Hooves, Heels, and Wheels

Exploring historic places by horseback, foot and vehicle ...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Civil War: 150 Years Later -The Bickering Confederates / Balls Bluff

In this and subsequent special editions of Hooves, Heels and Wheels, the blog will take a look at the 150th anniversary of the events of the Civil War, and reflect on how they came about, and what implications they have for today ...
The Civil War

150 years ago This Winter : The Bickering Confederates/ Ball's Bluff

Autumn / Winter, 1861-1862

The Bickering Confederates

The new Union General, George B McClellan, was building and training a large army with painstaking care and dedication – perhaps too much, thought Union President Abraham Lincoln and the new Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. This training was taking up the entire last half of 1861, and McClellan had not informed anyone when exactly he planned on attacking the Confederates again.

If General McClellan is not using the army, I would like to borrow it, provided I could see how it could be made to do something" – President Abraham Lincoln.

Washington DC wasn’t the only city that housed a president annoyed with his generals. 100 miles to the south in Richmond, Jefferson Davis sat in his own White House – and butted heads with his own uniformed men.

Unlike Lincoln, Davis himself was a military man, an ex-soldier, a West Point graduate, a veteran of the Black Hawk and Mexican Wars, and a former US Secretary of War. With a resume like that, he preferred to be a far more hands-on commander-in-chief then Lincoln. His primary commanders, Generals Joseph Johnston and P.G.T Beauregard would frequently lock horns with him over this.

Knowing that McClellan’s Yankees were massing and training in peace and safety in Washington and Maryland, both McClellan and Beauregard advised a military strike into Northern territory. Davis forbade it, preferring that the South concentrate on a strictly defensive posture.

Davis did not take kindly to differing opinions. With Beauregard, his solution to avoiding disagreements was simple – ship Beauregard out west to commands in Tennessee and Mississippi. Joseph Johnston was a tougher opponent. He was generous and contentious of the welfare of his soldiers, and this made him very popular – to popular to simply fire for no good reason. Both Davis and Johnston were touchy and easily angered. A quarrel the two men had at the end of 1861 made it clear that the two of these men had problems that went far beyond clothing, feeding and leading the Confederate Army.

Of primary importance, of course, was how the Confederate Army was thwart the next Union invasion - which would inevitably come when winter broke and the weather warmed. The Confederate Army had been camped at Manassas for half a year now. Johnston didn’t want to fight another battle there, and wanted to give battle someplace closer to Richmond – but was unclear to Davis on the details of this important plan. As 1861 drew to a close, and the first winter of the war wore on, the Confederate high command was strained, in spite of victory.

Battle At Balls Bluff

A brief but brutal encounter in October gave the Confederates some cause for cheer – and highlighted the many deficiencies of the Union command. On October 21 1861 a task force of about 2000 Federals crossed the Potomac River near Ball’s Bluff, VA and attempted to oust what they believed to be a small force of Confederates from the nearby town of Leesburg.

This Union force ran into trouble from the start. The Confederate force was in fact around equal in size. This was bad news for the Yankee task force, as it was comprised entirely of rookies who were new to battle, and the Confederates were battle-toughened vets of the Manassas battle. The leadership reflected the experience of the forces. On the scene for the Confederates was Col. Nathan Evans, who had practically started the Battle of Manassas back in July. The Union force was led by Col. Edward Baker, who was almost as new to battle as his men.

The progress of the engagement followed the advantages. Baker’s deployments were unsound, and some of his men got in the ways of others. Baker also ignored key ground, and as a result the Confederate forces were able to press his unit on three sides. Late in the afternoon, Baker collapsed on the battlefield, riddled with six bullets from a Confederate revolver.

The Union attack had lost its leader, and now it lost all hope of success. When two Northern companies mistook a Confederate officer for one of their own, they accidently marched directly into the enemy battle line. The Union attack was doomed, and the force made one of the most tragic and harrowing retreats imaginable, trapped between the Confederates, and the steep precipice of Ball’s Bluff.

… Screams of pain and terror filled the air. Men seemed suddenly bereft of reason, they leaped over the bluff with muskets still in their clutch, threw themselves into the river without divesting themselves of their heavy accoutrements, hence went to the bottom like lead. Others sprang down upon the heads and bayonets of those below. A grey haired private was found with his head mashed between two rocks by the heavy boots of a ponderous Tammany man, who had broken his own neck by the fall! The side of the bluff was worn smooth by the number sliding down.” – Confederate soldier Randolph Shotwell

The Federal casualties for this misbegotten adventure were gut-wrenching. 49 men had been shot dead, but 100 more had drowned in the Potomac River while retreating. Almost 200 more had been wounded and a whopping 529 men had been captured. The damage to the Confederate forces was slight, with only about 150 killed or wounded. What was supposed to be a minor reconnaissance –in-force had become a Federal disaster that was half as bad as the major battle at Bull Run/Manassas had been. Criticism in the press was predictably severe.

History affords few examples of such slaughter”
– Harper’s Weekly

This time military incompetence must accept its own responsibilities. The battle was not a great military blunder, but a great military crime.”—Leslie’s Illustrated

Naturally, the Confederates were once more cheered by the lopsided victory, and this second routing of a Federal force. 1861 ended and 1862 began, and winter came and waned. 150 years ago this winter, American presidents, generals, soldiers and civilians read the news, watched the calendars, and minded the weather. 1862 would surely bring more violence and pain. Would it bring progress in the war? Would it be a year for victory or defeat for either side?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Civil War - 150 Years Later - The North Gets A New General

In this and subsequent special editions of Hooves, Heels and Wheels, the blog will take a look at the 150th anniversary of the events of the Civil War, and reflect on how they came about, and what implications they have for today ...

The Civil War

150 years ago This Summer - The North Gets A New General

Summer-Autumn-Winter, 1861-1862

General George B McClellan

It was July of 1861. Only days before the Union and Confederate forces had clashed at Manassas Virginia. The human cost of the Battle of Manassas had staggered both North and South. In major cities across the cleft nation, newspaper men struggled to find accurate tallies of the dead. Families lined the offices of the pressmen waiting for the casualty lists to be published and released. For 3,000 families in the Union and 2,000 in the new Confederacy, the news would be bad – for some worse than others. 460 Yankee husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and sweethearts would remain forever on the battlefield – so too would 390 Rebel men. Thousands more were wounded – and 1,300 Union soldiers were now in Confederate Prison Camps.

The heartbroken families had the worst of course, but the battle affected everyone in the country. In the North, obviously all was gloom and trauma- for the defeat had not only been costly, but also disorderly, panicky and embarrassing. Abraham Lincoln was despondent. It’s damned bad...” appraised the sixteenth president. For days after the rout, the scrambled divisions of the Union Army straggled back into the vulnerable and now all-but-defenseless capital of Washington DC. Indeed it was “Damned bad”.

The fault did not entirely lie with the defeated Union General Irvin McDowell, of course. He had been prodded into making a premature invasion with untried soldiers who had only enlisted for three months. The failure of a fellow Union general in his mission to pin down a Confederate force allowed two Confederate armies to gang up on his McDowell’s. Generals, however - like politicians and sports coaches -were lightning rods for blame and culpability. It was (and remains to this day) part of their job to accept responsibility for disappointments and disasters that had never been entirely under their control. McDowell’s days as field commander of the Union army were done with. And so the Union General of the Armies, Winfield Scott went to the telegraph office and flashed a cable west on July 24th, 1861.

