The ABP Journal
Fall 2007, Vol. 3 No. 1

ISSN 1939-4578

Kenneth W. Noe is Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. A Pulitzer Prize nominee, he is the author or editor of numerous books and articles about the Civil War, particularly the war in Appalachia. His titles include The Civil War in Appalachia (1997), Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (2001), and Politics and Culture of the Civil War Era (2006). He is also the editor of A Southern Boy in Blue: The Memoir of Marcus Woodcock, 9th Kentucky Infantry, USA (1996).

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Historical interpretation at Pickett’s Mill often follows Bierce’s narrative and interpretations, a fact not surprising given the relative prominence that park management awards the battles most famous chronicler.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

marcus woodcock
The Memoir of Marcus Woodcock, 9th Kentucky Infantry (USA), edited by Kenneth W. Noe

   

 

 

 

 

“They were sending up the most pitiful prayers and lamentations that I ever heard from the lips of human creatures, and many of them were begging to be shot.”

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Woodcock, Pickett’s Mill was a tragic day, but one that could be noted and left in the past.  For Bierce, it became a turning point and a touchstone for a lifetime.

 
 

somebody blundered
Marcus Woodcock, Ambrose Bierce, and “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill”

kenneth w. noe

bierce in uniformTHE PICKETT’S MILL Battlefield State Historic Site in Georgia officially opened to the public in 1992.  Since that time, resident park historians have often argued in their presentations that William Tecumseh Sherman covered up the Union defeat in his reports and memoirs.  Many battlefield visitors have thus encountered the legacy of Ambrose Bierce. [1]  On the twenty-fourth anniversary of the battle, May 27, 1888, Bierce opened his celebrated essay “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” with an accusation: that the already-forgotten battle was “ignored by General Sherman in his memoirs, yet Sherman ordered it.” [2]  In other, less obvious ways, historical interpretation at Pickett’s Mill follows Bierce’s narrative and interpretations, a fact not surprising given the relative prominence that park management awards the battle’s most famous chronicler. [3]  

In “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill,” one of his nonfiction “war memoirs,” Bierce pointedly contrasted the heroism of his fellow soldiers in blue and gray with the incompetence and casual disregard for soldiers’ lives evinced by Sherman, divisional commander Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood, and especially “the Christian general,” IV Corps commander Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard.  The Atlanta Campaign had entered its fourth week in late May 1864 when the contending armies reached the environs of Dallas, Georgia, northwest of the Gate City.  After bloody but inconclusive fighting in the “Hell Hole” at the Battle of New Hope Church, Sherman pushed Wood’s division east and then south through miles of thick forest and deep ravines in an effort to flank Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston’s well-prepared lines.  Encountering as it turned out not an exposed flank, but rather an apparently freshly-dug position, the befuddled Howard and Wood decided to attack nonetheless, in column of brigades no less, with Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen’s leading the way.  The brigades of Col. William H. Gibson and Col. Frederick Knefler, comprising the second and third waves respectively, theoretically would follow.  But Wood made the fateful decision to hold them back until he could gauge Hazen’s progress.  Young Lieutenant Bierce, only 21 years old, served on Hazen’s staff as his topographical engineer and clearly admired the querulous general as a kindred spirit. “We will put in Hazen and see what success he has,” Bierce bitterly remembered Wood telling Howard.  The little brigade, diminished by attrition to about 1,500 men, started out alone. [4]

Moving forward in eerie silence at 4:30 p.m., Hazen’s men encountered “almost impassable tangles of “underwood” and “precipitous ravines.”  The terrain broke up lines; “the trim battalions had become simply a swarm of men struggling through the undergrowth of the forest, pushing and crowding.” As an aide announced, “we shall halt and form when we get out of this,” shots rang out from Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s crack division, who occupied the rocky ridge and log works to the front.  Hazen’s line buckled in the sustained musketry and misery that followed.  “Most of our men fought kneeling as they fired,” Bierce wrote, “many of them behind trees, stones, and whatever they could get.”  Other men, the bravest according to Bierce, pushed forward to within fifteen paces of Cleburne’s lines but could go no farther.  Within minutes, the blue line wavered.  “Man by man,” Bierce remembered, “the survivors withdrew at will, sifting through the trees into the cover of the ravines.”  Unexpectedly, a Confederate counterattack assailed their flank, but from the limited cover offered by a rail fence, the Federals fought it off before resuming their retreat. [5]

