Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865

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9780375412189: Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865

In this first full consideration of the remarkable Union army that effectively won the Civil War, historian Steven Woodworth tells the engrossing story of its victory by drawing on letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts of the time.

The Army of the Tennessee operated in the Mississippi River Valley through the first half of the Civil War, winning major victories at the Confederate strongholds of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. The army was created at Cairo, Illinois, in the summer of 1861 and took shape under the firm hand of Ulysses S. Grant, who molded it into a hard-hitting, self-reliant fighting machine. Woodworth takes us to its winter 1863 encampment in the Louisiana swamps, where the soldiers suffered disease, hardship, and thousands of deaths. And we see how the force emerged from that experience even tougher and more aggressive than before. With the decisive victory at Vicksburg, the Army of the Tennessee had taken control of the Mississippi away from the Confederates and could swing east to aid other Union troops in a grand rolling up of Rebel defenses. It did so with a confidence born of repeated success, even against numerical odds, leading one of its soldiers to remark that he and his comrades expected “nothing but victory.”

The Army of the Tennessee contributed to the Union triumph at Chattanooga in the fall of 1863 and then became part of William Tecumseh Sherman’s combined force in the following summer’s march to Atlanta. In the complicated maneuvering of that campaign, Sherman referred to the army as his whiplash and used it whenever fast marching and arduous fighting were especially needed. Just outside Atlanta, it absorbed the Confederacy’s heaviest counterblow and experienced its hardest single day of combat. Thereafter, it continued as part of Sherman’s corps in his March to the Sea and his campaign through the Carolinas.

The story of this army is one of perseverance in the face of difficulty, courage amid severe trials, resolute lessons in fighting taught by equally courageous foes, and the determination of a generation of young men to see a righteous cause all the way through to victory.

Nothing but Victory is an important addition to the literature of the Civil War.

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About the Author:

Steven Woodworth is professor of history at Texas Christian University.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Grant’s Army
Chapter One
Raising an Army

"Red snow fell near Iowa City,” reported the Des Moines Sunday Register on March 5, 1861. Editor George Mills hastened to explain that the color was caused by fine flakes of reddish clay mixed with the precipitation. Wind had swept dust into the atmosphere far to the west, providing the residents of eastern Iowa with a bit of unusual late-winter color. It was a simple scientific explanation, easily understood by modern Americans in this enlightened second half of the nineteenth century. Yet as editor Mills observed, many Iowans could hardly help wondering whether the eerie reddish cast of their normally snow-whitened plains was not some vague but appalling portent of terrible things to come. It may well have occurred to some Hawkeyes that the next winter’s snows might be reddened by the bloodshed of civil strife. Americans elsewhere would have asked themselves the same question.

On the same day the red snow fell in Iowa, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as president of a country that was tearing itself apart. The issue of slavery had festered between North and South for two generations, and for many people in Iowa, as in the other Midwestern states, the tension in Washington, D.C., was a matter of great concern.

In response to Lincoln’s election, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina declared itself no longer a part of the United States. On January 9, Mississippi followed. Florida went on January 10, and the next day it was Alabama. Other Deep South states followed throughout the month. On February 1, Texas became the seventh state to declare itself out of the Union. Later that month, representatives of the rebellious states met in Montgomery, Alabama, organized a government, styled themselves “the Confederate States of America,” and elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as their president. By March 4, when Lincoln was inaugurated and the red snow fell in Iowa, the dismemberment of the world’s only great republic and the establishment of a slaveholders’ regime in the Deep South seemed to be faits accomplis.

Throughout the winter, the fire-eaters in the Southern states had spoken of seceding peacefully if possible, violently if necessary, and Southern military preparations had gone on apace. Northerners watched uneasily. The news they read daily in the papers seemed no more credible than the freak of nature that had brought red-tinged snow to Iowa City on the day of Lincoln’s inauguration.

Here and there across the North, men began to think of making military preparations of their own. Some towns organized volunteer companies. In January, brothers and coeditors of the Cedar Falls Gazette, Henry and George Perkins, began encouraging the formation of such a group in their Iowa town. “We have the material here from which to form a ‘crack corps,’ which, if properly organized and equipped, would be of great advantage to us on our gala days and public occasions,” opined the Gazette, “and who knows but in these troublesome times might be the means of preserving the country from ruin and give some of the members an opportunity to cover themselves with immortal glory.” By the following month, forty men had formed themselves into the “Pioneer Greys,” so named after the common color of militia uniforms at the time. They drilled diligently and were soon gaining additional recruits. Similar companies sprang up elsewhere. Peoria, Illinois, had four: the Peoria Guards, Peoria Rifles, Emmett Guards, and National Blues.

