“CONSUMATE MASTER OF NEEDLESS DEFEAT” GENERAL OLIVER O. HOWARD

 

12- Rick Reeves painting Pickett's Mill depicting the repulse of Hazen s Brigade by Granbury s Texas Brigade 96dpi
Cleburne’s men repulse Hazen’s brigade at Pickett’s Mill on May 27, 1864. Painting by Rick Reeves.

AN EMINENT FEDERAL GENERAL

During the Civil War and after, Oliver Otis Howard was held in high regard by General Sherman and other Union commanders; why that was, heaven only knows. Sherman praised Howard in a letter to Grant as “a polished and Christian gentleman, exhibiting the highest and most chivalrous traits of the soldier.” Some may find some unconscious irony in Sherman lauding Howard for chivalrous and gentlemanly behavior, since Uncle Billy was so lacking in those traits himself, and the only thing Old Crump was noted for polishing was polishing off was bottles of whiskey and boxes of cigars.

Howard was referred to as the “Christian General” by some, presumably for his ostentatious displays of piety, less his practice of same. By the field officers and men under him, however, General O. O. Howard was generally referred to as “Oh-Oh!” Howard, due to his well-earned reputation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on the field of battle. Historian Stephen Sears has called him an “unimaginative, unenterprising, uninspiring, a stiflingly christian soldier.” There are those who think that Sears was being uncommonly generous in his appraisal of Howard.

768px-Oliver_Otis_Howard
General Oliver O. “Oh-Oh” Howard

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, for example, General Howard commanded the Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac, where he earned an undimmed repute for bad generalship. The Eleventh was composed largely of immigrant volunteers; when originally formed, McClellan had seen fit to lump most of the Germans, Irish and other immigrant units into one large ghetto, so to speak, presumably so they would not contaminate his Anglo-Saxon “American” units with their foreign ways—although that was never explicitly stated. Until Howard took command of the Eleventh, the regiments had been under one or another German-American general, men who often had military training in Europe and even some combat experience. They may not have been the best corps commanders, but they were trusted by their men.

The “Dutchmen” were less than happy with their new leader and, truth be told, the corps had previously suffered from neglect at the hands of the Federal high command, often being deprived of necessary food and equipment in an army generally known for its superabundance of them. As fate would have it, Chancellorsville was the first time Howard commanded the Eleventh in combat—and it was nearly his last.

                                                                                                                                                                At Chancellorsville, Howard and his “Dutchmen” were stuck on the extreme right of the Union line, where General Hooker no doubt hoped they would be out of sight and mind. Apparently Stonewall Jackson was of a similar opinion, and convinced General Lee to let him take his corps out of the southern end of the Confederate battle-line and march behind the main body of the Rebel army to come up and around and deliver a surprise attack on Howard’s isolated force. General Jackson’s maneuver from the far right to the extreme left of the Rebel line was carried out with speed and secrecy; his “foot-cavalry” delivered an overwhelming assault against Howard and his unsuspecting troops.

While some blamed Howard for gross negligence and failing to properly entrench his troops, many in the Army of the Potomac faulted his men for cowardice, referring to them as “flying dutchmen,” as the corps collapsed under the relentless assault of Stonewall’s corps. That the Eleventh was outnumbered three to one and lacked reserves to stem the attack may have also had something to do with the defeat. Hooker also found it convenient to blame Howard and the Eleventh for the debacle rather than assume any blame on his own shoulders.

Again, at Gettysburg, Howard and the Eleventh were again severely pressed on the first day, with the corps being pushed back through the town and only managing to make a stand on the high ground south of town. Ultimately, Howard managed to hold the line on Cemetery Hill, although it was a very near thing. That evening, Howard was replaced by General Hancock—an officer of lower rank—by General Meade–some indication of Meade’s regard for Howard’s generalship.

Later that year, when Grant called on Washington for troops to retrieve the situation in Chattanooga following Rosecrans’ defeat at Chickamauga, General Meade was only too glad to send Howard and his Dutchmen out west–and out of his army. In the Western Theater, the Eleventh Corps fared far better in combat, with none of the criticism that had dogged them with the Army of the Potomac. In part this may have been because, after raising the siege of the city, they ceased to be under “Oh-Oh!” Howard’s command.

