Archive for the ‘Civil War Series’ Category

The American Civil War essentially ended with the  retreat by General Lee’s Confederate forces from Richmond, Virginia on April 3, 1865.  Lee’s surrender at Appomattox came six days later.  The intervening week was characterized by a series of battles and skirmishes along the 90-mile route of retreat, but it was evident that effective resistance against Union forces would not be possible for much longer once the defenses of the capitol were abandoned.

So it seems fitting that today’s modern day conflict – between those who want to preserve memorials dedicated to the leaders and common soldiers of the Confederacy and those who want them removed – could be decided in Richmond.

I’m very familiar with the city and the 14 blocks comprising the Monument Avenue Historic District.   Stately Victorian era mansions, where mature trees provide a broad canopy, make it a highly desirable neighborhood.

The statues at the heart of the debate were erected to honor  Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, James E.B. “Jeb” Stuart, Jefferson Davis and Matthew Fontaine Maury.  There is also one honoring former tennis great Arthur Ashe, a native of the city who was barred from playing on the city’s public courts while growing up.

With the exception of Maury,  these names should be recognizable to many people  in the United States and in parts of the developed world.  More about Maury later.

The Mayor of Richmond, Levar Stoney, formed a commission of 13 diverse individuals to tackle the controversy. All options will be considered, from the complete removal of the statues, to retaining them, but with context added.

Two members will potentially play very influential roles in the process:  Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum and Dr. Edward Ayers, former president of the University of Richmond, my alma mater.  Dr. Ayers also chairs the board of the American Civil War Museum.

The new museum they shepherded will offer a comprehensive look at the war; not the Confederate-centric portrayal at the Museum of the Confederacy.  The displays there were mainly focused on the battles, leaders and equipment.  That’s not to say that there was a lack of interesting content.  For example, I recall an excellent exhibition several years ago about the CSS Hunley, the first submarine to ever sink a warship.  The tour of the Confederate White House shed light on the day-to-day functions of what was at the time the second largest military power in the world.

It is possible the commission’s recommendation might not go all one way, although, at a minimum, context will be added.  That much is already occurring in the city.

I can see a scenario where a couple of statues might remain.

Resigning form the US military to fight for the south, while treasonable in hindsight, did not amount to an unconscionable act in the minds of those who went down that path. The US Constitution did not address secession.  Many people of that era viewed allegiance to their home states as more important.  I would say that was generally more prevalent in the south and can be traced to the unfinished business of forming our new nation.  Permitting slavery in the Constitution was the devil’s compromise the Founding Fathers made.

Foreign threats, both military and economic, called for a critical mass of territory, resources and population to counter them, so compromise was a necessary evil to launch the republic quickly. But as the nation matured and grew stronger to the point where such threats diminished, internal  differences were reawakened and filled the vacuum.

For Lee and his southern colleagues, choosing sides with their home states was the right thing to do…..and the worst decision any of them ever made.  If Lee had stayed with the north, he may have succeeded Lincoln as POTUS.

If the only issue was secession, one could make a strong case for keeping the statues. However, the stench of slavery forever tarnished those who left the Union.

Still, I imagine some members of the commission will consider the importance of transparency in portraying history, however painful it may be.

They may consider other factors as well.

Matthew Fontaine Maury was a commander in the United States Navy at the time Virginia seceded.  He chose his state over the Union. He was assigned to port and inland waterway protection.

Maury was openly opposed to slavery and had even developed the framework for a plan to end it, but it never achieved any traction. In a letter to his cousin dated from 1851, “Imagine, waking up some day and finding our country free of slavery!”

He was also a brilliant scientist.  Oceanography, meteorology and modern navigation owe much to his research in the years leading up to the war.  He was internationally acclaimed for his contributions in those fields and was in charge of the Naval Observatory until he resigned over secession.

Jefferson Davis was not fond of dealing with Maury and sent him off to Europe to arrange for the purchase of naval vessels.

After the war, he found his way into academia, teaching physics at the Virginia Military Institute and later helped form a college which would eventually become Virginia Tech.

I felt it was worthwhile to digress and explore Maury’s career as an example of achievements both before and after the war which may be factors in the commission’s recommendations.

If retaining some or all of the statues with context is where this goes, the content will be as hotly debated as the statues themselves.

Removal of the statues would face legal challenges, notwithstanding the horrific events in Charlottesville, due to Monument Avenue’s designation as a National Historic Landmark. I could see years of litigation which could end up in the US Supreme Court.

I feel for the members of the Commission.  They will face a backlash regardless of the outcome – maybe from all sides.

And the Civil War will continue.






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When did the American Civil War end?

Could it really have been late June or early November of 1865?

April 9th is the date widely accepted, and for good reason: it marked the surrender of General Lee’s army at Appomattox, Virginia.

It was a foregone conclusion that other field commands would quickly follow suit.  In fact, they did, with very little violence. A short skirmish at Palmito Ranch in Texas resulted in the death of one soldier, a Union private.

By May 26th, all organized units except for two had capitulated.

One was a cavalry brigade that slipped across into Mexico and eventually disbanded after an adventurous journey, which involved brief action in the war between Archduke Maximillian and the followers of Benito Juarez.  Many of its men eventually returned to the United States.

The brigade was effectively finished as a sustainable fighting force not too long after crossing the Rio Grande in June 1865.  It is worth noting that the unit buried its battle flag – the object connected to the South Carolina murders -.sensibly recognizing the Confederate cause was finished forever.  The commander, General Jo Shelby, returned to the United States in 1867 and renounced slavery. He was later appointed as US Marshall for Western Missouri by President Grover Cleveland.

The other combat unit was the CSS Shenandoah, a commerce raider purchased by the Confederate government from Great Britain.

The ship was at sea when the Confederacy collapsed.

The captain, James Waddell, an Annapolis graduate, was feasting on Union whalers in the Bering Sea in June 1865.  No one was ever killed in his actions against commercial shipping.  Crews would be consolidated on a few ships for safe transport home; the other vessels set afire.  Waddell even recruited sailors from his prizes, with money and adventure being the lure.

On June 22nd, the Shenandoah fired a warning shot across the stern of a ship, part of a whaling fleet. It was probably the last shot in the war.

Waddell and his crew went about their business, but they learned of Lee’s surrender from newspapers provided by the captains of the whaling fleet.

Unfortunately, the newspaper articles lacked any information on the overall status of the South and its other armies. Furthermore, the newspapers reported President Davis as being committed to a continuation of the conflict.  As far as Waddell was concerned, a state of war still persisted.

It wasn’t until August 2nd  when he learned of the complete surrender from the captain of a British merchant ship.

It was not a moment too soon since Waddell had thoughts of sailing to San Francisco to shell the harbor.

Now he had to make the most critical decision – surrender his ship to the first US naval vessel he encountered, cruise to a west coast port and turn it over there, or head to a neutral port to attain immunity from possible prosecution for piracy. It would seem Waddell could have mounted a credible defense against charges of piracy, given the lack of timely communication about the end of the war.

He chose to make a run for it.

Waddell knew it would not be long before the Shenandoah would be targeted as a rogue by every navy  in existence. He had his crew stow the deck guns and camouflage the ship, changing the appearance of its profile.

The ship sailed from the North Pacific, around Cape Horn and then on to Liverpool, where it entered the River Mersey on November 6, 1865, almost seven months after Lee’s surrender. British authorities insisted that the ship show its colors to establish official recognition. So the date not only marks the final formal surrender of the war, but the last time the Confederate flag was raised by an organized unit.

Neither Waddell nor his crew were detained for long.  An investigation by the British government determined they had not violated the rules of war.

The crew was largely international and returned to their respective homelands without fear of arrest. The officers, on the other hand, were American and had to wait for emotions to settle down back home.  They eventually returned to the United States; most pursued careers in commercial shipping.  Waddell was one of the last to return, waiting until 1875.

