Category Archives: Civil War

Grant’s Final Battle

Ulysses S. Grant (WhiteHouse.gov)

Ulysses S. Grant (WhiteHouse.gov)

We all hope to show courage in some form during our lifetimes. We are seldom required to do so in dramatic fashion. For most of us, it’s limited to the courage required to put bread on the table or to put our children through school.

Ulysses S. Grant had shown great courage on the battlefield in the Mexican War. Afterward he struggled with near-poverty, dressing shabbily and working long days at Hardscrabble – 60 acres of Missouri farm land his father-in-law gave to Grant’s wife, Julia. Just before the Civil War, Grant had been reduced to going hat in hand to his father, accepting employment as his father’s store clerk in a last-ditch effort to keep his family above water.

Then came Fort Sumter. The rest, as they say, is history. Grant, of course, went on to rise to the rank of commanding general over all the Union armies and in 1868 was elected as the country’s 18th President.

Between his times of military service and occupation of the White House, Grant had struggled to achieve some form of financial security. In early 1884, he smiled at the thought that he had finally gotten the knack of finances or, at the very least, had met someone who had the knack. On paper, Grant was almost a millionaire.

In the early 1880’s, Ulysses, Jr. (“Buck”) partnered with a young wizard of Wall Street, Ferdinand Ward, to form the investment house of Grant & Ward. Ward had the charm and apparent investing talent that drew many wealthy clients. Adding the Grant name to his business did not hurt. All of the Grants bought in. The former general and President saw double-digit returns between 1881 and 1884.

But just like many victims before and since, the Grant family ultimately realized they had bought into a pyramid scheme. The jig was up in May of 1884. Ward could no longer cover his loans and his clients were left with nothing.

Grant, who previously had resisted writing articles for the magazine Century about some of the great battles of the Civil War, no longer had any choice. He wrote articles about Shiloh and Vicksburg for $500 each. The Century’s subscriptions and advertising business increased dramatically.

Century Magazine (Source: Wikipedia)

Century Magazine (Source: Wikipedia)

Grant was prepared to write his memoirs for a 10% royalty when his friend Samuel (“Mark Twain”) Clemens learned about the arrangement. Clemens was aghast when he heard about the small fee Grant had received for his articles and persuaded Grant to negotiate better terms before signing a contract for his memoirs. Grant ultimately reached an agreement to allow Clemens’ publishing company to publish the memoirs, and went to work.

In October, 1884, a physician gave hints that Grant’s horribly sore throat probably was due to cancer. Grant did not falter. He had to provide something for his widow. At the invitation of industrialist Joseph Drexel, Grant spent the spring of 1885 at Drexel’s rambling cottage in the Adirondacks. On July 22, he completed his over 200,000-word memoirs. He died the following morning.

He had done what he must to provide for his widow. In the fall of 1886, Clemens presented Julia Grant with a royalty check of $200,000 (equivalent to between five and six million dollars in 2014 currency). Another $250,000 in royalties would follow. Between Grant’s perseverance and Clemens’ good timing, Julia Grant could spend her remaining years in comfort.

Grant’s military talents are beyond dispute. His Presidency – perhaps not. But as a man in the really hard times, when events did not turn his way, he soldiered on, doing the best he could for his family. In the end, his perseverance and, finally, one turn of good luck in the form of Mark Twain, won out. He provided for the woman he loved his entire adult life. This is the Grant I admire the most.

SOURCES:

Brands, H.W. The Man Who Saved the Union. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2012.

Mark Twain Project. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Smith, Jean Edward. Grant. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

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See also The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (reprinted by Konecky & Konecky, Old Saybrook, Connecticut).

 

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The Battle of Nashville – General George Thomas’s Christmas Gift to Lincoln

Battle of Nashville (Source: History.com)

General George Thomas (Source: History.com)

Just as this month marks the 150th anniversary of General Sherman’s capture of Savannah, it marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville, when Virginia-born General George Thomas led his forces to a resounding victory over Confederate General John Bell Hood’s army.

I particularly admire those southern-born United States military officers who did not abandon their union loyalties to serve in the Confederate ranks. They had to prove themselves one-better than their fellow officers, as their loyalty to the Union was often called into question. And George Thomas proved himself on more than one occasion.

