Generals from VMI

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Military Academies of the United States

Generals from VMIAt least 20 VMI graduates served as generals during the Civil War. Some were obscure while others were well-known. Of course, Stonewall Jackson was a lieutenant-general and corps commander but he was not a VMI graduate. He had served as a professor for almost a decade.

Jackson surrounded himself with VMI graduates, many whom had been his students. He knew them and their abilities, therefore he felt comfortable having them as subordinates.

Here is a brief biographical look at some of the generals.

  • Raleigh E. Colston, Class of 1846. Born in Paris, he was sent to Virginia under the care of his uncle. He entered VMI in 1843 and graduated in 1846. He was a Professor of French at VMI from 1846 until the outbreak of war. In November 1859, he accompanied a contingent of VMI cadets assigned to guard duty at the execution of abolitionist John Brown. He was commissioned Colonel of the 16th Virginia Infantry Regiment. In December 1862 he was appointed Brigadier General and led a brigade under Longstreet on the Peninsula. He commanded a brigade under Stonewall Jackson in April 1863 and he commanded a division at Chancellorsville. He later served under P.G.T. Beauregard in defense of Petersburg in 1864. At the end of the war he was in command at Lynchburg.
  • Samuel Garland, Class of 1849. Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, Garland entered VMI in 1846 and graduated at 19 in 1849.  He studied law at University of Virginia; practiced in Lynchburg, VA. Following John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859, Garland organized the Lynchburg Home Guard. Commissioned Colonel, 11th Virginia Infantry Regiment at the start of the war. He led his regiment at 1st Manassas. He was wounded at Williamsburg but did not leave field. He was promoted to Brigadier General in May 1862 and commanded a brigade at Seven Pines, Gaines’s Mill, and Malvern Hill. He was mortally wounded on Sept 14, 1862, at South Mountain during the Maryland campaign, he was buried in Lynchburg.
  • Robert E. Rodes, Class of 1848. Rodes was also born in Lynchburg. He graduated from VMI in 1848 and was appointed Assistant Professor (Physical Science, Chemistry, Tactics) at VMI, 1848-1850. In 1850 Rodes began a Civil Engineering career, working on various railroad projects in Alabama and elsewhere in the south. In 1860 he was elected Professor of Applied Mechanics at VMI, but never served in this capacity because of the outbreak of war. In May 1861 he was commissioned Col. 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment. In Oct 1861 he was appointed Brigadier General, commanding a brigade at Fair Oaks, Gaines’s Mill, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville. He was promoted to Major General May 1863. He led a division at Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. He then went to the Shenandoah Valley in June 1864, where he served under Jubal Early and fought at Kernstown and elsewhere. Rodes was killed at Winchester, VA, on 19 September 1864 and was buried in Presbyterian Cemetery, Lynchburg.
  • William Mahone, Class of 1847. Mahone was born 1826 December 1, 1826 on a farm near Monroe, Southampton Co., Virginia. He enrolled at VMI on July 20, 1844 at age of 17½; was graduated on July 5, 1847, standing 8th out of 12 graduates. He taught at the Rappahannock Academy, Caroline Co., Virginia, 1848-1849. From 1851-1861 he was a civil engineer; Chief Engineer and subsequently President, Chief Engineer and General Superintendent of the Norfolk and Petersburg railroad. At the start of the war Mahone was a Lt. Col. and Colonel of the 6th Virginia Infantry Regiment. He was promoted to Brigadier General November 1861. During the Peninsular Campaign he led a brigade at Seven Pines and Malvern Hill. He also fought at 2nd Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. He was promoted to Major General on July 30, 1864 for his performance at the Battle of the Crater (near Petersburg, VA). He returned to engineering and continued to be instrumental in developing railway system in Virginia; unsuccessful bid for governor in 1877. He was a United States Senator, 1881-1887. Mahone died October 8, 1895 and was buried in Blandford Cemetery, near Petersburg, VA.
  • Thomas T. Munford, Class of 1852. Munford was born March 29, 1831 at Richmond. He enrolled at VMI on July 30, 1849 and was graduated in July 1852, standing 14th in a class of 24. He was commissioned Lt. Col. of the 13th Virginia Mounted Infantry; Col., 2nd Virginia Cavalry. He served in the  in the Shenandoah Valley under Stonewall Jackson, succeeded Turner Ashby, fought at Cross Keys, Harrisonburg, White Oak Swamp, 2nd Manassas, Antietam; appointed Brigadier General November 1864; took command of Fitzhugh Lee’s division and fought at Five Forks, High Bridge, Sayler’s Creek, and Appomattox. After the war he was an Iron manufacturer and farmer. He was President, VMI Board of Visitors, 1884-1888. Munford died February 27, 1918 at the home of his son in Uniontown, Alabama and was buried in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The Third Day at Chancellorsville

