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Lt. Redwood on Black Confederates

Whenever I come across references to Black Confederates in the primary sources, I am always taken aback a bit. After all, why would any African American willingly, or semi-willingly, serve a cause which had to have been hateful to any thinking Negro of the time? That is the real issue when studying the anomalous cases of Black Confederates. Unfortunately, instead of serious discussion of the issues this entails, it has of late become a question of political correctness, where the truth is lost in rhetoric and propaganda, projecting modern attitudes onto an earlier era.

Mainstream historians, when faced with a changing political landscape—and with grant monies or academic tenure on the line—have, more often than not, chosen to take a politically correct stand, to the extent of denying that there even was such a thing as Black Confederates. Some argue that it is just a confabulation by right wing pundits wishing to justify their covert racism or neo-Secessionist views. While there are, no doubt, some fringe advocates out there for whom that may be true, the truth behind Blacks in the Confederate army is a far more complex question than most political pundits are willing to concede.

The modern political rhetoric largely revolves about sensibilities of people today and almost always ignores the actual situation which African Americans during the Civil War had to face.

What about these soldiers as individuals? How did they feel about the war and their role in it? How did they respond to all the rapid changes in condition of their servitude and the promise—but not yet the reality—of freedom?

These, and similar questions, apply with equal force to both Black Confederates and to the much greater number of African Americans who rallied to the Union cause in various capacities—most notably as volunteers in the USCT, who fought for freedom with rifle & bayonet, artillery & saber.

I have previously documented some incidents regarding Blacks in the War in one of my previous books, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, which, despite its title, is firmly based on primary sources and which reflects, to great extent, attitudes of that era.

Towards the goal of more fully documenting Black participation in the Civil War, following is one first-hand account about Black Confederates, written by a member of the 55th Virginia Infantry, a regiment with the Army of Northern Virginia. Lieutenant Redwood was an eloquent writer and an even more talented artist. One thing that is clear from his first-hand account of Blacks in the Confederate Army, he distinguishes between those Negroes who, although of great value to the war effort, did so involuntarily, versus those whom he unquestionably regarded as soldiers.

While Redwood expresses his admiration of these soldiers, he does so in terms which today might bring condemnation for racial stereotyping and political incorrectness. In the context of his own day, however, his attitude would have been regarded as far more tolerant and enlightened than that of most Whites, North or South. Also note that Blackwood does not segregate his subjects as “Black Confederates” simply as Confederates.

That Redwood had been a member of Stonewall Jackson’s command may have had something to do with his enlightened racial attitudes, since in his day, General Jackson was widely regarded as “peculiar” because he treated Blacks in his home town of Lexington, Virginia, with humanity and grace—to the point of risking imprisonment to educate them, something strictly prohibited by Virginia law before the war.

While this account is but one primary source of many which document Black Confederates and their service in the war, it is important evidence that such persons did exist, even if many modern ideologues refuse to recognize their existence.

THE COOK OF THE CONEEDERATE ARMY

Century Magazine, Vol. XVIII, 560-568

In the grand total of events which we sum up comprehensively as ” the war,” the negro was no insignificant figure, and the part actually played by him was far less passive than a stranger might have inferred. The enlistment of negro troops, with all the complications to which it gave rise, was still a wise stroke of policy on the part of the Federal administration, while, on the opposing side, the peculiar institution was made available for the performance of numerous offices which would otherwise have withdrawn many muskets from the ranks. Vast tracts of fertile country, whence the able-bodied white population had been called away to other sowing and harvesting, were still made to yield sustenance for the armies by slave labor under direction of the few exempts left at home; and in constructing fortifications, and as teamsters at depot posts, the blacks did yeoman’s service.

But, in contradistinction to these compulsory Confederates who went to the wars only in the equivocal sense in which the mountain came to Mohammed, there was a large class who found a service eminently congenial to the erratic habits of their race in attendance upon their masters in the army. Whatever possibilities there might be for him in the issue of the contest, the army darky was in the enjoyment of the nearest approach to perfect bliss of which he had any conception, and of a larger liberty than was vouchsafed to his superiors pending its continuance. There was sufficient pomp and circumstance even in the Southern army to tickle his taste for display; the nomadic, happy-go-lucky mode of life suited him to a fraction. His duties were light and irregular, and his perquisites large. His love of novelty and change was continually being gratified, and his social instincts found infinite scope amidst the large following of his own class which the Southern forces brought into the field. In the earlier days of the war, and in the mounted service especially, this often exceeded in number the muster of fighting men. The mode of its organization naturally attracted the wealthier class into the ranks of the cavalry, and there were entire companies in which each trooper was attended by his swarthy Sancho, for the performance of stable duty. Throughout all arms of the service, indeed, and until within a year of the termination of hostilities, these retainers were still to be found in the proportion of one to each mess, in many regiments. Their ranks represented as many social sorts and conditions as did those of the fairer race, and distinctions of caste were alike observed : from the gentleman’s gentleman— whether the bearer of the grand old name in the possessive sported the stars of a general or carried a musket in the ranks— down to the rude field-hand transformed through stress of military necessity into a cook, the pas was rigorously exacted by each in his turn throughout the descending scale according to a code whose binding force was quite independent of formulation. But native talent will push its way through all obstructions of rank, and ignore distinctions of race, color, and ‘previous condition of servitude,’ and one or two such pronounced types have been selected for treatment here, partly because of their prominence but mainly because they have happened to come under the personal observation of the writer, who undertakes to declare only the things whereof he knows.

