“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.

 

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

 Of the six men on the hill with Bierce  that morning, when he wrote his memoir 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.

Although 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 men of Cleburne’s division Confederates repulsed an attack by the valiant but green regiments of the United States Colored Volunteers. The USCT troops entered the railroad cut there only to encounter a withering fire from above.

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 out in a wide enveloping maneuver, backed by masses of infantry.  The Army of Tennessee, ill-clad, ill-fed and outnumbered, was overwhelmed. Where affluent suburbanites now throng Green Hills Mall and the surrounding boutiques and bars, thousands of warriors in blue and gray fought to the death that day. 

One by one, the Confederate redoubts fell to the Union tide, as the Army of the Cumberland relentlessly drove the Rebels back.

The following day, the sixteenth, the Johnnies continued to put up a resistance, but as the day wore on the weight of numbers began to tell and finally the once proud Army of Tennessee fell before the onslaught.

Confederate regiments and brigades that had fought toe to toe with the Yankees at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Atlanta now fell dead, fled in disorder or surrendered.  For the only time in the entire four years of war, a Confederate field 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 Negleythe 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 Mansionhumble abode of Adelicia Acklen, headquarters of the Union IV Corps during the Battle of Nashville.

It may be true to say that the Civil War was won in the East in April of 1865; but it is equally true to say that the Civil War was lost in the West the winter before, at the Battle of Nashville, December 15-16, 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.

Now in hardcover edition, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, covering his career in the Civil War, much of it with the Army of the Cumberland:

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

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 ReevesPride 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.

Christmas, 1864. A Union Christmas: Washington, D.C. Civil War Christmas, Part 10

An artist's conception of the Lincoln family having Christmas dinner in the White House.
An artist’s conception of the Lincoln family having Christmas dinner in the White House.

Christmas 1864, Washington D.C.   If things were looking gloomy for Varina Howell and her “Jeffie” in Richmond, across the Potomac in Washington it was quite the opposite that December.

That Fall, General Sherman had begun his famous (or infamous) march through Georgia, but for weeks Lincoln had had no word from Sherman or his army of 62,000.

After capturing Savannah, General Sherman sent Lincoln a brief note: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”
After capturing Savannah, General Sherman sent Lincoln a brief note: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”

Finally,  on December 21 word came that Sherman had captured the port of Savannah, Georgia.  In a telegraph to President Lincoln, General Sherman wrote: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”

When Sherman sent his telegram to the White House, the President was both relieved and jubilant.  Lincoln telegraphed back: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah…Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”

In contrast to his scorched earth campaign through rural Georgia, Sherman and his men were magnanimous towards the citizens of Savannah and “Uncle Billie” provided food and merriment for Christmas to the conquered city.

Sherman hosts a victory dinner on Christmas day for his officers.
Sherman hosts a victory dinner on Christmas day for his officers.

Sherman meanwhile held a celebratory supper for his officers.  He also provided for the citizens of Savannah–with victuals stolen from the farms and plantations of Georgia.

After December 1864, General George H. Thomas added "the Sledge of Nashville" to his epithet, "Rock of Chickamauga."
After December 1864, General George H. Thomas added “the Sledge of Nashville” to his epithet, “Rock of Chickamauga.”

In Tennessee, less theatrically, but far more importantly, General Thomas had performed a great service to the Union cause, decimating the Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville.

The Battle of Nashville in mid December 1864 sealed the Confederacy's fate. (Attack on Shy's Hill by Howard Pyle).
The Battle of Nashville in mid December 1864 sealed the Confederacy’s fate. (Attack on Shy’s Hill by Howard Pyle).

 

It was the last effective field army the Confederates had outside of Virginia. To all intents and purposes, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was isolated, and Richmond, the Confederate capitol, was doomed.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln and his son Tad often visited Stuntz's Toy Shop in Washington, DC.
Lincoln and his son Tad often visited Stuntz’s Toy Shop in Washington, DC.

While the  Lincolns are not thought to have had a Christmas tree in the White House, it is known that the President would take Tad to the city’s best toy shop, Stuntz’s Toy Store, to buy him presents.  Unlike many parents of their day who believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child,” both Abraham and Mary Lincoln were indulgent parents, who generally spoiled their boys silly.  Likely, Lincoln and Tad would have been in Stuntz’s that Christmas.