“The battle, as a battle, was at an end,” Bierce lamented, “but there was still some slaughtering that it was possible to incur before nightfall.”  Forty-five inexplicable minutes after sending Hazen forward, Wood finally had dispatched Gibson’s brigade, much too late to assist him.  The men of the two brigades met in the woods.  “Neither Gibson nor the brigade which was went to his ‘relief’ as tardily as he to ours accomplished, or could have hoped to accomplish, anything whatever,” Bierce complained: “Nevertheless their losses were considerable.” [6]
           
One of the casualties in the third “‘relief’” line was another young lieutenant who had embraced the war at its genesis, William Marcus Woodcock of the 9th Kentucky Infantry.  A Middle Tennessean by birth but a Kentucky student and a dedicated Unionist ideologically, Woodcock had enlisted as a private in September 1861, as soon as Kentucky rejected neutrality.  He went on to fight at Stone’s River, Chickamauga, and in the Atlanta Campaign, rising through the ranks as the war progressed.  When his enlistment ran out in December 1864, Woodcock returned home only to take an elected seat in the Tennessee legislature.  Moving to Nashville, he spent the weeks before the assembly opened cranking out an ultimately unfinished draft of his “soldier’s experience” that today remains one of the few book-length accounts of a southern unionist in blue.  The volume ends with his narrative of Pickett’s Mill and its aftermath. [7]

Woodcock’s account, written early in 1865 but not published until 1996, confirms Bierce’s remembrance of the Battle of Pickett’s Mill as a confused and ultimately wasteful, murderous affair. Like Bierce, Woodcock began his account by stressing the time-consuming flanking march through impossible terrain, “over rough hills, across deep hollows, and through almost impenetrable thickets of undergrowth.”  From the rear, he heard the battle begin.  “A heavy skirmishing commenced in our immediate front,” Woodcock wrote, “and soon warmed into all the awfulness of a general battle....Our line was ordered to lie down,” he went on, “and there we remained for a few moments suffering from the most terrible anxieties known to the soldier – viz, the viewing of a bloody carnage and knowing that you will in a moment have to participate in it.” [8]

Knefler’s brigade “remained in our position till the other two Brigades had spent their strength upon the rebel lines,” Woodcock continued, “and we saw them come flocking back over the hill in great disorder....We met the gallant but defeated heroes of the front lines just as we commenced ascending the hill.  They presented all the marks of a defeated, badly cut up, but unwhipped force; and they met us with cheers and exhortations and invectives on the rebels.”  Woodcock repeatedly stressed that each brigade formed two lines, and thus the “heroes of the front lines” were Hazen’s men, including Bierce.   By that time, orders had arrived from Sherman, two hours late, calling off the attack.  Gibson’s brigade remained pinned down near the Confederate works, however.  Knefler’s assignment now was to move into their position and hold it while the dead and wounded of the other brigades could be removed.  Advancing, the brigade soon made contact with the enemy, “victory-flushed and advancing....and thus (a few moments before sunset) was commenced one of the grandest musketry fights I ever witnessed.”  After a few minutes, the Confederates fell back to their works as Knefler’s men moved up to the rail fence that already had sheltered Hazen.  As darkness fell, the gunfire finally slackened; the Federals realized that they had all but exhausted their ammunition.  “Then our ears were greeted with a sound more heartrending than can be conceived,” Woodcock wrote, “viz, the groans of the many wounded that were scattered over the field in our front, between ours and the rebel lines....They were sending up the most pitiful prayers and lamentations that I ever heard from the lips of human creatures, and many of them were begging to be shot.” [9]