Dress Parade A
DRESS PARADE

In the 55th Regiment of Virginia Infantry, there was no character more widely known than ” Bill Doin’s.” That was not his real name, by the way, but a nom de guerre—acquired through a habit the owner had of designating his personal belongings, and especially the utensils peculiar to his calling, by the generic tide of “my doin’s”—and there are probably not a dozen men of the regiment who ever knew him by any other. He was a cream-colored fellow, loosely hung together, lanky and long drawn out as to figure, and with a physiognomy the sides of which were as distinct, one from the other, as the tones of ” Orator Puff,”—one being normal, and the other disfigured by a scar which had drawn up the wing of the nose, given a cock to the eye and a twist to the corner of the mouth, and imparted to his countenance on that side a sinister cast, suggesting the Mephistopheles of the operatic stage. But “handsome is as handsome does” is an adage of especial applicability to war times; and Bill’s deeds—or, for unity’s sake, we may say his doings—were of a sort which veiled all his blemishes of person. His skill in the improvisation of ways and means did sometimes seem to amount to black art; but the declaration of his mess, to the effect that he ” beat the devil,” must not be understood as having any reference to the casual resemblance above noted. Of the culinary corps of the gallant 55th, he was facile princeps, and ruled the roast without a rival, for he embodied those qualities to which mediocre men invariably yield homage. The fact that he was the henchman of an officer had little to do with this pre-eminence, for the colonel’s valet was a personage of far less significance—with the cook-boys; Bill Doin’s ranked him badly. It is true that the latter inspired a certain degree of awe; but he did not kindle enthusiasm. Like his master, he had come to the regiment a stranger, and not by the popular choice; there was a flavor of West Point about him, so to speak, which did not suit the taste of these citizen soldiers of African descent. Bill was not exactly to the manner born; he had drifted into the regiment—and, indeed, into the Confederacy— by an accident of his peace-time avocation, which he himself would have defined, in a general way, as “follerin’ the water.” He had been a hand before the mast aboard a Chesapeake craft in the oyster trade, which, being in Virginia water at the time of the state’s secession, lost her entire crew by the prevailing epidemic, from the captain down to Bill Doin’s. But Bill was a cook-boy before he was a soldier, and the handy ways acquired in the caboose now stood him in good stead in the camp, and, notwithstanding his foreign derivation, he went rapidly to the front rank of his profession in the new field. For a while, his fame did not extend much beyond the limits of his company; but true genius will not long brook obscurity, and the chances of active campaign soon developed Bill’s knack of compensating for paucity of material by fertility of resource.

The hard-fought battle of Sharpsburg was just over, and McClellan had sustained a sufficient check to secure the Confederates in unmolested retreat across the Potomac. In anticipation of this movement, the train’s had already been sent over; but the troops were still in line of battle on the Maryland side, awaiting further development of the intentions of the enemy, before they followed. In this situation of affairs, an order was received by the subsistence officers with the wagons of the 55th to prepare immediately an issue of cooked rations, and to send them over to the regiment. Now, it so happened that the transportation had gotten rather ” mixed,” owing to the haste and confusion of crossing the river in the darkness; so that, while there was flour in abundance at hand, the wagon containing the ” cooking tools ” had gone on some miles further. To look it up before daylight, in the throng of others filling the roads and fields beyond Shepherdstown, would have been as hopeful as hunting for a needle in a hay-stack, and even if found, the utensils would have been quite insufficient for the preparation of so large a provision at once. By loss, breakage, and other accidents of the arduous campaign just concluded, the number of serviceable pots and skillets had dwindled to a minimum. Bill’s company claimed proprietorship in a single implement—an old hoe, which served in lieu of other oven. But Bill, though bereft of his legitimate ” doin’s,” was equal to the occasion. A man who had often tossed up a meal in the cuddy of a pitching “pungy” in a head wind, was not to be daunted by difficulties; and he marshaled his forces with a confidence which was contagious. No time was lost in bringing the wagons down from the high bluff overhanging the river by the winding road which led to the ford below; the barrels were unloaded and rolled down to the water’s edge, where Bill and his satellites were ready to receive them. A substantial fence skirted the road, and, as an act of military necessity, Bill promptly commanded this to be fired, while he unheaded a barrel, and without breaking bulk of its contents, proceeded, with water from the river, to work them into dough. It was rude bakery, certainly; but the question of the moment was of quantity and speed, rather than of quality; and Bill kept his assistants busy running to and fro between the river and the fires, fetching the water in canteens, and carrying off the ” pones,” as he rapidly turned them out, to be baked. The headings and staves, as each barrel was emptied, were used first for baking the bread, hoe-cake fashion, before the fires, and as fuel for the latter, as the dry rails burnt out.

Bill’s genius not only solved the problem of provisioning, the gallant 55th, but also made a close shot at the perpetual motion; once started, the flour, so to say, cooked itself. And when the last batch was baked, the bread was packed in bags and shelter-tents, and borne high and dry on the heads of Bill’s brigade, across the river and up to the hungrily expectant line of battle on the Maryland side. To have given check to McClellan was all very well, though on this point authorities differ; but whoever won or lost Sharpsburg, this chronicle claims a Confederate victory of which official reports make no mention, and bespeaks the honor, too long withheld from Bill Doin’s, who then and there trumped a stronger card than ” Little Mac,”—to wit, General Starvation!

From this time forth, Bill’s abilities found a more extended scope for their exercise, and he became a regimental character, in the capacity of caterer for a mess comprising some of the ” field and staff” In that much harried territory skirting the upper Potomac, which supported one army or the other without respite, from the beginning to the close of the war, he seemed to divine by a species of intuition the farm-houses where there was any prospect of prog. Rarely was his foraging bootless. Commissaries, though armed with the power of impressment, might sally forth and return with empty rattling wagons at night-fall; the trust which was vain when reposed in chariots and horses ripened into assurance when Bill Doin’s hove in sight, and one mess at least felt secure from the necessity of going supperless to bed. In these operations, he was much hampered by other agencies than the mere scarcity of provisions. The flagrant evil of straggling which had resulted from the incessant marching and fighting of some weeks before, had necessitated the most stringent measures for its suppression, and Bill was perpetually getting into trouble with patrolling provost-guards who, deceived by his bright complexion and straight hair, insisted upon reversing the decree which had consigned him to the maternal caste and claiming him as a man and a brother in arms, out of bounds without leave. But Bill was up to every move on the board, and soon found a way to flank the provost. By some mysterious convention, a cavalry man might roam at large without let or hindrance, when an infantry soldier dared not venture beyond the limits of his brigade camp unless fortified with a pass, and Bill lost no time in taking advantage of this immunity by providing himself with a mount. His old sorrel nag, bearing the distinguished name of ” Stonewall,” was the complement of himself, affording not only the means of extending his explorations over a wider field than he could cover afoot, but also providing the necessary transportation for supplies when achieved. The early history of this remarkable steed is involved in obscurity; there are reasons for believing that he was of Southern origin, though the brand on his fore shoulder attested that, like his namesake, he had begun his military career in the service of “Uncle Sam;” for Northern horses, when put upon Confederate fare, were rarely capable of the endurance which he manifested. This argument, however, is open to objection, since, under the auspices of his provident master, Stonewall may have been as independent of quartermasters as was Bill’s mess of commissaries. In common with his owner, Stonewall possessed the quality distinctive of a ” singed cat,”—of being better than he looked; though, as for that, there was seldom much of him visible, when on duty, except his head and tail, the intermediate space being obscured by various edible and potable forage, and by Bill Doin’s. It was wonderful what an amount of vitality was bound up in that frowsy and sun-burnt old sorrel hide, for in those stirring times which tried men’s soles, it was no light work, quartering miles of country and keeping abreast of the foot-cavalry. But whether because he had touched the limit of equine endurance, or that in virtue of his presumably Southern derivation he was averse to the policy of aggression, Stonewall could not be induced to accompany the advance into Pennsylvania, and when within a day’s march of the Potomac, he incontinently “nullified.” To his credit it should be stated, that he still manifested his usual willingness of spirit in spite of the infirmity of his flesh, and though his last legs declined to carry him forward, they went through the motions by executing a species of pantomimic gallop in their tracks, like a soldier “marking time”! Persuasive and coercive measures proving alike vain to move him further. Bill reluctantly sold him to a passing farmer for eight dollars in Confederate currency—the actual cost of a new set of shoes with which Stonewall had been equipped that morning.

