Thursday, June 30, 2011

Porter Alexander Fights for the Confederacy

Porter Alexander as a Confederate colonel
"I can't fix the exact date of my going to Manassas, but it was about July 1st," wrote the former Confederate officer Edward Porter Alexander (who never used his first name) in the final years of the 19th Century. Alexander was in Nicaragua at the time, the personal representative of U.S. President Grover Cleveland to help settle a border dispute between that country and Costa Rica, in hopes that the United States could then finance the construction of a canal across Central America. He would fail to achieve a strong enough accord to make the dream come true, and it would be left to another presidential administration to build a canal in a different spot, but Porter Alexander succeeded in fulfilling the wishes of his family to setting down his memories of the Civil War.

Alexander's memoir was supposed to have remained a family account, specifically for his beloved daughter, but out of it grew another book, Military Memoirs, published in 1907 as a treatment of the same topic from a military perspective. Unlike the high romance (or schmaltz) of other accounts of the South's most famous army Alexander's contemporaries were writing, he turned a cold, professional eye on its operations, offering praise where earned, and criticism where deserved, even for the already sainted Robert E. Lee. The result was a classic for serious military students, who came to regard Alexander as one of the foremost authorities on the operations of the Confederate army.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Death of a Great Snake

Winfield Scott and the Lincoln Cabinet
Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, and Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Department of Northeast Virginia, were ushered into a room upstairs in the White House containing the President of the United States and his Cabinet. They were there to tell them how to win the war and take control of the South.

Several days earlier, Scott had asked McDowell to make a plan for attacking Confederate forces defending Manassas Junction led by G.T. Beauregard. The younger man had been chosen based on his excellent career as a staffer and had duly sketched out an intricate plan, involving moving his army of 30,000 (the largest army the Federal government had under its command) from its camps in Alexandria County (Arlington) to Centreville, where he would cross Bull Run at an undefended place, and attack Beauregard's defenses from the back.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Long Shadow of Mexico

This is the first in a four-part series about the impact of the Mexican War on the American Civil War.
Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

The Battle of Chapultepec

Like so many of the men his age in 1861, the defining moments in Joseph Hooker's life to that point had taken place in Mexico. Mexican War veteran Senator Edward Baker had written him a letter of recommendation to his friend Abraham Lincoln, who had sent it on to Mexican War veteran Brigadier General Joseph Mansfield commanding the Department of Washington, who had in turn forwarded it to Mexican War commander Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. And it was because of the Mexican War that Scott made sure Hooker did not receive a position.

The Mexican War looms so large over the American Civil War for two reasons. The first, was the impact it had in splitting apart the country. If slavery was the force that tore the nation apart, the Mexican War was its wedge. The second, was the impact it had on the lives of young American soldiers who would go on to make up the leadership of both sides in the American Civil War.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Picket's Charge

"The Picket-Guard" by N.C. Wyeth. Illustrating a poem
by the same name originally published in Harper's Weekly
November 1861.
"Nothing of importance has occurred since my last report," Charles P. Stone wrote tersely on June 27. But Stone's opposite at Leesburg had been busy. "The Virginia guards at the ferries seem to have been replaced by South Carolinia troops."

Since dunking one of their officers in the Potomac River with a timely cannon shot, Stone's men had developed an understanding of sorts with the men of Eppa Hunton's 8th Virginia - after all, a lot of Stone's men were from Washington and the Virginians were their neighbors.

In fact, on June 22 an event that sounds remarkable, but was actually fairly common, occurred. Stone reliably told Scott: "the opposing pickets at Conrad's Ferry met in the middle of the river, shook hands, and drank to each others health." Stone wasn't trying to warm the general-in-chief's heart, it was possibly important intelligence. "The Virginia picket men said they did not wish to fight, but 'wanted to go home'." (Of course, the moral of Stone's DC militia wasn't much better. He had reported for several days that they ought to be sent home to be replaced.)

