The End of the Army of Northern Virginia

Grant and LeeThe end of the war for the Army of Northern Virginia came after a series of disastrous defeats in late March and early April of 1865. The Confederate soldiers were tired, outnumbered and hungry. They had very little hope in achieving victory.

The battle of Five Forks was immediately preceded by two battles on March 31, 1865. At the Battle of White Oak Road, infantry of the Union Army’s V Corps of the Army of the Potomac pushed back the main line of Confederate defenses on the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia southwest of Petersburg.

The V Corps blocked two important roads as well as taking a better position for an attack on the Confederate line. At the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House, Sheridan’s cavalry tactically lost a battle to Pickett’s combined force but had fewer casualties and averted being dispersed or forced to retreat from the area. At nightfall, Sheridan’s troopers still held a defensive line 0.75 miles north of Dinwiddie Court House.

At Five Forks on April 1st the Confederates were  savaged by the forces of General Phil Sheridan who told his officers to bust up the Confederates. The Union forces sustained 830 casualties while the Confederates suffered 2,950 total casualties.

The Confederate officers were at a shad bake and were unable to hear the noise from the battle. An acoustic shadow in the thick woods and heavy, humid atmospheric conditions prevented them from hearing the opening stage of the battle. Pickett and Lee had not told any of the next ranking officers of their absence and that those subordinates, in particular Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee, were temporarily in charge.

Robert E. Lee ordered his forces to leave Petersburg and head west. This began the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia and ultimately defeat. The two armies fought a series of engagements large and small: Grant and Lee

The engagements were a mixture of infantry and cavalry actions. The Union forces continued to push the Confederates to the west. Whenever they approached supplies they were pushed back. Lee wanted to get to Lynchburg where he hoped to get some relief from the constant Union attacks.

But Grant’s armies began to enclose the Army of Northern Virginia from the rear, the front, the north and the south. Lee launched an attack to break through the Union force to his front, assuming the Union force consisted entirely of cavalry. When he realized that the cavalry was backed up by two corps of Union infantry, he had no choice but to surrender.


The Last Journey of Jefferson Davis

Jefferson DavisJefferson Davis, the Confederate President arrived in the new Confederate capital of Danville, Virginia on April 3rd. He immediately went about organizing his government. They stayed at the house of Major William T. Sutherlin.

Davis sent a courier to Robert E. Lee because the telegraph lines were down. The courier, Lt. John S. Wise, was the son of former Virginia Governor of Henry Alexander Wise and Sarah Sergeant. Never having met Lee, he returned to Danville on April 8th where he told Davis that from what he had seen and heard he was sure Lee had surrendered.

On April 9th Davis received a dispatch from Lee before his army’s defeat at Sayler’s Creek on April 6th. Davis responded by informing Lee that ample supplies were available for his army in Danville. However, Lee had sent a message to Davis asking that supplies be sent to Amelia Court House. The chaotic situation in Richmond prevented Davis from receiving the message.

Meanwhile, out of Lee’s reach in Danville 1.5 million rations of meat and 500,000 rations of bread awaited the near-starving Confederate army. Union soldiers intercepted the orders and sent a false order to the trainmaster in Danville to hold the train.

On Palm Sunday while Davis and his cabinet members were worshiping at the Episcopal Church Lee was surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant.It was only a day later that the government received word of the surrender.

That night the Confederate government boarded an underpowered train and departed Danville. As Davis prepared to leave the Sutherlin house Janie Sutherlin offered Davis a small bag of gold. he declined her offer. As his composure broke he told her: “No, I cannot take your money. You and your husband are young and will need your money, while I am old and don’t reckon I shall need anything very long.”

On April 15th, President Lincoln was assassinated. Now-President Andrew Johnson was under the (false) assumption that Davis and his cohorts had been directly involved in the murder of the President. Union troops, with the US War Department’s $100,000 bounty (about $1.6 million today) on Davis motivating them, moved towards Danville.

Davis and company retreated even further South. They ended up in the town of Washington in Wilkes County, Georgia. On May 4th, Davis held what would be the Confederacy’s final cabinet meeting in Washington’s State of Georgia Bank building. Davis authorized payments from the treasury to his officials and left the rest in care of Captain Micajah Clark in Washington, where “it disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”

Davis, with his family, had been traveling throughout Georgia when they finally made camp in Irwinville in central Georgia on May 9th. The next morning, they were awaken by gunshots. The First Wisconsin and Fourth Michigan cavalries had caught up to them. There are several different interpretations of what happened in those final moments of freedom for Jefferson Davis.

While attempting to flee, the Northern press wrote that he was wearing his wife’s shawl and/or petticoat in an attempt to trick his captors. He was called a coward and, later, a popular song of the era was entitled “Jeff in Petticoats.” Davis’s wife insisted, backed up by other historical accounts, that he was simply wearing a shawl because he had become quite ill over the last few days and she had given it to him to keep him warm. Either way, there was no escape. Jefferson Davis officially became a prisoner of the United States government.

He was transported to Fort Monroe in Virginia where he was held for two years as a military prisoner. Soldiers watched him 24/7 to ensure he didn’t try to escape, that he ate, and didn’t try to commit suicide. The country debated how to handle the most famous war criminal from the Civil War.  At first, President Johnson wanted to prosecute Davis as a co-conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln. However, as the trial for the true assassination conspirators wound down in late June 1865, it became clear that Jefferson Davis had no direct connection to the parties.

Within a year, Davis was transported to much better quarters and his wife was even allowed to move to Fort Monroe to be near him. According to the Virginia Foundation of Humanities, Davis respected the way he was being treated by the government. He was afforded certain privileges, like visitors, exercise, and time with his wife, that they didn’t necessarily have to give him.

