Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hancock at Gettysburg

In the collective and popular historical memory of the American people, Gettysburg seems to stand alone among Civil War battles. Hundreds of books have been written about it, millions of Americans have visited the battlefield, and even a motion picture version of its story has been made. In the minds of most Americans, it is seen as the turning point, the “high water mark of the Confederacy,” and a sort of “beginning of the end” for this great American tragedy. For historians, meanwhile, it is an object of great debate, study, and discussion. They often focus on the great strategic decisions that were made by Lee and Meade because Gettysburg is very much a battle and a campaign that hinged on decisions, and upon the art and execution of command.

Gen Winfield Scott Hancock However, when one studies those making the command decisions, especially those making tactical decisions on the line, there is one who seems to stand out - Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock, who was commander of the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps, performed brilliantly at Gettysburg and his battlefield leadership, his commanding presence, and his abilities as a tactician were a critical part of the Union victory. In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about Hancock’s display of moral courage, when he was forced to sacrifice the 1st Minnesota Infantry regiment in order to buy sufficient time to plug a critical gap in the Union line. However, this was just one small demonstration of Hancock’s abilities as a commander.

I might even argue that, perhaps, Winfield Scott Hancock was not only the finest field commander in the Union army, he may have very well been one of the greatest, if not the greatest, field commander in American history. He possessed all the skills required: the ability to quickly interpret the situation and act upon it decisively, superior knowledge of tactics, physical and moral courage, and a clear understanding of the soldier in the line. As he demonstrated at Gettysburg, his mere presence on the field made both privates and generals take heart, and find a little more courage than they realized that they had.

Further, as is often the case with leaders who act with decisiveness, he also was involved in his own small share of controversy, some of which would continue to be discussed and debated long after the war had ended. But, Hancock was, first and foremost, a soldier, as well as a man who would not shrink from a difficult decision. At Gettysburg, he would need to employ those gifts over and over again.

Winfield Scott Hancock was born in Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania in February 1824. The son of a school teacher, lawyer, and life-long Democrat, Hancock was remembered as a bright, spirited youth who played hard as boys will do, but also enjoyed philosophical pursuits such as debate and literature. He seemed to stand out among his peers growing up in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where his family moved in 1828, so much so that, when he was fifteen, he was given the honor of reading the Declaration of Independence to the people of Norristown on July 4th.

Almost a year later, at the tender age of sixteen, Winfield Scott Hancock would enter the United States Military Academy at West Point as part of what would be the class of 1844. He had not planned on being a soldier and his father had been intent upon him becoming a lawyer. However, as a result of a dispute over a horse between the congressman from a neighboring district and a former supporter who had wanted his son to get an appointment to West Point, Hancock was offered a position and it proved to be too good an opportunity to refuse. So, out of an argument over a horse, the career of one of America’s great soldiers began.

Hancock’s class would initially start out with 100 cadets, but dwindled to 54 by the end of the fourth-class year and only 25 by graduation. Hancock’s record at the academy shows him to have been a good student of drawing, science, and tactics, but he graduated ranked only 18th in his class. Once commissioned a second lieutenant, he was assigned to the 6th U.S. Infantry Regiment and served initially in the Red River region of what is now Oklahoma. When the war with Mexico broke out, Hancock and the 6th Infantry would eventually be assigned to Hancock’s namesake, General Winfield Scott, taking part in the landings at Vera Cruz and the campaign that would end in the capture of Mexico City. Hancock would distinguish himself at Churubusco, where he assumed command of his company when its commander was wounded and then led it in a successful charge. In what would be an initial demonstration of his talents as a field officer, he was cited for bravery and brevetted to first lieutenant.

Following the war, Hancock would be assigned to duties in St. Louis, Florida, the Mormon Campaign in Wyoming and Utah, and, finally, in Los Angeles. In all these assignments, Hancock would prove to be solid and dependable, both as a field commander and as regimental staff officer. Never once did he seek or serve in duties in any capacity but that of a soldier in the field. His devoted wife, Almira, whom he had met and married while in St. Louis, would ask him during this period of his career why he preferred to be an infantry officer over duties in Washington or at West Point. He replied, “Because I am only a soldier. This resting fancifully upon my guns, or making guns for others to shoot with, though somebody must do it, or being a professor at West Point, as you desire, is all well enough, and there must be capable officers to perform such duty, but is does not belong to me.” In other words, Hancock preferred duty in the field, at the unit level, which he saw as the true vocation of a soldier.

As the war approached, Hancock found himself a captain, serving as quartermaster in Los Angeles. However, when the war actually came, he received orders to return east and assume duties with the Quartermaster Corps in Washington. This did not sit well with him and he applied for line duty as soon as he arrived in the capital. Fate would then intervene in the form of George B. McClellan, who recalled Hancock’s reputation as a young officer in Mexico and arranged for his promotion to Brigadier General, giving him command of a brigade serving under General Baldy Smith.

From there, Hancock would steadily rise in the Army of the Potomac. His service as a brigade commander in the Peninsula Campaign and at Fredericksburg garnered him a division command in II Corps, which he would lead at both Antietam and Chancellorsville. In all these engagements, Hancock would be noted by his superiors as an outstanding tactician but, perhaps, more so, both they and the average soldier would see him as a tough, charismatic leader, who possessed a true and unassailable presence on the battlefield. Everyone seemed to consider him the model of a soldier. Colonel Theodore Lyman, who later served with Hancock under Ulysses Grant, remembered him as “a tall, soldierly man, with light-brown hair and a military heavy jaw; and has the massive features and the heavy folds round the eye that often mark a man of ability.”

Despite their post-war political and policy differences, even General Grant would later write that, as a leader, Hancock was, indeed, something special.

He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance. Tall, well formed, and, at the time of which I now write, young and fresh-looking, he presented an appearance which would have attracted the attention of an army as he passed. His genial disposition made him friends, and his command in the thickest of the fight won him the confidence of troops serving under him.

Hancock the Superb As Grant indicated, it was under fire that Hancock seemed to shine the brightest and it is also when he always seemed to be up front, where things were the hottest. When Hooker’s position at Chancellorsville was collapsing, Hancock was given the job of fighting the rear guard action as the Army of the Potomac retreated and attempted to reform. While he performed this job with consummate skill, one terrified private remembered Hancock’s impact on him as his unit prepared to fight near the burning remains of the Chancellor house.

Suddenly in the midst of our collapse a man on a horse rode down the line. It was awful, but that man rode down the line, tall, magnificent…He rode on a horse, not a muscle quivering, and looking us in the face said, “Gentlemen” –he called his soldiers gentlemen- “we are left to keep them in check until the second line is formed.”…I became a hero by that man’s influence. No Plutarch could have done that for me.

With the defeat at Chancellorsville, Hancock became discouraged. Hooker’s incompetence and inability to lead in battle grieved him deeply. He wrote his wife that he seriously considered resigning, so deep was his disgust, and said, “I have not recovered from our last failure, which should have been a brilliant victory.” When rumors began to fly that Hooker would be replaced and that Hancock might even be in line to succeed him, he wrote Almira, revealing his revulsion at the political influence that was so much a part of the Army of the Potomac: “I have been approached again in connection with the command of the Army of the Potomac. Give yourself no uneasiness—under no conditions would I accept the command. I do not belong to that class of generals whom the Republicans care to bolster up. I should be sacrificed.”

But, fate would again intervene and, rather than receiving command of the army, Hancock would instead ascend to the command position for which he was, perhaps, truly destined. General Couch, II Corps commander and Hancock’s immediate superior, requested a leave of absence as part of a dispute with Hooker. When Hooker refused the request, Couch requested that he be relieved as commander of II Corps. Hooker asked that he reconsider, but Couch was adamant. As a result, Couch’s request was granted and, on June 9, 1863, President Lincoln appointed Winfield Scott Hancock to command the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

Hancock had barely taken the reins of command when Hooker began to move the army north in parallel to Lee’s route down the Shenandoah Valley. On June 15, Hancock and II Corps left their camp near Falmouth, Virginia, covering the rear of the army. By June 28, they were near Monocacy Junction, Maryland, where Hancock learned that Hooker had been relieved of command and had been replaced by General George Meade. Hancock’s reaction to this news is unrecorded however, in all likelihood, he was not disappointed. In a letter to his wife, he had criticized Hooker for his failure to maintain the all-important initiative at Chancellorsville, citing it as the reason for the Union defeat. In addition, he and Meade had developed a strong professional friendship while serving together under McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker, and Meade had also come to admire Hancock’s skills on the battlefield.

Between June 29 and July 1, Hancock’s command moved steadily northward, first to Uniontown and then, finally, to Taneytown, where they went into bivouac about 11:00 A.M on the morning of July 1. Hancock immediately reported to Meade’s headquarters, which was also in Taneytown, and, in discussions with the new commanding general, he “was informed as to his intention with reference to giving battle to the enemy, the orders for preparatory movements being then ready for issue.” More specifically, Meade “stated, in general terms, that his intention was to fight on Pipe Creek; that he had not examined the ground, but, judging from his maps, it was the strongest position he could find; that the Engineers were examining and mapping it, and that he had made an order for the movement to occupy that line. General Reynolds was in the advance in command of the left wing of the army, consisting of the First, Third, and Eleventh corps, with General Buford's cavalry.”

Hancock returned to II Corps and soon learned, as did Meade, that Buford and Reynolds had engaged elements of the Army of Northern Virginia just west of Gettysburg. However, soon thereafter, Meade also learned that General Reynolds had been mortally wounded. That meant that General Howard, commanding XI Corps, would be left to assume command on the field. Meade needed a man on the scene whom he trust and rely upon, and Howard was not that man. However, apparently, Winfield Hancock was. Meade went to Hancock’s headquarters shortly before 1:00 P.M. and ordered him to proceed to Gettysburg at once and, when there, to assume command of all Union forces. The official orders that were issued detailed what Meade wanted Hancock to do.

July 1, 1863--1.10 p.m.

Major-General HANCOCK,
Commanding Second Corps:

GENERAL: The major-general commanding has just been informed that General Reynolds has been killed or badly wounded. He directs that you turn over the command of your corps to General Gibbon; that you proceed to the front, and, by virtue of this order, in case of the truth of General Reynolds' death, you assume command of the corps there assembled, viz, the Eleventh, First, and Third, at Emmitsburg. If you think the ground and position there a better one to fight a battle under existing circumstances, you will so advise the general, and he will order all the troops up. You know the general's views, and General Warren, who is fully aware of them, has gone out to see General Reynolds.

LATER—1.15 p.m.

Reynolds has possession of Gettysburg, and the enemy are reported as falling back from the front of Gettysburg. Hold your column ready to move.

Very respectfully, &c.


Major-General, Chief of Staff.

Hancock immediately reminded Meade that both Howard and Sickles, who was commanding III Corps, were senior in rank to himself. However, Meade said he had a message from Secretary of War Stanton, which authorized him to make any changes in commanders as he saw fit. With that, Meade handed Hancock his written orders, and, by 1:30 P.M., Hancock was on the road to Gettysburg.

Initially, Hancock elected to ride in the rear of an ambulance, where he poured over maps of the area along with his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel C. H. Morgan. In addition, he carefully studied the instructions contained in Meade’s Pipe Creek Circular. Since Meade had tasked him to both take command of the tactical situation as he found it upon arrival, as well as to determine Gettysburg’s suitability as a battlefield, Hancock was making certain that he understood the nature of the terrain of both areas. Once he was satisfied he had a feel for the local topography, Hancock mounted his horse and, followed by his staff, set out for Gettysburg at a gallop.

