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General musings

220px-Alonzo_CushingThe soldier in the image is Lt. Alonzo Cushing, who is set to receive a Medal of Honor on September 15, 2014, 151+ years after his death at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Of the following facts, there is no dispute or doubt: Alonzo Cushing was a brave and very capable young soldier who died as a hero. Cushing, although horribly wounded, stood to his gun and pulled the lanyard, blasting canister into the faces of the Confederate soldiers of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead’s brigade at point-blank range at the climax of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge. He was an incredibly brave young man who died a hero’s death doing his duty. These facts are not in dispute. I admire Alonzo Cushing.

Having said that, I have real problems with him receiving a Medal of Honor now, 151 years after the fact. There were plenty of opportunities for the War Department to honor him in the years after the war, but it did not do so. 1520 Medals of Honor were awarded for valor in the Civil War. Many of them were politically motivated, like the one awarded to Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, who instead should have been the subject of a court-martial. Many were not really earned or deserved. Many were. A number of them were even revoked. But Alonzo Cushing was not deemed worthy of being awarded a Medal of Honor by his peers. That fact is also beyond dispute or controversy.

Again, this is not to take anything away from Lieutenant Cushing or his courageous stand at the guns on July 3, 1863. But I have real problems with his being awarded a Medal of Honor today. Is this really the sort of precedent that we want to set? Isn’t this a slippery slope that will open up a big can of worms? Doesn’t this open the door for the advocates of any soldier who did something brave to demand that that soldier also be awarded a Medal of Honor even though his peers did not believe his feats worthy of one? That’s my real concern with this Medal of Honor being awarded to Alonzo Cushing, whose valor certainly deserved recognition.

As unpopular as this statement might be, my humble opinion is that if the veterans–Cushing’s peers–did not deem him worthy of a Medal of Honor, who are we to question the wisdom of their judgment? I think that we should just have left well enough alone. The precedent that this Medal of Honor sets is not one that should have been set.

Despite my objections, I nevertheless congratulate Lieutenant Cushing and his supporters who spent so many years fighting to win the Medal for their hero.

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My world, and welcome to it. :-)

The stuff that people feel that they have to share with us at book signings is pretty astounding.

10455124_815753268449953_4661613154759071801_n

Please don’t mistake my sarcasm for a lack of gratitude. I really appreciate it that folks feel like they can approach me and for the most part, I enjoy the interactions. Every now and again, someone will bring something to my attention that is of great interest to me, and I completely lose myself in the conversation. As just one example, at one of my first speaking engagements after my book Glory Enough for All: The Battle of Trevilian Station and Sheridan’s Second Raid was published, a fellow approached me and handed me a copy of a letter by his ancestor who had served in the 9th New York Cavalry and who had written a really terrific account of the battle that came to me about 6 months too late to do me any good. I’ve also had very interesting conversations with descendants of people who fought in the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Every once in a while, someone will tell me about an idea they have that’s great, or they share something really useful or unique with me. I live for those moments. I will always help folks with worthwhile projects.

And I’ve done this sort of thing myself. My book Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Generalship of Philip H. Sheridan is the direct result of a pretty remarkable dinnertime conversation that I had with the late Prof. Joe Harsh at a Civil War conference at Kent State University many years ago. I bent Joe’s ear for the entire dinner, and he graciously played along. But by the time that meal was over, the outline of the book was right there in my brain, waiting to be put down on paper. So, I really do get it.

And then, there are the ones that just prattle on and on and on about things that are of no interest to me, who are too oblivious to sense that they’re preventing me from talking to others or signing the books of others, and who won’t just shut up and go away. You try really hard not to be rude to them, but sometimes, you just have no choice. I’ve seen authors just get up and walk away out of exasperation. I haven’t done that, but I surely have tuned folks out completely from time to time.

In the end, I am no longer in charge of acquisitions for a niche publisher. I’m an author. Just because I’ve had stuff published doesn’t mean that I have the magic beans to get your lame idea published. :-)

Perhaps some of my fellow authors will be willing to share some of their stories here. I hope you will!

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23 May 2014, by

Hilarity

First, please allow me to apologize for the absence. I had my portion of the Second Battle of Winchester book to write, and then I needed a break. I’m back in the saddle again, and I have some very funny stuff for you today.

kilpatrick_webThis article appeared in the December 2, 1868 edition of the Weekly Atlanta Intelligencer, and it’s a riot.

What is thought of it–The Forrest-Kilpatrick Affair–Interesting and Spicy Correspondence.

The following correspondence explains itself. In consideration of the modesty of some parties, we give only initials:

New York, November 10

General J__n M. C___e:

Dear General,

Forrest says that I am “a liar, poltroon, and scoundrel.” What do you think about it?

Truly, etc.

Judson Kilpatrick

Chicago, November 14

General Kilpatrick:

Sir–yours received. I think so too.

Yours, etc.

J__n M. C___e, Maj. Gen.

New York, November 7

Gen. W. T. S_____n:

Dear Sir:

Forrest has published me as “a liar, poltroon, and scoundrel.” What ought I to do about it?

Very truly yours,

Judson Kilpatrick

Cheyenne, November 16

Gen. Kilpatrick:

Sir:

I think you ought to call out Forrest for having lied about you–that is, for having told only half the truth.

Yours,

W. T. S______n, Lieut. Gen.

New York, November 8

Gen. U. S. G____t:

Dear Sir:

Forrest, of Memphis, has published a card in which he says I am “a liar, poltroon and scoundrel.” What do you think should be done with an unhung rebel who thus vilifies a loyal soldier?

I am, my dear General, your most obedient servant,

Judson Kilpatrick

Washington, November 10

Gen. Kilpatrick:

I don’t know. Let us have peace. I have no policy on such matters. Have just had a present of a splendid bull slut.

Truly,

U. S. G___t, General

New York, November 19

Gen. B. F. B____r:

My dear sir:

Forrest, the infamous butcher of Fort Pillow, has published me as “a liar, poltroon and scoundrel.” What ought to be done?

Very truly,

Judson Kilpatrick

Massachusetts, November 13

Gen. Kilpatrick:

Dear sir–I think he ought to be impeached. If you cannot impeach his veracity, borrow his spoons and don’t return them.

Your friend,

B. F. B_____r

There are several more letters in our possession upon this subject. They are mostly to the point.

nb_forresttnThis is some truly funny stuff. This article clearly was written with tongue firmly in cheek and has some real fun at Judson Kilpatrick’s expense. The “letters” from Sherman, Grant, and Butler are especially funny. The bit about borrowing the spoons nearly caused me to do a spit-take. And I wholeheartedly agree with the “letter” by John M. Corse that indicates that he agreed with Forrest’s assessment of Kilpatrick. :-)

Enjoy.

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Just a quick note to wish all of you a joyous Christmas. Susan joins me in wishing all of you the happiest of days with your friends and families today. Hopefully, none of you found any lumps of coal in your stockings this morning, and hopefully none of you received a visit from Krampus.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy days to visit this blog. I appreciate all of you.

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2013 has been an extraordinary year in many ways.

With the help of a group of dedicated and generous individuals who recognized the important of Fleetwood Hill, we have saved the single most fought-over piece of ground in North America this year. More important preservation opportunities in and around the Brandy Station battlefield presented themselves and are being pursued. We saw many important sesquicentennial commemorations this year, including the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Brandy Station. Some good new books came out this year. Old friendships were renewed and new friendships were made. It was my honor and my privilege to be part of those events, and I will cherish those memories forever.

I remain thankful to each and every one of you who visits this website often and who contribute to it regularly. I never take that for granted, and those interactions mean more to me than I can say.

Susan and I wish each and every one of you a wonderful Thanksgiving. Travel safely, and enjoy the family time.

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As the clocks tolled to mark the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns fell silent. The Great War–the War to End All Wars, as it was known–had ended. The butcher’s bill had come due. 16 million were dead and another 20 million wounded. And for what? A few yards of soil in France? It’s a shame that it was not truly the War to End All Wars. Much worse ghastliness lay ahead, just two decades later.

Lt. Wilfred Owen, a British soldier/poet, who was killed in action a scant few days before the armistice took effect, left this moving elegy behind:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

As we move toward the centennial of World War I, I thought it important to remember the horrifying human toll of the conflict, which is the root of the Veterans’ Day that we commemorate today.

