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Chapter 22

Decisions of the utmost importance had to be made at this time in regard to movements on foot in other directions. The enemy was found to be making desperate efforts to collect troops to stay the progress of Sherman, whose march was creating the greatest consternation in the State of Georgia. News received from prisoners and spies, as well as from Southern newspapers, all confirmed the rumor that Sherman was destroying large quantities of supplies essential to the enemy, and striking terror at all points on his line of march. The governors of five Southern States were sending their reserves to confront Sherman, and the garrison of Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina, was largely reduced for the same purpose. The latter news now made the general-in-chief anxious to start the expedition which he had in contemplation against Wilmington. This port had become the principal resort for vessels running the blockade, and was of incalculable importance to the enemy on account of the supplies received from foreign countries. A large fleet of naval vessels had been put under the command of Admiral Porter, and a force of 6500 men of Butler's [336] [337] army was held in readiness to be placed upon transports and sent to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, under the command of General Weitzel, to cooperate with the fleet in capturing Fort Fisher, the formidable earthwork which constituted the main defense of the mouth of the Cape Fear River and the city of Wilmington. General Butler, who was always prolific in ideas, made an original suggestion in regard to this expedition, which he believed would accomplish immensely important results. His proposition was to load a vessel with powder, tow it up as near as possible to Fort Fisher, and explode it, in the hope of shaking up the fort so seriously that its parapet would be sufficiently injured greatly to weaken its defense. Admiral Porter and other naval authorities seemed to favor the project, and General Grant finally agreed to let the experiment be tried, although his own judgment was decidedly against it. He said, in speaking of it: “Whether the report will be sufficient even to wake up the garrison in the fort, if they happen to be asleep at the time of the explosion, I do not know. It is at least foolish to think that the effect of the explosion could be transmitted to such a distance with enough force to weaken the fort. However, they can use an old boat which is not of much value, and we have plenty of damaged powder which is unserviceable for any other purpose, so that the experiment will not cost much, at any rate.” Mr. Lincoln, in assenting to it, said facetiously: “We might as well explode the notion with powder as with anything else.”

On December 3 General Grant wrote Sherman a letter, which he sent down the coast, to be delivered as soon as the Western commander reached the sea in the vicinity of Savannah, in which he said: “Bragg has gone from Wilmington. I am trying to take advantage of his absence to get possession of that place. Owing to some [338] preparations that Admiral Porter and General Butler are making to blow up Fort Fisher, and which, while I hope for the best, I do not believe a particle in, there is a delay in getting the expedition off. . ..”

As Thomas's army was now larger than Hood's, and splendidly officered, Grant was much disturbed at the delay in striking Hood; and his anxiety had become so great that at 4 P. M. on December 6 he telegraphed Thomas: “Attack Hood at once, and wait no longer for a remount of your cavalry. There is great danger of delay resulting in a campaign back to the Ohio River.” Thomas replied at 9 o'clock that night: “. . . I will make the necessary dispositions and attack Hood at once, agreeably to your order, though I believe it will be hazardous with the small force of cavalry now at my service.” News had been received that Hood was moving a force toward Harpeth Shoals on the Cumberland.

That night Weitzel's troops embarked for the Fort Fisher expedition. Butler came over to headquarters, and announced his purpose of accompanying the expedition. This was the first intimation the general had that Butler was ambitious to go in person with the troops, as it was not the intention that he should command. Grant had selected in Weitzel an officer whom he regarded as peculiarly qualified for the management of such a delicate undertaking. However, it would have been, under the circumstances, a mortal affront to prevent the commander of the troops and of the department in which they were operating from accompanying them; and the alternative was presented to General Grant's mind of either letting Butler go on the expedition or relieving him from duty altogether. Butler placed great reliance upon the explosion of the powder-boat, and had counted upon being present at the attack; and finally [339] the general-in-chief, rather than wound his feelings at such a crisis, did not order him to remain behind. He felt that Weitzel would have immediate command of the attacking party.

General Grant now wrote instructions to Sherman directing him to move his army by sea to Richmond, it appearing to him, under all the circumstances at that time, that it would be the means of dealing a death-blow to the Confederacy, and prove the quickest method of bringing the war to a close.

