Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Gettysburg Campaign

Due to other projects, in the past two weeks this blog has not been updated as often as usual. But since we are right up on the Battle of Gettysburg, here's a post to bring you up to speed on the campaign.

After deciding to invade the north, Lee moved his army up the Shenandoah Valley, using the mountains as a shield against prying Union scouts. On June 14th and 15th the Confederate 2nd corps under Richard Ewell defeated an army under Robert Milroy, capturing thousands of prisoners and opening the pathway to Maryland.

Joseph Hooker, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, was in a very difficult position. He could get no intelligence of Lee's movements, as his cavalry could not penetrate JEB Stuart's shield guarding the Confederate movements. Hooker wanted a make a strike towards Richmond, since it was being left less protected, but Lincoln however would have none of it. He told Hooker that his objective was to destroy Lee's army and he had to follow him north. Hooker did not begin a serious pursuit until June 25th when he got news that Lee had crossed the Potomac. Meantime, his relations with his superiors was deteriorating. He quarreled with Henry Halleck over whether Harper's Ferry should be defended. When his orders were countermanded, he resigned command of the army. A message for George Meade arrived early on the morning of June 28th ordering him to take command of the army. When Meade was woken by the messengers, he at first thought that he was being arrested. But none the less he took command and tried to acquaint himself with the position of his and Lee's forces as quickly as possible.

As the Union army was in the midst of changing commanders, Lee's rebels were advancing into Pennsylvania. As he was advancing north into the enemy's country Lee issued orders to try to ensure the Yankee civilians were treated well:
The commanding general has observed with marked satisfaction the conduct of the troops on the march, and confidently anticipates results commensurate with the high spirit they have manifested. No troops could have displayed greater fortitude or better performed the arduous marches of the past ten days. Their conduct in other respects has with few exceptions been in keeping with their character as soldiers, and entitles them to approbation and praise. There have however been instances of forgetfulness on the part of some, that they have in keeping the yet unsullied reputation of the army, and that the duties expected of us by civilization and Christianity are not less obligatory in the country of the enemy than in our own. ...It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain. The commanding general therefore earnestly exhorts the troops to abstain with most scrupulous care from unnecessary or wanton injury to private property, and he enjoins upon all officers to arrest and bring to summary punishment all who shall in any way offend against the orders on this subject.
These orders did not mean that the people of the north approved of the treatment they received. A major part of Lee's goals for the invasion was to procure supplies for his army, and they had to come from somewhere. Ewell was sent out ahead with his corps to collect supplies. He would requisition supplies and money from each town along the way. In this he was successful, collecting in two weeks 6,700 barrels of flour, 5,200 cattle, 1,000 hogs and 51,000 pounds of meat.

Back in Virginia, important decisions had been made which would rob the army of his cavalry for the coming campaign. Stuart, smarting under his surprise at Brandy Station, wished to redeem himself with another ride around the Union army. His orders were to leave half his cavalry to guard the mountain passes, while taking the rest and joining Ewell on his right flank. Lee wrote the orders so that Stuart would have the discretion to ride around the Federal army as long as he was not delayed in his mission of protecting the army. The three brigades that Stuart took with him were his best men, and he left those of lesser quality with Lee. His ride to join Lee took longer than he expected. He did not cross the Potomac until June 28th. He cut the Army of the Potomac's communication with Washington for several hours and captured a wagon train.

Lee expected to hear news from Stuart on June 27th or 28th. However, Stuart's couriers were unable to get through to Lee. The absence of Stuart left Lee without his eyes and ears. Although Lee still did have half the army's cavalry, about 2,700 troopers, he did not use them effectively. Lee gave them few orders, and they were not proactive in anticipating his wishes to gather intelligence as Stuart would have been. They did not arrive with the main army until the battle was underway. This lack of cavalry left Lee blindfolded as he moved through foreign territory.