This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

The Battle of Chancellorsville entered the third day of combat with the two sides still facing each other in the dense woods around Chancellorsville. Despite Stonewall Jackson’s stunning victory on May 2, 1863, the Confederates forces had not gained a significant advantage on the battlefield.

Yes, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps had been routed but the Army of the Potomac still outnumbered the Confederates, 76,000 to 43,000 at the Chancellorsville front. Maj. Gen. John Reynolds I Corps had arrived on the field on the night of May 2-3, replacing Howard’s losses.

Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles III Corps still separated the two halves of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Sickles’ force was emplaced in a strong position on high ground at Hazel Grove. In order to have success in uniting the two halves of his army, General Lee needed to devise a way to eject Sickles from Hazel Grove.

He didn’t need to think about it too long about his tactics because “Fighting Joe” Hooker resolved the situation for him. Early on May 3rd, Hooker ordered Sickles and the III Corps to to move from Hazel Grove to a new position on the Plank Road. As they withdraw, their rearguard was attacked by the brigade of Brig. Gen.James J. Archer, which captured about 100 prisoners and four cannons. Hazel Grove was soon turned into a powerful artillery platform with 30 guns under Col. Porter Alexander.

Meanwhile, General Lee was faced with a leadership crisis in the Second Corps. With the wounding of Jackson, his senior division commander, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill had assumed command. But Hill was soon wounded and after consulting with the next senior division commander, Brig. Gen. Robert Rodes, he summoned Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to take command, notifying Lee after the fact. Brig. Gen.Henry Heth replaced Hill in division command.

Despite never having commanded infantry before, Stuart turned in a credible performance at Chancellorsville. He immediately grasped the tactical situation and began to respond to it. The Union position was a giant horseshoe. he center was held by the III, XII, and II Corps. On the left were the remnants of the XI Corps, and the right was held by the V and I Corps.

Stuart organized his three divisions, commanded by Rodes, Heth and Brig. Gen. Raleigh Colston, to straddle the Orange Plank Road. Heth’s in the advance, Colston’s 300–500 yards behind, and Rodes’s, whose men had done the hardest fighting on May 2, near the Wilderness Church.

The Confederate attack began at about 5:30 AM. Aided by the newly installed artillery at Hazel Grove and with simultaneous attacks by the divisions of Anderson and McLaws from the south and southeast, the Confederate offensive began. The Union defenders resisted mightily from behind their strong fortifications and the fighting was the heaviest of the campaign.

he initial waves of assaults by Heth and Colston gained a little ground, but were beaten back by Union counterattacks. Rodes sent his men in last. Their final push aided by the Confederate artillery won the morning battle.

Throughout the entire war, this was the one occasion where Confederate artillery bested their Union counterparts at Fairview. The Confederate guns at Hazel Grove were joined 20 more pieces on the Plank Road. Under intense bombardment, the Federals withdraw as ammunition ran low and Confederate infantrymen picked off the gun crews. Fairview was evacuated at 9:30 a.m., briefly recaptured in a counterattack, but by 10 a.m. Hooker ordered it abandoned for good.

The loss of this artillery platform doomed the Union position at the Chancellorsville crossroads as well. The Army of the Potomac began a fighting retreat to positions circling United States Ford. The soldiers of the two halves of Lee’s army reunited shortly after 10 a.m. before the Chancellor mansion, wildly triumphant as Lee arrived on Traveller to survey the scene of his victory.

Charles Marshall, Lee’s military secretary, later wrote in his memoirs, An Aide-de-Camp to Lee

Lee’s presence was the signal for one of those uncontrollable bursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who has not witnessed them. The fierce soldiers, with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle and hailed the presence of a victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph; and as I looked at him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from some such scene that men in ancient days ascended to the dignity of gods.

