“AFTER AN ABSENCE OF NEARLY TWO YEARS,” Jefferson Davis told the legislators assembled under the golden dome of his home-state capitol on the day after Christmas, 1862—twenty months and two weeks, to the day, since the guns of Charleston opened fire on Sumter to inaugurate the civil war no one could know was not yet halfway over—“I again find myself among those who, from the days of my childhood, have ever been the trusted objects of my affection, those for whose good I have ever striven and whose interests I have sometimes hoped I may have contributed to subserve.… I left you to assume the duties which have devolved upon me as the representative of the new Confederacy. The responsibilities of this position have occupied all my time, and have left me no opportunity for mingling with my friends in Mississippi or for sharing in the dangers which have menaced them. But, wherever duty may have called me, my heart has been with you, and the success of the cause in which we are all engaged has been first in my thoughts and prayers.”
In February of the year before, he had left for Montgomery, Alabama, to assume his role as President of the newly established provisional government, believing, as he said now, “that the service to which I was called could be but temporary.” A West Pointer and an authentic hero of the Mexican War, he had considered his primary talent—or, as he termed it, his “capacity”—to be military. He had thought to return to the duty he found congenial, that of a line officer in the service of his state, “to lead Mississippians in the field, and to be with them where danger was to be braved and glory won.… But it was decided differently. I was called to another sphere of action. How, in that sphere, I have discharged the duties and obligations imposed on me, it does not become me to constitute myself the judge. It is for others to decide that question. But, speaking to you with that frankness and that confidence with which I have always spoken to you, and which partakes of the nature of thinking aloud, I can say with my hand upon my heart that whatever I have done has been done with the sincere purpose of promoting the noble cause in which we are engaged. The period which has elapsed since I left you is short; for the time which may appear long in the life of a man is short in the history of a nation. And in that short period remarkable changes have been wrought in all the circumstances by which we are surrounded.”
Remarkable changes had indeed been wrought, and of these the most immediately striking to those present, seated row on row beneath him or standing close-packed along the outer aisles, was in the aspect of the man who stood before them, tall and slender, careworn and oracular, in a mote-shot nimbus of hazy noonday sunlight pouring down from the high windows of the hall. When they had seen him last on this same rostrum, just short of twenty-three months ago this week, he had not appeared to be within a decade of his fifty-two years of age. Now, though, he was fifty-four, and he looked it. The “troubles and thorns innumerable” which he foretold on his arrival in Montgomery to take the oath of office, back in the first glad springtime of the nation, had not only come to pass; they had also left their marks—as if the thorns, being more than figurative, had scored his brow and made of him what he had never seemed before, a man of sorrows. The gray eyes, one lustrous, the other sightless, its stone gray pupil covered by a film, were deeply sunken above the jut of the high cheekbones, and the thin upper lip, indicative of an iron will and rigid self-control, was held so tightly against the teeth, even in repose, that you saw their shape behind it. The accustomed geniality was there, the inveterate grace and charm of manner, along with the rich music of the voice, but the symptoms of strain and overwork were all too obvious. These proceeded, it was said, not only from having had to await (as he was awaiting even now) the outcome of battles in which he could have no active part, whatever his inclination, but also, it was added, from a congenital inability to relegate authority, including the minor paperwork which took up such a disproportionate share of his existence.
Other changes there were, too, less physical and therefore less immediately obvious, but on closer inspection no less profound. In this case, moreover, the contrast between now and then was emphasized by mutuality, involving others besides Davis. It was two-sided; reciprocal, so to speak. Arriving in Jackson to accept his appointment as commander of Mississippi troops after his farewell to the Senate in January of what had presently turned out to be the first year of the conflict some men had still believed could be avoided, he had been met at the station by Governor J. J. Pettus, whom he advised to push the procurement of arms. “We shall need all and many more than we can get,” he said, expressing the conviction that blood would soon be shed. “General, you overrate the risk,” the governor protested, and Davis replied: “I only wish I did.” So thoroughly had this prediction been fulfilled in the past twenty months—Kentucky and Missouri irretrievably gone, along with most of Tennessee and the northwest quarter of Virginia, New Orleans fallen, Nashville and Memphis occupied, and North Mississippi itself aswarm with bluecoats—that now it was Governor Pettus who was calling for reassurance, and calling for it urgently, from the man to whom he previously had offered it so blandly.
“You have often visited the army of Virginia,” he wired Richmond in early December. “At this critical juncture could you not visit the army of the West? Something must be done to inspire confidence.”
By way of reinforcement for this plea there came a letter from Senator James Phelan, whose home lay in the path of the invaders. “The present alarming crisis in this state, so far from arousing the people, seems to have sunk them in listless despondency,” he wrote. “The spirit of enlistment is thrice dead. Enthusiasm has expired to a cold pile of damp ashes. Defeats, retreats, sufferings, dangers, magnified by spiritless helplessness and an unchangeable conviction that our army is in the hands of ignorant and feeble commanders, are rapidly producing a sense of settled despair.… I imagine but one event that could awaken from its waning spark the enthusiastic hopes and energy of Mississippians. Plant your own foot upon our soil, unfurl your banner at the head of the army, tell your own people that you have come to share with them the perils of this dark hour.… If ever your presence was needed as a last refuge from an ‘Iliad of woes,’ this is the hour. It is not a point to be argued. [Only] you can save us or help us save ourselves from the dread evils now so imminently pending.”
Flattering as this was, in part—especially the exhortation to “unfurl your banner,” which touched the former hero of Buena Vista where his inclination was strongest and his vanity was most susceptible—the senator’s depiction of regional gloom and fears, tossed thus into the balance, added weight to the governor’s urgent plea that the Commander in Chief undertake the suggested journey to his homeland and thereby refute in the flesh the growing complaint that the authorities in Richmond were concerned only for the welfare of the soldiers and civilians in Virginia, where if anywhere the war was being won, rather than for those in the western theater, where if anywhere the war was being lost. Not that the danger nearest the national capital was slight. Major General Ambrose Burnside, a month in command of the Army of the Potomac as successor to Major General George McClellan, who had been relieved for a lack of aggressiveness, was menacing the line of the Rappahannock with a mobile force of 150,000 men, backed by another 50,000 in the Washington defenses. To oppose this host General Robert E. Lee had something under 80,000 in the Army of Northern Virginia moving toward a concentration near Fredericksburg, where the threat of a crossing seemed gravest, midway of the direct north-south hundred-mile line connecting the two capitals. That the battle, now obviously at hand, would be fought even closer to the Confederate seat of government appeared likely, for Davis wrote Lee on December 8: “You will know best when it will be proper to make a masked movement to the rear, should circumstances require you to move nearer to Richmond.”
Something else he said in this same letter. Hard as it was for him to leave the capital at a time when every day might bring the battle that would perhaps decide his country’s fate, he had made up his mind to heed the call that reached him from the West. “I propose to go out there immediately,” he told Lee, “with the hope that something may be done to bring out men not heretofore in service, and to arouse all classes to united and desperate resistance.” After expressing the hope that “God may bless us, as in other cases seemingly as desperate, with success over our impious foe,” he added, by way of apology for not having reviewed the Virginian’s army since it marched northward on the eve of Second Manassas: “I have been very anxious to visit you, but feeble health and constant labor have caused me to delay until necessity hurries me in the opposite direction.” He sent the letter by special courier that same December 8; then, two days later, he himself was off.
He left incognito, aboard a special car and accompanied by a single military aide, lest his going stir up rumors that the capital was about to be abandoned in the face of the threat to the line of the Rappahannock. His planned itinerary was necessarily roundabout: not only because the only direct east-west route was closed to him by the Federal grip on the final hundred miles of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, but also because he had decided to combine the attempt to restore morale among the distraught civilians of the region, as suggested by Governor Pettus and Senator Phelan, with a personal inspection of the two main armies charged with the defense of the theater bounded east and west by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Mississippi River. The Army of Tennessee, the larger of the two, northwest of Chattanooga and covering that city by pretending to threaten Nashville, was under General Braxton Bragg; the other, the Army of Mississippi under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, covered Vicksburg. Both were menaced by superior forces, or combinations of forces, under Major Generals William S. Rosecrans and Ulysses S. Grant, and Davis had lately appointed General Joseph E. Johnston to co-ordinate the efforts of both armies in order to meet the double menace by operating on interior lines, much as Lee had done for the past six months in Virginia, on a smaller scale but with such success as had won for Confederate arms the admiration of the world.
Johnston’s was the more difficult task, albeit one on which the survival of the nation was equally dependent. Whether it could be performed—specifically, whether it could be performed by Johnston—remained to be seen. So far, though, the signs had appeared to the general himself to be anything but promising. Pemberton was falling back under pressure from Grant in North Mississippi, and Bragg’s preparations for the defense of Middle Tennessee, though they had not yet been tested by Federal pressure, did not meet with the new commander’s approval when he inspected them this week. In fact, he found in them full justification for a judgment he had delivered the week before, when he first established headquarters in Chattanooga. “Nobody ever assumed a command under more unfavorable circumstances,” he wrote to a friend back East. “If Rosecrans had disposed our troops himself, their disposition could not have been more unfavorable to us.”
Davis did not share the Virginian’s gloom; or if he did he did not show it as he left Richmond, December 10, and rode westward through Lynchburg and Wytheville and across the state line to Knoxville, where, beginning his attempt to bolster civilian morale by a show of confidence, he made a speech in which he characterized “the Toryism of East Tennessee” as “greatly exaggerated.” Joined by Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, the department commander whose march north in August and September had cleared the region of bluecoats and delivered Cumberland Gap, but whose strength had been reduced by considerably more than half in the past month as a result of orders to reinforce Bragg in the adjoining department, the President reached Chattanooga by nightfall and went at once to pay a call on Johnston.
He found him somewhat indisposed, waiting in his quarters. Short of stature, gray and balding, a year older than Davis despite the fact that he had been a year behind him at West Point, the general had a high-colored, wedge-shaped face, fluffed white side whiskers, a grizzled mustache and goatee, eyes that crinkled attractively at their outer corners when he smiled, and a jaunty, gamecock manner. Mrs Johnston, in attendance on her husband, was able to serve their visitor a genuine cup of coffee: the “real Rio,” she reported proudly to a friend next day, describing the event. She claimed nonetheless the saddest heart in Chattanooga. Whatever Davis might have accomplished elsewhere on this arduous first day of the journey he had undertaken “to arouse all classes to united and desperate resistance,” he obviously had had little success in her direction. “How ill and weary I feel in this desolate land,” she added in the letter to her friend in the Old Dominion, which she so much regretted having left, “& how dreary it all looks, & how little prospect there is of my poor husband doing ought than lose his army. Truly a forlorn hope it is.”
The general himself was far from well, suffering from a flare-up of the wound that had cost him his Virginia command, six months ago at Seven Pines, and from a weariness brought on by his just-completed inspection of the Army of Tennessee. So Davis, postponing their strategy conference until such time as he would be able to see for himself the condition of that army, left next day for Bragg’s headquarters at Murfreesboro, ninety miles away and only thirty miles from Nashville.
It was a two-day visit, and unlike Johnston he was heartened by what he saw. Serenaded at his hotel by a large and enthusiastic crowd, he announced that he entertained no fears for the safety of Richmond, that Tennessee would be held to the last extremity, and that if the people would but arouse themselves to sustain the conflict, eventual if not immediate foreign intervention would assure a southern victory and peace on southern terms. His listeners, delighted by a recent exploit beyond the northern lines by Colonel John H. Morgan, did not seem to doubt for a moment the validity of his contentions or predictions. Whatever dejection he might encounter in other portions of the threatened region, he found here an optimism to match his own. The thirty-seven-year-old Morgan, with four small regiments of cavalry and two of infantry—just over 2000 men in all, most of them Kentuckians like himself—had crossed the icy Cumberland by starlight, in order to strike at dawn on Sunday, December 7, a Union force of equal strength in camp at Hartsville, forty miles upstream from Nashville. Another enemy force, three times his strength, was camped nine miles away at Castalian Springs, within easy hearing distance of his guns, but had no chance to interfere. After less than an hour of fighting, in which he inflicted more than 300 casualties at a cost of 125, Morgan accepted the surrender of Colonel Absalom B. Moore of Illinois. By noon he was back across the Cumberland with 1762 prisoners and a wagon train heavily loaded with captured equipment and supplies, riding hard for Murfreesboro and the cheers that awaited him there. “A brilliant feat,” Joe Johnston called it, and recommended that Morgan “be appointed brigadier general immediately. He is indispensable.”
Davis gladly conferred the promotion in person when he arrived, receiving from Morgan’s own hands in return one of the three sets of enemy infantry colors the cavalryman had brought home. A formal review of one corps of the Army of Tennessee next day, followed that evening by a conference with Bragg and his lieutenants, was equally satisfying, fulfilling as it did the other half of the President’s double-barreled purpose. “Found the troops there in good condition and fine spirits,” he wired the Secretary of War on December 14, after his return to Chattanooga the night before. “Enemy is kept close in to Nashville, and indicates only defensive purposes.”
This last had led to a strategic decision, made on the spot and before consultation with Johnston. As Davis saw it, comparing Pemberton’s plight with Bragg’s, the Mississippi commander was not only more gravely threatened by a combination of army and naval forces, above and below the Vicksburg bluff; he was also far more heavily outnumbered, and with less room for maneuver. Practically speaking, despite the assurance lately given the serenaders, the loss of Middle Tennessee would mean no more than the loss of supplies to be gathered in the region; whereas the loss of Vicksburg would mean the loss of the Mississippi River throughout its length, which in turn would mean the loss of Texas, West Louisiana, Arkansas, and the last tenuous hope for the recovery of Missouri. Consequently, in an attempt to even the odds—east and west, that is; North and South the odds could never be evened, here or elsewhere—Davis decided to reinforce Pemberton with a division from Bragg. When the latter protested that this would encourage Rosecrans to attack him, he was informed that he would have to take his chances, depending on maneuver for deliverance. “Fight if you can,” Davis told him, and if necessary “fall back beyond the Tennessee.”
Bragg took the decision with such grace as he could muster; but not Johnston. When Davis returned to Chattanooga with instructions for the transfer to be ordered, the Virginian protested for all he was worth against a policy which seemed to him no better than robbing Peter to pay Paul. Both western armies, he declared, were already too weak for effective operations; to weaken either was to invite disaster, particularly in Tennessee, which he referred to as “the shield of the South.” But in this matter the President was inflexible. Apparently reasoning that if the general would not do the job for which he had been sent here—a balancing and a taking of calculated risks in order to make the most of the advantage of operating on interior lines—then he would do it for him, Davis insisted that the transfer order be issued immediately. This Johnston did, though with a heavy heart and still protesting, convinced that he would be proved right in the end.
Whatever Davis’s reaction was on learning thus that one of his two ranking commanders was opposed to availing himself of the one solid advantage strategically accruing to the South, he had other worries to fret him now: worries that threatened not a long-range but an immediate collapse, not of a part but of the whole. On his return from Murfreesboro he heard from the War Department that the national capital was menaced from two directions simultaneously. A force of undetermined strength was moving inland from coastal North Carolina against Goldsboro and the vital Weldon Railroad, and Burnside was across the Rappahannock. “You can imagine my anxiety,” Davis wrote his wife, chafed by distance and the impossibility of being in two places at once. “If the necessity demands, I will return to Richmond, though already there are indications of a strong desire for me to visit the further West, expressed in terms which render me unwilling to disappoint the expectation.” Presently, however, his anxiety was relieved. The Carolina invasion, though strongly mounted, had been halted at the Neuse, well short of the vital supply line, and Lee had inflicted another staggering defeat on the main northern army, flinging it back across the Rappahannock. Davis was elated at the news, but Johnston’s reaction was curiously mixed. “What luck some people have,” he said. “Nobody will ever come to attack me in such a place.”
After a day of rest and conferences, political as well as military, Davis left Chattanooga late on the afternoon of December 16, accompanied by Johnston, who would be making his first inspection of the western portion of his command. However, with the Memphis & Charleston in Federal hands along the Tennessee-Mississippi line, their route at first led south to Atlanta, where they spent the night and Davis responded to another serenade. Continuing south to Montgomery next morning, he spoke at midday from the portico of the Alabama capitol, where he had delivered his first inaugural a week after being notified of his unexpected election to head the newly established Confederate States of America. That was nearly two years ago. Whatever thoughts he had as to the contrast between now and then, as evidenced by the demeanor of the crowd that gathered to hear him, he kept to himself as he and Johnston rode on that night to Mobile, where he spoke formally for the second time that day. Next morning, December 19, they reached Jackson, but having agreed to return for a joint appearance before the Mississippi legislature on the day after Christmas, they only stayed for lunch and left immediately afterwards for Vicksburg.
This too was a two-day visit, and mainly they spent it inspecting the town’s land and water defenses, which had been extended northward a dozen miles along a range of hills and ridges overlooking the Yazoo and its swampy bayous—Chickasaw Bluffs, the range was called, or sometimes Walnut Hills—and southward about half that far to Warrenton, a hamlet near the lower end of the tall red bluff dominating the eastern shank of the hairpin bend described at this point by a whim of the Mississippi. To an untrained eye the installations might look stout indeed, bristling with guns at intervals for nearly twenty miles, but Johnston was not pleased by what he saw. To his professional eye, they not only left much to be desired in the way of execution; their very conception, it seemed to him, was badly flawed. Nor was he any slower to say so now than he had been eight months ago at Yorktown, in a similar situation down the York-James peninsula from Richmond. “Instead of a fort requiring a small garrison,” which would leave the bulk of available troops free to maneuver, he protested, the overzealous engineers had made the place into “an immense intrenched camp, requiring an army to hold it.” Besides, scattered as they were along the high ground north and south “to prevent the bombardment of the town, instead of to close the navigation of the river to the enemy,” the batteries would not be able to concentrate their fire against naval attack. In these and other matters Johnston expressed his discontent. Davis, a professional too, could see the justice in much of this, and though he did not order the line contracted, he moved to strengthen it by wiring the War Department of the “immediate and urgent necessity for heavy guns and long-range fieldpieces at Vicksburg.”
Two bits of news, one welcome, one disturbing, reached them here in the course of their brief visit. The first was that a Federal ironclad, the Cairo, had been sunk up the Yazoo the week before, the result of an experiment with torpedoes by Commander Isaac N. Brown, builder and skipper of the Arkansas, which single-handedly had raised the midsummer naval siege by an all-out attack on the two enemy fleets before she steamed downriver to her destruction in early August. The other news was that Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, whose troops were escorted upriver from New Orleans by the deep-draft fleet under Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, had reoccupied Baton Rouge, abandoned three months before by his predecessor, Major General Benjamin F. Butler. Whatever comfort the bluff’s defenders found in the mishap encountered by the Yankees in their probe of the Yazoo was more than offset by the news that they were approaching in strength from the opposite direction. Johnston, for one, was convinced that, in addition to the 9000-man division already on the way from Bragg, another 20,000 troops would be required if Vicksburg and Port Hudson, another strong point on another bluff three hundred miles downriver, were to be held against the combined forces of Grant and Banks. What was more, he thought he knew just where to get them: from the adjoining Transmississippi Department, commanded by Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes.
“Our great object is to hold the Mississippi,” Johnston told Davis. In this connection, he firmly believed “that our true system of warfare would be to concentrate the forces of the two departments”—his and Holmes’s—“on this side of the Mississippi, beat the enemy here, then reconquer the country beyond it, which [the Federals] might have gained in the meantime.”
Davis had already shown his appreciation of this “true system” by recommending, a month before he left Richmond and two weeks before Johnston himself had been assigned to the western command, that Holmes send reinforcements eastward to assist in the accomplishment of the “great objective.” Since then, unfortunately, and by coincidence on the December 7 of Morgan’s victory at Hartsville, the Arkansas army under Major General Thomas C. Hindman, the one mobile force of any size in the department beyond the river, had fought and lost the Battle of Prairie Grove, up in the northwest corner of the state. This altered considerably Holmes’s ability to comply with the request. However, instead of pointing out this and other drawbacks to Johnston’s argument—1) that to lose the Transmississippi temporarily might be to lose it permanently, as a result of losing the confidence of the people of the region; 2) that the Confederacy, already suffering from the strictures of the Federal blockade, could not afford even a brief stoppage of the flow of supplies from Texas and the valleys of the Arkansas and the Red; and 3) that the transfer east of men in gray would result in a proportional transfer of men in blue, which would lengthen rather than shorten the odds on both sides of the river unless the blow was delivered with unaccustomed lightning speed—Davis was willing to repeat the recommendation in stronger terms. Accordingly, on this same December 21, he wrote to Holmes in Little Rock, apprising him of the growing danger and urging full co-operation with Johnston’s plan as set forth in that general’s correspondence, which was included. It was a long letter, and in it the President said in part: “From the best information at command, a large force is now ready to descend the Mississippi and co-operate with the army advancing from Memphis to make an attack upon Vicksburg. Large forces are also reported to have been sent to the lower Mississippi for the purpose of ascending the river to attempt the reduction of Port Hudson.… It seems to me then unquestionably best that you should reinforce Genl Johnston.” After reminding Holmes that “we cannot hope at all points to meet the enemy with a force equal to his own, and must find our security in the concentration and rapid movement of troops,” Davis closed with a compliment and an admonition: “I have thus presented to you my views, and trusting alike in your patriotism and discretion, leave you to make the application of them when circumstances will permit. Whatever may be done should be done with all possible dispatch.”
Johnston’s enthusiasm on reading the opening paragraphs of the letter, which was shown to him before it was given to a courier bound for Little Rock, was considerably dampened by the close. Judging perhaps by his own reaction the week before, when he protested against the detachment of a division from Bragg for this same purpose, he did not share the President’s trust in the “patriotism and discretion” Holmes was expected to bring to bear, and he noted regretfully that, despite the final suggestion as to the need for haste, “circumstances” had been left to govern the application of what Davis called his “views.”
Two days later, moreover, the general’s gloom was deepened when they returned to Jackson and proceeded north a hundred miles by rail to Grenada, where Pemberton had ended his southward retreat in the face of Grant’s advance and had his badly outnumbered field force hard at work in an attempt to fortify the banks of the Yalobusha River while his cavalry, under Major General Earl Van Dorn, probed for Grant’s rear in an attempt to make him call a halt, or anyhow slow him down, by giving him trouble along his lengthening supply line. Here as at Vicksburg, Johnston found the intrenchments “very extensive, but slight—the usual defect of Confederate engineering.” Nor was he pleased to discover, as he said later, that “General Pemberton and I advocated opposite modes of warfare.” He would have continued the retreat to a better position farther south, hoping for a stronger concentration; but as usual Davis discounted the advantage of withdrawal and sided with the commander who was opposed to delaying a showdown.
Christmas Day they returned to Jackson, which gave the President time for an overnight preparation of the speech he would deliver tomorrow before his home-state legislature. This was not so large a task as might be thought, despite the fact that he would speak for the better part of an hour. In general, what he would say here was what he had been saying for more than two weeks now, en route from Virginia, through Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, and elsewhere already in Mississippi. His overnight task was mainly one of consolidating his various impromptu responses to serenades and calls for “remarks” from station platforms along the way, albeit with added emphasis on his home ties and the government’s concern for the welfare of the people in what he called “the further West.”
That was why he began by addressing his listeners as “those who, from the days of my childhood, have ever been the trusted objects of my affection,” and adding: “Whatever fortunes I may have achieved in life have been gained as a representative of Mississippi, and before all I have labored for the advancement of her glory and honor. I now, for the first time in my career, find myself the representative of a wider circle of interest, but a circle of which the interests of Mississippi are still embraced.… For, although in the discharge of my duties as President of the Confederate States I had determined to make no distinction between the various parts of the country—to know no separate state—yet my heart has always beat more warmly for Mississippi, and I have looked on Mississippi soldiers with a pride and emotion such as no others inspired.”
Flanked on the rostrum by Governor Pettus and Senator Phelan, he waited for the polite applause to subside, then launched at once into an excoriation of the northern government: not only its leaders but also its followers, in and out of the armies of invasion.
“I was among those who, from the beginning, predicted war … not because our right to secede and form a government of our own was not indisputable and clearly defined in the spirit of that declaration which rests the right to govern on the consent of the governed, but because I saw that the wickedness of the North would precipitate a war upon us. Those who supposed that the exercise of this right of separation could not produce war have had cause to be convinced that they had credited their recent associates of the North with a moderation, a sagacity, a morality they did not possess. You have been involved in a war waged for the gratification of the lust of power and aggrandizement, for your conquest and your subjugation, with a malignant ferocity and with a disregard and a contempt of the usages of civilization entirely unequaled in history. Such, I have ever warned you, were the characteristics of the northern people.… After what has happened during the last two years, my only wonder is that we consented to live for so long a time in association with such miscreants and have loved so much a government rotten to the core. Were it ever to be proposed again to enter into a Union with such a people, I could no more consent to do it than to trust myself in a den of thieves.… There is indeed a difference between the two peoples. Let no man hug the delusion that there can be renewed association between them. Our enemies are a traditionless and homeless race. From the time of Cromwell to the present moment they have been disturbers of the peace of the world. Gathered together by Cromwell from the bogs and fens of the north of Ireland and England, they commenced by disturbing the peace of their own country; they disturbed Holland, to which they fled; and they disturbed England on their return. They persecuted Catholics in England, and they hung Quakers and witches in America.”
He spoke next of the conscription act, defending it against its critics; reviewed the recent successes of Confederate arms, sometimes against odds that had amounted to four to one; recommended local provision for the families of soldiers in the field; urged upon the legislators “the necessity of harmony” between the national government and the governments of the states; then returned to a bitter expression of his views as to the contrast between the two embattled peoples.
“The issue before us is one of no ordinary character. We are not engaged in a conflict for conquest, or for aggrandizement, or for the settlement of a point of international law. The question for you to decide is, Will you be slaves or will you be independent? Will you transmit to your children the freedom and equality which your fathers transmitted to you, or will you bow down in adoration before an idol baser than ever was worshipped by Eastern idolators? Nothing more is necessary than the mere statement of this issue. Whatever may be the personal sacrifices involved, I am confident that you will not shrink from them whenever the question comes before you. Those men who now assail us, who have been associated with us in a common Union, who have inherited a government which they claim to be the best the world ever saw—these men, when left to themselves, have shown that they are incapable of preserving their own personal liberty. They have destroyed the freedom of the press; they have seized upon and imprisoned members of state legislatures and of municipal councils, who were suspected of sympathy with the South; men have been carried off into captivity in distant states without indictment, without a knowledge of the accusations brought against them, in utter defiance of all rights guaranteed by the institutions under which they live. These people, when separated from the South and left entirely to themselves, have in six months demonstrated their utter incapacity for self-government. And yet these are the people who claim to be your masters. These are the people who have determined to divide out the South among their Federal troops. Mississippi they have devoted to the direst vengeance of all. ‘But vengeance is the Lord’s,’ and beneath His banner you will meet and hurl back these worse than vandal hordes.”
Having attempted thus to breathe heat into what Senator Phelan had called “a cold pile of damp ashes,” Davis spoke of final success as certain. “Our people have only to be true to themselves to behold the Confederate flag among the recognized nations of the earth. The question is only one of time. It may be remote, but it may be nearer than many people suppose. It is not possible that a war of the dimensions that this one has assumed, of proportions so gigantic, can be very long protracted. The combatants must soon be exhausted. But it is impossible, with a cause like ours, that we can be the first to cry, ‘Hold, enough.’ ” He spoke of valor and determination, of his pride in the southern fighting man, and assured his listeners that the Confederacy could accomplish its own salvation. This last led him into a statement unlike any he had made before:
“In the course of this war our eyes have often been turned abroad. We have expected sometimes recognition, and sometimes intervention, at the hands of foreign nations; and we had a right to expect it. Never before in the history of the world have a people so long a time maintained their ground, and shown themselves capable of maintaining their national existence, without securing the recognition of commercial nations. I know not why this has been so, but this I say: ‘Put not your trust in princes,’ and rest not your hopes on foreign nations. This war is ours; we must fight it out ourselves. And I feel some pride in knowing that, so far, we have done it without the good will of anybody.”
When the applause that echoed this had died away he defined what he believed to be the “two prominent objects in the program of the enemy. One is to get possession of the Mississippi River, and to open it to navigation, in order to appease the clamors of the [Northwest] and to utilize the capture of New Orleans, which has thus far rendered them no service. The other is to seize upon the capital of the Confederacy, and hold this but as proof that the Confederacy has no existence.” The fourth full-scale attempt to accomplish the latter object had just been frustrated by Lee at Fredericksburg, he informed the legislature, “and I believe that, under God and by the valor of our troops, the capital of the Confederacy will stand safe behind its wall of living breasts.” As for the likelihood that the Unionists might accomplish the first-mentioned object, Davis admitted that this had caused him grave concern, and was in fact the reason for his present visit.
“This was the land of my affections,” he declared. “Here were situated the little of worldly goods I possessed.” He had, he repeated, “every confidence in the skill and energy of the officers in command. But when I received dispatches and heard rumors of alarm and trepidation and despondency among the people of Mississippi; when I heard, even, that people were fleeing to Texas in order to save themselves from the enemy; when I saw it stated by the enemy that they had handled other states with gloves, but Mississippi was to be handled without gloves—every impulse of my heart dragged me hither, in spite of duties which might have claimed my attention elsewhere. When I heard of the sufferings of my own people, of the danger of their subjugation by a ruthless foe, I felt that if Mississippi were destined for such a fate, I would wish to sleep in her soil.” However, now that he had seen for himself the condition of the army and the people of his homeland, “I shall go away from you with a lighter heart … anxious, but hopeful.”
