NEW YEAR’S 1863 WAS FOR ABRAHAM LINCOLN perhaps the single busiest day of his whole presidential life, and it came moreover at dead center of what was perhaps his period of deepest gloom and perplexity of spirit. Not only was there political division within his party, and even within his own official family, but with the possible exception of Rosecrans, whose battle was in mid-career and appeared worse than doubtful, all his hand-picked commanders had failed him utterly, through enemy action or their own inaction, in his hopes for a multifaceted early-winter triumph in which he himself had assigned them the parts they were to play in putting a quick end to rebellion. One by one, sometimes two by two, they had failed him. Burnside and his fellow generals on the Rappahannock, having blundered into defeat at Fredericksburg, were engaged in a frenzy of backbiting such as not even the highly contentious Army of the Potomac had ever known before. Grant, according to the New York Times, remained “stuck in the mud of northern Mississippi, his army of no use to him or anybody else.” Banks, caught in a toil of imported New Orleans cotton speculators, was stymied by a previously unsuspected fort on the Mississippi, two hundred and fifty miles downstream from his assigned objective. And McClernand, from whom the Commander in Chief had perhaps expected most, was apparently the worst off of all. He not only had done nothing with his army; the last Lincoln had heard from him, he could not even find it.
Nor had these and other failures of omission and commission gone unnoticed by the country at large, the voters and investors on whose will and trust the prosecution of the war depended. The Democrats, still on the outside looking in, but with substantial gains in the fall elections to sharpen their appetite for more, had seen to that: especially Ohio Representative Clement L. Vallandigham, who was savagely pointing out, from the vantage point of his seat in Congress, the administration’s errors. “Money you have expended without limit,” he told Republicans in the House, “and blood poured out like water. Defeat, debt, taxation, and sepulchers—these are your only trophies.” Others, less violent but no less earnest, including his disaffected former allies, were accusing the President in a similar vein; so that now, perhaps, with his own critics crying out against him, he could feel more sympathy for James K. Polk than he had felt when he spoke against him in Congress, fifteen years ago this month, in the midst of another war. “I more than suspect already,” the youthful Lincoln had declared from a seat in the rear of the House, “that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong; that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him; that originally having some strong motive … to involve the two countries in a war, and trusting to escape scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory … he plunged into it and has swept on and on, till, disappointed in his calculation … he now finds himself he knows not where.… His mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease.… He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show there is not something about his conscience more painful than all his mental perplexity!”
The words rebounded from the target, boomeranged down the years, and came back in other forms to strike the sender. Orestes Brownson, the prominent Boston author and former transcendentalist, wrote of Lincoln: “His soul seems made of leather, and incapable of any grand or noble emotion. Compared with the mass of men, he is a line of flat prose in a beautiful and spirited lyric. He lowers, he never elevates you. You leave his presence with your enthusiasm dampened, your better feelings crushed, and your hopes cast to the winds. You ask not, can this man carry the nation through its terrible struggles? but can the nation carry this man through them, and not perish in the attempt?” Brownson was of no uncertain mind where Lincoln was concerned. “He is thickheaded; he is ignorant; he is tricky, somewhat astute, in a small way, and obstinate as a mule.… He is wrong-headed, the attorney not the lawyer, the petty politician not the statesman, and, in my belief, ill-deserving of the soubriquet of Honest. I am out of all patience with him,” he added, rather anticlimactically, and inquired: “Is there no way of inducing him to resign, and allow Mr Hamlin to take his place?” Senator William Pitt Fessenden, a Maine Republican high in the party’s councils, replied in somewhat the same vein when told that he should be a member of the cabinet in order to be at Lincoln’s elbow and give the nation the full benefit of his advice. “No friend of mine should ever wish to see me there,” he answered. “You cannot change the President’s character or conduct. He remained long enough in Springfield, surrounded by toadies and office-seekers, to persuade himself that he was specially chosen by the Almighty for this crisis, and well chosen. This conceit has never yet been beaten out of him, and until it is, no human wisdom can be of much avail. I see nothing for it but to let the ship of state drift along, hoping that the current of public opinion may bring it safely into port.” Similarly, a Boston philanthropist, railroad magnate J. M. Forbes, convinced that Lincoln was badly off the track, was asking: “Can nothing be done to reach the President’s ear and heart? I hear he is susceptible to religious impressions; shall we send our eloquent divines to talk to him, or shall we send on a deputation of mothers and wives, or can we, the conservators of liberty, who have elected him, combine with Congress in beseeching him to save the country?”
In point of fact, one such group of “eloquent divines” as Forbes suggested did come to call on Lincoln at this time, protesting with considerable heat the lack of progress in the war; but he gave them little satisfaction beyond a brief, short-tempered lecture comparing the administration’s predicament to that of a tightrope walker in mid-act. “Gentlemen,” he told them, “suppose all the property you were worth was in gold, and you had put it in the hands of Blondin to carry across the Niagara River. Would you shake the cable or keep shouting out to him, ‘Blondin, stand up a little straighter!’ ‘Blondin, stoop a little more!’ ‘Go a little faster’; ‘Lean a little more to the north’; ‘Lean a little more to the south’? No. You would hold your breath as well as your tongue, and keep your hands off until he was safe over. The government is carrying an immense weight. Untold treasures are in their hands. They are doing the very best they can. Don’t badger them. Keep silence, and we’ll get you safe across.” The visit, he said afterwards, made him “a little shy of preachers” for a time. “But the latchstring is out,” he added, “and they have the right to come here and preach to me if they will go about it with some gentleness and moderation.”
Gentleness and moderation were easier to prescribe than they were to practice. An infinitely patient man, he was beginning to lose patience: with the result that some who formerly had complained that he lacked firmness were now protesting that he had assumed the prerogatives of a dictator, spurning their counsels and high-handedly overruling their objections. It was true in some respects. His accustomed tact sometimes failed him under pressure nowadays, and he gave short answers, though rarely without the saving grace of humor, the velvet glove that softened the clutch of the iron hand. This was evident, for example, in a clash with Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase about this time. An economist came to Lincoln with a plan for issuing greenbacks. Lincoln heard him out, liked the notion, but told him: “You must go to Chase. He is running that end of the machine.” The man left, then presently returned, saying that the Secretary had dismissed him with the objection that the proposal was unconstitutional. Lincoln grimaced. “Go back to Chase,” he said, “and tell him not to bother himself about the Constitution. Say that I have that sacred instrument here at the White House, and am guarding it with great care.”
Such brusque, not to say cavalier, treatment of his highly respected Treasury chief was prologue to an even rougher handling of that dignitary in mid-December, when he tripped him neatly from behind as he tried a sprint up several rungs of the political ladder. This was a time of crisis and division, in the cabinet as in the nation at large. One member, Secretary of the Interior Caleb Blood Smith, who had received his appointment as the result of a convention bargain, was leaving to accept a judgeship Lincoln had offered him in his native Indiana; his post would go to John Palmer Usher, another Hoosier, at present the Assistant Secretary. The other six members were split on the question of whether to admit West Virginia as a state under an act just passed by Congress, divorcing Virginia’s northwest counties from the Old Dominion and validating the rump government set up in Charleston during the Sumter furor. Three cabinet officers—Chase, Stanton, and Secretary of State William H. Seward—wanted Lincoln to sign the bill, converting slave soil into free soil by the stroke of a pen, and incidentally adding good Republican votes on whatever questions Congress might decide needed settling in the future; while three others—Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Attorney General Edward Bates, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair—recommended that he veto it, on grounds that the act was in a sense a ratification of secession. Though he could not reconcile their views, Lincoln quickly solved the problem to his own approximate satisfaction. “The division of a state is dreaded as a precedent,” he reasoned. “But a measure made expedient by a war is no precedent for times of peace. It is said that the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution and secession in favor of the Constitution.” On the last day of the year, though he did so with a wry face, he signed the bill. West Virginia would become in June a full-fledged state of the Union, the thirty-fifth, not discounting the eleven who had no representation in Congress pending the settlement of their claim to have abolished their old ties.
Seward and Chase had voted together on the issue, but that was rare. In general they were diametrically opposed, as they had been in the old days when they were rivals for the office which, by a fluke, had gone to Lincoln. Chase, who was jealous of Seward’s position as the President’s chief adviser, wanted not only the seat closest to the one at the head of the table, but also, as time would show, the principal seat itself. In this connection, noting the way the wind blew, he had aligned himself with the radicals in Congress, the so-called Jacobins who had come to see Seward as the stumbling block in the way of adoption of their notions as to how the war should be fought and the country run, just as Chase had come to see him as a hurdle that would have to be removed or overleaped if he was to fulfill his own ambitions. By way of undoing their common adversary, he fanned the flames of the radicals’ hatred by reporting Seward’s every private opposition to their aims (the New Yorker, for example, had delayed the promulgation of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by advising Lincoln to wait for a more propitious season before releasing it to the world; than which, indeed, there could be no crime greater in radical eyes) as well as by giving them a blow-by-blow account of every cabinet crisis, omitting nothing that served to thicken the atmosphere of discord and indecision. So it was that at last, on December 17—four days after the Fredericksburg fiasco, which seemed to them to prove emphatically that the prosecution of the war was in quite the wrong hands—all but one of the thirty-two Republican senators met in secret caucus on Capitol Hill and passed unanimously the following resolution, by way of advice to the leader of their party: “Resolved, that … the public confidence in the present administration would be increased by a change in and partial reconstruction of the cabinet.” It was Seward they were after, Seward alone, and lest there be any doubt on that score a committee of nine was appointed to present the resolution to Lincoln and explain to him just what it was they meant.
The one abstaining senator was New York’s Preston King, who went at once to Seward and warned his former senatorial colleague that the Jacobins, “thirsty for a victim” in the wake of recent misfortunes, had selected his neck for the ax. Seward reacted fast when he learned thus of the resolution about to be presented. “They may do as they please about me,” he said, “but they shall not put the President in a false position on my account.” Accordingly he took a sheet of paper, and having scrawled a few words across it—“Sir, I hereby resign from the office of Secretary of State, and beg that my resignation be accepted immediately”—sent it forthwith to the White House. Lincoln was shocked. “What does this mean?” he asked as he put on his hat and set out for Seward’s house, which was just across the street. Seward explained what had happened, along with what was about to happen, and added that he personally would be glad to get from under the burden of official duties and political harassment. “Ah yes, Governor,” Lincoln said, shaking his head. “That will do very well for you, but I am like the starling in Sterne’s story. ‘I can’t get out.’ ” He pocketed the resignation and went sadly back across the White House lawn.
At any rate, next morning when the committee spokesman called, he knew what to expect. He set the time for the presentation at 7 o’clock that evening; he would receive the full committee then. This was a crisis, not only for Lincoln but also for the nation, and he knew it. “If I had yielded to that storm and dismissed Seward,” he said later, “the thing would have all slumped over one way, and we should have been left with a scant handful of supporters.” Knowing what had to be done was a quite different thing, however, from knowing how to do it. Ben Wade of Ohio, George W. Julian of Indiana, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan: these and others like them were men of power and savage purpose, accomplished haters who would be merciless in revenging even an imagined slight, let alone an outright rebuff. Whatever Lincoln did had better be done without incurring their personal enmity. Besides, he not only had to avoid their anger; he also needed their support. What he required just now was someone to draw their wrath, someone to serve him much as a billygoat serves the farmer who places him in a barnlot to draw fleas. By evening, not without a certain sense of political and even poetical justice, he had chosen the someone. All that remained was to make him serve, and that could be done quite simply by branding him, in the eyes of all, for what he was.
The nine committeemen were prompt; Lincoln received them in his office. By way of a beginning, seventy-one-year-old Jacob Collamer of Vermont, who had been elected spokesman, read the resolution and followed it with a paper which summed up the conclusions reached in caucus the day before. The war should be prosecuted vigorously; cabinet members should be “cordial, resolute, unwavering” in their devotion to the principles of the Republican majority; the cabinet itself, once it had been stripped and rebuilt so as to contain only such stalwarts, should have a larger voice in the running of the government. Wade rose next, a vigorous man with “burning” eyes and bulldog flews, protesting hotly that the President had “placed the direction of our military affairs in the hands of bitter and malignant Democrats.” He spoke at length, going somewhat afield from the central issue, and was followed by Fessenden, who agreed that the war was “not sufficiently in the hands of its friends,” then brought the discussion back on target by charging specifically “that the Secretary of State [is] not in accord with the majority of the cabinet and [has] exerted an injurious influence upon the conduct of the war.” Others had their say along these lines, also at considerable length, but Lincoln kept his temper and said little. After three hours of listening, however, he suggested that the meeting adjourn until the following night. The senators agreed. Alone at last, he saw clearly, as he presently remarked, that if he let these men have their way “the whole government must cave in; it could not stand, could not hold water; the bottom would be out.”
He knew what to do and, by now, how to do it; but he was saddened. “What do those men want?” he asked his friend Senator Orville Browning of Illinois next day. “I hardly know, Mr President,” Browning replied, “but they are exceedingly violent.…” Lincoln knew well enough what they wanted, though, and he said so: “They wish to get rid of me—and I am sometimes half disposed to gratify them.” Browning protested, but Lincoln shook his head. “We are now on the brink of destruction,” he said. “It appears to me the Almighty is against us, and I can hardly see a ray of hope.” Again Browning protested. Though he was not a member of the committee, he had attended the caucus and had voted for the resolution: which, he explained defensively, “was the gentlest thing that could be done. We had to do that, or worse.” The trouble he said was Seward. While he personally had a high regard for the Secretary, others were saying that the New Yorker had the President under his thumb. “Why should men believe a lie,” Lincoln broke in, “an absurd lie, that could not impose on a child, and cling to it and repeat it in defiance of all evidences to the contrary?” His sadness deepened. “The committee is to be up to see me at 7 o’clock. Since I heard last night of the proceedings of the caucus I have been more distressed than by any event of my life.”
If this was so, it did not show in his manner when he welcomed the committeemen that evening for a second round of grievance presentations. Before the discussion got under way, however, he announced to the assembled senators that he had thought it fitting to have the cabinet officers—minus Seward, of course, since even aside from the fact that his resignation was pending, that would have been too indelicate—present to answer the charge that there was discord among them and that the President seldom followed or even asked for their advice. Whereupon the door opened and the six gentlemen in question filed into the room. Lincoln had invited them at the cabinet meeting that morning, after telling them of the matter afoot and of Seward’s submission of his resignation. Mostly they had welcomed the chance to confront their accusers, although two of their number—Chase in particular—had protested that they “knew of no good that could come of an interview.” In the end, however, the two—the other was Bates—had been obliged to go along with the majority. Now here they were, face to face with critics whose accusations were based, at least in part, on information supplied in private by Chase in order to curry favor with them. Already he was squirming, as if the fleas had jumped at the sight of his large, handsome person: but the worst was still to come.
If Chase and some of the senators were embarrassed by the confrontation, Lincoln certainly was not. He began the proceedings by reading aloud yesterday’s bill of particulars, admitting as he went along that he had not consulted the cabinet on all affairs of state or war, and that he had not always followed their advice, even when he had sought it; but in the main, he said, he had valued and used their abilities, individually and collectively. As for discord, he did not think it reasonable to expect seven such independent-minded men to agree on every issue that came before them; but here again, he said, he thought they worked together mainly as a unit, and certainly he himself had no complaint. He paused, then turned to the six cabinet members present, beginning to poll them one by one. Did they or did they not agree with his statement of the case? They did; or so they said, one by one; until he came to Chase. Chase, as it turned out, also agreed, though not without considerable hemming and hawing by way of preamble. He would never have come to the meeting, he said, if he had known he was “to be arraigned.” He seemed angry. He seemed to feel that he was being “put upon”—as indeed he was. In the end, with Wade and the others watching balefully, he admitted that matters of prime importance had usually come before the cabinet, though perhaps “not so fully as might be desired,” and that there had been “no want of unity in the cabinet, but a general acquiescence in public measures.” Thus he wound up, and the Jacobins watched him cold-eyed, contrasting what he said now, in the presence of Lincoln and his colleagues, with what he had said in private. The President did not prolong his suffering. Having more or less settled these two points of contention, he shifted the talk to the question of Seward, defending his chief minister against yesterday’s charges, and then began to poll the committeemen on their views. At that point Fessenden recoiled. “I do not think it proper,” he said, “to discuss the merits or demerits of a member of the cabinet in the presence of his associates.” Chase was quick to agree. “I think the members of the cabinet should withdraw,” he said. In solemn procession they did so, some amused, some disgruntled, and one, at least, discredited in the eyes of men whose favor he had sought.
Like Simon Cameron a year ago, the Treasury chief had learned the hard way what it meant to tangle with Lincoln. Cameron was in Russia now, a victim of political decapitation, and Chase was determined to avoid such punishment. He would forestall the headsman by submitting, however regretfully, his resignation. This was exactly what Lincoln wanted: as was shown next morning, December 20, when he came into his office and found Chase, Welles, and Stanton grouped around the fire. Chase began to complain of yesterday’s damage to his dignity. It had affected him most painfully, he said, for it seemed to indicate a lack of confidence. In fact—he hesitated—he had written out his resignation at home the night before.… Lincoln’s reaction to this was not at all what the Secretary had expected. His expression was one of downright joy.
“Where is it?” he said eagerly.
“I brought it with me,” Chase replied, taking a letter from his inside coat pocket.
“Let me have it,” Lincoln said, and he put out a long arm.
Chase drew back, but not in time. Lincoln already had hold of the paper, and the Secretary suffered the added shock of having it snatched from his grasp. Reading it quickly through, Lincoln laughed; “a triumphal laugh,” Welles called it in his diary. “This cuts the Gordian knot,” he exclaimed. “I can dispose of this subject now without difficulty. I see my way clear.” Stanton, who had been guilty of some of the same backstairs maneuvers—though he did not know whether the President suspected him, or what he might do if he did—remarked stiffly that he was prepared to tender his resignation, too. But Lincoln already had what he had been working toward. “You may go to your department,” he said gaily. “I don’t want yours. This”—he held up Chase’s letter—“is all I want; this relieves me; the case is clear; the trouble is ended. I will detain neither of you longer.”
His satisfaction was obvious, amounting to delight. What he had had in mind all along, and had achieved through skillful handling, was a balance: Chase’s resignation against Seward’s, which the Jacobins were still urging him to accept. Now, however, with Chase’s inseparably included—“If one goes, the other must,” he presently notified the senators; “they must hunt in couples”—they would be much less insistent; for, whatever their disgust with the Treasury chief’s performance the day before, they still believed that he could be useful to them within the administration’s private councils. Lincoln himself described the situation with a metaphor out of his boyhood in Kentucky, where he had seen farmers riding to market with a brace of pumpkins lodged snugly in a bag, one at each end in order to make a balanced load across the horse’s withers. “Now I can ride,” he said. “I have got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.” Accordingly, he sent polite, identical notes to the two ministers, declining to accept their resignations and requesting them to continue as members of his official family. Seward, who had watched the maneuvers with amusement from a seat behind the scene, agreed at once; but Chase held off, still suffering from the fleabites, which were no less painful for being figurative. “I will sleep on it,” he said. However, after a day of meditation and prayer—for it was a Sunday and he was intensely religious, spending a good part of each Sabbath on his knees—he agreed to remain at his post, as Lincoln had confidently expected.
Here was a case of double salvation, in more ways than one. Within the confines of his office in the White House, Lincoln had planned and fought a three-day battle as important to the welfare of the nation, and the progress of the war through united effort, as many that raged in the open field with booming guns and casualties by the thousands. In addition to retaining the services of Seward and Chase, both excellent men at their respective posts, he had managed to turn aside the wrath of the Jacobins without increasing their bitterness toward himself or incurring their open hatred, which might well have been fatal. Nor was that all. Paradoxically, because of the way he had gone about it, in avoiding the disruption of his cabinet he had achieved within it a closer harmony than had obtained before. This was partly because of the increased respect his actions earned him, but it was also because of the effect the incident had on the two ministers most intimately concerned. For all his loyalty to Lincoln through the storm, Seward had not previously abandoned the notion that he was the man directly in line for his job. Now, though, with all but one of the senators in his own party having expressed a desire to see him removed from any connection with the executive branch of the government, the presidential itch was cured. From that hour, his devotion to his duties was single-minded and his loyalty acquired an added zeal. So much could hardly be said for Chase, exactly, but he too had been sobered, and his ambition taken down a notch, by the cold-eyed looks the radical leaders had given him while he squirmed. It was no wonder, then, that Lincoln indulged in self-congratulation when he reviewed the three-day maneuver. “I do not see how I could have done better,” he remarked.
Few would disagree with this assessment, even among the frock-coated politicians he had bested, whether senators or members of his cabinet. In point of fact, whatever shocks they had suffered along the way, there should have been little surprise at the outcome; for the matter had been essentially political, and politics (or statesmanship, if you will, which he once defined as the art of getting the best from men who all too often were intent on giving nothing better than their worst) was a science he had mastered some time back. The military art was something else. Whether Lincoln would ever do as well as Commander in Chief of the nation’s armies as he had done as its Chief Executive was more than doubtful—particularly in the light of current testimony as to the condition of the largest of those armies, still on the near bank of the Rappahannock attempting to recover from the shock of its mid-December blood bath.
“Exhaustion steals over the country. Confidence and hope are dying,” the Quartermaster General wrote privately this week to its commander. “The slumber of the army since [the attack at Fredericksburg] is eating into the vitals of the nation. As day after day has gone, my heart has sunk and I see greater peril to our nationality in the present condition of affairs than I have seen at any time during the struggle.” Complaints were heard from below as well as above, and though these were not addressed to Burnside personally, accusing fingers were leveled in his direction and even higher. “Our poppycorn generals kill men as Herod killed the innocents,” a Massachusetts private declared, and a Wisconsin major called this winter “the Valley Forge of the war.” A bitterness was spreading through the ranks. “Alas my poor country!” a New York corporal wrote home. “It has strong limbs to march and meet the foe, stout arms to strike heavy blows, brave hearts to dare. But the brains, the brains—have we no brains to use the arms and limbs and eager hearts with cunning? Perhaps Old Abe has some funny story to tell, appropriate to the occasion.… Mother, do not wonder that my loyalty is growing weak,” he added. “I am sick and tired of disaster and the fools that bring disaster upon us.”
There was a snatch of doggerel, sung to the tune of the old sea chanty “Johnny, Fill up the Bowl,” making the rounds:
Abram Lincoln, what yer ’bout?
Stop this war. It’s all played out.
Abram Lincoln, what yer ’bout?
Stop this war. It’s all played out.
We’ll all drink stone blind:
Johnny, fill up the bowl!
Veterans in the Army of the Potomac took up the refrain, “all played out,” and made it their own. Once they had pretended cynicism as a cover for their greenness and their fears, but now they felt they had earned it and they found the phrase descriptive of their outlook through this season of discontent. “The phrensy of our soldiers rushing to glory or death has, as our boys amusingly affirm, been played out,” a regimental chaplain wrote. “Our battle-worn veterans go into danger when ordered, remain as a stern duty so long as directed, and leave as soon as honor and duty allow.” Case-hardened by their recent experience over the river, particularly in the repeated fruitless assaults on the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights, they had no use for heroic postures or pretensions nowadays. When they saw magazine illustrations showing mounted officers with drawn sabers leading smartly aligned columns of troops unflinchingly through shellbursts, they snickered and jeered and whooped their motto: “All played out!”
Lincoln already knew something of this, but he learned a good deal more on December 29 when two disgruntled brigadiers hurried from Falmouth to Washington on short-term passes, intending to warn their congressmen of what they believed was imminent disaster. Burnside was planning to recross the Rappahannock any day now, having issued three days’ cooked rations the day after Christmas, along with orders for the troops to be held in readiness to move on twelve hours’ notice. What alarmed the two brigadiers—John Newton and John Cochrane, the latter a former Republican congressman himself—was that the army, which they were convinced was in a condition of near-mutiny, would come apart at the seams if it was called upon to repeat this soon the tragic performance it had staged two weeks ago in the same arena, and therefore they had come to warn the influential Bay State senator Henry Wilson, chairman of the Senate Military Committee, in hopes that he could get the movement stopped. In the intensity of their concern, as they discovered when they reached the capital, they had failed to take into account the fact that Congress was in recess over the holidays; Wilson had gone home. Undeterred, they went to see the Secretary of State, a former political associate of Cochrane’s. When Seward heard their burden of woes he took them straight to the President, to whom—though they were somewhat daunted now, never having intended to climb this high up the chain of command—they repeated, along with hasty assurances that the basis for their admittedly irregular visit was patriotism, not hope for advancement, their conviction that if the Army of the Potomac was committed to battle in its present discouraged state it would be utterly destroyed. Not only would it be unable to hold the line of the Rappahannock; it would not even be able to hold the line of the river from which it took its name. Lincoln, who had known nothing of the pending movement, and scarcely more of the extent of the demoralization Cochrane and Newton claimed was rampant, was infected with their fears and got off a wire to Burnside without delay: “I have good reason for saying that you must not make a general movement without first letting me know of it.”
Burnside, though his infantry had already been alerted for a downstream crossing while his cavalry was in motion for a feint upstream—“a risky expedition but a buster,” one trooper called the plan—promptly complied with the President’s telegram by canceling the movement, but he was angered and saddened by the obvious lack of confidence on the part of his superiors. The army, too—whatever its gladness over the postponement of another blood bath—was aggrieved as it filed back into its camps, feeling mistrusted and mistrustful. “Such checks destroy the enthusiasm of any army,” the same trooper dolefully protested.
Yet it was at this point, near the apparent nadir of its self-confidence and pride, with disaffection evident in all of its components, from the commander down to the youngest drummer boy, that the one truly imperishable quality of this army first began to be discerned, like a gleam that only shone in darkness. If men could survive the unprofitable slaughter of Fredericksburg—the patent bungling, the horror piled on pointless horror, and the disgust that came with the conclusion that their comrades had died less by way of proving their love for their country than by way of proving the ineptness of their leaders—it might well be that they could survive almost anything. There were those who saw this. There were those who, unlike Newton and Cochrane, did not mistake the vociferous reaction for near-mutiny, who knew that griping was not only the time-honored prerogative of the American soldier, from Valley Forge on down, but was also, in its way, a proof of his basic toughness and resilience. “The more I saw of the Army of the Potomac,” one correspondent wrote from the camps around Falmouth, “the more I wondered at its invincible spirit, which no disaster seemed able to destroy.” A Harper’s Weekly editor perhaps overstated the case—“All played out!” the soldiers who read it doubtless jeered—but was also thinking along these lines in an issue that came out about this time: “Like our forefathers the English, who always began their wars by getting soundly thrashed by their enemies, and only commenced to achieve success when it wasthought they were exhausted, we are warming to the work with each mishap.”
Lincoln thought so, too, what time he managed to shake off the deep melancholy that was so much a part of his complex nature. He probed and, probing, he considered what emerged. As of the first day of the year which was opening so inauspiciously, the Union had 918,211 soldiers under arms, whereas the Confederacy had 446,622, or a good deal less than half as many. At several critical points along the thousand-mile line of division the odds were even longer—out in Middle Tennessee, for instance, or down along the Rappahannock—and the troubled Commander in Chief found solace in brooding on the figures, even those that reached him from the field of Fredericksburg. “We lost fifty percent more men than did the enemy,” a member of the White House staff remarked after hearing his chief discuss the outcome of the fighting there, “and yet there is sense in the awful arithmetic propounded by Mr Lincoln. He says that if the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to the last man, [while] the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host. The war would be over, the Confederacy gone.” There was error here. Northern losses in the battle had exceeded southern losses, not by fifty, but by considerably better than one hundred percent. And yet there was validity in Lincoln’s premise as to the end result, and especially was there validity in the conclusion the staff man heard him draw: “No general yet found can face the arithmetic, but the end of the war will be at hand when he shall be discovered.”
Scott and McDowell, Pope and McClellan, and now Burnside: none of these was the killer he was seeking. Already he saw that this search was perhaps after all the major problem. All else—while, like Blondin, Lincoln threaded his way, burdened by untold treasures—was, in a sense, a biding of time until the unknown killer could be found. Somewhere he existed, and somewhere he would find him, this unidentified general who could face the grim arithmetic being scrawled in blood across these critical, tragic pages of the nation’s history.
These and other matters were much on the President’s mind when he woke on January 1. After an early-morning conference with Burnside, who had come up from Falmouth to ask in person just what the Commander in Chief’s “good reason” had been for not allowing him to handle his own army as he saw fit, Lincoln spent the usual half hour with his barber, then got into his best clothes and went downstairs for the accustomed New Year’s White House reception. For three hours, beginning at 11 o’clock, it was “How do you do?” “Thank you.” “Glad to see you.” “How do you do?” as the invited guests—high government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, and other important dignitaries, foreign and domestic—having threaded their way through the crowd of uninvited onlookers collected on the lawn, alighted from their carriages, came into the parlor, and filed past Lincoln for handshakes and refreshments. At 1 o’clock the long ordeal was over; he went back upstairs to his office for the day’s—or, some would say, the century’s—most important business, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Throughout the ninety-nine days since September 23, when the preliminary announcement of intention had been made, there had been much speculation as to whether he would issue or withdraw the final proclamation. Some were for it, some against. His friend Browning, for example, reflecting the view of constituents in the President’s home state, thought it “fraught with evil, and evil only.” The senator believed that the “useless and mischievous” document would serve “to unite and exasperate” the South, and to “divide and distract us in the North.” Lincoln himself, if only by his neglect of the subject while the hundred days ticked off, had seemed to see the point of this objection. In his December message to Congress he had barely mentioned the projected edict, but had reverted instead to his original plan for compensated emancipation, a quite different thing indeed. Alarmed by this apparent failure of nerve, Abolitionists looked to their hero Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who went to Lincoln three days after Christmas for a straight talk on the matter. He found him hard at work on the final draft of the proclamation, writing it out in longhand. “I know very well that the name connected with this document will never be forgotten,” Lincoln said, by way of explanation for his pains, and Sumner returned to his own desk to reassure a qualmish friend in Boston: “The President says he would not stop the Proclamation if he could, and he could not if he would.… Hallelujah!”
So it was. Seward brought the official copy over from the State Department, where a skilled penman had engrossed it from Lincoln’s final draft, just completed the night before. All it lacked was the President’s signature. He dipped his pen, then paused with it suspended over the expanse of whiteness spread out on his desk, and looked around with a serious expression. “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right,” he said, “than I do in signing this paper. But I have been receiving calls and shaking hands since 9 o’clock this morning, till my arm is stiff and numb. Now this signature is one that will be closely examined, and if they find my hand trembled they will say, ‘He had some compunctions.’ But anyway it is going to be done.” Slowly and carefully he signed, not the usual A. Lincoln, but his name in full: Abraham Lincoln. The witnesses crowded nearer for a look at the result, then laughed in relief of nervous tension; for the signature, though “slightly tremulous,” as Lincoln himself remarked, was bold and clear. Seward signed next, the quick, slanting scrawl of the busy administrator, and the great seal was affixed, after which it went to its place in the State Department files (where it later was destroyed by fire) and in the hearts of men, where it would remain forever, though some of them had doubted lately that it would even be issued.
It was one thing to claim that by the stroke of a pen the fetters had been struck from the limbs of five million slaves and that their combined worth of more than a billion dollars was thereby automatically subtracted from enemy assets. It was quite another, however, to translate the announcement into fact, especially considering its peculiar limitations. All of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri were exempt by specific definition within the body of the edict, along with those portions of Virginia and Louisiana already under Federal control. Lincoln himself explained that the proclamation had “no constitutional or legal justification, except as a military measure. The exemptions were made because the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities.” He freed no slave within his reach, and whether those beyond his reach would ever be affected by his pronouncement was dependent on the outcome of the war, which in turn depended on the southward progress of his armies. Just now that progress, East and West—once more with the possible exception of Middle Tennessee, where the issue remained in doubt—was negligible at best and nonexistent for the most part. Nor did the signs in either direction give promise of early improvement. Here in the East, in fact, if this morning’s conference with Burnside was any indication of what to expect, the outlook was downright bleak.
