The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Continuing with discussion of my experiences as a volunteer transcriber for the “Decoding the Civil War” working on the Thomas T. Eckert Papers of the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens:

This March 6, 1865, telegraph, sent by Union General George Thomas to General Grant via Grant’s Signal officer, Captain Samuel Beckwith, offers a snapshot of  the preparations of Union General George Stoneman for an offensive toward the coast and down into the heart of the crumbling Confederacy.

Stoneman orders

The telegram reads, in part:

We have had a very heavy storm which has retarded the commencement of operation in this [Department] by swelling the streams and destroying [RailRoad] bridges, but I am in hopes [General James H.] Wilson has started by this time. Stoneman will reach Knoxville by Saturday next with his expeditionary force and will start from there [immediately]. I will then adjust the available [Infantry] force to support Stoneman and repair the East [Tennessee] and [Virginia] road as far as Watauga bridge for the present.

This is the prelude to Stoneman’s raids from Tennessee into North Carolina and Virginia, including the destruction of the facilities at the Moratock Foundry in Danbury, here in North Carolina, and of train tracks, railroad depots, and supply points throughout North Carolina and Virginia. Among these targets were the operations of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, employer of the fictional Virgil Caine, who tells the story of Stoneman’s raids and the fall of the Confederate capital Richmond in The Bands “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”:

Virgil Caine is the name
And I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came
And tore up the tracks again

In the winter of ’65
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember, oh so well

General Stoneman almost lost his opportunity. He was blamed by General Joseph Hooker for their loss at The Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863–a battle that, had it been successful, promised to dislodge General Lee from Fredericksburg. In poor health in addition to the defeat, Stoneman was relieved of command and was relegated to an administrative position. He was able to return to the field the following year, but was captured by Confederates near Macon, Georgia during the Atlanta Campaign–earning the dubious distinction as the highest-ranking Union officer to be  held as a prisoner of war. Through intercession by General Sherman, Stoneman was released after three month, eventually distinguishing himself through incisive raids against the Confederates in the final year of the war.

Following the war George Stoneman, a Democrat, served as governor of California, 1883-87, but returned to a his native New York following the destruction of his California home by fire, and died in Buffalo in 1894 at the age of 72.

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A New Wrinkle in an Old Civil War Telegram?

I have recently been working as a volunteer transcribing telegrams and code book entries for the “Decoding the Civil War” project to provide greater access to the Thomas T. Eckert papers of the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens. As explained here, the library teamed up with other institutions (including the North Carolina State University Library) on a grant to digitize the contents of Captain Eckert’s notebooks and code books, which he preserved following his service as the head of the Union’s military telegraph office of the War Department under Lincoln.

One telegram I transcribed was a May 1864 update from General Sherman concerning what he believed was the most pragmatic approach to defeating the Confederates in their own states–a bit of a “hearts and minds” approach that seems at odds with the image of the commander who would lead the notoriously vicious scorched-earth March to the Sea six months later. The screen capture below is of the telegram in question, opened in my Zooniverse transcription window:

Sherman from Kingston GA

I believe that either I have provided a small but not inconsequential correction of the previous transcription as it appears in the books Meade of Gettysburg and Sherman: Fighting Prophet, or they sourced it elsewhere and the receiver of the telegram in Captain Eckert’s office erred.

Sherman from Kingston GA detail

My transcription, as copied from Eckert’s notebook, with the relevant change from transcription provided by Cleaves and Lewis in italics:

if Gen Grant can sustain the confidence the esprit, the pluck of his army & impress the Virginians with the Knowledge that the Yankees can & will fight them fair & square he will do more good than to capture Richmond or any strategic advantage – this moral result must precede all mere advantage of strategic & this is what Grant is doing – out here the enemy knows we can & will fight like the devil therefore we maneuvre for advantage of ground – W. T. Sherman Maj Genl

Cleaves and Lewis suggest the passage is “he maneuvers,” which may ambiguously imply either Grant or the Confederates do the maneuvering, while the wording of the telegram as it was copied by Captain Eckert’s office is as I have rendered it, with the plural subjective pronoun “we” and the alternative singular spelling of “maneuver”–making clear, at least in this rendering, that General Sherman is speaking of his army.

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