Sunday, October 19, 2014

Battle of Cedar Creek

After defeating Early at the Battles of Opequon and Fisher's Hill, Sheridan's Union army moved down the Shenandoah Valley, leaving destruction in their wake. This was in line with the Federal policy in other areas of the war – to break the Confederate will to fight by destroying homes, crops and barns as they marched through the countryside. Unlike Sherman in his march through Georgia, Sheridan's men pillaged and burned under his orders. The valley was sometimes called the Breadbasket of the Confederacy, and Sheridan was determined that when he was finished, it would not be able to provide any assistance to the Confederate cause. As one Union soldier wrote, “The Valley is all ablaze in our rear.”

Early was not content to remain passive while the Yankees wrought this work of destruction. Major General John Gordon and staff officer Jedidiah Hotchkiss scouted a route that would take the army along a narrow path on the northern slope of Massanutten Mountain and across the Shenandoah River, so that they could strike the left flank of the Union army, which was positioned along Cedar Creek. The march went off without a hitch. Leaving on the evening of October 18, the Confederates were in position to strike early the next morning.

The Confederate attack
At 5 am, 150 years ago today, the Rebels charged toward the Union positions. The Federals were completely surprised. Some units had not set out adequate pickets, and many troops were caught unprepared in their camps. The Army of West Virginia, the southernmost part of Sheridan's force, was broken. Next up the line, Emory's XIX Corps, got in line to resist the Confederate attack. They stood firm for some minutes, but they were able to do little more than delay the Southern waves while other units fell back. Soon they too were retreating, falling back north of Middletown. They had, however, held long enough for Wright's VI Corps to get in line. They too were driven back, though Getty's division held a position in a cemetery for an hour. At that point the Federals had established a main line to the north.

Early did not continue to press. His men were hungry and tired after their all-night march and morning of fighting. They believed the victory was already won, and they had the spoils to prove it. They had captured 1,300 prisoners and 24 cannon. Sheridan had actually been absent from the army when it was broken by this Confederate attack. He was in Winchester, returning from a meeting in Washington. When he heard the sounds of a major battle, he set out to join the army, making what would become a famous ride on his horse, Rienzi. When he reached his men he found them rallying, but dispirited after their defeat. His arrival was just the inspiration they needed. Although it is doubtful that if Sheridan had been on the battlefield that morning he would have prevented the disaster, it gave the Yankee soldiers a way to rationalize their reverse. Now that Sheridan was on the field, they thought, their troubles would be over. He rode along the lines, rallying and encouraging his men. “Come on back, boys!” he shouted, “Give 'em h—l! … We'll make coffee out of Cedar Creek tonight!”

Sheridan rallies the Union troops
Sheridan soon launched a counterattack. He placed the VI Corps on his left and the XIX on his right, with the Army of West Virginia in reserve and divisions of cavalry on both flanks. At 4 pm this line advanced, and drove back Early's men toward Middletown. Soon the superior Federal numbers drove the Confederates back. Some Confederates put up a good fight, including Stephen Dodson Ramseur's division. He gathered a few hundred men and resisted Sheridan's advance. Finally he fell mortally wounded, with two horses shot from under him and balls through his arm and both lungs.

The Union counterattack
Under Sheridan's orders, George Custer's cavalry division charged to try to cut off the Confederate line of retreat to the river. He failed to do so, but his charge inspired panic in the Confederate troops. In their hurry to get away, a bridge collapsed on the small “No Name Creek.” Unable to repair this in the face of the enemy, Early had to abandon and captured guns or wagons north of the creek. The army was also thrown into confusion as they hurried through the difficult crossings.

Sheridan leads the charge
The Federals lost 5,764 in this battle, including 1,770 captured; the Confederates 2,910, with 1,050 captured. The Battle of Cedar Creek was a major blow to the Confederate cause. Sheridan was free to continue up the valley, burning and pillaging at will. The Confederates began by willing a glorious victory, but the attacks were halted and the men turned to plundering. They gave the Federals time to rally, and Sheridan's counterattack turned the balance of the day. As Early told Hotchkiss, “The Yankees got whipped and we got scared.”

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Battle of Peebles's Farm

In the end of September, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant launched several attacks against Lee's lines around Richmond and Petersburg. One of these, conducted on the eastern end of the line by Benjamin Butler, captured Fort Harrison and New Market Heights on September 29th. Lee sent I Corps commander Richard Anderson to the scene to contain the breakthrough. Anderson launched several unsuccessful counterattacks to try to recapture the Confederate line. Grant rightly believed that these attacks were being made by troops from Lee's right, so he ordered Gouverneur Warren to attack on that portion of the line with the V Corps.

Warren's troops begin moving on September 30th, striking A. P. Hill's Third Corps, which had indeed been weakened to reinforce the Confederate left. The Federals attacked at 1 pm and quickly broke the Confederate line, capturing Fort Archer while the southerners fled to the rear. When Lee realized that his right also was in critical danger, he recalled the Light Division and sent them back to the right. The IX Corps had been brought up to support the Union line, which Warren thought would face a counterattack. That Corps was not properly connected to the V Corps. When Heth's men attacked at 4:30 pm, they routed the IX Corps, capturing nearly an entire brigade. Warren rallied his men, and the fighting died down for the day.

On October 1st Heth again attacked Warren's line, but this time the assaults were repulsed. The next day Warren was reinforced with a division from the II Corps, which led an attack on the Confederate works. Their goal was the Boydton Plank Road, an important Confederate supply route. This attack overran Confederate positions, but was stopped before reading the road. Although this battle had no decisive impact on the campaign, it did lengthen the lines further clockwise around Petersburg, bringing Grant closer to cutting off Lee's line of communication. In this fight the Union lost almost 2,900, the Confederates over 1,200.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Battle of New Market Heights

150 years ago today Grant's forces around Richmond and Petersburg attacked the Confederate lines. They captured Fort Harrison and Confederate entrenchments on New Market Heights. The attack on New Market Heights was led by troops of the USCT, who took heavy losses. They won 14 medals of honor because of their gallant fighting. These captured positions did not result in a complete breakthrough of the rebel lines, the Confederates were able to contain these attacks.

These videos were taken at the 150th anniversary reenactment of these battles:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Battle of Opequon

After Jubal Early's 1864 invasion of Maryland, Union cavalry general Philip Sheridan, one of Grant's favorite commanders, was detached to command the Army of the Shenandoah to deal with that threat. For several weeks the armies of Sheridan and Early skirmished in the Shenandoah Valley without any major fighting. Sheridan had 39,000 men, Early only 14,000. Early decided that Sheridan did not plan to fight him, so he did not concentrate his army and left it spread out over many miles. Sheridan, however, was looking for an opportunity just like this to attack. He set his troops moving out to strike Stephen Ramseur's division around Winchester. When Early heard of this movement he ordered all of his troops to concentrate on Ramseur's isolated force.

Sheridan's men were awakened at 1 am on September 19th, 150 years ago today, to begin their march on Winchester. Their progressed was slowed by a canyon, which became clogged by the Union columns and supply wagons. By noon the Federals arrived in position and attacked Early's line, which had now been reinforced by John B. Gordon's division on the left. Two corps advanced, the VI Corps under Horatio Wright on the left, and and XIX Corps under William Emory on the right. Both made some progress against the rebels, slowly driving them back. Where the Confederates were driven back they counterattacked. In one of these Confederate Major General Robert Rhodes was wounded as he led his men forward, shouting, “Charge them boys! Charge them!.”

As the Federals pressed forward a gap opened between them. Reinforcements were rushed close it, but before they arrived the Confederates took advantage of the opportunity. The Federal division of David Russell counterattacked, and stunted the Confederate attack. In the attack, Russell was hit with fragments of a shell, and fell mortally wounded. Emory Upton, known for his attacks at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, took over the division.

