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
CAMPAIGN IN NORTH CAROLINA--CAPTURE OF WILMINGTON
Washington--Capture of Fort Fisher--Schofield ordered to North Carolina--Grant and Schofield visit
Terry--Department of North Carolina--Army of the Ohio in the field--Correspondence of Grant and Sherman--Sherman conscious of his risks but hopeful of great results--His plan of
march from Savannah--Relation of Wilmington to New Berne--Our arrival at Washington--The Potomac frozen--Peace conference at
Fort Monroe--Interview with Mr. Stanton--The thirteenth amendment of the Constitution--Political excitement at the capital--A little dinner-party--Garfield, H. W. Davis, and Schenck--Davis on
Lincoln--Destination of our army--Embarkation--Steamship "Atlantic"--Visit to Fort Monroe--The sea-voyage--Cape Fear Inlet--General Terry's lines--Bragg the Confederate commander--Reconnoitring his lines--The colored troops--"Monitor" engaged with Fort Anderson--Alternate plans--Marching on Wilmington by the west bank of the river--My column opposite the town--Orders not applicable to the situation--Difficulty of communication--Use of discretion--Wilmington evacuated--A happy result.
On Thursday the 26th of January, 1865, I received a telegram from General Schofield directing me to join my command without delay, and I started from my home in northern Ohio the same evening. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 131.] I had spent a week in a delightful visit with my family after two years of absence from them, and had been rapidly improving in health. The growing faith that the campaign of the winter and spring would end in complete victory for the national arms created an ardent zeal to be about it and to have an active hand in the final scenes. Our orders had indicated
Annapolis as our port of rendezvous, and our destination the
Army of the Potomac in front of
Petersburg. [Footnote: _Id._, vol. xlv. pt. ii. pp. 529, 586.] On reaching Annapolis Junction in the night of the 28th, I learned that my division was in Washington, and followed it, arriving there in the morning of the 29th. [Footnote: To get an adequate idea of the task of transporting an army corps so great a distance, one should look at Colonel Parsons's report, including 250 dispatches. Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. pp. 215-284.]
The change from Annapolis to Washington and Alexandria had been made by Grant upon a suggestion of
General Halleck that there was no shelter at
Annapolis for such a body of troops, whilst there was enough at the capital. As the winter weather was then severe, this thoughtfulness saved the command much suffering. [Footnote: _Id_., vol. xlv. pt. ii. p. 596.] The military situation had also changed materially by the
capture of Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast, on the very day we embarked on the transports at Clifton (January 15th). This capture by the forces under General A. H. Terry was one step in the preparation of a new base for Sherman in his march northward through the Carolinas, and Grant was most anxious that it should be followed by the occupation of Wilmington. His desire to strengthen his own army was made secondary to his determination to make Sherman's movement an assured success. He wrote to Sherman on the 21st that he would send Schofield to Wilmington, if, as was rumored, the fall of that place had followed the capture of Fort Fisher. [Footnote: _Id_., vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 102.] On the 24th he had made up his mind to send Schofield there anyhow, and was going himself to inspect the fort and the situation at the mouth of Cape Fear River. He telegraphed for Schofield to join him on this visit to Terry, and the outline of the new campaign was then arranged. A new department of North Carolina was decided upon, Schofield was to command it, his army in the field to consist of two provisional corps besides the Twenty-third, of which Terry was to command one, and the other for a time fell to me. This field force was to retain our old title of the Army of the Ohio. On Schofield's recommendation the brevet rank of major-general was given to General Ruger, and that of brigadier to Colonel Henderson of the One Hundred and Twelfth Illinois, for services at Franklin. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. pp. 121, 179, 190, 201.] Sherman had heard of the fall of Fort Fisher before he broke his communications with Savannah, and was assured of a new base there, even if the line from New Berne to Goldsborough should not be opened.
The correspondence between Sherman and Grant at this time is very characteristic of both men, and throws a bright light on their unselfish friendship and their earnest purpose to bring the war to a successful end without rest or delay. In his letter of the 21st of January, after giving the latest details of his situation, Sherman adds: "I am told that Congress meditates a bill to make another lieutenant-general for me. I have written to John Sherman to stop it if it is designed for me. [Footnote: See Sherman Letters, p. 245.] It would be mischievous, for there are enough rascals who would try to sow differences between us, whereas you and I now are in perfect understanding. I would rather have you in command than anybody else, for you are fair, honest, and have at heart the same purpose that should animate all. I should emphatically decline any commission calculated to bring us into rivalry, and I ask you to advise all your friends in Congress to this effect, especially Mr. Washburne. I doubt if men in Congress fully realize that you and I are honest in our professions of want of ambition. I know that I feel none, and to-day will gladly surrender my position and influence to any other who is better able to wield the power. The flurry attending my recent success will soon blow over and give place to new developments." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 103. In the same letter Sherman referred to the farewell order General Butler had addressed to his troops on being relieved of command. "I am rejoiced that Terry took Fisher," Sherman said, "because it silences Butler, who was to you a dangerous man. His address to his troops on being relieved was a direct, mean, and malicious attack on you, and I admired the patience and skill by which you relieved yourself and the country of him." In the address referred to, Butler had said: "I have been chary of the precious charge confided to me. I have refused to order the useless sacrifice of the lives of such soldiers, and I am relieved from your command. The wasted blood of my men does not stain my garments." (O. R, vol. xlvi. pt. ii. p. 71.) Such a publication made its author liable to court-martial, but Grant took no public notice of it, except to oppose his further assignment to duty. _Id_., vol. xlvii. pt. ii. pp. 537, 562. See also Sherman to
Admiral Porter, _Id_., p. 104, and Grant to Sherman, _Id_., p. 859.]
