General Debility and General Winter: A Civil War Christmas, Part 11

During the Battle of Nashville, General Thomas broke the back of the Confederate Army of Tennessee--the South's last best hope-- sealing the fate of the Confederacy.
During the Battle of Nashville, General Thomas broke the back of the Confederate Army of Tennessee–the South’s last best hope– sealing the fate of the Confederacy.

Christmas, 1864  The valiant Army of Tennessee had been smashed and its tattered remnants were in full retreat as they were closely pursued by General Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland.

During the pursuit, a Union brigadier sends an urgent message to his divisional headquarters: “please relieve me;” the dispatch read, “I am suffering from an attack of General Debility.”

The odd dispatch was met with some derision at division headquarters, but the divisional commander wrote a prescription to cure his brigade commander’s ailment: three regiments of infantry and a battery of Rodman guns.  Far more formidable than General Debility that December, however, was General Winter.

You may not have heard of General Winter before, yet this general was the most effective presence on the field of battle during the Civil War, more so than any field commander North or South. Winter influenced the outcome of many major battles. In the campaigns of the Western Theatre, in particular, General Winter played a commanding role.

Reading many of the soldier’s accounts of the era, one gets the impression that the Army of the Potomac during the winter months simply hunkered down in their comfortable quarters surrounding Washington, DC and waited until life was more pleasant in the field. General McClellan did not want his precious boys getting their feet wet, or otherwise suffering discomfort and the easterners of his army appreciated him for preserving them from harm–so did the Confederates. The Rebel Army of Northern Virginia did not pass the winter in such luxury, but they also chose not to go on the offensive when the weather turned cold.

In stark contrast, in the West, the Federals campaigned repeatedly in the midst of bone-chilling cold and foul winter weather, and their Butternut-clad foes did likewise.  The war in the West did not stop simply because General Winter was abroad in the land.

Looking for survivors on the battlefield. Many men who could have survived, froze to death after the battle
Looking for survivors on the battlefield. Many men who survived the battle, froze to death due to exposure.

In January of 1862, for example, General Grant led the expedition against Confederate fortresses of Forts Donelson and Henry. It was bitter cold that winter and the Rebel troops were inadequately clothed. During the siege, the Union troops who fell assaulting Fort Donelson were caught out in the open between the opposing lines. The cries of the wounded, exposed and freezing, tore at the hearts of their comrades who were unable to rescue them. Many who could have survived otherwise died of exposure.

Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, was one of the "barbarous Yankees" besieged by Hood's Army of Tennessee in Dec. 1864.
Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, fought at Stones River & Nashville.

At the Battle of Stone’s River in late December of 1862, both sides were also affected by the bitter cold. On the night of the first day’s fight, the Federal Army of the Cumberland was forbidden to light any fires, lest the enemy use them for target practice; to add to the misery, most troops had shed their backpacks containing blankets in the chaos of battle and Rebel cavalry had destroyed most of the wagons containing tents. But it was the wounded left on the field after the first day’s fight who suffered the most. Ambrose Bierce graphically described the situation in a forgotten small piece called “A Cold Night.” Men on both sides, wounded and unable to move, froze to death in the dark.

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.

 

 

Returning to the Autumn Campaign of 1864 and the Battle of Nashville, General Winter also played an important role here as well. While the Federals had comfortable quarters within the siege lines of Nashville, without, the Rebels shivered, ill fed, ill clothed and short of most other supplies. Whole forests outside the city were cut down to keep warm by the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the resulting deforestation was called even by sympathetic citizens as “Hood’s Waste.”

However, the Federals too were affected by the winter weather in December of 1864. Although General Thomas had gathered together a mighty army to counter Hood’s Confederates, his counterattack had to be delayed. A terrible ice storm hit the city in the early part of December, making all roads impassable for his cavalry, without which Thomas was unable to attack.

Union General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter
Union General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter

While waiting for the roads the thaw out, General Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga” was almost sacked by Grant, who sitting in comfort back east, accused Thomas of being “slow.” General Thomas came near to defeat, not due to General Hood, but due to General Winter. In the end, Thomas unleashed the Army of the Cumberland and achieved an overwhelming victory.

While most historians aver that the Civil War was won Appomattox in 1865, in truth the war was lost for the South at Nashville, in December of 1864.

 

 

 

For more true tales of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Now in print, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is an in depth look at the famous author and his war experiences.

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.