But Bill’s enterprising spirit was not to be put down by so trifling an accident of war and Stonewall had numerous successors. But from the date of the latter’s retirement from public life, his master exhibited a marked inconsistency in the matter of his steeds, changing from one to another with the facility of a circuit preacher. For quartermasters had an unpleasant notion that captured animals should be turned in to their department and Stonewall had only escaped confiscation because superficial examination had failed to detect his merit, and he had been passed as not worth claiming. Occasionally Bill would appear mounted as became a bold dragoon; but for obvious reasons, as above stated, these seasons of glory were brief and far between; more frequently the animal was some castaway ” plug,” wounded in action or abandoned on the road because of lameness or of some incorrigible saddle-gall—” the last of many scars” which invalidated his gallant back. These disqualifications for military duty in the strict sense would, for a while, secure Bill in undisputed possession of his prize. But as soon as by careful nursing and provident foraging he had converted the waif into something like a serviceable nag, some officious assistant quartermaster would be sure to spy out Uncle Sam’s trade-mark, and Bill would be summarily reduced to an infantry footing again. Between the quartermasters and the provost, he had “a hard road to hoe”; and whether mounted or afoot, he was alike beset, until, at length, disgusted with service in the line, he went over bodily to the enemy by entering the commissary department, and so vanished from the field embraced in these annals.

Our next subject, who was thoroughbred beyond dispute, proved more steadfast and enduring. “Gin’ral Boeygyard ” was an attaché to Company ” C,” heretofore mentioned in these memoirs, of which organization he followed the fortunes and shared the misfortunes, to the bitter end of its career. Concerning his official title, —retained here for reasons which concern the writer personally, and would not interest the reader—it is sufficient to say that it related to services lying altogether outside of the line of duty, as defined by those claiming authority over the bearer. Notwithstanding the scriptural declaration that no man can serve two masters, the general yielded obedience to six, such being the number, by the actual count of mouths, of the mess over whose culinary destinies he presided. But Boeygyard’s generalship was more than a match for the outside odds against him. He could not pretend to any superior skill in his art, and his personal habits were scarcely such as would pass muster in a well-ordered ménage; but in the Confederate cookery-book the most significant clause of each recipe was,” First catch your fish,” and estimates of proficiency in the cuisine were characterized by a studious attention to this principle. Moreover, as to the rights of property, the general was, like most of his race, a little vague but, as he drew the line vigorously around the military family in whose service he was retained, Mess No. 5 was not disposed to view uncharitably so venial and general a failing.

REDWOOD Perpetual Motion A
PERPETUAL MOTION

It has even been intimated that much of the general’s popularity with his mess was won in ways that were dark, and that his talent of acquisitiveness covered a multitude of sins, in more senses than the orthodox one; that there are yet living those who, if put upon oath, might testify concerning certain “turns” of fire-wood, conveyed by night and under stimulus of liberal reward and no questions asked, to a particular bell-tent sacred to the privacy of the mess,—all this at or near Fredericksburg, Va., at or about the end of the winter of 1862-3, when fuel was “as scarce as hen’s teeth ” in the camps of the A. N. V. In the spirit of strict confidence which should govern the relations of writer and reader, it is competent to admit a declaration, however seemingly irrelevant, which may still serve to cast some light upon the matter under consideration, and which may be relied upon as authentic. This was originally offered, in plea of an increase of tariff, by Boeygyard himself, and was as follows:

“Y’ all gwine git me killed yit, some o’ dese nights; dem da men ober in de —th” (another regiment of the same brigade) “done got wile as hawks !”

The writer, who happened to be within earshot, distinctly heard the words above uttered in a grumbling tone, as the general slipped away in the darkness to his blanket, there to revive, perchance, his “Hair-breadth ‘scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach” of—let us say the rules of military etiquette.

But if the luster of the general’s fair fame was not altogether undimmed by the breath of detraction within the pent-up Utica of a winter-quarter camp, where gossip was the one relief from enforced inaction, all tarnish was speedily rubbed off when the army broke up from the Rappahannock and began its march northward, and universal admiration succeeded factious caviling, as the chances of the campaign developed his abilities, while affording a larger scope for their exercise and in more legitimate directions.

The policy and conduct of the Gettysburg undertaking have formed the subject of more criticism, perhaps, than have all the other operations of the war combined. A host of commentators of every class—soldiers and civilians, pedagogues and parsons, from the Congressional committee to the Comte de Paris—have ciphered and cross-questioned, spouted and scribbled, over the famous battle-field; Batchelder has reduced it to rods and perches, and Bret Harte to rhythmic feet; those who fancy facts and figures may ponder the pages of Early, while the “Later Rambles” of Professor Jacobs may delight the readers of romance. But it is not among the purposes of the present paper to discuss a matter which was settled in the most definite way sixteen years ago; these jottings from memory may, or may not, serve as material for the “future historian”; but, while we are taking evidence for that much talked-of personage, upon whom either faction relies to give a final verdict in its favor, due weight should be allowed to the testimony of General Boeygyard.

From the Confederate point of view, it is to be regretted that the vexed question could not be decided thus, for the writer undertakes to pronounce on the general’s behalf that the Pennsylvania invasion of 1863 lacked nothing of complete success. From the passage of the Potomac, his progress was a series of triumphs, each eclipsing the other in brilliancy. At the first notes of the “drummer’s call” before reveille in the morning, he would disappear, to be seen no more of his associates until the end of the day’s march. But the general’s ramblings, however devious, had a definite end and purpose continually in view.

REDWOOD Bill Doin s and Stonewall
BILL DOIN’S AND STONEWALL

When the troops, having refreshed themselves from the heat and burden of the day by release from harness and by copious ablutions, were beginning to think of other refreshment, then the general’s visage glowed with mingled pride and perspiration, as he shucked off his plethoric haversacks and weighty canteens, and read, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” in the speaking looks of the mess.