Replying on the 1st of February, Grant said: "I have received your very kind letter, in which you say you would decline, or are opposed to, promotion. No one would be more pleased at your advancement than I, and if you should be placed in my position and I put subordinate, it would not change our relations in the least. I would make the same exertions to support you that you have ever done to support me, and I would do all in my power to make our cause win." [Footnote: _Id_., p. 193.]
That Sherman knew his campaign in the Carolinas would involve great risks, and had no blind confidence in his fortune, was shown by his reply to the well-known letter of congratulation which
President Lincoln sent him upon the
surrender of Savannah: [Footnote: _Id_., vol. xliv. p. 809, and Sherman's Memoirs, vol. ii. p. 166.] "The motto 'Nothing venture, nothing win,' which you refer to, is most appropriate, and should I venture too much and happen to lose, I shall bespeak your charitable inference." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 18.]
In writing to
Grant also, on the 29th of January, in a very full and interesting letter, he said: "I expect Davis will move Heaven and earth to catch me, for success to my column is fatal to his dream of empire. Richmond is not more vital to his cause than
Columbia and the heart of South Carolina." [Footnote: _Id_., p. 155.]
[Illustration: Map: Northeast Georgia / South Carolina border area]
The general plan which he adopted was to threaten both
Charleston and Augusta with the wings of his army, keeping the enemy in doubt as to his purpose as long as possible, whilst he pushed his centre rapidly toward Columbia. He had no mind to waste time in serious operations against Charleston, for he knew that it must fall when his advance threatened to cut it off from communication with Richmond. From Columbia he planned to march on Raleigh by way of Goldsborough, the last-named place being connected by railroad with both Wilmington and New Berne, and being therefore the objective of General Schofield's movements from both seaports.
Beaufort, the harbor of New Berne, was deeper than the mouth of Cape Fear River, and was therefore to be made the principal base of supply for Sherman when he should enter North Carolina; but Wilmington was so much further south that prudence required it to be first occupied and provisioned to give Sherman temporary supply, if any contingency should make it necessary to him before the railroad from New Berne to Goldsborough could be rebuilt. These subsidiary operations in North Carolina were to be our special task. [Footnote: For connected historical treatment of Sherman's march northward, and of the capture of Fort Fisher, see "March to the Sea," etc., chaps, viii.-xi.: Life of Sherman (Great Commanders' Series), chap. xii.]
On reaching Washington, I found that my troops were just arriving on trains from the West. They were temporarily placed in barracks in the city, till the fleet of transports should be ready. The unusual severity of the winter had frozen the Potomac, and Annapolis was also blocked with ice, so that the quartermaster's department had to wait two or three days for a change of weather, before fixing the point of departure. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 154.] The time passed pleasantly for me, since it gave me the opportunity of renewing old acquaintance with public men, and of observing for myself the spirit which animated political circles at the capital. Mr. Lincoln with
Mr. Seward had gone to Fort Monroe to meet
Mr. Stephens and others, commissioned by the Richmond government to confer informally as to the possibilities of peace. The Confederate officials were at Grant's headquarters on the 1st of February, "very desirous of going to Washington to see Mr. Lincoln," as the General-in-Chief wrote Sherman incidentally. From his interview with them, Grant was convinced that "the peace feeling within the rebel lines is gaining ground rapidly," but he added, "This, however, should not relax our energies in the least, but should stimulate us to greater activity." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 194.]
Going to pay my respects to
Secretary Stanton at the War Department, I was met by him in an exceedingly cordial way, and in parting, after an interesting visit, he congratulated me on my promotion, saying I owed nobody any thanks for it, as it had been fully and fairly won. I owe it to him to mention this, for so much was current about the brusqueness of his intercourse with army officers, that he is entitled to the testimony that, on this as on all other occasions when I met him personally, nothing could be kinder or more considerate than his manner to me.
My visit to Washington happened to include the day on which the constitutional amendment abolishing
slavery passed the House. Breakfasting with
Chief-Justice Chase, I met also Henry Ward Beecher, and the great historical event was, of course, the central subject of conversation. The forecast by such men of the effect upon the country and upon the world made a blending of solid wisdom with brilliant eloquence not to be forgotten. My friend Governor Dennison was Postmaster-General, and in his house I had full opportunity to judge of the keen, almost feverish interest with which public men and leading citizens were following the rapid march of both military and civil affairs. Coming, as I was, out of the rough winter campaign of the West for a brief halt in the centre of political activity, before sailing to the swamp-lined shores of Carolina, there was something almost unreal, though fascinating, in the contrast of the excitement of the field with the totally different but scarcely less absorbing excitement which I saw in every face.
