Monday, December 26, 2011

Stopping Rat-Holes

A collection of post-Christmas odds and ends

"Brother Jonathan Stopping the Southern Rat-Holes" (Harper's Weekly)
Below are some good reads for your holiday reading. But first a few items from the capital area that occurred 150 years ago.

On December 26, tragedy struck the government stables located on the grounds of the Naval Observatory. Between 150 and 200 horses were killed when a fire broke out. 102 of the horses belonged to Massachusetts regiments stationed in the area, of which only 11 survived the fire.

On December 27, Congressman Alfred Ely of New York arrived in Washington from Richmond. Ely hadn't been visiting or on a diplomatic mission, he had been captured on the Warrenton Turnpike during the Union route at Bull Run, where he had accompanied a New York regiment to watch the action. Ely had been exchanged on Christmas for Charles James Faulkner. Faulkner, a former Virginia Senator, had been President Buchanan's ambassador to France and stayed on to negotiate an arms deal for the Confederacy. But the new U.S. charge had ordered him arrested in August. The exchange was Faulkner's idea, and he had negotiated the entire project himself.

Finally, also on December 26, one of Pete Longstreet's brigades lost its commander. Brig. General Philip St. George Cocke was a cotton planter in Powhatan County when Virginia seceded. Cocke had been alarmed by John Brown's raid, which stoked the ancient Southern paranoia about slave-revolts, and set to work raising, equipping, and training a local militia. Cocke had been to West Point as an artillery officer, and had become adjutant of the 2nd U.S. Artillery before he grew tired of military life and returned home to his plantation.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

As Far As Possible, A Merry Christmas

Celebrating in no-man's land

"There is a tremendous pressure being brought to bear on McClellan," Brig. General George Meade had written his wife on December 22, "And there is no telling how long he can or will stand it."

Meade was writing her a follow-up letter to give her more details on the minor battle that had occurred at Dranesville a few days earlier in which he had had a tiny supporting role (kudos to Ron for a fantastic write-up). It was a tumultuous crossroads for Washington's war policies, when decisions were being made that would effect the shape of the conflict for the next few years.

In Congress, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was committing itself to a course of partisan activism through the decision to focus on Charles P. Stone. Heading the War Department, Simon Cameron had decided earlier that month to cast his lot with anti-slavery forces and support the enlistment of black soldiers, probably because he would otherwise become a target of the Joint Committee's investigations for his corrupt awarding of contracts. Consequently, Lincoln was being forced to make a decision about whether to publicly rebuke his top military adviser or endorse a similar anti-slavery position himself.

Both Lincoln and Cameron were meanwhile leaning on general-in-chief Maj. General George McClellan to provide a victory to sooth the erupting political turmoil, which meant McClellan had to decide whether to launch a winter offensive or have his men continue building shelters. Everything was overshadowed by the ongoing Trent Affair, wherein the seizure of two Confederate envoys off a British civilian ship had led to an ultimatum from Great Britain to return the men or to face war. An invasion force was readying in Canada to prove it was no bluff.

"No one can predict the future for twenty-four hours," Meade had advised his wife, "and all we can do is to endeavor to be ready for all contingencies. Good-by! God bless you all and give you a happy and as far as possible a merry Christmas!"

It was Christmas 1861, and the war continued, despite the holiday. Soldiers both North and South did their best to celebrate the holiday, which was at the time (as it is now) both a pious holy day and a raucous good time. As well documented at All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac the 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves of Meade's brigade had a feast on care packages sent from home. Their brigade commander's thoughts turned to home too, when he wrote to his wife that "though absent from you in body, that I am with you and my dear children in spirit and thought."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Public Shot

