Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review: "A Slight Demonstration: Decatur, October 1864, Clumsy Beginning of General John B. Hood's Tennessee Campaign" by Noel Carpenter

A Slight Demonstration: Decatur, October 1864, Clumsy Beginning of General John B. Hood's Tennessee Campaign by Noel Carpenter (Legacy Books and Letters, 2007). $29.95, Hardcover, American History, Civil War, maps, photographs, bibliography, appendices, ISBN: 978-0-675-14866-3.

Curiosity concerning the role of his home town in the Civil War led Decatur, Alabama native Noel Carpenter on a twelve year quest for information. This book, the fruit of his research, details the October 26-28, 1864 siege of Decatur by Confederate General John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee. Although Hood termed this action as only "a slight demonstration," Carpenter argues that the events were instead a turning point in Hood's Tennessee Campaign.

Following the fall of Atlanta, Hood initially planned to cross the Tennessee River near Guntersville and strike at the railroad in Stevenson, thus disrupting General William T. Sherman's communication with Chattanooga and Nashville. Once in Tennessee, Hood intended to crush the scattered Union forces under General George H. Thomas before they could be adequately reinforced and concentrated. In Hood's view, these developments would force Sherman to follow him, freeing Georgia from Union control. Although Hood's reasons for abandoning this plan remain unclear, by October 26, his 40,000 troops had reached the river town of Decatur, still south of the Tennessee River and seventy-five miles west of Stevenson. This detour, the three day investment of the town, and the subsequent river crossing even further west near Florence wasted valuable time and supplies, forcing Hood to take a more direct approach to Nashville. By the time Hood's army reached Franklin, Tennessee, Thomas had been reinforced and Sherman was marching toward Savannah.

Carpenter collects pieces of the story from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, letters, personal memoirs, unit histories, secondary sources, and the unpublished work of local amateur historians, skillfully weaving them into an effective narrative of the activities of both armies. The Confederate leadership often appears to be stumbling and incapable of cohesive action. Most puzzling is the failure to attempt the destruction of the pontoon bridge behind the Union fortifications. Over 2,500 Union reinforcements crossed the bridge during the three day siege. Among the reinforcements was the Fourteenth U.S. Colored Infantry, a unit that rendered significant service during the operation. General Robert S. Granger, commander of Union forces in north Alabama, is seen as failing to recognize and adequately respond to the large Confederate presence near Decatur. The Union hero is Decatur post commander Colonel Charles Doolittle. His grasp of the tactical situation and masterful direction of the post's defense mark him as perhaps the most competent officer on the field. Throughout the narrative, Carpenter interweaves the military with the human, citing the thoughts and words of common soldiers on both sides as they contend with mud, hunger, the possibility of capture, and the nearness of death.

The writing is in a reportorial style indicative of Carpenter's background as a military officer. His detailed sentences and thorough identification of military units help legitimate the work, but tend to make the reading somewhat cumbersome. Additionally, a better use of maps would enhance the reader's understanding. Only two are included: a map of north Alabama and a map of the Decatur fortifications. The latter fails to identify several important features, primarily roads, to which Carpenter makes repeated reference. A map including these details would be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the Decatur area.

Carpenter's conclusions of Hood's handling of this phase of the Tennessee Campaign are mixed. He acknowledges there is evidence of inadequacy in Hood's abilities in the areas of administration, strategy, and logistics. But he also states that the problems Hood faced in the areas of supply, transportation, cavalry support and communications were of sufficient complexity to challenge even the most experienced commander. Carpenter rejects suggestions that Hood's cognitive functions were impaired by the laudanum he took for pain. Instead, Carpenter concludes Hood simply became "rattled and confused." While Carpenter appears to sympathize with Hood, he acknowledges that this cannot be overlooked because it contributed to the destruction of his army.

Although A Slight Demonstration has limited popular appeal, it should be read by those with a sincere interest in the Civil War and the Tennessee Valley. On a larger scale, it is also a valuable addition to the literature on Hood's Tennessee Campaign, offering a new interpretation of a series of events that have been largely overlooked by historians.

