January, 2006

6 Jan 2006, by

VERY Cool News

In the “blowing my own horn” category of things (which is something that I neither like doing, nor is it something that I am particularly comfortable doing)…..

Ted Savas called me this afternoon to let me know that my forthcoming book on the Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads has been chosen as an Alternate Selection by the History Book Club. None of my titles have ever had such an honor bestowed upon them previously. Needless to say, I was blown away when Ted told me the news. I was excited but humbled all at the same time. The responses that my work seems to get never cease to flatter and amaze me.

Thanks again to everyone who reads my work and spends their hard-earned money buying my books.

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Part of the researcher’s task is, of course, finding material. To that end, experience is worth everything. My years of experience in conducting Civil War research has taught me where the really good repositories of material are. As a general rule, I try to avoid sweeping generalizations, but they do sometimes have value. Here’s one: my experience tells me that the best repositories of primary source, unpublished manuscript material are, in no particular order:

1. The National Archives
2. The Library of Congress
3. The United States Army Military History Institute
4. The University of North Carolina
5. Duke University
6. The University of Virginia
7. The University of Michigan
8. Navarro College
9. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (what an awesome collection Bob Krick and company have cobbled together there……)
10. Virginia State Archives
11. Virginia Historical Society
12. Alabama Department of Archives and History
13. Museum of the Confederacy
14. Historical Society of Pennsylvania
15. Western Reserve Historical Society

I could go on, but you get the idea. Knowing this makes it fairly easy to put together a research strategy for tackling a given project. While this list isn’t exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination, it will certainly give you a damned good start on any major research project.

The Internet has also made the process so much easier. Many–not all–institutions now have on-line finding aids available, which makes it easy to get a good flavor for what’s available in their collections. That makes the task much easier and makes the process more efficient, since I can map out what I want before I ever even leave my house, and it even makes it possible to obtain some of the desired materials strictly by mail. That’s a big plus.

There’s also a real value to knowing where things aren’t. In working my way through my Dahlgren project, I thought of a few potential sources for the 6th Ohio Cavalry, a portion of which accompanied Dahlgren on his November 1862 Fredericksburg Raid, and I checked a couple of them out today. These were things that I remembered seeing during my travels, knew that they pertained to the 6th Ohio, but had no idea whether they were pertinent to my specific question. So, I called in a favor today and had someone check them out for me. Neither were pertinent. That’s okay–they are what they are. However, where it becomes relevant is that if they were, I probably would have had to have found time in my schedule to dash over to USAMHI in Carlisle, PA to get them, or hire someone to do that for me. Knowing that these two sources were a dry hole means that I don’t have to worry about them, and also means that I don’t have to go to extraordinary lengths to get what’s there.

Like I said, there is not only a real, tangible value to knowing where things are, there’s a similar value to knowing where things aren’t.

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I have always bought into the school of thought that George B. McClellan made absolutely atrocious use of his cavalry. That’s the conventional wisdom, and in some ways, it’s a legitimate criticism. Instead of having his mounted units serve together as cohesive units during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, he instead split up regiments and parceled them out, a company here and a company there, doing messenger and orderly duty, and not performing the traditional role of cavalry–scouting, screening, and reconnaissance. That is the conventional version of McClellan’s use of the cavalry. However, further digging has persuaded me that accepting that version dramatically underestimates the role that the cavalry played during his tenure in command of the Army of the Potomac.

As one example, McClellan used a cohesive command–the Cavalry Reserve–on the Peninsula, and, for the most part, it acquitted itself well. The Cavalry Reserve, consisting of the U. S. Army’s Regular cavalry regiments and supplemented by the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, performed very well, particularly during the Fifth Corps’ combined arms operation that led to the Battle of Hanover Court House in May 1862. Then, the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry did some good work during the Maryland Campaign, and particularly at places like Quebec School House, where Federal horsemen gave Wade Hampton all he wanted. To be sure, his use of the cavalry was far from perfect–the failure to use any of his cavalry to picket the Harpers Ferry Road at Antietam is a glaring error that may have cost him an even greater success at Antietam. Instead, he used his cavalry to make a mounted charge across a bridge over Antietam Creek in an effort to capture or drive off some enemy artillery. While this was a decent use of cavalry pursuant to traditional Napoleonic tactics, it was not a good use of his horse under the circumstances.

