American Civil War
Ah, Jefferson Davis. During the War he was a devil figure for the North and after the War many Southerners blamed him for their loss. Actually Davis was a highly accomplished man who came close, against all odds, to achieving independence for his new nation. Often regarded as a bloodless pedant, Davis was instead a man who usually wore his heart on his sleeve, for good and ill. A good example of this is the letter he drafted on August 11, 1863 in which he responded to the offer to resign made by General Robert E. Lee in the wake of the Gettysburg defeat:
Richmond, Va., August 11, 1863.
General R. E. Lee, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia:
Yours of the 8th instant has just been received. I am glad that you concur so entirely with me as to the wants of our country in this trying hour, and am happy to add that after the first depression consequent upon our disasters in the West, indications have appeared that our people will exhibit that fortitude which we agree in believing is alone needful to secure ultimate success.
It well became Sydney Johnston, when overwhelmed by a senseless clamor, to admit the rule that success is the test of merit; and yet there has been nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings. I admit the propriety of your conclusions that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his position changed, whatever may be his ability, but when I read the sentence I was not at all prepared for the application you were about to make. Expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of the army. I wish it were otherwise, even though all the abuse of myself should be accepted as the results of honest observation.
Were you capable of stooping to it, you could easily surround yourself with those who would fill the press with your laudations, and seek to exalt you for what you had not done, rather than detract from the achievements which will make you and your army the subject of history and object of the world’s admiration for generations to come. Continue reading
The culmination of the Chattanooga campaign, the battle began in the morning on November 25 with Sherman attempting to take Tunnel Hill. His attacks met with no success in the face of fierce Confederate resistance.
Grant ordered the Army of the Cumberland to advance against Missionary Ridge, and the attack began at 3:30 PM. Grant, doubting that the heavily fortified Missionary Ridge could be taken by a frontal assault, ordered that only the rifle pits at the base of the ridge be taken, with the troops to await further order. Thomas launched a four division attack, about 23,000 men. The rifle pits were taken, and the Union troops began to come upon heavy fire from Confederate positions on Missionary Ridge. They immediately began a charge up the ridge to the astonishment of Grant:
Our men drove the troops in front of the lower line of rifle-pits so rapidly, and followed them so closely, that rebel and Union troops went over the first line of works almost at the same time. Many rebels were captured and sent to the rear under the fire of their own friends higher up the hill. Those that were not captured retreated, and were pursued. The retreating hordes being between friends and pursuers caused the enemy to fire high to avoid killing their own men. In fact, on that occasion the Union soldier nearest the enemy was in the safest position. Without awaiting further orders or stopping to reform, on our troops went to the second line of works; over that and on for the crest—thus effectually carrying out my orders of the 18th for the battle and of the 24th for this charge.
I watched their progress with intense interest. The fire along the rebel line was terrific. Cannon and musket balls filled the air: but the damage done was in small proportion to the ammunition expended. The pursuit continued until the crest was reached, and soon our men were seen climbing over the Confederate barriers at different points in front of both Sheridan’s and Wood’s divisions. The retreat of the enemy along most of his line was precipitate and the panic so great that Bragg and his officers lost all control over their men. Many were captured, and thousands threw away their arms in their flight.
The battle of Missionary Ridge was the most stunning example in the War of a frontal attack against a fortified position succeeding. Bragg’s center was broken and his army routed, with headlong retreat being the only course of action open to him. Confederate and Union casualties were each about 10,000 with another 4000 Confederates taken prisoner. Many of the Army of the Cumberland Union troops went into battle yelling “Chickamauga! Chickamauga!” That defeat was now well avenged, and the Chattanooga Campaign was at an end. Here is the report of Major General George Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland: Continue reading
Battle Above the Clouds, the song in the above video, commemorates the battle of Lookout Mountain fought 150 years ago yesterday, part of a series of Union attacks that drove the Confederate Army of Tennessee reeling in retreat from its positions around Chattanooga that it had occupied in the aftermath of the Confederate victory of Chickamauga in September of 1863.
Major General Joseph Hooker was assigned the task of attacking the Confederate position on Lookout Mountain. Grant was dubious that the Confederate positions on Lookout Mountain could be taken, and told Hooker to take the mountain only if it seemed practicable to do so. Hooker had three divisions, ten thousand men, not a much greater force than the 8,000 Confederates that held the position.
Hooker, intent on regaining his reputation as a field commander, pressed the assault. The Confederate defense was hampered by the rough terrain and lackluster commanders who put up a feeble defense. By midnight the mountain was quiet with the Confederates withdrawing in the wee hours of November 25, aided by a lunar eclipse. The battle electrified the North, being hailed as the battle above the clouds, a reference to the mists that clung to the slopes of Lookout Mountain.
