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

 

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

AN EMINENT FEDERAL GENERAL

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

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

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General Oliver O. “Oh-Oh” Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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THE FALL OF NASHVILLE, FEBRUARY 25, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.