Pickets were the eyes and ears of a Civil War-era military unit. One company out of the regiment would be chosen each day and night to act as a trip-wire. Unlike scouts, who would ride out to look for the enemy, pickets simply went a ways in front of the main position and spread out. They waited there, keeping their eyes and ears open. If an enemy was coming to attack, the pickets were supposed to stay under fire long enough to get a good idea what sort of enemy and how many were on their way, and then run back to the regiment and report in.

Friday, June 24, 2011

McDowell Plans

1861 Union Map of Northern Virginia (Library of Congress)
Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Department of Northeastern Virginia was not a novice to war, contrary to many historical accounts of the events that led  up to the First Battle of Manassas. Like so many of his contemporaries on the battlefield, the Ohioan had graduated from West Point. He had finished 23rd in his class of 45 in 1838, by coincidence the same year that G.T. Beauregard - the man he now had to defeat - finished second. Without the laurels of Beauregard, McDowell had missed out on the engineers and went into the artillery, but impressed his superiors enough to win a job teaching tactics at West Point.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Inaction at Leesburg

"The enemy appears to be aiming at Leesburg," Brigadier General G.T. Beauregard informed Jefferson Davis June 22. "I have sent another regiment there. Cannot Calhoun's battery, at Charleston, with the horses, be ordered there forthwith?"

Though the battery he had referenced was designated for Joe Johnston's command, Beauregard wasn't quite up to his old tricks of expanding his army at the expense of another commander. With the Union occupying a position between Vienna and Ball's Cross-Roads (Ballston) ever since the mistake at Vienna (though on the same day the commander of that force, Daniel Tyler, was strenuously arguing with Irvin McDowell about holding the position) and with Johnston falling back from Harper's Ferry, Beauregard needed to keep the two Union armies from uniting to crush the Confederate force at Manassas Junction.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Army of the Potomac is Born... in Dixie?

Scenes from Alexandria and Washington, from the June 22 edition of Harper's Ferry

June 20, Charles P. Stone reported to Assistant Adjutant General Edward Townsend that his special messenger had arrived at Harper's Ferry and found it "completely deserted, except by a few poor families." In reference to Robert Patterson's ongoing failure to secure the far end of the cordon, he observed dryly "there were no troops of the United States at or near that place."

Stone was operating off the assumption that the Confederate troops formerly occupying Harper's Ferry were on their way to join those Confederates behind Bull Run under Brigadier General G.T. Beauregard to unite for an attack. In fact, despite Beauregard's best efforts, the troops under Brigadier General Joe Johnston were centered around Winchester and not on their way to joining him.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Commanding Washington

Lincoln's note to Mansfield
On June 19, Joe Hooker presented his letter of introduction from Senator (and Colonel) Edward Baker of Oregon to his good friend President Abraham Lincoln. It's not recorded how long (or even if) Hooker spoke to Lincoln at the White House, but the note Lincoln scribbled survives.

The inclosed papers of Colonel Joseph Hooker speak for themselves. He desires to have command of a regiment. Ought he have it, and can it be done, and how?
    Please consult General Scott, and say if he and you would like Colonel Hooker to have a command.

The note was addressed to Brigadier General Joseph Mansfield, in command of the Department of Washington, the District of Columbia, and Maryland from Bladensburg to Fort Washington. At the outbreak of the outbreak of the war, Mansfield had been the Inspector General for the U.S. Army, but the need for experienced leaders (he had fought in Mexico with future president - and Winfield Scott arch-rival - Zachary Taylor). Mansfield was charged with protecting 1861 Washington, D.C., which consisted of Washington City (today's Mall, the Capitol, and the White House, there wasn't much else there) and Georgetown, plus a few small villages, like Silver Spring. (Mansfield would be killed at the Battle of Antietam and would have a fort defending Friendship Heights named in his honor -- though the fort named after his cousin who died of illness in 1864, Joseph Totten, would have a more lasting mark on the city).

