Yesterday was the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Morton’s Ford, fought on February 6, 1864. I had wanted to get something posted yesterday, but I was presenting at a symposium and then had a 7.5 hour drive today to get home. So, unfortunately, this is a day late. Let’s hope it’s not a dollar short.
“A Curious Affair:” The Battle of Morton’s Ford, February 6, 1864 Proceeding south on Batna Road (Rt. 663), one observes an isolated hillock to the west. Called “Stony Point” in the Civil War, this knoll was home during the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac to 2,000 soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division of the 2nd Army Corps. In early February 1864, little did these peacefully reposed troops realize they would soon help initiate one of the strangest and least known of all military actions occurring in and about Culpeper County.
In order to support a planned cavalry-infantry raid on Richmond, Union strategists in Washington instructed the Army of the Potomac to initiate a diversionary attack against entrenched Confederates south of the Rapidan. Although stoutly opposed to the impending assault against the enemy’s “strongly entrenched line,” Federal commander Gen. John Sedgwick selected Morton’s Ford as the avenue of attack.
On the morning of February 6, 8,000 soldiers of the 3rd Division secretly amassed north of Stony Point. Once his ranks were formed, Gen. Alexander Hays ordered his division to move out quickly toward Morton’s Ford, located just over a mile south. As it turned out, this stealthy advance would be the only positive thing the Yankees accomplished for the remainder of a
long and bloody day.
Crossing in front of Powhatan Robinson’s house, Struan, the 3rd Division rushed toward Morton’s Ford. Near the head of the assaulting force rode General Hays, who “had added two or three extra fingers to his morning dram.” Actually, this was a polite way of revealing that General Hays was stone drunk. As his advancing soldiers leaped into the icy river, General Hays followed closely behind swinging an ax high over his head at tree branches while shouting, ‘We will cast then down as I do this brush!”
Ignoring Rebel musket fire, Hays’ men dived for cover to escape their “reckless and incoherent” commander’s wildly heaving blade. With inebriated leadership at the fore, the dubious operation kicked off. Over on the Southern side, one artillerist described a “rather sudden transition from peace to war.” Undaunted, the famed Richmond Howitzers opened up on the Yankees now pouring across the river. Riding up quickly, Gen. Richard Ewell asked in amazement, “What on earth is the matter here?” Convinced his corps was under attack, General Ewell focused the plunging fire of his big command on the soon outnumbered attackers. “We crossed the river to feel the enemy, “one bluecoat wrote, “and we got the feel badly.” Another Yank pointed out the obvious, “The enemy was not badly scared.” Under direct fire from Rebel works located a mile back of the ford, the courageous but poorly led Federals withered and their “attack” ground to a halt. One Federal officer theorized the “purpose of our attack was to draw a force of enemy to our front.” The Federals achieved that objective as the cool Southerners responded “in a deadly focus of fire.” Northerners fell dead by the dozens.
Late in the day, things only got worse for the besieged Federals as the Confederates initiated a bold counterattack. One Union officer—obviously a future politician—artfully described this Rebel thrust as the “enemy retreating toward us.” Disingenuous semantics aside, the Yankees withdrew after dark over the river, losing near 300 casualties in the process while Dick Ewell’s corps incurred about 55 casualties. R.E. Lee’s great biographer accurately termed the daylong battle a “curious affair.” And also stupid in the extreme, one might offer, as this pointless action accomplished nothing but death and misery.
Following the battle, General Sedgwick complained bitterly that Washington authorities should not have initiated orders resulting in the disastrous Battle of Morton’s Ford. But with General Sedgwick’s castigations of higher-ups noted, this debacle on the Rapidan would not represent the last time American warriors entered a battle with an ill-defined mission, while engaged in an action counseled against by generals in the field, and also fighting in a locale wherein they were not wanted to begin with.
Both photos are by Clark B. Hall.
The Battle of Morton’s Ford, although a small engagement in terms of numbers involved, was an important engagement that had strategic implications for the coming campaign seasons, and which was remembered by the soldiers who fought there. Let’s remember their sacrifices there. Hopefully, some or all of this pristine battlefield will be preserved some day.
One of my partners in the law firm where I practice law mentioned to me last week that he had an ancestor who was a Civil War soldier, and that one of his letters home had survived. Those sorts of things always interest me, so, at my request, John brought me a copy of the transcription of the letter today. After reading it, and realizing that its content was both very rare and very interesting, I asked John for permission to share it here on the blog. Thanks to John Cook for giving me permission to do so.
John’s ancestor was Maj. Alonzo W. Baker of the 139th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.The 139th Ohio Infantry was organized at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, and mustered in May 11, 1864, for 100 days service. The 139th departed Camp Chase for Washington, D.C., on May 20. It was assigned to do prison guard duty at the very large prisoner of war camp located at Point Lookout, Md., on June 1, 1864. The 139th Ohio Infantry mustered out of service August 26, 1864. John’s ancestor’s letter was written on August 11.
Baker was an attorney from Van Wert in northwestern Ohio, and his intelligence comes through in the letter. He wrote to his brother, Charles Eber Baker (known to the family as Eber), who served in the 64th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which was part of the IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. Here is the letter, in full:
Point Lookout, Maryland
August 11, 1864
Your last letter like bread cast upon the waters, came to me after many days, but after its many wandering was none the less thankfully received. And now while everything here is again “Quiet on the Potomac” I have thought it a good opportunity to pen a reply. I am happy to learn (as I do from Lottie’s last letter) that up to the last letter received by Father you were still safe and free from harm. I suppose you were not engaged in any of Sherman’s last battles yet might be exposed to some of the dangers of battle. Sherman from all accounts must have had a series of victories although the Rebs claim some triumphs.
I sincerely wish the Army of the Potomac might have as much success. Grant’s last engagement was a failure “Somebody to blame” as there eternally is in this Army. It was too long under control of McClellan. But I do hope Grant will weed it out and then he will be successful here. I think Sherman lost a good officer when old Joe Hooker left. The Rebs have got another big scare in Pennsylvania and Maryland but I guess it is about played out. Grant threw up the 6th and 19th Corps in short metre the second time.
We had a big scare here at the time of the first raid into Maryland, throwing up entrenchments &c. All bustle and excitement that has now played out, although we are now building a very respectable Fort, by rebel labor, it being voluntary on their part, preferring to to lying idle in the pens. One of the guards shot one dead last Sunday.
Last Saturday we had a large water spout pass over the extreme south part of the point, destroying everything it came in contact with. Destroying two commissary buildings each at least 100 feet long–the dead house, Sutler Store, two wards in the General Hospital each probably 100 feet long, the roof and the sides tumbling in smashing beds, etc. and yet not a sick man was hurt in either. One sentinel was picked up and carried 100 yards, had both legs broken by striking timbers in the air or when he lit, and he does not know which. Another was carried a considerable distance but lit in the bay and was not injured. But two men in all were hurt, lumber, bales of hay, and pieces of roofs, large limbs of trees etc. sent whirling in the air. It was a scene only witnessed in a life time. I did not get to see it, only the effects just having come off duty as Field Officer of the Day. I had lain down and was asleep. I would not have missed seeing it for $25–but so it was.
I visited the Roanoke (doing guard duty off the point) a few days ago. She is claimed as the most formidable vessel in the world in an engagement. Is about 225 feet long, has three turrets each 11″ thick, was plated 4 1/2 inches on the sides extending 6 feet below the water edge. The front turret has one 15 inch one 200 lb. Parrots gun. The rear one the same. The centre one two 11 inch guns. All the handling on the guns is done by machinery and by steam, having for all purposes 24 engines on board. She is indeed worth seeing.
Well we expect to start for home next week, or time being out on the 20th. The detachments are ordered in today and General Barnes says we will start next week.
Lottie has returned to Van Wert from her visit to Marion all well. And strange as it may seem after the experience I had my brother and Irene is said to be carrying on a correspondence. Be careful Boy, how you take a fancy to a Peter’s girl or a Nathan may get after you.
Well Irene is a good girl, but be careful of your heart for I tell you this girls take a fellows heart right away from him. At least that’s the way one of them served me–so look out. Well answer this soon & direct to Van Wert as I expect to be there at the farthest by the 1st of September and if your letter should best me, a day or two, it will be all right–but don’t delay a day after you receive this.
Our Col. has gone to Washington and I subscribe myself your brother.
A. W. Baker
Here are a few random notes on this outstanding letter.
