4

Grant and the Wounded of Cold Harbor

Ulysses S. Grant was a great man and a great general, but he did make mistakes.  At Cold Harbor, Virginia he made two very big mistakes.  He made foolish assaults on Lee’s heavily entrenched lines on June 3, 1864 which cost the lives of 1844 Union soldiers compared to the lives of 83 Confederate troops who fell in this battle.  This was the lesser of his mistakes. Continue Reading

2

Grant: Man of Contradictions

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.
Turned farmer on Hardscrabble Farm, turned bill-collector,
Turned clerk in the country-store that his brothers ran,
The eldest-born of the lot, but the family-failure,
Unloading frozen hides from a farmer’s sleigh
With stoop-shouldered strength, whittling beside the stove,
And now and then turning to whiskey to take the sting
From winter and certain memories.
It didn’t take much.
A glass or two would thicken the dogged tongue
And flush the fair skin beneath the ragged brown beard.
Poor and shabby–old “Cap” Grant of Galena,
Who should have amounted to something but hadn’t so far
Though he worked hard and was honest.
A middle-aged clerk,
A stumpy, mute man in a faded army overcoat,
Who wrote the War Department after Fort Sumter,
Offering them such service as he could give
And saying he thought that he was fit to command
As much as a regiment, but getting no answer.

So many letters come to a War Department,
One can hardly bother the clerks to answer them all–
Then a Volunteer colonel, drilling recruits with a stick,
A red bandanna instead of an officer’s sash;
A brigadier-general, one of thirty-seven,
Snubbed by Halleck and slighted by fussy Frémont;
And then the frozen February gale
Over Fort Henry and Fort Donelson,
The gunboats on the cold river–the brief siege–
“Unconditional surrender”–and the newspapers.

Major-General Grant, with his new twin-stars,
Who, oddly, cared so little for reading newspapers,
Though Jesse Grant wrote dozens of letters to them
Pointing out all the wonders his son had done
And wringing one dogged letter from that same son
That should have squelched anybody but Jesse Grant.
It did not squelch him.  He was a business man,
And now Ulysses had astonished Galena
By turning out to be somebody after all;
Ulysses’ old father was going to see him respected
And, incidentally, try to wangle a contract
For army-harness and boom the family tannery.
It was a great surprise when Ulysses refused,
The boy was so stubborn about it.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

 

 

I am glad to announce that Dale Price is back to regular blogging at Dyspeptic Mutterings.  I am glad to announce that because I have ever stolen borrowed blogging ideas from him.  Here is his review of H.W. Brand’s bio of Grant:

 

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace is an excellent biography of one of America’s most consistently-underrated historical figures. 

University of Texas history Professor H.W. Brands does a fine job of illuminating Grant’s early life and struggles, not only with the bottle but with his failings as a provider–both despite his best efforts. As he does so, Brands presents the determined character that enabled Grant to overcome these failures and rise to become the most beloved general since Washington, and the most popular President of the 19th Century (at least in terms of electoral success).

The description of Grant’s military tenure during the Civil War is very solid, demonstrating that he was the best strategic thinker on either side, and no slouch as a tactician. Brands points out–correctly–that Grant’s casualty rates were lower as a proportion of men in combat than Lee’s despite being on the offensive much more often. That said, I still think Lee was slightly better as a tactician, especially considering that the quality of leadership in the Army of Northern Virginia declined drastically over time, and that of the Army of the Potomac increased with the rise of men like Sheridan and Ord.

None of that was a particular surprise to me, given my other reading. The real eye-opener for me was Brands’ revisionist (and I use that term advisedly) assessment of Grant’s two terms as President. Far from the failure “everyone knows” it to be, Grant’s Presidency had a remarkable number of achievements: the Fifteenth Amendment, the squelching of the attempt to corner the gold market, the settling of claims against England stemming from the giving of commerce raiders to the Confederacy and, most crucially, Grant’s dedication to civil rights for freedmen. In enforcing the Ku Klux Klan Act and related civil rights legislation and appointing determined attorneys general like Amos Akerman (who had been a Colonel for the Confederacy!), Grant was the President most devoted to civil rights and racial equality until the arrival of Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, Grant presented the most humane policy toward the Indian tribes by an American president up to his time.

Where this reassessment (slightly) fails is in providing a thorough explanation of *why* Grant’s reputation as President went to and remains mostly in the dustbin at this late date. To be sure, Brands’ treatment of 1872-1880 is not all praise–Grant is rapped for his too-restrictive handling of the Panic of 1873, America’s first industrial depression, which cast a shadow over much of his tenure. Though, in Grant’s defense, his restrictive approach to increasing the money supply was well-within the mainstream of 1870s economic thought.

Interestingly enough, the economic doldrums did not damage his personal popularity much (as opposed to damaging the GOP)–he came close to winning a nomination for a third term in 1880, and almost certainly would have won that election, too. 

All in all, the coverage of Grant’s presidency is an eye-opener which should act as a welcome rebuttal to the Good General/Bad President canard that unjustly haunts him.

Finally, Brands deftly handles Grant’s last battle–a race against time to finish his memoirs as he was dying of throat cancer. As he did through his military career, Grant won this battle through dogged determination, dying a few days after he finished them, ensuring that his wife and family would be well-provided for. The Mutt-and-Jeff friendship that arose between Grant and Mark Twain is also well-drawn. Brands also includes a hilarious anecdote of Twain’s one “battle” on behalf of the Confederacy in 1861 that left me–and my wife–laughing out loud. I am morally certain Twain would approved. Continue Reading

April 21, 1865: Stanton to Grant: Hostilities to Be Resumed

 

 

 

 

 

Sherman and Johnston

 

For all his world weary cynicism, General Sherman was a complete innocent when it came to political matters, in which he had little interest.  He demonstrated this by the terms of the memorandum of agreement which he entered into with General Johnston on April 18, 1865:

T. SHERMAN, Major-General commanding.

HEADQUARTERS MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI
IN THE FIELD, RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA, April 18, 1865.

Lieutenant-General U. S. GRANT, or Major-General HALLECK, Washington, D. C.

GENERAL: I inclose herewith a copy of an agreement made this day between General Joseph E. Johnston and myself, which, if approved by the President of the United States, will produce peace from the Potomac to the Rio Grande. Mr. Breckenridge was present at our conference, in the capacity of major-general, and satisfied me of the ability of General Johnston to carry out to their full extent the terms of this agreement; and if you will get the President to simply indorse the copy, and commission me to carry out the terms, I will follow them to the conclusion.

You will observe that it is an absolute submission of the enemy to the lawful authority of the United States, and disperses his armies absolutely; and the point to which I attach most importance is, that the dispersion and disbandment of these armies is done in such a manner as to prevent their breaking up into guerrilla bands. On the other hand, we can retain just as much of an army as we please. I agreed to the mode and manner of the surrender of arms set forth, as it gives the States the means of repressing guerrillas, which we could not expect them to do if we stripped them of all arms.

Both Generals Johnston and Breckenridge admitted that slavery was dead, and I could not insist on embracing it in such a paper, because it can be made with the States in detail. I know that all the men of substance South sincerely want peace, and I do not believe they will resort to war again during this century. I have no doubt that they will in the future be perfectly subordinate to the laws of the United States. The moment my action in this matter is approved, I can spare five corps, and will ask for orders to leave General Schofield here with the Tenth Corps, and to march myself with the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Seventeenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-third Corps via Burkesville and Gordonsville to Frederick or Hagerstown, Maryland, there to be paid and mustered out.

The question of finance is now the chief one, and every soldier and officer not needed should be got home at work. I would like to be able to begin the march north by May 1st.

I urge, on the part of the President, speedy action, as it is important to get the Confederate armies to their homes as well as our own.

I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General commanding.

Memorandum, or Basis of agreement, made this 18th day of April, A. D. 1865, near Durham’s Station, in the State of North Carolina, by and between General Joseph E. JOHNSTON, commanding the Confederate Army, and Major-General William T. SHERMAN, commanding the army of the United States in North Carolina, both present:

1. The contending armies now in the field to maintain the statu quo until notice is given by the commanding general of any one to its opponent, and reasonable time–say, forty-eight hours–allowed.

2. The Confederate armies now in existence to be disbanded and conducted to their several State capitals, there to deposit their arms and public property in the State Arsenal; and each officer and man to execute and file an agreement to cease from acts of war, and to abide the action of the State and Federal authority. The number of arms and munitions of war to be reported to the Chief of Ordnance at Washington City, subject to the future action of the Congress of the United States, and, in the mean time, to be needed solely to maintain peace and order within the borders of the States respectively.

3. The recognition, by the Executive of the United States, of the several State governments, on their officers and Legislatures taking the oaths prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, and, where conflicting State governments have resulted from the war, the legitimacy of all shall be submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States.

4. The reestablishment of all the Federal Courts in the several States, with powers as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.

5. The people and inhabitants of all the States to be guaranteed, so far as the Executive can, their political rights and franchises, as well as their rights of personal property, as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.

6. The Executive authority of the Government of the United States not to disturb any of the people by reason of the late war, so long as they live in peace and quiet, abstain from acts of armed hostility, and obey the laws in existence at the place of their residence.

7. In general terms–the war to cease; a general amnesty, so far as the Executive of the United States can command, on condition of the disbandment of the Confederate armies, the distribution of the arms, and the resumption of peaceful pursuits by the officers and men hitherto composing said armies.

Not being fully empowered by our respective principals to fulfill these terms, we individually and officially pledge ourselves to promptly obtain the necessary authority, and to carry out the above programme.

W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General, Commanding Army of the United States in North Carolina.

