image_pdfimage_print
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McDowell was superseded by Maj.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.

 

06/13/16

Lincoln’s Abolitionist Generals

This entry is part 1 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

John C. FremontOne hundred and fifty-one years after the end of the war most Americans believe that the Civil War was all about freeing the slaves. That could not be further from the truth. There were a variety of reasons precipitated the war. For the South the war was about States Rights. Of course, slavery was part of that but the right of each state to govern themselves was their major concern. For the Union the war was about preserving the Union. In both cases diaries, letters and books attest to each reason.

Today, we celebrate Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator but in his letter to Horace Greeley,  editor of the influential New York Tribune, we realize that he was a practical politician:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves 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. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

Just as Lincoln was ambivalent about slavery so too were his generals. Some were outright opposed to emancipation. Others were lukewarm on the issue. But there was a group who were true abolitionists. Let’s look at four of the abolitionist generals who had an impact on the issue. You’ll note that three of the four were ‘political’ generals. Here are two of the four.

John C. Fremont was known as the Pathfinder who led five expeditions into the West. He explored most of the American West including the Rocky Mountains and all of the way to California. He made a great deal of money in the form of gold. It allowed him to purchase land in northern California. In 1850 California entered the Union and Fremont was selected as one of the two United States Senators. However, he only served for 175 days before being defeated for reelection. He was a Free Soil Democrat and was defeated for reelection largely because of his strong opposition to slavery.

In 1856 Fremont was nominated as the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party. His slogan was Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Fremont – John C. Fremont. Unfortunately, he was defeated by the Democrat James Buchanan.

Frémont was promoted to Major General and Commander of the Department of the West on July 1, 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln. Frémont brought with him his skills and great reputation as the Pathfinder, and he was focused on driving the Confederate forces from Missouri. His term as Commander of the Department of the West was controversial, at times successful, and lasted until November 2, 1861, when he was abruptly dismissed by President Lincoln for insubordination and corruption charges in his supply line.

On August 30, 1861, Frémont, without notifying President Lincoln, issued a controversial proclamation putting Missouri under martial law. Frémont made this emancipation proclamation in response to the Confederate tactics of guerrilla warfare and to reduce Confederate sympathies in the stronger slave-holding counties. The edict stipulated that civilians in arms would be subject to court martial and execution, the property of those who aided secessionists would be confiscated, and the slaves of rebels would be emancipated.

President Lincoln, fearing that Frémont’s emancipation order would tip Missouri (and other slave states in Union control) to the southern cause, asked Frémont to revise the order. Frémont refused to do so, and sent his wife to plead the case. President Lincoln reprimanded her husband and told Jessie that Frémont “should never have dragged the Negro into the war.” Lincoln responded by publicly revoking the proclamation and relieving Frémont of command on November 2, 1861, simultaneous to a War Department report detailing Frémont’s iniquities as a major general. Although Lincoln opposed Frémont’s method of emancipation, the episode had a significant influence on Lincoln. It helped shape, his opinions on the appropriate steps towards emancipation and in January 1863, Lincoln issued his own Emancipation Proclamation.

Nathaniel Banks was from Massachusetts and gradually became an abolitionist. He was at first moderate on the expansion of slavery, but recognizing the potency of the burgeoning abolitionistNathaniel P. Banks movement, he became more strongly attached to that cause. In 1850 Banks became Speaker of the Massachusetts House. His role as house speaker and his effectiveness in conducting business raised his status significantly, as did work he did on the side for the state Board of Education.

In 1852 Banks won a seat in the Congress despite losing party support due to his abolitionist leanings. In 1853 he presided over the state Constitutional Convention of 1853. This convention produced a series of proposals for constitutional reform, including a new constitution, all of which were rejected by voters. The failure, which was led by Whigs and conservative anti-abolitionist Democrats, spelled the end of the Democratic-Free Soil coalition.

In Congress Banks sat on the Committee of Military Affairs. He bucked the Democratic party line by voting against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Supported by his constituents, he then publicly endorsed the abolitionist cause. In 1854 he formally joined the Know Nothing cause, was renominated for Congress by the Democrats and Free Soilers, and won an easy victory in the Know Nothing landslide.

At the opening of the 34th Congress in December 1855, men from several parties opposed to slavery’s spread gradually united in supporting Banks for speaker. After the longest and one of the most bitter speakership contests on record, lasting from December 3, 1855 to February 2, 1856, Banks was chosen on the 133rd ballot. This has been called the first national victory of the Republican party.

He gave antislavery men important posts in Congress for the first time, and cooperated with investigations of both the Kansas conflict and the caning of Senator Charles Sumner. Because of his fairness in dealing with the numerous factions, as well his parliamentary ability, Banks was lauded by others in the body, including former Speaker Howell Cobb, who called him “in all respects the best presiding officer [I] had ever seen.”

