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

Ambrose Bierce First Lt Don Swaim
Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, fought with the Army of the Cumberland in the Western Theater throughout the war and knew most of the Union commanders first hand.

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.

gen-howard_12859_md
General Oliver O. Howard came in for Bierce’s particular ire for the unnecessary slaughter of Bierce’s brigade at Pickett’s Mill caused by “Oh-Oh” Howard’s incompetence.

The outbreak of the Spanish-American War sparked Bierce to ruminate at length about war in general in his 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.”

Rosecrans-William
General William Rosecrans, whom Bierce described as popular with his men, but “many kinds of a brilliant crank.”

On another occasion, on describing General Rosecrans’ performance at Chickamauga, Bierce says, “There is no reason to doubt that he acted on his best judgment, which, however, was never very good. Rosecrans was many kinds of a brilliant crank, but his personal courage was beyond question.”

Bierce had a genius for the left-handed compliment. In the persona of “The Bald Campaigner” (San Francisco Examiner May 31, 1902) Bierce elaborates on Rosecrans’ as a general:

“General Rosecrans was a courageous and dutiful soldier. He always did the best he knew how, and no one can do more than that. He was an accomplished and amiable gentleman, one of the most interesting and lovable characters that I ever met. His men’s belief in him and devotion to him were marvelous; but those of his higher officers who were educated soldiers had little confidence in him, and events justified their doubt.”

General Grant
General Grant was the subject of both Bierce’s criticism and praise.

Bierce’s attitude towards General Grant has generally been assumed 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.

 

96dpi  Grant at Orchard Knob  Chattanooga Thure de Thulstrup Grant  72kb 96dpi
Grant and his commanders at Orchard Knob watch the Battle of Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863 as they “pass the poisoned chalice.”

During the prelude to the Battle of Missionary Ridge, as a staff officer Lt. Bierce was with his commanding officer, General Hazen, on Orchard Knob, where General Grant and the other senior commanders were observing Sherman’s men fail to take their objectives that day.  As Grant and his entourage watched the battle, they “passed the poisoned chalice” about and about, and Bierce watched Grant “kiss the dragon.” Bierce says, “I don’t think he took enough to comfort the enemy…but I was all the time afraid he would, which was ungenerous, for he did not appear at all afraid I would.” Lest Grant and his generals on Orchard Knob that day escape from his appreciation completely unscathed, Bierce notes that while they did not abstain from drink, “these gentlemen were themselves total abstainers from the truth.”

Bierce even went so far as to compose an elegy on the event of Grant’s death, in which he went on to praise the controversial hero, while still acknowledging his ruthlessness in pursuing an end to the war:

He fringed the continent with fire,
The rivers ran in lines of light!
Thy will be done on earth—if right
Or wrong he cared not to inquire.
His was the heavy hand, and his
The service of the despot blade;
His the soft answer that allayed
War’s giant animosities.

Lt. Ambrose was a frontline witness to the war, both as a private soldier and later as 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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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John Basil Turchin: The Russian Thunderbolt

Ivan Vasiliyevich Turchinoff, better known as General John Basil Turchin. the "Russian Thunderbolt," was actaually from the Don region of the Ukraine.
Ivan Vasiliyevich Turchinoff, better known as General John Basil Turchin. the “Russian Thunderbolt,” was actaually from the Don region of the Ukraine.

