The Eastern Theater: Graveyard of Generals (Part Two)

This entry is part 4 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

George B. McClellan in 1861-The Eastern Theater: Graveyard of Generals (Part Two)After Irvin McDowell’s defeat in the First Battle of Manassas, the Lincoln government took several actions. The most important decision in the near-long term was the recall and promotion of Maj. Gen. George McClellan to command the newly forming Army of the Potomac in the Eastern Theater.

McClellan had been trumpeted by the newspaper for several small victories over the Confederates at the Battle of Philippi (which came to be known as the ‘Philippi Races’ after the Confederates fled) and the Battle of Rich Mountain. His opponent at the latter was General Robert E. Lee who had such a lackluster performance that he was relieved of command and transferred to the North Carolina coast to supervise the building of fortifications.

McClellan was the most successful failure as a general ever to serve in the Eastern Theater. He was a superb organizer and trained the new Army of the Potomac its peak yet he was a timid field commander. He was one of a number of generals who believed in conciliation with the Confederates. McClellan had been a Democrat before the war and did not hold the abolitionist of say Maj. Gen. David Hunter who was known as ‘Black Dave’ for his views on abolition.

George McClellan’s other major contribution to the Union war effort was his supervision of the building of Washington’s defenses. When they were  complete the nation’s capital was the most heavily defended city in the world. He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists.

McClellan was finally prodded into action in early March 1862. He was relieved of his position as general-in-chief in order to devote his full attentions to the coming Peninsula campaign. Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and a War Board of officers assumed command of the Union armies for the next four months.

McClellan’s huge army landed at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula and immediately spent built up resources for a siege at Yorktown. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston ordered his forces to withdraw as soon as it became apparent that they would be overwhelmed by the Union Army. The entire month of May was spent in the same fashion with the Confederates grudgingly retreating up the Peninsula.

The two forces finally came to a halt along the Chickahominy River and fought the  Battle of Seven Pines (also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks), fought on May 31 – June 1, 1862. Although the battle was inconclusive two important strategic effects resulted; both were in favor of the Confederacy. General Johnston was severely wounded and replaced by the more aggressive Robert E. Lee.

Second, General McClellan chose to abandon his offensive operations to lay siege and await reinforcements he had requested from President Lincoln; as a consequence, he never regained his strategic momentum. The two armies fought seven battles in seven days from June 25th to July 1st.

The cost to both sides was high. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffered almost 20,000 casualties out of a total of over 90,000 soldiers during the Seven Days, McClellan almost 16,000 out of 105,445. The Army of the Potomac’s offensive strength had been blunted by the Confederates and he withdrew to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. Northern morale was crushed while the South reveled in Lee’s successes.

The Union government appointed John Pope to command the newly formed Army of Virginia. Pope had achieved some success in the Western Theater, and Lincoln sought a more aggressive general than McClellan. Pope’s force numbered some 50,000 men amid three corps. Pope’s mission had two objectives: protect Washington and the Shenandoah Valley, and draw Confederate forces away from McClellan by moving in the direction of Gordonsville.

Lee’s Northern Virginia campaign was a triumph with the Army of Northern Virginia defeating the Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Manassas from August 28th to August 30th. Despite the three corps that had been transferred from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac Pope’s army was crushed by the Confederates. Unlike the First Battle of Manassas, the Union army retreated in somewhat good order.

At the Battle of Chantilly the Union army suffered a grievous loss when two of its generals, Isaac Stevens and Philip Kearny, were killed during the fighting. Pope ordered his army to retreat back to the Washington defenses. Pope was relieved of command on September 13th and his army was merged with McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.  He spent the remainder of the war in the Department of the Northwest in Minnesota.

Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams, who served briefly under Pope, held the general in particularly low esteem. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote:

“All this is the sequence of Gen. Pope’s high sounding manifestoes. His pompous orders . . . greatly disgusted his army from the first. When a general boasts that he will look only on the backs of his enemies, that he takes no care for lines of retreat or bases of supplies; when, in short, from a snug hotel in Washington he issues after-dinner orders to gratify public taste and his own self-esteem, anyone may confidently look for results such as have followed the bungling management of his last campaign….I dare not trust myself to speak of this commander as I feel and believe. Suffice it to say (for your eye alone) that more insolence, superciliousness, ignorance, and pretentiousness were never combined in one man. It can with truth be said of him that he had not a friend in his command from the smallest drummer boy to the highest general officer. All hated him.”

McClellan was once more perceived as the savior of the nation but Lincoln’s cabinet thought differently. A majority of them signed a petition declaring to the president “our deliberate opinion that, at this time, it is not safe to entrust to Major General McClellan the command of any Army of the United States.”

The president admitted that it was like “curing the bite with the hair of the dog.” But Lincoln told his secretary, John Hay, “We must use what tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”

McClellan was immediately thrust into a crisis when Lee moved from Manassas across the Potomac into Maryland. Lee’s goal was to penetrate the major Northern states of Maryland and Pennsylvania and cut off the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line that supplied Washington. He also needed to supply his army and knew the farms of the North had been untouched by war, unlike those in Virginia.

McClellan organized a pursuit of the smaller Confederate army. Then, he experienced an incredible stroke of luck when Union soldiers discovered Lee’s orders to the commanders of his army. General Order Number 191 indicated that Lee had divided his army, making it possible to be defeated in detail. McClellan waited 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this intelligence, a delay that almost squandered his opportunity.

On September 14th McClellan’s forces defeated the Confederates at the Battle of South Mountain and pushed through to confront Lee along Antietam Creek. Meanwhile, Lee frantically moved to concentrate his army. The two armies met on September 17th east of Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Battle of Antietam.

The two armies fought the bloodiest single-day engagement of the war along the banks of the creek and in the surrounding farm fields. After twelve hours of inconclusive combat during which over 23,000 casualties were sustained by both armies, the Confederates disengaged and retreated back to Virginia.

McClellan’s performance was criticized on a number of fronts. During the battle, he never took control of his forces. Rather he allowed the field commanders to proceed according to the pre-battle plan. He never sent in his reserves, some say that Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter cautioned him that they were the last reserves of the army. Finally, with Lee’s Army in retreat he did not order any pursuit.

On November 25, 1862, Fitz John Porter was arrested and court-martialed for his actions at Second Bull Run. By this time, McClellan had been relieved by Lincoln and could not provide political cover for his protégé. Porter’s association with the disgraced McClellan and his open criticism of Pope were significant reasons for his conviction at court-martial. Porter was found guilty on January 10, 1863, of disobedience and misconduct, and he was dismissed from the Army on January 21, 1863.

George McClellan was relieved by Abraham Lincoln on November 7th. From September 17 to October 26, despite repeated entreaties from the War Department and the president himself, McClellan declined to pursue Lee across the Potomac, citing shortages of equipment and the fear of overextending his forces.

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote in his official report, “The long inactivity of so large an army in the face of a defeated foe, and during the most favorable season for rapid movements and a vigorous campaign, was a matter of great disappointment and regret.” He never held another position during the war.



The First Confederate Surrender

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series The Confederate Surrenders

Appomattox Campaign Overview

Everyone thinks that the Confederacy’s military struggles ended with Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. But did you know that various Confederate armies continued to fight on for several more months?

The most famous Confederate surrender took place at Appomattox, Virginia when General Robert E. Lee surrendered what was left of his once-formidable Army of Northern Virginia. His army had suffered a series of debilitating defeats in his headlong retreat from his siege lines around Petersburg.

The Appomattox Campaign began on March 29th when Grant seized upon Lee’s attack on Fort Stedman by sending a joint infantry and cavalry force of 21,000 men to strike the Confederate right flank and capture the South Side Railroad. Union general Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps engaged Confederate troops under Bushrod Johnson in the battles of Quaker Road (Lewis Farm) on March 29 and White Oak Road on March 31. Union general Philip H. Sheridan’s cavalry, meanwhile, continued farther southwest. On March 31, Sheridan maneuvered beyond the Confederate right flank but was defeated at Dinwiddie Court House by Confederates led by George E. Pickett and W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee.

