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Chapter 23

Upon the return of General Ingalls from another trip to Washington, he brought with him on a visit to City Point Senator Nesmith of Oregon, who had been an intimate acquaintance of Generals Grant and Ingalls when these two officers were stationed at Fort Vancouver, Oregon, in 1853. Nesmith was a great wag, and used to sit by the headquarters camp-fire in the evening, and tell no end of Pacific-coast stories. By the way in which he elaborated all the incidents, and led up with increasing humor to the climax of an anecdote, he stamped himself a true artist as a raconteur. One evening he told General Grant of a trip he had made on the Pacific coast with a number of politicians just after his election by the Democratic legislature of Oregon to the United States Senate. In the party was the Republican governor of California. Nesmith said: “The governor got to deviling me about my election, and rather got the laugh on me by inquiring: “Now, Nesmith, make a clean breast of it, and tell us just how much money it costs to get run into the Senate by an Oregon legislature.” To strike back at him, I replied: “Well, I'll give you a little account of my experience in dealing with the boys, and leave you to judge. I found, on counting noses, that I [354] [355] had corralled a majority of one certain on joint ballot of the two houses; but that didn't make things quite safe, and I told my friends that we ought to have still another fellow persuaded of what was due to my eminence as a statesman; that it was altogether likely that if we relied on the one man, he would be shot, or landed in jail, or get blind drunk about the time the vote was to be taken, and we were playing too big a game to take any such chances. Well, they said there was a man that had recently come into the State from California, and had managed to get himself elected to our legislature, and they thought, from what they had heard of him, that he would n't be stubborn enough to hold on blindly to the candidate of his choice if argument sufficiently convincing in favor of some one else were laid before him; that he was a great fellow to “coincide” if it was made an object for him to do it. You see, times were hard, and the price of everything was high. Two years before Bibles were given away free, and now jack-rabbits were selling at two dollars and a half a pair. Most men's possessions were reduced to a hair-brush and a toothbrush, though they never had time to use either. I said: “Send the man to my hotel to-night; there's no time to be lost. I intend to handle this rooster myself.” When he came to my room, I shoved him into a chair, locked the door, seated myself in front of him, folded my arms, looked him square in the face, and said: “See here! I want your vote. How much?” He glued his eyes on me, and remarked: “Now, pard, yer talkin‘ business. I don't know just what the state of the market is in Oregon, but what would you propose as a kind o‘ starter?” I continued: “How would a hundred and fifty dollars strike you?” He rose up out of his chair, looking as if he actually felt hurt by my evident lack of appreciation, and roared out in a tone of voice calculated [356] to wake the dead: “A hundred and fifty hells! I paid the governor of California twice that much last year to pardon me out of the penitentiary, or else I would n't be up here in your blank old legislature to vote for anybody!””” We were assured that after the recital of this story, which Nesmith had, of course, invented for the purpose of retaliating upon the California governor, there were no further questions from that official as to the methods pursued in Oregon elections.

“ I was n't at all surprised, Nes, to see you go to the Senate,” said Ingalls; “I always believed old Vancouver could furnish talent enough to supply both the civil and military branches of the government.” “Well, you may not have been surprised, but I was,” remarked the senator. “I said to the members of our committee one day: “When I came here from the wilds of Oregon as senator of the United States I could n't realize it; I felt that it was a greater honor than to have been a Roman senator; I could n't help wondering how I ever got here.” “Well,” said Preston King of New York, “now that you have been here a couple of weeks, and have got the “hang of the school-house,” how do you feel about it?” My answer was, “Well, since I've had time to look round and size things up, my wonder now is, how in thunder the rest of you fellows ever got here.””

Upon this, as upon one or two other occasions, some stories were attempted which were too broad to suit the taste of the general-in-chief, but they were effectually suppressed. He believed that stories, like diamonds, are always of greater value when they are not “off color.” If reference were made to subjects which warred against his notions of propriety, while he seldom checked them by words, he would show immediately, by the blush which mantled his cheek, and by his refusal to smile at a joke which depended for its success upon its coarseness, [357] that such things were objectionable to him. The same evening a citizen who had come to camp with Nesmith said he would tell a story, and began by looking around significantly and saying, “I see there are no ladies present.” The general interrupted him with the remark, “No; but there are gentlemen” ; and the subject was at once changed, and the story was not attempted.

