What's going on with Valley Thunder?

Here is where you can stay most up-to-date with the publication of Charles Knight's Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market, including the latest info on its release, up-coming appearances by the author, latest reviews, more in-depth looks at various aspects of the battle and anything else that comes to mind.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Capt. Charles H. Woodson

Two monuments actually erected by veterans of the battle stand on the field at New Market. One of them - that of the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment - is very prominent, and typical of the type which Federal units erected in the decades after the war. The other is much smaller and simpler - easy to overlook, and in fact before the battlefield park was established, stood on private property hundreds of yards off the beaten path of the Valley Turnpike. This latter is to remember the relative handful of Missouri troops who fought and bled under the command of young Charles Woodson in Jacob Bushong's apple orchard on May 15, 1864. Now the small humble marker is included on both the park's driving and walking tours, with an interpretive marker to explain the unit's participation in the battle. And until relatively recently, no image of Woodson was known to exist. The post-war image here is the only known photograph of Woodson, seated at left beside his wife Julia.

This bio of Woodson and his command is about as complete a picture as can be recreated of him and his company. For reasons unknown Woodson did not want his true wartime service recounted - it is purely conjecture on my part that Woodson's service as a guerrilla in Missouri may have been the reason for this factual skewing of the record on his part. The historical record holds just enough clues and small snippets of facts about Woodson and his command to make it annoyingly clear how little is truly known about him and his service.

But that said, I figured this essay about Woodson undertaken for grad school was worth posting here (sans the footnotes apparently, which I can't figure out how to get to appear...)

“This rustic pile / The simple tale will tell / It marks the spot / Where Woodson’s Heroes Fell.” For decades before an interpretive sign was added to explain the small granite marker beside a fence around a family’s small apple orchard bearing the above inscription, the visitor was left to wonder, “Who is Woodson? Who were his ‘Heroes?’ When and why did they fall here?”

The “tale” of “Woodson’s Heroes” is a long and complicated story, one unfortunately with many gaps in it. It is one which contains much of the romance of war, and much of the horrors of war. And although there are few known sources of information about them, one of the best surviving sources contains a vivid eyewitness account of the “falling” of many of “Woodson’s Heroes.” The tale begins a thousand miles away from the scene of the falling of so many.

The “Woodson” was Charles Hugh Woodson, a young Missourian in his early 20s. His “Heroes” were a unit of exchanged prisoners from Missouri, officially designated as Company A, 1st Missouri Cavalry. They were one of the many partisan units which existed during the Civil War, although at times they operated as a “regular” unit, both as infantry and as cavalry, in Virginia and what is now West Virginia. They were the only Missouri unit to serve in Virginia during the Civil War, but despite their official unit designation, they bore no attachment or relation whatever to the “real” First Missouri Cavalry. They participated in one of the most noted small engagements of the war at New Market, VA – they suffered such severe losses (60-95% depending on the source) that several veterans later erected the small monument referenced above to commemorate their sacrifice; and later they participated in one of the most daring raids of the war in the East, literally snatching two Union generals from their beds and bringing them into Confederate lines as prisoners.

But much of the rest of their service is clouded – they were specifically spared from being disbanded as were all but two other partisan units in 1865, but was it because of political connections or military value? Woodson himself fabricated much of wartime record – why? Was he, and others of his men who either never returned home to Missouri or also falsified their service, trying to conceal part of their service? Were it not for their monument at New Market and a few references to them in the Official Records, Woodson’s company may well have been completely forgotten by history.

According to Woodson’s obituary, he served in Sterling Price’s pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard “at the first tap of the drum,” then was captured inexplicably after the end of his term of enlistment and imprisoned. “He managed to secure a butcher knife, with which he tunneled a distance of many feet under the walls, making his escape to Baltimore.” Upon his arrival in the East, he claimed to have joined Turner Ashby’s command in the Spring of 1862. The article goes on to state that Woodson served as a private in the 7th Virginia Cavalry up through the Fall of 1864 – somehow participating in battles in which the 7th was not engaged, most notably New Market. In late 1864 he supposedly took command of the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, leading it through the Lynchburg and 1864 Valley campaigns, serving as the “commander of the regiment till the close of the war and was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the same.” Woodson “was in command” of the raid that captured Union generals George Crook and Benjamin Kelley “and 21 staff officers.” In addition, Woodson apparently was “present at the siege of Richmond and when that stronghold was evacuated he went with the army to Appomattox Court House, leaving the same morning with the regiment for the Blue Ridge.” Upon learning of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, “he surrendered in April 1865 to Gen. [Winfield S.] Hancock and at once returned home.”

That was how Woodson wanted to be remembered at any rate. But much of it was false, and there were several glaring omissions. First, Woodson never served with Turner Ashby or in the 7th Virginia Cavalry. Second, he did not escape from prison. Third, he seems to be omnipresent in the Virginia Theater during the war’s final year. Other minor details, such as the date of his enlistment, the fact that he was not in command of the Crook raid, or that he never commanded the 62nd Virginia can be explained away by faulty memory, poor editor, or both. What cannot be explained away so readily is the absence to any mention of Woodson’s service from the end of his enlistment with Price’s force until his capture in the Fall of 1862. Also, if the obit were to be believed, Woodson was not in Confederate or even pro-Southern Missouri state service at the time – why should he have been “captured.” If he had been incarcerated by Federal troops – his home was under martial law at that time – would not the term “arrested” be more appropriate for a civilian than “captured,” which has a military connotation? Perhaps an error in semantics, perhaps not. One theme very present, perhaps even overly present even for a written memorial to a war hero of that time, is that of his pre-war and post-war loyalty, as well as that of his family, and of his immediate return to peace-time life in Missouri after his very prompt surrender. The few facts his obituary does have correct are his participation at New Market, assignment to the 62nd Virginia, participation in the capture of Crook (albeit with only one additional staff officer rather than the 21 the article states), and he did seek his parole soon after Lee’s surrender. The reference to New Market was all but mandatory, given the existence of the monument to him and his men erected there several years before. His inclusion in the Crook raid was also well-known at the time, given Crook’s post-war fame. But the convoluted facts of the rest of his supposed war service suggest something deliberate.

At least one other of Woodson’s men is known to have left behind a similarly less-than-truthful version of his war service. Andrew McCampbell, who as a member of the 6th Missouri Infantry was captured at Vicksburg in July 1863, stretched history considerably in describing his Confederate experience for a history of his Missouri community published in the early 20th Century. Not only did McCampbell disavow serving in Price’s pro-Confederate forces in 1861 and subsequent service in the Western Theater, he claimed to have spent the entire war as part of Stonewall Jackson’s command in Virginia. If that wasn’t enough, McCampbell claimed that when Jackson was felled from his horse by friendly fire at Chancellorsville in May 1863, that it was he – McCampbell – who caught the falling officer, helping him from his horse. This would have been rather difficult for McCampbell to have done from Mississippi, where he was serving with Company H, 6th Missouri Infantry on May 2, 1863.

So just who was Charley Woodson?

In 1861 Civil War was tearing apart the United States. Several border states – Missouri in particular – were torn over whether they would remain in the Union, or whether to cast their lot with the new Southern Confederate States of America. Missouri and Kansas had been scenes of bloodshed before a state of open war existed elsewhere, so with North and South at arms against one another Missouri became a hotbed of small-scale fighting. Each side coveted Missouri; political forces within the state were arming their own respective militia forces to put down the opposing side. Leading up the pro-Confederate activities in Missouri was Sterling Price, who was forming up the pro-secession Missouri State Guard to oppose Federal forces in the state.

