Sold – The Archive of Col. Joseph C. Read, the Man Who Supplied Sherman’s Army of the Cumberland in the Atlanta Campaign

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Joseph Corson Read was one of the first wave of men to take up Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers to put down the rebellion in April 1861. He enlisted in one of the 90 days regiments, but was not content to just go home when his enlistment ran out. Instead, he helped raise...

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Sold – The Archive of Col. Joseph C. Read, the Man Who Supplied Sherman’s Army of the Cumberland in the Atlanta Campaign

Joseph Corson Read was one of the first wave of men to take up Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers to put down the rebellion in April 1861. He enlisted in one of the 90 days regiments, but was not content to just go home when his enlistment ran out. Instead, he helped raise troops for budding the 51st Pennsylvania Infantry in September 1861, and was commissioned Second Lieutenant of Company F in that unit.  The commander of the regiment was Col. John Hartranft, later governor of Pennsylvania, and the regiment was part of the division led by Gen. Jesse Reno. The division was part of the Burnside expedition in early 1862 that took Roanoke Island and New Bern, NC, some of the first Union victories in the war. Read's organizational talents brought him to the attention of General Reno, who named Read as his aide during the action at Roanoke. As Reno's protege, Read had the opportunity to spend much of his time with senior staff, including Burnside, and related their perspectives in his writings about the North Carolina campaign. In March 1862 Reno asked him to become brigade commissary, a responsibility that reflected his extraordinary confidence in Read, as the position came with a promotion to captain and required Read to feed and supply about 3,000 men. This was a staff posting, so Read was no longer part of the 51st PA. Read accepted and embarked on his duties, and President Lincoln officially appointed him Commissary of Subsistence with the rank of captain on July 22 1862. General Reno's units were soon assigned to Gen. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, becoming part of the 2nd Division of the 9th Corps. In the Antietam campaign, General Reno was killed at the Battle of South Mountain, and his regiments fought at what became known to history as Burnside's Bridge at Antietam. They were also at Fredericksburg.

In the spring of 1863 the 2nd Division was transferred to the western theater of operations, and was present at the taking of Vicksburg. As 1864 dawned, it was transferred east. Read, however, became commissary in the Army of the Cumberland, which was part of the Department of the Mississippi. The Cumberland's commander was Gen. George Thomas, a Virginian who had stayed loyal and served the Union. The department commander was Gen. William T. Sherman. Thomas was impressed with Read, and on May 1, 1864, with the spring campaign against Atlanta imminent, Thomas named Read Chief Commissary of the Army of the Cumberland in the Field. This meant that, although Colonel A. P. Porter was the Army's overall chief, Read would serve alongside Thomas in the field and had the responsibility to supply the entire army as it moved South. During the long and arduous Atlanta campaign he was the man on the ground, making the supply side work. Read developed a close relationship with Thomas, one with both personal and professional aspects.

In the Atlanta campaign, Sherman had three armies under his command, and they faced off against Confederate generals Joseph E. Johnston and John B. Hood in a series of battles in northern Georgia. Sherman was able to force the surrender of Atlanta in September 1864, boosting Northern morale and greatly improving President Abraham Lincoln's re-election bid. With Atlanta under Union control, Sherman took part of his force and embarked on his March to the Sea, which laid waste to the countryside and hastened the Confederacy's defeat. Thomas's army, after Atlanta was taken, was split off and struck North to Nashville.

Read went North with the Army of the Cumberland. In late November 1864, just before the decisive Battles of Nashville and Franklin that finished off Hood, Gen. Thomas asked Read to become Chief Commissary of the Army overall, not just in the field. However, Gen. James H. Wilson, heading the army's cavalry arm, needed a commissary, as his supply situation was dire. And Col. Porter was not happy about being replaced, so he managed to preserve his position as chief by getting Read reassigned to head Wilson's Commissary Dept. instead. However, this arrangement did not last long, as Thomas removed Porter in February 1865 and made Read his replacement. Thus Read finished the war the war as a colonel and in the exalted position of Chief Commissary of the Army of the Cumberland. At that time, the army, with its dependents, being fed and supplied by Read day by day consisted of over 100,000 persons. That is the same as the present population of Fargo, the largest city in North Dakota. Read resigned from the army in 1866.

The Read papers

Read kept his wartime papers, which until recently remained with his family. They are publicly offered here for the first time.

Organizational Chart of the Army: A chart "Organization of the Army of the Cumberland", provided to Read by the office of the Chief Commissary A.P. Porter. This was likely provided in April 1864, when Porter left for Nashville and Read became acting Chief Commissary in his absence. It lists the 4th, 14th, 11th and 12th Corps, as well as ancillary units, cavalry, artillery, reserve artillery, "unassigned troops south of Duck River," and "troops in district of Nashville; north of Duck River." There are extensive pencil annotations in Read's hand showing the current disposition of various units and commanders and the people with whom he would be working. 

