Thursday, June 12, 2014

Thought I would share some photos from the recent 150th Resaca reenactment in which the museum's living history detachment took part.  The images of us laying in the mud represent THE magic moment of the Resaca event... where we are laying prone in the mud, firing as desperately as we can at three Federal field pieces a mere 100 yards off, who are firing canister at us. The rear rank loaded the muskets and passed them to the front rank which capped and fired. Sergeants Larsen and Lopez crawled through the mud back and forth behind the line to assist with muskets that fouled and to pull ammo up to the top of cartridge boxes. You can see how thick the battle smoke already was and sense the desperation of the moment, which trust me, felt even more desperate than the photo conveys. We lay here for 10 minutes or so, before being ordered to rise up an attack an enemy earthwork to our right, which we briefly overran. This action speaks to the quality of the men of the 4th, 9th and 6th Texas in the Red River Battalion. Most reenactors would never go prone on a dry battlefield, let alone a muddy one, and fire from that position. We did it because that was tactically the right thing to do, the realistic thing to do. Our troops embraced the moment and the spirit of doing it right... which they always do, and that is why they were the very best men on the field. It was an honor to command such an outstanding body of soldiers, living historians and friends.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Today is the 149th Anniversary of the Battle of Palmetto Ranch, the last land battle of the War Between the States.  Fought just east of Brownsville, Texas on May 12-13, 1865.  Despite many post war myths, the Texas forces were well aware of Lee's surrender, Johnston's imminent surrender and Lincoln's assassination.  The South won this last battle.  To learn more about it, be sure to read my book: The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch.  It is available on Amazon 

Latest News on Publication of my Book.

Heard from Ted Savas and Savas & Beatie yesterday. They will be putting out After Gettysburg, Before Grant.  It was hoped publication might be late this fall, but it looks like that will slip into next spring.  The hard work of editing, etc. will begin this summer and I will keep everyone abreast of how that goes.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A column of march from the 150th Anniversary reenactment of Pittsburg Landing (aka  Shiloh).  Marching was the most common experience of the soldier on campaign.  Everyone might not get into a battle, but everyone marched.  The realities of a march are best understood by reading a great deal of accounts by veterans of the War Between the States and then going out and doing it yourself.  It is one of the real benefits of reenacting/living history that it brings a visceral sense of understanding to the words the actual participants wrote.  You hear the sound of a moving column, the shuffling of feat, the rattle of cups against canteens, the shout of commands, the jingle of equipment, the snort of horses; You experience the frustrating start and stop nature of a large column on the move, the mud or the dust, the heat or the cold, the weariness and uncertainty.  All of that brings you into communion with what the veterans remembered, what stuck in their brains as important enough to share later in life. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

An Execution in the Army of the Potomac

The first few chapters of my forthcoming book, After Gettysburg, Before Grant, deals with the difficult circumstances the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia found themselves in following the great battle in Pennsylvania.  The Union force was as badly hurt by its victory as the Rebel force was by its defeat -- a not uncommon occurrence during the War Between the States.  Each faced a wave of desertions caused by a variety of factors such as heavy casualties and the loss of key leaders which disrupted  discipline, morale and cohesion in even veteran units. War weariness and home sickness were, as always, a significant factor in inducing men to desert. For the Union, however, there was a new source of discontent: the bounty jumper. 

One of the most intriguing things I uncovered in researching the war in Virginia between August and December, 1863, was the symmetry between the antagonists.  To a remarkable degree, both Lee and Meade faced the same problems and dealt with them in the same way.  When it came to stamping out the dangerous scourge of desertion, the execution of convicted offenders proved to be vital to reducing the levels to acceptable levels for each side.

Here is a passage from my book detailing the Army of the Potomac's efforts to fight desertion.

