Antietam: 152 Years Later

The Battle of AntietamThis is a post that I wrote two years ago on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. It bears repeating to inform people about the horrific price that America paid during the American Civil War. Let us all fervently pray that we will never be asked to pay that steep a price again. But if we are asked to defend our rights let us hope that we can show the same type of courage and bravery that our forebears did.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, also known as Sharpsburg. Whatever you call it, this battle marked the first great turning point in the American Civil War in the East.

Historians argue endlessly about turning points in the Civil War but about Antietam there is very little argument. Everything after the battle was changed by its impact on Union policy. Let’s start with the smaller changes that came from the battle and move up to the one great change that turned the fortunes of war in favor of the North.

Antietam marked the last battle of Maj. Gen. George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. His inability to pursue the shattered Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and allow it to return to the safety of Virginia was simply too much for Abraham Lincoln to bear.

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote in his official report, “The long inactivity of so large an army in the face of a defeated foe, and during the most favorable season for rapid movements and a vigorous campaign, was a matter of great disappointment and regret.” Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, effectively ending the general’s military career.

Following McClellan at the helm of the Army of the Potomac was Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside who had turned the President down before McClellan’s reinstatement. He claimed that he was not qualified to command the army. At Fredericksburg in December, Burnside proved that his own opinion of himself was correct.

He was followed by Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was thoroughly whipped by Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville and was relieved of command three days before the momentous Battle of Gettysburg. He in turn was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade who retained command for the rest of the war.

Antietam was to begin the process that eventually brought General Ulysses S. Grant to the position of general-in-chief of all the Union armies. His military genius was to change the face of war and bring victory to the forces of the Union.

Antietam was the battle that brought that face of war to the general public of the North. Mathew Brady, the well-known New York photographer, Alexander Gardner at Antietamhad dispatched Alexander Gardner to the battle field to take photographs of the aftermath of the battle.

In October 1862, the results of Gardner’s battlefield images were exhibited in Brady’s New York gallery titled “The Dead of Antietam.” Many images in this presentation were graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation new to America. This was the first time that many Americans saw the realities of war in photographs as distinct from previous “artists’ impressions”.

The images of the wholesale slaughter on the battlefield of Antietam brought the war home to northern civilians in a way that casualty lists and battlefield sketches could not. The images of piles of dead soldiers in the Cornfield and the Sunken Road were so graphic that many people were shocked into understanding the death and destruction that this war was causing.

Both armies was severely wounded after the battle. With over 23,000 casualties inflicted, both armies took several months to recover. Some historians say that the Confederate army never recovered from the wholesale bloodletting at Antietam. But recover they did and defeated the Union Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville due to the superior generalship of their commander, Robert E. Lee.

The most important result of the Battle of Antietam was Lincoln’s issuing of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On September 22nd, the President issued the proclamation that would change the Union war aims and his country forever.

Earlier that summer Lincoln had said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the Dead Confederates at the Sunken Roadslaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” 

The Emancipation Proclamation when it came into effect on January 1, 1863 would forever change the war from one that only sought to preserve the Union but one that would set men free. Lincoln’s ringing phrase, “…thenceforward, and forever free” would change the United States of America for all time.

As a direct result of the proclamation 180,000 African-Americans would enlist in the Union army and assist in the ultimate victory over the Confederate states. Their value to the Union cause cannot be understated.

So, today is not only a turning point in the American Civil War but also a turning point in the history of the United States.

I have the honor of being the great-great grandson of Michael Patrick Murphy, Sergeant, Company D, 61st New York Volunteer Infantry, Caldwell’s Brigade, Richardson’s Division. On September 17th, 1862 he fought at the Sunken Road, forever known afterward as ‘Bloody Lane’. Everytime that I look in a mirror his blue eyes are looking back at me, just like my grandmother told me they would when I was a child. We, his descendants, have a fierce pride that one of our ancestors helped to save the Union.


The Year of Three Generals: Robert E. Lee

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Robert E. Lee in dress uniformAt the end of 1863 both sides could each see a path to victory. The Confederacy realized that their path to victory needed to include the defeat of Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential elections and the defeat of his armies in the field. The Union side realized that their path to victory needed to be the utter defeat of the armies of the Confederacy.

