About Me

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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. My perspective comes from a 28-year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Under Fire in Mexico - Light Company K, First Artillery at Churubusco

The Churubusco Convent
The terror, pandemonium, noise, and ever-present likelihood of horrific injuries or death are the constant companions of artillerymen under fire.  Whether the gunners stood by their howitzers with Stephen Lee on the Dunker Church plateau or with Joseph Clark’s rifled guns on the ridge west of the Burnside Bridge, the artillerymen have to take it.  William Graham’s Light Company K, First Artillery made a similar stand at the Sunken Road.  They too had to stand and take it.
  
One of the most vivid descriptions of artillerymen under fire that I have found, comes not from the Civil War, but from the Mexican War.  Fifteen years earlier in August of 1847, Light Company K was under a similar ferocious fire at the Battle of Churubusco, one of the bloodiest battles of the Mexican War.  At Churubusco, it was a different captain, different lieutenants and different enlisted men but the end result was the same.  The men stood by their guns. There was no place to go. They too had to stand and take it.

We have vivid first-hand accounts of this bloody fight from James Martin and Edward Boynton, two lieutenants who served with the battery at Churubusco.  Their stories are found in William Haskin’s epic regimental history, The First Regiment of Artillery, [Portland Maine: B. Thurston and Company, 1879].    

James Martin
James G. Martin was born at Elizabeth City North Carolina on February 14, 1819.  He graduated from West Point in 1840 with William Tecumseh Sherman and George Thomas.  In July of 1846, Martin, now 27, joined Company K which was then assigned to Zachary Taylor’s army.  Martin’s first battle was at Monterey on September 21, 1846.  In February 1847, he moved with Light Company K to join Winfield Scott’s army at Vera Cruz.

Edward Boynton was born on February 1, 1824 at Windsor Vermont.  He entered West Point in 1841, the year after Martin graduated.  Boynton graduated in 1846 and was immediately sent to Mexico as a brevet second lieutenant in Light Company A, Second Artillery.  He served in that unit with Lieutenants Henry Hunt and William Hays, future artillery commanders of the Army of the Potomac.  In April 1847, Boynton fought with Company A at Cerro Gordo.  In July of 1847, he was promoted to second lieutenant and reassigned to Light Company K.  Boynton was 23 years old.



The Officers of Light Company K

Edward Boynton paints an interesting image of the officers of the Light Company K:  
Edward Boynton

[Captain Francis Taylor (USMA 1825) age 42 from Virginia] “lived and died a devoted Episcopalian. He was a strict disciplinarian and a thorough paper officer He delighted in frequent drills and long ones, but he was not an artillery student and not a modern soldier in his ideas. Like many of the older officers of that day he belonged to the leather-stock epoch, but he was a genial companion and a very agreeable commanding officer.”[1]

[First Lieutenant William Mackall (USMA 1837) age 31 from Maryland] “was a quiet officer but possessed of enthusiasm and dash when the occasion required it. He soon accepted an appointment as an assistant adjutant general and was succeeded by Lieutenant [William] French (USMA 1837 from Maryland] age 32] who as a battery officer, was a soldier and a superior one.” 

[First Lieutenant James G. Martin (USMA 1840) age 27 from North Carolina] “was like Taylor, devoutly pious, and did his duty because it was his duty and did it thoroughly.” 

[Second Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson (USMA 1846) age 23 from Virginia] “both as my cadet classmate and as an associate officer, was a pious, hard-working, plodding, perspiring, and very eccentric man. There was not a trait about him which indicated future greatness, and to his religious fanaticism more than to anything else must be attributed the enthusiasm with which inspired his followers in after days which have embalmed his memory in the hearts of the southern people. He possessed great reserve of endurance, perseverance, and patience-qualities which enabled him to wield despotic influence over his men. Tall and awkward, stiff and ungraceful in deportment, he was a perfect stranger to pleasure, recreations, and humorous enjoyment of any kind or description. Nervous in manner, quick and jerky in speech, his constant repetition of ‘very good, very good’ words also repeated by him on his death-bed-was equivalent to the phrase most of us employ when we say, ‘all right; go ahead’.”

Both Mackall and Jackson transferred out of Light Company K before the Battle of Churubusco. 

The Battle of Churubusco was the second action fought on August 20, 1847.  In the early morning hours, American forces surprised and routed a Mexican column at the village of Padierna (Contreras) sending it flying back toward the gates of Mexico City.  American forces led by General David Twiggs followed in reckless, headlong pursuit.  Failing to thoroughly recon the path ahead, the Americans did not appreciate the formidable strength of the next Mexican position at Churubusco and the absolute determination of the Mexicans, who included American deserters of the San Patricio battalion, to hold there.  Twigg’s didn’t give his engineers who included Isaac Stevens, Gustavus Smith and George McClellan the time to adequately scout the way ahead.  The men of Light Company K paid dearly for this neglect.  

Company K’s approach to Churubusco

We now follow the accounts of Edward Boynton and James Martin.
[Edward Boynton:] “By 2 o’clock [p.m. August 20] our division was formed afresh and, with the rifle regiment leading, followed by battery K, the whole command moved out straight for the city. The road was smooth, bordered by aloes or cultivated field, and a short march brought us to San Angel. A few shots here from flying stragglers brought us to a halt, while a party was sent by General Twiggs to "brush em away." … the company of engineers was sent on ahead down the road to aid in hunting up the cause of the mischief. We did not know of any force at a stand between us and the city [Mexico City] which was distant only two or 3 miles from where we were then halted. Very soon Lieutenant [Isaac] Stevens of the engineers, who had accompanied the company of engineers down the road in front, returned on foot, and in my presence reported to Gen. Smith, “there is a barricade across the road in front of us mounting one gun.“ Thereupon the First Artillery [fighting as infantry] next behind our battery was ordered to the left to move parallel with the road and flank the barricade, at the same time we were ordered to move on straight down the road.

