The Case of the Missing Telegram

Last week, in expressing my initial thoughts about General Grant and the Rewriting of History by Frank Varney, I wrote “do not be surprised to find me writing multiple blog posts” about the book. And so here I am, at it again. In the comments section to the previous post there was some discussion of a missing telegram that Grant claimed was received by Secretary of War Stanton and which Varney says led to the removal of Rosecrans from command. Today I want to discuss three issues related to that telegram.

The first issue is the question of when Grant said he saw this telegram. Varney writes: “Grant said in his memoirs that he decided to change commanders of the Army of the Cumberland because of a message from Dana, shown to Grant by Stanton on the evening of October 18”. Regarding the date, Varney is wrong. In Chapter 40 of his memoirs, Grant did not write that this occurred on “the evening of October 18” (Varney’s words); what Grant did write is that he was shown the message “the evening of the day after our arrival”. He had left Cairo on the 17th by train to Indianapolis, switched to a train to Louisville and “We reached Louisville after night”. It is about 350 miles from Cairo to Indianapolis; another 150 to Louisville. Without even considering time spent at the station in Indianapolis, or at any other stop, the travel time would be in the range of 20 hours or more. So he would have arrived on the 18th.  Thus “the evening of the day after our arrival” would be the 19th.

Correcting for Varney’s error with the date affects other things. Varney writes that “Dana later claimed that he had indeed sent the telegram Grant remembered — but he claimed that he sent it on the evening of the 19th, too late for it to play any part in Grant’s decision.” But using the correct date for when Grant said he saw the message, makes Dana’s claim about timing work, especially if one corrects the error Varney made in the statement about Dana.  Varney doesn’t cite any source for his reference to what Dana later claimed, but if we look at Dana’s ‘Recollections of the Civil War’ we see that he wrote “On the morning of October 19th I received a dispatch from Mr. Stanton, sent from Washington on October 16th, asking me to meet him that day at the Galt House in Louisville. I wired him that, unless he ordered to the contrary, Rosecrans would retreat at once from Chattanooga, and then I started for Louisville.” Note that Dana does not say precisely when he sent the message but he definitely does not say “the evening of the 19th”, as Varney alleges.

The second issue is the question of what impact the message had. Varney writes: “Grant said in his memoirs that he decided to change commanders of the Army of the Cumberland because of a message from Dana”. But Grant does not say this in his memoirs; Varney misrepresents Grant in order to make his case.   Grant wrote that during the train ride from Indianapolis to Louisville, Stanton “handed me two orders, saying that I might take my choice of them. … One order left the department commanders as they were, while the other relieved Rosecrans and assigned Thomas to his place. I accepted the latter”. This makes the issue of the telegram from Dana somewhat moot, as Grant had already decided to change commanders before he was shown it.  Grant does write that when Stanton showed him the message from Dana he “immediately wrote an order assuming command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, and telegraphed it to General Rosecrans. I then telegraphed to him the order from Washington assigning Thomas to the command of the Army of the Cumberland; and to Thomas that he must hold Chattanooga at all hazards”.  So according to Grant, the impact of Dana’s message was to prompt him to send messages; but the message changing commanders had already been written and already decided upon before this occurred.

The third issue is the question of whether the missing message even existed. In my view, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to support the existence of a telegram from Dana to Stanton on October 19th: Dana said he sent it; Grant said he saw it; Dana had been writing to Stanton ever day for over 2 weeks, so it is logical that he would do so on the 19th; Stanton had sent him a summons to Louisville and it was normal practice to send a reply acknowledging receipt; and Grant’s message to Thomas about holding at all hazards makes more sense if prompted by something. But Varney vehemently denies its existence. Why? Because it doesn’t match what Varney wants the reader to believe.  He writes that there is “no basis for the claim that Rosecrans was about to abandon Chattanooga”. However, several of Dana’s messages during that time frame refer the possibility of retreat from Chattanooga; so in truth there is a basis for a claim that Rosecrans considered abandoning Chattanooga. Thus Varney’s rationale for denying the existence of the message rings hollow.

