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.
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The Two Generals Wallace, Part 2

Alonzo Chapel  Shiloh color enlarged
Shiloh. Union troops on April 7 recapturing Federal artillery lost to the Rebels in the previous day’s defeat. Print by Alonzo Chappel.

 

General Lewis Wallace would have arrived on the battlefield of Shiloh earlier in the day, had it not been for Grant's own delay in sending for him.
General Lewis Wallace would have arrived on the battlefield of Shiloh earlier in the day, had it not been for Grant’s own delay in sending for him.

Lewis Wallace came from a political background, much as had William Wallace. His father had been a successful lawyer and jurist and later served as Lieutenant Governor and then Governor of Indiana. Lewis followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer in his turn.

Lew Wallace was active in Indiana politics but remained a Democrat even when Oliver Morton, disenchanted with the party’s growing appeasement of the militant pro-slavery Southern wing, bolted the party and joined the new Republican Party.

Lew Wallace’s career, like William Wallace’s, was interrupted by service in the Mexican War, where he served in the 1st Indiana Volunteer Infantry.

However, when Lew witnessed the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he was greatly impressed by Lincoln’s performance–far more so than that of Stephen Douglas’s. Witnessing the growing sectarian division in the country, Lew even organized a militia company–The Crawfordsville Guards Independent Militia–in Indiana several years before the outbreak of war, looking towards the day it would be needed to help preserve the Union.

After the Election of 186O, as it became obvious that it was pro-slavery militants who were actually going to precipitate a civil war, Lew Wallace finally threw his lot in with the Republicans. Lew was what was called a “War Democrat.” Wallace went to Governor Oliver Morton to volunteer his services for the Union.

Initially, Wallace was made Adjutant General and put in charge of helping organize the masses of recruits flooding into the training camps throughout Indiana. Lew was then given commission as Colonel of the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and dispatched with his command to help liberate western Virginia (later West Virginia). The core of Wallace’s regiment consisted of his old company of volunteers, now expanded to a full regiment of zouaves. After seeing some brief skirmishing in Virginia, the regiment’s term of enlistment expired, but it was soon replaced by a three year regiment. In September, however, Colonel Lew was promoted to general and given a brigade to command.

In February, 1862, Brigadier Lew Wallace took part in the expedition to attack the Confederate forts guarding the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. Now part of General Smith’s division, Wallace’s brigade was at first given the passive role of garrisoning Fort Heiman, an unoccupied Rebel defense across from Fort Henry, which had been blasted into submission by Flag Officer Foote’s flotilla of gunboats.

Soon, however, Grant precipitous advance on Fort Donelson necessitated his calling up Wallace’s unit to close the siege of the Rebel stronghold.  Although told not to take offensive action by Grant, General Wallace, now in charge of a full division, realized that nearby Federal troops were about to be overrun and, against orders, advanced to prevent an enemy breakthrough. He arrived to find General William Wallace’s outnumbered troops falling back and rushed to their rescue, saving the day.  The Confederate counter-attack a failure, the enemy inside Fort Donelson soon surrendered to Grant.

After the successful conclusion of the Donelson Campaign, Lew Wallace found himself promoted to Major General and in command of a division on a permanent basis. He was soon dispatched up the Tennessee River where the next campaign, aimed against the strategic rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi, was starting to take shape. Lew’s first mission was to cut the Mobile and Ohio Railroad north of Corinth, even as Sherman’s division was to cut the railroad south of the city. Wallace’s mission was a success and he returned to his temporary camp along the Tennessee.  General Lew Wallace expected an advance on Corinth proper would follow almost immediately as that post was still weakly held. But it was not to be.

Instead, General Henry Halleck, the departmental commander–nicknamed “Old Brains”– had decided to wait and have both Grant and General Buell’s armies rendezvous near Savannah, Tennessee, before moving against Corinth. In the wake of the spectacular victory at Fort Donelson and the fall of Nashville, Wallace’s superiors believed the Rebellion was all but over. Wallace’s temporary advance base at Crump’s Landing was therefore made his division’s bivouac, as he awaited the rest of the Union forces to accumulate further downriver.