Baker referred to Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s invasion of Maryland in July 1864. Brig. Gen. Bradley Johnson was supposed to lead a cavalry raid consisting of his brigade and Maj. Harry Gilmor’s 2nd Maryland Cavalry intended to free the prisoners of war being held at Point Lookout. Their approach did indeed cause quite a scare at Point Lookout. The raid only made it as far as the Baltimore area before Johnson called it off. This episode has received little attention over the years.
The U.S.S. Roanoke was a U.S.S. Merrimack-class wooden frigate that was converted into an ironclad monitor in 1862-1863. As Baker correctly pointed out, it had two turrets, and the design did not work well. She was too heavy and she had too deep of a draft to be useful in shallower waters. She was part of the blockading flotilla assigned to Hampton Roads, Virginia.
The General Barnes referred to by Baker was Brig. Gen. James Barnes, who commanded a V Corps division at Gettysburg. Barnes was badly wounded at Gettysburg, and, after recuperating and unfit for duty in the field, was assigned to command the District of St. Mary’s, Maryland, which included the POW camp at Point Lookout, as part of the Middle Military District.
Lottie was Baker’s wife, Charlotte. Irene’s identity is unknown.
Finally, I have never before seen a description of a tornado, or the damage caused by one, in a Civil War soldier’s letter, and find it to be one of the more fascinating aspects of this interesting letter.
Thanks again to John Cook for allowing me to share it with you here.Scridb filter
Ten years ago today–September 24, 2005–I made the first post on this blog. 1395 posts later, I’m still here.
I had been intrigued by the concept of blogging, which was still a relatively new phenomenon, and I saw a blog as an opportunity to address things that I wanted to address, whether it was trying out theories or ideas, or spreading the word about battlefield preservation, or telling the stories of forgotten cavalrymen. For a long time, I posted several times per week, and nearly burned out from doing so. I post much more infrequently now–now, it’s when I have something that’s worth saying, but I still use this blog as a forum for trying out new ideas. As just one example, in July, I ran a long series of posts about George Meade, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and the retreat from Gettysburg that served as a sounding board and will ultimately lead to the publication of a book on the subject. It began here. Along the way, I have made a lot of wonderful acquaintances here and have exchanged a lot of ideas with you here, and I would not trade those interactions for anything.
Thank you for ten wonderful years. While I may post much more infrequently now, I’m not going anywhere, and there will be more to come….Scridb filter
John Watts DePeyster was born on March 9, 1821, the son of Frederic de Peyster, a wealthy and powerful New York lawyer, investor and philanthropist. His great-great grandfather, Abraham de Peyster, was an early mayor of New York City, as was Abraham’s brother Johannes. His grandfather was a nephew of Lt. Col. Arent de Peyster, commandant of the British garrison at Fort Michilimackinac and Fort Detroit controlled during the American Revolution. John Watts DePeyster was a first cousin of Civil War hero Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, the one-armed, swashbuckling general killed at Chantilly on September 1, 1862. He was also a nephew of the legendary dragoon, Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny.
DePeyster inherited vast wealth at a young age, more than one million dollars by the time he was twenty-one. He studied law at Columbia College, although he did not graduate on account of his poor health. He became an invalid at a young age due to a heart affliction he developed during service as a volunteer firefighter with the No. 5 Hose Carriage during his collegiate years, including a major fire in 1836 that caused his health problems. He helped to organize the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York.
DePeyster married Estelle Livingston (1819-1898) on March 2, 1841. They had five children: John Watts De Peyster was born 2 December 1841 and died 12 April 1873), Colonel Frederick De Peyster , who was born 13 December 1842 and married Mary Livingston, Estelle Elizabeth De Peyster Toler, (James B Toler), who was born 1844 and died 12 December 1889, Colonel Johnston Livingston De Peyster, who was born 14 June 1846 and married Julia Anna Toler and Maria Livingston De Peyster (born7 July 1852 and died 24 September 1857).
In 1845 he entered state service in New York and was soon named colonel of a militia regiment. The consistently poor state of his health prohibited him from commanding troops in the field. He served as state Judge Advocate General and then as Adjutant General, holding the rank of brigadier general, until he resigned his commission in 1855 after a conflict with the Governor of New York. He traveled extensively through Europe as a military observer, and implemented many reforms that modernized the militia for the upcoming conflict as result of his travels. He continued to serve in an administrative capacity throughout the war after his efforts to obtain a field commission.
In 1861, DePeyster went to Washington, D.C., to solicit a commission as a brigadier general in the Regular Army and offered to raise two regiments of artillery, which he felt best suited his expertise and physical condition. However, New York had already raised its recruitment quote of 75,000 men, so he met with no interest. Rebuffed, he returned home to New York. In June 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg, he turned down a commission as a colonel of cavalry offered to him by prominent New York Senator Ira Harris on behalf of Generals Joseph Hooker and Alfred Pleasonton—Pleasonton, a known careerist, may have thought that the wealthy DePeyster’s social connections could have helped his career.
All three of DePeyster’s sons served in the Union armies during the Civil War. His eldest son and namesake, John Watts DePeyster, Jr., served as an aide-de-camp and as an artillery commander with the Army of the Potomac and received a brevet to brigadier general of volunteers. His middle son, Frederic DePeyster, III, was a colonel and a regimental surgeon, and his youngest son, Lt. Johnston DePeyster, commanded a battery of artillery and received credit for hoisting the first Union flag to fly over Richmond in April 1865.
He penned a well-respected treatise titled New American Tactics that was serialized in The Army and Navy Journal that advocated using skirmish lines instead of main lines of battle, a revolutionary theory for the times. In spite of his ill health, DePeyster still achieved the rank of brevet major general of the New York State Militia in 1866. After the war, he was active in the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, a veterans’ organization for former Union officers.
DePeyster and his family resided on an estate–Rose Hill–located in Tivoli, Duchess County, New York. He was a prolific writer and an accomplished military historian. After the Civil War, he was known as “America’s foremost military critic.” In that capacity, he published hundreds of pieces, including, perhaps, approximately fifty under the pseudonym “Anchor.” One commentator noted DePeyster’s “keen eye for topography, his long and still unceasing military education, his uncommon memory, his power of description and his opportunities for using his abilities constitute him the only as well as the first military critic in America.” DePeyster “rejoiced in overriding conventionalities and often showed strong bias, particularly in defense of a familial connection, but his writings show exceptional knowledge of military history and science.” This kind of erudition comes through plainly in DePeyster’s writings.
He strongly supported his fellow Empire Stater and close friend, Daniel E. Sickles, and, using the “Anchor” pen name, vigorously defended Sickles’ role at the Battle of Gettysburg. He also defended Hooker’s role leading up to the battle, and harshly criticized the role of the XI Corps at Chancellorsville. He praised the generalship of George H. Thomas, helping to establish Thomas as one of the pantheon of great captains of the Civil War. In numerous articles, including The New York Times and various scholarly journals, he correctly predicted the coming of the Franco-Austrian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
DePeyster was actively involved in alumni activity of his old friend Sickles’ former command, the III Corps. An organization called the Third Army Corps Union was formed as a beneficial society for the wives and children of veterans of the III Corps, and DePeyster helped write its history. Long his cousin’s advocate, DePeyster also wrote a fawning biography of Kearny. He was particularly interested in the Battle of Saratoga, and donated a memorial called the “Boot Monument” which commemorates Benedict Arnold’s heroic role and wounding in the battle (although he is not mentioned by name, and the memorial depicts only his boot), in 1887. DePeyster also authored numerous other well-regarded works of a military nature.
Because DePeyster enthusiastically defended Sickles’ conduct at Gettysburg, he took up his pen to attack George Gordon Meade. He penned a number of articles under the “Anchor” anonym that were published in a veterans’ publication in 1867, after the end of the war, and well after the release of the Joint Committee’s report. DePeyster then bundled them and published them under his real name in book format under the title The Decisive Conflicts of the Late Civil War, or Slaveholders’ Rebellion. He devoted half of his book to his criticisms of Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of Lee’s army.
His list of publications included Life of Field Marshal Torstenson (1855), The Dutch at the North Pole (1857), Caurausius, the Dutch Augustus (1858), Life of Baron Cohorn (1860), The Decisive Conflicts of the Late Civil War, or Slaveholder’s Rebellion (1867), Personal and Military History of General Philip Kearny (1869), The Life and Misfortunes and the Military Career of Brig.-Gen. Sir John Johnson (1882), and Gypsies: Some Curious Investigations, Collected, Translated, Or Reprinted from Various Sources (1887). He also contributed to numerous other books, biographies, publications, and articles.After the war, DePeyster became a major real estate developer in his hometown of Tivoli, New York. In 1892, he constructed a large Methodist church that remains an active congregation to this day. He refurbished an old school house and turned into an industrial school for girls. Then, in 1895, he constructed a very large brick firehouse for the local fire department which remained in use until 1986. He eventually had a falling out with Tivoli’s mayor–his own son, Johnston–and DePeyster barred the mayor from entering the building, forcing the village government to relocate to another building until the old firehouse was restored in 1994, when the village government again too up residence in the firehouse.
