Zzzgeneral Joseph E. Johnston's Campaign in Georgia. Lt.-General Leonidas Polk at Cassville. Criticisms of Gen. S. G. French.
In the last volume of Southern Historical Society Papers (Xxi), pp. 314-321, there was republished from the New Orleans, La., Picayune, of Oct. 22, 1893, an article under the above caption. To this article Major-General S. G. French took exceptions in a reply, published in the Picayune, of Dec. 28, 1893. It is the mission of the Southern Historical Society to seek the truth as to every detail in the grand struggle of the South, and to place it upon record in its Papers. The reply of General French is from a corrected copy, considerately furnished by him. General French desired the statement, to be made in this connection, that his Division was composed of the brigades of Generals Cockrell, Sears and Ector. He continues: ‘I had placed Cockrell's brigade on a range of hills early in the afternoon; now, when General Johnston formed his line of battle, Cockrell was already there, and as he was not moved, Canty's division was placed on Cockrell's right. The line of battle being thus formed, I was ordered, at 4 o'clock P. M., to fall back from the east of Cassville, and form my two remaining brigades in rear of Cockrell's brigade and Canty's division; but, inasmuch as General Hood's corps did not join or extend to Canty's right, I placed in this interval a half of Ector's brigade, holding the other half and Sear's brigade in reserve. Thus my division was separated by Canty's division, and Canty's troops formed a part of my command.’
Weekly Picayune of Oct. 26 last, containing an article headed ‘Reminiscences  of the War,’ that contains a number of errors, which I desire to correct so far as they relate to me, and I will refer to them in the order they are related in the paper. I quote: First—‘After Polk's corps had taken the position assigned to it on the left of Hood's corps and in the rear of Cassville, General S. G. French, one of the division generals of the corps, sent a report to General Polk that his position was enfiladed and that he could not hold it.’ Any line can be enfiladed if the enemy be permitted, undisturbed, to approach near enough and establish batteries on the prolongation of that line. Therefore, before any person can report a line enfiladed the guns must be near enough to sweep it with shells. To report that a point near the center of a long line of battle cannot be held before the issue is made is mere conjecture, and not justifiable, and I have no recollection of having made such a report, and deem the writer is in error in his statement. A man would not cry out ‘Help me Cassius or I sink’ before entering the water. Second—The next assertion is that General Polk ‘sent Colonel Sevier to ascertain about it, and this officer reported back that, in his opinion, General French was warranted in his apprehension. General Polk thereupon requested Colonel Sevier to proceed to General Johnston's headquarters and place the facts before him, which that officer did. General Johnston was loath to believe in the impossibility of holding that part of the line, etc., * * * and instructed Colonel Sevier to have General French build traverses. This general considered them useless, and persisted in his inability to hold the position.’ In answer to this, I repeat that I have no recollection of having made to any human being the remarks here attributed to me. How in the name of common sense could any division officer report, much less persist, as stated? How would he know but that, if necessary, during the battle ample support would be sent him? I had one brigade and a half in reserve at that point of the line. As for traverses I never heard them mentioned before in reference to this line. And now, after your writer has sent Colonel Sevier to me twice, he sends to me Major West, and it was before any firing had taken place, and he (West) could, very properly, ‘form no opinion unless he could witness the fire of the enemy's guns.’ West returned to General Polk, reporting General French highly wrought up about the exposure  of his division, and General Polk is made to send this officer likewise to hunt up General Johnston, and after ‘reporting back the remarks of General Johnston, Major West found that Captain Morris had reached General Polk's headquarters,’ and the captain in turn ‘was sent to French's position to make a thorough survey and report of it.’ He made a very thorough one and reported the position very exposed for the defensive, but as admirable for the offensive. I have Captain Morris' report, but I do not find in it where he reported the line as admirable for the offensive. I will have occasion to refer to this report after a while. I merely wish to remark that when we find Captain Morris at General Polk's headquarters we have something tangible in regard to time. Third—And the article goes on to state that ‘General Polk, since the first report from General French, appeared much annoyed at this unexpected weakness in his line, which, from the pertinacity of General French, was growing into an obstacle to the impending battle, for which General Polk shared the enthusiasm and confidence of the troops.’ Now, contrast this with what the writer says further on, when he tells us ‘General Polk had so little confidence in the representations of the weakness of his line at the point referred to that he did not go there in person.’ It is not always safe to divine what is passing through a man's mind from appearances, and having ‘little confidence in the representations,’ the deduction of ‘annoyance’ may not be correct which is attributed to General Polk. Now, inasmuch as General Polk was present (when General F. A. Shoupe ‘pointed out the fact to General Johnston that his line would be enfiladed before the troops were posted, and suggested a change of position) and strongly supported Shoupe's objections,’ he must have been early apprised of the general condition of the line before he received the alleged report from me, which the writer explicitly affirms was sustained by Colonels Sevier, West and Morris-hence the weakness of his line was not unexpected, and should not ‘have grown into an obstacle to the impending battle.’ General Shoupe's letter will be found in Hood's book, page 105. Fourth—In writing about the conference I find the account thus: ‘That evening about sunset General Hood arrived at the rendezvous,  accompanied by General French, whose division rested on his left in line of battle. General Polk had not asked General French—who was of his corps—to be present for the occasion, and General Hood's action in bringing him was altogether gratuitous. On arriving with French, General Hood excused his action by stating that he considered the situation so vital to himself and French that he had taken the liberty to ask General French to come with him to the conference.’ This shows that Polk and Hood had decided (at a consultation in advance) to hold a conference before I went with Hood to the rendezvous, to which they invited Johnston. About my being there I have this to say, and the facts are these: The little firing that had taken place almost ceased awhile before dark; so taking a staff officer with me we went to our wagon to get dinner, and while returning to my command, we met General Hood on his way to General Johnston's. We halted, and while conversing he told me his line was enfiladed by the batteries of the enemy in position, and that he was going to see General Johnston at General Polk's, and asked me to ride with him to get supper, etc. His meeting me, therefore, was purely accidental, and this place where we met was near by Polk's quarters. So I went with him, socially, without any special object in view. He said nothing to me about a conference to be held on the situation, called by him and General Polk. Soon after supper Generals Johnston, Polk and Hood went to General Polk's office, and General Johnston asked me to go with them. The matter presented to the meeting was ‘Can we win the battle on the morrow?’ Hood said he thought not, for if attacked in the morning, he would not be able to hold his line, because it was enfiladed by the guns of the enemy, now in position, and that General Polk's line was also enfiladed, and could not be held against a vigorous attack, or words to that effect. General Polk confirmed Hood's statement in regard to his line. General Johnston maintained the contrary. Of course I took no part in the discussion. When asked, I explained how my line curved, near the end, to the left sufficient to be enfiladed by one battery on the extreme left of the enemy's line. I have no recollection of being asked if I could hold my part of the line. But had the question been asked me, I am quite sure it would have been suppositively in the affirmative.  As the whole includes all the parts, so the discussion being on Polk's and Hood's lines in their intirety, the parts were embraced therein, and not specifically referred to, being minor considerations. General Johnston argued for the maintenance of his plans very firmly. When a silence occurred in the discussion, I arose and asked permission to leave, stating that I wished to go to my line and fortify it. On reaching my division I set every one to work strengthening the line, and getting ready for the impending battle that I felt sure would begin in the morning. While we were thus busily at work, and at about the hour of 11 P. M., an officer riding along my line stopped and told me the work would be useless, and ‘intimated’ (that is the word written in my diary) ‘that the army would be withdrawn or fall back to-night.’ Soon after the order came to move back on the Cartersville road. The receipt of the order was a surprise to me, notwithstanding the intimation that had been made to me. Fifth—Towards the conclusion of the article it reads: ‘General Polk had so little confidence in the representations of the weakness of the line at the point referred to that he did not go there in person. But for Hood's invitation General French would not have been called to the conference, and, consequently, when General Hood urged the untenability of his line, and supported it by bringing one of Polk's division commanders, French, to confirm him, General Polk could only rely upon the report of his chief engineer, Captain Morris, and Major-General French, and sustain Lieutenant-General Hood in his opinion that the line could not be held after an attack.’ This paragraph is adroitly constructed, and apparently not intended to be clear. It first accuses General Polk of having little confidence in the representations of Sevier, West and French, as alleged to have been made to him; but when General Hood brings French to the conference his testimony is so potent as to make Polk change his opinions and sustain Hood, who urged the untenability of his (Polk's) line. This is all wrong. Hood did not take me to the conference. I did not support or confirm Hood in his representations. I have never said I could not hold my part of the line, and it would have been presumption to do so. The commanding general would see that the line at that point was defended. This paragraph also represents General Polk as going to the conference  apparently prepared to defend his line; but when he listens to Hood's arguments he changes his mind and sustains Hood, and thus, with two of his corps commanders opposed to defending their lines, Johnston deemed it better to decline the impending battle. Sixth—On page 110, in Hood's book, you will find the beginning of a letter from Captain W. J. Morris, General Polk's chief engineer, from which I will make some quotations, abbreviating them as much as possible. He says he arrived at Cassville station about 3.30 or 4 o'clock P. M. May 19, 1864. Colonel Gale was there to meet him and to tell him that General Polk wanted to see him as soon as he arrived. He had half a mile to go to Polk's quarters. Met General Polk at the door. He says it took him about half an hour to examine a map that Polk placed before him and make notes of the general's wishes, and fifteen minutes to ride from Polk's headquarters to the line that was reported to be enfiladed. When he left Polk's headquarters he thinks General Hood was there. It took him about two hours to examine the lines, angles, elevations and positions of the batteries of the enemy established on their line in front of Hood, and his opinions and conclusions were: ‘（1). That the right of the line of Polk's command could not be held. (2). That traverses would be of no avail, etc. (3). That it was extremely hazardous for General Polk to advance his line to make an attack upon the enemy while the batteries held the positions they then occupied.’ ‘Having made the reconnoisance he returned to General Polk's headquarters just after dark. General Polk immediately sent for General Johnston. General Hood was at General Polk's.’ You will thus perceive that the conference to be held was determined on between Polk and Hood, before Morris made his report to Polk, because Hood was already there, for I rode with him to the ‘rendezvous.’ Seventh—On the 8th of May, 1874, General Hood wrote me a letter to know what I knew about the ‘vexed question’ of retiring from Cassville. He had forgotten that he had met me in the road; that he had invited me to ride with him to see General Johnston, or that I was at the conference. Said he ‘Only learned I was at the conference from Johnston's narrative,’ etc. I answered his letter from New York, where I then was, from recollection, without reference to my diary. I have both his letter  and my answer. General Hood and I had talked this matter over, at length, at the Alleghany Springs, Va., in the summer of 1872, differing, however, about not remaining at Cassville and the defensive strength of the lines. Eighth—Without endeavoring to recall to mind pictures of scenes through the mist of thirty years in the past, or revive recollections of words used in the long, long ago, I will refer to my diary, and what was written day by day therein. After we had formed line of battle east of Cassville, and manoeuvered with Hood with a view to attack the enemy, our troops began, in the afternoon, to fall back to a line of hills south of Cassville. Cockrell's brigade, that was in reserve, had been ordered to a hill there early. The diary says:
I received orders at 4 o'clock P. M. to fall back from the line east of Cassville and form behind the division of General Canty and Cockrell's brigade, which I did, as there was an interval between Hood's line (Hindman) and Canty, I placed there, in position, Hoskins' battery and the half of Ector's brigade. This left Sear's brigade and the half of Ector's in reserve, Cockrell being on Canty's left in line. About 5 P. M. our pickets from the extreme front were driven in towards the second line by the enemy's cavalry. Hoskins' battery opened on them and checked the advance. About 5.30 P. M., the enemy got their batteries in position and opened fire on my line. One battery on my right enfiladed a part of my line.The diary then refers to going to dinner, meeting Hood and riding with him over to General Polk's—leaving the conference, believing we would fight, etc. Ninth—We are now, Mr. Editor, getting beyond conjecture, for we have determined certain facts pretty accurately, viz: The hour I received the order to fall back from east of Cassville; the time our skirmishers were driven in, and when the firing commenced, also the hour that Captain Morris arrived. Captain Morris declares that he arrived between half past 3 and 4 o'clock P. M. If he be correct I was at that time with my troops east of Cassville, and it is certain no report could have been made by me until after the enemy's artillery commenced firing. Now mark what is declared to have taken place after the alleged report was said to have been received by General Polk. It would take an officer certainly fifteen minutes to ride from Polk's headquarters to Hoskins' Battery—a mile and a half distant—  examine the lines, the position of the enemy, the effects of the fire and discuss the situation. Then, the same length of time to return to General Polk and confer with him. Then it would require the same length of time to go in quest of General Johnston, report to him, and explain the situation of affairs minutely, then to return to General Polk and report it to him; then to come to my line a second time, return to General Polk. These two trips to my line and one to General Johnston would have occupied one hour and a half. Next, Major West received instructions to go and examine the line, and as there was no firing, he could form no opinion, but only talk with me. Then he went back to General Polk and made his report; thence, he too, was ordered to go in quest of General Johnston, and found him somewhere; reported to him and returned. This would have required about one hour. So the line from Polk's to my extreme right was ridden over six times, examined and discussed, and four times from General Polk's to where General Johnston was, consuming not less than two hours and a half. Captain Morris was not yet at General Polk's quarters when Major West went in quest of General Johnston, but he found he had arrived when he returned from General Johnston. Now, it is plain, if my alleged report to General Polk put all this in motion, it must have been received by him at half past 1 o'clock P. M., because we know it terminated soon after the arrival of Captain Morris at Polk's quarters at 4 o'clock P. M. Soon after this Captain Morris was ordered down to examine the line, which he did, and we have his report. The question of time may be determined in another way: If I sent a report to General Polk, it was carried a mile and a half to him by courier. Next, consider Colonel Sevier and Major West in the light of one person; that person must have traveled about thirteen miles, received seven separate sets of instructions from Generals Polk and Johnston, made five carefully matured reports on the situation, and what was said by me and General Johnston, and made at least two careful examinations of our line; noted the position of the enemy, watched the firing and noted the effect of the same, and it could not physically have been performed under two hours and a half; and yet your published article says it was all performed during the interval between receiving my report and the departure of Morris to make his survey, which was about 4 P. M. If I made a report, as stated, it was done after the firing commenced,  and hence it must have been dark when Major West returned from his interview with General Johnston. The conclusion, therefore, must be that from the length of time, the writer's or relator's memory has failed to recall events as they were thirty years ago. There was only a small part of my line enfiladed, and that was caused by it curving to the left near the ravine, where Hoskins' battery was. If Hood's line was enfiladed I did not discover it, and Captain Morris' plan, published in the War Records, plate 62, would be faulty, for the enemy's line is nearly parallel with his. To conclude, I have shown that if all this passing to and fro of officers took place between me and General Polk, and between Polk and Johnston, it must have commenced about 1.30 o'clock P. M., to have ended at 4 P. M., which could not be, for I was then east of Cassville. On the other hand, if a report was carried to General Polk about my line being enfiladed, it must have been done after 5.30 P. M., and this going to and fro, with examinations and discussions, could not have been accomplished before 8 P. M., whereas, it is stated to have been done before Captain Morris left Polk's headquarters, at 4.30 P. M., either of which is incredible. Very respectfully, Canty's Division has no hour date. Your readers will perceive that it was not I who influenced General Polk in this affair.
S. G. F.