On June 16, 1861, 19-year-old Charles H. Woodson enlisted for a term of six months in the 1st Missouri State Guard. It appears likely that Woodson was either commissioned a first lieutenant upon joining, or that he was promoted to such rank very soon thereafter. A pay voucher in Woodson’s compiled service record, which lists him as a lieutenant at that time, contains an endorsement by a Capt. W.H. Hatch dated July 1863: “I heard Brig Genl [sic] John B. Clark, late of the Missouri State Guard, say that C.H. Woodson was a Lieut [sic] of the Mo State Guard in his command.” However, Woodson appears in other documents from the same time as a private. The 1st fought at Wilson’s Creek in August 1861 and again at Lexington, MO, the following month.

Woodson’s term of service expired in December 1861 and he disappears from the records for a time. Meanwhile, Federal forces had taken over Missouri, despite the death of their command Nathaniel Lyon at Wilson’s Creek. Martial law was imposed throughout the state. Many of Price’s men, along with the Confederate Governor Claiborne Jackson, had retreated to Arkansas, where they planned the liberation of their home state. Guerrilla activity, which had already been present in Missouri, escalated in response to the decree of martial law. Union Brig. Gen. John Schofield, in command in Missouri, complained of the extent of the guerrilla warfare spreading rapidly throughout the state: “The time is passed when insurrection and rebellion in Missouri can cloak itself under the guise of honorable warfare. The utmost vigilance and energy are enjoined upon all the troops of the State in hunting down and destroying these robbers and assassins. When caught in arms, engaged in their unlawful warfare, they will be shot down on the spot.”

Price, Jackson and other Confederate leaders felt that a substantial portion of Missouri’s population, including many of these guerrillas, could be brought into the Confederate army, if given an opportunity. For many in Missouri, being of known pro-Southern allegiance, no matter whether outspoken or closeted, was enough to bring trouble, sometimes violence, from pro-Union neighbors. Escape from the vigilance of Union troops for many seemed the only option. Accordingly, Price assigned Col. Joseph C. Porter the task of recruiting behind Union lines in northeast Missouri. It appears highly likely that Woodson was one of the men Porter recruited.

Porter began his recruiting mission in April 1862, based primarily out of Lewis County, where he resided. Porter “began setting up supply, ammunition and weapons caches, and organizing a clandestine network of spies, scouts, couriers and recruiters. News of his arrival spread quickly and small parties of men began secretly gathering and quietly moving toward Porter’s camp.” This kind of service may have appealed to Woodson, who resided several counties southwest of Porter. In any event, it was exactly the kind of work that Woodson himself would be doing in the Shenandoah Valley several years later.

If the conflict in the East could be described as a “Gentleman’s war,” it was anything but in Missouri. An affair in July at Memphis, MO, illustrates the manner of warfare in the state. Porter’s men raided the town to seize a number of weapons known to be stored there and a small number of pro-Union militia were captured and paroled. While there, Porter’s men arrested a rather outspoken Unionist physician named William Aylward. One of Porter’s officers, Capt. Thomas Stacy learned from Southern sympathizers in town that Dr. Aylward had been boasting of murdering two Confederate soldiers taken prisoner at a small skirmish sometime before. As it turned out, the two men had belonged to Stacy’s command. When Porter learned the details, he ordered Stacy to select “an appropriate guard” for the doctor. The men selected to guard the prisoner were the brother of one and cousin of the other of the two Confederates Aylward had murdered. The next day the two men reported that their prisoner had escaped during the night; his body was discovered several hours later, having been hanged by his guards.

Porter’s command was somewhat unique, in that he operated both as a guerrilla yet also engaged in stand-up battles with Federal forces and pro-Union Missouri militia. Yet the brutality also unique to the war in Missouri was present in his battles. His second-in-command, Lt. Col. Frisby McCullough was captured and executed, without benefit of a trial, as were several of his enlisted men who fell into Union hands. The situation rapidly deteriorated. An elderly man named Allsman of very vehement pro-Union sentiment and who often served as a “snitch” for Union forces was captured by Porter at Palmyra, MO. Although Porter ordered him returned home unharmed, Allsman was never heard from again. This led to an ultimatum from the local Union commander that unless the old man was returned, 10 of Porter’s men would be put to death. The Federal commander explained “It is better that these ten men should die than a hundred, or perhaps a thousand others in this quarter of the state should be killed, which is likely to happen unless this thing of murdering citizens is stopped.” Tensions flared so high on both sides as a result of the situation that it took literally decades before tempers finally cooled – as late as 1908 the Federal Government still refused to release the names of those who had signed a petition to President Lincoln in support of the executions.

This is the atmosphere into which Charley Woodson returned after his initial mustering out in December 1861. It appears that Woodson joined up with Porter in May 1862, becoming a lieutenant in the First Northeast Missouri Cavalry. Nothing is known of Woodson’s whereabouts or actions during the intervening months, but he very likely had taken up with one of the many guerrilla units in the area.

Woodson was captured September 1, 1862, in Howard County, MO, in Porter’s area of operations. Again little is known of the circumstances surrounding his capture, the only remarks in his Compiled Service Record (CSR) being that the Howard County Provost Marshall “sent over…a Rebel soldier improperly within the Federal lines.” Woodson was probably lucky to have been taken alive. Initially held in St. Louis, he was transferred with a number of other prisoners to a prison in Alton, IL, in late November. He would spend the next six months imprisoned there.

While Charley Woodson was fighting, then languishing in prison, thousands of his fellow Missourians were under arms with Earl Van Dorn, P.G.T. Beauregard and John Pemberton. Among the latter was the 6th Missouri Infantry, part of the forces defending Vicksburg, MS. During the fighting at Port Gibson on May 1, 1863, as U.S. Grant’s army embarked on its latest attempt to take Vicksburg, Sgt. Edward H. Scott of Co. G, 6th Missouri, was captured. Two weeks later Scott arrived at the Alton prison where Woodson was being held.

On June 13, Woodson, Scott, and 1,200 other prisoners from Alton were shipped eastward by rail for exchange. (The Confederacy had two exchange points: City Point, near Petersburg, VA, in the East, and Vicksburg in the West. With Pemberton and Grant squaring off at Vicksburg, the latter was eliminated just prior to this prisoner exchange, making City Point the sole point of exchange. For many of the men, they spent their final night in Federal captivity in the War of 1812-vintage Fort Norfolk, on the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, VA, although it is not known if Woodson’s batch of prisoners proceeded straight to City Point from Baltimore or if they paused briefly in Norfolk.) The prisoners arrived at City Point on June 23, proceeding directly to Richmond, where they were divided up into temporary commands to man the Richmond defenses (Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was en route to Pennsylvania at that time, in essence leaving Richmond uncovered). Woodson and Scott each commanded one of these temporary companies.