For Sherman’s big push against Atlanta the following year, Howard was put in charge of the Fourth Corps and placed under the command of General George Thomas in the Army of the Cumberland. Howard seems to have avoided major defeats in the Atlanta Campaign, at least for a few months. This was due largely to the overwhelming numerical superiority of “Uncle Billy’s” three armies, versus “Uncle Joe” Johnston’s lone Army of Tennessee.  Also, Sherman was very much in command of all his forces, moving them like chessmen on a playing board, leaving less room for Howard to commit serious blunders.

During the early months of 1864, Sherman’s massive force relentlessly advanced southward through the mountainous region of northwest Georgia, whose hilly terrain was admirably suited for defense. Hopelessly outnumbered, Joe Johnston fought one defensive battle after another, holding ground to the point where Sherman threatened to outflank him and then falling back to his next defensive line. Finally, Sherman’s advance ground to a halt on May 26, at New Hope Church. On May 27, an effort to outflank Johnston’s troops, Sherman ordered Howard to take his Fourth Corps back around to the left and attack the Rebel’s extreme right flank—much as Stonewall Jackson had done to Howard at Chancellorsville.

What Stonewall had done stealthily and quickly, Howard did obviously and slowly, so that by the time his troops had arrived at the jump off spot, the Rebels had had ample warning of an attack. To cover his exposed right, Johnston rushed his best division under his best commander—Cleburne’s Division, plus some dismounted cavalry as support. Instead of launching the full force of his command against the still fragile Rebel right, Howard, beginning late in the afternoon, began to send his troops in a brigade at a time. Hazen’s brigade had the dubious honor of attacking first, without any support, at a spot called Pickett’s Mill.

General-William-Hazen ca Civil War
Brigadier General William Babcock Hazen, “The Best Hated Man in the Army”

The story of the attack by Hazen’s men was later chronicled by Lt. Ambrose Bierce, who was on Hazen’s staff, in the short essay, “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” and a somewhat more objective account of the battle is related in Chapter 12 of Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife. While both Sherman and the divisional commander are deserving of blame for the ensuing blood bath, Bierce always reserved the full weight of blame for the “Christian” Howard.

Despite the hopelessness of the attack, Hazen and his men carried it out to the best of their ability and in fact at one point some troops of the brigade found an open flank which could be turned. At that point Hazen sent back runners with urgent dispatches, desperately calling for support to exploit the weak point in the Rebel lines—to no avail. Only after Hazen’s men had been bled dry and were in retreat, did Howard send in another brigade, only to be chewed up like the first, and then a third, which only avoided similar losses by the onset of darkness.

Criminal incompetence ought to be considered a felony, but in this case the guilty parties not only went unpunished but were rewarded for their blunders and the incident was buried deep in official reports until Ambrose Bierce disinterred it years after the was.

General Howard, in reward for his record of criminal incompetence was bestowed with further honors, positions and duties after the war. Soon after cessation of hostilities he was put in charge of the Freedman’s Bureau, to look after the welfare of the newly freed Negroes, where under his watch the Klu Klux Klan rose to power. He was later sent west to supervise the Nez Perce Indians, a peaceful tribe that simply wanted to be left alone, and Howard somehow managed to provoke a war with them. Needless to say, Howard kept being rewarded for his incompetence and lived to rewrite history with his memoirs, in whose pages his many “needless defeats” became heroic stands, although he, like Sherman, said little about the “crime” at Pickett’s Mill.

For more about the war, read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, and for more esoteric aspects of the Late Unpleasantness, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles the wartime career of one of America’s greatest writers.

