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04/28/14

The Flank Attack

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

Jackson's Flank AttackThe American Civil War saw a revolution in new weaponry and tactics during its four years of combat. New weaponry curbed the use of full frontal assaults where brigades charged in double lines. The bloody assaults at Fredericksburg, Shiloh and Pickett’s Charge caused commanders from both sides to use the flank attack more often.

A flank attack is to attack an enemy or an enemy unit from the side. There are several variations to this basic military tactic. One type is employed in an ambush, where a friendly unit performs a surprise attack from a concealed position. Other units may be hidden to the sides of the ambush site to surround the enemy. 

Another type is used in the attack, where a unit encounters an enemy defensive position. Upon receiving fire from the enemy, the unit commander may decide to order a flank attack. Part of the attacking unit “fixes” the enemy with suppressive fire, preventing them from returning fire, retreating or changing position to meet the flank attack. The flanking force then advances to the enemy flank and attacks them at close range. 

The most effective form of flanking maneuver is the double envelopment, which involves simultaneous flank attacks on both sides of the enemy. This tactic was used extensively in the Civil War as commanders tried to outflank their opponent and bring concentrated fire or enfilade the enemy by firing along the long axis of the unit. For instance, a trench is enfiladed if the enemy can fire down the length of the trench.

Perhaps the most famous flank attack was Stonewall Jackson’s attack against the Union Army of the Potomac’s right flank at the Battle Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson settled upon a highly aggressive plan to march Jackson’s forces around the Union positions and onto that exposed flank. 

After a hard and dusty march on May 2, Jackson’s column reached its jumping off point for their attack upon the unsuspecting Federal right flank. At 5:20 pm, Jackson’s line surged forward in an overwhelming attack that crushed the Union Twelfth Corps. Federal troops, however, rallied, resisted the advance, and counterattacked. Disorganization and darkness ended the fighting.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, while making a night reconnaissance, Jackson was shot by his own troops in the darkness and fell mortally wounded. Robert E. Lee was never able able to replace the great Stonewall and many historians maintain that his loss caused the defeat of the Confederacy.

On the Union side both Ulysses S, Grant and William T. Sherman used the flank attack to their advantage both in the Western Theater and in Virginia in 1864.

At the Battle of Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant planned a double envelopment of Confederate forces led by General Braxton Bragg. William T. Sherman leading 20,000 men from the Army of the Tennessee were to attack the right flank of the Confederate defensive line that was situated at Tunnel Hill.  General Joseph Hooker with three divisions was ordered to assault the left end of the Confederate line.

Sherman’s assault on the right was stymied by a fierce Confederate defense but Grant ordered General George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland to advance against the base of the ridge at the center of the Confederate defense.After taking the rifle pits the Union troops continued their advance and ultimately took the crest of the ridge. The Confederate lines were broken and Bragg was forced to order a retreat.

Sherman would go on to use the tactic of the flank attack throughout his advance to Atlanta. Sherman moved his forces along lines of least resistance and greatest gain. This approach guided the March to Atlanta, a series of interwoven flank maneuvers that included one precalculated frontal assault.

It was also the motivating idea in the Marches to the Sea and the Carolinas, which Sherman envisioned as a necessary ’roundabout’ flank attacks on General Lee in Virginia. Ironically, these marches over land, totaling over 600 miles, actually shortened the war considerably, perhaps by as much as a year.

When Grant took overall command of the Union armies his first campaign was dubbed the Overland Campaign because his intent was to move overland to Richmond. He planned to fight a constant series of battles against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. His aim was the destruction of the main Confederate fighting force in the Eastern Theater.

The entire Overland Campaign was a series of flanking movements by the Army of the Potomac to force Lee to respond by moving southeast and eventually being brought to bay at Petersburg. Grant’s goal was to bleed the Confederates but in doing so he also bled the Army of the Potomac. Over the course of the campaign both armies had combined casualties of almost 89,000 killed, wounded, missing or captured.

Most of the casualties were sustained in the Wilderness (29,800), Spotsylvania Court House (30,000) and Cold Harbor (15,500). From May 5th until June 24th, the armies fought 11 battles, engagements and skirmishes. In the course of the fighting, the Union Army lost Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps, at Spotsylvania white the Army of Northern Virginia lost Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, their cavalry commander, at Yellow Tavern.

Finally, Grant’s overall strategy was to use the Army of the Shenandoah, Union forces in West Virginia and the Army of the James to attack the Confederate forces in the East on the flanks.

The Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia were assigned to deny Lee’s army of supplies from the rich farmland of the Valley. Ben Butler’s Army of the James was assigned to attack Richmond from the east and draw off troops opposing the advance of the Army of the Potomac. Most of these attacks would initially fail due to poor generalship. Eventually, Grant found the right generals to lead these efforts and they accomplished their objectives.

04/11/14

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.

 

 

 

03/28/14

John Brown Gordon: From the Battlefield to the State House

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Confederate Generals Officers

General John Brown GordonIf the Union had Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, then the Confederacy’s version was John Brown Gordon of Georgia. These two famous generals followed parallel paths and in the post-war period actually became acquainted. In the end both would help to foster the reconciliation of the two sides.

John Brown Gordon was born on his father’s plantation in Upson County, Georgia in February of 1832. An outstanding student at the University of Georgia, he left before graduating to read law at an Atlanta law firm. He passed the bar examination and began to practice law. Gordon was a many of many parts and he invested in a number of coal mines in Tennessee and Georgia with his father.

Gordon’s Civil War Service: 1861-1863

At the start of the war, Gordon who lacked any military education or experience was elected captain of a company of mountaineers. He quickly rose to brigadier general in November 1862 and then to major general in May 1864. Gordon was an aggressive general as a brigade commander and then a division commander. He was highly valued by Robert E. Lee who described him as being one of his best brigadiers, “characterized by splendid audacity” in a letter to President Jefferson Davis.

Gordon was wounded eight times in the service of the Confederacy including an incredible five times in the Sunken Road at Antietam. He was wounded at Malvern Hill in the eyes while fearlessly leading his brigade. During the campaign, Gordon strode fearlessly among his men, enemy bullets shattered the handle of his pistol, pierced his canteen, and tore away part of the front of his coat.

At Antietam, he commanded the troops that held the Sunken Road in the center of the Confederate line. It was during this battle that Gordon was wounded an incredible five times. First, a Minié ball passed through his calf. Then, a second ball hit him higher in the same leg. A third ball went through his left arm.

He continued to lead his men despite the fact that the muscles and tendons in his arm were mangled, and a small artery was severed by this ball. A fourth ball hit him in his shoulder. Despite pleas that he go to the rear, he continued to lead his men. He was finally stopped by a ball that hit him in the face, passing through his left cheek and out his jaw. He fell with his face in his cap and might have drowned in his own blood if it had not drained out through a bullet hole in the cap.

After months of recuperation, Gordon led a brigade of Georgians in Jubal Early’s division at Gettysburg. During the assault on Barlow’s Knoll, he stopped to aid the wounded enemy division commander, Francis Barlow.

This incident led to a story considered apocryphal by many historians that the two men met after the war in Washington and Gordon asked if he was related to the Barlow who was killed at Gettysburg.

Seated at Clarkson Potter’s table, I asked Barlow: “General, are you related to the Barlow who was killed at Gettysburg?” He replied: “Why, I am the man, sir. Are you related to the Gordon who killed me?” “I am the man, sir,” I responded. No words of mine can convey any conception of the emotions awakened by those startling announcements. Nothing short of an actual resurrection from the dead could have amazed either of us more. Thenceforward, until his untimely death in 1896, the friendship between us which was born amidst the thunders of Gettysburg was greatly cherished by both.

 The story was told by Barlow and by Gordon and was published in newspapers and in Gordon’s book.

The irony of this incident is that Francis Barlow led the 61st New York and the 63rd New York at Antietam. His combined units flanked the Sunken Road and created the famous pictures of the dead Confederates in the road, many commanded by Gordon. My own second great grandfather, Sgt. Michael Patrick Murphy, was among the Union troops who caused the carnage. In a later affidavit, he wrote how they forded the creek, organized themselves and proceeded to the attack. “We had it hot for some time.”

Gordon’s Civil War Service: 1864-1865

Gordon proposed a flanking attack at the start of the Overland Campaign at the Wilderness but his commander Jubal Early would not allow it. After the Wilderness Gordon was given command of Early’s Division when he was promoted. At Spotsylvania Court House his unit turned back the massive Union attack at the ‘Bloody Angle’ and prevented a Confederate rout. During the battle he was promoted to major general.

It was at the latter battle that Gordon found General Robert E. Lee riding his horse Traveller to the center of the line, preparing to join a charge. Gordon shouted, “General Lee, this is no place for you. These men behind you are Georgians and Virginians. They have never failed you and will not fail you here. Will you boys?” Gordon’s men yelled, “No, no, we’ll not fail him.” He then had two of his men escort General Lee to the rear and safety.

Gordon went with Early to the Valley when the latter was given command of the Army of the Valley. He  was wounded August 25, 1864, at Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The incident was described by Confederate cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss in his official report, “Quite a lively skirmish ensued, in which Gordon was wounded in the head, but he gallantly dashed on, the blood streaming over him.”

After the Confederate defeat Battle of Cedar Creek, Gordon returned to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia where he was given command of the Second Corps which he led until the surrender at Appomattox. His corps defended the line during the Siege of Petersburg. commanded the attack on Fort Stedman on March 25, 1865 where he was wounded again, in the leg.

At Appomattox Court House, he led his men in the last charge of the Army of Northern Virginia, capturing the entrenchments and several pieces of artillery in his front just before the surrender.

It was at the surrender ceremony that Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ordered a salute that at first startled Gordon who led the Southern infantry. Here is Chamberlain’s poignant account of the surrender ceremony.

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! 

Gordon’s Postwar Career

Appomattox was not the end of John Brown Gordon’s career but the beginning of its next phase. He was a firm opponent of Reconstruction and endorsed measures to preserve white-dominated society, including restrictions on freedmen and the use of violence. It was thought that he was the titular head of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan, a charge that he denied. He did acknowledge he was associated with a secret “peace police” organization whose sole purpose was the “preservation of peace.”

He ran for governor in 1868 but was defeated. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1873 and in 1879 became the first ex-Confederate to preside of that august body.The day after he became President Pro Tem of the Senate he obtained a promise from President Ulysses S. Grant to remove Federal officials in Georgia who had gained their positions through fraud or corruption.

John Gordon was a strong supporter of the “New South” and industrialization. Gordon resigned from the Senate in May 1880 to promote a venture for the Georgia Pacific Railway. He was elected Governor of Georgia in 1886 and returned to the U.S. Senate from 1891 to 1897.

In 1903 Gordon published an account of his Civil War service entitled Reminiscences of the Civil War. He engaged in a series of popular speaking engagements throughout the country.

John Gordon was the first Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans when the group was organized in 1890 and held this position until his death in 1904. He died while visiting one of his sons in Miami, Florida on January 9, 1904 at the age of 71. It was reported that 75,000 people attended his funeral in Atlanta where he was buried.

Gordon was a proponent of the ‘Lost Cause’ myth that sprang up after the war. Those who contributed to the movement tended to portray the Confederacy’s cause as noble and most of its leaders as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by the Union armies through overwhelming force rather than martial skill.

Gordon often spoke at veteran’s gatherings. At one gathering of veterans from both armies, Gordon spoke after his friend, Joshua Chamberlain. He turned to Chamberlain, saying: “You were right but so were we.”

 

03/5/14

George Gordon Meade

This entry is part 11 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General George Gordon MeadeAfter a series of failed commanders the Army of the Potomac finally was given a commander who would remain with the Army through the end of the war. His name was George Gordon Meade and he was probably the least likely to succeed as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. But succeed he did with the help of talented subordinates and a superior General-in-Chief, Ulysses S. Grant.

Meade was a career professional soldier and civil engineer who had worked on both coastal defenses and several lighthouses. He graduated from West Point in 1935 in the upper half of his class. He served with distinction in both the Seminole Wars and the Mexican War.

After that war he was chiefly involved in lighthouse and breakwater construction and coastal surveying in Florida and New Jersey. He designed Barnegat Light on Long Beach IslandAbsecon Light in Atlantic City, Cape May Light in Cape May, Jupiter Inlet Light in Jupiter, Florida, and Sombrero Key Light in the Florida Keys. He also designed a hydraulic lamp that was adopted by the Lighthouse Board for use in American lighthouses. He was also in command of the Great Lakes survey from 1857 until the start of the war.

Meade started the war as a captain in the regular army but by mid-August 1861 he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers as the commander of the 2nd Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves. At the Battle of Glendale, one of the Seven Days Battles, Meade was severely wounded in the arm, back, and side.

He partially recovered his strength in time for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run, in which he led his brigade, then assigned to Maj. Gen.Irvin McDowell‘s corps of the Army of Virginia. His brigade made a heroic stand on Henry House Hill to protect the rear of the retreating Union Army.

At the start of the Maryland Campaign he was promoted to the command of the 3rd Division, I Corps, Army of the Potomac, and distinguished himself during the Battle of South Mountain. During the following the Battle of Antietam he replaced the wounded Joe Hooker who was in command of I Corps. He was wounded once again, this time in the thigh.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade’s division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a gap in Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at the southern end of the battlefield. For this action, Meade was promoted to major general of volunteers, to rank from November 29, 1862. His attack was not supported which resulted in the loss of much of his division.

Following Fredericksburg he was given command of V Corps which he led at the Battle of Chancellorsville but they were left in reserve for much of the battle. Meade had argued strenuously for the Army to resume the attack but Hooker, the army commander, chose to withdraw.

Hooker resigned from command of the Army of the Potomac while pursuing Lee in the Gettysburg Campaign. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1863, a messenger from President Abraham Lincoln arrived to inform Meade of his appointment as Hooker’s replacement. Meade was taken by surprise and later wrote to his wife that when the officer entered his tent to wake him, he assumed that Army politics had caught up with him and he was being arrested.

He had not actively sought command and was not the president’s first choice. John F. Reynolds, one of four major generals who outranked Meade in the Army of the Potomac, had earlier turned down the president’s suggestion that he take over. Reynolds was later killed on the first day of the battle.

Meade, with little knowledge of the army’s dispositions much less the enemies, took over the Army of the Potomac at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Maryland. Three days later he commanded the Union forces that defeated Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. The battle was climaxed by Pickett’s Charge at the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.

Both armies suffered fearful casualties and as Lee retreated Meade only sent cavalry to harass the retreating Confederates. Lee was able to set up a strong defensive positions to hold off the Union attackers while he moved his army across the rain-swollen Potomac River. Meade was heavily criticized by President Lincoln and other Washington politicians.

Nonetheless, Meade received a promotion to brigadier general in the regular army and the Thanks of Congress, which commended Meade “… and the officers and soldiers of [the Army of the Potomac], for the skill and heroic valor which at Gettysburg repulsed, defeated, and drove back, broken and dispirited, beyond the Rappahannock, the veteran army of the rebellion.”

After the Gettysburg Campaign Meade led the Army through two campaigns, the Bristoe Campaign and the Mine Run Campaign, which featured rather minor and inconclusive battles due to Meade’s reluctance to attack prepared defensive positions.

A London newspaperman described Meade:

“He is a very remarkable looking man—tall, spare, of a commanding figure in presence, his manner pleasant and easy but having much dignity. His head is partially bald and is small and compact, but the forehead is high. He has the late Duke of Wellington class of nose, and his eyes, which have a serious and almost sad expression, are rather sunken, or appear so from the prominence of the curve nasal appearance. He has a decidedly patrician and distinguished appearance.”

Meade’s short temper earned him notoriety, and while he was respected by most of his peers, he was not well loved by his army. Some referred to him as “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”

In March of 1864 Ulysses S. Grant was appointed as the General-in-Chief of all of the Union armies. Meade offered to resign and let Grant choose his own man but Grant told him that he had no intention of replacing him. Grant did choose to travel with the Army of the Potomac since it was the prime weapon that he would use to bring Lee to bay.

Meade chafed at Grant’s close supervision. In June of 1864 Meade ran afoul of the press when he disciplined a reporter from from The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper for an unfavorable article. All of the press assigned to his army agreed to mention Meade only in conjunction with setbacks. Meade apparently knew nothing of this arrangement, and the reporters giving all of the credit to Grant angered Meade.

Grant’s strategy called for all of the Union armies to make simultaneous attacks across the South. This prevented to Confederates from shifting troops from one location to another. It proved to be the winning strategy of the war. The Army of the Potomac’s assignment called for it to attempt to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia by attrition.

Meade had become a more cautious commander and did not like to send his troops against fixed defensive positions. On the other hand, Grant was willing to sacrifice soldiers knowing that he had reinforcements available.

During the Overland Campaign and the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign most of the bloody frontal assaults were ordered by Grant. Meade was also frustrated by the preferential treatment that Grant sometimes gave to subordinates that had come with the General-in-Chief from the Western Theater. The latitude that he allowed Gen. Philip Sheridan with regards to his use of the Cavalry Corps was one such instance.

Meade preferred to have the cavalry perform traditional cavalry functions of reconnaissance, screening, and guarding the army’s trains, but Sheridan objected and told Meade that he could “whip Stuart” if Meade let him. Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who replied, “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.”

Meade deferred to Grant’s judgment and issued orders to Sheridan to “proceed against the enemy’s cavalry” and from May 9 through May 24, sent him on a raid toward Richmond, directly challenging the Confederate cavalry. It was during this foray that J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

In the early part of the siege of Petersburg, Meade ordered several assaults without proper reconnaissance. This resulted in high casualties, like those suffered at the Battle of Cold Harbor. He also failed to coordinate the attacks by his corps which allowed the Confederates to reinforce his defensive lines and prolong the siege.

He also not only ordered the digging of the mine under the Confederate lines by troops from Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Corps but he also changed Burnside’s plan to lead the attack with a well-trained African-American division that was highly drilled just for this action. He instructed him to take a politically less risky course and substitute an untrained and poorly led white division. But the resulting Battle of the Crater was one of the great fiascoes of the war.

Meade continued in command of the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war. He held various military commands, including the Military Division of the Atlantic, the Department of the East, and the Department of the South. He replaced Major General John Pope as governor of the Reconstruction Third Military District in Atlanta on January 10, 1868.

George Gordon Meade died in Philadelphia, while still on active duty, from complications of his old wounds, combined with pneumonia, on November 6, 1872. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery.

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).

02/7/14

The Campaigns of 1864

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

1864 was a year that saw fighting across all areas of the South. Many of the campaigns would be of critical importance to the final outcome of the American Civil War. For those who would like to review the major campaigns the following list provides links to the first post of of each campaign series.

Western Theater

The Shenandoah Valley

The Eastern Theater