ALBERT SIDNEY JOHNSTON, THE RANKING Confederate general in the field, was charged with maintaining the integrity of a line that stretched westward more than five hundred miles: from the barrens of eastern Kentucky, through the Bluegrass region, on across the Mississippi, and beyond the kaleidoscopic swirl of conflict in Missouri to Indian territory, where it ended, like a desert stream, as a trickle in dry sand. To accomplish the defense of this western-Europe-sized expanse, penetrated by rivers floating enemy fleets and menaced along its salient points by two Federal armies, each one larger than his own, he had a distinguished reputation, a nobility of looks and character, a high-flown official title—General Commanding the Western Department of the Army of the Confederate States of America—and all too little else. He was a big man, broad-shouldered and deep-chested, over six feet tall and just under two hundred pounds in weight. His wavy dark-brown hair touched with such gray as became his fifty-eight years, the Kentucky-born Texan gave at once an impression of strength and gentleness. No beard disguised his strong, regular features, but a heavy mustache offset somewhat the dominance of brow and width of jaw. Commanding in presence, grave in manner, he wore his dignity with natural charm and was not without the saving grace of humor. It was Johnston, for example, who remarked that there was “too much tail” to Frémont’s kite.
In the thirty-five years since his graduation from West Point—where Jefferson Davis, looking up to him from two classes below, as at Transylvania earlier, contracted a severe and lifelong case of hero worship—he had distinguished himself in a colorful career: frontier officer, Texas revolutionist and Secretary of War in Sam Houston’s cabinet, gentleman farmer, Mexican War colonel, U.S. Army paymaster, and commander of the famed 2d Cavalry, whose roster carried the names of four future full generals, including himself and R. E. Lee, one lieutenant general, and three major generals, all Confederate, as well as two of the leading Union major generals. Zachary Taylor was reported to have said that Johnston was the finest soldier he ever commanded, and Winfield Scott had called him “a Godsend to the Army and to the country.”
While the national storm was heading up, he was a brevet brigadier in command of the Pacific Coast, with headquarters at Fort Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay; but when Texas seceded he declined an offer of high rank in the Union army, tendered his resignation, and led a group of thirty pro-Confederate officers and civilians eastward on horseback across the desert toward his adopted state, dodging Apaches and Federal garrisons on the way. From Galveston he came on to New Orleans, where he was greeted as if an additional army had flocked to the Stars and Bars. His route to Richmond, through a countryside still elated over the six-weeks-old Manassas victory, was blazed with fluttering handkerchiefs and tossed hats, the news of his coming having preceded him all along the line. Davis was waiting, too, and handed him his lofty commission and the accompanying assignment to the far-flung Western Department.
“I hoped and expected that I had others who would prove generals,” the southern leader afterwards declared; “but I knew I had one, and that was Sidney Johnston.” Still later he put it even stronger, calling him “the greatest soldier, the ablest man, civil or military, Confederate or Federal, then living.”
This high opinion was shared by the people of the region where the general’s orders took him. From Richmond to Nashville, as from New Orleans to Richmond, the journey was one continuous ovation. Yet now that the new year had come in, with its hangover from the heady wine of Manassas and Wilson’s Creek, all that seemed far away and long ago—as if it had occurred in another era, a dream world, even, divided from the present by an airtight door which slammed forever shut in mid-September when Johnston arrived and saw for himself, at unmistakable first hand, the magnitude of the task that lay before him and the paucity of the means with which he was expected to accomplish it. Politically the lines were already drawn; Kentucky and Missouri both had stars in the Confederate flag, though it was becoming increasingly clear that Lincoln had mostly won that fight, in spite of secessionist governors and Frémont. The problem now was military, and the line to be drawn lay not along the Ohio River, but along a zigzag course conforming to the mountains and rivers and railroads of Kentucky and the crazy-quilt pattern of Missouri. Such a line would be difficult to defend at best, but with the force at his disposal it was patently impossible. He had something under 50,000 men in all, scarcely amounting to more in effect than a 500-mile-long skirmish line, distributed about equally east and west of the big river that pierced his center.
In the Transmississippi the snarled military situation was aggravated by the rivalry of Price and McCulloch, whose victories had not brought them into accord. Since to elevate one would mean the probable loss of the other, along with many followers, Johnston proposed that the Richmond authorities assign to the region a field commander who would rank them both. Eventually this was done, and soon after the first of the year Major General Earl Van Dorn, West Pointer and Mississippian, a man of considerable fire and reputation, took over the job of welding the two commands into one army. Meanwhile, on his way from Richmond, Johnston stopped off at the far eastern end of his line and ordered Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer, a former newspaper editor and Tennessee congressman, to take his little army of recruits through Cumberland Gap in order to post them where they could guard the passes giving down upon Knoxville and the Virginia-Tennessee Railroad.
Having provided thus for his flanks, Johnston looked to his center, the critical 150-mile sector extending roughly east-southeast from Columbus, Kentucky, to Nashville. Davis had empowered him to withdraw Polk from Columbus, out of consideration for the state’s political sensibilities, or to sustain the occupation. It was not a difficult decision; in fact, Johnston had already made it when he sent Zollicoffer forward. But now he did more. Finding Simon Buckner waiting for him in Nashville—the former head of the Kentucky State Guard was now a private citizen, offering the South his services—Johnston commissioned him a brigadier, assigned him several regiments, and set him in motion for Bowling Green, sixty miles to the north. Far from ordering Polk’s withdrawal, the new department commander swung his central sector forward, gate-like, with Columbus as the hinge. The line now extended east-northeast, and within a week of his arrival he had thrown every available armed man northward across the Kentucky border to strengthen it.
It badly needed strengthening. At the outset Johnston had fewer than 20,000 troops to man the long line from the Mississippi to the mountains—11,000 with Polk, 4000 each with Buckner and Zollicoffer—backed up by a few scattered camps of recruits in Tennessee, some without any weapons at all. But when Johnston appealed for arms and men to the governors of Alabama and Georgia, both were prompt in refusal. “Our own coast is threatened,” the former replied, while the latter, if less explanatory, was more emphatic: “It is utterly impossible for me to comply with your request.” Not all were so deaf to his pleas, however. More closely threatened, Tennessee coöperated better, putting fifty regiments into the field before the end of the year, and Kentucky volunteers continued to come in, some bringing their long rifles. Four regiments arrived from Mississippi before that state was shut off from him by governmental notification that the area was not properly within the limits of his command. Not that Richmond was unmindful of the danger. It sent what it felt it could afford, including 4650 Enfield rifles brought in by blockade runners, and transferred to the Army of Central Kentucky—so Johnston called it—several of the Confederacy’s most distinguished brigadiers.
Georgia-born William J. Hardee, forty-six—not only a West Pointer and one-time commandant of cadets, but also the author of Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, formerly an Academy text and now the official drill and tactics manual of both armies—brought his brigade from northeast Arkansas to Bowling Green, where he took over from Buckner and soon was promoted to major general, as befitted his wider experience and his position as commander of the vital center. Gideon Pillow, who had measured swords with Grant at Belmont, also was shifted eastward to bolster the advance. He too ranked Buckner, and for the present became second in command of the Army of the Center, under Hardee.
Three prominent Kentuckians, all in their forties, also were available for the defense of their state. The oldest was George B. Crittenden, forty-nine, West Pointer and regular army man, son of the senator whose compromise efforts had staved off war for a decade. Commissioned a major general he was sent to the Cumberland Mountains region, with headquarters at Knoxville. Lloyd Tilghman, forty-five, was also a West Pointer and a veteran of the Mexican War, but he had left the army for a career in civil engineering. Johnston soon had him busy designing and building fortifications. The youngest of the three, forty-year-old John C. Breckinridge, was also the most distinguished. Vice President under Buchanan, he had presided over the joint session of Congress which declared Abraham Lincoln elected President, the office for which Breckinridge himself had been runner-up in the electoral college. Since then, he had been elected to the Senate, where his opposition to the Administration’s war policy resulted in an order for his arrest. When Buckner first got to Bowling Green, Breckinridge entered his lines as a fugitive. “To defend your birthright and mine,” he told his fellow Kentuckians, “I exchange with proud satisfaction a term of six years in the Senate of the United States for the musket of a soldier.” Rather than a musket Johnston gave him a brigade, despite his lack of military training.
In addition to these men of rank, all in the vigor of their prime, the army had two cavalrymen who had already contributed exploits to its legend: Captain John Hunt Morgan of Kentucky and Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest of Tennessee. Though the former had fought in the Mexican War as a youth and later commanded his hometown militia company, neither man had had a military education. The latter, in fact, a Memphis slave dealer and a Mississippi planter, had had little formal schooling of any kind. By the end of the year, however, both had shown an aptitude for war. Morgan, who was thirty-six, took thirteen of his troopers on a reconnaissance completely around Buell’s army and returned with thirty-three prisoners. In his first fight, northeast of Bowling Green, the forty-year-old Forrest improvised a double envelopment, combined it with a frontal assault—classic maneuvers which he could not identify by name and of which he had most likely never heard—and scattered the survivors of a larger enemy force. Standing in the stirrups, swinging his sword and roaring “Charge! Charge!” in a voice that rang like brass, the colonel personally accounted for three of the enemy officers, killing two and wounding one; he shot the first, sabered the second, and dislocated the shoulder of a third by knocking him off his horse. Ordinarily, infantrymen had small liking for any trooper, but these two lithe, violent six-footers caught their fancy, and soldiers of all arms predicted brilliant futures for them both—if they lived, which seemed unlikely.
Soon after New Year’s the final brigadier arrived from West Virginia at the head of his command. John B. Floyd had had three months in which to recover from the rain-damped campaign under Lee in the Kanawha Valley, where he had been more successful against his Confederate rival, Henry Wise, than against the wily Rosecrans. Ranking Pillow, he now became second in command of the forces under Hardee north of Bowling Green, along the Green and Barren Rivers.
Floyd’s brigade completed the order-of-battle with which Johnston was expected to fend off Halleck and Buell, whose combined armies were about twice the size of his own. In the Transmississippi, a weird collection of 20,000 regulars, militiamen, and Indian braves awaited the arrival of Van Dorn to take the offensive against a well-organized command of 30,000 Union troops. East of the river, though Johnston had managed to double the number defending Kentucky, the odds were even longer. Between Columbus and Cumberland Gap, just over 50,000 Confederates opposed just under 90,000 Federals, thus:
Polk on the left at Columbus had 17,000 men opposing Grant’s 20,000 around Cairo; Hardee in the center at Bowling Green had 25,000 opposing Buell’s 60,000 southwest of Louisville; Zollicoffer on the right had 4000 in front of Cumberland Gap, opposing 8000 under George Thomas north of Barbourville. Thus Johnston had drawn his line, badly outnumbered at the points of contact and in danger of being swamped by combinations. Fully aware of the risks he ran, he had no choice except to run them, making such use as he could of what he had and resorting to bluff whenever the danger seemed gravest, first at one point, then another. Also, a use had been found for Tilghman, who with 4500 men was stationed where geographical circumstances would give his engineering skill full scope.
The geographic factors were two rivers, the Tennessee and the Cumberland, whose existence threatened catastrophe for Johnston. Running parallel, and piercing as they did the critical center of his line, the two were like a double-barreled shotgun leveled at his heart. Despite the northern direction of their flow, they offered broad twin pathways of invasion for the steam-powered gunboats of the fleet which now controlled their mouths, twelve miles apart on the Ohio. Once into his rear, their paths diverged and they became separate threats, one deeper and the other more immediate, but both dire. Against its current, the Tennessee led down across both borders of the state whose name it bore, and then bent east and north, like a rusty hook plunged into the vitals of the South, touching northeast Mississippi on its way to Muscle Shoals in Alabama, beyond which it swung north, past Chattanooga, and finally on toward Knoxville and its source. The Cumberland, on the other hand, turned eastward soon after it crossed the northern border of Tennessee to curve back into Kentucky, across the front of Cumberland Gap and into the mountains that gave it both its waters and its name. Though the penetration was shallower, the consequences of an invasion along this line were no less stern; for during its dip into Tennessee the river ran past Clarksville and Nashville, the former being the site of the Cumberland Iron Works, second only to Richmond’s Tredegar in output, and the latter, besides its importance as a manufacturing center, was the supply base for Johnston’s entire army.
Those who were there before him had proposed to meet this two-pronged threat by constructing a fort to guard each river: Fort Henry, on the right bank of the Tennessee, and Fort Donelson on the left bank of the Cumberland. The first problem in each case had been location. Northward in Kentucky the rivers converged briefly to within three miles of each other, which would have allowed the forts to be mutually supporting; but since this was during the period of Bluegrass “neutrality,” the chosen sites were necessarily south of the border, where the rivers were twelve miles apart—the same distance as at their mouths, fifty miles downstream—north of the two bridges over which the railroad, running northeast out of Memphis, brought food and munitions for the army. Work on the forts lagged badly from the outset, with much argument among the engineers. Yet enough had been done by the time of Johnston’s arrival to cause him to leave them where they were, rather than change their location when he swung his long line outward, gate-like, with Bowling Green as the stop-post and Columbus as the hinge. Consequently, the gate was badly warped, swagged inward to include the forts commanded now by Tilghman, whom Johnston sent to strengthen and complete them.
The concave swag of the Columbus-Bowling Green sector violated the military principle requiring a defending general to operate on an interior line, so that in shifting troops from point to point, along the chord of the arc, he would be moving them a shorter distance than his opponent, outside the arc, would have to do. Between these salients the case was reversed: it was Johnston who was outside the arc, with the greater distance to travel from point to point. However, the textbook disadvantage was offset by the presence of the railroad running along the rear of his line, by which means he could shuttle his troops back and forth with far greater speed than an opponent, lacking such rapid transportation within the arc, could hope to match, despite any difference in distance. What was more, railroad and battle line were mutually supporting. So long as the line was held the road would continue its fast shifting of troops, and so long as the shuttle service went on, the line presumably could be held. The chink in the armor, Johnston knew, was where the railroad bridges spanned the rivers. Gunboats could reduce the trestles to kindling within five minutes of opening fire. They were only as safe as the forts downstream were strong. And that was why he kept urging Tilghman to exert all possible effort to get them finished.
Here as elsewhere, necessity being the mother of invention, Johnston broke or rewrote the rules whenever necessity demanded. Outnumbered severely all along his line, in each sector he improvised defenses which, in event of attack, called for reinforcements from less threatened points. His greatest advantage, indeed almost his only one, was that his army was united under a single leader, whereas the enemy forces were divided. So far, his opponents—Frémont and Anderson, then Hunter and Sherman, and finally Halleck and Buell—had failed to work in concert. What he would do if the latter pair mounted coördinated or even simultaneous offensives, from end to end of the long line or even against several points at once, he did not know and could not know, the odds being what they were. Meanwhile, he used the only means remaining: he used psychological warfare, including the dissemination of propaganda and misinformation. He used it with such skill, in fact, that it kept his shaky line intact throughout the fall and early winter and gave him time to shore it up with all the reinforcements he could find.
Throwing his troops forward he maneuvered them in a threatening manner, always as if on the verge of launching cut-and-slash attacks against the danger points. He announced to all within earshot that he had plenty of arms and plenty of men to use them; that, far from having any fears about being able to hold his ground, he was about to unleash an offensive that would roll to the Ohio, crunching the bones of whatever got in his way. The bluff had worked best against Sherman, who already had the horrors as a result of the insight which had told him just how bloody this war was likely to be. “I am convinced from many facts,” he informed headquarters in a dispatch which his opponent might have dictated, “that A. Sidney Johnston is making herculean efforts to strike a great blow in Kentucky; that he designs to move from Bowling Green on Lexington, Louisville, and Cincinnati.” Presently Sherman was on sick leave, restoring his Johnston-jangled nerves. If the bluff worked less dramatically on his successor, that was mainly because Buell had a less dramatic personality. At any rate, it caused him to enlarge upon the difficulties that lay between him and East Tennessee, where Lincoln so much wanted him to go. Halleck also felt its effects. They lay at the bottom of his reply that Buell’s proposal for a joint advance on Nashville, up the Cumberland, “seems to me madness.”
To confuse his enemies Johnston had first to mislead his friends, and this he did. Statements doubling and tripling his actual strength and hinting of an imminent offensive were printed in all the southern papers, in hopes that rival editors north of the defensive line would pick them up and spread them, which they did. Yet psychological warfare was a weapon that could boomerang, returning with a force in direct ratio to the success of its outward flight. While Halleck and Buell were counting themselves fortunate that the Confederates did not storm their lines, readers south of the border were also thoroughly taken in by Johnston, who thus compromised his reputation and risked his countrymen’s morale by promising victories he knew he could never deliver with the present force at his command.
In a final effort to get more troops and supplies, on January 9, soon after the arrival of Floyd’s brigade, which he had been warned would be the last, Johnston sent a personal messenger with a letter to his friend the President, reëmphasizing the gravity of the western situation. Within a week the messenger returned. He had found Davis in a “disturbed and careworn” frame of mind, but that was nothing compared to the state the Chief Executive was in by the time he had read the letter. “My God!” he cried. “Why did General Johnston send you to me for arms and reinforcements?… Where am I to get arms or men?” The question was rhetorical, but the messenger, who had been primed for it, answered that they might be spared from less immediately threatened points. Davis had heard this suggestion all too often of late, along with the conflicting clamor of governors whose states had Union gunboats off their shores. Petulantly he replied that it could not be done, and remarked in closing the interview, “Tell my friend General Johnston that I can do nothing for him, that he must rely on his own resources.”
The slimness of those resources was known to only a handful of men within the limits of strict confidence. Others beyond those limits thought him amply equipped and bountifully supplied, about to launch an offensive. Johnston was therefore in the position of a financier who, to stave off ruin, had overextended his credit with both friends and enemies by putting his name to a sight draft that would come due on presentation. Now that he was in too far to turn back, the President’s message reached him like a notice of proceedings in bankruptcy. Kentucky was the only theater in which there had been no major clash of arms. He must have known that reverses were coming, and he must have known, too, that when they came the people would not understand.
They came soon enough. In fact, they came immediately. Coincident with the return of the messenger, Johnston’s right caved in, the troops there scattering headlong, demoralized and crying like their foes the year before: “We are betrayed!”
Primarily, though, he lost that wing of his army not because of a Federal advance, as he had feared, but because of Zollicoffer’s rashness and military inexperience. After occupying Cumberland Gap, the Tennessean had been ordered to move seventy miles northwest to Mill Springs, on the south bank of the Cumberland River, from which position he could parry an enemy thrust either toward the Gap, where he had posted a guard, or toward Nashville, 150 miles southwest. However, when Crittenden reached Knoxville, assuming command of the region, he learned to his amazement that Zollicoffer had not been content to remain south of the river, but had crossed and set up a camp on the opposite bank. Here at Beech Grove, with a wide unfordable river to his rear, the Tennessean was defying a Union army twice his size and attempting to stir up the doubtfully loyal citizens with proclamations which boldly inquired, “How long will Kentuckians close their eyes to the contemplated ruin of their present structure of society?”
Despite this evidence of literary skill, Crittenden now began to doubt the former editor’s military judgment, and at once dispatched a courier, peremptorily ordering him to recross the river. But when he went forward on inspection in early January, to his even greater dismay he found the citizen-soldier’s army still on the north bank. Zollicoffer blandly explained that Beech Grove afforded a better campsite; he had stayed where he was, in hopes that they could talk it over when Crittenden arrived. Then too, he explained—to the West Pointer’s mounting horror—there were reports that the Yankees were advancing, which made falling back seem a cowardly or at any rate not a manly sort of action.
Investigation proved that the reports were all too true. Not only were the Federals advancing, they had at their head the Union-loyal Virginian George H. Thomas. Whatever his fellow Southerners might think of his “treachery” in not going with his state, they knew him to be an experienced soldier, not the least of his recommendations being that he had been a major in Johnston’s 2d Cavalry. Faced with this threat, Crittenden saw that to attempt to withdraw would be to risk being hamstrung while astride the river. So he assumed command and did what he could to brace his troops in their Beech Grove camp for the shock which he believed was imminent.
What came was not the Yankees but a week of pelting rain. Despite its chill discomfort he was thankful, for if it broadened the river to his rear, it also swelled the creeks to his front and transformed into troughs of mud the roads down which the Federals were approaching. “A continuous quagmire,” Thomas called them as his army slogged in double column along the opposite watersheds of Fishing Creek, which emptied into the Cumberland just above the Confederate position. Within nine miles of the rebel outposts on the 17th, he went into camp near Logan’s Crossroads to rest his men, dry out their equipment, and plan the assault against Beech Grove.
The rain continued all next day, affording Thomas little respite, but presenting Crittenden with what he believed was a chance to exchange probable defeat for possible victory. In its separate camps, the enemy force was still divided by Fishing Creek, which Crittenden figured was swollen now past fording. He would move his army out that night and strike the Union left in a dawn attack. Then, having destroyed or scattered it, he would turn and deal with the other wing, beyond the flooded creek. It was a gamble, even a desperate one, but after a week spent sitting in the rain, awaiting destruction while the river ran deeper and swifter at his back, it was a gamble he was glad to take. Zollicoffer approved as soon as he heard of the plan, and at midnight the two brigades—eight regiments of infantry, plus a six-gun battery and a cavalry battalion—set out on their march through mud and rain to fight the battle variously known as Mill Springs, Fishing Creek, and Logan’s Crossroads.
They soon discovered the accuracy of the description the Federal commander had given of the roads. And after a nightmare march through shin-deep mud, with rain coming hard in their faces out of a darkness relieved only by the blinding glare of lightning as they hauled at the wheels of bogged-down cannon and wagons and the heads of foundered horses, they discovered something else about George Thomas. They were launching a surprise attack against a man who could not be surprised, whose emotional make-up apparently excluded that kind of reaction to any event. Imperturbable, phlegmatic, his calm was as unruffled in a crisis as his humor was heavy-handed. Lincoln had hesitated to make the forty-five-year-old Virginian a brigadier, having doubts about his loyalty, but when he questioned Sherman and got the Ohioan’s quick assurance that he personally knew Thomas to be loyal, he went ahead and signed the commission. Coming away from the interview with the President, Sherman ran into his friend on the street.
“Tom, you’re a brigadier general!” he gaily announced. When Thomas showed no elation at this, Sherman began to have doubts. “Where are you going?” he asked, fearing he might be on his way to the War Department with his resignation, like so many other Virginians.
“I’m going south,” Thomas replied glumly.
“My God, Tom,” Sherman groaned. “You’ve put me in an awful position! I’ve just made myself responsible for your loyalty.”
“Give yourself no trouble, Billy,” Thomas said. “I’m going south at the head of my troops.”
That was where he was going now. After a night and a day and another night spent in bivouac around Logan’s Crossroads, straddling Fishing Creek, he sent a cavalry patrol out into the stormy dawn of the 19th to explore the roads leading south toward the Confederate camp. There was a spatter of musketry beyond the curtain of rain, and presently the horsemen reappeared, riding hard back up the puddled road, shouting that they had run into rebel skirmishers in advance of a heavy column. The long roll sounded. Men came stumbling big-eyed out of their tents, clutching weapons and clothes, and formed their regimental lines as if for drill, despite the rain and the fact that it was Sunday. All this while, beyond the steely glitter of the rain, an intermittent banging warned that the pickets were engaged. It sounded more like range-firing than a battle, but then the pickets came running in front of a double bank of men in muddy gray.
Crittenden kept coming. The cavalry clash had cost him the advantage of complete surprise, but he knew his troops were in better shape for an assault than for a retreat back down nine miles of churned-up road. Zollicoffer launched the attack, and at first he met with some success; the Federals recoiled from that first shock. But things went wrong in the Confederate ranks almost from the beginning. The men were cold and hungry, exhausted from their all-night march; the exhilaration of the charge burnt up what little energy they had left. Also, their flintlocks would not fire when wet, and the regiments armed with them had to be sent to the rear. Discouraged by all this, they saw the blue troops massing thick and thicker as Thomas brought up reinforcements from across the creek, whose flood stage Crittenden had mis-estimated.
The crowning blow, however, came when Zollicoffer lost his sense of direction in the rain. Conspicuous in a white rubber coat that made him an ideal target, he rode out between the lines, got turned around, and near-sightedly mistook a Federal colonel for one of his own officers. At this point his luck, which had been running strong, ran out. He was shouting an order when the colonel, a man who recognized an advantage when he saw one, leveled his revolver and put a bullet point-blank into Zollicoffer’s breast.
A wail went up from the gray ranks; the Tennessean’s men had loved him in spite of his rashness—if not, indeed, because of it. Their strength was mostly spent, and now this loss, occurring in plain view, cracked their spirit. They turned and made for the rear. “Betrayed!” they cried as they brushed past their officers. They ran and they kept on running, their panic infecting the other brigade, which also broke. It was Belmont in reverse, except that the Confederates had no gunboats to fall back on, or transports waiting to bear them away. Thomas replenished his ammunition and set out in pursuit, but his adversaries were well down the Beech Grove road by then. Under cover of darkness they crossed the Cumberland in relays on a rickety stern-wheeler, which they burned against the southern bank. In the battle and the evacuation they lost more than 500 men, while the Federals, losing less than half as many, captured 12 guns, 1000 horses and mules, 150 wagons, and half a dozen regimental colors. By the time the pursuers could effect a crossing, there was scarcely anything left to pursue. Retreating through a region which so many of its men called home, Crittenden’s army had practically ceased to exist.
Tactically complete as the Confederate defeat had been, it did not turn out to be strategically disastrous. Crossing the Cumberland, Thomas entered a region even more barren than the one he left, and though he put his men on half rations, intending to move on Knoxville, the rain continued and the roads were bottomless. He withdrew, and what was left of Crittenden’s army finally called a halt at Chestnut Mound, about sixty miles from Nashville.
The respite was welcome, but it did not erase the fact that the Confederacy had suffered its first drubbing in the field. There had to be an explanation—or, failing that, a scapegoat—and Crittenden was the logical target for accusing fingers. “Betrayed!” the men had cried as they broke and fled. Investigation of what this meant turned up some strange answers, including testimony that the commanding general had been “in an almost beastly state of intoxication” throughout the battle. Remembering that his brother was a Union general, people began to suspect that his heart was not in the cause. There was even a rumor that one of his messengers had been captured bearing information to Thomas. The South had no Joint Committee, such as the North had after the Ball’s Bluff fiasco; Crittenden was spared the fate of his Federal counterpart, General Stone, languishing now in a dungeon in New York harbor. But the South had other methods. Eventually a court of inquiry found the Kentuckian innocent of treason but guilty of intoxication. He was reduced to the rank of colonel, and presently he resigned to serve as a civilian on the staff of an obscure brigadier in the Transmississippi, the dustbin of the Confederate army.
That was still in the future, though, and Johnston had nothing to do with it. For the present, he wired Crittenden to regroup his men and offer whatever resistance he could if Thomas came on after him. The western commander had graver worries closer to Bowling Green, where he had set up his headquarters as the best location from which to survey his long, tenuous line. For while Buell was lunging at his right, Halleck was probing his left—particularly at the point of double danger, where the incompleted forts stood guarding the parallel rivers that pierced his front.
It was here that Johnston was most touchy, and with good cause. Arriving in late November, the engineering brigadier Tilghman had reported: “I have completed a thorough examination of Henry and Donelson and do not admire the aspect of things.” He wanted more troops, muskets for his unarmed men, and “more heavy guns for both places at once.” The report had a gloomy, determined ending: “I feel for the first time discouraged, but will not give up.”
Tilghman’s gloom was warranted. Neither of the forts was in anything resembling a condition for offering stiff resistance to amphibious attacks. To make matters worse, Fort Henry was located on low ground, dominated by heights across the river and subject to flooding when the river rose. He later declared outright, “The history of military engineering records no parallel to this case.”
One solution was to relocate the forts. Another was to fortify the opposite heights. Pondering which was preferable, he did neither. Johnston meanwhile sent him what he could, so that by mid-January Tilghman had 5700 troops: 3400 at Henry and 2300 at Donelson. Then came Buell’s lunge and Halleck’s probe. Both withdrew, Buell because of the rain and lack of rations, Halleck because he had only intended a feint; but Johnston knew they would be back soon enough. Three days after the Mill Springs rout, announcing the death of Zollicoffer and predicting a Federal strike against the forts, he made a final appeal to the Adjutant General: “The country must now be roused to make the greatest effort that it will be called upon to make during the war. No matter what the sacrifice may be, it must be made, and without loss of time.… All the resources of the Confederacy are now needed for the defense of Tennessee.”
Now as before, Johnston did what he could with what he had. He sent Pillow to Clarksville, sixty miles down the railroad, within supporting distance of the forts. Floyd and Buckner were sent with their brigades to Russellville, midway between Pillow and himself, within reach of both. Then, as January wore to a close, he learned to his dismay that Tilghman at Fort Henry was still pondering whether to fortify the high ground across the river. “It is most extraordinary,” Johnston exclaimed. “I ordered General Polk four months ago to at once construct those works. And now, with the enemy on us, nothing of importance has been done. It is most extraordinary.”
Mastering his alarm as best he could, he wired Tilghman: “Occupy and intrench the heights opposite Fort Henry. Do not lose a moment. Work all night.”
Johnston was not the only commander alarmed by the success of Buell’s lieutenant in East Kentucky. On the day after the battle, still not having heard the news, Henry Halleck returned to his desk after a four-day bout with the measles. During his time in bed he had reconsidered the suggested move against Nashville by means of a two-pronged advance up the Cumberland and the Tennessee. He no longer considered the operation “madness.” In fact, he wrote McClellan that Monday morning, such an advance would follow “the great central line of the Western theater of war.” However, he was quick to add, the movement should not be launched without a force of at least 60,000 effectives. As for Buell’s proposed simultaneous advance upon the Tennessee capital, he considered it neither wise nor necessary. It was “bad strategy,” he wrote, “because it requires a double force to accomplish a single object.” Halleck wanted a one-man show, with Halleck as the man.
