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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William B. Hazen, the “Best Hated” Man in the Army

General-William-Hazen ca Civil War
Brigadier General William B. Hazen, whom Ambrose Bierce called “The Best Hated Man in the Army”

If there was a single person who left an indelible impact on Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce’s life, it was Brigadier General William Babcock Hazen.

Hazen was born in Vermont in 1830, but his family moved westward from New England to the Midwest when he was still young. After graduating from West Point in 1855, Hazen spent his early military career on the frontier fighting Apaches, Comanches and other tribes; later he was posted to West Point as an instructor of infantry tactics.  If any officer in the army exuded spit and polish, it was William Hazen.

Despite his years of service, it was not until the war broke out that Hazen was promoted to captain in the 8th U.S. Infantry.  As the U.S. Army expanded, Hazen’s own career grew aw well; at last, on October 29, 1861, he was made Colonel of the 41st Ohio Infantry. Then, in January, 1862, he was put in charge of the newly formed Nineteenth Brigade as part of General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. It was not long after this that his new command was ordered south to occupy the formerly Rebel-held state capitol of Nashville, Tennessee.

Ambrose Bierce, who had served on Hazen’s staff during the war, described as “the best hated man that I ever knew, and his very memory is a terror to every unworthy soul in the service.” Intolerant of dishonesty and incompetence in the military, General Hazen spent almost as much time fighting his brother officers as he did fighting the enemy, both during and after the Civil War.

After a little more than a month of drilling and training his mostly green troops into a semblance of military discipline, (which many of the volunteer troops took a keen dislike to), orders came down to advance overland to the port town of Savannah, Tennessee, to rendezvous with General Grant’s army. As part of General Bull Nelson’s 4th Division they took the van in Buell’s advance, arriving near the town only a day before Easter Sunday of 1862. The next morning they awoke to the sound of distant gunfire; Hazen mustered his men, and then it was a game of hurry up and wait, until finally they were ordered to make a forced march to the rescue of Grant’s men.

Union troops under Buell struggle to recapture artillery lost by Grant at Shiloh.  Ambrose Bierce described it as "a tough tussle."
Union troops under Buell struggle to recapture artillery lost by Grant at Shiloh. Ambrose Bierce described it as “a tough tussle.”

Hazen and his brigade crossed over to Pittsburg Landing during the night of April 6, enduring a night of drenching rain and then a day of hell as Hazen’s Brigade took heavy casualties pushing back the Rebels from the captured Union camps. During the afternoon, Hazen became temporarily separated from his troops, but his stern discipline and rigorous training made them through the day, repulsing repeated Confederate counterattacks. The struggle of Hazen’s Brigade was immortalized in Ambrose Bierce’s famous memoir of the battle, “What I Saw of Shiloh.”

The following months proved frustrating, both for Hazen and his men and for the Army of the Ohio in general, as they first spent a month slowly advancing on the Rebel army in Corinth, Mississippi, only twenty miles away, and then were assigned to advance on Chattanooga while trying to both repair and defend the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which ran through northern Mississippi and Alabama, the entire length of which was vulnerable to attack by Confederate cavalry and Rebel guerillas. The guerilla warfare became quite nasty and the Federals replied in kind. Again, one can look to the recruit from Indiana, Ambrose Bierce, who immortalized this obscure period of Hazen’s Brigade service in his short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,"  by Ambrose Bierce was based on the experiences of Hazen's men in the late spring and early summer of 1862 in northern Alabama.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce was based on the experiences of Hazen’s men in the late spring and early summer of 1862 in northern Alabama.

By late summer, Hazen and his men were relieved of frustrating duty along the railroad and instead headed north into Kentucky in pursuit of the Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg, finally halting them at the Battle of Perryville.
Following the Kentucky Campaign, the Federal army was reorganized under a new commander, General Rosecrans and renamed the Army of the Cumberland. Hazen’s Brigade was also renumbered and reorganized, having become ragged and lax (according to General Hazen’s thinking) during the chaotic summer and fall campaigning. By the time Christmas came, they were back up to his standards and fought in the bloody winter Battle of Stone’s River.

Here again Hazen’s men fought the Rebels to a standstill, preventing the enemy from rolling up the Union flank at the Round Forest. Although the brigade went on to other duties, they erected a monument on the site of the fight, which still stands on the battlefield today.

The year 1863 saw Hazen and his men heavily engaged, first in the lighting fast Tullahoma Campaign and then in the subsequent maneuvering to force Bragg out of Chattanooga. Unfortunately, having succeeded beyond all expectations, Rosecrans became overconfident and engaged in a headlong pursuit of the Army of Tennessee before he had consolidated his own army around Chattanooga, leading to the Battle of Chickamauga, in which Hazen and his men again played an important part.

In a daring night raid, General Hazen and his men seized Brown's Ferry and broke the siege of Chattanooga.
In a daring night raid, General Hazen and his men seized Brown’s Ferry and broke the siege of Chattanooga.

