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Rethinking the Civil War Service of "Acting Major General" Charles Champion Gilbert

Updated: Feb 5


Postwar image of Charles C. Gilbert

Of all of the stories told at Perryville, inevitably the term "Acting Major General Charles Champion Gilbert" is mentioned with humor and no little derision. I know I certainly have been guilty of using the term in a sarcastic manner when speaking about the exploits, or lack thereof, of Gilbert's performance on Kentucky's bloodiest day. But is this truly a fair assessment of his abilities and military service? Consider this request included in a message sent to William T. Sherman on October 28th, 1861:


"The Ohio troops have no brigade commander. I need an officer to take charge of them very much, and would be very pleased if I could get your acting inspecting general (Capt. C. C. Gilbert) appointed a brigadier and sent here. The Government could not confer the appointment on a better man."


Charles C. Gilbert, Jr. was born in Zanesville, Ohio on March 1st, 1822.* He was the grandson of Henry Champion, who served the colony of Connecticut in the French and Indian War as a captain and in the Revolutionary War as a lieutenant colonel. Charles' father, Charles, Sr., had studied law at Yale before changing careers, spending the rest of his life involved with banking, as well as serving as Zanesville's first mayor.


Charles Jr. would attend Yale in 1839 for only one year, as he was apparently involved with hazing a professor which resulted in his expulsion. This must have been a great disappointment to his father as both Charles Sr. and grandfather Henry were Yale men. Returning home Charles Jr. would attend Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, taking courses in preparation for entering the united States Military Academy. He would receive an at large appointment, attending from July 1st, 1842 to July 1st, 1846, and graduating twenty-first (one source mentions twenty-ninth) in a "star-studded" class that included Thomas J. Jackson, George E. Pickett, and George B. McClellan among many others. Gilbert's standing while at West Point was notable, moving from senior corporal to senior first sergeant to captain of the cadet corps.


The Mexican War had started shortly before Gilbert's graduation from the academy. As a brevet second lieutenant Gilbert would apply to serve in the Third Infantry Regiment, which at that time was serving under Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico. Gilbert would start for his new assignment in September, instead joining the First Infantry as a second lieutenant at Monterrey, Mexico shortly after the battle that had taken place there from September 21st through 24th.


From Monterrey the First Infantry would march to the Gulf Coast and transfer to the army forming under Winfield Scott. Gilbert would be involved in the siege of Vera Cruz, and would stay in the Mexican coastal town as part of its garrison for several months, before moving towards Mexico City, only again to serve in a garrison force at Cuernavaca, thirty-five miles from the Mexican capital.


Returning to the United States after the conclusion of the Mexican War, Gilbert would serve in Mississippi and along the Rio Grande until receiving orders to report for duty as an Assistant Professor of Geography, History, and Ethics at West Point, later moving into a principal assistant professor role. He would serve in this teaching capacity at the academy for over five years, earning a promotion to first lieutenant in July, 1850. He returned to the First Infantry during the late summer of 1855, stationed once again in Texas. On December 8th, 1855, Gilbert would be promoted to captain. He would see some action against the Comanche nation at the mouth of the Pecos River in August, 1856. Gilbert's remaining service prior to the Civil War would be in Texas before marching his command to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas when the war started.


The thirty-nine year old Gilbert and his company of the First United States Infantry would be involved in the "Expedition to Southeast Missouri" that resulted in the battle at Wilson's Creek. Prior to Wilson's Creek Gilbert led his command at the small action at Dug Spring on August 2nd, 1861.

The Fight in the Cornfield, by Andy Thomas

On the scorching and humid early morning of August 10th, 1861, Captain Gilbert headed Nathaniel Lyon's column as it moved south towards the Confederate camps along Wilson's Creek. Deployed as skirmishers, Gilbert's Company B was part of Captain Joseph B. Plummer's battalion of United States Regulars, screening the Federal force. Plummer's force would be delegated to move to the left of the Federal line, where Plummer had caught up with Gilbert's Company B that had been checked in its advance by an impassable lagoon. The battalion, having moved through thick woods on the northern portion of the battlefield, would reform in good order and move towards a Confederate battery. The Confederates would throw a force at Plummer's command and heavy fighting would take place in John Ray's cornfield. There they would face off against the Third Louisiana Infantry that would both attack the Regulars front and left flank, forcing the Regulars after a period of time to retreat to support Totten's Battery. Gilbert's company would be separated from the rest of the battalion, so Gilbert marched his command directly to the battery and provided support until the close of the battle. At one point during a lull in the battle, Gilbert suggested an assault upon the Confederates, although it was not ordered. Near the end of the action Gilbert himself would be severely wounded. His fellow officers included Gilbert in their praise, citing "conspicuous gallantry and highly meritorious conduct from the beginning to the close of the battle" and "the gallant conduct of Capt. C. C. Gilbert."