The Read Diaries: Read retained two diaries each for 1861 and 1862, and one diary each for 1864, 1865, 1866 and 1867. These contain his accounts of the North Carolina and Atlanta campaigns. An interesting diarist, he relates the view from an observant and intelligent staff member who was interacting with senior command. He knew and socialized with Burnside and Thomas, and has some truly fascinating insights into Thomas' command style. For example, Thomas often rode with his staff in advance of the pickets, a decidedly dangerous operation in that there was nobody between him and the rebel guns, and that he might be accidentally shot by his own men, as Stonewall Jackson learned to his jeopardy. Once he rode across the front of his entire army in the face of the enemy, making contact with every unit. A transcription of a very small portion of the diaries follows.

A few excerpts:

1862 – North Carolina

February 7-10. Battle of Roanoke Island. "It was a beautiful sight to see the gunboats firing at the fort. We landed the 21st Massachusetts and 51st New York under cover of the gunboats in a marsh. Gen. Reno told us to act as his aides… Troops commenced moving inland about 8 AM and in a few minutes encountered the enemy in a battery of their guns, across a road through a deep swallow. The fight continued until 1 PM when the enemy retreated in confusion. We had about 40 men killed and 200 wounded. Our forces followed up fast and by evening captured over 2700 prisoners who surrendered unconditionally. We have captured 4 forts and 37 cannon…Today i went on shore to view the field of battle. It was awful. The killed looked terrible…our men look very happy after their hardship, but the general allowed them to dress up in the rebels' clothing that was captured."

March 14. Battle of New Bern NC. "After firing of the guns we began advancing. I was ahead with the skirmishers. The fog was very thick and after marching about two miles noticed something in the trail ahead. I went forward and got close to four niggers which we captured. Could see the rebels on the track under 150 yards of us. Then we filed in the woods on the left and soon the fight began. Lasted without ceasing for 3 1/2 hours when we succeeded in carrying their works. We then pushed on, and I got to New Bern and saw it on fire, with the railroad bridge.
March 16. Gen. Reno asked me to become  brigade commissary."

1864 – the Atlanta Campaign

May 1. "As the army is going to advance in a very few days, and it was requisite for either Col. Porter or I to remain in Chattanooga, I insisted on Colonel asking Gen. Thomas who was to go. Gen. Thomas decided that as Col. Beckwith was going on Gen. Sherman's staff, that I had better go in the field. So I will have to get ready."

May 7. "Left Ringgold about 7 AM. The troops went all morning to the front and slight skirmishing commenced at near Tunnel Hill. Generals Sherman and Thomas were in the field…Both generals' staffs got several hundred yards in advance of the skirmish line. There was a regiment of rebels in the valley beyond but we soon dispersed them. We had headquarters in camp near Tunnel Hill."

May 14. "Reveille at 2 AM, in the saddle at 4 AM, went to the front, the general riding in a good trot. At General Sherman's before they were up. Got all our troops in position before noon, and Howard joined the left about 10:30 AM, he having followed the rebels from Dalton. At noon a general advance began and the fighting in front of Schofield, Palmer and Howard was very heavy for the rest of the day. The general and staff were under fire nearly all the time. I returned at 4 PM to see about the cattle. Terrible firing within range of camp headquarters."

May 15. "I remained in camp today to distribute the herd of beef cattle. I received orders to establish the depot at Dalton. Blair came to camp and I gave him the orders. Firing has been very heavy all day on our extreme left. The entire rebel army is in our front and appears to be very strong. Hooker and Howard corps were fighting very hard all day, cannonading was terrific. Gen. Thomas and staff return to camp about dark."

May 20. "We did not break camp today. Orders were issued to supply the entire army within three days with sufficient for 20 days. I went to Kingston to establish the depot… Capt. Blair arrived at noon with a train of stores and commenced issuing. I rode up to Kingston again towards evening."

May 26. "The General started to the front early but ordered all but the aide to remain in camp until they are called for. About 3 PM we started forward with the trains and soon got to the skirmish line without finding the General. We pitched our camp in range of the enemy's guns, a solid shot sticking in the tree above the General's tent. Been considerable fighting all day."

May 29. "I went to the trains in the rear this AM. I stopped to see Col. Beckwith at General Sherman's. After I had retired this evening I was awakened about 10:20 PM by musket firing, which in a very few moments became general along our entire line and perfectly terrific. It was kept up at intervals during the entire night. The enemy was repulsed in every attack. It was an awful night, the firing seemed so terrible in the darkness."

May 31. "About 9 AM the enemy tried to force our lines directly in front of our camp, but were repulsed with great loss. The empty wagon trains started on their return to Kingston for more supplies.

