EARL VAN DORN CAME WEST WITH GREAT expectations. He knew what opportunities awaited a bold commander there, and his professional boldness had been tested and applauded. Approaching his prime at forty-one, he was dark-skinned and thin-faced, with a shaggy mustache, an imperial, and a quick, decisive manner; “Buck,” his fellow Confederates called him. Except for his size (he was five feet five: two inches taller than Napoleon) he was in fact the very beau sabreur of Southern fable, the Bayard-Lochinvar of maiden dreams. Not that his distinction was based solely on his looks. He was a man of action, too—one who knew how to grasp the nettle, danger, and had done so many times. Appointed to West Point by his great-uncle Andrew Jackson, he had gone on to collect two brevets and five wounds as a lieutenant in the Mexican War and in skirmishes with Comanches on the warpath. In the end, he had been rewarded with a captaincy in Sidney Johnston’s 2d Cavalry, adding his own particular glitter to that spangled company.
He was a Mississippian, which simplified his decision when the South seceded; for him there was little or none of the “agony” of the border state professionals. Furthermore, as it did for others blessed or cursed with an ache for adventure, the conflict promised deferment of middle age and boredom. He came home and was made a brigadier, second only to Jefferson Davis in command of Mississippi troops, and then received the command itself, with the rank of major general, when Davis left for Montgomery. This was much, but not enough. Wanting action even more than rank, and what he called “immortal renown” more than either, Van Dorn resigned to accept a colonel’s commission in the Confederate army and assignment to service in Texas. Here he found at least a part of what he was seeking. At Galveston he assembled a scratch brigade of volunteers and captured three Federal steamships in the harbor—including the famous Star of the West, which had been fired on, back in January, for attempting relief of Sumter—then marched on Indianola, where he forced the surrender of the only body of U.S. regulars in the state.
For these exploits, characterized by incisiveness and daring, he was tendered a banquet and ball in San Antonio and had his praises sung in all the southern papers, though perhaps the finest compliment paid him was by a northern editor who put a price of $5000 on his head, this being nearly twice the standing offer for the head of Beauregard. In acknowledgment of his services and fame, the government gave him a double promotion and summoned him to Richmond; he was a major general again, this time in command of all the cavalry in Virginia. Even this did not seem commensurate with his abilities, however. Presently, when Davis was in need of a commander for what was to be called Transmississippi Department Number 2, he had to look no farther than his fellow-Mississippian Earl Van Dorn, right there at hand. It was another case, apparently, of History attending to her own.
Within nine days of his mid-January assignment to the West, despite the fact that he was convalescing from a bad fall suffered while attempting a risky ditch jump—he was an excellent horseman; his aide, required by custom to try it too, was injured even worse—Van Dorn established headquarters at Pocahontas, Arkansas, and began a first-hand estimate of the situation. This in itself was quite a task, since the command included all of Missouri and Arkansas, Indian Territory, and Louisiana down to the Red River. But one thing he had determined at the outset: he would go forward, north along the line of the Mississippi, taking cities and whipping Yankee armies as he went. In short, as Van Dorn saw it, the campaign was to be a sort of grand reversal of Frémont’s proposed descent of the big river. On the day of his appointment, already packing for the long ride west from Richmond, he had written his wife: “I must have St Louis—then huzza!”
So much he intended; but first, he knew, he must concentrate his scattered troops for striking. Ben McCulloch’s army of 8000 was camped in the Boston Mountains south of Fayetteville, the position it had taken after the victory over Lyon at Wilson’s Creek. Off in the Territory, moving to join him, was a band of about 2000 pro-Confederate Indians, Creeks and Seminoles, Cherokees, Chickasaws and Choctaws, won over by the persuasions of the lawyer-poet, scholar-duelist, orator-soldier Albert Pike, who led them. Sterling Price’s 7000 Missourians, under pressure from a superior Federal army after their late fall and early winter successes in their home state, had fallen back to a position near the scene of their August triumph. Combined, these three totaled something under half the striking force the new commander had envisioned; but 17,000 should be enough to crush the Federals threatening Springfield—after which would come St Louis, “then huzza!” Van Dorn planned to unite at Ironton, fight, and then swing north, augmented by the enthusiasts a victory would bring trooping to the colors. Deep in the bleak western woods, he hailed his army with Napoleonic phrases: “Soldiers! Behold your leader! He comes to show you the way to glory and immortal renown.… Awake, young men of Arkansas, and arm! Beautiful maidens of Louisiana, smile not on the craven youth who may linger by your hearth when the rude blast of war is sounding in your ears! Texas chivalry, to arms!”
This might have brought in volunteers, a host bristling with bayonets much as the address itself bristled with exclamation points, though as events turned out there was no time for knowing. By now it was late February, and the pressure of the 12,000-man northern army against Springfield was too great. Price gave way, retreating while his rear guard skirmished to delay the Federals: first across the Arkansas line, then down through Fayetteville, until presently he was with McCulloch in the Boston Mountains, the southernmost reach of the Ozarks. By that time, Pike had come up too; Van Dorn’s command was concentrated—not where he had wanted it, however, and not so much by his own efforts as by the enemy’s. Then too, except in the actual heat of battle, Price and McCulloch had never really got along, and they did no better now. Both appealed to their leader at Pocahontas to come and resolve their differences in person.
Van Dorn was more than willing. In four days, after sending word for them to stand firm and prepare to attack, he rode two hundred horseback miles through the wintry wilds of Arkansas. Arriving March 3, he was given a salute of forty guns, as befitted his rank, and that night orders went out for the men to prepare three days’ cooked rations and gird themselves for a forced march, with combat at its end. The Federals, widely separated in pursuit of Price, were about to be destroyed in detail.
Early next morning the Southerners set out, 17,000 men and sixty guns moving north to retake what had been lost by retrograde: as conglomerate, as motley an army as the sun ever shone on, East or West—though as a matter of fact the sun was not shining now. Snow fell out of an overcast sky and the wind whipped the underbrush and keened in the branches of the winter trees. Price’s Missourians led the way, marching homeward again, proud of the campaign they had staged and proud, too, of their 290-pound ex-governor commander, who could be at once so genial and majestic. McCulloch, the dead-shot former Ranger, wearing a dove-gray corduroy jacket, sky-blue trousers, Wellington boots, and a highly polished Maynard rifle slung across one shoulder, rode among his Texans and Arkansans; “Texicans” and “Rackansackers,” they were called—hard-bitten men accustomed to life in the open, who boasted that they would storm hell itself if McCulloch gave the order. Off on the flank, in a long thin file, the Five Nations Indians followed their leader Albert Pike, a big man bearded like Santa Claus except that the beard was not white but a vigorous gray. He rode in a carriage and was dressed in Sioux regalia, buckskin shirt, fringed leggins, and beaded moccasins, while his braves, harking back to their warpath days, wore feathers stuck in their hats and scalping knives in their waistbands, some marching with a musket in one hand and a tomahawk in the other. The knives were for more than show; they intended to use them, having promised their squaws the accustomed trophies of battle.
Van Dorn also rode horse-drawn. He rode, in fact, supine in an ambulance, still feeling the effects of the ditch-jump back in Virginia and down as well with chills and fever as a result of swimming his mare across an icy river two days ago in his haste to join the army and get it moving. The mare was hitched alongside now, available in emergencies, and Price rode alongside too, identifying passing units and ready to relay orders when the time came. The new commander was nothing if not a man of action, bold and forward, sick or well, and the troops he led had caught something of his spirit. Trudging up the road down which they had retreated just the week before, they were in a high good humor despite the norther blowing wet snow in their faces.
The previous afternoon, some dozen miles away on a grassy knoll near Cross Hollows, Arkansas, where his headquarters tent was pitched, the commander of the army that had just cleared southwest Missouri of organized Confederates sat writing a letter home. At fifty-seven, having put on weight, he found that long hours in the saddle wearied him now a good deal more than they had done fifteen years before, when he had abandoned army life for civil engineering. A dish-faced man with a tall forehead and thinning, wavy hair, hazel eyes and a wide, slack-lipped mouth, he drew solace from such periods of relaxation as this, sitting in full uniform, polished boots, epaulets and spurs, enjoying the sounds of camp life in the background and the singing of the birds, while he inscribed to the wife of his bosom letters which he signed, rather ponderously, “yours Saml R. Curtis.” A West Pointer like the opponent he did not yet know he was facing, he had commanded an Ohio regiment in the Mexican War, had been chief engineer for the city of St Louis, and had served for the past three years as Republican congressman from Iowa. Of all his accomplishments, however, he was proudest of the current one, performed as a brigadier general of volunteers. Chasing the rebels out of Missouri might not sound like much, compared to Grant’s recent unconditional capture of two forts and one whole army in Tennessee, but Curtis felt that it was a substantial achievement. He was saying so in the letter when his writing was interrupted by the sudden far-off rumble of cannon. It came from the south, and he counted forty well-spaced booms: the salute for a major general.
This gave him pause, and with the pause came doubts. His four divisions were rather scattered, two of them twelve miles in his rear and two thrown forward under Franz Sigel, the immigrant mathematics instructor who had shown a talent for retreat at Wilson’s Creek. Curtis was a cautious or at any rate a highly methodical person; he liked to allow for contingencies, an engineer’s margin for stress and strain, and he could never feel comfortable until he knew he had done so. Back in the fall, inspecting Frémont’s pinwheel dispositions, he had reported that the Pathfinder “lacked the intelligence, the experience, and the sagacity necessary to his command.” Placing as he did the highest value on all three of these qualities—especially the last, which he himself personified—that was about the worst he could say of a man. Accordingly, when Frémont was removed and Curtis was given the task of driving the rebels out of Missouri—which Frémont had considered more or less incidental to the grand design—he went about it differently. He gave it his full attention, and it went well: too well, in fact, or anyhow too easy. Price fell back and the Federals followed through a deserted region, cabins empty though food was still bubbling in pots on ranges, laundry soaking in lukewarm sudsy water, clocks ticking ominously on mantels, and now this: forty booms from across the wintry landscape, signifying for all to hear that an over-all enemy chieftain had arrived. Curtis thought perhaps he had better consolidate to meet developments that threatened stress and strain.
Next day his fears were reinforced, and indeed confirmed, when scouts—including young Wild Bill Hickok, addicted to gaudy shirts and a mustache whose ends could be knotted behind his head—came riding in with reports that the Confederates were marching north in strength. Convinced and alarmed, Curtis sent word for Sigel to exercise his talent by falling back on Sugar Creek, up near the Missouri line, where he himself would be waiting with the other two divisions. There they would combine and, in turn, await the enemy. It was a good defensive position, with a boggy stream across the front and a high ridge to protect the rear, as both men knew from having come through it the week before, in pursuit of Price. Also, if they hurried, there would be time to fortify. Curtis fell back, as planned, and presently received word that Sigel was coming, skirmishing as he came. Near sundown, March 6, he got there with the grayback cavalry close behind him, hacking at his rear. He strode into the commander’s tent, a small, quick-gestured, red-haired man in gold-frame spectacles, each lens scarcely bigger around than a quarter, and announced in broken English that he was hungry. He had lost two regiments, pinched off in the chase as had been feared; otherwise he was whole and hearty, eager for more fighting. Just now, though, he was hungry.
Curtis hardly knew what to make of such a man, but he fed him and took him out for an inspection of the lines. Sigel’s two divisions were on the right, the other two having side-stepped to make room for them on the two-mile-long shelf of land overlooking the hollow of Sugar Creek. A mile to their rear was the hamlet of Leetown, a dozen cabins clustered around a store and blacksmith shop, which in turn lay about halfway between the line of battle and the sudden rise of Pea Ridge, rearing abruptly against the northern sky like a backdrop for a theatrical production. Outcropped with granite and feathered with trees along its crest, the ridge extended eastward for two miles, then gave down upon a narrow north-south valley. Through this defile ran the Springfield-Fayetteville road, known locally as the wire road because the telegraph had its southern terminus here in a two-story frame building where the telegrapher lived and took in lodgers overnight; Elkhorn Tavern, it was called, acquiring its name from the giant skull and antlers nailed to the rooftree. The tavern lay to the left rear of the position Curtis had chosen, and the road led down past it, through the intrenchments his troops had been digging all that day, and on across the creek to where the rebel army, filing in, was settling down and kindling campfires in the dusk.
They had brought their weather with them. It was snowing, and their fires twinkled in the gathering moonless darkness, more and more of them as more soldiers filed in from the south to extend the line. Down to 10,500 as a result of Sigel’s losses, the Federals were outnumbered and they knew it, watching the long, strung-out necklace of enemy campfires growing longer every hour. Still, they felt reasonably secure behind their new-turned mounds of dirt and logs, white-blanketed under the sift of snow falling softly out of the darkness. They built their own fires higher against the cold, then bedded down for a good night’s sleep before the dawn which they believed would light the way for an all-out Confederate lunge across the creek and against their works.
March 7 came in bleak and gray, overcast but somewhat warmer. The snow had stopped; the wind had fallen in the night. As Curtis’ men turned out of their bedrolls, peering south through the fog that rose out of the hollow, they saw something they had not expected to see. The plain was empty over there. Last night’s rebel campfires were cold ashes, and the men who had kindled and fed them were nowhere in sight.
In the past three days the Confederates had marched better than fifty miles, the wind driving wet snow in their faces all the way. Their rations were gone, consumed on the march, and they were tired and hungry. There had to be a battle now, if only for the sake of capturing enemy supplies.
However, Van Dorn had no intention of sending his weary men against breastworks prepared for their reception. Impetuous though he was, that was not his way. Conferring with his generals, who knew the country well, he decided to send half his troops on a night march, clean around the north side of Pea Ridge, then down the road past Elkhorn Tavern for a dawn attack on the Union left rear. Once this was launched, the other half of his army, having made a coincidental, shorter march to the west end of the ridge, would come down through Leetown to strike the enemy right rear, which by then should be in motion to support the hard-pressed left. In short, it was to be a double envelopment much like the one Nathaniel Lyon had attempted at Wilson’s Creek, except that this time the attackers would outnumber the defenders, 17,000 men with sixty guns opposing 10,500 with fifty.
Price’s Missourians drew the longer march, beyond the screening ridge. McCulloch and Pike, with their Texans, Arkansans, Louisianians, and Indians, would make the secondary attack. Van Dorn himself, still in his ambulance—the three-day ride through wind and snow had not reduced his fever—would go with the roundabout column, to be on hand for the charge that would open the conflict. Soon after dark the army filed off to the left, leaving its long line of campfires burning to deceive the Federals, and moved northward in column beyond the enemy right flank. In this hare-and-tortoise contest—the youthful, impetuous cavalryman Earl Van Dorn against the aging, methodical engineer Sam Curtis—the hare was off and running.
Puzzled by the disappearance of the rebels from across the creek next morning, Curtis was in the worse-than-tortoise position of not even knowing that a race was being run, let alone that the goal was his own rear. Through the early morning hours, while the sun climbed higher up the sky to melt away the fog and fallen snow, he was left wondering where and why Van Dorn had gone. Then suddenly he knew. Just as they had confirmed his fears about the forty-gun salute he had heard on Monday, so now on Friday his scouts came riding in to solve the mystery of the rebels’ disappearance. They were behind Pea Ridge, about to enter the north-south valley that gave down upon his unprotected rear. They had been delayed by obstructions along the road, the scouts reported, but they were coming fast now and in strength. Curtis would have to do one of two things. He could wheel about and meet them here, fighting with his back to his own intrenchments, or he could try to make a run for it. In the latter case, the choice lay between possible and probable destruction. If he tried to get away northward, up the wire road through the defile, the Confederate spearhead would be plunged into the flank of his moving column. If on the other hand he ran southward, through enemy country—retreatingforward, so to speak—Van Dorn would be across his lines of supply and communication; the rebels would have him bottled in a wintry vacuum.
He chose to meet them. His four divisions were in line, facing south: Sigel’s two on the right, led by Peter Osterhaus and Alexander Asboth, the former a German, the latter a Hungarian: then his own two, under Eugene Carr, a vigorous, hard-mannered regular, and an Indiana-born colonel with the improbable name of Jefferson Davis. Curtis ordered them to about-face, the rear thus becoming the front, the left the right, the right the left. Carr was sent at once to meet the threat beyond Elkhorn Tavern. Osterhaus moved up past Leetown to protect the western flank, and presently on second thought Curtis sent Davis to support him, while Asboth remained under Sigel, in reserve. Curtis had confidence in his commanders. Colonels Osterhaus, Carr, and Davis had had considerable combat experience, the first two at Wilson’s Creek and the third from as far back as Fort Sumter, where he had been an artillery lieutenant; Asboth, a brigadier, had been Frémont’s chief of staff and a fighter under Kossuth back in Europe. How far beyond the claims of past performance they deserved their leader’s confidence was about to be determined. And this was especially true of Carr, who stood where the first blow was about to fall.
At 10.30 it fell, and it fell hard. Tired and hungry after their stumbling all-night march, but keyed up by the order to charge at last, Price’s men came crashing through the brush along both sides of the wire road, guns barking aggressively on the flanks and from the rear. Carr had prepared a defense in depth, batteries staggered along the road and a strong line of infantry posted to support the foremost while the other three fired over their heads. Presently, though, they had nothing to support. A well-directed salvo knocked out three of the four guns and blew up two caissons, killing all the cannoneers. Unnerved, the infantry fell back on the second battery, just north of the tavern, where they managed to repulse the first attack, then the second, both of which were piecemeal. Bearded like a Cossack, Carr rode among his soldiers, shouting encouragement. Out front, the brush was boiling with butternut veterans forming for a third assault. This one would come in strength, he knew, and he doubted if his thin line could resist it. He sent a courier galloping back to Curtis with an urgent request for reinforcements.
Curtis had his headquarters on a little knoll just south of a farm road leading from Elkhorn Tavern to Leetown; here the courier found him surrounded by his staff, mounted and resplendent, wearing their best clothes for battle. They were looking toward the left front, their attention drawn by a sudden rattle of musketry and a caterwaul of unearthly, high-pitched yelling. Carr’s message had scarcely been delivered when a horseman came riding fast from that direction. Osterhaus had been swamped by a horde of befeathered, screaming men who bore down on him brandishing scalping knives and hatchets. Taken aback—they had bargained for nothing in all the world like this—his troops had broken, abandoning guns and equipment. Davis had moved up; he was holding as best he could, but he needed reinforcements. Appealed to thus by the commanders of both wings at once, Curtis chose to wait before committing his reserve. He sent word for both to hold with what they had. At this point the battle racket swelled to new and separate climaxes, right and left.
In contrast to the gloom that had descended on him—first as a result of his failure to gobble up the scattered Federal units on the march, and then because of the delay of his flanking column as it moved around Pea Ridge in the night, which had thrown him three hours behind schedule and cost him the rich fruits of full surprise—Van Dorn was exultant. Price’s men were surging ahead, knocking back whatever stood in their way, and off to the west the rolling crackle of McCulloch’s attack told him of success in that quarter as well. The fighting still raged furiously at the near end of the ridge; Carr’s second line was thrown back by the all-out third assault, so that presently the Missourians were whooping around the tavern itself and drinking from the horse trough in the yard.
All this took time, however. As the sun slid down the sky, Van Dorn’s exultation began to be tempered by concern. His men had had no sleep all night and nothing to eat since the day before, whereas the Federals had had a good night’s rest and a hot breakfast. The Confederates still fought grimly, battering now at Carr’s third line, drawn south and west of the tavern, but weariness and hunger were sapping their strength; much of the steam had gone out of their attacks. Worse still, there was no longer any sound of serious fighting on the far side of the field, where McCulloch’s earlier gains had been announced by the clatter moving south and east to mark his progress. Van Dorn was left wondering until near sundown, when a messenger arrived to explain the silence across the way.
There, as here, the battle had opened on a note of victory. Pike’s Indians, delighted at having frightened Osterhaus into hurried retreat, pranced around the cannon the white men had abandoned; “wagon guns,” they called them, and took the horse collars from the slaughtered animals to wear about their own necks; “me big Injun, big as horse!” they chanted, dancing so that the trace-chains jingled against the frozen ground. It was a different matter, though, when Pike tried to get them back into line to help McCulloch, who had run into stiffer resistance on the left. They had had enough of that. They wanted to fight from behind rocks or up in trees, not lined up like tenpins, white-man-style, to be struck by the iron bowling balls the wagon guns threw with a terrifying boom and a sudden, choking cloud of smoke. Some stood firm—a dismounted cavalry battalion of mixbloods, for example, under Colonel Stand Watie, a Georgia-born Cherokee—but, in the main, whatever was to be accomplished from now on would have to be done without the help of anything more than a scattering of red men.
Not that McCulloch particularly minded. He was not given to calling on others for help, either back in his Texas Ranger days or now. When his advance was held up by an Illinois outfit which had rallied behind a snake-rail fence at the far end of a field, he brought up an Arkansas regiment, shook out a skirmish line, and took them forward, sunlight glinting on the sharpshooter’s rifle he carried for emergencies and sport. The Illinois troops delivered a volley that sent the butternuts scampering back across the field. They re-formed and charged again. Sixty yards short of the tree-lined fence, they came upon a body in sky-blue trousers and a dove-gray corduroy jacket, sprawled in the grass: McCulloch. His rifle was gone, along with a gold pocket watch he had prized, but he still wore the expensive boots he had died in when the bullet found his heart.
Quickly then word spread among the men who had sworn that they would storm hell itself at his command: “McCulloch’s dead. They killed McCulloch!” Their reaction to the news was much the same, in effect, as the Indians’ reaction to artillery. Whatever they had sworn they would do with McCulloch to lead them, it soon became clear that they would do little without him. To complete the confusion, his successor was killed within the hour, and the third commander was captured while attempting to rally some soldiers who, as it turned out, were Federals. By the time Pike was found and notified—he had been trying vainly, all the while, to reorganize his frightened or jubilant Indians—the sun was near the landline and there were considerably fewer troops for him to head. Dazed with grief for their lost leader, many had simply wandered off the field, following him in death as they had in life; Osterhaus and Davis, having themselves had enough fighting for one day, had been content to watch them go, unmolested. At sundown Pike assembled what men he could find and set out on a march around the north side of Pea Ridge to join Van Dorn and Price, whose battle still raged near Elkhorn Tavern.
News of his right wing’s disintegration reached Van Dorn as one more in a series of disappointments and vexations. Repeated checks and delays, here on the left where Price’s men were being held up by less than half their number, had brought him to the verge of desperation. There was another problem, no less grave and quite as vexing. Having left his wagon train on the far side of the battleground, the diminutive commander had discovered an unwelcome military axiom: namely, that when you gain the enemy’s rear you also place him in your own, unless you bring it with you. Consequently, in addition to a numbing lack of sleep and food, just as he was doing all he could to launch a final charge that would crush Carr at last and sweep the field before nightfall ended the fighting and gave the Federals a chance to realign their now superior forces, his men were experiencing an ammunition shortage. Desperately he ordered them forward, putting all he had into what he knew would use up the last of daylight, as well as the last of their strength and ammunition. Price was there to help him. Nicked by a bullet, but refusing to retire for medical treatment, he wore his wounded arm in a sling as he rode from point to point to bolster his men’s spirits for an all-out climax to the night-long march and day-long battle. At last, between the two of them, they got the Missourians into assault formation and sent them forward, streaming around the tavern and down both sides of the wire road, across which Carr had drawn his third stubborn line of resistance.
The red ball of the sun had come to rest on the horizon; Carr’s men could see it over their left shoulders—the direction in which they had been watching all these hours for reinforcements that did not come. Now as before, their batteries were distributed in depth along the road, and now as then the Confederates wrecked them, gun by gun, with a preliminary bombardment. After an ominous lull they saw the rebels coming, yelling and firing as they came, hundreds of them bearing down to complete the wreckage their artillery had begun. As the Federals fell back from their shattered pieces an Iowa cannoneer paused to toss a smoldering quilt across a caisson, then ran hard to catch up with his friends. Still running, he heard a tremendous explosion and looked back in time to see a column of fire and smoke standing tall above the place where he had fuzed the vanished caisson. Stark against the twilight sky, it silhouetted the lazy-seeming rise and fall of blown-off arms and legs and heads and mangled trunks of men who just now had been whooping victoriously around the captured battery position.
Over on his headquarters knoll, Curtis heard and saw it too, and finally—as if that violent column of smoke and flame standing lurid against the twilight on the right, followed after an interval by the boom and rumble as the sound of the explosion echoed off the ridge to the north, had at last brought home to him, like the ultimate shout of despair from a drowning man, at least some measure of the desperation Carr had been trying to communicate ever since Price first struck him, eight hours back—responded. By then the sporadic firing on the left had died away; Osterhaus and Davis reported the rebels gone or going. Van Dorn was tricky, but Curtis felt the danger from that direction had been removed; he could look to the right, where by now the column of fire had turned into a mushrooming pillar of smoke. Asboth, who had remained all this time in reserve to meet disaster in either direction, was sent up the wire road in relief of Carr.
Arriving at 7 he found the firing reduced to a sputter here as well. Torn and weary, Carr’s regiments moved back from their fourth position of the day, retiring through the ranks of the division that relieved them. Forward of there, extending right and left of the tavern, half a mile each way, the Confederates were bedding down for the rest they sorely needed, their campfires in the tavern yard illuminating the building up to the bleached skull and antlers on the rooftree. The long day’s fight was over.
Curtis rode out for a night inspection of his lines, which at some points were so near the enemy’s that the opposing soldiers could overhear each other’s groans and laughter. Despite their bone-deep weariness, the men were still too keyed up for sleep. They amused themselves by taunting the rebs across the way, hooting at the replies provoked, and recounting, for mutual admiration, exploits they had performed on the field today. Several could even substantiate their claims. One, for example—an Illinois private, Peter Pelican by name—displayed a gold watch he had taken as a trophy off a rebel he had shot: an officer, he said, in “sky-blue britches” and a dove-colored jacket. Some other quick-thinking scavenger had got the Maynard rifle, much to Pelican’s regret, and the Johnnies had come swarming back too soon for him to have time to strip the dead man of his fancy boots.
The Federal commander might have heard this as he made the rounds, along with much else like it; but the truth was, he took little pleasure in small talk, and especially not now. He had too much on his mind. For one thing, he was irked at Sigel, who he considered had undertaken considerably less than his share of the work today, sparing Osterhaus and Asboth while Davis and Carr were doing most of the bleeding. Consequently, when he discovered that the German planned a temporary withdrawal to feed his troops, his temper snapped. “Let Sigel’s men hold their lines. Send supper out, not the men in,” he said gruffly. And having thus relieved his spleen he returned to his headquarters tent. It was time to decide what to do about tomorrow. Still fully dressed, he lay down on some blankets spread on a pile of straw and sent for his division commanders to join him for a council of war.
It was midnight when they assembled. Sigel spoke first, and he spoke from desperation, proposing his specialty: slashing retreat. The army, he said, must select an escape route and cut its way out in the morning. Osterhaus agreed, and so did Carr, whose command had been fought to a frazzle. He was nursing a wound, as was Asboth, who had been winged by a stray bullet in the dark and also saw no answer but retreat. Davis was silent, but that was his manner—a gloomy man with a long nose and lonesome-looking eyes. Reclined on the blanketed pile of straw, Curtis weighed their counsel. No less deliberate in conference than he had been in combat, he was not going to be stampeded by his own commanders, any more than he had been stampeded by Van Dorn. In his opinion the Confederates had most likely shot their bolt. The threat to his left having been abolished, he could reinforce his right. Thus bolstered, the army could hold its own, he believed, and even perhaps go forward. On this note the council adjourned, and its members, their advice declined, went out into the darkness to consolidate their commands and await the dawn.
The night was cold and windless, so that when dawn came through at last, smoke from yesterday’s battle still hung in long folds and tendrils about the fields, draping the hillsides and filling the hollows level-full. The sun rose red, then shone wanly through the haze, like tarnished brass; Van Dorn’s dispositions were at once apparent across the way. South and west of Elkhorn Tavern, between the Federals and the sunrise, Price’s Missourians held the ground they had won when nightfall closed the fighting. Pike having arrived in the night with his and McCulloch’s remnants, the Confederate commander had stationed the Indians along the crest of Pea Ridge, supporting several batteries—stark up there against the sky they looked like stick-men guarding toy guns—while the Texans and Arkansans occupied the fields along its base.
It was a long, concave line, obviously drawn with defense in mind: Curtis had been right. Also right, as it turned out, were the dispositions he had made to meet what dawn revealed. Davis was posted opposite the tavern, with Carr’s division in support, still binding up its wounds. The left belonged to Sigel, who had strung out Osterhaus and Asboth to overlap the enemy in the shadow of the ridge. After a drawn-out silence, during which the Unionists enjoyed a hot breakfast and the rebels ate what they could find in the knapsacks of the fallen, Van Dorn opened with his batteries, stirring the smoke that wreathed the Federal line.
The cannonade was perfunctory and had no real aggressive drive behind it. Low as he was on ammunition—his unprotected train had gone off southward, fearing capture—Van Dorn fired his guns, not as a prelude to attack, nor even to signify his readiness to receive one, but merely to see what the Yankees would do. In fact, that was why he had remained in position overnight. It had seemed wrong to retreat after the gains he had made, and for all he knew the dawn might show the Federals gone or ready to surrender. Dawn had shown no such thing. It showed them, rather, in what seemed greater strength than ever: a long, compact line, with batteries glinting dangerously through the coppery haze. Hungry, weary, down to their last rounds of ammunition, Van Dorn’s men had done their worst and he knew it. Yet, for all he knew, after yesterday’s hard knocks Curtis too might be reduced to his last ounce of powder and resistance, needing no more than a prod to send him scampering. At any rate the Mississippian thought it worth a try.
It soon became apparent that the Federals could take a good deal more prodding than the Southerners could exert. Sensing the weakness behind the cannonade, Curtis sent word to Sigel on the left. Yesterday the German had held back: now let him seize the initiative and go forward if he could. Sigel could and did. With a precision befitting a mathematician, he ordered his infantry to lie down in the muddy fields while he advanced his batteries 250 yards out front and opened fire. He rode among the roaring guns, erect as on parade except when he dismounted to sight an occasional piece himself, then patted the breech and stepped back, as if for applause, to observe the effects of his gunnery. It was accurate. Battery after Confederate battery was shattered along the ridge and on the flat, and when others came up to take their places, they were shattered, too. Sigel’s soldiers, many of them German like himself, cheered him wildly as they watched the rebel cannoneers fan backward from the wreckage of their guns. Over on the right, the men of Carr and Davis, watching too, began to understand the pride that lay behind the boast: “I fights mit Sigel.”
Van Dorn’s artillerymen were not the only ones disconcerted by the deadliness of the Yankee gunnery. His infantry showed signs of wavering, too. Sigel rode back to where his cheering soldiers lay obedient in the mud. Gesturing with his saber, he ordered them to stand up and go forward. They did so, still cheering, in a long, undulating line, like a huge snake moving sideways, the head coiling over the lower slope of the ridge, the center thrusting forward with a lunging, sidewinder motion, the tail following in turn. On it moved, with a series of curious sidewise thrusts, preceded by a scattering of graybacks as it slithered over whatever stood in its broad path. The reserve Union regiments, waiting in ranks, tossed their hats and contorted their faces with screams of pride and pleasure at the sight. Exhilarated, Sigel stood in his stirrups, saber lifted, eyes aglow. “Oh—dot was lofely!” he exclaimed.
Over near the tavern, watching the great snake glide sideways up the ridge, the men with Davis began shouting for a charge on this front too, lest Sigel’s troops get all the loot and glory. Curtis was with them. Indeed, he was everywhere this morning; already two of his orderlies had been killed riding with him as he galloped amid shellbursts to inspect his line and strengthen weak spots. All the same, active as he was, he had not put aside his meticulous insistence on precision. Sending for reinforcements, he remained to check their prompt arrival by the second hand on his watch, then was off again through the smoke and whistling fragments of exploding shells. When the men in front of the tavern began yelling for a chance to match the tableau Sigel was staging on the left, Curtis nodded quick assent and rode forward onto a low knoll—he had a fondness for such little elevations, in battle or bivouac—to watch as they advanced.
Close-ranked and determined, they surged past him, cheering. Abruptly then, beyond their charging front, he saw the Confederates give way, retreating before contact, and heard his soldiers whooping as they swarmed around and past Elkhorn Tavern, where the telegrapher’s family huddled in the cellar and rebel dead were stacked like cordwood on the porch. The Union right and left wings came together with a shout, driving the gray confusion of scampering men, careening guns, and wild-eyed horses pell-mell up the wire road through the defile, past the position Carr’s men had abandoned under pressure from the opening guns, twenty-four hours back.
