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.






West Point: The Last to Divide

Fort Sumter in 1860The United States Military Academy at West Point was the last national institution to divide. The academy had fostered a sense of unity for decades with sectional differences being submerged.

As early as 1824 the Board of Visitors had reported that ‘cadets coming from every section of the country contribute much … to the extirpation of local prejudices and sectional antipathies.’ Five years later Secretary of War John H. Eaton advised President Jackson that the Academy ‘may be looked to as one of the strong bonds of our union.’

As First Classman Joseph Ritner put it in a Fourth of July address in 1829,

We are the children of the Union … and should ever faction raise the fire-brand of sedition, and spread conflagration, turmoil, and confusion through our devoted land, then let it also be recorded, that from her army, at least, our country received a firm, devoted support.

All cadets were treated equally in terms of their studies and conduct. Each cadet was graded weekly in every subject having recited in class daily. Demerits for conduct were distributed equally.

West Point was small enough to allow everyone else and to know the name and reputation of those who had preceded them in the Academy. In the Army, and even more so at West Point, the cadet or graduate was isolated from the rest of the world, and his friends and acquaintances were men who had shared the same experiences. The result was a feeling of comradeship, stronger than that in most college fraternities, and it overcame nearly all social, religious, and political differences.

Even during the Civil War friendships born at West Point remained; one thinks of Grant sending congratulations across Petersburg’s trenches to George Pickett on the birth of his child. One remembers also the time when during a truce after Fredericksburg, Custer wrote his classmate, Pelham, ‘I rejoice, dear Pelham, in your success.’ It was, of course, at Fredericksburg that Pelham’s guns did such good work that Lee called him the ‘gallant Pelham.’

The friendship of Winfield Scott Hancock and Lewis A. Armistead was well known in both armies. Hancock was severely wounded at Gettysburg while his fellow West Pointer was mortally wounded leading one of Pickett’s brigades on July 3rd.

The Corps of Cadets represented all sections of the country, and in the fifties, as political passions rose, divisions did begin to appear. Fights, especially during election periods, became more frequent. In the aftermath of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 there were many heated arguments and at least one duel. A Georgia Cadet, Pierce M.B. Young, hanged Brown’s body in effigy from one of the windows at the barracks.

In a Fourth of July address the next year first classman William W. McCreery condemned the outbreaks, maintained that the ‘noble Union’ would not dissolve, and concluded, ‘Let us put from us the seeds of sectional strife and draw closer and closer the bonds of this glorious union.’ Two years later Lieutenant McCreery resigned from the army and joined the forces of his native Virginia. He died in action at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In September 1860 an unknown group of cadets held a mock election in the Corps for President. Some 214 of the 278 cadets voted, 99 of them for the Southern Democrat candidate John C. Breckinridge, 47 for the Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, 44 for the Constitutional Union candidate John Bell, and 24 for Republican Abraham Lincoln.

Southerners were jubilant, but Yankee cadets were furious. Second classmen Emory Upton of New York claimed that Southerners had prevented Northerners form voting, there was talk that all the tellers were Southerners, and the Yankees dismissed the whole thing as a Southern project.

The final break began just two months later, when the first Southern cadet resigned to join the forces of his native state. Henry S. Farley, a political fire-eater with appropriate red hair, left the Academy on November 19, a month and a day before his state, South Carolina, seceded. Four days after Farley’s departure, another South Carolina cadet, James Hamilton, resigned. In December the remainder of the South Carolina contingent, along with three Mississippians and two Alabamians, also left.

One of the Alabama cadets was second classman Charles P. Ball, first sergeant of Company A and heir to the captaincy of the Corps. Ball was one of the most popular cadets. When he was about to leave he revived an old custom, calling the cadets to attention in the mess hall and saying some parting words. A classmate remembered that his voice was clear and strong as he called out, ‘Battalion, attention! Good-bye, boys! God Bless you all!’ Thereupon the members of his class hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him to the wharf.

The firing on Fort Sumter changed everything. Northern cadets who had been indifferent to or even sympathized with secession suddenly realized what was at stake. A meeting was arranged by word of mouth, and that night all the Northern cadets met in the room of William Harris, where they sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ so that it could be heard across the river. It was, Morris Schaff remembered, ‘the first time I ever saw the Southern contingent cowed. All of their Northern allies had deserted them and they were stunned.’





