Monthly Archives: January 2012

“A Whole Lot ‘A Shakin’ Goin’ On”

They thought the world was coming to an end. The earth beneath their feet was shaking, rattling and rolling like the waves of the ocean. Homes and barns collapsed.  A comet appeared in the heavens and frightened people fell on their knees before the wrath of an angry God.  Buildings in St. Louis shook and in some cases, crumbled to the ground. Horses reared in the streets and fled their stables. Man and beast alike were scared out of their minds. They had no idea what had hit them. In cities as far away as Nashville and even Washington D.C. people stopped what they were doing as the earth shook and trembled under their feet.

Two-hundred years ago , beginning in late 1811 and continuing to the end of February 1812, the Northwestern portion of the state of Tennessee experienced a series of earthquakes the likes of which have not been seen before or since.  According to the Central US Earthquake Consortium nearly 2000 earthquakes and tremors of varying intensity occurred. Many of these likely registered between 7.2 and 8.1 on the Richter scale.  Wikepedia states:”These earthquakes remain the most powerful to hit the Eastern US in recorded history.”-

The death toll was minimal largely because Tennessee was essentially a vast wilderness at the time. It had  been a state a mere sixteen years. Nashville, not yet the state capital, was a river town of barely two thousand  inhabitants, the primary industry being the sale and distribution of good corn whiskey. Memphis, where strong tremors were felt, and Chattanooga, were but tiny settlements.

A few years ago I journeyed with Boy Scout Troop 87 to Reelfoot Lake poised just above the epicenter of the earthquake zone-ground zero, so to speak. The big attraction there was the bald Eagles. Through field glasses we observed their nests and habitat all around that unusual body of water not far from the Mississippi River. The lake, named for a legendary Indian chief with a peculiar deformity who once lived in the area, was created by the famous earthquakes making it the only natural lake in Tennessee (our other “lakes” are simply backed-up rivers) At the visitor center we read about the earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 and saw an active operational Richter scale. The needle was moving. It never quits moving so the guides told us. The New Madrid fault, the geological oddity deep under Reelfoot Lake that produced the famous earthquakes, like a dormant volcano, continues to rumble deep in the earth.

One of the eye-witnesses to the shocking events of two-hundred years ago was none other than William Clark of “Lewis and Clark Expedition” Fame, then governor of the Louisiana Territory. He wrote (in part)to authorities in Washington on January 13, 1812 in what was likely the first appeal for federal disaster relief in our nation’s history on behalf of the stricken inhabitants of the county of New Madrid:

“….the inhabitants of the late district the county of New Madrid in this territory have lately been visited with several calamities of this kind which have deluged large portions of their country and involved in the greatest distress of many families, whilst others have been entirely ruined…provisions ought to be made by law..for the said inhabitants relief..”

Other eyewitnesses traveling on the   Mississippi River reported the waters churning as if they were in the middle of a storm at sea. Uprooted trees bounced on the water’s surface as large chunks of the river bank collapsed and fell into the turbulent water. No one had ever seen anything like it.

Modern geologists have labeled this risky area the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Since 1974, nearly 4000 tremors or minor quakes have been recorded. Though many of the causal factors are not completely understood, they all agree that a repeat performance of 1811-1812 is likely. It is not a question of “if” but “when.” And when it does, the death and destruction will be beyond imagination.

About two months ago people in Eastern Oklahoma, including my own sister-in-law, felt tremors, a minor earthquake. It only lasted a few minutes but she told us on Facebook that it was “pretty scary.” I believe her.

 

Now, just when we thought Global Warming with a few droughts, tornadoes, a meteor hitting the earth, nuclear and terrorist attacks thrown in for good measure were our biggest worries, you give us one more thing.  Thanks a lot Hardaway.

 

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RED TAILS: Hollywood Again Comes Up Short

George W. gives award to Tuskegee 332 fighter group veteran. This is for my friends who still can't muster a kind word for George W.

