Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/14





Kentucky in the Summer and Fall of 1861

I REACHED Louisville during the last week of August, 1861, and took a room at the Galt House, the largest and best hotel in the city, kept by Captain Silas Miller, well known throughout the Southwest as a successful commander of Ohio and Mississippi steamboats. He was a staunch and enthusiastic Unionist, owing to which his house was sought by the Kentucky loyalists and shunned by the rebel sympathizers. Louisville could boast of a good deal of commercial activity in ordinary times, but its business was then at a standstill from the stoppage of trade between North and South, and the almost entire cessation of steamboating on the Ohio. Many of the business men and the majority of the young men of the place had gone South to join their fate to that of the Confederacy. Hence, the streets wore a very quiet and even deserted look. The hotel, too, was almost empty. I had a few letters of introduction, one to Mr. Speed, the postmaster, a friend of President Lincoln and brother of the future Attorney-General, and another to a Northern family by the name of Cowan. Both led to very pleasant, though limited, social relations, as four-fifths of the upper class favored the South and showed the utmost animosity towards the loyal element. I also made the acquaintance of George D. Prentice, the poet-journalist, editor of the Louisville Journal, and of his principal assistants, with all of whom I was soon on such good terms that their editorial rooms became a familiar resort for me. Mr. Tyler, the agent of the New York Associated Press, a native of Massachusetts, and his wife likewise became my friends. They were elderly people, and had their peculiarities, but were very intelligent and ardent loyalists. His office was near the hotel, and it soon became my practice to visit it regularly after supper in order to learn and discuss the latest news.

The political situation in the State was stirring and threatening, and furnished ample material for correspondence. Ever since the secession of the cotton States, incessant efforts had been made by the local rebel sympathizers to make Kentucky join the Southern cause. The Governor, Magoffin, did everything in his power to bring this about. All through the winter and spring the outcome remained doubtful. Although secession sentiments prevailed among the upper classes, the majority of the people of the State were doubtless for the maintenance of the Union, but the loyal feeling was not strong enough for immediate, hearty, unconditional support of the Federal Government. There was a general disposition, indeed, even among the leading opponents of secession, to pronounce against the coercion of the rebellious States by force of arms, and to pursue a non-committal, selfish policy of neutrality between North and South, in order to protect the State from the horrors of civil war. Thus, they supported the rebel sympathizer in the gubernatorial chair in his direct refusal, in the name of the State, to furnish its quota of troops under the first call of President Lincoln for 75,000 men. They also approved the action of the Legislature in calling out a force of militia to prevent the “invasion” of its soil by either belligerent.

The Government at Washington was weak enough — mainly owing to Lincoln's tenderness for his native State — to bear with this undutifulness to the Union for a time, but the impracticability of such passiveness became gradually manifest. The incessant endeavors of Magoffin, Simon B. Buckner, the commander of the “State Guards” (the militia called out ostensibly to enforce neutrality, but ready to fight for the South), ex-Vice-President John C. Breckinridge, George B. Crittenden, Humphrey Marshall, and other conspirators to implicate the State in the Rebellion soon compelled a different course. The Union leaders recognized the necessity of active counter-efforts, and brought about the organization of their followers in clubs and military bodies. The Government had sent General Anderson, of Fort Sumter fame, to Cincinnati in May, on a secret mission for promoting the enlistment of volunteers from Kentucky and Virginia in the United States service. Simultaneously, William Nelson, a lieutenant in the United States Navy, a Kentuckian by birth, of unbounded loyal enthusiasm, to whom President Lincoln's attention had been called, was relieved from naval duty and permitted to go to his native State and take charge of the formal military organization of the Unionists. I had made his acquaintance in Washington through his brother, United States Minister to Chili under President Lincoln. He was thirty-six years old, over six feet high, with a mighty frame, a stentorian voice, a Jove-like head, of tireless, infectious energy, and altogether a remarkable personality. Under his direction, five thousand muskets, sent by the Government, were brought into the State and distributed among the “Home Guards,” as the loyalists were designated in distinction from the secessionist “State Guards.” Through the influence of General Anderson, nearly two thousand Kentucky Volunteers had been gathered in a camp on the Ohio side a short distance above Cincinnati, and formed into the First and Second Regiments of Kentucky Volunteers. Lovell H. Rousseau, a Louisville lawyer and politician, obtained authority to enlist a brigade of loyal Kentuckians, but likewise deemed it prudent to establish his recruiting camp outside of the State, just opposite Louisville on the Indiana side. These measures had strengthened the Union sentiment greatly and borne fruit in the August State election, which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the loyalists, three-quarters of the new Legislature being of their persuasion. Nelson thereupon immediately established a recruiting camp on his native soil, called Camp Dick Robinson, in the central part of the State, between Danville and Lexington, and soon had gathered several thousand men together.

