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.”

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Posted in Civil War Historians, Civil War History, Gettysburg, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Stonewall Jackson, The American Civil War, The Army of Northern Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover

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.

 

 

Posted in 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Abolitonism, Ambrose Bierce, Civil War History, Memorial Day, The American Civil War | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover

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

 

Posted in Ambrose Bierce, Atlanta, Battle of Picketts Mill, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, General Hooker, General Oliver O. Howard, General William B. Hazen, Gettysburg, Hazen's Brigade, Incompetent Generals, Stonewall Jackson, The American Civil War, The Army of Cumberland, The Army of Tennessee | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Ambrose Bierce, Army of the Ohio, Battle of Shiloh, Brigadier General, Civil War History, Desertion in the face of the enemy, General Don Carlos Buell, The American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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GENERALS BEHAVING BADLY: AMBROSE BIERCE ON INCOMPETENCE, DRUNKENNESS AND OTHER QUIRKS OF SENIOR COMMANDERS

Ambrose Bierce First Lt Don Swaim
Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, fought with the Army of the Cumberland in the Western Theater throughout the war and knew most of the Union commanders first hand.

Ambrose Bierce’s pronouncements on the American Civil War are a particular interest of mine.  My apologia for this has to do with researching his life and times for over six years, not to mention writing and revising my book on Bierce’s wartime experiences more times than I wish to count.  Having been one of the few great American authors to actually have seen extensive combat gives great weight to Bierce’s pronouncements on war.  Ironically, much of what Bierce wrote about the war had less to do with combat per se than with the other aspects of service, the parts that commanders–and the historians who lionize them–often leave out of the narrative.

Bierce’s favorite subject for scorn were generals and other senior officers.  Bierce rarely criticized his former enemies in gray; even General Bragg, who was universally despised by his own men, often gets off with only a few mildly sarcastic remarks in Bierce’s writings.  But Union commanders were a different matter entirely; Bierce reserved his best venomous prose for the generals in blue who perpetrated what he viewed as “crimes” against their own soldiers.  “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” is a classic piece of Bierce’s war nonfiction and well exemplifies his “bitter” attitude towards these former army commanders.

I fully cover the Battle of Pickett’s Mill and Bierce’s role in it in Chapter 12 of Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife so there is no point to chew my cud twice here.  Suffice it to say that in his essay on the fight, we learn how Sherman glossed over the defeat in his memoirs to make his own generalship seem better than it was, while the Corps Commander who bungled the operation, the grossly incompetent Oliver O. Howard (of Chancellorsville infamy) we learn was commonly referred to by his men as “Oh-Oh!” Howard for his unerring knack of getting his men killed unnecessarily.

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General Oliver O. Howard came in for Bierce’s particular ire for the unnecessary slaughter of Bierce’s brigade at Pickett’s Mill caused by “Oh-Oh” Howard’s incompetence.

The outbreak of the Spanish-American War sparked Bierce to ruminate at length about war in general in his columns in The San Francisco Examiner and he often summoned up memories of the earlier conflict which he had fought in when reading about the War with Spain.  In Bierce’s “War Topics” for the July 23, 1899 issue of the paper, for example, shared his unique view of incompetent officers with his readers:

A general’s first duty is to have the confidence, rightly or wrongly, of his men. Without it he is weak for aggression and weak for defense. It is easily had: some of the most incompetent commanders in history have had it in a high degree, and were thereby enabled to accomplish results not otherwise possible to them, especially in averting disaster. Notable examples (I mention them in the hope of arousing evil passions and provoking controversy) are McClellan and Rosecrans.”

Rosecrans-William

General William Rosecrans, whom Bierce described as popular with his men, but “many kinds of a brilliant crank.”

On another occasion, on describing General Rosecrans’ performance at Chickamauga, Bierce says, “There is no reason to doubt that he acted on his best judgment, which, however, was never very good. Rosecrans was many kinds of a brilliant crank, but his personal courage was beyond question.”

Bierce had a genius for the left-handed compliment. In the persona of “The Bald Campaigner” (San Francisco Examiner May 31, 1902) Bierce elaborates on Rosecrans’ as a general:

“General Rosecrans was a courageous and dutiful soldier. He always did the best he knew how, and no one can do more than that. He was an accomplished and amiable gentleman, one of the most interesting and lovable characters that I ever met. His men’s belief in him and devotion to him were marvelous; but those of his higher officers who were educated soldiers had little confidence in him, and events justified their doubt.”

