handsome does” is an adage of especial applicability to war times; and Bill’s deeds—or, for unity’s sake, we may say his doings—were of a sort which veiled all his blemishes of person. His skill in the improvisation of ways and means did sometimes seem to amount to black art; but the declaration of his mess, to the effect that he ” beat the devil,” must not be understood as having any reference to the casual resemblance above noted. Of the culinary corps of the gallant 55th, he was facile princeps, and ruled the roast without a rival, for he embodied those qualities to which mediocre men invariably yield homage. The fact that he was the henchman of an officer had little to do with this pre-eminence, for the colonel’s valet was a personage of far less significance—with the cook-boys; Bill Doin’s ranked him badly. It is true that the latter inspired a certain degree of awe; but he did not kindle enthusiasm. Like his master, he had come to the regiment a stranger, and not by the popular choice; there was a flavor of West Point about him, so to speak, which did not suit the taste of these citizen soldiers of African descent. Bill was not exactly to the manner born; he had drifted into the regiment—and, indeed, into the Confederacy— by an accident of his peace-time avocation, which he himself would have defined, in a general way, as “follerin’ the water.” He had been a hand before the mast aboard a Chesapeake craft in the oyster trade, which, being in Virginia water at the time of the state’s secession, lost her entire crew by the prevailing epidemic, from the captain down to Bill Doin’s. But Bill was a cook-boy before he was a soldier, and the handy ways acquired in the caboose now stood him in good stead in the camp, and, notwithstanding his foreign derivation, he went rapidly to the front rank of his profession in the new field. For a while, his fame did not extend much beyond the limits of his company; but true genius will not long brook obscurity, and the chances of active campaign soon developed Bill’s knack of compensating for paucity of material by fertility of resource.

The hard-fought battle of Sharpsburg was just over, and McClellan had sustained a sufficient check to secure the Confederates in unmolested retreat across the Potomac. In anticipation of this movement, the train’s had already been sent over; but the troops were still in line of battle on the Maryland side, awaiting further development of the intentions of the enemy, before they followed. In this situation of affairs, an order was received by the subsistence officers with the wagons of the 55th to prepare immediately an issue of cooked rations, and to send them over to the regiment. Now, it so happened that the transportation had gotten rather ” mixed,” owing to the haste and confusion of crossing the river in the darkness; so that, while there was flour in abundance at hand, the wagon containing the ” cooking tools ” had gone on some miles further. To look it up before daylight, in the throng of others filling the roads and fields beyond Shepherdstown, would have been as hopeful as hunting for a needle in a hay-stack, and even if found, the utensils would have been quite insufficient for the preparation of so large a provision at once. By loss, breakage, and other accidents of the arduous campaign just concluded, the number of serviceable pots and skillets had dwindled to a minimum. Bill’s company claimed proprietorship in a single implement—an old hoe, which served in lieu of other oven. But Bill, though bereft of his legitimate ” doin’s,” was equal to the occasion. A man who had often tossed up a meal in the cuddy of a pitching “pungy” in a head wind, was not to be daunted by difficulties; and he marshaled his forces with a confidence which was contagious. No time was lost in bringing the wagons down from the high bluff overhanging the river by the winding road which led to the ford below; the barrels were unloaded and rolled down to the water’s edge, where Bill and his satellites were ready to receive them. A substantial fence skirted the road, and, as an act of military necessity, Bill promptly commanded this to be fired, while he unheaded a barrel, and without breaking bulk of its contents, proceeded, with water from the river, to work them into dough. It was rude bakery, certainly; but the question of the moment was of quantity and speed, rather than of quality; and Bill kept his assistants busy running to and fro between the river and the fires, fetching the water in canteens, and carrying off the ” pones,” as he rapidly turned them out, to be baked. The headings and staves, as each barrel was emptied, were used first for baking the bread, hoe-cake fashion, before the fires, and as fuel for the latter, as the dry rails burnt out.

Bill’s genius not only solved the problem of provisioning, the gallant 55th, but also made a close shot at the perpetual motion; once started, the flour, so to say, cooked itself. And when the last batch was baked, the bread was packed in bags and shelter-tents, and borne high and dry on the heads of Bill’s brigade, across the river and up to the hungrily expectant line of battle on the Maryland side. To have given check to McClellan was all very well, though on this point authorities differ; but whoever won or lost Sharpsburg, this chronicle claims a Confederate victory of which official reports make no mention, and bespeaks the honor, too long withheld from Bill Doin’s, who then and there trumped a stronger card than ” Little Mac,”—to wit, General Starvation!

From this time forth, Bill’s abilities found a more extended scope for their exercise, and he became a regimental character, in the capacity of caterer for a mess comprising some of the ” field and staff” In that much harried territory skirting the upper Potomac, which supported one army or the other without respite, from the beginning to the close of the war, he seemed to divine by a species of intuition the farm-houses where there was any prospect of prog. Rarely was his foraging bootless. Commissaries, though armed with the power of impressment, might sally forth and return with empty rattling wagons at night-fall; the trust which was vain when reposed in chariots and horses ripened into assurance when Bill Doin’s hove in sight, and one mess at least felt secure from the necessity of going supperless to bed. In these operations, he was much hampered by other agencies than the mere scarcity of provisions. The flagrant evil of straggling which had resulted from the incessant marching and fighting of some weeks before, had necessitated the most stringent measures for its suppression, and Bill was perpetually getting into trouble with patrolling provost-guards who, deceived by his bright complexion and straight hair, insisted upon reversing the decree which had consigned him to the maternal caste and claiming him as a man and a brother in arms, out of bounds without leave. But Bill was up to every move on the board, and soon found a way to flank the provost. By some mysterious convention, a cavalry man might roam at large without let or hindrance, when an infantry soldier dared not venture beyond the limits of his brigade camp unless fortified with a pass, and Bill lost no time in taking advantage of this immunity by providing himself with a mount. His old sorrel nag, bearing the distinguished name of ” Stonewall,” was the complement of himself, affording not only the means of extending his explorations over a wider field than he could cover afoot, but also providing the necessary transportation for supplies when achieved. The early history of this remarkable steed is involved in obscurity; there are reasons for believing that he was of Southern origin, though the brand on his fore shoulder attested that, like his namesake, he had begun his military career in the service of “Uncle Sam;” for Northern horses, when put upon Confederate fare, were rarely capable of the endurance which he manifested. This argument, however, is open to objection, since, under the auspices of his provident master, Stonewall may have been as independent of quartermasters as was Bill’s mess of commissaries. In common with his owner, Stonewall possessed the quality distinctive of a ” singed cat,”—of being better than he looked; though, as for that, there was seldom much of him visible, when on duty, except his head and tail, the intermediate space being obscured by various edible and potable forage, and by Bill Doin’s. It was wonderful what an amount of vitality was bound up in that frowsy and sun-burnt old sorrel hide, for in those stirring times which tried men’s soles, it was no light work, quartering miles of country and keeping abreast of the foot-cavalry. But whether because he had touched the limit of equine endurance, or that in virtue of his presumably Southern derivation he was averse to the policy of aggression, Stonewall could not be induced to accompany the advance into Pennsylvania, and when within a day’s march of the Potomac, he incontinently “nullified.” To his credit it should be stated, that he still manifested his usual willingness of spirit in spite of the infirmity of his flesh, and though his last legs declined to carry him forward, they went through the motions by executing a species of pantomimic gallop in their tracks, like a soldier “marking time”! Persuasive and coercive measures proving alike vain to move him further. Bill reluctantly sold him to a passing farmer for eight dollars in Confederate currency—the actual cost of a new set of shoes with which Stonewall had been equipped that morning.

But Bill’s enterprising spirit was not to be put down by so trifling an accident of war and Stonewall had numerous successors. But from the date of the latter’s retirement from public life, his master exhibited a marked inconsistency in the matter of his steeds, changing from one to another with the facility of a circuit preacher. For quartermasters had an unpleasant notion that captured animals should be turned in to their department and Stonewall had only escaped confiscation because superficial examination had failed to detect his merit, and he had been passed as not worth claiming. Occasionally Bill would appear mounted as became a bold dragoon; but for obvious reasons, as above stated, these seasons of glory were brief and far between; more frequently the animal was some castaway ” plug,” wounded in action or abandoned on the road because of lameness or of some incorrigible saddle-gall—” the last of many scars” which invalidated his gallant back. These disqualifications for military duty in the strict sense would, for a while, secure Bill in undisputed possession of his prize. But as soon as by careful nursing and provident foraging he had converted the waif into something like a serviceable nag, some officious assistant quartermaster would be sure to spy out Uncle Sam’s trade-mark, and Bill would be summarily reduced to an infantry footing again. Between the quartermasters and the provost, he had “a hard road to hoe”; and whether mounted or afoot, he was alike beset, until, at length, disgusted with service in the line, he went over bodily to the enemy by entering the commissary department, and so vanished from the field embraced in these annals.

Our next subject, who was thoroughbred beyond dispute, proved more steadfast and enduring. “Gin’ral Boeygyard ” was an attaché to Company ” C,” heretofore mentioned in these memoirs, of which organization he followed the fortunes and shared the misfortunes, to the bitter end of its career. Concerning his official title, —retained here for reasons which concern the writer personally, and would not interest the reader—it is sufficient to say that it related to services lying altogether outside of the line of duty, as defined by those claiming authority over the bearer. Notwithstanding the scriptural declaration that no man can serve two masters, the general yielded obedience to six, such being the number, by the actual count of mouths, of the mess over whose culinary destinies he presided. But Boeygyard’s generalship was more than a match for the outside odds against him. He could not pretend to any superior skill in his art, and his personal habits were scarcely such as would pass muster in a well-ordered ménage; but in the Confederate cookery-book the most significant clause of each recipe was,” First catch your fish,” and estimates of proficiency in the cuisine were characterized by a studious attention to this principle. Moreover, as to the rights of property, the general was, like most of his race, a little vague but, as he drew the line vigorously around the military family in whose service he was retained, Mess No. 5 was not disposed to view uncharitably so venial and general a failing.

REDWOOD Perpetual Motion A
PERPETUAL MOTION

It has even been intimated that much of the general’s popularity with his mess was won in ways that were dark, and that his talent of acquisitiveness covered a multitude of sins, in more senses than the orthodox one; that there are yet living those who, if put upon oath, might testify concerning certain “turns” of fire-wood, conveyed by night and under stimulus of liberal reward and no questions asked, to a particular bell-tent sacred to the privacy of the mess,—all this at or near Fredericksburg, Va., at or about the end of the winter of 1862-3, when fuel was “as scarce as hen’s teeth ” in the camps of the A. N. V. In the spirit of strict confidence which should govern the relations of writer and reader, it is competent to admit a declaration, however seemingly irrelevant, which may still serve to cast some light upon the matter under consideration, and which may be relied upon as authentic. This was originally offered, in plea of an increase of tariff, by Boeygyard himself, and was as follows:

“Y’ all gwine git me killed yit, some o’ dese nights; dem da men ober in de —th” (another regiment of the same brigade) “done got wile as hawks !”

The writer, who happened to be within earshot, distinctly heard the words above uttered in a grumbling tone, as the general slipped away in the darkness to his blanket, there to revive, perchance, his “Hair-breadth ‘scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach” of—let us say the rules of military etiquette.

But if the luster of the general’s fair fame was not altogether undimmed by the breath of detraction within the pent-up Utica of a winter-quarter camp, where gossip was the one relief from enforced inaction, all tarnish was speedily rubbed off when the army broke up from the Rappahannock and began its march northward, and universal admiration succeeded factious caviling, as the chances of the campaign developed his abilities, while affording a larger scope for their exercise and in more legitimate directions.

The policy and conduct of the Gettysburg undertaking have formed the subject of more criticism, perhaps, than have all the other operations of the war combined. A host of commentators of every class—soldiers and civilians, pedagogues and parsons, from the Congressional committee to the Comte de Paris—have ciphered and cross-questioned, spouted and scribbled, over the famous battle-field; Batchelder has reduced it to rods and perches, and Bret Harte to rhythmic feet; those who fancy facts and figures may ponder the pages of Early, while the “Later Rambles” of Professor Jacobs may delight the readers of romance. But it is not among the purposes of the present paper to discuss a matter which was settled in the most definite way sixteen years ago; these jottings from memory may, or may not, serve as material for the “future historian”; but, while we are taking evidence for that much talked-of personage, upon whom either faction relies to give a final verdict in its favor, due weight should be allowed to the testimony of General Boeygyard.

From the Confederate point of view, it is to be regretted that the vexed question could not be decided thus, for the writer undertakes to pronounce on the general’s behalf that the Pennsylvania invasion of 1863 lacked nothing of complete success. From the passage of the Potomac, his progress was a series of triumphs, each eclipsing the other in brilliancy. At the first notes of the “drummer’s call” before reveille in the morning, he would disappear, to be seen no more of his associates until the end of the day’s march. But the general’s ramblings, however devious, had a definite end and purpose continually in view.