The senator, after seeing the lines around Petersburg, expressed a desire to pay a visit to General Butler, and Ingalls and I volunteered to take him to that officer's headquarters by boat. Butler greeted the senator warmly, and the two soon began to discuss the war, and to banter each other on the subject of politics, one being a radical Republican, and the other a war Democrat. Nesmith drew an amusing picture of Butler's propensity for confiscation and destruction of property. In the course of the conversation Butler referred to some pranks played in his boyish days, and said: “There was a cake-peddler who used to come by our school-house every day, and during recess we would “play cakes” with him; that is, he would set his basket on the ground, and a boy, by paying twenty-five cents, could have the privilege of starting from a certain distance, and by a series of designated hops, skips, and jumps, trying to land in the basket and break as many cakes as he could. If he succeeded he had a right to take all the cakes he had damaged. The game was pretty difficult, and the cakeman generally came out ahead; but one day I strained every nerve to win, and succeeded in landing in the middle of the basket with both feet, and breaking every cake the fellow had.” Nesmith's comment upon this story was: “Well, that's just like you, general; you seem to have spent all your life in trying to break other people's cakes.” The joke, which had been rather in Butler's favor up to that time, was now turned against [358] him, but he took it all in good part. In discussing General Grant's popularity, Butler remarked: “Grant first touched the popular chord when he gained his signal victory at Donelson.” “No,” said Nesmith, who always went round with a huge joke concealed somewhere about his person; “I think he first touched the popular cord when he hauled wood from his farm and sold it at full measure in St. Louis.”

That night Nesmith told General Grant the story of the cipher correspondence he and Ingalls had carried on the year before. He said:

One day the Secretary of War sent me a message that he would like to see me at the War Department, at the earliest moment, on a matter of public importance. Well, I was rather flattered by that. I says to myself: “Perhaps the whole Southern Confederacy is moving on Stanton, and he has sent for a war Democrat to get between him and them and sort of whirl 'em back.” I hurried up to his office, and when I got in he closed the door, looked all around the room like a stage assassin to be sure that we were alone, then thrust a telegram under my nose, and cried, “Read that!” I suppose I ought to have appeared scared, and tried to find a trap-door in the floor to fall through, but I didn't. I ran my eye over the despatch, seeing that it was addressed to me and signed by Ingalls, and read: “Klat-awa ni-ka sit-kum mo-litsh weght o-coke kon-a-mox lum.” Stanton, who was glaring at me over the top of his spectacles, looking as savage as a one-eyed dog in a meatshop, now roared out, “You see I have discovered everything!” I handed back the despatch, and said, “Well, if you've discovered everything, what do you want with me?” He cried: “I'm determined, at all hazards, to intercept every cipher despatch from officers at the front to their friends in the North, to enable them to speculate in the stock-markets upon early information as to [359] the movements of our armies.” I said: “Well, I can't help but admire your pluck; but it seems to me you omitted one little matter: you forgot to read the despatch.” “How can I read your incomprehensible hieroglyphics?” he replied. “Hieroglyphics-thunder!” I said; “why that's Chinook.” “And what's Chinook?” he asked. “What! you don't know Chinook? Oh, I see your early education as a linguist has been neglected,” I answered. “Why, Chinook is the court language of the Northwestern Indian tribes. Ingalls and I, and all the fellows that served out in Oregon, picked up that jargon. Now I'll read it to you in English: “Send me half barrel more that same whisky” You see, Ingalls always trusts my judgment on whisky. He thinks I can tell the quality of the liquor by feeling the head of the barrel in the dark.” That was too much for the great War Secretary, and he broke out with a laugh such as I don't believe the War Department had ever heard since he was appointed to office; but I learned afterward that he took the precaution, nevertheless, to show the despatch to an army officer who had served in the Northwest, to get him to verify my translation.
As General Grant knew a good deal of Chinook, he was able to appreciate the joke fully, and he enjoyed the story greatly. Nesmith had served to enliven the camp for several days with his humorous reminiscences of life in the West, and when he left every one parted with him with genuine regret.

