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Monday, July 10, 2017
History ...

In my last post, I outlined why I got interested in the American Civil War. Today, as something of a johnny-come-lately Civil War buff, let me start out by saying some things about July 3, 1863, the date that is famous in Civil War annals for the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Not many people are aware that there was also a third major military and political thing going on in the Civil War at that time. Too bad that it is overshadowed by Gettysburg and Vicksburg, because it is really very interesting, and is just as relevant to the ultimate course of the War as those events were.

Basically, I am talking about the Union campaigns in Eastern Tennessee and Northern Georgia, which stretched between June and November, 1863. Interestingly, the people of the Appalachian hill and mountain country in those states were generally pro-Union. They were clearly not slavery abolitionists, as they were just as racist as any plantation owner. But they couldn’t put big plantations in their narrow valleys, and thus didn’t depend on cotton, tobacco and slavery for their economic livelihood. They were small farmers and lumberers and miners who wanted access to the northern cities to sell their wares. So, a lot of people in those regions maintained their contacts with Washington after Tennessee joined the Confederacy, and they weren’t all that happy about being ruled by “the rebels”. They were anxious for Lincoln to send the Union army down to their region so as to get “Old Glory” flying over them again in lieu of the “Stars and Bars”.

However, through 1862 and early 1863, the Union army had a lot of other things to do. Finally, in mid-63, Lincoln and General Halleck decided to direct General William Rosencrans and his Army of the Cumberland towards middle Tennessee, with orders to push Braxton Bragg and his Confederate forces out of that state. Rosencrans took a long time to get started, but by June he was pushing Bragg’s troops southeastward out of Murfreesboro and towards Chattanooga. The Tullahoma campaign was concluded on July 3, and it was considered an initial success for the Union.

But there was still a lot more to come. After Vicksburg and Gettysburg, things quieted down in the Virginia and Mississippi “theaters”. But things were just warming up in eastern Tennessee. And a lot of interesting Civil War figures got involved and made (or lost) their names in Tennessee over the next few months.

Rosencrans was criticized for moving too slowly, but that criticism that applied to almost all of the major Union generals up to that point, especially to the insubordinate, semi-traitorous George McClellan. But unlike McClellan, once Rosencrans got going, he put up a good fight. By late August, he had his push against Bragg well underway, and by early September his forces had secured the major eastern Tennessee city of Chattanooga. At around the same time, General Ambrose Burnside was ordered to move his Corps southward from Kentucky (after a stint in Mississippi supporting Grant in Vicksburg) to take Knoxville, the major central Tennessee city. It’s surprised me that Burnside was still around! Recall that Lincoln placed Ambrose in charge of the Union Army after McClellan was fired, but Ambrose failed miserably against Lee at the Battle of Fredricksburg in late 1862.

Burnside was obviously not a brilliant general, but nevertheless he had some success in the Knoxville campaign. By the end of August 1863, Ambrose’s troops were in control of that city. By mid-September, things for the Union were looking up in Tennessee — they had Knoxville, and Rosencrans was in Chattanooga. Bragg was outside of Chattanooga across the Georgia border, but it didn’t seem likely that he had enough troops and supplies at that point to threaten Rosencrans. However, up in Virginia, Robert E. Lee was re-building his army after the licking they took at Gettysburg, and he figured that he could spare his second-in-command (James “Old Pete” Longstreet) and a few of his better-off divisions to Bragg for a few months. Lee obviously figured that he couldn’t do much in Virginia before the winter season set in (the Civil War was probably the last major American War that took the winter off), and the Union was too occupied down in Tennessee to bother him thru years end. So, as a gesture of comity to Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Cause, General Longstreet and his forces were sent south to help Bragg retake Chattanooga.