On May 13, 1867, he was released into civilian custody on $100,000 bail.  The editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, abolitionist Gerrit Smith, and several other prominent Northerners paid that bail.

President Andrew Johnson’s own impeachment trial delayed any motions even further. Additionally, there were several issues that the prosecution (the US government) ran into charging Davis with treason. For one, the defendant (Davis) demanded a trial which forced the government to figure out the correct way to prove the unconstitutionality of secession. Needless to say, this was a tough task and the government asked for more time to gather their argument.

Finally in December 1868, a year and half after he was released on bail, preliminary motions were held for Davis on the charges of treason against the United States for organizing and arming the 1864 military invasions of Maryland and the District of Columbia.

The defense immediately called for a dismissal of the charges. They said that since Davis would already be punished by the Fourteenth Amendment, he could not be further prosecuted under the double jeopardy provision.  The Fourteenth Amendment had only been passed in July of that year and dealt with a lot of issues in regards to Reconstruction.

The case went to the Supreme Court, but it was never tried. For fear that the Supreme Court would rule in favor of the defense and make the US government look incompetent, President Johnson issued a pardon on Christmas Day, 1868 to all persons who participated in the “rebellion.” Jefferson Davis was no longer a wanted man.

Davis and his family traveled to Europe for a time after his release, no doubt disillusioned with the whole process of prosecution. Upon returning, he took up residence in Tennessee. He kept to himself and didn’t comment publicly about Reconstruction. Privately, according William Cooper’s biography on Davis, he thought of African-Americans as inferior to white men and resented that the South was ruled by “Yankees and Negroe.”

He moved to an estate called Beauvoir near Biloxi, Mississippi. As his quiet retirement continued, he completed a two-volume book in 1881 about his wartime experiences called The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.  In 1888, his reputation as a Confederate hero restored, he said this to an audience of supporters in Mississippi,

“… lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and make your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished—a reunited country.”

On December 6, 1889, Jefferson Davis passed away in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was buried there for four years until 1893, when he was relocated to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. His remains are still there, in the same city where his fall began.




The Fall of Richmond

The Burning of RichmondThe American Civil War ended in stages as various Confederate armies and the members of the government surrendered across the South.

By early spring 1865 the citizens of Richmond had become used to the threat of capture by the Federal army whose soldiers the Richmond newspapers described with great imagination as the vilest of humanity. Its inhabitants had grown accustomed to the sound of artillery fire from just ten miles outside the city. Their faith in Robert E. Lee was so complete that they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he would never allow Richmond to be taken.


But General Lee knew that there would come a time that his army would have to leave the Confederate capital or be crushed by the superior Union armies. His army had put on a heroic defense but in the process they had been worn to the nub.

The catastrophic Confederate defeat at Five Forks on April 1st convinced Lee that it was time for his troops to leave Petersburg and Richmond, moving west. He hoped to join up with the army of General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina to continue the fight. At this point Lee had between 43,000 and 46,000 men.

As soon as the civilian populations of the cities discovered the imminent departure of their protectors panic ensued. Frank Lawley, the correspondent for London newspaper, The Times, observed:

“The scene that followed baffles description. During the long afternoon and throughout the feverish night, on horseback, in every description of cart, carriage, and vehicle, in every hurried train that left the city, on canal barges, skiffs, and boats, the exodus of officials and prominent citizens was unintermitted.”

President Davis’ train was set to depart on April 2 at 8:30 Sunday night. He kept hoping that somehow Lee would send news of a reversal of fortunes and that the government would not have to abandon the city. Finally, at 11 o’clock, he boarded the train and began the sad trip to Danville.

Richmond’s officials ordered all of the liquor to be destroyed. In the need for haste, however, those men charged with going through the stocks of every saloon and warehouse found the most expedient way was to smash the bottles and pour the kegs into the gutters and down the street drains. The stench attracted crowds. They gulped the whisky from the curbstones, picked it up in their hats and boots, and guzzled it before stooping for more. So the action taken to prevent a Union army rampage started a rampage by the city’s own people.

Meanwhile back in the city Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, Richmond’s military commander, was under orders to destroy the city’s tobacco, cotton, and foodstuffs before the Yankees got to them. To destroy the tobacco, Ewell had it moved to buildings that he believed could burn without setting the rest of the city on fire and asked the fire department to stand by to keep the fire from spreading.

In a city that had been suffering from scarcity, where high officials held “Starvation Balls,” no one believed there could be much food left to destroy. But they were wrong. The crowd, seeing the commissaries filled with smoked meats, flour, sugar, and coffee, became ugly. LaSalle Pickett wrote

“The most revolting revelation was the amount of provisions, shoes and clothing which had been accumulated by the speculators who hovered like vultures over the scene of death and desolation. Taking advantage of their possession of money and lack of both patriotism and humanity, they had, by an early corner in the market and by successful blockade running, brought up all the available supplies with an eye to future gain, while our soldiers and women and children were absolutely in rags, barefoot and starving.”

Enraged, they snatched the food and clothing and turned to the nearby shops to loot whatever else they found. They were impossible to stop. Ewell tried, but he had only convalescent soldiers and a few army staff officers under his command at this point. Not nearly enough men to bring order back to the streets. The fires, though, grew out of control, burning the center of the city and driving the looters away.

Embers from the street fires of official papers and from the paper torches used by vandals drifted. The wind picked up. Another building caught fire. The business district caught fire. Worse, as Admiral Raphael Semmes wrote,

“The Tredegar Iron Works were on fire, and continual explosions of loaded shell stored there were taking place….The population was in a great state of alarm.”