On April 1, the arrival of Warren’s Fifth Corps at Pickett’s rear caused the Confederate general to fall back to an intersection known as Five Forks. There, in what has come to be known as the “Waterloo of the Confederacy,” Sheridan and Warren overwhelmed Pickett’s forces, losing fewer than a thousand men compared to Confederate casualties of about 3,000.

Warren, a hero of Gettysburg, was nevertheless relieved of his command by Sheridan after the battle. Pickett, whose name was similarly carved into history at Gettysburg, was, like Warren, humiliated at Five Forks. He was famously absent during the battle, attending a shad bake.

Petersburg fell the next day, as did the South Side Railroad, which was captured after the Battle of Sutherland’s Station. General A.P. Hill was killed that day by a Union bullet through his heart. A Sheridan at Five Forksstubborn defense at Fort Gregg allowed Lee’s army to escape to the west, and he ordered the evacuation of the capital that night.

The parts of Lee’s army that were spread out defending Richmond, Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg retreated on pre-determined routes where they reassembled at Amelia Court House. Lee hoped to move along the Richmond and Danville Railroad to link forces with Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, which was moving north from North Carolina. Lee then hoped that the two armies could take the offensive against General Sherman.

On April 3, Confederate cavalry general Rufus Barringer was captured after his brigade was routed by forces under George A. Custer at Namozine Church. On April 4th Lee arrived at Amelia Court House to Find that the rations that his troops needed were not there. Lee paused here to collect supplies from the surrounding area and wait for the arrival of forces led by General Richard S. Ewell and his son, General Custis Lee. The local farmers had very little to spare and the delay proved costly allowing Grant’s pursuing forces to draw near.

Lee’s march resumed on April 5th and when the Confederates encountered Union blocking forces at Jetersville they maneuvered toward Farmville in an attempt to outflank the Union troops and resupply his own. He did so under continuous pressure: Union cavalry general Henry Davies captured a Confederate wagon train at Painesville before being driven away by Confederate cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee’s nephew. In order to get ahead of his Union pursuers, Lee ordered a night march, but the tired and hungry Confederate soldiers fell out of their ranks to search for food. Some simply went home.

On April 6, a Union force attempted to capture High Bridge near Farmville and prevent Lee from crossing the Appomattox River. It was defeated and captured whole by Confederate cavalry. Still, dangerous gaps began to develop in Lee’s retreating forces, the result of constant attack by Union cavalry.

At Sailor’s Creek, the Union cavalry managed to exploit such a gap, cutting off two Confederate corps under generals Richard H. Anderson and Richard S. Ewell as the Union Sixth Corps arrived to their rear. Ewell’s men repulsed an initial charge by the Sixth Corps but surrendered when overwhelmed by the second. At the same time, Union cavalry charged Anderson’s men at Marshall’s Crossroads until his two divisions, led by Pickett and Bushrod Johnson, disintegrated.

The Union forces had overwhelmed the defending Confederates, capturing 7,700 men and depriving Lee of roughly one-fourth of his army. Among the prisoners were six Confederate generals including Richard S. Ewell, Joseph Kershaw, and Custis Lee, the commanding general’s son.

Confederate surrender at Sailor's CreekWhat remained crossed the Appomattox River during another night march and, on April 7, arrived in Farmville, where rations awaited them. Union forces followed so quickly, however, that the Confederates had to close the supply trains and cross the river north of Farmville and fight off Grant’s pursuing forces at the Battle of Cumberland Church.

Lee’s forces were now almost surrounded. His men were tired and hungry and Lee knew it. He began a three day correspondence with General Grant that included an exchange of messages through the lines.