The Shenandoah logged 58,000 miles in its one-year voyage and became the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe, and the only American warship to conduct punitive military operations during the rebellion in the faraway waters off Alaska, then a possession of Russia. Putin, had he lived back then, would not have been pleased.

One interesting footnote to this saga:  the Shenandoah unknowingly contributed to saving the whales.  The destruction suffered by the whaling industry at the hands of southern raiders forced the United States to rely more heavily on kerosene for lighting. While the battle to save these grand creatures continues today,  extinction would have been a distinct possibility had our growing nation continued to consume their oil.

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For all the wrong reasons, it is good news that the battle flag of the former Confederate States of America might be removed from the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol. It took the deaths of nine innocents to finally deal with this controversy.

Perhaps these nine will be the final casualties of the American Civil War, adding to the roughly 700,000 who fell as a direct result of the four-year rebellion.  Of course, many others died in the decades that followed from criminal lawlessness and racial hatred.

Legislative action to remove the flag, with the full support of Governor Nikki Haley, has commenced and stands an almost certain chance of passage.

The battle flag, a Saint Andrew’s cross with thirteen stars – one for each of the states represented in the Confederate Congress (the eleven who officially seceded, plus the deeply divided states of Missouri and Kentucky), was not the official flag of the rebel government. It was not even the battle flag in other regions outside of the eastern theater of war until almost 1864, but it was the one that became the symbol of southern belligerence long after the surrender of the south’s armies.

It’s distinctive design probably was the main reason for its endurance over the last 150 years. It was also the reason why it was used as a battle flag.  The original national flag of the CSA looked too much like the Stars and Stripes from a distance. In those days, generals had to rely on flags to identify troop positions. The “Stars and Bars,”  as the national flag was described, created confusion in the field.

Had the battle flag not been created, it is possible some other symbol would have been used to promote discord or provoke racism.

The flag may never have become a divisive beacon had southerners reflected after the war and accepted the obvious – that slavery was the root cause of the conflict and was morally indefensible.

Too many attempted to skirt the issue by saying the war was over states’ rights.

Ironically, among the first well-known Confederate veterans to take a stand against the states’ rights excuse was Colonel John SIngleton Mosby, also known as the Gray Ghost.  His cavalry was the scourge of the Union Army in Northern Virginia, sometimes operating within sight of the US Capitol, or Washington City as it was called then.

He attended the University of Virginia before the war, but was expelled for engaging in a non fatal duel with a classmate. Mosby went on to study law before joining the Confederate Army, and afterwards served in the Grant Administration as US Consul to Hong Kong.  While in the foreign service he fought against rampant corruption in its ranks.

He wrote, “The South went to war on account of Slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery would not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. . .”

Not enough of his former comrades backed him up.

Too bad,  Life still would have been oppressive for former slaves and their decedents, but maybe some innocent lives could have been saved.

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Pennsylvania Avenue was mired in mud.

It was March 4, 1865. Around 25,000 to 30,000 endured the miserable conditions caused by prolonged wet weather and high winds to listen to Abraham Lincoln deliver his second inaugural address.

Unlike the atmosphere of his first inauguration, the sense of trepidation among the general public regarding Lincoln’s safety was diminished.

Although John Wilkes Booth was a short distance from where the Lincoln delivered his speech, his designs against the president were not known to anyone. At that point in time, he had contemplated kidnapping Lincoln and smuggling him to Richmond where he would be exchanged for many thousands of Confederate prisoners. Such a fanciful plot could only have been conjured by a deranged sociopath.

Over 10,000 threats had been made against the president in the course of his first term, none taken seriously by him. He even kept some threatening letters pigeon-holed in his desk as if they represented routine business. He once said, “I cannot bring myself to believe that any human being lives who would do me any harm.” But those responsible for his safety were compelled to take precautions, so sharpshooters manned the rooftops that day.

The war’s end was in sight. General Sherman had just crossed into North Carolina on his way to form an inescapable vise with General Grant’s forces in Virginia to crush General’s Lee’s weakened but resilient army.

Some in his position would have used the opportunity for self promotion – think “mission accomplished.” However, in his speech, Lincoln downplayed the seemingly inevitable victory: “The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”

Lincoln did not think his speech was well-received. The fact that there were only four breaks for applause seemed to support his view.

I do not believe he was surprised by the less than rousing response. Lincoln knew what the public wanted to hear – an unequivocal victory speech – but he chose to be conciliatory instead: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Why did he deliver a message of reconciliation when lives were still being lost?

Lincoln was a patient man. He endured insubordinate generals, ruthless political enemies and hostile attacks by the press. Yet he never lost his focus and conviction. That by itself does not explain why he would extend an olive branch to an enemy that launched the nation into a war costing over 600,000 lives and maiming many more; that still seemed hellbent to fight on despite a steady deterioration of fortune.

But Lincoln was also a pragmatic man – he limited the scope of the Emancipation Proclamation to the slaves held in states under the control of the Confederacy, lest he lose political support in the border states. He continued to support Grant despite the loss of 60,000 men in the latter’s Overland Campaign that led to the siege of Richmond, but failed to destroy Lee’s army. Nothing was to deter him from his primary objective of winning the war and restoring the union.

He wasn’t just concerned with winning the war; he understood the importance of how it should end. An angry defeated enemy could be dangerous. Plus, they were still Americans who would have to be reunited with the rest of the nation if there were to be a United States.

Over March 27 and 28, Lincoln, Grant and Sherman discussed the possibility of the conflict degenerating into guerrilla warfare. There was a fear that the remaining southern armies would scatter and continue the fight as irregular units, mixed in with the civilian population or from hideouts in the hills and forests.

It was a real fear based on experience. Missouri was the perverse model for the tragedy guerrilla warfare could unleash – women and children were slaughtered by rival bands of partisans

Both Grant and Sherman felt the sting of a more civil version of guerrilla operations led by the likes of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Colonel John Singleton Mosby (ironically, the latter served in the Grant administration during Reconstruction). There were many others with the proven capability to create havoc when least expected.

What Lincoln most feared was if General Lee would disband his army and authorize his men to carry on the fight from their home states. If that were to occur, there would not be enough troops in the Union to contain, much less vanquish, the violence. The United States would cease to be a functioning nation. As it was, there were still 175,000 men under arms in various parts of the Confederate States.

It was critical, then, to deliver a message of reconciliation. It was even more important to make that clear to the most respected southern leaders, especially Robert E. Lee.

Lee was the key. In the absence of a credible government, southerners looked to him as their leader. If he surrendered, other field commanders would likely follow suit. Some of Lee’s staff encouraged him to issue an order to his men to disperse and carry on the fight.

While cornered at Appomattox, Lee received a letter from Grant indicating that the only condition of surrender would be that the men of the Army of Northern Virginia promised not to take up arms against the government. There was no mention of imprisonment or other acts of retribution. The message was consistent with Lincoln’s wishes. On the basis of the letter and the mutual professional respect between the two opponents, it was easy for Lee to dismiss suggestions of continuing the fight.

Grant’s final surrender terms on April 9 were generous, allowing the Confederates to keep their livestock and for officers to retain their sidearms. Grant also authorized the immediate distribution of rations to the surrendered troops. They could leave for their homes in peace. As Lee stated, “This will have a very happy effect on my army.”

The remaining Confederate field armies followed suit. General Joseph Johnston, who commanded perhaps the most important fighting force after Lee’s, started surrender negotiations on April 17 with Sherman in North Carolina. The final surrender took place on April 26 subject to the same terms as issued at Appomattox. It also covered some 90,000 southern troops from the Carolinas to Florida.

However, it was a dicey affair. One of Union generals mistrusted Johnston and had actually attempted to impair the negotiations, but his concerns were dismissed out of hand by Sherman. Then the news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Sherman on April 17. He swore the telegrapher to secrecy in order not to risk jeopardizing his initial meeting with Johnston. He did share the tragic news with the southern commander. Johnston was mortified. He described Lincoln’s death as “the greatest possible calamity to the South.”

