Early Confederate Command failures.....What might have been........
Lately I have been reading lately a great deal on the War in 1861 in Missouri, and along the Mississippi R. in the vicinity of Columbus, Island No. 10, and early movements in Arkansas. Here we find a great lack of co-ordination among the General officers, and more so among the State authorities and the fledgling Confederacy. When one reads the correspondence in the OR’s one will begin to immediately get a sense of complete lack of co-ordination and even worse, a complete lack of military knowledge. It seems to me that many a great errors was made early in the war, for no other reason than poor appointments in the CS command structure. The more I study this early period of the war the more I am inclined to wonder what the hell Jefferson Davis was thinking. Many of us know though that Davis thought highly of himself in regards to Military matters so it does not come as much of a shock that he would make poor appointments in regards to the Confederacy’s command structure.
Let’s start with Major General Leonidas Polk. Here is the man running the show in West Tennessee early in the war. He was a Davis friend and favorite, thus making him a political appointee to the rank of Major General on June 25th 1861, and thus making him the senior man in the entire area. Let’s look at his Military qualifications. Polk graduated from West Point July 1st, 1827, resigned from the Military December 1st, 1827. He thus had a total of five months of Military experience, in which, as an Army officer myself know that is not enough time to learn to wear your uniform properly, let alone qualify you as an experienced man in military matters. He had no combat experience and no Mexican War service. He became an Episcopal Bishop, and that’s all he was, no more than a religious and spiritual leader. Even if we account for his learning at the USMA, we must think that he graduated and resigned 34 years before the war began. Polk went on to be of course a capable Corps commander.
Working in “unison” with Polk along the Mississippi River was the Legendary “Swamp Fox” M. Jeff Thompson. Thompson was a Brigadier General in the Missouri State Guard, and spent more time writing correspondence (to everyone in North America who would listen) than actually conducting military operations. General William J. Hardee (the only person in the vicinity trying to actually fight an offensive war) tried in vain to get him to bring his “force” to co-operate with him as he advanced from Arkansas into S.E Missouri. Thompson chose instead to listen to a countermanded order from Brigadier General Gideon Pillow (of which has never been found). One contemporary wrote of Thompson “He excelled in issuing proclamations and manifestos…His efforts, whether written or spoken, were…a combination of sense and bombast, of military shrewdness and personal buffoonery…”
Brigadier General Gideon Pillow the man who countermanded the order for Thompson to make link up with Hardee was probably the worst possible person to be placed in command of anything, let alone a vital point on the Mississippi. This man who was actually placed under arrest by General Winfield Scott in the Mexican War for writing anonymous letters to a New Orleans newspaper under the pen name of “Leonidas” claiming for himself the victories of Contreras and Churubusco. Scott wrote correctly of him, that he was the “only person I have ever known who was wholly indifferent in the choice between truth and falsehood, honesty and dishonesty, ever as ready to attain and end by the one as the other, and habitually boastful of acts of cleverness at the total sacrifice of moral character." These deficiencies carried on during the Civil War. He spent the first year of the war complaining about supply problems and making excuses for why it was impossible for him to do anything besides sit in one place and do nothing.
William Joseph Hardee was the one man in the right place at the right time to make the difference in the war. He was also the most qualified man, but of course was not given the proper rank consummate to his previous experience and so the Confederacy lost its opportunity to win early in Missouri with a victory that might have been under Hardee a lasting one. Hardee graduated from the USMA in 1838, fought in the Seminole war, studied Military Tactics in France, and by 1844 was already a Captain in an Army where promotion was slow to say the least. In Mexico he won the Brevet promotions of Major and Lt. Colonel for gallantry, captured, wounded, and later led forces in Texas to include Texas Rangers. He was a Tactics professor at West Point, Major in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, and in 1860 was Lt. Colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry. All of these accomplishments alone should have placed him in overall command of the Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi and indeed in place of Polk, but we are leaving out the achievement of his Tactics Manual he wrote in 1855 which bears his name, and used by soldiers both North and South. Early in the war beset by supply problems, State troop and conscription issues, and various other military quandary’s he still set forth on the offensive and advanced into Missouri as far as Greenville until after sitting and waiting for the other various elements to act he was forced to move back south.
As for the personalities and qualifications of Ben McCulloch and Sterling Price I will not even get into, as their disagreements and refusal to act in cohesion killed the early Confederate successes in 1861 in Missouri.
Another fascinating fact is the appointment of James DeBerty Trudeau. In September 1861 Polk of course requested that he take leave of his imaginary Militia Brigade (Gov. Thomas Moore wired Richmond stating that he believed Trudeau had no men under his command) and lay out the fortifications of Columbus, Ky. He was then appointed Chief of Artillery at Columbus and commanding the batteries at Island No. 10. Trudeau was given these highly important positions and was not even a commissioned officer in the Confederate Army! Polk then tried to secure for him a promotion as a Brigadier General PACS! Beauregard ever the Francophile mentioned him as a “highly accomplished Artillery Officer”. For some odd reason his actual qualifications seem to have never come into question. I did some of my own research on this man and it seems that he attended a Military College in Switzerland and according to Documents of the Senate of the State of New York, Volume 1 he was a Captain in the 1st Division of the New York State Militia, and on page 16 it states that he is “authorized and requested to make inquiries in relation to improvements in fire arms and projectiles and to the experiments which have been or may have been thereon in France and such other countries as he might visit.” This shows he might have had some rudimentary knowledge of Artillery. He was of course a Louisiana Militia "General", but the qualifications for that were not difficult to obtain.
This was par for the course along the lines of favoritism and promotion within the Confederacy. Men such as William W. Loring, T.T. Fauntleroy, George B. Crittenden, and WHT Walker all men of talent and men who had truly earned their “spurs” so to speak in the old army were given shanty jobs, and rank not consummate to their years of service and former old army positions. They should have been at the top of the rank structure, since Samuel Cooper, Robert E. Lee, Joseph Johnston, and Sidney Johnston were up there. There was just seemingly was no criteria or scale for promotion. T.T. Fauntleroy outranked Lee and Beauregard, as did W.W. Loring. I suppose when one looks at the promotion of Braxton Bragg to overall command of the Army of Tennesssee after Shiloh one might not be surprised by all this. It's almost as if Davis had a dart board with pictures of Officers hanging on it. Not to knock Bragg too much he was a great administrator and drill master of men.
All of this seems to me to be rather an incredible way to conduct a war, but an excellent way to lose one. This of course could be chalked up to the improvised nature of the newly formed Confederacy but certainly stings of stupidity. It may be due to as one Army Major once told me when I was a new 2nd Lieutenant that things were all mucked up because of “Growing Pains”. One can only wonder what might have been had it not been for the early inadequacies of the high command.
Just food for thought.....
Evan McConnell Ellis
Proud descendent of:
Captain Moses Beck, Beck's Missouri Defenders (KIA Ashley, Mo. 1862)
1LT Alanson Dawdy, Co. I, 18 Texas Cavalry
Captain John M. Uhls, Co. C., 24th Tennessee Infantry (MW Shiloh, Tn. 1862)