It is not known exactly when Woodson and Scott met each other, but during their time in Richmond they discussed the idea of forming their own command from the Missouri troops just exchanged. They managed to secure an appointment with the Secretary of War, James Seddon, to present the idea to him. Scott recorded the meeting in his diary:
“I had no idea it was so hard to get any business attended to. There is so much formality, so much department etiquette and so much system that it is almost impossible to do anything. The Secretary of War opens his office at nine A.M. [sic]. We enter the War Office, a door-keeper escorts us to the reception room, where we record our names and wait for our turn, for here as at a mill, ‘first come, first served.’ When our ‘turn’ comes we are conducted in due form into the august presence of the great dignitary himself, James A. Seddon, who sits enthroned in a magnificent cushioned arm-chair, the room finely furnished, nicely carpeted, cushioned chairs, sofas, and bookcases. We are introduced by our conductor, who immediately retires. We have only five minutes to say our say. We state our business briefly. Mr. Seddon answers plainly and satisfactorily. He is cordial and gentlemanly in his deportment, but seems determined not to grant any petition unless he is thoroughly satisfied of the justness or utility of the thing petitioned for. This great carefulness, which is probably altogether right and proper, is very irksome to some, and cause for irritation to others who are not gifted with an extraordinary degree of patience.”

Having been granted the official blessing of the War Department, Woodson and Scott set about organizing all the Trans-Mississippi troops into a company. Woodson was to be captain, Scott first lieutenant, and J.N. Bradshaw second lieutenant. Part of the reason for Seddon’s acquiescence may have been the fact that many of the Missouri commands to whom the freshly-exchanged soldiers belonged had been captured by Grant when Pemberton’s army surrendered at Vicksburg (Confederate policy was to return exchanged prisoners to their former unit, but in the case of Pemberton’s regiments, this was not possible).

Woodson’s new command was officially designated the First Missouri Cavalry, Company A, but most often appears in the records simply as “Woodson’s Company.” The company was organized at Camp Lee, Richmond. Most of the men had served in infantry units previously, and all were currently without mounts, which makes their choice to become a mounted unit raise some eyebrows, especially since Confederate troops were responsible for providing their own horses. The company numbered initially about 70 men. On August 10 Woodson reported that he had completed the formation of the command and requested assignment to Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden’s command in the Shenandoah Valley. This request is interesting of itself – what was the attraction of the Valley?

Perhaps Woodson or one of the others had met John H. McNeill or one of his sons in Missouri. The McNeills had moved from western Virginia to Missouri in the late 1840s and had served in Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard. The elder McNeill, a captain in one of Price’s units, had been wounded at Lexington, and one of his sons killed there. Capt. McNeill and his surviving son Jesse were captured on the retreat from Lexington. Both were held in St. Louis, and both managed to escape from the prison (though at separate times), making their way back to Virginia where they raised their own company of partisan rangers. (Perhaps this is what inspired Woodson’s story of tunneling out of prison with a butcher knife, and making his way to Baltimore and ultimately Turner Ashby’s 7th Virginia Cavalry.) Initially McNeill’s company served as part of Imboden’s First Virginia Partisan Rangers, but became an independent command upon the reorganization of Imboden’s command, operating in the lower (ie northern) Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia panhandle – areas mostly behind Union lines.

Imboden had made somewhat of a name for himself as a raider, McNeill’s reputation was growing, and the lower Valley in which he often operated had no shortage of targets. Perhaps the area seemed ripe for a repeat of the operations that many of the men had done while serving with Porter. Perhaps the men had no wish to return to Missouri and the bloody version of warfare there. Perhaps the ages-old appeal of cavalry service to veteran infantrymen – “why walk when you can ride?” – played into their decision.

The closest thing to an answer appears in a letter from Woodson to Robert E. Lee at the end of October. At that time, there was a movement afoot to return all the Trans-Mississippi troops to their respective commands, to boost manpower in the Western armies. Woodson adamantly opposed a return to the West and was seeking Lee’s help in securing their position in Virginia. Woodson writes that his company was assigned to Imboden’s Valley District on September 22, “where we have been doing service ever since, I believe and am happy to say, to the entire satisfaction of the brave commander to whose District we have recently been assigned.” Lee’s endorsement on the letter reads: “This company was sent by me to the Valley to procure horses.”

By year’s end, at least some of Woodson’s men had secured mounts. Others, including Lt. Scott, were still afoot. When Brig. Gen. William W. Averell’s cavalry set out through western Virginia on a raid against the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, both the mounted and dismounted Missourians gave chase. Scott recorded the pursuit northward from Harrisonburg from the dismounted point of view: “I assure you the chase was exciting. Rebel infantry after Yankee cavalry going at a double quick through town, and the cheers of ladies and the waving of handkerchiefs.”

Although technically a cavalry command, at least a portion of the company was armed with infantry muskets. A requisition signed by Woodson and Imboden dated October 1, 1863, requests three dozen .69 caliber muskets with ammunition and accoutrements for the company.

To start the new year of 1864, Woodson’s company comprised the provost guard of Harrisonburg. The Missourians seem to have quickly endeared themselves to the locals. Scott in particular seems to have made himself quite popular with the daughters of the Ewing family of Harrisonburg. Rebecca Ewing “sent me a nice English Bible which I prize very highly indeed,” he recorded in his diary. He began a Bible class, which “most of the company attend.” The Ewing girls also gave to the Missourians “a most abundant supply of good, warm, woolen socks – a supply so abundant as to furnish every man with what he needed, and leave some to be handed over other needy soldiers like ourselves. These patriotic and kind-hearted ladies…are proverbial for their acts of generosity and hospitality to our Confederate soldiers…[M]y little handful of Missourians will ever remember gratefully this very acceptable tribute of sympathy to soldiers who are emphatically ‘strangers in a strange land,’” Woodson wrote to the Harrisonburg newspaper.

The “Missouri exiles,” as they became known, became somewhat of a popular commodity that winter. Donations for Scott’s Bible class poured in. John Wartmann, editor of the Rockingham Register, declared Woodson to be “as modest and unassuming as he is chivalrous and brave, and we are right glad that our fair country women have found him and his brave Confederates out in looking around for worthy objects upon whom to bestow their well timed benefactions.”

Woodson’s men reciprocated what they could. In March a meeting of Harrisonburg citizens was convened to organize a relief effort for local soldiers who had been maimed in battle. Seven of Woodson’s men contributed a sum of $80 for the cause.

An even greater contribution to the war effort by Woodson’s men came on April 1, when they re-enlisted for 40 years or the war, “to continue in the service until independence shall be achieved.” This earned them even more praise from Wartmann and the Register: “There is not…in the Confederate service better soldiers than these Missouri boys…Surely, if our enemies, the Yankees, could see these…exiles from their homes, thus stepping to the front, without solicitation from anyone, and only at the suggestion of their own minds, they would see the folly and the vanity and wickedness of continuing the profitless struggle with us.”

“The kindness and hospitality of the people of this county, Rockingham, have won our warmest gratitude,” wrote Lt. Scott. “We have tried to earn the confidence and esteem of the people and I am proud to say we have least their respect.”

The Spring of 1864 promised a renewal of the combat, and most likely on a much larger scale than ever before. U.S. Grant had been appointed to General in Chief of all the Union armies, and was planning an all-out offensive on all fronts to begin around the beginning of May. For Woodson and the rest of Imboden’s “Northwestern Brigade,” as it had become known, this meant a reorganization. A new regiment was formed – the 23rd Virginia Cavalry – albeit from mostly veteran troops, and assigned to the brigade. It also meant the reassignment of all the dismounted troops from the cavalry commands, a move which entailed the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry and Woodson losing their horses. For the foreseeable future, Woodson’s men were to serve as infantrymen attached to Col. George H. Smith’s 62nd Virginia.

In late April Union Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel set out from Martinsburg with about 10,000 troops under his command, bound for Staunton. There he was to link up with another force about the same size coming from southwestern Virginia under Gens. George Crook and William Averell. Together the combined armies were to turn eastward either to Charlottesville or Lynchburg. The campaign was to be one of destruction – Crook and Averell destroying the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad; Sigel the Virginia Central – the Valley was to be cleared of Confederates and the abundant food supply there forever denied the Confederacy.