Hancock arrives on Cemetery Hill As he approached Gettysburg on the Taneytown Road, he heard the booming of artillery and the crackle of distant rifle fire. Soon, he also encountered the confusion of horses, wagons, and artillery trying to make their way to the front against the flow of those who were trying to flee the battlefield. He continued on and, at approximately 3:30 P.M., he arrived on Cemetery Hill, where General Howard was trying to reform the shattered remnants of I Corps and XI Corps. Hancock rode up to the cemetery gatehouse, where he met Howard. What ensued between the two men and the command process that occurred immediately thereafter would be the subject of controversy and debate in the years that followed the war.

Hancock’s official report merely states that he “arrived at Gettysburg and assumed the command.” But, in the years following the war, Howard would insist that he had not surrendered authority. Rather, Howard stated that Hancock did not arrive until 4:30 P.M., and, then, reported that he had merely been sent to represent Meade on the field. At that point, Howard says that he told Hancock, “This is no time for talking. You take the left of the pike and I will arrange these troops to the right.” Hancock reportedly agreed to these terms and Howard insisted he only later learned that Hancock was to have been in command.

However, Hancock would always dispute Howard’s claims and the bulk of evidence supports his version of the story. According to Hancock and members of his staff, when Hancock met Howard, he informed the XI Corps commander that he had been ordered to assume command and possessed written orders to that effect. Howard declined to see the orders and not only turned over command, but also said that he was glad Hancock had come. This version of events is also supported by the account of Captain E. P. Halstead, a member of Doubleday’s staff who witnessed the meeting. In addition, Halstead also says that Hancock told Howard that he had been assigned to “select a field on which to fight this battle in the rear of Pipe Creek.” Then, Halstead recalled, Hancock looked around and said, “But I think this is the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw, and if it meets your approbation I will select this as the battlefield.” Howard readily agreed and Hancock said, “Very well, sir, I select this as the battlefield.”

Hancock then set about vigorously positioning his forces and trying to restore some sense of order. First, he had XI Corps complete its occupation of Cemetery Hill by having them take positions behind the stone walls in their front and throw out skirmishers towards the outskirts of town. General Schurz, whose men had been mauled defending the north side of Gettysburg, commented that Hancock’s “mere presence was a reinforcement, and everybody on the field felt stronger for his being there.” Hancock’s aide, Colonel Francis Walker, later wrote that much of the activity, while intended to prepare for a continuation of the fighting, was also designed to present “the bravest show of force that can be made” so as to deter the Confederate forces from attacking until more of the army could reach the field.

He next deployed the badly worn elements of Doubleday’s I Corps to the left of the XI Corps, extending the Union line down the slopes of Cemetery Hill and across the Taneytown Road onto Cemetery Ridge. Doubleday recalled Hancock riding over to him and telling him that he was in command of the field. As he did so, he directed Doubleday to send Wadsworth’s division to the right, across the Baltimore Pike to Culp’s Hill. However, Hancock’s chief of staff remembered the exchange to be slightly more heated and typical of Hancock’s commanding presence. Lieutenant Colonel Morgan wrote that Hancock had observed Confederate forces moving up the ravine between the town and Culp’s Hill. He immediately sent a staff officer over to Doubleday for troops to block the advance. When the staff officer met Doubleday, he was given a series of excuses as to why I Corps had no one to send. Hancock apparently rode up as this discussion was ensuing and, upon hearing Doubleday’s remarks, rose up “indignantly” in his stirrups and told the I Corps commander, “Sir, I am in command on this field; send every man you have got!”

Hancock then personally directed the 5th Maine Artillery to also take up a position on Culp’s Hill along with Wadsworth’s division. The young commander of the battery described his memories of Hancock on this occasion and it serves as yet another example of Hancock’s ability to inspire a sense of urgency and confidence.

In the center of the plateau was a group of general officers and orderlies. It was a scene of utmost activity, and yet there was no confusion. Prominent in the group—on horseback, erect, unmoved amid the throng of retreating, defeated, and well-nigh worn-out soldiers—sat a man born to command, by birth and education a soldier of high degree, competent to evolve order out of the chaos of retreat, cool, calm, self-possessed, the master of himself and his place. I rode up to him and, saluting, reported with the battery with which I was serving. Turning quickly to his right and rear, and pointing to the knoll on the northwestern slope of Culp’s Hill, he said: “Do you see that hill, young man? Put your battery there and stay there.” I shall never forget the inspiration of his commanding, controlling presence or the fresh courage he imparted, his whole atmosphere strong and invigorating.


Not long thereafter, the lead division of XII Corps, under General Williams, arrived on the scene and was deployed to the right and rear of Wadsworth division. General Geary’s division came up the road next, and Hancock, who was concerned about having the line’s left turned, positioned them to the south near Little Round Top. Finally, Hancock ordered all the trains to the rear in order to clear the roads for the rest of the army as Meade ordered them forward.

In the midst of all this activity, at about 4:15 P.M., Hancock dispatched one of his aides, Major Mitchell, to General Meade to tell him that the army’s position at Gettysburg offered a good position for defense and that he could now hold it until nightfall. Then, a little over an hour later, he sent another aide, Captain Parker, to Meade with a written message for the commanding general.

5.25 P.M., JULY 1, 1863

GENERAL: When I arrived here an hour since, I found that our troops had given up the front of Gettysburg and the town. We have now taken up a position in the cemetery, and cannot well be taken. It is a position, however, easily turned. Slocum is now coming on the ground, and is taking position on the right, which will protect the right. But we have, as yet, no troops on the left, the Third Corps not having yet reported; but I suppose that it is marching up. If so, its flank march will in a degree protect our left flank. In the meantime Gibbon had better march on so as to take position on our right or left, to our rear, as may be necessary, in some commanding position. General G. will see this dispatch. The battle is quiet now. I think we will be all right until night. I have sent all the trains back. When night comes, it can be told better what had best be done. I think we can retire; if not, we can fight here, as the ground appears not unfavorable with good troops. I will communicate in a few moments with General Slocum, and transfer the command to him.

Howard says that Doubleday's command gave way.

General Warren is here.

Your obedient servant,


Major-General, Commanding Corps.

Once the message was en route to Meade, Hancock found General Slocum, commander of XII Corps, and transferred overall command of the field to him. With that action complete, Hancock headed down the road to find his own corps, which had advanced during the day and was now only three miles away. In a little less than two hours, Hancock had acted decisively by electing to have the Army of the Potomac fight from its current position south of Gettysburg, restoring some confidence and military order, and deploying his forces in such a manner that they could fend off any renewed attack. In addition, his eye for the terrain and his sense of the battlefield had led him to position Union forces in what would eventually become the Army of the Potomac’s main line of battle and one that would indeed be difficult for Lee to overrun.

On the morning of July 2, Hancock and his corps marched the final three miles from Taneytown to Gettysburg, arriving about 7:00 A.M. Meade, who had arrived early in the morning, had elected to continue the deployment of the army along the same line Hancock had begun the evening before. The XII Corps was digging in along Culp’s Hill on the far right, with the XI Corps to their left on Cemetery Hill. Hancock was ordered to place II Corps on the XI Corps’ left and extend the Union line down Cemetery Ridge to the south. Sickles’ III Corps was to align to Hancock’s left and extend the line further south until it touched the base of Little Round Top. Meanwhile, V Corps was to be held in reserve, as was the rapidly approaching VI Corps.

In placing his men, Hancock put Hays’ 3rd Division on the right, Gibbon’s 2nd Division in the center, and Caldwell’s 1st Division on the left, supported by batteries from the 1st U.S., 1st Rhode Island, 4th U.S., and 1st New York Artillery. Further, Hancock ordered that each division be deployed with one of its brigades held in the rear as a reserve.

The morning and afternoon were quiet except for occasional skirmishing and brief artillery exchanges along the line. However, as late afternoon approached, that would change. Lee had ordered an assault upon what he thought was an open Union left flank. His original plan called for elements of Longstreet’s corps to first attack and seize the Peach Orchard, then pivot left and roll up the Union flank, supported by an assault by Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps. However, by the time Longstreet’s men reached their line of departure for the attack, they found that the Peach Orchard was occupied and the Union left extended far beyond what they had been told.

Part of this resulted from faulty intelligence information but the rest occurred because General Sickles had taken it upon himself to reposition III Corps. Sickles had decided that he did not care for the ground his corps occupied and he moved his men forward to the Emmitsburg Road, deploying them so that they occupied the Peach Orchard, then curved left to the Devil’s Den area. Further, through a series of miscommunications and staff errors, Meade was unaware of this redeployment of III Corps. Worse, Sickles’ movement placed his men far forward of the rest of the army, with his flanks floating and unsupported, and stretched his lines far too thin. Hancock had observed the movement of Sickles’ men and could readily see they were headed for potential disaster. Upon seeing Humphries’ division of III Corps move forward and disconnect itself from the support of II Corps, Hancock turned to his staff and said, “Gentlemen, that is a splendid advance. But, those troops will be coming back again very soon.” His comments would prove prophetic.

At about 4 P.M., Longstreet launched his attack. The plan of attack, however, had been changed when Sickles’ men were found to be deployed in their new positions. Now, the assault would be conducted en echelon from right to left, with Hood’s division starting on the far right against the left of the Union line, followed by McLaws against the Peach Orchard, and then Anderson’s men would move against the left center of the Federal line. The attack was a vicious one and, while Sickles’ men defended their ground fiercely, they soon were falling back. V Corps units were called forward to stop the Confederate advance on the far left as Birney’s division fell back from Devil’s Den.

Meade sent word to Hancock to send a division to Birney’s assistance and to have it report to General Sykes, commanding V Corps. Hancock quickly dispatched Caldwell’s division from his left to Sykes and had Gibbon bring up his reserve brigade in order to extend the II Corps line. Then, as the Union line in the Peach Orchard began to give way, Hancock was told that Sickles had been badly wounded and that Meade was ordering Hancock to assume command of the entire left wing of the army.

Hancock immediately headed south down the line bringing with him Willard’s brigade to support Birney. But Hancock had not gone very far when he met Birney, who reported that his entire line had collapsed and his original position had been lost, leaving only Humphries’ division in place. However, Hancock soon learned that Humphries was also falling back. Hancock quickly ordered Willard to counterattack but Willard was killed moments later as he stood by Hancock’s side. Willard’s men still went in and managed to slow the Confederate advance. Hancock then ordered Humphries to reform his men on the left of II Corps on Cemetery Ridge.

Now, Hancock headed back to his right and found gaps in his line with no one to fill them. At one point, he saw a body of troops moving from his left and thought they were a part of III Corps falling back. He and his aide, Captain Miller, rode towards this group, but soon discovered it was actually an advancing column of the enemy. In fact, they were Wilcox’ brigade of Anderson’s division and they were pressing down on one of the gaps in Hancock’s line. They opened fire on Hancock and Miller, and Miller was hit twice. Hancock ordered Miller to ride to the rear, while he spurred his horse down into a swale, which temporarily sheltered him from further fire. It was at this point that Hancock quickly ordered the gallant 1st Minnesota forward, allowing him to bring reserves forward and fill the gap in the army’s line.

Hancock continued to move up and down his line, patching it wherever he thought there was a threat. As darkness approached, the Union reserves and Hancock’s tactical decision-making began to make a difference. The Confederate assault on the left and center lost its momentum and was forced back. However, firing was soon heard to the right as Ewell’s corps launched assaults against Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill.

First, knowing full well that XI Corps was in weakened condition, and in what was later termed by General Henry Hunt as a “happy inspiration,” Hancock decided on his own to send support to Howard’s men. He was standing with General Gibbon and said, “We ought to send some help over there. Send a brigade. Send Carroll.” Carroll’s men were soon on their way and their arrival on Cemetery Hill helped XI Corps turn Ewell’s men back. But Hancock also knew that XII Corps had sent him forces to support the left-center of the line and feared that Ewell’s attack on Culp’s Hill might require some additional support for Slocum’s corps. Again, without consultation, he told Gibbon to send two regiments to support Slocum’s men.