(A Slight Demonstration is a difficult book to find. It can be purchased at Robert Parham's Civil War Relics and Memorabilia, 713 Bank Street, Decatur, AL, 35601, 256-350-4018,

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Oh, why should I have to die this way . . . "

Many regiments during the Civil War were composed of men from a single locality; men who had played together as boys, courted the same girls, were friends, cousins, fathers, and brothers. Such was the case of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry, part of General John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee. The roster of the 43rd Mississippi included two sons of George Augustus Sykes of Aberdeen, Mississippi: Adjutant William Sykes and his younger brother, Colonel Columbus Sykes, (shown at right).

In late October, 1864, Hood's army made what he later called a "slight demonstration" at Decatur, Alabama. For three days, his 40,000 Confederates besieged the town, occupied initially by only 2,000 Union soldiers, although reinforcements swelled their ranks to 6,000 before the siege was lifted.

On October 26, 1864, the 43rd Mississippi was ordered into action. As the brothers in arms took their places in the line of battle, they did so on land on which William had played as a child. On this plantation near Decatur, where he had been born on January 28, 1835, William Sykes was mortally wounded, dying at ten o'clock the following morning in a house once owned by his father.

Stricken with grief, Columbus accompanied his brother's body back to Mississippi for burial. Before returning to his regiment, he penned a letter to William's two children, "one, just emerged from his mother's arms; the other, an infant, whose age is numbered only by months," who would know their father only through the reminisces of others. Columbus' prose revealed his depth of loss, his longing for better days past, his firm belief and undying loyalty to the Confederate cause, and his earnest desire that William be remembered as a virtuous, courageous man.

Sykes told of William's bravery amid "the whistling of balls and the screeching of shells; while over all floats - on one side, the white banner of the South - on the other, the hated symbol of despotism." Describing his brother as having possessed a "mind and heart which knew no guile; the intellectual and emotional nature which pulsated only to bless," Columbus expressed his anguish that "those lofty traits of character, which endeared my brother to all who knew him," would now "live only in the bosom of those who mourn his utimely loss." Recalling the sad sojourn from Decatur to Mississippi, he wrote of passing the sight of LaGrange College, William's alma mater, now "destroyed last summer, by the ruthless hand of the invader. Little did I think when he left it so young and happy - that eleven years afterward I would bring his mangled body along the road, which winds beneath the shadow of the everlasting hills - upon the summit of which rest its charred and blackened remnants."

Columbus despaired that he was unable to "give you even a partial account of his heroic endurance and his gallantry during his entire connection with the service, or do justice to his merits as an officer and a soldier." But Columbus promised that "Some future day, when you and I have grown older - and the independence for which he fought has been established - I may recount to you many interesting remembrances of him who has gone."

William's final words were recounted: "Tell Augusta," (his wife), "I loved her to the last, though she well knows, and that I wish her ambrotype buried with me. Tell my little boy - never to use profane language - never to drink intoxicating liquors, or use tobacco in any form - and never to visit improper places." Inconsolable, Columbus concluded his doleful epistle with an expression of his own grief: "My only, my precious brother - farewell. I have followed you from the cradle to the grave; have knelt by your couch and closed your eyes in death."

Columbus Sykes rejoined the Army of Tennessee near Itawamba, Mississippi on January 5, 1865, as it was retreating following the disastrous defeat at Nashville. That night, he rested with two other officers in a tent near a large, dead oak tree. At approximately two o'clock the following morning, the tree's root system gave away and the tree crashed down on the tent, crushing the bodies of all three men.

In 1922, J. L. Collins, a former private in the 43rd Mississippi, recalled the events of that tragic night. "Writhing in pain," Columbus exclaimed "Oh, why should I have to die this way - if I could only have died in battle - like my brother - I could willingly die. Oh, it is too bad, too bad." Breathing his last, Sykes asked Collins to "Tell my dear wife and children I loved them to the last."

William Sykes died a hero's death on a battlefield that once been his father's home. Colonel Columbus Sykes died in a much less glorious manner. But in a way, he too returned to his father in death. He was laid to rest in the Dr. George Augustus Sykes Square, in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, in Aberdeen Mississippi.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The West Point of the South

On January 19, 1830, the Alabama Legislature chartered a college in the small Colbert County community of LaGrange. Under the patronage of the Tennessee and Mississippi conferences of the Methodist Church, and with $10,000 subscribed by local citizens, LaGrange College became the first Alabama school to be designated as a college. Section 15 of the articles of incorporation prohibited the teaching of doctrine, limiting studies to the areas of science and literature. Therefore, the first faculty offered courses in mathematics, ancient and modern languages, and geology. By 1853-1854, LaGrange College had an enrollment of 230 students and an endowment of $50,000. Operations moved to Florence in 1855 and the college received a new charter as Florence Wesleyan University.

