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 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.

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.


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.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Artillery Leadership in the Army of Virginia

Alexander Piper
Historians have not written much about the artillery leadership of the Army of Virginia. Henry Hunt the prolific artillery chief of the Army of the Potomac left comprehensive reports after each of his campaigns. His counterpart in the Army of Virginia left no report on the Second Manassas campaign. 

That officer was Captain Alexander M. Piper (1828-1902).  Piper’s was a regular army artillery officer from Carlisle Pennsylvania.  His family traveled in the same social circles as the McClellan’s and Porters.  Piper entered West Point in 1847. He ranked number five in his class upon graduation in 1851 and opted for an artillery commission instead of one in the engineers. He was commissioned in the Third U.S.  Artillery and after a brief hold over at West Point as an assistant professor, joined his regiment in the Pacific Northwest.  Piper participated in several expeditions against the Indians. Among his comrades in arms was Lieutenant Phil Sheridan who recalled that Piper commanded a mountain howitzer during one of the campaigns.[1]

In October 1860, Piper reported to West Point for another stint of instructor duty.  In February of 1861, the War Department directed Lieutenant Charles Griffin (USMA 1847) the chief artillery instructor at West Point to organize a battery composed of artillery officers, soldiers, and equipment from the training detachment at the Military Academy.  With the approach of Lincoln’s inauguration, the battery was ordered to Washington DC to help secure the capital from secessionist elements.  Known as the West Point battery, Piper was among the officers selected to be part of the new unit and accompanied it to the nation’s capital in February 1861.  In July 1861, he was detached from the battery and assigned as Acting Assistant Adjutant-General on the staff of Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman’s brigade. Piper served under Sherman, a former Third Artillery officer at First Bull Run.  Sherman reported that Piper worked “under fire all day, and carried orders to and fro with as much coolness as on parade.”[2]  That summer, Piper was promoted to captain of Company G Third Artillery but he never joined the unit.  Instead, he returned to West Point in September and taught Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology. 

Perhaps eager for front line service, Piper was posted back to Washington on June 12 1862 and at the age of 34, and became Chief of Artillery for Pope’s Army of Virginia.  Piper’s selection to be chief of artillery for a field army must have been a reflection of his competence and ability.  Unfortunately, little is known of Piper’s service under Pope.  He made no report that ever found its way into the Official Records. His service was significant enough however to earn a brevet promotion to major from Pope for gallant and meritorious service on August 30. 1862[3]  

Piper faced significant challenges.  The War Department constituted the Army of Virginia on June 26 and it went into action almost immediately.  Unlike the Army of the Potomac, it did not have an extended period to organize before entering combat.  William Barry and Henry Hunt who organized the Army of the Potomac’s artillery were recognized authorities on artillery organization and tactics with long years of experience. Piper lacked the same kind of experience.  Under William Barry’s system, he assigned a regular artillery battery to each infantry division in the Army of the Potomac. Pope’s army had no such system.  Where the Army of the Potomac had twelve regular batteries assigned to the infantry divisions, Piper had only three regular batteries assigned in the entire army.[4]  The Army of Virginia did not have an Artillery Reserve.  In the Potomac army at the Seven Days, Henry Hunt commanded a 19-battery reserve.  Of these, eleven were regular army batteries.

Louis Schirmer
The artillery components of Pope’s army came from three widely separate commands with completely different organizational structures.  Sigel had several good artillery batteries including Hubert Dilger’s Battery I, First Ohio Artillery and Michael Wiedrich’s Battery I, First New York Light Artillery. However, all Sigel’s batteries were assigned to individual brigades except for a small three-battery corps reserve. The corps had no regular batteries. Sigel’s artillery chief was Captain Louis Schirmer a Prussian-trained artillery officer. Schirmer immigrated to the United States in 1858 settling at first in St. Louis.  He was an officer in a militia company, the St. Louis Mounted Rifles until he moved to Memphis Tennessee.  In 1861 he fled to New York at the outbreak of the Civil War and enrolled in the 29thNew York “Astor’s Rifles - 1stGerman” Infantry.  At First Bull Run, Lieutenant Schirmer’s company of the 29th took the abandoned guns of Captain Varian’s battery, whose enlistment had expired on the eve of the battle, fought the guns, and returned with them to Washington. The company was permanently detached from the regiment, becoming the 2nd New York Independent Battery eventually commanded by Schirmer.  The battery fought at Cross Keys on June 8, 1862 as part of Louis Blenker’s “German” division.  By all accounts, Schirmer was a competent officer.  At Cross Keys he had command of all of Blenker’s artillery.    

Clermont Best
Nathaniel Bank’s Second Corps artillery was consolidated into a corps artillery structure.  Battery F, Fourth U.S. Artillery commanded by Captain Clermont Best (USMA 1847) was the only regular battery in the corps.  Best served as chief of artillery for the corps.  He was member of the West Point Class of 1847, which also included John Gibbon Ambrose Burnside, A.P. Hill and Henry Heth. Best had a solid if not spectacular career in the regular artillery for fifteen years serving in the Seminole War, the Kansas Disturbances and the Mormon Expedition.  His artillery had seen severe action recently in the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9 1862 but did not play a major role in the battle of Second Manassas.  

