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

 

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

AN EMINENT FEDERAL GENERAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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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.”

Rosecrans-William
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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Nashville: A Commemoration

The assault on Shy's Hill, during the Battle of Nashville, broke the back of the Confederate left and spelled doom for the Rebel army.
The assault on Shy’s Hill, during the Battle of Nashville, broke the back of the Confederate left and spelled doom for the Rebel army.

   “Six men are on a hill—a general and his staff.  Below, in the gray fog of a winter morning, an army, which has left its entrenchments, is moving upon those of the enemy—creeping silently into position.  In an hour the whole wide valley for miles to left and right will be all aroar with musketry stricken to seeming silence now and again by thunder claps of big guns.  In the meantime the risen sun has burned a way through the fog, splendoring a part of the beleaguered city.”  –Lt. Ambrose Bierce

Today, December 15, 2014 was a foggy morning in Nashville, much like it was that cold December morning in 1864.  Of the six men Bierce was with that morning, when he wrote his memoir of the battle, he was already the sole survivor.  Today there are none; even their children’s children are few and far between.  That fifteenth of December the hills surrounding what is now downtown Nashville erupted in a massive bombardment as the big guns of Fort Negley and the other Union hilltop forts burst forth against the starving and shoeless troops of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.
On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.

Outnumbered and lacking the abundance of munitions and supplies the Federals enjoyed, the Rebels initially resisted the massive blue onslaught.  On the far right flank of Hood’s army, the Confederates repulsed an attack by regiments of the United States Colored Volunteers.

Elsewhere, the Rebels were not so successful.  General Thomas, the Federal commander launched a massive assault against the Confederate left flank, throwing all of Wilson’s Cavalry Corps, backed by large numbers of infantry.  The Army of Tennessee was overwhelmed and where yuppie suburbanites now throng Green Hills Mall, masses of blue and gray fought that day to the death.  One by one the Confederate redoubts fell to the Union tide, relentlessly driving the Rebels back.

The following day, the sixteenth, Johnnies continued to resist, but as the day wore on the weight of numbers began to tell and finally the once proud Army of Tennessee broke–shattered is more like it.  Confederate units that had gone toe to toe with the Yankees at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga and Atlanta now fled helter skelter or surrendered.  For the one time in the entire four years of war, a Confederate army was thoroughly and completely defeated.  Stanley Horn, a pioneering historian of the war in the western theatre, described the Battle of Nashville as the “Decisive Battle of the Rebellion.”  While later historians have not always been in agreement with Horn, there is no denying the magnitude of its success.  Contrary to what one recent scholar said of Gettysburg, it was Hood’s Autumn Campaign and the Battle of Nashville which were in fact “the Last Invasion” by the Confederacy.

Fort Negley, the strongpoint of Union defenses, fired the opening salvoes of the battle.  The fort was notable for being the largest stone fort constructed by the North during the war.
Fort Negley, the strongpoint of Union defenses, fired the opening salvoes of the battle. The fort was notable for being the largest stone fort constructed by the North during the war.

Most modern historians have regarded Hoods invasion as doomed from the start; certainly it was a desperate gamble.  John Bell Hood himself described it as a “Forlorn Hope.”  But despite all the mistakes by Hood, the broken promises made to him by Jefferson Davis and General Beauregard, the fact is that he and his men came very close to destroying at least part of General Thomas’ army at both Spring Hill and Franklin.  Moreover, if historians regard the Battle of Nashville as a forgone conclusion, the Lincoln administration–and in particular General Grant–did not.  The prospect of taking Nashville and its treasure trove of munitions and supplies, would have emboldened the entire South and enabled Hood to march on the Ohio Valley and beyond–a prospect that sent shivers down the Federal’s collective spine.

Belmont Mansion, the humble abode of Adelicia Acklen, was headquarters of the IV Union Corps during the Battle of Nashville.
Belmont Mansion, the humble abode of Adelicia Acklen, was headquarters of the IV Union Corps during the Battle of Nashville.

It is true that the Civil War was won in the East, when General Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April of 1865; but it is also true that the Civil War was lost the winter before, in the West, at the Battle of Nashville on December 15 and 16, 1864.

 

 

For more on the Civil War in Tennessee, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, both published by HarperCollins.

