MILITARY REMINISCENCES OF THE CIVIL WAR
BY JACOB DOLSON COX, A.M., LL.D.
Formerly Major-General commanding Twenty-Third Army Corps_
NOVEMBER 1863-JUNE 1865
WINTER QUARTERS IN EAST TENNESSEE--PREPARATIONS FOR a NEW CAMPAIGN
Sending our animals to Kentucky--Consultations--Affair with enemy's cavalry--Roughing it--Distribution of troops--Cavalry engagement at Sevierville--Quarters in
Knoxville--Leading Loyalists--Social and domestic conditions--Discussion of the
spring campaign--Of Foster's successor--Organization of Grant's armies--Embarrassments in assignment of officers to duty--Discussion of the system--Cipher telegraphing--Control of the key--Grant's collision with
Stanton--Absurdity of the War Department's method--General Stoneman assigned to Twenty-third Corps--His career and character--General Schofield succeeds to the command of the Department of the Ohio.
In connection with the movements of concentration about Knoxville, General Foster carried out his scheme of sending back to pasture in Kentucky and Tennessee all the horses and mules, except a very few teams needed to distribute supplies and two or three horses at each division headquarters for the commanding officer and an aide or two. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. ii. pp. 203-204.] The animals were herded and driven together, an escort of cavalry accompanying them, and the whole put in charge of Captain Day of my staff, as quartermaster, the same whose energy in our journey over the mountains I have already noted. This measure definitely committed us, of course, to a quiet and defensive line of conduct for the next three months. On the 21st of January we were deliberately closing in around Knoxville, where the Fourth Corps was already concentrated, and General Foster had called upon the three corps commanders to meet him at his headquarters in the city for the purpose of putting in official form our opinion upon the necessity of suspending active operations in view of the condition of the troops and animals. We met there on the next day, and submitted our reports in response to interrogatories on several points. My own statement summarized the facts in regard to the supplies of food, forage, clothing, and the impossibility of drawing anything more from the country except some very limited quantities of bread-stuffs. My conclusion was that economy of life, animals, property, and (taking the next six months together) of time also, required that the troops should go into permanent quarters for a short period to be devoted to recuperation, drill, and instruction, organization of means of supply, and general preparation for an active campaign in the spring. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. ii. p. 176.] I, however, added that this was on the hypothesis that no imperative military reasons existed for continued active campaigning; for in presence of such a necessity every officer and man of the corps would most cheerfully continue to undergo every hardship and endure every privation. There was complete unanimity among us in regard to the subject, and General Foster's orders were issued accordingly.
Whilst we were in conference, reports came in from General Willcox, who had been left in command of the Ninth Corps at Strawberry Plains, that the enemy were pressing him rather vigorously. Word came also from General Spears that hostile infantry and cavalry had appeared in large force at Blain's Cross-roads. Sturgis also reported from the direction of Sevierville that the whole rebel army had gone to Strawberry Plains. [Footnote: _Id_., pp. 163, 174.] Toward evening of the 22d our troops had come within some five or six miles of Knoxville, but the enemy showed so strong a disposition to attack that Foster ordered me to return to the front, take command of both corps (Ninth and Twenty-third) and of the cavalry with them, and check the Confederates, as there was some danger that our troops would change the concerted movement into a precipitate retreat. General Parke was suffering in health from recent exposure and remained in Knoxville. Galloping out from the town, I reached the troops a little before dark, halted them, and by a personal reconnoissance satisfied myself that only cavalry were before us. Our men had passed some wooded hills which were important to cover our position and give a starting-point for an aggressive movement on our part. Reversing their movement, I reoccupied these hills, brusquely driving back the enemy's advance-guard and checking their main body. It was now dark, and putting our forces in line of battle ready for an advance at daybreak, they were allowed to bivouac for the night, whilst I rode rapidly back to Knoxville, in accordance with my arrangement with General Foster to report to him in person the particulars of the situation. He approved my suggestion that I should advance the whole line in the morning and settle the question what force was before us. The wagons had come into the town, and my headquarters with them; so taking each of us a blanket, myself and the two staff officers who had accompanied me (Colonel Sterling and my brother) rode back again at midnight to the front, and rested till daybreak on the rough floor of a log cabin. The line then was advanced, but the enemy had taken the hint from the preparations of the evening and had decamped. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. ii. p. 184.] Detachments went in pursuit some eight miles, but the Confederates had definitely withdrawn, and we obtained conclusive proof that only their cavalry had followed us across the Holston River.
