Archive for July, 2014

Franz Sigel goes to New Market.

July 31, 2014

And now for something completely different…

Franz Sigel

It’s time to talk about Franz Sigel.

“What!” you exclaim? “Why on earth do we want to talk about Franz Sigel?”
Two reasons. One, he was the Union commander at the Battle of New Market, which I – being a graduate of VMI, have a vested interest in. After all, I escaped the “I” on numerous weekends over the years to do living history at New Market, so I do have a soft spot for the place. The second reason is a little more convoluted. John C. Breckinridge, who commanded a division at Chickamauga, commanded the whole Confederate army (which was only slightly larger than his old division) in the Shenandoah Valley that May 15th, 1864. I am interested in the subsequent careers of all the men who survived that bloodletting.

One of my side projects for the past couple of years has been a book on New Market. Yes, I know that Charles Knight came out with an excellent book on the battle just a few years ago. Charles’s work expanded the point of view to include a broader perspective than just the VMI Cadet’s role in this battle, and he succeeded – his book is well worth reading.

But, I feel that Franz Sigel gets short shrift. Maybe not as short a shrift as the diminutive German received at the hands of William C. Davis, in that historian’s own fine study of the same battle, now several decades old; but short shrift none-the-less.

Sigel tends to be universally dismissed as an idiot. And let’s face it, after years of studying Braxton Bragg, I know what that sort of dismissal looks like. My gut warned me to reject the notion: too pat, too easy, too dismissive. There is more at work here.

So I started to read the primary sources. Some very interesting things struck me. First and foremost, Ulysses S. Grant’s hand in this campaign is quite evident, and not for the better. Sigel was chosen for command of the Department of West Virginia without Grant’s input, and the new general-in-chief was none too happy about that. So Grant meddled. Initially, he approved a two-pronged scheme of maneuver, with General George Crook moving down the valley from the southern end, and Sigel marching up the valley from the northern end. Then Grant changed his mind, sending a Union officer named Edward O. C. Ord to West Virginia with orders to effectively replace Sigel, adding a third maneuver column from Beverly, and relegating Sigel to admin and supply duties.

This might not have been so bad had Ord been capable. Instead, Ord was a schemer, a careerist, and a moral coward. Ord hated the idea of having to serve under Sigel, and more importantly, once Ord got a look at the troops he was to command, he realized how unprepared for operations they actually were. Within a few days, Ord fled the department and begged Grant to be relieved, fearing that he might get stuck with the responsibility (and the blame) if things went wrong.

Grant, having already disrupted Sigel’s plans once, now did so again. He acquiesced to Ord’s request. This left Sigel in the lurch. Troops gathered at Beverly now marched back from whence they came, though awful weather, wasting weeks of important time that could have been spent in badly needed training.

And that was just the first of the multiple rugs pulled out from under the feet of Franz Sigel.

Missing Pieces

July 10, 2014

Even after all this time and effort, there are at least three organizations involved with the Chickamauga campaign which remain almost entirely unknown quantities. My files contain glimpses of these commands, but only that – glimpses. They are shadows, acting off-stage, or in the wings. We never get to see them center stage.
All three of them have to do with reconnaissance. Two of them are Confederate formations, one is Federal. All of them almost certainly played a role in the campaign between September 8th, when Bragg departed Chattanooga, and September 18th, when the battle actually began.

The first of these is the informal scout detachment drawn from John T. Wilder’s Lightning Brigade. By 1863, virtually every Union brigade and division had a mounted scout detachment, drawn from the command at large. Evidence of those Union scout detachments appears from time to time in the Official Records, usually garnering only a passing mention.
Wilder’s scouts had a more important role than most, given the parent brigade’s direct attachment to Army HQ, and the sorts of independent missions Wilder was usually selected to undertake. Unfortunately, despite the great amount of information we have on Wilder, there is almost nothing on the scouts. Even Richard Baumgartner’s outstanding “Blue Lightning” tome has no details.