After his wounding at Wilson's Creek, Gilbert would convalesce until September 21st, 1861, when he was appointed as Acting Inspector-General of the Department of the Cumberland and then the Department of the Ohio, serving first under Fort Sumter hero Robert Anderson, then Anderson's replacement, William T. Sherman. Prior to this Gilbert had been nominated to be the colonel of the newly formed Seventy-Eighth Ohio Volunteers, but the appointment was postponed, and then it was decided that Gilbert was better suited to remain in his inspector role. In March and April of 1862 Gilbert would be involved with the Army of the Ohio's (now under Don C. Buell) movement to Pittsburg Landing and earn a brevet to major "for Gallant and Meritorious Services" on the field of Shiloh. What Gilbert specifically did to earn this brevet is unclear, but apparently it was enough to warrant the promotion.


Gilbert, still in his inspector-general role, would take part in the advance upon and siege of Corinth, Mississippi. After Corinth's fall the Army of the Ohio would march across northern Alabama, threatening the key city of Chattanooga. In mid-August, 1862 Braxton Bragg and Edmond K. Smith would launch what would morph into the Kentucky Campaign. At Richmond, Smith's Confederates gained a complete victory, and William Nelson, commanding the Federal forces by the end of the action, was wounded. The search for Nelson's replacement was on. James Jackson and Charles Cruft were said to be offered the command but refused. I believe that to be incorrect as these two men would actually recommend Gilbert for promotion:


Major-General WRIGHT,

Commanding Department of the Ohio:

Our brave and excellent commander, General Nelson, having been seriously wounded, and so becoming incapacitated to continue the command for the present, we feel that the exigencies of the case require that some one or more true and competent officers be appointed at once to take command of the army now centering at this place.


We would earnestly recommend the appointment of Capt. C.C. Gilbert, of the First Infantry, U.S. Army, to be major-general in command of all the forces here, and of Capt. W. R. Terrill, of Fifth Artillery, U.S. Army, to be brigadier-general in command of a brigade. Both of these officers are now here, rendering efficient service in many capacities, and we believe that their efficiency would be greater, and the interest of the command promoted, by conferring on them the ranks herewith respectfully suggested and recommended.

Respectfully,


J. S. JACKSON,

Brigadier-General Commanding Cavalry.


CHARLES CRUFT,

Brigadier-General.


Gilbert had on September 1st been brevetted a lieutenant colonel, and upon Jackson's and Cruft's "refusal" to command the Army of Kentucky, Gilbert would be nominated by Horatio Wright, commander of the Department of the Ohio, to major general of volunteers on September 9th, 1862. He took over command of the Army of Kentucky, but this title was short-lived once Buell reformed his forces in Louisville in late September. Gilbert would serve as Buell's III Corps commander. Gilbert's Civil War service to this point must have been impressive enough that others saw value in him.

From the May 17th, 1906 edition of The National Tribune. Camp Nelson did not exist in October, 1862 and Gilbert's corps is incorrectly shown as moving through Lebanon and then heading east - the corps moved directly from Springfield towards Perryville.

It has long been accepted that Gilbert was not favored by the volunteers in his corps. There are a few references to Gilbert's "phlegmatic" behavior given by Dr. Hafendorfer in his various Perryville books. One involved the Thirty-Sixth Illinois and an apple orchard. General orders had been issued to the army that foraging would not be tolerated. Gilbert, an old army regular, try to enforce this policy within his corps. Gilbert was riding along with his escort when he came upon members of the Illinois regiment filling their pockets with apples. Gilbert is alleged to have ordered his escort to fire upon those soldiers, when the Illinois boys in quick response loaded their weapons and the audible sound of clicking hammers indicated that the Thirty-Sixth would not tolerate any of their members being fired upon. This story comes from the Thirty-Sixth's regimental history, one that was written just a few years after the war. Is it true? If Gilbert ordered his escort to open fire, why would they have waited until the Illinois men had a chance to grab their unloaded rifles and go through the process of loading them? No mention of hesitation is given in the regimental history on the escort's part. And phlegmatic simply means one that does not betray emotion, being self-possessed and calm, hence a favored trait for one in command.


