There is no “curse of Confederate gold”… because there is no Confederate gold!

Back in 2018, the History [Channel] debuted a series titled “The Curse of Civil War Gold,” billed as a reality show following investigators on the trail of lost Confederate gold. (Why it is not titled “Curse of Confederate Gold” would be a good study in how our contemporary discussions have altered the framing of the past… but that’s grist for some other writer to grind.) The premise of this chase is one oft repeated in fiction… and unfortunately far too often by treasure hunters.

Basically, the show contends at the end of the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis fled Richmond with the “vast” holdings of the Confederate treasury. After managing to hustle this pile of gold and silver down through the Carolinas, Davis and his treasure were captured near Irwinville, Georgia. But, the show contends, instead of turning this valuable cargo over to Federal authorities, the officers and men who captured Davis proceeded to secret all away to Michigan in a caper matching the fictional Kelly’s Heroes. Then somehow our heroes managed to lose this all when a boxcar full of the loot slipped off into Lake Michigan on one of those proverbial “dark and stormy nights.”

The History web page summarizes this story in more detail. Suffice to say, like so much that appears on History now days, it is more entertainment than actual history. I’ll forgo a line by line debunking of the premise. Years ago, when the “players” involved with this version of the story came to the fore, my friend Eric Whittenburg laid out many of the faults of the premise (here and here). In particular, Eric discussed the role of Colonel Robert H. G. Minty in the Confederate gold story, at length. The “smoking gun” that puts away Minty’s alleged involvement is the fact, as Eric and historian Rand Bitter point out, that the former cavalry commander experienced a great deal of financial difficulty after the war. One might think if Minty had pocketed some of Jeff Davis’ gold, fortunes would have been different.

Back in 2008, Hans Kuenzi wrote an excellent article for the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable on the story of lost Confederate gold. The article is a good starting point, with a summary of the facts pertaining to the Confederate treasury and the end of the war. Kuenzi casts full light on a lot of alleged shadowy circumstances regarding the gold and other riches claimed to be “out there” for the finding. His summary is there is nothing “lost” per say, but just an interesting story about the accounting for the treasury as the Confederacy met its end.

However, if you have watched any of the show, you know there are many open ended speculations that allow the proponents to keep the dream alive. The problem is speculations distract from the facts. And here is one key fact, which I think the TV show conveniently overlooks, that kills the myth:

HDQRS. CAVALRY CORPS, MIL. DIV. OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
Macon, Ga., June 4, 1865.
Hon. E. M. STANTON,
Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.:
Your dispatch of June 3 is received. I have already had this country from Florida to Charlotte, N. C., searched for the thirteen millions of treasure previously reported by General Halleck and other fabulous amounts reported by various parties. I am convinced from all the information I can gather that the entire amount of gold and silver with which Davis left Richmond did not exceed one million and a half; that the most of this was paid to his officers and men between Charlotte and Washington, Ga., and the balance scattered amongst people who were regarded trustworthy. Of this, $6,000 was delivered to one of my officers by Robert Toombs. I suspect the remainder was stolen from the people’s homes by disbanded rebel cavalry, assisted by our own men. Every house where rebels have been in Georgia has been searched. It is also reported that the small sums in the possession of Davis’ party were pillaged by the captors. I will send to Irwin County to ascertain if they overlooked any, and will set a watch for the colored man Jones.
J. H. WILSON,
Brevet Major-General.

Official Records, Series I, Volume XLIX, Part 2, Serial 104, page 955

Consider the correspondent and the recipient of this dispatch. Major-General James Wilson commanded the Cavalry Corps, Military Division of the Mississippi, which at the end of the war conducted a massive raid through Alabama and Georgia to finish off what Sherman had started. As result of being the senior military officer in the sector, Wilson was the “man on the spot” to deal with Jefferson Davis. So we must treat this as a bona fide report from the field. Stanton, of course, was the Secretary of War at the time. In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton exercised more influence on the military situation than any other civilian.

Those endpoints defined, this sort of correspondence (from a senior officer in the field directly to the Secretary of War) was commonplace during the Civil War. In this particular case, Wilson is responding directly to inquiries and requests from the Secretary’s office. If handled as similar correspondence during the war, and we have no evidence it was not, the messages past through normal military channels – meaning everyone in the chain of command at least knew the correspondence was taking place, if not completely informed of the content.

The preface of the dispatch, citing Stanton’s message of June 3 indicates not only was the inquiry sent by telegraph, but the response was also sent that way. Very likely, as standard practice by late war, the message was encrypted by cypher when sent. Furthermore the telegraph operators were trusted men employed by the War Department, and “cleared” as we would call it today. Thus we might consider this equal of a classified dispatch in the 20th century sense… or classified email in the 21st century parlance.

What that means is this dispatch is not some under-cover or covert communication. Nor was it some prop in a cover-up to distract from a caper pulled off in the waning days of the Civil War. It is an official report, through official channels, within view of all those who needed to know about the situation. Nor was there any secret or covert message system which would be used in lieu of this official system.

Furthermore, consider the provenance of this dispatch, historically speaking. It was, after the war was deemed at an end, filed just like thousands (hundreds of thousands if not millions) of dispatches and reports from the war. Then near the end of the 19th century, a team of appointed men went through those papers with instructions to compile them into what we know as “The Official Records.” In short, this dispatch was seen, by men who’s business was to know, as military correspondence worth preserving as part of the record of events. Basically, an artifact. Er… A FACT!