The further adventures of Charles P. Stone's foot in his mouth

Charles P. Stone was furious when he sat down to write on December 23. Just a few days earlier, his own State's senator, Charles Sumner (R-MA), had denounced him on the Floor of the U.S. Senate. Angry that the Lincoln Administration and the War Department were forcing Massachusetts soldiers to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act, Sumner's thundering denunciation of the policy dragged Stone to the center of the fight between anti-slavery Republicans and the conservative prosecutors of the war. Sumner had sarcastically said that:
Brigadier General Stone, the well-known commander of Ball's Bluff, is now adding to his achievements there by engaging ably and actively in the work of surrendering fugitive slaves. He does this, sir, most successfully. He is victorious when the simple question is whether a fugitive slave shall be surrendered to a rebel.
If Sumner dragged Stone into the middle of the national spotlight, it was Stone who nailed himself to the ground so firmly there was no escaping. When a friend gave Stone a copy of Sumner's remarks, transcribed in the local papers, Stone sat down to angrily rebut the Senator's criticism. He argued that it was his orders and his responsibility to enforce the laws of the nation, including the fugitive slave law, and that only a strict respect for property rights of loyal civilians as understood before the war began would lead to a quick end and a reunion of the country (in fact, he had sent the commander of the expedition to Ball's Bluff with standing orders to shoot any soldier who plundered).

But if Stone's self-confidence was his greatest virtue, the arrogance it bred was his greatest vice. And his fury at Sumner's perceived mangling of his carefully considered position brought out the worst in Stone. The letter he wrote on December 23 was the first time since Ball's Bluff when he addressed anyone other than personal friends about the hot water he had found himself in outside of the official military channels, a major breach of personal decorum for Stone. Worse, he concluded his letter with words meant to insult:
Please accept my thanks for the speech in which you use my name... There can hardly be better proof that a soldier in the field is faithfully performing his duty than the fact that while he is receiving the public shot of the enemy in front he is at the same time receiving viterpuration [sic] of a well-known coward from a safe distance in the rear.
Never politically savvy, Stone probably did not realize he was making himself Enemy No. 1 of the group of Republicans that would come to be known as the Radical Republicans (a name full of baggage and not contemporary to 1861, so I'll avoid it for now). Sumner took the letter immediately to Lincoln, when he received it. Sumner and his allies believed that Stone's actions at Ball's Bluff had been either gross mismanagement or outright treason, and that Lincoln's good friend, Senator Edward Baker, had paid the price to either save Stone's debacle or thwart Stone's malfeasance. The letter's conclusion seemed to offer proof that Stone was malicious.

Lincoln, who had closely interviewed Stone about Baker's death, was deeply disturbed, but told Sumner that though he would not have written such cruel words himself, he believed Stone was probably within his rights after the harsh treatment Sumner had given him on the Floor. Not recorded is what Lincoln responded to Sumner's original speech, considering it was his Administration's policy that Sumner was following.

Whatever Lincoln's feelings, Sumner also took the letter to Senators Benjamin Wade (R-OH) and Zachariah Chandler (R-MI), the top two members of the newly formed Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The investigation into what happened at Ball's Bluff now had a principal subject of investigation.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Brave and Impetuous Soldier

Wherein we begin the tribulations of Charles P. Stone

The Senate had changed since it last met in the summer. In the days following the Union defeat at Bull Run (actually, before it too) the top critics of the Lincoln Administration were Democratic Senators John C. Breckinridge from Kentucky and Trusten Polk from Missouri. Neither was present when the Senate reconvened at the beginning of December. Breckinridge had fled to the Confederacy and was expelled December 4, but Polk's whereabouts (as well of those of his fellow Missouri Senator Wade Johnson) were unknown. It was suspected (correctly) that both had joined the Confederates, and on December 18 the Senate debated expelling two more of their colleagues. The fourth missing member was Senator Edward Baker of Oregon, who had been killed leading troops at the Battle of Ball's Bluff in late October.

Outside the Senate, the war effort had changed to. The top military adviser was now Maj. General George B. McClellan, who had advocated a policy of holding on all fronts while the Army of the Potomac, which he also commanded, was built up for an advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond. Unfortunately, the Lincoln administration still favored a policy closer to that devised by the former general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, which relied on a blockade of the South and controlling the Mississippi River to break the control of secessionists over Southern State governments.

The combination of traitors in their midst and strategic shifts brought back a Senate (and House) much more aggressive about overseeing the Administration's execution of the war. One of their very first acts when returning was to create a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Chaired by Senator Benjamin Wade (D-OH). At the top of the Committee's list of priorities was to find out what had happened at Bull Run and Ball's Bluff.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Rec: I Expose My Neck. UGH!

