THRILLED AT RESACA: An Old Masterpiece of the Civil War Restored

The Battle of Resaca by James Walker
The Battle of Resaca by James Walker

Having devoted several years working on a book about Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War and spending the last several months wrapping things up on that project–which has included combing archives and other resources for appropriate illustrations–it caught my attention when I read in the news about a newly restored mural of the Battle of Resaca by noted Civil War artist James Walker.  Lt. Bierce fought at Resaca and wrote about it in a short story, so the mural is of more than passing interest to me.

James Walker is probably best known for the giant mural The Battle of Lookout Mountain (1874) which, if you have read any pictorial history of the war, you have undoubtedly seen it printed in one version or another.  James Walker was actually English by birth but his family emigrated to the United States and settled in upstate New York when he was five.  During the Mexican American War he was trapped in Mexico City during the siege and escaped to American lines.  He was the only artist present in Mexico to witness the war, so his painting The Battle of Chapultepec is thus unique in being based on personal experience of that war.  In the 1870’s he opened a studio in California where he did western paintings and paintings of the Mexican culture of old California, but he is best know for several paintings famous Civil War events.

artists James Walker and Theodore Davis on Lookout Mountain at work on military art.
artists James Walker and Theodore Davis on Lookout Mountain at work on military art.

As a military artist, Walker was known to spend long hours at the sites of Civil War battles and to interview survivors, so his work is renown for its detail and accuracy.  The Battle of Lookout Mountain was a commission from General Hooker to publicize the general’s victory there.  Now we have word from the New York State Military Museum that a long forgotten gem in their possession, Walker’s The Battle of Resaca, has undergone cleaning and restoration and is ready for display.  Unfortunately, they have no place to display it, the museum wall space being already chock full and the painting is a large scale mural measuring 12 by 5 feet.

The Resaca mural has itself had a long strange journey.  It originally hung in the Columbus Avenue Armory in Manhattan, home to the 12th New York Regiment, which was part of Hooker’s command during the Late Unpleasantness.  When that became a victim of NYC’s incessant destruction of its architectural heritage it was shunted first to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, then to West Point, then to the state capitol and then to a few regional armories in upstate New York and finally ending up at the state’s Military Museum in Saratoga, New York.  Along the way it was misidentified as portraying the Battle of Gettysburg (Walker did paint that battle as well).  Now the Resaca mural is all dolled up with no place to go.  I daresay the folks near Resaca in Georgia could easily find some wall space to display it, especially now that the battlefield has been dedicated as a state historic site.

 

The Battle of Lookout Mountain by James Walker, measuring 13x30 feet.  Presently on display at Chickamauga  National Battlefield
The Battle of Lookout Mountain by James Walker, measuring 13×30 feet. Presently on display at Chickamauga National Battlefield

For more on the Civil War, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  My newest book, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, should be out later this year.

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The Battle of Nashville: A Commemoration

The assault on Shy's Hill, during the Battle of Nashville, broke the back of the Confederate left and spelled doom for the Rebel army.
The assault on Shy’s Hill, during the Battle of Nashville, broke the back of the Confederate left and spelled doom for the Rebel army.

   “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

Today, December 15, 2014 was a foggy morning in Nashville, much like it was that cold December morning in 1864.  Of the six men Bierce was with that morning, when he wrote his memoir of the battle, 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.

On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.
On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.

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 Confederates repulsed an attack by regiments of the United States Colored Volunteers.

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, backed by large numbers of infantry.  The Army of Tennessee was overwhelmed and where yuppie suburbanites now throng Green Hills Mall, masses of blue and gray fought that day to the death.  One by one the Confederate redoubts fell to the Union tide, relentlessly driving the Rebels back.

The following day, the sixteenth, Johnnies continued to resist, but as the day wore on the weight of numbers began to tell and finally the once proud Army of Tennessee broke–shattered is more like it.  Confederate units that had gone toe to toe with the Yankees at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga and Atlanta now fled helter skelter or surrendered.  For the one time in the entire four years of war, a Confederate 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.

Fort Negley, the strongpoint of Union defenses, fired the opening salvoes of the battle.  The fort was notable for being the largest stone fort constructed by the North during the war.
Fort Negley, the strongpoint of Union defenses, fired the opening salvoes of the battle. The fort was notable for being the largest stone fort constructed by the North during the war.

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.