A 1908 newspaper article stated:
Gen. John Watts De Peyster, the millionaire philanthropist, is living the life of a recluse at Rose Hill, the ancestral seat of his family, at Tivoli. He is reputed to be worth millions, much of his property consisting of real estate in the city of New York, which has been in possession of his family over a century. He had isolated himself from his kindred and it is believed will give his fortune at his death to the institutions he has founded.
Years before the death of his wife, the general and Mrs. De Peyster lived apart and Col. Johnson L. De Peyster, the general’s only son still living, lost his father’s friendship by espousing his mother’s cause. Father and son did not speak or hold any communication with each other, although their two estates adjoined. Gen. De Peyster was persistent in his estrangement from his son even up to the son’s death. He did not visit him or inquire about him when he was ill. When Col. De Peyster died in May, two years ago, the grim old general closed the gates of Rose Hill.
A delegation of villagers who wished permission to drape De Peyster hall in memory of the colonel, who was very popular in Tivoli, was turned away without an audience. Gen. De Peyster refused to attend his son’s funeral. His sole concession was to offer to the widow the keys of the family vault. The tender was ignored and Col. De Peyster’s remains were laid at rest in the vault of Johnston Livingston, an uncle of the colonel’s on his mother’s side.
In 1901, he donated several thousand books and maps to the Smithsonian Institution, one of many major philanthropic gifts he gave over the court of his life. He donated the money to construct the first library at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and donated one of the largest collections of rare books about European military history, a collection gathered while he traveled Europe to research a biography of Napoleon he published in 1896. He also served as Vice President of the American Numismatic Society. Post #71 of the New York G.A.R. in Tivoli, New York was named for him.
De Peyster died in 1907 of natural causes at a family residence in Manhattan. He was buried in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Tivoli. He willed his massive manor house Rose Hill to a local Children’s Home.
DePeyster’s vigorous defense of Sickles and his aggressive attacks on George Gordon Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg played a major role in relegating Meade to under appreciated obscurity in the years after the American Civil War, which makes DePeyster worthy of study.Scridb filter
Today, we have a forgotten cavalrymen post on Capt. William Wallace Rogers by his descendant, Capt. John Nesbitt, III, formerly of the U.S. Army. Rogers served with honor in the Civil War and in the post-war Regular Army.
Captain William Wallace Rogers descended from William and Ann Rogers who immigrated to Wethersfield, Connecticut by way of Virginia in the mid-1630s, and then to Long Island, where they were early settlers of Southampton (the Southampton Historical Museum is housed in the Rogers’ mansion built on the Rogers’ homestead by a descendent of Obadiah Rogers, a son of William and his wife). William is also considered a founder of Huntington, L.I., having been one of the men who negotiated the purchase of the land for Huntington with the Native Americans. From there, their son Noah went back across Long Island Sound as an early settler of Branford, Connecticut where Captain Rogers’ ancestors resided for almost 200 years before migrating to Pennsylvania. Captain Rogers’ great-grandfather was Samuel Rogers, Jr. who served three times as a Private in the Connecticut militia in the Revolution – twice volunteering and once conscripted. This story as supported by Private Rogers’ request for his pension, and related family stories, surly was passed down to Captain Rogers as a boy, as it was to this writer and descendent of Samuel Rogers, Jr. by his grandmother a niece of Captain Rogers who was born in 1890, the year Captain Rogers died.
Captain Rogers was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, November 15, 1832, the eldest son of Minor and Elizabeth (Fretz/Fratts/Fratz) Rogers. The personal “Record of Service of William W. Rogers, Captain 9th Infantry United States Army.” dated September 24, 1883 and written down at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, says of his Civil War military service that he “Enlisted as private in Company B. 3rd Penna., Cavalry , (60th Pennsylvania Volenteers (sic)) July 23, 1861.” This was in Philadelphia. And, further, that he was “Promoted-2nd Lieutenant, Company “C” 3rd Penna., Calvalry (sic). December 31, 1861. 1st Lieutenant Company “C” 3rd Penna., Cavalry July 17, 1862.” and “Captain Company “L” 3rd Penna., Cavalry May 1, 1863.” About the time of the latter date, and before the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union Army changed the designation Companies to Squadrons for the basic assignment and maneuver elements within the cavalry battalions.
Captain Rogers further writes that he: “Served with the 3rd Penna. Cavalry in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania from July 23, 1861 until February 6, 1864-and participated in the following named engagements.
WILLIAMSBURG, VA, May 6, 1862. FAIR OAKS, VA, June 15, 1862. Horse Killed and received injury by his falling upon my leg. SAVAGE STATION, VA, June 29, 1862. CHARLES CITY, CROSS ROADS, VA, June 30, 1862. MALVERN HILL, VA, July 1, 1862. RAPPAHANOCH STATION, VA, February 15, 1863. KELLYS FORD, VA, March 17, 1863. RAPIDAN STATION, VA, April 9, 1863. ELYS FORD, VA, May 1863. BRANDY STATION, VA, June 9, 1863. BEVERLY FORD, VA, June 1863. ALDIE, VA, June, 1863. GETTYSBURG, PA, July 2nd and 3rd, 1863. Received gun shot wounds through right breast and left shoulder, July 3, 1863. OAK HILL, VA, October, 1863. BRISTOL STATION, VA, October 14, 1863. NEW HOPE CHURCH, VA, November, 1863. PARKERS’ STORE, VA, November, 1863. (capitalization of actions are this writers for emphasis and clarity
Of the initial engagement, the battlefield of Williamsburg, May 4 & 5, 1863, Captain Rogers wrote his father in a letter of May 17, 1862 that “I saw them wounded in every imaginable manner. Some shot in the mouth, in the head, in the stomach, feet torn off and gashed in the thighs, or body, or arm with pieces of shell. Being shot myself the sight of their sufferings was awful. I soon got over it however and could look at the surgeons take off arms and legs and pile them in the field.” and described the action as follows, “Advance the charge yelling like demons or stand and receive a charge of the rebel infantry who also fought like heroes in these conflicts between infantry of both sides, the batteries would cease and yells would take the place of the thunder of guns and in this way it continued during the whole day in which regiments were nearly torn to pieces.” (Source: Curt Harley, copies of W.W. Rogers letters home to his father originally in the possession of Curt’s father Rogers Harley)Just over a year later, the action at Brandy Station was a major cavalry battle that was a prelude to General Robert E. Lee moving North that culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg. The cavalry battle at Gettysburg on the so called East Cavalry Field the afternoon of July 3, 1863, in which Captain Rogers was wounded, was both a major cavalry action and by many regarded as an important part of the Union victory that day.
My interest in the Civil War goes back many years, to the mid-1950s, and was at least partially inspired by my grandmothers’ stories of the “thirteen Rogers relatives” who served in the Union Army “from a thirteen year old drummer boy,” thorough a Rogers “who was shot but the bullet could not be removed and who died in the 1870s when the bullet reached his heart,” to Captain William Wallace Rogers the oldest sibling of my grandmother’s mother and her twin sister who married George Harley. Even though I learned from her of Captain Rogers’ Civil War service and heroism at the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as his service among the Indian’s “out west” in the 1870s and 80s, I didn’t have any real substance to the story or his service until I came upon a newsstand copy of Blue & Grey Magazine for October, 1988. It was an “Anniversary Issue” and featured the article “Gettysburg: Cavalry Operations June 27-July 3, 1863,” by Ted Alexander.” Therein, pages 32, and 36-39, it was related as to the action on the “East Cavalry Field” that:
At 1 p.m. ”…the artillery barrage that preceded “Pickett’s Charge” began and was distinctly heard by all the troopers.
