Friday, June 27, 2008

This Week in the Civil War: June 22-28, 1862


On June 3, in Corinth, Mississippi, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman persuaded his friend and fellow son of Ohio, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, to stay put and be patient. Frustrated by a month as the powerless “second-in-command” to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, Grant had been packing to leave, probably for good. In his memoirs, Sherman recalled that he “begged” Grant not to leave, arguing “some happy accident might restore him to favor and his true place.”

Within hours, Grant agreed to wait and Sherman rejoiced. Then, a few days later, Sherman’s prediction came true. Halleck decided to break up the huge force he had assembled at Corinth and send its parts in various directions to hold territory won from the Confederates. As part of this, Grant was restored to command of his Army of the Tennessee and told to take charge of west Tennessee. He would make his headquarters in Memphis (Scenes of the important river port of Memphis before the war are shown above).

Grant liked horses, so he skipped taking a train in favor of riding horseback for the 100-mile trip to Memphis. On Saturday, June 21, Grant climbs on his horse and with only a small escort, heads for his new headquarters. Only recently captured by Union forces, Memphis is the first Confederate city to come under Grant’s direct supervision.

In riding to Memphis, Grant’s lack of concern for his own safety approaches recklessness. For the latter part of the trip he has an escort of only 12 men as he rides through territory still crawling with armed Confederate sympathizers. At one point, troops led by CSA Gen. John K. Jackson came within three-quarters of an hour of intercepting Grant’s little party.

Arriving in Memphis on June 23, Grant finds the city in “bad order, secessionists governing much in their own way.” Never daunted, Grant declares, “In a few days I expect to have everything in good order.” A Confederate major on parole who had unwisely been given the run of the streets was arrested, picket guards were posted around Memphis, clergymen were ordered to omit prayers for the Confederacy, and a provost marshal, backed up by three regiments of Indiana troops, are directed to keep order in the city. Grant orders his Union occupiers to behave themselves. Wandering about, pilfering, or straggling are forbidden; soldiers are told to stay in their camps.

He is back in command, but for the next few months, Grant will have to content himself with housekeeping and security duties. To protect west Tennessee, his troops are too dispersed to undertake major offensive actions. To Grant, this is almost as torturous as serving as Halleck’s toothless second-in-command. However, he has the comfort of having his wife, Julia Dent Grant, join him in Memphis.


Col. Rutherford B. Hayes’ 23rd Ohio is enjoying the summer breezes and not seeing much action, while perched on Flat Top Mountain, a landmark in the southern region of western Virginia. The 3,750-ft mountain stretches for almost 20 miles; the camp of the 23rd positioned near the boundary between Mercer and Raleigh counties.

Like other elements of Gen. Jacob Cox’s Kanahwa Division in the Union army’s Department of the Mountains, the 23rd Ohio is keeping western Virginia safe as the region works to separate itself from old Virginia and become a new Union state.

Frequent scouting expeditions help relieve some of the monotony, but there is a lot to find. Occasionally, enemy scouts are encountered, but these are regular soldiers; stern measures by Cox’s men seem to have ended “bushwhacking” by guerrillas in this region.


On Monday (June 23), Robert E. Lee—the newly appointed (and not yet impressive) commander of the Confederate forces in Virginia—meets with his generals. Among Them is Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who has just finished his brilliant campaign in the Shenandoah Valley to keep Union forces from reinforcing Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. Now, Lee, Jackson, and company are planning to stop McClellan himself.

The next day, McClellan makes the first move. So close to Richmond that Union soldiers can hear church bells ringing, McClellan sends two divisions across the headwaters of a swamp. Their objective: gain enough ground so Union siege guns can be brought into action and bombard Richmond. The Confederates know that Richmond cannot withstand a siege, so they push back—hard. When darkness halts the bitter fighting, the Yanks have lost much of what they gained early in the day. Their net progress is only 600 yards, achieved at a cost of one casualty for every yard. This, the Battle of Oak Grove, will go down in history as McClellan’s last and only tactical offensive against Richmond.

With that, the so-called Seven Days’ Battles begin, and the initiative passes to Lee. On Thursday (June 26), Lee sends A. P. Hill to drive McClellan out of Mechanicsville, east of Richmond. Hill takes heavy losses without gaining his objective. Nonetheless, the Federals start backpedaling under the pressure. The Battle of Mechanicsville is the beginning of the end for McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.

The next day, Friday, brings the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, the third of the Seven Days’ battles. Despite yesterday’s shortfall, Lee presses ahead, with more success this time, even while taking more casualties than the Federals. McClellan’s forces continue retreating in what some called a “great skedaddle.”

At the end of the week, McClellan uses a relatively quiet Saturday, June 28, to continue withdrawing, while Lee plans his next move. As usual, McClellan blames others—Lincoln most of all—for his losses. His tone to Lincoln is so bitter and insolent that War Department staffers delete some of his telegram before giving it to the President. McClellan claims he had too few troops (although he hadn’t even used the majority of the men he had on hand). But there were failures on the Confederate side as well. Fresh—or perhaps exhausted—from his brilliant Shenandoah Valley campaign, Jackson keeps showing up late for the battles on the Peninsula.