Like the first jarring peal of a prairie thunderstorm came the news in mid-April that Confederate forces ringing the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, had opened fire on the United States flag and garrison at Fort Sumter in the predawn hours of April 12. Thirty-four hours later, the fort surrendered. On April 15, President Lincoln, following the example of George Washington in the days of the Whiskey Rebellion, called upon the states to provide militia for ninety days of Federal service—75,000 of them—in order to put down the rebellion.

All across the North, thousands of men scarcely waited for Lincoln’s call for troops. John L. Maxwell was behind the plow preparing his fields for spring planting when he heard the news of Fort Sumter. He put away the plow and horses, and set out for nearby Canton, Illinois, to join what was to become Company H of the 17th Illinois Regiment. George O. Smith was a student in the city schools of Monmouth, Illinois. Within the week, he had enlisted and, with several other youths, was eagerly working to organize a company. They too would end up in the 17th Illinois. Nearby Peoria, where the 17th would muster, got the news of Fort Sumter on April 13 and went into an uproar. Flags appeared all over town, including at the armories of Peoria’s four volunteer companies, now busily preparing to take the field. The enrollment of additional troops began that very evening.

On April 15 in the Illinois capital, the Springfield Grays, who had the advantage of proximity, became the first company to formally offer its services to the state. The company became part of the state’s first regiment for the war, numbered the 7th Illinois out of respect for the six state regiments that had served in the Mexican War. Within nine days, the Springfield Grays had been joined by companies from all over the state in an encampment named Camp Yates in honor of Illinois’s governor.

Enthusiasm ran high. Chicago seethed with outrage at the Confederate attack. Thousands of men volunteered to go and fight for the Union. Among them were the Highland Guards, a company of ethnic Scots, making a striking appearance in their Scottish caps. Their captain, John McArthur, a thirty-four-year-old Scottish-born blacksmith and successful proprietor of Chicago’s Excelsior Ironworks, won election as colonel of the 12th Illinois Regiment.

Also joining the 12th Illinois was a company from the lead-mining town of Galena, in the far northwest corner of the state. The citizens of Galena held a mass meeting on April 16 to discuss news of the Southern attack. Mayor Robert Brand presided but promptly set the assembly in an uproar when he “gave expression to antiwar sentiments and favored compromise and peace,” as an eyewitness recalled. When the tumult subsided, a succession of more patriotic citizens made impassioned speeches pleading for manly resistance to Southern aggression. One of the speakers was a consumptive-looking lawyer named John A. Rawlins. Another was local U.S. congressman Elihu B. Washburne, who concluded by exhorting his fellow citizens to raise two companies of volunteers for the war. “The meeting adjourned with the wildest enthusiasm and cheers for the Union.”

Two days later, an even larger meeting convened at the courthouse in Galena, this time explicitly for the purpose of raising troops. Washburne suggested that the appropriate chairman for this meeting would be a quiet-spoken local leather-goods clerk who was a genuine West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War. Ulysses S. Grant—“Sam” to his friends—had made captain in the Regular Army but had had to leave the service in the early fifties because of an incident with alcohol. He had certainly seemed sober and reliable enough during the eighteen months he had lived in Galena, clerking at his father’s leather-goods store. The assembly elected him to the chair, which Grant took over with some embarrassment and a brief statement of the meeting’s purpose. No matter—Washburne and Rawlins could make the fiery speeches. Wealthy Galena businessman Augustus L. Chetlain chimed in, stating his own intention of going as a volunteer. A number of others stepped forward for military service that night, and in the days that followed, Grant, Chetlain, and the others canvassed the nearby towns of Jo Daviess County for more recruits. They soon had a full company, named it the Jo Daviess Guard, offered it to Gov. Richard Yates, and got orders to head for Springfield. Grant declined to serve as captain of the company. If an officer of his training and experience was of any value at all to the country, it ought to be at a higher rank. Chetlain got the slot instead, but Grant went along to Springfield to assist the company as it became part of a regimental organization.

War meetings like the one in Galena were common all across the Prairie State and its neighbors. In Ottawa, Illinois, a similar meeting resolved “that we will stand by the flag of our country in this her most trying hour, cost what it may of blood or treasure,” and likewise determined to raise troops. The first company filled up in a single day. Others followed, including one company composed entirely of men over the age of forty-five and led by a captain who had served with Winfield Scott at Lundy’s Lane during the War of 1812. To their dismay, however, they discovered that the government was not accepting enlisted recruits who were over the age of forty-five.

News of Fort Sumter reached Frankfort, Indiana, late on the afternoon of April 13, 1861. In the Clinton County courthouse, lawyer Lewis “Lew” Wallace was addressing a jury. The town’s telegraph operator entered and told the judge he had a telegram for Wallace. It was from Wallace’s friend, Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton, and read: “Sumter has been fired on. Come immediately.” With the judge’s permission, Wallace excused himself to the jury and left the case to his law partner. Then he mounted his horse and rode hard the ten miles to Colfax, where he could catch a tr...

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