“At 2 p.m., (John B.) McIntosh (commanding the 3rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry) decided to probe his front in order to determine the strength of his opponent. A dismounted skirmish line from the 1st New Jersey moved out about half a mile toward the Rummel farm. This prompted a counter movement by the Confederates at the Rummel farm and soon a brisk fight was underway as the opposing lines shot it out from behind parallel fence lines. Soon the Jerseymen were reinforced by two squadrons of the 3rd Pennsylvania (one of which, “L”, was commanded by Captain Rogers) and the Purnell Legion, all of which were dismounted and held the left,”
Reading on it is reported, “Reinforcements should have meant Colonel J. Irvin Gregg’s brigade, but that would take time since it was several miles away. Custer (newly promoted Gen. George A. Custer) was nearer but heading south to join Kilpatrick near the Round Tops. Therefore, General David McM. Gregg overrode Custer’s marching orders and sent him to help McIntosh take on the Rebels at Rummel’s farm. Custer, sensing this was where the action was, did not protest.”
And that, “A little after 3 p.m., the Federals noticed sunlight reflecting off something in the distance along Cress Ridge. It shone from the drawn sabers of (Wade) Hampton’s and (Fitzhugh) Lee’s brigades, massed in attack formation…Lieutenant William Brooke-Rawle of the 3rd Pennsylvania recalled, “In close columns of squadrons, advancing as if in review, with sabres (sic) drawn and glistening like silver in the bright sunlight, the spectacle called forth a murmur of admiration. It was indeed a memorable one.”
Then, “As the gray riders advanced, Gregg personally ordered Colonel Charles Town to take his 1st Michigan out to meet them.” And, Town being quite ill, “…Custer rode up to lead them. The gait of both columns increased as they drew nearer, first at a trot then a gallop.”
When, “The front rank of the 1st Michigan wavered for a moment, then Custer yelled, “Come on you Wolverines!” and the entire regiment spurred ahead.”
Gregg’s troops, and in particular Custer’s Wolverines, were outnumbered by General J.E.B. Stuart’s charging legions, and, “Although the Wolverines numbered less than 500 against more than six times that many, their wedge-like penetration parted Hampton’s formation.”
Fortunately, help was close at hand, “While the 1st Michigan slugged it out with Hampton, who by now was supported on the flanks by Lee and (John R.) Chambliss, additional bodies of Federals that had been scattered about the field rallied and struck the Confederates on the flanks. Among them were two squadrons of the 3rd Pennsylvania, under Captain Charles Treichel and Lieutenant William Rogers (should be Captain), who struck the Confederate right. Even Colonel McIntosh and about 20 officers and men from his headquarters group charged in to assist Treichel and Rogers.”
With the support of squadrons of the 3rd Pennsylvania also coming in from the Confederate left flank, the charge of Stuart’s brigades was turned back, in spite of the fact that, “Stuart had over 6000 men, a large proportion of them which he committed to the fight. Gregg had about 5000 men but only about 3000 saw action.”
Captain Rogers returned to service with the 3rd PA Cavalry following his recovery from his wounds September 28, 1863. February 6, 1864 he was appointed a Captain in the Veterans Reserve Corps serving in Washington, D.C. He was promoted for his gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg, his highest brevet rank being Lt. Col. as of March 13, 1865.
Curt Harley, a cousin of this reporter, wrote in 2006 that Captain Rogers was an officer of the honor guard for President Lincoln both at his 2nd inauguration and while he lay in state. He also says: that Captain Rogers was in command of the cavalry detail at Ford Theater and was one of the first to notice that Lincoln was shot; that he was a good friend of Custer; and, that he was also a friend of Buffalo Bill Cody. Captain Rogers, in his own report of his service of 1883, writes that he served in Washington, D.C. during 1864 and until 1867, including in the Office of the Military Governor of Washington, D.C.
He continued in the Army for the rest of his career, 1867 until 1869 in Tennessee in charge of troops during the Reconstruction Era with the 45th Infantry and the 14th Infantry respectively, and then in April, 1870 at Crow Creek Agency, Dakota as Acting Assistant Quartermaster and A.C.S. (Acting or Assistant Chief of Staff) and subsequently commanding Company B, 14th Infantry.
Now Regular Army First Lieutenant Rogers’ personally written “Record of Service” records that “5/22/1871 On duty with Company G. 9th Inf. 1st Lieut. A.C.S. Fort D.A. Russell Wyo.” The formal certificate of his appointment as an officer in the Regular Army, of which I have a copy from Rogers Harley, reads “…William W. Rogers, I have nominated, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, do appoint him First Lieutenant in the Ninth Regiment of Infantry in the service of the United States: to rank as such from the twenty second day of May eighteen hundred and seventy one,…” and is signed by the Secretary of War and President U.S. Grant. Over the next sixteen years Captain Rogers and his family served with the Ninth Infantry on posts in Nebraska and Wyoming- the overall command being called the Department of the Platt.First Lieutenant Rogers was married- his first wife’s name was Elizabeth (Lizzie). They had a daughter Florence (Floe) while serving in Tennessee, and apparently an older son Horace Byron. Floe died young at Fort D.A. Russell, Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory on July 21, 1871. Floe was first buried there “where the prairie winds will sweep over her grave” (a quote of First Lieutenant Rogers included in a letter of Rogers Harley in January 15, 1992 to my mother Dorothy Nesbitt). Lieutenant Rogers’ wife Lizzie died April 30, 1874, also at Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, and was buried in the Prospect Hill Cemetery, Omaha, Nebraska. In 1875 Floe was reburied beside her mother. Between these two tragic Cheyenne tours Lieutenant Rogers served at Sidney Barracks in southwest Nebraska. His son Horace it would also seem died rather young.
From “Nov. 28, 1875 to Sept. 12, 1876” Lieutenant Rogers writes in his personal “Record of Service” of September 24, 1883 that he was “Commanding Camp Sheridan, Neb., and Company F. 9th Infantry.” This conforms to the History of the Ninth Infantry: 1799-1909, by Capt. Fred R. Brown, Adjutant, Ninth Infantry (1909), page 116 where it is recorded as follows:
“Company F left post (i.e. Camp Sheridan, Neb.) on May 8th, under command of First-Lieutenant W. W. Rogers, Ninth Infantry, to scout the country between the post and Custer City, with Company K. Second Cavalry. The company returned from Custer City via Camp Robinson, Nebraska, on the 29th of May. Distance marched, 418 miles.”
On a driving trip to visit western U.S. National Parks, including in the Black Hills and the Little Bighorn Battlefield, my wife and I recently visited those locations where Lieutenant, and later, Captain Rogers served in the Department of the Platt in the 1870s and 80s where there are still structures and such to visit. The Camp Sheridan site lies east of Chadron and north of Hay Springs in Nebraska, and south of Oglala which is due north in South Dakota, but nothing remains of the camp to visit. We followed Nebraska Route 20, the Crazy Horse Memorial Highway, east from Fort Robinson turning onto Highway 385 north, the Gold Rush Highway, heading for Custer City, South Dakota just before reaching Chadron. For more background, the role of Camp Sheridan and its relationship to Fort Robinson in the 1870’s is described below:
CAMP SHERIDAN AND SPOTTED TAIL AGENCY
About ten miles north are the sites of Spotted Tail Agency and Camp Sheridan. Named for Brule Sioux Chief Spotted Tail, the agency was built in 1874 to supply treaty payments, including food, clothing, weapons, and utensils, under the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The army established Camp Sheridan nearby to protect the agency. A similar arrangement prevailed for the Ogalala Sioux at Red Cloud Agency and Camp Robinson forty miles west.
Spotted Tail Agency was generally quiet and peaceful throughout the Indian War of 1876-77. Crazy Horse surrendered there on September 4, 1877, after fleeing Red Cloud Agency. He was stabbed to death the next evening while being imprisoned at Camp Robinson, but his parents returned his body to Camp Sheridan for burial.
On October 29, 1877, Spotted Tail’s Brules were moved to present South Dakota. In 1878 they occupied the Rosebud Agency, where they live today. Camp Sheridan, with a peak garrison of seven companies of soldiers, was abandoned on May 1, 1881.