June 7. "I went to Acworth to Gen. Sherman headquarters. I went to Col. Beckwith's and indulged in some of his good whiskey. Gen. Thomas and most of the staff came there, but we soon started back to camp. Hoffman and I rode a pace most of the way home nearly killing our horses. The camp very much demoralized."

June 27. "Toward evening I went to Col. Beckwith's and took a look at Kennesaw Mountain with Capt. Poe's large telescope. Could see the rebels very plain. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis' division repulsed with great loss. Also Stanley's division of the 4th Corps. We tried an assault on the rebel lines and were repulsed. Gen. Harker killed."

June 29. "The army is preparing for a movement to the right of the enemy. The stores are coming forward slowly and we cannot move until we send all the wounded back. Heavy firing about midnight in front of Gen. Davis."

July 2. "Our troops are supplied with about 12 days subsistence. This evening Gen. McPherson began moving and by midnight it was discovered that the Rebels were retreating from Kennesaw."

July 20. "Gen. Hood in command of the rebel army in our front. Gen. Joe Johnston relieved because he could not defend the city of Atlanta. Gen. Hood massed with his entire army in front of the Army of the Cumberland principally in front of Hooker's 20th Corps, and charged several times, and was repulsed every time with great loss, leaving their dead and wounded in our possession."

July 22. "Gen. Sherman sent word early that the rebels had left Atlanta. Several of the staff telegraphed north that we were in the city. We broke camp and left in the direction of the city but found the rebs in their works just outside of it. They massed their forces on our left and attacked Gen. McPherson's line several times but were always repulsed, although we lost a few guns. Gen. McPherson was killed and he lost a great many men. The siege of Atlanta began."

August 23. "Gen. Thomas came to my tent and wished to know how the command was supplied. I informed him. He then directed me to inform the commissaries of subsistence to prepare 15 days for their commands and be ready to move on a moments notice, which I did."

September 2. "Moved camp early and went into Jonesboro. The rebels had left in the night in a great hurry. During last night we heard several heavy explosions in the direction of Atlanta. We got word before noon that the rebels evacuated Atlanta and were flying in all directions. Therefore I took a drink. We moved about 4 miles to near Lovejoy's where we came up to the rebels. Received word from Gen. Slocum that he entered Atlanta with the 20th corps at 11 AM. Glorious."

September 6. "Emancipated about 20 slaves from Judge Taliaferro."

September 8. "Went into the city of Atlanta, arrived there about 10 AM. Called on Col. Beckwith. Our headquarters were on Peachtree Street and I had a very nice house assigned to me. Dr. Cooper and I called on Gen. Thomas at his new headquarters and congratulated him; and took a drink also."

October 29. "We have had a high old time since our arrival in Atlanta, but I think we would all be dead if we continue this style of living. I am very sure I would be."

November 2. "Started a large herd of cattle south for General Sherman's army. I find there are 12,000 head of cattle here and more coming daily."

November 21. "I find there are 22,000 head of cattle at or near this place. I ordered 3000 to Knoxville and the balance killed as rapidly as possible."

November 24. "Capt. Kellog aide to Gen. Thomas called and notified me that the general wanted me at Nashville to go on a campaign with him. I was much surprised to learn that Gen. Thomas valued my services at all, when Col. Parker was present."

November 27. "Flagged the train through Nashville where we arrived about dark. Gen. Thomas sent for me, when I called he was very glad to see me and said that he wanted me to take entire charge of the subsistence department. As Vice President Andrew Johnson and others were waiting to see the General I asked him if I can see him early next day as I had a great deal to say to him. He agreed to see me early next day."

November 28. "Met with the General at 8 AM in his room and he gave me all the points he could in regard to the campaign. Hood was at Decatur, Alabama with his army, confronted by Stanley with the 4th Corps and Schofield with the 20th Corps. I spent the day in learning the position of affairs in the subsistence department at Nashville."

December 16. Battle of Nashville: "Went to the front at daylight. The fighting there commenced and was continued until an hour after dark, the men of both armies being all mixed up. We captured Brig. Gen. Rucker of General Forrest's command."

December 25. "Started early this AM. Chased the rebels through Pulaski, and across the bridge whilst the roof was burning. We crossed the bridge, pushed on after the rebels. They blew up their ammunition trains we pressed them so hard. About 2:00 PM we got in a gorge, Gen. Wilson, staff and escort in front when a rebel battery opened on us, about 300 yards distant. The rebels charged us and captured one gun. "

December 31. "Reached Gen. Thomas's headquarters at Pulaski at 4 PM and was very cordially received and entertained. Remained there all night. I had a long talk with Gen. Thomas and received instructions about forwarding stores."