 

 

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

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

After devoting several years delving deeply into the military career of Ambrose Bierce, famed American satirist and short story writer, I am always interested in finding new first hand accounts of campaigns and battles he fought in.  In the Autumn of 1864, Bierce was a staff officer with the Army of the Cumberland, fulfilling the role as Topographical Engineer with a division of the IV Corps.  He was, as happened many times during the war, an eyewitness to bitter and bloody fighting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show and Tell: the Franklin Civil War Show

Opdycke's Brigade (US) repulses the Confederate Breakthrough near the Carter House.  The Battle of Franklin, (Don Troiani).
Opdycke’s Brigade (US) repulses the Confederate Breakthrough near the Carter House. The Battle of Franklin, (Don Troiani).

Normally I don’t blog about current events and prefer to focus on subjects directly related to the Civil War, especially the more esoteric or unusual aspects of the Late Unpleasantness.  Since there is so much going on in Middle Tennessee regarding the Sesquicentennial, however, I am going to digress a bit this go round.  Hopefully I will be able to get back on track with blog entries before the big Battle of Nashville celebrations coming up next week.

While there has been a number of interesting 150th events going on in the Mid South since September, this author has been distracted putting his latest book “to bed,” dealing with Ambrose Bierce and his Civil War experiences (more of that at another time), so I have been very remiss of late.  However, this weekend I did have a booth at Mike Kent’s venerable Mid South Civil War Show, now named (I think) the Franklin Civil War Show, ever since the powers that be in Music City decided turning their state fair grounds into a quick profit for developers would be a good idea.  That the voters in Nashville did not agree with the politicians and their developer friends has only temporarily delayed them, unfortunately.

The Battle of Nashville has been called "Decisive" by historian  Stanley Horn.   Next week is the 150th Anniversary of it.  Howard Pyle, artist
The Battle of Nashville has been called “Decisive” by historian
Stanley Horn. Next week is the 150th Anniversary of it. Howard Pyle, artist

 

As an aside, any travelers to Nashville for the anniversary of the battle should be aware that the state fairground itself is smack dab in the middle of battlefield.  There is a Confederate “lunette” just down the road on a hill overlooking Nolensville Pike on a small road that leads over a railroad cut and over to Murfreesboro Road.  This is the same part of the Nashville battlefield I blogged about in “Captain Aldrich and the Dance of Death” (July, 2014).

In any case, only fifteen minutes south of Nashville by interstate sits Franklin, which, while it too loves its developers and their bulldozers, has done a great deal to not only preserve its historic heritage, but in recent years been highly pro-active in reclaiming parts of the Battle of Franklin battlefield.  Yes, you can have prosperity and history side by side and the city of Franklin is proving it–which is one good reason why one of the largest Civil War shows in the South moved down the road to Franklin a few years back.

As usual, Mike Kent’s show had an army of people attending, many in mufti, and there were excellent booths of all descriptions lining both levels of the Williamson County Agricultural Center.  In between selling and jabbering about my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln books, I talked with a number of nice folks on various topics of the War, (many of which are still in dispute) and learned a thing or three I didn’t know about before.  Besides the two main Civil War books, I also had Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground on sale, as well as Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, which also cover a number of Civil War topics and I sold a few of those as well.  I also did a bit of jawboning about my upcoming Bierce book and ran into one Civil War enthusiast from Indiana was quite knowledgeable about the Ninth Indiana Infantry regiment.  Apropos of Civil War ghosts, several of the visitors to my booth told me about their family’s encounters with the supernatural at Civil War sites, which I will relate in a later blog or two.

When time allowed, I also went to the other booths to take a look see at what they had available.  While I did buy one or two items, I wish my budget had been as big as my eyes, as there were quite a few collector’s gems on display there.  Of course, by gems I mean uniforms, bayonets, swords, muskets and the like.  Military Images magazine, a gold mine of pictorial information about the war, also had a booth there and I got to meet Ron Coddington there.  In case you are not familiar with him and his work, he is the go-to expert for Civil War photography, especially cartes de visites and the like, and has written extensively, not only for MI for Civil War News and the New York Times.  If ya’ll have never seen Military Images, I recommend it highly.