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The West Point Artillery Goes Into Action

A limbered 12-pounder howitzer, Model 1841 (LOC)
On June 18, Charles P. Stone filed yet another report at  9 pm in addition to his other two of the day. The Confederates were definitely organized opposite him at Leesburg, and they were getting more serious about contesting his position. "The enemy attempted to make a crossing at the Goose Creek," he reported to Washington worriedly about an attempt by the Confederates to position themselves downriver from Leesburg (toward today's McLean), having burned the bridge over one of the Potomac's larger tributaries a few days earlier when Stone's men had first showed up at Edwards' Ferry.

The officer in charge of the Pennsylvania militia guarding Edwards' Ferry had estimated there were between 800 and 900 Confederates. As with most early war estimates from jumpy, inexperienced officers, the number was probably high, since the men were from Colonel Eppa Hunton's 8th Virginia Infantry (though Stone didn't know this), which numbered only between 800 and 900 men total. Hunton had been on his own since May, when Virginia's Governor, John Letcher, had asked him to raise the regiment in the Leesburg area. For about two weeks he had reported directly to Robert E. Lee (as the former head of Virginia militia), until Lee had directed him to report to G.T. Beauregard in Manassas (on the same day Stone had originally set out from Washington for Rockville).

Friday, June 17, 2011

Surprise at Vienna

At approximately 6:00 pm on June 17, South Carolina Colonel Maxcy Gregg heard something. His men had marched to Vienna from Fairfax Court House (City of Fairfax) on local reports that the Union had been snooping around the area the previous two days. Gregg spent all day waiting for the Northerners to appear, and when they hadn't, decided to wreck the water tank at the station to slow down their trains and call it a day.

Thaddeus C. Lowe, Balloonmeister

While Stone was dealing with the Confederate cannon fire on the morning of June 17, President Abraham Lincoln was outside the Columbian Armory that Stone had done so much to protect from secessionists a few months earlier. He was there to meet with Professor Thaddeus C. Lowe, a fellow Ohioan and a friend of his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase.

Lowe was hoping to convince Lincoln of the military applications for balloons, and was demonstrating it with a hot air balloon of his own design, the Enterprise. Lowe ascended 500 ft with a telegraph operator and sent this message back down to the President:

This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the service of the country. T.S.C. Lowe.

Lincoln was suitably impressed and commended Lowe to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commander of the troops immediately across the Potomac River.

A reenactment recently took place on the grounds of the Air and Space Museum, the site of the Columbian Armory.

Guarding the Fords

On June 17, Charles P. Stone faced more signs of belligerency on his Rockville Expedition than he had so far. At 10:00, Confederate artillery opened fire across the Potomac River at his New Hampshire troops stationed at Conrad's Ferry. Conrad's Ferry, along with Edwards Ferry, are the two main crossings leading into Leesburg (and Conrad's Ferry still operates today as White's Ferry, motoring cars across the Potomac River, though it has had some trouble with the U.S. Coast Guard in recent years).

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Senator Baker's Appointment

Col. Edward Baker in Harper's Weekly
On June 16, 1861, Senator Edward Baker was in New York City. Congress had adjourned from the special session called by President Buchanan in March to determine what to do about secession, but President Abraham Lincoln, a personal friend of Senator Baker, had called Congress into special session on July 4. Even if Baker hadn't represented Oregon and been unable to make the long cross-country journey (the Pacific Railroad Act, which would lay the groundwork for a transcontinental railroad network, was still a year away), he would not have gone home. That's because Senator Baker was also Colonel Baker.

One month after the fall of Fort Sumter, Lincoln had asked Baker to be a general in the 75,000-strong U.S. Volunteer force he had called up, and be responsible for raising a portion of those volunteers. Baker had been one of the first people Lincoln met when he moved to Springfield in 1837. In evenings, Lincoln would gather with the men of the town to talk current events and Baker (as well as Stephen Douglas) was frequently in attendance. The plain-spoken Kentuckian and the London-born lawyer hit it off, and Lincoln named his second son, born in 1846, Edward Baker Lincoln.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Rockville Expedition Continues

Charles P. Stone may not have found the phantom Confederate armies along the Potomac on June 14, but June 15 he met more organized Confederate resistance. looking for the 300 to 400 reported soldiers, Stone seized the opportunity to occupy two more of the River crossings, leaving only the crossing at Point of Rocks undefended, having taken a large part of his command to Poolesville.