Read's papers as Commissary: Read handled both U.S. government funds, and U.S. goods, on a regular basis, in large amounts and small. He filed reports on these transactions with the Treasury and Commissary Departments, and kept copies of the reports for himself. He also received many communications from his superiors and others pursuant to his duties, and retained these as well. A few hundred of his commissary papers have survived, and they give great insight into his duties and responsibilities.  There are also some printed books, including Read's signed copy of "Notes on Preparing Stores for the United States Army and on the Care of the Same," copyright 1863.

The General Orders and other orders: There are scores of printed general orders issued to the Commissaries, some from luminaries like Stanton, some from commissary departments, local and national. Many of these illustrate interesting policy decisions. Some are specific to Read and are signed by Porter.

To provide a very small number of examples: , there are manuscript documents sent by Francis Spinner, U.S. Treasurer, addressed to Sec. of War Stanton, with this copy sent to Read, saying that Spinner has sent $200,000 in the form of a draft to Read in Nashville, Tennessee. There are three documents dated 1862 that are endorsed by Gen. Jesse Reno, whose war date signature is a great rarity because of his early death. There is an order from the Asst. Adjutant General, dated October 26 1864, ordering Thomas to set up his headquarters in Chattanooga. Col. Porter, Thomas' then-Chief Commissary, sent Read a letter dated November 24, 1864, saying that in his absence Read would assume command as chief of Commissary of the Army of the Cumberland. There is an letter of Col. Beckwith of the Commissary Department in Washington dated August 15, 1862, sending detailed instructions and formatting (present) for all requisition requests from all the commissarial depots under Read and the army in Reno's group. There are numerous receipts of funds both to and from Porter. And literally hundreds more.

Read's appointments and related letters: The collection contains Read's postwar appointments as Lieutenant Colonel and Major signed by Andrew Johnson with his stamp, as well as his appointment by Andrew Curtin, the Governor of Pennsylvania, for his first enlistment in 1861 for the 51st Pennslvania. There is correspondence from Col. A. Beckwith, Commissary for General Sherman, and 3 notifications signed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton informing Read of his appointments by President Lincoln.

Read's memorabilia: His sister gave him a tiny copy of the Holy Bible that he carried with him in his knapsack throughout the war. He also took a dictionary with him, and that has survived as well. His boot spur must have been something he cherished, as he saved that. And there are scores of invitations, some from the war in which he is invited to various parties and dances, and many post-war from veterans organizations to which he belonged (such as the 51st Pennsylvania's).

Read's official report on the New Bern Campaign: Autograph letter signed by Read as Asst. Signal Officer for General Reno, New Bern, May 9, 1862, to Lieut. Joseph Fricker, Asst. Signal Officer, Commanding Signal Corp, Dept. of North Carolina. "…On February 4, 1862, at Hatteras Inlet, I was placed in command of the detachment consisting of Lieut. Marsh of the 51st New York, Lieut. Palmer of the 10th Connecticut, and our flagmen, and ordered to report for signal duty to Brig. Gen. Reno commanding the 2nd Brigade on his flagship Steamboat Patuxent  which we did…On the afternoon of the 6th Fleet anchored within sight of Roanoke Island. And it was requisite to…keep strict watch of any movement of the rebel fleet, and report to the commanding officer…On the 4th the troops commenced landing on Roanoke Island, and General Reno desired us to act as his aides.  Lieutenants Marsh and Palmer went on shore with the first of the troops, and I remained with…Assistant Adjutant Gen. to land the remainder of the troops belonging to the 2nd Brigade which we accomplished by 10 PM the same evening.  On the 8th I was left in command of the Steamboat Patuxent. 

"On March 11, 1862 the fleet started from Roanoke island. I was on duty on board…On the evening of the 12th we anchored…about 16 miles below the city of New Bern. The next morning the landing of the troops commenced, and as Gen. Reno's brigade had the advance I took my position on the extreme advance. Previous to landing I received a supply of rockets and a code had been arranged for the purpose of keeping the Navy advised of the position of the Army, so that they would not fire on our men whilst shelling the woods. We marched about 10 miles during the day through a drizzling rain, our column advancing by the railroad.  That night we bivouacked in the woods and early next morning (the memorable 14th) the column was in motion. After marching about 2 miles we came upon the enemy in great force protected by very extensive earthworks. The weather was very foggy and by the time the engagement commenced it had become so dense that you could not see an object more than 100 to 200 yards, making it utterly impossible to use the signals.  I therefore acted as aide to General Reno during the battle.

"After our arrival at New Bern, North Carolina, Gen. Reno kindly offered me the position of Commissary on his staff, the place having been vacated by Capt. Richie accepting a position on Gen. Burnside's staff. Gen. Reno published an order dated March 16, 1862, detailing me for acting Commissary of Subsistence, since which time I have been acting in that capacity."

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