Robert E. Lee: Good, Bad and Human

For your consideration:

In Memory of Robert E. Lee Marker

The photo is from a Historical Marker Database entry, by my late friend Mike Stroud.  I might make the case this is more a “monument,” but the opening line says “in Memory of….” so maybe we put it in the memorial column.

Regardless of how we categorize the object, there is a story to tell here.  And it is one of a positive contribution to the community by a historical figure – one Robert E. Lee.

In short, a problem developed in front of St. Louis in the 1830s. A shift to the river channel caused the city’s harbor to silt up.  Unchecked, that would isolate the city from commerce, the Gateway to the West would become just another bypassed river town, and steamboats would ply their trade somewhere else.  City officials used their political clout to secure the services of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who sent a First Lieutenant named Robert E. Lee (along with Second Lieutenant Montgomery C. Meigs, but now I’m name dropping, at the expense of brevity).

The core problem was with Bloody Island, laying opposite St. Louis.  The river was slipping to the east side of that island, leaving more sediment on the Missouri side.  Lee’s solution was to let the river do the bulk of the work. He proposed a series of dikes and revetments that would entice the river to push to the west channel and thus clear out the sand bars deposited in front of St. Louis.

MapNo3StLouisLee(Map source:  Birmingham Public Library, Digital Collections)

Lee’s plan was never completely adopted.  Political influence prevented the dike construction on the north (upstream) end of Bloody Island.  But on the dike on the south end was enough.  The river soon gouged out a deep channel close to the Missouri shoreline.  The City of St. Louis continued to prosper.  And Lee was their hero.

Of course, one great irony here –  Lee had ensured St. Louis would be a thriving center of commerce and industry that would later support the Federal war effort in the west… twenty something years later.

A lesser sidebar, with all those trivial connections we enjoy- Lee’s efforts saved Bloody Island as one of those of those “in between” locations where laws were loosely enforced.  The island remained a favored spot for dueling.  On September 22, 1842, James Shields dueled Abraham Lincoln, with cavalry sabers, there on Bloody Island. It turned out a bloodless duel with both parties agreeing to a truce.

Lee did other work along the Mississippi to improve navigation, but the solution at St. Louis had the most impact.  And that impact was not forgotten.  Moving forward to 1977, the memorial shown above was placed on the waterfront, aptly in front of the Gateway Arch.  Moved a few feet in recent years, the memorial now sits between a bike trail and Leonor K Sullivan Boulevard.

But here we stand today, with a lot of talk lately about Robert E. Lee’s legacy and its place of prominence in our cultural landscape.  There can be no distancing of Lee from the Confederacy.  And by that connection, there should be no quibbling over Lee’s connection to slavery.  We cannot pretend Lee’s hands were not sullied in the matter. He was a direct participant in the system, benefited from the system, and fought to preserve that system.  Regardless of what he may, or may not, have personally felt, Lee served a country, and thereby a cause, that defined slavery as a necessary institution.

Yet, does that become the only factor in assessment of Robert E. Lee? Do we only measure him with the letters R-A-C-I-S-T?

Or, are there other factors to consider in the net assessment of Lee?  We have a preponderance of evidence that says he was a capable military leader.  He was a capable school administrator, at a time when Washington University needed one.  And, with respect to the Mississippi River at St. Louis, we can say he was a good public engineer (I’ve been known to debate his skill as a military engineer, but we shall table that for today).  Beyond that, at the personal level, we have many vignettes that indicate Lee possessed many admirable qualities… at a personal level.  None of which, of course, can, should, or would overshadow the connections Lee had to the system of slavery.   Yet these facets to the man do tell us he was a human being, just like the rest of us.  Maybe even more human than some of us.  (And certainly not the “Marble Man”.)

In his four volume biography of Lee, historian Douglas Southall Freeman closed:

That is all. There is no mystery in the coffin there in front of the windows that look to the sunrise.

Far be it for me to disagree with Freeman, who probably knew more about Lee than anyone save Lee himself. But I must say we cannot close the story of Robert E. Lee, simply looking out the windows.  He’s a complex figure, mixing good with bad, distasteful with the honorable, and repulsive with attractive.  And there’s a lot of mystery left to explore.

Then again, we can well say that about any figure we are apt to meet in history…or out on the street today.

January 2, 1865, “Time is a very important consideration…”: Supplies rushed forward for Sherman’s next move

At this time in 1865, the Federal armies in Savannah were like a coiled spring, waiting for the trigger to surge forward again.  On Christmas Eve, Major-General William T. Sherman wrote to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant suggesting a move through South Carolina.  Sherman preferred to leave Charleston and Augusta (Georgia) alone while he drove through the center of the state towards Branchville and Columbia.  From there, Sherman proposed to move towards Wilmington, North Carolina to assist sea-based forces in the capture of that important Confederate port.