In 1857 Banks ran for Governor of Massachusetts against the incumbent Henry Gardner. His nomination by the Republicans was contentious, with opposition coming primarily from radical antislavery interests opposed to his comparatively moderate stand on the issue. After a contentious campaign Banks won a comfortable victory.

As the Civil War became imminent, President Lincoln considered Banks for a cabinet post, and eventually chose him as one of the first major generals of volunteers, appointing him on May 16, 1861. Perceptions that the Massachusetts militia was well organized and armed at the beginning of the Civil War likely played a role in the appointment decision, as Banks had also been considered for quartermaster general.

Banks held a number of positions in the Union Army. His initial command was in the Shenandoah Valley where he met and was defeated by Stonewall Jackson. Banks next received command of the defense forces at Washington. Then he moved South where he was given command of the Army of the Gulf. He commanded the Union forces at the successful siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana. In 1864 he commanded the ill-fated Red River Campaign. On April 22, 1864, Grant wired Chief of Staff Halleck asking for Banks’ removal. He was replaced by Edward Canby, who was promoted to major general.

 

 

06/15/14

Failed Union Civil War Generals

This entry is part 2 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Civil War GeneralsThe American Civil War probably had the greatest number of failed general officers in the history of the United States. In fact, both sides saw more general officers who were either relieved of command or later investigated by various Congressional committees.

In the defense of general officers on both sides, none of them had commanded any formation larger than a regiment. Most had commanded companies, battalions or batteries. A number of these officers had been at West Point most recently.

The antebellum United States Army had about 16,000 officers and men scattered across the United States at isolated posts and forts. Many of the West Pointers, like Robert E. Lee, spent the majority of their non-Mexican War service as engineering officers building coastal defenses or supervising the maintenance of harbors and waterways.

Imagine their shock when they were assigned to command formations with thousands of soldiers. At the Battle of First Manassas the combined number of troops engaged was 36,000. The combined armies had between 60,000 and 69,000 men. In the early fighting the armies were really armed mobs. It wasn’t until 1863 that the troops and their officers became hardened veterans.

In this series we’ll start by looking at failed general officers in the Union Army. The most notable, of course, was Maj. Gen. George McClellan, General-in-chief and commander of the Army of the Potomac. He was followed by Maj. Gens. Joseph Hooker and Ambrose Burnside.

There were a number of general officers throughout the history of the Army of the Potomac and other Eastern commands who were relieved of command. Perhaps the most notable was Maj. Gen. Gouvernour K. Warren who spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name.

In the Western Theater, there were Maj. Gens. Don Carlos Buell and William S. Rosecrans. Both of them were relieved of command. Rosecrans carried on a feud with his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, until his dying day.

Many of the Union Army’s failed general officers were so-called ‘political generals’ like Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler and Franz Siegal. Many of them were Democrats whose support Abraham Lincoln saw as critical to the war effort. He did not want the war to be a Republican one but rather wanted it to be a Union effort.

However, some of the ‘political generals’ were not schooled in any type of military training or if they were their experience dated from the Mexican War of 1846-1848 when they were junior officers. These officers tended to make a hash of their battle assignments.

One successful ‘political general’ was Ben Butler who precipitated the ‘contraband’ rules that the Union government adopted when he was the commander of Fortress Monroe. He was also successful when he was the military commander of occupied New Orleans. However, he was never very successful as a battle commander.

 

04/18/14

Grant’s Final Strategy

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant in full uniformAfter being turned down by the high Command and the President, Grant revisited his strategic plan. Washington was a risk-averse town and the military and civilian leaders of the Union government were the most risk-averse of all. Grant’s initial plans for the campaigns across the South were extremely radical.

His proposal to drive across North Carolina in order to cut off Lee’s supply lines was, in their view, the riskiest of all. Moving troops from northern Virginia would uncover the nation’s capital would risk raids by the Confederates. What if Lee didn’t take the bait and drove right up Pennsylvania Avenue? No, that just wouldn’t do.

Grant’s pincer attack from Mobile to Montgomery was rejected because Abraham Lincoln was fixated on a show of strength for the French in Mexico. He felt that the Union government needed to send a message by sending an expedition up the Red River. It was as if he was saying that we can protect all of our territory. So, it was back to the drawing board for General Grant.

Grant now proposed a new strategy. Grant had seen the war from a Western Theater point of view. In the Eastern Theater the war was mostly confined to Virginia with two confederate invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the Western Theater the view was very different.

The war in the Western Theater exposed Grant to a war against the entirety of Southern society. He understood that the Southerners were unrepentant, their armies were resilient and the war zone was expansive.

In Virginia, the war was a one-on-one conflict between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. In the Western Theater, the war had to carried out against all of the elements: the population, the Confederate Army and Southern society. Therefore, Grant tailored his strategy based on these principles.

When asked about his opinion on Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini’s book on strategy, Grant was said to have replied:

I have never read it carefully; the art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on. 

Seems simple enough.

Grant’s first element of his strategy was the destruction of the Confederate field armies. His plan called for placing as much pressure as possible on Robert E. Lee’ Army of Northern Virginia and Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. His plan was to draw them out into the open field and destroy them by a series of major engagements.

