Ambrose Bierce on American War Dead

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

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

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

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

A BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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Cleburne’s men repulse Hazen’s brigade at Pickett’s Mill on May 27, 1864. Painting by Rick Reeves.

AN EMINENT FEDERAL GENERAL

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

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

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General Oliver O. “Oh-Oh” Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

MAJOR BIERCE ON DESERTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerning Desertion

San Francisco Examiner September 9, 1889

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

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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.

 

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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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

AMBROSE BIERCE versus the 7th NEW YORK VOLUNTEER INFANTRY

Ths Seventh Regiment Departs, by Thomas Nast.  This romantic view by Nast shows the 7th NY Militia's departure for Washington, DC. in the spring of 1861.
Ths Seventh Regiment Departs, by Thomas Nast. This romantic view by Nast shows the 7th NY Militia’s departure for Washington, DC. in the spring of 1861.

One might think that after one has written over 100,000 words on a subject–in this case, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife–one has said all there is to say on a subject.  But that is not the case; there are any number of miscellaneous sources, topics or quotes which simply don’t fit into the book; similarly, for every question which one answers about this enigmatic American author, other questions arise as a result of new research or discoveries.

Here below, for example, is a classic bit of Bierce: Ambrose Bierce declaiming against a famous Civil War regiment whose fame Bierce felt was less than deserved.  In the early days of the war, when Washington was virtually surrounded by Secessionists, the arrival of the 7th NY Militia was eagerly anticipated and they were widely viewed as the saviors of the Nation’s Capitol.

Bierce’s view of the regiment and its accomplishments may have been a bit jaundiced: for one thing the 7th was known as the “Silk Stocking” Regiment, because its membership included many of New York City’s social elite. Their service record mainly consisted of suppressing demonstrations and strikes by workers and organized labor–often mislabeled as “riots.” Bierce, who in later life was at pains to distance himself from his humble origins, may have harbored a bit of a grudge against the New York patricians.  Also, Bierce was a member of the “Bloody Ninth”–the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry–who amply earned their nickname in the fierce battles of the western theater, which was in sharp contrast to the “Bloody Seventh” which Bierce emphasizes did most of its fighting in the hotels and taverns of Washington DC and precious little in the field. Their unwillingness to volunteer for the Spanish American War apparently summoned up old memories of their rather timid Civil War record in Bierce, whose prose rose to the occasion. Whatever one’s view of their war record, those who appreciate Bierce’s acid wit will certainly relish this prime example of his sarcasm:

Ambrose Bierce on the 7th NY

No matter “where rolls the Oregon,” the famous Seventh Regiment of New York is indubitably safe. And despite the lapse of time and mutations in its personnel, it is the same old Seventh Regiment of the Civil War period. True, it did not then unanimously resolve to merit the Humane Society’s great leather medal for saving life, as virtually it has now done; but as a matter of fact it then did save many lives, and all were lives of its own members. This noble benefaction it accomplished by governing its own temper—and he that subdueth his spirit is greater, and as a rule safer, than he that taketh a city. If the Seventh of that far day had suffered itself to fall into anger and uncharitableness offended Nature, who  

    hides hr lash  In the purple-black of a dyed mustache.” 

Might have sentenced that impetuous organization to be shot at and, if overtaken, hit. As it was, the Bloody Seventh advanced upon Washington, then held by a superior force of the regular army, captured and occupied some of the strongest hotels in the place, and after several weeks of brilliant and startling dress parades returned as grizzled veterans in New York without the loss of a man.  The regiment did not re-enlist, but in Central Park a costly monument to its valor,  “Like a tall bully, lifts its head and lies”; for it is inscribed with names of “members of the Seventh” who fell in battle. There is nothing to show that, righteously disgusted with their own regiment’s policy of peace on earth and good will to men, they had left it, and that they fell as members of less pacific organizations. It is not so very bad to be “dead upon the field of honor” if one have the good luck to be counted twice—a double patriot with twin renowns.

In unanimously voting to remain at home while Spain is abroad, and thereby drawing upon themselves a hot fire of patriotic reprobation, the star-spangled Quakers of the Seventh are especially blamable, for they compel many a war-willing patriot to remain at home also in order to deliver the fire. As members of the firing squad some of us are withholding from the service of our country military abilities of the highest order.  

