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Lt. Redwood on Black Confederates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE COOK OF THE CONEEDERATE ARMY

Century Magazine, Vol. XVIII, 560-568

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

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

Dress Parade A
DRESS PARADE

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

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

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

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

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

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

REDWOOD Perpetual Motion A
PERPETUAL MOTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REDWOOD Otium Cum Dignitate
OTIUM CUM DIGNATATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So did,” rejoined the first speaker.

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

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

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

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THE FALL OF NASHVILLE, FEBRUARY 25, 1862

The Nashville Courthouse Square, ca. 1860.
The Nashville Courthouse Square, ca. 1860.

On February 25, 1862, the city of Nashville fell to the Union Army of the Ohio.  In the aftermath of Grant’s famous victory at Forts Donelson and Henry, the importance of this event has tended to be overlooked by history (and of course, historians), but the significance of the capture of the Confederate Capitol cannot be underestimated.

As James Lee McDonough noted in his 1977 book on Shiloh, when the Federals occupied Nashville, it was not simply the first Rebel state capitol to fall, it also meant the capture of a major Confederate industrial center and transportation hub.  Much as they do today, a number of roads and pikes plus five railroads lines radiated out in all directions; moreover, in the 1860’s river transportation was far more important than now and the Cumberland linked Nashville and the Confederate heartland to the Ohio Valley in one direction and East Tennessee and eastern Kentucky in the other.

Just as importantly, Nashville and Middle Tennessee was an important manufacturing center which was now denied the Confederate war machine.  The iron industry in Middle Tennessee dated back to frontier days and the steady flow of the Cumberland River powered any number of mills and factories.  There were cannon foundries, small arms manufacturers, while the caves in the surrounding region supplied saltpeter for the manufacture of gunpowder and the fertile farmlands of the region provided food and livestock in quantities enough to supply an army.  In addition, there was the Nashville Armory, located on College Hill, just south of the town, where large stands of arms and ammunition were stored; several steamboats were also in the process of being converted to gunboats to counter the Yankee war machines.  All these strategic assets would now be denied the Confederacy for the duration of the war.  From Nashville too, Union troops would sally forth in all directions to subdue the Rebellion over the next several years, with ample supplies to sustain them.  No one realized it at the time, but the fall of Fort Donelson and the capture of Nashville spelled the doom of the western Confederacy—and ultimately of the Rebellion as a whole.

"Order Out of Chaos" by Mort Kunstler.  Nathan Bedford Forrest, refusing to surrender at Fort Donelson, arrived in Nashville to find it had been hastily abandoned by the governor and paniced Rebel troops.  He salvaged munitions, tried to prevent looting and then burned what military stores could not be saved.
“Order Out of Chaos” by Mort Kunstler. Nathan Bedford Forrest, refusing to surrender at Fort Donelson, arrived in Nashville to find it had been hastily abandoned by the governor and panicked Rebel troops. He salvaged munitions, tried to prevent looting and then burned what military stores could not be saved.

In the ten days following Grants victory at Land Between the Rivers (today Land Between the Lakes) the remnants of Confederate forces not caught in the surrender came reeling southward toward “Rock City” (as Nashville was nicknamed), the Secessionist state government made haste to high tail it out of town and a general panic ensued among the civilian population.  This was the general situation on February 25, 1862, as exemplified by a diary entry at the time:

Today it seems settled that we met with a disastrous defeat in the end at Donelson by the enemys overpowering numbers surrounding our men, who fought bravely & well. Gens. Floyd & Pillow escaped with some of the troops__ but Buckner is a prisoner. It is now contradicted that Nashville surrendered, & sent a boat with a flag of truce down the Cumberland to meet the enemy & give up the city (!) as was at first reported__ but it is certain that our troops from Bowling Green have fallen back to Murfreesboro and they have burnt the bridges, steamboats etc. at Nashville and not a Yankee near them! Oh! it is disgraceful! Gov. Harris who rode round town alarming the citizens__ who said to Ewing__ Every  man must now take care of himself; I am going to take care of myself__ fled.  Lucy French Diary (courtesy TSLA)

Citizens of Nashville awoke one morning to find the big guns of the USS Cairo aimed directly at their homes from its berth on the opposite bank of the Cumberland.  Soon other warships and transports descended on the city from downriver.
Citizens of Nashville awoke one morning to find the big guns of the USS Cairo aimed directly at their homes from its berth on the opposite bank of the Cumberland. Soon other warships and transports descended on the city from downriver.

Imagine, if you will, how the remaining citizens of the City felt when they awoke that morning to see an ominous looking tortoise-shaped gunboat sitting on the opposite bank with massive guns pointed directly at them.  In fact, the mayor of Nashville the day before had already arranged for the peaceful occupation of the city with General Buell, the Union army commander.  However, General “Bull” Nelson jumped the gun a bit and that Sunday morning began unloading his troops first thing, before the formal surrender. General William B. Hazen’s 19th Brigade was one of the first to debark marching along Lower Broadway for a few blocks before wheeling right to ascend the steep acclivity towards the state capitol.

Hazen halted in front of the St. Cloud Hotel, now an office building at the corner of Fifth and Church Streets, where he was met by the proprietor of the hotel, Mr. Carter, who invited Hazen and his staff into his “scanty bar.”  The innkeeper was solicitous of his new guests and Hazen, a teetotaler, tells us Carter tasted everything first, “to assure us.”  Of the previous guests of the St. Cloud, Hazen tells us “we found in the hotel, fast asleep and very drunk, one Rebel soldier, the largest man I ever saw in uniform.”  The bar on the ground floor of the hotel soon became a favorite watering hole of Union officers and the hotel became General Buell’s temporary headquarters.