The next layer of this context is the time at which the dispatch was written. June 4, 1865. Just over two months from Davis’ flight, with gold in tow, from Richmond. Less than two months since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In the weeks since those climatic events in Virginia, Lincoln fell to an assassin’s bullet, Johnston surrendered in North Carolina, and Davis himself captured in Georgia. By the first of June, all major Confederate military forces were non-existent. What remained was the job of cleaning up the aftermath, ensuring a transition from war to peace. And with that existed a strong desire to tie up any and all loose ends. After all, Congress was now reluctant to keep military funding at wartime levels… time to close the books. So we can read into Stanton’s inquiry and Wilson’s response the need to “settle up” all activities associated with suppressing the Confederacy.

That framing set, what did Wilson tell Stanton… and us today?

First, there were wild claims of fantastic amounts of money up for grabs as the Confederacy collapsed. Wilson, at the point of contact of these claims, debunks them with authority. “I am convinced from all the information I can gather that the entire amount of gold and silver with which Davis left Richmond did not exceed one million and a half …”

Second, Wilson gave us two numbers to work with here. Citing Major-General Henry Halleck, an officer known to be excitable in the moment, there’s a claim of $13 million. Then there’s Wilson’s assessment of $1.5 million. A lot of variance. But maybe BOTH are accurate. Hear me out here. Neither number is identified as US dollars or Confederate dollars. During the winter months of 1865, inflation crippled the Confederate economy. Reports out of Richmond had one US dollar of gold selling for between $66 and $107 Confederate dollars. So if Halleck were citing reports documenting the value in Confederate dollars, depending on the moment in time and exchange rate, $13 million in Confederate might translate to $1.5 million in US.

And that exchange rate must be factored into not only the military reports, but also in the claims, myths, and legends that followed the war. Most authoritative accounts of the Confederate treasury’s demise indicate just over $1 million (in US dollars) left Richmond with Davis. And of that, around half was “secured” (being kind… “seized” might be more accurate) from the Richmond banks. Thus the actual Confederate treasury holdings were likely valued around $500,000 to $600,000, again in US dollars, as it departed Richmond. Subtract from that sums paid out to Confederate troops at Danville and other points as the Confederate government fled, and the sum drops to around $150,000 or so. Do the math on the exchange rate, and suddenly the same paltry pile is $10 million or more Confederate dollars!

Third, we have Wilson’s assertion that most of the Confederate treasury had been dispersed to pay off the men providing that last fleeting bit of security for the Confederate government. What remained, Davis (and the cabinet) had assigned to trusted officials for safe keeping. He even named a name – Robert Toombs – with $6,000. (Not to belabor a point, but that sum would be over half a million Confederate dollars!) Thus instead of a neat ledger and precise accounting, Wilson could only point generally to how the Confederate treasury faded away.

But there is no doubt that in the process of paying its way from Virginia to Georgia the Confederate treasury diminished to a very small quantity in short order. The sad part, as Wilson pointed out in the dispatch, is that much of that money, paid out to cover costs as the Confederate officials fled, was later stolen by ex-Confederates in the aftermath of war, or by his own (Federal) soldiers sent out to search homes for traces of this Confederate money. Still, none of it reaches up to the totals that would fill a railroad box car (as is claimed by proponents of this myth).

Fourth, Wilson gave what is perhaps the “kernel of truth” that is used by the speculations, saying, “It is also reported that the small sums in the possession of Davis’ party were pillaged by the captors.” In that sentence, some harbor the notion that indeed Minty’s men got their hands on millions of dollars of gold. But Wilson clearly states “small sums” only. I submit that if he put a dollar figure to that obtained from Toombs, the value from Davis’ party must have been even less. Otherwise, the ever vigilant Wilson would have called it out. Just the change in Jeff Davis’ pocket.

Lastly, Wilson acknowledged instructions to look out for a “colored man James.” Sounds mysterious and possibly leading to a cache of gold, right? Not really. Again, context is important. Wilson is replying here indirectly to an earlier report referenced by Stanton, making rounds separately (see OR, Series I, Volume XLVII, Part 3, Serial 100, page 617). Halleck had, warned to be looking for “a colored servant of Jeff. Davis, named James Jones….” Specifically, this person was purported to be sent back to obtain “two bags of money concealed near the place where Davis was captured.” And that’s why Wilson sent troops back to the Irwinville area. Two bags? Again, a far cry short of a railroad car load. And not something necessitating a grand conspiracy to conceal after the war.

So we have, as of June 3, an official report that indicates the Confederate treasury had ceased to exist. It was scattered about, in small quantities, having been spent or dispersed. Jeff Davis himself didn’t have enough on hand to be called a treasure. If I may, it was “Gone with the Wind.”

We must again go back to the context of the closing months of the Civil War. The most accurate figures we have on the Confederate finances indicate from February 1861 through October 1864 (after which records become spotty), the Confederacy spent around $2.1 billion. Balanced against that was a revenue intake, in the same period, of $2.3 billion. But, as these things are apt to require, the real story is in the numbers behind the numbers. Revenues peaked in 1863, then fell off into 1864. Yet expenditures increased for every monthly period through the war. By the last year of the war, the Confederacy was spending more on debt servicing than it was on its army. From April 1, 1864 to October 1, 1864, $246 million went to the Confederate War Department, compared to $342.5 million on debt servicing. Basically, that sucking sound you’d have heard around Richmond was all the money leaving the Confederacy. What was left in the Confederate treasury in April 1865 wasn’t much… and what was there was being mortgaged to pay for a mountain of debt!