Meantime, the rebel leaders had not been idle. The “State Guards” had been strengthened. Mass meetings of their sympathizers were to be held during August at different points, at which it was presumed the secession of the State would be openly proclaimed and carried out by simultaneous military movements upon the State capital. Governor Magoffin was to furnish the pretence for the outbreak by making a formal demand upon President Lincoln for a discontinuance of Federal recruiting in the State, which, of course, would be refused. But the growth of the Union feeling brought these schemes to naught, and, when I reached Louisville, it was so greatly in the ascendant that the rebel leaders despaired of their ability to provoke rebellion in the State, and sought to persuade the rebel Government to compel it to share the fate of the Confederacy through invasion.

On September 5, the first news indicating that these efforts had been successful arrived. General Gideon J. Pillow had crossed the Mississippi the day before from the Arkansas side, with six thousand men, and occupied the Kentucky town of Columbus. Two weeks later, the still more startling announcement came that Buckner had invaded the State from the South with a rebel force of five thousand men. He had appeared in Washington in August, where he pretended to be determined to remain neutral, but suddenly disappeared, and made his way to Richmond, where he obtained a commission as brigadier-general, and immediately returned to his State to assume direction of the offensive movement by which it was expected to reach the Ohio and capture Louisville with a rush. He came very near succeeding. He seized the north bound trains on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, loaded them with his troops, and pushed on. But for the displacement of a rail by a loyalist, causing the wreck of a south-bound train and obstructing the traffic, he might have reached Louisville. As it was, he stopped at Elizabethtown, thirty-five miles from the city, and, hearing of the approach of Federal troops, became himself alarmed and ordered the railroad bridge over a fork of Salt River, in his front, to be burned. About the same time, intelligence was received of a third invasion from another direction. During the second week of September, General Zollicoffer had started with a division of eight to nine thousand men from Eastern Tennessee for the Cumberland Gap, and reached the Cumberland River about a week later. Thus the neutrality farce — it had been nothing else for months before — came to an end, and Kentucky became one of the theatres of the Civil War, and not the least bloody and devastated.

The rebel offensive against the State naturally led also to a radical change in the attitude of the Federal Government. Just before the occupation of Columbus, General Anderson had visited Washington for consultation, and he returned to Cincinnati with Brigadier-Generals W. T. Sherman and George H. Thomas, who were to serve under him. General Thomas was at once sent to take command of the camp formed by Nelson, and General Sherman to St. Louis to solicit aid for Kentucky from General Frémont. General Anderson himself assumed active command in Kentucky, transferring his headquarters to Louisville. My friend Captain Fry came with him as assistant adjutant-general. General Sherman also reported there to him on his return from the West.

The news of the rebel advances toward the centre of the State produced great excitement and, to tell the truth, consternation and fright in Louisville. Everybody believed that Buckner would make as fast as possible for the Ohio River, and Zollicoffer would lose no time in making for the State capital. There were practically no troops available for contesting such movements but the half-drilled volunteers in Rousseau's and Nelson's camps. I had visited both, and knew that they were very far from being ready to take the field. Indeed, they were not half as efficient as the three-months' men in the Bull Run campaign. Help was telegraphed for and promised by the Federal Government and by the Governors of Ohio and Indiana. But as none could be expected immediately, and as General Anderson fortunately had timely warning of Buckner's contemplated coup de main, he at once ordered Sherman to take Rousseau's men and the Louisville Home Guards, numbering in all about twenty-five hundred, and move them by rail to a commanding position known as Muldraugh's Hill, about twenty-eight miles south of the city, on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. This was promptly done, and that point occupied and fortified as well as possible. Union scouting parties sent out from it ascertained, a few days later, the reassuring fact that Buckner had fallen back to Bowling Green on Green River. Zollicoffer's intended march northward from the Cumberland River to the Blue Grass region, the heart of the State, was also stopped by the counter-movements of General Thomas. Evidently, both sides had exaggerated ideas of each other's strength, and each was afraid of being attacked by the other. Yet I could not help thinking at the time, and still am of the opinion, that, if Buckner and Zollicoffer had really pushed vigorously on, they had a good chance of compelling the at least temporary abandonment of Kentucky by the Federal Government and getting possession of the important city of Louisville and the main railroad artery connecting the Ohio River with the South.

