Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 2/36

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Preparations for the Offensive .—1863

THE general headquarters learned of the fighting at Wauhatchie within two hours after its commencement. The news caused great uneasiness, which was allayed, however, before daylight by the tidings of the repulse of the enemy. Generals Grant and Thomas set out in the early morning for Lookout Valley, via Brown's Ferry, after ordering two brigades to reinforce Hooker. They returned after noon, satisfied that Bragg could not recover the positions gained by us. They found the approaches to Brown's Ferry already well protected by the erection of connecting redoubts, under the direction of General Smith, on the ridge held by Hazen and Turchin. Hooker was also rapidly intrenching on a well-chosen line. General Palmer's two brigades, which had been detained by difficulties in crossing the river, were about to join with them. The force available in Lookout Valley for meeting a new attack numbered nearly 25,000, and was ample for the purpose. Moreover, the rest of the army at Chattanooga was within supporting distance.

Reports of the night fight, more or less exaggerated, spread rapidly through the camps around the town and produced general rejoicing. It instantly revived the spirit of the troops, as it was generally understood to mean nothing less than the definite laying of the spectre of famine and the quick restoration of full rations. This general elation prevailed, in spite of the steady fire which the enemy kept up all day, from four guns on Lookout Mountain, as though to vent his anger at Jenkins's discomfiture in the Lookout Valley. An ocular demonstration that a return to plenty might confidently be expected was made that very day. One of the two disabled boats which had fallen into our hands had been repaired, and was now got ready to pass down the river in order to carry supplies between Bridgeport and Brown's Ferry. As the rebel batteries upon Lookout Mountain completely swept the horseshoe bend of the river by which Moccasin Point is formed, the boat had to run the gauntlet of their shell and shot. Midnight was therefore fixed for the daring attempt. I went to the landing near that hour, to witness the start, and found a crowd of officers already there. The boat was manned by volunteers with experience in steamboating. It got off soon after the appointed time, with our silent good wishes. After it had been under way for about twenty minutes, the stillness of the night was suddenly broken by reports of single shots and volleys from small arms, followed in less than a minute by the reverberation of the fire of heavy guns. We thus knew the craft had been discovered, and trembled for the crew. But in less than an hour later, three whistles — the agreed signal — told us that it was safe after all, when we broke out into three grateful cheers. The boat was not hit by heavy missiles, but received a shower of bullets, one of which perforated a steam-pipe. This did not, however, impede its progress down the river, and the damage was easily repaired. It took on a load at Bridgeport and started on the up-trip the same day. We learned the next morning that the boat which had been captured and repaired at Bridgeport had come up and landed a heavy cargo at Brown's Ferry the evening before. The two boats and the barges they could tow could bring up between 700 and 800 tons a day, or more than the daily consumption of the army. Notwithstanding the high stage of water, the natural obstructions between Brown's and Kelley's Ferries caused so much trouble and loss of time that the boats at first ascended no higher than Kelley's, eight miles by wagon road from Brown's. But the road became so bad by severe use and rain that the boats, after a few days, again ran to Brown's. Complete relief of the army, however, remained thenceforth assured.

The credit due for General Smith's achievement was given him by General Thomas in a very complimentary general order issued on November 1. General Hooker's command also received special recognition in another, dated November 7, in which this passage (rather overdone, considering that we suffered scarcely any losses in taking the hills) occurs: “The bayonet charge of Howard's troops, made up the sides of a steep and difficult hill over 200 feet high, completely routing and driving the enemy from his barricades on its top, and the repulse by Geary's division of greatly superior numbers who attempted to surprise him, will rank among the most distinguished feats of arms of this war.” In another respect, Generals Grant and Thomas had so much ground for dissatisfaction with the behavior of General Hooker that he would not have been distinguished by that order if they could have helped it under the army rules entitling the superior to a share of the glory actually achieved by a subordinate.