In closing he spoke as a man who had kept a vigil through darkness into dawn, so that now he stood in sunlight. “I can, then, say with confidence that our condition is in every respect greatly improved over what it was last year. Our armies have been augmented; our troops have been instructed and disciplined. The articles necessary for the support of our troops and our people, and from which the enemy’s blockade has cut us off, are being produced by the Confederacy.… Our people have learned to economize and are satisfied to wear homespun. I never see a woman dressed in homespun that I do not feel like taking off my hat to her, and although our women never lose their good looks, I cannot help thinking that they are improved by this garb. I never meet a man dressed in homespun but I feel like saluting him. I cannot avoid remarking with how much pleasure I have noticed the superior morality of our troops and the contrast which in this respect they present to the invader. On their valor and the assistance of God I confidently rely.”
The applause that followed had begun to fade, when suddenly it swelled again, provoked and augmented by loud calls for “Johnston! Johnston!” At last the general rose and came forward, modestly acknowledging the cheers, which were redoubled. When they subsided he spoke with characteristic brevity and the self-effacement becoming to a soldier. “Fellow citizens,” he said. “My only regret is that I have done so little to merit such a greeting. I promise you, however, that hereafter I shall be watchful, energetic, and indefatigable in your defense.” That was all; but it was enough. According to one reporter, the applause that burst forth as he turned to resume his seat was “tremendous, uproarious, and prolonged.” Apparently the general was more popular than the Chief Executive, even in the latter’s own home state.
Despite this evidence of enthusiastic support from the civilians of the region, now that he had completed his military inspection Johnston was more dissatisfied than ever with the task which had been thrust into his hands. His command, he told Davis as soon as they were alone, was “a nominal one merely, and useless.… The great distance between the Armies of Mississippi and Tennessee, and the fact that they had different objects and adversaries, made it impossible to combine their action.” The only use he saw for his talents, he continued in a subsequent account of the interview, was as a substitute commander of one of the armies, “which, as each had its own general, was not intended or desirable.” In short, he told the President, he asked to be excused from serving in a capacity “so little to my taste.”
Davis replied that distance was precisely the factor which had caused Johnston to be sent here. However far apart the two armies were, both were certainly too far from Richmond for effective control to be exercised from there; someone with higher authority than the two commanders should be at hand to co-ordinate their efforts and “transfer troops from one army to another in an emergency.” Unpersuaded, still perturbed, the general continued to protest that, each being already “too weak for its object,” neither army “could be drawn upon to strengthen the other,” and with so much distance between the two, even “temporary transfers” were “impracticable.” In point of fact, he could see nothing but ultimate disaster resulting from so unorthodox an arrangement. Once more Davis disagreed. Johnston was not only here; he was needed here. He must do the best he could. Or as the general put it, his “objections were disregarded.”
On this discordant note the two men parted, Johnston to establish a new headquarters in the Mississippi capital and Davis to visit his eldest brother Joseph at his new plantation near Bolton, on the railroad west of Jackson. Their previous holdings on Davis Bend, just below Vicksburg—Joseph’s, called The Hurricane, and his own, called Brierfield—had been overrun and sacked by Butler’s men during their abortive upriver thrust, made in conjunction with Farragut’s fleet the previous summer: which, incidentally, was why Davis had used the past tense in reference to “the little of worldly goods I possessed,” and which, in part, was also why he referred to the Federals as “worse than vandal hordes.”
In the course of his two-day visit with his septuagenarian brother, good news reached him on December 27 which seemed to indicate that Johnston’s unwelcome burden already had been made a good deal lighter than he had protested it to be. Grant’s army in North Mississippi was in full retreat; Van Dorn had broken loose in its immediate rear and burned its forward supply base at Holly Springs, capturing the garrison in the process, while Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest, even farther in the northern commander’s rear, was wrecking vital supply lines and creating general havoc all over West Tennessee. The following day, however, on the heels of these glad tidings, came word that Vicksburg itself was under assault by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had come downriver from Memphis with the other half of Grant’s command, escorted by Rear Admiral David Porter’s ironclad fleet, and was storming the Chickasaw Bluffs. With the main body off opposing Grant, this was the worst of all possible news, short of the actual capture of the place; but on the 29th the President’s anxiety was relieved and his spirits lifted by word that Sherman’s repulse had been accomplished as effectively and as decisively, against even longer odds, as Burnside’s had been at Fredericksburg two weeks before. What was more, the means by which it had been done went far toward sustaining Davis’s military judgment, since the victory had been won in a large part by two brigades from the division he had recently detached, under protest, from the Army of Tennessee.
Vicksburg, then, had been delivered from the two-pronged pressure being applied from the north. If Bragg could do even partly as well in keeping Rosecrans out of Chattanooga, and if the garrison at Port Hudson could stop Banks and Farragut in their ascent of the Mississippi, the multiple threats to the western theater would have been smashed all round, or anyhow blunted for a season, despite the dire predictions made only that week by its over-all commander. One thing at any rate was certain. The President’s long train ride back to Richmond would be made in a far more genial atmosphere, militarily speaking, than he had encountered at successive stops in the course of the outward journey.
He left Jackson on the last day of the year, and after speaking again that evening from a balcony of the Battle House in Mobile, received while retracing in reverse his route through Alabama and Georgia a double—indeed, a triple—further measure of good tidings. “God has granted us a happy New Year,” Bragg wired from Murfreesboro. Rosecrans had ventured out of his intrenchments to attack the Army of Tennessee, which had then turned the tables with a dawn assault, jackknifing the Union right against the Union left. Not only was Chattanooga secure, but from the sound of the victorious commander’s dispatch, Nashville itself might soon be recovered. “The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back,” Bragg exulted. “We occupy whole field and shall follow him.”
The pleasure Davis felt at this—augmented as it was by information that John Morgan had outdone himself in Kentucky on a Christmas raid, wrecking culverts, burning trestles, and capturing more than two thousand men, while Forrest and Van Dorn were returning safely from their separate and equally spectacular raids, the former after escaping a convergence designed for his destruction at Parker’s Crossroads, deep inside the enemy lines—was raised another notch by word that a Federal reconnaissance force, sent upriver by Banks from Baton Rouge, had turned tail at the unexpected sight of the guns emplaced on Port Hudson’s bluff and steamed back down without offering a challenge. And when this in turn was followed by still a third major item in the budget of good news, the presidential cup ran over. Major General John B. Magruder, recently arrived to take command of all the Confederates in Texas, had improvised a two-boat fleet of “cottonclads” and had retaken Galveston in a New Year’s predawn surprise attack, destroying one Yankee deep-water gunboat and forcing another to strike its colors. With the surrender of the army garrison in occupation of the island town, Texas was decontaminated. The only bluecoats still on her soil were Magruder’s prisoners.
Leaving Mobile, Davis again visited Montgomery and Atlanta, but passing through the latter place he proceeded, not north to Chattanooga, but eastward to Augusta, where he spent the night of January 2. Next morning he entered South Carolina for the first time since the removal of the government to Richmond, back in May, and after a halt for a speech in Columbia, the capital, went on that night across the state line to Charlotte. At noon the following day he spoke in Raleigh, the North Carolina capital, then detoured south to Wilmington, the principal east coast port for blockade-runners, where he received the first really disturbing military news that had reached him since he left Virginia, nearly a month before. Instead of “following” the defeated Rosecrans, as he had said he would do, Bragg had waited a day before resuming the offensive, and then had been repulsed; whereupon, having been informed that the enemy had been reinforced—and bearing in mind, moreover, the Commander in Chief’s recent advice: “Fight if you can, and fall back [if you must]”—he fell back thirty miles to a better defensive position on Duck River, just in front of Tullahoma and still protecting Chattanooga, another fifty-odd miles in his rear. As at Perryville, three months ago, he had won a battle and then retreated. Not that Murfreesboro was not still considered a victory; it was, at least in southern eyes. Only some of the luster had been lost. Davis, however, placing emphasis on the odds and the fact that Chattanooga was secure, counted it scarcely less a triumph than before. In response to a Wilmington serenade, tendered just after he received word that Bragg had fallen back, he spoke for a full hour from his hotel balcony. Employing what one hearer called “purity of diction” and a “fervid eloquence” to match the enthusiasm of the torchlight serenaders, he characterized recent events as a vindication of the valor of southern arms, and even Went so far as to repeat the words he had spoken to a similar crowd from a Richmond balcony on the jubilant morrow of First Manassas: “Never be humble to the haughty. Never be haughty to the humble.”
That was a Sunday. Next day, January 5, he covered the final leg of his long journey, returning to Richmond before dark. He was weary and he looked it, and with cause, for in twenty-five days he had traveled better than twenty-five hundred miles and had made no less than twenty-five public addresses, including some that had lasted more than an hour. However, his elation overmatched his weariness, and this too was with cause. He knew that he had done much to restore civilian morale by appearing before the disaffected people, and militarily the gains had been even greater. Though mostly they had been fought against odds that should have been oppressive, if not completely paralyzing, of the several major actions which had occurred during his absence from the capital or on the eve of his departure—Prairie Grove and Hartsville, Fredericksburg and Goldsboro, Holly Springs and Chickasaw Bluffs, Galveston and Murfreesboro—all were resounding victories except the first and possibly the last. Taken in conjunction with the spectacular Christmas forays of Morgan and Forrest, the torpedoing of the Cairo up the Yazoo River, and Grant’s enforced retreat in North Mississippi, these latest additions to the record not only sustained the reputation Confederate arms had gained on many a field during the year just passed into history; they also augured well for a future which only lately had seemed dark. Defensively speaking, indeed, the record could scarcely have been improved. Of the three objectives the Federals had set for themselves, announcing them plainly to all the world by moving simultaneously against them as the year drew to a close, Vicksburg had been disenthralled and Chattanooga remained as secure as Richmond.
Davis himself had done as much as any man, and a good deal more than most, to bring about the result that not a single armed enemy soldier now stood within fifty air-line miles of any one of these three vital cities. It was therefore a grateful, if weary, President who was met by his wife and their four children on the steps of the White House, late that Monday afternoon of the first week of the third calendar year of this second American war for independence.
Of all these various battles and engagements, fought in all these various places, Fredericksburg, the nearest to the national capital, was the largest—in numbers engaged, if not in bloodshed—as well as the grandest as a spectacle, in which respect it equaled, if indeed it did not outdo, any other major conflict of the war. Staged as it was, with a curtain of fog that lifted, under the influence of a genial sun, upon a sort of natural amphitheater referred to by one of the 200,000 participants, a native of the site, as “a champaign tract inclosed by hills,” it quite fulfilled the volunteers’ early-abandoned notion of combat as a picture-book affair. What was more, the setting had been historical long before the armies met there to add a bloody chapter to a past that had been peaceful up to now. John Paul Jones had lived as a boy in the old colonial town that gave its name and sacrificed the contents of its houses to the battle. Hugh Mercer’s apothecary shop and James Monroe’s law office were two among the many points of interest normally apt to be pointed out to strangers by the four thousand inhabitants, most of whom had lately been evacuated, however, by order of the commander of the army whose looters would presently take the place apart and whose corpses would find shallow graves on its unwarlike lawns and in its gardens. Here the widowed Mary Washington had lived, and it was here or near here that her son was reported to have thrown a Spanish silver dollar across the Rappahannock. During the battle itself, from one of the dominant hills where he established his forward command post, R. E. Lee would peer through rifts in the swirling gunsmoke in an attempt to spot in the yard of Chatham, a mansion on the heights beyond the river, the old tree beneath whose branches he had courted Mary Custis, granddaughter of the woman who later married the dollar-flinging George and thus became the nation’s first first lady.
Yet it was Burnside, not Lee, who had chosen the setting for the impending carnage. Appointed to succeed his friend McClellan because of that general’s apparent lack of aggressiveness after the Battle of Antietam, he had shifted the Army of the Potomac eastward to this point where the Rappahannock, attaining its head of navigation, swerved suddenly south to lave the doorsteps of the town on its right bank. Washington lay fifty miles behind him; Richmond, his goal, lay fifty miles ahead. Mindful of the President’s admonition that his plan for eluding Lee in order to descend on the southern capital would succeed “if you move very rapidly, otherwise not,” he had indeed moved rapidly; but, as it turned out, he had moved to no avail. Though he had successfully given Lee the slip, the pontoons he had requisitioned in advance from Harpers Ferry, altogether necessary if he was to cross the river, did not reach the Fredericksburg area until his army had been massed in jump-off positions for more than a week; by which time, to his confoundment, Lee had the opposite ridges bristling with guns that were trained on the prospective bridge sites. Burnside was so profoundly distressed by this turn of events that he spent two more weeks looking down on the town from the left-bank heights, with something of the intentness and singularity of purpose which he had displayed, back in September at Antietam, looking down at the little triple-arched bridge that ever afterwards bore his name as indelibly as if the intensity of his gaze had etched it deep into the stone. Meanwhile, by way of increasing his chagrin as Lee’s butternut veterans clustered thick and thicker on the hills across the way, it was becoming increasingly apparent, not only to the northern commander but also to his men, that what had begun as a sprint for Richmond had landed him and them in coffin corner.
He had troubles enough, in all conscience, but at least they were not of the kind that proceeded from any shortage of troops. Here opposite Fredericksburg, ready to execute his orders as soon as he could decide what those orders were going to be, Burnside had 121,402 effectives in his six corps of three divisions each. Organized into three Grand Divisions of two corps each, these eighteen divisions were supported by 312 pieces of artillery. Nor was that all. Marching on Dumfries, twenty miles to the north, were two more corps with an effective strength of 27,724 soldiers and 97 guns. In addition to this field force of nearly 150,000 men, supported by more than 400 guns, another 52,000 in the Washington defenses and along the upper Potomac were also included in his nominal command; so that his total “present for duty” during this second week of December—at any rate the first part of it, before the butchering began—was something over 200,000 of all arms. He did not know the exact strength of the rebels waiting for him beyond the town and at other undetermined positions downriver, but he estimated their strength at just over 80,000 men.
In this—unlike McClellan, who habitually doubled and sometimes even tripled an enemy force by estimation—he was not far off. Lee had nine divisions organized into two corps of about 35,000 each, which, together with some 8000 cavalry and artillery, gave him a total of 78,511 effectives, supported by 275 guns. He had, then, not quite two thirds as many troops in the immediate vicinity as his opponent had. By ordinary, as he had lately told the Secretary of War, he thought it preferable, considering the disparity of force, “to attempt to baffle [the enemy’s] designs by maneuvering rather than to resist his advance by main force.” However, he found his present position so advantageous—naturally strong, though not so formidable in appearance as to rule out the possibility of an attempted assault—that he was determined to hold his ground, despite the odds, in the belief that the present situation contained the seeds of another full-scale Federal disaster.
Except for two detached brigades of cavalry, his whole army was at hand. So far, though, he had effected the concentration of only one corps, leaving the other spread out downstream to guard the crossings all the way to Port Royal, twenty miles below. The first corps, five divisions under Lieutenant General James Longstreet—“Old Peter,” his men called him, adopting his West Point nickname; Lee had lately dubbed him “my old warhorse”—was in position on the slopes and crest of a seven-mile-long range of hills overlooking the mile-wide “champaign tract” that gave down upon the town and the river, its flanks protected right and left by Massaponax Creek and the southward bend of the Rappahannock. Forbidding in appearance, the position was even more formidable in fact; for the range of hills—in effect, a broken ridge—was mostly wooded, affording concealment for the infantry, and the batteries had been sited with such care that when Longstreet suggested the need for another gun at a critical point, the artillery commander replied: “General, we cover that ground now so well that we comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
The other corps commander, Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan Jackson—“Old Jack” to his men, redoubtable “Stonewall” to the world at large—had three of his four divisions posted at eight-mile intervals downstream, one on the south bank of Massaponax Creek, one at Skinker’s Neck, and one near Port Royal, while the fourth was held at Guiney Station, on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, eight miles in rear of Longstreet’s right at Hamilton’s Crossing. Despite the possibility that Burnside might swamp Longstreet with a sudden assault, outnumbering him no less that three-to-one, Lee accepted the risk of keeping the second corps widely scattered in order to be able to challenge the Union advance at the very outset, whenever and wherever it began. Jackson, on the other hand, would have preferred to fight on the line of the North Anna, a less formidable stream thirty miles nearer Richmond, rather than here on the Rappahannock, which he believed would be an effective barrier to pursuit of the beaten Yankees when they retreated, as he was sure they would do, under cover of their superior artillery posted on the dominant left-bank heights. “We will whip the enemy, but gain no fruits of victory,” he predicted.
In point of fact, whatever validity Jackson might have as a prophet, Lee not only accepted the risk of a sudden, all-out attack on Longstreet; he actually preferred it. Though he expected the crossing to be attempted at some point downriver, in which case he intended to challenge it at the water’s edge, it was his fervent hope that Burnside could be persuaded—or, best of all, would persuade himself—to make one here. In that case, Lee did not intend to contest the crossing itself with any considerable force. The serious challenge would come later, when the enemy came at him across that open, gently undulating plain. He had confidence that Old Peter, securely intrenched along the ridge, his guns already laid and carefully ranged on check points, could absorb the shock until the two closest of Stonewall’s divisions could be summoned. Their arrival would give the Confederate infantry the unaccustomed numerical wealth of six men to every yard of their seven-mile line: which Lee believed would be enough, not only to repulse the Federals, but also to enable the graybacks to launch a savage counterstroke, in the style of Second Manassas, that would drive the bluecoats in a panicky mass and pen them for slaughter against the unfordable river, too thickly clustered for escape across their pontoon bridges and too closely intermingled with his own charging troops for the Union artillery to attempt a bombardment from the opposite heights. It was unlikely that Burnside would thus expose his army to the Cannae so many Southerners believed was overdue. It was, indeed, almost too much to hope for. But Lee did hope for it. He hoped for it intensely.
Burnside, too, was weighing these possibilities, and it seemed to him also that the situation was heavy with the potentials of disaster: much more so, in fact, than it had been before he shifted his army eastward in November from the scene of Pope’s late-August rout. Though so far he had escaped direct connection with a military fiasco, he had not been unacquainted with sudden blows of adversity in the years before the war. Once as a newly commissioned lieutenant on his way to the Mexican War he had lost his stake to a gambler on a Mississippi steamboat, and again in the mid-50’s he had failed to get a government contract for the manufacture of a breech-loading rifle he had invented and put his cash in after leaving the army to devote full time to its promotion, which left him so broke that he had to sell his sword and uniforms for money to live on until his friend McClellan gave him a job with the land office of a railroad, where he prospered. Between these two financial upsets, he had received his worst personal shock when a Kentucky girl, whom he had wooed and finally persuaded to accompany him to the altar, responded to the minister’s final ceremonial question with an abrupt, emphatic “No!” Hard as they had been to take, these three among several lesser setbacks had really hurt no one but himself, nor had they seriously affected the thirty-eight-year-old general’s basically sunny disposition. But now that he had the lives of two hundred thousand men dependent on his abilities, not to mention the possible outcome of a war in which his country claimed to be fighting for survival, he did not face the likelihood of failure with such equanimity as he had shown in those previous trying situations. Formerly a hearty man, whose distinctive ruff of dark brown whiskers described a flamboyant double parabola below a generous, wide-nostriled nose, a pair of alert, dark-socketed eyes, and a pale expanse of skin that extended all the way back to the crown of his head, he had become increasingly morose and fretful here on the high left bank of the Rappahannock. “I deem it my duty,” he had advised his superiors during the interim which followed the nonarrival of the pontoons at the climax of his rapid cross-country march, “to say that I cannot make the promise of probable success with the faith that I did when I supposed that all the parts of the plan would be carried out.”
This was putting it rather mildly. Yet, notwithstanding his qualms, he had evolved a design which he believed would work by virtue of its daring. His balloons were up, despite the blustery weather, and the observers reported heavy concentrations of rebels far downstream. He had intended to throw his bridges across the river at Skinker’s Neck, ten miles beyond Lee’s immediate right, then march directly on the railroad in the southern army’s rear, thus forcing its retreat to protect its supply line. However, the balloon reports convinced him that Lee had divined his purpose, and this—plus the difficulty of concealing his preparations in that quarter, which led him to suspect that he would be doing nothing more than side-stepping into another stalemate—caused him to shift the intended attack back to the vicinity of Fredericksburg itself, where he could use the town to mask the crossing. It was a bold decision, made in the belief that, of all possible moves, this was the one his opponent would be least likely to suspect until it was already in execution: which, as he saw it from the Confederate point of view, would be too late. The troops below were Jackson’s, the renowned “foot cavalry” of the Army of Northern Virginia, but a good part of them were as much as twenty miles away. By the time they arrived, if all went as Burnside intended, there would be no other half of their army for them to support; he would have crushed it, and they would find that what they had been hastening toward was slaughter or surrender.
Accordingly, early on December 9, a warning order went out for Grand Division commanders to report to army headquarters at noon, by which time they were to have alerted their troops, supplied each man with sixty rounds of ammunition, and begun the issue of three days’ cooked rations. They would have the rest of today to get ready, he told them, and all of tomorrow. Then, in the predawn darkness of Thursday, December 11, the engineers would throw the six bridges by which the infantry and cavalry would cross for the attack, followed at once by such artillery as had been assigned to furnish close-up support. The crossing would be made in two general areas, one directly behind the town and the other just below it, with three bridges at each affording passage for the left and right Grand Divisions, commanded respectively by Major Generals William B. Franklin and Edwin V. Sumner. The center Grand Division, under Major General Joseph Hooker, would lend weight to the assault by detaching two of its divisions to Franklin and the other four to Sumner, giving them each a total of approximately 60,000 men, including cavalry and support artillery. Burnside’s intention—not unlike McClellan’s at Antietam, except that the flanks were reversed—was for Franklin’s column to attack and carry the lower end of the ridge on which the Confederates were intrenched, then wheel and sweep northward along it while the enemy was being held in place by attacks delivered simultaneously by Sumner on the right. It was simple enough, as all such designs for destruction were meant to be. In fact, Burnside apparently considered it so readily comprehensible as to require little or no incidental explanation when the three generals reported to him at noon.
One additional subterfuge he would employ, but that was all. The engineers at Skinker’s Neck, assisted by a regiment of Maine axmen, would be kept at work felling trees and laying a corduroy approach down to the riverbank at that point, as if for the passage of infantry with artillery support. The sound of chopping, along with the glow of fires at night, would help to delude the rebels in their expectation of a crossing there. However, even this was but a strengthening of the original subterfuge, the shifting of the main effort back upstream, on which the ruff-whiskered general based his belief, or at any rate his hope, that he would find Lee unprepared and paralyze him with his daring.
That was a good deal more than any of the northern commander’s predecessors had been able to do, but Burnside’s gloom had been dispelled; his confidence had risen now to zenith. As he phrased it in a dispatch telegraphed to Washington near midnight, outlining his attack plan and divulging his expectations, “I think now that the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than in any other part of the river. The commanders of Grand Divisions coincide with me in this opinion, and I have accordingly ordered the movement.… We hope to succeed.”
Lee was indeed surprised, though not unpleasantly. Already a firm believer in the efficacy of prayer, he might have seen in this development a further confirmation of his faith. Nor was the surprise as complete as Burnside had intended. On Wednesday night, December 10, a woman crept down to the east bank of the Rappahannock and called across to the gray pickets that the Yankees had drawn a large issue of cooked rations—always a sign that action was at hand. Then at 4.45 next morning, two hours before dawn, two guns boom-boomed the prearranged signal that the enemy was attempting a crossing here in front of Fredericksburg. At once the Confederate bivouacs were astir with men turning out of their blankets to take the posts already assigned them along the ridge overlooking the plain that sloped eastward to the old colonial town, still invisible in the frosty darkness.
In it there was one brigade of Mississippi infantry, bled down to 1600 veterans under Brigadier General William Barksdale, a former congressman with long white hair and what one of his soldiers called “a thirst for battle glory.” He had had his share of this in every major engagement since Manassas, but today was his best chance to slake that thirst; for Lee, being unwilling to subject the town to shelling, had left to these few Deep South troops the task of contesting the crossing—not with any intention of preventing it, even if that had been possible in the face of all those guns on the dominant heights, but merely to make it as costly to the Federals as he could. Barksdale received the assignment gladly, posting most of his men in stout brick houses whose rear walls, looking out upon the river, they loopholed so as to draw their beads with a minimum of distraction in the form of return fire from the men they would be dropping when the time came. Shortly after midnight, hearing sounds of preparation across the way—the muffled tread of soldiers on the march, the occasional whinny of a horse or bray of a mule, the clank of trace-chains, and at last the ponderous rumble of what he took to be pontoons being brought down from the heights—he knew the time was very much at hand. After sending word of this to his superiors, he saw to it that the few remaining civilians, mostly women and children, with a sprinkling of old men, either hastened away to the safety of the hills or else took refuge in their cellars.
He was in no hurry to open fire, preferring not to waste ammunition in the darkness. Long before daylight, however, his men could hear the Federal engineers at work: low-voiced commands, the clatter of lumber, and at intervals the loud crack of half-inch skim ice as another pontoon was launched. This last drew closer with every repetition as the bridge was extended, unit by six-foot unit, across the intervening four hundred feet of water. At last, judging by the sound that the pontoniers had reached midstream, the waiting riflemen opened fire. They aimed necessarily by ear, but the result was satisfactory. After the first yelp of pain there was the miniature thunder of boots on planks, diminishing as the runners cleared the bridge; then silence, broken presently by the boom-boom of the two guns passing the word along the ridge that the Yanks were coming.
Soon they returned to the bridge-end, working as quietly as possible since every sound, including even the squeak of a bolt, was echoed by the crack of rifles from the western bank. It was perilous work, but it was nothing compared to the trouble brought by a misty dawn and a rising sun that began to burn the fog away, exposing the workers to aimed shots from marksmen whose skill was practically superfluous at a range of two hundred feet. A pattern was quickly established. The pontoniers would rush out onto the bridge, take up their tools, and work feverishly until the fire grew too hot; whereupon they would drop their tools and run the gauntlet back to bank. Then, as they got up their nerve again, their officers would lead or chevy them back onto the bridge, where the performance would be repeated. This went on for hours, to the high delight of the Mississippians, who jeered and hooted as they shot and waited, then shot and waited to shoot some more.
By 10 o’clock the northern commander’s patience had run out. The movement was already hours off schedule; Longstreet’s signal guns had announced Lee’s alertness, and Jackson’s lean marchers might well be on the way by now. Rifle fire having proved ineffective against the snipers behind the brick walls of the houses along the riverbank, Burnside ordered his chief of artillery, Brigadier General Henry Hunt, to open fire with the 147 heavy-caliber guns posted on Stafford Heights, frowning down on the old town a hundred feet below. The response was immediate and uproarious, and it lasted for more than an hour, Hunt having instructed his gun crews to maintain a rate of fire of one shot every two minutes. Seventy-odd solid shot and shells a minute were thrown until 5000 had been fired. During all that time, a correspondent wrote, “the earth shook beneath the terrific explosions of the shells, which went howling over the river, crashing into houses, battering down walls, splintering doors, ripping up floors.”
As a spectacle of modern war it was a great success, and it was also quite successful against the town. It wrecked houses, setting several afire; it tore up cobblestones; it shook the very hills the armies stood on. But it did not seem to dampen the spirits or influence the marksmanship of the Mississippians, who rose from the rubble and dropped more of the pontoniers, driving them again from the work they had returned to during the lull that followed the bombardment. When Barksdale sent a message asking whether he should have his men put out the fires, Longstreet replied: “You have enough to do to watch the Yankees.” Back at Lee’s observation post, the sight of what the Union guns had done to the Old Dominion town so riled the southern commander that he broke out wrathfully against the cannoneers and the officers who had given them orders to open fire. “Those people delight to destroy the weak and those who can make no defense,” he said hotly. “It just suits them!” However, when he sent to inquire after the welfare of Barksdale’s men and to see if there was anything they wanted, that general sent back word that he had everything he needed. But he added, “Tell General Lee that if he wants a bridge of dead Yankees, I can furnish him with one.”
It was well past noon by now. Hunt, admitting that his guns could never dislodge the rebels, suggested that infantry use the pontoons as assault boats in order to get across the river and pry the snipers out of the rubble with bayonets. A Michigan regiment drew the duty, supported by two others from Massachusetts, and did it smartly, establishing a bridgehead in short order. During the street fighting, which used up what was left of daylight, the bridges were laid and other regiments came to their support. Barksdale’s thirst was still unslaked, however. When he received permission to withdraw, he declined and kept on fighting, house to house, until past sundown. Not till dusk had fallen was he willing to call it a day, and even then he had trouble persuading some of his men to agree. This was particularly difficult in the case of the rear-guard company, whose commander somehow discovered in the course of the engagement that the Federal advance was being led by a Massachusetts company whose commander had been his classmate at Harvard. The Mississippi lieutenant called a halt and faced his men about, determined to whip his blue-clad friend then and there, until his colonel had him placed in arrest in order to continue the withdrawal. It was 7 o’clock by the time the last of Barksdale’s veterans crossed the plain to join their admiring comrades on the ridge, leaving Fredericksburg to the bluecoats they had been fighting for fifteen hours.
