- Condition of the troops at Knoxville -- effect of the promotion of Grant and Sherman -- letter to Senator Henderson -- a visit from General Sherman -- United with his other armies for the Atlanta campaign -- comments on Sherman's ‘memoirs’ -- faulty organization of Sherman's army -- McPherson's task at Resaca -- McPherson's character -- example of the working of a faulty system.
I arrived at Knoxville, Tennessee, on February 8, 1864, and the next day relieved General John G. Foster. The troops then about Knoxville were the Ninth Corps, two divisions of the Twenty-third, and about one thousand cavalry and two divisions of the Fourth Corps; the latter belonged to the Department of the Cumberland, but had been left with General Burnside after the siege of Knoxville was raised by General Sherman. The Ninth and Twenty-third Corps were reduced in effective strength to mere skeletons, the former reporting present for duty equipped only 2800 men, and the latter 3000 men; and these had for a long time been living on half rations or less, and were generally far less than half clad, many of them being entirely without shoes. The remainder of these troops were disabled by wounds, sickness, lack of food or clothing, or were employed in the care of the sick or on extra duty. Many thousands of dead horses and mules were scattered round the town, while the few remaining alive were  reduced to skeletons. Of about 30,000 animals with which General Burnside had gone into East Tennessee, scarcely 1000 remained fit for service; while his army of over 25,000 men had been reduced to not more than 7000 fit for duty and effective for service in the field. Such was the result of the siege of Knoxville, and such the Army of the Ohio when I became its commander. But the splendid victory gained a short time before at Chattanooga had raised the blockade upon our line of supply, and the railroad to Chattanooga and Nashville was soon opened, so that our starving and naked troops could begin to get supplies of food and clothing. The movement of the first train of cars was reported by telegraph from every station, and was eagerly awaited by the entire army. When the locomotive whistle announced its approach, everybody turned out to welcome it with shouts of joy. It proved to consist of ten car-loads of horse and mule shoes for the dead animals which strewed the plains! Fortunately the disgust produced by this disappointment was not of long duration. The next train, which followed very soon, contained coffee, sugar, and other articles to gladden the hearts of hungry soldiers. The Confederate army under Longstreet still remained in East Tennessee. A movement had recently been made by our troops, under the immediate command of General John G. Parke (General Foster being too lame to take the field in person), to drive Longstreet out. But the movement had failed, the troops returning to Knoxville with the loss of considerable material. In consequence of this, much anxiety was felt in Washington regarding the situation in East Tennessee. It was even apprehended that Knoxville might be in danger; and an advance of Longstreet's force to Strawberry Plains, where he laid a bridge over the Holston and crossed a part of his troops, seemed to give some ground for such apprehensions.  The miserable condition of our troops, the season of the year, the almost total lack of means of transportation for supplies and of a pontoon bridge to cross the river, rendered any considerable movement on our part impossible. But to relieve the existing apprehension, I determined to assume the offensive at once, and to maintain it as far as possible. Early in February General Grant had proposed to give me 10,000 additional troops from General Thomas's army at Chattanooga, and to let me begin the campaign against Longstreet at once. But on February 16 he informed me that the movement would have to be delayed because of some operations in which General Thomas was to engage. Nevertheless, I advanced on the 24th with what force I had, at the same time sending a reconnaissance south of the French Broad River to ascertain the nature of a hostile movement reported in that direction. Upon our advance, Longstreet's troops withdrew across the Holston and French Broad and retreated toward Morristown. His advance had evidently been intended only to cover an attempted cavalry raid upon our rear, which the high water in the Little Tennessee rendered impracticable. We now occupied Strawberry Plains, rebuilt the railroad bridge, pushed forward the construction of a bateau bridge which had been commenced, in the meantime using the bateaux already constructed to ferry the troops across the river. In this manner we were able to advance as far as Morristown by February 29 with sufficient force to reconnoiter Longstreet's position. This reconnaissance demonstrated that the enemy held Bull's Gap, and that his entire force was grouped about that strong position. The object of this movement having been accomplished without loss, our troops retired to New Market to await the arrival of the troops to be sent by General Thomas, the completion of the