On the afternoon of April 8, the main Confederate column halted northeast of Appomattox Court House, while the reserve artillery and the ambulance and wagon trains approached Appomattox Station, several miles farther west. There, trains arrived from Lynchburg containing, among other supplies, 120,000 rations needed to feed Lee’s army. But at about four o’clock in the afternoon, Custer’s Union cavalry division captured the trains and then, in three assaults, overran the reserve artillery, securing twenty-five cannon, a thousand prisoners, and some one hundred wagons. They also blocked Lee’s line of retreat.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Lee, Union infantry marched more than thirty miles into positions to Lee’s south and west. That night, the Confederate general held a council of war with Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitzhugh Lee. Together, they determined to attempt a breakout from the looming encirclement.

At 7:50 on the morning of April 9, Gordon’s corps, supported by Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, attacked Colonel Charles Smith’s Union cavalry brigade, which blocked Lee’s line of retreat on the stage road. Although initially successful, the assault faltered as Union infantry arrived on the field. Gordon sent word to Lee that “my command has been fought to a frazzle … I can not long go forward.” Receiving the message, Lee said, “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

The next day General Robert E. Lee surrendered his force and the war in Virginia was virtually over. But other Confederate forces fought on.

Confederate surrender at Appomattox

General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s description of the last parade of the Army of Northern Virginia:

The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?

Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!

As each successive division masks our own, it halts, the men face inward towards us across the road, twelve feet away; then carefully “dress” their line, each captain taking pains for the good appearance of his company, worn and half starved as they were. The field and staff take their positions in the intervals of regiments; generals in rear of their commands. They fix bayonets, stack arms; then, hesitatingly, remove cartridge-boxes and lay them down. Lastly, — reluctantly, with agony of expression, — they tenderly fold their flags, battle-worn and torn, blood-stained, heart-holding colors, and lay them down; some frenziedly rushing from the ranks, kneeling over them, clinging to them, pressing them to their lips with burning tears. And only the Flag of the Union greets the sky!


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.





July Fourth during the Civil War

Fourth of July at Fortress Monroe

During the American Civil War July 4th was celebrated by both sides with different meanings. Each side saw Independence Day from a different perspective.

In the North it was a reminder to the citizens about what their soldiers were fighting for and to the heritage of their young nation. Union soldiers celebrated with parades, reviews and artillery salutes.

On July 4th 1862, Sgt. Thomas D. Christie of the 1st Independent Battery Minnesota Light Artillery wrote a letter home to Minnesota. His letter was written in Corinth, Mississippi, where is unit was stationed. 

We have had a celebration here today that has convinced the citizens at least that we have not forgotten the Birthday of our Nation. The Batteries of our Division fired a National Salute of 34 guns at noon amid the cheers of the assembled Infantry.

The Confederates connected to their “founding fathers” and separated themselves from a government that they did not agree with. The Southern sentiment was made known in the Richmond Examiner in July of 1861. The Examiner wrote an article on how the South could celebrate July 4th.

We are happy to see many proofs in our Confederate exchanges, that the 4th of July is to be generally observed throughout the Southern Confederacy. We are glad of this because of the association of the day itself, and of the grand event of which it is the anniversary. Let us never forget that when our fathers were oppressed, and when expostulation and remonstrance and warning proved vain, they manfully assumed a separate existence, and boldly drew their trusty swords to make their independence good. It is well for their sons ever and anon to read the bright record anew, and drink in the spirit of those virtuous and heroic days.

The Fourth of July of 1863 would begin an association between two generals whose careers would become intertwined until the end of the war: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

Lee who led the Army of Northern Virginia, an army that he thought was invincible, would be defeated by George Meade and the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. Lee’s army would be bled white after a catastrophic charge on the Third Day of the battle. Retreating to his native Virginia, Lee would fend of Meade’s army until the following spring.

Ulysses S. Grant was a rising star in the Western Theater who commanded the Army of the Tennessee. In May 1863 he began to maneuver around the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi seeking to cut off its supplies. After a series of maneuvers and battles he succeeded in putting the city under siege. Eventually, the Confederate commander General John C. Pemberton surrendered his 33,000-man army on July 4th, 1863.