Late that night the general, Rawlins, Ingalls, and I, with one or two others, were sitting by the camp-fire. The general was seated on a rustic bench as usual, and was wrapped in his blue overcoat. He loved the open air, and nothing but a rain-storm could drive him into his hut. Some camp rumors had just been received which bore on their face the assurance that they were manufactured out of whole cloth. The discussion which ensued led the general to relate a story which was particularly well told. He said: “There was a man at the same post with me who had such a propensity for lying that his example taught every one a lesson as to the evil and absurdity of the practice. He seemed to believe that a lie told with particularity was more convincing than a general truth; but he frequently tripped himself up on account of his bad memory, for in order to be a successful liar a man ought to have a good memory. One day there were some strangers invited to dinner, and the champion was urged to try and keep as far within reasonable bounds in his statements as possible, so as not to mortify the company more than was necessary. This he promised, and evidently in good faith; for he asked an officer to touch his foot under the table if he told anything that might to unimaginative persons appear to be an exaggeration. Before the soup was finished, however, [340] he began to indulge in his Munchausenisms. A person at the table mentioned the existing tendency to build hotels larger and larger every year. The champion joined in the conversation by saying: ‘But it's not a new thing, after all. As long ago as when I was a mere boy, my father built a bigger hotel in our place than anybody has ever attempted since.’ ‘About how big was it?’ asked one of the strangers. ‘ Why,’ was the answer, ‘it was two hundred and ninety-six feet high, five hundred and eighty feet long, and-’ here the officer kicked his foot under the table, and he continued in a more subdued tone of voice ‘ and five feet and a half wide.’ ” After the laughter which followed this story had ceased, the general arose from his seat, threw away the stump of his cigar, and said: “Well, I think I'll turn in. Good night,” and retired to his sleeping-apartment. After he had gone, Rawlins remarked: “The general always likes to tell an anecdote that points a moral on the subject of lying. He hates only two kinds of people, liars and cowards. He has no patience with them, and never fails to show his aversion for them.” Ingalls added: “Such traits are so foreign to his own nature that it is not surprising that he should not tolerate them in others. As man and boy he has always been the most absolutely truthful person in the whole range of my acquaintance. I never knew him to run into the slightest exaggeration or to borrow in the least degree from his imagination in relating an occurrence.” One of the party remarked: “I was amused one day to hear an officer say that the general was ‘tediously truthful.’ He explained that what he meant by that was that the general, in mentioning something that had taken place, would direct his mind so earnestly to stating unimportant details with entire accuracy that he would mar the interest of the story. For instance, after returning from a walk around [341] camp he would say: ‘I was told so and so about the wounded by Dr. — while we were talking this morning inside of his tent’ ; and a half-hour afterward he would take the trouble to come back and say, as if it were a matter of the greatest importance: ‘I was mistaken when I told you that my conversation with Dr. — occurred inside his tent; that was not correct: it took place while we were standing in front of his tent.’ ” There was much truth in this comment. No one who had served any time with the general could fail to be struck with his excellent memory, and the pains he invariably took to state occurrences with positive accuracy, even in the most unimportant particulars. When he became President, an usher brought him a card one day while he was in a private room writing a message to Congress. “Shall I tell the gentleman you are not in?” asked the usher. “No,” answered the President; “you will say nothing of the kind. I don't lie myself, and I won't have any one lie for me.”