So you see, if we go to the “court of history” and put the “lost Confederate gold” on trial, Wilson’s dispatch becomes an important piece of evidence. The five points I’ve drawn from that dispatch must be assailed by anyone making this particular case for lost gold. Otherwise, claims have no basis in fact.

The problem I have with shows like “The Curse of Lost Civil War Gold” is that it takes on the patina of historical discussion while not actually promoting or presenting historical methods. At best, the show has opened up a discussion featuring relatively overlooked Civil War figures like Minty. Such is a small step in broadening the understanding of the war. But even then, I suspect just as “Killer Angels” launched forth hundreds in search of Buster Kilrain’s grave at Gettysburg, likewise we’ll see those on the trail of Minty’s mint!

The more likely, and more dangerous, reality is that “The Curse of Lost Civil War Gold” represents a corruption of history. Instead of good sound historical method, we have a premise that suggest we dismiss “what historians have long held” to be replaced with suppositions. We are being told to assume broad, vast conspiracies have shaped the past and gone unknown to our understanding of history. It purports that dark, sinister and maniacal forces have hidden history from us. If history is presented as human experience to be learned from, then the experience offered by this quest for lost gold is that we should, without just reason, reject everything solid and factual for fanciful versions of reality. Such is damaging not only to our understanding of history, but also to our comprehension of current events. And that, I submit, is the true nature of any “curse” from this alleged lost Civil War gold.

If you ask me, the most important treasure left at the fall of the Confederacy was secured in 1865. It wasn’t gold or silver. It wasn’t even paper money. It was a collection of records, remanded to the charge of General Samuel Cooper in Charlotte, North Carolina in April 1865. Ten tons of documents and records of the Confederacy. Without which so much more of the history of the Confederacy, and thus the Civil War as a whole, would be speculative. It’s that treasure from which we learn enough to know there is no lost Confederate gold.

Summary Statement, 2nd Quarter, 1863 – Mississippi Marine Brigade

The Mississippi Marine Brigade:  They were not from Mississippi.  Nor were they Marines.  And they were not a full brigade!

An interesting formation, the Mississippi Marine Brigade. Some have called it a prototype for the “Brown Water” units used by the US Navy in Vietnam.  Others have compared it to special forces units in the modern military.  Yet, others might point to a speckled service and rate the unit as more a disruption to good order – both in the Federal ranks and on the southern river-cities.   Before we go too far, let’s get some things straight about the Mississippi Marine Brigade.

First off, it was not from Mississippi.  Rather the brigade operated ON the Mississippi River.  In March 1862, civil engineer Charles Ellet, Jr., with a colonel’s commission and authority from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, built a squadron of riverboat rams (initially four in number) for use on the Mississippi River and other western waters.  Ramming tactics being what they are, Ellet needed an infantry force on board to board rammed vessels… or repel borders from other vessels.  To fill the need, Ellet recruited from those convalescing in hospitals, but also received companies from the 59th and 63rd Illinois.  The former was a company commanded by Captain Alfred W. Ellet, Charles’ brother.  Although playing a key role in the Battle of Memphis, June 6, 1862, the ram fleet suffered a setback when Charles Ellet was mortally wounded.

On his brother’s death, Alfred assumed command of the rams.  Promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and later Brigadier-General, Alfred pressed his command downriver toward Vicksburg.  In the late summer and early fall of 1862 the Navy had forces under Admirals David Farragut and David D. Porter operating against Vicksburg, but without any substantial land forces.  Not only did this prevent a direct move on Vicksburg, it left the navy without security from Confederate raiding parties and sharpshooters on shore.  To address the security problem on October 21, 1862, Porter wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells that a naval brigade was necessary.  While calling for Ellet’s rams to come under his command, Porter also offered:

Colonel Ellet thinks he can promptly raise the men by enlistment, if authorized to do so, and this would be a far preferable way of procuring them…. This brigade will be invaluable, and will enable us to effectually operate against the numerous guerrilla bands and other scattered rebel forces along these rivers.

With authorization, Porter and Ellet set about organizing such a force.  Several side-wheel and stern-wheel steamers were outfitted as transports, with loopholes and other fixtures to allow the troops to fight from the boat if needed.  The force also included a logistical “tail” with vessels outfitted as hospital ships, receiving vessels, and outfitting shops.

As for the men recruited, that brings us to the next point – these were not Marines!  Ellet recruited heavily from the Missouri and the convolecent hospitals in the Western Theater through the winter of 1863.  However, his artillery came complete from Pennsylvania, which we’ll discuss in detail below. Recruiting flyers bragged that Mississippi Marines would not dig trenches, perform picket duty, camp in the mud, or suffer long marches.  Just cruise down the river on a boat!  These were Army enlistments, not Navy.  And to cut a fine point, the men were organized not as traditional Marines, in the 19th century notion, who would be assigned to and operate as part of a ship’s crew to provide security.   Rather these were companies organized to conduct riverine operations (again, splitting hairs, a 20th century Marine chore).  The command, with Army troops, would operate under the Navy.

And lastly, this was not a brigade!  Ellet recruited a battalion of infantry and a battalion of cavalry.  Neither of these formations were recruited to full strength.  Added to this, Ellet secured a battery of Pennsylvania artillery.  So the “Brigade” might be called a small legion.  Or perhaps just considered a large combined arms battalion, but far short of a brigade.

