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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Battle of Chattanooga (November 23–25, 1863): “Another laurel leaf is added to Grant’s Crown”

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The third volume of the series was published earlier this year.

On the afternoon of November 25, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant stood on Orchard Knob east of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and pondered what to do next. It was just over a month since he had arrived at the town where the Army of the Cumberland, in the aftermath of its defeat at Chickamauga on September 20, found itself besieged by the victorious Army of Tennessee under the command of Braxton Bragg. Grant’s job was to break the siege and defeat the enemy.

It was a daunting task. The Confederates looked down upon their beaten foe from defensive positions along Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. The Rebels had also moved westward along the Tennessee River to sever the Yankee supply line, leaving the Army of the Cumberland in a perilous situation. The Lincoln administration labored to relieve the beleaguered army, dispatching two corps from the Army of the Potomac in Virginia and one from Grant’s Army of the Tennessee in Mississippi to do what they could to pry open the Confederate grip on Chattanooga. Having lost faith in the ability of William S. Rosecrans, the Army of the Cumberland’s commander, to salvage the situation, President Lincoln turned to the victor of Vicksburg to save the day. Elevated in mid-October to a command that spanned the area from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River valley, Grant took advantage of an option provided in his orders to replace Rosecrans with George H. Thomas, who promised Grant that he would hold Chattanooga until his men starved.

By the time Grant arrived at Chattanooga on October 23, the Union forces were ready to take action. Rosecrans and his chief engineer William F. Smith had already framed a plan to reopen a supply line along the Tennessee River. Grant ordered that it be implemented. Meanwhile, he hurried forward William T. Sherman’s troops from the Army of the Tennessee, intending to entrust the key blow of the upcoming battle to Sherman instead of Thomas or Joseph Hooker, who had come westward with the Potomac soldiers. It was not until November 23 that Grant could set his plan in motion. That day Thomas undertook a reconnaissance in force that easily captured Orchard Knob. The result was more than Grant expected. Still, one observer noted that he was “well pleased at what had been accomplished. He seems perfectly cool, and one could be with him for hours, and not know that any great movements were going on. Its a mere matter of business with him.”1

That night there was a near total eclipse of the moon. Major James A. Connelly of the 123rd Illinois Infantry noted that “it was ominous of defeat, but not for us; we concluded that it meant Bragg because he was perched on the mountain top, nearest the moon.”2 As noon came on November 24 “the fiercest and most tremendeous roars of both cannon and musketry” broke out along Lookout Mountain. Hooker’s men scrambled up its slopes, driving the enemy away. That night Union observers could see “Camp fires and flashes of musketry” illuminate the mountain’s slopes: the following morning Grant’s headquarters discovered that Hooker’s men had planted a United States flag at the summit.3 Meanwhile, Sherman had moved into place opposite the Bragg’s right on Missionary Ridge, ready to smash the Confederate flank and drive the Rebels off the ridgeline.

On the morning of November 25 Sherman attacked, only to discover that he has misjudged the terrain in front of him. Patrick Cleburne’s division repelled several Union assaults, and by early afternoon it was clear that Sherman was getting nowhere. On the Union right Hooker’s men found it tough going to make progress against the Confederates, in part because they needed to replace destroyed bridges. At Orchard Knob, Grant, Thomas, and several officers stood in a cold wind and contemplated what to do next as Confederate shells “whizzed past” every few minutes.4

By mid-afternoon Grant knew he had to do something. He directed Thomas to order his four divisions to move forward and capture, the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, and then await further orders. When the moment was right, he would order them to resume their advance.

It didn’t quite work out that way. After Union artillery commenced shelling the ridge, Thomas’s men “moved forward at the rifle pits of the enemy as if they knew they were going to succeed,” as Smith described it. The Confederates “broke from behind their protection and up the hill, our men following with chear upon chear and the cannon and musketry on top of the hill pouring shot and shell upon them.”5

In truth, the advancing Yankees had no choice. Having taken the rifle pits with relative ease, they discovered that they were now vulnerable to deadly fire from the ridge above them. Withdrawal would only expose them to more fire. The only option was to advance without waiting for orders from headquarters. Some commanders thought that the crest of the ridge was the ultimate objective; others thought the advance was to stop at the rifle pits. That confusion no longer mattered. “The line ceased to be a line,” Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs recalled. “The men gathered towards the points of least difficult ascent” and streamed up toward the crest. Although Confederate artillery fired away, Major Connolly later explained that “they couldn’t even scare us, as they couldn’t depress their guns to reach us, but had to blaze away far over our heads.” As Smith described it, “Regiment after regiment gained the top and planted their colors—most of them gaining it by the many roads that passed from the valley to the top of the ridge.”6