Dana’s message from the 16th stated that:

“Nothing can prevent the retreat of the army from this place within a fortnight, and with a vast loss of public property and possibly of life, except the opening of the river. General Hooker has been ordered to prepare for this, but Rosecrans thinks he cannot move till his transportation arrives from Nashville, from which place it marched on the 8th. It should have been in Bridgeport on the 14th, but is not yet reported. … In the midst of all these difficulties General Rosecrans seems to be insensible to the impending danger, and dawdles with trifles in a manner which can scarcely be imagined … all this precious time is lost because our dazed and mazy commander cannot perceive the catastrophe that is close upon us, nor fix his mind up on the means of preventing it. I never saw anything which seemed so lamentable and hopeless.

And a message written on the 18th reads:

” If the effort which Rosecrans intends to make to open the river should be futile, the immediate retreat of this army will follow. … Amid all this, the practical incapacity of the general commanding is astonishing, and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind. His imbecility appears to be contagious, and it is difficult for any one to get anything done.”

I included portions of these messages where Dana described Rosecrans. I think Dana’s comments are important because, whether we believe them to be accurate or not,  this was the information that Stanton and Grant were getting and it would have been alarming to them.  While both messages say that a retreat would be avoided by implementing Rosecrans’ plan to open the river, both messages also create doubt that Rosecrans is capable of implementing anything.  In addition, these messages show that the missing message was not out of context: the meaning of these messages is consistent with what Grant and Dana said about the missing message. Varney tries to wave away Dana’s letters by saying they are “unsubstantiated opinion, not based on anything Rosecrans said”. How does he know?

Comments on my previous post claimed that I am not addressing the core issue of the book. I think I am. As I have shown in the previous post and in this one, Varney’s conclusions about Rosecrans and Grant are built on miscitation and misrepresentation. To present Rosecrans’ accomplishment at Iuka in a good light, Varney misrepresents what Maury wrote. To dismiss an anecdote about the battle of Corinth, Varney invents his own history of the 50th Illinois. To paint Grant as the villain for removing Rosecrans, Varney misrepresents what is in Grant’s memoirs and then accuses him of being the one to fabricate evidence. Rather than a few scattered mistakes or “small citation errors”, what I see is a pattern in how information is presented and how arguments are made. To me that is the core issue with this book.  

Stay tuned for more…


8 responses to “The Case of the Missing Telegram”

  1. James F. Epperson Avatar

    Nice analysis—more on target than my thin offering, which was kinda off-the-cuff. There is no question that Dana was a panicky individual, and may well have been feeding Stanton information that was dubious. But—as you point out—it was information that Stanton had to act upon.