It is the artillery battery that interests us here.  Captain Daniel Walling’s battery was organized as a battery in Colonel Hermann Segebarth’s Pennsylvania Marine Artillery Battalion (I’ve mentioned them in passing).  Despite the title, Segebarth’s, which was organized starting in August 1862, was heavy artillery and first assigned to Fort Delaware.  The formation would later become the core of the 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery Regiment.  For reasons I’ve never been able to establish, Company C of Segebarth’s, under Walling, was chosen for service with the Mississippi Marine Brigade. Maybe it was Segebarth’s applied label that prompted the selection.  The battery had six Ordnance Rifles.  In addition a pair of howitzers operated with the brigade.

The Mississippi Marine Brigade first went into action in April 1863 with a patrol up the Tennessee River looking for guerrillas.   The following month, the brigade and ram fleet moved down the Mississippi to support the effort against Vicksburg.  In late May, the brigade fought an action outside Austin, Mississippi ( a series of events that lead to the destruction of the town by the brigade…. but that is another story…).  In June, the brigade operated from Young’s Point and the Milliken’s Bend.  A detachment from the brigade manned a 20-pdr Parrott rifle opposite Vicksburg, served with great effect against a Confederate foundry in the city.

With this introduction as to what the Mississippi Marine Brigade was… and was not… let’s turn to the second quarter summaries for 1863.  The brigade was given a separate section, independent of Missouri or Pennsylvania:

0201_1_Snip_MMB

By itself, this is a significant administrative detail.  As mentioned before, the brigade was Army, but assigned to the Navy for duty.  So we have a set of returns.  But those are not filed inside the normal coalition of returns, rather under a separate heading as if a separate state or territory.  One can imagine the consternation this caused the clerks.  So what do we have on those four lines:

  • Light Battery Artillery:  Reported on board steamer ‘Baltic’ with six 3-inch Ordnance rifles.  This matches to other reports for Walling’s Battery.
  • Company A, 1st Battalion Cavalry:  At Vicksburg with two 12-pdr Napoleons.
  • “Capt” Stores in ChargeOn board steamer ‘Diana’ with two 12-pdr field guns.  The heavy guns, not Napoleons.
  • “Qmst” (?) Stores in ChargeOn board steamer ‘E. H. Fairchild’ with no guns reported.  The Steamer E.H. Fairchild was indeed the quartermaster and commissary boat for the brigade.

Of note, we have accounting for the Ordnance rifles, but no indication of howitzers.  Yet, we see full sized 12-pdr field guns – both the Model 1841 “heavy” and the “light” Napoleons.

The steamers mentioned here deserve more space for description and discussion.  Perhaps at a later date.  In lieu, here is an illustration from Warren D. Crandall’s History of the Ram Fleet and Mississippi Marine Brigade in the War for the Union on the Mississippi and its Tributaries:

DianaBalticAtGreenville

As the caption states, we see the Baltic and Diana in an action (in May 1864).

Moving to the ammunition, the smoothbore quantities seem far too uniform:

0203_1_Snip_MMB

  • A, 1st Battalion Cavalry:  58 shot, 88 shell, 157 case, and 88 canister for 12-pdr field guns.
  • On the Diana: 58 shot, 88 shell, 157 case, and 88 canister for 12-pdr field guns.

As for rifled projectiles, we find one line:

0203_2_Snip_MMB

And that is for Hotchkiss projectiles:

  • Light Battery (Walling): 374 canister, 125 percussion shell, 74 fuse shell, and 2,260 bullet shell for 3-inch rifles.

The brigade reported no Dyer’s re, James’, Parrott’s, or Schenkl’s projectiles. So we move to the small arms:

0204_3_Snip_MMB

Just one line:

  • Light Battery (Walling): Twenty Navy revolvers and twenty horse artillery sabers.

The infantry and cavalry likely filed separate, branch specific, reports for their respective small arms.

Outside the scope of what is normally discussed in these posts, the Quartermaster on the E.H. Fairchild reported various implements and tools associated with artillery pieces, along with 3,000 .38-caliber cartridges.

The Mississippi Marine Brigade offers a lot of threads to follow.  Certainly unique in service.  And offering many noteworthy stories.  But from the artillery side of things, I must point out this formation was not long in service.  In September 1864, Walling’s battery was broken up and re-constituted as Battery E, 1st Missouri Light Artillery (reorganized), and no longer assigned to the brigade.

(Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 23, page 428.)

March 25, 1865: General Robert Anderson heading back to Fort Sumter to raise the flag

On March 25, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was visiting the lines at Petersburg and the Confederates were making quite a show around Fort Stedman.  But, in spite of the push made by the Army of Northern Virginia, dispatches on the Federal side seemed routine.  Among the routine traffic passed from Washington to City Point that day was this message from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:

I have invited Henry Ward Beecher to deliver an address on raising the flag upon Fort Sumter, and will give direction to General Gillmore to make all suitable military arrangements for the occasion and fire a salute of 500 guns. The flag will be raised by General Anderson. Please let me know if these arrangements have your approval.  What does General Grant say about Yeatman?  I congratulate you and General Grant on the operations of t0-day.

As I’ve pulled this note out of context, let me walk it backwards into context.  The last line references the successful defense against the Confederate attack launched earlier in the day.  But standing in stark contrast to the desperate fighting on the lines, Stanton was planning a grand ceremony for Fort Sumter.