The situation in Washington and much of the North in 1864 was summed up neatly by Thomas Nast in a famous propaganda poster for Harper’s during Christmas Week of 1864, called The Union Christmas.  It depicts President Lincoln standing at a door, with him offering the cold and frostbitten Southern soldiers an invitation to rejoin the Union and enjoy the feast.

Lincoln welcoming defeated Confederates to the "Union Christmas Dinner." Nast contrasts the wealth and plenty of the Union with the poverty and hunger of Rebellion.
Lincoln welcoming defeated Confederates to the “Union Christmas Dinner.” Nast contrasts the wealth and plenty of the Union with the poverty and hunger of Rebellion.

For the North, it would be a Christmas of anticipation and joy for many.  For the South, it was a season of diminishing hope. The South had but its pride left to sustain it—the kind of pride that goeth before the fall.

For more on Lincoln and the Civil War, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  Now out is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by the University of Tennessee Press.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.

 

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)

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.

Sex n’ Drugs n’ Civil War: What great grandpa never bothered to mention about his service in the War of the Rebellion

Early opiate based medicines.  They were an essential part of  the Civil War doctor's
Early opiate based medicines. They were an essential part of the Civil War doctor’s

In recent months a bit of controversy has arisen over one Southern general’s alleged drug use.  A new biography has come out by a distant descendant vehemently denying a “slander” that the said commander was under the influence of either opiates or alcohol during one of the penultimate campaigns of the Late Unpleasantness.  The said biographer avers—and correctly so—that there is no written evidence that the Confederate commander was intoxicated or a “drug addict.”  However, in tracking down the trail of evidence on that issue, I realized the topic raised much broader issues than simply the drug or alcohol use of one soldier.

There were many things going on during the Civil War that participants on both sides rarely talked about in print; but that doesn’t mean those things weren’t going on a daily basis.  Traditionally, historians have relied on the written word; oral tradition, local folklore and similar sources tend to be overlooked or disregarded.  Official reports, dispatches, postwar memoirs and the like are the mainstay of the Civil War historians.  That is all well and good, but there as Walt Whitman observed, “the real war will never get in the books.”  And like any good Victorian, Whitman and others of the Civil War era who did things which they preferred not to talk about, Whitman adds that not only will they not be written about but “perhaps must not and should not be.”

In a previous post, I discussed sex and the single Civil War soldier; a more thorough look at hanky-panky by both sides can also be had by reading The Story the Soldiers Would Not Tell, by Dr. Thomas P. Lowry.  In researching my upcoming bio of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War service, it was obvious that the famous author spent his furlough time in the fleshpots of Nashville doing something other than reading newspapers and going to the opera—although proving such is difficult to do.

So, while the sex part has already been dealt with, the drugs have not.  While specifics can be elusive, as with the good general mentioned at the start of the article, there is an abundance of period information about the use of narcotics during the era in general.  Besides the reluctance of historians to delve into such “off” topics as drug use in the Civil War, there is also a dual cultural barrier to our understanding of what was really going on: in the first instance, the very different social and moral norms of the 1860’s and then our own modern attitudes, which often lead to mistaken assumptions about past behavior.

For the most part, the modern stigma regarding the use of opiates and other drugs which are illicit and illegal today simply wasn’t present during the Civil War.  Opium itself has been known and used ancient times; it was used as a cure for headaches in pharaonic Egypt and by all accounts they had no problem with it being abused or wide scale addiction problems.  In contrast, nineteenth century Imperial China had a massive problem with drug addiction and tried to prohibit the import of opium.  However, the British in India were making a lot of money off of the opium trade and actually fought two wars with China to force them to allow the British to import shiploads of the stuff.  Her Majesty’s government was, in effect, the biggest pusher of all times.

Civil War doll "Nina" which was used to smuggle Morphine to aid the Confederate cause.
Civil War doll “Nina” which was used to smuggle Morphine to aid the Confederate cause.

