ON THIS MEMORIAL DAY WE WILL TAKE A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO THE LATE UNPLEASANTNESS. INSTEAD OF A NARRATIVE ESSAY WE WILL INSTEAD COMMEMORATE THE WAR DEAD IN PICTURES AND QUOTES. LET ME KNOW IF YOU FIND THIS OF ANY WORTH.
“From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —-Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address.
“War loses a great deal of romance after a soldier has seen his first battle. I have a more vivid recollection of the first than the last one I was in. It is a classical maxim that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country; but whoever has seen the horrors of a battle-field feels that it is far sweeter to live for it.” — Colonel John Singleton Mosby
“Is it not strange that the phantoms of a blood-stained period have so airy a grace and look with so tender eyes?—that I recall with difficulty the danger and death and horrors of the time, and without effort all that was gracious and picturesque?” —Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce
“Throughout the broad extent of country over which you have marched, by your respect for the rights and the property of citizens, you have shown that you were soldiers—not only to defend, but able and willing both to defend and protect.” —Stonewall Jackson’s farewell to the First Brigade
“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.”
“Six men are on a hill—a general and his staff. Below, in the gray fog of a winter morning, an army, which has left its entrenchments, is moving upon those of the enemy—creeping silently into position. In an hour the whole wide valley for miles to left and right will be all aroar with musketry stricken to seeming silence now and again by thunder claps of big guns. In the meantime the risen sun has burned a way through the fog, splendoring a part of the beleaguered city.” –Lt. Ambrose Bierce
Of the six men on the hill with Bierce that morning, when he wrote his memoir he was already the sole survivor. Today there are none; even their children’s children are few and far between. That fifteenth of December, the hills surrounding what is now downtown Nashville erupted in a massive bombardment as the big guns of Fort Negley and the other Union hilltop forts burst forth against the starving and shoeless troops of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Although outnumbered and lacking the abundance of munitions and supplies the Federals enjoyed, the Rebels initially resisted the massive blue onslaught. On the far right flank of Hood’s army, the men of Cleburne’s division Confederates repulsed an attack by the valiant but green regiments of the United States Colored Volunteers. The USCT troops entered the railroad cut there only to encounter a withering fire from above.
Elsewhere, the Rebels were not so successful. General Thomas, the Federal commander, launched a massive assault against the Confederate left flank, throwing all of Wilson’s Cavalry Corps out in a wide enveloping maneuver, backed by masses of infantry. The Army of Tennessee, ill-clad, ill-fed and outnumbered, was overwhelmed. Where affluent suburbanites now throng Green Hills Mall and the surrounding boutiques and bars, thousands of warriors in blue and gray fought to the death that day.
One by one, the Confederate redoubts fell to the Union tide, as the Army of the Cumberland relentlessly drove the Rebels back.
The following day, the sixteenth, the Johnnies continued to put up a resistance, but as the day wore on the weight of numbers began to tell and finally the once proud Army of Tennessee fell before the onslaught.
Confederate regiments and brigades that had fought toe to toe with the Yankees at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Atlanta now fell dead, fled in disorder or surrendered. For the only time in the entire four years of war, a Confederate field army was thoroughly and completely defeated.
Stanley Horn, a pioneering historian of the war in the western theatre, described the Battle of Nashville as the “Decisive Battle of the Rebellion.” While later historians have not always been in agreement with Horn, there is no denying the magnitude of its success. Contrary to what one recent scholar said of Gettysburg, it was Hood’s Autumn Campaign and the Battle of Nashville which were in fact “the Last Invasion” by the Confederacy.
