“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.

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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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GENERALS BEHAVING BADLY: AMBROSE BIERCE ON INCOMPETENCE, DRUNKENNESS AND OTHER QUIRKS OF SENIOR COMMANDERS

Ambrose Bierce First Lt Don Swaim
Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, fought with the Army of the Cumberland in the Western Theater throughout the war and knew most of the Union commanders first hand.

Ambrose Bierce’s pronouncements on the American Civil War are a particular interest of mine.  My apologia for this has to do with researching his life and times for over six years, not to mention writing and revising my book on Bierce’s wartime experiences more times than I wish to count.  Having been one of the few great American authors to actually have seen extensive combat gives great weight to Bierce’s pronouncements on war.  Ironically, much of what Bierce wrote about the war had less to do with combat per se than with the other aspects of service, the parts that commanders–and the historians who lionize them–often leave out of the narrative.

Bierce’s favorite subject for scorn were generals and other senior officers.  Bierce rarely criticized his former enemies in gray; even General Bragg, who was universally despised by his own men, often gets off with only a few mildly sarcastic remarks in Bierce’s writings.  But Union commanders were a different matter entirely; Bierce reserved his best venomous prose for the generals in blue who perpetrated what he viewed as “crimes” against their own soldiers.  “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” is a classic piece of Bierce’s war nonfiction and well exemplifies his “bitter” attitude towards these former army commanders.

I fully cover the Battle of Pickett’s Mill and Bierce’s role in it in Chapter 12 of Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife so there is no point to chew my cud twice here.  Suffice it to say that in his essay on the fight, we learn how Sherman glossed over the defeat in his memoirs to make his own generalship seem better than it was, while the Corps Commander who bungled the operation, the grossly incompetent Oliver O. Howard (of Chancellorsville infamy) we learn was commonly referred to by his men as “Oh-Oh!” Howard for his unerring knack of getting his men killed unnecessarily.

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General Oliver O. Howard came in for Bierce’s particular ire for the unnecessary slaughter of Bierce’s brigade at Pickett’s Mill caused by “Oh-Oh” Howard’s incompetence.

The outbreak of the Spanish-American War sparked Bierce to ruminate at length about war in general in his columns in The San Francisco Examiner and he often summoned up memories of the earlier conflict which he had fought in when reading about the War with Spain.  In Bierce’s “War Topics” for the July 23, 1899 issue of the paper, for example, shared his unique view of incompetent officers with his readers:

A general’s first duty is to have the confidence, rightly or wrongly, of his men. Without it he is weak for aggression and weak for defense. It is easily had: some of the most incompetent commanders in history have had it in a high degree, and were thereby enabled to accomplish results not otherwise possible to them, especially in averting disaster. Notable examples (I mention them in the hope of arousing evil passions and provoking controversy) are McClellan and Rosecrans.”

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General William Rosecrans, whom Bierce described as popular with his men, but “many kinds of a brilliant crank.”

On another occasion, on describing General Rosecrans’ performance at Chickamauga, Bierce says, “There is no reason to doubt that he acted on his best judgment, which, however, was never very good. Rosecrans was many kinds of a brilliant crank, but his personal courage was beyond question.”

Bierce had a genius for the left-handed compliment. In the persona of “The Bald Campaigner” (San Francisco Examiner May 31, 1902) Bierce elaborates on Rosecrans’ as a general:

“General Rosecrans was a courageous and dutiful soldier. He always did the best he knew how, and no one can do more than that. He was an accomplished and amiable gentleman, one of the most interesting and lovable characters that I ever met. His men’s belief in him and devotion to him were marvelous; but those of his higher officers who were educated soldiers had little confidence in him, and events justified their doubt.”

General Grant
General Grant was the subject of both Bierce’s criticism and praise.

Bierce’s attitude towards General Grant has generally been assumed by modern writers to be implacably hostile, mainly for Bierce’s scorching assessment of Grant’s generalship at Shiloh: “for manifest incompetence Grant, whose beaten army had been saved from destruction by Buell’s soldierly activity and skill, had been relieved of his command, which nevertheless had not been given o Buell, but to Halleck, a man of unproved powers, a theorist, sluggish, irresolute.”

Here in what is little more than a parenthetical aside, Bierce has managed to trash both Grant and Halleck. The  short story “An Affair of Outposts,” in which it was inserted, was actually about the subsequent Corinth Campaign, another masterly example of passive aggression by “Old Brains” Halleck.

