The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanoogaby Peter Cozzens, Keith Rocco
Civil War enthusiasts will welcome a new book by Peter Cozzens, author of two highly praised works on Civil War campaigns--No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River and This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. In The Shipwreck of Their Hopes, Cozzens fully chronicles one of the South's most humiliating defeats.
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The Shipwreck of Their Hopes
The Battles for Chattanooga
By Peter Cozzens, Keith Rocco
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 1994 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Changes of Vast Moment
Major General Ulysses S. Grant felt miserable. Victory at Vicksburg had made him a public hero, but the laurels fast turned bitter. "In Vicksburg thank God. The backbone of the Rebellion is broken. The Confederacy is divided. ... The Mississippi River is opened, and General Grant is to be our next President," a captain in Grant's army had written his wife on the day the Mississippi citadel fell. The Northern press shared the young officer's exuberance. Florid headlines trumpeted Grant's success, and the stoop-shouldered, self-effacing Ohioan suddenly found himself the premier general in the Union. Even Lincoln tipped his hat to Grant. Reviewing the campaign, he wrote: "When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought that you should do what you finally did — march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below. When you got below, and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join General Banks; and when you turned northward west of the Big Black, I feared you had made a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong," concluded the president graciously.
Gratifying words, but all this adulation proved empty. Within a few short weeks, Grant found himself with neither influence in Washington nor much of an army in the field. The fall of Vicksburg had given General-in-Chief Henry Halleck an idea, from which he conceived a strategy for the West for the remainder of the summer of 1863. With the Mississippi clear of Rebels, he reasoned, the river could be used as "the base of future operations east and west." Union armies along the river could move at will against either half of the severed Confederacy, concentrating their forces with impunity. Only the question of where to strike first remained open.
On this, Halleck solicited Grant's opinion. Grant complied by strongly urging that a seaborne campaign against Mobile, Alabama, be launched from New Orleans. Halleck demurred. He thought it might be "best to clean up a little" in the weaker Trans-Mississippi department before undertaking anything so ambitious in the stronger half of the Confederacy. President Lincoln, in turn, weighed in with his own desire for an expedition into Texas. After rebuffing Grant's suggestion, Halleck proceeded to carve away portions of his army to support his own and Lincoln's proposals. First, four thousand troops were sent to Nathaniel Banks in New Orleans to help that general to carry out the president's Texas operation. Then, five thousand were sent to Arkansas to help roust out a small Confederate army under Sterling Price, one of the mopping-up operations favored by Halleck. Next, the powerful Ninth Corps was returned to Ambrose Burnside in Kentucky, largely to keep him from floundering. Finally, in August, the entire Thirteenth Corps was dispatched to further reinforce Banks.
With nothing better to do, Grant traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans to celebrate the clearing of the river of Confederate resistance and to review Banks's army — a large part of which until recently had been his. With neither his wife, Julia, nor his punctilious chief of staff, John Rawlins, on hand to steady him, Grant may have taken to the bottle along the way. Certainly there was temptation aplenty once he arrived in New Orleans, where Banks, himself a hard drinker, hosted Grant at a lavish banquet. The next afternoon, while riding back to New Orleans after a grand review of the troops, Grant was thrown from his mount. (Unfriendly wags like Major General William Franklin, a West Point classmate, said that Grant had tumbled from his horse, drunk.) The officer behind Grant could not stop his horse, and its hooves cut deep gashes in the general's leg. Grant's own animal may have fallen on top of him as well. In any event, the general was badly hurt. He was patched up at a roadside inn, then hurried off to a hotel in town. From there, he was carried aboard a steamboat bound for Vicksburg. He arrived there a week later, still an invalid. Julia hurried to his side, Rawlins cut short his leave to rejoin his commander, and Grant settled down to recuperate.
His repose was brief. The sudden and startling defeat of the Army of the Cumberland at Chickamauga and its retreat to Chattanooga thrust the ailing Grant back into the limelight. On 23 September, he received orders from the War Department to detail all the forces he could spare to succor Major General William S. Rosecrans. Grant sent his trusted lieutenant William T. Sherman on his way at once with elements of two corps. He put Colonel James H. Wilson, a talented twenty-six-year-old member of his staff, on a steamer for Cairo, Illinois, there better to communicate with Washington.
With an entire army on the brink of destruction, Washington at last admitted its need for more than just Grant's troops. On 29 September, Halleck bade the general travel to Memphis as soon as his health permitted to superintend the movement of troops toward Chattanooga. Low water on the Mississippi and a series of boat breakdowns and navigational mishaps delayed the messenger bearing Halleck's dispatch, so that Grant was not handed it until 5 October. Five days later, Colonel Wilson returned with new, oddly vague orders: Grant was to travel with all haste to Cairo, rather than Memphis. There he would receive further instructions.