With the relocation of the faculty and many of the students, James W. Robertson established the LaGrange College and Military Academy in 1858 and became its first superintendent. The state of Alabama made provision for two young men from each county to be selected through a series of competitive examinations to be cadets. By 1861, 47 of 171 students were cadets, and the academy began to be referred to as "the West Point of the South," a title claimed by many such institutions throughout the southern states.

The outbreak of war in 1861 led many students to join the armies of the Confederacy. Organized in LaGrange, the 35th Alabama Infantry counted virtually all of the cadets among the 750 enlistees from Franklin, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, and Madison Counties. The regiment joined the brigade of General John C. Breckenridge in Corinth, Mississippi, with three members of the faculty serving as officers: Colonel J.W. Robertson, Colonel Edward Goodwin, and Major W.H. Hunt. The 35th Alabama saw action at Baton Rouge, Corinth, Port Hudson, and Baker's Creek. The regiment took part in the defense of north Georgia and Atlanta, suffered 35 casualties in General John Bell Hood's "slight demonstration" at Decatur, Alabama, and lost half its effective strength at Franklin. Following the Battle of Nashville, the remnants of the 35th Alabama fled east where they surrendered with the Army of Tennessee.

LaGrange was not spared the hardships of war. On April 28, 1863, the 10th Missouri Cavalry, USA, commanded by Colonel Florence N. Cornyn burned both the town and the academy. The 4,000 volume library and other buildings, along with chemical and physical apparatus were destroyed, with losses totaling $100,000. In 1904, Congress considered a bill to reimburse the trustees of LaGrange College and Military Academy for the loss of property during the war, but took no action.

Today, the memory of LaGrange College is kept alive by the LaGrange Living Historical Association. The site features buildings, a pioneer village, and an antebellum cemetery, as well as a small bed and breakfast.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spanning States' and Civil Rights

About this time each year, Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge is in the news. There, on March 7, 1965, state and local law enforcement officers attacked approximately 600 Civil Rights marchers in a series of events that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One may ask why the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the events for which it is famous are proper for inclusion on a site dealing with the Civil War and the Tennessee Valley. The answer lies in the man, Edmund Pettus.

Edmund Winston Pettus was born in Limestone County, Alabama on July 6, 1821 to John and Alic
e Winston Pettus, the daughter of Revolutionary War veteran Captain Anthony Winston. Pettus received his education in Limestone County and at Clinton College in Smith County, Tennessee. After studying law in Tuscumbia with prominent attorney William Cooper, Pettus joined the bar in 1842 and practiced law in Gainesville. In 1844 he became solicitor of the 7th Alabama Judicial District.

In 1849, following service as a lieutenant in the Mexican War, Pettus traveled on horseback to California in search of gold, returning in 1851 to reestablish his law practice. His peers elected him Judge of the 7th Circuit Court in 1855, a position he held until his resignation and subsequent move to Dallas County.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Pettus served as commissioner to his brother, Governor John J. Pettus of Mississippi, but in August returned home and joined the 20th Alabama Infantry as a major. He became the unit's lieutenant colonel in October of that year, a rank he held until the siege of Vicksburg. Captured and exchanged there, Pettus received a promotion to brigadier general of a unit composed of the 20th, 23rd, 30th, 31st, and 46th, Alabama Infantry, a command he held until the end of the war. Pettus saw action at Port Gibson, Baker's Creek, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and Nashville. Wounded at Bentonville, North Carolina on March 19, 1865, he surrendered with Joseph Johnston near Durham, North Carolina on April 26, 1865.

Following the war, Pettus returned to the practice of law in Selma and served as the chairman of the Alabama delegation at each of the quadrennial meetings of the Democratic National Convention from 1872-1896. The state legislature appointed him to the United States Senate in 1896 and unanimously reelected him to succeed himself in 1902. The last of the Confederate brigadiers to serve in the United States Senate, Pettus died on July 27, 1907 before completing his second term. He was buried in Selma's Live Oak Cemetery.

Constructed in 1940 and named for a Confederate General and Old South politician, the Edmund Pettus Bridge served as a reminder of the Lost Cause, the Confederacy, and States' Rights for a quarter century. Since 1965, it has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the movement for Civil Rights. The irony is striking.