Highway and by-way were alike explored, that nothing might lack to grace the banquet; and now were deployed before appreciative eyes the callow chicken, the odoriferous onion, with bland buttermilk in abundance as a corrective; loaf bread, “salt riz” of that heroic mold known only to Dutch farmers,—flanked by appetizing apple-butter, snowy smear-kase, and dulcet honey, while, with the spirit of a true epicure, the purveyor of all this bounty did not omit to heighten the zest of those who were to be partakers of the same, by recounting the difficulties under which it had been procured, and his own address in overcoming them:

“Dese yer sart’n’y is funny people ’bout here, but dey does lib well, an’ dey don’ ‘pear to keer ’bout vittles, no mo’n nufiin, long ‘s y’ all don’ bre’k too many limbs off’n de che’y trees and don’sturve de bosses. Dat dar house wid de big red barn whar I done got my dinner, dey tuk me in de dine-room an’ sot me down at de table, an” gin me jis all I kin eat, and de white ladies dey wait on me, ef dey didn’t, hope I may nebber eat nuther mouflful long’s I lib. Den when I done eat all I want, I tell um I mus’ git on to camp now and dey fill my haversock chock full and tell me dar sumpen for my supper. So de nex’ house; I leab dat dar one out in de fence corner and takes in de em’ty ones, an’ when I done got all on ’em full den I come on ‘long. I till ’em I aint gin’ly hungry much tell I git done travelin’ ‘n’ go back to camp, ‘n’ no mo’ I wa’n’t ‘ca’se I done eat so much I mos’ ready to bus’ open.”

REDWOOD Otium Cum Dignitate
OTIUM CUM DIGNATATE

In the course of these wanderings, Boeygyard’s allegiance was more than once put to the proof, and to fortify the arguments brought to bear upon him he was frequently assured that utter disaster awaited the invading force. Not only was his virtue sufficient under temptation, but he was also duly mindful to exercise a reciprocal moral influence for the enlightenment of those to whose enticement he consented not; and he related, with the enjoyment which comes of the consciousness of having deserved well of one’s country, how he had repelled such an advance of the enemy by a counter-charge:

“‘Twas one ole man wha’ I seed to-day ‘lowed ‘t wa’n’t none on y’ all gwine git back ‘cross de ‘Tomac no mo’ ; ‘lowed Gin’l Hooker gwine be here fo’ long wid a million o’ men. I till him y’all don’ gin’ly start out wid nutten less ‘n two million, ‘sides de artillery; tell him dese here what he been see ain’ no mo’ ‘n de ‘vance gya’d, no way—de tail eend o’ de column ain’ nuver bim got cl’ar o’ Richmon’ yit, an’ de calv’ry done gone on a raid up ‘long tow’ds Philidelfy an’ New York! I tell you dat ole man open he eyes wide,—nuver say no mo’ ’bout Gin’l Hooker ‘n’ he little ole million men—yah.”

Such arduous services in the line of duty might well merit occasional seasons of repose, and such release from care was all the sweeter because it came just when less provident purveyors were busy preparing rations for the next day’s march. Then Boeygyard’s triumph culminated, as he reclined at full length before the fire, and while enjoying his pipe, threw out sundry gratuitous remarks of sympathy or of counsel:

“Is y’ all niggers gwine set up all night foolin’ long o’ dat dar ole bull beef an’ spider-bread ? How come y’ all don’ lay down ‘n’ res’ yo’sif some ?—’pears like yo’ gwine cook all de time ! I ain’ keerin’ so much ’bout cookin’ myse’f dese days, and I gwine sleep soon eber I done smoke out disher pipe an’ cool off little bit; mus’ be gittin’ up soon in de mornin’—done ‘gage some warm light bread for breakfas’ down dar at de house ; my men ‘low dey won’ eat none o’ dat ole truck, like y’ all wuckin at, an’ I has to ‘commodate ’em. Well—ef yo’ will set up, far you well!”

Boeygyard’s popularity was not at all impaired by his sarcastic habit of speech, in which there was indeed no trace of ill nature. The cook-boys of Company ” C ” acknowledged him as their head, and as such he showed a marked talent for organization; during the long season of inactivity comprised within the winter months, he was rigorous in the exaction of drills and parades of his force, which numerically and otherwise bore close resemblance to the army of Bombastes. But in those times, “skeleton” commands were not anomalous, and there were stars which shed their luster over territory of little greater extent than that illuminated by the humble imitation in the shape of a pair of plated buckles, which our general sported on his jacket collar. Concerning these insignia, delicacy forbids to say further than that they had originally and fundamentally been associated with the order of knighthood with which Britain rewards only her most deserving lieges, and in bar of any misgiving in the reader’s mind, the writer begs to add a somewhat musty proverb as not quite inappropriate—” Honi soi qui mal y pense”

It is to be regretted that Boeygyard’s performances in the field did not add the force of example to the principles which he labored to inculcate, and that, as has been the case with other generals, his fine array refused the test of actual service. Such a miscalculation was the cause of some trouble to Mess No. 5, which by the defection of its cook, while in the trenches was reduced for eight days to a diet of onions supplied by a peripatetic sutler, at the moderate figure of twenty-five cents apiece; a certain heat which characterized the next interview between Boeygyard and the mess, may be fairly referable to so prolonged a subsistence upon so pungent a pabulum. But by degrees the general became more accustomed to the sight of blue coats, and while the armies were confronting each other in the fortified lines about Richmond, the project formed itself in his mind of capturing “one o’ dem Yankee niggers” and selling him for his personal profit.

One snowy day, while he was upon the errand of conveying rations to one of his mess on vidette duty, he was reminded by the latter that the chance was favorable; only a few yards separated him from the Federal vidette—a medium-sized ” chattel” whom the general might have “toted” on his shoulder. ” Now’s your chance, General,” urged the mischievous man of war; “yonder’s ‘Corporal Dick’ by himself; you can gather him right in.” Boeygyard hailed his intended victim and proposed to go over and have a talk with him—who, guileless as to the Punic character of the treaty, assented, and the would-be enslaver made a few cautious steps into the narrow belt of neutral soil between the lines. At this juncture the vidette began to stamp his feet violently to restore the circulation. Boeygyard’s fears misconstrued the movement as indicative of an advance of the enemy, and he promptly reversed the policy of his campaign, and, as a preliminary to defensive measures, took to his heels, without once stopping to see if he was pursued, until he was safe behind the breastwork, a good quarter of a mile in the rear.

REDWOOD Boeyguard s Change of Base
BOEYGYARD’S CHANGE OF BASE

The following incident, related by a friend of the writer who was an eye-witness, and introduced here with his sanction, seems to define in epitome the military status of the branch of the service under consideration:

At a railroad station in Mississippi, shortly after the war, a negro vender of peaches was holding forth to some others engaged in similar traffic to this effect:

“I tell y’ all, piggers, yo’ donno nuffin’, An’ me an’ Gen’l Forres’ we formed de line, dar, right on de ribber sho’, an’ we fit dar clean till de sun went down, an de ribber was run red wid blood an’ dead men. I tell you what—I’d a-gi’n a milliofi dollars dat day ef I’d ‘a-knowed I was gwine be here now, sho!”

