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.

If the reader has perused a number of my previous articles, they may notice that Ambrose Bierce’s pronouncements on the Civil War are a particular interest of mine.  My apologia for this has to do with researching, writing and revising my biography of Bierce’s wartime experiences for over six years.  Having been one of the few great American authors to actually have seen extensive combat first hand of course gives great weight to Bierce’s pronouncements on war, although much of what he wrote about the war had less to do with combat per se, than the other aspects of service, the parts that commanders and the historians who lionize them often leave out of the narrative.

Bierce’s favorite in this regard 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 easy 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 his 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; 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.

gen-howard_12859_md

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 column in The San Francisco Examiner and often summoned up memories of the earlier conflict which he had fought in.  In Bierce’s “War Topics”  for the July 23, 1899 issue of the paper, he 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 to be hostile, mainly for his 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.” Bierce manages to trash both Grant and Halleck is what is little more than a parenthetical aside in his short story “An Affair of Outposts.”

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 always 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 an officer who moved among the senior commanders of the Federal armies in the west. He saw more than most 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Christopher Coleman

I am an author, lecturer, and sometime instructor. My interests span a variety of subjects, including Southern tales of the supernatural, American history and folklore, military history in general, as well as archaeology, anthropology, plus various and sundry things that go bump in the night. I currently have six books in print: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a factual history of some more esoteric--and hitherto overlooked--aspects the sixteenth President. My book is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published in hardcover by the University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the wartime experiences of young Ambrose Bierce, noted American author. Bierce has been called many things by many people, but idealist, hero and patriot are terms that should be added to the list after reading this book. I am currently at work on several projects, some dealing with the American experience but also several fiction and non-fiction works looking into the Age of Arthur.
This entry was 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 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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