Grant became the hero of the hour and by the following he was named overall commander of all Union armies. From May 1864 until April 1865 the two master generals bloodied the Virginia landscape until Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Four bloody years of war ended after three July Fourth celebrations.

 The city of Vicksburg did not celebrate the Fourth of July again until 1907, a 43-year hiatus.


Post Civil War Narratives: The Lost Cause Myth

Confederate Reunion Parade RichmondLike the aftermath of most earth-shaking events a number of narratives sprang up after the American Civil War. We have seen similar narratives appear after World War II, the Vietnam War and the 9/22 attacks.

Those who lived through the experience were attempting to understand the events and their impact on their lives. Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? Did we bring it on ourselves.

After the greatest blood-letting in American history the participant and those who lived through it sought for ways to explain the events that cost perhaps as many as 750,000 lives with untold number of wounded. Vast swathes of the South (mainly) were devastated. Farms were destroyed, barns were burned, livestock was forcibly taken and slaughtered.

Union General Philip Sheridan led his army south up the Shenandoah Valley in an orgy of death and destruction that came to be remembered as simply “The Burning” to this day. William T. Sherman burned a path several miles wide from Atlanta to the sea. Then, he headed North through the Carolinas. Jubal Early’s troops burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, along the way in retaliation for David Hunter’s previous destruction in the Valley.

In order to explain and justify their actions during the war, both sides put forward narratives that in some cases took on a life of their own and persist to this day.

Perhaps the best-known of the narratives was the Southern ‘Lost Cause’ mythThe term first appeared in the title of an 1866 book by the historian Edward A. PollardThe Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. However, it was the articles written by Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early in the 1870s for the Southern Historical Society that firmly established the Lost Cause as a long-lasting literary and cultural phenomenon. 

Jefferson Davis in the 1881 publication of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, a two volume defense of the Southern cause as Davis saw it, provided another important text in the history of the Lost Cause. It was often used to justify the Southern position and to distance it from slavery.

The essential elements of the ‘Lost Cause’ myth were:

  • We were overwhelmed by the Yankees.
  • They had more men and material.
  • The issue of slavery was ignored.
  • Constitutional questions were emphasized.
  • The war was almost always referred to as the ‘War between the states’ and not a Civil War.
  • Robert E. Lee was the South’s principal hero with Stonewall Jackson by his side.
  • Ulysses S. Grant was denigrated as a butcher who won by bludgeoning the South into submission.
  • James Longstreet was the villain and was to blame for the defeat at Gettysburg rather than Lee.
  • The image that they put forward was that of gallant soldiers, patriotic women and loyal slaves epitomized by “Gone with the Wind” or “The Birth of a Nation”.

Perhaps, the ‘Lost Cause’ myth was defined by former Confederate General and Governor of Georgia John Brown Gordon who at a reunion of soldiers from both sides spoke after Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He turned to his friend and said: “You were right but so were we.”


A New Phase begins at the Wilderness

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

Battle of the Wilderness, skirmishToday marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Wilderness. It also marked a new phase in the War for the Union or the War for Southern Independence. Gone were the days when the Union Army of the Potomac would advance across the Rappahannock or the Rapidan Rivers, be repulsed and withdraw to the safety of the far bank.

The timidity of past commanders had been replaced by the determination of Ulysses S. Grant to pursue and destroy Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It would take eleven months but Grant would accomplish his main objective and with it the virtual end of the war.

The Army of the Potomac would begin that long road in the dark, confusing Wilderness of Virginia. On the morning of May 5, the Union V Corps under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren attacked the Confederate Second Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, on the Orange Turnpike. That afternoon the Third Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, encountered Brig. Gen. George W. Getty‘s division (VI Corps) and Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock‘s II Corps on the Orange Plank Road. Fighting until dark was fierce but inconclusive as both sides attempted to maneuver in the dense woods.

