While overall, Peter Cozzens’ This Terrible Sound is an excellent account of Chickamauga, one of tne of the things I don’t like about it is the author’s sometimes facile judgements of some of the participants. A case in point is Alexander McDowell McCook, and his departure from the field.
After the breakthrough at Brotherton Field and the rout of Davis & Sheridan, says Cozzens “the only life General McCook cared about at the moment was his own.” Cozzens quotes William P. Carlin, who in his own memoirs was quite critical of McCook, and Colonel John P. Sanderson, who reported an unidentified general as “running away…like a scared hare.” Sanderson, Cozzens surmises, could only be referring to McCook. Cozzens has McCook drawing his weapon on a civilian guide, threatening to “blow his head off” but fails to note the whole context of that scene. (See This Terrible Sound p. 391.)
McCook was granted a board of inquiry for his actions that day, and was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. It is hard to see why, if given only the evidence presented above. Of course, a number of officers testified at that hearing, and it was held in early 1864, only five months after the battle, not based on recollections from years after the fact (as was, for example, Carlin’s account.) Taken in full, a somewhat different picture emerges.
Alexander McCook was not a coward. Colonel Thruston once observed that he “was wholly without fear in battle.” He was not afraid of the front line, as he proved on several fields; He had a horse shot out from under him at Stones River. He lacked, however, that particular quality that Napoleon valued so highly in a solder: Luck. His corps was attacked and all but routed three times during the course of the war. At Perryville he fought alone, unsupported, while the bulk of the Federal army watched – largely because a trick of atmospherics hid the sound of the fight from his army commander. At Stones River, he was struck by the main weight of Braxton Bragg’s assault – exactly as Rosecrans intended to have happen – but the army was again slow to come to his aid. Now, his men were being swept from the field again.
Despite Carlin’s implication, McCook wasn’t fleeing. Instead, he was trying to arrest the panic that seemed to grip his troops. He deployed his cavalry escort as a picket line to stop straggling, and set his aides to trying to restore order. However, the scope of this new disaster mentally flummoxed McCook, a condition that would persist for several hours. A short while after that first meeting with Carlin, McCook returned, staff in tow, to tell Carlin that “we couldn’t do anything with our men.” For his part, Carlin re-iterated his idea of rallying on a distant ridge. Didn’t Carlin see “the rebel cavalry coming?” asked McCook. Carlin saw no Confederates at all. Again McCook rode away, leaving Carlin alone.
McCook was on his way to Chattanooga, though that was not his intended destination.
Unlike both Crittenden and Thomas, McCook was completely unfamiliar with the terrain he was now traversing. Both the XIV and XXI Corps had marched back and forth over the surrounding countryside for the past week; a fortnight in Crittenden’s case. Their maps were updated and their staffs familiar with the road net. McCook’s XX Corps, however, had just arrived on the scene, after their hard marching up from Alpine.
McCook’s first thought, like everyone else, was to join up with Thomas. After leaving Carlin, McCook apparently moved north, towards the Vittitoe House. He first found Jef. Davis, rallying a few stragglers, but with no idea where the rest of his division was to be found. Davis recalled that McCook “expressed fear of the enemy’s cavalry getting around in our rear,” an also noted that it was so far impossible to rally his division, and that he needed to fall back farther. McCook agreed and left Davis to his work. A few yards farther north McCook’s party met Captain Michael Sheridan, the general’s younger brother and aide, who informed him that Sheridan’s division was rallying off to the southwest, perhaps a mile and a half from Crawfish Springs. McCook left the younger Sheridan with orders for his brother to fall back on Rossville if he met up with the division first, and then set out in that direction himself.
Along the way, McCook met a number of staff officers from both Crittenden’s and Rosecrans’s headquarters. Determining the exact sequence of these chance encounters is impossible, but they all happened between 1 and 2:00 p.m., while McCook was seeking a path that would get him to Thomas. Among the first was with Brigadier General James St. Clair Morton. Morton was wounded in the arm, and in some pain, but asked to be placed temporarily in McCook’s service until he could re-connect with Rosecrans. Morton also remembered that McCook seemed “perfectly composed, and…deeply sensible to the reverse the army sustained.”
