None Died in Vain

 

 

Over there are some Civil War veterans. Iron flags on their graves…New Hampshire boys… had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than fifty miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends – the United States of America. The United States of America. And they went and died about it.

Thornton Wilder, Our Town

 

 

There is no other legend quite like the legend of the Confederate fighting man. He reached the end of his haunted road long ago. He fought for a star-crossed cause and in the end he was beaten, but as he carried his slashed red battle flag into the dusky twilight of the Lost Cause he marched straight into a legend that will live as long as the American people care to remember anything about the American past.

Bruce Catton

“I feel that we are on the eve of a new era, when there is to be great harmony between the Federal and Confederate. I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so. The universally kind feeling expressed for me at a time when it was supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to “Let us have peace.”

 

Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs

 

Published in: on November 21, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on None Died in Vain  
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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. (more…)

Published in: on July 29, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Digging of The Tunnel at Petersburg  
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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: (more…)

Irish Troops in the Civil War

“God Bless the Irish Flag.”

Said by President Lincoln when he kissed one of the green banners of the Irish Brigade, as a salute to the courage of the men who fought beneath the banners.

Some 150,000 Catholic Irish Americans fought for the Union in the Civil War and some 40,000 Catholic Irish Americans fought for the Confederacy.  Those are the best numbers I can find, although I suspect the numbers are understated.  Whichever side they fought for, the Irish troops were noted for pugnacity in attack and a merry gallantry that other troops often remarked upon and envied. Many elite units were made up of Irish volunteers, the most notable being the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac.

Their valor, and the ministrations of Catholic nuns serving as nurses to the wounded on both sides, helped to alleviate anti-Catholic sentiment in the country and hastened the admission of American Catholics into the American mainstream.

Published in: on May 17, 2021 at 9:50 am  Comments Off on Irish Troops in the Civil War  
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The Boy General

I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life.

George Armstrong Custer

 

My post earlier this month on the end of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley, go here to read it, featured General George Armstrong Custer, who achieved death and immortality at age 36 by his defeat at Little Big Horn on June 26, 1876.  Custer led a fiery meteor of a life and it is a shame that his defeat and death is all most Americans know about him today.

Graduating in 1861 from West Point, Custer was the class goat, dead last in his class.  He achieved the distinction of amassing 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of West Point.  Custer was a hell raiser and the orders of those above him he always treated as, at best, suggestions.  War suited him far better than West Point.  By June of 1863 he was a seasoned combat veteran serving on the staff of Major General Alfred Pleasanton, newly minted commander of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.  Pleasanton had the unenviable task of turning the Union cavalry from being a bad joke into a fighting force and he decided that one way of doing it was to put younger men, full of fight, at the head of brigades of cavalry.  In June he promoted three of his aides, including Custer, from the rank of Captain to the rank of Brigadier General of Volunteers.  Going from Captain to General was quite a leap, even during the Civil War when a lot of odd things happened, and Custer at the age of 23 found himself with stars on his shoulders.

He quickly demonstrated that Pleasanton’s unusual gamble paid off in his case.  At Gettysburg he and his men played a decisive role on July 3 in thwarting Jeb Stuart’s cavalry.   By the hard work of author Eric Wittenberg, go here to read how he did it, a fragment of Custer’s lost report of this engagement has been recovered:

At an early hour on the morning of the 3d, I received an order, through a staff-officer of the Brigadier-General commanding [Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, commander of the Third Division of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps] the division, to move at once my command, and follow the First brigade on the road leading from Two Taverns to Gettysburg. Agreeably to the above instructions, my column was formed and moved out on the road designated, when a staff officer of Brigadier General [David M.] Gregg, commanding Second division, ordered me to take my command and place it in position on the pike leading from York to Gettysburg, which position formed the extreme right of our battle on that day. Upon arriving at the point designated, I immediately placed my command in position, facing toward Gettysburg. At the same time I caused reconnaissances to be made on my front, right, and rear, but failed to discover any considerable force of the enemy. Everything remained quiet till 10 a.m., when the enemy appeared on my right flank and opened upon me with a battery of six guns. Leaving two guns and a regiment to hold my first position and cover the road leading to Gettysburg [the Hanover Road], I shifted the remaining portion of my command, forming a new line of battle at right angles to my former line. The enemy had obtained correct range of my new position, and were pouring solid shot and shell into my command with great accuracy. Placing two sections of Battery M, Second (regular) Artillery [also known as Pennington’s battery], in position, I ordered them to silence the enemy’s battery, which order, notwithstanding the superiority of the enemy’s position, was successfully accomplished in a very short space of time. My line, as it then existed, was shaped like the letter L, the shorter branch formed of the section of Battery [M], Second Artillery, supported by a portion of the Sixth Michigan cavalry on the right, while the Seventh Michigan cavalry, still further to the right and in advance, was held in readiness to repel any attack the enemy might make, coming on the Oxford road. The Fifth Michigan cavalry was dismounted, and ordered to take position in front of my centre and left. The First Michigan cavalry was held in column of squadrons to observe the movements of the enemy. I ordered fifty men to be sent one mile and a half on the Oxford road, while a detachment of equal size was sent one mile and a half on the road leading from Gettysburg to York, both detachments being under the command of the gallant Major Webber, who from time to time kept me so well informed of the movements of the enemy that I was enabled to make my dispositions with complete success. At 12 o’clock, an order was transmitted to me from the Brigadier-General commanding the division, by one of his aides, directing me, upon being relieved by a brigade of the Second Division, to move with my command and form a junction with the First brigade on the extreme left. On the arrival of the brigade of the Second Division, commanded by Colonel [John B.] McIntosh [of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry], I prepared to execute the order. Before I had left my position, Brigadier-General Gregg, commanding the Second Division, arrived with his entire command. Learning the true condition of affairs on my front, and rightly conjecturing that the enemy was making his dispositions for attacking our position, Brigadier-General Gregg ordered me to remain in the position I then occupied.