The interrupted movement toward Knoxville was resumed, but it required me to remain another night in roughest bivouac, and another day without food, except as a mouthful could be found at hazard. I had begun the Dandridge movement with a cold which threatened pneumonia, but had grown steadily better through all the exposure, finding, as often happened to me in the course of the war, that the physical and mental stimulus of active campaigning even in the worst of weather was tonic and health-giving.
As soon as the situation was cleared up by trustworthy information of Longstreet's movements, General Foster resumed his plans for winter quarters. His first intention of sending the Fourth Corps toward Sevierville was modified by Grant's directions to put that corps where it could most readily rejoin the
Army of the Cumberland. He therefore ordered me to move the Twenty-third Corps in that direction, and formally united to the corps the brigade of East Tennessee troops under Brigadier-General James G. Spears, which had theretofore been an independent organization. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. ii. p. 162.]
Sturgis, who had marched with most of the cavalry on the route thus assigned to me, reported that the road was the worst he ever saw, and, with all the experience of bad roads we had had, this meant that it was impracticable for our few and weak teams. [Footnote: _Ibid._] This put an end to all hope of living on the country, and Foster accepted the necessity of distributing his troops about Knoxville and along the lines leading to Chattanooga.
On the 22d of January orders were issued assigning the Fourth Corps to quarters extending from Kingston to Loudon along the river and railroad. The Ninth Corps took post between Campbell's Station and Knoxville. The Twenty-third Corps encamped at Knoxville and in the immediate vicinity. [Footnote: _Id._, p. 183.] The cavalry occupied the country southeast of the Holston holding a front on the French Broad River. A few small outposts further up the valley were maintained for observation.
A brilliant cavalry combat near Sevierville on the 27th ended the active work under General Foster's command. Longstreet, hearing of the presence of our cavalry south of the French Broad, directed General Martin, commanding his cavalry corps, to get his forces across the river and meet Sturgis at once. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. ii. p. 611.] The latter had McCook's division in advance, supported by Garrard's near Pigeon River. Martin advanced upon McCook, but was surprised to find his adversary seize the initiative. Learning of the Confederate advance, McCook marched to meet them on the road leading to Fair Garden. Martin was driven back, his right (Morgan's division) being routed by a gallant charge led by Colonel La Grange, First Wisconsin Cavalry, who commanded a brigade. [Footnote: Id. pt. i. pp. 139, 141.] Two regimental commanders, seven other commissioned officers, over a hundred privates, and two pieces of artillery were captured by the charge.
General Morgan's battle-flag was also among the trophies. Our own casualties amounted to only thirty-one. Martin beat a hasty retreat across the French Broad to Dandridge, and Longstreet frankly admitted Martin's defeat with a loss of 200 men and the two guns. [Footnote: _Id_. pp. 149-150.] He attributed it to the inefficiency of his cavalry commander, and urged that one more competent be sent him. [Footnote: _Id_pt. ii. p. 632.] Sturgis followed on the 28th to Fair's Island Ford near Dandridge, where he was met by Armstrong's division of the Confederates. Longstreet now passed over an infantry force in rear of our cavalry, and they fell back to Maryville. [Footnote: _Id_., p. 653.] Both parties found the winter work too costly, and were now glad to take a few weeks for rest and recuperation.
As my headquarters were assigned to Knoxville, I had the opportunity of increasing my knowledge of the people and of the social complications which grew out of the war. I found quarters for myself and Lieutenant Theodore Cox, my aide, at the house of Mr. Cowen, a young merchant of the city, whose father was one of the prominent business men. The house was on the north side of a suburban street running parallel to the river, and not far from the buildings of the East Tennessee University, which were partially fortified and connected with Fort Sanders by a line of infantry trench. The fields on the opposite side of the road were open, and sloped down to the river bank, and in these my headquarters guard pitched their tents and the general quarters of the staff were also placed. A near neighbor, in the direction of the college, was the Rev. Dr. Humes, rector of the Episcopal parish, and after the war President of the University.