Woodcock soon numbered himself among the wounded.  “About sundown,” he remembered, “I was struck on the right thigh by a ball which penetrated the flesh about one inch, and then bounced out again without cutting my clothes.  I looked down and saw my pants were stuffed into the incision, and quietly pulled them out again, thinking that I was not much hurt, but the blood immediately began to flow.”  He fell back to the rear, lay down behind a tree, and vomited.  Yet for Woodcock, wounded and weak, the battle was not yet over.  After dark, the Confederates launched another counterattack, intending to clear the woods before them.  This time they were completely successful.  Battered and nearly out of ammunition, Knefler’s men offered little resistance.  “The enemy bore down on with a fury that was in our circumstances, simply unresistable,” Woodcock wrote, “and therefore giving them our last shot we hastily fell back across the hill.” [10]

For Bierce, Pickett’s Mill was little better than murder, a useless, poorly planned and coordinated battle that yielded nothing except unsurprising results, the loss of a third of his brigade. [11]  Many of Hazen’s men concurred that they had been “sold out.” [12]  Woodcock agreed.  “Our regiment had lost 3 men killed and 18 wounded,” he recorded, “and the other Regiments of our Brigade lost in about the same proportion, but the 1st and 2nd Brigades were horribly cut up, having lost, killed and wounded by the hundred.  When we consider our losses and the apparent results of the fight we really felt discouraged at the prospects, but not anymore elevated in regard to the ability of the enemy to eventually thwart our plans.”  It was not the martial skill of the enemy that “discouraged” his fellow soldiers in other words, it was their own leaders.  Given Woodcock’s usual admiration of Sherman and officers in general, these were strong words. [13]

In “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill,” Bierce suggests that more Federal soldiers were killed than wounded at Pickett’s Mill, “a consequence of the uncommonly close range at which most of the fighting was done.” [14]  If so, there were still plenty of wounded.  Woodcock woke up the next morning in pain and caught an ambulance to the nearest field hospital, four miles in the rear.  He found there “a beautiful grove of timber” that contained “over a thousand maimed, crippled, and otherwise shockingly mangled soldiers [who] had been brought from the battlefield....I alighted from the ambulance near an amputating table, and the sight that greeted my eyes turned me perfectly sick.  Arms and legs, hands and feet, fingers and toes, that had just been detached from their quivering stumps were recklessly strewn on every side.”  Other casualties lay dying in agony or silence as gravediggers buried the already expired. [15]

Woodcock remained at the field hospital until May 30.  When Sherman began to shift his army east toward Marietta, however, he determined to move his wounded into the rear.  For two days, Woodcock and many others rode in wagons to Kingston, Georgia, where they were placed on freight trains bound for Nashville.  They did not arrive there until June 4.  The trip was “miserable.”  The men received little food or water, and saw no doctors or nurses other than other wounded men.  Woodcock’s narrative ends abruptly with a passage that Bierce easily could have written.  “Three of the occupants of our car had been so nearly helpless as to be compelled to lie down during the whole trip,” he wrote, “and when they were lifted from their blankets the floor of the car under them was found to be literally covered with maggots, although we had rendered them every possible attention.” [16] 

Woodcock soon recovered, rejoined his unit, and fought until the end of the year, but that image of wounded soldiers lying in maggots served as Woodcock’s final commentary in the memoir.  Only in his diary would he record later incidents such as a similar debacle at Jonesboro, Georgia.  On September 1, under orders from Sherman, it was an allegedly drunken Knefler who hurled his lone brigade against Cleburne’s entrenched Johnny Rebs.  “We forward and carry the pits in our front with small loss,” he wrote, “and if we had stopped there, all would have been well.  ‘[B]ut somebody blundered’ and hallowed for us to charge the main works and forward went three little regiments of our Brigade; 9, 19, 79, through the thickest shower of balls I ever encountered, about 100 yards and lay down for a moment, then up and forward again, but alas, what can valor do against equal valor with such fearful odds.” [17]
           
