Thursday, May 15, 2008

THESE WEEKS IN THE CIVIL WAR: May 11-17 AND May 18-24, 1862

The author of THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR will be out of town, travelling (in the Northern states, of course), so “This Week” will cover TWO weeks. Since this edition describes Halleck’s ponderous advance on Corinth, it is suggested you get in the spirit of things by reading this v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.


For the first few days of the Union advance on Corinth, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant watched silently as Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck’s orders to the Army of the Tennessee and the reserve corps—both nominally Grant’s commands—whizzed by him as if he didn’t exist. Told after the Union victory at Shiloh that he was now Halleck’s second-in-command, Grant must not have realized it meant this.

But it did. Grant—the Union army’s most successful commander—has been shelved in plain sight. He no longer has command authority over the forces he had been leading up until now. His new role is almost meaningless. By Sunday, May 11, he can stand it no longer. He writes Halleck politely but firmly: “[M]y position differs but little from that of one in arrest. I deem it due to myself to ask either full restoration to duty, according to my rank, to be relieved entirely from further duty.”

On the same day he writes Julia: “I am thinking seriously of going home, and to Washington, as soon as the present impending fight or footrace is settled. I have been so shockingly abused that I sometimes think it is almost time to defend myself.”

Julia’s response is unknown, but Halleck fires back a reply that is mostly malarkey. He insists Grant’s powerless second-in-command role is the right one for him (which it isn’t) and that he, Halleck, had spent the past three months defending Grant (only if you don’t count Halleck’s own effort to undermine Grant following Fort Donelson). Halleck cannot bring himself to frankly explain to Grant that he is being punished for the Confederate surprise at Shiloh. A public outcry had demanded that something be done about that close call, but President Lincoln had declared, "I can't spare this man; he fights.” Hence, the de facto suspension, unaccompanied by candor on Halleck’s part.

Of course, Halleck's reply does not satisfy Grant. Over the next few weeks he keeps repeating his request to be relieved from duty. Repeatedly, he will be refused. Meanwhile, Halleck’s combined command—a total of 100,000 men from Pope’s Army of the Mississippi, Buell’s Army of the Ohio, and Grant’s Army of the Tennessee—will slow down in its advance on the Beauregard’s Confederates at Corinth, Mississippi.

When Norfolk, Virginia, falls to McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, President Lincoln wires the happy news to Halleck, adding, “Be very sure to sustain no reverses in your Department.” He needn’t have worried. After a quick start, Halleck’s cautious nature takes command of the advance on Corinth. Now, this huge force only inches forward, a sluggish giant that seems to be burrowing its way to Corinth, throwing up earthworks every time it stops. On average, this Union army advances only a mile a day—and sometimes less.

Years later, a veteran of the 68th Ohio will remember how working parties of soldiers would labor mightily to build vast earthworks and bastions, inwhich the army would pause only for a day or two, and then advance a short distance--sometimes only half a mile--to repeat the process all over again. Part of the time, heavy rains fell on the troops, turning the ground to mud and forcing soldiers to help mules drag the army’s wagons forward. Soaking wet, the soldiers slogged through mud, pausing here and there to pour the water out of their boots (pictured above). Now and again, there would be skirmishes and sharp little engagements—but no head-on confrontation with Beauregard’s main force of Confederates.

The division led by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman—emboldened by his success at Shiloh—gets so far in advance of the rest of Halleck’s forces that it comes within a mile and a half of Corinth. There it settles to watch and wait, while Halleck creeps in its direction. Realizing he faces overwhelming force (thanks to dirty water and malarial conditions, much of his army is sick and out of action), Beauregard begins evacuating his troops by train. When the empty trains return, his soldiers are ordered to cheer loudly. The train traffic and the noise suggest that Beauregard is being reinforced. That suggestion, combined with Halleck’s natural caution and the memory of two days of hard fighting with the Confederates at Shiloh, is more than enough to delay occupation of Corinth until May 30.

With little to do, Grant wanders about the various Union camps, visiting one general and another, among them, Sherman, who had served him well at Shiloh. Years later, Sherman would recall that Grant rarely complained, “but I could see that he felt deeply the indignity, if not insult, heaped upon him.” It showed when Grant snapped at his beloved Julia in a letter about their personal finances.

But a trusting friendship is developing between Grant and Sherman. After Shiloh, they each owed something to the other. Grant never publicly blamed Sherman for not alerting him to the danger looming before the battle. For his part, Sherman rushed to publicly defend Grant when the press began attacking him for a lack of preparedness. And neither man ever admitted they had been surprised at Shiloh—although they clearly had been. Born of convenience, the close relationship blossomed—according to history writer Charles Bracelen Flood—into “the friendship that won the Civil War.”*

*Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War (New York, 2005: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

ELSEWHERE, MAY 11-24, 1862: With no refuge left for its famous ironclad, the Confederates are forced to scuttle the CSS Virginia (known to Northerners as the Merrimack). Having recaptured New Orleans for the Union, Farragut’s flotilla moves up the Mississippi in what will turn out to be a futile effort to reclaim the river from the Confederates. In New Orleans, the occupying Union general, Benjamin Butler, issues his infamous Order No. 28, declaring that ladies in the city who insult Union troops will be treated like prostitutes. On the Virginia peninsula, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston keeps falling back under pressure from McClellan. President Jefferson Davis is increasingly worried about the impending threat to Richmond. In the Shenandoah Valley, however, Stonewall Jackson’s “foot cavalry” is moving aggressively in search of the Federals, and on Friday, May 23, Jackson captures Front Royal, after a sharp little battle. Meanwhile, the work of a growing nation goes on, as President Lincoln approves establishment of the Department of Agriculture on Thursday, May 15, and on Tuesday, May 20, signs the Homestead Act, granting free land to settlers in the West.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3 years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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