Thus I was thoroughly disappointed in my expectation that active operations would give me plenty of interesting work. The rebels made themselves as secure and comfortable as possible at Bowling Green and in front of the Cumberland Gap, and their opponents no longer looked for the appearance of the enemy “at any moment,” but settled down to the work of drilling, disciplining, clothing, and equipping for the winter the Union forces already on the ground, and the reinforcements they steadily received by the arrival of newly-enlisted Ohio and Indiana regiments. By the end of September, nothing was left for me to do but to watch the curious developments in Washington and in Louisville, which I will now describe, in connection with military affairs in Kentucky.

Owing to his age and feeble health, General Anderson found himself unequal to the work and responsibility of his command, and asked to be relieved from duty soon after he had moved his headquarters to Louisville. His wish was reluctantly granted by President Lincoln, and a formal order to that effect issued by the War Department on October 7, and General Sherman directed to take his place. The change was not favorable for me, for, while General Anderson was very accessible and communicative to representatives of the press, General Sherman looked upon them as a nuisance and a danger at headquarters and in the field, and acted toward them accordingly, then as throughout his great war career. I did not, of course, agree with him at that time as to my own calling, but candor constrains me to say that I had to admit in the end that he was entirely right. For what I then observed, on the one hand, of the natural eagerness of volunteer officers of all grades (of whom so many were aspiring politicians at home) to get themselves favorably noticed in the press, even at the cost of indiscretions, and, on the other hand, of the indifference of press-men to military interests in publishing army news, must lead any unprejudiced mind to the conclusion that the harm certain to be done by war correspondents far outweighs any good they can possibly do. If I were a commanding general I would not tolerate any of the tribe within my army lines.

Under the circumstances, it was perfectly useless to approach General Sherman formally as a news-gatherer. I was, however, brought in contact with him in another and more satisfactory way. He appeared every night, like myself, at about nine o clock, in the office of Mr. Tyler, to learn the news brought in the night Associated Press report. He knew me from the Bull Run campaign as a correspondent of the press. Furthermore, I had been especially commended to him by his brother John (then a member of the House, and subsequently Senator from Ohio and Secretary of the Treasury); and as we met on neutral ground and I asked him no questions, we were soon on very good terms. He was a great talker, and he liked nothing better than to express his mind upon the news as it came. There he sat, smoking a cigar (I hardly ever saw him without one), leaning back in a chair, with his thumbs in the armholes of his vest. Or he was pacing up and down the room, puffing away, with his head bent forward and his arms crossed behind his back. Every piece of military intelligence drew some comment from him, and it was easy to lead him into a long talk if the subject interested him. He expressed himself without any reserve about men and matters, trusting entirely to the good faith of his hearers, who, as a rule, consisted only of Mr. Tyler and myself. As will be readily believed, we found the hours thus spent in his company a great treat, although we did not dream of the celebrity the General was to achieve. I have often wished I had made notes of his sayings. His estimates of military and political leaders particularly would have been worth preserving. Nearly all of them proved to be correct.

In his conversations with us, he discussed also the political and military situation in Kentucky and his own task in connection with it, and I could not help thinking that, in so doing, he said more than was wise and proper. He openly confessed, after he had been assigned to the command of the department, that he had not wished it and was afraid of his new responsibilities. With the vivid imagination inherent to genius, he clearly saw how formidable were the difficulties of the part he was expected to play in the suppression of the Rebellion. They simply appalled him. He found himself in command of raw troops, not exceeding twenty thousand in number. He believed that they should be multiplied many times. He feared the rebel forces in the State largely outnumbered his own, and he could not rid himself of the apprehension that, if he should be attacked, he would have no chance of success. It was not really want of confidence in himself that brought him to this state of mind, but, as it seemed to me, his intense patriotism and despair of the preservation of the Union in view of the fanatical, blood thirsty hostility to it throughout the South. This dread took such hold of him that, as I was informed by those who were in hourly official intercourse with him, he literally brooded over it day and night. It made him lapse into long, silent moods even outside his headquarters. He lived at the Galt House, occupying rooms on the ground floor. He paced by the hour up and down the corridor leading to them, smoking and obviously absorbed in oppressive thoughts. He did this to such an extent that it was generally noticed and remarked upon by the guests and employees of the hotel. His strange ways led to gossip, and it was soon whispered about that he was suffering from mental depression.