I went to see the new George Lucas film RED TAILS a few days ago with a friend. My little red historian’s flag always goes up when I see the words “based on actual events” at the beginning-a little warning, and I suppose I should appreciate this, that the filmmakers are likely not going to allow the truth to get in the way of their idea of a good film. I was already somewhat familiar with the Tuskegee airmen, not only from having watched the 1995 HBO film, but from reading about them in the book “The Wild Blue” by Stephen Ambrose and in other volumes in my personal library and from various film documentaries. The Tuskegee airmen are well known. Other World War Two “Negro” combat units such as the 92nd “Buffalo Soldier” Division and the 361st Tank Battalion of the 3rd army are not nearly as famous. Even less well known in our time are the men of the “Red Ball Express”, African-American soldiers who performed the vitally important task of keeping supplies moving to the advancing Allied front in Europe in 1944-45. No,   of the “Negro” units that served in the “good war” the Tuskegee men are by far the best known. This movie only adds to their luster. It does not rescue them from the dustbin of history.

In short here is their story. The “Tuskegee airmen”, pilots  who had trained in a separate facility in Tuskegee, Alabama ,  were officially designated the 332nd Fighter Group upon their arrival in the war zone in early 1944.  A fighter “group” in the old US army Air Corps usually consisted of 3-4 squadrons .  By the middle of that year they were made part of the 15th Air Force whose initial bombing missions had been against enemy controlled oil fields in Rumania. As is made clear in the movie, the Tuskegee pilots were not, at first, sent on those missions but were kept near their base in Ramitelli flying more mundane  “mop-up” missions mostly with out-dated equipment against ground targets, particularly convoys and trains, targets hard to come by since the Germans rarely moved anything on the ground  out in the open by day.  Later, after numerous entreaties and the persistent efforts of Colonel Ben Davis and various supporters in Washington, the “flyboys” of the 332nd were finally, in the Summer of 1944, issued North American P-51’s, a state-of-the –art plane, and given orders to accompany squadrons of B-24 “Liberator” bombers on their missions, a task that eventually took the Tuskegee men into Germany itself.  There they encountered the dreaded ME 262, the new German jet fighter, an enemy fighter much faster and thus far more dangerous than anything the Allies had seen thus far. To distinguish their planes from all others the Tuskegee airmen painted the tails of their planes red and thus became the “red tails.” They performed their assigned tasks well. By the end of the war, the Tuskegee fliers had received three official unit citations and hundreds of individual decorations-air medals, DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross),etc.

With the passing of time their fame has grown.  I suspect  that  nowadays if you were to ask the average educated American on the street who was Audi Murphy, (arguably the best known American hero of World War Two during and just after the war), he will probably draw a blank. Ask about the Tuskegee airmen and he’ll do much better. That’s how history works. What one generation remembers, the next generation may forget. What the original generation forgets, the next generation may rediscover.

At first, the Tuskegee bunch seemed doomed to oblivion.  To many in the army air force they were merely an experiment that would surely fail.  They could put the Negro through the training and put wings on his chest, so they believed, but when he came face to face with the enemy he would show that he didn’t have the right stuff.  But we know now that it didn’t turn out that way. In the end, the pilots and support personnel of the 332nd proved the skeptics wrong.

RED TAILS, a movie that opened in thousands of theaters across the nation last week, dramatizes their story. For the most part, the filmmakers get the story right. All in all, it’s OK, worth the price of admission. World War Two buffs will, for the most part like it. But there are problems. Imagine that. So let’s get started. That’s why I’m here.

First, the script never gets off the ground. One reviewer quoted in the “Rotten Tomatoes” site says: “Despite a worthy fact-based story and obvious good intentions, it suffers from one dimensional characters, corny dialogue and heaps of clichés..” I agree. I found my eyes rolling way too much. It is one of those pictures where I walked away thinking that the producers could have invested less in special effects and flashy action sequences and more in the script and plot development.  I’m quite sure that I could write a better script. Sorry.

The second problem is not so obvious.  I’ll explain.  In the opening sequences of the movie the Tuskegee men complain of their dull backwater assignment, of being forced to fly meaningless, inglorious missions in obsolete planes. By golly they wanted to get up in the air and take on the ME-109s and the Focke -Wolf 190s and they were denied of their right to do so because of, you guessed it, racism. That’s the culprit, the source of their frustration, old Jim Crow. The movie message is clear: if they had been white, they would never have suffered such a humiliation. They would have been knocking down German planes in sleek new P-51s as soon as they arrived in Italy.