 

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Good Friday: The Day Lincoln Died

 

01 Gardner Lincoln fatal look

     Today is the day that Lincoln died. It was on April 14, 1865—another Good Friday to be precise—that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was murdered in cold blood.  Young Mary Brennan, an Irish immigrant only recently arrived to our shores, remembered well that dreadful day for the rest of her life.  A devout Catholic, she, like many a Protestant of the day, regarded Good Friday, the day Christ died, as a solemn holy day and one not to be commemorated by going out the theater.  “He never would have died,” she would often say, ”had he not gone to see a play on Good Friday.”  Great grandmother was a font of such sayings and superstitions, she was, and her many descendants can still recite one or another of her sayings at will.

Another political commentary on Secession
A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, showing John Bull (England) and Napoleon Bonaparte (France) waiting in the background for the US to be destroyed.

     But Abraham Lincoln, never a “technical Christian,” had ample reason to celebrate that Friday, April 14 so many years ago.  Robert E. Lee and his army had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant scarcely a week before and that very morning the general was delivering his report to the President and Cabinet in person.  For the first time in four years, Lincoln, who frequently suffered from “melancholy” seemed uncommonly hopeful, now that the end of the Rebellion was in sight.  Lincoln could at last look ahead to the future, to peace and to the task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by a fratricidal conflict.

pp Lincoln and Cabinet Emancipation Proc.
Lincoln and his Cabinet earlier in the war. Their last meeting was on the day he died, April 14, when he told them of his “usual dream.”

     As his Cabinet chatted before the official beginning of the meeting, Lincoln also told them that Friday about the “usual dream” he had had only the night before.  He explained that before every major event of the war he had dreamed the same dream: of a ship sailing towards a distant shore.  It always portended important war news.  Lincoln, raised on presentments, omens and prophetic dreams, believed that this latest portent was a sign of something momentous about to happen.

Uncle Billy & Uncle Joe

  Cabinet met, Lincoln was expecting news from Sherman in North Carolina, where “Uncle Billy” had run to ground the once proud Confederate Army of Tennessee, now commanded by “Uncle Joe” Johnston.  Johnston’s force was but a hollow shell of what it had once been, but the proud Rebels, barefoot and in rags, could still fight like wildcats—albeit cornered wildcats.  Lincoln hoped to hear that Johnston too had surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance.  Surely the “usual dream” portended this, thought Lincoln.

     Later that day, as Lincoln and his wife readied for the theater, the President was in an uncommonly optimistic mood, not realizing the prophetic dream portended not good news on Good Friday, but ill.  For even as they dressed for the night, across town a band of conspirators were also preparing for the night—but their performance would end in death and mayhem.

     Much has been written about that day and about the conspirators led by John Wilkes Booth; yet, to this day there is no certainty as to how deeply the Booth Conspiracy to do away with Lincoln and his Cabinet ran.  To be sure, many were arrested and most of the leading conspirators executed.  But Mary Lincoln, for one, had her suspicions that there were others involved who got away—including some high placed in the Lincoln administration.  Mrs. Grant too, had had a terrifying incident that day that lead her to believe not all the culprits had been caught.  But historians hate loose ends and the strands of evidence pointing to a broader conspiracy lie moldering in archives and museums little looked at or considered. Still, the truth may still be out there.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth, actor, Rebel spy and leader of the conspiracy to murder Lincoln

     What is proven about the events of Good Friday, April 14, is tragic enough, however.  Just as Lincoln’s ship of state was about to reach that far and distant shore of peace, the captain—Lincoln—was cut down.  How different our history would have been had Lincoln survived to oversee the peace as he had the war!  We can be sure that the “Better Angels of our Nature” would have thrived under his leadership and the postwar darkness and violence, and the enduring aftermath of meanness and divisiveness that still dogs our nation to this day would have been greatly diminished, if not prevented entirely.

     Greatness is not to be measured in the number of bombs one drops or the number of innocents one kills; Lincoln did not rejoice in war and wished it brought to a speedy end.  No, what was great about Lincoln and Lincoln’s America was its struggle for equality, for social justice, and for the betterment of the average worker, not some aristocratic elite. The President who created land-grant universities to provide free college education, who redistributed millions of acres of land to any who would settle and till it, who fought and died for racial equality, and who sought to unite the nation from seas to sea with modern transportation: these and other social and economic programs were what truly made Lincoln great—not his leadership of a war that was forced on him by the Cotton Slaveocracy and other elites who benefitted from human bondage.  In the end, Lincoln paid for his achievements in human progress with his life.  As we commemorate Good Friday this April 14, this too should be borne in mind.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.