In the United States opium was known and used, mostly by the upper classes, before the Civil War.  In the South, it was a common ingredient in homemade medicines and used for a wide variety of ailments, including the generic catch-all “female complaints.”  The main users of opium it seems were affluent white women.  There was no stigma attached to its use.  According to one source, the womenfolk of the Jefferson Davis family were prescribed liberal doses of opium by their family physician and became “dangerously addicted” to it.  The most common way people took opium as a medicine was in the form of laudanum, a liquid concoction consisting of about 40% alcohol, opium and water to dilute it.  Laudanum was given to men, women and children freely for pain, diarrhea, coughs and whatever else physicians could think of.  Of course, since it was not regulated at all, people could purchase it on their own or brew up themselves to save money.

The famous Southern diarist, Mary Chestnutt, writing in July of 1861, expressed distain for this commonplace household remedy: “I have no intention of drugging myself now.”  However, later in the war she was given an overdose of a medicine called Dover’s Powder, whose main ingredient was—you guessed it, opium.  It nearly killed her; as it was, she was unconscious for two days.  Of course, the most famous American before the war to use opiates was Edgar Allen Poe, the famed Southern Gothic writer, and how much his morbid stories of the supernatural were inspired by his drug use remains a subject of dispute.

While not nearly as commonplace as opiates, hashish was known and used in America before the war.  However, its use seems to have been limited to certain cultured circles and was not widely used as either a medicine or for recreational use.  The publication of Fitzhugh Ludlow’s book The Hashish Eater in 1857 seems to have inspired a number of affluent young gentlemen to experiment with the exotic drug.  One such young man was John Hay, attending Brown University at the time, “where I used to eat Hashish and dream dreams.”  Hay would later become President Lincoln’s personal secretary and after the war co-author of the President’s semi-official biography.

Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, it should be noted that, while Lincoln was a teetotaler and is not known to have ever imbibed, one of his biographers has suggested that he may have partaken of cocaine.  In his book, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln, Harry F. Pratt claimed that on Oct. 12, 1860, Lincoln purchased cocaine from the local Springfield pharmacy of Corneau and Diller’s for the princely sum of fifty cents.  This was scarcely a month before the crucial Presidential election that put Lincoln in the White House and the issue of whether or not Honest Abe actually did use cocaine has been a bone of contention among Lincoln scholars for some years.

Did Abraham Lincoln take cocaine?  Some historians say he did.
Did Abraham Lincoln take cocaine? Some historians say he did.

Of course, far and away, the drug of choice before the war, and continuing on up to the present day, was alcohol.  While the consumption of alcohol in its many forms is a longstanding pastime and certainly the drug of choice for twentieth and twentieth century America, the modern American recreational use of this drug pales before the prodigious quantities of John Barleycorn and his cousins that were consumed in early America.  The Temperance Movement, while much derided after the failure of Prohibition in the 1920’s, nonetheless had valid reasons for attacking alcohol besides Victorian prudery.  Of course the dispute over General Grant’s alcohol use, or lack of it, has been going on for 150 years and shows no sigh of abating.

Grant in the field late in the war.  The debate over his alcohol use has been going on for 150 years.
Grant in the field late in the war. The debate over his alcohol use has been going on for 150 years.

During the war, all these drugs and even more toxic substances were regularly used by army surgeons on both sides.  It may be hard for us today to understand how common some of these substances were for treatment of a wide variety of ailments, yet it is an incontrovertible fact.  Dr. Charles Beneulyn Johnson, a regimental surgeon with the Union Army described the typical medicine chest that an army surgeon would carry with him into the field: “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies.  “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies,” he wrote, and included opium, morphine, Dover’s Powder (also containing opium), quinine, rhubarb, Rochelle Salts, Epsom salts, castor oil, sugar of lead, tannin, sulphate of copper, sulphate of zinc, camphor, tincture of iron, tincture of opium, camphorate, syrup of squills, simple syrup, alcohol, whiskey, brandy, port wine, sherry wine, to give the short list.

a homemade first aid kit belonging to Charles E. White of a New Hampshire regiment and containing opiates.
a homemade first aid kit belonging to Charles E. White of a New Hampshire regiment and containing opiates.

The most common treatment for dysentery and diarrhea was morphine, an opium derivative which was invented before the war.  While it could be injected, it was most commonly given out in powder or pill form.  William H. Taylor, a Confederate surgeon with the Army of Northern Virginia, would deal with sick call by dispensing morphine for diarrhea and “blue mass” (whose main ingredient was mercury) for constipation.  A Union physician simplified sick call even more by performing diagnosis from horseback, dispensing morphine powder by pouring it into his hand and letting the patients lick it out of his hand!