James Yeatman was a St. Louis businessman, president of the Western Sanitary Commission, and very much active politically.  Yeatman was under consideration to head the commission organizing the ceremony.  But more back-and-forth over that selection would follow.

Though weeks away, Stanton already selected particular details to serve a symbolic purpose – Beecher to speak, Major-General Robert Anderson to raise the US flag, and a 500 gun salute.  Not specifically mentioned in the message to Lincoln, but the plan called for the ceremony to occur on April 14, 1865 – on the anniversary of the fort’s surrender in 1861.  Further details went into General Orders No. 50, issued on March 27 from the War Department:

First. That at the hour of noon on the 14th day of April, 1865, Brevet Major-General Anderson will raise and plant upon the ruins of Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, the same U.S. flag which floated over the battlements of that fort during the rebel assault, and which was lowered and saluted by him and the small force of his command when the works were evacuated on the 14th day of April, 1861.

Second. That the flag, when raised, be saluted by 100 guns from Fort Sumter, and by a national salute from every fort and rebel battery that fired on Fort Sumter.

Third. That suitable ceremonies be held upon the occasion, under the direction of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, whose military operations compelled the rebels to evacuate Charleston, or, in his absence, under the charge of Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore, commanding the department.  Among the ceremonies will be the delivery of a public address by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.

Forth. That the naval forces at Charleston, and their commander on that station, be invited to participate in the ceremonies of the occasion.

Recall that before evacuating the fort in 1861, Anderson received permission to fire a 100 gun salute from the fort’s batteries.  That 1861 salute ended with fifty shots when an accidental explosion mortally wounded two privates.  Embrace the intended symbolism at many different levels in regard to that salute.

The ceremony at Fort Sumter was intended to cement in the public mind the victory – complete or pending – over the Confederacy.  Reporters, sketch artists, and photographers were invited to cover the event.  April 14 was the date that, regardless of what was going on at the front lines, the people of America would be told the Federal Union has won this Civil War… even as the messy details were being worked out.  To tread upon a modern analogy at my own peril, this was intended to be a “Mission Accomplished” banner:

However, fate often plays tricks with the plans laid by man.  Events on April 15 would leave this ceremony somewhat a footnote to history.

Closing note here.  Fort Sumter National Monument has a number of events scheduled through April to observe the end of the war in Charleston.  If you are, like me, trying to catch every last minute of the sesquicentennial’s last hours, these are worth adding to the calendar.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 18 and 34.)

January 7, 1865 -“I do not regard Charleston… of any military importance.”: No offensive against Charleston planned

During the first weeks of January 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman completed preparations for a campaign into South Carolina.  A question lingered in regard to objectives.  Should Sherman direct his columns against Charleston?

Sherman had already voiced his opinion to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant on the matter.  And on January 7, 1865, Grant indicated his concurrence in a message to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was in route to visit Sherman in Savannah:

Please say to General Sherman I do not regard the capture of Charleston as of any military importance.  He can pass it by, unless in doing so he leaves a force in his rear which it will be dangerous to have there.  It will be left entirely to his own discretion whether Charleston should be taken now.

On the same date, Sherman passed a message to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron (indicating recent correspondence with Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron):

The letter you send me is from Admiral Porter, at Beaufort, N. C. I am not certain that there is a vessel in Port Royal from Admiral Porter or I would write him. If there be one to return to him I beg you to send this, with a request that I be advised as early as possible as to the condition of the railroad from Beaufort, N. C., back to New Berne, and so on toward Goldsborough; also all maps and information of the country above New Berne; how many cars and locomotives are available to us on that road; whether there is good navigation from Beaufort, N. C., via Pamlico Sound, up Neuse River, &c. I want Admiral Porter to know that I expect to be ready to move about the 15th; that I have one head of column across Savannah River at this point; will soon have another at Port Royal Ferry, and expect to make another crossing at Sister’s Ferry. I still adhere to my plan submitted to General Grant, and only await provisions and forage. The more I think of the affair at Wilmington the more I feel ashamed of the army there; but Butler is at fault, and he alone. Admiral Porter fulfilled his share to admiration. I think the admiral will feel more confidence in my troops, as he saw us carry points on the Mississippi where he had silenced the fire. All will turn out for the best yet.

Clearly Sherman was already looking far beyond South Carolina to formulate his options for movement into North Carolina.  Likewise, the dependencies to operations at Wilmington appeared in the message.  Recent failures were all on Butler – so Sherman said, to deflect any criticism from Porter, Dahlgren’s peer and Sherman’s friend.

But the meat of this message was in Sherman’s concept of operations.  He would first gain three footholds in South Carolina – Hardeeville, Port Royal Ferry, and Sister’s Ferry.  As he had already related to Dahlgren, in earlier meetings, is the desire to strike across the state to cut the railroads.

Dahlgren, in turn, passed Sherman’s message to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells (also on January 7), with his assessment of the planned operations:

I presume the first point where the two wings from Savannah and Port Royal Ferry will meet will be at Branchville, and the march thence to Florence and so on, following the railroad.

I have no expectations that an attack on Charleston is embraced in this plan, as General Sherman has not suggested any arrangements for a cooperation with the Navy.

Dahlgren went on to point out the Confederates would likely concentrate forces in Charleston to defend the city.  And, as Grant mentioned in his message to Stanton, the Confederates might operate that force against Sherman’s “flanks and rear as the opportunity may offer.”  Dahlgren went on to point out that terrain would impact Sherman’s options:

It will always be convenient for General Sherman to attack Charleston until he passes the Santee; after that the swampy land would interfere.