Frank Lawley reported that as he walked toward the railroad station he saw a column of dense black smoke. Semmes had set his ironclads on fire to keep them out of Union hands. Moments later, the warships’ arsenals exploded blowing the windows out for two miles around, overturning tombstones, and tearing doors from their hinges.

The Union cavalry entered town. By 7:15 Monday morning, April 3, two guidons of the Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry flew over the capitol building. Not long after, two officers of the 13th New York Artillery took down the little triangular flags and ran up the great United States flag. Union General Godfrey Weitzel sent a telegram to General Grant: “We took Richmond at 8:15 this morning. I captured many guns. The enemy left in great haste. The city is on fire in two places. Am making every effort to put it out. The people received us with enthusiastic expressions of joy.”

Weitzel ordered his troops to put out the fire. The city’s two fire engines worked, bucket brigades were formed. Threatened buildings were pulled down to create firebreaks. Five hours later the wind finally shifted, and they began to bring it under control. All or part of at least 54 blocks were destroyed, according to Furgurson. Weitzel wrote “The rebel capitol, fired by men placed in it to defend it, was saved from total destruction by soldiers of the United States, who had taken possession.” And the city rested.





The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina

The Citadel in CharlestonThe Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina is also known as The Military College of South Carolina, commonly is a state-supported, comprehensive college. It was founded in 1842 as one of the six Senior Military Colleges in the United States.

Currently, The Citadel has 17 academic departments divided into five schools offering 19 majors and 35 minors. The core program consists of military cadets pursuing bachelor’s degrees who are required to live on campus for all four years.

In 1829 South Carolina constructed an arsenal on what is now Marion Square in downtown Charleston to house arms and ammunition. The State entered into an agreement with the War Department in 1830 for Federal troops from nearby Fort Moultrie to guard this new arsenal, state militia replaced them in 1832.

Over the next 10 years arsenals throughout the state were consolidated in Charleston and Columbia, Governor John Richardson eventually proposed converting both into military academies and on December 20, 1842 the South Carolina Legislature passed “an Act to convert the Arsenal at Columbia and the citadel and magazine in and near Charleston, into Military Schools” thereby transforming the two state arsenals into the South Carolina Military Academy. The act specified:

That the students when admitted, shall be formed into a military corps, and shall constitute the public guard of the Arsenal at Columbia, and of the Citadel and Magazine in and near Charleston … to guard effectually, the public arms and other property at the places aforsaid …

The first 20 cadets reported to the Citadel Academy at Marion Square in downtown Charleston on March 20, 1843, a date now celebrated as “Corps Day”. Initially both schools operated as separate institutions governed by a common Board of Visitors, in 1845 the Arsenal Academy in Columbia became an auxiliary to the Citadel Academy in Charleston; first year students attended the Arsenal then transferred to the Citadel Academy to complete their education. Both schools continued to operate during the Civil War but the Arsenal in Columbia was burned by Union forces and never reopened.

On January 9, 1861, a battery on Morris Island manned by Citadel Academy cadets fired on the U.S. steamer Star of the West, preventing it from reaching Fort Sumter with troops and supplies and thus firing what is considered to be the first shots of the American Civil War. Citadel cadets also manned several guns at “the battery” on Charleston harbor during the firing on Fort Sumter of April 12–13, 1861. The first shot of the bombardment is believed by many historians to have been fired by Second Lieutenant Henry S. Farley, Class of 1860.

On January 28, 1861 the Corps of Cadets of The SC Military Academy was made part of the military organization of the state and named the Battalion of State Cadets. The Academy continued to operate as a military academy, but classes were often disrupted when the governor called the cadets into military service.

Mounting and manning heavy guns, performing guard duty, providing security and escorting prisoners were among the services performed by the cadets. The Battalion of State Cadets participated in eight engagements during the Civil War. As a result of these actions, the state of South Carolina authorized the flag of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets to carry the following Confederate battle streamers:

  1. Confederate States Army
  2. Star of the West, January 9, 1861
  3. Wappoo Cut, November 1861
  4. James Island, June 1862
  5. Charleston and Vicinity, July–October 1863
  6. James Island, June 1864
  7. Tulifinny, December 1864
  8. James Island, December 1864–February 1865
  9. Williamston, May 1865

In early December, 1864 Governor Bonham ordered the Battalion of State Cadets to Tulifinny Creek near Yemassee, South Carolina to join a small Confederate force defending the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. On December 7 and 9 the entire Corps of Cadets fought a much larger Union force (including a contingent of U.S. Marines) in the Battle of Tulifinny, successfully defending the rail line and forcing the Union troops to withdraw.

This battle is the only occasion when the entire student body of a U.S. college fought in combat. The Citadel is one of only 7 colleges to have received a battle streamer for wartime service. During the conflict 43 graduates and 200 former cadets were Killed in Action.

On February 18, 1865, the school ceased operation as a college when Union troops entered Charleston and occupied the site. Following the war, the Board of Visitors eventually regained possession of The Citadel campus and with the urging of Governor Johnson Hagood, Class of 1847 the South Carolina Legislature passed an act to reopen the college. The 1882 session began with an enrollment of 185 cadets.


Generals from VMI

Civil_War_GeneralsAt least 20 VMI graduates served as generals during the Civil War. Some were obscure while others were well-known. Of course, Stonewall Jackson was a lieutenant-general and corps commander but he was not a VMI graduate. He had served as a professor for almost a decade.

Jackson surrounded himself with VMI graduates, many whom had been his students. He knew them and their abilities, therefore he felt comfortable having them as subordinates.