General Grant

General Grant was the subject of both Bierce’s criticism and praise.

Bierce’s attitude towards General Grant has generally been assumed by modern writers to be implacably hostile, mainly for Bierce’s scorching assessment of Grant’s generalship at Shiloh: “for manifest incompetence Grant, whose beaten army had been saved from destruction by Buell’s soldierly activity and skill, had been relieved of his command, which nevertheless had not been given o Buell, but to Halleck, a man of unproved powers, a theorist, sluggish, irresolute.”

Here in what is little more than a parenthetical aside, Bierce has managed to trash both Grant and Halleck. The  short story “An Affair of Outposts,” in which it was inserted, was actually about the subsequent Corinth Campaign, another masterly example of passive aggression by “Old Brains” Halleck.

In other cases, however, Bierce’s assessment of Grant seem more tempered, or at least ambivalent.  In regard to the allegations about Grant’s drunkenness, Bierce, himself  fond of strong drink, comes to the general’s defense–after a fashion.

 

96dpi  Grant at Orchard Knob  Chattanooga Thure de Thulstrup Grant  72kb 96dpi

Grant and his commanders at Orchard Knob watch the Battle of Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863 as they “pass the poisoned chalice.”

During the prelude to the Battle of Missionary Ridge, as a staff officer Lt. Bierce was with his commanding officer, General Hazen, on Orchard Knob, where General Grant and the other senior commanders were observing Sherman’s men fail to take their objectives that day.  As Grant and his entourage watched the battle, they “passed the poisoned chalice” about and about, and Bierce watched Grant “kiss the dragon.” Bierce says, “I don’t think he took enough to comfort the enemy…but I was all the time afraid he would, which was ungenerous, for he did not appear at all afraid I would.” Lest Grant and his generals on Orchard Knob that day escape from his appreciation completely unscathed, Bierce notes that while they did not abstain from drink, “these gentlemen were themselves total abstainers from the truth.”

Bierce even went so far as to compose an elegy on the event of Grant’s death, in which he went on to praise the controversial hero, while still acknowledging his ruthlessness in pursuing an end to the war:

He fringed the continent with fire,
The rivers ran in lines of light!
Thy will be done on earth—if right
Or wrong he cared not to inquire.
His was the heavy hand, and his
The service of the despot blade;
His the soft answer that allayed
War’s giant animosities.

Lt. Ambrose was a frontline witness to the war, both as a private soldier and later as a staff officer who moved easily among the ranks of the senior commanders of the Federal armies in the west. He saw more than most men did in that war, both of the good and the bad. His testimony should not be ignored.

For more about Bierce and the War in the Western Theater, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover

Ambrose Bierce and The Period of Honorable Strife, published by the University of Tennessee Press.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Ambrose Bierce, Battle of Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga, Civil War History, Drunkeness in Battle, General Oliver O. Howard, General William B. Hazen, General William Rosecrans, Hazen's Brigade, Incompetent Generals, Orchard Knob, The American Civil War, The Army of Cumberland, The Army of Tennessee, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE RAPE OF FORT NEGLEY: DON’T LET THE DEVELOPERS BULLDOZE HERITAGE

 

Fort Negley Oct 1862

Fort Negley as it appeared during the War

 

The following is reposted from the Civil War Bloggers, Authors, etc. Facebook Site.  The editorial is via Gary Biggs of the Nashville CWRT and based on an article by reporter Betsy Phillips about the proposed atrocity that rapacious and greedy developers want to foist on the city. They have in recent months also bulldozed a frontier cemetery in the area that was supposed to be under government protection. It is published here to make other Civil War enthusiasts and historians aware of the dire threat to the few remaining acres of Civil War Nashville. Even most Nashville citizens are unaware of the important role the city played during the Civil War. Greedy developers are working hard to erase even this last vestige. Please contact the Mayor’s office in Nashville if you are at all concerned about the situation. The city listens to visitors and tourists more than they do t concerned citizens. Thank you. CKC