"Shortly after the First Battle of Bull Run, the Federal government's call for more troops produced hundreds of regiments whose men enlisted for a term of two or three years.  Now, with more than 24 months of those three years almost gone, many regiments that answered the nation's call in 1861 were ready to go home.  As the men in these outfits saw it, they had done their part and now it was someone else's turn.
            The army was going to lose a good number of its experienced soldiers if all of those eligible went home when their enlistments expired in early 1864.  This problem was accentuated by the fact that men being drafted to replace these veterans were not turning out to be very reliable soldiers; indeed, many of these replacements were not even making it to the army at all.
At the heart of this difficulty was Federal conscription law. When recruiting began to dry up after November, 1862, the result of prolonged fighting and heavy casualties, the Federal government resorted to the draft.  The Enrollment Act of 1863,   provided for the conscription of whatever number of troops state governments were not able to supply through volunteering.  It was hoped the threat of being drafted, considered an ignoble way to enter the army, would induce hesitant men to enlist.  The stratagem worked for a while.  But the legislation also allowed a man to avoid service by either paying a $300 commutation fee or hiring a substitute to go in his place.  The hiring of a substitute permanently removed one's name from the draft rolls.  The commutation fee did not, and it would have to be paid each time a man's name was drawn for the draft.
            Needless to say, the system caused problems.  Many thought it inconsistent with the ethic of a free nation to compel men to military service.  Others were outraged by the reality that the wealthy could buy their way out of their duty, raising the specter of "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight."  Indeed, by the time the war ended, 86,724 men had paid the commutation fee and avoided going into the service.  That number represented more men than were in the entire Army of the Potomac in August, 1863.
            To the soldiers in the field, already experiencing the rigors and dangers of war, commutation was bad enough.  But an even more vile practice in their eyes was bounty jumping.  As the conscription system was structured, the federal government made periodic calls on the states to furnish more men.  Each state was given a quota of troops to provide.  The state governments in turn issued quotas to their various counties, townships and municipalities.  If a certain locality could not produce its quota by voluntary enlistments, the balance would be made up by conscripting enough men from that area to make up the shortfall.
The draft was generally unpopular and politicians were eager to do anything that would prevent their voters from being conscripted.  One way for a locality to avoid having any of its citizens drafted was to induce men from elsewhere to enlist in its district.  In this way, those outside the community would provide officials with a way to meet their quota and prevent locals from being compelled to serve. 
The pool of men who might be brought into the service this way was not altogether large.  As a result, cash incentives were offered to convince potential "volunteers" to sign up.  The use of money to attract recruits soon brought fierce competition among counties, towns and cities, creating a financial contest to see which could offer the highest reward.  These monetary inducements were called bounties, and depending on where a man chose to join, he could collect a payment from the federal, state and local government.  A bounty could quickly add up to over $1000 – a princely sum in 1863.  These large rewards convinced many to sign their name on the muster role.
The real problem was that bounties were inducements to join the army, but not necessarily incentives to do any fighting. There were plenty of unscrupulous characters willing to enlist, often under an assumed name, collect their bounty and then desert at the first possible moment.  Once at a safe distance they would repeat the process in a different location.  Such men were known as bounty jumpers and they deserted in large numbers, as did many drafted men who were unable to buy a substitute or pay the commutation fee.
The effect of this was to produce large numbers of men who were supposed to reinforce the army, but very few who actually did so.  The difficulties of the draft were exacerbated by the ill-advised way the Union previously dispatched reinforcements to the army.  It was far easier to raise new units than it was to enlist men as replacements for existing commands.  This also allowed governors more political patronage by passing out officer's commissions in newly created regiments and batteries.  Thus new men came to the army in new regiments and very few came to fill the gaps of veteran units already in the field. 
As a result, many of the finest commands in the army were no more than mere shadows; some regiments numbered what individual companies were to muster under the army's table of organization.  A full strength infantry regiment contained 1,000 men.  By 1863, most could assemble less than 600 and many no more than two or three hundred. 
The 14th Connecticut was a prime example.  In August, 1863, its ranks contained only 80 original members.  Losses in the regiment had been so high it was earmarked to receive a large number of replacements, mostly drafted men and substitutes.  The 14th sent an officer north to collect a group of these replacements and escort them back to Virginia.  Starting with 117 men, he managed to arrive in camp with only 42.  The others deserted along the way; most of them disappearing in New York City. On August 10, another collection of 143 replacements reached the 14th Connecticut's encampment.  Within six days, 54 of these men deserted. On the eighteenth, the regiment reported that of the over 200 replacements sent, 134 had run away.
The Connecticut experience was hardly unique. Major Henry Abbot complained that conscripts for the 20th Massachusetts were "deserting terribly."  Out of a pool of 200 draftees, 30 had already deserted, while another 40 were in the hospital, "ill of diseases which they had when they" joined the army. "This drafting business is, everywhere throughout the army without an exception, so far as I can learn… a most lamentable failure," Abbot wrote.  Although he believed conscripts were really just paid volunteers, he felt the circumstances of their enlistment deprived them of the "pride, self respect & honor" felt by "even the worst of the volunteers" of 1861.  To keep these men from running away, it seemed Meade had one half of his army "guarding the other half."
Most veterans had little regard for draftees or substitutes. Major Henry Winkler pronounced the opinion of many when he lamented that substitutes were "uncouth, untrained, insubordinate, mutinous, [and] everything bad." One captain referred to a group of 109 replacements received by the 118th Pennsylvania as a "fearful lot of loafers, bummers and substitutes." In an effort to mentally prepare them for the new career on which they were embarking, he took pains to impress upon them that they were "now of no earthly account but to carry a musket… obey orders literally, draw and eat the rations issued, growl to no purpose, and, when it becomes necessary, stand up and get shot." The officer feared turning these men into soldiers would be a "task which will bother us very much," and take a considerable amount of time. 
Despite the initial reservations of commanders and enlisted men alike, draftees who stayed with the army generally went on to make good soldiers.  Henry Abbot found himself unexpectedly concluding the conscripts brought into the 20th Massachusetts proved "better than the men that originally made up" the regiment. Although six or seven had deserted, and despite the fact drill instructors had "put the screws to them like the devil," the major thought they would become "excellent soldiers… in time."
If men who were drafted and did not desert eventually proved good soldiers, men who came into the army as the result of receiving a bounty invariably made bad ones, if they stayed around to become soldiers at all.  The desertion problem they created, while not quite the same as the one Lee faced, was equally serious.  The ease with which bounty jumpers got away was very damaging to the morale of the army.  It also made clear how readily a melancholy soldier, who believed he had already done his share, might go home.
As was the case with the Rebels, the officers of the Army of the Potomac realized stern discipline was required to stem the tide of deserters.  The methods the Union used to combat desertion were the same as those employed by the Confederates.  On March 10, 1863, Lincoln issued a general amnesty promising no punishment for any man absent without leave who returned to his unit by the beginning of April.  But, like Jefferson Davis' amnesty, Lincoln's appeal achieved only a modest success.
Army regulations in 1860 authorized the payment of $30 "for the arrest and delivery of a deserter to an officer of the army.” But for some reason the United States Congress lowered the authorized payment to $5 in September 1861. This seriously reduced the motivation, already slim, of anyone interested in capturing deserters.  In July 1863, the reward was raised to $10, and in September it went back to $30. But the desired results were still lacking. The methods being used to combat desertion were so unsuccessful some officers began to offer a thirty-day furlough to any soldier who would help detect, stop or turn in a potential deserter.
Executing Deserters, Sept 1863 by Alfred Waud
As was the case with the Confederates, the only measure truly effective in stopping desertions was executing those convicted of the crime in front of their former units.  The first execution that summer was of five Pennsylvania substitutes who, having "deliberately deserted after being regularly put into the service," were caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death.  Before the executions were carried out, the men appealed to Lincoln for mercy. The president wrote Meade telling him these men made their request without giving any grounds for it whatsoever.  Since he understood these "are very flagrant cases and that you deem their punishment as being indispensable to the service," Lincoln told his general that, unless he was mistaken in this understanding, he was to inform the culprits their appeal was denied.
Meade responded to the president, telling him the men in question were "substitute conscripts who enlisted for the purpose of deserting after receiving the bounty, and being the first of this class whose cases came before me, I believed that humanity, the safety of this army, and the most vital interests of the country required their prompt execution as an example, the publicity given to which might, and I trust in God, will, deter others from imitating their bad conduct." The day after Meade wrote Lincoln, all five deserters were shot to death by firing squad in front of 25,000 men.
Like their Confederate counterparts, the Northern troops required to witness executions had mixed feelings about the affairs. Repulsed by the spectacle they tended to have empathy for the "wretched, horrible predicament" of the condemned. Nonetheless, most soldiers approved their fate.
Brutal and hard to watch though they may have been, executions soon became an almost routine part of the army's activities.  Every corps was supplied with a gallows and shooting ground for administering the fate of those convicted and sentenced to death.  The executions were held every week and "scarcely a Friday passed … that some wretched deserter did not suffer the death penalty in the Army of the Potomac."
All of this received a great deal of attention in the Northern newspapers.  Harper's Weekly published illustrations showing a September execution alongside a grisly account of the occasion and a lengthy editorial justifying the shooting of deserters, all penned by famed war correspondent and artist Alfred Waud.  "The crime of desertion has been one of the greatest drawbacks to our army," Waud wrote. "If the men who have deserted their flag had but been present, on more than one occasion defeat would have been victory and victory the destruction of the enemy.”  Asserting that desertion was the “greatest crime of the solider,” Waud felt the government had shied from the proper response for too long and was glad to report reluctance to execute deserters was a thing of the past."