The ruff-whiskered general had arrived in a state of acute distress, obviously fretted by more than the discomforts of his all-night ride from Falmouth, and Lincoln was distressed in turn to see him so. He liked Burnside—almost everyone did, personally—for his courage, for his impressive military bearing, and for what one subordinate called his “single-hearted honesty and unselfishness.” All these qualities he had, and Lincoln, with a feeling of relief after weeks of trying to budge the balky McClellan, had chosen him in expectation of aggressiveness. The Indiana-born Rhode Islander had certainly given him that at Fredericksburg, in overplus indeed, but with a resolution so little tempered by discretion that critics now were remarking that he waged war in much the same way some folks played the fiddle, “by main strength and awkwardness.” He himself was the first to admit his shortcomings. He had done so from the start, and recently in testimony given under oath before a congressional committee he had taken on his shoulders the whole blame for the late repulse. This was in a way disarming; it had the welcome but unfamiliar sound of natural modesty, so becoming in a truly capable man. However, there were those who saw it merely as further proof of his unfitness for the job he had accepted under protest. Burnside, they said, had not only admitted his incompetency; he had sworn to it.
When he opened the New Year’s conference by asking what lay behind the telegram advising him not to move against the enemy without notifying Washington beforehand, Lincoln told him of the interview with the two brigadiers, in which they had stated that the army lacked confidence in its commander and was in no fit shape to be committed. Bristling at this evidence of perfidy from below, Burnside demanded to know their names, but Lincoln declined to divulge them for fear of the reprisal which he now saw would be visited upon their heads. This further increased the general’s depression. It might well be true, he said, that his army had no faith in him; certainly not a single one of his senior commanders had approved of the movement he had canceled at Lincoln’s suggestion. In fact, he added, plunging deeper into gloom, “It is my belief that I ought to retire to private life.” When Lincoln demurred, Burnside’s spirits rose a bit: enough, at least, to allow a sudden shift to the offensive. However low his own stock might have fallen, he said earnestly, he wanted the President to know that in his opinion neither Stanton’s nor Halleck’s was any higher. A man was apt to be a poor judge of his own usefulness and the loyalty of his subordinates, but of one thing he was sure. Neither the Secretary of War nor the general-in-chief had the confidence of the army—or of the country either for that matter, he quickly added, though he admitted that Lincoln was probably better informed on this latter point than he was. At any rate it was his belief that they too should be removed.… Lincoln expressed no opinion as to whether he could spare Stanton or Halleck, but he assured the unhappy Burnside that he valued his services highly. He urged him to return at once to his command and do the best he could, as he was sure he had done invariably in the past. Burnside replied that his plan was still to cross the Rappahannock, somewhere above or below Fredericksburg, and attack the rebels on their own ground. Lincoln said that was what he wanted, too, but prudence sometimes had to be applied, especially when risky ventures were involved. Whereupon, having secured this approval, however qualified, the general took his leave, apparently in a somewhat better frame of mind.
Still the fact remained that he was returning to his army with the intention of requiring it to pursue a course of action which, by his own admission, did not have the approval of the ranking subordinates who would be charged with its execution. The situation was, to say the least, loaded with possibilities of disaster. Here, Lincoln saw, was where the general-in-chief would fit into the picture; here was where Halleck could begin to perform the principal duty for which he had been summoned to the capital almost six months ago. He could go down to Falmouth for a first-hand look at the lay of the land and a talk with the disaffected corps commanders, then come back and submit his recommendations as to whether Burnside should be given his head or halted and replaced. Accordingly, before going upstairs to dress for the New Year’s reception, Lincoln took out a sheet of paper and wrote the owl-eyed general a letter explaining what it was he wanted him to do. “If in such a difficulty as this you do not help,” he wrote, “you fail me precisely in the point for which I sought your assistance.” The tone was somewhat tart, doubtless because Lincoln was irked at having to ask for what should have been forthcoming as a matter of course, and he added: “Your military skill is useless to me, if you will not do this.”
The letter was forwarded through Stanton, who gave it to Halleck that same morning at the reception. “Old Brains,” as he was called, was taken aback. Twice already in this war he had ventured into the field—one occasion was the inchworm advance on Corinth, back in May, when all he got for his pains was an empty town, plus the guffaws that went with being hoodwinked; the other was his trip to see McClellan down on the York-James peninsula, shortly after his arrival East in late July, when he ordered the withdrawal that had permitted Lee to concentrate against Pope with such disastrous results on the plains of Manassas—and he was having no more of such exposure to the jangle of alarums and excursions. He prized the sweatless quiet of his office, where he could scratch his elbows in seclusion and ponder the imponderables of war. Lincoln’s letter was a wrench, not so much because of what it said—which was, after all, little more than a definition of Halleck’s duties—but because of the way it said it. The fact that his chief had thought it necessary to put the thing on record, in black and white, instead of making the suggestion verbally, which would have left no blot, seemed to him to indicate a lack of confidence. His reaction was immediate and decisive. As soon as the reception was over he went to his office, wrote out his resignation, and sent it at once to the Secretary of War.
Lincoln heard of this development from Stanton late that afternoon, following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Saddened though he was by the general’s reaction, which deprived him, as he said, of the professional advice he badly needed at this juncture, he still did not want to lose the services of Old Brains, such as they were. To mollify the offended man he recalled the letter that same day and put it away in his files with the indorsement: “Withdrawn, because considered harsh by General Halleck.” He was pleased when the general then agreed to remain at his post, even though he amounted, as Lincoln subsequently remarked, to “little more … than a first-rate clerk.” The fact was, in spite of his objection to what he called “Halleck’s habitual attitude of demur,” he valued his opinions highly, especially those on theoretical or procedural matters. “He is a military man, has had a military education. I brought him here to give me military advice.” So Lincoln defended him, and added: “However you may doubt or disagree [with] Halleck, he is very apt to be right in the end.” Then too, since he knew something of the unfortunate general’s sufferings from hemorrhoids, which made him gruff as a sore-tailed bear and caused him to be avoided by all who could possibly stay beyond his reach, Lincoln’s sympathy was aroused. Once when he was asked why he did not get rid of so unpleasant a creature, he replied: “Well, the fact is the man has no friends. [He] should be taken care of.”
All in all, it had been a wearing day, and as Lincoln went to bed that night (having attended to several other less important matters, such as the complaint made to him by “an old lady of genteel appearance” that, despite previous assurances to the contrary, her boarding house near the corner of Tenth and E Streets was about to be commandeered by the War Department; “I know nothing about it myself,” he wrote Stanton, “but promised to bring it to your notice”) he might well have slept the sleep of nervous exhaustion: unless, that is, he was kept awake by an aching right hand, which had been squeezed and pumped by more than a thousand people in the course of this busy New Year’s, or by the knowledge that from now on—or at any rate until he found the man who, as he said, could “face the arithmetic”—he would have to continue to act as his own general-in-chief, as in fact he had been doing all along, leaving the West Pointer who occupied the post at present to act as little more than a clerk, albeit a first-rate one.
In the days that followed hard on this, the one touch of relief in a prevailing military gloom was the news that Bragg had retreated from Stones River and that Rosecrans had taken Murfreesboro. Lincoln would have preferred a bolder pursuit, but he was grateful all the same for what he got. “I can never forget, while I remember anything,” he told Rosecrans some months later, looking back, “that at about the end of last year, and beginning of this, you gave us a hard-earned victory which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.” The law of diminishing utility obtained here in reverse; by contrast, this one glimmer swelled to bonfire proportions. All else was blackness—even afloat, where up to now the salt-water navy (so long at least as it had kept to its proper medium and stayed out of the muddy Mississippi) had suffered not a single major check in all the more than twenty months since the opening shots were fired at Sumter. Now suddenly all the news was bad and the checks frequent: not only at Galveston, where Magruder’s cotton-clads had wrecked and panicked the Union warships, driving them from the bay, but also at other points along and off the rebel shore, before and after that disaster.
The first of these several naval wounds was self-inflicted, so to speak, or at any rate was not the result of enemy action. This did not make it any less painful or sad, however, for though the loss amounted to only one ship, that one was the most famous in the navy. Under tow off stormy Hatteras, with waves breaking over her deck and starting the oakum from her turret seam, the little ironclad Monitor—David to the Merrimac’s Goliath in Hampton Roads almost ten months ago—foundered and went to the bottom in the first hour of the last day of the year, taking four of her officers and a dozen of her crew down with her. This was hard news for the North, and close on its heels came word of what happened in Galveston harbor the following day. By way of reaction, the squadron commander at Pensacola ordered the 24-gun screw steamer Brooklyn and six gunboats to haul off from the blockade of Mobile and proceed at once to Texas to retrieve the situation. They arrived on January 8, but found there was little they could do except resume the blockade outside the harbor and engage in long-range shelling of the island town, now fast in rebel hands. They kept this up for three days, with little or no profit, until on January 11 they were handed another jolt.
About an hour before sundown the Brooklyn’s lookout spotted a bark-rigged vessel, apparently a merchantman, approaching from the south. When she saw the blockaders she halted as if surprised, and the Union flag officer, finding her manner suspicious, ordered the 10-gun sidewheel steamer Hatteras to heave her to for investigation of her papers. As the gunboat approached, she drew off and the chase began. It was a strange business. She ran awkwardly, despite the trimness of her lines, and though she managed to maintain her distance, on through twilight into a moonless darkness relieved only by the stars, the blockader had no difficulty in keeping her within sight. At last she hove to, as if exhausted, her sails furled. The Hatteras closed to within a hundred yards, stopped dead, and put a boat out. Before the boarding party reached her, however, a loud clear voice identified the vessel: “This is the Confederate States steamer Alabama;FIRE!” and a broadside lurched her sideways in the water, striking the Hatteras hard amidships so that she too recoiled, as if in horror. Ten guns to eight, the Federal outweighed her adversary by one hundred tons, but the advantage of surprise was decisive. Though she promptly returned the fire, the fight was brief. Within thirteen minutes, her walking beam shot away and her magazine flooded, she hoisted the signal for surrender.
“Have you struck?”
“Cease fire! Cease fire!”
Within another six minutes she was on the bottom, thirty-fifth on the list of vessels taken, sunk, or ransomed by Captain Raphael Semmes, who would add another thirty-six to the list before the year was out.
He had read in captured Boston newspapers that the 30,000-man expedition under Banks was scheduled to rendezvous off Galveston on January 10 for the conquest of Texas, and he had shown up the following day, intending to get among the transports under cover of darkness, just outside the bar, and sink them left and right. When he saw the gunboats shelling the town, however, he knew it had been retaken, and he seized the opportunity to realize his life’s ambition to stage a hand-to-hand fight with an enemy warship, provided he could lure one into pursuit and single combat: which he had done, fluttering just beyond her reach like a wounded bird until, having her altogether to himself, he turned and pounced. He was proud of the outcome of this “first yardarm engagement between steamers at sea,” but just now his problem was to get away before his victim’s friends, warned of the hoax by the flash and roar of guns, came up to avenge her. Pausing long enough to pick up the 118 survivors—about as many as he had in his whole crew, whose only casualty was a carpenter’s mate with a cheek wound—he doused his lights and made off through the night. The Brooklyn and the other gunboats, arriving shortly thereafter, saw no sign of the Hatteras until dawn showed bits of her wreckage tossed about by the waves. By that time the Alabama was a hundred miles away, running hard for Jamaica, where Semmes and his crew—that “precious set of rascals,” as he called them, being known in turn as “Old Beeswax” because of the needle-sharp tips to his long black mustache—would parole their captives and celebrate their exploit. Chagrined, the Union skippers turned back to resume their fruitless shelling of the island, bitterly conscious of the fact that instead of redeeming the late Galveston disaster, as they had intended, they had enlarged it.
Word of this no sooner reached Washington than it was followed, four days later, by news that was potentially even worse. At Mobile, where the departure of the Brooklyn and her consorts had weakened the cordon drawn across the entrance to the bay, the other famous Confederate raider Florida had been bottled up since early September, when she slipped in through the blockade with her crew and captain, Commander John N. Maffitt, down with yellow fever. By now they were very much up and about, however: as they proved on the night of January 15, when they steered the rebel cruiser squarely between two of the largest and fastest ships in the blockade squadron and made unscathed for the open sea, leaving her frantic pursuers far behind. Within ten days she had captured and sunk three U.S. merchantmen, the first of more then twenty she would take before midsummer, in happy rivalry with her younger sister the Alabama. Secretary Welles had been so furious over her penetration of the cordon, four months back, that he had summarily dismissed the squadron commander from the navy, despite the fact that he was a nephew of Commodore Edward Preble of Constitution fame; but this repetition of the exploit, outward bound, was seen by some as a reflection on the Secretary himself and a substantiation of the protest a prominent New Yorker had made to Lincoln, on the occasion of the Connecticut journalist’s appointment, that if he would “select an attractive figurehead, to be adorned with an elaborate wig and luxuriant whiskers, and transfer it from the prow of a ship to the entrance of the Navy Department, it would in my opinion be quite as serviceable … and less expensive.”
Nor was this by any means the last bad news to reach the Department from down on the Gulf before the month was out. On January 21, at the end of the week that had opened with the Florida’s escape, John Magruder staged in Texas—apparently, like Browning’s thrush, lest it be thought that the first had been no more than a fine careless rapture—a re-enactment of the previous descent on the Union flotilla in Galveston harbor. This time the scene was Sabine Pass, eighty miles to the east, and once more two cotton-clad steamboats were employed, with like results. The Morning Light, a sloop of war, and the schooner Velocity, finding themselves unable to maneuver in all the confusion, struck their flags and surrendered 11 guns and more than a hundred seamen to the jubilant Confederates who had come booming down the pass with a rattle of small arms and a caterwaul of high-pitched rebel yells. Next day the blockade was re-established by gunboats sent over from the flotilla cruising off Galveston, but there was little satisfaction in the fact, considering the increase of tension in the wardrooms and on lookout stations. However, a lull now followed, almost as if the crowing rebels were giving the bluejackets time to digest the three bitter pills administered in the course of the past three weeks.
For Lincoln there was no such lull, nor did there seem likely to be one so long as the present commander of the Army of the Potomac remained at his post. He had chosen Burnside primarily as a man of action, and however far the ruff-whiskered general had fallen short of other expectations, from the day of his appointment he had never done less than his fervent best to measure up to this one. The Fredericksburg fight, pressed despite a snarl-up of preparatory matters which had turned it into something quite different from what had been intended at the outset, was an instance of that determination to be up and doing, and Lincoln was in constant trepidation that a similar sequence of snarl-ups—the canceled year-end maneuver, for example—presaged a similar disaster. The signs were unmistakably there.
Four days after the New Year’s conference Burnside informed the President that he still intended to attempt another Rappahannock crossing, and had in fact alerted his engineers, although his generals practically unanimously remained opposed to the movement. Inclosed with the note was his resignation; Lincoln could either sustain him or let him return to civilian life. Another letter went to Halleck this same day. “I do not ask you to assume any responsibility in reference to the mode or place of crossing,” Burnside wrote, “but it seems to me that, in making so hazardous a movement, I should receive some general directions from you as to the advisability of crossing at some point, as you are necessarily well informed of the effect at this time upon other parts of the army of a success or a repulse.” However, this attempt to wring a definite personal commitment from the general-in-chief was no more productive than Lincoln’s had been. Halleck—described by a correspondent as resembling “an oleaginous Methodist parson in regimentals,” with a “large, tabular, Teutonic” face—replied on January 7, administering an elementary textbook strategy lecture. He had always been in favor of an advance, he said, but he cautioned Burnside to “effect a crossing in a position where we can meet the enemy on favorable or even equal terms.… If the enemy should concentrate his forces at the place you have selected for a crossing, make it a feint and try another place. Again, the circumstances at the time may be such as to render an attempt to cross the entire army not advisable. In that case theory suggests that, while the enemy concentrates at that point, advantages can be gained by crossing smaller forces at other points, to cut off his lines, destroy his communication, and capture his rear guards, outposts, &c. The great object is … to injure him all you can with the least injury to yourself.… As you yourself admit, it devolves upon you to decide upon the time, place, and character of the crossing which you may attempt. I can only advise that an attempt be made, and as early as possible. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief.”
Burnside had asked for “general directions.” What he got was very general advice. Tacked onto it, however, was a presidential indorsement in which, after urging him to “be cautious, and do not understand that the Government or the country is driving you,” Lincoln added: “I do not yet see how I could profit by changing the command of the Army of the Potomac, and if I did, I should not do it by accepting the resignation of your commission.” The “yet” might well have given Burnside pause, but at any rate he had a sort of left-handed reply to his ultimatum demanding that the President either fire or sustain him. He prepared therefore to go ahead with his plan for an upstream crossing, beyond Lee’s left, and a southward march to some rearward point athwart the Confederate lines of supply and communication. This time he intended to guard against failure by feeling his way carefully beforehand. After originally selecting United States Ford as the bridgehead, a dozen miles above Fredericksburg, he rejected it when a cavalry reconnaissance showed the position well covered by Confederate guns, and selected instead Banks Ford, which was not only less heavily protected but was also less than half as far away. By January 19 his preparations were complete. Next morning his soldiers assembled under full packs for the march, stood there while a general order was read to them, and set out with its spirited phrases ringing in their ears: “The commanding general announces to the Army of the Potomac that they are about to meet the enemy once more.… The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country.”
It took several hours for so many men to clear their camps, but once this had been done the march went well—indeed, auspiciously—until midafternoon, when a slow drizzle began. For a time it seemed no more than a passing shower, but the sun went down behind a steely curtain of true rain, which was pattering steadily by nightfall. All night it fell; by morning it was drumming without letup. Looking out from their sodden bivouacs, in which they could find not even enough dry twigs for boiling coffee, the soldiers could hardly recognize yesterday’s Virginia. “The whole country was an ocean of mud,” one wrote. “The roads were rivers of deep mire, and the heavy rain had made the ground a vast mortar bed.” Presently, as the troops fell in coffeeless to resume the march in a downpour that showed no sign of slacking, broad-tired wagons loaded with big pontoons (despite all Burnside’s precautions against snarl-ups, the pontoniers had been late in getting the word) churned the roads to near-impassability. Their six-mule teams were doubled and even tripled, but to small avail. Then long ropes were attached to the cumbersome things, affording hand-holds for as many as 150 men at a time, but this still did no real good according to a correspondent who watched them strain and fail: “They would flounder through the mire for a few feet—the gang of Lilliputians with their huge-ribbed Gulliver—and then give up breathlessly.” Guns were even more perverse. Whole regiments pulled them along with the help of prolonges, leaving deep troughs in the roadbed to mark their progress, but if they stopped for a breather, without first putting brush or logs under the axle, the gun would begin to sink and, what was worse, would keep on sinking until only its muzzle showed, and the men would have to dig it out with shovels. “One might fancy that some new geologic cataclysm had overtaken the world,” a reporter declared, surveying the desolation, “and that he saw around him the elemental wrecks left by another Deluge.” When Burnside himself, trailing a gaudy kite-tail of staff officers, came riding through this waste of mired confusion, one irreverent teamster whose mules and wagon were stalled like all the rest called out to him across the sea of mud: “General, the auspicious moment has arrived!”
He was undaunted, even in the face of this. Though the rain was still coming down steadily, without a suggestion of a pause, and though most of his soldiers were thinking, as one recalled, that “it was no longer a question of how to go forward, but how to get back,” Burnside no more had it in mind to quit now than he had had six weeks ago, when he had kept throwing some of these same men against the fuming base of Marye’s Heights. Today was finished but there was still tomorrow, and he gave orders that the march would be resumed at dawn. However, in an attempt to raise the dejected spirits of the troops, he directed that a ration of whiskey be issued to all ranks. Somehow the barrels were brought up in the night and the distribution made next morning. The result, in several cases—for the officers poured liberally and the stuff went into empty stomachs—was spectacular. For example, rival regiments from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts promptly decided the time had come for them to settle a long-term feud, and when a Maine outfit stepped in to try and stop the scuffle, the result was the biggest three-sided fist fight in the history of the world. Meanwhile, from grandstand seats on the crests of hills across the way, the rebels were enjoying all of this enormously. Pickets jeered from the south bank of the Rappahannock, and one butternut cluster went so far as to hold up a crudely lettered placard: THIS WAY TO RICHMOND, underlined with an arrow pointing in the opposite direction. Finally, about noon, even Burnside saw the hopelessness of the situation. He gave orders and the long, bedraggled files of men faced painfully about. The Mud March—so called in the official records—was over.
It was over, that is for most of them, except for the getting back to camp and the consequences. For some, though, it was over then and there; they kept slogging northward, right on out of the war. Desertion reached an all-time high. Sick lists had never been so long. Morale hit an all-time low. “I never knew so much discontent in the army before,” an enlisted diarist wrote. “A great many say that they ‘don’t care whether school keeps or not,’ for they think there is a destructive fate hovering over our army.” This reaction was by no means limited to the ranks, and what was more the men in higher positions were specific in their placement of the blame. “I came to the conclusion that Burnside was fast losing his mind,” Franklin was presently saying, and Hooker was even more emphatic in the expression of his views. Without limiting his criticism to the luckless army commander, whom he considered merely inept, he told a newsman that the President was an imbecile, not only for keeping Burnside on but also in his own right, and that the administration itself was “all played out.” What the country needed, Fighting Joe declared, and the sooner the better, too, was a dictator.… Much of this reached army headquarters in one form or another, and Burnside’s thin-stretched patience finally snapped under the double burden of abuse and ridicule. Early next evening, January 23, while his troops were still straggling forlornly back to their camps, he wired Lincoln: “I have prepared some very important orders, and I want to see you before issuing them. Can I see you alone if I am at the White House after midnight?”
In mud and fog and darkness he left headquarters about 9 o’clock in an ambulance, lost the road, found it, then lost it again, bumping into dead mules, stalled caissons, and other derelicts of the late lamented march. Finally, near midnight, he arrived at the Falmouth railhead, two miles from his starting point, only to learn that the special locomotive he had ordered held had given him up and chuffed away on other business. He took a lantern and set out down the track to meet it coming back, flagged and boarded it, and at last got onto a steamer at Aquia Landing. It was midmorning before he was with Lincoln at the White House, but the orders he brought for his perusal were no less startling for having been delayed. What Burnside was suggesting—in fact ordering, “subject to the approval of the President”—was the immediate dismissal of four officers from the service and the relief of six from further duty with the Army of the Potomac. The first group was headed by Joe Hooker, who was referred to as “a man unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present, when so much patience, charity, confidence, consideration, and patriotism are due from every soldier in the field.” Next came Brigadier General W.T.H. Brooks, a division commander accused of “using language tending to demoralize his command.” The other two, lumped together in one paragraph, were Newton and Cochrane, whose names Burnside had learned simply by checking the morning reports to see what general officers had been on pass at the time of their late-December conference with Lincoln. These four were to be cashiered. The six who were to be relieved were two major generals—Franklin and W. F. Smith, Newton’s and Cochrane’s corps commander—three brigadiers (including, by some strange oversight, Cochrane, who supposedly had just been cashiered) and one lieutenant colonel, a lowly assistant adjutant who was apparently to be struck by an incidental pellet from the blast that was to bring down all those other, larger birds.
Burnside left the order with the startled President, telling him plainly to make a choice between approving it or accepting its author’s resignation from command of an army that included such a set of villains. The order was dated the 23d, a Friday. Lincoln took what was left of Saturday to think the matter over. Then on Sunday, January 25, the ruff-whiskered general got his answer in the form of a general order of Lincoln’s own, directing: 1) that Burnside be relieved of command, upon his own request; 2) that Sumner be relieved, also upon his own request; 3) that Franklin be relieved, period; and 4) “that Maj. Gen. J. Hooker be assigned to the command of the Army of the Potomac.”
This last was a hard thing for the departing commander to accept. He had planned to blow up Hooker, but instead he had blown himself up, and Hooker into his place. It was hard, too, for Sumner and for Franklin; the fact that both were the new commander’s seniors necessitated their transfer after long association with the eastern army. Lincoln did not so much regret having to sidetrack Franklin, whose lack of aggressiveness at South Mountain and Fredericksburg was notorious, but he was sorry to have to offend the superannuated Sumner, who had saved the day at Fair Oaks and fought well on every field until his soul was sickened by the slaughter at Antietam. Nor had he hurt without regret the normally good-natured Burnside, whose forthright honesty in admission of faults and acceptance of blame was so different from what was ordinarily encountered. However, what there had been of hesitation was mainly based on what Lincoln knew of Fighting Joe himself, who was next in line for the assignment. He had heard from others beside Burnside of Hooker’s infidelity to his chief, and also of his excoriation of the Washington authorities. In fact, when the Times reporter who had talked recently with Hooker came to Lincoln on this Sunday and told him of what the general had said about the administration’s shortcomings and the need for a dictator, Lincoln showed no trace of surprise. “That is all true; Hooker does talk badly,” he admitted. But he decided, all the same, that Hooker was what the army and the country needed in the present crisis—a fighter who, unlike Burnside, had self-confidence and a reputation for canniness. “Now there is Joe Hooker,” Lincoln had remarked a short time back. “He can fight. I think that is pretty well established.”
And so it was. Without consulting Halleck or Stanton or anyone else, and despite the admitted risk to the national cause and the incidental injury to Burnside and Sumner, he made his choice and acted on it. However, before the new commander had been two days at his post, Lincoln sent for him and handed him a letter which was calculated to let him know how much he knew about him, as well as to advise him of what was now expected:
I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skillful soldier, which of course I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticising their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it.
And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.
Yours very truly
McClernand, conferring with Sherman at Milliken’s Bend on the day after his arrival from upriver—it was January 3; the two were aboard the former Illinois politician’s headquarters boat, the Tigress, tied up to bank twenty-odd miles above Vicksburg—did not blame the red-haired Ohioan for the repulse suffered earlier that week at Chickasaw Bluffs; Sherman, he said in a letter to Stanton that same day, had “probably done all in the present case anyone could have done.” The fault was Grant’s, and Grant’s alone. Grant had designed the operation and then, taking off half-cocked in his eagerness for glory that was rightfully another’s, had failed to co-operate as promised, leaving Sherman to hold the bag and do the bleeding. So McClernand said, considerably embittered by the knowledge that a good part of the nearly two thousand casualties lost up the Yazoo were recruits he had been sending down from Cairo for the past two months, only to have them snatched from under him while his back was turned. “I believe I am superseded. Please advise me,” he had wired Lincoln as soon as he got word of what was afoot. But permission to go downriver had not come in time for him to circumvent the circumvention; the fighting was over before he got there. He took what consolation he could from having been spared a share in a fiasco. At least he was with his men again—what was left of them, at any rate—and ready to take over. “Soon as I shall have verified the condition of the army,” he told Stanton, “I will assume command of it.”
He did so the following day. Christening his new command “The Army of the Mississippi” in nominal expression of his intentions, or at any rate his hopes, he divided it into two corps of two divisions each, the first under George Morgan and the second under Sherman—which, incidentally, was something of a bitter pill for the latter to swallow, since he believed a large share of the blame for the recent failure up the Yazoo rested with Morgan, who had promised that in ten minutes he would “be on those hills,” but who apparently had forgot to wind his watch. However that might be, McClernand now had what he had been wanting all along: the chance to prove his ingenuity and demonstrate his mettle in independent style. His eyes brightened with anticipation of triumph as he spoke of “opening the navigation of the Mississippi,” of “cutting my way to the sea,” and so forth. For all the expansiveness of his mood, however, the terms in which he expressed it were more general than specific; or, as Sherman later said, “the modus operandiwas not so clear.”
In this connection—being anxious, moreover, to balance his recent defeat with a success—the Ohioan had a suggestion. During the Chickasaw Bluffs expedition the packet Blue Wing, coming south out of Memphis with a cargo of mail and ammunition, had been captured by a Confederate gunboat that swooped down on her near the mouth of the Arkansas and carried her forty miles up that river to Arkansas Post, an outpost established by the French away back in 1685, where the rebels had constructed an inclosed work they called Fort Hindman, garrisoned by about 5000 men. So long as this threat to the main Federal supply line existed, Sherman said, operations against Vicksburg would be subject to such harassment, and it was his belief that, by way of preamble to McClernand’s larger plans—whatever they were, precisely—he ought to go up the Arkansas and abolish the threat by “thrashing out Fort Hindman.”
McClernand was not so sure. He had suffered no defeat that needed canceling, and what was more he had larger things in mind than the capture of an obscure and isolated post. However, he agreed to go with Sherman for a discussion of the project with Porter, whose cooperation would be required. They steamed downriver and found the admiral aboard his headquarters boat, the Black Hawk, anchored in the mouth of the Yazoo. It was late, near midnight; Porter received them in his nightshirt. He too was not so sure at first. He was short of coal, he said, and the ironclads, which would be needed to reduce the fort, could not burn wood. Presently, though, as Sherman continued to press his suit, asking at least for the loan of a couple of gunboats, which he offered to tow up the river and thus save coal, Porter—perhaps reflecting that he had on his record that same blot which a victory would erase—not only agreed to give the landsmen naval support; “Suppose I go along myself?” he added. Suddenly, on second thought, McClernand was convinced: so much so, indeed, that instead of merely sending Sherman to do the job with half the troops, as Sherman had expected, he decided it was worth the undivided attention of the whole army and its commander, whose record, if blotless, was also blank. With no minus to cancel, this plus would stand alone, auspicious, and make a good beginning as he stepped off on the road that led to glory and the White House.
He took three days to get ready, then (but not until then) sent a message by way of Memphis to notify Grant that he was off—one of his purposes being, as he said, “the counteraction of the moral effect of the failure of the attack near Vicksburg and the reinspiration of the forces repulsed by making them the champions of new, important, and successful enterprises.” He left Milliken’s Bend that same day, January 8, his 30,000 soldiers still aboard their fifty transports, accompanied by 13 rams and gunboats, three of which were ironclads and packed his Sunday punch. By way of deception the flotilla steamed past the mouth of the Arkansas, then into the White, from which a cutoff led back into the bypassed river. Late the following afternoon the troops began debarking three miles below Fort Hindman, a square bastioned work set on high ground at the head of a horseshoe bend, whose dozen guns included three 9-inch Columbiads, one to each riverward casemate, and a hard-hitting 8-inch rifle. A good portion of the defending butternut infantry, supported by six light pieces of field artillery, occupied a line of rifle-pits a mile and a half below the fort, but these were quickly driven out when the gunboats forged ahead and took them under fire from the flank. Late the following afternoon, when the debarkation had been completed and the four divisions were maneuvering for positions from which to launch an assault, the ironclads took the lead. The Louisville, the De Kalb, and the Cincinnati advanced in line abreast to within four hundred yards of the fort, pressing the attack bows on, one to each casemate, while the thinner-skinned vessels followed close behind to throw in shrapnel and light rifled shell. It was hot work for a time as the defenders stood to their guns, firing with precision; the Cincinnati, for example, took eight hits from 9-inch shells on her pilot house alone, though Porter reported proudly that they “glanced off like peas against glass”; the only naval casualties were suffered from unlucky shots that came in through the ports. When the admiral broke off the fight because of darkness, the fort was silent, apparently overwhelmed. But when Sherman, reconnoitering by moonlight, drew close to the enemy outposts he could hear the Confederates at work with spades and axes, drawing a new line under cover of their heavy guns and preparing to continue to resist despite the long numerical odds. Crouched behind a stump in the predawn darkness of January 11 he heard a rebel bugler sound what he later called “as pretty a reveille as I ever listened to.”
Shortly before noon he sent word that he was ready. His corps was on the right, Morgan’s on the left; both faced the newly drawn enemy line which extended across the rear of the fort, from the river to an impassable swamp one mile west. McClernand, having established a command post in the woods and sent a lookout up a tree to observe and report the progress of events, passed the word to Porter, who ordered the ironclads forward at 1.30 to renew yesterday’s attack. Sherman heard the clear ring of the naval guns, the fire increasing in volume and rapidity as the range was closed. Then he and Morgan went forward, the troops advancing by rushes across the open fields, “once or twice falling to the ground,” as Sherman said, “for a sort of rest or pause.” As they approached the fort they saw above its parapet the pennants of the ironclads, which had smothered the heavy guns by now and were giving the place a close-up pounding. Simultaneously, white flags began to break out all along the rebel line. “Cease firing! Cease firing!” Sherman cried, and rode forward to receive the fort’s surrender.