To complicate the Union situation, Hooker was injured at the height of the fighting when a cannonball struck the wooden porch support that he was leaning against. He later wrote that half of the pillar “violently [struck me] … in an erect position from my head to my feet.” He likely received a concussion, which was sufficiently severe to render him unconscious for over an hour.

Although clearly incapacitated after he arose, Hooker refused to turn over command temporarily to his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, and, with Hooker’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, and Sedgwick out of communication (again due to the failure of the telegraph lines), there was no one at headquarters with sufficient rank or stature to convince Hooker otherwise. This failure affected Union performance over the next day and directly contributed to Hooker’s seeming lack of nerve and timid performance throughout the rest of the battle.


The Battle of Bethesda Church

This entry is part 10 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

The Battle of

Bethesda Church 

Overland Campaign May 27-29






The Battle of Bethesda Church was preceded by maneuvering of both armies and several brief sharp engagements.

After the action on the North Anna River, Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to Lee’s right. The Federal forces used parallel lines of advance as they moved steadily south along the eastern side of the Pamunkey River. The Federal army was in high spirits after the escape from Lee’s trap on the North Anna River.

Lee’s was unsure of Grant’s intentions so he had to remain flexible with his plans, making sure that all of the possible crossings were guarded. In order to accomplish this by May 27th Lee located his forces at Atlee’s Station on the Virginia Central line. On the same day Lee also learned that Richard Ewell was too ill to continue as commander of the Second Corps. He placed Jubal Early in temporary command in his absence. This appointment would become permanent on the 29th. Lee, himself, was still suffering with his sickness and afforded himself the opportunity of staying in a private residence near Atlee’s Station.

On the morning of the 28th Federal forces crossed the Pamunkey River in several locations. Burnside’s Corps remained on the eastern side of the river. Cavalry forces from both sides clashed in the vicinity of Enon Church, a short distance west of Haw’s Shop. For the most part the cavalrymen fought dismounted. It was at this action that the trooper who had killed J.E.B. Stuart, John Huff, was himself killed.

Again Lee who was unsure of Grant’s intention found himself preparing for alternate possibilities. If Grant moved toward the Virginia Central, he had Hill’s Corps in the vicinity to protect it. Anderson and Early’s Corps were settled behind the protection of the marshes of Totopotomoy Creek.

Jubal Early presented Lee with a plan to turn the Federal flank as they advanced south of the Totopotomoy. Lee agreed and Early assembled a force led by Robert Rodes’ Division. Meanwhile Warren had moved Samuel Crawford’s Division to the south. Around noon they arrived at a point to the west of Bethesda Church and immediately threw up breastworks.

The other two corps of Grant’s reconnaissance in force were stalled. Wright’s Corps became mired in the lowlands and Hancock’s Corps was stymied by the strong defenses across Totopotomoy bottomlands.

Rodes’ Division began their attack at about 2:00 PM. The Federal force was overwhelmed within a few minutes with the fury of the Confederate attack. Some regiments fell apart completely. The Federals fled to the north and many were captured in the marshlands.

Then the Confederate attack stalled, saving the day for the Federals. In that time the Federal units reorganized and reformed their lines. Warren wasBattle of Bethesda Church at Totopotomoy Creek able to send in supporting units to stiffen Crawford’s Division. Early later reported that he had to stop, reorient and extend his lines. His communications with fellow corps commander Anderson was erratic and his support did not come.

Stephan Ramseur, now commanding Early’s former division, complicated matters by insisting on attacking the prepared Federal positions to his front. Early, after denying permission, finally agreed and the attack started at about 6:00 PM. The advancing Confederates were met by a hail of rifle and cannon fire. The commanding officer of the 49th Virginia (who was captured) remembered later, “Our line melted away as if by magic-every brigade, staff and field officer was cut down, (mostly killed outright) in an incredibly short time.” The Confederates broke off the attack and retired after suffering considerable number of casualties. In their diaries many of the soldiers directly blamed Ramseur for the disaster. One man called it, “A murder for ambition’s sake.”

The cost of the actions around Bethesda Church were considered light with the Federals suffering a total of 731 men killed, wounded or captured and the Confederates losing 1,159 killed, wounded or captured.

The Battle of Bethesda Church was just a preliminary action to the Battle of Cold Harbor where the two opposing armies for clash for almost two weeks in early June. The Federals would repeatedly hurl their forces against Lee’s fixed defenses and suffer many casualties in the process.