Belmont Mansion, the humble abode of Adelicia Acklen, was headquarters of the IV Union Corps during the Battle of Nashville.
Belmont Mansion, the humble abode of Adelicia Acklen, was headquarters of the IV Union Corps during the Battle of Nashville.

It is true that the Civil War was won in the East, when General Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April of 1865; but it is also true that the Civil War was lost the winter before, in the West, at the Battle of Nashville on December 15 and 16, 1864.

 

 

For more on the Civil War in Tennessee, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, both published by HarperCollins.

 

 

BEHOLD A PALE RIDER: A CIVIL WAR GHOST TALE

Fact or Fiction? 

BIERCE’S TALE OF A “BAFFLED” AMBUSH

"Near the side of the road, in a little open space and hardly ten paces away, stood the figure of a man, dimly visible and as motionless as he."
“Near the side of the road, in a little open space and hardly ten paces away, stood the figure of a man, dimly visible and as motionless as he.”

After lengthy and arduous research into the wartime career of Ambrose Bierce, famed short story writer, Civil War soldier, satirist, curmudgeon and aficionado of the bizarre and supernatural, readers will forgive me if, from time to time I discuss one or another of his tales as they relate to the Civil War.

As with many of Bierce’s pieces this tale is short—or, more properly, as long as it needs to be.  One reason why Ambrose Bierce is less appreciated today than formerly is that he did not like to write rambling, pointless character pieces drawn out into hundreds of pages—what passes for “literary fiction” these days—and the novel format of writing in general left him cold.  That he often compressed a book’s worth of writing into a short story has not been generally been appreciated by modern critics, although it certainly was by the likes of H. L. Mencken and Earnest Hemingway.

This particular story, “A Baffled Ambuscade,” is generally classed as a short story and feel free to appreciate it as such.

Yet, all the details are factual.  At the time this story takes place–after Stones River but before the Tullahoma Campaign–the Third Ohio Volunteer Cavalry was indeed posted to Readyville, Tennessee.  The Official Records contain numerous reports of patrol actions by thid regiment, especially along the ReadyvilleWoodbury turnpike.  Even the commander mentioned in the story–Major Seidel–was a real person.  This much can be verified.

But, did the ghost of Trooper Dunning actually appear as described?  Here the official record falls silent and we must rely solely on the word on one who was there, but is no more.

For more true Civil War ghost stories, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

For the best and most complete anthology of Bierce’s short fiction, I recommend, S. T. Joshi’s, The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce, (three volume set) put out by the University of Tennessee Press.  Joshi et al, have done much primary research on Bierce and his writings, and S. T. Joshi is currently busy compiling a definite collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s writings.

 

A Baffled Ambuscade

Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce

 

Connecting Readyville and Woodbury was a good, hard turnpike nine or ten miles long. Readyville was an outpost of the Federal army at Murfreesboro; Woodbury had the same relation to the Confederate army at Tullahoma. For months after the big battle at Stone River these outposts were in constant quarrel, most of the trouble occurring, naturally, on the turnpike mentioned, between detachments of cavalry. Sometimes the infantry and artillery took a hand in the game by way of showing their goodwill.

One night a squadron of Federal horse commanded by Major Seidel, a gallant and skillful officer, moved out from Readyville on an uncommonly hazardous enterprise requiring secrecy, caution and silence.

Passing the infantry pickets, the detachment soon afterward approached two cavalry videttes staring hard into the darkness ahead. There should have been three.

“Where is your other man?” said the major. “I ordered Dunning to be here tonight.”

“He rode forward, sir,” the man replied. “There was a little firing afterward, but it was a long way to the front.”

“It was against orders and against sense for Dunning to do that,” said the officer, obviously vexed. “Why did he ride forward?”

“Don’t know, sir; he seemed mighty restless. Guess he was skeered.”

When this remarkable reasoner and his companion had been absorbed into the expeditionary force, it resumed its advance. Conversation was forbidden; arms and accoutrements were denied the right to rattle. The horses tramping was all that could be heard and the movement was slow in order to have as little as possible of that. It was after midnight and pretty dark, although there was a bit of moon somewhere behind the masses of cloud.

Two or three miles along, the head of the column approached a dense forest of cedars bordering the road on both sides. The major commanded a halt by merely halting, and, evidently himself a bit “skeered,” rode on alone to reconnoiter. He was followed, however, by his adjutant and three troopers, who remained a little distance behind and, unseen by him, saw all that occurred.

