Archive for December, 2015

More Angry Generals

December 26, 2015

d h Hill 2

Daniel Harvey Hill did not shine at Chickamauga. To many students of the Civil War, Hill is famous for three things: South Mountain, annoying Robert E. Lee, and authoring a marvelously unreconstructed mathematics textbook after the war. Some think that D. H. Hill received short shrift from Lee, and that Daniel Harvey might have made a better corps commander than either Richard Ewell or Ambrose Powell Hill (D. H.’s cousin) had D. H. been  promoted instead of banished from the Army of Northern Virginia.

I am less sanguine about that. . .

From Glory or the Grave:

                Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill was not having one of his better days. While his men were turning George Thomas’s flank, Hill was focused on a different conflict, locked in a battle of wills with almost every other commander in the Confederate Right Wing. At the moment his primary adversary seemed to be Maj. Gen. William H. T. “Shotpouch” Walker.

What followed could have been a farce written by Gilbert and Sullivan if it were not for the soldiers’ lives being thrown away in the meanwhile. “General Hill informed me . . . that he wanted a brigade,” Walker reported. This should not have been a problem: “I told him that there was one immediately behind him.” In response, Hill “remarked that he wanted Gist’s brigade.” Walker explained that Gist’s men were at the rear of his column, just catching up, and would take the longest to go into action. No matter, Hill was adamant. Gist was present for this exchange, having just reported to Walker and been informed that he was going to command Ector and Wilson as well as his own formation. The South Carolinian was flattered, noting that Hill insisted on “Gist . . . saying he had heard of that brigade.”

walker 2 001                                                                           Leonidas Polk

Throughout this exchange Polk remained mute. Not so the irascible Walker, who was growing increasingly irate and not shy about expressing that anger. Various subordinates and staff officers watched in alarm. Walker’s other divisional commander, St John Liddell, was also present and no doubt recalled Walker’s similar diatribe against General Polk on September 13th.  Walker, noted Liddell, “severely criticized and loudly found fault with the propriety of Hill’s plans . . .” Eventually, they hammered out an arrangement of sorts: Colquitt would go in to support Breckinridge’s attack, coming up on what was thought to be Breckinridge’s left rear, in place of Helm. Gist would move Ector and Wilson up to support Colquitt.

This was the Army of Tennessee at its worst. Walker wanted to concentrate his command and use it en masse¸ while Hill and Polk seemed intent on trickling troops into the fight one brigade at a time. Hill was also being mulishly obdurate. Despite being granted almost complete control of the whole attack by Polk, Hill would later complain bitterly about how the assault was conducted, almost as if he were a spectator rather than the tactical commander. In  his report Hill ranted at how useless the whole fight had been, railing at “the faultiness of our plan of attack,” and waxed hyperbolic when he complained that “never in the history of war had an attack been made in a single line without reserves or a supporting force;” all the more unfortunate because it was against a fortified enemy.

Two decades later, writing for Century Magazine, Hill still described the attack as a “desperate, forlorn hope.” Here he further lamented about faulty reconnaissance, suggesting that if only time had been taken to better understand the Union position, the morning’s bloody frontal assaults need not have been conducted. Of course, it was Hill who made that reconnaissance, Hill who determined the alignment of his two divisions, Hill who failed to grasp the extent of Breckinridge’s success, Hill who could have called on Walker’s entire corps as support, and Hill who initially refused most of that corps when it was offered to him.

Few if any officers in military annals have ever complained about receiving too many reinforcements!


Update on the Study Group

December 8, 2015

Eufala battleline

Currently, reservations for the study group are at 14 – plus three for cadre (Jim Ogden and myself, basically) and the park. This is a fine start, about equal to last year, and we had a pretty full bus last March.

So to make sure you have a seat, please reserve your space now!

Brown's ferry map

Last year, we had such a strong response that we were able to donate $900 to the Civil War Trust, which went towards land acquisition at Brown’s Ferry and around Dalton Georgia. (see map, above – we contributed to that yellow patch.) Even better,  we did so at about a 4 to 1 match.

Here’s the link to the details

Angry Generals

December 6, 2015

I time for a short excerpt:


The Chickamauga Campaign cover low res

Early on the morning of Sunday September 20, somewhere near smoldering remains of the Alexander cabin, Captain J. Frank Wheless found himself caught in the middle of what would be one of the most significant controversies of the war: The three-way train wreck of miscommunication between Confederate Generals Braxton Bragg, Leonidas Polk, and Daniel Harvey Hill.


Frank Wheless was a 24-year old from Clarksville, a combat veteran of the 1st Tennessee Infantry, now serving on Polk’s staff. When at dawn, Polk awoke and waited for the expected roar of D. H. Hill’s attack, he was greeted only by silence. Discovering that the previous night’s orders were never delivered, Polk immediately dispatched Wheless with replacement instructions.