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Battle of Jeffersonton, Virginia Oct. 1863

          From reading most accounts of the Bristoe Station Campaign, launched by Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on October 8, 1863 one would get the impression that there was little combat between the rival armies, save for the action at Bristoe Station on October 14, that gave the campaign its name.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As Lee's maneuvers forced George Meade's Army of the Potomac back from Culpeper Courthouse to within 25 miles of Washington, D.C., there was a great deal of fighting -- much of it intense and quite severe.  One of the most interesting actions occurred on October 12, as the Rebels moved to outflank Meade and cross the upper Rappahannock River.  The results were the battles of Jeffersonston and Sulphur Springs.  Below is an account of the battle of Jeffersonton from my forthcoming book, After Gettysburg, Before Grant, which will be published by Savas & Beatie this fall.
The Battle of Jeffersonton

            Along the Rappahannock, everything hinged on news from Meade's right flank, where Brigadier General David Gregg's division covered the river’s upper fords. The focal point of concern was Sulphur Springs – sometimes known as White Sulphur Springs – one of the most beautiful and renown spots in all Virginia. Home of a mineral spring reputed to have curative powers it had long been a popular tourist attraction.  During the 1830s entrepreneurs had built a spacious and magnificent four-story hotel there.  Combined with rows of individual guest cottages flanking well-manicured and elaborately landscaped lawns, the resort was capable of accommodating 800 guests.
Such splendor did not survive the war, however.  In August 1862, Union and Confederate forces engaged in a nasty little fight for the bridge spanning the Rappahannock at Sulphur Springs. Hit by shells from both sides, the hotel caught fire and burned to the ground. Now all that remained of its former glory were blackened granite walls, standing in stark contrast to majestic trees and untended gardens.
Little more than a year later Sulphur Springs was once again the potential center of a bull’s-eye. Lee’s infantry was marching hard toward the upper Rappahannock; Hill’s Corp’s aiming for Waterloo Bridge, while Ewell’s was wearing out shoe leather toward the springs. But before the Rebels could count on crossing the river at either location they would have to push Union cavalry out of their way.  
George Meade did not intend for the Confederates to have to push very hard. Gregg’s instructions were quite clear.  He was to post a brigade on the Sperryville road, watch for any sign of the enemy and send in frequent reports. Meade's chief-of-staff made certain the general understood “it was information of Lee's movements solely” that was wanted.  The Union cavalry was not to get caught up in a battle.  It was not charged with slowing Lee down. Its’ entire mission was to discover Lee's whereabouts and get that information to army headquarters “at the earliest possible moment.” 222
Gregg assigned the task of watching the Sulphur Springs road to his 2nd Brigade which happened to be commanded by his cousin, Colonel John Irvin Gregg, who in turn placed Lieutenant Colonel Garrick Mallery’s 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry between Rixeyville and Jeffersonton.  The rest of the brigade he stationed north of the Rappahannock, spread out to cover the various roads to Warrenton.
Mallery threw his pickets well forward of Jeffersonton and waited for something to happen.  For an agonizingly long time nothing did.  Feeling something more proactive could be done, General Gregg dispatched Colonel Charles Smith’s 1st Maine Cavalry to scout the road to Sperryville, traveling through Amissville, Gaines Crossroads and Little Washington on its way.