I could go on and on with more illustrations of the common use of what are now banned chemicals during the war; in fact it would take a whole book to discuss this topic properly.  But it is important to understand how commonplace the issuing of such drugs was to put the dispute over famous general’s alleged use of opiates or alcohol in proper context.

General John Bell Hood.  On September 30, 1864, when he learned that Schofield's army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be "wrathy as a snake."  Was it simply bad luck, or did Hood's  failure to destroy the Yankee army involve something more:?
General John Bell Hood. On September 30, 1864, when he learned that Schofield’s army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be “wrathy as a snake.” Was it simply bad luck, or did Hood’s failure to destroy the Yankee army involve something more?

Right now John Bell Hood, the embattled commander of the Army of Tennessee, is the main focus of attention.  As I mentioned above, there is no written evidence that he was under the influence of opiates or alcohol when he allowed the trapped Federals under his old schoolmate, General John Schofield, escape at Springhill, or his ill considered attack at the Battle of Franklin.  However, the suggestion that he did use Laudanum has been floated by historians for many years.  Hood had lost a leg at Gettysburg and shattered an arm at Chickamauga and if he did partake of Laudanum or any other opiate to ease the pain of those severe injuries would not mean he was a “drug addict” or junkie by any means, and it is not slander to suggest so.  His use of such a painkiller, even if it could be proved, would have been perfectly legitimate, and indeed would have, if anything, enabled him to better cope with the terrible pain he most certainly would have been in.

But Hood is by no means the only Confederate commander to whom the suggestion of drug use has been ascribed.  General Braxton Bragg, the contentious previous commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, is also thought to have used opiates.  Some historians have described him as erratic and suffering from a variety of ailments including malaria, dyspepsia and the boils, the standard treatments for which would have included either Laudanum or morphine.  Again, as with Hood, we cannot be sure he did partake; but it would not have been unusual—or immoral–if he had.

Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce,.  Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and  witnessed Grant and his staff pass the bottle around at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.
Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce,. Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and witnessed Grant and his staff pass the bottle around at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

In my researches into Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career, I found that Bierce specifically testified to observing General Grant imbibing while observing the Battle of Missionary Ridge.  Grant, however, was not one to drink alone; his senior commanders “bit the snake” as did Bierce himself, and Bierce argued that neither his nor Grants having a nip as shot and shell whizzed around them in any way affected his ability to command.  While one may question Bierce judgment on the matter, one cannot question his testimony.

There remain many unanswered questions regarding the Civil War and perhaps some may never be fully answered.  Certainly, what your great great grandpa (or grandma) did back then may not sit well with what you or I believe today.  But we should at least grant them the grace to allow that what they did was done according to their own lights and in line with the accepted values of the day.  Perhaps the “better angels of our nature” sang a different song back then than we hear today.

For other esoteric aspects of the American Civil War, see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

John Bell Hood: Eminent Confederate

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

CONTROVERSY, n. A battle in which spittle or ink replaces the injurious cannon-ball and the inconsiderate bayonet.  Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary.

There are many controversial individuals who fought in the Civil War on both sides of the conflict, just as there are battles and campaigns which have been argued and debated over almost continuously for the last century and a half.  In the beginning, it was the veterans themselves who argued over these issues.  Then, in attempting to make sense of the war, historians since then have frequently come to conclusions based on their reading of the evidence and also make certain assumptions that they infer from those facts.  Just as frequently, other historians have taken issue with them.  This is nothing new.

For example, in my recent book revealing the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life and career, my researches into the archives turned up a number of documents which contravene the accepted narratives about the Sixteenth President; I have also found that some well known published eyewitness accounts have been used selectively by previous writers to impose their views on the great man’s life and career.  So yes, that sort of thing goes on all the time; but Civil War researchers can honestly come to radically different conclusions using essentially the same sources.  Much depends on how much weight one gives to certain statements over others and how much weight one gives to the testimony of one witness over another.  That’s how the writing of history works.

Stephen “Sam” Hood, a relative of General John Bell Hood, has just published John Bell Hood: the Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General.  His publisher’s promotional copy says that “the shocking revelations in John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General will forever change our perceptions of Hood as both a man and a general, and those who set out to shape his legacy.”