Wheless soon found Hill, in company with both divisional commanders Patrick Cleburne and John C. Breckinridge. Wheless attempted to deliver his orders (made out to Cleburne and Breckinridge, because Polk thought Hill was missing.) Hill intercepted them. The captain would get no satisfaction from Hill, only an argument that an immediate attack was impossible now, the men had to eat.

The frustrated staffer rode away. He soon met his boss, Polk, along the Alexander Bridge Road.

[the following is excerpted from Glory or the Grave,]


            “Wheless dutifully explained his discussion with Hill, doing little to hide his irritation with the North Carolinian. “General,” he burst out, “you notice General Hill says it will be an hour or so before he is ready to make the attack. I am confident that it will be more than two hours before he is ready.” This statement was recorded in an official declaration Wheless drafted just ten days after the battle. Polk “asked, with surprise, why I thought so. I answered, ‘General Hill seems to me perfectly indifferent.’ General Polk responded quickly and with decision. ‘Well, Sir. Well Sir. I must go and see to this myself.’” After Polk dictated a quick note to Bragg outlining Hill’s reasons for delay, the Bishop ordered Wheless to stay put, establishing Right Wing headquarters on the spot, and rode off to find Hill.”


“Not fifteen minutes later, Bragg rode up and demanded Polk’s whereabouts. Wheless explained all that had passed, outlining the previous night’s confusion. He also emphasized Hill’s delays, eager to deflect Bragg’s obvious anger away from Polk and toward Hill. Bragg wasn’t swayed. When Wheless repeated his story of the two-hour delay to the army commander, Bragg sarcastically inquired “how [Wheless] expected General Hill to make the attack before he received orders to do so.” Flustered, Wheless only made things worse by pointing out that when he (Wheless) left Bragg the night before he was under the impression that Bragg had going to issue orders to Hill in person, outlining the plans for the 20th. Polk’s orders, averred the captain, were only confirming instructions that were supposed to have been already given “so that there could not possibly be any mistake.”

“Wheless’s not-quite-so-subtle effort to shift blame away from the bishop and this time onto Bragg himself only deepened the army commander’s anger toward Polk and, by extension, Wheless. Sensing his blunder, Polk’s staff officer quickly changed tack, steering matters back to the subject of Hill’s recalcitrance. Here he stumbled again, however, by adding in the detail of Cleburne’s remark about the Federals felling trees. “‘Well sir, is this not another important reason why the attack should be made at once?’” snapped the incensed army commander. Wheless agreed;  but, he rejoined, “‘it did not seem to impress General Hill in that way.’”

“Without another word Bragg rode on to find Polk and/or Hill, leaving the discomfited Wheless in his wake. By 7:30 a.m., the Confederate right was buzzing with angry generals, each surrounded by a sub-swarm of agitated staff officers. Despite the hive of activity and authority no attack was forthcoming.”


Wheless would later write out a sworn statement supporting his boss, Polk, as part of the defense Polk assembled for what all expected would be the court-martial of the century, at least as far as the Army of Tennessee was concerned. Polk, of course, never sat before such a court – President Davis talked Bragg out of holding a public spectacle and instead arranged for Polk to be transferred to Mississippi.

When I first wrote this passage, I wondered what was going through Wheless’s mind as he found himself in the middle of the maelstrom. His loyalty to Polk is obvious in his statement, as his his animosity towards Hill; but was he cowed by Bragg’s obvious short-tempered displeasure?

Apparently not. Instead, after Polk’s departure, Bragg offered Wheless a job on his own staff, as an assistant inspector-general. He was sent to Giffin, Georgia. In February, 1864, Frank Wheless resigned his commission, claiming disability for further field service, and instead entered the Confederate Navy as a paymaster, serving in North Carolina. Near the end of the war Wheless was transferred again, to the James River Squadron, where he was re-united with Bragg – once again, Bragg offered him an army commission as a Lieutenant Colonel, IG Branch.

Wheless refused that commission. The end of the war was apparent, and he saw no point in changing services a second time. At the end, Wheless helped evacuate the Confederate Treasury from Richmond, accompanying it, along with Davis and the rest of the fleeing Confederate Government, as far as Abbeville South Carolina. There he helped disburse the last of the funds to Davis’s cavalry escort, and having done all he could, left the service of the rapidly disintegrating Confederacy.

Frank Wheless died on August  10, 1891, at the age of only 52.

And I still wonder how often, in later years, his thoughts went back to that critical morning, when for a little while, the fate of the Confederacy seemed to be in his hands.