Most modern historians have regarded Hoods invasion as doomed from the start; certainly it was a desperate gamble. John Bell Hood himself described it as a “Forlorn Hope.” But despite all the mistakes by Hood, the broken promises made to him by Jefferson Davis and General Beauregard, the fact is that he and his men came very close to destroying at least part of General Thomas’ army at both Spring Hill and Franklin. Moreover, if historians regard the Battle of Nashville as a forgone conclusion, the Lincoln administration–and in particular General Grant–did not. The prospect of taking Nashville and its treasure trove of munitions and supplies, would have emboldened the entire South and enabled Hood to march on the Ohio Valley and beyond–a prospect that sent shivers down the Federal’s collective spine.
It may be true to say that the Civil War was won in the East in April of 1865; but it is equally true to say that the Civil War was lost in the West the winter before, at the Battle of Nashville, December 15-16, 1864.
After devoting several years delving deeply into the military career of Ambrose Bierce, famed American satirist and short story writer, I am always interested in finding new first hand accounts of campaigns and battles he fought in.
In the Autumn of 1864, Bierce was a staff officer with the Army of the Cumberland, fulfilling the role as Topographical Engineer with a division of the IV Corps. He was, as happened many times during the war, an eyewitness to bitter and bloody fighting.
It was therefore with some interest when I came across a short book by another “engineer” who, like Bierce, was with Schofield’s little army on the road to Franklin and Nashville.
While Ambrose Bierce was with Wood’s division in the IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, Levi T. Scofield (no relation to the general) was on the staff of General Cox’s division, with the XXIII Corps. Both corps were part of General Schofield’s force on the “retreat” (actually a holding action, ordered by Thomas) from Pulaski, Tennessee all the way back to Nashville.
While technically part of Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland for this campaign, Schofield, in his official report on the campaign pointedly lists his XXXIII Corps as part of the Army of the Tennessee. Although not given an official designation, Schofield’s little army was de facto the reconstituted Army of the Ohio, which had fought during the Atlanta Campaign that summer. Levi Scofield, as a nod to that unofficial fact, put the Army of the Ohio logo on the cover of his little book.
Both General Schofield, commanding the Union troops during the march north, and General Hood, in charge of the Rebel forces, have both generally received criticism from historians over the years and for similar reasons. Before being appointed commander of the Army of Tennessee, Hood has been accused of going behind his superior, General Joe Johnston, and criticizing him to superiors in Richmond– with a view to getting himself appointed in Johnston’s stead. Schofield has been accused of much the same thing with regard to General Thomas to Washington. To what degree either Hood or Schofield were guilty of these accusations I will defer to others, save to note that recently historian Stephen Hood has argued vehemently in Hood’s defense and done much to rehabilitate “the Gallant Hood.” No one has yet argued similarly on behalf of Schofield.
One thing is clear, however; both general’s actions during this campaign have been underappreciated. To be more precise, one could argue that what previous historians have viewed as Hood’s failures as a general are better understood as Schofield’s skills as a field commander. Hood should have won at Springhill and captured Schofield’s army; likewise, because of a fatal blunder on the part of one of Schofield’s subordinates, Hood came very close to triumphing at the very start of the Battle of Franklin. Luck and Brigadier Opdycke prevented an unqualified Confederate success there.—but it was a very close thing nonetheless. The fact of the matter is that General Hood’s army came closer to success at Franklin than General Lee’s did at Gettysburg—and were more exposed to enemy fire for a longer duration during the charge.
For those unfamiliar with the role of topographical engineers during the Civil War, perhaps I should clarify their position in the War. Officially they were surveyors and map-makers, which today would be classed as a rear echelon staff position—hardly the stuff of daring-do and danger. During the Late Unpleasantness, however, their duties and responsibilities were far different. From the very start of the war, the lack of accurate maps of the South bedeviled Union commanders. During Ambrose Bierce’s tour of duty in western Virginia (today West Virginia), the lack of maps and bad guides cost the Federals several lost opportunities. They would have fared far worse save that the Confederates were as green and as ignorant as they. Over the course of the next several campaigns in the Western Theater, however, Union commanders sought to rectify this deficiency and this is where the role of the topographical engineers came in.
