Archive for May, 2010

A Lost Confederate: Marcus J. Wright

May 22, 2010

Some careers are less glamorous than others.

Marcus J. Wright was one whom fame largely overlooked. He commanded a brigade in only two battles with the army of Tennessee, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. In each case, he was placed in a difficult situation largely by circumstances outside his control. He did not do poorly, but neither did he win plaudits.

The 30 year old Wright entered the war as Lieutenant Colonel of the 154th (Senior) Tennessee infantry – a pre-war militia unit that kept its old number, along with the “Senior” appellation to reinforce the militia connection, to distinguish it from mere wartime volunteers. The 154 was from Memphis and West Tennessee; Wright himself was from Purdy, just a few miles from what would become the field at Shiloh.

In fact, he led the 154th at Shiloh, assuming command after brigade commander Bushrod Johnson was wounded and Colonel Preston Smith stepped up to that command. On Sunday April 6th Wright was hit in the knee by a spent ball, taking a minor if painful wound, but nevertheless kept the field through the end of the two day battle. He earned considerable praise from superiors for his conduct during the fight.

That summer, as Confederate regiments re-organized for the duration of the war, many units also voted in new slates of officers. Wright apparently was not voted back; instead he took a job as Assistant Adjutant General under Major General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham in July, 1862. He would serve on Cheatham’s staff until November, fighting at Perryville on October 8th.

In November, as the Army of Tennessee fetched up at Murfreesboro, Wright was promoted to full colonel and sent to McMinnville, Tennessee – there to take charge of the post and the camp of instruction. He’d been post commander once before, at Columbus Kentucky, between January and March of 1862. At McMinnville his duties were administrative. He missed the battle of Murfreesboro in the meantime.

Wright had hopes for both additional promotions and a return to field command. He had a powerful patron in the form of Tennessee’s wartime Governor, Isham G. Harris, who embarked on an ambitious letter writing campaign on behalf of the young colonel. Harris promised Wright that the War Department in Richmond would be besieged on Wright’s behalf, writing letters under his own name and for Frank Cheatham to sign, urging Wright’s promotion. The effort was successful: Wright was appointed Brigadier in January, to date from December 13, 1862, confirmed by the Confederate Congress on April 22nd.

In January Wright returned to the Army of Tennessee, newly decorated with General’s braid, and eager for command. For two weeks he led the fabled Orphan Brigade, until the powers that be decided that a native Kentuckian should actually be given that job, for obvious political and morale reasons. Brigadier General Benjamin H. Helm replaced Wright on January 29th.

In the meantime, Brigadier General Samuel S. Donelson had taken ill, so ill that he would die later that spring, and the vacancy his incapacitation created seemed ideal for Wright. Donelson had commanded a Tennessee brigade in Cheatham’s Division. Wright took command on February 7th.
The brigade objected. Several officers expected that Colonel John Savage of the 8th Tennessee would get the job instead, and Wright’s arrival was a most unwelcome surprise. To make matters worse, Savage already viewed Wright as something of a political rival during their ante-bellum years, and now saw Wright’s promotion as an attack on himself. Eventually, Savage resigned in angry protest, and would harbor a grudge against Wright for many years.

Wright commanded the brigade through the summer of 1863, participating in the Tullahoma campaign, but seeing no action. He led his command into the attack at Chickamauga on September 19th. Overmatched and outflanked, Wright fell back just as Clayton’s Brigade was coming up. The tactical problems on the 19th were no fault of Wright’s; All five brigades in Cheatham’s division were poorly placed and suffered similar reverses. On September 20th, Wright’s men participated in the final successful attack on Kelly Field at the close of the battle.

If the brigade’s officers were critical of their new brigadier, that criticism was muted. One did note that he sent three different couriers to find Wright during the climax of the engagement on the 19th to no avail, but Wright earned neither censure nor special praise for his conduct on the field.

Two months later, Wright commanded the brigade at the battle of Chattanooga. His brigade had been detached, defending Cleveland, Tennessee, when Bragg hastily transferred it back to Missionary Ridge on November 24th to oppose Sherman’s crossing of the Tennessee River. On the afternoon of the 24th, Wright was given the impossible task of marching down the south Chickamauga Creek to the river bank in order to prevent Sherman – with three divisions already across – from effecting a lodgment on the south bank of the Tennessee.

