Of Maps and Men: Lt. Ambrose Bierce and Capt. Levi T. Scofield

Hood's men assaulting the main Union line after Levi T Scofield
Hood’s men assaulting the main Union line after Levi T Scofield

After devoting several years delving deeply into the military career of Ambrose Bierce, famed American satirist and short story writer, I am always interested in finding new first hand accounts of campaigns and battles he fought in. 

In the Autumn of 1864, Bierce was a staff officer with the Army of the Cumberland, fulfilling the role as Topographical Engineer with a division of the IV Corps.  He was, as happened many times during the war, an eyewitness to bitter and bloody fighting.

Pen and kink sketch General Adams (CSA) and his horse falling at the barricades before Franklin, after Levi T. Scofield
Pen and ink sketch depicting General Adams (CSA) and his horse falling at the barricades before Franklin, (after Levi T. Scofield)

It was therefore with some interest when I came across a short book by another “engineer” who, like Bierce, was with Schofield’s little army on the road to Franklin and Nashville.

While Ambrose Bierce was with Wood’s division in the IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, Levi T. Scofield (no relation to the general) was on the staff of General Cox’s division, with the XXIII Corps.  Both corps were part of General Schofield’s force on the “retreat” (actually a holding action, ordered by Thomas) from Pulaski, Tennessee all the way back to Nashville.

While technically part of Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland for this campaign, Schofield, in his official report on the campaign pointedly lists his XXXIII Corps as part of the Army of the Tennessee.  Although not given an official designation, Schofield’s little army was de facto the reconstituted Army of the Ohio, which had fought during the Atlanta Campaign that summer.  Levi Scofield, as a nod to that unofficial fact, put the Army of the Ohio logo on the cover of his little book.

Federal commander Casement rallying his troops at Franklin after Levi T. Scofield
Federal commander Casement rallying his troops at Franklin after Levi T. Scofield

Both General Schofield, commanding the Union troops during the march north, and General Hood, in charge of the Rebel forces, have both generally received criticism from historians over the years and for similar reasons.  Before being appointed commander of the Army of Tennessee, Hood has been accused of going behind his superior, General Joe Johnston, and criticizing him to superiors in Richmond– with a view to getting himself appointed in Johnston’s stead.  Schofield has been accused of much the same thing with regard to General Thomas to Washington.  To what degree either Hood or Schofield were guilty of these accusations I will defer to others, save to note that recently historian Stephen Hood has argued vehemently in Hood’s defense and done much to rehabilitate “the Gallant Hood.”  No one has yet argued similarly on behalf of Schofield.

After exposing them to certain destruction, General Wagner tries to rally his broken brigades.  After Scofield
After exposing them to certain destruction, General Wagner tries to rally his broken brigades. (After Scofield)

One thing is clear, however; both general’s actions during this campaign have been underappreciated.  To be more precise, one could argue that what previous historians have viewed as Hood’s failures as a general are better understood as Schofield’s skills as a field commander.  Hood should have won at Springhill and captured Schofield’s army; likewise, because of a fatal blunder on the part of one of Schofield’s subordinates, Hood came very close to triumphing at the very start of the Battle of Franklin.  Luck and Brigadier Opdycke prevented an unqualified Confederate success there.—but it was a very close thing nonetheless.  The fact of the matter is that General Hood’s army came closer to success at Franklin than General Lee’s did at Gettysburg—and were more exposed to enemy fire for a longer duration during the charge.

Rebel drummer boy just before he  "explodes like a tomato."   After  Captain Scofield
Rebel drummer boy just before he
“explodes like a tomato.” (After Captain Scofield)

For those unfamiliar with the role of topographical engineers during the Civil War, perhaps I should clarify their position in the War.  Officially they were surveyors and map-makers, which today would be classed as a rear echelon staff position—hardly the stuff of daring-do and danger.  During the Late Unpleasantness, however, their duties and responsibilities were far different.  From the very start of the war, the lack of accurate maps of the South bedeviled Union commanders.  During Ambrose Bierce’s tour of duty in western Virginia (today West Virginia), the lack of maps and bad guides cost the Federals several lost opportunities.  They would have fared far worse save that the Confederates were as green and as ignorant as they.  Over the course of the next several campaigns in the Western Theater, however, Union commanders sought to rectify this deficiency and this is where the role of the topographical engineers came in.