McDowell’s corps had the best artillery in the Army of Virginia.  John Reynolds and Rufus King’s divisions were originally assigned to the Army of the Potomac. Each had a regular battery.  Light Company B, Fourth U.S. Artillery was assigned to King’s division. John Gibbon (USMA 1847), another artillery theoretician along the lines of Hunt and Barry, commanded the battery at the beginning of the war.  Before appointment to brigade command, Gibbon had relentlessly drilled Light Company B and the three other volunteer batteries of the division.  At Second Manassas, Joseph Campbell commanded Light Company B.  The other regular battery in the corps was Dunbar Ransom’s Battery C, Fifth U.S. Artillery assigned to the Pennsylvania Reserve division.  Ransom’s predecessor in command Henry DeHart was mortally wounded at Gaines Mill on June 27 where the battery lost three of its guns to Hood’s Texas brigade.  

Davis Tillson
The chief of artillery in Irwin McDowell’s Third Corps was Major Davis Tillson.  Tillson was born in Rockland Maine in 1830.  He entered West Point in 1849 but resigned after two years because of an accident that required the amputation of his foot.[5]  He served in the state legislature of Maine in 1857 and the next year Governor Joseph Williams appointed him adjutant general of the state.  In November 1861 Tillson was commissioned as captain of the 2nd Maine Battery.  The battery arrived in Washington in April of 1862. It was attached to the 2ndBrigade of E.O.C. Ord’s division in the Department of the Rappahannock. Tillson was promoted to major in April of 1862 and the next month was appointed chief of artillery for Ord’s division now commanded by James Ricketts.   He served credibly at the Battle of Cedar Mountain under the eye of Irvin McDowell who afterward appointed him as chief of artillery for the corps.[6]

McClellan sent two corps of the Army of the Potomac to Pope before the battle.  Porter’s Fifth Corps arrived first and brought five of their eight batteries from the Peninsula. These included four crack regular artillery batteries.  They were Alanson Randol’s Battery E&G, First U.S. Artillery, and three batteries from the new Fifth U.S. Artillery - Battery D, the “West Point” Battery commanded by Charles Hazlett, Battery I commanded by Steven Weed, and Battery K commanded by John Smead. All were veterans of the tough fighting on the Peninsula two months before.  

The two divisions of Heintzelman’s corps on the other hand were pushed forward to Pope with only one of their eight organic batteries. A second battery, William Graham’s Light Company K, First U.S. Artillery was added from Hunt’s artillery reserve.[7]

The Ninth Corps recently assembled from troops in the Carolinas brought no artillery to Virginia.  Three batteries were hastily attached to General Reno’s command.  Samuel Benjamin’s Battery E, Second U.S. Artillery came from Hunt’s Artillery Reserve. George Durrell’s Independent Pennsylvania Battery D was detached from Rufus King’s division.  Asa Cook’s 8thMassachusetts Battery, a brand new untested unit organized in June 1862 was pulled out of the Washington defenses.

Then there was the matter of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. 

In one of the rare instances of the war, the Confederates outnumbered the Federals in the numbers of batteries and numbers of guns. According to Jennings Wise, Lee brought 43 batteries and 175 guns to the fight.  Pope’s army had 28 batteries and 125 guns.[8]

Probably most important, Lee’s Army was in the process of organizing its artillery batteries into a battalion system with field grade artillery officers in command of the guns.  What Lee lacked in modern guns and reliable ammunition, he made up with a system that allowed the Confederate guns to mass fires at critical times and places on the battlefield.  

Despite these obstacles, the Union batteries fought hard and inflicted serious damage to their Confederate opponents.  Some examples are Campbell’s battery on the Brawner farm, Kern’s battery on Chinn Ridge, and the gun lines cobbled together on Dogan Ridge and Henry Hill on the afternoon of the 30th.  The Yankee gunners were never able to achieve anything like the concentrated fire that the Confederate artillery battalions could deliver.   Still Union artillery helped to slow the Confederate advance enough to prevent Lee from crushing Pope’s army completely. Ultimately, no amount of individual fame and valor earned by many of the Federal gunners could compensate for the strategic and operational blundering of the senior Union generals that lead to the Union debacle at Second Manassas in the first place. 

Henry Hunt tapped none of the artillery leadership of the Army of Virginia to serve in the Maryland Campaign.  As the Army of Virginia dissolved, Piper returned to Washington with his brevet promotion to major. He served as an inspector of artillery under William Barry in the Washington fortifications.  In January 1863, Piper received an appointment as Colonel of the 10thNew York Heavy Artillery.  In May of 1864, his “heavies” joined the Army of the Potomac. They served credibly in the siege of Petersburg where Piper received a second brevet.  The 10thNew York later operated in the Shenandoah Valley with Phil Sheridan, Piper’s old comrade from the Indian fighting in the Pacific Northwest. Colonel Piper ended the war as Chief of Artillery of the Middle Military Division. Mustered out of the volunteers, he returned to the regular artillery.  His long and distinguished career culminated in his elevation to Colonel of the Fifth U.S. Artillery in 1887. Piper retired in 1891 after 40 years of service and died in 1902.