The enemy was soon after reported to be advancing on my front. The detachment of fifty men sent on the Oxford road were driven in, and at the same time the enemy’s line of skirmishers, consisting of dismounted cavalry, appeared on the crest of the ridge of hills on my front. The line extended beyond my left. To repel their advance, I ordered the Fifth cavalry to a more advanced position, with instructions to maintain their ground at all hazards. Colonel Alger, commanding the Fifth, assisted by Majors Trowbridge and Ferry, of the same regiment, made such admirable disposition of their men behind fences and other defenses, as enabled them to successfully repel the repeated advances of a greatly superior force. I attributed their success in great measure to the fact that this regiment is armed with the Spencer repeating rifle, which, in the hands of brave, determined men, like those composing the Fifth Michigan cavalry, is in my estimation, the most effective fire-arm that our cavalry can adopt. Colonel Alger held his ground until his men had exhausted their ammunition, when he was compelled to fall back on the main body. The beginning of this movement was the signal for the enemy to charge, which they did with two regiments, mounted and dismounted. I at once ordered the Seventh Michigan cavalry, Colonel Mann, to charge the advancing column of the enemy. The ground over which we had to pass was very unfavorable for the maneuvering of cavalry, but despite all obstacles this regiment advanced boldly to the assault, which was executed in splendid style, the enemy being driven from field to field, until our advance reached a high and unbroken fence, behind which the enemy were strongly posted. Nothing daunted, Colonel Mann, followed by the main body of his regiment, bravely rode up to the fence and discharged their revolvers in the very face of the foe. No troops could have maintained this position; the Seventh was, therefore, compelled to retire, followed by twice the number of the enemy.

By this time Colonel Alger of the Fifth Michigan cavalry had succeeded in mounting a considerable portion of his regiment, and gallantly advanced to the assistance of the Seventh, whose further pursuit by the enemy he checked. At the same time an entire brigade of the enemy’s cavalry, consisting of four regiments, appeared just over the crest in our front. They were formed in columns of regiments. To meet this overwhelming force I had but one available regiment, the First Michigan cavalry, and the fire of Battery M, Second Regular Artillery. I at once ordered the First to charge, but learned at the same moment that similar orders had been given by Brigadier-General Gregg. As before stated, the First was formed in column of battalions. Upon receiving the order to charge, Colonel Town, placing himself at the head of his command, ordered the “trot” and sabres to be drawn. In this manner this gallant body of men advanced to the attack of a force outnumbering them five to one. In addition to this numerical superiority the enemy had the advantage of position, and were exultant over the repulse of the Seventh Michigan cavalry. All these facts considered would seem to render success on the part of the First impossible. No so, however. Arriving within a few yards of the enemy’s column, the charge was ordered, and with a yell that spread terror before them, the First Michigan cavalry, led by Colonel Town, rode upon the front rank of the enemy, and sabring all who came within reach. For a moment, but only a moment, that long, heavy column stood its ground; then, unable to withstand the impetuosity of our attack, it gave way in a disorderly rout, leaving cast numbers of dead and wounded in our possession, while the First, being masters of the field, had the proud satisfaction of seeing the much-vaunted chivalry, led by their favorite commander, seek safety in headlong flight. I cannot find language to express my high appreciation of the gallantry and daring displayed by the officers and men of the First Michigan cavalry. They advanced to the charge of a vastly superior force with as much order and precision as if going upon parade; and I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry than the one just recounted. Nor must I forget to acknowledge the invaluable assistance rendered by Battery M, Second Regiment of Artillery, in this charge. Our success in driving the enemy from the field, is due, in a great measure, to the highly efficient manner in which the battery was handled by Lieutenant A. C. M. Pennington, assisted by Lieutenants Clark, Woodruff, and Hamilton. The enemy made but slight demonstrations against us during the remainder of the day, except in one instance he attempted to turn my left flank, which attempt was most gallantly met and successfully frustrated by Second Lieutenant J. H. Kellogg, with Company H Sixth Michigan cavalry. We held possession of the field until dark, during which time we collected our dead and wounded. At dark I returned with my command to Two Taverns, where I encamped for the night.