As quickly as that, almost too sudden for realization, the battle was over—won. Curtis rode down off the knoll, then cantered back and forth along his lines. His aging engineer’s brown eyes were shining; all his former stiff restraint was gone. Boyishly he swung his hat and shouted, performing a little horseback dance of triumph as he rode up and down the lines of cheering men. “Victory!” he cried. He kept swinging his hat and shouting. “Victory! Victory!” he cried.
Thus Curtis. But Van Dorn was somewhat in the predicament of having prodded a shot bear, thinking it dead, only to have the creature rear up and come charging at him, snarling. Consequently, his main and in fact his exclusive concern, in the face of this sudden show of teeth and claws, was how to get away unmangled. Horrendous as it was, however, the problem was not with him long. His soldiers solved it for him. Emerging from the north end of the defile, they scattered in every direction except due south, where the prodded bear still roared. All through what was left of the day and into the night (while, a thousand miles to the east, the Merrimac-Virginia steamed back from her first sortie, leaving the burning Congress to light the scene of wreckage she had left in Hampton Roads) various fragments of his army retreated north and east and west, swinging wide to avoid their late opponents when they turned back south to reach the Boston Mountains. Though unpursued, they took a week to reassemble near Van Buren.
Back at his starting point in the foothills of the Ozarks, Van Dorn counted noses and reported his losses as 1000 killed and wounded, 300 captured. He was by no means willing to admit that the battle had been anything more than a temporary setback. Least of all could it be considered a defeat; “I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions,” he told Richmond. Still with his main goal in mind, he was ready to try again, this time by marching “boldly and rapidly toward St Louis, between Ironton and the enemy’s grand depot at Rolla.”
Within another week, March 23, he was heading north with 16,000 effectives when he received a peremptory order to turn east, crossing the river by “the best and most expeditious route,” and join the concentration being effected in North Mississippi by Johnston and Beauregard after their long retreat from Kentucky. “Your order received,” Van Dorn replied, pleased no doubt at the prospect of exchanging the wilds of Arkansas for the comparative comforts of his native state.
Unlike his opponent, who was as dashing, or as slapdash, on a retreat as in an advance, Curtis had not been satisfied to report his casualties in round figures. That would have been neither respectful to the dead nor indicative of sound administration. Consolidating subordinate reports, which showed that Carr’s division had suffered more than the other three combined, he prepared a careful table—killed, 203; wounded, 980; captured or otherwise missing, 201; total, 1384—and forwarded it to Halleck, declaring that he had “completely routed the whole rebel force, which retired in great confusion, but rather safely, through the deep, impassable defiles.”
He did not speculate, as others would surely have done in his place—especially Van Dorn—on what the future might reveal as to the importance of the victory he had won at Elkhorn Tavern, in the shadow of Pea Ridge. That was not his way. Besides, he had no means of knowing that Van Dorn would be called east, beyond the Mississippi, and would not be coming back. He did not claim, as in truth he could have done, that he had secured Missouri to the Union for all time; that guerilla bands might rip and tear her, that raider columns of various strengths might cut swaths of destruction up and down her, but that her star in the Confederate flag, placed there like Kentucky’s by a fleeing secessionist legislature, represented nothing more from now on than the exiles who bore arms beneath that banner.
Though he did not deal in military imponderables, other imponderables were another matter: those of nature, for example. Spring had come to upland Arkansas at last, and it put him in mind of the ones he had known in his Ohio boyhood. The day after the battle a warm rain fell, washing away the bloodstains, but as the burial squads went about their work the air was tainted with decay. Curtis moved his headquarters off a ways, once more to enjoy the singing birds as he sat at a camp table, writing home. “Silent and sad” were words he used to describe the present scene of recent conflict. “The vulture and the wolf have now communion, and the dead, friends and foes, sleep in the same lonely grave.” So he wrote, this highly practical and methodical engineer. Looking up at the tree-fledged ridge with its gray outcroppings of granite, he added that he hoped it would serve hereafter as a monument to perpetuate the memory of those who had fallen at its base.
South and west of Pea Ridge lay Texas, where Van Dorn had first shown dash and won success. North and west of Texas—twice the size of that vast Lone Star expanse—the Territories of Utah and New Mexico stretched on beyond the sunset to the California gold fields and the shores of the Pacific. In the minds of most, this sun-baked half-million-square-mile wasteland with its brackish lakes and its few, thirsty rivers was of less than doubtful value, fit only as a breeding ground of lizards and Apaches. Others knew better: Jefferson Davis, for one. Believing in his Union days that the nation’s destiny pointed south and west, he had engineered the Gadsden Purchase and even imported camels in an attempt to solve the sandy transportation problem.
Now in his Confederate days, the nebulous future being translated into terms of the urgent present, his belief was reinforced. Out there beyond the sunset lay the gold fields and the ocean. Control of the former would establish sound financial credit on which the South could draw for securing war supplies abroad, while the opening of Confederate ports along the Pacific Coast would insure their delivery by stretching the tenuous Federal blockade past the snapping point. Satisfying as all this was as a solution to present problems, an even more dazzling prospect still remained. Having forged its independence in the crucible of war, the new nation could then return to the old southern nationalist dream of expansion, acquiring by purchase or conquest the adjoining Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California. After these would come others, less near but no less valuable: Cuba, for instance, then Central America, and all that lay between. Van Dorn seizing St Louis as a base for a march through Illinois to subdue the Middle West, Beauregard dictating peace terms in the White House after the Battle of Cleveland or Lake Erie—glorious as these scenes were to contemplate in the mind’s eye, they were pale indeed in contrast to the glittering light of victory by way of California.
None of this could be accomplished, however, until safe passage west had been assured at the start by clearing Federal troops from the Territory of New Mexico. The answer to this, as Davis knew, lay in control of the Rio Grande. It was therefore with considerable pleasure, two months after Sumter, that he welcomed to Richmond a forty-four-year-old Louisiana-born West Pointer, Henry H. Sibley, lately Major, U.S. Army. Indeed, from Davis’ point of view the caller might have tumbled straight out of heaven into the arms of the Confederacy. He had come to offer his services—preferably for duty in the region where he had been stationed for years, commanding various forts throughout the Southwest and along the Rio Grande. An enterprising officer, he had invented a conical tent modeled after the wigwams of the Sioux, and he had kept busy in other ways out there. What was more, he had a plan. And as he told it—a stocky, wind-burnt man with a big-featured face and a heavy mustache that grew down past the corners of his mouth so that his aggressive chin looked naked as a heel—Davis might have been listening to the echo of his own thoughts on the dazzling possibilities of victory by way of California. Granted the authority, Sibley said, he would raise a force in Texas and set out northward from El Paso, capturing forts along the river all the way to Santa Fe. This done, he would consolidate and turn west, his ranks swollen with volunteers whose watchword would be “On to San Francisco.”
Davis liked the sound of it and was more than willing to grant him the authority he asked. Unfortunately, however, that was all he had to offer. The government could spare no arms or munitions; in fact it could spare no equipment at all. The ex-major would have to scrape together what he could find in Texas on his own, then make up the balance out of enemy stores from the forts he took as he marched upriver. No matter how fruitful the project promised to be, it would have to be self-sustaining: Davis made that quite clear at the outset, before granting the authority.
In early July, two weeks before Manassas, Sibley was made a brigadier and assigned to command the Department of New Mexico. Like much of his equipment, the department itself was still in Union hands; but that would be corrected, too, when he had accomplished the first stage of the plan he had outlined in the President’s office. Davis wished him Godspeed, and Sibley returned at once to Texas, where he recruited a brigade of three mounted regiments by the end of the year and set out for El Paso, the jump-off point for his campaign to control the Rio Grande.
Two men, David E. Twiggs and John R. Baylor, had accomplished much for him already, before and since his trip to Richmond. Twiggs, a Federal brigadier in command of the Texas Department during the secession furor, had repeatedly asked Washington for instructions through that stormy time. Receiving none, he acted in accordance with a statement he had made: “If an old woman with a broomstick should come with full authority from the state of Texas to demand the public property, I would give it to her.” He did just that, surrendering all the troops, forts, and equipment in his charge, not to an old woman, but to a posse of citizens who styled themselves a “committee for public safety.” Northern howls of “treason to the flag” went up, and Twiggs, being summarily dismissed from the U.S. army, repaired forthwith to New Orleans, where he was solaced and rewarded with a commission as a Confederate major general.
In time, a portion of this surrendered equipment was inherited by Sibley, who needed it badly. Meanwhile Baylor, his other helper, had kept as busy as the first. Issuing a blanket invitation to whoever would join him on what he announced as a 1000-man “buffalo hunt” in Old Mexico, he showed his commission as a Confederate lieutenant colonel to the 350 volunteers who turned up, swore them in, organized them into a regiment called the Texas Mounted Rifles, and marched them to El Paso in time to receive the surrender of Fort Bliss, across the river from the Mexican hamlet.
Upstream the Rio Grande was divided like the nation, north and south, and Baylor saw in this a chance to accomplish a great deal more. For some time now there had been a movement among New Mexicans to split the territory along the 34th parallel and detach the southern portion as Arizona. Since in general the people of this lower region favored the Confederacy, he decided to go up there and help them, adding thereby a future new state to his new nation. There was one problem. Forty miles upriver from El Paso, just this side of the village of Mesilla, Fort Fillmore blocked the way, its garrison of 700 U.S. regulars commanded by Major Isaac Lynde, a veteran of thirty-four years in the infantry. Undeterred at being thus outnumbered two to one, Baylor spent no time musing on the odds. In mid-July—while Sibley was on the final leg of his round-trip journey to Richmond—the Texan led his Mounted Rifles north.
On the night of the 24th, though the Federals had been warned that he was coming, he camped unmolested within 600 yards of the fort on the opposite bank of the river, then next morning splashed across and occupied Mesilla. When Lynde at last marched out to challenge the invaders, the townspeople, who had greeted Baylor with vivas and hurrahs, climbed a nearby hill to watch the contest. After demanding an immediate surrender, and receiving an immediate refusal, the gray-bearded major sent one squadron forward in a tentative, head-on charge that was repulsed with four men killed and seven wounded. As a battle it wasn’t much; but it was quite enough for Lynde. Abandoning any notion of holding the fort, he fired a few short-falling rounds in the direction of the hill where the ungrateful—and unarmed—men, women, and children were cheering the secessionists, then ordered a retreat northeast to Fort Stanton, 150 sandy miles beyond the Organ Mountains.
Next day, displaying what one of his officers called “a sublimity of majestic indifference,” he was taking lunch at San Augustin Springs when he discovered that the empty fort had been no more than a tub to Baylor’s whale. The Texan wanted the soldiers, too, and was there at hand, demanding their surrender or a fight. Lynde decided the former would be best. After paroling the 492 officers and men taken here—the other 200-odd had already been picked up as stragglers—Baylor returned to Mesilla and on August 1 issued a proclamation establishing the Confederate Territory of Arizona, with the 34th parallel as its northern boundary and himself as its military governor. Richmond quickly sustained his action, and Congress welcomed the delegate who soon arrived to represent the new far-western territory.
Such, then, was the situation Sibley found awaiting him when he reached Fort Bliss in mid-December with his newly recruited brigade. Between them, in their different ways, Twiggs and Baylor had accomplished much of his project for him already, supplying his men with surrendered equipment and clearing the Rio Grande well beyond the Texas border. Fort Stanton’s garrison had withdrawn to Albuquerque, while the Unionists at Fort Thorn, fifty miles above Mesilla, had retreated eighty miles upriver to Fort Craig, which now remained the only prepared defensive position in Federal hands below the boundary parallel. Once it fell, the others to the north should fall like toppled blocks: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Fort Union, eastward beyond the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. At Fort Craig, he knew, 4000 troops were preparing to move against him, with perhaps as many more in support beyond the parallel. He himself had 3700, including Baylor’s.
Yet he was no more discouraged by these odds than Baylor had been by longer ones. Three days after New Year’s he marched northward, four regiments in a long, mounted column, and within the week he occupied Fort Thorn. The rest of the month was spent developing the situation. Then on February 7 he set out for Fort Craig, where the Federals were massing. His purpose was offensive; he did not intend to surrender the initiative. On the 19th, after a series of probing actions by his scouts, the main body came up and made camp on an open plain across the river from the fort on the west bank. The stage was set for the first major clash to determine who would control the Rio Grande.
That night, when the wind was from the east, Confederate voices could be heard across the water by the troops inside the fort. Colonel Edward R. S. Canby was in command, not only of the fort but also of the whole department, and this was only the latest of his trials since the advent of secession. He had taken over by appointment upon the departure into enemy ranks of the previous commander, W. W. Loring, the one professional in the quartet of prima donnas who brought grief to R. E. Lee in West Virginia. Indiana-born, tall, clean-shaven and soldierly-looking, with mild manners and a big nose that dominated his otherwise surprisingly delicate features, Canby was a year younger than Sibley and had finished at West Point a year behind him. Thrust into command at the outbreak of hostilities, he had about 1000 territorial militia, poorly armed and even more poorly trained, to supplement the scattering of peacetime regulars stationed at the various posts and forts in his department. Supplies were as scarce as distances were vast. Consequently, while Baylor took Fort Bliss and then Fort Fillmore, Canby could do nothing but work with what he had in an attempt to strengthen his defenses, meanwhile sending out repeated calls for volunteers. All this time, Sibley was raising soldiers down in Texas: for what purpose his opponent knew all too well for his mind’s ease. By the end of the year Canby had five regiments, recruited by prominent New Mexicans—Kit Carson was one—and sent them out to bolster such remaining scattered strongpoints as had not been abandoned or surrendered during the build-up.
All through January he continued his preparations to move southward from Fort Craig. Perhaps he might even have done so, in time, if Sibley had not spared him the risk and trouble by moving north against him, arriving February 19 and making camp within earshot of the fort on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande. In expectation of a siege, Canby spent the night making his strong position even stronger, preparing to repulse the attack which he believed would come at dawn. It did not come. Instead, as the light grew, he looked across the river and saw, between him and the rising sun, enemy wagons rolling north: Sibley was bypassing the fort, leaving it—and the Federals inside it—to wither on the vine, while he moved northward into the unprotected region on beyond the parallel, the region whose protection was Canby’s primary assignment. What he had seen, out there between him and the rising sun, left the Union commander no choice. He himself would have to attack, to fight without the defensive advantage of the adobe walls he had been strengthening all this time. Accordingly, he sent a regiment up the western bank, under orders to cross the river five miles upstream and charge the rebels, who he believed were moving north across the mesa of Valverde in march column.
In this he was mistaken. Sibley had not intended to go north without at least an attempt to cripple any enemy force he left behind. He was maneuvering for a crossing and an assault against the fort. But now that Canby had obliged him by coming out for a fight in the open, Sibley was appreciative and ready. Crashing through the rust-colored reeds on the eastern bank, then charging up the slope onto the mesa, the Federals found the Texans waiting with double-shotted guns. Cannon and rifle fire broke up the attack in short order, the blue troopers scattering for what little cover they could find. They clung there, under sniper fire through what was left of daylight, and withdrew after dark to report to their commander that the rebels were still there: very much so, in fact. The two-day Battle of Valverde was half over.
For Canby, that first day had begun in error and ended in repulse. Now at least, as dawn of the second came glimmering through, there would be no error in estimating the enemy situation. Sibley was there, outnumbered, and he would attack him. He sent three more regiments up to join the first, with orders to force the crossing in strength and whip the rebels, still drawn up on the mesa within musket range of the river. He had not wanted this kind of fighting; these 4000 men were all he had to protect the whole Southwest. But now that it could no longer be avoided, he was determined to make the work as short and decisive as possible, no matter how bloody.
It was far from short work, but it turned out bloody enough. After losing a good many men at the crossing—they came under a galling fire and the bodies of men and horses floated slowly downstream, bumping along in the shallow water—they managed to get their guns across and with them knock the enemy back into the sandy ridges at the far edge of the mesa. From there, the Texans tried cavalry charges against the flanks and dismounted charges against the center, the sand-polished rowels of their spurs as big and bright as silver dollars. Past midday the charges continued; all were repulsed. Then at 2.45 Canby himself came up from the fort, bringing the remaining regiment. He assumed command just as Colonel Tom Green, on the other side, took over from Sibley, who had become indisposed—from the heat, some said, while others said from whiskey. Whichever it was, it was a Confederate advantage: Green was an all-out fighter. He put his cavalry out front, massing behind them all the dismounted men he could lay hands on, and sent them charging all together against a six-gun battery at the north end of the Federal line. For eight minutes, one participant said, the fighting was “terrific beyond description.” By then Green’s men were among the guns; the battery officers and cannoneers were dead. When the Texans turned the captured pieces against the line they had so lately been a part of, it broke badly, one Confederate declaring that the Northerners, in their haste to reach the west bank of the river, became “more like a herd of frightened mustangs than men.” Once again there was slaughter at the crossing and more bodies floating sluggishly downstream in the blood-stained water.
Green was reassembling his elated troopers, preparing to use what was left of the short hot winter day to butcher or capture what was left of the rattled Federal army before it could reach the fort five miles downstream. He got his men together and was about to charge the enemy drawn up shakily on the opposite bank, when a truce party came forward under a white flag: Canby requested an armistice, time to care for the wounded and bury the dead. His chivalry thus appealed to, Green agreed to the cease fire, and while the defeated New Mexicans retreated under its protection to the adobe fastness of Fort Craig the victorious Texans rifled the knapsacks of the fallen, bolting “Yankee light-bread and other most delicious eatables,” washed down with whiskey found in the canteens of the Union dead. Darkness fell; the battle was over. The men poured the sand from their boots and took their rest.
Recovered from his indisposition next morning, Sibley found that Green had left it to him to decide whether to go after the survivors in the fort, bagging the lot, or turn his back on them and continue the march northward. Federal casualties had been 263, Confederate 187, but the victory had been even more decisive as to proof of who would fight and who would panic under pressure. The opening phase of the campaign to seize the Southwest as a base for operations farther west had been accomplished; ahead lay the chief cities of the region, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. As Sibley saw it, such poor soldiers as Canby’s were not worth the time that would be spent in completing their destruction. He gave his Texans a full day’s rest as a reward for their exertions, then pressed on north without delay.
Within a week, having paused to establish a hospital for his wounded at Socorro, just beyond the boundary parallel, he had covered the hundred-odd miles to Albuquerque. He had good reason for haste. This was desert country, where loss of a canteen or a last handful of crackers could be as fatal as a bullet through the heart, and he had left Valverde with only five days’ rations in his train. Fortunately, he had encountered no enemy soldiers on the way; apparently they had heard what had happened to their friends the week before and were falling back from contact. Then, as he came within sight of Albuquerque, he saw something that affected him worse than if he had seen a whole new Federal army drawn up for battle on the outskirts. Three great columns of smoke stood tall and black above the town. Anticipating his arrival, and his hunger, the Union garrison had set fire to their rich depot of supplies when they fell back on Santa Fe that morning.
He moved in unopposed and took the place, scraping together what few provisions he could buy or commandeer in order to continue the movement north. Four days later, March 5, he occupied the capital. Here too he was unopposed; the garrison pulled out on the eve of his arrival. All Sibley and his Texans got of the Santa Fe depot was its ashes.
The burnings had been done under orders from Canby. When he fell back on Fort Craig under cover of the flag of truce on the night of his defeat, he sent couriers to the northward posts with instructions that all public properties, “and particularly provisions,” were to be destroyed as soon as the invaders seemed about to come within reach. He knew this country and what it could do to an army without supplies. Having tried stand-up fighting at Valverde, and having lost, he adopted now a “scorched earth” policy, one not difficult to apply in a region where the earth was already scorched enough to burn the sole off a boot in a morning’s walk.
Sibley’s men were already feeling the pinch. Nor were the discomforts of short rations, threadbare clothes, and sand-leaking boots relieved by any considerable sympathy from the people of Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Expecting cheers and volunteers at the end of their long victory march, the Texans instead had found the atmosphere definitely unfriendly ever since they crossed the parallel. The southern commander’s prediction that troops of sympathizers would come marching in to join him, miners and trappers from Utah Territory and beyond, had by no means been fulfilled; in fact, there were rumors that groups there were organizing to join the other side. Sibley was finding that all he won with victory was miles and miles of sand. Still, he had done nearly all of what he set out to do in preparing a base for the conquest of the Far West. Those miles and miles included the Rio Grande and the territorial capital. Except for the stunned remnant of Canby’s army, still cowering inside the adobe protection of Fort Craig, all that remained was Fort Union, sixty miles east of Santa Fe, beyond the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, so called because their slopes were the color of blood each day at sunset.
Fort Union had been the rallying point for all the garrisons Sibley had flushed from their accustomed posts. By now, he knew, it was held in strength, and he figured he would have to fight to take it. Preparing to do so, he advanced a picket of 600 men from Santa Fe twenty miles southeast to the mouth of Apache Canyon, which led on to Las Vegas, the new capital, and Fort Union. They were to hold the canyon mouth, preventing any Federal advance, while the rest of the Confederates were being assembled to join them; then they would all go forward together to wipe out the final enemy stronghold. Preparations continued through most of March. Then, on the 26th, the picket got word that a small force—“200 [New] Mexicans and about 200 regulars”—was coming through the canyon for an attack on Santa Fe. It sounded too good to be true, but the Texans were not missing any chance to give the Yankees another drubbing. They mounted up and rode forward, taking two guns along for good measure.
Four miles up the canyon they caught sight of what they had been told to expect: a column of 400 Union troopers riding foolhardily within gun range of a body of seasoned Confederates who had them outnumbered three-to-two. There in the rocky trough of the pass the Texans formed their line for slaughter. Slaughter it was, but not as had been intended. Suddenly, one wrote his wife, Federal infantry “were upon the hills on both sides of us, shooting us down like sheep.” They had been sucked into an ambush. As they fell back, startled, they could see up on the overhead ledges enemy sharpshooters “jumping from rock to rock like so many mountain sheep.” Losing men at every attempt to take up a new position, they were near panic, not only because of the bullets, but also from sheer astonishment. New Mexicans—“Mexicans,” they called them, with all the contempt a Texan could put into the word—had never fought like this. Then they discovered something else, which startled them even more. “Instead of Mexicans and regulars, they were regular demons … in the form of Pike’s Peakers, from the Denver City gold mines.”
That was what they were, all right, recruits from frontier mining towns; 1st Colorado, they called themselves, 1342 volunteers, with one battery of field guns and another of mountain howitzers. They had made a long cold wet march to reach Fort Union on the same day Sibley pulled into Santa Fe at the end of his long hot dry one. After two weeks of sandy drill in the vicinity of the fort, they felt ready and came looking for a fight. Now they had it, here in Apache Canyon. The Texans had finally rallied and were making a last-ditch stand near the mouth of the canyon. Drawn up in a strong position behind the moat of a dry streambed, they felt ready at last for whatever came. What came was the Federal cavalry. Released from decoy duty, they came riding fast, leaped the arroyo, and landed among the defenders, hacking and shooting. The Texans broke and fled, all but 71 who surrendered, bringing their casualties to 146 in all. The Coloradans had lost a total of 19.
While the Federals withdrew to meet reinforcements from Fort Union, the Confederate survivors sent out news of the disaster, which brought two regiments hurrying next day to their support. By dawn of the third day, March 28, the main bodies of both armies were moving through the canyon from opposite directions. An hour before noon they met at Glorieta Pass: “a terrible place for an engagement,” a northern lieutenant afterward remembered, “a deep gorge, with a narrow wagon-track running along the bottom, the ground rising precipitously on each side, with huge bowlders and clumps of stunted cedars interspersed.” Maneuver was impossible. All the two forces could do was scramble for cover and start banging away, the tearing rattle of pistol and rifle fire punctuated cacophonously by the deeper booms of cannon. Neither could advance, yet both knew that to fall back would be even more fatal than to stay there. For five hours the fighting continued in a boiling cloud of rock dust. Then an armistice was called to permit care for the wounded and burial of the dead.
The Texas commander had proposed it, and during the lull he received word of a calamity in his rear. A party of 300 Coloradans, led by a former preacher, had circled around behind the hills and come down upon the Confederate supply train, capturing the guard, burning the 85 provision-laden wagons, and bayoneting the nearly 600 horses and mules. In addition to Yankees, the Texans now would be fighting thirst and starvation. Against those odds they pulled back under cover of the truce and got away, out of the canyon and up the road to Santa Fe. The Federals, who had inflicted 123 casualties at a cost of 86, were all for going after them, up to the gates of the capital itself. But word had come from Canby at Fort Craig. He feared an attack on Fort Union by some roundabout route, perhaps across the eastern plains from the Texas panhandle. They were to hold that final stronghold “at all hazards, and to leave nothing to chance.” Grudgingly the Coloradans obeyed, retracing their steps back through the canyon where they had fought and won two battles.
Four days later, April 1—the day McClellan took ship at Alexandria for his overnight voyage to the Peninsula—Canby left Fort Craig at last, marching north on Sibley’s five-weeks-old trail. He was a brigadier general now, promoted as of the day before. On the 8th he arrived before Albuquerque. Sibley was ready for him, having been there all the while with half his army. The two exchanged artillery salvos, and Canby retired beyond the nearby Sandía Mountains, calling for the Fort Union garrison to come out and reinforce him. Sibley likewise sent word for the Glorieta survivors, licking their wounds in Santa Fe, to join him there on the banks of the Rio Grande. Both armies thus were concentrating within one day’s march of each other. The great winner-take-all battle of the Southwest, to which all that had gone before would have served as prologue, seemed about to be fought near Albuquerque.
It was never fought, either there or elsewhere, and for several reasons—mostly Sibley’s. The countryside was too poor to support an invading army without the help of the people living there or supply lines leading back to greener regions, and he had neither. Rather, the inhabitants were unexpectedly hostile, more inclined to cache their scant provisions than to exchange them for Confederate money, which they considered worthless. Sibley’s artillery ammunition was nearly exhausted and his wagon train had been destroyed. The recruits he expected had not appeared, or if they had—the Pike’s Peakers, for example—they came against him wearing blue, so that the numerical odds were even longer now than they had been at the outset. Perceiving all this, he saw his dream dissolve in the encroaching gloom. There was but one thing left for him to do with his ragged, ill-fed, weary army: get it out of there and back to Texas. He was by no means certain that he could manage this, however, depending as it did on whether he would have the coöperation of his opponent.
He got it in full. Canby, having fought once at Valverde, wanted no more fighting he could possibly avoid. Sibley began his retreat on April 12, crossing the river with his main body to make camp that night, twenty miles south, on the west bank at Los Lunas. Next day, having stayed behind to bury their brass field pieces, for which they had neither shells nor powder, the remainder followed down the east bank to Peralta, nearly opposite. Canby marched in pursuit, his reinforcements having arrived that day from Fort Union. He was not trying to cut the rebels off and then destroy them. The last thing he wanted, in fact, was for them to turn and fight or even stop to catch their breath. What he wanted was for them to leave, the sooner the better; he wanted them out of the territory for whose protection he was responsible. At Peralta, coming upon the smaller Confederate segment, he gave it a nudge. “As we galloped across the bottom toward them they fluttered like birds in a snare,” a Coloradan wrote. But that was all. When they scurried across the river, then turned south with the main body to continue the retreat, Canby turned south, too, but he remained on the eastern bank. For two days the retreat continued in this fashion, the two armies marching in plain view of each other, often within cannon range, on opposite banks of the fordable Rio Grande. Canby’s men were outraged, shouting for him to send them across the river to slaughter the tatterdemalions who had been so arrogant two months before, when they were headed in the opposite direction. The northern commander was deaf alike to protests and appeals, however passionate. If there was to be any killing done, he would rather let the desert do it for him.
Beginning with the third day, the desert got its chance. When the Federals woke to reveille that morning near La Joya, they could see campfires burning brightly across the river. Dawn showed no signs of life in the camp, however, and after waiting a long while for the Texans to begin their march Canby sent some scouts across, who returned with news that the camp was abandoned; the rebels had left in the night. Sibley, it appeared, had wanted a battle even less than Canby did. Approaching Socorro, with Fort Craig only a day’s march beyond, he had left under cover of darkness in an attempt to shake his pursuers and swung westward on a hundred-mile detour to avoid a clash with whatever troops the fort’s commander might have left to garrison it. Canby did not pursue. He knew the country Sibley was taking his men through, out there beyond the narrow valley benches. It was all desert, and he was having no part of it. He marched his troopers leisurely on to the safety and comfort of Fort Craig, arriving April 22. By that time Sibley’s Texans were at the midpoint of their detour. Canby was content to leave their disposal to the desert.
It was one of the great marches of all time, and one of the great nightmares ever after for the men who survived it. They had no guide, no road, not even a trail through that barren waste, and they began the ten-day trek with five days’ poor rations, including water. What few guns they had brought along were dragged and lowered up- and downhill by the men, who fashioned long rope harnesses for the purpose. For miles the brush and undergrowth were so dense that they had to cut and hack their way through with bowie knives and axes. Skirting the western slopes of the Madelenas, they crossed the Sierra de San Mateo, then staggered down the dry bed of the Palomas River until they reached the Rio Grande again, within sight of which the Texans sent up a shout like the “Thalassa!” of Xenophon’s ten thousand. From start to finish, since heading north at the opening of the year, they had suffered a total of 1700 casualties. Something under 500 of these fell or were captured in battle, and of the remaining 1200 who did not get back to Texas, a good part crumpled along the wayside during this last one hundred miles. They reached the river with nothing but their guns and what they carried on their persons. A northern lieutenant, following their trail a year later, reported that he “not infrequently found a piece of a gun-carriage, or part of a harness, or some piece of camp or garrison equipage, with occasionally a white, dry skeleton of a man. At some points it seemed impossible for men to have made their way.”
Sibley reached Fort Bliss in early May, with what was left of his command strung out for fifty miles behind him. Here he made his report to the Richmond government, a disillusioned man. He did not mention the California gold fields or the advantages of controlling the Pacific Coast. He confined his observations to the field of his late endeavor, and even these were limited to abuse: “Except for its geographical position, the Territory of New Mexico is not worth a quarter of the blood and treasure expended in its conquest. As a field for military operations it possesses not a single element, except in the multiplicity of its defensible positions. The indispensable element, food, cannot be relied on.” Nor did he express any intention of giving the thing another try. The grapes had soured in the desert heat, setting his teeth on edge. “I cannot speak encouragingly for the future,” he concluded, “my troops having manifested a dogged, irreconcilable detestation of the country and the people.”
The report was dated May 4. Ten days later he assembled the 2000 survivors on the parade ground, all that were left of the 3700 Texans he had taken north from there four months ago. After thanking them for their devotion and self-sacrifice during what he called “this more than difficult campaign,” he continued the retreat to San Antonio, where he took leave of them and they disbanded. It was finished. All his high hopes and golden dreams had come to nothing, like the newly founded Territory of Arizona, which had gone out of existence with his departure. Any trouble the Unionists might encounter in the upper Rio Grande Valley from now on would have to come from rattlers and Apaches; the Confederates were out of there for good. As far as New Mexico and the Far West were concerned, the Civil War was over.
All this time, while Sibley and Van Dorn were undergoing their defeats and suffering frustration of their plans, Beauregard kept busy doing what he could to shore up the western flank of the long line stretching eastward from the Mississippi River. Loss of Henry and Donelson, along with the troops who were charged with their defense, had irreparably smashed its center, throwing left and right out of concert and endangering the rear. “You must now act as seems best to you,” Johnston had told him. “The separation of our armies is for the present complete.” He was alone.
Gloomily the Creole left Nashville on February 15. Two days later—the day after Donelson fell—he passed through Corinth, the northeast Mississippi railroad nexus, on his way to inspect Polk’s dispositions at Columbus, but his sore throat got sorer from anxiety and exposure, forcing him off the train at Jackson, Tennessee. From a hotel bed he summoned the bishop-general to join him for a conference. Waiting, he was downcast. Now indeed, as he had said, the ship of state was “on the breakers.” When Polk arrived Beauregard informed him that Columbus must be abandoned.