Knowing what roads led where, where and of what quality were the bridges, fords, road junctions and other features of the terrain became something of the highest priority.  Far from working in the rear, the topographical engineers went out ahead of the army, often working behind enemy lines, gathering tactical intelligence of the countryside and of the enemy dispositions in it.  It was extremely hazardous work and there was always the danger that, if captured, they would be treated as spies and executed.  It was a far cry from being a rear echelon “red tab” (to borrow the British slang for a staff officer).

During the Battle of Franklin, Bierce and the IV Corps were north of the Harpeth River, guarding the river crossing and the supply train, a position from which Lt. Bierce had a bird’s eye view of the start of the battle and which is related in some detail in Period of Honorable Strife.

Captain Scofield, by contrast, was with General Cox’s rear guard and in the front line of the battle, so his memoir of that fight is quite vivid and detailed, with a number of anecdotes about the engagement not mentioned elsewhere.  Being a topographical engineer, Scofield also had a good eye for where things happened and recorded them on the maps that accompany his book.

As near as I can tell, he rendered these maps in watercolor or wash; there are also a number of pen and ink sketches that accompany his narrative and as no artist is listed, I am assuming that Scofield also rendered these himself.  This is important, because there were no combat artists accompanying either army during this campaign, much less photographers, so the Autumn Campaign is very poorly documented in comparison to other campaigns of the war perhaps less deserving of the artist’s touch.

View of Battle from State Capitol on Dec 15 BARNARD low rez
A stereo photo by Barnard taken on the first day of battle, viewing the battlefield from the state capitol. Unfortunately, there was a heavy ground fog the morning of December 15 obscuring the view.

In Nashville, Federal photographer George N. Bernard did photograph the Union defenses about the time of the Battle of Nashville.  Many of Bernard’s photos of Nashville taken during the battle were originally taken with a stereo camera, although I have only discovered a few mounted on stereo cards.  Perhaps others of this same series are squirreled away in some archive or collection. There were other photographers present as well and their work too is waiting to come to light.

Although Captain Scofield wrote many years later–and his sketches and maps are presumably also of that vintage–the fact that he was an eyewitness to those events gives great weight to their value as historical source.  A number of the anecdotes of the Battle of Franklin which he narrates he illustrates with his sketches.

While Scofield’s sketches were not able to be incorporated into my current book on Lt. Bierce, they are nonetheless of value documenting the Battle of Franklin and have hitherto been poorly known.  This, therefore, seemed to be an opportune time to publish a few of them as they relate to the battle. Let us commemorate those who fought and died on both sides with reverence and respect. There is special place in Hell for those who desecrate the graveyards and memorials of the war dead.

Carnton Cemetery in Franklin where many of the Confederate lie.  According to Captain Scofield, the Union dead were dumped in a section of trench where they still may lay.
Carnton Cemetary in Franklin where many of the Confederate lie. According to Captain Scofield, the Union dead were dumped in a section of trenches–where they may still be.

For more about the Battle of Franklin, see the appropriate chapters of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, as well as the Williamson County chapter in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce’s and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicling his experiences in the Civil War, published by the University of Tennessee Press
Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
Documenting Abraham Lincoln’s encounters with the paranormal and his beliefs about them. The Paranormal Presidency relates his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his active participation in séances.

An Execution in Alabama

La Riviere du Houbou
The French short film version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, “La Riviere du Houbou” by Robert Enrico, won both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar.