In this engagement my command lost in killed, wounded and missing, a total of five hundred and forty-two. Among the killed I regret to record the name of Major N. H. Ferry of the Fifth Michigan cavalry, who fell while heroically cheering on his men. It would be impossible for me to particularize those instances deserving especial mention; all, both men and officers, did their duty. There were many cases of personal heroism, but a list of their names would make my report too extended. To Colonel Town, commanding the First Michigan cavalry, and to the officers and men of his regiment, for the gallant manner in which they drove the enemy from the field, great praise is due.

Colonel Mann of the Seventh Michigan cavalry, and Colonel Alger, of the Fifth Michigan cavalry, as well as the officers of their commands, are entitled to much credit for their united efforts in repelling the advance of the enemy. The Sixth Michigan cavalry rendered good service by guarding both my right and left flank; also by supporting Battery M, under a very hot fire from the enemy’s battery. Colonel Gray, commanding the regiment, was constantly seen wherever his presence was most needed, and is deserving of special mention. I desire to commend to your favorable notice Lieutenants Pennington, Cleark, Woodruff, and Hamilton of Battery M, Second Artillery, for the zeal and ability displayed by each on this occasion. My thanks are personally due to the following named members of my staff, who on many occasions exhibited remarkable gallantry in transmitting and executing my orders on the field: Captain A. G. Drew, Sixth Michigan cavalry, Assistant Inspector General, First Lieutenant R. Baylis, Fifth Michigan cavalry, Acting Assistant Adjutant-General, First Lieutenant William H. Wheeler, First Michigan cavalry, A.D.C. First Lieutenant William Colerick, First Michigan cavalry, A.D.C. I desire also to mention two of my buglers, Joseph Fought, company D, Fifth U.S. Cavalry, and Peter Boehn, company B, Fifth U.S. Cavalry; also Orderlies Norval Churchill, company L, First Michigan cavalry, George L. Foster, company C, First Michigan cavalry, and Benjamin H. Butler, company M, First Michigan cavalry.

Respectfully submitted,

G. A. Custer

Brigadier-General Commanding Second Brigade

Jacob L. Greene,

Assistant Adjutant-General

Custer would spend the rest of the Civil War leading cavalry in combat.  His rise from Second Lieutenant to Brevet Major General US Army was unparalleled:

Second lieutenant, 2nd Cavalry: June 24, 1861
First lieutenant, 5th Cavalry: July 17, 1862
Captain staff, additional aide-de-camp: June 5, 1862
Brigadier general, U.S. Volunteers: June 29, 1863
Brevet major, July 3, 1863 (Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)

Captain, 5th Cavalry: May 8, 1864
Brevet lieutenant colonel: May 11, 1864 (Battle of Yellow Tavern – Combat at Meadow)

Brevet colonel: September 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester, Virginia)
Brevet major general, U.S. Volunteers: October 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, Virginia)
Brevet brigadier general, U.S. Army, March 13, 1865 (Battle of Five Forks, Virginia)
Brevet major general, U.S. Army: March 13, 1865 (The campaign ending in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia)

 

As a commander Custer was something of a martinet.  He could treat orders casually from his superiors but woe unto any of his men who did the same with his orders.  Despite this, he was popular with his young troops who sought to emulate the courage constantly demonstrated by Custer.  In his engagements he demonstrated combativeness, risk taking and the ability to profit from luck.  The odds were on his side by this time in the War and not much more was needed from him as a commander.

By the time he was 25 the best part of Custer’s life was behind him, and the rest of his life was an attempt to reach again the heights of fame he had achieved in his youth.  That will be the subject of a future post.

It was then a flag of truce was raised. by agreement between Generals Gordon and Sheridan. It was then a Federal Cavalry officer was observed coming down the road towards our forces, in his hands he carried a white handkerchief which he constantly waved up and down. He Inquired for General Lee and was directed to General Longstreet upon the hill. Upon approaching the General he dismounted and said, “General Longstreet, in the name of General Sheridan and myself I demand the surrender of this army, I am General Custer.” General Longstreet replied: “I am not in command of this army – General Lee is, he has gone back to meet General Grant in regard to surrender.” “Well”, said General Custer, “no matter about Lee, we demand the surrender be made to us. If you do not do so, we will renew hostilities and any blood shed you will be responsible”, “Well”, said General Longstreet, “if that is done I will do my part in meeting you.” Then turning to his staff he said – “Order General Johnson to move his division to the front, to the right of Gordon. Col Latrob, order General Pickett forward to Gordon’s left, do it at once.” Custer was surprised, not knowing so many troops were at hand with General Longstreet and his ardor cooled off and he said “General Longstreet, probably we had better hear from Lee and Grant, don’t move your troops, I will confer with General Sheridan.” He mounted his steed and withdrew and when out of hearing Longstreet said quietly that young man never played the game of bluff, for the troops ordered to take their places to the right and left of General Gordons troops, were only make believe soldiers.
Memoirs of David Washington Pipes 1845-1939