The bishop protested. He had spent the past five months strengthening “the Gibraltar of the West” for just such an emergency, he said. But his fellow Louisianian explained that the manpower expense was too great. The 17,000-man garrison must fall back to New Madrid, forty miles downriver near the Tennessee line, where the swampy terrain would require less than half as large a defensive force, freeing the balance to assist in restoring the shattered center. In desperation Polk then offered to hold Columbus with 5000 men. Beauregard shook his head. It would not do. They would be by-passed and captured at leisure, cut off from assisting in the defense of Memphis, which seemed next on the Federal list of major downriver objectives, or from cooperating with Johnston, who was retreating southwest with Hardee’s troops for a possible conjunction. Polk returned to his fortified bluff, as heavy-hearted now as his commander, and set about dismounting his heavy guns and packing his wagons. Orders were orders; he would retreat—but not without every ounce of equipment charged against his name.
Beauregard’s new line, covering Memphis and the railroads running spokelike from that hub, extended generally north-northwest along the roadbed of the Mobile & Ohio, from Corinth on the right, through Jackson and Humboldt, Tennessee, to the vicinity of New Madrid on the left. To defend this 150-mile airline stretch he had only such men as would be available from Polk’s command when they pulled out of Columbus. As he examined the maps in his sickroom he saw that, despite the renewed advantage of a railroad shuttle from flank to flank of his line, he was worse off, even, than Johnston had been in Kentucky. However, his spirits rose as his health improved, until presently he had recovered his accustomed Napoleonic outlook. Back in Nashville he had seen the problem: “We must defeat the enemy somewhere, to give confidence to our friends.… We must give up some minor points, and concentrate our forces, to save the most important ones, or we will lose all of them in succession.” To relieve what he called his “profound anxiety,” he addressed on the 21st a confidential circular to the governors of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, unfolding for them a plan that would transmute disaster into glorious success by turning the tables on the Yankees. If the governors would send him reinforcements to bring his strength to 40,000 he would take the offensive forthwith. He would march on Paducah, then on Cairo, and having taken those two points he would lay St Louis itself under siege. This last would involve Van Dorn, across the river. Describing the project and invoking his assistance, the Creole general inquired of the Mississippian: “What say you to this brilliant programme?”
Van Dorn’s reply came two weeks later, in the form of a dispatch giving news of his defeat at Elkhorn Tavern. This ruled out any chance of his coöperating in an advance against St Louis, even if the governors east of the river had been able to send the troops requested; which they had not. But Beauregard did not relapse into his former depression. He kept busy, issuing rhetorical addresses to his soldiers and rallying the populace to “resist the cruel invader.” In an attempt to repair his shortage of artillery, for example, he broadcast an appeal to the planters of the Mississippi Valley for brass and iron bells to provide metal for casting cannon: “I, your general, intrusted with the command of the army embodied of your sons, your kinsmen, and your neighbors, do now call on you to send your plantation bells to the nearest railroad depot, subject to my order, to be melted into cannon for the defense of your plantations. Who will not cheerfully and promptly send me his bells under such circumstances? Be of good cheer; but time is precious.” This produced more poetry in southern periodicals than bells in Confederate foundries, but the general refused to let his spirits be dampened, even by such taunts as the one his appeal provoked in the pro-Union Louisville Courier: “The rebels can afford to give up all their church bells, cow bells and dinner bells to Beauregard, for they never go to church now, their cows have all been taken by foraging parties, and they have no dinner to be summoned to.”
Polk meanwhile was completing his preparations to evacuate Columbus, working mainly at night to hide his intentions from prying enemy eyes. This was no easy task, involving as it did the repulse of a gunboat reconnaissance on the 23d and the removal of 140 emplaced guns and camp equipment for 17,000 men, but he accomplished it without loss or detection. By March 2, the heaviest guns and 7000 of his soldiers having been sent downriver to New Madrid, he was on his way south with the remainder. Within the week he reached Humboldt, the crossing of the Mobile & Ohio and the Memphis & Louisville Railroads, where he stopped. From here, his 10,000 troops could be hurried to meet whatever developed in any direction, either up where they had just come from, or down at Corinth, or back in Memphis. Little as he approved of retreat in general, the militant churchman had shown a talent for it under necessity.
The detached 7000 saw less cause for gladness on occupying the post assigned them around New Madrid. Rather, it seemed to them on arrival that they had been sent to the swampy back-end of nowhere. After they had been there a while, however, they began to appreciate that the difficulty of the terrain was what made the position especially suitable for defense. Both banks of the river were boggy swamps, impenetrable to marching men; besides which, the Mississippi itself collaborated with the defenders to render its placid-looking, chocolate surface something less than convenient as a highway for invaders. As it approached the Kentucky-Tennessee line, several miles upstream, the river began one of its compass-boxing double twists, like a snake in convulsions, describing an S drawn backwards and tipped on its face, so that two narrow peninsulas lay side by side, the one to the west pointing north, the other south. Off the tip of the former, across the river in Missouri, lay the town of New Madrid, whose three forts, mounting seven guns each, commanded the second bend. At the tip of the other peninsula, nearer the Tennessee bank, was Island Ten—so called because it was the tenth such in the forty winding miles below the mouth of the Ohio—whose 39 guns, including a 16-gun floating battery tied up off the foot of the island, commanded the straight stretch of river leading into the first bend. Beauregard placed much reliance on those 60 guns; they constituted the twin-fluked, left-flank anchor of his tenuous line. The next defensible position was Fort Pillow, another hundred miles downriver. Engineers had been ordered there to constrict the fortifications so that they could be held by 3000 troops instead of the 10,000 for which they had been designed in the palmier days just past. That would take time, however. For the present, as Beauregard saw it, the fall of the batteries at New Madrid and Island Ten “must necessarily be followed immediately by the loss of the whole Mississippi Valley to the mouth of the Mississippi River.” His instructions were that they were to be “held at all costs,” which in soldier language meant that those guns were worth their weight in blood and must be served accordingly.
Polk thought so too. Forwarding heavy guns and reinforcements, he expressed his hopes and confidence to a colonel whose regiment had been stationed in the area all along: “Your position is a strong one, which you have well studied, and I have no doubt of the vigor and efficiency of your defense. Keep me informed.”
Another who agreed was Commodore Andrew Foote. He agreed, in fact, with both of them: with Beauregard in stressing the importance to the Confederates of their river-line defense, and with Polk in expecting that it would be conducted with vigor and efficiency, taking full account of all the advantages in their favor. The Federal flag officer had had time to think the problem over. After the sudden victory at Henry and the abrupt repulse at Donelson, he had returned to Cairo for badly needed repairs, both to his battered gunboats and to himself. The fall of the forts having delivered the whole Tennessee-Cumberland water system into Union hands, he could now give full attention to the western navy’s primary assignment: the clearing of the Father of Waters, all the way to the Gulf.
This would be a much harder job than what had gone before, and the commodore knew it. For one thing, there was the distance. From the mouth of the Ohio to the mouth of the Mississippi was about 500 crow-flight miles, but it was well over twice that far by the twisting course his boats would have to take. A tawny vastness lay before him, winding south beyond the enemy horizon, with various obstacles in and on and around it, natural and man-made. For another, there was the difference in the rivers themselves. The Mississippi ran swifter—and it ran the other way. This meant that he would have to fight downstream, in which case even a slight mishap, such as a fouled rudder or a sudden loss of steam, could lead to destruction or capture. Highly vulnerable except from dead ahead, his ironclads carried little armor back from the prow and none at all at the stern. What was more, experiments conducted on the Mississippi during the refitting showed that they could not maintain station under reverse power, even with the help of anchors, which could get no firm purchase on the river’s slimy bottom. If one of them went out of control in a downstream fight, through breakdown or damage to her engine or her steering apparatus, she would not drift rearward to safety—as three out of four had done in the upstream fight just past—but forward, under enemy guns and into enemy hands. Consideration brought doubts. When his brother, a judge in Ohio, reminded him that the public expected “dash and close fighting, something sharp and decisive,” Foote replied: “Don’t you know that my gunboats are the only protection you have upon your rivers … that without my flotilla everything in your rivers, your cities and your towns would be at the mercy of the enemy? My first duty then is to care for my boats, if I am to protect you.” He had not spoken thus before the point-blank assault on Donelson. But now, with the wound in his ankle not yet healed and the sound of breaking armor still loud in his memory of that repulse, the commodore took counsel of his fears.
Despite his qualms, Foote set off downriver before daylight, March 4, prepared to assault the Columbus bluff with all seven of his ironclads. Arriving he found the fortress strangely silent, no stir of life on the ramparts and no metal frowning down from the embrasures. Two officers and thirty men, covered by all the guns of the fleet, made a dash for shore in a tug—and presently returned, more sheepish than exultant, with word that the Union flag had been flying there since yesterday. Out on a scout, four companies of Illinois cavalry had found the place deserted, then trooper-like had settled down and made themselves at home, rooting into the conglomerate litter Polk’s men had left behind. Foote went ashore for a look at the fortifications, wrote a formal report on their capture, supervised further repairs to his gunboats—necessary because the armor above the Texas decks was so badly cracked and buckled that the civilian pilots refused to continue downriver until it had been replaced—then finally, on the 17th, set off again for his next objective: Island Ten.
Arriving that day, he moored his flotilla against the Missouri bank, three miles above the head of the fortified island, and began lobbing shells across the low-lying southern tip of the first peninsula. His fire was not very effective at that range, but neither was the enemy’s, which was the commodore’s main concern in his present frame of mind. In fact he had come prepared for this style of fighting. His seven ironclads were supplemented by eleven strange vessels, compressed hexagons 60 feet long and 25 feet wide, each with a single 13-inch mortar bolted to its deck. Originally there had been doubts as to whether they would stand the recoil, but three of the gunboat captains had settled that by firing the first shot: in spite of which they were still suspected of being about as dangerous at one end of the trajectory as the other. When the piece was loaded, the crew slipped through a door cut in one end of the surrounding seven-foot armored bulwark and stood on tiptoe on the outer deck, hands over ears, mouths agape, knees flexed against the concussion, until it was fired; then they would hurry back inside for the reloading. Foote at least was happy with them, despite the doubts and drawbacks. As soon as he got within range of the island he had them towed to the head of the column and started them firing in the direction of the nearest Confederate batteries, two airline miles away.
Army men, who had been on the scene for two weeks now, anticipating the arrival of the gunboats with their Sunday punch, were much less happy about these new-style naval tactics, so different from what had gone before. At Henry the navy had taken the lead, leaving the landsmen with little to do, and now that the case was more or less reversed, the army howled with resentment. As time went by, the commodore refusing to budge from his upstream station, the howls took on a note of shrill derision. One exasperated colonel, when asked just what the flotilla was accomplishing, replied contemptuously, “Oh, it is still bombarding the state of Tennessee at long range.”
None among the soldiers was more critical of the navy than their commander, Brigadier General John Pope. In protesting against caution he stood on solid ground. His notion of the way to fight a war was to locate the enemy and then go after him, preferably point-blank. These tactics were especially valid when operating, as Pope was here, with the advantage of three-to-one numerical odds, and he had proceeded to put them into practice. A forty-year-old West Pointer with a robust physique to match his positive manner, he had brought his four divisions overland down the right bank of the river, arriving March 3, and moved without delay against New Madrid and Point Pleasant, eleven miles below. Within ten days—four days before the navy’s tardy arrival—he had captured both places, along with 25 heavy guns and quantities of equipment and supplies, when the defenders retreated to the security of the east bank and the fastness of Island Ten. He would have taken that place, too—he knew exactly how to go about it—exceptthat he could not effect a crossing without protection for his transports. Confederate batteries commanded the river from the opposite bank, and even worse there was a motley collection of makeshift rebel gunboats on patrol. Neither of these deterrents would be much of a problem for even a single ironclad, Pope declared, if Foote would only send it. But this the naval commander would not do. Any attempt to run the gauntlet of the island batteries, he replied, “would result in the sacrifice of the boat, her officers and men, which sacrifice I would not be justified in making.”
Pope was more vexed than discouraged. A week after his capture of New Madrid, in recognition of his hard-hitting competence, he had been made a major general. He would keep up the pressure, hoping in time to stiffen the navy’s backbone. Meanwhile he had the rebels in a cul-de-sac, backed up against the swamps that lay between Reelfoot Lake and the river. There was no way out for them, and no way in for supplies, except along the road leading south through Tiptonville. Once the Federals were astride the river, the road would be cut; he could bag the lot by quick assault or, at the worst, by siege. All he wanted was a chance to ferry his men across with a fair degree of safety. Suspecting that the navy would never get up nerve enough to run past Island Ten, he began to construct a navy of his own: high-sided barges armored with boiler plate, designed to accommodate field guns. He kept busy in other ways as well, manning the captured heavy guns to strengthen his domination of Madrid Bend and bringing down supplies and reinforcements from upriver. This last took ingenuity, for the right-bank swamps blocked the direct route, but the general had that too. He had his engineers cut a channel (a canal, it was called, 50 feet wide, 9 miles long, and 4½ feet deep—this being the depth at which the flooded trees were sawed off under water) connecting the river, five miles north of the gunboat station, with Wilson’s Bayou, which gave down upon New Madrid, thus by-passing the bend commanded by the guns on Island Ten. Shallow-draft transports got through with another whole division, bringing Pope’s total strength to 23,000, but not the gunboats, whose bottoms would have been torn out by the stumps. Their only way led down past the cannon-bristled island, which Foote believed would sink in short order whatever came within range.
All but one of the gunboat captains agreed with the flag officer’s estimate as to the outcome of a downstream fight or a try at running the batteries. That one was Commander Henry Walke, skipper of the Carondelet. For two weeks now the diurnal mortar bombardment had continued, and except for a single boat expedition, which spiked some guns in an abandoned battery on All Fools’ Night, all that had been accomplished by the navy was a heavy expenditure of ammunition. A fifty-four-year-old Virginia-born Ohioan and a veteran of all the river engagements from Belmont on, Walke was touched in his pride, and had been so ever since Donelson, when, as last boat out of the fight, he had retreated firing blindly in an attempt to hide in the gunsmoke. It was his belief that the run could be made with a good chance of success, provided it was made in silence and by the dark of the moon. If the rebels did not know he was there, they would not shoot; or if they knew he was there, but could not see him, they would not be likely to hit him. At any rate he was willing to give it a try, and he said so at a conference on the flagship in late March. Foote was pleased to hear that someone thought the run could be made, though he himself was doubtful. The army gibes had begun to sting, and there were reports that the Confederates were building a fleet of giant ironclads at Memphis: he might soon have a downstream fight on his hands, against much longer odds, whether he wanted it or not. He asked Walke if he would be willing to back up his opinion by trying the run in the Carondelet. Walke said he would, emphatically. Foote said all right, go ahead. He would not order a man to try what he himself had already said was too risky, but he would approve it on a volunteer basis. Walke began his preparations at once.
The moon would be new and early-down on the night of April 4, which left him just under a week for getting ready. During this time he piled his decks with planks from a wrecked barge to give protection from plunging shot, coiled surplus chain in vulnerable spots, and wound an 11-inch hawser round and round the pilothouse as high up as the windows. Cordwood barriers were built to inclose the boilers, and a coal barge loaded with bales of hay was lashed to the port side, which caused an observer to remark that the gunboat resembled “a farmer’s wagon prepared for market.” The only light she carried would be a lantern in the engine room, invisible from outside, and to insure silence the engines were muffled by piping the escape steam through the paddle-wheel housing instead of through the stacks as usual. The one thing Walke was to avoid beyond all others was being captured; fighting upstream in rebel hands, the Carondelet might be a match for all her sister ships combined. To guard against this, the crew was armed with cutlasses, pistols, and hand grenades; two dozen volunteer sharp shooters were taken aboard; hot-water hoses were connected to the boilers for the purpose of scalding boarders; and if all else failed, Walke’s orders were that she was to be sunk beneath their feet. Through the early evening of April 4 the sickle moon shone brightly, if intermittently, over and under a scud of black clouds racing past. Then came moonset, 10 o’clock; Walke passed the word, “All ready,” and the gunboat slipped her moorings. The muffled engines merely throbbed; the gathering clouds had masked the stars. So absolute were the darkness and the silence as the Carondelet stood out for New Madrid, the officers on deck asked through the speaking pipes if the engineer was going ahead on her.
It was not so for long. Just as she cleared the line of mortal rafts at the head of the moored column, the storm broke with tropical fury. Vast and vivid streaks of lightning split the sky, so that to one who watched it was as if the gates of hell “were opened and shut every instant, suffering the whole fierce reflection of the infernal lake to flash across the sky.” Thunder crashed and rumbled and the rain came down in gulfs. The river ahead was an illuminated highway, with Island Ten looming in ominous silhouette, its drowsy lookouts no doubt startled into wide-eyed action at seeing the Yankee gunboat bearing down on them like something on a brightly lighted stage. Yet apparently not: Walke held his course past the first battery without being fired on—when suddenly, of her own accord, the Carondelet signaled her presence to her enemies ashore. Dry soot in her chimneys, normally kept wet by the escape steam, took fire and shot five-foot torches from their crowns, bathing with a yellow glare the upper deck and everything around. That did it. Ashore, there were cries of alarm and an officer shouting, “Elevate! Elevate!” and then the crash of gunfire through the thunder.
Carondelet went with the current, a leadsman knee-deep in muddy foam on her bow to sing out the soundings. The coal barge lashed alongside impeded her speed, but was no less welcome for that, coming as it did between the batteries and their target. Shells shrieked overhead or were heard plunging into the water as the island guns were echoed by others along the Tennessee bank. Wallowing in the wind-whipped waves, still under the crash and flash of thunder and lightning, the little ironclad held her course and took no hits. Clear of the island, she still had the floating battery to pass, but the final six shots from there were misses, like the rest. She had made it. Pulling up to the New Madrid landing, where army cannoneers were giving the navy its due at last by tossing their caps and cheering, Walke proudly took up a speaking trumpet and announced his arrival to those on bank, then turned to his bosun’s mate and authorized the sounding of “grog, oh.” Against regulations, the main brace then was spliced.
Pope at last had what he had been saying was all he needed, a gunboat south of Island Ten; and presently he had two. Learning of the Carondelet‘s successful run—she had taken two hits after all, it turned out: one in the coal barge, one in a bale of hay—Foote sent the Pittsburg down to repeat the performance on the night of the 6th, which was also dark and stormy. The makeshift rebel flotilla scattered, awed, and the ironclads knocked out the batteries opposite Point Pleasant. Pope put his men on transports and had the gunboats herd them over. The Tiptonville road was cut within an hour of the unopposed landing. All he had to do then was put his hand out; the 7000 Confederates were in it, along with more than a hundred pieces of light and heavy artillery, 7000 small arms, horses and mules by droves, mounds of equipment including tents for 12,000 men, and several boatloads of provisions.
It was all over before the dawn of April 8, accomplished without the loss of a single man in combat. The North had another hero: bluff John Pope. A forthright combination of ingenuity and drive—large-bodied, with stolid eyes and a full beard that spread down over his upper chest, his broad, flat face framed by dark brown hair brushed straight back from the bulging expanse of forehead and falling long at the sides—he commanded confidence by his very presence. Once he saw what he wanted, he went after it on his own, unflinchingly. The military worth of such a man was clear for all to see, including his commander. Halleck wired, exuberant: “I congratulate you and your command on your splendid achievement. It excels in boldness and brilliancy all other operations of the war. It will be memorable in military history and will be admired by future generations. You deserve well of your country.”
Thus Halleck rejoiced and Pope basked in well-earned laudation, while their opponent Beauregard experienced quite opposite emotions. Once more on the eve of scoring what he had hoped would be “a beautiful ten strike,” he was suddenly faced instead with the imminent testing of his prediction that the fall of New Madrid and Island Ten would mean the immediate loss of the whole Mississippi Valley. For him this meant the loss of the war, and he was correspondingly cast down. Midway of the campaign, which was stretching his nerves to the breaking point—one fluke of his left-flank anchor had snapped, and the other seemed about to snap as well—he wrote to a friend in Congress, inquiring distractedly: “Will not heaven open the eyes and senses of our rulers? Where in the world are we going to, if not to destruction?”
Good news was doubly welcome in St. Louis, where Halleck had sat desk-bound all this time, scratching his elbows and addressing his goggle-eyed stare in the general direction of the back-area correspondents who came clamoring for information he could not give because he did not have it. The month between the mid-February capture of Fort Donelson and the mid-March fall of New Madrid had been for him a time of strain, one in which he saw his probable advancement placed in precarious balance opposite his probable stagnation. He had come out top man in the end, but the events leading up to that happy termination—as if, perversely, the fates had established a sort of inverse ratio between the success of Federal arms and the rise of Henry Halleck—had contained, for him, far more of anguish than of joy. There was small consolation in realizing later that the fates had been with him all along, that the cause for all that anguish had existed only in his own mind, as a product of fear and suspicion.
His first reaction, the day after the fall of the Cumberland fortress, was to request promotions for Buell, Grant, and C. F. Smith—and advancement for himself. “Give me command of the West,” he wired McClellan. “I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson.” His second reaction, following hard on the heels of the first, was fear that Grant’s victory might sting the Confederates into desperation. Even now perhaps they were massing for a sudden all-or-nothing lunge, northward around Grant’s flank. Beauregard’s plan for an attack on Paducah and Cairo had not gone beyond the dream stage, but Halleck feared it quite literally, and called urgently for Buell to come help him. Buell replied in effect that he had troubles of his own, and Halleck was even more firmly convinced of the necessity for authority to bend him to his will. “I must have command of the armies of the West,” he told McClellan in a second wire, sent three days after the first, which had gone unanswered. “Hesitation and delay are losing us the golden opportunity. Lay this before the President and the Secretary of War. May I assume command? Answer quickly.” This time McClellan did answer quickly, but not as his fretful subordinate had hoped. Replying that he believed Buell could handle his own army better from Bowling Green than Halleck could do from St Louis, he declined to lay Old Brains’ self-recommendation on the presidential desk.
Perhaps it was what Halleck had expected. At any rate he had already put a second string to his bow, forwarding for Stanton’s out-of-channels approval a plan for reorganizing the western department under his command. February 21, the day after McClellan’s refusal, Stanton replied that he liked the plan, “but on account of the domestic affliction of the President”—Willie Lincoln had died the day before and was lying in state in the White House—“I have not yet been able to submit it to him.” Halleck’s hopes took a bound at this. Determined to strike while the iron was hot, he wired back that same day, urging the won-over Secretary to break in on the President’s family trouble, whatever it was. “One whole week has been lost already by hesitation and delay,” he complained. “There was, and I think there still is, a golden opportunity to strike a fatal blow, but I can’t do it unless I can control Buell’s army.… There is not a moment to be lost. Give me the authority, and I will be responsible for results.” Stanton’s reply came the following day, and Halleck’s hopes hit bottom with a thud. The Secretary had gotten to Lincoln, but “after full consideration of the subject,” he telegraphed, “[the President] does not think any change in the organization of the army or the military departments at present advisable.”
Halleck’s bow was completely unstrung; there was no one left to appeal to, either in or out of channels. After two days spent absorbing the shock, he replied with what grace he could muster: “If it is thought that the present arrangement is best for the public service, I have nothing to say. I have done my duty in making the suggestions, and I leave it to my superiors to adopt or reject them.” For others closer at hand, however, he either had less grace to spare or else it was exhausted. Encountering signs of paperwork confusion down at Cairo that same day, he testily informed his chief of staff: “There is a screw loose in that command. It had better be fixed pretty soon, or the command will hear from me.”
That was still his irascible, sore-pawed frame of mind the following week, when his worst fears in regard to Grant appeared to have been realized. At a time when Halleck was most concerned about a possible rebel counterattack, launched with all the fury of desperation, Grant and his 30,000 soldiers—the combat-hardened core of any defense the department commander might have to make—lost touch with headquarters, apparently neglecting to file reports because he was off on a double celebration of victory and promotion. The former alcoholic captain was now a major general, tenth-ranking man in the whole U.S. Army; Lincoln had signed the recommendation on the night of the day the Donelson news reached Washington, and the Senate had promptly confirmed it as of the Unconditional Surrender date. Halleck himself had urged the promotion, but not as warmly as he had urged several others, and he had yet to congratulate Grant personally for the capture of the forts. Other promotions were in the mill, soon to be acted on—Buell and Pope were to be major generals within a week, along with others, including Smith—but Grant would outrank them, which was not at all what Halleck had intended or expected. The fact was, absorbed as he had been in his rivalry with Buell, he was beginning to see that he had raised an even more formidable hero-opponent right there in his own front yard. Donelson having caught the public fancy, the public in its short-sighted way was giving all the credit to the general on the scene, rather than to the commander who had masterminded the campaign from St Louis. Irked by this, he then was confronted with what he considered the crowning instance of Grant’s instability. Having won his promotion, the new hero apparently thought himself above the necessity for filing reports as to his whereabouts or condition. Where he was now, Halleck did not know for sure; but there were rumors.
On March 3 McClellan received a dispatch indicating that Halleck’s sorely tried patience at last had snapped: “I have had no communication with General Grant for more than a week. He left his command without my authority and went to Nashville. His army seems to be as much demoralized by the victory of Fort Donelson as was that of the Potomac by the defeat of Bull Run. It is hard to censure a successful general immediately after a victory, but I think he richly deserves it. I can get no returns, no reports, no information of any kind from him. Satisfied with his victory, he sits down and enjoys it without any regard to the future. I’m worn-out and tired with this neglect and inefficiency.” McClellan, whose eye for a possible rival was quite as sharp as Halleck’s own, was sudden in reply: “Generals must observe discipline as well as private soldiers. Do not hesitate to arrest him at once if the good of the service requires it.… You are at liberty to regard this as a positive order if it will smooth your way.”
Halleck did not hesitate. The order went by wire to Grant at once: “You will place [Brig.] Gen. C. F. Smith in command of expedition, and remain yourself at Fort Henry. Why do you not obey my orders to report strength and positions of your command?” The question was largely rhetorical; Halleck believed he already knew the answer, and he gave it in a telegram informing McClellan of his action in the matter: “A rumor has just reached me that since the taking of Fort Donelson, General Grant has resumed his former bad habits. If so, it will account for his neglect of my often-repeated orders.” To anyone with an ear for army gossip, and McClellan’s was highly tuned in that respect, this meant that Grant was off on a bender. “I do not deem it advisable to arrest him at present,” Halleck continued, “but have placed General Smith in command of the expedition up the Tennessee. I think Smith will restore order and discipline.”
Grant had been guilty of none of these things, and he said so in a telegram to Halleck as soon as he had complied with the instructions to turn over his command: “I am not aware of ever having disobeyed any order from headquarters—certainly never intended such a thing.” The communications hiatus was explained by the defection of a telegraph operator who took Grant’s dispatches with him, unsent, when he deserted. It was true, Grant said, that he had been to Nashville, but that was because Halleck had told him nothing; he had gone there to meet Buell and work out a plan for coöperation. When Halleck still showed resentment at having been left in the dark, Grant observed that there must be enemies between them, and asked to be relieved from further duty in the department. Halleck refused to agree to this, but continued to bolster his case by forwarding an anonymous letter charging that the property captured at Fort Henry had been questionably handled. His dander really up now, Grant replied: “There is such a disposition to find fault with me that I again ask to be relieved from further duty until I can be placed right in the estimation of those higher in authority.”
Suddenly, incredibly, all was sweetness and light at Halleck’s end of the wire. “You cannot be relieved from your command,” he answered. “There is no good reason for it.… Instead of relieving you, I wish you as soon as your new army is in the field to assume command and lead it on to new victories.”
There were a number of reasons behind this sudden change in attitude and disposition, all of which had occurred between the leveling and the withdrawing of the charges against Grant. First, the evacuation of Columbus had relieved Halleck’s fears that the Confederates were about to unleash an attack on Cairo or Paducah, and while Curtis was stopping Van Dorn at Elkhorn Tavern, Pope was applying a bear hug on New Madrid. Then, just as he was congratulating himself on these improvements in the tactical situation, a stiff letter came from the Adjutant General, demanding specifications for the vague charges he had been making against his new major general. Trial-by-rumor would not do, the army’s head lawyer informed him. “By direction of the President, the Secretary of War desires you to ascertain and report whether General Grant left his command at any time without proper authority, and, if so, for how long; whether he has made to you proper reports and returns of his force; whether he has committed any acts which are unauthorized or not in accordance with military subordination or propriety, and, if so, what.” To reply as directed would be to give Grant what he had been seeking, a chance to “be placed right in the estimation of those higher in authority.” Besides, Halleck had no specifications to report, only rumors. Instead, he replied that he was “satisfied” Grant had “acted from a praiseworthy although mistaken zeal.… I respectfully recommend that no further notice be taken of it.… All these irregularities have now been remedied.”
However, there was something more behind this sudden volte-face, this willingness to bury the hatchet he had been flourishing lately. March 11—the day after the Adjutant General’s call for specifics, and two days before he blandly informed Grant that there was “no good reason” for relieving him—the fond hope for which he had labored in and out of channels all these months was realized. He got the West. His command, which was called the Department of the Mississippi and extended for better than 500 miles eastward, from Kansas to a north-south line through Knoxville, was awarded him by Lincoln in the same War Order that deposed McClellan as general-in-chief and recalled Frémont to active duty. Receiving it that way, out of the blue, after two solid weeks of despair, Halleck was in no mood to quarrel with anyone, not even Grant: in fact, especially not Grant. Beauregard was reported to be intrenching around Corinth, reinforced to a strength of 20,000 men. “If so, he will make a Manassas of it,” Halleck said. That meant hard fighting: in which case he wanted his hardest-fighting general in command: and that meant Grant, whatever his instability in other respects. “The power is in your hands,” Halleck told him. “Use it, and you will be sustained by all above you.”
So Grant got aboard a steamboat at Fort Henry and went up the Tennessee to rejoin his army.
Beauregard was at Corinth, and he had been reinforced: Halleck’s information was true, as far as it went. But the Creole was not planning a Manassas. He was planning a Cannae, or at least an Austerlitz, and for once (though he did not neglect the accustomed flourish at the outset: “Soldiers: I assume this day the command of the Army of the Mississippi, for the defense of our homes and liberties, and to resist the subjugation, spoliation, and dishonor of our people. Our mothers and wives, our sisters and children, expect us to do our duty even to the sacrifice of our lives.… Our cause is as just and sacred as ever animated men to take up arms, and if we are true to it and to ourselves, with the continued protection of the Almighty, we must and shall triumph”) his dream was built on something more than rhetoric and hope.
Recent and looming disasters at last had jarred the Richmond government into action. The fall of Henry and Donelson, followed at once by the loss of Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, now threatened the railroad leading eastward from Memphis, through Corinth and Tuscumbia, to Chattanooga, where it branched south, through Atlanta, to Charleston and Savannah, and north, through Knoxville, to Lynchburg and Richmond. “The vertebrae of the Confederacy,” former War Secretary L. P. Walker called it, and rightly; for once this only east-west all-weather supply line was cut, the upper South would be divided—as prone for conquest as a man with a broken backbone. Now when Beauregard cried wolf, as he had done unheeded so often before, the authorities listened. Without Major General Braxton Bragg and the 10,000 soldiers he commanded at Mobile and Pensacola, the southern coast would be wide open to amphibious attack, but under the press of necessity the dispersed defensive was out, no matter the risk; Bragg and his men were ordered north to Corinth. So were Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles and his 5000 from New Orleans, though their departure left the South’s chief city without infantry to defend it. By early March they were with Beauregard, absorbed into the Army of the Mississippi. Combined with Polk’s 10,000—so that in point of fact it was they who did the absorbing—they brought the expansive Creole’s total strength to 25,000 men.
His spirits were lifted toward elation by this considerable transfusion of troops from his native shore—including one elite New Orleans outfit which carried his name on its roster as an honorary private; “Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard!” rang out daily at roll call, like the sudden unfurling of a silken banner; “Absent on duty!” the color-sergeant proudly answered for him. He looked forward to combinations and maneuvers that would be nothing less than Napoleonic in concept and execution. Johnston by now was across the Tennessee, marching westward from Decatur with the remnant of what had been the Army of Kentucky. Floyd’s brigade had been sent to Chattanooga, but Forrest’s troopers had caught up with the column, bringing Hardee’s total to 15,000. When they arrived there would be 40,000 soldiers around Corinth, exactly the number the impatiently waiting general had said would allow a strike at Cairo and Paducah. Nor was that all. Van Dorn’s 15,000, licking their Elkhorn Tavern wounds in Arkansas, had been alerted for an eastward march that would bring them across the Mississippi at Memphis, where they would find boxcars waiting to bring them rapidly down the vital railroad line to Corinth. The total then would soar to 55,000. Any twinge of regret for the 20,000 lost at Donelson and penned up now on Island Ten was quickly assuaged by the thought that, even without them, the Army of the Mississippi would not only be the largest any Confederate had ever commanded, but in fact would be almost twice as large as the combined force that had covered itself and its generals—particularly Beauregard—with glory at Manassas. As he waited now for Johnston he rehearsed in his mind the recommendations he would make for the utilization of this strength.
