July, 2015

Capt. William W. Rogers, post-war

Capt. William W. Rogers, post-war

A guest post.

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)

Rogers with other officers of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry

Rogers with other officers of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry

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.

Florence Rogers, circa 1869

Florence Rogers, circa 1869

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:


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.

Dewey Rogers, circa 1898

Dewey Rogers, circa 1898

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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Part three in a series.

Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

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.

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Part two in a series

Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

In the first installment of this series, we reviewed the findings of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War with respect to the conduct of the pursuit of the defeated Army of Northern Virginia by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Specifically, the Joint Committee’s report, penned by Radical Republican Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, condemned Meade’s conduct of the pursuit. Wade claimed that the army commander’s pursuit was conducted too timidly and too slowly, thereby allowing the defeated Confederate army to escape. This article will examine how the heavy casualties among the Army of the Potomac’s command structure severely inhibited its ability to fight another decisive battle.

As an initial point, it bears noting that Meade had been in command of the Army of the Potomac for a mere five days when the Battle of Gettysburg ended. He obviously was very inexperienced as an army commander, but in spite of that inexperience, he fought a great defensive battle and did what his predecessors had been unable to do: defeat Robert E. Lee on the field of battle. But he also had never managed a large-scale pursuit of a defeated enemy, and had to do so under some really terrible conditions and circumstances.

Due to the exigencies of changing commanders on the eve of a great battle, Meade was stuck with Joseph Hooker’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield. Meade despised Butterfield, and Butterfield in turn returned the sentiment. They barely tolerated each other. Butterfield was wounded during the artillery barrage before Pickett’s Charge, leaving Meade without a chief of staff until his friend Andrew A. Humphreys became chief of staff on July 10, 1863. For that week, his de facto chief of staff was Cavalry Corps commander Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who simply did not have either the bandwidth or the talent to perform both roles at the same time. That, in turn, badly affected the efficiency of both the Army of the Potomac’s staff AND the Cavalry Corps, which had a leadership vacuum when it most needed firm and attentive leadership.

As one example, Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg’s Second Cavalry Division briefly pursued the Confederate wagon train of wounded when it left Gettysburg, including fighting a rear guard action near Caledonia Furnace. Once that wagon train of wounded reached the Mason-Dixon Line, Gregg had no orders to go further, and his division went into camp near Chambersburg, effectively out of the war for a week. Nothing further is heard from any of Gregg’s three brigades until July 15, AFTER the Army of Northern Virginia had made its way across the Potomac River to safety. Further, Pleasonton’s inattentiveness and inefficiency meant that there was no coordination whatsoever between the activities of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s First Cavalry Division and Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division other than the attempts to coordinate made on an ad hoc basis by Buford and Kilpatrick on the night of July 5, and then again on July 8 during the Battle of Boonsboro.

However, the failure of Buford and Kilpatrick to coordinate their attacks allowed at least an entire division (Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division of Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s Third Corps) to escape at Falling Waters on July 14. A coordinated attack by two full divisions of cavalry may well have bagged Heth’s entire command on the north side of the Potomac River. Instead, the disjointed and uncoordinated attacks of Buford and Kilpatrick, while they led to the mortal wounding of Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew and the capture of a good number of prisoners, did not accomplish anything close to what more coordinated and better-timed efforts would have. Pleasonton’s preoccupation with serving as chief of staff meant that numerous opportunities were lost, assets were not utilized properly, and without adequate leadership. That the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps performed as well as it did during the pursuit is a credit to Buford and Kilpatrick.

In addition, Meade lost three of his seven infantry corps commanders. Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, a fellow Pennsylvania and career Regular with whom Meade was close, was his principal subordinate, and the one upon whom Meade had relied most heavily. Reynolds, who had reportedly turned down command of the army, was a wing commander at the time he was killed, responsible for more than half of the Army of the Potomac (the I, III, and XI Corps). Reynolds was also very aggressive, and when he fell, Maj. Gen. John Newton replaced him. Newton was a capable professional soldier, but he was brand new to corps command—he had never commanded a corps before July 1, 1863—and was naturally cautious as a result. Further, the I Corps took very heavy losses on July 1, and was a shadow of its former self as a result. Meade simply could not rely upon Newton to be aggressive.

Likewise, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the II Corps, was badly wounded during the repulse of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble attack on July 3. After Reynolds fell, Meade sent Hancock to Gettysburg to take command of the field and to determine whether it was a good place for the army to stand and fight. Hancock had been magnificent throughout the entire Battle of Gettysburg, and his loss was immeasurable. Again, he was an extremely aggressive soldier who vigorously advocated a counterattack after the repulse of Pickett’s attack. When Hancock went down with his wound, Brig. Gen. William Hays took his place. Hays, recently exchanged after being captured at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863, had never commanded a division previously, let alone a corps. A West Pointer and career artillerist, Hays had no experience with commanding such a large body of men and was also very cautious as a result of his inexperience.

