By Mel Maurer, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007 & 2008, All Rights Reserved
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. The history briefs that were written by Mel’s successors are also on the Roundtable’s website, each of those history briefs on a separate web page.
Lincoln secretary, John Hay, writes to Lincoln’s other secretary, John Nicolay.
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.”
Mary Chesnut’s Civil War by Mary Chesnut and C. Van Woodward
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.
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.
Listen to “Just before the Battle, Mother”
Incident about an old song – Homespun Tales: The Battle of Franklin by Sue Berry and Martha Fuqua
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.
The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote
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.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text, edited and with an introduction by Harold Holzer
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.”
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
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.
Navy section source:
Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett
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.”
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen
Jesse James Was His Name; or, Fact and Fiction Concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri by William A. Settle, Jr.
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?