Knowing what roads led where, where and of what quality were the bridges, fords, road junctions and other features of the terrain became something of the highest priority. Far from working in the rear, the topographical engineers went out ahead of the army, often working behind enemy lines, gathering tactical intelligence of the countryside and of the enemy dispositions in it. It was extremely hazardous work and there was always the danger that, if captured, they would be treated as spies and executed. It was a far cry from being a rear echelon “red tab” (to borrow the British slang for a staff officer).
During the Battle of Franklin, Bierce and the IV Corps were north of the Harpeth River, guarding the river crossing and the supply train, a position from which Lt. Bierce had a bird’s eye view of the start of the battle and which is related in some detail in Period of Honorable Strife.
Captain Scofield, by contrast, was with General Cox’s rear guard and in the front line of the battle, so his memoir of that fight is quite vivid and detailed, with a number of anecdotes about the engagement not mentioned elsewhere. Being a topographical engineer, Scofield also had a good eye for where things happened and recorded them on the maps that accompany his book.
As near as I can tell, he rendered these maps in watercolor or wash; there are also a number of pen and ink sketches that accompany his narrative and as no artist is listed, I am assuming that Scofield also rendered these himself. This is important, because there were no combat artists accompanying either army during this campaign, much less photographers, so the Autumn Campaign is very poorly documented in comparison to other campaigns of the war perhaps less deserving of the artist’s touch.
In Nashville, Federal photographer George N. Bernard did photograph the Union defenses about the time of the Battle of Nashville. Many of Bernard’s photos of Nashville taken during the battle were originally taken with a stereo camera, although I have only discovered a few mounted on stereo cards. Perhaps others of this same series are squirreled away in some archive or collection. There were other photographers present as well and their work too is waiting to come to light.
Although Captain Scofield wrote many years later–and his sketches and maps are presumably also of that vintage–the fact that he was an eyewitness to those events gives great weight to their value as historical source. A number of the anecdotes of the Battle of Franklin which he narrates he illustrates with his sketches.
While Scofield’s sketches were not able to be incorporated into my current book on Lt. Bierce, they are nonetheless of value documenting the Battle of Franklin and have hitherto been poorly known. This, therefore, seemed to be an opportune time to publish a few of them as they relate to the battle. Let us commemorate those who fought and died on both sides with reverence and respect. There is special place in Hell for those who desecrate the graveyards and memorials of the war dead.
Normally I don’t blog about current events and prefer to focus on subjects directly related to the Civil War, especially the more esoteric or unusual aspects of the Late Unpleasantness. Since there is so much going on in Middle Tennessee regarding the Sesquicentennial, however, I am going to digress a bit this go round. Hopefully I will be able to get back on track with blog entries before the big Battle of Nashville celebrations coming up next week.
While there has been a number of interesting 150th events going on in the Mid South since September, this author has been distracted putting his latest book “to bed,” dealing with Ambrose Bierce and his Civil War experiences (more of that at another time), so I have been very remiss of late. However, this weekend I did have a booth at Mike Kent’s venerable Mid South Civil War Show, now named (I think) the Franklin Civil War Show, ever since the powers that be in Music City decided turning their state fair grounds into a quick profit for developers would be a good idea. That the voters in Nashville did not agree with the politicians and their developer friends has only temporarily delayed them, unfortunately.
As an aside, any travelers to Nashville for the anniversary of the battle should be aware that the state fairground itself is smack dab in the middle of battlefield. There is a Confederate “lunette” just down the road on a hill overlooking Nolensville Pike on a small road that leads over a railroad cut and over to Murfreesboro Road. This is the same part of the Nashville battlefield I blogged about in “Captain Aldrich and the Dance of Death” (July, 2014).