J. E. JOHNSTON, General,
Commanding Confederate States Army in North Carolina.

The agreement had been masterminded by Breckenridge, a canny politician and former Vice-President of the United States.  If accepted, the agreement would have short-circuited Reconstruction and basically re-established state governments in the Confederate States as if the War had never occurred.  Lincoln would not have accepted this, and in the wake of his assassination the terms were angrily repudiated by Washington as indicated by this letter from Stanton to Grant:

 

War Department, Washington City, April 21, 1865

Lieutenant-General Grant.

General:

The memorandum or basis agreed upon between General Sherman and General Johnston having been submitted to the President, they are disapproved.  You will give notice of the disapproval to General Sherman, and direct him to resume hostilities at the earliest moment.

The instructions given to you by the late President, Abraham Lincoln, on the 3d of March, by my telegraph of that date, addressed to you, express substantially the views of President Andrew Johnson, and will be observed by General Sherman.  A copy is herewith appended.

The President desires that you proceed immediately to the headquarters of Major-General Sherman, and direct operations against the enemy.

Yours truly,
Edwin M. Stanton,
Secretary of War. Continue Reading

16

April 9, 1865: Lee Surrenders

 

 

And so the Civil War ended.  Oh, not immediately.  The surrender process throughout the Confederacy would take until June, and skirmishes would be fought.  But with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, no one, except perhaps Jefferson Davis, north or south, doubted that the Civil War had ended with a Union victory.  At Appomattox Lee and Grant, with the ways in which they both behaved at this all important event in American history, planted the seeds of American reunification.

Lee, as ever noble, viewed surrender as a painful duty, and trusted in Grant to give just terms.  Grant, who would forbid the firing of cannon salutes in celebration of the surrender, gave as his main term that the Confederates simply go home and get on with their lives, agreeing to them taking with them a horse if they claimed one to help with the spring planting, and specifying that Confederate officers would retain their side arms so that he would not have to accept Lee’s sword in token of surrender.

The best account of the surrender is Grant’s, contained in his memoirs:

When I had left camp that morning I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats. I had my staff with me, a good portion of whom were in the room during the whole of the interview.   
  What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us. 
  General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events, it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form. But this was not a matter that I thought of until afterwards.   
  We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting. After the conversation had run on in this style for some time, General Lee called my attention to the object of our meeting, and said that he had asked for this interview for the purpose of getting from me the terms I proposed to give his army. I said that I meant merely that his army should lay down their arms, not to take them up again during the continuance of the war unless duly and properly exchanged. He said that he had so understood my letter.  Continue Reading

3

April 8, 1865: Lee Rejects Guerrilla Warfare

On April 8, 1865 the last hope of escape for Lee’s army flickered out.  Union cavalry under Custer seized the critical supplies waiting for the Confederates at Appomattox Station.    Lee’s line of march to the west was now blocked as parts of three Union corps were making forced marches to reinforce Custer and would arrive on the morning of the ninth.  On the eighth Grant and Lee exchanged these letters:

APRIL 8, 1865

General R. E. LEE:

Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of same date, asking the condition on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to yell, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.

U.S. GRANT,
Lieutenant-General.

________
 
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
APRIL 8, 1865

Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:

I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 a.m., to-morrow; on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.

R. E. LEE,
General.

 

It was becoming clear to the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia that surrender loomed and most of them were heartsick at this fact.

 

We Americans today view the Civil War as part of our history.  If different decisions had been made at the end of that conflict, the Civil War could still be part of our current reality.  Just before the surrender at Appomattox, General Porter Alexander, General Robert E. Lee’s chief of artillery, broached to  Lee a proposal that the Army of Northern Virginia disband and carry out a guerrilla war against the Union occupiers.  Here history balanced on a knife edge.  If Lee had accepted the proposal, I have little doubt the stage would have been set for an unending war between the North and the South which would still be with us.  Douglas Southall Freeman, in his magisterial R. E. Lee, tells what happened next, based upon Alexander’s memoirs, Fighting for the Confederacy :

“Thereupon Alexander proposed, as an alternative to surrender, that the men take to the woods with their arms, under orders to report to governors of their respective states.

“What would you hope to accomplish by that?” Lee queried.

It might prevent the surrender of the other armies, Alexander argued, because if the Army of Northern Virginia laid down its arms, all the others would follow suit, whereas, if the men reported to the governors, each state would have a chance of making an honorable peace. Besides, Alexander went on, the men had a right to ask that they be spared the humiliation of asking terms of Grant, only to be told that U. S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant would live up to the name he had earned at Fort Donelson and at Vicksburg.

Lee saw such manifest danger in this proposal to become guerillas that he began to question Alexander: “If I should take your advice, how many men do you suppose would get away?”

“Two-thirds of us. We would be like rabbits and partridges in the bushes and they could not scatter to follow us.”

“I have not over 15,000 muskets left,” Lee explained. “Two-thirds of them divided among the states, even if all could be collected, would be too small a force to accomplish anything. All could not be collected. Their homes have been overrun, and many would go to look after their families.

“Then, General,” he reasoned further, “you and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us. We must consider its effect on the country as a whole. Already it is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from. And, as for myself, you young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”

Lee paused, and then he added, outwardly hopeful, on the strength of Grant’s letter of the previous night, whatever his inward misgivings, “But I can tell you one thing for your comfort. Grant will not demand an unconditional surrender. He will give us as good terms as this army has the right to demand, and I am going to meet him in the rear at 10 A.M. and surrender the army on the condition of not fighting again until exchanged.”

Alexander went away a humbler man. “I had not a single word to say in reply,” he wrote years afterwards. “He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it, that I was ashamed of having made it.” Continue Reading

April 7, 1865: Surrender Correspondence Begins

Appomattox_Campaign_Overview

 

April 7, 1865 was a day of intense frustration for Robert E. Lee.  Hoping to feed his army with rations waiting at Farmville,  Union troops prevented that, crossing the Appomattox at bridges that Lee had ordered to be burned.  His army had no choice but to continue on its hungry way, the nearest rations being at Appomattox Court House some twenty-five miles away.  Longstreet in his memoirs recalled that dismal day.

 

I heard nothing of the affair at Sailor’s Creek, nor from General Lee, until next morning. Our work at Rice’s Station was not very serious, but was continued until night, when we marched and crossed the Appomattox at Farmville without loss, some of Rosser’s and Mumford’s cavalry following.  We crossed early in the morning and received two days’ rations,–the first regular issue since we left Richmond,–halted our wagons, made fires, got out cooking utensils, and were just ready to prepare a good breakfast. We had not heard of the disasters on the other route and the hasty retreat, and were looking for a little quiet to prepare breakfast, when General Lee rode up and said that the bridges had been fired before his cavalry crossed, that part of that command was cut off and lost, and that the troops should hurry on to position at Cumberland Church.

I reminded him that there were fords over which his cavalry could cross, and that they knew of or would surely find them. Everything except the food was ordered back to the wagons and dumped in.

Meanwhile, the alarm had spread, and our teamsters, frightened by reports of cavalry trouble and approaching fire of artillery, joined in the panic, put whips to their teams as quick as the camp-kettles were tumbled over the tail-boards of the wagons, and rushed through the woods to find a road somewhere in front of them. The command was ordered under arms and put in quick march, but General Lee urged double-quick. Our cavalry was then engaged near Farmville, and presently came a reckless charge of Gregg’s troopers towards parts of Rosser’s and Mumford’s commands. Heth’s division of infantry was sent to support them. As the balance of the command marched, General Lee took the head of the column and led it on the double-quick.

I thought it better to let them pass me, and, to quiet their apprehensions a little, rode at a walk. General Mahone received the attack of part of the enemy’s Second Corps, like Gregg’s cavalry making reckless attack. The enemy seemed to think they had another Sailor’s Creek affair, and part of their attack got in as far as Poague’s battery, but Mahone recovered it, and then drove off an attack against his front. General Gregg and a considerable part of his command were captured by Rosser and Mumford. At Cumberland Church the command deployed on the right of Poague’s battery, but Mahone reported a move by part of Miles’s division to turn his left which might dislodge him. G. T. Anderson’s brigade of Field’s division was sent with orders to get around the threatening force and break it up.  Mahone so directed them through a woodland that they succeeded in over-reaching the threatened march, and took in some three hundred prisoners,[211] the last of our trouble for the day. General Lee stopped at a cottage near my line, where I joined him after night; the trains and other parts of his army had moved on towards Appomattox Court-House.

Just after sunset, a letter from General Grant arrived: Continue Reading

2

April 6, 1865: Battle of Sailor’s Creek

Appomattox_Campaign_Overview

One last battle between the old adversaries the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.  While moving towards the Appomattox River to cross it on his march to the west, Lee was intercepted by a large Union force under Sheridan.  Ewell’s corps, the rearguard of the army, was surrounded and after hard fighting surrendered.  Lee lost one quarter of his army.  Union casualties were slightly in excess of 1,000 while Confederate casualties were 7,700, mostly prisoners.

 

 

Major General William Mahone relates this poignant moment with General Lee: Continue Reading

5

April 2, 1865: Third Battle of Petersburg

1280px-Petersburg_Apr2

 

 

 

With Union victory at Five Forks, General Lee desperately shifted troops to the west to protect the Southside Railroad.  Grant, realizing that Lee was thinning his lines around Petersburg and Richmond to protect the railroad, ordered a general assault against the Confederate fortifications.

The VI Corps achieved  a major breakthrough up the Boydton Plank Road.  Lee telegraphed Secretary of War Breckenridge:

I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here until night. I am not certain I can do that. If I can I shall withdraw to-night north of the Appomattox, and, if possible, it will be better to withdraw the whole line to-night from James River. I advise that all preparations be made for leaving Richmond tonight. I will advise you later according to circumstances.

The II Corps to the left of the VI Corps and the XXIV Corps to the right of the VI Corps also achieved breakthroughs.  Union casualties were about 4,000 compared to 5000 Confederate, most of whom were taken prisoner.  The siege of Petersburg and Richmond was at an end as Lee moved his army out of his lines and began the march to the west that would end at Appomattox Court House.

 

 

Here is General Longstreet’s account of the Third Battle of Petersburg in his memoirs: Continue Reading

3

Palm Sunday One Hundred and Fifty Years Ago

The chiefs and the captains meet,
Lee erect in his best dress uniform,
His dress-sword hung at his side and his eyes unaltered.
Chunky Grant in his mudsplashed private’s gear
With the battered stars on his shoulders.
                                         They talk a while
Of Mexico and old days.
                       Then the terms are stated.
Lee finds them generous, says so, makes a request.
His men will need their horses for the spring-ploughing.
Grant assents at once.
                      There is no parade of bright sword’s
Given or taken.  Grant saw that there should not be.
It is over, then. . . .
                       Lee walks from the little room.
His face is unchanged.  It will not change when he dies.
But as he steps on the porch and looks toward his lines
He strikes his hands together once with a sound. . . .

In the room he has left, the blue men stare at each other
For a space of heartbeats, silent.  The grey ride off.
They are gone–it is over. . . .

The room explodes like a bomb, they are laughing and shouting,
Yelling strange words, dragging chairs and tables outdoors,
Bearded generals waltzing with one another
For a brief, wild moment, punching each others’ ribs,
Everyone talking at once and nobody listening,
“It’s over–it’s done–it’s finished!”
                                      Then, order again.
The grey ghost-army falls in for the last time,
Marching to stack its arms.
                           As the ranks move forward
The blue guns go to “Present.”  Gordon sees the gesture.
He sweeps his sabre down in the full salute.

There are no cheers or words from blue lines or grey.
Only the sound of feet. . . .
It is over, now. . . .
                      The arms are stacked from the war.
A few bronzed, tattered grey men, weeping or silent,
Tear some riddled bits of cloth from the color-staffs
And try to hide them under their uniforms.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

 

 

 

I have always thought it appropriate that the national nightmare we call the Civil War ended during Holy Week 1865.  Two remarkably decent men, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, began the process of healing so desperately needed for America on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 at Appomattox.  We take their decency for granted, but it is the exception and not the rule for the aftermath of civil wars in history.  The usual course would have been unremitting vengeance by the victors, and sullen rage by the defeated, perhaps eventually breaking out in guerilla war.  The end of the Civil War could so very easily have been the beginning of a cycle of unending war between north and south.  Instead, both Grant and Lee acted to make certain as far as they could that the fratricidal war that had just concluded would not be repeated.  All Americans owe those two men a large debt for their actions at Appomattox. Continue Reading

March 29, 1865: Battle of Lewis Farm

General Chamberlain

Battle of Lewis Farm

1280px-Petersburg_Mar29-31

 The Appomattox Campaign began on March 29, 1865, with Grant moving the V and II corps to the west to outflank Lee’s lines, while Sheridan and his troopers were sent south to rip up the rail lines linking Petersburg and Richmond to what remained of the Confederacy.  Lee, with that preternatural sixth sense he seemed to often possess regarding the intentions of his enemies, had moved his cavalry, along with infantry under Major General George Pickett to the west to beat off Union attempts to outflank his army.

The first Union objective was to cut the Boydton Plank Road.  After crossing Gravelley Run stream, the leading brigade of the first division of the V corps ran into Confederate fortifications.  The brigade was led by Brigadier Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the heroic officer who had commanded the 20th Maine during its stand on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. In a fierce action of several hours duration, Chamberlain held his position only falling back as Union reinforcements arrived.  The reinforcements caused the Confederates to retreat to their White Oak Line.  Union casualties were 381 to 371 Confederate.

Late in the afternoon Sheridan’s cavalry occupied Dinwiddie Court House without opposition.  The end of the day saw the vital, for the Confederates, Boydton Plank Road cut in two locations, and the Confederate right dangerously exposed.  Here is Chamberlain’s account of the fighting: Continue Reading

4

The Peacemakers

The Peacemakers

 

A historic meeting occurred between Lincoln, Grant and Sherman on March 27-28, 1865 at City Point, Virginia.  Sherman had no idea that President Lincoln was going to be there, he having traveled by sea from North Carolina to coordinate with Grant the final campaign of the War.  This meeting was memorialized in the 1868 painting The Peacemakers, which was suggested by Sherman:

In Chicago about June or July of that year, when all the facts were fresh in my mind, I told them to George P. A. Healy, the artist, who was casting about for a subject for an historical painting, and he adopted this interview. Mr. Lincoln was then dead, but Healy had a portrait, which he himself had made at Springfield some five or six years before. With this portrait, some existing photographs, and the strong resemblance in form of [Leonard Swett], of Chicago, to Mr. Lincoln he made the picture of Mr. Lincoln seen in this group. For General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself he had actual sittings, and I am satisfied the four portraits in this group of Healy’s are the best extant. The original picture, life-size, is, I believe, now in Chicago, the property of Mr. [Ezra B. McCagg]; but Healy afterwards, in Rome, painted ten smaller copies, about eighteen by twenty-four inches, one of which I now have, and it is now within view. I think the likeness of Mr. Lincoln by far the best of the many I have seen elsewhere, and those of General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself equally good and faithful. I think Admiral Porter gave Healy a written description of our relative positions in that interview, also the dimensions, shape, and furniture of the cabin of the “Ocean Queen”; but the rainbow is Healy’s—typical, of course, of the coming peace. In this picture I seem to be talking, the others attentively listening. Whether Healy made this combination from Admiral Porter’s letter or not, I cannot say; but I thought that he caught the idea from what I told him had occurred when saying that “if Lee would only remain in Richmond till I could reach Burkesville, we would have him between our thumb and fingers,” suiting the action to the word. It matters little what Healy meant by his historic group, but it is certain that we four sat pretty much as represented, and were engaged in an important conversation during the forenoon of March 28, 1865, and that we parted never to meet again.

The original painting was destroyed in a fire, and what we have now is a copy found in 1922, lying forgotten in a family storehouse in Chicago.  Harry Truman, ironically a proud card carrying member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, purchased the copy of the painting for the White House in 1947.

Here is Sherman’s recollections of the meeting from his Memoirs:

 

The railroad was repaired to Goldsboro’ by the evening of March 25th, when, leaving General Schofield in chief command, with a couple of staff-officers I started for City Point, Virginia, in a locomotive, in company with Colonel Wright, the constructing engineer. We reached Newbern that evening, which was passed in the company of General Palmer and his accomplished lady, and early the next morning we continued on to Morehead City, where General Easton had provided for us the small captured steamer Russia, Captain Smith. We put to sea at once and steamed up the coast, reaching Fortress Monroe on the morning of the 27th, where I landed and telegraphed to my brother, Senator Sherman, at Washington, inviting him to come down and return with me to Goldsboro. We proceeded on up James River to City Point, which we reached the same afternoon. I found General Grant, with his family and staff, occupying a pretty group of huts on the bank of James River, overlooking the harbor, which was full of vessels of all classes, both war and merchant, with wharves and warehouses on an extensive scale. The general received me most heartily, and we talked over matters very fully. After I had been with him an hour or so, he remarked that the President, Mr. Lincoln, was then on board the steamer River Queen, lying at the wharf, and he proposed that we should call and see him. We walked down to the wharf, went on board, and found Mr. Lincoln alone, in the after-cabin. He remembered me perfectly, and at once engaged in a most interesting conversation. He was full of curiosity about the many incidents of our great march, which had reached him officially and through the newspapers, and seemed to enjoy very much the more ludicrous parts-about the “bummers,” and their devices to collect food and forage when the outside world supposed us to be starving; but at the same time he expressed a good deal of anxiety lest some accident might happen to the army in North Carolina during my absence. I explained to him that that army was snug and comfortable, in good camps, at Goldsboro’; that it would require some days to collect forage and food for another march; and that General Schofield was fully competent to command it in my absence. Having made a good, long, social visit, we took our leave and returned to General Grant’s quarters, where Mrs. Grant had provided tea. While at the table, Mrs. Grant inquired if we had seen Mrs. Lincoln. “No,” said the general, “I did not ask for her;” and I added that I did not even know that she was on board. Mrs. Grant then exclaimed, “Well, you are a pretty pair!” and added that our neglect was unpardonable; when the general said we would call again the next day, and make amends for the unintended slight.

Early the next day, March 28th, all the principal officers of the army and navy called to see me, Generals Meade, Ord, Ingalls, etc., and Admiral Porter. At this time the River Queen was at anchor out in the river, abreast of the wharf, and we again started to visit Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. Admiral Porter accompanied us. We took a small, tug at the wharf, which conveyed us on board, where we were again received most courteously by the President, who conducted us to the after-cabin. After the general compliments, General Grant inquired after Mrs. Lincoln, when the President went to her stateroom, returned, and begged us to excuse her, as she was not well. We then again entered upon a general conversation, during which General Grant explained to the President that at that very instant of time General Sheridan was crossing James River from the north, by a pontoon-bridge below City Point; that he had a large, well-appointed force of cavalry, with which he proposed to strike the Southside and Danville Railroads, by which alone General Lee, in Richmond, supplied his army; and that, in his judgment, matters were drawing to a crisis, his only apprehension being that General Lee would not wait long enough. I also explained that my army at Goldsboro’ was strong enough to fight Lee’s army and Johnston’s combined, provided that General Grant could come up within a day or so; that if Lee would only remain in Richmond another fortnight, I could march up to Burkesville, when Lee would have to starve inside of his lines, or come out from his intrenchments and fight us on equal terms.

