“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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Fifty Shades of Blue: Sex and the Single Soldier

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.

While it should be obvious–since everyone living today who can trace an ancestor to the Civil War is in existence–the fact is that great-great grandpa and grandma had sex; in fact, judging from the size of nineteenth century families, they had sex quite a lot. No surprise here; but until one lone book on the subject came along, you would think nobody during the War Between the States ever did the dirty deed. In all the histories, academic studies, articles and scholarly monographs there was, with few exceptions, nary a mention: nada, nothing.

Then along came Dr. Thomas P. Lowry and his groundbreaking book, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. Of course the information was there all along: in archives, libraries, family attics and even in some official reports. Luckily for us, all those hot letters great grandma wrote great grandpa and vice-versa were never looked at after the war and so were stored in an attic until donated sight unseen to some local library or archive. There is also the uncomfortable fact that young men, away from home for the first time in their lives, whether unmarried or married, frequently availed themselves of the pleasures of the flesh while posted in the major garrison towns that the Northern army occupied, such as Washington, DC, New Orleans and Nashville, Tennessee. Even in some of the more remote posts, prostitutes could and would ply their trade.

"Hookers Division" was the nickname given to the Washington DC red light district during the Civil War.  Some say General Hooker was their best customer.
“Hookers Division” was the nickname given to the Washington DC red light district during the Civil War. Some say General Hooker was their best customer.

There was even one pamphlet that provided a guide to the cat houses of Washington. The section between what is today Pennsylvania Avenue and The Mall was an notorious red light district called Hooker’s Division. This was a play on words that referred to both the prostitutes that occupied neighborhood and their frequent customers–the troops in General Joe Hooker’s division–that were camped nearby. Needless to say, this was the origin of the term, Hooker.

Nashville, in particular, gained some notoriety for its army of whores who occupied the Rebel city shortly after the Yankees did. Of course military authorities were more concerned with prosecuting the war, and the prostitutes became something of an embarrassment; more importantly, in the days before penicillin, they also became a major health hazard. Federal authorities in the occupied Confederate state capitol tried various solutions to deal with the problem, even going to the length of rounding up the trollops, putting them aboard a steamship and sending them back north: unfortunately, no respectable Northern city wanted thousands of prostitutes descending on them and shipped the ladies of the evening right back from whence they came.

A rare photo of Civil War prostitutes.  Although originally mislabeled as "laundry women," based on his knowledge of Civil War Nashville, Jim Hoobler, Curator of the State Capitol, has identified this photo as a candid shot of  prostitutes, infected with venereal disease and quarantined in a military hospital in Nashville by authorities during the war.  via TSLA
A rare photo of Civil War prostitutes. Although originally mislabeled as “laundry women,” based on his knowledge of Civil War Nashville, Jim Hoobler, Curator of the State Capitol, has identified this photo as a candid shot of prostitutes, infected with venereal disease and quarantined in a military hospital in Nashville by authorities during the war. via TSLA

Finally, Military authorities in Nashville, failing to outlaw the Oldest Profession, hit upon the solution of regulating it. Col. George Spalding, Provost Marshall of Nashville, instituted a program of licensed prostitution. Military physicians routinely inspected the Soiled Doves, then issued a certificate that they were not infected, which in turn allowed them to ply their trade with the thousands of Union soldiers in the city. Ambrose Bierce, who was a lieutenant in the Army of the Cumberland during the war and who was in and out of Nashville all during the war, was certainly exposed to this situation; whether he was in and out of the loose women as well is not proven–but it would not have been unusual if he had been. In any case, his exposure to the abundance of so many shady ladies in his formative years may well have colored his later low opinion of women in general.

That there were women of low virtue in Nashville in such quantities, however, should not be taken to mean that all the women that Union soldiers came in contact with were of low morals. Most of the females in the city at the start of the war were of good family and since most were confirmed Secessionists, they at first had little interest in fraternizing with the hated Yankee invaders. However, Nashville was occupied in February of 1862 and remained in Union hands throughout the war, despite Rebel attempts to retake it. Eventually, many of the ladies of the South succumbed to the presence of so many eligible young men in their midst, despite their political differences.

General Gates Thruston later married and settled in Nashville, earning the respect and admiration of many men he'd fought against during the war.
General Gates Thruston later married and settled in Nashville, earning the respect and admiration of many men he’d fought against during the war.
Gates P. Thruston as a young officer.  He was ordered to jail the man who would later be his father-in-law.
Gates P. Thruston as a young officer. He was ordered to jail the man who would later be his father-in-law.

That such relationships could be stormy perhaps goes without saying. General Gates P. Thruston, described his future bride when he first met her as, “a Secesh scratch-cat.” No doubt other Federal soldiers could tell a similar tale of their courtship of Southern ladies. When General Thruston finally married his beloved traitor, his future mother-in-law refused to attend the wedding if he wore his Yankee uniform: he did, so she didn’t. It is estimated that close to two hundred young women from Nashville and environs eventually married Union officers.

Of course, like the boys in blue, Southern gentlemen often did not behave like gentlemen when it came to sex in the Civil War. When the Confederates evacuated the stronghold of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi, the occupying Federal troops found a rear-guard of Confederate camp-followers still occupying the Rebel camp. The Yankees did not have to assault their breastworks to gain access to their favors: monetary compensation was sufficient.

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