Another instance of Gilbert's alleged tyranny is to have occurred with an encounter with the Twenty-Fourth Wisconsin over their use of using wagons when orders had been given to reduce the amount of wagons supporting each brigade. Gilbert was simply following the directives of his commanding officer. While the men of the Twenty-Fourth might have been frustrated with the order, it was not Gilbert who issued it.


The third reference given by Hafendorfer is from Albin Tourgee's history of the 105th Ohio. However, that reference simply mentions the difficult march from Lexington to Louisville (known as the Hell March to the troops) as the Federals were retreating from E. Kirby Smith's advance, and no mention of Gilbert is given.


There are two stories, used by historians as examples of Gilbert's tyrannical manner, given in the history of the Tenth Indiana Infantry. The first is when the Tenth, who had not been paid in some time, fixed bayonets, thrust their muskets into the ground butts up, and refused to move until the paymaster appeared and took care of their payment woes. The colonel of the regiment and Buell's chief of staff tried to reason with them, but to no avail. Gilbert supposedly caught wind of the regiment's refusal to move, and launched into a profanity laced tirade, and then ordered Battery C of the First Ohio Light Artillery to open fire on the miscreant regiment. According to the author of the Tenth's regimental history, Battery C refused to fire, and then George Thomas came to soothe the regiment enough that they agreed to march.


There are some issues with this story. First, it was written in 1912, after Gilbert had died (and Thomas for that matter). Second, the regiment was not ordered to march on September 29th - they would not move out from Louisville until October 1st. Third, there is not another source that mentions this episode so it is difficult to verify if the encounter actually took place.


The second story in the Tenth Indiana's history involves Gilbert's demand that the regiment salute him as Gilbert and his staff rode by at midnight on October 6th. The exchange allegedly involved more profanity laced abuse from Gilbert, pulling the "don't you know who I am?" card and also threatening to take the Tenth's colors. A musket was fired, and an enlisted man of the Tenth jabbed Gilbert's horse with a bayonet, causing Gilbert's horse to rear, nearly knocking the "acting major general" from his mount.


Bear in mind that the Tenth's history was written fifty years after the fact, and that once again there is no other source that corroborates this second story. I also doubt that Gilbert, knowing how hard his men had marched since leaving Louisville, and how the lack of water impacted the men's well-being, would have demanded that sleeping men awaken to salute him. Yet historians have used both of these stories as proof of Gilbert's outlandish behavior. Let's be clear, Gilbert had his issues, and this blog post is not to say that Gilbert was some sort of excellent commander. But has the story of Gilbert been truthfully told? Agree with me or not about Charles Champion Gilbert, at the very least consider the thought that maybe, just maybe, he has been given a reputation that is less than deserved.


After Perryville Gilbert's promotions to brigadier and major general were rescinded as they had never been approved, and Gilbert would revert to major and transfer to the Nineteenth United States Infantry. Gilbert would be promoted to brigadier general (of volunteers) and placed in command of the Tenth Division, which was tasked with guarding the Louisville & Nashville Railroad over the winter of 1862-63. Gilbert would receive a brevet to colonel (regular service) and serve in various administrative functions until the end of the war. After the war he transferred to the Twenty-Eighth Infantry and retire after forty years of service in 1886. Gilbert would die in Baltimore in 1903 and is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville.


Let's go back to the quote from the beginning of this post:


"The Ohio troops have no brigade commander. I need an officer to take charge of them very much, and would be very pleased if I could get your acting inspecting general (Capt. C. C. Gilbert) appointed a brigadier and sent here. The Government could not confer the appointment on a better man."


So just who was the person who requested that Gilbert be promoted to brigadier general? None other than the "Rock of Chickamauga," George H. Thomas.

 

* Zanesville claims several other Civil War notables, including Gilbert's younger brother Samuel, who would earn a brevet to brigadier general. Catharinius P. Buckingham, Robert S. Granger, Charles E. Hazlett, and Mortimer D. Leggett all have connections to Zanesville as well.

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