Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pursuit to Appomattox: “Let the thing be pressed”

image The story of the final days of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia is one filled with drama, as the tattered but defiant remains of his proud army retreated westward from Richmond and Petersburg with Federal forces under Ulysses S. Grant in pursuit. Lee’s last hope was to move west for resupply, then turn south to merge his forces with those under General Joe Johnston. With that accomplished, he would somehow continue the fight, even though that fight might appear utterly hopeless. It was a bold gambit and one made with the same audacity that had characterized Lee’s leadership throughout the war. However, it was also made in absolute desperation—there were no other options, it was now a matter of escape or surrender. At the same time, his pursuer was just as determined to cut him off, to capture his army, and effectively end the war.

Monday, April 3, 1865

With the crushing defeat at Five Forks on April 1 and the Union breakthrough at Petersburg the following day, Lee realized that he had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. At nightfall on April 2, his army, now numbering approximately 57,000 men, began their retreat. Lee’s plan was to get all his troops safely away, then consolidate and resupply at Amelia Court House, some 40 miles west of Petersburg. Then, the army would turn south and march 100 miles to Danville, where he hope to rendezvous with Johnston. Time, however, was the critical factor. As Lee’s men streamed west, they had a 12-hour lead on the Federal pursuit and that lead must be maintained if they were to be successful.

His biggest problem was that his army was moving west in four separate columns and three of those columns would have to find a way over the swollen Appomattox River if they were to reach Amelia Court House ahead of Grant’s army. Therefore, to eliminate any potential delays, Lee had each of those three column heading towards different crossing points. The most northern group consisted of men who had been manning the Richmond defenses, led by General Richard Ewell. They left Richmond, crossed the James River, and angled towards the Genito Bridge over the Appomattox. The second column, moving just south of Ewell’s, was led by General William Mahone. These troops had been in the trenches between Richmond and Petersburg across the narrow river peninsula known as the Bermuda Hundred. Mahone was ordered to effect a crossing of the Appomattox at Goode’s Bridge. The third column consisted of troops from the Petersburg defenses under Generals James Longstreet and John Gordon. They had crossed to the north side of the Appomattox as they departed Petersburg and would re-cross to the south side once they reached Bevill’s Bridge. The final column, meanwhile, was led by General Richard Anderson and included the remnants of George Pickett’s and Fitzhugh Lee’s commands, which had been shattered by Union General Phil Sheridan at Five Forks. This column was already south of the river and would march directly to Amelia Court House.

 image Lee himself followed Longstreet and Gordon’s men. Those with him remembered that he seemed almost happy as they rode west. One commented, “His expression was animated and buoyant, his seat in the saddle erect and commanding, and he seemed to look forward to assured success.” He told his staff that he had gotten the army safely away and out of the trenches, and that now Grant would have to extend his supply lines to pursue them, narrowing the odds in the process. His optimism was infectious to some degree and one member of Lee’s staff recalled that the men marching beside them seemed happy to finally be out of the trenches and in the open once more. However, these feelings were not universal among Lee’s troops. One lieutenant from South Carolina who was marching the in the column from Five Forks said:

There was an attempt to organize the various commands, to no avail. The Confederacy was considered as “gone up”' and every man felt it his duty, as well as his privilege, to save himself. There was no insubordination…but the whole left of the army…struggled along without strength, and almost without thought. So we moved on in disorder, keeping no regular column, no regular pace. When a soldier became weary, he fell out, ate his scanty rations-if, indeed, he had any-rested, rose and resumed the march…There were not many words spoken. An indescribable sadness weighed upon us. The men were very gentle toward each other.

As for Lee’s pursuers, Grant’s troops entered Richmond and Petersburg in the early morning hours of April 3. The night before, his staff and some of his commanders had urged a renewed assault on Petersburg, but Grant would not agree to that, telling them, “They will evacuate tonight and there’s no need for sacrifice.” That comment and several of Grant’s actions in the days that followed indicate a sincere desire on his part to capture Lee’s army rather than destroy it, which had been his objective up this moment. Now, with the end in sight, he seemed to genuinely want to end the war with as little loss of life as possible. In fact, as he entered Petersburg that morning, the man whom some had referred to as “The Butcher” restrained himself and others from attacking the retreating Confederate army.

General Meade and I entered Petersburg on the morning of the 3d and took a position under cover of a house which protected us from the enemies' musketry which was flying thick and fast there. As we would occasionally look around the corner we could see the streets and the Appomattox bottom, presumably near the bridge, packed with the Confederate army. I did not have artillery brought up, because I was sure Lee was trying to make his escape, and I wanted to push immediately in pursuit. At all events I had not the heart to turn the artillery upon such a mass of defeated and fleeing men, and I hoped to capture them soon.

Once the city was secure, Grant met with President Lincoln, who had been staying nearby at City Point and he explained his plan to pursue Lee. Rather than simply follow Lee’s army, his plan was to make every effort to cut them off, sealing off any route south, and preventing Lee from consolidating with Johnston. Therefore, Grant would move his men along the south side of the Appomattox River on a parallel course to Lee’s. The problem he faced was Lee’s 12-hour lead.

Examining the map, Grant could see that, while Lee had several bridges available to get across the Appomattox River, the main road to Danville, as well as the Danville Railroad, ran through the town of Burkeville, some 12 miles southwest of Amelia Court House. If he could cut off that route, he might very well bag Lee’s army right there. He had sent Phil Sheridan and his cavalry galloping off the night before towards Jetersville, which lay just north of Burkeville, and, by now, they were already as far west as Lee. They would have no problem reaching Jetersville and the road to Burkeville before Lee, blocking the way south. So, he ordered General Meade and the infantry from the Army of the Potomac to follow Sheridan and be prepared to support him. General Griffith’s V Corps was on the road first, followed closely by General Humphrey’s II Corps and General Wright’s VI Corps. In addition, General Ord’s Army of the James with its XXIV and XXV Corps would march on a parallel track to the south along the Southside Railroad toward Burkeville itself, and Grant elected to ride with them.

The chase was on.

Tuesday, April 4, 1864

The morning of April 4 came with a cold drizzle and stone gray skies. Robert E. Lee crossed the Appomattox with his staff around 7:00 a.m., heading for Amelia Court House, where the 350,000 rations he requested were to be waiting. The initial news he received on the position of his army was not as good as he had hoped. Longstreet and Gordon had discovered that Bevill’s bridge was washed out by flooding and they were forced to use Goode’s Bridge. When they arrived there, they found Mahone’s troops were still crowding the approach to the bridge, and, while they did get across the Appomattox, their crossing was delayed for several hours, cutting into the 12-hour lead Lee had on Grant. Meanwhile, Ewell had also run into problems getting his men across the river. Materials he needed to shore up the Genito Bridge had not arrived when promised, and he was forced to use the Mattoax Railroad Bridge instead. This required that his men lay down wooden planks, and that, combined with the narrow width of the bridge would delay his arrival at Amelia Court House until nightfall.

But the worst news came when Lee rode into Amelia Court House around 7:30 a.m. Instead of 350,000 rations, the quartermaster had sent him carloads of unneeded ammunition and artillery shells, but no food for his starving soldiers. Lee was devastated by the discovery. One officer later wrote that Lee’s face reflected “intense agony” and another said, “The failure of of the supply of rations completely paralyzed him. An anxious and haggard expression came to his face.”

Lee had planned to just pause at Amelia Court House long enough to distribute food and consolidate the four columns of his army. Now, there was no food and his army was behind schedule in arriving. Plus, they could not go on without rations. He would be forced to forage in the country surrounding the town, further delaying his move south. His 12-hour lead on Grant had evaporated and there was nothing that could be done to get it back. So, he focused on the immediate need to find food, first issuing a proclamation to the “Citizens of Amelia County, Virginia” asking that they come forth with any meat, cattle, sheep, hogs, flour, meal, corn, and provender in any quantity that can be spared.” He then composed an urgent telegram to Confederate authorities in Danville requesting that 300,000 rations be shipped immediately to Burkeville. Since the telegraph lines were down between Amelia Court House and Burkeville, he gave the telegram to a dispatch rider and sent him riding on a mule south to Burkeville, where it would go out over the lines to Danville. In addition, he also sent copies of the message for delivery to the quartermaster in Lynchburg.

image Unfortunately for Lee, his dispatch rider would find that Phil Sheridan and his Federal cavalry were already in Jetersville, blocking the road to Burkeville. Sheridan had sent two of his divisions under George Crook and Wesley Merritt north, ordering them to attack and harass any expose portions of Anderson’s column from Five Forks. This they did with great effectiveness, dashing into the Confederate column as it stretched westward, cutting down men and animals alike. Soon, the road toward Amelia Court House was littered with burning wagons and dead and wounded Confederate soldiers, and lined with prisoners moving east back towards Petersburg. The third division of Sheridan’s command, meanwhile, rode towards Jetersville, with Sheridan riding hard in the advance along with only 200 troopers.