An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere.  Civil War "patriotic" envelope.
An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere. Civil War “patriotic” envelope

 

There were some unusual booths as well.  I have blogged about sex and single soldier before and I still have hopes of convincing some publisher to let me do a book just on real romances of the Civil War (yes, folks, grandpa and grandma somehow managed to meet and reproduce, even during the Civil War), but one lady had a booth which was a revelation even to me.  It had a wealth of documents, photos and other memorabilia about the distaff side of the Civil War, especially with regard to the armies of “shady ladies” who served their country in way not often written about.  All of her displays were interesting and some surprisingly risqué for the 1860’s.  Almost all of what her booth on exhibit has never been published before—which goes to show that there is quite a lot still out there about the war all of which have yet to see their way into print.

All in all, the 26th annual show was a success, both for my own books, but for Civil War enthusiasts attending in general.  This year in particular the show occurred at an ideal time, bracketing as it does the sesquicentennials of both the Battle of Franklin and the Battle of Nashville.  Not to be down on my home town, but compared to little Franklin, one would expect Nashville to have done more over the years regarding its Civil War heritage and preservation.  In fairness, there have been some very active people interested in promoting Nashville’s Civil War sites and their preservation; and coming up in mid month there will be a lot going on in Nashville to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle one historian called  “decisive.” If anyone out there reading this happens to be traveling through the city for the holidays on their way towards other destinations, be sure to take a day or two to linger and take in one or another of the special events happening for the Battle of Nashville anniversary.  You’ll be glad you did.

On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.
On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.

 

Captain Aldrich and the “Dance of Death”

Statue to Negro Soldiers NV Cemetary by Roy Butler
Statue to USCT troops in the Battle of Nashville by sculptor Roy Butler

The Battle of Nashville was notable in a number of regards, not least for the extensive use of United States Colored Troops (or USCT) in an active combat role and for their part in the overwhelming Union victory. In the Western Theater, Blacks were recruited in large numbers, but they were rarely allowed to participate in frontline combat missions. This was not accidental but a conscious decision on the part of General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose animosity towards Blacks–and conversely his sympathy towards slavery and slave owners–was no secret. 

Before he war, Sherman had been headmaster of a Southern military school and had no problem with the institution of slavery, nor with its most militant advocates.  While he Sherman believed in reforming some of its worst aspects, he was as comfortable with the institution as any Southerner.  Braxton Bragg and P. G. T. Beauregard, soon to become Confederate generals, were both close friends.  Sherman, however, was loyal to the Union and on that account fought in the war for the Federal side.  Under his command, however, the USCT troops were relegated to rear echelon duties and stationed to posts where they were unlikely to see combat.

The 17th Infantry, United States Colored Troops, was initially organized in the city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee in the fall of 1863, soon after the Battle of Chickamauga. It began by recruiting a combination of local “contrabands,” some 300 like minded Blacks from Alabama, plus additional free Negro volunteers from Ohio. Despite the need for fresh troops at the front, however, the 17th remained in the Middle Tennessee region, serving as garrison troops and then on duty with the quartermaster in Nashville. Throughout most of 1864 they were mostly employed on rear echelon duty, guarding the commissary warehouses in Nashville and likely also used for manual labor by the Federal Quartermaster.  Despite being assigned minor duties, everything indicates that the regiment was well trained and was both willing and able to perform combat duties.
As autumn edged towards winter, however, the need for combat troops to defend Nashville grew.

Sherman embarked on his pillaging expedition through Georgia, leaving General George Thomas, in charge of the Army of the Cumberland, to fend off the Confederate Army of Tennessee with whatever troops Uncle Billy deemed unfit for the march. The 17th was soon brigaded with other Negro troops into the 1st Colored Brigade under Colonel Thomas J. Morgan, who described the regiment as “an excellent regiment…under a brave and gallant officer.”

The regimental commander in question was Colonel Shafter, who was described as, “cool, brave, and a good disciplinarian.” One of the regiment’s company commanders was Captain Job Aldrich and Colonel Shafter’s brother-in-law. Although the Confederates had besieged Nashville for nearly two weeks, everyone in The Army of the Cumberland knew it was merely a matter of time before General Thomas would give the order to attack and raise the siege. That moment came on December 14, 1864. At last the Negro Volunteers, long relegated to backwater assignments and menial jobs, would be given their chance to fight for freedom.

Battle of Nashville, Negro troops assaulting Rebel defences
USCT troops during the Battle of Nashville. Attacking a Rebel strongpoint at Peach Orchard Hill, the USCT troops succeeded but suffered heavy losses doing so.