The recipient of the message was Union General George B McClellan. It read Circumstances make your presence here necessaryCome hither without delay”. McClellan had provided the North with its only victories thus far in the war – small, almost insignificant victories, but both Scott and Lincoln knew that times like this called for the finding of optimism where one could. McClellan wasted no time, arriving at the depressed capital on July 26th.

Drill then drill again”
McClellan quickly found out from President Lincoln himself that his new mission was to reorganize, refit, and recruit the Union army – all Federal forces in the vicinity of the capital. This included what would be known as the Army of The Potomac, the principal Union force that would carry the war into Virginia.

In the months that followed, McClellan threw himself to the task. And ambitious and energetic general, he went right to work on curing what ailed the defeated Union army. Fortresses were built around Washington DC to thwart any Confederate counterattack. Generals and colonels were reviewed and examined – incompetents were fired and worthies promoted. Hardcore discipline was clamped down onto the city, with 1000 US Regular soldiers acting as military police. They roared through the city and cleaned derelict soldiers out of gambling houses, brothels, and taverns. Liquor was forbidden in camps (officially anyway), and civilians were not allowed to visit camps except with special passes. Under McClellan’s tutelage, the troops would be too busy for visiting anyway.

The first thing in the morning is drill, then drill, then drill again. Then drill, drill, a little more drill. Then drill, and lastly drill. Between drills, we drill, and sometimes stop to eat a little and have roll-call.” Oliver Norton 83rd PA Infantry

If McClellan had learned one thing from his McDowell, his hapless predecessor, it’s that very bad things happen when armies are under trained. McClellan would never let it be said of him that he tolerated a lack of discipline and drill. Troops would train and maneuver all day, every day, and the effort would be more massive than anything ever seen in America, for in the aftermath of the Manassas disaster, President Lincoln had sent out the call for more volunteers – many more – 500,000 nationwide. Trains chugged into Washington several times a day, and they hauled in 10,000 new recruits every week. McClellan was determined that each of these newbies would know their place in the military machine before his army ever saw the Confederates again.

New soldiers would first train and drill in squad teams, then by companies. Then all ten companies in a regiment would train together as one. In a matter of months, regiments were teaming up to train as brigades, and then brigades were working together as divisions. The spectacles were nothing like any American had ever seen.

Late summer came and went. Autumn brought the colder weather, and still the Union army practiced and drilled. McClellan’s evolutions created a powerful esprit de corps. Soldiers were now proud of themselves and units competed to be the snappiest at maneuvering. Regiments and brigades prided themselves on how infrequently commanders needed to bark orders, the men instead responding to the tap of the drums and the peal of the bugle. All units vied to be so well-trained that that every man could obey the “crack” of the drums … such troops were nicknamed “crack” troops.

For all the positive changes he was bringing to the Union army, McClellan was also cultivating opponents. McClellan would later go down in history as a slow-moving and cautious general … and this was already beginning to show. Northern politicians and the newspapers had been hoping that the new general would quickly move back into attack mode and bring about another battle before 1861 was over. This was no part of McClellan’s plans. He wanted months to train, not weeks, and grew embittered when well-meaning amateurs began to goad him into getting on with an attack. The training would go on, and New Year’s day of 1862 would see the Army of the Potomac planted right where it had been for the last few months… better trained and equipped, yes, but no further closer to victory then it had been when it staggered back home from Manassas.

One hundred and fifty years ago this winter, America began to learn some more realities of the war they were in. They had already learned of some horror and heartbreak – and would learn more- but now was also a time for boredom and frustration – factors that were just as real and challenging to a nation at war.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Civil War 150 Years Later - The Fury in Missouri

In this and subsequent special editions of Hooves, Heels and Wheels, the blog will take a look at the 150th anniversary of the events of the Civil War, and reflect on how they came about, and what implications they have for today ...

The Civil War

150 years ago This Summer - Fury in Missouri

June-Sept, 1861

Summer of 1861 was the first ‘battle summer’ of the Civil War. July of 1861 brought the first large scale land battle on the hot and dusty fields of Manassas , Virginia – and with the sobering and frightening realization that this could be a long and bloody conflict.

A month after the bloodshed at Manassas, the people of North and South received another bitter lesson about the courage and tenacity of their foes, and of the staggering price that the Civil War would exact from both sides.

The state of Missouri had been deeply divided ever since the election of Abraham Lincoln. When the War began in April of 1861, St. Louis was quickly secured by Union forces, but much of the population of the rest of the state was pro- Confederate. A sharp and violent conflict would be waged for the soul of the state, reaching an explosive climax at Wilson’s Creek.

The Lyon Gives Chase

Missouri Confederates reacted quickly to the seizure of St. Louis, setting up headquarters in the state’s capital, Jefferson City. But by June 10th, the capital city had been captured by Union forces under General Nathanial Lyon. Confederate Forces under General Sterling Price and Missouri’s Pro-South governor Claiborne Fox Jackson fell back to the northwest of the state, giving up land to the Union, even as more Confederates joined thei ranks.

Eager to capitalize on this success Lyon, now in control of most of the Missouri River, packed his 6,000 soldiers on steamboats and chugged upriver in pursuit. On June 17th, 1861 Lyon’s men routed the Confederates again at the Battle of Booneville.

Once rallied from this latest disappointment, Price and Jackson decided that they would not attempt to fight Lyon again unless they received substantial reinforcements. These were nearby, a second Confederate army under General Ben McCulloch moving north from Arkansas. Price and Jackson moved south in order to hasten a linkup. Other Missouri Confederates rallied to this army even as it retreated away from Lyon’s Federals.

By July 29th McColloch’s Confederate force linked up with Price and Jackson, the tactical situation had completely reversed. The Union forces that had been chasing them had dropped to under 6000 men (under fairly good discipline) while the Confederate army, swelled by the enlistment of new recruits had ballooned to a huge 14,000 men (mostly untrained and undisciplined).Here in southwestern Missouri, Union General Lyon was now outnumbered, far from his supply base, and without cavalry to protect him in the event of a retreat. The Confederates, on the other hand, had about 1500 horsemen, who were quickly learning how to slow down Lyon’s pursuit. Price and McCoulloch, in an uneasy command arrangement, turned to face their Union tormentors in early August, camping at Wilson’s Creek.

Warfare at Wilson’s Creek
The feisty Lyon decided his best option was to fight with what advantages he had. His troops were better trained, and –for the moment at least- better supplied and equipped then his enemy. Surprise and discipline, he hoped, would make up for his lack of numbers.
On August 9th, 1861 Lyon’s men moved out. The bluecoats plan was daring and complex. Lyon’s right hand colonel, Franz Sigel, would lead 1,200 men around the Confederate right flank, while Lyon personally led the bulk of his force, 3,600 directly against the Confederate front.
Lyon’s audacity paid off at first. The night march to the Confederate positions was not detected. The Union attack began perfectly. To the northern part of the battlefield, Lyon’s men pushed up a hill and blasted off the Confederate units posted there. On the southern slope of the same hill , the main Confederate camp roused itself to attack the federal interlopers. Union and Confederate battle lines advanced and retreated all over the northern elevation, which from this point on would be known as Bloody Hill.
The battle had only just begun when the Confederates received a second horrible surprise. Segal’s strike force, responding to the noise of battle to their north attacked from the south, routing the first Southerners they met. The disjointed Confederates were forced to defend two separate locations.