Scouts had been bringing him full reports of the enemy situation all this time. Grant’s army was twenty-odd miles to the north, in camp on the left bank of the Tennessee, awaiting the arrival of Buell’s army, which was moving west from Nashville. Even with the addition of Van Dorn and Johnston, the southern army would not be as large as the two northern armies combined, but it would be larger than either on its own. The answer, then—provided the gray-clad reinforcements won the race, which seemed likely, since the Yankees marching overland from Nashville were encountering various obstacles such as burned bridges—was a slashing attack. If Van Dorn and Johnston reached Corinth before Buell reached the Tennessee, the superior Confederate army would pounce on Grant and accomplish his destruction, then fall in turn on Buell and treat him likewise, after which the way to Louisville and St Louis would lie open. Beauregard saw and rehearsed it thus in his mind, complete no doubt with the final surrender ceremonies at the point of deepest penetration, wherever that might be. When Johnston arrived on the 24th at the head of the column which now reached the end of its long retreat from Bowling Green, he considered the race half won.
The tall, handsome Texan, who had set out seven months ago, buoyed up by the confident hopes of the South that he would drive the blue invaders from the soil of his native Kentucky, now came back to Mississippi oppressed by the seething resentment of those who had cheered him loudest then. He took it calmly, the flared mustache and deep-set eyes masking whatever hurt the barbs of criticism gave him. “What the people want is a victory,” he had said, and he welcomed Beauregard’s proposal—the more so since it coincided with plans he had made on the march—as a chance to give them one. In fact, as a sign of appreciation for all the Louisiana general had done in the trying past few weeks, Johnston made the gesture of offering him command of the army for the coming battle; he himself would act as department commander, he said, with headquarters at Memphis or at nearby Holly Springs. Beauregard’s heart gave a leap at this, touching his fiery ambition as it did, but he recognized a gesture when he saw one, and declined. Then the two got down to preparing the army for combat, prescribing rigid training schedules for the soldiers, who being raw needed all the instruction they could possibly absorb, and reorganizing them into four corps: 10,000 under Polk, 16,000 under Bragg, 7000 under Hardee, and 7000 under Breckinridge. (The last was designated as Crittenden’s at first, but he was presently removed to suffer demotion for the Fishing Creek debacle.) The 15,000 under Van Dorn would add a substantial fifth corps when they got there, but even without them the army was about as large as the one Grant had in camp on the near bank of the Tennessee, twenty-two miles to the north.
The reinstated Federal commander had been with his army a week by the time Johnston joined Beauregard at Corinth. After the hundred-mile boat ride Grant came ashore at Savannah, a hamlet on the east bank, where C. F. Smith, an old soldier who never neglected the creature comforts, had established headquarters in a fine private mansion overlooking a bend of the Tennessee. One division was at Crump’s Landing, three miles upstream on the opposite bank, and as Grant arrived the other five were debarking at Pittsburg Landing, six miles farther south and also on the west side of the river. The site had been recommended by the commander of one of the new divisions; a “magnificent plain for camping and drilling,” he called it, “and a military point of great strength.”
This was Tecumseh Sherman. He too had been reinstated, Halleck having decided that he was not really insane after all, just high-strung and talkative; besides, he had a brother in the Senate. Grant, for one, thought highly of him. During the Donelson campaign Sherman had worked hard, forwarding reinforcements and supplies and offering to waive his then superior rank for a chance to come up and join the fighting. But the men assigned to him were not so sure, not at the outset anyhow. Red-headed and gaunt, with sunken temples and a grizzled, short-cropped ginger beard, he had a wild expression around his eyes and a hungry look that seemed to have been with him always. “I never saw him but I thought of Lazarus,” one declared. His shoulders twitched and his hands were never still, always picking at something, twirling a button or fiddling with his whiskers. They had not fancied getting their first taste of combat under a man who had been sent home such a short while back under suspicion of insanity. Three days before Grant’s arrival, though at first their fears were intensified, they learned better. Smith sent them south for a try at breaking the vital Memphis & Charleston Railroad, down across the Mississippi line.
They came off the transports at midnight in a blinding rain. By daylight they were far inland, and still the rain came pouring. Bridges were washed out, so that the cavalry, scouting ahead, lost men and horses, drowned while trying to ford the swollen creeks. Behind them, the Tennessee was rising fast, threatening to cut them off by flooding the bottom they had marched across. At this point, just when things were at their worst, Sherman ordered them back to the transports. It had been a nightmare operation, and probably they had done no earthly good; they were wet, tired, hungry, cold; for the most part they had been thoroughly frightened. But curiously enough, when they were back aboard the transports, drinking hot coffee and snuggling into blankets, they felt fine about the whole thing. They had been down into enemy country, the actual Deep South—a division on its own, looking for trouble: that gave them the feeling of being veterans—and they had seen their commander leading them. Sherman was not the same man at all. He was not nervous; his shoulders did not twitch; he was calm and confident, and when he saw the thing was impossible he did not hesitate to give it up. Whatever else he might be, he certainly was not crazy. They knew that now, and they were willing to follow wherever he led them.
Grant too had changed, the veterans saw when he came up to Pittsburg to inspect them. Mostly it was the aura of fame that had been gathering around him in the month since the news from Donelson first set the church bells ringing. He was Unconditional S. Grant now, and his picture was on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. There was a hunger for particulars about him, for instance how he “generally stood or walked with his left hand in his trousers pocket, and had in his mouth an unlighted cigar, the end of which he chewed restlessly.” The cigar was an example of the change that stemmed from fame. Learning that he had kept one clamped in his teeth that critical afternoon at Donelson, whenever he was not using it like a marshal’s baton to point the direction for attack, readers had sent him boxes of them to express their admiration, and since Grant had never been one to waste things, least of all good tobacco, the long-stemmed meerschaum that had given him so much satisfaction in the past was put away while he concentrated on smoking up those crates of gift cigars. One other change he had made on his own. His beard, which formerly had reached down past the second button on his coat, had been clipped short. It seemed to the soldiers, observing him now, a gesture not unlike that of a man rolling up his sleeves in preparation for hard work.
For him, work meant fighting; that was his trade, the only one he had ever been any good at or able to earn a living by, and he wanted to be at it right away. Restrained by Halleck, however—“We must strike no blow until we are strong enough to admit no doubt of the result,” the department commander warned—all Grant could do now was prepare for the attack he would launch when Buell got there. Meanwhile the position appeared to him to be about as good as Sherman had reported. A hundred-foot yellow-clay bluff rose abruptly from the narrow shelf of the landing, where steamboats had unloaded peacetime cargoes for Corinth, to a plateau eroded by gullies and covered with second-growth timber except for scattered clearings cut by farmers for orchards and grain fields. It was not quite a “magnificent plain,” but it did have points of military strength, the flanks being protected by Lick and Snake Creeks, which emptied into the Tennessee above and below the landing. The area between them, a quadrilateral varying roughly from three to five miles on a side, gave plenty of room for drilling the five divisions camped there and was conveniently cross-hatched by a network of wagon trails leading inland and connecting the small farms. But Grant’s primary interest was on the main road leading southwest to Corinth, one hard day’s march away. That was the one he would take when the time came: meaning Buell. Halleck reported him nearing Waynesboro, forty miles away, but cautioned Grant: “Don’t let the enemy draw you into an engagement now. Wait till you are properly fortified and receive orders.”
This raised another question; for the position had not been fortified at all. Smith had already expressed an opinion on that. The crusty general had been put to bed with an infected leg, having skinned his shin on the sharp edge of a rowboat seat, but he was quite undaunted. “By God,” he said, “I ask nothing better than to have the rebels come out and attack us! We can whip them to hell. Our men suppose we have come here to fight, and if we begin to spade it will make them think we fear the enemy.” Grant agreed and left things as they were, despite the warning. The war was on its last legs, he told Halleck, and the enemy too demoralized to constitute a danger: “The temper of the rebel troops is such that there is but little doubt but that Corinth will fall much more easily than Donelson did when we do move. All accounts agree in saying that the great mass of the rank and file are heartily tired.”
One man at least did not agree at first, and that was Sherman. Privately he was telling newsmen, “We are in great danger here.” But when asked why he did not protest to those in charge, he shrugged; “Oh, they’d call me crazy again.” As time went by, however, and no attack developed, he became as complacent as the rest. Before the end of March he wrote gaily to an army friend in Cairo: “I hope we may meet in Memphis. Here we are on its latitude, and you have its longitude. Draw our parallels, and we breakfast at the Gayoso, whither let us God speed, and then rejoice once more at the progress of our cause.”
Already there had been cause for rejoicing by some of his fellow generals, promotions having come through on the 21st for the three who commanded divisions at Donelson. Smith received his in bed—his leg was getting worse instead of better—but McClernand took his step-up with the continuing belief that other advancements were in store, and Lew Wallace was now the youngest major general in the army. Smith’s division was placed in charge of W. H. L. Wallace, an Ohio lawyer who had won his stars at Donelson. Two of the three divisions added since were led by brigadiers who had moved to Illinois from the South and stood by the Union when trouble came: Benjamin M. Prentiss, a Virginia-born merchant, and Stephen A. Hurlbut, a lawyer originally from Charleston, South Carolina. Sherman, commanding the remaining green division, had had less combat experience than any of them—none at all, in fact, since that grievous July afternoon on the banks of Bull Run in far-away Virginia, where McClellan, now that April was at hand, was boarding a steamer to go down the coast and join his army for an advance up the James peninsula—but he was the only one of the six who was regular army, and Grant left the tactical arrangements in general to him, commuting daily by steamboat from the Savannah mansion, nine miles away.
Between them, these six commanded eighteen brigades: 74 regiments containing 42,682 soldiers, some raw, some hardened by combat. Green or seasoned, however, they approved to a man of their commander’s intention to march down to Corinth, as soon as Buell arrived with 30,000 more, and administer another dose of the medicine they had forced down rebel throats the month before.
Johnston had sixteen brigades, 71 regiments with a total strength of 40,335. But even apart from the day-to-day danger of Buell’s reaching Pittsburg Landing with three fourths that many more, the present near-equality in numbers was considerably offset by a contrasting lack of combat experience. Two thirds of Grant’s men had been in battle—in fact had been victorious in battle—whereas in Johnston’s army, except for Forrest’s troopers and the handful Polk had sent to Pillow’s aid five months ago at Belmont, few had heard a shot fired in anger, and only Hardee’s men had even done much real marching. Bragg referred to the forces around Corinth as “this mob we have, miscalled soldiers,” and complained that a good part of them had never done a day’s work in their lives. Johnston of course was aware of these shortcomings, but his scouts having kept him well informed he counted much on the element of surprise. He knew what he would find up there: an army camped with its back to a deep river, unfortified, hemmed in by boggy creeks, disposed for comfort, and scattered the peacetime way. Meanwhile, drill and instruction were repairing the Confederate flaws Bragg had pointed out so harshly. He would strike as soon as he felt it possible. The question was, how long would he have before Buell got there or Grant saw the danger and corrected his dispositions or, worse, moved out and beat him to the punch?
Late at night, April 2, a telegram from Bethel, twenty miles north on the M & O, seemed to Beauregard to confirm the last and worst of these fears: Lew Wallace was maneuvering in that direction. Taking this for the beginning of a full-scale attack on Memphis, he forwarded the message to Johnston after writing on the bottom: “Now is the moment to advance, and strike the enemy at Pittsburg Landing.” Johnston read it, then crossed the street to confer with Bragg, who had been made chief of staff in addition to his other duties under last week’s reorganization. Johnston wanted more time for drilling his army and awaiting the arrival of Van Dorn, but Bragg was insistent in support of Beauregard’s indorsement. Whatever this latest development meant, Buell was drawing closer every day. It had to be now or never, he said, and Johnston at last agreed. Ready or unready, Van Dorn or no Van Dorn, they would go up to Pittsburg and attack the Federal army in its camp. Within an hour of the telegram’s midnight arrival, orders went out for the four corps commanders to “hold their commands in hand, ready to advance upon the enemy in the morning by 6 a.m. with three days’ cooked rations in haversacks, 100 rounds of ammunition for small arms, and 200 rounds for field-pieces.”
Early next morning Beauregard’s chief of staff got to work, preparing the march instructions from notes the general had made on scraps of paper during the night. As he worked he had at his elbow Napoleon’s Waterloo order, using it as a model despite the way that battle had turned out for the one who planned it. Since this would require considerable time—first the writing, then the copying and the distribution—Beauregard called Hardee and Bragg to his room to explain the march routes verbally; their corps would lead the way, and the written instructions could be delivered after they got started. As he spoke he drew a crude map on the top of a camp table, indicating distances and directions.
Two roads ran from Corinth up to Pittsburg. On the map they resembled a strung bow leaned sideways, curved side up, with the two armies at the top and bottom tips. The lower route, through Monterey, was the string; the upper route, through Mickey’s, was the bow. Bragg and Breckinridge were to travel the string, Hardee and Polk the bow, in that order. Hardee was to reach Mickey’s that night, bivouac, then at 3 a.m. pass on and form for battle in the fields beyond. Polk was to wait while Bragg marched up the road from Monterey and cleared the junction at Mickey’s, then follow him into position, clearing the way for Breckinridge in turn. They were to regulate their columns so as not to delay each other, keeping their files well closed and the various elements properly spaced. So much for the march order; the battle order followed.
Beyond Mickey’s, within charging distance of the enemy outposts, they were to form for battle in successive lines, Hardee across the front with one brigade from Bragg, who was to form a second line five hundred yards in rear. Polk and Breckinridge were to mass their corps to the left and right, a half-mile behind Bragg, so that when he went forward, following Hardee, Polk could spread out wide in his support, leaving Breckinridge in column as the general reserve. The flanks of the army, with the three lead corps extending individually across the entire front, rested on the creeks that hemmed Grant in. As they advanced, each line would thus support the one in front, and the reserve corps would feed troops from the rear toward those points where resistance turned out stiffest. The attack on the right was intended to move fastest, bearing generally left in a long curve, first along the watershed of Lick Creek and then down the west bank of the Tennessee, so as to sweep the Federals clear of the landing and drive them back against the boggy northward loop of Snake Creek, where they could be destroyed.
Today was Thursday, April 3. According to schedule, the troops would complete the twenty-mile approach march and be deployed for battle no later than midmorning tomorrow. But when the council broke up at 10 o’clock, already four hours past the starting time, and the generals dispersed to get their columns on the road, troops and wagons quickly snarled to a standstill, blocking the streets of Corinth. Polk at last got clear of the jam, but had to wait while Hardee doubled his column and took the lead. By then it was late afternoon, and Polk was held up till after sunset. When he stopped for the night he had covered a scant nine miles. Down on the lower road, Bragg’s unwieldy column did no better. Manifestly, the schedule would have to be revised. Beauregard set it forward a whole day, intending now to be deployed in time to strike the Federals early Saturday morning.
But if Thursday had been like a bad dream, Friday was a nightmare. The march, which had seemed so easy to regulate on the flat, uncluttered table-top, turned out to be something quite different on the ground, which was neither flat nor uncluttered—nor, as it turned out, dry. The abrupt, thunderous showers of a Mississippi April broke over the winding column, and soon the wagon and artillery wheels had churned the roads into shin-deep mud. There were halts and unaccountable delays, times when the men had to trot to keep up, and times when they stood endlessly in the rain, waiting for the file ahead to stumble into motion. In their wake, the roadsides were littered with discarded equipment, overcoats and playing cards, bowie knives and Bibles. A more welcome delay was the rest halt given each regiment while its colonel read the commanding general’s address, written in Corinth while they were assembling for the march.
Soldiers of the Army of the Mississippi:
I have put you in motion to offer battle to the invaders of your country. With the resolution and disciplined valor becoming men fighting, as you are, for all worth living or dying for, you can but march to a decisive victory over the agrarian mercenaries sent to subjugate and despoil you of your liberties, property, and honor. Remember the precious stake involved; remember the dependence of your mothers, your wives, your sisters, and your children on the result; remember the fair, broad, abounding land, the happy homes and the ties that would be desolated by your defeat.
The eyes and hopes of eight millions of people rest upon you. You are expected to show yourselves worthy of your race and lineage; worthy of the women of the South, whose noble devotion in this war has never been exceeded in any time. With such incentives to brave deeds, and with the trust that God is with us, your generals will lead you confidently to the combat, assured of success.
A. S. JOHNSTON, General
It was delivered in various styles, ranging from the oratorical, with flourishes, to the matter-of-fact, depending on the previous civil occupation of the reader. The troops cheered wildly or perfunctorily, depending on their degree of weariness and in part on how the address was read, then fell back into column on the muddy roads for more of the stop-and-go marching.
But the one who had it worst that day was Bragg. He too had made a late start out of Corinth, and the head of his oversized column did not reach Monterey, where it should have bivouacked the night before, until near midday. One of his divisions was lost somewhere in the rear, perhaps sidetracked, and he had had no word from Breckinridge at all. As a result, though Hardee and Polk were marching hard to make up for yesterday’s wasted time, the latter was held up short of Mickey’s, waiting for Bragg to clear the junction, and the former had no sooner got past it than he received a message asking him to call a halt so that Bragg’s dragging column could close the expanding gap. Bragg was a tall, gangling man, a West Pointer and a Mexican War hero—“A little more grape, Captain Bragg,” Zachary Taylor was supposed to have told him at Buena Vista, as every schoolboy knew (though what he really said was, “Captain, give ’em hell”)—a native North Carolinian, lately a Louisiana sugar planter, in his middle forties but looking ten years older because of chronic stomach trouble and a coarse gray-black beard which emphasized his heaviness of jaw and sternness of aspect; not that the latter needed emphasis, already having been rendered downright ferocious by the thick bushy eyebrows which grew in a continuous line across the bottom of his forehead. It galled him to have to send that message to Hardee, amounting as it did to an admission of being to blame for the delay; for he was a strict disciplinarian, and like most such he was quick to lose his temper when things went wrong.
Still jammed on the roads leading into and out of Mickey’s, when they should have been moving into the final position where they would deploy for the attack tomorrow morning, the weary and bedraggled troops were caught that night in the same thunderstorm that attended the Carondelet on her run past Island Ten, just over a hundred miles away. All semblance of order dissolved under torrents of rain. When Johnston and Beauregard rode into Mickey’s soon after sunrise, expecting to find the army arrayed for combat—they had left Corinth the day before and spent the night at Monterey—the rain had stopped and the sun was shining bright on the flooded fields, but the army was far from arrayed. In fact, most of it had not even arrived. Hardee was approximately in position, but he was waiting for the brigade from Bragg that would complete his line. By the time it got there, the sun was already high in the sky and Beauregard was fuming. He had cause. As they marched forward to file into line, the men began to worry about the dampness of the powder in their rifles; but instead of drawing the charges and reloading, they tested them by snapping the triggers; with the result that, within earshot of the Federal outposts, there was an intermittent banging up and down the columns, as rackety as a sizeable picket clash. Nor was that all. The returning sun having raised their spirits, the men began to tune up their rebel yells and practice marksmanship on birds and rabbits.
For two hours then, with Johnston and Beauregard standing by, Bragg continued to deploy the remainder of his corps—all but the rear division, which still had not arrived. When Johnston asked where it was, the harassed Bragg replied that it was somewhere back there; he was trying to locate it. Johnston waited, his impatience mounting, then took out his watch: 12.30. “This is perfectly puerile! This is not war!” he exclaimed, and set off down the road himself to look for the missing division. He found it wedged behind some of Polk’s troops, who had not been willing to yield the right of way. The daylight hours were going fast. By the time Johnston got the road cleared and the last of Bragg’s men passed to the front, his watch showed 2 o’clock. Polk’s deployment used up another two hours, and Breckinridge, who had come up at last, was still to be brought forward. The shadows were getting longer every minute. It was not until about 4.30, however, that Johnston received the worst shock of all.
Riding forward he came upon a roadside conference between Beauregard and Polk and Bragg. The Creole’s big sad bloodhound eyes were rimmed with angry red and his hands were fluttering as he spoke. He was upset: which was understandable, for it was already ten hours past the time when he expected to launch the attack. He favored canceling the whole movement and returning at once to Corinth. In his mind, surprise was everything, and what with the delay piled on the previous postponement, the constant tramping back and forth and the racket the men had been making, all chance for surprise had been forfeited. He knew this, he said, because at one point that afternoon he had heard a drum rolling, but when he sent to have it silenced, the messenger came back and reported that it could not be done; the drum was in the Union camp. Beauregard reasoned that if he could hear enemy drum-taps, there was small doubt that the Federals had heard the random firing and whooping in the Confederate columns. Besides, ten southern troopers had been captured in a cavalry clash the night before; surely by now they had been questioned, and one at least had talked.
“There is no chance for surprise,” he ended angrily. “Now they will be intrenched to the eyes.”
Johnston heard him out, then turned to Polk, his West Point roommate. The bishop disagreed. His troops were eager for battle; they had left Corinth on the way to a fight, he said in that deep, pulpit voice of his, and if they did not find one they would be as demoralized as if they had been whipped. Bragg said he felt the same way about it. While he was speaking Breckinridge rode up. Surprised that withdrawal was even being considered, he sided with Polk and Bragg, declaring that he would as soon be defeated as retire without a fight. Hardee was the only corps commander not present, but there was no doubt which side he would favor; he was already formed for battle, anxious to go forward. The vote was in, and Johnston made it official. There would be another delay, another postponement, but there would be no turning back.
“Gentlemen, we shall attack at daylight tomorrow,” he said.
He told the corps commanders to complete the deployment and have the troops sleep on their arms in line of battle. Beauregard was protesting that Buell most likely had come up by now, bringing the Federal total to 70,000. But that made no difference either: not to Johnston, who had reached what he believed would be his hour of vindication after his long retreat. As he walked off he spoke to one of his staff. “I would fight them if they were a million,” he said. “They can present no greater front between those two creeks than we can, and the more men they crowd in there, the worse we can make it for them.”
While the army completed its deployment, the troops bedding down so that when they woke in darkness they would already be in line for the dawn assault, the sun set clear and red beyond the tasseling oaks. There was a great stillness in the blue dusk, and then the stars came out, dimming the pale sickle moon already risen in the daylight sky. Mostly the men slept, for they were weary; but some stayed awake, huddled around fires built in holes in the ground to hide them. In part they stayed awake because of hunger, for it was a Confederate belief that rations carried lighter in the stomach than in a haversack, and they had consumed their three days’ rations at the outset. The nearest of them could hear Yankee bugles, faint and far like foxhorns three fields off, sounding out of the dark woods where tomorrow’s battle would be fought. “The elephant,” veterans called combat, telling recruits the time had come to meet the elephant.
Strictly speaking, Beauregard was right, at least in part. Buell had arrived—that is, he slept that night on the outskirts of Savannah, intending to confer with Grant next morning—but with only one of his divisions, the others being scattered along twenty miles of the road back toward Nashville. They would arrive tomorrow and the next day. Grant, being informed of this, could go to bed that night rejoicing that things had worked out so well at last. He intended to send Buell’s men upstream to Hamburg. The road from there to Corinth was a mile shorter than the one leading down from Pittsburg, and the two converged eight miles this side of the objective. Conditions thus were ideal for his intention, which was to attack as soon as Buell’s army could be transferred to the west bank for coöperation with his own. Irksome as the delay had been, it had given him time to study the terrain and whip his reinforcements into shape, including even some seasoning clashes with rebel cavalry who ventured up to probe the rim of his camp at Pittsburg Landing.
The men themselves were feeling good by now, too, though at the outset they had had their doubts and discomforts. They had spent a rough first week clearing campsites, a week full of snow and sleet and a damp cold that went through flesh to bone. “The sunny South!” they jeered. All night, down the rows of tents, there was coughing, a racking uproar. Diarrhea was another evil, but they made jokes about that too; “the Tennessee quickstep,” they called it, laughing ruefully on sick call when the surgeons advised them to try the application of red-hot pokers. Then suddenly the weather faired, and this was the sunny South indeed; even the rain was warm. By the end of March Grant was reporting, “The health of the troops is materially improving under the influence of a genial sun which has blessed us for a few days past.”
He knew because he had been among them, making his daily commuter trip by steamboat from Savannah. Mostly, though, he kept his mind on the future, the offensive he would launch when Buell got there. He left the present—the defensive—largely to Sherman, who had kept busy all this time confirming his commander’s high opinion of him. The red-haired Ohioan’s green division was the largest in the army, and he had awarded it the position of honor, farthest from the landing. Three miles out, on the Corinth road, his headquarters tent was pitched alongside a rude log Methodist meeting-house called Shiloh Chapel. Two of his brigades were in line to the west of there, extending over toward Owl Creek, which flowed into Snake Creek where it turned northwest, a mile from the river, leaving Owl Creek to protect the army’s right flank south of the junction. His third brigade was east of the chapel, and his fourth was on the far side of the position, beyond Prentiss’s two brigades, whose camp was in line with his own. The others were three-brigade divisions: McClernand’s just in rear of Sherman’s, Hurlbut’s and W. H. L. Wallace’s well back toward the landing, and Lew Wallace’s five miles north, beyond Snake Creek. It was not so much a tactical arrangement, designed for mutual support, as it was an arrangement for comfort and convenience, the various positions being selected because of the availability of water or open fields for drilling. In Sherman’s mind, as in Grant’s, the main concern was getting ready to move out for Corinth as soon as Buell arrived. He had long since got over his original concern, privately admitted, that the army was “in great danger here.”
The same could not be said for all his officers. One in particular, the colonel of the 53d Ohio, had sounded the alarm so often that his soldiers were jeered at for belonging to what was called the Long Roll regiment. High-strung and jumpy—like Sherman himself in the old days—he was given to imagining that the whole rebel army was just outside his tent flap. During the past few days his condition had grown worse. Friday, April 4, he lost a picket guard of seven men, gobbled up by grayback cavalry, and when he advanced a company to develop the situation they ran into scattered firing and came back. All day Saturday he was on tenterhooks, communicating his alarm to Sherman. That afternoon he piled on the last straw by sending word to headquarters that a large force of the enemy was moving on the camp. Sherman mounted and rode out to confront him. While the colonel told excitedly of the hordes of rebels out there in the brush, Sherman sat with his mouth clamped down, looking into the empty woods. At last the man stopped talking. Sherman sat glaring down at him, then jerked the reins to turn his horse toward camp. “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio,” he said, snapping the words. “Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.”
So he said, adding the final remark to sharpen the sting of the rebuke, though actually he knew better. This was but one of several such clashes, including one the previous evening in which ten rebel prisoners were taken, and just this morning he had notified Grant: “The enemy has cavalry in our front, and I think there are two regiments of infantry and one battery of artillery about 2 miles out. I will send you 10 prisoners of war and a report of last night’s affair in a few minutes.”
There was a need for frequent reports, for Grant would not be coming up to visit the camps today. He had sprained his ankle during the violent thunderstorm the night before, when his horse slipped and fell on his leg. The soft ground had saved him from serious injury, but his boot had had to be cut off because of the swelling and he was limping painfully on crutches. The first dispatch from Sherman had opened, “All is quiet along my lines,” and presently there was another, apparently sent after he got back from administering the stinging rebuke to the Ohio colonel: “I have no doubt that nothing will occur today more than some picket firing. The enemy is saucy, but got the worst of it yesterday, and will not press our pickets far.… I do not apprehend anything like an attack on our position.”
The prisoners, if sent, went unquestioned. What could they possibly have to say that would interest a man who had already made up his mind that if he was to have a battle he would have to march his soldiers down to Corinth and provoke it? Sustained in his opinion by reports such as these two from Sherman, Grant refused to be disconcerted by incidentals. Besides, the staff officer who was best at conducting interrogations was at Hamburg, inspecting the campsite selected for Buell’s army. No time was to be lost now, for the lead division had arrived at noon, along with a note from Buell: “I shall be in Savannah tomorrow with one, perhaps two, divisions. Can I meet you there?” The note was dated yesterday; “tomorrow” meant today. But Grant either did not observe the heading (another incidental) or else he was in no hurry. “Your dispatch received,” he replied. “I will be there to meet you tomorrow”—meaning Sunday.
Ever since his run-in with Halleck, regarding the alleged in-frequency of his reports, he had kept the St Louis wire humming. Before he went to bed tonight in the fine big house on the bluff at Savannah, with nothing to fret him but the pain in his swollen ankle, he wrote a letter informing his chief that Buell’s lead division had arrived; the other two were close on its heels and would get there tomorrow and the next day. He told him also of yesterday’s picket clash. “I immediately went up,” he said, “but found all quiet.” Then he added: “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack (general one) being made upon us, but will be prepared should such a thing take place.”
Next morning at breakfast he heard a distant thunder from the south. The guns of Shiloh were jarring the earth.
Until then, Beauregard had not given up urging a withdrawal. Between dawn and sunup, wearing for luck the jaunty red flat-topped cap he had worn at Manassas, he came to Johnston’s overnight camp for a last-minute plea that the attack plan be abandoned. He looked fresh and rested after a sound sleep in his ambulance—his personal tent had been misplaced on the march—but he had lost none of yesterday’s conviction that the assault could not succeed. In fact he was more than ever convinced that all chance for surprise was gone. He had heard Federal bands playing marches in the night and there had been bursts of cheering from the direction of the landing. This meant only one thing, he said: Buell had come up, urged forward by the alerted Grant, and now there were 70,000 men in the Union camp, intrenched and expectant, waiting for the Confederates to walk into the trap.
The reply came not from Johnston, who stood with a cup of coffee in his hands, sipping from it as he heard him out, but from the army itself. The Creole was caught in midsentence by a rattle of musketry from dead ahead, a curious ripping sound like tearing canvas. Staff officers looked in that direction, then back at Johnston, who was handing the half-empty cup to an orderly. “The battle has opened, gentlemen,” he said. “It is too late to change our dispositions.” Beauregard mounted and rode away; the argument was no longer a matter for words. Johnston swung onto his horse and sat there for a long moment, his face quite grave. Then he twitched the reins, and as the big bay thoroughbred began to walk toward the sound of firing, swelling now across the front, the general turned in the saddle and spoke to his staff: “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.”
The opening shots had been fired ahead of schedule because one of Prentiss’s brigade commanders, sleepless and uneasy in the hours before dawn, had sent a three-company reconnaissance out to explore the woods to his front. Encountering a portion of Hardee’s skirmish line, which had not yet gone forward, they mistook it for a scouting party and attacked with spirit, driving the skirmishers back on the main body. Repulsed in turn by heavy volleys, they fell back to give the alarm that the enemy was moving in strength against the Federal position. Prentiss thus was warned of what was coming before it got there, and turned his green division out to meet the shock.
Sherman too was warned, but took no heed because the alarm was sounded by the same colonel he had rebuked for crying wolf the day before. A man had stumbled out of a thicket into the Ohio camp, holding a wound and crying, “Get in line! The rebels are coming!” A captain who went to investigate quickly returned shouting, “The rebs are out there thicker than fleas on a dog’s back!” But when the colonel sent a courier to inform Sherman, word came back: “You must be badly scared over there.”
Presently, though, riding forward with an orderly to where the colonel was shakily getting his men into line, he saw for himself the Confederates advancing across a large field in front, the skirmishers holding their rifles slantwise like quail hunters and the main body massed heavily behind them. The sun, which had risen fast in a cloudless sky—“the sun of Austerlitz,” Southerners called it, seeing in this a Napoleonic omen—flashed on their bayonets as they brought their rifles up to fire. “My God, we’re attacked!” Sherman cried, convinced at last as the volley crashed and his orderly fell dead beside him. “Hold your position; I’ll support you!” he shouted, and spurred away to send up reinforcements. But: “This is no place for us,” the colonel wailed, seeing his general head for the rear, and went over and lay face-down behind a fallen tree. His men were wavering, firing erratically at the attackers. When the next enemy volley crashed, the colonel jumped up from behind the tree; “Retreat! Save yourselves!” he cried, and set the example by taking off rearward at a run.
