“Requisition disapproved”: Foster’s plans for assaulting arks sunk, reminded to stay on defense

Throughout the summer of 1864, Major-General John Foster chaffed at the restrictions placed on him as commander of the Department of the South.  Nearly every correspondence with Washington included some dangling proposition to move on Charleston or Savannah, if only authorized, approved, and supported.  He recognized the Confederates lacked the resources to resist a serious attempt at either – or both – cities.  But he also acknowledged his own role in the overall strategy.  Charged with simply demonstrating to tie down Confederate forces in the Low Country, Foster also lacked resources.

Earlier posts have discussed the troops transferred out of the department to Virginia.  Another resource Foster lacked, and which was very important for both offensive and defensive purposes, was shipping.  He’d already received a rebuke from Quartermaster-General Major-General Montgomery C. Meigs in regard to certain practices with shipping.  Foster continued to press Meigs for more watercraft to support his operations.  Much like operations along the Mississippi, the “hold what we have for now” posture along the southern coastline depended upon the ability to rapidly move troops to threatened points.  Thus, Foster had a legitimate reason to ask for more steamers.

But another vessel that Foster requested were light draft boats for use in the shallow coastal waterways.  Two of the types desired were described in correspondence to Major-General Henry Halleck on August 8, 1864:

These will be simply modern row galleys, fifty oars on a side; will draw 26 inches of water when loaded with 1,000 men; will have elevated towers for sharpshooters, and an assaulting ladder or gang-plank of 51 feet in length, operated by machinery. These will be very useful anywhere, in assaulting a fort or landing troops in shoal water. I propose also to build a light-draught iron-clad, and have written to General Meigs to ascertain if I can have the railroad iron, obtained from Florida, rolled into plates without delay; or if he can have an exchange made for 2-inch or 4-inch plates at once.

Reading the description provided (and lamenting that diagrams for such were not included in the Official Records), these appear quite similar in function, if not appearance, to landing craft developed for World War II.  Foster went into more detail of these craft, which he called “assaulting arks,” in a letter written to Meigs, also on August 8:

I am now commencing the building of two “assaulting arks” at the yard here. These are to carry 1,000 men each, and are to be propelled by oars.
Requisitions for 3/8-inch iron as musket-proof protection for the sides will be sent on, together with plans, as soon as they can be copied. I also propose to build a light-draught iron-clad, and plans are now preparing. This is absolutely required for a particular service where the navy iron-clads cannot go, even if they were willing, on account of their draught of water. I shall obtain the iron from the Lake City railroad, in Florida. I wish to know if you cannot have these rolled out into 2-inch plates for me, or exchange them for either 2 or 4 inch plates. Time is a consideration, and unless the exchange or the rolling out can be done without delay I will use the rails as they are.

I would assume, from the context provided in this letter, that the ironclad versions were powered, armed vessels.  Rather resource-wise, Foster proposed acquiring his own iron in sort of an ersatz manner like many Confederate ironclad projects.  And again, consider the similarity in function, if not appearance, to specialized World War II landing support vessels.  Foster’s proposed ironclads were light-draft, in-shore fire support vessels.

Had these been completed, Foster would have a set of formidable craft that could ply the backwaters in support of “demonstrations.”  Or should those in Washington agree, he could finally launch an assault on Fort Sumter or Charleston.

But that was not to be.  On this day (August 27) in 1864, Meigs wrote to Foster on this matter:

Your letter of the 17th instant, inclosing drawings of an “assaulting galley” which you propose to build, and a requisition from J. H. Moore, assistant quartermaster, for quartermaster’s stores  (iron), were referred to Major-General Halleck, Chief of Staff, who returned them with the following indorsement:

August 26, 1864.
By direction of General Grant, General Foster has been repeatedly ordered to confine himself strictly to the defensive, and to send north all troops not required for holding his present position without offensive operations.
Requisition disapproved.
H. W. Halleck, Major-General and Chief of Staff

Very rsepectfully, your obedient servant,

M.C. Meigs, Quartermaster-General and Brevet Major-General.

Perhaps that is a shame, for Foster’s “assaulting galleys” or “arks” might have advanced amphibious warfare techniques by some fifty years. But then again, there was a war to be won and Foster had no business assaulting Fort Sumter, arks or no arks.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 21; Part II, Serial 66, pages 225 and 259-60.)

