A Council of War

It’s one of the most famous scenes of the battle.

Night on September 19th. The fighting has ended for the day, and William S. Rosecrans summons his commanders for a conference to assess the day’s performance. What follows has been described many times: a dozen generals gathered in close quarters at the Widow Glenn’s, each corps commander summarizing their command’s action and losses, discussion of the next day’s fight, and then orders are issued.

George H. Thomas dozes in a chair, periodically awaking only to repeatedly state: “I would strengthen the left” whereupon, each time, Rosecrans says, “yes, but where will we take them from?” The meeting closes with coffee, bacon, hardtack and a mournful dirge sung by McCook – “The Hebrew Maiden’s Lament.” Was Thomas really that passive? Rosecrans that plaintively passive? Did McCook really sing? These actions seem odd from senior commanders in an army fighting for its very survival.

Anyone who reads more than a single book on the Army of the Cumberland and the battle of Chickamauga will soon be struck by how similar the various descriptions scan. Over the 4th of July weekend, I have been re-reading all the accounts of that meeting I can find, and that similarity struck home with more than usual force.

The reason is obvious, with a little cross-referencing. There is really only one published account that offers any detail – that from the “pen” of Charles Dana, in his “Personal Recollections of the Civil War.” For example, the details on Thomas and McCook’s entertainment come solely from him. Or, more accurately, they stem from the able pen of Miss Ida M. Tarbell, who in fact wrote the memoirs from a series of interviews she conducted with Dana in the 1890s. This is not to say that Dana’s memoir is not generally reliable – it is, according to Historian Paul M. Angle, who wrote a preface explaining the origin of the memoir for a 1963 edition of the work – but that according to Angle, but not every detail should be considered irrefutable.

Dana was not a military man. Instead, he was a newspaper editor, working with Horace Greeley on the staff of the New York Tribune. Upon leaving that paper in 1862, Edwin M. Stanton offered him a job as an Assistant Secretary of War, to be the roving eyes-and-ears of the Secretary in the headquarters of distant commanders. After a stint with Grant at Vicksburg, September 1863 found him joining Rosecrans at Chattanooga.

Dana’s relationship with the generals he observed was complicated. He was, in effect, a spy, and all knew it. Grant’s staff, understanding the potential harm he could wreak, befriended Dana and won him over. Rosecrans and his people, however, proved less perceptive, and allowed their disdain for him to show. Dana reciprocated that chilly reception, and his dispatches ultimately went a long way towards derailing Rosecrans’ career.

Dana was in all likelihood present for that evening conference. He was an assistant Secretary of War with a direct line to Stanton and Lincoln and he was sent to the Army for the express purpose of observing Rosecrans. Dana sent eleven detailed reports of the unfolding battle from the field telegraph at Rosey’s headquarters direct to Washington on September 19th alone, offering us almost hourly updates revealing the extent of the Army high command’s perceptions of the day’s events.
Unfortunately, he did not offer up a similar cable describing the evening conference, so that we might have something to compare to his recollections 30 years later. Nor did any of the generals who participated leave us with an eyewitness account, either. There is one other partial record of the meeting, however, that compares to Dana’s in detail. Colonel Horace N. Fisher, serving on McCook’s staff, accompanied his chief to the meeting, to report on the readiness and strength of the Corps. In 1890, Fisher penned a memorandum describing that meeting. Fisher’s evidence isn’t any fresher than Dana’s, being written 27 years later, but at least he was an insider, not a resented outsider.

Both accounts (as well as the various summaries presented by others) agree on the basic outlines. First came reports on the status of the various commands, then a discussion on the situation and what they should do, and finally, Rosecrans’ orders, written out and then read aloud before all present, to make sure everyone understood the next day’s plan.

But Fisher has Thomas standing before a fire, not dozing in a chair, and offering up a cogent summary at the end of the discussion, not simply muttering repeatedly about ‘strengthening the left.’ Thomas urged a retreat to Rossville, where the army could make a stand against what where clearly heavy odds (all present understood that Bragg had been heavily reinforced by now.) Rosecrans queried Granger about the defensibility of Rossville Gap that night, which lends a great deal of credence to the idea, and Thomas did in fact fall back to Rossville on the night of the 20th, almost as if he planned to all along. This all suggests that Fisher’s account is the more accurate when it comes to George Thomas’ participation.

