Friday, November 29, 2013

Battle of Fort Sanders

Ambrose Burnside, having gotten ahead of the pursing army of James Longstreet at the Battle of Campbell's Station, arrived in the works around Knoxville, Tennessee on November 17. The Confederates came up as well, and began to consider an attack. Longstreet decided that Fort Sanders was the most vulnerable point on the Yankee line. It was west of the town, positioned at a salient in the earthworks. It was 70 feet high and surrounded by an 8 foot ditch.

The Confederate positions were 2,400 yards from the fort. Longstreet's attack plan called for three brigades to be used. No artillery bombardment would be made, to avoid alerting the Federals of the attack, but this advantage was lost anyway because skirmishers were deployed long before the actual attack was made.

The southerners attacked at dawn on November 29th, after a cold night, with rain and snow falling. Moving out, they encountered obstacles made of telegraph wire which strung to trip the men. Alerted to the attack, the Federals opened fire and began shooting the rebels down. Eventually the Confederates made it to the fort, and jumped down into the ditch. But here they were confronted with a problem. Looking through binoculars at the position, Longstreet saw a Union soldier walking across the ditch. Not realizing that the man was on a narrow plank, he concluded that the ditch was very shallow and that scaling ladders would not be needed. But down in the ditch, the Confederates discovered the truth was much different. It was nearly impossible to climb out of the ditch onto the wall, especially slippery frozen as it was. The Confederates fruitlessly tried to dig footholds in the earth, as the Federals poured musketry into the packed men and stabbed with their bayonets, even tossing down artillery shells as hand grenades. Some southerners made it to the parapet by standing on each others shoulders. Several flags were planted on the top, but no breakthrough was made.

Union engineers on the battlefield
After 20 minutes Longstreet recalled his men. It was one of the most disastrous attacks of the entire war. The attack had been badly planned, and victory was nearly impossible without ladders. The Confederates lost 813 men, the Federals only 13. This reverse. Combined with the defeat of Bragg at Chattanooga, ended the Siege of Knoxville, and the Confederate's attempt to gain control of East Tennessee.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The First Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving is the 150th annual celebration of the holiday in American history. Although the holiday is traditionally associated with the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving in the 1600s, its celebration annually by the nation begun in 1863 with a proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. Before that time, Thanksgiving days were called on special occasions. To learn more about the history of Thanksgiving, watch this video from Discerning History.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Battle of Ringgold Gap

After the Confederates were defeated at Chattanooga, Bragg retreated south towards Atlanta. When the army passed Ringgold Gap, he ordered Cleburne to hold it to the last ditch so the rest of the army could escape. Although it was considered to be a suicide assignment, Cleburne and his men did it gloriously. On November 27th, 150 years ago today, they held the gap successfully, giving Hooker there the same reception they gave Sherman on Missionary Ridge. Covering the hill with slain, they effectively stopped the pursuit in its tracks. Hooker lost around 509 men, Cleburne 221.

Bragg halted his discouraged men, and as he had after the battle of Murfreesboro, offered to turn over his command. This time this offer was accepted. In his time as commander of the Army of Tennessee, Bragg had fought four battles, and although three could be claimed as victories, in two of those cases he followed his claimed victory with a retreat. Although he had penetrated deep into Kentucky, his mistakes had led him into a disastrous retreat from an almost impregnable position. Jefferson Davis would eventually decide to replace him with Joseph E. Johnston. Johnston had shown on several occasions that he was very hesitant to fight, but the president could find no better man for the job. 

Mine Run Campaign

Since the Battle of Gettysburg the armies in Virginia had not met in a major battle. But both Meade and Lee maneuvered and skirmished, trying to gain an advantage over the other. At the end of November and beginning of December this would result in the Mine Run Campaign. Meade tried to gain a march on Lee and strike his right across the Rapidan river. But the Federals got bogged down while crossing the river, and Lee was alerted to their movement. He sent the Second Corps, under the temporary command of Jubal Early, to meet the Federal advance. Spearheaded by the Stonewall Division under “Allegheny” Johnson, the Yankee movement was blunted.

That night Lee withdrew to a line of prepared fortifications along Mine Run. Meade planned to attack on December 1, but after a heavy bombardment he was convinced that Lee's position was too strong. Lee gave orders to hit to Union left flank, which his cavalry had discovered was in the air. But when the southerners move out the next day, they found the Union position empty. Meade had fallen back during the night. Lee was very frustrated with this, and said, “I am too old to command this army. We never should have permitted those people to get away.” This ended the campaigning in Virginia for 1863. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Battle of Chattanooga

Tunnel Hill
150 years ago today, the Federals executed their attack on the Confederates at Chattanooga. Hooker was to continue to press on the Confederate right, Sherman on the left, and Thomas in the center. Sherman was at a positioned called Tunnel Hill. His 16,600 men were met at first by only 4,000 under Patrick Cleburne, who barely made it back to the battle in time. Cleburne's brave men were entrenched on Tunnel Hill which took its name from the railroad tunnel which cut through it. Sherman had chosen the strongest position on the Confederate line to attack. At dawn he sent two brigades forward under Brigadier General John Corse. They were stopped hard by Cleburne's men. The Confederates could throw stones down from their position and do almost as much damage as the bullets they shot. Corse's men could make no headway and were forced back. Sherman sent more lines forward, dashing them against Cleburne's line. One Federal wrote,
We had been concealed from the enemy all the forenoon by the edge of a wood; yet his constant shelling of this wood showed that he knew we were there. As the column came out upon the open ground, and in sight of the rebel batteries, their renewed and concentrated fire knocked the limbs from the trees about out heads. An awful cannonade had opened on us. ... I had heard the roaring of heavy battle before, but never such a shrieking of cannon-balls and bursting of shells as met us on that run. We could see the rebels working their guns, while in plain view other batteries galloped up, unlimbered and let loose upon us. ... In ten minutes the field was crossed, the foot of the ascent was reached, and now the Confederates poured into our faces the reserved fire of their awful musketry. It helped little that we returned it from our own rifles, hidden as the enemy were in rifle pits, behind logs, and stumps, and trees. ... Then someone cried, 'Look to the tunnel!' There, on the right, pouring through a tunnel in the mountain, and out of the railway cut, came the graycoats by hundreds, flanking us completely. ... They were through by the hundreds, and a fatal enfilading fire was cutting our line to pieces.

Sherman continued attacking for six hours, never breaking through the rebel line. When the Federals gained any foothold, Cleburne shifted his troops and launched a strong counterattack, himself at the head of his men. Charging down the hill they broke the Federal lines. By late in the afternoon, Sherman's attacks had accomplished nothing. He had lost almost 2,000 men, while Cleburne had skillfully held his position, loosing only about 200. One Confederate who visited the battlefield wrote,
They had swept their front clean of Yankies, indeed, when I went up about sundown the side of the ridge in their front was strewn with dead yankies & looked like a lot of boys had been sliding down the hill side, for when a line of the enemy would be repulsed, they would start down hill & soon the whole line would be rolling down like a ball, it was so steep a hill side there.
Grant watching the battle

Missionary Ridge
Not all of the Confederate line had put up such a good fight as Cleburne. The odds in the center of the Confederate line were much better for the Confederates. While Cleburne had only one division to fight six, here Bragg had four to Thomas's five. In the center, Grant ordered Thomas to go forward at 3:30 pm after it was clear Sherman was making no headway. Ten minutes after the order was given, six cannon rang out, the signal for the 25,000 Federals to move forward towards the Confederate gun pits. Bragg had 112 cannon on the 400 foot ridge, and they opened at once on the advancing Northerners. The cannon balls tore into the Federal lines, but they were not halted. They broke into a run towards the ridge, with yells of "Chickamauga! Chickamauga!", remembering their defeat of a few weeks before. They rushed forward and captured the line of rifle pits. The second Confederate line in the middle of the ridge opened a heavy fire upon the intruders. At first the men were pinned down, but instead of fleeing, the men began to move slowly up the slope. They had no orders to advance, they moved of their own accord. They wanted to come to grips with the enemy rather than lay there and be shot. One Yankee wrote:
Above, the summit of the hill was one sheet of flame and smoke, and the awful explosions of artillery and musketry made the earth fairly tremble. Below, the columns of dark blue, with the old banner of beauty and of glory leading them on, were mounting up with leaning forms.... Cannon shot tore through their ranks; musket balls were rapidly and tearfully decimating them; behind them, the dead and wounded lay thick as autumn leaves.... With a wild cheer and a madder rush our men dashed forward, and for a few moments a sharp, desperate, almost hand-to-hand fight with bayonet and ball ensued. Before this resistless assault the rebel line was lifted as by a whirlwind, and borne backward, shattered, bleeding and confused.