On September 18, Bragg headed north to re-claim Chattanooga, with Longstreet arriving and joining him on the next day. Rosencrans moved his troops out to meet the invaders, which set the stage for the great battle at Chickamauga. Chickamauga is perhaps the most under-appreciated battle of the Civil War. It was the second most costly battle in terms of casualties, eclipsed only by Gettysburg. Yet most people that I have rubbed elbows with, even those interested in the Civil War, know little or nothing about it.

In a nutshell, the Union suffered a loss at Chickamauga. Rosencrans lost his nerve and lost command during the ferocious Confederate assault, especially after a mistake on his part allowed the Confederates to break and overwhelm his line. Interestingly, Rosencrans was one of the few Union generals who was Roman Catholic. During Chickamauga, some of his troops saw him making the sign of the cross on his head and heart. They were mostly Baptists and other Protestants, and they weren’t familiar with Roman Catholic customs. But they knew that this wasn’t good.

Lincoln would replace Rosencrans a few days after Chickamaugua with none other than U.S. Grant, brought in from Mississippi. So Rosencrans lost his reputation at Chickamaugua; but another Union general made his name there. That was the under-rated George Thomas, a Virginian who stayed true to the Union cause (and was estranged by his family for that). Thomas held the center at Chickamauga, and stayed in the field fighting long after Rosencrans and his flanking troops had fled. Thomas’s troops held their ground long enough to allow the Union to make an orderly retreat back to Chattanooga. Thomas and his men then joined in the effort to secure Chattanooga against the upcoming siege by Bragg (and presumably Longstreet). Still, Thomas had earned a nickname, i.e. “the Rock of Chickamauga”.

Bragg’s forces soon took the two big mountains surrounding Chattanooga, setting up a strategic location for artillery fire. The Confederates had Chattanooga almost sealed off, and food supplies for the Union troops and city residents ran low. But two good things for the Union then happened. First, Grant arrived. Second, Bragg and Longstreet did not get along, and after Longstreet’s unsuccessful efforts to push Bragg aside, Jefferson Davis went along with Bragg (and Longstreet) in directing Longstreet to go off with his corps and threaten Knoxville to the west. Chattanooga was more important, but the theory here was that Longstreet could easily defeat the not-very-bright General Burnside at Knoxville, and thus require Grant to send troops from Chattanooga to rescue him. That would make it easier for Bragg to defeat the remaining Union troops defending Chattanooga.

But war, like most things in this world, is full of surprises. Burnside had a military engineer working for him named Orlando Poe, and Colonel Poe turned out to be very good. He anticipated the spot where Longstreet would most attack (Fort Sanders), and set up a number of innovative defense features to confound the attackers. Also, Burnside did something right by sending out an artillery force to meet Longstreet’s advance, which did surprisingly well in delaying the Confederates. So, the Union was pretty much ready for Longstreet when he arrived at Knoxville in late November. And it worked — Longstreet started a siege at the assumed weak point of Fort Sanders, and his troops were routed.

General Sherman had been sent from Mississippi to help Burnside, but by the time he arrived, Longstreet’s forces had retreated to the northeast, headed for winter camp. Still, Sherman’s move did not go to waste — Sherman learned of Poe’s engineering genius, and realized the he could make good use of such expertise in the destruction of the buildings, railroads and factories of Georgia. Poe would play an important role in Sherman’s 1864 “March to the Sea”.

As to Burnside — he was assigned to Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia in 1864. His awful reputation from Fredricksburg seemed redeemed somewhat by Knoxville, but Burnside was in for a second boondoggle under Grant. Ironically, this came because of his reliance once again upon an engineer’s seemingly good idea. That came during the semi-famous “Crater Incident” during the Union’s long siege of Petersburg. Pennsylvania mining engineers proposed tunneling under a Confederate fort and setting a bomb to explode under it; a contingent of Union troops would then storm through the breach and surprise the stunned Confederates, opening the way for a major move into the city.