As the 13th Pennsylvania stood guard near Jeffersonton, Smith’s cavalrymen rode off to the west.  Reaching its destination without encountering opposition of any kind, the regiment about faced to return via the same route it had come. Between Amissville and Gaine’s Crossroads, however, it unexpectedly found A.P. Hill’s infantry clogging the roads.  In one of those bizarre occurrences so common in war, the 1st Maine had ridden right across the path of the oncoming Confederate army without seeing a single enemy soldier.
Realizing he had found what he had been sent to find, Colonel Smith also understood he was powerless to communicate his vital discovery. Cut off completely, with Lee's entire host seemingly between his regiment and the Army of the Potomac, Smith had only one escape route left open.  The Union troopers headed north and west, beginning a thirty-hour trek that would lead them on a 90-mile march around Lee's flank and back to their own lines. While the 1st Maine thus managed to save itself, the vital information it possessed regarding Lee's movements was heading away from, not toward, George Meade.
As the Maine cavalrymen stumbled into their awkward predicament, Gregg’s troopers watching the Rixeyville Road were descending into a worse ordeal. Around daybreak, dismounted Rebel cavalry began driving in the 13th Pennsylvania’s outposts and by 9 a.m. Union pickets had been pushed all the way back into Jeffersonton.
The Rebels had no idea how many Yankees were holding the town, but they knew the surest way to find out was to poke the beehive and see what swarmed out. So as their dismounted skirmishers continued advancing, Southern cavalry essayed a mounted charge toward the village.  Anticipating such a threat, Colonel Mallery had kept a reserve force of about 100 men in the saddle.  As the Rebels came thundering forward, the Pennsylvanians counter charged.  For a moment it looked like a classic cavalry mêlée was at hand. But before the opposing forces made contact the Virginians abruptly reversed course, leaving their Yankee counterparts with no one to fight.
Being denied a chance to cross sabers with the Rebels quickly proved the least of Mallery’s problems. Lured out into the open, the mounted Pennsylvanians now became easy targets for Southern marksmen who had been clandestinely deployed to take advantage of the opportunity. Rapidly turning about, the Yankee cavalrymen beat a hasty retreat. No matter how fast they spurred their horses, however, they had no hope of outrunning the hailstorm of enemy bullets which emptied many saddles before the colonel’s troopers made it back into town.  Those who survived were ordered to dismount and fight on foot.
As the struggle around the little village continued, Mallery sent word back to John Gregg that Confederate cavalry was on the road between Rixeyville and Culpeper. Then, with no instructions to resist the Rebel advance, he ordered the 13th to abandon Jeffersonton and fall back toward the Rappahannock. 
As of yet Mallery’s men had seen no Rebel infantry.  The presence of Southern cavalry meant little and might amount to nothing more than a reconnaissance.  Not willing to concede ground south of the river to Stuart’s horsemen, General Gregg ordered his 2nd Brigade to reinforce the Pennsylvanians.
That task fell to Major George Covode’s 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which was just going into camp between Sulphur Springs and Warrenton when the message to head south arrived. Abandoning their bivouac, Covode’s men, accompanied personally by Colonel Gregg, were soon crossing the Rappahannock to support their fellow Keystone State troopers. About 12:30 p.m., the 4th met up with the 13th about a half mile north of Jeffersonton.  Gregg promptly directed the two regiments to reoccupy the hamlet, which was easily done – the Rebel cavalry meekly falling back into woods south of town.
But the enemy did not remain meek for long. Confederates in force made contact with the Pennsylvanians around three in the afternoon.  The 11th Virginia Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Dulany Ball, found the Federals posted behind hills, fences and a stone wall surrounding the town’s Baptist church.  Dismounting his troopers, Ball tried to dislodge the Yankees by a quick push.  The Rebels attacked with great vigor and fighting swirled around the town – its epicenter the church’s stone wall, which was the scene of several bouts of hand-to-hand combat. 
Despite the determination of Ball’s assault, a pair of Union regiments proved too much for his Virginians and they were driven back with some loss. Once more, however, Federal success was momentary.  Shortly after Ball’s repulse, Stuart, Ewell and Robert E. Lee arrived on the scene, bringing with them the bulk of Funsten’s cavalry brigade and Major General Robert Rodes’ division which was the vanguard of Ewell's corps.  Seeing the retreat of the 11th Virginia, Lee – not content to be a mere bystander – told Stuart to deploy his regiments and drive the Yankees away.
While Stuart moved to execute Lee's orders, Rodes deployed Brigadier General Cullen Battle’s six Alabama regiments and Major Eugene Blackford’s sharpshooters to surround the town.  Battle dispatched the 3rd, 6th and 12th Alabama on a sweep to envelop Jeffersonton from the west, while the 5th and 26th Alabama moved to strike from the east. Blackford’s command made a mile-wide circuit to get behind the town, his men being careful to stay out of sight of the its defenders.
As the infantry pressed forward, Stuart shook out Funsten’s Brigade, sending the 7th Virginia Cavalry to the left, while posting the 12th Virginia Cavalry to the right.  The 11th Virginia, remounted, took position in the center.  The Federal troopers in Jeffersonton were not blind to what was happening and a continuous and rapid skirmish fire erupted between the rival lines.
Once the Confederate regiments surged forward, however, the outcome of the fight was a foregone conclusion.  Outnumbered and outflanked, those Pennsylvanians who could fell back.  But most of the dismounted Federals discovered their horses had disappeared – either captured or run off.  With no officers in sight, some troopers held a quick consultation and decided to retreat to a nearby ridge covered with cord wood.  Here each man hurriedly stacked firewood to make an individual little fortress.
No sooner were these makeshift fortifications erected, than Rebel cavalry came bearing down on the ridge.  After driving off five separate charges, the isolated Pennsylvanians suddenly found themselves confronting Southern infantry.  Private John Hollis watched aghast as “large square bodies” of gray troops approached, battle flags fluttering in the breeze.  With a sinking feeling the private realized there was no escape. Nonetheless, he was surprised at just how quickly the Federal position was overrun; Rebel infantry with fixed bayonets easily rousting the Yankees out of their wooden forts and marching them away as prisoners.
Gregg’s mounted men seemed headed toward a similarly grim fate.  About a half a mile north of Jeffersonton the road to Sulphur Springs passed through an expansive pine thicket three-quarter miles in length. In this dreadful tangle Funsten’s regiments slammed into the retreating Federals, who turned to make another stand. For thirty minutes a vicious close quarters struggle swayed back and forth, the Virginia and Pennsylvania regiments charging and counter charging in the difficult terrain. It was as mean a fight as could be imagined; the dense pines trapping the gun smoke and intensifying the “rattle of small arms,” shouts of command and “cries and oaths of the combatants.” One Rebel called the struggle a “bloody and doubtful contest” in which confusion reigned supreme.
Gradually the Federals were pushed back by Confederate numbers and relentlessness.  During the mêlée, Blackford’s sharpshooters slipped between the Pennsylvanians and the river, threatening the Federal line of retreat. Realizing they were in danger of being surrounded, the Northerners broke and fled, running for the Rappahannock with Stuart's men in hot pursuit. As they dashed toward the river, the sharpshooters, positioned parallel to the road, poured a hot fire into the Federal troopers, killing a dozen and capturing 20 others whose horses fell victim to their fire.
With Rebel cavalry bearing down on their rear and Blackford’s marksmen ripping into their flank, the Pennsylvanians’ situation seemed to be worsening by the moment. Without help both Union regiments were sure to be cut off and destroyed.  In an effort to stem the crisis, Major Henry Avery’s 10th New York Cavalry was ordered across the river to do what it could to protect the battered commands desperately trying to reach the Rappahannock.  Avery led his regiment to the south bank and deployed a squadron of skirmishers on the slope of a long ridge running perpendicular to the road and about a half mile from the river.  The sudden appearance of the 10th New York diverted Confederate attention from Jeffersonton’s fleeing defenders, thus saving what could be saved of the regiment’s Pennsylvania brethren.  
That success was a double-edged sword, however, as the Rebels now focused their wrath on the Federal newcomers and the New Yorkers found themselves in exactly the same sort of jeopardy the battered Pennsylvanians were escaping. Luckily for Avery, his men were relatively fresh and his opponents somewhat disorganized by their clash at Jeffersonton. Still, the 10th barely held on long enough for the Pennsylvanians to get away. With his mission accomplished and enemy troops pressing ever closer, the major was eager to extract his regiment from its increasingly perilous position before it was too late. Although the order to retreat was not long in coming, the 10th barely managed to get back to the river, losing heavily in men and horses in the process.
As Avery withdrew toward the Rappahannock, the first part of the afternoon’s action came to an end. Gregg's cavalrymen had put up quite a fight and the cost of their stubbornness was high. All three Federal regiments were cut to pieces, losing collectively 17 known dead, 114 wounded and 432 captured or missing.
Sadly, these Federal losses served little purpose. The mission of Gregg’s regiments was reconnaissance not combat.  Caught up in what seemed a fairly routine fight against Rebel cavalry, they were taken completely by surprise when Rodes’ infantry suddenly appeared. With no hope of significantly slowing Lee's main body, the few regiments engaged at Jeffersonton wound up fighting for mere survival.  Their struggle, although a brave one, was so utterly absorbing it unintentionally delayed transmission of the critical intelligence on which Meade's entire army was waiting.
As soon as Federal officers in Jeffersonton had spotted Rebels wearing knapsacks, a courier was dispatched to Sulphur Springs with news that Confederate infantry was nearby.  The assault of Stuart's cavalry followed so closely on the arrival of Lee's infantry however, the courier had no chance to get away.  Blundering into the path of the 12th Virginia Cavalry, he was taken prisoner after being severely wounded and having his horse killed.
Hence, only when the battered remnants of the 13th and 4th Pennsylvania safely crossed the river, could evidence of Lee's infantry finally begin its journey to an anxious Meade. Not until 4:50 p.m. did General Gregg hold in his hand reports confirming Rebel foot soldiers were at Jeffersonton and marching on Sulphur Springs.  Gregg hastily scrawled out a message to Meade saying that a large column of enemy infantry was “in plain sight” and moving to cross the Rappahannock.
Buford's reconnaissance had informed Meade hours before that Lee was not at Culpeper. Now Gregg had evidence the Southerners were moving to turn the Federal flank. The Army of the Potomac was in the wrong place and it would have to reat quickly to escape the trap Lee was settting. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