An old negro who had been listening with an incredulous air, here put in.

“What all dat you talkin’ on ’bout? You an’ Gen’l Forres’—reckon anybody gwine b’leab all dem lies, boy?

“So did,” rejoined the first speaker.

“y’ ain’ bin nowhar! When I was up dar dat time on de Tennessee Ribber, time all dat dar fightin’ was a-gwine on dar, I tell yo’ ef I’d a-knowed I’d be hyar sellin’ peaches to-day I’d a-gi’n a thousan’ dollars. Dar was Armstrong on de right; Ross, he hilt de lef’, an’ Gen’l Forres’ an’ me, we was in de center, an’ de Yankees dey come ober de hill in sebeit lines o’ battle, till de whole place was jis blue wid ’em—an’, Lord, how we did fit dat day! But dey was too many fur our men, an’, bimeby, de white men, dey couldn’t stan’ it, and dey ‘gin to gib way, dey did, an’ Gen’l Forres’ he rid up to me, he did, an’ he say, ‘Jim, stop dem men! ‘—

“What you know ’bout it, anyway? is you ebber bin in de army?”

“Yaas,” replied the objector, “I was in de army too n Gen’l Lee’s army, up in Ferginny. I went dar wid my young marster in de ole 18th Mississippi Rigiment soon arter de waubruck out, an’ come back ‘long ’bout May arter the s’render—fo’ yea’s or sich a matter. An I bin hear um say dey was some fightin’ done up in dat part o’ de country, too; hear some talk ’bout it, but I dunno how dat was, myse’f, ’cause dar whar we was, when dey was formin’ lines o’ battle, an’ fightin’ an’ sich, t’wa’n’t no niggers nowhar ‘dout dar.”

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The Long, Long, Road to Secession: Part II New England

 

Hartford Convention
The Hartford Convention was the Northeast’s early move towards seceding from the Union. Fortunately the War of 1812 before Secessionist sentiment grew any stronger.

As noted in our previous essay, the notion that slavery “caused” the Civil War seems to be in vogue again these days as a matter of political dogma, although any serious historian of the era would, or should, know better.  Journalist Ta-Nihisi Coates, influential editor at The Atlantic, in particular has pushed this as the sole cause of the Civil War.  No one can deny that slavery was an underlying cause or that many leaders of the Secession movement cited its preservation as a motive for dragging the country into war.  But that is a far cry from saying that it was THE cause.

In the previous installment I argued, rather, that it was the economic system of the South—the Plantation Economy—that was the root cause, of which the enslavement of Negroes was but a means to an end.  If good ole’ Artistotle were analyzing this, I’ll wager he would identify Negro slavery as a “formal cause” not as the material cause, the efficient cause and especially not the final cause.  An economic oligarchy—at base a very small number of tremendously wealthy planters—had control of the South’s political and economic life and managed to impose their self interest over the greater good of the majority of its inhabitants and the good of the country.

But even the economics of the Southern plantation system was not the sole cause of the Civil War.  The road to Secession was a long and convoluted process, much of it irrational and based on perceptions rather than facts.  As I noted in the previous essay, Great Britain too had a substantial economic investment in Negro slavery, especially in the West Indies; yet when it finally abolished slavery, there was no rebellion by the sugar plantation owners in the Indies, no assertions of independence, no bloodshed.

In truth, the ideology of Secessionism in the US is far older than the debate over slavery and in this and following essays we will take a brief look at previous secession movements in the United States, most of which had nothing to do with slavery.

A Boxing Match
“John Bull” gets the worst of it from “Brother Jonathan” in the Boxing Match in this rather optimistic view of the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 has sometimes been described as the “Second American Revolution” as it was perceived by many as an effort to throw off the yoke of British dominion that many still perceived the country to be under.  The western states were hot for war, looking towards expansion to the west and northwest and to many leaders in the burgeoning west the British to blame for much of their troubles with the Indians, both to the South and to the North along the western frontier.

Indeed, in the northwest the British had encouraged Tecumseh and his followers and even appointed the Shawnee leader a “brigadier” giving him a shiny gorget and a redcoat officer’s uniform, complete with epaulettes.

3-tecumseh-1768-1813-granger
The Shawnee leader Tecumseh, adorned in his British general’s uniform and medal.

 

There was also the issue of the impressments of American sailors by the British Navy.  Employment by American merchant fleets was better paying and the treatment of sailors far better than in His Majesty’s Navy, where commoners were treated as less than dirt by the officers, who were often as sadistic as they were incompetent.  To make up for the lack of willing recruits, the Royal Navy often resorted to stopping ships on the high seas and stealing as many sailors as they needed to make up a full ship’s complement.  The British government justified this by arguing that they were merely drafting English citizens into military service.  Since most Americans had been citizens of the British Empire before the Revolution, there was an element of truth in this argument, although the US disputed the claim.

 

As a note of caution, however, I should point out that historians still haggle over the causes of the War of 1812 just as they do over the Civil War and there were a number of motives at work in the period leading up to the war as well.   But our present interest is not so much in the causes of this war as one of the consequences.

Not everyone in the US was eager for war with Britain, no matter the provocations.  In particular, the New England merchants were less than pleased with the disruption the war was causing their trade with England.  New England may have led the movement towards independence in 1776, but once independence was achieved, the thrifty Puritan merchants of the northeast were quite happy to trade with the London merchants and visa versa.  The wealthy merchant traders of New York and New England may have resented the impressments of sailors as high handed, but they resented the embargos Presidents Jefferson and Madison had placed on trade far more and then, when the US declared war in 1812, the British blockaded American ports, which hit them in a very sensitive spot—their pocket books.

Leap or no Leap color
“Leap or No Leap” criticizing the Hartford Convention’s disloyalty and implying that they were actually in league with the British king.

As the war dragged on and their profits diminished, the New England shippers and merchants became quite vocal in their opposition to a war which not only benefited them nothing, but which the US seemed to be losing.

The Democratic-Republicans (today just the Democratic Party) had been the party of laissez faire economics and small government—except that no sooner was Jefferson elected President than he started wielding Federal power like a club.

The Federalist Party, in contrast, had originally been the party which had advocated a strong Federal government and policies that involved government intervention in the private sector.  But in the face of Jefferson and Madison’s adverse trade policies and then the declaration of war, the Federalists of the northeast became more and more opposed to Federal policies.  New England governors even refused to supply militia regiments to fight the war with the British.  Things came to a head in 1814, when delegates from New England attended the Hartford Convention.