Here is a brief biographical look at some of the generals.

  • Raleigh E. Colston, Class of 1846. Born in Paris, he was sent to Virginia under the care of his uncle. He entered VMI in 1843 and graduated in 1846. He was a Professor of French at VMI from 1846 until the outbreak of war. In November 1859, he accompanied a contingent of VMI cadets assigned to guard duty at the execution of abolitionist John Brown. He was commissioned Colonel of the 16th Virginia Infantry Regiment. In December 1862 he was appointed Brigadier General and led a brigade under Longstreet on the Peninsula. He commanded a brigade under Stonewall Jackson in April 1863 and he commanded a division at Chancellorsville. He later served under P.G.T. Beauregard in defense of Petersburg in 1864. At the end of the war he was in command at Lynchburg.
  • Samuel Garland, Class of 1849. Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, Garland entered VMI in 1846 and graduated at 19 in 1849.  He studied law at University of Virginia; practiced in Lynchburg, VA. Following John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859, Garland organized the Lynchburg Home Guard. Commissioned Colonel, 11th Virginia Infantry Regiment at the start of the war. He led his regiment at 1st Manassas. He was wounded at Williamsburg but did not leave field. He was promoted to Brigadier General in May 1862 and commanded a brigade at Seven Pines, Gaines’s Mill, and Malvern Hill. He was mortally wounded on Sept 14, 1862, at South Mountain during the Maryland campaign, he was buried in Lynchburg.
  • Robert E. Rodes, Class of 1848. Rodes was also born in Lynchburg. He graduated from VMI in 1848 and was appointed Assistant Professor (Physical Science, Chemistry, Tactics) at VMI, 1848-1850. In 1850 Rodes began a Civil Engineering career, working on various railroad projects in Alabama and elsewhere in the south. In 1860 he was elected Professor of Applied Mechanics at VMI, but never served in this capacity because of the outbreak of war. In May 1861 he was commissioned Col. 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment. In Oct 1861 he was appointed Brigadier General, commanding a brigade at Fair Oaks, Gaines’s Mill, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville. He was promoted to Major General May 1863. He led a division at Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. He then went to the Shenandoah Valley in June 1864, where he served under Jubal Early and fought at Kernstown and elsewhere. Rodes was killed at Winchester, VA, on 19 September 1864 and was buried in Presbyterian Cemetery, Lynchburg.
  • William Mahone, Class of 1847. Mahone was born 1826 December 1, 1826 on a farm near Monroe, Southampton Co., Virginia. He enrolled at VMI on July 20, 1844 at age of 17½; was graduated on July 5, 1847, standing 8th out of 12 graduates. He taught at the Rappahonnock Academy, Caroline Co., Virginia, 1848-1849. From 1851-1861 he was a civil engineer; Chief Engineer and subsequently President, Chief Engineer and General Superintendent of the Norfolk and Petersburg railroad. At the start of the war Mahone was a Lt. Col. and Colonel of the 6th Virginia Infantry Regiment. He was promoted to Brigadier General November 1861. During the Peninsular Campaign he led a brigade at Seven Pines and Malvern Hill. He also fought at 2nd Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. He was promoted to Major General on July 30, 1864 for his performance at the Battle of the Crater (near Petersburg, VA). He returned to engineering and continued to be instrumental in developing railway system in Virginia; unsuccessful bid for governor in 1877. He was a United States Senator, 1881-1887. Mahone died October 8, 1895 and was buried in Blandford Cemetery, near Petersburg, VA.
  • Thomas T. Munford, Class of 1852. Munford was born March 29, 1831 at Richmond. He enrolled at VMI on July 30, 1849 and was graduated in July 1852, standing 14th in a class of 24. He was commissioned Lt. Col. of the 13th Virginia Mounted Infantry; Col., 2nd Virginia Cavalry. He served in the  in the Shenandoah Valley under Stonewall Jackson, succeeded Turner Ashby, fought at Cross Keys, Harrisonburg, White Oak Swamp, 2nd Manassas, Antietam; appointed Brigadier General November 1864; took command of Fitzhugh Lee’s division and fought at Five Forks, High Bridge, Sayler’s Creek, and Appomattox. After the war he was an Iron manufacturer and farmer. He was President, VMI Board of Visitors, 1884-1888. Munford died February 27, 1918 at the home of his son in Uniontown, Alabama and was buried in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The Virginia Military Institute

VMI_1863_register_wood_engraving“The institute will be heard from today”…Stonewall Jackson to his officers before the march to the Right Flank Attack at Chancellorsville, shortly before 5 p.m. on May 2, 1863. Ready for battle, he was surrounded by former students and colleagues from his years at the Virginia Military Institute; they were now his officers and comrades-in-arms. Overcome by emotion, Jackson said,   “the Institute will be heard from today.” This quotation is today inscribed on the base of the Jackson Statue located on the grounds of VMI. 

Of all the individuals most associated with VMI Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is the most significant. The former professor of the Department of Natural Philosophy (in modern terms, roughly equivalent to Physics; it included astronomy, mechanics, acoustics, optics, and other sciences) and also instructed and drilled the cadets in artillery tactics. He taught at VMI from August 1851 until the outbreak of Civil War in April 1861.

Jackson, himself, had graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Because of his inadequate early schooling, he had difficulty with the entrance examinations and began his studies at the bottom of his class. Displaying a dogged determination that was to characterize his life, he became one of the hardest working cadets in the academy, and moved steadily up the academic rankings. Jackson graduated 17th out of 59 students in the Class of 1846. It was said by his peers that if he had stayed there another year, he would have graduated first.