railroad  bridge, and other necessary preparations for the expected campaign. On March 12 another reconnaissance was made as far as Bull's Gap, which was found to be still occupied by the enemy, although reliable information indicated that Longstreet was preparing for, and had perhaps already begun, his movement toward Virginia. Although his force, if concentrated, was much superior to mine, I determined to endeavor to take advantage of his movement to attack his rear. My advance held Morristown; all the troops were ordered forward to that place, and preparations made for an attack, when, on the 15th, orders came from General Grant to send the Ninth Corps to the Army of the Potomac. Such a reduction of my command, instead of the expected reinforcement, left me wholly unable to do more than observe Longstreet as he leisurely withdrew from Tennessee and joined Lee in Virginia, and prepare for the campaign of the coning summer, the nature of which I could then only conjecture. This entire change of program doubtless resulted from the promotion of General Grant to lieutenant-general and commander-in-chief, and General Sherman to his place in command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, which occurred at that time. The change of plans was undoubtedly wise. The Confederate government could not afford to leave Longstreet's force in East Tennessee during the summer. He must join Lee or Johnston before the opening of the summer campaign. It was not worth while for us to expend time and strength in driving him out, which ought to be devoted to preparations for vastly more important work. I felt disappointed at the time in not having an opportunity of doing something that would silence my enemies in Washington, who were not slow to avail themselves of any pretext for hostile action against me. It was not difficult  to manufacture one out of the public reports of what had been done, or not done, in East Tennessee, and the Military Committee of the Senate reported against the confirmation of my appointment as major-general. Of this I was informed by my friend Senator J. B. Henderson, in a letter urging me to ‘whip somebody anyhow.’ This information and advice elicited a long reply, from which the following are extracts, which expressed pretty fully my views and feelings on that subject, and which, with events that soon followed, ended all trouble I ever had with that august body, the United States Senate. I recollect in this connection a very pertinent remark made by General Grant soon after he became President. My nomination as major-general in the regular army, with those of Sherman and Sheridan as general and lieutenant-general, had been sent to the Senate and returned approved so promptly as to occasion comment. I remarked that it had on one occasion taken me a year and a half to get through the Senate. President Grant, as he handed me my commission, replied: ‘Yes; and if your conduct then had been such as to avoid that difficulty with the Senate, you would probably never have received this commission at all.’ I have no doubt he was right. To have pleased the radical politicians of that day would have been enough to ruin any soldier.
Of course I knew the advice of my friend Senator Henderson was not intended to be taken seriously, but only as expressing his view, much the same as my own, of the then existing situation in the Senate. But it gave me, all the same, the opportunity I wanted to give his brother senators, through him, ‘a piece of my mind.’ General Sherman, on a visit to Knoxville about the end of March, a few days before the date of the foregoing letter, disclosed to me his general plans for the coming campaign, and the part I was expected to take in it. It would be difficult to give an adequate conception of the feeling of eager expectation and enthusiasm with which, having given my final salutation to my ‘friends’ in the Senate, I entered upon the preparations for this campaign. Of its possible results to the country there was room in my mind only for confidence. But for myself,  it was to decide my fate, and that speedily. My reputation and rank as a soldier, so long held in the political balance, were at length to be settled. The longhoped-for opportunity had come, and that under a general whose character and ability were already established, and of the justice of whose judgment and action regarding his subordinates there could be no reason for doubt in my mind. My command was to be mostly of veteran troops, and not too large for my experience. Its comparative smallness was a source of satisfaction to me at that time, rather than anything like jealousy of my senior brother commanders of the Cumberland and Tennessee. My first care was to provide my men with all necessary equipment for the campaign, and to fill up the ranks by calling in all absentees. It was a refreshing sight to see the changed aspect and feeling of the gallant little army as it marched with full ranks and complete equipment, newly clad, from Knoxville toward Dalton. My next thought was to win the respect and confidence of my men. An opportunity to do this was speedily afforded in the delicate operations in front of Dalton. The result may perhaps be fairly expressed in the words of an old soldier who was overheard to say as I passed his regiment that day under fire: ‘It is all right, boys; I like the way the old man chaws his tobacco.’ From that day forward I felt that the Twenty-third Corps confided in me as I did in them. I never had any doubt they would do just what I expected them to do, and would take it for granted that it was ‘all right.’ It is with the greatest pleasure that I record here the just tribute paid to that splendid body of men by General Sherman about the close of the Atlanta campaign: ‘The Twenty-third Corps never failed to do all that was expected of it.’ And it is with equal pleasure that I record the just  and generous treatment shown by General Sherman toward me from the beginning of that campaign. Although much my senior in years, experience, and reputation, he never showed that he was aware of it, but always treated me as his peer. In his official reports and his memoirs he has never been unkind or unjust, though it has never been his habit to bestow much praise on individuals, or to think much of the rewards due his subordinates, generally giving credit as justly due to troops rather than to commanders. It would be impossible for me not to cherish feelings of strong affection for my old commander, as well as the profound respect due his character as a man and soldier, and his brilliant genius. If anything I may say in criticism of General Sherman's acts or words shall seem unkind or be considered unjust, I can only disclaim any such feeling, and freely admit that it would be wholly unworthy of the relations that always existed between us. I write not for the present, but for the future, and my only wish is to represent the truth as it appears to me. If I fail to see it clearly, I do but condemn myself. History will do impartial justice. Having been in a subordinate position in the campaigns of 1864 in Georgia and Tennessee, I shall not attempt to write a full account of those campaigns, but shall limit myself to such comments as seem to me to be called for upon the already published histories of those campaigns. In estimating the merits of Sherman's ‘Memoirs,’1 it should be remembered that he does not, and does not claim to, occupy the position of a disinterested, impartial historian. He writes, not for the purpose of doing equal and exact justice to all actors in a great historical drama, but for the purpose of elucidating his own acts and motives, and vindicating himself against the harsh criticism  and censure which have followed some of his most important transactions. However unconscious General Sherman himself may have been of the influence of such motives, their existence was natural, even inevitable, and they have manifestly given their coloring to all of the memoirs. This should not occasion surprise, nor even regret, much less be held to justify unkind criticism. It is desirable for the future historian to have the view of the chief actor in any portion of history taken from his own standpoint. It is only by a critical, laborious and honest comparison of this view with those of other actors and eye-witnesses that impartial history may ultimately be written. My present purpose is simply to direct attention to some points in the history of those campaigns of General Sherman in which I was one of his principal subordinates, upon which the views of others were at the time, or have since been, different from his own. In what I have to say the motive of self-vindication can have little or no influence; for, with some unimportant exceptions, General Sherman does relatively full justice to me and to the little army which I had the honor to command. I shall speak mainly of the acts of others, especially the noble dead. I must preface my remarks by observing that the organization of Sherman's army during the Atlanta campaign was extremely faulty, in that the three grand divisions were very unequal in strength, the Army of the Cumberland having nearly five times the infantry strength of the Army of the Ohio, and more than twice that of the Army of the Tennessee, even after the junction of Blair's corps. The cavalry, of which two divisions belonged to the Army of the Ohio, always acted either under the direct orders of General Sherman or of the nearest army commander, according to the flank on which it was operating. This inequality resulted from the fact that Sherman's  army was composed of three separate armies, or such portions of them as could be spared from their several departments, united for that campaign. General Thomas was, naturally enough, disinclined to part with any of his troops, and the troops did not wish to be separated from the old army in which they had won so much honor, nor from the commander whom they revered. Besides, General Thomas had had much greater experience in the command of troops in the field than I, and General Sherman, if he thought of it at all, may well have doubted the wisdom of diminishing the command of the one to increase that of the other. I do not know