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February, 2016

I just found a very interesting tidbit….

A certain Gettysburg licensed battlefield guide has stated a theory that Farnsworth’s Charge occurred a mile or so away from where traditional accounts place it. I’ve always maintained that that theory is just that–a theory. J David Petruzzi and I wrote a very lengthy essay rebutting this theory that appears as an appendix to the second edition of my book Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions, the content of which was largely based on the words and comments of the veterans of the battle.

I just found a new one. In this one, a private of the Fifth Corps, wrote, “During this time the Union cavalry made its appearance on our left in rear of Hood’s division. Kilpatrick sent Farnsworth forward across Plum Run. He charged the infantry, and endeavored to capture their reserve artillery and supplies. Though unsuccessful, and its leader and many of his men were killed and many made prisoners, yet it proved a useful diversion. It told upon the final issue of the battle by preventing Longstreet from reinforcing the rebel centre, to assist in the final and main attack which Lee was maturing. It also spoiled the execution of a plan Hood had formed to capture our supply trains.” The source for this is Warren Lee Goss, Recollections of a Private. A Story of the Army of the Potomac (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1899), pp. 211-212.

The course of Plum Run.

The course of Plum Run.

This demonstrates that the other theory is just plain wrong–Plum Run flows nowhere near where that theory places the charge. If, indeed, Farnsworth’s Charge crossed Plum Run as Goss contended, it had to have occurred where the traditional interpretations of the battle place it. This map shows the course of Plum Run, which empties into Rock Creek far from the southern end of the battlefield (to see a larger version of this map, simply click on it). That alternate theory says that the charge happened along the Emmitsburg Road near where Wesley Merritt’s Reserve Brigade fought. Plum Run is nowhere near there.

So much for that other theory…

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AlfieIt’s an open question as to who was the worst, biggest, most pathological liar: Alfred Pleasonton or Phil Sheridan. Both were incapable of telling the truth, and both were known for prevaricating in the interest of self-promotion. As I have described him here previously, Pleasonton was a lead from the rear kind of a guy who was a masterful schemer and political intriguer. Pleasonton was the sort of guy who would start a fight on the playground and then step back and watch the chaos that he had started. And he was known for telling whoppers in the hope of promoting himself and his moribund career; his persistent lying and scheming ultimately cost him his command with the Army of the Potomac and found him banished to the hinterlands of Missouri, where, shockingly, he actually did quite well in running down the command of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price in the fall of 1864. He carried the mocking nickname of “The Knight of Romance” for good reason.

I recently came across an epic whopper by Pleasonton wherein he took credit for wounding Stonewall Jackson, a claim so outrageous as to have caused me to laugh out loud when I read it. This is Alfred Pleasonton’s account of the Battle of Chancellorsville, wherein he was clearly the hero of the battle (at least in his own mind):

In this campaign my command was the first cavalry division of the army of the Potomac, the first brigade of which during the battle was with General Stoneman on his raid towards Richmond, in rear of Lee’s army. With one brigade I preceded the 11th and 12th corps as far as Chancellorsville. The movements of the 5th, 11th, and 12th corps across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers were very fine and masterly, and were executed with such secrecy that the enemy were not aware of them; for, on the 30th of April, 1863, I captured a courier from General Lee, commanding the rebel army, bearing a despatch from General Lee to General Anderson, and written only one hour before, stating to General Anderson he had just been informed we had crossed in force, when, in fact, our three corps had been south of the Rapidan the night previous, and were then only five miles from Chancellorsville. The brilliant success of these preparatory movements, I was under the impression, gave General Hooker an undue confidence as to his being master of the situation, and all the necessary steps were not taken on his arrival at Chancellorsville to insure complete success. The country around Chancellorsville was too cramped to admit of our whole army being properly developed there; and two corps, the 11th and 12th, should have been thrown on the night of the 30th of April to Spotsylvania Court House, with orders to intrench, while the remainder of the army should have been disposed so as to support them. This would have compelled General Lee to attack our whole force or retire with his flank exposed, a dangerous operation in war, or else remain in position and receive the attack of Sedgwick in rear and Hooker in front, a still worse dilemma.