"I have the honor to report that the troops of the expedition have to-night captured Edwards Ferry and Conrad's Ferry, the two approaches to Leesburg," he reported at the end of a day of marching. "The former is held by a portion of the Pennsylvania Regiment, a piece of artillery under Lieutenant Hasbrouck, and twenty cavalry. The latter is held by a portion of the first New Hampshire Regiment."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Flag Day Sesquicentennial

Adam Goodheart over at Disunion (New York Times) has a great piece today on the first flag day, which occurred 150 years ago today in Connecticut. Check it out.

Stone Casts Out from Rockville

Charles Stone was almost literally a man pulled between two armies. But while many of his border state contemporaries in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Virginia, and Missouri felt emotionally pulled to fight for the north or south, Stone was a Union man through and through. Rather, Stone had the responsibility of guarding roughly 60 miles of the Potomac River, from Washington to Harper's Ferry. But, in a reoccurring theme of Stone's life, it was up to him to figure out how to get that task done.

Even by summer 1861, neither the North nor the South had an explicit strategic plan (the South would never have one). Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, had a pretty clear idea of a strategy that he would tell to anyone who would listen, but Lincoln's cabinet had been so busy trying to make sure Washington wasn't captured, they hadn't approved it yet. In the meantime, Scott grumpily instituted a cordon defense, a line of strong points to keep an enemy from getting past (the South had set up a cordon as well, though Beauregard was busy unsuccessfully trying to convince Jefferson Davis it was a bad idea and to put all the forces under him).

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Concerted Plan of Operation

On June 13, Lt. Col. Sam Jones was ushered into see Jefferson Davis, provisional president of the Confederate States of America. Jones was a West Point grad from Southside Virginia, who had been serving at the grade of captain on the staff of the Judge Advocate General when the Commonwealth seceded. Now he was a lieutenant colonel on the staff of the most famous Confederate general - Gustave T. Beauregard.

He had been sent by Beauregard to deliver an urgent letter to Davis from Manassas Junction. He was supposed to orally describe its contents using a diagram Beauregard had helpfully made, make sure the president read the letter itself, and then bring any reply back to the anxious Louisianan in northern Virginia.

Troop disposition in Virginia in June 1861 (the numbers
correspond to locations clockwise from the left)
"The enemy seem to be taking the offensive towards Harper's Ferry," Beauregard began boldly. Confederate forces in Virginia were spread between:
  1. The mountains of western Virginia where Union forces under George McClellan were moving steadily south
  2. Joe Johnston at Harper's Ferry at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers with the B&O Railroad
  3. Beauregard at Manassas Junction, where the Manassas Gap Railroad and the Orange & Alexandria Railroad joined
  4. Aquia Creek, in Stafford County, a deep-water creek defended by a handful of Confederates so Northerners couldn't land and turn their lines at Manassas
  5. Richmond
  6. Two small commands in Newport News and Norfolk in opposition to troops at Fort Monroe under Benjamin Butler.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Veritable Will-of-the-Wisp

The New York Times reporting Fort Sumter's attack
"The business of punishing the rebels has been much retarded by the difficulty of catching them," the New York Times editorialized on June 2, 1861. The upstart paper had been founded ten years before as a Whig Party paper and transferred its allegiance to the Republican Party when the Whigs folded, but its editor and founder, Henry J. Raymond, had a problem - it was hard to out-Republican his top rival, Horace P. Greeley of the world-revered New York Tribune. Raymond had first worked for Greeley, then left the Tribune in order to run for New York lieutenant governor, defeating none other than Greeley in the Whig primary, and triggering the collapse of the New York Whig machine. Throughout the war, Raymond determined to make his paper the most loyal Republican paper in the nation, exploiting the political gap caused by Greeley's initial support for a more conservative Lincoln rival (it would pay off in 1864, when he would be named the second ever Republican National Committee Chair, though it would be another two decades before is paper challenged the Tribune).