The Formidable Mexican Position

[James Martin]: “Capt. Taylor was ordered to go with some engineer officer - I think Lieut. Stevens - to put his battery in position against the enemy's batteries. Capt. Taylor made no examination of the position which was designated by the engineer officer, nor of the battery he was to oppose, but galloped up into a wheat field in the outskirts of the village, came into battery and commenced firing, before I, or any other officer of the battery, knew what we were to fire at. To my utter amazement I found we were opposed to a stone wall pierced for artillery, with guns in position of much heavier caliber than ours, behind which wall was a stone church loop­holed for infantry. The church and steeple were filled with sharpshooters, not more than two hundred and fifty yards away.

[Edward Boynton]: “We were in front of a large stone church only 200 yards distant, with a regular bastioned and curtained field work in front mounting seven guns one of which, mounted en barbette in front the enemy's left bastion, made up that "one gun" which raked the road by which we advanced. The church top, the inside, and the scaffoldings around the building were alive with infantry and a heavy force crouched in the field work… We were so near that we could see the enemy draw rammer and bite the cartridge. “By section, right wheel, “brought us into an open barley field on our right, the growth being three or 4 inches high.  “In battery “followed. We fired very rapidly, but of course with little or no effect, while their fire on us was destructive. 

Lieutenant Martin Wounded

[James Martin]: “The night of the 19th had been decidedly cold, and, though the sun had risen bright and warm, I had not taken off my overcoat when we reached Churubusco, and still had it on when I was wounded…  I cannot say how long we were in this position before I was struck on the right arm, midway between the elbow and shoulder, with a grape-shot, as I sat on my horse between my two guns. I galloped at once to Capt. Taylor to report my condition and left the field a few hundred yards to a sheltered spot, where a regiment of infantry had been placed as a guard to our battery. Here I was assisted to dismount by an officer whose name, I regret to say, I cannot now recall, and immediately fainted. As I left the battery and before reaching the infantry, I met Boynton on foot going toward the battery, he having been left to make some disposition of the caissons, and then to join the battery. I was wounded about noon, and it was not till about sunset that my arm was amputated.”

Private Andrew Walker’s horrific injury

[Edward Boynton]: “Martin lost his right arm at the outset. He rode to the rear pale and faint, but otherwise making no sign. I took command of his section. For one hour and twenty minutes we stood that heavy artillery and infantry fire before anybody had sense enough to order us away; Seventeen horses and twenty-two men made up the loss, but the surprise of those who did not know that so many of the enemy's shot passed over us was great to find that any of us had escaped. The barley field was soft from recent plowing and the rain of the night before, and French ordered me to fire grape shot at the infantry on the top of the church. In doing this the recoil of the guns sent the end of the trail down deep in the earth so that the guns fired over the church-too high. As the men who sought to depress the gun did not succeed, I dismounted and endeavored to work the elevating screw myself. I was at the left piece of the left section. The men cheered and worked lively, and as the gun on my right was discharged, Patrick Walker, "number one" at my piece, had his attention diverted and hearing the report behind him sprang in to insert his sponge, thinking it was his own gun just discharged. At this instant "number 3" at my piece fired, and the sponge and Walker's two hands were blown away by the discharge.”[2]

Lieutenant Boynton Wounded

[Edward Boynton]: “While I was yet endeavoring to depress the muzzle of the gun, a heavy musket ball entered my right thigh and I fell backward. Upon attempting to rise I found I had no control over the right leg. Looking about me, Taylor and French were in their places, the former motionless and fixed in his saddle. I called out that I was down, to which Taylor replied, "take care of yourself if you can." Turning over on my hands and knees I found I could go on all fours, and in that way, I paddled to the rear. A ditch of water in lieu of a fence encircled the field on three sides, and the shot covered me with dirt and splinters of the maguey plant as I sought to cross the ditch. An overhanging tree gave me a chance to swing myself over, and as I did so I saw First Serg't Martin in the water, almost submerged, and suffering from the loss of his leg. Assuring him of assistance I crawled on until I encountered a deserted adobe ranch and sheltered by its walls, I awaited the lessening of the fire. Three men from the 3d infantry soon came up and I sent them after Serg't Martin.”

Insights

Martin’s and Boynton’s words evoke powerful images -  Lieutenant Martin himself, pale and faint, the sleeve of his wrecked arm in his teeth, struggling to stay on his horse as he canters to the rear; the screams of Private Walker as he looks in horror at the stumps of his two mangled hands, Lieutenant Boynton with a terrible wound to the thigh, on hands and knees, “paddling to the rear;” and First Sergeant Martin nearly submerged in a ditch minus a leg waiting rescue.  

Artillery fights are gruesome affairs.  At Churubusco, Light Company K hurried forward with inadequate intelligence and little idea of what to expect.  Told by Lieutenant Isaac Stevens to expect just one gun ahead, they found instead a veritable fortress of artillery and infantry hunkered down in a stone walled convent.  Mostly impervious to the light artillery rounds fired by Company K, the Mexican defenders including the fanatical San Patricios inflicted horrible casualties on the gunner of company K.  Captain Taylor claims in his report that his gunners were able to clear the walls and roofs of enemy sharpshooters.  However, the shot of his six-pound guns and twelve-pound howitzers never pierced the solid walls of the convent.  It would take infantry to root out the defenders and capture the building.  The men and officers stood gamely at their pieces exposed in a barley field, before, as Lieutenant Boynton said, “anybody had sense enough to order us away.” The casualty count tells the story.  Two privates were killed, and two officers (Lieutenants Martin and Boynton), two sergeants, one corporal and 17 men were wounded. 14 horses were killed, and several others wounded. Among the officers, only Captain Taylor and Lieutenant French escaped injury.[3]  

The artillery drill is a complex, technical process.  That is why the officers and sergeants of the artillery constantly drilled their gun platoons.  On the battlefield, the gunners have to recall the drill thoroughly and remain totally focused above the deafening roar of the battle.  The adrenalin was pumping.  Private Walker “had his attention diverted” and thought his own gun had fired.  That he couldn’t differentiate that it wasn’t his gun that fired, attests to the deafening noise of the battlefield surrounding him.  Firmly gripping the sponge, Walker rammed it down the barrel as the gunner behind him pulled the lanyard. The discharge of the gun shattered the Walker’s hands and sent the broken sponge fragments flying down range. On the deadly realm of the battlefield, taking his eye off the ball for just a moment crippled the young Irishman for life.  Miraculously he survived. Captain Taylor, like all good artillery officers “delighted in frequent drills and long ones.” It is easier to understand why.  