Not until well after dark did Lee order Jackson to bring his two nearest divisions to Longstreet’s support, and not even then did he summon the other two from Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck, where the Maine axmen on the opposite bank had kindled campfires around which they were resting from their daylong chopping. Pleased though he was with the day’s work—his eyes had lighted up at each report that a new attempt to extend the bridge had been defeated—Lee simply could not believe that his hopes had been so completely fulfilled that the enemy was concentrating everything for an attack against the ridge where his guns had been laid for weeks now and his infantry was disposed at ease in overlapping lines of battle.
Across the way, on Stafford Heights, Burnside too was pleased. Despite delays that had been maddening, he had his six bridges down at last (the three lower ones, below the town, had been down since noon, but he had hesitated to use them so long as the Fredericksburg force of unknown strength was in position on their flank) and his army was assembled for the crossing. Besides, he had received balloon reports at sundown informing him that the other half of the rebel army was still in its former positions down the river, with no signs of preparation for a move in this direction. The delay, it seemed, had cost him nothing more than some nervous twinges and a few expendable combat engineers; Lee might be caught napping yet. So confidently did the ruff-whiskered general feel next morning, when observers reported Jackson’s troops still in position at Skinker’s Neck and Port Royal, twenty miles away, that he decided he could afford to spend another day assembling his army on the west bank of the Rappahannock for the assault across the empty plain and against the rebel ridge.
Fog shrouded the entire valley while the long blue lines of men came steeply down to the riverbank and broke step as they crossed the swaying bridges. On the heights above, the Union guns fired blindly over their heads, in case the Confederates attempted to challenge the crossing. They did not. At noon, however, the fog lifted; Lee, with a close-up view of the bluecoats massed in their thousands beyond the plain, saw at once that this was no feint, but a major effort. He sent for Jackson’s other two divisions, instructing them to begin their long marches immediately in order to arrive in time for the battle, which he now saw would be fought tomorrow. Beyond that he could do no more. Though he was outnumbered worse than three-to-two, and knew it, he was in good spirits as he rode on a sundown inspection of his lines. Returning to headquarters, he seemed pleased that the Federals on the flat were about to charge him. “I shall try to do them all the damage in our power when they move forward,” he said.
Down in the town, meanwhile, the Union soldiers had been having themselves a field day. Cavalrymen ripped the strings from grand pianos to make feed troughs for their horses, while others cavorted amid the rubble in women’s lace-trimmed underwear and crinoline gowns snatched from closets and bureau drawers. Scarcely a house escaped pillage. Family portraits were slashed with bayonets; pier glass mirrors were shattered with musket butts; barrels of flour and molasses were dumped together on deep-piled rugs. It was all a lot of fun, especially for the more fortunate ones who found bottles of rare old madeira in the cellars. Gradually, though, the excitement paled and the looters began to speculate as to why the rebs had made no attempt to challenge the crossing today, not even with their artillery. Some guessed it was because they had no ammunition to spare, others that they were afraid of retaliation by “our siege guns.” One man had a psychological theory: “General Lee thinks he will have a big thing on us about the bombardment of this town. He proposes to rouse the indignation of the civilized world, as they call it. You’ll see he won’t throw a shell into it. He is playing for the sympathies of Europe.” Still another, a veteran private, had a different idea. “Shit,” he said. “They want us to get in. Getting out won’t be quite so smart and easy. You’ll see.”
They would see; but not just yet. Day broke on a fog so thick that the sun, which rose at 7.17 beyond the Union left, could not pierce it, but rather gave an eerie, luminous quality to the mist that swathed the ridge where Lee’s reunited army awaited the challenge foretold by sounds of preparation on the invisible plain below; “an indistinct murmur,” one listener called it, “like the distant hum of myriads of bees.”
Longstreet held the Confederate left. Four of his five divisions were on line, commanded north to south by Major Generals Richard Anderson, Lafayette McLaws, George Pickett, and John Bell Hood; the fifth and smallest, a demi-division under Brigadier General Robert Ransom, was in reserve. Jackson, on the right, had posted Major General A. P. Hill’s large division along his entire front, backed by a second line of two close-packed divisions under Brigadier Generals William Taliaferro and Jubal Early, which in turn was supported by Major General D. H. Hill’s division, just arrived from Port Royal after an all-night march. Major General J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry guarded the flank, extending it southward from Hamilton’s Crossing to Massaponax Creek. Since this end of the ridge was considerably lower than the other, and consequently much less easy to defend, Lee had assigned five miles of the line to Longstreet and only two to Jackson, who thus had no less than ten men to every yard of front and could distribute them in depth. It was no wonder, then, that he replied this morning to a staff officer’s expression of qualms about the enemy strength and the lowness of the ridge in this direction: “Major, my men have sometimes failed to take a position, but to defend one, never! I am glad the Yankees are coming.”
Lee and Longstreet stood on an eminence known thereafter as Lee’s Hill because that general had set up his forward command post here, about midway of Longstreet’s line, with an excellent view—or at any rate what would be an excellent view, once the curtain of fog had lifted—of the lines in both directions, including most of Jackson’s line to the south, as well as of Fredericksburg and the snow-pocked plain where the blue host was massing under cover of their guns on Stafford Heights, preparing even now to give the lower ridge across the way a long-range pounding. Today as yesterday, however, the southern commander was in good spirits. Tall and comely—nothing less, indeed, than “the handsomest man in Christendom,” according to one who saw him there this morning—neatly dressed, as always, with only the three unwreathed stars on the collar of his thigh-length gray sack coat to show his rank, he gave no sign of nervousness or apprehension. Above the short-clipped iron-gray beard and beneath the medium brim of a sand-colored planter’s hat, his quick brown eyes had a youthfulness which, together with the litheness of his figure and the deftness of his movements, disguised the fact that he would be fifty-six years old next month.
His companion seemed to share his confidence, if not his handsomeness of person, though he too was prepossessing of appearance. A burly, shaggy man, six feet tall, of Dutch extraction and just past forty-one, Longstreet gave above all an impression of solidity and dependability. His men’s great fondness for him was based in part on their knowledge of his concern for their well-being, in and out of combat. Yesterday, for example, when some engineers protested to him that the gun crews were ruining their emplacements by digging them too deep, Old Peter would not agree to order them to stop. “If we only save the finger of a man, that’s good enough,” he told the engineers, and the cannoneers kept digging. Often phlegmatic, this morning he was in an expansive mood: especially after he and Lee were joined by the third-ranking member of the army triumvirate, who came riding up from the south. It was Jackson, but a Jackson quite unlike the Stonewall they had known of old. Gone were the mangy cadet cap and the homespun uniform worn threadbare since its purchase on the eve of the Valley Campaign, through the miasmic nightmare of the Seven Days, the suppression of the “miscreant Pope” at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas, the invasion of Maryland and the hard fight at Sharpsburg. Instead he wore a new cap bound with gold braid, and more braid—“chicken guts,” Confederate soldiers irreverently styled the stuff—looped on the cuffs and sleeves of a brand-new uniform, a recent gift from Jeb Stuart. Even his outsized boots were brightly polished. For all his finery, he looked as always older than his thirty-eight years. His pale blue eyes were stern, his thin-lipped mouth clamped forbiddingly behind the scraggly dark-brown beard; but this had not protected him from the jibes of his men, who greeted him with their accustomed rough affection as he rode among them. “Come here, boys!” they yelled. “Stonewall has drawed his bounty and bought hisself some new clothes.” Others shook their heads in mock dismay at seeing him tricked out like some newly commissioned quartermaster lieutenant. “Old Jack will be afraid for his clothes,” they said, doleful amid the catcalls, “and will not get down to work.”
He had ridden all this way, exposing himself to all that raillery, for a purpose which he was quick to divulge. Turning aside Longstreet’s banter, he muttered that the finery was “some doing of my friend Stuart, I believe,” and passed at once to the matter that had brought him here. He wanted permission to attack. If his men surged down the ridge and onto the plain before the fog had lifted, he explained, they would be hidden from the guns on Stafford Heights and could fling the startled bluecoats into the river. Lee shook his head. He preferred to have the superior enemy force worn down by repeated charges and repulses, in the style of Second Manassas, before he passed to the offensive. Stonewall had his answer. As he turned to leave, Longstreet began to bait him again. “General, do not all those multitudes of Federals frighten you?” Old Peter’s humor was heavy-handed, but Jackson had no humor at all. “We shall see very soon whether I shall not frighten them,” he said as he put one foot in the stirrup. But Longstreet kept at him. “Jackson, what are you going to do with all those people over there?” Stonewall mounted. “Sir, we will give them the bayonet,” he said, and he turned his horse and rode away.
By 10 o’clock the fog had begun to thin. It drained downward, burned away by the sun, layer by upper layer, so that the valley seemed to empty after the manner of a tub when the plug is pulled. Gradually the town revealed itself: first the steeples of two churches and the courthouse, then the chimneys and rooftops, and finally the houses and gardens, set upon the checkerboard of streets. Dark lines of troops flowed steadily toward two clusters, one within the town, masked by the nearer buildings, the other two miles down the Richmond Stage Road, which ran parallel to the river and roughly bisected the mile-wide plain. Already the more adventurous Federal batteries had opened, arching their shells through sunlit rifts in the thinning mist, but the Confederates made no reply until 10.30 when Lee passed the word: “Test the ranges on the left.” Longstreet’s guns began to roar from Marye’s Heights, the tall north end of the long ridge, directly opposite the center of the town, where the first of the two clusters of blue-clad men was thickening. All the fog was gone by now, replaced by brilliant sunlight. The drifting smoke made shifting patterns on the plain. High over Stafford Heights, where the long-range guns were adding their deeper voices to the chorus of the Union, two of Burnside’s big yellow observation balloons bobbed and floated, the men in their swaying baskets looking down on war reduced to miniature.
First blood was drawn in a brief dramatic action staged in front of the Confederate right. Here the fog had rolled away so rapidly that the scene was exposed as if by the sudden lift of a curtain, showing a three-division Federal corps advancing westward in long lines so neatly dressed that watchers on the ridge could count the brigades and regiments—ten of the former, forty-six of the latter, plus eleven batteries of artillery—each with its attendant colors rippling in the sunlight. From Lee’s Hill, the southern commander was surprised to see two horse-drawn guns, toy-sized in the distance, go twinkling out to the old stage road and go into position in the open, within easy range of the left flank of the 18,000 Federals, which was thrown into some disorder and came to a milling halt as the two guns began to slam their shots endwise into the blue ranks, toppling men like tenpins.
They had been brought into action by Stuart’s chief of artillery, twenty-four-year-old Major John Pelham of Alabama, who in his haste to join the southern army had left West Point on the eve of graduation in ’61. He had often done daring things, similar to this today, but never before with so large an audience to applaud him. As the men of both armies watched from the surrounding heights, he fired so rapidly that one general involved in the blue confusion estimated his strength at a full battery. Four Union batteries gave him their undivided attention, turning their two dozen guns against his two. One, a rifled Blakely, was soon disabled and had to be sent to the rear, but Pelham kept the other barking furiously, a 12-pounder brass Napoleon, and shifted his position each time the enemy gunners got his range. The handsome young major was in his glory, wearing bound about his cap, at the request of a British army observer, a necktie woven of red and blue, the colors of the Grenadier Guards. When Stuart sent word for him to retire, Pelham declined, though he had lost so many cannoneers by then that he himself was helping to serve the gun. “Tell the general I can hold my ground,” he said. Three times the order came, but he obeyed only when his caissons were nearly empty. Back at Hamilton’s Crossing, he returned the smoke-grimed necktie-souvenir to the English visitor, blushing with pleasure and embarrassment at the cheers. Lee on his hill took his glasses down, smiling as he exclaimed: “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young!”
While the Federals remained halted on the plain, recovering the alignment Pelham had disturbed, their artillery began to pound the lower ridge in earnest, probing the woods in an attempt to knock out Jackson’s hidden batteries before the battle passed to the infantry. The Confederate gunners made no reply, being under orders not to disclose their positions until the enemy came within easy range. At last he did, and the graybacks got their revenge for the punishment they had had to accept in silence. When the advance came within 800 yards, all of Stonewall’s guns cut loose at once. The blue flood stopped, flailed ragged along its forward edge, and then reversed its flow.
The Union guns resumed the argument, having spotted their targets by the smoke that boiled up through the trees, but the infantry battle now shifted northward to where the bluecoats had been massing under cover of the town. At 11.30 they emerged and began to surge across the plain toward Marye’s Heights, less than half a mile away. A thirty-foot spillway, six feet deep, lay athwart their path, however, and the rebel gunners caught them close-packed as they funneled onto three bridges whose planks had been removed but whose stringers had been left in place, apparently to lure them across in single file. “Hi! Hi! Hi!” the Federals yelled as they pounded over, taking their losses in order to gain the cover of a slight roll or “dip” of ground that hid them from the guns on the heights beyond.
“It appeared to us there was no end of them,” a waiting cannoneer observed. But Longstreet was not worried; he had a surprise in store for them. Along the base of Marye’s Heights ran a road, flanked by stone walls four feet high, which Brigadier General T.R.R. Cobb had had his Georgians deepen, throwing the spoil over the townward wall, to add to its effectiveness as a breastwork and to hide it from the enemy. This was the advance position of the whole army, and as such it might be outflanked or enfiladed. However, when Cobb was given permission to fall back up the hill in case that happened, he replied grimly in the spirit of Barksdale and Pelham: “Well, if they wait for me to fall back, they will wait a long time.”
Presently he got the chance to begin to prove his staunchness; for the Federals leaped to their feet in the swale and made a sudden rush, as if they intended to scale the heights whose base was only 400 yards away. High up the slope the guns crashed, darting tongues of flame, and the Georgians along the sunken road pulled trigger. It was as if the charging bluecoats had struck a trip wire. When the smoke of that single rifle volley rolled away, all that were left in front of the wall were writhing on the ground or scampering back to safety in the swale. After a wait, they rose and came forward again, deploying as they advanced. This time the reaction was less immediate, since they knew what to expect; but it was no different in the end. The guns on the slope and the rifles down along the wall broke into a clattering frenzy of smoke and flame, and more men were left writhing as others fell back off the blasted plain and into the swale. Again they rose. Again, incredibly, they charged. They came forward, one of them afterwards recalled, “as though they were breasting a storm of rain and sleet, their faces and bodies being only half turned to the storm, with their shoulders shrugged.” Another observed that “everybody, from the smallest drummer boy on up, seemed to be shouting to the full extent of his capacity.” Like the first and second, except that more men fell because it lasted longer, this third charge broke in blood and pain before a single man got within fifty yards of the wall. The survivors flowed back over the roll of earth and into the “dip,” where reinforcements were nerving themselves for still a fourth attempt.
“They are massing very heavily and will break your line, I am afraid,” Lee told Longstreet. But Old Peter did not believe it. He was ready for the whole Yankee nation, provided it would come at him from the direction this portion of it had done three times already, and he said so: “General, if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac in that field to approach me over that same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line. Look to your right; you are in some danger there,” he said. “But not on my line.”
It was true; Lee’s line was in considerable danger southward. While Sumner’s men were charging the sunken road, repeatedly and headlong, taking their losses, Franklin was taking stock of the situation as Pelham’s brass Napoleon and Jackson’s masked batteries had left it when they disrupted his first and second advances. Both had been tentative, at best, but now he believed he knew what he had to deal with. However, as in Pleasant Valley preceding the battle on Antietam Creek, he was inclined to be circumspect: an inclination which had not been lessened here on the Rappahannock by Burnside’s instructions that, once he was over the river “with a view to taking the heights,” he was to be “governed by circumstances as to the extent of your movements.” Further instructions had arrived this morning, warning him to keep his attack column “well supported and its line of retreat open.” Accordingly, before going forward for the third time, he took care to protect the flank in Stuart’s direction. The attack was delivered by the same corps, commanded by Major General John F. Reynolds, whose three divisions were under Major General George G. Meade and Brigadier Generals Abner Doubleday and John Gibbon. Doubleday was ordered to wheel left, guarding the bruised flank (sure enough, Pelham came out promptly and began to pound him) while the other two went forward in an attempt to storm the ridge. Gibbon, on the right, got as far as the railroad embankment, where he ran into murderous point-blank fire, was himself wounded, and had to be brought out on a stretcher. He was followed shortly by his men, who were not long in discovering that the Johnnies had drawn them into a trap.
That left Meade, whose division was the smallest of the three. Out of 60,000 soldiers available for the intended assault on the Confederate right, Franklin managed to get only these 4500 Pennsylvanians into slugging contact with the enemy, but they did what they could to make up in spirit for what they lacked in weight. Charging first to the railroad, then beyond it, they struck a boggy stretch of ground, about 500 yards in width, which A. P. Hill had left unmanned in the belief that it was impenetrable. It was not. Meade’s troops slogged through it, burst upon and scattered a second-line brigade of startled rebels, and were still driving hard toward the accomplishment of Franklin’s assignment—that is, to get astride the lower ridge and then sweep northward along it, dislodging men and guns as he went—when they themselves were struck in front and on both flanks by a horde of screaming graybacks.
These were Early’s men, from over on the right. Told that Hill’s line had been pierced, they came on the run, hooting as they passed the fugitives: “Here comes old Jubal! Let old Jubal straighten out that fence!” Then they struck. The Pennsylvanians were driven back through the boggy gap and out again across the open fields, where the pursuers stabbed vengefully at their rear and Confederate guns to the left and right tore viciously at their flanks. Unsupported, heavily outnumbered, thrown off balance by surprise, they paid dearly for their daring; more than a third of the men who had gone in did not come out again. There was no safety for the survivors until they regained the cover of their artillery, which promptly drove the pursuers back with severe losses and shifted without delay to the rebel batteries, blanketing them so accurately with shellbursts that the fire drew an indirect compliment from Pelham himself, who happened to be visiting this part of the line at the time. “Well, you men stand killing better than any I ever saw,” he remarked as he watched the cannoneers being knocked about.
At any rate, the break had been repaired, the line restored. Lee on his hill had seen it all, the penetration and repulse on Jackson’s front, coincident with the bloody disintegration of the third attack on Longstreet. The ground in front of both was carpeted blue with the torn bodies of men who had challenged unsuccessfully the integrity of his line. Beyond the river, Stafford Heights were ablaze with guns whose commanding elevation and heavier metal enabled them to rake the western ridge almost at will. Even now, one of them put a large-caliber shell into the earth at the southern commander’s feet, but it did not explode. A British observer saw “antique courage” in Lee’s manner as he turned to Longstreet, lowering his glasses after a long look at the blasted plain where still more Federals were massing to continue their assault over the mangled remains of comrades who had tried before and failed. “It is well that war is so terrible,” the gray-bearded general said. “We should grow too fond of it.”
If the assault was to be resumed after the comparative lull that settled over the field about 3.30, following the double failure at opposite ends of the line, it would have to be launched against that portion of the ridge where Longstreet’s men were ranked four-deep in the sunken road, their rifles cocked and primed for firing at whatever came at them across the fields beyond their breast-high wall of stone and dirt. To the south, Franklin had shot his bolt with Meade’s quick probe of the hole in Jackson’s front: in reaction to which he was not unlike a man who has managed to salvage a good part of one hand after groping about in the dark and finding a bear trap. There might be other holes, for all he knew, but after that one costly venture the commander of the left Grand Division seemed less concerned about finding than he was about avoiding them. Whoever might deliver another attack, it was not going to be Franklin. That left Sumner and Hooker. Burnside sent them instructions to continue the assault with their right and center Grand Divisions, in hopes that the Confederates along the ridge could be breached or budged or somehow thrown into confusion as a prelude to their downfall.
Sumner, a crusty veteran of forty-four years’ service, nearly forty of which had been spent accomplishing the slow climb from second lieutenant to colonel, was altogether willing, despite his heavy losses up to now. So was Hooker, whose nickname was “Fighting Joe.” Shortly before 4 o’clock, the men crouched in the swale caught sight of what they thought was their best chance to storm the ridge. A whole battalion of rebel artillery began a displacement from the slopes of Marye’s Heights. Quickly the word passed down the Union line; men braced themselves for the order to charge. It came and they surged forward, followed this time by several batteries, which ventured out to within 300 yards of the fuming wall, adding the weight of their metal to the attack but losing cannoneers so fast that the guns could only be served slowly. As it turned out, this was worse than ever. The artillery displacement they had spotted was not the beginning of a retreat, as they had supposed, but a yielding of the position to a fresh battalion, which arrived with full caissons in time to aid in contesting this fourth assault. Down in the sunken road, Tom Cobb had been hit by a sharpshooter firing from the upper story of a house on the edge of town; he had bled to death by now; but his men were still there, reinforced by several regiments of North Carolinians from Ransom’s reserve division. Shoulder to shoulder along the wall, they loosed their volleys, then stepped back to reload while the rank behind stepped up to fire. So it went, through all four ranks, until the first had reloaded and taken its place along the wall, which flamed continuously under a mounting bank of smoke as if the defenders were armed with automatic weapons. This attack, like the three preceding it, broke in blood. The Federals fell back, leaving the stretch of open ground between the swale and a hundred yards of the wall thick-strewn with corpses and writhing men whose cries could be heard above the diminishing clatter of musketry.
While the carnage was being continued here (“Oh, great God!” a division commander groaned in anguish from his lookout post in the cupola of the courthouse. “See how our men, our poor fellows, are falling!”) Jackson was burning to take the offensive against the inactive bluecoats at the other end of the line: so much so, indeed, that according to one observer “his countenance glowed, as from the glare of a great conflagration.” If all those thousands of Federals on the plain could not be persuaded to approach the ridge, he ached to go down after them. “I want to move forward,” he said impatiently; “to attack them—drive them into the river yonder,” and as he spoke he threw out his arm, by way of lending emphasis to his words. The risk was great, he knew, for a repulse would expose his men to annihilation by the guns on the opposite heights. But at last, out of urgency, he devised a plan by which he hoped to nullify his prediction that the Confederates would “gain no fruits” from their victory. If the counterstroke were preceded by a bombardment, he believed, the enemy might be so stunned that the sudden charge across the plain might be made without undue sacrifice of life, and if it were launched just at sundown he could withdraw under cover of darkness in case it failed.
So conceived, it was so ordered. However, the almanac put sunset at 4.34; there was little time for preparation. Word was passed to the four divisions assigned to the attack, and as they got ready for the jump-off Stonewall’s batteries went forward, out into the open, to begin their work of stunning or confusing the enemy. Instead, it was they who were stunned and confused, and in short order. Beyond the river, Stafford Heights seemed to buck and jump in flame and thunder as the guns on the crest redoubled their fire at the sight of these easy targets down below. Jackson quickly recalled his badly pounded artillerymen and canceled the attack, which he now saw would be shattered as soon as the infantry emerged from the woods. At that, the demonstration was not without its effect: especially on Franklin, who had already notified Burnside that “any movement to my front is impossible at present.… The truth is, my left is in danger of being turned. What hope is there of getting reinforcements across the river?” Of his eight divisions, only three had been employed offensively, and one whole corps of 24,000 men, the largest in the army, saw no action at all; yet he was asking after reinforcements. At the height of Jackson’s abortive demonstration, orders came from Burnside for Franklin to take the offensive, but he declined. He was in grave danger here, he repeated. Besides, there was no time; the sun was down behind the western ridge.
Sunset did not slow the tempo of the fighting to the north, where a fifth major assault on Marye’s Heights had been repulsed in much the same manner as all the others, though the officers in charge had attempted a somewhat different approach. Their instructions were for the men to veer northward when they left the swale and thus confront the sunken road from the right, which perhaps would enable them to lay down an enfilade as they gained the flank and bore down at an angle. But it did not work out that way. As the men went forward, attempting to bear off to the right, they encountered a marsh that forced them back to the left and a repetition of the direct approach to the stone wall, which seemed thus to draw them like a magnet. From behind it, all this while, the rebels—many of whom were shoeless, without overcoats or blankets to protect them from the penetrating mid-December chill—taunted the warmly clad Federals coming toward them in a tangle-footed huddle after their encounter with the bog: “Come on, blue belly! Bring them boots and blankets! Bring ’em hyar!” And they did bring them, up to within fifty yards of the flame-stitched wall at any rate. There the forward edge of the charge was frayed and broken, the survivors crawling or running to regain the protection of the swale, which by now they were convinced they never should have left.
Sumner had done his best, or worst but the carnage was by no means over. Hooker’s men had crossed the river, under orders to continue the assault, and the commander of one of his divisions, Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys, believed he knew a way to get his troops up to and over the wall, so they could come to grips with the jeering scarecrows in the sunken road. While they were deploying in the dusk he rode among them, telling them not to fire while they were charging. It was obvious by now, he said, that firing did the rebels little damage behind their ready-made breastwork; it only served to slow the attack and expose the attackers to more of the rapid-fire volleys from beyond the wall. The object was to get there fast—much as a man might hurry across an open space in a shower of rain, intending to be as dry as possible when he reached the other side—then rely on the bayonet to do the work that would remain to be done when they got there.
They went forward in the twilight, stumbling over the human wreckage left by five previous charges. Prone men, wounded and unwounded, called out to them not to try it; some even caught at their legs as they passed, attempting to hold them back; but they ignored them and went on, beckoned by voices that mocked them from ahead, calling them blue-bellies and urging them to bring their boots and blankets within reach. Humphreys sat his horse amid the bullets, a slim veteran of aristocratic mien. He had left West Point in ’31, two years behind R. E. Lee, and his record in the peacetime army had been a good one; yet his advancement since then, it was said, had been delayed because of suspicions aroused by his prewar friendship with Jefferson Davis. Now he was out to prove those suspicions false. As he watched he saw the stone wall become “a sheet of flame that enveloped the head and flanks of the column.” Its formations unraveled by sudden attrition, the charge was brought to a stumbling halt about forty yards from the wall. For a moment the Federals hung there, beginning to return the galling fire; but it was useless, and they knew it. Despite the shouts and pleas of their officers—including Humphreys, who remained mounted yet incredibly went unhit—the men turned and stumbled back through the gathering darkness. Or anyhow the survivors did, having added a thousand casualties to the wreckage that cluttered the open slope, ghastly under the pinkish yellow flicker of muzzle-flashes still rippling back and forth along the crest of the stone wall.
“The fighting is about over,” a Union signal officer reported at 6 o’clock from the heights across the way; “only an occasional gun is heard.”
It was over, as he said, but not as the result of instructions from Burnside. Hooker was the one who finally called a halt to the carnage. “Finding that I had lost as many men as my orders required me to lose,” he later declared in his official report, “I suspended the attack.”
Burnside himself took a much less gloomy view of the state of affairs when he crossed the river late that night for an inspection of the front. Unquestionably a great deal of blood had been shed—far more, in fact, than he would know until he received the final casualty returns—but he had little doubt that a continuation of today’s work would break Lee’s line tomorrow. At any rate he was determined to try it, and he sent out orders to that effect, alerting his front-line commanders. Recrossing the Rappahannock at 4 o’clock in the morning, he got off a wire to Washington: “I have just returned from the field. Our troops are all over the river. We hold the first ridge outside the town, and 3 miles below. We hope to carry the crest today.”
Once more Lee had divined his opponent’s purpose. “I expect the battle to be renewed at daylight,” he wired Richmond, three hours after the final assault had failed, and this opinion was reinforced within another three hours by the capture, shortly before midnight, of a courier bearing orders to Burnside’s front-line commanders for tomorrow’s continuation of the attack. But Sunday’s dawn, December 14, brought only the soup-thick fog of yesterday, without the familiar hum of preparation from down on the curtained plain. Indeed, even after the rising sun had burned away the mist, the only change apparent to the eye was in the lines along the western ridge. Expecting a turning movement, Lee had instructed his men to improve their fortifications in order to free all but a comparative handful for action on the flanks. So well had they plied their tools, these soldiers who six months ago had sneered at digging as cowardly work “unfit for a white man” and in derision had dubbed their new commander “the King of Spades,” that Lee remarked with pleasure at the sight: “My army is as much stronger for these new intrenchments as if I had received reinforcements of 20,000 men.”
No longer in need of prodding, or even suggestion, they kept digging. As the sun rose higher, so did the parapets. But the observers on Lee’s Hill discerned no corresponding activity among the Federals on the plain, portions of whose forward edge were carpeted solid blue with the thick-fallen dead and wounded. The only sign of preparation was that the near ends of the east-west streets of Fredericksburg had been barricaded, as if in expectation of receiving, not delivering, an attack. The morning wore on. Noon came and went: then afternoon: and still no sign that the bluecoats were about to launch the assault that had been ordered in the dispatch captured the night before. As the shadows lengthened, Lee turned at last to Longstreet, who had been acquainted with the northern commander in the peacetime army. “General,” he said, “I am losing faith in your friend General Burnside.”