 

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War for a compendium of uncanny but true accounts of Civil War ghosts, haunts and other unexplained phenomena.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. (HarperCollins)
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency (Schiffer)

 

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Forts Donelson and Henry’s Restless Dead

Federal forces under General Grant traversed the isthmus separating the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and took the Rebels of Fort Donelson by surprise.  A bloody battle ensued.
Federal forces under General Grant traversed the isthmus separating the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and took the Rebels of Fort Donelson by surprise. A bloody battle ensued.

In both Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I chronicled several different hauntings related to the Battle of Shiloh. But before Shioh were Donelson and Henry.

Forts Donelson and Henry were the twin Confederate bastions which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. The Rebels had fortified the two rivers where they came close to one another–called Land Between the Rivers back then; now, thanks to the TVA, it is Land Between the Lakes. Here in the winter of 1862, a Union amphibious force came to break the Confederate defenses. Led by General Ulysses S. Grant, the Yankees first bombarded Fort Henry on the Tennessee River into submission and then, in a bold move, Grant took a small force overland and besieged Fort Donelson from landward, catching the Johnnies off-guard. The Rebels had all their big guns pointing down-river, in the direction from which they thought the Yankee fleet would come.

Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, opening the way for the Union occupation of the entire mid-South.
Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, opening the way for the Union occupation of the entire mid-South.

It was a bitter cold winter and both sides suffered terribly. The wounded lay thick in the no man’s land between the two armies and suffered as much from the cold as they did from their wounds. Many died a slow and agonizing death. The Rebel troops, for their part, were ill-prepared for a winter campaign and suffered even more than the Yankees from the cold. Ultimately, Grant bluffed the incompetent Rebel commanders into surrendering, thereby assuring his fame and opening the way for the Union to conquering the heartland of the Confederacy.

General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker.  His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.
General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker. His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.

Although the dead of both sides were quickly interred, their undead shades lingered–and they linger still at Land Between the Lakes. After my first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, which chronicled a few of Shiloh’s ghosts and haunts, and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, where I covered more Shiloh ghosts and also a tale relating to General Grant, I had occasion to talk with several re-enactors who had camped at Fort Donelson at various times, trying to re-create conditions as close to January, 1862, as they could.

The re-enactors I spoke with told me it was not uncommon for one or another of their ranks to have uncanny encounters at Fort Donelson. One lady, a sutler, describes awakening in her tent in the dead of night to fight all her wares and her tent violently shaking and rattling. There was no wind or storm or any natural event that night to explain it. But apparently there was something supernatural that could.

Another re-enactor told of performing picket duty at night while his unit was there. Many re-enactors try to get into the spirit of the period, not just for visitors during the day, but at night as well. An onlooker might well mistake them for the real thing. This re-enactor was on duty late at night when he saw a light coming up the hill in the distance.

The dim glow grew larger and larger as it approached him and at first he could not make out what it was. Then it came close and passed him; in the eerie glow he could see the torso and head of a man–seemingly an officer, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and smoking an old-fashioned stogie; it was the phantom cigar that illumined the figure. It almost seemed as if the phantom officer were making the rounds, checking on the bivouac to see all the guards were on duty. But the cigar-smoking figure was no re-enactor; he had no lower body, just a materialized torso and be-hatted head. Was it the ghost of General Grant? Or was it the shade of some other tobacco-loving commander, North or South? Who knows?

To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill about another war, Fort Donelson was not the beginning of the end of the Rebellion; but it was the end of the beginning. And they’re those who say that many who met their end there abide on the grounds of the battle-field still.

For more Civil War ghost stories see my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; Rutledge Hill did the original editon which is still in print, although Barnes & Noble, Lone Pine and Sterling have come out with economy hardcovers in addition to the paperback editions. My first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, also chronicles the battlefield hauntings of Shiloh, Chickamauga and Franklin.

Re-enactors conduct an artillery barrage at night at Fort Donelson
Re-enactors conduct an artillery barrage at night at Fort Donelson

The Two Generals Wallace Part 1

General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur
General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur. (Colorized photo)
General William Hervey Lamme Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck
General William Hervey Lamme Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck

In all the chronicles, memoirs and histories of the war, then and now, some generals have, fairly or not, gotten a disproportionate share of attention. Of course, it is easy to see how Grant and Lee should get the lion’s share of ink. Yet no war is won—or lost—by just one man. Often the one who is hailed as victor in truth may owe his laurels to the efforts of those of lesser rank whose contribution to the cause has been overlooked or even deliberately slighted. Such is the case with the two generals Wallace.