As shown by his report of October 26 to the General-in-chief, General Grant at first had some doubts of the possibility of sustaining the army at Chattanooga, and discussed the contingency of leaving the defence of the place to part of it and moving the bulk nearer to regular supplies. With a view to this, General Smith was ordered to resume work on the fortifications, which had been allowed to lag owing to the all but continuous rain, and push it to completion, which he agreed to do within three weeks, so that 10,000 men could hold the place against any hostile force. In the same report, Grant gives expression to his strong apprehension that the enemy would have a large force up the river and cross it between Blythe's Ferry and Cotton Port, thirty to forty miles northeast of Chattanooga, and then repeat Bragg's former movement upon our communications via McMinnville. In that case, the weak condition of our artillery horses and our deficient supplies would prevent the army from following the enemy. This fear led him to send orders to General Sherman to drop the repair work he was doing on the railroad along the Tennessee and push eastward with his troops as quickly as possible. In explanation, he stated that the enemy was evidently moving a large force towards Cleveland L (a railroad centre twenty-five miles east of Chattanooga), and might break through our lines and move on Nashville, in which event his (Sherman's) troops would be the only available forces that could beat them there. He added that, with Sherman's command at Chattanooga before the enemy crossed the Tennessee, we could turn their position so as to force them back and avoid the possibility of a northward move that winter. General Grant was misinformed as to the alleged rebel movement. Bragg had not stirred at that time, but it turned out that soon afterwards he decided upon a diversion to the east.

The alarming news was brought to the army headquarters by some of our spies from the rebel camps that Longstreet had started with a large force for East Tennessee. As it was confirmed from other sources on the next day, and as the movement doubtless threatened great danger to General Burnside, General Grant at once considered with General Thomas the possibility of either attacking Bragg's position or moving against his communications to the northeast, in order to bring about the recall of Longstreet. Grant thought that Bragg had only 30,000 men left on our front, while Thomas's estimate was 40,000. After carefully weighing all the circumstances, the two generals came reluctantly to the conclusion that nothing aggressive could be safely undertaken before Sherman's advent. Renewed orders to hasten his movements were sent.

The regular flow of sufficient supplies for men and animals, the fruit of our successes at Brown's Ferry and in the Lookout Valley, freed the minds of Generals Grant and Thomas from all doubts as to our ability to remain in Chattanooga. The approach of Sherman further promising enough strength for the resumption of the offensive, the two commanders now entered upon plans for raising the siege. It was clear that to make Bragg withdraw by long-distance strategic movements was out of the question, owing to the nearness of the inclement season, the impossibility of accumulating sufficient supplies, and the condition of our draft animals. There was no other way than to drive off the enemy by direct aggressive operations. Perceiving this, the generals were receptive of suggestions which General Smith was ready to make to this end. After repeated and close observations of the ground, the engineer-in-chief was convinced that the northern end of Missionary Ridge, from the tunnel by which the Chattanooga & Cleveland Railroad passes under it to Chickamauga Creek, was not occupied by the enemy; that a passage of the Tennessee could therefore be forced at the mouth of the creek, the terminal heights of the ridge seized, and the rebel left thereby turned. Having satisfied himself by a personal reconnoissance that the topographical conditions were correctly represented, General Grant resolved to attempt the seizure of the position described, and directed all necessary preparations to be made as quickly as possible. The operation was not to be undertaken, however, before the advent of the reinforcements under General Sherman, for whose fine troops a leading part was reserved. With them there would certainly be sufficient numerical power for a decisive blow. According to the official returns, the effective strength of the Army of the Cumberland, at the end of October, was, without cavalry: 4th Army Corps, 19,781 officers and men on duty; 11th Corps, 6152; 12th Corps, 9211; 14th Corps, 19,220; reserve artillery, 1219 — or nearly 56,000; and fully half as many again were being led towards Chattanooga by Sherman, making a total of between 85,000 and 90,000.

It is now time to speak in detail of Sherman's doings. When General Grant received orders to send all the troops he could spare to the aid of Rosecrans, General John E. Smith's division of General McPherson's Seventeenth Corps was going up the Mississippi to join General Steele's command, for an expedition up the Arkansas River. The division was ordered to disembark at Memphis. Next, General Sherman, whose Fifteenth Corps was lying along the Big Black River about twenty miles east of Vicksburg, was directed to send one of his divisions at once to that town, for immediate embarkation. He detached the first division, under General Osterhaus, and it marched immediately. The following day, the corps commander was ordered to report in person to General Grant at Vicksburg. He was there told that he and his corps would be sent to Eastern Tennessee, except one division which was to remain on the Black River; but, as a substitute for it, Smith's division of the other corps, already up the river, would be placed under his orders. His first division embarked on the 23d, but the second and fourth were delayed some days by the want of boats. General Sherman started on September 27 and reached Memphis on October 2. He found his instructions from General Halleck, according to which he was to conduct the troops that had come up the river and all others that could be spared from Western Tennessee to Athens, on the Tennessee River, following the railroad and repairing it as he moved. From Athens, he was to report by letter for orders to General Rosecrans as Commander of the Army of the Cumberland. Osterhaus's division had already been moved by rail to Corinth, and Smith's was being moved to that point. Finding that, owing to the limited supply of rolling-stock, it would take weeks to get all the rest of his troops off by rail, General Sherman shipped only his guns and wagons and made the men and animals march. On the 16th, his whole force was assembled at Corinth and reached Iuka on the 19th. Here the railroad repairing commenced, making further progress slow. The first and second divisions led, under the command of F. P. Blair, Jr., and constantly skirmished with mounted enemies. Being ordered to drive the rebels beyond Tuscumbia, they had a considerable fight with them at Cane Creek, and occupied the town on October 27.

On October 24, an aide-de-camp of General Grant personally delivered to General Sherman despatches conveying the first information that General Grant had been put in command of the three departments and armies of the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Ohio, and that Sherman himself had been appointed to the command of the Department and Army of the Tennessee. He at once issued general orders placing West Tennessee under General Hurlbut, and Mississippi under General McPherson, and ordered the former to select 8000 men from the best troops of the Sixteenth Corps and send them under General G. M. Dodge after him. While his fourth division was crossing the Tennessee at Eastport by the use of two gunboats and a scow, a messenger arrived who had floated down the river in a boat, and brought General Grant's order of October 24, already mentioned. It had been sent to General Crook, who had forwarded it by the water route — a rather risky venture, it would seem, but successful in this case. The order was executed instantly, the two divisions called back to Eastport, the only practicable crossing, the railroad work abandoned, and every nerve and muscle strained to expedite the further march to Bridgeport.

The leading division, with General Sherman at the head, reached Florence on November 1. Marching on to Rogersville and the Elk River, the column found the latter impassable and was obliged to follow it up to Fayetteville. Here, orders reached Sherman from Grant to march to Bridgeport with the Fifteenth Corps and to leave General Dodge's command at Pulaski, to guard the railroad from Columbia to Decatur. Accordingly, General Blair was ordered to march with the second and third divisions by way of Newmarket and Bellefonte, while, of the other divisions, the first moved by Decherd and Stevenson, and Smith's by University Place and Sweesden's Cove. General Sherman himself accompanied the latter, and, pushing on in advance of it, reached Bridgeport on November 13. Having reported his arrival by wire to General Grant, he was desired to come to Chattanooga at once. He took the up-river boat the next evening and reported at the general headquarters on the morning of the 15th. He received a most hearty welcome. The proposed plan of operations was fully explained to him. His four divisions were to come to Chattanooga, three direct and the other after a diversion to Trenton in the Lookout Valley, in order to create the impression upon the enemy that the flanking movement of Rosecrans in September was to be repeated. His troops were not to enter Chattanooga, but to move past the town, concealed as much as possible, up the right bank, to a position opposite the mouth of Chickamauga Creek, and there, at the concerted time, cross the Tennessee on a pontoon-bridge, seize the northern outrunners of Missionary Ridge, and thence turn the rebel right. His command was to perform the principal part in the proposed operations, which were to be preceded and accompanied by supporting movements by the Army of the Cumberland, as well as by Hooker's column.

November 15 was mainly spent by the three commanding generals in a discussion of the plan, with the aid of maps and topographical sketches. The next day, they rode, under the guidance of the engineer-in-chief, to several commanding points, from which the visitor easily obtained a very clear comprehension of the positions of friends and enemies, spread out like a panorama before him. He was made fully acquainted not only with the character of the task assigned to him, but also with the anxious desire of all he conferred with for its speedy accomplishment. He could hardly help discovering a feeling that the approach of his divisions had not been as rapid as it might and should have been, and he took occasion to demonstrate that, ever since he had received the order to push through with the least delay, he had done his best to accelerate their movements. The prevailing impatience, as he himself described this feeling, was chiefly due to the great and growing solicitude for the fate of General Burnside and his command in Eastern Tennessee. All he saw and heard at Chattanooga “inspired me,” to use his own dutiful words, “with renewed energy.” He telegraphed immediately to his fourth division, which had arrived at Bridgeport, to prepare for the march via Shellmound to Trenton. A perfect understanding having been reached with his fellow-commanders, he started on the return trip on the morning of the 16th. He rode to Kelley's Ferry, and was greatly disappointed to find that he was too late for the day's down-boat. Loath to lose precious twenty-four hours, he, nothing daunted, embarked with his staff officers on a small boat, with a steersman and four rowers, and started down the river. It was a very hazardous venture, not only be cause rebel scouts were still making their appearance on the banks, but because neither the man at the helm nor the oarsmen had had experience on the river. But the valuable load was safely landed late in the evening at Bridgeport, and thenceforth the General strove, day and night, for the redemption of his promise to General Grant to have his legions on the ground, ready for the struggle set for the 20th.