In any case, only fifteen minutes south of Nashville by interstate sits Franklin, which, while it too loves its developers and their bulldozers, has done a great deal to not only preserve its historic heritage, but in recent years been highly pro-active in reclaiming parts of the Battle of Franklin battlefield. Yes, you can have prosperity and history side by side and the city of Franklin is proving it–which is one good reason why one of the largest Civil War shows in the South moved down the road to Franklin a few years back.
As usual, Mike Kent’s show had an army of people attending, many in mufti, and there were excellent booths of all descriptions lining both levels of the Williamson County Agricultural Center. In between selling and jabbering about my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil Warand The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincolnbooks, I talked with a number of nice folks on various topics of the War, (many of which are still in dispute) and learned a thing or three I didn’t know about before. Besides the two main Civil War books, I also had Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Groundon sale, as well as Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, which also cover a number of Civil War topics and I sold a few of those as well. I also did a bit of jawboning about my upcoming Bierce book and ran into one Civil War enthusiast from Indiana was quite knowledgeable about the Ninth Indiana Infantry regiment. Apropos of Civil War ghosts, several of the visitors to my booth told me about their family’s encounters with the supernatural at Civil War sites, which I will relate in a later blog or two.
When time allowed, I also went to the other booths to take a look see at what they had available. While I did buy one or two items, I wish my budget had been as big as my eyes, as there were quite a few collector’s gems on display there. Of course, by gems I mean uniforms, bayonets, swords, muskets and the like. Military Images magazine, a gold mine of pictorial information about the war, also had a booth there and I got to meet Ron Coddington there. In case you are not familiar with him and his work, he is the go-to expert for Civil War photography, especially cartes de visites and the like, and has written extensively, not only for MI for Civil War News and the New York Times. If ya’ll have never seen Military Images, I recommend it highly.
There were some unusual booths as well. I have blogged about sex and single soldier before and I still have hopes of convincing some publisher to let me do a book just on real romances of the Civil War (yes, folks, grandpa and grandma somehow managed to meet and reproduce, even during the Civil War), but one lady had a booth which was a revelation even to me. It had a wealth of documents, photos and other memorabilia about the distaff side of the Civil War, especially with regard to the armies of “shady ladies” who served their country in way not often written about. All of her displays were interesting and some surprisingly risqué for the 1860’s. Almost all of what her booth on exhibit has never been published before—which goes to show that there is quite a lot still out there about the war all of which have yet to see their way into print.
All in all, the 26th annual show was a success, both for my own books, but for Civil War enthusiasts attending in general. This year in particular the show occurred at an ideal time, bracketing as it does the sesquicentennials of both the Battle of Franklin and the Battle of Nashville. Not to be down on my home town, but compared to little Franklin, one would expect Nashville to have done more over the years regarding its Civil War heritage and preservation. In fairness, there have been some very active people interested in promoting Nashville’s Civil War sites and their preservation; and coming up in mid month there will be a lot going on in Nashville to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle one historian called “decisive.” If anyone out there reading this happens to be traveling through the city for the holidays on their way towards other destinations, be sure to take a day or two to linger and take in one or another of the special events happening for the Battle of Nashville anniversary. You’ll be glad you did.
Christmas, 1864 The valiant Army of Tennessee had been smashed and its tattered remnants were in full retreat as they were closely pursued by General Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland.
During the pursuit, a Union brigadier sends an urgent message to his divisional headquarters: “please relieve me;” the dispatch read, “I am suffering from an attack of General Debility.”
The odd dispatch was met with some derision at division headquarters, but the divisional commander wrote a prescription to cure his brigade commander’s ailment: three regiments of infantry and a battery of Rodman guns. Far more formidable than General Debility that December, however, was General Winter.
You may not have heard of General Winter before, yet this general was the most effective presence on the field of battle during the Civil War, more so than any field commander North or South. Winter influenced the outcome of many major battles. In the campaigns of the Western Theatre, in particular, General Winter played a commanding role.