Sherman informed his troops of the surrender negotiations and the news of the assassination that night. He also relayed the sad effect it had on Johnston. The Union soldiers maintained discipline and no reprisals of any significance were carried out.

Some radical Republicans wanted nothing less than retribution against the South and capital charges against the leaders of the Confederacy. Such an outcome may have precipitated an agonizingly long guerrilla war.

But even in death, Lincoln’s message of reconciliation prevailed and spared the nation a continuation of bloodshed that would have destroyed its future.

As it was, the legacy of the Civil War was painful….and still is.

In the end, it created a nation, however imperfect and misguided at times, that has done much to protect freedom throughout the world.

We can thank Lincoln for that.

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“It is those campaigns in America that we must study.”

Historian Fletcher Pratt attributed that statement to a top German military leader in the run up to World War I.

We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War as the Sesquicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War is entering its final year.

And if there were campaigns the Germans and other European powers should have studied, General Grant’s advance into Central Virginia in May 1864 should have been on the top of the list. It was the precursor for what developed in 1914 after the armies of the Central Powers and Allies bogged down in Northern France.

Let’s first set the stage for the situation in 1864.

The southern economy was in shambles. Surprisingly, the Union blockade was not the primary reason. As a whole, foreign trade increased in the South during the war years. For that matter, the port of Wilmington, NC was doing four times the amount of trade it did prior to the war. Wilmington was the key source of foreign supplies for General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee told the Confederate commander at Fort Fisher, which guarded Wilmington, that he would have to evacuate Richmond if the fort fell.

The problem was the composition of the trade. Private entrepreneurs, rather than the CSA government, was behind the vast share of shipments. Luxury goods were far more profitable to ship than heavy machinery, weapons and food ingredients. Although a substantial amount of military hardware did make it through, basic consumer goods and everyday supplies for troops – clothing, medicines – were always scarce. It was the “guns or butter” model every economics student learned in Econ 101. Basically, choosing what to produce or import involves opportunity costs as trade-offs are made between consumer vs. military goods.

What industry the South had was overwhelmingly dedicated to the manufacture of war materials – heavy artillery, shells, gunpowder. It was a small miracle that the CSA had an armaments industry. For that it could thank Josiah Gorgas, a West Point graduate whose pre-war military experience was in ordnance. He might very well be the most effective general no one ever heard of. Gorgas created an armaments industry from scratch. By 1864, most basic weapons and ammunition needs were fulfilled because of his management skills, which made the most of the South’s limited resources.

Gorgas’ backstory is worth mentioning. Although a Pennsylvanian, he married into an Alabama family while serving in Mobile in 1853. The marriage was arguably the primary reason he cast his lot with the South, although his reputation for bucking the army establishment probably contributed. His son, William Gorgas, was the Army surgeon whose work on controlling the spread of yellow fever in Panama saved countless lives and helped make the Panama Canal a viable project.

The distribution system, which served the seceded states well before hostilities, was inadequate to support a wartime economy.

Unlike the North, the South did not have a bureaucracy to administer a tax system, much less a system to process remittances. When it did implement an income tax in 1863, the states did little or nothing to enforce it. The Confederate government relied on printing notes to finance the war, which became increasingly worthless.

The South was struggling to feed and clothe its armies; Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was no exception to logistical and supply problems.

To make matters worse for Lee, he lost a number of experienced division and regimental commanders at Gettysburg. He lost Stonewall Jackson prior to Gettysburg. Aside from General James Longstreet, there was no one capable of stepping up to lead in the event Lee were incapacitated – a real concern due to his ongoing health issues, made worse by the strain of war.

The Union, which also suffered, was at least buoyed by the twin victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Even more important was its industrial capacity that could produce everything needed by its armies and still cover the core needs of the civilian population.

Still, the Union was not without its problems. The growing casualty list was a concern and Lincoln feared it could cost him in the 1864 election.

The New York draft riots in July 1863 required 4,000 federal troops straight from the battle of Gettysburg to suppress the violence, the largest public insurrection in United States history.

Overall, while the northern public still supported the war effort, patience was starting to wear thin.

The war had to be brought to a close….and soon. If it dragged on for too much longer, support would wane. No one knew that better than Lincoln. The current strategy was taking too long. The vast interior of the Confederacy was still untouched. It was time to pick a general who was willing to do what the president called the “terrible math” – to not allow the human cost to detract from achieving victory – a delicate balancing act. To incur too many more casualties with little to show for the sacrifice could cost Lincoln the election.

General Grant fit the bill. His results-oriented strategy in the western theater led to regaining control of the Mississippi River and saving a union army besieged in Chattanooga after it was defeated at Chickamauga.

Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General, the first officer to hold that rank since George Washington, and put in command of all Union armies.

Grant’s strategy was simple – launch coordinated campaigns along several fronts, primarily in central Virginia and north Georgia.

The former would target Lee’s army rather than Richmond. Grant believed if he could get between Richmond and Lee’s army, Lee would be forced to attack him in an open battle where the full force of the Union army could be brought to bear on the outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia. A decisive victory would mean the end of Lee’s ability to conduct operations and, therefore, result in the fall of Richmond.

Grant would have the numbers on his side – almost 120,000 men to face Lee’s 65,000. To build up this numerical advantage, Grant converted garrison troops from the defenses of Washington and other commands to infantry units. The operation would become known as the Overland Campaign. By contrast, General McClellan’s failed attempt to take Richmond two years earlier was labeled the Peninsular Campaign. In 1862, McClellan’s troops were transported by water and landed on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula at Union-controlled Fort Monroe, from where they moved west through Williamsburg to the outskirts of Richmond. That was as far as the Army of the Potomac got before Lee launched a series of counterattacks that drove the Union forces back.

General Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, remained in command of the Army of the Potomac, but he was not viewed to be aggressive enough to implement Grant’s strategy. His sluggish pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg and his failure to make any progress in Virginia during the fall of 1863 diminished his value in the eyes of Lincoln. Grant chose to accompany Meade’s command to assure compliance with the relentless tactics the campaign would require.

The Georgia campaign would be led by General William T. Sherman. Atlanta, the most important city in the south after Richmond, would be the objective.

Success of both campaigns would all but eliminate the South’s industrial and transportation capabilities.

The other campaigns would support the primary ones by cutting key supply lines and diverting the CSA’s attention from the main business at hand.

Operations commenced on May 4. The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, a tributary of the Rappahannock just west of Fredericksburg, and Sherman moved south from Chattanooga.

Rapidan River - the starting point of Grant's campaign in Virginia.

Rapidan River – the starting point of Grant’s campaign in Virginia.

This article will focus on the Virginia campaign, not to diminish the importance of the one on Georgia, but it was the larger and bloodier of the two and the one that set the tone for the fighting in World War 1. I will cover the Georgia campaign in a later article.

The fighting started as most other previous battles had; two mobile forces maneuvering to gain a favorable position.

Grant wanted to march as quickly as possible through the densely wooded section south of the Rapidan known as the Wilderness and fight the southerners in open country where his superior numbers and artillery could be employed to maximum effect. Lee was motivated to engage the Union army in the Wilderness for exactly the opposite reason.

Logistics proved difficult for the Union force, especially the movement of its long trains of supply wagons. Lee, being closer to his supply base, could move more quickly – and did. Hence, the two armies faced off in the thick woods and dense underbrush of the Wilderness, near where the battle of Chancellorsville was fought a year earlier.

General Meade managed the tactical operations for Grant and eventually drove back the Confederate right flank. However, General Longstreet’s corp, which had been situated several miles away at the start of the battle, arrived on the scene and mounted a counterattack that recovered the lost ground and threatened to go farther. Unfortunately for Lee, Longstreet was wounded by friendly fire at a crucial phase. The attack bogged down and the northern line had a chance to stabilize. The Confederates pushed forward the next day and made more progress before darkness settled in, effectively ending the fighting.