Hancock’s actions during the late afternoon and evening of July 2 again displayed his tactical and leadership abilities. It also, once more, demonstrated Meade’s well-found confidence on him. Doubleday would later describe Hancock as “indefatigable in his vigilance and personal supervision” on that afternoon, crediting his leadership with saving Cemetery Ridge.

On the morning of July 3, Hancock reported that the II Corps had been so weakened by its losses on July 2, that he was forced to place every man on the line. Further, Carroll’s brigade, which had been sent by Hancock to support Howard the night before, remained on Cemetery Hill with XI Corps. As a result, Hancock’s line in the center was somewhat thin, with no ready organic reserve of infantry available. The morning passed quietly, except for the firing that could be heard off to the right, where XII Corps was busy repulsing an attack by men from Ewell’s corps, and some skirmishing in front of Cemetery Ridge.

At 1:00 P.M., Hancock was having lunch with General Gibbon in the rear of Gibbon’s division. He was in the middle of dictating an order about fresh beef for his men, when Lee’s artillery opened up a massive barrage, one like nothing ever seen in warfare up to that moment. Lee’s army had assembled some 164 guns for the barrage, which was designed to either seriously damage the Union batteries on Cemetery Ridge or drive them off entirely prior to a final desperate infantry assault by Pickett’s division As Francis Walker would recall, the artillery fire was so intense that “the whole space behind Cemetery Ridge was in a moment rendered uninhabitable.”

As soon as the artillery assault began, Hancock mounted his horse and, accompanied by his color bearer, he slowly rode behind the line, letting every soldier see “that his general was with him in the storm.” As he rode by the cowering infantrymen, he would encourage the men, and make sure all was in preparation for the attack he knew would come as soon as the artillery fire subsided. Hancock knew his soldiers and knew that, under such terrible fire, they needed to see and hear their corps commander. But, he also knew that infantry would not psychologically withstand such a barrage for long and that they needed to see their own artillery answering the Confederate guns. But, the Federal guns were still silent.

Hancock rode to his batteries and found they were not returning fire because General Henry Hunt, chief of the Army of the Potomac’s artillery, had ordered that the guns to hold their fire for fifteen minutes and then to only fire back “deliberately and slowly.” Defying Hunt’s directions, Hancock ordered the batteries to open fire immediately. As the Federal guns on Cemetery Ridge opened up, batteries on Little Round Top and Cemetery Hill soon joined them. Hunt later criticized Hancock’s pre-emptive command as not only unnecessary but also damaging to the Federal defense. Hunt would maintain that Hancock’s order caused II Corps artillery to exhaust their long-range ammunition too soon and that; as a result, Pickett’s men were able to penetrate the II Corps line. He complained that regulations on this matter were too obscure and that Hancock should not have been allowed such authority. He bluntly stated that, “On this occasion it cost us much blood, many lives, and for a moment endangered the integrity of our line if not the success of the battle.”

Walker would respond to this challenge and write that; first, Hancock was in command of the line of battle. He had been given that authority by General Meade and was not required to observe the “discretion of one of General Meade’s staff officers.” Further, he would argue that Hancock knew what was best from both the tactical and morale points of view. Walker stated quite correctly that, for over two years, Hancock had “lived with the infantry, marching with them, camping among them, commanding them in numerous actions, keeping close watch on their temper and spirit, observing their behavior under varying conditions and trials.” Therefore, Walker argued, Hancock, and not Hunt, was the most qualified to determine the best overall course of action.

When Pickett and Pettigrew’s infantry began their assault, Hancock again was seemingly everywhere, conferring with his commanders and personally directing and encouraging the troops. Colonel Francis Randall, commander of the 13th Vermont Infantry, remembered that as the Confederate infantry bore down on his position, “Our general officers were quite solicitous for this position, General Hancock repeatedly coming to me and giving me the benefit of his advice and encouragement.”

Stannard's Vermonters As the enemy closed on Gibbon’s front, Hancock ordered General Stannard to send two regiments of his Vermont Brigade of I Corps forward to hit the attacking Confederate infantry on their right flank with an enfilading fire. This order was carried out with devastating effectiveness on Pickett’s men. But, as he rode next to Stannard and was providing directions to Colonel Randall, he was hit near the groin by rifle fire. Randall helped him from his horse and, along with Hancock’s color-bearer, tried to stem the flow of blood. The wound was very severe and had Hancock’s color-bearer not known how to apply a tourniquet, Hancock would most likely have bled to death. Even then, despite the severity of his wound, Hancock refused to leave the field. Raising himself on his elbow, he continued to give orders and, as one regiment passed going forward, he shouted to their commander, “Go in Colonel, and give it to them on the flank!” Finally, as the Confederate attack was repulsed, he allowed the corps surgeon to attend to him and carry him to the rear.

Hancock’s wound was deep, incredibly painful, and would require multiple surgeries before the bullet could be removed. It would be months before Hancock could return to full duty and he was, at times, in near constant pain. He finally returned to command of II Corps just in time for the beginning of Grant’s great summer campaign of 1864. But, when the army moved south, he had to formally request permission to ride in a spring wagon because riding on horseback was still too painful for him to endure.

Some would say that, while he would remain perhaps the best corps commander in the Union army, he was never completely himself again. Therefore, in many ways, Gettysburg was the zenith of Hancock’s military career. His ability to project confidence, courage, and leadership paid undeniable dividends. This was especially true in those waning hours of the first day of battle, when he rode onto Cemetery Hill and provided some badly needed command presence. Despite being placed in a situation that had to be uncomfortable professionally, Hancock seems to have projected himself to be a man who was, and should be, in command. In addition, his keen tactical sense was also in great evidence, as he skillfully placed the forces on the scene into a position that could not easily be taken and provided a basis for Meade to deploy his eventual line of battle.

Then on the second day of fighting, Meade would again readily confer greater command authority on Hancock when Sickles went down and the left was in danger of collapse. Again, Hancock was everywhere, patching a line of battle together with battered remnants of III Corps as well as with the reinforcements Meade sent forward. In addition, his quick and forceful use of the 1st Minnesota bought what might have the most vital fifteen minutes that day’s battle. It was also an example of the kind of moral courage that separates great commanders from the rest.

Hancock Statue on Cemetery Hill Finally, on that momentous third day at Gettysburg, he would ride the line, exposing himself to enemy fire, in order to insure his men could see their general and know he was sharing the danger with them. Today, some might see such theatrics as overly sentimental and even foolhardy, but they were a critical piece of the command and leadership formula in 1863 and Hancock knew that fact perhaps better than anyone. While his order for the artillery to open fire and counter the Confederate batteries could be disputed on a technical and doctrinal basis, his belief that it was needed if the infantry were to withstand the enemy barrage is difficult to argue against. Finally, when the massive Confederate infantry assault began, he once more was on the line, providing encouragement and tactical leadership, even after he had been badly wounded.

Hancock led by example as truly as anyone ever has, he knew his craft, and he had an unfailing sense of the battlefield. All of those traits were key factors in the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on Tactics

Re-enactors demonstrate firing from 2-line formation In an earlier blog entry on Civil War strategy, I mentioned that, one of the unique aspects of the Civil War was that the professional soldiers who made up the command structure of both sides had a common background of military education and practical experience. As a result, all of them proceeded from a common basis in terms of both their tactical and strategic thinking. Further, that thinking involved both tactical and strategic principles that were the products of an earlier era, and, while strategy would change and do so in a revolutionary manner, tactics would only change slightly. Thus, tactically, it was a war of stagnation, which cost many lives.

US Infantry at the Battle of Cerro Gordo Tactics were, for the most part, outdated when the war began. The tactics in vogue were those of the Mexican War, of an era of smoothbore muskets and the bayonet. The tactical doctrine of that time was centered on the infantry and infantry tactics were the core of an offensive-minded tactical doctrine. The infantry used two-line formations for both defense and assault, with deep columns used for shock attacks or when the terrain dictated their use. Formations were close and relatively slow rates of advance were used. Assaults were usually preceded by small groups of skirmishers, typically a company per attacking regiment. If the infantry succeeded, their breakthrough would be supplemented by heavy cavalry using the saber charge to run down fleeing enemy infantry. Artillery, meanwhile, was used on both the offensive and defensive. On the defensive, they were to use solid shot and explosive rounds against advancing infantry to break up their attack, and then add the use of canister at close range to cut them down. Offensively, artillery would support attacking infantry with barrage and counter-battery fire, then roll forward with the infantry to blast holes through the defenders at close range.

However, all of this was predicated on the use of the smoothbore musket as employed in Mexico, where these tactics were used over and over again with success, even against fortified enemy positions. These tactics were learned by the Civil War’s commanders as young officers both in Mexico and from Winfield Scott’s 3-volume treatise, “Infantry Tactics,” which was the standard text of the time. Unfortunately, the advent of the rifle would change everything. The U.S. Army standard 1861 Springfield rifle was accurate to 300 yards as opposed to the musket range of less than 100 yard. Scott’s book was replaced by Major William Hardee’s “Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics” in 1855. Hardee’s book borrowed from the French and intended to take the increased accuracy and range of the rifle into account. The French solution to the introduction of this new technology was simply speed of movement. The French had begun developing a tactical countermeasure in the form of a new style of infantry--battalions of athletes capable of sustained movement at a jog. They were called the Chasseurs and the first units were deployed in the late 1830's. As Colonel Le Louterel put it in1848, "The new infantry ... would move so fast that they would be exposed to relatively few of the enemy's shots, and would demoralize him by their onset to the extent that his aim would be spoiled."

However, the French Chasseur concept was abandoned in France, just as their tactics were adopted in the U.S. Army. The French had learned that men could not outrun bullets, no matter how fast they jogged. At the start of the war, most Union regiments used some combination of both Scott and Hardee's, accepting Hardee's rules for the exercise and maneuvers of light infantry, but integrating elements of Scott's that were more practical for use with longer rifles.

Thus, when the war began, the tactics of the attacker were those of an earlier technological era being used against a defender with a more lethal and advanced weapon. In fact, historians Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson estimate that the rifle gave the Civil War defender three times the strength of the attacker. The rifle allowed attacking troops to be engaged at longer ranges and for longer periods as they made an assault. Further, artillery could no longer move forward to support the infantry lest their gunners be cut down by the defender’s rifle fire. Cavalry, too, could not make saber charges against the kind of fire that modern rifles could produce. Amazingly, despite this, there would be very little innovation or change and, thus, all commanders on both sides were practitioners of outmoded tactics.

Frontal infantry assaults were still occurring in the closing days of the war. Worse, as the war went on, both sides began to make more and more use of field fortifications, which made infantry assaults even more costly. This use of fortifications came primarily from commanders’ West Point training as engineers and the instruction they received there from Dennis Hart Mahan, who, as the instructor in military arts and sciences, emphasized their use. Mahan believed that fortifications allowed volunteer soldiers to equal regulars. However, it also may have been a sign of war weariness, as well. In his book, “Battle Tactics of the Civil War,” Paddy Griffith accounts for the increasing use of fortifications as the war went on as a sign of battle-weary troops. He believes that the psychological power of entrenchments was appealing to men who had been pushed too far.

Interestingly, Griffith dismisses the advent of the rifle as having had any impact on the length of the war or the casualties. Griffith maintains that the rifle’s effects are merely popular folklore. He believes, rather, it was the human factor that caused the casualties, the lack of decisive battles, and the length of the war. His explanation is that officers were inexperienced and poorly trained, leading volunteer troops who could not properly execute the tactics of the time. While I do not entirely agree with Griffith, there may be a kernel of truth to this argument. Certainly it can be said that few generals were ever able to take advantage of an offensive breakthrough, primarily because the reserve forces were not up to the complicated task of moving through the lead elements to reach the point of attack. Typically, if the slow communications even allowed a commander to hear about a breakthrough in time to take advantage of it, the follow-up attack would lose all cohesion as the reserves collided with the lead element. This clearly was caused by a lack of training and experience.