But that was not to be: not just yet, at any rate, and not to Sherman. Colonel John Dunnington, the fort’s commander, a former U.S. naval officer, insisted on surrendering to Porter, and Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill, commander of the field force, did not want to surrender at all. As Sherman approached, Churchill was arguing with his subordinates, wanting to know by whose authority the white flags had been shown. (He had received an order from Little Rock the night before, while there was still a chance to get away, “to hold out till help arrives or until all dead”—which Holmes later explained with the comment: “It never occurred to me when the order was issued that such an overpowering command would be devoted to an end so trivial.”) One brigade commander, Colonel James Deshler of Alabama, a fiery West Pointer in his late twenties—“small but very handsome,” Sherman called him—did not want to stop fighting even now, with the Yankees already inside his works. When Sherman, wishing as he said “to soften the blow of defeat,” remarked in a friendly way that he knew a family of Deshlers in his home state and wondered if they were relations, the Alabamian hotly disclaimed kinship with anyone north of the Ohio River; whereupon the red-headed general changed his tone and, as he later wrote, “gave him a piece of my mind that he did not relish.” However, all this was rather beside the point. The fighting was over and the butternut troops stacked arms. The Federals had suffered 31 navy and 1032 army casualties, for a total of 140 killed and 923 wounded. The Confederates, on the other hand, had had only 109 men hit; but that left 4791 to be taken captive, including a regiment that marched in from Pine Bluff during the surrender negotiations.
McClernand, who had got back aboard the Tigress and come forward, was tremendously set up. “Glorious! Glorious!” he kept exclaiming. “My star is ever in the ascendant.” He could scarcely contain himself. “I had a man up a tree,” he said. “I’ll make a splendid report!”
Grant by now was in Memphis. He had arrived the day before, riding in ahead of the main body, which was still on the way under McPherson, near the end of its long retrogade movement from Coffeeville, northward through the scorched wreckage of Holly Springs, then westward by way of Grand Junction and LaGrange. Having heard no word from Sherman, he knew nothing of his friend’s defeat downriver—optimistic as always, he was even inclined to credit rumors that the Vicksburg defenses had crumbled under assault from the Yazoo—until the evening of his arrival, when he received McClernand’s letter from Milliken’s Bend informing him of the need for “reinspiration of the forces repulsed.”
This was something of a backhand slap, at least by implication—McClernand seemed to be saying that he would set right what Grant had bungled—but what disturbed him most was the Illinois general’s expressed intention to withdraw upriver for what he called “new, important, and successful enterprises.” For one thing, if Banks was on the way up from New Orleans in accordance with the instructions for a combined assault on Vicksburg, it would leave him unsupported when he got there. For another, any division of effort was wrong as long as the true objective remained unaccomplished, and Grant said so in no uncertain terms next morning when he replied to McClernand’s letter: “I do not approve of your move on the Post of Arkansas while the other is in abeyance. It will lead to the loss of men without a result.… It might answer for some of the purposes you suggest, but certainly not as a military movement looking to the accomplishment of the one great result, the capture of Vicksburg. Unless you are acting under authority not derived from me, keep your command where it can soonest be assembled for the renewal of the attack on Vicksburg.… From the best information I have, Milliken’s Bend is the proper place for you to be, and unless there is some great reason of which I am not advised you will immediately proceed to that point and await the arrival of reinforcements and General Banks’ expedition, keeping me fully advised of your movements.”
He expressed his opinion more briefly in a telegram sent to Halleck that afternoon: “General McClernand has fallen back to White River, and gone on a wild-goose chase to the Post of Arkansas. I am ready to reinforce, but must await further information before knowing what to do.” The general-in-chief replied promptly the following morning, January 12: “You are hereby authorized to relieve General McClernand from command of the expedition against Vicksburg, giving it to the next in rank or taking it yourself.”
Grant now had what he wanted. Formerly he had moved with caution in the prosecution of his private war, by no means sure that in wrecking McClernand he would not be calling down the thunder on his own head; but not now. Halleck almost certainly would have discussed so important a matter with Lincoln before adding this ultimate weapon to Grant’s arsenal and assuring him that there would be no restrictions from above as to its use. In short, Grant could proceed without fear of retaliation except from the victim himself, whom he outranked. However, two pieces of information that came to hand within the next twenty-four hours forestalled delivery of the blow. First, he learned that Port Hudson was a more formidable obstacle than he had formerly supposed, which meant that it was unlikely that Banks’s upriver thrust would reach Vicksburg at any early date. And, second, he received next day from McClernand himself the “splendid report” announcing the fall of Arkansas Post and the capture of “a large number of prisoners, variously estimated at from 7000 to 10,000, together with all [their] stores, animals, and munitions of war.” Not only was the urgency for a hookup with Banks removed, but to proceed against McClernand now would be to attack a public hero in his first full flush of victory; besides which, Grant had also learned that the inception of what he had called the “wild-goose chase” had been upon the advice of his friend Sherman, and this put a different complexion on his judgment as to the military soundness of the expedition. All that remained was to play the old army game—which Grant well knew how to do, having had it played against him with such success, nine years ago in California, that he had been nudged completely out of the service. When the time came for pouncing he would pounce, but not before. Meanwhile he would wait, watching and building up his case as he did so.
This did not mean that he intended to sit idly by while McClernand continued to gather present glory; not by a long shot. Four days later, January 17—McClernand having returned as ordered to the Mississippi, awaiting further instructions at Napoleon, just below the mouth of the Arkansas—Grant got aboard a steamboat headed south from the Memphis wharf. Before leaving he wired McPherson, who had called a halt at LaGrange to rest his troops near the end of their long retreat from Coffeeville: “It is my present intention to command the expedition down the river in person.”
Banks was going to be a lot longer in reaching Vicksburg than Grant knew, and more was going to detain him than the guns that bristled atop the bluff at Port Hudson. After a sobering look at this bastion he decided that his proper course of action, before attempting a reduction of that place or a sprint past its frowning batteries, would be a move up the opposite bank of the big river, clearing out the various nests of rebels who otherwise would interfere with his progress by harassing his flank as he moved upstream. Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel, a twenty-eight-year-old West Pointer who already had been stationed in that direction by Ben Butler, was reinforced by troops from the New Orleans and Baton Rouge garrisons and told to make the region west of those two cities secure from molestation. He built a stout defensive work at Donaldsonville, commanding the head of Bayou La Fourche, and threw up intrenchments at Brashear City, blocking the approach from Berwick Bay. Then, crossing the bay with his mobile force on January 13, he entered and began to ascend the Teche, accompanied by three gunboats. This brought him into sudden contact next morning with Richard Taylor, who fought briefly and fell back, sinking the armed steamer Cotton athwart the bayou as he did so, corking it against farther penetration. Weitzel, who had lost 33 killed and wounded, including one of the navy skippers picked off by a sniper, reported proudly as he withdrew: “The Confederate States gunboat Cotton is one of the things that were.… My men behaved magnificently. I am recrossing the bay.”
As a successful operation—the first of what he intended would be many—this was unquestionably gratifying to Banks, who made the most of it in reporting the action to Washington as a follow-up to the bloodless reoccupation of the Louisiana capital. Yet even as he tendered his thanks to Weitzel for “the skillful manner in which he has performed the task confided to him,” he could also see much that was foreboding in this small-scale expedition up the Teche. For one thing, the rebels were very much there, though in what numbers he did not know, and for another they would fight, but only as it suited them, choosing the time and place that gave them the best advantage, fading back into the rank undergrowth quite as mysteriously as they had appeared, and then moving forward again as the bluecoats withdrew from what Taylor himself, who knew all its crooks and byways, called “a region of lakes, bayous, jungle, and bog.” How long it might take to clear such an army of phantoms from the district, or whether indeed it could ever be done, Banks could not tell. By mid-January, however, he had decided that it would have to be done. His expectations, described in mid-December as “most sanguine,” were tempered now by prudence and better acquaintance with the peculiar factors involved. He perceived that they would have to be refashioned to conform to a different schedule before he attempted the reduction of Port Hudson and the eventual link-up with Grant in front of Vicksburg, all those devious hundreds of miles up the tawny Mississippi.
In Northwest Arkansas and South Missouri things were not going much better for John Schofield, who had risen from a sickbed to resume command of his army on the morrow of Prairie Grove. They could in fact be said to be going a good deal worse, so far at least as personal vexation was concerned. He had won a battle (or anyhow Blunt and Herron had, with the result that they were about to be promoted over his head) and had followed it up with a lunge at Van Buren, resulting in the destruction of Hindman’s stores, before withdrawing to Fayetteville; but he had no sooner regained the presumed security of this pro-Union district, where he expected to enjoy in comparative relaxation his belated but welcome promotion to major general, than he was distracted by a series of explosions in his rear. First, Hindman unleashed his cavalry under Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke, a Missouri-born West Pointer, for an all-out raid on the main Federal supply base at Springfield, a hundred miles north of the point where Schofield was in theprocess of drawing his lines facing south. On New Year’s Eve Marmaduke left Lewisburg, on the north bank of the Arkansas River midway across the state, and reached his objective one week later at the head of 2300 horsemen, many of them picked up along the way and added to the original brigade of veterans under Colonel J. O. Shelby, who had led them on every field since Wilson’s Creek. Attacking on January 8 the raiders burned the Springfield depot of supplies and withdrew eastward 45 miles to strike at Hartville on the 11th, with similar results after savage fighting, then turned south through a gale of sleet and snow, gobbling up enemy detachments as they went, and recrossed the White River at Batesville on January 25.
Casualties in the two main fights had been about 250 on each side, in addition to which Marmaduke not only had captured and paroled more than 300 of the enemy in the course of the raid, for the most part turning them loose in bitter weather without their outer garments—“In winter,” one observer remarked, “the overcoat-bearing Federal was esteemed especially for his pelt”—but also had destroyed vital reserve supplies and refitted his troopers with arms and equipment greatly superior to the ones they had carried northward. All this came out of Schofield’s pocket, so to speak, but that was by no means the most painful aftereffect of the operation. Major General Samuel Curtis, promoted to command of the department as a result of his Pea Ridge victory back in March, took alarm and ordered the Army of the Frontier withdrawn from Fayetteville to protect the penetrated region across the state line in its rear, abolishing at a stroke the hard-won gains of Prairie Grove. Schofield protested, to no avail; Missouri soon had greater need than ever for on-the-spot protection, Marmaduke’s excursion having served to bring the guerillas out of hiding and onto the highways, along which new recruits hastened to join the bands reassembling under such leaders as George Todd, David Pool, William C. Anderson, called “Bloody Bill,” and William C. Quantrill. Enrolling was a simple process. All a recruit had to do was answer “Yes” to the question: “Will you follow orders, be true to your fellows, and kill all those who serve and support the Union?”
In the wake of this sudden activity, in effect not unlike the upsetting of a beehive, came violent dissension in the ranks of the Union leaders. Curtis, a former Iowa Republican congressman and abolitionist, represented the radical faction, while Schofield, with the support of Governor Hamilton R. Gamble, became the champion of conservative views. Militarily, as well, the two generals were divergent in opinion. Curtis wanted to hold all available troops within the borders of the state in order to use them in putting down troublemakers of all sorts, armed or unarmed; Schofield on the other hand believed in taking the offensive against the Confederates to his front in Arkansas. At length, as the situation grew more tense between the two, Lincoln was appealed to as arbitrator. He backed the department commander, ordering Schofield east of the Mississippi and leaving the hero of Pea Ridge in full control. However, the storm of protest which followed this decision gave promise of greater trouble than ever, and caused him to seek a different solution. Transferring Curtis out to Kansas, where his political views would be more in accord with those of the majority of the people, Lincoln appointed as the new commander of the Department of Missouri old Edwin V. Sumner, lately relieved of duty with the Army of the Potomac. But this did not work either; Sumner died en route.… It was March 21. Breaking his journey at Syracuse, New York, the old soldier lay in a coma, as if in belated reaction to the horror of Antietam, where he had begun to lose the grip that had been strong enough to save the day at Fair Oaks. “The Second Corps never lost a flag or a cannon!” he suddenly cried out. When his aide came over he opened his eyes. “That is true; never lost one,” he said weakly. At sixty-six he was nearing the end of forty-four years of army service, and except for his long sharp nose he resembled a death’s-head. The aide raised him to a more comfortable position on the bed and poured him a glass of wine, prescribed by the doctor to keep up his strength. Sumner took a sip, saying across the rim of the glass by way of a toast: “God save my country, the United States of America,” then dropped the glass and died.… Lincoln, receiving the news of Sumner’s death, decided that Schofield was probably the best man to take charge in Missouri after all. In reassigning him to duty there, however, he thought it proper to give him some advice on how to proceed among people who were engaged in what he called “a pestilent factional quarrel among themselves.” It was, he said in the accents of Polonius, “a difficult role, and so much greater will be the honor if you perform it well. If both factions, or neither, shall abuse you, you will probably be about right. Beware of being assailed by one and praised by the other.”
The trouble with this, as advice, was that it was the counsel of perfection, since the only way a man could avoid factions, being championed on the one hand and excoriated on the other, was to stay out of Missouri in the first place. Schofield, a rather plump New York West Pointer who wore a long thin growth of curly whiskers in partial compensation for the fact that he was already balding at the age of thirty-two, was quite aware of this, of course, but promised to do his best in that regard. At the same time, however—it was late spring by then, well up in May—he had to forgo his plans for an offensive into Arkansas, not only because of guerilla troubles within his department (they continued to grow worse as time went by, until at last they exceeded in horror the wildest nightmares Curtis or anyone else, except possibly Bill Anderson and Quantrill—not to mention old John Brown—had ever had) but also because he lacked the troops, Missouri having become in effect a recruiting ground for the support of operations far down the big river that laved its eastern flank. Schofield could only give what he had promised, his best, and if this was not a great deal, under the nearly impossible circumstances it was enough.
He could take consolation, however, in the fact that the Confederates to the south were quite as bedeviled as he himself was, though in a different way: with the result that throughout this unhappy season, when so much of military importance was moving inexorably toward a climax on the east flank of the theater, they were no more able to assume the offensive than Schofield was. Not only were they suffering from an even more acute shortage of troops, but a sequence of rapid-fire shifts in command, beginning at the very top, quite paralyzed whatever movements they might otherwise have undertaken.
Not that the shifts were avoidable. It had in fact already become apparent that Holmes had been given a good deal more than he could handle. In mid-January, a week after his return to Richmond from his western journey, Davis sent for Kirby Smith, whom he admired, and assigned him to command the newly created Department of West Louisiana and Texas, intending in this way to relieve Holmes of the task of co-ordinating the efforts of Taylor and Magruder. “Am I thus to be sent into exile?” Smith asked wistfully. Not yet thirty-nine, he ranked second among the nation’s seven lieutenant generals, and Lee himself had lately said that he would be pleased to have him as a corps commander, alongside Longstreet and Jackson. Davis explained that the assignment, far from amounting to exile, was as important as any in the whole Confederacy, since his main duty “would be directed to aiding in the defense of the Lower Mississippi and keeping that great artery of the West effectually closed to Northern occupation or trade.” Acquiescing, Smith set out in early February, only to learn en route that his command had been enlarged to include the entire Transmississippi. In the light of this he arranged with Pemberton for the transfer of Major General Sterling Price, who was much admired in the Far West and had formerly been governor of Missouri, the scene of his early victories at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington. It was hoped that Price would repeat them presently, although a sadly large proportion of the men with whom he had won them were buried now in shallow graves around Corinth and Iuka, and the survivors, few as they were in number, were too badly needed around Vicksburg to be allowed to recross the river. How he would replace them Smith did not know, for the region had been stripped of troops, first by Van Dorn, who had brought them east after his defeat at Elkhorn Tavern, and then by Hindman, who, by stringent enforcement of the conscription laws, had raised the army which he had taken across the Boston Mountains and then returned with no more than a comparative handful. Smith soon found his worst fears confirmed. “The male population remaining are old men, or have furnished substitutes,” he reported, “are lukewarm, or are wrapped up in speculation and money-making.”
Crossing at Port Hudson, he ascended Red River in a steamboat Richard Taylor had waiting for him by prearrangement, and on March 7 at Alexandria, Louisiana, he assumed command of all troops west of the Mississippi. What he encountered first-off gave his Regular Army nature quite a shock. “There was no general system, no common head,” he later reported; “each district was acting independently.” It was necessary, he said, to “begin de novo in any attempt at a general systematizing and development of the department resources.” Accordingly he set out at once on a preliminary tour of inspection, which only served to increase his first dismay. Conferring with Holmes at Little Rock—the North Carolinian now had charge of the subdepartment including Arkansas, Missouri, and Indian Territory—he found him anxiously awaiting the arrival of Price to command the army remnant left by Hindman, who had resigned in a huff at having been superseded by Holmes on the occasion of that officer’s step-down from command of the whole theater. Price arrived before the end of the month, yet there was little he could do until he got his men in condition to fight, which obviously would not be soon. Smith meantime established his headquarters at Shreveport. He considered it “a miserable place with a miserable population,” but it had the virtue of central location, at the head of navigation of Red River and on the direct route between Texas and Richmond. Here he set to work, laying the groundwork for organization of the enormous region which in time would be known as Kirby-Smithdom. He worked long hours and did not spare himself or his subordinates; but spring had come, and so had Banks and Grant, before his command—which included, in all, about 30,000 soldiers between the Mississippi and the Rio Grande, fewer even than Bragg had in the Duck River Valley or Pemberton had at Vicksburg and Port Hudson—was in any condition to offer them anything more than a token resistance.
After an all-night boat ride down the Mississippi, from Memphis past the mouth of the Arkansas, Grant reached Napoleon on January 18 to find McClernand, Porter, and Sherman awaiting his arrival with mixed emotions—mixed, that is, so far as McClernand’s were concerned; Porter and Sherman were united, if by nothing more than a mutual and intense dislike of the congressman-turned-commander. To them, Grant came as something of a savior, since he outranked the object of their scorn. To McClernand, on the other hand, he seemed nothing of the sort; McClernand plainly suspected another attempt to steal his thunder, if not his army. He had enlarged his Arkansas Post exploit by sending a pair of gunboats up White River to drive the rebels from St Charles and wreck their installations at De Valls Bluff, terminus of the railroad running east from Little Rock toward Memphis. It was smartly done, accomplishing at the latter place the destruction of the depot and some rolling stock, as well as the capture of two 8-inch guns which the flustered garrison was trying to load aboard the cars for a getaway west. Still at Fort Hindman while this was in progress, McClernand received Grant’s curt and critical letter ordering him back to the Mississippi at once, and he bucked it along to Lincoln with a covering letter of his own.
“I believe my success here is gall and wormwood to the clique of West Pointers who have been persecuting me for months,” he wrote, imploring his friend and fellow-townsman not to “let me be clandestinely destroyed, or, what is worse, dishonored, without a hearing.” He asked, “How can General Grant at a distance of 400 miles intelligently command the army with me?” and answered his own question without a pause: “He cannot do it. It should be made an independent command, as both you and the Secretary of War, as I believe, originally intended.”
Grant was about to get in some licks of his own in this regard, if not through out-of-channels access to Lincoln—whom he had not only never met, but had never even seen, despite the fact that both had gone to war from Illinois—then at any rate through Halleck, which was the next-best thing. For the present he merely conferred with the three officers, collectively and singly, and ordered the return of the whole expedition to Milliken’s Bend for a renewal of the drive on Vicksburg by the direct route. By now, however, as a result of his talk with these men who had been there, he was beginning to see that the only successful approach, after all, might have to be roundabout. “What may be necessary to reduce the place I do not yet know,” he wired the general-in-chief, “but since the late rains [I] think our troops must get below the city to be used effectually.”
He spent the night ashore at Napoleon, whose partial destruction by incendiaries the day before caused Sherman to declare that he was “free to admit we all deserve to be killed unless we can produce a state of discipline when such disgraceful acts cannot be committed unpunished.” One solution, he decided, would be “to assess the damages upon the whole army, officers included,” but no such drastic remedy was adopted. The following morning Grant saw the transports and their escort vessels steam away south, in accordance with his orders, and returned that evening to Memphis. Next day, January 20, he sent Halleck a long dispatch explaining the tactical situation as he saw it and announcing that, by way of a start, he intended to try his hand at redigging the canal across the base of the hairpin bend in front of Vicksburg, abandoned the previous summer by Butler’s men when the two Union fleets were sundered and repulsed by the rebel warship Arkansas, now fortunately at the bottom of the river. Grant suggested that, in view of the importance of the campaign he was about to undertake, it would be wise to combine the four western departments, now under Banks, Curtis, Rosecrans, and himself, under a single over-all commander in order to assure co-operation. “As I am the senior department commander in the West,” he wrote—apparently unaware that Banks was nine months his senior and in point of fact had been a major general before Grant himself was even a brigadier—“I will state that I have no desire whatever for such combined command, but would prefer the command I now have to any other than can be given.” From which disclaimer he passed at once to the subject of John McClernand: “I regard it as my duty to state that I found there was not sufficient confidence felt in General McClernand as a commander, either by the Army or Navy, to insure him success. Of course, all would co-operate to the best of their ability, but still with a distrust. This is a matter I made no inquiries about, but it was thrust upon me.” (As a later observer pointed out, there was “a touch of artfulness” in this; Grant “elevated Sherman and Porter to speak for entire branches of the service, then sought audiences with them so that the issue might be forced upon him!”) However, he continued, “as it is my intention to command in person, unless otherwise directed, there is no special necessity of mentioning this matter; but I want you to know that others besides myself agree in the necessity of the course I had already determined upon pursuing.”
His belief that Old Brains was on his side was strengthened the following day by a quick reply to his suggestion that “both banks of the Mississippi should be under one command, at least during the present operations.” “The President has directed that so much of Arkansas as you may desire to control be temporarily attached to your department,” Halleck wired. “This will give you control of both banks of the river.” Pleased to learn of Lincoln’s support, even at second hand, Grant kept busy with administrative and logistical matters preparatory to his departure from Memphis at the earliest possible date. McPherson was marching in from LaGrange with two divisions to accompany him downriver; these 14,979, added to the 32,015 already there, would give him an “aggregate present” of 46,994 in the vicinity of Vicksburg, with more to follow, not only from his own Department of the Tennessee, which included a grand total of 93,816 of all arms, but also from the Department of Missouri, now under Curtis and later under Schofield. On January 25 he received further evidence of Lincoln’s interest in the campaign for control of the Lower Mississippi, whose whimsical habit of carving itself new channels the Chief Executive knew from having made two flatboat voyages down it to New Orleans as a youth. “Direct your attention particularly to the canal proposed across the point,” Halleck urged. “The President attaches much importance to this.”
Grant himself was about ready to embark by now, wiring the general-in-chief this same day: “I leave for the fleet … tomorrow.” Last-minute details held him up an extra day, but on the 27 th he was off. “The work of reducing Vicksburg will take time and men,” he had told Halleck the week before, “but can be accomplished.”
Sherman was already hard at work on the project which had drawn Lincoln’s particular attention, and with his present arduous endeavor—in effect a gigantic wrestling match with Mother Nature herself, or at any rate with her son the Father of Waters—added to his previous bloody experience up the Yazoo, he could testify as to the validity of Grant’s long-range observation that the conquest of Vicksburg would “take time and men.” In fact, he was inclined to think it might require so much of both commodities as to prove impossible. Both were expendable in the ordinary sense, but after all there were limits. He was discouraged, he wrote his senator brother John this week, by the lack of substantial progress by Union arms, East and West, and by the unexpected resilience of the Confederates, civilian as well as military: “Two years have passed and the rebel flag still haunts our nation’s capital. Our armies enter the best rebel territory and the wave closes in behind. The utmost we can claim is that our enemy respects our power to do them physical harm more than they did at first; but as to loving us any more, it were idle even to claim it.… I still see no end,” he added, “or even the beginning of the end.”
Perhaps the senseless burning of Napoleon the week before was on his mind or conscience, but the truth was he had enough on his hands to distress him here and now. The rain continued to come down hard—even harder, perhaps, than it was falling along the Rappahannock, where Burnside’s Mud March was coming to its sticky close and the soldiers were composing a parody of a bedtime prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep
In mud that’s many fathoms deep.
If I’m not here when you awake
Just hunt me up with an oyster rake
—with the result that Sherman’s men, in addition to having to widen and deepen the old canal, which was little more than a narrow ditch across the base of the low-lying tongue of land, had to work day and night at throwing up a levee along its right flank in order not to be washed away by water from the flooded bayous in their rear. Besides, even if the river could be persuaded to scour out a new channel along this line and thus “leave Vicksburg out in the cold,” as Sherman said, it would be no great gain so far as he could see. The Confederates would merely shift their guns southward along the bluff to command the river at and below the outlet, leaving the shovel-weary Federals no better off than before. So he told his brother. And Porter, watching his red-haired friend slosh around in the mud and lose his temper a dozen times a day—“half sailor, half soldier, with a touch of the snapping turtle,” he called him—once more found it necessary to bolster Sherman’s spirits with hot rum and rollicking words. “If this rain lasts much longer we will not need a canal,” he ended a note to the unhappy general on January 27. “I think the whole point will disappear, troops and all, in which case the gunboats will have the field to themselves.”
Next day, however, Grant arrived, and Porter, reporting the fact to Welles, could say: “I hope for a better state of things.”
The word shoddy was comparatively new, having originated during the present century in Yorkshire, where it was used in reference to almost worthless quarry stone or nearly unburnable coal. Crossing the ocean to America it took on other meanings, at first being used specifically to designate an inferior woolen yarn made from fibers taken from worn-out fabrics and reprocessed, then later as the name for the resultant cloth itself. “Poor sleezy stuff,” one of Horace Greeley’s Tribune reporters called it, “woven open enough for sieves, and then filled with shearmen’s dust,” while Harper’s Weekly used even harsher words in referring to it as “a villainous compound, the refuse and sweepings of the shop, pounded, rolled, glued, and smoothed to the external form and gloss of cloth, but no more like the genuine article than the shadow is to the substance.” Thoroughly indignant, the magazine went on to tell how “soldiers, on the first day’s march or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, overcoats, and blankets scattering to the wind in rags or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain.”
It followed that the merchants and manufacturers who supplied the government with such cloth became suddenly and fantastically rich in the course of their scramble for contracts alongside others of their kind, the purveyors of tainted beef and weevily grain, the sellers of cardboard haversacks and leaky tents. No one was really discomforted by all this—so far, at least, as they could see—except the soldiers, the Union volunteers whose sufferings under bungling leaders in battles such as Fredericksburg and Chickasaw Bluffs were of a nature that made their flop-soled shoes and tattered garments seem relatively unimportant, and the Confederate jackals who stripped the blue-clad corpses after the inevitable retreat. If the generals were unashamed, were hailed in fact as heroes after such fiascos, why should anyone else have pangs of conscience? The contractors asked that, meanwhile raking in profits that were as long as they were quick. The only drawback was the money itself, which was in some ways no more real than the sleazy cloth or the imitation leather, being itself the shadow of what had formerly been substance. With prosperity in full swing and gold rising steadily, paper money declined from day to day, sometimes taking sickening drops as it passed from hand to hand. All it seemed good for was spending, and they spent it. Spending, they rose swiftly in the social scale, creating in the process a society which drew upon itself the word that formerly had been used to describe the goods they bartered—“shoddy”—and upon their heads the scorn of those who had made their money earlier and resented the fact that it was being debased. One such was Amos Lawrence, a millionaire Boston merchant. “Cheap money makes speculation, rising prices, and rapid fortunes,” Lawrence declared, “but it will not make patriots.” He wanted hard times back again. Closed factories would turn men’s minds away from gain; then and only then could the war be won. So he believed. “We must have Sunday all over the land,” he said, “instead of feasting and gambling.”
For the present, though, all that was Sunday about the leaders of the trend which he deplored was their clothes. They wore on weekdays now the suits they once had reserved for wear to church, and as they prospered they bought others, fine broadcloth with nothing shoddy about them except possibly what they inclosed. So garbed, and still with money to burn before it declined still further, the feasters and gamblers acquired new habits and pretensions, with the result that the disparaging word was attached by the New York World not only to the new society, but also to the age in which it flourished:
The lavish profusion in which the old southern cotton aristocracy used to indulge is completely eclipsed by the dash, parade, and magnificence of the new northern shoddy aristocracy of this period. Ideas of cheapness and economy are thrown to the winds. The individual who makes the most money—no matter how—and spends the most money—no matter for what—is considered the greatest man. To be extravagant is to be fashionable. These facts sufficiently account for the immense and brilliant audiences at the opera and the theatres, and until the final crash comes such audiences undoubtedly will continue. The world has seen its iron age, its silver age, its golden age, and its brazen age. This is the age of shoddy.
The new brown-stone palaces on Fifth Avenue, the new equipages at the Park, the new diamonds which dazzle unaccustomed eyes, the new silks and satins which rustle overloudly, as if to demand attention, the new people who live in the palaces, and ride in the carriages, and wear the diamonds and silks—all are shoddy.… They set or follow the shoddy fashions, and fondly imagine themselves à la mode de Paris, when they are only à la mode de shoddy. They are shoddy brokers on Wall Street, or shoddy manufacturers of shoddy goods, or shoddy contractors for shoddy articles for a shoddy government. Six days in the week they are shoddy business men. On the seventh day they are shoddy Christians.
Nor were journalists and previously wealthy men the only ones to express a growing indignation. Wages had not risen in step with the rising cost of food and rent and other necessities of life, and this had brought on a growth of the trade-union movement, with mass meetings held in cities throughout the North to protest the unequal distribution of advantages and hardships. (Karl Marx was even now at work on Das Kapital in London’s British Museum, having issued with Friedrich Engels The Communist Manifestofifteen years ago, and Lincoln himself had said in his first December message to Congress: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”) One such meeting, held about this time at Cooper Union, filled the building to capacity while hundreds of people waited outside for word to be passed of what was being said within by delegates on the rostrum; whatever it was was being received with cheers and loud applause, along with a sprinkling of hisses and vehement boos. A representative of the hatters, one McDonough Bucklin, believed that the war was being used by the rich as an excuse for increased exploitation of the poor. As Bucklin put it, “The machinery is forging fetters to bind you in perpetual bondage. It gives you a distracted country with men crying out loud and strong for the Union. Union with them means no more nor less than that they want the war prolonged that they may get the whole of the capital of the country into their breeches pocket and let it out at a percentage that will rivet the chain about your neck.” It was the old story: “Every day the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer.” Apparently at this point Bucklin got carried away, for a World reporter noted that “the speaker made some concluding remarks strongly tainted with communism, which did not meet with general approval.”
And yet, for all the offense to the sensibilities of the Boston millionaire, who had made his pile in a different time, as well as to those of the New York journalist, whose indignation was one of the tools he used in earning a living, and the labor delegate, who after all was mainly concerned with the fact that he and his hatters were not getting what he considered a large fair slice of the general pie, much of the undoubted ugliness of the era—the Age of Shoddy, if you will—was little more than the manifest awkwardness of national adolescence, a reaction to growing pains. Unquestionably the growth was there, and unquestionably, too—despite the prevalent gaucherie, the scarcity of grace and graciousness, the apparent concern with money and money alone, getting and spending—much of the growth was solid and even permanent. The signs were at hand for everyone to read. “Old King Cotton’s dead and buried; brave young Corn is king,” was the refrain of a popular song written to celebrate the bumper grain crops being gathered every fall,of which the ample surpluses were shipped to Europe, where a coincidental succession of drouths—as if the guns booming and growling beyond the Atlantic had drawn the rain clouds, magnet-like, and then discharged them empty—resulted in poor harvests which otherwise would have signaled the return of Old World famine. More than five million quarters of wheat and flour were exported to England in 1862, whereas the total in 1859 had been less than a hundred thousand. In the course of the conflict the annual pork pack nearly doubled in the northern states, and the wool clip more than tripled. Meanwhile, industry not only kept pace with agriculture, it outran it. In Philadelphia alone, 180 new factories were established between 1862 and 1864 to accommodate labor-saving devices which had been invented on the eve of war but which now came into their own in response to the accelerated demands of the boom economy of wartime: the Howe sewing machine, for example, which revolutionized the garment industry, and the Gordon McKay machine for stitching bootsoles to uppers, producing one hundred pairs of shoes in the time previously required to finish a single pair by hand. All those humming wheels and clamorous drive-shafts needed oil; and got it, too, despite the fact that no such amounts as were now required had even existed before, so far at least as men had suspected a short while back; for within that same brief three-year span the production of petroleum, discovered in Pennsylvania less than two years before Sumter, increased from 84,000 to 128,000,000 gallons. The North was fighting the South with one hand and getting rich with the other behind its back, though which was left and which was right was hard to say. In any case, with such profits and progress involved, who could oppose the trend except a comparative handful of men and women, maimed or widowed or otherwise made squeamish, if not downright unpatriotic, by hard luck or oversubscription to Christian ethics?