CIVIL WAR NEWS AND EVENTS
Fort Negley Park Area Under Development Threat
On April 28th, 2017, reporter Betsy Phillips wrote the following article in the weekly Nashville Scene paper:
Developers Propose the Desecration of Fort Negley
Shame on us if we let it happen
“WKRN has a story about a proposed development around Fort Negley:
On Tuesday, we heard from a developer who has big plans for the empty property (Greer Stadium site): a multi-purpose complex called Nashville Adventure Park.”
“The proposal includes senior living, luxury apartments, townhomes, affordable housing, a farmer’s market at the stadium, artisan retail and studios, restaurants, a hotel, and a wide variety of sports offerings.”
“If you imagine the hill that the main part of the fort sits on as an egg yolk, this development would be like the egg white, seeming to completely surround the fort, except for where the Adventure Science Center sits.”
“In other words, the old Catholic Cemetery and the large City Cemetery annexes that the Union opened during the Civil War would all be gone. And, fine, they’re supposed to be empty anyway, but if I were a developer, I’d put a line in my budget for dead parts removal.”
“More disturbingly and more tragically, this development sits on the site of the contraband camp, the home of thousands of black refugees during the Civil War. As Zada Law pointed out two years ago, there’s been virtually no archaeology done at any contraband camp in Tennessee.”
“We’ve already irretrievably lost whatever was under the Adventure Science Center, but a lot remains relatively undisturbed. Even the parts under the parking lot are just under a parking lot. We have not yet screwed up a crucial bit of Nashville’s African American history, even if we haven’t bothered to explore it like we should. But if we let developers have it, then that history will be lost. Sure, some archaeologists could come in and do history triage to try to learn as much as they could before it’s torn up, but the Civil War isn’t that far down in the ground. We will lose it.”
“And frankly, how much more of our Civil War history do we have to lose? We already put I-440 on top of the Confederate line and built a city on the battlefield. One of the most important battles of the Civil War and we let Franklin and Murfreesboro be the tourist destinations while we metaphorically kick the rug over what’s left of our Civil War sites.”
“Shame on us if we let this development happen. Shame on us if we knowingly let this history slip away.”

Fort Negley color postcard

Fort Negley as restored in the 1930’s. It was allowed to go back to seed and only in the last few years have serious preservation efforts begun to be done by the City.


Here is what the proposed development looks like:
Somewhere in the middle of this monstrosity lies Fort Negley and the visitors center. Note that the parking for the latter has
not been expanded. It has been proven time and again that history tourism brings in far more money than any other – people have more to spend, stay longer, etc. if you give them something to see and promote it so they know about it. The traffic count for the area will explode making it even more difficult to get to the fort to visit. Don’t believe me? Look at what has happened at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA with the massive growth of Virginia Commonwealth University around it; their attendance has fallen off to the point that they are moving to new quarters down on the James River.

Traffic comes with big cities. But traffic also drives people away from doing things just so they do not have to deal with it. People spend enough time in traffic just going to and from work five days a week; they do not want to deal with it on weekends when they want to do something fun.
Ms. Phillips’ article also brings out the tremendous loss of historic ground upon which sits the fort and its surrounding area, which was all part of the fort’s footprint. Shall Nashville follow the same mistaken path that Atlanta did many years ago by paving over its history from the Civil War? How does this travesty being proposed in Nashville compare to what is happening just a few miles down the road in Franklin where they lead the nation in reclaiming lost Civil War land and restoring it to how it looked over 150 years ago? It is a pathetic failure on Nashville’s part.
Like so many other cities, Nashville has lots of places that are basically blight that can be redeveloped into something like in the above drawing; places that are not historic Civil War lands. How about moving this thing there instead and leave Fort Negley be?

Battle of Nashville

During the Battle of Nashville, General Thomas broke the back of the Confederate Army of Tennessee–the South’s last best hope– sealing the fate of the Confederacy.

By Greg Biggs (The above is the opinion of Greg Biggs, a member of the Nashville CWRT and not necessarily the opinion of the Nashville CWRT as a whole or the staff of Fort Negley Park, a unit of Nashville Metro City parks.)

 

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover

Famed journalist and author Ambrose Bierce was in an out of Nashville during the Civil War and participated in the Battle of Nashville in 1865.

