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Chapter 19: days of depression.

  • Reverses on all lines
  • -- Zollicoffer's death -- Mr. Benjamin, Secretary of war -- transportation dangers -- the Tennessee river forts -- Forrest, and Morgan -- gloom follows Nashville's fall -- Government blamed by people -- the permanent Government -- Mr. Davis' typical inaugural -- its effect and its Sequence -- Cabinet changes.
    The proverb that misfortunes never come singly soon became a painful verity in the South; and a terrible reaction began to still the high-beating pulses of her triumph.

    The merry echoes of the winter had not yet died away, when it became oppressingly apparent that proper methods had not been taken to meet the steady and persevering preparations of the North. Disaster after disaster followed the arms of the South in close succession; and the spirits of all classes fell to a depth the more profound, from their elevation of previous joyance.

    As early as the 29th of the previous August, a naval expedition under Commodore Stringham had, after a short bombardment, reduced the forts at Hatteras Inlet. In the stream of gratulation following Manassas, this small event had been carried out of sight; and even the conquest of Port Royal, South Carolina, by Admiral Dupont's fleet, on the 7th of November, had been looked upon as one of those little mischances that only serve to shade all pictures of general victory.

    They were not taken for what they really were-proofs of the entirely defenseless condition of an immense sweep of coast, in the face of the heavy and increasing naval armament of the United States. They were considered reverses merely; inquiry went but little deeper and the lesson they should have taught was lost; while the inexplicable tardiness of the War Department left still more important points equally defenseless.

    But the news of General Crittenden's utter defeat at Mill Springs, on the 17th of January of the disastrous results of his miscalculation, or misguided impetuosity, and of the death of Zollicoffercame with stunning effect; opening wide the eyes of the whole country to the condition in which apathy, or mismanagement, had left it.

    As usual, too, in the popular estimate of a success, or a reverse, [159] the public laid much stress on the death of Zollicoffer, who was a favorite both with them and the army. He was declared uselessly sacrificed, and his commanding general and the Government came in for an equal share of popular condemnation.

    Mr. Davis soon afterward relieved Secretary Walker from the duties of the War Office; putting Mr. Benjamin in his seat as temporary incumbent. The latter, as before stated, was known as a shrewd lawyer, of great quickness of perception, high cultivation, and some grasp of mind; but there was little belief among the people that he was fit to control a department demanding decision and independence, combined with intimate knowledge of military matters. Besides Mr. Benjamin personally had become exceedingly unpopular with the masses. Whether this arose from the unaccountable influence he-and he alone-had with his chief, or whether the busy tongues of his private enemies received too ready credence, is hard to say. But so the fact was; and his elevation gave rise to scurrilous attacks, as well as grave forebodings. Both served equally to fix Mr. Davis in the reasons he had believed good enough for his selection.

    Suddenly, on the 7th of February, Roanoke Island fell!

    Constant as had been the warnings of the press, unremittingly as General Wise had besieged the War Department, and blue as was the mood of the public — the blow still fell like a thunder-clap and shook to the winds the few remaining shreds of hope. General Wise was ill in bed; and the defense-conducted by a militia colonel with less than one thousand raw troops — was but child's play to the immense armada with heaviest metal that Burnside brought against the place.

    Roanoke Island was the key to General Huger's position at Norfolk. Its fall opened the Sounds to the enemy and, besides paralyzing Huger's rear communications, cut off more than half his supplies. The defeat was illustrated by great, if unavailing, valor on the part of the untrained garrison; by a plucky and determined fight of the little squadron under Commodore Lynch; and by the brilliant courage and death of Captain 0. Jennings Wise — a gallant soldier and noble gentleman, whose popularity was deservedly great.

    But, the people felt that a period must be put to these mistakes; and so great was their clamor that a congressional committee investigated [160] the matter; and their report declared that the disaster lay at the door of the War Department. The almost universal unpopularity of the Secretary made this a most acceptable view, even while an effort was made to shift part of the blame to General Huger's shoulders. But wherever the fault, the country could not shake off the gloom that such a succession of misfortunes threw over it.

    This feeling was, if possible, increased, and the greatest uneasiness caused in all quarters, by Burnside's capture of Newbern, North Carolina, on the 4th of March. Its defenses had just been completed at heavy cost; but General Branch, with a garrison of some 5,000 men, made a defense that resulted only in complete defeat and the capture of even his field artillery. Here was another point, commanding another supply country of great value to the commissariat, lost to the South. But worse still, its occupation gave the Federals an easy base for striking at the Weldon railroad.

    Nowhere was the weakness of the South throughout the war shown more fully than in her utterly inefficient transportation. Here were the demands of the army of Virginia and of a greatly-increased population in and around Richmond, supplied by one artery of communication! Seemingly every energy of the Government should have been turned to utilizing some other channel; but, though the Danville branch to Greensboroa — of only forty miles in length-had been projected more than a year, at this time not one rail had been laid.