After riding about a hundred yards toward the forest, the major suddenly and sharply reined in his horse and sat motionless in the saddle. Near the side of the road, in a little open space and hardly ten paces away, stood the figure of a man, dimly visible and as motionless as he. The major’s first feeling was that of satisfaction in having left his cavalcade behind; if this were an enemy and should escape he would have little to report. The expedition was as yet undetected.

Some dark object was dimly discernible at the man’s feet; the officer could not make it out. With the instinct of the true cavalryman and a particular indisposition to the discharge of firearms, he drew his saber. The man on foot made no movement in answer to the challenge. The situation was tense and a bit dramatic. Suddenly the moon burst through a rift in the clouds and, himself in the shadow of a group of great oaks, the horseman saw the footman clearly, in a patch of white light. It was Trooper Dunning, unarmed and bareheaded. The object at his feet resolved itself into a dead horse, and at a right angle across the animal’s neck lay a dead man, face upward in the moonlight.

“Dunning has had the fight of his life,” thought the major, and was about to ride forward. Dunning raised his hand, motioning him back with a gesture of warning; then, lowering the arm, he pointed to the place where the road lost itself in the blackness of the cedar forest.

The major understood, and turning his horse rode back to the little group that had followed him and was already moving to the rear in fear of his displeasure, and so returned to the head of his command.

“Dunning is just ahead there,” he said to the captain of his leading company. “He has killed his man and will have something to report.”

Right patiently they waited, sabers drawn, but Dunning did not come. In an hour the day broke and the whole force moved cautiously forward, its commander not altogether satisfied with his faith in Private Dunning. The expedition had failed, but something remained to be done.

In the little open space off the road they found the fallen horse. At a right angle across the animal’s neck face upward, a bullet in the brain, lay the body of Trooper Dunning, stiff as a statue, hours dead.

Examination disclosed abundant evidence that within a half hour the cedar forest had been occupied by a strong force of Confederate infantry–an ambuscade.

 

Library of Congress original source
Equine casualty of war, dead on battlefield

 

For more Civil War ghost tales, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War  while one can learn the truth about Ambrose Bierce’s war career in 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 University of Tennessee Press and available at better bookstores everywhere.

 

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.

General Debility and General Winter: A Civil War Christmas, Part 11

During the Battle of Nashville, General Thomas broke the back of the Confederate Army of Tennessee--the South's last best hope-- sealing the fate of the Confederacy.
During the Battle of Nashville, General Thomas broke the back of the Confederate Army of Tennessee–the South’s last best hope– sealing the fate of the Confederacy.

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.

Looking for survivors on the battlefield. Many men who could have survived, froze to death after the battle
Looking for survivors on the battlefield. Many men who survived the battle, froze to death due to exposure.

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.

Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, was one of the "barbarous Yankees" besieged by Hood's Army of Tennessee in Dec. 1864.
Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, fought at Stones River & Nashville.

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.

On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.
On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.

 

 

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.

Union General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter
Union General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter

While waiting for the roads the thaw out, General Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga” was almost sacked by Grant, who sitting in comfort back east, accused Thomas of being “slow.” General Thomas came near to defeat, not due to General Hood, but due to General Winter. In the end, Thomas unleashed the Army of the Cumberland and achieved an overwhelming victory.

While most historians aver that the Civil War was won Appomattox in 1865, in truth the war was lost for the South at Nashville, in December of 1864.

 

 

 

For more true tales of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Now in print, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is an in depth look at the famous author and his war experiences.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

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.

 

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War for a compendium of uncanny but true accounts of Civil War ghosts, haunts and other unexplained phenomena.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. (HarperCollins)
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency (Schiffer)

 

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.

John Bell Hood: Eminent Confederate

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

CONTROVERSY, n. A battle in which spittle or ink replaces the injurious cannon-ball and the inconsiderate bayonet.  Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary.

There are many controversial individuals who fought in the Civil War on both sides of the conflict, just as there are battles and campaigns which have been argued and debated over almost continuously for the last century and a half.  In the beginning, it was the veterans themselves who argued over these issues.  Then, in attempting to make sense of the war, historians since then have frequently come to conclusions based on their reading of the evidence and also make certain assumptions that they infer from those facts.  Just as frequently, other historians have taken issue with them.  This is nothing new.