Reading many of the soldier’s accounts of the era, one gets the impression that the Army of the Potomac during the winter months simply hunkered down in their comfortable quarters surrounding Washington, DC and waited until life was more pleasant in the field. General McClellan did not want his precious boys getting their feet wet, or otherwise suffering discomfort and the easterners of his army appreciated him for preserving them from harm–so did the Confederates. The Rebel Army of Northern Virginia did not pass the winter in such luxury, but they also chose not to go on the offensive when the weather turned cold.
In stark contrast, in the West, the Federals campaigned repeatedly in the midst of bone-chilling cold and foul winter weather, and their Butternut-clad foes did likewise. The war in the West did not stop simply because General Winter was abroad in the land.
In January of 1862, for example, General Grant led the expedition against Confederate fortresses of Forts Donelson and Henry. It was bitter cold that winter and the Rebel troops were inadequately clothed. During the siege, the Union troops who fell assaulting Fort Donelson were caught out in the open between the opposing lines. The cries of the wounded, exposed and freezing, tore at the hearts of their comrades who were unable to rescue them. Many who could have survived otherwise died of exposure.
At the Battle of Stone’s River in late December of 1862, both sides were also affected by the bitter cold. On the night of the first day’s fight, the Federal Army of the Cumberland was forbidden to light any fires, lest the enemy use them for target practice; to add to the misery, most troops had shed their backpacks containing blankets in the chaos of battle and Rebel cavalry had destroyed most of the wagons containing tents. But it was the wounded left on the field after the first day’s fight who suffered the most. Ambrose Bierce graphically described the situation in a forgotten small piece called “A Cold Night.” Men on both sides, wounded and unable to move, froze to death in the dark.
Returning to the Autumn Campaign of 1864 and the Battle of Nashville, General Winter also played an important role here as well. While the Federals had comfortable quarters within the siege lines of Nashville, without, the Rebels shivered, ill fed, ill clothed and short of most other supplies. Whole forests outside the city were cut down to keep warm by the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the resulting deforestation was called even by sympathetic citizens as “Hood’s Waste.”
However, the Federals too were affected by the winter weather in December of 1864. Although General Thomas had gathered together a mighty army to counter Hood’s Confederates, his counterattack had to be delayed. A terrible ice storm hit the city in the early part of December, making all roads impassable for his cavalry, without which Thomas was unable to attack.
Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.
This edition of the Late Unpleasantness deals not so much about any specific person or event of the Civil War as it does about the search for the truth of what really happened between 1860 and 1866. That may seem a simple task; after all, every week another book comes out about what happened in the first fifteen minutes of the second hour of the first day of Gettysburg; or of how General Grant won the war single-handedly; what a great guy Lincoln was and how he freed the slaves.
Yet, as any Civil War buff worth his salt knows, or should know, determining what actually happened in the chaos of battle is not a simple task, nor is the consensus of leading historians about some leaders and their actions necessarily based on fact, but rather on inherited opinions which have come to become accepted as truth. I will confess to have been as guilty of this latter fault as some of the more famous writers whose books have gone on to become the “bible” on certain battles and leaders.
In my research for The Paranormal Presidency, for example, I made ample use of the Historical Society of Illinois online Lincoln Papers as well as the Library of Congress’ ample resources as well as numerous other primary and secondary sources. Not much new here; all well worn territory insofar as Lincoln scholars go. Yet my take on those same sources and on Lincoln the man clearly does not square with the dominant consensus which generations of Lincoln scholars—one might more properly call them hagiographers—have arrived at. I, like his scholarly acolytes, regard Lincoln as a great President; but where I differ is that I do not ignore or disregard evidence where it does not square with the received views of him that have become academic dogma.
Disputes over certain campaigns, battles and leaders are nothing new; some have been going on since before the war was over. However, two recent books raise old issues and to varying degrees promise to throw a new light on what we thought was established fact.