West Point On the Eve of the Civil War

West Point

There were place that were more idyllic in the United States than the United States Military Academy at West Point. Placed on the Hudson River at the site of the Revolutionary War stronghold it held a cherished place in the hearts of Americans. West Point was some 50 miles north of New York City.

It was here at West Point that young men were trained to lead the Army of the United States in war and peace.  In the nineteenth century, West Point had become the pinnacle of the concept of military professionalism. It was regarded as the leading School of Engineering on the continent and had a world-wide reputation for excellence in engineering studies. It transformed boys into the kind of men who would become, one day, military and political leaders and Civil War enemies.

There were two West Points. One was the physical with its academic buildings and dormitories. Its drill fields and forts. The other West Point was the “spiritual” West Point – a mystique, a feeling of belonging, of male bonding and something very powerful.

Admission to West Point was by appointment by your local Congressman or Senator. Some candidates moved to other states because the competition in their home state was too difficult. Take as an example George Pickett of Virginia who moved to Illinois and was appointed by one Abraham Lincoln. One can only wonder what must have gone through their minds over the four years of the War!

Once the prospective cadet arrived at the military academy he was required to take an entrance examination. The standards for this examination was designed to give the “unlearned” an opportunity for admission to the Academy.

Possibly one of the least educated candidates to gain entry to West Point was a young lad from the backwoods of Virginia who had not had the opportunity for any formal school education. This was Thomas Jonathon Jackson, who was later, during the Civil War, to earn the nickname of “Stonewall”, and only secured entry to West Point by his sheer determination and absolute sincerity.

Jackson’s study and determination paid off and he was happy when he graduated 17th out of 56 in the Class of 18462 after he had started at the bottom of his class. His classmate, the brilliant George Brinton McClellan could never accept the fact that he graduated only second in this Class of ’46.

Jackson’s tenacity and determination was to be proven many times during his military service but possibly no more so than on Henry House Hill during the First Battle of Manassas as he turned certain defeat into victory and the legend of “Stonewall” Jackson was born. Stonewall Jackson is still considered one of the greatest field commanders of all time.

The curriculum was designed to produce competent engineers and sub-unit commanders. The studies in the first two years were devoted entirely to Mathematics and French, while the major course in the third year was what we now call Physics. The senior year focused on military engineering with some brief coverage of infantry and artillery tactics. Tactics at this time were based on Napoleonic principles and was taught at the Academy for many years by Professor Dennis Hart Mahan.

Character building at West Point was enforced by a strict code of honesty and obedience with breaches of discipline resulting in the award of ‘Demerits’ – 200 demerits in any one year resulted in the cadet being expelled from the Academy. George Custer received so many demerits that he lost count. McClellan received only a few while Robert E. Lee received none during his time at the academy.

Position in class on graduation was of utmost importance to the future career prospects of a young officer. The highly ranked in the graduating class could choose their corps allocation and it had a significant impact on career advancement opportunities throughout their service. Having said this, however, it seems that no only at West Point but in military colleges, worldwide, it is the middle ranked officers that eventually rose to the most senior ranks and performed the most outstanding service.

Robert E. Lee, George McClellan and P.G.T. Beauregard all graduated second in their classes. On the other hand future generals George Custer, Henry Heth and George Pickett all graduated last in their classes.

In our next post we’ll look at the pre-war tensions at West Point.


Strange Ships of the Civil War

USS MonitorPerhaps, the most unique ship in the Union Navy’s arsenal was the U.S.S. Monitor. It was the first all-ironclad in the Union Navy and was followed by a number of ships that utilized its unique armament and iron cladding.

In the Battle of Hampton Roads the Monitor met the C.S.S. Virginia and the two ironclads fought. For all intents and purposes the age of wooden ships was ended on March 9, 1862.

Both sides began to build ironclads, although the Union Navy had more access to iron so they were able to manufacture more boats. Both sides made ships for different uses; both for river and open ocean uses. The river ironclads made by both navies had less draft while there ocean-going vessels needed a deeper draft. The Union Navy made a wide variety of monitors including twin-turret models.

The monitors continued to be used by the Union Navy in concert with ironclad steam ships. These were former two and three-masted sailing who were fitted with ironcladding on the sides and steam engines either when they were originally built or during the war. The Battles of Mobile Bay, Charleston Galveston were the best examples of this combined arms strategy.