Garfield arranged a little dinner at which, besides himself, I met General Schenck and Henry Winter Davis, all of them playing leading roles in the House of Representatives. We four were alone, and it was a rare opportunity for me to hear unrestrained discussion of everything in public affairs. Nearly every phase of current political and military events was treated in brilliant and trenchant criticism, and the conversation turned at last upon the peace conference going on at Fort Monroe. Mr. Davis was a Marylander, who was second to none in uncompromising loyalty to the Union, and had an acknowledged pre-eminence in eloquent advocacy of the National cause. He, however, did not understand or appreciate Mr. Lincoln, and in the celebrated "Wade and Davis manifesto" of the previous year, had opposed the re-election of the President. He now let loose in a witty and scathing denunciation of Lincoln and all his works. The current epithets among the President's opponents, of which "baboon" was one of the mildest, were flung at him with a venom that, to me, was half shocking and half comical. The soldier habit of making the Hurrah for Lincoln our answering war-cry to the Hurrah for Davis of our enemies in the field, made a bewildering puzzle of such an outburst. The meeting with the Southern commissioners was denounced as a weak compromising of our cause. He saw no force in the argument that weak hearts among us would be strengthened when they saw that now as upon former overtures the Confederate authorities insisted upon independence as the necessary condition of peace, whilst Mr. Lincoln stood firmly for restoration of the Union and abolition of slavery as the essentials. The curious fact was that such a man, ably busied for four years in political co-operation with the President, living in the same city, in frequent personal contact with him, had utterly failed to measure his character and his intellect, or to get even a glimmering idea of what lay beneath that ungraceful exterior and that quaint and humorous speech. The elegant orator and polished man of the world felt no magnetism but that of repulsion; and his senses were so dulled by it that he never guessed the wisdom and the breadth, the subtle policy and the deep statesmanship, the luminous insight and the unfaltering purpose which now seem writ so plain in Lincoln's words and deeds.
General Schenck did not appear to differ greatly from Davis, but what he said was in short, trenchant sentences, interjected from time to time. Garfield treated the outburst as a sort of extravaganza, and in his position as host did not seriously debate, but rallied his friend with good-humored persiflage, met his outbursts with jovial laughter and prodded him to fresh explosions by shafts of wit. It was a strange and not altogether exhilarating experience for me; but I had afterward to learn that the belittling view of Lincoln was the common one among public men in Washington. The people at a distance got a juster perspective, and knowing him by his written papers and his public acts, divined him better and gave him a loyal support hardly to be distinguished from their devotion to the cause of the country itself. We may fairly conclude that the failure of so many men near the President to understand him is not creditable to their sagacity; but we must also admit that a first impression and a superficial view would in his case be almost surely misleading, and that to correct it would take better opportunities for an intimate study of the man than most public men would have, and most would not care to seek them. The belittling view of men in power fits best our self-esteem.
As soon as General Schofield got back from his trip to Fort Fisher with Grant, he had issued his orders for our movement which was to take place as soon as the ice would permit our transports to enter or leave the harbors on Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac. My own division was to take the lead and sail to Cape Fear River. Couch's would come next and land at Beaufort for operations on the New Berne line. Ruger's (the new troops) would sail last, and find orders at Fort Monroe in going down the bay, deciding whether its destination should be Wilmington or Beaufort. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 135.] Meagher's provisional division of detachments belonging to Sherman's army was temporarily attached to us, for it was too late to join Sherman by way of Savannah. Meagher had ordered it to rendezvous at New York, but Grant changed its destination to Washington with the purpose just stated. Its commander had gone on to New York in advance without any understanding with army headquarters, and the convivial and unsystematic Irishman thereby fell into trouble. [Footnote: _Id._, pp. 116, 119, 126, 204, 293.]
On Thursday the 2d of February, General Schofield was able to issue his final orders for embarkation. Only vessels enough for two brigades of my division had been able to reach Alexandria, and Casement's brigade was sent by rail to Annapolis to take ship there and to be followed immediately by Meagher's provisional command. [Footnote: _Id._, p. 213.] Friday was spent in getting troops on board the ships at
Annapolis and systematizing their accommodation for the voyage. One of our transports was the "Atlantic," Captain Gray, which, as the crack ship of the Collins Line of New York and Liverpool packets, had led the van of the ocean greyhounds in the days of wooden hulls and side-wheels. General Schofield and myself made our headquarters on this ship. On each of the other vessels the senior officer was made responsible for all the troops on board, and was confidentially authorized, after it should enter Chesapeake Bay, to instruct the master of the ship to make the best of his way to Cape Fear Inlet as the rendezvous for the division. [Footnote: _Id._, p. 293.]
General Grant had asked the War Department to arrange for a patrol of the coast by the navy during the transit of Schofield's little army. [Footnote: _Id._, p. 284.]
On Saturday the 4th we had expected to start at daybreak, but a heavy fog delayed us. When it lifted, we made our way slowly down the Potomac, the drifting ice obstructing the passage so that we could only go at a snail's pace, backing and filling to keep in the ice openings and to save injury to the vessel. Starting at ten o'clock, we only reached the head of Kettlebottom Shoals by nightfall of the short winter day, making less than twenty miles. The passage of the shoals was too dangerous for so large a vessel in the dark, and we dropped anchor for the night. I had made it my first task on Friday evening to have a complete understanding with Captain Gray, and to get his suggestions as to the orders I desired to issue for the conduct and discipline of the troops while on board ship for which I was responsible. He was a gentleman of ability and large experience in his profession, and co-operated with me so cordially that our week on board the "Atlantic" was a most comfortable one, full of interest and enjoyment, though we met rough weather outside the capes. My order was issued on Saturday and rigidly enforced during the voyage. By Captain Gray's invitation I made my office in his chart-room on the upper deck, enforcing regular tours of duty for officers and men of the division, of whom nearly 2000 were on board. In the intervals, when the captain was not himself on the bridge, we exchanged stories of our very different experiences, and I found his conversation both interesting and instructive. We had besides, of course, the large circle of comrades and old friends in the cabin, and for those who escaped sea-sickness the hours never hung heavy. [Footnote: As the Records do not seem to contain many orders for the conduct of troops on transport ships, I insert that which I made for this voyage. It was, of course, supplemental to the Army Regulations of 1863, chap, xxxvii.