Many wounded on both sides perished in the bullet-ignited brush fires that erupted in the woods. Their cries could be heard through the day and night. Some of the wounded committed suicide rather than be engulfed by flames. Muffled explosions could be heard as fires reached the cartridges of the fallen. The stench of burning flesh lingered through the woods.

In all, Grant lost 18,000 men to Lee’s 10,000, but rather than pull back and lick his wounds as his predecessors had done time and again after a defeat, he disengaged and moved southeast, forcing Lee to make a parallel movement lest Richmond be threatened. In so doing, Grant turned a tactical defeat into a strategic movement.

Longstreet would be out of action until October. That was bad news for Lee, whose other corp commanders lacked the consistency and resolve of the wounded commander of the 1st Corps. It would result in a lost opportunity later in the campaign.

Overland Campaign Map - Virginia 1864

Overland Campaign Map – Virginia 1864

Neither Grant nor Lee could have predicted how the nature of the fighting would change in the ensuing days. The horrors were just beginning. For that matter, the next month would find the opposing forces in close contact, including three other major battles and numerous smaller engagements.

Entrenching became more commonplace and complex as well. According to historian Dr. Earl J. Hess, who wrote extensively about Civil War fortifications, the constant contact drove soldiers to build earthworks and dig trenches as a matter of self-preservation. Bullets and artillery shells were always in the air.

Grant favored the fortifications as springboards for his next maneuver. Lee relied on them to offset the manpower advantage of the Union army.

Both sides became as reliant on the shovel as they did rifles. And the results proved deadly.

Digging virtually marked the troop movements to the southeast as Grant would try to work around Lee’s eastern flank while the latter matched his every move.

The next round of heavy fighting ran from May 8th through the 19th at Spotsylvania, close to fifteen miles south of the Wilderness battlefield. Lee beat Grant to the vital crossroads which offered direct access to Richmond.

The Confederates entrenched and repulsed several Union attacks. Grant authorized an untried tactic at one point. It was developed by Colonel Emory Upton. The tactic was designed to overwhelm entrenched defenders. The attackers would not stop to fire and reload – they would rush forward as fast as possible so the enemy would not have time to fire multiple volleys.

It worked. A breach was made, but the Confederates regrouped quickly with the aid of reinforcements and pushed Upton’s men back. The reinforcements were made possible by shifting troops from other entrenchments without unduly weakening other points on the defensive line and subjecting them to a counterattack.

Despite the lack of success, Grant recognized the potential value of the rapid assault and promoted Upton to the rank of general. Upton’s tactic became standard practice in World War 1. Unfortunately, the machine gun offset its advantage.

At one point, the opposing troops went toe-to-toe for almost 20 hours, firing point-blank, stabbing and clubbing along earthworks. Out of desperation, some men hurled their bayoneted rifles like spears. Intermittent rain turned trenches into rivers of mud. Many wounded were trampled to death in the ooze from the weight of combatants engaged in demonic hand-to-hand combat.

General John Sedgwick, commander of the Union 6th Corps was killed by a sniper bullet to the head shortly after he told his men he was too far away to make a good target.

The Confederates lost General Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant and brilliant commander of Lee’s cavalry corp. He was mortally wounded in a cavalry engagement at Yellow Tavern just outside of Richmond while responding to a Union raid led by General Philip Sheridan. Now Lee was without the services of his two ablest generals.

Grant lost another 18,000 men to Lee’s 12,000 in the Spotsylvania fighting. To complicate matters, Union enlistments were expiring and many men decided to head home. Replacements arrived, but they were not hardened veterans as the departing men were.

Lee was able to replace some of his losses. As mentioned earlier, Grant’s overall strategic plan called for supporting movements by other forces. A small army was put ashore by the Navy about 20 miles south of Richmond, but it was bottled up at Bermuda Hundred, a small peninsula formed by two rivers, by a contingent of General Beauregard’s troops. An attempt to cut Lee from his supply lines to the Shenandoah Valley also failed. As a result, Lee was able to move around 7,000 men from those areas to his main army.

At this point, Grant’s numerical advantage had diminished to a margin of only 14,000 – a far cry from the 55,000 he enjoyed at the start of the campaign.

Almost any other general would have withdrawn and regrouped, resuming the offensive only after rest and resupply.

Not Grant. In one of his dispatches, he swore, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

Grant continued to move to the southeast.

Both Grant and Lee set traps.

Grant tried to lure Lee into the open by exposing Hancock’s 2nd Corps as bait. He figured Lee would not be able to resist attacking an isolated formation. Before the ruse could be launched in full, a routine reconnaissance initiated by Confederate General Ewell’s corps was mistakenly interpreted as an attack and Grant delayed Hancock’s maneuver.

As it turned out, either Lee was unaware of Grant’s bait or simply chose to ignore it. Instead, Lee took up a position on the North Anna River, just 20 miles north of Richmond, and arranged his defensive line in an inverted V, thus any attack would split union forces in two disconnected wings. Lee could take advantage of his interior lines, which would facilitate shifting troops to one side or the other, concentrating enough of his force to support an overwhelming counterattack on an isolated segment of Grant’s army.

Grant fell for it, but Lee, who had been fighting off illness, succumbed to an intestinal malady and was confined to his tent. His corp commanders, also battling illness to some degree, could not follow through on his plan to attack. Had Longstreet been present, things may have played out differently. It could have been the end of the Overland Campaign.

Once Grant realized how exposed his army was to a crushing attack, he withdrew and reformed his army for yet another move to the southeast. This occurred on May 25th.

The scattered fighting of the North Anna engagement cost the Federals 4,000 men. Lee lost 2,500.

Major crossroads tend to serve as a magnet for combat – Gettysburg, for example. So it is no surprise that both armies were drawn to a an otherwise insignificant spot on the map where five key roads met. Cold Harbor, as it was named, was nothing more than a dilapidated tavern where a traveler could be served a cool drink and spend the night.

It was also uncomfortably close to Richmond for Lee, about 10 miles. The only natural barrier between the city and Cold Harbor was the Chickahominy River. If Grant could break through here, Lee would be forced into the trenches of his capital. It would become a siege. That was the last thing Lee wanted – to be pinned in one place and unable to launch a large-scale offensive against northern targets.

For Grant, a siege would be better than nothing, but time was an enemy. A stalemate in front of Richmond coupled with the potential for failure by Sherman to seize Atlanta could spell defeat for Lincoln in November. A peace candidate would likely negotiate with the Confederacy, if elected.

The stakes were getting higher as the armies crept ever closer to Richmond. Grant had failed to pull Lee out in the open, but he figured the Confederate Army was ready to break after weeks of continuous combat. He was aware of the poor logistics that hampered Lee and the adverse impact it must have had on the southerners.

Grant had also just received reinforcements transported by river from the failed operation at Bermuda Hundred.

The time was right for a general assault, he thought. If successful, Lee’s army would be routed and Richmond would fall, along with Petersburg – a key supply point.

Grant misjudged the morale of the Confederates. They were also now situated in what many experts consider the most carefully designed set of trenches and earthworks ever constructed in the war. The crossfire opportunities were numerous and the protection they offered the defenders was excellent.

The Union soldiers seemed to understand the gravity of assaulting the defenses. Many wrote their names on slips of paper and pinned them to the backs of their uniforms so they could be easily identified if killed.

Only about 500 yards separated the two armies, a little more than a lap around a school track. The no-man’s land in between already showed the skeletons from the fighting two years ago during McClellan’s campaign. It must have been a scene from hell as Dante would describe it.

The order was given and the Army of the Potomac stepped out from their cover in the early dawn and advanced.