Brigadier General John W, Geary, who led one of Hooker’s three divisions, shared the excitement, writing to his wife:
I have been the instrument of Almighty God. … I stormed what was considered the … inaccessible heights of Lookout Mountain. I captured it. … This feat will be celebrated until time shall be no more.
In some ways the battle was actually more of a skirmish. Casualties were light for the Union, only 408. Confederate casualties were higher, totaling 1251, with an additional 1064 captured or missing.
Grant, who had never had any use for Hooker, in his memoirs denigrated the “battle”:
The Battle of Lookout Mountain is one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called a battle on Lookout Mountain. It is all poetry.
The Union troops who participated in taking Lookout Mountain would beg to differ. After the fighting around Chattanooga was over many of them had photographs taken on Lookout Mountain, clearly proud of their accomplishment:
Here is Hooker’s report of the battle: Continue reading
Something for the weekend. The Chattanooga Boy’s Choir singing The Battle Cry of Freedom. An appropriate selection as 150 years ago the battle of Chattanooga began which resulted in a complete Union victory. Actually three battles: Orchard Knob, November 23; Lookout Mountain, November 24; and Missionary Ridge, November 25; these engagements were the culmination of the Chattanooga campaign that began when Bragg and his Army of Tennessee, put the Army of the Cumberland under siege in Chattanooga in the aftermath of the Confederate victory at Chickamauga.
With strong Union reinforcements, and with Grant placed in overall command, the siege was effectively broken on October 28, 1863 with the Union establishing the “cracker line” to bring supplies into Chattanooga. With the lifting of the siege and with the Union forces opposing him growing ever stronger, Bragg made the strategic blunder of keeping his main force in place confronting Chattanooga and sent Longstreet’s Corps, 11,000 men, on an ultimately futile campaign to capture Knoxville.
Bragg doubled down on this error by ordering two divisions to withdraw from the lines around Chattanooga and march to the rail head to be transported to reinforce Longstreet on November 22. Seeing the movement of the Confederate forces, Grant decided to launch the long planned offensive against the Confederate positions around Chattanooga, partially to prevent Bragg from reinforcing Longstreet.
Grant ordered 14,000 Union soldiers to seize Orchard Knob, a position held by 600 Confederates in front of the main Confederate defensive lines along Missionary Ridge. The position was taken with light casualties, and it did cause Bragg to cancel the movement of one of the divisions he had intended to send to Longstreet.
Here is Grant’s description of the engagement in his Memoirs: Continue reading
Presidents during their presidencies make hundreds of speeches. Most are utterly forgotten soon after they are delivered. Even most of the speeches by a president who is also a skilled orator, as Lincoln was, are recalled only by historians and trivia buffs. Yet the Gettysburg address has achieved immortality.
Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. The featured speaker was Edward Everett, one of the most accomplished men in American public life, who gave a two hour oration. It is a fine example of nineteenth century oratory, full of learning, argument and passion. It may seem very odd to contemplate in our sound bite age, but audiences in America in Lincoln’s time expected these type of lengthy excursions into eloquence and felt cheated when a speaker skimped on either length or ornateness in his efforts.
Lincoln then got up and spoke for two minutes.
We are not really sure what Lincoln said. There are two drafts of the speech in Lincoln’s hand, and they differ from each other. It is quite likely that neither reflects precisely the words that Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address. For the sake of simplicity, and because it is the version people usually think of when reference is made to the Gettysburg address, the text used here is the version carved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle- field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow…this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Here was the masterpiece of Lincoln’s passion for concise, almost terse, argument. No doubt many in the audience were amazed when Lincoln sat down, probably assuming that this was a preamble to his main speech.
“Fourscore and seven years ago”
Lincoln starts out with an attention grabber. Rather than the prosaic eighty-seven years, he treats his listeners to a poetic line that causes them to think and follow Lincoln back in time to the founding. Continue reading
Thomas H. Stockton in 1863 was pastor of the First Methodist Church in Philadelphia. A man with many political connections, he had been chaplain of the United States House of Representatives in 1833, 1835, 1859 and 1861. It was therefore no surprise that he was chosen to give the invocation on November 18, 1863 at the opening of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. He was in ill health and looked older than his 55 years, but he would live another five years and he had energy enough for the task before him. Here is his prayer: Continue reading
Something for the weekend. Song of the Rebel Irish, a deleted scene from the movie Gods and Generals. Of course it is impossible for me to recall that film without also playing the video of the stunning introduction with Civil War banners set to the haunting strains of Mary Fahl’s Going Home: Continue reading
Red Skelton and his unforgettable rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance. Skelton rose out of abject poverty to become one of the great comedians of his time. His comment about the phrase “under God” reminds us how deeply this phrase is embedded in American history:
The addition of “under God” to the pledge of allegiance in 1954 of course echoes this sentence from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The Pledge was altered with that phrase of Lincoln’s specifically in mind. The Knights of Columbus played an important role in getting the pledge changed, beginning in 1951 to say the Pledge with the phrase “under God” inserted at all Knights of Columbus functions.