Having dispatched his letter to the General-in-Chief, the convalescent author of the Elements of Military Art and Science sat back and scratched his elbows. It was then that the news of Fishing Creek arrived, and the effect was as if a bomb had been exploded under his desk. What Thomas had done for Buell in eastern Kentucky was comparable to what Rosecrans had done for McClellan in western Virginia the year before. McClellan’s elevation had followed swiftly after Philippi: so might Buell’s after Fishing Creek—especially considering the fact that the advance had opened the way to East Tennessee, which everyone knew was Lincoln’s pet concern. In the glare of that bomb-burst, Halleck saw his worst fears outlined stark before him: Buell might get the West.
That changed everything. Before he could consider what to do, however, he must somehow recover from the paralyzing shock which was his first reaction to the news. U. S. Grant returned to Cairo on the same day Halleck got up from the measles; his demonstration to immobilize Polk had not only been successful, it had given him ideas. “A fine reconnaissance,” he called it, and requested permission to visit St Louis for a discussion with the commanding general. Halleck by now had the news from East Kentucky. “You have permission to visit headquarters,” he replied, as if in a daze, and by Friday Grant was there. He found Halleck vague and noncommittal, still suffering from the shock of his rival’s success. Consequently, the interview fell flat. “I was received with so little cordiality,” Grant later declared, “that I perhaps stated the object of my visit with less clearness than I might have done, and I had not uttered many sentences before I was cut short as if my plan was preposterous.” He returned to Cairo “very much crestfallen.”
He was not crestfallen long. On his return he found a dispatch from Brigadier General C. F. Smith, who had demonstrated up the Tennessee while Grant had been pretending to threaten Columbus. Smith was sixty, with a ramrod stiffness, a habit of profanity, and a white walrus mustache. He had been commandant of cadets when Grant was at West Point, but now, as was often the case with old line officers who had stayed in the service, he was outranked by the volunteer commander and came under his authority. His advance had taken him down near the Tennessee line, within three miles of the fort on the east bank of the river, and in his report to Grant he stated flatly, “I think two ironclad gunboats would make short work of Fort Henry.”
On his visit with Halleck in St Louis the week before, Grant had proposed a general forward movement. Now here was something specific. Returning to the charge, he promptly wired:
Cairo, January 28
Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck
Saint Louis, Mo.:
With permission, I will take Fort Henry on the Tennessee, and establish and hold a large camp there.
U. S. GRANT
Halleck was just emerging from his state of shock. Perhaps by now he was even beginning to hear the words Grant had spoken three days ago, before he cut him short. At any rate, he saw that he must accomplish something to counterbalance the success his rival had scored at the opposite end of the line, and on second thought this looked like just the something. A week back, he had told McClellan that the advance up the rivers should not be undertaken by a force of less than 60,000 effectives. Grant had barely one-third that many men, including Smith’s. However, leery as Halleck was of the wild man of Belmont, he knew that when Grant said plainly, “I will take Fort Henry,” it meant an all-out effort and quick movement by field-hardened troops. There was the risk that Polk might move forward from Columbus, threatening the line of the Ohio while Grant was on his way southward up the Tennessee, but Halleck thought this unlikely, considering the success of the recent feint in that direction.
He was still pondering his decision when a telegram arrived from McClellan, reporting that a rebel deserter had just informed him that Beauregard was leaving Manassas to go to Kentucky with fifteen regiments of Confederate infantry. That resolved Halleck’s final doubt. He would strike before Beauregard arrived. Next morning, Thursday the 30th, he wired Grant: “Make your preparations to take and hold Fort Henry. I will send you written instructions by mail.”
Fort Henry being in Tennessee, he availed himself of the opportunity to request an enlargement of the area of his command, wiring McClellan: “I respectfully suggest that that state be added to this department.” One thing remained to be done: inform Buell. With his campaign launched beyond any possibility of his rival’s being able to claim a hand in its inception—but not too late to call on him for help if help was needed—Halleck telegraphed him curtly: “I have ordered an advance of our troops on Fort Henry and Dover. It will be made immediately.” Now it was Buell’s turn to be shocked at rival progress. “I protest against such prompt proceedings,” he wrote McClellan, “as though I had nothing to do but command ‘Commence firing’ when he starts off.”
The written instructions Halleck had promised his lieutenant were short and to the point, giving the latest intelligence on the strength of the fort, repeating McClellan’s warning that Beauregard was on the way with reinforcements, and including the sentence, “You will move with the least delay possible.” Knowing his man, Halleck knew that such words were as apt to produce results as a yank on the lanyard of a well-primed cannon. Grant’s reply, from Paducah during the daylight hours of February 3, was the briefest yet: “Will be off up the Tennessee at 6 o’clock. Command, twenty-three regiments in all.” And so it was. In the gathering dusk the transports slipped their moorings. The campaign to take Fort Henry was under way.
In the lead were four ironclad gunboats, unlike any ever seen before on this or any river. They were the invention, the product—and at this stage the property—of James B. Eads, who had built them in one hundred days on an army contract let to him in August, when they were intended, along with three others, to constitute the hard core of the column that would accomplish Frémont’s lopping descent of the Mississippi. The Pathfinder was gone now, along with his plan, but the gunboats remained. Designed for river fighting, they were 175 feet long and a bit over 50 feet in the beam. Two and one-half inch overlapping plates of armor were bolted to the bows to give protection from head-on fire, and the sides were sloped at 35° to deflect shots taken broadside. For armament they mounted thirteen guns apiece, three at the bow, two at the stern, and four on each side. Despite the weight of all this metal, they were surprisingly maneuverable and drew only six feet of water: which meant, in river parlance, that they could “run on a heavy dew.”
Eads, a native of Indiana and a man of industry, was one of those included in the southern sneer at the North as “a race of pasty-faced mechanics.” When he arrived in St Louis to start work on his contract, the trees from which he would hew timbers were still standing in the forests. Within two weeks he had 4000 men at work around the clock, Sundays not excepted. When he ran out of money he used his own, and when that gave out he borrowed more from friends. By the end of November he had launched eight gunboats, a formidable squadron aggregating 5000 tons, with a cruising speed of nine knots an hour and an armament of 107 guns. The government was less prompt in payment, though, than Eads was in delivery. He still had not been reimbursed when the fleet set out for Henry: so that, technically, the ironclads were still his own.
The turtle-back steamers were not a navy project; the admirals left such harebrained notions to the army. For the most part, even the sailors aboard the boats were soldiers, volunteers from Grant’s command who had answered a call for river- and seafaring men to transfer for gunboat service. Once the fleet was launched and manned, however, the navy saw its potential and was willing to furnish captains for its quarterdecks. Having made the offer, which was quickly accepted, the admirals did not hold back, but sent some of their most promising officers westward for service on the rivers. None among them was more distinguished, more experienced—or tougher—than the man assigned to flag command.
Commodore Andrew H. Foote was a Connecticut Yankee, a small man with burning eyes, a jutting gray chin-beard, and a long, naked upper lip. A veteran who had fought the Chinese at Canton and chased slavers in the South Atlantic, he was deeply, puritanically religious, and conducted a Bible school for his crew every Sunday, afloat or ashore. Twenty years before, he had had the first temperance ship in the U.S. Navy, and before the present year was out he would realize a lifelong ambition by seeing the alcohol ration abolished throughout the service. At fifty-six he had spent forty years as a career officer fighting the two things he hated most, slavery and whiskey. It was perhaps a quirk of fate to have placed him thus alongside Grant, who could scarcely be said to have shown an aversion for either. But if fate had juxtaposed them so, in hopes that they would strike antagonistic sparks, then fate was disappointed. Foote, like Grant, believed in combined operations, and had joined with him in bombarding Halleck with telegrams urging the undertaking of this one. Army and Navy, the commodore said, “were like blades of shears—united, invincible; separated, almost useless.”
So built, so manned and led, the fleet put out in the rainy, early February darkness, southward up the swollen Tennessee: four ironclads and three wooden gunboats escorting nine transports with their cargo of blue-clad soldiers, the first of Grant’s two divisions, which together totaled 15,000 men. Having landed the first, the transports would return downriver to bring the second forward; then the two would move together against the fort, the gunboats meanwhile taking it under bombardment. The initial problem was to locate a landing place as near the objective as possible and yet beyond the range of its big guns. One complication was Panther Creek, which flowed westward into the river, a little over three miles north of the fort. A landing north of the creek would mean that the troops would have to cross or go around it. That was undesirable, involving problematical delay. Yet a landing south of the creek might bring the transports under the rebel guns, with resultant havoc and probable disaster. Grant must first determine their range. He did so, characteristically, in the quickest, simplest way: by personal reconnaissance. Halting the fleet in the cold predawn darkness, eight miles short of the fort, he ordered three of the ironclads forward to draw the fire of the guns, and boarded one of them, theEssex, to go along and find out for himself.
He found out soon enough. The ironclads steamed past the creek mouth and opened fire within two miles of the fort. The answering shells fell short until a 6-inch rifle came into action, splashing its first shot not only beyond the gunboats, but beyond the mouth of the creek as well. Grant now had the information he wanted; no landing could be made south of the creek without bringing the transports under fire. But then the rifle’s gunner made the information even more emphatic by demonstrating the kind of marksmanship the gunboats would encounter in an attack against Fort Henry. Shortening the range, he put the next shot squarely into the Essex. Having secured the information they sought, and more, the ironclads turned and went back down the river, the wounded Essex bringing up the rear with a 6-inch shell in her steerage and a wiser troop commander on her bridge.
Now that he knew how to do what must be done, Grant went back to get the movement started. The fleet proceeded southward, landing the First division north of the creek, and while the empty transports set out downriver on their hundred-mile round trip to bring the Second division forward, he completed the details of his attack plan. The key to the position, he saw—Belmont having taught him just how briefly troops could hold an objective which came under the plunging fire of enemy guns—was the high ground on the west bank, dominating the low-lying fort across the river. Reconnaissance had drawn no fire from there and Grant had been able to spot no guns through his glasses. But that was inconclusive. Intelligence had warned him that the Confederates were at work there; the batteries might be masked, under orders to hold their fire until a target worth their powder hove in view. Therefore he assigned the Second division the task of seizing the left-bank heights, planting artillery there, while the First division moved against the fort itself, angling around the head of Panther Creek to come in from the east and thus prevent the escape of the garrison in case it tried to retreat from under the fleet bombardment.
How large that garrison was he did not know. There was no way of telling how many reinforcements might have arrived overland from Donelson, twelve miles away, or by rail from Bowling Green or Memphis, since the defenders first learned of the task force moving up the Tennessee. In any case, the right-bank attack would be the main effort, and he detached one brigade from the Second division, which had three, ordering it to land on the eastern bank and support the First division, which had two. One more detachment from the Second division, a rifle company to act as sharpshooters on the warships, and Grant’s attack plan was complete. If Fort Henry could be taken by 15,000 men and seven gunboats, he was going to take it.
There were other problems: the fact that the river was mined, for instance, which meant that at any minute any vessel, ironclad or transport, was apt to go sky-high in smoke and flame, the attacking force reduced to that extent by quick subtraction. Contact mines, or “torpedoes” as they were called, were a new and formidable weapon, a fiendish example of rebel ingenuity. Anchored to the river-bottom by cables that held them upright underwater, they were equipped with pronged rods extending upward to just below the surface, ready to trip the detonators on contact. The rising river had reduced their effectiveness, some being submerged by now beyond scraping distance and others floating around loose, torn from their moorings; but there was still a good deal of conjecture and concern about them.
On the afternoon of the 5th, while in conference with Foote and the two division commanders aboard the flagship, Grant got a chance to make a first-hand inspection of one of these new implements of war. A gunboat tied up alongside and her captain sent word that he had fished a torpedo out of the river. He had it there on deck, he said, in case the commodore and the generals wanted to see it. They did indeed want to see it, if only as a diversion. The conference was about finished anyhow; little remained to be done except to await the arrival of the Second division, still being brought in relays from Paducah. Crossing over to the gunboat, the commodore and his aides and the generals and their staffs clustered on the fantail and stood in a semicircle looking down at the torpedo.
It appeared to be quite as dangerous as they had feared. A metal cylinder five feet long and a foot and a half in diameter, the thing was made especially venomous-looking by the pronged rod extending from its head. Grant wanted more than a look, however. He wanted to know how it worked. So the ship’s armorer came with his wrenches and chisels, and while he tinkered the interested officers watched. Suddenly, as he was loosening a nut, the device emitted an ominous hissing sound, which seemed to be mounting swiftly toward a climax. The reaction of the watchers was immediate. Some ran, exploding outward from the semicircular cluster, while others threw themselves face-downward on the deck. Rank had no precedent; it was each man for himself.
Foote sprang for the ship’s ladder, and Grant, perhaps reasoning that in naval matters the commodore knew best, was right behind him. If he lacked the seaman’s agility in climbing a rope ladder, he made up for it with what one witness called “commendable enthusiasm.” At the top, the commodore looked back over his shoulder and found Grant closing rapidly upon him. The hissing had stopped. Whatever danger there had been was past. Foote smiled.
“General, why this haste?” he asked, and his words, though calmly spoken, were loud against the silence.
“That the navy may not get ahead of us,” Grant replied.
Lloyd Tilghman was slim and dark-skinned, with a heavy, carefully barbered mustache and chin-beard, an erect, soldierly bearing, and piercing black eyes intensifying what one observer called “a resolute, intelligent expression of countenance.” His resolution had not waned, but after two days of watching the Federal build-up to his front, he was beginning to realize that the fate of the fort was scarcely less predictable than that of a shoe-nail about to be driven by a very large sledge-hammer lustily swung.
His 3400 men were miserably armed with hunting rifles, shotguns, and 1812-style flintlocks, and his cannon were scarcely better. Two out of a shipment cast from what looked like pot-metal had burst in target practice, and several others had been condemned, a British observer pronouncing them less dangerous to the enemy than to the men who served them. Tilghman was threatened, in fact, by more than the gunboats and the blue-clad infantry, and weakened by more than the shortage of serviceable arms. In one week, back in mid-January when the rains came, the river had risen fourteen feet, demonstrating graphically the unwisdom of the engineers who had sited Fort Henry at this particular bend of the Tennessee. Only nine of the fifteen guns bearing riverward remained above water in early February, and now while the river continued to rise, lapping at last at the magazine, it had become a question of which would get there first, flood crest or the Yankees.
In spite of all this, the Kentucky brigadier did not despair when his lookout, peering downriver through the rainy dawn of the 4th, announced the approach of gunboats and behind them the coal-smoke plumes of the transports winding northward out of sight. Determined to fight, he wired Polk for reinforcements from Columbus, and the following day, having turned back the ironclad reconnaissance and seen that the Federals were landing in force, three miles north of the fort, he wired Johnston at Bowling Green: “If you can reinforce strongly and quickly we have a glorious chance to overwhelm the enemy.” Accordingly, he sent his troops with their squirrel guns and fowling pieces to man the rifle pits blocking the landward approaches. If no help came, he would fight with what he had.
However, as the day wore on and the transports returned with further relays of northern troops, he began to realize the full length of the odds—particularly on the opposite bank, where the Union brigades were landing and preparing to move against the unfinished, unmanned works on the high ground which dominated the shipwrecked fort on this side. Without losing his resolution to give battle, he saw clearly that whoever stood on this nailhead, under the swing of that sledge, was going to be destroyed; and he saw, too, that, whatever his personal inclination, his military duty was to save what he could of a command whose doom was all but sealed.
At a council of war, called that night in the fort—the enemy build-up continued, seemingly endless, three miles downriver, on both banks—he announced his decision. While a sacrifice garrison manned whatever guns were yet above water, discouraging pursuit, the infantry would be evacuated, marching overland to join the troops at Donelson. Next morning a company of Tennessee artillery, two officers and 54 men, took their posts at the guns, awaiting the attack they knew was coming, while the foot soldiers filed out of the rifle pits and the fort, taking the road eastward.
Tilghman went a certain distance to see them on their way, and then, still resolute, turned back to join the forlorn hope. It was noon by now. As he drew near, the sound of guns came booming across water.
Two-thirds by land, one-third by water, Grant’s triple-pronged upriver attack, designed as a simultaneous advance by the two divisions, one along each bank while the gunboats took the middle, was slated to get under way at 11 o’clock, by which time the final relay of troops had arrived from Paducah. Both infantry columns went forward on schedule, but Foote, on his own initiative, held back until almost noon, allowing the landsmen at least a measure of the head start they needed. The rain had stopped; the sun came through, defining the target clearly, and there was even a light breeze to clear away the battle smoke and permit the rapid and accurate fire the commodore expected of his gunners. For almost an hour the crews stood by—converted soldiers and fresh-water sailors bracing themselves for their first all-out action, with “just enough men-of-war’s men,” as one skipper said, “to leaven the lump with naval discipline”—until the attack pennant was hoisted and the squadron moved upstream, the ironclads steaming four abreast in the lead and the three wooden gunboats bringing up the rear.
“The flagship will, of course, open the fire,” Foote had ordered, and at 1700 yards she did so. The others joined the chorus, firing as many of their 54 guns as could be brought to bear on the fort, whose nine gun-crews stood to their pieces and replied at once in kind, loosing what one of the defenders proudly called “as pretty and as simultaneous a ‘broadside’ as I ever saw flash from the sides of a frigate.” This continued. Preceded by “one broad and leaping sheet of flame,” as the same defender said, the ironclads deliberately closed the range to 600 yards while the more vulnerable wooden vessels hugged the western bank, adding the weight of their metal to the pressure on the earthworks.
Based as it was on predetermined ranges, fire from the fort was accurate and fast. For a time at least, the Tennessee artillerists seemed to be inflicting the greater damage. Aboard the warships, men were deafened by the din of solid shot pounding and breaking the iron plates and splintering heavy timbers, while shells screamed and whistled in the rigging, bursting, raining fragments. Foote’s flagship, the prime target, was struck thirty-two times in the course of the action, two of her guns disabled and her stacks, boats, and after-cabin riddled. The captain of the ironclad on her left, which took thirty hits, said of one shot which he saw strike the flagship, “It had the effect, apparently, of a thunderbolt, ripping her side timbers and scattering the splinters over the vessel. She did not slacken her speed, but moved on as though nothing special had happened.” Not so the luckless Essex. Patched up from the hurt she had received two days ago, she took another now through her boiler: an unlucky shot which left her powerless in a cloud of escaping steam, with twenty-eight scalded men aboard, some dead and others dying. Out of control, she swung broadside to the current, then careened, leaving a gap in the line of battle, and drifted downstream, out of the fight.
Encouraged by this proof that the turtle-back monsters could be hurt, the defenders cheered and redoubled their efforts. But they had done their worst—in fact, their all: for now there followed a series of accidents and mishaps which abolished whatever chance they had had for victory at the outset. Only two of their guns could really damage the ironclads, the high-velocity 6-inch rifle, which had already proved its effectiveness, and a giant columbiad which made up for its lack of range by the heft of its 128-pound projectile. The rest, low-sited as they were, with their muzzles near the water, could do no more than bounce their 32- and 42-pound shells off the armored prows of the attackers. First to go was the rifle, which burst in firing, disabling not only its own crew, but also those of the flanking pieces. Next, the big columbiad was spiked by a broken priming wire and thus put out of action, despite the efforts of a blacksmith who attempted to repair it under fire. Of the seven cannon left, which could only dent the armor and shiver the timbers of the gunboats, one had to be abandoned for lack of ammunition and two were wrecked almost at once by enemy shells. That left four guns to face the fire of the attackers, the range now being closed, almost point-blank, and even those four were served by skeleton crews, scraped together from among the survivors.
These included Tilghman. The fort commander had returned from seeing the infantry off, and was serving as a cannoneer at one of the four pieces. He had asked the artillerists to hold out for an hour, affording the garrison that much of a head start on its march to Donelson. Now that they had held out two, with the long odds growing longer all the time, the tactical considerations had been satisfied twice over, and those of honor as well. He ordered the flag struck. It was done and the firing ceased.
“That the navy may not get ahead of us,” Grant had said, and it was as if he spoke from prescience. In the combined attack, as in the scramble up the ladder, Foote came out on top. The navy fired not only the first shot and the last, but also all the shots between, and suffered all the casualties as well: 12 killed and missing and 27 wounded, compared to the fort’s 10 killed and missing and 11 wounded. In fact, the navy’s closest rival was not the army, but the river. Another few hours would have put the remaining cannon under water. As it was, the cutter bearing the naval officers to receive the formal surrender pulled right in through the sally port.
Tilghman was waiting for them. He had already earned their respect by his bravery as an opponent, and now, by the dignity of his bearing as a prisoner, he won their sympathy as well. However, his reception of the copy-hungry northern correspondents, who were soon on hand to question him, was less congenial. As a southern gentleman he believed there were only three events in a man’s life which warranted the printing of his name without permission: his birth, his marriage, and his death. So that when a Chicago reporter asked him how he spelled his name, he replied in measured terms: “Sir, I do not desire to have my name appear in this matter, in any newspaper connection whatever. If General Grant sees fit to use it in his official dispatches, I have no objection, sir; but I do not wish to have it in the newspapers.”
“I merely asked it to mention as one among the prisoners captured,” the correspondent said. But the Confederate either did not catch the dig or else ignored it.
“You will oblige me, sir,” he repeated, as if this put an end to the matter, “by not giving my name in any newspaper connection whatever.”
Grant arrived at 3 o’clock, by which time the Stars and Stripes had been flying over the fort for nearly an hour. His two divisions were still toiling through the mud on opposite banks of the river, one bogged down in the backwater sloughs of Panther Creek and the other slogging toward the empty western heights. Who won the race meant less to him, however, than the winning—and neither meant so much, apparently, as the fact that more remained to be accomplished. He had his mind on the railroad bridge fifteen miles upriver, over which Johnston could speed reinforcements from flank to flank of his line. The three wooden gunboats were dispatched at once to attend to it: which they did in fine style that same day. Nor was that all. Continuing on to Muscle Shoals, the head of navigation, they destroyed or captured six Confederate vessels, including a fast, 280-foot Mississippi steamboat being converted into an ironclad. Intended as an answer to the fleet of the invaders, she became instead a member of that fleet and saw much service.
This 150-mile gunboat thrust, all the way down past Mississippi and into Alabama, was dramatic proof of the fruits resulting from control of the Tennessee. A highway of invasion had been cleared. Yet Grant had his eye on another goal already, another fort on another river a dozen miles from the one he had just taken: as was shown by his wire to the theater commander on the day of his success. “Fort Henry is ours,” the dispatch began, and ended with a forecast: “I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry.”
Halleck passed the word along as promptly to McClellan, repeating Grant’s first sentence and adding two of his own: “Fort Henry is ours. The flag of the Union is reëstablished on the soil of Tennessee. It will never be removed.”
Grant was not alone in his belief that he could “take and destroy” the Cumberland fortress; Albert Sidney Johnston thought so, too. When word of the fall of Henry reached his headquarters at Bowling Green next day, he relayed the news to Richmond, adding that Fort Donelson was “not long tenable.” In fact, such was his respect for the promptness and power with which the ironclads had reduced their first objective, he wrote that he expected the second to fall in the same manner, “without the necessity of [the Federals’] employing their land force in coöperation.”
All the events he had feared most, and with good cause, had come to pass. Right, left, and center, his long defensive line was coming apart with the suddenness of a shaky split-rail fence in the path of a flood. His right at Mill Springs had been smashed, the survivors scattering deep into Tennessee while Buell inched toward Bowling Green with 40,000 effectives opposing Hardee’s 14,000. The loss of Henry and its railroad bridge, with Federal gunboats making havoc up the river to his rear, had split his center from his left, outflanking Columbus and Bowling Green and rendering both untenable. When Donelson fell, as he expected in short order, the gunboats would continue up the Cumberland as they had done up the Tennessee, forcing the fall of Nashville, his main depot of supplies, and cutting off the Army of Central Kentucky from the southern bank.
This left him two choices, both unwelcome. With his communications disrupted and his lines of reinforcement snapped, he could stand and fight against the odds, opposing two converging armies, each one larger than his own. Or he could retreat and save his army while there was time, consolidating south of the river to strike back when the chance came. Whichever he did, one thing was clear: the choice must be made quickly. All those sight-drafts he had signed were coming due at once. The long winter’s bluff was over. The uses of psychological warfare were exhausted. He was faced now with the actual bloody thing.
He called at once a council of war to confer with his two ranking generals. One was Hardee, commander of the center, whose prominent forehead seemed to bulge with knowledge left over from what he had packed into the Tactics. The other was Beauregard. The hero of Sumter and Manassas had arrived three days ago; but there were no fifteen regiments in his train, only a handful of staff officers. Davis had long since warned that he could spare no more soldiers, and he meant it. But apparently he could spare this one, whom many considered the finest soldier of them all, and by sparing him solve the double problem of removing the Creole’s busy pen from the proximity of Richmond and silencing those critics who cried that the President had no thought for the western front.
Beauregard had come to Kentucky believing that Johnston was about to take the offensive with 70,000 men. When he arrived and learned the truth he reacted with a horror akin to that of Crittenden at Zollicoffer’s rashness, and like Crittenden he at first proposed an immediate withdrawal. By the time of the council of war, however, he had managed to absorb the shock. His mercurial spirits had risen to such an extent, in fact, that the news of the fall of Henry only increased his belligerency. At the council, held in his hotel room on the afternoon of the 7th—the general was indisposed, down with a cold while convalescing from a throat operation he had undergone just before leaving Virginia—he proposed in a husky voice that Johnston concentrate all his troops at Donelson, defeat Grant at that place, then turn on Buell and send him reeling back to the Ohio.
Johnston shook his head. He could not see it. To give all his attention to Grant would mean abandoning Nashville to Buell, and the loss of that transportation hub, with its accumulation of supplies, would mean the loss of subsistence for his army. Even if that army emerged victorious at Donelson—which was by no means certain, since Grant might well be knocking at the gate already, his invincible ironclads out in front and his numbers doubled by reinforcements from Missouri and Illinois—it would then find Buell astride its communications, possessed of its base, twice its strength, and fresh for fighting. Johnston’s army was all that stood between the Federals and the conquest of the Mississippi Valley. To risk its loss was to risk the loss of the Valley, and to lose the Valley, Johnston believed, was to lose the war in the West. It was like the poem about the horseshoe nail: Fort Henry was the nail.
Beauregard at last agreed. Along with Hardee he signed his name approving the document by which Johnston informed Richmond that, Henry having fallen and Donelson being about to fall, the army at Bowling Green would have to retreat behind the Cumberland. For the present at least, Kentucky must be given up.
Preparations for the evacuation began at once. Four days later, with Buell still inching forward, the retrograde movement began. The garrison at Donelson was expected to hold out as long as possible, keeping Grant off Hardee’s flank and rear, then slip away, much as Tilghman’s infantry had slipped away from Henry, to join the main body around Nashville. Beauregard was up and about by then, helping all he could, but Johnston had a special use for him. Columbus, being outflanked, must also be abandoned. Severed already from headquarters control, it required a high-ranking leader who could exercise independent command. That meant Beauregard. After a final conference with Johnston, who reached Nashville with the van of his army one week after the council of war at Bowling Green, he started for Columbus. His instructions empowered him to give up that place, if in his judgment it was necessary or advisable to do so, then fall back to Island Ten, where the Mississippi swung a lazy S along the Tennessee line, and to Fort Pillow, another sixty airline miles downriver.
Charged with the conduct of a retreat, the Creole’s spirits flagged again. His heart was heavy, he wrote to a friend in Virginia; “I am taking the helm when the ship is already on the breakers, and with but few sailors to man it. How it is to be extricated from its present perilous condition, Providence alone can determine.”
Southeast of Columbus, the gloom was no less heavy for being fitful. During the week since the fall of its sister fort across the way, the atmosphere at Donelson had been feverish, with a rapid succession of brigadiers hastening preparations for the attack which each believed was imminent.
First had come the fugitives from Henry, shamefaced and angry, with lurid details of the gunboats’ might and the host of Federals whose trap they had eluded. Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson assumed command the following day, an Ohio-born West Pointer who had left the army to teach school in Tennessee and, liking it, offered his services when that state seceded. Two days later, on the 9th, Gideon Pillow arrived from Clarksville. Relying on “the courage and fidelity of the brave officers and men under his command,” he exhorted them to “drive back the ruthless invaders from our soil and again raise the Confederate flag over Fort Henry.… Our battle cry, ‘Liberty or death.’ ” Simon Buckner marched in from Russellville next day. All this time, John B. Floyd was hovering nearby with his brigade; Johnston had told him to act on his own discretion, and he rather suspected the place of being a trap. By now Pillow had recovered from his notion of launching an offensive, but he wrote: “I will never surrender the position, and with God’s help I mean to maintain it.” Encouraged by this show of nerve, Floyd arrived on the 13th. Donelson’s fourth commander within a week, he got there at daybreak, in time to help repulse the first all-out land attack. Grant’s army had come up during the night.
The Federals were apt to find this fort a tougher nut than the one they had cracked the week before. Like Henry, it commanded a bend in the river; but there the resemblance ceased. Far from being in danger of inundation, Donelson’s highest guns, a rifled 128-pounder and two 32-pounder carronades, were emplaced on the crown of a hundred-foot bluff. Two-thirds of the way down, a battery mounting a 10-inch columbiad and eight smooth-bore 32-pounders was dug into the bluff’s steep northern face. All twelve of these pieces were protected by earthworks, the embrasures narrowed with sandbags. Landward the position was less impregnable, but whatever natural obstacles stood in the path of assault had been strengthened by Confederate engineers.