My favorite things I read this week

OLD SECESH. "While I cover my Neck, I expose my Feet, and if I cover my Feet, I expose my Neck. Ugh !"(Harper's Weekly)

Before proceeding to a heaping helping of recommendations, a report from a minor skirmish today in history:
Headquarters One hundred and fifth Pa. Vols.
Camp Jameson, Va
December 19, 1861

Sir: In obedience to your orders, I left this camp at 9 pm of the 18th instant with a force consisting of the regiment under my command, a squadron of the New Jersey Cavalry, under Captain Jones, and two sections of artillery, under Lieutenant Monroe, New Jersey Volunteers, and arrived at Potter's house within half a mile of the extreme outposts of our pickets on the right near 11:30 pm. I found that the pickets had been undisturbed, and immediately proceeded to distribute my force as would best support the pickets and preserve the force itself, should we be attacked. No demonstration was made by the enemy during the night. I left Potter's house for Pohick Church about three quarters of an hour after daybreak, having been detained that long in developing a movement to capture some of the enemy, but which proved abortive.

We arrived at Pohick about 9 am; was informed that the previous day the enemy had there a force of 200 cavalry and also a regiment of infantry concealed in the woods to the west of the village. Remained at Pohick about two hours; sent a party down the Telegraph road and discovered about a mile distant a rebel picket 6 or 8 strong; fired at them and they fled, but did not pursue as my instructions did not allow me to proceed beyond this point. Left Pohick Church between 11 and 12 am, and returned to camp at 3:30 pm. Came by the village of Accotink, and was there informed that no rebel forces had been in the village for over a month.

Respectfully submitted,
Colonel, One hundred and fifth Regiment Pa. Vols.

Colonel Amos A. McKnight had led his small detachment out on a heavy patrol, because his division commander, Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman, had suspected Confederate activity around the remains of Pohick Church (which his men had ransacked in November). McKnight had raised the men himself from around the Pittsburgh area in August, after completing his own service as Captain of Company I, 8th Pennsylvania, a 90-day unit that had not done much of anything under Robert Patterson while Joe Johnston sneaked off to help clobber McDowell at Bull Run.

McKnight would continue with the regiment into the spring, before being severely wounded and missing almost a year of fighting. He would return for two battles, before being killed at Chancellorsville.


Disunion managed two entire good articles this week. First, the most suspenseful read I've had in awhile, when an LSU professor recounts the story of two Tigers condemned to death. Then the story of "The Picket Guard", a forgotten poem whose popularity still influences us today, most famously through the English-language title of Erich Maria Remarque's famous war novel (oh, and also some blog out there).

Speaking of Ron, he covered one of those courts-martial that George Meade spent so much of November and December complaining about.

This week I featured some stories about the Confederate right, including the Aquia District, led by Theophilus Holmes. By coincidence, here's his resignation letter from the U.S. Army. People believe handwriting tells a lot about people. It's probably not true, but if it was, this would say all you need to know about ol' Theophilus.

The Atlantic had an interesting piece contrasting how the Civil War was remembered 50 years ago to today, called "Not Your Grandfather's Civil War Commemoration."

And introducing one of my new favorite blogs, which covered the Irish Brigade in Winter Quarters.

It was a good week for reading.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ice on the Potomac

Wherein either Hooker exaggerates or global warming is real

The cold weather of December had brought a warming, rather than a cooling of tensions on the Lower Potomac. From the headquarters of the Department of Northern Virginia in Centreville, General Joseph E. Johnston was preparing his Southern army for a battle that he expected, even this far into the winter. While winter campaigning was something that no army enjoyed, it certainly wasn't unusual. Writing to his subordinate commanders about the situation, Johnston would have been well aware that Union forces were on the offensive in the Western Virginia mountains and that Brig. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was playing a cat and mouse game with two Union forces in what is today the West Virginia panhandle.

On December 5, Johnston had written to Brig. Gen. William H.C. Whiting, commanding his right flank at Dumfries about the eventuality of an attack by the Union army and his plans for a Confederate response.
My Dear General... I want to know precisely what roads are open and which closed. Please inform me The enemy's movements might be such as to tempt me to go in your direction first. It is necessary to be prepared to do so at all events... Should we go against your enemy it ought to be in two columns on those two routes. 
And, referring to the way he had tricked Union Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson before Manassas into thinking his army was at Winchester when it was in fact on the way to turn the battle's tide, he added a line that would have brought a shout of triumph to Professor Thaddeus Lowe: "The infernal balloon may interfere with such success as we had with Patterson."