Finally, Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, the commander of the III Corps, while an amateur soldier, was nothing if not aggressive. Sickles had no formal military training and held his lofty position as a result of his having been an influential Democratic Congressman from New York. His aggressive movement of his entire corps forward to a plateau along the Emmitsburg Road caught the brunt of the furious Confederate attack on July 2, 1863, and Sickles had a leg taken off by a Confederate cannonball. Brig. Gen. David Birney, another officer with no formal military training, temporarily assumed command of III Corps by virtue of being its senior division commander. Then, on July 10, Maj. Gen. William H. French assumed command of III Corps when his division was incorporated into the corps. French, a West Point-trained career artillerist, was a hard-drinking professional soldier who had washed out of division command with the Army of the Potomac once before. French was not known for being aggressive—it’s entirely likely that the most aggressive move that Old Blinky, as he was known the men in the ranks for the frenzied way he fluttered his eyes when he talked, ever made was on a bottle of whiskey. During the winter of 1863-1864, the III Corps was dissolved just so that the Army of the Potomac could be rid of French.

The remaining corps commanders were Maj. Gen. George Sykes (V Corps), Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick (VI Corps), Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard (XI Corps), and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum (XII Corps), with Slocum being the most senior at eight months. Slocum, known for being exceedingly cautious and by the book, had the unflattering nickname of “Slow Come”, and had refused to come to the field and take command on July 1 after Reynolds fell. Sedgwick, in command of the VI Corps for about six months, was capable and popular with the men, but was not known for aggressiveness either. Howard had performed wretchedly at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and, while more aggressive than the others, was largely incompetent as a corps commander. And Sykes, another career Regular who carried the descriptive moniker of “Tardy George”, had only been promoted to corps command when Meade was ordered to assume command of the army on June 28. He was inexperienced in corps command and was also not known for aggressiveness.

Thus, having lost his most aggressive commanders and saddled with very inexperienced corps commander, Meade had nobody to advocate really aggressive activity. Further, he lost the two subordinates he most trusted and depended on most heavily in Reynolds and Hancock, and instead had to rely upon four inexperienced temporary corps commanders in Newton, Hays, Birney and French. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Army of the Potomac did not rashly pitch into the Army of Northern Virginia’s positions along the Potomac River.

The Army of the Potomac’s strength on June 30, 1863 was approximately 93,000 men. It suffered more than 23,000 casualties, or losses of about 25%, at Gettysburg. It also suffered heavy losses among its brigade commanders. These heavy losses, combined with the casualties sustained in the high command of the army, their replacement with officers who were far less aggressive, and the inattentiveness and inefficiency of Alfred Pleasonton, all conspired against Meade.

In the next installment, we will examine the operating orders and environment that governed most of Meade’s actions and which hindered his ability to act freely in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia.

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imrsHere is some fascinating food for thought on how the Confederacy is remembered today, and why pernicious myths about it spun by Lost Causers greatly impact the way we remember it today. I think that the analysis set forth in this article is right on the money. It appeared in the July 1, 2015 edition of The Washington Post.

Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? Because our textbooks and monuments are wrong. False history marginalizes African Americans and makes us all dumber.
By James W. Loewen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.”

History is the polemics of the victor, William F. Buckley once said. Not so in the United States, at least not regarding the Civil War. As soon as the Confederates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and began to distort what they had done and why. The resulting mythology took hold of the nation a generation later and persists — which is why a presidential candidate can suggest, as Michele Bachmann did in 2011, that slavery was somehow pro-family and why the public, per the Pew Research Center, believes that the war was fought mainly over states’ rights.

The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation they spread, which has manifested in our public monuments and our history books.

Take Kentucky, where the legislature voted not to secede. Early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm, as we imagined and hoped, but hostility.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.

Neo-Confederates also won parts of Maryland. In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) put a soldier on a pedestal at the Rockville courthouse. Maryland, which did not secede, sent 24,000 men to the Confederate armed forces, but it also sent 63,000 to the U.S. Army and Navy. Still, the UDC’s monument tells visitors to take the other side: “To our heroes of Montgomery Co. Maryland: That we through life may not forget to love the thin gray line.”

In fact, the thin gray line came through Montgomery and adjoining Frederick counties at least three times, en route to Antietam, Gettysburg and Washington. Robert E. Lee’s army expected to find recruits and help with food, clothing and information. It didn’t. Instead, Maryland residents greeted Union soldiers as liberators when they came through on the way to Antietam. Recognizing the residents of Frederick as hostile, Confederate cavalry leader Jubal Early ransomed $200,000 from them lest he burn their town, a sum equal to about $3 million today. But Frederick now boasts a Confederate memorial, and the manager of the town’s cemetery — filled with Union and Confederate dead — told me, “Very little is done on the Union side” around Memorial Day. “It’s mostly Confederate.”

Neo-Confederates didn’t just win the battle of public monuments. They managed to rename the war, calling it the War Between the States, a locution born after the conflict that was among the primary ways to refer to the war in the middle of the 20th century, after which it began to fade. Even “Jeopardy!” has used this language.