And to each and every one of you who served, I can merely offer a thank you, offered with profound and humble gratitude for your sacrifice. I offer a special thank you today to my uncle, Sgt. Morton L. Wittenberg, U.S. Army Air Corps, World War II, my brother-in-law, SSGT Joseph Pacitto, USMC, Desert Storm, my father-in-law, Lt. Adam Skilken, U.S. Navy, Cold War, and my dear friends, Lt. Clark B. Hall, USMC, Vietnam, Sgt. Ted Alexander, USMC, Vietnam, Maj. Mike Nugent, US Army, Cold War, Col. Wade Sokolosky, U.S. Army, the War Against Terror, Capt./Sgt. Mike Phipps, U.S. Army, Iraq, Capt. Craig Swain, U.S. Army, Cold War and beyond, Sgt. Angela Clemens, US Air Force, Cold War and beyond, and Capt. Stuart Jones, US Navy, Cold War and beyond, and any of my other friends whom I have inadvertently left off of this list–it’s not intentional–for all of your service and sacrifices. Today, it’s my turn to salute you.

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Susan and I spent much of the day on Saturday visiting some of the newer monuments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. We had not yet seen the Martin Luther King Memorial, the FDR Memorial, or the World War II Memorial. When the opportunity to do so presented itself, we visited those monuments and were struck by their beauty and dignity.

Washington, D. C. is, in many ways, a giant memorial. Most of the prominent Union heroes of the Civil War are honored with prominent monuments in traffic roundabouts, with none more prominently honored than U.S. Grant. In many ways, the whole city is a memorial to the Union veterans of the war.

Stereogram of Statue at the Vietnam War Memorial, Washington, DCThe first large memorial to be dedicated was the Vietnam War Memorial, which has taken on an iconic status. Although its design was initially excoriated, it remains a moving and incredibly respectful memorial to the American soldiers who sacrificed so much in the far-away jungles of Southeast Asia.

Then came the memorial to the forgotten war, the Korean War. This gorgeous memorial depicts cold, wet, tired American soldiers fighting to protect the freedom of the South Korean republic. It is moving and haunting all at the same time. It is an appropriate monument to their sacrifices.korean-war-memorial-1

1294270_10153466379970413_269324027_oThe most recent memorial to be dedicated was the massive monument to the American contribution to the Allied victory in World War II. We visited it on Saturday, and given that my father and his brothers were members of that generation, and I have known many World War II vets, I found it to be an incredibly moving experience. There were dozens of old vets visiting the memorial, brought there by Honor Flights (an incredibly worthy cause that I encourage all of you to support). I thanked many of them for their service and found myself missing my father a great deal.

world-war-I-wwII then realized that, despite the fact that 2,000,000 Americans served in World War I, there is national memorial to them. I found that staggering, and it made me terribly sad. There is a small memorial to Washington, DC’s contributions to World War I, but no national memorial. Until recently, this memorial was largely forgotten–it did not appear on maps of the Mall, it was not maintained, and it was in bad shape. Fortunately, it has been restored, but I never even knew it existed before Saturday, when I saw it for the first time (and I lived in Washington, DC for a year in college and spent a lot of time on the Mall).

bucklesxThe last World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, who died in 2011, made the placement of a national memorial to World War I a priority of his. Mr. Buckles testified before Congress in 2009 and lent his name to the effort to place a proper memorial on the Mall. That’s a photo of Mr. Buckles, seated in his wheelchair in front of the Washington, DC World War I Memorial. Legislation was introduced in Congress, but it failed. Given that the Congress is the most incredibly dysfunctional institution in the United States, that sadly comes as no surprise.

Please consider supporting the placement of a national memorial to the 2,000,000 American soldiers who served in World War I on the National Mall Please consider helping to make Frank Buckles’ last wish come true. For more information, click here.

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Time for a good afternoon chuckle.

Famed Columbus humorist James Thurber wrote a whimsical article lampooning so-called “alternative history” (I call it fiction, but that’s just me) in 1930 that was published in Scribner’s Magazine. This little gem is titled “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox”. Enjoy!

