Command Decisions

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

Civil War MontageThe American Civil War like most wars had a variety of ways the opposing armies met in battle. In this series we will be examining the command decisions that went into the planning and execution of key battles of the war.

In some cases they met in what is called meeting engagements. The opposing forces simply collided into each other without a well-thought out plan. Many battles despite the best planning started by accident with elements of each army clashing before the commanders planned that they would.

In some respects, the pivotal battle at Gettysburg was a meeting engagement. Despite the extensive planning of General Robert E. Lee and his chief subordinate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, once the two sides collided all planning was out the window.

The Battle of Chancellorsville was another hybrid-type battle that was extensively planned-out by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and his subordinate commanders. But once across the Rappahannock and enmeshed in the confining Wilderness of Virginia all of Hooker’s planning was for naught.

Other battles were instigated by one side or the other. The First Battle of Fredericksburg was a fight that the Union army instigated when it crossed the Rappahannock River. In the Western Theater the bloody clash at Shiloh (alternately known as Pittsburg Landing) was started when the Confederate Army of Mississippi attacked the encamped Union Army of the Tennessee.

During the American Civil War command decisions were based on human intelligence. Both armies utilized forward scouts and spies to seek out the locations of their opponents. Perhaps, the best known of these was Henry Thomas Harrison who was employed by General Longstreet before and during the Gettysburg campaign.

Both armies also used their cavalry in scouting role. General Lee described J.E.B. Stuart‘s cavalry as the “eyes and ears” of the Army of Northern Virginia. When Stuart was out of touch with his commander before the Battle of Gettysburg the Confederate Army was blinded to the Union Army’s positions.

There were also a fair number of spies in both sides’ capital cities. They were able to elicit confidential information using a variety of methods. They would then smuggle the information to their side. All of this took a great deal of time and sometimes the information was of no use when it finally arrived at its destination.

Despite all of the information that was gleaned from this variety of sources, the commanders had to sift through the rumors, hearsay and sketchy reports. In some cases lost or captured orders were deemed to have been planted to cause confusion and were not properly utilized by commanders.

Many orders were sketchy and imprecise causing confusion for subordinate commanders. Lee’s imprecise order to Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell is one of the best known. Lee ordered Ewell to assault Cemetery Ridge “if practicable.” Ewell given such a wide latitude felt that his corps was too tired to carry the Union positions.

As we go through some of the major command decisions made by both Confederate and Union commanders the methods that they used to decide where and how to fight will become clearer.



A Steep Learning Curve for Generals

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

The United States Army had just 16,000 men at the onset of the Civil War. A majority of the officer was West Point-trained and had served in various posts around the country. Many of the men who were called upon to lead the large armies that both sides built had commanded companies in their former assignments.

In fact, the only serving officer who had commanded a large force was Brevet Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, who had commanded 4,000 men in the invasion of Mexico in 1947. Scott was the pioneer of the turning or flanking maneuver that he used to good advantage against the Mexicans. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman perfect this tactic during the war.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was killed at Shiloh, commanded the 2nd Cavalry in Texas. Robert E. Lee was his second-in-command. Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell said that the U.S. Military Academy taught officers everything that they needed to know about commanding a company of dragoons on the frontier. It is no wonder that the pre-war course on strategy and the art of war lasted no more than a week. More time was spent on horsemanship because the army expected their officers to spend most of their careers in the saddle.

Many officers had no experience commanding troops in any type of fighting. Some failed and caused tremendous casualties among their men. Other succeeded purely on natural ability. Men who had led no more than companies were now called upon to lead regiments, brigades, divisions and corps.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had been a college professor before the war. He learned all of the tactics required for commanding infantry from books. At Little Round Top on July 2nd, he proved that his education was successful when his 20th Maine turned back repeated attempts by the 15th and 47th Alabama who were attempting to turn the Union position.

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside behaved like a regimental commander but was a dismal failure at commanding an army. His disasters at Fredericksburg and the “Mud March” were an excellent example of his lack of ability. He was somewhat better as a corps commander. “Fighting” Joe Hooker was another Union commander who found his niche as a corps commander after his disastrous defeat at Chancellorsville.

On the Confederate side, Robert E. Lee was a failure in western Virginia at the start of the war. His record was so dismal that he was relegated to the backwater of the Coastal Command in North and South Carolina. His rise to command of the Army of Northern Virginia was purely by chance after Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. Lee happened to be Jefferson Davis’ military adviser and was the right man at the right place.

Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, the great “Stonewall”, had been a college professor at the Virginia Military Institute when the war began. Called upon to train Virginia militia troops, Jackson rose on sheer ability. His Valley Campaign of 1862 is still studied at West Point. He was mortally wounded by his own troops at Chancellorsville but not before crushing the Union Army was a daring flank attack, considered the greatest ones of the war.

Commanders on both sides were generally indifferent to European military theory from men like Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini and the Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz. Commanders during the Civil War were called upon to be innovative rather than having a great reliance on theory.

The goal of generals during the war was quite simply to destroy the other side’s force. Using as much firepower as they had available, both armies literally flung themselves at each other. Early in the war they did this with little skill. Their armies were simply armed mobs who charged indiscriminately at each other. It was only after the troops and their generals became more skilled did we see maneuvers like the flank attack.

The steep learning curve encountered by generals was only overcome after a great loss of life and futility on the battlefield. In the early war the battles either had very few casualties or many casualties. In the engagements leading up to the First Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run) casualties were never more than 100 on either. At Manassas the Union Army sustain 2,986 killed, wounded or missing while the Confederates had about 1,000 fewer casualties.

The classic Valley Campaign was a true illustration of how a gifted commander could out-maneuver and defeat his enemy. “Stonewall” Jackson led a force of 17,000 men over 646 miles in 48 days and won several minor battles as they successfully engaged three Union armies (52,000 men), preventing them from reinforcing the Union offensive against Richmond.

Ultimately, the classroom for generals on both sides of the war was the battlefield.


The Decision to Attack the North in 1863

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

General James LongstreetThe 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg has begun a new round of scholarship and discussion about every facet of the most written-about battle in American history. Thousands of books have been written on the subject, covering every aspect of the famous battle.

One area that has come under some scrutiny is the command decision by Robert E. Lee to fight at the little Pennsylvania town. Just why did the Southern army converge on Gettysburg? Was it the oft-told story about the search for shoes or was it something else? Was it pure chance that led to the greatest battle on American soil?

After the mortal wounding and death of Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson after the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Lee increasingly looked to his other corps commander Lt. Gen. James Longstreet for advice. Lee and Longstreet traveled together in the time from Chancellorsville to Gettysburg. Lee felt most comfortable with his old “warhorse”.

After Chancellorsville, Lee saw an opportunity to invade the North for a second time. His home state of Virginia had suffered greatly with the majority of fighting in the Eastern Theater taking place on Virginia soil. By 1863 much of the farmland in the Shenandoah Valley was ruined. Both sides had freely availed themselves of livestock, horses and mules.

After the smashing victory at Chancellorsville Lee thought that his army was invincible. Their morale was high and anything that they lacked in supplies they made up in confidence. The time to drive North and end the war was now.

Longstreet was also confident and concurred with Lee’s overall strategy to march North and engage the Union Army on ground of the Confederate’s choosing. In the American Civil War both armies constantly maneuvered to gain a terrain advantage. Even the smallest ridge gave one army or the other a distinct advantage. Commanders on both sides were always looking to defend “lovely” ground.

In order to understand the decision for a northern offensive by the Army of Northern Virginia, one must understand the context that it was made in. Ulysses S. Grant and his army group was besieging the fortified city of Vicksburg. Jefferson Davis understood the importance of the city when he said, “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together…” The loss of the city would be a body blow to the Confederacy and coupled with the loss of Port Hudson, Louisiana would split the Confederacy in two.

There was much discussion about sending two divisions to the Western Theater in order to relieve the Union pressure on Vicksburg. However, Lee wished to take advantage of his recent victory and invade the North. Longstreet would have agreed with a division of the army only if there was no prospect of a Northern invasion.

In fact, Longstreet in a letter to his confidant, Senator Louis Wigfall, wrote, “If we could cross the Potomac with one hundred & fifty thousand men, I think we could demand Lincoln to declare his purpose. If it is a christian purpose enough blood has been shed to satisfy any principle.”

Longstreet felt that after a victory in the North, the Confederacy could demand a peace treaty with the United States which would allow the South their own country. However, the two top commanders had different ideas about how to go about doing this.

Like many generals in the Eastern Theater, Longstreet never looked beyond the Appalachian Mountains or understood that Grant’s Army of the Tennessee also thought of themselves as invincible. The Union armies in the Western Theater were simply eviscerating the Confederacy from the inside.