Once again, “somebody blundered”; it had become a cliche in the Army of the Cumberland.  Yet, it is worth noting in that in the end the two soldiers weighed that blundering differently.  For all his anger at unnamed commanders at Pickett’s Mill and Knefler at Jonesboro, as well as grief at the loss of a close friend in the latter fight, Woodcock continued to admire Sherman and on the whole his other generals.  “Somebody” had blundered, not someone specifically.  Not one to question established authority, he became after the war a devoted Republican, went to law school, worked for the Internal Revenue Service in the war against illegal alcohol, and, in time, evolved into a devout churchman.  When he died in 1914, Baptists throughout the state of Tennessee mourned him as the treasurer of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the State Mission Board, posts that had made him the best known Baptist layman in the Volunteer State. [18] 
           
The war, of course, affected Bierce differently.  After Pickett’s Mill, according to biographer Richard O’Connor, “Bierce’s patriotism would not be unalloyed by cynicism.  He would be a military buff all his life, but he had a low opinion of generals who didn’t even try to find out what they were sending their troops against.  Undoubtedly the event contributed to his lifelong contempt for those established in power...and his willingness to be always an outsider, a highly vocal and caustic critic of all in positions of authority.” [19] For Woodcock, in other words, Pickett’s Mill was a tragic day, but one that could be noted and left in the past.  For Bierce, it became a turning point and a touchstone for a lifetime.
end


NOTES

1. “Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site, The Creation of Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site,” http://www.pickettsmillpark.org/About%20The%20Park.htm, accessed August 16, 2007.  The observation about Sherman is based on personal experience.  I visited the battlefield often during the 1990s, and led a tour there in 1997.  I also directed the thesis of then-park historian Karen Hamilton, “The Union Occupation of Bartow County, Georgia, May-November 1864,” MA Thesis, State University of West Georgia, 1998.  See also Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (New York: Crown, 1995), 83, 86. return to text

2. Ambrose Bierce, “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill: A Plain Account of a Bad Half Hour With Jo. Johnston,” San Francisco Examiner, May 27, 1888, reprinted in S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds., Ambrose Bierce, A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998), 37-45 (quotation, 37). return to text

3. The park’s website quotes Bierce and lists the essay as one of the major sources for understanding the battle.  See “Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site, For More Information,” http://www.pickettsmillpark.org/historical_background.htm, accessed August 16, 2007. return to text

4. Bierce, “Crime at Pickett’s Mill,” 37-39 (quotation, 39).  See also Morris, Ambrose Bierce, 83-84, and Albert Castel, Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992), 229-31, 233-34. return to text

5. Bierce, “Crime at Pickett’s Mill,” 40-43 (quotations, 40, 41, 42); Morris, Ambrose Bierce, 84-85; Castel, Decision in the West, 235-39.
return to text

6. Bierce, “Crime at Pickett’s Mill,” 43; Castel, Decision in the West, 238-340. return to text

7. Kenneth W. Noe, ed., A Southern Boy in Blue: The Memoir of Marcus Woodcock, 9th Kentucky Infantry (U. S. A.) (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996). return to text

8. Ibid., 290-91. return to text

9. Ibid., 291-93 (quotations, 292, 293); Castel, Decision in the West, 235. return to text

10. Ibid., 292. return to text

11. Donald T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2004), 106-8; Morris, Ambrose Bierce, 84. return to text

12. Quoted in Castel, Decision in the West, 239. return to text

13. Woodcock, Southern Boy in Blue, 293.
return to text

14. Bierce, “Crime at Pickett’s Mill,” 44. return to text

15. Woodcock, Southern Boy in Blue, 293-96 (quotation 294). return to text

16. Ibid., 295-97 (quotations, 296, 297). return to text

17. Ibid., 298-301 (quotation, 298-99). return to text

18. Ibid., xxiii-xxv, 298-301. return to text

19. Richard O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1967), 40. return to text


Copyright © 2007 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.