A Civil War Greek Tragedy

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015-2016, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2015 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


“In times of peace sons bury their fathers; in times of war fathers bury their sons.” This quote comes from the ancient Greek text The Histories, which was written by Herodotus in the second half of the fourth century B.C. The Histories chronicles events that happened in ancient times in Greece and western Asia. The Histories is part fact, part opinion, and part fable. The quote about peace and war was spoken by a man named Croesus, who was king of Lydia, a kingdom in what is now western Turkey. Croesus was one of those fathers who buried his son, not because of war, but because of a tragic accident involving an ancient weapon of war. Croesus had had a dream in which he saw his son killed by a spear. Because of this he refused to allow his son to fight in battle. At one point during his reign, Croesus received a report of a giant boar that was ravaging a province in his kingdom, and the people in that province petitioned Croesus to send a hunting party to kill the boar. Croesus’ son, Atys, told his father that he wanted to lead the hunting party, but Croesus refused because of the dream. However, Atys convinced Croesus to let him lead the hunting party by telling his father that a boar does not wield spears. When the hunting party found the boar, the members of the group surrounded the animal and began hurling spears at it. One of the spears missed the target and struck and killed Atys, which both fulfilled the prophecy in the dream and filled Croesus with deep remorse for allowing Atys to lead the hunting party. The Civil War has a story like that of Croesus and Atys, and it involves Confederate General William J. Hardee and his only son, Willie.

William Hardee

William Hardee was born on October 12, 1815 in Georgia. After he graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1838 in the class that included P.G.T. Beauregard, Hardee served for a time in the Seminole Wars before taking ill. He later served in the Mexican-American War, in which he was captured and subsequently exchanged. After Hardee’s home state of Georgia seceded, he joined the Confederacy’s army. One of his first assignments was to organize a brigade of Arkansas troops, and his ability to solve difficult problems led to his men giving him the nickname “Old Reliable.” Hardee commanded Confederate troops at a number of important battles including Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Chattanooga, and Atlanta.

Hardee’s Tactics

William Hardee’s best known military contribution came before the Civil War when he was involved in the production of a new manual of military tactics that was intended to update light infantry tactics in response to widespread introduction of the rifled musket. In the early 1850s Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who was keenly aware of the recent developments in small arms that were happening in Europe, became convinced that the adoption of the rifled musket by the U.S. Army would necessitate a new manual for infantry tactics. In 1854 Davis appointed Colonel William Hardee to head a committee to prepare this new manual. This appointment came not because of any particular expertise that Hardee had on the subject, but simply because Hardee was fluent in the French language. The French army was considered paramount in the tactical use of rifles after its many years of fighting in northern Africa with the newly developed small arms. It therefore made sense to use the French army’s proficiency as the starting point for a new U.S. infantry manual. The manual that resulted from Hardee’s committee was originally titled Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, but that title later became simply Hardee’s Tactics. However, this manual was mostly a translation of the French army’s light infantry manual, and there is evidence that the translation was not done by Hardee, himself, but was largely done by a member of Hardee’s committee, Lieutenant Stephen Vincent Benét, the grandfather of the noted poet.

William Hardee’s most fateful day of the Civil War occurred just before the battle of Bentonville. After William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea ended with the capture of Savannah, Sherman turned his force northward. Vastly outnumbered troops under the command of William Hardee had been opposing Sherman in Georgia and had evacuated Savannah the day before Sherman captured that city. After taking Savannah, Sherman’s force moved north in two wings. A much smaller Confederate army, now under the command of Joseph E. Johnston, did what little it could against Sherman, and William Hardee commanded a corps in that Confederate army. In March 1865 at Bentonville, North Carolina, the Confederate army made a stand against one wing of Sherman’s force. After heavy fighting on the first day of the battle, in which a strong Union attack was repulsed, the other wing of Sherman’s force was called to Bentonville. In response to this, Johnston rearranged his lines, and there was sporadic fighting on the second day. On the third and final day of the battle, a Union division launched a strong attack that threatened to break the Confederate lines. To push back these Union troops, the Confederates launched a counterattack.

Oliver Howard

One of the Confederate units that participated in this counterattack was the 8th Texas Cavalry. A few days before the battle of Bentonville, William Hardee’s 16-year-old son, Willie, had pleaded with his father to allow him to join that unit. For some time Willie, drawn by the siren song of valor and duty, had repeatedly begged his father to allow him to join a combat unit. William Hardee, who knew firsthand the realities of the battlefield, had previously resisted all of his son’s pleas and had instead assigned his son to staff duty. But William Hardee could finally no longer resist. According to some accounts, Hardee consented by telling an officer of the 8th Texas Cavalry, “Swear him into service in your company, as nothing else will satisfy.” The Confederate counterattack on the third day at Bentonville, in which the 8th Texas Cavalry took part, was successful in repulsing the Union attack and saved the Confederate army. As William Hardee was exulting with some comrades over the success of the Confederate counterattack, his elation turned to sorrow when he saw Willie being brought to the rear with a severe wound. Two days later Willie was dead. Ironically the Union troops in the attack that led to Willie’s death were from Sherman’s wing that was commanded by Oliver O. Howard, who had been a tutor for Willie Hardee when Willie’s father was commandant of cadets at West Point.

Willie Hardee’s grave marker

It is hard to imagine that William Hardee did not regret for the rest of his life that he allowed his son to join the 8th Texas Cavalry. This is especially so because the battle of Bentonville was the last major engagement in that wartime theater. This means that had Hardee not allowed his son to fight at Bentonville, Willie likely would have survived the Civil War. William Hardee had a number of fulfilling post-war experiences, such as restoring his family’s Alabama plantation to working condition and serving as president of the Selma and Meridian Railroad. But watching his son grow to adulthood and have a family of his own were fulfilling post-war experiences that were denied to William Hardee, and he could not have helped but feel personally responsible both for that and for denying those experiences to his son. One feeling that probably remained with Hardee for as long as he lived is expressed in another statement that Herodotus ascribed to Croesus. Herodotus recorded in The Histories that in addition to the quote about fathers burying their sons Croesus also stated, “No one is so foolish as to choose war over peace.” Of course, history has shown that Croesus’ statement is far from true, and the Civil War is a prime example of that. But for those fathers who end up burying their sons, as William Hardee did, the lesson contained in Croesus’ statement is learned too late.

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