In order to successfully carry out these objective, Grant planned to coordinate all of the Union armies. By doing this the Confederates would not be able to shift their forces across theater lines, as they had done when General James Longstreet’s Second Corps had been sent to the Western Theater. This would eliminate the Confederacy’s advantage of interior lines of supply.

Grant estimated that if he couldn’t annihilate his enemies in battle, he would be able to exhaust them logistically, economically and psychologically. It has been characterized by historians either as a annihilation or attrition or both.

Grant and his disciples, the foremost being William T. Sherman, saw war as brutal and unpleasant. They believed in the “hard war” or total war that would be necessary in order to bring the Civil War to swift and successful conclusion.

In order to carry out his strategy, Grant would need commanders that agreed with his belief in “hard war” but here he ran into the political realities of the war.

Sherman was a logical choice as commander of the Army of the Tennessee and eventually overall commander of the Western Theater. Today, he is best remembered for his pronouncement: “All war is hell” but in a letter to the mayor and city council of Atlanta he wrote:

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.

Sherman was an easy position to fill but the others were not so easy. General Nathaniel Banks was in command of the Army of the Gulf. He was a former Massachusetts Congressman and Governor with very little military experience. His Red River Expedition was defeated before the campaigns in Virginia and Georgia could even begin. This gave Grant the opportunity to replace him with General Edward Canby. By then Grant lamented that the Red River Expedition had eliminated the use of 40,000 troops for the Sherman’s campaign and the attack on Mobile.

The commander in the Shenandoah Valley was General Franz Sigel, a German immigrant. So far, Sigel was a best inept and at worst incompetent. He had been appointed to his position by Lincoln who hoped to secure German immigrant support for the Republican Party. Sigel failed miserably at the Battle of New Market on May 15th and retreated North to safety. Grant was furious and replaced him with General David Hunter.

Grant’s plan called for the movement of the Army of the James to threaten Richmond from the East. The commander of the Army of the James was another Massachusetts politician, General Ben Butler. Butler was a former Democrat turned Radical Republican. Lincoln needed the support of that wing of his party so Butler’s appointment was a foregone conclusion.

Initially, Grant was favorably impressed with Butler when they met at Fortress Monroe in April. Grant’s initial judgment of Ben Butler was a serious mistake. He was indecisive and needed constant supervision. Grant constantly needed to prod him to take action. He was unable to break through the Confederate lines at Bermuda Hundred even though he outnumbered General P.G.T. Beauregard 33,000 to 18,000. This allowed Lee to move troops from this line.

Finally, Grant kept George Gordon Meade as the commander of the Army of the Potomac even though he offered to resign. Grant was impressed by Grant’s willingness to step aside for the welfare of the nation. Grant kept him on but decided to travel with the Army of the Potomac where he could guide his chief weapon.

 

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.

04/16/14

Grant’s Original Strategy

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant as a Lieutenant GeneralIn the late summer of 1863, Ulysses S. Grant was asked by then-General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to outline his plans on a broader strategy against the South. After all, Grant was the most successful commander that the Union Army had. He had led the Western armies in an almost unbroken series of victories against his nation’s foe. Why wouldn’t the high command in Washington wish to know his thinking?

Halleck had been Grant’s direct commander in the West and based on they way that he treated him thought little of his intellect and military knowledge. Either Halleck realized that his earlier judgments of Grant were wrong or he realized that change was in the air. He better begin to find out Grant’s thinking before he became the boss.

Grant responded with two letters to Halleck. In them he outlined a bold campaign scheme. Grant had called for the consolidation of the Western armies under one consolidated command. Grant was widely viewed by the Easterners as a plodding butcher who achieved his victories by sheer overwhelming force. However, his views on strategy both in the Western Theater and in the overall war changed that dismissive attitude.

It turned out the Ulysses S. Grant was a strategic thinker of considerable ability and sophistication. Earlier, Grant had called for the consolidation of the Western armies under one consolidated command.

He put forward a plan that called for his own Army of the Tennessee and Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf to start at Mobile and drive north to capture Montgomery, Alabama.

Meanwhile, General William S. Rosecrans was to advance overland from Chattanooga to Atlanta. All military resources in the area were to be destroyed, depriving the Confederacy of vital supplies.

Grant ran in to Lincoln’s desire to send Banks up the Red River to ‘show the flag.’ The French had installed  Maximillian, the archduke of Austria, as emperor in Mexico, a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Lincoln wanted to make it clear that the United States would defend its territory despite the Civil War. Grant’s military plans fell victim to Lincoln’s political plans.

In October 1863, all of the armies in the West, except Banks’ Army of the Gulf, were consolidated under Grant’s command. In November Grant was victorious at Chattanooga and he wasted little time in putting forward his strategic plan for the Western Theater. Grant once again proposed his Mobile to Montgomery campaign and once again Lincoln pointed out the needs of Union diplomacy with regards to Mexico.

Grant was encouraged by Washington to expand his plans to include the entire war zone. In his second letter Grant proposed what must have seemed like heresy to Eastern-centric high command. Grant proposed flanking Lee by moving deep into North Carolina and cutting off his supply lines from the South.

He proposed a starting point of Suffolk in southeastern Virginia and Raleigh, North Carolina as the objective point. He proposed to use New Bern as his supply base until the strategic port of Wilmington, North Carolina could be captured. He proposed using a force of 60,000 men to carry out the destruction of the rail lines south of Richmond. Should Lee move South to counter this force, a large force would not be required on the Potomac.

Grant saw this line of attack as most productive. It would destroy key lines of communication and supply. It would also increase desertion rates among North Carolina troops who would be eager to defend their homes. Slaves would be encouraged to leave their plantations, further diminishing the Confederate supply base. Finally Grant felt that it would “virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee.”

In summation, Grant felt that there would no longer be the need for an attack on Richmond since it would be necessary for the Confederate government to abandon their capital. Once Lee would find it necessary to move South, Richmond would cease to be important to the enemy.

In putting forward his radical plan, Grant was making the point that the destruction of the Confederate armies were the objection rather than capturing cities and towns. Grant’s plans also emphasized the use of the offensive by the Union armies would deny the offensive to Lee who many in both armies viewed as an offensive genius.

Henry W. Halleck was conservative to the core and he viewed Grant’s plan both in the East and the West as too risky. Removing so many troops from northern Virginia would leave the capital defenseless in his view. Grant’s Western strategy would never be approved by Lincoln. The President had a continued desire to control more parts of Louisiana and the Tran-Mississippi Region. The troops that Grant had designated for the Mobile Campaign were sent to Banks for his ill-advised Red River Campaign.

In the next post we’ll look at how Grant’s strategy evolved in light of the risk-averse thinking in the Washington high command.

If you’re interested in reading about Nathaniel Banks’ Red River Campaign, here is the link to the first post in the five-part series.

 

02/27/14

The Political Generals of the Union: Nathaniel Banks

This entry is part 8 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General Nathaniel BanksWhen Abraham Lincoln realized that he would have to prosecute a war against the Southern states he knew that he would need to gain the allegiance of the Democrat Party. He did not want the Northern war effort to be seen as simply as Republican Party-only. In order to gain the confidence of the Northern Democrats, he would need to appoint a number of them to generalships.

Among these so-called political generals can be found Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler, Franz Siegal and Dan Sickles. Added to this was John Charles Fremont who was the first Republican candidate for President, running in the 1856 election.

Nathaniel Banks was a Democratic politician from Massachusetts. He had served in the state legislature from 1848 until 1856. Within two years he was elected Speaker of the Massachusetts House. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1855 and after a protracted contest was elected Speaker of the House. In 1857, he was elected Governor, a post that he served in until January 1861. By then Banks had moved from the Democrat Party to become a Republican.

Lincoln appointed Banks as the first major general of volunteers on May 16, 1861, giving him seniority over everyone who followed him. Banks may have been a good politician but he was not a good general. He was unschooled in the ways of strategy and tactics. Lincoln’s problem was that Banks could not be fired.

Over the course of his career he failed in a number of theaters. He was whipped by “Stonewall” Jackson in the Valley Campaign of 1862 and at Cedar Mountain in August 1862. At the latter, he was saved by the arrival of Union reinforcements that resulted in a standoff.

In the winter of 1862 he raised a force of 30,000 men from the Northeast who he led to New Orleans where he replaced Maj. Gen. Ben Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, doubted the wisdom of replacing Butler with Banks.

According to historian John D. Winters, “Welles’s opinion of the military abilities of both men was very low, but he did not question Butler’s skill as a ‘police magistrate’ in charge of civil affairs. Banks, he thought did not have ‘the energy, power or ability of Butler.’ He did have ‘some ready qualities for civil administration,’ but was less reckless and unscrupulous’ and probably would not be able to hold a tight enough rein on the people” once placed under Union control.”

Banks had mixed success in the Gulf. He was ordered to capture the vital Confederate base at Port Hudson, Louisiana on the Mississippi River. With the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson the South would be split in two parts, cutting off supplies to their armies east of the river. Banks led an expedition of 12,000 men who attempted to storm the Confederate works on two occasions. Both were dismal failures with each of the two attacks resulting in more than 1,800 Union casualties. The Confederate garrison surrendered after Vicksburg fell.

In March 1864 at the urging of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, who was still General-in-Chief, Banks embarked on the Red River Campaign. Banks’s army was routed at the Battle of Mansfield by General Richard Taylor (son of former President Zachary Taylor) and retreated 20 miles (32 km) to make a stand the next day at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. Despite winning a tactical victory at Pleasant Hill, Banks continued the retreat to Alexandria, his force rejoined part of the Federal Inland Fleet.

After the campaign, just before General Sherman began his operations against Atlanta, Sherman said of the Red River campaign that it was “One damn blunder from beginning to end.” On April 22, 1864, Grant wired Chief of Staff Halleck asking for Banks’s removal. He was replaced by Edward Canby, who was promoted to major general.

President Lincoln ordered Banks to oversee elections held under the new constitution in September, and then ordered him to return to Washington to lobby Congress for acceptance of Louisiana’s constitution and elected Congressmen. Congress refused to seat Louisiana’s two Congressmen in early 1865.

After six months, Banks returned to Louisiana to resume his military command under Canby. However, he was politically trapped between the civilian government and Canby, and resigned from the army in May 1865 after only one month in New Orleans. He returned to Massachusetts in September 1865.

 

05/15/13

Lincoln’s Democrat Generals

George B. McClellan in 1861Some historians have put forward a theory that the Union generals of the early war were lenient in prosecuting the war due to their political leanings. Abraham Lincoln in an effort to garner support for the war appointed a significant number of Democrats as major generals of volunteers at the start of the war.

The most important reason for appointing political generals was to appease important blocs of voters. President Abraham Lincoln used such appointments as a way to get the support of moderate Democrats for the war and for his administration (“War Democrats“). The first three volunteer generals Lincoln appointed, (John Adams DixNathaniel Prentice Banks and Benjamin F. Butler) were all Democrats, and therefore these three officers were the most senior major generals in the Union Army. Republicans were also appointed including Richard James Oglesby of Illinois.

John Adams Dix was a New York politician who had served in the Senate and as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan for less than two months in 1861. He is best known for the telegram that he sent to all Treasury agents in New Orleans. “If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” Although the telegram was intercepted by Confederates, and was never delivered, the text found its way to the press, and Dix became one of the first heroes of the North during the Civil War.

Dix was the most senior major general of volunteers in the Union Army because his was the first appointment. He served in a variety of commands in the Eastern Theater. He is best known for the Dix-Hill Cartel for the exchange of prisoners of war.

Nathaniel Prentice Banks was a Massachusetts politician who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives as both a Member and then as Speaker. He left the House and ran for the governorship which he won. He was the second major general of volunteers to be appointed by Lincoln. During his career, Banks held commands in Maryland, the Shenandoah Valley and the Department of the Gulf.

He had the bad fortune to have to face Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley during his memorable Valley Campaign of 1862. Jackson bested Banks at Winchester and later at Cedar Mountain.In the South, Banks commanded at the Siege of Port Hudson and on the Red River Campaign.

Benjamin Butler was the third ranking major general of volunteers appointed by Lincoln. His policies regarding slaves as contraband so they could have freedom, his administration of occupied New Orleans, his ineffectual leadership in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the fiasco of Fort Fisher rank him as one of the most controversial political generals of the war. Butler was the first Eastern Union General to declare runaway Virginia slaves “contraband of war”; refusing to return them to their masters.

Then we have the most famous of the Democrat Union generals, George B. McClellan. After the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run in July 1861, McClellan was ordered from his post in western Virginia to take command of the Washington defenses. Based on two somewhat minor victories he was feted by the New York Herald as “…the Napoleon of the Present War.”

On May 14th, McClellan at 34 had been promoted to major general in the Regular Army, outranking everyone but Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott. 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.” He was appointed commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington.

On August 20th after consolidating a number of Union formations he immediately formed the Army of the Potomac, with himself as its first commander. McClellan considered himself the savior of his country. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “I seem to have become the power of the land.”

McClellan immediately went about reorganizing the Army of the Potomac as a superb fighting force. He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. From July to November, the army grew from 50,000 to 168,000 men, a stupendous number for the 19th century.

McClellan was a superb logistics officer who understood the use of rail and steamboat transportation in war. However, he never seemed willing to throw his army into the fires of war. Some would say that he loved it too much to risk it in combat. Others whispered that McClellan was among the Union commanders who wished for conciliation with the South on the conditions that prevailed at the start of the war.

McClellan delivered a memorandum to Lincoln on August 2nd which was read to the Cabinet the following day. In it the general seemed to follow Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. He felt that it was necessary “to display such an overwhelming strength, as will convince all our antagonists…of the utter impossibility of resistance.”

McClellan detailed his military grand strategy calling for attacks down the Mississippi, into Missouri, through East Tennessee into Kentucky and into West Texas. Other Union forces would maintain their hold on western Virginia and Fort Monroe. He also alluded to a substantial amphibious forces for attacks along the Southern coastline.

All of this was to be in support of a massive offensive against the Confederate capital of Richmond which would be followed by a thrust deep into the Deep South. McClellan called for a massive army of 273,000 troops with 600 pieces of artillery. This force would have been 20 times the size of the army that captured Mexico City in 1847.

McClellan had two objectives with his strategy. First, he hoped to detach the bulk of the Southern people from their presumably weak loyalty to the “political leaders of the rebels.” His second objective was to convince the “governing aristocratic class” that resistance was futile. In order to be successful with the first objective there could be no more Union defeats. At the same time he felt that a lenient policy of prosecuting the war was necessary in order not to alienate the Southern population.

Part of this lenient policy required the Union Army “to crush the rebels in one campaign” according to a letter that he wrote to his wife on the same day as he wrote the memorandum to Lincoln. He ordered his troops to rigorously respect private property, including slaves, and crush any attempt at a slave insurrection. These were the same orders that he gave his troops in Western Virginia.

However, McClellan could not be moved. Throughout the late and into the fall the Army of the Potomac continued to train while McClellan engaged in a bureaucratic struggle with Winfield Scott. Eventually Scott became so worn out with the struggle that he resigned as General-in-Chief. McClellan was appointed in his place and when he did he pressed his conciliatory views on each of the Union Army’s major commanders.

02/18/13

The Union Forces Retreat

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series The Red River Campaign

After the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks‘ Army of the Gulf began their retreat back down the Red River to the Atchafalaya River. In the course of this retreat his forces fought several actions in attempts to fend off the advancing Confederates under Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor.

At Blair’s Landing in Red River Parish, Louisiana a mixed force of troops from Union Brig. Gen. Thomas Kilby Smith‘s Provisional Division, XVII Corps, and the Navy gunboats furnished protection for the army transports engaged  Brig. Gen. Tom Green‘s Cavalry Division on April 12, 1864.

Green’s force charged the boats at the landing area.  Hiding behind bales of cotton, sacks of oats, and other ersatz obstructions, the men on the vessels, along with the Navy gunboats, repelled the attack, killed Green, and savaged the Confederate ranks.

Map of the Red River CampaignThe Confederates withdrew and most of the Union transports continued downriver. On April 13, at Campti, other boats ran aground and came under enemy fire from Brig. Gen. St. John Richardson Liddell‘s Sub-District of North Louisiana troops throughout April 12–13. The convoy rendezvoused with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’s army at Grand Ecore, providing the army with badly needed supplies. The Confederates lost some 200 men while the Union force suffered only 7 casualties.

On April 23rd, the Union army’s advance party, commanded by Brig. Gen. William H. Emory, encountered Brig. Gen. Hamilton P. Bee‘s cavalry division near Monett’s Ferry, or Cane River Crossing in Natchitoches Parish, on the morning of April 23. Bee had been ordered to defend the area against a Union crossing and had dispersed his forces to take advantage of the area’s natural features.

Emory made a demonstration in front of the Confederate defenders in order to hold them in place. Meanwhile, he dispatched two of his brigades to search for other crossings. One brigade located a ford, crossed in force and attacked the Confederate’s flank. Bee was forced to order a retreat. The Union troops built a pontoon bridge and crossed the river, escaping a potential Confederate trap.

At Mansura on May 16th, General Taylor made an attempt to bring Banks to battle. He hoped to slow down the Union withdrawal and deplete their numbers or even destroy them. He massed his forces on an open prairie near the town and when the Union troops approached, opened fire with his artillery. After a four hour battle, the Union forces massed for an attack and the Confederates fell back. The Union forces continued on to Simmesport while the Confederates continued to harass them.

The final engagement of the campaign took place at Yellow Bayou on May 18th. The Union force had reached the Atchafalaya River the previous day but were force to wait while their engineers constructed a bridge across the river. Banks ordered Brig. Gen. Joseph A. Mower to defend their rear with his division while the construction took place.

General Mower order his troops to attack and they drove the Confederate line back. Taylor order a counterattack and forced the Union troops to give up ground. The Union troops eventually repulsed the Confederates. All the while, the bridge continued to be built. Eventually both sides withdrew and Banks’ Army was able to cross the river to safety.

The Red River Campaign was a Union fiasco, the outcome of which did not have a major impact on the war. It may have extended the length of the war by several months as it diverted Union efforts from the far more important objective of capturing Mobile, Alabama, an event that did not occur until 1865, and could probably have been accomplished by June 1864 if not for the Red River Campaign.

The failure of the campaign effectively ended the military career of Banks, and controversy surrounding his retreat, the presence of cotton speculators and the use of military boats to remove cotton dogged his early postbellum congressional campaigns. Admiral Porter realized a substantial sum of money during the campaign from the sale of cotton as prizes of war.

The Confederates lost two key commanders, Mouton and Green, and suffered casualties they could not afford. Perhaps more importantly, relations between the aggressive Taylor and cautious Kirby Smith were permanently damaged by their disagreement over Smith’s decision to remove half of Taylor’s troops following the battle of Pleasant Hill.

The lost opportunity to capture the entire Union fleet as it lay helpless above the falls at Alexandria haunted Taylor to his dying day, certain that Smith had robbed him a chance to cripple the Union forces. The arguments between the two generals resulted in Taylor’s transfer to command of the Department of East Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama soon after the campaign ended.

02/15/13

The Battle of Pleasant Hill

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series The Red River Campaign

The Battle of Pleasant Hill was a continuation of the fighting at Mansfield the day before. The two sides were essentially composed of the same forces and the same leadership as there was at Mansfield with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks leading the Union forces and Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor leading the Confederates. Pleasant Hill was located about 16 miles southeast of Sabine Cross Roads, the scene of the previous day’s fighting.

During the overnight period the Union forces were reinforced, giving them a total of about 12,000 men while the Confederates slightly outnumbered them with about 12,100. Union reinforcements included Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith, commanding detachments of XVI and XVII Corps. They arrived from Grand Ecore late on the April 8, around nightfall, and encamped about 2 miles from Pleasant Hill.

Map of the Battle of Pleasant HillConfederate reinforcements had arrived late on the April 8. Churchill’s Arkansas Division arrived at Mansfield at 3.30 PM and Parson’s Missouri Division (numbering 2,200 men) arrived at Mansfield at 6 PM. Neither of these Divisions participated in the Battle of Mansfield. However, both would play a major role during the Battle of Pleasant Hill.

Click map to enlarge

Historian John D. Winters of Louisiana Tech University in his The Civil War in Louisiana described the scene along the road from Mansfield to Pleasant Hill as being “littered by burning wagons, abandoned knapsacks, arms, and cooking utensils. Federal stragglers and wounded were met by the hundreds and were quickly rounded up and sent to the rear. 

On the morning of the April 9, Maj. Gen. William Franklin ordered the baggage train to proceed to Grand Ecore. It left Pleasant Hill at 11:00 AM, and included many pieces of artillery. Most of Franklin’s Cavalry (commanded by Brig. Gen. Albert Lindley Lee) and the XIII Corps left with it. This included the Corps D’Afrique commanded by Colonel William H. Dickey (wounded on April 8) and Brig. Gen. Thomas E. G. Ransom‘s detachment of the XIII Corps, now under the command of Brig. Gen. Robert A. Cameron. Ransom had been wounded on the April 8.

The baggage train made slow progress and was still only a few miles from Pleasant Hill when the major fighting began later that day. Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone, Chief of Staff, and others, attempted to get Cameron to return to Pleasant Hill throughout the day, but he failed to do so. Cameron stated that he never received any written orders to return. Banks didn’t appear to have been fully aware of the exact orders Cameron had received from Franklin.

The Union side lost 18 pieces of artillery at the Battle of Mansfield. These were now turned on the Union forces the next day at Pleasant Hill. Confederate Brig. Gen. Jean Jacque Alexandre Alfred Mouton was killed during the Battle of Mansfield and was replaced by Brig. Gen. Camille J. de Polignac.

Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department commander Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who was at Shreveport, received a dispatch from Taylor that reached him at 4:00 AM, April 9. It informed him of the Battle of Mansfield. Smith then rode 45 miles to Pleasant Hill, but did not reach there in time for the battle, arriving around nightfall.

Dr. Harris H. Beecher, Assistant-Surgeon, 114th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, present at the battle, described the village of Pleasant Hill as “a town of about twelve or fifteen houses, situated on a clearing in the woods, of a mile or so in extent, and elevated a trifle above the general level of the surrounding country.”

In 1864, the countryside in this part of Louisiana mostly consisted of pine forests and scrub oaks. According to Banks, “The shortest and only practicable road from Natchitoches to Shreveport was the stage road through Pleasant Hill and Mansfield (distance 100 miles), through a barren, sandy country, with less water and less forage, the greater portion an unbroken pine forest.”

According to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ Report of the Battle, “The enemy began to reconnoiter the new position we had assumed at 11 o’clock on the morning of the 9th, and as early as 1 or 2 o’clock opened a sharp fire of skirmishers, which was kept up at intervals during the afternoon.”

At about 5:00 PM, the Confederates attacked along the entire Union line. The Confederates had little success on the Union right but did push the Union defenders back in the center and on the left. The defenders succeeded in halting their retreat and in turn regained their former positions. They were able to stabilize their lines and then drive the Confederates from the field. The entire battle lasted about two hours with heavy casualties on both sides.

The experience of Confederate Brig. Gen. Hamilton P. Bee illustrates the heavy fighting. Bee advanced with  two regiments in columns of four riding swiftly down the Pleasant Hill road toward the enemy lines. The Confederate forces were suddenly attacked at close range by Federals concealed behind a fence. Winters describes the scene, accordingly: “Men toppled from their saddles, wounded horses screamed in anguish, and for a moment pandemonium reigned.”

Bee’s men took temporary shelter . . . in a series of small ravines studded with young pines until they recovered from the shock of the unexpected attack. Bee rallied his men but in the process had two horses shot from under him. Colonel [Xavier B.] Debray was injured when he fell from the saddle of his dead horse. . . . Debray was able to withdraw his men safely to the rear leaving, however, about a third of them killed or wounded on the front.