Louis Schirmer remained with Sigel’s corps and was in the fortifications of Washington during the Maryland Campaign.  He was back in command of his battery at Fredericksburg but was then elevated to Chief of Artillery of the Eleventh Corps during the Chancellorsville Campaign.[9]  Like Piper, he got his own heavy artillery regiment, the 15thNew York in August of 1863. Schirmer’s regiment provided protection to the Artillery Reserve during Grant’s Overland Campaign.  He left the regiment sick on June 5,1864.   The former Prussian artilleryman got into trouble in the summer of 1865 and in August of that year a general court martial convicted him of various charges including embezzlement, drunkenness and destruction of government property.  He was cashiered, imprisoned and severely fined $10,000. Louis Schirmer thereafter disappeared from the pages of history.[10]

When Joe Hooker took over McDowell’s corps, he replaced Davis Tillson with Colonel Charles Wainwright, his own divisional artillery chief from the Third Corps. Ironically, Wainwright did not join Hooker until after the Battle of Antietam. Tillson like Alexander Piper was consigned to the Washington defenses as an artillery inspector during the Maryland Campaign.  Two months later, he was commissioned a brigadier-general of volunteers, to date from November 29, 1862. In April 1863, Tillson went west and served in a number of positions involving the construction of defenses first in Cincinnati and later in Knoxville Tennessee.  Tillson ended the war commanding the District of East Tennessee. Mustered out of the army in 1866, Tillson took charge of branches of the Freedmen's bureau in Tennessee and Georgia and planted cotton in Georgia for a year, before returning to Maine and engaging in various business ventures. He died in 1895.[11]

If Hunt was not going to use the Army of Virginia’s senior artillery officers, he desperately needed the battered and exhausted Federal batteries that contested Robert E. Lee’s gunners during the Second Manassas campaign. Henry Hunt hurriedly resupplied and outfitted 22 of Pope’s battle-worn batteries (nine regular and 13 volunteer) and rushed them northward into Maryland in pursuit of Lee’s victorious legions. Only 18 days after their defeat at Second Manassas, these weary gunners, would again face the Army of Northern Virginia on the banks of the Antietam.[12]  

[1]West Point Association of Graduates Report 1903 Annual Reunion, page 39
[2]OR 2 ”Report of Col. William T. Sherman, Thirteenth U. S. Infantry, commanding Third Brigade, First Division” page 368.
[3]Pope wrote “To my personal staff I owe much gratitude and many thanks. Their duties were particularly arduous, and at, times led them into the midst of the various actions in which we were engaged. It is saying little when I state that they were zealous, untiring, and efficient throughout the campaign. I desire also specially to mention … Captain Piper, chief of artillery.”  It is very possible that Piper spent much of August 30thon Dogan Ridge where much of Pope’s artillery was located and very effectively employed.  (OR 12:2 page 49)
[4]There were no regular batteries in Sigel’s corps.  Banks corps had Battery F, 4thUS Artillery commanded by Captain Clermont Best (USMA 1847).  McDowell’s corps had Battery B, 4thUS Artillery commanded by Captain Joseph Campbell (USMA 1861) and Battery E, 4thUS commanded by Captain Joseph Clark (USMA 1848). For purposes of this calculation, I do not count the Pennsylvania Reserve Division that had Dunbar Ransom’s battery.  
[5]The account of Tillson’s career is based on his biography in The Union Armyvolume 8, page 273
[6]OR 12:2 McDowell’s Report of the Battle of Cedar Mountain page 171
[7]Battery E, 1stRhode Island Light Artillery was the only organic battery that went with the Third Corps
[8]Wise, Jennings The Long Arm of LeeVolume 1 Richmond VA Owens Publishing Company reprinted 1988) page 270
[9]SO No. 4 HQ Grand Reserve Division Jan 14 1863 OR 21:1 pg 973
[10]“The Case of Colonel Schirmer”  Cleveland Daily LeaderAugust 21 1865; newspapers.com
[11]The Union Armyvolume 8, page 273
[12]The 22 batteries were the 6thMaine Battery, 8thMassachusetts Battery, 1stBattery New Hampshire Artillery, Battery L, 1stNew York Artillery, Battery L, 2ndNew York Artillery, Battery A, 1stPennsylvania Artillery, Battery B, 1stPennsylvania Artillery, Battery F, 1stPennsylvania Artillery, Independent Battery C, Pennsylvania Artillery,  Independent Battery D, Pennsylvania Artillery, Independent Battery F, Pennsylvania Artillery Battery C, 1stRhode Island Artillery,  Battery D, 1stRhode Island Artillery,  Battery E&G, 1stU.S. Artillery, Battery K, 1stU.S. Artillery Battery E, 2ndU.S. Artillery Battery E, 4thU.S. Artillery, Battery B, 4thU.S. Artillery, Battery C, 5thU.S. Artillery, Battery D, 5thU.S. Artillery, Battery I, 5thU.S. Artillery, Battery K, 5thU.S. Artillery.