As the bulk of the army gathered at Pittsburg Landing, some six to eight miles distant, Lew Wallace feared that his isolated division was vulnerable to enemy attack.  Wallace deployed his brigades in depth, even as he sent out cavalry patrols and scouts (spies) to reconnoiter the countryside.

Wallace also familiarized himself with the roads in the area and set work details repairing all the roads and bridges leading to Pittsburg Landing. Unfortunately, Generals Sherman and Grant were not so diligent in scouting and patrolling, nor in constructing roads to link the separated sections of their main camps at Pittsburg Landing. Of redoubts and barricades, there were none built by Grant to slow an enemy attack.

Several days before the April 6 attack, Lew Wallace’s spies reported a major movement of the Confederate Army from Corinth, headed for Pittsburg Landing. Lew Wallace immediately sent a dispatch to Grant, which should have been in Grant’s hand no later than the morning of the 5th of April. In his memoirs, Wallace gives Grant “the benefit of the doubt” as to whether or not Grant received the dispatch. In any case, Wallace informed his brigade commanders to make ready to move on short notice, expecting an attack at any time.

In the actual event, on the morning of April 6th, although Grant and Sherman were not technically surprised—several frontline units had tried to warn their superiors to no avail—in fact the Confederates caught them unawares and totally unprepared.

When Wallace, at Crump’s Landing, first heard the firing around six a.m., he immediately put his command in readiness to march, awaiting Grant’s marching orders. It wasn’t until about 8:30 that Grant appeared on the Tigress at Crump’s Landing and at that time merely instructed Wallace to “hold yourself in readiness to march upon orders received.” When Wallace informed Grant that his command was ready to march immediately, Grant simply said “hold the division in readiness ready to march in any direction.”

Henry_Lovie,_Battle_of_Pittsburg_Landing_cph_3a02887
Chaos characterized the first day’s fighting at Shiloh, with Union camps being overrun and successive lines of the Federals being outflanked. It was Grant’s indecision and vague orders, not Lew Wallace’s slowness, which caused his division to arrive late to the battlefield.

 

It wasn’t until 11:30 a.m. that Wallace finally received Grant’s marching orders via one of Grant’s aides, who had translated Grant’s verbal orders into writing. Whether the written orders actually reflected Grant’s verbal intent has been the subject of dispute.

General Wallace’s column was actually making good progress towards the battlefield, when a series of orderlies and aides came up from behind, with panicked instructions from Grant, urging Wallace to “hurry up.” Finally, Grant’s assistant adjutant, Major Rawlins, came up and under threat of being relieved, told Wallace he was on the “wrong road,” and to divert towards the low-lying road close to the river.

In fact, Wallace had long since surveyed all the roads towards Shiloh and was proceeding on the shortest route; it was a route that would put him on the right of Sherman’s original camp, where Grant’s original instructions ordered him to go. However, the Union forces had been forced backwards towards the river since the early morning and Wallace’s route would put him behind and on the flanks of the Confederate attackers—as it turns out, exactly where he would have been able to make a difference in the first day’s flight.

However, taking Major Rawlins petulant demands as a direct order from Grant, General Lew turned his column around and marched it back to a road that would take the division southward to the sodden and marshy river route—a route which was in places covered with water as high as a horse’s breast. After making this detour, Wallace’s progress slowed to a crawl and his force was not able to reach the battlefield until after dark–after the end of the day’s fighting and too late to make a difference in the first day’s battle.

Earlier that day, as General Lew Wallace awaited orders, the situation at Shiloh had gone from bad to worse, as the Union forces were repeatedly outflanked and pushed back towards the river.

General William Wallace, by his defense of the Hornet's Nest on April 6, helped delay the Confederate advance long enough to save the remnants of Grants army at Shiloh.
General William Wallace, by his defense of the Hornet’s Nest on April 6, helped delay the Confederate advance long enough to save the remnants of Grants army at Shiloh.