whether this matter was discussed at all before the opening of the campaign, certainly not by me, who would have been restrained by motives of delicacy, if by no other, from mentioning it. But in fact my ambition was then limited to fighting well and successfully with the single corps under my command. It was only after experience had drawn attention more pointedly to the evils resulting from faulty organization, and success had inspired legitimate confidence, that this subject became matter of much thought and some discussion. But this faulty organization continued to the end of the Atlanta campaign, and was, as I think will clearly appear, one of the causes of many of the partial failures or imperfect successes that characterized our operations. General Thomas's command often proved unwieldy and slow from being larger than one man could handle in a rough and in many places densely wooded country, while the others were frequently too small for the work to be done. It was often attempted to remedy this defect by ordering a division or corps of the Army of the Cumberland to ‘cooperate with’ or ‘support’ one of the others in making an attack; but military experience has shown that ‘cooperate’ and ‘support’ mean, in general, to do nothing effective. The corps commanders,  generally, not being in the habit of acting independently, and not being in direct communication with the general-in-chief, and hence not familiar with his plans and views, would not act with the necessary promptness or vigor; and not regarding themselves as absolutely under the orders of the general they were directed to support, they would not obey his orders or requests unless they were in accord with their own views; while one of these corps commanders, General Sherman says, manifested an ambition to get one of the separate armies under his command and win a victory on his ‘own hook.’ But General Sherman fails to state that he encouraged all this by his own now well-known erroneous opinion upon the question of the relative rank of army and corps commanders; that this vital question was evaded until its decision in a special case—that of Stanley and Schofield—became absolutely necessary, and was then decided erroneously, the error resulting in failure and great disappointment to Sherman. Had this question been decided at an early day according to the plain import of the law, as was afterward done by the War Department, and orders given to corps commanders to obey instead of ‘cooperate’ or ‘support,’ much trouble would have been avoided. First among the most important events of the Atlanta campaign were the operations about Dalton and Resaca. Here I have always thought General Sherman committed the mistake, so common in war (and, as I believe, not infrequently afterward committed by himself and others in the Union armies), of assigning to too small a force the main attack upon the vital point of an enemy's position. McPherson had only about 22,000 infantry, while Sherman estimated Johnston's force at about 60,000. Thomas's position in front of Rocky-face Ridge was virtually as unassailable as that of Johnston behind it. The only weak point of our position was that  of two divisions of the Twenty-third Corps on our left, north of Dalton. Had these divisions been attacked, as Sherman apprehended, they might have suffered severely, but would have drawn off force enough from the enemy to increase largely the probabilities of success in the attack in Johnston's rear. One half of Sherman's infantry was ample for the demonstration in front of Dalton. At least one half should have been sent through Snake Creek Gap to strike the enemy's rear. There was no necessity to attack Resaca at all, and experience has shown what terrible losses a small force in a strongly fortified position may inflict upon a very large attacking force. Two or three brigades could have invested Resaca, with the garrison it then held, while a force large enough to hold its ground against Johnston's whole army could have been put upon the railroad between Resaca and Dalton. The result would then, in all probability, have been what Sherman expected. Indeed, the fate of Johnston's army might perhaps have been decided then and there. Sherman certainly cannot be suspected of wishing to do injustice to the memory of McPherson, for he loved and respected him most highly, and mourned his death with evident sincerity. But I think he is in error in saying that ‘at the critical moment McPherson seems to have been a little timid.’ I believe the error was Sherman's, not McPherson's; that McPherson was correct in his judgment, which certainly was mine (after passing over the same ground and fighting the battle of Resaca), that his force was entirely too small for the work assigned it. I had not the same opportunity General Sherman had of judging of McPherson's qualities as a commander; but I knew him well and intimately, having sat upon the same bench with him at West Point for four years, and been his room-mate for a year and a half. His was the most completely balanced mind and character with which  I have ever been intimately acquainted, although he did not possess in a very high degree the power of invention or originality of thought. His personal courage seemed to amount to unconsciousness of danger, while his care of his troops cannot, I believe, be justly characterized otherwise than as wise prudence. I consider this to be only a just tribute to the memory of the nearest and dearest friend of my youth. If McPherson had commanded one third of the army, he might, with a corps of Thomas's army in close support, have felt strong enough to occupy and hold a position between Dalton and Resaca. As it was, Thomas should have followed close upon his rear through Snake Creek Gap, with two corps. The distance between the two wings of the army would have been so short and the ground between them so impassable to the enemy as to give us practically a continuous line of battle, and Thomas's two corps in the valley of the Connasauga near Tilton would have been in far better position to strike the retreating enemy when he was compelled to let go of Dalton, than they were in front of Rocky-face Ridge. Impartial history must, I believe, hold Sherman himself mainly responsible for the failure to realize his expectations in the first movement against Johnston. It seems at least probable that at the beginning of the movement against Dalton, Sherman did not fully understand the character of the enemy's position; for his plan clearly appears to have been to make the main attack in front at the moment Johnston should be compelled to let go from his stronghold by reason of McPherson's operations in his rear; while McPherson, after breaking the railroad and then falling back for security to the Gap, should strike Johnston in flank during the confusion of retreat. The nature of the position rendered this plan impracticable for producing any important result. Had McPherson  broken the road ever so ‘good’ and then fallen back to the Gap as ordered, Johnston could have moved his main army to Resaca that night, and at daylight the next morning Sherman would have found in the enemy's trenches at Dalton only a skirmish-line which would have leisurely retreated before him to the new position at Resaca. The result would have been essentially the same as that which was actually accomplished. Indeed, as it now seems clearly to appear to General Sherman, the only possible mode of striking an effective blow at Dalton was to capture Resaca or seize and hold a point on the road in rear of Dalton, and not to break the road and fall back as McPherson was ordered to do. If Sherman had seen this clearly at the time, it is inconceivable that he would have sent less than one fourth of his army to execute the all-important part of the plan. And he now judges McPherson as manifesting timidity2 because he did not at the critical moment attempt to accomplish, with his comparatively small force, what Sherman should have ordered to be done by a much larger force. A very bold, independent commander might have attempted, whether successful or not, what Sherman thinks McPherson ought to have done at Resaca; and, as Sherman says, such an opportunity does not occur twice in the life of any man. But McPherson was a subordinate in spirit as well as in fact, and cannot fairly be charged with timidity for not attempting what he was not ordered to do, and what, in fact, was no part of the plans of his superior so far as they were indicated in his orders. If McPherson had assaulted Resaca, it is possible, but only possible, that he might have succeeded. There were some cases during the Civil War where intrenchments hastily constructed and imperfectly defended were carried  by assault; many more where the assault failed; and, I believe, not one case where intrenchments carefully prepared in advance, with obstructions in front, and defended by a force commensurate with the extent of the line, like those at Resaca, were successfully assaulted. It is true that McPherson's force was vastly superior to the single brigade that held Resaca that day, but that practically amounts to nothing. A single division would have been as good for such an assault as two corps. Beyond a reasonable proportion, say of three or four to one, numbers amount to nothing in making such an assault. It would be physically possible for numbers to succeed in such a case if their immediate commander was willing to sacrifice them and they were willing to be sacrificed. But considering the general unwillingness among commanders and men to sacrifice or to be sacrificed beyond what seems to them a reasonable expenditure of life for the object to be gained, success is morally impossible, or very nearly so, in an assault such as would have been required to capture Resaca on May 9, 1864. Clearly, such an assault should not be attempted except as the only chance of victory; and then the subordinate officers and men should be clearly informed precisely what they are expected to do, and made to understand the necessity for so great and unusual a sacrifice. In that case brave and true men will make the sacrifice required, provided their pluck holds out long enough; and that no man is wise enough to