General Burnside had spoken of him as a noble man, of devoted loyalty as well as earnest piety, and I was glad to know him as one who by his high intelligence and character was an authority on all that related to Holston valley. [Footnote: Thomas W. Humes, S.T.D. He has, since the war (1888), published a volume devoted to the East Tennessee loyalists, entitled "The Loyal Mountaineers of Tennessee."] John Williams, John M. Fleming, and O. P. Temple were among those who represented the Union sentiment of Knoxville, as did Perez Dickinson among the merchants. [Footnote: Since this chapter was written, Chancellor Temple has contributed a valuable work to the history of the Rebellion, in his "East Tennessee and the Civil War," Cincinnati. 1899.] John Baxter, afterward Judge of the United States Circuit Court, was a strong and wise friend of the government. Horace Maynard represented the district in Congress both before and after the war, and was regarded at Washington as its official representative even in the period when the Confederate occupation made him an exile from his home.
William G. Brownlow was in Knoxville also, having returned as soon as our army had opened the way. His son, "Colonel Jim," was doing gallant service at the head of the First East Tennessee Cavalry. Around this group of leading men were arrayed the great majority of the people, devoted in their attachment to the Union. The men of property among them had sometimes been forced to dissimulate in order to protect their persons and their possessions; but now that the National army was in the valley, there was no mistaking the earnest satisfaction and the hearty sympathy of these people. There was a minority who had been open Secessionists, and these had been influential beyond their numbers, by reason of their wealth and social standing; for here, as well as everywhere else in the South, owners of slaves easily became champions of the extreme doctrines of what they called the constitutional guaranty of their property. They claimed to include most of the "upper class" in their numbers, though this was by no means true in this region.
The feelings of both Union men and Secessionists were very bitter, and social life was as strongly marked by these divisions as the hostile camps. The number of slaves was comparatively small, but they were the house servants in the towns, and their disposition to assert their liberty added to the social turmoil. The mistress of the house where I lodged hired her cook from a neighbor who claimed the woman as a slave; but the employer found herself obliged to make another bargain with the cook, and to pay her a second wage in order to keep her at work at all. The Unionists of East Tennessee were not yet fully advanced to the emancipation of the slaves as a result of the war. Parson Brownlow had fiercely denounced the Secessionists for arguing that secession was necessary to preserve property in slaves. Our army commanders thought it prudent not to agitate this question, and contented themselves with keeping within the limits of the statutes and the general orders of the War Department, which forbade military interference to return fugitives to the masters or to compel their obedience. The matter was left to work itself out, as it rapidly did.
After the first of February the weather became settled and gave us a more favorable opinion of the East Tennessee climate. We had sharp frosts at night with occasional light flurries of snow, but the days were usually bright, it thawed about midday, and the average temperature was such as to make active exercise delightful. The summits of the Great Smoky Mountains were covered with snow, and made a picturesque framing for the natural loveliness of the valleys. The roads were nowhere metalled, and the alternate freezing and thawing made them nearly impassable; but if we had been able to bring forward proper forage and supplies, we should have overcome the other obstacles to active campaigning. As it was, we could only await the approach of spring, when the settling of the roads and the opening of railroad communication with Chattanooga and Nashville would make it possible to bring back from Kentucky and feed our horses which had been sent to the rear.
There was, beside, the question of the change necessary in the command of the department, since there was no probability that General Foster's health would permit him to retain it and he had urgently requested that his successor should be assigned to duty. Indeed, the question of organization reached down to the regiments and brigades, and was a burning one in all the armies of Grant's Military Division. Besides this, the revival of the grade of Lieutenant-General was already mooted in Congress, and it was nearly a foregone conclusion that Grant would have the command of all the armies and the task of co-ordinating their movements. Our little army in East Tennessee was agitated not only with the speculations as to our new commander, but with debates as to our probable part in the next campaign, and the forces which would be given to us with which to do our work. Would the Ninth Corps remain in the department, or would it be ordered to the East for duty under Burnside, as was already rumored? Would our task be simply to garrison East Tennessee; should we make Longstreet's army our objective and follow him into Virginia; or should we be united to Sherman's and Thomas's armies for a campaign in Georgia? We eagerly listened for every hint which might be dropped at headquarters, but
Grant's proverbial reticence left us to our conjectures, and each question was answered only when official orders were finally published. Much that was very blind to us is now easily traced in the Official Records.