Near dark, Wright’s men stumbled into Federals, and after some skirmishing, soon withdrew to a nearby hill. That night, they retreated further, to a position east of Missionary Ridge to guard Bragg’s northern flank. They were not further engaged. At 2:00 a.m. on the 25th, however, Marcus Wright turned command over to Colonel Anderson of the 8th Tennessee – Wright reported that he was sick with a “severe chill.” Historian Peter Cozzens has suggested that Wright lost his nerve.

If in fact Wright was showing the white feather, no official censure seems to have come from it. However, Chattanooga would be his last time in command of a brigade. In March, 1864, Wright was ordered to Atlanta, to take command of that post. He would spend the rest of the war in various administrative commands. His brigade was commanded by John C. Carter until it was broken up later in the fall of 64. Carter himself died at Franklin, one of the six Confederate Generals who lost their lives there.

One interesting facet of Wright’s career is that by the spring of 64, he was a confidante of Bragg’s, who wrote him several intimate letters expressing the ex-army commander’s dissatisfaction and vituperation with senior officers – especially Frank Cheatham. Wright owed his promotion to Harris’ and Cheatham’s influence, and could be expected to be loyal to them, not Bragg. Did Cheatham know of Wright’s relationship with Bragg? Did relations cool between Marcus Wright and Frank Cheatham as a result? There is little evidence either way, but Wright’s continued allegiance to Bragg could not have helped.

After the war, Wright returned to Memphis and practiced law, until he won a plum appointment: In 1878 he was made the official Confederate agent for collection of records to be included in the publication of the massive Official Records of the Civil War.” He did so assiduously for the next 39 years, until he retired in 1917. His role in collecting these records gave him unique access to the story of the war. He greatly influenced the history of the conflict not only by his work with the official records, but also by writing for other publications as well.

Still, Wright has left few footprints in the history of the war. He has no biography, for instance, and in most accounts he merits only a few words. A large number of questions about his relationships with subordinates and superiors remain.

I found two books to be especially helpful in providing some clues to Wright’s career:

Sam Davis Elliott, Isham G. Harris Of Tennessee, 2010

Christopher Losson, Tennessee’s Forgotten Warriors: Frank Cheatham and his Confederate Division, 1989.

The merry month of May

May 16, 2010

I have been doing some traveling again, and a good trip it was. I got to meet old friends, make some new ones, do a little research, and talk ACW.

Last Wednesday, March 12th, I traveled to Columbus, Ohio (very near the birthplace of William Starke Rosecrans) to talk to the Central Ohio CWRT. Check out their new website, by the way, here…

I spoke on Bragg and Rosecrans, contrasting their command styles and performances. Several members of the Round Table are regular attendees – hardy, if somewhat waterlogged souls – of our annual March “Seminar in the Woods” trips to Chickamauga.

I drove, as I usually do, since that gives me so much more flexibility to do research or just play tourist. On this trip, I stopped at the Indiana Historical society to look for material on Tupelo and Tullahoma, as well as spend some time determining the titles of Civil War Era newspapers held by the Indiana State Library. All in all, success on all fronts.

I arrived in Columbus around 3:30 p.m., and Mike Peters chauffered me from there. We visited a great bookstore – always a treat for me – had dinner, and then on to the meeting. A few of the Ohio lads like to tip a few, so we had a beer and some good conversation afterwords.

The next morning I did my usual dawn patrol, leaving early to drive to Tennessee. On the way, I spent Thursday afternoon doing some field work exploring sites for the Tullahoma Campaign. I visited Hoover’s and Liberty Gaps, Belle Buckle, Watrace, and Fairfield (such as it is.) In recent years, a number of markers have been placed in the area identifying aspects of the campaign, but the area is still largely unmarked. The most priminent site is literally right off Interstate 24 at exit 97, where one can find the Beech Grove Confederate Cemetery, and also a number of markers and monuments to the fighting at Hoover’s Gap.

Then it was on to Chattanooga. I checked into the Read House on Thursday night and then had dinner with fellow members of the Western Theater Civil War Historians group, who were holding their annual conference this year at UT Chattanooga.

I look forward to this group’s annual meetings. Here’s a link to their website.