Perhaps; we shall see.  Sam Hood’s book analyzes other historian’s work on his forebear and not only finds them wanting, but consciously false.  I prefer to reserve judgment on both sides of the controversy, not only until I read his book, but also until the cache of new Hood documents is published and analyzed by the Civil War community as a whole.

For some reason, my little blog attracted the attention of Mr. Hood and also his ire.  More specifically, a short article about the Autumn Campaign earned his condemnation.  The reader is invited to re-read it; I recently reposted it, along with his comment about it.  While one would hope one’s scribblings would be met with praise, the fact that he thought my minor posting was worthy of his attention is a compliment of sorts, even if it is a left-handed one.

The study of the Civil War is chock full of controversies, some of which began even before the firing stopped.  In the process of researching and writing my 80,000 (or so) word book on Ambrose Bierce and the Army of the Cumberland, I weigh in on several such issues, especially since in his postwar writings Bierce saw fit to wade deeply into those controversies.  Shiloh and Chickamauga were two particularly contentious battles in this regard, with recriminations on both sides.  Of course, most of Bierce’s venom was reserved for Federal commanders, not Confederates.

Coincidently, Mr. Hood and Ambrose Bierce do share some things in common: both share a gift for invective and both are alumni of the Kentucky Military Institute.  When Bierce went there in the 1850’s it was a place where gentlemen learned to become officers and officers learned to become gentlemen.  In Bierce’s case I’m afraid, he learned neither; but he did end up becoming a damn fine soldier.

General John Bell Hood was no stranger to controversy, even during his own lifetime.  In the postwar era, Hood crossed swords in print with several of his former officers.  Even enlisted men sometimes expressed bitter opinions about their former commander in chief.

Carter House lit by thousands of candles to symbolize the thousand of soldiers who died unnecessarily that terrible night in November, 1864
Carter House lit by thousands of candles to symbolize the thousand of soldiers who died unnecessarily that terrible night in November, 1864

Modern historians have weighed in on Hood on a number of occasions as well, especially with regard to his actions and decisions during the Autumn Campaign of 1864.  From his public pronouncements and also his comment on my minor posting, I gather that Sam Hood believes that those who do not agree with his conclusions regarding his ancestor are not only a shoddy historians but in many cases are also willfully malicious and deliberately slandering his spotless forebear.  Again, having only read one chapter out of many in his book, I do not feel competent to say whether he is right or wrong in the many criticisms expressed in his book.  Moreover, I have many other fish to fry regarding the Late Unpleasantness; however, his book is definitely on my to-do list to read and looks to become one of those must-have books for Civil War enthusiasts.

As to my short piece on the campaign, Mr. Hood says that “there are numerous assertions in your article that have no historical evidence” and that I am merely repeating “opinions of later authors such as Thomas Connolly and Wiley Sword.”  Well, in researching my book on Ambrose Bierce and the Army of the Cumberland I did read several secondary works on the battles and campaigns of the western theatre, including the Autumn Campaign.  But I also delved deeply into many primary sources, including archival material, newspaper accounts, the Official Record (both online and the hard copy in the TSLA), as well as postwar articles and memoirs and, of course, Ambrose Bierce’s own writings on the subject.  So while I do consult secondary works when researching the Civil War (or any other period) I do not simply regurgitate some other author’s opinions.

While I suppose Mr. Hood’s criticism of my short article is mild compared to the barrage he has aimed at Wiley Sword and others, I do take his criticism seriously and went back over the article to see if there were specific errors of fact (versus opinion) which required correction.  Although I am perfectly willing to correct errors as such, and am also willing to change my opinions as new information comes to light, I could not detect any egregious errors in my short piece, “For Want of a Nail.”  Blog postings, as a rule, tend to be short, general in nature and not footnoted.  Even magazine articles, where there is more room to discuss a topic, tend not be footnoted; scholarly journals and books are usually the proper place for both in depth discussion and documentation.

Battle of Springhill, where confusion reigned on the Confederate side and the Federals miraculously escaped the trap
Battle of Springhill, where confusion reigned on the Confederate side and the Federals miraculously escaped the trap

In summarizing the Autumn Campaign in a few paragraphs, I touch lightly on a number of contentious issues that have swirled about that tragic last effort of the Confederacy: the “Springhill Affair,” the “Miracle of Springhill” (so called by the Union troops), the Battle of Franklin, and the Battle of Nashville.  In such a short space I, of course, engage in broad generalizations and touch on the issues without resolving them.  One is free to take issue with how I characterize them: whole books could—and have—been written about them without resolving anything.

When I wrote the article, I actually thought I was being rather generous to Hood.  The very title of the posting, “For Want of a Nail” implies that John Bell Hood came very close to victory, that had a few key factors been different, his campaign might have been crowned with success at least to some degree.  This view is widely at variance with the dominant view of the Autumn Campaign by most historians.

Based on my readings to date and lectures on the subject I have hitherto attended, the consensus seems to be that even had Hood beaten Schofield, the Union superiority in men and materiel was such that the Federals would still have prevailed.  This, however, was not the attitude of General Grant or the administration in Washington, who were quite concerned about Hood and kept badgering Thomas to attack before the “Rock of Chickamauga” was ready.  Grant was literally on the verge of leaving for Nashville to relieve Thomas and take personal command until he heard the news that “Old Slow Trot” had achieved an overwhelming victory.  So no, I don’t think Federal success was a foregone conclusion.

Battle of Franklin: Opdycke's Brigade repulse the Confederate Breakthrough at Franklin, by Don Troiani.
Battle of Franklin: Opdycke’s Brigade repulse the Confederate Breakthrough at Franklin, by Don Troiani.

Those who have read Mr. Hood’s pronouncements on the Autumn Campaign will also note one issue my article left out: the question of whether General Hood was using alcohol and/or drugs during the campaign.  Several historians have previously suggested it and Sam Hood is particularly vehement in his condemnation of their very mention of it.  He asserts that there is no explicit written evidence that Hood partook of either alcohol, morphine or similar substances during the campaign and I think on this score we must agree with Mr. Hood.  There is nothing solid in print nor do we know of any eyewitnesses who went on the record to say so.  Point conceded.

However, let me add that, even if it could be proved that Hood used such substances, that does not mean he was either “drunkard” or “drug addict,” as his publishers blog accuses others of characterizing Hood.  John Bell Hood had his leg amputated up to the hip at Gettysburg and suffered a shattered arm at Chickamauga—both very severe and painful wounds, and even a year later he would still have been in a great deal of pain.  Moreover, during the Autumn Campaign Hood was in the saddle for long hours, which undoubtedly placed a great deal of additional strain and pain on him.  Alcohol and opiates were virtually the only pain killers available to doctors during the Civil War and both were dispensed freely by army surgeons, when available, to soldiers.  In raising this issue, we need to recognize that the issue of alcohol and drug use during the war is a much broader issue than simply a personal attack on one controversial commander. Moreover, Hood is not the only Confederate general whom historians have suggested may have used opiates—a similar claim has been made against Braxton Bragg, and for similar reasons.  Then too, we have the ongoing controversy about General Grant’s recreational use of alcohol.
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General Hood lost a leg at Gettysburg and his arm was shattered at Chickamauga (shown).  He was still suffering the effects of those wounds a year later.  Engraving by Frank Vizetelly
General Hood lost a leg at Gettysburg and his arm was shattered at Chickamauga (shown). He was still suffering the effects of those wounds a year later. Engraving by Frank Vizetelly

So no, there is no concrete evidence that Hood used pain killers during the Autumn Campaign: but if he did, what of it?  If anything, if used properly as medicine, such pain killers may have actually allowed him to think more clearly, not less, by being free of the intense suffering he surely experienced!

Now, in my brief essay, I did engage in one piece of hyperbole which perhaps requires correction.  In making the point that there were better strategies available to Hood than a direct frontal assault against prepared defenses over wide open fields I say that, “everyone in the Army of Tennessee knew it was folly–all except General Hood.”  No doubt there were some soldiers in Hood’s army who thought it a glorious thing to hurl themselves across cleared fields with no cover for two miles within full sight of well prepared enemy, dug in and waiting, who were in any case, merely a rearguard.  How many thought it a good idea—or not—is impossible to quantify, as so many of them died in the attempt.  But there were many who survived that battle and the campaign who did have a low opinion of their commander in chief and were not shy about expressing it in writing in later years.