Both sides began 1864 with relative equilibrium. But the events of the year would turn on the leadership of three generals: Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Lee was the commander of the preeminent Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He had assumed command after the severe wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines. Despite his disappointing results in western Virginia and along the coast earlier in the war, Lee seized command of the army and outfought George B. McClellan in the Seven Days Battles.

Lee was no longer the earlier ‘King of Spades’ or ‘Granny’ Lee. He became Marse Robert, the master of the battlefield. At the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) he whipped John Pope and forced him to withdraw to the safety of the Washington Defenses.

He attempted a plan that was much too complicated during the Maryland Campaign and his army suffered severe casualties at Antietam. Returning to Virginia, he bested the new Union commander, Ambrose Burnside, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, inflicting serious casualties on the enemy.

He then followed it up with what has been called his ‘perfect battle’ at Chancellorsville where he defeated another new Union commander, Joe Hooker, whose army outnumbered his by a 2-to-1 margin. However, his strong right arm, General Stonewall Jackson, was mortally wounded by his own troops while scouting after the first days’ fighting. He died several days later and Lee never adequately replaced the Great Stonewall.

At Gettysburg, almost two months later he would miss Jackson tactical skill and offensive verve. During a three-day battle, capped by a full frontal assault on the Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge, Lee’s army sustained over 23,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing. It amounted to almost one-third of his army.

But yet another Union commander, George Gordon Meade, did not take advantage of his victory and Lee held off the Army of the Potomac  in a series of battles in northern Virginia that took place from October 13th to November 7th. The Bristoe campaign was a series of five minor battles that ended with the 2nd Battle of Rappahannock Station, a Confederate defeat. It forced Lee to order his army yo retreat southward.

Meade attempted to slip through the Wilderness, the site of the Battle of Chancellorsville, in late November 1863. His goal was to strike the right flank of the Confederate Army south of the Rapidan River. Meade’s goal for a speedy advance was thwarted when Maj. Gen. William H. French‘s III Corps got bogged down in fording the river at Jacob’s Ford. French caused traffic jams when he moved his artillery to Germanna Ford, where other units were attempting to cross.

Meade advanced on the Confederate positions at Mine Run but after concluding that a Confederate line was too strong to attack, he called off the assault. Meade ordered his army into winter quarters, ending the 1863 campaign season. Lee was disappointed that Meade had withdrawn, saying: “I am too old to command this army. We never should have permitted those people to get away.”

1864 would prove a trial for Robert E. Lee and test his skills as a tactical commander. He would need to confront a Union Army under the overall command of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant who would control all of the Union armies in the field. Grant understood that the destruction of the Confederate armies, especially Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, would spell the end of the Confederacy.


Daniel Harvey Hill

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Confederate Generals Officers

General Daniel Harvey HillOne of the more aggressive Confederate battle commanders, Daniel Harvey Hill ran afoul of Robert E. Lee and Braxton Bragg for his outspokenness. This in turn led him to fall out of favor with President Jefferson Davis. All of this led to his under-utilization in the second half of the war. This aggressive commander was shelved after the Battle of Chickamauga until the very end of the war.

D.H. Hill was a South Carolinian who graduated from West Point in 1842. He was assigned to the artillery due to his superior mathematical skills. He distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, being brevetted to captain for bravery at the Battle of Contreras and Churubusco, and brevetted to major for bravery at the Battle of Chapultepec.

In February 1849 Hill resigned his commission and became a professor of mathematics at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), in Lexington, Virginia. It was during his time at Washington College that he wrote an Algebra textbook that included many disparaging examples that insulted Northerners. To say that D.H. Hill disliked Yankees would be an understatement.

In November 1848 Hill married Isabella Morrison, who was the daughter of Robert Hall Morrison, a Presbyterian minister and the first president of Davidson College. Hill and his wife would have nine children. In 1854, he joined the faculty of Davidson College and was, in 1859, made superintendent of the North Carolina Military Institute of Charlotte.

Hill’s wife was the sister of Mary Anna Morrison who would marry Thomas J. Jackson, later known as ‘Stonewall’, who was a professor of mathematics at the Virginia Military Institute.

At the start of the war Hill was commissioned as the colonel of the 1st North Carolina Infantry.He led his troops to victory at  the Battle of Big Bethel, near Fort Monroe, Virginia, on June 10, 1861. Shortly afterward, he was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to duty around Richmond.

By the spring of 1862 D.H. Hill was promoted to major general and given a division in the Army of Northern Virginia. He participated in the Yorktown and Williamsburg operations that started the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862 and led his division with great distinction in the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battles.

However, at the Battle of Malvern Hill he was ordered to lead a frontal assault by Robert E. Lee, who had succeeded to command after the serious wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston at Seven Pines. Lee’s plan was very complex and due to the Confederates’ unfamiliarity with the wooded terrain and confusing roads led to a series of disjointed attacks.

The Union artillery had disabled most of the Confederate batteries so the Confederate infantry were forced to advance with no artillery support. The Confederate troops reached only within 200 yards of the Union center and were repulsed by nightfall with heavy losses.

As the sun was going down, Brig. General Isaac Trimble of Ewell’s division began to move his troops forward. Jackson stopped him and asked “What are you going to do?” Trimble replied “I’m going to charge those batteries, sir!” “I guess you’d better not try it.” Jackson said. “General [D.H.] Hill has just tried with his entire division and been repulsed. I guess you’d better not try it.” Hill’s division was crushed in the fighting. He wrote afterward in a postwar article, “It wasn’t war; it was murder.”

On July 22, 1862, Hill and Union Maj. Gen. John A. Dix concluded an agreement for the general exchange of prisoners between the Union and Confederate armies. This agreement became known as the Dix-Hill Cartel and would be in effect for a good part of the war.

Hill’s division held up the Union advance at South Mountain during the Maryland Campaign. They would defend a part of the Sunken Road during the Battle of Antietam. Hill would personally lead a small group of detached soldiers from different brigades to hold the line at the critical moment. He had three horses shot out from under him during the battle.

After Antietam, Hill’s conflicts with Lee began to surface. After the death of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson at Chancellorsville, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia. Hill who expected to be promoted to corps command was not. In fact, he was off in South Carolina recruiting fresh troops. While the army was in Pennsylvania, Hill commanded reserve troops around Richmond.

Later in 1863, Hill was transferred to the Army of Tennessee with a provisional promotion to lieutenant general, to command one of Gen. Braxton Bragg‘s corps. At Chickamauga, Hill’s troops saw some of the heaviest fighting. After the battle Hill join with other general’s who openly condemned Bragg’s failure to exploit the victory.

President Jefferson Davis came to personally resolve this dispute, in Bragg’s favor, and to the detriment of those unhappy generals. The Army of Tennessee was reorganized again, and Hill was left without a command. Hill’s promotion was not confirmed by Davis, effectively demoting him to major general. He was also stripped of his corps with the reorganization of the Army of Tennessee.

After that, D.H. Hill served as a volunteer commander in smaller actions away from the major armies. Hill participated in the Battle of Bentonville in North Carolina, the last fight of the Army of Tennessee. Hill was a division commander when he, along with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, surrendered on April 26, 1865.

From 1866 to 1869, Hill edited a magazine, The Land We Love, at Charlotte, North Carolina, which dealt with social and historical subjects, and had a great influence in the South. In 1877, he became the first president of the University of Arkansas, a post that he held until 1884, and, in 1885, president of the Military and Agricultural College of Milledgeville, Georgia until August 1889, when he resigned due to failing health. General Hill died at Charlotte the following month, and was buried in Davidson College Cemetery.




Photographing the Civil War

This entry is part 7 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

220px-BloodyLaneAntietamThe American Civil War was the first American war to be extensively photographed. Not only were the soldiers photographed in studio environments but they were also photographed on the battlefield. Most of the civil and military leaders on both sides were also photographed. Today, many of these images have thankfully been preserved for later generations to view. They can be seen here, here and here just to link to a few places.

Photography was in its early phase. Nearly every Civil War soldier had his photograph taken by one of the more than 5,000 American photographers active at the time, and a select group of documentary photographers took thousands of images on the battlefields and in the army camps, often in 3D with the use of anaglyph 3D glasses.

Like any newfound pioneering work, the process of taking photographs during the Civil War proved to be complex and time-consuming. Photography was still in its infancy. Many photographers were older than the technology. It was Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre who simplified the process and reduced the exposure time to less than thirty minutes that made it adaptable for battlefield conditions in the future.

The Daguerreotype method became popular in New York City, and by then, several studios had been setup. The methods continued to be fine-tuned, and by the start of the Civil War, a cheaper and more practical system of photographing was developed. A new processing system developed by Henry Fox Talbot used the modern-day positive-negative process, thus making it possible to have several copies of the same picture.

The invention of the tintype, which was a metal image, and the ambrotype, printed on glass, allowed for mass production of small photographs Carte de Visite of Jefferson Davisusually kept by families in wooden or glass cases. Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography in Abilene, Texas says that “It was their most visceral, closest link to their loved ones. For girlfriends or wives at home, the only thing they had was the ambrotype.” More than a million such images were produced during the war.

The second kind of photo was the carte de visite. The carte de visite, or cdv, was also primarily a portrait photograph, except it was made with a glass, wet-plate negative, which meant unlimited copies could be created. Prints were made on albumen paper. These portraits of generals, statesmen, actors and other celebrities were mass produced and given out like trading cards.

During the Civil War two men were required to take a picture. The photographer’s assistant would mix the chemicals necessary and pour them on to a photographic glass plate. After the chemicals evaporated, it would be sensitized in a bath solution, all while in the dark. Meanwhile, the photographer would be setting up the camera equipment and focusing it. The plate would be placed in the camera, quickly exposed and then rush to the wagon or dark room to be developed.

Photography on the battle field would have a terrific visual impact for public understanding of the savagery of the war. The first major battlefield to be photographed extensively was Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. Matthew Brady, the preeminent Civil War photographer, staged an exhibition of photographs of the Antietam battlefield in his New York studio shortly after the battle.

Brady’s exhibit, entitled “The Dead of Antietam” are still powerful today. Many images in this presentation were graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation new to America. This was the first time that many Americans saw the realities of war in photographs as distinct from previous “artists’ impressions”.

Brady’s first popular photographs of the conflict were at the First Battle of Bull Run, in which he got so close to the action that he barely avoided capture. He employed Alexander Gardner, James Gardner, Timothy H. O’SullivanWilliam PywellGeorge N. BarnardThomas C. Roche, and seventeen other men, each of whom was given a traveling darkroom, to go out and photograph scenes from the Civil War.

Brady generally stayed in Washington, D.C., organizing his assistants and rarely visited battlefields personally. This may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that Brady’s eyesight had begun to deteriorate in the 1850s.

President Lincoln visiting AntietamAlexander Gardner began the war as Matthew Brady’s chief photographer but soon left his employ, primarily because Brady published all of his studio’s photographs as “Photographed by Brady”. Gardner had been Brady’s chef contact with Abraham Lincoln through his relationship with Allan Pinkerton. Gardner photographed the Battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. He also documented the Siege of Petersburg.

Gardner would photograph Lincoln on a total of seven occasions while Lincoln was alive. He also documented Lincoln’s funeral, and photographed the conspirators involved (with John Wilkes Booth) in Lincoln’s assassination. Gardner was the only photographer allowed at their execution by hanging, photographs of which would later be translated into woodcuts for publication in Harper’s Weekly.

Many photographs were taken by Southerners, but most were lost to history. According to the Photographic History of the Civil War

The natural disappointment in the South at the end of the war was such that photographers were forced to destroy all negatives, just as owners destroyed all the objects that might serve as souvenirs or relics of the terrible struggle, thinking for the moment at least, that they could not bear the strain of brooding over the tragedy.

Images of everyday life are also depicted for the first time in the Civil War, men playing cards, playing instruments or cleaning equipment. Black soldiers and slaves were also depicted for the first time. All of these images combined to make the war more real for the public on both sides of the conflict. The number of Civil War photographs that are available contrasts sharply with the scarcity of pictures from subsequent conflicts such as the Russian wars in Central Asia, the Franco-Prussian War, and the various colonial wars before the Boer War.




A War of Missed Opportunities

Civil War MontageThe American Civil War was a war of missed opportunities. Many wars have the same type of situations but the Civil War seems to have more missed opportunities than most. As a result of them the war lasted for four long years with almost 750,000 killed and untold numbers of wounded and maimed soldiers. It was said that every town in the South had at least one amputee with many towns in the North sharing this dubious distinction.

There are many reasons for the missed opportunities. At the start of the war both armies were no better than armed mobs. The antebellum U.S. Army was tiny with about 16,000 officers and men. Some of the higher-ranking officers had served in the Mexican War but almost none in command positions. Robert E. Lee was a staff officer. James Longstreet was a lieutenant. Ulysses Grant was a quartermaster.