Opposing Sigel initially was Imboden’s Northwestern Brigade – 18th Virginia Cavalry, 23rd Virginia Cavalry, 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry (with Woodson attached), John McClannahan’s artillery battery – and smaller assorted commands, Sturgis Davis’ company of Maryland cavalry, Harry Gilmor’s Maryland cavalry battalion, a company of engineers, and the partisan commands of John McNeill and John Mosby (although the latter was not under Imboden’s orders, he slowing Sigel’s advance).

On May 5 McNeill struck at Piedmont, West Virginia, capturing several companies of Federals but more importantly completely devastating the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Upwards of 15 locomotives and nearly 100 pieces of rolling stock (depending on the source) and an estimated $1 million worth of damages to the railroad and its immense repair shops in the town. This caused Sigel to over-react, dispatching about one-third of his entire cavalry force to hunt down McNeill and his group of about 60 men. Imboden saw an opportunity to pounce, and took the 18th and 23rd regiments off to ambush the Federal horsemen in pursuit of McNeill. This left only Smith’s reinforced 62nd Virginia between Sigel’s main body and Staunton.

On May 10, Imboden’s mounted force ambushed the Federals at Lost River Gap, and took them completely out of the campaign. “We got them on a stampede and run them all day,” one trooper recalled. Three days later Imboden ambushed another Federal detachment just east of New Market. In two engagements over a span of three days, Imboden had knocked about one half of Sigel’s mounted troops out of action. But he was still outnumbered greatly by Sigel.

Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge was en route to Imboden’s aid with two brigades of infantry and a battalion of artillery from southwest Virginia. He would be reinforced on the way by the cadets of Virginia Military Institute. The two small armies would meet in battle at New Market on Sunday May 15.

Breckinridge needed all the infantry he could muster, so “borrowed” the 62nd and its three attached companies of dismounted troops from the 18th and 23rd, as well as Woodson’s men. Because of the four additional companies temporarily assigned to the unit, Woodson was serving as an additional battalion commander, thus command of the Missourians fell to Lt. Scott. The 62nd was placed in the center of the Confederate line, with Woodson on the regiment’s extreme left.

As the battle progressed, the Missourians advanced right through the Bushong farm, amidst the outbuildings then into the family’s apple orchard. Directly opposite them were five Napoleons of Capt. Alfred von Kleiser’s 30th New York Battery. For a time the 62nd and Woodson were advancing alone against Sigel’s line – the troops to their right had been deployed several hundred yards to the rear initially and had not yet caught up, and the troops to the left had been stymied by heavy artillery fire. Lt. Scott wrote of the carnage in his diary:

“We were now within close pistol shot of the battery and just as I had fired the last shot from my revolver at a cannonier, Sergt. Day came up to me pale and staggering with the blood flowing from his breast and back, and said as he gave me his hand, ‘Lieut. I am almost gone, please help me off.’ Just then I saw Lieut. Jones, my bosom friend and companion fall full length beside me, with the brain oozing from his forehead. I was struck at the same time in the right arm with the fragment of a shell which for a time disabled it. I assisted Will Day a few steps to the rear and laid him down. He would soon be dead. I spoke but he answered not. I placed my mouth close to his ear and begged him in these the dying moments of his life to call upon our Heavenly Father for the pardon of his sins and receive him into his Kingdom. Will was wild but a brave and generous boy. Just as I was lowering him Tommy Cane came to me with blood pouring from his neck and said, ‘Good-bye Lieut. I am killed.’ I took his hand and eased him down upon the ground. These were the last words he spoke, I placed a canteen of water to his lips and then said to him, ‘Tommy say our Father forgive me and receive me to thy Kingdom,’ but all was silent. His eyes were fixed in a deathly stare.”

According to Scott’s count, of out 62 men in the company that morning, only six remained unwounded. Three days later 18 men and Lt. Scott were present for duty (it appears Woodson was also wounded at New Market, but the date of his return to duty is not known). John Wartmann, editor of the Register and one of Woodson’s biggest fans, wrote that during the engagement the Missourians “never flinched in the midst of the terrible rain of fire and blood through which they passed in the assault upon the strong position of the enemy. They were the bloody victors of that hard-fought field.”

New Market was an overwhelming Confederate victory, with Sigel being put to ignominious flight with the loss of five cannon, despite the severe losses in Woodson’s company, and the 62nd as a whole. Across the mountains, Lee was hard-pressed by Grant, and needed any available troops. With Sigel defeated, Breckinridge was ordered to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia with his small division. Besides his two infantry brigades, he also took with him the 62nd Virginia from Imboden, over the latter’s objections.

Breckinridge arrived at Hanover Junction on May 20, where he constituted the reserve behind Lee’s North Anna River line. A week later he was shifted to Totopotomoy Creek, before moving a few days later to part of the old Gaines Mill battlefield near Cold Harbor. While there, the Missourians got their only recorded glimpse of General Lee, which Scott later recorded: “Our hearts fairly leapt with desire to prove our worthiness to the noble legend on horseback…It was a sight not forgotten by all of the company and discussed for years afterward.”

The Missourians were spared the worst of the Cold Harbor fighting, not sustaining any losses. But their time with the Army of Northern Virginia was to be a short one, as Sigel’s replacement, David Hunter, had quickly regrouped from defeat, passing over the battlefield at New Market, defeating Imboden and Grumble Jones at Piedmont and capturing Staunton, there linking up with Crook and Averell. Hunter continued up the Valley, pausing in Lexington to burn VMI and the home of Governor Letcher, before continuing toward Lynchburg. Breckinridge was sent back westward to cope with Hunter, shortly followed by Jubal Early and the entire Second Corps. Hunter was driven back into the mountains of West Virginia and the way was open for Early to move down the Valley and into Maryland.

Along the way, the Missourians were detached from the 62nd – permanently as it turned out – and remounted. From that point forward, Woodson’s command was to operate almost exclusively as a partisan unit, likely as he and Scott originally intended, often working in tandem with John McNeill. As Early moved into Maryland, McNeill and Woodson struck at the B&O, then the Missourians took advantage of their newly acquired horseflesh and rode into Maryland to join up with Early.

It is in Maryland that Lt. Scott makes an interesting admission to his diary: “I am satisfied I am a very poor plunderer...[M]y safe return will satisfy me better than booty. I sometimes think that plundering our enemies, even after the example they have set us in plundering, and robbing our homes it too bad, unnatural and inconsistent in one who is engaged in the sacred cause of liberty.” Was he speaking of plundering on the whole, or in regard to specific examples committed by his unit?

Following Early’s repulse at Fort Stevens, Woodson and McNeill resumed their raids and scouting, mostly in Hardy and Hampshire counties of West Virginia, but some in the Valley proper. In one of these small encounters on October 3 McNeill was mortally wounded, dying of his wounds in a house just north of the battlefield at New Market. It is also during this time that, according to his obituary, Woodson supposedly was promoted to command of the 62nd Virginia – given the amount of post-war writings undertaken by Col. Smith of the 62nd, it is highly unlikely that in every one of them he managed to forget Woodson taking command of his regiment. (Someone, be it Woodson or an unknown someone else, could not have selected a worse regiment to claim that Woodson somehow rose to command – few veterans of the fighting in the Valley, few if indeed any Confederate veterans who did not have three stars and a wreath on their collar, were more prolific writers than George H. Smith of the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, and nowhere does he make any mention of Woodson being associated in any fashion with the 62nd after New Market, let alone commanding it.)