A change was coming upon the land, and upon the land’s inhabitants; nor was the change merely a dollars-and-cents affair, as likely to pass as to last. Legislation which had long hung fire because of peacetime caution and restraints imposed by jealous Southerners, now departed, came out of the congressional machine about as fast as proponents could feed bills into the hopper. Kansas had become a state and Colorado, Dakota, and Nevada were organized as Territories before the war was one year old, with the result that no part of the national area remained beyond the scope of the national law. Wherever a man went now the law went with him, at least in theory, and this also had its effect. Helping to make room on the eastern seaboard for the nearly 800,000 immigrants who arrived in the course of the conflict—especially from Ireland and Germany, where recruiting agents were hard at work, helping certain northern states to fill their quotas—no less than 300,000 people crossed the prairies, headed west for Pike’s Peak or California, Oregon or the new Territories, some in search of gold as in the days of ’49 and others to farm the cornlands made available under the Homestead Act of 1862, whereby a settler could stake off a claim to a quarter-section of public land and, upon payment of a nominal fee, call those 160 acres his own; 15,000 such homesteads were settled thus in the course of the war, mostly in Minnesota, amounting in all to some 2,500,000 acres. In this way the development of the Far West continued, despite the distraction southward, while back East the cities grew in wealth and population, despite the double drain in both directions. Nor were the cultural pursuits neglected, and these included more than attendance of the opera as a chance to show off the silks and satins whose rustling had disturbed the World reporter. Not only did university enrollments not decline much below what could be accounted for by the departure of southern students, but while the older schools were expanding their facilities with the aid of numerous wartime bequests, fifteen new institutions of higher learning were founded, including Cornell and Swarthmore, Vassar and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Campus life was not greatly different as a whole, once the undergraduates and professors grew accustomed to the fact that armies were locked in battle from time to time at various distances off beyond the southern horizon. Interrupted in 1861, for example, the Harvard-Yale boat races were resumed three years later in the midst of the bloodiest season of the war, and not a member of either crew volunteered for service in the army or the navy.
The draft, passed in early January as if in solution of the problem of Fredericksburg losses, hardly affected anyone not willing to be affected or else so miserably poor in these high times as not to be able to scrape up the $300 exemption fee as often as his name or number came up at the periodic drawings, in which case it might be said that he was about as well off in the army as out of it, except for the added discomfort of being drilled and possibly shot at. Large numbers of men from the upper classes, whether recently arrived at that level or established there of old, went to the expense of hiring substitutes (usually immigrants who were brought over by companies newly formed to supply the demand, trafficking thus in flesh to an extent unknown since the stoppage of the slave trade, and who were glad of the chance to earn a nest egg, which included the money they got from the men whose substitutes they were, plus the bounty paid by that particular state to volunteers—minus, of course, the fee that went to the company agent who had got them this opportunity in the first place) not only because it meant that the substitute-hirer was done with the problem of the draft for the duration, but also because it was considered more patriotic. All the same, the parody We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Dollars More was greeted with laughter wherever it was heard; for there was no stigma attached to the man who stayed out of combat, however he went about it short of actual dodging or desertion. “In the vast new army of 300,000 which Mr Lincoln has ordered to be raised,” one editor wrote, marveling at this gap disclosed in the new prosperity, “there will not be one man able to pay $300. Not one! Think of that!”
Washington itself was riding the crest of the wave thrown up by the boom, its ante-bellum population of 60,000 having nearly quadrupled under pressure from the throng of men and women rushing in to fill the partial vacuum created by the departure of the Southerners who formerly had set the social tone. Here the growing pains were the worst of all, according to Lincoln’s young secretary John Hay, who wrote: “This miserable sprawling village imagines itself a city because it is wicked, as a boy thinks he is a man when he smokes and swears.” In this instance Hay was offended because he and the President, riding back from the Soldiers Home after an interesting talk on philology—for which, he said, Lincoln had “a little indulged inclination”—encountered “a party of drunken gamblers and harlots returning in the twilight from [erased].” The fact was, the carousers might have been returning from almost any quarter of the city; for the provost marshal, while unable to give even a rough estimate of the number of houses of prostitution doing business here beside the Potomac, reported 163 gambling establishments in full swing, including one in which a congressman had lately achieved fame by breaking the bank in a single night and leaving with $100,000 bulging his pockets. It was a clutch-and-grab society now, with a clutch-and-grab way of doing business, whether its own or the government’s, though it still affected a free and easy manner out of office hours. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in town for a look-round, found that the nation’s pulse could be taken better at Willard’s Hotel, especially in the bar, than at either the Capitol or the White House. “Everybody may be seen there,” he declared. “You exchange nods with governors of sovereign states; you elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of generals; you hear statesmen and orators speaking in their familiar tones. You are mixed up with office-seekers, wire pullers, inventors, artists, poets, editors, army correspondents, attachés of foreign journals, long-winded talkers, clerks, diplomats, mail contractors, railway directors, until your own identity is lost among them. You adopt the universal habit of the place, and call for a mint julep, a whiskey skin, a gin cocktail, a brandy smash, or a glass of pure Old Rye; at any hour all these drinks are in request.”
Not that there were no evidences of war aside from the uniforms, which were everywhere, and the personal experience of wounds or bereavement. There were indeed. War was the central fact around which life in Washington revolved, and what was more there were constant reminders that war was closely involved with death in its more unattractive forms. Although men with wrecked faces and empty sleeves or trouser-legs no longer drew the attention they once had drawn, other signs were not so easily ignored. Under huge transparencies boasting their skill at embalming, undertakers would buttonhole you on the street and urgently guarantee that, after receiving payment in advance, they would bring you back from the place where you caught the bullet “as lifelike as if you were asleep,” the price being scaled in accordance with your preference for rosewood, pine, or something in between. One section of the city ticked like an oversized clock as the coffinmakers plied their hammers, stocking their shops against the day of battle, the news of which would empty their storerooms overnight and step up the tempo of their hammers in response to the law of supply and demand, as if time itself were hurrying to keep pace with the rush of events. In the small hours of the night, when this cacophonous ticking was stilled, men might toss sleepless on their beds, with dread like a presence in the room and sweat breaking out on the palms and foreheads even of those who knew the horror only by hearsay; but the outward show, by daylight or lamplight, was garish. Pennsylvania Avenue was crowded diurnally, to and beyond its margins of alternate dust and mud, and the plumes and sashes of the blue-clad officers, setting off the occasional gaudy splash of a Zouave, gave it the look of a carnival midway. This impression was heightened by the hawkers of roasted chestnuts and rock candy, and the women also did their part, contributing to the over-all effect the variegated dresses and tall hats that had come into fashion lately, the latter burdened about their incongruously narrow brims “with over-hanging balconies of flowers.”
A future historian described them so, finding also in the course of her researches that the ladies “were wearing much red that season.” Magenta and Solferino were two of the shades; “warm, bright, amusing names,” she called them, derived from far-off battlefields “where alien men had died for some vague cause.” Search as she might, however, she could find no shade of red identified with Chickasaw Bluffs, and it was her opinion that the flightiest trollop on the Avenue would have shrunk from wearing a scarlet dress that took its name from Fredericksburg.
Across the Atlantic, unfortunately for Confederate hopes of official acceptance into the family of nations, the Schleswig-Holstein problem, unrest in Poland, and the rivalry of Austria and Prussia gave the ministries of Europe a great deal more to think about than the intricacies of what was called “the American question.” Aware that any disturbance of the precarious balance of power might be the signal for a general conflagration, they recalled Voltaire’s comment that a torch lighted in 1756 in the forests of the new world had promptly wrapped the old world in flames. Russia, by coincidence having emancipated her serfs in the same year the western conflict began, was pro-Union from the start, while France remained in general sympathetic to the South; but neither could act without England, and England could not or would not intervene, being herself divided on the matter. The result, aside from occasional fumbling and inopportune attempts at mediation—mostly on the part of Napoleon III, who had needs and ambitions private and particular to himself—was that Europe, in effect, maintained a hands-off policy with regard to the blood now being shed beyond the ocean.
The double repulse, at Sharpsburg and Perryville, of the one Confederate attempt (so far) to conquer a peace by invasion of the ‘North did not mean to Lord Palmerston and his ministers that the South would necessarily lose the war; far from it. But it did convince these gentlemen that the time was by no means ripe for intervention, as they had recently supposed, and was the basis for their mid-November rejection of a proposal by Napoleon that England, France, and Russia join in urging a North-South armistice, accompanied by a six-month lifting of the blockade. The result, if they had agreed—as they had been warned in no uncertain terms by Seward in private conversations with British representatives overseas—would have been an immediate diplomatic rupture, if not an outright declaration of war: in which connection the London Times remarked that “it would be cheaper to keep all Lancashire in turtle and venison than to plunge into a desperate war with the Northern States of America, even with all Europe at our back.” No one knew better than Palmerston the calamity that might ensue, for he had been Minister at War from 1812 to 1815, during which period Yankee privateers had sunk about 2500 English ships, almost the entire marine. At that rate, with all those international tigers crouched for a leap in case the head tiger suffered some crippling injury, England not only could not afford to risk the loss of a sideline war; she could not even afford to win one.
Besides, desirable though it was that the flow of American cotton to British spindles be resumed—of 534,000 operatives, less than a quarter were working full time and more than half were out of work entirely; including their dependents, and those of other workers who lost their jobs in ancillary industries, approximately two million people were without means of self-support as a result of the cotton famine—the over-all economic picture was far from gloomy. In addition to the obvious example of the munitions manufacturers, who were profiting handsomely from the quarrel across the way, the linen and woolen industries had gained an appreciable part of what the cotton industry had lost, and the British merchant marine, whose principal rival for world trade was being chased from the high seas by rebel cruisers, was prospering as never before, augmented by more than seven hundred American vessels which transferred to the Union Jack in an attempt to avoid capture or destruction. And though there were those who favored intervention on the side of the South as a means of disposing permanently of a growing competitor, if by no other way then by assisting him to cut himself in two—the poet Matthew Arnold took this line of reason even further, speaking of the need “to prevent the English people from becoming, with the growth of democracy, Americanized”—the majority, even among the hard-pressed cotton operatives, did not. The Emancipation Proclamation saw to that, and Lincoln, having won what he first had feared was a gamble, was quick to press the advantage he had gained. When the workingmen of Manchester, the city hardest hit by the cotton famine, sent him an address approved at a meeting held on New Year’s Eve, announcing their support of the North in its efforts to “strike off the fetters of the slave,” Lincoln replied promptly in mid-January, pulling out all the stops in his conclusion: “I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the workingmen at Manchester and in all Europe are called upon to endure in this crisis.… Under these circumstances, I cannot but regard your decisive utterance upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is, indeed, an energetic and reinspiring assurance of the inherent power of truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom. I do not doubt that the sentiments you have expressed will be sustained by your great nation, and, on the other hand, I have no hesitation in assuring you that they will excite admiration, esteem, and the most reciprocal feelings of friendship among the American people. I hail this interchange of sentiment, therefore, as an augury that whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exist between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”
Palmerston could have made little headway against the current of this rhetoric, even if he had so desired. In point of fact he did not try. Having resisted up to now the efforts of Confederate envoys to rush him off his feet—which they had done their best to do, knowing that it was their best chance to secure European intervention: aside, that is, from such happy accidents as the Trent affair, which unfortunately after a great deal of furor had come to nothing—he would have little trouble in keeping his balance from now on. Napoleon, across the Channel, was another matter. Practically without popular objection to restrain him, he continued to work in favor of those interests which, as he saw them, coincided with his own. Through the prominent Paris banking firm, Erlanger et Cie—whose president’s son had lately married Matilda Slidell, daughter of the Confederate commissioner—a multi-million-dollar loan to the struggling young nation across the Atlantic was arranged, not in answer to any plea for financial assistance (it had not occurred to the Southerners, including John Slidell, despite the recent matrimonial connection, that asking would result in anything more than a Gallic shrug of regret) but purely as a gesture of good will. So the firm’s representatives said as they broached the subject to Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin in Richmond, having crossed the ocean for that purpose. However, being bankers—and what is more, French bankers—they added that they saw no harm in combining the good-will gesture with the chance to turn a profit, not only for the prospective buyers of the bonds that would be issued, but also for Erlanger et Cie. Then came the explanation, which showed that the transaction, though ostensibly a loan, was in fact little more than a scheme for large-scale speculation in cotton. Each 8% bond, which the firm would obtain at 70 for sale at approximately 100, was to be made exchangeable at face value, not later than six months after the end of the war, for New Orleans middling cotton at 12¢ a pound. There was the catch; for cotton was worth twice that much already, and was still rising. Benjamin, who was quite as sharp as the visiting bankers or their chief—Erlanger was a Jew and so was he; Erlanger was a Frenchman and so was he, after a manner of speaking, being Creole by adoption—saw through the scheme at once, as indeed anyone but a blind man would have done; but he also saw its propaganda value, which amounted at least to financial recognition of the Confederacy as a member of the family of nations. After certain adjustments on which he insisted, though not without exposing himself to charges of ingratitude for having looked a gift horse in the mouth—the original offer of $25,000,000 was scaled down to $15,000,000 and the interest rate to 7%, while the price at which the firm was to secure the bonds was raised to 77—the deal was closed.
That was in late January, and at first all went well. Issued in early March at 90—which gave Erlanger a spread of 13 points, plus a 5 % commission on all sales—the bonds were enthusiastically oversubscribed and quickly arose to 95½. But that was the peak. Before the month was out they began to fall, and they kept falling, partly because of the influence of U.S. foreign agents who, basing their charge on the fact that Jefferson Davis himself had been a prewar advocate of the repudiation of Mississippi state bonds, predicted vociferously that the Southerners, if by some outside chance they won the war, would celebrate their victory by repudiating their debts. This had its effect. As the price declined, the alarmed Parisian bankers brought pressure on James M. Mason, the Confederate commissioner in London, to bull the market by using the receipts of the first installment for the purchase of his government’s own bonds. Reluctantly, with the agreement of Slidell, he consented and, before he was through, put $6,000,000 into the attempt. But even this caused no more than a hesitation. When the artificial respiration stopped, the decline resumed, eventually pausing of its own accord at a depth of 36 before the bonds went off the board entirely. By that time, however, Erlanger et Cie was well in the clear, with a profit of about $2,500,000: which was more than the Confederacy obtained in all from a bond issue for which it had pledged six times that amount in capital and 7 % in interest. The real losers, though, were the individual purchasers, mostly British admirers of the Confederacy, who left to their descendants the worthless scroll-worked souvenirs of a curious chapter in international finance.
As a fund-raising device the experiment was nearly a total failure—for the Confederates, that is, if not for the French bankers—but it did provide an additional incentive for Napoleon, who had taken considerable interest in the transaction, to hope for a southern victory. On February 3, after the bond issue had been authorized but before it had begun, the Emperor had his minister at Washington, Henri Mercier by name, present an offer of mediation, suggesting that representatives of the North and South meet on neutral soil for a discussion of terms of peace. The reaction to this was immediate and negative, at least on the part of the North. Seward replied that the Federal government had not the slightest notion of abandoning its efforts to save the Union, and certainly not by any such relinquishment of authority as the French proposal seemed to imply. This was seconded emphatically by Congress on March 3, when both houses issued a joint resolution denouncing mediation as “foreign interference” and reaffirming their “unalterable purpose” to suppress a rebellion which had for its object the tearing of the fabric of the finest government the world had ever known. In short, all that came of this latest effort by Napoleon to befriend the South was a further reduction of his possible influence. And Palmerston, watching the outcome from across the Channel, was more than ever convinced that no good could proceed from any such machinations. Dependent as his people were on U.S. grain to keep them from starvation, with Canada liable to seizure as a hostage to fortune and the British merchant marine exposed to being crippled if not destroyed, it seemed to him little short of madness to step into an argument which was after all a family affair. “Those who in quarrels interpose, Are apt to get a bloody nose,” he intoned, falling back on doggerel to express his fears.
A. Dudley Mann, third in the trio of Confederate commissioners in Europe, had opened the year by complaining to his government that “the conduct of [England and France] toward us has been extremely shabby” and deploring their lack of spirit in the face of “the arrogant pretensions of the insolent Washington concern.” Now in mid-March, as the third spring of the war began its green advance across the embattled South, all those thousands of miles away, Slidell in Paris was becoming increasingly impatient with Napoleon, whose avowed good will and favors never seemed to lead to anything valid or substantial, and Mason in London was lamenting bitterly that he had “no intercourse, unofficial or otherwise, with any member of the [British] Government.” It was his private opinion, expressed frequently to Benjamin these days, that instead of continuing to put up with snubs and rebuffs, he would do better to come home.
If he had come home to Virginia now—as he did not; not yet—he would have done well to brace himself for the shock of finding it considerably altered from what it had been when he left it, a year and a half ago, to begin his aborted voyage on the Trent. That was perhaps the greatest paradox of all: that the Confederacy, in launching a revolution against change, should experience under pressure of the war which then ensued an even greater transformation, at any rate of the manner in which its citizens pursued their daily rounds, than did the nation it accused of trying to foist upon it an unwanted metamorphosis, not only of its cherished institutions, but also of its very way of life.
That way of life was going fast, and some there were, particularly among those who could remember a time when a society was judged in accordance with its sense of leisure, who affirmed that it was gone already. Nowhere was the change more obvious than in Richmond. Though the city was no longer even semi-beleaguered, as it had been in the time of McClellan, the outer fortifications had been lengthened and strengthened to such an extent that wags were saying, “They ought to be called fiftyfications now.” Within that earthwork girdle, where home-guard clerks from government offices walked their appointed posts in their off hours, an ante-bellum population of less than 40,000 had mushroomed to an estimated 140,000, exclusive of the Union captives and Confederate wounded who jammed the old tobacco warehouses converted to prisons and hospitals. Yet the discomfort to which the older residents objected was not so much the result of the quantity of these late arrivers as it was of their quality, so to speak, or lack of it. “Virginians regarded the newcomers much as Romans would regard the First Families of the Visigoths,” a diarist wrote. In truth, they had provocation far beyond the normal offense to their normal snobbery. Tenderloin districts such as Locust Alley, where painted women helped furloughed men forget the rigors of the field, and Johnny Worsham’s gambling hell, directly across from the State House itself, had given the Old Dominion capital a reputation for being “the most corrupt and licentious city south of the Potomac.” A Charlestonian administered the unkindest cut, however, by writing home that he had come to Richmond and found an entirely new city erected “after the model of Sodom and New York.” According to another observer, an Englishman with a sharper ear for slang and a greater capacity for shock, the formerly decorous streets were crowded now with types quaintly designated as pug-uglies, dead rabbits, shoulder-hitters, “and a hundred other classes of villains for whom the hangman has sighed for many a long year.”
Richmond saw and duly shuddered; but there was grimmer cause for shuddering than the wrench given its sense of propriety by the whores and gamblers who had taken up residence within its gates. As new-mounded graves spread over hillsides where none had been before, the population of the dead kept pace with the fast-growing population of the living. Though the Confederates in general lost fewer men in battle than their opponents, the fact that they had fewer to lose gave the casualty lists a greater impact, and it was remarked that “funerals were so many, even the funerals of friends, that none could be more than sparsely attended.” Even more pitiful were the dying; Richmonders had come to know what one of them called “the peculiar chant of pain” that went up from a line of springless wagons hauling wounded over a rutted road or a cobbled street. You saw the maimed wherever you looked. For the city’s hospitals—including the one on Chimborazo Heights, which had 150 buildings and was said to be the largest in the world—were so congested during periods immediately following battles that men who had lost an arm three days before had to be turned out, white-faced and trembling from shock and loss of blood, to make room for others in more urgent need of medical attention. It was up to the people to take them into their houses for warmth and food, and this they did, though only by the hardest, for both were dear and getting further beyond their means with every day that passed.
A gold dollar now was worth four in Confederate money, and even a despised $1 Yankee greenback brought $2.50 in a swap. Of coined money there was none, and in fact there had never been any, except for four half-dollars struck in the New Orleans mint before the fall of that city caused the government to abandon its plans for coinage. Congress’s first solution to the small-change problem had been to make U.S. silver coins legal tender up to $10, along with English sovereigns, French napoleons, and Spanish and Mexican doubloons, but presently a flood of paper money was released upon the country, bills of smaller denominations being known as “shinplasters” because a soldier once had used a fistful to cover a tibia wound. Sometimes, as depreciation continued, that seemed about all they were good for. A War Department official, comparing current with prewar household expenses—flour, then $7, now $28 a barrel; bacon, then 20¢, now $1.25 a pound; firewood, then $3 or $4, now $15 a cord—found, as many others were finding, that he could not make ends meet; “My salary of $3000 will go about as far as $700 would in 1860.” Wool and salt, drugs and medicines, nails and needles were scarcely to be had at any price, though the last were often salvaged from sewing kits found in the pockets of dead Federals. Dress muslin was $6 to $8 a yard, calico $1.75, coal $14 a cartload, and dinner in a first-class hotel ran as high as $25 a plate. In addition to genuine shortages, others were artificial, the result of transportation problems. Items that were plenteous in one part of the country might be as rare as hen’s teeth in another. Peaches selling for 25¢ a dozen in Charleston, for instance, cost ten, fifteen, even twenty cents apiece in Richmond nowadays. For men perhaps the worst shock was the rising price of whiskey. As low as 25¢ a gallon in 1861, inferior stuff known variously as bust-head, red-eye, and tangle-foot now sold for as high as $35 a gallon. For women, on the other hand, the main source of incidental distress was clothes, the lack of new ones and the unsuitability of old ones through wear-and-tear and changing styles, although the latter were of necessity kept to a minimum. “Do you realize the fact that we shall soon be without a stitch of clothes?” a young woman wrote to a friend in early January. “There is not a bonnet for sale in Richmond. Some of the girls smuggle them, which I for one consider in the worst possible taste.” Apparently ashamed to have let her mind turn in this direction at this time, she hastened to apologize for her flightiness, only to fall into fresh despair. “It seems rather volatile to discuss such things while our dear country is in such peril. Heaven knows I would costume myself in coffee-bags if that would help, but having no coffee, where would I get the bags?”
One provident source of amusement and delivery from care was the theater, which was popular as never before, though it did not escape the censure of the more respectable. “The thing took well, and money flowed into the treasury,” a manager afterwards recalled, “but often had I cause to upbraid myself for having fallen so low in my own estimation, for I had always considered myself a gentleman, and I found that in taking control of this theatre and its vagabond company I had forfeited my claim to a respectable stand in the ranks of Society.” A prominent Baptist preacher’s complaint from his pulpit that “twenty gentlemen for the chorus and the ballet” might be more useful to their country in the army, where they could do more than “mimic fighting on the stage,” met with the approval of his congregation; but the S.R.O. signs continued to go up nightly beside the ticket windows. When the Richmond Theatre burned soon after New Year’s, an entirely new building was promptly raised on the old foundations. Opening night was greeted with an “Inaugural Poem” by Henry Timrod, concluding:
Bid Liberty rejoice! Aye, though its day
Be far or near, these clouds shall yet be red
With the large promise of the coming ray.
Meanwhile, with that calm courage which can smile
Amid the terrors of the wildest fray
Let us among the charms of Art awhile
Fleet the deep gloom away;
Nor yet forget that on each hand and head
Rest the dear rights for which we fight and pray.
If the production itself—Shakespeare’s As You Like It; “but not as we like it,” one critic unkindly remarked—left much to be desired in the way of professional excellence, Richmonders were glad to have found release “among the charms,” and even the disgruntled reviewer was pleased to note “that the audience evinced a disposition at once to stop all rowdyism.” For example, when the callboy came out from behind the curtain to fasten down the carpet, certain ill-bred persons began to yell, “Soup! Soup!” but were promptly shushed by those around them.
An even better show, according to some, was presented at the Capitol whenever Congress was in session, though unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on the point of view—these theatricals were in general unavailable to the public, being conducted behind closed doors. It was not so much what occurred in the regular course of business that was lively or amusing (for, as was usual with such bodies, there was a good deal more discussion of what to do than there was of doing. One member interrupted a long debate as to a proper time for adjournment by remarking, “If the House would adjourn and not meet any more, it would benefit the country.” Others outside the legislative assembly agreed, including a Deep South editor who, learning that Congress had spent the past year trying without success to agree on a device for the national seal, suggested “A terrapin passant,” with the motto “Never in haste”); it was what happened beside the point, so to speak, that provided the excitement. In early February the Alabama fire-eater William L. Yancey, opposing the creation of a Confederate Supreme Court—which, incidentally, never came into being because of States Rights obstructionists—so infuriated Benjamin H. Hill of Georgia, a moderate, that he threw a cutglass inkstand at the speaker and cut his cheek to the bone. As Yancey, spattered with blood and ink, started for him across the intervening desks, Hill followed up with a second shot, this time a heavy tumbler, which missed, and the sergeant-at-arms had to place both men in restraint and remove them from the chamber. Less fortunate was the chief clerk, shot to death on Capitol Square two months later by the journal clerk, who was angry at having been accused of slipshod work by his superior. The killer was sentenced to eighteen years in the penitentiary, but nothing at all was done to a woman who appeared one day on the floor of the House and proceeded to cowhide a Missouri congressman. She too was a government clerk, but it developed that her wrath had been aroused by information that Congress, in connection with enforcement of the Conscription Act, was about to require all clerks to divulge their ages. Deciding that the woman was demented, the House voted its confidence in the unlucky Missourian, who apparently had been selected at random. No such vote was ever given Jefferson Davis’s old Mississippi stump opponent Henry S. Foote, who worked hard to deserve the reputation of being the stormiest man in Congress. He fought with his fists, in and out of the chamber, and was always ready to fall back on dueling pistols, with which he had had considerable experience. An altercation with an expatriate Irishman and a Tennessee colleague, who struck Foote over the head with an umbrella and then dodged nimbly to keep from being shot, caused all three to be brought into the Mayor’s Court and placed under a peace bond. Another three-sided argument occurred in the course of a congressional hearing in which a Commissary Department witness was so badgered by Foote that the two came to blows. Foote tore off his adversary’s shirt bosom, and when Commissary General Lucius B. Northrop came to the witness’s assistance Foote knocked him into a corner. According to some who despised Colonel Northrop, asserting that he was attempting to convert the southern armies to vegetarianism, this was Foote’s one real contribution to the Confederate war effort. But he was by no means through providing excitement. In the course of a speech by E. S. Dargan of Alabama, Foote broke in to call him a “damned rascal,” which so infuriated the elderly congressman that he went for the Mississippian with a knife. Foote avoided the lunge, and then—Dargan by now had been disarmed and lay pinned to the floor by colleagues—stepped back within range and, striking an attitude not unworthy of Edwin Booth, whose work he much admired, hissed at the prostrate Alabamian: “I defy the steel of the assassin!”
All this was part and parcel of the revolution-in-progress, and if much of it was scandalous and distasteful, most Confederates could take that too in stride, along with spiraling prices and increasing scarcities. A native inclination toward light-heartedness served them well in times of strain. What the newcomers to Richmond lacked in tone they more than made up for in gaiety. Practically nothing was exempt from being laughed at nowadays, not even the sacred escutcheon of Virginia, whose motto Sic semper tyrannis, engraved below the figure of Liberty treading down Britannia, was freely rendered as “Take your foot off my neck!” Officers and men on leave and furlough from the Rappahannock line opened Volume I, “Fantine,” of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which had come out in France the year before, and professed surprise at finding that it was not about themselves, “Lee’s Miserables, Faintin’.” One whose spirits never seemed to falter was Judah Benjamin, who remarked in this connection that it was “wrong and useless to disturb oneself and thus weaken one’s energy to bear what was foreordained.” This hedonistic fatalist went his way, invariably smiling, whether in attendance at government councils or at Johnny Worsham’s green baize tables across the way. He once assured Varina Davis that with a glass of McHenry sherry, of which she had a small supply, and beaten biscuits made of flour from Crenshaw Mills, spread with a paste made of English walnuts from a tree on the White House grounds, “a man’s patriotism became rampant.” She found him amusing, an ornament to her receptions, and an excellent antidote to the FFV’s who currently were condemning her as “disloyal to the South” because of a rumor that she had employed a white nurse for her baby.
The easy laughter was infectious, though some could hear it for what it was, part of an outward pose assumed at times to hide or hold back tears. What was happening behind the mask—not only Benjamin’s, but the public’s at large—no one could say for certain. Presently, however, there were signs that the mask was beginning to crack, or at any rate slip, and thus disclose what it had been designed to cover. When the President proclaimed March 5 another “day of fasting and prayer,” this too was not exempt from unregenerate laughter; “Fasting in the midst of famine!” some remarked sardonically. Then, just short of one month later, on Holy Thursday—Easter came on April 5, a week before the second anniversary of Sumter—a demonstration staged on the streets of the capital itself gave the authorities cause to question whether all was as well concerning public morale here in the East as they had supposed, especially among those citizens who could not enjoy the relaxations afforded by such places as Johnny Worsham’s, where a lavish buffet was maintained for the refreshment of patrons at all hours. The Holy Thursday demonstration, at least at the start, was concerned with more basic matters: being known, then and thereafter, as the Bread Riot.
Apparently it began at the Oregon Hill Baptist church, where Mary Jackson, a huckster with “straight, strong features and a vixenish eye,” harangued a group of women who had gathered to protest the rising cost of food. Adjourning to Capitol Square they came under the leadership of a butcher’s Amazonian assistant, Minerva Meredith by name. Six feet tall and further distinguished by a long white feather that stood up from her hat and quivered angrily as she tossed her head, she proposed that they move on the shops to demand goods at government prices and to take them by force if this was refused. As she spoke she took from under her apron, by way of emphasis, a Navy revolver and a Bowie knife. Brandishing these she set out for the business section at the head of a mob which quickly swelled to about three hundred persons, including the children some of the women had in tow. “Bread! Bread!” they shouted as they marched. Governor John Letcher, who had watched from his office as the demonstration got under way, had the mayor read the Riot Act to them, but they hooted and surged on past him, smashing plate-glass windows in their anger and haste to get at the goods in the shops on Main and Cary. It was obvious that they were after more than food, for they emerged with armloads of shoes and clothes, utensils and even jewelry, which some began to pile in to handcarts they had thought to bring along. Governor Letcher sent for a company of militia and threatened to fire on the looters when it arrived, but the women sneered at him, as they had done at the mayor, and went on with their vandalism. Just then, however, those on the outer fringes of the mob saw a tall thin man dressed in gray homespun climb onto a loaded dray and begin to address them sternly. They could not hear what he was saying, but they saw him do a strange thing. He took money from his pockets and tossed it in their direction. Whereupon they fell silent and his voice came through: “You say you are hungry and have no money. Here is all I have. It is not much, but take it.” His pockets empty of all but his watch, he took that out too, but instead of throwing it at them, as he had done the money, he stood with it open in his hand, glancing sidelong at the militia company which had just arrived. “We do not desire to injure anyone,” he said in a voice that rang clear above the murmur of the crowd, “but this lawlessness must stop. I will give you five minutes to disperse. Otherwise you will be fired on.”
