American Civil War
Grant, undaunted by his losses at the battle of the Wilderness, sent his army racing down Brock Road on the night of May 7-8 to seize the crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House and get between Lee and Richmond.
Lee was unsure of Grant’s plan, reasoning that Grant would either be heading east towards Fredericksburg or moving south. In either case it was obvious to Lee that the Spotsylvania Court House crossroads would be essential and sent his cavalry ahead to delay the advance of the Union troops and to seize the crossroads. He also ordered the First corps under its new commander General Richard Anderson to seize the crossroads.
Union cavalry under Sheridan was bogged down during the nights in running battles with the Confederate cavalry.
By dawn on May 8 the Confederates had control of the crossroads. Fighting ensued throughout the day as Confederate and Union arriving units were fed into battle with the Confederates beating off badly coordinated Union attacks. As night fell, both armies began to dig in and prepare fortifications.
The Union and Confederate armies would spend another 11 days at Spotsylvania, with more bloody fighting to come. Here is Lee’s brief reports to the Secretary of War regarding the fighting on May 8. Continue reading
Grant has come East to take up his last command
And the grand command of the armies.
It is five years
Since he sat, with a glass, by the stove in a country store,
A stumpy, mute man in a faded Army overcoat,
The eldest-born of the Grants but the family-failure,
Now, for a week, he shines in the full array
Of gold cord and black-feathered hat and superb blue coat,
As he talks with the trim, well-tailored Eastern men.
It is his only moment of such parade.
When the fighting starts, he is chewing a dead cigar
With only the battered stars to show the rank
On the shoulderstraps of the private’s uniform.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Fighting was not resumed at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 7, 1864. The Confederates had fortified their positions and further Union assaults would have been fruitless. Veteran Union troops knew what was going to happen next. The latest offensive under the latest General had been stopped, with over 17,000 casualties, the same as at the Union defeat at Chancellorsville the year before. The army would retire north for a period of rest and recuperation before trying again. Likely Grant would be removed and a new General brought in to try his luck. The Union troops had been through this many times before over the past three years. Continue reading
..”Attention Texas Brigade” was rung upon the morning air, by Gen. Gregg, “the eyes of General Lee are upon you, forward, march.” Scarce had we moved a step, when Gen. Lee, in front of the whole command, raised himself in his stirrups, uncovered his grey hairs, and with an earnest, yet anxious voice, exclaimed above the din and confusion of the hour, “Texans always move them.” …never before in my lifetime or since, did I ever witness such a scene as was enacted when Lee pronounced these words, with the appealing look that he gave. A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around, and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heart-felt tears. Leonard Gee, a courier to Gen. Gregg, and riding by my side, with tears coursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.”
Private Robert Campell, 5th Texas Infantry
The fighting erupted early on the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness. Grant assumed that Hill’s corps had been fought out on the first day and could be overrun with a strong attack. At 5:00 AM Hancock attacked with three divisions, with two in support. By 6:00 AM Hill’s corps was in full retreat and disaster loomed for Lee. At that time the 800 man Texas Brigade, perhaps the elite fighting unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps arrived and saved the day. Longstreet launched a two division counterattack up the Orange Plank Road, with the Texans, who suffered 650 casualties, leading the attack on the north side of the Road. By 11:00 AM Hancock’s corps was in full retreat after Longstreet launched a four brigade attack against the left wing of Hancock’s line. Hancock’s men rallied behind fortifications along the Brock Road. In an episode reminiscent of Jackson’s fatal wounding a year ago, Longstreet was shot in the neck by a group of Virginians who thought he and his party were Union troops. Longstreet, unlike Jackson, would survive his wounding, but he would be unable to rejoin the army until October. Lee the next day would place General Richard Anderson in command of the First Corps in place of Longstreet.
