Monday, October 31, 2011

General Winfield Scott Retires

150 years ago today General Winfield Scott retired as commander of the United States Army. There had been increasing tensions between Scott and George B. McClellan, commander of the main Union army. Scott wrote this in his letter of resignation:
“For more than three years I have been unable, from a hurt, to mount a horse or walk more than a few paces at a time, and that with much pain. Other and new infirmities, dropsy and vertigo, admonish me that a repose of mind and body, with the appliances of surgery and medicine, are necessary to add a little more to a life already protracted much beyond the usual span of man. It is under such circumstances, made doubly painful by the unnatural and unjust rebellion now raging in the southern states of our so late prosperous and happy Union, that I am compelled to request that my name be placed on the list of army officers retired from active service.” 
He passed over the tensions with McClellan, but they were certainly a large part of his decision to resign. It had come to the point that McClellan referred to it as a war between him and Scott. Scott told McClellan this: "When I proposed that you should come here to aid, not supersede, me, you had my friendship and confidence. You still have my confidence.”

Scott retired as a man who had spent his life in service to his country. He had fought with high rank in both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, but by the time of the Civil War he had outstayed his welcome. It was believed that new blood was needed to win the war, but just how well that new blood would preform still remained to be seen.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Battle of Ball's Bluff

150 years ago today the Battle of Ball's Bluff was fought. It was the second largest battle in the eastern theater in 1861, and it was another Union defeat. On October 20th, a Union scouting party was sent across the Potomac River from Maryland to investigate some rumors of a Confederate retreat in the area. In the dim evening light, an inexperienced Union officer mistook a row of trees for an unguarded Confederate camp. Acting on this information, a raiding party of 300 men was sent the next morning to attempt to capture it.

Finding that the report about the Confederate camp was false, the raiding party reported back and waited for orders. Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker, a US senator, was sent to decide whether to reinforce the party and continue to advance, or have them retreat back across the river. Baker ended up ordering all the available troops in the area to cross the river. This crossing was very slow because of the few number of boats. Meanwhile, the reinforced raiding party engaged in several skirmishes with Confederate troops, and at 2:00 PM they fell back to the troops who had crossed the river and formed up along the bluff.
Col Baker killed
At 3:00 pm the Confederates began to attack the Union position against the river in earnest. The Federals were in a very bad position. They had no room to maneuver or fall back, they could not cross the river because of the lack of boats, and they were being pressed hard from the front, where the Confederates had a commanding position. Col. Baker was killed at 4:30, being the only senator ever killed in battle. Just before dark a fresh Confederate regiment arrived and broke the Union line. The Union Colonel Devens wrote this:
"[I]t seemed impossible to preserve the order necessary for a combined military movement, and Colonel Cogswell reluctantly gave the order to retreat to the river-bank. The troops descended the bluff, and reached the bank of the river, where there is a narrow plateau between the river and the ascent of the bluff, both the plateau and the bluff being heavily wooded. As I descended upon this plateau, in company with Colonel Cogswell, I saw the large boat, upon which we depended as the means of crossing the river, swamped by the number of men who rushed upon it. ... It was impossible to continue to resist, and I should have had no doubt, if we had been contending with the troops of a foreign nation, in justice to the lives of men, it would have been our duty to surrender; I had no hesitation in advising men to escape as they could, ordering them in all cases to throw their arms into the river rather than give them up to the enemy. ... [A]t dark [I] swam the river by the aid of three of three soldiers of my regiment."1

The broken Union troops paniced and rushed toward the river. There was no way they would be able to cross the river in such a few number of boats. So many men piled into the ones that they did have that they quickly capsized. Many were drowned or were shot trying to cross the river. In this chaos 223 Union troops were killed, 226 wounded and 553 captured, a very high number for the less than 2000 engaged. The Confederates lost only 155.
Senator Col. Baker
Although the losses from this battle were very small, it had a huge impact on both sides. With the loss of a senator, the Congress needed someone to blame. They picked General Stone, the overall commander, even though it was actually Senator Baker who caused the huge fiasco by his inexperience and bad decisions. Stone was arrested and remained in jail for six months, and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was formed for the Congress to punish those who they saw as causing defeats.
General Stone

1. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1, p. 130

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Before the Monitor – Development of Naval Technology

We have seen over the past few months how both the Confederate and Union armies began constructing iron plated vessels to either break or preserve the blockade. These construction efforts resulted in the first ironclad against ironclad battle in world history between the Monitor and the Merrimac in March, 1862. Some have mistakenly identified these ships as the first ironclads, but if we look at the naval history of the previous decades, we find this is was not the case. For example, the Young People's History of the United States from 1916 contained this:
Until our Civil War, all ships, even ships of war, were made of wood. Now, they are made of steel. A single sea-fight changed the great ships of the world from wood to steel,— the fight between the Monitor and the Merrimac.
In this post I will go over some of the naval technological development so that we can understand the true significance of ironclads in the Civil War.
Floating Battery from Charleston Harbor
The idea of covering ships with iron was not new. It had been around in various forms for centuries, but there were several restraints on their actual construction. Steam propulsion was really necessary to create a useable ironclad or floating batteries. Wind and sails just did not have the power to move an iron covered ship. Some of the first forerunners of the ironclads were called floating batteries. Floating batteries were ships with heavy armaments intended to defend a stationary position. But some floating batteries were constructed which were capable of movement. During the Crimean War France and Great Britain built iron plated floating batteries which were capable of slow movement. These were used against Russian fortifications, and was one of the reasons they eventually sued for peace.
La Glorie, first oceangoing ironclad

With the success of their floating batteries, in the late 1850s France began developing iron plated ships which were intended for faster movement. In 1859 La Glorie was launched, which has been called the first true ironclad. It was covered by 4.5 inches of iron, and was capable of moving at the rate of 13 knots. She was armed with 36 rifled guns. It was recognized in Europe that these were the ships of the future. Britain and France began to construct large numbers of these new ironclads, recognizing that wooden ships would be useless against them. In 1860 Britain launched the Warrior, a faster and more powerful ironclad.
British Ironclad Warrior today
By the time the Civil War started in 1861, all the nations of Europe recognized the way naval technology was going. Although it had not yet occurred, they could easily guess what would happen when these powerful new vessels met their current wooden fleets. By 1862 Britain and France had 16 ironclads completed or under construction, and Austria, Italy, Russia and Spain were building them as well. As the Civil War began, the Confederacy began to construct ironclads in hope that they would be able to use them to break the blockade of the North. The Federals followed suit and began building ironclads of their own.
CSS Manassas
We have already discussed the Battle of Head of Passes, the first time a true ironclad entered combat. But this battle did not show the full potential of ironclads, since the wooden ships did not put up a good showing. That showdown would not occur until March 9th and 10th, 1862, when the Merrimac struck the Union fleet, and then encountered the Monitor off Hampton Roads, Virginia.

So although ironclads had not proved everything they were capable of until the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac, all the navies of Europe had already guessed it and had many ironclads under construction.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Battle of the Head of Passes