Epilogue

After recovering, Boynton went to West Point as a chemistry instructor.  He resigned from the army in 1856 and earned an advanced degree in chemistry from Brown University. Following that, he became a professor at the University of Mississippi.  Boynton, a Vermonter, was fired from his position in 1861 for "evincing a want of attachment to the Government of the Confederate States."  When dismissed, he was not allowed to return north until he promised on his honor, that he would not take active service in the field.  Boynton declined volunteer appointments as colonel of both the 2nd and 6th Vermont Infantry Regiments feeling this would violate his oath.  Instead he accepted a reappointment in the regular army as a captain in the 11th US Infantry Regiment and returned to West Point spending the war years as quartermaster of the Academy and later as the adjutant.  He resigned from the Army in 1872.  Boynton became the superintendent of the Newburgh Water Works in New York and authored a history of West Point and several papers on chemistry.   He died in 1893. 

Martin earned the sobriquet “old one wing” from his wounding in Mexico.  He remained in Mexico until November 1847 when his wound was sufficiently healed to travel.  Martin had been promoted to a captaincy in the quartermaster’s department before he was wounded.  He served on quartermaster duty at Fort Monroe and other locations until June of 1861 when he resigned from the U.S. Army after North Carolina seceded.  Martin was appointed a brigadier general in the North Carolina militia and was instrumental in outfitting the newly forming regiments as they mustered in.  He later was appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and held brigade or district level commands, mostly in the Department of North Carolina.  He was among the last Confederate officers to surrender. Martin was penniless at the end of the war.  He studied law and opened a practice in Asheville where he died on October 4, 1878. D.H. Hill once said of his fellow North Carolinian "The man [James Green Martin] thus trusted was a one-armed veteran of the Mexican war, a rigid disciplinarian, thoroughly trained in office work, and not only systematic but original in his plans. The State has never fully appreciated, perhaps never known, the importance of the work done for it by this undemonstrative, thoroughly efficient officer."[4]

William Graham was 13 years old in 1847 when Captain Taylor took his battery into action at Churubusco.  Like Taylor, Graham’s men 15 years later, inflicted severe damage on enemy infantry in the Sunken Road and rebel artillery in Piper’s peach orchard.  The Federals in turn endured the galling and deadly fire of Confederate rifled artillery on the Reel Ridge that was out of range of their Napoleons.   General Israel Richardson was among Graham’s guns when he was mangled by a shell fragment and fell mortally wounded.  Graham reported that his officers and men fought superbly.  His losses of four men killed, five severely wounded, 17 horses killed, and 6 horses wounded were severe.  Like their forefathers at Churubusco, the new generation of gunners at Antietam had to stand and take it.

Only one Light Company K veteran of Churubusco was anywhere near the Sunken Road of Antietam, fifteen years later.  That officer described by Lieutenant Boynton in Mexico “as a battery officer…a soldier and a superior one, was William French.  In 1853 French was promoted to captain and commanded Light Company K for 8 years.  At the beginning of the Civil War, he was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers.  French commanded an infantry brigade on the Peninsula and now led an infantry division of the Second Corps at Antietam.  One wonders if he had a moment in the Sunken Road to think about his old command just a few yards east of him and his own day under fire at Churubusco so many years ago.  




[1] Taylor took a particular interest in Thomas Jackson and it was his example as a devoted Christian which inspired the young Virginian.  Taylor and Jackson remained close until Taylor’s death in 1858.
[2] Number four usually fires the piece.  Possibly the gun was shorthanded and number three was doing double duty.  Patrick Walker was born at Westmeath Ireland in 1820.  After immigrating to the United States, he enlisted on December 3, 1846 at Boston Massachusetts.  Miraculously Walker survived his terrible injury and was discharged with a pension on October 27, 1847. Source: Record Group 94, National Archives; Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, compiled 1798 - 1914

[3] Taylor’s report is found in History of the First Regiment of Artillery page 109
[4] http://www.thomaslegion.net/martin.html   accessed December 19, 2019,  

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

To Useful to Sacrifice

There has been a great need for an objective analysis of the leadership of General George B. McClellan during the Maryland Campaign.  While Joseph Harsh in his seminal work Taken at the Flood (Kent State University Press, 1999) treats McClellan objectively, the focus is on Robert E. Lee.  McClellan’s War (Indiana University Press, 2005) by Ethan Rafuse is an outstanding biography of the Union commander but space does not permit a detailed treatment of the many assertions that have sprung up in the past 150 years about McClellan’s leadership and command ability, especially during the Maryland Campaign.

Historians almost unanimously grant McClellan a level of brilliance as an organizer.  Having gotten that out of the way, they immediately launch into the usual gratuitous criticisms of the general that we hear so often.  He had the slows.  Special Order 191 was a great intelligence coup that McClellan failed to capitalize on.  McClellan’s minor victory at South Mountain is merely a prequel to the gigantic and bloody “draw “at Antietam three days later.  For that matter, why didn't McClellan attack on the 15th or 16th of September?  What about those thousands of reserves timidly held by Fitz-John Porter in the center of the Union line that should have been put in to crush Robert E. Lee once and for all?  Why didn’t McClellan totally destroy the rebel army the next day?  Finally, there are almost six weeks of inactivity when McClellan did nothing but whine about the lack of supplies.  The litany goes on and on.  As a battlefield guide at Antietam, I continually encounter visitors who harbor at least one of these notions about George B. McClellan.  