Moreover, while Dana has both the corps and divisional commanders being called to the conference, Fisher says that only the corps commanders were called. This makes more sense, given that Dana remembered only 10-12 people in the room. Had the divisional commanders attended, that would mean at least 19 generals present, plus some staff officers, far too many to be contained in the Widow Glenn Cabin. Rosecrans, Garfield, three corps commanders, and a few staff officers, however, gets us to Dana’s number fairly quickly.

Only two divisional commanders tried to visit HQ that night, according to their own accounts: Palmer and Sheridan. Palmer was turned away, more in keeping with Fisher’s version than Dana’s. Sheridan claims he attended, but the timeline he presents in his memoirs is not workable. Sheridan says that after he got his new orders and moved his division into place, he then visited the Departmental HQ, where he found “most of the superior officers of the army” gathered. He claims he listened to the ensuing discussion (and reported that the mood was one of ‘general depression’) and then returned to his command, uneasy about the next day.

How can this be? The discussion he claimed to witness happened before the new orders were issued, not after. If he waited until his division completed its movement back to the foothills of missionary Ridge, as he said, it would be nearly dawn by the time he could report to HQ and by then, all the officers he claimed to have met were gone – carrying out their own orders. They did not return to the army HQ afterwards. In short, Sheridan’s much quoted Memoir is not accurate. Crittenden and McCook did visit Sheridan’s HQ later that night, which might explain the Irishman’s ‘confusion’ but no matter what, Sheridan’s account does not square with the known facts. It cannot be regarded as trustworthy.

To a lesser extent, neither can Dana’s. Was Thomas really sleeping through the whole thing? That makes little sense, given how much Rosecrans was relying on Thomas’ judgment and decision-making by now. Yes, Thomas was tired, having gotten no sleep the night before. That condition, however, applied to everyone in the room, not just the burly Virginian.
And yet, Dana’s account drives every modern historical description of the moment, with the notable exception of Glenn Robertson’s work. Unfortunately, Fisher’s account was never published, though it can be found in the files of the National Military Park. It deserves wider attention, since it makes much more sense than Dana’s odd version of the night’s events.

What other widely accepted scenes of the battle might be worth a closer look? I suspect a great many…

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24 Responses to “A Council of War”

  1. Don Monroe Says:

    Candidate for closer examination: The Texas Brigade, fresh from eastern battle fronts, flying back and forth across the Viniard Field on the first day, and accomplishing very little, except getting a lot of men killed and wounded on both sides.

  2. Sam berenguer Says:

    Do you still give any tours for large groups?

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Sam,

      Yes, I do, depending on the timing. I live in Chicago, so pre-arrangements are critical.

      Dave

  3. James F. Epperson Says:

    Something I have learned is to be skeptical of accounts written long after the events, even as I acknowledge the policeman’s adage that no two eyewitness accounts will be the same.

    • Dave Powell Says:

      The amount of time after the event is certainly one factor, but there are plenty of others. More than one OR report springs to mind. I’ve learned that each source, no matter how widely accepted, should be approached skeptically. What surprises me about this meeting is how few folks actually described it, given how controversial Chickamauga became. I mean the commanding General, two corps commanders and a divisional commander lost their jobs over it.

      Makes me wonder how many surviving accounts of Meade’s conference at Gettysburg survive, and how accurate that story is…

      • Chris Evans Says:

        Reminds me of Sheridan apparently not even being in the room at Appomattox during the surrender instead napping under a tree according to his interview in ‘Generals in Bronze’. But he is always in the paintings of the event.

        I believe that book also has more accounts of Meade’s council of war meeting at Gettysburg.

        Really interesting that history can be so malleable as different accounts come to light.

        Chris

  4. Chris Evans Says:

    Excellent post.

    Another candidate mentioned a bit in a older post: Exactly how much havoc did William Oates manage to cause over the two day period of the battle?