HEADQUARTERS, THIRD DIV., 23D ARMY CORPS,
Steamship Atlantic, February 4, 1865.
The following regulations will be strictly observed by the officers and men of this command during the present voyage:
1. No open lights will be allowed in any part of the ship occupied by troops. The ship's lanterns will be arranged by the officers of the vessel in such a way as to light the decks during the night, and will not be opened or interfered with by the men.
2. No smoking will be allowed in any part of the vessel used for sleeping except the open decks. The men may smoke in the open air upon the upper decks, and the brigade commander will provide for giving proper airing, and opportunity to smoke, to the men quartered below. Officers will smoke, either upon deck or in the smoking-room near the water-closets.
3. The division and brigade commissaries will make arrangements with the steward of the ship for cooking the men's coffee and doing other necessary cooking for the command, and for serving the same out at regular hours.
4. The canteens of the men may be filled with drinking water once each day, the men being marched by companies under their proper officers to the pump in the fore part of the ship for that purpose.
5. The brigade commander, in consultation with the commander of the ship, will arrange for the perfect policing of the quarters, sinks, etc.
6. The starboard side of the upper and main decks abaft of the engine, will be kept clear of men and reserved for the use of officers, both of the command and of the ship, during the day; and such portion of this space as may necessarily be occupied by the men for sleeping at night, will have a passage kept entirely clear for the use of the officers and crew of the vessel in working her at night. No men will at any time be allowed to go upon the roofs of the houses on the upper deck.
7. Proper roll-calls will be established, and the line officers will be strictly required to attend them, and to make close personal inspections daily of the condition of their men, and to be personally in command of them when marched out for water, or coffee, or when on duty.
8. An officer of the day will be daily appointed by the brigade commander, and shall have full charge of the execution of this order, and supervision of all the police arrangements of the command. Proper line officers will be detailed on guard duty, and sentries will be regularly posted at the bulkhead of the ship storeroom on the forward lower deck, at the sinks, over the lights at night, and on the middle line of the decks reserved under paragraph six.
9. The officer of the day, after reporting at brigade headquarters each day, will report to the captain of the ship, in order that the ship's officers may know to whom to apply for any enforcement of these regulations.
By command of Major-General Cox.
(Signed) THEO. Cox, Capt. and Ass't Adj't-General."
Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 303.]
Weighing anchor at daybreak on Sunday morning, we passed Kettle Bottom Shoals safely, and found much more open water in the lower river. The day was mild and calm, and we made good progress to Fort Monroe, where we stopped in the evening to take on board a supply of ammunition. While this work was going on, I took advantage of the opportunity to land in a small boat and pass through the place by moonlight. As one of the largest and most important of the fortresses of the old style, with heavy walls of masonry, casemated, and with regular moat, it was an interesting study to a soldier, and all the more so as we were then in the full heat of the discussion of the relative value of such formal works compared with mere earthworks, of which Fort Fisher, to which we were bound, was a very striking example. It was admitted that modern ordnance could soon knock the walls into a rubbish-heap, but Fort Sumter had raised the supplementary debate, whether the rubbish-heap did not begin a new chapter in the defence, longer and more important than the first period of attack.
As soon as the ammunition was on board and properly stowed, our voyage was resumed, and at daybreak we had passed out of Chesapeake Bay, joining our consorts of the transport fleet near Cape Henry, and were running down the coast along the even line of keys which lie as a breastwork against the Atlantic Ocean outside of the much indented coast proper of North Carolina. The wind was moderate and off shore, so that Captain Gray laid his course straight for Cape Hatteras, with only offing enough to keep in a good depth of water,--say fifteen or twenty miles. At intervals during the day we could see isolated clumps of pine-trees rising out of the water, like low-lying, blue clouds, so that we could hardly say that we were wholly out of sight of land. We passed Cape Hatteras late in the afternoon, about sunset, and as the coast now trends much more to the westward, with concave lines from Hatteras to Cape Lookout (near Beaufort), and from Lookout to Cape Fear, our course took us farther out to sea. I woke on Tuesday morning to find the ship pitching heavily and heavy rain sounding loud on the deck over my head, driven by gusts of wind. Doubts as to the reliability of my "sea legs" made me prudently keep my berth till about ten o'clock, when I went on deck to find a [Illustration: [map of south-central North Carolina at the South Carolina border]] dense fog and a high running sea. The rain had ceased, but the succeeding fog was a worse obstacle to navigation. We were nearly at our destination, and were feeling our way slowly along. My "doubts" vanished in the fresh air, and the bit of real seafaring was exhilarating. Most of the cabin passengers, however, failed to show themselves on deck, and the soldiers and officers whom duty kept there did not all enjoy it greatly. The recruiting regulations, just then, allowed transfers to the gunboat service of soldiers who had any experience even in inland navigation, and the impulse to change had made the subject a "burning question," even while we were in the West The inveterate practical jokers now had their opportunity, and a man leaning uneasily over the lee rail was sure to be offered the chance to enlist in the navy, with glowing eulogies of its superior comfort compared with marching in the mud. In the middle of the afternoon we dropped anchor in nine fathoms, but toward evening the fog lifted, and we ran further in, anchoring in seven fathoms, about a mile off the shore. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. i. p. 927.] Fort Fisher was abreast of us, on Federal Point, its big parapet looking like a long, low hill, with knobs upon it, rising from the beach of glittering white sand against a background of the pine forest. Admiral Porter's fleet lay at their moorings all around us, a few of the lighter vessels having crossed the bar and run into the mouth of Cape Fear River behind the fort, where the river channel was nearly parallel to the sea beach and less than a mile from it. We were at New Inlet, between Federal Point and Smith Island, or rather the long, narrow key which runs northward from the island. Cape Fear is the sharp southern point of Smith Island, some seven miles south of where we lay, and the old entrance was south and west of the cape, between the island and the mainland. [Footnote: See official Atlas, pl. cxxxix.]