Most of his men went with him, believing they knew a sensible order when they heard one, but enough stayed to give Sherman time to warn the brigades on his other flank to drop their Sunday breakfast preparations and brace themselves for the assault. They formed in haste along the ridge where their tents were pitched, looking out over a valley choked with vines and brambles, and began to fire into the wave of gray that was surging out of the woods on the far side. Green as they were, they held their ground against four successive charges, firing steadily until the fifth swept up the slope, then gave way in tolerable good order to take up a second position farther back. The 6th Mississippi, for one, could testify to the accuracy of their fire; for it started across that valley with 425 men and reached the tented ridge with just over 100; the rest lay dead or wounded among the brambles. So thick they lay, the dead of this and the other four regiments in those charges, that one observer remarked that he could have walked across that valley without touching his feet to the ground; “a pavement of dead men,” he called it.
Prentiss was fighting as doggedly on the left, and McClernand had marched to the sound of guns, filling the gap between the two divisions, so that the three were more or less in line, resisting stubbornly. All three were leaking men to the rear, the faint-hearted who sought safety back at the landing under the bluff, but the ones who stayed were determined to yield nothing except under pressure that proved itself irresistible. By the time Sherman’s soldiers got settled in their second position, waiting for what came next, they had the feel of being veterans. Whatever came next could not possibly be worse than what had gone before, and having their commander move among them added to their confidence. He had been hit twice already, but gave no sign of even considering leaving the field. The first time was in the hand; he wrapped it in a handkerchief and thrust it into his breast, never taking his eyes off the enemy. The other bullet clipped a shoulder strap, nicking the skin, but that did not seem to bother him much either. When a headquarters aide came riding up to ask how things were going, he found Sherman leaning against a tree, propped on his uninjured hand, watching the skirmishers. “Tell Grant if he has any men to spare I can use them,” he said, still narrow-eyed. “If not, I will do the best I can. We are holding them pretty well just now. Pretty well; but it’s hot as hell.”
By midmorning Grant himself was at his lieutenant’s elbow, amid the bursting shells and whistling bullets. Brought to his feet by the rumble of guns from the south, he had left the breakfast table and gone aboard his steamer at the wharf below the mansion, pausing only long enough to send two notes. One was to Buell, canceling their meeting in Savannah, and the other was to Brigadier General William Nelson, whose division had arrived the day before, directing him to “move your entire command to the river opposite Pittsburg.” On the way upstream—it was now about 8.30—he found Lew Wallace waiting for him on the jetty at Crump’s. The firing sounded louder; Pittsburg was definitely under attack, but Grant still did not know but what a second attack might be aimed in this direction. Without stopping the boat he called out to Wallace as he went by, “General, get your troops under arms and have them ready to move at a moment’s notice.” Wallace shouted back that he had already done so. Grant nodded and went on.
When he docked and rode his horse up the bluff from the landing, a crutch strapped to the saddle like a carbine, the tearing rattle of musketry and the steady booming of cannon told him the whole trouble was right here in the three-sided box where his main camp had been established. Wounded men and skulkers were stumbling rearward, seeking defilade, and beyond them the hysterical quaver of the rebel yell came through the crash of gunfire and the deeper-throated shouts of his own soldiers. Grant’s first act was to establish a straggler line, including a battery with its guns trained on the road leading out of the uproar. Then he went forward to where W. H. L. Wallace and Hurlbut had formed ranks and by now were sending reinforcements to the hard-pressed divisions on the far edge of the fight. The situation was critical, but Grant kept as calm as he had done at Donelson in a similar predicament. This time, though, he had reserves, and he sent for them at once. A summons went to Lew Wallace, five miles away, instructing him to join the embattled army. Another went to Nelson, presumably already toiling across the boggy stretch of land between Savannah and the river bank opposite Pittsburg, urging him to “hurry up your command as fast as possible.”
By 10 o’clock he was up front with Sherman. One of the Ohioan’s brigades had disintegrated under fire, but the other two were resisting heavy pressure against their second position, half a mile back from the ridge where their tents were pitched. He said his biggest worry was that his men would run out of ammunition, but Grant assured him that this had been provided for; more was on the way. Satisfied that Sherman could look out for himself, the army commander then visited McClernand, fighting as hard in rear of Shiloh Chapel, and finally Prentiss, whose division had been repulsed by the fury of the initial onslaught, but in falling back across the open field had come upon an eroded wagon trail which wound along the edge of some heavy woods on the far side. They had got down into the shallow natural trench of this sunken road to make a stand, and that was what they were doing when Grant arrived. In fact they were doing a thorough job of it, dropping the Confederates in windrows as they charged across the fields. Approving of this execution, Grant told Prentiss to “maintain that position at all hazards.” Prentiss said he would try.
He not only tried, he did maintain that position against repeated headlong charges delivered without apparent concern for loss. Elsewhere, however, conditions were much worse. At noon, when Grant returned to his headquarters near the rim of the bluff, he found the fugitives streaming rearward thicker than ever, through and past the straggler line, white-faced and unmindful of the officers who tried to rally them. Bad news awaited him: Sherman and McClernand had been forced back still farther. Both were retiring sullenly, fighting as they did so, but if either division broke into a rout, the rebels would come whooping down on the landing and the battle would be over. W. H. L. Wallace and Hurlbut had committed all their troops, and nothing had been heard from Lew Wallace, who should have completed his five-mile march before now, nor from Nelson across the river. There was no reserve at hand to block a breakthrough. In desperation Grant sent two staff officers beyond Snake Creek to hurry Wallace along and a third across the Tennessee with a note for Nelson, worded to show the urgent need for haste: “If you will get upon the field, leaving all your baggage on the east bank of the river, it will be a move to our advantage, and possibly save the day to us. The rebel force is estimated at over 100,000 men.”
Beauregard had taken over the log church called Shiloh, and from this headquarters he performed for the army commander the service the other Johnston had performed for him at Manassas, exercising control of the rear area and forwarding reinforcements to those points where additional strength was needed. Thus Johnston was left free to move up and down the line of battle, encouraging the troops, and this he did. Some he sought to steady by speaking calmly. “Look along your guns, and fire low,” he told them. Others he sought to inspirit with fiercer words: “Men of Arkansas, they say you boast of your prowess with the bowie knife. Today you wield a nobler weapon: the bayonet. Employ it well!” Whichever he did, or whether he did neither, but merely rode among them, tall and handsome on his tall, handsome horse, the men cheered at the sight of their commander exposing himself to the dangers he was requiring them to face. This was indeed his hour of vindication.
His men swept forward, overrunning the enemy’s front-line camps and whooping with elation as they took potshots at the backs of fleeing Yankees. Where resistance stiffened, as along the ridge where Sherman’s tents were pitched, they matched valor against determination and paid in blood for the resultant gain. Not that there were no instances of flinching at the cost. An Arkansas major reported angrily that a Tennessee regiment in front of his own “broke and ran back, hallooing ‘Retreat, retreat,’ which being mistaken by our own men for orders of their commander, a retreat was made by them and some confusion ensued.” No sooner was this corrected than the same thing happened again, only this time the major had an even more shameful occurrence to report: “They were in such great haste to get behind us that they ran over and trampled in the mud our brave color-bearer.” There were other, worse confusions. The Orleans Guard battalion, the elite organization with Beauregard’s name on its muster roll, came into battle wearing dress-blue uniforms, which drew the fire of the Confederates they were marching to support. Promptly they returned the volley, and when a horrified staff officer came galloping up to tell them they were shooting at their friends: “I know it,” the Creole colonel replied. “But dammit, sir, we fire on everybody who fires on us!”
Such mishaps and mistakes could be corrected or even overlooked by the high command. More serious were the evils resulting from straggling, caused mainly by hunger and curiosity. When some Northerners later denied that they had been surprised at Shiloh, a Texan who had scalded his arm in snatching a joint of meat from a bubbling pot as he charged through one of the Federal camps replied that if Grant’s army had not been surprised it certainly had “the most devoted mess crews in the history of warfare.” Sunday breakfasts, spread out on tables or still cooking over campfires, were more than the hungry Confederates could resist. Many sat down, then and there, to gorge themselves on white bread and sweet coffee. Others explored the Yankee tents, foraging among the departed soldiers’ belongings, including their letters, which they read with interest to find out what northern girls were like. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were lost thus to their comrades forging ahead, and this also served to blunt the impetus of the attack which in its early stages had rolled headlong over whatever got in its way.
Most serious of all, though, were the flaws that developed when the attack plan was exposed to prolonged strain. Neatly efficient as the thing had looked on paper, it was turning out quite otherwise on the rugged plateau with its underbrush and gullies and its clusters of stubborn blue defenders. Attacking as directed—three corps in line from creek to creek, one behind another, each line feeding its components piecemeal into the line ahead—brigades and regiments and even companies had become so intermingled that unit commanders lost touch with their men and found themselves in charge of strangers who never before had heard the sound of their voices. Coördination was lost. By noon, when the final reserves had been committed, the army was no longer a clockwork aggregation of corps and divisions; it was a frantic mass of keyed-up men crowded into an approximate battle formation to fight a hundred furious skirmishes strung out in a crooked line. Confusing as all this was to those who fought thus to the booming accompaniment of two hundred guns, it was perhaps even more confusing to those who were trying to direct them. And indeed how should they have understood this thing they had been plunged into as if into a cauldron of pure hell? For this was the first great modern battle. It was Wilson’s Creek and Manassas rolled together, quadrupled, and compressed into an area smaller than either. From the inside it resembled Armageddon.
Attempting to regain control, the corps commanders divided the front into four sectors, Hardee and Polk on the left, Bragg and Breckinridge on the right. Coördination was lacking, however, and all the attacks were frontal. Besides, compliance with Johnston’s original instructions—“Every effort will be made to turn the left flank of the enemy, so as to cut off his line of retreat to the Tennessee River and throw him back on [Snake] Creek, where he will be forced to surrenderder”—was being frustrated by Prentiss, who stood fast along the sunken road. “It’s a hornets’ nest in there!” the gray-clad soldiers cried, recoiling from charge after charge against the place. When Sherman and McClernand gave way, taking up successive rearward positions, the Confederate left outstripped the right, which was stalled in front of the Hornets Nest, and thus presented Johnston with the reverse of what he wanted. He rode toward the far right to correct this, carrying in his right hand a small tin cup which he had picked up in a captured camp. Seeing a lieutenant run out of one of the tents with an armload of Yankee souvenirs, Johnston told him sternly: “None of that, sir. We are not here for plunder.” Then, observing that he had hurt the young man’s feelings, which after all was a poor reward for the gallantry shown in the capture, by way of apology he leaned down without dismounting and took the tin cup off a table. “Let this be my share of the spoils today,” he said, and from then on he had used it instead of a sword to direct the battle. He used it so now, his index finger hooked through the loop of the handle, as he rode toward the right where his advance had stalled.
At this end of the battle line, on the far flank of the Hornets Nest, there was a ten-acre peach orchard in full bloom. Hurlbut had a heavy line of infantry posted among the trees, supported by guns whose smoke lazed and swirled up through the branches sheathed in pink, and a bright rain of petals fell fluttering like confetti in the sunlight as bullets clipped the blossoms overhead. Arriving just after one of Breckinridge’s brigades had recoiled from a charge against the orchard, Johnston saw that the officers were having trouble getting the troops in line to go forward again. “Men! they are stubborn; we must use the bayonet,” he told them. To emphasize his meaning he rode among them and touched the points of their bayonets with the tin cup. “These must do the work,” he said. When the line had formed, the soldiers were still hesitant to reënter the smoky uproar. So Johnston did what he had been doing all that morning, all along the line of battle. Riding front and center, he stood in the stirrups, removed his hat, and called back over his shoulder: “I will lead you!” As he touched his spurs to the flanks of his horse, the men surged forward, charging with him into the sheet of flame which blazed to meet them there among the blossoms letting fall their bright pink rain.
This time the charge was not repulsed; Hurlbut’s troops gave way, abandoning the orchard to the cheering men in gray. Johnston came riding back, a smile on his lips, his teeth flashing white beneath his mustache. There were rips and tears in his uniform and one bootsole had been cut nearly in half by a minie bullet. He shook his foot so the dangling leather flapped. “They didn’t trip me up that time,” he said, laughing. His battle blood was up; his eyes were shining. Presently, however, as the general sat watching his soldiers celebrate their capture of the orchard and its guns, Governor Isham Harris of Tennessee, who had volunteered to serve as his aide during the battle, saw him reel in the saddle.
“General—are you hurt?” he cried.
“Yes, and I fear seriously,” Johnston said.
None of the rest of his staff was there, the general having sent them off on various missions. Riding with one arm across Johnston’s shoulders to prevent his falling, Harris guided the bay into a nearby ravine, where he eased the pale commander to the ground and began unfastening his clothes in an attempt to find the wound. He had no luck until he noticed the right boot full of blood, and then he found it: a neat hole drilled just above the hollow of the knee, marking where the femoral artery had been severed. This called for a knowledge of tourniquets, but the governor knew nothing of such things. The man who knew most about them, Johnston’s staff physician, had been ordered by the general to attend to a group of Federal wounded he encountered on his way to the far right. When the doctor protested, Johnston cut him off: “These men were our enemies a moment ago. They are our prisoners now. Take care of them.” So Harris alone was left to do what he could to staunch the bright red flow of blood.
He could do little. Brandy might help, he thought, but when he poured some into the hurt man’s mouth it ran back out again. Presently a colonel, Johnston’s chief of staff, came hurrying into the ravine. But he could do nothing either. He knelt down facing the general. “Johnston, do you know me? Johnston, do you know me?” he kept asking, over and over, nudging the general’s shoulder as he spoke.
But Johnston did not know him. Johnston was dead.
It was now about 2.30. When the command passed to Beauregard—who in point of fact had been exercising it all along, in a general way, from his headquarters at Shiloh Chapel—his first order was that news of Johnston’s death was to be kept from the men, lest they become disheartened before completing the destruction of the northern army. There would be no let-up; the attack was to continue all along the line, particularly against the Hornets Nest, whose outer flank was threatened now by the Confederates who had flung Hurlbut’s men gunless out of the orchard and taken their place. After a lull, which allowed for the shifting of troops to strengthen the blow, the line was ready to go forward. A dozen separate full-scale assaults had been launched against the sunken road, each one over a thickening carpet of dead and wounded. All twelve had failed; but this one would not fail. Pressure alone not having been enough, now pressure was to be combined with blasting. At point-blank range, with Beauregard’s approval, Dan Ruggles had massed 62 guns to rake the place with canister and grape.
When those guns opened, clump by clump, then all together, blending their separate crashes into one continuous roar, it was as if the Hornets Nest exploded, inclosing its defenders in a smoky, flame-cracked din of flying clods, splintered trees, uprooted brush, and whirring metal. Elsewhere on the field that morning a wounded soldier, sent to the rear by his company commander, had soon returned, shouting to be heard above the racket: “Captain, give me a gun! This durn fight aint got any rear!” Presently this was quite literally true for Prentiss, who held fast along the sunken road. On the flanks, the men of Hurlbut and W. H. L. Wallace scrambled backward to get from under the crash. The line was bent into a horseshoe. Then Wallace fell, cut down as he tried to rally his men, and they gave way entirely, running headlong. Hurlbut’s followed suit. Only Prentiss’s troops remained steadfast along the sunken road, flanked and then surrounded. The horseshoe became an iron hoop as the Confederates, pursuing Hurlbut and the remnants of Wallace around both flanks of Prentiss, met in his rear and sealed him off.
He could hear them yelling back there, triumphant, but he fought on, obedient to his strict instructions to “maintain that position at all hazards.” The dead lay thick. Every minute they lay thicker. Still he fought. By 5.30—two long hours after Ruggles’ guns began their furious cannonade—further resistance became futile, and Prentiss knew it. He had the cease-fire sounded and surrendered his 2200 survivors, well under half the number he had started with that morning. Sherman and McClernand on the right, and Hurlbut to a lesser degree on the left, had saved their divisions by falling back each time the pressure reached a certain intensity. Prentiss had lost his by standing fast: lost men, guns, colors, and finally the position itself: lost all, in fact, but honor. Yet he had saved far more in saving that. Sherman and McClernand had saved their divisions by retreating, but Prentiss had saved Grant by standing fast.
Beauregard saw it otherwise. During twelve hours of fighting, in addition to much other booty found in the captured camps, his army had taken 23 cannon, exclusive of those surrendered by Prentiss, and flushed the Northerners from every position they had chosen to try for a stand. The Hornets Nest, if the toughest of these, was merely one more in a series of continuing successes. Now that the sunken road lay in rear of the advance, the shortened line could be strengthened for the final go-for-broke assault that would shove what was left of Grant’s army over the bluff and into the Tennessee. So he thought, at any rate; until he tried it. On the left, Hardee and Polk were pecking away at Sherman and McClernand, but the attacks were not delivered with spirit or conviction. Too many of their men had died or straggled, and those who stayed were near exhaustion. On the right, where more could be expected in the wake of the recent collapse, Bragg and Breckinridge fared even worse. Their casualties had been about as high and the number of stragglers was even higher; hundreds stayed behind to gawk at the captured thousands, including one real live Yankee general, who came marching out of the Hornets Nest under guard. Two of Bragg’s brigades—or the remnants—tried an assault on the left flank of the Federals, who were crowded into a semicircular position along the road that led from the landing to the bridge that spanned Snake Creek. However, it was delivered across a ravine knee-deep in backwater, and when the weary troops emerged on the far side they were met by massed volleys almost as heavy as those that had shattered Prentiss. They ran back, scrambling for cover, and the long day’s fight was over.
The sun was down. Beauregard merely made the halt official when he sent couriers riding through the gathering twilight with orders for the attacks to be suspended and the men brought back to rest for the completion of their work tomorrow morning. Much of the Yankee army might escape under cover of darkness, but it could not be helped. The lesson of Manassas was repeated. For green troops, victory could be as destructive of effective organization as defeat, and even more exhausting. As the men withdrew, a patter of rain began to sound. The rumble of heavy guns, fired intermittently from beyond the bluff, was mixed with peals of thunder. Lightning flashed; the rain fell harder. A hundred miles northwest, the Pittsburg’s crew was thankful for the storm as they prepared to make their run past Island Ten; the Carondelet was waiting. Here on the battlefield which took its name from the log church called Shiloh—interpreted by Bible scholars to mean “the place of peace”—those who could found shelter in the Federal camps and had their dreams invaded by the drum of rain on canvas. Others slept in the open, where the rain fell alike on the upturned faces of the dead and of those who slept among them, inured by having seen so much of death that day already, or else just made indifferent by exhaustion.
Confidence south of the battle line, that when the attack was renewed tomorrow the Federals would be driven into the river, was matched by confidence north of it, at least on the part of the northern commander, that the reverse would rather be the case. Surrounded by his staff Grant sat on horseback just in rear of the guns whose massed volleys had shattered the final rebel assault. His army had been driven two miles backward; one division had surrendered en masse; another had been decimated, its commander killed, and the other three were badly shaken, bled to half their strength. So that when one of the staff officers asked if the prospect did not appear “gloomy,” it must have seemed an understatement to the rest; but not to Grant. “Not at all,” he said. “They can’t force our lines around these batteries tonight. It is too late. Delay counts everything with us. Tomorrow we shall attack them with fresh troops and drive them, of course.”
Fresh troops were the answer, and he had them; Buell’s men were arriving as he spoke. By morning, 20,000 of them would have climbed the bluff in the wake of Nelson’s lead brigade, which had been ferried across from the opposite bank in time to assist in repulsing the attack against the fifty guns assembled on the left. The navy, too, was in support and had a share in wrecking the last assault. Though all the ironclads were at Island Ten, two wooden gunboats were at Pittsburg, anchored where a creek ran out of the last-ditch ravine into the river, and thus were able to throw their shells into the ranks of the Confederates as they charged. Nor was that all. As twilight deepened into dusk, Lew Wallace at last came marching across Snake Creek bridge to station his division on the right flank of the army. He had marched toward what he thought was such a junction as soon as he received Grant’s first order, but then had had to countermarch for the river road when he learned that the flank had been thrown back near the landing. Five hours behind schedule, he got jaundiced looks on arrival, but his 6000 soldiers, mostly Donelson veterans, were no less welcome for being late. Combined with Buell’s troops and the survivors of the all-day fight, they meant that Grant would go into battle on the second day with more men than he had had at dawn of the first. Then too, well over half of them would be unworn by fighting: whereas the Confederates would not only have been lessened by their casualties, but would most likely not have recovered from the weariness that dropped so many of them in their tracks as soon as the firing stopped.
Grant had another sizeable reserve—6000 to 12,000 men, depending on various estimates—but he did not include them in his calculations. These were the skulkers, fugitives who took shelter along the river bank while the battle raged on the plateau overhead. Every man on the field had come up this way, debarking from the transports, so that when the going got too rough they remembered that high bluff, reared up one hundred feet tall between the landing and the fighting, and made for it as soon as their minds were more on safety than on honor. Some were trying to cadge rides on the ferries plying back and forth; others, more enterprising, paddled logs and jerry-built rafts in an attempt to reach the safety of the eastern bank. Still others were content to remain where they were, calling out to Buell’s men as they came ashore: “We are whipped! Cut to pieces! You’ll catch it! You’ll see!” Nelson, a six-foot five-inch three-hundred-pound former navy lieutenant, lost his temper at the sight. “They were insensible to shame and sarcasm,” he later declared, “for I tried both; and, indignant of such poltroonery, I asked permission to fire on the knaves.” However, the colonel who commanded the fuming general’s lead brigade was more sickened than angered by the display. “Such looks of terror, such confusion, I never saw before, and do not wish to see again,” he recorded in his diary.
Perhaps like the colonel Grant preferred to leave them where they were, out of contact with the men who had stood and fought today or were expected to stand and fight tomorrow. Fear was a highly contagious emotion, and even if threats or cajolery could have herded them back up the bluff, they would most likely run again as soon as the minies began whizzing. Perhaps, too, he saw them as a reproach, a sign that his army had been surprised and routed, at least to this extent, because its commander had left it unintrenched, green men to the front, and had taken so few precautions against an enemy who, according to him, was “heartily tired” of fighting. At any rate he allotted the skulkers no share in his plans for tomorrow. Nor did he return to the fine big house nine miles downriver, or even seek shelter in one of the steamboat cabins. After inspecting his battle line—his four divisions would take the right, Buell’s three the left—he wrapped himself in a poncho and lay down under a large oak to get some sleep. The rain had already begun, however, and presently it fell in torrents, dripping through the branches to add to the discomfort of his aching ankle. Unable to sleep, he wandered off to take refuge in a cabin on the bluff. But that would not do either. The surgeons had set up a field hospital there and were hard at work, bloody past the elbows. Driven out by the screams of the wounded and the singing of the bone-saws, Grant returned to his oak and got to sleep at last, despite the rain and whatever twinges he was feeling in his ankle and his conscience.
He had an insomniac counterpart beyond the line of battle. But Bedford Forrest’s ankle and conscience were intact; his sleeplessness proceeded from entirely different causes. His regiment had been assigned to guard the Lick Creek fords, but after some hours of hearing the guns he had crossed over on his own initiative and claimed a share in the fighting. It stopped soon after sundown, but not Forrest. Out on a scout, he reached the lip of the bluff, south of the landing, and saw Buell’s reinforcements coming ashore. For Forrest this meant just one thing: the Confederates must either stage a night attack or else get off that tableland before the Federals charged them in the morning. Unable to locate Beauregard, he went from camp to camp, telling of what he had seen and urging an attack, but few of the brigadiers even knew where their men were sleeping, and those who did were unwilling to take the responsibility of issuing such an order. At last he found Hardee, who informed him that the instructions already given could not be changed; the cavalryman was to return to his troops and “keep up a strong and vigilant picket line.” Forrest stomped off, swearing. “If the enemy comes on us in the morning, we’ll be whipped like hell,” he said.
Unlocated and uninformed—he slept that night in Sherman’s bed, near Shiloh Chapel—Beauregard not only did not suspect that Buell had arrived, he had good reason for thinking that he would not be there at all, having received from a colonel in North Alabama—it was Ben Hardin Helm, one of Lincoln’s Confederate brothers-in-law—a telegram informing him that Buell had changed his line of march and now was moving toward Decatur. The Creole went to bed content with what had been done today and confident that Grant’s destruction would be completed tomorrow. Before turning in, he sent a wire to Richmond announcing that the army had scored “a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position.”
His chief of staff, sharing an improvised bed in the adjoining headquarters tent with the captured Prentiss, was even more ebullient, predicting that the northern army would surrender as soon as the battle was resumed. The distinguished captive, accepting his predicament with such grace as became a former Virginian, did not agree with his host’s prognostication; nor was he reticent in protest. “You gentlemen have had your way today,” he said, “but it will be very different tomorrow. You’ll see. Buell will effect a junction with Grant tonight and we’ll turn the tables on you in the morning.” No such thing, the Confederate declared, and showed him the telegram from Helm. Prentiss was unimpressed. “You’ll see,” he said.
Outside in the rain, those who had been too weary to look for shelter, along with those who had looked without success, got what sleep they could, in spite of the 11-inch shells fired two every fifteen minutes by the gunboats. Their fuzes describing red parabolas across the starless velvet of the night, they came down steeply, screaming, to explode among the sleepers and the wounded of both sides; “wash pots” and “lampposts,” the awed soldiers called the big projectiles. All night the things continued to fall on schedule. Dawn grayed the east, and presently from the direction of the sunrise came the renewed clatter of musketry, the crack and boom of field artillery. As it swelled quickly to a roar, Prentiss sat bolt upright on the pallet of captured blankets inside Sherman’s headquarters tent, grinning at his Confederate bedmate. “There is Buell!” he cried. “Didn’t I tell you so?”
It was Buell, just as Prentiss said. His other two divisions, under Brigadier Generals Alexander D. McCook and Thomas L. Crittenden—the latter being the brother of the Confederate corps commander who had been relieved on the eve of battle—had come up in the night; he was attacking. Grant’s four divisions—one hale and whole, if somewhat shamefaced over its roundabout march the day before, the others variously battered and depleted, but quite willing—took up the fire on the right, and at 7 o’clock the general sent a message to the gunboats. They were to cease their heavy caliber bombardment; the army was going forward.
Grant’s orders, sent as soon as he rose at dawn from his sleep beneath the dripping oak, directed his generals to “advance and recapture our original camps.” At first it was easy enough. The rebels, having broken contact the night before, were caught off balance and gave ground rapidly, surprised to find the tables turned by unexpected pressure. Wallace, Sherman, and McClernand, with Hurlbut’s remnants in reserve, pushed forward to the vicinity of McClernand’s camp before they ran into heavy artillery fire and halted, as Sherman said, “patiently waiting for the sound of General Buell’s advance.” They had not long to wait: Buell’s men were taking their baptism of fire in stride. One Indiana colonel, dissatisfied with signs of shakiness when his men encountered resistance—Sherman, who was looking on, referred to it as “the severest musketry fire I ever heard” (which would make it severe indeed, after all he had been through yesterday)—halted them, then and there, and put them briskly through the manual of arms, “which they executed,” he later reported, “as if on the parade ground.” Considerably steadied, the Hoosiers resumed their advance. By noon, Buell’s men had cleared the peach orchard on the left and Grant’s were approaching Shiloh Chapel on the right. There the resistance stiffened.
After the initial shock of finding Buell on the field after all, Beauregard recovered a measure of his aplomb and went about the task of preparing his men to receive instead of deliver an attack. This was by no means easy, not only because of the gallant rivalry which urged the two armies of Westerners forward against him, but also because his own troops had scattered badly about the blasted field in their search for food and shelter the night before. Polk, in fact, had misunderstood the retirement order and marched his survivors all the way back to their pre-battle camp on the Corinth road. Improvising as best he could, the Creole assigned Hardee the right, Breckinridge the center, and Bragg the left. When Polk returned, belatedly, he put him in between the last two. It was touch and go, however. Like Johnston, he found it necessary to set a spirited example for his men. Twice he seized the colors of wavering regiments and led them forward. Reproved for rashness by a friend who doubtless recalled what had happened to Johnston yesterday, Beauregard replied: “The order now must be ‘Follow,’ not ‘Go’!”
At one point that afternoon he received a shock that was followed in quick succession by a hopeful surge of elation and a corresponding droop of disappointment. He noticed in some woods along his front a body of troops dressed in what appeared to be shiny white silk uniforms. At first he thought they were Federals who had breached his line, but when he saw that they were firing north, it occurred to him—though he had long since given up the notion that they could possibly arrive on time—that they might be the vanguard of Van Dorn’s 15,000 reinforcements, hurried east by rail from Memphis. Certainly there were no such uniforms in the Army of the Mississippi, while there was no telling what outlandish garb the Elkhorn Tavern veterans might wear. Presently, however, a staff officer, sent to investigate, returned with the explanation. They were the general’s own Orleans Guard battalion, who had turned their dress blue jackets wrong side out to put an end to being fired on by their friends. Yesterday they had startled the defenders of the Hornets Nest by charging thus with the white silk linings of their coats exposed; “graveyard clothes,” the Federals had called them.
The Confederates had their backs up and were holding well along the ridge where Sherman’s tents were pitched; today as yesterday Shiloh Chapel was army headquarters. But the men were bone-weary. Clearly they had no chance of defeating the reinforced Federals now applying pressure all along the line, the breaking of a single link of which might prove disastrous to the whole. Not only were they weary: their spirits had flagged at the sudden frown of fortune, the abrupt removal of victory just as it seemed within their grasp. Governor Harris, still a volunteer aide, sensed this feeling of futility in the soldiers. Shortly after 2 o’clock, he expressed his fear of a collapse to the chief of staff, who agreed and went to Beauregard with the question: “General, do you not think our troops are very much in the condition of a lump of sugar thoroughly soaked in water—preserving its original shape, though ready to dissolve? Would it not be judicious to get away with what we have?” Beauregard nodded, looking out over the field of battle. “I intend to withdraw in a few moments,” he said calmly.
Couriers soon rode out with orders for the corps commanders to begin the retreat. Breckinridge was posted along the high ground just south of Shiloh Chapel, his line studded with guns which kept up a steady booming as the other corps retired. Executed smoothly and without disorder, the retrograde maneuver had been completed by 4 o’clock, with time allowed for captured goods to be gleaned from the field and loaded into wagons, including five stands of regimental colors and twenty-one flags of the United States. Hardee, Bragg, and Polk marched their men a mile beyond and camped for the night where they had slept on their arms two nights before, in line of battle for Sunday’s dawn assault. Breckinridge stayed where he was, prepared to discourage pursuit. But there was none to discourage: Grant’s men were content with the recovery of their pillaged camps.
All day there had been intermittent showers, brief but thunderous downpours that drenched the men and then gave way to steamy sunshine. That night, however, the rain came down in earnest. Privates crowded into headquarters tents and stood close-packed as bullets in a cartridge box, having lost their awe of great men. When Breckinridge moved out next morning to join the long Confederate column grinding its way toward Corinth, the roads were quagmires. The wind veered, whistling out of the north along the boughs of roadside trees, and froze the rain to sleet; the countryside was blanketed with white. Hailstones fell as large as partridge eggs, plopping into the mud and rattling into the wagon beds to add to the suffering of the wounded, who, as one of them said, had been “piled in like bags of grain.” Beauregard doubled the column all day to encourage and comfort the men, speaking to them much as he would do on a visit to one of their camps a week later, when, seeing a young soldier with a bandaged head, he rode up to him, extended his hand, and said: “My brave friend, were you wounded? Never mind; I trust you will soon be well. Before long we will make the Yankees pay up, interest and all. The day of our glory is near.” Cheered by the bystanders, he gave them a bow as he rode away, and that night the boy wrote home: “It is strange Pa how we love that little black Frenchman.”
For the present, though, the cheers were mostly perfunctory along that column of jolted, sleet-chilled men. They had had enough of glory for a while. It was not that they felt they had been defeated. They had not. But they had failed in what they had set out to do, and the man who had led them out of Corinth to accomplish the destruction of “agrarian mercenaries” was laid out dead now in a cottage there. All the same, they took much consolation in the thought that they had held their lines until they were ready to leave, and then had done so in good order, unpursued.
They were not entirely unpursued. In the Federal camp the burial details were at work and the surgeons moved about the field, summoned by the anguished cries of mangled soldiers from both armies; but Sherman was not there. Prompted by Grant, he had moved out that morning with one brigade to make a show of pursuit, or at any rate to see that the Confederates did not linger. A show was all it was, however, for when he reached a point on the Corinth road, four miles beyond his camps, he was given a lesson hunters sometimes learned from closing in too quickly on a wounded animal.