I was apprised of General Sherman's coming before his arrival, but I made no effort to see him during his brief stay. I knew that he had no time to spare for anything else than his duties. I was certain, too, that he would refuse to see me or any other correspondent. His hostility to the press had become more and more pronounced, and, in striking evidence of it, there were circulating at the time some vehement outbursts from him against it. In one letter to a publisher he had said that he thought praise from a newspaper was contamination, and he would willingly agree to give half his pay to have his name kept out of the public prints. In another, to the editors of the Memphis Bulletin, he expressed himself thus:

I don't think you can conceive the mortification a soldier feels at the nauseating accounts given to the public as history. That affair at Collierville [an attempt to capture the town of that name by the rebel guerrilla Chalmers] should have been described in these words: “Chalmers tried to take Collierville, and did not.” But ridiculous, nonsensical descriptions have followed each other so fast that you ought to be ashamed to print Collierville. Now I am again in authority over you, and you must heed my advice. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, precious relics of former history, must not be construed too largely.

In the face of these fulminations, it naturally seemed the part of discretion to keep away from the General.

The diversion of Longstreet naturally inspired our commanders with confidence in the success of the impending attempt to force the enemy from Missionary Ridge. By it the Confederates themselves paved the way for our eventual triumph. It seems the more incomprehensible that they should have taken the false step of dividing their army as they were fully aware, notwithstanding our efforts to conceal the arrival of our reinforcements, that Hooker's command had already joined us and that Sherman's columns were rapidly approaching. They determined, indeed, in spite of this knowledge, to hurry Longstreet to East Tennessee to crush Burnside, and get him back before Sherman could reach Chattanooga. Their hardihood became our opportunity. Here is the story of their folly.

About November 1, a camp rumor reached Longstreet that he was to be sent against Burnside. Two days later, General Bragg summoned him to a council, at which Lieutenant-General Hardee and Major-General Breckinridge were also present, for a general discussion of possible move ments by their army. Various operations were proposed, and finally one into East Tennessee came up for consideration. Longstreet pronounced in favor of it, provided it could be executed secretly and with great rapidity and with no less than 20,000 men, and provided further that the remainder of the army would be withdrawn to a strong position behind the Chickamauga until the return of the expeditionary force. (This is Longstreet's version of what occurred at the council, but General Hardee, when requested in writing, some months later, to confirm it, replied that he did not recollect the suggestion of the temporary withdrawal behind the Chickamauga.) It was decided to try a coup against Burnside. Longstreet was to undertake it with two divisions, against which he claims to have protested as too small a force for quick success, but he was overruled and yielded. Marching orders were issued, and the two divisions, with an extra complement of artillery, numbering not much over 16,000 men, were under way by the 5th. But, owing to all sorts of unforeseen impediments and unexpected delays, the march was not rapid, but very slow, so that the rebels did not appear near Knoxville, behind whose fortifications Burnside had concentrated most of his command, until the 18th, and actually delivered the famous unsuccessful attack upon the place only on the 29th.

A decided improvement had taken place in our life since the raising of the blockade of the river. Mails and newspapers arrived again daily and banished the oppressive feeling of isolation from the rest of the world. While the mass of the army was, of course, ignorant of the plans of the commanding generals, the presence of Grant and the visit of Sherman were generally looked upon as sure indications that something was up, and that action would soon supersede our passiveness. Aware as I was of the reconnoitring of General Smith and his excursions with the commanding generals to the north of the town, I could guess their intentions without asking any questions. The dread of being shut up maybe for the winter months in Chattanooga, and the long continuance of the prevailing monotony, had greatly discouraged me, but the prospect of stirring developments restored my buoyancy. The weather in November, too, was more favorable. We had heavy fogs instead of all but steady rain; and the sun shone now and then in the middle of the day. I was lucky enough, in the second week of the month, to secure the use of the horse of a field officer during his furlough, so that I could get necessary exercise and spend my time more agreeably in making visits. The long evenings and the want of lights were trying at first, but, with the reappearance of candles, card parties helped to pass the time pleasantly. Within a week after the coup at Brown's Ferry, not only were full rations restored, but sutlers' stores were available to supplement them with solid and liquid luxuries. Even fresh meat could occasionally be had. Fritz rejoiced in the enlarged opportunity for demonstrating his mastership in the culinary art. Instead of three or four, he had now many strings to his bow, and the sameness of fare with which General Willich and myself had had to content ourselves, was followed by a savory variety in our meals that would have done credit to a first-class restaurant.