It wasn’t that simple.  The duties that they performed in the older P-40’s were not in any way meaningless.  The P-40 that they flew and spoke of with such contempt  in the movie was not a plane suitable only for the trash heap. It still had a role to play.  Regular American air patrols over German-held territory in Italy were crucial to the war effort and the P-40 was suitable for the job.  Keeping German ground reinforcement and resupply almost entirely limited to dark moonless nights and bad weather  was a huge problem- for them.  American air superiority, a crucial component for victory, like a policeman walking his beat, consisted of thousands of routine, unexciting patrols.  If the Tuskegee fellows didn’t do it, someone else would have to. Furthermore, most untested pilots were put on such duty anyway upon their arrival in war zones. “Fresh fish” were almost never put into a state-of-the art war plane. My uncle, a fighter pilot in the Pacific, was NOT put into a P-38 upon his arrival in the war zone. Like many of the Tuskegee fellows, he flew a P-39 his first rotation and didn’t get into the cockpit of the much better P-38 until he had been there nearly three months.

Jim Crow played his part when his spokesmen back in Washington insisted that the Tuskegee pilots REMAIN where they were and never graduate to bomber support. The clear movie message then is a false one: that white pilots would never have been assigned to such a role and given inferior equipment to perform that role in the first place.  In truth, I suspect that the real Colonel Davis had to often remind his grumbling pilots of the importance of what they were doing but, of course, we do not see this in the movie. The editors didn’t want to water down the simplistic “heroic struggle against racism and adversity” theme.

All in all, this surely was the worst of the false impressions in this film. I’ll mention one more.

A third problem, another false impression, was the sheer number of enemy fighters the 332nd fellows seemed to encounter every time they got into aerial combat. The special effects and spectacle were good, I admit, well worth seeing on the big screen, well worth the price of admission. For the visuals they get an “A”. But to be accurate, there were far too many enemy fighters. By this time, the Luftwaffe was  a mere shell of what it had been two to three years before. One historian claims that the allied to axis fighter ratio in early 1945 was about seven to one. To the brave pilots and crews of those bombers this was a blessed development. Fortunately most of their missions were “milk runs”, missions when they simply went to the target, dropped their load and returned to base with few, if any losses. The greatest danger to the bombers at that point, by far, was anti-aircraft fire and there was nothing the fighter escort could do about that. But, gosh, this doesn’t help the filmmaker. The movie viewer wants action and drama, he loves the “fight” scenes and the makers of RED TAILS had to pony up regardless of history. Lucasfilms exists to make money, not teach history. We get it. They weren’t making a historical documentary, they were doing a drama“based on true events.”  At least they warned us.

My fourth issue and the biggest problem I’ve saved for last.  This is no mere false impression but a glaring falsehood, a stunning error, and one that I find utterly inexplicable: I never saw a B-24 (bomber), all I saw were B-17s in the computer-generated aerial combat scenes.  I’ve never seen a real photo of 15th AAF bombers that was anything but B-24s. This is not splitting hairs. The two bombers were much different in appearance. The big combat scenes were all computer-special effects generated. Why didn’t they generate the proper thing? Did the writers and producers simply not do their basic homework? Did they assume that since the more famous, headline-grabbing 8th AAF fellows flying out of England flew mostly B-17s it was the same for the 15th AAF bombers based in Italy? While it’s hard to believe that the filmmakers were that lazy it seems that they were. The B-24 “Liberator” was the most commonly used bomber in World War Two by anybody on either side!  They were manufactured by the thousands at an enormous plant in Dearborn, Michigan. With rare exceptions, THIS was the plane used by the bomber crews of the 15th Army Air Force, not the B-17.   How could George Lucas and his colleagues have missed this? Speaking of Georges, George McGovern, who Lucas probably voted for in 1972, piloted a B-24 in the 15th Air Force and observed the “Red Tails” in action.  Worse still, maybe Lucas and company didn’t miss this detail. Maybe they simply thought the B-17 was a “neater plane.” Sigh.

In spite of it all I enjoyed the film. It’s worth seeing. And if it sends curious viewers  to their  bookshelf or even to Wikipedia for more and better information then so much the better.  When it comes out on DVD I’ll watch it again, along with the inevitable special bonus features and put it in my collection with the others- the other mediocre films that is, not alongside “Band of Brothers” or “Letters from Iwo Jima” and most of all, “Saving Private Ryan.”  This film is not in their league. And this is a shame. The heroes of the 332nd Fighter Group, yet alive and departed, deserve better.