The next half-hour would equal any mayhem produced by World War 1. Some 5,000 to 6,000 Union soldiers fell, many in rows, perhaps most in the first 15 minutes. No units breached the defenses. The attackers hit the ground and took what cover could be found, including using the dead bodies as shields.

There they stayed for nine hours. Grant did not order a retreat; if anything, he wanted them to renew the assault. Instead, men came crawling back, including any wounded capable of moving. The rest lay where they fell on the battlefield for the next two days until Grant asked for a truce to recover them.

It was actually closer to four days before he authorized parties to gather the wounded – most were dead by then, having succumbed to the stifling sun and lack of water. Grant had done this before – at Vicksburg, after his initial assault failed.

According to historians, asking for a truce to recover wounded was an admission of defeat…and Grant hated to admit defeat. In his memoirs, Grant regretted ordering the attack.

Grant downplayed his casualties throughout the Overland Campaign. According to Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, considered the hero of Gettysburg and a Medal of Honor recipient, in his memoirs (The Passing of the Armies): “Then the rushing, forced flank-movements, known and overmatched by the ever-alert; followed by reckless front attacks, where highest valor was deepest loss; buffetings on bloody angles; butcherings in slaughter pens, — all the way down to the fateful Chickahominy once more — a campaign under fire for twenty-seven days and nights together; morning reports at last not called for and when we asked explanation our superiors answered, — confidentially, lest it seem disloyal; ‘Because the country would not stand it, if they knew.’ ”

He went on to say in a speech to the Society of the Army of the Potomac in 1889: “I desire to say here today that in this Army of the Potomac whose suffering and losses were such in that same year of 1864 that we were not called upon or permitted to report our casualties during that whole campaign from the Rapidan and Rappahannock to the James and Appomattox, for fear the country could not stand the disclosure….”

Was it a cover-up?

If so, it has been suggested there was a desire to deflect any criticism that would impair Lincoln’s renomination at the Republican Convention, held June 7-8, just days after the fateful attack.

As great a man as Lincoln was, he could be brutally pragmatic when it came to war policy: suspension of habeas corpus, sacking generals, not freeing the slaves in states loyal to the Union, never commuting death sentences of deserters.

We will never know unless a cache of correspondence to that effect is found hidden in the walls of the White House. Barring that, this theory will remain nothing more than interesting speculation.

For nine days following the battle, the armies stared at each other from their wretched trenches, soldiers not daring to raise their heads lest a sniper find the range. Only the short truce to recover Union wounded provided respite.

In those long nine days, Grant decided to execute a bold maneuver, perhaps even more complex than the one he used to get around the Vicksburg defenses in the summer of 1863. He would forego striking directly at Richmond and instead target Petersburg. Petersburg was Richmond’s connection to vital supply lines.

The new plan was a marvel of engineering as pontoon bridges were quickly constructed across the Chickahominy and James Rivers. The plan had been in the back of Grant’s mind since before the Overland Campaign. He had even requested that bridging equipment be accumulated at Fort Monroe, from where it could be shipped to potential river crossing points.

To pull it off, Grant had to keep Lee’s attention focused closer to Cold Harbor. To that end, he left a few divisions west of his bridges to cover the movement.

Before Lee could react, Grant got the jump he needed and successfully landed a large force outside of Petersburg. The plan called for an immediate attack on the city, which was lightly defended, but there was a delay due to confusing orders. When the attack was finally launched, it lacked resolve, owing to trepidation by Union troops to attack yet another fortified position. This allowed Lee enough time to move a division of 5,000 men into the city’s trenches. A war-ending opportunity was lost.

The Overland Campaign was over; the siege of Petersburg and Richmond had begun – likely a very long one in the minds of Grant and Lee. As I noted earlier, a siege was the last thing either commander wanted. It put pressure on Sherman to take Atlanta before the November elections – and his campaign was moving slowly due to Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s defensive prowess and the tenacity of his army. That campaign will be covered in my next segment late this summer.

The horrific conditions faced by the men who fought for 40 straight days from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor must have had a profound effect on their mental health. I would not have been surprised if the suicide rate for these combatants exceeded what today’s veterans are experiencing.

Apparently, the opposite is true. Experts believe the rate could be three-times higher for troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

To read all of the articles in this series, follow this link.

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This article’s title has nothing to do with Knute Rockne’s memorable “Win one for the Gipper” speech.

“Four score and seven years ago….”

Unless you are one of Leno’s Jaywalking All- Stars, you know who spoke those words and the occasion at which they were uttered.

Anyone who has read the words to that speech would find it hard to believe that Abraham Lincoln was not the guest of honor at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery 150 years ago on November 19, 1863. That role went to Edward Everett, a man as respected as anyone in his time. A former Member of Congress, US Senator and statesman, he was well-known for his oratory skills. Lincoln was there to make concluding remarks.

If Lincoln had not been able to make it – he barely arrived the day before on a special train – we would remember the opening of the Gettysburg address as, “Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”

In fact, Everett’s speech took two hours to deliver; it amounted to 13,607 words – even longer than a typical article written by my fellow Citywatch contributor, Bob Gelfand.

Although eloquent, much of Everett’s time was devoted to a summary of the deadly events leading up to the battle and a description of the action over the three bloody days in early July. Purely material better suited for a college history class than an outdoor gathering. I would imagine there were some in the audience who dozed off at times.

It was less than inspiring…..and the nation was in need of a heavy dose of inspiration. You see, the war was still in the balance. It was halftime.

Despite the strategic victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, the vast interior of the South was still under Confederate control. Lincoln still had to worry about re-election the next year. If the war was still dragging on without an end in sight, a peace candidate could capture the White House and negotiate an armistice with the CSA.

What’s more, the Confederates scored an important victory at Chickamauga just two months before in September. The Union Army was driven back to Chattanooga in disarray. Only the lack of resolve by the Confederate commander, Braxton Bragg, and the dogged defense of General George Thomas (thereafter known as the Rock of Chickamauga) kept the fight from being a complete disaster for the northern army.

The very day Everett and Lincoln delivered their speeches, the Union Army was still bottled up in Chattanooga. General Grant, who had taken command of the besieged forces in the city, was still planning a counterattack against the heavily defended positions of the Confederates. There was absolutely no guarantee of success.

As it turned out, Grant was successful in a series of battles that began on November 23rd. He did to southerners what they did to the Union forces at Chickamauga. Bragg was forced to hurriedly retreat and only the heroic defense by his best division commander, General Patrick Cleburne, enabled the rebels to reassemble in Georgia. It was similar to what George Thomas had accomplished for the Union army in September.

I would like to think that the Union soldiers who stormed Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge in late November 1863 felt inspired to some degree by Lincoln’s words. Certainly General Grant’s reputation contributed to their confidence, but sometimes words can motivate, too. There were no media polls 150 years ago, so we will never know for sure if the soldiers digested Lincoln’s remarks then or thereafter in the final seventeen months of the conflict, which were among the bloodiest.

The text of both speeches were printed in all of the major newspapers within days. Republicans generally favored Lincoln’s and Democrats were impressed by Everett’s. Can you say partisanship?

This much we know: Edward Everett wrote Abraham Lincoln shortly after the dedication ceremonies, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

To which Lincoln responded, “In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little that I did say was not entirely a failure.”

Indeed, not a failure – then, now or in the future.

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July 4, 1863 – 150 years ago – two pivotal events in our nation’s history occurred: the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg to General Ulysses S Grant and Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg.

Countless words and seemingly endless volumes have been written about these two campaigns. I can add little to the descriptions and analysis of the skirmishes and full-blown battles. Instead, I will focus on events and decisions made well in advance of that fateful July which influenced and ultimately may have preordained the outcomes.

The delicate balance in early 1863.