To the north, flowing into the river where the bluff came sheerly down, Hickman Creek, swollen with backwater, secured the right flank like a bridgeless moat protecting a castle rampart. The fort proper, a rustic sort of stockade affair inclosing several acres of rude log huts, was designed to house the garrison and protect the water batteries from incidental sorties. It could never withstand large-scale attacks such as the one about to be launched, however, and the engineers had met this threat by fortifying the low ridge running generally southeast, parallel to the bend of the river a mile away. Rifle pits were dug along it, the yellow-clay spoil thrown onto logs for breastworks, describing thus a three-mile arc which inclosed the bluff on the north and the county-seat hamlet of Dover on the south, the main supply base. At its weaker and more critical points, as for instance where Indian Creek and the road from Henry pierced its center, chevaux-de-frise were improvised by felling trees so that they lay with their tops outward, the branchesinterlaced and sharpened to impale attacking troops. All in all, the line was strong and adequately manned. With the arrival of Floyd’s brigade there were 28 infantry regiments to defend it: a total of 17,500 men, including the artillery and cavalry, with six light batteries in addition to the big guns bearing riverward.
Floyd had experienced considerable trepidation on coming in, but his success in repulsing attacks against both ends of his line that morning restored his spirits and even sent them soaring. “Our field defenses are good,” he wired Johnston. “I think we can sustain ourselves against the land forces.” As for his chances against the ironclads, though his batteries turned back a naval reconnaissance that afternoon, he felt less secure. He wired Johnston: “After two hours’ cannonade the enemy hauled off their gunboats; will commence probably again.”
He was right. Steaming four abreast against his batteries next day, they did indeed commence again. When the squat black bug-shaped vessels opened fire, the cavalry commander Bedford Forrest turned to one of his staff, a former minister. “Parson, for God sake pray!” he cried. “Nothing but God Amighty can save that fort.” Floyd emphatically agreed. In fact, in a telegram which he got off to Johnston while the gunboats were bearing down upon him, he defined what he believed were the limits of his resistance: “The fort cannot hold out twenty minutes.”
Grant had predicted the immediate fall of Donelson to others beside Halleck. On the day the gunboats took Fort Henry he told a reporter from Greeley’s Tribune, who stopped by headquarters to say goodbye before leaving to file his story in New York: “You had better wait a day or two.… I am going over to capture Fort Donelson tomorrow.” This interested the journalist. “How strong is it?” he asked, and Grant replied: “We have not been able to ascertain exactly, but I think we can take it.” The reporter would not wait. On the theory that a fort in the hand was worth two in the brush, he made the long trip by river and rail to New York, filed his story—and was back on the banks of the Cumberland before Grant’s campaign reached its climax.
The initial delay was caused by a number of things: not the least of which was the fact that on the following day, the 7th, in pursuance of his intention to “take and destroy” the place on the 8th, Grant reconnoitered within a mile of the rifle pits the rebels were digging, and saw for himself the size of the task he was undertaking. To have sent his army forward at once would have meant attacking without the assistance of the gunboats, which would have to make the long trip down the Tennessee and up the Cumberland to Donelson. Besides, the river was still rising, completing the shipwreck of Henry and threatening to recapture from Grant the spoils he had captured from Tilghman, so that his troops, as he reported in explanation, were “kept busily engaged in saving what we have from the rapidly rising waters.”
There was danger in delay. Fort Donelson was being reinforced; Johnston might concentrate and crush him. But Grant was never one to give much weight to such considerations, even when they occurred to him. Meanwhile, his army was growing, too. Intent on his chance for command of the West—for which he had already recommended himself in dispatches announcing the capture of Henry and the impending fall of Donelson—Halleck was sending, as he described it, “everything I can rake and scrape together from Missouri.” Within a few days Grant was able to add a brigade to each of his two divisions. On second thought, with 10,000 more reinforcements on the way in transports and Foote’s ironclads undergoing repairs at Cairo, he believed that he had more to gain from waiting than from haste. So he waited. All the same, in a letter written on the 9th he declared that he would “keep the ball moving as lively as possible.” Hearing that Pillow, whose measure he had taken at Belmont, was now in command of the fort, he added: “I hope to give him a tug before you receive this.”
By the 11th he was ready to do just that. Unit commanders received that morning a verbal message: “General Grant sends his compliments and requests to see you this afternoon on his boat.” That this headquarters boat was called the New Uncle Sam was something of a coincidence; “Uncle Sam” had been Grant’s Academy nickname, derived from his initials, which in turn were accidental. The congressional appointment had identified him as Ulysses Simpson Grant, when in fact his given name was Hiram Ulysses, but rather than try to untangle the yards of red tape that stood in the way of correction—besides the risk of being nicknamed “Hug”—he let his true name go and took the new one: U. S. Grant. There were accounts of his gallantry under fire in Mexico, and afterwards his colonel had pointed him out on the street with the remark, “There goes a man of fire.” However, even for those who had been alongside him at Belmont, these things were not easy to reconcile with the soft-spoken, rather seedy-looking thirty-nine-year-old general who received his brigade and division commanders aboard the steamboat.
Almost as hard to believe, despite the whiskey lines around his eyes, were the stories of his drinking. Eight years ago this spring, the gossip ran, he had had to resign from the army to avoid dismissal for drunkenness. So broke that he had had to borrow travel money from his future Confederate opponent Simon Buckner, he had gone downhill after that. Successively trying hardscrabble farming outside St Louis and real-estate selling inside it, and failing at both, he went to Galena, Illinois, up in the northwest corner of the state, and was clerking in his father’s leather goods store—a confirmed failure, with a wife out of a Missouri slave-owning family and two small children—when the war came and gave him a second chance at an army career. He was made a colonel, and then a brigadier. “Be careful, Ulyss,” his father wrote when he heard the news of the fluke promotion; “you’re a general now; it’s a good job, don’t lose it.”
He was quiet, not from secretiveness (he was not really close-mouthed) but simply because that was his manner, much as another’s might be loud. In an army boasting the country’s ablest cursers, his strongest expletives were “doggone it” and “by lightning,” and even these were sparingly employed. “In dress he was plain, even negligent,” one of his officers remarked; yet it was noted—“in partial amendment,” the witness added—that “his horse was always a good one and well kept.” All his life he had had a way with horses, perhaps because he trusted and understood them. His one outstanding accomplishment at the Academy had been the setting of a high-jump record on a horse no other cadet would ride. There was an unbuttoned informality about him and about the way he did things; but it involved a good deal more of reticence than congeniality, as if his trust and understanding stopped at horses.
The conference aboard the New Uncle Sam, for instance, was as casual as the summons that convened it. What the participants mainly came away with was the knowledge that Grant had told them nothing. He had wanted to find out if they were ready to move out, and apparently he believed he could determine this better by listening than by talking or even asking. He sat and smoked his long-stem meerschaum, appearing to get considerable satisfaction from it, and that was all. The council of war (“calling it such by grace,” one participant wrote) broke up and the officers dispersed to their various headquarters, where presently they received the written order. Yet even this was vague. Stating only that the march would begin “tomorrow,” it gave no starting time and no exact details of attack. “The force of the enemy being so variously reported,” it closed, “… the necessary orders will be given in the field.”
Whatever qualms the troop commanders might be feeling as a result of all this vagueness, the troops themselves, being better accustomed to mystification from above, were in high spirits as the march got under way around mid-morning of Lincoln’s birthday. With one quick victory to their credit—in celebration of which, they knew, the folks at home were already ringing church bells—they looked forward to another, even though it did not give promise of being quite so bloodless as the first. Besides, the sun was out and the air was cool and bracing. They were enjoying the first fine weather they had known since boarding the transports at Paducah nine days back.
The column was “light,” meaning that there were no wagons for tents or baggage, but the adjective did not apply for the men in ranks, each of whom carried on his person two days’ rations and forty rounds of ammunition, in addition to the normal heavy load for winter marching. Glad to be on the move, however burdened, they stepped out smartly, with the usual banter back and forth between the various candidates for the role of company clown. Once clear of the river lowlands, they entered a hilly, scrub-oak country that called for up-and-down marching, with pack straps cutting first one way, then another. Presently, as the sun rose higher and bore down harder, and perhaps as much from sheer elation at being young and on the march as from discomfort, they began to shed whatever they thought they could spare. The roads were littered in their wake with discarded blankets and overcoats and other articles not needed in fair weather.
Grant shared his men’s high spirits. He now had under his command over twice as many men as General Scott had employed in the conquest of Mexico: 15,000 in the marching column, 2500 left on call at Henry, available when needed, and another 10,000 aboard the transports, making the roundabout river trip to join the overland column on arrival. Undiscouraged at being already four days past his previous forecast as to the date the fort would fall, in a telegram to Halleck announcing the launching of the movement (“We start this morning … in heavy force”) he essayed another, but with something more of caution as well as ambiguity: “I hope to send you a dispatch from Fort Donelson tomorrow.” Whether this meant from inside the fort or just in front of it, the words would make pleasant reading for the President on his birthday, in case Halleck passed them along (which he did not). But Grant, who perhaps did not even know it was Lincoln’s birthday, had his mind on the problem at hand. He must get to the fort before he could take it or even figure how to take it.
He got there a little after noon, the skirmishers coming under sniper fire at the end of the brisk ten-mile hike, and threw his two divisions forward, approaching the spoil-scarred ridge along which the defenders had drawn their curving line of rifle pits. Beyond it, gunfire boomed up off the river: a welcome sound, since it indicated that the navy had arrived and was applying pressure against the Confederate rear. The Second division, led by Grant’s old West Point commandant C. F. Smith, turned off to the left and took position opposite the northern half of the rebel arc, while the First, under John A. McClernand, filed off to the right and prepared to invest the southern half, where the ridge curved down past Dover.
McClernand was a special case, with a certain resemblance to the man whose birthday the investment celebrated. An Illinois lawyer-politician, Kentucky-born as well, he had practiced alongside Lincoln in Springfield and on the old Eighth Circuit. From that point on, however, the resemblance was less striking. McClernand was not tall: not much taller, in fact, than Grant: but he looked tall, perhaps because of the height of his aspirations. Thin-faced, crowding fifty, with sunken eyes and a long, knife-blade nose, a glistening full black beard and the genial dignity of an accomplished orator, he had exchanged a seat in Congress for the stars of a brigadier. In addition to the usual patriotic motives, he had a firm belief that the road that led to military glory while the war was on would lead as swiftly to political advancement when it ended. Lincoln had already shown how far a prairie lawyer could go in this country, and McClernand, whose eye for the main chance was about as sharp as Lincoln’s own, was quite aware that wars had made Presidents before—from Zachary Taylor, through Andrew Jackson, back to Washington himself. He intended to do all he could to emerge from this, the greatest war of them all, as a continuing instance. So far as this made him zealous it was good, but it made him overzealous, too, and quick to snatch at laurels. At Belmont, for example, he was one of those who took time out for a victory speech with the battle half won: a speech which was interrupted by the guns across the river and which, as it turned out, did not celebrate a conquest, but preceded a retreat. He needed watching, and Grant knew it.
What was left of the 12th was devoted to completing the investment. The gunboat firing died away, having provoked no reply from the fort. Grant sent a message requesting the fleet to renew the attack next morning as a “diversion in our favor,” and his men settled down for the night. Dawn came filtering through the woods in front of the ridge, showing once more the yellow scars where the Confederates had emplaced their guns and dug their rifle pits. They were still there. Pickets began exchanging shots, an irregular sequence of popping sounds, each emphasizing the silence before and after, while tendrils of pale, low-lying smoke began to writhe in the underbrush. Near the center, Grant listened. Then there was a sudden clatter off to the right, mounting to quick crescendo with the boom and jar of guns mixed in. McClernand had slipped the leash.
His attack, launched against a troublesome battery to his front, was impetuous and headlong. Massed and sent forward at a run, the brigade that made it was caught in a murderous crossfire of artillery and musketry and fell back, also at a run, leaving its dead and wounded to mark the path of advance and retreat. Old soldiers would have let it go at that; but there were few old soldiers on this field. Twice more the Illinois boys went forward, brave and green, and twice more were repulsed. The only result was to lengthen the casualty lists—and perhaps instruct McClernand that a battery might appear to be exposed, yet be protected. The clatter died away almost as suddenly as it had risen. Once more only the pop-popping of the skirmishers’ rifles punctuated the stillness.
Presently, in response to Grant’s request of the night before, gunboat firing echoed off the river beyond the ridge. To the north, Smith tried his hand at advancing a brigade. At first he was successful, but not for long. The brigade took its objective, only to find itself pinned down by such vicious and heavy sniper fire that it had to be withdrawn. The sun declined and the opposing lines stretched about the same as when it rose. All Grant had really learned from the day’s fighting was that the rebels had their backs up and were strong. But he was not discouraged. It was not his way to look much at the gloomy side of things. “I feel every confidence of success,” he told Halleck in his final message of the day, “and the best feeling prevails among the men.”
The feeling did not prevail for long. At dusk a drizzling rain began to fall. The wind veered clockwise and blew steadily out of the north, turning the rain to sleet and granular snow and tumbling the thermometer to 20° below freezing. On the wind-swept ridge the Confederates shivered in their rifle pits, and in the hollows northern troops huddled together against the cold, cursing the so-called Sunny South and regretting the blankets and overcoats discarded on the march the day before. Some among the wounded froze to death between the lines, locked in rigid agony under the soft down-sift of snow. When dawn came through, luminous and ghostly, the men emerged from their holes to find a wonderland that seemed not made for fighting. The trees wore icy armor, branch and twig, and the countryside was blanketed with white.
Grant was not discomforted by the cold. He spent the night in a big feather bed set up in the warm kitchen of a farmhouse. But he had worries enough to cause him to toss and turn—whether he actually did so or not—without the weather adding more. The gunboat firing of the past two days had had none of the reverberating violence of last week’s assault on Henry, and this was due to something beside acoustic difficulties. It was due, rather, to the fact that there was only one gunboat on hand. The others, along with the dozen transports bearing reinforcements, were still somewhere downriver. Their failure to arrive left Grant in the unorthodox position of investing a fortified camp with fewer troops than the enemy had inside it. During the night he sent word back to Henry for the 2500 men left there to be brought forward. That at least would equalize the armies, though it was still a far cry from the three-to-one advantage which the tactics books advised. They arrived at daybreak, and Grant assigned them to Smith, one of whose brigades had been used to strengthen McClernand. Doubtless Grant was glad to see them; but then even more welcome news arrived from the opposite direction. The fleet had come up in the night and was standing by while the transports unloaded reinforcements.
Presently these too arrived, glad to be stretching their legs ashore after their long, cramped tour of the rivers. Grant consolidated them into a Third division and assigned it to Lew Wallace, one of Smith’s brigade commanders, who had been left in charge at Henry and had made the swift, cold march to arrive at dawn. A former Indiana lawyer, the thirty-four-year-old brigadier wore a large fierce black mustache and chin-beard to disguise his youth and his literary ambitions, though so far neither had retarded his climb up the military ladder. Grant put this division into line between the First and Second, side-stepping them right and left to make room, and thickening ranks in the process.
Along that snow-encrusted front, with its ice-clad trees like inverted cutglass chandeliers beneath which men crouched shivering in frost-stiffened garments and blew on their gloveless hands for warmth, he now had three divisions facing the Confederate two, eleven brigades investing seven, 27,500 troops in blue opposing 17,500 in gray. They were not enough, perhaps, to assure a successful all-out assault; he was still only halfway to the prescribed three-to-one advantage, and after yesterday’s bloody double repulse he rather doubted the wisdom of trying to storm that fortified line. But now at last the fleet was up, the fleet which had humbled Henry in short order, and that made all the difference. Surely he had enough men to prevent the escape of the rebel garrison when the ironclads started knocking the place to pieces.
Shortly after noon—by which time he had all his soldiers in position, under orders to prevent a breakout—he sent word to the naval commander, requesting an immediate assault by the gunboats. Then he mounted his horse and rode to a point on the high west bank of the Cumberland, beyond the northern end of his line, where he would have a grandstand seat for the show.
Foote would have preferred to wait until he had had time to make a personal reconnaissance, but Grant’s request was for an immediate attack and the commodore prepared to give it to him. He had done considerable waiting already, a whole week of it while the armorers were hammering his ironclads back into shape. All this time he had kept busy, supervising the work, replenishing supplies, and requisitioning seafaring men to replace thirty fresh-water sailors who skedaddled to avoid gunboat duty. Nor were spiritual matters neglected. Three days after the Henry bombardment he attended church at Cairo, where, being told that the parson was indisposed, Foote mounted to the pulpit and preached the sermon himself. “Let not your heart be troubled” was his text: “ye believe in God, believe also in me.”
Next day, having thus admonished and fortified his crews, he sent one ironclad up the Cumberland—the Carondelet, a veteran of Henry—while he waited at Cairo to bring three more: the flagship St Louis, another Henry veteran, and the Pittsburg and theLouisville, replacements for the Cincinnati, which remained on guard at the captured fort, and the hard-luck Essex, which had been too vitally hurt to share in a second attempt at quick reduction. It took the commodore two more days to complete repairs, replace the runaway sailors, and assemble his revamped flotilla, including two of the long-range wooden gunboats and the twelve transports loaded with infantry reinforcements. Then on the 13th he went forward, southward up the Cumberland in the wake of theCarondelet, whose skipper was waiting to report on his two-day action when Foote arrived before midnight at the bend just north of Donelson.
The report had both its good points and its bad, though the former were predominant. On the first day, when the Carondelet steamed alone against the fort, firing to signal her presence to Grant, who was just arriving, there was no reply from the batteries on the bluff. The earthworks seemed deserted, their frowning guns untended. All the same, the captain hadn’t liked the looks of them; they reminded him, he said later, “of the dismal-looking sepulchers cut into the rocky cliffs near Jerusalem, but far more repulsive.” He retired, answered only by echoes booming the sound of his own shots back from the hills, and anchored for the night three miles downstream. It was strange, downright eerie. Next morning, though, in accordance with a request from Grant, who evidently had not known there was only one gunboat at hand, he went forward again, hearing the landward clatter of musketry as McClernand’s attack was launched and repulsed.
On this second approach, the Carondelet drew fire from every battery on the heights. Under bombardment for two hours, she got off 139 rounds and received only two hits in return. This was poor gunnery on the enemy’s part, but one of those hits gave the captain—and, in turn, the commodore—warning of what a gun on that bluff could do to an ironclad on the river below. It was a 128-pound solid shot and it crashed through a broadside casemate into the engine room, where it caromed and ricocheted, ripping at steam pipes and railings, knocking down a dozen men and bounding after the others, as one of the engineers said, “like a wild beast pursuing its prey.” Shattering beams and timbers, it filled the air with splinters fine as needles, pricking and stabbing the sailors through their clothes, though in all the grim excitement they were not aware of this until they felt the blood running into their shoes. The Carondelet fell back to transfer her wounded and attend to emergency repairs, but when the racket of another land assault broke out at the near end of the line, she came forward again, firing 45 more rounds at the batteries, and then drew off unhit as the clatter died away, signifying that Smith’s attack, like McClernand’s, had not succeeded.
Aboard the flagship, Foote had the rest of the night and the following morning in which to evaluate this information. Then came the request for an immediate assault. As Grant designed it, the fleet would silence the guns on the bluff, then steam on past the fort and take position opposite Dover, blocking any attempt at retreat across the river while it shelled the rebels out of their rifle pits along the lower ridge; whereupon the army would throw its right wing forward, so that the defenders, cut off from their main base of supplies and barred from retreat in either direction, could then be chewed up by gunfire, front and rear, or simply be outsat until they starved or saw the wisdom of surrender. The commodore would have preferred to have more time for preparation—time in which to give a final honing, as it were, to the naval blade of the amphibious shears—but, for all he knew, Grant had special reasons for haste. Besides, he admired the resolute simplicity of the plan. It was just his style of fighting. Once the water batteries were reduced, it would go like clockwork, and the example of Henry, eight days back, assured him that the hard part would be over in a hurry. He agreed to make the assault at once.
One thing he took time to do, however. Chains, lumber, and bags of coal—“all the hard materials in the vessels,” as one skipper said—were laid on the ironclads’ upper decks to give additional protection from such plunging shots as the one that had come bounding through the engine room of the Carondelet. This done, Foote gave the signal, and at 3 o’clock the fleet moved to the attack, breasting the cold dark water of the river flowing northward between the snowclad hills, where spectators from both armies were assembling for the show. One was Floyd, who took one look at the gunboats bearing down and declared that the fort was doomed. Another was Grant, who said nothing.
They came as they had come at Henry, the ironclads out in front, four abreast, while the brittle-skinned wooden gunboats Tyler and Conestoga brought up the rear, a thousand yards astern. At a mile and a half the batteries opened fire with their two big guns, churning the water ahead of the line of boats, but Foote did not reply until the range was closed to a mile. Then the flagship opened with her bow guns, echoed at once by the others, darting tongues of flame and steaming steadily forward, under orders to close the range until the batteries were silenced. Muzzles flashing and smoke boiling up as if the bluff itself were ablaze, the Confederates stood to their guns, encouraged by yesterday’s success against the Carondelet, just as Henry’s gunners had been heartened by turning back the Essex on the day before their battle. The resemblance did not stop there, however. After the first few long-range shots, as in the fallen fort a week ago, the big 128-pounder rifle on the crest of the bluff—the gun that had scored the only hit in two days of firing—was spiked by its own priming wire, which an excited cannoneer left in the vent while a round was being rammed. This left only the two short-range 32-pounder carronades in the upper battery and the 10-inch columbiad and eight smooth-bore 32-pounders in the lower: one fixed target opposing four in motion, each of which carried more guns between her decks than the bluff had in all, plus the long-range wooden gunboats arching their shells from beyond the smoke-wreathed line of ironclads.
Foote kept coming, firing as he came. At closer range, the St Louis and Pittsburg in the middle, the Carondelet and Louisville on the flanks, his vessels were taking hits, the metallic clang of iron on iron echoing from the surrounding hills with the din of a giant forge. But he could also see dirt and sandbags flying from the enemy embrasures as his shots struck home, and he believed he saw men running in panic from the lower battery. The Confederate fire was slackening, he afterwards reported; another fifteen minutes and the bluff would be reduced.
It may have been so, but he would never know. He was not allowed those fifteen minutes. At 500 yards the rebel fire was faster and far more effective, riddling stacks and lifeboats, sheering away flagstaffs and davits, scattering the coal and lumber and scrap iron on the decks. The sloped bulwarks caused the plunging shots to strike not at glancing angles, as had been intended, but perpendicular, and the gunboats shuddered under the blows. Head-on fire was shucking away side armor, one captain said, “as lightning tears the bark from a tree.” At a quarter of a mile, just as Foote thought he saw signs of panic among the defenders, a solid shot crashed through the flagship’s superstructure, carrying away the wheel, killing the pilot, and wounding the commodore and everyone else in the pilot house except an agile reporter who had come along as acting secretary.
The St Louis faltered, having no helm to answer, and went away with the current, out of the fight. Alongside her, the Pittsburg had her tiller ropes shot clean away. She too careened off, helmless, taking more hits as she swung. The Louisville was the next to go, struck hard between wind and water. Her compartments kept her from sinking while her crew patched up the holes, but then, like her two sister ships, she lost her steering gear and wore off downstream. Left to face the batteries alone, at 200 yards theCarondeletcame clumsily about, her forward compartments logged with water from the holes punched in her bow, and fell back down the river, firing rapidly and wildly as she went, not so much in hopes of damaging the enemy as in an attempt to hide in the smoke from her own guns.
High on the bluff, the Confederates were elated. In the later stages of the fight they enjoyed comparative immunity, for as the gunboats closed the range they overshot the batteries. Drawing near they presented easier targets, and the cannoneers stood to their pieces, delivering hit after hit and cheering as they did so. “Now, boys,” one gunner cried, “see me take a chimney!” He drew a bead, and down went a smokestack. One after another, the squat fire-breathing ironclads were disabled, wallowing helplessly as the current swept them northward, until finally the Carondelet made her frantic run for safety, firing in-discriminately to wreathe herself in smoke. The river was deserted; the fight was over quite as suddenly as it started. The flagship had taken 57 hits, the others about as many. Fifty-four sailors were casualties, including eleven dead. In the batteries, on the other hand, though the breastworks had been knocked to pieces, not a man or a gun was lost. The artillerists cheered and tossed their caps and kept on cheering. Fort Henry had shown what the gunboats could do: Fort Donelson had shown what they could not do.
The Confederate commander was as jubilant as his gunners. When the tide of battle turned he recovered his spirits and wired Johnston: “The fort holds out. Three gunboats have retired. Only one firing now.” When that one had retired as well, his elation was complete.
It was otherwise with Grant, who saw in the rout of the ironclads a disruption of his plans. Mounting his horse, he rode back to headquarters and reported by wire to Halleck’s chief of staff in Cairo: “Appearances indicate now that we will have a protracted siege here.” A siege was undesirable, but the rugged terrain and the bloody double repulse already suffered in front of the fortified ridge caused him to “fear the result of an attempt to carry the place by storm with raw troops.” Meanwhile, he reported, he was ordering up more ammunition and strengthening the investment for what might be a long-drawn-out affair. Disappointed but not discouraged, he assured the theater commander: “I feel great confidence … in ultimately reducing the place.”
Glorious as the exploit had been, Floyd’s elation was based on more than the repulse of the flotilla. Since the night before, he had had the satisfaction of knowing that he had successfully accomplished the first half of his primary assignment, his reason for being at Donelson in the first place: he had kept Grant’s army off Hardee’s flank during the retreat from Bowling Green. Johnston was in Nashville with the van, and Hardee was closing fast with the rear, secure from western molestation. Now there remained only the second half of Floyd’s assignment: to extract his troops from their present trap for an overland march to join in the defense of the Tennessee capital.
This was obviously no easy task, but he had begun to plan for it at a council of war that morning, when he and his division commanders decided to try for a breakout south of Dover, where a road led south, then east toward Nashville, seventy miles away. Pillow’s division would be massed for the assault, while Buckner’s pulled back to cover the withdrawal. Troop dispositions had already begun when the ironclads came booming up the river. By the time they had been repulsed, the day was too far gone; Floyd sent orders canceling the attack and calling another council of war. No experienced soldier himself, he wanted more advice from those who were.
The two who were there to give it to him were about as different from each other as any two men in the Confederacy. Pillow was inclined toward the manic. Addicted to breathing fire on the verge of combat, flamboyant in address, he was ever sanguine in expectations and eager for desperate ventures, the more desperate the better. Buckner was gloomy, saturnine. Not much given to seeking out excitement, he was inclined to examine the odds on any gamble, especially when they were as long as they were now. Some of the difference perhaps was due to the fact that Pillow the Tennessean was fighting to save his native state—his country, as he called it—while Buckner the Kentuckian had just seen his abandoned. And their relationship was complicated by the fact that there was bad blood between them, dating from back in the Mexican War, when Buckner had joined not only in the censure of Pillow for laying claim to exploits not his own, but also in the laughter which followed a report that had him digging a trench on the wrong side of a parapet.
Between these two, the confident Pillow and the cautious Buckner, Floyd swung first one way, then another, approaching nervous exhaustion in the process. The indecision he had displayed in West Virginia under Lee was being magnified at Donelson, together with his tendency to grow flustered under pressure. Just now, however, with the rout of the Yankee gunboats to his credit, he was inclined to share his senior general’s expectations. Adjourning the council, he announced that the breakout designed for today would be attempted at earliest dawn tomorrow. Even the gloomy Buckner admitted there was no other way to save the army, though he strongly doubted its chances for success.
All night the generals labored, shifting troops for the dawn assault. Pillow massed his division in attack-formation south of Dover, while Buckner stripped the northward ridge of men and guns to cover the withdrawal once the Union right had been rolled back to open the road toward Nashville. Another storm came up in the night, freezing the soldiers thus exposed. Yet this had its advantages; the wind howled down the shouts of command and the snowfall muffled the footsteps of the men and the clang of gunwheels on the frozen ground. No noise betrayed the movement to the Federals, huddled in pairs for warmth and sleep beyond the nearly deserted ridge. As dawn came glimmering through the icy lacework of the underbrush and trees, Pillow sent his regiments forward on schedule, Forrest’s cavalry riding and slashing on the flank.
They met stiff resistance, not because the Yankees were expecting this specific attack, but because they were well-disciplined and alert. For better than three hours the issue hung in raging doubt, the points of contact clearly marked by bloodstains on the snow. Running low on ammunition, McClernand’s men gave way, fought out, and as they fell back, sidling off to the left and exposing in turn the right flank of Wallace, Pillow saw that he had achieved his objective. The Nashville road was open. He paused to send a telegram to Johnston: “On the honor of a soldier, the day is ours!”
However, having paused he took stock, and it was as if the telegram had used up his last ounce of energy and hope, both of which had formerly seemed boundless. For now a strange thing happened: he and Buckner exchanged roles. Now it was Pillow who was pessimistic, fearing a counterattack against his flank while moving through the gap, and Buckner who was ebullient, declaring that the success should be exploited by ramming the column through. He had brought his soldiers forward to hold the door ajar; he could do it, he said—and in fact he insisted on doing it. When Pillow, standing on seniority, ordered him back to his former position, he refused to go. It was nearing noon by now, and all this time the road was standing open.
While the generals stood there wrangling, Floyd arrived. Smooth-shaven, with a pendulous underlip, he stood between them, looking from one to the other while they appealed to him to settle the dispute. At first he agreed with Buckner and told him to stay where he was, holding the escape hatch ajar. Then Pillow took him aside and he reversed himself, ordering both divisions back into line on the ridge. The morning’s fight had gone for nothing, together with the bloodstains on the snow.
Elsewhere along the curving front, practically stripped of Confederate troops for the breakthrough concentration—the sector formerly held by Buckner’s whole division, for example, had been left in charge of a single regiment with fewer than 500 men—the lines across the way were strangely silent. To the Southerners, widely spaced along the ridge, this seemed a special dispensation of Providence. Actually, however, the basis for the respite, though unusual, was entirely natural.
