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McDowell was superseded by Maj.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.



The Fall of Richmond

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Appomattox Campaign

The Burning of RichmondThe American Civil War ended in stages as various Confederate armies and the members of the government surrendered across the South.

By early spring 1865 the citizens of Richmond had become used to the threat of capture by the Federal army whose soldiers the Richmond newspapers described with great imagination as the vilest of humanity. Its inhabitants had grown accustomed to the sound of artillery fire from just ten miles outside the city. Their faith in Robert E. Lee was so complete that they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he would never allow Richmond to be taken.


But General Lee knew that there would come a time that his army would have to leave the Confederate capital or be crushed by the superior Union armies. His army had put on a heroic defense but in the process they had been worn to the nub.

The catastrophic Confederate defeat at Five Forks on April 1st convinced Lee that it was time for his troops to leave Petersburg and Richmond, moving west. He hoped to join up with the army of General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina to continue the fight. At this point Lee had between 43,000 and 46,000 men.

As soon as the civilian populations of the cities discovered the imminent departure of their protectors panic ensued. Frank Lawley, the correspondent for London newspaper, The Times, observed:

“The scene that followed baffles description. During the long afternoon and throughout the feverish night, on horseback, in every description of cart, carriage, and vehicle, in every hurried train that left the city, on canal barges, skiffs, and boats, the exodus of officials and prominent citizens was unintermitted.”

President Davis’ train was set to depart on April 2 at 8:30 Sunday night. He kept hoping that somehow Lee would send news of a reversal of fortunes and that the government would not have to abandon the city. Finally, at 11 o’clock, he boarded the train and began the sad trip to Danville.

Richmond’s officials ordered all of the liquor to be destroyed. In the need for haste, however, those men charged with going through the stocks of every saloon and warehouse found the most expedient way was to smash the bottles and pour the kegs into the gutters and down the street drains. The stench attracted crowds. They gulped the whisky from the curbstones, picked it up in their hats and boots, and guzzled it before stooping for more. So the action taken to prevent a Union army rampage started a rampage by the city’s own people.

Meanwhile back in the city Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, Richmond’s military commander, was under orders to destroy the city’s tobacco, cotton, and foodstuffs before the Yankees got to them. To destroy the tobacco, Ewell had it moved to buildings that he believed could burn without setting the rest of the city on fire and asked the fire department to stand by to keep the fire from spreading.

In a city that had been suffering from scarcity, where high officials held “Starvation Balls,” no one believed there could be much food left to destroy. But they were wrong. The crowd, seeing the commissaries filled with smoked meats, flour, sugar, and coffee, became ugly. LaSalle Pickett wrote

“The most revolting revelation was the amount of provisions, shoes and clothing which had been accumulated by the speculators who hovered like vultures over the scene of death and desolation. Taking advantage of their possession of money and lack of both patriotism and humanity, they had, by an early corner in the market and by successful blockade running, brought up all the available supplies with an eye to future gain, while our soldiers and women and children were absolutely in rags, barefoot and starving.”

Enraged, they snatched the food and clothing and turned to the nearby shops to loot whatever else they found. They were impossible to stop. Ewell tried, but he had only convalescent soldiers and a few army staff officers under his command at this point. Not nearly enough men to bring order back to the streets. The fires, though, grew out of control, burning the center of the city and driving the looters away.

Embers from the street fires of official papers and from the paper torches used by vandals drifted. The wind picked up. Another building caught fire. The business district caught fire. Worse, as Admiral Raphael Semmes wrote,

“The Tredegar Iron Works were on fire, and continual explosions of loaded shell stored there were taking place….The population was in a great state of alarm.”

Frank Lawley reported that as he walked toward the railroad station he saw a column of dense black smoke. Semmes had set his ironclads on fire to keep them out of Union hands. Moments later, the warships’ arsenals exploded blowing the windows out for two miles around, overturning tombstones, and tearing doors from their hinges.

The Union cavalry entered town. By 7:15 Monday morning, April 3, two guidons of the Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry flew over the capitol building. Not long after, two officers of the 13th New York Artillery took down the little triangular flags and ran up the great United States flag. Union General Godfrey Weitzel sent a telegram to General Grant: “We took Richmond at 8:15 this morning. I captured many guns. The enemy left in great haste. The city is on fire in two places. Am making every effort to put it out. The people received us with enthusiastic expressions of joy.”