Such was his condition when Secretary Cameron arrived in Louisville for a conference with him. The Secretary had been to St. Louis to remonstrate with General Frémont about his extravagances and arbitrary assumption of power, and came to see General Sherman, who seemed to the Washington authorities to stand very much in need of being brought to reason, in view of his highly exaggerated theories as to the forces required for the extinction of the Rebellion in the Mississippi Valley. Secretary Cameron had with him Samuel Wilkeson, the Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune — afterwards for nearly twenty years secretary of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company — whom he allowed to listen to his official and confidential conversations with the General, without, however, disclosing Wilkeson's journalistic character. The conference is fully described in Sherman's Memoirs. The General demonstrated on a map his strategic programme for subduing the Confederacy. He indicated the lines of operation which the several Federal armies in process of formation should follow in the South. He also made an estimate of the numerical strength they should possess, and contended that, to destroy the military power of the Confederacy in the rebel States watered by the Mississippi and its eastern and western tributaries, would require not less than two hundred thousand men. This contention was so contrary to, or rather in advance of, the then still prevailing ideas of the limited power of resistance of the Confederacy and the means necessary to overcome it, that it startled the Secretary and excited doubts as to the state of the General's mind. Wilkeson told me, indeed, immediately after the conference, that Cameron thought the General was unbalanced by exaggerated fears as to the rebel strength, and that it would not do to leave him in command.

This was a great bit of news, but, in the public interest, I did not feel free to use it. My friend Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, being very much attached to the Sherman family, I communicated it to him in a private letter the same evening. But Halstead could not resist the temptation of utilizing the sensational information for his paper. To my painful surprise and great indignation, he printed, in the first issue after receiving my letter, an editorial paragraph saying in substance that “the country would learn with surprise and regret that Brigadier-General Sherman had become insane.” Thus I was the innocent cause of the publication of this cruel misstatement, which resulted in so much annoyance and distress to the General and his friends. But the worst result of the conference was yet to come. In spite of the fact that Cameron had concealed Wilkeson's connection with the press, so that Sherman talked with much more freedom than he would otherwise have done, the Secretary allowed Wilkeson to print every detail of the talk in the Tribune, accompanied by sarcastic criticisms of the timorousness of the General and his absurd demands for troops, as evidenced by his requisition for two hundred thousand men, and also by broad insinuations that his mind was upset and that he could not safely be permitted to exercise an important command. This was an abominable outrage, and a striking illustration of the utter unconsciousness at the time, in ruling circles and withal in the public at large, of the detriment to public interests and especially to army discipline wrought by such scandalous improprieties. As was to be foreseen, General Sher man asked to be relieved from his command, and, early in November, his request was readily granted. In fact, it was the general impression that the design of the publication in the Tribune was to compel him to retire.

A new military department, “of the Ohio,” was formed, and Brigadier-General Don Carlos Buell placed in command, with headquarters at Louisville, where he assumed charge in the second week of November. He held the same views regarding war correspondents as General Sherman, and would not allow them to approach him on any ground. But I continued to enjoy the special advantage of having a friend at court in Captain Fry. General Buell, besides his aversion to members of the press, was by nature reserved, taciturn, and cold in his manners — just the opposite of General Sherman. He repelled rather than attracted not only his subordinates, but all who came in contact with him. He was the choice of General McClellan for the position, and, like him, was destined to prove a failure.

I have referred to the exaggerated estimates of the rebel forces in his front that warped General Sherman's judgment. Together with the unreadiness of the troops under him, it had given rise to his disinclination to think of an early offensive as at all possible. One of the motives of the Government in substituting General Buell for him was its desire that something should be done for the relief of the loyalists in East Tennessee, whose steadfast adherence to the Union, in spite of the merciless persecution and oppression practised toward them by the rebel Government, appealed most strongly to the sympathies of the Northern States, and for whose protection active measures were warmly advocated in the press and in Congress. President Lincoln's interest in their cause was enlisted by the constant pleadings of Andrew Johnson, Horace Maynard, and other leaders on their behalf. He evidenced this by one of the famous documents of the war, the sketch of a plan which he had prepared, in the latter part of September, for an advance into East Tennessee, and sent to the War Department as a positive command, as shown by the first words: “On or about the fifth of October, I wish a movement made to seize and hold a point on the railroad connecting Virginia and Tennessee near the mountain pass called Cumberland Gap.” The plan and the ways and means indicated for its execution were unquestionably sound, and proved, like similar emanations at later stages of the war, that Mr. Lincoln's perception of the military situation was a very creditable one.