REDWOOD Bill Doin s and Stonewall
BILL DOIN’S AND STONEWALL

When the troops, having refreshed themselves from the heat and burden of the day by release from harness and by copious ablutions, were beginning to think of other refreshment, then the general’s visage glowed with mingled pride and perspiration, as he shucked off his plethoric haversacks and weighty canteens, and read, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” in the speaking looks of the mess.

Highway and by-way were alike explored, that nothing might lack to grace the banquet; and now were deployed before appreciative eyes the callow chicken, the odoriferous onion, with bland buttermilk in abundance as a corrective; loaf bread, “salt riz” of that heroic mold known only to Dutch farmers,—flanked by appetizing apple-butter, snowy smear-kase, and dulcet honey, while, with the spirit of a true epicure, the purveyor of all this bounty did not omit to heighten the zest of those who were to be partakers of the same, by recounting the difficulties under which it had been procured, and his own address in overcoming them:

“Dese yer sart’n’y is funny people ’bout here, but dey does lib well, an’ dey don’ ‘pear to keer ’bout vittles, no mo’n nufiin, long ‘s y’ all don’ bre’k too many limbs off’n de che’y trees and don’sturve de bosses. Dat dar house wid de big red barn whar I done got my dinner, dey tuk me in de dine-room an’ sot me down at de table, an” gin me jis all I kin eat, and de white ladies dey wait on me, ef dey didn’t, hope I may nebber eat nuther mouflful long’s I lib. Den when I done eat all I want, I tell um I mus’ git on to camp now and dey fill my haversock chock full and tell me dar sumpen for my supper. So de nex’ house; I leab dat dar one out in de fence corner and takes in de em’ty ones, an’ when I done got all on ’em full den I come on ‘long. I till ’em I aint gin’ly hungry much tell I git done travelin’ ‘n’ go back to camp, ‘n’ no mo’ I wa’n’t ‘ca’se I done eat so much I mos’ ready to bus’ open.”

REDWOOD Otium Cum Dignitate
OTIUM CUM DIGNATATE

In the course of these wanderings, Boeygyard’s allegiance was more than once put to the proof, and to fortify the arguments brought to bear upon him he was frequently assured that utter disaster awaited the invading force. Not only was his virtue sufficient under temptation, but he was also duly mindful to exercise a reciprocal moral influence for the enlightenment of those to whose enticement he consented not; and he related, with the enjoyment which comes of the consciousness of having deserved well of one’s country, how he had repelled such an advance of the enemy by a counter-charge:

“‘Twas one ole man wha’ I seed to-day ‘lowed ‘t wa’n’t none on y’ all gwine git back ‘cross de ‘Tomac no mo’ ; ‘lowed Gin’l Hooker gwine be here fo’ long wid a million o’ men. I till him y’all don’ gin’ly start out wid nutten less ‘n two million, ‘sides de artillery; tell him dese here what he been see ain’ no mo’ ‘n de ‘vance gya’d, no way—de tail eend o’ de column ain’ nuver bim got cl’ar o’ Richmon’ yit, an’ de calv’ry done gone on a raid up ‘long tow’ds Philidelfy an’ New York! I tell you dat ole man open he eyes wide,—nuver say no mo’ ’bout Gin’l Hooker ‘n’ he little ole million men—yah.”

Such arduous services in the line of duty might well merit occasional seasons of repose, and such release from care was all the sweeter because it came just when less provident purveyors were busy preparing rations for the next day’s march. Then Boeygyard’s triumph culminated, as he reclined at full length before the fire, and while enjoying his pipe, threw out sundry gratuitous remarks of sympathy or of counsel:

“Is y’ all niggers gwine set up all night foolin’ long o’ dat dar ole bull beef an’ spider-bread ? How come y’ all don’ lay down ‘n’ res’ yo’sif some ?—’pears like yo’ gwine cook all de time ! I ain’ keerin’ so much ’bout cookin’ myse’f dese days, and I gwine sleep soon eber I done smoke out disher pipe an’ cool off little bit; mus’ be gittin’ up soon in de mornin’—done ‘gage some warm light bread for breakfas’ down dar at de house ; my men ‘low dey won’ eat none o’ dat ole truck, like y’ all wuckin at, an’ I has to ‘commodate ’em. Well—ef yo’ will set up, far you well!”

Boeygyard’s popularity was not at all impaired by his sarcastic habit of speech, in which there was indeed no trace of ill nature. The cook-boys of Company ” C ” acknowledged him as their head, and as such he showed a marked talent for organization; during the long season of inactivity comprised within the winter months, he was rigorous in the exaction of drills and parades of his force, which numerically and otherwise bore close resemblance to the army of Bombastes. But in those times, “skeleton” commands were not anomalous, and there were stars which shed their luster over territory of little greater extent than that illuminated by the humble imitation in the shape of a pair of plated buckles, which our general sported on his jacket collar. Concerning these insignia, delicacy forbids to say further than that they had originally and fundamentally been associated with the order of knighthood with which Britain rewards only her most deserving lieges, and in bar of any misgiving in the reader’s mind, the writer begs to add a somewhat musty proverb as not quite inappropriate—” Honi soi qui mal y pense”

It is to be regretted that Boeygyard’s performances in the field did not add the force of example to the principles which he labored to inculcate, and that, as has been the case with other generals, his fine array refused the test of actual service. Such a miscalculation was the cause of some trouble to Mess No. 5, which by the defection of its cook, while in the trenches was reduced for eight days to a diet of onions supplied by a peripatetic sutler, at the moderate figure of twenty-five cents apiece; a certain heat which characterized the next interview between Boeygyard and the mess, may be fairly referable to so prolonged a subsistence upon so pungent a pabulum. But by degrees the general became more accustomed to the sight of blue coats, and while the armies were confronting each other in the fortified lines about Richmond, the project formed itself in his mind of capturing “one o’ dem Yankee niggers” and selling him for his personal profit.

One snowy day, while he was upon the errand of conveying rations to one of his mess on vidette duty, he was reminded by the latter that the chance was favorable; only a few yards separated him from the Federal vidette—a medium-sized ” chattel” whom the general might have “toted” on his shoulder. ” Now’s your chance, General,” urged the mischievous man of war; “yonder’s ‘Corporal Dick’ by himself; you can gather him right in.” Boeygyard hailed his intended victim and proposed to go over and have a talk with him—who, guileless as to the Punic character of the treaty, assented, and the would-be enslaver made a few cautious steps into the narrow belt of neutral soil between the lines. At this juncture the vidette began to stamp his feet violently to restore the circulation. Boeygyard’s fears misconstrued the movement as indicative of an advance of the enemy, and he promptly reversed the policy of his campaign, and, as a preliminary to defensive measures, took to his heels, without once stopping to see if he was pursued, until he was safe behind the breastwork, a good quarter of a mile in the rear.

REDWOOD Boeyguard s Change of Base
BOEYGYARD’S CHANGE OF BASE

The following incident, related by a friend of the writer who was an eye-witness, and introduced here with his sanction, seems to define in epitome the military status of the branch of the service under consideration:

At a railroad station in Mississippi, shortly after the war, a negro vender of peaches was holding forth to some others engaged in similar traffic to this effect:

“I tell y’ all, piggers, yo’ donno nuffin’, An’ me an’ Gen’l Forres’ we formed de line, dar, right on de ribber sho’, an’ we fit dar clean till de sun went down, an de ribber was run red wid blood an’ dead men. I tell you what—I’d a-gi’n a milliofi dollars dat day ef I’d ‘a-knowed I was gwine be here now, sho!”

An old negro who had been listening with an incredulous air, here put in.

“What all dat you talkin’ on ’bout? You an’ Gen’l Forres’—reckon anybody gwine b’leab all dem lies, boy?

“So did,” rejoined the first speaker.

“y’ ain’ bin nowhar! When I was up dar dat time on de Tennessee Ribber, time all dat dar fightin’ was a-gwine on dar, I tell yo’ ef I’d a-knowed I’d be hyar sellin’ peaches to-day I’d a-gi’n a thousan’ dollars. Dar was Armstrong on de right; Ross, he hilt de lef’, an’ Gen’l Forres’ an’ me, we was in de center, an’ de Yankees dey come ober de hill in sebeit lines o’ battle, till de whole place was jis blue wid ’em—an’, Lord, how we did fit dat day! But dey was too many fur our men, an’, bimeby, de white men, dey couldn’t stan’ it, and dey ‘gin to gib way, dey did, an’ Gen’l Forres’ he rid up to me, he did, an’ he say, ‘Jim, stop dem men! ‘—

“What you know ’bout it, anyway? is you ebber bin in de army?”

“Yaas,” replied the objector, “I was in de army too n Gen’l Lee’s army, up in Ferginny. I went dar wid my young marster in de ole 18th Mississippi Rigiment soon arter de waubruck out, an’ come back ‘long ’bout May arter the s’render—fo’ yea’s or sich a matter. An I bin hear um say dey was some fightin’ done up in dat part o’ de country, too; hear some talk ’bout it, but I dunno how dat was, myse’f, ’cause dar whar we was, when dey was formin’ lines o’ battle, an’ fightin’ an’ sich, t’wa’n’t no niggers nowhar ‘dout dar.”

“THE BEST DAMNED SOLDIERS IN THE WORLD”

REMINGTON Captain Dodge’s Colored Troops to the Rescue
Captain Dodge’s Troop to the Rescue by Frederic Remington

“The Best Damned Soldier in the World” was the opinion of Frederic Remington about the troopers of the 10th Cavalry—the Buffalo Soldiers.

Some may question my choice of topic, since as a rule this online journal focuses on the American Civil War, its causes & its consequences, while the Indian Wars of the post-Civil War era are generally out of this site’s purview.

But the two eras are not unconnected. During the war there were cavalry as well as infantry units created as part of the USCT and their success undoubtedly influenced the Federal government’s postwar decision to form several all-Black units of the Regular Army for use on the frontier.

The PC crowd might rightly decry the treatment of Native Americans in the post-war era, and I would not deny that point. Particularly egregious was the army’s scorched earth policy towards Native American tribes that did not go meekly onto reservations.

But where does one think that scorched earth strategy originated? It was the exact same “total war” strategy which General Sherman perfected in his March Through Georgia; if the enemy does not surrender, make them “howl” and not just destroy legitimate military targets but the whole economic and social fabric of their existence. Moreover, more than 20,000 Native Americans did fight for the Confederacy. In the postwar era Sherman was made General of the Army and his views on the best means of pacifying the western tribes strongly resembled his ruthless wartime strategy in the deep South.

For his part, Sherman was a rabid racist, a man who had no problem at all with slavery; he fought to restore the Union, not to free the slaves. While in command of the Western Theater during the War, Sherman deliberately put all Black regiments on rear echelon guard duty, excluding them from front-line combat, and he was not the only Union commander to hold such racist opinions of the Black volunteer regiments.

They might never have had a chance to prove their worth in the Western Theater had it not been for General Thomas. A Virginian by birth, he commanded the Army of the Cumberland in 1864, and it was he who employed the USCT units in one of their biggest and most important battles of the war: the Battle of Nashville.

At Nashville they fought, bled and died in large numbers; but the USCT regiments also succeeded in defeating one of the Confederacy’s best armies ever put in the field, the Army of Tennessee. While I believe we should honor all American war dead, regardless of the morality of the cause they fought for, I feel it is also important that the men of the USCT are owed fuller praise than they have hitherto received, not only for their loyalty to the Union, but also for their struggle to win their freedom by their own hands,.

Undoubtedly the success of these USCT troops during the war weighed heavily in the decision to create the postwar Negro regiments; for the guns of the Civil War were hardly silenced when the US Army began forming new all-Black regiments to protect westward expansion–an explosive growth made possible by Lincoln’s foresighted infrastructure programs, passed into law even as he struggled to preserve the Union.

Because first-hand accounts are generally to be preferred to second hand rehashes of them, I am reprinting Frederic Remington’s own account of his adventures with the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. Entitled, “A Scout With the Buffalo Soldiers” and published in the April, 1889 of Century Magazine, it remains a classic account of the post-Civil War army’s role in settling the West.

Although the article in itself is worthwhile reading, what stands out are Remington’s sketches that accompany the article. In Remington’s famous sketches and paintings, the portly figure in pith helmet is Remington himself, an incongruous addition to the veteran soldiers, Indians and cowboys that populate his artwork.

Although Remington often peppered his praise of Black soldiers with epithets that today might be regarded as politically incorrect, he was a man of his times, when such phrases were not considered offensive to either readers or the subjects he wrote about. What is more important is that his admiration for the “Nubian Cavalry” was genuine and unabashed. Remington made several trips to Arizona and was on patrol with them into the remotest corners of the frontier there–where, at any time, a dull routine patrol could turn into a deadly duel.