He was by no means alone in this, although the principal loss of faith in Old Peter’s friend had occurred within the luckless commander’s own ranks. Refreshed by a short sleep, and still convinced that he would break Lee’s line by continuing yesterday’s headlong tactics, Burnside had risen early that morning, only to be confronted by Sumner, who had been five years in the army before his present chief was born. He was known to be no quitter; in fact, so pronounced was his fondness for personal combat, Burnside had ordered the old man to remain at his left-bank headquarters yesterday, lest he get himself killed leading charges. Today, though, he was quite unlike himself in this respect.
“General,” he said, obviously unstrung by all he had seen the day before, if only from a distance, “I hope you will desist from this attack. I do not know of any general officer who approves of it, and I think it will prove disastrous to the army.”
Burnside was taken aback, having expected to encounter a different spirit. However, as he later wrote, “Advice of that kind from General Sumner, who had always been in favor of an advance whenever it was possible, caused me to hesitate.” To his further dismay, he found his other Grand Division commanders of the same opinion. Franklin did not surprise him greatly in this regard—ironically, that general had served him on the left at Fredericksburg in much the same fashion as he himself had served McClellan on the left at Antietam—but when Hooker, the redoubtable Fighting Joe, was even more emphatic than Sumner in advising no renewal of the attack, he knew the thing was off. His first reaction was one of frantic despair. He had a wild impulse to place himself at the head of his old corps and lead an all-out, all-or-nothing charge against the sunken road, intending to break Lee’s line or else be broken by it. Dissuaded from this, he retired to his tent, bitter with the knowledge that all yesterday’s blood had been shed to no advantage: except to the rebels, who would be facing that many fewer men next time the two armies came to grips. A corps commander, Major General W. F. Smith, followed him into the tent and found him pacing back and forth, distracted. “Oh, those men! Oh, those men!” he was saying. What men? Smith asked, and Burnside replied: “Those men over there,” pointing across the river, where portions of the plain were carpeted blue: “I am thinking of them all the time!”
Sunset closed a day that had witnessed nothing more than a bit of long-range firing on one side and a great deal of digging on the other. Such spectacle as there was, and it was much, came after nightfall. A mysterious refulgence, shot with fanwise shafts of varicolored light, predominantly reds and blues—first a glimmer, then a spreading glow, as if all the countryside between Fredericksburg and Washington were afire—filled a wide arc of the horizon beyond the Federal right. It was the aurora borealis, seldom visible this far south and never before seen by most of the Confederates, who watched it with amazement. The Northerners might make of it what they chose by way of a portent (after all, these were the Northern Lights) but to one Southerner it seemed “that the heavens were hanging out banners and streamers and setting off fireworks in honor of our great victory.”
As if to rival this gaudy nighttime aerial display, morning brought a terrestrial phenomenon, equally amazing in its way. The ground in front of the sunken road, formerly carpeted solid blue, had taken on a mottled hue, with patches of startling white. Binoculars disclosed the cause. Many of the Federal dead had been stripped stark naked by shivering Confederates, who had crept out in the darkness to scavenge the warm clothes from the bodies of men who needed them no longer.
That afternoon, as a result of a request by Burnside for a truce during which he could bury his dead and relieve such of his wounded as had survived two days and nights of exposure without medicine for their hurts or water for their fever-parched throats, the men of both armies had a nearer view of the carnage. No one assigned to one of the burial details ever forgot the horror of what he saw; for here, close-up and life-size, was an effective antidote to the long-range, miniature pageantry of Saturday’s battle as it had been viewed from the opposing heights. Up close, you heard the groans and smelled the blood. You saw the dead. According to one who moved among them, they were “swollen to twice their natural size, black as Negroes in most cases.” They sprawled “in every conceivable position, some on their backs with gaping jaws, some with eyes as large as walnuts, protruding with glassy stare, some doubled up like a contortionist.” Here, he wrote—approaching incoherency as the memory grew stronger—lay “one without a head, there one without legs, yonder a head and legs without a trunk; everywhere horrible expressions, fear, rage, agony, madness, torture; lying in pools of blood, lying with heads half buried in mud, with fragments of shell sticking in oozing brain, with bullet holes all over the puffed limbs.”
Not even amid such scenes as this, however, did the irrepressible rebel soldier’s wry sense of humor—or anyhow what passed for such; mainly it was a biting sense of the ridiculous—desert him. One, about to remove a shoe from what he thought was a Federal corpse, was surprised to see the “corpse” lift its head and look at him reproachfully. “Beg pardon, sir,” the would-be scavenger said, carefully lowering the leg; “I thought you had gone above.” Another butternut scarecrow, reprimanded by a Union officer for violating the terms of the truce by picking up a fine Belgian rifle that had been dropped between the lines, looked his critic up and down, pausing for a long stare at the polished boots the officer was wearing. “Never mind,” he said dryly. “I’ll shoot you tomorrow and git them boots.”
So he said. But as the thing turned out, neither he nor anyone else was going to be doing any shooting on that field tomorrow: not unless the Confederates started shooting at each other. Night brought a storm of sleet and driving rain, with a hard wind blowing eastward off the ridge and toward the river. When the fog of December 16 rolled away, the plain was empty. A hurried and red-faced investigation disclosed the fact that not a single live, unwounded Federal remained on the west bank of the Rappahannock. Covered by darkness, the sound of their movements drowned by the howling wind, the bluecoats had made a successful withdrawal in the night, taking up their pontoons after such a good job of salvaging equipment that one signal officer proudly reported that he had not left a yard of wire behind.
Burnside was distressed that a campaign which had opened so auspiciously should have so ignominious a close. What was more, reports of the battle were appearing by now in the northern papers, and the correspondents, ignoring the general’s plea that they not treat “the affair at Fredericksburg” as a disaster, pulled out all the descriptive stops and figuratively threw up their hands in horror at the bungling and the bloodshed. An account in the New York Times so infuriated Burnside that he summoned the reporter to his tent and threatened to run him through with his sword. By ordinary a mild-natured man, he was souring under the goads of criticism, such as those made by two of his own colonels: one that he and his men had been committed piecemeal—“handed in on toasting forks,” he phrased it—and the other that the defeat had been “owing to the heavy fire in front and an excess of enthusiasm in the rear.” Nor was his temper soothed when he read such comments as the following, from an Ohio journal: “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor, or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day.”
In truth, the casualties were staggering: especially by contrast. The Federals had lost 12,653 men, the Confederates well under half as many: 5309. The latter figure was subsequently adjusted to 4201, just under one third of the former, when it was found that more than a thousand of those reported missing or wounded had taken advantage of the chance at a Christmas holiday immediately after the battle.
Longstreet was not unhappy with the results, despite the bloodless withdrawal. Suffering fewer than 2000 casualties, he had inflicted about 9000, and he was looking forward to a repetition of the tactics which had made this exploit possible. But Jackson, whose losses were not much less than his opponent’s on the right, was far from satisfied, even though 11,000 stands of arms had been gleaned from the field after the departure of the Yankees. “I did not think a little red earth would have frightened them,” he said. “I am sorry they are gone. I am sorry that I fortified.” Lee agreed, saying of Burnside and the punishment that general had absorbed: “Had I divined that was to have been his only effort, he would have had more of it.”
That evening he wrote his wife, “They went as they came—in the night. They suffered heavily as far as the battle went, but it did not go far enough to satisfy me.” His anger had been aroused by the evidence of rabid vandalism he saw when he rode into Fredericksburg that afternoon. So had Jackson’s. “What can we do?” a staff officer asked helplessly when he saw how thoroughly the Federals had taken the town apart. “Do?” Stonewall replied promptly. “Why, shoot them.”
The stern-lipped Jackson’s ire would never cool (later he expanded this remark; “We must do more than defeat their armies,” he said. “We must destroy them”) but Lee’s was influenced considerably by the advent of the season of the Nativity. On Christmas Day he wrote his wife: “My heart is filled with gratitude to Almighty God for His unspeakable mercies with which He has blessed us in this day, for those He has granted us from the beginning of life, and particularly for those He has vouchsafed us during the past year. What should have become of us without His crowning help and protection? Oh, if our people would only realize it and cease from vain self-boasting and adulation, how strong would be my belief in final success and happiness to our country! But what a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world. I pray that, on this day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace.” But he added a sort of postscript in a letter to his youngest daughter, remarking that he was “happy in the knowledge that General Burnside and his army will not eat their promised Christmas dinner in Richmond today.”
Near the far end of the thousand-mile-long firing line that swerved and crooked its way between North and South—westward across northern Virginia, East and Middle Tennessee, North Mississippi, central Arkansas, and thence on out to Texas—Theophilus Holmes, with less rank and not one half as many soldiers in a department better than twenty times as large, had troubles which, in multiplicity at any rate, made Lee’s seem downright single. From his Transmississippi headquarters in Little Rock the lately appointed North Carolinian looked apprehensively north and west and south; he was threatened from all those quarters; while from the east he was being jogged by repeated pleas and suggestions from Johnston and the President, not to mention such comparatively minor figures as Pemberton and the Secretary of War, that he send his hard-pressed and outnumbered troops to the aid of his fellow department commander on the opposite bank of the big river that ran between them. A grim-featured man, deaf as a post, at fifty-seven Holmes was the oldest of the Confederate field commanders. Moreover, his rigidity of face, indicative of arteriosclerosis, was matched by a rigidity of mind which augured ill in a situation that called for nothing so much as it called for flexibility.
By way of compensation for this drawback, he had under him three major generals whose outstanding characteristic, individually and collectively, was the very flexibility he lacked. John Magruder, Richard Taylor, and Thomas Hindman, respectively in charge of Texas, West Louisiana, and Arkansas, were remarkable men, battle tested and of proved resourcefulness. In this regard the last was not the least accomplished of the three. A prewar Helena lawyer, thirty-four years old, Hindman had preceded his present chief to his home state, and within six months of his arrival in late May, stepping into the vacuum left by Van Dorn’s April crossing of the Mississippi with all the men and weapons that could be salvaged from the defeat at Elkhorn Tavern, had created and equipped, by strict enforcement of the new conscription act and the establishment of factories and foundries where none had been before, an army of 20,000 recruits, armed and uniformed more or less in accordance with regulations and supported by 46 guns. This in itself was about as close to a miracle of improvised logistics as any general ever came in the whole war, but Hindman expected to accomplish a great deal more before he was through. Dapper, jaunty, dandified, addicted to patent leather boots and rose-colored kidskin gloves, frilled shirt fronts and a rattan cane, perhaps by way of compensation for his Napoleonic five feet two of height, he was accustomed to getting what he wanted, whether it was a fine brick house, a seat in Congress, or a wife whose father had sought to keep her from him by locking her away in a convent: all of which he had won, despite the odds, by extending his credit, demolishing opponents from the stump, and scaling the convent wall. What he had in mind just now, though, was not only the scourging of all bluecoats from the soil of Arkansas—including Helena, where the Federal commander of the force in occupation had taken over the fine brick house for his headquarters—but also the recovery of Missouri.
Arriving in mid-August to find the diminutive Arkansan already far along with his plans, Holmes had been infected by his enthusiasm and had approved his preparations for a counterinvasion. It was gotten under way at once. By October Hindman’s advance, a combined command of cavalry and Indians, was across the Missouri border, but suffered a repulse at the hands of a superior Union force under Brigadier General John M. Schofield, in command of three divisions styled the Army of the Frontier. The Indians scattered like chaff before a fan, and the cavalry fell back to the security of the Boston Mountains, skirmishing as they went. Hindman, coming forward to Fort Smith with the main body, was not discouraged by this turn of events. Indeed, as he saw it, the Federals were being lured to their destruction in the wilds of northwest Arkansas. Accordingly, he crossed the Arkansas river and concentrated his infantry at Van Buren. All he wanted, he told Holmes, was a chance to hit the Yankees with something approaching equal strength, after which he would “move into Missouri, take Springfield, and winter on the Osage at least.”
Presently he got that chance, and at odds considerably better than he had dared even to hope for. Schofield, believing in mid-November that hostilities had ended for the winter, left the largest of his three divisions near Fayetteville under Brigadier General James G. Blunt, with the assignment of blocking the path of another Confederate incursion, and withdrew to Springfield with the other two, which he placed under Brigadier General Francis J. Herron while he himself took off on sick leave. Hindman, with a mobile force of 11,500 men and 22 guns, was preparing to take advantage of this chance to strike at Blunt, who had 7000 men and 20 guns, when word came from Holmes (who by now had received instructions from the Secretary of War, urging the necessity for reinforcing Vicksburg) for him to return posthaste to Little Rock with all his men, in preparation for an eastward march across the Mississippi. Hindman protested for all he was worth. To fall back would cost him heavily in desertions, he knew, since many of his conscripts were natives of the region through which they would be retreating. Besides, he told Holmes, “to withdraw without fighting at all would … so embolden the enemy as to insure his following me up.” Without waiting for a reply he put his army in motion on December 3, intending to precede the retrograde movement with an advance and a victory that would leave the Federals in no condition to pursue. Slogging next day through the brushy Boston Mountains, the highest and most rugged section of the Ozark chain, he printed and distributed an address to his soldiers, designed to steel their arms for the strike at Blunt. “Remember that the enemy you engage has no feeling of mercy or kindness toward you,” he told them. “His ranks are made up of Pin Indians, free negroes, Southern tories, Kansas jayhawkers, and hired Dutch cut-throats. These bloody ruffians have invaded your country; stolen and destroyed your property; murdered your neighbors; outraged your women; driven your children from their homes, and defiled the graves of your kindred. If each man of you will do what I have here urged upon you, we will utterly destroy them.”
Blunt now had his troops in bivouac about twenty miles southwest of Fayetteville, near the hamlet of Cane Hill, from which he had driven the grayback cavalry that week. When he got word that Hindman was across the Arkansas with an estimated 25,000 men he reacted according to his nature, rejecting the notion of retreat. A Maine-born Kansan who had practiced medicine en route in Ohio, he was a militant abolitionist and a graduate of the border wars. Round-faced, stocky, pugnacious in manner, he was thirty-six years old and no part of his training had prepared him for running from rebels, whatever their numbers. Determined to hold his ground, he wired for reinforcements and began to organize his position for defense.
The trouble with this was that the only reinforcements available were the two small divisions under Herron, a scant 6000 men with 22 guns, and they were back near Springfield, well over a hundred miles away, whereas Hindman’s camp at Van Buren was little more than a third that distance from Cane Hill, so that the chances were strong that the rebels would arrive before the reinforcements did. However, this was leaving two factors out of account. The first was that Hindman’s route of march lay through the mountains; his men would be climbing and descending about as much as they would be advancing along the rugged trails. The other factor was Frank Herron. An adopted Iowan, already in command of two divisions at the age of twenty-five, he intended to accomplish a great deal more in the way of fulfilling his military ambitions before returning to civilian life as head of the Dubuque bank established for him by his wealthy Pennsylvania parents. Just now, more than anything, he wanted a chance to command those two divisions in actual battle, and he got it much sooner than he had expected. At 8 o’clock on the morning of December 3—by which hour, unknown to him or Blunt, Hindman had put his army on the road for its trek across the Boston Mountains—Herron received the summons from Cane Hill, one hundred and thirty miles from his present camp on the somber fields where the Battle of Wilson’s Creek had been fought and lost by Nathaniel Lyon, almost a year and a half ago. Drums and bugles sounded assembly and the men fell in to receive instructions for the march. It would be made without tents or baggage, they were told, except for knapsacks which would be hauled in wagons. By noon they were headed south, and before they stopped at dawn next morning, slogging at route step down the pike, they had made twenty miles. After a short rest they were off again. Across the state line on December 5, munching hardtack and raw bacon as they walked, they skirted the granite slopes of Pea Ridge and saw the nine-months-old scars on the Elkhorn Tavern, where Van Dorn had come to grief. At midnight the following day, having covered better than one hundred blistering miles of road, the head of the column entered Fayetteville, where the weary marchers slept in the streets, sprawled around fires they kindled and fed by ripping pickets from front-yard fences. Another twenty miles tomorrow and they would be at Cane Hill with Blunt, ready for whatever came at them from beyond the mountains whose foothills they could presently see by the glimmer of dawn on Sunday, December 7.
The first sign they had that they were not going to make it—at least not on schedule—came later that morning, twelve miles down the pike, when they encountered long-range cannonfire as they were approaching Illinois Creek. Soon they saw that the Confederates had drawn a line of battle around the hilltop village of Prairie Grove, a couple of miles beyond the creek, blocking the path of the road-worn bluecoats eight miles short of their goal. Herron shook out a regiment of skirmishers and advanced them to the protection of the creekbank, where to his horror he discovered that his men were so weary that once they were off their feet they promptly dropped to sleep with rebel shells and bullets whistling and twittering over their heads. Undaunted, he built up his firing line and put his batteries in position, partly by way of returning the hostile fire, but mostly by way of letting Blunt know from the racket that he had arrived, or almost arrived, and needed help. The trouble was, with all those graybacks swarming in his front, he was not even sure that Blunt and his men were still in existence. For all he knew, Hindman might have gobbled them up while he himself was on the march from Wilson’s Creek.
Hindman had not gobbled up Blunt; he had gone around him. Approaching Cane Hill late the afternoon before, after a march across the shoulder of the mountains in weather so cold that water froze in the men’s canteens and icicles tinkled on the beards of the horses, he had put his troops in position for a dawn attack, only to learn that Herron was on the way, already approaching Fayetteville with a force which, once it was joined to Blunt’s, would give the Federals the advantage of numbers, both in men and guns. In command of a brigade at Shiloh, where he had been wounded and commended for gallantry, Hindman decided to profit from the example of that battle by preventing what had caused its loss, the arrival of Buell after Grant had been pushed to the edge of desperation. That is, he would strike at the reinforcements first, then turn on the main body. Accordingly, he built up the campfires along his outpost line, left a skeleton brigade of cavalry to keep up the bluff next morning, and set off after moonset on a circuitous march with 10,000 men to intercept and defeat the blue column hurrying southward out of Fayetteville. That was how it came about that Herron encountered long-range cannonfire at the crossing of Illinois Creek and the bristling line of battle at Prairie Grove, eight miles short of a junction with Blunt at Cane Hill.
Blunt had spent the morning in constant expectation of being swamped by the rebels maneuvering boldly to his front, apparently in overwhelming numbers. Near noon, however, hearing the sudden boom of guns from across the hills to his left rear, he realized that he had been outflanked; whereupon he fell back hastily to Rhea’s Mills, six miles north, in order to protect his trains. Finding them secure he turned southeast in the direction of the booms and at 4 o’clock reached Prairie Grove, where he came upon the battle still in full swing after nearly five hours of doubtful contest. Two rounds from his lead battery announced his arrival—announced it all too emphatically, in fact, for both shots landed among Herron’s skirmishers, causing them to think that they were being flanked by their foes instead of being supported by their friends. Herron had been holding his own despite the weariness of his foot-sore men. Two charges against the ridge had failed, breaking in blood against the rim of the rebel horseshoe line, but Hindman had had no better luck in attempting a counterattack with his green conscripts, who fell apart whenever he ordered them forward. The fighting continued, left and right, muzzle flashes stabbing the early darkness. Despite their superiority of numbers, especially in guns—42 to 22, now that the Union forces were united—Blunt’s fresh troops could make no more of a penetration of the rebel line than Herron’s weary ones had been able to achieve. Gradually the firing died to a sputter. Then it stopped. The battle was over.
Losses in killed, wounded, and missing totaled 1317 for the Confederates and 1251 for the Federals. Of the latter only 333 were from Blunt’s command, indicating how much heavier a proportion of the conflict Herron’s men had borne, despite the fact that both laid claim to a lion’s share in having brought the victory about. Hindman’s only claim in that respect was the not inconsiderable one that he had managed to hold his ground throughout the fighting. Whether he had also accomplished his main objective—to shock the enemy into immobility, escaping pursuit while he fell back southward in compliance with the previous orders from Holmes—would soon be known; for he retreated that night under cover of darkness, wrapping the iron tires of his gun and caisson wheels with blankets to muffle the sound of his withdrawal. The ruse worked, and so did another he tried next morning. Not only did Blunt not hear him go, but at dawn he also granted a request for a truce, which Hindman sent forward under a white flag, to allow for tending the wounded and burying the dead. Discovering presently that the Confederate main body had departed in the night, Blunt canceled the truce, on grounds that the rebels were gleaning abandoned arms from the field, and prepared to follow. By that time, however, Schofield was on the scene. Up from his sickbed and furious that his army had been committed to battle in his absence, he censured both commanders: Blunt for not withdrawing to meet the reinforcements hurrying toward him, and Herron for attacking with troops so badly blown that some of them were found dead on the field, not from wounds but from exhaustion and exposure after their long march from Wilson’s Creek. If Schofield’s purpose in this was to prevent his subordinates’ advancement by discrediting their valor, that purpose failed. By way of showing its appreciation for a victory won by northern arms as the year drew to a close—a victory which presently shone the brighter by contrast with the several full-scale disasters that developed elsewhere along the thousand-mile-long firing line before the month was out—the government promptly awarded major general’s stars not only to Blunt but also to Herron, who then succeeded Lew Wallace as the youngest man to hold that rank in the U.S. Army. Moreover, as soon as these promotions came through, both men would outrank their present commander.
Hindman’s discomfort was considerably increased in late December, when Schofield finally unleashed his cavalry for a forced march against the Confederates who, down to about 4000 men as a result of straggling and desertions, had taken sanctuary behind the Arkansas River. Three days after Christmas the blue riders struck Van Buren, destroying five steamboats at the wharf and all of the supplies of corn and bacon Hindman had gathered over the months in order to keep his army from starvation. Once more he was thrown into dispirited retreat, losing still more soldiers as he went. The Federals withdrew to Fayetteville, and thence on back to comfortable winter quarters in Missouri, but now there was no question of Hindman’s returning to Little Rock with the prospect of marching his army to the relief of Vicksburg. Practically speaking he had no army. So much of it as did not lie in shallow graves at Prairie Grove was scattered over northern Arkansas, hiding from conscription agents in Ozark coves and valleys.
Thus it was that the battle lost in northwest Arkansas had repercussions far beyond the theater it was fought in. Holmes had opposed the eastward transfer from the start, protesting that the march led through a region barren of supplies and would require no less than thirty days. “Solemnly, under the circumstances,” he had informed the Adjutant General earlier that month, “I regard the movement ordered as equivalent to abandoning Arkansas.” All the same, against his better judgment, he had been preparing to go along with the plan. But now, with Hindman’s army practically out of existence and only the local reserves to protect Little Rock itself against an advance from occupied Helena, he had what he considered the best of specific reasons for declining to comply with the government’s wishes. On December 29, the day after Schofield’s cavalry hit Van Buren, he wrote Johnston in reply to the correspondence the President had forwarded from Vicksburg during his inspection of that place the week before: “My information from Helena is to the effect that a heavy force of the enemy has passed down the Mississippi on transports.… Thus it seems very certain that any force I can now send from here would not be able to reach Vicksburg, and if at all not before such a reinforcement would be useless, while such a diversion would enable the enemy to penetrate those portions of the Arkansas Valley where the existence of supplies of subsistence and forage would afford them leisure to overrun the entire state and gradually reduce the people to … dependence.”
It was bad enough that the Yankees were steaming down the Mississippi, but they were also steaming up it—simultaneously. Banks had reoccupied Baton Rouge in mid-December and now was giving every sign that he intended to continue the northward penetration, shortening the stretch of river necessarily rebel-held if Holmes was to keep open the supply lines vital to the feeding and reinforcement, if not indeed to the survival, of all the armies of the South. Since the loss of the armed ram Arkansas, three months back, the Confederacy had had no vestige of a navy with which to oppose this two-pronged challenge designed for her riving and destruction; the threat would have to be stopped, if at all, not on the river itself, but from its banks. On the east bank the responsibility was Pemberton’s, and to help him meet it he had two stout high-ground bastions one hundred air-line miles apart, commanding bends of the river at Vicksburg and Port Hudson. On the west bank it was Richard Taylor’s, who had nothing: not only no lofty fortresses bristling with heavy-caliber guns emplaced to blow the Union ironclads out of the water, but also no army. In fact, on his arrival from Virginia in late August, he had found that his total force consisted of two troops of home-guard cavalry, a scattering of guerillas hidden from friends and foes in the moss-hung swamps and bayous, and a battalion of mounted infantry just arrived from Texas—in all, fewer than 2000 effectives for the defense of the whole Department of Louisiana. Nonetheless, Holmes had confidence that this second of his three major generals would be ingenious and tireless in his efforts to reduce the nearly immeasurable odds, and this confidence was not misplaced.
Commander of a division used as shock troops by Stonewall Jackson throughout the Shenandoah Valley campaign, Taylor had been one of the stars of that amazing chapter in military history, and had found in that experience ample compensation for his lack of formal training in the art of war. Gripped on the eve of the Seven Days by a strange paralysis of the legs, which seemed to portend the close of a promising career and a denial of any further share in winning his country’s independence, this son of Zachary Taylor had recovered in time to receive his present assignment, together with a promotion, from his brother-in-law Jefferson Davis. Happy over what in fact would be a home-coming, for he had commanded Louisianians in the Valley and had spent his antebellum years on a Louisiana plantation, he came West with an enthusiasm that was only slightly dampened by the discovery of conditions in his new department, as of August 20, when he established headquarters in Alexandria. Undismayed by the shortage of soldiers, which kept him from any immediate accomplishment of big things—such as the retaking of New Orleans, which was very much a part of his plans for the future—he decided to be content at first with small ones. Within two weeks of his arrival he mounted a surprise attack that captured a four-gun battery and two companies of infantry at Bayou des Allemands, a Federal post near his plantation home, fifty miles downriver from Donaldsonville and less than half that far above New Orleans. If he could not retake the Crescent City just yet, he could at least draw near it—and profitably, too.
Slight though it was, this first success gained locally by Confederate arms in the four months since the fall of the South’s first city was heartening indeed to the people of the district. Not even the recapture of the post in late October, when the resurgent Louisianians were driven away by a Federal amphibious force that included four regiments of infantry and a quartet of light-draft gunboats, detracted from the brilliance of that first strike. What was more, Taylor was planning others of still larger scope. Denied access to the Lafourche, that fertile region lying between the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya, he moved into the Teche country, which lay between the Atchafalaya basin and the Gulf of Mexico, and here, despite the fact that his government, as he said, “had no soldiers, no arms or munitions, and no money within the limits of the district,” he set about the task of raising, equipping, and training the army with which he hoped, in time, not only to capture but also to hold the series of fortified posts that blocked the path between him and his goal, New Orleans. Meanwhile, intent on preventing further enemy penetrations, he had to disperse what forces he had in order to meet threats from all directions. With few trained subordinates and almost no telegraph or railway lines, the problem of central control was well-nigh insoluble. However, now that December had come on and the year drew toward a close, Taylor went far toward solving it. By using relays of fast-stepping mules and an ambulance in which he could sleep while traveling, the thirty-six-year-old general managed to employ what might have been his immobile hours for visits to the various scattered points in his large department. “Like the Irishman’s bird,” he subsequently wrote, “I almost succeeded in being in two places at the same time.”
In this respect, as well as in several others, he was easily distinguishable from his opposite number, the newly arrived commander of all the Union forces in the region. Ten years Taylor’s senior, of humbler birth but with much larger accomplishments in public life, having been a three-term governor of Massachusetts and speaker of the national House of Representatives, Nathaniel Banks was nothing like the Irishman’s bird and had nothing like his opponent’s nighttime mobility—though the fact was, he had perhaps an even greater need for it if he was to carry out the multiple assignment given him by his superiors when he set out from Hampton Roads on his voyage down and around the coast to relieve his fellow Bay State politician, Benjamin Butler, as military ruler of New Orleans and commander of the Department of the Gulf. Vicksburg and Mobile were his primary objectives, he was told, and after the fall of the former place had opened the Mississippi to Union traffic throughout its length he was to move up the Red in order to gain control of northern Louisiana and, eventually, Texas. It was a large order, particularly for a general who not only had not a single battlefield victory to his credit, but rather had been whipped twice already in open contest—once at Winchester, in the Shenendoah Valley, and again at Cedar Mountain, both times by Stonewall Jackson, whose lean marchers had captured so many of his supplies that they had dubbed him “Commissary” Banks—but he apparently had no doubt that it could be filled and that he was the man to fill it. He docked at New Orleans, December 14, and took over formally next day from Butler, who issued an address to his army—“I greet you, my brave comrades, and say farewell!” it began, and ended: “Farewell, my comrades! Again, Farewell!”—and promptly departed for Washington to take the government to task for having made what seemed to him an improvident substitution.
Banks wasted no time on speeches. On the day he took command he issued orders for one of the divisions he had brought along to proceed at once upriver, without unloading from its transports, and to reoccupy Baton Rouge, which Butler had abandoned after repulsing an all-out attack on the place in early August. Two days later, when the Louisiana capital fell without even a show of resistance, Banks was greatly pleased at having made so prompt and effective a beginning toward fulfilling his government’s outsized expectations. Including the reinforcements still arriving after their long voyage from New York and Fort Monroe, he had 36,508 effectives in his department, exclusive of navy personnel, and he felt that these were ample for the accomplishment of his task. What was more, he reported that he had found in Farragut, who was to be his partner in continuing the bold upriver thrust, a sailor who was “earnest for work.” After a conference with the Tennessee-born admiral he added that he was delighted with his enthusiasm and frankness, and that he looked forward to “a most satisfactory result from our mutual labors.” Banks was feeling chipper, and he said so. “All the indications of our campaign are auspicious,” he notified Washington on December 18, the day after the fall of Baton Rouge, “and I hope to make good the most sanguine expectations in regard to my expedition.”