Before daylight that morning Grant had received a note from Flag Officer Foote, requesting an interview. The wounded commodore was going back downriver for repairs, both to his worst-hit vessels and to himself, and he wanted to talk with Grant before he left. Grant rode northward to meet him aboard the flagship. Having, he said later, “no idea that there would be any engagement on land unless I brought it on myself,” he left explicit orders that his division commanders were not to move from their present positions. Baffled by the wintry trees and ridges, the three-hour uproar of Pillow’s assault on the opposite end of the line reached him faintly, if at all. He rode on. Hard-pressed, McClernand was calling for help which Grant’s orders prohibited Wallace and Smith from sending, though the former, on his own responsibility, finally sent a brigade which helped to blunt the attack when his own lines were assailed. Grant knew nothing of this until past noon, when, riding back from the gunboat conference, he met a staff captain who informed him, white-faced with alarm, that McClernand’s division had been struck and scattered into full retreat. Grant put spurs to his horse.
Speed was impossible on the icy road, however, even for so skillful a horseman as Grant. It was 1 o’clock before he reached the near end of his line, where he found reassurance in the lack of excitement among the troops of Smith’s division. Even Wallace’s men, already engaged in part, showed fewer signs of panic than the captain who had met him crying havoc. McClernand’s, next in sight, were another matter. They had been ousted from their position, taking some rough handling in the process, and they showed it. Now that the rebels had stopped shoving, they stopped running, but as they stood around in leaderless clumps, empty cartridge boxes on display as an excuse for having yielded, they gave little evidence of wanting to regain what they had lost.
There was a report that Confederate prisoners had three days’ cooked rations in their haversacks. Some took this as proof that they were prepared for three days of hard fighting, but Grant had a different interpretation. He believed it meant that they were trying to escape, and he believed, further, that they were more demoralized by having failed in a desperate venture than his own men were by a temporary setback. “The one who attacks first now will be victorious,” he said to his staff, “and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.”
He told McClernand’s men, “Fill your cartridge boxes, quick, and get into line. The enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so.” This worked, he said later, “like a charm. The men only wanted someone to give them a command.” To the wounded Foote went a request that the gunboats “make appearance and throw a few shells at long range.” He did not expect them to stage a real attack, he added, but he counted on the morale effect, both on his own troops and the enemy’s, of hearing naval gunfire from the river. Reasoning also that the rebels must have stripped the ridge to mass for the attack on the south, he rode to the far end of the line and ordered Smith to charge, advising him that he would find only “a very thin line to contend with.”
This was what Smith had been waiting for, and for various reasons. His bright blue eyes and oversized snowy mustache standing out in contrast to his high-colored face, he was Regular Army to the shoe-soles, the only man in the western theater, one of his fellow officers said, who “could ride along a line of volunteers in the regulation uniform of a brigadier general, plume, chapeau, epaulets and all, without exciting laughter.” Like many old-army men, since that army had been predominantly southern in tone, he was suspected of disloyalty; but Smith, who had been thrice brevetted for bravery in Mexico, was not disturbed by these suspicions. “They’ll take it back after our first battle,” he promised. And now, with that first battle in progress, he got his troops into line, gave them orders not to fire until the rebel abatis had been cleared, and led them forward. High on his horse, the sixty-year-old general turned from time to time in the saddle to observe the alignment and gesture with his sword, the bullets of the sharpshooters twittering round him. “I was nearly scared to death,” one soldier afterwards said, “but I saw the old man’s white mustache over his shoulder, and went on.”
They all went on, through the fallen timber and up the ridge, where they drove back the regiment Buckner had left to man the line. All that kept them from storming the fort itself was the arrival of the rest of Buckner’s division, which Floyd had ordered back. On the right, McClernand’s rallied men hurried the retirement of Pillow, reoccupying the ground they had lost. Wallace took a share in this, shouting as he rode along the line of his division, “You have been wanting a fight; you have got it. Hell’s before you!” Two of the battered ironclads reappeared around the bend in answer to Grant’s request, lobbing long-range shells to add to the Confederate confusion.
In what remained of the short winter afternoon, since saying, “The one who attacks first now will be victorious,” Grant saw his army not only recover from the morning’s reverses, but breach the line of rebel intrenchments as well. By daylight there would be Union artillery on the ridge where Smith had forced a lodgment. The fort, the water battery, Dover itself: the whole Confederate position would be under those guns. It was not going to be a siege, after all.
This was realized as well by the commanders inside the fort, swinging once more from elation to dejection, as it was by those outside. At the council of war, held late that night in the frame two-story Dover Inn, the prime reaction was consternation. Pillow and Buckner had reverted to their original roles. The former had thrown off his gloom, the latter his ebullience, and each accused the other of having failed to exploit the morning’s gains. Pillow declared that he had halted only to send his men back after their equipment; he was ready to cut his way out in earnest, all over again. Buckner said that stopping, for whatever reason, had been fatal; the Federals had restored the line, and his men were too dispirited to make another assault. Floyd was as usual in the middle, looking from one to the other as the recriminations passed him.
This time, though, he sided more with Buckner; Smith’s guns were on the ridge by now, waiting for dawn to define the targets. Forrest, who was present in his capacity as cavalry commander, reported that a riverside road was open to the south, though icy backwater stood waist-deep where it crossed a creekbed. However, the army surgeon—who had yet to learn just how tough a creature the Confederate soldier could be, despite his grousing—advised against using the flooded road, predicting that such exposure would be fatal to the troops. Then too, there was a report that Grant had received another 10,000 reinforcements. Floyd already believed his men were outnumbered four-to-one, and as far as he was concerned that settled the matter. Only one course remained: to surrender the command.
Whatever their differences at this final conference, he and Pillow were agreed at least on the question of personal surrender. Neither would have any part of it, and each had his reasons. Floyd had been indicted for malfeasance in office as Secretary of War. The charge had been nol-prossed but it might very well be reopened in a wartime atmosphere. Besides, it was a matter of general belief in the North that he had diverted federal arms and munitions to southern arsenals on the eve of secession. To surrender would be to throw himself on a mercy which he considered nonexistent. Pillow’s was a different case, but he was no less determined to avoid captivity. Having sworn that he would never surrender, he intended to keep his oath. He agreed by now as to the necessity for surrender of the army, but like Floyd he refused to be included. His battle cry was “Liberty or death,” and he chose liberty.
Buckner felt otherwise. He accepted the facing of possible charges of treason as one of the hazards of waging a revolution. Also, he had done the Federal commander certain personal services, including the loan of money when Grant was on his way home from California in disgrace, and this might have a happy effect when the two sat down together to arrange terms for capitulation. He would surrender the army, and himself as part of it, along with all the others who had fought here and been worsted. The necessary change of commanders was effected in order of rank:
“I turn the command over, sir,” Floyd told Pillow.
“I pass it,” Pillow told Buckner.
“I assume it,” Buckner said. “Give me pen, ink and paper, and send for a bugler.”
This colloquy omitted a fourth member of the council. Bedford Forrest rose up in his wrath. “I did not come here for the purpose of surrendering my command,” he declared. Buckner agreed that the cavalryman could lead his men out if the movement began before surrender negotiations were under way.
Forrest stamped out into the night, followed by Floyd and Pillow, while Buckner composed his note to Grant: “In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station, I propose to the commanding officer of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon the terms of capitulation of the forces and fort under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until twelve o’clock today.” He signed it, “Very respectfully, your obedient servant.”
Buckner’s men by no means shared his gloom. Except for the regiment overrun by Smith’s division, they had whipped the Yankees on land and water each time they had come to grips. Rested from the previous day’s exertions, they expected a renewal of the fight. Consequently, the bugler going forward to sound the parley and the messenger bearing Buckner’s note and a white flag of truce had trouble getting through the lines. At last they did, however. The bugle rang out, plaintive in the frosty night, and men of the northern Second division received them and gave them escort back to the division commander. Smith read the note and set out at once through the chill predawn darkness for the farmhouse which was army headquarters.
Grant was snug in his feather bed when Smith came in saying, “There’s something for you to read.” During the reading the old soldier crossed to the open fire and stroked his mustache while warming his boots and backside. Grant gave a short laugh. “Well, what do you think of it?” he asked. Smith said, “I think, no terms with the traitors, by God!” Grant slipped out of bed and drew on his outer garments. Then he took a sheet of tablet paper and began to write. When he had finished he handed it to Smith, who read it by firelight and pronounced abruptly, “By God, it couldn’t be better.”
Once more the truce party crossed the lines, headed now in the opposite direction as they picked their way to the Dover Inn, where Buckner was waiting to learn Grant’s terms. There had been considerable bustle in their absence. A steamboat had arrived in the night, bringing a final batch of 400 reinforcements who landed thus in time to be surrendered. Floyd commandeered the vessel for the evacuation of his brigade, four regiments from his native Virginia and one from Mississippi, the latter being assigned to guard the landing while the others got aboard. The first two regiments of Virginians had been deposited safely on the other shore; the boat had returned and the second pair were being loaded when word came from Buckner that surrender negotiations had been opened; all who were going must go at once. Floyd hurried aboard with his staff and gave the signal and the steamboat backed away, leaving the Mississippians howling ruefully on the bank.
Pillow had been less fortunate. The best transportation he could find was an abandoned scow, with barely room for himself and his chief of staff, and they were the only two from his command who got away in the night. Forrest, on the other hand, took not only all of his own men, but also a number of infantrymen who swung up behind the troopers, riding double across low stretches where the water was “saddle-skirt deep,” as Forrest said. He believed the whole army could have escaped by this route, the venture he had urged at the council of war, only to be overruled. “Not a gun [was] fired at us,” he reported. “Not an enemy [was] seen or heard.”
Sitting and waiting was the harder task, and it was Buckner’s. The first Confederate general to submit a request for surrender terms from an opponent, he knew what condemnation was likely to be heaped upon his head by his own people, who would see only that he had ordered his men to lay down their arms in the face of bloody fighting. Yet he took some consolation, and found much hope, in the fact that those terms would come from an old West Point comrade whom he had befriended in another time of trial, when the tide of fortune was running the other way. The truce messenger returned at last and handed him Grant’s reply:
Hd Qrs. Army in the Field
Camp near Donelson, Feby 16th
Gen. S. B. Buckner,
Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.
I propose to move immediately upon your works.
I am Sir: very respectfully
Your obt. sevt.
U. S. GRANT
This was not at all what Buckner had expected by way of return for favors past. Neither generous nor chivalrous, even aside from personal obligations, such “terms”—which were, in effect, hardly terms at all—were a far cry from those extended by Beauregard ten months ago at Sumter, back in what already seemed a different war entirely, when Anderson was allowed to salute his flag and march out under arms while the victors lined the beaches and stood uncovered to watch him go. Yet there was nothing Buckner could do about it; Floyd and Pillow had left—which might have been considered good riddance except that the former had taken four-fifths of his brigade, lengthening the odds—and Forrest was gone with his hard-hitting cavalry, which otherwise might have covered a retreat. All that remained was for Buckner to make a formal protest and submit. This he did, informing Grant that the scattering of his own troops, “and the overwhelming forces under your command, compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.”
By now it was broad open daylight. Receiving the message, Grant rode forward, past white flags stuck at intervals along the rebel line, into Dover where he found Lew Wallace already sharing a corn-bread-and-coffee breakfast with the Confederates at the inn. He joined the friendly discussion, and when Buckner remarked that if he had been in charge during the fighting, the Federals would not have got up to Donelson as easily as they had done, Grant replied that if such had been the case, “I should not have tried it the way I did.” Then he took over the inn as his own headquarters. Before sending Buckner north, however, he sought to make amends by offering his prisoner, who had done the same for him when the degrees of fortune and misfortune were reversed, the use of his purse. The Kentuckian declined it.
The actual surrender was accomplished without formality. One northern correspondent observed a marked difference between rebels from the border states and those from farther south. Moving among them he noted that the former “were not much sorry that the result was as it was,” while “those from the Gulf states were sour, not inclined to talk.” This only applied to the enlisted men, however. Without exception, he found the officers “spiteful as hornets.” By journalistic license, another reporter deduced from what he saw that the common people of the South cared very little which way the war ended, so long as it ended soon.
Sullen or friendly, spiteful or morose, men who had been shooting at each other a few hours ago now mingled on the field for which they had fought. Indeed, the occasion was so informal that some Confederates strolled unchallenged through the lines and got away. Bushrod Johnson, who was among those who made off in this manner, later declared: “I have not learned that a single one who attempted to escape met with any obstacle.” Apparently Grant, who at this one stroke had captured more prisoners than all the other Union generals combined, did not particularly care. “It is a much less job to take them than to keep them,” he said laconically. As for Pillow, he need not have been in such a hurry to escape, Grant told Buckner. “If I had captured him, I would have turned him loose. I would rather have him in command of you fellows than as a prisoner.”
Throughout the North, church bells rang in earnest this Sunday morning, louder even than they had done for Fort Henry, ten days back. Men embraced on the streets and continued to celebrate into the night by the glare of bonfires. The shame of Bull Run was erased. Indeed, some believed they saw in the smashing double victory the end of armed rebellion, the New York Times remarking: “After this, it certainly cannot be materially postponed. The monster is already clutched and in his death struggle.”
The nation had a new hero: U. S. Grant, who by an accident and a coincidence of initials now became “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. People had his message to Buckner by heart, and they read avidly of his life and looks in the papers: the features stern “as if carved from mahogany,” the clear blue eyes (or gray, some said) and aquiline nose, the strong jaw “squarely set, but not sensual.” One reporter saw three expressions in his face: “deep thought, extreme determination, and great simplicity and calmness.” Another saw significance in the way he wore his high-crowned hat: “He neither puts it on behind his ears, nor draws it over his eyes; much less does he cock it on one side, but sets it straight and very hard on his head.” People enjoyed reading of that, and also of the way he “would gaze at anyone who approached him with an inquiring air, followed by a glance of recollection and a grave nod of recognition.” On horseback, they read, “he sits firmly in the saddle and looks straight ahead, as if only intent on getting to some particular point.” The words “square” and “straight” and “firm” were the ones that appeared most often, and people liked them. Best of all, perhaps, they enjoyed hearing that Grant was “the concentration of all that is American. He talks bad grammar, but talks it naturally, as much as to say, ‘I was so brought up, and if I try fine phrases I shall only appear silly.’ ”
To them the whole campaign was an absolute marvel of generalship, a superb combination of simplicity and drive, in welcome contrast to all that had gone before in the West and was continuing in the East. They did not dissect it in search of flaws, did not consider that Grant had started behind schedule, that men had frozen to death because of a lax discipline which let them throw away coats and blankets in fair weather, that individual attacks had been launched without coördination and been bloodily repulsed, nor that the commanding general had been absent from his post for better than six critical hours while one of his divisions was being mauled, the other two having been barred by his own orders from lending assistance. They saw rather, the sweep and slam-bang power of a leader who marched on Wednesday, skirmished on Thursday, imperturbably watched his fleet’s repulse on Friday, fought desperately on Saturday, and received the fort’s unconditional surrender on Sunday. Undeterred by wretched weather, the advice of the tactics manuals, or the reported strength of the enemy position, he had inflicted about 2000 casualties and suffered about 3000 himself—which was as it should have been, considering his role as the attacker—and now there were something more than 12,000 rebel soldiers, the cream of Confederate volunteers, on their way to northern prison camps to await exchange for as many Union boys, who otherwise would have languished in southern prisons under the coming summer sun. People saw Grant as the author of this deliverance, the embodiment of the offensive spirit, the man who would strike and keep on striking until this war was won. Fifteen years ago, during a lull in the Mexican War, he had written home to the girl he was to marry: “If we have to fight, I would like to do it all at once and then make friends.” Apparently he still felt that way about it.
Church bells were ringing that Sunday morning in Nashville, too, though not in celebration. The celebration had come the night before, following the release of telegrams from Floyd and Pillow announcing “a victory complete and glorious.” Today, instead, they tolled the fall of Donelson, the loss of that whole wing of Johnston’s army, and the resultant necessity for abandoning the Tennessee capital.
All morning the remnants of Hardee’s 14,000, reduced to less than two-thirds of that by straggling and sickness during the icy retreat from Bowling Green, filed through the city, harrowing the populace with accounts of Buell’s bloodthirsty hordes closing fast upon their rear. Thus began a week of panic. Previously the war had seemed a far-off thing, over in Virginia or across the Mississippi or a hundred miles north in Kentucky. They had been too busy, or too confident, to fortify even the river approaches. Now that it was upon them with the abruptness of a pistol shot in a theater, they reacted variously. Some wept in numb despair. Others proposed to burn the city, “that the enemy might have nothing of it but the ashes.” Terrified by a rumor that Buell’s army and Foote’s gunboats would converge upon the city at 3 p.m. to shell it into submission, they milled about, loading their household goods onto carts and wagons. By that time a special train had left for Memphis, with Governor Harris and the state archives aboard. Later that afternoon, the Yankee soldiers and gunboats not having appeared, the mayor informed the crowd in the Public Square that Johnston had promised to make no stand in Nashville. He himself would go out to meet the Federals and surrender the city before they got there, the mayor told the frantic populace. Meanwhile they should calm their fears and stay at home. As a final mollification, he promised to distribute among them all the Confederate provisions that could not be removed by Johnston’s army.
This appeal to the greed of the people, while effective, was to have its consequences. Nashville warehouses were bulging with accumulated supplies, and it was Johnston’s task—though he had opposed this placing of all the army’s eggs in one basket—to save what he could before the Federals got there. Next morning, when Floyd and his brigade (minus the Mississippians) arrived by steamboat, Johnston put him in charge, while he himself continued the retreat with Hardee’s men. Floyd took over the railroads, commandeered what few wagons remained, and in general did what he could. The panic had lessened somewhat since the nonarrival of the Federals, but a lurid glare against the northern sky and the clang of firebells in the night caused its resurgence until the people learned that the reflection, which they had feared might be from torches carried by an army of Yankee incendiaries, was from the hulls of two unfinished Confederate gunboats ordered burned in the yards.
Next day Floyd continued his efforts to save the stores. It was unpleasant work, the citizens growing more mutinous every hour—especially after the destruction, over their protest, of their two fine bridges across the Cumberland. Floyd was greatly relieved when Forrest arrived from Donelson on Wednesday, under orders to assist him in the salvaging of government supplies: so relieved, in fact, that next morning he marched his brigade away, and left the task to Forrest and his troopers.
Instructed to stay there one more day, unless Buell arrived sooner, Forrest stayed four. His iron hand snatched order out of chaos. Rifling machinery and other ordnance equipment, rare items in the Confederacy, were sent from the gun foundry to Atlanta. A quarter-million pounds of bacon and hundreds of wagonloads of clothing, flour, and ammunition were hauled to the railroad station for shipment south. The people, seeing this new efficiency and remembering that they had been promised what was left, sought to interfere by gathering in front of the warehouses. Forrest appealed to their patriotism, and when that did not work, ordered his mounted men to lay about with the flat of their sabers, which worked better. One large mob, in front of a warehouse on the Public Square, was dispersed by the use of fire hoses squirting ice-cold muddy water from the river, and as one of the crowd remembered it later, this had “a magical effect.”
All day Thursday and Friday and Saturday, Forrest and his troopers worked, on into Sunday morning, when blue pickets appeared on the north bank of the river. Mindful of his instructions to leave Nashville an open city, Forrest fell back through the suburbs, marching to join Johnston and Hardee, who by now were at Murfreesboro, forty miles southeast. The Army of Central Kentucky—or what was left of it, anyhow—would have to find a new name.
Nashville’s “Great Panic,” as it was called thereafter, had lasted precisely a week, though by way of anticlimax one ignominy remained. True to his promise to the people, the mayor got in a rowboat and crossed the river to deliver the city into the hands of the Yankees before they opened fire with their long-range guns. He found no guns, however, and few soldiers: only half a squad of cavalry and one Ohio captain, who, after some persuasion, agreed to receive the surrender of the city, or at any rate not to attack it. The mayor returned and announced this deliverance to the citizens, who thus were relieved of a measure of their fears—most of which had been groundless in the first place. Buell was still a long way off, toiling down the railroad and the turnpike, repairing washed-out bridges as he came. Grant remained at Donelson, receiving reinforcements. Before the end of the week he had upwards of 30,000 men in four divisions, one of which had been advanced to Clarksville. “Nashville would be an easy conquest,” he wrote Halleck’s chief of staff, “but I only throw this out as a suggestion.… I am ready for any move the general commanding may order.” The general commanding ordered nothing; Grant stayed where he was.
Buell, in fact, did not reach Nashville until Wednesday, though several outfits had come on ahead. A reporter with one of the earliest wrote of what they found. All the stores and most of the better homes were closed; the State House was deserted, the legislators having fled with the governor to Memphis, which had been declared the temporary capital. The correspondent found the door of the leading hotel bolted, and when he rang there was no answer. He kept on ringing, with the persistency of a tired and hungry man within reach of food and a clean bed. At last he was rewarded. A Negro swung the door ajar and stood there smiling broadly. “Massa done gone souf,” he said, still grinning.
Inauguration day broke cold and sullen in Richmond, with a scud of cloud that promised and then delivered rain, first a drizzle, then a steady downpour, hissing and gurgling in the gutters and thrumming against roofs and windowpanes. Davis rose early, as was his custom. Not due at the ceremonies until 11.30, he walked first to his office for an hour of the paperwork which filled so large a share of his existence, then back home. His wife, coming to warn him that the dignitaries were waiting to escort him to the Capitol, found him alone on his knees in the bedroom, praying “for the divine support I need so sorely.” That too had been his custom since his first inauguration a year ago, under a cloudless Alabama sky.
The procession formed in the old Virginia Hall of Delegates, then moved out onto Capitol Square where a canopied platform had been set up alongside the equestrian statue of Washington, whose birthday this was. Grouped about the President-elect were cabinet officers, admirals and generals, governors and congressmen, newspaper representatives and members of various benevolent societies. Beside him stood Vice President Stephens, undersized and sickly, huddled in layers of clothes and resembling more than ever a mummified child. Asked once to define true happiness, Stephens had replied without hesitation, “To be warm.” He was not happy now, presumably, for a cold rain fell in sheets, blown under the canopy by intermittent gusts of northern wind. When the Right Reverend John Johns, Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, raised his arms to pronounce the invocation, his lawn sleeves hung limp and his heavy satin vestments were splotched with wet. Close-packed, the crowd stood and took its drenching, conscious of being present at a historic occasion. Some held strips of canvas or worn carpet over their heads, but there were enough umbrellas to give the square what one witness called “the effect of an immense mushroom bed.” They could hear few of the words above the impact of the rain. They saw Davis take the oath, however, and they knew they had a permanent President at last. When he bent forward to kiss the Book a shout went up. Then they quieted. The drumming of the rain was loud as he turned to address them.
He was thinner and even more austere in appearance, the cheekbones brought into greater prominence and the eyes sunk even deeper in their sockets; “singularly imposing,” one witness found him today, albeit with “a pallor painful to look upon.” He wore a suit of black for the ceremonies instead of his customary gray, so that to Mrs Davis he seemed “a willing victim going to his funeral pyre.” Her thoughts had been directed into such channels by an occurrence on the way. Observing that the carriage moved at a snail’s pace, accompanied by a quartet of black-suited Negro footmen wearing white cotton gloves, she asked the coachman, to whom she had left the arrangements, what it meant. He told her, “This, ma’am, is the way we always does in Richmond at funerals and sichlike.”
A year ago there had been no talk of funerals; “joyous” was the word Davis had used to describe the atmosphere on the day of his first inaugural. It was not so now. The outlook was as different as the weather. Nor did he assume a falsely joyous manner on this second occasion of taking the oath as President of the Confederacy. After referring to the birthday of the Virginian who looked out from his bronze horse nearby, he once more outlined and defended the course of events which had led to secession, characterizing the North as barbarous and expressing scorn for the “military despotism” which had “our enemies” in its grip. All this was as it had been before, but soon he passed to words that touched the present:
“A million men, it is estimated, are now standing in hostile array and waging war along a frontier of thousands of miles. Battles have been fought, sieges have been conducted, and although the contest is not ended and the tide for the moment is against us, the final result in our favor is not doubtful. We have had our trials and difficulties. That we are to escape them in the future is not to be hoped. It was to be expected when we entered upon this war that it would expose our people to sacrifices and cost them much, both of money and blood. But the picture has its lights as well as its shadows. This great strife has awakened in the people the highest emotions and qualities of the human soul. It was, perhaps, in the ordination of Providence that we were to be taught the value of our liberties by the price we pay for them. The recollection of this great contest, with all its common traditions of glory, of sacrifice and blood, will be the bond of harmony and enduring affection amongst the people, producing unity in policy, fraternity in sentiment, and just effort in war.”
An invocation had opened the proceedings. Now another closed them. Davis lifted his hands and eyes to heaven as he spoke the final words. “My hope is reverently fixed on Him whose favor is ever vouchsafed to the cause which is just. With humble gratitude and adoration, acknowledging the Providence which has so visibly protected the Confederacy during its brief but eventful career, to Thee, O God, I trustingly commit myself and prayerfully invoke Thy blessing on my country and its cause.”
Under the spell of that closing prayer, the people dispersed in silence and good order, “as though they had attended divine service,” one remarked. Later, however, away from the magic of his voice and presence, they doubted that there was “unity in policy” or “fraternity in sentiment” or “just effort” in the prosecution of the war. Prompted by hostile editors, whose critiques of the address came out in their papers the following day—along with the news from Donelson and Nashville announcing the loss of Kentucky and most of Tennessee—they began to consider not only what he had said, but also what he had not said. He had outlined no future policy for raising the blockade, whose pinch was already being felt, or for overcoming the recent military reverses. Though his words were obviously spoken as much for foreign as for domestic ears, he had not foretold international recognition or the receiving of assistance from abroad. Except in vague and general terms, including the closing appeal to the Almighty, he had announced no single plan for coming to grips with the host of calamities they knew were included in his admission that “the tide for the moment is against us.”
The fact that he refrained from explicit mention of these reverses did not mean that the people were unaware of them. They knew all too well that even a bare listing would have doubled the length of his address. Foremost among the disappointments, at least to men who took a long view of the chance for victory, was the failure of Confederate diplomacy. Original computations had shown that, before spring, England would have begun to suffer from the cotton famine which would bring her to her knees. Yet the looms and jennies, spinning away at the surplus bulging the warehouses, had not slowed. Ironically, the shortage there was not in cotton, but in wheat, the result of a crop failure in the British Isles. They were buying it now by the shipload from the North, which had harvested a bumper crop with its new McCormick reapers: another example of what it meant to fight a race of “pasty-faced mechanics.”
Back at the outset, Southerners had predicted that the great Northwest—meaning Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, along with northern Illinois and Indiana—would be pro-Confederate because of its need for an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. Some who lived there had thought so, too. The Detroit Free Press had declared at the time: “If troops shall be raised in the North to march against the people of the South, a fire in the rear will be opened against such troops, which will either stop their march altogether or wonderfully accelerate it.” But events had not worked out that way at all. The men of Grant’s army were mostly from that region, and they had been accelerated, not by any “fire in the rear,” but rather by an intense concern that the Union be preserved. Then too, instead of working an economic hardship, as the Southerners had predicted, the war had provided the farmers of the area with a new and profitable market for their wheat. The Northwest had not only stood by the Union; it was growing rich from having done so.
To some, this one among the many was the greatest disappointment of them all. The main hope of redress was that foreign intervention would be won by the new team of professional diplomats, Mason and Slidell, who had made a spectacular entry into the field. Yet here, too, there was disappointment. After serving the South so well from their cells in Boston Harbor, they were proving far less useful now in freedom at their posts. They stepped onto the London railway platform as if into obscurity, unwelcomed and unnoticed save by the late friendly Times, which announced their arrival with the following observations: “We sincerely hope that our countrymen will not give these fellows anything in the shape of an ovation. The civility that is due to a foe in distress is all that they can claim. The only reason for their presence in London is to draw us into their own quarrel. The British public has no prejudice in favor of slavery, which these gentlemen represent. What they and their secretaries are to do here passes our experience. They are personally nothing to us. They must not suppose, because we have gone to the verge of a great war to rescue them, that they are precious in our eyes.”
Bitter as it was for Mason to see himself and his partner referred to as unprecious “fellows,” the reception he received from the Foreign Minister dampened his spirits even more. Ushered into the presence, he was about to present his credentials when his lordship checked him: “That is unnecessary, since our relations are unofficial.” Icily polite, but disinclined to enter into any discussion of policy, the most Earl Russell ventured was the hope that Mason would find his visit “agreeable.” In parting he did not express the hope that they might meet again. This was the treatment Yancey had broken under, and the Virginian took it scarcely better, reporting: “On the whole it was manifest enough that his personal sympathies were not with us.”
Slidell, continuing his voyage across the channel, also encountered conditions which had plagued his predecessor. Unlike Mason, he had no difficulty in securing audiences. He got about as many as he wanted, and Eugénie was obviously charmed—a fact which he reported with some pride—but Napoleon would only repeat what he had said before: France could not act without England. That was the crux of the matter. The Crimean War had been a struggle between West and East, which the West had won, and now in the normal course of events, as demonstrated by history, the victors should have turned upon each other for domination of the whole. Yet it had not worked out that way. There was no such tenuous balance as had obtained at the time of the American Revolution, bringing France to the assistance of the Colonies. On the contrary, the entente remained strong, drawing its strength from the weakness of Napoleon, whose shaky finances and doubtful popularity would not allow him to risk bringing all of Europe down on his unprotected back. Slidell could only inform his government of these conditions. It began to seem that, economically and politically—so far at least as Europe was concerned—the South had chosen the wrong decade in which to make her bid for independence.
Like others who took the long view, seeing foreign intervention as the one quick indisputable solution to the Confederacy’s being outnumbered and outgunned and outmachined, Davis received this latest news from abroad with whatever grace and patience he could muster. He could wait—though by the hardest. Meantime he had other, more immediate problems here at home, within his own official family: in evidence of which, as even the short-view men could see, the chief post in his cabinet was vacant. The Secretary of State had left in a huff that very week.
