About Me

My Photo
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 teenagers who I love very much. I currently volunteer at the battlefield 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. These words often add a degree of color and character not found elsewhere in their stories. A feature of this blog is the presentation of some of these quotes. 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 that fortune could have gone either way. 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.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

John C. Tidball on Thomas J. Jackson

I first heard about John C. Tidball on a hike last spring lead by Antietam Ranger Brian Baracz. During the early spring, Antietam National Battlefield rangers conduct a series of hikes on Sunday afternoons that take one across the length and breadth of the field. Brian, whose hikes are noted for their masterful assessment of the terrain, took us to the high ground west of the Antietam Creek near the bridge on the Boonsboro Pike. Views are particularly grand with no foliage on the trees and one can see aspects of the terrain not normally seen at other times of the year. On this hike, we noted the different positions that Tidball's command, Battery A, 2nd United States Artillery, maintained in the center of the Union line for most of the day. Tidball himself reported that he fired "in all about 1,200 rounds" on the seventeenth of September. Later as I grew more interested in the artillery units of Antietam, I came upon one of the best civil war era photos of an artillery battery. Pictured among the gunners was the steely Tidball himself (third from the right). John Tidball returned to my attention again recently when I read James I. Robertson's excellent biography Stonewall Jackson The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Roberston cites a number of quotes by Tidball in his work. I learned that Tidball made many candid observations of key military figures of the Civil War era in his unpublished memoir titled Getting Through West Point by One Who Did and for Those Who Want to Know. His observations about Stonewall Jackson are particularly revealing.

Tidball and Jackson share many similarities. Both are West Point graduates. Tidball was two years behind Jackson, graduating in 1848. Both men were from western Virginia. Jackson was born on January 21, 1824 near Clarksburg. Tidball was born almost exactly one year later on January 25, 1825, in the Wheeling area. Both were devout Presbyterians though Jackson didn't embrace the denomination till somewhat later in life. The two men even bear a striking resemblance to each other as shown in the photos in this post. But most important, Jackson and Tidball were gunners at heart. They both loved the artillery. Jackson made a name for himself as a gunner under Prince John Magruder in Mexico winning promotion to first lieutenant and two brevets for gallantry to the rank of Major. Tidball graduated too late to engage in any of the fighting there but maintained a lifelong devotion to the artillery. He served in the usual artillery assignments in the old Regular Army. Tidball was part of the Harpers Ferry expedition to suppress the John Brown Raid in 1859 and there became acquainted with Robert E. Lee and JEB Stuart. During the Civil War when many of his West Point colleagues accepted US Volunteer commissions as brigadier generals in the infantry, Tidball elected to remain in the artillery though advancement was much slower. Except for a brief stint as Commandant of Cadets at West Point in 1864, he served in artillery commands in the Army of the Potomac throughout the war, reaching the volunteer rank of brigadier general by the end of the war. After he was mustered out of volunteer service on September 30, 1865, General Tidball resumed his position of Captain in the 2nd U.S. Artillery. He served in the west, where he was promoted to Major in 1867, and in Alaska, where he was in command of the District of Alaska. Tidball wrote the Manual for Heavy Artillery which later became a standard text at the Artillery School at Fort Monroe. He was the Superintendent of Artillery Instruction at that institution from 1874-1881, when he became General Sherman's aide-de-camp. Tidball accompanied Sherman on his 1883 expedition across the western United States and Canada. In 1884 he returned to Fort Monroe Virginia where he commanded the Artillery School until his retirement in 1889. He died on May 15, 1906 at the age of 81.

