Bummers and Paper Collar Boys

    In the fall of 1863, the military situation around Chattanooga, Tennessee had reached a crisis point. The Army of the Cumberland under General William S. Rosecrans lay entrenched outside the city, licking its wounds and slowly starving following its defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga in September. The Lincoln administration determined to reinforce Rosecrans' forces and dispatched two major elements from distant armies to converge on Chattanooga to both relieve the siege of the city, and set the stage for offensive operations. Portions of four corps were dispatched: the 11th and 12th Corps from the Army of the Potomac and the 15th Corps and 17th Corps from the Army of the Tennessee. General Joseph Hooker assumed command of the two eastern corps while William T. Sherman was placed in charge of the western contingent.

One of Sherman's "bummers" albeit a well-dressed one.
(Library of Congress)

    The war experience of each group was widely different: the two corps from the Army of the Potomac had rarely participated in a winning battle with the major exception of Gettysburg. The units comprising the 11th Corps had been roughly handled in the Shenandoah Valley, at Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and was partially broken up following the disastrous losses of those two last two battles. The 12th Corps, however, had acquitted itself well at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. The 15th Corps was the heart of Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee: victors of Shiloh, Corinth, and Vicksburg. The 17th Corps had likewise been successful on many a western battlefield.

    The physical appearance of the men of the corps expanded the contrast: the soldiers from the Army of the Potomac, raised in the shadow of George McClellan's love for pomp and circumstance, dressed nattily, going so far as to wear paper collars and white gloves as if perpetually on parade. The men took pride in their appearance, and the more combative members of Hooker's force stated that they could back up their sharp appearance with equal skill in combat. Sherman's bummers, innured to shortages of supplies of every kind, effected the appearance of military ruffians: no two dressed alike, with every variety of hat, pants, and jacket. They, too, were a reflection of their commander's disdain for pomp and circumstance, but they equally felt fully able to handle themselves on the battlefield despite their haggard appearance.
Private Albert H. Davis, Co. E, 9th New Hampshire Infantry
(Library of Congress)

    The scene was thus set for quite a clash when these two armies came into close proximity to one another. Private William Bakhaus (also spelled Backhaus) of Co. C, 47th Ohio Volunteer Infantry gave the following description of this meeting of the armies in an article published in the Ohio Soldier in 1888. It begins in November 1863 as his regiment was finishing a march of two months' duration from the environs of Vicksburg. They marched into Hooker's camp at Wauhatchie, Tennessee where they caught their first sight of the 12th Corps...

    "We arrived at Hooker's camp at Wauhatchie on November 20th, very footsore indeed having been continually on the road for 55 days. We naturally did not present a very creditable appearance and we were a motley looking set of men. Many were hatless and shoeless, clothing tattered and torn. My shoes, or what was left of them, resembled one of those wealthy corporations in that they had no soles, and I think from this incident there originated those beautiful lines that occur in Ingomar: 'Two heels, with but a single sole, two feet that smell like sixty.'

    In striking contrast to our appearance were Hooker's men, all dressed up as if for parade, in short neat-looking jackets and paper collars. They had stars on their caps, on their coats, on their tents, on their flags, on their wagons, and in fact, even their mules looked as if they had been star-ved. Everything they had seemed to be a brigadier general. I hope the mules will not feel offended at this irreverence. We, at the time, did not know that the star was their corps badge, having never heard of such a thing before. Hooker's men and Hooker himself kept guying us on our appearance while passing through their camp, but we turned the tables on them before we got through. We all commenced laughing at them and their paper collars, and each regiment as it came along took up the laugh until at last matters became so serious that we actually came to blows, and ever afterward there existed a bitter enmity between Sherman's and Hooker's men that always manifested itself whenever and wherever we met, and this feeling was shared in by officers and men alike. On every occasion whenever we caught sight of Hooker, there came from all quarters an unearthly yell of 'Hello Joe!' which was not relished by him in the least, and he rightly remarked that we “were the damndest, most undisciplined set of men he ever saw or heard of.”

One of the "star-studded" members of the 12th Corps
(LM Strayer Collection)

    
    Rice Bull of the 123rd New York, a regiment in the 12th Corps, recorded the encounter with Sherman's bummers in his journal. On November 20th, the army of General Sherman's known as the Army of Tennessee consisting of the 15th and 17th Corps passed our campo. It was on its way to reinforce General Grant who had been placed in supreme command. This army looked quite unlike our own that originally had been part of the Army of the Potomac. They all wore large hats instead of caps, were carelessly dressed both officers and men, and marched in a very irregular way, seemingly not caring to be kept closed up and in regular order. There were faults in marching which we had been taught to avoid. They could be excused for their loose marching, however, as they had just made a 300 mile movement on the way to join Grant. 


    We found their boast was that they "put on no style". They were a large, fine type of men, all westerners, it was easy to see that at any serious time they would close up and be there. As they passed by, we viewed their line and a good deal of friendly chaffing was done. They expressed their opinion that we were tin soldiers. "Oh look at their little caps. Where are your paper collars? Oh, how clean you look, do you have soap?" We took it good-naturedly. They came to know and respect us later on after the first battle where we stood in line together. As the war went on, we had no better friends than the men in those two corps that were with Sherman's army in the Atlanta campaign. 


    The razzing given by one group of troops to another was a typical expression of unit pride, and one which members of the 12th Corps had themselves indulged in the prior year when they had been in the same ragged way as the westerners. The time was May 1862, and the men of James Shields' division had just completed a lengthy trek from the Shenandoah Valley to the environs of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Upon their arrival, they were rather astounded to find the occupying Federal forces to be “band box boys.” One soldier of the 66th Ohio gave the following account of the encounter: “When we passed through Warrenton Junction we met with a brigade of McDowell’s troops under command of General [Abram] Duryee of New York who were so cleanly dressed and fair complected and who said they never marched over six miles and never done without their tents but one night,” he wrote. “We christened them the ‘bandbox boys’ and then passed on. When we came to within a mile or two of Fredericksburg we met a larger force of the ‘bandbox boys.’ They came flocking to the road to see us passing by and made the remark that we were one-armed Shields’ Militia and were the raggedest and dirtiest set of cusses they had ever seen. Some of our boys overheard them and complimented them as ‘bandbox boys’ fonder of style than fight.”
Library of Congress

    Captain Gordon A. Stewart of the 4th Ohio was a little more charitable in his description of this encounter. “I had an opportunity to contrast the Western troops with their Eastern brother ‘Sons of Mars,’ he wrote. “The former were bronzed with the sun and weather-stained in appearance, the effect of a hard winter and a spring campaign, restless and reckless in their movements. The latter were neat and trim and of fair complexion, showing no sign of long marches, exposures, or fights with the enemy. The former were without tents, living on military biscuits and preserved pork, the latter sat in the doors of their tents and reveled in the luxuries of life.”

Comments

  1. Well-written and interesting look at the fellows who did the dirty work, even if one set looked better at the start.

    ReplyDelete

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