Of those Nashville’s citizens who had not fled in the panic of the previous week, some had turned out to watch the arrival of the Yankees.  But it was not a cheering or welcoming crowd, as the Union regiments had experienced when they had marched off to war.  Rather, for those brave enough to venture onto the street, it was more a somber, perhaps even morbid, gathering; more like the sort of crowd which gathers to witness the aftermath of a terrible accident in the street: a sight terrible to behold, but too compelling to turn away from.

"The First Union Dress Parade In Nashville." Print showing the 51st Ohio Volunteer Regiment, led by Col. Stanly Mathews, on dress parade in Nashville, Tennessee, March 4, 1862.
“The First Union Dress Parade In Nashville.” Print showing the 51st Ohio Volunteer Regiment, led by Col. Stanly Mathews, on dress parade in Nashville, Tennessee, March 4, 1862.

It was a somber Sunday for the denizens of the Rebel capital—except for one man.  William Driver was a retired Yankee sea captain, who had moved to Nashville years before to enjoy the city’s Southern charm.  A devoted patriot, loyal to the Union, when the city caught Secessionist fever, Captain Driver proved immune to the disease and instead flew the stars and stripes—the banner he had flown while at sea–proudly outside of his home, and which he had nicknamed “Old Glory.”  As Driver later explained, “it has ever been my staunch companion and protection. Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?”

The City of Nashville as it looked ca. 1862, under Union occupation.
The City of Nashville as it looked ca. 1862, under Union occupation.

As the Southern states seceded one by one, his neighbors became progressively more hostile to the old sea captain.  Some threatened to rip the flag down and burn it; others hinted more darkly that the Yankee captain should be hung by it.  To prevent the beloed flag being desecrated, Captain Driver finally took down it down, folded Old Glory very carefully, and had it sewn into a quilt.

Capt. William Driver, the retired sea captain whose American flag, Old Glory, first flew over the Tennessee Capitol on Feb. 25, 1862.
Capt. William Driver, the retired sea captain whose American flag, Old Glory, first flew over the Tennessee Capitol on Feb. 25, 1862.

 

That Sunday morning, from his house on Rutledge Hill, Driver could see the Federals unloading from their armed transport.  He hastened upstairs and retrieved the bed-quilt from its hiding place and made his way down to Lower Broad and then on up opposing hill all the way up to the state capitol building.  In contrast to his fellow citizens, Captain Driver was in a jubilant mood as he mingled with the blue-clad troops.

Horace Fisher, General Nelson’s aide-de-camp, witnessed what happened next:

“A stout, middle-aged man, with hair well shot with gray, short in stature, broad in shoulder, and with a roll in his gait, came forward and asked, ‘Who is the General in command? I wish to see him.’” Driver briefly conferred with the six foot tall general—who himself had formerly been a Navy man—and, “when satisfied that Gen. Nelson was the officer in command, he pulled out his jack-knife and began to rip open the bedquilt without another word. We were puzzled to think what his conduct meant….the bedquilt was safely delivered of a large American flag, which he handed to Gen. Nelson, saying, ‘This is the flag I hope to see hoisted on that flagstaff in place of the damned Confederate flag set there by that damned rebel governor, Isham G. Harris. I have had hard work to save it; my house has been searched for it more than once.’ He spoke triumphantly, with tears in his eyes.”

Nelson accepted the flag and immediately ordered it run up on the Capitol flagstaff, accompanied by “frantic cheering and uproarious demonstrations.”  The mission of climbing to the top of the state building was tasked to men of the 6th Ohio Infantry who double-timed it up the capitol steps, into the bowels of the abandoned building and up into the glass-framed cupola on top of the classical styled building.

Old Glory, Capt. Driver's cherished flag.  He had another flag which was later displayed as well.
Old Glory, Capt. Driver’s cherished flag. He had another flag which was later displayed as well.

According to local tradition, the erection of Old Glory from the flagstaff was not without incident.  A former state legislator and fire-breathing Secessionist, who had not fled with the rest when Fort Donelson fell, stood on the narrow wrought iron spiral staircase with musket in hand, blocking their way.

“You’ll raise that rag over this building over my dead body!” the greybeard Rebel told the flag detail.

The officer in charge was about to issue the militant Secesh a warning, when a shot rang out from behind, hitting the Rebel in the breast.  He died almost instantly, his limp body tumbling down the spiral staircase past them.

The men of the color guard continued their ascent and as the growing crowd of Federals outside witnessed the large banner unfurl, were met with resounding cheers as the flag ascended to the pinnacle of the highest spot in the city.  For ever after, the 6th Ohio would be nicknamed the “Old Glory” regiment.

The sun went down that Sunday on the American flag once more flying over the capital of Tennessee and a growing army of blue spreading out through Nashville and its surrounding territory.

It was by no means the beginning of the end for the Rebellion, but to borrow a phrase from Sir Winston Churchill, it was very much the end of the beginning. From now on, the Confederacy would be fighting for its survival.

A Confederate $20 bill showing the Tennessee state capitol; ironically not issued until after the city fell to the Yankees.
A Confederate $20 bill showing the Tennessee state capitol; ironically not issued until after the city fell to the Yankees.
ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

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

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.