At the same time, it’s clear to me that McClellan learned as he went along. I’ve never really looked at the period between Antietam and McClellan’s relief on November 7 before, but it’s very pertinent to my work on Ulric Dahlgren, so I’ve been examining it in some detail. When I looked at this period in detail, I discovered that the Union cavalry actually performed quite well in the Loudoun Valley during this period. Day after day, the Federal horse took on Jeb Stuart’s vaunted cavalry, and fought it to a standstill. It was hard, heavy fighting, and the Union troopers acquitted themselves quite well. Familar names such as George D. Bayard, David M. Gregg, and Alfred Pleasonton came to prominence during this period. Although Bayard had only a few weeks to live, the others had long careers in the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps and left their mark on the Union mounted arm. There’s not much out there on this period; Pat Brennan published an article that addressed this period in detail in a 1999 issue of Blue & Gray Magazine, and Pat–a cavalry guy–did an excellent job of documenting the relentless cavalry fighting that took place.

Most importantly, this period reflects that McClellan made good use of his mounted arm to perform the traditional role of cavalry–scouting, screening and reconnaissance–and that these men did an excellent job of screening his advance. It was, in fact, reminiscent of the fighting that took place on the same ground in the Loudoun Valley in June 1863, just a few months later. It is, therefore, clear to me that I have been unfair to George McClellan in the past, and that I need to be more open-minded about his use of cavalry. In fact, once he got past the Peninsula Campaign, he did rather well with his maturing mounted arm, the failure to picket the Harpers Ferry Road being the one really notable exception.

By contrast, Ambrose E. Burnside really was atrocious with his use of cavalry. The fact that there were exactly three casualties in the Union cavalry out of more than 13,000 suffered in the Battle of Fredericksburg is a pretty good reflection of just how badly he did. Bayard was one of the three, and his mortal wound was the result of bad luck–he was struck by a shell fragment while at Sixth Corps headquarters. When Bayard is removed from the equation, this means that there were exactly TWO Union cavalry casualties during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Clearly, Burnside was the worst of all of the Army of the Potomac’s commanders, not McClellan, when it comes to the use of cavalry.

It just goes to show you that the conventional wisdom is not always right, or if it is, it is an oversimplification of a complex issue that deserves a more detailed and more thorough examination. I’m glad that I have undertaken that task and come to different conclusions as a result.

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2 Jan 2006, by

Exceeding Orders

As my regular readers know, I am working on writing a biography of Ulric Dahlgren. I’ve reached an especially interesting phase of his brief but controversial life that demonstrates, in a nutshell, the paradox that was Ulric Dahlgren. On November 7, 1862, Franz Sigel ordered Dahlgren to take 100 hand-picked cavalrymen and go on a reconnaissance in force into the town of Fredericksburg. Making a ride of 50 miles, Dahlgren boldly dashed into the town on November 9, learned the enemy dispositions, skirmished with Confederate cavalry, and then, on the way out of town, burned the Aquia Creek & Fredericksburg Railroad bridges over Potomac and Accokeek Creeks. He then withdrew and made it safely back to Sigel’s headquarters, with a loss of 1 killed and 4 missing. It was a bold and daring raid that contributed accurate intelligence to Burnside as he began his movement toward Fredericksburg. However, he had not been ordered to burn the bridges. Maj. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman, who commanded the troops assigned to the defenses of Washington, to which Sigel’s Eleventh Corps was assigned, endorsed and forwarded Dahlgren’s report of this action, with this note: “Respectfully forwarded. A very gallant affair. The burning of the bridges was very unnecessary.”

In fact, it was not only unnecessary, it ended up harming Burnside’s efforts to take the town of Fredericksburg and then caused problems for Herman Haupt and the U. S. Military Railroads. Thus, Dahlgren’s Fredericksburg raid was a mixed bag. It was a bold dash into the town that brought back important military intelligence, but at the same time, it ultimately created problems because he exceeded his orders. This episode plainly foreshadowed the sort of scenario that not only cost him his life in 1864, it also triggered one of the Civil War’s greatest controversies, which still rages to this day.