A staff-officer inquired of Ingalls whether General Grant, when at West Point, gave any promise of his future greatness. Ingalls replied: “Grant was such a quiet, unassuming fellow when a cadet that nobody would have picked him out as one who was destined to occupy a conspicuous place in history; and yet he had certain qualities which attracted attention and commanded the respect of all those in the corps with him. He was always frank, generous, and manly. At cavalry drill he excelled every one in his class. He used to take great delight in mounting and breaking in the most intractable of the new horses that were purchased from time to time and put in the squad. He succeeded in this, not by punishing the animal he had taken in hand, but by patience and tact, and his skill in making the creature know what he wanted to have it do. He was a [342] particularly daring jumper. In jumping hurdles, when Grant's turn came the soldiers in attendance would, at an indication from him, raise the top bar a foot or so higher than usual, and he would generally manage to clear it. In his studies he was lazy and careless. Instead of studying a lesson, he would merely read it over once or twice; but he was so quick in his perceptions that he usually made very fair recitations even with so little preparation. His memory was not at all good in an attempt to learn anything by heart accurately, and this made his grade low in those branches of study which required a special effort of the memory. In scientific subjects he was very bright, and if he had labored hard he would have stood very high in them. Our class had sixty members the first year, but eight failed to pass the examinations, and the number was reduced to fifty-two. The second year's course had in it the hardest mathematics; Grant's grade in that branch was number ten. The next year he stood fifteen in natural philosophy, which stumped so many of us, and in the graduating year he was sixteen in engineering, the principal study in the first-class course. He was rather slouchy and unmilitary at infantry drills, and received about the average number of demerits. The principal reputation he gained among his fellow-cadets was for common sense, good judgment, entire unselfishness, and absolute fairness in everything he did. When we would get into an excited dispute over any subject, it was a very common thing to say, ‘Well, suppose we see what Sam Grant has to say about it,’ and leave it to his decision. He had been given the nickname of ‘Uncle Sam’ from his initials, and this was often shortened into ‘Sam.’ As I said, while he was not by any means conspicuous in the class, and never sought to be, he had enough marked characteristics to prevent him from being considered [343] commonplace, and every one associated with him was sure to remember him and retain a high regard for him.”

The anxiety of the authorities at Washington had now become so intense regarding Thomas's delay that Grant became more anxious than ever to have prompt action taken in Tennessee. On the morning of December 7 Stanton sent a despatch to City Point, saying: “. .. Thomas seems unwilling to attack, because it is hazardous — as if all war was anything but hazardous. . . .” The government was throwing the entire responsibility upon General Grant, and really censuring him in its criticisms of Thomas. Grant telegraphed to Washington: “There is no better man to repel an attack than Thomas, but I fear he is too cautious to take the initiative.” On the 8th he sent a long despatch to General Thomas, urging him strenuously to attack, picturing the consequences which might follow longer delay, and appealing to his pride and patriotism. He wound up by saying: “Now is one of the finest opportunities ever presented of destroying one of the three armies of the enemy. If destroyed, he can never replace it. Use the means at your command, and you can do this, and cause a rejoicing that will resound from one end of the land to another.” The next morning Halleck, too, telegraphed Thomas, urging him to wait no longer, and saying that if he delayed till all the cavalry was mounted he would wait till doomsday, as the waste was equaling the supply. On the 8th Grant learned that there was still no certainty as to when an attack would be made; and he telegraphed to Halleck, though with much reluctance, saying that if Thomas had not struck yet he ought to be ordered to hand over his command to Schofield. To this Halleck replied: “If you wish General Thomas relieved, give the order. No one here will, I think, interfere. The [344] responsibility, however, will be yours, as no one here, so far as I am informed, wishes General Thomas's removal.” Grant replied to Halleck that he would not ask to have Thomas relieved until he heard further from him. While the authorities at Washington were prodding Grant, demanding of him an immediate and vigorous movement in Tennessee, and shaping a correspondence which would have thrown all the blame on him if Hood had passed around Thomas and moved north, yet when severe measures were to be taken General Grant was promptly informed that he must assume all responsibility for any seemingly harsh treatment. He was, however, the last man to be timid about shouldering responsibilities, however disagreeable, and he was not acting upon the goadings received from Washington, but upon his own military judgment. On December 9, at 1 P. M., Thomas sent a telegram to Grant, saying: “Your despatch of 8:30 P. M. of the 8th is just received. I had nearly completed my preparations to attack the enemy to-morrow morning, but a terrible storm of freezing rain has come on to-day, which will make it impossible for our men to fight to any advantage. I am therefore compelled to wait for the storm to break, and make the attack immediately after. Admiral Lee is patrolling the river above and below the city, and, I believe, will be able to prevent the enemy from crossing. There is no doubt but that Hood's forces are considerably scattered along the river, with the view of attempting a crossing; but it has been impossible for me to organize and equip the troops for an attack at an earlier time. Major-general Halleck informs me that you are very much dissatisfied with my delay in attacking. I can only say I have done all in my power to prepare, and if you should deem it necessary to relieve me I shall submit without a murmur.” [345]