It was expected that General Buell, upon whom the Commander-in-chief, General McClellan, had himself urged, in his verbal instructions, the necessity of prompt action, with the promise of reinforcements for that purpose, would not be long in starting an expedition for East Tennessee. But it soon turned out that he also was unwilling to take early action. The more his command was swelled by additional troops from the North, the less he apparently became inclined to take the field — this notwithstanding the eagerness of General George H. Thomas to go for Zollicoffer from central Kentucky. On November 25, McClellan repeated his previous oral and written instructions in the strongest language, saying in his letter: "I am still convinced that political and strategical considerations render a prompt movement in force on Eastern Tennessee imperative. . . . I think we owe it to our Union friends in East Tennessee to protect them at all hazards.” He followed up this letter two days later with a despatch: “I urge movement at once on Eastern Tennessee unless it is impossible.” But Buell did not budge. He pleaded that his troops were anything but ready to take the field. He described them as “little better than a mob.” The fact that he was being vainly urged to move became public, and he was attacked in the press and in Congress. But this did not influence him any more than the orders and remonstrances of his superiors. These continued to reach him by mail and wire, but he contrived to find excuses for not complying.

In the latter part of December, the pressure from Washington at last extracted from him the admission that he had never really thought a movement into East Tennessee advisable, and that his programme was a defensive one in an eastern and an offensive one in a western direction. Finally, President Lincoln lost his long-tried patience, and on January 4 wired him: “Please tell me the progress and condition of the movement in the direction of East Tennessee. Answer.” Buell, in his reply, amplified his previous admission that the East Tennessee movement had been decidedly against his judgment from the very first, as likely to render doubtful the success of “a movement against the great power of the Rebellion in the west, which is mainly arrayed on the line between Bowling Green and Columbus.” President Lincoln replied by mail, commencing his letter thus: “Your despatch of yesterday has been received and disappoints and distresses me,” and then argued that, in his judgment, the possession of the rail road between Virginia and East Tennessee seemed to him more important and more to be desired than that of Nashville. Next he lamented the sad fate of the loyalists, if left without help. “But my distress is,” he said, “that our friends in East Tennessee are being hanged and driven to despair.” “My despatch to you was sent with the knowledge of Senator Johnson and Representative Maynard, and they will be after me to know your answer, which I cannot safely show them.” This characteristic wail of the President, with the extraordinary ending, “I do not intend this to be an order in any sense, but merely to show you the grounds of my anxiety,” was followed by far more emphatic expressions from General McClellan. “I was extremely sorry,” he wrote to Buell, “to learn from your telegram to the President that you had from the beginning attached little or no importance to a movement into East Tennessee. I had not so understood your views, and it develops a radical difference between yours and mine, which I deeply regret.” He then gave his reasons for preferring a movement towards East Tennessee to one against Nashville, emphasizing the fact that “the latter would work a prejudicial change in my own plans.” On January 13, McClellan wrote again in a way that obliged Buell to promise to comply with the wishes of his superiors. Yet he failed to keep his promise promptly, further excusing himself by reason of want of transportation and the impracticability of the roads.

Meantime, the lack of stirring events and the absolute silence imposed by General Buell's orders upon correspondents in regard to the large army under his command, on penalty of expulsion from the department, made time hang rather heavily on my hands. My social relations were too limited, for the reasons already explained, to relieve the monotony of my daily life. Moreover, no public entertainments of any kind were going on in Louisville, owing to the state of war. But I had a pleasant interruption of my dull existence by spending Christmas week among my friends in Cincinnati. The continual inclemency of the weather added no little to the dreariness of those winter months, during which not a single personal incident worth recording occurred.

My usefulness to my employers would thus not have been very great but for the accidental discovery and exploitation of a new mine of valuable intelligence. The war having cut off all the former communications between the loyal and rebel States by mail and telegraph, railroad and steamboat, the Northern press was deprived of its regular supply of Southern news. Its scarcity very much increased the demand for and the value of it. The curiosity of the Northern public regarding current events in the South seemed to be even greater than about home affairs. It occurred to me during the fall that, what with the large number of Louisville people who had gone South to help the Confederates and their natural desire to hear from home and to be able to send tidings of themselves, some channel of intelligence might be opened. On close investigation I found out that there were men and women travelling regularly between Louisville and Nashville, who made it their business to carry letters, papers, and other things between the two points — a sort of “under ground railroad.” By paying liberally for them, I managed to receive through this agency all the leading papers in the South. With clippings from them, which I accompanied by proper comments, I made up regular budgets of Southern news, which became a highly prized feature of the Herald. None of its contemporaries was so well served in this respect as long as I remained stationed in Louisville.