The landing of the troops was a difficult task, for the roughness of the sea made it impossible for another vessel to lie alongside the transports, and we had to resort to the slow and somewhat dangerous method of transferring the men from the ships to a light-draft steamer in the ship's small boats. A little wharf was on the inner side of Federal Point, but there the water was so shallow that even the light-draft propeller could not get to the wharf, and another transfer had to be made. Crossing the bar could only be done at high water or near it, and the time for work was consequently so much shortened that the whole of the 8th and 9th was used in landing the division. At sunset of the 9th the sea went down enough for the propeller to come alongside; the headquarters tents and baggage were transferred to her, and we took leave of the good ship "Atlantic." By the time this transfer was made, the tide was too low to let us pass in over the bar, and we had to pass the night on the dirty propeller, lying outside till eight o'clock of Friday the 10th, when we ran in at high tide, and after the second transfer resumed our character of land forces on the sandy shore of North Carolina. All the saddle horses of the command were, however, upon a freight ship that did not arrive for several days, and mounted officers who had lived in the saddle for years found it slow and tiresome work to wade on foot through the soft sands in the performance of military duty.
General Terry with his forces was holding a line across Federal Point about two miles above Fort Fisher, [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. i. p. 910.] and I directed my own troops to encamp a little in rear of Terry's line. My own quartermaster arranged with the chief of that department on the ground to send our headquarters tents and baggage with the division. Meanwhile, taking the little river steamboat which had made our final transfer to the shore, I visited General Schofield, who had his headquarters temporarily on the steamer "Spaulding," assigned to the medical department for hospital use, but which at the time had no sick or wounded on board. Like myself, he was for the nonce dismounted, and as he was contemplating movements up both sides of Cape Fear River, some means of ready communication with both banks was a necessity. With him I visited Admiral Porter on the flag-ship "Malvern," and a movement for next day, the 11th, was arranged. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. i. p. 927.]
General Bragg was in command of the Confederate Department of North Carolina, to which he was assigned when General Lee, being made by law general-in-chief of the army, superseded him in the similar duties he had been performing by appointment of President Davis. Bragg's headquarters were at Wilmington. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. pp. 1088, 1099.] Hoke's division was mostly in intrenchments across Federal Point about four miles above Fort Fisher, his right resting at Sugar-loaf Hill on the left bank of the river, and his left near the lower end of Myrtle Sound. Opposite Sugar-loaf, at Old Brunswick, was Fort Anderson, a strong earthwork with ten pieces of heavy ordnance, garrisoned by General Hagood with his brigade of two thousand men. [Footnote: Official Atlas, pl. cxxxii.; Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. i. pp. 911, 1077.] The channel of the river was obstructed by
torpedoes and other defensive devices. The enemy's fortifications on Smith Island and near Smithville had been abandoned when Fort Fisher fell, opening the way into the river above them.
On board the "Malvern" it was arranged that a
monitor and other vessels of the fleet which could cross the bar should ascend the river and engage Fort Anderson, whilst Terry's troops, supported by my division, should make a strong reconnoissance of Hoke's lines and, if they were found to be strongly held, establish counter lines near them, so that most of the forces could then be used for flanking operations. [Footnote: _Id._, p. 958.] Returning to my command, I found it encamped as had been ordered, and our headquarters tents in comfortable shape by the zealous labors of our servants aided by the headquarters guard. General Terry kindly sent over four horses as a mount for myself and my most necessary staff officers in the movement to begin in the morning. One of the first questions a soldier asks in regard to his camping-place is, Where is water to be got? One's first impression would be that on this flat tongue of sand covered only with a sparse growth of pines and scrub live-oak, with the ocean on one side and a tidal river on the other, fresh water would be scarce and brackish. But we were agreeably disappointed to find that near us, in the middle of the sands, was a juniper swamp and pond of which the water was sweet and wholesome, though from the juniper roots it had the bright brown color of coffee.