Frustration was pervasive in the North during the early Spring of 1863. The war was effectively at a stalemate. After almost two years of fighting, the vast heartland of the Confederacy was still beyond the reach of the US Government. The South had demonstrated an ability to resist invasion, or at least slow Union advances to a crawl.
blank-civil-war-states-map highlighted

The Union Army of the Potomac had been bloodily repulsed in December 1862 at Fredericksburg, VA with losses of over 12,000 men in a single day’s combat. Grant made seven attempts between January and March of 1863 at circumventing the formidable defenses of Vicksburg, MS, hoping to capture or invest the city – all failed.

Spirits improved briefly when General Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac and boldly predicted he would crush Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It appeared that he would succeed when he crossed the Rappahannock River west of Fredericksburg, successfully positioning his forces on Lee’s left flank, threatening to deliver a punishing, if not a fatal, blow. This led to the battle of Chancellorsville.

To make matters worse, prior to Hooker’s movement, Lee had detached General Longstreet, who was a very reliable corp commander, with two divisions on a mission east of Richmond, too far away to provide immediate assistance. Quite simply, Lee was in a precarious position. Retreat towards the defenses of Richmond seemed the logical course of action, assuming that option was even available given the proximity of Hooker.

Lee rarely did the expected. He had a reputation for audacity and aggressiveness. That alone had the effect of keeping his opponents off-balance.

Completely disregarding conventional tactics, he split his available force in two, sending Stonewall Jackson on a risky end run around the Union right flank. Lee was taking a calculated risk, not an outright gamble. General Jeb Stuart, who commanded Lee’s cavalry, had discovered through reconnaissance that Hooker’s right flank was not protected. Lee could smell carelessness as easily as a bloodhound can pick up a scent. It was an engraved invitation for Lee to turn the tables on Hooker.

Since the battle was being fought in the dense wilderness in central Virginia and much of Jackson’s march was obscured by the darkness of night, the maneuver was not detected. What movements were visible were assumed to be an attempt by Lee to retreat south or reposition his line; no need for alarm, or so it seemed, to Union forces.

While Lee directed his wing to give the appearance of readying an attack, Jackson worked his men into position and launched an assault that found the right flank of the Union army exposed and unprepared.

Jackson’s veterans ran over and through the fleeing Union troops and were only halted by a courageous and near suicidal defensive effort when he was within reach of Hooker’s headquarters.

Anxious to capitalize on the day’s success, Jackson personally led a reconnaissance that night. He and his escort were mistaken for Union cavalry by his own troops. They fired upon the band, severely wounding Jackson.

Jeb Stuart took command in his place. The young Stuart, who served under Lee during the capture of John Brown at Harpers Ferry, was successful at driving Hooker back across the river.

Jackson received the best medical treatment the South could offer. It’s worth a bit of a digression from the main topic.

The team of doctors included the medical director of Jackson’s corp, Major Hunter Holmes McGuire. McGuire was among the top surgeons on either side. After the war, he went on to develop important advances in the field of urology and intestinal surgery, and served as president of the American Medical Association.

McGuire performed an amputation of Jackson’s left arm. The general’s condition was improving after the surgery, but he developed pneumonia, a common cause of death among the wounded during the conflict, and passed away on May 10th, eight days after being shot.

Lee and President Jefferson Davis had no time to celebrate the highly improbable victory at Chancellorsville. At around the same time as the battle of Chancellorsville was raging, General Grant had executed a brilliant maneuver which allowed his army to move over difficult ground on the west side of the Mississippi River and rendezvous with Union Navy ships downriver of Vicksburg. The ships ferried his army across to the east bank. He was then able to advance on Vicksburg from the south, an approach not as heavily defended and also cutting across the key supply line to the city.

Grant next won a string of battles in the first half of May that forced the Confederates to fall back within the defenses of Vicksburg where they were bottled up, cut off from resupply. After ground attacks by Grant were repulsed, things settled down into a siege. The clock was ticking and it would be a matter of time before the Confederates would be forced to surrender – unless relief arrived.

The ball was squarely in the South’s court. A strategic decision had to be made. Doing nothing was not an option.

Strategy talks.
Devising a plan to deal with the relief of Vicksburg as well as the ever-present threat posed by the Army of the Potomac in Virginia was a challenge by itself. The process was made much more difficult due to the Confederacy’s lack of organization in the Western Theater. For that, almost all of the blame rested with Jefferson Davis.

As the President and Commander-in-Chief, Davis had the power and influence to assign responsibility to field commanders, the same power afforded to the President of the United States. True, politics was always part of the equation, but Davis did not have to worry about re-election. Under the Constitution of the CSA, the President was limited to one six-year term – a moot point considering how the war ended, but a very relevant one in early 1863. Davis, then, could exercise broad discretion in the conduct of the war without long-term political consequences.

It actually did not help the South that Davis was a graduate of West Point. His relationships with some of his generals were influenced by friendships dating back to his days as a cadet, over the course of service in the Army, including the Mexican War, as chair of the Military Affairs Committee in the US Senate and as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. What’s more, his military background drove him to micro-manage the war effort. Lincoln, by contrast, had no such issues and did not hesitate to relieve and replace under-performing generals.

Although Davis had appointed General Joseph Johnston as the commander of the Western Theater, which included the commands of General Joseph Pemberton at Vicksburg and General Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga, the latter two still reported directly to Davis. Needless to say, this command arrangement was a major obstacle to a coordinated defense of Vicksburg. In fact, Pemberton had conflicting orders: Davis wanted Vicksburg held, but Johnston wanted Pemberton to abandon the city and save his army since it appeared Grant’s sweep from the south would cause Vicksburg to be cut off from supplies.

Davis’ orders prevailed and Pemberton’s army stayed in Vicksburg.

Johnston lacked the numbers to directly relieve the siege. Furthermore, he was held in check by General Sherman’s force detached from Grant’s main body. Nevertheless, with proper coordination, Johnston may have been able to create enough of an opening to allow supplies to bleed through to the beleaguered garrison.

That’s the situation Lee and Longstreet had to ponder. Each had his own idea about how to deal with it.

General Longstreet had given the situation in the west some serious thought since at least early 1863. He envisioned taking part of his corp to combine with Johnston’s force. Johnston might then have adequate strength to defeat Sherman and break the siege around Vicksburg. Longstreet and Johnston had a good working relationship as a result of their service together in Virginia during the first year of the war. Longstreet rose from commanding a brigade to a corp while under Johnston’s command (Johnston was wounded in June 1862 and Lee took command of what would be called the Army of Northern Virginia).

An alternative would have been for Longstreet and Johnston to move into Tennessee and combine with the forces under the command of Braxton Bragg. They would then attack the Union army under General William Rosecrans. If successful, the heartland of the North would be threatened. Communication and supply flow between the east and the west would be disrupted. It would have also created a political crisis for Lincoln, enough where Grant would have to be pulled back to counter the invasion.

Lee had reservations about the direct relief of Vicksburg in part because he did not believe Pemberton had the capability to coordinate with the Johnston-Longstreet force, plus he thought it would be too little, too late. More importantly, he believed a far-away deployment of his only remaining veteran corp commander along with a measurable segment of his army would expose Richmond to a coordinated attack by both the Army of the Potomac and union forces on the peninsula east of Richmond.

Lee believed the Army of Northern Virginia had to be mobile in order to offset the superior numbers it faced. Getting bogged down in a defensive strategy would result in attrition without any gain. In other words, Lee wanted to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

He also wanted to move the war out of Virginia to provide respite for the farmers in the state and give them a chance to harvest their crops without the threat of armies thrashing through their fields.

An invasion of the North, if it resulted in a major victory, would threaten Washington and other cities in the general region. It could also create a political crisis of its own for Lincoln and possibly win foreign recognition for the South.

Lee had his way. Certainly, his well-earned reputation had something to do with it.

The decision to follow Lee’s plan doomed Vicksburg. Why Davis still insisted that Pemberton remain there and not follow Johnston’s recommendation to evacuate might rank among the worst decisions of the war, up to that time. It would lead to the surrender of 30,000 veteran troops.