He built a strong record, defeating Confederate troops led by General George Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862. He followed up that victory with service at Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River. He achieved his greatest fame as “the Rock of Chickamauga” in September 1863, when he mounted a stubborn resistance to General Braxton Bragg’s assault on Horseshoe Ridge, allowing other Union troops to retreat to safety.

By the end of 1864, one would think that Thomas’s reputation was secure. While Sherman made his March to the Sea, he left Thomas to deal with John Bell Hood, who planned to march 39,000 Confederate troops north into Tennessee and beyond. In the Battles of Spring Hill and Franklin, Thomas’s forces inflicted devastating casualties on the ever-aggressive Hood, whose numbers had fallen to 26,500 men by the time Hood sought to engage the heavily fortified Union troops at Nashville.

But Lincoln and Grant grew frustrated that Thomas appeared to repeat the same pattern as other Union generals – McClellan at Antietam and Meade at Gettysburg – allowing the Confederates to lick their wounds and recover their strength rather than taking the opportunity to take a major army out of play.

Confederate General John Bell Hood (Source: Wikipedia)

Confederate General John Bell Hood (Source: Wikipedia)

Hood was not looking to retreat and Thomas was nothing like McClellan or Meade. While severe winter weather delayed his movements, Thomas used the time to rest and refit his troops, particularly the cavalry. He moved forward only when the weather cleared, and, even then, a layer of ice still covered the ground. But he had a battle plan in place, and his troops were prepared to execute it.

Even as Grant sent General John Logan to replace a general he and the President thought too reluctant to destroy the enemy, General Thomas employed one corps to pin down Hood’s right and then applied the bulk of his force on Hood’s left. The sunset on December 14 before Thomas’s men could destroy Hood’s army, but after another day of battle, Hood’s army was a mere shell of its former self.

Hood had left Atlanta with 39,000 men. After casualties and desertions, his army arrived in Tupelo, Mississippi, with less than 15,000 men – a force that could not be wholly ignored, but one that could cause little more trouble and deprived Lee of a serious counterweight to keep Union troops occupied outside Virginia. Jefferson Davis’s choice to replace Joe Johnston, John Bell Hood resigned his command. Johnston would return to lead the beleaguered force.

It was Lincoln’s last, of course, but Sherman and Thomas had made December 25, 1864, the President’s best Christmas of the Civil War. Lincoln saw genuine hope that the country’s nightmare was near its end.

Battle of Nashville Then & Now, from the Tennessean: www.tennessean.com/videos/news/local/davidson/2014/12/13/20352329/

SOURCES:

  • Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York, New York: Random House, 1958 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).

Postscript: Thomas devoted the rest of his life to the United States Army. He assumed command of the Division of the Pacific in 1869. He died of a stroke at the Presidio in 1870.

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Savannah – Sherman’s Christmas Gift to Lincoln

Sherman's handwritten note to Lincoln

Sherman’s handwritten note to Lincoln

For some of us, the City of Savannah elicits thoughts of ghosts in America’s Most Haunted City. Many southern college students see the city as a St. Patrick’s Day celebration when the city is awash with green beer and visitors in the tens of thousands.

But this month also marks the 150th anniversary of General William T. Sherman’s capture of Savannah. On November 15, 1864, after Confederate General John Bell Hood left Georgia for his army’s ultimate destruction in Nashville, Tennessee, Sherman left Atlanta for his famous march to the sea to make Georgia howl. He cut his supply lines behind him and his men grew fat on the livestock and produce that lay in their path from Atlanta to Savannah.

On December 13, Union troops took Fort McAllister, outside Savannah. Eight days later, Mayor Richard Arnold surrendered the city to Sherman and Union troops marched into Savannah. Afterward, Sherman sent President Lincoln a message:

I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.

Lincoln received the dispatch on Christmas Eve. Sherman, who had wrecked Atlanta and pillaged and burned his way through Georgia, had applied a gentle touch to Savannah.

In one rare moment, after burning his way through Georgia and before doing the same to South Carolina, Sherman spared the town’s historic architecture from the hard hand of war.

Sherman's march into Savannah "March to the Sea" (Source: CivilWarTraveler.com)

Sherman’s march into Savannah (Source: CivilWarTraveler.com)

If you have the pleasure of visiting this historic Southern city with its many beautiful town squares, whether to search for ghosts or to lift a glass of green beer, pause to give thanks to “Uncle Billy” (the troops’ nickname for General Sherman) for sparing much of the beauty that surrounds you.