On the 11th the movement was made as planned. Hoke's outposts and pickets were driven from their rifle-pits, and his main line at Sugar-loaf well reconnoitred. Terry's new line was established within small-arm range of the enemy and intrenched so that Hoke might be obliged to hold his own position in force. In the advance I was much interested in observing the conduct of the colored troops in General Paine's division, for I had never before seen them in action. They were well disciplined and well led, and went forward with alacrity in capital form, showing that they were good soldiers. I rode well forward purposely to watch their skirmishers, and was greatly pleased to see the pace they took and the lively way in which they followed up the Confederate outposts when once these were started.
When the new position was taken up, I went to the river bank, and there, from a sand breastwork so white that it looked like a snow-drift, I watched with my field-glass a duel between the monitor "Montauk" and Fort Anderson. The monitor, which lay about a mile from the fort, was of the original single-turret form, armed with the large-calibre smooth-bores, which were fired with great deliberation and with surprising accuracy. I could not see how any rifled guns could have improved on their practice. The conical shot would, of course, have excelled in penetrating power and in range, but the big round shells seemed to be put just where the gunners wished. A group of men stood on the deck of the monitor behind the turret, and they frequently came out from its cover to watch the effect of the firing, having time to step back again, between the flash of the enemy's gun and the passing of the shot. The deck of the monitor, being almost awash, was no mark at all for the artillerists in the fort, and it would be the merest chance if a ricochet shot struck it. If it did, the very low angle of impact made it fly off without doing any harm. The turret was dented with some centre shots, as I saw when I visited the vessel later, but it was practically impregnable to the ordnance the Confederates used. On the other hand, the direct fire from the ship was limited in its effect to the displacement of earth on the parapet or the knocking away of the cheeks of the embrasures. The body of the garrison was kept out of range, and the artillerists were so close to the rampart that when shells exploded over them, the fragments flew beyond and there were few casualties.
General Terry was left to hold the new line established in face of Hoke with Paine's division and Abbott's brigade, whilst my division and Ames's (of Terry's command) were marched back to camp near Fort Fisher. Schofield's own idea had been to send me with my own and Ames's divisions across the river to operate against Fort Anderson by the west bank and, by taking it, force the enemy to evacuate the Sugar-loaf position opposite. By thus concentrating on the bank most weakly held, we would by a sort of see-saw work them back till they must give up Wilmington or fight for it in the open. I was directed to be ready to cross the river on the 12th, but the order was countermanded, and it was determined to try a plan which would avoid the necessity of dividing the forces on the two sides of a large river. Colonel Comstock of Grant's staff, who had accompanied Terry as engineer in the taking of Fort Fisher [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvi. pt. ii. p. 30.] and who was still with us, had made a reconnoissance up the coast on the 11th, and found at Big Hill, three miles south of Masonboro Inlet, a position from which it seemed practicable to cover the collection and launching of enough pontoon boats to ferry a column of troops across Myrtle Sound. If this could be done with secrecy and speed till enough were over to make head against the enemy while the rest were crossing, Hoke's position would be turned and he would have to fall back upon more open country, where our whole force could be manoeuvred against him.
On Comstock's suggestion Schofield determined to try the plan, which was a promising one if winds and waves would permit. The navy was to tow the boats to the place of rendezvous with a body of engineer troops under Comstock's orders, whilst Schofield led Ames's and my divisions by the shore. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. pp. 403,404.] The movement was made after dark on the evening of the 12th, but the bad weather had hardened down into a regular northeaster, and it proved impossible to tow the pontoon boats through the heavy sea. After a night of severe exposure we returned to camp to find many of our tents flattened by the gale. After a day's rest the effort was renewed on the 14th, but as the admiral reported that the sea was too rough for even the smaller steamers to go outside, the plan was modified so as to try drawing the boats on their trucks, though the number of our draft animals was as yet very small. [Footnote: _Id._, pp. 426, 427.] What with the heavy surf on the beach and the deep, soft sand beyond it, the weak teams could not pull the trucks far, and gave out before we reached the chosen position. As we turned back after midnight the moon was just rising, and the scene was a wild one, with the flying clouds and the foaming waves silvered by the moonlight; but the rarest sight was, just as half the moon's great disk was above the horizon, a ship of war stood against it, exactly framed in the semicircle of light as if drawn in black on the silver surface. The plan was an interesting one and would probably have succeeded in favorable weather, but the winter storm forbade. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 437.]
Then came the resumption of the original purpose, and I was assigned to command the column advancing from Smithville up the other bank of the river. One brigade of Couch's division (Moore's) had arrived, and it was ordered to report to me. Ames's division was also in the column till Fort Anderson was evacuated in the night of the 18th, when it rejoined Terry and I moved on against the Confederate position at Town Creek. [Footnote: _Id._, pt. i. p. 960; pt. ii. pp. 492, 493.] Ferrying the unfordable stream, Hagood's brigade was attacked and routed on the 20th, capturing two cannon and nearly 400 prisoners, including Colonel Simonton the commandant, Hagood himself having gone to Wilmington. [Footnote: _Id._, pp. 495, 509.] On the 21st we pressed on to Brunswick Ferry, and saved part of the pontoon bridge there which the enemy had not been able to destroy completely. An advance-guard was got over on Eagle Island, the large swampy island lying in front of Wilmington, where the remnant of Hagood's brigade held the narrow causeway. Bragg had been to Richmond on an official visit, but was back at Wilmington and saw that the time to evacuate had come. The naval stores were set on fare, and the dense black pillars of smoke from the warehouses of resin and turpentine told us the story. [Footnote: _Id._, pp. 1241-1245.]