Nothing could better illustrate the nobility of Thomas's character, and his unselfishness and devotion to duty, than the words of this despatch. It was dignified in tone, and entirely subordinate in spirit. While the general fully appreciated the manly character of the despatch, it was nevertheless a grievous disappointment to him. He had felt that in war delays are always dangerous, and there is no telling what adverse circumstances may occur meanwhile. His worst apprehensions were now realized. The season was far into the winter, and a freezing storm had set in, which might prove a serious disadvantage to General Thomas's army. Rumors were abroad that Hood confidently expected reinforcements from the Trans-Mississippi Department, and these might now reach him before the coming battle. General Grant replied to General Thomas, at 7:30 P. M. that day: “I have as much confidence in your conducting a battle rightly as I have in any other officer; but it has seemed to me that you have been slow, and I have had no explanation of affairs to convince me otherwise. Receiving your despatch of 2 P. M. from General Halleck before I did the one to me, I telegraphed to suspend the order relieving you until we should hear further. I hope most sincerely that there will be no necessity of repeating the order, and that the facts will show that you have been right all the time.” Notwithstanding the radical difference in judgment between the general and his distinguished subordinate, he was willing to give every reasonable consideration to his views, and even to express the hope that events might prove that he was wrong and Thomas right. That night Thomas telegraphed to both Grant and Halleck, explaining his condition, and saying that the storm continued. Still no attack was made, and General Grant curbed his impatience, and hoped to hear from hour to hour that his orders would [346] be obeyed without further urging. He forbore from further suggestions until 4 P. M. on the 11th, when he telegraphed Thomas the following: “If you delay attack longer, the mortifying spectacle will be witnessed of a rebel army moving for the Ohio River, and you will be forced to act, accepting such weather as you find. Let there be no further delay. Hood cannot stand even a drawn battle so far from his supplies of ordnance stores. If he retreats, and you follow, he must lose his material and much of his army. I am in hopes of receiving a despatch from you to-day announcing that you have moved. Delay no longer for weather or reinforcements.”

To add to General Grant's discomfort, Butler's expedition had not yet got off from Fort Monroe for Fort Fisher. This gave the general-in-chief anxiety for the reason that news was received this day, from the Richmond papers of the day before, that Sherman's advance was within twenty-five miles of Savannah, and that he was approaching at the rate of about eighteen miles a day. Grant felt that if the enemy were driven from Savannah, troops would be sent back to Fort Fisher, and that garrison strengthened sufficiently to make the success of any assault upon it doubtful; besides, by this delay our expedition was losing the chance of surprise. He therefore telegraphed Butler, urging him to start immediately.

The only good news received at headquarters upon this important day was the information that a movement made by Warren had been successful. He had destroyed the Weldon Railroad from Nottoway River to Hicksford, with but little loss, and his troops were now on their return to the Army of the Potomac. Grant promptly telegraphed the situation to Sheridan, and impressed upon him the importance of destroying the [347] roads north of Richmond, in furtherance of the plan of cutting off the supplies of that city.

The next morning a reply came from Thomas to Grant's last despatch, saying that he would obey the orders as promptly as possible, but the country was covered with a sheet of ice and sleet, and the attack would be made under every disadvantage. About four hours afterward he telegraphed again that the condition of the country was no better, and it was impossible for cavalry, or even infantry, to move in anything like order, and he thought that an attack would result only in a useless sacrifice of life. Another day of anxiety passed, and another telegram came, saying there was no change in the weather. At 12:30 P. M. on the 14th Halleck telegraphed Thomas from Washington, reiterating that it was felt that every delay on his part seriously interfered with the general plans.