It was at this point that Segal’s and Lyon’s luck collapsed. Segal took a wrong turn after routing his initial resistance, and gave the Confederates time to rally and organize. Segal’s poor navigation led him into a valley where he found himself surrounded by McColloch’s Confederates. When the Southerners rallied for a counterattack, the outnumbered Northerners turned tail and ran. The Northern battle plan had lost its entire southern half.

Meanwhile, Bloody Hill was earning-in spades- its frightening nickname. Confederates under Price charged Lyon’s outnumbered bluecoats time and again, only to be thrown back with heavy loss. The point-blank firing on the hillside was taking its toll on the Union defenders as well. Men in blue and plainclothes fell left and right (the motley Confederates had no uniforms). The hill became a macabre man-trap as the death struggle raged for five dreadful hours. McColloch, having dispatched Segal’s column, joined forces with Price, and the entire Confederate weight fell on the Lyon’s Yankees on Bloody Hill.

The courageous and fiery Lyon rode his horse along his men, steadying his lines and encouraging the fearful, despite being slightly wounded. But the Yankees were by now getting the worse of the fight. At around 11:00, Lyon himself was killed by a Confederate bullet square to the chest. So many other Union officers had been killed and wounded that nobody above the rank of major survived to assume command. Responsibility devolved onto Major Samuel Sturgis. He skillfully disengaged the badly damaged Union army, and managed its retreat back to Springfield. McColloch’s Confederates, on whom the day had been equally rough on were more than happy to let them go.


The Battle of Wilson’s Creek had been spectacularly bloody, considering the small numbers of soldiers involved. The Union lost more than 1300 men, almost as many as had fallen at Manassas/Bull Run only three weeks earlier. The Confederates had lost about the same number. Lyon’s old Union army was badly hurt, with a total loss of about 27%. For the second time in as many months, telegraphs clicked to life and brought the bad news home to city newspapers.
It had been a Confederate victory … but it would not save Missouri for the South. Lyon’s dogged chase of his dangerous Confederate quarry had ensured that the only safe place for the Confederates were the hinterlands of the state – there would be little hope of every retaking Jefferson City or St. Louis. And so the important populations, political and industrial centers of Missouri were permanently secure in Union hands. Missouri would never set up a pro-Confederate government, because no Confederates would be around to protect it. A Unionist Missouri would result.

A new Union general would arrive on the scene in August. Major General John Charles Fremont was a national hero – a celebrity soldier who had blazed the Oregon Trail and California Trail, earning him the nickname The Pathfinder. A more glamorous and famous adventurer did not exist in the US Army. Sadly, Fremont was a general who had far more pomp and ceremony then military skill.

Fremont's Futility
Fremont’s unpreparedness cost the Union a yet another defeat on September 20th. General Price, trying to follow up on his success at Wilson’s Creek, attacked north and besieged and captured the town of Lexington, Missouri providing the Southerners with much needed military supplies. Then Fremont began a clumsy chase of Price, misled by reconnaissance so bad that Union General prepared his army for attack, little suspecting that the crafty Confederate had escaped and was now 50 miles away. Fremont’s embarrassing performance made it plain to President Lincoln that he had not yet found a general he could rely on for victories.

The North was losing battles, the South had already lost a state, tens of thousands of Missourians had lost their homes, and thousands of soldiers had lost limbs and lives. The Civil War was already taking a heavy toll, and 150 years ago this summer, it was only beginning.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Civil War - 150 Years Later - The First Battle of Manassas

In this and subsequent special editions of Hooves, Heels and Wheels, the blog will take a look at the 150th anniversary of the events of the Civil War, and reflect on how they came about, and what implications they have for today ...

The Civil War

150 years ago This Summer - The Battle Of First Manassas

July 21, 1861

150 years ago this summer had a week of high hopes, romantic notions – and brutal crushing reality. At the First Battle of Manassas, two highly spirited, amateur armies clashed in violent baptisms of fire and smoke. Both were hopeful and confident of quick and easy victory, and both were to be cruelly disillusioned in the heat, dust, and blood of Northern Virginia.

President Abraham Lincoln had issued his call for northern volunteers in April of 1861. The vast majority of them had enlisted for 90 days. Now at the end of July, it was almost time for their enlistments to end. Northern press had been clamoring for a general advance to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron were quite simply out of time.

To be sure there had been minor skirmishing in Western Virginia and the York-James Peninsula. At the skirmishes of Phillipi and Rich Mountain, Union forces routed a small Confederate force. These tiny Union victories secured the western counties of Virginia for the North and helped pave the way for the region to enter the Union as the State of West Virginia. The Federal Commander here, George B. McClellan would soon be a major player in the Civil War.

ON the Virginia Peninsula, Union General Benjamin Butler had once again exceeded his orders and, instead of keeping his soldiers in Fortress Monroe as ordered, launched a two-regiment force up the Peninsula, an expedition that was decicively blocked and halted at the Battle of Big Bethel. The Confederate commander here, Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill, would also become an important Civil War name.

These, however, were small affairs in June and early July of 1861, and did not involve the large armies assembling in Washington and Richmond. The vast majority of summer soldiers had done very little since enlisting, and they were in danger of being sent home before anything useful could be asked of them. As far as the presidents were concerned, the time for a decisive battle that would decide the war was now.

The Union and Confederate presidents and generals looked at similar maps and arrived at the same conclusions. – The main thrust of the North’s first attack would be either Manassas Junction or the Shenandoah Valley directly to the west. Both were important objectives in Northern Virginia.

The Shenandoah Valley stretched 75 miles from Harpers Ferry, VA to Lexington in the southwest. In between the two lay much of Virginia’s productive farmland – the breadbasket of the Confederacy. To defend the Valley against possible attack, the Confederates deployed an army under General Joseph Johnston.

Target: Manassas

Manassas Junction, located 25 miles west of Washington DC was the meeting point of two train lines. The Orange and Alexandria RR ran from the Potomac River south to Charlottesville. A shorter spur ran 51 miles to the west to Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, and joined the O&A at Manassas, putting the “Junction” in “Manassas Junction”. Now, a Confederate army commanded by the hero of Fort Sumter, General PGT Beauregard defended the junction of the two train lines. To protect his prize, Beauregard deployed his brigades along a shallow stream called Bull Run.

In Washington DC generals Winfield Scott and Irvin McDowell put the finishing touches on their battle plans. An army under General Robert Patterson would be tasked with keeping the Confederate Shenandoah Army pinned down. Irving McDowell’s Union Army would then attack and overwhelm Beauregard’s army at Manassas. Thus the campaign, as planned, would involve four separate armies- two Union, (under Patterson and McDowell) and two Confederate (under Johnston and Beauregard). The Union plan hinged on both generals acting as a team. If Patterson was not able to keep Johnston’s Army in the Shenandoah, nothing would stop Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard at Manassas and overwhelming McDowell.

McDowell, shouldering the responsibility of defeating the Confederate field army, had misgivings about the plan, or more specifically the components of it. His army consisted of 90-day troops who were still not able to march, much less fight as a team. No two regiments drilled or were uniformed the same way. Rather then commanding a “Union” army, McDowell led small-assorted armies from the 15 or so Northern States.

All this could be solved with more time, and more training, but these were two luxuries McDowell did not have. The Northern populous had become irritable and impatient for some action, and that impatience had reached the president, who ordered McDowell to take his slipshod army into action.

The ancient Scott tried to reassure his nervous go-to general with some of President Lincoln’s folksy homespun wisdom. “You are green, it is true.” He said. “But they are green too. You are all green alike”.