For example, in my recent book revealing the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life and career, my researches into the archives turned up a number of documents which contravene the accepted narratives about the Sixteenth President; I have also found that some well known published eyewitness accounts have been used selectively by previous writers to impose their views on the great man’s life and career.  So yes, that sort of thing goes on all the time; but Civil War researchers can honestly come to radically different conclusions using essentially the same sources.  Much depends on how much weight one gives to certain statements over others and how much weight one gives to the testimony of one witness over another.  That’s how the writing of history works.

Stephen “Sam” Hood, a relative of General John Bell Hood, has just published John Bell Hood: the Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General.  His publisher’s promotional copy says that “the shocking revelations in John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General will forever change our perceptions of Hood as both a man and a general, and those who set out to shape his legacy.”

Perhaps; we shall see.  Sam Hood’s book analyzes other historian’s work on his forebear and not only finds them wanting, but consciously false.  I prefer to reserve judgment on both sides of the controversy, not only until I read his book, but also until the cache of new Hood documents is published and analyzed by the Civil War community as a whole.

For some reason, my little blog attracted the attention of Mr. Hood and also his ire.  More specifically, a short article about the Autumn Campaign earned his condemnation.  The reader is invited to re-read it; I recently reposted it, along with his comment about it.  While one would hope one’s scribblings would be met with praise, the fact that he thought my minor posting was worthy of his attention is a compliment of sorts, even if it is a left-handed one.

The study of the Civil War is chock full of controversies, some of which began even before the firing stopped.  In the process of researching and writing my 80,000 (or so) word book on Ambrose Bierce and the Army of the Cumberland, I weigh in on several such issues, especially since in his postwar writings Bierce saw fit to wade deeply into those controversies.  Shiloh and Chickamauga were two particularly contentious battles in this regard, with recriminations on both sides.  Of course, most of Bierce’s venom was reserved for Federal commanders, not Confederates.

Coincidently, Mr. Hood and Ambrose Bierce do share some things in common: both share a gift for invective and both are alumni of the Kentucky Military Institute.  When Bierce went there in the 1850’s it was a place where gentlemen learned to become officers and officers learned to become gentlemen.  In Bierce’s case I’m afraid, he learned neither; but he did end up becoming a damn fine soldier.

General John Bell Hood was no stranger to controversy, even during his own lifetime.  In the postwar era, Hood crossed swords in print with several of his former officers.  Even enlisted men sometimes expressed bitter opinions about their former commander in chief.

Carter House lit by thousands of candles to symbolize the thousand of soldiers who died unnecessarily that terrible night in November, 1864
Carter House lit by thousands of candles to symbolize the thousand of soldiers who died unnecessarily that terrible night in November, 1864

Modern historians have weighed in on Hood on a number of occasions as well, especially with regard to his actions and decisions during the Autumn Campaign of 1864.  From his public pronouncements and also his comment on my minor posting, I gather that Sam Hood believes that those who do not agree with his conclusions regarding his ancestor are not only a shoddy historians but in many cases are also willfully malicious and deliberately slandering his spotless forebear.  Again, having only read one chapter out of many in his book, I do not feel competent to say whether he is right or wrong in the many criticisms expressed in his book.  Moreover, I have many other fish to fry regarding the Late Unpleasantness; however, his book is definitely on my to-do list to read and looks to become one of those must-have books for Civil War enthusiasts.

As to my short piece on the campaign, Mr. Hood says that “there are numerous assertions in your article that have no historical evidence” and that I am merely repeating “opinions of later authors such as Thomas Connolly and Wiley Sword.”  Well, in researching my book on Ambrose Bierce and the Army of the Cumberland I did read several secondary works on the battles and campaigns of the western theatre, including the Autumn Campaign.  But I also delved deeply into many primary sources, including archival material, newspaper accounts, the Official Record (both online and the hard copy in the TSLA), as well as postwar articles and memoirs and, of course, Ambrose Bierce’s own writings on the subject.  So while I do consult secondary works when researching the Civil War (or any other period) I do not simply regurgitate some other author’s opinions.

While I suppose Mr. Hood’s criticism of my short article is mild compared to the barrage he has aimed at Wiley Sword and others, I do take his criticism seriously and went back over the article to see if there were specific errors of fact (versus opinion) which required correction.  Although I am perfectly willing to correct errors as such, and am also willing to change my opinions as new information comes to light, I could not detect any egregious errors in my short piece, “For Want of a Nail.”  Blog postings, as a rule, tend to be short, general in nature and not footnoted.  Even magazine articles, where there is more room to discuss a topic, tend not be footnoted; scholarly journals and books are usually the proper place for both in depth discussion and documentation.