The second group belongs to Joe Wheeler’s cavalry corps. Wheeler had an “elite battalion” drawn from his corps, a special detachment he used for scouting and important missions behind enemy lines. Where they spies? Commandos? Deep cover operatives? We don’t know. Given how badly Wheeler failed in intelligence gathering throughout the campaign, I tend to think they weren’t really tasked with scouting – I suspect they were more like Forrest’s escort company, a formation Wheeler kept close and used as his personal combat force, but that is only a guess.

The third group, also Confederate, is potentially the most interesting to me, because I know the least about it. In August 1863, in addition to calling out the Georgia State Line, the State of Georgia mobilized several home-guard cavalry regiments and battalions. The unit formed in Walker County was the 6th Georgia Cavalry Battalion, Georgia State Guard. The first five companies of this battalion were raised in Walker County. Company E, also known as the Pond Springs Cavalry, were local men right in McLemore’s Cove.

This battalion has no presence in the published official Records. You can find a few traces of it in the Georgia state records, but no hint as to what they did, how many men were activated, or where they went.
Today, if you go to the Cove Methodist Church and walk in the little cemetery there, in addition to the Widow Eliza Glenn’s grave, you will see a half-dozen or so men of the 6th Battalion buried here.

I wish I knew more about them.

Maybe someday.

Grant and Thomas

July 4, 2014
from Horace Porter's "Campaigning with Grant"

from Horace Porter’s “Campaigning with Grant”

On October 23rd, a very weary Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Chattanooga. He rode to the headquarters of Major General George Thomas, newly promoted to command the Army of the Cumberland, and replacing William S. Rosecrans. Thomas, who had turned down command of this very army a little over twelve months previously, accepted his new assignment without protest. He understood that the Federal government would not let Rosecrans remain in charge, and also that they would brook no additional recalcitrance on Thomas’s part.

Grant, who was still injured from a fall, had to be helped from his horse and brought inside. He was wet, muddy, and tired from the difficult ride over Walden’s Ridge, the only way into the beseiged city of Chattanooga.

The conventional story has it that Thomas was cold, aloof, and even rude to Grant. I have half a dozen biographies of Grant, including both the much cherished Bruce Catton works and my favorite recent biography of the man, by Brooks Simpson. They all pretty much relfect this same narrative.

As noted in the picture, only a few men were present for this seminal meeting, and fewer still left us a detailed discription of the incident.

The most influential of those descriptions comes to us from James Harrison Wilson, one of Grant’s staffers, a brash young Colonel who in later years would have his own reasons to dislike Grant. Perhaps because of this subsequent animosity, historians tend to take Wilson’s words at face value. In any case, it is Wilson’s account that leaves us with the impression that Thomas received Grant so poorly.

Horace Porter’s “Campaigning With Grant” contains the other significant account. In reading it, I am struck by the fact that Porter did not seem to sense anything like the same tension or animosity between the two men, though he does provide many of the same details (wet uniform, puddle under the chair, Grant warming himself by the fire, etc.) Wilson offers.

Charles A. Dana, in what is an otherwise detail-rich memoir – see, for example, his description of Rosecrans’s council of war on the night of September 19, 1863 – merely describes Grant’s arrival in four words: “wet, dirty, and well.”

I have no reason to doubt that there was friction between Grant and Thomas, but I find myself questioning Wilson’s underlying assumptions anyway. Brain Steel Wills, in his first-rate biography of the latter (“George Henry Thomas; As True as Steel”) has a detailed discussion of this meeting, and provides an interesting observation. The fault might well lie more with the two staffs than with the two generals. Thomas’s military family might have resented Grant, coming in as the new man, to tell them how to wage war in Chattanooga – though again, Porter’s memoir fails to convey any such resentment, and he was on Thomas’s staff at the time. Equally, Grant’s staff was famously protective of their boss, especially John Rawlins – even to the point of jealousy towards other officers.