On December 13 Sherman reached Ossabaw Sound, southeast of Savannah, just a month after he had left Atlanta, and communicated with the fleet which had been sent to meet him. His 65,000 men and half that number of animals had been abundantly fed, and his losses had been only 103 killed, 428 wounded, and 278 missing. The destruction of the enemy's property has been estimated as high as one hundred millions of dollars. [360] On December 15 General Sherman received General Grant's letter of the 3d. In this he said, among other things: “Not liking to rejoice before the victory is assured, I abstain from congratulating you and those under your command until bottom has been struck. I have never had a fear of the result.” The next day Sherman received General Grant's orders outlining the plan of transferring the greater part of Sherman's army by sea to join the armies in front of Petersburg, and end the war. As the enemy's troops were now nearly all in Virginia, it was thought that as the railroads in the South had been pretty well destroyed, it would bring hostilities to a close quicker to move Sherman by sea than to consume the time and subject the men to the fatigue of marching by land. General Grant said this would be the plan unless Sherman saw objections to it. A prompt and enthusiastic letter was written by Sherman, saying his army could join Grant before the middle of January if sent on transports by sea, and that he expected to take Savannah meanwhile. When General Grant visited the capital he consulted as to the means of ocean transportation, and became convinced that with all the sea-going vessels that could be procured it would take two months to move Sherman's army, with its artillery and trains, to the James River; and he therefore wrote him from Washington: “I did think the best thing to do was to bring the greater part of your army here and wipe out Lee. The turn affairs now seem to be taking has shaken me in that opinion. I doubt whether you may not accomplish more toward that result where you are than if brought here, especially as I am informed since my arrival in the city [Washington] that it would take about two months to get you here, with all the other calls there are for ocean transportation. I want to get your views about what ought to be done. . . . My [361] own opinion is that Lee is averse to going out of Virginia, and if the cause of the South is lost, he wants Richmond to be the last place surrendered. If he has such views, it may be well to indulge him until we get everything else in our hands. Congratulating you and the army again upon the splendid result of your campaign, the like of which is not read of in past history, I subscribe myself more than ever, if possible, your friend.”

Sherman now invested Savannah on the south side, but the enemy evacuated the city on the night of December 20. Sherman's army then entered, and on the 22d the general sent his famous despatch to the President, which reached him on Christmas eve: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

On December 8 General Butler had come over to see General Grant at headquarters, and said that as his troops would be aboard the transports at Fort Monroe the next day, he would start in the afternoon for that place, and see that the expedition was promptly started. They had a general conversation in regard to what would be required of the expedition, which was merely a reiteration of the written orders which had been carefully prepared. It was decided that one of General Grant's staff should accompany the expedition, and Colonel Comstock was designated for that duty. Delay in taking aboard additional supplies, and severe storms, prevented the expedition from beginning operations against Fort Fisher before December 24. The navy had converted a gunboat, the Louisiana, into a powder-boat. She was filled with two hundred and fifty tons of powder, and disguised as a blockade-runner. This vessel was run in toward the beach, anchored about five hundred yards from the fort, and exploded about 2 A. M. on [362] the 24th. The report was not much greater than the discharge of a piece of heavy artillery; no damage was done to the enemy's earthworks, and no result accomplished. A negro on shore was afterward reported to have said when he heard the sound: “I reckon de Yankees hab done bu'st one ob dah b'ilers.”

At daylight on the 24th the naval fleet of fifty vessels moved forward and began the bombardment of the fort. About noon on the 25th General Ames's division landed, and a skirmish-line was pushed to within a few yards of the fort. It was reported that the fort had not been materially damaged, and that Hoke's command had been sent south from Lee's army, and was approaching to reinforce the garrison. Butler now decided not to make an attack, and reembarked all of his troops, except Curtis's brigade, on the transports, and steamed back to Fort Monroe, reaching there on the 27th. Curtis's brigade also reembarked on the 27th, and followed the other forces. On the 28th General Butler came to headquarters, and had an interview with General Grant, in which he sought to explain the causes of the failure. General Grant expressed himself very positively on the subject. He said he considered the whole affair a gross and culpable failure, and that he proposed to make it his business to ascertain who was to blame for the want of success. The delays from storms were, of course, unavoidable. The preparation of the powder-boat had caused a loss of several weeks. It was found that the written orders which General Grant had given to General Butler to govern the movements of the expedition had not been shown to Weitzel. An important part of these instructions provided that under certain contingencies the troops were expected to intrench and hold themselves in readiness to cooperate with the navy for the reduction of the fort, instead of reimbarking on the [363] transports. General Grant had not positively ordered an assault, and would not have censured the commander if the failure to assault had been the only error; but he was exceedingly dissatisfied that the important part of his instructions as to gaining and holding an intrenched position had been disobeyed, and the troops withdrawn, and all further efforts abandoned.