When General Foster informed the War Department that the opening of his old wound made it necessary to relieve him of command in East Tennessee, the President was in some perplexity in regard to several prominent officers. He was disposed to find some adequate employment for Rosecrans, who was still backed by a very strong political coterie in Washington. He was convinced that injustice had been done
Burnside, and was thinking of sending him with the Ninth Corps, largely increased in numbers, to his old field of successful work on the Carolina coast. The opposition of influential politicians of Kansas and Missouri to Schofield, whose confirmation as major-general was still obstructed in the Senate, he felt as a personal hostility to himself. Grant was also desirous of suitable assignments to command for
McPherson, W. F. Smith, and
Sheridan. The almost certain passage of the bill to give a higher grade in the army, and the assumption that Grant would be promoted to it, gave the opportunity to make a satisfactory arrangement of all these cases. Burnside's return to active work and the removal to the East of the Ninth Corps were determined on, with General Parke's return, at his own desire, to the position of Burnside's chief of staff. McPherson was to take the Army of the Tennessee when Sherman should be promoted to the command of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Smith and Sheridan were to have high assignments in the Eastern army. Rosecrans was sent to Missouri, and Schofield, to his great content, was appointed to command the Army of the Ohio. These changes were gradually shaped in the correspondence of Grant with army headquarters during the fall and winter. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxi. pt. iii. pp. 122, 277, 458, 529, 571; vol. xxxii. pt. ii. pp. 79, 80, 182, 202, 209, 229, 230, 251, 336; also a curious letter of Hooker to Stranton, _id_., pp. 467-469. See also Schofield's "Forty-six Years in the Army," pp. 108-110. I have treated these changes more in detail in chapter vii. of Force's "General Sherman" (Great Commanders' series). See preface of the work last named.] They were followed by others in the corps divisions and brigades, so that the organization of all the Western armies took permanent form before Grant was called to Washington to assume his new rank at the beginning of March.
In regard to general officers the question of assignments and promotions was always an embarrassing one for commanders of armies in the field. As the law prescribed the maximum number of major-generals and of brigadiers, political and military pressure combined to keep the list always full. [Footnote: In reply to Grant's request for the promotion of General W.F. Smith,
Halleck Informed him, on Jan. 13, 1864, that there was not only no vacancy, but that by some error more had again been appointed that the law authorized, and some already in service would have to be dropped. Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. ii. p. 80. As to brigaders, see
Halleck to Grant, _Id_., p. 481.] Closest watch was kept by politicians and others at Washington, and if a vacancy occurred, the pressure to fill it was exactly such as would be made for a civil office in the gift of the government. Officers of the regular army found in
General Halleck a powerful support, and it was assumed that those appointed from civil life would be looked after by their political friends. The effort which was made by the War Department in the winter to force into active service or into retirement all officers who for any cause had been "shelved" was well intended, but in practice it accentuated the feeling of experienced commanders that a radical reform was essential. An intelligent system was demanded, reaching from top to bottom of the army, separating its discipline, its assignments to duty, its promotions and its removals from political influences, and making merit alone the basis of advancement. In the condition of public affairs no such thorough work was possible. The embarrassments of army commanders had been very bluntly explained to the War Department in the confidential dispatches of Mr. Dana from Chattanooga. His judgments may sometimes have been hasty, but he gives a very vivid picture of the mischiefs which follow from having incompetent, intemperate, or inefficient men saddled upon an army. The same dispatches, however, showed also how unwillingly the commanders resorted to extreme severity with men toward whom they had feelings of personal kindness. In strong hands like Grant's or Sherman's the power to get promptly rid of such incumbrances (which Dana recommended) would be ably used and work well. As to political considerations, the President on more than one occasion admitted that he felt obliged, at times, to let these control his action, instead of reasons based on the efficiency of the army. [Footnote: For Dana's dispatches on this subject, see Official Records, vol. xxx. pt. i. p. 220; vol. xxxi. pt. i. pp. 69, 73, 265; pt. ii. pp. 54, 63. In his published "Recollections of the Civil War" (1898), Mr. Dana has omitted some of his most trenchant personal criticisms.]