 

 

 

 

 

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE FALL OF FORT DONELSON: The Battle That Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate

Grant early in the War.
Grant early in the War.

February 16, 1862 was perhaps the most important date in the Civil War, the day the Confederate Army besieged at Fort Donelson fell to the Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant.

Why was it the most important date, you may ask?  Because, although both sides did not realize it, that was the day that the Union began to win the war.  In one blow, the Ohio River Valley was secured for the North and the system of forts guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers fell irrevocably into Federal hands, opening the way into the Confederate Heartland.  Within weeks, the Rebel state capital of Nashville had fallen and with it all internal lines of communication west of the Appalachians, as well as substantial industrial resources.

Looking for Union wounded by torchlight in Winter weather.  The bitter cold at Fort Donelson killed many battlefield casualties.
Looking for Union wounded by torchlight in Winter weather. The bitter cold at Fort Donelson killed many battlefield casualties.

Had Generals Grant and Halleck not bungled the advance on Corinth, Mississippi at Shiloh on April 6, by the end of the Spring, Mississippi and much of the deep South would also have fallen to the Federals. The Confederate government would have been in the position it found itself in the spring of 1865: confined to a three state rump on the east coast, blockaded by sea and with no escape.  The intervening period between the fall of Donelson and the capture of Savannah was really just one of redeeming the mistakes made at Shiloh and Corinth.  In a sense, the spectacular success of Grant’s forces in February of 1862 were to blame for not finishing the job; Grant, thinking the Confederates had no fight left in them, grew careless at Pittsburg Landing while awaiting Buell’s reinforcements and was grossly negligent by not constructing defenses around his bivouacs, as well as not being vigilant in patrolling his positions to warn of enemy advances. His boss, General Halleck deserves some blame as well, sending raw recruits to Grant who had not even undergone basic training.  In truth, had Grant not been so careless, he would have had ample warning of the enemy’s moves and could easily have caught them in line of march as they advanced towards Shiloh and decimated the last organized Rebel forces between the mountains and the Mississippi.

But the blunders by both sides at Shiloh are best left for another time.  Let us focus on the victory at Donelson.  Originally, General Don Carlos Buell had urged his fellow department commander, General Halleck, to mount a joint operation against the Rebel forts holding the strategic junction called “The Land Between the Rivers”—that area where the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers are only a few miles apart and where both empty into the Ohio.  Here the Rebels concentrated most of the western forces to bar Union troops from invading the Confederate heartland.

Storming Fort Donelson by Union troops.  In truth, Grant began the siege without enough troops to take the fort by storm.
Storming Fort Donelson by Union troops. In truth, Grant began the siege without enough troops to take the fort by storm.

Halleck, however, spurned Buell’s plan of action, but no sooner had he done so than he authorized his subordinate, Brigadier General Grant, to lead of expedition to undertake the very same operation that he had rejected.  Grant to that date had not achieved any notable success as a field commander and “Old Brains” Halleck thought Grant too reckless.  But with a powerful flotilla to blast the river forts, Halleck thought Grant up to the task of at least establishing a foothold—after which Halleck himself would come up with more troops and finish the task.

As it turned out, Fort Henry easily fell to the Union fleet’s bombardment—largely due to its riverside “water battery” being nearly submerged by winter rains.  Another Rebel fort on the Ohio also fell with little fanfare.  Grant landed his troops at Fort Henry and then, instead of waiting on the methodical but slow Halleck, marched his small force overland to Fort Donelson, which protected the Cumberland River.  It was a risky move, since Grant had fewer troops than the force holed up at Donelson.  Fortunately, the Rebels had put all their heavy guns facing riverward, thinking the Yankees would only attack from than quarter.  Even so, it was a very near thing for Grant as both Halleck and Buell scrambled to send him reinforcements and the Confederates made attempts to break the siege.

