Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Grant’s Poisoned Chalice

Posted in Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 17, 2011

Bloggers really are a shameless bunch, snatching an idea from one of their colleagues, and running off on a new tangent with it.

Keith Harris, who blogs at Cosmic America, got the ball rolling this time by posting a video clip of Grant author Joan Waugh, discussing the persistent rumors of drunkenness that swirled around Grant throughout the war and after. Waugh’s own position on the subject is not entirely clear, but she describes the sort of “default” position taken by many historians — that his drinking didn’t interfere with his abilities “when it counted,” — and follows up by explaining that she admonishes her students to be “mature about judging our presidents and other leaders,” recognizing their human foibles, and asking rhetorically whether Lincoln, after suffering through a series of failed Union generals, would “appoint a raging drunk to lead the Union army?”

Professor Brooks D. Simpson, himself a Grant biographer, takes strong exception to the notion that Grant only drank when nothing much was going on. He outlines three specific occasions when Grant had what appears to have had serious alcohol-related incidents when engaged in active military operations, one of which — a fall from his horse at New Orleans in October 1863 — put him effectively out of action for weeks. “When you are a general in command of an army,” Simpson writes, “something important is always going on, and it would be bad business for a general to assume a lull in the fighting to relax before being surprised. Think Shiloh.”

Simpson doesn’t discuss Grant’s drinking at Chattanooga, but it was attested by Ambrose Bierce, at the time a staff officer under General William Babcock Hazen. Bierce thought well of Grant, but as Simpson himself noted in a 2007 piece for the Ambrose Bierce Project, the writer chafed mightily at the fatuous accolades and near-deification of the man that followed Grant’s death in July 1885. Among the things that stirred Bierce’s ire — and it didn’t take much, truly — were the general’s eulogists who built complex rationalizations around his imbibing or, worse, averred he never touched the bottle. A few months after Grant’s passing, Bierce set out his own, utterly unapologetic perspective on the subject:

For my part, I know of nothing in great military or civic abilities incompatible with a love of strong drink, nor any reason to suppose that a true patriot may not have the misfortune to be dissipated. Alexander the Great was a drunkard, and died of it. Webster was as often drunk as sober. The instances are numberless. When the nation’s admiration of Grant, who was really an admirable soldier, shall have accomplished its fermentation and purged itself of toadyism, men of taste will not be ashamed to set it before their guests at a feast of reason. . . .

My own observation – take it for what it is worth – is that it was some time afterward. As late as the battle of Mission[ary] Ridge (November 25,1863) it was my privilege to be close to him for six or seven hours, on Orchard Knob – him and his staff and a variable group of other general and staff officers, including Thomas, Granger, Sheridan, Wood and Hazen. They looked upon the wine when it was red, these tall fellows – they bit glass. The poisoned chalice went about and about. Some of them did not kiss the dragon; my recollection is that Grant commonly did. I don’t think he took enough to comfort the enemy- not more than I did myself from another bottle but I was all the time afraid he would, which was ungenerous, for he did not appear at all afraid I would. This confidence touched me deeply.

Many times since then I have read with pleasure and approval the warmest praises of Grant’s total abstinence from some of the gentlemen then and there present.

Such virtues as we have
Our piety doth grace the gods withal.

These gentlemen were themselves total abstainers from the truth.

One wonders whether, 125 years after his death, the fermentation of Grant’s legacy in this regard is even yet accomplished. Not quite yet, for some.

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Bierce excerpt from David J. Klooster and Russell Duncan, eds., Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce (University of Massachusetts, 2002). Image: Chromolithograph of a painting by Thure de Thulstrup, “Battle of Chattanooga” (depicting the Battle of Missionary Ridge) of the Chattanooga Campaign. Library of Congress.

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Ambrose Bierce “On Black Soldiering”

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on October 29, 2010

A skeptical correspondent asks me for an opinion of the fighting qualities of our colored regiments. Really I had thought the question settled long ago. The Negro will fight and fight well. From the time when we began to use him in civil war, through all his service against Indians on the frontier, to this day he has not failed to acquit himself acceptably to his White officers. I the more cheerfully testify to this because I was at one time a doubter. Under a general order from the headquarters of the Army, or possibly from the War Department, I once in a burst of ambition applied for rank as a field officer of colored troops, being then a line officer of white troops. Before my application was acted on I had repented and persuaded myself that the darkies would not fight; so when ordered to report to the proper board of officers, with a view to gratification of my wish, I “backed out” and secured “influence” which enabled me to remain in my humbler station.

