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Fabulous military career cut short

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Whom does this describe?

This Union officer was known for his long, curly blonde hair, outspokenness and willingness to challenge conventional military dogma? He graduated second in his class at the U.S. Military Academy and was a descendent of a famous Pennsylvania family?

George Armstrong Custer?

While those words do describe Custer, the officer in question was an engineer, not a cavalryman.

James St. Clair Morton was on the U.S. Army fast track too. He was an engineer of note and had a famous (now infamous) father Samuel Morton, a Philadelphia physician and founder of craniometry.

The elder Morton claimed the difference between humans was one of species. He collected human skulls from around the world and developed his own methods of measuring their internal capacity. Morton concluded that blacks had smaller brains than whites and that Native America brains were intermediate in size. His work is generally seen as the origin of scientific racism.

Straight out of West Point, James St. Clair Morton landed some of biggest engineering jobs in the U.S. Military despite his quirky personality. He was assistant engineer in the construction of the defenses at Charleston, S.C. in 1851-52 and at Fort Delaware from 1852-55. Coastal defense projects like Fort Sumter and Fort Delaware were ongoing developments that took decades to build with construction beginning in the 1830s. Fort Sumter was still incomplete at the opening shot of the Civil War.

Morton was promoted to second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers on April 1, 1854 and returned to the U.S. Military Academy as assistant professor of mathematics and military engineering.

He became a strong advocate of the teachings of Dennis Hart Mahan, who had rejected the contemporary military strategy of the time by preaching defensive tactics including entrenchment. Morton was considered Mahan’s best-known students and wrote several essays for Secretary of War John B. Floyd on how to adopt Mahan’s principals to protect the U.S. east coast.

In those writings, Morton went against the established beliefs of Col. Joseph Totten, who was chief engineer of the Corps of Engineers for a number of years. Morton rightly said that earthen work batteries were much superior to the stone forts under construction at Fort Sumter and other locations.

At the request of Floyd, Morton even did an evaluation of Totten’s plans to defend New York City and found them lacking. During this period Morton was promoted to first lieutenant and assigned to be chief engineer of the Sandy Hook lighthouse in New Jersey and in charge of work on the Washington Monument and District of Columbia water works.

In 1860, he was assigned to lead an expedition to Central America to explore the Chiriqui area for construction of a railroad or canal. He contracted “Changres” fever (malaria). He returned to Washington only to be sent to the Dry Tortugas in March 1861 with the orders to put Fort Jefferson into fighting condition. The isolated fort off the Florida Keys was ultimately used as a prison to house Dr. Samuel Mudd and other Lincoln conspirators. British mercenary St. Leger Grenfell, who was the topic of an April 27 Post article, was also held at Fort Jefferson.

Again overcome by malaria, Morton returned north to recover and in May 1862 was assigned to be the chief engineer of Gen. Don C. Buell's Army of the Ohio. When Buell’s army moved to Kentucky, Morton was ordered to remain in Nashville and supervise construction of fortifications to help hold the state capital.

Conscripted blacks were forced to do much of the work.

“He pushed forward their construction most vigorously, employing the soldiery, and “pressing” the negroes of Nashville and vicinity, and teams of all kinds, without stint or scruple. The colored population of that city have probably not yet forgotten the suddenness with which his men gathered them in from barber-shops, kitchens, and even churches, and set them at work upon St. Cloud Hill, where was then a combination of rock and forest, but where now rise the frowning battlements of Fort Negley, commanding the entire city and surrounding country,” wrote John Fitch, provost judge, Army of the Cumberland.

Named for Gen. James Negley, provost marshal and commander of Union forces in Nashville, the fortification was constructed of stone, logs, earth and railroad iron. It was the largest and most important fort built by Union troops in Nashville and marked the center of the Union defensive line.

It was determined early on, that Nashville must be held at all costs because of its strategic importance as a river and rail hub. The state capital became one of the most heavily fortified cities in America.

Fort Negley was 600 feet long and 300 feet wide, covered four acres, and was considered practically impregnable. The polygon-shaped with outer fortifications was designed for multiple fields of fire that capitalize on the accuracy of rifles firing minie balls.

Buell’s failures in the field resulted in his replacement by Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, who like Morton, had a strong military engineering background. “Old Rosey” worked with the Corps of Engineers following graduation from the U.S. Military academy and returned to his alma mater in 1843 to teach engineering for two years.

In the Western Theater, Rosecrans faced significant engineering problems with long supply lines and tough terrain, but engineering units were rare and U.S. Regular engineer officers few. Rosecrans addressed this problem in a very creative way. He created a new type of regiment from the ranks of the Army of the Cumberland.