The strong position was not taken just because of the bravery of the Federal troops, there were problems with the position itself. Although it was strong naturally, that strength made the defenders careless. The order for the first line to fall back after a few volleys had not been communicated to all the troops, so there was confusion and demoralization. The engineers had also made a bad mistake, placing the top line of rifle pits on the geographical crest rather than the military crest. On Missionary Ridge the defenders had blind spots, since they were on the actual crest. When the Federals came up the hill, not stopped by the Confederate volleys, the men broke and ran for the rear. The officers tried to stem the rout, but it was of no use. Bragg himself tried to rally them, but they ignored him. “Grey clad men rushed wildly down the hill and into the woods,” a Yankee wrote, “tossing away knapsacks, muskets and blankets as they ran. Batteries galloped back along the narrow, winding roads with reckless speed, and officers, frantic with rage, rushed from one panic-stricken group to another, shouting and cursing as they strove to check the headlong flight, but all in vain.”

37 cannon and 3000 men were captured, and Bragg himself barely made his escape. The Confederate center was completely wrecked. the Federals had suffered heavily as well. Sheridan alone, who had delivered the heaviest assault, had lost 1,346 of his 6500 men. Some regiments had over half their men killed or wounded. They halted for a time at the top of the ridge, resting on their gains. The Confederates on the left and right of the line tried to contain the breakthrough as much as possible, fighting the Federals from both directions. Cleburne's men held their ground until after sunset, and they retreated last, the unbroken rear guard of Bragg's army.

Missionary Ridge
During the course of this several day battle for Chattanooga, Bragg had lost 361 killed, 2160 wounded and 4146 captured, while Grant had 753 killed, 4722 wounded and 349 captured. But more importantly, Confederate control of Chattanooga, the gateway to the South, had been lost. Many mistakes had been made which caused Bragg to lose his very strong position. He had bad relations with many of his subordinates, causing some very talented men to have to be removed from his command so that the army could continue to function. Longstreet had been sent to East Tennessee, weakening the force. The entrenchments on Missionary Ridge had been badly positioned, and orders to the men had been confused. By this time, most of the Confederates were veterans. They knew when to stand and fight and when to run. When they thought they had no chance of success, they ran, with the exception of Cleburne's men on the right.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Battle of Lookout Mountain

Lookout Mountain
According to the Union plan for the Battle of Chattanooga, Joseph E. Hooker attacked the Confederate positions on Lookout Mountain 150 years ago today. Lookout Mountain is a 1,800 foot height rising above Chattanooga and the Tennessee River. The overall commander of the mountain was Brigadier General Carter Stevenson, a West Pointer and career military officer from Virginia. He placed his own brigade on the very summit, with three others on a bench below. Altogether, he had about 8,700 men. Although the mountain looks easy to defend, it actually was more difficult than it appeared. The bench was commanded by Union artillery, and the Federals outnumbered the Southern defenders with their force of 12,000 men. On September 24th, the mountain was wreathed in mist, causing the battle that day to be called romantically, though technically incorrectly, the Battle Above the Clouds.

Hooker's men were supposed to march at dawn, but they were delayed until 8:30 am. As they marched forward, they were covered by 13 Union batteries firing on the Confederate positions. The Federal forces encountered Confederate skirmishers at 9:30 and pushed them back with their superior forces. The Confederates had been told to fall back fighting, as they did not have the strength for a full defense. Stevenson's artillery on the summit of the mountain opened fire, and as the Union advanced close the gunners had to depress their weapons more and more. Finally, the Yankees reached a point where the guns could not be pointed downward any further, making the artillery on the summit useless. Lookout Mountain was too steep for an easy defense, since the cannon could not sweep the entire approach. But the rough ground made the advance hard for the Federal troops. A Union officer wrote of the battle:
[S]lowly yet steadily the assailing lines of battle swept up the rugged mountain, driving before them the enemy's heavy line of skirmishers, which gradually fell back upon the main line of battle.... At this moment the prospect, which to the spectator upon the fortified ridge directly opposite, and where the batteries were stationed, had been one of the most grand and imposing that can be conceived, was suddenly obscured. A dense cloud enveloped the side of the mountain, and though the summit was in full view above the cloud, the furiously contending forces upon the Northern slope were entirely hidden. The incessant clatter and rattle of musketry still continued, but on one, save those in the very midst of the deadly conflict, could declare how it was going, or who would prove triumphant.