CSS Manassas
One ship built by the Confederacy to break the blockade was the CSS Manassas. It was rebuilt from an icebreaker, and was intended to defend the Mississippi River. It was only 2 ½ feet above the water, and was covered in 1 ½ inch armor. She carried only one gun, and had an iron point on the front for ramming. It was originally built to be a privateer, but the Confederate navy seized it for the defense of the nation.
USS Richmond
She advanced out to battle in the early dark hours of the morning 150 years ago today, October 12, 1861. It was accompanied by a “mosquito fleet,” six small and weak gun boats and three fire rafts. The Union blockade fleet off New Orleans was three wooden sloops, along with two smaller ships. The Confederate fleet's commander, Commodore Hollis, planned to have the Manassas lead and take out the Richmond, the largest of the Union sloops. She would be followed by the gunboats pushing fire rafts, which he hoped would destroy the rest of the Federal ships.
Manassas attacks the Richmond
The Confederate fleet was sighted by a Union sloop, and the alarm flare went up. The Manassas aimed for the Richmond, but the Richmond was tied to a smaller coal ship. She struck a glancing blow alongside, but did not do significant damage. But in the collision of the blow, one of the Manassas's two engines was disabled. At this point the fire rafts were released toward the Union vessels. Seeing them, the Federal fleet cut loose their anchors and moved down river to escape. The firerafts grounded, as did the Manassas. All the Union ships but one also grounded down river. The Confederate's small gunboats fired at the Union vessels stranded on the bar, but although they did get a few hits, they did not score significant damage. The commander of one of the Union fleets panicked, and ordered the ship's magazine destroyed. Thankfully for the Union, the fuse was not successful and the crew returned to the ship.
Map of Head of Passes
Although Hollis was acclaimed in New Orleans as a hero, the ship that was actually the most damaged was the Manassas. The Manassas had been found to be too slow and unmaneuverable, the smaller gunboats too weak to do any damage, and the Federal commanders had not even made a good showing of a defense. Admiral Porter of the Union navy wrote this:
Put this matter in any light you may, it is the most ridiculous affair that ever took place in the American Navy. There is no instance during the war like it. To think that we should have to write of such a retreat is mortifying, but it stands on record, described in language that almost claims merit for the flight of the "Richmond" and her consorts, chased by a ram that was going in an opposite direction as fast as her disabled machinery would take her,— her officers thanking their stars that they got away so easily! There is nothing that can equal the comicality of Capt. Handy's performance—laying a train with a slow match to his magazine, and then hastening away in his boats with the American flag wound around him, and his remarkable antics when he found that his ship would not blow up. This presents an example unmatched in any navy in the world.
This conflict has been forgotten in the light of the more illustrious battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack. Because of the damage to the Manassas the true abilities of the ironclad were not demonstrated. However, the capture of New Orleans was put off until a later date.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

CSS Ivy Attacks Near New Orleans

Cannon like that on the Ivy
The Confederates around New Orleans have begun to make preparations to drive off the blockading squadron which was obstructing the shipping from the Mississippi River. One hundred and fifty years ago today a small steamer, the CSS Ivy, skirmished with the large Union sloops. The Union commander, John Pope, panicked because the Ivy's guns were rifled and long range.

U. S. S. Richmond,
Mississippi River, October 9, 1861

Sir: I have to report that the Ivy (steamer) has been down this after noon and made an attack upon these ships, throwing shot and shell over this ship and the Preble, keeping herself entirely out of the range of any guns on board either of the ships, her shot passing some 500 yards over this ship, which makes it evident that we are entirely at the mercy of the enemy. We are liable to be driven from here at any moment, and, situated as we are, our position is untenable. I may be captured at any time by a pitiful little steamer mounting only one gun. The distance at which she was firing I should estimate at 4 miles, with heavy rifled cannon, throwing her shot and shell far beyond us. This may have been an experiment to ascertain the range of our guns, which they now have, and of course will quickly avail themselves of the knowledge....
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
John Pope,
Captain 1

As the coming battle would show, Pope's fears were unfounded. The Ivy and her sister ships were too weak to actually do significant damage to the Union vessels.

1. Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, I, v. 16, p. 699 - 700

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Battle of Greenbrier River

150 years ago today the Battle of Greenbrier River was fought in West Virginia. Here is a letter an Indiana soldier wrote the next day recounting their attack on the Confederate camp.
Army of Occupation Camp, On Cheat Mountain, Oct. 4, 1861.