Battle of Springhill, where confusion reigned on the Confederate side and the Federals miraculously escaped the trap
Battle of Springhill, where confusion reigned on the Confederate side and the Federals miraculously escaped the trap

In summarizing the Autumn Campaign in a few paragraphs, I touch lightly on a number of contentious issues that have swirled about that tragic last effort of the Confederacy: the “Springhill Affair,” the “Miracle of Springhill” (so called by the Union troops), the Battle of Franklin, and the Battle of Nashville.  In such a short space I, of course, engage in broad generalizations and touch on the issues without resolving them.  One is free to take issue with how I characterize them: whole books could—and have—been written about them without resolving anything.

When I wrote the article, I actually thought I was being rather generous to Hood.  The very title of the posting, “For Want of a Nail” implies that John Bell Hood came very close to victory, that had a few key factors been different, his campaign might have been crowned with success at least to some degree.  This view is widely at variance with the dominant view of the Autumn Campaign by most historians.

Based on my readings to date and lectures on the subject I have hitherto attended, the consensus seems to be that even had Hood beaten Schofield, the Union superiority in men and materiel was such that the Federals would still have prevailed.  This, however, was not the attitude of General Grant or the administration in Washington, who were quite concerned about Hood and kept badgering Thomas to attack before the “Rock of Chickamauga” was ready.  Grant was literally on the verge of leaving for Nashville to relieve Thomas and take personal command until he heard the news that “Old Slow Trot” had achieved an overwhelming victory.  So no, I don’t think Federal success was a foregone conclusion.

Battle of Franklin: Opdycke's Brigade repulse the Confederate Breakthrough at Franklin, by Don Troiani.
Battle of Franklin: Opdycke’s Brigade repulse the Confederate Breakthrough at Franklin, by Don Troiani.

Those who have read Mr. Hood’s pronouncements on the Autumn Campaign will also note one issue my article left out: the question of whether General Hood was using alcohol and/or drugs during the campaign.  Several historians have previously suggested it and Sam Hood is particularly vehement in his condemnation of their very mention of it.  He asserts that there is no explicit written evidence that Hood partook of either alcohol, morphine or similar substances during the campaign and I think on this score we must agree with Mr. Hood.  There is nothing solid in print nor do we know of any eyewitnesses who went on the record to say so.  Point conceded.

However, let me add that, even if it could be proved that Hood used such substances, that does not mean he was either “drunkard” or “drug addict,” as his publishers blog accuses others of characterizing Hood.  John Bell Hood had his leg amputated up to the hip at Gettysburg and suffered a shattered arm at Chickamauga—both very severe and painful wounds, and even a year later he would still have been in a great deal of pain.  Moreover, during the Autumn Campaign Hood was in the saddle for long hours, which undoubtedly placed a great deal of additional strain and pain on him.  Alcohol and opiates were virtually the only pain killers available to doctors during the Civil War and both were dispensed freely by army surgeons, when available, to soldiers.  In raising this issue, we need to recognize that the issue of alcohol and drug use during the war is a much broader issue than simply a personal attack on one controversial commander. Moreover, Hood is not the only Confederate general whom historians have suggested may have used opiates—a similar claim has been made against Braxton Bragg, and for similar reasons.  Then too, we have the ongoing controversy about General Grant’s recreational use of alcohol.
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General Hood lost a leg at Gettysburg and his arm was shattered at Chickamauga (shown).  He was still suffering the effects of those wounds a year later.  Engraving by Frank Vizetelly
General Hood lost a leg at Gettysburg and his arm was shattered at Chickamauga (shown). He was still suffering the effects of those wounds a year later. Engraving by Frank Vizetelly

So no, there is no concrete evidence that Hood used pain killers during the Autumn Campaign: but if he did, what of it?  If anything, if used properly as medicine, such pain killers may have actually allowed him to think more clearly, not less, by being free of the intense suffering he surely experienced!

Now, in my brief essay, I did engage in one piece of hyperbole which perhaps requires correction.  In making the point that there were better strategies available to Hood than a direct frontal assault against prepared defenses over wide open fields I say that, “everyone in the Army of Tennessee knew it was folly–all except General Hood.”  No doubt there were some soldiers in Hood’s army who thought it a glorious thing to hurl themselves across cleared fields with no cover for two miles within full sight of well prepared enemy, dug in and waiting, who were in any case, merely a rearguard.  How many thought it a good idea—or not—is impossible to quantify, as so many of them died in the attempt.  But there were many who survived that battle and the campaign who did have a low opinion of their commander in chief and were not shy about expressing it in writing in later years.