In other cases, however, Bierce’s assessment of Grant seem more tempered, or at least ambivalent.  In regard to the allegations about Grant’s drunkenness, Bierce, himself  fond of strong drink, comes to the general’s defense–after a fashion.

 

96dpi  Grant at Orchard Knob  Chattanooga Thure de Thulstrup Grant  72kb 96dpi
Grant and his commanders at Orchard Knob watch the Battle of Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863 as they “pass the poisoned chalice.”

During the prelude to the Battle of Missionary Ridge, as a staff officer Lt. Bierce was with his commanding officer, General Hazen, on Orchard Knob, where General Grant and the other senior commanders were observing Sherman’s men fail to take their objectives that day.  As Grant and his entourage watched the battle, they “passed the poisoned chalice” about and about, and Bierce watched Grant “kiss the dragon.” Bierce says, “I don’t think he took enough to comfort the enemy…but I was all the time afraid he would, which was ungenerous, for he did not appear at all afraid I would.” Lest Grant and his generals on Orchard Knob that day escape from his appreciation completely unscathed, Bierce notes that while they did not abstain from drink, “these gentlemen were themselves total abstainers from the truth.”

Bierce even went so far as to compose an elegy on the event of Grant’s death, in which he went on to praise the controversial hero, while still acknowledging his ruthlessness in pursuing an end to the war:

He fringed the continent with fire,
The rivers ran in lines of light!
Thy will be done on earth—if right
Or wrong he cared not to inquire.
His was the heavy hand, and his
The service of the despot blade;
His the soft answer that allayed
War’s giant animosities.

Lt. Ambrose was a frontline witness to the war, both as a private soldier and later as a staff officer who moved easily among the ranks of the senior commanders of the Federal armies in the west. He saw more than most men did in that war, both of the good and the bad. His testimony should not be ignored.

For more about Bierce and the War in the Western Theater, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and The Period of Honorable Strife, published by the University of Tennessee Press.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Ambrose Bierce: Spymaster?

Ambrose Bierce First Lt Don Swaim
Ambrose Bierce, best known as fiction writer, muckraking journalist and cynic, was also a soldier during the Civil War, among whose duties may have been that of spy-master.

Having spent several years researching, then writing and revising Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, the first tome devoted solely to noted American author Ambrose Bierce’s wartime service during the Civil War, one would think that I had uncovered all there was to know about the wartime career of Bierce.  One would think. But alas one would be wrong.

In truth, while I corrected many false impressions and incorrect assumptions created by some of his previous biographers, the reality is that the more I uncovered about Ambrose Bierce and his service during the Civil War, the more questions arose about him.  Some questions may only be of interest to those already devoted to Bierce and his work; other mysteries about Bierce’s life and career are fascinating quandaries which we may, or may not, some day find a solution.  One such quandary that tantalize this present author concerns  what facts may lie behind Ambrose Bierce’s career as a spy—something which he only mentioned in print once, yet is a subject I think many would greatly love to learn more abou.

I had come across reference to his espionage activities hidden in amongst the papers regarding his war service, deeply buried in the National Archives.  The reference to it is fleeting—a one sentence mention on one monthly muster card.  Prior to his brief service as spy, Bierce had done a brief stint as his brigade’s Provost Marshal—a role that entailed duties aa a general purpose MP and disciplinarian—and about this duty he shared considerably more to his readers in his postwar newspaper columns than he did his espionage work.

In the Western Theater of the war where Bierce served, the Provost Marshal’s department also sometimes doubled as a counter-espionage bureau, at least in Nashville.  But it doesn’t seem as though that espionage was part of Bierce’s cop duties when he was assigned to Provost Marshall duty in the early part of 1863..

An artist's impression of the life of a Civil War spy, after Harper's Weekly.
An artist’s impression of the life of a Civil War spy, after Harper’s Weekly.

From about mid-1863 on, Lt. Bierce served as his brigade’s topographical engineer—in effect its mapmaker.  Lest one think that a dull desk job, understand that during the Civil War topographical engineers were required to go out into the field and not only survey roads and physical features, but scout out enemy emplacements and fortifications as well, a task which frequently entailed infiltrating behind enemy lines.  It was a matter of some importance to commanders to know whether a strategic ford or bridge was held by the enemy and if so in what strength.  During the war, scout and spy were often interchangeable terms—and both could earn the soldier in question a summary execution by the opposing side–something which Bierce wrote about in his short stories.

