William Glenn Robertson: Notecards and Curiosities
Today we welcome a guest post from William Glenn Robertson, author of River of Death–The Chickamauga Campaign: Volume 1: The Fall of Chattanooga, just published by UNC Press.
The Battle of Chickamauga was the third bloodiest of the American Civil War and the only major Confederate victory in the conflict’s western theater. It pitted Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee against William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland and resulted in more than 34,500 casualties. In this first volume of an authoritative two-volume history of the Chickamauga campaign, William Glenn Robertson provides a richly detailed narrative of military operations in southeastern and eastern Tennessee as two armies prepared to meet along the “River of Death.”
River of Death–The Chickamauga Campaign: Volume 1: The Fall of Chattanooga is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Notecards and Curiosities
When I began my research on the Chickamauga Campaign in early 1983, I didn’t own a personal computer and instead used notecards to organize my research materials. For my first two books I utilized 4X6 cards, but for Chickamauga I decided that 5X8 cards would work better, holding more material. In order to prevent inadvertent plagiarism, I photocopied the materials and attached them in manageable chunks on individual cards with tape. When I began the Chickamauga process, I guessed 25,000 cards would suffice. I wanted to find literally everything relevant to the Chickamauga Campaign in order to have the largest possible database from which to craft my narrative and analysis. Now, thirty-five years later, I am still finding Chickamauga-related materials in a variety of places, and my notecard count has risen to the current number of 41,643, with more to go. While my system is certainly not recommended for everyone, it works for me. Cards are organized chronologically and by regimental, brigade, division, and corps units. The only drawback is that the file boxes consume a lot of space.
One of the virtues of gathering so much material is that I often run across many curious facts, usually representing human stories too small to be noticed in a work focusing solely on large issues. The Chickamauga Campaign is replete with such stories, most of which have been neglected in earlier works on the subject. I’ll briefly describe three of my discoveries here. They are not “game changers” in the conventional sense, but each topic adds a bit to the Chickamauga story, and may be of interest to readers.
First is the story of Loreta Janeta Velasquez. This lady, who occasionally posed as Lieutenant Harry Buford of the Confederate Army, made a brief Chickamauga Campaign appearance. Velasquez is the subject of a recent biography by noted Civil War author William C. Davis. While accounting for many of “Buford’s” travels and debunking many of her falsehoods, Davis doubts that she appeared in Chattanooga during the late summer of 1863. Yet I found a Texas soldier’s letter referencing a female Lieutenant Buford drawing quite a crowd at Tyner’s Station near Chattanooga in early August, and a Tennessee soldier’s diary placing her in Chattanooga itself on 5 August. Additionally, the Chattanooga Daily Rebel of 4 and 6 August places Lieutenant Buford in the city. Finally, on 17 August, Braxton Bragg ordered staff officer George Brent to write to Harvey Hill: “Your suggestion in regard to Lieut. Buford has been acted on and the Provost Marshall is looking after her.” Clearly, Velasquez/Buford was visiting the Army of Tennessee in its Chattanooga camps in the first half of August 1863. What Bragg, Hill, and others knew about her visit and/or mission is currently unknown. Without the ability to assimilate such disparate sources through my notecard system, I probably would not have been able to piece together this tantalizing story.
A second interesting topic is the role played by Chattanooga Unionists who provided intelligence to the Army of the Cumberland prior to the Confederate evacuation of Chattanooga. Although the efforts of the Crutchfield brothers have occasionally been noted, heretofore unknown is the work of the Thompson family, father Jesse and son Michael. Both Thompsons were merchants in Chattanooga according to the 1860 Federal Census. Although two other sons were in Cheatham’s Division, Jesse was apparently a strong Unionist. According to reports in the Army of the Cumberland’s intelligence journal, Michael worked for William Truesdail and reported to his handlers on 25 July and 21 August. In the first report, he described a bold journey to Atlanta, ostensibly to visit an uncle. The report was detailed and generally accurate, as was a subsequent report, which described a dinner conversation with Leonidas Polk. After the Federals occupied Chattanooga, Jesse Thompson on at least two occasions offered to provide detailed information on the Confederate evacuation of the city and the state of morale in Bragg’s army. The Thompsons disappear from the intelligence journal in September, but Michael gained a license from the Chattanooga Provost Marshal to operate a bath house in May 1865. Through a variety of sources entered into the notecard database at various times, at least a small part of the Thompsons’ curious story has been unearthed.
Finally, my notecard system has exposed a number of non-combatant family members traveling with the Army of the Cumberland during the Chickamauga Campaign. Although the practice was forbidden by Rosecrans, he kept his son Adrian Louis, age fourteen, with him for at least the first part of the campaign. Father and son came under fire on the Tennessee River on 21 August. Likewise, Thomas Crittenden was accompanied by his son John, age nine, at least as far as the Sequatchie Valley in the early stages of the campaign. Division commander Jefferson Davis, had his wife Marietta, age twenty-five, with him throughout the campaign. She was accompanied by the wife of Captain Joseph Pope, Davis’s commissary of subsistence, and remained with the corps trains throughout the battle. John Turchin’s wife, Nadine, age thirty-six, traveled with her husband’s brigade to Chickamauga, and participated in the extrication of some of the army’s wagons at the end of the battle. Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer’s son Harry, age thirteen, remained with his father throughout the campaign, and was on the edge of the battlefield on 20 September. Margaret Stout, age thirty-three, the wife of Colonel Alexander Stout, accompanied her husband on horseback at least as far as Chattanooga. Mary Van Pelt, age twenty-nine, wife of Lieutenant George Van Pelt, accompanied her husband until banished by George Thomas less than a week before the battle.
Except for the reports of spy Michael Thompson, none of these curious stories affected the Chickamauga Campaign in a major way, although they certainly added to the pressure on commanders with family members at risk. Nevertheless, they all add to the totality of the Chickamauga experience in a decidedly human way. Would I have unearthed them with a different research methodology? Perhaps, or perhaps not, but now they are on display for all to see.
William Glenn Robertson is the former director of the U.S Army Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
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