There were, however, two previously unsuspected matters for concern, one military, one civil, and both grave. The first was the presence, thirty-five miles above Baton Rouge, which in turn was a hundred miles above New Orleans, of the fortifications at Port Hudson. Neither his Washington superiors nor Banks himself, until he arrived, had known of the existence of any such obstacle south of Vicksburg, another 250 winding miles upstream; yet intelligence reports informed him now that the Confederates had no less than 12,000 troops in the place, strongly intrenched on the landward side and with 21 heavy guns emplaced on the high bluff, waiting to sink or blow sky high whatever came their way across the chocolate-colored surface of the river. This in itself, placing as it did a new complexion on the problem of ascent, was enough to give Banks pause. But the other concern, the civil one, was even more disturbing in its way, since it showed that the command of the department was going to be a far more complex occupation than he had supposed, early that month, when he set out from Virginia. Less than two weeks after his arrival, for example, he received a note from one C. A. Smith, commission agent for certain northern interests, and Andrew Butler, whose brother Ben had set him up in business when he took over as military ruler of New Orleans. “Dear Sir,” it read. “If you will allow our commercial program to be [carried] out as projected previous to your arrival in this department, giving the same support and facilities as your predecessor, I am authorized on [receiving] your assent to place at your disposal $100,000.”
In the course of his rise from bobbin boy to the top of the heap in Massachusetts politics Banks no doubt had encountered other offers of this nature, but hardly one that was made so blatantly or with such apparent confidence in his basic corruptibility. “It was no temptation,” he told his wife. “I thank God every night that I have no desire for dishonest gains.” All the same, he felt obliged to report to Washington “that as much, or more, attention has been given to civil than to military matters,” including the training of his army, and that, in consequence, the troops were “not in condition for immediate service.” Though he declared on Christmas Eve, “We hope to move up the river at the close of the week,” he was still in New Orleans after New Year’s, complaining that he was cramped by a shortage of siege artillery. “The enemy’s works at Port Hudson have been in progress many months and are formidable,” he explained. “Our light field guns would make no impression on them.” In fact, having learned by now of the reverses lately suffered by the column supposed to be working its way southward out of Memphis while he moved northward from New Orleans, he was beginning to “feel some anxiety as to the defenses of this city.… The enemy is concentrating all available forces on the river, and in the event of disasters North will not fail to turn their attention to this quarter.”
So it was that, now in January—while Taylor kept busy raising and training an army in the bayous, lulled to sleep each night in his ambulance by the clopping of hoofs as he traveled the moon-drenched roads of the Teche and dreamed of retaking the South’s first city—Banks stayed where he was, bedeviled by itchy-handed speculators, made apprehensive by rebel successes upriver, and fretted by shortages while he continued his preparations for the upstream movement which he had assured his superiors in December would be launched without delay.
Another part of his assignment, albeit one that was no more than incidental, he had also placed in the way of execution, though so far on a scale that was small indeed. Its conception was provoked by the shortage of cotton for the textile mills of New England, 3,252,000 of whose 4,745,750 spindles had fallen idle by the middle of the year, with the result that production was down to less than one fourth of normal before its close. New Orleans having failed to yield more than a comparative handful of bales, the hungry manufacturers had cast their eyes on Texas. What they had in mind was conquest and colonization; they saw their chance to make of it what one observer called “another and a fairer Kansas,” where Yankee know-how and industry, replacing the slovenly farming methods now employed, would produce more cotton in a single year than had previously been grown in all the history of the vast Lone Star expanse. That way, the idle spindles would be fed, the mill hands would return to work, and the owners would get rich. First, however, the army would have to clear the path for immigration, and in this connection Banks had in his entourage a Texas Unionist, Andrew Jackson Hamilton, upon whom the War Department, at the behest of the New England manufacturers, had conferred the rank of brigadier general, together with appointment as military governor of Texas. He would take office, preparing the way for the textile-sponsored “colonists,” when and if Banks won control of some portion of the state for him to govern.
So far, all there was for him in this regard was Galveston harbor, seized two months ago by the navy and now being patrolled by gunboats of the West Coast Blockading Squadron, part of Farragut’s command. Texas was far down on the list of Banks’s assigned objectives; though his department had been enlarged to include that state, its occupation was scheduled to follow the opening of the Mississippi and the conquest of the Red River Valley in northwest Louisiana; but at Hamilton’s urging he agreed to send a Massachusetts regiment to take and hold the island town at once, thus giving the newly appointed governor at least the shadow of a dry-land claim to his high title. Accordingly, an advance party of three companies left New Orleans on December 22, before they had had time for more than a hurried look at the sights of the city, and landed at Galveston on Christmas Eve. There, under the muzzles of the gunboats anchored in the harbor, they set to work barricading the wharf as a precaution against attack from the landward side while awaiting the arrival of the rest of the infantry by sea, together with attached units of cavalry and field artillery.
They had need for greater caution than they suspected, for this action brought them into immediate contact with the first in rank of Holmes’s three major generals, John Magruder. Known to be unpredictable and tricky, he was also first in reputation; “Prince John” he had been called in the old army, partly because of his aristocratic manner and his fondness for staging amateur theatricals, partly too because of his flared mustache, luxuriant sideburns, gaudy clothes, and imperial six-feet-two of height. As flamboyant in the Transmississippi as he had been in his native Virginia—where, previous to becoming somewhat unstrung in the jangle of the Seven Days, he had put on such a show of strength with a handful of men that McClellan had been awed into immobility before Yorktown—his ache for distinction and love of flourish were no less pronounced in the Lone Star state. The difference here, eight months later, was that Magruder was thinking offensively. For some time now, in fact ever since his assignment to command the District of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico on October 10, five days after the Union flotilla steamed in and put Galveston under its guns, he had had it in mind not only to liberate the island town, less than fifty miles southeast of his Houston headquarters, but also to sink or capture the warships riding insolently at anchor in the harbor. So far as Prince John was concerned, the addition of those three companies of Massachusetts infantry, now barricading the wharf against attack, only fattened the prize within his grasp and added to the glory about to be won.
Nor was his plan for making a naval assault deterred by his lack of anything resembling a navy. If he had none then he would build one, or at any rate improvise one, and he did so in short order. Workmen off the Houston docks piled bales of cotton around the paddle boxes and decks of the Bayou City, a two-story side-wheel Mississippi steamboat, and the stern-wheeler Neptune, a smaller vessel. The former was armed with a rifled 32-pounder, located forward of her stacks, and the latter’s bow was faced with railroad iron to stiffen her punch as a ram. Their crews were army volunteers, including some 300 riflemen stationed about the decks as sharpshooters. These two “cotton-clads” would stage the naval assault, descending Buffalo Bayou to come booming down on the five Union gunboats, Westfield, Harriet Lane, Owasco, Clifton, and Sachem, which had a combined displacement of over 3000 tons and mounted a total of 28 guns, mostly heavy. For the land attack there were in all about 500 men; Texans under Colonel Tom Green, who had led them at Valverde, they were survivors of Brigadier General Henry Sibley’s nightmare expedition up the Rio Grande, back in the spring. Magruder divided them into three assault columns, taking the center one himself. By New Year’s Eve his preparations were complete. He gave the signal and the attack got under way, bringing in the new year with a bang.
Crossing from the mainland by the unguarded bridge, he struck the barricade shortly after midnight—only to find that his scaling ladders were too short. All he could do was work his men up close and keep exchanging shots with the defenders, who had turned out at the first alarm and were laying down a heavy fire. Everything depended now on the untried two-boat navy. The first the Federals knew of its existence was when lookouts on the Westfield, Commander W. B. Renshaw’s flagship, spotted two ungainly-looking steamboats, apparently overloaded with cotton bales, driving hard toward the anchored flotilla. Attempting to take evasive action, the Westfield went aground on Pelican Island Bar, removed from the fight as effectively as if she had been sunk. Aboard the Bayou City, bearing down on the Harriet Lane, the gun captain of the 32-pounder shouted: “Well, here goes for a New Year’s present!” and pulled the lanyard. The first shot missed, as did the second, and on the third the gun exploded at the breech, killing him and four of its crew; whereupon the Neptune came up, churning the water in her wake, and struck the Lane such a tremendous thump that she broke her own nose and had to run up on the flats to keep from sinking. Afloat as ashore, the battle seemed lost by mishap or miscalculation.
By now, however, the Bayou City had pulled up alongside the Lane, her upper-deck riflemen firing down on the rattled bluejackets while a boarding party swarmed over the bulwarks and began slashing at the survivors in the style of John Paul Jones. In the course of this melee the Union skipper was killed and his lieutenant ran up the white flag of surrender; observing which, the other three nearby captains did the same. Across the way, still hard aground, Renshaw saw that the Westfield was next on the rebel target list. Determined not to have her fall into enemy hands, he ordered the crew to abandon ship while he lowered into an open magazine a barrel of turpentine equipped with a slow fuze which he set and started before he turned to go. That was his last act on earth or water, for the fuze was defective or wrongly set. Before he made it out of range, a flame-shot column of black smoke roared skyward and the Westfield blew apart, her wreckage enveloped in fire and steam.
Watching this abrupt disintegration of the naval support for the defenders of the wharf, the Texans in front of the barricade took heart and the Federals behind it were dejected; so much so, indeed, that the three Massachusetts companies, warned by a step-up in the firing that an assault was about to be launched, surrendered in a body. But the commanders of the gunboats Clifton, Owasco, and Sachem, claiming that this forcing of the issue ashore was in violation of the naval “truce”—for so they had considered it, they later affirmed by way of rebuttal to the outrage expressed by the rebels—hauled down their white flags and made a sudden run for open water. The Confederates, unable to pursue out into the Gulf, could do nothing but howl in protest at foul play. They had lost 143 killed and wounded. Including captives the Federals had lost about 600 soldiers and sailors: plus, of course, two gunboats and the town. At a single stroke, boldly conceived and boldly delivered, Magruder had cleared Texas of armed bluecoats. Nor did he intend to grant them another foothold. Moving his headquarters triumphantly to Galveston, he notified his government next day: “We are preparing to give them a warm reception should they return.”
The navy might (and in fact did, the following week, withdrawing the 2000-ton screw steamer Brooklyn and six gunboats from the blockade squadron off Mobile and bringing them to Galveston, where they were careful however to maintain station well outside the harbor and thus beyond reach of another eruption of Magruder’s cotton-clads) but Banks had no intention of returning, not even with a token force. He counted himself lucky that the whole Bay State regiment, together with its artillery and cavalry supports, had not landed in time to be gobbled up, and he brought the still-loaded transports back to New Orleans, turning a deaf ear to Would-Be-Governor Hamilton’s disgruntled protestations. That gentleman and his party—a sizable group, characterized by one critic as “friends, patrons, and creditors,” who had meant to be front runners in the intended Lone Star colonization—returned instead to Washington, complaining bitterly that they had been “deliberately and purposely humbugged.”
Though Holmes of course was quick to congratulate Magruder, whose amphibious coup made the one bright spot in the entire Transmississippi as the new year came in, Hamilton’s dejection and disgust were not matched by any corresponding elation on the part of the overall commander of the Confederate Far West. Though he had managed, on the face of it, to achieve a sort of balance within the limits of his department—defeat in northwestern Arkansas, stalemate in West Louisiana, victory in coastal Texas—he knew that it was precarious in nature, tenuous at best and, in consideration of the odds, most likely temporary. Nor was the maintenance of that shaky balance only dependent on what occurred within the borders of the monster region. Cut off, Holmes and all those under him would be left as it were to wither on the vine; so that what happened beyond or along those borders was equally important, and this was true in particular as to what happened along the eastern border, the Mississippi itself, down which he had reported the “heavy force” of Union ironclads and transports steaming the week before past Helena. It was headed, according to his conjecture, for Vicksburg, the linchpin whose loss might well result in the collapse of the whole Confederate wagon.
Haste made waste and Grant knew it, but in this case the haste was unavoidable—unavoidable, that is, unless he was willing to take the risk of having another general win the prize he was after—because he was fighting two wars simultaneously: one against the Confederacy, or at any rate so much of its army as stood between him and the river town that was his goal, and the other against a man who, like himself, wore blue. That was where the need for haste came in, for the rival general’s name was John McClernand. A former Springfield lawyer and Illinois congressman, McClernand was known to have political aspirations designed to carry him not one inch below the top position occupied at present by his friend, another former Springfield lawyer and Illinois congressman, Abraham Lincoln. Moreover, having decided that the road to the White House led through Vicksburg, he had taken pains to see that he traveled it well equipped, and this he had done by engaging the preliminary support, the active military backing, not only of his friend the President, but also of the Secretary of War, the crusty and often difficult Edwin M. Stanton. With the odds thus lengthened against him, Grant—when he belatedly found out what his rival had been up to—could see that this private war against McClernand might well turn out to be as tough, in several ways, as the public one he had been fighting for eighteen months against the rebels.
In the first place, he had not even known that he had this private war on his hands until it was so well under way that his rival had already won the opening skirmish. McClernand had gone to Washington on leave in late September, complaining privately that he was “tired of furnishing brains” for Grant’s army. Arriving in the capital he appealed to Lincoln to “let one volunteer officer try his abilities.” His plan was to return to his old political stamping ground and there, by reaching also into Indiana and Iowa, raise an army with which he would descend the Mississippi, capture Vicksburg, “and open navigation to New Orleans.” Lincoln liked the sound of that and took him to see Stanton, who liked it too. McClernand left Washington in late October, armed with a confidential order signed by Stanton and indorsed by Lincoln, giving official sanction to his plan. By early November Grant was hearing rumors from upriver in Illinois: rumors which were presently reinforced by a dispatch from General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, whom the three former lawyers had not taken into their confidence. Memphis, which was in Grant’s department, was to “be made the depot of a joint military and naval expedition on Vicksburg.” Alarmed at hearing the rumors confirmed, Grant wired back: “Am I to understand that I lie still here while an expedition is fitted out from Memphis, or do you want me to push south as far as possible?” Halleck was something of a lawyer, too, though he now found himself at cross-purposes with the men who had not let him in on the secret. “You have command of all troops sent to your department,” he replied, “and have permission to fight the enemy where you please.”
Grant considered himself unleashed. Organizing his mobile force of about 40,000 effectives into right and left wings, respectively under Major General W. T. Sherman and Brigadier General C. S. Hamilton, with the center under Major General J. B. McPherson, he began to move at once, southward along the Mississippi Central Railroad from Grand Junction. Ordinarily he would have preferred to wait for reinforcements, but not now. “I feared that delay might bring McClernand,” he later explained. Vicksburg was 250 miles away, and as he saw it the town belonged to the man who got there first. By mid-November he was in Holly Springs, where he set up a depot of supplies and munitions, then continued on across the Tallahatchie, leapfrogging his headquarters to Oxford while the lead division was fording the Yocknapatalfa, eight miles north of Water Valley, which was occupied during the first week of December. The movement had been rapid and well coordinated; so far, it had encountered only token resistance from the rebels, who were fading back before the advance of the bluecoats. Presently Grant discovered why. Pemberton—whose strength he considerably overestimated as equal to his own—was avoiding serious contact while seeking a tactical advantage, and at last he found it. He called a halt near Grenada, another twenty-five miles beyond Water Valley, and put his gray-clad troops to work improving with intrenchments a position of great natural strength along the Yalobusha. Approaching Coffeeville on December 5, midway between Water Valley and Grenada, the Federal cavalry was struck a blow that signified the end of easy progress. Still 150-odd miles from Vicksburg, Grant could see that the going was apt to be a good deal rougher and slower from here on.
Something else he could see as well, something that disturbed him even more. While he was being delayed in the piny highlands of north-central Mississippi, facing the rebels intrenched along the high-banked Yalobusha, McClernand might come down to Memphis, where advance contingents of his expedition were awaiting him already, and ride the broad smooth highway of the Mississippi River down to Vicksburg unopposed: in which case Grant would not only have lost his private war, he would even have helped his opponent win it by holding Pemberton and the greater part of the Vicksburg garrison in position, 150 miles away, while McClernand captured the weakly defended town with little more exertion than had been required in the course of the long boat ride south from Cairo. That was what rankled worst, the thought that he would have helped to pluck the laurels that would grace his rival’s brow. But as he thought distastefully of this, it began to occur to him that he saw here the possibility of a campaign of his own along these lines. “You have command of all troops sent to your department,” Halleck had told him, and presumably this included the recruits awaiting McClernand’s arrival at Memphis. So Grant, still at his Oxford headquarters on December 8, sent a note to Sherman, whose command was at College Hill, ten miles away: “I wish you would come over this evening and stay tonight, or come in the morning. I would like to talk with you.”
Sherman did not wait for morning. Impatient as always, he rode straight over, a tall red-haired man with a fidgety manner, concave temples, glittering hazel eyes, and a scraggly, close-cropped beard. “I never saw him but I thought of Lazarus,” one observer was to write. A chain smoker who, according to another witness, got through each cigar “as if it was a duty to be finished in the shortest possible time,” he was forty-two, two years older than the comparatively stolid Grant and once his military senior, too, until Donelson brought the younger brigadier fame and a promotion, both of which had been delayed for Sherman until Shiloh, where he fought under—some said, saved—his former junior. He felt no resentment at that. In fact, he saw Grant as “the coming man in this war.” But he had never had better reason for this belief than now at Oxford, when he was closeted with him and heard his plan for the sudden capture of Vicksburg with the help of a kidnaped army.
As usual in military matters, geography played a primary part in determining what was to be done, and how. Various geographic factors made Vicksburg an extremely difficult nut to crack. First there was the bluff itself, the 200-foot red-clay escarpment dominating the hairpin bend of the river at its base, unscalable for infantry and affording the guns emplaced on its crest a deadly plunging fire—as Farragut, for one, could testify—against whatever naval forces moved against or past it. As for land forces, since they could not scale the bluff itself, even if they had been able to approach it from the front, their only alternative was to come upon it from the rear; that is, either to march overland down the Mississippi Central to Grenada, as Grant was now attempting to do, and thence along the high ground lying between the Yazoo and the Big Black Rivers, or else debark from their transports somewhere short of the town and make a wide swing east, in order to approach it from that direction. However, the latter was nearly impossible, too, because of another geographic factor, the so-called Yazoo-Mississippi alluvial delta. This incredibly fertile, magnolia-leaf-shaped region, 200 miles in length and 50 miles in average width, bounded east and west by the two rivers that gave it its compound name, and north and south by the hills that rose below and above Memphis and Vicksburg, was nearly roadless throughout its flat and swampy expanse, was subject to floods in all but the driest seasons, and—except for the presence of a scattering of pioneers who risked its malarial and intestinal disorders for the sake of the richness of its forty-foot topsoil, which in time, after the felling of its big trees and the draining of its bayous, would make it the best cotton farmland in the world—was the exclusive domain of moccasins, bears, alligators, and panthers. It was, in short, impenetrable to all but the smallest of military parties, engaged in the briefest of forays. An army attempting to march across or through it would come out at the other end considerably reduced in numbers and fit for nothing more strenuous than a six-month rest, with quinine as the principal item on its diet. Anyhow, Grant did not intend to try it that way. He had his eye fixed on the mouth of the Yazoo, twelve miles above Vicksburg, and it seemed to him that an amphibious force could ascend that river for a landing on the southeast bank, which would afford the troops a straight shot at the town on the bluff. True, there were hills here, too—the Walnut Hills, they were called, the beginning of the long ridge known as the Chickasaw Bluffs, which lay along the left bank of the Yazoo, overlooking the flat morass of the delta—but they were by no means as forbidding as the heights overlooking the Mississippi, a dozen miles below. It was Grant’s belief that determined men, supported by the guns of the fleet, could swarm over these comparatively low-lying hills, brushing aside whatever portion of the weakened garrison tried to stop them, and be inside the town before nightfall of the day they came ashore.
That was why he had sent for Sherman, who seemed to him the right man for the job. Sherman happily agreed to undertake it, and Grant gave him his written orders that same evening. He was to return at once to Memphis with one of his three divisions, which he would combine with McClernand’s volunteers, already waiting there. This would give him 21,000 troops, and to these would be added another 12,000 to be picked up at Helena on the way downriver, bringing his total strength to four divisions of 33,000 men, supported by Porter’s fleet. Grant explained that he himself would continue to bristle aggressively along the line of the Yalobusha “so as to keep up the impression of a continuous move,” and if Pemberton fell back prematurely he would “follow him even to the gates of Vicksburg,” in which event he and Sherman would meet on the Yazoo and combine for the final dash into the town. Delighted with the prospect, Sherman was off next day for Memphis, altogether mindful of the need for haste if he was to forestall both McClernand and Pemberton. “Time now is the great object,” he wired Porter. “We must not give time for new combinations.”
He did not make it precisely clear whether these feared “combinations” were being designed in Richmond or in Washington—whether, that is, they threatened the successful prosecution of Grant’s public or his private war. By mid-December, however, Grant’s worries in regard to the latter were mostly over. Sherman was in Memphis, poised for the jump-off, and McClernand’s men had become organic parts of the army the redhead was about to take downriver. There was still one danger. McClernand outranked him; which meant that if he arrived before Sherman left, he would assume command by virtue of seniority. But Grant considered this unlikely. Sherman was thoroughly aware of the risk and would be sure to avoid the consequences. Besides, with Halleck’s telegram in his files as license for the kidnap operation, Grant felt secure from possible thunder from on high. “I doubted McClernand’s fitness,” he later wrote, “and I had good reason to believe that in forestalling him I was by no means giving offense to those whose authority to command was above both him and me.”
The arrival of a telegram from Washington on the 18th, instructing him to divide his command (now and henceforward to be called the Army of the Tennessee) into four corps, with McClernand in charge of one of those assigned to operations down the Mississippi—which meant of course that, once he joined it, he would be in charge of the whole column by virtue of his rank, unless Grant himself came over and took command along the river route—did not disturb the plans Grant had described in a letter home, three days ago, as “all complete for weeks to come,” adding: “I hope to have them all work out just as planned.” Sherman was ready to leave, he knew, and in fact would be gone tomorrow, before McClernand could possibly arrive from Illinois. Blandly he wired his new subordinate word of the Washington order, which dispelled McClernand’s illusion that his command was to be an independent one. Instructing him to come on down to Memphis, Grant even managed to keep a straight face while remarking: “I hope you willfind all the preliminary preparations completed on your arrival and the expedition ready to move.”
McClernand found no such thing, of course. All he found when at last he reached Memphis on December 29 were the empty docks his men had departed from, ten days ago under Sherman, and Grant’s telegram, delayed eleven days in transmission. Nor did Grant’s own plans, “all complete for weeks to come,” work out as he had intended and predicted. In both cases—entirely in the former and largely in the latter—the cause could be summed up in three two-syllable nouns: Nathan Bedford Forrest.
“He was the only Confederate cavalryman of whom Grant stood in much dread,” a friend of the Union general’s once remarked. Then he told why. “Who’s commanding?” Grant would ask on hearing that gray raiders were on the prowl. If it was some other rebel chieftain he would shrug off the threat with a light remark; “but if Forrest was in command he at once became apprehensive, because the latter was amenable to no known rules of procedure, was a law unto himself for all military acts, and was constantly doing the unexpected at all times and places.”
Grant’s apprehensions were well founded as he looked back over his shoulder in the direction of his main supply base at Columbus, Kentucky; or, more specifically, since the far-off river town was adequately garrisoned against raiders, as he traced on the map the nearly two hundred highly vulnerable, not to say frangible, miles of railroad which were his sole all-weather connection with the munitions and food his army in North Mississippi required if it was to continue to shoot and eat. Without that base and those railroads, once he had used up the reserve supplies already brought forward and stored at Holly Springs, his choice would lie between retreat on the one hand and starvation or surrender on the other. Just now, moreover, the reason his apprehensions were so well founded was that Forrest was looking—and not only looking, but moving—in that direction, too: as Grant learned from a dispatch received December 15 from Jackson, Tennessee, a vital junction about midway of his vulnerable supply line. “Forrest is crossing [the] Tennessee at Clifton,” the local commander wired. Four days later, Jackson itself was under attack by a mounted force which the Federal defenders estimated at 10,000 men, with Forrest himself definitely in charge.
Pemberton had begun it by appealing to Bragg in late November for a diversion in West Tennessee, which he thought might ease the pressure on his front, and Bragg had responded by sending Forrest instructions to “throw his command rapidly over the Tennessee River and precipitate it upon the enemy’s lines, break up railroads, burn bridges, destroy depots, capture hospitals and guards, and harass him generally.” Receiving these orders December 10 at Columbia, forty miles south of Nashville, Forrest was off next day with four regiments of cavalry and a four-gun battery, 2100 men in all, mostly recruits newly brigaded under his command and mainly armed with shotguns and flintlock muskets. Four days later and sixty miles away, he began to cross the Tennessee at Clifton on two flatboats which he had built for the emergency and which he afterwards sank in a nearby creek in case he needed them coming back. Deep in enemy country, with the bluecoats warned of his crossing while it was still in progress, he encountered on the 18th, near Lexington, two regiments of infantry, a battalion of cavalry, and a section of artillery, all under Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, who had been sent out to intercept him. The meeting engagement was brief and decisive. Falling back on the town, Ingersoll took up what he thought was a good defensive position and was firing rapidly with his two guns at the rebels to his front, when suddenly he “found that the enemy were pouring in on all directions.” The fight ended quite as abruptly as it had begun. “If he really believed that there is no hell,” one grayback later said of the postwar orator-agnostic, “we convinced him that there was something mightily like it.” Captured along with his two guns and 150 of his men, while the rest made off “on the full run” for Jackson, twenty-five miles to the west, Ingersoll greeted his captors with aplomb: “Is this the army of your Southern Confederacy for which I have so diligently sought? Then I am your guest until the wheels of the great Cartel are put in motion.”
Following hard on the heels of the fugitives, who he knew would stumble into Jackson with exaggerated stories of his strength, Forrest advanced to within four miles of the place and began to dispose his “army” as if for assault, maneuvering boldly along the ridge-lines and beating kettledrums at widely scattered points to keep up the illusion, or, as he called it, “the skeer.” It worked quite well. Convinced that he was heavily outnumbered, though in fact he had about four times as many troops inside the town as the Confederates had outside it, Brigadier General Jeremiah Sullivan prepared to make a desperate house-to-house defense. All next day the rebel host continued to gather, waxing bolder hour by hour. When dawn of the 20th showed the graybacks gone, Sullivan took heart and set out after them, pushing eastward—into emptiness, as it turned out, for Forrest had swung north. Today in fact, having thrown the Federal main body off his trail, he began in earnest to carry out his primary assignment, the destruction of the sixty miles of the Mobile & Ohio connecting Jackson and Union City, up near the Kentucky line. The common complaint of army commanders, that cavalry could seldom be persuaded to get down off their horses for the hard work that was necessary if the damage to enemy installations was to be more than temporary, was never leveled against Forrest’s men. Besides forcing the surrender of the several blue garrisons in towns along the line, they tore up track, burned crossties and trestles, and wrecked culverts so effectively that this stretch of the M&O was out of commission for the balance of the war. In Union City on Christmas Eve, resting his troopers after their four-day rampage with axes and sledges, Forrest reported by courier to Bragg that, at a cost so far of 22 men, he had killed or captured more than 1300 of the enemy, “including 4 colonels, 4 majors, 10 captains, and 23 lieutenants.” That he considered this no more than a respectable beginning was shown by his closing remark: “My men have all behaved well in action, and as soon as rested a little you will hear from me in another quarter.”
His problem now, after paroling his captives and sending them north to Columbus to spread bizarre reports of his strength—reports that were based on bogus dispatches, which he had been careful to let them overhear while their papers were being made out at his headquarters—was, first, what further damage to inflict and, second, how to get back over the river intact before the various Federal columns, still chasing phantoms all over West Tennessee, converged on him with overwhelming numbers. The first was solved on Christmas Day, when he marched southeast out of Union City and spent the next two days administering to the Nashville & Northwestern the treatment already given the M&O. Reaching McKenzie on the 28th in an icy, pelting rain, he headed south across the swampy bottoms of the swollen Obion River, and now began his solution of the second part of his problem. Instead of trying to make a run for the Tennessee, with the chance of being caught half-over and hamstrung, he decided to brazen out the game by thrusting in among the Federals attempting a convergence, and by vigorous blows, struck right or left at whatever came within his reach, stun them into inaction or retreat, while he continued his movement toward the security of Middle Tennessee.