My route from Town Creek around Mcllhenny's mill-pond to Brunswick Ferry had taken me some three miles back from the river, and the broad swamps and rice-fields intervening made communication with General Schofield on the "Spaulding," very slow and difficult. [Footnote: Official Atlas, pl. cxxxii.] The sequel well illustrates the importance of complete confidence on the part of a subordinate that his chief will sanction and heartily approve the use of full discretion in circumstances where quick and full intercourse is impossible. By long service with General Schofield, I knew that he was no martinet, snubbing any independence of action, but an officer of sound and calm judgment, fairly considering the reasons we might have for any departure from the letter of an order. General Terry's troops were facing the greater part of Hoke's division in a position nearly opposite the mouth of Town Creek, and were meeting with stubborn resistance. It was known that
Hardee's command, having evacuated Charleston, was moving northward to unite with the Confederates in North Carolina, and it was supposed to aim at reaching Wilmington. There were rumors that he had already joined Bragg.
In these circumstances General Schofield had said to me, by a dispatch in the morning, "If you can destroy the bridge over Brunswick River or break the railroad to-day, do so, but be ready to cross the river early this evening near the mouth of Town Creek." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 520] Early in the afternoon I reported progress, saying: "My head of column reached this place [Brunswick Ferry] about one o'clock. The rebels had partially destroyed their pontoon bridge, but from the creek I got several boats, and have put a regiment over on the island. They got most of the way across, when the enemy opened with one gun, commanding the straight road. As the rest of the island seems impracticably swampy, this checked our reconnoissance; but there can be little doubt the rebels are evacuating. They have made immense fires, the smoke of which you must have seen, indicating that they are destroying turpentine, etc. A few skirmishers were on the opposite side of Brunswick River when we reached it, but they ran at once. The enemy has destroyed all flatboats within reach, but I may hunt some up. I am pushing a reconnoissance further up the river, by way of threatening to cross above the island, and so hasten their movements. I shall put my command in position covering the crossing and the Georgetown road, and watch the movements, in the town. The railroad bridge across Brunswick River is partially destroyed, and we hear the cars on the other side of the town from here. I cannot doubt that General Terry will have an open road in the morning, and think from the general indications that I am entirely secure here. I will face in all directions and get all the intelligence I can, while awaiting orders. There is no railroad or other bridge over Cape Fear River." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 521.]
Whilst this report was on the road to Schofield, a messenger who left the general about noon was slowly working his way to me, bearing this message: "My last report from General Terry indicates that he will not be able to force the enemy back from the position held by him last evening. General Terry thinks Hoke has his whole force in his front. It will therefore be necessary to transfer your troops to the east bank of the river to-night. The men will be put across in small boats near the mouth of Town Creek, unless Terry succeeds in effecting a lodgment higher up. In the latter event I will signal you. Otherwise move your troops to the mouth of Town Creek without further orders. Let your artillery and animals go down to Fort Anderson. I will have them sent from that place by steamers to Federal Point this evening. If you can destroy the bridges over Brunswick River to-day, do so; but in any event be ready to commence crossing the river by dusk or earlier, if practicable. You might perhaps send back a brigade or two while the others are doing the work." [Footnote: _Ibid._]
At six o'clock, in the dusk of the evening, this letter reached me, and I instantly replied: "Your dispatch directing movement is only just received, the messenger having lost his way. As I am eight miles from the mouth of Town Creek, and it is already dark, your directions cannot be literally followed, and the circumstances impress me so strongly with the belief that the enemy are about to evacuate Wilmington to-night that I venture to send one brigade now and wait further orders before withdrawing all. It will take all night to get the whole command to Town Creek, and it seems impossible to cross them all, beginning at an hour so much later than you anticipated when sending the dispatch. Some engineers on the railroad who have come into my lines, several other citizens, and a number of slaves, all agree in reporting the intention of evacuating immediately. The destruction of immense quantities of property since I came up this evening looks the same way. I have collected and repaired nearly all of the pontoons and materials of the bridge, and had begun relaying them when your dispatch came. I cannot retire my own force now without it appearing a retreat. I would be entirely willing to stay here with one brigade, and should feel quite confident that I could at any time bring it off safely, if we remained here several days even. Thinking you would not desire more troops at Town Creek than you can cross to-night, I ... think it right to send the one brigade, and if more can cross, I can still send them, so as to be not much behind the others if the messenger makes reasonable haste. I believe I mentioned in a former dispatch that the rebels themselves destroyed the Brunswick River railroad bridge." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 522.]
The orderly who reached me had been landed from a small boat and made his way to me on foot, and as he had eight or nine miles to walk by a wretched road, it was not strange that he was late in reaching me. Giving him his supper whilst I wrote my dispatch, I then mounted him on a horse, and sent with him another mounted man to bring the return message. My first messenger had tried to reach the river through the swamps at several points, but had not succeeded in getting within hailing distance of any vessels in the stream. He happened, however, to fall in with the second messengers in his wanderings, and was now taken to the place where a small boat was to be sent, and so it happened that both my dispatches reached Schofield together, but not till about half-past ten. Meanwhile, the general having heard nothing whatever from me, and getting unfavorable reports from Terry, wrote me again at a quarter-past seven.