This tintype was taken at the 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh to you Yankees).  It shows me with some of my dearest friends and comrades from a reenacting career dating back to 1983!  Seated: Mike Moore (left) and Scott Swenson. Standing: Gill Eastland (left), me (center) and Bob Huey.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The preface from my forthcoming book: After Gettysburg, Before Grant



This is not a book about the battle of Gettysburg. Nor is it the story of the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg and failure of the Union army to deal it a death blow north of the Potomac River.  It does not contemplate what might have happened if the South had won the great contest in Pennsylvania in July 1863.  As its foundation, this work accepts the historical fact that the Army of Northern Virginia lost the battle of Gettysburg and made a successful retreat back to Virginia. Rather, this book focuses on what happened in Virginia during the five months spanning the period between the battle of Gettysburg and the onset of the winter encampment of 1863-64.

 In examining this period, it is vital to avoid, as much as is humanly possible, the common pitfall of historical hindsight. One of the challenges historians face is that they usually know the end of their story, hence their efforts are usually bent toward trying to explain or find reasons for historical outcomes.  This is especially true of military historians, who, fully aware of who won or lost a given battle, campaign or war, seek to understand what brought those results about and conjecture on how the course of history might have been altered.  Naturally the American Civil War has not avoided this paradigm. Historians know the Confederacy lost the War Between the States.  Just exactly why the South lost and the North won will forever be an open question. However, no amount of disagreement on the causes of that outcome will ever alter the reality that the Union was preserved.  Knowing the rebellion was defeated, historians have tended to spend their energies explaining why the South lost or how the North won.