The place was called the Fallen Timbers, a half-mile-wide boggy swale where a prewar logging project had been abandoned. The road dipped down, then crested a ridge on the far side, where he could see enemy horsemen grouped in silhouette against the sky. Not knowing their strength or what might lie beyond the ridge, he shook out a regiment of skirmishers, posted cavalry to back them up and guard their flanks, then sent them forward, following with the rest of the brigade in attack formation at an interval of about two hundred yards. The thing was done in strict professional style, according to the book. But the man he was advancing against had never read the book, though he was presently to rewrite it by improvising tactics that would conform to his own notion of what war was all about. “War means fighting,” he said. “And fighting means killing.” It was Forrest. Breckinridge had assigned him a scratch collection of about 350 Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Texas cavalrymen, turning over to him the task of protecting the rear of the retreating column.
As he prepared to defend the ridge, outnumbered five-to-one by the advancing blue brigade, he saw something that caused him to change his mind and his tactics. For as the skirmishers entered the vine-tangled hollow, picking their way around felled trees and stumbling through the brambles, they lost their neat alignment. In fact, they could hardly have been more disorganized if artillery had opened on them there in the swale. Forrest saw his chance. “Charge!” he shouted, and led his horsemen pounding down the slope. Most of the skirmishers had begun to run before he struck them, but those who stood were knocked sprawling by a blast from shotguns and revolvers. Beyond them, the Federal cavalry had panicked, firing their carbines wildly in the air. When they broke too, Forrest kept on after them, still brandishing his saber and crying, “Charge! Charge!” as he plowed into the solid ranks of the brigade drawn up beyond. The trouble was, he was charging by himself; the others, seeing the steady brigade front, had turned back and were already busy gathering up their 43 prisoners. Forrest was one gray uniform, high above a sea of blue. “Kill him! Kill the goddam rebel! Knock him off his horse!” It was no easy thing to do; the horse was kicking and plunging and Forrest was hacking and slashing; but one of the soldiers did his best. Reaching far out, he shoved the muzzle of his rifle into the colonel’s side and pulled the trigger. The force of the explosion lifted Forrest clear of the saddle, but he regained his seat and sawed the horse around. As he came out of the mass of dark blue uniforms and furious white faces, clearing a path with his saber, he reached down and grabbed one of the soldiers by the collar, swung him onto the crupper of the horse, and galloped back to safety, using the Federal as a shield against the bullets fired after him. Once he was out of range, he flung the hapless fellow off and rode on up the ridge where his men were waiting in open-mouthed amazement.
Sherman was amazed, too, but mostly he was disgusted. As soon as he had gathered up his wounded and buried his dead, he turned back toward Pittsburg Landing. Snug once more in his tent near Shiloh Chapel, he wrote his report of the affair. It concluded: “The check sustained by us at the fallen timbers delayed our advance.… Our troops being fagged out by three days’ hard fighting, exposure and privation, I ordered them back to camp, where all now are.”
The ball now lodged alongside Forrest’s spine as he followed the column grinding its way toward Corinth was the last of many to draw blood in the Battle of Shiloh. Union losses were 1754 killed, 8408 wounded, 2885 captured: total, 13,047—about 2000 of them Buell’s. Confederate losses were 1723 killed, 8012 wounded, 959 missing: total, 10,694. Of the 100,000 soldiers engaged in this first great bloody conflict of the war, approximately one out of every four who had gone into battle had been killed, wounded, or captured. Casualties were 24 percent, the same as Waterloo’s. Yet Waterloo had settled something, while this one apparently had settled nothing. When it was over the two armies were back where they started, with other Waterloos ahead. In another sense, however, it had settled a great deal. The American volunteer, whichever side he was on in this war, and however green, would fight as fiercely and stand as firmly as the vaunted veterans of Europe.
Now that this last had been proved beyond dispute, the leaders on both sides persuaded themselves that they had known it all along, despite the doubts engendered by Manassas and Wilson’s Creek, which dwindled now by contrast to comparatively minor engagements. Looking instead at the butcher’s bill—the first of many such, it seemed—they reacted, as always, according to their natures. Beauregard, for example, recovered his high spirits in short order. Two days after the battle he wired Van Dorn, still marking time in Arkansas: “Hurry your forces as rapidly as possible. I believe we can whip them again.” He believed what he told the wounded soldier, “The day of our glory is near,” and saw no occasion for retracting the announcement of “complete victory” sent to Richmond on the night of the first day. In fact, the further he got from the battle in time, the greater it seemed to him as a continuing demonstration of the superiority of southern arms. Nor did Davis retract the exultant message he sent to Congress in passing the telegram along. He was saddened, however, by other news it contained: namely, the loss of Albert Sidney Johnston. “When he fell,” Davis wrote long afterward, “I realized that our strongest pillar had been broken.”
Reactions on the other side were also characteristic. Once more Halleck saw his worst fears enlarged before his eyes, and got aboard a St Louis steamboat, bound for Pittsburg Landing, to take charge of the army himself before Grant destroyed it entirely. “Your army is not now in condition to resist an attack,” he wired ahead. “It must be made so without delay.” Grant tightened his security regulations, as instructed, but he did not seem greatly perturbed by the criticism. Now as always, he was a good deal more concerned with what he would do to the enemy than he was with what the enemy might try to do to him, and in any case he had grown accustomed by now to such reactions from above. The battle losses were another matter, providing some grim arithmetic for study. Total American casualties in all three of the nation’s previous wars—the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War: 10,623+6765+5885—were 23,273. Shiloh’s totaled 23,741, and most of them were Grant’s.
Perhaps this had something to do with his change of mind as to the fighting qualities of his opponents. At any rate, far from thinking them “heartily tired” and ready to chuck the war, he later said quite frankly that, from Shiloh on, “I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”
While the ironclad gunboats of the western navy were pounding out their victories on the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and the mile-wide Mississippi—past Island Ten, they now were bearing down on undermanned Fort Pillow; Memphis, unbraced for the shock, was next on the list—the wooden ships of the blue-water navy were not idle in the east. Along the coasts of the Atlantic and the Gulf, where the thickened blockade squadrons hugged the remaining harbors and river outlets, the fall and winter amphibious gains had been continued and extended. Three times the Monitor had declined the Merrimac-Virginia’s challenge to single combat in Hampton Roads; if the rebel vessel wanted trouble, let her make it by trying to interfere with the Monitor’s task of protecting the rest of the fleet off Old Point Comfort. This she could not or would not do, and the Monitor maintained station in shoal water, content with a stalemate, while elsewhere other Federal warships were stepping up the tempo of Confederate disasters.
By mid-March the month-old Roanoke Island victory had been extended to New Bern and other important points around the North Carolina sounds, including control of the railroad which had carried men and supplies to the armies in Virginia. Simultaneously, down on the Florida coast, Fernandina was seized, followed before the end of the month by the uncontested occupation of Jacksonville and St Augustine. Charleston and Savannah had been threatened all this time by the army-navy build-up at Port Royal. In April, while preparations were under way for a siege of the South Carolina city, an attack was mounted against Fort Pulaski, a stout brick pentagon on Cockspur Island, guarding the mouth of the Savannah River. Heavy guns and mortars knocked it to pieces, breaching the casemates and probing for the powder magazine. After thirty-odd hours of bombardment, the white flag went up and the blue-clad artillerists moved in to accept the surrender. Mostly they were New Englanders, and when a Georgian made the inevitable allusion to wooden nutmegs, a Connecticut man, pointing to a 10-inch solid shot that had pierced the wall, told him: “We don’t make them of wood any longer.”
Savannah itself was not taken, and indeed there was no need to take it. Sealed off as it was by the guns of Fort Pulaski, it was no more important now, at least from the naval point of view, than any other inland Confederate city which had lost its principal reason for existence. Wilmington, North Carolina, a much tougher proposition, with stronger and less accessible defenses, was presently the only major Atlantic port not captured or besieged by Union soldiers. Here the sleek low ghost-gray blockade-runners made their entrances and exits, usually by the dark of the moon, burning smokeless coal and equipped with telescopic funnels and feathered paddles to hide them from the noses, eyes, and ears of their pursuers. Martial and flippant names they had, the Let Her Be and Let Her Rip, the Fox, Leopard, Lynx and Dream, the Banshee, Secret, Kate and Hattie, the Beauregard, the Stonewall Jackson, the Stag and Lady Davis. The risks were great (one out of ten had been caught the year before; this year the odds were one-to-eight) but the profits were even greater. Two trips would pay the purchase price; the third and all that followed were pure gravy, as well as a substantial aid to the southern problem of supply. Last fall, one of the slim speedy vessels had steamed into Savannah with 10,000 Enfield rifles, a million cartridges, two million percussion caps, 400 barrels of powder, and a quantity of cutlasses, revolvers, and other badly needed materials of war. For all their reduction of the number of ports to be guarded, the blockade squadrons had their hands full.
Meanwhile, down along the Gulf, another Federal fleet was scoring corresponding successes to maintain the victory tempo set by its Atlantic rivals. At the mouth of the Florida river whose name it bore, Apalachicola fell in early April, followed in quick succession by the seizure of Pass Christian and Biloxi, on the Mississippi coast. These were bloodless conquests, the defenders having left to fight at Shiloh alongside the main body summoned north from Pensacola, which in turn was taken early the following month. Like Wilmington, Mobile remained—a much tougher proposition; but even before the capture of Pensacola, the Federals had made substantial lodgments on the coast of every southern state except Texas and Alabama.
Satisfying as all these salt-water victories were to the over-all command, the fact remained that, unlike the western navy on its way down the Mississippi, they had merely nibbled at the rim of the rebellion. Except for simplifying the blockade difficulties—which was much—they had accomplished very little, really, even as diversions. The problem, seen fairly clearly now by everyone, from Secretary Welles down to the youngest powder monkey, was conquest: divide et impera, pierce and strangle: which had been the occupation of the river gunboats all these months while the blue-water ships were pounding at the beaches. It was time for them, too, to try their hand at conquest by division instead of subtraction.
If the Mississippi could be descended, perhaps it could be ascended as well, so that when the salt- and fresh-water sailors met somewhere upstream like upper and nether millstones, having ground any fugitive elements of the enemy fleet between them, the Confederacy—and the task of its subjugation—would be riven. Much effort and much risk would be involved; the problems were multitudinous, including the fact that the thing would have to be done by wooden ships. But surely it was worth any effort, and almost any risk, considering the prize that awaited success at the very start: New Orleans.
The Crescent City was not only the largest in the South, it was larger by population than any other four combined, and in the peacetime volume of its export trade, as a funnel for the produce of the Mississippi Valley, it ranked among the foremost cities of the world. Its loss would not only depress the South, and correspondingly elate the North; it would indicate plainly to Europe—especially France, where so many of its people had connections of blood and commerce—the inability of the rebels to retain what they had claimed by rebellion. In short, its capture would be a feather, indeed a plume, in the cap of any man who could conceive and execute the plan that would prise this chief jewel from the crown of King Cotton.
One man already had such a plan, along with an absolute ache for such a feather. Commodore David Porter had made naval history as captain of the Essex in the War of 1812, and his son David Dixon Porter, forty-eight years old and recently promoted to commander, was determined to have at least an equal share of glory in this one. What was more, in the case of New Orleans he knew whereof he spoke. Thirty trips in and out of the Passes during a peacetime hitch in the merchant marine had familiarized him with the terrain, and months of blockade duty off the river’s four main mouths had given him a chance to talk with oystermen and pilots about recent developments in the city’s defenses. He knew the obstacles, natural and man-made, and he believed he knew how to get around or through them. Nor was he one to wait for fame to find him. In late ‘61 he turned up in Washington to unfold his plan for the approval of the Navy Secretary.
New Orleans itself was a hundred miles upriver, but its principal defense against attack from below was a pair of star-shaped masonry works, Forts Jackson and St Philip, built facing each other on opposite banks of the river, just above a swift-currented bend three fourths of the way down. Formerly part of the U.S. system of permanent defenses, they had been taken over and strengthened by the Confederates. Fort Jackson, on the right bank, was the larger, mounting 74 guns; Fort St Philip, slightly upstream on the east bank, mounted 52. Between them, with a combined garrison of 1100 men and an armament of 126 guns, they dominated a treacherous stretch where approaching ships would have to slow to make the turn. Originally there had been doubt that all this strength would be needed, rivermen having assured the defenders that no deep draft vessel could ever get over the bars that blocked the outlets. However, this had been disproved in early October when the commander of the Gulf Blockade Squadron, finding the task of patrolling the multi-mouthed river well-nigh impossible from outside, sent three heavy warships across the southwest bar and stationed them fifteen miles above, at the juncture called Head of the Passes, a deep-water anchorage two miles long and half as wide, where the river branched to create its lower delta. As long as those sloops and their frowning guns remained there, nothing could get in or out of the Passes; New Orleans would languish worse than ever, her trade being limited to what could be sneaked out by the roundabout route through Lake Pontchartrain and past the vigilant Federals on Ship Island, which had been seized the month before.
Clearly this was intolerable, and the city’s defenders prepared to correct it at once. They had a makeshift fleet of four flat-bottomed towboats mounting two guns each, a seven-gun revenue cutter seized from Mexico before the war, under highly improbable charges of piracy, and a Boston-built seagoing tug covered over with boiler plate and equipped with an iron beak and a single 32-pounder trained unmovably dead ahead. Perhaps to offset her ugliness—all that metal caused her to ride so low in the water, she rather resembled a floating eggplant—the authorities had given the ram the proud name Manassas. On the dark night of October 11, moving swiftly with the help of the four-knot current, she led the way downriver for an attack on the three big warships patrolling the Head of the Passes. Surprise was to be the principal advantage; the six-boat flotilla moved with muffled engines and no lights. To help offset the armament odds—16 guns, of moderate size or smaller, would be opposed by 51, over half of which were 8-inch or larger—tugs brought along three “fire-rafts,” long flatboats loaded with highly combustible pine knots and rosin, which would be ignited and sent careening with the current when the time came. The plan was for the Manassas to make a ram attack in darkness, then fire a rocket as the signal for the fire rafts to be lit and loosed and the gunboats to come down and join the melee.
The Federals had no lookout stationed, only the normal anchor watches they would have carried in any harbor. The first they knew of an attack was at 3.40 a.m. when a midshipman burst into his captain’s cabin crying, “Captain, there’s a steamer alongside of us!” On deck, the skipper barely had time to see “an indescribable object” emit a puff of smoke even darker than the night. As Beat-to-Quarters sounded there was a crash; the Manassas had struck the 1900-ton flagship Richmond, which now began firing indiscriminate broadsides, like bellows of pain, and hoisted three light-signals in rapid succession: ENEMY PRESENT. GET UNDER WAY. ACT AT DISCRETION. All three of the sloops were firing frantically, though none of them could see anything to aim at. TheManassas was groping blindly, filled with coal smoke. She had struck a barge lashed alongside the Federal flagship; the force of the blow had knocked her engines loose and a hawser had carried her stacks away, flush with the deck. In time she got the rocket off, however, and presently three distant sparks appeared upriver, growing in size as the rafts flamed higher and drew closer.
Aboard the sloops, delay had only served to increase the panic. PROCEED DOWN SOUTHWEST PASS. CROSS THE BAR, the flagship signaled, and all three went with the current, the sluggish Richmond swinging broadside to it, helpless. One got over; the next lodged fast on the bar, stern upriver; then the Richmond struck and stuck, still broadside. The fire-rafts had run harmless against bank, but the Confederate gunboats, which up to now had not engaged, took the grounded sloops under fire with their small-caliber long-range Whitworths. Presently the Union flag-officer, Captain John Pope—called “Honest John” to distinguish him from the general who would win fame at Island Ten—was amazed to see the skipper of the other stranded vessel appear on the flagship’s quarterdeck, wrapped in a large American flag. He had abandoned ship, bringing his colors with him, after laying and lighting a slow fuze to the powder magazine, intending thus to keep her from falling into the hands of the rebels.
After a long wait for the explosion—which would bring what an observer called “a shower of 1½-ton guns through the decks and bottom of almost any near-by ship”—it finally became evident that the sloop was not going to blow after all. Pope sent the flag-draped captain back to defend her and, if possible, get her afloat; which he subsequently managed to do by heaving most of her guns and ammunition over the side. (It later developed that the seaman charged with lighting the fuze had obeyed orders, but then, not being in sympathy with them, had cut off the sputtering end and tossed it overboard.) By now it was broad open daylight; the Confederates withdrew upstream, satisfied with their morning’s work of clearing the Head of the Passes, and Pope made a tour of inspection to assess damages. Except for a small hole punched in the flagship when the Manassas struck the coal barge, there were none. Not a man had been hurt, not a hit had been scored; or so he thought until next morning, when he found a 6-pound Whitworth solid lodged in his bureau drawer. Explaining his performance, Honest John reported: “The whole affair came upon me so suddenly that no time was left for reflection.” His request that he be relieved of command “on account of ill health” was quickly granted. “I truly feel ashamed for our side,” one executive said when the smoke had cleared away.
Porter, on blockade duty outside the Southwest Pass at the time, expressed a stronger opinion. It was, he said, “the most ridiculous affair that ever took place in the American Navy.” All the same, it helped in the formulation of his plan by showing what manner of resistance could be expected below New Orleans. In addition to the problem of getting across the bar and past the heavily gunned forts, he knew that the small Confederate flotilla would attempt to make up, in daring and ingenuity, for what it lacked in size. Besides, it might not be so small in time. There were reports of two monster ironclads, larger and faster than any the Federal navy had ever dreamed of, already under construction in the city’s shipyards. Then too, there were land batteries at Chalmette, where Andrew Jackson’s volunteers had stood behind a barricade of cotton bales and mowed down British regulars fifty years ago. The bars, the forts, the rebel boats, the batteries—these four, plus unknown others: but the greatest of these, as things now stood, was the problem of passing the forts. It was as a solution of this that Porter conceived and submitted his plan for the capture of New Orleans. The rest could be left to a flag-officer who, having done his reflecting beforehand, would not panic in a crisis.
The naval expedition, as Porter saw it, would have at its core a flotilla of twenty mortar vessels, each mounting a ponderous 13-inch mortar supplied with a thousand shells. Screened by intervening trees, they would tie up to bank, just short of the bend, and blanket the forts with high-angle fire while the seagoing sloops and frigates made a run past in the darkness and confusion. The fleet was to mount no fewer than 200 heavy guns, exclusive of the mortars, which would assure it more firepower than the enemy had in his forts and boats combined, with the Chalmette batteries thrown in for good measure. Once past the forts, it could wreck the rebel vessels and batteries by the sheer weight of thrown metal: New Orleans, under the frown of Federal warships, would have to choose between destruction and surrender. Army troops, brought along for the purpose—otherwise the show would be purely Navy—would go ashore to guard against internal revolt and outside attempts at recapture, thus freeing the fleet for other upriver objectives: Baton Rouge, Natchez, Vicksburg, and conjunction with Foote’s ironclads steaming south. The Mississippi would be Federal, from Minnesota all the way to the Gulf.
By mid-November Porter was in Washington, submitting his proposal to the Secretary. Welles had small use for the commander personally—he had too much gasconade for the New Englander’s taste, and before the war he had associated overmuch with Southerners—but the plan itself, coinciding as it did with some thinking Welles had been doing along this line, won his immediate approval. He took him to see the President, who liked it too. “This should have been done sooner,” Lincoln said, and arranged a conference with McClellan, whose coöperation would be needed. McClellan saw merit in the plan, but raised some characteristic objections. In his opinion the expedition would entail a siege by 50,000 troops, for the heavy guns inside the forts would crush the wooden ships like eggshells. Bristling, Welles replied that the navy would do the worrying about the risk to its ships; all he wanted from the army was 10,000 men, to be added to the 5000 which Benjamin Butler, flushed by the recent amphibious victory at Hatteras Inlet, was raising now in Massachusetts for service down on the Gulf. When McClellan replied that he could spare that many—Butler in particular could be spared, along with his known talent for cabal—the conference at once got down to specifics.
Secrecy, a prime element of the plan, would be extremely difficult to maintain because of the necessarily large-scale preparations. However, if the expedition’s existence could hardly be hidden, perhaps its destination could. With this in mind, a new blockade squadron would be set up in the West Gulf, coincident with some loose talk about Pensacola, Mobile, Galveston—any place, in fact, except New Orleans. Next a roster of ships was drawn up, with an armament of about 250 guns. The choice of a fleet commander was left to Assistant Secretary G. V. Fox, himself a retired Annapolis man, who conferred with Porter on the matter, combing the list of captains. One after another they were rejected, either for being otherwise employed or else for being too much of the Honest John type. At last they came to David Glasgow Farragut, thirty-seventh on the list. Of Spanish extraction, sixty years old and sitting now as a member of a retirement board at Brooklyn Navy Yard, Farragut was a veteran of more than fifty years’ active service, having begun as a nine-year-old acting midshipman aboard the Essex, whose captain, Porter’s father, had informally adopted him and supervised his baptism of fire in the War of 1812. Here was a possibility. He was known to be stout-hearted and energetic; every year on his birthday he turned a handspring, explaining that he would know he was beginning to age when he found the exercise difficult. The trouble was he was southern born, a native of Knoxville, and southern married—twice in fact, both times to ladies from Norfolk—which raised doubts as to his loyalty and accounted for his present inactive assignment. Porter, on his way to New York to arrange for the purchase and assembly of the mortar flotilla, was instructed to call on his foster brother and sound him out.
The retirement board member was waiting for him, a smooth-shaven, square-built, hale-looking man with hazel eyes and heavy eyebrows, wearing his long side hair brushed across the top of his head to hide his baldness. Porter began by asking what he thought of his former associates now gone South. “Those damned fellows will catch it yet,” Farragut replied. Asked if he would accept a command to go and fight “those fellows,” he said he would. Porter then badgered him by pretending that the objective would be Norfolk, his wife’s birthplace. Farragut jumped up crying, “I will take the command: only don’t you trifle with me!”
Summoned to Washington, still without suspecting the purpose, he was questioned next by Fox, who asked—as if for a purely theoretical opinion—if he thought New Orleans could be taken from below. “Yes, emphatically,” Farragut told him. “The forts are well down the river; ships could easily run them, and New Orleans itself is undefended. It would depend somewhat on the fleet, however.”
“Well,” Fox said, “—with such a fleet as, say, two steam frigates, five screw sloops of the cities class, a dozen gunboats, and some mortar vessels to shell the forts from high angle?”
“Why, I would engage to run those batteries with two thirds of such a force.…”
“What would you say if appointed to head such an expedition?”
“What would I say?” Farragut cried. He leaped to his feet and began to prowl about the room. Now he understood. The goal was to be New Orleans, which he knew well from years of living in it, and he was to have the flag. “What would I say?” he cried, and broke into exclamations of delight.
So it was settled. He received his orders during the last week of the year and began at once to fit out the eighteen warships assigned to his fleet, including two steam frigates, seven screw sloops, and nine gunboats, all of wood and mounting 243 guns, most heavy. Porter meanwhile had been assembling his mortar flotilla of twenty schooners; the weapons themselves were cast in Pittsburgh, along with 30,000 bomb-shells, while the beds were manufactured in New York. In late January Farragut dropped down to Hampton Roads, Porter coming along behind, and by mid-February reached Key West, where final orders from Welles were broken open: “This most important operation of the war is confined to yourself and your brave associates.… If successful, you open the way to the sea for the great West, never again to be closed. The rebellion will be riven in the center, and the flag to which you have been so faithful will recover its supremacy in every State.”
Convinced by inspection that the way to stop the small-time blockade runners working in and out of the coastal lakes and bayous was to intercept them with vessels adapted to the task, Farragut wrote to the Navy Department asking for some light ships of five-foot draft or less. Since he neglected to say what use would be made of them, Fox thought they were wanted for the upriver attack, which would have meant an unconscionable delay. Dismayed, the Assistant Secretary began to suspect that he had erred in his choice of a fleet commander. Instead of writing to Farragut, however, he wrote to Porter: “I trust that we have made no mistake in our man, but his dispatches are very discouraging. It is not too late to rectify our mistake. You must frankly give me your views.… I shall have no peace until I hear from you.”
Porter replied that it was too late for a change, but that he would do what he could to bolster the old man’s shaky judgment. “Men of his age in a seafaring life are not fit for important enterprises, they lack the vigor of youth. He talks very much at random at times and rather underrates the difficulties before him without fairly comprehending them. I know what they are, and as he is impressible hope to make him appreciate them also.” He added by way of consolation, “I have great hopes of the mortars if all else fails.”
Happily unaware of the distrust of his superiors or the condescension of his adoptive brother, Farragut proceeded to Ship Island for refueling and refitting. By mid-March he was off the mouths of the Mississippi, maneuvering for an entrance, which was finally effected by sending Porter’s mortars and the gunboats through Pass à l’Outre and taking the heavier frigates and sloops around to Southwest Pass. After much sweat and inch-by-inch careening—back-breaking labor that tried even Farragut’s sunny disposition—all got over the bar except the largest, a 50-gun frigate, twenty of whose guns were distributed among the other vessels of the fleet now assembled at Head of the Passes. There the schooners discharged their seagoing spars and made ready for the work they had been built to do.
By mid-April the preparations were complete. Butler’s soldiers were at hand: 18,000 of them, so persuasively had the former politician done his recruiting job in New England. The fleet was at anchor two miles below the bend where the mortar schooners had tied up to both banks, the tips of their masts disguised with foliage lest they show above the trees that screened the vessels from the forts. Ranges were quickly established: 2850 yards to Fort Jackson, 3680 to Fort St Philip. Farragut was somewhat doubtful as to the efficacy of the snub-nosed weapons, but Porter declared confidently that two days of mortar bombardment would reduce both forts to rubble. April 18—Good Friday—he opened fire.
Holy Week was gloomy in New Orleans, the more so because of the contrast between the present frame of mind, with danger looming stark in both directions, and the elation felt six months ago at the comic repulse of the sloops from the Head of the Passes, which had seemed to give point to the popular conviction that “Nothing afloat could pass the forts. Nothing that walked could get through our swamps.” Since then a great deal had happened, and all of it bad.
For one thing, the blockade had tightened. Roustabouts no longer swarmed on the levee, for there were no cargoes to unload; the wharves lay idle, and warehouses formerly bulging with cotton and sugar and grain yawned hollow; trade having come to a standstill, ready money was so scarce that there was a current joke that an olive-oil label would pass for cash “because it was greasy, smelt bad, and bore an autograph.” For another, Foote’s gunboats and Pope’s soldiers were smashing obstacles so rapidly upriver that the danger seemed even greater from that direction, with neither forts nor swamps to slow them down. In the midst of these discouragements and fears, troops assigned to the city’s defense were called north to fight at Shiloh, and all that returned from that repulse were the members of the honor guard with Sidney Johnston’s body, following the muffled drums and the empty-saddled warhorse out St Charles Street to fire the prescribed three volleys across his crypt. Now there was this: Yankee ships once more across the bar, but in such strength that no small-scale attack, however ingenious and daring, could hope to budge them. For New Orleans, as for the South at large, the prospect was grim in this season of death and resurrection.
No one responsible for the city’s defense was more aware of the danger than the man who was most responsible of all: Mansfield Lovell, a thirty-nine-year-old Maryland-born West Pointer who had resigned as New York Deputy Street Commissioner to join the Confederacy in September. Impressed with the Chapultepec-brevetted artilleryman’s record as an administrator, Davis made him a major general and sent him to replace the over-aged Twiggs in New Orleans; which would not only give the city an energetic and efficient commander, but would also call widespread attention to the fact that willingness to fight for the South’s ideals was by no means restricted to men of southern background, Lovell having spent most of his civilian years as a New Jersey ironworks executive. The new major general arrived in early October, and was appalled at the unpreparedness. There was plenty of Gallic enthusiasm, but it found release at champagne parties rather than at work. He wrote to Richmond, protesting that the city was “greatly drained of arms, ammunition, clothing, and supplies for other points.” Presently it was drained of fighting men as well, leaving him with what he called a “heterogeneous militia” of 3000 short-term volunteers, “armed mostly with shotguns against 9- and 11-inch Dahlgrens.”
The Creoles did not resent his criticisms. They found his intensity amusing and his presence ornamental. “A very attractive figure,” one pronounced him, “giving the eye, at first glance, a promise of much activity.” His horsemanship was especially admirable; they enjoyed watching him ride dragoon-style “with so long a stirrup-leather that he simply stood astride the saddle, as straight as a spear.” To add to the effect, he wore a facial ruff of hair much like Burnside’s, except that it was light brown and somewhat less flamboyant.
Despite his activity, no one was more surprised when the Union fleet showed its true intention. Not that he had not known it was assembling. Agents had kept him informed of its strength and location; but they had also relayed the loose talk about Mobile and Pensacola, and Lovell believed them—perhaps because he wanted to. What misled him most, though, was the presence of Ben Butler, who at the Democratic convention of 1860 had voted fifty-seven consecutive times for the nomination of Jefferson Davis before switching over to Breckinridge with the majority. “I regard Butler’s Ship Island expedition as a harmless menace so far as New Orleans is concerned,” Lovell had told Richmond in late February. “A black Republican dynasty will never give an old Breckinridge Democrat like Butler command of any expedition which they had any idea would result in such a glorious success as the capture of New Orleans.” Now he knew better; the warships were across the bar, above the Head of the Passes. But the knowledge came too late. He had been looking upriver all this time, where the Foote-Grant Foote-Pope amphibious teams were wrecking whatever stood in their way, ashore or afloat.
Hastening to meet the threat from above—his intelligence reports were quite good from that direction: too good, as it turned out—he had commandeered fourteen paddle-wheel steamers and converted them into one-gun gunboats, plating their outer bulwarks with inch-thick railroad iron to give them mass and rigidity for use as rams. Launched one by one between January and April, they made up the River Defense Fleet under J. E. Montgomery, a river captain, and were independent of Commander J. K. Mitchell, whose miniature flotilla had thrown such a scare into Honest John Pope six months before. Lovell did not like the command arrangement, which left him no real control over either. Besides, the new gunboats were put in the hands of a notoriously independent breed of men; “fourteen Mississippi river captains and pilots will never agree about anything once they get under way,” he predicted. As fast as they came off the ways, eight of the boats were sent upriver to challenge the descending Union fleet at Memphis or Fort Pillow, though Lovell managed to hold onto six of them for the immediate protection of New Orleans. They would not amount to much in the way of a deterrent once the heavy-gunned armada below the forts broke into the clear, but anything that would delay or distract the Federal fleet, however briefly—even to the extent of making it pause to brush them aside—might be of enormous value because of something else that was going on inside the city. He had an ace in the hole; two, in fact. The question was whether he would have time to bring them out and play them.
Porter had heard aright in his talks with the pilots and oystermen; the Confederates were at work on two giant ironclads in the city’s shipyards, each of them more formidable than the Merrimac-Virginia, which had just completed her work of destruction in Hampton Roads against vessels as stout as any in Farragut’s fleet. The first, the Louisiana, mounting sixteen heavy rifles, had been launched and cased in a double row of T-shaped rails for armor, the inner rails bolted vertically to the bulwarks, the outer ones reversed and driven down the gaps. There had been various delays, including strikes—one lasted three full weeks—because the workers were unwilling to take Confederate bonds for pay, but the main trouble now was her power plant, which had been transferred from a steamboat. While Farragut was crossing the bar, mechanics were trying without success to coax the Louisiana’s engines into motion.
The other ironclad, the Mississippi, was an even more novel and formidable proposition, at least in prospect. Over 4000 tons in weight, 270 feet long and 58 feet in the beam, drawing only 14 feet and mounting 20 guns, she was a true dreadnought, designed to wear three-inch armor, have an iron snout set over a casing three feet thick, and be propelled by three engines at a speed of 14 knots; all of which would make her the most powerful and fastest warship ever built. The plan for her use was quite in scale with her proportions. She was to clear the Mississippi of enemy vessels, then the Gulf and the Atlantic, after which she would lay the northern coastal cities under levy. Improbable as this program sounded, it was by no means impossible; certainly nothing afloat or under construction could stand in her way. But first she would have to be finished, and she was still a considerable way from that. She had been launched, her timberwork completed, but so far she was armored only below the gun deck, and her vital 50-foot central drive shaft was too big a casting job for any southern rolling mill except the Tredegar in Richmond, which began work on the order in February. It would be weeks, or months, before delivery and installation of the shaft would permit her to move under her own power.