Awards and soldiering: My thoughts on the Cushing Medal of Honor

Likely you have seen the news item with a Civil War connection which broke yesterday.  If not, let me be the first to tell you that 151 years after his death, Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing will receive the Medal of Honor for actions on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg.  There is no doubt that Cushing’s actions that day were courageous.   Under our present day criteria for the award, Cushing more than qualifies. There is no argument there.

Some will ask why it took so long for him to receive recognition. Others will discuss the nature of the award in its Civil War guise, and how it was different than today.  Myself, I look at this and ask, “Does the medal make him a hero?”  As I read the article on Cushing, I thought to a passage from Colonel David Hackworth’s “About Face.”  Please pardon the language in this citation (which I’ll censor a bit to retain my PG rating):

[PFC James Aguda] stood up.  He didn’t go prone like the rest of us. He just walked to the forward slope and started mowing down the attacking Chinese ranks like John Wayne in the Sands of Iwo Jima. His BAR was singing as he fired magazine after magazine. And the whole time he was screaming to the Chinese, “Come down, you [Chinese], come and get me!” I yelled, “Get down! … Aguda, get down!” But he just kept firing and reloading, firing and reloading – the perfect killing machine.  Slugs were snapping all around him. I knew he was going to be killed. Then I could see he as getting it. In the leg, in the arm, then two more in the legs. But he just kept shooting and screaming, and I kept yelling for him to get down. Finally he took one in the chest. It spun him around and he dropped. KIA.

Hackworth goes on to relate the importance of Aguda’s sacrifice.  He broke a Chinese counterattack and saved the platoon, known as the Raiders.  For that, a man should get a medal, right?  Well in the military awards system, medals require documentation.  Hackworth related how that was gathered when the platoon went  into a reserve position for rest:

Reserve was where the heroes were recognized and legends were born and nurtured. It was also the time when award recommendations would be submitted. Normally, Company would call and ask for recommendations. We’d scratch them out in a crude fashion on C-ration boxes, cardboard from ammo cartons, or whatever writing material we could scrounge. “Hey, brother, how do you spell ‘machine gun’?” we’d ask one another – there were few Hemingways at platoon level. We were just a bunch of [dummies] trying to articulate a comrade’s courage, as in the case of Aguda.

All the old 3d Platoon guys wanted him to get the … the Medal of Honor…. we wrote it up as best we could: “We recommend PFC James Aguda for the Medal of Honor. James Aguda was a brave soldier. He shot a lot of [Chinese] and saved [us] on Logan. Aguda was a good man. He deserves the big one.” This recommendation went back to the rear, to a very literate captain … who determined who got what by reading our statements. With Aguda’s he probably said, “So what? ‘He shot a lot of [Chinese]’ – well that’s what we’re here for! He was a ‘brave soldier’ – well, we’re all brave soldiers!” So James Aguda got the Silver Star posthumously, and not the Medal of Honor he deserved.

Later, Hackworth reflected upon this and how it tainted, somewhat, his view of military awards.  Jaundiced by the handling of Aguda’s case, he just didn’t submit many recommendations.

It was only much later that I realized my own idealistic policy regarding decorations for the Raiders had been wrong, too.  For myself, especially after Aguda, decorations had lost most of their meaning.  But for the others, my prejudice meant that so many deserving fighters would grow old with nothing to show for their extraordinary gallantry with the Raiders – or just one tin medal for the last hurrah.

The should have had one for every damn time they suited up.

In these three passages, Hackworth provides a vignette which aptly summarizes the military awards system – benefits and ills.  And having looked at my share of Civil War Medal of Honor documents over the years, I dare say the forms that were filled out might have changed over the decades, but the nature of the system remains… as it probably was during Napoleon’s time.  The worst of those ills is, unfortunately, that many deserving soldiers do not receive due recognition in the form of an award or medal.

Combat is not a race where clearly defined winners are given medals for their placement in the contest.  We cannot judge a person’s courage simply by the number of ribbons on their chest.  We, distant from the battlefields, get fixated on particular statuses conveyed by those physical devices. Heroes are made, not by way of the ribbons and medals, but by how others relate and recount their actions.

Cushing didn’t need a Medal of Honor for us to recognize him as a hero.  Over the years, monuments, books, and countless battlefield guides have reminded us of his deeds.  He was a hero before anything was approved or signed.

Aguda doesn’t need a Medal of Honor to be a hero.  It is the story, passed onto us by Hackworth, that made Aguda a hero.