(Walter H. Taylor)
The Hog’s Snout
(An alternative history)
By W. Patrick Lang
“Mister President, my newspaper and I are grateful for this opportunity to speak with you.”
“I am always happy to talk to our friends and cousins in the United States. We do not wish to have any misunderstandings between our two countries…”
President Walter Taylor was the sixth chief executive of the Confederate States of America and halfway through the single six year term allowed under his country’s constitution. He was fifty-six years old and looked healthy as the proverbial horse. Dressed in a black suit, he sat at ease in the parlor of the Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia. He was a beautiful man growing gracefully white haired but still slender. He looked comfortable in a simple chair. He had emerged from behind a big, dark colored wooden desk to sit with the reporter.
The New York Times man who had been given an interview eyed him appraisingly. “Would you tell sir, something of your early life,” he asked.
“I was born in Norfolk in 1838. My people were merchants. The family had been here since the early days of the Virginia colony. I decided to attend the military institute at Lexington and studied there for a while until my father died and I was called home. I worked for a bank and read law until war came. I was in the Norfolk militia and joined a volunteer company in Tidewater after secession.”
“As an officer?”
“They did me that honor… Yes. Shortly thereafter one of my numerous relations suggested to General Lee that I might be useful to him as an adjutant and member of his headquarters staff.”
“You were not the only officer on the staff.”
“No. No. There were quite a few of us; Charles Venable, Charles Marshall, Colonel John Fairfax, you know of him. He is the eleventh Baron Cameron. Born here among us, but he was a picturesque man, always quoting the King James Bible and a great source of good whiskey. Then there was the usual collection of ‘galloper’ officer couriers et cetera.”
“But you were close to him? I mean Lee…”
Taylor thought about that for moment. “Yes, and the longer the war dragged on the more he was like a father to me, but, I suppose that would be true of us all. Is there something in particular that you wanted to talk about?”
“I am the military editor of the Times. I would like to know what happened at the North Anna. Grant’s plans to end the war were progressing well until then. But suddenly things started to come apart. Ben Butler was pushed back at Drewry’s Bluff south of Richmond on the 12th of May and that strange defeat in the Shenandoah Valley happened on the 15th at New Market, but still, observers thought that after Spotsylvania Court House it was just a matter of time until we reached Richmond and then there would be a total downfall of your… government.” The reporter looked in the portfolio he had brought and found a photograph. He handed it to Taylor.
“Ah, yes,” the president said. “Grant and his staff relaxing at Massaponax Church on the way to our renewed encounter at the North Anna, they look confident, sure that we were finished. We thought the same thing. We thought we were doomed. The only thing holding us together by the time we arrived at our new position in that river was our
loyalty to “the tycoon” himself. “
Taylor smiled. “That’s what we called him, and he pretended not to know. He tried hard to be a tolerant man, but he was a volcano inside. It showed on the battlefield, and he had a terrible temper. When it got the better of him we would all go hide as best we could.” The president seemed suddenly to remember that he was talking to his old enemies through this man. The smile left him and he waited.
“The North Anna?”
Taylor nodded. “Do you like the wallpaper,” he asked after a minute. “My wife tells me that it is French, flocked in that fuzzy red material, and that it was here when Jefferson Davis sat in this chair. Yes, I heard you, the North Anna. We call it the ‘Hog’s Snout.' We were chewed to pieces by your people by the time we arrived on the North Anna River. The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania had taken an awful toll. I was in charge of calculating our strength every day and we were at about half strength from what we were when Grant crossed the Rapidan two, three weeks before. He just kept coming and coming at us. We had lost all manner of animals in the artillery and trains. Edward Johnson’s division had been pretty much captured or killed in the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania. Supply had broken down again and there was nothing to eat except what we took off your men’s bodies. We killed your people, and killed them and killed them but there were always more. We beat Grant to the North Anna and could cover the Virginia Central rail line and the Telegraph Road where it crossed the rail line, but we had no idea what we would do when Grant arrived in strength from Spotsylvania. We were right desperate.
The newsman saw that Taylor was looking at him in a way that made him uneasy.
“And then reinforcements arrived, Pickett’s Division came up from south of Richmond. They had just whipped Ben Butler and were full of themselves, and Breckinridge reached us from “The Valley.” Both of them had been done pretty hard in the previous weeks but the men were somehow still full of fight. There were a lot of Virginians. This was our home place…”
The reporter nodded in seeming understanding.
“So, Grant came in from the northwest and tried to force a crossing of the river at Jericho Mill upstream from most of us.
(The North Anna at Jericho Mills)
Wilcox’s Division drove them back, but Grant kept moving southeast toward us. The river was actually quite an obstacle then. These days with all these new kinds of horseless transport, maybe not…
And then, something unexpected happened. The army’s Chief of Engineers, Major General Martin Smith, a Yankee by birth, but one of us, talked to the boss and they devised an ingenious scheme with which to trap Grant and his handmaiden, George Meade. Smith was a very clever fellow. He and General Lee had the foresight to build a corduroy road to Spotsylvania west and parallel to the Brock Road in the winter before. They reasoned that such a road would be needed to stay ahead of Grant if he tried to march south on the Brock Road through the Wilderness. That is how we got to Spotsylvania before Grant. After Spotsylvania those two decided that the topography of the North Anna area was a good place to lay a grand trap.