At 4:00 p.m., he and his escort arrived there, followed in short order by the rest of his remaining division. Seeing that Lee had yet to arrive, he sent a dispatch to General Griffin, telling him to move the V Corps quickly along and help him block the road to Burkeville. The infantry began to arrive around 5:00 p.m., and quickly began to dig in along the road. However, before they arrived, Sheridan’s troopers captured Lee’s dispatch rider. When Sheridan read the message he was carrying, he decided to let it go through to both Danville and Lynchburg, realizing that this might allow Federal forces to intercept the much needed rations before they got to Lee.

image Of course, there was the problem of how to get the messages through since he had captured Lee’s rider. However, Sheridan had a ready solution. He had created a special command of 30-40 men under Major Henry Young just for this kind of mission. Young and his men were clothed in Confederate uniforms and had well-practiced Virginia drawls. They would carry the dispatch forward and ensure it was received by Confederate authorities. In fact, throughout the pursuit, Young and his men would ride among Lee’s column gathering information, and, at the same time, distributing false instructions and orders, creating great confusion in the process.

As the sun set, Lee remained at Amelia Court House, six miles north of Sheridan. Ewell and Anderson were finally arriving and the army was at last consolidated. However, as darkness closed in, he could hear the unmistakable sounds of carbine and rifle fire in the distance. He knew that meant Union cavalry must be lurking nearby, but exactly where and in what force he was not sure. As a result, he remained oblivious to the knowledge that his escape route south was now blocked by Union infantry and cavalry. However, he had to know that, with the loss of those precious 12-hours, the noose around him was being tightened with every passing minute.

Wednesday, April 5, 1865

When Lee arose on Wednesday morning, Tuesday’s cold drizzle had turned to a hard, soaking rain. And, with it, came yet more bad news: His Commissary General’s wagons were returning from their foraging task mostly empty. There was no food to be had in Amelia County. Lee had no choice but to order the destruction of all surplus ammunition and supplies, and then direct the army south towards Danville. Cavalry under the command of his son, Rooney, led the way, followed closely by some of Mahone’s infantry. Shortly after leaving Amelia Court House, he received the news that a supply train from Ewell’s column that had been sent circling west of the main body so as to prevent Federal cavalry from destroying it, had met that very fate. That morning, Phil Sheridan had sent some of Crook’s troopers in a sweep westward to be sure Lee had not turned that way. The Union cavalry had come upon Ewell’s wagons near Paineville and attacked them. They swept down on the supply train and virtually annihilated it, leaving with over 1,000 prisoners in tow and a mass of burning wagons clogging the narrow road.

image Then, at 1:00 p.m., as Lee rode alongside his “Old Warhorse,” General Longstreet, word came that the road ahead was blocked. Lee and Longstreet rode forward, where Rooney Lee reported the situation. A line of Union skirmishers lay directly ahead and, behind them, a solid wall of blue-clad infantry was dug in across the road at Jetersville. Lee received this news with great anxiety and hesitated a long time before making a decision. Longstreet urged an attack, but Lee did not want to bring on a general battle. With the road to Danville closed, he had few options available. He issued orders for the army to turn and shift direction from south to west. They would leave a strong rear guard in front of the Federal troops to mask their departure while the main body of the army circled west to Amelia Springs, clinging to the Southside Railroad as their last potential lifeline for rations hopefully coming from Lynchburg.

Sheridan waited impatiently for Lee to attack as the afternoon wore on, but no assault came. However, once word was received that his men had plundered Ewell’s supply wagons far to the west of the Danville Road, Sheridan became convinced that Lee had turned that direction. He went to General Meade, who had arrived with the II and VI Corps and proposed they head west in pursuit. But the irascible Meade, who had been openly feuding with Sheridan since the previous summer, disagreed with his analysis. Meade was convinced that Lee was going to make a stand at Amelia Court House. As the ranking officer on the scene, he issued orders for an attack at first light on April 6.

Sheridan decided to go over Meade’s head and sent an urgent message to Grant detailing the situation and his belief that Lee had headed west. The dispatch rider carrying the message found Grant, who was still traveling with Ord’s column, at sunset. Grant read Sheridan’s report and immediately set off with a small escort to Jetersville. Grant arrived at 10:30 p.m. and met with both Sheridan and Meade. He listened to both men, then issued orders for the planned attack to go ahead. However, he added that he also expected Lee to continue the retreat and, should that prove true, the army needed to be prepared to immediately continue the pursuit.

Meanwhile, Lee and his army spent a wet night on the move over narrow, muddy roads toward Amelia Springs. The going was slow and tortuous and became even more so when they found the smoldering remains of Ewell’s wagons blocking their path at Paineville. The sight of the destroyed supply wagons seemed to make many men’s spirits sag even further. Onward they plodded, through the mud, wondering what the next day might bring.

Thursday, April 6, 1865

When the sun began to rise on April 6, one Confederate officer remembered, “I beheld the first signs of dissolution of that grand army…when looking over the hills I saw swarms of stragglers moving in every direction.” In addition, every road coming into Amelia Springs was littered with abandoned rifles and haversacks, and more covered the fields nearby, where Lee’s men dropped them as they abandoned the line of march, heading off in one’s and two’s, seeking either a Federal patrol to surrender to or hoping to find a safe way home.

When Lee arrived at Amelia Springs early that morning, his Commissary General told him that 80,000 rations were waiting in railcars along the Southside Railroad at Farmville, some 19 miles ahead. He asked Lee if he wanted the rations moved forward or left at Farmville. After some thought, Lee elected to leave them in place, fearing that Federal cavalry might intercept them if he tried to have them brought east. He then issued orders for the army to continue its march towards Farmville. If they could make Rice’s Station today, they would only have a few more miles to go to get to the waiting rations. Longstreet’s Corps moved out immediately and was well on its way to Farmville by mid-morning, with Anderson, Ewell, and Gordon’s commands trailing close behind.

Unfortunately, their progress soon slowed. The roads leading out of Amelia Springs were relatively straight for the first three miles, but then began to twist, loop, and meander through hills and over streams. The army began to bunch up, then break up as wagons stuck in the mud, blocking the roads to the infantry following them. As gaps appeared in the columns, Sheridan’s cavalry began to strike again, smashing into any isolated groups. Many of these attacks were small, but a few were quite large and, while Lee’s men would turn them back, these intermittent firefights were causing progress to slow even more and stretch the columns out even longer. Worst of all, at 2:00 p.m., as the army approached a small valley formed by Sailor’s Creek, a large gap opened between the end of Longstreet’s column and the head of Anderson’s. This gap was quickly exploited by Phil Sheridan.

Before anyone in either Longstreet or Anderson’s commands realized it, Sheridan thrust all three of his cavalry divisions under Crook, Merritt, and Custer into the gap, cutting off the road ahead and bottling up Anderson, Ewell, and Gordon. Worst of all for the Confederates, Humphreys’ II Corps had been nipping at Gordon’s heals all morning, and Wright’s VI Corps was right behind Humphreys. Humphreys’ dogged pursuit quickly had become a series of sharp engagements, which he later described as follows.

A sharp, running fight…continued over a distance of fourteen miles, during which several partially entrenched positions were carried. The country was broken, wooded with dense undergrowth and swamps, alternating with open fields…for miles the road being strewn with tents, camp equipage, baggage, battery forges, limbers and wagons.

Fitz Lee’s cavalry first discovered the mass of Federal cavalry ahead and their commander rode back to tell Anderson the dire news. Anderson knew he was in a tough spot and he looked about him at the terrain surrounding Sailor’s Creek. The valley consisted of a narrow lowland surrounded by bluffs, and was only about 800 yards wide, running roughly northwest to southeast. The main road his men were traveling on was just south and west of the valley, and there was a smaller road looping north about two miles away.

Anderson ordered his men into line of battle facing the enemy cavalry and sent word to Ewell and Gordon telling them what was happening. When Ewell received the message, he began to deploy his men in support of Anderson and ordered the supply wagons between his command and Gordon’s to break off the main road and take the smaller one to the north, hoping they might escape Union cavalry. Now, confusion set in as Gordon, upon seeing the wagons head off the north, elected to follow them, unbeknownst to either Anderson or Ewell. The infantry from the pursuing II Corps stayed on Gordon’s rear and the VI Corps quickly sped up their march, closing in on the trailing end of Ewell’s column.

image In very short order, Anderson and Ewell found themselves trapped on the hills above Sailor’s Creek. Sheridan’s cavalry was in front of Anderson, and Ewell soon found VI Corps forming in lines to attack him from his rear. Both Confederate commands were now essentially deployed back-to-back, boxed in, and forced to fight. Meanwhile, to the north, Gordon’s men were waiting as the wagons ahead of them tried to pass over Sailor’s Creek across two flimsy bridges, allowing II Corps to catch up with them. Gordon was also forced to deploy his men and hope he could hold off the impending attack and get his men across the creek.

At 5:15 p.m., Union artillery from VI Corps opened fire on Ewell’s command. Ewell had no artillery with which to answer the barrage, and a heavy bombardment from 20 Federal guns continued unabated for 30 minutes. Then, Union infantry formed and began to advance towards the Confederate position through the clouds of smoke left by the artillery barrage. The Confederate defenders blasted volleys into them and the blue infantry broke briefly before a second line renewed the assault. The fighting was vicious and desperate. The VI Corps soon bent back both Ewell’s flanks and penetrated the center of his line where Federal soldiers fought hand-to-hand with sailors and marines from the Confederate Naval Battalion. One soldier from the 37th Massachusetts, a unit formed from men of the Berkshire Hills region of that state, remembered the fighting as follows:

They clubbed their muskets, fired pistols in each other's faces and used the bayonet savagely. One Berkshire man was stabbed in the chest by a bayonet and pinned to the ground as it came out near his spine. He reloaded his gun and killed the Confederate, who fell across him. The Massachusetts man threw him off, pulled out the bayonet, and despite the awful wound, walked to the rear.

image Notwithstanding the ferocity of their defense, the end was inevitable for Ewell and his men. The line finally broke, with Ewell losing over 3,000 of the 5,300 men he commanded, and Ewell himself being captured by a sergeant from the 5th Wisconsin.

Immediately behind Ewell, things went no better for Anderson. His men managed to turn back several cavalry charges but a final mass assault by George Custer and Wesley Merritt’s troopers carried the line. After a brief but deadly fight within the Confederate lines in which the “saber, revolver and Spencer carbine of the cavalry were too much for the bayonet and the musket that could not be quickly loaded,” Anderson’s command collapsed with many of his men “scattering like children just out of school.” Anderson would find he had lost nearly 2,600 of the 6,000 men who had gone into the fight.

image Gordon also fared little better. His soldiers held II Corps back for a short period before the sheer weight of the Union assault forced them back, where they mixed in with the wagons and all organized resistance ended. Gordon did manage to get some of his command across the creek but lost 2,000 men, three artillery pieces, 200 wagons, and 70 ambulances in the process.

While all this was going on, Lee waited impatiently at Rice’s Station, where Longstreet’s Corps had already arrived. However, as soon as Lee noted the steady stream of soldiers had slowed to a trickle, he became anxious and the sound of cannon and rifle fire in the distance only added to his deep concern. He began to ride east up the road to see what was happening and quickly encountered the remnants of the disaster at Sailor’s Creek in the form of disorganized, retreating soldiers, many of them wounded and the rest appearing utterly demoralized. He was heard to say, ‘My God, has the army dissolved?” A short while later, he would tell an officer, “A few more Sailor’s Creeks and it will be over—ended.”

He returned to Rice’s Station and ordered Longstreet to move directly to Farmville, collect the rations waiting there, then cross the Appomattox River once again, and destroy the Farmville bridges behind him. Meanwhile, Mahone and the remnants of Gordon’s command would immediately cross the Appomattox via the High Bridge, a narrow rail bridge that stretched 150 feet above the river. Once they were across, a rear guard and some engineers would burn the rail bridge as well as a smaller wagon bridge below it. Lee’s hope was that, if he could get his army safely to the north side of the river, he could pause long enough to feed and rest them before moving on. It would prove to be a fatal error as the path towards Lynchburg and the additional supplies stored there was considerably longer that that south of the river. Plus, there would be no way to get back across the river to the railroad line until they reached the headwaters of the Appomattox River near a village called Appomattox Court House.

With nightfall, as Lee marched his tired army across the river, Sheridan sent a telegram to Grant, saying:

GENERAL: I have the honor to report that the enemy made a stand at the intersection of the Burke's Station road with the road upon which they were retreating. I attacked them with two divisions of the Sixth Army Corps and routed them handsomely, making a connection with the cavalry. I am still pressing on with both cavalry and infantry. Up to the present time we have captured Generals Ewell, Kershaw, Barton, Corse, De Foe [Du Bose], and Custis Lee, several thousand prisoners, 14 pieces of artillery, with caissons, and a large number of wagons. If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.

The next morning, President Lincoln saw a copy of Sheridan’s dispatch and immediately sent a telegram of his own to General Grant:

Gen. Sheridan says "If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender." Let the thing be pressed.

Friday, April 7, 1865

image Before the sun was even up, Lee was in Farmville, overseeing the distribution of rations to Longstreet’s men. There was not much to be had, but it was better than nothing and it was the first regular rations the men had eaten since they left Petersburg four days before. A young private later recalled what he saw as the starving men received the first food some of them had seen in days.

There were a few barrels of meal and a few middlings of meat scattered along the sidewalks. Without orders, the men charged that meal, with which they filled their pockets and any other available receptacles. The meat was seized upon and slashed into pieces as they ran. Several of the men stuck their bayonets into middlings and bore them proudly aloft.

However, in addition to the distribution of rations, the day would also see the first visible cracks in the resolve of Lee’s commanders. One incident involved General Henry Wise, the 60-year old former governor of Virginia. Wise had managed to get two brigades from his division away from Sailor’s Creek intact and, when he approached Lee that morning, the former governor exploded when Lee asked him for his assessment of the situation.

There is no situation. Nothing remains, General Lee, but to put your poor men on your poor mules and send them home in time for spring ploughing. This army is hopelessly whipped. They have already endured more than I thought flesh and blood could stand. The blood of every man who is killed from this time is on your head, General Lee.

Lee told Wise not to say such irresponsible things and reminded him of the heavy burdens he was already carrying as commander of the army. He then grew silent and said no more. Later, however, he would find that the mood of some of his other commanders had become even more pessimistic. Six of them held a private meeting at which they decided the army should be surrendered at once and, if they took the action, then Lee would be free of the burden and any blame. They sent General William Pendleton, Lee’s artillery chief, to see the commanding general and tell him of their plan. Lee exploded in anger, shouting his determination to fight on, saying, “I trust it has not come to that!”

However, on this same day, Lee encountered his nephew, George Taylor Lee, a cadet from the Virginia Military Institute who had served in the line at Richmond until the cadets were disbanded. Young George had elected to stay with the army, but had eventually left the column to visit his family in Powhatan County. Now, he had returned and when his uncle saw him, the elder Lee approached him with a tired and grave expression on his face. With distress in his voice, the general said, “My son, why did you come here?" George answered that he considered it his duty to return. Lee put his hand on his shoulder and, in a fatherly tone, told him, "You ought not to have come. You can't do any good here." Perhaps Lee’s resolve was beginning to crack as well.

image As Union forces pressed in, Longstreet moved north across the river and Lee ordered his Commissary General to send all remaining undistributed rations west down the rail line towards Appomattox Station. As soon as Longstreet’s men were across, they burned the bridges behind them. However, it mattered very little as the quickly pursuing Federal cavalry soon found nearby fords and were again fast approaching the rear of the column. The river had, indeed, not proved to provide any protection and, to make matters worse, Lee soon learned that Gordon’s rear guard had failed to burn the High Bridge. As a result, Union infantry was now pouring across and closing in on Longstreet and Gordon’s troops near Cumberland Church. Once again, they were forced to turn and fight, but, this time, the pursuers did not seem to have any heart in the attack and were easily repulsed. Perhaps they too could see the end was near.

Meanwhile, as his cavalry and infantry were sparring with Lee north of the river, Grant sent Sheridan on another race to the west. By 3:00 p.m., Sheridan and one of his cavalry divisions had reached Prince Edward Courthouse, where they learned of Lee’s rations that were bound for Appomattox Station. Sheridan sent word of this to Grant, who immediately ordered him to continue west and outrace Lee to the awaiting rations. When night fell, Grant entered Farmville and decided it was now time to see if he could convince Lee to surrender. He wrote a message down and handed it to his adjutant general, General Seth Williams. Williams carefully navigated his way towards Lee’s army under a flag of truce and finally delivered the message around 10:00 p.m.

Lee was having a late night conversation with Longstreet when the message arrived. He opened it and read Grant’s proposal:


April 7, 1865--5 p.m.

General R. E. LEE, Commanding C. S. Army:

GENERAL: The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General, Commanding Armies of the United States

When he was done reading the message, Lee silently handed it to Longstreet who read it, then paused before handing it back, saying, “Not yet.” One of Lee’s staff, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Venable, suggested they ignore the proposal, but Lee said, “Ah, but it must be answered.” Lee then sat to write a reply, which was returned to General Williams for delivery to Grant. Williams did not reach Farmville until early the next morning. He handed Lee’s reply to General Grant, who immediately opened and read it.

APRIL 7, 1865.

Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT, Commanding Armies of the United States:

GENERAL: I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

R. E. LEE, General

Lee was politely replying with an inquiry designed to buy more time. Before Williams had ridden a mile, Lee was already putting the army back on the road and heading west towards Appomattox Court House.

Saturday, April 8, 1865

As Lee’s men trudged on during the long night, exhaustion and depression began to take an increasingly heavy toll. Lee’s young former artillery chief, General Edward Porter Alexander, would later write of the agony of the final days of the march to Appomattox Court House.

The road was one sea of mud through which men, horses, ambulances, artillery, & cavalry splashed & floundered & stopped in the darkness & splashed & floundered & stopped again. And if it was that to me on horseback what must it have been to the poor fellows on foot loaded with muskets, blankets, & ammunition, & worn with continuous marching & digging & lack of food.

As the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia moved continuously westward, they became more and more a mere ghost of the formidable and much feared fighting machine they once had been. Men can only be asked to endure so much and these men had been pushed beyond human limits. Lee was forced to use some of his limited cavalry resources to follow the main body, gathering up stragglers and moving them forward. However, this task was becoming increasingly difficult. One trooper wrote that he was horrified at the state of some of the men he encountered. These soldiers had “thrown away their arms and knapsacks [and were] lying prone on the ground along the roadside, too much exhausted to march further, and only waiting for the enemy to come and pick them up as prisoners.”

At first, the day’s march was assisted by the existence of two parallel roads. This allowed Lee to put Gordon’s men on the southernmost path, the Lynchburg Stage Road, while Longstreet’s soldiers moved on a plank road to the north. Unfortunately, these roads finally merged at a small village known as New Store, and progress ground to a halt as both columns became tangled and disorganized.

As for their Union pursuers, Grant had everyone in motion well before first light. The VI Corps left Farmville during the night, crossing over to the north side of the Appomattox River, while II Corps set out after Gordon’s column with vigor, quickly closing the distance between them. Sheridan’s cavalry, meanwhile, was once again off before dawn and moving fast. Sheridan divided his command into two elements with one under Merritt and the other under Crook. Crook’s command quickly headed west along the Southside Railroad, entering Pamplin Station around noon. There, they caught up with the trainload of rations Lee had sent west from Farmville towards Appomattox Station.

image At the same time, Major Young’s scouts continued to pay dividends. One of them actually convinced Confederate railroad engineers to bring the supplies Lee expected to find at Lynchburg east to Appomattox Station. Upon hearing this, Sheridan realized that, if he could get there first, it might strike another crippling blow to Lee and his army. He continued west at an even quicker pace, with Ord’s Army of the James and Griffin’s V Corps following as fast as they could march.

As the Union army set off, Grant received Lee’s reply of the previous night. He could see that Lee was skillfully avoiding the question of surrender, but he was convinced of the need to maintain their correspondence. Before he set out to follow his men, he sat down to write another letter to Lee.

APRIL 8, 1865

General R. E. LEE, Commanding C. S. Army:

GENERAL: Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of same date, asking the condition on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, viz, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the united States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

U.S. GRANT, Commanding Armies of the United States

With the new letter on its way, Grant set out, crossing the river and following II and VI Corps. The weather was sunny and pleasant, and the muddy roads finally were beginning to dry. However, the weather did not help Grant, who began to suffer terrible headaches. The pain became so excruciating that he could no longer ride. He stopped at a small house called “Clifton,” dismounted his horse, Cincinnati, and went inside where his surgeons tried applying remedies such as foot soaks and a wrist poultice. When these did not bring relief, he finally decided to try to sleep. Lying down in the only bed in the house, he napped fitfully as his army marched steadily westward after Lee.

Late that afternoon, Sheridan’s cavalry, under the command of General Custer, galloped into Appomattox Station, which consisted of only a few houses, and discovered Lee’s supplies from Lynchburg waiting for them, with a squad of Confederate cavalry acting as guards. A private from the 2nd New York Cavalry rode up to an engineer, calling out “Hands up,” while leveling his carbine, and the four trains of rations were captured. Knowing a Confederate force of some unknown size was nearby, Custer called for any men with train engineering experience to come forward so they get the cars away. As the men rode about the trains shouting in celebration, artillery shells began to come crashing down on them.

The cannon fire was coming from Lee’s Reserve Artillery under the command of General Rueben Lindsay Walker. These guns had been sent ahead of Lee’s main column so that the caissons did not further slow the army’s pace. Walker had approximately 100 cannon, 200 baggage wagons, and the army hospital wagons all drawn up in a camp for the night with no preparation for action, as they did not think Sheridan’s troopers were so close. Suddenly, as Walker and his men were sitting down to eat their dinners, the cry went up, “Yankees! “Sheridan!”

Walker quickly deployed his guns in a semicircle, defended by a few engineers and a small cavalry brigade, and opened fire on Custer and his men. Custer sent skirmishers forward to develop Walker’s position and, as the sun began to set, he launched several piecemeal charges against the Confederate artillery. These were all turned back and the flamboyant Union cavalryman realized that sterner measures would be required. Around 8:30 p.m., he mounted an all-out assault that resulted in a brief, bitter fight. Eventually, Walker’s men fled, leaving 30 cannon and 1,000 men behind as prisoners. It was another loss Lee could ill afford.

Phil Sheridan arrived to meet with Custer just as the fighting was dying down. Assessing the situation, he jotted down a hurried note to Grant, urging the infantry forward at all speed, predicting that, if they could join him by morning, “we will perhaps finish the job…I do not think Lee will surrender unless he is compelled to do so.”

As night fell, Lee made his camp in a wooded area just east of Appomattox Court House along Rocky Run. With the setting of the sun, he and his men could now see the ominous glow of Federal campfires, ringing them on every side except to the north. As he rested from the day’s ride, Grant’s latest message came through the picket lines near Mahone’s division. Holding it near a candle, he read it in silence, then, after consulting none of his staff, he wrote a reply.

APRIL 8, 1865.

Lieutenant-General GRANT, Commanding Armies of the United States:

GENERAL: I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia; but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 a.m. to-morrow, on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE, General

Lee gave his response to a courier to return to Grant’s messenger, and then called a council of war among his staff and key commanders. Sitting around a campfire on their blankets and saddles, Lee told his officers of the latest note from Grant and of his reply offering to meet the Union general in person. They began a discussion of what surrender might mean for them and for the South. Some of the officers believed that the army should be dispersed to the hills to fight a guerilla war, which Lee angrily dismissed. Finally, he issued his orders for the next day: The army would ignore the surrender proposal and attempt to break out beyond Appomattox Court House. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry would launch the attempted breakthrough and, once a route was opened, Gordon’s 4,000 infantry would hold it open as Longstreet’s men moved through, and then Gordon would follow. Lee was hoping that he only had Sheridan’s cavalry to contend with and not infantry, as well. When Gordon raised the issue that Union infantry might also soon arrive if they had not already, Lee hesitated, adding an addendum to Fitzhugh Lee’s orders: If he encountered Union infantry, Lee would have no choice except to “accede to the only alternative left us”—surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee’s response reached Grant at midnight. He read it silently, then handed it to his Chief of Staff, General John Rawlins. Rawlins, an outspoken man who had been with Grant since the beginning, read it out loud so the entire staff could hear it. Remembering that President Lincoln had ordered Grant to ensure he never conducted any negotiations with the enemy beyond those of a strictly military nature, Rawlins told Grant that he could not meet with Lee under the guise of peace talks. As was his habit, Rawlins was quite emotional and very direct in his speech and, as was his habit, Grant replied calmly, “We’ve got to make some allowance for the trying place Lee is in. He’s got to obey orders of his government. It all means the same thing, Rawlins. If I meet with Lee, he’ll surrender before I leave.”

Rawlins remained unconvinced but Grant had made up his mind. As the early minutes of April 9 ticked by, he sat down once again to compose a letter to Lee.


April 9, 1865

General R. E. LEE, Commanding C. S. Army:

GENERAL: Your note of yesterday is received. As I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace the meeting proposed for 10 a.m. to-day could lead to no good. I will state, however, general, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertain the same feeling. The terms upon which peace Call be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Sincerely hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself,

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

U.S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General, U.S. Army

Sunday, April 9, 1865

At 3:00 a.m., Gordon and Fitzhugh Lee’s men were assembled in line of battle in the fields surrounding Appomattox Court House. Gordon’s 4,000 men were on the left, Lee’s troopers on his right, and Longstreet’s 3,000 infantry behind them to the northeast, facing Humphrey’s and II Corps. Around them, uncounted thousands milled aimlessly, a disorganized mob of starving soldiers looking for food. At first, Fitzhugh Lee and Gordon argued about who should go in first. Gordon thought there was nothing but cavalry in front, therefore Lee should lead the attack and push through. But, as the cavalryman stared though his glasses, he was not convinced that Sheridan was alone, arguing that he believed there might be infantry in the woods and, therefore, Gordon’s men should step off first. Finally, one of Gordon’s officers, General Bryan Grimes, told both men that it was time someone attacked and that he would just go ahead and do it.

Grimes led the entire corps, or what was left of it, forward, quickly overrunning a roadblock of Union cavalry and artillery about one-quarter of a mile down the Lynchburg Stage Road. His men now pushed rapidly forward, encouraged by their initial success and they attacked and dispersed a second roadblock as Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry swung in from their right, attacking the enemy’s flank. Just as planned, the door to escape was open. However, no sooner had it opened than it closed once again.

image Gordon and Lee’s men suddenly ran into swarms of infantry, just coming into the line across the road and into the fields beyond. At first, it was just Ord’s soldiers in their way, but within minutes, Griffin’s V Corps was also on the scene. Gordon’s men fought ferociously but could not gain any headway. Gordon sent General Lee an urgent message saying, “I’ve fought my corps to a frazzle, and I can do nothing unless Longstreet supports me.”

Lieutenant Colonel Venable delivered the message to Lee at 8:30 a.m., but the army’s commander had been watching Gordon’s attack since first light and knew what was happening. Lee read the dispatch, thought for a moment, then said, “Then there is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” Longstreet arrived on the scene and noted that Lee was dressed in his finest uniform, as if he already knew that he would be seeing Grant that day. Lee asked his trusted corps commander’s advice on whether to surrender. Longstreet replied with a question of his own, “Can the sacrifice of the army help the cause in other quarters?” Lee said no and Longstreet answered, “Then your situation speaks for itself.”

Lee pondered Longstreet’s words, and asked General Mahone for his opinion. Mahone was of the same mind, so Lee turned to Longstreet one last time and asked him point-blank if he should surrender the army. Longstreet silently nodded his head.

image With that, Lee mounted his horse, Traveller, and rode northeast toward the spot he expected to find Grant. However, it was then that he received Grant’s note from the previous night in which the Union commander rejected any peace talks. Lee quickly dictated a new letter and signed it, then sent it back through Union lines.

APRIL 9, 1865.

Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT, Commanding U.S. Armies:

GENERAL: I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now request an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant.

R. E. LEE, General

As he rode on, Lee could hear firing ahead and, as he was now anxious to have the killing stop, he sent a message to General Meade requesting an immediate truce along the line. Meade replied that he was not in communication with General Grant and had no authority to stop the attack, but would delay for one hour. In the meantime, he suggested that Lee send another note for General Grant through Sheridan’s lines. Lee did so, and ordered Gordon to place flags of truce all along his line.

As the two messages to Grant were going forward, the fighting came to a stop. Men on both sides who had been killing one another moments before, rested on their rifles and the fields around Appomattox Court House became eerily silent. As the firing subsided, the word of surrender began to spread and a Virginia cavalryman named W.L. Moffatt came upon a comrade who had been mortally wounded in the morning’s fighting. His dying friend looked up at him from where he lay on the ground, saying, “Moffett, it is hard to die now just as the war is over.”

image Just before noon, Lee’s first message found General Grant as he was riding west of Walker’s Church. Still in great pain from his headache, Grant quickly scanned the message then handed it General Rawlins, who read it aloud. Recalling their argument of the previous night, Grant asked him, “Will that do, Rawlins?” His Chief of Staff smiled and replied, “I think that will do.” Grant stopped and drafted a reply to Lee.


April 9, 1865

General R. E. LEE, Commanding C. S. Army:

Your note of this date is but this moment (11.50 a.m.) received. In consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg road to the Farmville and Lynchburg road I am at this writing about four miles west of Walker's Church, and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General

image Grant handed the note to his adjutant general for delivery to General Lee, then set off at a gallop for Appomattox Court House. The pursuit was over and, soon, four hard years of death, destruction, pain, and suffering would be at an end.

Grant suddenly noticed that his headache was gone.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sherman’s Raid on Meridian: A Key Milestone in the Evolution of Total War

image Strategists and historians who study the Civil War often note that the war was a major milestone and, if you will, a turning point in the evolution of warfare and military strategy. Prior to the Civil War, most wars centered around a Jominian strategy of defeating enemy armies in set-piece battles that allowed one to seize, occupy, and control territory. In fact, it was often believed that, if one simply seized key points on a map, the war was won. But the Civil War changed all that because Ulysses Grant and William Sherman came to see that simple occupation of territory would not bring victory to the Union.

First, from their experience in the vastness of the Western Theater, they realized that they would never have enough men to actually control sufficient territory to deny the Confederate armies the logistical resources required to wage war. To be sure, they might hold key cities, but they could not possibly occupy and control all of the countryside. And while they believed that the Union must also engage and destroy the major Confederate armies in both the East and the West, they also realized that the ideological foundation of the war meant that Union forces were essentially fighting an entire society and that society must be brought to its knees if they were to gain victory. Therefore, they evolved a strategy that would attack the South militarily, economically, and psychologically—the first use of a strategy of total war.

A key component of this strategy was the raid. However, unlike the previous cavalry raids used by both sides, Grant and Sherman envisioned raiding on a massive scale, using infantry and engineering troops, and designed to inflict enormous material damage. If successful, this massive strategic raiding would not only pay logistical dividends, it might also damaged the South psychologically, and cause increased desertion in the Confederate armies as well as despair in the Southern population. The resulting political and emotional attrition could, therefore, only enhance and accelerate whatever military attrition they might achieve on the battlefield. The first test of this concept came in February 1864 when Sherman planned to conduct a raid on Meridian, Mississippi. While many of you may not be acquainted with this action, the raid on Meridian not only a harbinger of things to come in the final year of the war, it also was a frightful preview of wars to come.

On January 10, 1864, after returning to the Mississippi from supporting Grant during the Chattanooga campaign, Sherman ordered various elements of his command in western Mississippi to begin preparation for a march on Meridian. His official report states, “My object was to break up the enemy's railroads at and about Meridian, and to do the enemy as much damage as possible.” There was no intent to engage the enemy in battle except for any that might occur as part of the achieving the objective. Sherman’s plan involved the use of 21,000 infantry supported by 7,000 cavalry. This compact force would move quickly, leaving Vicksburg on February 3, living off the land, and marching the 150 miles to Meridian by February 14.

image Meridian and the rail junction there provided a key strategic target. The city was approximately halfway between the state capital in Jackson and the armaments and manufacturing factories in Selma, Alabama. Further, three different railroads intersected in Meridian, including one that ran to the key port city of Mobile. As a result, it was the home to enormous storage and distribution facilities for industrial products as well as food, primarily grain and cattle.

Sherman knew that his success depended on speed and he ordered his commanders to strip their forces down to the bare minimum in terms of a supply train. The idea was to move fast, taking what was needed to subsist from the farms along the way, and no one, including himself, was to carry a single tent. To ensure his army did not get bogged down on the roads and to facilitate foraging for supplies, he ordered that the four divisions of infantry in the expedition move in two parallel columns. In addition, his orders to all commanders constantly reinforced the need for speed, reminding them to ignore and bypass any “minor points,” and not to pause to destroy any property or engage any enemy forces not deemed to be significant.

image As Sherman’s columns moved rapidly east towards their objective, they met only token resistance and pushed that aside with ease. While Confederate General Leonidas Polk’s headquarters was in Meridian, his forces in the region were scattered and, given the speed of Sherman’s approach, there was no opportunity to consolidate before Union forces arrived. Therefore, Polk elected to abandon the city and leave it to its fate, departing by train just a few hours before Sherman and his men arrived at 3:30 p.m. on February 14. With the exception of a failure of Sherman’s cavalry to provide coordinated support, the raid had been a complete success to this point.

Sherman then began the systematic destruction of Meridian’s ability to support the Confederate war effort. His confidence upon arriving in Meridian is reflected by the fact that he let his men rest all day on February 15, before beginning their work the next day. In addition, his first-hand observation of the city’s transportation and storage infrastructure convinced him that he had, indeed, selected a good target: “The immense depots, warehouses, and length of sidetrack demonstrated the importance to the enemy of that place. Through it he has heretofore transported his armies and vast supplies, and by means of the railroads large amounts of corn, bacon, meal, and produce have been distributed to his armies.”

image Sherman’s infantry commanders were each assigned a particular quadrant in which to destroy anything of value to the Confederate military. General Hurlburt was ordered to work north and east of the city, while General McPherson and his command were sent south and west of Meridian. In total, some 10,000 men were told to spend the better part of five days destroying tracks, locomotives, warehouses, and any other logistics or military facilities using “axes, crowbars, sledges, clawbars, and with fire.”

The citizens of Meridian were rightfully terrified by Sherman’s arrival and some looting did occur. One woman, writing to her mother in Mobile after the raid, said that, at first, a “mob” of soldiers entered her home “breaking open doors, trunks, locks, etc., tearing up and destroying everything they could. Caught all the chickens in the place in half an hour.” After requesting help from General Hurlburt, Union guards were placed at her house, but a group of five soldiers was assigned to search her home and confiscate any arms, gold, or silver. Eventually, General Leggett and his staff chose her home as their headquarters and, as a result, it was saved from potential destruction. However, as her letter went on to detail, the rest of the city was not so lucky.

Our store was burned to the ground, and so was another of our new houses. My two milch cows were killed, and every one in the town; and for eight or ten miles around, all cattle and horses...The printing office and all public buildings were burned up, and Mr. Ragsdale’s Hotel, Cullen’s, Terrill’s, and the Burton House.

All the railroad is torn up, both up and down, for miles, and all the ties burned and iron bent and destroyed. Oh, such destruction! I do not believe you or any one else would know the place. There’s not a fence in Meridian. I have not one rail left.

The woman, who only signed her letter as “S.E.P.B,” went to report that one friend, a Mrs. McElroy, had all her possessions destroyed and her house burned to the ground because her daughter had insulted a Union officer and a private. Mrs. McElroy’s son-in-law brought her and her daughter to the woman’s home for protection, but General Leggett told her that her house would also be burned if she gave Mrs. McElroy shelter. Sorrowfully, she had to tell Mrs. McElroy that she could not take them in.

image S.E.P.B. was very accurate in describing the destruction wrought by Sherman and his troops. In his official report, Sherman would write, “I have no hesitation in pronouncing the work as well done. Meridian, with its depots, store-houses, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists.” In total, his men destroyed 115 miles of railroad, 61 bridges and culverts, 20 locomotives, 28 rail cars, and 3 steam sawmills. The general added, “The railroad is destroyed all the way from Jackson to Meridian, 100 miles; from Meridian to and including the large bridge over the Chickasawha below Quitman; north to and including a bridge at Lauderdale Springs, and east about 20 miles. The enemy cannot use these roads to our prejudice in the coming campaign.” According to some accounts, only six major buildings were left standing after Sherman’s departure.

image With their work complete, Sherman’s force left Meridian and returned to Vicksburg on February 28. While the railroads around Meridian would be repaired within a month, the loss in terms of the locomotives and logistics infrastructure was devastating. However, much more happened in the Meridian raid than simply the destruction of railroads, locomotives, and warehouses. A key element of a new strategy, a new philosophy of war, devised in concert by Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, had been successfully field tested. When Sherman would later storm across Georgia and the Carolinas, wreaking havoc, the tactics employed in marching on Meridian would serve as his model. imageThe era of chivalrous and “civilized” warfare in which civilians and their property were protected was at an end, the era of total warfare had begun, and the citizens of Meridian, Mississippi had received the first official notice.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Romanticizing the War

image The other evening, I was having a conversation with my closest and dearest friend about my recent trip to Gettysburg. I told her about the wall of photographs of men who had been casualties, and how important I felt the use of soldiers’ diaries and letters were to the experience at the museum and to understanding how the war impacted the lives of those who lived through it. I said to her that, after all, they were not that different from us. My friend is a woman of great intelligence, compassion, and insight and, when I was done, she questioned the motivations of those who might seek to romanticize the war. Her comments stayed with me in the days since that conversation and made me question whether some of my essays on this blog have ever leaned towards romanticizing the war. If so, I want to tell all of my readers that that has not and never will be my intent.

image To be certain, the Civil War has been romanticized in the past and that nostalgic veil still clouds the vision of many who profess an interest in its history. Part of the reason for this romantic view was the way many of its participants approached the war at its beginning, as well as how they and the nation remembered the experience years later. In 1861, most of the men who enlisted had well-defined views on the causes of the war and their reasons for fighting. But, their genuine patriotic and political motivations were also just as often heavily tinged with romantic views of war as a noble, chivalrous, and gallantly "manly" undertaking. For all of them, the actual experience of war would soon dash any romance from their souls. They would experience the boredom and harshness of life in an army camp, the rigors of life on campaign, and then, more importantly, the horrific sights and sounds of battle. As others before and after them, they would learn that there is no nobility in seeing other men die agonizing deaths, especially when, as was so often the case in the volunteer units on both sides, they are men and boys with whom you grew up, who you have known all your life, and who, in some cases, may be a dearly loved brother or father.

But, what is most remarkable about the men who fought this war is that, when you read their diaries and letters, you see that, while the romantic notions about the war quickly disintegrated, the dedication to cause and comrade never did. And, as the war continued to grind on, as the slaughter continued and became even more frightful, their dedication turned into an almost steely resolve to see the war through to a final resolution. However, once the war was over and the years began to pass, these same men needed that romance once more, this time to help heal the deep emotional wounds they had suffered. That need can be seen in the numerous Civil War memoirs authored in the late 19th century. Many, written in the flowery Victorian prose of the time, are filled with descriptions of noble sacrifice, of quick, sudden death in the midst of a gallant charge. Few describe men lingering in agony for hours and even days between the lines, crying out for water, only to die alone, their bodies bloating in the summer heat until a burial detail threw their remains in a common, shallow trench once the imagearmies had moved on.

A very select few memoirs, such as Frank Wilkeson’s Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac, tell a more honest version of the fears and horrors of this war. Even his book’s title reflects the war’s harsh realities as it refers to the common experience of coming upon a dead soldier whose pockets have been turned inside out by other soldiers looking for money, valuables, or even food—not a very romantic vision at all. Memoirs like Wilkeson’s, along with the letters and diaries written during the war, are all documents penned without the filter of time, without a soft veil of nostalgia, and they give us a more realistic view of the suffering this war caused.

image At the same time, I know some might charge that my descriptions of bravery, of courage, and of incredible valor somehow serve to romanticize the war, and I see how that might be. But, in my own defense, let me explain my reasons for telling those stories. Perhaps the most incredible thing about this war is that, amidst the inhumanity, the cruelty, the stupidity, and the reckless slaughter of thousands of young men, all that is worst in human nature, there was bravery and courage, and a belief in the necessity to sacrifice for a cause and for the man standing next to you. These are some of the best qualities in humanity, and they are the ones that should be remembered, that should endure for all of us. These qualities, along with the tragic loss of much life, form a powerful combination for me, what I described in another essay as great pride balanced by equally profound sorrow, and a sense of incredible tragedy that is combined with humble gratitude.

What makes all this more important and more profound is the knowledge of what this courage, this endurance, and this loss won for us as Americans: a new nation, a new birth of freedom, and a challenge to become the nation we were meant to be. And, if you have read this blog for very long, you also know that I believe we are not there yet, that the challenge the Civil War generation laid down for us still remains unfulfilled. If that sounds romantic to you, then I am guilty as charged, and gladly so. However, I see this as more idealistic than romantic, and I choose to embrace this legacy that has been left in our charge.

I will conclude with some words from the legendary Civil War historian, Bruce Catton. Catton once wrote that the most important memory left by the war was the simplest, that of “personal valor—the enduring realization that when the great challenge comes, the most ordinary people can show that they value something more than they value their own lives.” Catton went on to say, “When the last of the veterans were gone, and the sorrow and bitterness which the war created had at last worn away, this memory remained. The men who fought the Civil War, speaking for all Americans, had said something the country could never forget.”

image Let’s make sure we don’t forget. Remember, but do so with an open eye and an open mind, one that rips away that romantic, nostalgic veil, that seeks to understand the reality of the war with all its suffering, cruelty, and tragedy, as well as the courage, endurance, and determination of those who saw it through. Don’t look for nobility and chivalry, as there is little to be found. Rather, try to understand and come to know the reality, the horrible catastrophe that this war truly was, and leave the romance behind, while still cherishing the memory Catton describes and the legacy given to us all.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Wisconsin!

On any fall Saturday afternoon, if you turn your television to a channel carrying Big Ten Conference football, you might happen upon a game involving the University of Wisconsin Badgers. And, should the Badgers score, you will hear their band strike up the stirring Wisconsin fight song, “On Wisconsin!” That tune, which is also the official song of the state of Wisconsin, has become quite popular with high schools across the country and even my own high school fight song was based on it. But the cry of “On Wisconsin” has a history that goes well beyond the Badger football team. It was once shouted by a young lieutenant over the crashing of artillery and rifle fire, helping to turn the tide of a crucial battle. As such, it is just another example of how the actions of one man, a single officer, inspires others and plays a role in changing history. So, you ask, who was this young lieutenant? And now I will tell you his story.

image The young lieutenant’s name was Arthur MacArthur, Jr. Born on June 2, 1845, he was the son of a prominent Milwaukee lawyer and judge, Arthur MacArthur, Sr. The elder MacArthur emigrated from Scotland as a youth, lived in Chicopee, Massachusetts for a time, before moving to Wisconsin when his son was four years old. He built a prosperous career as a lawyer, which he leveraged to gain political influence and power as a Union Democrat, serving as the state’s Lieutenant Governor. The younger Arthur, however, had little interest in following in his father’s footsteps and, with the approach of the Civil War, was sent to a military school in Illinois. When war did come, Arthur, Sr. did all he could to protect his son and prevent him from enlisting, which his son was most determined to do. The two fought over the issue and finally reached a compromise, agreeing that Arthur, Jr. would return school in Illinois while his father tried to get him an appointment to West Point. However, Judge MacArthur discovered that no positions were open until the summer of 1863 and his son let him know, in no uncertain terms, that was not acceptable.

Being only 17, Arthur was too young to enter the army as an officer, so the judge allowed him to lie about his age and exercised what influence he did have to gain his son a position as a second lieutenant and adjutant to the newly formed 24th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. The teenaged lieutenant had a rocky start to his military career, as the exuberance and immaturity of youth caused him many problems during training. At first, many of the soldiers under his command ridiculed the "boy lieutenant." His biographer, Kenneth Ray Young, wrote that, “When he shouted out his orders, the men laughed at his high, squeaky voice.” However, when the regiment moved out to join General Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland, these soldiers would quickly learn that the “boy lieutenant” became something quite different when the shooting started.

image MacArthur and his regiment soon had their inaugural exposure to hostile fire, “seeing the elephant” at Perryville, Kentucky in October 1862. As the battle reached its climax, the 24th Wisconsin was ordered to assault Confederate positions on the far side of a broad cornfield. Looking at the open ground in front of them with what must have been severe trepidation, the men of the regiment heard MacArthur’s voice and turned their heads to see this young man, galloping on horseback up and down their line, exposed to enemy rifle fire, shouting encouragement, and conveying orders to them. In the resulting attack, MacArthur would remain at the front of the regiment, who broke the Confederate line and sent them into retreat. The 24th soon pulled back, having survived their first combat with the loss of only one man. But, more than that, the men now gawked in amazement at the “boy lieutenant,” whom they now affectionately referred to as “Little Mac.”

MacArthur and the regiment would next be tested in the bloody New Year’s battle at Stones River, Tennessee. In a three-day engagement that cost 24,000 casualties, the 24th Wisconsin helped fend off a horrific Confederate onslaught on New Year's Eve, including holding the line in an area known as the Round Forest, which some combatants renamed “Hell's Half Acre.” MacArthur’s regiment would lose nearly 30 percent of its men at Stones River and Little Mac was in the middle of the carnage, displaying what his regiment commanding officer described as “great coolness and presence of mind.”

The 24th Wisconsin and the Army of the Cumberland would eventually move south, driving Braxton Bragg and the Confederate Army of Tennessee south and out of Tennessee altogether. In the midst of this success, young Lieutenant MacArthur became very ill and was sent north to a military hospital. While he recuperated, his regiment and Rosecrans’ entire army were badly defeated at Chickamauga, Georgia on September 19-20, 1863. The army retreated back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Bragg effectively bottled them up and lay siege to the city. Arthur MacArthur would return to his regiment in October to find them running out of food, cut off from any regular source of supply, and awaiting Bragg to crush them.

image The loss at Chickamauga had completely undone Rosecrans and he simply ceased to be an effective commander. Undersecretary of War Charles Dana had been dispatched to evaluate Rosecrans before the disaster at Chickamauga, and now was asked to assess the situation in Chattanooga, reporting directly to President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton on “Old Rosy’s” ability to deal with the crisis. In what was, perhaps, his most scathing assessment of Rosecrans, Dana said that he had “never seen a public man possessing talent with less administrative power, less clearness and steadiness in difficulty, and greater practical incapacity than General Rosecrans. He has inventive fertility and knowledge, but he has no strength of will and no concentration of purpose.” Clearly disturbed by what he was hearing, Lincoln would comment that Rosecrans was not behaving in a way that inspired any confidence in his abilities and that, indeed, he was acting “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.”

On October 16, Lincoln appointed Ulysses Grant as commander of all Union forces in the West and ordered him to fix the situation in Chattanooga. Grant immediately relieved Rosecrans of command, ordering George Thomas, who was one of Rosecrans’ corps commanders, to take over the Army of the Cumberland. Grant telegraphed Thomas, saying “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards. I will be there as soon as possible. Please inform me how long your present supplies will last, and the prospect for keeping them up.” For his part, the new commander of the Army of the Cumberland quickly responded with a summation of his current stores and bravely concluded, “I will hold the town till we starve.”

Once Grant arrived in Chattanooga, he assumed his characteristically energetic approach to command, personally meeting with all key officers, surveying the field, and immediately ordering actions designed to reopen the line of supply to the starving city. Once the supplies of food and military materiel began to flow, he turned his attentions to matters of strategy. Grant had little confidence in Thomas or his army, which included Arthur MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin. Grant would comment to Sherman that, “the men of Thomas's army had been so demoralized by the battle of Chickamauga that he feared they could not be got out of their trenches to assume the offensive.” But, he would soon find out that he had misjudged both Thomas and his army.

Grant’s plan to break the siege and drive Bragg back into Georgia was based on both the terrain and his assessment of the men now under his command. Chattanooga was ringed by mountainous terrain, all of which was manned by Bragg’s troops. On his right, were the heights of Lookout Mountain, which merged with the steep slopes of Missionary Ridge. That ridge extended across Grant’s front to his far left, ending at a place known as Tunnel Hill. As for the men under his command, he had Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland, as well as the recently transferred XI and XII Corps from the Army of the Potomac, and General Sherman with units from Grant’s old command, the Army of the Tennessee. While he saw Thomas as slow and plodding and his army as unreliable, he considered the XI and XII Corps as only slightly better. He knew that they were merely cast offs from George Meade’s army and they were led my General Joe Hooker, an officer Grant loathed and even referred to as “dangerous.” The only forces he could trust were those from the Army of the Tennessee, led by his closest friend and comrade, William Sherman.

Therefore, Grant developed a battle plan that gave the most important assignment to Sherman, while Thomas and Hooker were to play supporting roles. Hooker, with XII Corps in the vanguard, was to make a demonstration on the Confederate left by pressuring Bragg’s forces on Lookout Mountain, while Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland demonstrated against the center on Missionary Ridge. Sherman, meanwhile, was to attack the Southern right at Tunnel Hill. From there, he was to roll up Bragg’s flank, at which point Hooker and Thomas could provide support by exploiting Confederate attention on the damage being done by Sherman.

image As for his own position, Grant chose to remain near the center during the coming battle, with George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland. The center was, after all, the logical place from which to command. Further, given the distance from one flank to another, it would be difficult for Grant to practice his direct, on-scene style of leadership whenever an unreliable commander was in need a little command direction. So, perhaps, he decided to place himself nearest the force and commander he trusted the least.

The attack was launched on November 24, when Sherman crossed the Tennessee River, but the major fighting would start in earnest the next day. However, Sherman’s attack met stiff resistance and, because of an error on the maps, he soon found that the terrain on Tunnel Hill was not as favorable as believed. As a result, by mid-afternoon, the major thrust of Grant’s attack was going nowhere. But, at the same time, Hooker, rather than diverting Confederate attention, was rolling up Lookout Mountain and threatening Bragg’s right. In an effort to relieve the resistance against Sherman, Grant ordered Thomas to have his men go forward and seize the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, hoping that this little demonstration would pose enough threat to Bragg’s center that the Southern commander to pull forces away from his front opposite Sherman. However, just as with everything else in the attack, the demonstration would not proceed as ordered.

image With the firing of a set of signal guns, Thomas’ army moved forward towards the Confederate rifle pits. As the signal was given, MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin, which now numbered fewer than 150 men, were crouched at the edge of the woods forming the no-man’s land separating the two armies, in the center of a two-mile line running between two rivers. Ahead of them, the ridge rose almost 600 feet, broken by ravines, gullies, and the rifle pits. The 24th crossed the three-quarters of a mile to the rifle pits at the double quick, crashing into the shallow trenches and fighting hand-to-hand with the defenders.

The Confederates finally retreated, but now the 24th and the other Union regiments found themselves pinned down at the base of the ridge by artillery and rifle fire from the crest above. Victory had turned into a hellish nightmare. Then, suddenly and without orders, the 18,000 soldiers trapped at the base of Missionary Ridge seemingly decided to take matters into their own hands. One by one and then in groups of two and three, they rose to their feet and began to climb the steep slopes of the ridge towards their tormentors. Grant, who was watching the attack progress, was horrified. He turned to Thomas and angrily demanded to know who had ordered the men forward up the ridge.

Thomas replied, in his usual slow, quiet manner: "I don't know; I did not." Then, addressing General Gordon Granger, he said, "Did you order them up, Granger?" "No," said Granger; "they started up without orders. When those fellows get started all hell can't stop them." General Grant said something to the effect that somebody would suffer if it did not turn out well, and then, turning, stoically watched the ridge. He gave no further orders.

At the center of this unplanned and unordered attack was Arthur MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin. MacArthur’s color bearer had been killed during the fighting for the rifle pits and, as men began to clamber out of the trenches and up the hill, his replacement was decapitated by a round of solid shot from a Confederate gun above. MacArthur himself was wounded but still standing. When the colors went down a second time, he climbed out of the trench, grabbed them, and turned to his men, who were still cowering in the rifle pits. Raising the now ragged, battle-scarred flag high above his head, he shouted "On Wisconsin!" and moved quickly up the ridge. image In one of those rare moments when men are moved from terror to bravery, the men of the 24th Wisconsin rose up and began to follow Little Mac up the steep slope amid a hail of enemy rifle and artillery fire. As the Union soldiers up and down the line moved closer, the Confederate defenders abandoned their positions at the crest in disorganized panic. As Arthur MacArthur reached the summit of Missionary Ridge, he firmly planted the staff of the bullet-riddled flag in the ground for all to see. MacArthur, the 24th Wisconsin, and the Army of the Cumberland, who Grant had feared would not leave their trenches, smashed Bragg’s center in six places, sending the Southern army into full retreat. The siege of Chattanooga was broken.

That night, the 24th Wisconsin’s corps commander, General Philip Sheridan, reached the summit of Missionary Ridge. When he was told about young MacArthur's action, Sheridan found him and embraced the teenage lieutenant. Sheridan turned to the men of the 24th who were looking on and, choked with emotion, he said, "Take care of him. He has just won the Medal of Honor.”

That medal would be presented some 27 years later, on June 30, 1890. MacArthur would eventually take command of his regiment, attaining the rank of Colonel at the tender age of 19, the youngest to attain that rank in the Union army. In the years following the war, he would remain in the army, fight in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, and retire from service in 1909 as a Lieutenant General. Along the way, he would father a son named Douglas, who would become a General of the Army (five stars) during World War II and also be awarded the Medal of Honor.image

After retirement, Arthur MacArthur returned to Milwaukee to enjoy the last years of his life. In 1912, the 24th Wisconsin planned to hold its 50th anniversary, with some 90 surviving members attending. They invited MacArthur to be the keynote speaker and, despite ill health, he eagerly agreed. The reunion was held in Milwaukee on September 5, 1912. The evening was warm and the hall was uncomfortably hot as the men took their seats. Despite being very weak, MacArthur summoned all his strength and moved to the podium to deliver his address. As he was about to begin, some say he glanced over to the tattered flag on the wall behind him, the one he had carried up Missionary Ridge that November afternoon. He then looked out over the now elderly men he had once served with as a young man, as their “boy lieutenant,” their “Little Mac.” His voice cracked a bit as he said, "Your indomitable regiment...." Then, he paused, his head lowered to the podium, and, as a hush fell over the room, Arthur MacArthur collapsed to the floor.

The first man to reach his side was Dr. William Cronyn, who had been the regiment’s surgeon and had treated young MacArthur’s wounds during the war. He quickly examined the fallen hero of Missionary Ridge, then turned to what remained of the 24th Wisconsin saying, "Comrades, the general is dying." Quietly, the aged veterans gathered around their once brave leader, reciting the Lord's Prayer in unison. When they had finished, Arthur MacArthur was dead, felled by a brain aneurism. One of the men, Captain Edwin Parsons, then rose to his feet, took the 24th’s colors from the wall, and draped them gently over Arthur MacArthur’s body. As they lifted him up and carried his body from the room, the colors Arthur MacArthur had so bravely carried up Missionary Ridge as a boy, now embraced him in death, and he probably would have wanted it so.