He said: "My orderlies and your signal officer seem to have got lost, and I have heard nothing from you since 10.30 A. M. I sent an order to you by an orderly on foot about noon, but do not feel at all certain that it has reached you. I want you to move back abreast of the fleet, just above the mouth of Town Creek, to-night, and be ready to cross the river at dawn of day in the morning. Send all your wagons and horses to Fort Anderson. The men will cross in small boats. Better send a regiment with your wagons, horses, and artillery. Should the enemy be in force in your front, it might be necessary to cross Town Creek before crossing the river. About this, act according to your judgment. I intended you to cross the river to-night, but it is now too late." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 522.]
But whilst this last orderly was on his dark and weary way to me, my two dispatches finally got through, and at 10.20 Schofield wrote me from the cabin of the "Spaulding" as follows: "Your dispatch of 6 P.M. is just received, and is highly satisfactory. The one of an earlier date, but the hour not given, came at the same time. About seven o'clock I sent another to you directing you to come back. I hope this will reach you in time to take its place. My orders were based on General Terry's report of an increase of the force in his front, and that of prisoners that Hardee's forces had arrived from Charleston. I think you would certainly have learned it if the latter were true That you have sent one brigade back is well. You may send another as soon as you get this dispatch. Keep the other two where you are until daylight in the morning. Then, if the rebels have gone, you can enter the town, taking care to hold the river crossings. If the enemy has not gone, or you are not positive that he is going, then move back and cross the river as before directed." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvit. pt. ii. p. 522.]
Immediately after this, Schofield wrote me another dispatch, briefer, but of the same general purport. [Footnote: _Id._, p. 523.] It was probably sent by way of precaution, in case any accident happened to the bearer of the other. Arrangements had been made to get over some horsemen so as to speed these dispatches, and they came through to me by midnight. But meanwhile my perplexity as to my duty was intensified. I had put over the Sixteenth Kentucky upon Eagle Island, and made them throw up a breastwork across the cause-way facing that of the enemy, which was near the main channel of Cape Fear River. They were exploring the swamps, seeking information and preparing to force the position in the morning. My confidence in my forecast was such that I did not cease work on the repair of the pontoons, and had the crossing ready for use late in the evening, but awaited further orders with great anxiety. At 11.45, however, came the order dated at 7.15, reiterating the direction to withdraw. Moore's brigade had gone under the first order, Henderson's was waiting ready to march, and I started it for Town Creek. [Footnote: _Id._, p. 524.] Reilly's (Colonel Sterl in command) began to follow. The march in a dark night made it proper to leave reasonable intervals between the brigades, and I was still waiting with Casement's brigade, and had not destroyed the pontoon bridge, when, at midnight, I got Schofield's dispatch of 10.20, which had come through in less than half the time other messages had taken, under his eager orders to force the horses through at speed. I at once recalled Sterl, and with great satisfaction wrote to the General, "Your dispatch of 10.20 received in time to stop two brigades. Henderson's and Moore's have gone forward and will report at the river above Town Creek. I will inform you of any changes in the morning. The railroad employes who came in to me informed me positively that Hardee's troops had not come here." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. ii. p. 523.] My outpost on the island was replaced, and before day dawned we knew that the last of the enemy had disappeared from our immediate front and that Wilmington was evacuated. Bragg had carefully removed all boats from our side of the channel, but citizens anxious to prevent us from firing on the town came over in skiffs, and we learned that the Confederate forces had marched away toward Goldsborough, leaving the way open for Terry's march into the city, which took place in the early morning of the 22d, which we were happy to recall was Washington's Birthday.
It has seemed worth while to give the correspondence at such length, because it well illustrates the difficulties under which officers must labor in war, and the necessity for a good deal of freedom of action and of discretion in deciding upon his course, when the commander of a detached column finds his communication with headquarters obstructed and retarded by accidental circumstances. Had General Schofield's methods been rigid in requiring literal obedience, my command would have abandoned the advantages we had gained, and the campaign might have taken quite another turn. My complete confidence in the liberality of his judgment when the facts should be all known, encouraged me to a course which would otherwise have been impossible. [Footnote: In 1870 Moltke had adopted the wise rule of leaving to subordinates of the higher grades very large discretion, and to avoid trammelling them by detailed orders or by prematurely communicated plans. "The very lack of instructions gave them liberty and imposed on them the duty of acting on their own responsibility, in case unforeseen events should require such prompt action that orders from the Supreme Commander could not be waited for." (Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen, Strategy, vol. i. p. 324.) It was even looked upon as "an unwarranted censure" on the subordinate "if anything was enjoined unnecessarily," or which was within the proper knowledge and discretion of the officer. _Id_., vol. ii. p. 39.] There was with me a very efficient squad of the
Signal Corps, under Lieutenant Ketchum, which had kept up flag communication with the "Spaulding" and across the river in our advance from Smithville to Town Creek, but when we advanced to Brunswick Ferry, Mr. Ketchum found it impossible, on account of the course of Brunswick River and the dense woods upon the banks, to establish any station from which he could communicate with any of the vessels in the river below, or with General Terry on the east bank of the Cape Fear. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xlvii. pt. i. pp. 915, 916.] This threw us unexpectedly upon messengers as the only go-betweens, and led to the embarrassments which have been described.