At the time when he accepted the appointment, Hunter had announced that he intended to be a responsible and independent official, not just “the clerk of Mr Davis.” As Virginia’s favorite-son candidate at the Democratic convention of 1860, he had his political dignity to consider. Besides, in the early days of the secession movement, when it was thought that the Old Dominion would be among the first to go, he had been slated for the presidency of the impending Confederacy. Virginia had held back and he had missed it; but there was still the future to keep his eye on, and his dignity to be maintained. The result was a personality clash with Davis, a build-up of bad feeling which reached a climax during a general cabinet discussion of the military situation. When Hunter expressed an opinion on the subject, Davis told him: “Mr Hunter, you are Secretary of State, and when information is wished of that department it will be time for you to speak.” The Virginian’s resignation was on the presidential desk next morning.
Davis of course accepted it. He made no appointment to fill the post immediately, however. Vacant for a week at the time of the inauguration, it would remain so for three more. The man he had in mind was too deeply embroiled in other matters, filling another cabinet position, to be considered available just yet. And this was one more item which might have been included in any listing of reverses.
As Secretary of War, the rotund, smiling Judah P. Benjamin had been under fire almost since the day of his appointment: not under actual bombardment from the enemy beyond the gates, but rather from the plain citizens and congressmen within, whose ire was aroused by his summary treatment of the nation’s military heroes, coming as they did under the jurisdiction of his department. Benjamin had no such notion as Hunter’s concerning the duties of his post. As head of the War Department he considered himself quite literally the President’s secretary for military affairs, and it did not irk him at all to be tagged “the clerk of Mr Davis.” The field of arms was one of the few that had not previously engaged the interest of this myriad-minded man, whereas Davis, a West Pointer and a Mexican War hero, had been the ablest Secretary the Federal War Department ever had. Benjamin’s duty, as he saw it—and here the two men’s concepts coincided—was to execute the will and, if necessary, defend the actions of his Commander in Chief. Besides, he saw Davis’s needs, the desire for warmth behind his iciness, the ache for understanding behind his stiff austerity. Judah Benjamin was one of the few who perceived this, or at any rate one of the few—like Mrs Davis—who acted on it, and in doing so he not only made himself pleasant; in time he also made himself indispensable. That was his reward. He gained the President’s gratitude, and with it the unflinching loyalty which Davis always gave in return for loyalty received.
Whatever he lacked in the knowledge of arms as a profession, he brought to his job a considerable facility in the handling of administrative matters. Unlike Walker, who had fumed and stewed in tangles of red tape and never got from under the avalanche of army paperwork, Benjamin would clear his desk with dispatch, then sit back smiling, ready for what came next. What came next, as often as not, was an opportunity for exercising his talent in dialectics. Here his skill was admittedly superior—“uncanny,” some called it, and they spoke resentfully; for by the precision of his logic he could lead men where they would not go, making them seem clumsy in the process. In taking up his superior’s quarrels with the generals on the Manassas line—which seemed to him one of the duties of his post—he gave full play to his talents in this direction, undeterred by awe for the military mind. That was what had caused Beauregard to reach for his pen in such a frenzy, writing with ill-concealed irony of the pity he felt, “from the bottom of my heart,” for any man who could not see “the difference between patriotism, the highest civic virtue, and office-seeking, the lowest civic occupation.” It was Benjamin he meant. But in making the charge the general entered a field where his fellow Louisianian was master; and presently he went West.
Even more vulnerable in this respect, though banishment did not follow so close on the heels of contention, was Joseph E. Johnston. After Johnston’s protest at being outranked, and Davis’s quick slash in reply, Benjamin took up the cudgel for his chief. Johnston was a careless administrator, and whenever he lapsed in this regard, the Secretary took him to task with a letter that prickled his sensitive pride. Infuriated, the general would reply in kind, only to be brought up short by another missive which proved him even further in the wrong. A later observer wrote that Benjamin treated the Virginian as if he were “an adversary at the bar,” but sometimes it was worse; he dealt with him as if he were a prisoner in the dock. Johnston’s outraged protests against such treatment did him no more good than Beauregard’s had done. Once when the Creole complained to Davis that the Secretary’s tone was offensive and that he was being “put into the strait jackets of the law,” the President replied: “I do not feel competent to instruct Mr Benjamin in the matter of style. There are few whom the public would probably believe fit for the task.” As for the second objection, “You surely do not intend to inform me that your army and yourself are outside the limits of the law. It is my duty to see that the laws are faithfully executed and I cannot recognize the pretensions of anyone that their restraint is too narrow for him.”
Exalted thus at the expense of those who attempted to match wits with him, Benjamin continued to maintain order at headquarters and to ride herd on recalcitrants among the military. Then, unexpectedly, he ran full tilt into a man who had no use for dialectics, who stood instead on his own ground and gave the Secretary his first check. T. J. Jackson, called “Stonewall” since Manassas, had been promoted to major general in the fall and assigned to command a division in the Shenandoah Valley, from which strategic location he had proposed that he be reinforced for an all-out invasion of the North. Having just rejected a similar proposal from Beauregard at Centerville, the Administration would send him no reinforcements, but attached to his command the three brigades of W. W. Loring, the one professional in the quartet who had tried the patience and damaged the reputation of R. E. Lee in West Virginia. Told to accomplish what he could with this total force of about 9000, Jackson launched on New Year’s Day a movement designed to recover the counties flanking the western rim of the Valley theater.
The first phase of the campaign went as planned. Marching in bitter midwinter weather, Jackson’s men harried the B & O Railroad, captured enemy stores, and in general created havoc among the scattered Federal camps. This done, Stonewall stationed Loring’s troops at Romney, on the upper Potomac, and took the others back to Winchester, thirty-odd miles eastward, to begin the second phase. Just what that would have been remained a mystery, for Jackson was a most secretive man, agreeing absolutely with Frederick II’s remark, “If I thought my coat knew my plans I would take it off and burn it.” He did say, however, that he left the attached brigades on outpost duty because his own were better marchers and could move more swiftly toward any threatened point. Loring’s volunteers did not subscribe to this. Rather, it was their belief that Stonewall was demented. (They saw various symptoms of this—including the fact that he never took pepper in his food, on grounds that it gave him pains in his left leg.) And so were his men, for that matter, since they had a habit of cheering him on the march. Exposed as they were to the elements and the possible swoop of Federal combinations, Loring and his officers petitioned the War Department to withdraw them from their uncomfortable position. On the next to last day of January, Jackson received the following dispatch signed by Benjamin: “Our news indicates that a movement is being made to cut off General Loring’s command. Order him back to Winchester immediately.”
Jackson promptly complied with the order. Acknowledging its receipt and reporting its execution, the next day he addressed the War Department: “With such interference in my command I cannot expect to be of much service in the field,” wherefore he asked to be returned to his teaching job at V.M.I., or else “I respectfully request that the President will accept my resignation from the army.” The letter went through channels to Johnston, who forwarded it regretfully to Richmond. He too had been by-passed, and he told Benjamin: “Let me suggest that, having broken up the dispositions of the military commander, you give whatever other orders may be necessary.”
Eventually the trouble was smoothed over and Jackson’s resignation returned to him, Governor Letcher and various congressmen exerting all the pressure of their influence, but not before violent recriminations had been heaped on the head of the smiling Secretary, especially by Stonewall’s fellow officers. Tom Cobb of Georgia, a brigadier in the Virginia army, stated flatly: “A grander rascal than this Jew Benjamin does not exist in the Confederacy and I am not particular in concealing my opinion of him.” Nor were others particular in that respect, their fury being increased when Loring was promoted in mid-February and taken from under the stern control of Jackson, who had recommended that he be cashiered.
Benjamin kept smiling through it all, though by then the indestructibility of his smile was being tested even further. Previous recriminations had come mainly from army men, outraged at his interfering in tactical matters. Now he was being condemned by the public at large, and for a lack of similar interference.
Down on the North Carolina coast, set one above the other, Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds were divided by a low-lying marshy peninsula. At its eastern tip, where the jut of land approached the narrow sands of the breakwater guarding the coast from the gales that blew so frequently off Hatteras, lay Roanoke Island, the site of Raleigh’s “Lost Colony” and birthplace of the first English child born in the Western Hemisphere. Just now, however, this boggy tract had an importance beyond the historic. Pamlico, the lower and larger sound, had fallen to Stringham’s gunboats back in August; Albemarle could be taken, too, once the narrows flanking the island had been forced. Loss of the lower sound had given the Federals a year-round anchorage and access to New Bern, principal eastern depot on the vital railroad supply line to Richmond and the armies in Virginia. That was bad enough, though the invaders had not yet exploited it, but loss of the upper sound would expose Norfolk and Gosport Navy Yard to attack from the rear. This would be worse than bad; it would be tragic, for the Confederates had things going on in the navy yard that would not bear interruption. The focal point for its defense, as anyone could see, was Roanoke Island. Situated north of all four barrier inlets, it was like a loose-fitting cork plugging the neck of a bottle called Albemarle Sound. Nothing that went by water could get in there without going past the cork.
One who saw this clearly was Henry Wise. Still seething from his defeat in West Virginia at the hands of his fellow ex-governor Floyd, he arrived and took command of the island forces in late December. He entered upon his duties with his usual enthusiasm. By the time he was halfway through his first inspection, however, he saw that the cork was not only loose, but also apt to crumble under pressure. Little had been done to block the passes, either by driving pilings or by sinking obstructions in the channel. What was worse, the water batteries were badly sited, clustered up at the northern end of the island as if in expectation of attack from that direction after Norfolk fell, while the southern end, giving down upon Pamlico Sound—which the enemy fleet had held for four months now—was left open to amphibious assault. In the face of this threat Wise had a garrison of about 2500 men, fewer than he believed were necessary to slow, let alone halt, such an attack once the Federals got ashore. Yet he was no defeatist. He got to work, driving pilings and sinking hulks in the channel, and called on the district commander at Norfolk, Major General Benjamin Huger, for additional artillery and ammunition, pile drivers, supplies of every kind, and especially more soldiers. A fifty-six-year-old South Carolina aristocrat, West Pointer and Chief of Ordnance under Scott in Mexico, Huger was placid in manner and deliberate in judgment. He had never inspected the island defenses, but he replied to Wise’s requisitions by recommending “hard work and coolness among the troops you have, instead of more men.”
Being told to keep cool only lowered Wise’s boiling point, which was reached when Flag Officer William F. Lynch, of the Confederate navy, commandeered all his work boats except a single tug, converting them to one-gun gunboats. A “mosquito fleet,” Wise dubbed the result in derision, and left for Norfolk to protest in person. When Huger still gave him no satisfaction, he set out for Richmond, where he had influential friends bound to him during years of politics. He would appeal directly to the Secretary of War. This was contrary to Army Regulations, he knew; to go was to risk court martial. But he believed the situation justified irregularity. “Damn the execution, sir!” he had cried in West Virginia; “it’s the sound that we want.” As tactics, this could be applied to more than field artillery.
Arriving January 19 he stayed three days; but he got nowhere with the Secretary. Already Benjamin had replied to his urgent demands for cannon powder by informing him that the Confederacy’s “very limited” reserve was being saved for use at more closely threatened points. “At the first indication, however, of an attack on Roanoke Island,” he wrote, “a supply will be sent you.” Wise replied that there was no more closely threatened point and that once the assault had begun it would be too late, but the Secretary had considered the matter closed. Now, face to face with Benjamin in Richmond, the Virginian fared no better in his plea for powder. Nor did he get reinforcements. When he pointed out that Huger had 13,000 men lying idle around Norfolk, the Secretary, obviously preferring the military judgment of the professionally trained senior to that of the politically appointed subordinate, shrugged and said that he supposed the district commander knew best. He would not interfere.
Wise remained in town, complaining vociferously to his high-placed friends until the 22d, when a dispatch arrived from Commander Lynch announcing symptoms of an enemy build-up and attack: whereupon Benjamin, doubtless glad to be rid of him, issued a peremptory order for the general to go back to his island post. Bad weather and transportation difficulties delayed his return till the end of the month. On the 31st—while Stonewall Jackson was composing his resignation out in the Valley—the distraught Wise, his condition aggravated by the frustration of trying to get someone to realize the weakness of his tactical position, took to his bed with a severe attack of pleurisy.
He was still there a week later when the all-out Federal amphibious assault was launched, just as he had said it would be, against the undefended south end of the island.
In his search for someone who understood the difficulties and dangers of his assignment Wise was cut off from the one person who, next to himself, appreciated them best. The trouble was, the man wore blue and exercised his authority on the other side of the line.
Ambrose Burnside had not gone home with his Rhode Islanders when they were mustered out in early August, two weeks after crossing Bull Run as the fist of the roundhouse right McDowell had swung at Beauregard in an effort to end the war on the plains of Manassas. He had tried civilian life as a businessman a few years back and, failing, hadn’t liked it. Now, at thirty-seven, an Indiana-born West Pointer and a veteran of the Mexican War, he accepted promotion to brigadier and stayed on in the service. A tall, rather stout, energetic man with large features and dark-socketed eyes, he made up for his premature baldness with a fantastic set of whiskers describing a double parabola from in front of his ears, down over his chops, and up across his mouth. This was his trademark, a half-ruff of facial hair standing out in dark-brown contrast to his shaven jowls and chin. Affecting the casual in his dress—low-slung holster, loose-fitting knee-length double-breasted jacket, and wide-brimmed bell-crowned soft felt hat—he was something of a pistol-slapper, but likable all the same for his hearty manner and open nature, his forthright, outgoing friendliness. McClellan liked him, at any rate, and called him “Dear Burn” in letters. So that when Burnside approached him in the fall with a plan for the seizure of coastal North Carolina, completing what had been begun at Hatteras Inlet and opening thereby a second front in the Confederate rear, the general-in-chief was attentive and said he would like to see it submitted in writing. Burnside did so, expanding his original plan, and McClellan liked it even more. He indorsed it, got the Secretary of War to give it top priority, and told the Hoosier general to go ahead, the quicker the better.
The Burnside Expedition, as it was designated, was assembled and ready for action by early January, Annapolis being the staging area for its 13,000 troops and 80 vessels. Grouped into three divisions under brigadiers who had been cadets with their commander at West Point—J. G. Foster, Jesse L. Reno, John G. Park; “three of my most trusted friends,” he called them—the men were mostly rock-ribbed New Englanders, “many of whom would be familiar with the coasting trade, and among whom would be found a goodly number of mechanics.” The naval components of this task force, under Rear Admiral Louis M. Goldsborough, a big, slack-bodied regular of the type called “barnacles,” had no such homogeneity. In addition to twenty light-draft gunboats armed with cannon salvaged from the armories of various navy yards, there was a rickety lot of sixty-odd transports and supply ships, including tugs, ferries, converted barges, and flat-bottomed river steamers: a conglomeration, in short, of whatever could be scraped together by purchasing agents combing northern rivers and harbors for vessels rejected by agents who had come and gone before them. The only characteristic they shared was that they all drew less than eight feet of water, the reported high-tide depth across the bar at Hatteras Inlet.
This was the cause of much grumbling at the outset. Seafaring men among the soldiers took one look at the shallow-draft transports and shook their heads. At the worst, they had volunteered for getting shot at, not drowned—which was what they believed would happen, once those tubs reached open water. Burnside answered the grumbling by taking the smallest, least seaworthy craft of the lot for his headquarters boat. Thus reassured, or anyhow reproached, the troops filed onto the transports, and on the morning of the 9th the flotilla steamed out of the harbor to rendezvous next day off Fort Monroe. On the 11th, clearing Hampton Roads, the skippers broke open their sealed orders and steered south.
The near-mutiny among his sea-going soldiers at the outset was only the first of Burnside’s troubles. In fact, the method by which he had quelled the grumbling almost cost him his life the following night, when the fleet ran into a gale off Hatteras. The dinky little headquarters boat got into the trough of the sea and nearly foundered. As he remembered it years later, still somewhat queasy from the experience, everything not securely lashed above-decks was swept overboard, while “men, furniture, and crockery below decks were thrown about in a most promiscuous manner.” Eventually, her steersman brought her head- to and she rode the storm out, staggering up and down the mast-high waves to arrive next morning off Hatteras Inlet, the entrance to Pamlico Sound, where an even worse shock awaited him.
The water through there was not eight feet deep, as he had been told, but six: which barred many of his vessels from a share in the expedition as effectively as if they had been sunk by enemy action. Here was where the “goodly number of mechanics, … familiar with the coasting trade,” stood their commander in good stead. The tide running swift above the swash, they sent several of the larger ships full-speed-ahead to ground on the bar, and held them there with tugs and anchors while the racing current washed the sand from under their bottoms. It was a slow process, bumping them forward length by length; but it worked. By early February a broad eight-foot channel had been cut and the fleet assembled safely in the sound. On the 4th, after a conference with the flag officer, Burnside gave his brigadiers detailed instructions for the landing on Roanoke Island. Another two-day blow delayed it, but on the morning of the 7th, a fine, clear day with sunshine bright on the placid, sapphire water, the fleet steamed forward in attack formation.
Still suffering from the multiple pangs of pleurisy and frustration, Wise had been confined all this time at Nags Head, the Confederate command post on the sandy rim of Albemarle Sound, just opposite the north end of the island. He knew what was coming, and even how, though until now he had not realized the strength of the blow the Federals were aiming. Goldsborough’s warships were out in front, mounting a total of 64 guns, eager to take on the seven makeshift rebel vessels, each mounting a single 32-pounder rifle. Behind the Yankee gunboats came the transports, crowded with 13,000 assault troops ready to swarm ashore and try their strength against the island’s fewer than 3000 defenders. The mosquito fleet took station in front of the uncompleted line of pilings Wise had started driving across the channel, but when the Federals roared and bore down on them belching smoke and flame from 9-inch guns and 100-pounder rifles, they scurried back through the gap and out of range, leaving the water batteries to take up the defense.
There were two of these, both up toward the northern end of the island, and while the warships took them under fire the transports dropped anchor three miles astern and began unloading troops for the landing at Ashby’s Harbor, midway up the island’s ten-mile length. The first boats hit the beach at 4 o’clock. All this time the duel between the gunboats and the batteries continued, with more noise than damage on either side. At sundown the mosquito fleet attempted a darting attack that was repulsed about as soon as it began. By midnight all the troops were ashore. The undefended southern half of the island had been secured without the infantry firing a shot. Drenched by a chill rain, they tried to get what sleep they could before the dawn advance, knowing that tomorrow would be tougher.
Down the boggy center of the island, a little more than a mile from the opposite beaches, ran a causeway. Astride this backbone of defense the Confederates had placed a three-gun battery supported by infantry and flanked by quicksand marshes judged impenetrable. To advance along the causeway toward those guns would be like walking up a hardwood alley toward a bowler whose only worry was running out of balls before the advancer ran out of legs. Yet there was no other way, and the men of both armies knew it: Burnside as well as anyone, for he had been briefed for the landing by a twenty-year-old contraband who had run away from his island master the week before and was thoroughly familiar with the dispositions for defense. Instructing Foster to charge straight up the causeway while Reno and Park were probing the boggy flanks, Burnside put all three brigades into line and sent them forward as soon as the light was full.
Right off, the center brigade ran into murderous head-on fire. Bowled over and pinned down, they were hugging the sandy embankment and wondering what came next, when off to the right and left fronts they heard simultaneous whoops of exultation. The flank brigades had made it through the knee-deep ooze and slush of the “impenetrable” marsh. While the rebel cannoneers tried frantically to turn their guns to meet these attacks from opposite and unexpected directions, the men along the causeway jumped up, whooping too, and joined the charge. The battery was quickly overrun.
With the fall of the three-gun battery the island’s defenses collapsed of a broken backbone. Burnside’s infantry broke into the clear, taking the water batteries in reverse while the fleet continued its bombardment from the channel. By midafternoon the Confederates had retreated as far as they could go. Corralled on the northern tip of the island, their ammunition exhausted, they laid down their arms. Casualties had been relatively light on both sides: 264 for the attackers, 143 for the defenders. The difference came in the fruits of victory; 2675 soldiers and 32 cannon were surrendered, losses which the South could ill afford. Best of all, from the northern point of view, Burnside had won control of North Carolina’s inland sea, thereby tightening the blockade one hard twist more, opening a second front in the Virginia army’s rear, gaining access to the back door to Norfolk, and arousing the immediate apprehension of every rebel posted within gunshot of salt water. No beach was safe. This newly bred amphibious beast, like some monster out of mythology—half Army, half Navy: an improbable, unholy combination if ever there was one—might come splashing and roaring ashore at any point from here on down.
North and south the news went out and men reacted. In New York, Horace Greeley swung immediately to the manic, celebrating the double conquest of Roanoke Island and Fort Henry even as Grant was knocking at the gates of Donelson: “The cause of the Union now marches on in every section of the country. Every blow tells fearfully against the rebellion. The rebels themselves are panic-stricken, or despondent. It now requires no very far-reaching prophet to predict the end of this struggle.”
In Richmond, as elsewhere throughout the Confederacy and among her representatives overseas, the spirits of men were correspondingly grim. As if in confirmation of Greeley’s paean in the Tribune, letters came from Mason and Slidell. The former wrote from London that “the late reverses … have had an unfortunate effect upon the minds of our friends here.” The latter wrote from Paris: “I need not say how unfavorable an influence these defeats, following in such quick succession, have produced in public sentiment. If not soon counterbalanced by some decisive success of our arms, we may not only bid adieu to all hopes of seasonable recognition, but must expect that the declaration of the inefficiency of the blockade, to which I had looked forward with great confidence at no distant day, will be indefinitely postponed.”
These were hard lines for Davis on the eve of his inaugural, but he had other reactions to deal with, nearer and far more violent. Norfolk was in turmoil—with good cause. Lynch’s mosquito fleet, attempting to make a stand against Goldsborough’s gunboats at the mouth of the Pasquotank River, was wrecked in short order, six of the seven vessels being captured, rammed, blown up, or otherwise sunk. Only one made its escape up the river and through the Dismal Swamp Canal to Norfolk, barely forty miles away, bringing wild stories of the destruction it had run from and predicting that Norfolk was next on the monster’s list. The consternation which followed this report was hardly calmed by the arrival of Wise, who, convalescent from pleurisy, had made his escape by marching up the breakwater from Nags Head. “Nothing! Nothing!! Nothing!!!” he proclaimed. “That was the disease which brought disaster at Roanoke Island.” Thus he shook whatever confidence the citizens had managed to retain in Huger, who was charged with their defense.
The city seethed with rumors of doom, and the panic spread quickly up the James to Richmond. Davis met it as he had met the East Tennessee crisis early that winter. Five days after the inaugural in which he had excoriated Lincoln for doing the same thing, and scorned the northern populace for putting up with it, he suspended the privilege of habeas corpus in the Norfolk area, placing the city under martial law. Two days later, March 1, Richmond itself was gripped by the iron hand.
This action added fuel to the fire already raging in certain breasts. Taking their cue from Wise, who was vociferous in accusation, the people put the blame where he pointed: squarely at the Secretary of War. Benjamin took it as he took everything, blandly. “To do the Secretary justice,” one observer wrote, “he bore the universal attack with admirable good nature and sang froid.” More than that, “to all appearances, equally secure in his own views and indifferent to public odium, he passed from reverse to reverse with perfectly bland manner and un-wearying courtesy.”
The principal charge against him was that he had failed, despite repeated pleas, to supply the island defenders with powder for their cannon. He had the best possible answer to this: that there was and had been none to send. But to admit as much would have been to encourage his country’s enemies and alienate the Europeans considering recognition and support. The Louisianian kept silent under attack and abuse, and Davis was given further proof of his loyalty and devotion to the cause. However, his very urbanity was more infuriating to his foes than any defense or counterattack he might have made. The Richmond Examiner was irked into commenting acidly, “The Administration has now an opportunity of making some reputation; for, nothing being expected of it, of course every success will be clear gain.” Plainly, the ultimate sacrifice was called for. Benjamin had to go.
He had to go, but not from the cabinet entirely. That would be a loss which Davis believed the nation could not afford. At any rate he could not. And though, as always, he would not attempt to justify or even explain his action—would not say to the hostile editors and fuming politicians, “Let me keep this man; I need him”—he found a way to keep him: a way, however, that infuriated his critics even more.
The post of Secretary of State had been vacant since Hunter left in a huff the month before. Davis had kept it so, with this in mind. Now in mid-March the Permanent Congress, which had convened four days before his inauguration, received for confirmation the name of the man he wanted appointed to fill the vacancy: Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana, former Attorney General and present Secretary of War. Some in that body called the move audacious. Others called it impudent. Whatever it was, Davis had the devotion of the people and the personal support of a majority of the legislators, and he was willing to risk them both, here and now, to get what he believed both he and the Confederacy needed to win the war and establish independence. And he got it. Despite the gasps of outrage and cries of indignation, Benjamin was quickly confirmed as head of the State Department and thus assured a voice in the nation’s councils, a seat at the right hand of Jefferson Davis.
Having angered many congressmen by requiring them to promote the Secretary of War as a reward for what they termed his inefficiency, the President now proceeded to make them happy and proud by placing before them, for confirmation, the name of George Wythe Randolph as Benjamin’s successor. Appointment of this forty-four-year-old Richmond lawyer, scion of the proud clan of Randolph, would make amends for the snub given Hunter and restore to the Old Dominion a rightful place among those closest to the head of government. What was more, Randolph had had varied military experience as a youthful midshipman in the U.S. Navy, as a gentleman ranker in a prewar Richmond militia company, and as artillery commander under Magruder on the peninsula, where in eight months he had risen from captain to colonel, with a promotion to brigadier moving up through channels even now. All this was much, and augured well. But best of all, from the point of view of those who had the privilege of voting his confirmation, he was the grandson of Thomas Jefferson, born at the hilltop shrine of Monticello and dandled on the great Virginian’s knee. Blood would tell, as all Southerners knew, and this was the finest blood of all, serving to reëmphasize the ties between the Second American Revolution and the First. The appointment was confirmed at once, enthusiastically and with considerable mutual congratulation among the senators.
Whether the highborn Randolph would bear up better than Hunter had done as a “clerk of Mr Davis” remained to be seen. For the present, at least, the Chief Executive had placated the rising anger of his friends by nominating Randolph, and had foiled his critics by tossing his personal popularity into the balance alongside the hated Benjamin, causing the opposite pan to kick the beam. How long he could continue to win by such methods, standing thus between his favorites and abuse, was another question. Certainly every such victory subtracted from the weight he would exert in any weighing match that followed. What he lost, each time, his critics gained: particularly those who railed against his static defensive policy and his failure to share with the public the grim statistics of the lengthening odds. Down in Georgia, even now, an editor was writing for all to read: “President Davis does not enjoy the confidence of the Southern people.… With a cold, icy, iron grasp, [he] has fettered our people, stilled their beating pulses of patriotism, cooled their fiery ardor, imprisoned them in camps and behind entrenchments. He has not told the people what he needed. As a faithful sentinel, he has not told them what of the night.”
So far, the Georgian was one among a small minority; but such men were vociferous in their bitterness, and when they stung they stung to hurt. The people read or heard their complaints, printed in columns alongside the news of such reverses as Fort Donelson and Roanoke Island, and they wondered. They did not enjoy being told that they were not trusted by the man in whom their own trust was placed. A South Carolina matron, friendly to Davis and all he stood for, confided scornfully in her diary: “In Columbia I do not know a half-dozen men who would not gaily step into Jeff Davis’s shoes with a firm conviction that they would do better in every respect than he does.”
There was one glimmer in the military gloom—indeed, a brightness—though it was based not on accomplishment, but on continuing confidence despite the lengthening odds and the late reverses. The gleam in fact proceeded from the region where the gloom was deepest: off in the panic-stricken West, where the left wing of the Confederacy had been crippled. What his wife represented in private life, what Benjamin meant to him in helping to meet the cares of office, Albert Sidney Johnston was to Davis in military matters. He was in plain fact his notion of a hero. They had not been together since mid-September, when the tall, handsome Kentucky-born Texan came to Richmond to receive from Davis his commission and his assignment to command of the Western Department. That had been a happy time, the plaudits of the entire nation ringing in his ears. They had kept on ringing, too, until Grant called his game of bluff on the Tennessee and the Cumberland, and the whole western house of cards went crash.
At the outset the newspapers had expected “results at once brilliant, scientific, and satisfactory” (the diminution of the adjectives was prophetic) but not this: not defeat, with the loss of half his army, all of Kentucky, and a goodly portion of Tennessee including its capital. The uproar outdid anything the nation had known since the defection of Benedict Arnold. Johnston was accused of stupidity and incompetence or worse, for there were the usual post-defeat cries of treason and corruption. Those who had sung his praises loudest such a short while back were loudest now in abuse. The army was demoralized, they shrilled; Johnston must be removed or the cause would fail. New troops being sworn in made it a condition of their enlistment oath that they would not be required to serve under his command.
He took the blame as he had taken the praise. Calm at the storm center, he displayed still the nobility of mind and strength of character which had drawn men to him all his life. Urged by friends to make a public defense, he replied: “I cannot correspond with the people. What the people want is a battle and a victory. That is the best explanation I can make.” Retreating again—from Murfreesboro now, all the way to Decatur, Alabama, where he would be south of the Tennessee River and on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, in a position to coöperate with the forces under Beauregard, retreating south along the Mississippi—he wrote to Davis more explicitly of his reason for keeping his temper: “I observed silence, as it seemed to me the best way to serve the cause and the country.” He offered then to yield the command, saying: “The test of merit in my profession is success. It is a hard rule, but I think it right.” To concentrate and strike was his present aim, in which case “those who are now declaiming against me will be without an argument.”
It was a letter to warm the heart of any superior in distress—which Davis certainly was. He replied: “My confidence in you has never wavered, and I hope the public will soon give me credit for judgment rather than continue to arraign me for obstinacy.”
The public might, in time; but for the present the clamor did not die; it grew. Davis stood under an avalanche of letters, protests, and demands for his friend’s dismissal. Yet all this time, as he said, he never wavered. When a delegation of Tennessee congressmen called at his office to insist en masse that Johnston be relieved—he was no general, they said scornfully—Davis stood at his desk and heard their demand with an icy silence. When they had spoken, he told them: “If Sidney Johnston is not a general, we had better give up the war, for we have no general,” and bowed them out.