Not only were the men untrained but so were the majority of the officers. Regimental, brigade and division commanders were often local dignitaries and politicians. Joshua Chamberlain was a college professor. Stonewall Jackson, although an army officer, was also a college professor. George McClellan was a railroad executive. Grant was a clerk in his brother’s leather goods store. Leonidas Polk was an Episcopal bishop.

These were the men who were expected to lead mass armies in combat. It took at least a year for the commanders to learn how to command. The First Battle of Manassas was a hash for both sides and it was only by dint of leadership and some luck that the Confederate Army won the battle.

Grant’s first victory at Belmont, Missouri was only a victory because the newspapers said that it was. His soldiers were cut off and forced to retreat to their river transport with Grant being chased on one of the boats himself.

The campaign in western Virginia almost ended the career of Robert E. Lee before it began. His forces lost a number of battles and he was eventually relieved of command and assigned to coastal defense.

Once the officers and men were adequately trained, the question of tactics came into play. While weaponry had progressed apace, tactics had not. In the early war years both sides were prone to use Napoleonic tactics with units advancing in wide formations and stopping to fire massed volleys at close range. Casualties were often horrendous once the troops learned to shoot.

As rifles and the men who fired them became more accurate, soldiers on both sides began to use fortifications to defend themselves. Both sides would entrench at the merest opportunity using a combination of earth and timber. They could then carry on continuous rifle fire behind some protection. By the end of the war the siegeworks at Petersburg became the rule not the exception.

Lets look at some of the missed opportunities.

Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee missed more than a few chances to destroy his opposition. At Chattanooga, he wasted his best opportunity to destroy the Army of the Cumberland. He also missed opportunities at McLemore’s Cove, Cassville, Peachtree Creek and Spring Hill.

George McClellan should have destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam but refused to commit his reserves because he had over-estimated Lee’s numbers. George Meade allowed Lee to escape back into Virginia after Gettysburg with only cavalry pursuit. And at Fredericksburg, Lee never counterattacked after all of Ambrose Burnside’s assault were repulsed.

As the war went on both sides spent their men’s lives in frontal assaults at Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and at a number of battles during the Petersburg campaign. Using 18th century tactics against 19th century guaranteed high casualty lists.


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.




1862: The End of Conciliation in the East

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Map of US with divisionsWhile 1861 same several attempts to settle the war without shedding an ocean of blood, 1862 would see the gradual descent of the war into a bitter conflict on both sides. In order to understand this period we’ll look at the war from various perspectives. This post will cover the Eastern Theater.

After the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run as the losing Union side named it, both sides began a gradual feeling-out process that was the antithesis of the later total war waged by both sides. The reality of First Manassas convinced both sides that their armies were no more than armed mobs. Both armies were deficient in training, leadership and even uniforms.

Both sides had uniforms that in some cases caused confusion on the battlefield. There were Confederate units with blue uniforms and Union units with a sort of blue/gray uniform. Some of the uniforms were garish and impractical like the Zouave uniforms worn by units on both sides. Even the early Confederate battle flags caused confusion because of their similarity to Old Glory.

Both armies in the Eastern Theater spent the fall and winter reorganizing, training and equipping their troops. In the Western Theater there were tentative probes down the Mississippi River and into Kentucky which had tried to remain neutral.

Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would make his first major foray from his base at Cairo, Illinois on November 7, 1861. The Battle of Belmont would see a limited clash of arms on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River with limited aims and a small loss of life.

In the Eastern Theater there were several engagements at the edges of the conflict but Maj. Gen. George McClellan refused to be pushed into major combat before he felt that his massive Army of the Potomac was ready to advance. By the end of 1861, McClellan had fortified Washington into one of the most defended cities in the world with 48 forts, 480 guns and 7,200 artillerymen.

The Army of the Potomac, McClellan’s chosen weapon of “shock and awe” had grown to over 190,000 men, the largest army ever assembled on the North American continent. It was was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times. But McClellan wanted more. He envisioned an army of 273,000 with 600 guns to “crush the rebels in one campaign.”

McClellan continually overestimated the numbers of enemy troops that were facing him in the Washington area. On August 8, believing that the Confederates had over 100,000 troops facing him (in contrast to the 35,000 they actually deployed at Bull Run a few weeks earlier), he declared a state of emergency in the capital.

By August 19, he estimated 150,000 enemy to his front. McClellan’s future campaigns would be strongly influenced by the overblown enemy strength estimates of his secret service chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, but in August 1861, these estimates were entirely McClellan’s own.

