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Who do you think is an overlooked general in the Civil War?

Ned Jilton • Jan 21, 2019 at 1:30 PM

The American Battlefield Trust recently asked on its Facebook page if there was a general in the Civil War that you felt is often overlooked.

It’s an interesting question. Anytime there is a discussion of Civil War generals, the conversation turns almost immediately to the two great leaders of the war, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.

Then the conversation will normally turn to the battlefield generals. Officers like “Stonewall” Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest and William Tecumseh Sherman, whose strategies and tactics are still studied in military academies around the world.

After that, the conversation may finish with the old reliables such as James Longstreet, George H. Thomas, JEB Stuart and Phil Sheridan.

But the Trust’s question was looking to burrow down past those generals, and the moment I read it a name popped into my head: Tennessee’s Gen. Benjamin Franklin Cheatham.

Maybe I’m biased because the 19th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry, about which I wrote my series, served under Cheatham when he was a division commander and corps commander. 

Although he never went to West Point, Cheatham served in the Mexican-American War as a captain in the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment and finished the war as colonel of the 3rd Tennessee Infantry. After the war, he tried his luck in the gold rush to California but returned home to become a brigadier general in the Tennessee Militia.

At the start of the Civil War, Cheatham joined the Provisional Army of Tennessee and was commissioned a brigadier general. He quickly won promotion to major general, leading a division of Tennesseans that gained a reputation in combat, most notably for helping turn back Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Belmont.

Cheatham’s war record has its highs and lows as he clashed with his army commanders from time to time, namely Gen. Braxton Bragg and Gen. John Bell Hood.

But what I like most about Cheatham is how much he cared for his soldiers.

After the Battle of Stones River, the Tullahoma Campaign and the march to Dalton, Georgia, Cheatham’s men were worn out and needed some R&R but were ordered to go to the aid of Gen. Leonidas Polk in Demopolis, Alabama. So Cheatham arranged for a stopover in Atlanta, where his men enjoyed a night on the town.

“Gen. Cheatham and about one-third of our brigade took on a high ‘Tight,’ and we had a lively time in the streets of Atlanta that day,” wrote William Worsham of the 19th Tenn. “The men ran after Gen. Cheatham, begging him to make a speech, he would say ‘Ah, go away, my boys,’ but the boys would not go. The General would run to the next corner and there be headed off by another crowd, equally as anxious to hear him speak as the others. All the General could say was ‘Come along boys, you are all my boys.’ If there ever was a General and his men, of whom it could be said, the men belong to the General, and the General belong to the men, it was Gen. Cheatham and his division.”

Cheatham tried to take care of the needs of his men as best he could. For example, when the Tennessee Campaign started in 1864, Gen. Hood refused to wait for a shipment of shoes for the men to arrive. Gen. Cheatham came up with an alternative.

H.K. Nelson, from one of the regiments in Cheatham’s command, wrote how the general came to the aid of his Tennessee boys.

“One evening after having bivouacked General Cheatham, ‘Old Frank’ we called him, came along and called for the ‘barefooted boys,’ “ Nelson wrote. “He went with them to the slaughter pen and had them to take the beef hides and cut moccasins and whang them on their feet, turning the hairy side in. However ridiculous it may have looked those moccasins served a good purpose.”

Thanks to Gen. Cheatham, the “boys” started toward Tennessee with new “shoes.”

What happened to those boys at the Battle of Franklin a little later almost broke Cheatham.

The battle was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, as the fighting continued into the night with soldiers carrying torches as the Confederates launched 13 charges, all unsuccessful. Finally the main fighting stopped around 9, while skirmishing ended around 11.

“As soon as it was ascertained that the enemy had left Franklin, the infirmary and relief corps were on the field with torches rendering assistance to the thousands of wounded and suffering,” wrote Worsham. “Gen. Cheatham walked over the field of carnage that night and looked by the glare of the torchlight into the hundreds of pale faces, silent in death, in many places the dead lying in heaps, and upon the thousands of wounded covered with blood, appealing for water and help, he went, the great big tears ran down his cheeks and he sobbed like a child.”

Cheatham loved and cared for his men and they loved him. This was so clearly illustrated when the war ended and what remained of the Army of Tennessee surrendered.

“When the Tennesseans had passed beyond Salisbury, they halted and formed a line as in review,” recalled Worsham, “when General Cheatham came down the line shaking the hand of every soldier, not one missed, while the great big tears rolled down his cheeks. There was not an eye but was suffused with tears; yea, they were fountains of tears. As the generous and brave general, whom we all loved, shook our hands, just now and then could he get out the word ‘good-bye.’ The great upheaval of his loving, sympathetic heart choked him, as he walked down the line for the last review of his faithful and devoted men, “My boys,” as he called them, and whom he had led in many a hard fought battle. Will any one, who was present at this scene, ever forget it? No, never.”

I think that Gen. Cheatham was a brave soldier that did the best he could for his men given the situation. And I think he deserves more recognition than he gets.

What do you think? Is there an overlooked general in the Civil War that deserves more recognition than they get?

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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