At one point, the Confederate counterattack was on the verge of succeeding; but due to the courage and leadership of the two Generals Wallace: William L. Wallace and Lew Wallace, the Rebel assault faltered and was driven back.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside Fort Donelson, despite their strength in numbers, the Confederates were in dire straits.  The Rebel troops had not been properly equipped, nor were their clothes suited for the bitter winter weather they endured.  Worse still, the Rebel force was led by officers who were better politicians than soldiers and when Grant proved too tenacious for them, asked for terms of surrender.

The Confederate surrender of Fort Donelson was due to a bluff on U. S. Grant's part.
The Confederate surrender of Fort Donelson was due to a bluff on U. S. Grant’s part.

Grant, who was not only fond of hard drink, but also something of a poker player, responded to the overtures of surrender with the reply that made him famous: “no terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”  Grant then drove home his demand by adding: “I propose to move immediately upon your works.”  Ulysses Grant may never have made much money playing poker with his cronies before the war, but his great bluff worked on this occasion.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender at Fort Donelson and broke through the Union siege lines.
General Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender at Fort Donelson and broke through the Union siege lines.

The Rebel commanders at Donelson succeeded one another trying avoiding responsibility for the surrender but in short order capitulated to the Yankees.  That Confederate commanders may have just as easily broken out of Grant’s weak siege is demonstrated by the fact the Nathan Bedford Forrest, who refused surrender without a fight, broke out along with some 1500 men.

Grant was most successful as a field commander when conducting sieges: Vicksburg and Petersburg come to mind and perhaps are more famous than this siege; but the investment of Fort Donelson, begun on an impulse, was far and away his most spectacular victory and cost the least in blood.  Even more importantly,  this was the event that set in motion the inexorable road to Union victory.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, 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.

For more on the Civil War, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and The Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

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.

Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Symbol and the Reality

Friends, Politically Correct Partisans, Lend Me your Ears!  I come to bury Nathan Bedford Forrest, not to praise him (sort of).

General Nathan Bedford Forrest:

Enough of the bad Shakespeare imitation. I normally do not mix current political discussions with history, but it seems we cannot talk about the events of over 150 years ago without inevitably being dragged into debates about the present.

The current mess began with the brutal and senseless murder of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina and ensuing controversy regarding the Confederate flag—or more properly, the Confederate battle standard.  While I personally feel that it is improper to wave that symbol of rebellion over any state building or government grounds other than historic sites, and that its removal from the South Carolina state capitol was long overdue, the subsequent politically correct jihad against the Rebel flag and banning it from all public venues—including the Dukes of Hazard car and Walmart—not only borders on the hysterical, but entirely misses the  point. And since then, the PC frenzy has morphed into vigilantism and vandalism, not only towards historic statues of Confederate leaders, but has expanded to war memorials to American dead and the vandalizing of graves on private property.

 Racism and rampant gun violence are the real problems, not the Confederate battle standard, which was not even the national flag of the Confederacy.  Banning the Rebel flag does nothing to fight racism, still less to control the ability of mentally unstable persons and criminals to have unfettered access to high-powered automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  The American public has, in my view, been hoodwinked by a neat little bait and switch ploy on the part of politicians unwilling to deal with the real issues.

To be sure, the Rebel battle standard has been used by hate groups as a symbol in the past and still is, but then so too has the Christian cross; so are we also going to ban the use of the cross in any public display?  Some Jews may regard the Crescent and Star as a hate symbol; some Arabs may likewise view the Star of David in a similar vein; but neither is inherently a symbol of hatred or bigotry.  While I wouldn’t feel comfortable displaying the Confederate battle flag on my person or property, I recognize that there are many folks who may display it as a symbol of either regional pride, Southern heritage or just plain as a symbol that they’re a redneck good ol’ boy who likes to drink Jack Daniels and go yee-haw! at music concerts.

The same symbol can mean different things to different people, especially so the Rebel flag.  By all means let us deal with racism; and there are many, many things that can be done to regulate and control guns while still respecting the letter and spirit of the Second Amendment that would save many lives, all without adversely affecting responsible hunters, sportsmen and collectors.