Charleston being left behind, there remains but a single occasion when the army may communicate with the squadron, that is by way of the Santee or Georgetown; and I shall hardly look for this except as an incident from the extension of the foragers on the right wing, as it would be very little further to communicate with the North Atlantic Squadron at Wilmington and convenient to forward march of the army.

File away the reference here to Georgetown and the Santee.  What Dahlgren suggested as a contingency plan would indeed play out as an operation, which would cost the admiral a ship, as events unfolded later in the winter.

Closing, Dahlgren lamented that the prize for which he had arrived in theater to obtain was still seeming to elude his grasp:

It is with great regret that the conclusion is forced on me that the work marked out here will not include Charleston.

We know, with hindsight, that Charleston would fall and Dahlgren would be there to play a part in that act.  But it would not be taken by the firestorm assault predicted by some.  Instead the city would fall almost as a domino in a chain.  But for the day on January 7, correspondence from Virginia to Georgia and back to Washington centered on the desire to by-pass Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 21-22; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 161-2.)

Grant suggests organizing more USCT regiments: “they can garrison the forts and islands”

Through the opening weeks of 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman worked out several details that would enable success in his planned campaign through South Carolina.  Logistics and the line of march were particulars which needed attention.  And at the same time, Sherman had to figure out how to leave Savannah in good hands.  Based on the examinations by Captain Orlando Poe, Savannah needed a division-sized garrison.  The question was not if Savannah would be abandoned (as Atlanta), but how to provide that garrison.

Sherman preferred to keep his force intact.  At first he suggested the invalid men from those corps, then consolidated at Nashville, might provide the manpower.  But their numbers were not sufficient and the resources to move and organize them was prohibitive.  The Department of the South, under Major-General John Foster, barely had the manpower to hold the coastal garrisons as it was, much less take on Savannah.

One possible solution to this manpower issue lay in the contraband camps.  But Sherman seemed reluctant to go there.  In a telegram to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant on January 5, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton suggested:

I think it would be useful if you would write to Sherman, urging him to give facilities to the organization of colored troops.  He does not seem to appreciate the importance of this measure and appears indifferent if not hostile.

Catching Stanton in route to Savannah for a meeting with Sherman, Grant communicated later that day:

I am just in receipt of a letter from Sherman, asking me to re-enforce Foster so that he will not be compelled to leave a division of his army there. Please say to Sherman that I will send the division now embarking at Baltimore. They probably will reach him two days after you do. I wrote to Sherman some time ago to direct Foster to organize negro troops to do garrison duty. Please say to Sherman that if Foster will go to work and organize colored troops they can garrison the forts and islands, leaving all of his white troops for Savannah and the camp at Pocotaligo, enabling the division which I now send to return in the spring, if necessary.

So the temporary solution was to move a division from the Shenandoah Valley to Savannah.  That pulled a “playing piece” off the very active portion of the board to an inactive one.  Beyond that short term solution, Grant preferred to see US Colored Troops organized for the garrison.  And as Grant wrote to Stanton, the process was already in motion.  On the last day of December,  Army Chief of Staff Major-General Henry Halleck had directed Foster to start organizing military units from the contrabands at Savannah.  On January 8, Foster received that message and responded:

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 31st ultimo in regard to the organization of all the able-bodied negroes brought in by General Sherman’s army to this department for service in this department, and beg leave to express my gratification at this decision, because I need troops for garrison duty very much, and I can soon make these men available for that duty. I have several officers whose military excellence and gallantry fully entitle them to promotion to be officers in the new regiments. I anticipate no difficulty whatever in organizing these regiments and in obtaining most excellent officers. I will report the appointments, as soon as made, for confirmation by the President. In obedience to your direction, as soon as the letter was received I submitted it to General Sherman, who desired that I might carry out the order as soon as he moved and the city was turned over to my command. Until such time he desired the services of all the negro men in the quartermaster’s department in loading and unloading vessels and in other preparations for a forward movement.

Some of the troops recruited at Savannah went into the ranks of existing units.  But the main fruit of this effort was the 103rd, 104th, and 128th USCT regiments.  Three regiments to replace a division?  And formation of those regiments required more than a letter to Washington.  None of the regiments were mustered in before March.  However, all three regiments remained active through 1866, preforming duties during the early reconstruction period.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 16, 18, and 28.)

August 19, 1864: “Receipt of heavy cannon by this department is insufficient” and the Ordnance Department wants more Rodman Guns

A theme I have researched for many years is wartime cannon production, on the Federal side, and how that reflected defense policy more so than wartime needs.  While the Confederate side of the story is largely “not enough capacity, make what we can,” the Federal side is much more complex.

One might guess, without consultation of the figures, that field guns would be in high demand during the war, with large numbers rolling out of the foundries throughout the war.  But the actual figures for weapons accepted by the Army point to a more complex story.  Field gun production dropped off after the second quarter of 1864, with no further Napoleon 12-pdrs accepted.  On the other end of the scale, production of large caliber weapons for seacoast defense increased greatly throughout the war.  Yet the Federals faced no direct, immediate threat of seaborne attack.  Only distant threats from Confederate raiders and ironclads… or the potential of European involvement.

On August 19, 1864, correspondence from Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance, to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, provide some insight into the emphasis on heavy guns.