Both the soldiers of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War and the postwar “Buffalo Soldier” regiments (a term of respect given them by Native Americans) have never received the full amount of credit due them. At times they were required to fight and fight hard they did; but as this essay indicates, most of their day to day work was to keep the peace. It is often forgotten as well that in this routine mission of peace keeping, Native Americans themselves were recruited as essential participants in this effort, as Remington makes due note of.

This edition of Remington’s account is worthwhile for its first-hand contemporary view of the Arizona frontier. Of necessity I have had to make some editorial changes from the original, rearranging illustrations to avoid breaking up paragraphs and keeping words intact instead of splitting them from line to line. I have tried to keep the original text intact wherever possible and, while modern usage disapproves of dialect in written form, it was standard practice in the 19th century; Remington’s use of it is certainly more restrained than many examples I’ve seen. So without further ado, let us go along with Remington, as he shows us what life as a Buffalo Soldier was really like.

 

A SCOUT WITH THE BUFFALO-SOLDIERS

WRITTEN AND ILLUSTRATED BY FREDERIC REMINGTON.

 

I SAT smoking in the quarters of an army friend at Fort Grant, and through a green lattice – work was watching the dusty parade’ and congratulating myself on the            possession of this spot of comfort in such a disagreeably hot climate as Arizona Territory offers in the summer, when in strode my friend the lieutenant, who threw his cap on the table and began to roll a cigarette.

The Government Pack full size image
The Government Pack 

“Well,” he said, “the K. O. has ordered me out for a two-weeks’ scouting up the San Carlos way, and I ‘m off in the morning. Would you like to go with me? ” He lighted the cigarette and paused for my reply.

I was very comfortable at that moment, and knew from some past experiences that marching under the summer sun of Arizona was real suffering and not to be considered by one on pleasure bent; and I was also aware that my friend the lieutenant had a reputation as a hard rider, and would in this case select a few- picked and seasoned cavalrymen and rush over the worst possible country in the least possible time. I had no reputation as a hard rider to sustain, and, moreover, had not backed a horse for the year past. I knew too that Uncle Sam’s beans, black coffee, and the bacon which every old soldier will tell you about would fall to the lot of anyone who scouted with the 10th Dragoons. Still, I very much desired to travel through the country to the north, and in a rash moment said, ” I’ll go.”

REMINGTON A PACKER AND MULES variant A
A Packer and Mules

“You quite understand that you are amenable to discipline,” continued the lieutenant with mock seriousness, as he regarded me with that soldier’s contempt for a citizen which is not openly expressed but is tacitly felt.

” I do,” I answered meekly.

” Put you afoot, citizen; put you afoot, sir, at the slightest provocation, understand,” pursued the officer in his sharp manner of giving commands.

I suggested that after I had chafed a Government saddle for a day or two I should undoubtedly beg to be put afoot, and, far from being a punishment, it might be a real mercy.

“That being settled, will you go down to stable-call and pick out a mount? You are one of the heavies, but I think we can outfit you,” he said; and together we strolled down to where the bugle was blaring.

At the adobe corral the faded coats of the horses were being groomed by black troopers in white frocks; for the 10th United States Cavalry is composed of colored men. The fine alkaline dust of that country is continually sifting over all exposed objects, so that grooming becomes almost as hopeless a task as sweeping back the sea with a house- broom. A fine old veteran cavalry-horse, detailed for a sergeant of the troop, was selected to bear me on the trip. He was a large horse of a pony build, both strong and sound except that he bore a healed-up saddle-gall, gotten, probably, during some old march up- on an endless Apache trail. His temper had been ruined, and a grinning soldier said, as he stood at a respectful distance, “Leouk out, sah. Dat ole boss shore kick youh head off, sah.”

The lieutenant assured me that if I could ride that animal through and not start the old gall I should be covered with glory; and as to the rest, “What you don’t know about cross-country riding in these parts that horse does. It’s lucky there isn’t a hole in the ground where his hoofs trod, for he ‘s pounded up and down across this Territory for the last five years.”

Well satisfied with my mount, I departed. That evening numbers of rubber-muscled cavalry officers called and drew all sorts of horrible pictures for my fancy, which greatly amused them and duly filled me with dismal forebodings. “A man from New York comes out here to trifle with the dragoon,” said one facetious chap, addressing my lieutenant; “so now, old boy, you don’t want to let him get away with the impression that the cavalry don’t ride.” I caught the suggestion that it was the purpose of those fellows to see that I was “ridden down” on that trip; and though I got my resolution to the sticking-point, I knew that “a pillory can out-preach a parson,” and that my resolutions might not avail against the hard saddle.

On the following morning I was awakened by the lieutenant’s dog-rubber,* and got up to array myself in my field costume. My old troop-horse was at the door, and he eyed his citizen rider with malevolent gaze. Even the dumb beasts of the army share that quiet contempt for the citizen which is one manifestation of the military spirit, born of strength, and as old as when the first man went forth with purpose to conquer his neighbor man.        *Soldier detailed as officer’s servant

Down in front of the post-trader’s was gathered the scouting party. A tall sergeant, grown old in the service, scarred on battlefields, hardened by long marches, — in short, a product of the camp, — stood by his horse’s head. Four enlisted men, picturesquely clad in the cavalry soldier’s field costume, and two packers, mounted on diminutive bronco mules, were in charge of four pack-mules loaded with apperajos and packs. This was our party. Presently the lieutenant issued from the headquarters’ office and joined us. An orderly led up his horse. ” Mount,” said the lieutenant; and swinging himself into his saddle he started off up the road. Out past the groups of adobe houses which constitute a frontier military village or post we rode, stopping to water our horses at the little creek, now nearly dry, —the last water for many miles on our trail, —and presently emerged upon the great desert.                                                                                                              .

Together at the head of the little cavalcade rode the lieutenant and I, while behind, in single file, came the five troopers, sitting loosely in their saddles with the long stirrup of the United States cavalry seat, forage-hats set well over the eyes, and carbines, slickers, canteens, saddle-pockets, and lariats rattling at their sides. Strung out behind were the four pack-mules, now trotting demurely along, now stopping to feed, and occasionally making a solemn and evidently well-considered attempt to get out of line and regain the post which we were leaving behind. The packers brought up the rear, swinging their “blinds ” and shouting at the lagging mules in a manner which evinced a close acquaintance with the character and peculiarities of each beast.

The sun was getting higher in the heavens and began to assert its full strength. The yellow dust rose about our horses’ hoofs and settled again over the dry grass and mesquite bush. Stretching away on our right was the purple line of the Sierra Bonitas, growing bluer and bluer until lost in the hot scintillating atmosphere of the desert horizon. Overhead stretched the deep blue of the cloudless sky. Presently we halted and dismounted to tighten the packs, which work loose after the first hour.

A HALT TO TIGHTEN THE PACKS_edited  

One by one the packers caught the little mules, threw a blind over their eyes, and “Now, Whitey! Ready! eve-e-e-e — gimme that loop,” came from the men as they heaved and tossed the circling ropes in the mystic movements of the diamond hitch. “All fast. Lieutenant,” cries a packer, and mounting we move on up the long slope of the mesa towards the Sierras. We enter a break in the foothills, and the grade becomes steeper and steeper, until at last it rises at an astonishing angle.

The lieutenant shouts the command to dismount, and we obey. The bridle-reins are tossed over the horses’ heads, the carbines thrown butt upwards over the backs of the troopers, a long drink is taken from the canteens, and I observe that each man pulls a plug of tobacco about a foot long from one of the capacious legs of his troop-boots and wrenches off a chew. This greatly amused me, and as I laughed I pondered over the fertility of the soldier mind; and while I do not think that the original official military board which evolved the United States troop-boot had this idea in mind, the adaptation of means to an end reflects great credit on the intelligence of someone.

Up the ascent of the mountain we toiled, now winding among trees and brush, scrambling up precipitous slopes, picking a way across a field of shattered rock, or steadying our horses over the smooth surface of some bowlder, till it seemed to my uninitiated mind that cavalry was not equal to the emergencies of such a country. In the light of subsequent experiences, however, I feel confident that any cavalry officer who has ever chased Apaches would not hesitate a moment to lead a command up the Bunker Hill Monument. The slopes of the Sierra Bonitas are very steep, and as the air became more rarified as we toiled upward I found that I was panting for breath.

TROOPER IN TOW_edited
Trooper in Tow 

My horse — a veteran mountaineer — grunted in his efforts and drew his breath in a long and labored blowing; consequently I felt as though I was not doing anything unusual in puffing and blowing myself. The resolutions of the previous night needed considerable nursing, and though they were kept alive, at times I reviled myself for being such a fool as to do this sort of thing under the delusion that it was an enjoyable experience. On the trail ahead I saw the lieutenant throw himself on the ground. I followed his example, for I was nearly “done for.” I never had felt a rock that was as soft as the one I sat on. It was literally downy. The old troop-horse heaved a great sigh, and dropping his head went fast asleep, as every good soldier should do when he finds the opportunity. The lieutenant and I discussed the climb, and my voice was rather loud in pronouncing it “beastly.” My companion gave me no comfort, for he was “a soldier, and unapt to weep,” though I thought he might have used his official prerogative to grumble. The negro troopers sat about, their black skins shining, with perspiration, and took no interest in the matter in hand. They occupied such time in joking and in merriment as seemed fitted for growling. They may be tired and they may be hungry, but they do not see fit to augment their misery by finding fault with everybody and everything. In this particular they are charming men with whom to serve. Officers have often confessed to me that when they are on long and monotonous field service and are troubled with a depression of spirits, they have only to go about the campfires of the negro soldier in order to be amused and cheered by the clever absurdities of the men. Personal relations can be much closer between white officers and colored soldiers than in the white regiments without breaking the barriers which are necessary to army discipline. The men look up to a good officer, rely on him in trouble, and even seek him for advice in their small personal affairs. In barracks no soldier is allowed by his fellows to “cuss out” a just and respected superior. As to their bravery, I am often asked, ” Will they fight? ” That is easily answered. They have fought many, many times. The old sergeant sitting near me, as calm of feature as a bronze statue, once deliberately walked over a Cheyenne rifle-pit and killed his man. One little fellow near him once took charge of a lot of stampeded cavalry-horses when Apache bullets were flying loose and no one knew from what point to expect them next. These little episodes prove the sometimes doubted self-reliance of the negro.

After a most frugal lunch we resumed our journey towards the clouds. Climbing many weary hours, we at last stood on the sharp ridge of the Sierra. Behind us we could see the great yellow plain of the Sulphur Spring Valley, and in front, stretching away, was that of the Gila, looking like the bed of a sea with the water gone. Here the lieutenant took observations and busied himself in making an itinerary of the trail. In obedience to an order of the department commander, General Miles, scouting parties like ours are constantly being sent out from the chain of forts which surround the great San Carlos reservation. The purpose is to make provision against Apache outbreaks, which are momentarily expected, by familiarizing officers and soldiers with the vast solitude of mountain and desert. New trails for the movement of cavalry columns across the mountains are threaded out, water-holes of which the soldiers have no previous knowledge are discovered, and an Apache band is at all times liable to meet a cavalry command in out-of-the-way places. A salutary effect on the savage mind is then produced.

MARCHING ON THE MOUNTAINS
Marching on the Mountains 

Here we had a needed rest, and then began the descent on the other side. This was a new experience. The prospect of being suddenly overwhelmed by an avalanche of horseflesh as the result of some unlucky stumble makes the recruit constantly apprehensive. But the trained horses are sure of foot, understand the business, and seldom stumble except when treacherous ground gives way. On the crest the prospect was very pleasant, as the pines there obscured the hot sun; but we suddenly left them for the scrub mesquite which bars your passage and reaches forth for you with its thorns when you attempt to go around.

A CAMPFIRE SKETCH
A Campfire Sketch

We wound downward among the masses of rock for some time, when we suddenly found ourselves on a shelf of rock. We sought to avoid it by going up and around, but after a tiresome march we were still confronted by a drop of about a hundred feet. I gave up in despair; but the lieutenant, after gazing at the unknown depths which were masked at the bottom by a thick growth of brush, said, “This is a good place to go down.” I agreed that it was if you once got started; but personally, I did not care to take the tumble.