Steve Stotelmyer takes on all of these assertions and more.  He gives us an opportunity to rethink our assessment of this controversial Union commander in his new book To Useful to Sacrifice – Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam (Savas Beatie 2019).

This is not a comprehensive treatment of the Maryland Campaign.  For that you should read The Maryland Campaign of 1862, (Savas Beatie 2010, 2012,2017), Ezra Carmen’s magnificent three volume history of the campaign edited by Tom Clemens.  Another great treatment is Scott Hartwig’s To Antietam Creek (Johns Hopkins 2012).  What Steve offers are five thought-provoking essays each about 50 pages in length.  Each essay addresses a major theme of the campaign.  They are chronological beginning with the September 13 discovery of the Lost Orders to the relief of McClellan by the Lincoln administration on November 7, 1862.  Fifteen excellent maps by Brad Gottfried accompany the narrative and numerous photographs and sketches appear throughout the book.  There are over 150 primary and 100 secondary sources used by the author to support his positions.   

Stotelmyer’s approach is clear and easy to follow.  For each issue, he states the perspectives or concept that are generally accepted by the Civil War community. Then and this is important, he provides the source of that idea.  What is the basis or foundation for this belief? It is not surprising that much of the stuff comes from the superheated rhetoric of the 1864 presidential campaign when Little Mac stood for election to the presidency against the tall rail-splitter from Illinois.  Then using primary sources, Stotelmyer offers solid facts and logical summaries that should prompt us to at least reconsider our own belief in the validity of the original assertion.  

The essay titles alone should motivate you to read this book. Chapter 1 is titled “Fallacies Regarding the Lost Orders.” Chapter 2 is “Antietam The Sequel of South Mountain.”  Chapter 3 is “All the Injury Possible the True ‘Prelude’ to Antietam.” Chapter 4 is “General John Pope at Antietam and the Politics of General Fitz-John Porter’s Reserves.”  Lastly, Chapter 5 is “Supplies and Demand: The Demise of General McClellan.”  

In the following paragraphs, I will only attempt to relate one or two key takeaways from each essay.  In doing so, I hope to demonstrate the detail and authority that Steve uses to make his points.   

In Chapter 1, Stotelmyer addresses the discovery of the Lost Orders.  He paints a vivid picture of the chaotic scene as the Second and Ninth Corps converged on Fredericktown on September 13, 1862 and the ensuing huge traffic jam in the center of town.  It is against this hectic backdrop that Sergeant John Bloss and Private Barton Mitchell discover a copy of Lee’s orders.  It is important to understand this perspective as we consider this important moment.  Stotelmyer convincingly asserts that the finding of the Lost Orders was not the singular event it is made out to be and in fact the discovery coincided with other events already set in motion by McClellan that reversed Lee’s fortunes.  The author demonstrates through primary sources that McClellan’s movements during the campaign were not slow and the discovery of the orders in no way hastened the advance of Little Mac’s army.  There is much more here.  Stotelmyer authenticates the fact that within one hour after receiving Special Order 191, he had a copy of the order transcribed and sent to Pleasonton, his cavalry commander, with orders to determine its validity. Just 35 minutes later, orders were on the way to General Jacob Cox’s infantry division to support Pleasonton.  I am just scratching the surface.   

Chapter 2 is largely a treatment of the events of September 14 and the Battle of South Mountain.   One key takeaway for me was the effect of Henry Halleck’s orders of September 12, 1862 for McClellan to assume command of the garrison at Harpers Ferry.  Both Halleck and General Wool previously forbade Colonel Dixon Miles, the hapless Harpers Ferry commander from withdrawing or moving to Maryland Heights.  McClellan received the order too late and had no flexibility to move Miles command for now Stonewall Jackson’s columns had already converged on the doomed garrison.  Halleck’s order complicated McClellan’s campaign objective of preventing the invasion of Pennsylvania for now he had to mount an effort to relieve the beleaguered garrison.  The result was McClellan’s two column movement toward Rohrersville and Boonsboro by way of Crampton’s and Turner’s gap which resulted in the Battle of South Mountain.  Stotelmyer is one of the foremost experts on the South Mountain battlefield.  The remainder of the chapter presents a concise and informative account of the fighting there.  He ends by suggesting that perhaps “South Mountain should be considered more catalyst than antecedent, and the battle of Antietam more of a consequence.”  That is something to think about.

Chapter 3 is an account of the September 15 pursuit of Robert E. Lee by the Union Army, after its victory at South Mountain.  Stotelmyer uses a style reminiscent of Joe Harsh’s treatment of Robert E. Lee in Taken at the Flood.  On this usually overlooked day, the reader accompanies the Young Napoleon over South Mountain through Boonsboro to Keedysville to his final stop at his forward command post at the Pry House.  Dispatches from Alfred Pleasonton, Joe Hooker, Ambrose Burnside, Fitz-John Porter and William Franklin paint a vivid picture of the events along the way.  Not all his corps or wing commanders perform as he hopes. The day that began with a feeling that the rebels were fleeing ignonimously ends with the realization that Lee has made a stand in the hills across the Antietam.  Not only is this a very powerful account but it is full of details of the movements and decision made by the Union commander that set up the events of the battle two days later.  We see a McClellan here that is rarely portrayed in other accounts.  