Please note that while the site is badly in need of updating, it does offer up some background on who the group is, philosophy, etc. Just as importantly, this year’s meeting found a new volunteer to upgrade the site, and we can expect more current information and content to appear shortly. I urge interested folks to keep it marked for future reference.

Attendees included a number of noted historians. Pictures speak louder than words, so I will let this link tell the story:

Friday was a day of discussion. The morning session focused on Unionism in the Confederacy, which proved fascinating. There was general agreement that dissent in the Confederate states ranged from ferver for the old flag to something more akin to draft dodging. No single definition fit, and the subject would benefit from some detailed regional studies defining different degrees of dissent.

After lunch we discussed how the West’s geography effected the war in that region, which quickly led to a lot of talk of logistics, and ended up with a dissection of Jeff Davis’s difficulties as War President.

The final session of the day was an overview of current literature, including the state of scholarship in the Western theater, and what everyone was working on. With so many distinguished scholars in the room, it’s clear that some very interesting work is likely forthcoming in the next couple of years.

For me, a non-academic historian of the war, participation in this group is invaluable, as well as great fun. Discussion helps me to hone my focus and broaden my own work, gaining some professional insights into the work of ACW history that I am otherwise struggling to find. I am very pleased that it is open to individual, non-academic scholars as well.

On Saturday, we went for a tour of Sherman’s fighting at Chattanooga on November 25th, 1863. It was led by Jim Ogden, park historian, who as anyone who comes in March knows, is supurb on a battlefield tour, bringing clarity without sacrificing detail.

On Saturday afternoon I left for home, my brief ACW interlude over. Until next time, that is…

One Man’s Obsession

May 1, 2010

I thought I would take a look at the sources I have assembled over the years. Frankly, I’m a bit shocked at how much stuff I’ve accumulated. Just the photocopied stuff alone runs to 35 binders and 9 linear feet of shelf space.

first, I’d like to note the increasing number of materials that I can find online. In addition to hundreds of public domain published items like memoirs and regimental histories, I have stumbled on at least 40 collections of previously unpublished stuff that has found its way to the web, usually through genealogy sites or the like – and not counting manuscript repositories. I’m confident that this total will only grow in the future. This is easily the coolest part of the web, for me…

I have something like 858 other manuscript collections from repositories, gathered laboriously over the years.

Another great source are period newspapers. I have letters from 150 different titles, and I know that many more are out there to find.
Adding in veterans publications (National Tribune, Confederate Veteran, and the like) gives us another 327 post-war accounts.

To that I must add roughly another 140 items collected from genealogy newsletters and the like. The Allen County Indiana Public library was invaluable here. They have an amazingly complete collection of such periodicals, from the lowliest xeroxed or mimeographed newsletter to full runs of state and local historical periodicals.

Then there are the published materials, including regimental histories and personal memoirs. My last count noted about 330 of these.

Of course, there are overlaps, duplications, and the like – but working down that list, I estimate that ! have between 1,700 and 1,800 different primary source descriptions of the battle and the campaign. Some are good, some bad, some wildly improbable: but each a different voice coming to life. I value all of them.

And note – I haven’t even mentioned the OR. I guess I better add several hundred more names to the list.

I’m not trying to bragg here (well, maybe a little – oh, and sorry for the pun.) Instead I decided to take stock of all these accounts to try and see what percentage of the participants I can say I have heard from. The accepted figure for the men engaged is 130,000, but counting the unengaged troops, the detailed men, civilians, etc – I’d have to say that a closer count might be 160,000. I have 2,000 accounts, give or take. Suddenly that doesn’t seem like such a large number.

Of course, by historical standards, it is a massive body of material – and it should be, since it took a large chunk of my 49 years to accumulate. I’d hate to think I wasted that time. But still, there are an awful lot of participants who will never be heard from.

And we know there are more. Archibald Gracie corresponded with and solicited accounts from many veterans, for his book “The Truth About Chickamauga.” He only quoted from and used a fraction of what he had, and he planned a second volume focusing on the Confederate side of the story that never got written. George Dolton, as I mentioned in the last post, also collected obsessively. Dolton was from Illinois, lived in St. Louis after the war, and the family eventually ended up in California. Along the way, George’s collection seems to have vanished.

I wonder what these people could add to the story?

Maybe I will find out – because I am always looking for more accounts. If anyone finds a trunk full of old letters labeled “Gracie” or “Dolton” you’ll call me, won’t you?