Perhaps most perniciously, neo-Confederates now claim that the South seceded over states’ rights. Yet when each state left the Union, its leaders made clear that they were seceding because they were for slavery and against states’ rights. In its “Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede From the Federal Union,” for example, the secession convention of Texas listed the states that had offended the delegates: “Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.” Governments there had exercised states’ rights by passing laws that interfered with the federal government’s attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Some no longer let slave owners “transit” across their territory with slaves. “States’ rights” were what Texas was seceding against. Texas also made clear what it was seceding for — white supremacy:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

Despite such statements, neo-Confederates erected monuments that flatly lied about the Confederate cause. For example, South Carolina’s monument at Gettysburg, dedicated in 1963, claims to explain why the state seceded: “Abiding faith in the sacredness of states rights provided their creed here.” This tells us nothing about 1863, when abiding opposition to states’ rights provided the Palmetto State’s creed. In 1963, however, its leaders did support states’ rights; politicians tried desperately that decade to keep the federal government from enforcing school desegregation and civil rights.

So thoroughly did this mythology take hold that our textbooks still stand history on its head and say secession was for, rather than against, states’ rights. Publishers mystify secession because they don’t want to offend Southern school districts and thereby lose sales. Consider this passage from “The American Journey,” probably the largest textbook ever foisted on middle school students and perhaps the best-selling U.S. history textbook:

The South Secedes

Lincoln and the Republicans had promised not to disturb slavery where it already existed. Nevertheless, many people in the South mistrusted the party, fearing that the Republican government would not protect Southern rights and liberties. On December 20, 1860, the South’s long-standing threat to leave the Union became a reality when South Carolina held a special convention and voted to secede.

The section reads as if slavery was not the reason for secession. Instead, the rationale is completely vague: White Southerners feared for their “rights and liberties.” On the next page, the authors are more precise: White Southerners claimed that since “the national government” had been derelict ” — by refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and by denying the Southern states equal rights in the territories — the states were justified in leaving the Union.”

“Journey” offers no evidence to support this claim. It cannot. No Southern state made any such charge against the federal government in any secession document I have ever seen. Abraham Lincoln’s predecessors, James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, were part of the pro-Southern wing of the Democratic Party. For 10 years, the federal government had vigorously enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. Buchanan supported pro-slavery forces in Kansas even after his own minion, territorial governor and former Mississippi slave owner Robert Walker, ruled that they had won an election only by fraud. The seven states that seceded before Lincoln took office had no quarrel with “the national government.”

Teaching or implying that the Confederate states seceded for states’ rights is not accurate history. It is white, Confederate-apologist history. “Journey,” like other U.S. textbooks, needs to be de-Confederatized. So does the history test we give to immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens. Item No. 74 asks them to “name one problem that led to the Civil War.” It then gives three acceptable answers: slavery, economic reasons and states’ rights. (No other question on this 100-item test has more than one right answer.) If by “economic reasons” it means issues with tariffs and taxes, which most people infer, then two of its three “correct answers” are wrong.

The legacy of this thinking pervades Washington, too. The dean of the Washington National Cathedral has noted that some of its stained-glass windows memorialize Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. There’s a statue of Albert Pike, Confederate general and reputed leader of the Arkansas Ku Klux Klan, in Judiciary Square.

The Army runs Fort A.P. Hill, named for a Confederate general whose men killed African American soldiers after they surrendered; Fort Bragg, named for a general who was not only Confederate but also incompetent; and Fort Benning, named for a general who, after he helped get his home state of Georgia to secede, made the following argument to the Virginia legislature:

What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction .?.?. that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery. .?.?. If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished. .?.?. By the time the North shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. .?.?. The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile Earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy.

With our monuments lying about secession, our textbooks obfuscating what the Confederacy was about and our Army honoring Southern generals, no wonder so many Americans supported the Confederacy until recently. We can see the impact of Confederate symbols and thinking on Dylann Roof, accused of killing nine in a Charleston, S.C., church, but other examples abound. In his mugshot, Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, wore a neo-Confederate T-shirt showing Abraham Lincoln and the words “Sic semper tyrannis.” When white students in Appleton, Wis. — a recovering “sundown town” that for decades had been all white on purpose — had issues with Mexican American students in 1999, they responded by wearing and waving Confederate flags, which they already had at home, at the ready.

Across the country, removing slavery from its central role in prompting the Civil War marginalizes African Americans and makes us all stupid. De-Confederatizing the United States won’t end white supremacy, but it will be a momentous step in that direction.

While they may have lost the war, it seems rather clear that the Lost Causers won its aftermath decisively. The resurrection of talk about secession, nullification, and the continued existence of neo-Confederate organizations such as the League of the South amply demonstrate the scary truth of this statement. We need to address these issues, and we need to pursue the object of removing this repulsive spinning of neo-Confederate and Lost Cause ideology from the national dialogue.

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Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade

My two most recent posts dealt with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War’s attempt to crucify George Gordon Meade for allegedly deciding to retreat from the battlefield at Gettysburg. Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles made those allegations in an attempt to deflect criticism from his disobedience to Meade’s orders at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 and also because he was angry at Meade for rebuffing his attempts to return to command of the III Corps in the fall of 1863. Sickles’ disobedience subjected his III Corps to near destruction at the hands of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s sledgehammer attack up the Emmitsburg Road. After days of testimony, Sen. Benjamin Wade, a Radical Republican from Ohio and the chairman of the Joint Committee, was forced to admit that there was insufficient evidence to condemn Meade. Despite that fact, Wade’s clear bias against Meade—whom he thought was too timid—shone through. Wade hoped to find sufficient evidence to force the removal of Meade from command of the Army of the Potomac, and must have been bitterly disappointed about not finding sufficient evidence to support his plan.