Sir: As the present receipt of heavy cannon by this department is insufficient for meeting the wants of the country, I desire to present for your consideration certain facts connected therewith, showing the propriety and importance of increasing the supply up to the maximum capacity of our iron foundries. As communicated to you in my letter of the 31st of December, 1863, the number of 8-inch, 10-inch, and 15-inch Rodman guns required for the proper armament of our fortifications on the coast and frontier is estimated, from the best data attainable, at 4,918. The capacity (Army share) of our foundries for this class of guns, in addition to their other work, was stated in the same letter at 612 for the year 1864, at which rate it would take seven years to produce the quantity required.

With no mention of a single Confederate threat, what are we to consider for the definition of “wants of the country”?  Certainly, as seen with requests for Rodman Guns at points like Pensacola, there was a need for such heavy weapons at points under threat of Confederate raiders.  Less threat, however, was present at far flung locations as California where more Rodmans were wanted.  The Army figured a need for nearly 5,000 of these guns to defend “the coast and frontier.”  And we have no mention here of a threat from the Confederates.  Ramsay’s letter is less about beating the guys in gray and more so about national defense policy.

Ramsay pressed to make sure the nation’s coastal defenses were well armed.  And at the rate guns were being accepted, he worried that would take many long years:

The following table exhibits the deficiency in the number of these guns expected to be received in the present year to date, and based on the estimated capacity of the founders engaged in the manufacture:

RodmanGunProd1864

And why was the Army behind in equipping the forts?

This deficiency is chiefly attributable to the fact that in consequence of the high prices asked by Messrs. Charles Knap & Co., C. Alger & Co., the principal founders, it was not deemed advisable by the War Department in March last to accede to their terms, and such guns as they have delivered in the present year were due on order given prior to January 1, 1864.

Messrs. Seyfert, McManus & Co., of Reading, Pa., accepted a contract for seventy-five 8-inch and 10-inch guns at 10½ cents per pound, which they have nearly filled. We are now paying 13 cents a pound for 8-inch siege mortars and howitzers.

Not only did Ramsay want to spread the work among multiple vendors, he also wanted to engage in what we’d call today “fixed priced contracting” as a measure to block profiteering and benefit to the government:

I inclose a memorandum from the Navy Ordnance Bureau showing the prices now being paid by them for heavy guns. As the magnitude of the work is such as will require years to execute it, and as its accomplishment is of vital importance to the defense of our harbors and sea-ports, I think no time should be lost in expending the money appropriated by Congress for the armament of fortifications, in order to avoid any further rise in the price of material and labor; and I request that I be authorized to make contracts for a definite number of guns to be delivered in specified times, and on the most favorable terms I can negotiate after due investigation, to be approved by you. As the want of a Government establishment of this kind makes us entirely dependent upon private parties, whose capital and experience enables them to exercise a monopoly of this kind of work, I consider the interests of the Government will suffer far more from the interruption in the supply of guns than from any dubious excess in the gains of the manufacturers.

Now there is a bit of a back story involving politics at the Ordnance Department.  I’ll offer the short version, as most readers are no doubt more interested in the guns themselves than bickering among cannon inspectors.  Ramsay was not on good terms with Stanton.  When he took the post of Chief of Ordnance in September 1863, Captain George T. Balch, whom Stanton preferred, was the de facto chief in many respects.  Within a month of this letter to Stanton, Ramsay would request to be relieved from the post.

But the friction between Ramsay and Stanton aside, the fact of the matter is heavy ordnance production increased substantially through the last year of the Civil War.  Those guns were not purchased with a mind to aid in the suppression of a rebellion.  Instead these were procured for “the wants of the country” as defined in engineering surveys of the coastlines.  The Civil War saw Federal military expenditures on a level never seen before in the United States (and at a level not exceed for another half century – during World War I).  And a substantial amount of that expenditure was to ensure the nation’s defenses were brought up to a healthy state… while the Congress was willing to keep writing the checks.

(Citation from OR, Series III, Volume 4, Serial 125, pages 626-7.)

150 years ago: Railroads west to Tennessee

If you read the monuments at Gettysburg for the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps, specifically the battle honors of the regiments, you will notice a lot of western place-names listed along with the great eastern battlefields.  Most recall this is due to the transfer of the two corps in the fall of 1863 to reinforce the besieged Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga.  We often wave our hand over the map to explain this movement, but forget this was a herculean effort of strategic mobility.

Earlier in the season, the Confederates shifted part of General James Longstreet’s Corps to northern Georgia using some sixteen different railroad lines.  The first of those troops left the station in Orange, Virginia on September 8 or 9, 1863.  The lead elements of the force arrived in Georgia in time for the battle of Chickamauga.  But it is a misconception to say the movement was complete at that time.  Significant combat force remained on the trains or at the depots on September 20, and baggage would arrive only in the weeks following the battle.

Now it was time for the Federals to demonstrate their rail lines.  As reports from the battle trickled into Washington, President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and others debated the best way to reinforce Major-General William Rosecrans’ (for the moment) Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga.  On paper, Major-General Ambrose Burnside was close by at Knoxville.  But in reality the terrain did not allow for a rapid march, particularly where provisions were scarce and Confederate raiders were thick.  Likewise the movement of 20,000 troops from Vicksburg, Mississippi, under command of Major-General William T. Sherman, looked easy on paper but was not easily conducted on the ground.