The fighting would continue for two more days and at the conclusion almost 29,000 men were killed, wounded, captured or missing. But unlike Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and other battles Grant ordered George Gordon Meade to move his army south to Spotsylvania Court House where they would continue to engage their enemy.

By the light of the burning Wilderness eyewitnesses reported that Grant was cheered by his men as they moved past their general. They and their president knew that Grant was as Lincoln said when advised to relieve him: “I can’t spare the man. He fights.”

For those who wish to read my series on the Battle of the Wilderness, here are the links:

The Overland Campaign:

The Battle of the Wilderness (Days One and Two):

The Battle of the Wilderness (Day Three):

Clark Mountain: Robert E. Lee’s Lookout Post:




The Best Laid Plans…

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

Battle of the Wilderness, skirmishGeneral Ulysses S. Grant had planned what appeared to be a superior strategic plan. He had five armies poised to strike the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley, the Western Theater, east of Richmond and to the west of Richmond in the beginning of May 1864.

But like Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or as General George Pickett said when why his attack at Gettysburg failed: “I think that the Yankees had something to do with it.”

In the case of the Union strategic plan, it simply not only did not survive contact with the enemy but it didn’t survive the incompetency of some of its own generals. But the brilliance of Ulysses Grant was that he was able to adjust his plans to the situation.

Unlike George McClellan Grant knew how to improvise and adapt to the conditions. He had proved it in the Western Theater and he was to prove it once again in the East.

After Franz Sigel failed in the Valley at New Market, Grant quickly replaced him with David Hunter who advanced as far as Lynchburg before Jubal Early was dispatched to the Valley by Robert E. Lee to retrieve the situation from utter defeat. Early moved down the Valley (North) for several months until Grant countered with one of favorites, Philip Sheridan, who defeated Early and devastated the Valley.

Grant allowed William T. Sherman to carry on the fight in the Western Theater with very little interference. After all Sherman’s main weapon was the Army of the Tennessee, a fighting force that had seen nothing but victory since its formation.

Ben Butler who commanded the Army of the James to the east of Richmond was indecisive and hesitant. During the rest of the war until he was relieved, Grant needed to constantly prod him into action.

Grant’s main problems were in the Eastern Theater. George Gordon Meade was a methodical engineer whose plodding ways sometimes frustrated Grant. In fact, on more than a few occasions Grant had to directly intervene in the tactical operations of the Army of the Potomac, something that he was loathe to do.

Once the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock River they were on the enemy’s home ground. From early in the war this river and the Rapidan were the dividing line in Virginia between Union and Confederate.

The Army of the Potomac had crossed twice before and been repulsed with serious losses. In December of 1862, they had been defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg after a series of bloody frontal assaults against Marye’s Heights. The following May, they had been defeated at Chancellorsville. On both occasions, the Army of the Potomac returned to their camps on the north side of the river.

But Ulysses S. Grant was not a commander who believed in withdrawing. His goal was to bludgeon the Army of Northern Virginia and force it to withdraw. He was willing to sustain high casualties to accomplish his objectives.

His main objective was to draw Lee’s army onto open ground and fight him on ground of Grant’s choosing. But Grant did not account for a number of factors. He gambled that Meade could move his army quickly enough to avoid being ensnared in the Wilderness, but Meade recommended that they camp overnight to allow the wagon train to catch up.

Grant agreed, believing that Lee could not intercept the army had its most vulnerable point. But Meade had neglected to send out adequate cavalry cover. Knowing that his army was outnumbered almost two-to-one, Lee knew that he needed to use the Wilderness to even the odds.

The two armies fought a savage battle over three days that produced almost 29,000 total casualties. Despite this Grant was determined to move forward.

James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom described the scene:

While the armies skirmished warily on May 7, Grant prepared to march around Lee’s right during the night to seize the crossroads village of Spotsylvania a dozen miles to the south. If successful, this move would place the Union army closer to Richmond than the enemy and force Lee to fight or retreat. All day Union supply wagons and the reserve artillery moved to the rear, confirming the soldiers’ weary expectation of retreat. After dark the blue divisions pulled out one by one.