Wade, however, was not finished with George Meade. Sounding an all-too-common theme, Wade also accused the commander of the Army of the Potomac of being unduly cautious in his pursuit of the beaten Confederate army after Gettysburg, thereby allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to escape, rather than attacking it on the north side of the rain-swollen and impassable Potomac River. As we are approaching the anniversary of the events in question, it seems appropriate to examine this question and to determine whether Wade’s report came to the proper conclusion.

After hearing substantial testimony before the Joint Committee on the question of Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of the beaten Confederate army, Wade’s lengthy report found:

All the witnesses but General Meade state that it was very apparent, on the morning of the 4th of July, that the enemy were in full retreat, and Generals Pleasonton, Warren, Birney, and others state that they counseled an immediate pursuit. General Birney says that he asked and obtained permission to make an attack that morning on the enemy as they were crossing a point near him on the pike to Hagerstown; but just as he had commenced the movement to attack, a staff officer rode up with a written order from General Meade not to attack, but to let the enemy go, which was done. General Pleasonton states that when he urged General Meade to order an immediate advance of the army after the enemy, he replied that “he was not sure they might not make another attack on him, and to satisfy himself, he wanted to know first that they were in retreat, and for that reason I was to send the cavalry out to ascertain.” He states that General Gregg, 22 miles on the Chambersburg road, reported at 8 o’clock on the morning of the 4th, “that the road was strewn with wounded and stragglers, ambulances and caissons, and that there was great demoralization and confusion.” This was immediately reported to General Meade, but no pursuit was ordered.

But little was done on the 4th of July. General Warren says: “On the morning of the 4th General Meade ordered demonstrations in front of our line, but they were very feebly made. And when the officers met together that evening to report the state of things in their front, there was so little definitely known as to the position and designs of the enemy, that after some consultation they determined, I believe, to try and find out something before they did move.”

That night a council of war was held. Its deliberations and results are thus described by General Butterfield, from memoranda taken at the time: “I have here the minutes I kept of the council of the 4th of July. That council was held at the headquarters of General Neal; he gave up his headquarters to General Meade. The council was opened by General Meade explaining his instructions, and asking the corps commanders for their advice as to what course he should pursue.

“Question. Can you state what General Meade said his instructions were?

“Answer. I think he said his instructions were to cover Washington and Baltimore. He said he had no knowledge of General Foster’s movements. There was a rumor that General Foster was coming up from Washington with reinforcements. General Meade said he desired the earnest assistance and advice of every corps commander. The corps commanders commenced giving their opinions, beginning with General Slocum and followed by General Sedgwick and General Howard. Their advice, according to my memorandum, was as follows: “General Slocum would move on an interior line as far as Emmettsburg, and then, if the enemy had not gone from Gettysburg, hold on there and push out a force at once with a view of preventing the enemy from crossing the Potomac. “General Sedgwick would wait at Gettysburg until certain that the enemy were moving away.” General Howard would like to remain at Gettysburg and ascertain what the enemy were doing, but thought it would do no harm to send a corps to Emmettsburg.

“General Meade then determined to change the manner of procedure in the council, and the following questions were written by his instructions; a portion of these questions are in his handwriting and a portion in mine: “The first question was, ‘Shall this army remain here]’ (That is, at Gettysburg.) “Second. ‘If we remain here, shall we assume the offensive?’ “Third. ‘Do you deem it expedient to move towards Williamsport, through Emmettsburg]’ “Fourth. ‘Shall we pursue the enemy, if he is retreating on his direct line of retreat. “To the first question General Newton answered ‘No;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ and to the third question, ‘Yes.’ “General Slocum answered to the first question.” ‘No;’ the second question was involved in that answer; to the third question, ‘Yes;’ to the fourth question, ‘To pursue on the direct line of retreat with cavalry, moving with the infantry to cut him off.”

“General Sedgwick to the first question answered, “Would remain here (at Gettysburg) until positive information concerning their movement;” to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Yes;’ to the fourth question, “Only cavalry.”

“General Howard to the first question did not exactly say yes, and did not exactlv say no, but would commence a movement to-morrow; to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Yes;’ to he fourth question, ‘By a show of force.’

“General Sykes to the first question, as to remaining at Gettysburg, answered, ‘Until we know where the enemy is gone;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question he made no answer, his answer to the first question involving that; to the fourth question he answered, ‘He would pursue with cavalry only.’

“General Birney to the first question answered, ‘Yes, until we see;’ to the second question, ‘ No ;’ to the fourth question, ‘ He thinks not.’

“General Pleasonton to the first question answered ‘No;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Move by that route;’ to the fourth question, ‘Would pursue with infantry and cavalry.’

“General Hays answered to the first question, ‘ Yes, until we find out where the enemy are and what they are doing;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Yes, if we move;’ to the fourth question, ‘No, only with cavalry.’