I had been wondering why Lieutenant Rogers’ “…scout (of) the country between the post (Camp Sheridan) and Custer City…” of May, 1876 received such specific attention in the History of the Ninth Infantry: 1799-1909, by Capt. Fred R. Brown (1909) supra. It is not the case for that work to give a routine “scout” such detailed attention. At the same time I was just finishing Thom Hatch’s recently published, early in 2015 by St. Martins Press, The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer, subtitle “The True Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.” When I connected the dots so to speak as I was finalizing this manuscript, I realized that Lieutenant Rogers, Co. F of the 9th Infantry and Company K, 2nd U.S. Cavalry weren’t just on a routine “scout”, but were undertaking what we would term today a Reconnaissance in Force. The reason, to be sure that the territory south of the Black Hills was secure from “hostile Indians” as the three prong approach into southeastern Montana of U.S. forces got underway in May of that year. This involved General Crook moving up the Rosebud Creek from northeast Wyoming, General Terry and Lt. Col. Custer coming from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory and moving due west and Colonel Gibbons coming from Fort Ellis to the west in Montana along the Yellowstone River. The objective, to find and destroy “hostile Indians” who would not peacefully return to their assigned reservations, and ultimately to converge on the confluence of the Rosebud and the Yellowstone in Montana. This was an opening phase of the Indian War of 1876-1877. General Crook would fight the Battle of the Rosebud and turn back. Lt. Col. Custer and five companies, of his men of the 7th Cavalry, Companies C, E, F, I and L, would go on to lose their lives in the Battle of the Little Bighorn of that June 25, 1876. For most in the Army and of the country, the death of Custer and his men at the Little Bighorn came as a shock, and logically this would have been even more so for Lieutenant Rogers. The man of then modern legend who he had fought in support of at Gettysburg on that hot and pivotal July day in 1863, who by family tradition he considered a good friend as they crossed paths “out west on the great plains” in the early years of the 1870s, and, as has been pass down in our family, had discussed going into business ventures together when they eventually retired from the service was not only defeated, but was killed. It had to be one of the great shocks of his life, though not on a par with the loss of his little Floe and two years later his wife Elizabeth.
But change was coming for Lieutenant Rogers and his command. By his own record, he was less than three months from returning east. By “September 12, 1876” he was “On duty at Fort Lavaunio (hand corrected to Fort Laramie), Wyo., Comd’y. Co., F. 9th Inf.”
While it seems rather a fast trip, Lieutenant Rogers and Helen King Dewey, a relative of Admiral Dewey, were married on September 19, 1876 at Unity Church, Chicago by the Reverend Robert Collyer. Interestingly, General L. P. Bradley who married one of Helen’s three sisters had been Lieutenant Colonel of the 9th Infantry Regiment (source: manuscript Pvt, Dewey Rogers 1881-1900: Co. “G”-9th Infantry U.S. Army by Rogers S. Harley (1991)). The newlyweds then went on to New York and other locations in the east where Lieutenant Rogers’ duties focused on recruiting for the Ninth Infantry.
Lieutenant Rogers and Helen then went west again, where he continued with the 9th Infantry, with which he would remain. As of “Dec. 16, 1878” he was “En-route to join Company F. 9th Infantry at Fort McKinney, Wyo.”, west of Buffalo, WY. By “March 31, 1880” he was “On duty at Fort Sidney, Neb., as Capt. Co., B. 9th Infantry.” Until “April 22, 1880” when he was “Enroute with Company B. 9th Infantry from Fort Sidney, Neb. to Fort Niobrara Neb., engaged in building the New post.” Helen and Captain Rogers’ only child, Dewey, was born July 22, 1881 at Ft. Niobrara, Nebraska where they served through April 13, 1883. By “Aug. 17, 1883” Captain Rogers and his family were at Fort Bridger, where he further writes in his personal “Record of Service”: “With Company engaged in repairing wagon road from Fort Bridger, Wyo., to Fort Thoruburg (sic, should be Thornburg)), Utah.” Regarding Fort Thornburg, During the summer of 1881 the military troops were established in Ashley Canyon for protection against Indians. Moving to Fort Thornburgh in December, 1881. The fort was abandoned in 1884 and part of the supplies taken to Fort Bridger”. (source: on-line copy of marker for Fort Thornburg).
In 1886 the 9th Infantry was reassigned to the Department of Arizona. This was very much hardship duty given the sever conditions of the climate and terrain. In 1887, for whatever reason, Captain Rogers requests and receives written official confirmation that he was wounded twice in action on July 3, 1863 (of which the family has a copy). Question: Was his health already declining and he was looking ahead to retiring for medical reason, and/or possibly the memories of the young of the day about the Battle of Gettysburg and his service a quarter of a century on needed such written documentation? Today we would say that he was at the least entitled to the Purple Heart medal. He retired from the service because of severe illness in 1889, and he, Helen and Dewey settled in Chicago. Due to his illness, Captain Rogers went to California hoping it would be helpful to his health. He died there in San Diego, December 14, 1890. In Brown, Supra, page 145, it is reported that “As indicating the severity of service, discomforts , and exhausting climate conditions in Arizona from 1886 to 1891, the regiment lost: Five Captains by retirement for disability, (one of whom died soon after): Two Captains by death, and one First Lieutenant by retirement for disability:…” and the list goes on. It would seem quite probable that the Captain who died soon thereafter is a reference to the death of Captain Rogers.Following his wishes, Helen took Captain Rogers remains to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was buried in the Prospect Hill (Old) Cemetery, Lot 746, E1/2, beside his first wife, Elizabeth, and their young daughter, Floe. Helen would go on to Tacoma, WA where she had close relatives. Dewey Rogers would graduate from high school with Honors in Tacoma in 1898. Not being happy with office work, his mother had at first objected, but finally gave Dewey permission to join the Army. “His ultimate dream was to earn a commission in the 9th Infantry…He could not, however, because of quotas and the political prestige required, gain a place at West Point.” Dewey joined the army in Portland January 10, 1900, with the goal of becoming an officer in the 9th Infantry. He was posted to San Francisco, and February 17, 1900 was shipped out to the Philippines where he joined Company “G” of the 9th Infantry. On June 27, 1900 the 9th Infantry sailed from Manila for China to join the International Force fighting the Chinese Boxers. Tragically, Dewey died July 13, 1900 in China storming the walls of Tien Tsin during the Boxer Rebellion. In 1901 he was buried in the Tacoma (Washington) Cemetery, Section 2, Sub-section “E”, Lot #2. The source of this information after Captain Rogers’ death comes from the manuscript, Pvt. Dewey Rogers, 1881-1900, Company “G”- 9th Infantry U.S. Army, by Rogers S. Harley (1991).
Thanks to Captain Nesbitt for his contribution, and thanks also to him for providing the images that appear here.
Here’s to Bvt. Lt. Col. William Wallace Rogers, forgotten cavalryman.Scridb filter
The following editorial in support of the creation of the Culpeper County Civil War Battlefield State Park appears in today’s edition of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star:
Editorial: A state park fitting for Culpeper Civil War sites
BY THE EDITORIAL PAGE STAFF OF THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Over the years, the green rolling Piedmont hills around Brandy Station in Culpeper County have engendered visions of hundreds of houses and condominiums, a multiplex theater, a water park, an equestrian center, a hotel and even a Formula One race track.
Each of the proposals generated high-profile struggles between the would-be developers and preservationists because these fields were the place where the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War occurred.
Today, it appears the historic battles of Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain will be the key to the future of the rural tracts—if they become part of the Virginia State Park system.
Fighting at Brandy Station on June 9, 1863, is considered the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s last effort to take the fight north. The lesser-known battle of Cedar Mountain occurred about a year earlier. Here, Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson repelled Union forces, which had marched into Culpeper County with plans to capture the rail junction at Gordonsville.
Though the state park discussions are preliminary, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation officials and some county officials are speaking favorably about plans to spotlight Culpeper’s two most significant battlefields.
It makes a lot of sense for this to happen. Much of this beautiful, bucolic place where Union and Confederate horsemen clashed around Brandy Station off U.S. 29 will never be developed. Some of the land has been purchased by preservation groups and other parts are protected by conservation easements.
The Brandy Station Foundation, a nonprofit group that owns 38 acres at Fleetwood Hill—the heart of the cavalry battlefield—supports the idea. So does the Civil War Trust, which owns more than 1,000 acres of the Brandy Station battleground and another 164 acres at Cedar Mountain off U.S. 15. Altogether, 4,822 acres of the two battlefields are protected from development, which offers visitors a way to step back in time.
Members of the Culpeper Board of Supervisors, who in the past have backed modern-day development plans at Brandy Station, now say the park plan is worth pursuing. They like the idea of the state boosting tourism and helping to support businesses such wineries, distilleries, hotels and restaurants that thrive on visitors to Culpeper.
It would be the first state park in Culpeper County, and would fill a geographical gap in Virginia’s top-notch system. There are no state parks between Sky Meadows in northern Fauquier County and Lake Anna in western Spotsylvania County. The state and the Civil War Trust have worked together to open up historic sites at locations such as Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Park and High Bridge Trail, both near Farmville.
At a time when the nation is reassessing how to view and understand the Civil War and its symbols, the stories of sacrifice of American lives cannot be forgotten. Opening historic sites to the public at Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain is the right thing to do.