Lincoln probably recalled the phrase from George Washington’s use of it in his order to the Continental Army on August 27, 1776 before the battle of Long Island:
The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness from which no human efforts will deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.
Edward Everett was the main attraction at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. He had led a distinguished life serving as Governor of Massachusetts and ambassador to Great Britain. In 1860 he had run on the Constitutional Union Party ticket as vice-president, attempting to forestall the break up of the Union that he clearly saw coming. After the election of Lincoln he became a vigorous supporter of Lincoln’s policies to preserve the Union by force. He would die in 1865 prior to the end of the War, but with the knowledge that the Union would win and the Union would be preserved.
He was a good choice to be the main speaker, still vigorous at sixty-nine, one of the most eloquent orators of his time, a time which included such speakers as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John Calhoun. As he spoke it was as if the past of the country was commenting on its turbulent present. He spoke for two hours and his listeners would have felt cheated if he had not done so, as lengthy speeches were expected at that time in American history on important occasions, unlike our own time where any statement that goes over three minutes is considered long-winded.
After his address he wrote Lincoln a famous letter in which he included this sentence that almost all Americans would agree with: ”I should be glad if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
Executive Mansion Washington November 20, 1863
Hon. Edward Everett. My dear Sir:
Your kind note of to-day is received. In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure. Of course I knew Mr. Everett would not fail; and yet, while the whole discourse was eminently satisfactory, and will be of great value, there were passages in it which transcended my expectation. The point made against the theory of the general government being only an agency, whose principals are the States, was new to me, and, as I think, is one of the best arguments for the national supremacy. The tribute to our noble women for their angel-ministering to the suffering soldiers, surpasses, in its way, as do the subjects of it, whatever has gone before.
Our sick boy, for whom you kindly inquire, we hope is past the worst. Your Obt. Servt.
Here is Everett’s speech, interspersed with my commentary. It is completely our of step with our sound bite age, but it is worthy of our close attention as it sheds light upon his time: Continue reading
Something for a Veteran’s Day weekend. The Army of the Free, one of the more rousing of the Civil War songs, set to the tune of The Wearing of the Green. It is sung by the immortal Tennessee Ernie Ford, who, like so many natives of The Volunteer State, had ancestors who fought on both sides of the War.
And here is another rendition, sung by Bobby Horton, who has waged a one man crusade to bring the music of the Civil War to modern audiences.
The news of the surrender of Vicksburg did not reach Washington until July 7, 1863. On top of Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg, the town went wild with rejoicing. A jubilant crowd went to the White House. President Lincoln made an impromptu speech that contained many of the themes and thoughts that he would flesh out in his Gettysburg Address delivered on November 19, 1863:
Fellow-citizens: I am very glad to see you to-night. But yet I will not say I thank you for this call. But I do most sincerely thank Almighty God for the occasion on which you have called. [Cheers.] How long ago is it? Eighty odd years since, upon the Fourth day of July, for the first time in the world, a union body of representatives was assembled to declare as a self-evident truth that all men were created equal. [Cheers.]
That was the birthday of the United States of America. Since then the fourth day of July has had several very peculiar recognitions. The two most distinguished men who framed and supported that paper, including the particular declaration I have mentioned, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the one having framed it, and the other sustained it most ably in debate, the only two of the fifty-five or fifty-six who signed it, I believe, who were ever President of the United States, precisely fifty years after they put their hands to that paper it pleased the Almighty God to take away from this stage of action on the Fourth of July. This extraordinary coincidence we can understand to be a dispensation of the Almighty Ruler of Events.