With his attacked stalled Sheridan brought up his reserves, the VII Corps under George Crook, and sent them to strike the Confederate left flank, while the other two corps advanced in support. The advance encountered difficulty. Crook's men had to move through a swamp, and the XIX Corps did not get moving at all. A shell tore off a piece of Emory Upton's thigh, but he continued to command his division from a stretcher. Future president Rutherford B. Hayes, commanding a division with Crook, wrote of crossing the swamp:
[T]o stop was death. To go on was probably the same; but on we started again ... the rear and front lines and different regiments of the same line mingled together and reached the rebel side of the creek with lines and organizations broken; but all seemed inspired by the right spirit, and charged the rebel works pell-mell in the most determined manner."
Finally the Federals began to drive back the Southern lines. Early pulled back his lines, but the Federals drove them back closer and closer to Winchester. Sheridan was riding along his lines, waving his hat and encouraging his men. His cavalry was moving around Early's flank, threatening to surround his entire force. Finally as the sun set, the Confederate army was in full retreat.

Sheridan leads the charge
Many call this battle the turning point for the Union in the Shenandoah Valley. This victory began the tide of Union victories. Both sides had suffered heavy casualties. The Federals lost more than 5,000, the Confederates over 3,500. Early had lost a quarter of his army. More men fell at the Battle of Opequon, or Third Winchester as it is also known, than in Stonewall Jackson's entire 1862 Valley Campaign.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fall of Atlanta

Confederate artillery position
After John Bell Hood's disastrous attacks on Sherman's lines around the town of Atlanta, Georgia, the campaign fell into a siege. The Federals positioned artillery and began to shell the town. The Confederate artillery defending the town replied, and the bombardment continued on and off for days. Sherman also sent his cavalry on raids to try to cut the rebel supply lines south of the city. The more skillful Confederate horsemen repulsed these raids, foiling Sherman's plans. He did not want to try to storm the Confederate works. They were strong, and he knew the difficulty of attacking a well fortified position from his reverses at Vicksburg and Kennesaw Mountain. Instead he moved against the railroad in the Confederate rear with a much larger force – six of his seven corps.
A house in Atlanta used by Confederate sharpshooters and hit by Union artillery
Hood received intelligence of the Federal movement, and detached two corps under William Hardee to meet it, but he did not realize the true scale of the attack. On August 31st Hardee attacked Sherman's forces, but both corps did not engage in unison, and one of them was drive off easily by the Federals. The next day Sherman sent several of his corps against a salient in the Confederate line. The rebels fought hard, but the Federals pushed on, and after hand to hand combat broke through the Confederate line. Hardee's men fell back, and Jonesboro and the railroad fell firmly into Union hands. Back in Atlanta, John Bell Hood realized his supply line had been cut, and determined he had no hope of holding the town. The Confederates abandoned Atlanta that night, and the Federal troops occupied it the next day. As Sherman wrote triumphantly two days later, "Atlanta is ours, and fairly won."
Atlanta's railroad in ruins
The fall of Atlanta signaled the end of the campaign. Sherman had captured his objective, though without completely eliminating the Confederate army. It came at a very providential time for the Union cause. Abraham Lincoln was in the midst of a reelection campaign. General George B. McClellan had just been nominated by the Democratic party to run against him. Lincoln was not hopeful about his chances for reelection. He had written just a few days before, on August 23rd, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.” The victory of Atlanta was a major turning point in the campaign. For months the fighting had continued to slog along, especially between Grant and Lee in Virginia, with heavy casualty bills but little to show for it. The fall of Atlanta was a major accomplishment, and it gave the northern people hope that the war was winnable, and before long the nation would be reunified.

Lincoln campaign poster

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mobile Bay Falls

In the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5th, David Farragut ran his ships past the forts and sunk the Confederate flotilla, but he still had to deal with three Confederate forts. Forts Gaines and Morgan guarded the entrance to the bay, and the smaller Fort Powell was positioned inside. Powell was the first to fall. Lt. Col. Williams, her commander had been ordered to hold out as long as possible, but, “when no longer tenable, save your garrison.” It did not take Williams long to decide it was untenable. Without even undergoing heavy pressure from the Federals he spiked his guns, blew up his powder and waded to the mainland with his men.