The fact was, he had little to fear from the direction of Columbus. Brigadier General Thomas A. Davies, commander of the 5000 bluecoats gathered there, had been so alarmed by demonstrations within ten miles of the town on Christmas Eve, as well as by the parolees coming in next day with reports of 40,000 infantry on the march from Bragg, that he had spiked the guns at New Madrid and Island Ten, throwing the powder into the Mississippi to keep it out of rebel hands, and now was concentrating everything in order to protect the $13,000,000 worth of supplies and equipment being loaded onto steamboats at the Columbus wharf for a getaway in case Forrest broke his lines. Conditions were scarcely better, from the Union point of view, 250 miles downriver at Memphis, where the citizens had become so elated over rumors that their former alderman was coming home, along with thousands of his troopers, that Major General S. A. Hurlbut, perturbed by their reaction and the fact that his garrison was down to a handful since the departure of Sherman, telegraphed Washington: “I hold city by terror of heavy guns bearing upon it and the belief that an attack would cause its destruction.” Grant, however, was of a different breed. He was thinking not of his safety, but of the possible destruction of Forrest and his men. “I have directed such a concentration of troops that I think not many of them will get back to the east bank of the Tennessee,” he informed a subordinate. Nor was this opinion ill-founded. One superior blue force was coming south from Fort Henry, another north from Corinth, and both were now much closer to the Clifton crossing than Forrest was. So, for that matter, were Jere Sullivan and his three brigades, two of which were back by now from their goose chase east of Jackson and headed north. Undiscouraged by his lack of luck so far, he believed he knew just where the raiders were, and he intended to bag them. “I have Forrest in a tight place,” he wired Grant on December 29. “My troops are moving on him from three directions, and I hope with success.”
Forrest was indeed in a tight place, and that place was about to get tighter. Emerging from the flooded Obion bottoms, which he had crossed by an abandoned causeway, he paused on December 30 to let Sullivan’s unsuspecting lead brigade go by him, then resumed his march past Huntingdon and toward Clarksburg, nearing which place on the morning of the last day of the year he encountered the other brigade, forewarned and drawn up to meet him at Parker’s Crossroads. By way of precaution he had sent four companies to guard the road from Huntingdon and warn him in case the lead brigade turned back, and now, secure in the belief that his rear was well protected against surprise, he settled down to a casualty-saving artillery duel with the blue force to his front. It lasted from about 9 o’clock until an hour past noon, by which time he had captured three of the enemy guns and 18 wagonloads of ammunition and had driven the skirmishers back on their supports. He had in fact ceased firing, in response to several white flags displayed along the Union line, and was sending in his usual demand for “unconditional surrender to prevent the further effusion of blood,” when an attack exploded directly in his rear. For the first last only time in his career, Forrest was completely surprised in battle. His reaction was immediate. Quickly resuming the fight to his front, he simultaneously charged rearward, stalling the surprise attackers with blows to the head and flanks, and withdrew sideways before his opponents recovered from the shock. It was smartly done—later giving rise to the legend that his response to a staff officer’s flustered question, “What shall we do? What shall we do?” was: “Charge both ways!”—but not without sacrifice. The captured guns were abandoned, along with three of his own, for lack of horses to draw them, as well as the 18 wagonloads of ammunition. Three hundred men who had been fighting afoot were taken, too, while trying to catch their mounts, which had bolted at the sudden burst of gunfire from the rear. Sullivan, coming up from behindJackson with his third brigade next day, was elated. “Forrest’s army completely broken up,” he wired Grant. “They are scattered over the country without ammunition. We need a good cavalry regiment to go through the country and pick them up.”
So he said. But while he and his three brigades were waiting for that “good regiment,” Forrest and his troopers were riding hard for the Tennessee and eluding the columns approaching cautiously from Corinth and Fort Henry. All in high spirits on New Year’s Day—except possibly the captain who by now had been verbally blistered for taking yesterday’s rear-guard companies up the wrong road and thus permitting the Federals to march past him unobserved—they reached Clifton about midday, raised the sunken flatboats, and were across the icy river before dawn. The basis for their high spirits was a sense of accomplishment. They had gone out as green recruits, miserably armed, and had returned within less than three weeks as veterans, equipped with the best accouterments and weapons the U.S. government could provide. In the course of a brief midwinter campaign, which opened and closed with a pontoonless crossing of one of the nation’s great rivers, and in the course of which they more than made up in recruits for what they lost in battle or on the march, they had killed or paroled as many men as they had in their whole command and had kept at least ten times their number of bluecoats frantically busy for a fortnight. Besides the estimated $3,000,000 they had cost the Federals in wrecked installations and equipment, they had taken or destroyed 10 guns and captured 10,000 rifles and a million badly needed cartridges. Above all, they had accomplished their primary assignment by cutting Grant’s lifeline, from Jackson north to the Kentucky border. They saw all this as Forrest’s doing, and it was their pride, now and for all the rest of their lives—whether those lives were to end next week in combat or were to stretch on down the years to the ones they spent sunning their old bones on the galleries of crossroads stores throughout the Deep and Central South—that they had belonged to what in time would be known as his Old Brigade.
Pemberton was highly pleased, not only with the results of this cavalry action outside the limits of his department, but also with another which had been carried out within those limits and which he himself had designed as a sort of companion piece or counterpart to the raid-in-progress beyond the Tennessee line. Both had a profound effect on the situation he had been facing ever since he called a halt and began intrenching along the Yalobusha, preparatory to coming to grips with Grant’s superior army: so profound an effect, indeed, that it presently became obvious that if he and Grant were to come to grips, it would be neither here nor now. Like that of the first, the success of this second horseback exploit—which in point of fact was simultaneous rather than sequential, beginning later and ending sooner—could also be summed up in three nouns, though in this case the summary was even briefer, since all three were single-syllabled: Earl Van Dorn.
“Buck” Van Dorn, as he had been called at West Point and by his fellow officers in the old army, had leaped at the chance for distinction, not only because it was part of his nature to delight in desperate ventures, but also because he was badly in need just now of personal redemption. After a brilliant pre-Manassas career in Texas, he had been called to Virginia, then reassigned to Arkansas, where his attempt at a double envelopment had been foiled disastrously at Elkhorn Tavern. Crossing the Mississippi after Shiloh, he had suffered an even bloodier repulse at Corinth in October, which gave him so evil a reputation in his home state that a court had been called to hear evidence of his bungling. Although he was cleared by the court, the government soon afterwards promoted Pemberton over the head upon which the public was still heaping condemnations. The accusation that he was “the source of all our woes,” Senator Phelan wrote President Davis, was “so fastened in the public belief that an acquittal by a court-martial of angels would not relieve him of the charge.” Van Dorn was depressed, but he was not without hope. A court-martial of angels was one thing; a brilliant military exploit, characterized by boldness and attended by great risk, was quite another. So when Pemberton summoned him to army headquarters and gave him his assignment—an all-out raid on Grant’s communications and supply lines, including the great depot lately established at Holly Springs—the diminutive Mississippian saw in it the opportunity to retrieve his reputation and bask once more in the warmth of his countrymen’s affection. Always one to grasp the nettle danger, he embraced the offered chance without delay.
He left Grenada on December 18 with 3500 cavalry, heading east at first to skirt Grant’s flank, then north as if for a return to Corinth. Next day, however, he turned west beyond New Albany and came thundering into Holly Springs at dawn, December 20. The Federal commander there, Colonel R. C. Murphy, had been placed in a similar uncomfortable position in September at Iuka, which he had abandoned without a fight or even destruction of the stores to keep them from falling into enemy hands. Grant had forgiven him then because of his youth and inexperience, and now he was given another chance to prove his mettle. He did no better. In fact, despite advance warning that a heavy column of graybacks was moving in his direction, he did far worse. This time, he lost not only the stores in his charge but also the soldiers, 1500 of whom were captured and paroled on the spot by the jubilant rebels, caracoling their horses at the sight of the mountains of food and equipment piled here for Grant’s army. “My fate is most mortifying,” he reported that night amid the embers which were all that remained of the million-dollar depot of supplies. “I have done all in my power—in truth, my force was inadequate.”
Grant reacted “with pain and mortification” at the news of his loss and ordered Murphy dismissed from the service, as of “the date of his cowardly and disgraceful conduct.” With Forrest loose on the railroad north of Jackson that same day, and his own wife spared embarrassment at Holly Springs only because she had left to join him in Oxford the day before, Grant began to design combinations of forces in North Mississippi, not unlike those already sent out after Forrest in West Tennessee, to accomplish Van Dorn’s destruction before he could return to safety behind the Yalobusha. “I want those fellows caught, if possible,” he said.
The trouble with this was that by the time the various columns could be put in motion Van Dorn was no longer in North Mississippi. Instead of racing for home, and perhaps into the arms of superior forces already gathering in his rear, he pushed on northward into Tennessee. Before he left his native state, however, the commander of a small outpost at Davis Mill, twenty miles north of Holly Springs and just south of the Tennessee line, gave him—and, incidentally, Murphy—a lesson in how well an “inadequate” force could hold its own against “overwhelming” numbers. His name was Colonel W. H. Morgan and he had less than 300 men for the defense of a point made critical by the presence of a trestle by which the Mississippi Central crossed Wolf River. Hearing that the raiders were coming his way, he converted an old sawmill into a blockhouse, reinforcing its walls with cotton bales and crossties, and a nearby Indian mound into a moated earthwork, both of which covered the railroad approach with converging fire. About noon of the 21st, the Confederates came up and launched a quick assault, which was repulsed. After a two-hour long-range skirmish, finding the fire too hot for a storming party to reach and ignite the trestle, let alone cross the river, the attackers sent forward, under a flag of truce, a note asking whether the defenders were ready to surrender. Morgan replied with what he later termed “a respectful but decided negative,” and the Confederates withdrew, leaving 22 dead and 30 wounded on the field, along with another 20 prisoners who had ventured up too close to be able to pull back without exposing themselves to slaughter. Morgan’s loss was 3 men slightly wounded.
Except for the further damage it did to his former opinion that one Southerner was worth ten Yankee hirelings in a scrap, Van Dorn was not greatly disturbed by this tactical upset. In the course of his approach to the fight, and even while it was in progress, he had done the railroad enough damage to be able to afford to let the trestle go. Bypassing Morgan’s improvised blockhouse, he crossed upstream and pushed on northward between Grand Junction and LaGrange, where he tore up sections of the Memphis & Charleston for good measure. Near Bolivar on the 23rd, he circled Middleburg, still ripping up track and wrecking culverts, and headed back south on Christmas Eve, riding through Van Buren and Saulsbury to re-enter Mississippi. South of Ripley on Christmas Day, he had a brush with one of the converging Union colums, but pressed on without delay, through Pontotoc and thence on back to Grenada, which he reached by midafternoon of December 28. He had carried out his mission in fine style, destroying Grant’s reserve supplies of food, forage, and munitions. What was more, at least from a particular point of view, he had refurbished his tarnished reputation. Households which formerly had mentioned his name only with frowns of disapproval or downright scowls of condemnation now drank his health with shouts of joy and praised him to the skies.
Pemberton, then, was delighted at the manner in which Van Dorn had achieved redemption; but not Grant, who paid the bill which thus was added to all that Forrest was costing him simultaneously. With Columbus in a panic, Memphis cowed by heavy guns, his communications disrupted, and his supply line almost a continuous wreck from Holly Springs north to the Kentucky border, he was stymied and he knew it. Van Dorn having destroyed his supplies on hand and Forrest having made it impossible for him to bring up more, he could neither move forward nor stand still. There was no way he could go but back, and this he proceeded to do, meanwhile solving the problem of immediate subsistence by sending out “all the wagons we had, under proper escort, to collect and bring in all supplies of forage and food from a region of fifteen miles east and west of the road from our front back to Grand Junction.” At the news of this, the broad smiles caused by Van Dorn’s coup faded from the faces of the people around Oxford. Their former mocking question, “What will you do now?” was changed to: “What are we to do?” Grant replied that he had done his best to feed his soldiers from their own northern resources, but now that these had been cut off “it could not be expected that men, with arms in their hands, would starve in the midst of plenty.” In short, as he said later, “I advised them to emigrate east, or west, fifteen miles and assist in eating up what we left.”
To his amazement—for he had thought the pickings would be slim and had lately advised his government that an army could not “subsist itself on the country except in forage”; “Disaster would result in the end,” he had predicted—the wagons returned heavy-laden with hams, corn on the cob, field peas and beans, sweet and Irish potatoes, and fowls of every description, accompanied by herds of beef on the hoof. “It showed that we could have subsisted off the country for two months instead of two weeks without going beyond the limits designated,” he subsequently wrote, adding: “This taught me a lesson.”
The knowledge thus gained might prove to be of great use in the future, but for the present one thing still bothered him beyond all others. This was the thought that, putting it baldly, he was leaving his friend Sherman in the lurch. He had promised to hold Pemberton in position, 150 miles from Vicksburg, while Sherman was storming its thinly held defenses; yet Pemberton was already hurrying troops in that direction, as Grant knew, and might well arrive in time to smother the attackers in the Yazoo bottoms. However, there was little Grant could do about it now, except depend on Sherman to work out his own salvation. Out of touch as he was, because of his ruptured communications, Grant did not even know whether Sherman had left Memphis yet—or, if so, whether he was still in command of the river expedition; McClernand, in event of delay, might have arrived in time to take over. All Grant could do was send a courier to Memphis with a message addressed to “Commanding Officer Expedition down Mississippi,” advising him, whoever he was, “that farther advance by this route is perfectly impracticable” and that he and his men were falling back, while Pemberton did likewise. Whether this would arrive in time to forestall disaster, he did not know.
Sherman was already downriver, and so far his only thought of disaster had been the intention to inflict it. “You may calculate on our being at Vicksburg by Christmas,” he wrote Grant’s adjutant on December 19, the day he left Memphis. “River has risen some feet, and all is now good navigation. Gunboats are at mouth of Yazoo now, and there will be no difficulty in effecting a landing up Yazoo within twelve miles of Vicksburg.” Two days later at Helena, where he picked up his fourth division, he received from upriver his first intimation that Grant might be having trouble in the form of rebel cavalry, which was reported to have captured Holly Springs. If this was so, then Sherman’s first letter most likely had not got through to Oxford; nor would a second. Nevertheless, he refused to be disconcerted, and wrote again. “I hardly know what faith to put in such a report,” he said, “but suppose whatever may be the case you will attend to it.”
All was indeed “good navigation” for the fifty-odd army transports and the 32,500 soldiers close-packed on their decks, steaming rapidly toward their destiny below, as well as for the naval escort of three ironclads, two wooden gunboats, and two rams. But for the rest of Porter’s fleet—three ironclads and two “tinclads,” so called because their armor was no more than musket-proof—the going had been less easy. Sent downriver two weeks before, they had succeeded in clearing the Yazoo from its mouth upstream to Haines Bluff, where a stout Confederate battery defined the limit of penetration, 23 winding miles from the point of entrance. This had not been accomplished without cost, however, for the defenses were in charge of Isaac Brown, and Brown was known to be hungry for vengeance because of the recent loss above Baton Rouge of the steam ram Arkansas, which he had built up this same river the summer before and with which he had charged and sundered the two flotillas then besieging Vicksburg. He had no warship now, but he had notions about torpedoes, five-gallon whiskey demijohns packed with powder, fuzed with artillery friction tubes, and each suspended a few feet below a float on the muddy surface. On December 12 the five-boat Union reconnaissance squadron appeared up the Yazoo, shelling the banks and fishing up Brown’s torpedoes as it advanced. Approaching Haines Bluff, the ironclad Cairo made contact with one of the glass demijohns at five minutes before noon, and at 12.03 she was out of sight, all but the tips of her stacks, in thirty feet of water.
Celerity and good discipline made it possible for the crew to abandon ship within the allowed eight minutes. No lives were lost, but the Cairo’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander T. O. Selfridge, Jr., a young man with a lofty forehead and luxuriant sideburns, was greatly disturbed by the loss of his boat and the possible end of his career as well, depending on the admiral’s reaction to the news. Steaming back down the Yazoo aboard one of the tinclads, he found Porter himself at the mouth of the river, just arrived from Memphis, and stiffly requested a court of inquiry. “Court!” the admiral snorted. “I have no time to order courts. I can’t blame an officer who puts his ship close to the enemy. Is there any other vessel you would like to have?” Without waiting for an answer he turned abruptly to the flag captain standing beside him on the bridge. “Breese, make out Selfridge’s orders to the Conestoga.”
Porter was like that, when he chose to be. Just short of fifty and rather hard-faced, with a hearty manner and a full dark beard, he had been given his present assignment, together with the rank of acting rear admiral, over the heads of eighty seniors. For the present, though, despite this cause for self-congratulation, the heartiness and bluster were cover for worry. Most of his old sailors had broken down, with the result that his heavy boats were half-manned, while ten light-draft vessels were laid up for lack of crews, and he was complaining to Washington that a draft of new men, lately arrived from New York, were “all boys and very ordinary landsmen.” Characteristically, however, in a letter written this week to Sherman, after protesting of these and other matters, including a shortage of provisions, fuel, medicines, and clothing—not to mention the loss of the Cairo—he closed by observing: “I expected that the government would send men from the East, but not a man will they send or notice my complaints, so we will have to go on with what we have.”
Reaching Milliken’s Bend, on the west bank of the Mississippi ten miles above the mouth of the Yazoo, Sherman landed a brigade on Christmas Day and sent it out to wreck a section of the railroad connecting Vicksburg and Monroe, Louisiana. Next morning, while the brigade was returning, its mission accomplished, the rest of the armada proceeded downstream, entered the Yazoo, and steamed up its intricate channel. A light gunboat and an ironclad led the way, followed by twenty transports, each with two companies of riflemen charged with returning the fire of snipers. Then came another ironclad and twenty more transports, similarly protected. So it went, to the tail of the 64-boat column, until a landing was made at Johnson’s Farm, on the Vicksburg shore of the Yazoo ten miles above its mouth. Alertness had paid off, or else it had been unnecessary. “Some few guerilla parties infested the banks,” Sherman explained, “but did not dare to molest so strong a force as I commanded.” It occurred to some of his soldiers, though, that the rebels were going to let geography do their fighting for them. Wide-eyed as the Illinois and Indiana farmboys were in this strange land, that seemed altogether possible. First there had been the big river itself—or himself; the Old Man, natives called the stream, taking their cue from the Indians, who had named it the Father of Waters—the tawny, mile-wide Mississippi, so thick with silt that recruits could almost believe the steamboat hands who solemnly assured them that if you drank its water for as much as a week “you will have a sandbar in you a mile long.” Then had come the smaller stream, with its currentless bayous and mazy sloughs, whose very name was the Indian word for death. And now there was this, the land itself, spongelike under their feet as they came ashore, desolate as the back side of the moon and brooded over by cypresses and water oaks with long gray beards of Spanish moss. North was only a direction indicated by a compass—if a man had one, that is, for otherwise there was no north or south or east or west; there was only the brooding desolation. If this was the country the rebs wanted to take out of the Union, the blue-coated farmboys were ready to say good riddance.
The molestation Sherman had said the Confederates did not dare to attempt began the following day, December 27, against the navy. Commander William Gwin, a veteran of all the river fights since Fort Henry, took his ironclad Benton upstream to shell out some graybacks lurking in the woods on the left flank, but got caught in a narrow stretch of the river and was pounded by a battery on the bluffs. Three of the more than thirty hits came through the Benton’s ports, cutting her crew up badly, and Gwin, who refused to take cover in the shot-proof pilothouse—“A captain’s place is on the quarterdeck,” he protested when urged to step inside—was mortally wounded by an 8-inch solid that took off most of his right arm and breast, exposing the ribs and lung in a sudden flash of white and scarlet. Meanwhile the army was having its share of opposition, too, as it floundered about in the Yazoo bottoms and tried to get itself aligned for the assault on the Walnut Hills. The four division commanders, Brigadier Generals A. J. Smith, M. L. Smith, G. W. Morgan, and Frederick Steele, were in the thick of things next morning, dodging bullets like all the rest, when suddenly their number was reduced to three by a sniper who hit the second Smith in the hip joint and retired him from the campaign.
These two high-placed casualties only added to a confusion that was rife enough already. Johnson’s Farm, which was little more than a patch of cleared ground in the midst of swampy woods, was separated from the hills ahead by a broad, shallow bayou, a former bed of the Yazoo, and hemmed in on the flanks by two others, Old River Bayou on the right and Chickasaw Bayou on the left. All three looked much alike to an unpracticed eye, so that there was much consequent loss of direction, misidentification of objectives, and countermarching of columns. A bridge ordered constructed over the shallow bayou to the front was built by mistake over one of the others, too late to be relaid. Whole companies got separated from their regiments and spent hours ricocheting from one alien outfit to another. As a result of all this, and more, it was Monday morning, December 29, before the objectives could be assigned and pointed out on the ground instead of on the inadequate maps. Sherman’s plan for overrunning the hilltop defenses was for all four divisions to make “a show of attack along the whole front,” but to concentrate his main effort at two points, half a mile apart, which seemed to him to afford his soldiers the best chance for a penetration. One of these was in front of Morgan’s division, and when Sherman pointed it out to him and told him what he wanted, Morgan nodded positively. “General, in ten minutes after you give the signal I’ll be on those hills,” he said.
His timing was a good deal off. Except for one brigade, which “took cover behind the [opposite] bank, and could not be moved forward,” as Sherman later reported in disgust, Morgan not only did not reach “those hills,” he did not even get across the bayou, in ten or any other number of minutes after the signal for attack was given by the batteries all along the Federal line. Presently, however, it was demonstrated that, all in all, this was perhaps the best thing to have done in the situation in which their red-headed commander had placed them. A brigade of Steele’s division, led by Brigadier General Frank Blair, Jr., a former Missouri congressman and brother of the Postmaster General, got across in good order and excellent spirits, only to encounter a savage artillery crossfire that sent it staggering back, leaving 500 killed, wounded, and captured at the point where it had been struck. One regiment kept going but was stopped by the steepness of the bluff and a battery firing directly down the throats of the attackers. With their hands they began to scoop out burrows in the face of the nearly perpendicular hillside, seeking overhead cover from enemy riflemen who held their muskets out over the parapet and fired them vertically into the huddled, frantically digging mass below. Indeed, so critical was their position, as Sherman later said, “that we could not recall the men till after dark, and then one at a time.” He added, in summation of the day’s activities: “Our loss had been pretty heavy, and we had accomplished nothing, and had inflicted little loss on our enemy.”
“Pretty heavy” was putting it mildly, as he would discover when he found time for counting noses, but the rest of this estimation was accurate enough. Federal losses reached the commemorative figure 1776, of whom 208 were killed, 1005 were wounded, and 563 were captured or otherwise missing. The Confederates lost 207 in all: 63 killed, 134 wounded, and 10 missing.
Unwilling to let it go at that—“We will lose 5000 men before we take Vicksburg,” he had said, “and may as well lose them here as anywhere else”—Sherman decided to reload Steele’s division aboard transports and move it upstream for a diversionary strike in the vicinity of Haines Bluff, which might induce the defenders to weaken their present line. Porter was no less willing than before. Moreover, by way of disposing of Brown’s remaining torpedoes, he conceived the idea of using one of the rams to clear the path. “I propose to sent her ahead and explode them,” he explained. “If we lose her, it does not matter much.” Colonel Charles R. Ellet, youthful successor to his dead father as commander of the former army vessels, did not take to this notion of a sacrificial ram. With Porter’s consent, he added a 45-foot boom extending beyond the prow and equipped it with pulleys and cords and hooks for fishing up the floats and demijohns. Ram and transports set out by the dark of the moon on the last night of the year, while Sherman alerted his other three divisions for a second all-out assault on the Walnut Hills as soon as they heard the boom of guns upstream. What came instead, at 4 a.m. on New Year’s Day, was a note from Steele, explaining that the boats were fog-bound and could not proceed. So Sherman called a halt and took stock. He had been waiting all this time for some word from Grant, either on the line of the Yalobusha or here on the Yazoo, but there had been nothing since the rumor of the fall of Holly Springs. From Vicksburg itself, ten air-line miles away, its steeples visible from several points along his boggy front, he had been hearing for the past three days the sound of trains arriving and departing. It might be a ruse, as at Corinth back in May. On the other hand, it might signify what it sounded like: the arrival from Grenada or Mobile or Chattanooga, or possibly all three, of reinforcements for the rebel garrison. Also, rain had begun to fall by now in earnest, and looking up he saw watermarks on the trunks of trees “ten feet above our heads.” In short, as he later reported, seeing “no good reason for remaining in so unenviable a position any longer,” he “became convinced that the part of wisdom was to withdraw.”
Withdraw he did, re-embarking his soldiers the following day and proceeding downriver without delay. There was more room on the decks of the transports now, and Sherman was low in spirits: not because he was dissatisfied with his direction of the attempt—“There was no bungling on my part,” he wrote, “for I never worked harder or with more intensity of purpose in my life”—but because he knew that the journalists, whom he had snubbed at every opportunity since their spreading of last year’s rumors that he was insane, would have a field day writing their descriptions of his repulse and retreat. Presently he was hailed by Porter, who signaled him to come aboard the flagship. Sherman did so, rain-drenched and disconsolate.
“I’ve lost 1700 men,” he said, “and those infernal reporters will publish all over the country their ridiculous stories about Sherman being whipped.”
“Pshaw,” the admiral replied. “That’s nothing; simply an episode of the war. You’ll lose 17,000 before the war is over and think nothing of it. We’ll have Vicksburg yet, before we die. Steward! Bring some punch.”
When he got the red-head settled down he gave him the unwelcome news that McClernand was at hand, anchored just inside the mouth of the Yazoo and waiting to see him. Sherman, who could keep as straight a face as his friend Grant when so inclined, afterwards remarked of his rival’s sudden but long-expected appearance on the scene: “It was rumored he had come down to supersede me.”
McClernand, too, had news for him when they met later that day. Grant was not coming down through Mississippi; he had in fact been in retreat for more than a week, leaving Pemberton free to concentrate for the defense of Vicksburg. Sherman suggested that this meant that any further attempt against the town with their present force was hopeless. Indeed, in the light of this disclosure, he began to consider himself most fortunate in failure, even though it had cost him a total of 1848 casualties for the whole campaign. “Had we succeeded,” he reasoned, “we might have found ourselves in a worse trap, when General Pemberton was at full liberty to turn his whole force against us.”
Dark-bearded McClernand agreed that the grapes were sour, at least for now. Next day, January 3, he and Sherman withdrew their troops from the Yazoo and rendezvoused again at Milliken’s Bend, where McClernand took command.
“Well, we have been to Vicksburg and it was too much for us and we have backed out,” Sherman wrote his wife from the camp on the west bank of the Mississippi. Reporting by dispatch to Grant, however, he went a bit more into detail as to causes. “I attribute our failure to the strength of the enemy’s position, both natural and artificial, and not to his superior fighting,” he declared; “but as we must all in the future have ample opportunities to test this quality, it is foolish to discuss it.”
Pemberton would have agreed that it was foolish to discuss it, not for the reason his adversary gave, but because he considered the question already settled. The proof of the answer, so far as he was concerned, had been demonstrated in the course of the past two weeks, during which time he had stood off and repulsed two separate Union armies, each superior in numbers to his own. What was more, he had gained new confidence in his top commanders: in Van Dorn, whose lightning raid, staged in conjunction with Forrest’s in West Tennessee, had abolished the northward menace: in the on-the-spot Vicksburg defenders, Major General Martin L. Smith and Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee, who with fewer than 15,000 soldiers, most of whom had arrived at the last minute from Grenada, had driven better than twice as many bluecoats out of their side yard, inflicting in the process about nine times as many casualties as they suffered: and in himself, who had engineered the whole and had been present for both repulses. Not that he did not expect to have to fight a return engagement. He did. But he considered that this would be no more than an occasion for redemonstrating what had been proved already.
“Vicksburg is daily growing stronger,” he wired Richmond soon after New Year’s. “We intend to hold it.”
Rosecrans too was aware that haste made waste, but unlike Grant he was having no part of it. In reply to Halleck’s frequent urgings that he move against Bragg and Chattanooga without delay—it was for this, after all, that he had been appointed to succeed his fellow Ohioan, Don Carlos Buell, whose characteristic attitude had seemed to his superiors to be one of hesitation—he made it clear that he intended to take his time. He would move when he got ready, not before, and thus, as he put it, avoid having to “stop and tinker” along the way. His policy, he explained in a series of answers to the telegraphic nudges, was “to lull [the rebels] into security,” then “press them up solidly” and “endeavor to make an end of them.” When Halleck at last lost patience altogether, informing the general in early December that he had twice been asked to designate a successor for him—“If you remain one more week in Nashville,” he warned, “I cannot prevent your removal”—Rosecrans set his heels in hard and bristled back at the general-in-chief: “I need no other stimulus to make me do my duty than the knowledge of what it is. To threats of removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.”