On January 2, Sherman received correspondence from Grant, written on December 27th, approving the conceptual plan.  Grant wrote, “Without waiting further directions, then, you may make preparations to start on your northern expedition without delay.” That in hand, Sherman responded to Grant,

Everything here is quiet, and if I can get the necessary supplies in my wagons I shall be ready to start at the time indicated in my project, but until those supplies are in hand I can do nothing; after they are I shall be ready to move with great rapidity.

Sherman also enclosed a copy of his “project for January” outlining preliminary movements:

Right Wing move men and artillery by transports to head of Broad River and Beaufort; get Port Royal Ferry and mass the wing at or in the neighborhood of Pocotaligo.

Left Wing and cavalry work slowly across the causeway toward Hardeeville to open a road by which wagons can reach their corps about Broad River; also by a rapid movement of the Left secure Sister’s Ferry and out as far as the Augusta road–Robertsville.

In the meantime all guns, shot, shells, cotton, &c., to be got to a safe place, easy to guard, and provisions and wagons got ready for another swath, aiming to have our army in hand about the head of Broad River, say Pocotaligo, Robertsville, and Coosawhatchie by the 15th of January.

Second. Move with loaded wagons by the roads leading in the direction of Columbia, which afford the bust chance of forage and pro visions. Howard to be at Pocotaligo 15th of January, and Slocum to be at Robertsville and Kilpatrick at or near Coosawhatchie about same date.

General Foster’s troops to occupy Savannah, and gun-boats to protect the rivers as soon as Howard gets Pocotaligo.

Let me lay those proposed movements on the map, also showing some of the actual movements taking place in those first days of January 1865:


As Sherman wrote his response to Grant, Brigadier-General William T. Ward’s division (Third Division, Twentieth Corps) was crossing the Savannah River and securing the shore opposite the city of Savannah.  I’ll detail Ward’s advance in a separate post.  But his objective was to clear the Confederates out of the area between Savannah and Hardeeville (Point #1 on the map above).   Confronting him was a screen of Confederate cavalry.   The main Confederate line of resistance was the Combahee River.   However, the local commander, Major-General Lafayette McLaws, maintained forces at Grahamville, Coosawhatchie, and Pocotaligo.

The initial movements proposed by Sherman, to develop over the first weeks of January, would spread the wings of his army back out from Savannah.  The Right Wing would move by ship, up the Broad River, to the foothold held by Brigadier-General John Hatch outside Coosawhatchie (Point #2).  From there, Major-General Oliver O. Howard would press the Confederates out of Pocotaligo (Point #3).  Meanwhile, Major-General Henry Slocum would move the Left Wing up the Savannah River, major elements crossing at Sister’s Ferry (Point #4), to gain Robertsville (Point #5).  Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry would move behind the Right Wing to Coosawhatchie (Point #6).  If successful, these movements would prompt the evacuation of Beaufort County, South Carolina and give Sherman a firm foothold in the state.

At that moment, the Confederates directly facing Sherman’s force numbered only around 12,000.  So if anything were to stop him from moving, it was, as he alluded to in the message to Grant, logistics.  Attempting to tie up that loose end, Sherman’s Quartermaster, Brigadier-General Langdon C. Easton sent a message to Major-General Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster-General in Washington:

General: I wrote you on the 30th ultimo in regard to sending to this place sixty days’ grain for 35,000 animals; also requesting you to send me six very light-draught steamers and twenty Schuylkill barges. I am now instructed by General Sherman to say that he contemplates a very important move, and desires the sixty days’ grain and subsistence for 70,000 men for sixty days sent forward as rapidly as possible, one-half the grain and one-half the subsistence (thirty days’) to be sent into Wassaw Sound in steamers drawing not over twelve feet of water, and the other half to Hilton Head in such vessels as can be procured, but the lighter they are the better. There is but thirteen feet water from Wassaw Sound to this place, at the highest tide. It is important in selecting the vessels that as many as possible be fixed upon that have capacity and conveniences for carrying animals, and I request that they may be selected with that view. Time is a very important consideration, and I suggest that such sail vessels as it may be necessary to use in this work be towed by the steamers in order to save as much time as possible. Send all grain and no hay. Hurry forward all the clothing and other stores I have asked for as soon as possible. The sixty days’ grain will be required at the commencement of the move. In addition to this we must have grain to last us until that time, say fifteen days. The light steamers and barges asked for in my letter of the 30th ultimo I still require. The animals of this army are in great jeopardy at present for the want of grain, as but little has as yet arrived, and the animals have been without for several days. Grain should be pushed forward with the utmost dispatch.