And so ends the first few days of the Seven Days’ Battles. And so ends yet another Union hope of a quick end to the Civil War.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

These Days in the Civil War: June 8-21, 1862

Back in the Saddle Again

Only a few days ago (June 3), a frustrated Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was packing his belongings, bent on quitting Halleck’s command in Corinth, Mississippi. He had spent a month in limbo, twiddling his thumbs in a meaningless “second-in-command” position under Halleck. "I have stood it as long as I can, and can endure it no longer," he said.

Grant’s suspension from command of his Army of the Tennessee was, in fact, a clumsy compromise. It was punishment for allowing himself to be surprised by the Confederates at Shiloh, without dismissing him from the army. Lincoln had said, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.” Halleck only made things worse by refusing to to frankly explain to Grant why he was being suspended from command.

So Grant asked for leave and got it, but probably did not intend to return to Halleck's command, perhaps using his leave to appeal to higher authority. It was a risky move, but in the nick of time, Grant was talked out of it by another son of Ohio, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Since Shiloh, a friendship had blossomed between Grant and Sherman, when each refused to blame the other for the Confederate surprise attack. When Sherman found Grant packing, he argued Grant’s departure, reasoning that Grant’s fortunes could change in an instant. Grant sat quietly, listened, and within hours decided to stay. On receiving the news, Sherman "rejoiced."

Sherman’s prediction came true sooner than expected. Having captured Corinth, Halleck had to decide what to do next. Probably the best thing he could have done would have been to keep his massed forces together, pursue, and destroy Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard’s forces, which would have crushed the Confederacy in the Western theater and hastened the end of the war. Instead, however, Halleck chose war by the book, the book being the doctrine that war was best waged by taking and holding enemy territory while avoiding battle as much as possible. To do that, Halleck had to give back the Army of the Tennessee to Grant and charge him with holding western Tennessee.

On June 10, Grant was restored to command and soon cheery letters were flowing in Julia Grant’s direction. “It is bright and early,” the happy general wrote her on June 12. “I am very well….This is apparently an exceedingly fine climate and one to enjoy health in”—a misperception if there ever was one. Plagued by terrible water conditions, Corinth, Mississippi, was a pesthole of disease. But Grant was too happy to acknowledge it, full of vim and vigor—and optimism. “In my mind there is no question but that this war could be ended at once if the whole Southern people could express their unbiased feelings untrammeled by their leaders,” he told Julia..

So Grant moved his headquarters to Memphis, arriving there June 23 “tired and dusty.” With only a small escort, he had travelled there by horseback, narrowly escaping capture by Confederate forces roaming the area.

Sherman remained in Mississippi, repairing railroad bridges and salvaging equipment the retreating Confederates had attempted to destroy. The Confederates were not the only enemy Sherman had to deal with: Lt. Gov. Benjamin Stanton of Ohio had visited Union forces after the battle of Shiloh and loudly opined that Grant and another general ought to have been court-martialed and shot for allowing themselves to be surprised.

In an angry letter to Stanton, Sherman wrote, “The accusatory part of your published statement is all false, false in general, false in every particular, and I repeat, you could not have failed to know it false when you published that statement.”

This brought an angry, accusatory reply from Stanton, which he took care to published in a Cincinnati newspaper, followed by another furious response from Sherman.

So went the practice of warfare in the 1860s.

ELSEWHERE IN THE CIVIL WAR: On June 8 and 9, Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson scored two final victories in the Shenandoah Valley—at Cross Keys and Port Republic and then left to reinforce Lee on the Virginia Peninsula. It was several days before Union forces in the Shenandoah were sure Jackson was gone. Adding to the humiliation of the Federals in the Shenandoah was a humiliation of McClellan on the Peninsula: from June 12 to 15, Confederate cavalry commander J. E. B. Stuart led a thousand-man reconnaissance force on a ride completely around the Army of the Potomac. Stuart made it a raid: destroying considerable property and taking prisoners.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I'll be back soon

Your Western theater Civil War correspondent,, begs your forgiveness for the absence of posts lately. Needed out of town and away from the camps of the Army of the Ohio and the Army of the Tennessee, he has had to suspend reporting for a little while. However, having just finished a day of lecturing to educators and having survived certain medical matters (the surgeon was most humane, no amputations required), he hopes to return to gathering news about our Western soldiers within a few days.

In the meantime, he humbly suggests trying three (among many) of his favorite works about the Civil War, all in paperback and all first-person narratives of those who were actually there and fought it:

* John Beatty, The Citizen-Soldier: The Memoirs of a Civil War Volunteer. Engagingly written, with clarity and humor, by an unpretentious but sharp-eyed Ohioan who rose from private to general and bitingly told the truth as he saw it.

* John Calvin Hartzell, Ohio Volunteer: Childhood & Civil War Memoirs Capt. John Calvin Hartzell. The first half, a real charmer, is about growing up in rural Ohio, the second half about his frightening adventures in the 105h Ohio and, later, on detached duty. This man had a natural talent for writing; you'll enjoy it.

* William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs. Sure, you've read the better-known memoirs of Grant, but Old Cump's are pretty good, too, and you'll find his version of Shiloh and the March to the Sea interesting. If you don't agree with his account of events, Cump already has an answer for you: "Pooh!" (his actual reply to critics of the Memoirs after they were first published).

Finally, your author hopes you will read his own effort: Blood, Tears, and Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War and email him with your questions, complaints, suggestions, or whatever. (Please note, however: unlike the other other writers suggested, I was not present during the war.)