But, at the same time, Griffith’s conclusions on the effect of the rifle do not bear up under close scrutiny. He bases his ideas on what he calls “statistics,” which are drawn from anecdotal evidence and often do not present any kind of a reasonable scientific sampling. As a result, his conclusions seem painfully stretched. From all the other evidence, a convincing case can be made that the rifle clearly did cause the carnage of the war when applied against inappropriate tactics.

Emory Upton There were a few attempts to modify and experiment with infantry tactics, most of them in the Federal forces with the work of Emory Upton. Upton despised the frontal assaults being made and was able to successfully use less structured formations of troops moving rapidly in the attack against a small, vulnerable point in the line. Rather than attacking in the line formation, Upton experimented with attacks from the column formation. In this tactic, men in a column are swept along, with little opportunity to deviate or take cover. Hardee's tactics were based in large part on the idea of troops moving from place to place in column formation, but deploying into line for battle. A line formation in the assault delivers more firepower since everyone in both of its ranks can shoot. The column, however, has more penetrating power since it overwhelms defenders with superior numbers at the point of impact. Its drawback is that only the first rank or two can shoot, even though all are vulnerable to being shot. The heaviest Union column assault of the war seems to have been that led by Upton at Spotsylvania.  Upton's Assault at SpotsylvaniaThere, Upton employed 20,000 Union infantrymen in close order formed a solid rectangle. However, casualties were still very high. Eventually, Upton’s work employed even less formal formations and, while successful, they would not enter Army doctrine until after the war.

Union Cavalry Fighting Dismounted Cavalry tactics did, however, see some changes. The advent of the breech-loading, multiple round carbine in the Union army gave the cavalry increased firepower. Phil Sheridan was able to take that firepower and transform his cavalry into a highly mobile force that could move quickly and fight dismounted to some combat power. This, in turn, permitted the cavalry to be used as a flanking or blocking force, which Sheridan employed with great success in the Shenandoah Valley and, again, in the final pursuit to Appomattox. This tactical concept is still the basis for fast moving armored cavalry units.

Dead Soldier at Spotsylvania Thus, while the Civil War would serve as the genesis for new strategic concepts, tactical innovation languished. The sad part of that situation is that it cost so many lives. Thousands of volunteer soldiers were simply thrust forward to face hailstorms of rifle and artillery fire using the tactics of another era. The result was unimaginable carnage and casualty lists no one thought possible.

Monday, May 25, 2009

How the War and the West was Won

Federal battery at Shiloh Ask someone with a professed interest in the Civil War to characterize the conflict and you will often get the following summary: The South had better generals, won most of the battles, but lost the war when overwhelmed by Northern resources. As with any stereotypical view, this one contains elements of truth, but those bits of truth it contains are all thing that characterize the war in the East. There was another theater of war, however, and it was completely different from the war in the East. More importantly, it was here that the course of the war was truly determined. Yet, most Americans are either unaware of it or see it as a mere sideshow of the war. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While the Civil War has long been seen as a conflict primarily fought and won in the small Eastern Theater of the war, specifically in the region encompassing Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, it can be argued that the war was truly determined in the West, in the vast theater between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Here, Union and Confederate armies maneuvered over great distances and fought some of the most important battles and campaigns of the war. The Western Theater would also see a great deal of strategic innovation and it would produce some of Union’s finest commanders, those that would eventually bring victory to the Union cause. The South’s armies, meanwhile, would fight here with far fewer resources and, with a few exceptions, far less capable leadership than the Army of Northern Virginia. As a result, unlike that famous eastern army, the Confederate armies in the West would seldom see victory.

image To understand the war in the West and why it was so different than that in the East, you must first understand the unique nature of the Western Theater in terms of geography and politics. Geographically, the theater can be characterized by its vastness, by the great distance armies would have to traverse in their operations. Unlike the Eastern Theater, which could be contained within an extremely small area bounded by the Shenandoah Valley, the Potomac River, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Rappahannock River, the Western Theater encompassed everything south of the Ohio River between the Appalachian Mountain and the Mississippi River. In realizing how difficult it would be for the North to take this region and for the South to defend the same area, one must realize that it took Napoleon eight years of campaigning to conquer an area of similar size in Europe.

Unlike the East, where rivers generally flow west to east and acted as boundaries and barriers to strategic movement, in the West the critical waterways flowed north to south and, thus, became the invasion routes by which Federal armies moved. Therefore, their control became critical factors of the opposing sides’ strategies. In addition, because the theater was so vast, the railroads and transportation networks, in general, influenced the conduct and progress of the war. Unlike the Army of the Potomac, Northern forces in the West operated far from their Eastern industrial base and, as a result, logistics and the movement of men and supplies became vital parts of Union planning and strategy. In turn, those factors would influence Southern defensive efforts and make raiding lines of communication a vital component of Southern strategic thinking.

Here in the West, geography would influence the conduct of the war simply because the fighting here was so far from either side’s political centers in Washington and Richmond. This would tend to make the Southern effort a poor stepchild to the fighting in the East. Despite the fact that Jefferson Davis was from Mississippi, Southern forces would never receive the resources they required or the leadership they needed to counter the North’s armies. In terms of resources, while the centralized logistics organization in Richmond was responsible for supplying the western Confederate armies, special privileges were accorded the Army of Northern Virginia. For instance, while Confederate government purchasing agents combed the countryside buying up food and raw material to supply armies in both theaters, the Army of Northern Virginia was permitted to have its own purchasing agents, who bought from the same sources using the same funds as the government purchasing agents. Further, while food and other provisions bought in the East were generally earmarked for Lee’s army, these same supplies when found west of the Appalachians were fair game. It was, apparently, not uncommon for the government’s agents to be searching for provisions in a western state of the Confederacy and find themselves unable to procure any because the Army of Northern Virginia’s agents had bought everything up and shipped it east. Northern forces, however, would always receive more than adequate priority for supply and the excellent management of the Union’s rail system by the War Department ensured a steady flow of materiel.

Gen. William Sherman Gen. Ulysses Grant

As for leadership, Union commanders prospered in the West, acting well outside the limelight of the Eastern press and away from the prying eyes of Washington. Plus, Lincoln possessed a better understanding than Davis of the importance of the West, and gave successful commanders, such as Grant and Sherman, significant political support. At the same time, after the death of Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh, Southern commanders were nothing but inept. Gen. Joseph Johnston Joe Johnston, while seemingly possessing the right qualifications for command, never could understand exactly how to lead forces spread across such a large region. As a result, he never took the initiative and was constantly seeking direction from Richmond. Braxton Bragg, meanwhile, was a disaster as a commander, and he and his generals constantly quarreled. Worse, when Bragg’s generals plotted against him and communicated directly with President Davis to obtain Bragg’s removal, Davis did little to quell the uprising and his inaction simply made things worse. As a result, there was never any command cohesion, a vital ingredient that no army can afford to be without.

Gen. Braxton Bragg Now armed with a brief baseline of geography, resources, and leadership, let’s examine the chronology of the war in the West with its key events and trends. First, 1861 was as a time of relative quiet in this theater, where both sides maneuvered politically in the border states, took up their positions, and built their fledgling armies. During this period, the commanders on the Northern side were a primarily a collection of politically appointed men with varying degrees of military experience. The South would see some of same phenomenon and neither side would undertake any truly major military operations.

Confederate guns at Fort Donelson However, as 1862 began, changes had taken place and movement had begun. During this year, the entire pattern for the war in the theater would be established. New federal commanders were in place, men like Halleck, Buell, Rosecrans, and an obscure Illinois general named Grant. The year began with a pair of major Union victories led by the latter at Forts Henry and Donelson. These twin victories not only provided the Northern people a much needed hero, they provided the North a psychological edge in the West which it virtually never surrendered. Unlike the East, the first major victory here went to the North and the effect of that cannot be underestimated. Here, there was no aura of Southern invincibility and no sense of Northern despair. Plus, this brief campaign, with its novel joint Army-Navy operations, began a process of innovation in strategy that would eventually determine the war’s outcome. The victories at Henry and Donelson resulted in the capture of Nashville, the withdrawal of Confederate forces from Tennessee, and effective Northern control of that critical state.

Shiloh-The Hornet's Nest Next, Grant would move forward to his campaign southward to Shiloh, where a violent and critical April battle made a great impact on the course of the war. From it, Grant learned not to underestimate his opponent and that the South must be defeated by force of arms if the Union was to be restored, while the South would lose its most able commander in the West, Albert Sidney Johnston. Perhaps more importantly, however, more men would die on a single field of battle than had been lost in all of America’s wars up to that time. Thus, the American people would see for the first time the potential price of the war in human loss and suffering.

Of course, Grant took a beating in the press for Shiloh even though he had turned a near disaster into a signal victory. The press and some politicians could only see the “near disaster” part of the equation. As a result, Grant would briefly be relegated to an administrative position, so to speak, and, with Henry Halleck in charge, Union forces failed to exploit the victory at Shiloh, making a slow, painful advance to Corinth. But soon enough, Halleck would move east and progress would be made. Union forces seized New Orleans, and that was followed by the preliminary moves of the Vicksburg campaign and the great Union effort to secure control of the Mississippi. Finally, 1862 ended with the South’s offensive in Kentucky to Perryville, and the bloody New Year’s standoff at Stone’s River, both of which serve as examples of how their ineffective command leadership and internal command politics could turn potential victory into ultimate defeat.

The next year, 1863, was a monumental one in the West and in course of the war. During 1863, Grant rose as a commander and his historic partnership with Sherman took shape. In addition, the career of Rosecrans reached its zenith before disappearing forever, while the considerable command talents of George Thomas emerged. On the Southern command front, Joe Johnston’s painful efforts to command an entire theater, the meager efforts of Pemberton to counter Grant in Mississippi, and the snake pit that was the command staff in Bragg’s Army of Tennessee all acted to doom any chance of Southern success. All these were critical factors in the eventual campaigns of this important year.

Victory at Vicksburg Any examination of 1863 in the West must revolve around Grant’s brilliant campaign against Vicksburg. Grant’s innovative use of naval forces and the spirit of partnership he and Sherman created in working with Admiral Porter led to the successful running of the gauntlet created by Vicksburg’s guns on the Mississippi, which, in turn, allowed Grant to gain a foothold on the high, dry ground south of the city. Grant maneuvered his forces quickly to cut off Vicksburg’s garrison and block Confederate relief forces, baffling both Pemberton and Johnston in the process. Once the city’s garrison was bottled up inside their defenses surrounding Vicksburg, it was all a matter of time—time ran out on July 4, with the surrender of the city and its 30,000 defenders. Then, the weight of the campaigning moved back to Tennessee, where, after considerable pressure from Lincoln, Rosecrans finally moved to take Chattanooga and its vital position astride the South’s east-west rail lines. However, “Old Rosy,” as his soldiers called him affectionately, was sent reeling back to that city after his stunning defeat by Bragg at Chickamauga, the Confederacy’s only major victory in the West. Southern Victory at Chickamauga Unfortunately for the South, Bragg did not effectively follow-up on that victory by engaging and destroying Rosecrans’ army. Rather, he elected to lay siege to Rosecrans and Chattanooga, surrendering the precious and vital initiative Chickamauga provided. This action also allowed the bickering and back-stabbing by his generals to reach new heights, creating a toxic political environment around Bragg that adversely impacted his decision-making and opened the door for an eventual Union breakout from Chattanooga.