McDowell also had a grim feeling that the elderly general Patterson was not up to the task of keeping Johnston occupied in the Shenandoah. The coming battle would reveal many flaws in McDowell’s leadership, but his appraisal of Patterson’s weakness was sound. Reluctantly, McDowell ordered his army of rookies towards Manassas Junction on July 16th, 1861.

Along the banks of Bull Run, McDowell’s old classmate was waiting for him. General Pierre G. T. Beauregard had graduated West Point with McDowell in 1838, and was now in command of his own army of rookies. Beauregard was expecting to be outnumbered and he was right. He only had a little over 21,000 men to McDowell’s advancing 37,000, but Beauregard would have two strong advantages. Firstly he’d be fighting on defense, normally an easier task with green soldiers, who would not have to do the complicated demands of an advance and attack that McDowell’s men would have to perform. Secondly, the Manassas Gap Railroad was on his side, able to shift Johnston’s men from the Shenandoah for backup if things got to hot for Beauregard (provided of course Johnston could give Patterson the slip).

McDowell’s strike force shambled west to Bull Run at a pace that would seem pathetic compared to later marches in the Civil War. The greenhorn soldiers took two whole days and nights to cover the none-too-demanding 25 miles to Centreville, the last town on the Union side of Bull Run. Speed was laughable, and any hope of secrecy was shot to pieces. Even the most casual Confederate scout couldn’t fail to notice the Union advance.

The Incident at Blackburn's Ford
As if to guarantee that every Confederate within a hundred miles would know that the Union army was here in force, McDowell ordered one of his divisions, that under General Daniel Tyler to perform a reconnaissance along the Run, to observe the roads, but not to bring on an engagement. Tyler’s division consisted of about 12,000 men, so when it moved, it didn’t move with anything along the lines of stealth.

Tyler probed a spot along Bull Run called Blackburn’s Ford on July 18th, and ran smack into Confederate forces. A sharp violent fight ensued, which resulted in 85 Union casualties to about 70 Confederate. Tyler was stopped cold, and later rebuked by McDowell for exceeding his orders. The effort however, did teach McDowell something about Confederate defenses at Bull Run- they were strong - too strong to attack directly. His plan would have to be finessed a little, and McDowell paused to adjust his plan.

Tyler’s probing of Blackburn’s Ford may have taught the Federals something, but it taught the Confederates a lot more. Beauregard now knew that he was going to be heavily attacked, and soon. He requested that Johnston’s 10,000 men move from the Valley and assist his 20,000.

This was easier done then said. Patterson, it seemed, had little-to-no interest in carrying out his all-important assignment of pinning Johnston, and in fact made no effort to engage. Johnston was able to hustle his men onto trains without his Union opponent suspecting. McDowell needed to act fast, as soon he’d be facing not one Confederate army, but two. The clock was ticking, and McDowell spent much of it coming up with a new plan of attack. His big push to capture Manassas Junction would not be ready until July 21st. All the while, trains carrying reinforcements chugged and snorted into Manassas Junction, bearing Johnston’s army, ready to participate in theup coming fight.

To seize the junction, Irvin McDowell came up with a new and daring plan. The left end of the long Confederate battle line rested on a Stone Bridge that carried Warrington Turnpike over the Bull Run. McDowell decided to feint at this bridge with Tyler’s division of 12,000 men, then, while Confederate attention was focused there, lead another 15,000 men to cross the Bull Run at a place called Sudley Springs Ford, an unguarded creek crossing two miles to the left of where the Confederate line ended. Then, those 15,000 men (in two divisions under Genls. David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman) would drive down on the Confederate left flank and rear. With any luck the Confederates would have to abandon the junction, a mere 7-mile march from where the strike force would ford the creek. It was an excellent scheme, if it could be executed with speed and stealth, and if Hunters and Heintzelman’s main strike force remained undetected.

Everything that could have gone wrong for the Northern army did go wrong on the morning of July 21st. Divisions stepped off in the wrong order. Heintzelman and Hunter got lost. Tyler started his diversion at 6 am while the main strike force was nowhere near the creek, and would not be until 9. To make matters worse, the Confederates saw through the diversion.

Tyler’s demonstration at the Stone Bridge was parried by Confederate General Nathaniel Evans’ brigade. After about an hour of skirmishing and firing across the creek, Evans could figure out that the Union soldiers to his front (Tyler’s men) was not really trying to seize the bridge. He became suspicious. His suspicions were confirmed when a courier came galloping up to him with a note that was written by a Confederate officer in a signal tower a few miles to the rear. “Look out on your left! You are turned!” warned the note. The Confederate lookout had spotted the glint of rifles and cannons in a long line moving through the woods to the Sudley Springs Ford. Hunter and Heintzelman’s main strike force had been detected.

Evans responded quickly. Leaving only a scratch force to guard the bridge (which he decided wasn’t being seriously attacked anyway) he hustled the bulk of his men towards the Sudley Ford, taking up positions on a hill about a half-mile south of Sudley. The hill was on a farm owned by a man named Matthews. Here he’d make his stand. Here, the battle for Manassas would begin in earnest.

Matthews Hill – The First Killing Ground

In spite of the Federal problems this morning, things seemed to be going well for the North. By 9:15, two Yankee divisions were across the Bull Run. They had flanked the Confederate army! Busting out of the woods south of the Sudley Ford, the Rhode Islanders that made up the vanguard of the main strike force were confident that had the drop on their Southern foes. Thus they were shocked when Evan’s Confederates unleashed a wicked volley that stopped them dead in their tracks. The Union men were so surprised that they thought they were outnumbered. In reality, the opposite was true.

Evans only had 900 men and 2 cannons to defend against Hunter’s 6,000 men. He had no hope of stopping the Northern advance, only slowing it. To accomplish this Evans used the bluff. Rather then pull his pathetically outnumbered force off of Matthews’ Hill, he ordered an attack. The attack failed and was beaten back, but it stalled the Northern men for just enough time to allow Evans to call for help.

Confederate help came in the form of two more brigades led by General Bernard Bee and Colonel Francis Bartow. They linked up with Evans’ units, forming a combat line of 5,500. But no sooner had they reached these positions, then the Federals got backup of their own. Heintzelman’s division came to support Hunter, and the two divisions now fielded their full strength of 15,000.

The Confederate line decided to perform a repeat of Evans’ earlier bluff and charged down the hill towards the two Union divisions, bravely enduring the casualties to buy time for Johnston and Beauregard to order up more reinforcements. The suicidal charge was effective in halting the huge Union force for a time, but the casualties were awful, and the three courageous Confederate brigades of Evans, Bee and Bartow finally reached the point where they could do no more. They tried to execute an orderly withdrawal to a small stream called Young’s Branch, just to the south, but no sooner had they reached this spot, when yet more Federal soldiers arrived! The North now had six brigades across Bull Run, and had badly beaten up the two and a half Southern brigades that had faced them. The men of Bee, Bartow, and Evans broke in a panic and fled south, across the Warrington turnpike and up the next hill, the Henry Hill. Behind them, Matthews Hill was a grim and frightening wasteland of shattered and shot torn trees, dead horses, moaning and screaming wounded, and mangled dead men of both North and South.