His General Order No. 3 said:

There will be detailed immediately, from each company of every regiment of infantry in this army, two men, who shall be organized as a pioneer or engineer corps attached to its regiment. The twenty men will be selected with great care, half laborers and half mechanics. The most intelligent and energetic lieutenant in the regiment, with the best knowledge of civil engineering, will be detailed to command, assisted by two non-commissioned officers. This officer shall be responsible for all equipage, and shall receipt accordingly.

Under certain circumstances it may be necessary to mass this force: when orders are given for such a movement, they must be promptly obeyed.

The men were equipped with felling axes, hatchets, cross-cut saws, files, handsaws, spades, shovels, picks, hammers, augurs, nails, spikes and rope in addition to their normal military equipment. The gear was transported in wagons.

They were sent to Nashville for training purposes. The wording of Order No. 3 was deceptive. The order made it sound like the newly trained engineering troops would return to their original regiment. Actually, Rosecrans was forming a new brigade to be commanded by Morton, who was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. (His U.S. Regular army rank was captain.) The wording of the order kept company commanders from assigning their worst men or loafers to the new unit.

The new brigade was divided into three battalions. Each battalion was subdivided into 10 or so companies of 80 to 100 men assembled into four or five regiments. These battalions were organized to work independently of each other but could function together as one oversized brigade.

After about a month of training, Rosecrans’ new “Pioneer Brigade” rejoined the rest of the Army of the Cumberland. About 1,700 men of the 2,600-man brigade joined the army’s march to Murfreesboro in late December 1862.

Morton’s men were soon put to work building bridges and clearing a path for the army on the move. Initially placed in a rear position outside of Murfreesboro, the Pioneers were soon to play a very important role in the Battle of Stones River.

Seeing that his army was about to be routed, Rosecrans ordered the Pioneers, supported by Stokes’ Chicago Board of Trade battery, to stop the Confederate advance near the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad Line.

The Pioneers held and won acclaim. Following the battle, the brigade did important work, building fortifications, repairing the railroad and performing similar engineering duties. Nevertheless, problems began to develop in the area of military discipline. Resentment also arose in the remainder of the Army of the Cumberland because the brigade was exempt from mundane guard and fatigue duties.

During this period, Morton was busy supervising the construction of Fortress Rosecrans from January to June 1863.

The fortress was the largest fort built during the Civil War. It protected the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad as well as the Nashville Pike. The earthen fort had eight lunettes and four redoubts tied together with curtain walls and wooden abates. Inside the 225 acre area were warehouses, ammunition magazines, warehouses, quartermaster depots, sawmills and troop quarters. Fortress Rosecrans was key to the Union advance on Chattanooga and Atlanta in addition to supplying support for Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Just as he did in Nashville, Morton used black conscripts for laborers, as well as military troops.

It was said some 4,000 men worked on each of the eight-hour shifts to build the fortress.

“The principal characteristic of General Morton is his indominatable energy, combled with extensive information and practical experience,” Fitch wrote. “He is out among his men early and late. If any special duty calls, he is always at hand. He does not say, ‘Go,’ but, ‘Come.

“This was recently exemplified at Stone River, where his new railroad-bridge was in danger of being swept away during a sudden freshet by the accumulation of drift-wood against the piers,” Fitch continued. “Not satisfied with the progress of the work, he rushed into the water waist-deep, adjusted ropes to logs and trees, and gave the command to ‘heave away.’”

Work was complete when Rosecrans began to advance his army on Tullahoma. On the march from Murfreesboro, drunkenness was reported among the Pioneer Brigade, resulting in an embarrassment for Morton, who was still promoted to major on July 8, 1863.

He took part in the Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 19-20, 1863 and was slightly wounded while standing next to Rosecrans. He was brevetted colonel, U.S. Regular Army.

During the uproar than followed the Union loss at Chickamauga, Morton and his Pioneer Brigade were criticized by Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook for being non-responsive and generally for being in the way.

Rosecrans summoned Morton to headquarters and gave him a severe tongue-lashing in front of other officers, including Brig. Gen. William Hazen.

“I have never been able to rid myself of the impression left upon me by the coarse and unjust language of General Rosecrans,” Hazen wrote.

Morton requested a transfer, which was denied and then made the rare request that his rank be reduced from brigadier general of volunteers to his Regular Army rank of major of engineers. It is said that is the only instance during the Civil War of a general voluntarily reducing his rank.

Morton returned to Nashville where he worked to strengthen the defenses in early 1864 and was finally reassigned as to serve as the assistant to the U.S. Army Chief Engineer in Washington. May 1864 found him back in the field, this time as chief engineer of Gen. Ambrose Burnsides’ IX Corps near Petersburg, Va.

On June 17, Morton was killed while studying the area in front of Gen. Orlando B. Wilcox’s division just before it attacked.

He was buried with military honors at Laurel Hill cemetery, Philadelphia.

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