Nathaniel Prentiss Banks
Ever wonder why certain generals of the Civil War were more loved by their men than others? I have a theory. First, let me set the stage.
When Nathaniel Prentiss Banks ordered his second assault on Port Hudson against Franklin Gardner's entrenched Confederate troops, he suffered over 1500 casualties in a very short time. His wounded lay suffering in the hot July sun and when the Southern troops attempted to go assist these poor men, they were fired on by the Federals on Banks' orders. Gardner sent a flag of truce to Banks asking for a truce that his men may go out and bury Banks' dead, Banks replied that he had no dead on the field.
One of Banks' subordinates, General William Dwight had several Confederate officers send him messages asking for a truce to bury the dead and tend the wounded. Dwight replied, "No, sir, it is a strategem of the enemy to get the dead carcasses carried away from their works. No sir. I'll stink the rebels out of the citadel with the dead bodies of these damned volunteers. If I cannot make the cowards take it by storm, as I have ordered them to do." Surprisingly, Dwight wasn't very loved by his troops either. The bodies of his troops lay on the field as the bones were picked clean by vultures until the siege ended.
Many present day historians have attempted to re-write history by attempting to show what everyone during Civil War times knew about the man. Grant was nicknamed the "butcher" and apparently for good reason. More importantly, it wasn't the people of the southern states who gave Grant this nickname, but his own people.
After Grant's assault at Vicksburg, hundreds of dead and wounded lay between the lines in the Mississippi sun. The cries of the wounded caused Confederate troops to venture out in the night to give these poor men water. Confederate General James Pemberton asked Grant for a truce so Grant could bury his dead and recover the wounded. Pemberton even told Grant the southern troops would do this for Grant if he didn't want to care for his own men. Grant refused citing that it would appear a weakness on his part to call a truce. The Confederate soldiers complained that Grant was attempting to stink them out of Vicksburg because he couldn't take it. Finally, Grant's own medical staff warned Grant that the bodies were bound to cause health and sanitation problems if not buried. Grant then relented.
After the bloody assaults at Cold Harbor which inflicted 9000 casualties on Grant's army, he found himself again with hundreds of dead and wounded between the lines. Lee's men had been entrenched and therefore had no bodies between the lines. Hancock asked his commander to ask for a truce to care for the wounded and bury the dead.
Grant understood that to ask Lee for a truce was the same as admitting he had been defeated in the climactic battle of his first campaign in the east. Therefore, he wrote Lee saying it has been reported to me there are wounded between the lines of both armies. If it was alright with Lee, anyone along the line could call a truce to attend these men. The wording of the note to Lee made it appear that Grant had been too busy to notice there were wounded men between the lines.
Lee worried about misunderstandings with anyone along the line calling temporary truces replied to Grant that he would agree to a truce if Grant desired one, but it should be done by the commanders, not individual soldiers. Grant decided to pretend he misunderstood Lee. He wrote Lee saying he understood Lee wanted a flag of truce and would send the men out at noon the next day.
Lee was forced to write Grant again apologizing that he had not made himself clear. He stated that for a truce to be made it should be sent from one army commander to another in the proper military way. Grant finally conceded and requested the truce, but by the time he did so it was too late and the wounded lay between the lines another night.
It is interesting to note, that while Lee was eventually defeated by Grant, it is Lee who was more respected by his men. Although, some modern historians want us to think Grant was not what history labeled him, one can understand how he earned his nickname. His ego certainly ruled his decision making at times, where a commander who loved his men would have realized his mistake and asked for a truce right away. Of course there were commanders who cared too much for their men. Two such generals were McClellan and Joe Johnston who often refused to fight for fear of losing any men. These type men are poor commanders also. There is a fine line between a general who cares for his men and yet is able to send them to their deaths. Lee is an example of just that type commander.