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Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 2/32



CHAPTER XXXII


Crisis in the Confederate Army.—1863


WHILE the removal of the generals and the reorganization absorbed the attention of headquarters and camps on our side, a similar crisis was occurring in the Confederate army. Indications of it had reached us through Southern newspapers. These came into our lines almost as quickly as into the enemy's, thanks to the truce arrived at between the respective pickets, without authority, but winked at by their superiors, and which led to friendly talk and exchange of courtesies. One contained a general order of Lieutenant-General Polk, in which he took leave of his corps, and the announcement of the removal of General Hindman from command. But no one was aware of the extent and violence of the conflict then raging among the rebel generals, nor was it suspected that these internal quarrels had led to a most important event, of which we learned from rebel papers and through the great commotion on Missionary Ridge. It was nothing less than a visit of Jefferson Davis himself to Bragg's troops. The President of the Confederacy arrived on the evening of October the 10th and remained till the 13th. His presence was signalized by artillery salutes and parades and reviews, which could be clearly seen from Cameron Hill. From our picket line the band music and cheers with which the rebel soldiery responded to the speeches he made to them were also distinctly heard. It is only by the publication of the Official War Records that the connection between his visit and the squabbles of the generals has been made apparent. I think it best to give at length this interesting chapter in the history of the Rebellion.

The opposition of Bragg's lieutenants to his decision simply to invest Chattanooga speedily found vent in active demonstrations against him. The first of these on record is a letter addressed by General Longstreet to the Secretary of War at Richmond, full of complaint and criticism, in which this passage occurs:

To express my convictions in a few words, our chief has done but one thing that he ought to have done since I joined his army. That was to order the attack upon the 20th. All other things that he has done he ought not to have done. I am convinced that nothing but the hand of God can save us or help us as long as we have our present commander. Now, to our wants. Can't you send us General Lee? . . . We need some such great mind. . . . You will be surprised to learn that this army has neither organization nor mobility, and I have doubts if its commander can give it them. . . . When I came here, I hoped to find our commander willing and anxious to do all things that would aid us in our great cause, and ready to receive what aid he could get from his subordinates. It seems that I was greatly mistaken. It seems that he cannot adopt and adhere to any plan or course, whether of his own or of some one else. . . . There is no exaggeration in these statements.

Nor was Longstreet content with this. He begged Colonel James Chestnut, Jr., aide-de-camp of President Davis, then on a visit to the army, to go to Richmond with all speed and urge action upon him. In an official letter dated October 4, to Lieutenant-General D. H. Hill, he entreated him and Buckner to see the colonel also for the same purpose.

Most of the other generals in command above the rank of brigadier followed Longstreet's example. They conspired to make a direct appeal to President Davis for Bragg's removal. Their action was hastened by the issue of an order on September 29 by the Commander-in-chief, who had learned of the cabal against him, relieving from their commands Major-General Hindman, for disobedience of orders in the affair in McLemore's Cove on September 11, and Lieutenant-General Polk, for the same offence, on the morning of the second day at Chickamauga. A long letter to the Executive, dated October 4 and understood to have been prepared by Buckner and Breckinridge, was signed by them and Lieutenant-General Hill and Generals Hindman, Cheatham, Preston, Brown, and others. Its character may be judged from the following quotations:

Two weeks ago this army, elated by a great victory, which promised to be the most fruitful of the war, was in readiness to pursue its defeated enemy. That enemy, driven in confusion from the field, was fleeing in disorder and panic-stricken across the Tennessee River. To-day, after having been twelve days in line of battle in that enemy's front, within cannon range of his position, the Army of the Tennessee has seen a new Sebastopol rise steadily before its view. The beaten enemy, recovering behind its formidable works from the effect of its defeat, is understood to be already receiving reinforcements, while heavy additions to his strength are rapidly approaching him. Whatever may have been accomplished heretofore, it is certain that the fruits of the victory of Chickamauga have now escaped our grasp. The Army of the Tennessee, stricken with a complete paralysis, will in a few days' time be thrown strictly on the defensive, and may deem itself fortunate if it escapes from its present position without disaster.