I have often maintained that the shadow of Second Manassas hung over the battlefield of Antietam and the leadership of both armies.  Stotelmyer writes in chapter 4 “the memory of Pope and the Federal defeat hung over the field of Antietam.  Popular historians and professional historians usually overlook this or give it short shrift, but it goes a long way toward explaining the mythology surrounding McClellan and Porter and the supposed last reserves of the last army of the Republic.”  Stotelmyer uses this essay to illustrate the influence of political beliefs and party affiliation on the events of the Maryland Campaign.  There is much to say here about the vehement Cabinet opposition and intrigue surrounding McClellan’s appointment to command the defenses of Washington and the subsequent order by Lincoln placing the general in command of the forces in the field.  There is a fascinating discussion of the actual numbers of troops brought by the Fifth Corps to Antietam.  Like the six mile a day march rate in chapter 1, a number of 20,000 Fifth Corps troops becomes a part of the record.  The number is used by the Joint Committee, found in Republican campaign literature in 1864, and subsequently cited by generations of historians as the number of troops the Fifth Corps had on the field on September 17.  We learn about the genesis of the term “the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.”  Once again, Stotelmyer deconstructs the mythology and, using primary sources reconstructs the actual events leading up to the decision to suspend the advance of the Fifth Corps.  The final association with Second Bull Run is the situation facing the Union command when A.P. Hill’s division appeared on the left flank of the Ninth Corps.  Stotelmyer writes “when Burnside’s left began to crumble, the tactical situation took a nosedive.  John Pope’s devastating experience at Second Bull Run stared the Union high command squarely in the face.  Porter had been there, and the events of August 30 seemed to be repeating themselves.”

Chapter 5 addresses the two standard themes that McClellan had no plans or intentions for another campaign after Antietam and he claimed his army was not receiving supplies to sustain another campaign.  Steve goes to great length in this chapter to explore the Lincoln-Stanton-Halleck triumvirate and the motivations of each of these individuals in the aftermath of Antietam.  He uses multiple primary sources from veterans of the battle to paint the picture of the sorry condition of the Union fighting men after Antietam.  He spends several pages on Lincoln’s visit to the army in early October and the real motivation behind it.  We learn about the role of Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs and McClellan’s quartermaster Rufus Ingalls in the logistics controversy.  Responding to McClellan’s complaints about lack of supplies, Lincoln orders Stanton to investigate it.  Read about the results of this “investigation.” We learn where all those supplies supposedly sent on the Army actually ended up.  Steve provides evidence for you to judge whether the supply holdup was intentional or just plain mismanagement.  Finally, Steve delves into Lincoln’s thought process after the midterm elections in reaching the decision to relieve McClellan of command even as the general is leading a promising field campaign against Lee’s Army.  

In just 250 pages of narrative, Steve Stotelmyer provides the reader with a lot to think about.  While there will be some who will never accept the evidence, (and I have seen their rants on social media) the book should be read by anyone receptive and open minded enough to new evidence on the leadership of General George B. McClellan in the Maryland Campaign. I hope you count yourself in that group.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Where Men Only Dare to Go

Carnage around the Dunker Church scene of Parker's Battery
Royall Figg was a charter member of William W. Parkers “Boy Company” so called for the extreme youth of many of its members.  He was about 20 years of age when he enlisted around March 1, 1862 and served with distinction through three years of war.  Parker’s battery joined Stephen D. Lee’s battalion of artillery and served under that outstanding commander at Second Manassas and Antietam.

In 1885 Figg wrote a remarkable first hand account of his experiences with the battery titled Where Men Only Dare to Go or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.[1]Many nineteenth century accounts are tedious and hard to connect with.  Figg’s writing style however is engaging and the book is hard to put down as he evokes his life of a gunner with great warmth and humor. 

The book came to my attention while preparing for a talk on Confederate artillery commanders at Antietam. I discovered it in the bibliography of Herman Hattaway’s excellent biography of Stephen D. Lee.[2]

The carnage sustained by Parker’s battery and Lee’s battalion in general at the Battle of Antietam made a deep and lasting impression on Figg.  He recounts with excruciating detail the terror of being under the fire of the Federal guns of position east of Antietam creek.  Several passages are particularly moving and appear below.

After Lee’s triumph at Second Manassas, Figg foreshadows the approaching fight in Maryland: “Sharpsburg loomed grim and ghostly in the fateful future, but we saw it not; and Antietam was murmuring our death-song, but we heard it not.”[3]

Figg describes in almost reverent words the soldiers love and respect for their commander Stephen D. Lee: “Lee was the officer who was destined to win our soldier-love in the great battle soon to be fought at Sharpsburg. I say ‘solder-love’ for is it not true that men love a brave man-almost idolize him-in time of great danger, simply because he is brave?”[4]

Figg describes an incident on the evening of September 16thas Federal troops under Joe Hooker approached the field.  As he says the incident is amusing in retrospect, though at the time it was difficult to appreciate the humor:  “We were under a heavy artillery fire, and bullets also were too plentiful for comfort. Twilight was deepening into night, when a shot from a Federal battery passed through two horses, casting quite a deluge of blood and flesh upon Private Clark, who was holding them.  ‘Lieutenant, my brains are out!’ he feebly exclaimed. ‘Then you have the biggest brains I ever saw!’ replied Lieutenant Brown.  Little doubt was entertained at that moment even by the Lieutenant himself, that these would be Clark’s last words. You can scarcely imagine Clark’s satisfaction, however when the real source of the sanguinary baptism was discovered.”[5]

The young gunner now goes on to relate his experiences on the 17thof September, “a day of wrath”: “Lee’s army stood on that bloody day as one to three against the advancing hosts of McClellan; and of all the enemy generals McClellan was the most feared.”  It is interesting to hear how McClellan’s reputation  was viewed by at least one common soldier.  We of course know that Robert E. Lee himself echoed these sentiments when after the war he was asked which of the Federal generals he considered the greatest, and his emphatic answer was “McClellan by all odds.”[6]

Figg now relates the terrible experience of being shelled by enemy artillery.  He narrates several episodes: “The charge in one of the guns explodes prematurely and sends its ‘rammer’ whizzing over to the enemy, at the same time burning and almost blinding dauntless George Jones.  A shot crashes through a caisson, and McNeil, who escapes as if by a miracle, significantly holds up the blessed beads given him by the good ladies at Frederick….A shot ploughs through the bowels of our lead horses and crushes the leg of Warburton, the driver. The two remaining horses plunge wildly about, trying to extricate themselves from the fallen horses in front. At this critical moment Joe Hay, with his pocket-knife, cuts the harness, and we are then ordered to fall back.

The unerring fire of the Union guns of position continued to batter Parker’s band of young artillerists just yards from the Dunker Church.  Finally ordered off the line to refit, Lee called upon the boys later in the day to go back into action one more time.  Figg recalls his battalion commander’s immortal words over twenty years later as he calls for his men to return to the line:  “You are boys, but you have this day been where men only dare to go.  Some of your company have been killed; many have been wounded. But recollect that it is a soldier’s fate to die! Now, every man of you who is willing to return to the field, step two paces to the front! As Lee spoke these words he seemed a very god of war; and his eyes flashed command, not entreaty.  Weak and almost dazed by the scenes of horror through which we had passed, stern Duty calls, and we obey. The significant ‘two paces’ is stepped and a volunteer section, led by Lieutenant J. Thompson Brown returns once more to confront the now exultant enemy.[7]  

The seemingly unending day continues.  Finally “the autumn sun is fast declining to his rest, as we continue to to fire slowly and feebly.  The enemy replies as if he, too, is weak and shattered.  Sons of the North and sons of the South are lying thick upon the hillsides and in the valleys.  Sharpsburg is groaning, and Antietam is running red; and there will be weeping among the blue hillls of Virginia and on the banks of the Savannah, and the praries will hear the voice of lamentation, and the Hudson will answer in bitter and melancholy refrain.

The sun is set, and bloody Sharpsburg is a thing of history.[8]






[1]Where Men Only Dare to Go or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.Aby Royall W. Figg
LSU Press (2008), with a Foreward by Robert K. Krick
[2]General Stephen D. Leeby Herman Hattaway University Press of Mississippi 1988
[3]Where Men… p. 32.
[4]Ibid p. 39.
[5]Ibid p. 41.
[6]Ibid p. 42.  Leeby Douglas S. Freeman Volume IV page 477
[7]Where Men… p. 44.
[8]Ibid p. 47.

Friday, May 24, 2019

May I never be called upon to endure greater agony than at that moment…

Alexander Webb
Nine months before earning the Medal of Honor and winning everlasting acclaim as the commander of the Philadelphia Brigade at the Copse of Trees, Alexander Webb served as the Chief of Staff of the Fifth Corps at Antietam.  

Webb was on my radar, not because of his role at Antietam.   Before that he served as one of William Barry’s artillery inspectors during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.  I learned that Yale University is the repository of Webb’s extensive collection of papers, maps and photographs.  I recently had the opportunity to view Webb’s papers at Yale and hoped to gain insight on his activities with Barry as part of my ongoing artillery research.

Alexander Webb (1835-1911) was born in New York City on February 15, 1835.   His grandfather General Samuel Webb was an aide to George Washington and regimental commander during the Revolution.  Webb’s father James Watson Webb was a noted newspaper publisher and diplomat.  The younger Webb graduated from West Point in the Class of 1855 ranking 13 of 34 graduates. He was commissioned in the 2ndU.S. Artillery and served in Florida, Massachusetts and Minnesota. He returned to West Point in 1857 as an assistant professor of mathematics while fellow professor John Gibbon labored over his Artillerist Manual.  In January 1861 as the secession crisis worsened, the War Department ordered Lieutenant Charles Griffin, another West Point professor to organize a four-gun artillery battery from the dragoon detachment at the Military Academy. Lieutenant Webb was soon relieved from instructor duty and assigned to the new battery[1]

Webb accompanied the West Point battery, as it was known at the time, to Washington D.C. as part of the beefed up security put in place by Winfield Scott for Lincoln’s inauguration.[2]  In April 1861 when the Fort Pickens relief expedition was fitted out, Webb was attached to Light Company A, 2ndU.S. Artillery commanded by Captain William Barry.  With Webb at Pickens were such future artillery luminaries as Henry Hunt, John Tidball, James Robertson, and Alexander Pennington. Among Webb’s papers is a fascinating journal that covers the often-mundane day-to-day experiences of life at Fort Pickens during the long hot summer of 1861.  

Returning in time for the first battle of Bull Run, Webb served as an assistant to Barry, now Chief of Artillery for McDowell’s army during that disastrous battle.  In the fall of 1861 Webb obtained a volunteer commission as major of the 1stRhode Island Light Artillery Regiment.  He worked diligently in organizing that fine body of artillerymen.  Webb continued to serve Barry in forging the artillery organization of the Army of the Potomac and assisted Henry Hunt, in establishing the crack Artillery Reserve of the Army of the Potomac. One of those batteries was Battery D, 5thU.S. Artillery, the former West Point Battery.  It was now commanded by Lieutenant Henry Kingsbury (USMA May 1861). Kingsbury had the command prior to his appointment as colonel of the 11thConnecticut.  Kingsbury was a former student of Webbs at the Academy. Now as one of the army’s artillery inspectors, Webb worked closely with Kingsbury. They became very close friends.      