Along with the graver embarrassments which General Grant found in organizing his armies for a new campaign were smaller ones, which though sometimes concerned with trivial matters were not on that account likely to be less annoying. When the general visited us at Knoxville and Strawberry Plains in the severe weather of early January, he came practically unattended. He had with him Lieutenant-Colonel C. B. Comstock of the engineers, who continued in confidential staff relations to him to the end of the war, well known then and ever since as an officer of rare ability and discretion. At Knoxville Grant received a dispatch in cipher which he could not read because the telegraph operator at his headquarters at Nashville alone had the key. This gave him great annoyance and might have had very serious consequences. When therefore he reached Nashville on his return ride over the mountains, he directed the operator to reveal the key to Colonel Comstock, who was always with him. The operator of course reported the fact to the superintendent of military telegraphs at Washington (Colonel Anson Stager), and on the report of the latter to the Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton ordered the operator summarily dismissed from his employment, and formally reprimanded Colonel Comstock as if the revelation had been merely on his personal order. Of course Grant, who had never dreamed that he was treading upon anybody's toes, immediately assumed the full responsibility. He showed the folly of making details of method override the public necessity to which they were subservient, and asked that the operator should be restored to his employment and not made to suffer for obeying his personal order. He said: "I could see no reason why I was not as capable of selecting a proper person to intrust with this secret as Colonel Stager." One would think this ought to have ended the matter, but it did not, though the operator was restored to duty. Mr. Stanton had the old cipher thrown away, issued a new one, and stuck to the plan of trusting it to an ordinary civilian operator, whilst it was not allowed to be known to the commanding general or the most responsible staff officer. Grant made the sensible suggestion that the key be given to military officers only, and be kept from the civilian operators; but Mr. Stanton adhered to the farcical notion of carrying on a cipher correspondence which should be open to the irresponsible transmitter, but secret as to the responsible commanding general to whom it was addressed. If it were meant for a system of espionage upon the general by thus inseparably tying to him a civilian over whom he had no control, like an agent of a secret police reporting to a Fouche or a Savary, it would be an intelligible though bungling contrivance; but as a means of secret communication with a general it was ridiculous in the extreme. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. ii. pp. 150, 159, 161, 172, 323, 324, 361.]
The telegraph operators were young men who had learned the art usually in the northern telegraph offices and were hired for military service like other civilian employees. The operator at Grant's headquarters at Nashville had a busy place, and could not be spared to accompany the general whenever he visited a distant post, even if such inseparable attendance had been agreeable to the commander. Many of the operators were faithful and intelligent men, but there were some who were not; and an incident occurred in the Nashville campaign in the next year which showed what mischiefs were likely to happen when a telegraph operator was cowardly or untrustworthy. [Footnote: See "The Battle of Franklin," by the present writer, pp. 29, 30.]
Returning to the affairs of the Army of the Ohio, at the same time that General Schofield was ordered to report to Grant for duty,
Major-General George Stoneman was sent from the East with a similar order. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. ii. pp. 166, 182.] It had not then been announced that the Ninth Corps would return to the East, and apparently assuming that the Army of the Ohio would include more than one corps of infantry, General Grant suggested the assignment of Schofield to the department and Stoneman to the Twenty-third Corps. This was ordered accordingly on the 28th of January. [Footnote: _Id_., pp. 229, 251.] Stoneman's last service had been as Hooker's chief of cavalry in the Chancellorsville campaign, and under Hooker's orders he had been upon a separate expedition of cavalry during that unfortunate battle. In the general miscarriage of the campaign, he was, with questionable justice, held responsible in part for the failure and was displaced. In the general plan of setting everybody to work again, he was sent to Grant, though, as time had brought about a more favorable judgment regarding him, it would have been fair to assign him to duty again with the
Army of the Potomac. I think he expected the command of the cavalry of the western army, but Grant had selected Brigadier-General William Sooy Smith for that position, and looking about for suitable duty for Stoneman, the Twenty-third Corps was seen to have no permanent commander assigned by the President, and Stoneman was nominated for it. As events turned out, the appointment was for a very short period.