The two generals discussed their plans over a three day period in May. Lee wanted a large-scale offensive into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, his subordinate was concerned that in time that it would take to plan and execute Vicksburg would fall. Lee would not be swayed and Longstreet realized that further resistance was futile.

Longstreet then went to a fallback position. He asked for a strategy that used defensive tactics. Longstreet argued that the army march into Pennsylvania, take up good defensive positions between the Union Army and Washington and force the enemy to attack them. He envisioned a battle similar to that which was fought at Fredericksburg.

Despite Longstreet’s post-war assertion that Lee had agreed to a defensive stance, Lee said in April 1868 that “the idea was absurd. He (Lee) had never made any such promise, and had never thought of doing any such thing.”

However, Walter Taylor of Lee’s staff said that the expectation of the staff was that the Confederate Army would choose a favorable time and place in which the Union Army would be compelled to attack. In his own post-battle report Lee wrote, “It had not been intended to fight a general battle at such a distance from our base, unless attacked by the enemy.”

Lee’s operational plan for the Pennsylvania campaign included avoiding an offensive battle, if at all possible. This seemed to mollify Longstreet’ concerns. He expected the Confederates to maneuver the Union Army into a position that forced them to be the attacker. As a competent commander, Longstreet understood that circumstances on the ground sometimes dictated command decisions.

Longstreet was a realist who looked at Chancellorsville as a barren victory. Despite the brilliant tactics of Lee and Jackson, the Army of Northern Virginia lost 21% of its strength to the Union Army’s loss of 15%. The defensive battles of Second Manassas and Fredericksburg should have been the model upon which the Confederacy fought the balance of the war.

In a post-war article Longstreet wrote, “One mistake of the Confederacy was pitting force against force. The only hope we had was to outgeneral the Federals…Our purpose should have been to impair the morale of the Federal army and shake Northern confidence in the Federal leaders.”

Instead the Confederacy dashed any hopes of ultimate victory on the hostile rocks of Gettysburg’s ridges where they suffered over 23,000 casualties, over 1/3 of their army.



George McClellan and the Plan for the 1862 Richmond Offensive

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

General George McClellanMaj. Gen. George B. McClellan was greeted as the savior of the Union when he was promoted to General-in-chief on November 1, 1861. He replaced Winfield Scott who was 75 to McClellan’s almost 35. When Lincoln expressed his concern about the “vast labor” involved in the dual role of army commander and general-in-chief, but McClellan responded, “I can do it all.”

His life up to now was an unbroken success. McClellan was a brilliant engineer who had graduated second in his class from West Point. He served bravely in the Mexican War, receiving two brevet promotions to captain. During the war he learned the value of flanking operations and how to conduct siege warfare.

After the excitement of the war McClellan returned to the more sedate life of a peacetime military officer. In his case he served on an expedition to discover the source of the Red River. He was on a survey team that explored for passages through the Rocky Mountains. Returning to the East he courted and married Mary Ellen Marcy. McClellan’s was one of nine proposals that she received.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis sent McClellan on a secret mission to scout the Dominican Republic. After that assignment he was dispatched to the Crimea as an official observer of the Crimean War. He observed the Siege of Sevastopol in 1856. Returning to the United States, McClellan wrote a lengthy report on the war but like most of the observers failed to highlight the importance of the new rifled musket.

He also wrote a manual on cavalry tactics based on his observations. He also proposed the adoption of a new saddle design that came to be know as the McClellan saddle. It is still in use today.

McClellan resigned his commission January 16, 1857, and, capitalizing on his experience with railroad assessment, became chief engineer and vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad and also president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad in 1860. He performed well in both jobs, expanding the Illinois Central toward New Orleans and helping the Ohio and Mississippi recover from the Panic of 1857.

At the start of the war the governors of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, the three largest states of the Union, actively pursued him to command their states’ militia. The Governor of Ohio, William Dennison, was the most persistent and McClellan accepted a commission as major general of volunteers on April 23, 1861.

On May 3rd he re-entered federal service as the commander of the Department of Ohio, responsible for Union forces in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Later, western Pennsylvania, western Virginia and Missouri were added to the department. On May 14th, he was commissioned a major general of the Regular Army. McClellan now outranked everyone except Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott.