Lee’s logic for seizing the initiative and invading Pennsylvania was excellent. As a practical matter, it was flawed. Washington City (as it was called back then) was too well defended and could be reinforced by troops ferried up the Potomac and supported by the powerful Union Navy. A siege would have been impractical. An outright assault would have been suicide.

Although Lee was fully capable of defeating the Army of the Potomac in the open field, it is doubtful he had the strength to deliver a knockout punch against such a strong force.

I doubt, too, that the South would have won foreign recognition even if Lee scored a victory, especially with the fall of Vicksburg, as it reopened the Mississippi River to commerce and cut valuable food shipments from Texas to the Eastern Confederacy.

His only real hope was to create panic and encourage rising sentiment against the war in certain segments of the North (the film, The Gangs of New York, depicts the draft riots in New York, the most violent expression against the war).

It was a long shot under the best of conditions, made more difficult by the reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The death of Stonewall Jackson created a leadership void, probably greater than Lee surmised.

Up to Chancellorsville, Lee had the best one-two punch on either side in Jackson and Longstreet. The two were as different in personality as day and night – Longstreet was more down to earth while Jackson could seem detached. His men referred to him as “Old Blue Light” for the intensity of his stare. Longstreet was a friend of General Grant and cousin of his wife Julia Dent. He even served as Grant’s best man at their wedding.

Regardless, they were both accomplished corp commanders who were more capable than Bragg, Johnston or almost any other general in charge of any Confederate army at the time.

Imagine any organization losing half of its top management executives. Naming a suitable replacement can take considerable time. In war, you must act quickly.

Jeb Stuart may have been the logical choice. He did an excellent job of commanding Jackson’s corp in relief, but Lee took an altogether different approach. He changed the structure from two corps to three. Generals Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill were given the command of the newly formed 2nd and 3rd Corps, each assigned three divisions, one being transferred from Longstreet’s existing 1st Corp.

This left the army almost equally divided among three corp commanders. That may not seem significant, but it was.

The Army of Northern Virginia now had two-thirds of its troops under new leadership. Although Ewell and Hill had proven themselves as excellent division commanders under Jackson, their responsibilities tripled under the new arrangement, with not much time to grow into their new roles. Furthermore, Hill was prone to illness due to a case of gonorrhea he had contracted as a young man, and malaria, which he caught while serving in the Mexican War.

Longstreet, the only proven corp commander, had fewer men under his direction now.

There would be a price to pay for the reorganization at Gettysburg.

So off they went.

Lee eluded Hooker, moved his army into the Shenandoah Valley and headed north to the Potomac. Along the way, Ewell’s new corp swept aside the Union defenders at Winchester, VA, capturing almost 4,000 prisoners along with valuable supplies, horses and artillery. This engagement opened the door for the march into Pennsylvania and destiny.


The battle of Gettysburg was fought over three days, July 1-3; for all practical purposes, it was decided on the first day, ironically it was a day of success for the Confederates.


Neither army had any intention of fighting there. Lee was moving in the direction of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. For that matter, neither Lee nor General George Gordon Meade, who had just relieved Hooker as the commander of the Army of the Potomac, knew where each other’s forces were.

As it happened, one of Hill’s division made contact with Union cavalry outside of Gettysburg. Hill had issued orders not to engage, but a fight erupted anyway. Hill was sick and not with the lead elements when the initial contact was made, so he was unable to prevent it.

Lee, who valued choosing the time and place of a battle, was now facing a totally unplanned engagement. His army was strung out in an arc spreading around Chambersburg, Carlisle and York, with Stuart and half the cavalry far to the east. Before the fighting started, Lee had already ordered his far-flung forces to consolidate at Cashtown, a little west of Gettysburg. He had wanted to regroup and plan now that there was definite news of Union activity. Instead, he had to plunge his scattered corps into the full-fledged battle developing near Gettysburg with little time for coordination.

It was similar to the situation he faced at Antietam in September of 1862. Then, it was due to his orders falling into the hands of Union General McClellan. At Antietam, Lee had to consolidate on short notice and form a defensive strategy on the fly to counter an imminent attack by the much larger Army of the Potomac, but he had Longstreet and Jackson to assist him, not newly minted corp commanders.

Coordination (or shall I say, lack thereof) would rule the day.

Day One: Confederates successful, but short of seizing key ground.

Day One: Confederates successful, but short of seizing key ground.

Despite the spontaneous eruption of fighting and the scattered disposition of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee had no reason to complain with the hand he had been dealt on the first day. He managed to concentrate more men in the vicinity of Gettysburg than Meade. However, Longstreet’s corp was still coming up and could not participate. Longstreet himself arrived around mid-day.

The Confederates pressed hard, taking advantage of their temporary numerical superiority.

The Northerners were resilient and fought stubbornly until they could do no more. They retreated through the town of Gettysburg. In some cases it was a rout, with many prisoners taken by the advancing Southerners. The senior Union commander on the field, General John Reynolds, was killed earlier in the fighting. General Abner Doubleday took over (Doubleday has been credited for inventing baseball, but there is no hard supporting evidence).

Doubleday was not held in esteem by Meade and was relieved the next day.

Lee’s style of leadership afforded his corp commanders a fair amount of discretion, understandable given the state of communications in those days. He could always count on Jackson and Longstreet to use the best judgment when it came to strategic or tactical opportunities. But on this day, he was managing a new team.

He issued orders to Ewell directing him to take the hills south of the town “if practicable.”

The objectives in question were Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. These hills would ultimately anchor the Union right flank and prove vital in Meade’s defensive strategy on the second and third days. Without them, defense would have been virtually impossible.

If Ewell had seized them, Meade would have been forced to retreat from Gettysburg towards Washington. Lee would have won not only a victory, but one which would have deflated morale throughout the North.

Ewell was concerned about the physical condition of his command. They had fought long and hard. He asked Lee to send some of Hill’s men to support an attack, but his request was refused.

It was still up to Ewell whether he should attack. He decided against it.

Many historians believe Jackson would have pushed his men as he had done many times before. Also, under the old two-corp organization, Jackson would have been directing most of the divisions assigned to Hill along with those of Ewell. Under those circumstances, he could have – and would have – used them as he saw fit. A fully supported attack most certainly would have been launched.

It should have been apparent that the defenders of the two hills would have been disorganized after their hasty retreat and the heavy casualties they absorbed. General Reynolds, considered by his peers as one of the best officers in the Army of the Potomac, was dead. It was a risk Jackson or Longstreet would have taken.

It is difficult to place the entire blame for the failure to attack on Ewell. At this critical stage in the battle, Lee had Longstreet available, if not his troops. Longstreet was second-in-command and Lee could have directed him to coordinate an assault by Ewell and Hill on the battered Union remnants.

That night and through the following day, Union reinforcements arrived and strengthened the defenses. The best opportunity for the Confederates to capture the strategic hills was lost.

The events of the next two days amounted to Union forces fending off Confederate assaults, the last attempt being Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd. It should be noted that Longstreet almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on the second day with an inspired attack on the Union left flank. The difference was the equally inspired defence of Little Round Top by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the professor from Bowdoin College who would go on to serve as president of the college and Governor of Maine. He won the Medal of Honor and was promoted to brigadier general in 1864.

In the final analysis, Lee fought the type of battle he tried to avoid. In my view, it boiled down to his failure to manage his new corp commanders.

July 4th was the darkest day for the Confederacy. The decision not to support the defenders of Vicksburg and place all the eggs on an invasion of the North by Lee resulted in a double tragedy.

What if Longstreet’s strategy had been approved?

Well, it was tried in October 1863 and resulted in an important victory for the South. Longstreet and his corp were sent west to bolster General Bragg’s army. The transfer enabled the combined force to defeat General Rosecrans at Chickamauga and send his army into flight. However, Bragg, who had a reputation for caution, failed to purse the Federals. His lack of follow-up allowed Grant time to come to the support of the defeated troops and overcome Bragg at Chattanooga.