“War Topics” San Francisco Examiner, May 22, 1898

For more on the Civil War, also see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife. Also read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Best known for his sharp tongue and quick wit, Ambrose Bierce  fought for the Union during the Civil War and fought bravely. This book chronicles his war service and traces his transformation from young idealist to mature cynic.

 

 

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
This book 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.

 

Major Bierce Reviews Napoleon

David_-_Napoleon_crossing_the_Alps_-_Malmaison1
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by David

 

As Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife details in some depth, before Ambrose Bierce was the notorious cynic and destroyer of Humbug, he was an idealistic young Abolitionist and war hero.  His biographers generally acknowledge that fact, although most gloss over his service in the Civil War with varying degrees of inaccuracy. 

Although Bierce did a brief apprenticeship with his hometown paper before the war, it was not until he moved to San Francisco that the veteran soldier Bierce began his journalism career in earnest.  As time went on, Bierce returned time and again to his days as a soldier in the war, both in fiction and nonfiction pieces.  But as a journalist Bierce also wrote book reviews on occasion.  Here is one from 1895, where Major Ambrose and newspaperman Bierce join forces to write a review with a military slant: a discussion about a book on Napoleon’s first campaign in Italy.  General Bonaparte meet Major Bierce:

Bierce from Black & White London

The Prevailing Corsican: On Napoleon

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner April 21, 1895

NO series of connected and consecutive military events has been so closely analyzed by military students as those marking the first Italian campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte. All expounders of the military art who have had the good fortune to live since its principles were so wonderfully illustrated by that campaign have delighted to use its incidents in exposition. Every student has early learned that he could not afford to neglect it. Even to the “general reader,” unacquainted with the mysteries of strategy and tactics, who in the darkness of his ignorance cherishes the error that war is fortuitous fighting loosely directed to results by physical courage and the will of God, the history of these brilliant operations can hardly fail, when lucidly related, to prove interesting and charming beyond the power of fiction. As related by the mere “historian,” with his port-fire and blood-fumes to emotionalize the situation, it is doubtless as dull reading as the literature of the heart generally. What, in brief, was this remarkable campaign? 

In the month of March, 1796, Bonaparte, a boy of twenty-six, untried in independent command, was entrusted with an army of some forty thousand badly clad and inadequately supplied men, with which to invade Italy. He was opposed by Beaulieu, with a well equipped force, Austrians and Sardinians, of fifty thousand. The Alps and Apennines were between. Bonaparte began active operations on the eleventh day of less four days, with forces averaging forty-six thousand opposed to forces averaging sixty-one thousand he had in fifteen pitched battles routed one Sardinian army and the six Austrian armies successively sent to drive him out of Italy, only to be driven out themselves. His losses during the campaign in killed, wounded and prisoners were about equal to the numbers of his army at the outset. The losses that he inflicted upon the enemy were no fewer than one hundred and twenty thousand men and vast quantities of material. 

How were these astonishing feats of arms performed? Not by the superior courage of his soldiers, for the Austrians then, as they are now, were a brave and warlike people. Not by the “will of God,” whose agency is to the military eye nowhere discernible, and whose political predilections are still unknown. Nor were these admirable results due to “luck,” the “favors of fortune,” the “magic” of genius. They were brought about by the very commonplace method of knowing his business thoroughly and applying the knowledge. There is nothing miraculous in that. It is an open secret which Napoleon himself has explained: 

“In war nothing is accomplished but by calculation. During a campaign, whatever is not profoundly considered in all its details is without result. Every enterprise should be systematically conducted; chance alone cannot bring success.” 

I should be sorry to be understood as affirming the possibility of such military success as Napoleon’s to the mere student of military art, devoid of Napoleon’s genius. On the other hand, Napoleon’s genius would have been futile without his mastery of the art. Military art is no exception to art in general; for eminent achievement is required great natural aptitude, plus a comprehensive and minute knowledge of the business in hand. Given these two requisites in the commander, and the army is multiplied by two. For many generations, doubtless, the French will boast of Montenotte, Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, and Wagram; but every intelligent soldier’s view is that on all these historic fields there was but one victor. To quote his words again: 

“It was not the Roman army that conquered Gaul, but Caesar; it was not the Carthaginian army which, at the gates of Rome, made the Eternal City tremble, but Hannibal; it was not the Macedonian army that marched as far as the Indus, but Alexander; it was not the Prussian army that defended Prussia for seven years against the three most powerful states of Europe, but Frederick.” 

The contrary view—the theory of the insignificance of the individual—so persistently urged a generation ago by Mill, and so eagerly accepted by the young philosophers of his period, derives no support from military history. Tolstoi, it is true, is in full, if somewhat belated, advocacy of it, and professes to find confirmation in the events that he relates in his military novels. And it must be confessed that, as he relates them, they indubitably do seem to justify his view that leaders do not truly lead. With the splendid irresponsibility of the fictionist, he shows that the French people having incurred, somehow, a blind, reasonless impulse to go gadding about Europe, caught up Napoleon, as a stream bursting out of its banks might catch up a sheep or a log, and pushed him along before them. A careful study of the progress through Italy will, I think, show that at least he did something toward reducing the friction incident to the movement. 

Anyone really believing in unimportance of the individual must be prepared to affirm that a chance bullet finding a lodgment in the brain of the commander of the Army of Italy at Montenotte would have made but little difference in the conduct of the campaign and the later history of Europe; and any one prepared to affirm this may justly boast himself impregnable to argument, through induration of the understanding. The history of the military operations that we have been considering has never been better told than in a book entitled Napoleon Bonaparte’s First Campaign—it should be remembered that he was then simply General Bonaparte. The author of the book is Lieutenant Herbert H. Sargent, of the Army. Nothing could well exceed the clarity with which the author has told his story; and nothing that I have seen in military literature is more admirable than his professional but untechnical comments on its successive stages Everything is made so clear that the benighted civilian of the anti-West Point sort, the fearfully and wonderfully bepistoled swashbuckler of the frontier, the gilded whiskey-soldier of the National Guard and even the self-taught strategist of the press can comprehend it all without a special revelation from Heaven. Those conscious of a desire, however vague and formless, to acquire such a knowledge of military science and art as will give them a keener interest in “war news” that is not “bluggy” than they ever had in that which reeks with gore and “multiplies the slain” will find in Lieutenant Sargent a guide, philosopher and friend for whom they cannot be sufficiently thankful to the God that bestowed him.

 

This reprint of Bierce’s military book review is via Tom Streissguth’s estimable site The Archive of American Journalism Ambrose Bierce Collection:

http://www.historicjournalism.com/ambrose-bierce-1.html

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover

Although only four years out of a long and productive life, the Civil War proved to be a pivotal period for Ambrose Bierce, one which affected both his later career and his personality. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is available at all the better book bistros.

If your local bookstore does not stock it, or won’t back order it, however, stand up on a table in the middle of the store, call them poltroons and jackanapes, then in a loud voice recommend to all patrons of the store that they order it from Amazon and that their store’s coffee is made from monkey-poop (which it probably is).                  

THE FALL OF NASHVILLE, FEBRUARY 25, 1862

The Nashville Courthouse Square, ca. 1860.
The Nashville Courthouse Square, ca. 1860.

On February 25, 1862, the city of Nashville fell to the Union Army of the Ohio.  In the aftermath of Grant’s famous victory at Forts Donelson and Henry, the importance of this event has tended to be overlooked by history (and of course, historians), but the significance of the capture of the Confederate Capitol cannot be underestimated.

As James Lee McDonough noted in his 1977 book on Shiloh, when the Federals occupied Nashville, it was not simply the first Rebel state capitol to fall, it also meant the capture of a major Confederate industrial center and transportation hub.  Much as they do today, a number of roads and pikes plus five railroads lines radiated out in all directions; moreover, in the 1860’s river transportation was far more important than now and the Cumberland linked Nashville and the Confederate heartland to the Ohio Valley in one direction and East Tennessee and eastern Kentucky in the other.

Just as importantly, Nashville and Middle Tennessee was an important manufacturing center which was now denied the Confederate war machine.  The iron industry in Middle Tennessee dated back to frontier days and the steady flow of the Cumberland River powered any number of mills and factories.  There were cannon foundries, small arms manufacturers, while the caves in the surrounding region supplied saltpeter for the manufacture of gunpowder and the fertile farmlands of the region provided food and livestock in quantities enough to supply an army.  In addition, there was the Nashville Armory, located on College Hill, just south of the town, where large stands of arms and ammunition were stored; several steamboats were also in the process of being converted to gunboats to counter the Yankee war machines.  All these strategic assets would now be denied the Confederacy for the duration of the war.  From Nashville too, Union troops would sally forth in all directions to subdue the Rebellion over the next several years, with ample supplies to sustain them.  No one realized it at the time, but the fall of Fort Donelson and the capture of Nashville spelled the doom of the western Confederacy—and ultimately of the Rebellion as a whole.

