2014-05-24 / Columnists

A Look at History

Fort Mackinac’s South Sally Port Contains Reminder of Cost of Civil War
BY FRANK STRAUS

Gen. Thomas Williams

On the top of the ramp that leads up to historic Fort Mackinac, the South Sally Port allows visitors into the 1781 fortress. A bronze plaque mounted on the fort’s stonework reads: “In Memory of General Thomas Williams, Commandant of Fort Mackinac, 1852-1856; Killed in Battle, August 5, 1862.”

“The gallant General Willi- ams,” 47, had become one of the 750,000 men in whose honor Memorial Day was created.

Williams was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, class of 1837. He chose the artillery as a specialty. It was an exciting time to join that branch of the service; the production by the du Pont mills of industrial black powder, consistent in quality, was making heavy guns and cannon more accurate. West Point artillerists, at this time, were typically trained as engineers and carefully drilled in three-dimensional geometry; aptitudes useful to men who could take sights and aim heavy guns. This was the skill set that the military genius of Williams’ time, Napoleon Bonaparte, had used to rise to generalship, on his way to becoming the conqueror of Europe.

Artillery engineers had a chance of seeing active service and rising in the ranks. During the Mexican War (1846-48), Lieutenant Williams, who served in the successful thrust from Veracruz to Mexico City, was brevetted as a major, praised by commander Winfield Scott, and promoted to permanent rank as a captain. These were high ranks in the relatively tiny U.S. Army at the time, and qualified Williams for independent command. As an artillery captain, he was detailed to Fort Mackinac in 1852, and remained in command for four years. The guns manned by his men pointed lazily at the Straits of Mackinac as he wooed the fort doctor’s daughter. In his late 30s, the fort commandant turned his eyes toward Mary Neosho Bailey. By the time the career officer moved on to his next posting in 1856, the Williams- Bailey team had set sail on the matrimonial waters of life.

With the coming of the American Civil War in 1861, northern regulars with combat experience were badly needed. Williams was commissioned as a brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers in September 1861. In line with the plans set out by Winfield Scott, who had become the master strategist of the Union cause, Williams’ brigade was assigned to help sever the insurgent Confederacy in two by occupying the valley of the lower Mississippi. Williams’ command was assigned to Louisiana in 1862. Instead of leading a fort with fewer than 100 men, he now commanded a brigade of 3,000 men. The fresh Northern troops, aided by the U.S. Navy, penetrated the lowest stretch of the river up to the head of saltwater navigation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Williams’ brigade marched into the Louisiana capital on May 29. After Nashville, it was the second Confederate state capital to be liberated. Gen. Williams sent letters to his wife, Mary, describing his life.

Despite the U.S. Navy’s gunboats, the Confederate Army continued to control a key stretch of the Big River. The Stars and Bars flew over the Mississippi from Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the north to Williams’ brigade at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the south. The War Department’s goal was to reduce the southern fortresses that defended this length of slow-moving brown water. Williams’ command was temporarily reassigned northward to serve under the overall commander of the Mississippi River campaign, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant ordered engineer Williams and his brigade to bypass the hedgehog southern works at Vicksburg, a blufftop strong point that looked down on a meander of the Mississippi River. When Williams looked at southern Vicksburg, he saw a natural strong point similar to the Michigan fort he had once commanded: a fortress whose cannon commanded the river and blocked the Union’s gunboats. Williams’ men set to work to dig a canal through the oozy, malarial mud of northeastern Louisiana, in an effort to create a navigable waterway across the neck of the Vicksburg meander and avoid the southern field of fire.

After four weeks, Williams reported to Grant that a narrow, 18-foot-wide canal had been dug across the neck of the meander to a depth of 13 feet. It was hoped that the great river itself would complete the job. The river, it was believed, would find this more direct pathway to the sea, begin to flow through it, start to bypass its historic riverbed below Vicksburg, and complete the work of scouring out the navigable channel. The work of the weary general and his men was, however, in vain. The river shrugged at the little creek bed and refused to budge. Meanwhile, the Southerners, under John C. Breckinridge, were threatening Baton Rouge. By July 24, 1862, excavation stopped, and Williams was ordered southward. He had to leave his combat-leavened troops behind with Grant, who outranked him, and he was told that a newly trained brigade of troops had just arrived in Baton Rouge for him to command.

For Williams and his wife, Mary, it was a life-changing order. A few days after he reassumed command of the small Louisiana city, Breckinridge’s brigade of the Army of Mississippi attacked. Raising the Rebel yell, thousands of Southerners literally charged into Baton Rouge at daybreak August 5, 1862. As the ill-trained Union formations crumpled around him, Williams tried to defend his lines in person. The conflict reached its height in an open space, 15 blocks east of the state capitol building. Fatefully, it was already a place of death, Magnolia Cemetery; it was here that Williams was struck down.

It subtracts little from the story of Williams’ gallantry to learn that his stand in the city cemetery was a futile one. The leaderless Northern men fled to the Mississippi River, but instead of being driven into its oozy banks, they received gunfire support from the Navy and drove the Confederates off in their turn. Baton Rouge became a keystone of the eventual Northern campaign to win control of the Big River, although success would not crown this push for another 11 bloody months. Williams’ brief commander, Grant, would receive the surrender of Vicksburg in July 1863, and would become the general-in-chief of the U.S. forces. Williams would be forgotten, except for a small memorial plaque at the South Sally Port of Old Fort Mackinac.

It was the dead of the Civil War for whom Decoration Day, which we now know as Memorial Day, was created after the war as the fourth Monday in May. For Fort Mackinac, the highest ranking of these men on Memorial Day was Thomas Williams, who came to our fort as a captain and ended his life wearing the star of a U.S. general.

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