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Burying the Dead: Some Thoughts on the Camp Butler National Cemetery

Recently I took a two-day trip to Springfield, Illinois to visit the nearby Camp Butler National Cemetery in order to research a novel I’m working on.*

Confederate graves at Camp Butler National Cemetery near Springfield, Ill

This cemetery is one of the original fourteen commissioned by President Lincoln  during the war, the most famous of which was, you guessed it, at Gettysburg where he made the dedication address. (He didn’t, as far as I know, make it to any of the others) Here in Tennessee we also have several federal cemeteries containing the graves of Civil War soldiers, mostly at battlefield sites and parks but not always. The “Spring Hill” cemetery here in Nashville near Madison is  not located on or near a battlefield.  Though these cemeteries often have large sections devoted to veterans of various wars and conflicts since the Civil War, the majority of the space in all of these cemeteries is devoted to soldiers of the Union-1861 to 1865. This is to be expected, they are the reason the cemeteries were created in the first place. Furthermore at nearly all of these cemeteries one group is conspicuously absent-Confederate soldiers. Their remains are elsewhere.

Visitors to national battlefield parks are continually distressed by the absence of Confederate graves. Park rangers and historians are forced to explain the reasons for this seemingly unfair situation on a daily basis.  Modern folk forget that at the time the cemeteries were established Confederate soldiers were the enemy and enemy soldiers do not customarily receive the same treatment as your own even though, and this part is also difficult, the cemeteries are located on Southern soil. No, it doesn’t seem fair and I don’t suppose it is but we must remember:  it was war. And wars tend to be bitter, nasty affairs where those in authority, the victors, are not terribly concerned with how people one-hundred and fifty years later are going to view their policies. The Rebel dead were not their concern.

The Camp Butler National Cemetery is a surprising and refreshing exception. Like the Spring Hill cemetery here in Nashville, it is not located on or even near a battlefield. But, the most unique aspect of this cemetery is that in addition to the many Union soldiers and military personnel of the modern era, a fair portion of the cemetery contains graves of Confederate soldiers, all  of whom are laid out neatly and  respectfully.  Each man, like his Union counterparts buried nearby, has a proper headstone bearing name, unit and company designation, sometimes rank, and a reference number.  Very few are marked “unknown.” In all my years of touring Civil War Battlefields and cemeteries, this is the first time I’ve seen this. I had to go North to see this-odd I know.

How were the Confederate dead usually disposed of after battles? Not so well -for the most part. Years ago when I asked Jim Jobe, the historian at Fort Donelson, also site of a Federal cemetery, as to the disposition of the Confederates who died at that battle, he shrugged his shoulders and sadly told me that they really don’t  know. It is thought that the Confederate dead were simply tossed into the already existing trenches used in the siege and covered over with the loose dirt that comprised the breastwork or fortification above.  This would have been the easiest, quickest way to dispose of them, to bury them in holes that the Confederates themselves had dug. At Fort Donelson then, there are four to five hundred Southern dead whose whereabouts are unknown. The Union soldiers who died there and in the hospitals afterward are laid out in neat rows with headstones in a proper ,well maintained government cemetery.

At the Shiloh battlefield it is a little better for the Confederates but not much. They were all dumped into three big holes on the battlefield, three mass graves-all unidentified. One of these is thought to hold around seven hundred men.  Thankfully, all three sites are identified and well maintained. The official cemetery for the Union soldiers at Shiloh, as at so many other places, is beautiful-well laid out, long evenly-spaced rows of neat white headstones set in a lovely, peaceful setting with park benches and shade trees.

At the Stones River Battlefield Park outside Murfreesboro, the situation for the Southern dead is, (in my opinion), worse. There are no Confederate soldiers (that we know of) interred anywhere on park property. They lie in a mass grave several miles away, the bones of perhaps fifteen-hundred men-all unidentified. After being buried at a site on the Shelbyville road they were dug up around the turn of the century and reinterred at yet another location in the city cemetery. Likely they didn’t get them all. There is no marker today at the place, now a heavily developed commercial zone. There is a monument and a flag flying over their final resting place at the city cemetery. Of course, the Union soldiers who died in that great battle lie in marked individual graves (as at Shiloh) in a proper enclosed national cemetery, a stark reminder of who won that battle and who controlled the site afterwards.