While many faced the coming fight with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety, Captain Aldrich’s mood was entirely different from the rest. Something had come over him: a realization that in the coming fight he would most certainly die. His feeling was not unique. During the war, many men on both sides experienced what they called a presentiment—an intuitive awareness of their forthcoming death. Comrades could argue till they were blue in the face, but when a man had such a presentiment, nothing could be done—and such intuitions inevitably proved true.

So it was with Captain Aldrich on the eve of the Battle of Nashville. His sister in law happened to be in the city at the time and handed her his personal effects, to give to his wife after his death. Then Job sat down and wrote a farewell letter to his beloved wife Ann.

Colonel Shafter, on reading it was both disturbed and moved; “it was the most affecting I ever read.” Colonel Shafter, on reading it was both disturbed and moved; “it was the most affecting I ever read.” After expressing his love and reflecting on the happiness they had shared, Aldrich closed, saying:

“The clock strikes one, goodnight. At five the dance of death begins around Nashville. Who shall be partners in the dance? God only knows. Echo alone answers who? Farewell.”

General Thomas planned to launch what today would be called in football a “Hail Mary” strategy: he put overwhelming force into an attack on the Confederate’s left flank, an attack which would steamroller the enemy and roll up their entire left flank, a line bristling with fortifications.

In the battle, the 17th USCT was given an important but hazardous assignment. They and the fellow regiments of the 1st Colored Brigade were placed on the far right flank of the Confederate line to launch a diversionary attack. If all went as planned, the Rebels would draw off their best troops from the left to deal with this threat to their right. At the very least, it would divert attention away from the main assault on their lines.

On December 15, 1864, despite an early morning fog, the big guns of Fort Negley and the other Union emplacements boomed out, signaling the beginning of the battle. The First Brigade began from a point close to the river, advancing across a cornfield towards the Rebel lines. The night before Colonel Morgan had scouted the area and believed they faced nothing more serious than a line of rifle pits.

They swept over the Rebel rifle pits with little trouble, but as they moved south of the Murfreesboro Pike and approached the railroad cut of the Nashville & Chattanooga RR, they suddenly encountered heavy resistance. Morgan and his men did not know it, but they had come up against Cleburne’s Division, one of the most experienced and toughest units of the Confederate army. General Cleburne had died at the Battle of Franklin, but his men were still full of fight. Screened by a line of woods, parts of several brigades of the division were lying in ambush, supported by a battery of four cannon in a lunette emplacement.

The disciplined men of the 17th advanced in broad lines, as if on parade. They began crossing the tracks of the cut, thinking the enemy had fled.  Suddenly the Rebels opened up as the Federals came within 30 yards of them. The Johnnies poured round after round of canister from Granbury’s Lunette into the Colored Volunteers at virtually point blank range, while withering rifle volleys exploded in the Federals faces. In a matter of minutes, 825 Union soldiers lay dead in or near the railroad cut. They had succeeded in diverting the enemy, but at a terrible price.

Captain Aldrich was leading his men across the tracks when Cleburne’s elite troops opened fire.  A bullet struck Aldrich in the head and he fell dead. As Aldrich had forewarned, the Dance of Death had found its chosen partner.

Pride_Over_Prejudice Reeves B of Nashville
Rick Reeves painting, Pride Over Prejudice, showing USCT troops guarding captured Rebels after the Battle of Nashville

For more uncanny events of the Civil War, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles the wartime career of the famous American author with the Army of the Cumberland including the Battle of Nashville.

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.

The Battles and Bleaters of the Civil War: Some Thoughts on the History of the History of the War

The Skirmish Line by Gilbert Gaul
The Skirmish Line by Gilbert Gaul

This edition of the Late Unpleasantness deals not so much about any specific person or event of the Civil War as it does about the search for the truth of what really happened between 1860 and 1866.  That may seem a simple task; after all, every week another book comes out about what happened in the first fifteen minutes of the second hour of the first day of Gettysburg; or of how General Grant won the war single-handedly; what a great guy Lincoln was and how he freed the slaves.