  2. David Moore Avatar
    David Moore

    Rosecrans received the telegram relieving him of command on the afternoon of October 19.
    If Grant did, as he says in his Memoirs, write and send the telegram after 11 in the evening, the latest date it could have been was October 18th.
    It could not have been after 11pm on Oct 19 because Rosecrans had already received the telegram earlier that day.
    Dana, writing in the 1890s, said he sent a message to Stanton sometime after the morning on Oct 19 advising that “unless he ordered to the contrary, Rosecrans would retreat at once from Chattanooga”
    There is no record of a telegram with that wording in the Official Records.
    Grant, writing in the 1880s, said , “In the course of the evening Mr. Stanton received a dispatch from Mr. C. A. Dana, then in Chattanooga, informing him that unless prevented Rosecrans would retreat, and advising peremptory orders against his doing so.”
    Grant uses the word evening but has was shown above by the evening of Oct 19 Rosecrans had already received the telegram which relieved him.
    All of this is muddled and confusing but two things are clear: an order relieving Rosecrans could not have been sent after 11pm on Oct 19 and there is no record of a telegram sent by Dana on Oct 19 (or any date) saying that Rosecrans was about to “retreat at once” from Chattanooga.
    One can conjecture and use circumstantial evidence but either Dana’s telegram never existed or it is missing.
    I agree with you that the decision to remove Rosecrans had already been made by Grant. Any telegram from Dana was not decisive. However it is Grant who implies that the order removing Rosecrans was made to prevent a retreat from Chattanooga. It seems it is Grant, writing 20 years after the event, who uses an imminent retreat as the reason for Rosecrans’ removal.
    Historians have often accepted that Rosecrans was about to leave Chattanooga. Was he?
    Hardly any of the people who were at Chattanooga in 1863 believed that. Indeed Rosecrans had returned from inspecting sites for laying the pontoon bridges he had ordered built when he saw the order relieving him.
    You leave out an important part in Dana’s message of October 18 (which is in the Official Records). Dana concludes with ” If, on the other hand, we regain control of the river and keep it, subsistence and forage can be got here, and we may escape with no worse misfortune than the loss of 12,000 animals.”
    In other words if the river is opened things will be ok. I don’t expect you to believe that Rosecrans could have or would have opened the “Cracker Line” without Grant or Gen. Baldy Smith but the key people who were there believed he would have. Do some research.
    Finally you can believe the truthfulness of Dana (who was called a “loathesome pimp” by Gordon Granger) but you might find it interesting that in later years Dana wrote to Rosecrans regarding his telegrams which hadn’t been published yet, ” No doubt there are passages which you will regard as having been unjust to you; many concerning which you will tell me, probably with justice, that I was entirely misinformed.” (Lamers, Edge of Glory page 445)
    It is also interesting that Dana in later years claimed to have a letter from Garfield to Chase written after Chickamauga. That post Chickamauga letter (there is a pre Chickamauga letter) has never surfaced.

    1. Ned B. Avatar
      Ned B.

      As I pointed out, Grant makes clear in his memoirs that he had already decided to remove Rosecrans; he doesn’t claim that the message from Dana was his reason for choosing to remove Rosecrans. He does say that Dana’s message in the 19th prompted him to send the (already written) order. As you point out, there is an inconsistency between when Rosecrans received the removal order and when Grant wrote that he sent it. I think the balance of the evidence shows that Grant’s recollection was incorrect as to when he sent that message. He remembered correctly that he sent the message to Thomas after 11pm on the 19th; but the other message had been sent earlier. The significance of this faulty recollection? Not much.

      Regarding Dana’s message of the 18th (as well as the 16th), while it is true that I did not quote the whole thing, I did state that “both messages say that a retreat would be avoided by implementing Rosecrans’ plan to open the river”. But Dana makes clear in both messages that Rosecrans appeared to him to be incapable of taking the necessary actions.

      As to whether Rosecrans really contemplated retreat, I am impressed that you polled the many thousands “of the people who were at Chattanooga in 1863” in order to determine that “Hardly any .. believed that.” Maybe you should publish your survey findings. It is true that Rosecrans did visit potential sites for laying a bridge over the river. But the result of this visit is unclear to me. We do know that on the 16th Rosecrans wrote “Our future is not bright” and on the 18th he wrote that “It will require almost superhuman efforts to sustain us here.”

      1. David Moore Avatar
        David Moore

        It seems you agree with Frank Varney that Grant’s Memoirs are at times inconsistent with the historical record. (The Memoirs were described as “old soldier campfire stories” by Arthur Conger )
        I assume you agree that Charles A. Dana is not an unimpeachable source for what actually happened happened during the war. (I don’t think anyone does. Interestingly Dana turned vociferously against President Grant but that’s another story)
        A point Frank Varney makes is that too many historians simply take Grant and Dana’s words at face value. That hardly seems to me to be a controversial statement. Isn’t testing the accepted story a purpose of historical research?)