Perhaps it would best to provide a sampler of some of those views, unfiltered by any historian’s spin on them, with the understanding that, even among eyewitnesses, their viewpoints are also subjective and far from unanimous:

On the Battle of Springhill:  “Why Stanley was not immediately effaced is still a matter of controversy.  Hood, who was early on the ground, declared that he gave the needful orders and tried vainly to enforce them; Cheatham, in command of his leading corps, that he did not.  Doubtless the dispute is still being carried on between these chieftains from their beds of asphodel and moly in Elysium.”  Ambrose Bierce, “What Happens Along a Road.”

“Here {Springhill} as at Atlanta, Hood, sought to shift the responsibility for his failure upon a subordinate.”                                                                                                                        “But a commander who is personally with the head of column in such a movement and upon the field, has the means of enforcing his orders by direct commands to the division.” General Jacob D. Cox (commanding the Union troops during the Battle of Franklin), The March to the Sea—Franklin & Nashville, (Campaigns of the Civil War, volume X), (1882, reprinted Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002), 79-80.

“The idea of a commanding general reaching his objective point, that required prompt and immediate action and skillful tactics, to turn away and go to bed surpasses the understanding. The truth is Hood had been outgeneraled, and Stanley with the Federal troops got to Spring Hill before Hood did. What information Hood received of the enemy, when he reached the pike, if any, no one will ever know. Why did he not in person form his line of battle and attack the enemy at Spring Hill ?”  General Samuel  G. French, Two Wars: An Autobiography, (Nashville: Confederate Veteran, 1901),  292.

On Hood’s mental state on the morning of the Battle of Franklin:  “General Hood is mad about the enemy getting away last night, and he is going to charge the blame of it on somebody.  He is as wrathy as a rattlesnake this morning, striking at everything.  As he passed along to the front a while ago, he rode up to me and said ‘Gen. Brown, in the movement to-day I wish you to bear in mind this military principle : That when a pursuing army comes up with a retreating enemy, he must be immediately attacked. If you have a brigade in front as advance guard, order its commander to attack the enemy as soon as he comes up with him ; if you have a regiment in advance, and it comes up with the enemy, give the colonel orders to attack him; if there is but a company in advance, and it overtakes the entire Yankee army, order the captain to attack it forthwith ; and if anything blocks the road in front of you to-day, don’t stop a minute, but turn out into the fields or woods, and move on to the front.’”  Henry M Field, Bright Skies and Dark Shadows (NY: Scribners, 1890), 219.

Captain John W. Lavender, Company F, 4th Arkansas Inf., Battle of Franklin:  “This Great and Distructive Battle was the least called for and most useless Sacrifice of men of any that was Fought in the Middle or Department of Tennessee. As Every Priveet Soldier Saw afterwards, a slight Flank Movement would have Forced the Enemy out of their works without loosing a man. Our Ranks was So Badly Reduced and seing it Brought on by such useless Reckless Generalship Caused Grate Dissatisfaction in our Ranks. … They Could see the serious mistakes made that cost our army such serious loss and no material to recruit from. They could all see that the time was near that our Strength would be exhausted.”  The War Memoirs of Captain John W. Lavender, C.S.A., edited by Ted R. Worley. (Pine Bluff, AR: The Southern Press, 1956).

Captain Foster, 24th Texas Cavalry (dismounted) Granville’s Brigade, Cleburne’s Division after Franklin:                                                                               “Gen. Hood has betrayed us. This is not the kind of fighting he promised us at Tuscumbia and Florence, Ala., when we started into Tennessee. This was not a ‘fight with equal numbers and choice of the ground’ by no means.”                                                                     “The wails and cries of widows and orphans made at Franklin … will heat up the fires of the bottomless pit to burn the soul of Gen. J.B. Hood for Murdering their husbands and fathers. … It can’t be called anything else but cold blooded murder.”                                  Capt. Samuel T. Foster (Edited by Norman D. Brown), One of Cleburne’s Command. The Civil War Reminiscences and Diary of Capt. Samuel T. Foster, Granbury’s Texas Brigade, CSA, (Austin TX: U. of TX Press, 1980).

Carnton cemetery where most of the Confederate dead from the Battle of Franklin were buried.
Carnton cemetery where most of the Confederate dead from the Battle of Franklin were buried.