Rallying on the Henry Hill
The Union had won the fight for Matthews Hill, and so far it seemed they had won the entire battle – perhaps the entire war! General Irvin McDowell had arrived on the field and was jubilant. In spite of the late start, in spite of losing much of the element of surprise, in spite of the unexpected and ferocious Confederate resistance at Matthews Hill, his blue columns were marching onward. The sight of disorganized and frightened Confederates fleeing before them thrilled every man in blue, from General McDowell to the greenest private.

Union progress had come at a rough cost. So far they had won, but now Generals McDowell and Heintzelman were learning that winning a fight could be just as disorganizing and exhausting as loosing one. Several regiments were running out of ammo, and others had been badly chewed up in dislodging the Rebels from Matthews Hill. The advance would continue, but McDowell decided that his men needed a slight break to reorganize.

Later, as the history of the battle of First Manassas was written, it would generally be decided that this is where things started going wrong for the Union – and right for the Confederates. McDowell’s pause was not inherently a mistake in and of itself – he had good and proper reasons for doing ordering one. His attack force was disorganized, and the lead elements of it had been badly beaten up at Matthew’s Hill. Surely it would be better to continue the fight with the newly arriving brigades. But like all decisions it had consequences. McDowell’s decision to stop gave the Confederates time to stop running and catch their breath, and they did just that over the next hill to the south.

South of the turnpike and the Matthews Hill was another hill owned by an elderly widow, Judith Henry. Logically enough, the hill was called the Henry Hill. Here the ruined and bleeding regiments of Evans, Bee, and Bartow came upon a new brigade of Confederate reinforcements. Virginians all, they were commanded by a professor at the Virginia Military Acadamy, Thomas Jackson. General Bee, desperate to get his men organized, so they could resume the fight saw Jackson’s unit, the only Confederate one on the field that had any semblance of order now. “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!” He bellowed, “Rally behind the Virginians!”

Historians still argue as to what Bee meant- was he praising the cool discipline of the Virginia brigade? Or was he bitterly griping that while his units were fought out, Jackson’s men had halted to make their stand, - standing like a stonewall - and were not attacking the Union forces yet? Sadly, Bee would never clarify his statement, as he would be mortally wounded and lay dying before this violent day was ended. Bee had however made his contribution to history – he had given Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson his luminous nickname.

By now it was almost 1:30 in the afternoon. Generals Beauregard and Johnston hustled four more Confederate brigades up to the scene of the fighting. The Confederate lines began to re-form again around Jackson’s intact brigade, now backed up by artillery. As they did so, General McDowell organized his Union forces for one final push up the Henry Hill. Manassas Junction was now only three miles away, and it was high time for McDowell to finish the battle.

If McDowell’s decision to pause was a possible error, his next command was a certain one. He ordered two batteries of artillery under Capts Charles Griffin and James Ricketts to ascend Henry Hill and engage the Confederate line – before he had infantry to send to back them up. This left the cannons alone and vulnerable to counterattack by Jackson’s men. It also set the stage for an awful battlefield tragedy.

80-year-old Judith Henry had been weathering the battle in her bed. Her house, alone and bare on this hillside was seen as an ideal perch for Confederate sharpshooters- particularly when the Federal cannons set up in her front yard. When Confederates used Mrs. Henry’s outbuildings (and possibly house) as sniper’s nests and began picking off horses and men Ricketts, lacking any infantry support to seize the house, turned two of his cannons on the structure, and opened fire. The Rebel snipers scattered, but sadly a single shell exploded in the old woman’s bedroom, tearing off one of her feet. Mortally wounded, Henry would not survive the day.

The Tide Turns
McDowell finally sent up some infantry to protect the cannons, but chose the greenest troops in his army to do it- the 11th New York Zouaves, backed up by the 14th Brooklyn. Their arrival restarted the battle with the new Confederate line; a battle the Northerners got the worst of. First Confederate cavalry charged the 11th New York, - the Empire Staters repelled the charge, but were quickly fought out. The Union cannons still had no effective infantry backup.
Just then, the Confederates caught a decisive lucky break. Captain Griffin ordered two of his Northern cannons to set up on the left side of the Confederate line. The fact that the Confederate regiment on this end of the line wore blue (instead of the gray most Confederate units wore) was going to cause serious problems. Griffin was convinced that he faced Confederates, but his superior officer ordered him not to fire, for fear that they’d be shooting Union soldiers. Griffin protested, but the order stood. The blue-garbed Southerners capitalized on the mistake, and fired at the guns at-point-blank range. The two Federal gun crews were almost wiped out, and the survivors abandoned their cannons and fled.

Fired by this success, the entire Confederate line attacked. A furious hand-to hand brawl erupted at the Union cannons, as Mc Dowell slowly fed more and more troops into the fray. The advantage had swung sharply towards the South – their units were fresher and at this point better organized, while the Union reserves were getting weaker, and more skittish. The daylong battle had turned Matthews and Henry Hills into grotesque war zones, and fresh Union rookies had to trudge past the dead, the crippled, the maimed, and the panicking retreating troops before getting to the fight. Many Union soldiers arrived in line already unnerved. The battle seesawed around the cannons for the better part of two hours, with casualties mounting on both sides. Finally, at 3:45, the final fresh Union brigade was committed to the fight …

… where they were immediately mauled by the last TWO fresh Confederate brigades. Almost as one, the entire Union line buckled, then fell back, then collapsed entirely. Units that used to be organized and disciplined disintegrated when they came in contact with their jittery comrades. Every Union soldier desperately sought out the exits for the battlefield. Union generals lost all control, and their every attempt to restore order was completely in vain.

Retreat, Rout, Resolve
"It's damned bad" -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Where are your vaunts, and the proud boasts with which you went forth? Where are your banners, and your bands of music, and your ropes to bring back your prisoners? The sun rises, but shines not ..." -- Walt Whitman, Brooklyn Standard

"We shall flog these scoundrels and traitors all the more bitterly for it before we are done with them!" -- Union soldier

In an episode practically bordering on dark comedy, the fleeing Union troops ran headlong into a legion of Northern civilians who had come from Washington to see the battle, and presumably the defeat of the Confederates. Now that they were blocking the Union retreat, they were about to become part of the battle itself. If the morale and discipline of the Yankee army had been salvageable before this point, it was destroyed now. The Union retreat disintegrated into a chaotic rout as terrified soldiers and civilians ran like mad towards DC.

The Confederates were overjoyed to win the battle but for the most part were in no condition to pursue the enemy. Only a few Confederates even tried. One of them, a Southern artillery battery, fired the parting shots of the battle of Manassas, putting the final period onto their victory. A shell flipped over a Union wagon on the Cub Run Bridge, blocking the bridge just as Union soldiers arrived at it. Flinging aside knapsacks, guns and haversacks, the embittered Federals continued their way towards the Capital. Overhead, rain clouds formed and began to drizzle, matching the mood of the Union soldiers – and the whole Union- precisely.

The Union army retreated all afternoon, all night, and into the next morning. For a matter of days, the divisions remained shattered and smashed in the city. Soldiers milled about with seeming no purpose in mind. A dejected President Lincoln mumbled, “It’s damned bad”.

Both North and South were stunned at the casualty lists. This battle of Americans vs. Americans had been far more costly then either side had thought it’d be. The North had lost 430 dead, 1,071 wounded, and 1,790 missing – a body count of over 3,000 - a sixth of the 18,000 soldiers actually engaged in combat. The Confederates, having won the battle, didn’t have many casualties in the “missing” column, but the fight was otherwise as rough on them as it had been on the Federals. 390 Rebels were dead, and 1580 were wounded. They too had gotten about 18,000 men into the fight, and had lost 1 out of every 9 who fought. It was true that Billy Yank and Johnny Reb lacked many of the things that made for a true soldier, but as the casualties proved, guts were not the problem.

For both sides, but the North especially, there were harsh lessons to learn. First and foremost, the Civil War would be a real war, not a 90-day sojourn. Serious thought and resources would have to go into the problems of logistics, leadership, weaponry, and most of all training and discipline. The next time North and South would meet in battle, things would be different. Both armies would be trained, both armies would have been seasoned and bloodied by experience, and both armies would be comprised of more apt killers.

And there would be a next time. The North did not have their resolve dampened by their frustrating and humiliating loss, at least not this time. Rather then reconsider the wisdom of their efforts to restore the Union by force, the North would double and triple their efforts. The Battle of Bull Run (as the North came to call the action) joined Fort Sumter as causes to be avenged.

For the South, there was of course jubilation at their repulse of the Federal Army. Beauregard, Johnston and Jackson became rising stars in the Confederate Army. Jackson’s brigade was forever after known as The Stonewall Brigade. Pride and honor indeed …but none were naive enough to think they had won the war. The enemy they had defeated had, after all, been made up of Americans, people for whom a lost battle had never meant a lost war.

One hundred fifty years ago this summer, America – now two Americas- gasped in pain and horror as the reality of the Civil War thundered across northern Virginia. The lists of casualties were telegraphed to all the newspapers in New York … Richmond … Philadelphia … New Orleans … Cincinnati… Charleston … Chicago … Mobile … Green Bay… each violent and bloody death on a battlefield causing numerous broken hearts back at home. It was far more awful then anyone had imagined … and it was only beginning.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Bear Facts Part I - Black Bears

The Bear Facts part I – Black Bears

On Wednesday, July 6th 2011 a 57- year old man was mauled to death by a female grizzly bear on a trail at Yellowstone National Park. Unfortunately the hiker (and his wife, who survived) encountered the bear sow while she was with her two cubs. Without exception mother bears are violently protective against any perceived threat to their offspring. An encounter with a mama bear is easily one of the most hazardous scenarios for a hiker in North America.

The recent tragedy in Yellowstone reminds us to respect the beasts we visit when we spend time in the outdoors. Of all the wildlife a wise hiker is bound to respect, bears rank first and foremost. Intelligent, curious, common, powerful and fierce, bears are among the most magnificent- and the most dangerous – of all creatures to be found on the trail.

There are 3 major types of bear to be found in North America- Black Bear, Brown Bear, and Polar Bear (The ever-famous Grizzly Bear is now considered a sub-division of Brown Bear). All should be treated with respect, and given a wide berth indeed.

Black Bear (Ursas americanus)

The most common- and because of this perhaps the most dangerous - of all bear species in North America is the black bear. Black bears are the smallest of North America’s bears – with adult males weighing in at fewer than 550 lbs, usually. From nose to toes, the length is about six and half feet. They’re incredibly strong for their size, and can casually flip over boulders that weigh over 250 lbs. In addition, black bears are surprisingly graceful runners, able to hit speeds of 25-30 mph. No human could ever hope to outrun a black bear (or any other type of bear) under any circumstances.

Despite the name, “black” bears come in several shades, including black, brown, blonde, and cinnamon. Albino black bears are rare, but they exist.

Black bears are so common that International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies them as “Least Concern” – their population is high enough that they’re in no perceived danger of extinction.

This is good news for the black bears and for their ecosystem, which relies on the bears to keep the insect population in check. Black bears are omnivorous, and thus place plants, animals and bugs on their menu. They love to feast on young trees and other plants, saplings and shoots being a favorite. Black bears are also fine connoisseurs of nuts, berries and fruits, causing much consternation amongst the gray squirrel and chipmunk populations, who are powerless to defend their winter hoards against kleptomaniac black bears. Possessing a sweet tooth, black bears enjoy raiding beehives as well, considering the stings of the indignant bees a small price to pay for the golden honey goodness inside. Black bears will occasionally augment their diets with a some good old fashioned prey, sometimes a moose calf or faun, and very often fish in a local river or creek.

Black bears are found throughout Canada, the Pacific Northwest, the entire Rocky Mountain range, all throughout New England, and up and down Appalachia and the Great Smokey Mountains. They’ve even found places to live in northern Mexico, and in parts of Arizona and New Mexico. Always adaptive, black bears can tolerate most climates, and can be found almost anywhere there’s a food source, and timber for a habitat. This adaptability and large population means that these bears have the highest occurrence of human vs. bear encounters.

Famous Black Bears

The ubiquity of black bears has led to a few celebrities among the species. First we have the anonymous-yet highly influential- black bear that was captured by one of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s hunting party in 1902. Roosevelt declined to shoot the helpless beast. When a newspaper cartoon illustrated this act of mercy, toy maker Morris Mitchtom was inspired to create a toy bear for children. The “Teddy” bear was duly created and duly became an incomparable success in the history of toy merchandising.

Soon following was Winnipeg or “Winnie”, a black bear cub owned by Lt. Harry Colebourn of the Canadian Army during the First World War. Winnie was smuggled aboard ship to England as an unofficial mascot of Colebourn’s unit. Unable to be sent to French battlefields (where there was a strict no-bear policy in the trenches), Winnie was donated to the London Zoo, where her gentle and playful ways made her a favorite with children for the rest of her long life. Among the young hearts Winnie captured was that of Christopher Robin Milne, son of A.A. Milne. Christopher Robin Milne soon named his own teddy bear “Winnie”, and A.A. Milne was soon putting pen to paper detailing the adventures of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh.

Smokey Bear had in fact existed in concept art since 1944, but in 1950 the US National Forrest got a living, breathing spokes-bear they named “Smokey”. The wee black bear cub had just barely survived the Capitan Gap Wildfire, and was immediately adopted by kind-hearted soldiers and forest wardens. Smokey became a national celebrity and was brought to the National Zoo in Washington DC. There he “worked” 26 years of government service, before passing away of natural causes. His remains were buried in a grave in New Mexico. Smokey The Bear still admonishes outdoorsman to be wary of wildfires, and is one of the most recognizable cartoons of all time.

Human and Bear Encounters
At their relatively small (for bears, at least) size, black bears are typically not very belligerent and do no seek out confrontations with humans. This being said, the sheer number of black bears makes it very possible that the outdoorsman will encounter one of the beasts. Matters are made worse by the fact that bears are opportunists, and will always look for the easy score in finding food. This often has tragic consequences for both bears and humans.

If a bear associates humans with easy and quick food, it won’t be long before the bear starts investigating campsites. Since bears are nocturnal, this will usually happen at night, with an inquisitive, but not necessarily violent bear investigating camp kitchens and tents.

Game and wildlife officials call such a bear a “nuisance bear”, and from then on, his days are numbered. Once a bear becomes a “human junkie”, addicted to easy human food, he rarely recovers, and a disaster is only a matter of time.

Human beings react to being awoken in the middle of the night by bears about as well as can be expected, and the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in on both the bear and the human. If the 550 lb black bear chooses “fight” against an unarmed human, the fight usually ends in the bear’s favor. After cleaning up what’s left of the late camper, wildlife officials will normally then hunt down the bear.

When in Bear Country
People who are camping overnight should be sure to put all their “smell-ables” in a bear bag- a sack that contains any scented item in a camp. Toiletries, sunscreen, and (most important of all), food must be placed in the bear bag and strung on a horizontal rope in between two trees. The bag should be suspended not only ten feet in the air but also four feet from the horizontal wire it’s suspended from, and four feet away from the vertical poles or trees. Some campsites will often have artificial bear hanging poles or pipes to make it easier for the camper.