Preservation-minded residents and historians have spent countless hours and much treasure to preserve the land there. The Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, established by Congress years ago to pinpoint America’s most important unprotected sites, classified both battlefields as “principal strategic operations of the war.”
Now it’s up to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Virginia General Assembly and Culpeper officials to see that all the efforts will bear fruit for all to hear the stories of Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain. It would be a fitting way to celebrate next year’s 80th anniversary of the Virginia State Park system.
Let’s hope that this happens. It should. The Commonwealth of Virginia is the best possible steward of these battlefields, and can oversee the expansion of them as time passes.Scridb filter
Conclusion of a series.
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.
After examining the evidence, it seems clear that Senator Wade’s inflammatory and defamatory statements about Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia were simply incorrect. Given the circumstances under which he was forced to operate, the army commander did everything possible. His army had suffered massive losses, had lost its three most aggressive corps commanders, was saddled by constraining operating orders, faced severe logistical challenges, and then had to confront an incredibly strong defensive position under the command of one of the greatest military minds ever born in the North American continent.
“When Lee retreated to the river he selected a splendid position and fortified it strongly,” wisely noted Capt. I. P. Powell of the 146th New York of the V Corps in August 1863. “Soon the two armies were opposite each other…[Lee] had by far the strongest position. To have been defeated would have to lose more, by far, than we had gained. The possibility of such a disaster must not be allowed for a moment. The only course, therefore, was to act on the defensive and wait till a portion of the enemy had crossed the enemy before we attacked him.” Powell concluded, “But it was impossible to tell when this happened. They escaped from us as we had frequently escaped from them. The retreat was in the night and during a heavy rain storm, when it would have been absolutely impossible to have followed them had we known they were going. Gen. Meade acted as any wise General should have.”
“Meade, no doubt, felt a little like a person often does in pitching quoits,” observed Sgt. Charles A. Frey of the 150th Pennsylvania. “If he makes a ‘ringer’ the first throw, rather than try to make two, and perhaps spoil both, he will throw a cowardly quoit. Meade had made a ‘ringer’ at Gettysburg and the country applauded. Had he made another on the banks of the Potomac, he would have been the greatest general of the war. Had he failed in the second attempt, he would have been denounced the world over.”
Could Meade have done more? Perhaps. Perhaps he could have ordered the army to pursue Lee sooner than he did. But once the army was put in motion, it moved with alacrity and got into position as quickly as possible under some of the worst possible conditions imaginable for the rapid or efficient movement of a large body of men. However, the more important question is whether the men could have done more. “Our troops require rest, shoes, and clothing,” observed Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, who commanded a division of the XII Corps, on July 16. “They have been some five weeks on the march. None but veteran troops could stand it, especially as we have not had a dry day for nearly three weeks. It is pouring down in torrents today, but I think the Army of the Potomac is simmered down to the very sublimation of human strength and endurance.” Men and animals were at the limits of their endurance, and it simply was not reasonable to expect any more of them than they had already sacrificed. Hence, the stars were aligned against George Gordon Meade, and he made the only choice that he could have made under the circumstances.
It is simple enough for an armchair quarterback with no understanding of the vicissitudes of command and with an obviously biased agenda like Ben Wade to level criticisms against Meade’s conduct of the pursuit. However, the burden of command weighs heavy, and only those who actually are tasked with making the life and death decisions—rather than criticizing them after the fact—can truly understand the dilemma faced by George Gordon Meade as he looked across the fields at Lee’s defensive position at Williamsport. With all of the factors stacked up against him, Meade made the only decisions that made any sense, and then the fates robbed him of his opportunity to fight a decisive battle on the banks of the Potomac River. With the benefit of full knowledge, it seems difficult indeed to criticize either the decisions made by Meade, or his conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia.Scridb filter
Part five in a series
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.
In the previous installment, we examined George Gordon Meade’s decision to defer an all-out assault along the lines at Williamsport for a day, instead of following his own aggressive instincts. Instead, he listened to the opinions of a majority of his subordinates, who cautioned against the attack. Not to be deterred, Meade ordered an all-out assault for July 14. However, when that all-out assault kicked off, the Army of the Potomac discovered that the Confederate army was gone, having retreated across the Potomac River. In this installment we will examine the question of whether that all-out assault might have succeeded had Meade launched it on July 13 instead. Unlike Sen. Benjamin Wade’s declaration in the report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, the success of such an assault was no sure thing.
Initially, and unlike the devastating losses sustained at Chancellorsville, the command structure of the Army of Northern Virginia was largely intact after Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville, one corps commander was mortally wounded, and a future corps commander was also wounded in the same volley of friendly fire. While there had been losses at the brigade and even divisional levels at Gettysburg, those losses paled in comparison to the losses that devastated Lee’s army two months earlier. Thus, Lee’s army was in good shape to receive an assault if one was launched.
As pointed out in the last installment of this series, Lee’s quartermasters did a superb job of re-supplying the army under difficult circumstances. One of the reasons why Lee decided to withdraw from the field at Gettysburg on the night of July 3 was because he was nearly out of artillery ammunition. Thanks to the constant running of Lemon’s Ferry at Williamsport, by July 13, the Army of Northern Virginia had been fully re-supplied with ammunition and was logistically prepared to receive an assault by the Army of the Potomac.
Confederate morale remained high, even after the devastating defeat at Gettysburg. Lee’s soldiers remained in good spirits and did not believe that their defeat in Pennsylvania was a crippling blow. The rank and file knew and understood that they were in a difficult situation with their backs up against a flooded river and with no route of retreat. They would have to stand and fight where they were. Robert E. Lee did all that he could to encourage his men. On June 11, he issued the following general order to his army: “Once more you are called up to meet the army from which you have won on so many fields a name that will never die,” he proclaimed. “Once more the eyes of your countrymen are turned upon you, and again do wives and sisters, fathers, mothers, and helpless children lean for defense on your strong arm and brave heart. Let every soldier remember that on his courage and fidelity depends all that makes life worth having—the freedom of his country, the honor of his people, and the security of his home.” He concluded with a flourish: “Soldiers! Your old enemy is before you! Win from him honors worthy of your righteous cause—worthy of your comrades dead on so many illustrious fields.” The stakes were indeed that high.
The men of the Army of Northern Virginia were already confident of their success. “As we got things into shape, oh! How we all did wish that the enemy would come out in the open & attack us, as we had done them at Gettysburg,” declared Lt. Col. Edward Porter Alexander, who was the chief of artillery for Longstreet’s First Corps. “Our troops are drawn up in a line of battle on a splendid range of hills,” declared a supremely confident Virginia artillerist, “and as we have received a large supply of ammunition, I think we will give the enemy a big whipping, notwithstanding the large superiority of their numbers. Everything seems to indicate a large battle in which it is necessary that we should prove victorious, as our rations are running low with but little chance of getting more, until we take them from the enemy.” Make no mistake about it: the Army of Northern Virginia was just as full of fighting spirit as it had ever been, and it was itching for Meade to attack it in such a dominating defensive position.
Most importantly, the defensive position chosen and developed by Lee and his engineers was formidable. It ran along Salisbury Ridge, a prominent north-south ridge, and was anchored on the banks of the Potomac River on either end, meaning that it could not be flanked. While there were some low spots where creeks or marshy ground lay, the Confederate engineering staff built in interlocking fields of fire to ensure that these positions were defensible. The position featured a compact line of battle, with a complete road network with lines of retreat, supply, and communication behind it that allowed resources to be shifted to meet threats. The line bristled with artillery. In short, this strong defensive position made the Confederate position on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg look like a speed bump.
Indeed, the men of the Army of the Potomac remembered the debacle at Fredericksburg seven months earlier, and they had little stomach for a repeat, or to attack such a strong position anchored on commanding high ground. “It was thought not to risk a battle here as we have not over 50,000 efficient troops and the enemy to be equal to that if not more, with advantage of position and troops concentrated,” said a Union signalman. Nevertheless, Meade was confident. Normally reticent around reporters, he was positively giddy on the 13th. “We shall have a great battle tomorrow,” he declared to a reporter. “The reinforcements are coming up, and as soon as they come we shall pitch in.”
Despite their commander’s confidence, the men in the ranks who would have to make that assault had every reason to be concerned. The Confederate defensive position was formidable. Referring to the long line of earthworks in front of them, Col. Charles Wainwright, the chief of artillery for the I Corps, said, “These were by far the strongest I have seen yet, evidently laid out by engineers and built as if they meant to stand a month’s siege.” The parapets were nearly six feet wide on top, and the engineers had placed their guns perfectly to create converging fields of fire that could sweep the entire front of the position. After inspecting the position, Wainwright concluded, “My own opinion is under the circumstances and with the knowledge General Meade then had he was justified in putting off the attack.”
