General Debility and General Winter: The Army of the Cumberland, An Army for All Seasons

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.
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.

Christmas, 1864  The valiant Army of Tennessee had been smashed and its tattered remnants were in full retreat as they were closely pursued by General Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland.

During the pursuit, a Union brigadier sends an urgent message to his divisional headquarters: “please relieve me;” the dispatch read, “I am suffering from an attack of General Debility.”

The odd dispatch was met with some derision at division headquarters, but the divisional commander wrote a prescription to cure his brigade commander’s ailment: three regiments of infantry and a battery of Rodman guns.  Far more formidable than General Debility that December, however, was General Winter.

You may not have heard of General Winter before, yet this general was the most effective presence on the field of battle during the Civil War, more so than any field commander North or South. Winter influenced the outcome of many major battles. In the campaigns of the Western Theatre, in particular, General Winter played a commanding role.

Reading many of the soldier’s accounts of the era, one gets the impression that the Army of the Potomac during the winter months simply hunkered down in their comfortable quarters surrounding Washington, DC and waited until life was more pleasant in the field. General McClellan did not want his precious boys getting their feet wet, or otherwise suffering discomfort and the easterners of his army appreciated him for preserving them from harm–so did the Confederates. The Rebel Army of Northern Virginia did not pass the winter in such luxury, but they also chose not to go on the offensive when the weather turned cold.

In stark contrast, in the West, the Federals campaigned repeatedly in the midst of bone-chilling cold and foul winter weather, and their Butternut-clad foes did likewise.  The war in the West did not stop simply because General Winter was abroad in the land.

Looking for survivors on the battlefield. Many men who could have survived, froze to death after the battle
Looking for survivors on the battlefield. Many men who survived the battle, froze to death due to exposure.

In January of 1862, for example, General Grant led the expedition against Confederate fortresses of Forts Donelson and Henry. It was bitter cold that winter and the Rebel troops were inadequately clothed. During the siege, the Union troops who fell assaulting Fort Donelson were caught out in the open between the opposing lines. The cries of the wounded, exposed and freezing, tore at the hearts of their comrades who were unable to rescue them. Many who could have survived otherwise died of exposure.

Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, was one of the "barbarous Yankees" besieged by Hood's Army of Tennessee in Dec. 1864.
Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, fought at Stones River & Nashville.

At the Battle of Stone’s River in late December of 1862, both sides were also affected by the bitter cold. On the night of the first day’s fight, the Federal Army of the Cumberland was forbidden to light any fires, lest the enemy use them for target practice; to add to the misery, most troops had shed their backpacks containing blankets in the chaos of battle and Rebel cavalry had destroyed most of the wagons containing tents. But it was the wounded left on the field after the first day’s fight who suffered the most. Ambrose Bierce graphically described the situation in a forgotten small piece called “A Cold Night.” Men on both sides, wounded and unable to move, froze to death in the dark.

On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.
On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.

Returning to the Autumn Campaign of 1864 and the Battle of Nashville, General Winter also played an important role here as well. While the Federals had comfortable quarters within the siege lines of Nashville, without, the Rebels shivered, ill fed, ill clothed and short of most other supplies. Whole forests outside the city were cut down to keep warm by the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the resulting deforestation was called even by sympathetic citizens as “Hood’s Waste.”

However, the Federals too were affected by the winter weather in December of 1864. Although General Thomas had gathered together a mighty army to counter Hood’s Confederates, his counterattack had to be delayed. A terrible ice storm hit the city in the early part of December, making all roads impassable for his cavalry, without which Thomas was unable to attack.

Union General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter
Union General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter

While waiting for the roads the thaw out, General Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga” was almost sacked by Grant, who sitting in comfort back east, accused Thomas of being “slow.” General Thomas came near to defeat, not due to General Hood, but due to General Winter. In the end, Thomas unleashed the Army of the Cumberland and achieved an overwhelming victory.

While most historians aver that the Civil War was won Appomattox in 1865, in truth the war was lost for the South at Nashville, in December of 1864.

For more true tales of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Now in print, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is an in depth look at the famous author and his war experiences.


Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War for a compendium of uncanny but true accounts of Civil War ghosts, haunts and other unexplained phenomena.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. (HarperCollins)
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency (Schiffer)

The Battles and Bleaters of the Civil War: Some Thoughts on the History of the History of the War

The Skirmish Line by Gilbert Gaul
The Skirmish Line by Gilbert Gaul

This edition of the Late Unpleasantness deals not so much about any specific person or event of the Civil War as it does about the search for the truth of what really happened between 1860 and 1866.  That may seem a simple task; after all, every week another book comes out about what happened in the first fifteen minutes of the second hour of the first day of Gettysburg; or of how General Grant won the war single-handedly; what a great guy Lincoln was and how he freed the slaves.