On the Orange Court House Turnpike inconclusive fighting raged all day. Shortly before dark General John B. Gordon launched a divisional assault against Sedgwick’s right that made good progress until Union reinforcements restored the Union line. That brief crisis elicited this famous event: a nervous Union officer stated his fears to Grant: “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Greatly annoyed, Grant responded , “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”
Here is Lee’s report on the second day. Continue reading
If you take a flat map And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares.
They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
One assumes that there would be worse places for an attacking army to attempt to fight a battle than the Wilderness, but none come readily to mind. With the dense shrubs and trees it was like trying to fight a battle blindfolded, determining where the enemy was more by sound than sight.
The battle of the first day of the wilderness was effectively divided into two actions.
On the Orange Court House Turnpike, Warren and his corps attacked Ewell’s corps. Warren was rightfully concerned that his right flank was in the air and wanted to delay his attack until Sedgwick’s corps moved to support him on his right. Meade was irritated by the delay and ordered Warren to attack before Sedgwick could arrive. Warren’s attack at 1:00PM was hampered from the start due to Confederate attacks on his right flank as he advanced. Ultimately the attack was repulsed with heavy loss. Sedgwick’s corps attacked at 3:00 PM and was beaten back after an hour of fighting. Piecemeal attacks by the two corps ensured that their attacks would fail.
South along the Orange Plank Road Hill’s corps beat off repeated Union attacks with fierce fighting continuing to nightfall.
The battle had been a day of bewildering confusion to all involved, with generals often being unable to locate their own forces in the dense undergrowth, let alone enemy units. The woods quickly caught fire and smoke obscured what little visibility existed. The screams of the wounded as the fire reached them added a Hellish quality to the battle that many survivors never forgot.
Lee had held his ground and now was in position to attack with Longstreet’s corps the next day.
Lee at 11:00 PM of a very long day sent a succinct description of the day’s fighting to the Secretary of War: Continue reading
All the planning and preparation was done, and on May 4, 1864 Grant headed the Army of the Potomac south. He had approximately 120,000 men to Lee’s 65,000. Crossing the Rapidan , Grant wanted his army to march quickly through the Wilderness, an almost unsettled area of 70 square miles of dense shrubs and second growth trees where Hooker had come to grief at Chancellorsville just a year before. If Grant could move the Army of the Potomac fast enough through this, he would have turned Lee’s right and could then bring the Army of Northern Virginia to battle in the open country south of the Wilderness where Union numerical superiority would have maximum effect. However, as the Army tramped through the Wilderness where visibility was nil a few yards from the roads and trails, Grant agreed with Meade that the Army would camp in the Wilderness at the conclusion of the day’s march to allow the supply train to catch up. Grant assumed that Lee would be too far away to launch an attack in the Wilderness on the 5th, and one day more was all that Grant needed to be clear of the Wilderness. Continue reading
Something for the weekend. Virginia’s Bloody Soil sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. One hundred and fifty years ago the Battle of the Wilderness was to be fought in two days, the opening act in Grant’s Overland Campaign which would see 55,000 Union casualties and 33,000 Confederate casualties in under two months. By the end of the campaign there were cries of “Grant the Butcher” throughout the North, the price of gold had doubled and Lincoln seemed destined for defeat in the fall. However, Petersburg, the rail nexus that supplied Richmond from the south, was under siege by the Army of the Potomac, and Grant could fully replace his casualties while Lee could not. A very grim war was about to get a lot grimmer a century and a half ago as it remorselessly ground towards its conclusion. Continue reading
Northern casualties were more than 63 percent, and the number of black soldiers killed was disproportionately high. There is no doubt there was a massacre of some kind. But I think he (Forrest) did everything he could to stop it. Next day, when the Federals came in and shelled the place, he sent a captured Union captain and a Confederate soldier back with a white flag to tell ‘em to stop shootin’ their own wounded men because that’s all that was left at the fort.
