Archive for April, 2010

“Fix bayonets on your cannon!”

April 25, 2010


That is an order which Artillery Sergeant George Dolton claimed Union Brigadier General Walter Whitaker issued to his battery on September 20th, 1863. You see, Whitaker was drunk, at least according to Dalton, and that order – as well as Whitaker’s reeling in the saddle – was proof of the general’s intoxication

I first read this in Peter Cozzens’ book, which is where I suspect most people encounter it. Dalton made this claim in a private letter to Major Arnold McMahan of the 21st Ohio, written in February 1890. McMahan spent many post-war years trying to discover how and why his regiment got left behind on Horseshoe Ridge that Sunday evening, and blamed a series of superior officers. Whitaker was one of those in McMahan’s crosshairs.

For several years I accepted this comment at face value – as did Cozzens, obviously. But is it really accurate?

Whitaker led his First Brigade of Steedman’s Division of the Reserve Corps into action on Horseshoe Ridge at about 2:00 p.m. on September 20th. During their initial charge, just as Whitaker crested the ridge, he was hit in the gut by a Rebel bullet. Captain Moe of Steedman’s staff witnessed the event, and described Whitaker as being “lifted out of the saddle” by the strike. Sure he had suffered a fatal belly wound, Whitaker was unwinding his sash to examine the damage and simultaneously composing suitable last words, noted Moe, when both men saw the spent bullet drop to the ground. Whitaker was severely bruised, but not likely to die. It problably did make sitting a horse very uncomfortable, however, which might explain Dolton’s “reeling” comment.

Whitaker then rode off to find a surgeon, finding an aid post near the Snodgrass House. He would return to the fight later in the day, and that was when Dolton claimed to encounter him.

Historians like corroboration. Unfortunately for Dalton’s accusation, there isn’t really much other evidence of Whitaker’s intoxication. In fact, Whitaker was singled out for distinction by Gordon Granger, his corps commander, in the army reports.

Moe, of course, witnessed the bullet strike. Captain I. B. Webster of the 10th Kentucky Infantry reported seeing Whitaker arrive at the aid station seeking treatment. Webster’s description can be found in the National Tribune of July 2nd, 1891. Neither man mentions Whitaker being drunk – in fact. they speak highly of him. Whitaker was prominent later in the fight, trying to rally Federal units as they fell back; Captain William Boyd of the 84th Indiana describes an encounter with the general at about 5:00 p.m. in which Whitaker ordered Boyd to rally his regiment. Boyd’s memoir is among the more candid – even sarcastic – recollections of the fight, and he overlooked few chances to take a verbal swipe at a superior. He does not do so at Whitaker’s expense, however.

Dolton is an interesting character in his own right. After the war he became a bit obsessed with researching Horseshoe Ridge. He was a surveyor, and at one point he surveyed the Ridge over a period of several weeks. One of his maps appears in an issue of Confederate Veteran, while more appear in the lesser-known American Tribune (a rival veterans’ newspaper to the National Tribune.) He collected a great deal of primary source material on the battle, which, sadly, has not yet been discovered.

However, he also left a series of letters home, which the family retains, and which were published in 2003 as “The Path of Patriotism.” From these writings, we get a much clearer sense of George E. Dolton. A good soldier, contientious, and definitely down on drunkeness. He often criticised his messmates for their indulgence.

Interestingly enough, he does not mention Whitaker at all in his contemporary recounting of the battle, though he does cover the fight in some detail. This is not so surprising. Dolton belonged to the Second Brigade, while Whitaker commanded the First, and Dolton’s commander was Colonel John G. Mitchell. Moreover, Dolton’s battery was posted at the far end of the Union line, as far away from Whitaker’s forces as possible. It would have been unlikely for Whitaker to spend much time that far west.

There is no question that Whitaker was not above taking a drink, of course. Charles Dana reported him to Washington a few weeks later for being drunk at Brown’s Ferry. alas, this is not a first-hand account from Dana – Dana was not present at the time – but it is suggestive.

Cozzens repeats the accusations against Whitaker in his book on Chattanooga – “The Shipwreck Of Their Hopes” – describing the Kentuckian as ‘very drunk’ during the fighting on Lookout Mountain, but frankly, the evidence he uses there is even thinner than Dolton’s.

As for Horseshoe Ridge, I don’t really buy Dolton’s tale. The real moral of the story might be to beware using sensationalistic accusations made long after the fact without some supporting evidence – which is good advice for any historian, I think.

A couple of details…

April 18, 2010

Savas-Beatie has asked me to post a link to the book trailer they did for The Maps Of Chickamauga. I’m happy to do it. I find these trailers interesting, even though I rarely watch videos or the usual goofy stuff you find on youtube.

Here is the link:

I’m curious to know what folks think about them – do they help you in buying decisions?

I tend to buy everything, so while I like watching them, I can’t really say they give me purchasing guidance.:)

Seriously, I think they are way cool.

81st Indiana:
I got a chance to follow up with these guys at Indianapolis last week. I examined some letters from a couple of men in the unit at the Indiana Historical Society – no mention of the problems I described in my last post. Either the men were too embarrassed to talk about the controversy, or few in the ranks realized the extent of the problem.

Then I went to the Indiana state archives and pulled the regimental correspondence. This is an outstanding resource, and I suspect one of the more under-utilized. Every state has similar AG records, but organization varies from great to abysmal.