Woodson’s days of participating in larger pitched battles were over – for the remainder of the war, the company would be engaged in much smaller hit-and-run types of actions. But that is not to say the Missourians were finished making headlines. With the death of John McNeill, a sort of command crisis developed in regard to his successor. The logical and obvious choice was his son Jesse. However, it appears that for a time at least, Woodson was commanding both. How this came about is not known, but it does not appear to have been a desired outcome by McNeill, possibly by Woodson either.

In January 1865 Early, still commanding in the Valley, tried to rectify the situation by sending Harry Gilmor to take command of both companies in addition to his own Maryland battalion. However, this served instead only to inflame the situation. Only days later Early recommended to Lee the disbanding of McNeill’s command, and presumably that of Woodson as well though he does not specifically request such:
“I wish you would get the Secretary of War to revoke the exemption granted to McNeill’s company from the operation of the act abolishing partisan rangers. [It is interesting to note that Woodson’s command, as it was not mounted at the time, was not mentioned in the act Early references here – technically Woodson did not have the exemption that McNeill did and thus may not have even been authorized to exist as he was.] This command has refused to acknowledge Major Gilmor’s authority, whom I have found it necessary to send to Hardy Co. to take charge of McNeill’s and Woodson’s companies and the remnant of his own battalion. One of my principal objects in this was that he might cut the railroad and impede the passage of troops over it, and this has been thwarted by the refusal of these companies to acknowledge his authority. The fact is, that all those independent organizations, not excepting Mosby’s are injurious to us, and the occasional dashes they make do not compensate for the disorganization and dissatisfaction produced among the other troops.”

The situation with Gilmor prompted Woodson to write directly to the Secretary of War, who was no longer James Seddon, but now his former New Market commander John Breckinridge:
“I write this to request that my company with myself may be permitted to be removed from the command in which they are at present. They are no under the supervision of Major Gilmor, his connections in this regard whilst I make no charges and am disposed to make none against him, has from the notoriety of those connected with him heretofore given great dissatisfaction. I am sure from this fact, even conceding bravery and efficiency to the Major himself, will conflict with the great good which my men are capable of doing…If you do not remember me from the services of my company in the fight near New Market when you commanded against Siegel [sic], and around Richmond with your command, Dr. Coffman, who will hand you this can inform you of the material of which the company is made and its services.”

Word of the situation was picked up by Phil Sheridan, commanding the Federal forces in the Valley, through a most unlikely source – Gilmor himself. The situation regarding the three commands resolved itself when Gimor was captured on February 4. The next day Sheridan reported “Gilmore [sic] has been unable to control McNeill’s and Woodson’s companies. They will not serve under him.” Two days after that, Sheridan reported “From papers taken from Harry Gilmor it appears he has had a rough time with Woodson’s and McNeill’s men. He says in a letter that they are in a state of mutiny and have dispersed, that he arrested one of the commanding officers but he would not recognize the arrest.” Nowhere is there any record of which “commanding officer” it is that Gilmor placed under arrest, although based on Early’s complaint to Lee it was likely Jesse McNeill. Nor does Gilmor make mention in his memoirs of any trouble with either officer, just that Early ordered him to Hardy County and that Woodson and McNeill were to “be permanently under his command.” A clue does exist outside of Early’s letter, however, indicating that it may have been Jesse McNeill rather than Woodson who was the cause of the trouble with Gilmor. On January 21 Woodson was admitted into the hospital in Harrisonburg with an undisclosed illness, and was released 10 days later. Thus while it is possible that he could have journeyed back to Hardy County during that time period and gotten into some sort of quarrel with Gilmor, it seems unlikely, although if he had been unwell, an unwanted intervention by the pompous Gilmor may well have rankled Woodson’s presumably already ruffled (by his illness) feathers. Or another possibility, although given his character it seems highly unlikely, is that the culprit was actually Lt. Scott, who would have been commanding in Woodson’s absence. (Scott is completely silent on the issue.) Likely it will never be known beyond doubt which officer began the issue with Gilmor.

McNeill, with some help from Woodson, in late February pulled off a rare Mosby-esque coup – he captured not one, but two Union generals (and a staff officer to boot) from their beds. Jesse McNeill with a handful of his men rode off into the darkness to Cumberland, Maryland, headquarters of the Department of West Virginia. Tricking the pickets into thinking they were a returning friendly cavalry patrol they got into the town before their identity was discovered and whisked away generals George Crook and Benjamin Kelley (and Capt. Thayer Melvin). “By threats they made the ignorant Dutchman who happened to be on picket give them the countersign. Armed with that they passed the sentinels right along, and came up to the hotel where Gen. Kelley and I had our headquarters, and came to our rooms,” Crook wrote. As McNeill brought his three captives out, he needed a guard to escort them southward – they linked up with Woodson who took the Federals to Early at Staunton.

Charles Woodson made his final appearance in West Virginia on March 30, 1865, capturing a small party of B&O repairmen near Patterson’s Creek. After setting their captives to work undoing the repairs just completed, the Missourians were no doubt delighted to witness a westbound train hit the damaged section, wrecking the engine.
The war ended for Charley Woodson on April 17, 1865, for on that date he rode into Winchester, Virginia, to surrender and secure his parole. Edward Scott waited several more weeks before seeking his parole on May 7. At least one of Woodson’s men – and probably more – chose not to surrender. James E. Humes is reported to have ventured with Jubal Early and several other Confederate officers to Mexico, but had returned to Missouri by 1870.

In May 1905 several veterans of Woodson’s command erected the small monument in Jacob Bushong’s apple orchard where so many of their comrades had been killed or wounded 41 years before. One of the men who paid for the marker, James H. Dwyer, had been wounded four times at New Market, and after the war had married the young woman who had been his nurse, Ada Sprinkle, while he recuperated in Harrisonburg. Dwyer chose to remain in the Valley after the war with his new bride, rather than return to Missouri; he became one of the leading figures of Harrisonburg in his later years. The other sponsor of the monument was W.R. Fallis, one of the five lucky ones who had gone through the battle completely unscathed. George H. Smith, former commander of the 62nd Virginia, in one of his many writings about New Market, wrote that “the monument…is a touching and deserved memorial of his comrades whose gallantry was not surpassed by that of any on the field. Nor could the inscription on it be well improved.”

Charles Woodson returned to Missouri, married, had several children, and became a deputy briefly, while owning a farm in Chariton County. It must have been with considerable concern though that he made his return to Missouri – passions still ran high, especially regarding Joseph Porter’s guerrilla campaign in 1862. The uncertainty regarding this must account, at least in part, for the action he – or whomever – took in falsifying his war record. Speaking about his actions as a guerrilla, one of Porter’s veterans said many years after the war, “those days are to be regretted and forgotten.” It is a sentiment that Charles Woodson may well have agreed with.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Stuart's Tarheels

A short review of a re-release, originally published by Butternut & Blue, but now a second edition from McFarland (which of course means a hefty price tag, in this case $55):

Chris Hartley’s revised edition of Stuart’s Tarheels: James B. Gordon and his North Carolina Cavalry in the Civil War has two strengths. First is a nearly 150-page roster of the 1st NC Cavalry, which makes the book a necessity for anyone with a vested interest in that regiment. Second is the book’s penultimate chapter about Sheridan’s Yellow Tavern raid and Gordon’s role in the Confederate response to it; most writers focus – and understandably so – on the actual Yellow Tavern fight and mortal wounding of Stuart, with just a passing reference to Gordon’s North Carolina brigade nipping at Sheridan’s heels while the majority of the Federals engaged Stuart’s two brigades. Hartley outlines Gordon’s movements and the running engagement with David Gregg’s horsemen along Mountain Road, putting it in proper context with Stuart’s and Fitz Lee’s fight at Yellow Tavern. He continues this narrative to the following day with the fight at Brook Church and Meadow Bridge just north of Richmond – which proved to be Gordon’s last fight – another part of the Yellow Tavern raid that is seldom treated in any great detail.