IF GRANT HAD BEEN DRINKING AT APPOMATTOX -James Thurber

The morning of the ninth of April, 1865, dawned beautifully. General Meade was up with the first streaks of crimson in the sky. General Hooker and General Burnside were up and had breakfasted, by a quarter after eight. The day continued beautiful. It drew on. toward eleven o’clock. General Ulysses S. Grant was still not up. He was asleep in his famous old navy hammock, swung high above the floor of his headquarters’ bedroom. Headquarters was distressingly disarranged: papers were strewn on the floor; confidential notes from spies scurried here and there in the breeze from an open window; the dregs of an overturned bottle of wine flowed pinkly across an important military map.

Corporal Shultz, of the Sixty-fifth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, aide to General Grant, came into the outer room, looked around him, and sighed. He entered the bedroom and shook the General’s hammock roughly. General Ulysses S. Grant opened one eye.

“Pardon, sir,” said Corporal Shultz, “but this is the day of surrender. You ought to be up, sir.”

“Don’t swing me,” said Grant, sharply, for his aide was making the hammock sway gently. “I feel terrible,” he added, and he turned over and closed his eye again.

“General Lee will be here any minute now,” said the Corporal firmly, swinging the hammock again.

“Will you cut that out?” roared Grant. “D’ya want to make me sick, or what?” Shultz clicked his heels and saluted. “What’s he coming here for?” asked the General.

“This is the day of surrender, sir,” said Shultz. Grant grunted bitterly.

“Three hundred and fifty generals in the Northern armies,” said Grant, “and he has to come to me about this. What time is it?”. “You’re the Commander-in-Chief, that’s why,” said Corporal Shultz. “It’s eleven twenty, sir.”

“Don’t be crazy,” said Grant. “Lincoln is the Commander-in-Chief. Nobody in the history of the world ever surrendered before lunch. Doesn’t he know that an army surrenders on its stomach?” He pulled a blanket up over his head and settled himself again.

“The generals of the Confederacy will be here any minute now,” said the Corporal. “You really ought to be up, sir.” Grant stretched his arms above his head and yawned. “All right, all right,” he said. He rose to a sitting position and stared about the room. “This place looks awful,” he growled. “You must have had quite a time of it last night, sir,” ventured Shultz. “Yeh,” said General Grant, looking around for his clothes. “I was wrassling some general. Some general with a beard.”

Shultz helped the commander of the Northern armies in the field to find his clothes. “Where’s my other sock?” demanded Grant. Shultz began to look around for it. The General walked uncertainly to a table and poured a drink from a bottle. “I don’t think it wise to drink, sir,” said Shultz. Nev’ mind about me,” said Grant, helping himself to a second, “I can take it or let it alone. Didn’ ya ever hear the story about the fella went to. Lincoln to complain about me drinking too much? ‘So-and-So says Grant drinks too much,’ this fella said. ‘So-and-So is a fool,’ said Lincoln. So this fella went to What’s-His-Name and told him what Lincoln said and he came roarin’ to Lincoln about it. ‘Did you tell So-and-So was a fool?’ he said. ‘No,’ said Lincoln, ‘I thought he knew it.'” The’General smiled, reminiscently, and had another drink. “”That’s how I stand with Lincoln,” he said, proudly,

The soft thudding sound of horses’ hooves came through the open window. Shultz hurriedly walked over and looked out. “Hoof steps,” said Grant, with a curious chortle. “It is General Lee and his staff,” said Shultz. “Show him in,” said the General, taking another drink. “And see what the boys in the back room will have.” Shultz walked smartly over to the door, opened it, saluted, and stood aside.

General Lee, dignified against the blue of the April sky, magnificent in his dress uniform, stood for a moment framed in the doorway. He walked in, followed by his staff. They bowed, and stood silent. General Grant stared at them. He only had one boot on and his jacket was unbuttoned.

“I know who you are,” said Grant.’You’re Robert Browning, the poet.” “This is General Robert E. Lee,” said one of his staff, coldly. “Oh,” said Grant. “I thought he was Robert Browning. He certainly looks like Robert Browning. There was a poet for you. Lee: Browning. Did ya ever read ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’? ‘Up Derek, to saddle, up Derek, away; up Dunder, up Blitzen, up, Prancer, up Dancer, up Bouncer, up Vixen, up -‘”.