The Virginia Military Institute was founded on November 11, 1839. It is a state-supported military college in Lexington, Virginia, the oldest such institution in the United States.

In the 1830s Lexington attorney John Thomas Lewis Preston belonged to a debate club known as the Franklin Society. In 1836 he made the case to the society that the arsenal in Lexington could be put to better use as a normal school for providing education on practical subjects, as well as military training to individuals who could be expected to serve as officers in the militia if needed.

After debate and revision of the original proposal, the Franklin Society voted in favor of Preston’s concept. After a public relations campaign that included Preston meeting in person with influential business, military and political figures, letters to editors of prominent news sources from Preston writing under a pen name, and many other open letters from prominent supporters, in 1836 the legislature passed a bill authorizing creation of a school at the Lexington arsenal, and the Governor signed the measure into law.

The first president of the Institute was Claudius Crozet, a prominent officer and engineer formerly under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte. Crozet was also the Chief Engineer of Virginia and someone whom Thomas Jefferson referred to as, “the smartest mathematician in the United States.” The board delegated to Preston the task of deciding what to call the new school, and he created the name Virginia Military Institute.

Preston was also tasked with hiring VMI’s first Superintendent. He was persuaded that West Point graduate and Army officer Francis Henney Smith, then on the faculty at Hampden-Sydney College, was the most suitable candidate. Preston successfully recruited Smith, and convinced him to become the first Superintendent and Professor of Tactics. Completely unique and new to the United States, Preston, Crozet, and Smith founded VMI on the idea of a hybrid of the best characteristics of the US Military Academy and Ecole Polytechnique models.

After Smith agreed to accept the Superintendent’s position, Preston applied to join the faculty, and was hired as Professor of Languages. Classes began in 1839, and the first cadet to march a sentinel post was Private John Strange. With few exceptions, there have been sentinels posted at VMI every hour of every day of the school year.

The Class of 1842 graduated 16 cadets. Living conditions were poor until 1850 when the cornerstone of the new barracks was laid. In 1851 Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson became a member of the faculty and professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. Under Jackson, then a major, and Major William Gilham, VMI infantry and artillery units were present at the execution by hanging of John Brown at Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1859.

During the Civil War VMI cadets were called to active-duty on no less than 14 separate occasions. On most occasions they were used to train incoming recruits at Camp Lee in Richmond.

VMI alumni were regarded among the best officers of the South and several distinguished themselves in the Union forces as well. Fifteen graduates rose to the rank of general in the Confederate Army, and one rose to this rank in the Union Army.

Just before his famous flank attack at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson looked at his division and brigade commanders, noted the high number of VMI graduates and said, “The Institute will be heard from today.” Three of Jackson’s four division commanders at Chancellorsville, Generals James Lane, Robert Rodes, and Raleigh Colston, were VMI graduates as were more than twenty of his brigadiers and colonels.


On one occasions they took a significant part in a battle. In May 1864 the cadet battalion of 257 marched from Lexington to New Market. On May 15th they were called upon to fight in the battle. VMI suffered fifty-five casualties with ten cadets killed. The cadets were led into battle by the Commandant of Cadets and future VMI Superintendent Colonel Scott Shipp.


The following month Union General David Hunter shelled and burned the institute as part of the Valley Campaigns of 1864. The school was forced to hold classes at the Alms House in Richmond, Virginia. When the city was evacuated classes were suspended and the VMI Corp of Cadets was disbanded. The Lexington campus reopened for classes on 17 October 1865.



Border State Cadets at West Point

Henry du PontThe cadets that had the most difficult decisions to make were those who came from the Border States. Their states took a great deal of time to make up their minds on the question of secession.

One of the most well-known Border Staters was Henry du Pont of Delaware. Today, we might not think of Delaware as a Border State but in 1860 it was a slave state. The number of slaves in the state had been 8,887 in 1790 but by 1860 it had diminished to 1,798.

DuPont was a scion of the E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, a company founded by his grandfather, Eleuthère Irénée du Pont. Henry initially attended the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He then attended West Point and graduated first in his class in 1861.

Shortly before his graduation, du Pont received a letter from his uncle Samuel who was a naval officer. Cadets from the class of May 1861 had petitioned the government to allow them to graduate early. In the letter Samuel du Pont wrote: “…your country which has educated you is in danger…don’t let a du Pont be wanting in this hour of trial.”

He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant of Engineers upon his graduation on May 6, 1861. Soon after he was promoted to First Lieutenant in the 5th Regiment, U.S. Artillery on May 14, 1861. During the war he was an officer in the light artillery rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Henry du Pont was initially assigned to the defenses of Washington and New York Harbor. From July 6, 1861 to March 24, 1864, he served as regimental adjutant (administrative officer) until he was promoted to captain. He subsequently became chief of artillery in the Army of West Virginia. At the Battle of New Market du Pont successfully covered the retreat of the Union forces by skillful use of his artillery batteries.

Du Pont was part of General Philip Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia. He received the Medal of Honor for his handling of a retreat at the Battle of Cedar Creek, allowing Sheridan to win a victory in the battle.

During the war, du Pont received two brevets (honorary promotions). The first was to the rank of major, dated September 19, 1864, for gallant service in the battles of Opequon and Fisher’s Hill. The second brevet was to the rank of lieutenant colonel, dated October 19, 1864, for distinguished service at the Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia.

There were a number of Border State cadets who ultimately fought for the Confederacy. Charles Carroll Campbell of Missouri graduated with his class in May 1861, was commissioned  as a lieutenant of the First U.S. Cavalry but was dismissed on June 6, 1861 when he tendered his resignation.

