Archive for the ‘Battles’ Category

Battle and massacre at Fort Pillow

Engraving of the Fort Pillow massacre from 1894.

As today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow, and I’ve spent a lot of time researching and thinking about Nathan Bedford Forrest so as to use him as a character in my book, I thought I would dwell on what is unquestionably the most infamous event of Forrest’s career. During his raid of West Tennessee in 1864, Forrest, overseeing Chalmer’s Division of cavalry, attacked Fort Pillow near Memphis. The several hundred-man garrison was half-white and half-black, and most of the latter were massacred in the carnage that ensued when the Rebel troopers stormed the fort.

Here are some of my takeaways on the massacre:

  • From a military historical point of view, storming a fortification has always been a terrifying, bloody business for both the attacker and defender. When such an assault is successful, massacres of a defending garrison are commonplace even without the racial animus that Confederate troops had for blacks in blue uniforms. Although such incidents were uncommon in the Civil War (proving once again how civil the Civil War often was), history in general is replete with them.
  • The attack on Fort Pillow has been raked over ever since the war, and no solid evidence has ever been uncovered to indicate Forrest gave a “take no prisoners” order. Quite the contrary, it has been very well established that he sought to stop the massacre once he was aware of what was happening. While no evidence has ever come to light that General Chalmers ordered the massacre, there is some to suggest he condoned it once it was under way.
  • Between the above two points, I think the business was a soldiers’ affair. The greybacks slaughtered the black troops once they got them in a more or less helpless position because: 1) they were inclined to do so out of sheer racial animosity anyway; and 2) men storming a fort are prone to run wild and slaughter the fort’s defenders in any case.
  • Forrest’s prominent role in the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan gave the Fort Pillow massacre a bigger identity than it otherwise would have enjoyed. Although Forrest left the KKK long before it gained anything like the identity it would take on later as a nationwide white supremacist organization, the fact is that that very same KKK always pointed to a man who was a former slave trader, prominent Confederate general, and who presided over an infamous massacre of black troops as their founder. For them, all those things were a point of pride, lumping the entire package together into the same simplified, ugly light.

“Uncle Billy”

Seeing as how the 150th anniversary of the Meridian Campaign came about, I thought I was blog on the real campaign, as well as the small ways in which it changed in Stonewall Goes West. Ever since I became acquainted with the details of Sherman’s February and March foray into eastern Mississippi, I saw it as the prototype for his style of generalship. In some ways, it is more instructive as to how Sherman’s mind worked than the Atlanta Campaign.

The Campaign
The intent of the Meridian Campaign was to break up Confederate rail communications in eastern Mississippi. In this way, Sherman hoped to make it much harder for the Confederates to make large scale forays against the Mississippi River line and its garrisons, which would in turn allow him to reduce the size of those garrisons and reinforce efforts elsewhere.

Sherman’s main force consisted of four divisions organized into two corps, plus some cavalry for scouting. This would march out from Vicksburg. A secondary column of more than 7,000 cavalry under William Sooy Smith was supposed to head out of Memphis, with the intent of confusing the Confederates as to Sherman’s intentions; to spread the destruction done; and to reinforce the main effort upon reaching Meridian. George H. Thomas was given the job of demonstrating in front of Joe Johnston in Georgia, to prevent the Army of Tennessee from dispatching reinforcements to Leonidas Polk and his Army of Mississippi. Finally, the U.S. Navy demonstrated in front of Mobile.

All of this activity was buttressed by false stories planted by Sherman in Northern newspapers. Sherman, who despised reporters, was happy to use them to feed misleading information to the enemy, and his plan worked. Sherman’s main target was Meridian, and he never seriously expected to penetrate any farther into the Southern heartland than Demopolis, Alabama. Southern leaders, however, thought his real aim was at least Selma, and that perhaps he intended to go as far as Mobile and take it on the landward side!

In his own way, Sherman was very concerned that the enemy never understood exactly what he was about. His practice of “putting the enemy on the horns of a dilemma” by threatening multiple points while intending to strike at only one, thereby dispersing their forces, was a hallmark of the March to the Sea.

“Bishop” Polk

The same principle was applied on a much larger, theater-wide scale for the Meridian Campaign. In terms of strategy, Sherman’s campaign was brilliant. With the exception of Nathan Bedford Forrest defeating Smith at the Battle of Okolona, the Army of Mississippi didn’t interfere and Sherman pretty much got his way without a fight, just as he had always intended.