Recognizing the President—and knowing, moreover, that he was not given to issuing idle threats—the mob began to disperse, first slowly, then rapidly as the deadline approached. By the time the five minutes were up, there was no one left for the soldiers to fire at. Davis put his watch back in his pocket, climbed down off the dray, and returned to his office. Outwardly calm, inwardly he was so concerned that he did something he had never done before. He made a special appeal to the Richmond press, requesting that it “avoid all reference directly or indirectly to the affair,” and ordered the telegraph company to “permit nothing relative to the unfortunate disturbance … to be sent over the telegraph lines in any direction for any purpose.” He feared the reaction abroad, as well as in other parts of the South, if it became known that the streets of the Confederate capital had been the scene of a riot that had as its cause, if only by pretense, a shortage of food. Two days later, however, the Enquirer broke the story by way of refuting defeatist rumors that were beginning to be spread. Identifying the rioters as “a handful of prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags, gallows birds from all lands but our own,” the paper denounced them for having broken into “half a dozen shoe stores, hat stores and tobacco houses and robbed them of everything but bread, which was just the thing they wanted least.”
This one attempt at suggesting censorship was as useless as it was ineffective: Richmond was by no means the only place where such disturbances occurred in the course of Holy Week. Simultaneously in Atlanta a group of about fifteen well-dressed women entered a store on Whitehall Street and asked the price of bacon. $1.10 a pound, they were told: whereupon their man-tall leader, a shoemaker’s wife “on whose countenance rested care and determination,” produced a revolver with which she covered the grocer while her companions snatched what they wanted from the shelves, paying their own price or nothing. From there they proceeded to other shops along the street, repeating the performance until their market baskets were full, and then went home. A similar raid was staged at about the same time in Mobile, as well as in other towns and cities throughout the South. Presently countrywomen took their cue from their urban sisters. North Carolina experienced practically an epidemic of demonstrations by irate housewives. Near Lafayette, Alabama, a dozen such—armed, according to one correspondent, with “guns, pistols, knives, and tongues”—attacked a rural mill and seized a supply of flour, while a dozen more came down out of the hills around Abingdon, Virginia, and cowered merchants into handing over cotton yarn and cloth; wagon trains were stopped at gunpoint and robbed of corn near Thomasville and Marietta, Georgia. All these were but a few among the many, and there were those who saw in this ubiquitous manifestation of discontent the first crack in the newly constructed edifice of government. If the Confederacy could not be defeated from without, then it might be abolished from within; for the protests were not so much against shortages, which were by no means chronic at this stage, as they were against the inefficiency which resulted in spiraling prices. These observers saw the demonstrations, in fact—despite the recent successes of southern arms, both East and West—as symptoms of war weariness, the one national ailment which could lead to nothing but defeat. The new government could survive, and indeed had survived already, an assortment of calamities; but that did not and could not include the loss of the will to fight, either by the soldiers in its armies or by the people on its home front.
No one saw the danger more clearly than the man whose principal task—aside, that is, from his duties as Commander in Chief, which now as always he placed first—was to do all he could to avert it. Recently he had undertaken a 2500-mile year-end journey to investigate and shore up crumbling morale, with such apparent success that on his return he could report to Congress, convening in Richmond for its third session on January 12, that the state of the nation, in its civil as well as in its military aspect, “affords ample cause for congratulation and demands the most fervent expression of our thankfulness to the Almighty Father, who has blessed our cause. We are justified in asserting, with a pride surely not unbecoming, that these Confederate States have added another to the lessons taught by history for the instruction of man; that they have afforded another example of the impossibility of subjugating a people determined to be free, and have demonstrated that no superiority of numbers or available resources can overcome the resistance offered by such valor in combat, such constancy under suffering, and such cheerful endurance of privation as have been conspicuously displayed by this people in the defense of their rights and liberties.” Moreover, he added, flushed by the confidence his words had generated: “By resolute perseverance in the path we have hitherto pursued, by vigorous efforts in the development of all our resources for defense, and by the continued exhibition of the same unfaltering courage in our soldiers and able conduct in their leaders as have distinguished the past, we have every reason to expect that this will be the closing year of the war.”
Since then, despite continued successful resistance by the armies in the field, symptoms of unrest among civilians had culminated in the rash of so-called Bread Riots, the largest of which had occurred in the capital itself and had been broken up only by the personal intervention of the Chief Executive. Two days later—on April 10, just short of three months since his confident prediction of an early end to the conflict—Davis issued, in response to a congressional resolution passed the week before, a proclamation “To the People of the Confederate States.” Observing that “a strong impression prevails throughout the country that the war … may terminate during the present year,” Congress urged the people not to be taken in by such false hopes, but rather to “look to prolonged war as the only condition proffered by the enemy short of subjugation.” The presidential proclamation, issued broadcast across the land, afforded the people the unusual opportunity of seeing their President eat his words, not only by revoking his previous prediction, but by substituting another which clearly implied that what lay ahead was a longer and harder war than ever.
Though “fully concurring in the views thus expressed by Congress,” he began with the same boldness of assertion as before. “We have reached the close of the second year of the war, and may point with just pride to the history of our young Confederacy. Alone, unaided, we have met and overthrown the most formidable combination of naval and military armaments that the lust of conquest ever gathered together for the subjugation of a free people.… The contrast between our past and present condition is well calculated to inspire full confidence in the triumph of our arms. At no previous period of the war have our forces been so numerous, so well organized, and so thoroughly disciplined, armed, and equipped as at present.” Then he passed to darker matters. “We must not forget, however, that the war is not yet ended, and that we are still confronted by powerful armies and threatened by numerous fleets.… Your country, therefore, appeals to you to lay aside all thoughts of gain, and to devote yourselves to securing your liberties, without which those gains would be valueless.… Let fields be devoted exclusively to the production of corn, oats, beans, peas, potatoes, and other food for man and beast; let corn be sown broadcast for fodder in immediate proximity to railroads, rivers, and canals, and let all your efforts be directed to the prompt supply of these articles in the districts where our armies are operating.… Entertaining no fear that you will either misconstrue the motives of this address or fail to respond to the call of patriotism, I have placed the facts fully and frankly before you. Let us all unite in the performance of our duty, each in his own sphere, and with concerted, persistent, and well-directed effort … we shall maintain the sovereignty and independence of these Confederate States, and transmit to our posterity the heritage bequeathed to us by our fathers.”
As usual, the people responded well for the most part to a clear statement of necessity. But there were those who reacted otherwise. The Georgia fire-eater Robert Toombs, for example, who had left the cabinet to join the army on the day of First Manassas and then had left the army to re-enter politics after his one big day at Sharpsburg, petulantly announced that he was increasing his plantation’s cotton acreage. Nor were opposition editors inclined to neglect the opportunity to launch the verbal barbs they had been sharpening through months of increasing dissatisfaction. “Mr Davis is troubled by blindness,” the Mobile Tribune told its subscribers, “is very dyspeptic and splenetic, and as prejudiced and stubborn as a man can well be, and not be well.”
Thus did the Confederacy enter upon its third year of war.
Disenchantment was mainly limited to civilians, but it was by no means limited to the sphere of civilian activities. Illogically or not—that is, despite the lopsided triumphs at Fredericksburg and Chickasaw Bluffs, the flood-reversing coups at Holly Springs and Galveston, the brilliant cavalry forays into Kentucky and West Tennessee, and the absence of anything resembling a clear-cut defeat east of the Mississippi—there was a growing impression that victory, on field after field, brought little more than temporary joy, which soon gave way to sobering realizations. The public’s reaction was not unlike that of a boxer who delivers his best punch, square on the button, then sees his opponent merely blink and shake his head and bore back in. People began to suspect that if the North could survive Fredericksburg and the Mud March, Chickasaw Bluffs and the loss of the Cairo to a demijohn of powder, it might well be able to survive almost anything the South seemed able to inflict. A whole season of victories apparently had done nothing to bring peace and independence so much as one day closer. Howell Cobb of Georgia could say, not altogether in jest, “Only two things stand in the way of an amicable settlement of the whole difficulty: the Landing of the Pilgrims and Original Sin,” while the Richmond Examiner could simultaneously call attention to the chilling fact that, aside from Sumter, “[Lincoln’s] pledge once deemed foolish by the South, that he would ‘hold, occupy, and possess’ all the forts belonging to the United States Government, has been redeemed almost to the letter.”
Fredericksburg had been hailed at the outset as the turning point of the war. Presently, however, as Lee and his army failed to find a way to follow it up, the triumph paled to something of a disappointment. In time, paradoxically, the more perceptive began to see that it had indeed been a turning point, though in a sense quite different from the one originally implied; for no battle East or West, whether a victory or a defeat, showed more plainly the essential toughness of the blue-clad fighting man than this in which, judging by a comparison of the casualties inflicted and received, he suffered the worst of his several large-scale drubbings. But this was an insight that came gradually and only to those who were not only able but also willing to perceive it. Murfreesboro was more immediately disappointing in respect to Confederate expectations, and no such insight was required. Here the contrast between claims and accomplishments was as stark as it was sudden. First it was seen to be a much less brilliant victory than the southern commander had announced before his guns had hushed their growling. Then it was seen to be scarcely a victory at all. It was seen, in fact, to have several of the aspects of a typical defeat: not the least of which was the undeniable validity of the Federal claim to control of the field when the smoke had cleared. “So far the news has come in what may be called the classical style of the Southwest,” the Examiner observed caustically near the end of the first week in January, having belatedly learned of Bragg’s withdrawal. “When the Southern army fights a battle, we first hear that it has gained one of the most stupendous victories on record; that regiments from Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, &c. have exhibited an irresistible and superhuman valor unknown in history this side of Sparta and Rome. As for their generals, they usually get all their clothes shot off, and replace them with a suit of glory. The enemy, of course, is simply annihilated. Next day more dispatches come, still very good, but not quite as good as the first. The telegrams of the third day are invariably such as make a mist, a muddle, and a fog of the whole affair.”
No mist, muddle, or fog could hide Bragg from the ire aroused when the public learned the premature and insubstantial basis for his wire announcing that God had granted him and them a Happy New Year. What saved him from the immediate consequences of their anger was his adversary Rosecrans, who, despite his recent promise to “press [the rebels] to the wall,” not only refused to follow up the victory he claimed, but resisted with all his strength—as he had done through the months preceding the march out of Nashville, pleading the need to lay in “a couple of millions of rations”—the efforts by his superiors to prod him into motion. Crittenden, who had commanded the unassailed left wing throughout the first day’s fight and then repulsed his fellow-Kentuckian Breckinridge on the second, stated the case as it appeared to many in the Union ranks: “The battle was fought for the possession of Middle Tennessee. We went down to drive the Confederates out of Murfreesboro, and we drove them out. They went off a few miles and camped again. And we, although we were the victors, virtually went into hospital for six months before we could march after them again.” He added, by way of developing a theory: “As in most of our battles, very meager fruits resulted to either side from such partial victories as were for the most part won. Yet it was a triumph. It showed that in the long run the big purse and the big battalions—both on our side—must win; and it proved that there were no better soldiers than ours.”
Rosecrans disagreed with much of this critique, particularly the remark that the army had gone “into hospital,” but he not only subscribed to Crittenden’s opinion about the big purse and the big battalions, he also took it a step further by insisting that the last ounce be wrung from the advantage. What good were riches, he seemed to be asking, unless they were at hand? When he swung the purse he wanted it to be heavy. “I believe the most fatal errors of this war have begun in an impatient desire of success, that would not take time to get ready,” he protested in mid-February, by way of reply to Halleck’s continuous urging. So the general-in-chief changed his tack. “There is a vacant major generalcy in the Regular Army,” he wired on March 1, “and I am authorized to say that it will be given to the general in the field who first wins an important and decisive victory.” The implication was that Rosecrans had better get to Chattanooga before Grant got to Vicksburg; but Old Rosy did not react at all in the way that had been intended. “As an officer and a citizen, I feel degraded to see such auctioneering of honor,” he replied. “Have we a general who would fight for his own personal benefit, when he would not for honor and the country? He would come by his commission basely in that case, and deserve to be despised by men of honor.” Halleck in turn resented this show of righteous indignation, and said so, which only served to increase their differences. Rosecrans was convinced by now that all of Washington was against him: especially Stanton, who had promised, in the first flush of excitement over the news of a hard-fought triumph, to withhold “nothing … within my power to grant,” but who lately had bridled at filling the balky commander’s many requisitions and requests, including one that his latest promotion be predated so as to give him rank over Grant and all the other western generals. Finally he protested to the President himself, who gave him little satisfaction beyond assurances of admiration. “I know not a single enemy of yours here,” Lincoln wrote, and added: “Truth to speak, I do not appreciate this matter of rank on paper as you officers do. The world will not forget that you fought the battle of Stones River, and it will never care a fig whether you rank Gen. Grant on paper, or he so ranks you.”
By then it was mid-March. The bloody contest, ten weeks back, had done much to increase Old Rosy’s appreciation of the dangers involved in challenging the rebs on their own ground. The rest of March went by, and all of April. Still he would not budge. May followed. Still he would not move until he was good and ready, down to the final nail in the final horseshoe. As June came on, approaching the end of the six-month term which Crittenden said the army spent “in hospital,” Rosecrans made a virtue of his immobility, claiming that by refraining from driving Bragg southward he was preventing him from co-operating with Pemberton against Grant. Besides, he added, he had held a council of war at which it had been decided to “observe a great military maxim, not to risk two great and decisive battles at the same time.” He thought it best to wait till Vicksburg fell or Grant abandoned the effort to take it, whereupon he himself would advance against Bragg and Chattanooga. Halleck by now was fairly frantic. A master of maxims, he fired one back at Rosecrans: “Councils of war never fight.” But this had no more effect than the earlier proddings had done; Old Rosy stayed exactly where he was. If Bragg would only leave him alone, he would gladly return the favor, at any rate until he was good and ready to advance. Just when that would be he would not say.
He might have taken some measure of consolation, amid the proddings, from the fact that his opponent’s troubles quite overmatched his own. The difference was that Rosecrans’ woes came mainly from above, whereas Bragg’s came mainly from below. As a result, the latter were not only more widely spread, they were also frequently sharper barbed. His harsh discipline in camp, unbalanced by conspicuous victories in the field, and his reputation as a commander who invariably retreated after battle, whether his troops won or lost, had resulted in bitter censure from all sides, civil as well as military, in and out of the newspapers. Riding one day near his Tullahoma headquarters, soon after his withdrawal behind Duck River, he encountered a man wearing butternut garb and requested information about the roads. When this had been given, the general thanked him and, unable to tell from his clothes whether the man was a soldier or a civilian—the kindest thing that could be said about dress in the Army of Tennessee was that it was informal—asked if he belonged to Bragg’s army. “Bragg’s army?” the countryman replied, scowling at the grim-faced man on horseback. “Bragg’s got no army. He shot half of them himself, up in Kentucky, and the other half got killed at Murfreesboro.”
Bragg laughed and rode on, curbing for once his terrible temper. But the experience rankled under pressure of newspaper criticisms leveled at him while his troops were getting settled along their new defensive line: particularly the charge, widely printed and reprinted, that he had pulled out of Murfreesboro against the advice of his lieutenants. This was patently untrue, as he could prove by the note from Cheatham and Withers, urging immediate retreat, which he had rejected, at least at first, despite Polk’s indorsement of their plea. Accordingly, he decided to make an issue of it, addressing on January 11 a letter to his chief subordinates. “It becomes necessary for me to save my fair name,” he wrote, and “stop the deluge of abuse which [threatens to] destroy my usefulness and demoralize this army.” He asked them to acquit him of the fabrication that he had gone against their wishes in ordering a retreat, which in point of fact “was resisted by me for some time after [it was] advised by my corps and division commanders.… Unanimous as you were in council in verbally advising a retrograde movement,” he added, “I cannot doubt that you will cheerfully attest the same in writing.” So far, he was on safe ground. Unwilling to let it go at that, however, he closed with something of a flourish: “I desire that you will consult your subordinate commanders and be candid with me.… I shall retire without a regret if I find I have lost the good opinion of my generals, upon whom I have ever relied as upon a foundation of rock.”
This last was what opened the floodgates. Though none could fail to exonerate him from the specific charge that he had originated the notion of retreat, his closing statement that he would retire if he found that he had lost their good opinion presented the generals with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which they did not neglect. Hardee, after pointing out that neither he nor his division commanders had proposed a withdrawal, though they had made no objection once the decision had been announced, replied that he had consulted his subordinates, as requested, and found them “unanimous in the opinion that a change in the command of this army is necessary. In this opinion I concur.” He had “the highest regard for the purity of your motives, your energy, and your personal character,” he told Bragg, but he was “convinced, as you must feel, that the peril of the country is superior to all personal considerations.” His lieutenants replied in a similar vein. “I have consulted with my brigade commanders,” Cleburne wrote, “and they unite with me in personal regard for yourself … but at the same time they see, with regret, and it has also met my observation, that you do not possess the confidence of the army in other respects in that degree necessary to secure success.” Breckinridge was as forthright, and what was more—the officers and men of his division having found Bragg’s report of the recent battle so disparaging to themselves and their dead comrades that they had urged their chief to challenge him to a duel—took perhaps the greatest satisfaction of all in seizing the present chance to sit in judgment. “Acting with the candor which you invoke,” the former Vice President replied, “[my brigade commanders] request me to say that, in their opinion, the conduct of the military operations in front of Murfreesboro made it necessary for our army to retire.” Lest the irony of this be lost, he passed at once to a summation. “They also request me to say that while they entertain the highest respect for your patriotism, it is their opinion that you do not possess the confidence of the army to an extent which will enable you to be useful as its commander. In this opinion I feel bound to state that I concur.”
Polk was away on leave at the time, visiting his refugee family in North Carolina, and in his absence Cheatham and Withers merely replied with an acknowledgment that they had made the original suggestion to withdraw. When the bishop returned at the end of the month he found the army a-buzz with talk of this latest development. Since there was some difference of opinion as to whether Bragg had really intended to call down all this thunder on his head, Polk wrote to ask whether his chief had meant for him to answer both questions—1) as to who was responsible for bringing up the subject of retreat, and 2) as to whether the army commander had lost the confidence of his subordinates—or only the first. Bragg by now had had quite enough “candid” responses to the second question, and stated that he had only wanted to get an opinion on the inception of the retreat; “The paragraph relating to my supercedure was only an expression of the feeling with which I should receive your replies.” In that case, Polk responded, he believed the original battlefield note would suffice as a documentary answer. He was content to let the matter drop. But learning presently that Hardee and his officers felt that he had dodged the issue, thereby leaving them in the position of insubordinate malcontents, he decided to write directly to his friend the President, attaching the rather voluminous correspondence he had had with Bragg. “I feel it my duty to say to you,” he told Davis, “that had I and my division commanders been asked to answer, our replies would have coincided with those of the officers of the other corps.… My opinion is he had better be transferred.” The best place for him, Polk believed, was Richmond, where “his capacity for organization and discipline, which has not been equaled among us, could be used by you at headquarters with infinite advantage to the whole army. I think, too,” he added, “that the best thing to be done in supplying his place would be to give his command to General Joseph E. Johnston. He will cure all discontent and inspire the army with new life and confidence. He is here on the spot, and I am sure will be content to take it.”
Davis was quite aware that Johnston was at Tullahoma, having ordered him there two weeks ago, when Bragg’s circular, together with the replies of Hardee and his lieutenants, first landed on the presidential desk. “Why General Bragg should have selected that tribunal, and have invited its judgment upon him, is to me unexplained; it manifests, however, a condition of things which seems to me to require your presence.” So Davis wrote Johnston, who was engaged at the time in an inspection of the Mobile defenses, instructing him to proceed at once to Bragg’s headquarters and determine “whether he had so far lost the confidence of the army as to impair his usefulness in his present position.… You will, I trust, be able, by conversation with General Bragg and others of his command, to decide what the best interests of the service require, and to give me the advice which I need at this juncture. As that army is part of your command,” the President added, knowing the Virginian’s meticulosity in such matters, “no order will be necessary to give you authority there, as, whether present or absent, you have a right to direct its operations and do whatever else belongs to the general commanding.”
However, Johnston’s squeamishness went further than Davis reckoned. He found much that was improper in the conduct of an inquiry which might result in the displacement of the officer under investigation by the one who was doing the investigating. Besides, he had a high regard for the grim-faced North Carolinian’s abilities. “Bragg has done wonders, I think,” he wrote privately. “No body of troops has done more in proportion to numbers in the same time.” Accordingly on February 3, ten days after his arrival, although “incessant rain has permitted me to see but a fourth of the troops as yet,” he reported them “in high spirits, and as ready as ever for fight.” He found his confidence in Bragg not only unshaken but “confirmed by his recent operations, which, in my opinion, evince great vigor and skill.” In short: “It would be very unfortunate to remove him at this juncture, when he has just earned, if not won, the gratitude of the country.” He would report more fully, Johnston said, when he had completed his inspection. Meanwhile, “I respectfully suggest that, should it appear to you necessary to remove General Bragg, no one in this army or engaged in this investigation ought to be his successor.” Nine days later, his final report buttressed his first impression. He had found the men “well clothed, healthy, and in good spirits,” which gave “positive evidence of General Bragg’s capacity to command.… To me it seems that the operations of this army in Middle Tennessee have been conducted admirably. I can find no record of more effective fighting in modern battles than that of this army in December, evincing great skill in the commander and courage in the troops.” He had heard, he said in closing, that Polk and Hardee had advised their present chief’s removal and his own appointment to the command; but “I am sure that you will agree with me that the part I have borne in this investigation would render it inconsistent with my personal honor to occupy that position.… General Bragg should not be removed.”
With that, he left for Chattanooga. Davis replied that he was “truly gratified at the language of commendation which you employ in relation to General Bragg,” but he considered it “scarcely possible,” in the light of Polk’s and Hardee’s formal disapproval, “for [Bragg] to possess the requisite confidence of the troops.” He still thought Johnston should take over, and he could not see that this involved any breach of military etiquette. Johnston was already in command, by rank and title, whenever he was on the scene; “The removal of General Bragg would only affect you so far as it deprived you of his services.” However, Davis assured him, “You shall not be urged by me to any course which would wound your sensibility of views of professional propriety.” In early March, Johnston having made no reply to this, the Secretary of War added his pleas to those of the Commander in Chief. It was his opinion that Bragg should be “recalled altogether,” but if Johnston’s conscience would not permit this, then he suggested that he keep him at hand, “as an organizer and disciplinarian,” in the post of assistant commander. “Let me urge you, my dear general,” Seddon wrote, “to think well, in view of all the great interests to our beloved South … and, if possible, make the sacrifice of your honorable delicacy to the importance of the occasion and the greatness of our cause.” When Johnston still did not reply—he was back in Mobile by now, though Davis and Seddon supposed he was still in Chattanooga—the matter was taken out of his hands by a wire from Richmond, which reached him on March 12: “Order General Bragg to report to the War Department here for conference. Assume yourself direct charge of the army in Middle Tennessee.”
Perhaps Davis and Seddon had decided that what Johnston had been wanting all along, and even hinting at, was for them to order him to the post in spite of his objections; that way, the conditions of honor would be met, since he would have done all he could to avoid the outcome. If so, they were wrong. Johnston really did not want the command. The fact was, he did not want the larger one he had already—his duties, he said disparagingly, were those of an “inspector general”—despite the President’s and the Secretary’s insistence that it was the most important post in the Confederacy. If that was the case, Lee should have it as a reward for his recent accomplishments; then “with great propriety,” Johnston wrote in confidence to a friend, he himself could return to his native Virginia and resume command of the army he had lost at Seven Pines, “where the Yankee bullets found me.” Now it looked as if that hope was going up in smoke. He was ordered to Middle Tennessee, with no alternative to compliance except submission of his resignation.
So it seemed. When he returned to Tullahoma on March 19, however, he found a way—still on grounds of sparing offense to what Seddon had called his “honorable delicacy”—at least to delay what he had sought all this time to avoid. Bragg’s wife was down with typhoid, despaired of by the doctors, and her husband had given over his official duties in order to be at her bedside round the clock. It was therefore no more than normal courtesy, under the circumstances, for Johnston to carry out that portion of the orders which required him to take command of the army; but as for increasing the distracted general’s present woes by instructing him to report at once to Richmond, that was manifestly impossible, Johnston wired the authorities, “on account of Mrs Bragg’s critical condition.” Besides, he added, the country was “becoming practicable” now that the rains had slacked and the roads were drying; “Should the enemy advance, General Bragg will be indispensable here.” Apparently he intended to take the Secretary’s earlier suggestion that he keep the unpopular general at hand as his assistant. But presently even this went by the board. By the time Mrs Bragg had recovered sufficiently from her illness to permit her husband’s return to active duty, Johnston himself was bedridden, suffering from a debility brought on by a flare-up of his wounds. “General Bragg is therefore necessary here,” he notified Richmond on April 10. “If conference with him is still desirable, might not a confidential officer visit him, for the purpose, in Tullahoma?”
That was that; Bragg remained at his post by default, so to speak. Meanwhile—principally by courtesy of Rosecrans, who, though the methods employed to avoid compliance were quite different in each case, would no more be budged by his superiors than Johnston would be influenced by his—the Army of Tennessee enjoyed, throughout the opening half of the year, the longest period of inaction afforded any considerable body of Confederates in the whole course of the war. Polk’s corps was on the left at Shelbyville, Hardee’s on the right at Wartrace, with cavalry extending the long defensive line westward to Columbia and eastward to McMinnville, seventy air-line miles apart. Breastworks protected by abatis were thrown up along the critical center, and behind them, once the countryside emerged from the quagmires created by the late winter and early spring rains—which had afforded one self-styled etymologist the opportunity to remark that the name of the little railroad town where Bragg had his headquarters was derived from the conjunction of two Greek words: tulla, meaning “mud,” and homa, meaning “more mud”—the infantry enjoyed the foison of the lush Duck River Valley and indulged in such diversions as attending church services and revival meetings (Bragg set an example here by allowing himself to be baptized in an impressive ceremony) or chuck-a-luck games and cockfights, depending on individual inclinations. The army’s effective strength had risen by now to almost 50,000 of all arms, including better than 15,000 cavalry, who passed the time in a quite different manner by probing at Rosecrans’ flanks and rear and harassing his front.
Joe Wheeler got things off to a rousing start on January 13 with a strike at Harpeth Shoals, midway between Nashville and Clarksville, where he captured or sank four loaded packets and one lightly armored gunboat, taking them under fire from the bank, and thus effectively suspended the flow of goods up the Cumberland River, the main Federal supply line. But this accomplishment was more than offset, another fifty miles downstream, by the repulse he suffered on February 3 when he launched an ill-conceived and poorly co-ordinated assault on an outnumbered but stout blue garrison at Dover, two weeks short of the anniversary of the fall of adjacent Fort Donelson to Grant. Bedford Forrest, who had not only lost some of his best men but had also had two fine horses shot from under him in the course of attacks which he had advised against making in the first place, was so incensed by Wheeler’s handling of the affair that he bluntly told the young commander that he would resign from the army before he would fight again under his direction. The discouraged graybacks limped back to Columbia, the western tip of Bragg’s long crescent. Meanwhile, far out the opposite horn, Morgan was doing no better, if indeed as well. With two of his regiments detached to stir up excitement in Kentucky, he too suffered a bloody repulse at the hands of an inferior force on March 20 at Milton, fifteen miles northeast of Murfreesboro, and still another, two weeks later, at nearby Liberty, which resulted in his being driven in some confusion back on his base at McMinnville. Perhaps the best that could be said for all these various affairs, at any rate from the Confederate point of view, was that they all occurred within the Union lines and therefore served, victories and defeats alike, to keep Rosecrans off balance by increasing his native caution and apprehensiveness. “Their numerous cavalry goads and worries me,” he had informed Washington at the outset, “but I will try to be equal to them.”
This was going to be more difficult than he knew. Even as he wrote, Earl Van Dorn, the South’s ranking major general—ordered north by Johnston over Pemberton’s frantic protest at thus being practically stripped of cavalry despite the skill he recently had shown in handling that arm—was on the way from Mississippi with two divisions of horsemen, all thirsty for more of the glory they lately had tasted when they threw a whole Yankee army into retreat from Holly Springs. In this respect, their leader was the thirstiest man among them. After the Transmississippi disasters and the Corinth fiasco, which had resulted, amid wholesale condemnation, in his being superseded as commander of his home state forces, his bad luck had suddenly turned good, and he was eager to take further advantage of the switch. Presently, soon after his arrival on February 22 at Columbia, where he assumed responsibility for protecting the left horn of Bragg’s crescent while Wheeler protected the right, Rosecrans gave the diminutive Mississippian just the chance he had been seeking ever since his return to his first love, cavalry. The Federal plan was for a convergence of two infantry columns, one out of Murfreesboro under Phil Sheridan, the other out of Franklin, directly south of Nashville, under Colonel John Coburn; they would unite at Spring Hill, a dozen miles north of Columbia, then move together against that place, foraging as they went. Coburn set out on March 4, with just under 3000 of all arms. Van Dorn was waiting for him next morning at Thompson’s Station, just above the intended point of convergence, with twice as many men—including Forrest, who had been transferred in consideration of his vow to serve no more under Wheeler. The result was a sudden and stunning victory, cinched by Forrest, who came in on the flank and rear while Van Dorn maintained pressure against the front, and a bag of 1221 prisoners, including Coburn, whose artillery and cavalry, along with one of his infantry regiments assigned to guard the forage train, had fled at the first detection of the odds. His thirst unslaked, Van Dorn sent his captives south and turned east to tackle Sheridan, intending thus to sweep the board of all available opponents, but found that the other column had taken warning from the boom of guns and pulled back out of danger.
Rosecrans too had taken alarm, and though his present-for-duty strength now stood at 80,124, as compared to Bragg’s 49,068, he began to suspect that he was outnumbered. “I am not, as you know, an alarmist,” he wired Halleck on the day after Coburn’s defeat, “but I do not think it will do to risk as we did before.” He reinforced the threatened quarter, causing the rebel horsemen to pull back. But when the blue tide once more receded, Van Dorn returned again, cutting and slashing, left and right, and playing all the while on Rosecrans’ fears. On March 24, having leapfrogged his headquarters to Spring Hill, he sent Forrest against Brentwood (ten miles north of Federal-held Franklin) where a garrison of about 800 Wisconsin and Michigan infantry protected army stores and a stockaded railroad bridge across the Little Harpeth River. Forrest appeared before the place next morning, demanding an unconditional surrender. “Come and take us,” Colonel Edward Bloodgood replied stoutly, until he saw the graybacks preparing to do just that: whereupon he changed his mind and hauled down his flag. Setting fire to the stockade and packing the stores for removal along with his captives, Forrest sent one regiment up the Nashville pike to spread the scare in that direction—which it did, penetrating the southern environs of the city and riding within plain sight of the capitol tower—while the main body, after pausing to fight a confused rear-guard action provoked by a blue column that moved up from Franklin, made its getaway eastward before turning south to safety. In a general order issued on the last day of the month, Bragg expressed the “pride and gratification” he felt as a result of the “two brilliant and successful affairs recently achieved by the forces of the cavalry of Major General Van Dorn.”
Unwilling to rest on his laurels now that fortune’s smile was broadening still further, Van Dorn moved on April 10 against Franklin itself. A forced reconnaissance, he called it afterwards, though the defenders insisted that it had been an all-out attempt to take the place by storm. In support of the former contention was the fact that casualties were fewer than a. hundred on each side; anyhow, he disengaged and withdrew when he found that the Union commander, Major General Gordon Granger, had been reinforced to a strength of about 8000. Back at Spring Hill, he continued to design projects for the discomfiture of the enemy, assisting Bragg to hold onto the fruitful region despite the odds which favored a Federal advance. On through April he labored, and into May, though apparently not so exclusively as to require him to abandon other pursuits; for at 10 o’clock on the morning of May 7, Dr George B. Peters, a local citizen, walked into headquarters, where Van Dorn was hard at work at his desk, and shot him in the back of the head with a pistol. He died about 2 o’clock that afternoon, by which time the assassin was safe within the Union lines, having ridden off in the buggy he had left parked outside while he stepped indoors to carry out his project. The accepted explanation was that the doctor had chosen this emphatic means to protest the general’s attention to his young wife, though there were some who claimed that he had done the shooting for political reasons. At any rate, that was the end of the saga of Buck Van Dorn. Fortune’s smile had turned out fickle after all, and they buried him in Columbia next day.