Both General Grant and myself supposed that one or the other of us would have to fight one more bloody battle, and that it would be the last. Mr. Lincoln exclaimed, more than once, that there had been blood enough shed, and asked us if another battle could not be avoided. I remember well to have said that we could not control that event; that this necessarily rested with our enemy; and I inferred that both Jeff. Davis and General Lee would be forced to fight one more desperate and bloody battle. I rather supposed it would fall on me, somewhere near Raleigh; and General Grant added that, if Lee would only wait a few more days, he would have his army so disposed that if the enemy should abandon Richmond, and attempt to make junction with General Jos. Johnston in North Carolina, he (General Grant) would be on his heels. Mr. Lincoln more than once expressed uneasiness that I was not with my army at Goldsboro’, when I again assured him that General Schofield was fully competent to command in my absence; that I was going to start back that very day, and that Admiral Porter had kindly provided for me the steamer Bat, which he said was much swifter than my own vessel, the Russia. During this interview I inquired of the President if he was all ready for the end of the war. What was to be done with the rebel armies when defeated? And what should be done with the political leaders, such as Jeff. Davis, etc.? Should we allow them to escape, etc.? He said he was all ready; all he wanted of us was to defeat the opposing armies, and to get the men composing the Confederate armies back to their homes, at work on their farms and in their shops. As to Jeff. Davis, he was hardly at liberty to speak his mind fully, but intimated that he ought to clear out, “escape the country,” only it would not do for him to say so openly. As usual, he illustrated his meaning by a story: Continue Reading

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Grant Plans His Attack

General Ulysses Grant

 Grant, a failure all of his life except for war, marriage and his last valiant race with the Grim Reaper to finish his memoirs and provide for the financial security of his family;  seemingly a dull plodder, but possessed of iron determination and an uncanny ability to never let the trees obscure the forest;  happily married and a firm believer in God, but subject to bouts of depression, usually when his wife was absent, when he would grasp for the bottle;  the shabby little man who won the greatest war in American history. 

 

 

On March 24, 1865 Grant sent out his movement order for the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James.  Grant planned a vast move to the west to force Lee to come out of his entrenchments to avoid Grant outflanking him on his right.  While this was going on, Sheridan would strike with the Union cavalry to sever the rail lines linking Richmond and Petersburg to the dwindling remainder of the Confederacy.  Grant planned for the movement to begin on March 29, 1865, taking advantage of the good weather that had dried the roads.  The Appomattox campaign was about to begin. Continue Reading

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March 12, 1865: Letter From Sherman to Grant

Sherman2

 

 

With his invasion of North Carolina underway, Sherman took time after the capture of Fayetteville, North Carolina to bring Grant up to speed with his immediate plans:

HEADQUARTERS MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI, IN THE FIELD,
FAYETTVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA, Sunday, March. 12, 1865.

Lieutenant-General U. S. GRANT, commanding United States Army, City Point, Virginia.

DEAR GENERAL: We reached this place yesterday at noon; Hardee, as usual, retreating across the Cape Fear, burning his bridges; but our pontoons will be up to-day, and, with as little delay as possible, I will be after him toward Goldsboro. A tug has just come up from Wilmington, and before I get off from here, I hope to get from Wilmington some shoes and stockings, sugar, coffee, and flour. We are abundantly supplied with all else, having in a measure lived off the country.

The army is in splendid health, condition, and spirits, though we have had foul weather, and roads that would have stopped travel to almost any other body of men I ever heard of.

Our march, was substantially what I designed–straight on Columbia, feigning on Branchville and Augusta. We destroyed, in passing, the railroad from the Edisto nearly up to Aiken; again, from Orangeburg to the Congaree; again, from Colombia down to Kingsville on the Wateree, and up toward Charlotte as far as the Chester line; thence we turned east on Cheraw and Fayetteville. At Colombia we destroyed immense arsenals and railroad establishments, among which wore forty-three cannon. At Cheraw we found also machinery and material of war sent from Charleston, among which were twenty-five guns and thirty-six hundred barrels of powder; and here we find about twenty guns and a magnificent United States’ arsenal.

We cannot afford to leave detachments, and I shall therefore destroy this valuable arsenal, so the enemy shall not have its use; and the United States should never again confide such valuable property to a people who have betrayed a trust.

I could leave here to-morrow, but want to clear my columns of the vast crowd of refugees and negroes that encumber us. Some I will send down the river in boats, and the rest to Wilmington by land, under small escort, as soon as we are across Cape Fear River. Continue Reading

February 3, 1865: Hampton Roads Conference

Hampton Roads Conference

The Hampton Roads Conference between President Lincoln and three representatives of the Confederacy, led by Lincoln’s old friend, and fellow former Whig, Vice President Alexander Stephens, was an exercise in pointlessness, as Lincoln and Stephens both knew it would be.  Lincoln was willing to negotiate on anything except Union and the end of Slavery, the two items that the Confederate emissaries lacked any authority to concede.  The only result of the conference was that Lincoln agreed to release from captivity a nephew of Stephens, a Confederate POW.  (Stephens did not request this until he was pressed by Lincoln as to whether there was anything he could do of a personal nature for him.)  The war would go on and both Lincoln and Davis could tell their peoples that negotiations had been attempted and that only success on the battlefield could lead to peace.  Here are the comments of Grant on this curious incident in the War: Continue Reading

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Grant on the Fort Fisher Fiasco

Fort Fisher

 

 

Examples of gross military incompetence were not rare in the Civil War.  Perhaps the most outstanding example is the bungling of Major General Benjamin Butler in his handling of the first assault on Fort Fisher, the fort that guarded the last major port open in the Confederacy, Wilmington.  Grant in his Personal Memoirs gives us the details:

 

I selected General Weitzel, of the Army of the James, to go with the expedition, but gave instructions through General Butler. He commanded the department within whose geographical limits Fort Fisher was situated, as well as Beaufort and other points on that coast held by our troops; he was, therefore, entitled to the right of fitting out the expedition against Fort Fisher.   

 
  General Butler conceived the idea that if a steamer loaded heavily with powder could be run up to near the shore under the fort and exploded, it would create great havoc and make the capture an easy matter. Admiral Porter, who was to command the naval squadron, seemed to fall in with the idea, and it was not disapproved of in Washington; the navy was therefore given the task of preparing the steamer for this purpose. I had no confidence in the success of the scheme, and so expressed myself; but as no serious harm could come of the experiment, and the authorities at Washington seemed desirous to have it tried, I permitted it. The steamer was sent to Beaufort, North Carolina, and was there loaded with powder and prepared for the part she was to play in the reduction of Fort Fisher.   

 
  General Butler chose to go in command of the expedition himself, and was all ready to sail by the 9th of December (1864). Very heavy storms prevailed, however, at that time along that part of the sea-coast, and prevented him from getting off until the 13th or 14th. His advance arrived off Fort Fisher on the 15th. The naval force had been already assembled, or was assembling, but they were obliged to run into Beaufort for munitions, coal, etc.; then, too, the powder-boat was not yet fully prepared. The fleet was ready to proceed on the 18th; but Butler, who had remained outside from the 15th up to that time, now found himself out of coal, fresh water, etc., and had to put into Beaufort to replenish. Another storm overtook him, and several days more were lost before the army and navy were both ready at the same time to co-operate.  

 
  On the night of the 23d the powder-boat was towed in by a gunboat as near to the fort as it was safe to run. She was then propelled by her own machinery to within about five hundred yards of the shore. There the clockwork, which was to explode her within a certain length of time, was set and she was abandoned. Everybody left, and even the vessels put out to sea to prevent the effect of the explosion upon them. At two o’clock in the morning the explosion took place—and produced no more effect on the fort, or anything else on land, than the bursting of a boiler anywhere on the Atlantic Ocean would have done. Indeed when the troops in Fort Fisher heard the explosion they supposed it was the bursting of a boiler in one of the Yankee gunboats.    

 

 

 
  Fort Fisher was situated upon a low, flat peninsula north of Cape Fear River. The soil is sandy. Back a little the peninsula is very heavily wooded, and covered with fresh-water swamps. The fort ran across this peninsula, about five hundred yards in width, and extended along the sea coast about thirteen hundred yards. The fort had an armament of 21 guns and 3 mortars on the land side, and 24 guns on the sea front. At that time it was only garrisoned by four companies of infantry, one light battery and the gunners at the heavy guns less than seven hundred men with a reserve of less than a thousand men five miles up the peninsula. General Whiting of the Confederate army was in command, and General Bragg was in command of the force at Wilmington. Both commenced calling for reinforcements the moment they saw our troops landing. The Governor of North Carolina called for everybody who could stand behind a parapet and shoot a gun, to join them. In this way they got two or three hundred additional men into Fort Fisher; and Hoke’s division, five or six thousand strong, was sent down from Richmond. A few of these troops arrived the very day that Butler was ready to advance.  

 
  On the 24th the fleet formed for an attack in arcs of concentric circles, their heavy iron-clads going in very close range, being nearest the shore, and leaving intervals or spaces so that the outer vessels could fire between them. Porter was thus enabled to throw one hundred and fifteen shells per minute. The damage done to the fort by these shells was very slight, only two or three cannon being disabled in the fort. But the firing silenced all the guns by making it too hot for the men to maintain their positions about them and compelling them to seek shelter in the bomb-proofs.    

 
  On the next day part of Butler’s troops under General Adelbert Ames effected a landing out of range of the fort without difficulty. This was accomplished under the protection of gunboats sent for the purpose, and under cover of a renewed attack upon the fort by the fleet. They formed a line across the peninsula and advanced, part going north and part toward the fort, covering themselves as they did so. Curtis pushed forward and came near to Fort Fisher, capturing the small garrison at what was called the Flag Pond Battery. Weitzel accompanied him to within a half a mile of the works. Here he saw that the fort had not been injured, and so reported to Butler, advising against an assault. Ames, who had gone north in his advance, captured 228 of the reserves. These prisoners reported to Butler that sixteen hundred of Hoke’s division of six thousand from Richmond had already arrived and the rest would soon be in his rear.  