At the time, the Artillery Reserve fell under the Fifth Corps commanded by Major General Fitz-John Porter.  Largely unappreciated today is the fact that Porter much like Thomas Jackson, Braxton Bragg, and Henry Hunt was renown throughout the artillery community in the 1850s for his legendary exploits in Mexico.  On September 14, 1847, the 25 year old from Portsmouth New Hampshire took command of Light Company G, 4thU.S. Artillery at the Belen Gate after Mexican grapeshot killed his captain and first lieutenant. As enemy fire continued to decimate the ranks of his company Porter himself wounded, pushed his guns to the gates of the city of Mexico blasting thru a path for American storming parties.  William Loring once asked what the greatest feat of bravery he witnessed in his life was replied “Fitz-John Porter at the Belen Gate.”  

In August of 1862, Webb was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned as Porter’s Chief of Staff. He grew very close to Porter and remained a stalwart supporter of the ill-fated general to the end of his days. 

Webb corresponded regularly with his father and wife Annie.  These letters are located among his papers at Yale.  On September 28, 1862, Webb penned a letter to his father-in-law Henry Rutgers Remsen a New York financier and bank executive.  Annie asked her husband to send her father an account of the Battle of Antietam.  Webb helpfully included a sketch of the battlefield. He marked the map with capital letters (i.e. A) which he referred to in the letter.



Webb's map


Camp near Shepherdstown
Sept 28th1862

Dear Mr. Remsen,

                  Annie tells me that you ask for an account of the battle.  The battle of Antietam.  Do you know that although the easiest to comprehend, the best battlefield to take in, in the whole of the war it will probably form the hardest to describe. It was too hard fought at all points, too exciting to attempt put it on paper.

                  Perhaps some cold blooded reporter with his saddled animal awaiting his determination to [move?] away without a care or a feeling for any side may describe accurately what took place but I doubt it. But I will try. I was with General McClellan nearly all day + I carried messages for both him + Genl Porter + brought them both news from different parts of the field but I do not pretend to tell half.

                  I reached the battleground the 16that about 12:30 P.M. a good deal in advance of my corps.[3]I was with our advance cavalry. I found Hooker in position on the line east + north of the Antietam a line formerly held by the Confederates, but abandoned by them for Sharpsburg Heights. The point I took then to see the ground was the point occupied by Gen McClellan the day of the battle. Just below me on a hill or ridge parallel to the Antietam River was Hooker’s Batteries shelling the Rebels lines drawn up on the crest of a ridge about 1¼ miles distant. At this moment we had nothing in fact to open with, but the moment I saw the position chosen by the Rebels I knew they were to remain there until one of the armies was beaten.  Gen. Porter arrived at the head of 1/3 of his corps at about 3 P.M. & shortly after Gen McClellan accompanied by an immense staff rode up + of course the Rebels gave them a shell or two. This gave us plenty of room on the hill. The staff did not expose itself unnecessarily again since it drew fire on the Genl in Chief.  Well that evening then was a push + a firm resistance + Gen McClellan became convinced that the next day was to decide the fate of the Union.  Then it was that he started himself to reinforce Hooker who had left his first position at KLM+ had gone toward the right. Hooker was crossed to the woods at Ethat night. Franklin (brought up from the road to Harpers Ferry) was crossed to support him.[4]  Sumner was pushed forward at Dand Burnsides ordered to our left toward the stone bridge at B.  Sykes lay behind the ridge at GH, + I.  Morell at Mbehind the batteries at KL.  Humphreys was sent for to hurry up to join Porter. Couch ordered to come over the mountain by the road at Ato be used at any point.  And thus we awaited daybreak.

                  As soon as it was light the firing began on our right and in a short time the battle opened when Hooker moves in from the woods at E.  We see him distinctly drive in the enemy’s pickets. Then his lines advance into the wood and a terrible fire opens upon him.  In ten minutes he appears routed, his men are running!! Will nothing stop them? Is this a defeat? May I never be called upon to endure greater agony than at that moment.  But soon they stop. They form. The Rebels advance in line; meet a battery, seem to surround it – No! They run like sheep + our lines advance again! This seems ten minutes but it has lasted 1 hour + a half. And then Hooker took that wood four times.  And Sumner Ddirectly in front going up the hill in the face of lines of Infantry and those batteries. Look! There falls the green flag. (4) Four times it is down and though they falter still the Irish Brigade moves in. See the men fall in their tracks! All that line of blue is dead + dying. See the great gaps they are closing up now. That is the way to fight. They fight to win… But soon they win back they are driven in by those two batteries at DEand here comes an aide from Sumner. He must have more artillery. He can hold his ground but he cannot advance without more Artillery. Graham of the 1stU.S. Arty is ordered to him from Porter.[5]This battery crosses the ford + advances to Tand taking the fire of the enemy in front + flank + rear he drives off the battery at E+ the lines of the enemy coming out on Smith advancing toward E.[6]He leaves the field in an hour with no ammunition 16 horses killed + 16 men hors de combat. How I did bless that fellow.

                  And now at QRin [soon?] advanced Tidball, Robertson, and the other horse batteries with the cavalry. On their left + front are Sykes skirmishers + brigades.  

                  Why dont Burnside advance. “Tell him if it costs him 10000 men he must go in now”; says, G.B. McC.
                  
We hear him. Here comes Flagler.[7]“Burnside has crossed the bridge but Kingsbury is dying.[8]He wants to see you Col Webb.”  It is carried but at what a cost! And now the firing is furious.  Gen McC rides to Hooker with his staff. He must go there. They want a leader. Hooker is wounded. Let Mead command the whole of the right. Then off he goes + our right goes in with him. They takeholdthe wood.  Sumner moves up to the road.  Sykes skirmishers advance to near the town. Burnside gets a Brigade to Bbut it is overwhelmed. Night comes on. We cease firing and the battle of Antietam is over. We had fought 12 hours.

This is its general outline. Its description would fill a quire.

Never ask to undergo such feelings as those experienced by one who knew that but 67,000 of our men were opposed to 100 to 130,000 on the crest of a hill; a hill they had to gain after crossing a rapid stream passable at but three (3) points. If our enemy could not whip us at Antietam he never will if our men fight with the same spirit.  And God bless McClellan.  All I thought, all I have said, he was he hasprovedhimself to be. God bless + preserve him without His aid we will never succeed + I believe that He is using George B McClellan as his instrument.

