Sunday, September 30, 2018

Guns, Cotton and Grant

The NRA's August 29 American Rifleman magazine (sent to me by a friend) has an interesting article by S.P. Fjestad titled General Grant's Magnificent Set of Lost Remingtons.
It is a tale of the murky Civil War world of cotton trading along the Mississippi river, which the US government couldn't decide whether to ban or encourage. Grant certainly had difficulties in this political minefield, and when it also touched on his occasionally volatile relations with his father, the result was the genuine scandal of the Dec. 17, 1862, anti-Semitic order -- much regretted by Grant. That blunder, however, is not what the Rifleman story is about. Rather, it's about how a pair of personalized pistols given to Grant by a wartime cotton trader have turned up on the open market. While the guns were a nice gift, and the cotton trader (O.N. Cutler) was no doubt glad to get the cooperation of US military authorities (Grant's subordinate Gen. James McPherson also got a pair), there is one major flaw in the story, reflecting an outdated tendency to ascribe bad motives and actions (in this case corruption) to Grant (and here McPherson) without any evidence.
Fjestad writes: "After Confederate control of the Mississippi ended during mid-1863, cotton shipments to the East Coast became both more frequent and reliable thanks to the Union’s 'delivery protection service,' but only if the right people were involved. A 50/50 profit-sharing arrangement between the Union and cotton suppliers was the norm for these contracts. This lucrative arrangement generated massive amounts of revenue for both the Union and Cutler/Wagley, and no doubt, Generals McPherson and Grant."
That phrase "no doubt" in the last sentence is doing a lot of work, attempting to distract from the fact that the story offers absolutely no evidence that Grant or McPherson profited in any way, apart from getting the pistols. And while Grant can be criticized, in his later career, for accepting gifts such as houses from admirers, I have seen no evidence that he ever accepted bribes to do anything, and the fact that he died heavily in debt may be adduced to the contrary.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Forrest and Thomas

On today's date in 1864, Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry won the Battle of Sulphur Trestle, the day after their victory at Athens, Alabama. The next month Forrest launched a long northward raid into Tennessee, winding up in early November with a highly successful attack on Johnsonville, west of the Union base at Nashville. This latter coup prompted Sherman's famous rant about how "that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the federal treasury."
Major General George Thomas, in command at Nashville, sent John Schofield with a couple of brigades to Johnsonville in response. A month later, John Bell Hood's army was encamped south of Nashville, and he detached Forrest to Murfreesboro (as Bragg and Davis in 1863 had detached Longstreet to Knoxville). At the Third Battle of Murfreesboro on Dec. 5, the Confederates were bested by Union forces including a brigade under the ubiquitous Vladimir Krzyzanowski (a recurring character in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant).
 Later in December, after Thomas' crushingly effective offensive at Nashville, Forrest ran an effective rearguard campaign for Hood's retreating army as it left Tennessee forever. He was appointed lieutenant general the next year, a higher rank than Thomas ever achieved, burnishing his legend (or, from another perspective, his notoriety). But Forrest had much less influence on the war than the Union-loyal Virginian who was in command of US forces in that Tennessee campaign. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

In Partial Defense of McClellan

By the time that photo was taken, in early October, a couple of weeks after the Battle of Antietam with George McClellan still in Maryland, both men knew they were antagonists. McClellan's dismissal by Lincoln a month later can hardly have come as a surprise. He had declined to renew the battle on Sept. 18, despite his superior numbers, or to mount a very vigorous pursuit when Lee finally did withdraw the Army of Northern Virginia. But the US Army did take casualties on that pursuit -- about 150 when they ran up against A.P. Hill's division across the Potomac. That was a tiny number compared to the dead and wounded at Antietam, but McClellan hated to take unnecessary losses. His men appreciated that, and fought well for him and their country.
Lincoln had ample reason to fire him. McClellan had gotten way over his head in politics, personally insulted the president, relied on bad Pinkerton intelligence to consistently overestimate Confederate numbers, and was no match for Lee as a battlefield tactician. McClellan probably recognized that last point, which reinforced his caution. When Lincoln did replace him with Ambrose Burnside, the result was fruitless and costly defeat at Fredericksburg. Burnside's replacement, Joe Hooker, did little better the next spring at Chancellorsville. And when George Meade's Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, like McClellan's at South Mountain and Antietam, defeated the invading Army of Northern Virginia, he too was criticized by Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for failing to pursue and destroy it.
It would take Grant a year of high-casualty campaigning to capture the Army of Northern Virginia, when the Confederacy was much weaker (partly due to Grant's western campaigns) than it was in 1862. Neutralizing Lee's army was easier demanded -- by civilians -- than done.
Still, Lincoln was a great war president, especially compared to his Confederate counterpart.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hunt Steps Up

Henry Jackson Hunt turned 43 years old on Sept. 14, 1862, and was promoted brigadier general of volunteers the next day. On today's date in 1862, the recently appointed artillery chief of the Army of the Potomac was preparing for the Battle of Antietam. His report pays tribute to another underappreciated Union general, Alfred Pleasonton.
Hunt had already played a key role in the defensive victory of Malvern Hill, and would do the same the next year at Gettysburg, where his horse was shot under him. That was the peak of his career, although Grant, unlike Hooker in 1863, appreciated Hunt's worth and kept him in place as artillery chief in the Overland campaign, and then in charge of siege operations at Petersburg.
Hunt's unbroken Army service continued after the war, winding up in charge of the Soldiers' Home in Washington, where he is buried