During the subsequent siege of Chattanooga, Genera Hazen led a dangerous night mission to seize Brown’s Landing to open up the “Cracker Line” which effectively broke the Confederate siege of the city. At the Battle of Missionary Ridge, Hazen’s men took first honors in reaching the summit and beating back the enemy—although he butted heads with General Sheridan, who tried to claim credit for reaching the summit first.

Assault on Missionary Ridge.  General Hazen's Brigade were  the first to seize the summit and capture the Confederate cannon there.
Assault on Missionary Ridge. General Hazen’s Brigade were the first to seize the summit and capture the Confederate cannon there.

During the Atlanta Campaign, Hazen’s Brigade suffered further attrition, until the by now eight regiments of his command numbered little more than one new regiment in strength. Often the brigade suffered more from the incompetence of its superior officers—such as the notorious General O. O. Howard—(or as his men called him “Uh-Oh” Howard) than from the enemy. At Pickett’s Mill, Hazen was ordered to attack a superior force, entrenched and prepared for them, without proper support. Hazen’s men suffered heavy casualties as a result.

After Atlanta, General Hazen, in recognition for his fighting abilities and qualities as commander, was given a full division in Sherman’s March to the Sea and in the subsequent Carolina Campaigns, leading troops in battle up to the end of the war.

After the war Hazen, now reduced to Colonel, served on the frontier, not only protecting settlers from the Indians, but also occasionally protecting peaceful Indians from the murderous attacks of his fellow army officers. Hazen also blew the whistle on army scandals within the Grant administration, which did not endear him to politicians or some of his fellow officers.

He died relatively young, at age 56 in 1887, and is buried at Arlington Cemetery. In his obituary, the New York Times called him “aggressive and disputatious”, while his former subordinate and close friend, Ambrose Bierce, described him as “the Best Hated Man in the Army.” Both descriptions aptly fit William B. Hazen, an irascible but brave officer and one of the best generals in the Army both during and after the war.

For more strange but true Civil War stories and events, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

THE DAY THE RIVER TURNED RED: Christmas 1862, A Civil War Christmas Part 6

 

Christmas Eve, 1862. Both sides were filled with thoughts of home. Thomas Nast (color version)
Christmas Eve, 1862. Both sides were filled with thoughts of home. Thomas Nast (color version)

CHRISTMAS 1862. It had been a bloody year and December of 1862 proved to be a bloody month.

The confidence and initial optimism of the Rebels had been dashed by the series of defeats at Forts Donelson and Henry in January, the loss of Nashville and the mid-South in the February and March, and then the stalemate at “Bloody Shiloh” in April. There was also the futile Fall Kentucky Campaign, where the Confederate forces almost conquered the Bluegrass state—but not quite. Back east, Robert E. Lee inflicted defeat after defeat on the Yankees, but still the blue-backs kept coming on against him.

After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, Spencer Welch of the 13th South Carolina, noted just days after Christmas that, “The Yankees are certainly very tired of this war. All the prisoners I have talked with express themselves as completely worn out and disgusted with it. ”

Spencer writes to his wife how the Yankees on the other side of the lines don’t even have their guns loaded and how both sides talk familiarly with each other, as if they were enjoying a time out in some sort of great game. For among all the death and dying, the Christmas spirit had still taken hold of both; North and South, all yearned for peace and home.

As far as Thomas Nast was concerned, Santa was definitely a Union man.
As far as Thomas Nast was concerned, Santa was definitely a Union man.

Out west, however, Christmas day was but a prelude to battle. No sooner was the holy holiday over than General Rosecrans, in charge of the newly renamed and reorganized Army of the Cumberland, marched out of Nashville to do battle with General Bragg’s Rebel Army of Tennessee, laying in wait for them in nearby Murfreesboro, encamped by the winding banks of Stone’s River.

In the West there was no rest from war at Christmas in 1862. Broken artillery from the Battle of Stones River.
In the West there was no rest from war at Christmas in 1862. Broken artillery from the Battle of Stones River.

On December 26, the two sides faced each other across the river, awaiting battle on the morrow. On one side a regimental band piped up; on the other side an enemy band replied in kind. One side played Dixie; the other Yankee Doodle; and so it went on the eve of battle, until the battle of bands ended with both sides playing Home, Sweet, Home in unison.

The thoughts and prayers of loved ones at home on Christmas Eve were for the safety of their soldiers at the front. While in camp, it seems, Santa had declared for the Union cause—at least insofar as Thomas Nast was concerned.

A field sketch of Fort Macon, Christmas Day, 1862.
A field sketch of Fort Macon, Christmas Day, 1862.

In camps North and South, Christmas was a more mellow holiday in ‘62 than it had been before; for many comrades who had shared their Christmas fare in ’61 were now dead and gone. All wished for peace; but none now dare hope for it anytime soon.

For more about the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Out now is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, which chronicles the wartime service of famous author Ambrose Bierce with the 9th Indiana and Army of the Cumberland.

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 (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins).
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s An alternate version of “Dixie” on YouTube