"Order Out of Chaos" by Mort Kunstler.  Nathan Bedford Forrest, refusing to surrender at Fort Donelson, arrived in Nashville to find it had been hastily abandoned by the governor and paniced Rebel troops.  He salvaged munitions, tried to prevent looting and then burned what military stores could not be saved.
“Order Out of Chaos” by Mort Kunstler. Nathan Bedford Forrest, refusing to surrender at Fort Donelson, arrived in Nashville to find it had been hastily abandoned by the governor and panicked Rebel troops. He salvaged munitions, tried to prevent looting and then burned what military stores could not be saved.

In the ten days following Grants victory at Land Between the Rivers (today Land Between the Lakes) the remnants of Confederate forces not caught in the surrender came reeling southward toward “Rock City” (as Nashville was nicknamed), the Secessionist state government made haste to high tail it out of town and a general panic ensued among the civilian population.  This was the general situation on February 25, 1862, as exemplified by a diary entry at the time:

Today it seems settled that we met with a disastrous defeat in the end at Donelson by the enemys overpowering numbers surrounding our men, who fought bravely & well. Gens. Floyd & Pillow escaped with some of the troops__ but Buckner is a prisoner. It is now contradicted that Nashville surrendered, & sent a boat with a flag of truce down the Cumberland to meet the enemy & give up the city (!) as was at first reported__ but it is certain that our troops from Bowling Green have fallen back to Murfreesboro and they have burnt the bridges, steamboats etc. at Nashville and not a Yankee near them! Oh! it is disgraceful! Gov. Harris who rode round town alarming the citizens__ who said to Ewing__ Every  man must now take care of himself; I am going to take care of myself__ fled.  Lucy French Diary (courtesy TSLA)

Citizens of Nashville awoke one morning to find the big guns of the USS Cairo aimed directly at their homes from its berth on the opposite bank of the Cumberland.  Soon other warships and transports descended on the city from downriver.
Citizens of Nashville awoke one morning to find the big guns of the USS Cairo aimed directly at their homes from its berth on the opposite bank of the Cumberland. Soon other warships and transports descended on the city from downriver.

Imagine, if you will, how the remaining citizens of the City felt when they awoke that morning to see an ominous looking tortoise-shaped gunboat sitting on the opposite bank with massive guns pointed directly at them.  In fact, the mayor of Nashville the day before had already arranged for the peaceful occupation of the city with General Buell, the Union army commander.  However, General “Bull” Nelson jumped the gun a bit and that Sunday morning began unloading his troops first thing, before the formal surrender. General William B. Hazen’s 19th Brigade was one of the first to debark marching along Lower Broadway for a few blocks before wheeling right to ascend the steep acclivity towards the state capitol.

Hazen halted in front of the St. Cloud Hotel, now an office building at the corner of Fifth and Church Streets, where he was met by the proprietor of the hotel, Mr. Carter, who invited Hazen and his staff into his “scanty bar.”  The innkeeper was solicitous of his new guests and Hazen, a teetotaler, tells us Carter tasted everything first, “to assure us.”  Of the previous guests of the St. Cloud, Hazen tells us “we found in the hotel, fast asleep and very drunk, one Rebel soldier, the largest man I ever saw in uniform.”  The bar on the ground floor of the hotel soon became a favorite watering hole of Union officers and the hotel became General Buell’s temporary headquarters.

Of those Nashville’s citizens who had not fled in the panic of the previous week, some had turned out to watch the arrival of the Yankees.  But it was not a cheering or welcoming crowd, as the Union regiments had experienced when they had marched off to war.  Rather, for those brave enough to venture onto the street, it was more a somber, perhaps even morbid, gathering; more like the sort of crowd which gathers to witness the aftermath of a terrible accident in the street: a sight terrible to behold, but too compelling to turn away from.

"The First Union Dress Parade In Nashville." Print showing the 51st Ohio Volunteer Regiment, led by Col. Stanly Mathews, on dress parade in Nashville, Tennessee, March 4, 1862.
“The First Union Dress Parade In Nashville.” Print showing the 51st Ohio Volunteer Regiment, led by Col. Stanly Mathews, on dress parade in Nashville, Tennessee, March 4, 1862.

