The one that got away...

Every working historian probably has that one figure of whom they wish they had more information. One? OK, that's a massive understatement.


But we all run across figures who are key to critical scenes, men who are eyewitnesses to, or vital participants in, the dramatic events we write about. If we had their perspective on a given moment, we might entirely re-write the histories of battles, or even the whole war.


But they didn't leave us anything to work with. For whatever reason, their particular perspective was never preserved, either in their papers or in those of a careful correspondent, Right now, reader, the name of George Thomas has probably surfaced in your thoughts - and while I won't argue that you are wrong, that is not who this post is about.

I bet few of you were thinking of Brigadier General (brevetted to Major General at the end of the war) Joseph D. Webster. To be honest, I have not given much thought to Webster myself until called upon to write about Shiloh, where he played a very important role indeed.


Webster, though a professional soldier, was not a West Pointer. Born in New Hampshire, he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1832. He became a U.S. Civil Engineer in 1835, joining the elite Army Corps of Topographic Engineers in 1838. The Topos were the creme de la creme of engineers in the army, admitting only a select few top graduates from the Military Academy, so Webster became a founding member of the the Army's elite social and professional club. He served for 16 years, through the Mexican-American War, until he resigned in 1854. Upon resigning, he took up residence in Chicago, where he became a businessman.


Webster had a profound impact on Chicago. He was part of the effort leading Chicago to create a comprehensive sewer system, helping to raise city blocks anywhere from 4 to 14 feet, thereby creating a sort of underground Chicago that is still in use to this day. He was a part-owner in the Chicago Tribune, hiring Joseph Medill to edit the paper in 1855; Medill, in turn, supported the growing political career of Abraham Lincoln, and turned the Tribune into one of the most influential newspapers in the country.


When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Webster returned to the colors, this time as a major and paymaster. Given his engineering skills, however, he was sent to Cairo to supervise the construction of fortifications, which is where he met Ulysses S. Grant. He soon became Grant's chief of staff. In February 1862, Webster was promoted to colonel of the First Illinois Artillery Regiment. Since artillery took to the field by individual batteries, not regiments, colonels of artillery regiments were rarely in the field, leaving Webster free to continue as Grant's chief of staff.


Webster was with Grant through Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh. Shiloh was where he had his most profound impact: At about 3:00 p.m. on April 6, Grant ordered Webster to assemble as much artillery as he could along the road running to Pittsburg Landing, overlooking the Dill Branch ravine. By 5:00 p.m., as the Federal position at the Sunken Road was beginning to collapse, Webster amassed dozens of field pieces as well as several heavy siege guns - newly arrived at the landing in anticipation of the forthcoming fight at Corinth.


Webster's gun line provided a rallying point for the survivors of Hurlbut's, Prentiss's, and W. H. L. Wallace's divisions; those few of the latter, at least, who were not captured in the Hornet's Nest. It also provided a framework upon which Buell's freshly arrived troops formed, adding muscle and flesh to the artillery skeleton. In the end, though Webster's line was never seriously tested by the Confederates (darkness, exhaustion, and the immensely difficult terrain all conspired to prevent a final Rebel attack) it almost certainly saved Grant's army from catastrophe. The position's natural strength and weight of metal helped convince Grant that he could stay and fight it out on April 7, which, of course, reversed much of the disaster that befell the Union army on the 6th.


In the fall of 1862, Webster took a more administrative role in the Army of Tennessee. He returned to Chicago that winter to complete a government survey on the feasibility of what would become the Illinois & Michigan Canal, and then took up duties as chief of transportation for the Army of the Tennessee. He served Grant and then Sherman in that role through 1864, He did not accompany Sherman in the field during the Atlanta Campaign, but instead ran Sherman's departmental headquarters in Nashville, supervising among other things the all-important rail traffic supply Sherman's armies in Georgia. In the last year of the war he served as George Thomas's chief of staff.


After the War Webster returned to Chicago and civilian life. His last Federal appointment came in 1872, as collector of revenue for the Chicago district. He died of Typhoid in 1876, at the age of 64.


At one point or another, Webster was chief of staff to no less than than three of the most important generals of the war: Grant, Sherman, and Thomas. He was intimately connected with all three men, both on the battlefield and off. I cannot help but wonder what new light his views and opinions might have brought to the study of the war. Could he have offered up new information on the relationship between Grant and Thomas, or what might he have thought of James B. McPherson's promotion to command the Army of Tennessee? We do not know.


Despite his connection with the Tribune and his involvement in the creation of the Chicago Historical Society in 1856, Webster left no written record of his participation in any of these events. At least, we have no surviving record. If he left letters or papers, they either perished in the great Chicago Fire of 1871, or were simply lost.


History's foundation is built upon the surviving record. But for every project I undertake, I am reminded that the stories we spin might be quite different if other men had preserved their tales, as well.

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