Military generals can be fascinating characters: Caesar, Patton, MacArthur. Civil War generals have a special tendency toward eccentricity. And Civil War generals as described by the novelist Shelby Foote in his history of the war could have come straight out of Dickens.
Take Union General Irvin McDowell, for instance. His troops never had much respect for the man who lost First Bull Run. But he certainly did nothing to limit the complaints and wisecracks by regularly wearing, not a regulation cap, but a helmet made of a straw basket covered with canvas. Then there’s his colleague John Pope, who, when taking over the federal Army of the Potomac, told his men to think only of going forward while letting the lines of retreat take care of themselves. When he discovered Stonewall Jackson sitting in his rear with an entire corps, he found that lines of retreat sometimes need a little oversight. He often ended his letters with the sign-off “Headquarters in the saddle,” naturally eliciting from his men the observation that he had his headquarters where his hindquarters should be.
Sometimes the quirks dramatically altered life-and-death situations. Stonewall Jackson got his nickname from standing firm as a stone wall during battle, but he also constantly found ways to nap during action. George McClellan was always quicker to write to his wife than to lead his men into battle and always wrong in his opinions as to which politicians did or didn’t support his vision of single-handedly saving the Union. (He eventually lost the support of the only politician that ultimately mattered: President Lincoln.) Southern General Leonidas Polk once found himself behind Federal lines by mistake and, the color of his uniform hidden in the twilight, calmly ordered the soldiers to cease firing. (The ruse worked.)
Few characters can top Braxton Bragg. His very name indicates a man set apart, for the parents who would give a son such a name raised him. Once while serving as his unit’s own quartermaster, he filled out a requisition as general and then denied it as quartermaster. As general again, he appealed to his superior officer, who again made the request to Quartermaster Bragg, who again denied it.
But my favorite story from this year’s chapters in Foote tells of northern General John T. Wilder. When 20,000 of Bragg’s men surrounded his small garrison of 4000 and asked for surrender “to avoid unnecessary bloodshed,” Wilder retorted that the only way to avoid bloodshed was to retreat beyond the range of his weapons. General James Chalmers, who conducted the negotiations from the Confederate end, urged the rationality of surrender considering the size of his force. Wilder still refused, asking in his reply: How do I know you have 20,000 men? The southern commander sent a new, testier message, saying that the only proof he could offer of the strength of his army was the overwhelming use of it. Wilder, wanting neither to spend the lives of his men without cause nor to fall for an outrageous con, thought of another way to receive proof. He walked to the Confederate lines under a flag of truce and asked his former comrade, Gen. Simon Buckner, C.S.A., what he should do. “War doesn’t work that way,” said his old friend. “I can’t tell you what to do. But I can give you a tour of the camp.” After seeing the size of the enemy troops up close, the deflated Wilder announced that he supposed he had no choice: every soldier under his command surrendered. Then they were all given leave to go back home under their word that they would not take up arms against the Confederacy until properly exchanged.
It was a different world.