The CSS and USS Teaser was originally a tugboat that was used by both sides. Teaser was built at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.CSS Teaser Purchased at Richmond, Virginia by the State of Virginia in 1861, she was assigned to the naval forces in the James River with Lieutenant James Henry Rochelle, Virginia State Navy, in command.

Upon the secession of Virginia,Teaser became a part of the Confederate States Navy and continued to operate in Virginia waters. With Lieutenant William A. Webb, CSN, in command, she took an active part in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8–March 9, 1862, acting as tender to CSS Virginia. She received the thanks of the Congress of the Confederate States for this action.

Teaser was a pioneer “aircraft carrier”, serving as a base for an observation hot air balloon; she also became a pioneer minelayer when ordered on June 17, 1862, to assist General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Under Lieutenant Hunter Davidson, CSN, she was used by the Confederate Naval Submarine Battery Service to plant and service “torpedoes” (mines) in the James River.

While engaging USS Maratanza at Haxall’s on the James on July 4, 1862, a Union shell blew up Teaser’s boiler and forced her crew to abandon ship. When seized by Maratanza, Teaser was carrying on board a balloon for aerial reconnaissance of Union positions at City Point and Harrison’s Landing.

Later that summer, Teaser was taken into the United States Navy and was assigned to the Potomac Flotilla. With the exception of three brief deployments elsewhere, USS Teaser plied the waters of the Potomac River from Alexandria, Virginia, south to Point Lookout, Maryland to enforce the blockade by interdicting a thriving trade in contraband between the Maryland and Virginia shores. She was never used as a hot air balloon carrier by the Union Navy.

The USS Alligator the fourth United States Navy ship of that name, is the first known U.S. Navy submarine, and was active during the American Civil War.

USS AlligatorThe ship was about 30 ft long and 6 ft or 8 ft in diameter. “It was made of iron, with the upper part pierced for small circular plates of glass, for light, and in it were several water tight compartments.”

For propulsion, she was equipped with sixteen hand-powered paddles protruding from the sides, but on 3 July 1862, the Washington Navy Yard had the paddles replaced by a hand-cranked propeller, which improved its speed to about four knots. Air was to be supplied from the surface by two tubes with floats, connected to an air pump inside the submarine.

It was sent to Hampton Roads where several targets were considered but none were approved. Additional sea trials were ordered with Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. in command. The tests proved unsatisfactory, and Selfridge pronounced “the enterprise… a failure.”

Rear Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont decided that Alligator might be useful in carrying out his plans to take Charleston, South Carolina, the birthplace of secession. Acting Master John F. Winchester, who then commanded the Sumpter, was ordered to tow the submarine to Port Royal, South Carolina. The odd pair got underway on 31 March.

The next day, the two ships encountered bad weather which, on 2 April, forced Sumpter to cut Alligator adrift off Cape Hatteras. She either immediately sank or drifted for a while before sinking, ending the career of the United States Navy’s first submarine.




Strange Ships of the Confederacy

Hunley with spar torpedoAs the Civil War progressed both sides were willing to try new and unorthodox weapons systems. Witness the Monitor and the Virginia, two differently designed ironclads. Both of these designs were used later throughout the war. With their success both sides were willing to try new and different approaches to naval warfare.

Overall, there is enough information available for historians to surmise that there must have been more than 20 submarines, from both sides, developed throughout the American Civil War

The Confederacy had a robust program of building submarines. Their goal was to break the Union blockade along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast. There were “David” boats: long, narrow steamboats which ran awash with snorkel type smoke stacks and air intakes. These boats were largely ineffectual and not truly submarines.

They had William Cheeney who was based in Richmond and had his subs attempting attacks as early as 1861. He continued to work on producing improved subs throughout the Civil War.

In the summer of 1861 Cheeney’s first submarine was tested in the James River at Richmond. Here it successfully sank its target boat (an old barge). Reports of this test reached the north and caused much concern. The US navy began to develop anti-submarine measures right away. At first all they had was weighted nets and chains hanging around the ships in an effort to keep any sub from getting close enough to attach explosives to destroy the ship.

Cheeney developed a small three man submersible in the James River of Virginia in 1861 shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. A second, larger craft was developed by the same team and was similarly experimental. Cheeney’s craft were unsuccessful and were poorly documented although their existence was reported by Union spies.

