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Chapter 25: the war in the West.

  • A gloomy outlook
  • -- Lone Jack -- “the butcher, McNeil” -- Corinth and Murfreesboro -- their bloody cost -- the cry wrung from the people -- Mr. Davis stands firm -- Johnston relieves Bragg -- the Emancipation proclamation -- Magruder's Galveston amphiboid -- the Atlantic seaboard -- popular estimate of the status -- hope for the New year.
    And misfortunes did not come singly, but in battalions.

    The trans-Mississippi was so far distant that only broken echoes of its troubles could penetrate the web of hostile armies between it and the Capital. But those echoes were all of gloom. Desultory warfare --with but little real result to either side, and only a steady drain on Confederate resources and men-had waged constantly. A trifling success had been gained at Lone Jack, but it was more than done away with by aggregate losses in bloody guerrilla fighting. Spies, too, had been shot on both sides; but the act that came home to every southern heart was the wanton murder of ten Confederates at Palmyra, by the order of General McNeil, on the flimsy pretext of retaliation. The act, and its attendant cruelties, gained for him in the South the name of “The butcher;” and its recital found grim response in every southern camp — as each hard hand clasped tighter round the hard musket stock-and there was an answering throb to the cry of Thompson's prompt war song:

    Let this be the watchword of one and of all-
    Remember the Butcher, McNeil!

    Meantime, Mississippi had been the scene of new disasters. Vicksburg, the “Queen of the West,” still sat unhurt upon her bluffs, smiling defiance to the storm of hostile shot and shell; teaching a lesson of spirit and endurance to which the whole country looked with admiration and emulation. On the 15th of August the iron-clad ram, “Arkansas,” had escaped out of the Yazoo river; run the gauntlet of the Federal fleet at Vicksburg and made safe harbor under the town, to aid in its heroic defense.

    Twenty days thereafter, General Breckinridge made a most chivalrous and dashing, but equally useless and disastrous, attack upon Baton Rouge. His small force was greatly outnumbered by the garrison, behind heavy works and aided by a heavy fleet of gunboats. [216] and after a splendidly gallant fight, that had but one serious resulthe was forced to withdraw. That result was the loss of the ram Arkansas--which went down to co-operate with this movement. Her machinery became deranged, and there was only the choice of surrendering her to the enemy, or of sending her the road that every Confederate iron-clad went sooner, or later-and she was blown up.

    But the gloom was only to grow deeper and deeper, with thickening clouds and fewer gleams of light.

    After the fight at Iuka, in which that popular darling had been defeated and forced to fall back before superior numbers, Price had combined his army with that of Van Dorn; and on the 3d of October, the latter led them to another wild and Quixotic slaughteringstand-ing out among the deeds even of that stirring time, in bold relief for brilliant, terrible daring, and fearful slaughter-but hideous in its waste of life for reckless and ill-considered objects. The forces of the enemy at Corinth were in almost impregnable works; and Van Dorn-after worsting them in a hot fight on the 3d, and driving them into these lines, next day attacked the defenses themselves and was driven back. Officers and men behaved with a cool and brilliant daring that savored more of romance than of real war; deeds of personal prowess beyond precedent were done; and the army of Mississippi added another noble page to its record-but written deep and crimson in its best blood.

    And another piteous cry was wrung from the hearts of the people to know how long, O, Lord! were these terrible scenes-killings, not battles; and with no result but blood and disaster!-to be reenacted.

    After its retreat from Kentucky, Bragg's army rested for over a month at Murfreesboro, the men recruiting from the fatigues of that exhausting campaign; and enjoying themselves with every species of amusement the town and its kindhearted inhabitants offered — in that careless reaction from disaster that ever characterized “Johnny Reb.” There was no fresh defeat to discourage the anxious watchers at a distance; while the lightning dashes of John Morgan, wherever there was an enemy's railroad or wagon train; and the flail-like blows of Forrest, gave both the army and the people breathing space.

    But fresh masses of Federals were hovering upon the track of the ill-starred Bragg, threatening to pounce down upon and destroy [217] him-even while he believed so much in their inaction as to think of forcing them into an advance. The Federals now held West and Middle Tennessee, and they only needed control of East Tennessee to have a solid base of operations against Northern Georgia. Once firmly established there, they could either force their way across the state and connect with their Atlantic seaboard fleets; or could cut the sole and long line of railroad winding through the Confederate territory; thus crippling the whole body by tapping its main vital artery, and causing death by depletion. Rosecrans, with an army of between forty and fifty thousand men, was lying in Nashville, watching and waiting the moment for his telling blow.

    This was the posture on Christmas, 1862. Three days after the enemy struck-heavily and unexpectedly.