Raymond also wasn't above a little melodrama to attract readers, much like today's New York Post. And his paper's most recent obsession was with G.T. Beauregard. "All who are of any importance of prominence have kept out of the way," the June 2 editorial penned by Raymond continued about the missing Confederate leaders. "Beauregard vanished immediately after the last shot had been fired into the burning Sumter."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Races to the Top

Bvt. Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, ca. 1860
General-in-chief Winfield Scott was so fat he could not ride on his horse. Or at least that's the story too delightful for historians to resist repeating, though it is never appropriately cited. Today, 150 years ago and three days from his 75th birthday, he received the detailed report from a young officer who had won the first land battle of the war (in just a month's time it would be thought of as barely a skirmish) and it made life a lot harder for the leader of Abraham Lincoln's war effort.

Scott's feeble condition and gouty legs may have prevented him from riding a horse even if he weren't also severely obese. He was a Virginian, who had taken a few law classes at the College of William and Mary before joining the U.S. Army in 1808 as a captain of artillery, bypassing the entry rank of lieutenant. His continuous service with the army thereafter was the main reason he could not fathom following his native state (and his protege, Robert E. Lee) to the Confederacy.

In the minds of most Americans, Scott was the U.S. Army. He had served time in a British prison during the War of 1812, the war when he first attained general officer status. When Andrew Jackson sought to quell South Carolina secessionists the first time, it was Scott who led the troops that put a lid on their dissent. When Martin Van Buren wanted the Cherokee out of Georgia, it was Scott that sent them on their Trail of Tears. The army's first drill manual was written by Scott as was its first book of tactics for militia. The Seminole and Creek wars were waged by Scott. American troops entered Mexico City under the command of Scott, largely in defiance of President James K. Polk, who hated the man. In 1852 the Whig Party dumped its sitting President (Millard Filmore) to give the nomination for President to Scott (his loss effectively killed the Whig Party, they never ran another candidate for President). In 1855, the Congress voted to give him the title of "lieutenant general" a grade not even in existence in the United States and held only once before -- by George Washington. Scott had served as the general-in-chief of the army - its top ranking officer and thereby commander - since 1841.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Today in History: Beauty and Booty!

"Gus" Beauregard
On the morning of June 5, 1861 the inhabitants of Loudon, Fairfax, and Prince William Counties were treated to a proclamation from the celebrity that had arrived in their midst four days earlier."A reckless and unprincipled tyrant has invaded your soil," the proclamation signed from Brigadier General G.T. Beauregard began. Beauregard was the hero of Fort Sumter, having bombarded the fort controlling Charleston Harbor a month and a half earlier and receiving its surrender in the first southern victory of the war.

Born Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard to a creole family in Louisiana, Beauregard had ceased using his first name and split his hyphenated last name when at West Point to better fit in with his Anglo-Saxon descended classmates (he graduated second in his class in 1838). After serving in the U.S. Army as an engineer in the Mexican War and its fall-out (West Point grads got to choose their service by class ranking, and the top always picked engineers, followed by artillery, cavalry, and finally infantry), he dabbled in New Orleans politics for a few years before returning to the Army and becoming superintendent of his alma mater. He served less than a week before Louisiana seceded and he resigned. Beauregard insisted the War Department had jumped to conclusions about his loyalties as a Southern officer, but the War Department said it had plenty of evidence Beauregard planned to join the rebellion (and probably did, after all, his patron for the post had been Senator John Slidell of Louisiana who in a fiery farewell speech from the Floor promised that "there will be war").

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Big Idea

The best thing and worst thing about Americans is that they don't remember history.  Either we don't know that something happened in the past, or, if we do, we understand primarily through the lens of the present.  We end up a people remarkably free of grudges, but surprisingly naive about why the world is the way it is today.

If this blog addresses that problem, it is purely by accident.  Instead, it is dedicated to looking into Washington, DC and its environs and spotting the rich history that surrounds us, unnoticed, every day.