“Old Rosy” the men called him, not only because of his colorful name, but also because of his large red nose, which one observer classified as “intensified Roman.” He was a tall, hale man, a heavy drinker but withal an ardent Catholic; he carried a crucifix on his watch chain and a rosary in his pocket, and he so delighted in small-hours religious discussions that he sometimes kept his staff up half the night debating such fine points as the distinction between profanity, which he freely employed, and blasphemy, which he eschewed. One such discussion achieved marathon proportions, going on for ten nights running, and though this was hard on the staff men, who missed their sleep, Rosecrans considered the problem solved beforehand by the fact that, like himself, they were all blond; “sandy fellows,” he remarked upon occasion, were “quick and sharp,” and, being more industrious by nature than brunets, required less rest—although he, for his own part, often slept till noon on the day following one of the all-night sessions devoted to eschatology or the question of how many angels could stand tiptoe on a pinpoint. Like Bardolph, whom he so much resembled in physiognomy, he could swing rapidly from gloom to equanimity or from abusiveness to affability. The bristly reply to Halleck was characteristic, for he would often flare up on short notice; but he was likely to calm down just as fast. All of a sudden, on the heels of an outburst of temper, he would be all smiles and congeniality, stroking and cajoling the very man he had been reviling a moment past, and if this was sometimes confusing to those around him, it was also a rather welcome relief from the dour and noncommittal Buell. Rosecrans was forty-three, two years younger than his present opponent Bragg, who had graduated five years ahead of him at West Point, where each had stood fifth in his class. Sometimes he seemed older than his years, sometimes not, depending on his mood, but in general he was liked and even admired, especially by the volunteers, who found him approachable and amusing. For instance, he would stroll through the camps after lights-out, and if he saw a lamp still burning in one of the tents he would whack on the canvas with the flat of his sword. The response, if not blasphemous, would at any rate be profane and abusive. Prompt to apologize when they saw the red-nosed face of their general appear through the tent flap, the soldiers would explain that they had thought he was some rowdy prowling around in the dark. He took it well, including the muffled laughter that followed the extinguishing of the lamp on his departure, and the result was a steady growth of affection between him and the men of the army which Halleck was protesting he was slow to commit to battle.
That army’s present over-all strength was 81,729 effectives, divided like Grant’s into Left Wing, Center, and Right Wing, commanded respectively by Major Generals T. L. Crittenden, George Thomas, and Alexander McCook, all veterans of the bloody October fight at Perryville, Kentucky, under Buell. By mid-December—Halleck having more or less apologized for the previous nudgings by explaining that they had not been intended as “threats of removal or the like,” but merely as expressions of the President’s “great anxiety” over the fact that, Middle Tennessee being the Confederacy’s only late-summer gain which had not been erased, pro-Southern members of the British parliament, scheduled to convene in January, might find in this apparent stalemate persuasive arguments for the intervention France was already urging—Rosecrans became more optimistic, despite the drouth which kept the Cumberland River too shallow for it to serve as a dependable supply line. “Things will be ripe soon,” he assured his nervous superiors on the 15th, and followed this dispatch with another, put on the wire within an hour: “Rebel troops say they will fight us.… Cumberland still very low; rain threatens; will be ready in a few days.”
The few days stretched on to Christmas, and still he had not moved. By then, however, he had received encouraging reports from scouts and spies beyond the rebel lines. In the first place, Morgan and Forrest were on the prowl, and though normally this would have been considered alarming information, in this case it was not so, for the former was now so far in his rear as not to be able to interfere with any immediate action south or east of Nashville, while the latter was clean outside his department. Whatever harm they might do in Kentucky and West Tennessee (which, as it turned out, was considerable) Rosecrans could wish them Godspeed, so long as they kept their backs in his direction. Moreover, he had learned of the visit to Murfreesboro by Jefferson Davis and the subsequent detachment of one of Bragg’s six divisions to Pemberton. Now if ever was the time to strike, and the Union commander was ready. Orders went out Christmas Day for the advance to begin next morning in three columns: Crittenden on the left, marching down the Murfreesboro turnpike through La Vergne and paralleling the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad; McCook in the middle, crosscountry through Nolensville; Thomas on the right, due south through Brentwood, then eastward across McCook’s rear to take his rightful position in the center. Each of the three “wings” was well below its normal three-divisional strength because of guard detachments. Thomas, for example, had left a whole division on garrison duty at Nashville, in case Morgan or Forrest turned back or some other pack of raiders struck in that direction while the main body was attending to Bragg, and Crittenden and McCook were almost equally reduced by piecemeal detachments on similar duty elsewhere along the lines of supply and communication. The result was that Rosecrans had barely 44,000 troops in his three columns—Crittenden 14,500, Thomas—13,500, McCook 16,000—or only a little more than half of his total effective strength. But he was not ruffled by this reduction of the numerical odds in his favor; he knew that he was still a good deal stronger than his opponent. What was more, his deliberate preparations had paid off. Not only would he be free of the necessity to “stop and tinker” for lack of engineering equipment; he had within reach “the essentials of ammunition and twenty days’ rations.” Thus he had notified Washington on Christmas Eve, while planning the movement of his eight attack divisions, and he added in regard to the enemy, thirty miles southeastward down the pike: “If they meet us, we shall fight tomorrow; if they wait for us, next day.”
It was neither “tomorrow” nor the “next day”—which was in fact the day he actually got started. Nor was it the day after that, or the day after that, or even the day after that. Still, Rosecrans was not unduly perturbed. Delay had already gained him much, including the loss by the Confederates of one infantry division and two brigades of cavalry; further delay might gain him more. Such was not the case, as it turned out, but what fretted him most just now was the slashing efficiency of the cavalry retained by Bragg, which cost the advancing Federals portions of their wagon train, as well as isolated detachments of their own horsemen assigned to protect the flanks and rear of the main body, slogging forward in three columns. As these drew near Murfreesboro on the 29th and 30th, consolidating at last to form a continuous line of battle along the west bank of the south fork of Stones River, two miles short of the town, they began to encounter infantry resistance, spasmodic at first and then determined, which seemed to promise fulfillment of the vow Rosecrans had passed along to Halleck two weeks before: “Rebel troops say they will fight us.” However, he had followed this with a vow of his own, which he also believed was moving toward fulfillment: “If we beat them, I shall try to drive them to the wall.”
Bragg had 37,713 effectives, well under half as many as his opponent, but he had them all at hand, with the result that the attackers were only about fifteen percent stronger than the defenders. Not that he considered himself committed to the tactical defensive. If the opportunity arose he intended to hit Rosecrans first, and hard. By way of preparation, however, he wanted him within reach, and therefore he gave his outpost commanders instructions to offer the advancing blue columns no more than a token resistance. “General Bragg sent us word not to fight them too much, but to let them come on,” one gray cavalryman afterwards recalled.
In the course of the four-day Federal approach march—which was impeded, but not “too much,” by the nearly 4000 troopers under Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler—Bragg assembled his 34,000 infantry at Murfreesboro, the center of the wide arc along which his five divisions had been disposed so as to cover the roads out of Nashville. Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s two-division corps was there already, and Lieutenant General William J. Hardee’s came in on December 28 from Triune, fifteen miles west. With the arrival next day of Major General John McCown’s division from Readyville, a dozen miles east, the concentration was complete, and the army formed for combat astride Stones River, which was fordable at practically all points because of the drouth. Hardee was on the right, northwest of the town and with a bend of the river to his front; Polk was on the left, due west of the town and with another bend of the river to his rear; McCown was in reserve behind the center, which was pierced by the Nashville turnpike and the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, pointing arrow-straight in the direction from which Rosecrans was expected. Except for Wheeler’s horsemen, who, now that the consolidation of the infantry had been effected with time to spare, were turned loose with a vengeance on the flanks and rear of the still approaching Federals, the Confederates settled down to wait for the opening of the battle everyone knew was about to be fought.
Many of them—particularly the officers, whose opportunities were larger in this respect—were still suffering from the aftereffects of a Christmas which they had celebrated with the fervor of men who knew only too well that the chances were strong that it would be their last. “I felt feeble,” a Georgia lieutenant wrote in his diary the morning after, “but, being anxious to be with my men, reported for duty.” Things had been that way for weeks now. Murfreesboro, a former state capital named for a colonel in the Revolution, was a lively place whose citizens, decidedly pro-rebel no matter which army happened to be in occupation, afforded their gray-clad defenders entertainments and amusements of all kinds, including horse races, balls, whist parties, and midnight gatherings in their parlors. President Davis’s visit, two weeks before, had been the occasion for much rejoicing and pride, but all agreed that the social high point of the season had been the marriage on December 14, the day after the President’s departure, of John Morgan and a local belle. Spirited in her defense of all things southern, when she heard some northern officers disparaging the raider during the Union occupation the previous summer, she told them off so roundly that one of the bluecoats asked her name. “It’s Mattie Ready now,” she said. “But by the grace of God one day I hope to call myself the wife of John Morgan.” Hearing the story, the widower cavalryman came to call on her as soon as the town was again in southern hands, and in due time—for the young lady was apparently as skilled in her brand of tactics as the colonel was in his—they became engaged. Because of the size of the guest list, which included Bragg and his ranking commanders, Morgan’s fellow officers and kinsmen from Kentucky, and a host of civilians invited from round about by the bride’s family, the wedding was held in the courtroom of the Murfreesboro courthouse, Leonidas Polk officiating and wearing over the uniform of a Confederate lieutenant general the vestments of an Episcopal bishop. Thus it was that Mattie Ready, by the grace of God, became Mrs John Hunt Morgan.
Within a week, apparently not content with his exploit at Hartsville earlier that month, the bridegroom was off on what would be known as his Christmas Raid, a twofold celebration of his marriage and the brigadier’s commission recently handed him by the President himself. His goal, assigned by Bragg, was Rosecrans’ supply line, specifically the Louisville & Nashville Railroad north of Bowling Green, with particular attention to be paid to the great trestles at Muldraugh’s Hill. He left Alexandria, thirty miles northeast of Murfreesboro, on December 21 with 2500 horsemen, crossed the Cumberland the following day, and re-entered his home state the day after that. Passing through Glasgow on the 24th, he forded the Green on Christmas Day, skirmishing as he went and taking prisoners by the hundreds, and struck suddenly north of Munfordville to lay siege to the Federal garrison at Elizabethtown, which surrendered on the 27th, opening the way to Muldraugh’s Hill, where the garrison also surrendered. After burning the trestles, enormous structures five hundred feet long and eighty feet tall, he continued east through Bardstown to Springfield, then turned south, skirting heavily garrisoned Lebanon and fighting off pursuers for a getaway through Campbellsville, Columbia, and Burkesville, to reach Smithville, Tennessee, on January 5, fifteen miles southeast of his starting point at Alexandria. In two weeks, having covered better than 400 miles, he had fought four engagements and numerous skirmishes. At a total cost of 2 men killed and 24 wounded, plus about 300 stragglers—victims not of enemy guns but of the weather, which was bitter, and of confiscated bourbon—he had destroyed the vital railroad trestles and four important bridges, along with an estimated $2,000,000 in Union stores, and had torn up more than twenty miles of L&N track, while capturing and paroling 1887 enemy soldiers.
Joe Wheeler, West Point ’59, was not to be outdone by Morgan or Forrest, who were his subordinates as a result of Bragg’s appointment of the twenty-six-year-old Georgian as commander of all the cavalry in the Army of Tennessee. Unleashed on the night of December 29, after screening the concentration of the gray infantry in his rear and delaying the advance of the blue columns to his front, he rode north on the Lebanon pike with 2000 troopers, then swung west to Jefferson, where he attacked a brigade of infantry on the march and gobbled up a 20-wagon segment of Crittenden’s supply train. At La Vergne by noon, halfway to Nashville and well in the Union rear, he captured and burned McCook’s whole train of 300 wagons, packed with stores valued by Wheeler at “many hundred thousands of dollars,” and paroled 700 prisoners, including the teamsters and their escort. “The turnpike, as far as the eye could reach, was filled with burning wagons,” a Federal officer reported when he rode through the town next morning and surveyed the ruin the graybacks left behind. “The country was overspread with disarmed men [and] broken-down horses and mules. The streets were covered with empty valises and trunks, knapsacks, broken guns, and all the indescribable débris of a captured and rifled army train.” Wheeler and his horsemen were over the southwest horizon by then, having taken two more trains, one at Rock Spring and another at Nolensville. Beyond there, more prisoners were paroled while the weary raiders snatched a few hours’ sleep before swinging back into their saddles and heading east for Murfreesboro to rejoin the infantry drawn up along Stones River. Completing his two-day circuit of Rosecrans—in the course of which he had captured more than a thousand men, destroyed all or parts of four wagon trains, brought off enough rifles and carbines to arm a brigade, remounted all of his troopers who needed fresh horses, and left a train of devastation along both flanks and around the rear of the entire Union army—Wheeler made contact with Bragg’s left at 2 a.m. on the last day of the year, in time for a share in the battle which was now about to open.
A certain amount of reshuffling had occurred during his absence. Rosecrans, coming forward with his main body on the 30th while Wheeler was clawing at his flanks and rear, put his three corps in line, left to right, Crittenden and Thomas and McCook, the first opposite Hardee, the second opposite Polk, and the third—the largest of the three—opposite nothing more than a thin line of skirmishers extending the rebel left. Because of skillful screening by the gray cavalry during the approach march, the Federal commander was not aware of the opportunity he had created for a lunge straight into Murfreesboro around the Confederate flank; but Bragg was, and he moved at once to correct his dispositions, shifting McCown’s reserve division from its post behind the center to a position on Polk’s left, extending his line of battle southward to meet the threat. Rosecrans meanwhile was planning and issuing orders for an attack. His intention was to execute a right wheel, sending Crittenden forward on the north, with instructions to pivot on the left of Thomas, who would also move forward in sequence to assist in the capture of the town, cutting the rebels off from their supplies and setting them up for annihilation. McCook was thus to serve as anchor man. “If the enemy attacks you,” Rosecrans told him, “fall back slowly, refusing your right, contesting the ground inch by inch. If the enemy does not attack you, you will attack him, not vigorously but warmly.” As an added piece of deception, McCook was ordered about 6 p.m. to build a line of fires beyond his right, simulating a prolongation of his line so as to draw Bragg’s attention away from the main effort at the far end of the field.
The southern commander was indeed deceived, and quite as thoroughly as Rosecrans had intended, but his reaction was something different from what the northern commander had hoped for. Or, rather, it was what he had hoped for, only more so. When Bragg observed the fires and heard sounds of movement on the Federal right, not only did he take the bait, but he proceeded, so to speak, to run away with it. Devising an offensive of his own to meet what he conceived to be a new threat to his left, he instructed Hardee, whose two divisions were under Major Generals John C. Breckinridge and Patrick R. Cleburne, to leave the former posted where it was, guarding the river crossings on the right, and move the latter southward to a position in support of McCown, who had been shifted earlier that day. Hardee himself was to come along, moreover, and take command of these two divisions on the left for a slashing assault on the Federals seemingly massed in that direction. Bragg’s plans called for a right wheel by both corps on the west bank of Stones River, with the pivot on Polk’s right division near the Nashville pike, the brigades attacking in rapid sequence from left to right, obliquing northward as they advanced, in order to throw the bluecoats back against the stretch of river whose crossings were covered by Breckinridge’s guns and infantry.
Just before tattoo, while this additional shift was being completed under cover of darkness and orders were going out for the assault next morning, the military bands of both armies began to play their respective favorite tunes. Carrying sweet and clear on the windless wintry air, the music of any one band was about as audible on one side of the line as on the other, and the concert thus became something of a contest, a musical bombardment. “Dixie” answered the taunting “Yankee Doodle”; “Hail Columbia” followed “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Finally, though, one group of musicians began to play the familiar “Home Sweet Home,” and one by one the others took it up, until at last all the bands of both armies were playing the song. Soldiers on both sides of the battle line began to sing the words, swelling the chorus east and west, North and South. As it died away on the final line—“There’s no-o place like home”—the words caught in the throats of men, who, bluecoat and butternut alike, would be killing each other tomorrow in what already gave promise of being one of the bloodiest battles in that fratricidal war.
As at First Manassas, a year and a half ago, both commanders had identical plans of battle: in this case, an advance on the left to strike the enemy right. Here as there, if they had moved simultaneously, the two armies might have grappled and swung round and round, like a pair of dancers clutching each other and twirling to the accompaniment of cannon. So it might have been, but it was not. For one thing, the lines were closer together on the south than on the north, and there was no natural obstacle such as the river to delay the Confederate attack in its initial stages. For another, with his usual attention to preparatory matters, Rosecrans had told his generals to advance as soon as possible after breakfast; whereas Bragg, with less concern for the creature comforts, had called for a dawn assault, and that was what he got.
McCown went forward in the steely twilight before sunrise, Cleburne following 400 yards behind. Between them they had 10,000 men and McCook had 16,000, but the latter were still preparing breakfast when the rebel skirmishers, preceding a long gray double line of infantry extending left and right, shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye could reach, broke through the cedar thickets and bore down on them, yelling. Coming as it did, with all the advantage of surprise, the charge was well-nigh irresistible. A Tennessee private later recalled that his brigade, in the front rank of the attackers, “swooped down on those Yankees like a whirl-a-gust of woodpeckers in a hail storm.” The fact was, in this opening phase, everything went so smoothly for the aggressors that even their mistakes seemed to work to their advantage. When McCown, who had had little combat experience, having been left behind in command of Knoxville during the invasion of Kentucky, drifted wide because he neglected to oblique to the right as instructed, Pat Cleburne, whose soldierly qualities had grown steadily since Shiloh despite the wounds he had taken at Richmond and Perryville, moved neatly forward into the gap without even the need to pause for alignment. Advancing on this extended front the two divisions swept everything before them, their captures including several front-line batteries taken before the cannoneers could leap to their posts and get a round off. Such knots of bluecoats as managed to form for individual resistance in clumps of cedar or behind outcroppings of rock, finding themselves suddenly outflanked on the left or right, cried as they had cried under Buell twelve weeks before: “We are sold! Sold again!” and broke for the rear, discarding their weapons as they ran.
McCook’s three divisions, on line from right to left under Brigadier Generals R. W. Johnson, Jefferson Davis, and Philip Sheridan, caught the full force of the initial assault. Johnson and Davis were under personal clouds, the former because he had been captured by Morgan early that month and exchanged on the eve of battle, the latter because of his assassination of Major General William Nelson in a Lousiville hotel lobby back in September; but they had little chance to earn redemption here. Johnson’s division, on the far right of the army, practically disintegrated on contact, losing within the opening half-hour more than half its members by sudden death, injury, or capture. Davis, next in line, fared scarcely better, though most of his men at least had time to put up a show of resistance before falling back, dribbling skulkers as they went. That left Sheridan. As pugnacious here as he had been at Perryville, where he first attracted general attention, the bandy-legged, bullet-headed Ohioan was determined to yield no ground except under direct pressure, and only then when that pressure buckled his knees. “Square-shouldered, muscular, wiry to the last degree, and as nearly insensible to hardship and fatigue as is consistent with humanity”—thus a staff man saw him here, on the eve of his thirty-second birthday—he rode his lines, calling on his men to stand firm while the storm of battle drew nearer, then broke in fury against his front.
Polk’s corps, with its two divisions under Major Generals J. M. Withers and Benjamin Cheatham, had taken up the assault by now, and it was Withers who struck Sheridan first—and suffered the first Confederate repulse. The Federals were in a position described by one of its defenders as “a confused mass of rock, lying in slabs, and boulders interspersed with holes, fissures, and caverns which would have made progress over it extremely difficult even if there had been no timber.” But there was timber, a thick tangle of cedars whose trunks “ran straight up into the air so near together that the sunlight was obscured.” Fighting here, with all that was happening on the right or left hidden from them “except as we could gather it from the portentous avalanches of sound which assailed us from every direction,” Sheridan’s men repulsed three separate charges by Withers. Then Cheatham came up. A veteran of Mexico and all the army’s battles since Belmont, where he had saved the day, Cheatham was forty-two, a native Tennessean, and had earned the distinction of being the most profane man in the Army of Tennessee, despite the disadvantage in this respect of having as his corps commander the distinguished and watchful Bishop of Louisiana. “Give ’em hell, boys!” he shouted as he led his division forward. Polk, who was riding beside him, approved of the intention if not of the unchurchly language. “Give them what General Cheatham says, boys!” he cried. “Give them what General Cheatham says!”
That was what they gave them, though they received in return a goodly measure of the same. Sheridan, down to his last three rounds and having lost the first of his three brigade commanders, his West Point classmate Brigadier General Joshua Sill—he would lose the other two before the day was over—fell back under knee-buckling pressure from Cheatham in front and Cleburne on the flank, abandoning eight guns in the thicket for lack of horses to draw them off. He then replenished his ammunition and took a position back near the Nashville turnpike, facing south and east alongside Brigadier General J. S. Negley’s division, one of the two belonging to Thomas, who had been forced to give ground during the struggle. It was now about 10 o’clock; Bragg’s initial objectives had been attained, along with the capture of 28 guns and no less than 3000 soldiers. The enemy right had been driven three miles and the center had also given way, until now the Union line of battle resembled a half-closed jackknife, most of it being at right angles to its original position. Bragg was about to open the second phase, intending to break the knife at the critical juncture of blade and handle; after which would come the third phase, the mop-up.
Rosecrans meanwhile had used to good advantage the interlude afforded him by Sheridan’s resistance, though it was not until the battle had been raging for more than an hour that he realized he was face to face with probable disaster. For some time, indeed, having joined Crittenden on the left so as to supervise the opening attack, he assumed that what was occurring on the right—the uproar being considerably diminished by distance and acoustical peculiarities—was in accordance with his instructions to McCook, whereby Bragg had been deceived into stripping the flank about to be assaulted, in order to bolster the flank beyond which the untended campfires had been kindled the night before. One of Crittenden’s divisions was already crossing Stones River, and he was preparing to follow with the other two. Not even the arrival of a courier from McCook, informing Rosecrans that he was being assailed and needed reinforcements, changed the Federal commander’s belief in this regard.
“Tell General McCook to contest every inch of ground,” he told the courier, repeating his previous instructions. “If he holds them we will swing into Murfreesboro with our left and cut them off.” To his staff he added, with apparent satisfaction: “It’s working right.”
Discovering presently, however, that it was “working” not for him but for Bragg, who was using his own battle plan against him and had got the jump in the process—with the result that McCook, far from being able to conduct an inch-by-inch defense, had lost control of two of his three divisions before he was able to conduct a defense that was even mile-by-mile—Rosecrans reacted fast. To one observer he seemed “profoundly moved,” but that was putting it rather mildly. Even his florid nose “had paled and lost its ruddy luster,” the officer added, the glow apparently having been transferred to his eyes, which “blazed with sullen fire.” Canceling the advance on the left, he told Crittenden to send the two uncrossed divisions of Brigadier Generals John Palmer and Thomas Wood to reinforce the frazzled right. Brigadier General Horatio Van Cleve’s division was to be recalled from the opposite bank of the river and sent without delay after the others, except for one brigade which would be left to guard against a crossing, in case the rebels tried to follow up the withdrawal in this quarter. Crittenden passed the word at once, and: “Goodbye, General,” Wood replied as he set out in the direction of the uproar, which now was swelling louder as it drew nearer. “We’ll all meet at the hatter’s, as one coon said to another when the dogs were after them.”
Rosecrans had no time for jokes. His exclusive concern just now was the salvation of his army, and it seemed to him that there was only one way for this to be accomplished. “This battle must be won,” he said. He intended to see personally to all the dispositions, especially on the crumbling right, but first he needed a feeling of security on the left—if for no other purpose than to be able to forget it. Accordingly, accompanied by his chief of staff, he rode to the riverbank position of the one brigade Van Cleve had left behind to prevent a rebel crossing, and inquired who commanded.
“I do, sir,” a colonel said, stepping forward. He was Samuel W. Price, a Union-loyal Kentuckian.
“Will you hold this ford?” Rosecrans asked him.
“I will try, sir,” Price replied.
Unsatisfied, Rosecrans repeated: “Will you hold this ford?”
“I will die right here,” the colonel answered stoutly.
Still unsatisfied, for he was less interested in the Kentuckian’s willingness to lay down his life than he was in his ability to prevent a rebel crossing, the general pressed the question a third time: “Will you hold this ford?”
“Yes, sir,” Price said.
“That will do,” Rosecrans snapped, and having at last got the answer he wanted, turned his horse and galloped off.
As he drew near the tumult of battle, which by now was approaching the turnpike on the right, he received another shock in the form of a cannonball which, narrowly missing him, tore off the head of his chief of staff, riding beside him, and so bespattered Rosecrans that whoever saw him afterwards that morning assumed at first sight that he was badly wounded. “Oh, no,” he would say, in response to expressions of concern. “That is the blood of poor Garesché.” However, this did nothing to restrict or slow his movements; he would not even pause to change his coat. “At no one time, and I rode with him during most of the day,” a signal officer afterwards reported, “do I remember of his having been one half-hour at the same place.” To Crittenden, whose troops he was using as a reserve in order to shore up the line along the turnpike, he “seemed ubiquitous,” and to another observer he appeared “as firm as iron and fixed as fate” as he moved about the field, rallying panicked men and hoicking them into line. “This battle must be won,” he kept repeating.
Arriving in time to meet Sheridan, who had just been driven back, he directed him to refill his cartridge boxes from the ammunition train and to fall in alongside Negley and Major General Lovell Rousseau, commanding Thomas’s other division. As a result of such stopgap improvisations, adopted amid the confusion of retreat, there was much intermingling of units and a resultant loss of control by division and corps commanders. Some of Crittenden’s brigades were on the right with McCook, who had set up a straggler line along which he was doing what he could to rally the remnants of Johnson and Davis, and some of McCook’s brigades were on the left with Crittenden, who was nervously making his dispositions on unfamiliar ground. Between them, with his two divisions consolidated and supported by Van Cleve, George Thomas was calm as always, whatever the panic all around him. Where his left joined Crittenden’s right there was a salient, marking the point where the half-closed knife blade joined the handle, and within this angle, just east of the pike and on both sides of the railroad, there was a slight elevation inclosed by a circular four-acre clump of cedars, not unlike the one Sheridan had successfully defended against three separate all-out rebel assaults that morning. Known locally as the Round Forest, this tree-choked patch of rocky earth was presently dubbed “Hell’s Half-Acre” by the soldiers; for it was here that Bragg seemed most determined to score a breakthrough, despite the heavy concentration of artillery of all calibers which Rosecrans had massed on the high ground directly in its rear.
He struck first, and hard, with a brigade of Mississippians from Withers. They surged forward across fields of unpicked cotton, yelling as they had yelled at Shiloh, where they had been the farthest to advance, and were staggered by rapid-fire volleys from fifty guns ranked hub to hub on the high ground just beyond the clump of dark-green trees. At that point-blank range, one cannoneer remarked, the Federal batteries “could not fire amiss.” Deafened by the uproar, the Confederates plucked cotton from the fallen bolls and stuffed it in their ears. Still they came on—to be met, halfway across, by sheets of musketry from the blue infantry close-packed under cover of the cedars; whereupon, some regiments having lost as many as half a dozen color-bearers, the Mississippians wavered and fell back, leaving a third of their number dead or wounded in the furrows or lying crosswise to the blasted rows. Next to try it, about noon, was a Tennessee brigade from Cheatham, which lately had helped throw Sheridan out of a similar position. They charged through the rattling dry brown stalks, yelling with all the frenzy of those who had come this way before, but with no better luck. They too were repulsed, and with even crueler losses. More than half of the men of the 16th Tennessee were casualties, while the 8th Tennessee lost 306 out of the 424 who had started across the fields in an attempt to drive the bluecoats out of the Round Forest.
Bragg was by no means resigned, as yet, to the fact that this could not be done. Though he had no reserves at hand—McCown and Cleburne were still winded from their long advance, around and over the original Federal right, and Withers and Cheatham had just been fought to a frazzle by the newly established left—the five-brigade division of Breckinridge, the largest in the army, was still posted beyond the river, having contributed nothing to the victory up to this point except the shells its batteries had been throwing from an east-bank hill which the former Vice President had been instructed to hold at all costs, as “the key to the position.” So far, he had had no trouble doing this, despite an early-morning cavalry warning that a large body of enemy troops had crossed the river well upstream and was headed in his direction. This was of course Van Cleve’s division, whose advance had been spotted promptly, but whose subsequent withdrawal had gone unnoticed or at any rate unreported; so that when Bragg’s order came, about 1 o’clock, for him to leave one brigade to guard the right while he marched to the support of Polk and Hardee with the other four, Breckinridge was alarmed and sent back word that it was he who needed reinforcements; the enemy, in heavy force, was moving upon him even now, intending to challenge his hold on “the key to the position.” Bragg’s reply was a peremptory repetition of the order, which left the Kentuckian no choice except to obey. He sent two brigades at 2 o’clock, and followed with the other two himself, about an hour later.
That way, they came up piecemeal, and piecemeal they were fed into the hopper. The Federals, allowed an hour or more in which to improve their dispositions in the Round Forest and replenish the ammunition for the guns posted just behind it, caught the third wave of attackers much as they had caught the first and second, naked in the open fields, with devastating effect. Here again there was no lack of valor. One defender said of the charge that it was “without doubt the most daring, courageous, and best-executed attack which the Confederates made on our line between pike and river.” But it broke in blood, as the others had done, and the survivors fell back across the fields, leaving their dead and wounded behind with the dead and wounded Tennesseans and Mississippians. Again there was a lull, until about 4 o’clock, when the last two brigades arrived from Breckinridge and the fourth gray wave rolled out across the fields of cotton.
“The battle had hushed,” a Union brigadier reported, “and the dreadful splendor of this advance can only be conceived, as all descriptions must fall vastly short.” While the attackers moved forward, “steadily, and, as it seemed, to certain victory,” he added, “I sent back all my remaining staff successively to ask for support, and braced up my own lines as perfectly as possible.” The bracing served its purpose; for though the defenders suffered heavily, too—it was here that Sheridan lost the third of his three brigade commanders—the charge was repulsed quite as decisively as the others. The sun went down at 4.30 and the racket died away. After eleven hours of uproar, a mutual hush fell over the glades and copses, and the brief winter twilight faded into the darkness before moonrise.