But instead of heading north, they turned south. A mental sunburst brightened their minds. It was not another “Chancellorsville … another skedaddle” after all. “Our spirits rose,” recalled one veteran who remembered this moment as a turning point in the war. Despite the terrors of the past three days and those to come, “we marched free. The men began to sing.” For the first time in a Virginia campaign the Army of the Potomac stayed on the offensive after its initial battle.



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.


The Opposing Sides’ Strategies

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant and LeeStarting with the Overland Campaign and continuing until the end of the war, the two sides had diametrically opposing military and political strategies. 1864 was not only a year with military objectives but also political ones.

The Union government and their army, now completely under the control of Ulysses S. Grant, had one military goal and one political one. Grant’s military goal was to defeat the armies of the Confederacy in the field.

Grant had proposed and Abraham Lincoln had approved a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Benjamin Butler against Lee near Richmond, Virginia; Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; Sherman to invade Georgia, defeat Joseph E. Johnston, and capture AtlantaGeorge Crook and William W. Averell to operate against railroad supply lines in West Virginia; and Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama. This was the first time the Union armies would have a coordinated offensive strategy across a number of theaters.


In the east he gave George Meade one overriding command: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Richmond was no longer the primary goal of the Army of the Potomac. Their primary goal was to be the destruction and surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant knew that with the defeat of Lee’s army would precipitate the fall of Richmond.

In the Western Theater, Sherman had been tasked with the capture of the rail center of Atlanta. He would then seek the destruction of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Finally, Sherman would wreak destruction through Georgia, South Carolina and South Carolina, gutting the Deep South and preventing the supplying of the various Confederate armies.

Not all of Grant’s armies were led by professional soldiers and they would fall short of his goals. Butler’s mission was to deploy his 33,000-man army via the James River to the Virginia Peninsula and strike northwest to Richmond. His objective was to cut the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, a critical Southern supply line, and force Lee to send reinforcements to that front, weakening him against Grant and Meade. Ben Butler would be bottled up at Bermuda Hundred by General P.G.T. Beauregard with a force of 18,000.

Sigel would be defeated at the battle of New Market by John C. Breckinridge. Sigel staged a rapid retreat northward to Strasburg, leaving the field and the Valley to Breckinridge’s army. After learning of the Union defeat, Grant became furious and replaced Sigel with David Hunter.

Hunter waged an aggressive campaign in the southern Valley forcing Lee to dispatch Jubal Early and his Second Corps to face the Union Army. Early forced the Union forces out of the Valley and proceeded to march north into Maryland. He eventually threatened Washington, forcing Grant to send a corps to protect the city.

He returned to the Valley but Grant appointed Philip Sheridan to command the Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan conducted an aggressive campaign against Early, eventually annihilating the Second Corps and forcing the remnants to rejoin Lee. The Valley was lost as a breadbasket for the Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee had a purely defensive strategy. His initial goal was two-fold: preserve his army from attrition and defend Richmond. With an army that on occasion half the size of the Army of the Potomac, Lee would become the master of the terrain of his native state. He used every topographical feature that was available to his army.

He fought a masterful defensive campaign during May and June of 1864. Battles in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and North Anna featured the Confederates skillful use of the terrain to bleed the Union Army. Outnumbered almost 2-to-1 his army inflicted 55,000 casualties on their enemy while sustaining 33,600. However, the Confederate losses represented about half of their army.

Grant knew that he could bleed Lee’s army while his own armies had a much larger pool of manpower available. However, looming in November was the Presidential election. Lincoln needed victories in the field in order to fend off the challenge from George McClellan, the Democrat nominee. The rising casualty lists would drive the voters into the arms of the Democrats unless they saw the hope of victory on the horizon.

Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee realized that their only hope of achieving independence was the defeat of Abraham Lincoln at the polls.  1864 would therefore become the most important year of the war. Victory would hang in the balance for the greater part of the year.





The Year of Three Generals: Robert E. Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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