    The first intimation General Bragg had of the movement was cavalry skirmishes with his advance. These continued daily, increasing in frequency and severity until the 30th of December, when the contending armies were near enough for General Polk to have a heavy fight with the Federal right.

    Next day, the weather being bitter and the driving sleet filling the atmosphere, the general battle was joined. McCowan and Cleburne, under Hardee, charged the Federal's right through a deadly hail of artillery and small arms, that darkened the air as thickly as the sleet --driving him back at the bayonet's point and swinging his front round from his center. The fierce valor of the southern troops and the brilliant dash of their leaders was resistless; and evening fell upon a field, wet with the blood of the South, but clearly a field of victory. Though the Federals fought with desperation, they were so badly hurt that Bragg believed they would fall back that night, in such confusion as to leave them his easy prey.

    Morning of the New Year dawned cold, dark and stormy; but the enemy was still in sight, having only taken up a stronger position on a hill and posted his artillery most advantageously. It began to look as if General Bragg's telegram to Richmond of the victory he had gained, might require a postscript; but all that long New Year's day he allowed the enemy time to recuperate and strengthen his position.

    It seemed as though another Shiloh was to be re-enacted; a victory wrenched from heavy odds by valor and skill was to be nullified by delay in crushing the enemy, while yet demoralized [218]

    Next day came; and then Breckinridge was sent through a terrific storm of balls and shell, that cut down his gallant boys like grass before the scythe. On, into the Valley of the Shadow they strode; thinned, reeling, broken under that terrible hail-but never blenching. And the crest was won! but the best blood of Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and North Carolina was flooding that horrid field! Over two thousand noble fellows lay stiff, or writhing with fearful wounds-thick upon the path behind the victorious column.

    And then — with that fatality that seemed ever to follow the fortunes of the unfortunate general in command — the army fell back!

    Broken was the goblet of victory; wasted the wine of life! And it was accepted as but small consolation, by the people who hoped and expected so much-small surcease to the sob of the widow and the moan of the orphan! that “the retreat to Tullahoma was conducted in good order.”

    And again the public voice rose loud and hoarse and threatening against the general and the President, whose favorite he was declared to be.

    But amid the darkening clouds that frowned close and threatening upon him-fearless of the future and heedless of the ominous roar of dissatisfaction far and near-sat the ruling spirit of the storm he had raised. Grim, steady and purposeful, Jefferson Davis worked his busy brain and frail body almost past belief, to redeem the errors of his chosen instruments-seeking no counsel, asking no aid-and day by day losing the confidence of the sand-shifting populace, who had once made him their God! And one act of his now did more than all besides to reassure the public mind.

    Joseph E. Johnston was sent to command the armies of the West! Since his wound at “Seven Pines,” the Government-from causes unknown to the people-had allowed this brilliant soldier to rust in inactivity; and now, when all of evil that ill-fortune and want of combination could accomplish had been done in the West, he was singled out, and sent forth to reap the harvest so bitterly sown. He was told, in effect, to take the frayed and scattered ends of armies and campaigns and bind them into a firm and resisting chain of strategy;, or — to bear the sins of others upon his shoulders and have the finger of History point to him as the man who lost the West! [219] But patriot soldier and true knight as he was-little resentful of the coldness of Government as he was doubtful of his own ability-“Joe Johnston” accepted the test cheerily and went forth to do, or die.

    For the Johnstons have ever borne wings on their spurs,
    And their motto a noble distinction confers-
    Ever ready!” for friend, or for foe!

    And this worthy son of noble sires went to clear the Augean Stables of the West; and the God-speed of his own state-swelled into a hearty chorus by the voice of the country — followed him on his knightly errand!

    Meantime, Lincoln's famous Proclamation of Emancipation had been promulgated. It made little difference to the people of the South; for it was at that time looked upon as a vaunt as idle as if he had declared the throne of England vacant. Secure in their belief in their right doing, and in the trusty arms and deadly rifles that defended it, the southern masses never dreamed the day would come when that proclamation would be more than the paper upon which it was engrossed. Still, in the general gloom upon them, it was taken as but another augury of the bitter spirit animating their enemies; and of the extent to which it would drive them in this war for the Union and flag.

    And so the close of 1862 fell dark and dismal upon the distracted country; enlivened only by the sole gleam in Virginia — the repulse of Burnside from Fredericksburg. But even the joy for this triumph was dashed by the precious blood spilled to purchase it; another vent for that steady drain of men, material and endurance-already almost past bearing.

    But there was no weak yielding in Government, or in people. Men looked at each other through the gloom, and even as they asked --“Brother, what of the night?” --struck hands in a clasp that meant renewed faith in the cause and renewed determination to prove its right.