Also caught up in this growing tidal wave of political correctness (really the shuck and jive avoidance of dealing with the real issues) is the issue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, or more precisely, his likeness in the Tennessee State Capital and in Memphis.  Swept up in their fervor for erasing history, local Democrat and Republican politicians and various pundits among the general public have called for its removal from the august halls of the state capitol.  In Memphis, arguably the poorest city IN THE COUNTRY, demagogues have inflamed public opinion with misinformation and half-truths and are diverting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer money to pursue illegal actions–money sorely needed for education and fighting poverty and drug use.

Please note: no one is calling for the repeal of the drunks-with-guns-in-bars law the state legislators passed, or the guns in playgrounds law, or the take your gun to work law, much less rolling back the patently discriminatory voter ID laws Tennessee and other states have passed to make it as difficult as possible to vote.  Nope: just remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from Capitol Hill and illegally remove a historic monument in a public park and vandalize Forrest’s grave.

In truth, General Forrest has always been something of a controversial figure, even during his lifetime.  He never quite made it into the pantheon of the Lost Cause; he was not a Virginia Swan, he did not graduate from West Point and, while Forrest was an officer, he was sometimes less than a gentleman.  It is true that before the Civil War he had been a slave trader, an odious occupation even in the South–and one which his wife had strong objections to.

Starting as a common soldier, his native genius for war led to his rapid promotion;  in battle after battle, he was “fustest with the mostest” (as he is often misquoted as saying) defeating the Yankees on numerous occasions. His record of success in battle speaks for itself; as a great captain of war, he is due recognition on that count alone.

 

NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST SURROUNDS THE YANKEE CAVALRY SINGLE HANDEDLY
Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounds the Yankee cavalry single-handedly. He allegedly killed 30 Federals personally and lost 31 horses in battle, and came out of the war “a horse ahead.”

 

One incident which seems to belie the claim that Forrest was a virulent racist was towards the beginning of the war, when he made an interesting offer to the Blacks in his service:

“When I entered the army I took 47 negroes into the army with me, and 45 of them were surrendered with me. I said to them at the start: ‘This fight is against slavery; if we lose it, you will be made free; if we whip the fight, and you stay with me and be good boys, I will set you free. In either case you will be free. Those boys stayed with me, drove my teams, and better confederates did not live.'” (statement before the 40th US Congress, 3rd Session)

His war career did have one black mark, however; at Fort Pillow he was accused of conducting a massacre of Black Union soldiers.  That a massacre of surrendering soldiers did occur there is generally accepted by historians; how many were shot after surrendering versus armed soldiers fleeing to the river and the safety of Union gunboats, however, remains hotly disputed.  Forrest always denied giving any explicit orders in regard shooting unarmed prisoners and maintained that the Union prisoners, black and white, were treated humanely.  After the war he testified before Congress on that score and pointed out that the terms of surrender he offered the Union garrison at Fort Pillow was more generous than Grant’s terms to Lee at Appomattox.

At the end of the war, in his farewell address to his troops Forrest told them:

“I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.”

In the chaos of the postwar era, the Ku Klux Klan came into being.  Begun in Pulaski, Tennessee, initially as a fraternal group by half a dozen bored Confederate veterans, it soon morphed into a vigilante organization and, after a time, General Forrest was asked to head the “secret empire.”  Before Congress Forrest denied membership, however he was being disengenous in that regard.  Nonetheless, as acts of violence and vigilantism attributed to Klan members grew, Forrest became disturbed at the way the organization was developing.  In 1869, he publicly called for the Klan’s disbandment because of its use of violence.

Today, General Forrest has become a symbol of racism and violence divorced from the historical record; the facts regarding his life and times seem to matter little to those who use him as a symbol of our current national problems.  The historical reality, however, was far more nuanced.  If he did possess strong racial feelings before or during the war–and that is far from certain–it is clear that in the postwar era he underwent a sincere change of heart.  At one point he was credited with single-handedly preventing a white race riot.  Then, in 1875, he was asked to speak before a meeting of Black Southerners seeking racial reconciliation and agreed.  His said, in part, this:

“We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.”