     William Wallace, now in charge of the Second Division, had his command’s bivouac close to the river. Nevertheless, as soon as William Wallace heard the distant sound of firing, he ordered the drummers to sound the “Long Roll,” mobilized his division and arrived close to the front in short order. Initially, the Second Division was employed as a reserve, detaching units to the support of the frontline divisions that were desperately attempting to repulse the repeated Confederate attacks. However, because of a lack of unified command—each division fighting on its own front and lacking coordination from Grant—and a lack of prepared defenses to rally around, the Confederates were able to penetrate between the separated Union forces and flank them repeatedly. Whole regiments and even brigades of Federal troops disintegrated and fled to the rear—but not the men under William Wallace’s direct command.

It was not until the afternoon that Wallace, along with the surviving fragments of General Prentiss’ division and miscellaneous units, were able to form a stable front on the crest of a thicket covered ridgeline with a shallow sunken road meandering along it—what the Rebels called “The Hornet’s Nest.” For a large part of the afternoon Wallace’s division, along with the other units, held back repeated Confederate attacks, drawing off Rebel units from other parts of the battlefield and allowing the beaten and demoralized survivors elsewhere to retreat to Pittsburg Landing, where they crowded the riverfront by the thousands—perhaps the tens of thousands.
Finally, subjected to a massed artillery barrage and nearly surrounded, William Wallace ordered a fighting retreat. All was going well for the Second Division as it escaped the tightening noose. However, as he directed his men’s withdrawal, a sniper shot hit William Wallace in the head and he was left for dead as the retreat became a rout.

The next day, General Lew Wallace launched a counterattack on the right on his own initiative, lacking any direct orders from Grant since the day before. Similarly, on the left of the field, General Don Carlos Buell’s troops also counterattacked. Supposedly, the survivors of the first day’s fight, compressed into the center of the semi-circular federal line defending the landing, also attacked—although by mid-afternoon on Monday, April 7th, General Buell’s extreme right was covering General Lew Wallace’s extreme left.

The action of the 7th—which Buell’s men forever after called “Buell’s Battle”—is what allowed Grant to claim victory in his reports and memoirs. In all the recriminations following the Battle of Shiloh, Lew Wallace was criticized as “going slow” on the 6th and becoming either confused or lost on his way to battle—none of which was true.

General William Wallace, whose courage and rock-steady leadership in the face of overwhelming odds helped save Grant’s command, received scant recognition in all the reports of the battle. Due in large part to his fatal wounding and being unable to tell his version of the battle, William Wallace never received the full credit due him at Shiloh.

As for Lew Wallace, while Grant ultimately exonerated him of any wrongdoing, his reputation remained under a shadow even after the war.

The two Generals Wallace, both “political generals,” men committed to the cause and competent leaders in peace and war, each deserved far better of History than they have so far received.

For more about William Wallace and his wife Ann and the Battle of Shiloh, see Chapter 12 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; for other, more unusual aspects of Shiloh and its aftermath, also see Chapter 11 of Ghosts and Haunts, as well as Chapter 31 of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce was an eyewitness to Shiloh and his account of the battle is justly famous. For more on Shiloh and Bierce, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

 

The Two Generals Wallace Part 1

General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur
General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur. (Colorized photo)
General William Hervey Lamme Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck
General William Hervey Lamme Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck

In all the chronicles, memoirs and histories of the war, then and now, some generals have, fairly or not, gotten a disproportionate share of attention. Of course, it is easy to see how Grant and Lee should get the lion’s share of ink. Yet no war is won—or lost—by just one man. Often the one who is hailed as victor in truth may owe his laurels to the efforts of those of lesser rank whose contribution to the cause has been overlooked or even deliberately slighted. Such is the case with the two generals Wallace.

General William Hervy Lamme Wallace and General Lewis Wallace, although from different states and different backgrounds, in many ways followed a similar path to the war. Both were “political generals.” As many military historians come from a professional military background, there has been a tendency to look down on such military commanders; the “political general” is almost universally regarded as either incompetent, venal or vainglorious—or a combination of all three. Some political generals were unfit for high command.  However, a civil war is in essence a political conflict, and men who are politically committed to their cause can often of great service on its behalf. Such were these two men. Conversely, a commander who possesses technical competence, yet has little appetite for the cause he serves can not only be of limited value, but may at times even harm the cause they ostensibly serve.