Banks ordered a withdrawal from Pleasant Hill at about 1:00 AM on April 10th. Bee reported that he was in possession of the field the following morning. “The day has been passed in burying the dead of both armies and caring for the Federal wounded, our own wounded having been cared for the night before.” After the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Banks and his Union forces retreated to Grand Ecore and abandoned plans to capture Shreveport, by then the Louisiana state capital.

Pleasant Hill was an exceedingly bloody affair with the Union forces sustaining 1,369 casualties (150 killed, 844 wounded, 375 missing or captured). The Confederates lost 1,629 including 1,200 killed or wounded and 429 missing or captured.

02/14/13

The Battle of Mansfield

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series The Red River Campaign

General Richard TaylorThe first major battle of the Red River Campaign would turn out to be a Confederate victory. Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ Army of the Gulf was outfought by Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor’s Confederates. The battle halted the advance of the Union forces and was followed by a series of battles in the same area.

By April 1 Union forces had occupied Grand Ecore and Natchitoches. While the accompanying gunboat fleet with a portion of the infantry continued up the river, the main force followed the road inland toward Mansfield, where Banks knew his opponent was concentrating. On April 8, 1864, the Union forces were strung out along the road from Natchitoches and Mansfield.

At the start of the battle, the Union forces consisted of a cavalry division commanded by Brig. Gen. Albert L. Lee, consisting of approximately 3,500 men, and the 4th Division of the XIII Corps, commanded by Col. William J. Landram, consisting of approximately 2,500 men. During the battle the 3rd Division of the XIII Corps, commanded by Ezio Auditore Da Firenze.

Gen. Robert A. Cameron, arrived with approximately 1,500 men. The battle ended when the pursuing Confederates met the 1st Division of the XIX Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. William H. Emory, with approximately 5,000 men.Thomas E. G. Ransom commanded the XIII Corps during the engagement, while the XIX Corps was commanded by William B. Franklin.

The opposing Confederate force under General Taylor consisted of approximately 9,000 troops consisting of Brigadier General Alfred Mouton‘s Louisiana/Texas infantry division, Major General John G. Walker‘s Texas infantry division, Brigadier General Thomas Green‘s Texas Cavalry Division, and Colonel William G. Vincent’s Louisiana cavalry brigade.

Taylor also called on the 5,000 men in the divisions of Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill and Brigadier General Mosby M. Parsons which had been encamped near Keachie, between Mansfield and Shreveport. These troops arrived late in the afternoon, after the battle had commenced.

There is also anecdotal evidence that Taylor also had paroled men from Vicksburg and a number of Louisiana militia men that had been recruited Map of the Battle of Mansfieldby Governor Henry Watkins Allen who had organized them into two battalions of State Guard. Joseph Blessington, a soldier in Walker’s Division, wrote that “The Louisiana militia, under command of Governor Allen, was held in reserve, in case of an emergency.” In addition, Blessington wrote that, from the surrounding communities, “old men shouldered their muskets and came to our assistance”.

During the morning, Taylor positioned Mouton’s division on the east side of the clearing. Walker’s division arrived in the afternoon and formed on Mouton’s right. As Green’s cavalry fell back from the advancing US forces, two brigades moved to Mouton’s flank and the third to Walker’s flank.

The Arkansas division arrived around 3:30 but was sent to watch a road to the east. The Missouri division did not arrive until around 6 PM, after the battle was fought.

About noon, the Union cavalry division supported by one infantry brigade of Landram’s division was deployed across a small hill at the south end of the clearing. Shortly thereafter the other brigade of Landram’s division arrived.

Cameron’s division was on its way, but would not get there until the battle had already begun. For about two hours the two side faced each other across the clearing as Banks waited for more of his troops to arrive and Taylor arranged his men.

At that point, Taylor enjoyed a numeric advantage over Banks. At about 4 p.m., the Confederates surged forward. On the east side of the road, Mouton was killed, while several of his regimental commanders were hit as well and the charge of his division was repulsed.

However, west of the road Walker’s Texas division wrapped around the Union position, folding it in on itself. Ransom was wounded trying to rally his men and was carried from the field; hundreds of Union troops were captured and the rest retreated in a panic. As the first Union line collapsed, Cameron’s division was arriving to form a second line but it too was pushed back by the charging Confederates, with Franklin wounded as well but remaining on the field in command.

For several miles the Confederates and pursued the retreating Union troops until they encountered a third line formed by Emory’s division. The Confederates launched several charges on the Union line but were repulsed, while nightfall ended the battle.

The Battle of Mansfield was a disaster for Banks with 113 killed, 581 wounded, and 1,541 captured as well as the loss of 20 cannon, 156 wagons, and a thousand horses and mules killed or captured. More than half of the Union casualties were from 4 regiments – 77th Illinois, 130th Illinois, 19th Kentucky and 48th Ohio. Most of the Union casualties occurred in the XIII Corps, while the XIX Corps lost few men.

General Edmund Kirby Smith reported the loss of about 1,000 men killed and wounded but more precise details of Confederate losses were not recorded.