Maps and photographs are adequate, although more of both would be welcome additions (although the maps themselves are somewhat lacking in detail). Many of the engagements described are not covered in any great detail, even when Gordon’s command played an important role. References to what Gordon or others saw or were thinking, which cannot be documented, are numerous.

While the author’s writing style can be trying at times, the information contained is useful, especially for those with an interest in Stuart’s North Carolina brigade. For cavalry aficionados or historians of North Carolina in the war, Stuart’s Tarheels is essential.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The war's most over-rated cavalryman

Time for Part 2 of the AMU Cav Ops class final exam:

Whom do you consider the war’s most overrated cavalryman?

JEB Stuart has been skewered both by his contemporaries and historians ever since for supposedly leaving Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia blind during the invasion of Pennsylvania, leaving A.P. Hill to stumble unexpectedly into the entire Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. Yet Phil Sheridan was guilty of even worse in taking the entire cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac on the Yellow Tavern raid, leaving his army without its “eyes” for much of the Spotsylvania action and allowing Meade and Grant to almost wander into a trap at the North Anna River. But, with a few exceptions (foremost among them Eric Wittenberg, and to a lesser extent Gordon Rhea), historians have not only ignored Sheridan’s blunder here, but on the contrary have praised his actions during this time period – a period of a few weeks when his insubordinate attitude toward his immediate superior should have at least resulted in his court-martial, on a personal level, and on the much larger operational level, could have resulted in the destruction of the Army of the Potomac (indeed it was only the illness of Lee and two of his corps commanders – Hill and Ewell – that allowed Grant to escape the North Anna).

Phil Sheridan is by far the most over-rated cavalryman of the entire Civil War. The man was a complete and utter failure as a cavalryman. He owed his rapid rise up the command ladder to his abilities as a staff officer, which caught the notice of Henry Halleck. Later, his actions as a field commander – a position which he gained almost solely via Halleck’s intervention – Sheridan caught the eye of William Rosecrans, William Sherman and eventually U.S. Grant. Although Rosecrans would lose favor with the Administration, he had substantial clout before his fall from grace, and of course Grant and Sherman were others whose stars were rapidly on the ascent. Prior to his appointment to supplant Alfred Pleasanton as Meade’s cavalry chief, his time in the mounted arm was almost nil. His earlier commission to command the 2nd Michigan Cavalry was purely a political move by Halleck, Sherman and others to give Sheridan a field command – he had no Michigan ties, and he had no cavalry service.

His accomplishments as an infantry commander were not all that impressive either. He stumbled into battle at Perryville (Arthur MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin served in his division in the Army of the Ohio/Cumberland), he was routed at Murfreesboro, he was caught up in the rout at Chickamauga and left the field before deciding that it was in his best interest to return to join Thomas, and technically his success at Chattanooga was against orders.

Brought east to Virginia, Sheridan balked almost right off the bat at being used in the traditional role of cavalry. His explosive reaction to Meade using his horsemen for screening movements, guarding supply lines, and other roles which were to be performed by cavalry, shows truly how little Sheridan understood or appreciated how cavalry fit into the overall picture. Sheridan wanted it to be an offensive arm, as Stuart often used his cavalry. The only difference was that Sheridan wanted to be exclusively an offensive weapon, completely abandoning any use in screening movements, finding the enemy, etc. Stuart knew how to balance the two, or at least knew better than did Sheridan. This of course begs the question, if Sheridan did not see screening, guarding supply lines, intel gathering, etc. as the job of his cavalry, then whose job was it exactly? And Sheridan had not exactly earned himself the right to expect anything from Meade – his troopers had failed to seize the crossroads at Spotsylvania to begin with.

Rightfully Meade wanted Sheridan ousted, but had enough sense to know that as a favorite of Grant’s, it was going to be a sticky subject, one which he certainly could not do without Grant’s approval. But in presenting his case to Grant, it would appear that Meade simply didn’t know when to stop – when he mentioned Sheridan’s boasting of being able to “whip” Stuart, Grant wanted it done. In essence, Sheridan was being rewarded for insubordination. Thus Sheridan took off from Spotsylvania with all his mounted forces, leaving Grant and Meade blind in enemy country – shades of what Stuart is so often accused of in June of 1863.

When brought to battle at Yellow Tavern, Stuart was mortally wounded – mission accomplished for Sheridan, who made Stuart the man, the mission. But in analysis of the battle and the raid as a whole, Sheridan played little role tactically. Indeed it is Custer who is the senior officer most mentioned in regard to directing the fighting. And the battle was so one-sided; it was all but inevitable that Stuart would be defeated. What is amazing is the fact that it took Sheridan so long to do it – he had two full divisions on the field to Stuart’s two brigades. Whomever it was that made the tactical decisions in blue that day, be it Sheridan, Merritt, Custer, or whoever, seemed absolutely oblivious to the idea of a flanking attack. The Federals had troops and to spare – Stuart and Fitz Lee being positioned where they were in all honesty should have been pressed heavily on their left flank and pushed into the Chickahominy bottomland at Half Sink to the north and northeast, and captured. The fact that Fitz escaped with much of the two brigades says little to credit Sheridan’s battlefield decisions at Yellow Tavern.

Indeed, the fact that it was Sheridan’s command, not Stuart’s/Fitz Lee’s that was nearly trapped against the Chickahominy and annihilated again speaks volumes as to Sheridan’s generalship. After finally getting Stuart out of his way at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan decided to press on and try the Richmond defenses along the Brook Turnpike. Given the depleted forces therein, Sheridan had a good chance at getting into the city, at least temporarily. As it was, troops had to be rushed from Beauregard’s army at Bermuda Hundred to meet the threat. Fitz Lee’s two brigades, which had rallied from the Yellow Tavern defeat (and by all rights should not have even existed anymore) kept Sheridan pinned in between the Chickahominy and the Richmond defenses, while Stuart’s third brigade, under James Gordon, harassed Sheridan’s flank and rear. Yet again, Sheridan greatly held the upper hand both in terms of numbers and armament over not just the Confederate cavalry but the several brigades sent by Beauregard combined. Meadow Bridge, just like Yellow Tavern the day before, should not have been a close fight. And the closeness of the fight is not Sheridan’s troops having a hard time breaking through fortifications prepared several years before, but rather him being on the defensive, really fighting for his own survival.

Viewed as a whole, apart from the death of Stuart, Sheridan’s Yellow Tavern raid achieved very little, and that at the cost of his cavalry being out of action for a time afterward, refitting down the Peninsula with some of Butler’s forces. At least when Stuart arrived at Gettysburg he had brought with him 100+ fully-loaded supply wagons, and had yet again ridden around the Army of the Potomac, and had done so with relatively minor casualties. While Sheridan was absent, Grant stumbled into Lee’s North Anna River trap and had no tangible results to boast of upon his return, other than the death of Stuart. In addition Sheridan’s losses were horrible, percentage-wise – much higher than the Federal cavalry was used to, or should have even sustained on this operation. The death of Stuart was such an accomplishment in Northern eyes that it has clouded the overall mission – a mission which was in fact, mostly a failure.