In so many instances, it is hard to know just what happened to the dead soldiers of the South after the big battles. One thing is certain: a proper, respectful burial of the Southern dead was never a priority of the Federal government.  Once they got rebel bodies into the ground, Federal authorities tended to forget about them entirely. I don’t blame them too much, they had their hands full providing decent burials to their own dead, a massive undertaking in itself.  They figured that the rebels could worry with their own.

The Camp Butler cemetery is an altogether different matter. In one respect it was a nice change. It was nice to see “our” boys buried properly. But the story of those 866 graves is a terribly sad one. Here is the short version.

In mid-February 1862 Confederates forces at Fort Donelson, approximately 12000 men, in a stunning and unexpected move, were surrendered to Union forces under US Grant. Most of these were put aboard steamers and shipped North to St. Louis. Officers were separated from their enlisted men, put on trains, and sent to two separate far-away locations. The thousands of enlisted men who remained were put aboard trains and shipped to two locations closer to St. Louis. The largest group went to Camp Douglas near Chicago and a smaller group, about two thousand, went to Camp Butler near Springfield, Ill, There they were housed in a collection of rough wood barracks formerly used by Illinois militia units. This group was composed primarily of three infantry units, the 18th and 30th Tennessee and the 15th Arkansas. They resided at this place as guests of the Federal government for six months. In early September of 1862 they were once again put on a train and then on steamers. This time they went South where they were exchanged and rejoined their comrades to get back into the war.

At least those who had survived their captivity got back into the war.  Walking down the rows of tombstones the other day I took a tally of the dead.  The poor fellows of the 30th Tenn and the 15th Arkansas were the hardest hit, seemingly struck down in a biblical-type plague. The cause was primarily pneumonia with some assistance from dysentery and diarrhea.  Over a hundred men from each of these units died, approximately 20 percent of their number. For reasons I don’t yet know, the 18th Tenn was far more fortunate. From that unit I counted forty dead. The 40th Tennessee regt of infantry, about five to six hundred enlisted men, arrived in April after their capture near New Madrid on the Mississippi River. They fared no better than the 30th. Tenn.  I counted nearly a hundred dead from that group. The survivors were, no doubt, delighted to get away from that deathtrap when the big exchange was announced in late August.

Incredibly enough, it only got worse after the departure of the first group of prisoners. Two regiments of Texas cavalrymen arrived either in late ’62 or early ’63, the 24th and 25th.  Two to three hundred of these men died in a terrible smallpox epidemic. There were so many of these tombstones that I quit making marks on my paper. (My primary interest for being there was in that first group, especially the men of the 18th Tenn. who left  just in time).  One easily gets the impression that this place was far more dangerous than any battlefield. Out of about five thousand men interned there between March 1862 and June 1863 when it was closed as a POW facility, 866 prisoners died-a staggering death toll. All of this occurring about six miles down the road from where Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln and their children had lived before war broke out.

There were ways out. The Confederate soldiers could take the US “Oath of Allegiance” at any point and leave. They were then on an honor system. Many it seems, took the oath, boarded  steamer  and train and headed straight back to the Southern army. This was risky. If recaptured, they could be hung. But this seldom occurred; their chance of recapture was slim. Even if recaptured they could use a different name and lie. Then there was a only a slight chance of being returned to the same place and being recognized. Their chances of dying of illness in the camp were far greater and they knew it.

Many took the oath and never returned to the army. Once they reached home, they found the comforts of home irresistible.  Honor and patriotism and all that be damned. They had had enough, particularly after hearing of the passage of the so-called (please excuse me here) “Twelve-nigger law” (1862) in the Confederate Congress, a conscription act that exempted wealthy slave-owners who owned at least 12 slaves from mandatory military service. Infuriated soldiers across the South deserted in droves muttering  that the war had become “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Doubtless many in the POW camps did the same thing, for all practical purposes, by signing the “Yankee paper” and just going home. Of course, this wasn’t considered honorable. In after years the men who did this tended to keep quiet about it or simply lie to anyone who asked. It usually wasn’t something they would share with their children. In later years when the veteran’s groups met to talk of old times in the army, these men were conspicuously absent.  If they applied to the state for a pension they were denied.  If they wanted to run for public office or aspired to some prominent place in business, they had to worry about this “skeleton in their closet.” Yes, there were consequences.