predict, even of himself, much less of a large number of men. The only chance of success was to invest Resaca on the west and north, and put between the investing line and Dalton troops enough to hold their ground against the main body of Johnston's army; and this must have been done in a single day, starting from the debouche of Snake Creek Gap, the troops moving by a single, common country road. Johnston's whole army, except a  small rear-guard, would by the use of three roads have been in position to attack McPherson at dawn of day the next morning, while the main body of Sherman's army was far away on the other side of Rocky-face. Or if McPherson had not held the entire natural position as far east as the Connasauga River, Johnston could have passed round him in the night. It seems to me certain that McPherson's force was too small to have taken and held that position. Indeed it does not seem at all certain that, however large his force might have been, he could have put troops enough in position before night to accomplish the object of cutting off Johnston's retreat. The case was analogous to that of Hood's crossing Duck River in November of that year, and trying to cut off our retreat at Spring Hill. There was simply not time enough to do it in that one day, and if not done in one day it could not be done at all. So that it does not seem at all certain that this, which was ‘Thomas's plan’ to throw the entire Army of the Cumberland on the road in Johnston's rear and thus cut off his retreat, would have succeeded any better than Sherman's, yet it gave greater promise of success, and therefore ought to have been tried. It is at least probable that Johnston's view of the case (see his ‘Narrative,’ pages 15, 16, 17) is the correct one: that, with his thorough knowledge of the ground, ample roads, and means of early information, together with our ignorance of the ground and our extremely deficient roads, he could have defeated any possible attempt to cut him off from Resaca. To illustrate the faulty system of organization and command which characterized the Atlanta campaign, I will now refer to an incident of the operations about Dallas, it being next in order of date of those I wish to consider. General Sherman does not allude to it at all in his ‘Memoirs.’  Near the close of the operations about Dallas, the Twenty-third Corps was moved to our left, under instructions from General Sherman to endeavor to strike the enemy's right flank. A division of the Army of the Cumberland was ordered to ‘support’ the Twenty-third Corps. There were no roads available, and the country was in the main densely wooded. The head of the column was directed by the compass toward a point where our maps, the general topography of the country, and the enemy's known position indicated that his right must probably rest. After a laborious march through dense undergrowth, during which our skirmish-line was lost in the woods and another deployed to replace it, we struck an intrenched line strongly held, and a sharp action ensued. The Twenty-third Corps was deployed as far to the left as possible, and the skirmishers reported that they had reached the extremity of the enemy's intrenched line, but could not overlap it. At this moment the division of the Army of the Cumberland came up in splendid style, and massed immediately in rear of our left, in ‘close supporting distance,’ and under a pretty heavy fire. I first sent a staff officer and then went myself to the division commander, explained the situation, and asked him to put in a brigade on my left and turn the enemy's flank so as to give us a footing beyond his parapet. He replied that he was ordered by General Thomas only to ‘support’ me, and that he would do no more. The day was already far advanced, and before I could bring troops from another part of my line darkness came on, and the action ended for the day. By the next morning I had brought another division of the Twenty-third Corps to the flank, and General Sherman arrived on the ground. By his personal orders this division was pushed straight through the woods to a point in the enemy's rear, on the road leading from Dallas to Acworth, which point it reached without any opposition, and there intrenched.  That night Johnston abandoned his lines. An inspection of the enemy's intrenchments demonstrated that our skirmishers were right, and that a single brigade on our left would have been ample to turn the enemy's flank and open the way to victory. The above facts were immediately reported to Sherman and Thomas. I do not know what action, if any, was taken upon them. I refer to this incident, not as especially affecting the military reputation of any officer one way or the other, but to illustrate the working of a faulty system. Under proper organization and discipline, any division commander could hardly have failed with that fine division to do all that was desired of him that day. I believe that division commander's commission as major-general of volunteers was anterior in date to mine, and he, no doubt, with General Sherman and some others, thought he was not subject to my orders.