July 1864: Rumor Mill

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Union soldiers outside Petersburg (National Archives)
The Civil War in Louisiana cooled after the Confederates won the 1864 Red River Campaign. The fighting, however, continued unabated in Virginia where Robert E. Lee desperately defended the Confederate capital of Richmond and the railroad center of Petersburg against U.S. Grant's Union armies. Louisianians eagerly followed the fighting in Virginia because they knew that critical campaign would likely determine the war's outcome.

Unfortunately, there was no telegraph linking Louisiana to the east, and reliable information was difficult to obtain. When it came to receiving timely and accurate news, it was though Louisiana was on the far side of the moon. As a result, rumors ran rampant, and people struggled to distinguish the truth from just wishful thinking.

Felix Poché, a soldier serving in central Louisiana, kept an account of the rumor mill in his diary. For a time, all of the reports coming from Virginia were good. On July 1, Poché wrote: "We had some news from Virginia to the effect that Lee has completely beaten Grant at Petersburg and is chasing him back to his base at City Point. . . .I pray to God that all these news are true. They would give us a ray of hope of an approaching peace."

On July 10, Poch\'e9 received another glowing report from Virginia: "It is affirmed that the Yankee army has been completely beaten at Petersburg . . . that they are in full retreat, pursued by our army, that Grant was killed and that the loss of men on the enemy's side was prodigious. . . .God permit that it is true! I pray that it is from the bottom of my heart."

A few days later Poché encountered a man who corroborated the stories. The man had met some "trustworthy" gentlemen who read in a newspaper that "Grant was killed by his own men, during the eight day charge that he was making against our formation."

Far from Poché, soldiers in Shreveport were hearing the same rumor of Grant's death. Unfortunately, the Shreveport News eventually debunked the story. "We supposed, it was started merely as a joke probably meaning, that not proving successful in taking Richmond, he was dead in military circles, as all of his predecessors."

Nonetheless, that same day the Shreveport News ran another story reporting victories in Virginia. "There was a rumor afloat yesterday . . . to the effect that Grant had stumbled upon Lee in front of Petersburg, and that Lee, in straightening him, hit him rather hard, slightly demoralizing him. From all we can learn, he made Grant 'Grunt that lick'."

About a week later, William Henry King, a soldier stationed in Shreveport, noted in his diary: "Quite a cheering dispatch was received yesterday, stating that General Lee has captured 4 divisions of Grant's army; that 20000 of Grant's army have laid down their arms; that General Beauregard has routed General Burnside from the Weldon Road [near Petersburg]; that there is a peace convention in New York City."

Despite the encouraging rumors, Poché and King were realists and knew not to trust them too much. As much as Poch\'e9 wanted to believe the story of Grant's retreat, he admitted, "We have been so grossly deceived lately that we do not know when to believe the news even that which sounds most probable." King agreed and wrote of the swirling rumors, "The dose is rather large, & he who can swallow it must have strong credulity. I shall expect to hear of some heavy disaster to ours arms, soon. Such reports are frequently the preludes of some heavy reverse on our part."

Throughout July 1864, Poché and King duly recorded the myriad rumors circulating in Louisiana: Confederate forces had captured Baltimore and thousands of Marylanders were flocking to the Rebel banner, Lee had taken the outskirts of Washington, Beast Butler had been taken prisoner, and Grant was missing after a battle.

The true situation was far different. While Lee did win some tactical victories, and the Confederates had made a raid to the outskirts of Washington, the Rebels were in dire straits. Lee was pinned down defending his capital, and the fighting quickly became one of attrition and trench warfare, much like the Western Front of World War I. Earlier, Lee had predicted that the war was lost if he was ever forced into the sort of siege he now found himself. The general knew the reality of the situation, but the people of Louisiana did not and continued to hope for a miracle.

Sources: Edwin C. Bearss, ed., A Louisiana Confederate: Diary of Felix Pierre Poché; Gary D. Joiner, Marilyn S. Joiner, and Clifton D. Cardin, eds., No Pardons to Ask, nor Apologies to Make: The Journal of William Henry King.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.