“General Warren as to the first question, whether we should remain there, answered, ‘Yes, until we see what they are doing;’ to the second question, about assuming the offensive, ‘Not if the enemy remains.’

“Those are the questions to the corps commanders and their answers. The summary which I made for General Meade in the council of the answers to the first question, whether we should remain at Gettysburg, was: “Those in favor—Birney, Sedgwick, Sykes, Hays, and Warren.” Opposed—Newton, Pleasonton, and Slocum. “Doubtful–Howard.”

On the 5th of July the 6th corps commenced to follow the enemy, and on the 6th and 7th the rest of the army moved, going to Frederick rather than directly after the enemy, on account of some apprehensions of the difficulty of following the enemy through the mountain passes, which were reported to be strongly fortified. General Howe states that his division had the lead of the 6th corps, after passing Boonsboro’, but he was directed to move carefully, and not to come in contact with the enemy, as a general engagement was not desired. He states that when near Funkstown, General Buford reported to him that his cavalry held a strong position some distance to the front, which, in his opinion, the enemy should not be allowed to occupy, but that he was pretty hardly engaged there; his ammunition was nearly out, and that he was expected to go further to the right; and asked General Howe to send forward a brigade and hold the position. General Howe applied to General Sedgwick for permission to relieve General Buford, but received in reply the answer, “No; we do not want to bring on a general engagement.” General Buford considered the position of such importance that General Howe applied the second time for permission to occupy it, representing that General Buford would soon be compelled to abandon it, as his ammunition was giving out. To this application he received the reply that he might occupy the position if General Buford left it. General Buford did leave it, and General Howe occupied and held the position. General Pleasonton states that on the morning of the 12th of July the cavalry in front of General Slocum’s command drove the enemy from an important position, and could have held it, but General Slocum ordered it to halt, for fear of bringing on a general engagement, and the enemy afterwards brought a strong force there and held the point.

In reference to the movement of our army after the battle of Gettysburg, General Warren testifies: ”We commenced the pursuit with the 6th corps on the 5th of July, and on the 6th a large portion of the army moved towards Emmettsburg, and all that was left followed the next day. On July 7 the headquarters were at Frederick; on July 8 headquarters were at Middletown, and nearly all the army was concentrated in the neighborhood of that place and South Mountain. On July 9 headquarters were at South Mountain house, and the advance of the army at Boonsboro’ and Rohrersville. On July 10 the headquarters were moved to Antietam creek; the left of the line crossed the creek, and the right of the line moved up near Funkstown. On the 11th of July the engineers put a new bridge over the Antietam creek; the left of the line advanced to Fairplay and Jones’s crossroads, while the right remained nearly stationary. In my opinion we should have fought the enemy the next morning, July 12.”

No attack was ordered, but the question was submitted to a council of the corps commanders on the night of the 12th of July. General Meade says: “I represented to those generals, so far as I knew it, the situation of affairs. I told them that I had reason to believe, from all I could ascertain, that General Lee’s position was a very strong one, and that he was prepared to give battle, and defend it if attacked; that it was not in my power, from a want of knowledge of the ground, and from not having had time to make reconnoissances, to indicate any precise mode of attack, or any precise point of attack; that, nevertheless, I was in favor of moving forward and attacking the enemy, and taking the consequences; but that I left it to their judgment, and would not do it unless it met with their approval.”

Generals Howard, Pleasonton. and Wadsworth were in favor of attacking the enemy at once. General Warren, who was not then in command of a corps, says: “I do not think I ever saw the principal corps commanders so unanimous in favor of not fighting as on that occasion.” The opinion of the council being strongly against attacking the enemy at that time, the 13th of July was passed in reconnoitering the enemy’s position. But General Meade says that the day was rainy and misty, and not much information was obtained. General Meade, however, ordered an attack to be made at daylight of the 14th; but when the army moved forward it was ascertained that the whole rebel army had crossed the night of the 13th, and had escaped. General Meade says: “It is proper I should say that an examination of the enemy’s lines, and of the defences which he had made, brings me clearly to the opinion that an attack under the circumstances in which I had proposed to make it would have resulted disastrously to our arms. My opinion is now that General Lee evacuated that position, not from any want of ammunition, or the fear that he would be dislodged by any active operations on my part, but that he was fearful that a force would be sent by Harper’s Ferry to cut off his communications—which I had intended to do, having brought up a bridge from Washington, and sent the cavalry down there—and that he could not have maintained that position probably a day if his communications had been cut. That was what caused him to retire.” This opinion of General Meade is not sustained by that of any other general who has appeared before the committee. Generals Pleasonton, Warren, Birney, Doubleday, and Howe all concur in the opinion that an attack upon the enemy before he recrossed the Potomac would have been most disastrous to him, and have resulted in the dispersion if not the capture of the greater portion of his army.

The rebel army moved up the Shenandoah Valley, while our army crossed in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry and followed on this side the mountains. On the 23d of July a column of our troops under General French, entering through Manassas Gap, came in contact with the enemy, but not much injury was inflicted upon him. General Warren says that, in his opinion, had General French made the attack with his whole corps, instead of with a brigade only, a decisive blow would have been inflicted on the enemy. Preparations were made for an attack the next morning, but during the night the enemy again escaped.

