Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Columbus Mystery

Explanation of the Truce Flags.


From the Cincinnati Gazette, Saturday.

The public are rather curious about the negotiations which preceded the evacuation of Columbus.  It will be remembered that an expedition of gunboats and troops went down for a reconnoissance in force.  As it came nearly in range with Columbus, a flag of truce came out, and the expedition returned.  Ten days after, an imposing force of gunboats, mortar boats and transports went down to attack the place, and after considerable maneuvering, finally ascertained that the birds had flown.

The letter of our correspondent at that place shows that they were ready to take a panic of our gunboats opened fire.  It seems that our Generals were regularly sold, and that the Confederates were negotiating to gain time for destroying the property and decamping.  The reply of Gen. Grant to Buckner’s proposition to negotiate is better.

Correspondence of the Cincinnati Gazette.

CAIRO, Ill., March 6, 1862.

The loyal people of the north are so much gratified over the news of the evacuation of Columbus, by the rebels, and its occupation by our troops, that they do not stop to inquire into the character of the generalship that permitted 20,000 men to make good their escape, and to effect the removal of all their stores, ammunition and arms.

A hundred different circumstances combine to prove that the military authorities of this department knew little of the rebel position at the “Gibraltar of America.” – The gunboats reconnoitered the place six or seven times, yet at the last reconnaissance Commodore Foote was scarcely able to determine the position of the water battery, even after four shots had been fired from it.  The only “information” with respect to the strength of the enemy was brought here by a set of lawless fellows – a disgrace to the army – styled the Jessie Scouts.

I think I can safely assert that not one of the scouts was ever within five miles of Columbus, consequently they brought to headquarters noting but the basest fabrications, and all these were always taken at par.  As an illustration of the reliability of the scouts: They returned from an expedition down the river about four weeks ago, and reported through their captain that they had a conference with Jeff. Thompson in the camp at Columbus, and that he had given them valuable information, which they went on to detail to the commanding officer here.  We have since learned from the records at Columbus that Jeff. Thompson had not been in Columbus for four weeks previous to the date of the pretended visit of the Jessie scouts.  The department occasionally get in possession of a Memphis paper, and read blatant articles about the ponderous earthworks and heavy cannon, until the Generals in command actually became believers in the impregnability of Columbus.  The fortifications were strong – perhaps stronger than any others in the South – but they were injudiciously constructed, and could not have stood an hour’s bombardment by the gunboats and mortar fleet.  The water battery stood out in such relief from the bluff that a well directed mortar shell would have buried it under a hundred tons of earth from above.  There were no casements to protect the artillery from the galling fire of seven gunboats; and how long could men, unsheltered, have stood a continuous hail from twenty-one guns throwing eight inch shell.

The truth of the matter is, that the rebels covered their retreat by the flag of truce which they first presented to Commodore Foote on the 23d ult.  On that date they were in full force – 20,000.  On the following Tuesday they commenced the work of evacuation, which they continued during the week, while the negotiations were still pending.  On Sunday, March 2d, the white flag treaty was concluded, and on that day the last remnant of the rebels left the camp.  Had they been attacked two weeks ago they would have surrendered, or, if not, would have beat a hasty retreat, leaving every thing behind them.  This I have from an intelligent citizen of Columbus, who was well acquainted with every movement.  As it is, they carried off all their stores, ammunition and small arms.  The few heavy guns they left behind them are spiked, and not worth “drilling” for future use, being made of cast iron – Memphis and New Orleans manufacture.

Commodore Foote was opposed to giving the rebels any chance to leave Columbus.  He wanted to shell them into surrender, and he felt confident of his ability to do so, with the gun boats and eight mortars.  He gave way however, to the “admonitions” of Gen. Cullum and others, and the result has been what may be called a strategic triumph for the rebel cause.  Gen. Polk knew full well that the Southern Confederacy’s downfall would follow hard upon the Defeat of the Southern arms at Columbus, hence the cunningly devised evacuation, carried on while our Generals were soberly musing over the flag of truce.  The rebels knew that they had to fall at Columbus and it was their policy to fall as easily as possible.

– Published in The Davenport Daily Gazette, Davenport, Iowa, Wednesday Morning, March 12, 1862, p. 2

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