My command of the corps with the rank of brigadier was of course anomalous, and would necessarily be temporary unless the appropriate rank were restored to me. Had Burnside remained in East Tennessee, it is probable that his wish would have prevailed; but he was absent, and I was a comparative stranger, forming new relations to Grant and his principal subordinates. Foster had also assured me that he would wish no change in the corps command if he stayed at the head of the Department, but as his health caused his withdrawal, the new arrangements were made without consulting him. Under these circumstances there was nothing for me to do but to accept the inevitable and take such active work as my seniority in my present rank would give.
When General Foster learned that he would soon be relieved, he very cordially offered to do anything in his power to further my wishes in regard to any choice of duty when I should be superseded in the corps. I replied that my strong desire was to get the most active field service, and as it was doubtful whether the corps would not be kept to garrison East Tennessee, I would like to be transferred to the Army of the Cumberland, which was certain to make the next campaign in Georgia. On his suggestion I wrote a letter to General Grant asking the transfer on the grounds stated. This application General Foster forwarded with a letter of his own supporting it in very friendly manner. Nothing came of this, but it was the reason for the delay which occurred in my assignment to permanent work in the Army of the Ohio. Some of my friends in the Fourth Corps, knowing that Sheridan was to leave his division, had suggested my appointment there, but the surplus of general officers prevented. Major-General Newton, one of those who came west from the Potomac army, was assigned to that division. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. i. p.18.]
Generals Schofield and Stoneman reached Knoxville on the 9th of February, and the changes in command were promptly made. [Footnote: _Id._, pt. ii. pp. 356, 358, 359, 364, 365.] For a fortnight I was off duty, awaiting orders. General Foster took his leave of us, thoroughly respected by all, though his crippled physical condition had interfered with his personal activity.
My separation from the corps command only affected myself and my two personal aides-de-camp. I had recommended Major Bascom, my adjutant-general, and Major Treat, my commissary, for permanent positions on the corps staff, and these recommendations were kindly adopted by General Stoneman, so that they ceased to belong to my military family, though both offered to follow my fortunes. The other staff appointments were in the nature of details, most of which were temporarily continued. Pending General Grant's action on my application, I remained at Knoxville, looking on and making the acquaintance of the officers newly arrived.
General Stoneman was a tall, thin man, full bearded, with large eyes. He had an air of habitual sadness, or gravity approaching it, and was commonly reputed to have an irritable temper, but I saw nothing of it. I think he would have made an acceptable commander of the corps if fortune had left him in that position. His place in the regular army (Major of the Fourth United States Cavalry [Footnote: He and General Sturgis were the two majors of the same regiment.]) had led to his assignment to a cavalry command at the East, and he returned to that arm of the service a little later. Grant took a dislike to Stoneman, partly on account of the manner in which he had been sent to him from the East. When the suggestion was made that, if the opposition in the Senate to Schofield's confirmation should defeat his promotion, Stoneman should succeed to his command, Grant dryly replied that he did not know General Stoneman's merits. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxii. pt. ii. p. 394] Even a year later he showed the same distrust by speaking of him as an officer who had failed. This was by no means just, but showed the persistence of Grant's impressions. [Footnote: General Stoneman retired from the army at the close of the war and made his home in California, of which State he became governor.]
With General Schofield's arrival began my close association with him which was to last until the end of the war. In person he was a solid, rather stout man, of medium height, with a round bald head and long black beard coming down on his breast. He had a reputation for scientific tastes, and had, after his graduation at West Point, been instructor in astronomy there. He was two or three years my junior in age, and was among the younger general officers. The obstruction, thus far, to his confirmation in his higher grade so far resembled my own experience as to be a ground of sympathy between us. As I was glad of his better luck in his prompt reappointment, I may also say that his hearty recognition of my own service and experience inspired me with sincere friendship. I look back to my service as his subordinate with unmixed satisfaction.