Legitimate and fascinating as these lines of inquiry are, they obscure a vital point. While the war was being waged no one knew for certain what the outcome would be. Many made predictions, legions more had hopes and fears regarding the result, but no one could say with certainty who would win, how long victory would take, what its cost would be, or what the world would look like once the fighting stopped.  One of the greatest tasks of the historian, therefore, is to try to recapture the uncertainty of the period he or she studies.  The decisions and actions of history's participants usually make more sense when viewed through the prism of the incomplete, often inaccurate, information they had at the time, as well as their ignorance of how their story would end.

Nonetheless, in our desire to understand why history unfolded the way it did, we often "clean up" the messy day-to-day reality of the past, searching for turning points, fateful decisions, errors and happenstance.  Consequently, many scholars have looked backward from Appomattox and seen the twin Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg as the turning point of the Civil War – the point after which Northern victory was certain and Confederate defeat a matter of time.  It is, in many ways, a natural conclusion.  These two great Northern victories, culminating within 24 hours of one another in July 1863, seem to have marked the point where Southern hopes of victory were permanently dashed, Rebel morale fatally wounded, Confederate strength and offensive capability crippled, and the North put firmly on the road to inevitable victory.

Shortly after the end of the war, the idea that Gettysburg was the great turning point gained traction.  There were many reasons for this.  The battle was the largest and bloodiest ever fought on American soil.  It was one of the few instances where the Army of the Potomac won a clear victory over Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  It turned back a Rebel invasion of the North launched in the aftermath of stunning Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.  The drama of a closely fought battle, where the South appeared to come so close to victory, and a battle easily understood (at least in a simplistic way) by laymen, as well as Lincoln's immortal speech on the battlefield, made this one engagement, more than any other, the symbol of the great conflict. 

In addition, some former Confederate officers, holding Robert E. Lee up as the symbol of the South's "lost cause," sought to explain his defeat by arguing that Lee's lieutenants failed to carry out his orders at Gettysburg.  The great argument that ensued as to why the battle was lost and who was responsible for losing it garnered a great deal of attention, further helping solidify in the popular mind Gettysburg's critical place in deciding the outcome of the war. 

The idea that Gettysburg doomed the South to defeat, as well as the battle's fascinating drama, has led historians to lavish attention on the struggle. It has also led many to take a dip in the pool of "counter factual" history and postulate on ways the Rebels might have won the battle and what the outcome of Southern victory might have been.  The allure of engaging in this kind of theoretical exercise is irresistible and it almost always helps to further cement Gettysburg's vital place in the salvation of the Union and the destruction of the Confederacy.  Often visions of Lee triumphing over Meade at Gettysburg lead to speculation of the destruction of the Army of the Potomac, the capture of Washington and realization of Southern independence. Logically, if the outcome of a Confederate victory at Gettysburg is a complete reversal of the war's result, then Gettysburg must be the turning point.

However, there have always been problems with giving Gettysburg this distinction and in recent years more scholars have begun to explore the inherent flaws in the turning point thesis.  A Rebel victory at Gettysburg could not have prevented the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 or of Port Hudson five days later.  These Northern victories on the Mississippi split the South in two, and would have likely offset much of the morale effect of a Gettysburg defeat. Another obvious pitfall in claiming Gettysburg is the place where Union victory became inevitable is that the war went on for another 21 months after the great battle.  How is it that Southerners could fight for so long and with such tenacity if the fate of the war was already decided, their morale fatally shattered and their armies hopelessly weakened? 

The greater challenge to the Gettysburg thesis is that the North came closest to losing the war, and hence the South came closest to winning it, in the late summer of 1864 – more than a year after the battle in Pennsylvania.  Frustration that the triumphs of July, 1863, led only to the protracted and horrifically bloody battle between Grant and Lee, the stalemate at Petersburg, and Sherman's equally protracted, although less bloody, campaign to take Atlanta, very nearly led to Lincoln's political defeat. The election of George B. McClellan to the presidency on a Democratic platform calling for a cessation of hostilities might have led the North to abandon its effort to force seceded states back into the Union.

It has always seemed to me that there must be a bridge between what many believe was achieved by the Union in the summer of 1863 and the very near defeat of the North in the summer of 1864.  This is not a novel question. Recently, scholars have begun to examine and question the effect Gettysburg and Vicksburg on Southern morale.  Their findings reveal a quite different attitude toward the outcome of Gettysburg than was usually advanced in the postwar era, indicating the Pennsylvania battle was seen by Confederates as more of a disappointment than a calamity. Other historians have examined the campaigns of 1864. These struggles drained the North's will almost below the point of continuing the war, and only the last-minute victories of Sherman, Sheridan and Farragut buoyed Yankee hopes and led to Lincoln's reelection.

But no truly in-depth study has examined the campaigns waged between Lee and Meade from August to December of 1863.  There has been little interest and scant inquiry into what happened in Virginia after the battle of Gettysburg and before the arrival of Grant at the helm of the eastern theater.   Most historians quickly sum up the period by pointing out a stalemate ensued and shift their focus elsewhere.  But stalemates do not just happen. Perpetuation of military stalemate in wartime is a powerful force in and of itself, influencing strategy, tactics, politics, logistics and decisions about who commands armies. Seldom are generals and governments content with stalemate on the battlefield and they make mighty efforts to end it.  All of this was most certainly true in Virginia in the wake of Gettysburg.

In the fall of 1863 many believed the Union had an extraordinary opportunity to finish the war.  The Army of the Potomac was riding high after its great Gettysburg victory while Lee's legions were thought to be on the verge of collapse.  The constant numerical superiority of the Federals in Virginia became even greater when the Confederates were compelled to ship one third of Lee's army to Georgia, in hope of redeeming the Federal capture of Chattanooga.  Given these facts the South faced a truly bleak situation; probably the most dangerous it had seen in Virginia since McClellan stood at the gates of Richmond in May of 1862. 

