Battle of Rich Mountain: McClellan Wimpout Preview
Lately I’ve been reading soldiers’ memoirs, mostly from the Western Theater of the Civil War. A lot of them are by Ohio men, and you realize quickly that Grant wasn’t so unique. He just came from a damn promising state.
Ohio was just far West enough to have a little wild in it, far north enough to be free of the cotton plague, but close enough to the center of gravity in DC/Philadelphia that these guys are well-connected to big power.
Gen. J. D. Cox: A Serious Man
It was a huge world for these guys in some ways, because travel was hard before the railroads (“the cars” is what these guys call railroads) came along. But when it comes to networking, power, it was a small, downright tiny world, where all the young men of good family married each others’ sisters (Grant married his West Point roommate’s sister). The ones who hadn’t met before got to know each other at West Point, and if South Carolina hadn’t had the brilliant idea of seceding, that would’ve been that, except for the odd hotel-lobby and business-conference encounter.
But they’re all back together suddenly in 1861. They all joined up at once, mom and sis doing their best to guess what “Zouave” meant in tailoring terms. And they had to use a lot of cloth, because although men were skinny back then (they’d have split their sides if a pig like me had come onstage), they were tall and healthy, unlike the cannon fodder people expected to find wearing army uniform.
In fact, every time someone with peacetime-army experience sees the new recruits from the “best families in town” lined up in review, they’re shocked at how tall and healthy the men look. The peacetime army drew its manpower from immigrants and drunks, people who couldn’t find a job anywhere else, then beat them into submission. It made for organized marching but not a very impressive look on parade. Basic European tactics involved beating, like literally beating, a bunch of dregs into formation and sending them to intercept the first volley of another bunch of dregs in a different uniform. You didn’t need “a few good men,” you needed a lot of dregs, and the first reaction old-school army men had when they saw all these tall, healthy 19th-c. yuppies in uniform was, why are you wasting actual human beings as lead-absorbers?
One Army officer actually says that, in General Cox’s Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, when he sees the town’s leading yout’ who’ve switched from 90-day enlistments to the three-year hitch:
”Captain Gordon Granger of the regular army came to muster the re-enlisted regiments into the three years’ service, and as he stood at the right of the Fourth Ohio, looking down the line of a thousand stalwart men, all in their Garibaldi shirts (for we had not yet received our uniforms), he turned to me and exclaimed: “My God! that such men should be food for powder!”’
Cox’s memoir is slow going, I admit. In fact I’ll save you some trouble right now: If you’re only going to read one Civil War memoir, read Grant’s. Sometimes the majority gets it exactly right, and when the majority decided Grant’s were the best, they were absolutely right. Grant is totally unlike all these other Victorians because he spares you the damn details. The rest of them…well, ever see one of those early photographs showing a Victorian living room, or parlor, or whatever? Try counting the items of furniture. If it’s not in triple digits, you’re looking at a pauper’s hut. And that pauper’s dream must’ve been to get rich enough to buy more stools and Turkish pillows and hatstands and other crap. They felt naked without a whole swarm of trinkets around them, and most of them write like they decorate.
Cox, great man though he was, can’t say hello in less than about ten pages. Sherman’s memoirs aren’t much better; he just has to show you every letter he wrote to Halleck, and what Halleck said back, and what Ord said about what Halleck stated, until you just want to yell, “Will you shut up and burn some town already?”
Grant never does that, never tells a story unless there’s a point, leaves the documents to General Badeau, his official biographer. I can’t help wondering if it’s because Grant was dying of throat cancer when he wrote his memoirs, and only did it for the money to keep his family out of debt. After reading the fantastic results, you can’t help kinda wishing a whole bunch of these 19th c. writers, including all the ones I had to read in school, had been diagnosed with throat cancer and impending death and family poverty before they dipped their damn quills.
But if you can stand the word-surplus, these memoirs by second-rank generals like Cox show you some amazing stuff, the sort of horrible moment you just know would happen to you if you tried to be an officer. Like: what if they just plain won’t do what you say? I always wondered about that: what if you say, “Left march!” and they go, “Nah. Tired.”
That happens to one of Cox’s officers. His unit is stuck in the mud of the West Virginia hills, getting rumors of Confederate forces massing all around them. Most of the time this turns out to be some farmer’s paranoia; once Cox’s scouts verify that there’s a huge rebel encampment very close to them and are about to attack it when the officer commanding the attack decides to be absolutely sure, and realizes that they’re about to charge the back side of their own camp.