Seizing the chance to again play an active role in something, Grant set off at once, steaming into the dirty Illinois river town on 16 October.
There the guessing game continued. The morning after his arrival, a telegram came in telling Grant to continue on to Louisville, Kentucky, where an officer of the War Department would meet him with what presumably were to be his definitive instructions. Grant, Julia, and the general's staff boarded a train an hour later and headed northward into Indiana. The train stopped to take on coal at Indianapolis. As it got up steam and started slowly out of the depot on the last leg of the journey, a messenger ran down the track and waved the locomotive to a halt. He jumped aboard the train and sought out Grant. Breathlessly, he implored the general to wait: Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was just then coming into the station by special train from Washington and wanted to see Grant at once. The War Department officer who was to have met Grant in Louisville, then, was no less than the secretary himself. Grant's military fortunes suddenly seemed to be mending faster than his injured leg.
The general and his staff lounged about Grant's private car awaiting their distinguished visitor. Grant and Stanton had never met. In a few moments, the secretary flung open the door and hurried into the car. Breezing past Grant, he rushed up to Doctor Edward Kittoe, the staff surgeon, and, pumping his hand, blurted out: "How do you do, General Grant? I recognize you from your pictures."
"The scene which followed was an embarrassing one," recalled Colonel Wilson wryly. "Kittoe was quite as modest as Grant and all three were momentarily confused. While they were blushing and Rawlins was straightening out the mistake, the rest of the staff could hardly conceal their smiles." A painful interval elapsed before the introductions were completed and the great men of the meeting turned uncomfortably to the business at hand. Although unpretentious by nature, Grant was upset. The egotistical secretary picked up on this and, said Wilson, "became at once less talkative and more reserved than had apparently been his intention."
Stanton recovered sufficiently to thrust two orders into Grant's hand, remarking as he did that Grant might choose between them. The orders were identical in every aspect but one. Both created the Military Division of the Mississippi, a field command of almost unprecedented size that was to be composed of three heretofore independent departments: the Department of the Ohio, then under Burnside; the Department of the Cumberland, under Rosecrans; and Grant's own Department of the Tennessee. In effect, with the exception of Banks's small district, all the territory from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and including much of the state of Arkansas beyond was to be unified under one commander. Both orders also specified Grant as that commander. Where they differed was with respect to the fate of the departmental commanders: One order left them as they were, the other replaced Rosecrans with his senior corps commander, Major General George Thomas.
There was really no choice to be made, as Stanton, who was eager to cashier Rosecrans, well knew. While he had no special fondness for Thomas, Grant cared even less for Rosecrans. An open secret, their troubles dated back to the fall of 1862, when Rosecrans had held a field command under Grant in northern Mississippi and, to Grant's way of thinking, had botched a chance to destroy an entire Rebel army. Grant chose the second order. As Rawlins explained the matter in a letter home:
One thing is very certain, General Grant ... could not in justice to himself or the cause of his country think of again commanding General Rosecrans. ... Of this the authorities at Washington were fully advised, in General Grant's report of the battles of Iuka and Corinth, in the former of which in consequence of Rosecrans's deviation from the entire plan and order of battle the enemy was enabled to escape and by his tardiness in pursuit in the latter allowed to get off with much less than he should. To this might also be added his general spirit of insubordination toward General Grant, although to his face he professed for him the highest regards both as a man and an officer.
With their immediate business completed, said Wilson, Grant and Stanton lapsed into a long and awkward silence.
They reached the Ohio River that evening, only to find no ferry on hand to take them to the Kentucky side. Together they stood on a windswept wharf under a numbing autumnal rain, Grant balanced on his crutches and the illness-prone Stanton shivering with a chill. At last a boat was rounded up, and the two men, after Lincoln, most responsible for the fate of the Union made their way across the river.
They checked into the comfortable Galt House later that night and then promptly parted company. Stanton went to bed with a terrible cold, from which he told Grant he never expected to recover. To the utter dismay of Rawlins, Grant and most of his staff went off to the theater. Rawlins "did not hesitate to inveigh against it as a thoughtless and undignified proceeding. He was at best rather inclined to be taciturn and moody," remembered Wilson, who by contrast was young, impressionable, and still a bit overawed by service on Grant's staff. Rawlins, continued Wilson, "seemed to think it rather a time for penance and prayer than for enjoyment, however innocent, and was unusually concerned for Grant and the outcome of the new responsibilities which had just been imposed upon him. He realized that his general was now face to face with the greatest task of his life."
It was hardly the first time that Rawlins felt the need to look out for his commander's welfare. By October 1863, the two had forged an intimate friendship, the depth and subtleties of which have eluded historians ever since. They had met in Galena, Illinois, before the war. Grant was then a failed former Regular Army officer who had come home in shame to clerk in his brother's leather store. Rawlins, on the other hand, was an aggressive young attorney on the way up. He won election as city attorney in 1857 and enjoyed the respect of the best elements of the town.