McClellan began the war with two objectives. The first was to build and train an army. The volunteers needed to clothed, fed, equipped and trained. His second objective was the occupation of western Virginia, an area that wanted to remain in the Union. After two minor victories, the Northern newspapers, hungry for a hero, christened him “Gen. McClellan, the Napoleon of the Present War.”

After the Union defeat at First Manassas (Bull Run) on July 21, 1861, Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington to be the commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington. Carl Sandburg wrote, “McClellan was the man of the hour, pointed to by events, and chosen by an overwhelming weight of public and private opinion.”

On August 20th he formed the Army of the Potomac and began to train troops and integrate units into it. He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. The Army of the Potomac grew in number from 50,000 in July to 168,000 in November and was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times.

He proposed that his army should be expanded to 273,000 men and 600 guns and “crush the rebels in one campaign.” He favored a war that would impose little impact on civilian populations and require no emancipation of slaves.

It was during this time that two overriding issues began to impact his conduct of the war. The first was his conflict with the Radical Republicans. McClellan was not an abolitionist. He believed that slavery was embedded in the Constitution and that the war was not being fought to free the slaves.

The second issue was his constant fear that the Confederate Army was far larger than it actually was. In August, he believed that they had 100,000 troops facing him despite their having only 35,000 at Manassas several weeks before. McClellan in fact rarely had less than a two-to-one advantage over his opponents in 1861 and 1862. That fall, for example, Confederate forces ranged from 35,000 to 60,000, whereas the Army of the Potomac in September numbered 122,000 men; in early December 170,000; by year end, 192,000.

After his appointment as General-in-Chief, McClellan and Lincoln began to be at odds with each other. McClellan treated the President with little deference. He privately referred to Lincoln, whom he had known before the war as a lawyer for the Illinois Central, as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon”, a “gorilla”, and “ever unworthy of … his high position.” On November 13, he snubbed the president, visiting at McClellan’s house, by making him wait for 30 minutes, only to be told that the general had gone to bed and could not see him.

By January, Lincoln and his Cabinet were losing patience with the general. Lincoln expressed his exasperation with McClellan and was reputed to have said, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”

On January 12th 1862, McClellan was summoned to the White House and revealed his strategy to Lincoln and his cabinet. He revealed his intentions to transport the Army of the Potomac by ship to UrbannaVirginia, on the Rappahannock River, outflanking the Confederate forces near Washington, and proceeding 50 miles overland to capture Richmond. This would have left Washington without a proper defensive force and Lincoln would have none of it.

On January 27th, Lincoln ordered the Army of the Potomac to begin offensive operations by February 22nd. On January 31, he issued a supplementary order for the Army of the Potomac to move overland to attack the Confederates at Manassas Junction and Centreville. McClellan immediately replied with a 22-page letter objecting in detail to the president’s plan and advocating instead his Urbanna plan, which was the first written instance of the plan’s details being presented to the president.

Lincoln continued to interfere in McClellan’s planning and operation of the army. He reluctantly agreed to McClellan’s plan but on March 8th called McClellan’s subordinates to the White House where he questioned them on their confidence in the plan. They expressed their confidence to varying degrees.

After the meeting, Lincoln issued another order, naming specific officers as corps commanders to report to McClellan. He had been reluctant to do so prior to assessing his division commanders’ effectiveness in combat, even though this would have meant his direct supervision of twelve divisions in the field.

Then Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston withdrew from positions in front of Washington and moved south of the Rappahannock River, nullifying the Urbanna strategy. McClellan came under extreme criticism from the press and the Congress when it was found that Johnston’s forces had not only slipped away unnoticed, but had for months fooled the Union Army through the use of logs painted black to appear as cannons, nicknamed Quaker Guns.

The Radical Republicans were outraged and demanded McClellan’s dismissal but a vote in Congress was defeated by a parliamentary maneuver. Meanwhile, McClellan had adjusted his strategy. He proposed moving his troops by water to Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. From there they would move up the narrow peninsula and take Richmond from the east.

On March 11, 1862 McClellan was relieved as general-in-chief, ostensibly to devote his entire energies to commanding the Army of the Potomac. However, he was not replaced and the civilian leadership of Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and a group of officers called the “War Board” directed the strategic actions of the Union armies that spring. In time McClellan saw the change of command very differently, describing it as a part of an intrigue “to secure the failure of the approaching campaign.”