Meade, on the other hand, had very good intelligence. There were many friendly civilians that sent him reliable information. Meade planned to cover Washington and Baltimore. He was naturally cautious, but knew the need for boldness to catch Lee. He wrote to his wife on June 29:
We are marching as fast as we can to relieve Harrisburg, but have to keep a sharp lookout that the rebels don't turn around us and get at Washington and Baltimore in our rear. They have a cavalry force in our rear, destroying railroads, etc., with the view of getting me turn back; but I shall not do it. I am going straight at them, and will settle this thing one way or the other. The men are in good spirits; and we have been reinforced so as to have equal numbers with the enemy, and with God's blessing I hope to be successful.
Meade had three corps advancing towards Lee under John F. Reynolds, one of his most respected commanders. Behind were two more in a second line, and two out to cover the eastern flank. At the very front of the army were two brigades of cavalry under John Buford to guard the army and gather intelligence. All together Meade had over 112,000 men. He thought Lee had 100,000, but the real number was a bit lower than that. Meade's plan was to fight defensively on ground of his choosing, although he was not opposed to launching an attack if he saw a good opportunity. In accordance with this plan he issued on June 30th what was later called the Pipe Creek Circular, ordering the army to take up a position along Pipe Creek in Maryland. His engineers told him this would be a good defensive position, and it would cover the approaches to Baltimore and Washington. This order was not set out until the morning of July 1st, but before then events were unfolding that would make the Pipe Creek order unnecessary.

Because of his lack of information from cavalry scouts, Lee knew little of the Federals movements until the night of June 28th when a spy working for Longstreet reported. He said he had gone to Washington and knew that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the river and was moving northward. Lee had no choice but to act on this information. The spy was said to be reliable, and he could not ignore a threat to his rear. Therefore he ordered Ewell to abandon his advance on Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which he was about to capture, and concentrate to the south with Longstreet and Hill to met this new threat from Meade.

As the army was concentrating on June 30th, a brigade of Hill's corps advanced towards the small town of Gettysburg to gather supplies, and there encountered Union cavalry. The Confederates fell back without engaging them. Lee had given orders that none of his commanders were to start a general engagement since the army was not yet concentrated. But A. P. Hill and Henry Heth, the division commander, did not think that there were significant Union forces in Gettysburg. Therefore Hill authorized Heth to continue on a reconnaissance in force to Gettysburg the next day, July 1.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Second Battle of Winchester – Day 2

150 years ago yesterday Richard Ewell had attacked Union troops in Winchester, Virginia under Robert Milroy. Ewell guessed that Milroy would try to escape, and so he sent Johnston's division, the old Stonewall Division, to get in the enemy's rear. Ewell guessed correctly, and the Union commanders agreed to try to cut their way out that night. At about dawn on June 15th they encountered the Confederate forces as they were making their retreat. The Federals tried to cut their way through Johnston's line, but their attacks were uncoordinated and unsuccessful. More and more Confederate reinforcements reached Johnston until finally the Yankees who had not scattered raised the white flag, realizing that further attempts at defense would be useless.

In this battle the Confederates captured 4,000 prisoners, 23 cannon, many supplies as well as clearing the Shenandoah Valley for Lee's advance north. The Union flight didn't stop until they reached Pennsylvania, and their arrival sent fear through the North. Ewell had proven to the south that he could fill the shoes of Jackson, having gained a victory worthy of his old commander on the very same ground. Confederates had lost 269 – 47 killed, 219 wounded and 3 missing; the Union 4,443 – 95 killed, 348 wounded and 4000 captured.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Second Battle of Winchester

As Robert E. Lee was preparing to invade the north with his Army of Northern Virginia, he decided to move through the Shenandoah Valley, as the Blue Ridge mountains would shade him from prying Union scouts. But standing in his way were Union troops under Robert H. Milroy. He was one of the generals who fought Stonewall Jackson in the famous Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. Now the same Confederates would attack him again, but under a new and untested commander, Richard S. Ewell. Milroy had major garrisons in Winchester and Harper's Ferry. Henry Halleck wished him to fall back from Winchester because his forward position was too advanced. Milroy, however, did not agree with this order, and delayed obeying it as far as possible. He did not know the forces opposing him and thought he could hold out in the formidable forts that had been built in Winchester.

Map of 2nd Winchester
Ewell entered the valley on June 12th and the next day he was in position to strike Milroy. Ewell was well acquainted with the area's terrain and planned to secure a complete victory by cutting off Milroy's retreat. He was able to capture the high ground which Milroy had not seriously defended. However Milroy still did not realize the situation he was in, thinking he had beat off whatever attack the Confederates would make. 

He found out how wrong he was at 6 pm on June 14th, 150 years ago today, when 20 Confederate guns began pounding his forts. The bombardment continued for 45 minutes, and then the Louisiana brigade charged 300 yards toward the fort. It had been this very brigade that had won the day at 1st Battle of Winchester in 1862. The result was much the same on this day. They rushed into the fort and after a brief hand to hand fight drove off the Federal defenders. During this attack Ewell was struck by a spent bullet, but was only bruised and was able to remain in command. As night fell, the Confederate artillery directed its fire at the main fort which remained in Milroy's hands. Ewell expected that Milroy would retreat that night, and so he sent troops around Winchester to intercept him. The dramatic conclusion to the 2nd Battle of Winchester would be fought early the next morning.

Attack on Port Hudson

Port Hudson
After their disastrous attack on Port Hudson, Louisiana on May 27, the Union besiegers turned to a more conventional siege. They established entrenchments and supporting artillery positions. Confederates also strengthened their defenses. They turned mortar shells into improvised land mines, which called torpedoes at the time, and placed them in front of the siege lines. Food was short, and many troops deserted to the enemy. But the commanders still held out hope of ultimate victory.

On June 1st, Nathaniel Banks, Union commander, received reinforcements in the form of nine infantry regiments. He decided to prepare for another assault, and placed 89 cannon to fire on the Confederate works. He would also have the support of the huge guns on board the USS Richmond in the river.

Garrison quarters
The guns opened fire at 11:15 am on June 13, 1863. Hoping that the Confederates would be stunned by the huge barrage of shells, Banks halted the cannonade after an hour and demanded the surrender of the garrison. Franklin Gardner, commander of the post, refused, saying, “My duty requires me to defend this position, and therefore I decline to surrender.” The Federals renewed the assault, continuing to fire throughout the night.

Mortar boat
 The attack was ordered to begin at 3:30 am on June 14, 150 years ago today. But Banks had only given the orders to that effect a few hours before, and the commanders had not prepared for a unified assault. Those troops who did get moving were disoriented by a heavy fog that blanketed the battlefield. Trying again at the same places they had attacked several weeks before, they met the same disastrous results. The Union lost 1,792 men to the Confederate's 57. Banks had proved once again that uncoordinated attacks on strong earthworks could not succeed.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Battle of Brandy Station

In Virginia, 150 years ago, Robert E. Lee was maneuvering his Army of Northern Virginia in preparation for the invasion of the North that would culminate of Gettysburg. His infantry had broken contact with the Union forces on June 3rd and moved northwest, leaving skirmishers from A. P. Hill and the cavalry under J. E. B. Stuart to cover the movement. Stuart's 9,000 troopers were in high spirits. They had amazed onlookers on June 5th and 8th at Grand Reviews, complete with mock charges against artillery.

General Pleasonton on horseback
But Lee wanted his cavalry to do more than please spectators. He ordered them to move across the Rappahannock River and raid the Federal lines to screen his movements. Stuart was not the only one with orders to move on June 9th. Federal commander Joe Hooker ordered Alfred Pleasonton to take his 11,000 men across the river and foil any movements that Stuart might be planning.

Although both forces were scheduled to move in the morning of June 9th, the Federals began much earlier. At 4:30 am they rode across the river, surprising the few Confederate pickets. Two Federal columns soon set off toward what they assumed was Stuart's position. The surprised Confederate cavalry gathered quickly and began fighting back one of the columns. The Union troopers were surprised at the sudden resistance, as they had not expected to meet any Confederate in that area. The southerners had advanced closer to the river the day before so they could make a quick start on their raid.

The Confederates holding back the Union advance were soon surprised by seeing Federal cavalry in their rear. The other Federal column had found an unguarded road and were able to ride right towards Fleetwood Hill, Stuart's headquarters for the previous night. It was directly in the rear of the Confederate lines, held only by one cannon which had been left behind for lack of ammunition. In this crisis, Major Henry McClellan of Stuart's staff ordered the gun crew into action and sent word of the developments to Stuart. This solitary cannon brought the Federals to a halt and delayed them until Confederate reinforcements could be brought up to strengthen the hill.

The battle continued to rage back and forth through the day with charges and counter charges across the fields. After ten hours the Federals finally called off the fight. The Battle of Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the war. Although Stuart had maintained his position, he had been surprised and greatly embarrassed. The Federals claimed victory because they fulfilled the letter of their orders, although they did not hold the field. In the larger scheme of things the battle was very important for the Federal cavalry. For the first time during the war they had stood up to the rebel troopers and fought them, horse to horse. Up to this point Stuart had literally rode circles around them. Now they had proved to themselves that they were nearly equal to the famed rebel cavalry. As Major McClellan said:
[Brandy Station] made the Federal cavalry. Up to that time confessedly inferior to the Southern horsemen, they gained on this day that confidence in themselves and in their commanders which enable them to contest so fiercely the subsequent battle-fields ...
This confidence would serve them very well in the coming campaign.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Battle of Milliken's Bend