Mrs. Grant, Fred, and Jesse came to City Point to spend the Christmas holidays with the general. Rawlins always called Fred the “Veteran,” for the reason that he had been with his father in the fight which took place in rear of Vicksburg the year before, when he was only thirteen years of age. One evening Rawlins said, in referring to that campaign:

Fred crossed the Mississippi with his father on the gunboat Price. Early in the morning the general went ashore to direct the movement of the troops, leaving the boy coiled up on the forward deck fast asleep. When he woke up the youngster insisted on following his father, but was told by a staff-officer to stay where he was and keep out of danger; but he happened just then to see some troops chasing a rabbit, and jumped ashore and joined in the fun. Thinking the men were a pretty jolly set of fellows, he followed along with the regiment in its march to the front, thinking he would meet his father somewhere on the road. The troops soon encountered the enemy, and Fred found himself suddenly participating in the battle of Port Gibson. That night he recognized a mounted orderly belonging to headquarters, and hailed him. The orderly gave him a blanket, and he rolled himself up in it and managed to get several hours' sleep. About midnight his father came across him, and his surprise may be imagined when he discovered that the boy had left the boat and turned amateur soldier. The general had crossed the river in true light-marching order, for he [364] had no encumbrances but an overcoat and a toothbrush. A couple of horses were soon captured. The general took one, and gave the other to Fred. They were ungainly, ragged-hipped nags, and the general was greatly amused at seeing the figure the boy cut when mounted on his raw-boned war-charger. At the battle of Black River Bridge, Fred saw Lawler's brigade making its famous charge which broke the enemy's line, and rode forward and joined in the pursuit of the foe; but he had not gone far when a musket-ball struck him on the left thigh. A staff-officer rode up to him, and asked him how badly he was hurt; and Fred, not being an expert in gunshot wounds, said he rather thought his leg was cut in two. ‘Can you work your toes ’ asked the officer. The boy tried, and said he could. ‘Then,’ cried the officer, ‘you're all right’ ; and taking him to a surgeon, it was found that the ball had only clipped out a little piece of flesh, so that he was not damaged enough to have to join the ranks of the disabled.

“Speaking of the charge of Lawler's brigade,” continued Rawlins,
while the general was watching the preparations for it an officer came up bearing a despatch from Halleck, written six days before, which had been forwarded through General Banks. It ordered General Grant to withdraw at once from where he was, march to Grand Gulf, and cooperate with Banks against Port Hudson, and then return with the combined forces and besiege Vicksburg. The general read the communication, and just as he had finished it he saw Lawler charging through the enemy's broken lines and heard the men's cheers of victory. Turning to the officer who had brought the message, he said: “I'll have to say, in this case, what the Irishman said to the chicken that was in the egg he swallowed, and which peeped as it was going down his throat: “You spoke too late.”” Then, [365] putting spurs to his horse, he galloped off to join the advancing lines. The enemy's forces were in full retreat, hurrying on to shut themselves up in Vicksburg, and the general, under such circumstances, had no hesitation in disobeying orders six days old, and written without any knowledge of the circumstances.

Soon after Fred's arrival at City Point he took it into his head that he must go duck-shooting. The general was no sportsman himself, and never shot or fished; but he liked to see the youngsters enjoy the Christmas holidays, and he readily gave his consent to anything they proposed in the way of amusement. He never gave a reason for not hunting, but it was evident that he felt that certain forms of it furnished a kind of sport which was too cruel to suit his tastes. He described the only bull-fight he ever attended as presenting “a most sickening sight,” and never seemed to take any pleasure in sports which caused suffering on the part of either animals or human beings. As sporting-guns are not found among army supplies, Fred had to content himself with an infantry rifled musket. The general's colored servant, Bill, accompanied the boy. Bill was not much of a shot himself. He usually shot as many a man votes, with his eyes shut. But he was a good hand to take the place of the armor-bearer of the ancients, and carry the weapons. Taking a boat, they paddled down the river in search of game. They had not gone far when they were brought to by the naval pickets who had been posted on the river-bank by the commander of one of the vessels. A picket-boat was sent after them, and they were promptly arrested as rebel spies, and taken aboard a gunboat. The declaration by the white prisoner, who, it was supposed, was plotting death and destruction to the Union, that he was the son of the general-in-chief, was at first deemed too absurd to be [366] entertained by sailors, and fit only to be told to the marines; but after a time Fred succeeded in convincing the officers as to his identity, and was allowed to return to headquarters. When he arrived he wore a rueful expression of countenance at the thought of the ingratitude of republics to their “veterans.” His father was greatly amused by the account of his adventure, teased him good-naturedly, and told him how fortunate it was that he had not been hanged at the yard-arm as an enemy of the republic, and his body consigned to the waters of the Potomac.

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