The result was a level of extreme caution that sapped the initiative of McClellan’s army and caused great condemnation by his government. Historian and biographer Stephen W. Sears has called McClellan’s actions “essentially sound” if he had been as outnumbered as he believed, but 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.

Eventually after much debate and arguments between McClellan and the Lincoln government, the Army of the Potomac was transported to the tip of the Peninsula where they began a slow advance northwest to their ultimate goal of Richmond. From the siege of Yorktown to Malvern Hill, McClellan and first, Joseph E. Johnston and then Robert E. Lee slugged it out over a four-month period. Eventually, the Confederates deflected the huge Union army from its goal.

While McClellan was left idle at Harrison’s Landing, Lee turned and thrashed Maj. Gen. John Pope at Second Manassas. He then turned north and headed into Maryland where Lee and McClellan met in the bloodiest one-day battle of the war at Antietam. After a bloodletting that caused almost 23,000 casualties, McClellan was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

With the departure of McClellan the war in the Eastern Theater began a slide to total war. Burnside’s first major battle was at Frederickburg on the Rappahannock River. The Union artillery preparation for the crossing of the river would destroy a large part of the town.

Union cavalry units were sent into the Virginia countryside to seize food and fodder thus denying it to the Confederates. This would establish a pattern for both armies to prey upon the civilian populations. The Confederate cavalry would do the same in Maryland and later Pennsylvania.


The Angel of Mary’s Heights

The Angel of Mary’s Heights

The Battle of Fredricksburg witnessed many extraordinary actions  but perhaps the most extraordinary soldier on Richard Kirklandthe field during the battle was Richard Kirkland, The Angel of Mary’s Heights. During the battle the young confederate soldier, he was barely nineteen, crossed into the no-man’s land between the two armies to bring water to wounded Federal soldiers.

Kirkland was born in Flat Rock, Kershaw County, South Carolina on August 1843. He enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861, not long after war was declared, before his older brothers. He was first assigned to Company E, 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, but was later transferred to Company G of the same regiment, and was promoted to sergeant. He first saw action during the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), and later in the Battle of Savage’s Station, Battle for Maryland Heights and Battle of Antietam, during which time many of his closest friends from Kershaw County were killed.

Kirkland’s unit, the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, was stationed at the now-famous stone wall at the base of Mary’s Heights where on December 13th they repelled a number of Federal assaults. The walking wounded were able to take themselves to rear-echelon hospitals but thousands of wounded were forced to spend the night in the open. The morning of December 14th brought the sight of an estimated 8,000 killed and wounded men on the field. The wounded were thirsty, hungry and cold. Sergeant Kirkland requested permission from Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw, a fellow South Carolinian and neighbor, to help the wounded. At first Kershaw denied him permission but then he relented, the only proviso being that he could not display a white flag. Kirkland reluctantly agreed. Filling as many canteens as he could carry, Kirkland ventured into the deadly open space and began to assist the wounded. He went back and forth several times, bringing the wounded water, warm clothing and blankets. Soldiers from both sides watched as he performed his acts of mercy and not a single shot was fired. With cries from the wounded for water, Kirkland assisted every wounded soldier both Confederate and Federal at his end of the line. After some time he returned to his place with the 2nd South Carolina.

Kirkland went on to fight in both the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Gettysburg where he was promoted to lieutenant. On September 20, 1863, he and two others took command of a charge near “Snodgrass Hill” during the Battle of Chickamauga. Realizing they had advanced too far forward, they attempted to return and Kirkland was shot. His last words were, “I’m done for… save yourselves and please tell my pa I died right.”

His body was returned home to Kershaw County, South Carolina, and he was buried in the “Old Quaker Cemetery” in Camden. A friend who later visited the gravesite years later was said to have commented that it was one of the most sequestered, unfrequented, and inaccessible spots for a grave he’d ever seen. General Kershaw would later be buried in that same cemetery, which also maintains the graves of Civil War General John Bordenave Villepigue and his descendant, World War I Medal of Honor recipient John Canty Villepigue, in addition to World War I Medal of Honor recipient Richmond Hobson Hilton. In 1965, sculptor Felix de Weldon unveiled a statue in front of the stone wall at the Fredericksburg battlefield in Kirkland’s honor.

The Angel of Mary’s Heights by Mort Kunstler

Richard Kirkland
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