As early as 1804, some New England Federalists had discussed secession from the Union if the national government became too oppressive.  By 1814, many in New England and not few in New York came to regard the “small governent” Democratic-Republican Party as oppressive and that the Northeast’s best solution was secession from a Union dominated by the South and the West. The New England governors and legislatures called for a regional convention, ostensibly to propose constitutional amendments to protect their region’s interests and to make arrangements for their own military defense against the enemy.  In theory the “enemy” was the British, but implicitly many New Englanders were viewing the Federal government as more an enemy than the British.

DetailHartfordConvetionLeap2
Detail of “Leap or No Leap” making clear the New Englander’s economic motives for seceding from the Union.

 

The amendments that were proposed by the Hartford Convention seemed more aimed at galling the opposing party than ensuring any basic liberties.  For one thing, they wished to abolish the “3/5th Compromise”  which gave the Southern states a disproportionate share of representatives in the House of Representatives.  In terms of the original Constitution, the Southern states were fine with regarding Negro slaves as people (or at least 3/5 of a person) so long as it gave them political clout.  Another amendment would have prohibited not only a person serving more than one term as President, but also prohibiting someone from the same state succeeding him—clearly aimed at Virginia, from whence most of the Presidents had come up to that point.  Other amendments would have restricted the Federal government’s ability to declare war and impose embargoes.

The delegates met in secret from December 14, 1814 to January 5; no notes were kept and even the votes were not recorded.  It is believed that secession was actively discussed in these meetings, even if their official proposals made no mention of it.  Much of what went on during these sessions was very hush-hush and even to some fellow New Englanders their activities were regarded as treasonous.  In the end their activities came to naught: by the time three commissioners from Massachusetts reached Washington, news of Andrew Jackson’s famous victory at New Orleans and the peace treaty—The Treaty of Ghent—had both reached Washington.

 

Battle of New Orleans
The Battle of New Orleans made Jackson the hero of the war, even though it was fought after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed.

 

In the celebrations over Andrew Jackson’s famous victory, most people in the country forgot the string of defeats the US had suffered—Generals Hull’s and Winchester’s humiliating defeats in the Northwest territories and General Wilkinson’s bungled Canadian invasion.  Even though Jackson fought his battle after the peace was signed, in the public mind he “won” the war.

Raison River Massacre
“Remember the Raison” was the war cry after General Winchester surrendered his army and the wounded prisoners were murdered in cold blood.  Today nobody remembers this and the other defeats American troops suffered during the war.

 

With the return of peace, trade between America and Great Britain was restored, the Napoleonic Wars were over and the British no longer needed to impress seamen, and the Federalist Party, its reputation now blackened by accusations of disloyalty, extremism and advocacy of Secessionism, had been discredited.

But had the war not ended when it did and the Madison administration summarily rejected the convention’s proposals (which they were fully expected to do), who knows what would have happened next?

 

Much of New England and perhaps even the state of New York might have lined up against the South and West in a bitter sectional conflict—a conflict which had nothing to do with slavery, but everything to do with economics.

Secret_Journal_of_the_Hartford_Convention
“Secret Journal of the Hartford Convention.”

 

 

For more about lesser known aspects of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of The Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5

 

Why We Are Is: Ambrose Bierce vs Historian James McPherson

Today, we commonly say, “The United States is going to Hell in a handbag” and not, “The United States are going to Hell in handbags” and think nothing of this grammatical absurdity.

It was Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson, in summing up his 900 page history of the Late Unpleasantness, who famously observed that after the Civil War, the United States of America–which used to referred to in the plural in both popular writing and official texts–suddenly began to be referred to in the singular.    McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom, also noted that after the war Americans now referred to our country as the Nation, no longer as the Union, except when referring to it in a historical sense—as in “Union forces won the war.”

James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning scholar of the Civil War, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning scholar of the Civil War, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

 

In his first inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln referred to the Union 23 times, but to the Nation not once.  Yet, by 1863, in the very, very brief Gettysburg Address, Lincoln refers to the Nation five times and the Union not once.  Lincoln is now talking about “a new birth of freedom,”–of ONE NATION–dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, which shall not perish from the earth.[i]

Lincoln, author of the Gettysburg Address and the man who transformed the Union into a Nation.
Lincoln, author of the Gettysburg Address and the man who transformed the Union into a Nation.

What makes this brief homily of Lincoln’s so timeless is that every phrase is fraught with meaning, every word carries some point to it.  It is not just flowery prose.  When Lincoln spoke those words, he had a specific political message to convey to the North, as well as the South.

This is why generations of school children (myself included) were required to memorize this text—and if teachers are doing their job these days, still should be.  Kindle or Google won’t cut it; it is one of those fundamental texts that needs to be seared into the memory, as a branding iron does to the flesh.

While I sometimes disagree with Professor McPherson on some issues, on this score I believe his argument is cogent and his observation of the is vs are is quite right.

While McPherson’s point was made decades ago, I recently stumbled across a reference to the very same point by Ambrose Bierce, eveyone’s famous curmudgeon, but also a battle-hardened veteran of the Civil War, someone who not only fought but bled for that “new birth of freedom.”

Ambrose Bierce, brilliant writer, curmudgeon, lexicographer and war hero.
Ambrose Bierce, brilliant writer, satirist, curmudgeon, lexicographer and, above all, war hero.

As anyone who has delved into Bierce’s life and career will tell you, one of the major problems with researching Major Bierce is that almost all of his work was originally published in serial form in newspapers and magazines, during a career spanning over forty years.

While researching Bierce’s life and work is now getting better thanks to Messrs Joshi and Schultz and a handful of other scholars, traditionally most people have only accessed the corpus of Bierce’s work via the anthologies published during his lifetime or else through his “Collected Works” which he collated late in life.  All the anthologies you may have read of Bierce since then have largely been rehashes of those old tomes.  In recent years, however, a few brave souls have gone back into microfilm archives of old newspapers, looking at the original articles and essays.  While much in these old journalistic pieces may only be of passing historical interest, here and there one finds occasional nuggets among the dust.

Fredrick Edwin Church's patriotic "Our Banner in the Sky" (1861)
Frederick Church’s patriotic “Our Banner in the Sky” (1861)

When the Spanish-American War broke out, for example, it stirred the old war dog within Bierce.  In between pontificating about current events in his “War Topics” column, Bierce began to ruminate about his own experiences of war.  Although the Jingoism promoted by his publisher, William Randolph Hearst, grated against his last nerve, Bierce too soon got caught up in the war fever of the day.