Perhaps it would best to provide a sampler of some of those views, unfiltered by any historian’s spin on them, with the understanding that, even among eyewitnesses, their viewpoints are also subjective and far from unanimous:

On the Battle of Springhill:  “Why Stanley was not immediately effaced is still a matter of controversy.  Hood, who was early on the ground, declared that he gave the needful orders and tried vainly to enforce them; Cheatham, in command of his leading corps, that he did not.  Doubtless the dispute is still being carried on between these chieftains from their beds of asphodel and moly in Elysium.”  Ambrose Bierce, “What Happens Along a Road.”

“Here {Springhill} as at Atlanta, Hood, sought to shift the responsibility for his failure upon a subordinate.”                                                                                                                        “But a commander who is personally with the head of column in such a movement and upon the field, has the means of enforcing his orders by direct commands to the division.” General Jacob D. Cox (commanding the Union troops during the Battle of Franklin), The March to the Sea—Franklin & Nashville, (Campaigns of the Civil War, volume X), (1882, reprinted Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002), 79-80.

“The idea of a commanding general reaching his objective point, that required prompt and immediate action and skillful tactics, to turn away and go to bed surpasses the understanding. The truth is Hood had been outgeneraled, and Stanley with the Federal troops got to Spring Hill before Hood did. What information Hood received of the enemy, when he reached the pike, if any, no one will ever know. Why did he not in person form his line of battle and attack the enemy at Spring Hill ?”  General Samuel  G. French, Two Wars: An Autobiography, (Nashville: Confederate Veteran, 1901),  292.

On Hood’s mental state on the morning of the Battle of Franklin:  “General Hood is mad about the enemy getting away last night, and he is going to charge the blame of it on somebody.  He is as wrathy as a rattlesnake this morning, striking at everything.  As he passed along to the front a while ago, he rode up to me and said ‘Gen. Brown, in the movement to-day I wish you to bear in mind this military principle : That when a pursuing army comes up with a retreating enemy, he must be immediately attacked. If you have a brigade in front as advance guard, order its commander to attack the enemy as soon as he comes up with him ; if you have a regiment in advance, and it comes up with the enemy, give the colonel orders to attack him; if there is but a company in advance, and it overtakes the entire Yankee army, order the captain to attack it forthwith ; and if anything blocks the road in front of you to-day, don’t stop a minute, but turn out into the fields or woods, and move on to the front.’”  Henry M Field, Bright Skies and Dark Shadows (NY: Scribners, 1890), 219.

Captain John W. Lavender, Company F, 4th Arkansas Inf., Battle of Franklin:  “This Great and Distructive Battle was the least called for and most useless Sacrifice of men of any that was Fought in the Middle or Department of Tennessee. As Every Priveet Soldier Saw afterwards, a slight Flank Movement would have Forced the Enemy out of their works without loosing a man. Our Ranks was So Badly Reduced and seing it Brought on by such useless Reckless Generalship Caused Grate Dissatisfaction in our Ranks. … They Could see the serious mistakes made that cost our army such serious loss and no material to recruit from. They could all see that the time was near that our Strength would be exhausted.”  The War Memoirs of Captain John W. Lavender, C.S.A., edited by Ted R. Worley. (Pine Bluff, AR: The Southern Press, 1956).

Captain Foster, 24th Texas Cavalry (dismounted) Granville’s Brigade, Cleburne’s Division after Franklin:                                                                               “Gen. Hood has betrayed us. This is not the kind of fighting he promised us at Tuscumbia and Florence, Ala., when we started into Tennessee. This was not a ‘fight with equal numbers and choice of the ground’ by no means.”                                                                     “The wails and cries of widows and orphans made at Franklin … will heat up the fires of the bottomless pit to burn the soul of Gen. J.B. Hood for Murdering their husbands and fathers. … It can’t be called anything else but cold blooded murder.”                                  Capt. Samuel T. Foster (Edited by Norman D. Brown), One of Cleburne’s Command. The Civil War Reminiscences and Diary of Capt. Samuel T. Foster, Granbury’s Texas Brigade, CSA, (Austin TX: U. of TX Press, 1980).

Carnton cemetery where most of the Confederate dead from the Battle of Franklin were buried.
Carnton cemetery where most of the Confederate dead from the Battle of Franklin were buried.