“Shall we proceed at once to the matter in hand?” asked General Lee, his eyes disdainfully taking in the disordered room. “Some of the boys was wrassling here last night,” explained Grant. “I threw Sherman, or some general a whole lot like Sherman. It was pretty dark.” He handed a bottle of Scotch to the commanding officer of the Southern armies, who stood holding it, in amazement and discomfiture. “Get a glass, somebody,” said Grant, .looking straight at General Longstreet. “Didn’t I meet you at Cold Harbor?” he asked. General Longstreet did not answer.

“I should like to have this over with as soon as possible,” said Lee. Grant looked vaguely at Shultz, who walked up close to him , frowning. “The surrender, sir, the surrender,” said Corporal Shultz in a whisper. “Oh sure, sure,” said Grant. He took another drink. “All right,” he said. “Here we go.” Slowly, sadly, he unbuckled his sword. Then he handed it to the astonished Lee. “There you are. General,” said Grant. “We dam’ near licked you. If I’d been feeling better we would of licked you.”

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hh9d5Yesterday, I was one of the presenters at the “Gettysburg Before and After” conference put on by Hagerstown Community College. Dennis Frye, the chief historian at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, gave a very interesting talk on the role that Harpers Ferry played in the Gettysburg Campaign.

Part of what he discussed caught my attention, as it lends some fascinating new insight into the decisions made by the Army of the Potomac’s high command on July 12, 1863. These insights have caused me to re-evaluate some of those decisions. The facts are worthy of presenting here.

By way of background, the Army of the Potomac’s high command considered throwing a pontoon bridge across the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry because the river was too flooded to ford. Doing so could allow Union troops to get around behind the Army of Northern Virginia’s position. The question was when. Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the army’s chief engineer, had this responsibility. He corresponded with Lt. Col. Ira Spaulding, the chief engineer at Harpers Ferry, who was responsible for the pontoons. The exchange between Warren and Spaulding is worth repeating here.

Here is the first, sent by Warren:

HEADQUARTERS ENGINEERS, ARMY OF THE POTOMAC
July 10, 1863–10:30 a.m.

Colonel Spaulding, Engineer,
Harpers Ferry:

Sir:

Events are yet to determine where we shall want the bridge across the Potomac and when. Directions will be sent to you in time. I have ordered the transportation train to join you, and to load up to 200 feet of bridge, which we may require on the Antietam Creek.

By order:

G. K. Warren,
Brigadier General of Volunteers, Chief Engineer

O.R. vol. 27, part 3, p. 628. Spaulding responded the next day.

SANDY HOOK,
July 11, 1863–11:45 a.m.

General G. K. Warren:

Lieutenant [Ranald S.] MacKenzie is absent with General Naglee, and I opened your dispatch to him.

The Potomac above the railroad bridge at this point has fallen 4 feet within the past forty-eight hours, and is still falling slowly. It is still 4 to 5 feet above the stage of water which renders it fordable here.

The troops of the Engineer Brigade under my command now here have been constantly at work or making forced marches ever since the army left Falmouth, and I take it for granted they are liable at any moment to be called up for extraordinary exertions. Is it desirable that they should be kept incessantly at work here by General Naglee upon work not indispensable to the efficiency and success of the army?

I. Spaulding,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Volunteer Engineers

O.R. vol. 27, part 3, p. 646. The emphasis is mine. This is a critical piece of intelligence. If the river had fallen 4 feet in 48 hours, and it had only another 4-5 feet to drop in order to be fordable, then at the very latest, the river would be fordable within 48 hours, and probably much less if it continued to be dry. In other words, at that rate of dropping, the Potomac would be fordable no later than July 13. And the Williamsport crossings are upriver from Harpers Ferry, meaning that they would fordable before the crossings at Harpers Ferry.

On July 13, as the Army of Northern Virginia was preparing to cross that night, Warren wrote:

HEADQUARTERS ENGINEERS
July 13, 1863–5 p.m.

Colonel Spaulding:

We may want a bridge across the river before long. If sending away the 100 men to repair the canal will not interfere with laying the bridge, it is desirable to have it done.