Burnside had a division of black Union troops trained especially for this mission. However, in the final hours before the attack, Meade vetoed the use of black troops to lead the attack. Burnside then disheartedly selected a replacement division randomly (by straws), and happened to pick a regiment whose commander was drunk. So, the “Battle of the Crater” turned out to be a disaster for the Union, and Burnside was relieved of command and blamed for the loss by a military inquiry council. Years later, a Congressional inquiry exonerated Burnside and focused on Meade’s last minute revisions. I am left to wonder — was Meade to blame for having racist attitudes about the abilities of black soldiers, who Burnside seemed to have trusted; or was Meade trying to protect them from Burnside’s using them as cannon fodder?

Back to Grant at Chattanooga — in October and November, Grant managed to end Bragg’s siege and push him way back into Georgia, securing Chattanooga and eastern Tennessee as Union territory. Bragg’s ace cards at Chattanooga were his occupation of the two big hills, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Grant had to retake those hills, and he managed to do that within a few weeks. The first effort came at Lookout Mountain, and once again, we see a disgraced Union general from earlier in the war making a come-back effort. The Lookout Mountain assault was led by “Fighting Joe” Hooker, the over-confident braggart who fell apart and was badly beaten by Lee and the Confederates in 1862 at Chancellorsville. Again, it’s surprising that he was still allowed any sort of fighting command by Grant and Halleck. But old Fighting Joe showed that he still had some fight left in him, and successfully took Lookout Mountain on November 24.

A few days later, General Grant started an attack on Missionary Ridge. He gave the main assignments to General Sherman, and General Thomas’s forces were to play second fiddle. As per Grant’s direction, Thomas had ordered his troops to begin by taking the gun-pits at the bottom of the mountain. He told them to get the Rebels out of there, and then stop for the day. It would be a start. Well, the Union troops under Thomas, many who were with him at Chickamaugua, managed to take the gun pits, but then they did not like the fact that they were being shot at from the Confederate guns further up the mountain. So, they decided to disregard Thomas’ orders and climb the mountain. This goes 180 degrees against established military doctrine — i.e., an infantry march up a hill into an elevated artillery stronghold is usually a suicide mission. That was pretty much what General Pickett and his comrades were doing at Gettysburg, with such bad results.

And yet, Thomas’s troops got up the mountain and defeated the Confederate guns at the top. Supposedly, they chanted “Chickamaugua” as they approached the Rebel lines. Grant and Thomas were watching from the bottom of the mountain, and Grant asked Thomas as to who ordered them to charge the hill. Thomas supposedly said “don’t know”. Grant was angered by their disregard of orders, but once they succeeded, his anger dissipated. I think this is a great story, almost as important as Pickett’s charge; but it is mostly forgotten except for some Civil War scholars and history buffs. After all the embarrassing defeats that the Rebels had put the Union armies through since First Manassas in 1861, the Union was finally getting its fighting mojo.

In a few more days, Grant’s forces pushed Bragg and his troops back into the Georgia hills, and the winter lull set in. Bragg was replaced by General Joseph Johnston, despite Jefferson Davis’ dislike of Johnston. Johnston would get a few good battles in against Sherman in 1864, but couldn’t do much to stop the damn Yankees from taking Atlanta and going forward with their destructive march into the Carolinas. As to Longstreet, he re-joined Lee for the big Overland Campaign battles of 1864. At Knoxville, Longstreet had been given his first big chance to lead an army on his own, but his performance came up wanting. So he went back to doing what he did best, i.e. supporting Lee — recall that Lee called Longstreet “my old war horse“.

“Old Pete” Longstreet is perhaps my favorite Confederate figure. Again, he served very well in the many battles led by Robert E. Lee, and generally worked in synch with him. One instance when that was not true was at Gettysburg — Longstreet told Lee that he didn’t like the idea of charging Cemetery Ridge. Lee told him to do it. Longstreet nodded, as he wasn’t going to countermand an order from Bobby Lee. And Lee had the guts to go up to the survivors afterward and say “it’s all my fault”.