    Chris

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Chris,

      I probably should do something on “the wandering Oates.” He’s pretty disruptive.

  5. Oldcat Says:

    Another interesting thing about the Thomas scene is that in a simlar meeting during the Battle of Murfreesboro his actions are described almost exactly the same. He nods during the meeting, saying little, stirring at the end to say “This Army doesn’t retreat”, saving the day.

    So either Thomas spent all his meetings dozing and thinking up a short pithy sayings to cap it off, or the real story is being embroidered a bit.

  6. Dave Powell Says:

    I was curious about that earlier meeting as well. There are at least a couple more accounts of that council extant, including ones from Crittenden, Rosecrans (I think) and at least one staff officer.

    I think the story of Thomas dozing during the council is overdone, and stems from one of T. J. Wood’s staff officers. Another version has Thomas dozing after Rosecrans goes out to check on some campfires which the Federals mistake for enemy positions, and re-awakening after Rosecrans returns to utter his famous statement, or some facsimile thereof.

    There is a lot of fanciful stuff about George Thomas that makes him sound like the wise man of the mountains, or like Yoda in Blue. He utters simple but profound statements that everyone immediately sees the logic of, thereby ending all discussion. There’s a lot of eyewash there, obscuring the real George Thomas.

  7. Chris Evans Says:

    Is there still evidence that McCook sang at the end of the meeting or is that considered legend too?

    Chris

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Chris, the only source for McCook’s singing seems to be Dana’s account, though he he calls the song “The Hebrew Maiden.” Cozzens cites “The Hebrew Maiden’s Lament” and supplies the lyrics to that song, because (I think) he could not (nor could I) turn up a song just titled “the Hebrew Maiden” But there is only the one account. No one else mentions McCook’s crooning.

  8. Ned Baldwin Says:

    Excellent post. I wish there was more of this kind of evaluation of anecdotes.

  9. Jamie Gillum Says:

    Great information!

  10. Don Hallstrom Says:

    General Comment

    Hello
    I enjoy you blog and look forward to reading your book on Chickamauga. I’ve heard some rumors about new books on the battle of Chickamauga being written. Are you planning to write a campaing study? Or have you heard of anyone else working on a campaign study? Don

    • Chris Evans Says:

      I’ve heard that William Glenn Robertson was writing what would would be the most important book ever published on Chickamauga. I sure wish it would see the light of day soon.
      Chris

  11. zoak Says:

    You do great work. I believe you are what a historian should be.

    Perhaps you can settle if Bragg’s strategy was good and Polk was negligent, or did Bragg ask the impossible and then blame his subordinates.

    You can pick which day 18, 19 or any day of the two weeks preceding the major battle.

  12. Dave Powell Says:

    Glenn Robertson is reportedly actually writing his long awaited history of the battle. You can gain a sense of what he will say simply by reading the five issues of Blue & Gray Magazine that cover the campaign, which offer up a remarkably detailed analysis for the format.

    Glenn has apparently had this book under contract for decades, and for some years I thought he would never get around to writing it. His day job for Combat Studies eats up an enormous amount of time, especially what with two wars being waged, and it must be hard to come home and start writing anew. The magazine series, for one, seems to have refocused him, however.

    I would love to see a full-fledged study from Glenn. I don’t believe that there can only be “one book” on Chickamauga; plenty of room for multiple volumes, and interest begets interest.

  13. Chris Evans Says:

    Dave,
    Just wanted to let you know about the casting of George Thomas in the series ‘To Appomattox’ apparently the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga will be covered in one episode: http://toappomattox.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/racing-analyst-jeff-hammond-slated-for-role/

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Chris,

      Interesting. Who will be Rosecrans, I wonder…

      • Nathan Towne Says:

        This was a very interesting post. You should write more posts covering subjects like this. I cannot remember (and I am not home and don’t have them on hand)but I am assuming that neither Richard Johnson nor John Palmer make any mention of having attended the meeting that night in their post-war recollections. Of course, Dana’s account is already made suspect by reading Official Reports which at the divisional level make no mention of having attended the council.

        Nathan Towne

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