The opportunity that lay before Sherman had a shelf life.  If his armies did not move quickly, the Confederates might find a way to mass forces to oppose him… or someone in Washington might come up with a better use for his troops.  So Easton pressed for light draft steamers and all the supplies need for another sixty days’ worth of campaigning.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 820; Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 6-8.)

Supplies for Sherman’s Armies … to include whippletrees! Meigs’ unheralded role in the Savannah Campaign

Everybody is familiar with the cliche about amateurs studying tactics while the professional focus on logistics.  Sort of a quaint way of splitting off the conversation, as I can attest that professional military types tend to focus on all of the above.  With respect to the March to the Sea, there is again somewhat a series of ellipses in play – “Fort McAllister fell …  … Sherman was resupplied.”  And again, a lot had to happen in the middle of those ellipses.  The most prominent figure in that “middle” was this fellow:

Major-General Montgomery Meigs role as the Army’s Quartermaster-General is well known to Civil War enthusiasts.  But the nuts-and-bolts of his work is often overlooked as we delve into battles and campaigns.  Of course, none of those battles and campaigns would have been successful without his guiding hand to get supplies to the troops.  None was more apparent than the Savannah Campaign.

At the commencement of the campaign, Sherman’s intended endpoint was still up in the air.  Meigs met this with contingency planning.  He responded by staging supplies at Pensacola and Port Royal.  But as it became apparent Savannah was the destination, Meigs devoted transportation towards Port Royal, coordinating with Major-General John Foster in that regard.  Furthermore, Meigs initial estimates were based on 30,000 men.  By December 6, he’d increased that factor to 60,000.  He ordered forage sent in daily increments to support 30,000 animals.  And anticipating the need to re-equip the force, he forwarded a substantial amount of clothing and equipment:

Clothing.—30,000 sack coats; 30,000 trowsers; 60,000 shirts; 60,000 pairs drawers; 60,000 pairs socks; 100,000 pairs shoes and boots; 20,000 forage caps; 10,000 greatcoats; 20,000 blankets, unless this number has already been shipped; 10,000 waterproof blankets.

Equipage.–10,000 shelter-tents; 100 hospital tents; 10,000 knapsacks; 20,000 haversacks; 10,000 canteens; 2,000 camp kettles; 5,000 mess pans; 5,000 felling axes, two handles each; 1,000 hatchets, handled; 2,000 spades; 2,000 picks.

You will also send the following quartermaster’s stores:
Transportation.–Wheel harness for 400 mules; lead harness for 800 mules; 10,000 pounds bar-iron, assorted; 5,000 pounds steel; 1,000 pounds harness leather; 40 sets shoeing tools and 40 extra hammers; thread, wax, needles, awls, &c., for repairing harness; 500 pounds wrought nails; 20 buttresses; 200 horse rasps; 100 large files, assorted; 50 shoeing knives, extra; 4,000 pounds manilla rope, assorted; 15,000 bushels smith’s coal (this coal will be ordered from Washington); 200 extra wagon wheels; 50 extra ambulance wheels; 100,000 pounds horse and mule shoes; 10,000 pounds horse and mule shoe-nails.

If Sherman’s march failed, it would not be for want of a nail!  No detail escaped Meigs’ eye.  To Colonel Herman Biggs, Quartermaster in Philadelphia, he directed:

You will send to Port Royal, to Maj. C. W. Thomas, the following quartermaster’s stores (probably they can be taken on board one of the light-draught steamers built by Messrs. Cramp & Sons, which I suppose to be ready to sail): 50 extra king bolts; 500 linch pins; 200 wagon tongues; 400 extra whippletrees; 50 double trees, ironed ready for use; 100 coupling poles; 200 front hounds for wagons; 100 hind hounds for wagons; 200 mule hames, ironed ready for use; 200 mule collars; 500 wagon bows; 100 wagon whips; 1,000 open links, for repairing trace chains; 500 open rings; 100 water buckets.

Everything, to include those Whippletrees, if the need arose to move these supplies over rough roads and long distances.

On December 15, Meigs sent a message to Sherman, starting:

I congratulate you on your successful march. You have made the greatest and most remarkable marches of the war, and have demonstrated several times that an army can move more than twenty-five miles from a navigable river or railroad without perishing. We have been shipping supplies for you, and I hope that you will have abundance of all necessaries, though I have been somewhat uncertain as to your numbers.

