Fighting on The Wrong Side! By Morgan Gates
Everybody knows the basic premise of the Civil War, the North versus the South, everybody north of the Mason-Dixon Line is Union/Yankee everybody south of the line is Confederate/Rebel, right? Wrong! I am afraid it is a bit more complicated than that. Remember the 2016 Mathew McConoughey movie The Free State of Jones about the group of Confederate deserters that form a resistance movement against the Confederate Government? That’s based (loosely) on real events that occurred right here in Mississippi. Less well advertised today is the fact that both southern Illinois and Indiana had active secessionist movements! Yep! History, just like people who make it, can get complicated. So, let’s take a couple of relatively well know Civil War Generals as case studies, in this complexity of both history and the men who made it. Both of these men have several things in common. Both men were West Point trained career soldiers, both began their careers as artillery officers, both had credible reputations as soldiers, prior to the Civil War, both men had encounters with U S Grant, that altered the arcs of their career, both men had family difficulties because of their loyalty. and both men had a connection with Vicksburg.
Our first Civil War General is, of course, John C. Pemberton, the defender of Vicksburg. Pemberton was born in Philadelphia Pennsylvania of a prominent Philadelphia family. Pemberton graduated from West Point in 1833 and was assigned to an artillery unit. He served in the Seminole Wars, and in the Mexican-American War where he received a brevet Captain’s rank for gallant conduct. After the Mexican-American War he married a woman from Virginia and served in various posts around the south. He became acquainted with the southern people and when war came he decided to throw his hat in with them. He was a competent if not spectacular Confederate officer, but could never overcome lingering suspicions about his loyalty. After a stubborn defense of Vicksburg for six and a half weeks in the face of an opponent vastly superior in number, armament and resources, he is able to negotiate generous surrender terms for his beleaguered men by surrendering on Independence Day. Instead of being honored for holding out so long against overwhelming odds, he becomes the scapegoat for the loss of the “Key to the River”. Some, due to his northern birth, immediately assume that he sold Vicksburg out. Pemberton will bravely soldier on until the end of the war but, the loss of Vicksburg cements lack of loyalty in many minds and he is blamed for the loss. His reputation will never recover.
Our second General is George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga. Thomas was born of a slave holding family in Virginia. In 1831 as a teenager his family had to hide out in the woods during Nat Turner’s 1831 Slave Rebellion. This rampage which resulted in the murder of as many as 65 slave owners inspired widespread fear of insurrection among most, but young George took away a different lesson. After the rebellion was crushed, he became convinced that slavery was a vile institution.
Thomas was appointed to West Point at a young age and he graduated in 1840, and he also served in an artillery unit in the Seminole Wars and in the Mexican American War. When Virginia seceded from the Union, Thomas decided to stay loyal to the Union even though many of his southern born peers were going over to the Confederacy. It was said that when George refused to come south, his sisters marked his name from the family bible and began telling people he had died. Thomas was a solid if not flamboyant officer, and rose steadily in rank, but was often passed over because of suspicion of his loyalty due to his Southern birth, it was said that when considering promotions, the oft repeated refrain was “Let the Virginian wait”.
After the bloody battle at Shiloh in the Spring of 1862, General Henry Halleck, angry at his upstart subordinate U.S. Grant, reorganized the Army of The Tennessee, taking Grant off the battle line and effectively pigeonholed him, by assigning him no duties. Much of Grant’s former command was reassigned to Thomas. Though no fault of Thomas’ many historians think that Grant never forgot that insult and Thomas’ later career suffered as a result. Thomas’ stubborn defense at Chickamauga, effectively holding the line and winning the day for the Union, should have finally put to rest his loyalty issues. If not, certainly bold action at Chattanooga would have but it is not until his bloody repulse of Hood at Nashville that he finally promoted to Major General. His comment on finally receiving top rank was “while better late than never—I earned this at Chickamauga”. He continued to serve in the U.S. Army post war and continued to have to defend his reputation, in fact he actually died while on duty in San Francisco, in the act of writing a response to an article criticizing his war time actions. Post war George Thomas’ brother Nathan lived in Vicksburg and he visited him here (see my blog post Collateral Damage). Can we take any lessons from this? If we can then they may be: #1 When the going gets tough is may be best to stick with your family. and #2 Don’t make U.S. Grant angry!