The enemy continued his retreat until he reached Culpeper, and then took up a position between the Rappahannock and Rapidan.

Our forces withdrew from Manassas Gap and followed the enemy, reaching Warrenton and the Rappahannock about the 1st of August, when the pursuit ceased. General Meade says that he expressed the opinion to the government that the pursuit should still be continued, inasmuch as he believed our relative forces were more favorable to us than they would be at any subsequent time if the enemy were allowed time to recuperate; but that he was directed by the general-in-chief to take up a threatening attitude on the Rappahannock, but not to advance.

Shortly after this a division of troops were detached from General Meade’s command and sent to South Carolina; and other troops were sent to New York to enforce the draft.

No active movements of our army took place until about the middle of September, when information was received that Lee’s army had been weakened by the withdrawal of Longstreet’s corps for operations in the southwest. Our cavalry was then sent across the Rappahannock, taking the enemy completely by surprise, but the army did not follow until three days afterwards. General Meade says that upon arriving before the enemy, who had retired behind the Rapidan, he considered his position there so strong, both naturally and artificially, that he deemed it impossible to attack him in front: and that, with the withdrawal of two corps of his troops for operations in Tennessee, led to a suspension of active operations until about the middle of October.

At that time General Meade says he regarded himself as about 10,000 men stronger than General Lee, and was contemplating an advance against the enemy. But General Lee made a demonstration upon the right flank of our army, whereupon General Meade determined to fall back, which he did until he finally reached the position of Centreville and Bull Run, destroying the bridge across the Rappahannock and abandoning the railroad communications to the enemy.

As soon as our army stopped, General Lee began himself to fall back, destroying the railroad, and retiring to the line of the Rappahannock. There seems to be no doubt that the enemy might have been advantageously met at any one of several points between the Rappahannock and Bull Run; but no fighting of importance occurred, except at Bristow station, where the 2d corps, then under the command of General Warren, met the enemy and repulsed them with heavy loss.

General Warren says that he thinks General Meade supposed that the enemy intended to fight him when he made his advance, and therefore General Meade desired to select the best position for that purpose: that General Meade had no idea that Lee would go off without attacking him. General Warren also says that General Meade was very much misinformed as to what was going on; and that some of his officers failed him in spirit. By this retreat and the destruction of our lines of communication with the Rappahannock, the remainder of the fall season was lost for active operations.

Our committee could not forbear asking the witnesses before them, if the army, after all these indecisive advances and retrograde movements, still retained confidence in its commanding general. Various answers were returned to this inquiry, all, however, tending to establish the fact that much discouragement had been felt by the army at these ineffective operations, and that but for the highly intelligent character of the rank and file it could never have retained even its then effective condition. General Pleasonton states that the cavalry under his command did not retain confidence in the military ability of General Meade. General Birney states the same about his corps, stating that while General Meade was rather liked as a man, he was not regarded as a man of resolution, or one who is willing to assume that responsibility required by the position he occupies. General Howe states that, in his opinion, the rank and file of the army do not regard General Meade as possessed of that zeal, activity, and energy necessary to carry on an offensive warfare generally, but he admits that the most of the corps commanders would probably say that General Meade was eminently qualified for the command he now holds. That opinion General Howe qualifies, however, by stating that so far as he has observed, the most of the principal officers of the army of the Potomac, including its commanding general, are governed by the same sympathies, feelings, and considerations which were infused into the army by its commander during the Peninsular campaign. General Birney says that many of the principal officers believed that General McClellan was the only general who should command this army; although there is not as much of that feeling now as formerly. General Doubleday bluntly says: “There has always been a great deal of favoritism in the army of the Potomac. No man who is an anti-slavery man or an anti-McClellan man can expect decent treatment in that army as at present constituted.” General Warren states that after the battle of Gettysburg the army was deprived of many of its best corps commanders, General Reynolds having been killed, Generals Sickles and Hancock wounded, and General Meade made commander of the army; that since that time the corps commanders have not been all equal to their position, and consequently the army had been less effective in its operations.

Wade’s bias against Meade comes through loudly and clearly in his condemnation of the army commander’s conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia in the days after the Battle of Gettysburg. The question is whether those findings were supported by the actual facts. The next five articles will examine those questions in detail. In the next part of this series, I will examine that question and will discuss how the casualties in the Army of the Potomac’s command structure inhibited its ability to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia.

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Maj. Gen. George G. Meade

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade

This is the second part of a two-part series that was cross-posted on Emerging Civil War.

In part one of this two-part series, we examined the content of the Pipe Creek Circular, and we also looked at the Pipe Creek Line itself. In this, the second part, we will examine the controversy created by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s handling of the Pipe Creek Circular. Specifically, we will examine its role in the controversy that Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles stirred up to deflect attention away from his own conduct at Gettysburg. To recap briefly, Meade had the Army of the Potomac’s engineers lay out a very strong defensive position along Parr Ridge, a dominant east-west ridge that paralleled Big Pipe Creek in Maryland between Manchester and Middleburg, which is south and west of Taneytown. The reality is that this position was even more commanding than the position held by the Army of the Northern Virginia on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg the previous winter, and it was easily defending. Had the Army of the Potomac taken up a position there, it is very unlikely that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army could have driven the blueclad soldiers off of it unless they somehow managed to outflank the position.