Indiana’s is first-rate. The regimental correspondence is on film, organized by unit, and then by date. I was able to track the entire affair via petitions and letters to the governer from the various factions. I’ve used these films in the past to similar good effect, including finding a bunch of Reports omitted from the OR but filed with the state.

In this case, things came to a head when Colonel Caldwell backed the appointment of two officers who shared his political views, and the rest of the officers objected. When the officers in question were appointed, then charges were leveled against Caldwell.

However, Caldwell prevailed. Apparently Jefferson C. Davis took a personal interest, given his similar anti-abolitionist views, triggering that mass of resignations at the end of April, 1863.

However, the whole mess was reviewed by the War Department, and ultimately by Lincoln, who dropped a bombshell on Colonel Caldwell by dismissing him from the service in July. The order of dismissal arrived on July 6th, and hit the regiment like a bombshell. Those few anti-Caldwell officers who did not resign were the ultimate winners, and they filled out the senior officer ranks with appointments in 1864.

I copied 40 pages of material out of the correspondence file, mostly petitions and letters to the governor. There is much grist here for an article. The 81st’s printeed regimental history is so sparse and circumspect that there is likely room for a decent book on the subject, as well.

Small mysteries: the 81st Indiana

April 4, 2010

In first reading Peter Cozzens’ work, This Terrible Sound, I was struck by the role the 81st Indiana played on September 19th, in Viniard Field. Brigadier General William Carlin assigned Major James E. Calloway of the 21st Illinois to command the regiment, just as the brigade was about to go into action. According to Cozzens, the regiment was unsteady, bereft of senior leadership, and possibly unreliable in combat. The 81st was detached from the brigade and moved to support the 2nd Minnesota Battery at the south end of Viniard Field, and fought there the rest of the day.

I found this truncated explanation a little unsatisfying. Why was the 81st having problems?

Looking at the OR, Carlin offered little more: “The incompetency displayed by Captain Boone (actually, Captain Nevil B. Boon of company E) early in the action induced me to supersede him.” Calloway was also no help, noting only that Carlin ordered him to take command of the 81st – no reason offered why.

Corporal George Morris, in his regimental history of the 81st, gives a more detailed explanation:
“At this junction the order was given to fall back and form in the rear of the battery. Owing to some misunderstanding, only part- of the regiment fell back, and some confusion was the consequence, but a line officer of General Davis’ staff soon had them to reform in about a hundred yards. The remainder of the regiment was then removed in good order. …Captain Boon was at this time in command of the regiment, and after the regiment was reformed he asked, to be relieved, and Major Calloway, of the Twenty-first Illinois, a brave and fearless officer, was placed in command.” (George W. Morris, Eighty First Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry 1861-1865 Louisville, 1901. p. 58.)

Boon resigned his commission on October 8th, 1863.

But that isn’t really the whole story. Boon was thrust into command quite hurriedly, in July or August, by dint of seniority. The 81st, you see, had troubles at the top. The Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, the Majors, the adjutant – all gone; resigned or removed. Not, apparently, for incompetence, but for political unreliability.

In April, 1863, Brigadier General Milo Hascall was sent from the Army of the Cumberland to assume command of the District of Indiana. One of Hascall’s jobs was to quell desertion in the Army of the Cumberland, on the rise since the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. As noted in the post about General Davis, not everyone in the army thought the Proclamation was a grand idea. Few officers, however, had the influential friends that Davis did.

Colonel William W. Caldwell was in command of the Regiment until July 6th, 1863. Caldwell, according to brigade commander Carlin, was a brave and effective officer. Carlin received the 81st in a trade for the 15th Wisconsin back in April. The swap allowed Hans Heg – a rising star in the army – to assume command of a brigade. It also, apparently, removed Caldwell from being in line to command that brigade. Heg was a staunch abolitionist; Caldwell was quite the opposite.

In the 81st Indiana’s roster, published by the Adjutant General of Indiana shortly after the war, Caldwell is noted as having been removed by order of the President for “disloyalty.” Carlin explained it this way: “He was accused by some of the officers of his regiment of making some remarks that were indicative of what was then known as ‘copperheadism’ and was dismissed for it. During this time, Hascall’s orders back in Indiana were shutting down eleven Indiana newspapers who “advised resistance to conscription” or “endeavored to bring the war policy of the Government into disrepute.”

There must have been quite a bit of trouble among the officers of the 81st, though Morris takes no note of it. Between April and July, a number of officers left the command. Lieutenant Colonel Horatio Woodbury resigned on April 30th. He was offered the Colonelcy on July the 7th, the day after Caldwell’s dismissal, but declined it. Major Leonidas Stout declined a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel at the same time. Stout had resigned on April 30th to take a position as Major in the 13th Cavalry. Captain Ranna Moore of company F was also offered the Colonelcy on July the 7th, he instead followed Major Stout into the 13th. Adjutant William H. Timberlake resigned for the good of the service on April 29th, 1863.

The political bloodbath clearly left the regiment in turmoil, and Captain Boon unready for the duties thrust upon him on September 19th, 1863. Calloway proved to be just what the men needed, and he would continue to command the regiment for some weeks. The 81st eventually presented him with a sword in March, 1864, for his steady leadership in Viniard Field. Eventually competent officer s emerged within Hoosier ranks, allowing Calloway to go back to his own regiment.

I intend to find out more about the unfortunate 81st and its troubled summer of 1863; many of the details remain unclear. It’s also a tribute to the men in the ranks that they fought well, both at Chickamauga and beyond, despite uncertain leadership. They re-enlisted, fought with Sherman, and mustered out in 1865.