Something recently came across my cluttered work-desk which put me thinking about one of my favorite authors–and one of the great writers of American letters–Ambrose Bierce.

The object in question is an audio gem produced by a company called American Listeners Theatre.  The CD is a recording of three Civil War tales by Ambrose Bierce, including an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, A Son of the Gods and A Horseman in the Sky.  Titled “Ambrose Bierce, Live on Tour,” it is performed by Timothy Patrick Miller, who, it is said, is to Bierce what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain. The version I heard was a commemorative performance held at the Union League. The presentation is straightforward—just the human voice and the work of an acknowledged master of the written word. No doubt the producers of the CD could have overdubbed all sorts of computer gimmickry and sound effects, but when your material is as good as Ambrose Bierce’s word-craft, such trickery is not only unnecessary, it detracts from the drama.

I should admit that I have a more than passing interest in Ambrose Bierce, since I toiled in the archives and on battlefields near and far researching the wartime career of Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce during the Late Unpleasantness. It is a curious fact that, as influential as that era was on the author and as famous as his war fiction is, no one before had hitherto taken an accurate in depth look at his military service and his role in those momentous historical events. To be sure, many professors of American Literature have expounded on “Almighty God Bierce,” and their efforts are by no means to be denigrated; but the craft of History is not the craft of Literature; Biography is their illegitimate offspring, which must be handled with care

But I digress; for now, suffice it to say, I highly recommend Mr. Miller’s dramatic readings of Bierce. Another selection from Bierce’s work is on a CD called “A Civil War Trinity,” which feature three non-fiction pieces, one of which is Bierce’s “What I Saw of Shiloh,” also through American Listeners Theatre; unfortunately, this audio is out of print. However, a newer edition of Bierce’s fiction and non-fiction works on audio has been put together called, TELLING TALES OF CIVIL WARRIORS, and at three hours plus narration, there is more than enough for you to listen to if you would traverse the Civil War battlefields with Lt. Bierce from Nashville, Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama. It is available through Amazon’s subscriptions service Audible.

If you are not ready to listen to three hours of Bierce quite yet, “A Bit of Chickamuaga” is available as a free sample from ALT via Audible. This particular quote is familiar to readers of my bio of Bierce, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, from my chapter on Bierce’s role in that fight.

If you prefer the pictorial medium, be aware that several of Bierce’s war stories have been rendered into film over the years and while some versions are very good, by my lights I think the best rendition of them was not made by some big Hollywood Studio, with star-studded cast (no doubt they were too busy, then as now, filming car chases) but rather was made on a rather meager budget in France in 1962, and directed by Robert Enrico.

Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge has scarcely any spoken word to tell the tale. It was later edited for American television and broadcast on the Twilight Zone in black and white in 1964. The film not only won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but an Oscar as well.  Unfortunately, the original 28 minute French cut of the film is virtually unobtainable on YouTube now; mostly what you get is the version edited for American TV.  Amazon Prime now offers a version of it which I have yet to watch, so I can’t say whether they went back to the original French color print or did the TZ B&W edition of it.  Fortunately, his other two Bierce masterpieces Chickamauga and The Mocking Bird are easily accessible on YouTube.

Now, if your taste does not run to grainy old French shorts (or at least ones where they keep their clothes on), I refer you to a modern musical version of the story by a group called Babybird, who have put the visual story to their song “Unloveable.”  The look of this video is authentic and could easily have been shot in Tennessee or northern Alabama.  It was actually shot in Herts, England, however: Babybird is a British group!

The music video was directed by Johnny Depp and if this is a sample of his directing ability, we can only hope he switches to behind the camera very soon. The “Unloveable” music video is available on YouTube.

If you like uncanny tales of the Civil War, needless to say, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War is your cup of tea.  Sadly, no one has seen fit to turn it into audio or video yet, but I’m open to suggestions!
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
For the full story of Ambrose Bierce’s experiences with war and death, and the Civil War, go to Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press.