There were only two “honorable” ways of getting out: escape or simply waiting it out till a prisoner exchange was accomplished and the unit went out as a whole. Many, particularly in the first month or two while there was no wall around Camp Butler, did escape, causing the camp authorities great embarrassment. A few of these were recaptured. They were disciplined and given the usual encouragements  to avoid trying it again, an object lesson for others who might be considering a escape  attempt. Consequently the majority did not leave or even try to leave. They simply stayed and waited it out. Of course, many of these wound up in the cemetery where they remain to this day.

There is little indication that the prisoners were deliberately abused or suffered extreme neglect as was so often the case at other camps both North and South during the war. From all reports the camp commandant,  Major Fonda,  did the best he could and saw to it that they received adequate food, clothing, housing and medical treatment. I’ve studied the Camp Butler story from a number of sources and have not run across any horror stories (other than the death toll). It was not Andersonville by any means. Nevertheless, the prisoners died like flies.  In those days, this is simply what happened when large groups of men were confined for long periods of time at close quarters.  And, of course, when deliberate abuse and neglect occurred, it only made the situation worse. The Civil War POW story is not a happy one.

The good news is that the Confederate soldier who died at Camp Butler, unlike most of his comrades who died on the battlefield many miles away in the South, did get a decent burial- a decent burial in a wood coffin, in his own little patch of ground, and, eventually, a nice headstone with his name and unit designation on it- buried in neat rows outside the camp hospital building where his bones were undisturbed unlike the battlefield dead such as those at Murfreesboro or Franklin who were later dug up and moved to a permanent location. At Camp Butler the dead Rebel, likely a young man between 17-25 years old, rested in peace.  After the war, if his family could make the trip to Springfield Ill, and it is a long trip even now, they could lay flowers on his grave and pay their respects properly, something that the families of those killed in battles, particularly enlisted men, were usually unable to do. For thousands of Southern families, their loved ones simply went away and never returned, their remains mixed with others in mass, sometimes unknown and unmarked graves. Many families went for years never really knowing if their loved one was alive or dead. When there is no grave, no body, it is hard to get a sense of “closure” even when you have it on pretty good authority, perhaps a letter from an officer or surgeon, that your loved one was killed or mortally wounded.

A death on the sickbed was the most common way to die in the Civil War. It was depressing and anticlimactic. No, there was little “glory” to be gained by wasting away slowly on a sickbed up North at Camp Butler,  nothing dramatic or interesting about it, nothing to make the history books, nothing that would inspire interesting tales around the hearth or campfires in later years, but your chances of getting a proper burial were much better.  And  there’s a lot to be said for that.

*The working title of my Civil War novel is DEFENDERS OF THE STATE. I’m about halfway through the rough or first draft. Though it is “historic fiction” I’m trying to get the history right, to weave fictional characters into the real story. I am interested in the POW experience and the information is not as easy to find as one might think. Among the thousands of books on the subject, the POW experience has  been given modest treatment.  Battles and campaigns were far more dramatic and interesting. Furthermore, I suspect that  discussions  about the long months of heartbreaking boredom and the rampant disease in the POW camps was something the veterans avoided . They didn’t tend to write about it in post-war reminiscences.  Maybe it was, to them, a little embarrassing, that of being held captive for so long.  In many unit histories, veterans and later historians spent page after page, chapter after chapter on battles and campaigns and almost nothing about their long months in confinement.  Maybe it was assumed that people wouldn’t be interested. I’m not sure why.

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Here Come the Ironclads

Union gunboats attack Fort Donelson on the Cumberland RIver on 2/14/62

We all remember the famous scene in the movie GONE WITH THE WIND when Atlanta is being evacuated, people and carriages are all in the streets in a wild frightened melee, and Prissy, the unforgettable servant girl shouts  over and over: “The Yankees are coming.” Alongside her Aunt Pittypat, angry and confused asks: “How did they evuh get down heah?”

