Thursday, June 25, 2020

'The Two Sides Occasionally Conversed Pleasantly'

Among the mounting number of statuary casualties in the ongoing tantrum is Ulysses S. Grant, victorious general, fellow Ohioan, eighteenth president of the United States and one of our best writers. Only Lincoln among the presidents exceeded him in sheer writing ability. His Personal Memoirs is on the short list of essential American nonfiction, up there with Principles of Psychology and Witness. Few have written so meticulously about war. We can all learn from the clarity of his prose. Here’s a  sample from Chap. XXXVIII of his Memoirs (1885), describing an engagement in the Vicksburg Campaign of 1862-63:

“At three points on the Jackson road, in front of Ransom's brigade, a sap was run up to the enemy's parapet, and by the 25th of June we had it undermined and the mine charged. The enemy had countermined, but did not succeed in reaching our mine. At this particular point the hill, on which the rebel work stands rises abruptly. Our sap ran close up to the outside of the enemy's parapet. In fact this parapet was also our protection. The soldiers of the two sides occasionally conversed pleasantly across this barrier; sometimes they exchanged the hard bread of the Union soldiers for the tobacco of the Confederates; at other times the enemy threw over hand-grenades, and often our men, catching them in their hands, returned them.”

A “sap” is a covered trench permitting attackers to approach a besieged position while under fire. Union troops packed the mine with 2,200 pounds of gunpowder. On July 25, the explosion blew apart the Confederate lines and was followed by a Union infantry assault. The 45th Illinois Regiment charged into the 40-by-12-foot crater but were stopped by Confederate infantry. The Union soldiers were pinned down while the Confederate forces rolled artillery shells with short fuses into the pit. Union engineers built a casement, permitting the troops to escape. Union miners dug a second mine from the crater and packed it with powder. On July 1, it too was detonated. Vicksburg surrendered on July 4.

The passage quoted above is notable for Grant’s “human touch” in the final sentence. He reminds us that the American Civil War was personal and often intimate. There’s also a touch of grim humor in the grenade anecdote. In Chap. XXX, describing the start of the Vicksburg Campaign, Grant describes an event with renewed pertinence:

“It was at this point, probably, where the first idea of a ‘Freedman’s Bureau’ took its origin. Orders of the government prohibited the expulsion of the negroes from the protection of the army, when they came in voluntarily. Humanity forbade allowing them to starve. With such an army of them, of all ages and both sexes, as had congregated about Grand Junction, amounting to many thousands, it was impossible to advance. There was no special authority for feeding them unless they were employed as teamsters, cooks and pioneers with the army; but only able-bodied young men were suitable for such work. This labor would support but a very limited percentage of them.”

Grant describes how a solution was reached:

“The plantations were all deserted; the cotton and corn were ripe: men, women and children above ten years of age could be employed in saving these crops. To do this work with contrabands, or to have it done, organization under a competent chief was necessary. On inquiring for such a man Chaplain Eaton, now and for many years the very able United States Commissioner of Education, was suggested. He proved as efficient in that field as he has since done in his present one. I gave him all the assistants and guards he called for. We together fixed the prices to be paid for the negro labor, whether rendered to the government or to individuals. The cotton was to be picked from abandoned plantations, the laborers to receive the stipulated price (my recollection is twelve and a half cents per pound for picking and ginning) from the quartermaster, he shipping the cotton north to be sold for the benefit of the government. Citizens remaining on their plantations were allowed the privilege of having their crops saved by freedmen on the same terms.

“At once the freedmen became self-sustaining.”

No comments: