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06/16/16

The Eastern Theater: Graveyard of Generals (Part One)

This entry is part 3 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Union Generals-The Eastern Theater: Graveyard of Generals (Part One)The Eastern Theater was the graveyard of generals for the Union Army. Initially, it was simply a matter of inexperience with large formations of troops by the field commanders. None of them had ever commanded more than a regiment of 600 to 1,000 men while they now commanded tens of thousands. After the Battle of Seven Pines the gravedigger became Robert E. Lee with Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet as the principal pallbearers.

The first Union commander of a major Union army was Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell who commanded the Army of Northeastern Virginia. McDowell was an inexperienced officer whose command consisted of 90-day enlistees with even less experience. He was pressured by the Washington politicians and major newspapers who had coined the phrase “On to Richmond.”

With an army of 35,000 men he initially outnumbered the 20,000 Confederates under Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at Manassas. The second major Confederate force of 12,000 men under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley, was to be held in place by Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson with 18,000 men menacing Harpers Ferry, preventing the two Confederate armies from combining against McDowell.

McDowell’s major mistake was to put in place a complex battle plan that his inexperienced field commanders were incapable of executing. Initially, the Union forces had the advantage but Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson stout defense coupled with the timely reinforcements from the Valley turned the tide in the Confederates’ favor. McDowell’s retreat turned into a rout.

McDowell was superseded by Maj. Gen. George McClellan who was summoned to Washington and given command of the newly-formed Army of the Potomac. McDowell was initially given command of a division and later a corps. He would later serve under the equally unsuccessful John Pope at the Second Battle of Manassas. McDowell was shelved for two years after that battle and was eventually given command of the Department of the Pacific.

Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was the next Confederate general to wreak havoc among the Union high command in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862. Jackson had acquired his famous nickname at the First Battle of Manassas when he held of repeated Union attacks on his lines. In the Valley, he would whip a much larger Union force in a lightning campaign that is still studied at West Point.

After an initial tactical defeat against Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks at the First Battle of Kernstown (March 23, 1862), Jackson turned his force and defeated elements of the Union Mountain Departments of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky of Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont‘s army in the Battle of McDowell on May 8th.

Both Banks and Frémont were ‘political’ generals. Banks had been the Democratic Governor of Massachusetts while Frémont was a prominent Republican having been their first Presidential candidate.

Jackson joined forces with Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell and captured the Federal garrison at Front Royal on May 23, causing Banks to retreat to the north. On May 25, in the First Battle of Winchester, Jackson defeated Banks and pursued him until the Union Army crossed the Potomac River into Maryland.

Bringing in Union reinforcements from eastern Virginia, Brig. Gen. James Shields recaptured Front Royal and planned to link up with Frémont in Strasburg. Jackson was now threatened by three small Union armies. Withdrawing up the Valley from Winchester, Jackson was pursued by Frémont and Shields. On June 8, Ewell defeated Frémont in the Battle of Cross Keys and on the following day, crossed the North River to join forces with Jackson to defeat Shields in the Battle of Port Republic, bringing the campaign to a close.

Jackson had defeated the larger forces of three Union generals. After the subsequent Battle of Cedar Mountain, Banks was criticized for his numerous tactical errors before and during the battle, including poor placement of troops, inadequate reconnaissance, and failing to commit reserve resources when he had a chance to break the Confederate line. He was removed from command an assigned to organize a force of thirty thousand new recruits, drawn from New York and New England.

When the Army of Virginia was created June 26, to include General Frémont’s corps, with John Pope in command, Frémont declined to serve on the grounds that he was senior to Pope and for personal reasons. He then went to New York where he remained throughout the war, expecting a command, but none was given to him.

Brig. Gen. James Shields was yet another ‘political general’. Although he was the only general who defeated Jackson in the campaign, his career did not benefit from his victory. The day after Kernstown, he was promoted to major general, but the promotion was withdrawn, reconsidered, and then finally rejected. His overall performance in the rest of the Valley Campaign was poor enough that he resigned his commission, and his departure was not resisted by the War Department.

 

05/10/13

Toward A Real Civil War: Spring and Summer 1861

This entry is part 2 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Ohio VolunteersThe antebellum United States Army had about 16,000 officers and men. Of these about one-quarter of the officer corps resigned to join the Confederate Army. At the onset of the war both armies were no better than armed mobs, untrained, undisciplined and unblooded. Both sides were simply groping toward civil war without a firm plan.

The U.S. Army consisted of ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted infantry. The regiments were scattered widely. Of the 197 companies in the army, 179 occupied 79 isolated posts in the West, and the remaining 18 manned garrisons east of the Mississippi River, mostly along the Canada–United States border and on the Atlantic coast.

President Abraham Lincoln initially issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months to put down the “insurrection”. Some have said that the Union government was overly optimistic but in reality that was the limits of Lincoln’s legal authority. Until Congress reconvened he could only ask for that many volunteers.

While the army was forming, the Lincoln administration went about seeking ways to heal the breach between the North and the South. Many Northerners retained the belief that a settlement with the Southerners could be achieved without too much bloodshed. Those who supported General Scott believed as he did that quick, bloody action would push the Southern Unionists into supporting the secessionists. There was a significant group who was of the opposite opinion that quick action could ignite the Southern Unionists into action on the side of the Union.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair was on the side of those who pushed for quick, decisive. He wrote Lincoln that in his opinion the officer corps was making a fatal flaw by overestimating the strength of the secessionist spirit in the South. Blair predicted that if the North didn’t move rapidly then the South would only be subjugated by complete conquest.

As the spring moved into early summer and no offensive action was undertaken Lincoln began to have doubts in Scott’s policy of deliberation. The South had achieved a number of minor victories: the capture of the shipyard, the seizure of Harper’s Ferry and the minor but humiliating defeat at Big Bethel, Virginia.

Both the New York Tribune and the Chicago Tribune called for the Union army to drive on Richmond with the slogan, “Forward to Richmond.” General Irvin McDowellHowever, the majority of the nation’s newspapers continued to support General Scott’s plan of deliberately fencing the Confederates in. Scott hoped that by amassing huge armies in the east and west, he would discourage the Confederate troops. He was hoping that loyal citizens would rise up and prevent any further attacks, like Fort Sumter.

At the cabinet meeting on June 29th, Lincoln gave the Army command marching orders. He insisted that they advance as far as Manassas within two or three weeks. Scott resisted but eventually agreed to the order. By July 8th, Lincoln issued order for General Irvin McDowell, the field commander, to launch his offensive. McDowell launched his forces on July 16th.

McDowell had been a supply officer from 1848 until 1861. He was pushed for a field command by his mentor, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Although McDowell knew that his troops were inexperienced and unready, and protested that he was a supply officer, not a field commander, pressure from the Washington politicians forced him to launch a premature offensive against Confederate forces in Northern Virginia.

In order not to antagonize the Southern civilians, McDowell gave instructed his men to conduct themselves ” with as much forbearance and propriety as if they were at their own homes.”    

McDowell’s army met their Confederate counterparts near Manassas Junction on July 21st where an all-day battle ensued. His strategy during the First Battle of Bull Run was imaginative but ambitiously complex, and his troops were not experienced enough to carry it out effectively, resulting in an embarrassing rout. The Union defeat ended any hopes of a Confederate collapse and peaceful reconciliation. President Lincoln summoned Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan to take command of the Union Army in the East.                                                                                                                                         

09/1/11

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

From the beginning of the war Abraham Lincoln had searched for a military commander in the East. He was looking for a fighting general, one who had the ability to lead the Federal forces to victory in the East and end the war. It take him until March 1864 to find one: Ulysses S. Grant.

At first he appointed Irvin McDowell. McDowell was a professional soldier of no great ability. He led the Federal army to a crushing defeat at the First Bull Run (Manassas).

General George McClellanLincoln then replaced him with George B. McClellan who had served in western Virginia at the beginning of the war. He was a dashing, charismatic leader who forged the Army of the Potomac from the shattered fragments of McDowell’s army. However, McClellan was a perfectionist who did not wish to take his creation into battle under less than ideal conditions.

After a great deal of pressure McClellan embarked on a campaign to take Richmond. He embarked his massive force, moved them by water to Yorktown and marched them up the narrow Virginia Peninsula. After a number of battles, first against Joseph Johnston and then when he was wounded, against Robert E. Lee, McClellan forces where back where they began at Harrison’s Landing.

Rather than sacking McClellan Lincoln took the indirect approach and appointed a western general John Pope who was given the command of the Army of Virginia. Pope immediately blundered into a Confederate trap and was crushed at Second Bull Run. The Confederates then invaded Maryland.

Lincoln swallowed his pride and asked McClellan to resume complete command of the Army.  At Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland the Army of the Potomac fought what was to be the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. At Antietam McClellan was exposed as a timidBloody Lane at Antietam commander. Failing to use his overwhelmingly superior forces in a coordinated attack, he fed his forces into the battle piecemeal. The Confederates were able to blunt all of his assaults. He then compounded his mistakes and allowed the battered enemy to withdraw back to Virginia. Lincoln replaced McClellan for the final time.

He was replaced by Ambrose Burnside who in December 1862 tried to force the Confederate lines at Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. Showing his inability to improvise in the field Burnside persisted in frontal assaults on the main Confederate positions resulting in horrendous casualties. Burnside was replaced by debonair, self-promoting “Fighting Joe” Hooker.

Hooker proclaimed that his headquarters would be in the saddle. One newspaper said that Hooker had his headquarters in his hindquarters. At Chancellorsville Hooker was completely out-maneuvered and defeated by Robert E. Lee with a Confederate army half his army’s size. Lincoln was in complete despair saying: “My God! What will the country say?”

Hooker was replaced by George Gordon Meade in late June 1863 when Lee again led his Army of Northern Virginia on an invasion of the north. At Gettysburg Meade led the Federal army to victory in a three-day defensive battle. Like McClellan at Antietam, Meade failed to follow up his victory and the Confederates returned to the safety of Virginia to rest and refit. Lincoln again despaired for the Union.

That November Meade took his army on a half-hearted offensive that tried to force the Confederate entrenchments at Mine Run. The Army of the Potomac limped back to their encampments with nothing to show for it. Meade was not to answer Lincoln’s need for a fighting general.

Through all of the inept, timid commanders in the East one general in the West stood out as a commander who understood the need to destroy the General Ulysses S. Grantenemy’s army utterly: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was a West Point graduate who had served with some distinction in the Mexican War. After that war he had drifted into civilian life in St. Louis and Galena, Illinois where he worked at his father’s tannery.

At the onset of the war Grant recruited a company of volunteers and led them to Springfield. In the capitol he accepted a position from the governor to train troops. He was good at it but was anxious for a field command. At the end of August 1861 he was given the command of the District of Cairo. He was commanded to make an attack against Confederate forces at Belmont, Kentucky. In an amphibious assault he led 3,100 union troops against Fort Belmont on November 7, 1861. He initially held the fort but was forced to retreat by overwhelming force.

Grant then decided to work his way down the Mississippi River and capture Confederate water fortresses. The lightly manned Fort Henry fell on February 6, 1862. Fort Donelson was a different story. In cooperation with the Navy, his 25,000 man force took this fort ten days later. At Fort Donelson Grant coined what was to be his signature surrender demand:  “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender.” Lincoln promoted Grant to major general of volunteers.

By April the Federal army, known as the Army of the Tennessee, had increased to nearly 50,000 men. At Shiloh, Tennessee they fought a costly battle with Confederate forces number nearly 45,000. On the first day of the battle the Federal army was pushed back to the landing but on the second day Grant ordered a counterattack that defeated the Confederate force. The Confederate commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, was killed. Some 23,700 were killed or wounded at Shiloh making it the costliest battle of the war to date.

Grant was demoted by Henry Halleck to second-in-command of a combined 120,000 man army. It took the persuasions of his friend William T. Sherman to stop him from resigning his commission. Eventually, this massive force was broken up and Grant returned to his command of the Army of the Tennessee.

By December 1862 Grant was resolved to take the Confederate fortress city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi. At first he attempted an overland campaign that became stalled by Confederate cavalry attacks. After a series of unsuccessful river and bayou battles Grant changed his strategy andThe Mississippi River Squadron running the Confederate Blockade at Vicksburg moved his troops down the west side of the Mississippi. He then crossed over to the east side and attempted to take the city by storm. When that was unsuccessful he settled down for a seven week siege. Confederate commander John C. Pemberton surrendered on July 4, 1863.

With the fall of Vicksburg the Mississippi River was completely controlled by the Federal Army and Navy. The Confederacy was now cut in two. Lincoln gave Grant command of the entire Federal war front in the West with the exception of Louisiana.

Grant then commanded his combined armies in a series of battles in and around Chattanooga, Tennessee. These resulted in the eventual defeat of Confederate forces in this region. The decisive 1863 Chattanooga battle opened Georgia and the heartland of the Confederacy to Union invasion by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

Grant was promoted to Lieutenant-General, only the third man to hold that rank; George Washington and Winfield Scott being the other two. He was given complete command of all Federal armies in the field. Grant traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln and plan the next moves in the war. After realizing that eventual victory would need to come from the East he decided to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac.

In short order the country would come to learn more about the man that Lincoln had given the entire Federal army to. When some complainers spoke to Lincoln about rumors of Grant’s drinking, he exclaimed: “I can’t spare the man, he fights”.  Over the next year Grant’s armies would batter the Confederate forces on all fronts into utter defeat.