General William Hervy Lamme Wallace and General Lewis Wallace, although from different states and different backgrounds, in many ways followed a similar path to the war. Both were “political generals.” As many military historians come from a professional military background, there has been a tendency to look down on such military commanders; the “political general” is almost universally regarded as either incompetent, venal or vainglorious—or a combination of all three. Some political generals were unfit for high command.  However, a civil war is in essence a political conflict, and men who are politically committed to their cause can often of great service on its behalf. Such were these two men. Conversely, a commander who possesses technical competence, yet has little appetite for the cause he serves can not only be of limited value, but may at times even harm the cause they ostensibly serve.

William Wallace, named after the famous Scottish national hero, was born in Ohio but grew to manhood in Ogle County, Illinois. Young William attended the Rock River Seminary, a school of higher learning for young men, whose alumni also included John A. Rawlins, who would later rise to become General Grant’s Chief of Staff. After graduating from there in 1844, William resolved to pursue a career in the law and was fully intending to apprentice with the firm of Logan and Lincoln. On the way, however, he met the acquaintance of Judge T. Lyle Dickey—and his daughter Ann—and decided to clerk with that esteemed Illinois jurist. Earning his admission to the Illinois Bar, Wallace  became friends with Abraham Lincoln and rubbed shoulders with many prominent lawyers and politicians of the day, many of them of like mind as Lincoln. Wallace and his wife attended the Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 that was held in Ottawa, Illinois.  There is little question that William Wallace was a Lincoln man through and through.

When the Mexican War broke out, William Wallace volunteered and served as a lieutenant in the 1st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, seeing active combat in Mexico, particularly at the Battle of Buena Vista. Having witnessed the battle first hand, his comments regarding the role of volunteers versus regular troops are instructive as to his views of their respective abilities. Wallace was particularly irked at efforts by the regular army commanders to take credit for the victory–a victory which he felt was due to the volunteer troops in the army. Wallace wrote, “the bull-dog courage (and) perseverance of the volunteers saved the day.”

As a friend and associate of Lincoln, William Wallace tirelessly worked for the latter’s election and when secession came, William Wallace was quick to volunteer his services, becoming Colonel of the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Although most of 1861 was uneventful for Wallace, late in the year he saw action in the field, joining General Grant’s expedition against Forts Donelson and Henry and earning a promotion to brevet brigadier general.

When Fort Henry on the Tennessee River felt easily to the Federal flotilla under Commodore Foote, General Grant resolved to march across the thin strip of land that separated it from Fort Donelson, which guarded the Cumberland River, and attack that fortress from landward. Wallace’s brigade was part of General McClernand’s division, assigned to the right flank of the besieging Federal force.

In truth, General Grant’s force was smaller than the Confederate army he was besieging inside Fort Donelson, although the Rebel commanders did not know it. On February 15, however, the Confederates resolved to break the siege and escape southward towards Nashville, where they hoped to regroup and renew the fight. The brunt of the Rebel attack therefore fell on Grant’s right, where McClernand’s troops were blocking the roads southward to Nashville.

Although attacked with overwhelming force, William Wallace’s regiments resisted valiantly, until at last, their ammunition exhausted, they were forced to retreat. Other brigades of McClernand’s division broke under the pressure of the assaults and fled in panic, but Wallace managed to keep his men together and fell back in good order. Still, the situation was critical, as the Rebels were on the verge of making good their escape; if they realized how weak Grant’s force truly was, they may even turn and overwhelm his vulnerable force.

As fate would have it, however, as William Wallace led his battered brigade back, another Union force, fresh to the battle, was advancing to fill the gap. This was a hastily assembled division, made up in large part of troops transferred from General Buell’s Army of the Ohio and under the command of General Lewis Wallace. Leading the troops relieving William Wallace was General Lew Wallace.

The two Generals Wallace exchanged brief courtesies, with General Lew directing William to his ammunition wagons to resupply, even as Lew Wallace’s troops advanced in battle formation to counter-attack. The Rebel breakthrough was blunted and then forced back by Lew Wallace’s men; General Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson was thus assured. Thanks largely to the two Wallace’s, Grant earned his laurels as the victor of Forts Donelson and Henry.

—–To Be Continued—–

For more about General William Wallace and his wife Ann Wallace, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground. For more on General Buell and the Army of the Ohio, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce served first with the Army of the Ohio and later the Army of the Cumberland in the Western Theater during the Civil War, where he saw combat in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. For more, see, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife