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06/16/16

The Eastern Theater: Graveyard of Generals (Part One)

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

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

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

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

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

McDowell was superseded by Maj.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

02/19/14

McClellan’s Failed Successors: Ambrose Burnside

This entry is part 5 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General Ambrose BurnsideMaj. Gen. George B. McClellan was relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac on November 9, 1862. The main reason for his removal was his failure to us the instrument of war that he created. Commanders love the army but the great commanders must risk the destruction of the thing that they love to achieve victory. George McClellan was not a great commander.

McClellan was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. A West Point graduate in the class of 1847, Burnside had served in Mexico but by the time that he had arrived hostilities had ceased and he saw only garrison duty. He then served two years on the western frontier under Captain Braxton Bragg. In 1852 he returned east to Rhode Island where he met and married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1853 Burnside resigned his commission and entered the business world where he devoted his time and energy to the manufacture of the famous firearm that bears his name, the Burnside carbine. He obtained government contracts and invested heavily in manufacturing equipment. But through devious means he lost the contracts and was ruined financially. He then moved west where became treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad. He worked for, and became friendly with, one of his future commanding officers, George B. McClellan.

At the start of the Civil War Burnside was a brigadier general in the Rhode Island Militia. He raised a regiment, the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, and was appointed its colonel on May 2, 1861. Within a month he was given a brigade which he led without distinction at the First Battle of Manassas. He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers but relegated to training provisional brigades for the Army of the Potomac.

Burnside commanded the Coast Division, or North Carolina Expeditionary Force—three brigades assembled in Annapolis, Maryland, which formed the nucleus for his future IX Corps—and the Department of North Carolina, from September 1861 until July 1862. He conducted a successful amphibious campaign that closed over 80% of the North Carolina sea coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war.

He was promoted to major general of volunteers and his units were assigned to the Army of the Potomac as the IX Corps. After McClellan’s failure on the Peninsula Burnside was offered command of the Army of the Potomac, citing his lack of requisite experience. His corps was detached for service with Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia. After the defeat at Second Manassas, Burnside was again offered the command of the army and again refused due to lack of experience and loyalty to McClellan.

At Antietam Burnside commanded his corps which was placed at the southern end of the Union position. His corps was tasked with crossing the Rohrbach’s Bridge, a three-span, 125-foot (38 m) stone structure that was the southernmost crossing of the Antietam. His four divisions of 12,500 men faced a small Confederate force of 3,000 men and 12 guns. However, the superior Confederate defenses stymied Burnside’s men for critical hours until their eventual breakthrough. The Union casualties  at Burnside’s Bridge amounted to 20% of their strength.

After McClellan’s relief in November Burnside was again offered the command of the army. He reluctantly accepted when he was informed that Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was the alternative. Disliking Hooker, Burnside accepted command. President immediately began pressuring Burnside to launch an attack on the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Burnside formulated a plan to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg using pontoon bridges. But the plan was poorly executed and Gen. Robert E. Lee was given sufficient time to concentrate his army and repulse the Army of the Potomac. He ordered a series of bloody frontal assaults against Marye’s Heights. The Army of the Potomac suffered 12,653 total casualties while the Confederates sustained only 5,377. Detractors labeled Burnside the “Butcher of Fredericksburg”.

In January 1863, Burnside launched a second offensive against Lee, but it bogged down in winter rains before it accomplished anything and has been derisively called the Mud March. In its wake, he asked that several officers, who were openly insubordinate, be relieved of duty and court-martialed; he also offered to resign. Lincoln chose the latter option on January 26 and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, one of the officers who had conspired against Burnside.

It turned out that Ambrose Burnside was a better corps commander than an army commander. Lincoln refused Burnside’s offer to resign from the army altogether. He was placed back at the head of the IX Corps and sent to command the Department of the Ohio, encompassing the states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. While in command of this department he clashed with the anti-war Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham.

Burnside’s IX Corps was heavily involved during the Knoxville Campaign. He occupied the city of Knoxville unopposed. At the Cumberland Gap he forced the surrender of 2,300 Confederate troops. He then clashed with James LOngstreet’s corps but he was able to outmaneuver him and return to the safety of Knoxville. Tying down Longstreet’s corps at Knoxville contributed to Gen. Braxton Bragg‘s defeat by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga.

Burnside’s corps was returned to the Eastern Theater where it eventually became part of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside fought at the battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, where he did not perform in a distinguished manner, attacking piecemeal and appearing reluctant to commit his troops to the frontal assaults that characterized these battles. After North Anna and Cold Harbor, he took his place in the siege lines at Petersburg.

Troops under Burnside’s command suggested that they dig a mine under a fort named Elliot’s Salient in the Confederate entrenchments and ignite explosives there to achieve a surprise breakthrough. The fort was destroyed on July 30 in what is known as the Battle of the Crater. Because of interference from Meade, Burnside was ordered, only hours before the infantry attack, not to use his division of black troops, which had been specially trained for this mission. He was forced to use untrained white troops instead.