>With war and rebellion in Russia and Ukraine in the news lately, it seems timely to relate the case of one of the Civil War’s more interesting figures: John Basil Turchin, aka Ivan Vasiliyevich Turchenoff (Ива́н Васи́льевич Турчани́нов), but known to his contemporaries as “The Russian Thunderbolt.”
John/Ivan has the distinction of being the only known officer in the Union army to hail from what was then Imperial Russia—and to attain the rank of general in the US Army. Of Irish and German immigrants who became officers and generals during the war, there were plenty: even a few French and Italian; but Slavic commanders in general were few and far between and from Russia, none save Turchin/Turchinoff, to the best of my knowledge.
Actually, Turchin was strictly speaking not Russian but Ukrainian. Back in the 1860’s, there was no independent Ukraine, however, even though it was an older nation than Russia proper. Originally, there was Kievan Rus and to their north lay the Duchy of Moscow; somewhere along the line the Muscovites appropriated the name Rus and called themselves Russians, but it originally referred solely to the Kingdom based in the Ukraine.
Turchinoff was born in the Don region of the Ukraine, which these days does not flow so gently, on January 30, 1822. Ivan graduated from the Imperial Military School in St. Petersburg in 1841 and eventually rose to become a colonel in the Imperial Guard. During the Crimean War (or should I say the First Crimean War?) Ivan served on the personal staff of the Crown Prince—later Czar Alexander II. Turchinoff also supervised the construction of Finnish coastal defenses for the Imperial Crown, which was hailed as the most advanced of their day.
In 1856, Ivan emigrated to the United States with his wife Nadine, at which point he Americanized his name. Nadya (or Nadine) Turchinoff (born Nadezhda Antonina L’vova)—or simply Madame Turchin—had been the daughter of Ivan’s commanding officer in the Imerial Army and was quite a forceful personality in her own right. She was what used to be called a “daughter of the regiment”—an army brat in modern usage. She was raised in a military environment and was as much a stickler for military spit and polish as her husband proved to be. During the Civil War, in fact, at one point Colonel Turchin fell ill and was unable to command in person. Nadine stepped in and led his regiment in his absence, marching at the head of the column.
When the war broke out Turchin, a civil engineer with the Illinois Central Railroad volunteered his services. He had already organized a volunteer militia company which had put on drill demonstrations in the Chicago area. Turchin became colonel of the 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and trained its recruits in the methods he learned in the Imperial Russian army. Turchin was known for strict discipline and had the reputation as a relentless drillmaster. By all accounts, however, his men did not resent the spit and polish of his regime; in fact it became a source of pride for the 19th Illinois.
Colonel Turchin and his regiment became part of the Army of the Ohio, commanded by General Don Carlos Buell. Part of Mitchell’s division initially, his command missed the Battle of Shiloh, being dispatched southward towards Huntsville instead. After Shiloh and the Corinth Campaign, however, the entire army was ordered to do line of communications repair work as they slowly moved westward to occupy Chattanooga.
The army never got there however: the still undefeated Confederate army lay just south of the Western and Atlantic rail line and began an incessant series of raids and attacks against Buell’s men. The Army of the Ohio was now dispersed in small units all along the line and not only subject to cavalry raids by regular Rebel units but also to vicious attacks by guerillas and small groups of civilian “bushwhackers.” After one such incident near Athens, Alabama, on May 2, 1862, the 19th pillaged the town, and incident subsequently called, rather dramatically, “the Rape of Athens.”
In fact, no white women were raped, no buildings were destroyed and only few merchants, believed to have supplied the bushwhackers with arms and ammo, were out some of their goods. On black slave was allegedly attacked by Union soldiers near the city, but it was apparently not the work of the Turchin’s men. Turchin did not actually give orders to pillage the town, although Turchin allegedly told his men, “I close mine eyes for two hours.”
Many in the Army, frustrated by the guerilla attacks, the civilian saboteurs and the random bushwhackers shooting at them, felt that the 19th Illinois’ reprisal was fully justified. General Buell didn’t see it that way, however. He brought Turchin up on charges, including “neglect of duty” (allowing his men to pillage the business district of Athens) which included the “utter decimation of Bibles and testaments, ruthlessly destroyed and burned to pieces in a shop.” A second charge of “failure to perform proper behavior expected out of an officer and a gentleman” was also lodged against him, which apparently included the failure to pay a hotel bill. Finally, a third charge of “failure to obey orders,” was brought against Turchin, which was apparently related to Colonel Turchin allowing his wife to accompany him in the field, something expressly forbidden by Buell.
During the court marshall, Turchin did not directly deny those part of the charges relating to his retaliation against civilian bushwhackers and saboteurs. “I have tried to teach rebels that treachery to the Union was a terrible crime,” he responded. “My superior officers do not agree with my plans. They want the rebellion treated tenderly and gently. They may cashier me, but I shall appeal to the American people and implore them to wage this war in such a manner as will make humanity better for it.”
It was during this same period that Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge” is set. While the story was fiction, the background behind it was quite real; more than one local planter received a drum head court martial and execution at the hands of the Yankees at the time.
In fact, compared to what Sherman’s Army of Tennessee would later do during the March to the Sea, the treatment of Athens, Alabama, by Turchin’s men was relatively mild. Nonetheless, General Buell had Turchin court marshaled and he was to be cashiered from the army.
There were many in the army at the time who viewed Buell’s concern over protecting the property of persons who were actively aiding and abetting the rebellion—including returning their runaway slaves—to be far too lenient treatment of the enemy. They called for far harsher prosecution of the war against the rebels.
Moreover, one thing General Buell did not take into consideration in his court marshal of Colonel Turchin, was John’s wife Nadine. She went to Washington to plead her husband’s case directly to the President of the United States. Not only did Lincoln re-instate Turchin, but promoted him to brigadier general. This act not only signaled Turchin’s rising military career, it also marked the decline of Buell’s influence in the eyes of the Lincoln administration.

Assault on Missionary Ridge.  General Turchin';s brigade was one of the firs to reach the summit and defeat the Rebel.
Assault on Missionary Ridge. General Turchin’;s brigade was one of the firs to reach the summit and defeat the Rebel.

General Turchin went on to fight bravely at Chickamagua, during the night landing at Brown’s Ferry to raise the siege of Chattanooga and later leading his men up the slopes at Missionary Ridge, where his troops being among the first to reach the summit. Turchin also distinguished himself in the Atlanta Campaign. He amply earned his epithet “the Russian Thunderbolt,” although, as we’ve seen, today we should more aptly call him the Ukrainian Thunderbolt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex n’ Drugs n’ Civil War: What great grandpa never bothered to mention about his service in the War of the Rebellion

Early opiate based medicines.  They were an essential part of  the Civil War doctor's
Early opiate based medicines. They were an essential part of the Civil War doctor’s

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.

Civil War doll "Nina" which was used to smuggle Morphine to aid the Confederate cause.
Civil War doll “Nina” which was used to smuggle Morphine to aid the Confederate cause.

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.

Did Abraham Lincoln take cocaine?  Some historians say he did.
Did Abraham Lincoln take cocaine? Some historians say he did.

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.

Grant in the field late in the war.  The debate over his alcohol use has been going on for 150 years.
Grant in the field late in the war. The debate over his alcohol use has been going on for 150 years.

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.

a homemade first aid kit belonging to Charles E. White of a New Hampshire regiment and containing opiates.
a homemade first aid kit belonging to Charles E. White of a New Hampshire regiment and containing opiates.

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.

General John Bell Hood.  On September 30, 1864, when he learned that Schofield's army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be "wrathy as a snake."  Was it simply bad luck, or did Hood's  failure to destroy the Yankee army involve something more:?
General John Bell Hood. On September 30, 1864, when he learned that Schofield’s army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be “wrathy as a snake.” Was it simply bad luck, or did Hood’s failure to destroy the Yankee army involve something more?

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.

Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce,.  Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and  witnessed Grant and his staff pass the bottle around at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.
Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce,. Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and witnessed Grant and his staff pass the bottle around at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

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.

For other esoteric aspects of the American Civil War, see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.