He was second in command of the First Missouri Infantry at Shiloh. He later was in command of the Confederate arsenal at Atlanta and finally he was chief of ordnance on the staff of General Joseph Wheeler. In a turnabout Campbell served in the U. S. Corps of Engineers.

Olin E. Rice of Kentucky graduated with his class in May 1861, was commissioned  as a lieutenant of the Ninth U.S. Infantry but was dismissed on June 6, 1861 when he tendered his resignation. He was a captain of the First Missouri Infantry at Shiloh. He then served on the staff of General Simon Bolivar Buckner and was a colonel by the end of the war.

Mathias Winston Henry of Kentucky graduated with his class in May 1861, was commissioned  as a lieutenant of the Union’s Mounted Rifles but was resigned on August 19, 1861 and joined the Confederate Army. He became chief of artillery for Hood’s Division.

William Watkins Dunlap of Kentucky was dismissed from the Union Army when he refused to take the oath of allegiance. He eventually became a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army.

James Parker Porter of Kentucky was Custer’s roommate and contested the last in the class with him. He later became lieutenant colonel of the First Mississippi Artillery.

George Owen Watts of Kentucky graduated with his class in May 1861, was commissioned  as a lieutenant of the Union’s Mounted Rifles but was resigned on August 10, 1861 and joined the Confederate Army. As an engineer officer on the staff of General Simon Bolivar Buckner, he built the works at Fort Donelson, Fort Pillow and Nashville.

As you can see the vast majority of Border State cadets sided with the Confederacy.


West Point Cadets who fought for the Union: Custer, Upton

George Armstrong CusterJohn Pelham and Tom Rosser had many Northern friends among their West Point classmates. Two of them were George Custer and Emory Upton. One was a famous cavalry leader,  the other was a tactical genius who revolutionized infantry warfare.

George Armstrong Custer was born in 1839 and raised in Michigan and Ohio. He was admitted to West Point in 1858, where he graduated last in his class. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Custer was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Union Army.

Custer developed a strong reputation during the Civil War. He fought in the first major engagement, the First Battle of Bull Run. Initially, he served as a staff officer but he soon became a line officer. Three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, General Alfred Pleasonton promoted Custer from captain to brigadier general of volunteers. Despite having no direct command experience, he became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23.

Custer established a reputation as an aggressive cavalry brigade commander willing to take personal risks by leading his Michigan Brigade into battle, such as the mounted charges at Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg.

At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the back of the Confederate assault. Custer’s brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade. “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry”, Custer wrote in his report

Custer was eventually promoted to the temporary rank (brevet) of major general and promoted major general of Volunteers. (At war’s end, he reverted to his permanent rank of captain.) At the conclusion of the Appomattox Campaign, in which he and his troops played a decisive role, Custer was present at General Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

Of course, we all know about Custer’s Last Stand. He led his regiment into the valley of the Little Bighorn River. Cuter divided his regiment into three battalions: one led by himself, one led by Major Marcus Reno, and one by Captain Frederick Benteen. Captain Thomas M. McDougall and Company B were with the pack train.

Benteen was sent south and west, to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians, Reno was sent north to charge the southern end of the encampment, and Custer rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs, and planning to circle around and attack from the north.

Unfortunately for the cavalry they were heavily outnumbered and forced to retreat with heavy casualties. In the opening action of the attack Reno lost a quarter of his command. Initially, Custer had 208 officers and men under his command, with an additional 142 under Reno, just over 100 under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall’s rearguard, and 84 soldiers under 1st Lieutenant Edward Gustave Mathey with the pack train. The Lakota-Cheyenne coalition may have fielded over 1800 warriors.

Eventually, Custer’s remaining troopers were surrounded and killed. All of the men under his immediate command were killed. Their bodies were stripped and desecrated. Eventually, Custer’s body was returned to West Point for final interment.

The other Northerner who distinguished himself was Emory Upton. He was born on a farm near Batavia, New York. Upton entered West Point in 1856. Upton soon became a dedicated abolitionist who fought a dual with fellow Cadet Wade Hampton Gibbes of South Carolina over some offensive remarks about Upton’s alleged relationships with African-American girls at Oberlin College.

Upton was commissioned a second lieutenant of artillery at the start of the war. In the First Battle of Bull Run, July Emory Upton21, 1861, he was wounded in the arm and left side during the action at Blackburn’s Ford, although he did not leave the field.

He commanded his battery in the VI Corps Artillery Reserve through the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles. In the Maryland Campaign, including the battles at Crampton’s Gap at South Mountain and the Battle of Antietam, he commanded the artillery brigade for the 1st Division, VI Corps.

Upton was appointed colonel of the 121st New York on October 23, 1862. He led the regiment at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December and commanded the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, of the VI Corps, starting at the Battle of Gettysburg. In the Bristoe Campaign, Upton was cited for gallant service at Rappahannock Station in November 1863 and was given a brevet promotion to major in the regular army.

Emory Upton greatest contribution to Union tactical warfare took place at the Mule Shoe Salient during the Battle of Spotsylvania. Upton devised a tactic wherein columns of massed infantry would swiftly assault a small part of the enemy line, without pausing to trade fire, and in doing so attempt to overwhelm the defenders and achieve a breakthrough.

The standard infantry assault employed a wide battle line advancing more slowly, firing at the enemy as it moved forward. On May 10, 1864, Upton led twelve regiments in such an assault against the salient. His tactics worked and his command penetrated to the center of the Mule Shoe, but they were left unsupported and forced to withdraw in the face of enemy artillery and mounting reinforcements. Upton was wounded in the attack, but was promoted to brigadier general on May 12.