Another of our Presidents, five years afterwards, was called from this stage of existence on the same day of the month, and now on this Fourth of July just past, when a gigantic rebellion has risen in the land, precisely at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow that principle “that all men are created equal,” we have a surrender of one of their most powerful positions and powerful armies forced upon them on that very day. [Cheers.] And I see in the succession of battles in Pennsylvania, which continued three days, so rapidly following each other as to be justly called one great battle, fought on the first, second and third of July; on the fourth the enemies of the declaration that all men are created equal had to turn tail and run. [Laughter and applause.] Continue reading
One hundred and fifty years ago President Lincoln received an invitation to say “a few appropriate remarks”. Lincoln while he was President received many invitations to speak and accepted very few of them. This one, however, he did accept. It was an invitation from David Wills, a Gettysburg attorney, who had been appointed by Andrew Curtin, governor of Pennsylvania, to spearhead the ceremony for the opening of the national cemetery at Gettysburg.
Beginning on October 17 the Union dead had been removed from their makeshift graves and reburied. We must not think of Gettysburg then as it is now. Now, it is a national park, a symbol of national pride. Then it was a scene of almost unspeakable horror, bearing the raw scars of a huge battle where over 8,000 Americans had recently been killed and over 27,000 had been wounded, many maimed for life. It had been a Union victory, but the War went on with no end in sight. Lincoln seized upon the opportunity to explain to the American people, perhaps to also explain to himself, what Gettysburg meant. Here is the text of the invitation: Continue reading
The battle of Wauhatchie, featured in a post yesterday which may be read here, is primarily remembered in Civil War lore for a minor incident that occurred during the fight. The Confederate Hampton Legion, led by General Wade Hampton, of Longstreet’s Corps, apparently was disordered briefly by a stampede of Union mules and that allowed the Union to plug a gap in the battle line. Union troops waggishly suggested after the fight that the mules be breveted as horses. Here is the poem by that endlessly prolific author Anonymous: Continue reading
One of the many things that I find fascinating about Lincoln is how different he looked in most of his photographs. All but one of the Lincoln photographs were taken during the last eleven years of his life, and they are an interesting study in contrasts. This is especially intriguing since the subject of a photograph in Lincoln’s day had to sit absolutely still for at least 18 seconds, and I would think this would tend to flatten out any emotions that the subject was feeling at the time which might have altered his features.
I have studied Lincoln now for almost a half century and the complexity of the man is perhaps his most salient feature, and that shines through in his pictures. A man known for his humble birth, but who hated the life of poverty and drudgery that he worked so hard to escape from. Famous for reading before the embers of a fire place as a child, he read little as an adult beyond newspapers and a few choice books, but what he read he retained with a bear trap like grasp. A teller of humorous tales who was afflicted with deep melancholia. No formal education to speak of, but the finest writer of prose ever to sit in the White House. A deeply logical man who loved Euclid, he could understand the passions, the loves and the hates, that almost destroyed his nation. A humane man who abhorred bloodshed, he presided over the bloodiest war in our history. Viewed with suspicion by the abolitionists of his day, it was his fate to destroy slavery that had existed in what would be the United States for a quarter of a millennia. Turn Lincoln over in your mind and new facets of the man spring up.
Stephen Vincent Benet in his epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, captured some of the many Lincolns that appeared in the photographs: Continue reading
Army of the Potomac, advancing army,
Alloy of a dozen disparate, alien States,
City-boy, farm-hand, bounty-man, first volunteer,
Old regular, drafted recruit, paid substitute,
Men who fought through the war from First Bull Run,
And other men, nowise different in look or purpose,
Whom the first men greeted at first with a ribald cry
“Here they come! Two hundred dollars and a ka-ow!”
Rocks from New England and hickory-chunks from the West,
Bowery boy and clogging Irish adventurer,
Germans who learnt their English under the shells
Or didn’t have time to learn it before they died.
Confused, huge weapon, forged from such different metals,
Misused by unlucky swordsmen till you were blunt
And then reforged with anguish and bloody sweat
To be blunted again by one more unlucky captain
Against the millstone of Lee.
Ridden and ridden against a hurdle of thorns
By uncertain rider after uncertain rider.
The rider fails and you shiver and catch your breath,
They plaster your wounds and patch up your broken knees,
And then, just as you know the grip of your rider’s hands
And begin to feel at home with his horseman’s tricks,
Another rider comes with a different seat,
And lunges you at the bitter hurdle again,
And it beats you again–and it all begins from the first,
The patching of wounds, the freezing in winter camps,
The vain mud-marches, the diarrhea, the wastage,
The grand reviews, the talk in the newspapers,
The sour knowledge that you were wasted again,
Not as Napoleons waste for a victory
But blindly, unluckily–
until at last
After long years, at fish-hook Gettysburg,
The blade and the millstone meet and the blade holds fast. Continue reading