“Fix bayonets on your cannon!”

What?

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.

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2 Responses to ““Fix bayonets on your cannon!””

  1. Scott Says:

    Great post Dave. I wonder if Whitaker received a little “treatment” at the aid station in the form of the most common remedy of the day – whiskey. Perhaps he had a drink but was not drunk. It seems the more I learn about the fighting on Horseshoe Ridge the more confusing it becomes!

  2. Dave Powell Says:

    Scott,

    The casual use of alcohol on battlefields is well documented, I think – the modern standard of “drunk” and the period standard are quite different. A medicinal or fortifying ‘nip’ seemed quite acceptable to the men of the time. Showing the effects – slurring, staggering, disorientation, and the like – earned reproof.

    A modern parallel might be our society’s evolving attitude towards drunk driving. Thirty or forty years ago, we were much more dismissive of the act. It was often dealt with by a nudge and a wink than with arrest or prosecution. Not anymore.

    Dave

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