Taking his horse by the bits, the young officer began the descent. The slope was at an angle of at least sixty degrees, and was covered with loose dirt and bowlders, with the mask of brush at the bottom concealing awful possibilities of what might be beneath. The horse hesitated a moment, then cautiously put his head down and his leg forward and started. The loose earth crumbled, a great stone was precipitated to the bottom with a crash, the horse slid and floundered along. Had the situation not been so serious it would have been funny, because the angle of the incline was so great that the horse actually sat on his haunches like a dog. ” Come on! ” shouted the redoubtable man of war; and as I was next on the ledge and could not go back or let any one pass me, I remembered my resolutions. They prevailed against my better judgment, and I started. My old horse took it unconcernedly, and we came down all right, bringing our share of dirt and stones and plunging through the wall of brush at the bottom to find our friend safe on the lower side. The men came along without so much as a look of interest in the proceeding, and then I watched the mules. I had confidence in the reasoning powers of a pack-mule, and thought that he might show some trepidation when he calculated the chances ; but not so. Down came the mules, without turning an ear, and then followed the packers, who, to my astonishment, rode down. I watched them do it, and know not whether I was more lost in admiration or eager in the hope that they would meet with enough difficulty to verify my predictions.

A STUDY OF ACTION
A Study of Action

We then continued our journey down the mountains through a box-cañon. Suffice it to say that, as it is a cavalry axiom that a horse can go wherever a man can if the man will not use his hands, we made a safe transit.

 

Our camp was pitched by a little mountain stream near a grassy hillside. The saddles, packs, and apperajos were laid on the ground and the horses and mules herded on the side of the hill by a trooper, who sat perched on a rock above them, carbine in hand. I was thoroughly tired and hungry, and did my share in creating the famine which it was clearly seen would reign in that camp ere long. We sat about the fire and talked. The genial glow seems to possess an occult quality: it warms the self-confidence of a man; it lulls his moral nature; and the stories which circulate about a campfire are always more interesting than authentic. One old packer possessed a wild imagination, backed by a fund of experiences gathered in a life spent in knocking about everywhere between the Yukon River and the City of Mexico, and he rehearsed tales which would have staggered the Baron. The men got out a pack of Mexican cards and gambled at a game called “Coon-can”* for a few nickels and dimes and that other soldier currency — tobacco. Quaint expressions came from the card party. “Now I’se a-goin’ to scare de life outen you when I show down dis han’,” said one man after a deal. The player addressed looked at his hand carefully and quietly rejoined, “You might scare me, pard, but you can’t scare de fixin’s I ‘se got yere.” The utmost good-nature seemed to prevail. They discussed the little things which make their lives. One man suggested that “De big jack mule, he behavin’ hisself pretty well dis trip: he hain’t done kick nobody yet.” Pipes were filled, smoked, and returned to that cavalry- man’s grip-sack, the boot-leg, and the game progressed until the fire no longer gave sufficient light. Soldiers have no tents in that country, and we rolled ourselves in our blankets and, gazing up, saw the weird figure of the sentinel against the last red gleam of the sunset, and beyond that the great dome of the sky, set with stars. Then we fell asleep.                  *Conquian, a.k.a. “Coon Can” (or the Konkar game), is a rummy-style game originating in Mexico circa the mid-1800s.

 

REMINGTON Marching in the Desert color version
Marching in the Desert

When I awoke the next morning the hill across the canon wall was flooded with a golden light, while the gray tints of our camp were steadily warming up. The soldiers had the two black camp-pails over the fire and were grooming the horses. Everyone was good-natured, as befits the beginning of the day. The tall sergeant was meditatively combing his hair with a currycomb; such delightful little unconventionalities are constantly observed about the camp. The coffee steamed up in our nostrils, and after a rub in the brook I pulled myself together and declared to my comrade that I felt as good as new. This was a palpable falsehood, as my labored movements revealed to the hard-sided cavalryman the sad evidence of the effeminacy of the studio. But our respite was brief, for almost before I knew it I was again on my horse, following down the canon after the black charger bestrided by the junior lieutenant of K troop. Over piles of rocks fit only for the touch and go of a goat, through the thick mesquite which threatened to wipe our hats off or to swish us from the saddle, with the air warming up and growing denser, we rode along. A great stretch of sandy desert could be seen, and I foresaw hot work.

In about an hour we were clear of the descent and could ride along together, so that conversation made the way more interesting. We dismounted to go down a steep drop from the high mesa into the valley of the Gila, and then began a day warmer even than imagination had anticipated. The awful glare of the sun on the desert, the clouds of white alkaline dust which drifted up until lost above, seemingly too fine to settle again, and the great heat cooking the ambition out of us, made the conversation lag and finally drop altogether. The water in my canteen was hot and tasteless, and the barrel of my carbine, which I touched with my ungloved hand, was so heated that I quickly withdrew it. Across the hot-air waves which made the horizon rise- and fall like the bosom of the ocean we could see a whirlwind or sand-storm winding up in a tall spiral until it was lost in the deep blue of the sky above. Lizards started here and there; a snake hissed a moment beside the trail, then sought the cover of a dry bush; the horses moved along with downcast heads and drooping ears. The men wore a solemn look as they rode along, and now and then one would nod as though giving over to sleep. The pack-mules no longer sought fresh feed along the way, but attended strictly to business. A short halt was made, and I alighted. Upon remounting I threw myself violently from the saddle, and upon examination found that I had brushed up against a cactus and gotten my corduroys filled with thorns. The soldiers were overcome with great glee at this episode, but they volunteered to help me pick them from my dress. Thus we marched all day, and with canteens empty we “pulled into” Fort Thomas that afternoon. I will add that forageless cavalry commands with pack-animals do not halt until a full day’s march is completed, as the mules cannot be kept too long under their burdens.

At the fort we enjoyed that hospitality which is a kind of freemasonry among army officers. The colonel made a delicious concoction of I know not what, and provided a hammock in a cool place while we drank it. Lieutenant F….  got cigars that were past praise, and another officer had provided a bath. Captain B…. turned himself out of doors to give us quarters, which graciousness we accepted while our consciences pricked. But for all that Fort Thomas is an awful spot, hotter than any other place on the crust of the earth. The siroccos continually chase each other over the desert, the convalescent wait upon the sick, and the thermometer persistently reposes at the figure of 125 degrees F. Soldiers are kept in the Gila Valley posts for only six months at a time before they are relieved, and they count the days.

On the following morning at an early hour we waved adieus to our kind friends and took our way down the valley. I feel enough interested in the discomforts of that march to tell about it, but I find that there are not resources in any vocabulary. If the impression is abroad that a cavalry soldier’s life in the South-west has any of the lawn-party element in it, I think the impression could be effaced by doing a march like that. The great clouds of dust choke you and settle over horse, soldier, and accouterments until all local color is lost and black man and white man wear a common hue. The “chug, chug, chug ” of your tired horse as he marches along becomes infinitely tiresome, and cavalry soldiers never ease themselves in the saddle. That is an army axiom. I do not know what would happen to a man who ” hitched ” in his saddle, but it is carefully instilled into their minds that they must “ride the horse” at all times and not lounge on his back. No pains are spared to prolong the usefulness of an army horse, and every old soldier knows that his good care will tell when the long forced march comes some day, and when to be put afoot by a poor mount means great danger in Indian warfare. The soldier will steal for his horse, will share his camp bread, and will moisten the horse’s nostrils and lips with the precious water in the canteen. In garrison the troop-horses lead a life of ease and plenty ; but it is varied at times by a pursuit of hostiles, when they are forced over the hot sands and up over the perilous mountains all day long, only to see the sun go down with the rider still spurring them on amid the quiet of the long night.

Through a little opening in the trees we see a camp and stop in front of it. A few mesquite trees, two tents, and some sheds made of boughs beside an accequia make up the background. By the cooking-fire lounge two or three rough frontiersmen, veritable pirates in appearance, with rough flannel shirts, slouch hats, brown canvas overalls, and an unkempt air; but suddenly, to my intense astonishment, they rise, stand in their tracks as immovable as graven images, and salute the lieutenant in the most approved manner of Upton. Shades of that sacred book the ”Army Regulations,” then these men were soldiers! It was a camp of instruction for Indians and a post of observation. They were nice fellows, and did everything in their power to entertain the cavalry. We were given a tent, and one man cooked the army rations in such strange shapes and mysterious ways that we marveled as we ate. After dinner we lay on our blankets watching, the groups of San Carlos Apaches who came to look at us. Some of them knew the lieutenant, with whom they had served and whom they now addressed as “Young Chief.” They would point him out to others with great zest, and babble in their own language. Great excitement prevailed when it was discovered that I was using a sketch-book, and I was forced to disclose the half-finished visage of one villainous face to their gaze. It was straightway torn up, and I was requested, with many scowls and grunts, to discontinue that pastime, for Apaches more than any other Indians dislike to have portraits made. That night the “hi-ya-ya-hi-ya-hi-yo-o-o-o-o” and the beating of the tom-toms came from all parts of the hills, and we sank to sleep with this grewsome lullaby.

THE SIGN LANGUAGE
The Sign Language

The following day, as we rode, we were never out of sight of the brush huts of the Indians. We observed the simple domestic processes of their lives. One naked savage got up suddenly from behind a mesquite bush, which so startled the horses that quicker than thought every animal made a violent plunge to one side. No one of the trained riders seemed to mind this unlooked-for movement in the least beyond displaying a gleam of grinning ivories. I am inclined to think that it would have let daylight upon some of the “English hunting-seats” one sees in Central Park.

All along the Gila Valley can be seen the courses of stone which were the foundations of the houses of a dense population long since passed away. The lines of old irrigating ditches were easily traced, and one is forced to wonder at the changes in Nature, for at the present time there is not water sufficient to irrigate land necessary for the sup- port of as large a population as probably existed at some remote period. We “raised” some foothills, and could J see in the far distance the great flat plain, the buildings of the San Carlos agency, and the white canvas of the cantonment. At the ford of the Gila we saw a company of “doughboys” wade through the stream as our own troop-horses splashed across. Nearer and nearer shone the white lines of tents until we drew rein in the square where officers crowded around to greet us. The jolly post-commander, the senior captain of the 10th, insisted upon my accepting the hospitalities of his “large hotel,” as he called his field tent, on the ground that I too was a New Yorker. Right glad have I been ever since that I accepted his courtesy, for he entertained me in the true frontier style.

Being now out of the range of country known to our command, a lieutenant in the same regiment was detailed to accompany us beyond. This gentleman was a character. The best part of his life had been spent in this rough country, and he had so long associated with Apache scouts that his habits while on a trail were exactly those of an Indian. He had acquired their methods and also that instinct of locality so peculiar to red men. I jocosely insisted that Lieutenant Jim only needed breech-clout and long hair in order to draw rations at the agency. In the morning, as we started under his guidance, he was a spectacle.

“He wore shoes and a white shirt, and carried absolutely nothing in the shape of canteens and other “plunder ” which usually constitute a cavalryman’s kit. He was mounted on a little runt of a pony so thin and woe-begone as to be remarkable among his kind. It was insufferably hot as we followed our queer guide up a dry canon, which cut off the breeze from all sides and was a veritable human frying-pan. I marched next behind our leader, and all day long the patter, patter of that Indian pony, bearing his tireless rider, made an aggravating display of insensibility to fatigue, heat, dust, and climbing. On we marched over the rolling hills, dry, parched, desolate, covered with cactus and loose stones. It was Nature in one of her cruel moods, and the great silence over all the land displayed her mastery over man. When we reached water and camp that night our ascetic leader had his first drink. It was a long one and a strong one, but at last he arose from the pool and with a smile remarked that his “canteens were full.”

A PULL ON THE CANTEEN
A Pull on the Canteen

Officers in the regiment say that no one will give Lieutenant Jim a drink from his canteen, but this does not change his habit of not carrying one; nevertheless, by the exercise of self-denial, which is at times heroic, he manages to pull through. They say that he sometimes fills an old meat-tin with water in anticipation of a long march, and stories which try credulity are told of the amount of water he has drunk at times

Yuma Apaches, miserable wretches, come into camp, shake hands gravely with every one, and then in their Indian way begin the inevitable inquiries as to how the coffee and flour are holding out. The campfire darts and crackles, the soldiers gather around it, eat, joke, and bring out the greasy pack of cards. The officers’ gossip of army affairs, while I lie on my blankets, smoking and trying to establish relations with a very small and very dirty little Yuma Apache, who sits near me and gazes with sparkling eyes at the strange object which I undoubtedly seem to him. That “patroness of rogues,” the full moon, rises slowly over the great hill while I look into her honest face and lose myself in reflections. It seems but an instant before a glare of sun strikes my eyes and I am wake for another day. I am mentally quarreling with that insane desire to march which I know possesses Lieutenant Jim; but it is useless to expostulate, and before many hours the little pony constantly moving along ahead of me becomes a part of my life. There he goes. I can see him now — always moving briskly along, pattering over the level, trotting up the dry bed of a stream, disappearing into the dense chapparal thicket that covers a steep hillside, jumping rocks, and doing everything but “halt.”