Stephen Hood’s new book, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, has stirred no little controversy among Civil War enthusiasts and scholars. Hood the Younger makes no bones about his revisionism regarding General Hood’s military career and takes aim at several well respected historian’s previous work on the subject. His work has been criticized as biography; in fact, it is not a biography per se, but explicitly a work of historiography. Mr. Hood has gone back into the primary sources and his reading of them varies considerably from previous writers on the subject. He has weighed their arguments in the balance and found them wanting.
While I leave it up to Civil War enthusiasts to read his book and decide for themselves how well Stephen Hood has succeeded in his task, I will cite incident which caused me to begin to question the consensus views on General Hood. When Jefferson Davis sought General Lee’s views on appointing John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee, Lee replied that in his view, Hood was “all lion and none of the fox,” and I have even seen the statement footnoted with the source cited; so it must be true, right? Except, that Lee never actually said that. As Stephen Hood reveals, that phrase was coined after the war and whether true or not, it was not Lee who said it. On checking the citation, I found it did indeed go back to the Lee/Davis correspondence about Hood, but nowhere in those messages does that phrase attributed to Lee appear. A minor point, admittedly, but it is a cautionary tale about accepting authority at face value.
Another new work takes aim at that icon of the Union cause, General Ulysses S. Grant, questioning the accepted narratives of the battles for Chattanooga and Grant’s claims to being the mastermind of that campaign. In the past Grant has been the subject of criticism, but in recent decades the consensus of historians has been generally favorable to him and have generally accepted Grant and his supporter’s version of his campaigns with little question. However, in General Grant and the Rewriting of History, Frank Varney disputes that consensus, at least insofar as the war in the west is concerned.
There are many, myself included, who feel that Grant has been given a pass by many historians on a number of points. In my forthcoming work on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, in researching the context behind Bierce’s service with the Army of the Ohio and with the Army of the Cumberland, I found much of Bierce’s critique of Grant to be well founded and largely grounded in a greater debate in the postwar era over the credit and blame for the bloodletting at Shiloh. Bierce’s criticisms of Grant were well known, although his overall assessment of Grant was generally positive.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga have also been the subject of much controversy over the years, with much blame and praise being disbursed by various historians. The modern view of Grant and Sherman as the heroes of the campaign has generally been the dominant narrative however. So Varney’s revisionism had been initially received in some quarters as a much needed correction to the record. Varney takes eminent historians to task for shoddy scholarship. While I reserve final judgment on Varney’s work and encourage others to also make their own assessment, from what I’ve read so far, it is Varney’s scholarship which has been found wanting. Civil War bloggers have checked several of his citations, backing his criticisms of what other historians have written, and in too many cases have found them in error or just plain bogus.
General Grant’s Personal Memoirs were very well written and his narrative has been often taken at face value by generations of historians. There remains much about Grant’s career that requires a more critical review of the facts. It remains to be seen whether Varney was up to the task or whether that remains for others to do.
In recent months a bit of controversy has arisen over one Southern general’s alleged drug use. A new biography has come out by a distant descendant vehemently denying a “slander” that the said commander was under the influence of either opiates or alcohol during one of the penultimate campaigns of the Late Unpleasantness. The said biographer avers—and correctly so—that there is no written evidence that the Confederate commander was intoxicated or a “drug addict.” However, in tracking down the trail of evidence on that issue, I realized the topic raised much broader issues than simply the drug or alcohol use of one soldier.
There were many things going on during the Civil War that participants on both sides rarely talked about in print; but that doesn’t mean those things weren’t going on a daily basis. Traditionally, historians have relied on the written word; oral tradition, local folklore and similar sources tend to be overlooked or disregarded. Official reports, dispatches, postwar memoirs and the like are the mainstay of the Civil War historians. That is all well and good, but there as Walt Whitman observed, “the real war will never get in the books.” And like any good Victorian, Whitman and others of the Civil War era who did things which they preferred not to talk about, Whitman adds that not only will they not be written about but “perhaps must not and should not be.”