    It is almost incredible, when we look back, that the Government should have allowed its very existence to depend upon this one linethe Weldon road; running so near a coast in possession of the enemy, and thus liable at any moment to be cut by a raiding party. Yet so it was. The country was kept in a state of feverish anxiety for the safety of this road; and a large body of troops diverted for its defense, that elsewhere might have decided many a doubtful battle-field. Their presence was absolutely necessary; for, had they been withdrawn and the road tapped above Weldon, the Virginia army could not have been supplied ten days through other channels, and would have been obliged to abandon its lines and leave Richmond an easy prey.

    Meanwhile the North had collected large and splendidly-equipped armies of western men in Kentucky and Tennessee, under command of Generals Grant and Buell. The new Federal patent, “the [161] Cordon,” was about to be applied in earnest. Its coils had already been unpleasantly felt on the Atlantic seaboard; General Butler had “flashed his battle blade” --that was to gleam, afterward, so bright at Fort Fisher and Dutch Gap-and had prepared an invincible armada for the capture of New Orleans; and simultaneously the armies under Buell were to penetrate into Tennessee and divide the systems of communication between Richmond and the South and West.

    General Albert Sidney Johnston was sent to meet these preparations, with all the men that could be spared from Western Virginia and the points adjacent to his line of operations. Still his force was very inadequate in numbers and appointment; while to every application for more men, the War Department replied that none could be spared him.

    The Federal plan was to advance their armies along the watercourses, simultaneously with their gunboats-light draught constructions prepared expressly for such service; and, penetrating to any possible point, there form depots with water communication to their base. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were plainly their highways. The only defenses of these streams were Forts Henry and Donelson-weak works inefficiently garrisoned; for the half million appropriated by Congress for their defense at the eleventh hour could not have been used in time, even had the money been forthcoming from the treasury.

    With scarcely a check to their progress, the Federals reduced and passed Fort Henry on the 4th of February, pressing on to Donelson, into and supporting which work, General Johnston had thrown General J. B. Floyd with some ten thousand troops under Pillow and Buckner. After three days hard fighting, Floyd found the position untenable and further resistance impossible. He, therefore, turned over the command to Buckner — who refused to abandon the part of the garrison that could not escape — and, with General Pillow and some five thousand men, withdrew in the night and made good his escape.

    During the siege of Donelson, Johnston evacuated Bowling Green and awaited its issue opposite Nashville. The result being known, it: naturally followed that this city-undefended by works of any description and with an army inadequate to its protection-had to be abandoned. The retreat was at once commenced; and it was on that: [162] gloomy march that Forrest first made the name that now stands with so few rivals among the cavalry leaders of the world. Commanding a regiment of cavalry from his own section, he seemed as ubiquitous as untiring. Keeping a constant front to the enemy-now here, now there, and ever cool, dauntless and unflinching-he gave invaluable aid in covering the rear of that retreat. About this time, also, John H. Morgan began to make his name known as a partisan chief; and no more thrilling and romantic pages show in the history of the times, than those retailing how he harassed and hurt the Federals while in Nashville.

    During the progress of these events on the Tennessee and Cumberland, Richmond had been shaken by alternate spasms of suspense and premature exultation.

    Her citizens could scarcely yet realize that the hitherto despised Yankees had been able to march, almost unchecked, into the heart of a territory protected by southern forts, southern troops, and the noblest names in all her bright array. Feeling thus, they still placed some credence in any rumors that came.

    One morning, news reached Richmond of a brilliant victory at Donelson, and it was received with wild rejoicing. Next night the War Department issued the stunning bulletin of the fall of Nashville! When this was generally believed, a gloom settled over the Capital, such as no event of the war had yet produced. The revulsion was too sudden and complete to be met by reason, or argument; the depression was too hopeless and despairing to be removed by any declaration of the valor of the defense, of the orderly character of the retreat, or of the far stronger position Johnston had gained by a concentration of his force on a ground of his own choice.

    The very name of gunboat began to have a shuddering significance to the popular mind. A vague, shadowy power of evil far beyond that of any floating thing, ancient or modern, was ascribed to it; and the wild panic constantly created in the Federal mind the year before by the dreaded name of “Black horse,” or the mere mention of masked battery — was re-enacted by the South in deferential awe of those floating terrors.

    Under this morbid state of gloom, the Government fell into greater and greater disfavor. Without much analytical reasoning, the people felt there must have been a misuse of resources, at least great enough [163] to have prevented such wholesale disaster. Especial odium fell upon the War Department and reacted upon the President for retaining incapable-or, what was the same to them, unpopular-ministers in his council at such vital moment. The press — in many instances filled with gloomy forebodings and learned disquisitions on the Itold-you-so principle, fanned the flame of discontent. Mr. Davis soon found himself, from being the idol of the people, with nearly half the country in open opposition to his views.