A POOL IN THE DESERT.
A Pool in the Desert

We are now in the high hills, and the air is cooler. The chapparal is thicker, the ground is broken into a succession of ridges, and the volcanic bowlders pile up in formidable shapes. My girth loosens and I dismount to fix it, remembering that old saddle-gall. The command moves on and is lost to sight in a deep ravine. Presently I resume my journey, and in the meshwork of ravines I find that I no longer see the trail of the column. I retrace and climb and slide down hill, forcing my way through chapparal, and after a long time I see the pack-mules go out of sight far away on a mountain slope. The blue peaks of the Finals tower away on my left, and I begin to indulge in mean thoughts concerning the indomitable spirit of Lieutenant Jim, for I know he will take us clear over the top of that pale blue line of far-distant mountains. I presume I have it in my power to place myself in a more heroic light, but this kind of candor is good for the soul.

A TUMBLE FROM THE TRAIL
A Tumble from the Trail

In course of time I came up with the command, which had stopped at a ledge so steep that it had daunted even these mountaineers. It was only a hundred-foot drop, and they presently found a place to go down, where, as one soldier suggested, “there isn’t footing for a lizard.” On, on we go, when suddenly with a great crash some sandy ground gives way, and a collection of hoofs, troop-boots, ropes, canteens, and flying stirrups goes rolling over in a cloud of dust and finds a lodgment in the bottom of a dry watercourse. The dust settles and discloses a soldier and his horse. They rise to their feet and appear astonished, but as the soldier mounts and follows on we know he is unhurt.

Now a coyote, surprised by our cavalcade and unable to get up the ledge, runs along the opposite side of the canon wall. “Pop, pop, pop, pop” go the six-shooters, and then follow explanations by each marksman of the particular thing which made him miss.

That night we were forced to make a ” dry camp “; that is, one where no water is to be found. There is such an amount of misery locked up in the thought of a dry camp that I refuse to dwell upon it. We were glad enough to get upon the trail in the morning, and in time found a nice running mountain-brook. The command wallowed in it. We drank as much as we could hold and then sat down. We arose and drank some more, and yet we drank again, and still once more, until we were literally water-logged. Lieutenant Jim became uneasy, so we took up our march. We were always resuming the march when all nature called aloud for rest. We climbed straight up impossible places. The air grew chill, and in a gorge a cold wind blew briskly down to supply the hot air rising from sands of the mesa far below. That night we made a camp, and the only place where I could make my bed was on a great flat rock. We were now among the pines, which towered above us. The horses were constantly losing one another in the timber in their search for grass, in consequence of which they whinnied, while the mules brayed, and made the mountain hideous with sound.

By another long climb we reached the extreme peaks of the Pinal range, and there before us was spread a view which was grand enough to compensate us for the labor. Beginning in “gray reds,” range after range of mountains, overlapping each other, grow purple and finally lose themselves in pale blues. We sat on a ledge and gazed. The soldiers were interested, though their remarks about the scenery somehow did not seem to express an appreciation of the grandeur of the view which impressed itself strongly upon us. Finally, one fellow, less aesthetic than his mates, broke the spell by a request for chewing-tobacco, so we left off dreaming and started on.

That day Lieutenant Jim lost his bearings, and called upon that instinct which he had acquired in his life among the Indians. He “cut the signs ” of old Indian trails and felt the course to be in a certain direction — which was undoubtedly correct, but it took us over the highest points of the Mescal range. My shoes were beginning to give out, and the troop-boots of several soldiers threatened to disintegrate. One soldier, more ingenious than the rest, took out some horse-shoe nails and cleverly mended his boot-gear. At times we wound around great slopes where a loose stone or the giving way of bad ground would have precipitated horse and rider a thousand feet below. Only the courage of the horses brings one safely through. The mules suffered badly, and our weary horses punched very hard with their foreparts as they went downhill. We made the descent of the Mescals through a long canon where the sun gets one in chancery, as it were. At last we reached the Gila, and nearly drowned a pack mule and two troopers in a quicksand. We began to pass Indian huts, and saw them gathering wheat in the river bottoms, while they paused to gaze at us and doubtless wondered for what purpose the buffalo-soldiers were abroad in the land. The cantonment appeared, and I was duly gratified when we reached it.

I hobbled up to the “Grand Hotel ” of my host the captain, who laughed heartily at my floundering movements and observed my nose and cheeks, from which the sun had peeled the skin, with evident relish at the thought of how I had been used by his lieutenant. At his suggestion I was made an honorary member of the cavalry, and duly admonished “not to trifle again with the 10th Nubian Horse if I expected any mercy.”

In due time the march continued without particular incident, and at last the scout ” pulled in” to the home post, and I again sat in my easy-chair behind the lattice-work, firm in the conviction that soldiers, like other men, find more hard work than glory in their calling.

Frederic Remington.

 

photograph of the 10th Cavalry non-commissioned soldiers came from Frederic Remington’s personal collection.
A group of 10th Cavalry non-coms, from Remington’s personal collection of photos. There’s an old saying in the army: the officers may issue commands, but it’s the non-coms who give the orders.

For more about the Civil War in the Western Theater and the Battle of Nashville, read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover

 

For more about the War for the Union, including the role of African Americans, get a copy of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5

TULLAHOMA: THE GREATEST UNION VICTORY YOU NEVER HEARD OF

Rosecrans March another copy
General Rosecrans leading the Army of the Cumberland to victory

“JUNE 23, 1863, ended the Army of the Cumberland’s six months of wearisome inaction around Murfreesboro its half-year of tiresome fort-building, drilling, picketing and scouting. Then its 60,000 eager, impatient men swept forward in combinations of masterful strategy, and in a brief, wonderfully brilliant campaign of nine days of drenching rain drove Bragg out of his strong fortifications in the rugged hills of Duck River, and compelled him to seek refuge in the fastnesses of the Cumberland Mountains, beyond the Tennessee River.”  John McElroy

So Civil War veteran and humorist, John McElroy, summarized one the greatest, yet least studied, Union victories of the War.

McElroy, the creator of the classic Si & Shorty series, the Civil War equivalent of Bill Mauldin’s WW II Willie & Joe, had seen frontline service and created his fictional alter ego as an everyman to describe what the war was like for the average enlisted man. In his multi-volume collection of stories, he chronicles the career of his “GI Joe” with the Army of the Cumberland. I cite McElroy in this context because he devotes a whole volume to the Tullahoma Campaign, which has traditionally been given short shrift by historians and novelists alike.

Even as the Army of the Potomac was desperately trying to stop Lee’s invasion of western Pennsylvania at Gettysburg and Grant’s long siege of Vicksburg was finally coming to an end, General William Rosecrans unleashed his well-planned and meticulously prepared offensive to drive the Confederate Army of Tennessee out of their well-prepared defenses.

General Bragg, better at planning than campaigning, had constructed a strong line of fortifications centered on Shelbyville, stretching to Columbia on the west and anchored on Tullahoma on the east, where the rail-line led south-eastward towards Chattanooga. As a further impediment, between the Union positions and Bragg’s fortifications stretched a series of rugged hills screening his army, with only a limited number of narrow and easily defended passes available to go through to attack Bragg’s entrenched army. Breaking through the Confederate defenses promised to be a long and bloody process, with limited chance for success.

Instead of a ponderous advance which would inevitably turn into a grinding and slow slugfest, Rosecrans resolved on a series of raids and feints against the outer Rebel lines on the western flank, to draw off the enemy’s reserves, followed by a massive left hook around the Confederate right, with view to seizing the Railroad and punch his way southward towards Chattanooga.

Before daylight on June 23, 1863, Union General Stanley’s mounted troops, supported by General Granger’s Reserve Corps, began their maneuvers against the western passes leading towards Shelbyville. In their efforts to seize these passes, the Federals had a secret weapon: Wilder’s Lightening Brigade. They were not cavalry but mounted infantry, who rode to battle and fought on foot. They  were specially equipped with the new Spencer repeating rifle and could fire off seven volleys without having to reload, in effect giving the unit the firepower in combat of a division or even a small corps. In forcing the passes and other special missions, Wilder’s men proved their worth many times over.

Rosecrans three regular infantry corps were intended to be the main blow, ascending the Barrens to the east, then swinging around and hit Bragg in the flank and rear. Once the trap had been sprung, Rosecrans planned to use his infantry to deliver the finishing blow. At least that was how he planned it.

during a halt for dinner Tullahoma Campaign Vol IV via Gutenburg edition

In the actual event, things did not quite come off as Rosecrans had hoped. While Wilder’s brigade forced their way through Hoover’s Gap and out onto the plains below, the complex maneuvers which each part of Rosecrans army were expected to execute were severely handicapped by nine days of nearly continuous torrential rain, slowing down the advance.  Small creeks became raging torrents and the army’s mules pulling the supply wagons–never known for their adherence to orders–became doubly obstinate in the face of deep mud and swollen streams.

While the Rebels were initially surprised and rushed troops to defend the western passes, the rain-slowed pace of the Yankee maneuvers allowed  Bragg to get some inkling of what the Yankees were up to before the jaws of Rosecrans pincers finally closed.

Despite the difficulties, however, Rosecrans’ men out-fought and out-maneuvered the Rebel army. The Union success was also aided at times by the insubordination of Bragg’s own subordinate generals, who had a tendency to ignore their commander’s orders whenever they felt like it. As Napoleon remarked about British cavalry, one could well say that the Army of Tennessee was, “the noblest and most poorly led.”

Had the rain not slowed the advance of the Army of Cumberland, Rosecrans’ plan to cut off Bragg’s retreat and defeat him in a battle of annihilation might have succeeded and eliminated the second largest Confederate army right then and there.

After what seemed endless miles of swampy roads and rain engorged creeks, fighting and maneuvering all the way, the Federal infantry approached the outer defenses of Tullahoma. It was assumed that Bragg would make his stand there. But as the lead elements forced their way through the jumble of branches and brush of the abatis outside the earthworks and then scrambled over the Rebel parapets, they found the enemy already gone and in the distance they could see the last bridge over the Elk river going up in flames behind the retreating Butternuts.

On the Parapet via Project Gutenburg edition

Bragg did not stop after crossing Elk River, however; he retreated over the Cumberland Mountains and across the Tennessee River, abandoning all of Tennessee and its valuable resources to the Federals.

The 4th of July dawned bright and cheerful for the troops under Old Rosy’s command, if not materially, at least in spirit, and the men of his regiments felt a surge of patriotic pride in their commander and in themselves for their accomplishment. And as the supply wagons finally caught up with the regiments, the Si’s and Shorty’s of the army could once again sleep under a blanket and enjoy a hot cooked meal.

“That night by its cheerful campfires the exultant Army of the Cumberland sang from one end of its long line to the other, with thousands of voices joining at once in the chorus, its song of praise to Gen. Rosecrans, which went to the air of “A Little More Cider.”

     Cheer up, cheer up, the night is past,
     The skies with light are glowing.
     Our ships move proudly on, my boys,
     And favoring gales are blowing.
     Her flag is at the peak, my boys,
     To meet the traitorous faction.
     We’ll hasten to our several posts,
     And immediately prepare for action.
     Chorus:
     Old Rosey is our man.
     Old Rosey is our man.
     We’ll show our deeds where’er he leads,
     Old Rosey is our man.

By rights, General Rosecrans ought to have received equal adulation from his superiors in Washington as he did from the troops under his command. But instead of praise and commendation for having roundly whipped a formidable foe with only minor losses in a campaign carried out under the most trying of circumstances, Rosecrans received what seemed almost a rebuke from Secretary of War Stanton:

“Lee’s Army overthrown; Grant victorious. You and your noble army now have a chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?”

Rosecrans’ ire and sarcasm in his response to Stanton can be sympathized with given the circumstances:

“Just received your cheering telegram announcing the fall of Vicksburg and confirming the defeat of Lee. You do not appear to observe the fact that this noble army has driven the rebels from middle Tennessee….I beg in behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood.”

Rosecrans victory had been achieved in nine days: Grant’s achievement had taken months and only been won by attrition not combat. And while General Meade and his army had repelled a dire threat to the North at Gettysburg, and suffered tremendous casualties doing it, in the end Gettysburg was a purely defensive battle. Lee had not been defeated in open combat or forced to retreat in disarray as Bragg was, and Lee’s withdrawal southward was a leisurely affair, with Meade’s men following at a respectful distance. Yet both those victories then, and to this day, have overshadowed Rosecrans’ Tullahoma Campaign.

Military experts who have taken the time to analyze it have declared that “the Tullahoma Campaign was strategically more important than Gettysburg and tactically superior to Vicksburg” and that it marked “the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.” Another historian has described it as “a military masterpiece which did more damage to the Confederate cause than did Vicksburg or Gettysburg, and at very little human cost.” The Tullahoma Campaign resulted in the Federal army knocking at the door to the Confederate heartland. Rosecrans next move would be to swing that door wide open.