Everybody’s in a bad mood—they haven’t slept on dry ground for weeks—and finally an argument about a work detail ends up with an officer shooting a sergeant, and Cox having to face down the sergeant’s troops who want to kill the officer. I’m telling you the juicy part in advance here to keep your morale up because like I said, these guys take their own sweet time telling a story and you might get discouraged otherwise. So here’s Cox’s account of that killing:
“In the midst of the alarms from every side, my camp itself was greatly excited by an incident which would have been occasion for regret at any time, but which at such a juncture threatened for a moment quite serious consequences. The work of intrenching the position was going on under the direction of Lieutenant Wagner as rapidly as the small working parties available could perform it. All were overworked, but it was the rule that men should not be detailed for fatigue duty who had been on picket the preceding night. On August 28th, a detail had been called for from the Second Kentucky, which lay above the hedge behind my headquarters, and they had reported without arms under a sergeant named Joyce. A supply of intrenching tools was stacked by the gate leading into the yard where my staff tents were pitched, and my aide, Lieutenant Conine, directed the sergeant to have his men take the tools and report to Mr. Wagner, the engineer, on the line. The men began to demur in a half-mutinous way, saying they had been on picket the night before. Conine, who was a soldierly man, informed them that that should be immediately looked into, and if so, they would be soon relieved, but that they could not argue the matter there, as their company commander was responsible for the detail. He therefore repeated his order. The sergeant then became excited and said his men should not obey. Lieutenant Gibbs, the district commissary, was standing by, and drawing his pistol, said to Joyce, “That’s mutiny; order your men to take the tools or I’ll shoot you.” The man retorted with a curse, “Shoot!” Gibbs fired, and Joyce fell dead. When the sergeant first refused to obey, Conine coolly called out, “Corporal of the guard, turn out the guard!” intending very properly to put the man in arrest, but the shot followed too quick for the guard to arrive. I was sitting within the house at my camp desk, busy, when the first thing which attracted my attention was the call for the guard and the shot. I ran out, not stopping for arms, and saw some of the men running off shouting, “Go for your guns, kill him, kill him!” I stopped part of the men, ordered them to take the sergeant quickly to the hospital, thinking he might not be dead. I then ordered Gibbs in arrest till an investigation should be made, and ran at speed to a gap in the hedge which opened into the regimental camp. It was not a moment too soon. The men with their muskets were already clustering in the path, threatening vengeance on Mr. Gibbs. I ordered them to halt and return to their quarters. Carried away by excitement, they levelled their muskets at me and bade me get out of their way or they would shoot me. I managed to keep cool, said the affair would be investigated, that Gibbs was already under arrest, but they must go back to their quarters. The parley lasted long enough to bring some of their officers near. I ordered them to come to my side, and then to take command of the men and march them away. The real danger was over as soon as the first impulse was checked. [Footnote: Dispatch to Rosecrans, August 29.] The men then began to feel some of their natural respect for their commander, and yielded probably the more readily because they noticed that I was unarmed. I thought it wise to be content with quelling the disturbance, and did not seek out for punishment the men who had met me at the gap. Their excitement had been natural under the circumstances, which were reported with exaggeration as a wilful murder. If I had been in command of a larger force, it would have been easy to turn out another regiment to enforce order and arrest any mutineers; but the Second Kentucky was itself the only regiment on the spot. The First Kentucky was a mile below, and the Eleventh Ohio was the advance-guard up New River. Surrounded as we were by so superior a force of the enemy with which we were constantly skirmishing, I could not do otherwise than meet the difficulty instantly without regard to personal risk.
The sequel of the affair was not reached till some weeks later when General Rosecrans assembled a court-martial at my request. Lieutenant Gibbs was tried and acquitted on the plain evidence that the man killed was in the act of mutiny at the time. The court was a notable one, as its judge advocate was Major R. B. Hayes of the Twenty-third Ohio, afterwards President of the United States, and one of its members was Lieutenant-Colonel Stanley Matthews of the same regiment, afterwards one of the Justices of the Supreme Court. [Footnote: Some twenty years later a bill passed the House of Representatives pensioning the mother of the man killed, under the law giving pensions to dependent relatives of those who died in the line of duty! It could only have been smuggled through by concealment and falsification of facts, and was stopped in the Senate.]”
What I like is the outrage in the “Footnote” that this guy’s poor old mother tried to sneak a pension off the gummint, 20 years after her son was killed by one of his own officers. They were steely people back then.
Cox is a pretty serious fellow, as you can probably tell from that story. You don’t read him for laughs but because he saw some astonishing stuff, like McClellan and Rosecrans in their first commands in West Virginia. Rosecrans, who I’ve always liked anyway and considered underrated, comes off much better than McClellan. In fact Cox is more honest than almost anybody else about the “puzzle” (Grant’s word) of McClellan. He says (I’m translating, or condensing, let’s say) McClellan was a “genial,” sensible man in person but when he was in command he tried to look, sound and think like his idol Napoleon and went basically insane.
There’s one key moment in West Virginia, McClellan’s failure to support Rosecrans at the Battle of Rich Mountain, that comes up in both of the Ohio men’s memoirs I’ve been reading, Cox’s and Gen. John Beatty’s. McClellan, in overall command, Rosecrans volunteered to lead a small force over a narrow mountain path to cut off the Confederates’ retreat. McClellan agrees and sends Rosecrans off, planning to attack in front when the noise of Rosecrans’ attack reaches him. But McClellan reads the noise of Rosecrans’ attack as defeat, assumes that the enemy’s beaten Rosecrans, and refuses to support him. Rosecrans’ men get away, no thanks to their commander, but the opportunity to trap the whole enemy force is gone. Cox sums it up:
“[McClellan’s role in] the Rich Mountain affair, when analyzed, shows the same characteristics which became well known later. There was the same over-estimate of the enemy, the same tendency to interpret unfavorably the sights and sounds in front, the same hesitancy to throw in his whole force when he knew that his subordinate was engaged.”
The exact same moment is in this other memoir by an Ohio general, John Beatty. In fact, he was there when McClellan wimped out, saw it happen. Beatty’s book is called The Citizen Soldier, or Memoirs of A Volunteer. They loved those “or” titles: OK, you didn’t like my first try? How about this one? Pick one…Hell, take’em both.
Gen. John Beatty: Funnier than he looks
Beatty is somebody you could like. Cox is more the sort of person who everybody respects and avoids, but Beatty is the class clown of the Union officer corps. And being a Victorian his comical-type stories take about ten pages to develop. He can spin out a lame joke about how drunk one of his fellow officers was for a whole chapter. But sometimes he’s damn funny, like when his superior officer, early in the war, makes a pre-battle speech to the troops that would have me running for the hills in a second. This officer decides to be “honest,” a bad idea at that moment, so he tells the troops what they can expect:
“The Secessionists…have more men and more cannon than we have. They will cut us to pieces. Marching to attack such an enemy…is marching to a butcher-shop rather than a battle…Many of you, boys, will go out who will never come back again.”
You have to imagine this Jimmy Stewart character, the skinny Ohio civilian Beatty, listening to this speech, thinking, ‘Well, he’s the veteran officer, he must know what he’s doing, but I dunno, motivational-wise, if it’s such a durn good idea…” Beatty says,
As this speech progressed my hair began to stiffen at the roots…When a boy I had read Plutarch and knew something of the great warriors of the old time; but I could not, for the life of me, recall an instance when they had made such an address to their soldiers on the eve of battle.”
What’s amazing is that the soldiers don’t all flee for sunnier climes overnight. I sure would. Like I said: steely people. And maybe more used to dealing with outright lunatics like Beatty’s superior here. There weren’t a lot of shrinks around back then, and you get the sense that until somebody actually pulled out his own eyeballs or claimed to be the Pharaoh of Egypt, people took a lot of loopiness in stride.
Beatty takes an interest in just about everything, from the songs his Irish orderly sings to his horse to the jokes his troops tell about him. And he has one other thing you get when people are willing to play the clown: he’s amazingly honest. He tells you how he got totally lost climbing down a mountain in West Virginia and wandered around all night looking for his camp. I always knew that happened all the time in war, but you don’t hear about it much, first-hand; not that many officers are modest enough to admit it.
Beatty’s pretty good at description, too, and when he tells you what it was like the exact moment McClellan wimped out, you can feel the whole horrible story about to go down in Virginia happening right there in front of you.
McClellan: WW Napoleon D? Uh…Retreat?
Beatty’s men are waiting for the order to attack. They can hear the sound of combat up on the mountain, meaning Rosecrans’ little force is engaged. Just then…
“General McClellan and staff came galloping up, and a thousand faces turned to hear the order to advance; but no order was given. The General halted a few paces from our line, and sat listening to the guns, apparently in doubt as to what to do; and as he sat there with indecision stamped on every line of his countenance, the battle grew fiercer in the enemy’s rear.”
McClellan decides it’s too risky to attack, of course. And Beatty asks a damn reasonable question that never seemed to bother McClellan when he was in the grip of one of his cowardice fits: “If the enemy is too strong for us to attack, what must be the fate of Rosecrans’ four regiments, cut off from us, and struggling against such odds?”
From there to listening to his miserable Copperhead friend FitzJohn Porter and not committing the reserve at Antietam is about one year, plus three more years of war and a few hundred thousand dead. And there it all was, on display on this little road in West Virginia, the same moment in two different memoirs.
Pretty cool. But to be fair, you do have some serious wading to do. Those West Virginia flash floods were nothing compared to what a Victorian soldier can do with a good steady supply of ink.
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