After urging the necessity of strengthening the army, in view of the reinforcements of the enemy, the petitioners continue: “But . . . your petitioners would deem it a dereliction of the sacred duty they owe the country, if they did not further ask that Your Excellency assign to the command of this army an officer who will inspire the army and the country with undivided confidence.” Moreover, independently of other reasons, “the condition of the health of the present commander totally unfits him for the command of an army in the field.” In conclusion: “In making these representations to Your Excellency, your petitioners are aware that the proceeding is unusual among military men, but the extraordinary condition of affairs in this army, the magnitude of the interests at stake, and a sense of the responsibilities under which they rest to Your Excellency and to the Republic, render this proceeding, in their judgment, a matter of solemn duty, from which, as patriots, they cannot shrink.” The petition closed with a strong affirmation of their disbelief in the possibility of success under the existing command. The annals of modern warfare will probably be searched in vain for a counterpart to this extraordinary performance in the face of the enemy. Lieutenant-General Polk had anticipated it by a letter of his own to the same effect, to President Davis, dated two days before he was relieved from command, by one of the same date and of a like tenor to General R. E. Lee, and by another to the President, bearing the date of October 6, in which he goes so far as to say:

General Bragg . . . allowed the whole of the fruits of this great victory to pass from him by the most criminal negligence, or, rather, incapacity, for there are positions in which weakness is wickedness. If there be a man in the public service who should be held to a more rigid accountability for failures, and upon the largest scale, than another, that man is General Bragg, and I shall be happy to go before a court of inquiry on charges preferred against me by General Bragg, that I may have the opportunity not only of vindicating my own conduct, but of establishing the truth and justice of what I have written of his lack of capacity as a commanding general.

Longstreet's letter to the Secretary of War had effect. The latter wired to General Bragg that his apparent inaction since Chickamauga was causing anxiety, and called for an explanation. The General sent a full reply, setting forth that to attack the entrenched enemy would be suicidal, and that he was making every effort to accumulate sufficient supplies for a turning movement across the Tennessee River. But the demonstrations of the other generals decided the rebel President to make a personal attempt to heal the dissensions on the ground. It may easily be imagined that his task was a delicate and unpleasant one. It does not appear whether he gave hearings to both sides during his stay, but it is certain that he determined to sustain Bragg at all points. The latter offered to give up his command, but Davis would not listen to the suggestion. He not only approved of the removal of Generals Polk and Hindman, but, the day after his arrival, authorized also that of Lieutenant-General D. H. Hill. He consented the more readily to the latter as Hill had been detached from Lee's army for the same reason, disobedience of orders.

Formal charges were made by General Bragg against Generals Polk and Hindman and sent to the War Department. The two generals, of their own accord, also applied for courts of inquiry. General Polk addressed interrogatories regarding his conduct to all the commanders under him, to which they all replied, mostly in his favor, and he further secured the statements of all his staff. But it never came to courts-martial or courts of inquiry in either case. President Davis settled that of Polk by declining to authorize the appointment of a court, on the ground that his personal examination into the causes and circumstances of his removal had satisfied him that there was nothing in them to justify further investigation, and by appointing the Lieutenant-General to the command of another department, “as the best evidence,” to quote from his official notification, “of my appreciation of your past service and expectations of your future career.” General Hindman received even more striking exoneration. In his formal declination to order a court of inquiry, the President gave as his reasons for it that his personal investigation of the case had convinced him that, if the explanations since given had been made at the proper time, General Bragg's order relieving him would never have been issued. This snub direct was administered to Bragg, notwithstanding the recantation which he addressed to the President, no doubt on his requirement, in this humiliating form, under date of November 15:

After your action in the case of Lieutenant-General Polk, which to me has been entirely satisfactory, I feel it a duty as it is a pleasure to request similar action on your part toward Major-General Hindman. This officer, as will appear from the official reports, was conspicuously distinguished at Chickamauga for gallantry and good conduct, and nothing but the necessity for uniform discipline prevented my overlooking the previous affair for which he was suspended. From what I have heard unofficially, the General may prefer not to serve under my command; but it is only just for me to add that he possesses my fullest confidence as a most gallant soldier and excellent disciplinarian.

The outcome was, that General Hindman returned to duty under Bragg.

The narrative of the machinations against the latter would not be complete without mention of the singular controversy provoked by General Buckner with General Bragg, within a week after the army had taken position before Chattanooga, over the question whether the Commander-in-chief had the right to transfer to another general's command part of the troops which Buckner had brought with him from East Tennessee. The correspondence between them, which fills many pages in the Records, culminated in violent personal abuse and a reference of the mooted point to the War Department, which overruled Buckner, who seems to have been a conceited, carping, and querulous egotist.