 

For more about the Civil War in the Western Theater, read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, Univ. of Tennessee  Pres.

 

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable  Strife chronicles the wartime career of one of American literature’s most original writers. 

 

 

MRS GRANT’S PRESENTIMENT

grants_ohiopix
Both Julia and the General were firm believers in the paranormal. The “presentiment” Julia had in Galena during the Battle of Belmont was one of the best examples of this.

It is a fact, ignored by academic historians, but well known among their contemporaries, that General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were both strong believers in the paranormal. This was in large part due to their own experiences on a number of occasions over the years.

While the Grant’s paranormal experiences were covered in some depth in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, this present essay deals more narrowly with one incident that occurred in the first year of the war.

On the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant had had some trouble volunteering his services for the U.S. Army. Although they were in dire need of experienced officers, the Regular Army would have nothing to do with him. His peacetime reputation as an officer in service in California had earned him an odious reputation, whether deserved or not. However, the Governor of Illinois, who had an abundance of raw recruits but a shortage of officers to train them, had no such compunctions and Grant quickly rose to the rank of Colonel and then General of Volunteers.

In November of 1861, Grant was in charge of the Union command at Cairo, Illinois, in close proximity to large Confederate garrisons lining both sides of the Mississippi River in Missouri and Kentucky. To forestall a Rebel attack and also to give Federal troops under his command a taste of combat, Grant organized an amphibious raid across the river to the enemy camp of “Fort Johnson” at Belmont.

The main Confederate defenses were actually across the river in “neutral” Kentucky, on the commanding heights of Columbus, where the Secessionists had emplaced 140 big guns. The formidable array of artillery menaced any steamboats that dared come within range and effectively controlled the entire Mississippi River.

Rather than attempt to storm the steep heights where the enemy fortress lay, Grant resolved instead to attack the smaller Rebel camp nearby at Belmont, Missouri in a bend of the river. His troops were still green and he hoped an easy victory on the small camp there would prepare them for bigger fights to come.

At first, everything seemed to go as planned. The blue-clad troops debarked from the flotilla of steamships and made haste to attack the Rebel camp, while the gunboats Tyler and Lexington fired their heavy ordinance at the Columbus heights in a show of force.

lexington-and-tyler-duel-the-confederate-batteries at Columbus KY 640x433

 

The Secessionists, as green as the Federal troops were, after a sharp initial fight fled Fort Johnson in haste, leaving all sorts of booty to loot.

Grant’s plan had been to move on and secure the entire area, taking advantage of the element of surprise to eliminate all resistance before returning to the boats. But his soldiers, still more civilian than soldier and ill disciplined, saw all the spoils of war in the Rebel camp—especially cooked meals ready to be eaten—abandoned all thought of the enemy and set to pillaging the Rebel camp and, “demoralized from their victory,” congratulated themselves on their glorious victory.

Even as the Union soldiers celebrated their incomplete triumph, however, the enemy was busy ferrying troops across the river from the Kentucky side and massing for a counter attack.

Soon the tables were turned and Grant’s force was in imminent danger of being surrounded. The overconfident troops now fell into despair and called out to surrender. To the cries to give up, Grant simply replied, “”well, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in!”

Grant tried to re-organize his panicked troops and make an orderly withdrawal, but when he went to look after his rearguard, he found they’d fled helter-skelter along with the other troops, leaving Grant an army of one with Rebel troops closing in all around him.

Taking advantage of tall grass, Grant calmly led his horse around the advancing enemy columns until he got close to the shoreline. Then Grant made a mad dash on his horse towards an awaiting steamboat, bullets whizzing past his ears all the time. Grant spurred his horse up the proffered gangplank and onto the last departing boat, barely ahead of charging grey ranks, the steamer then making haste to escape the surging enemy mass.

grants-troops-withdraw-after-the-battle-640x475

This much the histories tell us. But the rest of what transpired that day remains largely unreported, even to this day. Mrs. Grant’s memoirs, although known about for a long time, remained unpublished until 1975 and even since, Civil War historians have been highly selective in what they choose to use from her account.

On the same day that her husband led the raid against the enemy camp at Belmont, Julia Grant was busy packing her belongings to be with her husband at the border town of Cairo, Illinois. Grant had managed to organize the garrison there into something resembling order and located less rough accommodations for his family than had been the case when he first arrived.

That afternoon, Julia was busy packing her trunks in preparation to board the train for Cairo. In the mid of this flurry of activity, suddenly she had an overwhelming sense of foreboding take hold of her.

Julia could not understand why she should feel such dread and thought that perhaps she might be coming down with some disease. Unable to breathe and feeling like she might faint, Julia excused herself from her companion and made her way upstairs to lie down till the spell passed.

In the Room Where it Happened

galena-illinois-interior-view-of-general-ulysses-s-grant-s-house-grant-s-bedroom-c-1955
Overcome by a strange sense of dread, Julia went up to her bedroom to lie down, that is where she saw the vision of her husband in trouble.

When Julia entered her bedroom, however, she was startled to see a vivid apparition. It was no ordinary ghost, but the quite real-looking image of her husband Ulysses.

Julia could see the general’s head and upper torso quite clearly, and the image seemed real enough. However, his upper body seemed to hang suspended in mid-air, with his lower body not visible. It seemed as if he were mounted on horseback, but with the rest of the apparition and background not visible to her eyes.

Julia intuitively sensed that her Ulyss was in grave danger, although she knew not why or how. What she did know was that the vision before her was quite real and very disturbing. Julia let out a shriek, and instantly fainted away.

When Julia awoke, the vision was gone, but her apprehension remained. Unable to account for this vision, Mrs. Grant made haste to get to Cairo, to see what danger her husband may be in. While on the train, Julia received word about the Battle of Belmont that her Ulyss had been in. At the train station she found Grant waiting for her and he seemed well enough.

During the ride to their quarters from the station, however, Julia told her husband all about her waking vision of him and her extreme apprehension for his well being as a result.

After listening to her story, Grant replied, “that is singular. Just about that time, I was on horseback and in great peril, and I thought of you and the children. I was thinking of you, my dear Julia, and very earnestly too.”

In his memoirs, Grant later confessed that, throughout the war, he never felt so close to death in any other battle as he did that afternoon at Belmont.

It was a singular event indeed.

For more about uncanny and unusual aspects of the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, published by HarperCollins Publishers.

 

 

 

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.                                                                                                               For a free look inside the book, go to: HarperCollins                                                    

 

 

 

WILLIAM H SEWARD: IN PRAISE OF FOLLY

Engraved portrait of William Henry Seward (1801 – 1872), During his term as US Secretary of State (1861 – 1869), he negotiated the purchase of Alaska by the United States from Russia.

William Henry Seward, born 119 years ago, May 16, 1801, was a man whose life was one of service, not only to the people who elected him to various offices, and later as a cabinet officer to one of our greatest presidents, but to the advancement of human rights for his state and the nation.

Seward is best known as Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War, during which time he proved of great service to Lincoln and the nation. While that was the period of his greatest achievements in the area of diplomacy, he is best known for the purchase of Alaska from Imperial Russia in 1867, which a hostile press dubbed “Seward’s Folly.

Prior to the war, Seward had had a long political career in New York state, serving in various capacities, during which he developed a reputation as being a strong advocate of immigrants’ rights, public education, prison reform, humane treatment of the insane, racial equality, religious toleration and human rights in general.

In a famous trial, Seward defended a man, William Freeman, accused of murdering four people in an unprovoked act. Freeman was not only guilty of that crime, but was guilty of being Black, which many at the time considered a far worse offense. Knowing Freeman was insane, Seward felt he should not be given the death penalty and agreed to defend him, even though it seemed a lost cause. Seward argued eloquently for leniency, giving the justification that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, an early use of that defense in a court of law. While Seward was unable to get the man acquitted, but he did prevent him from being executed, this in a period where even in the North Blacks were unlikely to get a fair trial. In summing up his case before the jury Seward argued, “he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man.”

Nor was this an isolated example of Seward’s fight for human rights. As governor Seward signed several laws which advanced the rights and opportunities of Blacks in New York, and sought to protect fugitive slaves to the best of his ability in the various state offices he held. Seward was not an Abolitionist, per se since he believed in gradual emancipation as the way to end slavery; but in all other aspects his beliefs were in accord with the Abolitionists and indeed in a broad spectrum of civil rights and reforms. It is also believed that his home in upstate New York served as a station on the “Underground Railroad.”

Throughout its existence, Seward was active in the Whig Party, which was the first political party to believe in legislative action to develop the nation. Their strong advocacy of using the Federal government to intervene in what had before been the strict domain of the private sector, has led some political analysts to label the Whig Party as America’s first Socialist Party, although many would dispute that view. Certainly, Seward was among the more activist of the Whigs promoting civil rights, universal public education and land reform, as well as national expansion and economic growth.

When the Whig Party fell apart due to internal divisions over slavery, Seward gravitated towards the new Republican Party, whose rank and file included quite a number of genuine Socialists, and there is no question that from its beginning, the party was strongly imbued with Socialist ideals, as strange as that may seem today. In the mid nineteenth century, political reform movements had two main strains; one were the Liberals, who believed in Laissez Faire economics coupled with a small central government with only very weak powers; and the Socialists, who generally advocated a strong role for government to both expand human rights and economic justice, and also to promote national development. While Seward’s own political philosophy was less ideological than many of his fellow Republicans who were Socialists, in practical terms his political views on specific issues were very much in line with theirs. As the issue of  slavery became more and more contentious in the Senate, Seward incurred the wrath of its advocates for his warnings about the inevitability of Slavery’s demise, although on a personal level he had cordial relations with some of the less fanatic members of the Slaveocracy, such as Jefferson Davis.

it was Seward who coined the term “Irrepressible Conflict” which was quickly picked up by both sides of the slavery issue to either praise or condemn Seward.

During the 1858 mid-term elections Seward made a speech in Rochester, New York, which became famous (or infamous, depending on one’s political views). He pointed out that the U.S. had two, “antagonistic system [that] are continually coming into closer contact, and collision results … It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become entirely either a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.”

To Seward, this speech was simply stating the obvious; to Secessionists, the speech was considered a provocation and yet another justification for their growing militancy on the issue of slavery.

As the 1860 presidential election approached, Seward seemed the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. However, his vocal opposition to slavery, his support for immigrants and Catholics, and his association with political boss Thurlow Weed all worked against him, and Abraham Lincoln secured the presidential nomination instead. Although disappointed, Seward campaigned tirelessly for Lincoln, who appointed him Secretary of State after winning the election.

Although Seward tried to prevent the southern states from seceding, when those efforts failed, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the Union cause. Most notable during his tenure as Secretary of State, were his efforts to prevent foreign intervention in the Civil War.

Both Britain and France were eager to help the cotton growing Southern states in their rebellion, with a view to eventually turning the South into an economic fiefdom of their growing Capitalist industries. One way he did this was by cultivating the friendship of both Prussia and Russia. At one point during the war, the Czar made a point of sending both his Atlantic and Pacific fleets on a friendly visit to the United States, where the Secretary of State made sure they were warmly welcomed. This show of military might was not lost on the His Majesty’s government in London, who understood that intervening on behalf of the Confederacy would have consequences in Europe as well as America. The close relations Seward cultivated with Russia during the war would later be helpful a few years later in obtaining Alaska from the Czarist government on very reasonable terms.

On the night Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Seward himself barely escaped death at one of the conspirator’s hands.

On the night of April 14, 1865, Secretary of State Seward was also the intended victim of assassination. He came very close to being killed and only a neck-brace, due to a recent accident, prevented the assassin from carrying out his evil intent.

Seward stayed on into the Johnson Administration and not only secured the vast natural resources of Alaska but was also instrumental in forcing the French to withdraw from Mexico in 1866; at one point he expressed interest in also obtaining Cuba from the Spanish, but that effort found little support, either at home or abroad.

At the time, Seward was ridiculed for the purchase of Alaska, here portrayed as a wilderness filled with mocking beavers, predatory bears and a scared eskimo. Time has shown that Seward’s purchase was far from “folly.”

His contemporary, Republican and Socialist Carl Schurz described Seward as “one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints.” His role in helping Lincoln in the war, and America in peace, is today perhaps largely forgotten, his achievements were nonetheless of lasting importance and deserve to be remembered.

 

For more about Lincoln and his administration, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln published by Schiffer Books; for an in depth look at one man’s participation in the Civil War, look up Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

FRANKLIN: BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD

Christopher Kiernan Coleman

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays.  Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls….And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

—Col. Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine

John Copley, a Confederate veteran of the battle, later rendered this panorama of the attack in 1893.

There are ghosts, and then there are GHOSTS.  Not just a stray apparition or two, mind you, but dozens–perhaps hundreds of the restless dead. 