In a previous post, I discussed sex and the single Civil War soldier; a more thorough look at hanky-panky by both sides can also be had by reading The Story the Soldiers Would Not Tell, by Dr. Thomas P. Lowry. In researching my upcoming bio of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War service, it was obvious that the famous author spent his furlough time in the fleshpots of Nashville doing something other than reading newspapers and going to the opera—although proving such is difficult to do.
So, while the sex part has already been dealt with, the drugs have not. While specifics can be elusive, as with the good general mentioned at the start of the article, there is an abundance of period information about the use of narcotics during the era in general. Besides the reluctance of historians to delve into such “off” topics as drug use in the Civil War, there is also a dual cultural barrier to our understanding of what was really going on: in the first instance, the very different social and moral norms of the 1860’s and then our own modern attitudes, which often lead to mistaken assumptions about past behavior.
For the most part, the modern stigma regarding the use of opiates and other drugs which are illicit and illegal today simply wasn’t present during the Civil War. Opium itself has been known and used ancient times; it was used as a cure for headaches in pharaonic Egypt and by all accounts they had no problem with it being abused or wide scale addiction problems. In contrast, nineteenth century Imperial China had a massive problem with drug addiction and tried to prohibit the import of opium. However, the British in India were making a lot of money off of the opium trade and actually fought two wars with China to force them to allow the British to import shiploads of the stuff. Her Majesty’s government was, in effect, the biggest pusher of all times.
In the United States opium was known and used, mostly by the upper classes, before the Civil War. In the South, it was a common ingredient in homemade medicines and used for a wide variety of ailments, including the generic catch-all “female complaints.” The main users of opium it seems were affluent white women. There was no stigma attached to its use. According to one source, the womenfolk of the Jefferson Davis family were prescribed liberal doses of opium by their family physician and became “dangerously addicted” to it. The most common way people took opium as a medicine was in the form of laudanum, a liquid concoction consisting of about 40% alcohol, opium and water to dilute it. Laudanum was given to men, women and children freely for pain, diarrhea, coughs and whatever else physicians could think of. Of course, since it was not regulated at all, people could purchase it on their own or brew up themselves to save money.
The famous Southern diarist, Mary Chestnutt, writing in July of 1861, expressed distain for this commonplace household remedy: “I have no intention of drugging myself now.” However, later in the war she was given an overdose of a medicine called Dover’s Powder, whose main ingredient was—you guessed it, opium. It nearly killed her; as it was, she was unconscious for two days. Of course, the most famous American before the war to use opiates was Edgar Allen Poe, the famed Southern Gothic writer, and how much his morbid stories of the supernatural were inspired by his drug use remains a subject of dispute.
While not nearly as commonplace as opiates, hashish was known and used in America before the war. However, its use seems to have been limited to certain cultured circles and was not widely used as either a medicine or for recreational use. The publication of Fitzhugh Ludlow’s book The Hashish Eater in 1857 seems to have inspired a number of affluent young gentlemen to experiment with the exotic drug. One such young man was John Hay, attending Brown University at the time, “where I used to eat Hashish and dream dreams.” Hay would later become President Lincoln’s personal secretary and after the war co-author of the President’s semi-official biography.
Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, it should be noted that, while Lincoln was a teetotaler and is not known to have ever imbibed, one of his biographers has suggested that he may have partaken of cocaine. In his book, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln, Harry F. Pratt claimed that on Oct. 12, 1860, Lincoln purchased cocaine from the local Springfield pharmacy of Corneau and Diller’s for the princely sum of fifty cents. This was scarcely a month before the crucial Presidential election that put Lincoln in the White House and the issue of whether or not Honest Abe actually did use cocaine has been a bone of contention among Lincoln scholars for some years.