He could not decide which division to choose as a replacement, so he had his three subordinate commanders draw lots. The division chosen by chance was that commanded by Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie, who failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk well behind the lines, providing no leadership. Ledlie’s men entered the huge crater instead of going around it, becoming trapped, and were subjected to heavy fire from Confederates around the rim, resulting in high casualties.

Burnside was relieved of command for the final time and was never given another command. A court of inquiry later placed the blame for the Crater fiasco on Burnside and his subordinates. In December, Burnside met with President Lincoln and General Grant about his future. He was contemplating resignation, but Lincoln and Grant requested that he remain in the Army. At the end of the interview, Burnside wrote, “I was not informed of any duty upon which I am to be placed.” He finally resigned his commission on April 15, 1865, after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War later exonerated Burnside, and placed the blame for the Union defeat at the Crater on General Meade for requiring the specially trained USCT (United States Colored Troops) men to be withdrawn.

Despite all of his failures Ambrose Burnside was elected to three one-year terms as Governor of Rhode Island (May 1866 to May 1869).

05/20/13

1862: The End of Conciliation in the East

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Map of US with divisionsWhile 1861 same several attempts to settle the war without shedding an ocean of blood, 1862 would see the gradual descent of the war into a bitter conflict on both sides. In order to understand this period we’ll look at the war from various perspectives. This post will cover the Eastern Theater.

After the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run as the losing Union side named it, both sides began a gradual feeling-out process that was the antithesis of the later total war waged by both sides. The reality of First Manassas convinced both sides that their armies were no more than armed mobs. Both armies were deficient in training, leadership and even uniforms.

Both sides had uniforms that in some cases caused confusion on the battlefield. There were Confederate units with blue uniforms and Union units with a sort of blue/gray uniform. Some of the uniforms were garish and impractical like the Zouave uniforms worn by units on both sides. Even the early Confederate battle flags caused confusion because of their similarity to Old Glory.

Both armies in the Eastern Theater spent the fall and winter reorganizing, training and equipping their troops. In the Western Theater there were tentative probes down the Mississippi River and into Kentucky which had tried to remain neutral.

Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would make his first major foray from his base at Cairo, Illinois on November 7, 1861. The Battle of Belmont would see a limited clash of arms on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River with limited aims and a small loss of life.

In the Eastern Theater there were several engagements at the edges of the conflict but Maj. Gen. George McClellan refused to be pushed into major combat before he felt that his massive Army of the Potomac was ready to advance. By the end of 1861, McClellan had fortified Washington into one of the most defended cities in the world with 48 forts, 480 guns and 7,200 artillerymen.

The Army of the Potomac, McClellan’s chosen weapon of “shock and awe” had grown to over 190,000 men, the largest army ever assembled on the North American continent. It was was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times. But McClellan wanted more. He envisioned an army of 273,000 with 600 guns to “crush the rebels in one campaign.”

McClellan continually overestimated the numbers of enemy troops that were facing him in the Washington area. On August 8, believing that the Confederates had over 100,000 troops facing him (in contrast to the 35,000 they actually deployed at Bull Run a few weeks earlier), he declared a state of emergency in the capital.

By August 19, he estimated 150,000 enemy to his front. McClellan’s future campaigns would be strongly influenced by the overblown enemy strength estimates of his secret service chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, but in August 1861, these estimates were entirely McClellan’s own.

The result was a level of extreme caution that sapped the initiative of McClellan’s army and caused great condemnation by his government. Historian and biographer Stephen W. Sears has called McClellan’s actions “essentially sound” if he had been as outnumbered as he believed, but McClellan in fact rarely had less than a two-to-one advantage over his opponents in 1861 and 1862. That fall, for example, Confederate forces ranged from 35,000 to 60,000, whereas the Army of the Potomac in September numbered 122,000 men; in early December 170,000; by year end, 192,000.

Eventually after much debate and arguments between McClellan and the Lincoln government, the Army of the Potomac was transported to the tip of the Peninsula where they began a slow advance northwest to their ultimate goal of Richmond. From the siege of Yorktown to Malvern Hill, McClellan and first, Joseph E. Johnston and then Robert E. Lee slugged it out over a four-month period. Eventually, the Confederates deflected the huge Union army from its goal.

While McClellan was left idle at Harrison’s Landing, Lee turned and thrashed Maj. Gen. John Pope at Second Manassas. He then turned north and headed into Maryland where Lee and McClellan met in the bloodiest one-day battle of the war at Antietam. After a bloodletting that caused almost 23,000 casualties, McClellan was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

With the departure of McClellan the war in the Eastern Theater began a slide to total war. Burnside’s first major battle was at Frederickburg on the Rappahannock River. The Union artillery preparation for the crossing of the river would destroy a large part of the town.

Union cavalry units were sent into the Virginia countryside to seize food and fodder thus denying it to the Confederates. This would establish a pattern for both armies to prey upon the civilian populations. The Confederate cavalry would do the same in Maryland and later Pennsylvania.