 

Posted in Battle of Nashville, Civil War History, Fort Negley, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Heritage Tourism, Historic Preservation, Nashville, Nashville Ghosts and Haunts, The American Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Good Friday: The Day Lincoln Died

 

01 Gardner Lincoln fatal look

     Today is the day that Lincoln died. It was on April 14, 1865—another Good Friday to be precise—that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was murdered in cold blood.  Young Mary Brennan, an Irish immigrant only recently arrived to our shores, remembered well that dreadful day for the rest of her life.  A devout Catholic, she, like many a Protestant of the day, regarded Good Friday, the day Christ died, as a solemn holy day and one not to be commemorated by going out the theater.  “He never would have died,” she would often say, ”had he not gone to see a play on Good Friday.”  Great grandmother was a font of such sayings and superstitions, she was, and her many descendants can still recite one or another of her sayings at will.

Another political commentary on Secession

A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, showing John Bull (England) and Napoleon Bonaparte (France) waiting in the background for the US to be destroyed.

     But Abraham Lincoln, never a “technical Christian,” had ample reason to celebrate that Friday, April 14 so many years ago.  Robert E. Lee and his army had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant scarcely a week before and that very morning the general was delivering his report to the President and Cabinet in person.  For the first time in four years, Lincoln, who frequently suffered from “melancholy” seemed uncommonly hopeful, now that the end of the Rebellion was in sight.  Lincoln could at last look ahead to the future, to peace and to the task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by a fratricidal conflict.

pp Lincoln and Cabinet Emancipation Proc.

Lincoln and his Cabinet earlier in the war. Their last meeting was on the day he died, April 14, when he told them of his “usual dream.”

     As his Cabinet chatted before the official beginning of the meeting, Lincoln also told them that Friday about the “usual dream” he had had only the night before.  He explained that before every major event of the war he had dreamed the same dream: of a ship sailing towards a distant shore.  It always portended important war news.  Lincoln, raised on presentments, omens and prophetic dreams, believed that this latest portent was a sign of something momentous about to happen.

Uncle Billy & Uncle Joe

  Cabinet met, Lincoln was expecting news from Sherman in North Carolina, where “Uncle Billy” had run to ground the once proud Confederate Army of Tennessee, now commanded by “Uncle Joe” Johnston.  Johnston’s force was but a hollow shell of what it had once been, but the proud Rebels, barefoot and in rags, could still fight like wildcats—albeit cornered wildcats.  Lincoln hoped to hear that Johnston too had surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance.  Surely the “usual dream” portended this, thought Lincoln.

     Later that day, as Lincoln and his wife readied for the theater, the President was in an uncommonly optimistic mood, not realizing the prophetic dream portended not good news on Good Friday, but ill.  For even as they dressed for the night, across town a band of conspirators were also preparing for the night—but their performance would end in death and mayhem.

     Much has been written about that day and about the conspirators led by John Wilkes Booth; yet, to this day there is no certainty as to how deeply the Booth Conspiracy to do away with Lincoln and his Cabinet ran.  To be sure, many were arrested and most of the leading conspirators executed.  But Mary Lincoln, for one, had her suspicions that there were others involved who got away—including some high placed in the Lincoln administration.  Mrs. Grant too, had had a terrifying incident that day that lead her to believe not all the culprits had been caught.  But historians hate loose ends and the strands of evidence pointing to a broader conspiracy lie moldering in archives and museums little looked at or considered. Still, the truth may still be out there.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth, actor, Rebel spy and leader of the conspiracy to murder Lincoln

     What is proven about the events of Good Friday, April 14, is tragic enough, however.  Just as Lincoln’s ship of state was about to reach that far and distant shore of peace, the captain—Lincoln—was cut down.  How different our history would have been had Lincoln survived to oversee the peace as he had the war!  We can be sure that the “Better Angels of our Nature” would have thrived under his leadership and the postwar darkness and violence, and the enduring aftermath of meanness and divisiveness that still dogs our nation to this day would have been greatly diminished, if not prevented entirely.