All of this got me thinking about the ultimate issue of whether an officer who takes the initiative and exceeds his orders, and ultimately causes problems as a consequence, is a problematic officer. In Dahlgren’s case, I think that he was. I think that, in spite of his obvious courage and talent, he tended to be a bit of a cowboy. For instance, after years of evaluating the question of the so-called Dahlgren Papers found on his body when he was killed, I have come to the conclusion that it’s quite likely that he cooked up the scheme to kidnap and assassinate Davis and his cabinet on his own, that he didn’t tell anyone (although it is possible that he told–and got approval from–Stanton), and that in so doing, he was exceeding his orders. It’s the burning of the bridges at Fredericksburg on a much larger scale.

In a heirarchical organization such as an army–which depends on discipline and the very concept of subordinate officers obeying the lawful orders of their superiors–there is not a lot of room for cowboying. In fact, an insubordinate junior officer, no matter how talented, has no value to an army if that officer cannot be relied upon to obey the lawful orders of his superior. Such is the case with Nathan Bedford Forrest, whom I have demonstrated was largely useless in any capacity but independent command because he refused to serve under almost anybody else’s orders.

At the same time, officers have to have some latitude to interpret and apply their orders as dictated by circumstances. If, for instance, an objective has already been destroyed, or cannot be reached for whatever reason, that officer must then do what he can in order to comply with at least the spirit of his orders, if not the letter of them. Army doctrine teaches this; improvisation is an important part of the training of the modern military officer.

I have, therefore, been forced to face the ultimate question with respect to Ully Dahlgren: given his well-documented tendency to cowboy, I can’t help but wonder what sort of a military career he would have had if he had survived the raid on Richmond in March 1864. In a lot of ways, I think he was like George A. Custer: courageous to a fault, who threw caution to the wind, who was a charismatic leader, but who ultimately was too tragically flawed by his own boundless ambition to fulfill the promise of greatness. Like Custer, his boundless self-confidence, courage, and boundless ambition cost him his life in combat, and both died lonely and ultimately useless deaths and suffered the mutilations of their corpses as a consequence.

All of which makes me wonder just how many other officers met the same fate with their careers…..

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Here, in no particular order, are some things I would like to see happen in 2006 (some deal with the Civil War and some don’t. Warning for those of you who support the present occupant of the White House–there will be one blatantly political item that you probably won’t much appreciate; consider yourselves warned):

1. For the traitor Johnny Damon to hit .200 or lower, and for the Yankees to finish dead last. It couldn’t happen to a nicer team.

2. For the traitor Billy Wagner to have an ERA in excess of 6.00 and no saves and for the Mets to also finish dead last. Are you detecting a pattern here?

3. For us to have an entire year without the publication of a single book claiming to expose Robert E. Lee’s real plan for the Battle of Gettysburg.

4. For us to have an entire year without people feeling the need to develop bizarre and unsupportable theories about the Battle of Gettysburg in the misplaced hope of unlocking the secrets of that battle that have evaded all of the rest of us for 142+ years now.

5. For old friend Bud Hall to finally finish his long-needed and greatly anticipated book on the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station, and finally give this epic event the scholarly treatment it has needed for so long, and for Gordon Rhea to conclude the sixth and final volume of his epic study of the 1864 Overland Campaign.

6. For Donovan McNabb to return to the Eagles hale, hearty, and 100% again, ready to lead his team to the promised land.

7. For Mother Nature to spare important historical sites from the wrath of Category 5 hurricanes. We lose too much historically significant land as it is. We don’t need to lose important historical sites to hurricane and flood damage, too.

8. For our troops to return home safely from a war that was started based on a lie and for which we never had any business engaging in in the first place.

9. For publishers to listen to the wishes of consumers, and remember that a book can never have too many maps or too many illustrations.

10. That only GOOD, worthy, worthwhile Civil War books be published in 2006. I’m not holding my breath on this one.

11. That the Columbus Blue Jackets NOT suck. I’m DEFINITELY not holding my breath on this one.

12. That the construction of our new house and the resulting move be smooth and pain free. I know better than to hold my breath on this one.

13. That I get to visit lots of Civil War battlefields this year, including some places that I have never visited previously. I can think of a number of places I’ve never been but would like to tramp. A few come to mind: Wyse’s Fork in North Carolina, Mine Creek in Kansas, and Stones River in Tennessee. There are also the Custer Battlefield in Montana, Washita in Oklahoma, and Blue Water in Nebraska for some Indian wars-related sites.

14. That my regimental history of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry finally gets completed this year, after more than a decade of work.

15. That all of you who give their time and energy to indulging my rants have a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year filled with lots of great reading.

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