In October of 1861 that primitive defense saved the USS Minnesota from being sunk. As Cheeney’s sub approached to attach explosives to the Minnesota, it got tangled in the defensive netting and its crew was barely able to get free and escape with their lives. That was the end of the first submarine attack of the Civil War.

The Bayou St. John Confederate Submarine is an early military submarine built for use by the Confederate States of America Bayou St. John Confederate Submarineduring the American Civil War. The submarine is constructed of riveted iron, 20 feet (6.1 m) long, 3 feet (0.91 m) wide and 6 feet (1.8 m) deep, with a hand-cranked propeller.

No period documentation for the submarine is known to exist, and its original name and many details about it remain unknown. The submarine was rediscovered in 1878 during a dredging of Bayou St. John at its intersection with Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the submarine was presumably scuttled to prevent it falling into Union hands after the U.S. capture of New Orleans.

Pioneer was the first of three submarines privately developed and paid for by Horace Lawson Hunley, James McClintock and Baxter Watson. They built Pioneer in New Orleans and was tested it in February 1862 in the Mississippi River. It was later towed to Lake Pontchartrain for additional trials, but the Union advance towards New Orleans the following month prompted the men to abandon development and scuttle Pioneer in the New Basin Canal. The team followed with the American Diver, built after relocating to Mobile, Alabama.

American Diver, also known as the Pioneer II, was a prototype submarine built for the Confederate States of America military. It was the first successor to the Pioneer. The Diver was invented and built by the same consortium that built the Pioneer in New Orleans. It was composed of Horace Lawson Hunley, James McClintock, and Baxter Watson.

They were forced to move their operations to Mobile, Alabama following the capture of New Orleans by Union forces in April 1862. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it served as a model in the development of the consortium’s next submarine, the H. L. Hunley. The Hunley eventually became the first combat submarine to sink an enemy warship.

The other well-known Confederate submarine was the C.S.S. Hunley. The Hunley was named for its builder Horace Lawson Hunley. It was built in Mobile, Alabama and was then shipped by rail on August 12, 1863, to Charleston, South Carolina.  to break the Union blockade.

The Hunley (then called Fish Boat) sank on August 29, 1863, during a test run, killing five members of her crew. She sank again on October 15, 1863, killing all eight of her second crew, including Horace Hunley himself, who was aboard at the time, even though he was not a member of the Confederate militia. Both times the Hunley was raised and returned to service.

On February 17, 1864, The Hunley attacked and sank the 1240-short ton (1124 metric tons) screw sloop USS Housatonic, which had been on Union blockade-duty in Charleston’s outer harbor. Soon afterwards, the Hunley sank, killing all eight of her third crew. This time, the innovative ship was lost and not rediscovered until 1995. It was raised again in 2000.



Sheridan’s Raid on Scottsville, Virginia and Commemoration

If you live in central Virginia and are available this coming weekend visiting Scottsville and the commemoration of Sheridan’s War in ScottsvilleRaid. Scottsville is a small town at the big bend of  the James River. Sheridan’s force of cavalry and infantry raided the town in early March of 1865. Among his commanders were George Armstrong Custer, Wesley Merritt and Thomas Devin.

Sheridan led a force of 10,000 soldiers which marched down the Scottsville Road from Charlottesville, about a 20 mile march. His goal was Scottsville’s tobacco warehouses and other military supplies. He also wanted to destroy the James River and Kanawha Canal, a key transportation link with Richmond.

After four long years of war, the enemy and devastation came to Scottsville.  On March 6, 1865, Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s expedition of nearly 10,000 Union soldiers departed Charlottesville.  Their mission was to destroy the James River Canal and the Virginia Central Railroad.

The expedition separated into two columns with Sheridan and Brevet Major General George A. Custer leading the 3rd Cavalry southwest through North and South Gardens to destroy the railroad.  Brevet Major General Wesley Merritt and Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin headed south to Scottsville with the 1st Cavalry and orders to destroy the canal, bridges, mills, manufactories, and rebel food stores.

The destruction of Scottsville began at 3 p.m. on that March day, as noted in General Devin’s official report:

At this point, three canal boats were captured, one loaded with shell (9600) and two with the Government commissary stores and tobacco. These were totally destroyed and burned, together with a large cloth mill, a five-story flouring mill, candle factory, machine shop, and tobacco warehouse. Each of these buildings was crammed with products of its manufacture to a surprising extent, and all were totally destroyed.