In the third day’s fight at Chancellorsville General Hooker was badly stunned by the concussion of a shell against a post near which he was standing, and from which he did not recover sufficiently during the battle to resume the proper command of the army. The plan of this campaign was a bold one, and was more judicious than was generally supposed from the large force General Hooker had at his command. There is always one disadvantage, however, attending the sending off of large detachments near the day of battle. War is such an uncertain game it can scarcely be expected that all the details in the best devised plans will meet with success, and unless a general is prepared and expects to replace at once, by new combinations, such parts of his plans as fail, he will be defeated in his campaign, and as these changes are often rapid, he cannot include his distant detachments in his new plans with any certainty, and the doubt their absence creates, reduces the army he can depend on to the actual number of men he has in hand. If General Hooker had not been injured at the commencement of the final battle, I am not certain his splendid fighting qualities would not have won for him the victory. It was in this battle that with three regiments of cavalry and twenty-two pieces of artillery I checked the attack of the rebel General Stonewall Jackson after he had routed the 11th corps. Jackson had been moving his corns of twenty-five or thirty thousand men through the woods throughout the day of the 2d of May, 1863, from the left to the right of our army, and about six o’clock in the evening he struck the right and rear of the 11th corps with one of those characteristic attacks that made the rebel army so terrible when he was with it, and which was lost to them in his death. In a very short time he doubled up the 11th corps into a disordered mass, that soon sought safety in flight. My command Of three cavalry regiments and one battery of six guns happened to be near this scene; and perceiving at a glance that if this rout was not checked the ruin of the whole army would be involved, I immediately ordered one of my regiments to charge the woods from which the rebels were issuing and hold them until I could bring some guns into position; then chaining several squadrons into our flying masses to clear ground for my battery, it was brought up at a run, while staff officers and troops were despatched to seize from the rout all the guns possible. The brilliant charge of the regiment into the woods detained the rebels some ten minutes, but in that short time such was the energy displayed by my command I placed in line twenty-two pieces of artillery, double-shotted with canister, and aimed low, with the remainder of the cavalry supporting them. Dusk was now rapidly approaching, with an apparent lull in the fight, when heavy masses of men could be seen in the edge of the woods, having a single flag — and that the flag of the United States — while at the same time they cried out, “Don’t shoot; we are friends!” In an instant an aide-de-camp galloped out to ascertain the truth, when a withering fire of musketry was opened on us by this very gallant foe, who now dropped our ensign, displayed ten or twelve rebel battle flags, and with loud yells charged the guns. I then gave the command “fire,” and the terrible volley delivered at less than two hundred yards’ distance caused the thick moving masses of the rebels to stagger, cease from yelling, and for a moment discontinue their musket fire; but they were in such numbers, had such an indomitable leader, and they had so great a prize within their reach, that they soon rallied and came on again with increased energy and force, to be met by the artillery, served well and rapidly, and with such advantage that the rebels were never able to make a permanent lodgement at the guns, which many of their adventurous spirits succeeded in reaching. This fight lasted about an hour, when a final charge was made and repulsed; they then sullenly retired to the woods. It was at this time that General Jackson was mortally wounded; and as the rebel authorities have published he had been killed by his own men, I shall mention some facts of so strong a character as to refute this statement. Soon after the last attack I captured some of the rebel soldiers in the woods, and they told me it was Jackson’s corps that had made this fight; that Jackson himself had directed it, and had been mortally wounded, and that their loss was very heavy. I have since met rebel officers who were then engaged, and they corroborated the above statement, and they added, that it was known and believed among Jackson’s men that he had been mortally wounded by our own fire. Again, one of my own officers who had been taken prisoner in that engagement told me, after he was exchanged, that he had been taken up to Jackson soon after his capture; that Jackson questioned him about our force, and that he then was not far from our lines. This clearly proves that Jackson was on the field, in command, and had not been wounded up to and until after the fight had commenced. Now, when it is remembered the entire front of my line did not occupy six hundred yards; that the opposing forces were in open ground, not three hundred yards from each other, and so close that no reconnaissance in front was necessary by an officer of Jackson’s rank, and taken, in connection with the fact that the fierce characteristic of the attacks of the man did not cease until he was wounded, and were not renewed after he was, the conclusion is simple, natural, and forcible that Jackson commanded and fell in his attack on our guns. In justice to the high character, as a general, of Jackson, I am free to admit that had he not been wounded, and had made another attack, as he undoubtedly would have done, he would have carried my position, for my losses had already disabled more than half my guns, and the few that were left could have easily been overpowered. There seemed a providential interference in Jackson’s removal at the critical time in which it occurred, for the position fought for by him commanded and enfiladed our whole army; and had he won it on the rout of the 11th corps, the disaster to us would have been irreparable.

Wow. There’s not much else to say but wow. Too bad this is all fiction….

It bears noting that George Stoneman intentionally left him behind when the Cavalry Corps went off on its raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Pleasonton should not have even been at Chancellorsville, but for the fact that Stoneman didn’t want him along on the expedition.

He reminds me of the Jon Lovitz “Lying Man” character from the 1990’s edition of Saturday Night Live:

This little prize is part of a very long letter that Pleasonton wrote to Sen. Benjamin F. Wade, the chairman of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, in the late fall of 1865, reporting on his activities in the Civil War. It’s a flight of fancy that is jam-packed with lie after self-aggrandizing lie that is epic even by Alf Pleasonton’s standards. As time progresses, I will probably put up some other bits and pieces of this doozie.

For now, though, enjoy this epic flight of fictional fancy by one of the great liars of the 19th Century.

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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. 🙂

Waren-MFFor a larger view of this map, please click on it.

Second Corps division commander, Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, whose troops fought at Morton's Ford

Second Corps division commander, Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, whose troops fought at Morton’s Ford

This is a brief but comprehensive article on the battle written by Clark B. “Bud” Hall that appeared in the :

“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.

MF_Fd_to_south_(1)2This is what Morton’s Ford looks like as of last week.

Struan_ Jan_19_2016_v2This is what Struan looks like today.

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.

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