After explaining the supplies stocked at Port Royal, Meigs went on to point out a deficiency which could not be resolved:

I presume that you have more animals now than when you started, and I desire to call your attention to the difficulty, as well as the expense, of furnishing a large army with forage on the Atlantic coast. With all the exertions of the forage officer of this department, with a practically unlimited command of money, he has not been able to accumulate at Washington and at City Point enough long forage for the armies in Virginia to meet a few days’ interruption by storm or ice. We can supply grain enough, but there is always a short supply of hay. … Still the armies complain of short allowance of hay. If you have more animals than you need for intended operations they should be sent off to some point where the country can subsist them, or else you will, I fear, lose many by the diseases resulting from constant feeding on grain without enough long forage.

Forage was already a concern outside Savannah, and opening the supply lines would not address the full need.

Another issue arose with the transportation between Port Royal and the Ogeechee.  Once teams cleared the obstructions and torpedoes (no small task, and one I’ll touch upon later), the Ogeechee was open for ships of light draft.  But for some time Foster had complained about lacking sufficient numbers of vessels of that type.  Until Savannah itself, or another deep water port were opened, Meigs prepared six steamers then on the Chesapeake for movement to Hilton Head. But those would not arrive for a week or more.  In the mean time, the existing fleet, in small numbers, was pressed into service.  For every load of rations, the steamers traveled down from Hilton Head to the Ogeechee, thence up the river.  From King’s Bridge, the supplies were transferred to wagons or barges for distribution throughout the line.  A time consuming task.

Yes, Sherman had established his “cracker line” of supply from the sea.  And, yes, Meigs had staged ample quantities of those supplies (save fodder) to support the force.  But there were still issues to resolve, as of December 15, 1864.  Many of these, of course, could be resolved much easier if the Federals had possession of Savannah and those fine, deep-water docks.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 637-8 and 715-6.)

“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.)

“She is too expensive and valuable for a yacht.”: Rebuke in return for Foster’s plea for steamers

Almost from the day he took command of the Department of the South, Major-General John Foster had pressed Washington for more light draft steamers to support operations in the coastal waters of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  Truth be known, the department had lost a number of such craft in the Florida operations that winter, so were down in number somewhat.  But that shouldn’t have been a concern in this theater of lesser importance.

After several months of correspondence, Major-General Montgomery Meigs, Quatermaster-General and the officer who managed the Army’s substantial fleet of transports, responded curtly to Foster on July 28, 1864.  Meigs began with an enumeration of the vessels en-route to the department at that time:

I have examined the report of Capt. John H. Moore of the 16th instant, with your indorsement, asking for six light-draught steamers, and reporting the condition of the steamers on duty in the Department of the South. The Delaware sailed from New York on the 26th instant. The Rescue sails from Baltimore to-day. The Island City will be ready to sail on the 31st instant. The Planter and Philadelphia will be ready in a few days and will be sent to you.

So five vessels heading south, or due to head south over the next week.  One of these was the Planter, which retained its connection with Charleston and the Department of the South.  And there was another vessel completing repairs, due to head south.  But Meigs had something to say about that:

The Ben De Ford has been under repair. She is expected to be ready by August 6. She is a large vessel,burning much coal, and requires an expensive crew. She is a powerful and excellent steamer, capable of rendering most valuable service–one of the best in our service. I hesitate to send her back to the Department of the South, where I understand she has been idle for months with fires banked, burning out her boilers and doing nothing, kept in waiting for the movements of the commanding general. She is too expensive and valuable for a yacht. A much smaller and less costly steamer ought to serve for the purpose of transportation of a general commanding from place to place. The De Ford costs the United States, besides coal, $500 a day–S15,000 per month; at which rate each trip of a General officer costs the United States about $20,000.

That’s Brevet Major-General Montgomery Meigs, by the way.

Meigs carried his examination of the watercraft in the department further:

I find by Captain Moore’s report that there are twenty-eight steamers owned and chartered in the service of the United States in the Department of the South, and of these he reports only six available for outside work, and nearly all in bad condition. I trust that under your management of the affairs of the Department of the South no such discreditable condition of things will be allowed. If these vessels had been properly repaired, with the appliances so liberally provided by the quartermaster’s department at Hilton Head, and when subject to injuries which the shops at that place could not repair, had been sent promptly North, they could have been kept in serviceable condition and would have been promptly returned. This report shows a shiftless management which is most discreditable. I hope you will enforce a better rule.

Foster’s reply, coming later in August, would serve to deflect criticism and at the same time correct some of the misconceptions Meigs had.  But in the exchange of letters, the problem remained – Foster needed shallow draft steamers for particular duties along the coast.  In an attempt to resolve that shortfall, Foster would attempt to build some watercraft of his own.

And in the meantime, no Foster was not trolling around the South Carolina coast in his own private yacht.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 196.)