For me, Longstreet’s most interesting life adventures came after the war. He had a good relationship with Grant, who came through in obtaining a post-war pardon for Longstreet from Congress after President Johnson refused. Longstreet had set up shop in New Orleans, and became a Federal customs agent. He had joined the Republican Party and converted to the Roman Catholic faith — both were not terribly popular in the South. The loyal Southerners branded him a traitor, despite all the battles that he won for the Confederacy and the bullet injury he sustained at the Battle of the Wilderness.

Longstreet later served the re-united Union as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, U.S. Commissioner of Railroads, and US Marshal for Northern Georgia. His first wife died when he was 67, and he soon re-married a woman 33 years younger then him. Although Longstreet died in 1904, his young wife Helen lived until 1962 — that is, she lived to see IBM computers, H-bombs, Interstate freeways filled with Chevys and Fords, men in space, and rockets to the moon! And yes, she saw the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Helen continued to defend Longstreet’s legacy against the many “lost cause” sympathizers who attacked him (e.g., ex-Confederate General Jubal Early, who exonerated Robert E. Lee for losing Gettysburg, blaming Longstreet for allegedly failing to follow an attack order on July 2, the day before Pickett’s charge — a claim which is otherwise not supported).

Well, the story of the Civil War in eastern Tennessee and Georgia in late 1863 is a long one, and unfortunately not a popularly remembered one. And that’s too bad, because these battles were pivotal for the eventual victory of the Union, just as much so as Vicksburg and Gettysburg. And at the same time, many interesting Civil War figures were involved. So I’m taking a few moments this July to re-tell this not very popular story to whoever might come across my little (and likewise not very popular) corner of the digital world. And to remember and honor those who suffered and died because of the horrors of war, in Tennessee and everywhere else.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:43 pm      

  1. Jim, Well, I know for sure there’s nothing I can add to your excellent history of the more “obscure” (right word?) battles of the Civil War.

    I have difficulty reading about the Civil War. I’ve tried to watch Ken Burns’ series of the Civil War and had to stop somewhere into the late part of the beginning of the series, if “late part of the beginning” makes any sense; I just got very upset. I’ve also tried to watch the PBS series recently called “Mercy Street” about a Virginia mansion that was turned into a hospital, treating both the northern and southern military. I had to stop after watching one program, skipping a couple, and then trying again; in the end I had to stop for the same reason I stopped the Ken Burns’ series.

    I have the same reaction with trying to read about the “Trail of Tears”; I had to stop early in the book.

    The total disrespect for life, people getting killed, people treated literally like cannon fodder; just can’t read about it.

    I’ve read that more people were killed in the Civil War than in any other war; I’m not sure I remember that correctly. But that’s the bottom line for me, what keeps me from any interest in war battles.

    Thus, I think you’ve done a good job of the history of what happened, but I really find it difficult to comment otherwise on it.

    I might say this, which is totally unrelated to anything “Civil War”: Every 4th of July I find myself wondering just how Native Americans experience that day. I’m reading a book by Sherman Alexie, a Native American (he calls himself an “Indian”); he has an interesting (to me) comment on Native Americans and the United States. He finds himself in the position of an immigrant when it comes to the U.S., which is an odd, but oh, so right description of the position of Native Americans; they are immigrants to the land they owned before Whites moved in.

    While I am proud to be an American, would not want to live anywhere else in the word, in some kind of strange contradiction, I find myself on the 4th of July always somewhat sad at the brazen hubris of peoples over the thousands of years as they moved from place to place, summarily just pushing out (read “killing”) others who lived where someone else decides to move.

    I admire your study and knowledge of the Civil War as it was probably necessary to get rid of slavery. I might add, as it comes to mind here, that in 1945 I lived in Texas, where some 80 years later it was obvious to us “Yankees” (who had intruded on the Southern land) that the Civil War was still being fought so many years later.

    This is inadequate, I know, but it’s the best I can do. MCS

    [MARY — no problem; not bad at all. Jim G]

    Comment by Mary S. — July 11, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

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