Around the Cravens House, a Confederate regiment beat off one attack, but with the next, they were swamped and routed. Stevenson ordered two more brigades to join the original one in attempting to resist the Union drive, but it was of no use. They tried to form a line, but the Federals got around their flank in the mist and the rebels had to retreat. Finally, near sunset, Hooker ordered his men to halt. Although at points he thought he was about to be defeated, his men had captured half of the mountain after a hard fight through the woods, boulders and mist. He intended to continue the fight the next day. But the next day there would be no battle here. Bragg had ordered Stevenson to abandon the mountain which he did through the afternoon and night. Bragg pulled back the left of his army to focus on the defense of Missionary Ridge. This battle had cost Hooker 629 men, the Confederate defenders 1,251, over 1000 of which were captured.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Battle of Orchard Knob

Tennessee River
After the battle of Chickamauga, the Confederate army under Braxton Bragg pursued the Federals to Chattanooga, where a siege began. Ulysses Grant and reinforcements arrived in the town, and the Federals were able to reopen their supply line. Bragg divided his army, sending Longstreet to fight Bragg in east Tennessee. In the mean time, the Federal forces increased. Sherman's forces began arriving on November 20th.

Grant planned to use Sherman's and Hooker's men to attack Bragg, positioned on the heights around the town. Grant thought that Thomas's troops, who had been defeated at Chickamauga, would not be able to fight. On November 23rd, 150 years ago today, Grant got word that Bragg was abandoning his position. This was not true, he was just sending more men to East Tennessee. By this time, because of the Union reinforcement and the division of the Confederate army, Grant had 76,000 men available to fight, while Bragg had only 43,000.

Grant did not want the Confederates to escape, so he ordered Thomas to attack Orchard Knob, a small rise in front of the main Confederate position on Missionary Ridge. This movement was intended to be a reconnaissance in force to determine the strength of the enemy. At 1:30 pm almost 15,000 Federals moved out in long lines across the fields. They were moving on only 600 Confederates, who fired only one volley before making a hasty retreat.

Orchard Knob
This movement showed Bragg the Federal's intentions, and he recalled the troops he had just sent to Longstreet. Cleburne's division returned in time to participate in the battle, and they would do very good service. The Confederates had neglected to fortify Missionary Ridge during all the weeks of the siege, but the orders were finally given and that work began. But these new entrenchments were constructed with a fatal flaw. They were built on the very top of the ridge, rather than a little below it, on what is called the military crest. This meant that they would not be able see the Yankees for much of their climb up the hill.

Orchard Knob
The Union decided to continue their attack on Bragg, and the generals reworked their plans. The right would attack the Confederate positions on Lookout Mountain, Thomas would continue to press the center at Missionary Ridge, and Sherman would cross the Tennessee River to attack the top of Missionary Ridge on the left.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Gettysburg Address

Lincoln at Gettysburg
When the Battle of Gettysburg was fought and the armies marched away, the small town was left with thousands of dead and wounded to deal with. At first all that could be done was to bury the men in crude and shallow graves. But the Northerners wanted to do for the soldiers that had fallen on their homeland, in one of the greatest Union victories thus far in the war. A committee was formed of men from all the states who had soldiers fight there. A hilltop cemetery had been an important Union position during the battle, so it was natural that a portion of this hill would be turned into a cemetery and memorial for the Union dead. The committee moved fast. 17 acres were purchased, and less than five months later they were ready to commemorate the Soldier's Cemetery.

Lincoln's handwritten draft of the speech
The main speaker for the event was Edward Everett, an important Massachusetts figure who had served as governor, ambassador to Great Britain, Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and President of Harvard. For nearly a decade he had toured the country as an orator. When the ceremony was held, 150 years ago today, Everett gave a two hour speech, but today very few remember what he said. For after him rose President Abraham Lincoln, whose two minute speech is one of the most famous in American history. Lincoln said:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The next day Everett wrote to Lincoln, saying, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Reactions to the speech different, based primarily upon the politics of the commentators. The Republican Chicago Tribune wrote “The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man,” while the Democratic Chicago Times said, “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.”1 The southerners, of course, thought very little of it. The Lynchburg Virginian said, “Really, the ignorance and coarseness of this man would repel and disgust any other people than the Yankees . . . What a commentary is this on the character of our enemies.”2

New York Times article on the address
Those who agreed with Lincoln would come to see it as one of the greatest statements of why the war was fought. A few years later newspaper editor Horace Greeley wrote, “I doubt that our national literature contains a finer gem than that little speech at the Gettysburg celebration....” 3 Republican senator Charles Sumner said, “The battle itself was less important than the speech. Ideas are more than battles."4

Today the Gettysburg Address is regarded by many as one of the foundational statements of American government, ranking in importance with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Some have called it the founding document of a second American revolution. In many ways these analysis are true. The Address is a concise statement that declares that American changed during the Civil War. It experienced a “new birth,” and the debate over what that birth entailed continue in the country to the present day.