Of course, far and away, the drug of choice before the war, and continuing on up to the present day, was alcohol. While the consumption of alcohol in its many forms is a longstanding pastime and certainly the drug of choice for twentieth and twentieth century America, the modern American recreational use of this drug pales before the prodigious quantities of John Barleycorn and his cousins that were consumed in early America. The Temperance Movement, while much derided after the failure of Prohibition in the 1920’s, nonetheless had valid reasons for attacking alcohol besides Victorian prudery. Of course the dispute over General Grant’s alcohol use, or lack of it, has been going on for 150 years and shows no sigh of abating.
During the war, all these drugs and even more toxic substances were regularly used by army surgeons on both sides. It may be hard for us today to understand how common some of these substances were for treatment of a wide variety of ailments, yet it is an incontrovertible fact. Dr. Charles Beneulyn Johnson, a regimental surgeon with the Union Army described the typical medicine chest that an army surgeon would carry with him into the field: “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies. “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies,” he wrote, and included opium, morphine, Dover’s Powder (also containing opium), quinine, rhubarb, Rochelle Salts, Epsom salts, castor oil, sugar of lead, tannin, sulphate of copper, sulphate of zinc, camphor, tincture of iron, tincture of opium, camphorate, syrup of squills, simple syrup, alcohol, whiskey, brandy, port wine, sherry wine, to give the short list.
The most common treatment for dysentery and diarrhea was morphine, an opium derivative which was invented before the war. While it could be injected, it was most commonly given out in powder or pill form. William H. Taylor, a Confederate surgeon with the Army of Northern Virginia, would deal with sick call by dispensing morphine for diarrhea and “blue mass” (whose main ingredient was mercury) for constipation. A Union physician simplified sick call even more by performing diagnosis from horseback, dispensing morphine powder by pouring it into his hand and letting the patients lick it out of his hand!
I could go on and on with more illustrations of the common use of what are now banned chemicals during the war; in fact it would take a whole book to discuss this topic properly. But it is important to understand how commonplace the issuing of such drugs was to put the dispute over famous general’s alleged use of opiates or alcohol in proper context.
Right now John Bell Hood, the embattled commander of the Army of Tennessee, is the main focus of attention. As I mentioned above, there is no written evidence that he was under the influence of opiates or alcohol when he allowed the trapped Federals under his old schoolmate, General John Schofield, escape at Springhill, or his ill considered attack at the Battle of Franklin. However, the suggestion that he did use Laudanum has been floated by historians for many years. Hood had lost a leg at Gettysburg and shattered an arm at Chickamauga and if he did partake of Laudanum or any other opiate to ease the pain of those severe injuries would not mean he was a “drug addict” or junkie by any means, and it is not slander to suggest so. His use of such a painkiller, even if it could be proved, would have been perfectly legitimate, and indeed would have, if anything, enabled him to better cope with the terrible pain he most certainly would have been in.
But Hood is by no means the only Confederate commander to whom the suggestion of drug use has been ascribed. General Braxton Bragg, the contentious previous commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, is also thought to have used opiates. Some historians have described him as erratic and suffering from a variety of ailments including malaria, dyspepsia and the boils, the standard treatments for which would have included either Laudanum or morphine. Again, as with Hood, we cannot be sure he did partake; but it would not have been unusual—or immoral–if he had.
In my researches into Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career, I found that Bierce specifically testified to observing General Grant imbibing while observing the Battle of Missionary Ridge. Grant, however, was not one to drink alone; his senior commanders “bit the snake” as did Bierce himself, and Bierce argued that neither his nor Grants having a nip as shot and shell whizzed around them in any way affected his ability to command. While one may question Bierce judgment on the matter, one cannot question his testimony.
There remain many unanswered questions regarding the Civil War and perhaps some may never be fully answered. Certainly, what your great great grandpa (or grandma) did back then may not sit well with what you or I believe today. But we should at least grant them the grace to allow that what they did was done according to their own lights and in line with the accepted values of the day. Perhaps the “better angels of our nature” sang a different song back then than we hear today.