The North's great opportunity came to nothing, however.  By the onset of the winter lull, the rival armies were still staring at one another across the Rapidan River, basically where they were at the start of the Gettysburg campaign.  Why?  How is it that the Union failed to take advantage of what appeared, to many, to be an unparalleled opportunity to finish off the Army of Northern Virginia once and for all? How did Robert E. Lee manage to hold Meade in stalemate when the odds were stacked so badly against the South?  What was the effect of that stalemate on the war's course?  What problems confronted both sides in Virginia after Gettysburg? What do they tell us about the state of the conflict and each nation's relative ability to claim eventual victory?  How did Lee's army recover from its Gettysburg defeat to become the formidable foe that mauled the Army of the Potomac in 1864?

The story of the campaigns that answer those questions has attracted only passing attention from historians – largely because they produced no great bloodletting such as Fredericksburg, Manassas or Gettysburg. In war, however, everything of significance and importance is not purchased in rivers of blood.  The Confederacy won an important victory in the fall and early winter of 1863.  Lee and his troops managed to forestall one Union offensive, and then foil another, thus maintaining the stalemate in Virginia that had existed to a greater or lesser degree since the Peninsula campaign of 1862.  What is more, that victory was won without paying a tremendous price in casualties – a commendable achievement given the South's dwindling supply of manpower.

By contrast the North endured a disappointing defeat, albeit one whose full impact was hidden by the astounding success of Federal armies in the West.  Nonetheless, at the time, much was expected of George Meade and his army after Gettysburg. Little, however, was delivered.  If the Federals could have capitalized on the unique circumstances they encountered in Virginia during the fall of 1863 the war may have ended a year earlier than it ultimately did.  But the failure to grasp the opportunity and make the most of it did more than disappoint the Northern press and public.   It convinced the Lincoln administration that George Meade was not the general it had been looking for and, therefore, helped produce the decision to appoint Grant as commander of all Union armies.  The fall campaigns foreshadowed the extensive use of field fortifications by both sides that would become the conflict's hallmark in 1864. More importantly, by perpetuating the stalemate in Virginia, these campaigns literally set the stage and produced the conditions and context in which Grant's Overland Campaign would play itself out the following spring.  The casualties and frustrations of that effort would almost cost the North the war.

The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia did not go into hibernation during the five months after Gettysburg.  Although the attention of most historians shifts to the dramatic struggles around Chattanooga in the fall of 1863, a great deal of real importance happened in Virginia during this same period.  These events had a profound effect on the course of the conflict.  They helped restore Southern morale and military strength in the wake of Gettysburg, allowing Confederate armies and civilians to prepare for what would truly be the decisive campaigns of the war – Grant’s drive against Lee and Sherman's quest for Atlanta.  More importantly, they highlight the real difficulties of the North in capitalizing on its Pennsylvania triumph, continuing the war and finding a way to defeat Lee.  These months also demonstrate the ability of the Confederacy to recover, with remarkable speed, its morale, determination, strength and equilibrium in the aftermath of the twin failures at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

If we eschew knowledge of how the war eventually turned out, and place ourselves back in the late summer and fall of 1863, the course of the Civil War looks very different and thus the importance of Gettysburg less sure.  Americans, in the months between Gettysburg and the bloodbath of 1864, had no ability to see through the fog of war and glimpse the eventual verdict of history. The ultimate victor in their struggle remained unpredictable; the course of events still held possibility for both triumph and disaster.  Living through those days meant grappling with enormous strain, sacrifice and uncertainty.  As always, war brought agony and doubts, determination to see the struggle through to victory and arguments that the task was misguided and hopeless.   
What follows then is an examination of that period as viewed through the eyes of the commanders, soldiers, politicians, civilians and newspapermen of both sides. Although history usually passes lightly over the campaigns of Lee and Meade between August and December, 1863, at the time they were followed with keen anticipation, the movements of each army full of possibility for a decisive showdown.  During those months the rival armies would march hundreds of miles and thousands of men would be killed or maimed. The leaders of the two armies and two governments would struggle for advantage and cope with a myriad of logistical, political and military dilemmas. Meanwhile the hopes and fears of tens of thousands of civilians on the two home fronts would swell or recede with each letter or newspaper column detailing the movements and combats of the two armies. For this, if for no other reason, the story of this period deserves to be studied and told.                                                     

A New Book fills a major gap in the history of the Eastern Theater

Spurred by the question posed by Dr. George Forgie while I was working with him at the University of Texas, I began to research the role Gettybsurg actually played in the War Between the States.  As I looked into the topic, I began to realize that there was quite a difference between the way people viewed that great battle during the war and in the decades after the conflict

So much of Gettysburg's fame is wrapped up in the creation of the National Battlefield Park, its status as one of the few clear cut victories ever won by the Army of the Potomac, the great debate among Confederate veterans over who "lost" the battle and the fame of Lincoln's Gettysburg address.  There is little doubt that Gettysburg has become the symbolic battle of the war... which is just fine.  Anything that gets people to visit the battlefield, read about the conflict, connect with the men and women who lived through that crucible in our nation's history, be inspired by the valor of the soldiers or the leadership of the generals, is a good thing.

But does Gettysburg deserve the title of TURNING POINT?

The answer, in part, depends on how you define turning point.  Is it the moment that the goals for which a nation is waging war dramatically change? If so, isn't Antietam the turning point for the Union?   Is it the moment that the struggle morphs from a  limited conflict into total war? If so aren't Shiloh or Sherman's March the turning point?  Is the turning point economic? polictical? diplomatic?  You can take your pick or subscribe to the idea that there were multiple turning points of varying importance.