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Crampton's Gap

27-year-old Colonel Joseph Bartlett planned and led the successful assault on Crampton's Gap, part of the Battle of South Mountain, 156 years ago tomorrow. (The photo shows him after a promotion to brigadier general.) 
Bartlett was serving in the division of Henry Slocum, with whom he'd joined up in 1861 in the 27th New York Infantry Regiment, out of Elmira. They were supported by the Vermont Brigade, part of Baldy Smith's division, which like Slocum's in VI Corps, commanded by overcautious Major General William Franklin. 
The Crampton's Gap victory was not enough to save Harpers Ferry from Stonewall Jackson, but it did enable George McClellan to get to Antietam and face off his army against Robert E. Lee's.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Battle of Cheat Mountain

This week is the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Cheat Mountain in what is today West Virginia. The site is about 25 miles south of the Rich Mountain area , where McClellan's and Rosecrans' troops had waged a successful summer campaign.  That led to McClellan taking over the entire US Army, while Rosecrans was left in command of western Virginia. His subordinate Brig. Gen. Joseph Reynolds (not be confused with John Reynolds, who was killed at Gettysburg) had responsibility for the Cheat Mountain area, with Col. Nathan Kimball in command of the fort at the summit.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave Robert E. Lee his first field command with the idea of undoing the Union successes. Over several days of skirmishing with forces led by Reynolds and Kimball, Lee failed to accomplish anything.
These were hardly battles when compared to later engagements such as Antietam a year later, when Kimball's brigade suffered over 600 casualties at the Sunken Road, or Chickamauga in September 1863, where Reynolds' 4th Division in XIV Corps was heavily engaged.
Lee was sent to work on Confederate coastal defenses through the fall, winter and spring. He did not take command of the Army of Northern Virginia until June 1, 1862.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Straight Out of Brooklyn

Major-General Henry Slocum occupies one of the less prominent plinths at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, although his substantial specific service to that city (as it then was) dates from after the Civil War. He was originally from upstate Delphi, near Syracuse.
Slocum's wartime service was in the east through Gettysburg. He later occupied Atlanta for William Tecumseh Sherman, celebrating his 37th birthday there on September 24, 1864. Slocum headed one wing of Sherman's army marching though Georgia and the Carolinas, and did most of its battle command in 1865.

A passenger steamboat was built in Brooklyn in 1891 and named after the general, who died in 1894. It caught fire and sank in New York's East River in 1904, with terrible loss of life. That event keeps coming up in the thoughts and words of Dubliners on "Bloomsday" -- in James Joyce's novel Ulysses.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Adams Threatens Britain With War (updated)

On this date in 1863, Charles Francis Adams, minister to the United Kingdom, wrote as follows to the British foreign secretary, Earl Russell, about the apparently imminent release of two ironclad warships from a British shipyard to the Confederate navy: "It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war!"
The next day, Russell told Adams the rams would not be delivered to the Confederates. They were ultimately purchased by the British navy.
This marked the denouement of a two-and-a-half-year pas de deux between Russell and Adams, in which the plans of the Liberal British government, whose leading figures were the famous statesmen Palmerston, Russell and Gladstone, to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy were derailed by US foreign policy along with military success at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Charles Francis Adams was himself the son and grandson of presidents, and father of a great writer who witnessed and wrote about the affair. (While Henry Adams is not portrayed in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant, he is referred to unsympathetically by a vivid minor character. Update Sept. 8: And the account of Grant in the autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams was an unfair distortion.)
The sympathies of many Britons can be deduced from the above cartoon in Punch, by the Alice in Wonderland illustrator John Tenniel. While Americans might have seen Lincoln and Czar Alexander II as liberators, respectively, of slaves and serfs, Punch shows them as oppressors of Southern and Polish rebels. The Russian government, unlike the British and French, was friendly toward the Lincoln administration. So, to be fair, were many Britons.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Lincoln at the Confederate High Point (updated)

One hundred and fifty-six years ago, in late August and early September 1862, the Confederate cause was at its high tide. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had won the second battle of Manassas or Bull Run, and was preparing to cross the Potomac and invade Maryland. The two-pronged Confederate invasion of Kentucky was proceeding well, with Edmund Kirby Smith's army winning the Battle of Richmond. 
George McClellan's Union army had been compelled to withdraw from the Virginia Peninsula, and its commander was detested as a near traitor by many of the leading representatives of the ruling Republican Party. Yet Lincoln now decided, on today's date in 1862, to restore him to the most crucial post in the Army, defending against Lee's advance, despite the personal humiliations McClellan had inflicted on the president and his now obvious failings as a military commander. (Two of Lincoln's most important Cabinet members, Edwin Stanton and Salmon Chase, opposed the decision.)
Events would prove Lincoln right. McClellan, though a Democrat, was no traitor, knew the Army well and was trusted by the troops. His tactical and battle-fighting deficiencies would continue to be on display in the coming weeks, but so would his sound strategic sense. The campaign would culminate in the Battle of Antietam, a tactical draw but strategic victory which saved the Union -- and enabled Lincoln to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation, much detested by McClellan, and later in the year to dismiss the general. 
Unfortunately, Lincoln replaced McClellan with the less competent Ambrose Burnside, showing his education as a war president was from complete. But unlike Jefferson Davis, he still had the ability to learn from his mistakes.

Update: On the same date, Sept. 2, 1862, Lincoln jotted down a Meditation on the Divine Will, which would bear fruit two-and-a-half years later in the greatest speech in American history.

NPR Adds Editor's Note to Juneteenth Story

 NPR National Correspondent John Burnett this morning added an editor's note to his June 20 story about General Gordon Granger and June...