                                                                                                                              Affectionately
                                                                                                                                                Andy

The tone of the letter is engaging.  We sense Webb’s nervousness, exhilaration, and sometimes sheer terror throughout the many tense moments of the day.  “May I never be called upon to endure greater agony than at that moment…”

It  is an interesting perspective on how Webb viewed the battle from McClellan’s forward command post at the Pry House.  It is in no way comprehensive nor is it intended to be a military report.  The letter is merely a hasty recounting of some of the writer’s recollections of the high points of the battle for his civilian father-in-law. The map is particularly interesting and valuable and the references in the letter conveys Webb’s perspective of the battlefield from McClellan’s position.  

Webb offers a figure of 67,000 Union soldiers engaged which is probably not far off the mark.  He accepts the generally held view that 100-130,000 rebels on the heights of Sharpsburg outnumber the Army of the Potomac. 

Webb has a grand view of the action on the upper half of the field.  He can see Hooker’s desperate fight on the right.  “And then Hooker took that wood four times.”He watches with great admiration the advance of the Irish Brigade. “Look! There falls the green flag. (4) Four times it is down and though they falter still the Irish Brigade moves in.  …That is the way to fight. They fight to win.

As a professional artillerist, Webb  pays particular attention to the artillery batteries that he can view. He recounts the “surrounded” battery in Hooker’s area. “The Rebels advance in line; meet a battery, seem to surround it – No! They run like sheep + our lines advance again.”This is likely Dunbar Ransom’s Battery C, 5thU.S. Artillery or one of the batteries in Rickett’s division - Ezra Matthew’s Battery F, 1stPennsylvania Artillery or James Thompson Independent Battery G, Pennsylvania Artillery.  Campbell’s Battery B, 4thU.S. Artillery underwent a similar desperate attack by Hood’s Texans but it was on the other side of the Hagerstown Pike and likely not visible to Webb.  From his position Webb also tracks the dispatch of Grahams battery in the Sunken Road and its heroic action there (“How I did bless that fellow”), and he can see Tidball and Robertson’s horse batteries unlimbering and firing to his left. 

We hear McClellan voice his frustration with Burnsides lack of celerity.“Tell him if it costs him 10, 000 men he must go in now.”   There is elation that Burnside is finally moving when they hear the “noise” of the advance.  Joy is quickly tempered by the news that Kingsbury is dying.  The mortally wounded officer asked for his old friend.  Flagler says “He wants to see you Colonel Webb.” 

Webb senses the moment when decisive victory hangs in the balance.  Sumner moves up to the road. Sykes skirmishers advance to near the town. Burnside gets a Brigade to B… but it is overwhelmed.

Finally, if Webb had any nagging doubts about McClellan, he now seems assured that Little Mac has finally proved himself by his performance at Antietam.  “All I thought, all I have said, he has proved himself to be.”   

My thanks to good friend and fellow Antietam guide for his assistance in transcribing the letter and annotating the map.  


[1]HQ Military Academy Orders No. 3 January 7, 1861 copy in the Alexander Webb Papers, Yale University Box 1, Folder 5.
[2]The War Department incorporated the West Point Battery into the new Fifth U.S. Artillery Regiment as Battery D.
[3]Webb probably meant to say the 15th.  
[4]Here Webb actually means Joseph Mansfield, commander of the 12thCorps.
[5]William M. Graham’s Battery K, 1stU.S. Artillery of the Artillery Reserve.
[6]William F. “Baldy” Smith’s Sixth Corps division.
[7]Lieutenant Daniel Flagler (USMA June-1861) an aide de camp and assistant ordnance officer.
[8]Colonel Henry Kingsbury (USMA May 1861) commander of the 11thConnecticut killed at the Burnside Bridge

Friday, January 18, 2019

Hence the dirt

For over two years, I have been going through every page of Henry Hunt’s papers that are located in the Library of Congress.  Unlike much of the Executive Branch which remains shutdown (my department included), Congress and it’s library were funded by a separate appropriation. While furloughed, I have been able to spend some time at the Library over the past several weeks continuing my research.

Henry Hunt was a prolific writer and it seems that he kept everything.  From battle reports, to target practice records, data on artillery horses, to proposals and sketches for a new and improved battery wagon, to the daily countersigns of the Army of the Potomac, nearly every aspect of artillery is addressed somewhere.

I have found some great things about the artillery of the Army of the Potomac in the Civil War.  I have scanned at least one hundred documents and the information therein will be part of my upcoming book.  

Nothing prepared me for what I found in Box 12, Folder 2 yesterday.  At the bottom of the folder beneath the other papers was a folded up parchment like document. I unfolded and unfolded and unfolded some more.   Suddenly there was a map titled Portions of Virginia and North Carolina.  It was about 3 feet by 2 feet long.  

What dumbfounded me was a note scribbled on the back of the map in Henry Hunt's handwriting:

This map presented to my by General Rawlins Chief of Staff to General Grant on the road from Petersburg to Jetersville and which had been frequently used by Genl Grant to that time. Was afterward used by General Meade and myself until the surrender of Lee’s Army at Appomattox C.H.
Genl Meade being unwell for a day or two had it in his ambulance with him and accidentally got his boots (muddy) on it hence the dirt.

Washington DC                                             Henry Hunt
Aug 11 1865                                                 Maj Genl
                                                                     Chief of Arty

It was so large and delicate that an archivist had to assist me in folding it back up. There was an index card in the folder that indicated that there are several other copies of the map in the Library.  I think that is only reason that this copy remains with Henry Hunt’s other papers.  

It is a rare and beautiful thing.  I am back at the Library today looking for more treasures.