It was an excellent question.  And the answer is not a short one. How did Union forces in 1864 get all the way to Atlanta? How did they do it?

The first leg of the long, hard journey to Atlanta was made in ironclad river boats.They comprised the “tip of the spear” that pierced the Southern heartland. The war in the Western theater began three years earlier in the  inconspicuous river town of Cairo,Ill,  strategically located on a tiny finger of land protruding into the intersection of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. At this place one hundred and fifty years ago Union forces gathered for the first real invasion of the rebellious Southland. Yes, the American civil war is remembered as that great event where the railroads came into their own and played a crucial role. But at first, it was all about the rivers and who could control them.  In the beginning the river steamboat played the more crucial role.

It was in Cairo Illinois that a special kind of steamboat was introduced to the world: the ironclad warship, not a ship in the old sense, since these vessels could never have been used on the high seas, but a vessel designed for hard work on the rivers. Veteran businessman James Eads contracted with the Federal government in the Summer of 1861 to build a small flotilla of ironclads, a fresh-water navy, seven new iron and timber steamers and three  river-boat conversions, existing steamers newly fitted out with a heavy iron skin for a ten- ship total.  Eads was the ideal choice for the assignment. Overcoming various technical difficulties, such as the challenge of mounting a number of very heavy guns on heavily protected vessels that could navigate in shallow water no more than ten feet deep, Eads and his associates worked around the clock to finish the job. He did so with time to spare for the scheduled invasion of the Southern heartland in early 1862.

The Turtles, as they were often called, weren’t built for looks. Far from beautiful, one seaman assigned to one of the crews said that “they were of the mud-turtle school of architecture, with just a dash of Pollywog treatment by way of relief.” A lack of beauty wasn’t their only shortcoming- they were slow and hard to maneuver. If one stuck on a snag or shoal while under fire, it could be fatal.  Nor was stealth a virtue. Belching clouds of black smoke from their noisy engines, a blind and deaf enemy would probably know of their approach. Nevertheless, they were just the right tool, a unique tool for the job at hand, to overcome enemy forts and shore batteries on riverbanks. Hard work, a burgeoning industrial base, a steady flow of government funds and old-fashioned “Yankee Ingenuity” made it happen.

To these river monsters bristling with deadly heavy ordnance the  Confederacy had no answer, nothing comparable, no navy of any kind, fresh or saltwater.  When it came to industry, especially shipbuilding and railroads, the South, as we all know, was at a decided disadvantage. About all that they could do was to build earthwork forts along the rivers, mount heavy guns upon these forts, and hope that the Southern gunners would be able to drive the dreaded gunboats away or destroy them, the latter being extremely unlikely. If they failed, key Southern river towns, such as Memphis and Nashville, crucial to the Southern war effort, would fall into enemy hands and under Federal control.  Southern planners and strategists did what they could in 1861 building, equipping, and manning those forts at key spots on the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, super highways into the Southern heartland, to contest the invasion that was sure to come.

The new ironclads were not unknown to Southerners. They were in no way a “secret weapon.”  A few years ago I ran across a January, 1862 article in a Nashville newspaper in which the author describes the new ironclads already plying the Ohio and Mississippi rivers near Cairo in some detail to worried Confederate readers. Though they didn’t know exactly when, they knew pretty much what was coming. At forts on the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers, the untested gun crews made ready. The Yankees were coming.

A few days ago my wife and I drove through Cairo, Ill on our way back from Oklahoma. Like so many river towns, it is low and probably dependent upon a system of levees. I noticed ditches on either side of us filled with water almost to the street level. The town, still not a big place, does not have a vibrant prosperous look. Many of the buildings along the main drag are quite old, some probably dating back to early 1862, a time when the place was bustling with activity as thousands of dockworkers and military, both army and navy, congregated there in preparation for the big move South.

And so to answer Pitty Pat’s question: How did they evuh get down heah?” the historian must start at Cairo, Ill where, in the early Fall of 1861, a rather innocuous , plain, no-nonsense fellow clad in civilian clothing checked into a local hotel and quietly set up an office. Soon the word spread that this mostly unknown man,  was assuming command of the whole operation. He would lead the big river expedition, a joint army-navy affair, into enemy territory.  His name: Ulysses S. Grant. More about him later.

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