His subsequent performance at Trevilians Station was anything but impressive as well. In fact, he failed to achieve his objective, which was to link up with David Hunter’s forces from the Shenandoah Valley. His victory at Yellow Tavern had been due to overwhelming numbers more than anything else. At Trevilians, the numbers were much less in his favor and he was up against an opponent in Wade Hampton more suited to the style of “cavalry” fighting that Sheridan employed than was Stuart. And as at Meadow Bridge, we find part of Sheridan’s command – this time, Custer – yet again fighting for survival. But, unlike before, sufficient cavalry would be left with the army, in the form of James Wilson’s division. And although outnumbering the Confederates about 3-2, Sheridan’s forces suffered more losses than did Hampton. Something was clearly wrong with the way Sheridan fought battles.

Once he was sent to the Valley, Sheridan ceased to be a cavalry commander. Yet he managed to rid his army of perhaps one of the best cavalry officers he had in William Averell and alienated his West Point classmate and one-time close friend George Crook – who was the real brains of the Army of the Shenandoah – by claiming that the battle plans at both Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill were his [Sheridan’s] own, when they were in fact designed by Crook. Sheridan was, for whatever reason, apparently very averse to flanking movements (a major flaw in a supposed “great” cavalryman). After taking the Valley command from Hunter, he refused to bring Jubal Early to battle. The rashness, the impetuousness that Grant admired in Sheridan was gone, replaced by timidity (yet still present was the aversion to following orders – as Grant ordered him to meet Early in combat). When he finally did set after Early at Winchester in September, he got his infantry stuck in a gorge which served as a funnel, and then once he did get all three infantry corps out of the Berryville “canyon,” was set to hurl Crook’s VIII Corps in a frontal assault until Crook talked him out of it. To Sheridan’s credit, he did not attempt to take Fisher’s Hill by frontal assault but again listened to Crook’s plan for a flanking move along Little North Mountain. (Of course, according to Sheridan these ideas did not originate with Crook but rather were a product of Sheridan’s own tactical genius.)

Growing out of his dislike of traditional intelligence-gathering, much of Sheridan’s knowledge of Confederate dispositions in the Shenandoah came not from the “regular” cavalry methods, but instead from the not-universally-accepted method of dressing his scouts in Confederate uniform – in essence spies. And too many of his command decisions in the Valley were personal, rather than military – his decision to burn Dayton and the surrounding area in response to the killing of Lt. John Meigs is a prime example.

The Valley Campaign is unquestionably Sheridan’s greatest victory, but to what extent was it truly “Sheridan’s” victory? The amount of praise he gets for turning the tide of battle at Cedar Creek borders on sickening; Jubal Early allowed the Federal army to rally and escape complete destruction – this was not Phil Sheridan’s doing. Sheridan’s contribution was the decision to counterattack rather than withdraw to Winchester. The army’s salvation was not attributable to Sheridan at Cedar Creek. After all three Federal victories in the Shenandoah – Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek – Sheridan allowed Early to escape. He had more than enough cavalry to pursue Early to the death after each and every one of these battles, but it was not done. And his inability to deal with Rosser prior to Tom’s Brook again illustrates his inability to understand the role of cavalry – Rosser’s force was so inferior – numerically as well in terms of armament and overall quality of the troops as a whole – that he should have been able to make them less of a threat. The continued successes of John Mosby, John McNeill, Harry Gilmor, and others show that the Confederate horse could never have been totally eradicated, but Rosser could have and should have been shut down long before Tom’s Brook.

Once on the Petersburg front in 1865, Sheridan repeated his Meadow Bridge and Trevilians problems again – fighting for his life at Dinwiddie Courthouse against George Pickett, when Pickett was supposed to be the one against the ropes. His use of cavalry subsequently at Five Forks showed little imagination. Pickett’s force was so small, having the entire V Corps on a flanking movement was overkill, while his troopers fought dismounted in their front. Pickett’s entire command could have been corralled at Five Forks had the cavalry been used not as the holding force but been sent to gain the Confederate rear.

Sheridan’s role in the Appomattox Campaign is one of the bright spots of his career. He forced a portion of Lee’s army to turn and fight at Sayler’s Creek, capturing about 1/3 of Lee’s force. And again it was Sheridan’s horsemen who blocked Lee’s path at Appomattox.

One of Sheridan’s major shortcomings as a cavalry commander was his apparent inability to grasp the limits of the animals. On the Trevilians raid in particular, numerous horses gave out due to the pace he set and had to be destroyed. Later other horses, which were not “broken down,” but merely in need of rest and/or food, were killed rather than rested – particularly true on the Wilson-Kautz Raid (although admittedly not directly Sheridan’s fault). The man simply never seemed to understand the horse – a MAJOR flaw in a cavalryman.

And Sheridan was blessed with one of the things a military commander most hopes for – able subordinates. Wesley Merritt, David Gregg, James Wilson, George Custer – all were above average cavalry commanders. Although some – most notably Custer – at times were as rash as Sheridan himself could be, they all were excellent fighters. In fact, many of “Sheridan’s victories” are more attributable to the fights put up by these and other officers and their men, than to any great generalship on the part of the “great” Phil Sheridan.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Who do I think was the greatest cavalry commander of the Civil War?

Warning - This post has absolutely nothing to do with New Market.

That said, I just finished up the CW Cavalry class at American Military University (7 classes down, 5 to go...) Part of the final exam was to state my preference for the war's greatest cavalryman, and also who was the most over-rated cav commander of the war. So here's Part I, completely unedited and just as it was submitted:

Whom do you consider the war’s finest cavalryman?

Cavalry carries a popular connotation of being “flashy.” Several officers immediately come to mind who fit that bill: JEB Stuart, George Custer, John Hunt Morgan. Less likely to come to mind, but no less “flashy” than those – some even considered him a “dandy” – is Earl Van Dorn. But did “flashy” equate to being a fine cavalry officer? It certainly aided in the public perception, that much is for certain. But “flashy” or “dandy” is hardly a description one would apply to Nathan Bedford Forrest , August Kautz, Wade Hampton, or John Buford. All of the above-named officers were superb commanders of mounted troops, but one stands out above all the others, both for what he did accomplish and the potential for accomplishing much more had his life not been cut short – Earl Van Dorn.

Van Dorn was a native Mississippian, West Pointer (although near the bottom of his class), Mexican War veteran, and captain (briefly major) in the elite 2nd Cavalry in the 1850s. All of these factors served to make Van Dorn appealing to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a fellow Mississippian; it was then-Secretary of War Davis who selected Van Dorn for service with the 2nd Cavalry. Van Dorn was a superb Indian fighter with the 2nd Cavalry, being severely wounded in at least one engagement with the Washita.

Once he cast his lot with the Confederacy Van Dorn was commissioned a brigadier in the Mississippi state forces, then succeeded Davis as commander of the state’s “army.” Soon thereafter commissioned a colonel in the Confederate army, Van Dorn was assigned to Texas, which he cleared of Federal troops – an action which earned him promotion to brigadier general. In the summer of 1861 he was given a second star and called to Virginia where he was given command of a division of Joe Johnston’s army at Manassas. As he did not see action with Johnston’s army, his brief time with what became the Army of Northern Virginia is not often remembered.