Yet, as any Civil War buff worth his salt knows, or should know, determining what actually happened in the chaos of battle is not a simple task, nor is the consensus of leading historians about some leaders and their actions necessarily based on fact, but rather on inherited opinions which have come to become accepted as truth.  I will confess to have been as guilty of this latter fault as some of the more famous writers whose books have gone on to become the “bible” on certain battles and leaders.

In my research for The Paranormal Presidency, for example, I made ample use of the Historical Society of Illinois online Lincoln Papers as well as the Library of Congress’ ample resources as well as numerous other primary and secondary sources.  Not much new here; all well worn territory insofar as Lincoln scholars go.  Yet my take on those same sources and on Lincoln the man clearly does not square with the dominant consensus which generations of Lincoln scholars—one might more properly call them hagiographers—have arrived at.  I, like his scholarly acolytes, regard Lincoln as a great President; but where I differ is that I do not ignore or disregard evidence where it does not square with the received views of him that have become academic dogma.

Disputes over certain campaigns, battles and leaders are nothing new; some have been going on since before the war was over.  However, two recent books raise old issues and to varying degrees promise to throw a new light on what we thought was established fact.

Stephen Hood’s new book, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, has stirred no little controversy among Civil War enthusiasts and scholars.  Hood the Younger makes no bones about his revisionism regarding General Hood’s military career and takes aim at several well respected historian’s previous work on the subject.  His work has been criticized as biography; in fact, it is not a biography per se, but explicitly a work of historiography.  Mr. Hood has gone back into the primary sources and his reading of them varies considerably from previous writers on the subject.  He has weighed their arguments in the balance and found them wanting.

General John Bell Hood, controversial commander of the Army of Tennessee
General John Bell Hood, controversial commander of the Army of Tennessee

While I leave it up to Civil War enthusiasts to read his book and decide for themselves how well Stephen Hood has succeeded in his task, I will cite incident which caused me to begin to question the consensus views on General Hood.  When Jefferson Davis sought General Lee’s views on appointing John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee, Lee replied that in his view, Hood was “all lion and none of the fox,” and I have even seen the statement footnoted with the source cited; so it must be true, right?  Except, that Lee never actually said that.  As Stephen Hood reveals, that phrase was coined after the war and whether true or not, it was not Lee who said it.  On checking the citation, I found it did indeed go back to the Lee/Davis correspondence about Hood, but nowhere in those messages does that phrase attributed to Lee appear.  A minor point, admittedly, but it is a cautionary tale about accepting authority at face value.

Another new work takes aim at that icon of the Union cause, General Ulysses S. Grant, questioning the accepted narratives of the battles for Chattanooga and Grant’s claims to being the mastermind of that campaign.  In the past Grant has been the subject of criticism, but in recent decades the consensus of historians has been generally favorable to him and have generally accepted Grant and his supporter’s version of his campaigns with little question.  However, in General Grant and the Rewriting of History, Frank Varney  disputes that consensus, at least insofar as the war in the west is concerned.

Grant and his commanders at Orchard Knob watch the Battle of Missionary Ridge
Grant and his commanders at Orchard Knob watch the Battle of Missionary Ridge

There are many, myself included, who feel that Grant has been given a pass by many historians on a number of points.  In my forthcoming work on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, in researching the context behind Bierce’s service with the Army of the Ohio and with the Army of the Cumberland, I found much of Bierce’s critique of Grant to be well founded and largely grounded in a greater debate in the postwar era over the credit and blame for the bloodletting at Shiloh.  Bierce’s criticisms of Grant were well known, although his overall assessment of Grant was generally positive.

Chickamauga and Chattanooga have also been the subject of much controversy over the years, with much blame and praise being disbursed by various historians.  The modern view of Grant and Sherman as the heroes of the campaign has generally been the dominant narrative however.  So Varney’s revisionism had been initially received in some quarters as a much needed correction to the record.  Varney takes eminent historians to task for shoddy scholarship.  While I reserve final judgment on Varney’s work and encourage others to also make their own assessment, from what I’ve read so far, it is Varney’s scholarship which has been found wanting.  Civil War bloggers have checked several of his citations, backing his criticisms of what other historians have written, and in too many cases have found them in error or just plain bogus.

General Grant’s Personal Memoirs were very well written and his narrative has been often taken at face value by generations of historians.  There remains much about Grant’s career that requires a more critical review of the facts.  It remains to be seen whether Varney was up to the task or whether that remains for others to do.