The other Johnston, back in Virginia, was another matter. There would never be any such letter from him, and Davis knew it: not only because it was not in Joe Johnston’s nature to be selfless in a crisis—he had small belief in the efficacy of silence—but also because his problems were quite different. He had no quarrel with the public; the public, like his soldiers, now and always, showed the greatest affection for him. His difficulties were rather with his superiors, the Commander in Chief and the Secretary of War, and with the laws and regulations which Congress passed in an attempt to be what it called helpful, but which Johnston himself considered meddlesome and harmful.
A case in point was the so-called Furlough and Bounty Act, which had been passed in December in an effort to meet the crisis that would arise when the enlistments of the twelve-month volunteers expired in late winter and early spring. Obviously something would have to be done to encourage reënlistments; few men were likely to expose themselves voluntarily to a continuance of the dull life they had been leading all through the Virginia fall and winter. Under the act, all who would sign on for three years—or the duration, in case the end came first—would receive a sixty-day furlough and a fifty-dollar bounty. Further, on their return they would be allowed to transfer to whatever outfit they chose, even into another arm of service, and elect their own field- and company-grade officers once the reorganization was effected. Johnston realized the necessity for some such encouragement, but the only part of this particular act that he approved of was the bounty. The transfer and election privileges he considered ruinous, and the furloughs, if granted in numbers large enough to be effective, would expose the remainder of his army to slaughter at the hands of the Federals, already twice his strength around Manassas and likely to attack at any time. Besides, when he wrote to the War Department, asking how the act was to be applied and what numbers were to be furloughed at any one time, the Secretary replied that he was to go to the “extreme verge of prudence.” Now Johnston was a very prudent man; entirely too much so, his critics said. The extreme verge of his prudence was still very prudent indeed. As a result, the act accomplished little except to vex the general charged with its application.
Another, more serious vexation was the loss of experienced officers of rank. He had lost the embittered Beauregard and he had nearly lost Stonewall Jackson as a result of Benjamin’s out-of-channels interference. Kirby Smith had returned to duty, healed of his Manassas wound, only to be assigned to deal with the powder-keg East Tennessee situation. Earl Van Dorn, whose dash and brilliance promised much, had been sent to the Transmississippi. These were hard losses, and there were more, in addition to some who were so disgruntled that they threatened to resign. “The Army is crippled and its discipline greatly impaired by a want of general officers,” Johnston reported plaintively to Richmond.
These were causes enough for disturbance in any commander, let alone one as irascible and gloomy as Joe Johnston; but coming as they did, at a time when the odds were what he knew them to be in northern Virginia, they filled him with forebodings of disaster. His loss of respect for McClellan’s character as a man of war—in letters he now referred to him as “George” or “the redoubtable McC” or even “ ‘George,’ ” employing the pointed sarcasm of inverted commas—did not preclude a respect for McClellan’s numbers or his ability to forge them into an effective striking force. And not only were the numerical odds forbidding; the situation itself was bad from the southern point of view. Operating behind the screen of the Potomac, the northern host could concentrate and strike at any point from the Blue Ridge Mountains down to Aquia Creek, and thus be on the flank or in the rear of the army around Manassas and Occoquan. All that was holding them back, so far as Johnston could see, was rainy weather and the mud that it produced. Spring was coming, the sudden vernal loveliness of blue skies, new grass, and solid roads. A week of sunshine would remove all the obstacles that stood between McClellan and success, or between Johnston and ruin.
It was at this point, aggravated further by a shortage of arms and powder, that the general was summoned to ride down to Richmond, two days before the inauguration, for a conference on the military situation. Reporting to the President at 10 o’clock that morning, he found the cabinet in session and the discussion already begun. After an exchange of greetings, in which there was no evidence of the lately strained relations, he was asked to state his views as to the disposition of his army. He replied that from its present position along Bull Run and the Potomac it could not block the multiple routes by which McClellan could march against the capital. Unequivocally, he stated that his army must fall back to a position farther south before the roads were dry. Somewhat taken aback, Davis asked to just what line the retreat would be conducted. When Johnston replied that he did not know, being unfamiliar with the country between Richmond and Manassas, Davis was even more alarmed. As he said later, “That a general should have selected a line which he himself considered untenable, and should not have ascertained the typography of the country in his rear was inexplicable on any other theory than that he had neglected the primary duty of a commander.”
For the present, however, he let this pass. If Johnston advised retreat, retreat it had to be, so long as he was in command. Davis had to content himself with trying to get assurances from the general that the army’s supplies and equipment, particularly the large-caliber guns along the Potomac and the mountains of subsistence goods now stored in forward depots, would not be abandoned. He did not get it. Johnston merely said that he would do what he could to delay the retreat until the last possible moment, so that the roads would be firm enough to bear the heavy guns and the high-piled wagons. Further than that he would not go. The meeting broke up without any specific date being set for the withdrawal. All that was determined was that the army would move southward to take up a securer line whenever practicable.
Back at his hotel, it was Johnston’s turn to be alarmed. He found the lobby buzzing with rumors that the Manassas intrenchments were about to be abandoned. The news had moved swiftly before him, though he had come directly from the conference: with the result that his reluctance to discuss military secrets with civilians, no matter how highly placed, was confirmed. No tactical maneuver was more difficult than a withdrawal from the presence of a superior enemy. Everything depended on secrecy; for to be caught in motion, strung out on the roads, was to invite destruction. Yet here in the lobby of a Richmond hotel, where every pillar might hide a spy, was a flurry of gossip predicting the very movement he was about to undertake. Next day, riding back to Manassas on the cars, his reluctance was reconfirmed and his anger heightened when a friend approached and asked if it was true that the Bull Run line was about to be abandoned. There could be no chance that the man had overheard the news by accident, for he was deaf. Nor did it improve the general’s humor when he arrived that afternoon to find his headquarters already abuzz with talk of the impending evacuation.
Two things he determined to do in reaction: 1) to get his army out of there as quickly as he could—if possible, before McClellan had time to act on the leaked information—and 2) to confide no more in civilians, which as far as he was concerned included the Chief Executive. The first was easier said than done, however. Rain fell all the following day, drenching alike the inaugural throng on Capitol Square and the roads of northern Virginia. The army was stalled in a sea of mud, just when Johnston was most anxious to get it moving. Well-mounted cavalry, riding light, could not average two miles an hour along the roads. Four-horse teams could not haul the field artillery guns, and nothing at all could budge the heavier pieces. The general’s determination to share none of his plans with the Government did not prevent his expressing his ire and apprehension in dispatches which repeated his former complaints and advanced new ones. “A division of five brigades is without generals,” he wrote on the 25th, “and at least half the field officers are absent—generally sick. The accumulation of subsistence stores at Manassas is now a great evil. The Commissary General was requested more than once to suspend these supplies. A very extensive meat-packing establishment at Thoroughfare is also a great incumbrance. The great quantities of personal property in our camps is a still greater one.”
He did what he could to hasten his army’s departure, but with horses and wagons foundered and mired on the roads, he had to depend solely on the single-track Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Overcrowded, it quickly snarled to a standstill and pitched the general’s anguished cries an octave higher. In truth, there was much to vex him, here where ruin stared him in the face. The amount of personal baggage piled along the railroad “was appalling to behold,” one witness said. A “trunk had come with every volunteer,” Johnston later declared, reporting now that the army, over his protest, “had accumulated a supply of baggage like that of Xerxes’ myriads.” All this time, while he was struggling to save what he could with so little success, there had been reports of enemy advances, each a confirmation of his fears. Soon after his return from the capital, a Union force had appeared at Harpers Ferry, from which position it could move forward and outflank him on the left. Two weeks later, March 5, he was warned of “unusual activity” on the Maryland shore opposite Dumfries, indicating preparations for attack. This was the movement he feared most, considering it not only the most dangerous, but also the most likely. An advance from there would turn his right and bring the Federals between his army and Richmond.
That did it. He did not intend to let himself get caught like that other Johnston in the West, who lost half his army through delay in pulling back when enemy pressure increased the strain beyond the breaking point. To retreat now meant the loss of much equipment. The heavy guns were still in place along the Potomac; supplies and personal baggage were still piled high along the railroad. But equipment was nothing, compared to the probable loss of men and possible loss of the war itself. Nor was terrain, not even the “sacred soil” of his native state. That same day he issued orders for all his forces east of the Blue Ridge to fall back to the line of the Rappahannock.
Davis in Richmond knew nothing of this. Ever since Johnston’s departure he had been urging a delay in the retrograde movement. In fact, when Virginia officials came to him with a plan for mass recruitment to turn back the invaders, Davis took heart and urged the general to hold his ground while the army was brought up to strength for an offensive, which he now referred to as “first policy.” March 10, believing that Johnston and his army still held the Manassas intrenchments, he wired: “Further assurance given to me this day that you shall be promptly and adequately reënforced, so as to enable you to maintain your position and resume first policy when the roads will permit.”
Johnston was not there to receive it, nor were any of his men. The cavalry rear guard had pulled out that morning, following the southward trail of the army on its way to the Rappahannock, accompanied by its general—who was already contemplating another retreat, from there back to the Rapidan. The one in progress had not gone well. One division, in an advance position, had not been informed of the movement at all, but was left to find its way out as best it could. The heavy guns were left in their emplacements, some of them not even thrown from their carriages. Supplies and equipment, including the trunks the volunteers had brought, went up in smoke. The packing plant at Thoroughfare Gap was put to the torch, along with one million pounds of meat remaining after farmers in the neighborhood had been given all they could haul away. For twenty miles around, all down the greening slopes of Bull Run Mountain, there was a smell of burning bacon, an aroma which the natives would remember through the hungry months ahead.
Lincoln’s efforts all this time as Commander in Chief, though on the face of it they were exerted in quite the opposite direction and for an entirely different purpose, were much like those of his southern counterpart; for while Davis had been trying to get Johnston to hold his ground, Lincoln had been doing his best to nudge McClellan forward. All through the fall and winter, as far as these two tasks were concerned, Lincoln had failed and Davis had succeeded. Both generals stayed exactly where they were. Yet in the end it was the northern leader who was successful: Johnston fell back and McClellan at last went forward. In both cases, however, on that final day, March 9, the civilian heads were shown to have urged good counsel to generals who now were exposed before the public in a cold unflattering light. Johnston fled where no man pursued, and McClellan encountered none of the bloody opposition he had predicted.
For both civil leaders the time had been long and harrowing, a season of waste and unhappiness for Lincoln no less than for Davis. The burden of action was on the North; the South had only to keep the status quo, which was exactly what she had been doing here in Virginia. If on the northern side the gloom had been relieved by victories East and West—Roanoke Island and Fort Donelson—it had no bright, original, face-to-face East-West triumph such as Manassas or Wilson’s Creek to hark back to. Also, for Lincoln, the period of inaction around Washington had been darkened by personal tragedy, including the death of one of his sons and signs that his wife was losing her mind. For him the year had opened, not with a glimmer as of dawn, but rather with gathering shadows, as of dusk. The army head was down with typhoid; the bottom was out of the tub; “What shall I do?” he groaned in his melancholy.
It was January 10; Quartermaster General M. C. Meigs replied that if the typhoid diagnosis was correct it meant a six-weeks’ illness for McClellan, during which time the nation’s armies would be leaderless and vulnerable. He suggested that the President call a conference of the ranking officers of the Army of the Potomac, one of whom might have to take over in a crisis. Lincoln liked the advice and called the meeting for that evening. Two generals attended, McDowell and William B. Franklin, along with several cabinet members. Lincoln told them the situation and expressed his desire for an early offensive. If McClellan did not want to use the army, he said, he would like to borrow it for a while.
McDowell replied that he would be willing to try his hand at another advance on Richmond by way of Manassas, while Franklin, who had taken part in that first debacle under McDowell and was moreover in the confidence of McClellan, favored the roundabout salt-water route, approaching the southern capital from the east. On this divided note the conference adjourned. Next night, when they met again, the generals were agreed that the overland method was best, despite the previous failure, because it would require less time for preparation. Pleased with this decision, Lincoln adjourned the second meeting, instructing the generals to go back to their headquarters, work on the plan, and return tomorrow night. They did return, having worked on it all through the day, but the third White House session was brief, since they still had much to do.
The fourth such conference, on the 13th, was the last. McClellan was there—pale and shaky, but very much there. He had gotten wind of what was going on: perhaps from Stanton, who had been visiting him and murmuring, “They are counting on your death”: Stanton was adept at this kind of thing, having served in Buchanan’s cabinet as an informer for the opposition. Anyhow, McClellan had learned of the meetings and had risen from his sickbed to confront these men who met behind his back. As a result, the atmosphere was strained. According to McClellan, “my unexpected appearance caused very much the effect of a shell in a powder magazine.” When Lincoln asked McDowell to outline the plan he had been working on, McDowell gave it nervously and wound up with an apology for offering his opinion in the presence of his chief. “You are entitled to have any opinion you please!” McClellan said, obviously miffed.
During the discussion which followed, while Lincoln kept asking where and when an offensive could be launched, McClellan remained silent. Seward drawled that he didn’t much care whether the army whipped the rebels at Manassas or in Richmond itself, so long as it whipped them somewhere. McClellan kept silent. Finally Chase questioned him directly, asking what he intended to do with the army and when he intended to do it. The general replied that he had a perfectly good plan, with a perfectly good schedule of execution, but he would not discuss it in front of civilians unless the President ordered him to do so. He would say, however, that Buell was about to move forward in Kentucky, after which he himself would move. Another awkward silence followed. Presently Lincoln asked him if he “counted upon any particular time.” He was not asking him to divulge it, he added hastily; he just wanted to know if he had it in mind. McClellan said he did. “Then I will adjourn this meeting,” Lincoln said.
McClellan did not go back to his sickbed. Now that he was up, he stayed up, his youth and stout constitution—he had reached thirty-five in December—permitting him to convalesce on horseback, so to speak. Once more he spent “long days in the saddle and … nights in the office,” riding to inspect the camps and returning with a jaunty salute the worshipful cheers of his soldiers. There was something other than cheering in the air, however. For one thing, there was suspicion: which meant that the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was interested. Now that he was up where they could get at him, the committeemen summoned the general to appear and be examined.
Ben Wade and Zachariah Chandler—who, along with Andrew Johnson, were the members from the Senate—did most of the questioning. Chandler began it by asking why the army, after five long months of training, was not marching out to meet the enemy. McClellan began explaining that there were only two bridges across to Alexandria, which did not satisfy the requirement that a commander must safeguard his lines of retreat in event that his men were repulsed.
“General McClellan,” Chandler interrupted. He spoke with the forthright tone of a man translating complicated matters into simpler terms for laymen. “If I understand you correctly, before you strike at the rebels you want to be sure of plenty of room so you can run in case they strike back.”
“Or in case you get scared,” Wade put in.
McClellan then went into a rather drawn-out explanation of how wars were fought. Lines of retirement were sometimes as necessary to an army’s survival, he said, as lines of communication and supply. The committeemen listened scornfully. It was not this they had called him in to tell them.
“General,” Wade said, “you have all the troops you have called for, and if you haven’t enough, you shall have more. They are well organized and equipped, and the loyal people of this country expect that you will make a short and decisive campaign. Is it really necessary for you to have more bridges over the Potomac before you move?”
“Not that. Not that exactly,” McClellan told him. “But we must bear in mind the necessity of having everything ready in case of a defeat, and keep our lines of retreat open.”
After this, they let him go in disgust. When he had gone, Chandler turned to Wade and sneered. “I don’t know much about war,” he said, “but it seems to me that this is infernal, unmitigated cowardice.”
Wade thought so, too, and as chairman he went to see Lincoln about it. McClellan must be discarded, he cried. When the President asked who should be put in his place, Wade snorted: “Anybody!”
“Wade,” Lincoln replied sadly, “anybody will do for you, but I must have somebody.”
Already that week he had made one replacement in a high place. For months now there had been growing reports of waste and graft in the War Department; of contracts strangely let; of shoddy cloth, tainted pork, spavined horses, and guns that would not shoot; of the Vermont jobber who boasted at Willard’s, grinning, “You can sell anything to the government at almost any price you’ve got the guts to ask.”
Simon Cameron was responsible, though there was no evidence that the Secretary had profited personally except in the use of his office to pay off his political debts and strengthen his political position. Lincoln could understand this last, having himself done likewise—in point of fact, that was how Cameron got the job—and he knew, too, that much of the waste and bungling, much of the greed and dishonesty, even, was incident to the enormous task of preparing the unprepared nation for war and increasing the army from 16,000 to better than half a million men in the process. All the same, the Pennsylvanian was unquestionably lax in his conduct of business affairs, and when Lincoln warned him of this, resisting the general outcry for his removal, Cameron made his first really serious mistake. He made it, however, not through any ordinary brand of stupidity—Cameron was a very canny man—but rather through his canniness in trying to safeguard his position in the cabinet by strengthening his position in the public eye and in the minds of the increasingly powerful radicals in Congress. He fell because he did what many men had done before and what others would do in the future, after he himself was off the scene. He underestimated Lincoln.
Despite the example of Frémont, or perhaps because he thought that the furor which had followed Frémont’s dismissal would have taught Lincoln a lesson, Cameron reasoned that by ingratiating himself with the Jacobins he would insure himself against any action by the President, who would not dare to antagonize them further by molesting another man who had won their favor. Any attack on slavery was the answer. Emancipation was the issue on which Lincoln was treading softest, since it was the one that cut sharpest along the line dividing the Administration’s supporters and opponents. Accordingly, with the help of his legal adviser Stanton, Cameron drafted and included in his annual Department report a long passage advocating immediate freedom for southern slaves and their induction into the Union army, thereby adding muscle to the arm of the republic and weakening the enemy, who as “rebellious traitors” had forfeited their rights to any property at all, let alone the ownership of fellow human beings. Without consulting the President—though it was usual for such documents to be submitted for approval—the Secretary had the report printed and sent out to the postmasters of all the principal cities for distribution to the press as soon as it was being read to Congress.
So far all was well. Even when Lincoln discovered what had been done and recalled the pamphlet by telegraphic order, for reprinting without the offensive passage, things still went as Cameron had expected. Critics of the President’s tread-easy policy, comparing the original with the expurgated report—some copies of course escaped destruction, so that both versions appeared in the papers—were harsh in their attacks, charging Lincoln simultaneously with dictatorship and timidity. The Jacobins reacted as expected by taking the Secretary to their bosoms and pronouncing him “one of us.” Other praises came his way, less vigorous perhaps, but no less pleasant. “You have touched the national heart,” a friend declared, while another, in a punning mood, wrote that he much preferred the “Simon pure” article in the Tribune to the “bogus” report in the World. From Paris a member of the consulate, hearing of the dissension in the President’s official family, wrote home asking: “Are Cameron and Frémont to be canonized as martyrs?”
Cameron might be canonized, at any rate by the antislavery radicals, but it did not appear that he would be martyred by anyone, least of all by Lincoln, who seemed to have learned a dearly bought lesson in martyring Frémont. The report had been published in mid-December, and now in January he still had made no further reference to the matter. Outwardly the relationship between the two men remained cordial, though Cameron still felt some inward qualms, perhaps because he sensed that Lincoln’s measure was not so easily taken. The thing had gone too well.
Then on January 11, a Saturday—the date of the second of the three conferences with McDowell and Franklin, none of which Cameron had been urged to attend, despite his position as Secretary of War—he learned that he had been right to feel qualms. He received a brief note in which Lincoln informed him curtly, out of the blue: “I … propose nominating you to the Senate next Monday as Minister to Russia.” Almost literally, he was being banished to Siberia for his sins.
The sins were political, and as a politician he could appreciate the justice of his punishment. He suffered anguish, though, at the manner in which it was inflicted. To be rebuked thus in a brief note, he complained, “meant personal as well as political destruction.” So Lincoln, who cared little for the manner of his going, just so he went, agreed that Cameron might antedate a letter of resignation, to which he would reply with a letter of acceptance expressing his “affectionate esteem” and “undiminished confidence” in the Secretary’s “ability, patriotism, and fidelity to the public trust.” It was done accordingly and Cameron’s name was sent to Congress for confirmation as Minister to Russia. There, however, he encountered opposition, not only from members of his own party, the Democrats, but also from some of the radical Republicans who so lately had clustered round him and proclaimed him “one of us.” At last the nomination was put through; Cameron was on his way to St Petersburg, having earned not martyrdom and canonization, as some had hoped or feared, but banishment and damage to a reputation already considered shaky. One senator, a former colleague, remarked on his departure: “Ugh! ugh! Send word to the Czar to bring in his things of nights.”
In this case Lincoln engaged in no fruitless search for “somebody” to replace him. The somebody was ready and very much at hand: Edwin McMasters Stanton, who as his predecessor’s legal adviser had helped to charge and fuse the bomb that blew him out of the War Department and the Cabinet, while Stanton himself was sucked into the resultant vacuum and sat ensconced as successor before all the bits of wreckage had hit the ground. Whether he had proceeded with malice aforethought in this instance was not known; but it was not unthinkable. Stanton had done devious things in his time. A corporation lawyer, he delighted also in taking criminal cases when these were challenging and profitable enough. His fees were large and when one prospective client protested, Stanton asked: “Do you think I would argue the wrong side for less?” For a murder defense he once took as his fee the accused man’s only possession, the house he lived in. When he had won the case and was about to convert the mortgage into cash, the man tried to persuade him to hold off, saying that he would be ruined by the foreclosure. “You deserve to be ruined,” Stanton told him, “for you were guilty.”
And yet there was another side to him, too, offsetting the savagery, the joy he took in fixing a frightened general or petitioner with the baleful glare of his black little near-sighted eyes behind small, thicklensed, oval spectacles. He was a bundle of contradictions, his father a New Englander, his mother a Virginian. In private, the forty-seven-year-old lawyer sometimes put his face in his hands and wept from the strain, and if his secretary happened in at such a time he would say, “Not now, please. Not now.” He was asthmatic, something of a hysteric as well, and he had more than a touch of morbidity in his nature. His bushy hair was thinning at the front, but he made up for this by letting it grow long at the back and sides. His upper lip he kept clean-shaven to expose a surprisingly sensitive mouth—a reminder that he had been considered handsome in his youth—while below his lower lip a broad streak of iron-gray ran down the center of his wide black beard. His body was thick-set, bouncy on short but energetic legs. His voice, which was deep in times of calm, rose to piercing shrillness in excitement. One petitioner, badly shaken by the experience, described a Stanton interview by saying, “He came at me like a tiger.”
He came at many people like a tiger, especially at those in his Department who showed less devotion to work than he himself did. Soon after he took office he received from Harpers Ferry an urgent call for heavy guns. He ordered them sent at once. Going by the locked arsenal after hours, he learned that the guns were still there: whereupon he ordered the gates broken open, helped the watchmen drag the guns out, and saw them loaded onto a north-bound train. Next morning the arsenal officer reported that he had not found it convenient to ship the guns the day before; he would get them off this morning, he said. “The guns are now at Harpers Ferry!” Stanton barked. “And you, sir, are no longer in the service of the United States Government.”
He would engage in no secret deals. Whoever came to him on business, as for instance seeking a contract, was required to make his request in the sight and hearing of all. Stanton would snap out a Yes or No, then wave him on to make way for the next petitioner. He did not care whose toes he stepped on; “Individuals are nothing,” he declared. To a man who came demanding release for a friend locked up on suspicion of treason, Stanton roared: “If I tap that little bell, I can send you to a place where you will never hear the dogs bark. And by heaven I’ll do it if you say another word!” He brought to the War Department a boundless and bounding energy. “As soon as I can get the machinery of the office working, the rats cleared out, and the rat holes stopped,” he told an assistant, “we shall move.” Lincoln himself was by no means exempt from Stanton’s scorn. Asked when he took office, “What will you do?”: “Do?…” he replied. “I will make Abe Lincoln President of the United States.”
The government could use such a man, despite his idiosyncrasies, his sudden judgments and hostile attitude. So could Lincoln use him in his official family, despite the abuse he knew that Stanton had been heaping on him since they first met in Cincinnati, when the big-time lawyer referred to the country one as “that long-armed creature.” More recently he had been employing circus epithets; “the original gorilla,” he called him, “a low, cunning clown,” and “that giraffe.” Lincoln knew of some of this, but he still thought he could use him—provided he could handle him. And he believed he could. Stanton’s prancing and bouncing, he said, put him in mind of a Methodist preacher out West who got so wrought up in his prayers and exhortations that his congregation was obliged to put bricks in his pockets to hold him down. “We may have to serve Stanton the same way,” Lincoln drawled. “But I guess we’ll let him jump a while first.”
The bricks were applied much sooner than anyone expected. One day the President was busy with a roomful of people and Stanton came hurrying through the doorway, clutching a sheet of paper in his hand. “Mr President,” he cried, “this order cannot be signed. I refuse to sign it!” Lincoln told him calmly, “Mr Secretary, I guess that order will have to be signed.” In the hush that followed, the two men’s eyes met. Then Stanton turned, still with the order in his hand, and went back to his office and signed it.
Whether or not McClellan could handle him, too, was one of the things that remained to be seen. At the outset, the general had good cause to believe that the change in War Department heads would work to his advantage. For on the evening of January 13—the one on which he rose from his sickbed to confront the men who had been conferring behind his back—Stanton came by his quarters and informed him that his nomination as Secretary of War had gone to the Senate that afternoon. Personally, he went on to say, he considered the job a hardship, but the chance of working in close harness with his friend McClellan persuaded him to undergo the sacrifice involved. If the general would approve he would accept. McClellan did approve; he urged acceptance on those grounds. Two days later the nomination was confirmed. Stanton took the post the following day. And almost immediately, from that January 16 on, McClellan found the doors of the War Department barred to him. The Secretary, suddenly hostile, became at once the Young Napoleon’s most outspoken critic. McClellan had been given another lesson in the perfidy of the human animal. One more had been added, at the top, to that “set of men … unscrupulous and false.”
What he did not know was that, all this time, Stanton had been working both sides of the street. While his name was up for approval in the Senate, Charles Sumner was saying: “Mr Stanton, within my knowledge, is one of us.” Ben Wade thought so, too. And on the day the new Secretary moved into office their opinion was confirmed. After saying that he was going to “make Abe Lincoln President,” Stanton added that as the next order of business, “I will force this man McClellan to fight or throw up.” Later that same day he said baldly, “This army has got to fight or run away. And while men are striving nobly in the West, the champagne and oysters on the Potomac must be stopped.”
Formerly he had run with the fox and hunted with the hounds. Now he was altogether with the latter. On January 20, at his own request, he appeared before the Joint Committee, and after the hearing its members were loud in his praise. “We are delighted with him,” Julian of Indiana exclaimed. In the Senate, Fessenden of Maine announced: “He is just the man we want! We agree on every point: the duties of the Secretary of War, the conduct of the war, the Negro question and everything.” In the Tribune Horace Greeley hailed him as the man who would know how to deal with “the greatest danger now facing the country—treason in Washington, treason in the army itself, especially the treason which wears the garb of Unionism.”
Treason was a much-used word these days. For Greeley to use it three times within a dependent clause was nothing rare. In fact it was indicative. The syllables had a sound that caught men’s ears, overtones of enormity that went beyond such scarehead words as rape or arson or incest. Observing this, the radicals had made it their watchword, their cry in the night, expanding its definition in the process.
Many acts were treasonous now which had never been considered so before. Even a lack of action might be treason, according to these critics in long-skirted broadcloth coats. Delay, for instance: all who counseled delay were their special targets, along with those who favored something less than extermination for rebels. Obviously, the way to administer sudden death was to march out within musket range and bang away until the serpent Rebellion squirmed no more. And as a rallying cry this forthright logic was effective. Up till now the Administration’s opposition had been no more than an incidental irritant. By mid-January of this second calendar year of the war, however, so many congressmen had discovered the popular value of pointing a trembling finger at “treason” in high places that their conglomerate, harping voice had grown into a force which had to be reckoned with as surely as the Confederates still intrenched around Manassas.
Lincoln the politician understood this perfectly. They were men with power, who knew how to use it ruthlessly, and as such they would have to be dealt with. McClellan the soldier could never see it at all, partly because he operated under the disadvantage of considering himself a gentleman. For him they were willful, evil men, “unscrupulous and false,” and as such they should be ignored as beneath contempt, at least by him. He counted on Lincoln to keep them off his back: which Lincoln in fact had promised to do. “I intend to be careful and do as well as possible,” McClellan had said. “Don’t let them hurry me, is all I ask.” And Lincoln had told him, “You shall have your own way in the matter, I assure you.” Yet now he seemed to be breaking his promise to McClellan, just as he had broken his word to Frémont, whom he had told: “I have given you carte-blanche. You must use your own judgment, and do the best you can.” Frémont had used his judgment, such as it was, and been flung aside. McClellan was discouraged.
That was something else he never understood: Lincoln himself. Some might praise him for being flexible, while others called him slippery, when in truth they were both two words for just one thing. To argue the point was to insist on a distinction that did not exist. Lincoln was out to win the war; and that was all he was out to do, for the present. Unfettered by any need for being or not being a gentleman, he would keep his word to any man only so long as keeping it would help to win the war. If keeping it meant otherwise, he broke it. He kept no promise, anyhow, any longer than the conditions under which it was given obtained. And if any one thing was clear in this time when treason had become a household word, it was that the conditions of three months ago no longer obtained. McClellan would have to go forward or go down.
On January 27, without consulting anyone—least of all McClellan—Lincoln himself composed and issued over his signature, as Commander in Chief of the nation’s military forces, General War Order Number 1, in which he announced that a forward movement by all land and naval units would be launched on February 22, to celebrate Washington’s Birthday and also, presumably, to disrupt the Confederate inaugural in Richmond. It was not a suggestion, or even a directive. It was a peremptory order, and as such it stated that all commanders afield or afloat would “severally be held to their strict and full responsibilities” for its “prompt execution.” Lest there be any misunderstanding as to whether this applied to the general-in-chief and his army around Washington, Lincoln supplemented this with a Special Order four days later, directing that on or before the date announced an expedition would move out from the capital, leaving whatever force would insure the city’s safety, and seize a point on the railroad “southwestward of … Manassas Junction.”