 

 

 
  Upon these reports Butler determined to withdraw his troops from the peninsula and return to the fleet. At that time there had not been a man on our side injured except by one of the shells from the fleet. Curtis had got within a few yards of the works. Some of his men had snatched a flag from the parapet of the fort, and others had taken a horse from the inside of the stockade. At night Butler informed Porter of his withdrawal, giving the reasons above stated, and announced his purpose as soon as his men could embark to start for Hampton Roads. Porter represented to him that he had sent to Beaufort for more ammunition. He could fire much faster than he had been doing, and would keep the enemy from showing himself until our men were within twenty yards of the fort, and he begged that Butler would leave some brave fellows like those who had snatched the flag from the parapet and taken the horse from the fort.  

 

 

Continue Reading

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October 27, 1864: Battle of Boydton Plank Road

BoydtonPlankRoadPreludeNPSMap

 

The last significant military operation at Petersburg in 1864, the battle of Boydton Plank Road, was  part of the efforts of the Army of the Potomac to cut the Confederate South Side Railroad that supplied Petersburg and Richmond from the west. This was no small operation, consisting of Winfield Scott’s corps, reinforced by infantry divisions from other corps and a cavalry division.

On October 27, 1864 Hancock crossed Hatcher’s Run creek and moved around the Confederate right flank heading for Burgess Mill.  General Henry Heth, commanding A.P. Hill’s corps due to the illness of Hill, interposed two divisions to stop Hancock.  Hancock made good progress when Meade ordered a hault to the offensive, concerned about a five mile gap developing between the Union left and Hancock.

Hancock retreated to Hatcher’s Run, only to find the ford now being held by Confederate cavalry.  Heth now went on the offensive, hoping to bag Hancock’s corps, isolated as it now was from the rest of the Union army.

Hancock kept calm, beat off the Confederate attacks and retreated across Hatcher’s Run during the night.  Union casualties were 1700 to 1300 Confederate.  Grant in his memoirs summed up this action and the closing down of operations around Petersburg for the remainder of the year: Continue Reading

August 18, 1864: Capture of the Weldon Railroad

Petersburg_Aug18-19

 

 

On August 17, 1864 Grant was heartened when he received a telegram of support from President Lincoln.  Go here to read about it.  Grant remarked to his staff after reading the telegram:   “The President has more nerve than any of his advisors.”

Lincoln had advised Grant:  Hold on with a bull-dog gripe, and chew & choke, as much as possible.  Unbeknownst to the President, Grant already had underway an operation to do just that.  Major General Gouverneur K. Warren was ordered by Grant to take his V corps, supported by units of the IX and II corps and a small cavalry division, and move to the left to capture a section of the Weldon railroad, the main supply line for the Confederate forces at Richmond and Petersburg, which led south to Wilmington, the last major port of the Confederacy.

By 9:00 AM on August 18, 1864, Warren had brushed aside Confederate pickets and reached the Weldon railroad at Globe Tavern.  He deployed a division of his corps to destroy track, held another division in reserve and set another brigade, deployed in line of battle, north to guard against Confederate attempts to retake the railroad.  A.P. Hill, launching his attack at 2:00 PM used two divisions from his corps to retake Globe Tavern, but Warren counterattacked and recovered the ground he lost, his troops entrenching as night fell.

On the 19th, the IX corps reinforced Warrens V corps while the Confederates received three brigades of Major General William Mahones’ division along with “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division.  Mahone, cementing his reputation, after the part he played in retaking the Crater, as one of the best generals for the Confederacy in 1864, launched a slashing flank attack that captured two Union brigades.  A Confederate frontal assault by Major General Henry Heth was easily repulsed, and the fighting ended with a IX corps counterattack leading to hand to hand fighting as nightfall brought a  close to the day’s fighting.

Torrential rains on the 20th prevented large scale combat.  Warren withdrew on the night of the 20-21 to a new fortified line.  Confederate attacks failed to dislodge him, and the battle of Globe Tavern ended with the Union in permanent possession of several miles of the Weldon railroad which necessitated the Confederates to bring in supplies to Petersburg and Richmond thirty miles from the nearest section of the Weldon railroad not under Union control.  Union casuaties were 4, 296 to 1,620 Confederates but the noose had been tightened around Petersburg and the Confederacy.

Here are the comments of General Grant on this operation in his Personal Memoirs: Continue Reading

August 17, 1864: Lincoln to Grant

Lincoln and Grant

The gaunt man, Abraham Lincoln, lives his days.
For a while the sky above him is very dark.
There are fifty thousand dead in these last, bleak months
And Richmond is still untaken.
                              The papers rail,
Grant is a butcher, the war will never be done.
The gaunt man’s term of office draws to an end,
His best friends muse and are doubtful.  He thinks himself
For a while that when the time of election comes
He will not be re-elected.  He does not flinch.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

In August of 1864 the bottom seemed to be giving out from underneath the Union war effort.  Grants’s drive against Richmond and Sherman’s drive against Atlanta seemed to have stalled, with Confederate armies holding tenaciously to both cities.  Casualties, especially in the eastern theater of the War, had been appallingly high since the campaigning season opened in April, and after a massive effusion of blood the War seemed no closer to a Union victory.  Northern governors feared draft riots in their cities in the face of a growing conviction that the South could not be conquered.  On August 15, Grant wrote to Chief of Staff General Henry Halleck, in response to proposals that troops could be sent from the Army of the Potomac to put down draft riots:

CITY POINT, VA., August 15, 1864-9 p. m.

Major-General HALLECK,

Washington, D. C.

If there is any danger of an uprising in the North to resist the draft or for any other purpose our loyal Governors ought to organize the militia at once to resist it. If we are to draw troops from the field to keep the loyal States in harness it will prove difficult to suppress the rebellion in the disloyal States. My withdrawal now from the James River would insure the defeat of Sherman. Twenty thousand men sent to him at this time would destroy the greater part of Hood’s army, and leave us men wherever required. General Heintzelman can get from the Governors of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois a militia organization that will deter the discontented from committing any overt act. I hope the President will call on Governors of States to organize thoroughly to preserve the peace until after the election.

U. S. GRANT,

Lieutenant-General.

Lincoln responded to Grant, and, if the anachronism may be allowed, his message back had a Churchillian ring to it: Continue Reading

August 14, 1864: Second Battle of Deep Bottom

Deep_Bottom_August

 In late July Northern newspapers were filled with the raids into the North being staged by Jubal Early and his corps in the Shenandoah Valley.  In order to distract Lee from sending reinforcements to Early, Grant decided to make another attempt on Richmond  at the sector named Deep Bottom north of the James River.  (Grant had just made a similar attempt at Deep Bottom to divert Confederate attention just before the mine explosion of the battle of the Crater.  Go here to read about the first battle of Deep Bottom.)  As in the first battle of Deep Bottom, Hancock’s corps crossed to the north side of the James, with hard fighting on August 14-20. Hancock could not make any substantial headway and withdrew south of the James on the night of the 20th.    Union casualties were 2,889 -1500 Confederates.

Here is Grant’s account of this operation in his Personal Memoirs: Continue Reading

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August 3, 1864: Lincoln to Grant

Anti-Lincoln Cartoon

The gaunt man, Abraham Lincoln, lives his days.
For a while the sky above him is very dark.
There are fifty thousand dead in these last, bleak months
And Richmond is still untaken.
                              The papers rail,
Grant is a butcher, the war will never be done.
The gaunt man’s term of office draws to an end,
His best friends muse and are doubtful.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

By the beginning of August 1864 Lincoln began to suspect that he was going to lose re-election and the Union was going to lose the War.  Grant, at an immense cost in blood, had pushed Lee back to Richmond and Petersburg, but both cities still were controlled by the Confederates and Lee’s army was still a force to be reckoned with.  The North was still reeling from Early’s victories in the Shenandoah, his daring raid on Washington and his burning of Chambersburg on July 30.  In the West the Confederate Army of Tennessee still clung to Atlanta, and the Confederacy still controlled almost all of its heartland.  The War seemed to be entering a stalemate, and if it remained so until November, Lincoln would be a one term president and the Union would be permanently sundered.  With that on his mind, Lincoln sent a warning telegram to Grant.  Lincoln never lost his faith in Grant, but clearly he wanted Grant to understand that unless victories were forthcoming the Union was in peril.  Ironically, in this telegram Lincoln approves Sheridan being place in command in the Shenandoah, and it was Sheridan’s string of victories in the fall that probably ensured Lincoln’s re-election: Continue Reading

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July 30, 1864: Debacle at the Crater

battle-of-the-crater-

When looking at the battle of the Crater, it is a study in contrasts.  The digging of the tunnel and the explosion of the mine at dawn on July 30, 1864, go here to read about the tunnel construction, was a tribute to the ingenuity and sheer compentence of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants and his men of the 48th Pennsylvania, who, with almost no help from the rest of the army, gave the Army of the Potomac a golden opportunity to take Petersburg and bring the War to a rapid conclusion.  That this opportunity was missed was largely attributable to criminal incompetence on the part of the generals involved.

Here are the generals who contributed to the debacle:

1.  Grant and Meade-Burnside, the commander of the IX corps making the assault, had trained a division of United States Colored Troops to lead the advance after the explosion of the mine.  The day before the battle Meade, concerned that the attack would fail and that their would be political repercussions if black troops incurred heavy casualties as a result, ordered Burnside to assign a white division to lead the attack.  Burnside protested this decision, but Grant backed Meade up.