Fort Gaines
Fort Gaines was under the command of Colonel Charles Anderson. He had 818 troops in the garrison while Major General Gordon Granger had 3,300 troops besieging him. The fort had also been badly positioned. The sand dunes on the island offered cover for the Union troops to approach very close to the walls. Brigadier General Page, the Confederate commander in Mobile, ordered that the fort not be surrendered, but Anderson ignored him. He sent out a flag of truce, and surrendered to Granger and Farragut on August 8th.
Fort Morgan
After Fort Gaines surrendered the Federal infantry was moved to face the last Confederate fort – Fort Morgan. It was an old massonry force garrisoned by 618 men under General Page himself. The Federals began a formal siege with regular lines of approaching trenches. Meanwhile, several of the monitors bombarded the fort, along with the Tennessee, which had been repaired and assimilated into the Federal fleet. On August 22 cannon and mortars on land joined the ships, and the fort was subjected to a day long bombardment. Page was afraid that the Union balls would hit his magazines, so he ordered them to be flooded. The next day he decided that further resistance was useless. He spiked his guns and raised the white flag.
After Page surrendered he was arrested by the Federal forces. They accused him of violating the laws of war by destroying the guns and ammunition of the fort after he surrendered. A court of inquiry was formed in New Orleans to investigate. They found him not guilty, determining that he had destroyed the equipment of the fort before its surrender,.

The surrender of Fort Morgan marked the completion of the Federal capture of Mobile Bay. With Union ships holding the mouth of the bay, they could stop the flow of blockade runners coming too and fro. The town itself was still in Confederate hands, and would remain so until the next year.

Fort Morgan Today

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Battle of Globe Tavern

Globe Tavern
By August, 1864 the armies of Lee and Grant were stalled in front of Petersburg, the active campaigning turned into a regular siege. Grant and Meade's strategy to break this deadlock was to hit Lee's supply line. They hoped that if they cut off the flow of food and weapons coming through North Carolina, Richmond and Petersburg would have to be abandoned. One of the major supply lines was the Weldon Railroad. In the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road in late June Federals had destroyed a short section of the Weldon, but they were quickly driven off by the Confederates. In August Grant sent out another force against the Weldon under Major General Gouverneur Warren.
On August 18th Warren reached the railroad at Globe Tavern without meeting any resistance outside of a few pickets. While some troops began tearing up the tracks the rest formed a battle line and moved north to guard against a Confederate attack. When A. P. Hill heard of the Federal advance he sent three brigades out to meet them. At 2 pm they struck Warren's line and drove it back early to Globe Tavern. The Federals counterattacked and recaptured some ground before halting and entrenching for the night.
During the night significant reinforcements arrived for both sides. The next day was rainy, and for most of it the fighting was limited to minor skirmishing. But that changed in late afternoon. Maj. Gen. William Mahone, commanding the three infantry brigades the Confederates had received, had found a weak spot in the Federal right. When his men changed it, they were able to easily burst through into the Federal flank and rear. The Federals were under fire from several directions, and soon panicked and fled to the rear. Mahone's men captured nearly two full Union brigades. Although the Federal right crumbled, the center and right beat off the Confederate frontal attacks, and Union reinforcements arrived to stabilize the position.
The next day rain prevented further Confederate attacks, and that night Warren fell back two miles to a new entrenched position. There he was still on the Weldon Railroad, but his would were connected with the rest of the Union line. The Confederates advanced and attacked on the morning of August 21, but they were repulsed with heavy losses. With this the Confederates halted their attacks, resigned to the fact that the Weldon Railroad would remain in Union hands. The Confederate supply lines were disturbed, but not cut. They bypassed the Federal held section by hauling supplies in wagons on a series of roads.