Do not under any circumstances feed bears! This basic tenant of respect for wildlife cannot be stressed enough. Bears are wild animals and must NOT be encouraged to associate human beings with easy food. A foolhardy camper makes things extremely dangerous for the next person to cross the bear’s path, to say nothing of the bear that is better off not picking up any bad habits. As it is said on the walls of many a visitor center: A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear.

Avoid bears by making noise. Banging pots and pans in the middle of a night will typically end a bear’s curiosity about the campsite. If you encounter a bear on the trail, retreat away slowly, but do not run.

Encountering a mother bear with cubs is the most dangerous of all scenarios. Mother bears are homicidally protective of their young, and are normally not interested in scaring the perceived enemy away—preferring to kill the perceived threat. Sadly there is no sure-fire way to surviving this. Bear mace might work, so too might dropping your pack and running for your life.

Bears are the natural landlords of the parks and wildernesses we love to hike and camp in. Fascinating and frightening, they’re an awesome force of nature that remind us humans of our proper place in the world. Despite their inconvenience and sometimes even danger, bears are no less a part of the magnificence of nature then spectacular views and interesting foliage. Always respect the bears!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Civil War - 150 Years Later - The Building Blocks of Armies

In this and subsequent special editions of Hooves, Heels and Wheels, the blog will take a look at the 150th anniversary of the events of the Civil War, and reflect on how they came about, and what implications they have for today ...

The Civil War

150 years ago This Week - The Armies Assemble and Grow

Spring, 1861

To Build an Army

150 years ago this spring, recruits flooded into the army camps throughout the North and South. For all of the men involved, it was a transformative experience and one of the most memorable times of their lives.

It was uncharted territory for Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as well, not to mention their War Departments (as the Department of Defense was called in those days). The sheer numbers of soldiers involved dwarfed any recruitment effort that the country had ever seen.

Up until 1861, the largest army ever seen in America was George Washington’s combined Franco-American force at Yorktown, at the end of the Revolutionary War. This force, impressive for its time, numbered about 20,000. The Union Army assembling in 1861 for the first thrust into Virginia would be half again as large- at 30,000. Confronting it would be a Confederate force of the same strength …and as the war continued, combat forces would only increase in size.

The Regiment – A Second Home

The basic building block of a Civil War army was a regiment of infantry commanded by a colonel. A regiment’s identification consisted of a number, and the state of recruitment, such as the “18th Pennsylvania”, the “33rd Virginia”, or the “10th New York”. Although unsophisticated, the name of the regiment, and at times it’s leader, were venerated by its members. A Civil War soldier took great pride in his regiment, and treated it like his home away from home. Indeed, in a very real sense, his regiment was just that.

Regiments were recruited locally, and a man would enlist with practically all the young men in his area at his side. Fathers served along side sons, brothers served together, and neighbors from down the street were often messmates and tent mates. Village and town doctors became regimental surgeons to the same young men they had delivered 20 years prior, and shopkeepers and professionals served next to their customers and clients.

The benefits to troop morale were enormous, and generals and politicians supported this system as a matter of course. Soldiers, it was believed, simply fought better when surrounded by family and friends. No soldier wanted to be known as the man who shirked his duty, or shrunk from combat in front of his neighbors, and a simple sense of duty to their hometown comrades would inspire soldiers to endure many a hardship in the months and years ahead.

This composition of regiments would, in the course of Civil War combat, show a very dark and horrifying side effect. A regiment could be sent to a particularly dangerous sector of a battlefield, and suffer dreadful casualties – resulting in the death, crippling or maiming of half the men from a given town in a single battle. Another battle months later could kill or wound most of the few that were left. The effect was less noticeable in large cities of course, but for many years after the Civil War, the map would be dotted with small “widow towns” that were populated mostly by women whose fathers, sons, husbands, brothers and sweethearts fell together at Shiloh’s Hornet’s Nest, Antietam’s Cornfield, Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard, or half a hundred other killing grounds.

Brigades, Divisions and Corps

For all the political differences seperating North and South, the two armies were grouped and organized the same way, so that the Union Army collecting in Washington DC was built almost identically to its southern counterpart. Civil War armies had three combat arms – Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery. Infantry was by far the largest and most decisive branch.

Infantry regiments would be composed of ten companies of 100 men, each company commanded by a captain. Theoretically a regiment would thus have about 1000 officers and men, but hardly any Civil War regiment went into battle at full strength. From the day a regiment was formed soldiers fell sick, or became disabled in accidents. Some would even desert their units. Such attrition would start taking their toll on a regiment even before it saw its first battle.

Although a regiment could fight as an independent unit, it hardly ever did. Rather, regiments were grouped together in teams anywhere from two to six regiments (usually four or five). These regiment teams were called brigades, and they were commanded by brigadier (now called ‘one-star’) generals. Brigades would normally move and fight as one, with the brigadier general giving his commands to his several regimental colonels.

As the armies grew larger, brigades would be grouped into divisions, commanded by major generals. An infantry division could have anywhere from two to five brigades, and the brigades that formed them could have two to five regiments of various strengths, so the numbers of men in a division could fluctuate drastically from a small, under strength 5,400 to a large robust 16,000.

Later in the war, as armies became larger still, multiple divisions would be grouped into the largest formation of all, the infantry corps (pronounced "core") An army corps was a significant percentage of the Army, covered a large area on a battle map, and senior major generals commanded them. The spectacularly large battles of the Civil War would each involve over a hundred thousand combatants, and would involve entire corps charging into battle to clash with an enemy corps. The Confederates at Gettysburg had three corps of infantry, and the Union at Antietam had six corps. Since corps strength could fluctuate even more drastically then divisions or brigades, it’s pointless to compare “one Union Corps vs. one Confederate Corps” without knowing how many men were in fact in each.

Cavalry units were also grouped into regiments, but the companies that formed the regiments were known as troops. From there, like their infantry counterparts, cavalry units would be built into regiments, then brigades, then divisions. On some occasions, very large armies could have an entire corps of cavalry.

Artillery units were grouped into batteries – cannons working together as a team to gang up on the same target. A Union battery had six cannons; a Confederate battery usually unlimbered four guns.

Theoretically, a artillery piece was manned by eight men, while four men were nearby to handle the limber and caissons – wheeled vehicles that were attached to a cannon for transport – not to mention the horses. It took a team of six horses to move a cannon-and-limber rig, and six more to move the caisson-and-limber setup that provided ammunition.

Thus when a Union (Or Confederate) artillery battery rumbled onto the field, they unpacked six (or four) guns, twelve (or eight) limbers, six (or four) caissons, 72 (or 48) horses, and about 100 (or 70-80) men to make the whole unit work. Battlefields could quickly become crowded places.

Whether they were infantry, cavalry or atillery, the vast majority of soldiers on both sides were newcomers to warfare. America had not had a major conflict since the Mexican War (1846-1848), so an eighteen year old volunteer in 1861 had been five the last time the country had been at war. The officers were usually more experienced. Several middle age officers had been young men during the Mexican War, and a few officers had fought various Indian tribes over the years. By and large however the summer of 1861 involved one green army confronting another, led by a few generals of various experience.

For leadership in 1861, the South turned to their new hero, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. Beauregard had commanded the Confederates at Fort Sumter, was thus the logical choice.

