January 25, 1864: Escaped prisoner is an armchair general

Ulysses S. Grant

A self-styled Union man, escaped from rebel imprisonment, gives Grant some very detailed military advice.

Official Records:


NASHVILLE, TENN., January 25, 1864.
Major General U. S. GRANT,
Commanding Grand Division of Mississippi:

A refugee from Alabama, having escaped out of the Confederate lines, after some imprisonment in the military prison at Mobile for my uncompromising attachment to the Union cause and opposition to the rebel Government, I feel it my duty, and therefore take the liberty of giving you, as commander of that branch of the Federal Army which in all probability will, in the next campaign, enter Georgia and Alabama, some information and suggestions, which, I think, if carried out, will result in great benefit to the Union cause and inflict an irreparable injury to the rebellion-an injury which in its practical benefits will be of more value than success to the Federal Army in a pitched battle.

The city of Selma, situated on the Alabama River about 50 miles below Montgomery, has lately become the focus from which the rebel Government receives its war supplies. There is now located there a large and extensive arsenal, which supplies small-arms of every description; a naval foundry, machine-shops, and rolling-mills, which supplies the Army of Georgia and Mississippi with cannon of all sizes, and Charleston now is defended by shot and shell from this place; a powder-mill, wagon manufactory, and harness establishments. All these various works are supplied with coke, coal, and iron from the coal and iron mines situated in Shelby and Jackson counties by the Alabama and Tennessee Railroad, which was intended to connect Selma with Dalton, Ga., but is now only finished to Blue Mountain, in Jackson County.

Now, general, the destruction of those coal and iron mines, which virtually would render useless all the shops in Selma, is what I wish to call […] pretend to state the number of men necessary to accomplish this object nor how it should be executed. From my knowledge of the country and location of the mines and furnaces attached, I would, however, suggest that from 3,000 to 5,000 effective cavalry, under command of an experienced and dashing officer, leave Huntsville with at least four or six pieces of light artillery, cross the Tennessee River at Whitesburg, and take the direct wagon road through Summit to Blountsville, in Blount County (here there is stationed two companies of rebel cavalry collecting conscripts); from there to Elyton, in Jefferson County (here there is one company of rebel cavalry and an iron mine and furnace blown up); from there to Montevallo, in Shelby County, distant from Huntsville about 125 miles. The coal mines are situated within a few miles of Montevallo. The working tools and machinery should be destroyed. The iron mine, furnaces, and rolling-mills are located near Columbian, the county seat; the most important works are there. All the machinery and buildings should be destroyed; 400 or 500 mules and wagons might also be captured. There is stored convenient to the mines a large quantity of corn, hay, and fodder, sufficient to feed all the stock required for the expedition. From Columbian a small force might be sent to Wilsonville, 10 miles, and destroy the long bridge of the Coosa River, on the Alabama and Tennessee Railroad; there is one company of conscripts guarding this bridge, who, instead of protecting it, will hail the approach of the destroying force. I do not hesitate to state that this expedition could be planned and executed with success, and without loss, if done with boldness and dispatch; the officer in command should not, as on a former occasion, deliver up and surrender to an inferior force; he should fight, if necessary. The expedition could leave Huntsville and return in eight days without difficulty.

To insure success in this movement beyond doubt a feint demonstration should be made from Pensacola toward Pollard, the junction of the Montgomery and mobile Railroad. This would draw off General Clanton’s cavalry, which otherwise might be sent to intercept the force form Huntsville. Selma itself, and all the Government works there, might be destroyed by extending this expedition from Montevallo, a distance of 65 miles, but if extended to Selma a detachment should strike on the Alabama River, capture one or two of the steam-boats on the river, proceed down to Selma, meet the main body, cross the river on the boats, destroy them, and make for Pensacola. The only force of rebels to interfere with this trip would be about 700 men at or near Pollard. Any quantity of corn, fodder, and provisions can be had on the railroad to Selma and in Selma, stored by the rebel Government under the taz-in-kind law. There are in Selma employed about 4,000 mechanics in the various works. I have mentioned they are mostly northern men and foreigners, compelled to work or be conscripted. I know personally the feelings of those mechanics, and can assure you there are not 250 among them who will not hail with shouts, and instead of defending will join the Federal force. If the movement to Selma should be adopted it would be well to make a demonstration on Mobile by the fleet to draw any scattering forces there. Mobile has only about 3,500 or 4,000 men, outside of citizens, who will not fight. At Selma there is a company of boys and old men doing provost duty.

Take, general, my information and suggestions for what they are worth, examine them, and if of any importance to you and any good can be accomplished thereby to the Union cause, I will be pleased and gratified.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JAMES Q. SMITH,
Numbers 32 Cedar Street, Nashville.

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