    Early in the New Year, news reached Richmond of Magruder's amphibious victory, the recapture of Galveston; which town had fallen a prey to the enemy's naval power early in October. On the last night of 1862-while the wearied troops of Bragg were sleeping on the bloody field of Murfreesboro-General Magruder, with a mixed [220] command of three regiments of raw infantry, some nineteen pieces of field artillery, and a boarding fleet of four unarmed boats, came down silently to Galveston. The Federal fleet-consisting of the Harriet Lane, the Clifton, the Westfield and the Ossawa — were lying just off the town; covering it with their broadsides and supported by a force of infantry.

    Coming suddenly upon them, like shadows through the darkness, Magruder's land force opened a hot fire with field artillery-and aided by the daring boarding of the Lane by Colonel Leon Smith's cooperating water party-captured the former steamer, burned one other, and drove the remaining ones, with their tenders, to sea; where it was impossible to follow them.

    This gallant and comparatively bloodless raising of the Galveston blockade was a gleam of hopeful light; especially as it was almost coincident with the first approach to a naval success, by the force of Commodore Ingraham in Charleston Harbor on the 30th of January. The vessels under his command were ill-built, awkward tubs — as will hereafter be seen; but the terrible Brooke gun did its work at long range, and drove the wooden blockading fleet from the harbor for the moment.

    This victory, unimportant as it was — for the blockade it claimed to raise was renewed and strengthened within a few days — was cheering; for, said the people, if the Confederates can succeed on the water, surely the star of the South is not really on the wane.

    But there was, after the New Year, a sudden stoppage of active movements on both sides. The terrific crash of hostile cannon-the continuous roar of opposing small arms-and the groan of the Federal mixed with the death-cry of the Confederate, were all suddenly stilled. The fearful tornado of war that had swept for many months the once-smiling Southland-leaving its wake only the blackened track of ruin piled thick with stiffened corpses! was suddenly hushed; as though the evil powers that had raised it must pause to gather fresh strength, before once more driving it in a fiercer and deadlier blast.

    In the West, we had lost in the early year the strong position of Arkansas Post with its large accumulation of stores and its garrison of over 3,000 men; but the Queen City still sat defiant and unharmed, the hostile fleet and army having left its fruitless task; and the twin stronghold of Port Hudson showed another row of ugly teeth, into range of which no Federal force seemed yet ready to venture. [221]

    On the Atlantic seaboard, too, the prospects, at this time, appeared more cheering. Girt as it was, with one unbroken line of watchful cruisers, with every port apparently sealed by blockade-southern ingenuity and pluck still defied them and ran in precious stores of arms, clothing and medicines. General Beauregard had taken active command of South Carolina and Georgia; and had put the defenses of both coasts-especially of Charleston and Savannah-into such a state of fitness as quite satisfied the Government and made the people of those states calm and confident in his ability to protect them and theirs. General Gustavus W. Smith--the friend and comrade of General Joe Johnston-had, like him, been rewarded for his sacrifices in coming South, and his able exertions afterward, by the coldness and neglect of the Government. But like him, too, he forgot personal wrongs; and, when ordered to North Carolina, threw his whole energy and skill into the works of defense for the coast and for that vital artery of railroad, on which the life of the South depended.

    Butler still waged his peculiar warfare upon unarmed men and weak women in the soft nest he had made himself, at New Orleans; but Mobile reared her defiant crest and took into her bosom peaceful vessels laden with stores of priceless utility, only to send them out again-bristling with rifled cannon, fleet-winged and agile, ready to pounce upon the Federal shipping.

    In the Middle West, Johnston's presence had acted like oil upon the darkening waters of trouble and despair. There had been no record of fresh disaster, or fresh mismanagement; the troops were recruiting, resting and increasing in numbers and efficiency; the cavalry, mobilized under Van Dorn-at last placed in his proper sphere --had done efficient and harassing, if desultory warfare, upon the enemy's small posts and communications. Pegram-by his effective raid through Kentucky-had shown that her people there were not forgotten by their brothers beyond; and his skillful retreat-laden with heavy droves of cattle and in the face of a superior force-gained him high praise from his superior officers.

    And so the people watched and waited-hopeless no longer, but quite recovered from the prostration of the rapid, heavy and continuous blows of the previous autumn. Steadfast and buoyant, as they were ever, the masses of the South once more turned their backs upon [222] past disaster, looking eagerly through the dark cloud for the silver lining they felt must be beyond.

    And again, as ever, they turned their eyes toward Virginiastately and calm amid the shock of battle. And they hoped not in vain; for over her blackened fields-furrowed by shot and shell, drenched with blood of best and bravest, but only more sacred for the precious libation — was again to ring the clarion shout of victory that ever swelled from the lines of Stonewall Jackson!

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