SOURCES:

  • Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Woodworth, Steven E. Nothing but Victory: the Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

 

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Thanksgiving 1864

In November 1864, the Confederacy was on life support. Its leaders had held on in the early years of the conflict, hoping for recognition from Great Britain or France. They then held on in the hope that Lincoln would be supplanted by a President who would allow the South to leave the Union in peace. This last hope was dashed when Lincoln won reelection earlier in the month. Now Southern leaders were merely “holding on.”

In 1864, the Union League decided to raise a fund to supply Thanksgiving dinner on November 24, 1864 for the Union soldiers and sailors fighting in the East. The reaction of the Northern public to this plan was overwhelming. Over $56,000 in cash was raised, an enormous sum at the time and 250,000 pounds of fowl.

In 1864, the Union League decided to raise a fund to supply Thanksgiving dinner on November 24, 1864 for the Union soldiers and sailors fighting in the East. The reaction of the Northern public to this plan was overwhelming. Over $56,000 in cash was raised, an enormous sum at the time and 250,000 pounds of fowl. (Source: almostchosenpeople.wordpress.com)

Meanwhile, the soldiers, North and South, did the fighting and the dying. The Southern lines at Petersburg (and on every other front) stretched thin and the rations fell to near-starvation levels. The Northern lines grew stronger and the soldiers enjoyed bountiful rations when they were not dodging bullets or cannon fire. My maternal ancestors include soldiers who served in the Army of Northern Virginia, and most likely were among those men who struggled for life on the Petersburg line. But survive they did, due to the randomness of war which allows me to write this piece today.

Thirteen months earlier, President Lincoln had issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. In 1864, the Union League of New York was determined to do something special for the Northern soldiers. My paternal ancestors likely benefitted from the League’s efforts, which produced hundreds of thousands of pounds of food of every variety (turkey, ham, pies) and $56,000 in cash (equivalent to $1.7 million in 2014). The League’s officers included Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the future President.

The trenches at Petersburg Battlefield (Source: That National Archives and Records Administration)

The trenches at Petersburg Battlefield (Source: That National Archives and Records Administration)

On this Thanksgiving Day, as we sit around enjoying one another’s company, overstuff ourselves with nature’s bounty, and finish off the day with three professional football games, all of us should set aside a few minutes to think about how the random nature of events allows us to enjoy the holiday with family and friends. You may look to any of a panoply of events – war, disease, or other catastrophes. I can look to both sides of the Petersburg line. Happy Thanksgiving!

For more detailed articles about Thanksgiving, 1864, see:

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The Civil War Hits Home: A High Price Paid by the Guilford Grays at Bristoe Station

Battle at Bristoe Station (Source: Bristoe.org)

Battle at Bristoe Station (Source: Bristoe.org)

On the morning of October 15, 1863, General A.P. Hill rode over the battleground at Bristoe Station with General Robert E. Lee. Hill repeatedly apologized to Lee for his failure on the day before, which cost so many lives. Lee seldom spoke in harsh terms and chose not to on this occasion. “Well, well, General,” he said, “bury these poor men, and let us say no more about it.” Hill had served Lee well in earlier engagements. Lee could only hope Hill would learn from this mistake. [Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, First Vintage Books 1986 Edition, pp. 792-794 (first published by Random House, New York: 1963); Robertson, General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior, Random House (New York: 1987), p. 239.]

General A.P. Hill (Source: OldPicture.com)

General A.P. Hill (Source: OldPicture.com)