Still, it seems clear that Lt. Bierce was not just penetrating behind enemy lines on mapping expeditions, but also coordinating a network of civilian spies, at least for a brief time.  I only recently stumbled across Bierce’s own brief reference to his espionage work in his rambling discussion, generally inaccurate, of naval firepower during the Spanish American War.  After pontificating how 12 inch guns couldn’t possibly be used at sea (wrong!) he then informs the readers of his column:

“In our Civil War, as in most wars, spies were employed by both sides and some made honorable records, each among his own people. I once had command of

The use of field or "spy" glasses were a much safer way of observing enemy forces, but not always as productive of results as going behind enemy lines.
The use of field or “spy” glasses were a much safer way of observing enemy forces, but not always as productive of results as going behind enemy lines.

about a dozen spies for some months—gave them their assignments, received and collated their reports and tried as hard as I could to believe them. I must say that they were about as scurvy a lot of imposters as could be found on Uncle Sam’s payroll (that was before the pension era) and I should have experienced a secret joy if they had been caught and hanged. But they were in an honorable calling—a calling in which the proportion of intelligent and conscientious workers is probably about the same as in other trades and professions.”

Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish radical Socialist turned American spymaster, was Lincoln's chief of intelligence. Unfortunately much of his information regarding the Rebel army was faulty.
Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish Socialist turned U.S. spymaster. He was Lincoln’s chief of intelligence. 

Bierce gave his San Francisco readers no chronology for his career as spy-master–but I can.

Based on his service record and what I have learned of his military career, his work as spymaster would have been in the late spring of 1863.  Beyond that, however, the five w’s of Bierce’s espionage activities remain an enigma.

Unlike some soldiers who wrote voluminous tomes on how they won the war, Bierce largely avoided such self-serving promotions and so, save for some fortuitous discovery, details about Lt. Ambrose Bierce’s work as espionage operative must remain an enduring enigma.

 

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is now in print with the University of Tennessee Press.  For those interested in Bierce’s fictional works, I recommend the press’s three volume Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce which not only includes all his best known works but quite a few lesser known gems.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Based on extensive primary research, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife in now in hardcover via the University of Tennessee Press.

 

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.

William B. Hazen, the “Best Hated” Man in the Army

General-William-Hazen ca Civil War
Brigadier General William B. Hazen, whom Ambrose Bierce called “The Best Hated Man in the Army”

If there was a single person who left an indelible impact on Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce’s life, it was Brigadier General William Babcock Hazen.

Hazen was born in Vermont in 1830, but his family moved westward from New England to the Midwest when he was still young. After graduating from West Point in 1855, Hazen spent his early military career on the frontier fighting Apaches, Comanches and other tribes; later he was posted to West Point as an instructor of infantry tactics.  If any officer in the army exuded spit and polish, it was William Hazen.

Despite his years of service, it was not until the war broke out that Hazen was promoted to captain in the 8th U.S. Infantry.  As the U.S. Army expanded, Hazen’s own career grew aw well; at last, on October 29, 1861, he was made Colonel of the 41st Ohio Infantry. Then, in January, 1862, he was put in charge of the newly formed Nineteenth Brigade as part of General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. It was not long after this that his new command was ordered south to occupy the formerly Rebel-held state capitol of Nashville, Tennessee.

Ambrose Bierce, who had served on Hazen’s staff during the war, described as “the best hated man that I ever knew, and his very memory is a terror to every unworthy soul in the service.” Intolerant of dishonesty and incompetence in the military, General Hazen spent almost as much time fighting his brother officers as he did fighting the enemy, both during and after the Civil War.

After a little more than a month of drilling and training his mostly green troops into a semblance of military discipline, (which many of the volunteer troops took a keen dislike to), orders came down to advance overland to the port town of Savannah, Tennessee, to rendezvous with General Grant’s army. As part of General Bull Nelson’s 4th Division they took the van in Buell’s advance, arriving near the town only a day before Easter Sunday of 1862. The next morning they awoke to the sound of distant gunfire; Hazen mustered his men, and then it was a game of hurry up and wait, until finally they were ordered to make a forced march to the rescue of Grant’s men.

Union troops under Buell struggle to recapture artillery lost by Grant at Shiloh.  Ambrose Bierce described it as "a tough tussle."
Union troops under Buell struggle to recapture artillery lost by Grant at Shiloh. Ambrose Bierce described it as “a tough tussle.”