That breakout was engineered by Grant, who was appointed to overall command in the West. Grant went immediately to Chattanooga, took action to resupply the garrison, invigorated Union forces with confidence, and executed a campaign that freed it from the Confederate siege. Bragg and his army were sent reeling south into Georgia and, as 1863 came to a close, the South was truly split in two, the door to the Deep South was open, and the road to the vital city of Atlanta lay ahead. With that, the foundation for the eventual Union victory had been laid.

Gen. John Bell Hood In the early spring of 1864, Grant departed the theater to assume command of the U.S. Army and undertake the overall direction of the Union’s war efforts. But, the importance of the West in the war did not diminish. As a part of Grant’s strategy to simultaneously engage the Confederate armies across all fronts, Sherman moved against Atlanta, Joe Johnston, and the Army of Tennessee. While Johnston effectively fought a war of delay against Sherman’s campaign of maneuver, his strategy to trade ground for time angered Jefferson Davis. Johnston was dismissed and replaced by the aggressive John Bell Hood. Rather than meet Sherman’s maneuvering with defensive stands, Hood took the offensive attacked Sherman’s army. In the end, Hood’s approach did not forestall Sherman’s capture of Atlanta any longer than Johnston might have. However, in the process, unlike Johnston, Hood bled the Army of Tennessee, losing men and resources which could not be replaced.

With Atlanta in Union hands, Lincoln’s reelection was almost assured and Sherman was poised for his great raid to the Atlantic. Rather than trying to stop him directly from his march to Savannah, Hood elected to move against Sherman’s rear with an ill-fated invasion of Tennessee. By threatening Sherman’s lines of communication, Hood hoped to stop Sherman from moving deeper into the South. However, like Grant in Mississippi, Sherman was not concerned about his rear, as his army marched to Savannah by living off the land. Meanwhile, Union forces under George Thomas proved more than sufficient to first bloody Hood at the Battle of Franklin, and Battle of Franklin then nearly destroy the Army of Tennessee outside Nashville. With that, Hood and what was left of his army retreated and faded away, no longer an effective fighting force. Joe Johnston once again took command of that army and, as Sherman devastated South Carolina and steadily moved north to join with Grant, he tried desperately to link up with Lee’s army for a final climatic battle that was not to be. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and Johnston did the same shortly thereafter, capitulating to Sherman in North Carolina.

The war in the West was truly a watershed and one of an entirely different character than that fought in the East. Here, maneuver, rapid movement over great distance, joint operations, strategic raiding, and “hard war” were the hallmarks, as opposed to the set-piece battles and stalemate that characterized the East. In the West, Southern armies were repeatedly battered and defeated on almost every occasion, while the North moved steadily deeper and deeper into the Confederacy. So, while Lee held the line in Virginia, the rest of the Confederacy was lost. As a result, the outcome of the war was truly determined far from the fields of Virginia.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Vision Place of Souls

Confederate Guns on Seminary Ridge I am writing this essay on Memorial Day weekend and, given the special significance of that date, I wanted to write a little bit about Civil War battlefields. If you have ever visited a Civil War battlefield, you may have noticed that visitors come in all sizes and shapes, and their visits are fueled by a host of varying motivations. You will see families on vacation, and observe parents desperately trying to interpret the map they picked up at the visitor’s center, while their children burn off all the energy they have been forced to hold inside on what seems to them like an endless ride in the car. The children joyfully laugh and shout, climbing all over the cannons and memorial statues, blissfully ignorant of the significance of the place they are visiting. You will also see the tour groups, often made up of senior citizens or foreign tourists. These visitors may have some understanding of the battle that took place here, but they are far from experts. They listen to their tour guide politely and conduct themselves properly; respecting the ground they walk upon, but not really connecting to it in any meaningful way. Then, there are the visitors with a deeper, more tangible interest. They are historians, amateur and professional, or those often referred to as Civil War “buffs.” No matter which, for them, these battlefields are very special places, and I count myself among this group.

Parrot Gun at Devil's Den We visit battlefields for of a variety reasons, but, often as not, we go there to study and to learn. We want to see the places we have read about and visualized in our mind’s eye, adding a tangible reality to the events we have studied. There is also the need to actually see hills, creeks, and woods we have only seen on a map up to that moment. And there is the desire to stand in the same place a corps or regiment commander once stood, see what he saw, and, in doing so, attempt to gain a better understanding of the decisions he made. We also seek to understand the flow of events and how this physical place affected them. Sometimes, these visits become very clinical, as in the case of a classic tactical study, such as the Army War College’s Staff Rides. I have seen visitors pouring over books, commenting on which regiment was where, how they advanced, and what impact their movements had, critiquing the events of some 145 years ago. However, while these things are all very useful and productive products of a battlefield visit, there is so more to be gained from a battlefield.

Shiloh-The Hornet's Nest Beyond these very academic and almost sterile experiences, there is also a deeply emotional and almost spiritual experience to be had, a connection to be made, if you can find it and allow yourself to feel it. That connection will tell you a story in a way that no book ever can, and allow you to see things and feel them in a way that will forever change how you study the events of this national tragedy. I think the first thing one should connect to is the place, what it was and what it became. These places really are not merely a geographic location where a battle occurred on certain date. Once, they may have simply been a small town, surrounded by farms and fields, quiet, serene, and pastoral places where people worked the soil, raised their families, and experienced the joys and sorrows that comprise a lifetime. Then, one day, thousands of uninvited guests arrived in the form of competing armies, and these armies were made up of men who longed to be anywhere else but here. However, fate had brought them to this place and, here; they would create a true hell on earth. When the armies left, the fields and the town would never be the same again.

Shiloh-The Bloody Pond Oh, they might be quiet even now, probably still seeming serene and pastoral to the eye. But the heart knows them to be something entirely different. These empty fields, still ponds, and lazily meandering country roads now have names. They are called The Corn Field, The Wheatfield, The North Woods, and The Peach Orchard, as though there are no others. The pond is now known as the Bloody Pond and a once nameless country road is called The Bloody Lane for reasons to cruel and horrible to contemplate. And for those reasons, these now peaceful places contain a great and, yet, undefined power, one that will also allow you to connect with those that were here, those that forever changed these places.

Gettysburg-Confederate Gun silently aimed at Cemetary Ridge The first time I experienced this connection was in 1994 on my initial visit to Gettysburg. The trip was the fulfillment of a childhood dream and I was determined to make the most of it. Armed with a guidebook, I drove throughout the battlefield and walked many miles, trying to see everything that I could. As late afternoon approached, I found myself wandering the ground where Pickett’s men had assembled before they made that last desperate charge. As I slowly made my way through the trees below Seminary Ridge, I thought of the thousands of men and boys who crouched here, listening to the artillery barrage, and anxiously looked across all that open ground between themselves and Cemetery Ridge where the Union II Corps awaited them. I found myself asking out loud, “What were you thinking?” And, at that moment, I almost felt like someone was trying to tell me. It was not an audible answer, not even a whisper. At the same time, however, it was something very real and visceral. It was as though the ground I stood on and the air around me was filled with a strong, yet undefined presence.

Now, I am not easily given to such feelings. I am not a believer in either the paranormal or ghostly apparitions, and that is not what I am describing. This was more emotional and very real yet, still, very ethereal. It was suddenly as though I had been given a wonderful gift, a feeling that was very much my own but, at the same time, came from many others, from those who had been here, who had been a part of that moment. As I continued my journey around Gettysburg, these sensations grew stronger, perhaps because I was now so very aware of them. I decided to just go with them, to see what they told me. I am forever grateful that I did so, because they have followed me to every battlefield I have visited since that day.

Antietam-The Bloody Lane What this emotional connection, this presence, has told me is a different story for every field, every place. However, in every case, it has been the story of the average soldier, what they saw, what they felt, while experiencing something too awful for most of us to truly comprehend. The intensity of that connection is almost too strong to describe in words. It is something that fills one up, overwhelms you, but also provides great clarity. The resulting sense I am left with has been the same no matter what battlefield I am walking upon: great pride balanced by equally profound sorrow, and a sense of incredible tragedy that is combined with humble gratitude.

Exactly what this presence is and what to call it is a difficult matter. When walking a battlefield, I have seen others who feel it. They are the ones who, like me, always speak to one another in hushed tones as they wander the field, behaving as though they are in a church, in a place of sacred memories. And, perhaps they are, for these fields carry the memories of those who fought here, both those who would return home and the many thousands who did not. Lincoln said at Gettysburg that we could not dedicate, consecrate, or hallow that ground because those who fought there had already done so far beyond our mere mortal abilities. Perhaps that is what I feel when I walk a battlefield.

Statue of Gen. Warren at Little Round Top However, there was someone else who attempted to define this power, this presence: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the venerable Maine college professor turned soldier and the great hero of Little Round Top. After the war, like many veterans, Chamberlain sought to find some reason, some purpose to the horrors he had witnessed. A gifted writer and eloquent speaker, Chamberlain would ably put into words what so many who had served felt so very deeply. As a result, he and a few others, like Oliver Wendell Holmes, would become spokesmen for a generation of Americans. But, in 1889, when Chamberlain spoke at the dedication of his unit’s memorial at Gettysburg, he would provide something perhaps even greater by describing what he believed would be the source of the emotions I have felt ever since I first visited Gettysburg 15 years ago. More than that, he also was defining the true legacy of every Civil War battlefield and doing so far better than I ever could.

"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

If you are a Civil War historian like me, one of the thousands of Civil War buffs, or just an interested battlefield visitor, I would urge you to listen to Chamberlain, and seek what he described. If you do, it will take you on a fascinating journey and, most importantly, a journey that honors those whose presence you feel and whose vision you now embrace.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

In Search of a Southern Manifest Destiny: Sibley's Brigade - The Confederate Army of New Mexico

Many of you have probably never heard about the episode of the Civil War I will describe here, and it has been one that has long held a special fascination for me. It took place in what was called the “Trans-Mississippi” theater of the war, which was the term applied to anything west of the Mississippi River. During the first year of the Civil War, as large opposing armies struggled in the initial battles and campaigns east of the Mississippi, this smaller drama was being played out in the American West along the Rio Grande River. There, a brigade composed mostly of Texan volunteers, under the command of an enigmatic former U.S. Army officer, would undertake a campaign into the desolate New Mexico Territory in an attempt to expand the Confederacy westward, all the way to California. However, what would seem at the outset to be a glorious and even imperialistic quest, a sort of Southern “manifest destiny,” would turn into a mismanaged military failure with a retreat that would rank among the most agonizing in American military history.

The brigade was known as Sibley’s Brigade, named for its commander, General Henry Hopkins Sibley, and, later, as the Army of New Mexico. It would number a mere 3,000 men, most of whom came from eastern Texas counties with strong secessionist sentiments. They would enlist to fight for their state and the Confederate cause with idealism and even a sense of impending adventure. Just like many other volunteers on both sides of the conflict, they would eventually learn how hard war can be. Further, as with many young soldiers in all wars, they would experience the frustrations and discomfort that came with life in an army camp, the loneliness that comes from being far from home and loved ones, and they would see firsthand the inhumanity, terror, and horrible loss that comes with war. However, the extreme hardships they would endure in New Mexico would lead many of the soldiers in this army to question the campaign’s objectives as well as the competence and even the humanity of their commander.

While the official objectives for the Confederate campaign into New Mexico are somewhat uncertain, it can be stated with confidence that the campaign’s genesis resulted from the efforts of one man, Henry Hopkins Sibley. Further, no examination of the Confederate Army of New Mexico would be complete without some discussion of Sibley himself.