The rest is history.

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It is ironic that while the United States was fighting to free the slaves from 1861-1865, genocide against Native Americans was still the order of the day.

We are approaching the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, a major turning point in the Civil War, but it was business as usual when it came to the U S Government’s handling of Indian affairs.

I thought about this while drafting an article about Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the eve of the sesquicentennial observances of those momentous events (that article will be published in an upcoming edition of Citywatch and my blog). As I was writing, my eye caught a headline in the Los Angeles Times LATEXTRA section: “Uncovering a grim chapter.

It told the story of a massacre of 35 Paiute Indians at Owens Lake in 1863 at the hands of a US Cavalry detachment and a group of settlers. Many of the Indians were shot while swimming to safety. As in most conflicts between Indians and settlers, persistent encroachment by whites stressed the resources of the Paiutes.

I have driven US 395 through the Owens Valley countless times. There is no marker or any information available. Surprisingly, I have not seen anything commemorating it at the Paiute Palace Casino in Bishop.

The Owens Lake massacre was not a unique event during the period. A quick stroll through history exposes several bloody encounters, with the Indians suffering the most by far. Here are a few.

The largest of them was the Dakota War of 1862 fought in Minnesota. Although the Sioux launched the initial hostilities, killing up to 800 settlers, it was the dishonest treatment they received at the hands of the government that pushed some tribes to engage in violence. Nevertheless, the attacks were directed at defenseless civilian farmers rather than government outposts – not a smart move. Please play the video for a brief summary of the war.

Federal troops under the command of General John Pope crushed the uprising.

For Pope, it must have felt like vindication after he was soundly defeated at the battle of Second Bull Run not long before.

For the Sioux, it was a disaster. Thirty-eight braves were executed in what was the largest mass execution in the history of the nation. Many survivors were driven to Fort Snelling under custody of the army, further crushing their way of life.

The Bear River Massacre in Idaho resulted in the deaths of 280 Shoshone Indians in 1863. The Shoshone were Sacajawea’s people. It was a regiment of California volunteers that led the assault. They reportedly killed women and children after the outcome had been decided.

A smaller, but perhaps more publicized, bloody encounter occurred at Sand Creek in 1864. Colonel John Chivington ordered an attack against a Cheyenne camp whose inhabitants had made peace with the government. The soldiers took scalps and gunned down women and children. What made Sand Creek different from other atrocities was that it sparked a Congressional investigation. Unfortunately, no one was punished, including Chivington. He was forced to resign and led a long life, occasionally “entertaining” groups with his war stories.

The US Congress in Spielberg’s Lincoln was not quite the principled body as depicted. While they tackled the shame of slavery, they completely ignored the plight of Native Americans.

It also did not help that many of the best and brightest who could have humanely intervened in Indian affairs were absorbed in the struggle for the Union, fighting for either side.

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File this under “Acquiescing to Mindless NIMBYs in Woodland Hills.”

The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg will be observed in many places in the United States, most notably at the National Battlefield Park at the site of the actual battle.

Not at Pierce College, however, where President Kathleen Burke-Kelly canceled the annual Heritage Days event that has served as the venue for Civil War reenactments in recent years. Controversy over noise seems to be the issue, although Burke-Kelly did not disclose the split of the community’s opinions other than to say it was vocal.


I observed the event two years ago. The noise level was no worse than a July 4th fireworks display; maybe less. By comparison, it was less than the steady racket from the freeways, helicopters, sirens and other common urban noises we are exposed to every day. The musket and cannon fire was limited to two, approximately 30 minute demonstrations each day of the weekend.

The participants did an admirable job of portraying camp life and tactics. Visitors could ask the reenactors anything about life in those tumultuous times and receive an answer framed in the context of the period.

Of course, no depiction could replicate the actual misery both sides had to endure. And I must say, both armies looked much better nourished than the ones who lived through the four-year ordeal of the war.

You will not hear the residents of present-day Gettysburg complaining about the sound from the annual commemoration of the battle staged in their backyard, which will be larger than normal this year – and many times larger in any year than what takes place at Pierce.

Apparently, some of the nearby neighbors are ultra-sensitive NIMBYs who cannot deal with limited periods of noise even when it is part of a commemoration of the hemisphere’s, and arguably the world’s, most pivotal battle.

A Union loss would have set off a chain reaction that could have adversely affected the future of our nation and our capability of defending the cause of world freedom.

To put the battle in perspective, the combined forces totaled around 165,000 and 46,000 casualties were incurred. Besides representing the costliest battle in the hemisphere, the losses exceeded those in several key World War 2 battles, including D-Day.

It was a battle that changed the strategy for both sides. It was not as decisive a victory as it could have been since Lee was able to extricate his army and move it back across the Potomac. Although no single subsequent battle would result in higher casualties, the fighting would eventually become more protracted with a continuous stream of losses, especially in the conflict’s final year. Lincoln’s re-election prospects were threatened by the steady losses in the summer and fall of 1864 until a couple of major Union breakthroughs were achieved.

It is disappointing that an institution of higher learning turned its back on an opportunity to help observe a key event in our nation’s history, folding under the pressure applied by a small slice of the community.

Pierce College is a crown jewel in the Valley. Its farm is unique for an urban setting. It provides the most publicly accessible site for an event such as Heritage Days.

President Kelly-Burke did a great disservice to the greater community by canceling it. Colleges should advance the dissemination of knowledge, not restrain it.

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Fredericksburg, Virginia is in the heart of one of the most historic regions in the Old Dominion. Its quaint old town section  is ideal for walking. Museums, stores, cozy restaurants and a couple of excellent taverns are within several blocks of each other.

In early December, the town sponsors a Christmas parade. It is one of the most enjoyable and colorful of any I have seen; the streets are tastefully decorated for the season. It is Christmas as it should be.

150 years ago this month there was no Christmas cheer in Fredericksburg as two mighty armies converged on either side of the Rappahannock River and prepared for a battle that would cut through the town itself.

The Union Army of the Potomac commanded by General Ambrose Burnside, numbering 110,000 men, took aim at the Army of Northern Virginia, 70,000 strong, led by General Robert E. Lee, a scion of Virginia.  Lee had already succeeded in becoming a legend in the five months since he took command of  the largest force the South had in the field. His victories had already forced Lincoln to relieve two of his generals.  Burnside should have filled out his retirement papers prior to the battle.

Mismanaged logistics, unclear orders and just generally poor leadership by Burnside delayed the river crossing, allowing Lee time to prepare his line.

On December 13, 1862, after an artillery bombardment and street-to-street fighting in the town the day before, a charge up Marye’s Heights by federal troops was launched against the best defense Lee could organize.

The attack was one of the worst tactical decisions of the war, even bloodier than Pickett’s Charge. Most Union troops never made it near the top.

Thousands of Union casualties lay on the field in the freezing night and through the next day following the attack.  It seemed fitting the Aurora Borealis was visible that far south on the night of the 14th creating a ghostly veil over the dead and the wounded, many of whom would also die later beyond the reach of  medical assistance. The cries for water from the wounded prompted one private from a South Carolina regiment to crawl past his lines and tend to the thirsty.

Many Union dead were stripped of warm clothing during the night by poorly clad Confederate soldiers. Lines of white, naked corpses could be seen the next day. It may have been the most ghastly scene in a war that had no shortage of ghastly scenes.

Bad weather on December 15th allowed Burnside’s force to retreat back across the river to safety.

General Lee witnessed the slaughter on December 13th from a position on the heights. He remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible; we should grow too fond of it.”

150 years later,  many are still too fond of it……and there is no end in sight.

Casualty of war, Petersburg, VA (Library of Congress)

Casualty of war (Library of Congress)

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