1.Contemporary Reactions, Cornell University: The Gettysburg Address http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/gettysburg/ideas_more/reactions_p1.htm.
2.Virginians' Responses fo the Gettysburg Address, 1863-1963 by Jared Elliott Peatman, 2006. http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-04162006-004530/unrestricted/peatman.pdf. p. 39.
3.The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: May 1891, to October 1891. (New York: The Century Co., 1891) p. 380.
4.The Life of Charles Sumner by Jeremiah Chaplin and J. D. Chaplin (Boston: D. Lothrop Company, 1874) p. 421.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Knoxville Campaign - Battle of Campbell Station

While the Confederates were concentrating on Rosecrans' army around Chickamauga and Chattanooga, on the Tennessee-Georgia line, Ambrose Burnside took advantage of transfers of Confederate troops away from East Tennessee. He was successful, and in September Cumberland Gap and Knoxville fell to the Federals. The siege of Chattanooga freed up some of the other Confederate troops, and Braxton Bragg sent James Longstreet with his corps to deal with Burnside. Longstreet disagreed with the order, as both parts of the Confederate army would be outnumbered by the Federals they were facing, but he had to go nonetheless.

Burnside had ignored requests to reinforce the Federals in Chattanooga, but as Longstreet advanced toward him he determined to go out and engage him, and fall back slowly to Knoxville, thereby ensuring that Longstreet did not return quickly to aid Bragg. Longstreet's movements were hampered by problems with the railroad, but finally his men were dropped off at Sweetwater, halfway to Knoxville, on November 12. Then commenced a race between the Confederates and Burnside, who had advanced as planned.

The two armies first seriously engaged each other on November 16th, 150 years ago today. The armies marched on parallel roads towards Campbell's Station. Whoever arrived first would control the route to Knoxville. The Yankees arrived there first, but just fifteen minutes later the Confederates showed up. Longstreet tried to hit the Federals on both flanks, and although the Union right was driven back, the attack on the left did not materialize. Burnside ordered his men to fall back, but they had won the first section of the race, and were able to continue on the road to Knoxville. In this fight the Federals lost about 400, the Confederates, 570. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Meade Crosses the Rappohannock

There was no major battle between the armies of Meade and Lee after the fight at Gettysburg in July, 1863. The time had been spent in preparations and maneuvers, most recently in October's Bristoe Campaign, which ended with the armies right back where they started. In late October the Confederate retreated behind the Rappohannock River. Intended to make their winter quarters there. Meade wanted to cross the river at Fredericksburg, moving around Lee's eastern flank, but the government in Washington insisted on an attack on the front.

He believed the found a weakness in Lee's line, where several units remained north of the river, connected to the rest only by a pontoon bridge. Lee hoped that by holding this bridgehead he could threaten any movements that Meade might make. But Meade decided to strike it with the troops of John Sedgwick, while at the same time William French's men crossed the river several miles downstream.

The Battle of the Rappohannock began 150 years ago today on November 7, 1863. When Lee got word of the Federal movements he decided to have the force at Rappohannock Station try to hold out under Sedgwick's attacks, while the rest of the army focused on crushing French. There were 2,000 men in the division of Jubal Early which held the bridgehead, and they came under artillery fire around 3 pm. As the afternoon wore on with no sign of a further attack, the Confederate believed they were safe. But at dusk a blue line appeared heading towards them at the double quick. Before the Confederates could beat them back, the Yankees were over the entrenchments, fighting them hand-to-hand. Within minutes the Confederates had their lines overrun and their retreat cut off with the capture of the pontoon bridge. Some rebels tried to swim the cold river, but most lay down their arms, realizing further resistance was futile.

The Confederates lost nearly 17,000 men, 80% of those engaged. The Federals lost only 419. The Northerners were able to gain this quick and glorious victory because the Confederates had allowed themselves to be surprised in a position where their retreat could easily be cut off. That evening Walter Taylor, on Lee's staff, wrote that it was “the saddest chapter in the history of this army. …  Miserable, miserable, miserable management.” With this defeat overturning his plans, Lee fell back, south of the Rapidan.