Friend Greene: Thursday noon we were ordered to prepare two days' rations and bold ourselves in readiness to march at midnight. Up to 9 o'clock camp fires burned brightly; around them groups of soldiers gathered singing, laughing, "speculating" on The coming fight. There was a constant jingle, jingle of iron ram-rods, snapping of caps, and sputtering of hot grease in sundry frying pans-notes of preparation for The morrow; 'tattoo" rolled off at 10 o'clock, one hour later than usual, and "taps" at a quarter past, when camp fires were put out; all lights except in officers' tents extinguished, and the soldiers retiring to their quarters and blankets, sought two hours' repose. At 12 o'clock all were aroused,the companies forming into Their respective quarters, were visited each in turn by our gallant Colonel, who spoke a few words of encouragement and bade them all stand by him, and remember They were from Indiana and belonged to the 14th regiment; then came the order to form in line, which movement was promptly executed. Right, face! Forward march! and the 14th taking The "route steps," moved quickly but silently down the moantam eastward, past several regiments in the dense fog, the boys shouting to each other as they filed rapidly by at Cheat River Bridge; overtook the artillery; passed it; were soon beyond our picket line, and hurrying np the opposite mountain, through the dark and silent night, without a moment's rest till the first faint streaks of light appeared in the East, when the regiment was halted, and muskets and rifles loaded; in motion again pretty soon; passed the ambulances belonging to the 9th Indiana and our own; then descending the mountain, approached The Greenbriar Bridge, when the sharp report of half-a-dozen muskets rang out on the still morning air, immediately followed by a crashing volley; then pop! pop! pop! and all was silent: on went the 14th, cheering as they rushed "double quick," over the bridge and down through the Greenbriar Valley; soon we Came in sight of The 9th Indiana boys, drawn up in line of battle, across a meadow, thdr skirmishers hastening down from the surrounding mountains to join The regiment. The 14th closed in behind, when the two regiments moved steadily forward till we came in sight of the enemy's tents, when the advance halted and the artillery moved to the front, taking up a position on a slight devation to the left of the pike, Other regiments now came up, and the 7th, 9th, and 17th Indiana boys filed across the valley, and as the right wing deploying their skirmishers advanced at "double quick" through the tall grass and bushes skirting the river and rneadows. The 14th now marched forward along the pike for a few hundred yards, when the companies comprising our left wing, including Company C, were ordered to deploy and drive The rebels out of the woods to the left, while the remainder of the regiment marched along The pike to protect the batteries.

Soon we were climbing through The tanglewood and laurel up the steep mountain sides, when bang! goes a big gun from our battery of rifled cannon, and whiz! comes a shell over our heads, falling plump into the enemy's trenches, where it burst, killing three horses and doing other damage. A roar from the rebel camp answered, and a round shot whistled through the air in reply, tearing up the ground in rear of our artillery. The ball was flow opened-roar after in quick succession from The big guns on both sides-the storm of shot and shell traversing mid air not more than fifty feet from our heads, was at once terribly grand and terrific. The fierce music of "grim war," such as had fallen npon the ears of but few of our brave fellows, who all unheeding, cheered lustily and pushed forward rapidly to the front.

The rebel skirmishers, 600 in number, were speedily rousted from cover, and the musketry now opened along our entire line on the retreating foe. To your correspondent the rapid "file firing" of the companies and the rebel shots in reply, intermingled with the deafening roar of artillery sounded like 10,000 packs of fire-crackers set off at once.

Our batteries now took up a position in front, and for three hours poured shot and shell into the enemy's camp, doing great execution. He had eleven guns (one and 18-pounder) and one mortar; seven of these were silenced, when he was reinforced with both then and guns, and reopened fire again. Our ammunition for the artillery running short, the gras were withdrawn, and at 4 o'clock we began our march back to camp. As we came out of the woods into the open space to form into line The round shot ploughed up the ground around us. Every moment bang would go a gun, whiz! boom and a shell would make The earth fly, filling the boys' eyes with gravel; but the brave fellows stood their gronnd without flinching, as formed in four ranks without a rnurmnr They cooly awaited the order to march.

The Hoosiers are too much for Secesh-fire too rapidly and with aim too accurat-nothing in rebel shape can resist their impetuosity. Silence their batteries, Mr. Big Guns, and the infantry will soon complete the job.

The loss on our side trifling-eleven killed and fifteen wounded-three of the killed and four of the wounded belonged to the 14th-none from either of the Vincennes companies. We captured 13 prisoner-our regiment, 7[,] the Invincibles 5 Bully!

A fine drove of beeves were driven off by our boys, and 15 head of horses.

Our brave Colonel Kimball asked permission to storm their works Gen. Reynolds would not grant the request, remarking that he merely came out to reconnostre the rebel positioin and draw him out, which having been accomplished to his entire satisfaction, he ordered a retreat.

Incidents in my next.

The battle did not go as well for the Union side as their soldier recounted. At the end of the day they retreated back to where they had come, unable to take the Confederate position.