Map of the area

A few weeks ago Vicksburg, the last Confederate held point on the Mississippi River was surrounded by Federal forces. Two Union attacks were beat off with heavy casualties, but the city could still only last so long under siege. Jefferson Davis was desperate to break the siege. Davis ordered Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, to strike Grant's supply line, which the Confederates believed was still on the western side of the Mississippi River. Richard Taylor, Smith's subordinate who had fought under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, objected to the attack. He pointed out that the ground was difficult for maneuver, New Orleans would be more lightly defended, and that it was not known whether the Union supply line was still there (it had in fact been moved.) But Smith overruled him, and the attack went forward.

The Confederate troops detailed for the attack was the Texas division of Major General John Walker. On June 6th, as they moved toward Miliken's Bend, a former Union supply depot, they encountered small parties of Union skirmishers. The Federals guarding the area were the African Brigade under Colonel Hermann Lieb. Many of these troops were freed slaves recruited by the Union army. They had allowed them to join the army, but they didn't trust them for fighting. They were used for non-soldiering duties, like digging entrenchments. They were positioned at Miliken's Bend because the Union army was not expecting an attack there. Colonel Lieb's troops were untrusted, untested and inexperienced, but he didn't hesitate to put off a fight. Holding off the Confederate advanced, he retreated that night to Miliken's Bend and was reinforced by an Ohio regiment and two gunboats.
The Battle
The battle began in earnest at 3:00 am on June 7th, 150 years ago today. Pushing back Union pickets, they headed to the Federal left flank. Coming upon the Federal lines, the Texans were ordered to charge. Undaunted by Yankee volleys, they closed to hand to hand combat. As the battle raged, some Confederates were able to work their way around the Union left. Their enfilading fire devastated the Union line and forced it into retreat. But as the victorious Confederates advanced, they were met with fire from the Union gunboats, the Choctaw and Lexington. Their further attempts to advance being repulsed, the Southerners fell back around noon.

United States Colored Troops
The Battle of Miliken's Bend ended this attempt to raise the siege of Vicksburg. In this fight the black troops had proved their bravery to the Union high command. They had fought well and bravely, and had demonstrated that they could fight just as well as the white troops. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Lee Moves Towards Gettysburg

The Gettysburg campaign began 150 years ago as Lee began breaking contact with the Federal army at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Confederates filed off to the northwest, leaving A. P. Hill's Third Corps to cover the movement. Hooker heard of the movement, but Hill's troops were able to skirmish with him and stop him from pressing forward.

Lee's plan for his invasion of the north would be to move through the Shenandoah Valley. The mountain range to the east would screen him from Hooker's army and allow him to easily defend his line of march, using the mountain passes. First Ewell with the Second Corps would clear the Federal forces out of the valley. Then while Longstreet with the First Corps covered the east side of the Blue Ridge, Hill's Third Corps would follow Ewell down the Valley.

Battle of Franklin's Crossing

Robert E. Lee's withdraw from the Fredericksburg on June 3rd had been observed and reported to Joe Hooker, the Federal commander. Hooker ordered John Sedgwick to advance with his VI Corps and verify these reports. If Lee had indeed abandoned his lines, Hooker would have to move to maintain contact.
John Sedgwick
Sedgwick's men advanced on the morning of the 5th, 150 years ago today. They encountered Confederate skirmishers from A. P. Hill's Third Corps, which Lee had left behind to foil Union attempts at pursuit. These rebel skirmishers were able to beat back Federal attempts to cross the Rappahannock River at Deep Run. The Union brought up artillery, but its fire still could not drive off the Confederates.

Finally the 26th New Jersey and 5th Vermont loaded into pontoon boats to cross the river. They were able to rush across the river and land on the opposite shore. Charging forward, they captured the rifle pits and 35 prisoners. They pushed forward, and encountered more, and stronger, rebel detachments. A fierce skirmish developed, and finally the Confederates were able to drive the Union troops back across the river. The Confederates lost 6 killed in addition to the 35 captured. The Federals lost over 50 men.
The next day Hill fell back to follow in Lee's tracks. But this small skirmish had convinced Sedgwick and Hooker that Lee was still in his Fredericksburg lines in full force. It would be several more days until another reconnaissance party was sent forward that discovered the truth.