Bragg’s losses had been heavy—about 9000—but he had reason to believe that the enemy’s, which included several thousand prisoners, had been much heavier. Moreover, in thus reversing the usual casualty ratio between attacker and defender, he had not only foiled the attempt to throw him out of his position covering Murfreesboro and Chattanooga; he had overrun the original Union position at every point where he had applied pressure, driving major portions of the blue line as far as three miles backward and taking guns and colors in abundance as he went. By all the logic of war, despite their stubborn stand that afternoon in the Round Forest, the Federals were whipped, and now they would have to accept the consequences. As Bragg saw it, they had little choice in this respect. They could stay and suffer further reverses, amounting in the end to annihilation; or they could retreat, hoping to find sanctuary in the Nashville intrenchments. Perhaps because it was the one he himself would have chosen, he believed the latter course to be the one Rosecrans was most likely to adopt. At any rate, this opinion seemed presently to have been confirmed by the arrival of outpost reports informing him that long lines of wagons had been heard rumbling through the darkness behind the Union lines and along the Nashville pike. Elated by this apparent chance to catch the northern army strung out on the roads and ripe for slaughter, Bragg prepared to follow in the morning. Proudly reviewing today’s accomplishments while anticipating tomorrow’s, he got off a wire to Richmond before he went to bed: “The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. We occupy whole field and shall follow him.… God has granted us a happy New Year.”
He was mistaken, at least in part. The rumble of wagons, northwestward along the turnpike, had not signified an attempt on the part of the Federal commander to save his trains before the commencement of a general retreat, but rather was the sound made by a long cavalcade of wounded—part of today’s total of about 12,000 Union casualties—being taken back to the Tennessee capital for treatment in the military hospitals established there as another example of foresight and careful preparation. Not that Rosecrans had given no thought to a withdrawal. He had indeed. In fact, in an attempt to make up his mind as to the wisdom of retreating, he was holding a council of war to debate the matter and share the responsibility of the decision, even as Bragg was composing his victory message. It was a stormy night, rain beating hard on the roof of the cabin which Rosecrans had selected the day before as his headquarters beside the Nashville pike, never suspecting that the battle line would be drawn today practically on its doorstep. All three of his corps commanders were present, along with a number of their subordinates, and all presented a rather bedraggled aspect, “battered as to hats, tousled as to hair, torn as to clothes, and depressed as to spirits.” An adjutant in attendance described them thus, and added: “If there was a cheerful-expressioned face present I did not see it.”
After a long silence, broken only by the drumming of rain on shingles, Rosecrans began the questioning, addressing the several generals in turn, clockwise as they sat about the room. “General McCook, have you any suggestions for tomorrow?” Smooth-shaven and round-faced, the thirty-one-year-old McCook was somewhat more subdued tonight than he had been on the night after Perryville—where, as here, his had been the corps that was surprised and routed—but he showed by his reply that at least a part of his rollicking nature still remained. “No,” he said. “Only I would like for Bragg to pay me for my two horses lost today.” Others were gloomier and more forthright, advising retreat as the army’s best way out its predicament. Characteristically, George Thomas had fallen asleep in his chair before the discussion got well under way. When the word “retreat” came through to him, he opened his eyes. “This army doesn’t retreat,” he muttered, and fell back into the sleep he had emerged from. The discussion thus interrupted was resumed, but it led to no clear-cut decision before the council broke up and the commanders returned to their units. Except for incidental tactical adjustments, specifically authorized from above, they would hold their present positions through tomorrow, unless they received alternate instructions before dawn.
Still undecided, Rosecrans rode out for a midnight inspection of his lines, in the course of which he looked out across the fields and saw an alarming sight. On the far side of Overall’s Creek, which crossed the turnpike at right angles and covered his right flank and rear, firebrands were moving in the night. The explanation was actually simple: Federal cavalrymen, suffering from the cold, had disobeyed orders against kindling fires and were carrying brands from point to point along the outpost line: but Rosecrans, never suspecting that his orders would be flaunted in this fashion, assumed that they were rebels. “They have got entirely in our rear,” he said, “and are forming line of battle by torchlight!” With retreat no longer even a possibility, let alone an alternative—or so at any rate he thought—he returned at once to army headquarters and, adopting the dramatic phraseology of the Kentucky colonel which he had rejected that morning beside the upper Stones River ford, sent word for his subordinates to “prepare to fight or die.”
Except for the surgeons and the men they worked on, blue and gray, whose screams broke through the singing of the bone saws, both sides were bedded down by now amid the wreckage and the corpses, preparing to sleep out as best they could the last night of the year. Simultaneously, from a balcony of the Mobile Battle House, Jefferson Davis lifted the hearts of his listeners with a review of recent Confederate successes, unaware that even as he spoke the list was about to be lengthened by John Magruder, whose two-boat navy of cotton-clads was steaming down Buffalo Bayou to recapture Galveston. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia still occupied the field of its two-weeks-old long-odds victory on the southwest bank of the Rappahannock, and the Federal invaders from coastal North Carolina were back beneath the shelter of their siege guns, licking the wounds they had suffered in their repulse along the Neuse. In North Mississippi, where Van Dorn was resting his troopers after their exploits in Holly Springs and beyond the Tennessee line, Grant was in retreat on Memphis, while Sherman, three hundred winding miles downriver, was counting his casualties under Chickasaw Bluff and preparing to give it one more try before falling back down the Yazoo to meet the general whose army he had kidnaped and depleted to no avail. Forrest and Morgan, the former moving east from Parker’s Crossroads, the latter riding south through Campbellsville, both having eluded their pursuers, were returning in triumph from disruptive raids on their respective home regions in West Tennessee and Kentucky. In all these scattered theaters, where so recently the Confederacy had seemed at best to be approaching near-certain disaster, fortune had smiled on southern arms; yet nowhere did her smile seem broader than here, southeast of Nashville and northwest of vital Chattanooga, where Bragg with such alacrity had snatched up the gage flung down by Rosecrans and struck him smartly with it, first on the flank, a smashing blow, and then between the eyes. Now both rested from their injuries and exertions. Wrapped in their blankets, those who had them, the soldiers of both armies huddled close to fires they had kindled against orders. The waxing moon set early and the wind veered and blew coldly from the north; the screams of the wounded died away with the singing of the bone saws. Unlike the night before, on the eve of carnage, there were no serenades tonight, no mingled choruses of “Home Sweet Home,” for even the bandsmen had fought in this savage battle, and expected to have to fight again tomorrow, bringing in the new year as they had ushered out the old.
So they thought; but they were wrong, at least so far as the schedule was concerned. Though there were tentative skirmishes, fitful exchanges of artillery fire, and some readjustment of the tactical dispositions on both sides, New Year’s Day saw nothing like the carnival of death that had been staged on New Year’s Eve. In point of fact, the two armies were rather like two great jungle cats who, having fought to mutual exhaustion, were content—aside, that is, from the more or less secret hope on the part of each that the other would slink away—to eye one another balefully, limiting their actions to licking their wounds and emitting only occasional growls and rumbles, while storing up strength to resume the mortal contest.
Considerably surprised, in the light of last night’s cavalry reports of a withdrawal, to find the enemy not only still there, but still there in line of battle, Bragg sent Polk forward about midmorning to discover what effect a prod would have. He soon found out. Though the troops moved unopposed into the Round Forest, which Rosecrans had ordered evacuated so as to straighten out his line, and which in turn gave validity to the bishop’s subsequent claim that “the opening of the new year found us masters of the field,” Polk encountered resistance just beyond it too stiff to permit his men to emerge from the woods on the far side. All he had gained for his pains were more blue corpses, along with the unwelcome task of digging their graves in order to rid his nostrils of their stench. Likewise, on the Union left, Rosecrans advanced Van Cleve’s division—now under Colonel Samuel Beatty; Van Cleve had caught a bullet in the leg—beyond Stones River, retracing the route it had taken the previous morning by moving today into the vacuum created by the withdrawal of Breckinridge the afternoon before, and occupied a hill overlooking the ford. These were the only major readadjustments, North or South, though the Federals were reinforced by a brigade arrived from Nashville, accompanied as one officer said by “an army of stragglers” picked up along the pike. For the most part, the soldiers on both sides roved the field, looking for fallen comrades among the wounded and the slain. The search for food was even more intensive, and for once, as a result of Wheeler’s depredations in the course of his prebattle ride around the Union forces, the Yankees were worse off in this respect than the rebels. One brigade commander later recorded that he made his supper off a piece of raw pork and a few crackers he found in his pocket. No food had ever tasted sweeter, he declared. Even so high-ranking an officer as Crittenden was not exempt from want, but as he went to bed, complaining of hunger pangs, he was delighted to hear his orderly say he could get him “a first-rate beefsteak.” The Kentuckian accepted the offer gladly, and presently, when the promised meal was brought, consumed it with gusto—only to learn next morning that the “beefsteak” had been cut from a horse that had been killed in the battle. “I didn’t know this at the time I ate it,” he afterwards explained, somewhat ruefully.
Day ended; night came down. Although Rosecrans had no apparent notion of resuming the offensive, or indeed any definite plan at all beyond holding onto the ground he had fallen back to, he was pleased to have had this day-long opportunity to consolidate his forces and recover in some measure from the shock to his army and his nervous system. Bragg on the other hand seemed to have no more of a plan than his opponent. Convinced that he had won a victory, he apparently did not know what to do with it beyond setting various details to work collecting the arms and matériel scattered about the field and paroling the thousands of captives he had taken the day before. What he mainly wanted, still, was for the enemy to admit defeat by retreating, and thus substantiate his claim; then he would follow, as he had promised in his wire to Richmond, hoping to catch the blue mass in motion on the pike and tear its flanks and rear, which now were inaccessible to him beyond the guns parked hub to hub behind the long lines of close-spaced bayonets weaving in and out of the cedar brakes and among the gray outcroppings of rock that scarred the landscape. The prospect was altogether grim. After nightfall, however, he was again encouraged by cavalry reports that well-guarded Federal trains were in motion on the roads leading back to Nashville. If this meant what Bragg hoped it did, that the Unionists were finally admitting they were whipped and were preparing to retire, bag and baggage, he would be up and after them tomorrow.
Tomorrow’s dawn showed the prospect unimproved. Whatever might be moving along the rearward roads, the bayonets defining the Union front glinted quite as close-spaced as ever and the guns frowned every bit as grim. In fact, as Bragg conducted a personal inspection of his lines that morning, combining with it a long-range binocular reconnaissance of the enemy position, he began to perceive that, despite his bloodless occupation of the Round Forest, which increased his claim to the honors of the field, it was his own army which was in the graver danger as a result of yesterday’s tactical readjustments. The advance of Van Cleve’s division, which put it in possession of the hill just east of the river, gave him particular concern. Artillery emplaced on that height could fire across the stream and enfilade Polk’s flank if he attempted to advance. With this in mind, Bragg decided the enemy guns must be dislodged. Accordingly he sent for Breckinridge, whose troops had returned to their east-bank position north of Murfreesboro, along a ridge about a mile short of the hill overlooking the ford. When the former Vice President reached army headquarters, under a large sycamore that stood alongside the Nashville pike just west of the wrecked bridge that had spanned Stones River, Bragg told him what he wanted. He was going to resume the offensive by sending Polk forward, he explained. First, though, he wanted Van Cleve’s men flung off the dominant height. This was admittedly a tough assignment, he continued, but to protect the attackers from the added strain of having to repulse a counterattack, he was directing that the movement be made less than an hour before sundown, which would give the Federals no time to reorganize or bring up reinforcements before dark. Then next morning Polk could jump off, not only with his flank secure, but also with the enemy mouse-trapped out of position to his front.
Breckinridge, who was not yet forty-two despite his distinguished prewar career in national politics—a hearty-looking man with a prominent forehead, somewhat bulging eyes, a plump but firm jaw, and the swooping dark mustache of a Sicilian brigand, he was a leading contender among the many candidates for the title of the handsomest general in the southern army—protested at once and for all he was worth. The hill was well-nigh impregnable, he said, and Van Cleve’s division had now been reinforced by two brigades from Palmer; besides which, he added, guns from the main Union line across the river would tear his flank as he advanced, thus exposing his men to the very horror he would be sparing Polk’s if he was successful, which was doubtful. Warming to the subject, he took up a stick and began to draw in the soft dirt a map that emphasized the difficulty of the terrain. Bragg stopped him in mid-sketch. The Kentuckian had delayed the battle two days ago with similar protests which had turned out to be ill-founded, and the army commander was having no more of that. “Sir,” Bragg said curtly, “my information is different. I have given the order to attack the enemy in your front and expect it to be obeyed.”
That was that, and Breckinridge returned to his troops, most of whom were Bluegrass natives like himself, exiles from their homeland since midwinter nearly a year ago; “my poor orphans,” he sometimes called them, jokingly but not without an undertone of sadness and homesickness. Rejoining them he sought out his friend Brigadier General William Preston—now commanding one of his brigades, but formerly chief of staff to his brother-in-law Albert Sidney Johnston, who had died in his arms at Shiloh—to whom he now addressed himself concerning the assignment he had just been given. “General Preston,” he said, speaking formally and with a tone that strangely combined dejection and determination, “this attack is made against my judgment and by the special orders of General Bragg. Of course we all must try to do our duty and fight the best we can. But if it should result in disaster and I be among the slain, I want you to do justice to my memory and tell the people that I believed this attack to be very unwise and tried to prevent it.” And having thus unburdened his mind he ordered his five brigades to form for the assault.
Across the way, Crittenden was inspecting his dispositions along the west bank of Stones River, accompanied by his chief of artillery Captain John Mendenhall, when he looked over the ford near the base of the occupied hill beyond and saw the graybacks forming in heavy columns along the ridge to the south, obviously preparing for a blow at Beatty, who commanded not only Van Cleve’s division but also the two brigades of reinforcements which had joined him that morning. It was now about 3.30; the sun was within an hour of the landline. According to Mendenhall, “The general asked me if I could not do something to relieve Colonel Beatty with my guns.” The Indiana-born West Pointer could indeed, and he moved to do so promptly. Assembling within the next half hour a total of 58 pieces of various calibers, he stationed 37 of these on the crest of a west-bank hill, cradled by a bend of the stream and overlooking the opposite bank, and placed the other 21 along its eastern base for flat-trajectory fire that would catch the rebel columns end-on as they charged across the rolling slopes beyond the river. Then he waited; but not for long.
The five Confederate brigades, with a total effective strength of 4500 men, started down off their sheltering ridge at 4 o’clock, moving steadily across the valley which lay between them and the hill from whose crest Beatty’s cannoneers and riflemen soon took them under fire. As at Baton Rouge five months ago, where they had fought in isolation while the rest of Bragg’s army was preparing to set out for their native Bluegrass, the Kentuckians did not falter as they swung down the long slope of the intervening valley, crossed its floor, and began to climb the other side. Halfway up the face of the hill, taking heavier losses now at closer range, they fired their first volleys and then, beginning to yell, broke into a run for the crest. The bluecoats did not wait for them, but whirled and fled from the threat of contact, and the attackers came on after them, yelling now with shrill screams of triumph as they topped the rise and pursued the defenders down the rearward slope. However, they could not close the gap created by the quick retreat, and this gave Mendenhall the chance he had been waiting for all this time, to shoot at his foes without injuring his friends. At the signal “Fire!” his 58 double-shotted guns began to roar in chorus, flinging more than a hundred rounds a minute against the flank of the butternut mass across the way. “Thinned, reeling, broken under that terrible hail”—thus one reporter described the instantaneous effect—the graybacks milled in confusion, scarcely knowing at first what had struck them. When they saw what it was, they attempted to change front to the left and move against the fuming hill beyond the ford; but to no avail. “The very forest seemed to fall before our fire,” one Federal observer wrote—without exaggeration, for men in the gray ranks were actually crushed under fallen limbs that were torn from the trees by exploding shells when they tried to find shelter in a patch of woods—“and not a Confederate reached the river.” Shattered, they changed front again to the left, of one accord, and ran for the ridge that had marked their line of departure. A Union colonel, watching this sudden turn of events, was the amused witness of a double, simultaneous retreat. “It was difficult to say which was running away the more rapidly,” he later reported, “the division of Van Cleve to the rear, or the enemy in the opposite direction.”
Breckinridge watched his men come stumbling back through the dusk that followed sunset of the brief winter day. They had been gone just seventy minutes in all, and of their number 1700 had fallen: which meant that better than one man out of every three who descended the slope did not return unhurt. As their commander, who had protested the slaughter in advance and done what he could to prevent it, watched them close ranks to fill the gaps as they formed their line behind their own ten guns on the ridge, his eyes filled with tears. “My poor orphans! My poor orphans!” he exclaimed.
The lament for the fallen need not have been limited to the Confederate right, nor indeed to either side of the line of battle; for the overall Federal losses had been even heavier. According to final reports and computations, in two days of conflict—the day-long struggle of the 31st and the sunset repulse on the 2d—only a dozen less than 25,000 casualties had been suffered by the two armies. (Which, incidentally, indicated something of the fury of western fighting. With fewer than half as many troops involved, the butcher bill at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was more than one-third greater than the one presented at Fredericksburg, Virginia, three weeks back.) The South lost 1294 killed, 7945 wounded, and 2500 captured or missing, a total of 11,739. The North lost 1730 killed, 7802 wounded, and 3717 captured or missing, a total of 13,249. The over-all total thus was 24,988: which was to say, and more could scarcely be said, that the battle had been bloodier than Shiloh or Sharpsburg.
At any rate, though neither commander yet recognized the fact, the carnage was over. Polk, who had learned of the sunset assault only just before it was launched, when Bragg came to his headquarters for a better view of the action across the river, had protested almost as vehemently as Breckinridge had done, but with no more success; Bragg’s mind was quite made up. And now that the attack had met with predicted disaster, the blue defenders returned to the abandoned hill in greater strength than ever, reinforced by another whole division. Tactically, all was as it had been before the assault was launched, only more so; Polk would be less able to advance tomorrow than he had been today. Whether the enemy was under a similar disadvantage he did not know, but his two division commanders were not only doubtful that such was the case, they were also doubtful that their troops were in any fit condition to block the way: as was shown by a letter they wrote, shortly after midnight, and sent through channels to Bragg. “We deem it our duty to say to you frankly,” Cheatham and Withers declared, “that, in our judgment, this army should be promptly put in retreat.… We do fear great disaster from the condition of things now existing, and think it should be averted if possible.” Polk added his endorsement to the unusual document: “I greatly fear the consequences of another engagement at this place in the ensuing day. We could now, perhaps, get off with some safety and some credit, if the affair is well managed,” and forwarded it to Bragg. Waked at 2 a.m., the grim-faced commander sat up in bed and read the letter halfway through, then stopped and told the aide who had disturbed his sleep: “Say to the general we shall maintain our position at every hazard.”
When he rose at daylight, however, he began to discover how great that hazard was. Rain was falling steadily and the river was rising fast, threatening to isolate the two wings of his army. Moreover, unlike the previous ones, this morning’s cavalry reports gave no hint of signs in the night that the enemy was considering withdrawal, but rather informed him that another fresh brigade of reinforcements had just arrived on the Union right, accompanying a train of supplies from the Tennessee capital. By now, too, his staff had found time to study the papers captured when McCook’s headquarters were overrun, which indicated an effective strength of nearly 70,000 bluecoats to his front. This gave Bragg pause, and having paused he wavered. At 10 o’clock that morning he sent for Polk and Hardee, who found him in a different frame of mind from the one he had shown eight hours ago, when he was roused out of sleep to read the letter advising retreat. With the enemy heavily reinforced, as he believed and later wrote in his report, “Common prudence and the safety of my army, upon which even the safety of our cause depended, left no doubt on my mind as to the necessity of my withdrawal from so unequal a contest.” The retrograde movement got under way that night, January 3, and was conducted with such skill that not even a rear-guard action was fought with the unsuspecting Federals, who seemed no more anxious to pursue than Bragg had been to stay. He himself went to Winchester, fifty miles southeast, planning to establish a new line along Elk River. Polk was instructed to fall back on Shelbyville, Hardee on Tullahoma, respectively twenty-three and thirty-five miles from Murfreesboro, but when the former reached his goal and reported that the bluecoats had not ventured beyond Stones River, Bragg ordered Hardee to stop at Wartrace, on line with Polk. Returning at once to establish headquarters at Tullahoma, on the railroad about midway between Nashville and Chattanooga, he began to organize a new defensive position along the Duck, whose rich valley offered much in the way of subsistence and adequate camp sites, including level fields for the daily hours of close-order drill in which he placed great store as a disciplinarian.
His pride in his army and its conduct during the battle—which was in a way a coda to the Kentucky excursion, launched soon after he took command at Tupelo, Mississippi, back in June—was expressed in his report, where he listed with satisfaction the capture of 6273 prisoners and enemy colors in abundance, along with 31 cannon and 6000 small arms, as well as “a large amount of other valuable property, all of which was secured and appropriated to proper uses.” Moreover, he declared by way of final proof of moral superiority over his antagonist, “the army retired to its present position behind Duck River without giving or receiving a shot.” Within the ranks of that army, however, though the men agreed that they had won a victory, there were fewer signs of elation. The retreat was made in wretched weather, and as they plodded southward through the mud, alternately drenched with rain and pelted with sleet, bent beneath the weight of their sodden packs, it seemed to them that the Perryville technique—fight; win; fall back—had been repeated. “What does he fight battles for?” they grumbled, beginning to discern a discouraging pattern to their efforts under Bragg. Similarly at home, as one civilian diarist recorded, “It was small surcease to the sob of the widow and the moan of the orphan that ‘the retreat to Tullahoma was conducted in good order.’ ”
Rosecrans, on the other hand—who had not made a single offensive move since the explosive attack on his right wing at dawn of the 31st, who had allowed a foe he claimed was beaten to withdraw from his immediate front without so much as a threat of molestation, and who was so cautious in pursuit that his eventual movement to the east bank of Stones River, from which he had withdrawn on the night of January 3 lest the rising waters expose his troops to destruction in detail, amounted to practically no pursuit at all—was praised not only by those below and above him in the army, but also by the public at large, including the Ohio legislature, which tendered him before the month was out a resolution of thanks “for the glorious victory resulting in the capture of Murfreesboro and the defeat of the rebel forces at that place.” Cheered by his soldiers as he rode among them, he received equally gratifying responses to the dispatches by which he announced his victory to the authorities in Washington. “God bless you, and all of you,” the President replied, and the Secretary of War (who had said of Rosecrans’ appointment at the outset, “Well, you have made your choice of idiots. Now you can await the news of a terrible disaster”) was quite expansive, wiring: “The country is filled with admiration of the gallantry and heroic achievement of yourself and the officers and troops under your command.… There is nothing you can ask within my power to grant to yourself or your noble command that will not be cheerfully given.” Even Halleck, who had prodded and nudged him for weeks beyond endurance, eventually joined the chorus of praise, though not before he had waited a few days for verification in Confederate newspapers smuggled across the border. “Rebel accounts fully confirm your telegrams from the battlefield,” he wired, and added: “You and your brave army have won the gratitude of your country and the admiration of the world.… All honor to the Army of the Cumberland—thanks to the living and tears for the lamented dead.”
Bragg, he knew, was playing a cagey game at Tullahoma (“We shall fight him again at every hazard if he advances, and harass him daily if he does not,” the terrible-tempered general was telling his superiors even now) but Rosecrans was firm in his intentions and had already reverted to the use of vigorous phrases he had been employing two weeks back, on the eve of battle. “We shall press them as rapidly as our means of traveling and subsistence will permit,” he notified Stanton on January 5. Next day, though he was still at Murfreesboro, he boldly repeated words he had used at Nashville in mid-December: “I now wish to press them to the wall.”
When Davis returned to Richmond that same January 5, to be met on the portico of the White House by his wife and their four children—three sons and a daughter, stair-stepped at two-year intervals so that their ages ranged from just past one to almost eight—Mrs Davis, observing that her husband was near exhaustion, insisted that he retire at once to rest from the exertions of his journey. Presently, however, they heard the thump and blare of drums and horns and the cheers of a crowd that had gathered in front of the house to welcome him back with a serenade. Weary though he was, and despite his desire to be alone with his family—“Every sound is the voice of my child and every child renews the memory of a loved one’s appearance,” he had written home from Tennessee, “but none can equal their charms, nor can any compare with my own long-worshipped Winnie”—he felt that he could not ignore the shouts of the crowd or fail to acknowledge the courtesy being tendered.
The cheers were redoubled as the big front door swung ajar once more and the President came out onto the steps. Captain J. B. Smith’s Silver Band played “Listen to the Mocking Bird” and several other airs which the crowd enjoyed while waiting for the speech they had come to hear. Davis did not disappoint them. Carried forward perhaps by a sort of verbal secondary inertia, he spoke as he had been speaking now for more than three weeks, to similar crowds and with similar words, in the course of his nearly three-thousand-mile trip to “the further West” and back.
“I am happy to be welcomed on my return to the capital of the Confederacy—the last hope, as I believe, for the perpetuation of that system of government which our forefathers founded—the asylum of the oppressed, and the home of true representative liberty.” His voice, as he thus began, showed the strain to which it had been exposed, but as usual it gathered strength as he continued, reverting to the deeds of olden days in the Old Dominion, where the earlier Revolution had been proclaimed and, finally, won. Now once more, he told these latter-day Virginians, “anticipating the overthrow of that government which you had inherited, you assumed to yourselves the right, as your fathers had done before you, to declare yourself independent, and nobly have you advocated the assertion which you have made. Here, upon your soil, some of the fiercest battles of the Revolution were fought, and upon your soil it closed by the surrender of Cornwallis. Here again are men of every state; here they have congregated, linked in the defense of a most sacred cause. They have battled, they have bled upon your soil, and it is now consecrated by blood which cries for vengeance against the insensate foe of religion as well as of humanity, of the altar as well as of the hearthstone.” Thus he repeated the bitterness he had voiced in his home state, ten days ago. Nor, with first-hand accounts of the sack of Fredericksburg now added to the list of northern depredations—not the least of them being the recently issued Emancipation Proclamation, which, as he saw it, incited the slaves to the murder of their masters—had that reaction been tempered by second thought. Rather, the bitterness had increased: as he now showed. “It is true,” he told his listeners, “you have a cause which binds you together more firmly than your fathers were. They fought to be free from the usurpations of the British crown, but they fought against a manly foe. You fight against the offscourings of the earth.”
Applauded, he passed on to a brief review of recent Confederate successes in the field, which he predicted would bring discord to northern councils, and then returned to his condemnation, not only of the conduct of the Federal armies of invasion, but also of the men who had sent them South. “Every crime which could characterize the course of demons has marked the course of the invader … from the burning of defenseless towns to the stealing of silver forks and spoons.” In this last he had particular reference to Ben Butler, known as “Beast” Butler and “Spoons” Butler as a result of his alleged brutality and deftness in the exercise of his authority in command of the occupation of New Orleans, and Davis made the charge explicit, asserting that the Massachusetts general had “exerted himself to earn the excoriations of the civilized world, and now returns [to Washington] with his dishonors thick upon him to receive the plaudits of the only people on earth who do not blush to think he wears the human form.… They have come to disturb your social organization on the plea that it is a military necessity. For what are they waging war? They say to preserve the Union. Can they preserve the Union by destroying the social existence of a portion of the South? Do they hope to reconstruct the Union by striking at everything which is dear to man?—by showing themselves so utterly disgraced that if the question was proposed to you whether you would combine with hyenas or Yankees, I trust every Virginian would say: ‘Give me the hyenas.’ ”
“Good! Good!” his listeners cried, and there was laughter. They wanted more along these lines.
But Davis spoke calmly now, as if to refute the charge made by his critics that he was cold in his attitude toward the people, unconcerned for their welfare, and anxious to avoid commingling with them—as if, indeed, he had brought back East from his journey West an increased awareness of the warmth and strength proceeding from contact with those who looked to him for leadership not only as their President but also as a man. “My friends, constant labor in the duties of office, borne down by care, and with an anxiety which has left me scarcely a moment for repose, I have had but little opportunity for social intercourse among you. I thank you for this greeting, and hope the time may come soon when you and I alike, relieved of the anxieties of the hour, may have more of social intercourse than has heretofore existed.” Flushed with confidence as a result of the victories won by the nation’s armies in the course of his trip, he added: “If the war continues we shall only grow stronger and stronger as each year rolls on. Compare our condition today with that which existed one year ago. See the increasing power of the enemy, but mark that our own has been proportionately greater, until we see in the future nothing to disturb the prospect of the independence for which we are struggling. One year ago, many were depressed and some were despondent. Now deep resolve is seen in every eye; an unconquerable spirit nerves every arm. And gentle woman, too; who can estimate the value of her services in this struggle? … With such noble women at home, and such heroic soldiers in the field, we are invincible.”
He waited for the applause to die away, and then concluded his remarks, once more on a personal note. “I thank you, my friends, for the kind salutation tonight; it is an indication that at some future time we shall be better acquainted. I trust we shall all live to enjoy some of the fruits of the struggle in which we are engaged. My prayers are for your individual and collective welfare. May God prosper our cause, and may we live to give to our children untarnished the rich inheritance which our fathers gave us. Good night!”