2.  Burnside-Burnside had the white division chosen by lot rather than picking the best division.  Burnside made no effort to make certain that his attacking divisions had access ways cleared of debris and fortifications so they could rapidly advance after the explosion.  He made no effort to inform the new white division leading the assault that it was to go around any crater created by the explosion instead of going down into it, which is precisely what the attacking divisions did, making themselves sitting ducks at the bottom of a large hole when the Confederate counter-attack began.  Rather than calling off the attack after it became obvious that no breakthrough was possible, Burnside kept feeding troops into the Crater with the only effect being to lengthen the list of Union dead and wounded.

3.  James H. Ledlie-Brigadier General James H. Ledlie earned a notable distiction during the battle.  It was not unusual for Civil War generals to make bad decisions, and to not infrequently show a distinct lack of common sense, however almost all of them were very brave men.  Ledlie was not.  In addition to being a very bad commander as indicated by his failure to inform his division of what was expected of them after his division was chosen by lot to lead the assault, he spent the battle drunk and well behind the lines, safe and secure as his men went into the meat grinder.  He richly earned his dismissal from the Army after the battle.

4.  Edward Ferrero-Brigadier General Edward Ferrero was the foremost dance instructor in the country prior to the War.  He should have stuck to that trade.  The commander of the black division involved in the battle of the Crater, he spent the battle in the same bomb proof dugout behind the line as Ledlie, and he shared Ledlie’s bottle with him.  Ferrero’s behavior is somwhat incomprehensible as he had shown extreme valor in other battles.  Astonishingly he was not cashiered from the service, and in December of 1864 he received a brevet promotion to Major General of Volunteers for “bravery and meritorious services”.

With this type of leadership it is no wonder that the attack failed.  The initial mine explosion killed 278 Confederates and wounded hundreds of others.  For 15 minutes the stunned Confederates did not fire at the attacking Union units.  Union troops went down into the Crater and within an hour were receiving heavy fire from Confederate troops at the top of the side of the Crater facing Petersburg.  Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone, in charge of the Confederate counterattack, called it a turkey shoot.  Instead of calling off the attack  when it became clear that the Confederates had sealed the breach caused by the explosion, Burnside kept sending divisions, including the black division, down into the Crater where they were quickly slaughtered.  Some Confederate troops murdered black troops who were trying to surrender.  When General Lee heard of this he supposedly sent a message to General Mahone telling him to put a stop to this or he would be removed from command.

Union casualties were 4000 to 1500 for the Confederates.  The whole debacle was the subject of a lengthy investigation by the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Here is Grant’s assessment of the fiasco from his Personal Memoirs: Continue Reading

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Digging of The Tunnel at Petersburg

By far the most unusual event during the siege of Petersburg was the attempt by Grant to take Petersburg by a huge mining operation.

The idea of the tunnel was devised by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, the 33 year old commanding officer of the 48th Pennsylvania.  Pleasants was a mining engineer in civilian life and many of his men were coal miners.  He became convinced that his men could dig a tunnel under the Confederate fort known as Elliot’s Salient, then fill a mine under the fort sufficient to blow it to kingdom come, along with nearby Confederate trenches.  Pleasants took the idea to his corps commander Major General Ambrose Burnside.  He and his men had received permission, but he received virtually no assistance from the rest of the Army in the digging of the tunnel, he and his men having to improvise everything they used.  Engineering officers told Pleasants that he was crazy and at 511 feet the tunnel would be too long and his men would die of asphyxiation digging the tunnel long before it could be completed.

Petersburg Tunnel

The tunnel was elevated as it advanced toward the Confederate fort to prevent moisture clogging it up.   Fresh air was pumped in by air-exchange mechanism near the entrance. Pleasants had constructed a ventilation shaft located well behind Union lines, and connected it to the mine with canvas. At the shaft’s base, a fire was kept continuously burning. A wooden duct ran the entire length of the tunnel which protruded into the outside air. The fire heated stale air inside of the tunnel, forcing it up the ventilation shaft and out of the mine. The resulting vacuum then sucked fresh air in from the mine entrance via the wooden duct which transported the fresh air to the digging miners. 

The took took a bit over two weeks to dig and the mine fifty feet under the Confederate fort took almost another two weeks to construct.  It was filled with four tons of gunpowder.  The Confederates attempted some desultory countermining operations, but the Union tunnel troops went about their work undiscovered.  By July 28, 1864 the mine was ready to explode whenever the high command gave the word.  That word would be given on July 30, 1864.

Here is a portion of an article on the tunneling operation that led up to the Battle of the Crater, written by Major William H. Powell, United States Army, which appeared in volume 4 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Continue Reading

July 27, 1864: First Battle of Deep Bottom Begins

Deep_Bottom_July

Unbeknownst to the Confederates, on July 27, 1864 the Union forces around Petersburg were putting the finishing touches on a huge mine under a fort in the Confederate defenses known as Elliot’s Salient.  To divert Confederate attention from this sector of the line, Grant ordered Hancock and Sheridan to cross the James River at Deep Bottom and make a lunge towards Richmond.  Grant assumed this would cause a weakening in the Confederate defenses around Petersburg and he was correct in that assumption.  Lee in response to Grant’s move pulled some 16,500 men out of the Petersburg lines and into the Richmond fortifications.

In fighting on the 27th and 28th which resulted in 488 Union casualties to 679 Confederate, Hancock and Sheridan’s drive toward Richmond was stopped, but Grant had achieved his goal of drawing Lee’s men to the north side of the James, as Grant noted in his Memoirs: Continue Reading

June 15, 1864: Assault on Petersburg Begins

Petersburg_June15-18

Generals Lee and Grant were two of the finest generals in American history.  However, they both had off days, and few episodes in the Civil War cast both of these men in a poorer light than the failure of the Union attempt to seize Petersburg from June 15-18, 1864.

Grant inexplicably assigned to Butler’s Army of the James the task of spearheading the Union effort to take Petersburg.  Considering the poor performance of this army during the Bermuda Hundred campaign and the assault on Petersburg on June 9, this was a poor choice.  Smith’s corps and the cavalry of Kautz would attack over the same route followed on the June 9 attack.  Hancock’s corps of the Army of the Potomac would follow up after the initial assault.

The attack didn’t get under way until 7:oo PM with Smith then taking 3.5 miles of entrenchments from the almost unmanned Confederate defenses.  Smith then decided to wait until dawn before advancing further.  Hancock, demonstrating yet again that he was no longer the aggressive battlefield commander he had been earlier in the War, agreed with Smith’s decision to wait until dawn.

Beauregard, commanding the defenses of Petersburg, having no other troops, stripped the fortified Howlett line that kept most of Butler’s army of Confederate troops bottled up at Bermuda Hundred.  Butler could then have smashed through the Howlett line with  ease, but he did nothing.  Beauregard now had 14000 men to hold Petersburg while he awaited reinforcements from General Lee.

He now confronted three corps of 50,000 men, Burnside’s corps having come up to join Smith’s and Hancock’s.  Hancock, in temporary command of the Army of the Potomac until Meade arrived, launched a three corps attack at 5:30 PM on June 16.  Beauregard and his men hanging on just barely, constructing entrenchments behind their lines to contain Union breaches.

June 17 was a day of uncoordinated Union assaults which gave Beauregard the opportunity to construct a new defensive line around Petersburg to which he and his men withdrew on the evening of June 17-18.

Throughout the struggle for Petersburg Beauregard had frantically been asking Lee to send him reinforcements.  Lee denied all such entreaties until his son General Fitzhugh Lee and his cavalry finally confirmed that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the James and was attacking Petersburg.  At 3:00 AM on June 18, Lee dispatched two divisions to shore up the Petersburg defenses.

Beauregard now had 20,000 troops against 67,000 Federals.  The Union attacks on June 18 were repulsed with heavy loss and the siege of Petersburg began.  The Union had sustained 11000 casualties against 4000 Confederate casualties during the fighting of June 15-18, and the last opportunity to end the War quickly had vanished.

Here is an account of the fighting from June 15-18th by General Beauregard that he wrote for the North American Review in 1887: Continue Reading

June 12, 1864: Grant’s Crossing of the James Begins

Richmond-Petersburg%20fall%201864

After the attack on Lee’s Cold Harbor line was bloodily defeated on June 3, Grant realized that trying to bull his way through Lee’s fortified line was useless.  As he had throughout the Overland Campaign Grant decided to move again south and east around Lee’s left.  He chose to not only cross the Chickahominy River but also the James River, a move he hoped would take Lee completely by surprise and allow him to seize Petersburg, the rail hub supplying Richmond.

To divert Lee’s attention he sent Sheridan and most of his cavalry on a raid to the West.  Grant then began the construction of an entrenchment line behind his Cold Harbor position.  On the night of the 12th Hancock’s and Wright’s corps withdrew to the new entrenchments.  Warren’s corps crossed the Chickahominy River and headed south.  Burnsides corps followed with Hancock and Wright’s corps taking up the rear.  Smith’s corps marched to White House on the Pamunkey River and were shipped by the navy to Bermuda Hundred.

At 4:00 PM on June 15th Union engineers began work on a 2200 feet pontoon bridge on the James between Windmill Point to Fort Powhatan and completed it seven hours later.  Grant then crossed his army over the James during the next two days with Lee still unsure as to his intentions, in one of the most daring, and successful, maneuvers of the War.  Grant in his Memoirs describes why he decided to take his biggest gamble of the War: Continue Reading

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June 3, 1864: Cold Harbor-Not War But Murder

ColdHarbor-June3

And, after that, the chunky man from the West,

Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved

As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit,

Takes you and uses you as you could be used,

Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down.

You are never to worship him as you did McClellan,

But at the last you can trust him.  He slaughters you

But he sees that you are fed.  After sullen Cold Harbor

They call him a butcher and want him out of the saddle,

But you have had other butchers who did not win

And this man wins in the end.

 

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

The main Union assault at Cold Harbor went in on the foggy morning of June 3 at 4:30 AM, the three corps of Smith, Wright and Hancock hitting the Confederate left.  Some of the Union veteran troops, in those pre-dog tag days, pinned white notes with their names and addresses on the backs of their uniforms so their bodies could be identified, they having learned the hard lesson that assaulting fortified lines held by Confederate infantry was bound to cause huge casualties among the attacking force.  The attack went in blind, as, stunningly, no had bothered to reconnoiter the Confederate lines and draw up maps.  One Union soldier in Gibbon’s division had an apt comment on this military malpractice:   “We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made.”

Smith’s attack on the right quickly bogged down, his men being funneled through two ravines where they were cut down in large numbers.  Wright’s men in the middle, still weary from their attacks on June 1, made little effort, and their attack was pinned down almost as soon as it started.  Hancock’s attack on the Union far left pierced the Confederate lines, but the breach was sealed and the Confederates repulsed Hancock with heavy loss. The attacks were all over by 7:30 AM.  Grant wanted attacks to resume, but by 12:30 PM  he had become convinced that further attacks were simply impossible.

The Union casualties from the assault have been estimated from 3,000-7,000.  I believe the upper estimate is more likely correct.  The Confederates incurred about 1500 casualties.  The armies would remain confronting each other at Cold Harbor until June 12, but there would be no further attacks.  Total Union casualties from all the fighting at Cold Harbor were around 12,000 to 5,000 Confederate, the same disparity as at Fredericksburg, the Cold Harbor assault of June 3, resembling the futile Union assaults of that battle.

Cold Harbor represented the nadir of Union fortunes during the Overland Campaign.  After huge casualties, 55,000, the Army of the Potomac still confronted an Army of Northern Virginia that could hold any position it chose to defend.  Grant seemed at loose ends for a while after the defeat of June 3, uncertain what to do next.  However, during the Civil War Grant never allowed any setback he suffered to remain final.  A failure all of his life except for war, matrimony and his last gallant race with the Grim Reaper at the very end to complete his Personal Memoirs to restore the family fortunes, he was determined that neither the Union nor he was going to lose this War.  Here are his comments in his Memoirs about the assault at Cold Harbor of June 3: Continue Reading

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June 1, 1864: Initial Assaults at Cold Harbor

Overland_Campaign_June_1

As May 1864 faded into June, Grant’s Overland Campaign was clearly headed for some sort of climax.  Grant had forced Lee back to the outskirts of Richmond. With Lee’s lines along,  and south east of, Totopotomoy  Creek being too strong in Grant’s estimation, he moved yet again south and east to flank Lee’s right.  On May 31, Union cavalry took Old Cold Harbor while Confederate cavalry held New Cold Harbor.  Both locations were  only ten miles from Richmond.

Lee planned to seize New Cold Harbor on the morning of June 1 from the Union cavalry holding it.  Bungled command arrangements and a fierce defense from the entrenched Union cavalry gave sufficient time for the infantry of Wright’s corps to come up and hold New Cold Harbor. Continue Reading

May 30, 1864: Battle of Totopotomoy Creek

Overland_Campaign_May_29-30

Lee realized that he was reaching a limit to how he could respond to Grant’s continual movement to the southeast.  Protecting Richmond was nailing his army in place, depriving it of the ability to maneuver as Grant used his superior numbers to outflank Lee’s defense.   Lee’s left and center along the Totopotomoy were relatively easy to defend, but his right was at a right angle tot he creek as the Union forces were continuing their push south to outflank him.  It was for this reason that Lee ordered Early, now in command of the II corps after Lee had relieved Ewell, attack Warren’s V corps.

The Confederate attack, although pressed heroically by the men of Ramseur’s division, proved a costly failure with 1500 Confederate casualties to 700 Union, the Union troops cheering the valor of the Confederate troops they repulsed and captured.  Continue Reading

May 26-28, 1864: Movement From the North Anna

Overland_Campaign_May_27-29

Grant, after the fruitless skirmishing on the North Anna, decided to resume his drive by once again heading east and south, around Lee’s left, the same type of movement he had been making since the outset of this campaign.  However, he had a tricky problem to resolve:  How to cross to the north bank of the North Anna without Lee becoming wise to his intentions, and launching an assault on the Union army as it straddled the North Anna?  To divert Lee’s attention, Grant sent two divisions of cavalry west to convince Lee that Grant was going to move west instead of east.  The ruse worked, and Grant quietly moved his infantry corps successfully across the North Anna on the evening of the 26th-27th.

Lee on the 27th instantly realized what Grant was doing, and sent his army hurtling south to take up a strong defensive position at Atlee’s Station, only nine miles north of Richmond, where he could guard the railroads that supplied Richmond and his army.

Grant sent his cavalry ahead to blaze a path across the Pamunkey River for his infantry marching southeast.  On May 27th Union cavalry established a bridgehead over the Pamunkey at Dabney Ford with a Union engineer regiment building a pontoon bridge.  General Custer’s cavalry beat off a Confederate counterattack and Union infantry and Cavalry passed over the Pamunkey on the pontoon bridge.

On the 28th Union and Confederate cavalry fighting dismounted, clashed at Haw’s Shop while the remainder of Grant’s army crossed the Pamunkey, except for Burnside’s corps that was guarding the army’s wagon train.

Lee now knew that Grant was across the Pamunkey but was unsure what Grant’s next move would be, and for now held his position behind  Totopotomoy Creek at Atlee’s Station.  Here is Grant’s account of this movement in his Personal Memoirs: Continue Reading

May 23-26, 1864: Missed Opportunity at the North Anna?

north-anna-battle-map

We can lie about him,
Dress up a dummy in his uniform
And put our words into the dummy’s mouth,
Say “Here Lee must have thought,” and “There, no doubt,
By what we know of him, we may suppose
He felt—this pang or that—” but he remains
Beyond our stagecraft, reticent as ice,
Reticent as the fire within the stone.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

 

Ultimately the North Anna portion of the Overland Campaign produced little in the way of fighting.  Four skirmishes fought over four days with total casualties of 2600 for the Union and 1500 for the Confederacy, high enough for the men killed and wounded  and their families but as nothing compared to the casualties amassed at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania.  However, one tantalizing question emerges from this section of the campaign:  did the Confederates miss a golden opportunity to defeat Grant on May 24 due to the illness of General Lee.  The armies now were closer in size than they would be at any time before or later during the campaign:  68,ooo in the Army of the Potomac and 53,000 in the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee having received reinforcements, consisting of Breckinridge’s Valley force, fresh from their victory at New Market and three out of four brigades from Pickett’s James River defense force, Butler and his Army of the James now being safely bottled up.  If the Confederates were to go over on the offensive, this was their window of opportunity from a numerical standpoint.

After skirmishing on the 23rd, Lee confronted an interesting strategic situation.  Warren had his corps ready to cross the North Anna on his left at Jericho Mills.   Wright, Burnside and Hancock’s corps were still north of the North Anna confronting his center and right.  In the face of this Lee fortified his line in an inverted V with its apex on Ox Ford.  Lee hoped that Grant would assume that he was retreating and cross, allowing Lee to use his inverted V fortifications to divide Grant’s force and allow him to attack the Union troops crossing on his right while his left held off the Union troops crossing the North Anna on the left side of the inverted V. Continue Reading

May 21, 1864: The Movement to the North Anna Begins

Overland_Campaign_Wilderness_to_North_Anna

 

 

Extricating himself from the Spotsylvania battlefield, Grant moved southeast, with Lee moving to keep ahead of him, ultimately stopping Grant with defensive lines south of the North Anna river and north of Hanover Junction.  Grant was now just a little over 25 miles from Richmond, and Lee’s options regarding maneuver were becoming limited if he was to keep Grant from taking the city.  Grant’s account below of the movement is interesting for two reasons.

First Grant states that the army had no maps of the area, which is stunning after three years of war that highly detailed maps of Virginia from Richmond and its environs north had not been prepared and distributed throughout the army.  Even elementary staff work was sometimes missing in the Civil War.

Second Grant believes that Lee missed a golden opportunity to defeat Union corps separately during this march.

Here is Grant’s account: Continue Reading

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May 18, 1864: Final Attacks at Spotsylvania

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_17

 

You see him standing,

Reading a map, unperturbed, under heavy fire.

You do not cheer him as the recruits might cheer

But you say “Ulysses doesn’t scare worth a darn.

Ulysses is all right. 

He can finish the job.”

And at last your long lines go past in the Grand Review

And your legend and his begins and are mixed forever

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

One hundred and fifty years ago the battle of Spotsylvania was drawing to a close.  Since the attack at the Bloody Angle on May 12, Grant had been shifting towards his left and he assumed that Lee would be weakening Ewell’s lines as a result to move forces over to his right.  Grant had Hancock’s corps move back into position to attack Ewell during the evening of May 17, with the attack to go in at dawn.  Lee had not weakened Ewell’s position however, and Ewell’s artillery alone was sufficient to break up Hancock’s attack before it got past the abatis  in front of his lines.  Grant’s reaction was to decide that no further attacks could succeed at Spotsylvania, and to continue to move to the southeast to drive Lee back towards Richmond.  Casualties at Spotsylvania were 18,000 for the Union and 12,000 for the Confederacy.  Adding in the Wilderness casualties, in less than two weeks the Union had lost 35,000 casualities and the Confederacy 23,000.  Northern public opinion was appalled at the shocking casualty lists in such a short period, but the Union could easily replace every man lost, while Lee was losing the veterans that his outnumbered army needed to maintain an essential combat edge.

Grant in his Personal Memoirs recalled this time as one of the low points for the Union of the Campaign of 1864:

But that night Hancock and Wright were to make a night march back to their old positions, and to make an assault at four o’clock in the morning. Lee got troops back in time to protect his old line, so the assault was unsuccessful. On this day (18th) the news was almost as discouraging to us as it had been two days before in the rebel capital. As stated above, Hancock’s and Wright’s corps had made an unsuccessful assault. News came that Sigel had been defeated at New Market, badly, and was retreating down the valley. Not two hours before, I had sent the inquiry to Halleck whether Sigel could not get to Staunton to stop supplies coming from there to Lee. I asked at once that Sigel might be relieved, and some one else put in his place. Hunter’s name was suggested, and I heartily approved. Further news from Butler reported him driven from Drury’s Bluff, but still in possession of the Petersburg road. Banks had been defeated in Louisiana, relieved, and Canby put in his place. This change of commander was not on my suggestion. All this news was very discouraging. All of it must have been known by the enemy before it was by me. In fact, the good news (for the enemy) must have been known to him at the moment I thought he was in despair, and his anguish had been already relieved when we were enjoying his supposed discomfiture, But this was no time for repining. I immediately gave orders for a movement by the left flank, on towards Richmond, to commence on the night of the 19th. I also asked Halleck to secure the co-operation of the navy in changing our base of supplies from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, on the Rappahannock. Continue Reading

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May 16, 1864: Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

advance-on-drewry's-bluff

 “It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as [Nathaniel P.] Banks, [Benjamin F.] Butler, [John A.] McClernand, [Franz] Sigel, and Lew. Wallace, and yet it seems impossible to prevent it.”

General Henry W. Halleck, letter to General William T. Sherman, April 29, 1864

 

Butler during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign in May of 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief.

While Grant was occupying Lee in the Overland Campaign, Butler was to take his 33,000 man Army of the James and strike at Richmond.

peninsulacampaignmapbattles

The above map is of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, but it is useful for understanding the geography of the 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign.  Butler’s army steamed up the James to the fishing village of Bermuda Hundred and disembarked on May 5, 1864 the same day that fighting began in the Wilderness.  Richmond was only a short distance away and it appeared to be merely a matter of marching for Butler to take it.

Butler was opposed by General P.G. T. Beauregard who now had the finest hour of his mixed record during the Civil War.  Stripping the Richmond garrison and bringing into his ranks militia consisting of men too old, and boys too young, to be conscripted into the Confederate Army, he assembled a force of 18,000 men.  After a week, Butler’s slow motion advance on Richmond came to an end at the Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, also known as the battle of Proctor’s Creek, where Beauregard’s ragtag force launched an attack which convinced the demoralized Butler to withdraw to Bermuda Hundred.

Beauregard constructed the Howlett Line, a series of Confederate fortifications that kept the Army of the James bottled up at Bermuda Hundred until Lee withdrew from Richmond on April 2, 1865.  In the Civil War there were defeats, debacles and the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, where Butler made bad generalship almost an art form.

Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers: Continue Reading

May 12, 1864: The Bloody Angle

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_12

After his attacks on May 10, 1864, Grant used May 11 as a planning day.  Impressed by the initial success of Upton’s charge on May 10, 1864, Grant decided to use Upton’s tactics of a swift attack along a narrow front, by troops with unloaded rifles, on a much larger scale.  Hancocks II corps was to attack the mule shoe salient using Upton’s tactics, while Burnside launched a supporting attack on the Mule Shoe from the east and Wright attacked the Mule Shoe from the west, while Wright launched decoy attacks on the Laurel Hill sector of the Confederate lines west of the Mule Shoe.

Attack preparations showed a complete break down in elementary staff work.  Hancock’s corps was completely ignorant of the configuration of the Confederate position they were to attack, the obstacles in their way, or indeed the basic nature of the ground to be covered.  Hancock had his attack columns assemble in torrential rain.  The attack was to begin at 4:00 AM. Hancock wisely delayed the attack until 4:35 AM, fearing that his men could not find the Confederate position, let alone attack it, in the rainy dark.

Now luck began to shine on the Union.  The rain stopped and dawn broke with a mist to conceal the Union attack.  Unbeknownst to the Union attackers, the Confederate division holding the section of the Mule Shoe they were going to attack, had been denuded of its artillery due to a false report received by Lee that the Union army was going to withdraw to Fredericksburg.  If this occurred, Lee wanted his artillery to be withdrawn and readied for an attacking that he planned to make on the withdrawing Federals.  Confederate Major General Allegheny Johnson, commanding the target division of the Union assault, became fearful of a forthcoming attack and appealed to his corps commander Lieutenant General Ewell for the return of his artillery.  Ewell granted the request at 3:30 AM, too late for the artillery to be put back into place before the start of Hancock’s assault.

Hancock’s 15,000 men attacking on a half mile front crashed into the Mule Shoe and overran Johnson’s division.  The rain had made useless much of the Confederate and Union gunpowder and the fighting was grim hand to hand combat.  Hancock’s men, fighting on such a narrow front, quickly lost all unit cohesion and became an armed mob, wading through the mud to battle the Confederates.  General Lee swiftly sent reinforcements to attempt to plug the breakthrough made by Hancock. Continue Reading

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May 10, 1864: Upton’s Charge at Spotsylvania

Something for the weekend.  Marching on to Richmond sung by Bobby Horton who has waged a one man crusade to bring Civil War music to modern audiences.  The song was written by E. W. Locke in 1862 and was always a favorite of Union troops during the War, and Union veterans at Grand Army of the Republic meetings after the War.

Richmond must have seemed very far away indeed to the Union troops at Spotsylvania 150 years ago.

 

 

 

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_10

Grant knew he needed to try something different if he was going to shift the Confederates out of their extensive fortified lines at Spotsylvania and 24 year old Colonel Emory Upton, a very intense West Point graduate commanding the 121st New York, supplied the new idea.  It was Upton’s plan that a column of men with unloaded guns could take a fortified position if they advanced very rapidly, not stopping to fire, and overwhelm the Confederate troops on a narrow front.  This was in complete contrast to conventional tactics at the time which said that assaulting troops had to be deployed in broad lines to maximize fire power.   Upton was given 12 regiments to try out his theory, as part of a coordinated Union assault on the Confederate lines on May 10.  Upton would attack the left side of what Union troops were calling the Mule Shoe, a huge Confederate salient.  After Upton made his breach in the line, supporting troops from the remainder of the Union VI corps would follow through and take the Mule Shoe.

The attack began and worked perfectly initially.  Here is how Grant describes the attack in his memoir:

To the left our success was decided, but the advantage was lost by the feeble action of Mott. Upton with his assaulting party pushed forward and crossed the enemy’s intrenchments. Turning to the right and left he captured several guns and some hundreds of prisoners. Mott was ordered to his assistance but failed utterly. So much time was lost in trying to get up the troops which were in the right position to reinforce, that I ordered Upton to withdraw; but the officers and men of his command were so averse to giving up the advantage they had gained that I withdrew the order. To relieve them, I ordered a renewal of the assault. By this time Hancock, who had gone with Birney’s division to relieve Barlow, had returned, bringing the division with him. His corps was now joined with Warren’s and Wright’s in this last assault. It was gallantly made, many men getting up to, and over, the works of the enemy; but they were not able to hold them. At night they were withdrawn. Upton brought his prisoners with him, but the guns he had captured he was obliged to abandon. Upton had gained an important advantage, but a lack in others of the spirit and dash possessed by him lost it to us. Before leaving Washington I had been authorized to promote officers on the field for special acts of gallantry. By this authority I conferred the rank of brigadier-general upon Upton on the spot, and this act was confirmed by the President. Upton had been badly wounded in this fight. Continue Reading

May 8, 1864: The Battle of Spotsylvania Begins

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_07

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.

 

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_09

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

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May 7, 1864: Grant Wins the War

Grant wins the War

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

May 6, 1864: Battle of the Wilderness-Second Day

Wilderness_May6_1400

 

 

 

..”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

May 5, 1864: The Battle of the Wilderness Begins

Wilderness_May5

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

Into the Wilderness

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

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Virginia’s Bloody Soil

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

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Grant Fumbles

Ulysses S. Grant

 

 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

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March 2, 1864: Grant Confirmed as Lieutenant General

lieutenant general grant

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

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May 19, 1863: First Assault at Vicksburg

First Assault at Vicksburg

 

After his successes at Jackson, Champion Hill and Big Black River, Grant assumed that Confederate morale might be low enough that Vicksburg could be taken by assault and avoid a time consuming siege.  In that he was mistaken.  The Confederates lacked the strength to defeat him in open battle. but they had both the strength, and the morale, to hold Vicksburg.  The first assault by Grant occurred on May 19, 1863 and was aimed at the Stockade Redan. Continue Reading

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April 3, 1862: Johnston Begins His March to Shiloh

It is rare for any soldier to attain the rank of general, but Albert Sidney Johnston managed that feat in three armies:  rising from private to brigadier general in the army of the Republic of Texas, brevet brigadier general in the United States Army, and full general in the Confederate States Army.  On April 3, 1862 he led his newly created Army of Mississippi out of the town of Corinth, Mississippi and began the march which would end in the surprise Confederate attack in the early morning of April 6, 1862, the beginning of the two day mammoth battle known to history as Shiloh.

The battle would result in the death of Johnston, his dying caused probably by his act of mercy in dispatching his personal surgeon to attend a wounded Union officer and none of his remaining staff having the presence of mind to fashion a tourniquet to stanch Johnston’s bleeding after he was wounded, and the fighting would inflict over 23,000 total Union and Confederate casualties, exceeding in two days all of the battlefield casualties in all of America’s wars prior to the Civil War.  Shiloh told the nation, North and South, that this was going to be a very grim war, and that their adversary would fight it with all the strength and will that they could muster.  After Shiloh the myth of a quick victorious war died on both sides. Continue Reading