Sherman’s Forgotten General—Henry W. Slocum

by Brian C. Melton, University of Missouri Press, 2007, 292 pages, $44.95.

Many of the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg defined the rest of their lives by how they had comported themselves on that killing field during those three fateful days in July 1863. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that a Union general who earned the sobriquet “slow come” at the battle has been mostly overlooked or dismissed as inconsequential by generations of historians.

But Brian C. Melton, an assistant professor of history at Liberty University, argues that Maj. Gen. Henry Warner Slocum deserves better treatment than the two biographies written about him since the war. Based on this objective biography, it seems Melton’s argument has merit.

A native New Yorker, Slocum taught school for four years before entering West Point in 1848. He graduated seventh in the Class of 1852, married and began to study law while stationed in Charleston, S.C. Resigning his commission in 1856, Slocum and his wife returned to New York, where he passed the bar, opened a practice in Syracuse and engaged in several successful business enterprises. Active in local Republican politics and elected to the state assembly, he was called “industrious, keen, and spunky” by his local newspaper.

Slocum put his military experience to good use by joining the state militia, and when the Civil War broke out he was offered the colonelcy of the 27th New York Infantry. With a fair but strict style of discipline, he molded a crack regiment that fought well at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, though it was ultimately swept from the field during the chaotic Union rout. Slocum displayed a cool, careful and dispassionate bearing on the battlefield that became his hallmark. Slocum’s career progressed rapidly. He fought as a brigade commander under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, whom he admired, on the Virginia Peninsula and at Antietam; under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg as a division commander; and finally under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville as the Army of the Potomac’s XII Corps commander.

It was at Chancellorsville, Melton argues, that problems began for the outspoken Slocum. The general was convinced that Hooker had abandoned his men during the battle and that his poor leadership was responsible for the devastating casualties the XII Corps suffered. Indeed, Slocum began a whispering campaign to oust Hooker from command and later refused to serve under “Fighting Joe” in the Western theater in 1864.

It is on Slocum’s actions at the Battle of Gettysburg, particularly on the first day at Culp’s Hill, that his reputation has come to rest, however. When the battle opened northwest of town on the morning of July 1, the XII Corps had just began a leisurely march that brought it by midday to Two Taverns, five miles southeast of Gettysburg. By that time, the fight had escalated into a full-scale battle, and Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Confederates were pushing outnumbered Union regiments back through the town toward a line of hills known as Cemetery Ridge. The XII Corps, however, was nowhere to be found.

Melton believes Slocum experienced what is known today as an acoustic shadow, whereby sound does not travel normally to certain areas. The author notes that Slocum later reported, “On the march and while at Two Taverns, some firing was heard but the sounds did not indicate a great battle.” Several frantic messages from Union Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, senior commander on the field, went unanswered until Captain Daniel Hall finally located Slocum about 3 p.m.

“Slocum’s conduct on that occasion was anything but honorable, soldierly, or patriotic,” Hall reported later. Like Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace at Shiloh (see “Why Lew Was Late,” P. 30), Slocum was fated to carry the reputation of being late to a pivotal battle when a timely arrival might have helped his army’s fortunes. The whispers of cowardice that followed him only made Slocum’s situation worse.

The heart of Melton’s book is a critical examination of the general’s conduct at Gettysburg. Melton posits an interesting theory about Slocum’s personality, arguing that throughout his military career he took on some of the personality traits of his commanding officers. Cautious and deliberate while under McClellan, yet rash under Hooker, the amalgam of learned behaviors seemed to have come together for Slocum at Gettysburg.

To compound matters, once Slocum got into the fight at Culp’s Hill, controversy swirled around how well he responded to orders from Union commander Maj. Gen. George Meade. The 1,082 casualties the XII Corps suffered during the battle are hard to ignore. “No matter what his reasons,” Melton concludes, “Slocum missed an opportunity to play an important role in the most famous battle ever fought on this continent.”

Gettysburg would forever define Slocum’s military career, but it was not the end of it. He got a second chance in the Western theater. After a brief stint as commandant of Union-occupied Vicksburg, he served under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. Although controversy continued to dog his career, Slocum aggressively commanded the Army of Georgia, the left wing of Sherman’s juggernaut that plowed through Georgia and the Carolinas from November 1864 to the end of the war. He also led Union forces at the Battle of Bentonville and halted a last desperate Confederate attack before General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered.

Slocum spent the remaining 29 years of his life in Brooklyn, N.Y. His defection to the Democratic Party eventually led to his election to the House of Representatives in 1868, where he championed the reinstatement of court-martialed Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter as well as pensions for veterans. His business career was clouded by controversy and lawsuits, but he finally received a measure of military vindication after he died. On September 19, 1902, a statue of Slocum was unveiled on Culp’s Hill.

 

Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here