That was not how Grant had planned it. Meigs recorded how Grant declared that “it was contrary to orders, it was not his plan—he meant to form the lines and then prepare and launch columns of assault, but, as the men[,] carried away by their enthusiasm had gone so far, he would not order them back.” What had seemed at first akin to suicide had turned into a smashing success.7

That evening no one could quite believe what they had seen, although it did not take long for the assault on Missionary Ridge to pass into legend. Bragg’s “beaten and discontented army” was “in full retreat”; Tennessee and Kentucky were now safe from invasion. It was, Meigs decided, “[t]he grandest stroke yet struck for our country.… It is unexampled—Another laurel leaf is added to Grant’s Crown.”8

Years later the editors of Century Magazine suggested to Grant that Bragg had detached some of his army to attack Knoxville in early November because he thought the Missionary Ridge position was impregnable. With “a shrewd look,” Grant replied: “Well, it was impregnable.”9

1 William Wrenshall Smith: Journal, November 13–25, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 576.
2 James A. Connolly to Mary Dunn Connolly, December 7, 1863, ibid., 593.
3 Smith, ibid., 577-78.
4 Montgomery C. Meigs: Journal, November 23–25, 1863, ibid., 585.
5 Smith, ibid., 580.
6 Meigs, ibid., 587; Connolly to Mary Dunn Connolly, November 26, 1863, ibid., 590; Smith, ibid., 580.
7 Meigs, ibid., 587.
8 Ibid., 589.
9 Ulysses S. Grant: Chattanooga, in Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1888), vol. III, 693n.

(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

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David Rieff on how his mother, Susan Sontag, lived as “a citizen of the Republic of Letters”

The author of Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (among many other books) and the editor of the journals and notebooks of Susan Sontag, David Rieff spoke with us recently about Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s, the collection of his mother’s writing that he edited for the LOA.

In Sontag’s view, who were the most important European writers undiscovered or neglected in the U.S.? Did she think of herself as a critic who bridged the intellectual worlds of Europe and America?

As an American, my mother was uncompromisingly engaged in the great political issues of her time—the Vietnam War, feminism, American power after the Cold War. But as a writer, and without denying or repudiating her “American-ness,” my mother saw herself as an international person, if you will, a citizen of the Republic of Letters—an idea that, while of course she knew it to be metaphoric, counted for her. So the idea that the U.S. and Europe were two separate and distinct worlds did not make much sense to her. That said, as someone steeped in French culture particularly, early in her career she brought writers like Nathalie Sarraute, Roland Barthes, E. M. Cioran, and others to the attention of New York publishers. Later in her career, my mother often offered to write prefaces to works she hoped U.S. publishers would have translated.

The seminal essay “On Photography” changed the way people thought and wrote about photographs. What led Sontag to her interest in photography?

I don’t believe there was one event. In cultural terms, at least, and perhaps in others as well, my mother was interested in virtually all the arts, not only photography. I simply think, as with many writers, there were some subjects about which she felt she had a great deal to say (like photography) and others, such as, for example, ballet, which she loved and followed, where her relations to them was as a devotee rather than as a critic.

Several of the previously uncollected pieces in the volume explore cultural attitudes toward women, beauty, and aging, speaking to issues central to the emerging women’s movement. Did Sontag identify herself as a feminist?

Unquestionably. But what my mother meant by identifying herself as a feminist and what others wanted her to mean by it, were two very different things.

Did Sontag have any personal favorites among these essays?

I think like most writers, my mother liked best the essay she was working on at the time. She was not a great one for looking backwards in any domain of life including her own work.

How, in Sontag’s view, were her essays related to her other work (fiction, filmmaking, playwriting, etc.)?

I don’t think she thought in such terms. I do know that she treasured her identity as a novelist and short story writer, and at least in some ways, valued it above that of all her work in other genres. But this was a feeling, not a judgment or any sort of demotion of her work as an essayist, filmmaker, playwright, etc.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Jefferson Davis Tries to Rally Confederate Morale (Fall 1863)

Guest blog post by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Fred C. Frey Chair in Southern Studies at Louisiana State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The third volume of the series was published earlier this year.