     That’s the way it is with Civil War battlefields; and when you combine a whole town of old buildings to haunt, well then, you have a place very much like Franklin, Tennessee.

There are any number of folk in Franklin who have forgotten more about the history of the battle than I could possibly tell you about in a month of Mondays. The same holds true for its many haints and haunts.  For those unfamiliar with the battle, however, a little background is in order.

John Bell Hood was appointed by Jefferson Davis to head the Army of Tennessee during the summer of ’64. Davis did not think its previous commander, Joe Johnston, had been aggressive enough—which is to say, old Uncle Joe didn’t like to get his men killed needlessly. But President Davis had vowed to defend Southern Honor to the last drop of poor Southern dirt-farmer’s blood, since their blood was red, not blue like his.

Mind you, the Army of Tennessee was a first rate outfit; it was second only to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in fighting ability, élan and experience.  The only difference between the two was that this army suffered from the same debility that had plagued British cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars.  Napoleon had once said that British cavalry was “the noblest and most poorly led,” and while the commanding generals were all men of Honor, their judgment in the field sometimes was found wanting.

General Hood was a brave officer—no one can deny him that—but he had never commanded an entire army in the field. He had also lost a leg and an arm at Gettysburg and Chickamauga and by the time he took charge of the army, while he was neither drunk nor high on morphine, as some would later claim, he had to have been in great pain by this stage of the war, and was certainly greatly fatigued from his catastrophic wounds; perhaps also his judgment may have been impaired from the strain and pain. At the very least, Hood overly optimistic in assuming his subordinates could carry out orders correctly, which in this army was not always the case. 

At Springhill, Tennessee, on November 29, 1864, Hood seemingly had Union General Schofield’s army trapped, with troops coming up from the south and another force blocking the road further north for the Yankees. Yet the morning light revealed the Yankees escaped in the night.

When he found the Yankees gone the next morning, one witness described Hood as “wrathy as a snake.”  Pursuing the Federals to Franklin, Hood resolved to attack them regardless of the cost.  He threw his infantry across two miles of open field against the Union rearguard, who had had all day to dig in.

On the grounds of Carter House the Rebels came close to overrunning the Yankee rear-guard defending the town. The fighting was hand to hand and vicious.

It was not for lack of bravery or aggressiveness that the Army of Tennessee failed to defeat the Yankees that autumn afternoon.  They charged headlong into a withering fire and fell by the thousands.  Five generals and at least twenty colonels died leading the charge. 

Even nightfall did not stop the bloodletting. Rebel troops kept pressing the attack in the dark, the dead piling up in heaps before the Yankees trenches.  A few days later, servants of the Carter family, whose house had been smack in the center of the death-dealing, had to use garden rakes to clear the grounds of the house of the thousands and thousands of spent leaden bullets.

To compound the tragedy of the day, the men who fell before the Yankee muskets were not strangers in a strange land. They were the husbands, sons and brothers of the families of Franklin and neighboring communities. 

Captain Carter was mortally wounded only yards from his own home during the Battle of Franklin. His ghost has been sighted on numerous occasions on the grounds of the house.

To this day, Carter House is haunted by the ghost of Captain Tod Carter, who died within sight of his father’s home.  Other ghosts haunt the Carter House and the nearby Lotz House, standing just across the street.  Because the Columbia Pike ran through the Union Defenses right here, this spot was the weak point of the Federal defenses and it was here where fighting was hottest.

On the rear verandah of Carter House five Confederate generals were laid out after the battle, while nearby the dead were stacked like cordwood.

Another famous haunt is Carnton Mansion, the center of a grand plantation belonging to the McGavock family, lying on the eastern fringe of the battlefield.  Five dead Confederate generals were brought here and laid out on the back porch. Other Confederate dead were piled like cordwood in a great long heap. Eventually, most were buried on the grounds of the plantation. 

With so many young men cut down in their prime, the Mansion has several ghosts–some thought to be former family members. As chronicled in greater depth in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, there are many eyewitness reports of ghosts haunting the grounds around Carnton.

Nor are these spots the only places in Franklin, Tennessee where the ghosts of the Civil War dead still linger.  The day after the battle, both sides moved on to Nashville, where there was a siege and battle in December. In Franklin the wounded lingered on in agony for weeks. Amputations, disease and cold all took their toll.  Local families took many of the wounded in, but the number of casualties was overwhelming and many died from lack of care.  The old buildings that still stand in the core of town house many such ghosts. Where today are boutiques, recording studios, law offices or residences, the mortally wounded suffered in pain for week after week in the winter of ’65, some just barely alive. As the song relates, it was the time they drove old Dixie down.

Carnton Cemetary in Franklin where the Confederate dead bivouac for eternity. Some come back from time to time to patrol the grounds.

BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD

The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat

The soldier’s last tattoo;

No more on Life’s parade shall meet

That brave and fallen few.

On Fame’s eternal camping-ground

Their silent tents are spread,

And Glory guards, with solemn round,

The bivouac of the dead

Theodore O’Hara

The restless dead still abide in the heart of the prosperous city of Franklin and in between the gentrified suburban subdivisions, upscale boutiques, and busy soccer moms flitting to and fro, one may still occasionally encounter a Civil War soldier’s restless shade who does not quite know the war is over.

For more about the gaggle of ghosts in Franklin–and Civil War ghosts in general–see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

Ambrose Bierce on American War Dead

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“Is there a man, North or South, who would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green graves?” 

On Memorial Day, Americans honor those who died in all our wars. Traditionally, we honor the men and less the cause they fought for. There have been wars America fought which, in retrospect, may have been less than just: some were unnecessary, a few were futile; but we honor those who fell in them nonetheless.

Ambrose Bierce joined the Union Army the instant he heard of Lincoln’s call for troops; unlike many, he not only joined because he wished to preserve the Union, but because he and his family were ardent Abolitionists. His Uncle Lucius Bierce had supplied John Brown with the broadswords that Brown used to commit the Pottawatamie Massacre, and later eulogized Brown when he was executed. But after four years of war, killing his fair share of the enemy and after nearly dying himself, Bierce was no longer that idealistic young man. He had seen too much death, too much suffering, to gloat over his former foes defeat; he never regretted his war service, but neither did he rejoice in the victory achieved at such a cost. 

In 1903, Ambrose Bierce, still very much haunted by his experiences in the war, penned this essay after revisiting the scenes of his first experience of the war. He saw the ill- tended graves of his former foes and the neglect which they had fallen into. His eloquence on viewing the graves of not enemies, but fellow soldiers, remains an eloquent Memorial Day statement: 

A BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD

“Away up in the heart of the Allegheny mountains, in Pocahontas county, West Virginia, is a beautiful little valley through which flows the east fork of the Greenbrier river. At a point where the valley road intersects the old Staunton and Parkersburg turnpike, a famous thoroughfare in its day, is a post office in a farm house. The name of the place is Travelers’ Repose, for it was once a tavern. Crowning some low hills within a stone’s throw of the house are long lines of old Confederate fortifications, skilfully designed and so well “preserved” that an hour’s work by a brigade would put them into serviceable shape for the next civil war. This place had its battle–what was called a battle in the “green and salad days” of the great rebellion. A brigade of Federal troops, the writer’s regiment among them, came over Cheat mountain, fifteen miles to the westward, and, stringing its lines across the little valley, felt the enemy all day; and the enemy did a little feeling, too. There was a great cannonading, which killed about a dozen on each side; then, finding the place too strong for assault, the Federals called the affair a reconnaissance in force, and burying their dead withdrew to the more comfortable place whence they had come. Those dead now lie in a beautiful national cemetery at Grafton, duly registered, so far as identified, and companioned by other Federal dead gathered from the several camps and battlefields of West Virginia. The fallen soldier (the word “hero” appears to be a later invention) has such humble honors as it is possible to give.

His part in all the pomp that fills
The circuit of the Summer hills
Is that his grave is green.

True, more than a half of the green graves in the Grafton cemetery are marked “Unknown,” and sometimes it occurs that one thinks of the contradiction involved in “honoring the memory” of him of whom no memory remains to honor; but the attempt seems to do no great harm to the living, even to the logical.

A few hundred yards to the rear of the old Confederate earthworks is a wooded hill. Years ago it was not wooded. Here, among the trees and in the undergrowth, are rows of shallow depressions, discoverable by removing the accumulated forest leaves. From some of them may be taken (and reverently replaced) small thin slabs of the split stone of the country, with rude and reticent inscriptions by comrades. I found only one with a date, only one with full names of man and regiment. The entire number found was eight.

In these forgotten graves rest the Confederate dead–between eighty and one hundred, as nearly as can be made out. Some fell in the “battle;” the majority died of disease. Two, only two, have apparently been disinterred for reburial at their homes. So neglected and obscure is this campo santo that only he upon whose farm it is–the aged postmaster of Travelers’ Repose–appears to know about it. Men living within a mile have never heard of it. Yet other men must be still living who assisted to lay these Southern soldiers where they are, and could identify some of the graves. Is there a man, North or South, who would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green graves? One would rather not think so. True, there are several hundreds of such places still discoverable in the track of the great war. All the stronger is the dumb demand–the silent plea of these fallen brothers to what is “likest God within the soul.”

They were honest and courageous foemen, having little in common with the political madmen who persuaded them to their doom and the literary bearers of false witness in the aftertime. They did not live through the period of honorable strife into the period of vilification–did not pass from the iron age to the brazen–from the era of the sword to that of the tongue and pen. Among them is no member of the Southern Historical Society.

Their valor was not the fury of the non-combatant; they have no voice in the thunder of the civilians and the shouting. Not by them are impaired the dignity and infinite pathos of the Lost Cause. Give them, these blameless gentlemen, their rightful part in all the pomp that fills the circuit of the summer hills.”

 

For more on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, University of Tennessee Press.

 

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Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles the author’s wartime experiences in the Army of the Cumberland and his coming of age in the crucible of war.

 

 

“CONSUMATE MASTER OF NEEDLESS DEFEAT” GENERAL OLIVER O. HOWARD

 

12- Rick Reeves painting Pickett's Mill depicting the repulse of Hazen s Brigade by Granbury s Texas Brigade 96dpi
Cleburne’s men repulse Hazen’s brigade at Pickett’s Mill on May 27, 1864. Painting by Rick Reeves.

AN EMINENT FEDERAL GENERAL

During the Civil War and after, Oliver Otis Howard was held in high regard by General Sherman and other Union commanders; why that was, heaven only knows. Sherman praised Howard in a letter to Grant as “a polished and Christian gentleman, exhibiting the highest and most chivalrous traits of the soldier.” Some may find some unconscious irony in Sherman lauding Howard for chivalrous and gentlemanly behavior, since Uncle Billy was so lacking in those traits himself, and the only thing Old Crump was noted for polishing was polishing off was bottles of whiskey and boxes of cigars.

Howard was referred to as the “Christian General” by some, presumably for his ostentatious displays of piety, less his practice of same. By the field officers and men under him, however, General O. O. Howard was generally referred to as “Oh-Oh!” Howard, due to his well-earned reputation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on the field of battle. Historian Stephen Sears has called him an “unimaginative, unenterprising, uninspiring, a stiflingly christian soldier.” There are those who think that Sears was being uncommonly generous in his appraisal of Howard.

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General Oliver O. “Oh-Oh” Howard

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, for example, General Howard commanded the Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac, where he earned an undimmed repute for bad generalship. The Eleventh was composed largely of immigrant volunteers; when originally formed, McClellan had seen fit to lump most of the Germans, Irish and other immigrant units into one large ghetto, so to speak, presumably so they would not contaminate his Anglo-Saxon “American” units with their foreign ways—although that was never explicitly stated. Until Howard took command of the Eleventh, the regiments had been under one or another German-American general, men who often had military training in Europe and even some combat experience. They may not have been the best corps commanders, but they were trusted by their men.

The “Dutchmen” were less than happy with their new leader and, truth be told, the corps had previously suffered from neglect at the hands of the Federal high command, often being deprived of necessary food and equipment in an army generally known for its superabundance of them. As fate would have it, Chancellorsville was the first time Howard commanded the Eleventh in combat—and it was nearly his last.

                                                                                                                                                                At Chancellorsville, Howard and his “Dutchmen” were stuck on the extreme right of the Union line, where General Hooker no doubt hoped they would be out of sight and mind. Apparently Stonewall Jackson was of a similar opinion, and convinced General Lee to let him take his corps out of the southern end of the Confederate battle-line and march behind the main body of the Rebel army to come up and around and deliver a surprise attack on Howard’s isolated force. General Jackson’s maneuver from the far right to the extreme left of the Rebel line was carried out with speed and secrecy; his “foot-cavalry” delivered an overwhelming assault against Howard and his unsuspecting troops.