At the same time, Meade did not make the final decision to stand at Gettysburg until his council of war on the night of July 2. Earlier that day, Sickles disobeyed a direct order and advanced his Third Corps from its intended position on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge to a prominent plateau along the Emmitsburg Road near the Joseph Sherfy peach orchard. Sickles did not like his assigned position and decided to make the move on his own initiative. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, the commander of the Second Corps, which was next in line next to Sickles’ Third Corps, watched the movement and said, “Wait a moment–you will soon see them tumbling back.” Unfortunately, Hancock was correct. Meade tried to countermand the movement, but it was too late. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps was about to launch its determined assault up the Emmitsburg Road.

As an initial note, it seems quite obvious that Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s left wing, did not receive the Pipe Creek Circular before he was killed at approximately 9:15 a.m. on July 1, 1863. Reynolds came to Gettysburg to reinforce Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry division and was killed while placing troops of the Iron Brigade in position. Unfettered by the strictures of the Pipe Creek Circular, Reynolds made the critical decision to commit the army’s left wing to the fight at Gettysburg. Reynolds was killed early in the action, but his First Corps and Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps committed to the fighting there. The Third Corps and Twelfth Corps arrived that night, meaning that all but the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Corps were on the field that night.

In the interim, Meade sent Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock to Gettysburg to ascertain whether Gettysburg was the right place for the Army of the Potomac to make its stand. Hancock further validated Reynolds’ decision and reported to Meade the Army of the Potomac held a strong defensive position. Meade then rode to the battlefield himself, arriving late in the evening. However, and as pointed out in the first post of this series, the decision to stand and fight at Gettysburg was not finalized until Meade’s council of war on the night of July 2. Up until then, the possibility of a retreat to the Pipe Creek Line remained a very real possibility.

Thanks to meddling by the Radical Republicans in Congress, that possible retreat became the subject of a series of Congressional hearings during the winter of 1863-1864. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, headed by Radical Republican Sen. Benjamin Wade of Ohio, sought to prod President Abraham Lincoln into pursuing more aggressive war policies against the Confederacy, and it sought to crucify George Meade for allowing Lee’s army to escape across the Potomac River in the wake of its defeat at Gettysburg.

The Joint Committee held a series of hearings during the winter of 1864, where Sickles accused Meade of mismanaging the Battle of Gettysburg, planning to retreat from Gettysburg prior to the Union victory there, and failing to pursue and defeat the Army of Northern Virginia north of the Potomac River. Sickles, a former Congressman and the leader of Tammany Hall, was determined to deflect criticism from his own controversial role at Gettysburg, where he intentionally disobeyed Meade’s orders and nearly caused the destruction of the Third Corps in the process.

After an exhaustive investigation reminiscent of the repeated Congressional inquiries into the death of an American ambassador at Benghazi, Libya, the Joint Committee ultimately found no evidence to support Sickles’ claims. However, Wade, determined to make the Lincoln Administration look bad, nevertheless spun the results to paint Meade in the most negative light possible.

Wade’s report indicated:

General Meade, however, decided upon making a stand at another point for the purpose of receiving the attack of the enemy, and selected a position the general line of which was Pipe Creek, the left resting in the neighborhood of Middleburg, and the right at Manchester, and even down to somewhat late in the day of the 1st of July was engaged in making arrangements for occupying that position as soon as the movements of the enemy should indicate the time for doing so. To that end, on the morning of the 1st of July, a preliminary circular was issued, directing his corps commanders to make the necessary preparations for carrying the order into effect as soon as circumstances should arise to render it necessary or advisable in the opinion of the commanding general; and it was not until information reached General Meade, in the afternoon of July 1, that the cavalry, under General Buford, had come in contact with a large force of the enemy near Gettysburg, and that General Reynolds, who had gone to his assistance with the 1st and 11th corps, had been killed, that the attention of General Meade seems to have been seriously directed to the position at Gettysburg for meeting the enemy. He sent General Hancock there to report the condition of our troops and the character of the ground. General Meade says that before he received the report of General Hancock he had decided, upon information received from officers from the scene of action, to concentrate the army at Gettysburg, and it was done that night and the next day, and the battle was there fought.

At least that much of the report finds that Meade acted prudently and appropriately. However, Wade was far from finished with the commander of the Army of the Potomac.

The report, biased as it was, relied on the testimony of three officers, including Sickles and the Army of the Potomac’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield (a close ally and friend of Meade’s predecessor, Joseph Hooker, who despised Meade and whom Meade despised in turn), who claimed that Meade had wanted to retreat from Gettysburg on July 2 and that only the onset of Longstreet’s attack prevented him from doing so. However, six officers, including Meade himself, claimed strongly that such was not the case. Meade’s own statements before the Joint Committee on this subject are particularly enlightening:

I have understood that an idea has prevailed that I intended an order should be issued on the morning of the 2d of July, requiring the withdrawal of the army, or the or the retreat of the army from Gettysburg, which order was not issued owing simply to the attack of the enemy having prevented it.

