Archive for May, 2017

“a drink out of his enormous flask…”

May 14, 2017

I’ve been away a while. I’ve sort of been digesting the publication of Volume 3, and all the work entailed in the entire Chickamauga Campaign Trilogy over the past three years.

But historical stuff still catches my eye:

Whitaker, Miller Photo History

Back in 2010 I posted about Union Brigadier General Walter Whitaker, speculating on whether or not he was drunk on Horseshoe Ridge, September 20, 1863.

At the time I concluded that I didn’t find the accusation credible, but I did note that there were other such accusations. One such charge was lodged against the Kentuckian at in the Battle of Lookout Mountain, November 24, 1863.

In that engagement, Whitaker’s brigade supported Brigadier General John W. Geary’s division of the Union 12th Corps. Geary’s men swept the western and northern faces of the mountain clear of Mississippians belonging to Edward C. Walthall’s brigade, charged with defending Lookout’s lower plateau. Near the end of that fight, as Geary’s division bogged down near the Cravens House, Whitaker’s regiments charged through Geary’s line – mainly through the New Yorkers of Col. David Ireland’s brigade – to outflank a newly arrived brigade of Alabamians.

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The Cravens House

One of those New Yorkers was Lt. Albert R. Greene of the 78th New York, Aide-de-Camp to Col. Ireland at the time.

In 1890, Greene delivered an oration before the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society, describing the Battle of Lookout Mountain. His essential point was the Ireland’s men did all the fighting, barely mentioning even his comrades in the other two brigades of Geary’s division. As for “Whitaker,” said Greene, he “was drunk; not fighting drunk, but complacently so.” Far from charging through Ireland’s line to engage the Alabamians at the Cravens House, Greene merely stated that “Whitaker . . . had gotten onto the plateau somehow.” There Greene found them “on the plateau, with stacked arms, the men resting. I tried to explain our urgent needs, and implored him to lend us a single regiment. He replied that his troops had carried the mountain, and had gone into camp, and that the battle was over. I hastened to report to Ireland, who went to Whitaker, begging aid. But all the aid that Whitaker would render was to offer a drink out of an enormous flask that he had slung to him. The two had a very sharp quarrel; but the tipsy brigadier persisted that the battle was over . . .”

Greene went on to insist that Ireland’s men never saw any relief, that no other troops supported them during the battle, and further, that Ireland had no idea that there were even any troops deployed to support them.

All in all, curious charges.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of their commander’s degree of inebriation, the historical record is pretty clear that Whitaker’s men were engaged at the Cravens House. They certainly suffered losses in about equal proportion: Geary reported 138 casualties out of about 2400 engaged; while Whitaker’s 6 regiments lost 82 men out of roughly 1450 engaged. (Even Geary’s own reported noted 52.) The regimental reports clearly reflect a spirited fight. Several regimental accounts mention Whitaker being in the thick of that action.

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It is impossible to square Greene’s account with the Official Records or the histories of those regiments who participated in the fight. It’s true that neither Geary nor Ireland give Whitaker much mention in their own reports, but some of Ireland’s regiments do a better job of describing Whitaker’s involvement, and the regimental reports from Whitaker’s brigade offer considerable detail as well.

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And herein lies the trouble with Greene’s anecdote, as colorful as it is. Greene is clearly mistaken on virtually every detail of what happened at the Cravens house. He reserved full and complete credit for all the fighting to Ireland’s men, ignoring almost every other Federal on the mountain. His account is easily refuted by copious evidence to the  contrary. And if he is so wrong about all those details, why should we assume he is spot on with regards to Whitaker’s drunkenness? Especially since it is not supported by any other account?

Now I suspect that Whitaker had a reputation for being a man who liked his bourbon – he was a Kentuckian after all. But so did many other officers; It was an era when drinking was much more acceptable – as long as you did not appear incapacitated.

It is interesting to note that in his modern work on the 6th Kentucky Infantry, the regiment Whitaker commanded before stepping up to a brigade, historian Joseph Reinhart found no accounts of Whitaker being intoxicated.

So what prompted Greene’s claims? Well, there was the matter of two Confederate cannon captured at the Cravens House, first by Ireland’s men, and then by two regiments of Whitaker’s line. Cannons were always trophies, and time and again, we see post-battle disputes arising between rival claimants. Then there is the matter of Easterners Vs. Westerners; Geary’s 12 Corps men came west to “save” the defeated Army of the Cumberland troops, who later strongly insisted that they did not need any “saving.” Rivalries can be persistent.

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The Trophies

So once again I am left with the same conclusion: I really don’t know if Whitaker was too drunk to command his men effectively on November 24, 1863; but I don’t feel Greene’s account accurately describes what happened at the Cravens House either.

Such are the small mysteries and loose threads of history’s tapestry.