        As for whether Rosecrans was going to retreat I must confess I haven’t conducted a poll of the dead. However I have done a fair amount of research. Here is what William Le Duc ( the man who piloted one of the ships which opened the Cracker Line) had to say on the subject. (He is writing to General Richard Johnson in response to proof sheets of Johnson’s biography sent to Le Duc ):

        My dear General Johnson:

        The proof-sheet received and read. Please accept my thanks
        for your kindly mention, but you give me credit overmuch. If
        not beyond your control, could you not have the text changed, so
        as to express the exact truth, which was that I found a scow in
        process of construction on the banks of the Tennessee River when I
        arrived there with General Hooker’s command, which, as you of
        course know, was sent from the Army of the Potomac to the assistance
        of Rosecrans ? Our first duty being to secure the long line of com-
        munication between Nashville and Chattanooga, and to do what-
        ever might be done to forward supplies to the famishing army at
        Chattanooga, Rosecrans, with prudent forethought, had ordered
        the construction of five steamers on the Tennessee, and the repair
        of the railroad, two very important bridges of which had been
        destroyed by the rebels, one across the Tennessee and one over
        the Rolling Stone, half-way between Bridgeport and Chattanooga.
        One of these flat-bottomed steam scows had been put on some posts
        and blocking near the bank of the river, and the work was prose-
        cuted by a very competent ship-carpenter by the name of Turner,
        who was employed by Captain Edwards, A.Q.M. The timbers
        and lumber for the boats had to be made from the stump, and it
        was with difficulty that the machinery was shipped over the rail-
        road from Nashville, as every engine and car was needed to trans-
        port rations. When the rains and rebel cavalry had made the
        wagon-road on the north side of the river impassable, rapid build-
        ing of the steamboat became of the highest importance. I took
        personal supervision of the work, and crowded it forward night as
        well as day, saving the hull from destruction by floating it upon
        pontoons, and navigated it, as you describe, to Kelly’s Ferry, with
        the first cargo of rations to reach the starving army. But for my
        action it is quite safe to say this boat would not have been launched
        for some weeks after it was, if at all, and certainly could not have
        contributed, as it did materially, to the success of our efforts to
        secure possession of that very important strategic position, Chatta-

        General Rosecrans has not received the credit due him for his
        skillful conduct of the campaign. He foresaw the probable need of
        river transportation, and, so far as giving orders, provided for the
        emergency. Had those intrusted with the execution of these
        orders pushed through their work more energetically, and had the
        boats ready for use when needed, great loss of animals and distress
        of men would have been saved, and Rosecrans would have retained
        his position as commander of the Army of the Cumberland. The
        unfriendliness of Assistant Secretary Dana and the impatience of
        Secretary Stanton secured his downfall.

        Respectfully, etc.,

        Wm. G. Le Duc.

        Although dead, I think Le Duc is a better witness than many living historians who simply cite Grant and Dana on the subject.

        1. James F. Epperson Avatar

          My problem with Dr. Varney’s book is neatly summarized in your second paragraph: “A point Frank Varney makes is that too many historians simply take Grant and Dana’s words at face value.”

          Please identify a single serious historian who takes either Grant or Dana at “face value.”

          Every historian I have read on the Civil War understands that Grant’s Memoirs are not without flaws. Every one. So, it seems to me that Dr. Varney’s book is simply a straw man in published form.

          1. Ned B. Avatar
            Ned B.

            There are some brief moments in the book where Varney seems to have a valid point about writers from decades ago such as JFC Fuller or James Marshall-Cornwall. I feel he ruins his argument by how he handles evidence and sourcing himself. Part of the reason I feel so worked up about the book is i think there is a danger of others accepting Varney’s words at face value.

        2. Ned B. Avatar
          Ned B.

          Grant’s memoirs are faulty at times. However, I disagree that this makes me at all in agreement with Varney, as his argument is quite different. He see deliberate misrepresentation by Grant; I see errors that happen when writing from memory long after events.

          I agree that no source is unimpeachable. Regarding LeDuc, his account is certainly of value but he arrived with Hooker’s command so he wasn’t at Chattanooga at the same time as Rosecrans so I’m not sure how he could possibly be a better witness to what happened there than Dana.

          1. James F. Epperson Avatar

            I’d also mention the conditions under which Grant wrote his Memoirs. Being in extreme pain, or drugged to alleviate the pain, combined with the slow starvation attendant upon the nature of his illness, is all enough to explain many errors. It certainly is a more logical explanation than deliberate distortion.

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