Most people, however, would tend to define turning point as the moment it became certain that one side would lose the war and the other would win it.  When Gettysburg is referenced as a turning point this is the typical context -- the claim that is made or at least strongly implied; certainly the claim that is often inferred.

So if we accept that definition, does Gettysburg meet the standard.  Increasingly, more and more historians have been saying "probably not" or "not at all." 

Wanting to make up my own mind, I decided that the best place to look for an answer to the Gettysburg = Turning Point question was in the months immediately after the great battle.  How did Northerners and Southerners (especially those in the rival armies and governments) view the battle at the time?  What impact did the battle have on the actual -- rather than counterfactual -- course of the war? 

This led me to examine the period after the battle of Gettysburg and before the arrival of Grant as commander of all the Union armies.  Remarkably, the actions of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac during the five months between the Pennsylvania battle and the onset of Winter Quarters in December 1863 have recieved little more than passing mention in most larger histories or biographies.  What has been published on them generally contains little or no originial reserach beyond the use of the Official Records.  As Virginia-centric as Civil War military history tends to be, I was astonished to discover that there was scant attention paid to such a long period concerning the war's most famous armies and one of its most famous -- if not most famous -- generals: Robert E. Lee.

My project began as a Master Thesis and 20 some odd years later it has morphed into a book, After Gettysburg, Before Grant that will published by Savas & Beatie this fall.  It has been a fascinating subject to research and a delight to write about.  The two major campaigns that occurred between August and December 1863 -- Bristoe Station and Mine Run -- are fascinating operations, full of compelling stories, lots of combat and much to tell us about the relative impact of Gettysburg on the course of the conflict. I hope that my work will stand as the definitive study of the period and those campaigns. 

Many of my blog posts will concern these events... but I hope that this blog also becomes a forum where those with a serious and deep interest in the war can discuss, exchange ideas and debate. I have always enjoyed the intellectual back and forth of studying history and look forward to engaging in that favorite past time with my readers.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Additonal photos of the Texas Military Forces Museum exhibit on Texas troops in the War Between the States.

Here is another image from the Texas Military Forces Museum's War Between the States exhibit.

Here is a photograph of the Devil's Den exhibit at the Texas Military Forces Museum, where I am the director.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

This is a photo of me reading a proclamation from Governor Rick Perry rededicating the Texas Monument at Gettysburg during the week of the 150th Anniversary Reenactment in late June, 2014.
The Road to Becoming a Civil War Historian
I was born in the midst of the centennial of the War Between the States, so perhaps it was only natural that I would grow up fascinated by the subject. Somehow or another the allure of the conflict had already grabbed hold of me before I first encountered it officially during the fourth grade. We lived in Indiana at the time, and that was the grade when you studied Indiana history. The chapter on the state in the war was very short, but did include a cool drawing of militia contesting John Hunt Morgan’s raid. Needless to say I was hooked. The How & Why Wonderbook on the Civil War and a host of other books aimed at younger readers did the rest. I devoured everything that I could find in our local library and wanted more.

A few years later, I discovered Civil War Times Illustrated magazine — courtesy of a kind gentlemen who needed to get rid of many years worth of back issues because he was moving — and then it was on to the wonderful writing of Bruce Catton.

From Indiana, my familymoved back to Kentucky about the time I entered Jr. High School. Then in 1975 we moved to Texas. The long drive between the two states took me into the old Southern Confederacy for the first time and I was thrilled to be traveling across the geography I knew from reading about the war. Billboards advertising the Vicksburg Battlefield Park drove me too distraction! By the time I was in college, studying the war was already a lifelong hobby. Thanks to a great professor at the University of Texas, Dr. George Forgie, I determined to become a professional historian… and also thanks to him I met some of my oldest and closest friends — Gill Eastland and Mike Moore. Mike was a reenactor, one of what today would be called the “hard core” school, and he introduced Gill and me to the hobby. We’ve been doing it ever since.

Getting into reenacting, or as we prefer to say, living history, literally changed my life. It is how I met most of friends, it took me to battlefields and museums I had always wanted to go to, it gave me a deep and vivid understanding of the tactics and weapons of the period as well as the life of the common soldier. It was travel, comarderie, adventure, education all rolled up into one —- everything positive about a military experience with few of the negatives. It also helped me burnish my skills as an educator through doing hundreds of public programs, organizing events and researching the history of battles, soldier life and more.

After getting my master’s degree from UT, I began teaching as a part time instructor at Austin Community College. Contacts made through reenacting led me to a job at the Admiral Nimitz National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas — where I got involved in WWII and WWI reenacting — and eventually being curator of collections and director of the museum’s living history program. In 2002 my first book, The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch, was published by the University of Texas Press.

Researching and writing that book was enormously fun and satisfying. It made me want to write another one, but on what subject?

The answer was easy.

From the very beginning of my trek into the world of Civil War history, one name had soared above all the others in the saga of the war — Gettysburg. It was accepted wisdom that this was THE great battle of the war and its turning point. Most of the famous historians who wrote about the war advanced that thesis and the mere fact that more books existed about Gettysburg than any other single battle codified it. Even the movie Gone With the Wind did its part — Rhett Butler telling Scarlett that “there was a little battle going on in Pennyslvania at a place called Gettysburg that ought to pretty well decide things one way or the other.”

Absorbing this conventional wisdom, I too placed Gettysburg at the center of the entire Civil War universe. Thus I was shocked when Dr. Forgie, during his outstanding class on the conflict, pondered out loud on whether Gettysburg was as important as everyone seemed to think it to be. At first I resisted the very notion, but the more I thought about it, and the more I discussed it with him, the more I realized I was having a hard time defending the battle as the war’s turning point.
That realization took me down the path of writing another book and studying a phase of the war that has received but scant attention from scholars for 150 years.