Always the contrarian, one would not suspect from these pieces written close to the turn of the century that once Bierce was a fierce idealist and a recklessly brave soldier—but I’ll leave that for another time.  More to the point, in one of his ruminations, the Devil’s Lexicographer Bierce weighed in on the whole “is” vs “are” issue.  Since “Almighty  God” Bierce is, by far, a better writer than I, it is best to let him make his point in his own words:

“In the light of patriotism’s altar fires, newly kindled and splendoring the Land of the Comparatively Free, I note a revival of that disgusting solecism, “the United States is,” :the United States does” etc. Actually, there are persons—writers, too—who believe that the laws of syntax are affectible by political phenomena, and that the word “States” becomes singular in number if the things that it represents are for some purposes “united.” They would not thing of saying: “The herded cows is grazing,” or “The yoked oxen is tired”—there would be no patriotism in that; and these excellent persons are, before all else, lovers of their country. (The shrillest and most raucous of them—a teacher in the public schools!—is chief proponent of the simple plan of making little children good and loyal citizens by compelling them once a week to perform monkey-tricks before the flag.) Tell them that this is not a political matter, but a grammatical, and they will put you down with “E pluribus unum,” the only Latin that they know. They will affirm (and not care a cent if overheard by the effete dynasties and tottering despotisms of the Old World) that these United States is one nation—one nation, sir, and don’t you forget it! We shall not forget it, nor are we permitted to forget that they themselves are one nuisance; yet Heaven forbid that any of us should say “These united intolerable is in danger of everlasting fire!” God sees them, and that is enough.”[ii] 

[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (NY: Oxford U. Press, 1988), 859,
[ii] S.F. Examiner, May 8, 1898.

Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife (University of Tennessee Press):

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover

 

For more about Lincoln, read The Paranormal Presidency

The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency

 

 

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Sunday is a day of rest, or it should be–all the more so if it is Easter Sunday.  April sixth, 1862 started out that way for the Union troops camped along the Tennessee River in west Tennessee.  At Pittsburg Landing, where most of General Grant’s men were, all seemed placid.  Most men were sleeping in; a few early risers had begun breakfast, others were just lolling about, enjoying their leisure.  There had been some shots in the distance when it was still pitch black, but no one took notice—probably a nervous guard or two, is all.  As men dreamed dreams of home and loved ones, blood-curdling yells broke the peace.

The following day, April 7, General Buell's army counter-attacked and drove the Confederates back, saving Grant's army; Grant however, claimed credit for the victory.
The following day, April 7, General Buell’s army counter-attacked and drove the Confederates back, saving Grant’s army; Grant however, claimed credit for the victory.

Men awoke, groggy and disoriented, to suddenly find a bayonet descending on them the next second.

As Ambrose Bierce observed, “many of Grant’s men when spitted on Confederate bayonets were as naked as civilians; but it should not be allowed that this was not because of any defect in their picket line.  Their error was of another sort: they had no pickets.”

The outlying camps were quickly overrun. Federals who heard the commotion ran to grab their guns and rushed to the front, only to find themselves too late, as successive waves of howling Rebels outflanked and overran successive Yankee positions.  By the end of the day the shattered remnants of Grants army were mostly crowded by the edge of the river, like condemned men awaiting their doom.

In the weeks leading up to the battle, Grant had had ample time to build redoubts, entrenchments and other defenses to protect against surprise attack, yet failed to do so.  Grant was not even at Pittsburg Landing, making his headquarters a number of miles away at Savannah, Tennessee.

Nor did Grant’s many regiments of cavalry and infantry do any patrol work outside their own bivouacs as they may easily have done.  Still, one must give credit where credit is due: Grant knew how to write a great after action report, and in it everyone but himself found some blame, save for his flame bearded—and some said crazy—friend General Sherman.  Buell “went slow,” Wallace “went slow;” but apparently the Butternuts of Johnston & Beauregard’s army did not go slow that day.  Luckily, the Confederates failed to overrun the riverboat landing by sunset on the first day–they were too exhausted from their stunning victory.

As fate would have it, during the night a fresh Federal army came across the river under General Don Carlos Buell to save the day—only that day would be April seventh, not the sixth.

Ambrose Bierce First Lt Don Swaim
Ambrose Bierce, at the time only a sergeant in Hazen’s brigade, was eyewitness to the second day’s battle and witnessed how demoralized Grant’s army was. He blamed Grant’s carelessness for their defeat.

If you read any one of the many books on Shiloh, the word that almost always comes to mind is “bloody.”  While there would be many battles that would prove as gory as Shiloh, this was the first fight where the bloodletting proved to be on such a staggering scale for both sides.  Many a young man with a sweetheart at home never got to hold her in his arms ; many a son was never to ever see his mother or sister.  Many who fell that day earned a mass grave with other unnamed souls in unhallowed ground.  Is it any wonder that ever since that awful Sunday those who have traversed the many acres that make up Shiloh battlefield have reported feeling strange feelings, hearing strange sounds and seeing strange sights?

Pittsburg Landing shortly after the battle. It was here, during the night, that most of General Buell's army was ferried over to rescue Grant's men from their leader's incompetence. Proper credit for the victory was never given to Buell.
Pittsburg Landing shortly after the battle. It was here, during the night, that most of General Buell’s army was ferried over to rescue Grant’s men from their leader’s incompetence. Proper credit for the victory was never given to Buell.

There is, for example, the tale of the phantom drummer.  I won’t recite the full story here, for it is told in full in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground; suffice it to say that on more than one occasion visitors to the national park have heard the sound of a distant drum, pounding out the “long roll,” when no re-enactor or musician is present anywhere on the grounds.  Other visitors to Shiloh claim to have heard the sounds of gun-fire, or the moaning and screams of wounded men, desperately crying out for help.

Since most visitors leave the park by sunset, only a select few have actually seen apparitions on the grounds.  A few locals, driving through the terrain at night encounter strange fog and swear it’s filled with the shadows of figures slowly moving through it.  Park rangers I have talked angrily deny any such things ever occur.

Park officials, of course, are always concerned about trespassers and uncanny accounts such as these could lure some folk to go where and when they aren’t allowed.  Far be it from me to add to their concerns.  Still, many folk believe the restless dead of Bloody Shiloh cannot so easily be mollified.  So, if you go, you may only feel an eerie silence as I did; is it just your imagination?  Perhaps; or perhaps there is something more that yet abides on the blood-drenched fields of Shiloh.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War for a compendium of true accounts of Civil War ghosts and haunts
Go to Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War for a compendium of true accounts of Civil War apparitions and other paranormal events.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more about the restless shades of Shiloh and the Civil War, also see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

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.

 

 

Show and Tell: the Franklin Civil War Show

Opdycke's Brigade (US) repulses the Confederate Breakthrough near the Carter House.  The Battle of Franklin, (Don Troiani).
Opdycke’s Brigade (US) repulses the Confederate Breakthrough near the Carter House. The Battle of Franklin, (Don Troiani).

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.

The Battle of Nashville has been called "Decisive" by historian  Stanley Horn.   Next week is the 150th Anniversary of it.  Howard Pyle, artist
The Battle of Nashville has been called “Decisive” by historian
Stanley Horn. Next week is the 150th Anniversary of it. Howard Pyle, artist

 

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 War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln books, 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 Ground on 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.