Changes In SGW
The main change for the Meridian Campaign was due to Stonewall Jackson being the theater commander for the Confederate “center,” as well as field commander for the Army of Tennessee. Unlike Joe Johnston, Jackson was a man of decisive action, and he was far less concerned with being outnumbered. He also had responsibility for what happened in Mississippi and Alabama.

Consequently, he dispatched Cheatham’s Division to Polk as soon as he heard Sherman had left Vicksburg, and fended off Thomas’s probing with the remainder of the army. He expected Polk, reinforced to 16,000 infantry, to be able to stop Sherman. With the Bishop in charge that didn’t happen. Sherman had his way in my story much as he did in history, with Jackson’s prompt response coming to nothing.

Following the dictum of opening with a bang, I started Stonewall Goes West with the fictitious Second Battle of Kettle Run. My opinion is that any good alternate history (or at least any good one that isn’t about time travel) follows the rule of starting with a small, plausible change at first, and then widening the deviation plausibly thereafter. In approaching the idea of Stonewall Jackson returning to duty for the October 1863 Bristoe Campaign, the idea of small, plausible change and sticking close to the real history is interwoven most tightly into that part of the story. Indeed, anyone who is familiar with the Battle of Bristoe Station should recognize several real historical decisions and events in my story.

Making Second Kettle Run
Second Kettle Run proceeded from two simple questions: what would Jackson want to do, and how would that alter Lee’s plans? Historically, Lee had to manage Dick Ewell and A.P. Hill, both of whom had disappointed him in the Gettysburg Campaign. With Jackson there instead of Hill, Lee would only need to mind Ewell, and could therefore give Old Baldy his undivided attention. That matters in the story, because with Lee minding him, Ewell came to grips with II Corps at Auburn more forcefully.

Jackson’s night march to and through Thoroughfare Gap reflects his preferences for expending boot laces over bullets and for avoiding predictable behavior. More than a few historians have suggested that Bristoe Station might have turned out differently if A.P. Hill had gotten started earlier in the morning, and therefore arrived on the field earlier, but the problem there is that Hill would have still approached Bristoe Station by the direct route. I have a hard time seeing Jackson making that choice if his intention were to cut off rather than pursue the enemy, hence his choice to march hard in an attempt to approach the enemy from an unexpected direction.

Everything else in the story flows from those two factors and from the real historical record, with the historical movements of the Army of the Potomac that day corresponding either closely or exactly to what I describe in the novel. III Corps marched out when I described it did; II Corps was delayed for a time by Wilcox’s attack at Auburn, but otherwise moved exactly as in history. In particular, Sykes behaved just as I described in the novel, seizing upon an unconfirmed report that mistook the arrival of the II Corps wagons for Warren’s entire command to start V Corps’s departure from the area.

But Is He Lucky?
Another pair of aspects of the Second Kettle Run story are the two classic battlefield factors of  friction and luck. Astute readers should have noted that Jackson’s own timetable was far too optimistic, and that he arrived at Bristoe hours behind his schedule. This turned out to be a lucky stroke, and the record shows Jackson was a lucky commander for the most part (although Jackson himself would have described it as Providential).

If Jackson had arrived more in tune with his own timetable, he would have found V Corps waiting for him, and the result would have been a slugging match between Jackson and Ewell against II, V, and eventually III Corps. Such a thing could only have resulted in a stalemate. If Jackson had arrived a little later, he would have found II Corps posted behind the Orange and Alexandria embankment, just as A.P. Hill historically did.

By arriving at just the right time, Jackson came into the gap opened between V Corps and II Corps by Sykes, a gap I widened only slightly by delaying II Corps at Auburn. Historically, A.P. Hill missed the same moment by a matter of 20 or 30 minutes, so the idea that Jackson could as I described is not outside the realm of serious possibility.

The rest of the battle follows from there. Cut off from the Army of the Potomac, II Corps is put in desperate straits, but even so it manages to escape complete destruction. The losses among II Corps leadership (Warren, Hays, and Webb are all casualties) reflect the extent of the disaster suffered, while I think Sykes’s court martial and suicide is an appropriate response to the unmitigated disgrace he suffered. Historically, Sykes dereliction at Bristoe contributed to his banishment into obscurity, and that was without his flawed decisions leading to a battlefield defeat.