Meade’s new chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, who had spent thirty years as a topographical engineer and knew a strong position when he saw one, declared, “Wherever seen, the position was naturally strong, and was perfectly entrenched. It presented no vulnerable points, but much of it was concealed from view…its flanks were secure and could not be turned.” He concluded, “A careful survey of the entrenched position of the enemy was made, and showed that an assault upon it would have resulted disastrously to us.” He also observed, “On the other hand, General Burnside was severely criticized for attacking at Fredericksburg, where the entrenchments were not as formidable than those at Williamsport.”
Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, the Army of the Potomac’s highly respected chief of artillery, echoed a similar note. “A careful survey of the enemy’s entrenched line after it was abandoned justified the opinion of the corps commanders against the attack, as it showed that an assault would have been disastrous to us. It proved also that Meade in overriding their opinion did not shrink from a great responsibility, notwithstanding his own recent experience at Gettysburg where all the enemy’s attacks on even partially entrenched lines had failed. If he erred on this occasion it was on the side of temerity.”
Finally, it must be noted that by the time of the American Civil War, it was all but impossible to destroy an enemy army in battle. The armies were too large, and there were too many factors that prevented such a thing. The reality is that there is not a single instance during the entire duration of the Civil War where an enemy army was destroyed on the field of battle. Armies were compelled to surrender, such as at Vicksburg and at Appomattox, but there was not a single instance of an army being left combat ineffective as a consequence of being defeated in battle during the Civil War. Expecting otherwise simply was not reasonable under any circumstances. The suggestions that an army as well led as Lee’s would be destroyed in battle are completely unsupported by the historic record and would not have happened under any circumstances.
The men in the ranks knew and understood this. “To the unbiased mind it is food for thought, if not for argument, when one remembers the fact, that it took one year and nine months afterwards, with all the resources of an immense army, under Grant, and his lieutenants, Sheridan and Meade, to ‘bag’ the same General Lee and his fighting veterans,” observed Sgt. Daniel G. McNamara of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry. “Even then, if it had not been for Sheridan’s ceaseless activity, Lee and his army would have escaped and gone to North Carolina and joined Johnston’s forces.”
A Pennsylvanian echoed a similar sentiment. “Certainly 50,000 veteran soldiers are not easily captured when prepared for an attack,” he correctly observed, “as that army was at [Williamsport], especially under such a leader as General Lee, and the line of retreat well secured.” He pointed out that a successful blow “can only be supposition; and that supposition, may be, that Meade’s army would have hurled back to Baltimore or Washington by the recoil of the blow.”
Thus, there were absolutely no guarantees that an assault on July 13 would have accomplished much of anything. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the Army of the Potomac could have suffered a catastrophic defeat along the lines of the one that it suffered at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Such a defeat would have negated everything that Meade accomplished by defeating Lee at Gettysburg AND the Confederate army still would have escaped. Senator Wade’s claim that the Army of Northern Virginia would have been destroyed on the banks of the Potomac River simply is unsupported by the evidence.Scridb filter
Part four in a series.
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.
In part three of this series, we examined the question of how George G. Meade’s operational orders and the logistical challenges forged by the atrocious weather affected the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg. In this part, we will examine the question of whether Meade should have attacked Lee’s positions around Williamsport earlier than the general advance that he ordered for the morning of July 14. When that advance finally occurred, the stout Confederate defenses were empty, with the bulk of Lee’s army having already made it to safety across the Potomac River.
Logistics continued to be a problem. “Our government was putting forth Herculean efforts to crush Lee’s army before the river fell,” quite correctly observed a New York infantryman, “but in great movements there are always some delays.” Nevertheless, by July 11, the Army of the Potomac had taken position opposite the Army of Northern Virginia. The situation was the direct opposite of what had occurred at Gettysburg: this time, Lee had the interior line with a supporting road network and good lines of communication and supply that was anchored on high ground, while the Union army had a longer, more attenuated line opposite it. Lee’s engineers had chosen their position wisely, and his men had had four full days to dig in and construct stout defenses. “The idea of fighting with a left flank sticking in the air & an unfordable river behind us was unpleasing in the extreme until indeed we got our works built,” recounted one of Lee’s men, “& then we were ready and confident.”
The Union position was nowhere near as strong or as appealing as that of the Confederates. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, the commander of the XII Corps, did not like his position one bit, describing it as “utterly untenable.” Slocum could see the construction work going on across the way, and he realized that the Army of Northern Virginia was building a stout position for itself. The Union line extended from Hagerstown (an attack by George A. Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade and the XI Corps on July 12 cleared the last Confederate forces out of Hagerstown that day) to the north all the way to the southern end of the old Antietam battlefield several miles away. The Union line was long and somewhat attenuated, and there was a fairly deep valley of no-man’s land between the Confederate position and the Union position. Although the Army of the Potomac’s position was on high ground, the Confederate position was much stronger and had shorter, interior lines.
The problem was that Meade had no idea what the Confederate position looked like. Nobody knew how long it was, and nobody knew how strong it was. J.E.B. Stuart’s dauntless Confederate cavalry had done a magnificent job of keeping the active and diligent troopers of Buford’s and Kilpatrick’s cavalry divisions from coming anywhere near it by taking the fight to the Union horse soldiers and keeping them tied up by constantly attacking them until the defensive position was ready and Lee ordered Stuart to take up a position on his flank, inviting an attack by Meade. Consequently, nobody in the Army of the Potomac’s high command had any real concept of what to expect. “Now we have Meade where we want him,” declared a Confederate officer. “If he attacks us here we will pay him back for Gettysburg. But the old fox is too cunning. He waits for our attack; but we surely will not make the same blunder twice.”
“Attacking a defensive position is like a climb,” observed Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the commander-in-chief of the French armies during World War I, “in which the details have to be studied and carefully anticipated and the condition of success is timely and precise execution.” Foch’s statement was true when he made it during the Great War, and it was likewise true when applied to George Gordon Meade’s situation at Salisbury Ridge at Williamsport. Foch’s words of wisdom help to explain Meade’s actions on July 12, 1863.
Given the failure of Pleasonton, who had been relieved of his duties as temporary chief of staff and who had returned to his permanent role as commander of the Cavalry Corps, to find and provide detailed and accurate intelligence on the dispositions of the Confederate army, it was, therefore, prudent and wise to find and reconnoiter the Confederate line. Consequently, Meade ordered the Army of the Potomac to probe at Lee’s position, and his men spent the 11th and 12th doing just that, with sharp skirmishing spreading up and down the length of Lee’s nine-mile-long line of battle. He wanted to attack on July 13, but he was concerned about it and wanted the opinions of his commanders before issuing the necessary orders. He held a council of war on the night of July 12, where he polled his officers. His new chief of staff, Humphreys, chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, and all of his corps commanders attended the meeting. Gen. James Wadsworth, filling for an ill John Newton, Howard, Pleasonton and Warren all wanted to attack, but Sedgwick, Slocum, Sykes, French and Hays were opposed. Humphreys, Pleasonton and Warren were not given a vote, meaning that five infantry corps commanders were opposed, and only two in favor of attacking on July 13. Even though he was spoiling for a fight, Meade wisely elected to follow the wishes of his commanders. July 13 would be spent further probing the Confederate defenses, and then the army would make an all-out assault all along the lines first thing in the morning on July 14.
Unfortunately for Meade, the water level of the flooded Potomac River had been dropping steadily and was almost fordable. Further, Lee’s quartermaster officers had been busily building a new pontoon bridge across the river at Falling Waters, where Longstreet’s and Hill’s corps would cross (the Confederate pontoon bridge across the river had been destroyed by a Union cavalry task force on July 4, and a new one had to be constructed from materials scavenged from local barns and warehouses). Only Ewell’s corps and the cavalry would cross at Williamsport. By the night of July 13, the level of the river had dropped to the point where the river could be forded at two locations at the Cushwa Basin in Williamsport. The movement began after dark, with Stuart’s men creating a diversion to foster the illusion that the Southern infantry still manned the lines. By the time that the Union attack kicked off early the next morning, only Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division of Hill’s Third Corps remained north of the Potomac River. When the Union infantry advanced on the morning of July 14, it found the formidable Confederate works empty. The fates had deprived George Gordon Meade of the opportunity to test the mettle of his army on the Maryland side of the Potomac.