Their characters were as different as their social standing. Grant's modesty and unwillingness to offend are legendary. So gentle were his manners and slow his movements that his true strength of character and quickness when roused to action often surprised his contemporaries. Rawlins, on the other hand, was a man whose emotions were always close to the surface. Passionate and dogmatic, he never compromised his standards for another's sensibilities, not even Grant's.
Despite or perhaps because of their differences, the two men were drawn to one another. "I got to know Grant slowly and respectfully," Rawlins told a newspaperman after the war. The respect was reciprocal. As one of his first acts upon being commissioned a brigadier general in August 1861, Grant had asked Rawlins to leave his law practice and join him as his chief of staff. Rawlins accepted unhesitatingly. The two grew so close that Grant the loner later called Rawlins "the most nearly indispensable" man in his military family.
Rawlins became the quintessential chief of staff. He could digest and present to Grant the conflicting views of staff members and subordinate field commanders with a clarity that enabled Grant to make sound and well-informed decisions. And, by the fall of 1863, the thirty-two-year-old lawyer had learned enough of the military arts to offer his commander good, independent advice from time to time. Indeed, the journalist Sylvanus Cadwallader, a fixture at headquarters who revered Grant and was close to both men, confessed that "no general or broad plan of campaign, or pitched battle, was ever adopted by General Grant without the unqualified assent and approval of Rawlins. The latter was his only military confidant and adviser, and often originated many of the most successful operations." As Rawlins's love for Grant grew, so too did his desire to protect the general, even from Grant himself. "His friendship with Grant was so intense that he would curse him; so valuable that Grant accepted his rage. He wanted so much to be loved by Grant that he could test their friendship by admonishing Grant not to drink," explained Grant's foremost biographer.
So Rawlins fretted around the Galt House. He shared his uneasiness in a letter to Mary Hurlbut: "I feel that [Grant] is equal to the requirements of his present position — as a commander of troops in the field he has no superior. There are those who in the exercise of a quasi-civil as well as military command are far his superiors. His simple, honest, and confiding nature unfits him for contact with the shrewd civilian who would take advantage of unsuspecting honesty [a thinly veiled reference to Stanton] — hence my aversion as you remember to having headquarters in cities." Rawlins was anxious to move on: "His true position is in the field in the immediate command of troops. There he will ever shine without a superior."
Rawlins was about to get his wish. After spending 19 October, his first full day in Louisville, reviewing the military situation in his new command with Stanton, Grant left the Galt House with Julia to visit relatives who lived in the city. Their Sunday evening social calls were cut short, however, by a harried messenger who insisted Grant return with him to the hotel to see Stanton.
As Grant neared the hotel, nearly everyone he met told the general that the secretary was frantically looking for him. "Finding that I was out he became nervous and excited, inquiring of every person he met, including guests of the house, whether they knew where I was, and bidding them find me and send me to him at once," recalled an amused Grant.
The Ohioan obligingly hurried to the secretary's room. There he found Stanton pacing the floor in his nightshirt, waving a dispatch and wailing that a retreat must be prevented. Grant read the message. It was from Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, whom Stanton ironically had employed to report on Grant's fitness for command just five months earlier, when the general was blundering about in the swamps around Vicksburg. Grant won him over, and Dana had pronounced the Ohioan fit. Stanton then sent Dana to the Army of the Cumberland, where the assistant secretary, considerably less impressed with his new subjects, took delight in destroying the reputations of Rosecrans and several of his lieutenants. In the dispatch that had shaken Stanton and cut short Grant's and Julia's evening, Dana had warned the secretary that "conditions and prospects grow worse and worse" in Chattanooga. Horses were starving and the soldiers were not far behind. "Amid all this, the practical incapacity of Rosecrans is astonishing, and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind," opined Dana. "His imbecility appears to be contagious, and it is difficult for anyone to get anything done."
Grant acted promptly to calm the secretary. A retreat from Chattanooga at that moment would be "a terrible disaster," he assured Stanton. Although then a town of only some 2,500 inhabitants — more "an idea than a place," as one writer has put it — Chattanooga was of vital importance. It enjoyed a national reputation as a transportation hub from which two of the most important of the Confederacy's few railroads penetrated deep into the South's lightly defended interior, thus earning for Chattanooga its popular label as "Gateway to the South." Its occupation was essential both to future Federal operations into the deep South and to continued Union control of Tennessee. No other viable base of operations for Federal armies existed nearer than Nashville.
Excerpted from The Shipwreck of Their Hopes by Peter Cozzens, Keith Rocco. Copyright © 1994 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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