 

Published in: on March 19, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Boy General  
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February 17, 1865: Burning of Columbia, South Carolina

 

Controversy has raged since the burning of Columbia after Sherman’s army occupied it on February 17, 1865.  Although Sherman did not order the burning, I think the weight of evidence is that Union troops were responsible.  Blaming South Carolina for starting the War, Union troops were eager to visit upon the capitol of the Palmetto State the destruction that they believed was a just punishment.  Union diary accounts and letters leave little doubt as to Union responsibility.  Nonetheless, Sherman always denied that his troops were responsible.  Here is his account of the  fire: (more…)

Published in: on February 17, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on February 17, 1865: Burning of Columbia, South Carolina  
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John Stuart Mill: On the American Civil War

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things, the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice—is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.

The above quotation from John Stuart Mill, British Member of Parliament,writer and philosopher,  is frequently bandied about the internet, usually in an inaccurate form.  The quote is taken from an article that Mill wrote for Frasier’s Magazine and which was published in February 1862.  It is entitled The Contest in America, and here is the full text of the article: (more…)

Published in: on February 9, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on John Stuart Mill: On the American Civil War  
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December 28, 1861: Battle of Mount Zion Church

 

As 1861 dragged to a close, the civil war in Missouri continued to rage.  On December 28, a small Union force under Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss, five companies of the Third Missouri Cavalry and two companies of Birge’s Western Sharpshooters, ah, the colorful names that units had early in the War, were in Boone County Missouri, guarding the North Missouri Railroad.  Prentiss commanded about 400 men.  On December 28, he fought a Missouri State Guard (Confederate) force of approximately 900 men under Colonel Caleb Dorsey.  The Confederates were ill-armed, ill-supplied and ill-trained.  The Confederates fought until their ammunition gave out, and then were driven of by the Union troops.  Just one of hundreds of such engagements that marked the turmoil that engulfed Missouri throughout the War.  Here is the report of General Prentiss: (more…)

Published in: on December 28, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on December 28, 1861: Battle of Mount Zion Church  
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The Foreign Diplomacy of the Civil War

 

An Old Unreconstructed

I rode with old Jeb Stuart, and his band of Southern horse,

And there never were no Yankees, who could meet us force to force.

No they never did defeat us, but we never could evade,

Their dirty foreign politics, and cowardly blockade.

Waylon Jennings

A good video on the diplomatic aspect of the Civil War.  Considering how often conflicts had sparked between Great Britain and the United States over the years, and that Secretary of State Seward had the hare brained notion at the beginning of the conflict that war with Britain would re-unify the nation, it is remarkable that the Lincoln administration was able to avoid European intervention in the conflict.  Of course the Union was helped that such intervention would have been an arduous undertaking, and that any possible payoff for such intervention simply would not have been worth the blood and treasure it would have cost.  Although the Confederacy elicited a fair amount of sympathy abroad, no European nation wanted to get into a war with the United States in a trans-oceanic conflict of little practical value to any European state.  It also helped that France was no longer competing with Great Britain for global dominance, unlike during the American Revolution, and that the Pax Britannica was well-established.  A more turbulent Europe at that time might have produced a different result.

Published in: on August 18, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Foreign Diplomacy of the Civil War  
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July 21, 1861: Battle of Bull Run-Lessons to Learn

The First Battle of Bull Run, or First Manassas, was the first major battle of the Civil War.  A Confederate victory, it gave lessons to those paying attention:

1.    It amply demonstrated the hazards of sending half-trained troops into combat.  Both the Union and Confederate armies were green, and it showed in clumsy battlefield maneuvers and  an inability to coordinate attacks.

2.   An early indication that it was much easier to defend and counter-attack than to launch an initial attack in the Civil War.

3.    Rifled muskets were going to make this an exceptionally bloody war.  5,000 Union and Confederate casualties resulted from this battle, just slightly below the total American killed and wounded for either the entire War of 1812 or the entire Mexican War.

4.    One able general, Stonewall Jackson in the case of Bull Run, could seize the initiative and turn the tide of a battle. (more…)

Published in: on July 21, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on July 21, 1861: Battle of Bull Run-Lessons to Learn  
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