On the north side of the river a move to the Telegraph Road by Grant would have to cross the river twice on ground not served by roads or bridges. Such a move would take time and a great deal of field engineering work to achieve in any circumstance, especially a crisis circumstance. Because of this our planners decided to set up a position in which an inverted “V” would be created with available units positioned in a wedge, the point of the wedge resting on the south bank of the North Anna just where the greatest scarcity of lateral roads existed on the north bank. The opportune arrival of Pickett and Breckinridge allowed them to be positioned as the army 's reserve within the wedge.
“And you were privy to all these arrangements? You would actually have known this?”
Taylor sighed audibly. “Ah, yes, I and all the other officers of the staff in the field. The hope was that Grant would move to the east of the Telegraph Road through the roads well north of the river, and that is what he did.”
“What did he do then?”
“Well, you know the answer. Why you are asking me is almost a mystery, not quite a mystery, but almost, nevertheless I will answer the question. The Second US Army corps was sent to the southeast of the North Anna with evident orders to keep pressing down the Telegraph Road to the south, toward Richmond. The city was at that moment but ten miles away. Our side believed that Grant had no clear idea of our wedge shaped disposition. We were correct. He had sent Sheridan and the bulk of the Union cavalry corps on a massive raid into the Richmond area. These scouting troops were unavailable to spy out our locations. They had not yet returned to the main battlefield. It was understandable that he was effectively blind, but his dispatch of Second Corps isolated them on one side of our wedge, isolated by the bends in the river and the probability of an attack by our troops in the “nose” of the wedge into the Union flank if they tried to move east to rescue Second Corps from an assault on them.
“The result was a disaster for us, and the United States,” said the newsman. I was with Second Corps as a correspondent and was captured and imprisoned at Libby.”
“Welcome back to the capital,” President Taylor said straight-faced. “I hope your rooms are more satisfactory this time…”
The grey haired, portly visitor grew red in the face. “May we continue? We have never learned exactly what your plan was except by the effect, and I understand that you, personally, drafted the orders.”
“Well, sir, we have not had a close relationship since those unhappy days, but, to answer, we knew we had only a short time until Grant realized his error and withdrew Second Corps to safety. General Lee decided to attack Second Corps east of the river with all available force using both Breckinridge and Pickett as well as Harry Heth’s division and to do that in a massed column of attack by brigades.”
“When was this planned to happen?”
“In the pre-dawn on the 24th of May, when were you captured?”
“I was taken by Heth’s men that afternoon. There must have been difficulty in putting all this together, getting men into position with troops who had recently lost a lot of leaders, a lot of friends.”
“Yes, that is true but the main worry was that it looked like Lee was about to be seriously ill. He had dysentery, bad dysentery, dysentery as bad as he had suffered at Gettysburg. He also had bad chest pains. This angina was a symptom of the illness that later killed him. He no longer had the advice and moral support of General Longstreet who was wounded at Spotsylvania. If he could not command through his illness, we would fail, but somehow he did command.”
“At five in the morning our lead brigade struck the front line of Second Corps, and found that there were a lot of surrenders. They pushed through the trenches. The following units went through the hole and we found that the shoulders of the penetration were equally soft. We had not understood the extent to which losses in the campaign had weakened the Second Corps, indeed all of Grant's force. Resistance folded up as our people got farther and farther into the rear. Your troops began to move away in disorganized masses and the corps commander’s capture with most of his staff around noon pretty much ended Second Corps resistance.”
“General Lee ordered a general advance when Hancock appeared as a prisoner at our headquarters. Pressure from south of the river by troops on our left and on the rest of Grant’s army on their now open flank caused them to start withdrawing to the northwest and pressed by Hampton’s cavalry they continued to fall back until they were across the Rapidan once again. As you know, Grant, in his confidence, had changed his supply base to the coastal river ports. When compelled to fall back, his lack of a base to the northwest was a major embarrassment.”
“Yes. He took over when you killed Stuart at Yellow Tavern.”
The newsman grimaced. “Yes. Grant was relieved of command in August. McClellan was elected president in November and he accepted the offer of mediation by Britain, France and the Vatican. Pius the IXth was always a friend of yours and a negotiated settlement was done that gave you independence, for now…”
“Are you sure you work for a newspaper?” Taylor asked. “Your government accepted our independence because your citizenry would no longer consent to the horrendous losses for little accomplishment. I guess you ran out of the poor people needed to fight your war against us, people who could not buy exemption from service.”
“What of slavery?”
“Our constitution reserves changes in the institution to the states. Increased use of farm machinery is steadily making slave labor more expensive than machines. Three states have abolished slavery on a compensated basis and Negroes are steadily leaving us for the North..”
“Any chance of reunion?”
“Not in the lifetime of my generation, but who knows what might happen in the future. My secretary will show you out. Don’t overstay your welcome in Richmond…”
Note: In real history Lee grew so ill that the plan could not be executed.