An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere.  Civil War "patriotic" envelope.
An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere. Civil War “patriotic” envelope

 

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.

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.

 

Captain Aldrich and the “Dance of Death”

Statue to Negro Soldiers NV Cemetary by Roy Butler
Statue to USCT troops in the Battle of Nashville by sculptor Roy Butler

The Battle of Nashville was notable in a number of regards, not least for the extensive use of United States Colored Troops (or USCT) in an active combat role and for their part in the overwhelming Union victory. In the Western Theater, Blacks were recruited in large numbers, but they were rarely allowed to participate in frontline combat missions. This was not accidental but a conscious decision on the part of General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose animosity towards Blacks–and conversely his sympathy towards slavery and slave owners–was no secret. 

Before he war, Sherman had been headmaster of a Southern military school and had no problem with the institution of slavery, nor with its most militant advocates.  While he Sherman believed in reforming some of its worst aspects, he was as comfortable with the institution as any Southerner.  Braxton Bragg and P. G. T. Beauregard, soon to become Confederate generals, were both close friends.  Sherman, however, was loyal to the Union and on that account fought in the war for the Federal side.  Under his command, however, the USCT troops were relegated to rear echelon duties and stationed to posts where they were unlikely to see combat.

The 17th Infantry, United States Colored Troops, was initially organized in the city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee in the fall of 1863, soon after the Battle of Chickamauga. It began by recruiting a combination of local “contrabands,” some 300 like minded Blacks from Alabama, plus additional free Negro volunteers from Ohio. Despite the need for fresh troops at the front, however, the 17th remained in the Middle Tennessee region, serving as garrison troops and then on duty with the quartermaster in Nashville. Throughout most of 1864 they were mostly employed on rear echelon duty, guarding the commissary warehouses in Nashville and likely also used for manual labor by the Federal Quartermaster.  Despite being assigned minor duties, everything indicates that the regiment was well trained and was both willing and able to perform combat duties.
As autumn edged towards winter, however, the need for combat troops to defend Nashville grew.

Sherman embarked on his pillaging expedition through Georgia, leaving General George Thomas, in charge of the Army of the Cumberland, to fend off the Confederate Army of Tennessee with whatever troops Uncle Billy deemed unfit for the march. The 17th was soon brigaded with other Negro troops into the 1st Colored Brigade under Colonel Thomas J. Morgan, who described the regiment as “an excellent regiment…under a brave and gallant officer.”

The regimental commander in question was Colonel Shafter, who was described as, “cool, brave, and a good disciplinarian.” One of the regiment’s company commanders was Captain Job Aldrich and Colonel Shafter’s brother-in-law. Although the Confederates had besieged Nashville for nearly two weeks, everyone in The Army of the Cumberland knew it was merely a matter of time before General Thomas would give the order to attack and raise the siege. That moment came on December 14, 1864. At last the Negro Volunteers, long relegated to backwater assignments and menial jobs, would be given their chance to fight for freedom.

Battle of Nashville, Negro troops assaulting Rebel defences
USCT troops during the Battle of Nashville. Attacking a Rebel strongpoint at Peach Orchard Hill, the USCT troops succeeded but suffered heavy losses doing so.

While many faced the coming fight with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety, Captain Aldrich’s mood was entirely different from the rest. Something had come over him: a realization that in the coming fight he would most certainly die. His feeling was not unique. During the war, many men on both sides experienced what they called a presentiment—an intuitive awareness of their forthcoming death. Comrades could argue till they were blue in the face, but when a man had such a presentiment, nothing could be done—and such intuitions inevitably proved true.

So it was with Captain Aldrich on the eve of the Battle of Nashville. His sister in law happened to be in the city at the time and handed her his personal effects, to give to his wife after his death. Then Job sat down and wrote a farewell letter to his beloved wife Ann.

Colonel Shafter, on reading it was both disturbed and moved; “it was the most affecting I ever read.” Colonel Shafter, on reading it was both disturbed and moved; “it was the most affecting I ever read.” After expressing his love and reflecting on the happiness they had shared, Aldrich closed, saying:

“The clock strikes one, goodnight. At five the dance of death begins around Nashville. Who shall be partners in the dance? God only knows. Echo alone answers who? Farewell.”

General Thomas planned to launch what today would be called in football a “Hail Mary” strategy: he put overwhelming force into an attack on the Confederate’s left flank, an attack which would steamroller the enemy and roll up their entire left flank, a line bristling with fortifications.

In the battle, the 17th USCT was given an important but hazardous assignment. They and the fellow regiments of the 1st Colored Brigade were placed on the far right flank of the Confederate line to launch a diversionary attack. If all went as planned, the Rebels would draw off their best troops from the left to deal with this threat to their right. At the very least, it would divert attention away from the main assault on their lines.

On December 15, 1864, despite an early morning fog, the big guns of Fort Negley and the other Union emplacements boomed out, signaling the beginning of the battle. The First Brigade began from a point close to the river, advancing across a cornfield towards the Rebel lines. The night before Colonel Morgan had scouted the area and believed they faced nothing more serious than a line of rifle pits.

They swept over the Rebel rifle pits with little trouble, but as they moved south of the Murfreesboro Pike and approached the railroad cut of the Nashville & Chattanooga RR, they suddenly encountered heavy resistance. Morgan and his men did not know it, but they had come up against Cleburne’s Division, one of the most experienced and toughest units of the Confederate army. General Cleburne had died at the Battle of Franklin, but his men were still full of fight. Screened by a line of woods, parts of several brigades of the division were lying in ambush, supported by a battery of four cannon in a lunette emplacement.

The disciplined men of the 17th advanced in broad lines, as if on parade. They began crossing the tracks of the cut, thinking the enemy had fled.  Suddenly the Rebels opened up as the Federals came within 30 yards of them. The Johnnies poured round after round of canister from Granbury’s Lunette into the Colored Volunteers at virtually point blank range, while withering rifle volleys exploded in the Federals faces. In a matter of minutes, 825 Union soldiers lay dead in or near the railroad cut. They had succeeded in diverting the enemy, but at a terrible price.

Captain Aldrich was leading his men across the tracks when Cleburne’s elite troops opened fire.  A bullet struck Aldrich in the head and he fell dead. As Aldrich had forewarned, the Dance of Death had found its chosen partner.

Pride_Over_Prejudice Reeves B of Nashville
Rick Reeves painting, Pride Over Prejudice, showing USCT troops guarding captured Rebels after the Battle of Nashville

For more uncanny events of the Civil War, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles the wartime career of the famous American author with the Army of the Cumberland including the Battle of Nashville.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.