Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Important and Exciting Work

Porter Alexander and the phony phony war.

Ron at All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac has been chronicling Confederate activities and has another great post up about Joe Johnston's correspondence with new Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin on September 26 that is the beginning of the South's evacuation of the advanced line within sight of Washington. Please check it out. I offer the following post as a compliment to the narrative he is building.

Historians tend to refer to August and September 1861 as a "phony war" or a period of quiet, but it was nothing like that for Porter Alexander and the rest of the staff officers who worked ceaselessly to prepare the two armies for their next bloody encounter. When we last saw the major, he was touring the carnage of the Manassas battlefield. His hastily trained signal corps had played as central a role in winning the battle as Thomas Jackson's stand on Henry Hill, and the head of the Confederate Army of the Potomac, G.T. Beauregard, recognized it.

The day following the battle, Beauregard asked Alexander to become his new chief of ordnance, his own having been placed in charge of a brigade of Georgians (taking the spot that would have gone to the mortally wounded Francis Bartow). A few days later, Beauregard's army was officially merged with Joe Johnston's army, and Johnston asked Alexander to continue on as the chief of ordnance, since his own had been killed on Henry Hill. Alexander eagerly agreed, and was allowed to continue to live and eat at Beauregard's headquarters, which (at least initially) was closer to Washington than Johnston's. He recounted decades later:
My duties as chief of ordnance were to keep the whole army always supplied with arms and ammunition--infantry, artillery, & cavalry. It does not sound like very much to do, but there was an infinity of detail about it & I had to organize a complete system. First I had to issue blanks to every organization in the army for each one to report what arms it had & what it needed. Then I had to organize a store house for general supplies of this kind at the R.R. station & see that each organization of the army also had a train of wagons sufficient to carry a supply for at least one battle. Then I had to have weekly returns to my office from every regiment & battery & wagon train to have my eye, as it were, on the business everywhere & see what changes were taking place & that everything was as it should be.

Alexander's biggest problem was that every unit had a mish-mash of weapons from state arsenals and seized from Northern troops at Manassas. The artillery pieces, too, were mixed up, and Alexander usually failed at convincing the jealous battery commanders from swapping pieces so that they could have all of one kind and make his logistics easier. Though the major outranked many of the captains that initially refused, there was usually a colonel or brigadier general nearby to turn the tables on Alexander if he argued too forcefully.

The pieces (and predominantly flintlock smoothbore muskets carried by the men) were frequently old and broken, too. But Alexander hit upon a stroke of luck when he met George Duffey of Alexandria. Duffey was a jeweler whose shop was possibly on King Street on the block across from Market Square today (his son owned a jewelry shop at that location twenty years after the war). He had served in the Virginia militia for several decades and was called "Major" by Alexander despite holding no commission until later in the war (he also had risen to lieutenant colonel in the militia, but somehow never corrected his younger friend).

When the Union occupation of Alexandria loomed, Duffey had buried the town's records (including a map of the city by George Washington, who, incidentally, had laid the cornerstone of the Capitol with a trowel made by Duffey's father) on the grounds of Wise's Tavern. Unfortunately, the records don't show if this is the building currently known as Wise's Tavern at 201 Fairfax Street or one of the many other holdings by the descendants of John Wise.

Duffey performed near miracles for Alexander to get the Confederate equipment working. "He started with two or three wagons of tools and arms needing repair & eventually had a train of over 60 wagons, mostly of reserve ammunition, & was an institution of the army until the end of the war..." Looking back Alexander remembered the older man very fondly and commented to his daughter that "he & I will be often be together--across the river. He had been over a long time already." (Alexander was mistaken, Duffey had been dead only three years when he wrote his account in 1899. His grave is on the south side of Duke Street in Alexandria National Cemetery.)

But in addition to his "more important and exciting work as chief of ordnance", Alexander remained in charge of the army's signal corps as well. As the chief assistant to the U.S. Army's Albert Myer (father of the American signal corps, namesake of Fort Myer in Arlington, and George McClellan's 1861 chief of signals for the Northern Army of the Potomac), Alexander was offered a post in Richmond to command the entire Confederacy's signals, but declined to stay on the front. He turned over most of the work of polishing the signal system to his brother, but maintained a special interest in intelligence work, which was wholly part of signalling in the 19th Century army.

At Munson and Mason's Hills (today, just east of Seven Corners near J.E.B. Stuart High School, and at the intersection of Columbia Pike and Lincolnia Road, respectively) Alexander spent most of his free time hatching schemes to confound the Northerners. First, on Mason's Hill, he built an observation tower with a "fine astronomical glass about 6 feet long & [with a] four-inch aperature [sic] mounted on a tripod" with which he could see individual windows in Washington City. Then he befriended a Maryland native who was living in the city and sneaked through the lines to offer his services to the south. They arranged a system of signals sent by flashes from a tin coffee pot and had a series of successful transmissions.

Alexander was disappointed when his clever system had to be taken down at the end of the September as Johnston pulled back from Washington. But he had more tricks up his sleeve.

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  • Alexander, 60-68.


  1. Thanks for the compliment and glad you are enjoying the posts over at my blog.

    Your post uncovers a really interesting side of what was happening during the “picket war” after First Manassas and fits nicely with my recent stories of the Confederate side during this time period! The Confederates certainly had supply issues, and Porter faced a daunting challenge in getting the Southern Army of the Potomac up to par. Field commanders still had problems with procuring ordinance despite Porter’s best efforts. Longstreet, for example, couldn’t get all the guns he needed for Munson’s and Mason’s Hills, and ended up substituting stovepipes for canon. (Of course, it is not entirely certain if this was due to shortages, or to Johnston’s worries about committing to the advanced line dug in around Falls Church.)

    I hadn’t read about Duffey, but what a colorful character. I take it that Porter discusses him at length in his memoirs?

  2. Thank you for stopping by. Duffey is pretty fascinating, there's lots of good stories floating on the internet, but few that I can source to anyone. He pops up from time to time in Fighting for the Confederacy and always with great feeling. I'd like to get in touch with someone who knows Alexandria history a little better to get a longer rundown on the Duffey family, who run throughout a great deal of Alexandria's history.

  3. You may want to talk with James Barber, who wrote "Alexandria in the Civil War." He appears to be one of THE experts on the war in Alexandria. Perhaps the Lyceum has his contact details?