Weitzel ordered his troops to put out the fire. The city’s two fire engines worked, bucket brigades were formed. Threatened buildings were pulled down to create firebreaks. Five hours later the wind finally shifted, and they began to bring it under control. All or part of at least 54 blocks were destroyed, according to Furgurson. Weitzel wrote “The rebel capitol, fired by men placed in it to defend it, was saved from total destruction by soldiers of the United States, who had taken possession.” And the city rested.





The Battle of the Wilderness (Days One and Two)

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

The Battle of the


(Days One and Two)

The Crossing: May 4th

The Battle of the Wilderness began with the crossing of the Rapidan River. In the early hours of May 4th the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan River according to Andrew Humphreys’ plan. Lee’s foresight in alerting the observers on Clark’s Mountain gave the Confederates advance warning of the crossings.

Wilderness MapBy mid-morning Hancock’s Corps had reached the old Chancellorsville battlefield and settled into their camps. According to one officer the area was strewn with the bones of both men and horses that had been hastily buried after that battle a year before.

By noon Warren’s V Corps began to arrive around the Wilderness Tavern and encamp. The units were exhausted. Some of them had been on the move for 12 hours.

By late morning elements of Richard Ewell’s Second Corp and A.P. Hill’s Corps had started to react to the Federal incursion. Down in Gordonsville about 40 miles to the south, James Longstreet had received orders from Lee to march his First Corps north. Longstreet made one suggested change from Lee’s orders. He proposed to take roads that would bring him along side of Hill’s Corps rather than behind him. Lee approved of this change. His soldiers began to march at 4:00 PM.

Meanwhile Ewell and Hill’s soldiers advanced on parallel roads. Hill’s Corps marched on the Orange Plank Road while Ewell’s were on the Orange Turnpike to their north. Robert E. Lee rode along with Hill’s Corps.

At Locust Grove in the late afternoon Federal cavalry scouting for James Wilson’s 3rd Cavalry Division narrowly missed spotting Ewell’s force and continued further south. Ewell’s men would camp this night at Locust Grove. They were miles closer to the Federal forces than anyone in the Federal command realized.

By 6:00 PM orders for the next day’s movement went out to the various commands. Hancock was to march southwest to Shady Grove Church. Warren was ordered to move from the Wilderness Tavern southwest to Parker’s Store. Sedgwick was to march from Germanna Ford to Wilderness Tavern. Finally, Burnside would take over the defense of the ford.

The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5th

In the early morning of May 5th it became apparent to Lee that Grant was neither moving east toward Fredericksburg nor west toward Min Run. Lee realized that he was heading south through the Wilderness. Lee felt that this would negate the advantage of his superiority in numbers. It was at this point that the Battle of the Wilderness began.

Hancock’s II Corps began their advance to Shady Grove Church at around 5:00 AM. He would not get there on this day.

Shortly after dawn the first firing began along the Orange Plank Road, the axis of advance for Warren. The 5th New York Cavalry was leading the advance and ran into skirmishers from the 47th North Carolina at the head of Hill’s column. The 500-men of the Federal cavalry unit were picked men armed with Spencer repeaters and pushed the Confederates back.

As in most engagements of this type reinforcements were brought forward as the engagement grew. The Confederate force began to overlap the Federal flanks. The New Yorkers made a fighting retreat as they waited for infantry support. By 8:00 AM elements of Warren’s V Corps had movedArmy of the Potomac Staff forward to reinforce the hard-pressed cavalry.

At this point the Confederate forces were separated by some 2 ¾ miles. Lee was anxious that the advance of Ewell and Hill be as synchronized as possible.

Hancock’s column was past Todd’s Tavern and well on its way to Shady Grove Church when a courier from Meade’s headquarters delivered a message to halt at Todd’s Tavern.

Meanwhile, over on the Orange Turnpike Warren continued to feed troops into the fight. The terrain on either side of the road was thick with undergrowth which made for hard going.

At about 10:00 AM Grant appeared at the front on the Orange Turnpike. Earlier Grant had ordered an attack against the Confederate forces but two hours later it had not been done. This confirmed his worst fears about the Army of the Potomac. He immediately ordered an attack by Charles Griffin’s Division. Sedgewick was to move his lead brigades into position on Griffin’s right. Grant realized that if his forces did not hold the vital intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank roads his army would be cut in two. The possibility of a defeat-in -detail would arise. Grant made a number of moves that essentially tried to tie his two wings together. Horace Porter, a member of Grant’s staff, observed that he then lit a cigar, sat down on a tree stump, took out his penknife and began to whittle.

Federal infantry from George Getty’s Division arrived at the intersection minutes before the Confederates and set up a line to protect the vital crossroads.