“No commander ever gains perfect intelligence,” correctly notes Prof. Christopher Stowe, who is the authority on George Gordon Meade, in pointing out how badly Alfred Pleasonton failed Meade during the pursuit of Lee’s army after the Battle of Gettysburg. “The multitude of messages flying back and forth paints an always-varied, often-contradictory, and almost-immediately dated situation. The key here is what Frederick the Great called coup d’oeil–the ability to anticipate and respond to events on the battlefield (or in the operational area) quickly. Meade was too new to the command and control of a mass army acting on the operational offensive and was mentally and physically exhausted; thus he didn’t entirely trust his judgment during the weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg.”
As Stowe properly points out, Meade’s management of the pursuit was far from perfect. Again, it bears noting that when the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia began on July 7, George Gordon Meade had all of nine days of experience under his belt as an army commander, three of which had been spent locked in mortal combat with a dangerous enemy. Probably as a consequence of his inexperience, he might have been more confident and might not have called the council of war on the night of July 12, and instead might have ordered an all-out attack all along his lines for July 13.
As his staff officer Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman astutely observed of Meade in the fall of 1863, “He doesn’t move unless he knows how many men he has, how many men his enemy has, and what kind of country he had to go through.” As Stowe points out, this trait was “admirable in the main, but in a people’s war, this can have a deleterious effect in one’s job security.” Lyman accurately described who George Meade was—a man who wisely and sensibly made his dispositions and plans based on accurate information. Pleasonton’s egregious failure to provide him with the detailed and accurate intelligence he needed probably caused the inexperienced army commander to be unduly cautious in holding the July 12 council of war instead of pitching in, as his aggressive nature was telling him to do.
We will never know how that cautiousness would have played out. As we will examine in the fifth installment of this series, the defensive position designed and constructed by Robert E. Lee and his engineers was incredibly strong, well-prepared, and amply manned with soldiers whose morale remained high in spite of their defeat at Gettysburg, and the Army of the Potomac may very well have dashed itself against the Scylla and Charybdis of Lee’s army, thereby negating the army’s great victory in Pennsylvania.Scridb filter
Part three in a series.
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.In part two of this series, we examined the impact of the heavy losses sustained by the command structure of the Army of the Potomac on its ability to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to battle again before it could cross the rain-swollen Potomac River after the Battle of Gettysburg. In this part, we will examine the operating orders and operating environment that greatly hindered Meade and kept him tied to Gettysburg for three days after the end of the battle.
At all times pertinent, Meade was under orders to ensure that his army remained interposed between Lee’s army and Washington, D.C. This mandate severely limited Meade’s ability to operate. Lee’s army began its retreat late on the day on July 4, and it had largely abandoned the battlefield by the afternoon of July 5. However, it was unclear whether Lee intended to retreat across the Potomac River and to the safety of Virginia, or whether he intended to find a strong defensive position in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, hole up there, and wait for Meade to attack him on ground of Lee’s own choosing. Lee’s intentions did not become obvious until the failed attempt of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s First Cavalry Division to seize and hold the Potomac River crossings at Williamsport, Maryland on July 6 that Lee intended to use to get across the flooded river. Buford’s report that all of the Army of Northern Virginia’s wagons and elements of its infantry were present in Williamsport that night finally provided Meade with the proof he needed to set the Army of the Potomac in motion since he no longer had to worry about Lee holing up in the mountains to the west of Gettysburg or his trying to take Washington.
However, Lee’s retreat provided a different set of problems for Meade. Still constrained by the orders to keep his army interposed between Lee and Washington, Meade had to use a longer route to advance on Lee. Rather than simply following Lee along the same roads that the Southern army had used, Meade had to follow along the eastern spine of South Mountain, keeping Washington covered at all times. This added distance—and time—to the route of march and prevented the Army of the Potomac from arriving at Williamsport as quickly as it otherwise might have. Mix in the head start enjoyed by the Army of Northern Virginia and the flanking route forced upon Meade meant that not only would Lee enjoy the initiative, it also meant that Lee and his engineers would have plenty of time to choose and develop a strong defensive position along the northern bank of the Potomac River.
Once Meade was persuaded that Lee had retreated to the Potomac River crossings on the night of July 6, he set the army in motion. And once it began moving the Army of the Potomac moved with alacrity. As just one example, by late afternoon on July 8, one of the divisions of the XI Corps was in position to reinforce Buford’s fight against J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate at cavalry at Boonsboro, Maryland, having covered 42 miles to get there. By the 10th, nearly the entire army was in position. It simply is not true to say that the Army of the Potomac did not move promptly once Meade set it in motion.
The fact that it did so is nothing short of remarkable given the logistical constraints it faced. It began raining heavily late in the day on July 3, and did not end for a number of days. It must be remembered that there were no paved roads in those days, so the heavy roads turned most dirt roads into bottomless seas of sticky muck that greatly inhibited movement, prompting a Massachusetts soldier to describe the roads as “one immense hogwallow the entire distance.” The mud was between ankle and knee deep in most places, meaning that each step was exhausting for the blueclad soldiers, whose woolen trousers, woolen socks, and brogans became sodden and heavy with the thick, gooey mud that they had to slog through. “The mud,” grumbled one, “in some places seems bottomless and ankle deep at best and tenacious as glue.” If the going was this difficult for men marching on foot, imagine how difficult the passage was for wagons and artillery, which bogged down completely in the thick mire.
The men of the VI Corps in particular had a hard way to go. They had to cross Catoctin Mountain during the dark, rainy night, climbing four miles up the steep mountain on their hands and knees as they struggled along. “The road was narrow, crooked, and rocky, closely hugged on either side by the thicket of trees and bushes,” recalled Pvt. Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont Infantry. “The night was dark as inky blackness, and the rain poured as I have seldom seen it pour before. The road was steep, awful steep, so steep that one fellow, who was perhaps inclined to exaggerate a bit, declared it was worse than perpendicular, that the hill rather canted under.” They spent the entire night fighting the mountain, soaked to the skin and coated with mud. “Napoleon crossing the Alps will no longer be mentioned as the climax of heroic accomplishments,” declared Fisk. “Sedgwick marching over the Catoctin Mountains has entirely eclipsed that. That was undoubtedly bad enough, but it bears a feeble comparison to what we did.”
The one good thing about the route of march forced upon the Army of the Potomac by Meade’s operating orders was that much of the Army of the Potomac utilized the macadamized National Road, one of the few hard-surface all-weather roads in the area. Named for their inventor, the Scottish civil engineer John Loudon McAdam, these roads consisted of compressed layers of gravel set on a cement bed with limestone shoulders and with drainage ditches on either side of the road. Ditches at the sides of the road provided necessary drainage. While hardened and much less prone to turning into mud bogs, they had rough, abrasive surfaces that played havoc on horseshoes and brogans. However, the macadamized National Road permitted the Army of the Potomac’s rolling stock, in particular, to move much more quickly than it otherwise might have, thereby mitigating some of the time factor involved. The National Road also allowed the weary Northern infantry to escape from the bottomless mud pits that the rest of the road network had become.
Thus, the combination of Meade’s operational orders—having to keep his army interposed between the Army of Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. at all times—and not knowing what the enemy’s intentions were for the first couple of days, keeping him pinned in Gettysburg until Lee’s intentions could be determined with certainty, delayed his movement and then forced him to employ a longer route of march, severely limiting his ability to move directly on the Potomac River crossings. Then, the terrible weather conditions and the major logistical challenges that the atrocious conditions caused created nearly insurmountable hurdles. That the disparate elements of the Army of the Potomac moved as quickly and as efficiently as they did was a remarkable accomplishment that is too often overlooked, and is a credit to Meade’s staff for managing this operation.
Finally, we must examine the logistical situation. The Army of the Potomac had used up much of its ammunition and supplies at Gettysburg. The limbers of its artillery units needed to be refilled, and so did the cartridge boxes of the infantry. Meade’s logistical chain needed time to re-supply the army. That practical necessity also hindered Meade’s decision-making freedom. The Army of Northern Virginia, by contrast, had been receiving supplies around the clock at Williamsport. A small ferry called Lemon’s Ferry carried Lee’s wagons across the Potomac River one at a time and returned with crates of supplies. The ferry ran twenty-four hours a day, and each trip brought back more ammunition and other supplies. By the time that the Army of the Potomac was in position to attack, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been fully resupplied.
In part four of this series, we will examine the question of whether the Army of the Potomac should have launched an attack on Lee’s positions around Williamsport sooner than its general advance on July 14, which found the trenches empty and Lee’s army gone.Scridb filter