This doesn’t much sound like the rantings of a rabid racist, does it?  There is another bust of another former Confederate soldier in the state legislature as well, maybe they should remove his statue as well: Sampson Keeble, placed there in 2010.  By the way, Keeble was born a slave and in 1873 became the first Black elected to the Tennessee state legislature.

Oh, yes, and then there is the little matter of Andrew Jackson and the Cherokee Indians’ Trail of Tears.  His equestrian statue is very prominent on Capitol Hill in downtown Nashville; how about removing him too while we’re at it?

Nathan Bedford Forrest was certainly no saint: he was quick to anger and ferocious in the heat of battle; he may have been guilty of committing wrongs during the war.  But Forrest was also a man capable of growth and change and, all in all, a better man than those who would turn him into an icon of hate and bigotry give him credit.

There are many more things one could say pro and con regarding N.B, but this essay has already rambled on too long. Let me inflict a little more Shakespeare on you in closing:

“The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.”

 

For more about the war in the Western Theater, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, University of Tennessee Press.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicles the wartime career of one of America’s most famous authors.

 

 

 

 

MEMENTO MORI

ON THIS MEMORIAL DAY WE WILL TAKE A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO THE LATE UNPLEASANTNESS. INSTEAD OF A NARRATIVE ESSAY WE WILL INSTEAD COMMEMORATE THE WAR DEAD IN PICTURES AND QUOTES. LET ME KNOW IF YOU FIND THIS OF ANY WORTH.

Abraham Lincoln, in dedicating the cemetery at Gettysburg not only commemorated a graveyard but consecrated all American war dead forever.
Abraham Lincoln, in dedicating the cemetery at Gettysburg not only commemorated a graveyard but consecrated all American war dead forever.

“From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  —-Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address.

Gettysburg dead taken by Brady's photographers
Gettysburg dead taken by Brady’s photographers

“War loses a great deal of romance after a soldier has seen his first battle. I have a more vivid recollection of the first than the last one I was in. It is a classical maxim that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country; but whoever has seen the horrors of a battle-field feels that it is far sweeter to live for it.”                                                                                   — Colonel John Singleton Mosby

Looking for wounded among the dead after a battle.
Looking for wounded among the dead after a battle.

“Is it not strange that the phantoms of a blood-stained period have so airy a grace and look with so tender eyes?—that I recall with difficulty the danger and death and horrors of the time, and without effort all that was gracious and picturesque?”                                                                                                                       —Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce

Lt. Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, who fought in nearly all the major battles of the western theatre and lived to write about them.
Lt. Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, who fought in nearly all the major battles of the western theatre and lived to write about them

“Throughout the broad extent of country over which you have marched, by your respect for the rights and the property of citizens, you have shown that you were soldiers—not only to defend, but able and willing both to defend and protect.”                                                       —Stonewall Jackson’s farewell to the First Brigade

Stonewall Jackson, a soldier of exceptional ability, honored and respected even by his enemies.
Stonewall Jackson, a soldier of exceptional ability, honored and respected even by his enemies.

“They were honest and courageous foemen, having little in common with the political madmen who persuaded them to their doom and the literary bearers of false witness in the aftertime.  They did not live through the period of honorable strife into the period of vilification—did not pass from the iron age to the brazen—from the era of the sword to that of the tongue and pen.  Among them is no member of the Southern Historical Society.  Their valor was not the fury of the non-combatant; they have no voice in the thunder of the civilians and the shouting.  Not by them are impaired the dignity and infinite pathos of the Lost Cause.  Give them, these blameless gentlemen, their rightful part in all the pomp that fills the circuit of the summer hills.”

—Ambrose Bierce, A Bivouac of the Dead (1903)

Carnton Cemetary in Franklin where many of the Confederate dead still bivouac.
Carnton Cemetary in Franklin where many of the Confederate dead still bivouac.

 

 

 

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.