The intense heat of the flour mill fire charred nearby homes, although no loss of life occurred. Canal locks and bridges above and below town also were destroyed or severely damaged. The last of Devin’s men departed Scottsville on March 7th and headed west up the towpath to continue their canal destruction duties and join Sheridan’s column at New Market (Norwood).

On March 8th, Sheridan’s united command moved back down the James River towards Columbia, arriving in Scottsville on Thursday night, March 9th.  The roads were horrible due to the spring thaw and heavy rains, and the soldiers were tired and hungry.  Legend has it that Sheridan and Custer rested the night at Cliffside while Merritt commandeered Old Hall. (These homes still exist.)

By this stage of the expedition, Sheridan’s men were down to their last ‘coffee and sugar’ rations, and their horses suffered from fatigue and hoof rot.  They relied on the Scottsville countryside for ‘subsistence and forage’ and ransacked and looted homes, barns, and any potential hiding place for food, horses, and valuables.  Cliffside’s carriage house and barn were torched, although the jewelry, which Mrs. John O. Lewis buried earlier near their chicken house, went undiscovered.

Yankees stuffed hams in their knapsacks and strapped dead chickens to their saddles.  At age 5, Fannie Patteson stood at a second floor window and watched her backyard fill with strange men, who upset their beehives and crammed honey into their mouths.

As the Yankees snatched up every horse they spotted, twelve year-old Luther Pitts hid two local horses in the basement of the Barclay House on Main Street.  Miletus Harris and his son, Charles, beat back the flames on their Main Street store as the nearby Columbian Hotel went up in smoke.

Finally on March 10th, Sheridan’s army departed Scottsville and continued along the James River to Columbia, leaving Scottsville charred and hungry.  It would take forty years for the town’s economy to recover.

You can read about the entire James River Campaign here.

Sheridan’s Raid on Scottsville, 6-8 March 2015
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You are invited to attend:


Friday-Sunday, March 6-8, 2015

The weather was cold and rainy, and the James River was high when Union troops under General Phillip Sheridan came to Scottsville in 1865.  The town was undefended, and the Union troops stayed for a few days, appropriating supplies (food and horses), setting fire to several buildings and canal boats, and destroying the James River and Kanawha Canal.

On this 150th anniversary of Sheridan’s Raid, please join us in Scottsville onMarch 6-8, and learn more about the long-lasting impact of this raid on our town and its citizens.  We’ll see a procession of mounted Union soldiers riding through town to Canal Basin Square, a new Civil War exhibit in the Scottsville Museum, and presentations about Sheridan’s raid, the James River and Kanawha canal, and the African-American community in Scottsville

All events are free and open to the public.

Schedule of Events:

History Mobile:  A traveling museum of the Civil War in Virginia. Friday and Saturday (March 6-7), 9am-5pm.  Location: Village Square Shopping Center in Scottsville.
Museum Exhibits: Featuring artifacts of Sheridan’s raid, the lives of African-American families, and women in mourning after the war. Friday (March 6),10am-5pm; Saturday (March 7), 10am-4pm.  Sunday (March 8), 1-5pm.  Location:  Scottsville Museum, 290 Main Street.
Union Cavalry Reenactors Parade: 2nd U.S. Cavalry, Saturday (March 7),11am.  Location: From old Uniroyal Tire Plant on Bird Street, south on Valley Street to Main Street, east on Main Street to Canal Basin Square.
Living History Encampment – Union Army: Saturday (March 7), 11:30am-3pm. Location: Across from Scottsville Museum on Main Street.
Sheridan’s Raid & Scottsville: Saturday (March 7), 4pm.  Presentation by Richard Nicholas, author of Sheridan’s James River Campaign. Location: Victory Hall, 401 Valley Street.
African-American Families in War and Reconstruction:  Sunday (March 8),3pm.  Presentation by historians, Sam Towler (“The Families of Liberty Corner”) and Regina Rush (“The Rush Family of Chestnut Grove”).  Location:  Victory Hall, 401 Valley Street.
James River and Kanawha Canal:  Sunday (March 8), 4pm. Presentation by Roger Nelson and Brian Coffield of the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society.  Location: Victory Hall, 401 Valley Street.
Walking Tour: Pick up a free map and guide to Civil War sites in Scottsville.  Maps and information available at Victory Hall and the Visitor’s Center on Main Street, Scottsville.