    At this moment, perhaps, no one act could have encouraged this feeling more than his relieving Floyd and Pillow from command, for abandoning their posts and leaving a junior officer to capitulate in their stead. Certainly the action of these generals at Donelson was somewhat irregular in a strictly military view. But the people argued that they had done all that in them lay; that they had fought nobly until convinced that it was futile; that they had brought off five thousand effective men, who, but for that very irregularity, would have been lost to the army of the West; and, finally, that General Johnston had approved, if not that one act, at least their tried courage and devotion.

    Still, Mr. Davis remained firm, and — as was his invariable custom in such cases-took not the least note of the popular discontent. And still the people murmured more loudly, and declared him an autocrat, and his cabinet a bench of imbeciles.

    Thus, in a season of gloom pierced by no ray of light; with the enemy, elated by victory, pressing upon contracting frontiers; with discontent and division gnawing at the heart of the cause-the “Permanent Government” was ushered in.

    The 22d of February looked dark and dismal enough to depress still more the morbid sensibilities of the people. A deluge of rain flooded the city, rushed through the gutters in small rivers, and drenched the crowds assembled in Capitol Square to witness the inauguration.

    In the heaviest burst of the storm, Mr. Davis took the oath of office at the base of the Washington statue; and there was something in his mien-something solemn in the surroundings and the associations of his high place and his past endeavor-that, for the moment, raised him in the eyes of the people, high above party spite and personal prejudice. [164]

    An involuntary murmur of admiration, not loud but heart-deep, broke from the crowds who thronged the drenched walks; and every foot of space on the roof, windows and steps of the Capitol. As it died, Mr. Davis spoke to the people.

    He told them that the fortunes of the South, clouded and dim as: they looked to-day, must yet rise from the might of her united people, to shine out as bright and glorious as to-morrow's sun.

    It was singularly characteristic of the man, that even then he made no explanation of the course he had seen fit to take — no excuses for seeming harshness — no pledge of future yielding to any will but his own. The simple words he spoke were wholly impersonal; firm declaration that he would bend the future to his purpose; calm and solemn iteration of abiding faith that a united South, led by him, must be unconquerable.

    There was a depth in the hearts of his hearers that discontent could not touch:--that even discontent had not yet chilled. They saw in him the representative man of their choice-headstrong certainly, erring possibly. But they saw also the staunch, inflexible champion of the South, with iron will, active intellect, and honest heart bent steadily and unwearyingly to one purpose; and that purpose the meanest one among them clasped to his heart of hearts!

    Then, through the swooping blasts of the storm, came a low, wordless shout, wrenched from their inmost natures, that told, if not of renewed faith in his means, at least of dogged resolution to stand by him, heart and hand, to achieve the common end.

    It was a solemn sight, that inauguration.

    Men and women left the square with solemn brows and serious voices. There was none of the bustle and pride of a holiday pageant; but there was undoubtedly a genuine resolve to toil on in the hard road and reach the end, or fall by the wayside in the effort.

    Having laid out a fixed line of policy, Mr. Davis in no way deviated from it. There were no changes of government measures and no changes of government men, except the elevation of General George W. Randolph to the Secretaryship of War. This gentleman --a clear-headed lawyer, a tried patriot and soldier by education and some experience — was personally very popular with all classes. He was known to possess decision of character and a will as firm as the President's own; and the auguries therefrom were, that in future the [165] chief of the War Office would also be its head. His advent, therefore, was hailed as a new era in military matters.

    But Mr. Benjamin, who became daily more unpopular, had been removed from the War Department only to be returned to the portfolio of State, which had been kept open during his incumbency of the former. This promotion was accepted by the Secretary's enemies as at once a reproof to them, and a blow aimed at the popular foreign policy. They boldly averred that, though the foreign affairs of the Government might not call for very decided measures, Mr. Benjamin would not scruple-now that he more than ever had the ear of his chief — to go beyond his own into every branch of the Government, and to insert his own peculiar and subtle sophisms into every recess of the Cabinet.

    To do the Secretary justice, he bore the universal attack with most admirable good nature and sang froid. To all appearance, equally secure in his own views and indifferent to public odium, he passed from reverse to reverse with perfectly bland manner and unwearying courtesy; and his rosy, smiling visage impressed all who approached him with vague belief that he had just heard good news, which would be immediately promulgated for public delectation.

    The other members of the Cabinet, though not equally unpopular, still failed fully to satisfy the great demands of the people. Two of them were daily arraigned before the tribunal of the press — with what reason, I shall endeavor, hereafter, to show.

    Mr. Reagan's administration of the Post-office, while very bad, was possibly as good as any one else could have inaugurated, with the short rolling-stock and cut roads of ill-managed, or unmanaged systems; and the Attorney-General was of so little importance for the moment as to create but little comment.

    Thus the permanent government of the struggling South was inaugurated amid low-lowering clouds. Every wind from the North and West threatened to burst them into overwhelming flood; while, within the borders of the nascent Nation, no ray of sunshine yet reflected from behind their somber curtain.

    And through the gloom — with no groping hand and with unfaltering tread ;--straight to the fixed purport of its own unalterable purpose, strode the great, incarnate Will that could as little bend to clamor, as break under adversity!

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