George Henry Thomas was a famously taciturn man, a reputation guarded by his wife even after his death, when she destroyed his letters and papers. As a result, we will likely never know exactly what Thomas was thinking as Grant drew rein on Walnut and Fourth Streets, Chattanooga Tennessee on the night of October 23rd. But for history’s sake, I wish more than just one account serves as the basis for this oft-described tension between the two men.

Excerpt: Bragg vs. The newspaperman…

July 1, 2014

The decision to evacuate Chattanooga was a very difficult one for General Braxton Bragg – it signaled defeat, and he knew it, however much he might try to put a good face on things. Just before he left, however, he had an interesting encounter. I wish I had been in the room that day…


This is a description of that meeting, taken from Chapter Four of “A Mad Irregular Battle” 

“Bragg left the city on September 8, but not without one last confrontation. Back in July, when he first arrived in the city, Bragg established his headquarters at the Brabson House, a two storey brick mansion on East Fifth Street. On September 7th, the widow Brabson held a farewell tea for the departing general, whom she knew well; Bragg had headquartered there in 1862 as well. That party must have been a gloomy affair, and sparsely attended. Civilians had been leaving for days, with all the trains south to Atlanta crowded with refugees and their valuables.

            One man who hadn’t yet left town was Henry Watterson, the brash young editor of the Chattanooga Daily Rebel. Bragg had been much critiqued by southern newspapers since Perryville, none more vociferously hostile than Watterson’s Rebel. Worse yet, Watterson often published important details of troop strengths, movements, and intentions, all of which Bragg was sure Rosecrans was reading with great interest. For a time that summer, Bragg banned the paper from being sold in military camps. This was a financial disaster for Watterson, who was selling 10,000 copies a day with the army in town, and he appealed the decision. Watterson claimed to have been a Confederate soldier, serving under Leonidas Polk and Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the war he would boast of being a staff officer under Polk, of service with Forrest in 1862, and of being Joseph Johnston’s ‘Chief of Scouts’ in 1864. In fact, he was probably an imposter, since no Confederate records show him as serving.  Physically he was poorly suited for army life, weighing in at a slight eighty pounds and troubled with poor eyesight.

            He was also an unusual sort of fire-breathing Rebel. Son of a Tennessee Congressman, he spent much of his life in the north;  was schooled in Washington, D.C., lived in New York City, and stood on the inaugural platform with Abe Lincoln in 1861. He initially “believed that secession was treason'” when he returned to Tennessee in 1861. He would eventually adopt the southern side of the conflict as his own.

            He was a gifted writer and journalist, who, by the age of 22, had worked for major eastern papers. He made contacts easily, which provided him with sources inside the army. That inside information, presented with verbal flair and acid wit in the columns of the Daily Rebel made the paper immensely popular with the troops. Faced with Bragg’s ban, Watterson approached Colonel Alexander McKinstry, who was positively disposed towards Watterson because of his claimed service with Forrest, and who was now heading up Bragg’s Bureau of Intelligence. They struck a deal. Watterson agreed to let McKinstry approve what he printed, and further allowed McKinstry to use the paper to plant whatever false rumors Bragg wanted, in exchange for permission to keep printing. This arrangement apparently satisfied the irascible army commander, for the Rebel remained in circulation.

            That afternoon, Watterson appeared at the Widow Brabson’s, brash as ever. The latest retreat and the panic infecting Chattanooga were fuel for the young incendiary. He commented loudly on “Bragg’s almost supernatural ineptitude.” Bragg, of course, was in the room. Watterson, never having met him personally, didn’t recognize the general. They met now. Bragg confronted Watterson, and the two exchanged “pointed words.” Abashed, Watterson soon made himself scarce. Shortly thereafter Bragg left for La Fayette.”


Watterson and the Daily Rebel would set up shop again in Atlanta.