But at the battle of Nashville it was borne in upon me that I had made a fool of myself. During the two days of that memorable engagement the only reverse sustained by our arms was in an assault upon Overton Hill, a fortified salient of the Confederate line on the second day. The troops repulsed were a brigade of Beatty’s division and a colored brigade of raw troops which had been brought up from a camp of instruction at Chattanooga. I was serving on Gen. Beatty’s staff, but was not doing duty that day, being disabled by a wound — just sitting in the saddle and looking on. Seeing the darkies going in on our left I was naturally interested and observed them closely. Better fighting was never done. The front of the enemy’s earthworks was protected by an intricate abatis of felled trees denuded of their foliage and twigs. Through this obstacle a cat would have made slow progress; its passage by troops under fire was hopeless from the first — even the inexperienced black chaps must have known that. They did not hesitate a moment: their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see. In order that my discomfiture and humiliation might lack nothing of completeness I was told afterward that one of their field officers succeeded in forcing his horse through a break in the abatis and was shot to rags on the slope on the parapet. But for my abjuration of faith in the Negroes’ fighting qualities I might perhaps have been so fortunate as to be that man!

San Fransisco Examiner, June 5, 1898. From Russell Duncan and David Klooster, Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. Image: “Battle of Nashville,” Kutz & Allison Lithograph, Library of Congress.

Prayer in Battle

Posted in Leadership by Andy Hall on October 24, 2010

If a man is good he thinks all men are more or less worthy; if bad he makes all mankind co-defendants. That comes of looking into his own heart and fancying that he surveys the world. Naturally the Rev. W. S. Hubbell, Chaplain in the Loyal Legion, is a praying man, as befits him. When in trouble he asks God to help him out. So he assumes that all others do the same. At a recent meeting of a Congregational Club to do honor to General Howard on that gentleman’s seventieth birthday (may he have a seventy-first) Dr. Hubbell said: “I bear personal testimony that if ever a man prays in his life it is in the midst of battle.”

My personal testimony is the other way. I have been in a good many battles, and in my youth I used some times to pray — when in trouble. But I never prayed in battle. I was always too much preoccupied to think about it. Probably Dr. Hubbell was misled by hearing in the battle the sacred Name spoken on all sides with great frequency and fervency. And probably he was too busy with his own devotions to observe, or, observing, did not understand the mystic word that commonly followed — which, as nearly as I can recollect, was “Dammit.”

Ambrose Bierce, San Fransisco Examiner, December 2, 1900

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The Loyal Legion was a group of Federal military officers pledged to defend the Union against an ongoing, Confederate insurgency in the immediate aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination. It included many of the most famous officers in the Union military, including Grant, Sherman, and Farragut. No widespread insurrection developed, of course, and over time the Legion evolved into a fraternal and heritage organization.

“Sympathies and antipathies are disabilities in an historian.”

Posted in Leadership, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on September 3, 2010

Archibald Gracie IV (1859-1912, left) is today remembered primarily as a survivor of the Titanic disaster, who wrote one of the better first-person accounts of the sinking. Gracie, who had attended (but not graduated from) West Point, was an energetic amateur historian, and was particularly obsessed with the Battle of Chickamauga, in which his father, Archibald Gracie III (1832-1864), had served as a Confederate brigade commander. The younger Gracie spent years researching the battle, work which culminated in his December 1911 publication, The Truth About Chickamauga. Gracie took an extended trip to Europe after completing the volume, booking return passage on the soon-to-be-infamous White Star liner. He apparently hadn’t quite gotten Chickamauga out of his system for, as the late Walter Lord wrote in The Night Lives On, “he cornered Isidor Straus, on whom he had foisted a copy of The Truth About Chickamauga. The book strikes one reader as 462 pages of labored minutiae, but Mr. Straus was famous for his tact; he assured the colonel that he had read it with ‘intense interest.'”

Also not a fan of The Truth About Chickamauga: Ambrose Bierce. The famous writer had served at Chickamauga on the staff of Brigadier General William Babcock Hazen (1830-1887), personally witnessed several key events in the battle, had published several pieces on the action, and apparently gave Gracie at least one face-to-face interview. But Bierce found Gracie’s efforts at telling the truth about Chickamauga to be badly and willfully biased. Here is the opening paragraph of a letter Bierce wrote to Gracie in March 1911, several months before the latter’s book went to press:

March 9, 1911

From the trouble that you took to consult me regarding certain phases of the battle of Chickamauga I infer that you are really desirous of the truth, and that your book is not to belong to that unhappily too large class of books written by “bad losers” for disparagement of antagonists. Sympathies and antipathies are disabilities in an historian that are hard to overcome. That you believe yourself devoid of this disability I do not doubt; yet your strange views of Thomas, Granger and Brannan, and some of the events in which they figured, are (to me) so obviously erroneous that I find myself unable to account for them on the hypothesis of an entirely open mind. All defeated peoples are “bad losers” – history supplies no examples to the contrary, though there are always individual exceptions. (General D. H. Hill is an example of the “good loser,” and, with reference to the battle of Chickamauga, the good winner. I assume your familiarity with his account of that action, and his fine tribute of admiration to some of the men whom he fought — Thomas and others.) The historians who have found, and will indubitably continue to find, general acceptance are those who have most generously affirmed the good faith and valor of their enemies. All this, however, you have of course considered. But consider it again.

Ouch.

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Letter from Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce (Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster, eds.)