Hazen and his brigade crossed over to Pittsburg Landing during the night of April 6, enduring a night of drenching rain and then a day of hell as Hazen’s Brigade took heavy casualties pushing back the Rebels from the captured Union camps. During the afternoon, Hazen became temporarily separated from his troops, but his stern discipline and rigorous training made them through the day, repulsing repeated Confederate counterattacks. The struggle of Hazen’s Brigade was immortalized in Ambrose Bierce’s famous memoir of the battle, “What I Saw of Shiloh.”

The following months proved frustrating, both for Hazen and his men and for the Army of the Ohio in general, as they first spent a month slowly advancing on the Rebel army in Corinth, Mississippi, only twenty miles away, and then were assigned to advance on Chattanooga while trying to both repair and defend the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which ran through northern Mississippi and Alabama, the entire length of which was vulnerable to attack by Confederate cavalry and Rebel guerillas. The guerilla warfare became quite nasty and the Federals replied in kind. Again, one can look to the recruit from Indiana, Ambrose Bierce, who immortalized this obscure period of Hazen’s Brigade service in his short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,"  by Ambrose Bierce was based on the experiences of Hazen's men in the late spring and early summer of 1862 in northern Alabama.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce was based on the experiences of Hazen’s men in the late spring and early summer of 1862 in northern Alabama.

By late summer, Hazen and his men were relieved of frustrating duty along the railroad and instead headed north into Kentucky in pursuit of the Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg, finally halting them at the Battle of Perryville.
Following the Kentucky Campaign, the Federal army was reorganized under a new commander, General Rosecrans and renamed the Army of the Cumberland. Hazen’s Brigade was also renumbered and reorganized, having become ragged and lax (according to General Hazen’s thinking) during the chaotic summer and fall campaigning. By the time Christmas came, they were back up to his standards and fought in the bloody winter Battle of Stone’s River.

Here again Hazen’s men fought the Rebels to a standstill, preventing the enemy from rolling up the Union flank at the Round Forest. Although the brigade went on to other duties, they erected a monument on the site of the fight, which still stands on the battlefield today.

The year 1863 saw Hazen and his men heavily engaged, first in the lighting fast Tullahoma Campaign and then in the subsequent maneuvering to force Bragg out of Chattanooga. Unfortunately, having succeeded beyond all expectations, Rosecrans became overconfident and engaged in a headlong pursuit of the Army of Tennessee before he had consolidated his own army around Chattanooga, leading to the Battle of Chickamauga, in which Hazen and his men again played an important part.

In a daring night raid, General Hazen and his men seized Brown's Ferry and broke the siege of Chattanooga.
In a daring night raid, General Hazen and his men seized Brown’s Ferry and broke the siege of Chattanooga.

During the subsequent siege of Chattanooga, Genera Hazen led a dangerous night mission to seize Brown’s Landing to open up the “Cracker Line” which effectively broke the Confederate siege of the city. At the Battle of Missionary Ridge, Hazen’s men took first honors in reaching the summit and beating back the enemy—although he butted heads with General Sheridan, who tried to claim credit for reaching the summit first.

Assault on Missionary Ridge.  General Hazen's Brigade were  the first to seize the summit and capture the Confederate cannon there.
Assault on Missionary Ridge. General Hazen’s Brigade were the first to seize the summit and capture the Confederate cannon there.

During the Atlanta Campaign, Hazen’s Brigade suffered further attrition, until the by now eight regiments of his command numbered little more than one new regiment in strength. Often the brigade suffered more from the incompetence of its superior officers—such as the notorious General O. O. Howard—(or as his men called him “Uh-Oh” Howard) than from the enemy. At Pickett’s Mill, Hazen was ordered to attack a superior force, entrenched and prepared for them, without proper support. Hazen’s men suffered heavy casualties as a result.

After Atlanta, General Hazen, in recognition for his fighting abilities and qualities as commander, was given a full division in Sherman’s March to the Sea and in the subsequent Carolina Campaigns, leading troops in battle up to the end of the war.

After the war Hazen, now reduced to Colonel, served on the frontier, not only protecting settlers from the Indians, but also occasionally protecting peaceful Indians from the murderous attacks of his fellow army officers. Hazen also blew the whistle on army scandals within the Grant administration, which did not endear him to politicians or some of his fellow officers.

He died relatively young, at age 56 in 1887, and is buried at Arlington Cemetery. In his obituary, the New York Times called him “aggressive and disputatious”, while his former subordinate and close friend, Ambrose Bierce, described him as “the Best Hated Man in the Army.” Both descriptions aptly fit William B. Hazen, an irascible but brave officer and one of the best generals in the Army both during and after the war.

For more strange but true Civil War stories and events, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.