The solution offered was to move two corps from the Army of the Potomac in Virginia out by rail to Tennessee.  Though some cautioned the movement would require over a month. But such estimates were largely based on pre-war experience.  Stanton and the railroad men felt the move could be done with much more speed, if properly organized.  Orders went out on September 24 to Major-General George Meade to release the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps for movement.

Initially, the Eleventh was to use Bristoe Station and Rappahannock Station.  But after organizing the rolling stock and coordinating troop movements, Major-General O.O. Howard loaded his troops at Manassas Junction (with artillery going on the trains at Alexandria).  The Twelfth loaded at Brandy Station.   And there was some counter-marching required in order to keep this movement of troops out of sight from the Confederate observers on Clark’s Mountain.

To reach Chattanooga, the troops started their journey on the Orange & Alexandria (O&A) at some of the war’s most important rail junctions.  The trains then would move, by way of Washington, to Baltimore and switch to the B&O for a westward leg. Reaching the Ohio River at Benwood, the troops were to ferry (later move by pontoon bridge) across to Bellaire, Ohio where they would board trains on the Central Ohio Railroad and make the run to Columbus, Ohio.  Next the troops would switch to the Indiana Central and move to Indianapolis.  There the plan called for another transfer onto the Jeffersonville, Madison, and Indianapolis Railroad for a trip to Jeffersonville, Indiana.  Another ferry ride would put the troops in Louisville, Kentucky where they would take the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N).  In Nashville the troops would board trains for their last leg on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad (N&C).  The closest terminus would be Bridgeport, Alabama.  All told the troops would transit eight states, plus the District of Columbia, and cross four major rivers (the Ohio and the Potomac twice), in their journey of 1200 miles.

Leading this movement effort was a mix of civilian and military officials.  Stanton coordinated with John M. Garrett of the B&O, Samuel M. Felton of the Pennsylvania Railroad, H.J. Jewett of the Central Ohio, James Guthrie of the L&N, and several others with connecting rail lines.  And on the military side, Colonel Thomas Scott (who was more a War Department official with military rank) supervised the operation.  There was at times friction with Colonel William Innes, who supervised Rosecrans’ railroad department.  But Stanton’s directives brushed aside any disagreements.

While planning the move on September 23, Stanton forwarded inquiries to Brigadier-General Jeremiah T. Boyle in regards to the L&N:

Please ascertain and report to me immediately:
1. How many men can be transported by employing the whole rolling stock of the road from Louisville to Nashville, enumerating the number of cars of every description that could be employed?
2. How many hours it usually takes to make the trip from Nashville to Louisville, and at what rate of speed?
3. Is the road from Nashville to Chattanooga the same gauge as the road from Louisville to Nashville, so that cars can go direct from Louisville to Chattanooga, and what time does it take from Nashville to Chattanooga?
4. If the gauge of the roads is different, what is the supply of rolling stock on the  [Nashville] and Chattanooga road?

The following morning, Boyle responded that the L&N could transport 3,000 men a day, requiring sixteen hours to cover the 185 mile distance.  The L&N connected to the N&C in Nashville, but Boyle was unable to determine the rates for that last leg of the trip.  Military campaigns of the last eight months had used up and badly damaged the N&C, but with repairs, Boyle felt the lines could support 4,000 men.

Contrary to some statements you hear today, the Federal railroad lines were not uniform gauge.  An alternative route crossing the Ohio at Cincinnati and using the Covington & Lexington Railroad was considered.  However, the president of that line warned of the different gauge of track between Lexington and Louisville.  Later, the War Department would spend an estimated $38,000 to rectify this issue.  Another modification to the rail lines was the laying of connecting track in Indianapolis to allow cars to switch over, instead of having the troops disembark.

On September 25, the first troop cars passed through Washington as the first of nearly three days of nearly continual movement through the city.  Some 390 B&O railcars sent down the O&A allowed for rapid transition in Baltimore.  By September 28 the first troop trains reached Indianapolis.  A day later those lead elements prepared to recross the Ohio River into Kentucky at Louisville.  On September 30, four trains arrived in Nashville with the lead elements of the Eleventh Corps.  Within a few days, the bulk of the Eleventh Corps arrived at Bridgeport, where they looked over the Tennessee River at the broken bridge which prevented their transit to Chattanooga.

A few days later, the troop movement was complete with the two corps ready to assume operations in what would become the Chattanooga Campaign.  Historian Thomas Weber summarized the movement:

By October 3, the first regiments of the 11th Corps began arriving at their base camp 26 miles from Chattanooga.  October 6, the last regiment passed through Indianapolis, and by October 8, the troop movement was complete.  In 14 days, 23,000 men had moved 1,233 miles, an accomplishment not to be surpassed during the war …. The baggage of the two corps, including horses, wagons, ambulances, and commissary, moved west over the same route during the first two weeks of October…. Thus the complete transfer of men and equipment took only about three weeks, a time so far under the general estimate that it must have greatly surprised Halleck and Lincoln.

Indeed, the movement put two veteran corps in a place that left the Confederates concerned.  More than the bickering among generals, I would submit the rapid movement of the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps contained the Confederate gains in September 1863.

And as a side note, this is perhaps the only post narrative that one might mention “Brandy Station” with “Louisville” and “Bridgeport.”  More than anything, this troop movement shows how interconnected the theaters of war really were.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 29, Part I, Serial 48, page 147; Thomas Weber, The Northern Railroads in the Civil War: 1861-1865, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1952, page 186.)