The summer of 1863 had been a poor one for the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee’s army was not just repulsed from its invasion of Pennsylvania but bloodily beaten at Gettysburg. At the same time, William S. Rosecrans maneuvered Braxton Bragg’s Confederates out of Middle Tennessee at the cost of less than six hundred Union casualties. Farther west, Ulysses S. Grant had at last captured Vicksburg, the strongest Confederate citadel of the Mississippi, and delivered complete control of the “Father of Waters” to the Union. Lee safely retreated into Virginia and spent the rest of the year rebuilding his army, aided partly by a controversial offer of amnesty to deserters who returned to their units.

The only good news came in September when Bragg, after receiving reinforcements from Mississippi and Virginia, took advantage of Rosecrans’s dispersed positions in northwest Georgia south of Chattanooga. The ensuing battle along Chickamauga Creek on September 19–20 devastated the Union Army of the Cumberland and forced it to retreat back into the city. Bragg initiated a siege, but his senior commanders expressed great frustration that they had not aggressively pursued Rosecrans’s fleeing army and taken Chattanooga. As a result, Jefferson Davis found himself traveling to Georgia in an attempt to contain something close to a generals’ mutiny. When Davis arrived at the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee overlooking Chattanooga on October 9, four of Bragg’s corps commanders called for his replacement. Addressing the army the next day, Davis reminded them that “obedience was the first duty of a soldier” and “prompt, unquestioning obedience” of superiors “could not be too highly commended.” He then confidently predicted that the Army of Tennessee would soon “plant our banners permanently on the banks of the Ohio.”1

Davis toured through Alabama, eastern Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas after he restored a semblance of order to the Army of Tennessee. In Wilmington, he celebrated the steadfastness of North Carolina residents, particularly in the “Eastern portion of the state which had suffered the most from the enemy and was perhaps the most loyalty and devoted portion of the whole State.”2 Davis was undoubtedly thinking of western North Carolina, which some Confederates believed was infected with the same poisonous unionism that defined East Tennessee. Despite Davis’s pronouncements about solidarity between regions, the Mountain South remained suspect throughout the war. But Davis himself overlooked a much more serious problem in eastern North Carolina: the continuing exodus of black families from the region. The Union army had captured New Bern in March 1862 and black residents began fleeing to Union lines almost immediately. In late 1863 Brigadier General Edward Wild recruited a sizable number of black North Carolinians into his “African Brigade,” which then began raiding tidewater plantations to free more enslaved people and recruit more soldiers for the Union. Davis’s vision of the Confederacy excluded free black people, but they nonetheless represented an increasing threat to the survival of southern independence.

If Davis ignored the determination of many black North Carolinians to fight for the Union, he confronted head on the problem of white southerners who their personal welfare ahead of the well-being of the Confederacy. In his speech at Wilmington, Davis condemned “the wealth gathered and heaped up in the spirit of Shylock, in the midst of a bleeding country” that “would go down with a branding and a curse.”3 As Davis knew, the opportunities for profit in running the Union blockade were substantial, especially in Wilmington, the last open Confederate deep-water port on the Atlantic. Loyal ship captains were supposed to return with cargoes of weapons, ammunition, medicine, shoes, and salt, but few could resist the temptation to stock their holds with luxury goods that sold quickly to still-wealthy members of the southern elite. In urban areas inland shopkeepers often withheld goods from sale until the prices rose. Confederate newspapers labeled such practices “extortion” and condemned merchants as public enemies, but no easy solution presented itself. What was the appropriate profit to make in a time of war? Shopkeepers had to pay their rent and feed their families like anyone else. Nonetheless, they became ready scapegoats for a Confederate government that needed targets for the mounting public anger over the toll, duration, and experience of the war. Military reverses in the summer of 1863 did not guarantee Confederate defeat in the war, but they did increase pressure on the Davis administration to ensure that sacrifices were borne equally, and that such sacrifices would ultimately produce victory.

1 Jefferson Davis: Speech at Missionary Ridge, October 10, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 547.
2 Jefferson Davis: Speech at Wilmington, November 5, 1863, ibid., 553.
3 Ibid., 552.

(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War
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