Colonel John Sanderson was also present when Morton and McCook met, though he did not join McCook’s party. Both groups met near a road jammed with stragglers and transport of all kinds; Sanderson and some other staff officers were engaged in trying to untangle that mess when McCook rode by, and Morton attached himself to the XX Corps’s headquarters group. Shortly thereafter rumor buzzed that Rosecrans was alive and not a prisoner; Sanderson and some others headed towards Rossville in order to find him.
Sanderson also noted one other person with Morton, and subsequently McCook: John McDonald, who had been pressed into Federal service as a guide. McDonald had lived in the area for seventeen years, and his very doorstep and yard were now littered with the casualties of John Beatty’s and John Breckinridge’s fight. McDonald had been with Rosecrans when the line broke, and stuck to Morton. Now his services were needed. McCook explained that they wanted to go to Thomas. Everyone understood that the direct route was impossible, and so McDonald would have to find a safer path.
What followed was a disaster, at least for McCook’s subsequent career and reputation. McDonald set off bearing southwest, and led the group on what ultimately proved to be a ten mile diversion. Captain Alexander McClurg noted that “when we were following the guide, he kept bearing toward the left.” The farther they rode, the more uneasy McCook became. “Several times the general expressed the opinion we were going too far to the left: two or three times he rode to the right himself, stopped, and listened to the artillery fire…” At one point McCook halted. “that was certainly General Thomas’ guns, and…we should keep more to the right, and not in the direction the guide was taking us.” McDonald insisted that his route “was the only feasible one.” By now, many of the group were growing suspicious of McDonald. McClurg quietly asked another officer “whether the guide was reliable…” Was he taking them into Rebel lines?
Once they crossed Missionary Ridge and debauched into Chattanooga Valley, Morton knew they had gone wildly astray. Here the wounded engineer applied himself with map and “prismatic compass,” trying to track the dust and smoke rising from the now distant battlefield. There was bad news, Morton concluded: “the whole army was in retreat for Chattanooga.”
McCook was furious, mostly at McDonald, who by now must have understood his own danger. “With his revolver almost under the man’s nose,” McCook raged, “‘If you guide us into Rebel lines I will blow your head off!'” Trooper Davis of the 15th Pennsylvania, who witnessed this scene, added that “the general [then] used some additional adjectives.” The damage was done, however; the whole group was by now miles away from where they intended to be. Riding north along the Chattanooga Valley Road, when they reached the intersection with the Rossville and Chattanooga road, they met Unionist Tennesseans from Brigadier General James Spears’ brigade. McCook was four miles beyond Rossville, and less than two miles from Chattanooga. Spears also informed McCook of Rosecrans’ presence in Chattanooga. With Chattanooga so close, McCook decided that they had best first ride into town and consult with Rosecrans before riding back to Rossville. It was about 4:00 p.m. when the XX Corps commander and his entourage drew rein in front of Rosecrans’ command post.
It is impossible, from this distance in time, to know whether John McDonald deliberately led McCook astray, or if he was simply overwhelmed and lost himself. If the latter, then once again bad luck plagued Alexander McDowell McCook. His absence during that critical Sunday afternoon was both noted and remarked on. The XX Corps was effectively decapitated at a stroke, and the leadership void would continue to be evident for the rest of the day.
The decision to go to Chattanooga first cost McCook command of the XX Corps, though it remains an open question whether or not he would have been relieved if he had gone to Rossville right away – he had left his command at a moment of crisis. What he should have done, of course, was collect up Davis, both of them find Sheridan, and take charge of what was left of the corps. At the very least, his presence was badly needed later that afternoon, when Sheridan, Davis, and Negley were at Rossville, all debating what they should do next, and all reaching different conclusions.