     Greatness is not to be measured in the number of bombs one drops or the number of innocents one kills; Lincoln did not rejoice in war and wished it brought to a speedy end.  No, what was great about Lincoln and Lincoln’s America was its struggle for equality, for social justice, and for the betterment of the average worker, not some aristocratic elite. The President who created land-grant universities to provide free college education, who redistributed millions of acres of land to any who would settle and till it, who fought and died for racial equality, and who sought to unite the nation from seas to sea with modern transportation: these and other social and economic programs were what truly made Lincoln great—not his leadership of a war that was forced on him by the Cotton Slaveocracy and other elites who benefitted from human bondage.  In the end, Lincoln paid for his achievements in human progress with his life.  As we commemorate Good Friday this April 14, this too should be borne in mind.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi

For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.

 

 

 

 

 

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, April 14, Good Friday, Assasinations, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, Civil War Spies, Lincoln Assasination, Mary Todd Lincoln, Nettie Colburn Maynard, Premonitions, Presentiments, Prophecy and the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, Spiritualism, The American Civil War, The Army of Northern Virginia, The Army of the Potomac, The Paranoral Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Washington D. C. | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CLEAR THE WAY! Irish-American Civil War Ghosts

Clear the Way by Don Troiani

“Faugh a Ballagh” the Irish Brigade’s War Cry means “clear the way,” the title of this painting by Don Troiani. The dead still chant it on the battlefield to this day.

 

In Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, among other battlefield ghosts I chronicled the better-known haunts of Antietam Battlefield.  Foremost among these was the tale—true as far as I know—of the ghosts of the famed Irish Brigade who still inhabit the bloody fields of Antietam.

In researching Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, as with my other collections of true ghost stories, I used various sources, including recruiting, where possible, the help of local park rangers, re-enactors and battlefield guides.  After all, they are the ones most familiar with the terrain and local folklore and, as they are often present on the battlefields after the public leaves for the day, they generally have had more paranormal encounters than the average visitor. At Antietam I was fortunate to have one of the more co-operative park rangers, and while he could not go on the record, he told me about several authentic encounters that visitors had had there.

There is a boy’s school in nearby Baltimore that every year has a field trip to Antietam. They make the rounds of the various spots connected with the battle, ending up at the infamous Bloody Lane, where the blue-coated boys rested before getting back on the school bus back to home.  The teacher, well versed in Civil War history, generally has the boys compose an essay on what they experienced on the bus ride back home.  One year, their responses were very curious.

The teacher read in the essays accounts of hearing “Christmas Carols” being sung while they were sitting in the Sunken Road.  Asking the students, who had not had a chance to talk to one another before writing their papers, he found that the sound they heard seemed to be like “fa-la-la-lah.” The teacher immediately understood that what they’d heard: the Irish war cry, “Faugh a Ballagh!” In English it means “Clear the Way!” It was the very same war cry the famed Irish Brigade had yelled as the charged through the cornfields to their death at the Bloody Lane in the Autumn of 1862.

No one saw the phantom soldiers on that flat field, to be sure; but how did the school boys, who knew precious little about the war, or the Irish Brigade, come up with the same descriptions of the sounds they heard in the quiet twilight at the Bloody Lane?  It, like many other mysteries connected with the Civil War, shall remain unexplained forever.

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5    

For more about Antietam’s ghosts, as well as many other paranormal experiences tied to the Late Unpleasantness, go to Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War to learn more.

Official Reports of the Irish Brigade at Antietam: http://www.history.army.mil/html/topics/ethnic/irish/antietam.html

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor served in the front lines during the Civil War.  His wartime experiences were transformative; Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period in Bierce’s life .  

 

 

 

Posted in The American Civil War | 1 Comment

Christmas on the Rappahannock

Christmas during the Civil War has been a particular interest of mine for several years now; here is an excellent account of one incident by Kris White.

Emerging Civil War

Original Painting "Christmas on the Rappahannock" by Ray W. Forquer. Original Painting “Christmas on the Rappahannock” by Ray W. Forquer.

About twenty years ago my parents bought me a Civil War painting by Ray W. Forquer. The painting, “Christmas on the Rappahannock,” has always been one of my favorites. It’s not the artistry that I love so much, but the story that painting is based on. While much of the Civil War art that is out there revolves around the famous meetings of Lee and Jackson, or the heroic deeds on men on the field of battle, “Christmas on the Rappahannock” tells a much different story. It’s the story of a handful of soldiers, both blue and gray, away from their loved ones at Christmas. Although their ideals and a river divide them, these men find a way to put their differences aside for a few hours on Christmas Day, 1862.

The storyteller is John R. Paxton. Paxton was 18…

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