The VI Corps, of which Upton’s brigade was part, was detached from the Army of the Potomac and sent to deal with Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s threat to Washington and in the subsequent Valley Campaigns of 1864. At the Third Battle of Winchester, he assumed command of the 1st Division, VI Corps, when its commander fell mortally wounded. Upton himself was severely wounded in the thigh soon after, but refused to be removed from the field until the battle was over. He was carried on a stretcher for the duration of the battle, directing his troops.

After returning from medical leave, Upton finished the war as a cavalry commander, completing his mastery of all three combat arms. Under the command of Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, he led the 4th Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi.The division saw action during Wilson’s Raid and the Battle of Selma.

On April 16, 1865, the division made a night assault upon the Confederate works in the Battle of Columbus, Georgia, capturing a large amount of arms, ammunition, stores, and 1,500 prisoners, and burning the “cottonclad” ramming ship, CSS Muscogee. This occurred a week after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia, and was the last large-scale engagement during the war.

A few weeks later, in May 1865, Upton was ordered to arrest Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, and a little later Jefferson Davis was placed in his custody. He was given a brevet promotion to brigadier general in the regular army for his actions at Selma and major general in the regular army, both on March 13, 1865.

After the conclusion of the war Upton to West Point where he eventually became the commandant of cadets at the United States Military Academy. He also taught infantry, artillery, and cavalry tactics.

In 1881, Upton, having returned to the rank of colonel in 1880, was in command of 4th U.S. Artillery at the Presidio of San Francisco. He suffered greatly from headaches, possibly caused by a brain tumor, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. He is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, New York

Emory Upton is considered one of the most influential young reformers of the United States Army in the 19th century, arguably in U.S. history. He has been called the U.S. Army’s counterpart to United States Navy reformer and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. Although his books on tactics and on Asian and European armies were considered influential, his greatest impact was a work he called The Military Policy of the United States from 1775. He worked for years on the paper, but it was incomplete at the time of his death in 1881.



1861 Confederate West Point Graduates: John Pelham and Thomas Rosser

John PelhamThe several classes of 1861 at West Point had some significant members who served on both sides. Several went on to become generals in the Union and Confederate armies.

Perhaps the most beloved officer was John Pelham of Alabama. Pelham entered West Point in 1856 at the age of eighteen. At that time the term at the military academy was five years. He resigned from the academy just a few weeks before graduation in early 1861 when his state seceded from the Union.

He accepted a commission in the militia of his home state of Alabama. He soon went to Virginia, where he joined the army of Joseph E. Johnston as a lieutenant in the artillery. Pelham’s well-drilled and disciplined battery caught the eye of J.E.B. Stuart, who provided horses for the men and transformed the battery into “horse artillery”, more mobile than conventional artillery.

He served under Stuart in every major military engagement of Stuart’s cavalry from the First Battle of Bull Run to Kelly’s Ford, more than 60 encounters. He particularly distinguished himself as the Chief of Stuart’s Artillery in the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Battle of Fredericksburg.

At Kelly’s Ford on March 17, 1863, Pelham participated in a cavalry charge, his artillery not being engaged. Standing up in his stirrups, he urged his men to “Press forward, press forward to glory and victory!” He was struck in the head by a fragment of an exploding Federal artillery shell. He was carried six miles from the battlefield to Culpeper Courthouse, and died the following morning without having regained consciousness.

Maj. Harry Gene Beck III, a fellow officer and tentmate of Pelham’s, wrote: “He is the bravest human being I ever saw in my life.” After his death Stuart said in part:

The memory of “the gallant Pelham,” his many manly virtues, his noble nature and purity of character, are enshrined as a sacred legacy in the hearts of all who knew him. His record has been bright and spotless, his career brilliant and successful.

Pelham’s roommate at West Point was Thomas Rosser. Rosser also roomed with George Armstrong Custer. Born in Thomas Lafayette RosserCampbell County, Virginia and was appointed from Texas. He too entered the academy in 1856 and resigned before graduation in April 1861. He was commissioned a first lieutenant and became an instructor to the famed “Washington Artillery” of New Orleans.

He commanded its Second Company at the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861. He was noted for shooting down one of George B. McClellan’s observation balloons, a feat that won him promotion to captain. He commanded his battery during the Seven Days Battles, and was severely wounded at Mechanicsville. Rosser was promoted to lieutenant colonel of artillery, and a few days later to colonel of the 5th Virginia Cavalry.

He commanded the advance of J.E.B. Stuart’s expedition to Catlett’s Station, and was notable in the Second Battle of Bull Run, where captured Union commander John Pope’s orderly and horses. During the fighting at Crampton’s Gap at the Battle of South Mountain, his cavalry delayed the advance of William B. Franklin’s VI Corps with help from John Pelham’s artillery. At Antietam, his men screened Robert E. Lee’s left flank. He temporarily assumed command of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade during the subsequent fighting against Alfred Pleasonton.

He was again badly wounded at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, where “the gallant” Pelham was killed. Rosser was disabled until the Gettysburg Campaign, where he commanded his regiment in the fighting at Hanover and the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg.

He was promoted to brigadier general of the “Laurel Brigade.” During one of his October – November West Virginia raids near Chancellorsville, Virginia, in November, Rosser seized a Federal wagon train containing much of the ammunition reserve of the I Corps and V Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

He was distinguished again in the 1864 Overland Campaign, driving back a large force of Union cavalry and artillery at the Battle of the Wilderness. Rosser was yet again wounded at Trevilian Station, where his brigade captured a number of prisoners from former West Point classmate and close personal friend George Armstrong Custer. The Federal rout at Trevilian Station became known to the Confederate forces as the “Buckland Races.”