Wheeler had got back in stride by then with a double blow at Rosecrans’ rail supply lines on April 10, the day Van Dorn tested the Franklin defenses and found them strong. The first was scored northeast of Nashville, beyond Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, by secretly posting guns along the near bank of a bend that took the Cumberland River within 500-yard range of the Louisville & Nashville tracks. After a wait of two hours, Wheeler reported, “a very large locomotive came in view, drawing eighteen cars loaded with horses and other stock.” Though the target was moving his marksmanship was excellent, according to a Federal brigadier. “The first shot knocked off the dome of the locomotive, the next went through the boiler, one shot broke out a spoke in one of the driving-wheels.” When the engine stalled in a cloud of steam, the gunners continued to pump shells into the cars, scattering bluecoats, horses, and cattle in all directions. Meanwhile, on the Nashville & Chattanooga side of the Tennessee capital, another group of Wheeler’s men rode into Antioch, where they ambushed and derailed a train by spreading the tracks and took from the wreckage about seventy Union captives—including twenty officers, three of whom were members of Rosecrans’ staff—along with some forty Confederates en route to Ohio prison camps, $30,000 in greenbacks, and a large mail containing much useful information. Loaded with booty, the raiders got away eastward to join their friends, who by now had ridden back past the Hermitage after their shooting-gallery fun on the Cumberland. Wheeler’s total cost for both accomplishments was one man wounded.
He was cheered all round and greeted with smiles on his return, for both actions had a somewhat comic tinge. But the loudest cheers and the broadest smiles were reserved for Bedford Forrest, who began to win his nom de guerre “the Wizard of the Saddle” with an exploit which took him, through the closing days of April and the opening days of May, into parts of three states and across the northern width of Alabama. He was drawn in that direction by a Federal project which got under way, by coincidence on that same April 10, with the embarkation at Nashville of an expedition designed to sever Bragg’s main supply line, the Western & Atlantic Railroad, between Atlanta and Chattanooga. This had been attempted once before, a year ago this week, but had resulted in the Great Locomotive Chase and the capture of the twenty-two spies who tried it. The new plan, while perhaps equally daring, was of a quite different nature. Taking a page from the book the rebel cavalry fought by—particularly John Morgan and Forrest himself—Colonel Abel D. Streight, New-York-born commander of a regiment of Hoosier infantry, proposed to Rosecrans that a large body of men, say 2000, be mounted for a quick but powerful thrust, into and out of the South’s vitals. Rosecrans, who so often had been on the receiving end of this kind of thing, was delighted at the prospect of turning the tables, and his delight increased when Streight removed his final objection by agreeing to mount the men on mules instead of horses, of which there was a shortage; mules, he said, were not only more sure-footed, they were also more intelligent. (Which was true, so far as it went, though that was by no means all of the story. Mules had other, less admirable qualities: as he would presently discover.) At any rate, Rosecrans gave his approval to the project, designated Streight as commander, and assigned him three more regiments of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois infantry, together with two companies of North Alabama Unionists—a breed of men who were known to their late compatriots as “homemade Yankees,” but who were expected to prove invaluable as guides through a region unfamiliar to everyone else in the flying column—and a requisition for some nine hundred quartermaster mules. This would mount only about half of the troops, but Rosecrans explained that the rest could secure animals by commandeering them from rebel sympathizers while on the way to their starting point in the northeast corner of Mississippi.
So Streight got his men and mules aboard the transports and steamed next morning down the Cumberland to unload at Palmyra, on the left bank just around the bend from Clarksville, for a stock-gathering march to Fort Henry, where they again met the transports for the long ride south up the Tennessee to Eastport, Mississippi. That was the true starting point, tactically speaking, but Streight—a broad-chested man of soldierly appearance, just past forty, with a tall forehead, light-colored eyes, a fleshy, powerful-looking nose, and a dark, well-trimmed beard framing a wide, determined mouth exposed below a clean-shaven upper lip—had already encountered complications well outside the original margin he had allowed for error. For one thing, after waiting to pick up rations and forage on the Ohio, the navy did not turn up at Fort Henry on time, with the result that he did not reach Eastport until April 19, three days behind schedule. For another, a delayed check disclosed that a large proportion of the quartermaster mules were sadly afflicted with distemper, while many others were unbroken colts, not over two years old. This last exposed a further drawback; for he found that his converted infantrymen, as one of them remarked, “were at first very easily dismounted, frequently in a most undignified and unceremonious manner.” Practice might improve the men’s equestrian skill, but the mules were going to remain a problem. About five hundred had been commandeered on the course of the overland march, which more than made up for the hundred-odd who died of sickness and exhaustion while en route; but this gain was canceled on the evening of his arrival at Eastport. Returning to headquarters about midnight from a conference with Brigadier General Grenville M. Dodge, who had brought a 7500-man column over from Corinth to serve as a screen for the raiders’ departure, he learned that some four hundred of the creatures—naturally the most intelligent of the lot—had escaped from their crudely built corrals and now were scattered about the countryside, disrupting the stillness of the night and mocking his woes with brays that had the sound of fiendish laughter. Two more days were spent here in rounding them up; half of them, that is, for the rest were never recovered. However, Dodge made up the difference with animals out of his pack train, and Streight at last got started in earnest, moving eastward across Bear Creek on the morning of April 22.
Five days behind schedule, but still protected from inquisitive eyes by the screen Dodge’s troops had drawn along the south bank of the Tennessee River, he reached Tuscumbia late on the 24th and called a final two-day rest halt before resuming the march at 11 p.m. of the 26th, his force reduced to 1500 by a rigid inspection in which the surgeons culled such men as they judged unfit for the rigorous work ahead. All next day, and the next, as the column moved south to Russellville, then eastward to Mount Hope, rain and mud held its progress to a crawl and 300 of the fledgling troopers were reconverted to infantry because their mounts were too weak to carry anything heavier than a saddle. On the 29th, however, the sun broke through, giving “strong hopes of better times,” as Streight declared in his last rearward message, and he began to pick up speed, along with replacements for his ailing mules. Thirty-five miles he made that day, clearing Moulton to make camp that night at the western foot of Day’s Gap, a narrow defile piercing a lofty ridge that signaled the advent of the Appalachians. At this point, with the tactically dangerous flatlands left behind, he was about halfway to his first objective: Rome, Georgia, where the Confederacy had a cannon foundry and machine shops for the Western & Atlantic, whose main line was barely a half-day’s ride beyond. Starting early next morning, the last day of April, Streight rode at the head of the column toiling upward through the gap. “The sun shone out bright and beautiful as spring day’s sun ever beamed,” his adjutant later recalled, “and from the smouldering campfires of the previous night the mild blue smoke ascended in graceful curves and mingled with the gray mist slumbering on the mountain tops above.” There was in fact much that was dreamlike and idyllic about the scene—“well calculated to inspire and refresh the minds of our weary soldiers,” the admiring lieutenant phrased it—until suddenly, without previous intimation of a transition, as Streight and the forward elements of the column neared the crest, the dream shifted kaleidoscopically into nightmare. From downhill, in the direction of last night’s camp, the deep-voiced booms of guns, mixed in with the tearing rattle of musketry, abruptly informed him that he was under attack.
It was Forrest. A week ago today—the day after Streight left Eastport—he had received at Spring Hill, Tennessee, orders from Bragg to proceed south to the Florence-Tuscumbia region and assist the inadequate local defense units to oppose the force moving eastward under Dodge. He left next morning, April 24, and thirty-six hours later had his 1577-man brigade at Brown’s Ferry, Alabama, ninety miles away. Leaving one of his three regiments to guard the north bank of the Tennessee in case Dodge decided to strike in that direction, he ferried the others across on the 26th and moved west through Courtland to Town Creek, which he reached in time to challenge a Federal crossing. The long-range skirmish continued until dusk of the following day, when Forrest received word from a scout that a mounted column estimated at 2000 men had left Mount Hope that morning, headed east. This was the first he had heard of Streight’s existence, but he decided at once that this was the major threat, not the larger force immediately to his front. Accordingly, leaving Dodge to the local defenders and the regiment already posted beyond the river, he took off southward at dawn of the 29th for Moulton, which Streight had cleared six hours before. At midnight, having covered fifty miles of road with just over a thousand horsemen and eight guns, he went into bivouac, four miles short of Streight’s camp at Day’s Gap, in order to give his saddle-weary troopers some rest for tomorrow, and soon after sunrise was banging away at the Federal rear.
In the course of the three-day running fight which followed, the pursued had certain definite advantages. The first was a superiority of numbers, although Streight’s enjoyment of this was considerably diminished by the fact that he did not know he had it. All the same, the numerical odds were with him, three to two, whether he knew it or not, and what was more they grew as he moved eastward past well-stocked farms untouched by war till now. When his mules gave out, as they frequently did, he could remount his men by seizing others; whereas for Forrest, coming along in the raiders’ clean-swept wake, a broken-down horse meant a lost rider. Another tactical advantage accruing to the blue commander was that whenever he chose to make a stand he could not only select the terrain best suited for defensive fighting, he could also lay small-scale ambushes by which a rear-guard handful could shock the pursuers with surprise fire, forcing them to halt and deploy, then hurry ahead to rejoin the main body before the attack was delivered. Streight was altogether aware of this advantage, and used it first within three miles of the point where he heard the opening boom of guns. Selecting a position along a wooded ridge, with a boggy creek protecting his left and a steep ravine his right, he sent back word for the rear-guard Alabama Unionists, still skirmishing in Day’s Gap, to retreat on the run through the newly drawn line and thus draw the graybacks into ambush. It worked to perfection. As the pursuers rode fast to overtake the homemade Yankees, the waiting bluecoats rose from the underbrush and shattered the head of the column with massed volleys. When reinforcements came up to repeat the attempt, this time advancing a section of artillery to counterbalance the two 12-pounder mountain howitzers firing rapidly from the ridge, the defenders followed up a second repulse with a counterattack and captured both of the guns, then drew off, leaving the rebels rocked back on their heels.
Forrest was thrown into a towering rage by the loss of his guns and the fact that the raiders had won first honors and drawn first blood—including that of his brother, Captain William Forrest, who had led his company of scouts in the charge and had been unhorsed by a bullet that broke his thigh—but by the time he got his troopers back into line for a third attack, the bluecoats had pulled out. He pushed on, closing again on their rear at Crooked Creek, where Streight again formed line of battle, six miles beyond the first. Here, from about an hour before dark until 10 o’clock that night, the two forces engaged in a fire fight. Determined to give the raiders no rest, Forrest kept forcing the issue by moonlight, and his orders, though brief, were conclusive: “Shoot at everything blue and keep up the scare.” Finally, with one flank about to crumple, Streight “resumed the march,” leaving the two captured guns behind him, spiked. At midnight, then again two hours later, he laid ambushes, but Forrest kept crowding him and did not call a halt till daylight, when he paused long enough to water and feed the horses and give the weaker ones an opportunity to catch up. Streight meanwhile pushed on to the outskirts of Blountsville, which he reached about midmorning of May Day, having covered forty-three miles over mountain roads since the skirmishing began soon after sunrise yesterday. However, before his men could finish feeding their weary mounts, Forrest once more was driving in the pickets, and the two commands went through the town in a whirl of dust and gunsmoke, shooting at one another over the ears of their horses or the cruppers of their mules.
So it went, all that day and the next, eastward another fifty miles, then northeastward along the near bank of the Coosa River, with Streight making stands behind the east fork of the Black Warrior River and Big Will’s Creek, laying ambushes in the heavily wooded valley off the southern end of Lookout Mountain, and burning the only bridge across Black Creek, just short of Gadsden. Forrest kept the pressure on, however. He got over the last-named obstacle by using a ford that was shown him, under fire from the opposite bank, by a sixteen-year-old farm girl, Emma Sanson—in appreciation of whose courage he took time and pains to leave an autograph note of thanks:
Hed Quaters in Sadle
May 2 1863
My highest regardes to miss Ema Sanson for hir Gallant conduct while my posse was skirmishing with the Federals across Black Creek near Gadesden Allahama.
N. B. Forrest
Brig Genl Comding N. Ala—
and pressed on after the blue raiders, engaging them in another running fight through Gadsden and beyond, where they soon were forced to make another stand. He had the advantage of singleness of purpose, plus the chance to give his men a breather when he chose, pursuing as it were in shifts, some resting while others kept up the chase; whereas Streight not only had to keep fending off the myriad and apparently inexhaustible graybacks hot on his trail—a profitless business at best—but also had to keep pushing on toward the accomplishment of his mission in North Georgia. After nearly three days of riding and fighting, and two nights without rest, his men were falling asleep on muleback and even in line of battle whenever he called a halt to lay another ambush or defend another opportune position, and now that his pursuers had avoided delay at Black Creek, thanks to Emma Sanson, he faced another sleepless night. “It now became evident to me,” he later reported, “that our only hope was in crossing the river at Rome and destroying the bridge, which would delay Forrest a day or two and give us time to collect horses and mules and allow the command a little time to sleep, without which it was impossible to proceed.”
Accordingly, when he reached Turkeytown, eight miles beyond Gadsden, he selected two hundred of the best-mounted men and sent them ahead to seize the bridge across the Oostanaula River at Rome and hold it until the main body came up. At sunset, four miles farther along, he formed again for battle “as it was impossible to continue the march through the night without feeding and resting.” In the course of the preliminary skirmish, however, he discovered that much of the men’s ammunition had been ruined by dampness and abrasion. Instead of risking another general engagement under these circumstances, he decided to disengage—“unobserved, if possible”—and lay another ambush in a thicket half a mile ahead. When Forrest detected the ruse and began to move out on the flank, Streight had to pull back and make a run for it in the dusk, beginning another horrendous night march with men who by now had the look of somnambulists and mules that were “jaded, tender-footed, and worn out.” But the worst development, so far, was encountered when they reached the Cedar Bluff ferry across the Chattooga River, just above its confluence with the Coosa. The 200-man detail had passed this way a short while back, headed for Rome, but had neglected to post a guard: with the result that some citizens had spirited the ferryboat away, leaving Streight with the sort of problem he had been leaving Forrest all along.
Yet he was nothing if not persevering. Turning left, he plodded wearily through the darkness along the west bank of the Chattooga, intent on reaching a bridge near Gaylesville, half a dozen miles upstream. Whereupon—while Forrest was giving his troopers a few hours’ sleep: all but one squadron, which he instructed to stay on the trail of the raiders and “devil them all night”—Streight and his muleback soldiers entered the worst of their several Deep South nightmares. The way led through extensive “choppings” where the timber had been cut and burned to furnish charcoal for nearby Round Mountain Furnace, which in turn supplied the Rome foundry with pig iron. Though the raiders succeeded in wrecking part of the smelting plant—the one substantial blow they struck in the course of their long ride across Alabama—they paid a high price in the extra miles they covered in order to bring it within reach. Lost in a maze of wagon trails, segments of the blue column were scattered about the choppings until daylight showed them the way back to the river and then to the bridge, which they crossed and burned in their wake. Wobbly with fatigue, animals and men alike, they staggered along the opposite bank, again to the vicinity of Cedar Bluff, then turned eastward five more miles to the Lawrence plantation, which they reached about 9 a.m. The Georgia line was only five miles ahead, with Rome barely another fifteen miles beyond, but Streight had no choice except to drop from exhaustion or halt for rest and food. He had no sooner begun the distribution of rations, however, than the graybacks once more were driving in his pickets.
Forrest had swum the Chattooga at sunup, using long ropes to drag two of his guns across, submerged on the sandy bottom. Down to six hundred men by now, he was outnumbered worse than two to one and knew it, even if Streight did not. All along he had had to avoid the obvious maneuver of circling the flank of the blue column in order to block its path; for in that case, goaded by desperation, the Federals might have run right over him, swamping his line with the sheer weight of numbers. Even now, in fact, though his troopers were considerably refreshed by the sleep they had enjoyed while the bluecoats were stumbling around in the choppings south of Gaylesville, he preferred not to risk a pitched battle if he could accomplish his purpose otherwise. So he did as he had done before, in similar circumstances: sent forward, under a flag of truce, an officer with a note demanding immediate surrender “to stop the further and useless effusion of blood.”
Streight, who had had to wake his men to put them into line of battle—where they promptly fell asleep again, with bullets whistling overhead—replied that he was by no means ready to give up, but that, sharing Forrest’s humane views as to unnecessary bloodshed, he was willing to parley. He insisted further, when the guns fell silent and the two commanders met between the lines, that he would not even consider laying down his arms unless his opponent would prove that he had an overwhelming superiority of numbers. Forrest declined to show his hand in any such manner; but all the while, acting under previous instructions, the officer in charge of the section of artillery kept bringing his two guns over a distant rise in the road, then back under cover and over the rise again, producing for the benefit of Streight, who had been placed so as to watch all this over Forrest’s shoulder, the appearance of a stream of guns arriving at intervals to bolster the rebel line. “Name of God!” Streight cried at last. “How many guns have you got? There’s fifteen I’ve counted already.” Forrest looked around casually. “I reckon that’s all that has kept up,” he said. So Streight went back to his own lines for a conference with his regimental commanders, most of whom, as he later reported, “had already expressed the opinion that, unless we could reach Rome and cross the river before the enemy came up with us again, we should be compelled to surrender.” At this juncture, a messenger arrived from the 200-man detail sent ahead the night before and reported that the bridge across the Oostanaula was strongly held by rebel troops in Rome. That did it; Streight returned and announced his willingness to surrender. Forrest replied, “Stack your arms right along there, Colonel, and march your men away down that hollow.”
The total bag, including the 200-man detail picked up on the way into Rome that same Sunday afternoon as it returned from its fruitless mission, was 1466 bluecoats, and though they had been feared as would-be conquerors—a fear which had thrown the Rome citizenry into such a panic of feverish activity that the Federal scouts, observing from across the Oostanaula, had mistaken the milling for preparedness—they were welcomed and fed generously as captives. Forrest’s own entrance was the occasion for the presentation of a horseshoe wreath of flowers, hailing him as the town’s deliverer, and a fine saddle horse, which helped to make up for the two that had been shot from under him in the course of the long chase. Then began a famous celebration, attended by what one matron called “just a regular wholesale cooking of hams and shoulders and all sorts of provisions” to relieve the hunger pangs of the gray heroes. Nor were the prisoners excluded from this bounty; “We were quite willing to feed the Yankees when they had no guns,” she added. But the Roman holiday was cut short on the night of May 5 by the arrival of word that another column of blue raiders had left Tuscumbia that afternoon, headed southeast for Jasper and possibly Montgomery. Forrest and his men were back in the saddle next morning. Riding once more through Gadsden the following day, they learned that the rumor was groundless, Dodge having returned to Corinth; so they swung north, recovering the third regiment en route, to resume their accustomed work in Tennessee. On May 10, however—another Sunday—Forrest was handed orders from Bragg, instructing him to have his brigade continue its present march but for him to report in person to army headquarters, where he would receive, along with a recommendation for promotion to major general, appointment to the command Van Dorn had vacated three days ago, when he came under the Spring Hill doctor’s pistol.
Along toward sunset of January 28, completing a 400-mile overnight trip from Memphis down the swollen, tawny, mile-wide Mississippi, a stern-wheel packet warped in for a west-bank landing at Young’s Point, just opposite the base of the long hairpin bend in front of Vicksburg and within half a dozen air-line miles of the guns emplaced along the lip of the tall clay bluff the city stood on. First off the steamboat, once the deck hands had swung out the stageplank, was a slight man, rather stooped, five feet eight inches in height and weighing less than a hundred and forty pounds, who walked with a peculiar gait, shoulders hunched “a little forward of the perpendicular,” as one observer remarked, so that each step seemed to arrest him momentarily in the act of pitching on his face. He had on a plain blue suit and what the same reporter called “an indifferently good ‘Kossuth’ hat, with the top battered in close to his head.” Forty years old, he looked considerably older, partly because of the crow’s-feet crinkling the outer corners of his eyes—the result of intense concentration, according to some, while others identified them as whiskey lines, plainly confirming rumors of overindulgence and refuting the protestations of friends that he never touched the stuff—but mainly because of the full, barely grizzled, light brown beard, close-cropped to emphasize the jut of a square jaw and expose a mouth described as being “of the letterbox shape,” clamped firmly shut below a nose that surprised by contrast, being delicately chiseled, and blue-gray eyes that gave the face a somewhat out-of-balance look because one was set a trifle lower than the other. Wearing neither sword nor sash, and indeed no trappings of rank at all, except for the twin-starred straps of a major general tacked to the weathered shoulders of his coat, he was reading a newspaper as he came down the plank to the Louisiana shore, and he chewed the unlighted stump of a cigar, which not only seemed habitual but also appeared to be a more congruous facial appendage than the surprisingly aquiline nose.
“There’s General Grant,” an Illinois soldier told a comrade as they stood watching this unceremonious arrival.
“I guess not,” the other replied, shaking his head. “That fellow don’t look like he has the ability to command a regiment, much less an army.”
It was not so much that Grant was unexpected; he had a habit of turning up unannounced at almost any time and place within the limits of his large department. The trouble was that he bore such faint resemblance to his photographs, which had been distributed widely ever since Donelson and which, according to an acquaintance, made him look like a “burly beef-contractor.” In person he resembled at best a badly printed copy of one of those photos, with the burliness left out. Conversely, the lines of worry—if his friends were right and that was what they were—were more pronounced, as was perhaps only natural when he had more to fret about than the discomfort of holding still for a camera. Just now, for instance, there was John McClernand, who persisted in considering the river force a separate command and continued to issue general orders under the heading, “Headquarters, Army of the Mississippi.” Before Grant had been downriver two days he received a letter from McClernand, noting “that orders are being issued directly from your headquarters directly to army corps commanders, and not through me.” This could only result in “dangerous confusion,” McClernand protested, “as I am invested, by order of the Secretary of War, indorsed by the President, and by order of the President communicated to you by the General-in-Chief, with the command of all the forces operating on the Mississippi River.… If different views are entertained by you, then the question should be immediately referred to Washington, and one or the other, or both of us, relieved. One thing is certain; two generals cannot command this army, issuing independent and direct orders to subordinate officers, and the public service be promoted.”
Grant agreed at least with the final sentence—which he later paraphrased and sharpened into a maxim: “Two commanders on the same field are always one too many”—but he found the letter as a whole “more in the nature of a reprimand than a protest.” The fact was, it approached outright insubordination, although not quite close enough to afford occasion for the pounce Grant was crouched for. “I overlooked it, as I believed, for the good of the service,” he subsequently wrote. By way of reply, instead of direct reproof, he issued orders announcing that he was assuming personal command of the river expedition and instructing all corps commanders, including McClernand, to report henceforth directly to him; McClernand’s corps, he added by way of a stinger, would garrison Helena and other west-bank points well upriver. Outraged at being the apparent victim of a squeeze play, the former congressman responded by asking whether, “having projected the Mississippi River expedition, and having been by a series of orders assigned to the command of it,” he was thus to be “entirely withdrawn from it.” Grant replied to the effect that he would do as he saw fit, since “as yet I have seen no order to prevent my taking command in the field.” McClernand acquiesced, as he said, “for the purpose of avoiding a conflict of authority in the presence of the enemy,” but requested that the entire matter be referred to their superiors in Washington, “not only in respect for the President and Secretary, under whose authority I claim the right to command the expedition, but in justice to myself as its author and actual promoter.” Grant accordingly forwarded the correspondence to Halleck, saying that he had assumed command only because he lacked confidence in McClernand. “I respectfully submit the whole matter to the General-in-Chief and the President,” he ended his indorsement. “Whatever the decision made by them, I will cheerfully submit to and give a hearty support.”
In bucking all this up to the top echelon Grant was on even safer ground than he supposed. Just last week McClernand had received, in reply to a private letter to Lincoln charging Halleck “with wilful contempt of superior authority” because of his so-far “interference” in the matter, “and with incompetency for the extraordinary and vital functions with which he is charged,” a note in which the President told him plainly: “I have too many family controversies (so to speak) already on my hands to voluntarily, or so long as I can avoid it, take up another. You are now doing well—well for the country, and well for yourself—much better than you could possibly be if engaged in open war with General Halleck. Allow me to beg that tor your sake, for my sake, and for the country’s sake, you give your whole attention to the better work.” So it was: McClernand already had his answer before he filed his latest appeal. Lincoln would not interfere. The army was Grant’s, and would remain Grant’s, to do with as he saw fit in accomplishing what Lincoln called “the better work.”
His problem was how best to go about it. Now that he had inspected at first hand the obstacles to success in this swampy region, much of which was at present under water and would continue to be so for months to come, he could see that the wisest procedure, from a strategic point of view, “would have been to go back to Memphis, establish that as a base of supplies, fortify it so that the storehouses could be held by a small garrison, and move from there along the line of the [Mississippi & Tennessee] railroad, repairing as we advanced to the Yalobusha,” from which point he would have what he now so gravely lacked: a straight, high-ground shot at the city on the rebel bluff. So he wrote, years later, having gained the advantage of hindsight. For the present, however, he saw certain drawbacks to the retrograde movement, which in his judgment far outweighed the strictly tactical advantages. For one thing, the November elections had gone against the party that stood for all-out prosecution of the war, and this had turned out to be a warning of future trouble, with the croakers finding encouragement in the reverse. There was the question of morale, not only in the army itself, but also on the home front, where even a temporary withdrawal would be considered an admission that Vicksburg was too tough a nut to crack. At this critical juncture, both temporal and political, with voluntary enlistment practically at a standstill throughout much of the North and the new conscription laws already meeting sporadic opposition, such a discouragement might well prove fatal to the cause. “It was my judgment at the time,” Grant subsequently wrote, “that to make a backward movement as long as that from Vicksburg to Memphis, would be interpreted, by many of those yet full of hope for the preservation of the Union, as a defeat, and that the draft would be resisted, desertions ensue, and the power to capture and punish deserters lost. There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory. This was in my mind from the moment I took command in person at Young’s Point.”
In his own mind at least that much was settled. He would stay. But this decision only brought him face to face with the basic problem, as he put it, of how “to secure a footing upon dry ground on the east side of the river, from which the troops could operate against Vicksburg … without an apparent retreat.” Aside from a frontal assault, either against the bluff itself or against the heights flanking it on the north—which Sherman, even if he had done nothing more last month, had proved would not only be costly in the extreme but would also be fruitless, and which Grant said “was never contemplated; certainly not by me”—the choice lay between whether to cross upstream or down, above or below the rebel bastion. One seemed about as impossible as the other. Above, the swampy, fifty-mile-wide delta lay in his path, practically roadless and altogether malarial. Even if he were able to slog his foot soldiers across it, which was doubtful, it was worse than doubtful whether he would be able to establish and maintain a vital supply line by that route. On the other hand, to attempt a crossing below the city seemed even more suicidal, since this would involve a run past frowning batteries, not only at Vicksburg itself, but also at Warrenton and Grand Gulf, respectively seven and thirty-five miles downriver. Armored gunboats—as Farragut had demonstrated twice the year before, first up, then down, with his heavily gunned salt-water fleet—might run this fiery gauntlet, taking their losses as they went, but brittle-skinned transports and supply boats would be quite another matter, considering the likelihood of their being reduced to kindling in short order, with much attendant loss of life and goods.… In short, the choice seemed to lie between two impossibilities, flanking a third which had been rejected before it was even considered.
Two clear advantages Grant had, however, by way of helping to offset the gloom, and both afforded him comfort under the strain. One was the unflinching support of his superiors; the other was an ample supply of troops, either downstream with him or else on call above. “The eyes and hopes of the whole country are now directed to your army,” Halleck presently would tell him. “In my opinion, the opening of the Mississippi River will be to us of more advantage than the capture of forty Richmonds. We shall omit nothing which we can do to assist you.” Already, before Grant left Memphis, Old Brains had urged him: “Take everything you can dispense with in Tennessee and [North] Mississippi. We must not fail in this if within human power to accomplish it.” His total effective strength within his department, as of late January, was approximately 103,000 officers and men, and of these, as a result of abandoning railroads and other important rear-area installations, Grant had been able to earmark just over half for the downriver expedition: 32,000 in the two corps under McClernand and Sherman, already at hand, and 15,000 in McPherson’s corps, filing aboard transports southbound from Memphis even now. In addition to these 47,000—the official total, “present for duty, equipped,” was 46,994—another 15,000 were standing by under Hurlbut, who commanded the fourth corps, ready to follow McPherson as soon as they got the word. Just now, though, there not only was no need for them; there actually was no room. Because of the high water and the incessant rain overflowing the bayous, there was no place to camp on the low-lying west bank except upon the levee, with the result that the army was strung out along it for more than fifty miles, north and south, under conditions that were anything but healthy.As morale declined, the sick-lists lengthened; desertions were up; funerals were frequent. “Go any day down the levee,” one recruit wrote home, “and you could see a squad or two of soldiers burying a companion, until the levee was nearly full of graves and the hospitals still full of sick. And those that were not down sick were not well by a considerable.” Pneumonia was the chief killer, with smallpox a close second. Some regiments soon had more men down than up. The food was bad. Paymasters did not venture south of Helena, which increased the disaffection, and the rumor mills were grinding as never before. When the mails were held up, as they frequently were, it was reported from camp to camp, like a spark moving along a fifty-mile train of powder, that the war was over but that the news was being kept from the troops “for fear we could not be held in subjection if we knew the state of affairs.” They took out at least a share of their resentment on such rebel property as came within their reach. “Farms disappear, houses are burned and plundered, and every living animal killed and eaten,” Sherman informed his senator brother. “General officers make feeble efforts to stay the disorder, but it is idle.” Then when the mail came through at last they could read in anti-administration newspapers of the instability and incompetence of the West Pointers responsible for their welfare, including Sherman—“He hates reporters, foams at the mouth when he sees them, snaps at them; sure symptoms of a deep-seated mania”—and the army commander himself: “The confidence of the army is greatly shaken in General Grant, who hitherto undoubtedly depended more upon good fortune than upon military ability for success.”
The wet season would continue for months, during which all these problems would be with him. As Grant said in retrospect, “There seemed to be no possibility of a land movement before the end of March or later.” Yet “it would not do to lie idle all this time. The effect would be demoralizing to the troops and injurious to their health. Friends in the North would have grown more and more insolent in their gibes and denunciations of the cause and those engaged in it.” So he launched (or rather, continued) what he called “a series of experiments,” designed not only “to consume time,” but also to serve the triple purpose of diverting “the attention of the enemy, of my troops, and of the public generally.” Two failures were already behind him in his campaign against Vicksburg: the advance down the Mississippi Central and the assault on the Chickasaw Bluffs, both of which had ended in retreat. Now there followed five more failures, bringing the total to seven. Looking back on them later he was to say—quite untruthfully, as the record would show—that he had “never felt great confidence that any of the experiments resorted to would prove successful,” though he had always been “prepared to take advantage of them in case they did.”
The third of these seven “experiments”—the attempt, by means of a canal across the base of the tongue of land in front of Vicksburg, to divert the channel of the river and thus permit the column of warships, transports, and supply boats to bypass the batteries on the bluff—had been in progress ever since the return of the army from Arkansas Post, but Sherman, who had assigned a thousand men a day to the digging job, was not sanguine of results. “The river is about full and threatens to drown us out,” he was complaining as he sloshed about in a waste of gumbo, with the rain coming down harder every week. “The ground is wet, almost water, and it is impossible for wagons to haul stores from the river to camp, or even horses to wallow through.” Conversely, as if to preserve a balance of optimism, Grant’s expectations rose with the passage of time. In early March he wired Halleck: “The canal is near completion.… I will have Vicksburg this month, or fail in the attempt.” But this was the signal for disaster. “If the river rises 8 feet more, we would have to take to the trees,” Sherman had said, and presently it did. The dam at the upper end of the cut gave way, and the water, instead of scouring out a channel—as had been expected, or anyhow intended—spread all over the lower end of the peninsula, forcing the evacuation of the troops from their flooded camps, with the resultant sacrifice of many horses and much equipment. “This little affair of ours here on Vicksburg Point is labor lost,” Sherman reported in disgust, announcing the unceremonious end of the third experiment.