Time, then, was golden. Lovell bought what he could and tried to buy more by calling for the eight departed gunboats to be returned from upriver. This the government would not do, considering them more needed there to stem the rout at Island Ten and make a shield for Memphis; New Orleans would have to resist with what she had. Primarily then—with the Federal fleet already approaching the bend they guarded—that put the burden on Forts Jackson and St Philip, whose strength or vulnerability had become a subject of disagreement among the river men who had been so confident such a short time back. A chain boom, held afloat by cypress logs, spanned the Mississippi just-below the forts, so that when the Yankees ran afoul of it or stopped to try and break it, plunging fire from the parapets would blow them out of the water like sitting ducks. So the river men had reckoned; but the March floods—the highest in anyone’s memory—brought such a press of uprooted trees and brush against it that the boom gave way, depriving the gunners of their hope for stationary targets. Quickly the break was mended and the obstacle strengthened by adding a line of hulks to buoy it up. Now that it had broken once, however, there was considerable doubt that it would hold against the pressure, which was building up again.
In desperation Lovell ordered the Louisiana towed downstream, to be tied up to the east bank just above Fort St Philip. No less than fifty mechanics continued to tinker with her engines, but even if they never got them going she could serve as a floating battery, adding the weight of her bow and starboard guns to those of the forts. Work continued aboard the Mississippi, too, on the outside chance that her drive shaft would arrive before the Federals did. It was Holy Week; Ash Wednesday, then Good Friday, and a message arrived from downriver; both forts were under heavy bombardment, receiving two 200-pound mortar shells a minute. Lovell rode down to see for himself how bad it was.
It was bad enough, or anyhow it seemed so. At the end of the first day’s firing, the citadel and barracks of Fort Jackson were ablaze, rubble and sandbags thrown about and the protective levee cut, letting backwater into the place. “I was obliged to confine the men most rigidly to the casemates,” the commandant reported, “or else we should have lost the best part of the garrison.” They huddled there, white-faced with alarm, while the world outside seemed turned to flame and thunder. And yet it was by no means as bad as it seemed, being a good deal more spectacular than effective. Casualties were extremely low in both forts, and nothing really vital was hit in either. In fact, when Porter slowed the rate of fire at nightfall to give his weary crews some rest, his own men were rather more shaken up than those at the opposite ends of the looping trajectories. Soon after noon the lead east-bank schooner had taken a solid through her deck and bottom and had to be shifted down the line. What was more, the work itself was heavy, each piece being required to deliver a round every ten minutes, and the strain of absorbing the ear-pounding, bone-jarring concussions was severe. It was as if the bombardiers had spent those hours inside a tolling bell.
Porter had them back at their rapid-fire work by dawn. He had said he would silence the forts by sunset of the second day, and he intended to do it. All day the firing continued, but with less apparent effect than yesterday, the bursting shells having done all the superficial damage there was to do. At dusk the rebel casemate guns were still in action. Porter did not slacken fire. All night it continued; all Easter Day, all Easter night, all Monday; still the guns replied. In 96 hours—twice Porter’s original estimate as to the time it would take to reduce them—the forts had absorbed over 13,000 shells, at a cost of only four men killed, fourteen wounded, and seven guns disabled. Porter’s crews were near exhaustion, but he would not slacken fire. All Monday night, all Tuesday, Tuesday night, and Wednesday morning it continued; 16,800 shells had been pumped into the forts, which still replied. Then Farragut intervened. He had never placed much reliance on the mortars anyhow.
“Look here, David,” he said. “We’ll demonstrate the practical value of mortar work.” He turned to his clerk. “Mr Osbon, get two small flags, a white one and a red one, and go to the mizzen topmast-head and watch the shells fall. If inside the fort, wave the red flag. If outside, wave the white one.” In the beginning the fire had been accurate, but the gunners had been numbed into indifference by now; the white flag waved from the masthead far more often than the red. Farragut said calmly, “There’s the score. I guess we’ll go up the river tonight.”
Porter protested, heart and soul. Even if the fleet got past the forts, it would leave them alive in its rear; how would the infantry manage the run in unarmed and unarmored transports? Besides, with the Federal warships gone upriver, what would prevent the surviving enemy gunboats from attacking the mortar flotilla? Farragut replied casually that Butler’s men could make a roundabout trip, coming in through the Gulf bayous. As for the threat of rebel survivors, he didn’t intend for there to be any; but if there were, then Porter would just have to look out for himself. He called his gig and made the rounds of all his ships, confirming the orders already issued for the run to be made that night. He would “abide by the result,” he told them: “conquer or be conquered.”
His two biggest worries—how to get across or through the boom and how to deal with fire-rafts—had already been lessened or disposed of. Sunday night two gunboats had gone forward under heavy fire and opened a gap by releasing the chain from one of the hulks. When the defenders responded by sending a fire-raft through the breach, flames leaping a hundred feet in the air, considerable frenzy had ensued, including a collision between two ships whose captains panicked at the threat of being roasted. However, by the time the current had carried the burning mass of pitch and pine harmlessly into the east bank, they knew better how to deal with or avoid them. Farragut had been for running the forts the following night, but a strong north wind had risen to slow him down. It blew through Tuesday; then Wednesday it died and he was ready, having spent the interim preparing his wooden ships for the ordeal. Chains were looped down over the sides to protect the engines and magazines; Jacob’s ladders were hung all round, so the carpenters could descend quickly and patch from the outside any holes shot in the hulls. Tubs of water were spotted about, and each ship had a well-drilled fire brigade equipped with grapnels for handling fire-rafts. The outer bulwarks were smeared with mud to hide the ships from the spotters in the forts, but the decks and the breeches of the guns were given a coat of whitewash to provide reflected light for nightwork. As a final touch—one that never failed to provoke a sensation at the pit of every sailor’s stomach, no matter how often he had seen it done before—the area around each gun was strewn with sand and ashes, so that when the fight grew hot the guncrews would not slip in their own blood. That was all. Now there was only the waiting, which a gunner aboard the flagship thought the hardest job of all. “One has nothing to do to occupy the mind,” he complained. “The mind runs on the great uncertainty about to take place, until it is a relief when the battle opens.”
At 2 a.m.—it was Thursday now, the 24th—the hour being, as Farragut said, “propitious”—he had just received a signal that the gateway through the boom was still ajar—two red lanterns appeared at the Hartford’s mizzen peak, and the lead division began to move upstream. His original plan had been to lead the attack himself, aboard the flagship, but the senior captains, agreeing that the losses would be heavy, persuaded him that to risk losing the fleet commander at the outset would be to court disaster through confusion. So Farragut had arranged his seventeen warships in three divisions of eight, three, and six vessels, himself at the head of the second. It was a powerful aggregation, heavily gunned, and backed by the fire of the mortars. If the weight of thrown metal was to decide the issue, there could be but one result, for an entire round of projectiles from all the Federal guns would weigh more than ten tons, while one from all the Confederate guns, afloat and ashore, would weigh just three and a half. Farragut and his captains were not aware of these figures, however, or at any rate not the latter. All they knew was what they had been taught: that one gun ashore was worth four afloat. They knew, too, that the forts were built of brick and mortar, while the ships were built of wood. Farragut was confident, even cheerful, but when his clerk declared that he did not expect the fleet to lose beyond a hundred men, the Tennessee-born captain shook his head in doubt. “I wish I could think so,” he said.
There were delays as the various sloops and gunboats jockeyed for position, each division moving in line ahead, breasting the broad dark current. Then at 3.40 the rebel lookouts spotted the lead division just as it reached the boom and started through the gap. Now delay was on the other side; the first eight ships were clear of the chain before the forts reacted. But when they did, according to an army man who had come up to watch the show, the effect was tremendous: “Imagine all the earthquakes in the world, and all the thunder and lightnings together in a space of two miles, all going off at once. That would be like it.” Flaming brush-piles along the banks and fire-rafts on the river cast an eerie refulgence, pocked with rolling clouds of gunsmoke and the sudden scarlet of exploding shells. At this point the Hartford, leading the second division through the gap, made her entrance as if upon a brightly lighted stage.
It seemed to Farragut, high in the mizzen rigging, his feet on the ratlines and his back against the shrouds, “as if the artillery of heaven were playing on earth,” but one of his gunners drew a comparison from the opposite direction: “My youthful imagination of hell did not equal the scene about us at this moment.” Presently, however, there could be little doubt as to which description was more fitting. Attempting to dodge a fire-raft, the flagship’s helmsman ran her into shallow water, directly under the guns of Fort St Philip. Farragut, who had descended to the quarterdeck just before a shellburst cut away most of the rigging where he had been standing, saw a mud flat dead ahead. “Hard a-port!” he shouted. Too late; she ran aground. Fortunately, the casemate gunners, expecting a landing party when they saw the Hartford’s bowsprit looming over their heads, deserted their pieces. But the fire-raft, pushed by a tug, changed course and rammed the flank of the grounded sloop, flames curling over the bulwarks and shooting up the rigging.
When Farragut saw his ship afire, his men giving back from the press of heat as the tug held the mass of burning pine firmly against her quarter, he threw up his hands and clasped them over his head in an anguished gesture. “My God, is it to end this way?” he cried. But he soon recovered his composure. Down on the gundeck, his clerk had conceived the notion of rolling some 20-pound shells onto the flaming raft, where they would explode and sink it. As he knelt to unscrew the fuze-caps Farragut saw him and mistook his attitude. “Come, sir, this is no time for prayer,” he told him sternly, and called down also to the gunners, still holding back from the licking tongues of flame: “Don’t flinch from that fire, boys. There’s a hotter fire than that waiting for those who don’t do their duty. Give that rascally little tug a shot!”
Then suddenly the worst was over. Catching the old man’s spirit, despite the heat, the port crews returned to their guns and gave the tug two shots that hulled and sank her. The clerk got three of the shells uncapped and dropped them onto the blazing raft, which was torn apart by the explosion and went down in a hissing cloud of steam. While the fire brigade got busy with hoses and buckets, extinguishing the flames, the helmsman called for full power astern, and the ship careened off the mud flat, free to continue her course upriver and join in the destruction of the rebel flotilla.
Very little of it was left by now. When the skippers of the dozen Confederate vessels saw the northern warships clear the boom, run the gauntlet of fire from the forts, and head directly for them, apparently unscathed, big guns booming, they reacted with dismay—as well they might; all twelve of them together, with the immobilized Louisiana thrown in for good measure though only six of her 16 guns could be brought to bear, could not throw as much metal as a single Federal sloop. They scattered headlong, some for bank, where their crews set them afire and took to the swamps, while others tried for a getaway upriver. Three stayed to accept the challenge, upholding naval tradition by a form of naval suicide.
Two of the three were from the Confederate flotilla: the 7-gun former Mexican revenue cutter, which was reduced to kindling by the converging fire of three Union men-of-war as soon as she came within their range, and the low-riding armored ram Manassas, which headed downriver as soon as the guns began to roar and gave one of the heavy sloops an ineffectual glancing bump, firing her Cyclops cannon as she struck. (Aboard the sloop the cry went up, “The ram, the ram!” and the captain saw a rebel officer come out of the iron hatch and run forward along the port gunnel to inspect the damage, if any. Suddenly he whirled with an odd, disjointed motion and tumbled into the water. Hardly able to believe his eyes, the captain called to the leadsman in the chains, asking if he had seen him fall. “Why, yes sir,” he said: “I saw him fall overboard. In fact, I helped him; for I hit him alongside the head with my hand-lead.”) The Manassas backed off and continued downriver, intending to do better with the next one, but took a terrific pounding from the guns of both forts, whose cannoneers mistook her for a disabled Federal vessel. She came about, staggering back upstream, her armor pierced, her engines smashed, and was pounded again by four of the enemy warships. Avoiding a fifth, which charged to run her down, she veered into bank and stuck there, smoke curling from her hatch and punctures. What was left of her crew jumped ashore and scurried to safety while the Union gunboats flailed the brush with canister and grape.
Third to accept the challenge was the unarmored sidewheel steamboat Governor Moore, one of two vessels sent by the state of Louisiana to make up a third division of the fleet defending New Orleans. When the firing began she moved upriver, adding rosin to her fires to get up steam before turning to join the fight. As she moved through the darkness she saw the 1300-ton screw steamer Varuna, the fastest ship in the Federal fleet, coming hard upstream in pursuit of the fugitive gunboats. The Moore carried two guns, one forward and one aft; the Varuna carried ten, eight of them 8-inchers; but the former, undetected against a dark backdrop of trees along the bank, had the advantage of surprise. She opened fire at a hundred yards—and missed. Startled, the Federal replied, strewing the steamboat’s decks with dead and wounded. The Moore was now too close to bring her forward gun to bear, her bow being in the way, but the captain ordered the piece depressed and fired it through his own deck. The first shot was deflected by a hawse pipe, but the second, fired through the hole in the deck and bow, burst against the Varuna’s pivot gun, inflicting heavy casualties. The third came as the Moore rammed her opponent hard amidships, receiving a broadside in return. She backed off, then fired and rammed again. That did it. The Varuna limped toward bank; whereupon one of the fleeing Confederate gunboats, seeing her distress, turned and gave her another bump before she made it. She went down quickly then, leaving her topgallant forecastle above water, crowded with survivors.
The Moore’s captain, having his blood up, ordered a downriver course, intending to take on the whole Yankee fleet with one broken-nosed steamboat. The crew seemed willing, what there was left—well over half were dead or dying—but the wounded first lieutenant at the helm had had enough. “Why do this?” he protested. “We have no men left. I’ll be damned if I stand here to be murdered.” And with that he slapped the wheel hard to starboard, making a run for the west bank. Five Union ships, within range by now, cut loose at her with all their guns; she seemed almost to explode. All told, her crew of 93, mostly infantry detachments and longshoremen, lost 57 killed and 17 wounded. The rest were captured or escaped through the swamps when she struck bank, already ablaze, her colors burning at the peak.
Dawn glimmered and spread through the latter stages of the fighting. When the sun came up at 5 o’clock the Federal ships broke out their flags to greet it and salute their victory. All being safely past the forts except the sunken Varuna and three of the lighter gunboats—one had taken a shot in her boiler, losing her head of steam; another had got tangled in the barricade; a third had turned back, badly cut up by the crossfire—Farragut ordered them to anchor, wash down, and take count. Casualties were 37 dead and 149 wounded, nearly twice the clerk’s hopeful estimate and more than three times the losses in the forts: 12 dead and 40 wounded. On the other hand, the Confederate flotilla was utterly destroyed, including the fleeing gunboat which had given the Varuna a final butt; her skipper burned her at the levee in New Orleans.
Below the boom, Porter’s anxiety was relieved as he watched the charred remnants of the rebel fleet come floating down the river. When his demand for immediate surrender of the forts was declined, he put his mortar crews back to work, firing up the remainder of their shells.
New Orleans was in a frenzy of rage and disappointment at the news from downriver. Other cities might accept defeat and endure the aftermath in sullen silence; but not this one. All afternoon and most of the night, while crowds milled in the streets, brandishing knives and pistols and howling for resistance to the end, drays rattled over the cobbles, hauling cotton from the presses for burning on the quays, where crates of rice and hogsheads of molasses were broken open and thrown into the river. This at least won the people’s approval; “The damned Yankees shall not have it!” they cried, and the night was hazed with acrid smoke that hid the stars.
They were no less violent next morning when they heard the guns of the enemy fleet make short work of the Chalmette batteries, then come slowly into view around Slaughterhouse Bend as a drizzle of rain began to fall; “silent, grim, and terrible,” one among the watchers called the warships, “black with men, heavy with deadly portent.” Their great hope had been the ironclads, built and launched in their own yards. One had already gone downriver, powerless, and been by-passed. Now here came the other, the unfinishedMississippi, drifting helpless, set afire to keep her from falling into Federal hands. The crowd howled louder than ever at the sight, shouting “Betrayed! Betrayed!” and screaming curses at the Yankee sailors who watched from the decks and yardarms. Aboard theHartford, one old tar grinned broadly back at them as he stood beside a 9-inch Dahlgren, holding the lanyard in one hand and patting the big black bottle-shaped breech with the other. The rain came down harder.
Despite the threats and invective from the quay, Farragut’s strength was so obvious that he didn’t have to use it. Two officers went ashore and walked unescorted through the hysterical mob to City Hall, where the mayor was waiting for them. Lovell had retreated, leaving New Orleans an open city. However, if the citizens were willing to undergo naval bombardment, he offered to “return with my troops and not leave as long as one brick remained upon another.” The offer was declined: as was the navy’s demand for an immediate surrender. “This satisfaction you cannot obtain at our hands,” the mayor told the two officers. He would not resist, but neither would he yield; if they wanted the city, let them come and take it.
Farragut wanted no pointless violence; he had had enough violence the day before, when, as he told a friend, “I seemed to be breathing flame.” Saturday, while negotiations continued, he ordered his captains to assemble their crews at 11 o’clock the following morning and “return thanks to Almighty God for his great goodness and mercy for permitting us to pass through the events of the past two days with so little loss of life and blood. At that hour the Church pennant will be hoisted on every vessel of the fleet, and their crews assembled will, in humiliation and prayer, make their acknowledgments thereof to the Great Disposer of all human events.” That would be ceremony enough for him, with or without a formal surrender by the municipal authorities.
The occupation problem still remained, but not for long. Monday the garrisons of Forts Jackson and St Philip—they were “mostly foreign enlistments,” the commandant said; “A reaction set in among them,” he explained—mutinied, spiked the guns, and forced their officers to surrender. Still powerless, the Louisiana was blown up to forestall capture. Butler’s 18,000 men ascended the river unopposed and marched into the city on the last day of the month. “In family councils,” a resident wrote, “a new domestic art began to be studied—the art of hiding valuables” from looters under the general known thereafter as “Spoons” Butler. One cache he uncovered with particular satisfaction: 418 bronze plantation bells collected there in answer to Beauregard’s impassioned pleas for metal. Sent to Boston, they sold for $30,000 to mock the rebels from New England towers and steeples. Other aspects of the occupation were less pleasant for the visitors. Not only was southern hospitality lacking, the people seemed utterly unwilling to accept the consequences of defeat: particularly the women, who responded to northern overtures with downright abuse. Butler knew how to handle that, however. “I propose to make some brilliant examples,” he wrote Stanton.
Farragut now was free to continue his trip upriver, and in early May he did so. Baton Rouge fell as easily as New Orleans, once the guns of the fleet were trained on its streets and houses; the state government had fled the week before to Opelousas, which was safely away from the river. Natchez was next, and it too fell without resistance. Then in mid-May came Vicksburg, whose reply to a demand for surrender was something different from the others: “Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to an enemy. If Commodore Farragut or Brigadier General Butler can teach them, let them come and try.” The ranks were wrong; Butler was a major general, Farragut a captain; but the writer seemed to mean what he was saying. The guns frowned down from the tall bluff—“so elevated that our fire will not be felt by them,” Farragut said—and there were reports of 20,000 reinforcements on the way from Jackson. Deciding to label this first attempt a mere reconnaissance, he left garrisons at Baton Rouge and Natchez, and was back in New Orleans before the end of May. Vicksburg was a problem that could wait. In time he intended to “teach them,” but just now it needed study.
Welles was angry, hotly demanding to know why the attack against Vicksburg’s bluff had not been pressed, but the feeling in the fleet was that enough had been done in one short spring by one upriver thrust. New Orleans was now in northern hands and a second southern capital had fallen—both delivered as outright gifts to the army from the navy. Southerners agreed that it was quite enough, though some found bitter solace in protesting that the thing had been done by mechanical contrivance, with small risk and no gallantry at all. The glory was departing. “This is a most cowardly struggle,” a Louisiana woman told her diary. “These people can do nothing without gunboats.… These passive instruments do their fighting for them. It is at best a dastardly way to fight.” Then she added, rather wistfully: “We should have had gunboats if the Government had been efficient, wise or earnest.”
The North had found a new set of western heroes—Farragut, Curtis, Canby, Pope, Ben Butler: all their stars were in ascendance—but some of the former heroes now had tarnished reputations: Grant, for instance. If the news from Donelson had sent him soaring like a rocket in the public’s estimation, the news from Shiloh dropped him sparkless like the stick. Cashiered officers, such as the Ohio colonel who cried “Retreat! Save yourselves!” at first sight of the rebels, were spreading tales back home at his expense. He was incompetent; he was lazy; he was a drunk. Correspondents, who had come up late and gathered their information in the rear—“not the best place from which to judge correctly what is going on in front,” Grant remarked—were soon in print with stories which not only seemed to verify the rumors of “complete surprise,” but also included the casualty lists. Shocking as these were to the whole country, they struck hardest in the Northwest, where most of the dead boys were being mourned.
Hardest hit of all was Ohio, which not only had furnished a large proportion of the corpses, but also was smarting under the charge that several Buckeye regiments had scattered for the rear before firing a shot. Governor David Tod was quick to announce that these men were not cowards; they had been caught off guard as a result of the “criminal negligence” of the high command. By way of securing proof he sent the lieutenant governor down to talk with the soldiers in their camps. They agreed with the governor’s view, and the envoy returned to publish in mid-April a blast against “the blundering stupidity and negligence of the general in command.” He found, he said, “a general feeling among the most intelligent men that Grant and Prentiss ought to be court-martialed or shot.” Grant himself was an Ohioan, but they disclaimed him; he had moved to Illinois.
Nor was Ohio alone in her resentment. Harlan of Iowa rose in Congress to announce that he discerned a pattern of 'margin-bottom:0cm;margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-align: justify;text-indent:12.0pt;line-height:14.4pt'>Eventually the problem landed where the big ones always did: on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln. Late one night at the White House a Pennsylvania spokesman made a summary of the charges. Grant had been surprised because of his invariable lack of vigilance and because he disregarded Halleck’s order to intrench. In addition, he was reported drunk: which might or might not have been true, but in any case he had lost the public’s confidence to such an extent that any future blood on his hands would be charged against the officials who sustained him. He had better be dismissed. Lincoln sat there thinking it over, profoundly alone with himself, then said earnestly: “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
He was not fighting now, nor was he likely to be fighting any time in the near future. Halleck had seen to that by taking the field himself. As soon as he reached Pittsburg Landing, four days after the battle, he began reorganizing his forces by consolidating Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and Buell’s Army of the Ohio with Pope’s Army of the Mississippi, summoned from Island Ten. When George Thomas, now a major general as a reward for Fishing Creek, arrived with Buell’s fifth division—the other four, or parts of them, had come up in time for a share in the fighting—Halleck assigned it to Grant’s army and gave Thomas the command in place of Grant, who was appointed assistant commander of the whole, directly under Halleck. That way he could watch him, perhaps use him in an advisory capacity, and above all keep him out of contact with the troops. Having thus disposed of one wild man, he attended to another. McClernand, with his and Lew Wallace’s divisions, plus a third from Buell, was given command of the reserve. So organized, Halleck told his reshuffled generals, “we can march forward to new fields of honor and glory, till this wicked rebellion is completely crushed out and peace restored to our country.” He was confident, and with good cause. His fifteen divisions included 120,172 men and more than 200 guns.
Thomas and Pope were pleased with the arrangement; but not Buell and McClernand. Buell, whose command was thus reduced to three green divisions while his former lieutenant Thomas had five, all veteran, protested: “You must excuse me for saying that, as it seems to me, you have saved the feelings of others very much to my injury.” McClernand, too, was bitter. He saw little chance for “honor and glory,” as Halleck put it, let alone advancement, when his army—if it could be called such; actually it was a pool on which the rest would call for reinforcements—did not even have a name. But the saddest of all was Grant. He had no troops at all, or even duties, so far as he could see. When he complained about being kicked upstairs into a supernumerary position, Halleck snapped at him with charges of ingratitude: “For the past three months I have done everything in my power to ward off the attacks which were made upon you. If you believe me your friend you will not require explanations; if not, explanations on my part would be of little avail.”
C. F. Smith, who at Donelson had proved himself perhaps the hardest fighter of them all, was not included in the reshuffling because he was still confined to his sickbed in Savannah. After Shiloh, the infected shin got worse; blood poisoning set in. Or perhaps it was simply a violent reaction of the old man’s entire organism, outraged at being kept flat on his back within earshot of one of the world’s great battles. At any rate, he sickened and was dead before the month was out. Halleck ordered a salute fired for him at every post and aboard every warship in the department. The army would miss him, particularly the volunteers who had followed where he led, alternately cursed and cajoled, but always encouraged by his example. Grant would miss him most of all.
April 28, having completed the reorganization and briefed the four commanders, Halleck sent his Grand Army forward against Beauregard, who was intrenched at Corinth with a force which Halleck estimated at 70,000 men. Buell had the center, Thomas the right, and Pope the left; McClernand brought up the rear. Halleck intended to follow along, though for the present he kept his command post at Pittsburg. The great day had come, but he did not seem happy about it according to a reporter who saw him May Day: “He walks by the hour in front of his quarters, his thumbs in the armpits of his vest, casting quick looks, now to the right, now to the left, evidently not for the purpose of seeing anything or anybody, but staring into vacancy the while.” Part of what was fretting him was the thing that had fretted Grant the year before, when he marched for the first time against the enemy and felt his heart “getting higher and higher” until it seemed to be in his throat. What Halleck felt was the presence of the enemy. “The evidences are that Beauregard will fight at Corinth,” he wired Washington this same day.
Certain comparisons were unavoidable for a man accustomed to weighing all the odds. In the fight to come it would be Beauregard, who had co-directed the two great battles of the war, versus Halleck, the former lieutenant of engineers, who had never been in combat. True, he had written or translated learned works on tactics; but so had Hardee, waiting for him now beyond the woods. Bragg was there, grim-faced and wrathful, alongside Polk, the transfer from the Army of the Lord, and Breckinridge, an amateur and therefore unpredictable. So was Van Dorn, who had crossed the Mississippi with 17,000 veterans of Pea Ridge, where the diminutive commander had thrown them at Curtis in a savage double envelopment. It had failed because Curtis had kept his head while the guns were roaring. Could Halleck keep his? He wondered. Besides, Van Dorn might have learned enough from that experience to make certain it did not fail a second time.… For Halleck, the woods were filled with more than shadows.
Nevertheless, he put on a brave face when he wired Washington two days later: “I leave here tomorrow morning, and our army will be before Corinth tomorrow night.”
Pope was off and running, in accordance with the reputation earned at New Madrid. Advancing seven miles from Hamburg on the 4th, he did not stop until he reached a stream appropriately called Seven Mile Creek, and from there he leapfrogged forward again to another creekline within two miles of Farmington, which in turn was only four miles from Corinth. He reported his position a good one, protected by the stream in front and a bog on his left, but he was worried about his other flank; “I hope Buell’s forces will keep pace on our right,” he told headquarters. It turned out he was right to worry. Buell was not there. Lagging back, he was warning Halleck: “We have now reached that proximity to the enemy that our movements should be conducted with the greatest caution and combined methods.” The last phrase meant siege tactics, and the army commander took his cue from that. “Don’t advance your main body at present,” he told Pope. “We must wait till Buell gets up.”
Buell was back near Monterey, with Thomas conforming on his right. Presently Pope was back there, too: Beauregard made a stab at his front, and he had to withdraw to avoid an attempt to envelop the flank protected by the bog. In fact the whole countryside was fast becoming boggy. Assistant Secretary Thomas Scott, an observer down from the War Department, wired Stanton: “Heavy rains for the past twenty hours. Roads bad. Movement progressing slowly.” Gloomily Halleck confirmed the report: “This country is almost a wilderness and very difficult to operate in.” Scott attended a high-level conference and passed the word along: Halleck would continue the advance, and “in a few days invest Corinth, then be governed by circumstances.” He made no conjecture as to what those circumstances might be, but Stanton could see one thing clearly. Last week’s “tomorrow” had stretched to “a few days.”
It was more than a few. Every evening the troops dug in: four hours’ digging, six hours’ sleep, then up at dawn to repel attack. The attack didn’t come, not in force at least, but Halleck had every reason to expect one. Rebel deserters were coming in with eye-witness accounts of the arrival of reinforcements for the 70,000 already behind the formidable intrenchments. He took thought of the host available to Beauregard by rail from Fort Pillow, Memphis, Mobile, and intermediary points. No less than 60,000 could be sped there practically overnight, he computed, which would give the defenders a larger army than his own. Taking thought, he grew cautious; he grew apprehensive. “Don’t let Pope get too far ahead,” he warned, acutely aware by now that he had another wild man on his hands. “It is dangerous and effects no good.”
He had cause for caution, especially since the accounts of deserters were confirmed by observers of his own. In mid-May the officer in charge of pickets reported that he had heard trains pulling into Corinth during the night. “Such trains were greeted with immense cheering on arrival,” he declared. “The enemy are concentrating a powerful army.” Next night it was repeated. A scouting party, working near town, heard more trains arriving “and, after they stopped, marching music from the depot in the direction of the front lines.” Intelligence could hardly be more definite, and Halleck found his apprehension shared. Indiana’s Governor O. P. Morton, down to see how well his Hoosiers had recovered from the bloody shock of Shiloh, wired Stanton on May 22: “The enemy are in great force at Corinth, and have recently received reinforcements. They evidently intend to make a desperate struggle at that point, and from all I can learn their leaders have utmost confidence in the result.… It is fearful to contemplate the consequences of a defeat at Corinth.” Halleck thought it fearful, too: the more so after McClernand capped the climax with a report he had from a doctor friend, captured at Belmont and recently exchanged. The Illinois general, fretting in his back-seat position, was finding “the amount of duty … very great, indeed exhausting, if not oppressive.” Now he crowded into the frame of the big picture by passing along what he heard from the doctor, who had left Memphis on May 15. While there, he had spoken with some former classmates now in the rebel army, who “informed him that on that date the enemy’s force at Corinth numbered 146,000.” Other details were given, the doctor said, “prospectively increasing their number to 200,000.” To palliate the shock of this, he added that “a considerable portion of the force … consists of new levies, being in large part boys and old men.”
Two hundred thousand of anything, even rabbits, could make a considerable impression, however, if they were launched at a man who was unprepared: which was the one thing Halleck was determined not to be. Orders went out for the troops to dig harder and deeper, not only on the flanks, but across the center. They cursed and dug—the rains were over; summer was almost in—sweating in wool uniforms under the Mississippi sun. Only the Shiloh veterans, looking back, saw any sense in all that labor. Apparently all but four of the ranking generals shared their commander’s apprehension: Pope, who chafed at restraint, bristling offensively on the left: Thomas, who did not have it in his nature to be quite apprehensive about anything: Sherman, who, happy over a pending promotion, called the movement “a magnificent drill”: and Grant. Not even Shiloh had taught him caution to this extent. He suggested once to Halleck that he shift Pope’s army from the left to the right, out of the swamps and onto the ridge beyond the opposite flank, then send it bowling directly along the high ground into the heart of Corinth. Halleck gave him a fish-eye stare of unbelief. “I was silenced so quickly,” Grant said later, “that I felt that possibly I had suggested an unmilitary movement.” He drew back and kept his own counsel. This was not his kind of war.
It was Halleck’s kind, and he kept at it, burrowing as he went. An energetic inchworm could have made better time—half a mile a day now, sometimes less—but not without the danger of being swooped on by a hawk: whereas, by Halleck’s method, the risk was small, the casualties low, and the progress sure. The soldiers, digging and cursing under the summer sun, might agree with the disgruntled McClernand’s definition of the campaign as “the present unhappy drama,” but they would be there for roll call when the time came for the bloody work ahead. Besides, nothing could last forever; not even this. By the morning of May 28—a solid month from the jump-off—all three component armies were within cannon range of Beauregard’s intrenchments. After four weeks of marching and digging, Halleck had his troops where he had said they would be “tomorrow.” He had reached the second stage, the one in which he had said he would “be governed by circumstances.”
East and far northeast of Corinth, Halleck had two more divisions, both left behind by Buell when he marched for Pittsburg Landing. The latter, commanded by Brigadier General George W. Morgan, was maneuvering in front of Cumberland Gap, prepared to move in if the Confederates evacuated or weakened the already small defensive force. Morgan had further plans, intending not only to seize the gap, but to penetrate the Knoxville region—a project dear, as everyone knew, to the heart of Abraham Lincoln. However, the place was a natural fortress; Morgan reported it “washed into deep chasms or belly-deep in mud.” So long as the rebels stayed there he could do nothing but hover and maneuver. The more substantial threat would have to come from the opposite direction, beyond the gap, and that was where Buell’s other division, under Brigadier General Ormsby M. Mitchel, came in.
