Angry Generals

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.

10 Responses to “Angry Generals”

  1. Ted Savas Says:

    I would imagine his mind drifted back to that time every day until he died.

  2. Dave Powell Says:

    Yes. William W. Carnes, who was acting as a staffer to Polk that day, seems to have done a lot of reflecting. His memoir paints a vivid scene of another argument – between Hill, Polk, and Walker this time – just a few hours after the encounter above.

  3. Andy Burden Says:

    Not sure where to send this question, so here might be as good a place as any (since both of you likely had something to do with this). Why the change in name of the first volume? It originally identified the second day as Sept. 19, but now says the the 19th was the first day. Considering Mr. Powell’s view that action near Ringgold (IIRC) on the 18th actually marked the beginning of the battle, the original title, while confusing for some, would seem to be accurate. Just curious.

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Andy, You are correct, in that I view Sept 20 as the third day of the battle. I went back and checked the Dust Jacket on Glory or the Grave and did not see that wording.

      Originally, we did have to edit some text to make it agree, and I wonder if something slipped through? Could you please point out where you saw “second day?” It might be right in front of my face, but I am not seeing it.

      Also, Amazon still has some old text in the description of Vol. II, suggesting that it covers from Sept 20 to 23rd – which is incorrect. I have been trying to figure out how to change that as well. Amazon can be … opaque – for me, anyway.

  4. Andy Burden Says:

    First, I love the work. Almost finished with vol. 1, and “Failure in the Saddle” was great as well (a perfect companion to the much larger study). Since not even Cozzens mustered up a weighty tome when tackling Stones River, maybe do that one next? [ducking] I doubt you’d recall it, but we met once and corresponded a few times via email and message boards. You told me there may actually be more primary sources for Stones River than Chickamauga (perhaps on a per capita basis, or even in absolute numbers?), for the simple fact that Stones River was the first battle of that level of ferocity for many of the participants, and so was particularly noteworthy to them.

    I think it is a simple mistake on Amazon’s part. “A Mad Irregular Battle” (to which I was referring) has “Through the Second Day” in its subtitle everywhere except the listing of the name of the book at the top of the kindle version page (and as near as I can tell, only the kindle version page). There it says “Through the First Day,” but that’s only in the heading of that particular page. If your system will let me, here is the link:

  5. Dave Powellve Powell Says:

    Yes, it is an issue with old marketing copy on Amazon. That was an error we caught when proofing the jacket, but the prelim cover never got changed, I think.

  6. Lee Elder Says:

    I’m not sure the fate of the Confederacy hung in the balance that morning (fate had already rendered a decision, I believe) but it must have seemed that the weight of the world was on Wheless’ shoulders on 9/20/63. Based upon the post (especially the segment from Glory or Grave) summarizing that confusing morning, it seems that Bragg must have appreciated Wheless’ report and that Bragg was predisposed to believe what Wheless told him. Braxton Bragg was not known as a Mr. Nice Guy type of commander, but his frequent interest in hiring Wheless in later years is enlightening. Bragg was angry that the morning attack had not been started by the troublesome pair of Hill and Polk and I suspect Wheless told Bragg what Bragg wanted to hear.

  7. Pat McCormick Says:

    Just read that chapter yesterday…am now up to Thomas’ reaction to Breckinridge’s attack. Great stuff!

    Andy: That’s what you get for going Kindle instead of buying a nice, big, fat ol’ hard bound copy! 😉

  8. John Foskett Says:

    Andy: Until Dave “succumbs” to this invitation, the best you can do is either Cozzens or Larry Daniel – unless Lanny Smith has any copies left of his two massive tactical studies from each side (which he published in limited numbers). Besides, we need Dave to chase down Resaca first. 🙂

  9. Andy Burden Says:

    I guess it’s safe to assume there are no copies of Smith’s books to be had. One volume is on Amazon for almost $400. Or I could travel to Cornell’s library. With a sleeping bag. I’d like to think I catch everything that comes out on Stones River, but…

    I can usually count on the MTSU library, but not for this one. They really need copies.

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