Tidball offers several revealing caricatures of Jackson. Among them is a somewhat humorous description of Cadet Jackson at West Point: "In consequence of a somewhat shambling awkward gait, and the habit of carrying his head down in a thoughtful attitude, he seemed less of stature than he really was...Being an intense student, his mind appeared to be constantly pre-occupied, and he seldom spoke to anyone unless spoken to, and then his face lightened up with a blush, as that of a bashful person when complimented. His voice was thin and feminine-almost squeaky-while his utterances were quick, jerky and sententious, but when once made were there ended; there was...no hypothesis or observation to lead to further discussion. When a jocular remark occurred in his hearing he smiled as though he understood and enjoyed it, and never ventured comment to promote further mirth. There were occasions as I observed when his actions appeared strangely affected; as for instance, a drenching shower caught sections returning from recitations, or the battalion from the mess-hall and ranks were broken to allow the cadets to rush for shelter to the barracks, [but] Jackson would continue to march solemnly, at the usual pace, deviating neither to the right nor the left. This, and other things like it, I saw him do time and again, showing a design to it; but what the design was he alone appeared to know, for no one bothered themselves to discover it or did more than remark: "See old Jackson!"

At the Academy, Jackson shared a room with future Union cavalry general and fellow introvert George Stoneman. Tidball who bunked down the hall had this to say about the pair: "they were such quiet neighbors I scarcely knew they were there".

Tidball didn't see combat in Mexico but descried Jackson's battery commander and future Confederate general John Bankhead Magruder in these not so flattering terms: "Prince John Magruder, as he was called because of his affected elegance, was in reality only a prince of humbugs. No greater difference could possibly exist between men than between Magruder and his lieutenant" [Jackson].

Tidball marveled at Jackson's tenacity and ability to serve credibly under the difficult Magruder and distinguish himself in battle when he said: "Being in a subordinate position, [Jackson] evinced no higher trait than that of indomitable sticking qualities."

Despite the humorous portraits, Tidball clearly admired his fellow Virginians military ability. "His chief characteristics as a military leader were his quick perceptions of the weak points of the enemy, his ever readiness, the astounding rapidity of his movements, his sudden and unexpected onslaughts, and the persistency with which he followed them up. His ruling maxim was that war meant fighting and fighting meant killing, and right loyally did he live up to it. Naturally taciturn, and by habit a keeper of his own designs, it was as difficult for his friends to penetrate them as it was easy for him to deceive the enemy...In any other person this would have been taken as cunning and deceit; but with him it was the voice of the Lord piloting him to the tents of the Midianites."

Lest I weave too complex a tale here, I found one other Antietam connection in the story of John Tidball. Tidball married twice. His first wife, Mary Hunt Davis, died of complications after child birth in 1857. His second wife, Mary Langdon "Mamie" Dana was born when Tidball was a second year cadet in West Point in 1845. She was the daughter of Major General Napoleon J. T. Dana who commanded an infantry brigade in Sedgwick's Division of Sumner's Second Corps. Dana, it will be remembered was part of the abortive Union attack into the West Woods. Dana, only three years older than Tidball (and six ahead of him at West Point graduating in 1842), understandedly opposed the match. However, given Tidball's sterling reputation and the obvious affection displayed by the couple, he finally consented and John and Mamie were married on March 19, 1870.

While searching for Tidball's unpublished manuscript, I came across a biography on him titled No Disgrace to My Country: The Life of John C. Tidball, by Eugene Tidball. The book appears to draw heavily on Tidball's own papers. I found a reasonably priced copy online and snapped it up. I look forward to adding more of Tidball's unique perspectives and observations to my digest of quotes.

5 comments:

  1. I believe Brian calls Tidball the "Forrest Gump of the Civil War". I got the Tidball biography a couple of months ago but it will be a while before I get to it but I'm looking forward to it.

    John C. Nicholas

    ReplyDelete
  2. John
    It would be interesting to have a look at the original manuscript. Yes, I am looking forward to reading it AFTER I get through Carmen which I am in the middle of now.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I only get to look at Carmen every once in a while. Sometimes I hate my job. Not really.

    John C. Nicholas

    ReplyDelete
  4. "It has been said through the generations of the
    family, that you could tell where John C. Tidball's artillery battery was firing because it
    fired with a "staccato" effect. We are all very
    proud of our ancestor and his commitment to the
    U.S. Army. Finally, people are interested in this General and his service to the country."

    ReplyDelete
  5. Tidball's biography was a very interesting read. He interacted with so many figures in the Civil War era. It was nice to hear from you.

    ReplyDelete