Yet, as any Civil War buff worth his salt knows, or should know, determining what actually happened in the chaos of battle is not a simple task, nor is the consensus of leading historians about some leaders and their actions necessarily based on fact, but rather on inherited opinions which have come to become accepted as truth.  I will confess to have been as guilty of this latter fault as some of the more famous writers whose books have gone on to become the “bible” on certain battles and leaders.

In my research for The Paranormal Presidency, for example, I made ample use of the Historical Society of Illinois online Lincoln Papers as well as the Library of Congress’ ample resources as well as numerous other primary and secondary sources.  Not much new here; all well worn territory insofar as Lincoln scholars go.  Yet my take on those same sources and on Lincoln the man clearly does not square with the dominant consensus which generations of Lincoln scholars—one might more properly call them hagiographers—have arrived at.  I, like his scholarly acolytes, regard Lincoln as a great President; but where I differ is that I do not ignore or disregard evidence where it does not square with the received views of him that have become academic dogma.

Disputes over certain campaigns, battles and leaders are nothing new; some have been going on since before the war was over.  However, two recent books raise old issues and to varying degrees promise to throw a new light on what we thought was established fact.

Stephen Hood’s new book, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, has stirred no little controversy among Civil War enthusiasts and scholars.  Hood the Younger makes no bones about his revisionism regarding General Hood’s military career and takes aim at several well respected historian’s previous work on the subject.  His work has been criticized as biography; in fact, it is not a biography per se, but explicitly a work of historiography.  Mr. Hood has gone back into the primary sources and his reading of them varies considerably from previous writers on the subject.  He has weighed their arguments in the balance and found them wanting.

General John Bell Hood, controversial commander of the Army of Tennessee
General John Bell Hood, controversial commander of the Army of Tennessee

While I leave it up to Civil War enthusiasts to read his book and decide for themselves how well Stephen Hood has succeeded in his task, I will cite incident which caused me to begin to question the consensus views on General Hood.  When Jefferson Davis sought General Lee’s views on appointing John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee, Lee replied that in his view, Hood was “all lion and none of the fox,” and I have even seen the statement footnoted with the source cited; so it must be true, right?  Except, that Lee never actually said that.  As Stephen Hood reveals, that phrase was coined after the war and whether true or not, it was not Lee who said it.  On checking the citation, I found it did indeed go back to the Lee/Davis correspondence about Hood, but nowhere in those messages does that phrase attributed to Lee appear.  A minor point, admittedly, but it is a cautionary tale about accepting authority at face value.

Another new work takes aim at that icon of the Union cause, General Ulysses S. Grant, questioning the accepted narratives of the battles for Chattanooga and Grant’s claims to being the mastermind of that campaign.  In the past Grant has been the subject of criticism, but in recent decades the consensus of historians has been generally favorable to him and have generally accepted Grant and his supporter’s version of his campaigns with little question.  However, in General Grant and the Rewriting of History, Frank Varney  disputes that consensus, at least insofar as the war in the west is concerned.

Grant and his commanders at Orchard Knob watch the Battle of Missionary Ridge
Grant and his commanders at Orchard Knob watch the Battle of Missionary Ridge

There are many, myself included, who feel that Grant has been given a pass by many historians on a number of points.  In my forthcoming work on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, in researching the context behind Bierce’s service with the Army of the Ohio and with the Army of the Cumberland, I found much of Bierce’s critique of Grant to be well founded and largely grounded in a greater debate in the postwar era over the credit and blame for the bloodletting at Shiloh.  Bierce’s criticisms of Grant were well known, although his overall assessment of Grant was generally positive.

Chickamauga and Chattanooga have also been the subject of much controversy over the years, with much blame and praise being disbursed by various historians.  The modern view of Grant and Sherman as the heroes of the campaign has generally been the dominant narrative however.  So Varney’s revisionism had been initially received in some quarters as a much needed correction to the record.  Varney takes eminent historians to task for shoddy scholarship.  While I reserve final judgment on Varney’s work and encourage others to also make their own assessment, from what I’ve read so far, it is Varney’s scholarship which has been found wanting.  Civil War bloggers have checked several of his citations, backing his criticisms of what other historians have written, and in too many cases have found them in error or just plain bogus.

General Grant’s Personal Memoirs were very well written and his narrative has been often taken at face value by generations of historians.  There remains much about Grant’s career that requires a more critical review of the facts.  It remains to be seen whether Varney was up to the task or whether that remains for others to do.