It was a somber Sunday for the denizens of the Rebel capital—except for one man.  William Driver was a retired Yankee sea captain, who had moved to Nashville years before to enjoy the city’s Southern charm.  A devoted patriot, loyal to the Union, when the city caught Secessionist fever, Captain Driver proved immune to the disease and instead flew the stars and stripes—the banner he had flown while at sea–proudly outside of his home, and which he had nicknamed “Old Glory.”  As Driver later explained, “it has ever been my staunch companion and protection. Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?”

The City of Nashville as it looked ca. 1862, under Union occupation.
The City of Nashville as it looked ca. 1862, under Union occupation.

As the Southern states seceded one by one, his neighbors became progressively more hostile to the old sea captain.  Some threatened to rip the flag down and burn it; others hinted more darkly that the Yankee captain should be hung by it.  To prevent the beloed flag being desecrated, Captain Driver finally took down it down, folded Old Glory very carefully, and had it sewn into a quilt.

Capt. William Driver, the retired sea captain whose American flag, Old Glory, first flew over the Tennessee Capitol on Feb. 25, 1862.
Capt. William Driver, the retired sea captain whose American flag, Old Glory, first flew over the Tennessee Capitol on Feb. 25, 1862.

 

That Sunday morning, from his house on Rutledge Hill, Driver could see the Federals unloading from their armed transport.  He hastened upstairs and retrieved the bed-quilt from its hiding place and made his way down to Lower Broad and then on up opposing hill all the way up to the state capitol building.  In contrast to his fellow citizens, Captain Driver was in a jubilant mood as he mingled with the blue-clad troops.

Horace Fisher, General Nelson’s aide-de-camp, witnessed what happened next:

“A stout, middle-aged man, with hair well shot with gray, short in stature, broad in shoulder, and with a roll in his gait, came forward and asked, ‘Who is the General in command? I wish to see him.’” Driver briefly conferred with the six foot tall general—who himself had formerly been a Navy man—and, “when satisfied that Gen. Nelson was the officer in command, he pulled out his jack-knife and began to rip open the bedquilt without another word. We were puzzled to think what his conduct meant….the bedquilt was safely delivered of a large American flag, which he handed to Gen. Nelson, saying, ‘This is the flag I hope to see hoisted on that flagstaff in place of the damned Confederate flag set there by that damned rebel governor, Isham G. Harris. I have had hard work to save it; my house has been searched for it more than once.’ He spoke triumphantly, with tears in his eyes.”

Nelson accepted the flag and immediately ordered it run up on the Capitol flagstaff, accompanied by “frantic cheering and uproarious demonstrations.”  The mission of climbing to the top of the state building was tasked to men of the 6th Ohio Infantry who double-timed it up the capitol steps, into the bowels of the abandoned building and up into the glass-framed cupola on top of the classical styled building.

Old Glory, Capt. Driver's cherished flag.  He had another flag which was later displayed as well.
Old Glory, Capt. Driver’s cherished flag. He had another flag which was later displayed as well.

According to local tradition, the erection of Old Glory from the flagstaff was not without incident.  A former state legislator and fire-breathing Secessionist, who had not fled with the rest when Fort Donelson fell, stood on the narrow wrought iron spiral staircase with musket in hand, blocking their way.

“You’ll raise that rag over this building over my dead body!” the greybeard Rebel told the flag detail.

The officer in charge was about to issue the militant Secesh a warning, when a shot rang out from behind, hitting the Rebel in the breast.  He died almost instantly, his limp body tumbling down the spiral staircase past them.

The men of the color guard continued their ascent and as the growing crowd of Federals outside witnessed the large banner unfurl, were met with resounding cheers as the flag ascended to the pinnacle of the highest spot in the city.  For ever after, the 6th Ohio would be nicknamed the “Old Glory” regiment.

The sun went down that Sunday on the American flag once more flying over the capital of Tennessee and a growing army of blue spreading out through Nashville and its surrounding territory.

It was by no means the beginning of the end for the Rebellion, but to borrow a phrase from Sir Winston Churchill, it was very much the end of the beginning. From now on, the Confederacy would be fighting for its survival.

A Confederate $20 bill showing the Tennessee state capitol; ironically not issued until after the city fell to the Yankees.
A Confederate $20 bill showing the Tennessee state capitol; ironically not issued until after the city fell to the Yankees.
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 as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

For more on the Civil War, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.