G. K. Warren,
Brig. Gen. of Vols., Chief Engineer, Army of the Potomac

O.R. vol. 27, part 3, p. 672. The pontoon bridge was laid the next day, AFTER the Army of Northern Virginia had already made it to safety across the Potomac. Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg’s Second Cavalry Division had a major engagement with Confederate cavalry at Sandy Hook, near Harpers Ferry, the next day.

There’s some real food for thought here. Specifically, on July 11, Spaulding advised Warren–the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer–that the Potomac River was dropping and would be fordable no later than July 13, assuming no more rain fell. Once the Potomac could be forded at Williamsport, which is 15 or so miles upstream from Harpers Ferry, the Army of Northern Virginia could cross to safety. This means that Lee could escape unless the Army of the Potomac moved quickly to attack it.

On the night of July 12, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, held a council of war with his officers. Meade was anxious about whether to attack the Army of Northern Virginia’s entrenched positions along the Potomac, the strength of which was obvious to anyone caring to look. Meade, his chief of staff, Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, and his corps commanders all attended. They included: Gens. James Wadsworth (filling in for an ill Gen. John Newton, temporary commander of the 1st Corps), William Hays (in temporary command of the Second Corps), William H. French (commanding the 3rd Corps after Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles was severely wounded at Gettysburg), George Sykes (5th Corps), John Sedgwick (6th Corps), O. O. Howard (11th Corps), Henry W. Slocum (12th Corps), and Alfred Pleasonton (Cavalry Corps). Also attending were Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith, who commanded a division of emergency militia troops that had joined the Army of the Potomac, and chief engineer Warren.

Meade strongly favored an attack on July 13, but he wanted the support of his corps commanders before issuing the orders to do so. Wadsworth, Howard, and Pleasonton favored an attack. So did Warren. Sedgwick, Slocum, Sykes, French, and Hays opposed it. However, none of Humphreys, Pleasonton, or Warren were permitted to vote, meaning that a majority of the commanders with a vote opposed the attack. While Meade could have overridden the vote and could have ordered the attack anyway, he reluctantly took the advice of his commanders, which was to spend the 13th probing the Confederate lines and to attack on the 14th. Nobody knew that Lee’s army would steal away on the night of the 13th and that the general advance of the Army of the Potomac on the morning of the 14th would find the trenches empty and the Confederates gone.

The record fails to indicate whether Warren advised the council of war of the critical intelligence forwarded by Colonel Spaulding–that the Potomac was steadily dropping and would be fordable the next day if the rains continued to hold off. Warren was a conscientious officer, and presumably he did pass on that important piece of information. But we do not know for sure. Had he failed to do so, one cannot help but wonder whether that critical piece of information might have changed the outcome of the July 12 council of war.

Conversely, if Warren did, indeed, pass along that critical intelligence, that makes the vote of the five corps commanders who opposed an attack all the more puzzling. And it also makes Meade’s decision not to override their vote and order the attack anyway all the more perplexing. It is a cliche that councils of war never vote to fight, so the outcome of the July 12 council was somewhat predictable. Another cliche comes to mind: for want of a nail, a kingdom was lost.

In the end, I remain convinced that short of ordering the attack on July 13–an attack that had no guarantee of success, given the incredibly strong position held by the Confederates–there is little, if anything, that Meade could have done to prevent the Army of Northern Virginia from making its escape once the depth of the Potomac River dropped enough for it to become fordable. And, in the end, I cannot fault Meade for not wanting to attack that incredibly strong position–bristling with artillery behind earthworks–without having a better idea of its make-up and without having some idea if there were any weak spots to exploit or particularly strong points to avoid. A good army commander would not make such decisions rashly, and Meade was not a rash man. It’s entirely possible, then, that this critical piece of intelligence might have made no difference whatsoever in the big scheme of things. But it is tantalizing.

This is an incredibly fascinating twist, and it demonstrates how the smallest scrap of information can have far-reaching and unforeseen consequences. Thanks to Dennis Frye for passing this information along.

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battle-of-kellys-fordToday marks the Sesquicentennial of the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, fought March 17, 1863, along the banks of the Rappahannock River in Culpeper County, Virginia. Please click on the image to see a larger version of this contemporary depiction of the fighting at Kelly’s Ford that St. Patrick’s Day.