The Federal attack against Ewell’s forces along the Orange Turnpike was a bloody affair with horrendous casualties on both sides. Because of the thick undergrowth units could not maneuver properly. Many of the line officers were killed or severely wounded leaving the troops leaderless. Two New York regiments ceased to exist with their men killed, wounded or captured.

The woods in some areas became ignited by powder sparks and caught fire. Many of the cartridge boxes on dead and wounded troopers exploded adding to the horror.

By 2 PM Federal units at the Brock and Orange Plank roads intersection were being reinforced and had extended their defensive line on either side of the Orange Plank Road. The Federal soldiers erected light breastwork on the Brock Road. Meade ordered Hancock to attack down the Orange Plank Road. It seemed as if Meade thought that the II Corps was present in greater strength than it actually was.

All during the afternoon the Federal VI Corps reinforced Warren’s troops on the Orange Turnpike. Charles Griffin gradually pulled his men out of the line and reorganized them behind it.  As soon as Sedgewick felt that his troops were positioned properly they attacked the Confederates north of the Orange Turnpike. Soldiers remarked later that they did not see the enemy but fired by ear. The attempt was to no avail and was pushed back by sustained Confederate counterattacks.

Meade ordered George Getty’s Division to attack down the Orange Plank Road at about 3:25 PM. Despite misgivings Getty ordered the attack. Hancock had been ordered to position a division on each side of Getty’s force with two more divisions in reserve. Headquarters then began to micromanage the dispositions of Hancock’s Corps, ordering David Birney’s division to move from the left and reposition on the right while Gershon Mott’s division would move up and take its place in the front line. On good open ground this would have been challenging. In the dense undergrowth of the Wilderness it was courting disaster.

By this time Lee’s two wings had linked up. The two corps were now in the field were able to support each other.

Hancock’s worst fears came to pass. As Getty’s men moved forward in the dense undergrowth they were hit with relentless infantry fire. One North Carolinian called it “pure butchery”. The chaplain of 102nd Pennsylvania said the “thousands and thousands of Minnie balls” were fired at them. Due to the movement of the division on the left Getty’s flank unraveled. The regiments in the line were flanked one after the other. Some units were isolated and surrounded. Birney sent a brigade to attack the Confederate line, extricating a Vermont regiment. All of this fighting was taking place in the dense woods where men could only about 20 yards. The battle raged back and forth with fearful casualties on both sides. Streams of wounded men moved to the Federal rear while reinforcements and ammunition moved to the front line. Mott’s men moved to the attack but by then confusion reigned supreme. This was compounded by the incessant gunfire of the Confederates and the density of the woods.

As Mott’s units began to break, Hancock sent Gibbon’s unit to bolster his line. As the disorganized Federal soldiers fled from the woods onto the Brock Road, Hancock rallied them into an organized line. It was at this point in the battle that the body of Brigadier General Alexander Hays was carried from the woods by his men. He had been shot in the head while leading his troops on horseback. Hays and Grant had been at West Point together. It was now 5:00 PM.

Grant was not yet prepared to call it a day. Grant had sent Wadsworth’s division and a brigade from Robinson’s division to reinforce Hancock.

General James LongstreetMeanwhile, James Longstreet’s Corps was approaching the battle. By 5:00 PM they had marched 28 miles and were about 10 miles from the Orange Plank Road. At this point Longstreet had received orders to change the direction of his advance and “unite with the troops of the Third Corps on the Plank Road”. He was not reassured by this change.

As more troops on either side were fed into the battle the fighting intensified. Neither side was able to gain an advantage as attack after attack failed to break the opposing forces. Each side had brought up several artillery pieces and used them to fire down the narrow Plank Road. The exposed gunners on each side took fearful casualties and possession of the guns changed hands. However, by the fall of darkness all of the cannon were in the possession of their original owners.

Darkness brought a merciful end to the hellish combat and the troops on each side began to rest from the all-day combat. False alarms of night attacks continually roused the exhausted soldiers on each side.

The headquarters of both armies used the night to plan their tactics for the following day. At about 2:00 AM Longstreet’s Corps resumed their long march to the battle area. John Gordon’s Georgians were moved from the extreme right to the extreme left, where they rejoined their division. This move was to have a tremendous impact later. Meanwhile, the troops ate, rested and reorganized. In some place breastworks were reinforced. Ammunition was resupplied. Meade asked Grant for a delay in the morning attack from 4:30 AM until 6:00 AM due to the difficulty of the terrain and the exhaustion of the men. Grant modified his orders but only until 5:00 AM.