Gen. Henry Sibley Henry Sibley was a career Army officer from Louisiana who served in the Florida campaigns against the Seminoles, fought in Mexico, and then spent the balance of his Army career in the West. In fact, his last assignment prior to his joining the Confederate cause was as a Captain in New Mexico. Sibley has been described as the “most curious of soldiers.” He was a terribly complex man, seen as intelligent but vain, good natured and kind, demanding and uncompromising, condescending but obstinate, a schemer and dreamer but, at times, convincing and professional. He was not a dedicated secessionist as much as he was an opportunist, and it is likely that he saw service to the Confederacy as a means to achieve the career successes he was denied in the U.S. Army.

While Sibley gained some small success in the Army through his development of equipment such as the Sibley Tent and Sibley Portable Stove, his Army career was punctuated by a series of incidents all related to his reputation as a heavy drinker. Sibley’s drinking, which may have been caused by attempts to relieve pain resulting from renal colic, led to numerous official reprimands, a near court martial in Mexico, and actual courts martial while serving in both Utah and Louisiana. Sibley also has been described as an officer who was “loved by those who knew him best, but often hated by those he led in battle.” Again, this may have been related to his drinking, which seemed to plague him worst in times of crisis and led some serving under him to believe him heartless and even a coward.

Upon leaving Federal service, Sibley traveled directly to Richmond, where he sought and received an audience with President Jefferson Davis. Unfortunately, there is no official written record of his conversation with President Davis and any detailed instructions Sibley received were, apparently, verbal. Shortly after the meeting, Sibley was commissioned a brigadier general and on July 8, 1861, he received official orders, which stated:

SIR: In view of your recent service in New Mexico and knowledge of that country and the people, the President has intrusted [sic] you with the important duty of driving the Federal troops from that department, at the same time securing all the arms, supplies, and materials of war. You are authorized to take into the Confederate States service all disaffected officers and soldiers on the original commissions of the former and enlistments of the latter.

Additionally, the orders directed Sibley to proceed to Texas and raise two regiments of cavalry and a battery of artillery. Once in New Mexico, the orders stated that he was to create a military government, the details of which he was to forward to Richmond as soon as possible. Beyond that, Sibley was given broad latitude and was directed to “be guided by circumstances and your own good judgment.” Therefore, as far as can be seen, Sibley was told to do no more than seize the Territory of New Mexico and create a Confederate military administration to govern it.

However, Sibley would tell a different story. Months later, in a conversation described after the war by Major Trevanion T. Teel, Sibley painted a grandiose picture of an imperialistic campaign aimed at a total conquest of the American West. The general told Teel that he informed President Davis of conditions in New Mexico, which, in Sibley’s mind, apparently included a general population ready to support the Confederate cause, Federal army units filled with potential defectors, and Army storehouses brimming with supplies to sustain Sibley’s invading army. According to Sibley, Davis then authorized him to form three regiments, arm them with what was available in Texas, and, later, sustain them with whatever could be captured from Federal forces in New Mexico.

Sibley went on to say that he was directed to recruit additional men from the supposedly pro-secessionist population in New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Colorado to form a larger army. From that point, Sibley stated the campaign would move forward to its greater goals: “The objective aim and design of the campaign was the conquest of California, and as soon as the Confederate army should occupy the Territory of New Mexico, an army of advance would be organized and ‘On to San Francisco’ would be the watchword; California had to be conquered so that there would be an outlet for slavery.”

Whether Sibley actually received these instructions from Davis or whether they are an example of his nature as an imaginative schemer cannot be stated with absolute certainty. However, it would seem he should have known better given his previous service in New Mexico. First, while the Hispanic population of New Mexico was, in general, apathetic about the war, they hated and feared the Texans. Therefore, they were unlikely to support a Confederate force originating from that state. In fact, while he was in San Antonio forming the brigade, Sibley received correspondence from Colonel John Baylor confirming that very situation. Baylor, who seized Fort Bliss in El Paso and then Fort Fillmore near Mesilla with his 300-man force in July 1861, sent Sibley a series of dispatches in September and October describing the situation. In one of those letters, he told the general, “The Mexican population are decidedly Northern in sentiment, and will avail themselves of the first opportunity to rob us or join the enemy.”

Further, Sibley’s belief that Union forces still contained potential defectors who would join the Confederate cause and hand over their supplies was, at best, an erroneous concept based on dated information and, at worst, a totally reckless assumption. Finally, the idea of almost total reliance on captured Federal supplies was especially risky since Sibley must have realized how difficult it would be for his forces to live off the land in the harsh terrain of New Mexico should those supplies not be there for the taking.

As ordered, Sibley proceeded to San Antonio in early August 1861 and set about organizing his brigade. Upon his arrival, he discovered that the local press not only was trumpeting his impending arrival from Richmond, it was also publicizing his goal of organizing a brigade, calling upon volunteer companies to come to San Antonio “armed and fully equipped for a Winter campaign.” Despite this, the task of garnering the required manpower turned out to be far from easy. Sibley found his efforts frustrated by an inefficient state military organization and competition with the need for units east of the Mississippi. Sibley finally gave up relying on the state’s military system, and “resorted direct to the people themselves.” The result was additional publicity that finally began to achieve the desired results. Theophilius Noel, who would serve as a private in Company A of the 4th Texas Regiment of Mounted Volunteers, recalled hearing of Sibley’s recruiting campaign, saying that, “Through the medium of our patriotic press, the public was quickly acquainted with his designs and intentions as well as his authority and his wants.” As a result, between late August and October 1861, Sibley managed to put together three regiments in San Antonio, the 4th, 5th, and 7th Texas Regiments of Mounted Volunteers, totaling some 2,700 men.

Not surprisingly, these regiments, as well as those in Baylor’s force, reflected the strong secessionist sentiments found in Texas at that time. Forty-four of the companies that served under his command consisted of men from 32 Texas counties, with three of Baylor’s companies having been recruited in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley. Of those 44 Texan companies, all but four came from counties that voted in favor of secession in the statewide referendum held on February 23, 1861. Further, 21 companies, almost half of those from Texas, contained men recruited from fifteen counties where the vote for secession was a staggering 90 percent or more. Further, an additional four companies came from counties where the vote to secede exceeded 80 percent.

In terms of the dominant culture or origin of the local population, this strong secessionist sentiment is again evident. Twenty-six companies were recruited in counties where the dominant culture was from the lower southern states, where secessionist sentiments were strongest in the United States. Interestingly, only three companies came from counties with a dominant culture from the upper south, where there was generally less support for secession, and two of the counties represented by those three companies actually voted against secession.

The men who led their companies came from a variety of occupations, but several were more prevalent than others. For instance, of the 48 men who served in these command positions, 19 were farmers and 15 were lawyers. But, there were also four sheriffs, three physicians, and three clerks. The remainder consisted of a merchant, a minister, a blacksmith, and one professional soldier. But perhaps most interesting is the fact that 21 of these commanders were Freemasons and members of the Masonic Order.

As evidenced by those who recorded their life in the army, the experiences and attitudes displayed by men of the Army of New Mexico were similar in many ways to Civil War soldiers on both sides. First, they were proud of themselves and their comrades as they reported for service, with Theophilius Noel referring to the men of this mostly Texan army as “the best that ever threw leg over a horse or that had ever sworn allegiance to any cause.” He also remembered that there was also a sense of adventure in volunteering to join with Sibley, saying that the “Sibley’s Brigade California Deal” was considered a choice assignment by most military age gentleman of the region.

These young men also displayed intense, almost romantic idealism for the cause they were volunteering to defend. As he left for San Antonio to be mustered into service, William R. Howell, a young private in Company C of the 5th Texas, wrote in his journal that while a soldier goes to battle knowing he may “die on the battlefield unhonored [sic] and perhaps mangled and crippled,” a Confederate soldier was different. Howell wrote on that “the Confederate soldier goes to battle with the belief that our cause is just and right and that if he lives or dies the God of battles will not suffer him to pass unnoticed or unattended in his dying moments.”

As the companies arrived in San Antonio, all of them went through the same enlistment and mustering process. The men would be formed on the Main Plaza in front of Plaza House and then sworn into the service of the Confederacy, the officers going first, followed by the enlisted men. As each soldier was mustered in, his horse and equipment were appraised. These values were officially recorded on the company muster-in roll and became a part of his official military service record. For instance, one soldier from Columbus, Texas, John Henry David, was mustered-in to Company A of the 5th Texas on August 29 for a period of “the war.” His muster-in roll indicates that his horse was appraised at a very valuable $150, while his other equipment, which probably included his personal weapons, was listed as being worth only $20. Howell wrote tongue-in-cheek that, “We have this day ‘sold ourselves for a mess of pottage’ and consequently receive our forage and provisions from our gov’t [sic], the Confederate States of America, long may they flourish.”

Then, as the companies were moved to their respective training camps outside of San Antonio along Salado Creek, these young soldiers entered a world that any other Civil War soldier would have recognized. Noel later referred to himself and his fellow novice soldiers as “Saplings” that “by reason of their zeal were easily ‘bended’.” Young Private Noel also expressed the complaints typical of any soldier living in an army camp for the first time. He noted the constant bugle calls as an irritant but, more so, he criticized the food. He wrote that, while full rations were always available, “we nevertheless had some grumbling on the quality of the beef as well as the quantity of Coffee, all of which we got most gloriously over in the course of time.”

As they entered training, these Texans were also full of swagger and confidence. On his very first day in camp, Howell would boast in a letter to his family that he was “ready to meet Mr. Lincoln and any of his vandals.” But, at the same time, Private Howell would also write of experiences in camp that indicated his regiment was not quite ready for war. Early in his stay at the encampment near San Antonio, Howell recorded a tragically humorous incident in which a soldier standing guard fell asleep, a common enough occurrence in any Civil War training camp. Unfortunately, in this case, the soldier fell asleep while holding a loaded rifle which discharged upon dropping from his hand, with the round traveling through a series of tents until it hit one soldier in the arm and then went on to wound another in the hip.

Theophilius Noel would also humorously recall the practice of standing a rigorous guard routine while only encamped for training, safely away from any enemy, and, in the process, recorded his disdain for those commissioned as officers.

The strictest guard that we ever had around camp was while we were camped on the Salado, a thousand miles or more from a foe. We had a camp guard, a picket guard, and everything was so guarded that one had to be on guard when he spoke, lest he might offend the “rank” which as we have long since learned, means only those who wear “stars and bars.”

As with many units operating in the early days of the war, the men of Sibley’s army were permitted to elect their company officers and noncommissioned officers. However, this process could be far from pristine, as demonstrated in the journal of Alfred B. Peticolas, a young lawyer and fifth sergeant in Company C of the 4th Texas. In this particular company election, Peticolas was nominated for the 3rd Lieutenancy position and was slated to run against two other soldiers for the position. The first ballot did not achieve a majority for anyone, but the third candidate was eliminated. In the resulting runoff election, Peticolas lost by only two votes. However, to his chagrin, he later learned that his opponent bought one of the winning votes by promising a to help a soldier get a better horse if elected.

There were also companies in Sibley’s army that had a far different enlistment experience from those in San Antonio. One of these was the Arizona Guards, which was enlisted from a small mining camp at Pinos Altos, New Mexico. Hank Smith, a 37-year old miner, remembered receiving the news that John Baylor and his command had arrived in Mesilla and that they were recruiting local volunteers. A heated debate ensued in the camp and those miners who were Southern sympathizers packed up for Mesilla. When they arrived there, Smith recalled that they were subjected to a series of patriotic speeches, with one given by Colonel Baylor himself. Apparently the speeches were not very effective, so Baylor tried a different tactic to gain his needed enlistments. That night, the miners were plied with liberal amounts of free liquor and provided with the companionship of some local ladies as an inducement to fight for the Confederacy. This proved to be very effective, as all of the miners enlisted the next day.