He was already in North Alabama, deeper into enemy country than any other Federal commander, having occupied Huntsville the day Halleck got to Pittsburg. From there he pushed on and took Bridgeport just as Halleck’s army started south. A bright prospect lay before him. Once he had taken Chattanooga, thirty miles away, he would continue his march along the railroad and threaten Knoxville from the rear. This would cause the evacuation of Cumberland Gap, and when Morgan came through, hard on the heels of the defenders, Mitchel would join forces with him and make Lincoln’s fondest hope a fact by chasing the scattered rebels clean out of East Tennessee. That was his plan at the outset, and it tied in well with another he had already put in motion, which resulted in what was known thereafter as the Great Locomotive Chase.
James J. Andrews, a Kentucky spy who had gained the trust of Confederates by running quinine through the lines, volunteered to lead a group of 21 Ohio soldiers, dressed like himself in civilian clothes, down into Georgia to burn bridges and blow up tunnels along the Western & Atlantic, the only rail connection between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Andrews and his men infiltrated south and assembled at Marietta, Georgia, where—on April 12, the day after Mitchel took Huntsville—they boarded a northbound train as passengers. During the breakfast halt at Big Shanty they made off with the locomotive and three boxcars, heading north. The conductor, W. A. Fuller, took the theft as a personal affront and started after them on foot. Commandeering first a handcar, then a switch engine, and finally a regular freight locomotive, along with whatever armed volunteers he encountered along the way, he pressed the would-be saboteurs so closely that they had no time for the destruction they had intended. Overtaken just at the Tennessee line, where they ran out of fuel and water, they took to the woods, but were captured. Eight were hanged as spies, including Andrews; eight escaped while awaiting execution, and the remaining six were exchanged. All received the Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of their valor “above and beyond the call of duty.” Fuller and his associates received a vote of thanks from the Georgia legislature, but no medals. The Confederacy never had any, then or later.
Andrews’ failure meant that the rebels could reinforce Chattanooga rapidly by rail. Advancing toward it, Mitchel found other drawbacks to his plan, chief among them being a shortage of supplies. Except for the fact that he could bring food and other necessities along the railroad, he told Washington, “it would be madness to attempt to hold my position a single day.” Presently gray raiders were loose in his rear, capturing men and disrupting communications. “As there is no [hope] of an immediate advance upon Chattanooga,” he wired Stanton, “I will now contract my line.” He remained in North Alabama, doing what he could—mainly destroying railroad bridges which later Union commanders would have to replace—but on the day that Halleck halted within range of the Corinth intrenchments, Mitchel requested a transfer to another theater. “My advance beyond the Tennessee River seems impossible,” he said.
Chattanooga was untaken, and though Morgan still hovered north of Cumberland Gap, Knoxville was spared pressure from either direction. Halleck could expect no important strategic diversion on his left as he entered the final stage of his campaign against Corinth.
It turned out, simultaneously, that he could expect none on his right flank either. Farragut turned back from frowning Vicksburg, abandoning for the present his planned ascent of the Mississippi, and the descending fleet of ironclads, steaming south after the fall of Island Ten, received a jolt which gave the Confederates not only a sense of security on the river, but also a heady feeling of elation, long unfamiliar, and a renewal of their confidence in the valor of southern arms.
Midway between New Madrid and Memphis, Fort Pillow was next on the navy’s list of downriver objectives, and Foote did not delay. With a burst of his old-time energy, he had the place under mortar bombardment within a week of the fall of Island Ten. The plan was for him to apply pressure from the river, while Pope moved in from the land side, a repetition of his tactics in Missouri. However, when Halleck took the field in person he summoned Pope to Pittsburg Landing, leaving only two regiments to coöperate with the navy. Foote felt let down and depressed. Fort Pillow was a mean-looking place, with the balance of the guns from Columbus dug into its bluff, and he did not think the navy could do the job alone. Downstream there was a Confederate flotilla of unknown strength, perhaps made stronger than his own by the addition of giant ironclads reportedly under construction in the Memphis yards. The commodore was feverish—“much enfeebled,” one of his captains wrote—still on crutches from his Donelson wound, which would not heal in this climate, and distressed, as only a brave man could be, by his loss of nerve. In this frame of mind he applied to Welles for shore duty in the North; which was granted with regret.
May 9 he said farewell on the deck of the flagship, crowded with sailors come for a last look at him. He took off his cap and addressed them, saying that he regretted not being able to stay till the war was over; he would remember all they had shared, he said, “with mingled feelings of sorrow and of pride.” Supported by two officers, he went down the gangway and onto a transport, where he was placed in a chair on the guards. When the crew of the flagship cheered him he covered his face with a palm-leaf fan to hide the tears which ran down into his beard. As the transport pulled away, they cheered again and tossed their caps in salute. Greatly agitated, Foote rose from the chair and cried in a broken voice across the widening gap of muddy water: “God bless you all, my brave companions!… I can never forget you. Never, never. You are as gallant and noble men as ever fought in a glorious cause, and I shall remember your merits to my dying day.” It was one year off, that dying day, and when the doctors told him it had come he took the news without regret. “Well,” he said quietly, “I am glad to be done with guns and war.”
His successor, Commodore Charles Henry Davis, a fifty-five-year-old Bostonian with a flowing brown mustache and gray rim whiskers, had been a salt-water sailor up to now, a member of the planning board and chief of staff to Du Pont at Port Royal, but before he had spent a full day in his new command he got a taste of what could happen on the river. His first impression had been one of dullness. Agreeing with Foote that the fleet alone could never take Fort Pillow—though in time, if ordered to do so, he would be willing to try running past it—he kept all but one of the gunboats anchored at Plum Run Bend, five miles above the fort. That one was stationed three miles below the others, protecting the single mortar-boat assigned to keep up a harassing fire by dropping its 13-inch shells at regular intervals into the rebel fortifications. “Every half-hour during the day,” a seaman later wrote, “one of these little pills would climb a mile or two into the air, look around a bit at the scenery, and finally descend and disintegrate around the fort, to the great interest and excitement of the occupants.” There was little interest and still less excitement at the near end of the trajectory. This had been going on for some weeks now, and as duty it was dull. The seven ironclads took the guard-mount times about, one day a week for each.
While Foote was telling his crew goodbye, J. E. Montgomery, the river captain who had brought the eight River Defense Fleet gunboats up from New Orleans, was holding a council of war at Memphis. The bitter details of what Farragut’s blue-water ships had done to the Confederate flotilla above Forts Jackson and St Philip had reached Memphis by now, along with the warning that Farragut himself might not be far behind; he was on his way, and in fact had captured Baton Rouge the day before. Montgomery’s captains believed they could do better when the time came, but in any case there was no point in waiting to fight both Federal fleets at once. They voted to go upriver that night and try a surprise attack on the ironclads next morning, May 10.
It was Saturday. The ironclad Cincinnati had the duty below, standing guard while Mortar 10 threw its 200-pound projectiles, one every half-hour as usual, across the wooded neck of land hugged by the final bend above Fort Pillow. The gunboat was not taking the assignment very seriously, however. Steam down, she lay tied to some trees alongside bank, and her crew was busy holystoning the decks for weekly inspection. About 7 o’clock one of the workers gave a startled yell. The others looked and saw eight rebel steamboats rounding the bend, just over a mile away—eight minutes, one of the sailors translated—bearing down, full steam ahead, on the tethered Cincinnati. Things moved fast then. While the deck crew slipped her cables, the engineers were throwing oil and anything else inflammable into her furnaces for quick steam. They were too late. The lead vessel, the General Bragg, came on, twenty feet tall, her great walking-beam engine driving so hard she had built up a ten-foot billow in front of her bow. TheCincinnatidelivered a broadside at fifty yards, then managed to swing her bow around and avoid right-angle contact. The blow, though glancing, tore a piece out of her midships six feet deep and twelve feet long, letting a flood into her magazine.
Three miles upstream, around Plum Run Bend, the rest of the fleet knew nothing of the sudden attack until they heard the guns. They too were lazing alongside bank, steam down. By the time they got up pressure enough to maneuver—which they did as soon as possible, the Mound City leading the way—they were too late to be of any help to their sister ship below. When the General Bragg sheered off, the second ram-gunboat, Sumter, struck the Cincinnati in the fantail, wrecking her steering gear and punching another hole that let the river in. Next came the Colonel Lovell, whose iron prow crashed into the port quarter. Taking water from three directions, the proud Cincinnati, the fleet’s first flagship and leader of the crushing assault on Henry, rolled first to one side, now the other, then gave a convulsive shudder and went down in water shallow enough to leave her pilot-house above the surface for survivors to cling to, including her captain, who had taken a sharpshooter’s bullet through the mouth. It appeared that one of the ironclad monsters could be sunk after all. And having proved it, the attacking flotilla proceeded to re-prove it.
The Mound City arrived too late for the Cincinnati’s good, and too early for her own. A fourth ram-gunboat, the General Van Dorn, met her almost head-on, and punched such a hole in her forward starboard quarter that the Mound City barely managed to limp toward bank in time to sink with her nose out of water. Two down and five to go: but when the rest of the ironclads came on the scene, their 9-inch Dahlgrens booming, the river captains decided enough had been done for one day. They drew off downstream, unpursued, to the protection of Fort Pillow’s batteries. Montgomery brought up the rear in his jaunty flagship Little Rebel.
After a full year of war, afloat and ashore, a contradictory pattern was emerging. In naval actions—with the exception of Fort Donelson—whoever attacked was the winner; while in land actions of any size—again with the same notable exception—it was the other way around. Montgomery was satisfied, however, with the simpler fact that an ironclad could be sent to the bottom. He knew because he had done it twice in a single morning. Returning to a cheering reception at Memphis he informed Beauregard that if the Federal fleet remained at its present strength, “they will never penetrate farther down the Mississippi.”
The Creole had need of all the assurance and encouragement he could get. With Halleck knocking at its gate, Corinth was one vast groaning camp of sick and injured. Hotels and private residences, stables and churches, stores and even the railroad station were jammed, not only with the wounded back from Shiloh—eight out of ten amputees died, victims of erysipelas, tetanus, and shock—but also with a far greater number incapacitated by a variety of ailments. For lack of sanitary precautions, unknown or at any rate unpracticed, the inadequate water supply was soon contaminated. While dysentery claimed its toll, measles and typhoid fever both reached epidemic proportions. By mid-May, with the arrival of Van Dorn, Beauregard had 18,000 soldiers on the sick list, which left him 51,690 present for duty: well under half the number Halleck was bringing so cautiously against him.
He had done what he could to increase that caution at every opportunity. Many of the “deserters,” for example, who had given the Union commander such alarming information as to the strength and intentions of the invaders, had been sent out by Beauregard himself, after intensive coaching on what to say when questioned. Valid prisoners were almost as misleading, for Beauregard had a report spread through the ranks that immediate advances were intended, and interrogated captives passed it on. Nor did the inventive general neglect to organize diversions which he hoped would cause detachments from the army in his front. Two regiments of cavalry were ordered to assemble at Trenton, Tennessee, then dash across western Kentucky for an attack on lightly held Paducah, meanwhile spreading the rumor that they were riding point for Van Dorn’s army, which was on its way to seize the mouth of the Tennessee River and thus cut off Halleck’s retreat when Beauregard struck him in front with superior numbers. A second, less ambitious cavalry project was intrusted to Captain John H. Morgan, who had shown promise on outpost duty the year before. He was promoted to colonel, given a war bag of $15,000, and sent to Kentucky to raise a regiment for disrupting the Federal rear. Though the former scheme was a failure—Beauregard blamed “the notorious incapacity of the officer in command”—the latter was carried out brilliantly from the outset. These were the gray raiders who caused Ormsby Mitchel to “contract” his line in North Alabama. However, it worked less well on the Corinth front. When Andrew Johnson protested that troops were needed to restrain Tennessee “disloyalists,” the War Department referred the matter to Halleck, who refused to be disconcerted. “We are now at the enemy’s throat,” he replied, “and cannot release our great grasp to pare his toenails.”
If Old Brains was to be stopped it would have to be done right here in front of Corinth, and Beauregard did what he could with what he had. His army took position along a ridge in rear of a protective creek, three to six miles out of town, thus occupying a quadrant which extended from the Mobile & Ohio on the north to the Memphis & Charleston Railroad on the east. Polk had the left, Bragg the center, and Hardee the right; Breckinridge and Van Dorn supported the flanks, being posted just in rear of the intersections of the railroads and the ridge. All through what was left of April and most of May, the defenders intrenched as furiously as the attackers, but with the advantage that while their opponents were honeycombing the landscape practically all the way from Monterey, their own digging was done in the same place from day to day. Even before Halleck started forward, the natural strength of the lines along the Corinth ridge had been greatly increased, and as he drew nearer they became quite formidable—especially in appearance. This was what Beauregard wanted: not only to give his men the added protection of solid-packed red earth, but also to free a portion of them for operations beyond the fortified perimeter, in case some segment of the advancing host grew careless and exposed itself, unsupported, to a sudden crippling slash by the gray veterans who had practiced such tactics at Elkhorn Tavern and Shiloh.
Pope was the likeliest to expose himself to such treatment, bristly as he was, and he had not been long in doing so. When he rushed forward in early May and took up an isolated position at Farmington, calling for the other commanders to hurry and catch up, Beauregard planned to destroy him by throwing Bragg at his front and Van Dorn on his flank. “Soldiers, can the result be doubtful?” he asked. “Shall we not drive back into the Tennessee the presumptuous mercenaries collected for our subjugation?” However, the result was worse than doubtful. Bragg hit Pope as planned, and hit him hard, but Van Dorn found the flank terrain quite different from the description in the attack order; Pope scurried back to safety before his flank was even threatened. In late May, when he returned to his old position—this time by more gradual approaches, allowing his fellow commanders to keep pace—Beauregard ordered the same trap sprung. Once more his hopes were high. “I feel like a wolf and will fight Pope like one,” Van Dorn declared as he set out. But the results were the same as before, except that this time the Federals did not fall back, neither Pope nor the others alongside him.
The failure of this second attempt to repulse the Union host before it got a close-up hug on his intrenchments confirmed what Beauregard had suspected since mid-May. Outnumbered as he was, he would never be able to hold onto Corinth once the contest became a siege. In fact, if it came to that, he might not be able to hold onto his army. In addition to the water shortage and the lengthening sick-list, there was now a scarcity of food. The arrival of a herd of cattle, driven overland from Texas, had already saved the defenders from starvation, but the herd was dwindling fast. Even if the Yankees failed, disease and hunger would force him out in time. So on May 25 he called a conference of his generals: Bragg, Van Dorn, Polk, Hardee, Breckinridge, and Price. Hardee, as became a student, had prepared a statement of primer-like simplicity: “The situation … requires that we should attack the enemy at once, or await his attack, or evacuate the place.” To attack such numbers, intrenched to their front, “would probably inflict on us and the Confederacy a fatal blow.” The only answer, as Hardee saw it, was to fall back down the line of the M & O while there was still a chance to do so unmolested, no matter how slim that chance appeared to be.
Beauregard and the others could do nothing but agree: the more so two days later, when Halleck got his whole Grand Army up within range of the fortified ridge and next morning—May 28—opened a dawn-to-dusk cannonade, which paused from time to time to allow the infantry to probe for weak spots in the Confederate defenses. Fortunately, none developed; the wily Creole was left free to continue his plans for a withdrawal so secret that few of his officers suspected that one was intended. While the wounded and sick, along with the heavy baggage and camp equipment, were being evacuated by rail, the able-bodied men in the intrenchments were issued three days’ cooked rations and told that they were about to launch an all-out attack: with the result that a timorous few—who indeed had cause to be frightened, being conscious of the odds—went over to the enemy with the news. Meanwhile the march details were formulated and rehearsed, the generals being assembled at army headquarters and required to repeat their instructions by rote until all had mastered their parts. No smallest detail was neglected, down to the final arrangements for bewildering the Federal pursuit by removing all the finger boards and mileposts south of Corinth.
Next afternoon, of necessity, the front-line troops were told of the planned deception in time to prepare for it that evening. They responded with enthusiasm, glad to have a share in what promised to be the greatest hoax of the war, and some proved almost as resourceful and inventive as their commander. When they stole out of the intrenchments after nightfall, they left dummy guns in the embrasures and dummy cannoneers to serve them, fashioned by stuffing ragged uniforms with straw. A single band moved up and down the deserted works, pausing at scattered points to play retreat, tattoo, and taps. Campfires were left burning, with a supply of wood alongside each for the drummer boys who stayed behind to stoke them and beat reveille next morning. All night a train of empty cars rattled back and forth along the tracks through Corinth, stopping at frequent intervals to blow its whistle, the signal for a special detail of leather-lunged soldiers to cheer with all their might. The hope was that this would not only cover the incidental sounds of the withdrawal, but would also lead the Federals to believe that the town’s defenders were being heavily reinforced.
It worked to perfection. Beauregard would have been delighted if he had had access to the messages flying back and forth in reaction behind the northern lines. At 1.20 in the morning Pope telegraphed Halleck: “The enemy is reinforcing heavily, by trains, in my front and on my left. The cars are running constantly, and the cheering is immense every time they unload in front of me. I have no doubt, from all appearances, that I shall be attacked in heavy force at daylight.” He turned his men out and did what he could to brace them for the shock, while Halleck alerted the other commanders. At 4 o’clock, mysteriously, the rattling and the cheering stopped, giving way to a profound silence which was broken at dawn by “a succession of loud explosions.” Daylight showed “dense black smoke in clouds,” but no sign of the enemy Pope expected to find massed in his front. Picking his way forward he came upon dummy guns and dummy cannoneers, some with broad grins painted on. Otherwise the works were deserted. So, apparently, was the town beyond. He sent back word of the evacuation, adding: “The whole country here seems to be fortified.”
Halleck came out to see for himself. He had wanted a victory as bloodless as digging and maneuvering could make it; but not this bloodless, and above all not this empty. Even rebel civilians were scarce, all but two of the local families having departed with Beauregard’s army. Seven full weeks of planning and strain, in command of the largest army ever assembled under one field general in the Western Hemisphere, had earned him one badly smashed-up North Mississippi railroad intersection.
In hope that more could yet be done, the order went out: “General Pope, with his reinforcements from the right wing, will proceed to feel the enemy on the left.” Happy at being unleashed at last, Pope was hot on the trail with 50,000 men. At first there was little for him to “feel,” but he reported joyfully: “The roads for miles are full of stragglers from the enemy, who are coming in in squads. Not less than 10,000 men are thus scattered about, who will come in within a day or two.” This was mainly hearsay—like the information from a farmer that Beauregard, in a panic, had told his men to take to the woods and “save themselves as best they could”—but Halleck, anxious for a substantial achievement to put on the wire to Washington, was glad to hear it. Two days later, when Pope reported continuing success—a cavalry dash had destroyed an ammunition train and captured about 200 Confederate wounded—Halleck misunderstood him to mean that his former prediction had been fulfilled, and passed the news along to the War Department that 10,000 prisoners and 15,000 stand of arms had been seized because of the boldness of Pope’s pursuit. Duly elated, Stanton replied: “Your glorious dispatch has just been received, and I have sent it into every State. The whole land will soon ring with applause at the achievement of your gallant army and its able and victorious commander.”
Adjectivally, this was rather in line with Halleck’s own opinion. The day after Corinth fell he informed his troops that they had scored “a victory as brilliant and important as any recorded in history,” one that was “more humiliating to [the leaders of the rebellion] and to their cause than if we had entered the place over the dead and mangled bodies of their soldiers.” However, this was a good deal more than any of his generals would say: except possibly John Pope. McClernand still considered the campaign an “unhappy drama,” and not even Sherman, glad as he was to be out in the open, wearing his new major general’s stars, praised it for being anything more than a “drill.” Harsher words were left to the newspaper correspondents, who had never admired the elbow-scratching commander anyhow. “General Halleck … has achieved one of the most barren triumphs of the war,” the Chicago Tribune asserted. “In fact, it is tantamount to a defeat.” The Cincinnati Commercial extended this into a flat statement that, by means of his sly withdrawal, “Beauregard [has] achieved another triumph.”
These verdicts, these ex post facto condemnations, were delivered before all the testimony was in. Hoax or no, the Confederate retrograde movement was, after all, a retreat; and as such it had its consequences. Fort Pillow, being completely outflanked, was evacuated June 4, along with the supplementary Fort Randolph, fifteen miles below. Now all that stood between the Federal ironclads and Memphis was the eight-boat flotilla which had been resting on its laurels since the affair at Plum Run Bend. Captain Montgomery had said then that the Yankees would “never penetrate farther down” unless their fleet was reinforced; but two days after Pillow and Randolph were abandoned he discovered, in the most shocking way, that it had indeed been reinforced.
Back in March—after years of failing to interest the navy in his theory—an elderly civil engineer named Charles Ellet, Jr., wrote and sent to the War Department a pamphlet applying the formula f = mv2 to demonstrate the superiority of the ram as a naval weapon, particularly in river engagements, which allowed scant room for dodging. Stanton read it and reacted. He sent for the author, made him a colonel, and told him to build as many of the rams as he thought would be needed to knock the rebels off the Mississippi. Ellet got to work at once, purchasing and converting suitable steamers, and joined the ironclad fleet above Fort Pillow on May 25 with nine of the strange-looking craft. They carried neither guns nor armor, since neither had any place in the mass-velocity formula; nor did they have sharp dogtooth prows, which Ellet said would plug a hole as quickly as they punched one. All his dependence was on the two formula-components. Velocity was assured by installing engines designed to yield a top speed of fifteen knots, which would make them the fastest things on the river, and “mass” was attained by packing the bows with lumber and running three solid bulkheads, a foot or more in thickness, down the length of each vessel, so that the impact of the whole rigid unit would be delivered at a single stroke. Engines and boilers were braced for the shock of ramming, and the crews were river men whose courage Ellet tested in various ways, getting rid of many in the process. Perhaps his greatest caution, however, was shown in the selection of his captains. All were Pennsylvanians, like himself, and all were named Ellet. Seven were brothers and nephews of the designer-commander, and the eighth was his nineteen-year-old son.
Anxious to put f = mv2 to work, the thin-faced lank-haired colonel was for going down and pitching into the rebel flotilla as soon as he joined up, but Flag Officer Davis had learned caution at Plum Run Bend. In spite of the fact that both sunken ironclads had been raised from their shallow graves and put back into service, the fleet was still under strength, three of its seven units having returned to Cairo for repairs. No matter, Ellet said; he and his kinsmen were still for immediate action, with or without the ironclads. But Davis continued to refuse the “concurrence” Stanton had told the colonel he would have to have in working with the navy.
The Confederates in Memphis, knowing nothing of all this, had assumed from reports that the new arrivers were some kind of transport. They relied on the guns of Forts Pillow and Randolph; or if the batteries failed to stop the Yankees, there was still the eight-boat flotilla which had given them such a drubbing three weeks back. Moreover, as at New Orleans, the keels of two monster ironclads, the Arkansas and the Tennessee, had been laid in the city’s yards. The former, having been launched and armored up to her maindeck, was floated down to Vicksburg, then towed up the Yazoo River for completion in safety after the fall of Island Ten; but the latter was still on the stocks, awaiting the arrival of her armor. Like the city itself, she would have to take her chances that the enemy would be stopped.
Those chances were considerably thinned by the evacuation of Corinth and the two forts upriver. It now became a question of which would get there first, a sizeable portion of Halleck’s Grand Army or the Federal fleet. The citizens hoped it would be the latter, for they had the gunboat flotilla to stand in its way, while there was absolutely nothing at all to stand in the way of the former. They got their wish. At dawn of June 6, two days after Fort Pillow was abandoned, the ironclads showed up, coming round the bend called Paddy’s Hen and Chickens, four of them in line abreast just above the city, offering battle to the eight Confederate gunboats. The people turned out in tens of thousands, lining the bluffs for a grandstand seat at what they hoped would be a reënactment of the affair at Plum Run Bend. The first shot was fired at sunup, and they cheered and waved their handkerchiefs as at a tableau when the southern gunboats, mounting 28 light cannon, moved out to meet their squat black bug-shaped northern opponents, mounting 68, mostly heavy.
Ellet had his rams in rear of the ironclad line of battle. When the first shot was fired, he took off his hat and waved it to attract the attention of his brother commanding the ram alongside his own. “Round out and follow me! Now is our chance!” he cried. Both boats sprang forward under full heads of steam and knifed between the ironclads, whose crews gave them a cheer as they went by. Ellet made straight for the Colonel Lovell, leader of the Confederate line, and when she swerved at the last minute to avoid a head-on collision, struck her broadside and cut her almost in two. She sank within a few minutes: brief, conclusive proof of the relation between force and mv2. Meanwhile his brother had accomplished something different. Striking for the General Price, which held her course while the General Beauregard moved to aid her by converging on the ram, he darted between the two—which then collided in his wake. The General Price lost one of her sidewheels, sheared off in the crash, and while she limped toward bank, out of the fight, the ram came about in a long swift curve and rammed the Beauregard at the moment the rebel’s steam drum was punctured by a shell from one of the ironclads. She struck her colors.
Four of the remaining five did not last much longer, and none ever managed to come to grips with an adversary. Montgomery’s Little Rebel, the only screw steamer of the lot, took a shell in her machinery, then went staggering into the Arkansas bank, where her crew made off through the woods. The Jeff Thompson was set afire by a Federal broadside; the Sumter and the Bragg, like the flagship, were knocked into bank by the Dahlgrens. The whole engagement lasted no longer than the one at Plum Run Bend, which it avenged. One Confederate was sunk beyond raising; two were burned; four were captured, and in time became part of the fleet they had fought. Van Dorn, the only survivor, managed to get enough of a head start in the confusion to make a getaway downriver. Two of the rams gave chase for a while, but then turned back to join the celebration.
The cheering was all on the river, where the rams and ironclads anchored unopposed, not on the bluffs, where the cheers had turned to groans. Smoke had blanketed the water; all the spectators could see was the flash of Union guns and the tall paired stacks of Confederate steamboats riding above the murk. Pair by pair, in rapid order, the crown-top chimneys disappeared. “The deep sympathizing wail which followed each disaster,” one who heard it wrote, “went up like a funeral dirge from the assembled multitude, and had an overwhelming pathos.” When the sun-dazzled smoke finally cleared away they saw that their flotilla had been not only defeated but abolished, and they turned sadly away to await the occupation which the Corinth retreat had made inevitable anyhow. There still was time to burn the Tennessee, sitting armorless on the stocks, and this they did, taking considerable satisfaction in at least making sure that she would never be part of the fleet whose destruction had been the aim of her designers. It was bitter, however, to surrender as they did to a nineteen-year-old medical cadet, Colonel Ellet’s son, who landed in a rowboat with three seamen and a folded flag, the stars and stripes, which presently he was hoisting over the post office. Later that day the two regiments Pope had left behind marched in for the formal occupation. Thus was Memphis returned to her old allegiance.
Colonel Ellet himself did not come ashore. The only Federal casualty of the engagement, he had been pinked in the knee by a pistol ball while waving his hat on the hurricane deck of his flagship, directing the ram attack. The wound, though painful, was not considered dangerous; prone on the deck, he continued in command throughout the fight; but infection set in, and he died of it two weeks later, while being taken north aboard one of the rams. Before his death, however, he had the satisfaction of proving his theory in action and of knowing that his genius—in conjunction with the no doubt larger genius of that other civil engineer, James Eads—had cleared the Mississippi down to Vicksburg, whose batteries now would be grist for Davis’ and Farragut’s upper and nether millstones.
At Tupelo, where he called a halt fifty-two miles south of Corinth, Beauregard was infuriated by Halleck’s widely circulated dispatch which glorified Pope at the Creole’s expense by claiming a large bag of demoralized prisoners and abandoned equipment. He hotly replied, through the columns of newspapers guilty of spreading this libel, that the report “contained as many lies as lines.” Far from being a rout, he said, or even a reverse, “the retreat was conducted with great order and precision, doing much credit to the officers and men under my orders, and must be looked upon, in every respect, by the country as equivalent to a brilliant victory.”
Not all of his own countrymen agreed with him, any more than Halleck’s had agreed with Halleck; but in the Southerner’s case the dissenters included the Chief Executive. While the army was falling back, exposing his home state and the river down its western flank to deeper penetration, Davis told his wife: “If Mississippi troops lying in camp, when not retreating under Beauregard, were at home, they would probably keep a section of the river free for our use and closed against Yankee transports.” The general had been sent west to help recover territory, not surrender more, and when it became evident after Shiloh that this was not to be accomplished, an intimate of the Davis circle wrote prophetically in her diary in reference to the hero of Sumter and Manassas: “Cock robin is as dead as he ever will be now. What matters it who killed him?”
As if in confirmation, soon after the loss of Memphis and its covering flotilla opened the river south to Vicksburg, the Tupelo commander received from the Adjutant General in Richmond a telegraphic warning that trouble was brewing for him there: “The President has been expecting a communication explaining your last movement. It has not yet arrived.” Beauregard replied: “Have had no time to write report. Busy organizing and preparing for battle if pursued.… Retreat was a most brilliant and successful one,” he added, maneuvering for solid ground on which to meet objections now that he had begun to see that the hoax might seem less fruitful and amusing from a distance. Next day, June 13, he forwarded a complete report, inclosing a clipping from the ChicagoTribunewhich showed that the enemy, at least, admired his generalship. He ended with a prediction that Halleck would find Corinth “a barren locality, which he must abandon as wholly worthless for his purposes.”
If the document lacked his usual verve, there were more reasons than the melancholia resulting from lack of appreciation from above. Though the army’s health was improving rapidly in the more salubrious Tupelo surroundings, the general’s own was not. He had never entirely recovered from the throat operation he had undergone in Virginia, and the strain of long-odds campaigning had lowered his resistance even more. For months his doctors had been urging him to take a rest. Always he had replied that the military crisis would not permit it. But now that his army was out of contact with the enemy, he thought he might safely go to Bladon Springs, a resort north of Mobile, for a week or ten days of rest and relaxation before returning to take up the reins again. Bragg, the next ranking general, could hold them in his absence; Beauregard considered him fully qualified, having recommended him for the position just after Shiloh. Armed with a certificate of disability from his medical director, he was packing to leave on the 14th when he learned that Bragg had received, clean over his commander’s head, a War Department order instructing him to assume command of the Vicksburg defenses.
Angry at having been by-passed, Beauregard wired that Bragg could not be spared. He himself was taking a short sick leave, he said, and was leaving the North Carolinian in charge of the army during his absence. Then, as if suddenly aware that this was the first he had told the authorities of his intended departure, he wrote a letter describing his run-down physical condition, quoting his doctors’ insistence that he take a rest, and giving his travel schedule. He did not ask permission to go; he simply told the government he was going. Nor did he send the information by wire. He sent it by regular mail, and was on his way to Bladon Springs before the letter got to Richmond.
Bragg considered his position awkward, knowing the trouble that was brewing, and with Regular Army prudence wired Richmond for instructions as soon as his chief was gone. The reaction was immediate, perhaps because the wire arrived on the same day as news of another consequence of the retreat, the fall of Cumberland Gap. As far as Davis was concerned, the situation at Tupelo spoke for itself: Beauregard was AWOL. Accordingly, a telegram went to Bragg at once, assigning him to permanent command. The Creole first learned of the action from a telegram Bragg sent to intercept him in Mobile. “I envy you, and am almost in despair,” Bragg said. Beauregard replied: “I cannot congratulate you, but am happy for the change.”
He was not happy; he just said that to cover his anger and disappointment. Four months ago he had come west full of resentment at having been shunted away from the main field of endeavor into a vaster but relatively much less important theater. Since then, he had learned better. The war was to be won or lost as readily here as in the East. What was more, he had come to respect and love the western army, just as it loved and respected him, and he was bitter against the man who had taken it from him as abruptly as if by a pull on the trigger of a pistol already leveled at his head. Replying to a letter of sympathy sent by a friend, he wrote: “If the country be satisfied to have me laid on the shelf by a man who is either demented or a traitor to his high trust—well, let it be so. I require rest and will endeavor meanwhile by study and reflection to fit myself for the darkest hours of our trial, which I foresee are yet to come.” Part at least of the study and reflection was devoted to composing other phrases which he considered descriptive of the enemy who had wronged him. “That living specimen of gall and hatred,” he called Davis now; “ ‘that Individual.’ ”