The past week had been the most anxious period of Grant's entire military career, and he suffered mental torture. On the one hand, he felt that he was submitting to delays which might seriously interfere with his general plans; that he was placed in an attitude in which he was virtually incapable of having his most positive orders carried out; and that he was occupying a position of almost insubordination to the authorities at Washington. On the other hand, he realized that nothing but the most extreme case imaginable should lead him to do even a seeming injustice to a distinguished and capable commander by relieving him when he was on the eve of a decided victory; for his military instincts convinced him that nothing but victory could follow the moment that Thomas moved, and he wished that loyal and devoted army commander to reap all the laurels of such a triumph. However, there was yet no time named for the attack, and Grant felt himself compelled to take [348] some further steps. General John A. Logan happened to be at this time on a visit to headquarters at City Point. Logan had served under General Grant in the West, and held a high place in his estimation as a vigorous fighter. The general talked over the situation with Logan, and finally directed him to start at once for Nashville, with a view to putting him in command of the operations there, provided, upon his arrival, it was still found that no attack had been made. He gave him the requisite order in writing, to be used if necessary; and told him to say nothing about it, but to telegraph his arrival at Nashville, and if it was found that Thomas had already moved, not to deliver it or act upon it. Logan started promptly for the West. It was now December 14; and General Grant, being still more exercised in mind over the situation, determined to carry out a design which he had had in view for several days --to proceed to Nashville and take command there in person. The only thing which had prevented him from doing this earlier was the feeling which always dominated him in similar cases, and made him shrink from having even the appearance of receiving the credit of a victory the honor of which he preferred to have fall upon a subordinate. He now thought that his taking command in person would avoid the necessity of relieving Thomas, and be much less offensive to that officer than superseding him by some one else.

General Grant therefore started for Washington that night, the 14th. When he arrived there the next evening, as soon as the steamboat touched the wharf a despatch of the night before was shown him from Thomas to Halleck, saying that the enemy would be attacked in the morning; and also a telegram of the 15th from Van Duzer, a superintendent of the military telegraph-lines, announcing that Thomas had attacked the enemy early [349] that morning, driving him back at all points. This was an incalculable relief to the general, and lifted a heavy load from his mind. He at once telegraphed Thomas: “I was just on my way to Nashville, but receiving a despatch from Van Duzer detailing your splendid success of to-day, I shall go no farther. Push the enemy now, and give him no rest until he is entirely destroyed. Your army will cheerfully suffer many privations to break up Hood's army and render it useless for future operations. Do not stop for trains or supplies, but take them from the country, as the enemy has done. Much is now expected.”

The general had scarcely arrived at his hotel when a despatch came in from Thomas, saying: “I attacked the enemy's left this morning and drove it from the river, below the city, very nearly to the Franklin Pike, distance about eight miles. . ..” Before the general went to bed he sent a reply to Thomas, dated midnight, as follows: “Your despatch of this evening just received. I congratulate you and the army under your command for to-day's operations, and feel a conviction that tomorrow will add more fruits to your victory.” Mr. Lincoln, on hearing the news, telegraphed Thomas: “You have made a magnificent beginning. A grand consummation is within your easy reach. Do not let it slip.”

Logan had proceeded as far as Louisville when he heard the news of Thomas's first day's fight. Grant received a telegram from him there, saying: “People here jubilant over Thomas's success. Confidence seems to be restored. . . . All things going right. It would seem best that I return to join my command with Sherman.” The general sent him a reply, saying: “The news from Thomas so far is in the highest degree gratifying. You need not go farther.”

General Grant was now a much happier man than he [350] had been for many weeks-happy not only over the victory, but because it had at last come in time to spare him from resorting to extreme measures regarding one of his most trusted lieutenants. He went from Washington to Burlington, spent a day with his family, where a general rejoicing took place over the good news from Tennessee, and then returned to City Point.