McClellan was aghast. He had counted on the President to keep the hot-eyed amateurs off his back: yet here, by a sudden and seemingly gleeful leap, Lincoln had landed there himself, joining the others in an all-out game of pile-on. Besides, committed as he was to the Urbanna Plan for loading his army on transports, taking it down the Potomac and up the Rappahannock for a landing in Johnston’s rear, the last thing he wanted now was any movement that might alarm the enemy at Manassas into scurrying back to safety. So he went to Lincoln and outlined for the first time in some detail the plan which would be spoiled by any immediate “forward” movement. Lincoln did not like it. It would endanger Washington, he said, in case the rebels tried a quick pounce while the Federal army was making its roundabout boat-trip to Urbanna. McClellan then asked if he could submit in writing his objections to the President’s plan and his reasons for favoring his own. Lincoln said all right, go ahead. While the general was preparing his brief he received from Lincoln a set of questions, dated February 3: “Does not your plan involve a larger expenditure of time and money than mine? Wherein is a victory more certain by your plan than mine? Would it not be less valuable in that yours would not break a great line of the enemy’s communications, while mine would? In case of disaster, would it not be more difficult to retreat by your plan than mine?”
In asking these questions Lincoln was meeting McClellan on his own ground, and McClellan answered him accordingly, professionally ticking off the flaws in Lincoln’s plan and pointing up the strong points of his own. At best, he declared, the former would result in nothing more than a barren and costly victory which would leave still harder battles to be fought all the way to Richmond, each time against an enemy who would have retired to a prepared defensive position, while the Federal supply lines stretched longer and more vulnerable with every doubtful success: whereas the latter, striking at the vitals of the Confederacy, would maneuver Johnston out of his formidable Bull Run intrenchments by requiring him to turn in defense of his capital and give battle wherever McClellan chose to fight him, with control of all Virginia in the balance. Supply lines would run by water, which meant that they would be secure, and in event of the disaster which Lincoln seemed to fear, the army could retreat down the York-James peninsula, an area which afforded plenty of opportunity for maneuver because, “the soil [being] sandy,” the roads were “passable at all seasons of the year.” Nor was this all. Besides its other advantages, he wrote, his plan had a flexibility which the other lacked entirely. If for some reason Urbanna proved undesirable, the landing could be made at Mob jack Bay or Fortress Monroe, though admittedly this last would be “less brilliant.” As for the question as to whether victory was more certain by the roundabout route, the general reminded his chief that “nothing is certain in war.” However, he added, “all the chances are in favor of this project.” If Lincoln would give him the go-ahead, along with a little more time to get ready, “I regard success as certain by all the chances of war.”
There Lincoln had it. In submitting the questions he had said, “If you will give me satisfactory answers … I shall gladly yield my plan to yours.” Now that the Young Napoleon had given them, Lincoln yielded; but not gladly. Though he liked McClellan’s plan better now that the general had taken him into his confidence and explained it in detail, he was still worried about what Johnston’s army—better than 100,000 men, according to the Pinkerton reports—might do while McClellan’s was in transit. Confederates in Washington might win foreign recognition for their government, and with it independence. However, since McClellan had come out so flatly in favor of his own plan and in rejection of the other, Lincoln had no choice except to fire him or sustain him. And that in fact was no choice at all. To fire Little Mac would be to risk demoralizing the Army of the Potomac on the eve of great exertions. All the same, Lincoln did not rescind the order for an advance on the 22d. He merely agreed not to require its execution.
Whereupon the radicals returned to the charge, furious that their demands had gone unheeded. Lincoln held them off as best he could, but they were strident and insistent. “For God’s sake, at least push back the defiant traitors!” Wade still cried. Lincoln saw that something had to be done to appease them—perhaps by clearing the lower Potomac of enemy batteries, or else by reopening the B & O supply line west of Harpers Ferry. Either would be at least a sop to throw the growlers. So he went again to McClellan: who explained once more that the rebels along the lower Potomac were just where he wanted them to be when he made his Urbanna landing in their rear, forcing them thus to choose between flight and capture. It would be much better to have them there, he said, than back on the Rappahannock contesting his debarkation. Lincoln was obliged to admit that as logic this had force.
As for the reopening of the B & O, McClellan remarked that he had it in mind already. What he wanted to avoid was another Ball’s Bluff or anything resembling the fiasco which had resulted from making a river crossing without a way to get back in event of repulse. He was bringing up from downriver a fleet of canal boats which could be lashed together to bridge the upper Potomac. Across this newfangled but highly practical device he would throw a force for repairing and protecting the railroad, a force that would be exempt from disaster because its line of retreat would be secure. Lincoln liked the notion and was delighted that something at last was about to be done. Then came word from McClellan that the project had had to be abandoned because the boats turned out to be six inches too wide for the lift-locks at Harpers Ferry. Once more Lincoln was cast down, his expectations dashed, and Secretary Chase, a solemn, indeed a pompous man, got off his one joke of the war. The campaign had died, he said, of lockjaw.
Washington’s Birthday came and went, and the Army of the Potomac remained in its training camps, still awaiting the day when its commander decided that the time had come for it to throw the roundhouse left designed to knock Virginia out of the war. In the West, meanwhile, Thomas had counterpunched Crittenden clean out of East Kentucky, and Grant had delivered to Sidney Johnston’s solar plexus the one-two combination that sent him reeling, all the way from Bowling Green to northern Alabama. Burnside, down in North Carolina, had rabbit-punched Huger and Wise, and even now was following up with a series of successes. Everywhere, boldness had been crowned with success: everywhere, that was, except in Virginia, where boldness was unknown.
Stanton could see the moral plainly enough, and when Greeley came out with an editorial praising the new Secretary and giving him chief credit for the victories—he had been in office exactly a month on the day Fort Donelson fell—Stanton replied with a letter that was printed in the Tribune, declining the praise and making a quick back-thrust at McClellan in the process: “Much has been said recently of military combinations and ‘organizing victory.’ I hear such phrases with apprehension. They commenced in infidel France with the Italian campaign, and resulted in Waterloo. Who can organize victory? We owe our recent victories to the spirit of the Lord, that moved our soldiers to rush into battle and filled the hearts of our enemies with terror and dismay.… We may well rejoice at the recent victories, for they teach that battles are to be won now, and by us, in the same and only manner that they were ever won by any people, since the days of Joshua—by boldly pursuing and striking the foe. What, under the blessing of Providence, I conceive to be the true organization of victory and military combinations to win this war was declared in a few words by General Grant’s message to General Buckner: ‘I propose to move immediately upon your works.’ ”
Lincoln, too, could praise Grant and the Lord for victories in the West, but the news came at a time when there was sickness in the house and, presently, sorrow. Robert was at Harvard; “one of those rare-ripe sort,” his father called him once, “that are smarter at about five than ever after.” It was Willie, the middle son and his mother’s favorite, who was the studious member of the family; Tad, the youngest, could still neither read nor write at the age of nine. Now Willie lay sick with what the doctor said was “bilious fever.” He got better, then worse, then suddenly much worse, until one afternoon Lincoln came into the room where one of his secretaries lay half-asleep on a couch. “Well, Nicolay,” he said, “my boy is gone. He is actually gone!” And then, as if having spoken the words aloud had brought their reality home to him, he broke into tears and left.
Hard as it was for Lincoln to absorb the shock in this time of strain, the blow was even harder on his wife. All her life she had been ambitious, but in her ambition she had looked forward more to the pleasures than to the trials of being First Lady—only to discover, once the place was hers, that the tribulations far outnumbered the joys. In Richmond, Varina Davis could overlook, or anyhow seem to overlook, being referred to as “a coarse Western woman,” which was false. Mary Lincoln could not weather half so well being criticized for “putting on airs,” which was true. A fading Kentucky belle, she clung to her gentility, already sorely tried by two decades of marriage with a man who, whatever his political attainments, liked to sit around the house in slippers and shirtsleeves. She punctuated her conversation with “sir” and spent a great deal of money on dresses and bonnets and new furnishings for the antiquated White House. Washington was not what she had expected, its former social grace having largely departed with the southern-mannered hostesses whose positions had been taken over by Republican ladies whose chief virtues were not social.
Yet these disappointments were by no means the worst she had to bear. Her loyalty was undivided, but the same could not be said of her family, which had split badly over the issues that split Kentucky and the nation. A brother and a half-sister stayed with the Union; another brother and three half-brothers went with the South, while three half-sisters were married to Confederates. This division of her family, together with her Bluegrass manner, caused critics to say that she was “two-thirds slavery and the other third secesh.” The rumors were enlarged as the war continued. The President’s enemies sought to make political capital with a whispering campaign, accusing Mrs Lincoln of specific acts of treason, which at last reached such proportions that the matter was taken up by a congressional investigating committee. One morning her husband came unexpectedly into one of its secret sessions to announce in a sad voice: “I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, appear of my own volition before this committee of the Senate to say that I, of my own knowledge, know that it is untrue that any of my family hold treasonable communication with the enemy.”
That removed her from the reach of the committee, but it did not spare her the ridicule being heaped upon her almost daily in the opposition papers, which struck at the husband through the wife. And now, with all this burden on her, to lose her favorite child was altogether more than she could bear. She wept grievously and was often in hysterics. She could neither accept nor reject her sorrow, and between the two she lost her mental balance. Lincoln had Tad, whom he took more and more for his own and even slept with. He had, too, the daylong, sometimes night-long occupation of running the country. She had nothing, not even Lincoln: who did not help matters by leading her one day to a window and pointing to the lunatic asylum as he said, “Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad and we may have to send you there.”
A distracted wife was one among the many problems Lincoln faced. His main problem was still McClellan. During the weeks since the general first outlined the Urbanna plan, much of what he called its brilliance had worn off, at least for Lincoln, who still had fears that it would expose the capital to capture. Again he told McClellan his doubts, and once more McClellan sought to allay them, this time by proposing to submit the plan to his twelve division commanders for a professional decision. They assembled March 8, many of them hearing details of the plan for the first time. When the vote was taken they favored it, eight to four, and repaired in a body to the White House to announce the result to the President, whose objections thus were effectively spiked again. As he told Stanton, who shared his mistrust, “We can do nothing else than accept their plan and discard all others.… We can’t reject it and adopt another without assuming all the responsibility in the case of the failure of the one we adopt.”
One thing he could do, and did, that same day. The members of the Joint Committee had called on him the week before with a plan for reorganizing the Army of the Potomac into corps. This, they saw, would not only gain prestige for certain generals who had their favor—McDowell, for example—but would weaken McClellan’s authority as general-in-chief, since, as the committeemen saw it, corps commanders would take orders directly from Stanton. Lincoln saw other merits in the plan. For one thing it would simplify the transmission of orders and lessen the burden on the Young Napoleon. Besides, he was anxious to placate Wade and the others wherever he could. When he went to McClellan, however, to urge that it be effected and to get the general’s recommendations for the appointments, McClellan told him that he had already thought it over and had decided that it would be best to wait until all the division commanders had been tested in combat before making his recommendations. Once more Lincoln had been shown that he would lose in any face-to-face encounter with the general over military logic. So the following week, when he decided to act on the matter, he did so without consulting McClellan. Later that day, after having reported their vote on the Urbanna plan, the division commanders learned that four of their number had been appointed to corps command: McDowell, E. V. Sumner, S. P. Heintzelman, and E. D. Keyes. Notification came in the form of a paper headed “President’s General War Order Number 2.”
Whatever elation this document produced in the breasts of the men thus elevated, it came as a terrible shock to McClellan, even though the earlier General War Order’s being numbered had indicated that there might well be others. The shock was mainly due to the fact that among the four who were raised to corps command—and would therefore have the principal responsibility, under McClellan himself, for executing the Urbanna plan—three had voted against it in the balloting that morning. The officers he wanted had been held back. Franklin, for instance, who had spoken in favor of the sea route at the conference held while McClellan was in bed with fever, was not appointed, nor were any of the others among his protégés; “gentlemen and Democrats,” he called them, who thought of war and politics as he did. He felt himself hobbled at the outset, held in check by a high council of Republicans friendly toward the enemies who were working for his ruin.
If he had ever doubted that they were out to wreck him, any such doubts had been dispelled during the early morning hours of that same busy March 8. He learned of whispered charges, touching his honor as a soldier, and he learned of them from Lincoln himself, who had sent for him to come over to the White House after breakfast. As McClellan told it later, he found the President looking worried; there was “a very ugly matter,” Lincoln said, which needed airing. Again he hesitated, and McClellan, seated opposite, suggested that perhaps it would be best to come right out with it. Well, Lincoln said, choosing his words cautiously at first, there was an ugly rumor going round, to the effect that the Urbanna plan “was conceived with the traitorous intent of removing its defenders from Washington, and thus giving over to the enemy the capital and the government, thus left defenseless.” He added that the whole thing had a sound and look of treason.
The word was out, and it brought McClellan straight up out of his chair, declaring that he would “permit no one to couple the word treason with my name,” and demanding an immediate retraction. No, no, Lincoln said hastily; he did not believe a word of it; he was only repeating what had been told him. Somewhat calmer, McClellan suggested “caution in the use of language,” and reëmphasized that he could “permit no doubt to be thrown upon my intentions.” Lincoln again apologized, and let the matter go at that. McClellan left to round up his division commanders for a vote that would prove that the proposed campaign was militarily sound, then brought them back to announce their eight-to-four support in Lincoln’s presence.
As far as McClellan was concerned, that settled it. He had shown him, once and for all. But then, as soon as he turned his back, War Order 2 came dropping onto his desk, and he was upset all over again. The day had opened with charges of treason and closed with the appointment of unsympathetic officers to head the corps of the army he was about to take into battle. As he saw it, Lincoln had gone over to the scoundrels, bag and baggage; or, in McClellan’s words, “the effects of the intrigues by which he had been surrounded became apparent.”
He did not see, then or ever, that he had helped to bring all this trouble on himself by not taking Lincoln into his confidence sooner. And if he had seen it, the seeing would not have made the end result any easier to abide; McClellan was never one to find ease in admission of blame. Nor did he see that Lincoln had not called him to the White House merely to insult him by repeating ugly rumors, that what he was really trying to tell him was that Wade and the others were powerful and vindictive men who would hurt him all they could, and with him the cause, if they were not dealt with in some manner that would take some of the pressure off their anger: whereas the Young Napoleon, who had been before them and heard them accuse him of cowardice, was determined to yield them not a single military inch of the solid ground he stood on. Whatever they took from him they must take by force, with Lincoln’s help. Already they had taken much, including his trust of Lincoln, and he could see that they were after more, with an excellent chance of getting it.
Present troubles were grief enough; but as if they were not, there was added, the following morning, news of what had happened at Hampton Roads on the afternoon of that same crowded Saturday, March 8. A single Confederate ten-gun vessel, steaming out of Norfolk on what had been planned as a trial run, made obsolete the navies of the world. Between noon and sunset of that one day, the strange craft—which resembled, some said, “a terrapin with a chimney on its back”—served graphic notice that the proud tall frigates and ships of the line, with their billowing sails and high wooden sides that could flash out hundred-gun salvos, would soon be gone in all their beauty and obsolescence.
She herself had been one of them, once: the 350-ton, forty-gun U.S. steam frigate Merrimac, burned and scuttled in her berth when the Union forces abandoned Gosport Navy Yard the previous spring. She sank so quickly her hull and engines were saved from the fire, and Lieutenant John M. Brooke, C.S.N., went to Secretary Mallory with a plan for converting her into a seagoing ironclad, wherewith the tightening Federal blockade might be lifted. Mallory approving, she was plugged, pumped out, and raised, the salt mud swabbed out of her engines and her hull cut down to the water’s edge. While some workers were attaching a four-foot iron ram-beak to her prow, others were building amidships a slope-walled structure, 130 feet long and seven feet tall, in which to house her guns, two 6- and two 7-inch rifles and six 9-inch smoothbores, the two lightest pieces being bound at the breech with iron hoops, shrunk on like the tires on wagon wheels, to strengthen them for firing extra-heavy powder charges: another Brooke innovation. Finally, they covered her all over, down to two feet below the waterline, with overlapping plates of two-inch armor rolled from railroad iron at the Tredegar Works in Richmond. She was finished. What she lacked in looks, and she was totally lacking there, she made up for in her ability to give and take a pounding.
However, she had faults more serious than her ugliness: faults which caused head-shakings and predictions that she would be “an enormous metallic burial-case” for her crew. For one, the weight of all that iron made her squat so low in the water, 22 feet, that she had to confine her movements to deep-water channels. Not that she was much at maneuvering in the first place; “unwieldy as Noah’s ark,” one of her officers called her. Her top speed was five knots, and what with her great length and awkward steering, it took half an hour to turn her in calm water. This was mainly because of her wheezy, antiquated engines, which had been condemned on the Merrimac’s last cruise and had scarcely been improved by the fire and the months of immersion. Nevertheless, Mallory and her builders expected great things of her: nothing less, in fact, than the raising of the blockade by the destruction of whatever attempted to enforce it. They renamed her the Virginia, recruited a large part of her 300-man crew from the army, and placed her in the charge of Commodore Franklin Buchanan, the sixty-two-year-old “Father of Annapolis,” so called because, under the old flag, he had been instrumental in founding the Naval Academy and had served as its first superintendent. Some measure of Mallory’s expectations of the Virginia was shown by the fact that he had given command of her to the ranking man in the whole Confederate navy.
When she steamed down Elizabeth River on her trial run at noon that Saturday, her inherent faults—low speed, deep draft, and sluggish handling—were immediately apparent. Her guns had not yet been fired, and workmen still swarmed over her superstructure, making last-minute adjustments. But as she came in sight of open water, Buchanan saw across the Roads five warships of the blockade squadron lying at anchor, three off Fort Monroe and two off Newport News. The three were the Minnesota and the Roanoke, sister ships of the Merrimac, and the fifty-gun frigate St Lawrence. The two were the Congress, another fifty-gun frigate, and the thirty-gun sloop Cumberland. It was more than the commodore could resist. He hove-to off Craney Island, sent the workmen ashore, cleared the Virginia’s decks for action, and set out north across the Roads with his crew at battle stations. The “trial run” would be just that—all-out.
On the southern shore, from Willoughby Spit to Ragged Island, gray-clad infantry and artillerymen lined the beaches. They saw his intention and tossed their caps, cheering and singing “Dixie.” Across the water, from Old Point Comfort westward, men in blue observed it too, but with mixed emotions. They had heard that this strange new thing was being built, and now they saw her coming slowly toward them. To an Indiana volunteer, watching her across five miles of water, she “looked very much like a house submerged to the eaves, borne onward by a flood.”
It was washday aboard the Federal warships, sailor clothes drying in the rigging. Yet there was plenty of time in which to get ready for what was coming so slowly at them. The Congress and the Cumberland cleared for action, and when the Virginia came within range, the former gave her a well-aimed broadside: which broke against the sloping iron with no apparent effect at all. Ports closed tight, she came on, biding her time as she closed the range, unperturbed and inexorable. Another salvo struck her, together with shots from the coastal batteries: with no more effect than before. Then her ports came open, swinging deliberately upward on their hinges to expose the muzzles of her guns. Turning, she raked the Congress with a starboard broadside and rammed theCumberland at near right-angles just under her fore rigging, punching a hole which one of her officers said would admit “a horse and cart”—except for the iron beak which broke off in her when the Confederate swung clear. The Cumberland began to fill, firing as long as a gun remained above water. Called on to surrender, her captain shouted, “Never! I’ll sink alongside!”
Presently he did just that, his flag still flying from the mainmast, defiant above the waves after the ship herself struck bottom. Horrified, the captain of the Congress slipped his cable and tried to get away before the ironclad could complete its ponderous turn, but ran aground in the attempt. The Virginia, held at 200-yard range by her deeper draft, raked the helpless ship from end to end until, her captain dead and her scuppers running red with blood, a lieutenant ran up the white flag of surrender.
Buchanan ceased firing and stood by to take on prisoners, but the coastal batteries redoubled their fire under command of Brigadier General Joseph K. Mansfield, West Point ‘22. When one of his own officers protested that the enemy had the right to take possession unmolested once the Congress struck her flag, the crusty old regular replied, “I know the damned ship has surrendered, but we haven’t!” Two Confederate lieutenants were killed in this unexpected burst of artillery and musketry, and Buchanan himself was wounded. So were many of the Union sailors on the decks of the surrendered ship—including Buchanan’s brother, a lieutenant who had stayed with the old flag and who presently died in the flames on the quarterdeck when the Virginia dropped back and retaliated by setting the Congress afire with red-hot cannonballs that started fires wherever they struck wood.
By now the three frigates off Old Point Comfort had started west to join the fight. Hugging the northern shore to avoid the rebel guns on Sewell’s Point, however, the Roanoke and the St Lawrence ran aground, and presently the Minnesota, left alone to deal with the iron monster, did likewise. It was well for her that it happened so, for the Virginia, having finished with the Congress, turned to deal with her erstwhile sister ship and found that, the tide being on the ebb, she could not come within effective range. So she drew off across the Roads to unload her wounded, survey her damage, and wait for the flooding of the tide tomorrow morning, when she intended to complete this first day’s work by sinking the three grounded frigates.
Her 21 killed and wounded, including Buchanan, were removed, after which the officers surveyed the effects of the fight on the ship herself. The damage, though considerable, was not vital. In spite of having been exposed to the concentrated fire of at least one hundred guns, her armor showed only dents, no cracks, and nothing inside the shell was hurt. Outside was another matter. She had lost her iron beak, and two of her guns had had their muzzles blown off; besides which, one of her crew later wrote, “one anchor, the smoke-stack, and the steam pipes were shot away. Railings, stanchions, boat-davits, everything was swept clean.”
All this seemed a small enough price to pay for the victory they had won that afternoon and the one they had prepared for completion tomorrow. Officers and men stayed up on deck, too elated to sleep, and watched the Congress burn. She lit up the Roads from across the way and paled the second-quarter moon, which came up early. From time to time, another of her loaded guns went off with a deep reverberant boom, but the big effect did not come until 1 o’clock in the morning, when her magazine blew up. After that, the Confederate crew turned in to get some sleep. Ashore, a Georgia private, writing home of the sea battle he had watched, exulted that the Virginia had “invented a new way of destroying the blockade. Instead of raising it, she sinks it. Or I believe she is good at both,” he added, “for the one she burned was raised to a pretty considerable height when the magazine exploded.”
A telegram reached Washington from Fort Monroe within two hours of the explosion of the Congress, informing the War Department that the Confederates’ indestructible “floating battery” had sunk two frigates and would sink three more tomorrow before moving against the fortress itself—after which there was no telling what might happen.
Lincoln had his cabinet in session by 6.30, the prevailing gloom being broken only by the Secretary of War, who put on for his colleagues a remarkable display of jangled nerves. The jaunty Seward was glum for once; Chase was petulant; the President himself seemed quite unstrung; but Stanton was unquestionably the star of the piece. According to Welles, who did not like him, he was “inexpressibly ludicrous” with his “wild, frantic talk, action, and rage” as he “sat down and jumped up … swung his arms, scolded and raved.” The Virginia would “change the whole character of the war,” the lawyer-statesman cried. “She will destroy, seriatim, every naval vessel; she will lay all the cities on the seaboard under contribution.” He would recall Burnside, abandon Port Royal, and “notify the governors and municipal authorities in the North to take instant measures to protect their harbors.” Then, crossing to a window which commanded a long view of the Potomac, he looked out and, trembling visibly, exclaimed: “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or a cannonball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room.”
Welles, who recorded with pride that his own “composure was not disturbed,” replied that Stanton’s fear for his personal safety was unfounded, since the heavily armored vessel would surely draw too much water to permit her passage of Kettle Bottom Shoals; he doubted, in fact, that she would venture outside the Capes. This afforded at least a measure of relief for the assembly. Besides, Welles said, the navy already had an answer to the rebel threat: a seagoing ironclad of its own. Monitor was her name. She had left New York on Thursday, and should have reached Hampton Roads last night. “How many guns does she carry?” Stanton asked. Two, the Naval Secretary told him, and Stanton responded with a look which, according to Welles, combined “amazement, contempt, and distress.”
The gray-bearded brown-wigged Welles spoke truly. The Monitor had arrived the night before. She had not only arrived; she was engaged this Sunday morning, before the cabinet adjourned to pray in church for the miracle which Stanton said was all that could save the eastern seaboard. And in truth it was something like a miracle that she was there at all. Coming south she had run into a storm that broke waves over her, down her blower-pipes and stacks, flooding her hold; pumps were rigged to fight a losing battle—and the wind went down, just as the ship was about to do the same. The fact was, she had not been built to stand much weather. She was built almost exclusively for what she was about to do: engage the former Merrimac, rumors of which had been coming north ever since work on the rebel craft began in mid-July.
There was a New York Swede, John Ericsson, who thought he had the answer, but when he went before the naval board with his plan for “an impregnable steam-battery of light draft,” the members told him that calculations of her displacement proved the proposed Monitor would not float. He persisted, however; “The sea shall ride over her, and she will live in it like a duck,” he said; until at last they offered him a contract with a clause providing for refund of all the money if she was not as invulnerable as he claimed. Ericsson took them up on that and got to work. Her keel was laid in October, three months behind the beginning of work on her rival, and she was launched within one hundred days.
As Welles had said, she had only two guns; but they were hard-hitting 11-inch rifles, housed in a revolving turret (another Ericsson invention) which gave them the utility of many times that number, though it caused the vessel to be sneered at as “a tin can on a shingle” or “a cheese-box on a raft.” Her armor was nine inches thick in critical locations, and nowhere less than five, which would give her an advantage over her thinner-skinned opponent. The factors that made her truly the David to meet Goliath, however, were her 12-foot draft and her high maneuverability, which would combine her heavy punch with light fast footwork. Her sixty-man crew, men-of-war’s men all, had volunteered directly from the fleet, and “a better one no naval commander ever had the honor to command,” her captain said. His name was John L. Worden, a forty-four-year-old lieutenant with twenty-eight years in the service. He had been given the assignment—admittedly no plum—after seven months in a rebel prison, the result of having been captured back in April while trying to return from delivering secret messages to the Pensacola squadron. Obviously he was a man for desperate ventures, and perhaps the Department heads believed his months in durance would make him extra-anxious to hit back at the people who had held him. If they thought so, they were right. Nine days after the Monitor was commissioned he took her south for Hampton Roads.
Having weathered the storm, Worden rounded Cape Henry near sundown Saturday and heard guns booming twenty miles away. He guessed the cause and cleared for battle. But when he passed the Rip Raps, just before moonrise, and proceeded up the brightly lighted roadstead—each wave-crest a-sparkle with reflections of the flame-wrapped Congress—all he saw of the Virginia was the damage she had done: one ship sunk, another burning, and three more run ingloriously aground. An account of what had happened quickly told him what to do. Believing the Virginia would head first for her next morning, he put the Monitor alongside the Minnesota, kept his steam up, and waited.
Dawn came and at 7.30 he saw the big rebel ironclad coming straight for his stranded charge: whereupon he lifted anchor, darted out from behind the screening bulk of the frigate, and steamed forward to the attack. The Monitor’s sudden appearance was as unexpected as if she had dropped from the sky or floated up from the harbor bottom, squarely between the Virginia and her intended prize. “I guess she took us for some kind of a water tank,” one of the Monitor crewmen later said. “You can see surprise in a ship just as you can see it in a man, and there was surprise all over the Merrimac.”
He was right, or almost right. Instead of a water tank, however, “We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota’s boilers was being taken to shore for repairs,” a Virginia midshipman testified, “and when suddenly a shot was fired from her turret we imagined an accidental explosion of some kind had taken place on the raft.”
This mistake was not for long. Rumors of work-in-progress had been trickling south as well as north, and the Monitor was recognized and saluted in her own right with a salvo which broke against her turret with as little effect as the ones that had shattered against the armored flanks of the Virginia yesterday, when the superiority of iron over wood was first established. Now it was iron against iron. The Monitor promptly returned the fire, swinging her two guns to bear in rapid succession. The fight was on.
It lasted four hours, not including a half-hour midway intermission, and what it mainly showed—in addition to its reinforcement of what one of them had proved the day before: that wooden navies were obsolete—was that neither could sink the other. TheMonitor took full advantage of her higher speed and maneuverability, of her heavier, more flexible guns, and particularly of her lighter draft, which enabled her to draw off into the shallows for a breather where the other could not pursue. The Virginia’s supposed advantages, so impressive to the eye, were in fact highly doubtful. Her bigness, for example—the “Colossus of Roads,” one northern correspondent dubbed her—only made her more sluggish and easier to hit, and her eight guns were limited in traverse. The effectiveness of her knockout punch, demonstrated yesterday when she rammed the Cumberland, was considerably reduced by the loss of her iron beak. Also, she had come out armed for the destruction of the frigates; her explosive shell shattered easily against an armored target, and she had brought only a few solid rounds to be used as hot shot. Worden’s task, on the other hand, was complicated by the need for protecting the grounded Minnesota, which the Virginia would take under fire if he allowed her to get within range. Then too, his gun crews were disconcerted by whizzing screwheads that flew off the inner ends of the armor bolts and rattled about inside the turret whenever the enemy scored a direct hit.
Buchanan gone, command of the Virginia had passed to her executive, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones. He gave the Monitor everything he had given the wooden warships yesterday, and more: to no avail. When he tried to ram her, she drew aside like a skillful boxer and pounded him hard as he passed. After a few such exchanges, the crews of his after-guns, deafened by the concussion of 180-pound balls against the cracking railroad iron, were bleeding from their noses and ears. Descending once to the gundeck and observing that some of the pieces were not engaged, Jones shouted: “Why are you not firing, Mr Eggleston?” The gun captain shrugged. “Why, our powder is very precious,” he replied, “and after two hours’ incessant firing I find that I can do her about as much damage by snapping my thumb at her every two minutes and a half.”