In reply to that, I have only to say that I have no recollection of ever having directed such an order to be issued, or ever having contemplated the issuing of such an order, and that it does seem to me that any intelligent mind who is made acquainted with the great exertions I made to mass my army at Gettysburg on the night of July 1, it must appear entirely incomprehensible that I should order it to retreat after collecting all my army there, before the enemy had done anything to require me to make a movement of any kind.

Meade returned on another occasion to give an additional statement, demonstrating remarkable restraint in the process (which, for a man with a well-known temper, had to have been a challenge):

I wanted to say a few words to the committee, in extension of the remarks which I made the last time I was here, in reference to a charge which I expected then would be made against me, and which I understand has since been made against me, to the effect that I intended that an order should be issued, on the morning of July 2, withdrawing the army from the position it then occupied at Gettysburg, and retreating, before the enemy had done anything to require me to withdraw.

It is proper that I should say that the fact of such a charge having been made here, or such a report given here, has reached me through outside sources, but in such a way that I can hardly disbelieve that such a statement has been made; and that it was made by an officer who occupied a very high and confidential position on my staff, the chief of staff. Major General Butterfield. Now, indulging in the utmost charity towards General Butterfield, and believing that he is sincere in what he says, I want to explain how it is possible that such an extraordinary idea could have got into his head.

I utterly deny, under the full solemnity and sanctity of my oath, and in the firm conviction that the day will come when the secrets of all men shall be made known — I utterly deny ever having intended or thought, for one instant, to withdraw that army, unless the military contingencies, which the future should develop during the course of the day, might render it a matter of necessity that the army should he withdrawn. I base this denial not only upon my own assertion and my own veracity, but I shall also show to the committee, from documentary evidence, the dispatches and orders issued by me at different periods during that day, that if I did intend any such operation I was at the same time doing things totally inconsistent with any such intention.

I shall also ask the committee to call before them certain other officers of my staff, whose positions were as near and confidential to me as that of General Butterfield, who, if I had had any such intention, or had given any such orders as he said I gave, would have been parties to it, would have known it, and have made arrangements in consequence thereof; all of whom, I am perfectly confident, will say they never heard of any such thing. I refer to General Hunt, chief of artillery, and who had artillery occupying a space of from four to five miles, drawn out on the road, and who, if I had intended to have withdrawn that army, should have been told to get his trains out of the way the very first thing, because the troops could not move until the artillery moved. I would also ask you to call upon General Ingalls, my chief quartermaster, who had charge of the trains. Also General Warren, my chief engineer, who will tell you that he was with me the whole of that day, in” constant intercourse and communication with me; and that instead of intending to withdraw my army I was talking about other matters. All these officers will corroborate what I say, that I never mentioned any such purpose to any of them.

General Butterfield remained at Taneytown on the night of the 1st July, and did not join me on the field until about 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning of the 2d, I having arrive 1 there at one o’clock. Soon after he arrived I did direct him to familiarize himself with the topography of the ground; and directed him to send out staff officers to learn all the roads. As I have already mentioned, in my previous testimony here, I had never before been at Gettysburg, and did not know how many roads ran from our position, or in what directions they ran. My orders to General Butterfield were similar to this:

“General Butterfield, neither I nor any man can tell what the results of this day’s operations may be. It is our duty to be prepared for every contingency, and I wish you to send out staff officers to learn all the roads that lead from this place; ascertain the positions of the corps; where their trains are; prepare to familiarize yourself with these details, so that in the event of any contingency you can, without any order, be ready to meet it.”

It was in anticipation of possible contingencies, and not at all that I had made up my mind to do anything of that kind.

I would furthermore call the attention of the committee to the absurdity of such an idea. If I had directed the order to be issued, why was it not issued? With General Butterfield’s capacity it would not have taken him more than ten or fifteen minutes to prepare such an order. We were furnished with what you call manifold letter-writers; so that, after the framework of an order is prepared, ten or a dozen copies may be made at once. Why was not the order issued; or if issued, why was it not executed? There was no obstacle to my withdrawing that army if I had desired. The enemy presented none. There was not a moment from the time the first gun was fired at Gettysburg, until we knew the enemy had retired, that I could not have withdrawn my army; therefore, if I had entertained such an idea, it seems to me extraordinary that I did not execute it.

That General Butterfield may have misapprehended what I said to him, that he may himself have deemed a retreat necessary, and thought we would be compelled to retreat in the course of the day, and in the excess of zeal, and desire to do more than he was called upon to do, may have drawn up an order of that kind, I do not deny; but I say he never showed me any such order, and it had not my sanction nor authority.

Reluctantly, Wade was forced to find that there was insufficient evidence to support the claims that Meade had ordered the Army of the Potomac to retreat from the battlefield at Gettysburg. However, the damage had been done. Meade’s credibility and authority as the commander of the Army of the Potomac had been badly undermined. There are plenty of lessons to be learned here, especially by modern politicians determined to use Congressional resources to pursue their own political agendas and witch hunts.

The Joint Committee, however, was not finished with George Meade. In another upcoming series, we will examine the allegations that Meade mismanaged the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia during the retreat from Gettysburg.

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