It was not until the 17th that the full details of Thomas's victory were received. His army from the very outset of the battle had charged the enemy so vigorously at all points that his lines were completely broken and his troops thrown into confusion, which, upon the second day, resulted in a panic. The most heroic defense the enemy could make did not enable him to stay the impetuosity of Thomas's troops. Battery after battery fell into the hands of our forces, and prisoners were captured by the thousand. All the enemy's dead and wounded were abandoned on the field, and the line of his retreat was covered with abandoned wagons, gun-carriages, knapsacks, blankets, and small arms. In two days Thomas had captured over 4000 prisoners and 53 pieces of artillery, and left Hood's army a wreck. The pursuit of the enemy was continued for several days, and much additional damage inflicted. On the 18th General Grant telegraphed to Thomas: “The armies operating against Richmond have fired two hundred guns in honor of your great victory. . . .” One hundred guns had been the salute fired in honor of other victories.

Hood's army was pursued and driven south of the Tennessee River. In this campaign he had suffered ignominious defeat, with the loss of half his army. Thomas's captures amounted to more than 13,000 prisoners and 72 pieces of artillery; 2000 deserters had also given themselves up to the Union forces, and taken the [351] oath of allegiance to the United States government. The remnant of Hood's demoralized and disorganized troops were no longer held together in one army. Some of them were furloughed and allowed to return to their homes, and the rest were transferred to the East, and joined the forces there for the purpose of opposing Sherman. Thomas's entire loss in this campaign was about 10,000 men in killed, wounded, and missing.

General Grant's predictions that Hood would turn north, and not follow Sherman when the latter cut loose from Atlanta, and that Thomas's army would crush Hood's as soon as it was led against it, were completely fulfilled. There has been so much discussion in regard to the actions of General Grant and General Thomas during the two weeks preceding the battle of Nashville that a synopsis of the correspondence between them has been given in order that the reader may form his own conclusions. General Grant has been charged with being inimical to Thomas, allowing himself to become unduly irritated over the delay of the latter, and ordering an ill-advised advance of the army, against Thomas's expressed judgment. The general-in-chief had had a larger experience with Confederate armies than any one else, and felt that the urgent orders he gave were necessary; and as he was held responsible by the government and by the country for the operations of all the armies, and the success of the cooperative movements which he had planned, he certainly exercised a perfectly proper authority in giving the orders he issued. When General Thomas did not obey the instructions repeatedly sent him, the general-in-chief did not treat the case as one of insubordination or defiance, and act hastily or arbitrarily in taking steps immediately to enforce his orders, but exercised a patience which he would not have done under other circumstances or toward any other army commander. [352] He felt while sending his urgent despatches for an advance of the army that he was doing Thomas a positive service; for he knew better than any one else could know that as soon as Thomas launched his army against Hood's forces he would win triumphantly, and demonstrate to the country what was already known to his fellow-officers — that the “Rock of Chickamauga” was worthy of being placed in the front rank of the great commanders of the war. It was because he felt entire confidence in Thomas's ability to whip Hood that he urged Thomas to strike, and not because he doubted him. When General Grant made his report of the operations, he stated, in referring to General Thomas, substantially what he had said in conversation at headquarters after the victory of Nashville: “His final defeat of Hood was so complete that it would be accepted as a vindication of that distinguished officer's judgment.” On the other hand, there were those who criticized General Thomas severely for disobedience of orders of his superior officer, and manifesting a spirit of insubordination at a critical crisis of the war. Such insinuations, when all the circumstances are taken into consideration, would attribute to General Thomas traits of character which were certainly foreign to his nature. He believed that he was right, and that he was acting for the best interests of the service, and evidently felt so thoroughly convinced of this that he was willing to run the risk of assuming all responsibility, and to submit to being displaced from his command, rather than yield his judgment. There is very little doubt that if any other two general officers in the service had been placed in the same trying circumstances there would have been an open rupture; but both being men of patience as well as firmness, their correspondence was conducted without acrimony, the services of both were utilized for [353] the benefit of the country, and each was prompt to acknowledge the high qualifications of the other.

Their personal relations were not broken, as has been alleged, by this circumstance, as far as an observer could judge. General Thomas, when he came to Washington after the close of the war, dined with General Grant at his house, and at the table with him at the houses of common friends, where I was present, and their intercourse never seemed to be marked by any lack of cordiality on either side.

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