Civil War historian Shelby Foote on Fort Pillow
Easily the most controversial engagement of the Civil War, the storming of Fort Pillow by forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest and what happened in the aftermath have been hotly contested for the past one hundred and fifty years. Fort Pillow was a Union fort on the Mississippi 40 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. It was garrisoned by around 600 Union troops, equally divided between blacks and whites. The black units were the 6th United States Regiment Heavy Artillery and the 2nd United States Colored Light Artillery. The whites were recent recruits of the 14th Tennessee Cavalry consisting of Tennessee Unionists. Both groups had every reason to fear falling into Confederate hands.
Forrest, commanding about 1500 men, summoned the garrison to surrender at 3:30 PM:
“The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated a prisoners of war. I demand the unconditional surrender of the entire garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have just received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort. Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”
This was a typical demand for surrender by Forrest, promising good treatment if the force surrendered and indicating that he could not guarantee good treatment if the fort was taken by storm. This was common practice, with commanders understanding that if a fort was taken by storm it was not unusual for the storming force, maddened by sustaining what they usually perceived as unnecessary casualties, exacting vengeance upon the garrison. The Union commander refused, and the fort was taken by storm about 5:00 PM. Continue reading
Few Confederate Generals had a more exotic background than the man known affectionately by his troops as Prince Polecat.
Born on February 16, 1832, Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac, had a very aristocratic pedigree. His father Jules had been the chief minister of Charles X, and his grandmother Gabrielle had been the closest friend of Marie Antoinette. Serving in the French Army during the Crimean War, he resigned his commission in 1859 and traveled throughout Central America. Arriving in the US at the outbreak of the war, he quickly decided to support the Confederacy, and enlisted in the Confederate Army.
He served on the staffs of Generals Beauregard and Bragg, and served at Shiloh and the siege of Corinth. Promoted to Brigadier General in January 1863, he was given command of a Texas brigade in the Trans-Mississippi theater two months later. Surprisingly, the French aristocrat and the wild and wooly Texans got along famously.
On April 8, 1864 at the battle of Mansfield, Louisiana, Polignac led the charge that routed the Union army under Banks. For this service he received a battlefield promotion to Major General. He served with the Confederate Army until March 1865 when he was sent to France on a diplomatic mission seeking recognition from the Confederacy. The war ended before negotiations could be completed. Continue reading
The Union campaigning season of 1864 got off to a rocky start with the defeat of the Union army under Major General Nathaniel Banks at the battle of Mansfield in Northwestern Louisiana, bringing to an end Bank’s abortive Red River Campaign.
The Red River campaign, which began in mid-March 1864, had as its objective the capture of Shreveport, Louisiana, in northwestern Louisiana, the largest city still under the control of the Confederates in the Pelican state, and the capture of hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton on plantations along the Red River. The bales of cotton were eagerly eyed by Union speculators and the entire campaign had an unsavory plundering feel to it. In any case the campaign ended in disaster for the Union.
The Confederates were commanded by Major General Richard Taylor, the son of President Zachary Taylor. Here is his account of the battle from his memoirs Destruction and Reconstruction:
Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,
Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,
And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.
Her stiff hands were busy now with an odd piece of wood,
Sometime Westpointer, by accident more than choice,
Sometime brevet-captain in the old Fourth Infantry,
Mentioned in Mexican orders for gallant service
And, six years later, forced to resign from the
Army Without enough money to pay for a stateroom home.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
One hundred and fifty years ago the campaigning season in the bloodiest year of the Civil War was about to begin, and plans were being completed for what both sides hoped would be a decisive year. A moment of comedy before the grim business gets underway. Sherman in his memoirs recalled an incident on March 18, 1864 when Grant was presented a sword by the mayor of his hometown of Galena, Illinois:
On the 18th of March I had issued orders assuming command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, and was seated in the office, when the general came in and said they were about to present him a sword, inviting me to come and see the ceremony. I went back into what was the dining-room of the house; on the table lay a rose-wood box, containing a sword, sash, spurs, etc., and round about the table were grouped Mrs. Grant, Nelly, and one or two of the boys. I was introduced to a large, corpulent gentleman, as the mayor, and another citizen, who had come down from Galena to make this presentation of a sword to their fellow-townsman. I think that Rawlins, Bowers, Badeau, and one or more of General Grant’s personal staff, were present. The mayor rose and in the most dignified way read a finished speech to General Grant, who stood, as usual, very awkwardly; and the mayor closed his speech by handing him the resolutions of the City Council engrossed on parchment, with a broad ribbon and large seal attached. After the mayor had fulfilled his office so well, General Grant said: “Mr. Mayor, as I knew that this ceremony was to occur, and as I am not used to speaking, I have written something in reply.” He then began to fumble in his pockets, first his breast-coat pocket, then his pants, vest; etc., and after considerable delay he pulled out a crumpled piece of common yellow cartridge-paper, which he handed to the mayor. His whole manner was awkward in the extreme, yet perfectly characteristic, and in strong contrast with the elegant parchment and speech of the mayor. When read, however, the substance of his answer was most excellent, short, concise, and, if it had been delivered by word of mouth, would have been all that the occasion required.
I could not help laughing at a scene so characteristic of the man who then stood prominent before the country; and to whom all had turned as the only one qualified to guide the nation in a war that had become painfully critical. Continue reading
One hundred and fifty years ago Lincoln knew that 1864 was likely to be the decisive year of the War, as the people of the North had an opportunity to pass judgment on him at the polls. With the Democrat party adopting an anti-war position, Lincoln was likely to be defeated unless radical progress in the War could be demonstrated by November. Additionally he had to justify his policy of abolishing slavery and enlisting black troops, as many pro- Unionists in the North looked with considerable misgivings on both policies. So on April 4, 1864 Lincoln took up a pen to defend his decision to enlist black troops to a Kentucky Unionist who with the Governor of Kentucky and a former Senator from Kentucky, also Unionists, had protested to Lincoln the enlistment of such troops in Kentucky. The end of the letter foreshadows language Lincoln would use in his Second Inaugural regarding the ending of slavery: Continue reading
During this sesquicentennial of the War Between the States a very old question arises: What was the impact of John Wilkes Booth on the outcome of the War Between the States? My response is none.
The assassination of Lincoln by Booth certainly shocked the nation. A President had never been assassinated before, and to have it happen while the President was at ease, enjoying a play at Ford’s Theater, added an element of the grotesque that magnified the horror. Booth, unknown to all but his closest intimates, had been a Confederate sympathizer throughout the War. Whether his murder of Lincoln was an act of impulse or a carefully planned conspiracy remains a subject of heated debate. Nevertheless, whether he decided that evening or after days or weeks of deliberation, Booth, using two pistols, ended the life of Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln and his entourage occupying a theater box on stage, and presenting a target that Booth could not, and did not, miss. Booth himself being shot to death immediately thereafter ensured that he took whatever planning he engaged in with him to the grave, and made this assassination an endless source of conspiracy theorists ever thereafter. The aptly named play The Marble Heart, starring Booth, will remain forever etched in American memory, along with the date of November 9, 1863 when the first president of the United States to be assassinated died.
Hannibal Hamlin, forgotten Vice-President, thus became President. On his narrow shoulders many have heaped blame for the defeat of the Union. Rubbish! A careful examination of the historical record reveals that he acted in a way almost certainly no different than Lincoln likely would have. Continue reading
Thomas E. Marshall, Vice-President under Wilson, summed up the historical fate of most Vice-Presidents in this joke he used to tell: There were two brothers. One was lost at sea and one became Vice-President. Neither were heard from again. That was certainly the case with Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first Vice-President. In an administration where almost everything has been examined endlessly by tens of thousands of historians with magnifying glasses, Hamlin is a complete void. At the time Hamlin knew that he simply did not count in the Administration, although Lincoln was cordial on the rare occasions they met. I am the fifth wheel of a coach is how Hamlin described his non-role in shaping the affairs of the nation during his term as Vice-President.
The most prominent politician from Maine, both before and after his term as Vice-President, perhaps Hamlin regretted his four years in political oblivion as Lincoln’s Veep.
Hamlin began his political career in 1836 when he won election to Maine’s house of representatives as a Democrat. Serving in the Federal House of Representatives in 1843-47. Appointed to serve out a term in the US Senate in 1848, Hamlin elected to a full term in his own right in 1851. In 1856 he became a national celebrity when he broke with the Democrat party over slavery, and joined the Republicans. Elected as a Republican as Governor of Maine in 1856 and serving briefly, he resigned to take up a seat next year as a Republican, being one of the few members of the Senate to serve in that body as both a Democrat and a Republican.
He was placed on the Presidential ticket for regional balance and for the fame he had won as a former Democrat who left the party over slavery, a natural vote getter among anti-slavery Democrats. Hamlin and Lincoln did not meet for the first time until after the election. During the campaign Democrats spread the rumor that Hamlin was a mulatto. Hamlin did have a swarthy complexion, but there was no truth in the allegation. The same charge was made against Lincoln, racism being a weapon wielded freely by Democrats in both 1861 and 1864.
Hamlin as Veep advocated Emancipation and the use of black troops. Less presciently, he also supported placing Fighting Joe Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac. Hamlin was left off the ticket in 1864 in order to broaden the ticket. Hamlin was firmly associated now with the radical wing of the Republican Party, and Lincoln believed that a War Democrat would be a better choice in what was likely to be a close contest. Andrew Johnson thus ultimately became President and Hamlin missed his opportunity to be something other than an historical footnote. Continue reading
I can’t spare this man, he fights!
Lincoln’s response to calls for Grant’s removal from command after Shiloh.
Few men in American history have had a more meteoric rise than Ulysses S. Grant. In March 1861 at age 38 he was a clerk in a tanning store owned by his father. A former Army officer, he was a complete failure in trying to support his family, going from one unsuccessful business venture to the next. He had a happy marriage, and that was fortunate, because that appeared to be the only success he was going to enjoy in this world.
A scant three years later he was general-in-chief of the vast Union armies, and on this day 150 years ago the Senate confirmed the nomination of Lincoln to make Grant Lieutenant General, a rank only held before Grant by two men: George Washington and Winfield Scott.
Whatever 1864 would bring for the Union in regard to the Civil War was largely up to Grant and the plans and decisions he would make. Skeptical men and officers of the Army of the Potomac, who assumed Grant would lead them in the upcoming campaign, remarked that only time would tell whether the first name of this latest commander would be Ulysses or Useless. North and South, most Americans realized that 1864 would likely be the decisive year of the War. At this pivot point in their history all Americans looked at the failure from Galena, Illinois, who now had the destiny of two nations in his hands, and wondered what he would do with this completely unexpected role on the stage of History that Fate, and Grant’s innate ability as a soldier, had bestowed upon him. Continue reading
One of the more hare-brained schemes of the Civil War, a cavalry raid towards Richmond with 4,000 Union troopers under Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, a reckless blustering officer fully deserving of his nickname “Kill-Cavalry”, began on February 28, 1864. Colonel Ulric Dahlgren’s brigade was detailed to penetrate the Richmond defenses, ostensibly to free Union prisoners. The raid ended in a complete fiasco on March 2, with 324 of the raiders killed or wounded, and 1000 taken prisoner.
Among the dead was Dahlgren. The Confederates found two interesting documents on his body, including one that contained this sentence:
“The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”
The sentence was part of two pages written by Dahlgren, which appear to be instructions for his men. The other document was a speech to his men which contained this sentence:
‘We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first & having seen them fairly started we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us & exhorting the released prisoners to destroy & burn the hateful City & do not allow the Rebel Leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape.’
The Confederates made huge propaganda hay out of this and were justifiably outraged. Calls went out to hang the raiders, a call successfully resisted by General Robert E. Lee. The Union denounced the alleged documents as forgeries, but after the fall of Richmond, Secretary of War Stanton made certain that the documents were brought to him, and they were never seen again, although the Confederates had made photographs of them, so we know their contents. Continue reading