His brigade later gallantly fought against Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, and he efficiently commanded Fitzhugh Lee’s division at Cedar Creek. A rare defeat where Custer overran Rosser’s troops at the Battle of Tom’s Brook allowed Custer to repay Rosser for Trevilian Station.

For no tactical reason, Custer chased Rosser’s troops for over 10 miles and the action became known as the “Woodstock Races” in Union accounts. Custer had also captured Rosser’s private wardrobe wagon at Tom’s Brook.

Rosser became known in the Southern press as the “Saviour of the Valley,” and was promoted to major general in November 1864. He conducted a number of successful raids in West Virginia in late 1864 and early 1865.

Rosser commanded a cavalry division during the Siege of Petersburg in the spring, fighting near Five Forks. It was here that Rosser hosted the “infamous” shad bake (fish feast) 2 miles north of the battle lines preceding and during the primary Federal assault. Guests at this small affair included George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee.

Shelby Foote states that “Pickett only made it back to his division after over half his troops had been shot or captured..”. It is said that Lee never forgave Pickett for his absence from his post when the Federals broke the Confederate lines and carried the day at Five Forks.

Rosser was conspicuous during the Appomattox Campaign, capturing a Union general and rescuing a wagon train near Farmville. He led a daring early morning charge at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, and escaped with his command as Lee surrendered the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Under orders from the secretary of war, he began reorganizing the scattered remnants of Lee’s army in a vain attempt to join Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina. However, he surrendered at Staunton, Virginia, on May 4 and was paroled shortly afterwards.


The Irish in the Civil War

The Irish Brigade at FredericksburgBetween 180,000 and 200,000 native-born Irishmen joined the Union Army. They joined for a variety of reasons. Some needed the job and the money that came with it. Others thought it was an opportunity to prove that they were no longer foreigners. Others joined because they were bored and needed some excitement in their lives.

Many of the Irish joined regiments that were composed of Irishmen. The Irish Brigade and Corcoran’s Brigade (also known as the Irish Legion were just two of the all-Irish units.

The Irish Brigade consisted of five infantry regiment. At first the unit included the 63rd New York Infantry, the 69th New York Infantry, and the 88th New York Infantry. The three New York regiments were soon joined by a predominately “Yankee” regiment from Massachusetts, the 29th Massachusetts.

The 29th was never fond of being brigaded with three Irish “Fenian” regiments from New York and soon after the Battle of Antietam the 29th was replaced by the 28th Massachusetts Infantry regiment, made up mostly of Irish Immigrants. Soon after that, the City of Philadelphia offered a regiment to the brigade and soon after the 116th Pennsylvania was added to the brigade, bringing the total number of regiments in the Irish Brigade to five.

At the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), the regiment served under the command of Colonel William T. Sherman, and was one of the few Union regiments to retain cohesion after the defeat, despite the wounding and capture of Col. Michael Corcoran by Confederate forces. The 69th served as the Army of the Potomac’s rear guard during the disorganized retreat to the defenses of Washington.

The brigade was to see action on the Peninsula, three of the Seven Days Battles, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Petersburg and Appomattox Court House. Their commander up until Chancellorsville was Brig. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher when he resigned in protest.

While continuing to serve with distinction, casualties continued to increase and by June 1864 the Irish Brigade had been reduced to regimental size, and its commander Richard Byrne killed. The US Army disbanded it and incorporated the remaining elements of the brigade into the 3rd and 4th Brigades of the 1st Division, II Corps.

A Second Irish Brigade was reformed from the old Irish Brigade of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, 116th Pennsylvania, and 28th Massachusetts Regiments as well as the addition of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery (later replaced by the 4th New York Heavy Artillery in early 1865).

Corcoran’s Irish Legion was another famous Irish unit. It was a short-lived unit that didn’t much outlast their founder Michael Corcoran. He was killed accidentally when his horse threw him in Fairfax, Virginia.

There were many Irish volunteers scattered throughout the Union Army. My own great-great grandfather Michael Patrick Murphy was a sergeant in the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry. He served on the Peninsula, the Seven Days Campaign and Antietam. He received a medical discharge in October 1862.

Although significantly fewer Irish lived in the Confederate States of America, six Confederate generals were Irish-Confederate Irish Brigadeborn. Units such as the Charleston Irish Volunteers attracted Confederate Irish-Americans in South Carolina, the 24th Georgia Volunteer Infantry followed General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, while Irish Tennesseans could join the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment.

The 5th Missouri Infantry, commanded by Colonel Joseph Kelly, was called “the Sons of Erin.”, or Kelly’s Irish Brigade. Although this unit was only a regiment, it is sometimes dubbed “The Confederate Irish Brigade.” The Louisiana Tigers, first raised by Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, had a large number of Irish American members.

The Union Irish Brigade suffered its most severe casualties in December at the Battle of Fredericksburg where its fighting force was reduced from over 1600 to 256. The brigade was involved in the northern battleground at Fredericksburg where they assaulted the sunken road in front of Marye’s Heights.

Coincidentally, one of the Confederate regiments manning the sunken road defenses was a predominantly Irish Regiment commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb.

Knowing that Cobb’s men manned the wall, and that both Cobb’s and Meagher’s units contained members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to gaining military experience in the United States, then freeing Ireland from Britain after the Civil War, Lee ordered reserves sent to the position. He need not have worried. Cobb’s men helped devastate the Irish Brigade before the reinforcements could settle in place. It was at Fredericksburg that Lee allegedly referred to Meagher’s regiment as the “Fighting 69th”.

Here’s a description of how the Irish regiments in the Army of the Potomac celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in 1863.