To be senior to Beauregard, President Davis and his military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, selected Joseph E. Johnston as the ranking field commander of the Confederate Army.

In Washington, the Union army had difficulty finding a handy general. With no victories yet, the North had no real heros, and most of the generals in the US Army were too old to take the field. None were more obviously past their prime then the General of the Armies himself, Winfield Scott. Tipping the scales at 300 pounds, and 75 years old, the venerable old general was no longer a battle leader. The next three generals in line were similarly handicaped by age and sickness.

With very few persons on the roster with any real credentials to their names, President Abraham Lincoln and General Scott tapped a Mexican War veteran, Irvin McDowell to command the growing army in Washington DC. McDowell recieved his promotion- and his big chance at the history books at the end of May 1861.

150 years ago this spring, two armies assembled and organized, as the nation - now two nations - waited with a mixture of excitement and fear for the War to begin in earnest.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Civil War - 150 Years Later - Alexandria Captured / Death of a Union Hero

In this and subsequent special editions of Hooves, Heels and Wheels, the blog will take a look at the 150th anniversary of the events of the Civil War, and reflect on how they came about, and what implications they have for today ...

The Civil War

150 years ago This Week - Alexandria Captured / Death of A Union Hero

May 24, 1861

150 Years ago this week, Washington DC throbbed with activity, swarmed with troops, and clattered with noise. For six weeks, soldiers had gathered in Washington DC, and in various depots in the Confederate south – surely a great battle was in the making.


A colorful assortment of uniforms paraded about the camps. Although there was such a thing as a “US Army uniform”, uniform regulations did not apply to the vast majority of volunteer units marching about Washington, Charleston and Richmond. Both Union and Confederate armies were comprised of state militia units. Thus most of the men were managed and clothed by their states, not by any national government. In these early days of the war, soldiers were arrayed in a variety of uniforms. Some were plain, some were flashy, and some were ludicrous. War, after all, was not seen as a brutal project of destruction, but as a gallant and glamorous adventure, and one might has well go as well dressed as possible.

A favorite uniform pattern, in both North and South, was that of the Zouaves. Zouaves were French light infantrymen who fought in North Africa, and their dashing uniforms made all the newspapers and catalogues– at a time when France was seen as the cultural leader in many things from science to art to the military, to fashion. As soldiers tramped off to war, many were attracted to the fancy uniforms that seemed to bellow “elite troops!” Little wonder then that as trains lumbered into the Washington DC rail yards, many of the Union regiments that disembarked proudly – even pompously- called themselves “Zouaves”.

One of the Zouave units was the 11th New York, and their colonel, the 24year old Elmer Ellsworth, was already a national celebrity. He had foreseen in 1860 that a war of some kind was on the horizon, and set about training volunteer units. He had been in command of the U.S. Zouave Cadets, an Illinois drill team that became nationally known. His photographs were everywhere, and his drill team performances played to thousands.

Politicians, then as now, court the friendship of popular celebrities, and President Abraham Lincoln was no exception to this rule. Ellsworth campaigned for Lincoln in the 1860 election, always at his side of his fellow Illinoisan. He served as Lincoln’s bodyguard and confidant, spending so much time in the White House that he caught the measles from the Lincoln children, Willie and Tad.

When war became a reality, Ellsworth donned that hat of a recruiter, and went to New York to form his regiment, the 11th New York. As the proud and polished 11th NY strutted though Washington, Ellsworth, not a bit above glory seeking, secured a promise from his Commander-in-Chief and friend that his Empire Stators would be the first Union soldiers to invade the rebellious South.

Ellsworth didn’t have long to wait. On May 23d, 1861 150 years ago this week, Virginia officially seceded from the Union. (For the Old Dominion, secession was a two-step process, the legislature voted for it on April 17th, but put it up for the popular vote on May 23rd). Confederate territory was now a few hundred yards across the Potomac River, in the city of Alexandria, VA.

A Hero Dies

US Army General in chief Winfield Scott decided to strike immediately, and on the early morning of May 24th, sent 11 regiments across the Potomac River into Virginia. In one fell swoop, the Union captured Robert E. Lee’s mansion in Arlington, and the city of Alexandria. The Confederates, who had little hope of defending the town, offered no resistance and fell back.

It seemed like a bloodless victory. The 11th New York marched into Alexandria, with the proud Elmer Ellsworth at his head. Ellsworth then spied a hotel, the Marshall House at the intersection of King and Pitt Streets. At four stories, it was one of the tallest buildings in town, and from it flew a large Confederate flag. Ellsworth would put a stop to that forthwith.

The suave Zouave colonel charged into the Marshall house with four soldiers plus a reporter from the New York Tribune, Edward E House. He made his way up a staircase to the roof, and cut down the Confederate banner.

With that mission accomplished, Ellsworth and his party went back down the staircase, with corporal Francis Brownell leading the way. As Brownell and Ellsworth reached the third floor landing, they encountered the furious innkeeper, James Jackson.

Jackson burst from his bedroom toting a double-barreled shotgun. There was no time for Brownell to shout a warning before Jackson took his first shot. At nearly point-blank range, the shotgun blast tore into the young colonel. The fatally wounded Ellsworth slumped and tumbled forward down the steps behind Corporal Brownell.

Jackson then tried to pivot to kill Brownell, but the corporal used his rifle to bat away the barrel of the shotgun as Jackson fired, sending the second blast into the wall. Now it was Brownell’s turn. He fired his rifle, also at point-blank range, into Jackson’s face. Brownell then sent his bayonet plunging into Jackson’s body, and thrust the dead man down the staircase.

Ellsworth was already dying on the landing, his blood staining the Confederate flag he had captured. The shotgun slug had torn a great hole through the colonel's coat and body.

Northerners were at once elated at the Federal capture of Alexandria, the first Union progress of the War, but at the same time grief-stricken at the death of the charismatic and popular Ellsworth. Ellsworth’s parents aside, none were more devastated then the President and First Lady – to say nothing of the Lincoln children. Lincoln cried openly at the sight of his young friend’s body, and wrote his family a three-page epistle of condolence. Then he ordered Ellsworth’s body to lie in state in the East Room of the White House.

“My boy! My boy! Was it necessary that this sacrifice be made??” -- Abraham Lincoln

As Ellsworth made his final journey to New York and interment, the popular culture canonization of Ellsworth swept the North. Here now was a hero who must be avenged, a martyr to inspire countless recruits! The images of Ellsworth and his Zouaves were sold as drawings, postcards, and stamps. The ghost of Col Elmer Ellsworth, the Union’s first war hero, would stand at the side of each green rookie as he mustered into his army camp.

Southerners, of course took quite a different view of the situation. The late James Jackson was seen as a hero of the Confederacy, a man defending his home, but Southern attempts to immortalize Jackson would never compare with the Northern remembrance of the already famous and celebrated Ellsworth.

Avenge Ellsworth! War to the knife, knife to the hilt! --Northern Recruiting slogan

“Cause Of Death: He was killed in defense of his home and private rights.” Confederate coroner report on James Jackson, (a report that fails to mention the rifle and bayonet wounds)

Nations at war require heroes, then as now. Civil War soldiers were going to be asked to perform uncountable feats of daring and bravery in the face of mortal danger and hideous suffering. Both sides would require men and women to hold up high as shining examples of duty, dedication and courage. 150 Years Ago this Week, the Union received their first great example, the first of very many to come on either side.

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