While Sibley got his recruits, he still faced the thorny problem of equipping them. Here, he was further frustrated by administrative problems with the state military establishment. Sibley was finally forced to direct the purchase of the materiel he needed on credit, but there was little to purchase. As a result, when the brigade headed west, it had two batteries of four twelve-pound mountain howitzers from the former Federal arsenal in San Antonio, but little in the way of rifles or side arms. Therefore, most of the men left San Antonio armed with what they had brought with them, an odd collection of “squirrel-guns, bear guns, sportman’s-guns, shot-guns, both single and double barrels.” In fact, things were so desperate that Sibley outfitted two companies of the 5th Texas as lancers who were armed with nothing more than nine-foot long poles, hung with crimson pennants and tipped with 12-inch steel blades.

On October 22, 1861, the brigade began its move west, with the 4th Texas leading the way, and on November 18, General Sibley and his staff departed San Antonio. The regiments were carefully spaced, departing several days apart, which would allow the few water holes along the way to recharge between regiments. They would follow a trail that led, first, southwest to San Felipe Springs on the Rio Grande, then west to Fort Stockton, Fort Davis, and, finally, Fort Bliss, a distance of nearly 700 miles. In addition, Sibley decided to march westward with a minimum of supplies. He still believed that there would be plenty to be found in New Mexico and, he was receiving reports from Confederate agents in El Paso that seemed to confirm his views. One of those agents wrote Sibley, “Be easy about your supplies; we shall get all we want from Sonora--what this valley cannot furnish--until such time as you may be in full possession of New Mexico, and can avail of its resources or such part as the hungry Federals may leave for your command.”

Unencumbered by supply wagons, Sibley and his staff moved quickly, passing the regiments on the road, and arrived at Fort Bliss in early December. On December 14, 1861, he issued General Order Number 10 in which he assumed command of all troops in the region, which now included Baylor’s small force, and declared his brigade was hereafter to be known and designated as the “Army of New Mexico.”

As Sibley made his proclamations at Fort Bliss, his small army continued its difficult trek westward. Rations were limited to dried beef and wormy crackers, water was in short supply, and, often, there was not enough wood available in the arid terrain to make a fire on the increasingly cold winter nights. As the march dragged on, one soldier was heard to comment, “When I go to another war, I’m goin’ to it a way I can get to it quicker that I can this ‘ere one.” In addition, there were numerous disciplinary problems, which is not surprising given the short time these young men had been in the army. Several of the journals and memoirs describe courts martial being held while on the march to Fort Bliss, with striking a superior officer being the most common charge. However, the most bizarre incident, involved a senior officer, and indicates that there was a little of the “untamed West” in the character of these Texans.

Col. John Baylor While in Mesilla, Colonel Baylor was accused of cowardice in a newspaper article written by Mr. Kelly, the editor of the Mesilla Times. Baylor wrote a letter to Kelly in which he requested the editor retract the charge and formally apologize in print. Mr. Kelly refused and Colonel Baylor became incensed. Hank Smith witnessed the results of this dispute first-hand. Smith recalled that Baylor was with him in the adjutant’s office when the colonel observed Kelly coming down the street. Baylor asked Smith to hand him a nearby pistol. Then, gun in hand, Baylor approached Kelly as the newspaperman passed the door of the office, and again demanded Kelly retract the charge of cowardice. When Kelly refused, Baylor calmly raised the pistol and shot him as he stood in the office doorway. Baylor subsequently surrendered himself and a court of inquiry was immediately convened, which declared the killing of Mr. Kelly completely justified.

By mid-January 1862, all of Sibley’s forces had arrived at Fort Bliss. Despite the worn condition of his troops and their mounts, Sibley decided to immediately begin his move up the Rio Grande into New Mexico. Perhaps he might have delayed had he been aware that his small army was showing the initial signs of what would eventually become a severe moral problem.

First, some of the men were now experiencing natural longings for home and family, with some even questioning their decision to join the army. One officer, Captain John Shropshire, commander of Company A of the 5th Texas, was already forgetting the excitement of joyously joining the Confederate cause. Shropshire, a wealthy attorney, was a tall, vigorous man who recruited the young men of Capt John Shropshire Colorado County to his company with promises of adventure and glory. On the day the company was formed, he paraded the men throughout the town of Columbus and made certain he went around and around his sister’s house so she could see the grand and glorious spectacle. However, as the army’s journey toward war stretched on and the separation from home and family became longer, his attitude changed. The soldier who proudly paraded his men in August wrote to his wife in December, saying, “From the present prospects, I fear it will be a long time before I see you again. I fear I will be tempted to desert yet, or do something else desperate.” Then, in January, as the 5th Texas moved north into New Mexico, he wrote to her again, saying, “I am no soldier and am longing for a release. My home with my wife and little one are more to me than all the flags and pomp and circumstance of the military.”

Perhaps more severe, however, was a growing disenchantment with the goals of the campaign, particularly the lack of value the men placed on land they were to seize for the Confederacy. As early as late December, before they even reached southern New Mexico, John Shropshire wrote to his wife of his disdain for the desolate land they were traveling through. He referred to the area as “a wilderness where a scarcity of everything essential to comfort prevails.” Shropshire went on to state, “I candidly confess I never would have come this way had I imagined the country was so mean. If I had the Yankees at my disposal, I would give them this country and force them to live in it.”

Private Howell also displayed a deep resentment that questioned fighting to capture a place for which the Texans could see no value. Commenting on the death of a friend, he wrote, “Hard indeed to die and be buried in such a country.” Even years later, Theophilius Noel would ungraciously refer to New Mexico in his memoirs as “that cold and barren land.” The feeling that Howell and Noel expressed was one that seemed to take hold almost as soon as Sibley’s army began to move into New Mexico. Soon, however, the combination of combat and growing physical hardships would increase the men’s disillusionment. Worse, it would eventually spill over into opinions about their officers, and grow into genuine anger over the handling of the campaign, with much of that anger directed towards General Sibley.

Col. Edward Canby While Sibley was busy organizing his forces and making the march to Fort Bliss, the Federal opposition was actively preparing as well. In early November, the Department of New Mexico was re-established and placed under the command of Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, who had been serving as the commander of the U.S. Military Department of New Mexico since June. Canby was a steady but somewhat cautious career soldier who served in Utah and New Mexico with Henry Sibley. In fact, he was the best man at Sibley’s wedding and was married to a cousin of Sibley’s wife. Now, however, he found himself trying to develop a defensive strategy and organize the limited forces he had under his command to counter an impending offensive led by his former comrade-in-arms.

Canby quickly began to recruit and reorganize the local militia to meet the threat from Sibley. Within weeks, he assembled a force that included some 3,800 men from elements of the 1st and 3rd U.S. Cavalry, and 5th, 7th and 10th U.S. Infantry Regiments, plus troops from Colorado and New Mexico volunteer regiments. While he was unsure how Sibley would make his approach, he finally decided that an axis of attack up the Rio Grande was the most likely. Therefore, he elected to place the bulk of his forces at the only remaining Federal outpost along the river, Fort Craig, and set about strengthening the garrison with earthworks. By the time Sibley began to move up the river towards him, Canby’s preparations were complete. Ft Craig

Sibley moved cautiously northward and his forces reached the vicinity of Fort Craig on February 16, 1862. Upon observing Canby’s strong position and fully realizing he did not have the heavy artillery needed to successfully lay siege to the fort, Sibley decided to bait Canby into coming out to fight. His plan was to seize the river ford at Valverde, north of Fort Craig, thus cutting Canby off from his route of supply and reinforcement, forcing him to fight.

Early on the morning of February 21, Sibley began moving his forces northward behind the cover of a large mesa that dominated the terrain east of Fort Craig on the far side of the Rio Grande. By 7:30 a.m., Sibley’s lead elements reached the ford but ran into a considerable force of Federals guarding the river crossing. Canby had wisely sent scouts out to observe Sibley and they detected the Texans moving towards Valverde. Canby realized what Sibley was trying to do and quickly dispatched a force of 850 men with a battery of artillery to the river crossing. As soon as the Texans approached the river, they were engaged by the Federals. Sibley’s men quickly fell back to the cover of a dry riverbed a few hundred yards east of the crossing and the Battle of Valverde began.

Valverde Crossing Today By early afternoon, most of their forces from both sides were in place and a series of bloody charges and counterattacks ensued. However, as fighting increased in intensity, General Sibley became less and less of a factor in commanding the Texans. Reportedly in pain from his chronic illness and under great stress, he began to drink. By 1:00 p.m., he was so intoxicated he could no longer stand up much less stay in the saddle. At that time, he relinquished command to Colonel Tom Green, a much-respected veteran of the Mexican War who was commander of the 5th Texas. While Colonel Green would perform admirably, the rumors of Sibley’s intoxicated state would quickly spread throughout the command and permanently damage his reputation with the men. Col. Tom Green

As the fighting reached its peak in late afternoon, Canby attacked the Confederate left and, in doing so, exposed the center of his own line, which included almost all his artillery. Green exploited this mistake, ordering 750 men from the 4th and 5thTexas to charge the guns on foot. They quickly overran the battery and the New Mexico volunteers defending it panicked, running across the Rio Grande to the rear. Within minutes, the Federal center collapsed. Seeing his line giving way, Canby elected to withdraw to Fort Craig and the battle was over. Sibley, now sober enough to exercise some authority again, did not order any pursuit and elected instead to allow Canby to remain safely inside the fort. While Sibley won the field, he failed to capture Fort Craig and its vital supplies, a mistake that would have a lasting and decisive impact on the campaign’s outcome.

As for Sibley’s men, their first taste of combat at Valverde had a profound impact. Just prior to the battle, some soldiers also displayed increasingly harsh attitudes toward their enemy. Some of the Texans derisively referred to the New Mexico volunteers as “greasers.” Others, using a more curious expression, referred to Union soldiers as “Abs,” a shortened and probably insulting version of “Abolitionist.” This term, which may have been unique to Sibley’s army, can be found in the journals of both Alfred Peticolas and William Howell, as well as in a letter written by Private Elias Boles. However, after the first fight at Valverde, attitudes about the war seemed to change and even their feelings toward the enemy may have softened somewhat.

Private Peticolas’ entries in the days following Valverde are a chronicle of men telling tall tales of their exploits, and then slipping into intense sadness when told of the death of a comrade. In addition, the sight of so many wounded men was deeply effecting to Peticolas, who wrote, “It was a sad sight to see these young men, so lately in all the strength and vigor of manhood, now lying pale and weak around these fires, suffering.” In addition, Howell exhibited a respect and affinity for his enemy the day after Valverde when he wrote, “Judging from the firing at Craig they too are burying many a poor soldier far from his relatives and the home of his youth.”

After pausing a few days, Sibley resumed the march north up the Rio Grande. With the supplies from Fort Craig still in Federal hands, Sibley’s meager provisions were almost exhausted. The commissary had nothing to feed the troops but coarse beef. However, there were reportedly plentiful supplies some 50 miles ahead in the Federal warehouses in Albuquerque. But, when Sibley’s men reached Albuquerque on March 2, they found the Federals had removed all the munitions and burned whatever food and other supplies the local population had not stolen. While the Texans were able to find some supplies in a small Federal warehouse west of Albuquerque, their situation was still desperate.

As the soldiers marched north to Albuquerque, they began to record even more candid feelings regarding the campaign. Four days after Valverde, Private Abe Hanna, an 18-year in Company C of the 4th Texas, wrote, that the severity of the climate combined with the lack of wood, water, or grass, made the march “worse than all the horrors that is witnessed on the battlefield.” Three days later, Alfred Peticolas wrote a telling and bitter passage in his journal that provides evidence of a growing disenchantment:

But to trudge along day after day with nothing to eat save beans, with no teams fit to transport our baggage, and no forage, and then to see our officers, every one of them with great sacks of flour and sides of bacon, living high while the men are really suffering for something to eat—to go from early breakfast till late supper, and feel the weakness and gnawing of hunger—hunger for the staff of life—is a feature of soldiering without any redeeming trait.