The day before, Hill had allowed two brigades to march over an open field into a Yankee trap. The Confederates marched over 800 yards of barren, open field, prepared to attack a small force that appeared to be trying to escape across Broad Run. Beyond the creek, 3,000 Union soldiers waited, safely entrenched behind a railroad embankment. Before ordering his men forward, General Heth spotted the glint of bayonets to his right front. He reported his observation to Hill and asked whether the troops should wait for reconnaissance before going forward. Hill feared the Yankees in front of Heth’s troops might escape. He ordered Heth to attack immediately. Enfilading fire on the right and artillery on the left rained down on the Confederates. The 27th North Carolina Infantry Regiment caught the worst of it. Out of 416 men engaged, 290 were captured, killed, or wounded. On the eve of the Civil War, Greensborough, North Carolina’s population numbered around 2,000, and Guilford County’s population was about 20,000. By the end of the war, approximately 1,500 Guilford County men served in the Confederate army. Among the companies Guilford County sent to war were the Guilford Grays. By 1863, the Guilford Grays had been absorbed into the 27th North Carolina. Sixty-three of them went into battle at Bristoe Station. Over forty of them were killed, captured, or wounded. Several later died of their wounds. [Sloan, Reminiscences of the Guilford Grays, pp. 72-73 (1883)] The losses at Bristoe Station had to hit the small community very hard, particularly on the heels of Gettysburg only three months earlier. In that better-known engagement, 40% of the 45th North Carolina fell at Gettysburg. The regiment included Guilford County Company C. [Foley and Whicker, The Civil War Ends – Greensboro, April 1865, Guilford County Genealogical Society (Greensboro: 2008), pp. 85-94] Battlefield lapses are a terrible thing. Commanding officers pay with tarnished reputations – Lee for ordering Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg; Grant for failing to scout the ground at Cold Harbor; Hill for his aggressiveness when not tempered by good judgment (i.e., failure to scout the ground). Soldiers who take the battlefield pay with their lives. SOURCES:

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“Damn the Torpedoes” The Battle of Mobile Bay

Torpedo: 1. electric ray; 2. a large, cigar-shaped, self-propelled underwater projectile for launching against enemy ships from a submarine, airplane, etc.; it is detonated by contact, sound, etc.; 3. a metal case containing explosives, especially one used as an underwater mine.

                                      – Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th edition)

Growing up in the 1960’s, I was a history buff and a big fan of World War II movies. For me, the second definition of “torpedo” came to mind whenever I heard the term.

Admiral David Farragut famously said, "Damn the torpedoes." (Source: NPS.gov)

Admiral David Farragut famously said, “Damn the torpedoes.” (Source: NPS.gov)

You might remember United States Admiral David Farragut’s famous quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” a quote which seemed out of kilter with a sea battle that took place in August, 1864. The Confederates had invented the first submarine, the CSS Hunley, but it was nothing like its progeny of the first and second world wars, and it certainly did not launch torpedoes.

My fifth-grade teacher recognized the annual confusion of young boys who watched too many war movies. She explained that during the Civil War, a torpedo referred to the third definition, a metal case containing explosives. “Ohhh,” all of my male classmates nodded as one, “just like the mines the Nazis planted in the English Channel at Normandy in The Longest Day (for the younger readers, The Longest Day was a three-hour 1962 black-and-white movie about D-Day).

The significance of the Battle of Mobile Bay cannot be overstated. Grant’s troops were bogged down at Petersburg. Sherman had not yet taken Atlanta. Lincoln expected to be a one-term President.

Southern-born, Admiral David Farragut led the Union armada. Maryland-born and a former United States Naval Academy superintendent, Admiral Franklin Buchanan commanded the Confederate forces.

The Southerners had built an ironclad, the Tennessee, to thwart the Union’s largely wooden-ship navy. Fully understanding the probable outcome of challenging the iron beast with wooden ships, Farragut waited for the arrival of four ironclads of his own.

Entitled "Surrender of the 'Tennessee,' Battle of Mobile Bay", it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source: history.navy.mil)

Entitled “Surrender of the ‘Tennessee,’ Battle of Mobile Bay”, it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source: history.navy.mil)

Three forts stood in the Union’s path: Fort Powell near Cedar Point, Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, and Fort Morgan at Mobile Point. Chief among these was Fort Morgan. Farragut had hoped to employ a large contingent of infantry on Dauphin Island to keep the rebels at Fort Gaines occupied. Because the Union had lost so many troops in Grant’s Virginia campaign, only 2,000 soldiers were available. The number proved sufficient.

The Union spent weeks attempting to remove the torpedoes in their path. Farragut had doubts about whether they could remove all of them, but found some comfort in reports that many of them had corroded and were no longer effective. On Friday morning, August 5, Farragut’s armada tested the waters. One ironclad, the Tecumseh, hit one or more non-corroded mines. The Tecumseh went down with 94 of her 114-man crew. The commanding officer of the lead ship, the Brooklyn, declined to go forward, for fear of the mines.

It was under these circumstances that Farragut’s flag ship, the Hartford, took the lead. Farragut had climbed the mainmast rigging above the smoke and ordered a sailor to tie him there with a rope. He would not be denied. The line between folly and courage is a thin one. From his vantage point, like Ulysses tied to the mast when skirting the sirens, he shouted his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Not all went smoothly afterward. Buchanan (who previously had commanded the ironclad Virginia) commanded the Tennessee and inflicted considerable damage on the Union fleet before taking a hit that fractured his knee. The ironclad and the rest of his fleet ultimately succumbed to superior numbers. By August 23, all three forts were in Union hands. The victor of New Orleans sixteen months earlier, Farragut had added Mobile Bay to his list of major conquests. With the Union victory, Lincoln’s autumn prospects brightened significantly.

Sources:

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Battle of the Crater: It’s Not As Though This Was the First Time

Painting depicting the Battle of the Crater (Source: The Petersburg Express)

Painting depicting the Battle of the Crater (Source: The Petersburg Express)

It boggles the imagination. Former Pennsylvania coal miners accomplished what the West Point engineers, both North and South, said could not be done. The officers said a mine shaft over 400 feet long could not be built without installing air vents at various points along the tunnel, which would be readily visible to the rebels. The miners were not deterred. They installed an airtight canvas door just inside the entrance, ran a wooden pipe along the floor of the shaft to where the miners were working, and built a fireplace near the airtight door to send heated air up a camouflaged chimney (which drew the stale air from the far end of the tunnel and pulled in fresh air through a pipe, whose mouth was beyond the door).

Within a month, the miners had built a tunnel over 500 feet long, putting them twenty feet below the enemy’s artillery battery. They then extended the tunnel to the right and left, creating a chamber in which they set four tons of explosives. On the morning of July 30, 1864, they lit the fuse. An unusually long delay required two volunteers to enter the shaft to investigate. They discovered the fuse had burned out at the splice. They cut and relit the fuse, then ran for their lives. At 4:44 a.m., the charge erupted below the rebels’ feet. A brigadier general described the explosion:

Without form or shape, full of red flames and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, it mounted toward heaven with a detonation of thunder [and] spread out like an immense mushroom whose stem seemed to be of fire and its head of smoke. — [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, p. 535]

Did this foreshadow man’s twentieth-century discovery, capable of wiping our species from the planet?

The explosion killed or wounded 278 Confederates. The resulting crater stretched sixty feet by two hundred feet and ranged from ten to thirty feet deep.

General James Ledlie (Source: CivilWar.org)

General James Ledlie (Source: CivilWar.org)

What should have been a significant Union victory, breaking Lee’s lines, quickly turned into disaster for the men in blue. While the commanding officers (Generals James Ledlie and Edward Ferrero) hid safely behind the lines sharing a bottle of rum, 15,000 men poured into the crater and lingered long enough for the rebels to recover their bearings. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. By the battle’s end, the Union suffered over 3,800 casualties, three times the number suffered by the Confederates. The rebels took out much of their anger against Ferrero’s African-American troops, bayonetting and shooting many who tried to surrender.

But as I intimated in the title to this piece, the Petersburg siege was not the first time Union forces attempted to undermine a rebel position. They had done so previously in the siege of Vicksburg (1863), with mixed success. In Vicksburg, the Union command identified a Confederate redan sitting on top of a towering bluff as their most formidable obstacle. Led by Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, Union soldiers took a less covert approach than the one taken later at Petersburg. They had to cover a distance of four hundred yards and no one thought they could build a tunnel to cover the distance. They initially dug a trench, employing various defensive measures to protect the workers.

On June 25, the miners reached the edge of the bluff, where they dug a tunnel and set off explosives, creating a crater forty feet wide and twelve feet deep. Union troops charged, only to find that the Confederates had pulled out of the redan and had set up new defenses in anticipation of an attack. The losses were lighter (34 dead and 209 wounded) than later on the Petersburg line, but the results were similar – the siege was not broken. Six days later, Union troops conducted another mining operation, which achieved more positive results when they set off 1,800 pounds of explosives. They did not follow up with an infantry charge, apparently learning from their prior experience. By this time, however, the Confederate forces were exhausted and starving, with no help on the way. Formal surrender came only three days later.

Edward Ferrero (Source: Dickinson College)

Edward Ferrero (Source: Dickinson College)

Clearly, Grant recalled the miners’ mixed success at Vicksburg when he approved a similar scheme at Petersburg. But just as had happened on too many other occasions, Grant’s subordinates failed him. In this instance not only did they fail to execute the battle plan, they chose to share a bottle of rum far from the battle, missing the action altogether, while almost four thousand men either died, were wounded, or marched off to a Confederate prison.

Sources:

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