McClellan at Antietam

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

Battle of AntietamMaj. Gen. George McClellan’s final battle as commander of the Army of the Potomac was Antietam or as Southerners call it, Sharpsburg. The bloodiest single day battle in American history, Antietam is considered a tactical draw, even though the Union Army held the field while Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia retreated back across the Potomac into the safety of Virginia.

After the debacle of the Seven Days Battles, McClellan had withdrawn his huge army south to the James River where it was under the guns of the Union Navy. In August the bulk of McClellan’s command was transferred to the Army of Virginia, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Pope. Almost immediately Pope was engaged by Lee in a series of battles culminating in his defeat at Second Manassas or Bull Run.

After Pope’s defeat, Lincoln reluctantly returned McClellan to Washington where he combined both his force on the Peninsula and Pope’s shattered army into a strengthened Army of the Potomac. Lincoln told his aid John Hay, “We must use what tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”

Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee shorn of any adversaries (or so he thought) crossed the Potomac and invaded Maryland on September 2nd. So began the great chase North. The two forces met at Harpers Ferry which Stonewall Jackson masterfully captured on September 15th. Another wing of Lee’s army fought pitched battles were fought on September 14 for possession of the South Mountain passes: Crampton’s, Turner’s, and Fox’s Gaps.

When Lee realized that he was overmatched he ordered his army to withdraw west to Sharpsburg. Meanwhile, an Indiana soldier discovered Robert E. Lee’s orders to his army wrapped around several cigars. McClellan confided to a subordinate, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

Unfortunately, many historians believe that McClellan failed to fully exploit the strategic advantage of the intelligence because he was concerned about a possible trap (posited by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck) or gross overestimation of the strength of Lee’s army.

Many historians say that even though McClellan brought a larger army that the Confederates to Antietam, he brought one soldier too many: himself. At Antietam, McClellan fought a piece-meal battle. Rather than ordering a general attack in the morning, the battle unfolded from north to south in a piece-meal fashion. These tactics allowed Lee’s outnumbered forces to move defensive forces to the points of the Union attacks.

McClellan also confined his movements across Antietam Creek the the various bridges that spanned the waterway. He believed that the creek was unfordable, yet units of Richardson’s Division forded it at the center of the battlefield opposite. My own second great grandfather recorded this in a latter affidavit.

In addition, McClellan has been heavily criticized for holding back his reserve force under the command of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter. When Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road. This allowed them to get enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a deadly trap.

The Confederate line broke and created a massive hole in their defenses but there was no force to follow up and rout the enemy. Porter is said to have told McClellan, “Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.” McClellan took his implied advice and failed to commit his reserves into a battle that might have been won if he had used his forces aggressively.

McClellan failed to make the correct command decisions at Antietam and it cost the Union Army a clear victory and an opportunity to destroy Lee’s army. The destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia would have left Richmond virtually defenseless and with their capital city captured the South would have likely lost the war in 1862.




The Wounding of James Longstreet

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

The Wounding of James LonstreetEvery Civil War enthusiast knows about the wounding and death of General Stonewall Jackson. Many can recite every detail including his dying words, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” But how many know the details or even the fact that Lt. Gen. James Longstreet almost suffered the same fate?

After the death of Jackson, Longstreet became the general officer that Robert E. Lee relied upon. At Gettysburg, it was Longstreet who Lee delegated to command the grand assault on July 3rd. This was despite the fact that two of the three units in the attack, Isaac Trimble’s and Johnston Pettigrew’s division, were from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Corps.

Proponents of the “Lost Cause” movement have blamed Longstreet for the defeat at Gettysburg, even though he advised Lee against the attack. He claimed to have told Lee:

General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.

After Gettysburg, Longstreet’s Corps was transferred to the Western Theater at his own request while the Army of Northern Virginia was on the defensive. He saw it as an opportunity to show his ability apart from Lee. His corps arrived at the start of the Battle of Chickamauga and made a significant contribution.

Longstreet was one of the officers who disagreed with the army commander Braxton Bragg. A number of the commanders were dissatisfied with Bragg’s leadership and abrasive personality. Jefferson Davis sided with Bragg and the general purged his critics from the Army of Tennessee. Longstreet eventually returned to Virginia after the failure of his second independent campaign.

Upon his return to Virginia he was confronted by his old friend Ulysses Grant, who was now the general-in-chief of all of the Union armies. He advised the other Confederate generals that “he will fight us every day and every hour until the end of the war.” Longstreet had a complete understanding of their opponent.

True to Longstreet’s prediction, Grant ordered all of the Union armies to begin offensive actions in May 1864. The General-in-Chief accompanied the Army of the Potomac while he directed the overall Union strategy. At the start of the Overland Campaign the two sides clashed in the Wilderness on May 5-7, 1864.

The Wilderness of Virginia was a densely-packed forest along the south side of the Rappahannock River. The topography of the Wilderness—dense woods and thick undergrowth broken up by a number of small clearings—made the maneuvering of large armies particularly difficult and the experience of fighting claustrophobic.

The armies had met there almost exactly one year before at the Battle of Chancellorsville. It was here that Stonewall Jackson was severely wounded by his own troops while scouting in the dark after his successful flank attack. History would repeat itself with an eerily similar mistaken shooting.

Longstreet helped save the Confederate Army from defeat when he launched a powerful flanking attack along the Orange Plank Road against the Union II Corps and nearly drove it from the field. He used innovative tactics to deal with difficult terrain, ordering the advance of six brigades by heavy skirmish lines, which allowed his men to deliver a continuous fire into the enemy, while proving to be elusive targets themselves.

Some Union regiments were hit on three sides and dissolved under the attacks. The Union troops retreated in disorder when their entire front collapsed. At the Plank Road, the Southerners stopped to reorder their ranks. General Longstreet was at the front directing his units into battle. While his troops prepared for a second flanking attack against the Union front along the Brock Road, Longstreet decided to ride down Plank Road to the front.

With Longstreet were several of his staff officers, including Moxley Sorrel. He was also accompanied by Generals Charles Field, Joseph Kershaw, Micah Jenkins and a number of their aides. This large party of officers filled the narrow road.

The 12th Virginia, one of William Mahone’s regiments, had crossed the road and crossed into the woods. When their colonel realized that his unit was isolated he ordered them back across the road. Their comrades on the other side of the road mistook them for advancing Union troops and triggered a volley of musket fire. Longstreet’s party was in between the two.

Kershaw attempted to stop the initial fire by yelling “Friends!” but it was already too late. The gunfire hit and killed Captain Alfred E. Doby and orderly Marcus Baum of Kershaw’s staff.Another bullet struck General Micah Jenkins in the skull and he lay in the road while his life bled away.

Longstreet remained on his horse but he was severely wounded. He right arm was hanging limply by his side. He had been struck in the throat by a bullet that passed through his shoulder and severed nerves.

Helped from the saddle by his aides, he was placed under a nearby tree. It was later reported that he “bled profusely.” His voice was reduced to a whisper and he blew blood out as he instructed his aides to inform General Lee. He relinquished command to Charles Field and described the proposed flank attack.

His surgeon arrived and stopped the bleeding. Longstreet was placed on a stretcher and someone put his hat over his face leading his troops to think that he was dead. When he removed the hat, they responded with cheers. As the ambulance proceeded to the rear Longstreet’s troops’ morale plummeted.

The flank attack was delayed due to Longstreet’s wounding by General Lee who realized that the lines were too entangled to carry out a successful attack. By the time that the Confederates moved forward at 4:00 PM, the Union Army had reorganized and brought up additional troops. Despite the Confederate’s spirited attack, they could not pierce the Union defensive line.

Longstreet missed the rest of the 1864 spring and summer campaign, where Lee sorely missed his skill in handling the army. He was treated in Lynchburg, Virginia, and recuperated in Augusta, Georgia, with his niece, Emma Eve Longstreet Sibley, the daughter of his brother Gilbert. He rejoined the army in October 1864, with his right arm paralyzed and in a sling, initially unable to ride a horse. He had taught himself to write with his left hand; by periodically pulling on his arm, as advised by doctors, he was able to regain use of his right hand in later years.

E.P. Alexander called the removal of Longstreet the critical juncture of the battle: “I have always believed that, but for Longstreet’s fall, the panic which was fairly underway in Hancock’s [II] Corps would have been extended & have resulted in Grant’s being forced to retreat back across the Rapidan.”

Full disclosure: General Longstreet and I are related. He is my sixth cousin. His grandmother and my several times great grandfather were siblings. Despite his Confederate allegiance and my being a descendent of Union soldiers, I have a soft spot in my heart for this fine commander.