Passages such as these became more common in these soldiers’ journals as the campaign went on. To be sure, throughout the journals there is the usual complaining one would expect from troops in the field, such as referring to headquarters personnel as a “gang of pits and nincompoops.” In addition, there are also expressions of admiration for some senior officers. For example, Colonel Tom Green was affectionately referred to as “Daddy” by the men in his regiment, while Peticolas wrote that Colonel Scurry was the “best officer, most polished gentleman, most sociable gentlemen, and the most popular Col. in the outfit.” However, when the men wrote of the officers in a more anonymous sense or in referring to campaign’s conduct, the tone changed. Shortly after Valverde, Private Howell wrote on the occasion of an evening meal on the march that the “officers get some butter this evening, but privates continue to live hard as usual.”

However, the strongest criticism was clearly aimed at General Sibley. As the campaign progressed, the early descriptions of Sibley as “a perfect gentleman” and “a fine drill officer” changed dramatically. There is little doubt the stories of Sibley’s drunken state at Valverde affected the loyalty of the troops and their confidence in him. It seems to have been commonly stated that the general’s “love for liquor exceeded that for home, country, or God.” The soldiers began to view Sibley as a poor soldier and, worse, an inhumane commander.

After a two-week stay in the snow-covered foothills outside Albuquerque, Sibley decided to move ahead towards Santa Fe and, eventually, to the Federal stronghold at Fort Union. Again, when his men reached Santa Fe, they found all the supplies there had been destroyed. Since there was no means of sustenance in the city, Sibley, who remained behind in Albuquerque and was reportedly on another drinking binge, ordered the 5th Texas to move immediately east along the old Santa Fe Trail towards Fort Union. However, unknown to Sibley, as the Texans moved forward, a Union force of just over 1,300 men was coming west from Fort Union along the same trail.

These Federals were from the newly arrived 1st Regiment of Colorado Volunteers, a regiment composed primarily of tough miners known as “Pike’s Peakers.” They marched quickly from Denver to Fort Union when news of the Confederate threat to the region was received. On March 22, they left Fort Union, accompanied by a few hundred Regulars and under the command of the 1st Colorado’s Colonel John Slough, pushing west at a rapid pace in hopes of reaching Santa Fe at night and surprising the Texans.Apache Canyon Today

On the morning of March 26, the advance elements of the 1st Colorado and 5th Texas unexpectedly ran into one another in Apache Canyon, a narrow mountain pass about halfway between Fort Union and Santa Fe. The two sides exchanged fire and the outnumbered Texans fell back. The two sides skirmished for about an hour before Federal cavalry charged the Confederate positions. The Texan line fell apart and they fled down the canyon towards Santa Fe. In a fight that lasted only 90 minutes, Sibley’s men experienced their first defeat.

Immediately following the fight in Apache Canyon, both sides retired to nearby ranches to regroup and await reinforcements. By the morning of March 28, each army had been reinforced, and Colonel Scurry assumed command of the Texans. At approximately 4:00 a.m., Slough ordered 430 Federals to take a mountainous trail to the ridges overlooking the Confederate camp. While these men were moving into position, Slough advanced with another 900 men down the main trail through Glorieta Pass towards the Texans. If Scurry moved out to meet him, Slough planned to attack the Texans from the front and rear, catching them in a deadly pincer.

Map of the Battle of Glorieta Pass Meanwhile, as Slough moved forward, Scurry and his Texans were edging carefully up the trail towards the main Federal column. At about 8:30 a.m., the Confederates encountered the Federal force near an old hostelry known as Pigeon’s Ranch. A series of advances ensued, with each side forcing the other to give ground. At least once, the lines merged and there was vicious hand-to-hand fighting. The battle would go on until dusk and, finally, the exhausted Union force would retreat, leaving the field to the Texans. But, Scurry soon discovered that, while he might hold the ground, he had lost the battle. The Battle of Glorieta Pass

While the main battle was occurring, the other part of Slough’s command completed their march to the ridge overlooking the Texan camp. There, they discovered the Texan’s entire supply train of some 80 wagons, including mules, horses, ammunition, provisions, tents, blankets, and medical supplies. The Federals swept down upon the small detachment guarding the train and set about destroying Scurry’s precious supplies. All the wagons were methodically turned over and then set afire. With the wagons now burning, the Federals next performed the grizzly task of killing all the horses and mules, approximately 500 to 600 animals, by bayoneting them.

When Scurry found out what happened to his supplies, all thoughts of completing his victory with a march towards Fort Union disappeared. Instead, with no supplies and the loss of most of his mounts, Scurry was forced to retreat to Santa Fe. When Sibley heard of the battle’s results, he wrote an urgent message to Richmond in which he reported the loss of Scurry’s supplies, saying, “I must have reinforcements. The future operations of this army will be duly reported. Send me reinforcements.”

Scurry and Green’s forces, who had remained in Santa Fe during the battle at Glorieta Pass, returned to Albuquerque on April 9 only to learn that Canby had departed Fort Craig and was now moving north to join Slough. As a result, Sibley was faced with the prospect of being trapped between two enemy forces whose combined strength was greater than his own. That fact, combined with his lack of ammunition and supplies, led him to order not only retreat, but also an evacuation of New Mexico. Sibley addressed another report to Richmond, stating, “In our straightened circumstances the question now arose in my mind whether to evacuate the country or take the desperate chances of fighting the enemy in his stronghold (Fort Union), for scant rations at the best. The course adopted was deemed the wisest.”

On April 12, Sibley’s now demoralized army began a retreat from Albuquerque to Fort Bliss. Just below Albuquerque, they crossed to the west bank of the Rio Grande and made their way south. With the exception of a brief skirmish with Canby’s forces near the river crossing at Peralta, there would be no more fighting. For his part, the always cautious Canby had no further interest in a fight with the Texans and was content to move north, re-securing Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

The retreat of Sibley’s army to Fort Bliss would be an agonizing one. The sandy roads made moving wagons and artillery almost impossible. Further, there was no forage for the draft animals and, as Sibley stated, “the abandonment of one or the other became inevitable.” As they approached Fort Craig once more, Sibley elected to give Fort Craig a wide berth in order to avoid another engagement. His plan called for a circuitous route through the desolate mountains west of Fort Craig, which turned out to be even more difficult than the arduous march had been thus far. Many of the few remaining draft animals died, forcing Sibley’s men to abandon most of their wagons. The column would eventually stretch out for 10 miles, as men were unable to keep up the pace. The army had only a seven-day supply of meager rations when they began the 100-mile detour, and it would take 10 days to make the march around Fort Craig and reach the Rio Grande River south of the Federal garrison.

The day Sibley decided to leave Fort Craig unmolested in his rear, Private Howell wrote that this seemed odd to him, but he would “leave this subject to older and wiser heads to discuss.” Later, however, as the army staggered back to Fort Bliss, Howell was less circumspect regarding Sibley’s strategy, writing, “Gen’l [sic] Sibley’s idea of cutting off the enemy’s supplies was a bright one indeed. We only had about three days rations and the enemy I expect has at least six months rations in the fort.” Later, Howell would be more direct in his criticism, writing of a cold desert night on the march when it had been some 36 hours since they had any food or blankets. On that occasion, Howell laid the blame at Sibley’s feet, citing what he described as “Another instance of our General’s disregard for welfare and comfort.”

About the same time Howell was writing about Sibley’s lack of skill as a strategist, Alfred Peticolas was even harsher, stating that, “Sibley is heartily despised by every man in the brigade for his want of feeling, poor generalship, and cowardice.” Even Noel, who later felt Sibley was wronged by many, said most of his comrades believed the campaign was conceived in “wicked foolishness” and the leaders, especially Sibley, were “deserving of the highest possible censure and condemnation.”

On April 30, Sibley moved his headquarters back to Fort Bliss, placing the army in camp in the Mesilla Valley. On May 14, he issued a proclamation to be read to the troops, telling them that their evacuation would “be duly chronicled, and form one of the brightest pages in the history of the Second American Revolution.” However, despite his somewhat weak attempt to stir his men with this congratulatory address, Sibley realized that he could not sustain his army any longer. On May 20, he ordered Baylor’s command to begin a return march to San Antonio, and, on May 27, he reported to General Bee, the commander of the Western District of Texas, that he was ordering his entire army to evacuate.

The remainder of Sibley’s force straggled out of Fort Bliss and the Mesilla Valley in small groups over the next three weeks. There would be no formal line of march and it was every man for himself. The trip from Fort Bliss to San Antonio was more tortuous than that around Fort Craig. Unlike the cold they endured in New Mexico, the early summer heat of western Texas was now the enemy. The soldiers soon found that many of the already limited water holes were unusable, having been sabotaged by Indians, most likely the Lipan Apache. One of the water holes, Van Horn’s Wells, was even filled with dirt and animal carcasses. The heat and lack of water took a terrible toll, and, soon, the weary soldiers could be seen strung out for miles. Theophilius Noel later wrote that some men simply fell by the roadside to die, their “tongues so swollen that they could not articulate a word, more crazed than rational, they looked like frantic mad men.” He also reported seeing one man so thirsty, that he shot a steer and cut its throat so he could drink the blood.

Stage passengers traveling from El Paso to San Antonio saw many of Sibley’s men and one recalled that they were in wretched condition, “many of them were sick, many ragged, and all hungry.” As a result, news of the plight of Sibley’s Brigade reached San Antonio and soon spread throughout the state. Within days, the soldiers’ families began to descend upon the city, where they filled wagons with water and provisions, and then headed west down the trail to El Paso, anxiously looking for their loved ones. Some would find them and rescue them, while for many others, this would be where they learned that a son, husband, or brother had been lost in the campaign.

In the weeks from early July until late August, the remnants of Sibley’s once proud Army of New Mexico staggered into San Antonio. Of the approximately 3,300 men who made up the army in October 1861, only about 2,000 returned. Approximately half of the command finally reported in and the rest were never seen again, as men simply went directly to their homes. As each unit arrived, it was furloughed and dismissed for purposes of rest and refitting. However, many of the companies were never recalled. Sibley’s New Mexico campaign had ended; much of his army had disappeared; and with it had gone the South’s dream of its own Manifest Destiny.

While the Confederate Army of New Mexico and its men shared many similarities with other units on both sides of the Civil War, it still stands as unique. Few instances can be found where men endured such a harsh environment and were forced to fight both extreme hunger as well as an enemy army. In addition, these travails seem magnified given that the endeavor they were part of was founded upon false assumptions, conducted with poor planning, and led by perhaps the worst man possible for the job. Given that, it is not surprising that the men who recorded their experiences seemed, in the end, to believe the campaign to have been foolhardy and their commanding general an incompetent and even cruel officer. It is little wonder then that, of those who survived, so many went home, never to return for service again.

As a postscript, I will add that in 1987 a work crew excavating the foundation for a new house in Glorieta Pass found a mass grave containing 31 sets of human remains. Archeologists and historians were called in and they determined from the remaining clothing and artifacts that these were Texan casualties from the battle at Glorieta Pass. Only three of the men would be successfully identified. One soldier was identified from an inscription inside his wedding ring, while another was identified because the skeleton showed wounds consistent with those Peticolas described in his diary as having been inflicted upon his good friend, Abe Hanna.

Finally, one other soldier, an officer, was identified because he was so tall and from the fact that he wore a particular set of spurs. Unlike the others, this soldier’s descendants came forward and claimed his body. He was taken back to his birthplace in Valley Forge, Kentucky, and was buried with full military honors in the family cemetery next to his beloved wife and son. John Shropshire had finally come home.