That day, Brig. Gen. William Woods Averell’s Second Cavalry Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac forced its way across the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford and brought the Confederate cavalry brigade of Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee to battle. The fight lasted for most of the day. First, Averell’s men had to force a crossing of the river, pushing through Confederate rifle pits. They then had to force their way through felled trees that blocked the road. Once they Union horse soldiers forced their way across the river and through the abatis, Averell then ordered his men to charge. Mounted charges met by mounted countercharges by Fitz Lee’s horsemen went back and forth for much of the afternoon. Maj. John Pelham, Jeb Stuart’s gifted chief of horse artillery, foolishly joined a charge by the 5th Virginia Cavalry near the Wheatley farm, and received a mortal wound when a Union artillery shell burst on a stone wall, spraying deadly shrapnel. One of those pieces of shrapnel took Pelham’s life.

Daniel Davis has written a nice account of the battle that appears over at Emerging Civil War. I recommend it to you.

kellys-ford-march-17-1863Averell pushed the Confederate horsemen back a mile or two, and then he paused to dress his lines. The final charges too place on the property just preserved by the Civil War Trust. Incorrectly believing that the Confederate cavalry had received infantry reinforcements, and with his force alone and behind enemy lines, Averell broke off and withdrew from the battlefield, leaving it in Fitz Lee’s hands. By all measures, Kelly’s Ford was a Confederate victory. Lee’s troopers held the battlefield at the end of the day, and Averell failed to accomplish his strategic goal, which was to disperse the Confederate cavalry in Culpeper County. However, that victory cost the Confederacy the services of John Pelham.

For a larger version of Steve Stanley’s excellent battle map (which shows the recently preserved battlefield land in yellow), please click on the map. As always, I am grateful to the Civil War Trust for allowing me to borrow its extremely useful interpretive maps.

My friend Craig Swain has a post on his blog today about the commemoration of the battle that took place today, including some photos of the battlefield as it appears today. It includes photos of the new pullover and new interpretive markers that have just been placed on the land preserved by the Civil War Trust. Please check them out.

There are some interesting quotes by participants in the Battle of Kelly’s Ford that provide insight into the fierce fighting there. “A cavalry charge is a terrible thing. Almost before you can think, the shock of horse against horse, the clash of steel against steel, crack of pistols, yells of some poor lost one, as he lost his seat and went down under those iron shod hoofs that knew no mercy, or the shriek of some horse overturned and cut to pieces by his own kind,” recalled Pvt. William Henry Ware of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry. “It is Hell while it lasts, but when man meets his fellow man, face to face, foot to foot, knee to knee, and looks him in the eye, the rich red blood flows through his veins like liquid lightning. There is blood in his eye, Hell in his heart, and he is a different man from what he is in the time of peace.” One of Averell’s men left a parallel description. “It was like the coming together of two mighty railroad trains at full speed. The yelling of men, the clashing of sabers, a few empty saddles, a few wounded and dying, and the charge is over. One side or the other is victorious, perhaps, only for a few minutes, and then the contest is renewed,” observed Sgt. George Reeve of the 6th Ohio Cavalry. “A charge of this kind is over almost before one has time to think of the danger he is in.”

Moreover, the Battle of Kelly’s Ford proved to be a real turning point in the evolution of the Union cavalry. For the first time, the Federal horsemen stood and fought the very best that the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Division had to offer, and the Federals gave as good as they got. Lt. Joseph A. Chedell of the 1st Rhode Island, wrote that Kelly’s Ford was the “first real, and perhaps the most brilliant, cavalry fight of the whole war.” From that moment forward, the Union horsemen believed that they were the equals of Stuart’s vaunted troopers, and from that moment forward, the blueclad horse soldiers went into battle with confidence and skill. Just three months later, those same troopers–no longer commanded by Averell–fought Stuart’s troopers to a standstill on nearby Fleetwood Hill during the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station.

That evolution–and its implications for the rest of the Civil War in the east–make this day of brutal combat worth commemorating. Today, we pay tribute to the brave men of both sides who crossed sabers during the Battle of Kelly’s Ford.

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