At this point the Monitor hauled off into shallow water, where she spent fifteen minutes hoisting a new supply of shot and powder to her turret. Left alone, the Virginia made one of her drawn-out turns to come as near as possible to the grounded Minnesota, whose captain received her with what he called “a broadside which would have blown out of the water any timber-built ship in the world.” Unwincing, the ironclad put a rifled bow-gun shell into her and was about to swing broadside, bringing all her guns to bear, when theMonitor came steaming out of the shallows and intervened again, Worden having refreshed himself with a stroll on the deck and a general look-round while the fresh supply of ammunition was being made handy for his guns. The two ironclads reëngaged.
Jones by now had decided that if he was going to destroy his foe, it would have to be with something other than his guns. First he tried ramming, despite the absence of his iron beak. But the Monitor was too spry for him. The best he could manage was a blunt-prowed, glancing blow that shivered her timbers—“a tremendous thump,” one of her officers called it—but did her no real damage. The smaller ship kept circling her opponent, pounding away, one crewman said, “like a cooper with his hammer going round a cask.” Doubly frustrated, Jones then determined to try an even more desperate venture, one that would bring his crew’s five-to-one numerical advantage to bear. Having taken naval warfare a long stride forward yesterday, today he would take it an even longer one—back to the pistol-and-cutlass days of John Paul Jones. He would board his adversary. Equipping his men with tarpaulins for blinding the Monitor’s gun-slits and iron crows for jamming her turret and prying open her hatch, he had them stand by the sally ports while he maneuvered to get within grappling distance. It was a risky plan at best (far riskier than he knew; the Federal gunners were supplied with hand grenades for just such an emergency) yet it might have worked, if he could only have managed to bring the Virginiaalongside. He could not. Nimble as a skittish horse, the smaller vessel danced away from contact every time.
For two more hours this second act of the long fight continued, and all this time the Monitor was pounding her opponent like an anvil, cracking and breaking her armor plate, though not enough to penetrate its two-foot oak and pitch-pine backing. Soon after noon, in a last attempt at boarding—though by now the Virginia’s stack was so riddled that her fires could get almost no draft and her speed, already slow, was cut in half—Jones brought his ship within ten yards of the enemy and delivered at that point-blank range a 9-inch shell which exploded against the pilot house, squarely in front of the sight-slit where Worden had taken station to direct the helm and relay fire commands. The concussion cracked the crossbeam and partly lifted the iron lid, exposing the dark interior. Worden was stunned and blinded, ears ringing, beard singed, eyes filled with burning powder; but not too stunned to feel dismay, and not so blind that he did not see the sudden glare of the noonday sky through the break in the overhead armor. “Sheer off!” he cried, and the helmsman put her hard to starboard, running for the shallows.
While the Monitor retired to shoal water, and remained there to assess the damage she and her captain had suffered, the Virginia steamed ponderously across the deep-water battle scene with the proud air of a wrestler who has just thrown his opponent out of the ring. Presently, however—the ebb tide was running, keeping her out of range of the Minnesota, and she had settled considerably as a result of taking water through her seams—she drew off south across the Roads for Norfolk, claiming victory. As she withdrew, theMonitor came forward and took her turn at dominating the scene, basing her victory counterclaim on the fact that the Virginia did not turn back to continue the fight. This would result in much argument all around, though privately both antagonists admitted the obvious truth: that, tactically, the fight had been a draw. In a stricter sense, the laurels went to the Monitor for preventing the Virginia from completing her mission of destruction. Yet in the largest sense of all, and equally obvious, both had been victorious—over the wooden navies of the world.
Stretched out on the sofa in his cabin, Worden was “a ghastly sight,” according to the executive who went to receive instructions from him upon assuming command. When the captain could speak, lying there with his beard singed, his face bloody, and his eyes tight shut as if to hold the pain in, his first words were a question: “Have I saved the Minnesota?”
“Yes,” he was told, “and whipped the Merrimac.”
“Then I don’t care what happens to me,” he said.
As it had a perverse tendency to do in times of crisis, the telegraph line to Washington from Fort Monroe had gone out that Sabbath morning, and it stayed dead till just past 4 that afternoon. During all this long, exasperating time, among all the officials waiting fidgety behind the sound-proof curtain which sealed them off from news of the fight at Hampton Roads, none awaited the outcome with a deeper concern than George McClellan. The campaign he was about to launch depended on the Federal navy’s maintaining domination of the bays and coastal rivers north of the James. It required very little imagination—far less, at any rate, than McClellan was blessed or cursed with—to picture what would happen if enemy gunboats—even wooden ones, let alone the frigate-killingMerrimac-Virginia—got among his loaded transports on their way down Chesapeake Bay or up the Rappahannock River.
Before news of the ironclad duel reached Washington, however, he received outpost dispatches which shipwrecked the Urbanna plan as completely as the sinking of the Monitor would have done: Joe Johnston was gone from the Manassas line. Most of his army was already back on the banks of the Rappahannock, intrenching itself near the very spot McClellan had picked for a beachhead. To land at Urbanna now, he saw, would be to land not in Johnston’s rear, but with Johnston in his own.
Despite this abrupt and, so to speak, ill-mannered joggling of the military chessboard after all the pains he had taken to dispose the pieces to his liking, he was none the less relieved when, immediately following the news of Johnston’s retrograde maneuver, the wire from Fort Monroe came suddenly alive with jubilant chatter of a victory by stalemate. The rebel ironclad had gone limping back to Norfolk, neutralized. He could breathe. What was more, he saw in this new turn of events an opportunity to put the finishing touch to his army’s rigorous eight-month course of training: a practice march, deep into enemy territory—under combat conditions, with full field equipment and carefully worked-out logistics—and then another march right back again, since there was nothing there that he would not gain, automatically and bloodlessly, by going ahead with his roundabout plan for a landing down the coast. Warning orders went out that night, alerting the commanders. Next day the troops were slogging south, well-ordered dark-blue columns probing the muddy North Virginia landscape.
Excellent as this was as a graduation exercise to cap the army’s basic training program, it had a bad effect on the public’s opinion of Little Mac as the man to whip the rebels. Armchair strategists found in it the answer to the taunting refrain of a current popular song, “What are you waiting for, tardy George?” What he had been waiting for, apparently, was the departure of Johnston’s army, which he had not ventured to risk encountering face-to-face. There was truth in this, though it omitted the balancing truth that, however frightened he might have been of Johnston, the thing he had least wanted was for Johnston to be frightened of him—frightened, that was, into pulling back and thus eluding the trap McClellan had spent all these months contriving. Lacking this restricted information, all the public could see was that Tardy George had delayed going forward until he knew there was nothing out there on the southern horizon for him to fear.
The outrage was screwed to a higher pitch when reports came back from newspapermen who had marched with the army through the supposedly impregnable fortifications along the Centerville ridge, where Quaker guns had been left in the embrasures to mock the Yankees. It was Munson’s Hill all over again, the correspondents cried; “Our enemies, like the Chinese, have frightened us by the sound of gongs and the wearing of devils’ masks.” What was more, the smoldering wreckage of the Confederate camps showed conclusively that Johnston’s army had been no more than half the size McClellan estimated. “Utterly dispirited, ashamed and humiliated,” one reporter wrote, “I return from this visit to the rebel stronghold, feeling that their retreat is our defeat.” The feeling was general. “It was a contest of inertia,” another declared; “our side outsat the other.”
These were nonprofessional opinions, which in general the army did not share. Civilians liked their victories bloody: the bloodier the better, so long as the casualty lists did not touch home. Soldiers—except perhaps in retrospect, when they had become civilians, too—preferred them bloodless, as in this case. The Centerville fortifications looked formidable enough to the men who would have had to assault them, peeled log guns or no. Besides, some of them—old-timers now—could contrast this march with the berry-picking jaunt which had ended so disastrously in July.
It went smoothly, with a minimum of stop-and-go. There was no need to fall out of column when everything a man could want was right there in the supply train. They were an army now, and they looked it, in their manner and their dress. There were still a few outlandish Zouave outfits to lend the column sudden garish bursts of color, like mismatched beads on a string, but for the most part they wore the uniform which had lately become standard: light-blue trousers and a tunic of dark blue, with a crisp white edge of collar showing just under the jowls of the men in regiments whose colonels, being dudes or incurable old-army martinets, preferred it so.
Whatever truth there might once have been in the Confederate claim that Southerners made better soldiers, or anyhow started from a better scratch because they came directly from life in the open and were familiar with the use of firearms, applied no longer. After six months of army drill, a factory hand was indistinguishable from a farmer. Individually, the Northerners knew, they were at least as tough as any men the South could bring against them, and probably as a whole they were better drilled—except of course the cavalry, since admittedly it took longer to learn to fork a horse in style. McClellan’s men were aware of the changes he had wrought and they were proud of them; but the thing that made them proudest of all was the sight of Little Mac himself. He was up and down the column all that day, glad to be out from under the shadow of the Capitol dome and the sneers of the politicians, not answering ignorant questions or countering even more ignorant proposals, but returning the cheers of his marching men with a jaunty horseback salute.
Presently, crossing Bull Run by Blackburn’s Ford, they came onto the scene of last year’s smoky, flame-stabbed panorama. It was a sobering sight, for those who had been there then and those who hadn’t: the corpse of a battlefield, silent and deserted except perhaps for the ghosts of the fallen. Shell-blasted, the treetops were twisted “in a hundred directions, as though struck by lightning,” one correspondent wrote. Manassas Junction lay dead ahead, the embers of it anyhow, at the base of a column of bluish-yellow smoke, and off to the right were the tumbled bricks of Judith Henry’s chimney, on the hill where the Stonewall Brigade had met the jubilant attackers, freezing the cheers in their throats, and flung them back; Jeb Stuart’s horsemen had come with a thunder of hoofs, hacking away at the heads of the New York Fire Zouaves. All that was left now was wreckage, the charred remains of a locomotive and four freight cars, five hundred staved-in barrels of flour, and fifty-odd barrels of pork and beef “scattered around in the mud.” McDowell was there, at the head of his corps, and one of his soldiers wrote that he saw him weeping over the sun-bleached bones of the light-hearted berry-picking men he had led southward under the full moon of July.
McClellan was not weeping. This field held no memories for him, sad or otherwise, except that what had happened here had prompted Lincoln to send for him to head the army he found “cowering on the banks of the Potomac” and later to replace Scott as chief of all the nation’s armies. He went to bed that night, proud to have taken without loss the position McDowell had been thrown back from after spilling on it the blood of 1500 men. Next day he was happy still, riding among the bivouacs. But the day that followed was another matter. He woke to find his time had come to weep.
Once more he had turned his back on Lincoln, and once more Lincoln had struck with a War Order. This one, numbered 3, relieved McClellan as general-in-chief and left him commanding only the Department of the Potomac, one of seven in the eastern theater. The worst of it, in damage to his pride, was that he learned of the order, not through military channels, but by a telegram from friends in Washington who read it in the papers: Stanton’s office had leaked the order to the press before forwarding it to McClellan in the field. Within one week of learning that his Commander in Chief had listened to charges of treason against him, of being forced to reorganize his army on the eve of committing it to action under corps commanders who had gone on record as being opposed to his military thinking, he was toppled unceremoniously from the highest rung of the professional ladder.
This was hard. Indeed, it might have been the crowning blow, except that later that same day, March 12, he was comforted by a mutual friend whom the President sent with the full text and an explanation of the order. He was relieved of the chief command “until otherwise ordered,” it read: which implied that the demotion was temporary. Furthermore, the envoy explained, the order had been issued primarily to allow him to concentrate, without distractions, on the big campaign ahead. McClellan took heart at this and wrote to Lincoln at once, informing him that “I shall work just as cheerfully as before, and that no consideration of self will in any manner interfere with the discharge of my public duties.”
So he said, and doubtless believed. He would have been considerably less cheerful, though, if he had known of other things that were happening behind his back, this same week in Washington; “that sink of iniquity,” he called it.
Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a sixty-four-year-old Vermonter, West Point graduate and veteran of the Seminole and Mexican Wars, was surprised to receive from the War Department in mid-March a telegram summoning him to Washington. He had been retired from the army since 1855, and never would have entered it in the first place if his parents had not insisted that the grandson and namesake of the Hero of Ticonderoga was obliged to take up arms as a profession. Hitchcock’s principal interests were philosophy and mysticism; he considered himself “a scholar rather than a warrior,” and had written books on Swedenborg and alchemy and Jesus. His first reaction to the summons that plucked him from retirement was a violent nosebleed. He got aboard a train, however, suffering a second hemorrhage on the way and a third on arrival, each more violent than the one before. Checking into a Washington hotel, he took to the bed in a dazed, unhappy condition.
Presently the Secretary of War was at his bedside. While the old soldier lay too weak to rise and greet him, Stanton told him why he had been sent for. He and Lincoln needed him as a military adviser. The air was thick with treason!… Before Hitchcock could recover from his alarm at this, the Secretary put a question to him: Would he consider taking McClellan’s place as commander of the Army of the Potomac? Hitchcock scarcely knew what to make of this. Next thing he knew, Stanton had him out of bed and on the way to the White House, where Lincoln repeated the Secretary’s request. Badly confused, Hitchcock wrote in his diary when he got back to his room that night: “I want no command. I want no department.… I am uncomfortable.” Finally he agreed to accept an appointment as head of the Army Board, made up of War Department bureau chiefs. In effect, this amounted to being the right-hand man of Stanton, who terrified him daily by alternately bullying and cajoling him. He was perhaps the unhappiest man in Washington.
Unsuspecting that the President and the Secretary of War were even now casting about for a replacement for him, McClellan completed his army’s graduation exercise by marching it back to its starting point, Fairfax Courthouse, to deliver the baccalaureate address. After congratulating his soldiers on their progress, he announced that their long months of study were behind them; he was about to take them “where you all long to be—the decisive battlefield.” In solicitude, he added, “I am to watch over you as a parent over his children; and you know that your general loves you from the depths of his heart. It shall be my care, as it ever has been, to gain success with the least possible loss; but I know that, if necessary, you will willingly follow me to our graves for our righteous cause.… I shall demand of you great, heroic exertions, rapid and long marches, desperate combats, privations perhaps. We will share all these together; and when this sad war is over we will return to our homes, and feel that we can ask no higher honor than the proud consciousness that we belonged to the Army of the Potomac.”
With their cheers ringing in his ears, he turned at once to perfect his plans for a landing down the coast. Urbanna was out, but Mob-jack Bay and Fort Monroe were still available. In fact, though he had pronounced these alternatives “less brilliant”—by which he meant that they would not outflank the enemy, neither Johnston to the north nor Magruder to the south—now that he came to examine it intently, Fort Monroe had definite advantages Urbanna had not afforded. For one thing, the beachhead was already established, Old Point Comfort having been held throughout the secession furor despite the loss of Norfolk across the way. For another, during his advance up the York-James peninsula toward Richmond, his flanks would be protected by the navy, which could also assist in the reduction of any strongpoints he encountered within range of its big guns. The more he studied the scheme the better he liked it.
By now, however, he had learned to look back over his shoulder. Lincoln had to be considered: not only considered, but outmaneuvered. Once before, he had accomplished this by calling a conference of his generals and confronting the President with their concerted opinions as to the soundness of a military plan. In that case Lincoln had not dared to override him; nor would he now. So McClellan called his corps commanders together, there at Fairfax, and presented them with his proposal for a landing at Fort Monroe. Having heard him out, the four generals expressed unanimous approval—provided four conditions could be met. These were that the Merrimac could be kept out of action, that there were sufficient transportation facilities to take the army down the coast, that the navy could silence certain fortifications on York River, and that enough troops were left behind to give the capital “an entire feeling of security for its safety from menace.” They were not in full agreement as to how many men would be needed to accomplish this last condition, but their estimates ran generally to 40,000.
McClellan had them put their approval in writing, that same March 13, then sent McDowell to Washington to present it to Stanton and Lincoln. As soon as McDowell had had time to get there, McClellan received a wire from Stanton. McDowell had shown up with a paper signed by the corps commanders; did McClellan intend for the plan it approved to be taken as his own? McClellan replied that it did. After another interval, allowing time for the Secretary and Lincoln to confer, a second Stanton telegram arrived. Lincoln did not exactly approve; rather, as Stanton phrased it, he “[made] no objection,” so long as enough of McClellan’s men were left behind to keep Washington and Manassas safe while the army was down the coast. The final paragraph, which made consent explicit, was petulant and sneering: “Move the remainder of the force down the Potomac, choosing a new base at Fortress Monroe, or anywhere between here and there, or, at all events, move such remainder of the army at once in pursuit of the enemy by some route.”
Perhaps by now McClellan had learned to abide the tantrums and exasperations of his former friend and sympathizer. At any rate, having won the consent he sought, he could overlook the tone in which it was given. However, that Manassas, too, was to be afforded what the generals called “an entire feeling of security” imposed an additional manpower drain on which he had not counted. He was tempted to give Lincoln another tactics-strategy lecture, proving that the place would be in no danger, and in fact of small importance, once his landing on the Peninsula had drawn Johnston’s army farther south to oppose his swoop on Richmond. But there was too much else to do just now; he had no time for arguments and lectures. The transports were being assembled at Alexandria—113 steamers, 188 schooners, and 88 barges: by far the largest amphibious expedition the hemisphere had ever seen—to take his army down the Virginia coast, with all its equipment and supplies, guns and wagons, food and ammunition, horses and beef cattle, tents and records, all the impedimenta required to feed, clothe, and arm 146,000 men. They were to move in echelons of 10,000, on a schedule designed to complete the shuttle within three weeks. McClellan worked hard and long, giving the loading his personal attention. Within four days of receiving Lincoln’s approval, or anyhow what amounted to approval, he stood on an Alexandria wharf and saw the first contingent off on its journey south.
“The worst is over,” he wired Stanton. “Rely upon it that I will carry this thing through handsomely.”
Such optimistic expressions by the Young Napoleon were usually precursors of disappointment or disaster. Not only was this one no exception, it had in fact a double repercussion, set off in his rear by two men who opposed McClellan as well as each other: Stonewall Jackson, who had done so much to wreck McDowell on Henry Hill, and John Charles Frémont, who had done so much—though with less success—to damage Lincoln in Missouri. The two blows landed in that order, both before the Army of the Potomac had completed its roundabout journey down Chesapeake Bay. The first echelon left Alexandria on March 17, a Monday. Before the week was up, Jackson stabbed hard at the troops McClellan had left behind (in accordance with Lincoln’s concern) to block any Confederate drive on Washington through the Shenandoah Valley, that corridor pointed shotgun-like at the Union solar plexus.
When Johnston fell back to the Rappahannock he instructed Jackson to conform by retreating southward up the Valley in event of a Federal push, taking care meanwhile to protect the main army’s western flank by guarding the eastern passes of the Blue Ridge. Jackson of course obeyed, but not without a plea that he be allowed at least a chance to hurt the man who pushed him. As he put it, “If we cannot be successful in defeating the enemy should he advance, a kind Providence may enable us to inflict a terrible wound and effect a safe retreat in the event of having to fall back.”
Old Blue Light, his soldiers called him; they had seen the fire of battle in his eyes. He read the New Testament in his off-hours, but did his military thinking in accordance with the Old, which advised smiting the enemy, hip and thigh, and assured the assistance of Providence in the infliction of terrible wounds.
At any rate, he soon had the chance he prayed for. When Johnston fell back the Federals came forward, two divisions of them marching up the Valley in coöperation with McClellan’s excursion east of the mountains. Jackson, with 4600 men, retreated watchfully before the Federal 17,000, awaiting the answer to his prayers. Then it came. As he fell back through Winchester, spies reported the enemy regiments scattered. A quick slash at the head might confuse the whole column into exposing one or two of its segments to destruction. When he called a meeting of his officers to plan the attack, however, he learned that his wagon train was already miles to the south. Without food or reserve ammunition, his hungry men would have to continue their retreat. Jackson was furious, somehow placing the blame on the assembly of officers. “That is the last council of war I will ever hold!” he vowed. And it was.
The retreat continued through Kernstown, four miles to the south, then another forty miles up the Valley pike, past the slopes of the Massanuttons. All through the retreat Jackson watched and prayed, but for ten days Providence did not smile on him again. Then suddenly it did. On Friday the 21st his cavalry commander reported the enemy pulling back; one division had turned off eastward toward Manassas, and the other was retiring north toward Winchester. Next morning Jackson had his infantry on the road. Twenty-five miles they marched that day and fifteen the next, retracing their steps to reach Kernstown at 2 p.m. Sunday and find the horse artillery already skirmishing with what the cavalry commander said was the Federal rear guard, four regiments left to protect the tail of the column slogging north for Harpers Ferry. Jackson’s blue eyes lighted. Here was the chance to inflict that terrible wound.
Certain considerations urged postponement. He had made no detailed personal reconnaissance. His ranks were thinned by 1500 stragglers he had left along the pike in the past two days. Last but not least, this was the Lord’s day; Jackson would not even write a letter on a Sunday, or post one that would be in transit then, fearing that Providence might punish the profanation. These were all set aside, however, when weighed against the chances for success. There must be no delay; the sun was already down the sky. Without taking time to brief his commanders, he put his men into attack formation, the Stonewall Brigade in the center, and threw them forward. This was his first full-scale battle on his own, and he intended to make the victory sudden and complete.
It was sudden enough, but it was so far from complete that it was not even a victory. It was a repulse, and a bloody one at that. When the men in gray went forward, the Federals absorbed the shock and held their ground, returning the fire. Quickly it swelled to crescendo as Jackson sent in his reserves. Presently, to his amazement, men began to stumble out of the roar and flash of battle, making for the rear. He rode forward to block the way. “Where are you going, man?” he shouted at one retreater. The soldier explained that he had fired all his cartridges. “Then go back and give them the bayonet!” Jackson cried. But the man ran on, unheeding, one among many. Even the Stonewall Brigade, with its hard core of veterans who had stood fast on Henry Hill, was wavering. Just as it was about to break, its commander Brigadier General Richard Garnett gave the order to retreat. Amazed at what appeared to be his army’s disintegration, Jackson seized a drummer boy by the shoulder and dragged him onto a knoll, shouting as he held him: “Beat the rally!” The roll of the drum did nothing to slow the rout; Jackson fell back in the demoralized wake of his soldiers. Fortunately for him, the Federals did not pursue. The Battle of Kernstown, such as it was, was over.
Suffering 700 casualties to the enemy’s 590, Jackson’s men had done a better job than Jackson himself when it came to estimating Federal strength. That was no mere rear guard they had charged, but a whole 9000-man division. When he learned that he had thus unknowingly reversed the dictum that the attacker must outnumber the defender three-to-one, Jackson did not allow it to temper the sternness of his discipline. Garnett had retreated without orders; peremptorily Jackson relieved him of command and put him in arrest to await court martial for neglect of duty. It did not matter that he had graduated from West Point the year before Jackson came there as a plebe, that he was a member of the proud Tidewater family which had given the Confederacy the first general officer lost in battle, or that his men loved him and resented the harshness that took him from them. It did not even matter that his brigade might have been cut to pieces if he had held it there, outnumbered, outflanked, and out of ammunition, while he went fumbling along the chain of command in search of permission to withdraw. What mattered was that the next officer who found himself in a tight spot would stay there, awaiting higher sanction, before ordering a retreat.
As for accepting any personal blame for this loss of nearly one-fourth of his little army because of ragged marching, faulty reconnaissance, poor intelligence, ill-prepared assault, or disorganized retreat, Jackson could not see it. In fact, he did not seem to understand that he had been defeated. “The Yankees don’t seem willing to quit Winchester, General,” a young cavalryman said in bivouac that night. Jackson replied, “Winchester is a very pleasant place to stay in, sir.” The trooper attempted a further pleasantry: “It was reported that they were retreating, but I guess they were retreating after us.” Jackson, who had a limited sense of humor, kept looking into the campfire. “I think I may say I am satisfied, sir,” he said.
How far he saw into the future as he said this would remain a question to be pondered down the years, but most likely Old Blue Light would have been still more “satisfied” if he had known the reaction his repulse was producing that night in the enemy camp, even as he warmed his hands at the bivouac fire and refused to admit that what he had suffered was a defeat. His adversary, while congratulating himself on a hard-fought victory, could not believe that Jackson would have dared to attack without expecting reinforcements. Orders went out, recalling to the Valley the division that had left for Manassas two days ago: which meant, in effect, a loss of 8000 men for McClellan, who was charged with leaving a covering force to protect the Junction when the balance of his army sailed. Equally important, if not more so, was the effect on Lincoln, who quarter-faced at the news of the battle, victory or no, and found himself looking once more down the muzzle of the Shenandoah shotgun. The Kernstown explosion seemed to prove that it was loaded.
Whatever it was for Lincoln, news of the battle, coupled with the recall of the division headed eastward, was a thorn in McClellan’s side—a hurt which in time might fester and hurt worse. As such, however, it was no sharper than the thorn that stuck him one week later, on the eve of his own departure for Fort Monroe. He had in his army, in Sumner’s corps, a division commanded by Louis Blenker, a man of considerable flamboyance. Blenker was a soldier of fortune, a German, and his men were known as Germans, too, this being the current generic term for immigrants of all origins except Ireland. But the fact was, they were almost everything: Algerians, Cossacks, Sepoys, Turks, Croats, Swiss, French Foreign Legionnaires, and a Garibaldi regiment with a Hungarian colonel, one d’Utassy, who had begun his career as a circus rider and was to end it as an inmate of Sing Sing. Blenker affected a red-lined cape and a headquarters tent made of “double folds of bluish material, restful to the eye,” where the shout, “Ordinans numero eins!”was the signal for the serving of champagne. His soldiers got lager beer and there was a prevailing aroma of sauerkraut around the company messes. All this—the glitter of fire-gilt buttons, the babble of polyglot commands, and the smell of German cooking—was reminiscent of one of Frémont’s old Transmississippi outfits. And the fact was, Frémont was doing all he could to get hold of the division even now.
The Pathfinder was back on the road to glory, though it led now, not through Missouri or down the winding course of the Mississippi, but along the western border of Virginia and across the rolling peaks of the Alleghenies. Under pressure from the Jacobins, who had never stopped protesting their favorite’s dismissal and urging that he be returned to duty, Lincoln, in the same War Order which removed McClellan from over-all command, plucked Frémont out of retirement and gave him what was called the Mountain Department, specially created for this purpose, along with 25,000 men. Having learned that the former explorer was a poor administrator, he now presented him with this chance to prove himself a fighter. Frémont at once came up with a plan he knew would delight the President. Give him 10,000 additional soldiers, he said, and he would capture Knoxville. What was more, he had a particular 10,000 in mind: Blenker’s Germans.
Lincoln pricked up his ears at this offer to accomplish one of his pet war aims, then went down to Alexandria to see if McClellan was willing to give up the division. Far from willing, McClellan urged the Commander in Chief not to weaken the Army of the Potomac at the moment when it was half-embarked on its trip to the gates of Richmond. Lincoln agreed on second thought that it would not do, and returned to Washington. Once more he had gotten nowhere with McClellan face-to-face. Within the week, however, on the final day of March, the general received a presidential note: “This morning I felt constrained to order Blenker’s division to Frémont; and I write this to assure you that I did so with great pain, understanding that you would wish it otherwise. If you could know the full pressure of the case I am confident that you would justify it, even beyond a mere acknowledgment that the Commander in Chief may order what he pleases. Yours very truly, A. Lincoln.”
The closing phrase had a Stantonian ring, administering a backhand cut that stung; but what alarmed McClellan most was the undeniable evidence that, under political pressure, the nation’s leader would swerve into paths which he knew were militarily unwise. How much grief this might hold for the army remained to be seen. For the present, McClellan could only repeat what he had written to his wife three weeks ago, when he learned of War Order 3: “The rascals are after me again. I had been foolish enough to hope that when I went into the field they would give me some rest, but it seems otherwise. Perhaps I should have expected it. If I can get out of this scrape you will never catch me in the power of such a set again.”
Now as then, however, he was too busy to protest. Just before embarking next afternoon—All Fools’ Day—he sent Lincoln a roster of the troops he was leaving for the protection of the capital. His generals had advised a covering force of 40,000. McClellan listed 77,456, thus: 10,859 at Manassas, 7780 at Warrenton, 35,476 in the Shenandoah Valley, 1350 along the lower Potomac, and 22,000 around Washington proper. This done, he went aboard a steamer, worked in his cabin on last-minute paperwork details till after midnight, then set out for Fort Monroe. McDowell’s corps and what was left of Sumner’s were to come along behind within the week. Looking back on the journey after landing at Old Point Comfort, he informed his wife, “I did not feel safe until I could see Alexandria behind us.”
What was called for now, he saw, was action. He kept busy all that day and the next. “The great battle,” he wrote his wife, “will be (I think) near Richmond, as I have always hoped and thought. I see my way very clearly, and, with my trains once ready, will move rapidly.” The following morning, April 4, he put two columns in motion for Yorktown, where the Confederate left was anchored on York River, behind fortifications whose reduction his corps commanders had said would depend on naval coöperation. All went well on the approach march. The day was clear, the sky bright blue, the trees new-green and shiny. Near sundown, exultant, he wired Stanton: “I expect to fight tomorrow.”
His spirits were much improved at the prospect, and also perhaps from having observed what he called “a wonderfully cool performance” by three of his soldiers that afternoon. The trio of foragers had chased a sheep within range of the rebel intrenchments, where, ignoring the fire of sharpshooters—but not the fact that they were being watched by McClellan and their comrades while they demonstrated their contempt for the enemy’s marksmanship—they calmly killed and skinned the animal before heading back for their own lines. The Confederates then brought a 12-pounder to bear, scoring a near miss. Undaunted, the soldiers halted, picked up the shot, and lugged it along, still warm, for presentation to Little Mac.
“I never saw so cool and gallant a set of men,” he declared, seeing in this bright cameo of action a reflection of the spirit of his whole army. “They did not seem to know what fear is.”
This gap in their education was about to be filled, however.