Sunday, April 04, 2010

Two Generals

Jean Edward Smith's big biography of Grant, like all Civil War books, is full of memorably strange characters, many of whom will be familiar to the casual student of American history. Two that I don't remember from earlier reading in the period, however, have jumped out at me this time around: Brigadier General William "Bull" Nelson and Major General John McClernand, two Union generals who had very different styles--and relationships to Grant.

Bull Nelson plays only a small part, but as you can tell from the photo, he's such a striking figure that he stands out nonetheless. When he joins Grant just after Grant takes Fort Donelson, Smith describes him this way:
Six foot five and pushing 300 pounds, the foul-mouthed, hard-driving brigadier shared the fighting spirit of Foote and C. F. Smith. . . . No fight was too big for Nelson and he admired the audacity of Grant's plan. Told that ammunition for two of his brigades had been sent mistakenly to Cairo [Illinois], Nelson said not to worry. "I will endeavor to find the enemy with the bayonets of my division."
Later, Nelson was the only officer--including Grant--to realize that Grant was in danger of being attacked at Shiloh:
The not-so-genial giant was sitting on the north bank of the Duck River on the afternoon of March 27 watching the bridge-building efforts when he learned that the Tennessee no longer stood between Johnston and Grant. "By God," he exclaimed to a startled staff officer, "we must cross that river at once or Grant will be whipped."
In the absence of a bridge, he issued detailed orders instructing his men and equipment to ford the two hundred yards of the flooded Duck, "their pantaloons, in a neat roll . . . carried on the point of the bayonet." Which they did, without the loss of a single man or wagon; his arrival near the end of the first day of fighting at Shiloh proved decisive.

A footnote on Nelson's fate gives yet another operatic touch to this outsized character:
Nelson's fighting career ended abruptly September 29, 1862, when he was shot and killed by Indiana brigadier Jefforson C. Davis in the corridor of Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. Nelson had insulted Davis the week before. When Davis demanded satisfaction, Nelson slapped him in the face with the back of his hand. David procured a pistol from a bystander and shot Nelson. General Philip H. Sheridan said, "the ball entered Nelson's breast just above the heart, but his great strength enabled him to ascend the stairway notwithstanding the mortal character of the wound, and he did not fall till he reached the corridor on the second floor. He died about half an hour later."

Then there's the truly bizarre story of General McClernand, which unfolded just before the attack on Vicksburg:
Grant, for his part, was energized by rumors, soon confirmed, that the second-ranking officer in his command, Major General John McClernand, was back in Illinois raising volunteers for an independent assault on Vicksburg. in one of hte more bizarre episodes of the Civil war, McClernand [was] a prominent Illinois lawyer, Democratic member of Congress, and close friend of Lincoln's. . . . [F]ueled by dreams of military glory and critical of Grant's ability to command, the politically ambitious McClernand persuaded Lincoln that he could rekindle the patriotism of Democrats in the old Northwest Territory if given the opportunity to raise a new army of volunteers, descend the Mississippi, capture Vicksburg, and "open navigation to New Orleans." Without informing Grant, Lincoln approved the scheme. McClernand left Washington in late October armed with a confidential order dictated by the president authorizing him to proceed to the Middle West and raise a separate force to capture VIcksburg.
Ultimately, McClernand's gambit was foiled and he was brought back under Grant's command, though not before forcing a direct appeal to Lincoln, who, perhaps recognizing his mistake, sided with Grant. Even leaving aside the strange subterfuge at the heart of this story, I love it for the boundlessness of McClernand's confidence in his own abilities: he, with a newly raised volunteer corps, would simply go and do what Grant and the entire western half of the Army of the Republic had been planning for months.

That pair of characters only reinforces a thought I've been entertaining a lot lately: that if only Tolstoy had somehow become an American Civil War buff, oh, what a novel he could have written about it! From the limited research I've done thus far, I can't determine whether Tolstoy was even aware of the war--anyone want to lend me their time machine so that I can go correct that?

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