But Grant already had a fourth in progress. Fifty-odd miles above Vicksburg, just west of the river and south of the Arkansas line, lay Lake Providence, once a bend of the Mississippi but long since abandoned by the Old Man in the course of one of his cataclysmic whims. Though the lake now was land-locked, separated moreover from the river by a levee, Bayou Baxter drained it sluggishly westward into Bayou Macon, which in turn flowed into the Tensas River, just over a hundred winding miles to the south. Still farther down, the Tensas joined the Ouachita to form the Black, and the Black ran into the Red, which entered the Mississippi a brief stretch above Port Hudson. Despite its roundabout meandering, a distance of some 470 miles, this route seemed to Grant to offer a chance, once the levee had been breached to afford access to Lake Providence and the intricate system of hinterland bayous and rivers, for a naval column to avoid not only the Vicksburg batteries but also those below at Warrenton and Grand Gulf. Accordingly, two days after his arrival at Young’s Point, he sent an engineer detail to look into the possibilities indicated on the map, and the following week, in early February, he went up to see for himself. It seemed to him that “a little digging”—“less than one-quarter,” he said, of what Sherman had done already on the old canal—“will connect the Mississippi and Lake, and in all probability will wash a channel in a short time.” If so, the way would be open for a bloodless descent, at the end of which he would join Banks for a combined attack on Port Hudson, and once that final bastion had been reduced the Confederacy would have been cut in two and the Great Lakes region would have recovered its sorely missed trade connection with the Gulf. Impressed by this vista, Grant sent at once for McPherson to come down with a full division and get the project started without delay. “This bids fair to be the most practicable route for turning Vicksburg,” he told him in the body of the summons.
He could scarcely have assigned the task to an officer better prepared to undertake it. McPherson, who was thirty-three and a fellow Ohioan, had been top man in the West Point class of ’53 and had returned to the academy as an engineering instructor; he also had worked on river and harbor projects in the peacetime army, and had served at the time of Shiloh, when he was a lieutenant colonel, as chief engineer on Grant’s staff. His advancement since then had been rapid, though not without some grousing, on the part of line officers he had passed on his way up the ladder, that a man who had never led troops in a major action should be given command of a corps. Sherman, on the other hand, considered him the army’s “best hope for a great soldier,” not excepting Grant and himself; “if he lives,” he added. A bright-eyed, pleasant-faced young man, alternately bland and impulsive, McPherson came quickly down from Memphis with one of his two divisions and set to work at once. Without waiting for the levee to be cut, he horsed a small towboat overland, launched it on the lake, and got aboard for a reconnaissance—with the result that his high hopes took a sudden drop. The Bayou Baxter outlet led through an extensive cypress brake, and what could be found of its channel, which was but little at the present flood stage, was badly choked with stumps and snags that threatened to knock or rip the bottom out of whatever came their way. He put his men to work with underwater saws, but it was clear that at best the job would be a long one, if not impossible. Besides, Grant now saw that, even if a passage could be opened in time to be of use, he would never be able to get together enough light-draft boats to carry his army down to the Red River anyhow. McPherson and his staff meanwhile enjoyed something of a holiday, taking a regimental band aboard the little steamer for moonlight excursions, to and from the landing at one of the lakeside plantation houses which turned out to have a well-stocked cellar. Soldiers too found relaxation in this quiet backwater of the war, mainly in fishing, what time they were not taking turns on the underwater saws. By early March it was more or less obvious that nothing substantial was going to come of this fourth attempt to take or bypass Vicksburg, but Grant declared, later and rather laconically: “I let the work go on, believing employment was better than idleness for the men.”
All seven of these experiments, four of which by now had gone by the board, anticipated some degree of co-operation from the navy. For the most part, indeed, they were classically amphibious, depending as much on naval as on army strength and skill. But if Porter, whatever his other shortcomings—one acquaintance called him “by all odds the greatest humbug of the war”—was not the kind of man to withhold needed help, neither was he the kind to be satisfied with a supporting role if he saw even an outside chance at stardom. And he believed he saw one now: had seen it, in fact, from the outset, and had already made his solo entrance on the stage. One of the two main reasons for attempting the reduction of Vicksburg and Port Hudson—in addition, that is, to opening a pathway to New Orleans and the Gulf—was to choke off rebel traffic along and across the nearly three hundred miles of river that flowed between them, particularly that segment of it tangent to the mouth of Red River, the main artery of trade connecting the goods-rich Transmississippi’s far-west region with the principal Confederate supply depots in Georgia and Virginia. To accomplish this, the admiral perceived, it would not be absolutely necessary to capture either of the two bastions anchoring opposite ends of the long stretch of river. All that was needed, really, was to control what lay between them, and this could be done by sending warships down to knock out whatever vestiges of the rebel fleet remained and to establish a sort of internal blockade by patrolling all possible crossings. In early February, accordingly, while Sherman’s men were still digging their way across soggy Vicksburg Point and Grant was steaming upriver for a preliminary look at cypress-choked Lake Providence, Porter gave orders which put his plan in the way of execution.
First off, this would require a run past the batteries on the bluff, and he gave the assignment to the steam ram Queen of the West, which had done it twice before, back in July, in an unsuccessful attempt to come to grips with the Arkansas. She was one of the navy’s best-known vessels, having led the ram attack at the Battle of Memphis, where she had been commanded by her designer and builder, Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr., who had died of the only wound inflicted on a Northerner in that one-sided triumph. His son, nineteen-year-old Colonel Charles R. Ellet—who, as a medical cadet, had gone ashore in a rowboat, accompanied by three seamen, to complete the Memphis victory by raising the Stars and Stripes over the post office—had succeeded his uncle, Brigadier General A. W. Ellet, who had succeeded the first Ellet as commander of the ram fleet, as skipper of the Queen. Patched up from the two poundings she had taken from Vicksburg’s high-perched guns, and fitted out now with guns of her own for the first time—previously she had depended solely on her punch—she made her run at daybreak, February 4, taking an even dozen hits, including two in the hull but none below the water line, and pulled up at a battery Sherman had established on the west bank, just around the bend, for the protection of his diggers. Above the town, two nights later, Porter set adrift a barge loaded with 20,000 bushels of coal, which made it downstream on schedule and without mishap, apparently not having been spotted by the lookouts on the bluff. “This gives the ram nearly coal enough to last a month,” the admiral proudly informed Secretary Welles, “in which time she can commit great havoc, if no accident happens to her.”
Though at first it seemed an unnecessary flourish—he knew the rebels had nothing afloat to match the Queen—that final reservation was prophetic. Setting out on the night of February 10, accompanied by an ex-Confederate steamboat, the DeSoto, which had been captured by the army below Vicksburg, Ellet began his career as a commerce raider in fine style, slipping past the Warrenton batteries undetected and going to work at once on enemy shipping by destroying skiffs and flatboats on both banks. He burned or commandeered hundreds of bales of cotton, taking some aboard for “armoring” the wheelhouse, destroyed supply trains heavily loaded with grain and salt pork being sent to collection points, and in reprisal for a sniper bullet, which struck one of his sailors in the leg, burned no less than three plantation houses, together with their outbuildings, apparently undismayed even when one planter’s daughter sang “The Bonny Blue Flag” full in his face as the flames crackled. His greatest single prize, however, was the corn-laden packet Era No. 5, which he captured after passing Natchez and entering the Red River. But at that point, or just beyond it—seventy-five miles from the mouth of the river and with Alexandria in a turmoil less than half that far ahead—he and the Queen ran out of luck. On Valentine’s Day, approaching Gordon’s Landing, where a battery of guns had been reported, the ram stuck fast on a mud flat and was taken suddenly under fire by enemy gunners who yelled with delight at thus being offered a stationary target at a range of four hundred yards. In short order the boat’s engine controls were smashed, her escape-pipe shot away, her boiler fractured. As she disappeared in hissing clouds of steam—one survivor later claimed to have avoided scalding his lungs because “I had sufficient presence of mind to cram the tail of my coat into my mouth”—officers and men began to tumble bales of cotton over the rail, then leap after them into the river, clinging to them in hope of reaching the DeSoto or the Era, a mile below. By now it was every man for himself, including the wounded, and the youthful skipper was not among the last to abandon the Queen in favor of a downstream ride astride a bale of cotton.
Picked up by the DeSoto, Ellet and the others were alarmed to discover that in the excitement she had unshipped both rudders and become unmanageable; so they set her afire and abandoned her, too, in favor of the more recently captured Era. Their career as raiders had lasted just four days. From now on, their only concern was escape, which seemed unlikely because of reports that the Confederates had at Alexandria a high-speed steamboat, the William H. Webb, which would surely be after them as soon as the news arrived upriver. She mounted only one gun, they had heard, and would never have dared to tackle the Queen, but now the tables were more or less turned; the pursuers became the pursued. “With a sigh for the poor fellows left behind, and a hope that our enemies would be merciful,” a survivor wrote, “the prow of the Era was turned toward the Mississippi.” They made it by daylight, after a race through stormy darkness unrelieved except for blinding flashes of lightning, and started north up the big river, heaving overboard all possible incidentals, including rations, in an attempt to coax more speed from their unarmed boat. Next morning, February 16, just below Natchez, with the Webb reportedly closing fast on their stern, they were startled to see an enormous, twin-stacked vessel bearing down on them from dead ahead. Their dismay at the prospect of being ground between two millstones was relieved, however, when the lookout identified her as the Indianola. The latest addition to the ironclad fleet and the pride of the Federal inland-waters navy, she mounted two great 11-inch smoothbores forward and a pair of 9-inch rifles amidships, casemated between her towering sidewheel-boxes, while for power she boasted four engines, driving twin screws in addition to her paddles, and she had brought two large barges of coal along, one lashed to starboard and one to port, to insure a long-term stay on the previously rebel-held 250-mile stretch of river above Port Hudson. Porter had sent her down past the Vicksburg batteries three nights ago, intending for her to support the Queen and thus, as he said, “make matters doubly sure.”
Learning from Ellet that the Queen had been lost, Lieutenant Commander George Brown, captain of the Indianola, decided at once to proceed downriver, accompanied by the Era. Presently they sighted the Webb, in hot pursuit, and once more the tables were turned; for the Webb took one quick look at the iron-clad monster and promptly made use of her superior speed to withdraw before coming within range of those 11-inch guns, two short-falling shots from which only served to hurry her along, as one observer said, “for all the world like a frightened racehorse.” Brown gave chase as far as the mouth of Red River, up which the rebel vessel disappeared, but there he called a halt, Porter having warned him not to venture up that stream without an experienced pilot, which he lacked. While Brown continued on patrol, guarding against a re-emergence of the Webb, Ellet took off northward in the Era with the unpleasant duty of informing Porter that he had lost the Queen. Two days later, still on patrol at the mouth of the Red, Brown received astounding news. The Confederates had resurrected the Queen of the West, patching up her punctured hull and repairing her fractured steam drum. Even now, in company with the skittish Webb and two cottonclad boats whose upper decks were crowded with sharpshooters, she was preparing to come out after the Indianola. Brown thought it over and decided to retire.
He would have done better to leave without taking time to think it over; the fuze was burning shorter than he knew. However, he was in for a fight in any event because of the two coal barges, which he knew would decrease his upstream speed considerably, but which he was determined to hold onto, despite the fact that the Indianola’s bunkers were chock-full. Partly this decision was the result of his ingrained peacetime frugality, but mostly it was because he wanted to have plenty of fuel on hand in case Porter complied with his request, forwarded by Ellet, that another gunboat be sent downriver as a replacement for the Queen. Brown left the mouth of the Red on Saturday, February 21, and stopped for the night at a plantation landing up the Mississippi to take on a load of cotton bales, which he stacked around the ironclad’s low main deck to make her less vulnerable to boarders. Next morning he was off again in earnest, all four engines straining to offset the drag of the two barges lashed alongside. He did not know how much of a head start he had, but he feared it was not enough. In point of fact, it was even less than he supposed; for the four-boat Confederate flotilla, including the resurrected Queen, set out after him at about the same hour that Sunday morning, ninety miles astern of the landing where the lndianola had commandeered the cotton. The race was on.
It was not really much of a race. Major Joseph L. Brent, commanding the quartet of rebel warships, each of which was in the charge of an army captain, could have overtaken Brown at almost anytime Tuesday afternoon, the 24th, but he preferred to wait for darkness, which would not only make the aiming of the ironclad’s big guns more difficult but would also give the Grand Gulf batteries a chance at her as she went by. Held to a crawl though she was by the awkward burden of her barges, the lndianola got past that danger without mishap; but Brown could see the smoke from his pursuers’ chimneys drawing closer with every mile as the sun declined, and he knew that he was in for a fight before it rose again. He also knew by now that no reinforcing consort was going to join him from the fleet above Vicksburg, in spite of which he held doggedly to his barges, counting on them to give him fender protection from ram attacks. As darkness fell, moonless but dusky with starlight, he cleared for action and kept half of his crew at battle stations: “watch and watch,” it was called. At 9.30 he passed New Carthage, which put him within thirteen miles of the nearest west-bank Union battery, but by that time the rebel boats were in plain sight. Abreast of Palmyra Island, heading into Davis Bend—so called because it flowed past the Confederate President’s Brierfield Plantation—Brown swung his iron prow around to face his pursuers at last, thus bringing his heavy guns to bear and protecting his more vulnerable stern.
As the Queen and the Webb came at him simultaneously, the former in the lead, he fired an 11-inch shell point-blank at each. Both missed, and the Queen was on him, lunging in from port with such force that the barge on that side was sliced almost in two. Emerging unscathed from this, except for the loss of the barge, which was cut adrift to sink, the Indianola met the Webb bows on, with a crash that knocked most of both crews off their feet and left the Confederate with a gash in her bow extending from water line to keelson, while the Federal was comparatively unhurt. Nevertheless the Webb backed off and struck again, crushing the remaining barge so completely as to leave it hanging by the lashings. Meanwhile the Queen, having run upstream a ways to gain momentum, turned and came charging down, striking her adversary just abaft the starboard wheelhouse, which was wrecked along with the rudder on that side, and starting a number of leaks along the shaft. Likewise the Webb, having gained momentum in the same fashion, brought her broken nose down hard and fair on the crippled ironclad’s lightly armored stern, starting the timbers and causing the water to pour in rapidly. All this time the Indianola had kept throwing shells into the smoky darkness, left and right, but had scored only a single hit on the Queen, which did no considerable damage to the boat herself though it killed two and wounded four of her crew. Brown, having done his worst with this one shot, was now in a hopeless condition, scarcely able to steer and with both of his starboard engines flooded. After waiting a while in midstream until the water had risen nearly to the grate-bars of the ironclad’s furnaces, planning thus to avoid her capture by making sure that she would sink, he ran her hard into the more friendly west bank and hauled down his colors just as the two cottonclads came alongside, crowded with yelling rebels prepared for boarding. Quickly they leaped down and attached two ropes by which the steamers could haul the Indianola across the river to the Confederate-held east bank, barely making it in time for her to sink in ten feet of water. As soon as they got their prisoners ashore they went to work on the captured dreadnought, intending to raise her, as they had raised the Queen of the West the week before, for service under the Stars and Bars.
Though he had heard the heavy nighttime firing just downriver, Porter did not know for certain what had happened until two days later, when a seaman who had escaped from the Indianola during her brief contact with the western bank came aboard his flagshipBlack Hawk and gave him an eyewitness account of the tragedy. Coming as it did on the heels of news of the loss of the Queen—which in turn had been preceded, two months back, by the destruction of the Cairo—the blow was hard, especially since it included the information that the Queen had been taken over by the enemy and had played a leading part in the defeat of her intended consort, which was now about to be used in the same manner as soon as the rebels succeeded in getting her afloat. What made it doubly hard, for Porter at any rate, was the contrast between his present gloom and his recent optimism. “If you open the Father of Waters,” Assistant Navy Secretary G. A. Fox had wired the acting rear admiral in response to reports of his progress just two weeks ago, “you will at once be made an admiral; besides we will try for a ribboned star.… Do your work up clean,” Fox had added, “and the public will never be in doubt who did it. The flaming army correspondence misleads nobody. Keep cool, be very modest under great success, as a contrast to the soldiers.” At any rate, such strain as there had been on Porter’s modesty was removed by the awareness that all he had really accomplished so far—aside from the capture of Arkansas Post, which had had to be shared with the army—was the loss of three of his best warships, two of which were now in enemy hands. What filled his mind just now was the thought of what this newest-model ironclad, the former pride of the Union fleet, could accomplish once she went into action on the Confederate side. Supported as she would be by the captured ram, she might well prove invincible in an upstream fight. In fact, any attempt to challenge her en masse would probably add other powerful units to the rebel flotilla of defected boats, since any disabled vessel would be swept helplessly downstream in such an engagement. Far from opening the Father of Waters, and gaining thereby a ribboned star and the permanent rank of admiral, Porter could see that he would be more likely to lose what had been won by his predecessors. Besides, even if he had wanted to launch such an all-out attack, he had no gunboats in the vicinity of Vicksburg now; they had been sent far upriver to co-operate in another of Grant’s ill-fated amphibious experiments.
Porter was inventive in more ways than one, however, and his resourcefulness now stood him in good stead. If he had no available ironclad, then he would build one—or anyhow the semblance of one. Ordering every man off the noncombatant vessels to turn to, he took an old flat-bottomed barge, extended its length to three hundred feet by use of rafts hidden behind false bulwarks, and covered it over with flimsy decking to support a frame-and-canvas pilothouse and two huge but empty paddle-wheel boxes. A casemate was mounted forward, with a number of large-caliber logs protruding from its ports, and two tall smokestacks were erected by piling barrels one upon another. As a final realistic touch, after two abandoned skiffs were swung from unworkable davits, the completed dummy warship was given an all-over coat of tar. Within twenty-four hours, at a reported cost of $8.63, the navy had what appeared, at least from a distance, to be a sister ship of the lndianola. Belching smoke from pots of burning tar and oakum installed in her barrel stacks, she was set adrift the following night to make her run past the Vicksburg batteries. They gave her everything they had, but to no avail; her black armor seemingly impervious to damage, she glided unscathed past the roaring guns, not even deigning to reply. At daybreak she grounded near the lower end of Sherman’s canal, and the diggers pushed her off again with a cheer. As she resumed her course downriver, the Queen of the West, coming up past Warrenton on a scout, spotted the dark behemoth in the distance, bearing down with her guns run out and her deck apparently cleared for action. The ram spun on her heel and sped back to spread the alarm: whereupon—since neither the Queen nor the broken-nosed Webb was in any condition for another fight just yet—all four of the Confederate vessels made off southward to avoid a clash with this second ironclad. Aboard the Indianola, still immobile and now deserted by her new friends, the lieutenant in charge of salvage operations was for holding onto her and fighting it out, despite repeated orders for him to complete her destruction before she could be recaptured. At a range of about two miles, the dreadnought halted as if to look the situation over before closing in for the bloody work she was bent on. Still the lieutenant held his ground until nightfall, when he decided to comply with the instructions of his superiors. After heaving the 9-inch rifles into the river, he laid the 11-inch smoothbores muzzle to muzzle and fired them with slow matches. When the smoke from this had cleared, he came back and set fire to what was left, burning the wreckage to the water line and ending the brief but stormy career of the ironclad Indianola.
Next morning, seeing the black monster still in her former position, some two miles upriver—one observer later described her as “terrible though inert”—a party of Confederates went out in a rowboat to investigate. Drawing closer they recognized her for the hoax she was, and saw that she had come to rest on a mudbank. Nailed to her starboard wheelhouse was a crudely lettered sign. “Deluded people, cave in,” it read.
“Then, too,” Grant added, continuing the comment on his reasons for keeping McPherson’s men sawing away at the underwater stumps and snags clogging the Bayou Baxter exit from Lake Providence even after he knew that, in itself, the work was unlikely to produce anything substantial, “it served as a cover for other efforts which gave a better prospect of success.” What he had in mind—in addition, that is, to Sherman’s canal, which was not to be abandoned until March—was a fifth experimental project, whose starting point was four hundred tortuous miles upriver from its intended finish atop the Vicksburg bluff. In olden days, just south of Helena and on the opposite bank, a bayou had afforded egress from the Mississippi; Yazoo Pass, it was called, because it connected eastward with the Coldwater River, which flowed south into the Tallahatchie, which in turn combined with the Yalobusha, farther down, to form the Yazoo. Steamboats once had plied this route for trade with the planters of the delta hinterland. In fact, they still steamed up and down this intricate chain of rivers, but only by entering from below, through the mouth of the Yazoo River; for the state of Mississippi had sealed off the northern entrance, five years before the war, by constructing across the mouth of Yazoo Pass a levee which served to keep the low-lying cotton fields from going under water with every rise of the big river. Now it was Grant’s notion that perhaps all he needed to do, in order to utilize this old peacetime trade route for his wartime purpose, was cut the levee and send in gunboats to provide cover for transports, which then could be unloaded on high ground—well down the left bank of the Yazoo but short of Haines Bluff, whose fortifications blocked an ascent of that river from below—and thus, by forcing the outnumbered defenders to come out into the open for a fight which could only result in their defeat, take Vicksburg from the rear. Accordingly, at the same time he ordered McPherson down from Memphis to Lake Providence, he sent his chief topographical engineer, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, to inspect and report on the possibility of launching such an attack by way of Yazoo Pass.
Wilson, described by a contemporary as “a slight person of a light complexion and with rather a pinched face,” was enthusiastic from the start. An Illinois regular, only two years out of West Point and approaching his twenty-sixth birthday, he recently had been transferred from the East, where he had served as an aide to McClellan at Antietam, and he had approached his western assignment with doubts, particularly in regard to Grant, whose “simple and unmilitary bearing,” as the young man phrased it, made a drab impression by contrast with the recent splendor of Little Mac, whose official family had included an Astor and two genuine French princes of the blood. But in this case familiarity bred affection; Wilson soon was remarking that his new commander was “a most agreeable companion both on the march and in camp.” What drew him more than anything, however, was the trust Grant showed in sending him to take charge of the opening phase of this fifth and latest project for the reduction of the Gibraltar of the West. After a bit of preliminary surveying and shovel work, he wasted no time. On the evening of February 3—while Ellet prepared to take the Queen past the Vicksburg bluff at daybreak and Grant himself was about to head upriver for a first-hand look at Lake Providence—Wilson mined and blew the levee sealing the mouth of Yazoo Pass. The result was altogether spectacular, he reported, “water pouring through like nothing else I ever saw except Niagara.” After waiting four days for the surface level to equalize, east and west of the cut, he boarded a gunboat, steamed “with great ease” into Moon Lake, a mile beyond, and “ran down it about five miles to where the Pass leaves it.” Hard work was going to be involved, he wrote Grant’s adjutant, but he was confident of a large return on such an investment. Grant was infected at once with the colonel’s enthusiasm. Wilson already had with him a 4500-man division from Helena; now a second division was ordered to join him from there. Presently, when he reported that he had got through to the Coldwater, McPherson was told to be prepared to follow with his whole corps. “The Yazoo Pass expedition is going to prove a perfect success,” Grant informed Elihu B. Washburne, his home-state Representative and congressional guardian angel.
Hard work had been foreseen, and that was what it took. Emerging from Moon Lake, Wilson found the remaining twelve-mile segment of the pass sufficiently deep but so narrow in some places that the gunboat could not squeeze between giant oaks and cypresses growing on opposite banks. These had to be felled with axes, a patience-testing business but by no means the most discouraging he encountered. Warned of his coming, the Confederates had brought in working parties of slaves from surrounding plantations and had chopped down other trees, some of them more than four feet through the bole, so that they lay athwart the bayou, ponderous and apparently immovable. Undaunted, Wilson borrowed navy hawsers long enough to afford simultaneous handholds for whole regiments of soldiers, whom he put to work snaking the impediments out of the way. They did it with such ease, he later remarked, that he never afterwards wondered how the Egyptians had lifted the great stones in place when they built the Pyramids; enough men on a rope could move anything, he decided. Still, he had no such span of time at his disposal as the Pharaohs had had, and this was at best a time-consuming process. February was almost gone before he reached the eastern end of the pass. South of there, however, he expected to find clear sailing. The Coldwater being “a considerable stream,” he reported, vessels of almost any length and draft could be sent from the Mississippi into the Tallahatchie in just four days. And so it proved when a ten-boat flotilla, including two ironclads, two steam rams, and six tinclads—the 22 light transports were to come along behind—tried it during the first week in March. In fact, it was not until the warships were more than a hundred miles down the winding Tallahatchie, near its junction with the Yalobusha, that Wilson realized he was in for a great deal more trouble, and of a kind he had not encountered up to now.
The trouble now was the rebels themselves, not just the various obstructions they had left in his path before fading back into the swamps and woods. Five miles above Greenwood, a hamlet at the confluence of the rivers, they had improvised on a boggy island inclosed by a loop of the Tallahatchie a fort whose parapets, built of cotton bales and reinforced with sandbags, were designed not only to deflect heavy projectiles but also to keep out the river itself, which had gone well past the flood stage when the Yankees blew the levee far upstream. Fort Pemberton, the place was called, and it had as its commander a man out of the dim Confederate past: Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, who had fought against Grant and the ironclads under similar circumstances at Fort Henry, thirteen months ago. Exchanged and reinstated, he was determined to wipe out that defeat, though the odds were as long and the tactical situation not much different. His immediate superior, Major General W. W. Loring, was also a carry-over from the past, and as commander of the delta subdepartment he intended to give the Federals even more trouble than he had given Lee and Jackson in Virginia the year before, which was considerable. A third relic on the scene was the former U.S. ocean steamer Star of the West, whose name had been in the scareheads three full months before the war, when the Charleston batteries fired on her for attempting the relief of Sumter. Continuing on to Texas, she had been captured in mid-April by Van Dorn at lndianola and was in the rebel service as a receiving-ship at New Orleans a year later, when Farragut provoked her flight up the Mississippi and into the Yazoo to avoid recapture. Here above Greenwood she ended her days afloat, but not her career, for she was sunk in the Tallahatchie alongside Fort Pemberton, blocking the channel and thus becoming an integral part of the outer defenses of Vicksburg. Three regiments, one from Texas and two from Mississippi, were all the high command could spare for manning the breastworks and the guns, which included one 6.4-inch rifle and half a dozen smaller pieces. This was scarcely a formidable armament with which to oppose 11-inch Dahlgrens housed in armored casemates, but on March 11—while northward a long column of approaching warships and transports sent up a winding trail of smoke, stretching out of sight beyond the heavy screen of woods—the graybacks were a determined crew as they sighted their guns up the straight stretch of river giving down upon the fort.
Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith, who had charge of the ten-boat Union flotilla, was by now in a state of acute distress; he had never experienced anything like this in all his years afloat. Coming through Yazoo Pass into the Coldwater and down the Tallahatchie, all of which were so narrow in places that the gunboats had to be warped around the sharper bends with ropes, one tinclad had shattered her wheel and was out of action, while another had lost both smokestacks. All the rest had taken similar punishment in passing over rafts of driftwood or under projecting limbs that came sweeping and crashing along their upper works. The most serious of these mishaps was suffered when the Chillicothe, one of the two ironclads, struck a snag and started a plank in her bottom, which had to be held in place by beams shored in from the deck above. Smith’s distress was greatly increased this morning, however, when this same unlucky vessel, at the head of the column, rounded the next-to-final bend leading down to the Yazoo and was struck hard twice on the turrets by high-velocity shells from dead ahead. She pulled back to survey the damage and fortify with cotton bales, then came on again that afternoon, accompanied by the other ironclad, the De Kalb. She got off four rounds at 800 yards and was about to fire a fifth—the loaders had already set the 11-inch shell in the gun’s muzzle and were stripping the patch from the fuze—when a rebel shell came screaming through the port; both projectiles exploded on contact, killing 2 and wounding 11 of the gun crew. The two ironclads withdrew under urgent orders from Smith, whose distress had increased to the point where, according to Porter’s subsequent report, he was showing “symptoms of aberration of mind.”
Twice more, on the 13th and the 16th—without, however, attempting to close the range—the ironclads tried for a reduction of the fort at the end of that tree-lined stretch of river, as straight and uncluttered as a bowling alley: with similar results. Unable to maneuver in the narrow stream, the two boats took a terrible pounding, but could do little more than bounce their big projectiles off the resilient enemy parapet. The infantry, waiting rearward in the transports, gave no help at all; for the flooded banks made debarkation impossible, and any attempt at a small-boat attack—even if such boats had been available, which they were not—would have been suicidal. By the time the third day’s bombardment was over, both ironclads were badly crippled; the De Kalb had lost ten of her gun-deck beams and her steerage was shot to pieces, while the luckless Chillicothe had more of her crew felled by armor bolts driven inward, under the impact of shells from the hard-hitting enemy rifle, to fly like bullets through the casemate. On March 17, in an apparent moment of lucidity, Smith ordered the flotilla to withdraw. Everyone agreed that this was the wisest course: everyone but Wilson, who complained hotly to Grant that the issue had not been pressed. “To let one 6½-inch rifle stop our navy. Bah!” he protested, and put the blame on “Acting Rear Admiral, Commodore, Captain, Lieutenant-Commander Smith” and the other naval officers. “I’ve talked with them all and tried to give them backbone,” he said, “but they are not confident.”
Returning up the Coldwater two days later—while Loring and Tilghman were celebrating the repulse in victory dispatches sent downriver to Vicksburg—the disconsolate Federals met the second Helena division on its way to reinforce them under Brigadier General Isaac Quinby, who outranked all the brass at hand and was unwilling to retreat without so much as a look at what stood in the way of an advance. So the expedition turned around and came back down again. Stopping short of the bend leading into the bowling alley, the men aboard the transports and gunboats slapped at mosquitoes and practiced their marksmanship on alligators, while Quinby conducted a boggy twelve-day reconnaissance which finally persuaded him that Smith had been right in the first place. Besides, even Wilson was convinced by now that the game was not worth the candle, for the rebels had brought up another steamboat which they were “either ready to sink or use as a boarding-craft and ram,” and it seemed to the young colonel that they were “making great calculations ‘to bag us’ entire.” He agreed that the time had come for a final departure. This began on April 5 and brought the Yazoo Pass experiment to a close. Being, as he said, “solicitous for my reputation at headquarters,” Wilson ended a letter to Grant’s adjutant with a request for the latest staff gossip, and thought to add: “Remember me kindly to the general.”
His fears, though natural enough in an ambitious young career officer who had failed in his first independent assignment, were groundless. For unlike Porter, who no sooner learned the details of the Tallahatchie nightmare than he relieved Watson Smith of duty with the fleet and sent him North—where presently, by way of proving that his affliction had been physical as well as mental, he died in a delirium of fever and chagrin—Grant did not hold the collapse of this fifth experiment against his subordinate, but rather, when Wilson returned at last to Young’s Point after an absence of more than two months, welcomed him back without reproach into the fold. By then the army commander had a better appreciation of the problems that stood in the way of an amphibious penetration of the delta, having been involved simultaneously in a not unsimilar nightmare of his own. In point of fact, however, no matter how little he chose to bring it to bear, Porter had even greater occasion for such charity, since he had been more intimately involved, not only as the author but also as the on-the-scene director of this latest fiasco, the sole result of which had been the addition of a sixth to the sequence of failures designed for the reduction of Vicksburg.