Then his star, which had shone so brightly at the beginning of the war, began to dim. Reassigned to the Trans-Mississippi, Van Dorn found himself in over his head, as he attacked a smaller Federal Army near Elkhorn Tavern in Arkansas, and was soundly defeated. Several weeks later Van Dorn faltered again badly at Corinth, Miss., getting lost when it was his forces who were to open the attack against the city’s defenses. He was not doing well either as an independent commander, or commanding large infantry forces.

Given command in Mississippi, Van Dorn was for a time responsible for the defense of Vicksburg. He proved rather unpopular with the local population, prompting Davis to appoint John Pemberton to supersede Van Dorn. About the time of Pemberton’s appointment, Van Dorn returned to Corinth and again failed to take the city.

Having fallen far short of expectations as both a theater and army commander, Pemberton returned Van Dorn to his roots – the cavalry. It was a move which benefit all concerned. His first operation as commander of Pemberton’s mounted troops would have far-reaching consequences.

U.S. Grant was preparing for an overland strike against Vicksburg. For this move, he had stockpiled a huge amount of supplies at Holly Springs, Miss., and was dependent upon the railroad north into Tennessee for resupply. Because of the vast territory encompassing military operations in the West, supply lines became very extenuated and exposed. Most Confederate commanders – and most Union ones as well – recognized the vulnerability of the rail lines which served as the arterial supply lines for Federal forces. Pemberton recognized it, as did Van Dorn. Several hundred miles to the east, Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, recognized it as well. In December Van Dorn was dispatched to raid Grant’s over-exposed supply line and do him as much damage as possible. Van Dorn targeted the Holly Springs supply depot, which he captured and destroyed, with estimates of the monetary value of the supplies destroyed going into six figures. At the same time, Nathan Bedford Forrest, with his command from Bragg’s army, was to strike the northern end of the same supply line in western Tennessee. Between the two of them, Van Dorn and Forrest absolutely crippled Grant’s line of supply, and caused the Federal general to call off his planned campaign against Vicksburg.

Shortly thereafter Van Dorn and his command were transferred to Bragg’s army. In early March 1863, Van Dorn again showed his prowess as a cavalry commander, gobbling up an isolated Union brigade south of Nashville at Thompson’s Station. Although Van Dorn and Forrest had been semi-working in tandem on the Holly Springs-West Tennessee raids, they were operating together at Thompson’s Station, with Forrest directly under Van Dorn’s orders. Later that month, Van Dorn sent Forrest on a raid to Brentwood, which netted several hundred prisoners. Van Dorn was effectively keeping the Yankees in the vicinity of Nashville and Franklin; they were unable to send any scouting parties southward.

Although extremely different in both personality and methodology, both men shared a desire to go for the jugular. Van Dorn appreciated the value and an enemy commander’s sensitivity to his rear areas – that had been his entire battle plan at Pea Ridge, and at Thompson’s Station he dispatched Forrest to cut off the Federals’ line of retreat. However, relations between Van Dorn and Forrest soon soured (probably inevitable given Forrest’s inability to get along with his superiors). By some accounts the two men were on the verge of fighting before cooler heads prevailed.

While Van Dorn and Forrest did not come to blows, the same cannot be said for Van Dorn and Dr. James Peters. The general was murdered in early May by Dr. Peters, who claimed that Van Dorn was…having an inappropriate relationship with Mrs. Peters, thus cutting short a very promising cavalry career.

During the few months which Van Dorn was commanding Confederate cavalry he had proven himself very adept for the role. Although he had failed miserably as an independent commander early in the war, he had learned several valuable lessons – he knew the importance of the line of supply, and how much an army was dependent on logistics to stay afield – that an army literally did march on its stomach, and how an army could be immobilized by lack of knowledge of the immediate vicinity and of the enemy’s whereabouts (after all, he had gotten lost at Corinth for lack of a proper cavalry screen). At Pea Ridge he had taken his entire army around behind the Federals to cut off their supply and line of retreat, and attacked them from the rear. At Holly Springs he had taken out Grant’s forward supply depot. At Thompson’s Station and at Brentwood he kept Rosecrans nearly blind as to the force opposite him.

While his presence was felt at these engagements, his absence was equally felt by Pemberton at Vicksburg as Grant tried a new approach to the city. Grierson’s Raid, hailed by many as one of the greatest cavalry operations of the entire war (this writer would say that the Holly Springs-West Tennessee raids hold that distinction), distracted what little cavalry Pemberton had left around Vicksburg and Grierson advanced into a region almost devoid entirely of Confederate troops as Van Dorn was with Bragg initially, then was dead by the time the Vicksburg Campaign came into full swing.

Had Van Dorn not been murdered, two major possibilities exist for the path his immediate future could have followed: one, being returned to Pemberton, giving that officer both the mounted troops and the capable leadership for them that was so desperately lacking during the subsequent months; or two, being retained with Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, likely acceding to command of all of Bragg’s cavalry.

In examining these two possibilities in greater detail, in the first instance, there are too many intangibles to guess with any degree of certainty what may have transpired, but we can likely safely conjecture that Van Dorn would not have repeated his earlier success in causing Grant to abort a campaign against Vicksburg. He may however have proved enough of a nuisance to slow Grant down enough for Joe Johnston’s relief column to arrive and to have an actual effect on the Vicksburg operations. Or he may have simply wound up bottled up with the rest of Pemberton’s army in the Vicksburg fortifications, and captured with them. In that event, upon parole he likely would have been assigned to the Army of Tennessee.

In the second instance mentioned above, that of Van Dorn remaining with the Army of Tennessee, he almost certainly would have become Bragg’s cavalry chief, for he outranked both Wheeler and Forrest. Wheeler ostensibly held that role, but he had been a colonel in 1861 (as had Forrest) when Van Dorn had been a major general. (Wheeler retained the title of cavalry chief during the months that Van Dorn was with Bragg only on a technicality – Van Dorn was not permanently assigned to Bragg’s army; he was still technically part of Pemberton’s command.) Wheeler and Forrest have proven unable to work together, hence Bragg’s separation of the two. Although Forrest and Van Dorn also had their quarrel post-Brentwood, harmony may have been restored among the trio under Van Dorn.

The Army of Tennessee lacked a capable unifying commander for its mounted arm – Wheeler proved himself unable, and Forrest was both too junior and too explosive – until Wade Hampton’s arrival in the war’s last chapter. Earl Van Dorn may well have provided this leadership, and even if for some reason he did not get that role until after Bragg was replaced by Johnston for the Atlanta Campaign, someone with the ability to sniff out and destroy a vulnerable supply line, like Van Dorn was able to do, could have had a field day with William Sherman’s tenuous supply line along the Western & Atlantic back to Chattanooga, and the other lines beyond that city. Van Dorn and Forrest had demonstrated the effect that a two-pronged cavalry raid could have on a campaign once before, there is no reason to suggest they could not have repeated their Holly Springs-West Tennessee exploits against Sherman in 1864.

Van Dorn, by his earlier assignments as Departmental and Army commander, had gained insight that no other cavalryman had, except perhaps Forrest. For all his acclaim, Stuart had always been tethered to Lee. Somewhat like Albert Sidney Johnston, Earl Van Dorn remains one of the great “what if’s” of the Civil War; just enough is known of his career (regarding Van Dorn here I speak of his cavalry career) to suggest great potential.