Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Irish and Lincoln: Why Reconstruction Was Doomed

"Ask them where they are going ... invariably the reply is:  'Don't know Massa; gwine along wid you all."

"I shall be home in 100 days."

James A. Connolly was the first-generation Irish-American who blew the whistle on General Jefferson Davis when Davis deliberately abandoned liberated African-Americans on the Confederate side of Ebenezer Creek during Sherman's 1864 march to the sea.   Connolly was present when Davis's aides pulled in the the pontoon bridge, telling an outraged Connolly that it was Davis's order to leave the blacks behind.

It's astonishing that Major Connolly's whistle-blowing went unpunished.   He went outside the chain of command and wrote directly to congress and others.   This was a doubly bold move since Davis was infamous for murdering a superior officer in 1862.   Connolly's survival is probably due to his own commanding general [Baird] being a devout abolitionist and relative of Gerrit Smith,  Connolly being a popular officer and Davis realizing he wouldn't get away with murder twice.    When called on the carpet over the Ebenezer Creek incident,  Davis claimed leaving the blacks behind was an accident.  Sherman left Davis in command of the XIV Corps for the Carolinas campaign, but the U.S. Senate refused to confirm Davis's brevet appointment to major general and after the war Davis was sent to command the Department of Alaska.  Connolly went back to Illinois when the war ended and successfully ran as a Republican for the state and U.S. House of Representatives.

The Davis story is but a part of the story told in Connolly's dairy and his many letters to his wife:   Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland.   Nearly 400 pages of the monumental and mundane.   The entire story is an unfiltered epistle to Connolly's wife.   Lot's of "I love you," "I miss you," I'll be home soon."   "Many are sick."   I think I had typhoid, am weak but getting better.   Sniper missed me.  I'll be more careful.   Connolly's wife Mary Dunn is a school teacher.   They're readers and trade literary references:  I stayed "up to midnight last night to read Alexander Dumas' account of the life and death of Louis XV.   Every fellow has to 'paddle his own canoe,' even Louis XV, and a sorry voyage he made of it."

The story gives insight into the development of effective staff officers who the generals use to supply, encamp and deploy troops, scout routes for moving the army and confirming whereabouts of the enemy.  Connolly also describes the evolution of an army's organic capability to fight a battle.   At Missionary Ridge the men were ordered to assault trenches at the foot of the ridge ... with the general's expectation that this limited maneuver would relieve pressure on another part of the battlefield.   Charging into the open in front of the heavily defended ridge seemed suicidal, but almost immediately the men realize they are under the guns of the Confederates entrenched on the top of the ridge.   The Union troops just keep going.   Soon flag bearers are waving their flags on the steep ridge just below the Confederate trenches.  One, two then three are waving their flags.   The Confederates can't shoot at the flag bearers without standing up in the open.   The men following the flag bearers probe for a weakness.   Then suddenly Union troops find a weakness and hop up into the Confederate fortifications and are followed by others across the line and in a blink of an eye and furious fighting 60 Union regiments are on top of the ridge and the Confederates are running for their lives.   General Grant is watching and shouts in dismay "who the hell ordered that."   Tolstoy who recounted the chaos of Borodino, a battle that dwarfed Gettysburg in combatants and casualties,  and pooh-poohed the idea that great men control the fate of nations,  would have chuckled at this.   In Georgia and the Carolinas Connolly portrays an army that is often barely under control with the soldiers saving their special vengeance of fire and mayhem for South Carolina.

Clueless.  Connolly represents the best of the enlightened Union army soldier.   He admires Henry Ward Beecher,  Lincoln, Gerrit Smith, Wendell Phillips, and generals Rosecrans, Sherman and Baird.  Connolly's set on whipping the Confederates,  freeing the slaves ... and going home as soon as possible ... oblivious to the fate of the freed slaves as soon as Connolly and the Union soldiers go home.   His unfiltered comments, at times benevolent, at times offensive, illustrate  how incomprehensible the idea of slaves fully becoming Americans was even to enlightened Northerner.