Left with time more or less on his hands after the downriver loss of two of his best warships, and being anxious moreover to offset the damage to his reputation with an exploit involving something less flimsy than a dummy ironclad, the admiral pored over his charts and made various exploratory trips up and down the network of creeks and bayous flowing into the Yazoo River below Haines Bluff, whose guns he had learned to respect back in December. Five miles upstream from its junction with the Mississippi, the Yazoo received the sluggish waters of Steele Bayou, and forty miles up Steele Bayou, Black Bayou connected eastward with Deer Creek, which in turn, at about the same upstream distance and by means of another bayou called Rolling Fork, connected eastward with the Sunflower River. That was where the payoff came within easy reach; for the Sunflower flowed into the Yazoo, fifty miles below, offering the chance for an uncontested high-ground landing well above the Haines Bluff fortifications, which then could be assaulted from the rear or bypassed on the way to the back door of Vicksburg. Though the route was crooked and the distance great—especially by contrast; no less than two hundred roundabout miles would have to be traversed by the column of gunboats and transports in order to put the troops ashore no more than twenty air-line miles above their starting point—Porter was so firmly convinced he had found the solution to the knotty Vicksburg problem that he called at Young’s Point and persuaded Grant to come aboard the Black Hawk for a demonstration. Steaming up the Yazoo, the admiral watched the tree-fringed north bank for a while, then suddenly to his companion’s amazement signaled the helm for a hard turn to port, into brush that was apparently impenetrable. So far, high water had been the curse of the campaign, but now it proved an asset. As the boat swung through the leafy barrier, which parted to admit it, the leadsman sang out a sounding of fifteen feet—better than twice the depth the ironclads required. Formerly startled, Grant was now convinced, especially when Porter informed him that they were steaming above an old road once used for hauling cotton to the river. Practically all the lower delta was submerged, in part because of the seasonal rise of the rivers, but mostly because of the cut Wilson had made in the levee, four hundred miles upstream at Yazoo Pass; a tremendous volume of water had come down the various tributaries and had spread itself over the land. It was Porter’s contention, based on limited reconnaissance, that as a result all those creeks and bayous would be navigable from end to end by vessels of almost any size, including the gunboats and transports selected to thread the labyrinth giving down upon the back-door approach to Vicksburg. Infected once more with contagious enthusiasm, Grant returned without delay to Young’s Point, where he issued orders that same night for the army’s share in what was known thereafter as the Steele Bayou expedition.
Sherman drew the assignment, along with one of his two divisions of men who just that week had been flooded out of their pick-and-shovel work on the doomed canal, and went up the Mississippi to a point where a long bend swung eastward to within a mile of Steele Bayou. On the afternoon of March 16, after slogging across this boggy neck of land, he made contact with the naval units, which had come up by way of the Yazoo that morning. As soon as he got his troops aboard the waiting transports the column resumed its progress northward, five ironclads in the lead, followed by four all-purpose tugs and a pair of mortar boats which Porter, not knowing what he might encounter in the labyrinth ahead, had had “built for the occasion.” With his mind’s eye fixed on permanent rank and the ribboned star Fox had promised to try for, the admiral was taking no chances he could avoid. All went well—as he had expected because of his preliminary reconnaissance—until the gunboats approached Black Bayou, where the unreconnoitered portion of the route began. This narrow, four-mile, time-forgotten stretch of stagnant water was not only extremely crooked, it was also filled with trees. Porter used his heavy boats to butt them down, bulldozer style, and hoisted them aside with snatch blocks. This was heavy labor, necessarily slow, and as it progressed the column changed considerably in appearance. Overhead branches swept the upper decks of the warships, leaving a mess of wreckage in the place of boats and woodwork. Occasionally, too, as Porter said, “a rude tree would throw Briarean arms” around the stacks of the slowly passing vessels, “and knock their bonnets sideways.” After about a mile of this, Sherman’s men were put to work with ropes and axes, clearing a broader passage for the transports, while the sturdier ironclads forged ahead, thumping and bumping their way into Deer Creek, where they resumed a northward course next morning.
But this was worse in several ways, one of them being that the creek was even narrower than the bayou. If the trees were fewer, they were also closer together, and vermin of all kinds had taken refuge in them from the flood; so that when one of the gunboats struck a tree the quivering limbs let fall a plague of rats, mice, cockroaches, snakes, and lizards. Men were stationed about the decks with brooms to rid the vessels of such unwelcome boarders, but sometimes the sweepers had larger game to contend with, including coons and wildcats. These last, however, “were prejudiced against us, and refused to be comforted on board,” the admiral subsequently wrote, “though I am sorry to say we found more Union feeling among the bugs.” To add to the nightmare, Deer Creek was the crookedest stream he had ever encountered: “One minute an ironclad would apparently be leading ahead, and the next minute would as apparently be steering the other way.” Along one brief stretch, less than half a mile in length, the five warships were steaming in five quite different directions. Moreover, this was a region of plantations, which meant that there were man-made obstacles such as bridges, and though these gave the heavy boats no real trouble—they could plow through them as if they were built of matchsticks—other impediments were more disturbing. For example, hearing of the approach of the Yankees, the planters had had their baled cotton stacked along both creekbanks and set afire in order to keep it out of the hands of the invaders: with the result that, from time to time, the gunboats had to run a fiery gauntlet. The thick white smoke sent the crews into spasms of coughing, while the heat singed their hair, scorched their faces, and blistered the paint from the vessels’ iron flanks.
So far, despite the crowds of field hands who lined the banks to marvel at the appearance of ironclads where not even flat-bottomed packets had ventured before, Porter had not seen a single white man. He found this odd, and indeed somewhat foreboding. Presently, however, spotting one sitting in front of a cabin and smoking a pipe as if nothing unusual were going on around him, the admiral had the flagship stopped just short of another bridge and summoned the man to come down to the landing; which he did—a burly, rough-faced individual, in shirt sleeves and bareheaded; “half bulldog, half bloodhound,” Porter called him. When the admiral began to question him he identified himself as the plantation overseer. “I suppose you are Union, of course?” Porter said. “You all are so when it suits you.” “No, by God, I’m not, and never will be,” the man replied. “As to the others, I know nothing about them. Find out for yourself. I’m for Jeff Davis first, last, and all the time. Do you want any more of me?” he added; “for I am not a loquacious man at any time.” “No, I want nothing more with you,” Porter said. “But I am going to steam into that bridge of yours across the stream and knock it down. Is it strongly built?” “You may knock it down and be damned,” the overseer told him. “It don’t belong to me.” Catching something in his accent, Porter remarked: “You’re a Yankee by birth, are you not?” “Yes, damn it, I am,” the man admitted. “But that’s no reason I should like the institution. I cut it long ago.” And with this he turned on his heel and walked away. Porter had the skipper ring “Go ahead fast,” and the ironclad smashed through the bridge about as easily as if it had not been there. When he looked back, however, to see what impression this had made on the overseer, he saw him seated once more in front of the cabin, smoking his pipe, not having bothered even to turn his head and watch. Deciding that the fellow “was but one remove from a brute,” Porter was disturbed by the thought that “there were hundreds more like him” lurking somewhere in the brush. At any rate, he fervently hoped that Sherman’s men—particularly one regiment, which had the reputation of being able to “catch, scrape, and skin a hog without a soldier leaving the ranks”—would “pay the apostate Yankee a visit, if only to teach him good manners.”
Under the circumstances, even aside from the necessary halts, half a mile an hour was the best speed the ironclads could make on this St Patrick’s Day. Nightfall overtook them a scant eight miles from the morning’s starting point. Twelve miles they made next day, but the increased speed increased the damage to the boats, including the loss of all the skylights to falling debris, and when they stopped engines for the night, Porter heard from up ahead the least welcome of all sounds: the steady chuck of axes, informing him that the rebels were warned of his coming. He wished fervently for Sherman, whose men were still at work in Black Bayou, widening a pathway for their transports, and consoled himself with the thought that the red-haired general would be along eventually; “there was only one road, so he couldn’t have taken the wrong one.” For the present, however, he did what he could with what he had, sending the mortar boats forward in the darkness; and when their firing stopped, so had the axes. Next morning, March 19, he pushed on. Despite the delay involved in hoisting the felled trees aside, he made such good progress that by nightfall he was within half a mile of the entrance to Rolling Fork. At daybreak he steamed north again, but the flagship had gone barely two hundred yards when, just ahead and extending all the way across the creek, the admiral saw “a large green patch … like the green scum on ponds.” He shouted down from the bridge to one of the admiring field hands on the bank: “What is that?” “It’s nuffin but willers, sah,” the Negro replied, explaining that in the off season the plantation workers often went out in skiffs and canoes to cut the willow wands for weaving baskets. “You kin go through dat lak a eel.”
That this last was an overstatement—based on a failure to realize that, unlike skiffs and canoes, the gunboats moved through rather than over the water, and what was more had paddle wheels and overlapping plates of armor—Porter discovered within a couple of minutes of giving the order to go ahead. Starting with a full head of steam, the ironclad made about thirty yards before coming to a dead stop, gripped tightly by the willow withes, not unlike Gulliver when he woke to find himself in Lilliputian bonds. The admiral called for hard astern; but that was no good either; the vessel would not budge. Here was a ticklish situation. The high creekbanks rendered the warships practically helpless, for their guns would not clear them even at extreme elevation. Not knowing what he would do if the Confederates made a determined boarding attack, Porter fortified a nearby Indian mound with four smoothbore howitzers and put the flagship’s crew over the side with knives and hooks and orders to cut her loose, twig by twig. It was slow work; “I wished ironclads were in Jericho,” he later declared. Just then his wish seemed about to be fulfilled. The shrill shrieks of two rifle shots, which he recognized as high-velocity Whitworths, were followed at once by a pair of bursts, abrupt as blue-sky thunder and directly over the mound. Suddenly, in the wake of these two ranging shots—within six hundred yards of Rolling Fork and less than ten miles from clear sailing down the broad and unobstructed Sunflower River—two six-gun rebel batteries were firing on the outranged smoothbores from opposite directions, and the naval commander was shocked to see his cannoneers come tumbling down the rearward slope of the mound, seeking cover from the rain of shells. Continuing to hack at the clinging willows, he got his mortars into counterbattery action and, with the help of half a dollar, persuaded a “truthful contraband” (so Porter termed him later, but just then he called him Sambo; which drew the reply, “My name aint Sambo, sah. My name’s Tub”) to attempt to get a message through to Sherman and his soldiers, wherever downstream they might be by now. “Dear Sherman,” the note began: “Hurry up, for Heaven’s sake.”
Tub reached Sherman on Black Bayou late that night, having taken various short cuts, and Sherman started northward before daylight, accompanied by all the troops on hand. Retracing the messenger’s route through darkness, they carried lighted candles in their hands as they slogged waist-deep through swamps and canebrakes. “The smaller drummer boys had to carry their drums on their heads,” the general afterwards recalled, “and most of the men slung their cartridge boxes around their necks.” All the following day they pushed on, frequently losing their way, and into darkness again. At dawn Sunday, March 22, they heard from surprisingly close at hand the boom of Porter’s mortars, punctuated by the sharper crack of the Whitworths. Presently they encountered rebels who had got below the ironclads and were felling trees to block their escape downstream. Sherman chased them from their work and pushed on. Soon he came within sight of the beleaguered flotilla, but found it woefully changed in appearance. After finally managing to extricate the willow-bound flagship with winches, Porter had unshipped the rudders of all five gunboats and was steaming backward down the narrow creek, fighting as he went. He had not only heard the sound of axes in his rear; what was worse, he had suddenly realized that the Confederates might dam the creek upstream with cotton bales and leave him stranded in the mud. The arriving bluecoats ran the snipers off—they were not actually so numerous as they seemed; just industrious—and came up to find the admiral on the deck of the flagship, directing the retreat from behind a shield improvised from a section of smokestack. “I doubt if he was ever more glad to meet a friend than he was to see me,” Sherman later declared. For the present, though, he asked if Porter wanted him to go ahead and “clean those fellows out” so the navy could resume its former course. “Thank you, no,” the admiral said. He had had enough, and so had Sherman, who complained hotly that this was “the most infernal expedition I was ever on.” As Porter subsequently put it, “The game was up, and we bumped on homeward.”
All the way downstream, from Deer Creek through Black Bayou, the sailors took a ribbing from the soldiers who stood along the banks to watch them go by, in reverse and rudderless. “Halloo, Jack,” they would call. “How do you like playing mud turtle?” “Where’s all your masts and sails, Jack?” “By the Widow Perkins, if Johnny Reb hasn’t taken their rudders away and set them adrift!” But an old forecastleman gave as good as he got. “Dry up!” he shouted back at them. “We wa’n’t half as much used up as you was at Chickasaw Bayou.” So it went until the gunboats regained Steele Bayou and finally the mouth of the Yazoo, where they dropped anchor—those that still had them—and were laid up for repairs. Within another week they were supplied with new chimneys and skylights and woodwork; they glistened with fresh coats of paint, and according to Porter, “no one would have supposed we had ever been away from a dock-yard.” By then, too, the officers had begun to discuss their share in this sixth of Grant’s Vicksburg failures with something resembling nostalgia. There was an edge of pride in their voices as they spoke of the exploit, and some even talked of being willing to go again. But they did so, the admiral added, much “as people who have gone in search of the North Pole, and have fared dreadfully, wish to try it once more.”
• • •
Despite the high hopes generated during the preliminary reconnaissance up Steele Bayou, Grant was no more discouraged by this penultimate failure, reported in no uncertain terms by a disgusted Sherman, than he had been by the preceding five. Now as before, he already had a successive experiment in progress, which served to distract the public’s attention and occupy his mind and men. Besides, for once, he had good news to send along to Washington with the bad—the announcement of the first real success achieved by Federal arms on the river since his arrival in late January—although his pleasure in reporting it was considerably diminished by the fact that it had been accomplished not in his own department but in Banks’s, not by the army but by the navy, and not by Porter but by Farragut.
Banks himself had been having troubles that rivaled Grant’s, if not in number—being limited by a lack of corresponding ingenuity and equipment in his attempts to come to grips with the problem—then at any rate in thorniness. Port Hudson was quite as invulnerable to a frontal assault as Vicksburg, so that here too the solution was restricted to two methods: either to attack the hundred-foot bluff from the rear or else to go around it. He worked hard for a time at the latter, seeking a route up the Atchafalaya, into the Red, and thence into the Mississippi, fifty miles above the Confederate bastion. At first this appeared to be ready-made for his use, but it turned out to be impractical on three counts, 1) He had only one gunboat designed for work on the rivers; 2) a large portion of the Atchafalaya basin was under water as a result of breaks in the neglected levees; and 3) he became convinced that to leave the rebel garrison alive and kicking in his rear would be to risk, if not invite, the recapture of New Orleans. This last was so unthinkable that it no sooner occurred to him than he abandoned all notion of such an attempt. As for attacking Port Hudson from the rear, he perceived that this would be about as risky as attacking it from the front. Knowing nothing of Grant’s success or failure upriver, except the significant fact that something must have happened to delay him, Banks did not know but what the Confederates would be free to concentrate against him from all directions, including the north, as soon as he got his troops ashore; which would mean, at best, that he would lose his siege train in a retreat from superior numbers, and at worst that he would lose his army. Thus both methods of approaching a solution to the problem seemed to him likely to end in disaster; he did not know what to do, at least until he could get in touch with Grant upstream. Consequently, he did nothing.
This reverse approach, with its stress on what the enemy might do to him, rather than on what he intended to do to the enemy, had not been Grant’s way of coming to grips with the similar problem, some three hundred miles upstream; nor was it Farragut’s. The old sea dog—approaching sixty-two, he was Tennessee-born and twice married, both times to Virginians, which had caused some doubt as to his loyalty in the early months of the war—had surmounted what had seemed to be longer odds below New Orleans the year before, and he was altogether willing to try it again, “army or no army.” In early March, when he received word that the rebels, by way of reinforcing their claim to control of the whole Red River system, along with so much of the Mississippi as ran between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, had captured the steam ram Queen of the West, he took the action as a challenge to personal combat; especially when they emphasized it by sinking and seizing the ironclad Indianola, which for all he knew was about to join the Queen in defying the flag she once had flown. He promptly assembled his seven wooden ships off Profit’s Island, seven miles below Port Hudson, intending to take them past the fortified heights for a showdown with the renegade boats upriver. He had with him the three heavy sloops-of-war Hartford, Richmond, and Monongahela, the old side-wheeler Mississippi, and three gunboats. All were ocean-going vessels, unarmored but mounting a total of 95 guns, mostly heavy—the flagship Hartford alone carried two dozen 9-inch Dahlgrens—with which to oppose the 21 pieces manned by the Confederates ashore. This advantage in the weight of metal would be offset considerably, however, by the plunging fire of the guns on the hundred-foot bluff and by the five-knot current, which would hold the ships to a crawl as they rounded the sharp bend at its foot. In an attempt to increase the speed and power of his slower and larger ships, Farragut gave instructions for the three gunboats to be lashed to the unengaged port sides of the three sloops; theMississippi, whose paddle boxes would not allow this, would have to take her chances unassisted. It was the admiral’s hope that the flotilla would steam past undetected in the moonless darkness, but a greenhorn chaplain, watching the gun crews place within easy reach “little square, shallow, wooden boxes filled with sawdust, like the spittoons one used to see in country barrooms,” was shocked to learn that the contents were to be scattered about the deck as “an absorbent” to keep the men from slipping in their own blood, when and if the guns began to roar and hits were scored. At 9.30 p.m. March 14, the prearranged signal—two red lights described by the same impressionable chaplain as “two distinct red spots like burning coals”—appeared just under the stern of the flagship in the lead, and the run began.
At first it went as had been planned and hoped for. Undetected, unsuspected, the Hartford led the way up the long straight stretch of river leading due north into the bend that would swing the column west-southwest; she even cleared the first battery south of town, her engines throbbing in the darkness, her pilot hugging the east bank to avoid the mudflat shallows of the point across the way. Then suddenly the night was bright with rockets and the glare of pitch-pine bonfires ignited by west-bank sentinels, who thus not only alerted the gun crews on the bluff, but also did them the service of illuminating their targets on the river down below. The fight began as it were in mid-crescendo. Still holding so close to the east bank that the men on her deck could hear the shouts of the enemy cannoneers, the flagship opened a rolling fire which was taken up in turn by the ships astern. The night was misty and windless; smoke settled thick on the water, leaving the helmsmen groping blindly and the gunners with nothing to aim at but the overhead muzzle flashes. In this respect the Hartford had the advantage, steaming ahead of her own smoke, but even she had her troubles, being caught by the swift current and swept against the enemy bank as she turned into the bend. Helped by her gunboat tug, she backed off and swung clear, chugging upstream at barely three knots, much damaged about her top and spars, but with only three men hit. Attempting to follow, the Richmond was struck by a plunging shot that crashed into her engine room and caromed about, cracking both port and starboard safety valves and dropping her boiler pressure below ten pounds. Too weak to make headway, even with the assistance of the gunboat lashed to her flank, she went with the current and out of the fight, leaking steam from all her ports, followed presently by the Monongahela, which suffered the same fate when her escort’s rudder was wedged by an unlucky shot, one of her own engines was disabled by an overheated crankpin, and her captain was incapacitated by a shell that cut the bridge from under him and pitched him headlong onto the deck below. Between them, the two sloops and their escorts lost 45 killed and wounded before they veered out of range downriver. But the veteran frigate Mississippi—Commodore Matthew Perry’s flagship, ten years ago, when he steamed into Tokyo Bay and opened Japan to the Western world—took the worst beating of the lot, not only from the Confederates on the bluff, but also from the gunners on the Richmond, who, not having gotten the word that the sloop had turned in the opposite direction, fired at the flashes of the side-wheeler’s guns as they swept past her. Blind in the smoke, pounded alike by friend and foe, the pilot went into the bend and put the ship hard to larboard all too soon: with the result that she ran full tilt onto the mudflats across the way from the fuming bluff. Silhouetted against the glare of bonfires and taking hit after hit from the rebel guns, she tried for half an hour to pull loose by reversing her engines, but to no avail. Her captain ordered her set afire as soon as the crew—64 of whom were casualties by now—could be taken off in boats, and it was only through the efforts of her executive, Lieutenant George Dewey, that many of her wounded were not roasted, including a badly frightened ship’s boy he found hiding under a pile of corpses. Burning furiously, the Mississippi lightened before dawn and drifted off the flats of her own accord, threatening to set the other repulsed vessels afire as she passed unmanned among them and piled up at last on the head of Profit’s Island, where she exploded with what an observer called “the grandest display of fireworks I ever witnessed, and the costliest.”
It had been quite a costly operation all around. Thirty-five of the flotilla’s 112 casualties were dead men—only two less than had been killed in the venture below New Orleans by a force almost three times as large—and of the seven ships that had attempted to run Port Hudson, one was destroyed and four had been driven back disabled. As a box score, this gave the Confederates ample claim to the honors of the engagement; but the fact remained that, whatever the cost, Farragut had done what he set out to do. He had put warships north of the bluff on the Mississippi, and he was ready to use them to dispute the rebel claim to control of the 250 miles of river below Vicksburg. Dropping down at dawn to just beyond range of Port Hudson’s upper batteries, he fired the prearranged three-gun signal to let the rest of the flotilla know that he was still afloat, then set out upriver and anchored next morning off the mouth of the Red, up which he learned that the renegade Queen and the fast-steaming Webb had taken refuge after their flight from Porter’s dummy ironclad. Both were too heavily damaged, as a result of their ram attacks on the Indianola, to be able to fight again without extensive repairs. So he heard; but he was taking no chances. Lowering the Hartford’s yards to the deck, he lashed them there and carried a heavy anchor chain from yard tip to yard tip, all the way round, to fend off attackers. Still unsatisfied, he improvised water-line armor by lashing cypress logs to the sides of the vessel and slung hawsers from the rigging, thirty feet above the deck, with heavy netting carried all the way down to the rail to frustrate would-be boarders. Then, accompanied by her six-gun escort Albatross, the Hartford—whose own builders would scarcely have recognized her, dressed out in this manner—set out northward, heading for Vicksburg in order to open communications with the upper fleet.
Passing Grand Gulf on March 19 the two ships came under fire that cost them 2 more killed and 6 more wounded, almost three times the number they had lost five nights ago; otherwise they encountered no opposition between Port Hudson and the point where they dropped anchor next morning, just beyond range of the lower Vicksburg batteries. Porter was up Steele Bayou, but conferring that afternoon with Grant and A. W. Ellet, the ram fleet commander, Farragut asked that he be reinforced by units from the upper flotilla. Ellet volunteered to send two of his boats, the Switzerland and the Lancaster, respectively under C. R. Ellet, the former captain of the Queen, and his uncle Lieutenant Colonel J. A. Ellet. They made their run at first light, March 25. The Lancaster was struck repeatedly in her machinery and hull, but she made it downstream, where a week’s patchwork labor would put her back in shape to fight again. Not so the Switzerland; she received a shell in her boilers and others which did such damage to her hull that she went to pieces and sank, affording her nineteen-year-old skipper another ride on a bale of cotton. Unperturbed, Grant reported her loss as a blessing in disguise, since it served to reveal her basic unfitness for combat: “It is almost certain that had she made one ram into another vessel she would have closed up like a spy-glass, encompassing all on board.”
In point of fact, whatever the cost and entirely aside from his accustomed optimism, he and all who favored the Union cause had much to be joyful about. As a result of this latest naval development, which would establish a blockade of the mouth of the Red and deny the rebels the use of their last extensive stretch of the Mississippi, Farragut had cut the Confederacy in two. The halves were still unconquered, and seemed likely to remain so for no one knew how long, but they were permanently severed one from the other. When the Hartford and the Albatross passed Port Hudson and were joined ten days later below Vicksburg by the steam ram Lancaster, the cattle and cereals of the Transmississippi, together with the goods of war that could be smuggled in through Mexico from Europe, became as inaccessible to the eastern South as if they were awaiting shipment on the moon.
This was not to say, conversely, that the Mississippi was open throughout its length to Federal commerce or even to Federal gunboats; that would not be the case, of course, until Vicksburg and Port Hudson had been taken or abolished. Continuing his efforts to accomplish this end, or anyhow his half of it, Grant was already engaged in the seventh of his experiments—which presently turned out to be the seventh of his failures. Work on the canal across the base of Vicksburg Point having been abandoned, he sent an engineering party out to find a better site for such a project close at hand. Receiving a report that a little digging south of Duckport, just above Young’s Point, would give the light-draft vessels access to Roundaway Bayou, which entered the main river at New Carthage, well below the Vicksburg and Warrenton batteries, Grant gave McClernand’s men a turn on the picks and shovels. For once, however, he had no great hope that much would come of the enterprise, even if it went as planned—only the lightest-draft supply boats would be able to get through; besides, there would still be the Grand Gulf batteries to contend with—and for once he was right. Even this limited success depended on a rise of the river; whereupon the river, perverse as always, began to fall, leaving Grant with a seventh failure on his hands.
“This campaign is being badly managed,” Cadwallader Washburn, a brigadier in McPherson’s corps, informed his congressman brother Elihu in Washington. “I am sure of it. I fear a calamity before Vicksburg. All Grant’s schemes have failed. He knows that he has got to do something or off goes his head. My impression is that he intends to attack in front.” (Washburn’s fears were better founded than he knew. Grant had just written a long letter to Banks, reviewing his lack of progress up to now, and in it he had stated flatly: “There is nothing left for me but to collect my strength and attack Haines Bluff. This will necessarily be attended with much loss, but I think it can be done.” On April Fools’ Day, however, accompanying Porter up the Yazoo for a reconnaissance of the position, he decided that such an attack “would be attended with immense sacrifice of life, if not defeat,” and abandoned the notion, adding: “This, then, closes out the last hope of turning the enemy by the right.”) Nor were others, farther removed from the scene of action, more reticent in giving their opinion of the disaster in store for the Army of the Tennessee. For example Marat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, addressed his friend the Secretary of the Treasury on the matter: “You do once in a while, don’t you, say a word to the President, or Stanton, or Halleck, about the conduct of the war? Well, now, for God’s sake say that Genl Grant, entrusted with our greatest army, is a jackass in the original package. He is a poor drunken imbecile. He is a poor stick sober, and he is most of the time more than half drunk, and much of the time idiotically drunk.… Grant will fail miserably, hopelessly, eternally. You may look for and calculate his failures, in every position in which he may be placed, as a perfect certainty. Don’t say I am grumbling. Alas! I know too well I am but feebly outlining the truth.” Alarmed, Chase passed the letter on to Lincoln with the reminder that the Commercial was an influential paper, and the indorsement: “Reports concerning General Grant similar to the statements made by Mr Halstead are too common to be safely or even prudently disregarded.” Lincoln read it with a sigh. “I think Grant has hardly a friend left, except myself,” he told his secretary, and when a delegation came to protest Grant’s alleged insobriety he put these civilians off with the remark, “If I knew what brand of whiskey he drinks I would send a barrel or so to some other generals.” About this time a Nebraska brigadier, in Washington on leave from Vicksburg, called on the President and the two men got to talking. “What I want, and what the people want, is generals who will fight battles and win victories,” Lincoln said. “Grant has done this, and I propose to stand by him.”
The evidence was conflicting. Some said the general never touched a drop; others declared that he was seldom sober; while still others had him pegged as a spree drinker. “He tries to let liquor alone but he cannot resist the temptation always,” a Wisconsin brigadier wrote home. “When he came to Memphis he left his wife at LaGrange, and for several days after getting here was beastly drunk, utterly incapable of doing anything. Quinby and I took him in charge, watching him day and night and keeping liquor away from him.” According to this witness, the bender was only brought to an end when “we telegraphed to his wife and brought her on to take care of him.” On the other hand, Mary Livermore—later famous as a suffragette—led a Sanitary Commission delegation down to Young’s Point to investigate the rumors, and it was her opinion that the general’s “clear eye, clean skin, firm flesh, and steady nerves … gave the lie to the universal calumnies then current concerning his intemperate habits.” Still unsatisfied, Stanton sent the former Brook Farm colonist and Greeley journalist Charles Dana down the Mississippi, ostensibly as an inspector of the pay service, but actually as a spy for the War Department. He arrived in early April, became in effect a member of the general’s military family, and soon was filing reports that glowed with praise not only of Grant but also of Sherman and McPherson, declaring that in their “unpretending simplicity” the three Ohioans were “as alike as three peas.” McClernand did not fare so well in these dispatches; for if Dana acquired a fondness for the army commander’s friends, he also developed a dislike for his enemies. Later he summed up his findings by describing Grant as “the most modest, the most disinterested, and the most honest man I ever knew, with a temper that nothing could disturb and a judgment that was judicial in its comprehensiveness and wisdom. Not a great man except morally; not an original or brilliant man, but sincere, thoughtful, deep, and gifted with courage that never faltered.”
Aside from the rhetoric here included, practically all of the general’s soldiers would have agreed with this assessment of his character and abilities, even though it was delivered in the wake of seven failures. “Everything that Grant directs is right,” one declared. “His soldiers believe in him. In our private talks among ourselves I never heard a single soldier speak in doubt of Grant.” According to a New York reporter, this was not only because of “his energy and disposition to do something,” it was also because he had “the remarkable tact of never spoiling any mysterious and vague notions which [might] be entertained in the minds of the privates as to the qualities of the commander-in-chief. He confines himself to saying and doing as little as possible before his men.” Another described him as “a man who could be silent in several languages,” and it was remarked that, on the march, he was more inclined to talk of “Illinois horses, hogs, cattle, and farming, than of the business actually at hand.” In general he went about his job, as one observer had stated at the outset, “with so little friction and noise that it required a second look to be sure he was doing anything at all.” One of his staff officers got the impression that he was “half a dozen men condensed into one,” while a journalist, finding him puzzling in the extreme because he seemed to amount to a good deal more than the sum of all his parts, came up with the word “unpronounceable” as the one that described him best. Grant, he wrote, “has none of the soldier’s bearing about him, but is a man whom one would take for a country merchant or a village lawyer. He had no distinctive feature; there are a thousand like him in personal appearance in the ranks.… A plain, unpretending face, with a comely, brownish-red beard and a square forehead, of short stature and thick-set. He is we would say a good liver, and altogether an unpronounceable man; he is so like hundreds of others as to be only described in general terms.” The soldiers appreciated the lack of “superfluous flummery” as he moved among them, “turning and chewing restlessly the end of his unlighted cigar.” They almost never cheered him, and they did not often salute him formally; rather, they watched him, as one said, “with a certain sort of familiar reverence.” Present discouragements were mutual; so, someday, would be the glory. Somehow he was more partner than boss; they were in this thing together. “Good morning, General,” “Pleasant day, General,” were the usual salutations, more fitting than cheers or hat-tossing exhibitions; “A pleasant salute to, and a good-natured nod from him in return, seems more appropriate.” All these things were said of him, and this: “Here was no McClellan, begging the boys to allow him to light his cigar on theirs, or inquiring to what regiment that exceedingly fine-marching company belonged.… There was no nonsense, no sentiment; only a plain business man of the republic, there for the one single purpose of getting that command over the river in the shortest time possible.”
Yet the fact remained that he and they were into their third month of camping almost within the shadow of the Vicksburg bluff, and all they had accomplished so far was the addition of five to their previous two failures; they were still not “over the river.” However, as the flood waters receded, defining the banks of the bayous and even the network of greasy-looking roads hub deep in mud, there were rumors that Grant was evolving an entirely new approach to the old problem. “As one after another of his schemes fail,” Congressman Washburne heard from his brigadier brother—who had dropped the final euphonious “e” from his surname, presumably as superfluous baggage for a soldier—“I hear that he says he has a plan of his own which is yet to be tried [but] in which he has great confidence.” Just what this was Grant would not say, either to subordinates or superiors, but his staff observed that he spent long hours in the former ladies’ cabin of his headquarters boat the Magnolia, blueing the air with cigar smoke as he pored over maps and tentative orders, not so much inaccessible (“I aint got no business with you, General,” they heard one caller tell him; “I just wanted to have a little talk with you, because folks will ask me if I did”) as removed, withdrawn behind a barrier of intense preoccupation. After several days of this, McPherson came into the cabin one evening, glass in hand, and stood facing Grant across the work-littered desk. “General, this won’t do,” he said. “You are injuring yourself. Join us in a few toasts, and throw this burden off your mind.” Mrs Livermore, for one, would have been horrified, but what followed would have quickly reassured her. Grant looked up, smiled, and replied that whiskey was not the answer; if McPherson really wanted to help him, he said, he could give him a dozen cigars and leave him alone. McPherson did so, and Grant returned to brooding over his papers, still seeking a way to come to grips with the Confederates in their hilltop citadel.