William Wallace, named after the famous Scottish national hero, was born in Ohio but grew to manhood in Ogle County, Illinois. Young William attended the Rock River Seminary, a school of higher learning for young men, whose alumni also included John A. Rawlins, who would later rise to become General Grant’s Chief of Staff. After graduating from there in 1844, William resolved to pursue a career in the law and was fully intending to apprentice with the firm of Logan and Lincoln. On the way, however, he met the acquaintance of Judge T. Lyle Dickey—and his daughter Ann—and decided to clerk with that esteemed Illinois jurist. Earning his admission to the Illinois Bar, Wallace  became friends with Abraham Lincoln and rubbed shoulders with many prominent lawyers and politicians of the day, many of them of like mind as Lincoln. Wallace and his wife attended the Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 that was held in Ottawa, Illinois.  There is little question that William Wallace was a Lincoln man through and through.

When the Mexican War broke out, William Wallace volunteered and served as a lieutenant in the 1st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, seeing active combat in Mexico, particularly at the Battle of Buena Vista. Having witnessed the battle first hand, his comments regarding the role of volunteers versus regular troops are instructive as to his views of their respective abilities. Wallace was particularly irked at efforts by the regular army commanders to take credit for the victory–a victory which he felt was due to the volunteer troops in the army. Wallace wrote, “the bull-dog courage (and) perseverance of the volunteers saved the day.”

As a friend and associate of Lincoln, William Wallace tirelessly worked for the latter’s election and when secession came, William Wallace was quick to volunteer his services, becoming Colonel of the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Although most of 1861 was uneventful for Wallace, late in the year he saw action in the field, joining General Grant’s expedition against Forts Donelson and Henry and earning a promotion to brevet brigadier general.

When Fort Henry on the Tennessee River felt easily to the Federal flotilla under Commodore Foote, General Grant resolved to march across the thin strip of land that separated it from Fort Donelson, which guarded the Cumberland River, and attack that fortress from landward. Wallace’s brigade was part of General McClernand’s division, assigned to the right flank of the besieging Federal force.

In truth, General Grant’s force was smaller than the Confederate army he was besieging inside Fort Donelson, although the Rebel commanders did not know it. On February 15, however, the Confederates resolved to break the siege and escape southward towards Nashville, where they hoped to regroup and renew the fight. The brunt of the Rebel attack therefore fell on Grant’s right, where McClernand’s troops were blocking the roads southward to Nashville.

Although attacked with overwhelming force, William Wallace’s regiments resisted valiantly, until at last, their ammunition exhausted, they were forced to retreat. Other brigades of McClernand’s division broke under the pressure of the assaults and fled in panic, but Wallace managed to keep his men together and fell back in good order. Still, the situation was critical, as the Rebels were on the verge of making good their escape; if they realized how weak Grant’s force truly was, they may even turn and overwhelm his vulnerable force.

As fate would have it, however, as William Wallace led his battered brigade back, another Union force, fresh to the battle, was advancing to fill the gap. This was a hastily assembled division, made up in large part of troops transferred from General Buell’s Army of the Ohio and under the command of General Lewis Wallace. Leading the troops relieving William Wallace was General Lew Wallace.

The two Generals Wallace exchanged brief courtesies, with General Lew directing William to his ammunition wagons to resupply, even as Lew Wallace’s troops advanced in battle formation to counter-attack. The Rebel breakthrough was blunted and then forced back by Lew Wallace’s men; General Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson was thus assured. Thanks largely to the two Wallace’s, Grant earned his laurels as the victor of Forts Donelson and Henry.

—–To Be Continued—–

For more about General William Wallace and his wife Ann Wallace, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground. For more on General Buell and the Army of the Ohio, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce served first with the Army of the Ohio and later the Army of the Cumberland in the Western Theater during the Civil War, where he saw combat in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. For more, see, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife