Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
We left off in January with General Grant’s three corps of about 30,000 soldiers advancing westward toward Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant had just defeated General Johnston, who was in overall command of rebel troops in the west, at the state capital, Jackson. On May 16, 1863, Grant had McPherson’s corps on or near the railroad line with McClernand’s corps south of McPherson’s. Following close behind was Sherman’s corps after carrying out Grant’s orders to destroy the military and manufacturing value of Jackson – he burned the city so badly to the ground that henceforth it became known as “Chimneyville.”
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
We left off last December with General Grant having advanced from his Mississippi River Bruinsburg landing south of Vicksburg. From there, he went on to win a small but sharp battle in front of Raymond, just west of the Mississippi capital, Jackson. However, before we progress I would like to pause and thank our president, Steve Pettyjohn, for providing modern photos from his extensive collection of some of the places mentioned in these history briefs last month and going forward.
Editor’s Note: From 2007 to 2011, Mel Maurer filled the position of Roundtable historian. During Mel’s tenure as historian, each Roundtable meeting opened with a ‘history brief’ presented by Mel, each ‘brief’ providing a small glimpse into a less-explored corner of the story of the Civil War. This page collects the history briefs from the 2007-2008 Roundtable season. Following Mel’s tenure as historian, his successors likewise presented history briefs at the beginning of each Roundtable meeting. Their history briefs are also on the Roundtable website, each history brief on a separate web page.
Lincoln secretary, John Hay, writes to Lincoln’s other secretary, John Nicolay.
“Executive Mansion Washington, September 11, 1863
“Washington is as dull here as an obsolete almanac. The weather is not so bad as it was. The nights are growing cool. But there is no one here except us old stagers who can’t get away. We have some comfortable dinners and some quiet little orgies on wine and cheese in my room.
“We are quietly jolly over the magnificent news from all round the board. Rosecrans won a great and bloodless victory at Chattanooga which he had no business to win. The day the enemy ran he sent a mutinous message to Halleck complaining of the very things that have secured us the victories….
“You may talk as you please of the Abolition Cabal directing affairs from Washington – some well meaning newspapers advise the president to keep his fingers out of the military pie, and all that sort of thing. The truth is, if he did, the pie would be a sorry mess. The old man sits here and wields like a backwoods Jupiter the bolts of war and the machinery of government with a hand equally steady and equally firm.
“His last letter is a great thing. Some hideously bad rhetoric – some indecorums that are infamous – yet the whole letter takes its solid place in history, as a great utterance of a great man. The whole cabinet could not have tinkered up a letter which could have been compared to it. He can snake a sophism out of its hole better than all the trained logicians of all schools.
“I do not know whether the nation is worthy of him for another term. I know the people want him. There is no mistaking that fact. But politicians are strong yet he is not their “kind of cat.” I hope God won’t see fit to scourge us for our sins by any of the two or three most prominent candidates on the ground.
“I hope you are well and hearty. Next winter will be the most exciting and laborious of all our lives. It will be worth any other ten.”
In big history: On October 12, 1861 the Union Navy launched its first ironclad – the USS St. Louis – on the Mississippi at Carondelet, Missouri.
In little history: That month the noted Southern diarist, Mary Chesnut, became increasingly annoyed with the Southern press, specifically the newspaper, the Charleston Mercury.
She wrote on October 20th, 1861 after several earlier entries along the same lines:
“Mercury today says Carolinians were sold in the convention. It was utterly exasperating in its taunts and abuse of the Confederate government. Simply atrocious. Could they not wait one year? There are the Yankees to abuse. If our newspapers would only let loose their vials of wrath on them – or pour out, to use the right words – and leave us, until the fight is over, a united people.
“It is our only hope. We have élan enough and to spare. If only we had patience and circumspection. If we were horses that could stay. The idea is that in pluck and dash our strength lies. The others have the numbers for us to dash our brains against. Now, to think the newspapers are trying to take the heart out of us.
“We believe we can do it – and so we can – but if they persuade us that everyone in office is fool, knave, or traitor, how can we? It is awfully discouraging. I agree with Mr. Carlyle that a few hung editors might save us yet.
“Mr. Miles says: ‘The wounded men and the sick men, the widows and orphans must feel pretty flat when they read in the Richmond Examiner and the Mercury that they were done to death by their own inefficient government. Everyone should do all they can to keep up the fire of our enthusiasm.'”
Also that month, Mary wrote:
“If I had been a man in this great revolution – I should have either been killed at once or made a name and done some good for my country. Lord Nelson’s motto would be mine – ‘Victory or Westminster Abbey.’
“Woe to those who began this war – if they are not in bitter earnest.”
In big history: This month in 1864, Gen. John Bell Hood led his Army of Tennessee across that state to attack Gen. George Thomas’ armies gathering at Nashville – but first they had to face Scofield’s army at Franklin, TN, resulting in a four-hour battle on November 30 which decimated Hood’s army. Two weeks later, Gen. Thomas would finish the job started that day in the battle of Nashville, routing Hood and his men.
In little history: Those days in Franklin, a nice story before the horror of that day began, as reported in a scrapbook account of a resident, Mrs. Adelicia McEwen German:
“A federal officer had taken residence at the home of Franklin’s Gen. McEwen and he asked McEwen’s daughters to sing to him. They did – choosing a recently composed song that had become popular. They had only sung a few lines when the battle started. The officer rushed from the house to find his regiment but on his way was shot through the lungs and severely wounded. First taken to a camp hospital and then to Nashville he eventually recovered.
“18 days after the battle, Col McEwen received a message from the officer saying, that in every waking moment the piece of music the young ladies had begun to play for him was still ringing in his ears. And then, four months later just as the war was ending, the officer returned to Franklin, bringing some fellow officers with him, to the McEwen home where he asked the daughters to finish the song that would not leave his mind. They did and when they finished the officers wept like children.”
Here are that song’s words:
Just before the battle, Mother, I am thinking most of you. While upon the field we’re watching, with the enemy in view. Comrades brave around me lying, filled with thoughts of home and God, For well they know that on the morrow, some will sleep beneath the sod. Oh, I long to see you, Mother, and the loving ones at home. But I’ll never leave our banner, till in honor I can come. Tell the traitors all around you, that their cruel words we know In every battle kill our soldiers, by the help they give the foe. Hark! I hear the bugles sounding, ‘Tis the signal for the fight; Now may God protect us, Mother, as He ever does the right. Hear the “Battle Cry of Freedom,” how it swells upon the air! O yes, we’ll rally round the standard, or we’ll perish nobly there.
Chorus: Farewell, Mother, you may never press me to your heart again. But, oh, you’ll not forget me, Mother, if I’m numbered with the slain.
In big history: In December of 1862 preparations were well underway by Confederate General Braxton Bragg in Murfreesboro and Union General William Rosecrans in Nashville for what would become the battle of Murfreesboro for the South and the battle of Stones River for the North. Rosecrans took his time getting ready, causing Lincoln some “great anxiety,” according to General Halleck, “over the fact that, Middle Tennessee being the Confederacy’s only gain that had not been erased, pro-southern members of the British parliament…might find in this apparent stalemate persuasive arguments for the intervention that France was already urging.” Rosecrans moved out on December 26, and the battle began with a Southern attack on December 29.
In little history: That same month in Murfreesboro, its citizens afforded the Confederate officers and men with various entertainment and amusements – horse races, balls, parties, and other social gatherings. There was even a visit by Jefferson Davis, but the high point of the season was the marriage of John Hunt Morgan and a local belle, Mattie Ready.
The previous summer, Mattie, “spirited in her defense of all things southern” heard some occupying Union officers criticizing Morgan, and she told them off. When one of the officers asked her name, she told them and then added, “But by the grace of God one day I hope to call myself the wife of John Morgan.”
When Morgan, a widower, heard this story, he came to call the next time the town was in Southern hands – and they soon became engaged. The December 14th wedding, attended by Bragg, other officers, and family, was held in the courtroom of the Murfreesboro courthouse, Leonidas Polk presiding, wearing, over the uniform of a lieutenant general, the vestments of an Episcopal bishop.
Within a week, Morgan, a new bridegroom and a new brigadier general, was off on what became known as his “Christmas Raid” through Kentucky, “destroying railroad trestles and four important bridges, along with an estimated $2 million in Union stores and tearing up more than 20 miles of railroad track while capturing and paroling 1,887 enemy soldiers.”
Mattie would become a widow on September 4, 1864 when Morgan was killed at Greenville, Tennessee.
In big history: There was no way to know that as the year 1858 began, it would some day be best remembered as the year of the Lincoln – Douglas Debates. Beginning in August that year and going through mid-October, the nationally known 45-year-old Illinois Democratic Senator, Stephen A. Douglas, and his challenger, ex-Congressman Abraham Lincoln, a 49-year-old Republican, met in debate before huge crowds throughout their state.
Through 21 hours of speeches, rebuttals, and rejoinders the so-called “Long Abe” and the short “Little Giant” Douglas presented and argued their beliefs – one man for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness regardless of race, the other stressing government by and for white people.
These debates began as a desperate measure from the underdog Lincoln, trying to campaign against the better known, financed, and organized Douglas. “Douglas’ tactics make it seem like he’s having a triumphant…march through the country,” Lincoln said. In response, Lincoln began to trail Douglas, publicly responding to Douglas’ speeches.
This approach, however, soon wore thin – especially when the opposition press began to ridicule him. One paper even suggested that touring circuses should include a talk by Lincoln – to “give him good audiences while relieving his supporters of the mortification they must feel at his present humiliating position.” Lincoln realized he needed a new approach and, as he put it, the “offensive would be better than the defensive.”
And then in July the pro-Lincoln Chicago Daily Press and Tribune came out with a powerful suggestion – in frontier language: “Why not let Mr. Douglas and Mr. Lincoln agree to canvass the state together, in the old western style?” Lincoln followed this with a formal challenge to Douglas – “for you and myself to divide time and address the same audiences.”
Douglas, of course, did not welcome Lincoln’s proposal. However, the “old western style” nature of the offer meant that he could not readily decline either – especially when the Republican press began to write that whoever refused to debate had “no better reason than cowardice for dodging the challenge.” While Douglas felt he could not refuse, he could, and did, insist on making the terms of the debates.
They would only meet once in each of the state’s nine Congressional districts, and since they had each already spoken in two of these, although not jointly, they would now meet once in each of the remaining seven. Lincoln accepted the terms, insisting only on “perfect reciprocity,” saying, “I want as much time as you and that conclusions shall alternate.”
The historic deal was done. Each debate would last three hours. The opening speaker would take an hour followed by the other speaker for a reply of an hour and a half. The first speaker would then have a half hour for a rejoinder and closing. Douglas would have an overall slight advantage by opening at the first debate. Even so, Douglas worried to a supporter, “I shall have my hands full.” “Neither candidate,” historian Harold Holzer writes, “could have been prepared for the overwhelming public response…seldom or since has political rhetoric elicited such sustained, fevered interest or exerted such powerful or long-standing influence.”
Lincoln and Douglas were contenders for an Illinois Senate seat, but as the Richmond Enquirer noted, “Theirs became the great battle of the next presidential election.” And, we might add, the future direction of the country. Douglas would win the Senate seat, and later Lincoln would defeat him for the presidency.
In little history: On March 4, 1861, when Lincoln rose to give his inaugural address, he looked for someplace to put his hat – and saw Douglas reaching to hold it for him – then taking it with a smile. Three months later Douglas died suddenly in Chicago. Lincoln ordered the White House draped in black and government offices shut down in respect. On the day of the “Little Giant’s” funeral, Lincoln would see no visitors, remaining alone in his office, no doubt with his thoughts back in that historic summer and fall of 1858.
In big history: “Ft. Henry is ours!” telegraphed U.S. Grant to General Halleck on February 6, 1862. “I shall take and destroy Ft. Donelson on the 8th.” And then reality set in – bad weather delayed the re-supply of his ground troops, and repairs were needed to his damaged gunboats, so it was February 12th when Grant approached Ft. Donelson to begin his attack on the 13th. The delay enabled the Confederates to prepare a defense of the fort – so it would not be the pushover that was Ft. Henry.
Despite a valiant effort – almost even turning the tide – Confederate Generals Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner knew on the night of February 15th that the fort would be lost. Buckner asked for surrender terms the next morning. Grant gave his historic reply, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately on your works.” Buckner surrendered about 13,000 men. When news of this much-needed victory reached the North, church bells rang and cannons fired in victory salutes. Lincoln promoted Grant to major general. General U.S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant was born.
In little history: General Floyd, who commanded the fort, escaped with 1,500 men before the surrender and General Pillow, whose slogan was “liberty or death,” chose liberty and rowed across the Tennessee River to escape. Buckner also permitted Nathan Bedford Forrest to escape with his men – he took his men across an icy stream without running into any Yankees.
Buckner found Grant’s surrender terms – or lack thereof – to be “ungenerous and unchivalrous,” perhaps because at West Point he had once lent Grant some money to get home in 1854.
The Confederates were as despondent at their losses as the Union was jubilant, with newspapers lamenting the “disgraceful, shameful catalog of disasters.” Mary Chesnut reported that she had “nervous chills every day.” And in London, Confederate diplomat, James Mason, reported that the “late reverse at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson have had an unfortunate effect upon the minds of our friends here.”
And as all of this was going on, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated for his six-year term as president in Montgomery, Alabama on February 18, 1861. Davis and his black footman both wore black suits. When asked why, the footman replied, “This, ma’am, is what we always does at funerals.”
In big history: On March 8, 1864 U.S. Grant arrived in Washington, DC where he attended a reception that evening at the White House in his dusty campaign uniform, unaware that it was a formal affair. Grant officially received his commission on March 9th assuming command of all the Union armies. General Halleck, who two years earlier had removed Grant as a commander for alleged misconduct – maybe drunkenness – becomes his chief of staff. Sherman replaces Grant in the West.
In little history: The Union blockade of the South – “a 3,800-mile cordon arching from Cape Charles in Virginia to the mouth of the Rio Grande in Texas” – continued with its sailors growing ever more weary with their assignment, “suffering from months and months, sometimes years of stark isolation and crushing monotony. Over the long term, for sailors, the blockade deteriorated into a war of nerves and voyages of endurance.”
By March 1, 1864 a blockade captain, William Wainwright, observed that one half of his crew was regularly drunk and fighting. Fist and knife fights among sailors were commonplace, some deadly. One crewman said, “Our men were kept on board so long, and we were under steam, that they became very irritated and ugly. Fights were of daily occurrence and some of them serious – several men lost their lives in this way.”
There were many reasons for irritations and short tempers. The men on blockade duty were without women and fresh food and always on call for action. So just about anything was annoying about their mates: skin color, place of birth, poor hygiene, the way food was chewed, and snoring. One man said, “If you want to find out what a man really is, go spend a year with him on the blockade and you will discover what he is made of as well as what kind of fellow you are yourself.”
George Bernard Shaw once quipped, “The longer men stay aboard ship they become crazier, crazier, and crazier.” There seems to be some truth to that. The mental strain of their duty – unchecked exhaustion, sleeplessness, and what we would now call depression – did break many men. They described their feelings in various ways including “played out,” “heart-broken,” “crossing the line,” “low courage,” and “used up.” One said, “I don’t know what to do with myself,” while another said, “I was so bad that I was not able to be at any duty,” and yet another, “I had to give up all together.”
Fortunately only a small number of men actually went insane, with some committing suicide and others trying. Those that overcame the psychological pressures of their duty did so by “developing a strain of mental toughness uniquely tailored to combat the blockade’s war of nerves.” They had to find ways to accept, adapt, and overcome every annoyance and hardship the ships and the enemy forced on them.
As one man simply put it, in order to survive the sailors “had to get used to it,” and most of them did.
In big history: April 9, 1865 – Appomattox Court House Virginia: General Robert E. Lee surrenders his army to U.S. Grant. Grant would recall the written surrender terms as follows:
“When I put my pen to paper I did not know the first word that I should make use of in writing the terms. I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly, so that there could be no mistaking it. As I wrote on, the thought occurred to me that the officers had their own private horses and effects, which were important to them, but of no value to us; also that it would be an unnecessary humiliation to call upon them to surrender their side arms.
“When he (Lee) read over that part of the terms…he remarked, with some feeling, I thought, that this would have a happy effect upon his army.”
Grant was taking Lincoln’s suggestion – letting them up easy.
In little history: April 3, 1882 – The Thomas Howard family in their small house on top of Confusion Hill in St. Joseph, Missouri was just beginning their day. The well-dressed Mr. Howard walked down the hill with his six-year-old son, called Tim, to get the morning papers. His wife, with their small daughter, Mary, started breakfast, asking their two houseguests – Bob and Charley – what they would like to eat. “Just a smidgeon,” Bob said, “I’m feeling sort of peculiar.”
Upon his return, Mr. Howard played with Tim and Mary in the yard, pushing them on swings. Bob and Charley, after using the privy, also played with the family until breakfast was served. Mr. Howard came to the table carrying Mary. Her mother gave her a jelled biscuit. She then asked her husband for some money to go shopping for Easter clothes. He peeled off two $5.00 bills from a small roll for her as she prepared sandwiches for him to take on his trip later that day – asking him if he would be back for Holy Thursday services that week. Tim and Mary ate their bacon and oatmeal.
After breakfast, and further preparation for his trip, Tom Howard joined Bob and Charley in the sitting room, which had served as their bedroom, carrying a long linen duster and packed saddle bags. “It’s an awfully hot day,” he said while raising a window. He then took off his black Prince Albert coat and black vest with elaborate red stitching, fully exposing the two revolvers he wore on his hips. “I guess I’ll take off my pistols for fear the neighbors will spy them if I walk out into the yard,” he said as he unbuckled the two crossed holsters with their unmatched revolvers, laying them on the bed.
His attention then turned to a picture of a racehorse named Skyrocket on the wall. “That picture’s awful dusty,” he said, taking a furniture duster from a wicker basket. Pulling a chair across the rug, he stood on it and feathered the walnut frame. His friend, Bob, standing between Howard and his pistols, pulled out his 44 Smith and Wesson revolver, extended it straight out from his right eye, and pulled the trigger, putting a bullet into the back of Mr. Howard’s head as his feet went limp and he fell to the floor dead.
Bob Ford – as was later noted in a popular song – was a “dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid Jesse James in his grave.”
Note: At the May 2008 Roundtable meeting, Mel Maurer, the author of the history briefs on this web page, told the full story of Jesse James, whom some call the “Last Rebel of the Civil War.” Mel’s presentation can be read in the article Jesse James – The Last Rebel of the Civil War?
Editor’s Note:From 2007 to 2011, Mel Maurer filled the position of Roundtable historian. During Mel’s tenure as historian, each Roundtable meeting opened with a ‘history brief’ presented by Mel, each ‘brief’ providing a small glimpse into a less-explored corner of the story of the Civil War. This page collects the history briefs from the 2008-2009 Roundtable season. Following Mel’s tenure as historian, his successors likewise presented history briefs at the beginning of each Roundtable meeting. Their history briefs are also on the Roundtable website, each history brief on a separate web page.
In this election year, I thought it might be interesting if my history briefs for summer and fall were taken from the election year of 1864 – a year that many historians consider to be the most important in our history. Would Lee ever falter? Was Grant a butcher? Could Sherman take Atlanta? Would the North lose its patience with the war? Could Lincoln be reelected?
The reelection of Lincoln, as we know, was anything but certain and, although in Grant he had the leader he always needed, Lee still held the winning hand that spring and early summer, causing unprecedented Union casualties in the Wilderness and at Cold Harbor. The war was not yet going well, and as it went so would Lincoln go.
By late August, Lincoln believed he would not be reelected and even had his cabinet sign an unseen memo he wrote to that effect, pledging that they would have to do all they could to win the war before the opposing party, led by George McClellan as their presidential candidate, took office. Lincoln believed the Democrats would negotiate an end to the war (as they said they would in their platform), leaving the nation divided.
In researching those times I came to believe that it would be a good idea to let the people involved tell the story of those deciding days for themselves – through their letters, memos and diary entries. I hope you agree.
Their words represent snippets of what was happening, and the feelings about those events as they took place. They take us back there to see, through their eyes and words, the hope, despair, joy, and sorrow of that election year. Although it’s always tempting to find parallels between those times and these, none was intended in selecting the words used in the briefs. I’ll leave any comparisons to the reader.
“This advance by General Grant, inaugurated the seventh attack in the ‘On to Richmond’ drama played by the armies of the Union. The first advance, led by General McDowell, had been repelled by Beauregard and Johnston at Bull Run; the next five, under the leadership respectively of McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker and Meade, had been repelled by Lee.”
General John B. Gordon before the battle of the Wilderness, May 1864 from Reminiscences of the Civil War
“Whether you shall remain at the head of the Treasury Department is a question which I do not allow myself to consider from any standpoint other than my judgment of the public service, in that view, I do not perceive occasion for change.”
Abraham Lincoln to Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who had appeared as a potential rival candidate for the presidency
“We reached Chancellorsville and bivouacked near the blackened ruins of the old Chancellor House. Weather stained remnants of clothing, rusty gun barrels and bayonets, tarnished brasses and equipments with bleaching bones and grinning skulls, marked this memorable field. In the cavity of one of the skulls was a nest with three speckled eggs of a field bird. In yet another was a wasp nest. Life in embryo in the skull of death.”
Union soldier Warren Lee Goss on the battle of the Wilderness, May 4 1864 from Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac
“What awful, what sickening scenes! No, we have ceased to get sick at such sights. Here, a friend struck dead by a ball through the head or heart. Another dropping his gun quickly clapping his hands upon his breast, stomach or bowels, through which a Minnie has passed and walking slowly to the rear to lie down and die…many more with bullet holes from which the blood is freely flowing, walking back and remarking, with a laugh somewhat distorted with pain, ‘See the rascals have hit me.’”
Chaplin A. M. Stewart on the battle of the Wilderness, May 5 1864 from Camp, March and Battlefield
“’This is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan and cut us off completely from our communications.’ The general (Grant) rose to his feet, took his cigar out of his mouth, turned to the officer and replied, with a degree of animation, which he seldom manifested: ‘Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do….Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what he is going to do.’”
General Horace Porter on the battle of the Wilderness, May 5 1864 from Campaigning with Grant
“Grant’s military standing with the enlisted men this day hung on the direction we turned to the Chancellorsville House. If to the left (Northward) in retreat, he was to be rated with Meade and Hooker and Burnside and Pope. At the Chancellorsville House we turned to the right (towards Spotsylvania.) Our spirits rose. The enlisted men understood the flanking movement. That night we were happy.”
Union soldier Frank Wilkeson on the battle of the Wilderness, May 7 1864 from Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac
“Your order for an attack is received. I have endeavored to represent you my condition. In the present position of my line an attack by me would be simply preposterous. Not only that – an attack on the part of the enemy of any vigor, would probably carry my lines more than half their length.”
General W. F. Smith to George G. Meade at the battle of Cold Harbor, June 2, 1864
“I noticed that the men were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinning them on the backs of their coats, so that their dead bodies might be recognized upon the field, and their fate made known to their families at home. Such courage is more than heroic – it is sublime.”
General Horace Porter aide to U.S. Grant at the battle of Cold Harbor, June 2, 1864
“Grant was determined to fight the decisive battle of the war and amassed his troops and rushed them on our works amidst a storm of shot and shell that it seemed no man could stand, but they were repulsed with great slaughter. The battle, at least the main part of it, did not last more than an hour. It was the most destructive that had been fought during the war considering the length of time the engagement lasted.”
Confederate soldier John O. Casler on the battle of Cold Harbor, June 3 1864, from his book Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade
“In the opinion of a majority of its survivors, the Battle of Cold Harbor should never have been fought. There was no military reason to justify it. It was a dreary, dismal, bloody, ineffective close of a lieutenant general’s first campaign with the Army of the Potomac, and corresponded in all its essential features with what had preceded it.”
Lieutenant Colonel Martin T. McMahon on the battle of Cold Harbor, June 1-3, 1864
“I do not allow myself to suppose that either the Convention or the League have concluded to decide that I am either the greatest or the best man in America, but rather they have concluded it is not best to swap horses while crossing the river, and have further concluded that I am not so poor a horse that they might not make a botch of it in trying to swap.”
Abraham Lincoln addressing a delegation of the National Union League following his renomination at Baltimore, June 1864
“Of Andrew Johnson it is enough to say that there is no man in the country unless it be Mr. Lincoln himself whom the rebels more cordially hate.”
Harpers Weekly after the Republican Convention in Baltimore, June 23, 1864
“Here is the Potomac Army at a seemingly dead stand. No more flank movements practicable. Richmond is not yet captured, nor soon likely to be. General Grant finds it a far different matter, pushing aside Western armies and capturing Vicksburg to conquering Lee and entering Richmond.”
Union Chaplin A. M. Stewart July 1, 1864 from Camp, March and Battlefield
“Forming the brigade on Pennsylvania Avenue, we marched through Georgetown with bands playing and colors flying. The streets being thronged with people to see us off. Reaching Fort Reno, soon after orders were given to keep awake and have an eye on the supposed rebels in front. Had the rebels made an attempt on Washington that night, nothing could have saved it as there were no troops around the city, but our brigade, and we were supposed to be unfit for active service. The morning of the 11th, guns were heard in our front and long lines of dust could be seen rising above the tree tops showing that large bodies of troops were on the march. Reinforcements now commenced to arrive, both white and black. Several large houses that stood in our front, and would have afforded protection to rebel sharpshooters, were burnt down.”
Union soldier Alford Bellard on defending Washington against Jubal Early’s approaching army, July 1864 from Gone for a Soldier
“General Halleck will not give orders, except as he receives them; the President will give none, and until you positively and explicitly direct what is to be done, everything will go on in the deplorable and fatal way in which it has gone on in the past week.”
Charles Anderson Dana assistant secretary of war to U.S. Grant following Jubal Early’s retreat from Washington, July 12, 1864
“It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.”
General Ulysses S. Grant on the great mine explosion east of Petersburg, July 30, 1864
“Except for what Farragut had already accomplished on the Mississippi, it would have been considered a foolhardy experiment for wooden vessels to attempt to pass so close to one of the strongest forts (Morgan) on the coast, but when the forts were added the knowledge of the strength of the (enemy’s) ram and the supposedly dead character of the torpedoes, it may be imagined that the coming event impressed the person taking his first glimpse of naval warfare as decidedly hazardous and unpleasant.”
Union Lieutenant John C. Kinney assistant to Admiral David G. Farragut before the attack at Mobile Bay, Alabama, August 4, 1864
“The (Federal) Monongahela, going at full speed, struck the Tennessee (the Confederate flagship) amidships, a blow that would have sunk almost any vessel of the Union Navy, but which inflicted not the slightest damage on the solid iron hull of the ram….The two flagships (then) approached each other bow to bow, iron against the oak (Hartford)….The other vessels of the fleets were unable to do anything for the defense of the Admiral. It was a thrilling moment for the fleet, for it was evident that if the ram struck the Hartford, the latter must sink. But for the two vessels to strike fairly, bows on, would probably have involved the destruction of both. The Tennessee slightly changed her course; the port bow of the Hartford met the port bow of the ram and the ships grated against each other. The Hartford poured her whole port broadside against the ram, but the solid shot merely dented the side and bounded into the air.”
Union Lieutenant John C. Kinney assistant to Admiral David G. Farragut on the battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864 as quoted in Richard Wheeler’s Voices of the Civil War
“Realizing the impossibility of directing the firing of the guns without the use of the rudder, and that the ship (Confederate Tennessee) had been rendered utterly helpless, I went to the lower deck and informed the wounded admiral (Buchanan) of her condition, and that I had not been able to bring a gun to bear upon any of our antagonists for nearly half an hour, to which he replied. “Well, Johnston, if you cannot do them any further damage. You had better surrender.”
Confederate Captain James T. Johnston second-in-command of the CSS Tennessee during the battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864 as quoted in Richard Wheeler’s Voices of the Civil War
“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re=elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration, as he will have secured his selection on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”
Abraham Lincoln in a memo presented to his Cabinet that he asked members to sign without reading, August 23, 1864
“Our ranks are constantly diminished by battle and disease, and few recruits are received; the consequences are inevitable.”
General Robert E. Lee in a letter to President Jefferson Davis, September 2, 1864
“Hood was unquestionably a brave, gallant soldier and not destitute of ability; but unfortunately his policy was to fight the enemy where ever he saw him, without thinking much of the consequences of defeat.”
Ulysses S. Grant about the fall of Atlanta, September 2, 1864 from his Memoirs
“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it. And those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….I know I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace….You cannot have peace and a division of our country. You might as well appeal against a thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war.”
General William T. Sherman in reply to the protest of the citizens of Atlanta, September 1864
“The platform of the Chicago (Democratic Party) Convention will satisfy every foreign and domestic enemy of American Union and Liberty. It has no word of righteous wrath against the recreant citizens who have plunged the country into the blood of civil war, but lavishes its fury upon the constituted authorities which have steadfastly defended the Union.”
Harpers Weekly September 10, 1864
“With respectable talents, a pure character, and patriotic purposes, he is wanting in that high moral sense that perceives the truest truth, and that high moral courage that does and dares in its behalf. He waits, he hesitates in the presence of great opportunities; he compromises with time and with truth.”
Springfield Republican on Democratic nominee George B. McClellan, September 18, 1864
“The judge brought home a clever caricature of McClellan in the character of Hamlet, the gravedigger a jolly Irish soldier. Hamlet holds Lincoln’s head in his hand and says, ‘A fellow of infinite jests, where be thy jibes now?’”
Maria L. Daly in her diary, September 19, 1864
It’s clear in October of 1864, with the fall of Atlanta in September, that the Lincoln-Johnson ticket will prevail in November – and with their election, that the war will not end without the surrender of the South. Clear, that is, except to some in the South, such as John Bell Hood and his Army of Tennessee as it prepares to invade Tennessee to threaten Nashville. Here are some October 1864 words.
October 3, 1864 Jefferson Davis in a speech at Columbia, South Carolina talks about General John Bell Hood:
“His eye is now fixed upon a point, far beyond that, where he was assailed by the enemy….And if – but a half, nay, one fourth, of the men to whom the service has a right, will give him their strength, I see no chance for Sherman to escape from a defeat or a disgraceful retreat.”
Jefferson Davis, still dreaming, in a speech at Augusta, Georgia on October 5, 1864:
“Never before was I so confident that energy, harmony and determination would rid the country of its enemy and give to the women of the land that peace, their good deeds have so well deserved. We must beat Sherman, we must march into Tennessee…we must push the enemy back to the banks of the Ohio.
The Richmond Enquirer, October 6, 1864:
“The question of making soldiers of Negroes, of regularly enlisting them, for their own safety as well as our own, must have presented itself to every reflecting mind. Because the Yankees have not been able to make soldiers out of their drafted Negroes, it does not follow that we cannot train our saves to make very efficient troops. We believe that they can be, by drill and discipline, molded into steady and reliable soldiers.”
Abraham Lincoln, in a letter to Henry W. Hoffman, Maryland political leader, on October 10, 1864:
“I wish all men to be free. I wish the material prosperity of the already free, which I feel sure the extinction of slavery will bring. I wish to see, in process of disappearing, the only thing which ever could bring this nation to civil war.”
Maria Daley, Southern diarist, somewhat cynically in an entry on October 30, 1864:
“Andy Johnson, who boasts that he was taught to read by his wife, is to be vice president. It seems that statesmanship is much less of a trade than rail splitting, shoemaking or tailoring. The last two can be learned by practice only, but statesmanship comes by itself.”
Maria Daly, in her diary, November 7, 1864:
“Tomorrow is Election Day and all good citizens, must wish it over. To the great discomfort of the public, General Butler has been put in command here and no one can tell, what may not be done to secure Lincoln’s election. Republicans are now most unscrupulous. I shall order my doors shut.”
General Grant in a message to General Sherman, November 2 and 7, 1864, before the latter’s March to the Sea:
“With the force, however, you have left with General Thomas, he must be able to take care of Hood and destroy him. I really do not see that you can withdraw from where you are to follow Hood without giving up all we have gained in territory. I say, then, go as you propose.”
Abraham Lincoln, in a victory speech on November 10, 1864, shortly after his reelection:
“It has long been a great question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its own existence, in great emergencies. We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion would force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
George W. Nichols, November 24, 1864, in the story of the great march:
“General Sherman is at the executive mansion of Milledgeville, Georgia, its former occupant, having, with extremely bad grace, fled from his distinguished visitor, taking with him the entire furniture of the building. As General Sherman travels with a roll of blankets and a haversack full of hard tack, which is as complete for a life in the open air as in a palace, this discourtesy was not a serious inconvenience.”
Abraham Lincoln, in a letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby on the loss of her sons, November 21, 1864:
“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the beloved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
Maria Daly, in her diary, November 28, 1864:
“On Friday last I saw Edwin Booth, and his two brothers, Julius Brutus and John Wilkes, in ‘Julius Caesar.’ In the midst of the performance, there was a cry of fire. The performance was interrupted, but the tumult was soon appeased. When we read the papers the next day, we read of the plot to burn the city, and of the many fires which have been discovered. This is the work, it is suspected, of rebel emissaries, alas, some of those, perhaps whose houses have been burned in the Shenandoah Valley or in Georgia. War! How horrible are its consequences, how brutalizing its effects!”
It’s December of 1864. As Lincoln prepares for his second term, the news is mostly good on the war. Grant has Lee pinned down at Petersburg, Sherman is almost to Savannah, and John Bell Hood has been bloodied at Franklin. However, Hood now threatens Nashville. Here are some voices from that month.
General George Thomas to U.S. Grant on December 9, 1864 before the battle of Nashville:
“I had nearly completed my preparations to attack the enemy tomorrow, but a terrible storm of freezing rain has come on today, which will make it impossible for our men to fight to any advantage. I am therefore compelled to wait….Major General Halleck informs me that you are very dissatisfied with my delay in attacking. I can only say I have done all in my power to prepare, and if you deem it necessary to relieve me, I shall submit without a murmur.”
U.S. Grant in a telegram to General Thomas on December 11, 1864:
“If you delay attack longer the mortifying spectacle will be witnessed of a rebel army moving for the Ohio River, and you will be forced to act, accepting such weather as you find. Let there be no further delay….I am in hopes of receiving a dispatch from you today that you have moved. Delay no longer for weather or reinforcements.”
William T. Sherman, December 1864, from his Memoirs:
“…on the 15th and 16th of December were fought, in front of Nashville, the great battles in which General Thomas so nobly fulfilled his promise to ruin Confederate General John Bell Hood….His official report came in on the 24th. I wrote at once to General Thomas, complimenting him in the highest terms. His brilliant victory at Nashville was necessary to mine at Savannah to make a complete whole.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, December 22, 1864:
“Like the tribes of Israel – fed on quails and manna – Sherman and his glorious band – journeyed through the rebel land – fed from Heaven’s all bounteous hand. Marching on Savannah!”
Charles C. Coffin as aid from the north arrives in Savannah, near the end of the month:
“The fire of Secession had died out….At a meeting of the citizens of Savannah, resolutions, expressive of gratitude for the charity bestowed by Boston, New York and Philadelphia were passed – also of the desire for future fellowship and amity. A store at the corner of Beatty and Barnard streets was taken for a depot….I passed a morning among the people who came for food….Well-dressed women wearing crape for their husbands and sons who had fallen while fighting against the old flag – all stood patiently waiting their turn to enter the building, where through the open doors, they could see barrels of flour, pork, beans, and piles of bacon, hogsheads of sugar, molasses and vinegar.”
Abraham Lincoln, near the end of the month, to a group of Kentuckians who wanted the controversial General Benjamin Butler assigned to their state:
“You howled when Butler went to New Orleans. Others howled when he was removed from the command. Somebody has been howling ever since at his assignment to military command. How long will it be before you, who are howling for his assignment to rule Kentucky, will be howling to me to remove him?”
One hundred and forty-eight years ago tonight – February 11, 1861 – President-elect Abraham Lincoln stood on the rear platform of the train that would take him to Washington DC for his inauguration as president and said good-bye to his friends and neighbors in Springfield, Illinois.
These were his words:
“My friends, no one not in my situation can appreciate my feelings of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of this people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care, commending you as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
Patrick Ronayne Cleburne was born on St. Patrick’s Day in County Cork Ireland in 1828. He became the only son of the old green sod to become a Confederate Major General. Cleburne, after serving with the British army, came to America in 1849, becoming a druggist and then a successful lawyer and a naturalized citizen – in Arkansas.
He joined the Confederate army in 1861, advancing through the ranks and many battles including Perrysville, Shiloh, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, becoming a division leader under General John Bell Hood. He was with Hood’s Army of Tennessee when it reached the outskirts of Franklin on November 30, 1864.
Cleburne that fall had proposed his own version of an emancipation plan to the Confederacy, which included recruiting Blacks into the army. Arriving south of town before his division, he passed time by playing a game of checkers on a dirt-drawn “board.” The game was interrupted when Hood called a meeting of officers. Hood had decided to “make the fight” with a frontal assault against the entrenched, well-fortified Union army in a misguided effort to destroy enemy forces before they could reinforce Nashville.
As Cleburne walked out to his horse after the meeting, Hood followed, giving final specific instructions, telling him not to fire until engaged by the Yankee skirmish line south of the main lines, “Shoot them as they run, and then charge their main lines.” Cleburne replied, in a slight Irish brogue, “I will either take the enemy’s works or fall in the attempt.”
Riding a borrowed brown horse, Cleburne moved forward in the center of his advancing columns. A hundred battle flags decorated the attacking troops, arrayed across two miles.
The Union soldiers manning the skirmish line opened fire as soon as the rebels came into range, tearing some holes in their line. Cleburne called a halt and redeployed his men in a line to make the charge. As the rebels advanced, the Yankees began to run toward the still open section of the main Union lines – immediately followed by charging men in gray – with Cleburne calling out, “Go into their works with them.”
Some of his men made it through the lines while Cleburne led others toward the breach, but his horse was shot out from under him. A lieutenant rode up and offered Cleburne his horse, but it too was shot as he tried to mount it. Cleburne then drew his sword, waved it over his head, and charged toward the break in the Yankee line.
But then, some 50 yards from his goal, a bullet entered his chest, hitting him in the heart and killing him instantly. As the Union fought back, Cleburne’s men briefly rested flat against their side of the earthworks, waiting for the order to go over the top. “We waited and waited,” said one man, “and when the order didn’t come we knew Pat Cleburne was dead.”
After several burials and reburials, the general was laid in his final resting place in his American hometown of Helena, Arkansas on April 30, 1870. General George Gordon used these words that day in his memorial address:
“A truer patriot or knightlier soldier never fought and never died….He was a patriot by instinct and a soldier by nature. He loved his country, its banners, its battle flags, its sovereignty, its independence. For those he fought, for those he fell.”
Note: While Cleburne, Texas is pronounced “Clee-burn,” the name “Cleburne” is pronounced “Clay-burn” in Ireland, so that is how Patrick would have pronounced it (Craig Symonds).
April – the bookend month of the Civil War. The month the war started and the month Lee surrendered to effectively end it. The month Abraham Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet.
The following is taken from a report by 24-year-old war correspondent, New York World reporter George Alfred Townsend of the events of April 19, 1865. Townsend takes us into the East Room of the White House early on the evening of the last day that the body of the president lies in state in these words:
“Deeply ensconced in the white stuffing of his coffin, the President lies like one asleep. The lid is drawn back to show the face and bosom.
“This coffin, set upon a platform and canopied, has around it a sufficient space of Brussels carpet, and on three sides of this are raised steps, covered with black, on which the honored visitors are to stand.
“All is rich, simple, and spacious. Approach and look at the dead man.
“Death has fastened into his frozen face all the character and idiosyncrasy of life. He has not changed one line of his grave, grotesque countenance, nor smoothed out a single feature.
“The hue is rather bloodless and leaden; but he was always sallow. The dark eyebrows seem abruptly arched; the beard, which will grow no more, is shaved close save the tuft at the short small chin. The mouth is shut, like that of one who had put his foot down firm, and so are the eyes, which look as calm as slumber.
“The collar is short and awkward, turned over the stiff elastic cravat, and whatever energy or humor or tender gravity marked the living face is hardened into its pulse-less outline.
“No corpse in the world is better prepared according to appearances. All that we see of Abraham Lincoln, so cunningly contemplated in this splendid coffin, is a mere shell, an effigy, a sculpture.
“He lies in sleep, but it is the sleep of marble. All that made this flesh vital, sentient, and affectionate is gone forever.
“The funeral guns are heard indistinctly booming from the far forts, with the tap of drums in the serried street without, where troops and citizens are forming for the grand procession.
“We see through the window in the beautiful spring day that the grass is brightly green; and all the trees in blossom.”
It’s the night of May 2, 1863, just after 9:00 p.m. The battle of Chancellorsville has nearly ended. It was a great day for General Stonewall Jackson. He had led his men in one of the great moves of the Civil War – a surprise maneuver around Hooker’s army to attack it from the west – setting Lee up for an eventual victory.
Now, in the moonlight, Jackson rides with some of his staff in woods along a turnpike, just in front of A. P. Hill’s brigades. They look for a route by which they might block Hooker’s retreat. Jackson tells his men, “The danger is all over; the enemy is routed. Go back and tell A. P. Hill to press on.”
Hill was not far behind. He shouts to his men, telling them to cease firing – that the men in the front ranks were firing into their own men. “It’s a lie! Pour it into them boys!” shouts Major John D. Barry of the 18th North Carolina Infantry. A line of his infantrymen then opens fire with several volleys into the approaching horsemen, cutting them apart, sending horses reeling and men bleeding – including Jackson.
The general, riding his horse, Little Sorrel, is hit three times; his left arm, nearly destroyed, hung limp. Little Sorrel bolts, dragging Jackson through the rough branches of a tree, which scrapes his face, knocks off his cap, and nearly pulls him off the horse. An aide assists the general at first and then sends urgent word to Jackson’s medical director.
Stonewall had been shot at close range, two bullets hitting his left arm, one splintering the upper arm to the elbow and the other striking the forearm an inch below the elbow. The third bullet lodged in his right hand. The wounds bled profusely. Shortly after he is placed on a stretcher, it’s dropped causing a chest contusion.
Jackson is taken to an aid station west of the shooting on the turnpike, where his left arm is amputated. The arm was buried nearby at Ellwood, the J. Horace Lacy House in the Wilderness. He is then moved by ambulance to recuperate in Richmond – but is too weak to go that far – so is put up at the Thomas C. Chandler House at Guinea Station.
General Lee sends him a note on May 3. It reads, “Could I have directed events, I should have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead.”
Lee achieves victory at Chancellorsville on May 4 with Hooker in full retreat on May 5. It’s a very costly engagement for both sides, even more so for the South when on May 10, Stonewall Jackson, with his wife and members of his staff around him, dies from pneumonia.
His last words are, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
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Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
We resume where we left off in October with General Grant having decided to move ahead with Admiral Porter’s daring plan to help achieve Grant’s goal of ultimately landing troops on dry ground on the east bank of the Mississippi south of Vicksburg. Porter’s plan was to slip by fortress Vicksburg “running the batteries” under the cover of darkness. However, before we venture further, one of our members, Brian Kowell, after reading last month’s history brief submitted some additional research to me on the ironclads in Porter’s fleet that I believe readers of this history brief would enjoy.
Please recall from last month that four river ironclads of the “City Class,” also known as the “Cairo Class,” and lastly also known as “Pook’s Turtles” after the name of their designer would make up a substantial portion of the fleet, namely the Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg, and Carondolet. The sister ships were identically constructed and armed but were fascinatingly differentiated by multi-colored rings painted on the smokestacks of each ship. Further, although by the time of this engagement various armaments had been modified as to type and caliber, Brian’s research shows that they each still carried 13 guns.
For readers who have visited Vicksburg, you know that the Cairo, also one of “Pook’s Turtles,” was sunk in the Yazoo River on December 12, 1862 by Confederates employing an electronically detonated mine. This is widely thought to be the first vessel in naval history to be sunk by such a device. About 100 years later the Cairo was dredged up, under the direction of Edwin C. Bearss, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service. Mr. Bearss spoke at our Roundtable numerous times and for the final time at our Roundtable on December 12, 2018 during my CCWRT presidential year. May Mr. Bearss Rest in Peace. Further, under his direction, the Cairo was refurbished and put on display in Vicksburg. Brian Kowell was able to research the precise armament found at the wreckage of the Cairo in the early 1960’s:
8-inch Navy gun with carriage, salvaged 9/14/1960, loaded with canister
When Mr. Bearss was here in 2018, he mentioned that his first visit to our Roundtable was during the Kennedy Administration’s Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. So at the time of his initial visit, Mr. Bearss was actively working on the Cairo dredging project. How impressed our members must have been at that time to hear all about it!
Having digressed, let’s go back to 1863. Accordingly, four of Cairo’s sister ships and other vessels were assembled in Admiral Porter’s flotilla on the evening of April 16, 1863. They were floating in the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg and configured in a line bow to stern about 150 feet apart. Each captain was to steer slightly leftward to avoid the ship ahead should it become disabled once the fleet proceeded and came under fire.
Ironclad Benton was at the head of the van. She was lashed to the tug Ivy, followed by ironclad Lafayette, which was lashed to General Price. Thence came ironclads Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and Carondolet followed by three army transports and finally the ironclad Tuscumbria. To ensure surprise, the attempt to run the batteries would be made at night sans lighting except what was needed for signaling purposes. That illumination was shielded under hooded lanterns that would not be visible to Confederate cannoneers. The van would move at low speed until sighted to keep engine noise to a minimum; they would essentially depend on the mighty river’s strong current to advance.
Anchors were weighed in at about 10:30 p.m. under a clear, star-filled night. At this very moment, General Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, his officers, and townsfolk were at a dance celebrating recent events that they misinterpreted as a retreat by Grant. How better to describe what happened next during arguably the most pivotal moment of the Civil War than to turn to the eyewitness account of General Grant, himself, from his Memoirs:
“Soon after the start a battery between Vicksburg and Warrenton opened fire across the intervening peninsula, followed by the upper batteries, and then by batteries all along the line. The gunboats ran up close under the bluffs, delivering their fire in return at short distances, probably without much effect. They were under fire for more than two hours and every vessel was struck many times, but with little damage to the gunboats. The transports did not fare so well. The Henry Clay was disabled and deserted by her crew. Soon after a shell burnt in the cotton packed about the boilers, set the vessel on fire and burned her to the water’s edge. The burning mass, however, floated down to Carthage before grounding, as did also one of the barges in tow. The enemy were evidently expecting our fleet, for they were ready to light up the river by means of bonfires on the east side and by firing houses on the point of land opposite the city on the Louisiana side. The sight was magnificent, but terrible. I witnessed it from the deck of a river transport, run out into the middle of the river and as low down as it was prudent to go. My mind was much relieved when I learned that no one on the transports had been killed and but few, if any, wounded. During the running of the batteries men were stationed in the holds of the transports to partially stop with cotton shot-holes that might be made in the hulls. All damage was afterwards soon repaired under the direction Admiral Porter.”
The Union broadsides, unleashed in response to the South’s plunging fire from positions on the east bank bluffs of the Mississippi, were blindly fired toward the Confederate batteries above to no avail. Conversely, about 530 rounds were fired by the rebel batteries, of which about 70 found targets. Porter later in a private letter indicated that he incurred heavier damage than mentioned in the official reports stating: “as it will not do to let the enemy know how often they hit us, and show how vulnerable we are. Their heavy shot walked right through us as if we were made of putty.” Nevertheless, the venture was a resounding success with all of the ironclads and two of three transports making it successfully past the fortress at the human cost of 14 wounded men. In the meantime, Grant had ordered Sherman to deceive General Pemberton with a feint along the Yazoo River to coerce him into thinking that a major Union attack would be mounted from north of Vicksburg.
Further, Grant ordered cavalry Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher, composer, and abolitionist, whose formative years were spent in Youngstown, Ohio, to depart with three regiments of cavalry to raid central Mississippi. The purpose of the raid was to destroy rebel communications, supplies, and munitions and to generally create havoc. Grierson’s rampage went on for 16 days from April 16 to May 2. His 1,700 troopers of the heretofore often maligned Union cavalry performed a raid that was among the most successful use of cavalry by either side during the entire war. As some termed it, Grierson’s cavalry rode “Roughshod through Dixie” and not only did they destroy all manner of extremely hard to replace southern goods, they also drew thousands of rebel troops away from Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, soldiers that were consequently woefully out of position to counter Grant’s soon to be launched attack on Vicksburg. Also of importance, according to Sergeant Surby, one of Grierson’s ablest and most distinguished scouts, the troopers “played smash with the railroads.” For example, the damage wrought to the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad was so thorough that it was rendered useless for the remainder of the war. In sum, the raid spectacularly augmented Grant’s campaign both materially and strategically.
On April 20, with the fleet below Vicksburg, Grant’s immediate goal was within grasp as he wrote the open-ended order for his command to “obtain a foothold on the east bank of the Mississippi River, from which Vicksburg can be approached by practicable roads.” General McLernand thusly was in motion with three corps marching southward along the west bank of the Mississippi. They were to rendezvous with Porter’s fleet in anticipation of being transported to the east bank in the vicinity of Grand Gulf about 25 miles as the crow flies south of Vicksburg.
Now Grant was orchestrating and bringing heavily to bear on the unwitting Confederate General Pemberton the full might of the combined arms resources of the Union’s infantry, cavalry, and navy in that part of the western theater of war. Truly a man of vitality and confidence, any notion of Catton’s “slouchy little man” from This Hallowed Ground leading up to April 1863 was now cast asunder. One of Grant’s officers at this juncture wrote about Grant, “None who had known him the previous years could recognize him as being the same man…From this time his genius and his energies seemed to burst forth with new life.”
While probably not quite yet the Civil War’s “indispensable man,” we will track Grant’s next steps toward earning that sobriquet in December’s history brief. We will see Union troops endeavor a military crossing of the Mississippi River in enemy territory and watch Grant begin to explore for those “practicable roads”!
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Please recall last month’s history brief where we left off with the end of Grant’s creative winter efforts of 1862-3 to bypass Vicksburg, which sputtered out in a haze of impracticability. From the engineering attempts for a proposed trench to reroute the Mississippi River along the neck of a peninsular bend near the fortress city, itself, and the push for a channel through marshy terrain to ultimately join with the Red River and its tributaries and thence to the Mississippi and finally a military effort to land troops just north of Vicksburg through the Yazoo River environs, all of these endeavors came to naught. But not for lack of effort; Grant recorded in his “Memoirs” that he was proud of the hard work his troops had undertaken, which had at least kept them productive outside the campaigning season. Now Grant huddled with Admiral Porter to devise a daring combined arms effort to achieve his goal of landing his troops on dry ground on the east side of the river below Vicksburg.
Having been born on the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, Ohio and growing up in nearby Georgetown a mere ten miles from the river, Grant had a unique appreciation for the country’s water highways, which were useful for moving all manner of goods and materials in mid-1800s America. As such, U.S. Grant acquired in his youth an intuitive ability to make use later in life of the waterborne and naval assets that the largesse of the northern economy made available for commanders that realized the potential. Accordingly, at his very first substantial battle at Belmont, Grant used river steamers to land and evacuate his troops – and here he famously followed his men as the last person boarding the escape vessels while slip sliding his horse down a muddy bank and scurrying his mount over a narrow wooden plank to complete an improbable last minute escape of his person.
Next, Grant subdued Forts Henry and Donelson and aggressively used the substantial firepower of the powerful river ironclads built at various shipbuilding facilities along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. At Shiloh, the Tennessee River was used as a supply line by Grant, and he exploited the river to military advantage in the adroit shelling of the Confederates by the Union gunboats Tyler and Lexington at a critical stage of the battle late on the first day, blunting what had thus far been a Confederate success and demoralizing the rebel troops’ spirit.
Now Admiral Porter told Grant that he believed that with proper preparation, he could “run the guns” of the Vicksburg fortress at night, minimizing the effect of the Confederate batteries under partial cover of darkness, and take his river fleet with its ironclads and sufficient supplies on the Mississippi past Vicksburg to ultimately meet Union troops that Grant would march down the west bank. At that point, Porter’s vessels could transport the Union troops across the Mississippi River to the coveted dry location below Vicksburg, where Grant could launch an offensive to capture the city over dry approaches. Of course, “running the guns” came with a huge risk, as the fleet could become heavily damaged and lose critical firepower, transport capability, and manpower. Further, once south of Vicksburg, in the event that they needed to do so, the ships would not likely be able to steam back up past Vicksburg, as the strong southerly river current would slow the vessels to such a degree that the Confederate batteries would be expected to obliterate the fleet.
Most often, the fighting vessels employed by Grant and Porter at Vicksburg are only briefly mentioned with little detail. So let’s examine them more closely, as they would be crucial to Grant’s effort – noted below as they were armed at the time of the Vicksburg run and presented corresponding to their positions in the line.
Benton – catamaran “snagboat” converted to an ironclad at James B. Eads Yard, St. Louis Missouri; commissioned February 24, 1862; speed 5 ½ knots; armament: eight nine-inch smoothbores; three 42-pound rifles; three 32-pound rifles; two 100-pound rifles. Benton was lashed to the tug Ivy at the head of the van; Benton was the most powerfully armed ironclad in the line.
Lafayette – former river steamer converted to ironclad ram at James B. Eads Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned February 27, 1863; speed 4 knots; armament: two 24-pound howitzers; two 12-pound howitzers; two 11-inch smoothbores; two nine-inch smoothbores; two 100-pounder rifles. Lashed to the General Price.
Louisville – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 16, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: one 8-inch smoothbore; three 9-inch smoothbores; two 42-pound rifles; two 32-pound rifles.
Mound City – built as a River casemate ironclad at Mound City Yard, Mound City, Illinois; commissioned January 16, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: three 8-inch smoothbores; two 42-pound rifles; six 32-pound rifles; one 12-pound rifle; one 30-pound rifle; one 50-pound rifle.
Pittsburgh – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 25, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: two 8-inch smoothbores; two 9-inch smoothbores; two 32-pound rifles; two 30-pound rifles; one 100-pound rifle.
Carondelet – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 15, 1862; speed 7 knots; armament: four 8-inch smoothbores; three 9-inch smoothbores; one 42-pound rifle; one 32-pound rifle; one 30-pound rifle; one 50-pound rifle.
Carondelet was followed by three army transports.
Tuscumbia – built as a River casemate ironclad at Joseph Brown Yard, New Albany, Indiana; commissioned March 12, 1863; speed 10 knots; armament: three 11-inch smoothbores; two 9-inch smoothbores. Tuscumbia was the final ship in the van.
Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and Carondelet were sister ships of the “City Class,” alternately called the “Cairo Class.” They were a novel design of shallow-draft ships and the vision of Samuel Pook; they became known as “Pook’s Turtles” and by now were veterans of most of the North’s and Grant’s river-related campaigns in the Western Theater. To make all of the vessels in the line less susceptible to the plunging fire of the Confederate batteries on the cliffs above, timber, cotton and additional iron were lashed to their upward decks and surfaces. Sailors would have wet cotton available to stuff holes made by rebel projectiles.
Confident in Admiral Porter’s ability and buoyed by his past combined arms successes, Grant’s patience with other potential endeavors to reduce Vicksburg had left him. So on March 29, 1863 he ordered General McClernand to send his four-division corps on the march along the west side of the mighty river and committed the Union to this daring plan.
In his “Memoirs,” General Sherman indicated his disagreement with running the guns for a variety of reasons and thought it better to go back to Memphis and then proceed down the rail line again in central Tennessee. Bruce Catton in his famous book This Hallowed Ground characterized it in a way that many of Grant’s detractors of the time would have phrased it in a somewhat condescending sentence: “It was perhaps the crucial federal military decision of the war; and it was made by a slouchy little man who never managed to look like a great captain, who had a casual unbuttoned air about him and seemed to be nothing much more than a middle-aged person who used to be a clerk in a small town harness shop – a man who unexpectedly combined dogged determination with a gambler’s daring.”
We will learn how Grant’s daring plan unfolds and whether the “slouchy little man” transforms into the “indispensable man” in next month’s history brief!
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Please recall Grant’s campaign in the West to capture Vicksburg where we left off at the CCWRT December 2019 meeting with the “Battle of Chickasaw Bayou.” This was a defeat for General Grant, who commanded a two-pronged attack to vanquish the fortress. The first prong was his own movement through central Mississippi that would hopefully draw Confederate troops from Vicksburg to allow a direct thrust at the fortress. The second prong along the Mississippi River was under his friend and colleague, General Sherman. Grant’s drive was short-lived as his supply lines were disrupted by “that devil” General Nathan Bedford Forrest amongst others. Accordingly, Confederate General Pemberton maintained the majority of his troops in the Vicksburg defenses and decisively repulsed Sherman’s attack through the Chickasaw Bayou.
Soon after, a small Union tactical victory occurred at Arkansas Post which gave no strategic advantage to the North, so Grant pondered how to use the winter months to his advantage. Always an innovator and unafraid to try unconventional means to defeat the South, he contemplated unique methods to bypass Vicksburg altogether. Grant mentions in his “Memoirs” that his goal was to find a way to get his 40,000 or so troops on dry land on the east side of the Mississippi below Vicksburg. Further, he wanted to improve the morale of his men that winter by involving them in gainful pursuits. Therefore, he would endeavor to employ his troops with spades to attempt to reroute the Mississippi River. President Lincoln, being familiar with the mighty Mississippi, supported Grant’s efforts.
The first attempt was made where the river bends near Vicksburg and forms what could be characterized as a peninsula. The idea was to dig a ‘trench’ to reroute the Mississippi River away from the Vicksburg bluffs. Work began on the trench, which was to be dug northwest to southeast across the peninsula with a dam to hold back the water on the most northwestern point. Once the trench was completed, the idea was to open the dam and hopefully the force of flow through the trench would carve out a deeper channel than the Mississippi River itself. Grant’s river transports could then navigate through the newly trenched channel and bypass the fortress. Unfortunately for Grant, on March 8, 1863 the river rose so high from heavy rains that it naturally overwhelmed the dam on the northwest end of the trench, spreading inundation and destroying the soldiers’ camps and equipment. As such, the first attempt thereby failed chaotically.
A second creative engineering attempt was made at roughly the same time, using the sizable Lake Providence about 50 miles northwest of Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi River. The lake was separated by a levee from the river. Grant thought that if the levee was breeched, river water would flow through the opening, forcing a navigable channel through the many swamps, streams, and small tributaries that dominated the terrain. From that vicinity and then to a point about 150 miles below Vicksburg, the flow would join the Red River and its tributaries and on to the Mississippi. It might not be very deep, but substantial enough for shallow-bottom boats to transport men, munitions, and supplies. To make it feasible, another different contingent of Grant’s troops would need to hack, cut, yank, and pull numerous trees and tree stumps from the deeper potential channels and marshes. Over time, much effort and toil were spent, but frustration mounted at the slow pace of progress and led Grant to conclude this second project impractical. However, as noted in Grant’s “Memoirs,” it was at least a fine way to keep the troops from idleness.
A third creative effort, perhaps more warlike in nature than those just noted, was made on the east side of the river about 200 miles north of Vicksburg at Yazoo Pass. This was a swampy area of marsh and streams through which an amphibious assault could perhaps be launched to land troops down in the vicinity of Chickasaw Bluffs where Sherman was recently defeated. In late February of 1863, a mine was set off in an embankment at Yazoo Pass, allowing swollen waters of the Mississippi River into this swampy area. Grant ordered two gunboats and transports with about half a division of soldiers through the breach to head downstream. Shortly thereafter, Confederate troops caught wind of this and began chopping down trees in the path of the Union vessels. The fallen trees needed to be individually removed, wasting time and exhausting the laborers. Further, in this densely wooded area low-hanging branches snapped the vessels’ smokestacks, and submerged tree stumps were a threat to rupture their hulls. Often, the currents were so strong that the ships lurched out of control, and other times shallow sluggish waters loaded with driftwood slowed them to a crawl. Mosquitoes and insects bit mercilessly. Upon reaching the Yazoo River, itself, the Union force found its way blocked by rebel guns positioned on a rare piece of dry ground now named “Fort Pemberton.” This was at a narrow stretch of flow where the superior firepower of the gunboats could not be maneuvered into position. Admiral Porter ordered a retreat.
The Admiral suggested another route through Steele’s Bayou to avoid Fort Pemberton. This was a narrow, winding, wooded, and circuitous route, but hopes were still high for success. Porter used the gunboat bows to ram through trees. This venue featured all manner of wildlife dropping out of low-hanging trees, which then had to be swept from the decks. Thence emerged rebel sharpshooters picking off those exposed sailors. Eventually the Union leadership became aware that this narrow route was being blocked from behind by Confederates felling trees. As this activity was recognized as having the potential to trap and surround the entire fleet, Sherman was ordered to send some of his regiments to subdue these rebels. Sherman’s men then helped haul the vessels backwards until the Yazoo was wide enough once again for the vessels to turn around and head back out under their own propulsion. So much for the last of Grant’s unique winter projects!
Grant had at least kept his troops busy, but there were now rumblings amongst the troops and some of the nastier Northern press as these efforts bore no fruit in getting the Union closer to solving the Vicksburg dilemma. Accusations reemerged that Grant had been drinking again and should be replaced. Some wanted the troops withdrawn to Memphis for a fresh start, but this would be seen as a demoralizing retreat. However, back in Washington Lincoln and General Halleck stood firmly by Grant. In his “Memoirs” Grant wrote, “With all the pressure brought to bear on them, both President Lincoln and General Halleck stood by me to the end of the campaign. I had never met Mr. Lincoln, but his support was constant.”
Next month we will learn more of Grant’s continued persistence in overcoming Vicksburg as the spring campaign season resumes for the Northern and Southern armies!
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Our speaker this evening will be focusing on Colored Troops during the Civil War. As many of you know, he also portrays a personage involved with the Underground Railroad. So, it seemed a natural for this evening’s history brief to focus on the Underground Railroad and especially in Ohio.
The Underground Railroad can trace its beginnings to 1804. A system for runaway slaves to escape the South was begun by General Thomas Boude, who served in the Revolutionary War and purchased a slave named Stephen Smith and brought him to Columbia, Pennsylvania. Stephen was soon followed by his mother, who had escaped to find her son. A few weeks later the slaveowner appeared and demanded the return of her slaves. The Boudes refused, and when the other townsfolk gave their support, it was decided going forward as a town to champion the cause of fugitive slaves.
By 1815, this sentiment had spread to Ohio, and soon methods were being explored to help slaves escape. The term “Underground Railroad” came into usage about 1831. There were many secret “roads” along the Ohio River to rescue slaves. At this time, a slave named Tice Davids eluded his pursuers along the Ohio River near Ripley, Ohio southeast of Cincinnati. Davids dove into the water with his slaveowner following close behind in a rowboat, but Davids disappeared from view. The owner became frustrated and gave up his search, stating that Davids “must have gone off on an underground road.”
This term caught on. In about 1835, antislavery workers began using this metaphor and started to use railroad terminology for their activities: tracks, trains, agents, stationmasters, conductors and stations. Paths of escape were labeled “tracks.” Helpers were known as “conductors” or “stationmasters.” Groups of runaways were “trains,” and homes for hiding them were “stations” or “depots.”
The Underground Railroad was begun by what we call today a “grass roots” movement. But, when professional slave catchers were sent to recover runaway slaves, the system became an elaborate network of secret contacts between free blacks and white sympathizers to move runaways safely and efficiently to the North and then to Canada. However, it could not become an organized business because of the fact that its activities were technically “illegal.”
Branches of escape existed in every state, but extensive networks blossomed in Ohio due to its central location on the Mason-Dixon Line and its border with two important slave states of Virginia and Kentucky. In part because of this geography, Ohio became one of the most successful Underground Railroad states. The Ohio River was extremely important to runaways, and over half of them used it. There were 23 railroad access locations along the Ohio, five departure points on Lake Erie and about 3,000 miles of track in between. Ohioans were credited with operating one of the most effective systems for aiding runaways and was especially critical to those in and coming through Kentucky.
Ohio’s importance was also borne out by statistics. The total known voluntary railroad workers in the North numbered about 3,200, and roughly 1,500 of those were in Ohio – nearly 50%! Major stations were in Marion, Mansfield and Salem with numerous smaller stations throughout the state.
At first, most runaways were men, but later many women also escaped. Travel was usually by foot, but when women and children started appearing in greater numbers, escorts and vehicles were provided. Conductors carried the runaways in covered wagons, closed carriages and farm wagons specially equipped with hidden compartments. Some were even put in boxes and shipped as freight by rail or boat. Movement usually took place at night for security. When traveling by foot, fugitives were guided by the North Star or the many northward tributaries of the Ohio River. Stations had to be relatively close to make the journey during a night’s long march.
For instance, about 16 abolitionists from Salem, Ohio established their homes as stations. Many used secret rooms, hidden staircases, root cellars, false walls and basements to conceal fugitives. Church members were heavily involved, although because of the illegal nature of the endeavor, the churches themselves were not formally involved. For instance in Salem, the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, Wesleyan Methodists and Presbyterian churches had important members in what was known in Salem as the “Western Anti-Slavery Society” headquartered in Salem. Members provided shelter, clothing, food, medical care and transport for black fugitives.
An antislavery newspaper began in nearby Lisbon in June of 1845 and was soon transferred to Salem in September. It was called the “Anti-Slavery Bugle” with its motto “No Union With Slaveholders.” The final issue came out on May 4, 1861, fittingly 22 days after the start of shelling on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War itself.
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
The “war was won in the West” – or so they say – and has been our monthly focus of these history briefs paralleling the same months in 1862. And so we come to December of 1862, which is widely known as the start of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.
However, we pick up where we left off in November 1862 in the wake of the “Second Battle of Corinth” which secured that major and important rail junction for the North and for Grant’s thrust toward central Mississippi, his ultimate target being the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg on a 200-foot bluff overlooking a fish hook-like bend in the Mississippi River. To capture it would fulfill the Western Theater’s role in the North’s strategic “Anaconda Plan” essentially cutting the South in two- and coupled with the seaboard blockade – strangling the heart of the Confederacy.
As mentioned last month, Vicksburg was the largest city in Mississippi by the time of the Civil War and a major port for cotton and other goods flowing north and south on the mighty river.
Grant’s initial strategy was somewhat obvious (see top map) and the most direct geographically. He would send his trusted friend General Tecumseh Sherman with several divisions south from Memphis in transports along the Mississippi River, disembark them on the marshy terrain, but very close to Vicksburg in the vicinity of the Yazoo River tributary and pressure Confederate commander Pemberton in Vicksburg, effectively pinning him in position. Meanwhile, Grant himself would lead two divisions south from the vicinity of Corinth (see map) along the Central Mississippi railroad and put Pemberston’s smaller force on the horns of a dilemma. That is: should Pemberton emerge from Vicksburg in the direction of Grant to stop him while leaving only a small garrison to hopefully keep Sherman out – or stay put and defend the fortress which would then submit Pemberton to a siege? This would put the North’s numerical and naval superiority to its optimal employment in December of 1862.
In mid December, Grant indeed headed south with two divisions along the railroad as planned using it as a line of supply; and at about the same time Sherman boarded vessels with his troops, using the Mississippi River and Union naval dominance as his line of supply.
However, on December 20th, while Grant penetrated to Oxford and beyond, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn with a mere 3,500 cavalry circled behind Grant’s advance and raided his second largest supply depot at Holly Springs (see map) destroying much of the food, horse forage and ammunition that Grant relied on to sustain his force. Not to be outdone, that Devil Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry had been ranging widely in north Mississippi and further destroyed rail and telegraph communications in that vicinity. His supply lines disrupted, Grant now begrudgingly withdrew. However, the cut telegraph lines proved critical since when Grant decided to fall back from Oxford, Sherman failed to timely learn of Grant’s retreat.
Thus, Pemberton was now off of the horns of the dilemma and could turn his full attention to Sherman’s impending assault. On December 26th, Sherman’s troops landed at “Johnson’s Plantation” (see lower map) on the banks of the Yazoo River only about a half dozen miles north of Vicksburg. With Grant in retreat, Pemberton adroitly repositioned troops he had previously sent toward Grenada to bolster the Vicksburg garrison. They rapidly occupied prepared positions along the top slopes of a long line of cliffs and ridges known as Chickasaw Bluffs, which dominated the ground that Sherman’s four divisions would have to cross.
Sherman would have to push through a tangle of lakes, swamps and bayous inundated from recent rains and move uphill before he would reach the Confederate lines. The attack began on the morning of the 29th, with Sherman’s numbers only slightly greater than Pemberton’s and violating the three to one maxim for an attacking force to carry a prepared position. The result was a Union slaughter with a loss of about 2,000 killed, wounded or missing. In stark contrast, Confederate losses in killed, wounded or missing were only about 210. Sherman accepted the defeat in his memoirs, but despite the daunting odds, pointed to the cowardice of one of his divisional commanders, George W. Morgan, for the tactical failure, asserting that Morgan did not accompany his troops to the point of advance which he told Sherman he would do. Morgan hotly disputed this, saying that Sherman rashly attacked the strongest position of the Confederate line.
Grant said of the battle in his memoirs: “The waters were high so that the bottoms were generally overflowed, leaving only narrow causeways of dry land between points of debarkation and the high bluffs. These were fortified and defended at all points. The rebel position was impregnable against any force that could be brought against its front.” And he shortly later wrote “the real work of the campaign and siege of Vicksburg now began.”
From the South’s perspective, President Davis’ controversial decision to put Confederate General Pemberton, a northern native from Philadelphia, in charge of Vicksburg now looked smartly done. Further, the North’s cavalry had shown it was still inferior to their Southern counterparts led by the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
That said, U.S. Grant indicated that he learned important lessons from the defeat – such as to seek dry ground from which to stage further assaults on the fortress Vicksburg.
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
The last painting from life that was made of Robert E. Lee was done in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee lived the final years of his life. But an interesting bit of Civil War trivia is the current location of this painting. The painting is in Washington, D.C., and it hangs in the residence of the Swiss ambassador to the U.S., where it has been since 2005. Prior to then, the painting was in a museum in Bern, Switzerland. This may seem surprising until the identity of the artist is revealed. The person who did this painting is Swiss painter Frank Buchser, and his life history, as well as the history of this painting, is quite interesting.
Buchser was born on August 15, 1828 in the Solothurn region of Switzerland and died on November 22, 1890 in the same region. In the 62 years that he spent on this earth, Buchser managed to fashion a most energetic life. He has been described as a womanizer and aggressive, but also charming, as evidenced by his ability to ingratiate himself with wealthy and important people everywhere he went. Buchser came to his career almost by accident. At 18 he was apprenticed to a piano builder. However, that career path ended abruptly when Buchser’s master found him in bed with his daughter and attacked Buchser with a wooden mallet. Buchser managed to overpower the enraged father and escaped to Paris where he studied art. He continued his studies in Rome and financed them by working as a member of the papal Swiss Guard. After completing his studies, Buchser traveled through Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and established himself as one of Switzerland’s most renowned artists. He also cemented his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer, as reflected in one of his diary entries in which he ranked “the pleasures of love” for women of different ethnicities.
Shortly after his return to Switzerland in 1866, Buchser was commissioned to do a grandiose painting of the American Civil War to commemorate, in the words of one of the proponents of the project “the victories of the Union.” In 1847 Switzerland endured its own civil war, the Sonderbundskrieg, after a group of seven predominantly Catholic cantons formed an alliance called the Sonderbund (the “separate alliance”), which opposed centralization of the Swiss government. In response, the predominantly Protestant cantons, as well as two Catholic cantons who aligned with them, organized an army to subdue the separatists, by force if necessary. In typical Swiss fashion, two cantons remained neutral (which Kentucky tried unsuccessfully to emulate in the American Civil War). The nearly bloodless Sonderbundskrieg lasted less than four weeks in November 1847 and resulted in the defeat of the separatist alliance. Hence, the Swiss Civil War was similar to the American Civil War in that the separatists were defeated. But the civil wars in these two countries differed greatly in their length (26 days vs. four years) and number of casualties (fewer than 600 vs. more than 600,000). The Swiss government, mindful that Switzerland had recently come through its own civil war, wanted a Swiss artist to go to the U.S. and do a painting of the American Civil War to hang in the Swiss Parliament. Buchser was able to use his growing reputation as a painter, and his charm, to influence the patrons of the project to select him. This was fortuitous for Buchser, because not long after his return to Switzerland in 1866, he was facing jail for his part in a barroom brawl. Armed with a letter of recommendation from the Swiss government, Buchser traveled to the U.S. to complete his task.
Once there, Buchser did portraits of President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and William Tecumseh Sherman. The Sherman portrait also hangs in the residence of the Swiss ambassador. In this painting Sherman is shown in a heroic pose. In the background is an officer sitting at a table doing some paperwork. The officer has an almost perplexed look on his face as if he wants to say to Sherman, “You look dashing, General, but don’t you have more important things to do than play the conquering hero?” Buchser also did numerous paintings of blacks and their daily lives. In spite of all these paintings, Buchser had not, during his almost three and a half years in America, fulfilled his commission for a painting that commemorated “the victories of the Union.” To do so, Buchser felt he needed a painting of Ulysses Grant. However, Grant rebuffed repeated requests from Buchser as steadfastly as he had rebuffed the Army of Northern Virginia in its attempts to break out of Petersburg. Buchser decided that if he could paint a portrait of Robert E. Lee, this would convince Grant to sit for him.
In September 1869 Buchser journeyed to the Lee family’s residence in Lexington, Virginia with the goal of painting a portrait of Lee. The self-assured artist, who appeared unannounced on Lee’s doorstep to ask Lee to sit for a portrait, had a very distinctive facial feature which proclaimed to everyone that he was a flamboyant person: a waxed moustache curled at the ends which hung in midair and with a wingspan of six inches. It is hard to imagine the staid Lee acquiescing to the flashy Buchser. But not only did Lee agree to sit for Buchser, he took a liking to his Swiss visitor, who lived as a guest in the Lee residence during the three weeks that the portrait was being painted. Had Lee known of Buchser’s many exploits with women, he might not have invited the artist to live in his house, because two of Lee’s three surviving adult daughters, both of whom were unmarried, lived in the Lee residence. However, Buchser suffused that residence with his effervescent charm, kissing the hands of the Lee ladies and entertaining everyone in the evenings by playing the piano and the guitar and singing songs in all six of the languages that he knew.
Lee rejected Buchser’s initial idea for the portrait. Buchser envisioned painting Lee in his uniform, but Lee refused, telling Buchser, “I am a soldier no longer.” Lee did consent to placing his military accouterments on a table behind him, and Lee approved the final product, if only because the portrait made Lee look younger, thinner, and more robust than he actually was at that time. Buchser did this portrait about a year before Lee’s death, and Lee’s health was in decline. During the weeks that Buchser and Lee interacted, Buchser came to admire the aging man who was no longer a soldier. In his diary Buchser wrote, “What a gentle noble soul, how kind and charming the old white-haired warrior is.” Another diary entry reads, “One cannot see and know the great soldier without loving him.” But Buchser’s most telling diary entry complimented all the military leaders of the American Civil War. “The conviction is growing in me that if the American statesmen of the last fifteen years had been half as intelligent and only half as honest and capable as the soldiers, that is the Generals Grant, Lee, Sherman, etc., then the war would never have been started.”
After Buchser finished his portrait of Lee, he wrote to his Swiss patrons that the portrait of Lee, not one of Grant, should be the painting to fulfill his commission. To buttress his assertion, Buchser wrote to his patrons about Lee that “all agree he is the greater character.” Buchser also wrote that Lee “is furthermore the ideal of American democracy. Therefore, of all my American portraits, the one of Lee is the perfect picture to hang in the democratic Swiss parliament.” Somehow Buchser’s Swiss patrons could not see how a portrait of a defeated Confederate general satisfied Buchser’s commission to honor “the victories of the Union,” and they refused to pay him. But Buchser did obtain much during his stay in America. He was able to travel and paint for five years in the U.S., a country with which he became enthralled. Buchser grew so fond of the U.S. that he Americanized his given name from Franz to Frank and kept it that way even after his return to Switzerland. He never fulfilled his commission, and none of his paintings ever hung in the Swiss Parliament. But Buchser can rightly be called Europe’s artistic ambassador to the post-Civil War United States.
Note: Below are images of some of Frank Buchser’s paintings.