While some blamed Howard for gross negligence and failing to properly entrench his troops, many in the Army of the Potomac faulted his men for cowardice, referring to them as “flying dutchmen,” as the corps collapsed under the relentless assault of Stonewall’s corps. That the Eleventh was outnumbered three to one and lacked reserves to stem the attack may have also had something to do with the defeat. Hooker also found it convenient to blame Howard and the Eleventh for the debacle rather than assume any blame on his own shoulders.

Again, at Gettysburg, Howard and the Eleventh were again severely pressed on the first day, with the corps being pushed back through the town and only managing to make a stand on the high ground south of town. Ultimately, Howard managed to hold the line on Cemetery Hill, although it was a very near thing. That evening, Howard was replaced by General Hancock—an officer of lower rank—by General Meade–some indication of Meade’s regard for Howard’s generalship.

Later that year, when Grant called on Washington for troops to retrieve the situation in Chattanooga following Rosecrans’ defeat at Chickamauga, General Meade was only too glad to send Howard and his Dutchmen out west–and out of his army. In the Western Theater, the Eleventh Corps fared far better in combat, with none of the criticism that had dogged them with the Army of the Potomac. In part this may have been because, after raising the siege of the city, they ceased to be under “Oh-Oh!” Howard’s command.

For Sherman’s big push against Atlanta the following year, Howard was put in charge of the Fourth Corps and placed under the command of General George Thomas in the Army of the Cumberland. Howard seems to have avoided major defeats in the Atlanta Campaign, at least for a few months. This was due largely to the overwhelming numerical superiority of “Uncle Billy’s” three armies, versus “Uncle Joe” Johnston’s lone Army of Tennessee.  Also, Sherman was very much in command of all his forces, moving them like chessmen on a playing board, leaving less room for Howard to commit serious blunders.

During the early months of 1864, Sherman’s massive force relentlessly advanced southward through the mountainous region of northwest Georgia, whose hilly terrain was admirably suited for defense. Hopelessly outnumbered, Joe Johnston fought one defensive battle after another, holding ground to the point where Sherman threatened to outflank him and then falling back to his next defensive line. Finally, Sherman’s advance ground to a halt on May 26, at New Hope Church. On May 27, an effort to outflank Johnston’s troops, Sherman ordered Howard to take his Fourth Corps back around to the left and attack the Rebel’s extreme right flank—much as Stonewall Jackson had done to Howard at Chancellorsville.

What Stonewall had done stealthily and quickly, Howard did obviously and slowly, so that by the time his troops had arrived at the jump off spot, the Rebels had had ample warning of an attack. To cover his exposed right, Johnston rushed his best division under his best commander—Cleburne’s Division, plus some dismounted cavalry as support. Instead of launching the full force of his command against the still fragile Rebel right, Howard, beginning late in the afternoon, began to send his troops in a brigade at a time. Hazen’s brigade had the dubious honor of attacking first, without any support, at a spot called Pickett’s Mill.

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Brigadier General William Babcock Hazen, “The Best Hated Man in the Army”

The story of the attack by Hazen’s men was later chronicled by Lt. Ambrose Bierce, who was on Hazen’s staff, in the short essay, “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” and a somewhat more objective account of the battle is related in Chapter 12 of Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife. While both Sherman and the divisional commander are deserving of blame for the ensuing blood bath, Bierce always reserved the full weight of blame for the “Christian” Howard.

Despite the hopelessness of the attack, Hazen and his men carried it out to the best of their ability and in fact at one point some troops of the brigade found an open flank which could be turned. At that point Hazen sent back runners with urgent dispatches, desperately calling for support to exploit the weak point in the Rebel lines—to no avail. Only after Hazen’s men had been bled dry and were in retreat, did Howard send in another brigade, only to be chewed up like the first, and then a third, which only avoided similar losses by the onset of darkness.

Criminal incompetence ought to be considered a felony, but in this case the guilty parties not only went unpunished but were rewarded for their blunders and the incident was buried deep in official reports until Ambrose Bierce disinterred it years after the was.

General Howard, in reward for his record of criminal incompetence was bestowed with further honors, positions and duties after the war. Soon after cessation of hostilities he was put in charge of the Freedman’s Bureau, to look after the welfare of the newly freed Negroes, where under his watch the Klu Klux Klan rose to power. He was later sent west to supervise the Nez Perce Indians, a peaceful tribe that simply wanted to be left alone, and Howard somehow managed to provoke a war with them. Needless to say, Howard kept being rewarded for his incompetence and lived to rewrite history with his memoirs, in whose pages his many “needless defeats” became heroic stands, although he, like Sherman, said little about the “crime” at Pickett’s Mill.

For more about the war, read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, and for more esoteric aspects of the Late Unpleasantness, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

 

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Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles the wartime career of one of America’s greatest writers.

 

MAJOR BIERCE ON DESERTION

Lt. Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, After the war he was brevetted to Major in honor of his service.

Any of you who have read my bio of Ambrose Bierce are aware that, despite his innate cynicism regarding the art of war, Ambrose Bierce was anything but a pacifist, much less a coward. During his service with the Union Army during the War of the Rebellion,

Almighty God Bierce served, first as a lowly private, then as a non-com, and finally as an officer & a gentleman (or at least as an officer), his promotions being the result of his valor on the field of battle.

Whether he ever attained the gentleman part of  the epithet “an officer and a gentleman” is a dubious proposition, but it is known that Bierce did spend a year in military school at his Uncle Lucius Bierce‘s expense. Bierce attended Kentucky Military Institute shortly before the Election of 1860, when sectional passions were running high in the border states. It is not known for certain why he left, but presumably his family’s outspoken Abolitionism may have come into conflict with one or another Southern gentleman attending the school, who held the opposite viewpoint regarding Secession and slavery. In any case, Bierce left voluntarily. So it was that, when war came, Bierce had a good bit more military training than of the other volunteers of his Hoosier regiment, the Ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry.

When Bierce went “To See the Elephant” as the expression of the day put it, Bierce did a lot of running, but never away from the sound of the guns, but almost always directly towards them. One time in western Virginia (soon to become West Virginia) he and his fellow “Swamp Angels” (their early nickname) Bierce and his comrades conducted a self-led charge up a hill at some Georgia boys who were contesting the summit. The charge through the trees went along alright, until Bierce suddenly realized he had become an army of one, his comrades having chose the better part of valor and ducked down behind the nearest stumps and rocks. A nearby comrade having been hit, Bierce picked up the wounded soldier, grabbed both their rifles and made a hasty retreat back down to where the rest of the ninety-day warriors safely lay at the bottom of the hill. The Rebels won the laurels on Laurel Hill that day.

Bierce’s first real experience with soldiers showing their backside to the enemy came at Shiloh, but here again, it was not Bierce and his comrades of the Ninth Indiana, but Grant’s men who were found wanting in courage. Admittedly, the men of the Bloody Ninth and of General Buell’s Army of the Ohio did not see the men of Grant’s army in the best light: in fact, it was night by the time they arrived on the opposite shore and were ferried across to the landing where the badly battered remnants of Grant’s army lay. But it was a sight that Bierce never forgot:

“They were mostly unarmed; many were wounded; some dead. Not one of them knew where his regiment was, nor if he had a regiment. Many had not. These were defeated, beaten, cowed. They were deaf to duty and dead to shame. A more demented crew never drifted to the rear of broken battalions.”

Grant’s men deserted en masse on the first day of Shiloh, many fleeing to the Landing desperate to escape.

With that sardonic wit typical of him in the postwar years, Bierce observed that, “an army’s bravest men are its cowards. The death which they would not meet at the hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.” There were, of course, far too many deserters to shoot at Pittsburg Landing, but that may not have kept the Bloody Ninth’s divisional commander, General “Bull” Nelson, from plugging a few anyway.

A Union firing squad executes deserters, who are forced to sit on their own coffins.

We do know that Bierce and his comrades witnessed at least one execution of a deserter while stationed in Nashville in the early part of 1862 and was he present at other military execution. As Provost Marshall, he may even have presided over one or two himself. He would later write an essay on the subject as well as cataloging some of the more barbaric punishments the US Army meted out for lesser crimes.

In the postwar era, after spending a short stint as a Treasury Agent in the deep South, trying to track down contraband cotton being hidden by unreconstructed Rebels, like many veterans who were bored and restless, Bierce headed west. His old commander, General William Hazen, was conducting a survey of the western territories and recruited Bierce to come along to put his talents as surveyor and map maker to use.

At one point, Bierce even toyed with rejoining the army and aspired for a captain’s commission. When that was not forthcoming, he headed out to California. Bierce would also spend an interlude in the Black Hills helping an old army buddy with a mining venture. Bierce did not discuss his personal adventures in the west at any length—although they inspired a number of his short stories—save to intimate that the threat from the native tribes was greatly exaggerated and the postwar army not up to the quality of the Civil War army he had served in. Bierce may have had in mind the fact that when Custer’s command was massacred in the Black Hills, besides being bad marksmen, they had obsolete single-shot carbines, versus the Sioux’s deadly accurate repeating rifles.

Regardless, what little we know of his frontier experience indicates he was frequently exposed to danger of one sort or another. It is not certain what set off his later ruminations about desertion, but in the following essay, he had some choice things to say about the frontier army of his day and its lack of readiness.

Concerning Desertion

San Francisco Examiner September 9, 1889

In attempting to account for the wide and lasting popularity of desertion among our country’s gallant but uncommissioned defenders, everybody seems to have overlooked one reason which can hardly fail to influence many of our hardy warriors to “take their hook.” While all the other civilized nations are arming their soldiery with the most afflicting modern weapons—cannon of desolating power and repeating rifles exceedingly disagreeable to confront—we retain the ancient arms of the Rebellion period, whose fire it is more blessed to receive than give.

Now, the American private soldier, born abroad in most cases and having the advantage of personal acquaintance with the superior European weapons, may be supposed to know that in combat with those who wield them he would not have the ghost of a chance for his life. The gratification of dying for his adoptive country is all that we can promise him. In the pomp and circumstances of parade that may be sufficient to sustain his courage and urge him to spectacular deeds; but in the silent watches of the night, when the monotony of his toil is unbroken save by the sound of his brush as he polishes the boots of his officer, he needs a spiritual stimulant of robuster strength. If the pattern of his weapon would assist his fancy to picture himself in triumphant contemplation of a fallen foe it would wonderfully lighten his task of tidying up the rooms of his officer’s wife and pushing the perambulator of his officer’s wife’s baby.

The American private soldier is not insensible to perils of war that lurk in Bismarck’s hostility to the American hog. He is alive to the significant affirmation of his country’s unworthy by the Canadian press, and to all the possibilities involved in our determination to maintain our fences around the Bering Sea. That these “questions” are full of thunder he knows as well as the Secretary of State does; and the consciousness that he may be pitted against a British or German veteran gifted with a gun that will kill is naturally disquieting. We are far from implying that our private soldiers are lacking in the military virtue of courage; they are willing to fight, but do not wish to be made ridiculous. Some of them have already felt the sting of an enemy’s derision while endeavoring to conquer the Red Man intelligently armed by the War Department of his tribe.

If for every man who deserts we would arm a remaining man with a good serviceable weapon we could well afford to let the deserter go, grant him a full pardon and permit Commissioner Tanner to pension his whole family. An army of even one-third the number that we have now would be, if well-armed and equipped, a more effective force. We do not need a large army, but whatever army we have should be maintained in the highest possible state of efficiency. The better our soldiers are armed the fewer we need—a consideration imperfectly apprehended by the economists who are ever to the fore in Congress, demanding a “reduction of the army.” Expended in purchase of improved arms, the amount of a month’s pay to 10,000 men would enable us, with distinct advantage to the service, to muster out that number, giving them back to the arts and industries and making them back to the arts and industries and making them producers of wealth. It would not only increase the efficiency of the force as then constituted, but would secure a better quality of recruits and do at least something to check desertion; for even if all should leave, the blacklist would not contain as many names by 10,000 as it now bids fair to do. AGB

For more about Ambrose Bierce’s war service, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

Lincoln, Elmer Ellsworth, and the First Federal Militias

Emerging Civil War

Within a week of taking the presidential oath, Mr. Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Simon Cameron regarding his young friend, Elmer Ellsworth:

 You will favor me by issuing an order detailing Lieut. Ephraim E Ellsworth, of the First Dragoons, for special duty as Adjutant and Inspector General of Militia for the United States, and in so far as existing laws will admit, charge him with the transaction, under your direction, of all business pertaining to the Militia, to be conducted as a separate bureau, of which Lieut. Ellsworth will be chief, with instructions to take measures for promoting a uniform system of organization, drill, equipment, etc. etc. of the U.S. Militia, and to prepare a system of drill for Light troops, adapted for self-instruction, for distribution to the Militia of the several States. You will please assign him suitable office rooms, furniture etc. and provide him with a clerk and…

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