For more information, see:
www.smuseum.avenue.org and www.SheridansRaid.org

See you in Scottsville!
Copyright ©2015  Scottsville Museum, All rights reserved.

Strange Weapons of the Civil War

The Civil War began as a conventional war with both sides being equipped with the same weapons, using the same tactics. After all the weapons used by the Southern Confederacy were seized from Federal armories spread throughout the South. The officer corps of both armies were mostly educated at West Point, although there were some exceptions like the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel.

But as the war progressed each side attempted to leap ahead of the other when it came to weapons systems. Beyond the conventional systems like the various models of ironclads, timberclads, cottonclads and repeating rifles strange weapons began to appear on both sides. Here’s a look at some of the strange weapons of the American Civil War.

Here are some of the more common weapons that were invented or perfected during the war.

Hand GrenadeHand Grenades

The most popular model was the Union-issued Ketchum grenade, a projectile explosive that was thrown like a dart. The grenades came in one-, three- and five-pound models equipped with stabilizer fins and a nose-mounted plunger. Upon impact, the plunger would detonate a percussion cap and ignite a deadly supply of gunpowder.


Confederate forces reportedly experimented with Congreve rockets, a British-designed explosive that had previously seen action in the War of 1812. These weapons resembled large bottle rockets and were so inaccurate that they never saw widespread use.

Meanwhile, Union forces employed the Hale patent rocket launcher, a metal tube that fired seven- and 10-inch-long spin stabilized rockets up to 2,000 yards. While a vast improvement on the Congreve, these projectiles were still quite unwieldy, and were only generally used by the U.S. Navy.

Machine Guns

Both sides understood that increasing there rate of fire in the age of mass armies was a key to victory. One attempt was the Winans Steam gun. Allegedly capable of flinging 300 rounds of ammunition per minute from its steam powered revolving drum for 100 yards, this centrifugal gun came into prominence during the 1861 Baltimore Riots. It was never used in a true combat situation. Video

Another invention was the so-called Coffee Mill Gun. The “devil’s coffee mill,” “coffee grinder” gun, “army in a box” or Agar gunCoffee Mill Gun was a hand-cranked machine gun firing .58 caliber cartridges at 120 rounds per minute. Having seen a demonstration in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln is said to have been quite enamored with the weapon. The Union War Department acquired 60 of them but they saw very little action.

Of these machine guns, perhaps none is more famous than the Gatling gun, a six-barreled piece that was capable of firing up to 350 rounds a minute. The U.S. government never ordered the Gatling in bulk, but Union General Benjamin Butler privately purchased several of the intimidating weapons in 1863 and later used them during the Petersburg Campaign.

Other rapid-fire guns included the Williams gun—a Confederate breechloader first unveiled at the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862—and the Billinghurst-Requa battery gun, which consisted of 25 rifle barrels arranged side by side. Viewed as too inefficient and unwieldy for infantry combat, these weapons were generally used for guarding bridges and other strategic locations.

Calcium floodlights

Better known as “limelights,” these chemical lamps used superheated balls of lime, or calcium oxide, to create an incandescent glow. The lights had been used in lighthouses and theaters since the 1830s. During an 1863 operation to retake Charleston Harbor, General Quincy Adams Gillmore laid siege to the Confederate stronghold at Fort Wagner. Gillmore’s Union guns bombarded the fort day and night with the help of this strange invention.

Also called “Drummond lights,” these calcium floodlights were later used as searchlights to spot Confederate warships and blockade runners. In early 1865, a Union light even helped detect a Confederate ironclad fleet as it tried to move along the James River under cover of darkness. A Southern officer later noted that a planned sneak attack was made impossible in part because of the Union’s “powerful calcium light.”

Hot Air BalloonHot Air Balloons

Civil War balloons were primarily used in a reconnaissance capacity. The Union even had an official Balloon Corps headed by “Chief Aeronaut” Thaddeus Lowe. Under his direction, balloons were launched for scouting purposes at several famous engagements, including the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. In a balloon tethered to the ground with a telegraph line, Lowe was able to give real-time updates on troop movements, and once even directed Union artillery fire from the sky.

In later posts we’ll take a look at more unusual weapons and ships of the American Civil War.