Meanwhile, Johnston was also in a letter battle with Richmond over orders issued by Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin that he immediately create two brigades of only Mississippi troops, which Johnston scornfully refused to do in several hundred words, especially because two of his Mississippi regiments were with Whiting.
The forces as now arranged are perfectly familiar with their respective positions, officers and men have become accustomed to each other, are acquainted with the nature of the ground they occupy, &c. The execution of Orders No 252 would work a complete revolution in the organization of the army, and necessitate a change of position of all the regiments from Leesburg to Dumfries, and from this position to Dumfries and Leesburg. Should the enemy attack us whilst these changes of station are in process, an event by no means improbable, it would be almost impossible to avert disaster to our arms.
Benjamin, naturally, wrote back expressing President Jefferson Davis' "desire" that Johnston should simply send the 13th, 17th, and 18th Mississippi regiments from Leesburg (where they had been crucial at Ball's Bluff) to Whiting as reinforcements, "to whose brigade they belong". Johnston could then move any other brigade to take their place at Leesburg, never mind that the last major troop movement at Leesburg had prompted a battle.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Defenses of Washington

In which we begin taking a closer look at how the war changed the city

This is the first in an occasional series on the Defenses of Washington. Future posts in the series will focus on the neighborhood of the fort or forts covered and how they have changed since their founding. This one just covers the state of the defense of Washington in December 1861. Think of it like a pilot for a spin-off series that takes place in the old series, like that time Edith Bunker had to say goodbye to Louise. That's right, this post is spawning The Jeffersons. Alright, back to moving on up.

In early December George McClellan's wife and newborn daughter had arrived in Washington, ending the steady supply of incriminating letters from Little Mac for the winter. It almost gives the impression that he had given up on internal feuding. But on December 4, something he read in the New York Times prompted a letter to the Secretary of War that still suggests his wife's arrival had done nothing to ease his squabbling nature.

As we have seen, cavalry patrols were almost constant in December, despite the common myth that all was quiet. But both armies were also hard at work trying to get their command structure, defenses, and logistics in order -- a daunting task considering that prior to July 1861, the largest American military force ever assembled had been Winfield Scott's 30,000 man army that marched on Mexico City. Both armies were larger than that by themselves, McClellan's over twice as large.

An American experiencing the war real-time, would have followed each of these story lines in the newspaper as often as possible, hoping that attention would be rewarded when one of those threads led to something of significance. Though the New York Times of 1861 was only a minor newspaper, the Grey Lady's importance today allows the 2011 reader to browse its full archives of the war. So we can read the paper on any given day just as a reader 150 years ago would have.

In this case, on December 4, a reader of the Times interested in the war around Washington would have found these articles: a small item that the loyalist Virginians meeting in Wheeling to plan the separation of their counties from their mother state had changed their preferred name from "Kanawha" to "Western Virginia"; an account of the second day of Congress in the new session and the reception Lincoln's State of the Union message received; a report by the Secretary of the Navy, including information on the Potomac Flotilla; a report on movements of New York regiments, including a (as it turned out erroneous) report on the departure of the Irish Brigade from Washington; an analysis piece on the importance of new types of pontoon bridges to the army; and a piece trying to read in to the departure of Charles P. Stone from his division across from Leesburg for several days (the paper failed to guess that McClellan was assigning him the responsibility of reopening the Canal as far as Harper's Ferry).

But it was none of these that upset McClellan. In a furiously written letter of December 9 to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, he explained:
I have the honor to enclose herewith a copy of the N.Y. Times of Dec. 4, 1861, containing as you will see a map of our works on the other side of the Potomac, & a statement of the composition of the Divisions in that same locality.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Bitter Secessionist and Bad Men

In which George Meade forages in Great Falls

The major drama of December 1861 revolved mostly around the ongoing saga of the Trent Affair, an international incident caused when a U.S. Navy vessel boarded a British vessel and removed two Confederate diplomats. The actual combat in the Potomac Watershed, meanwhile, was largely constrained to cavalry skirmishes in the no-man's land between the two rival Armies of the Potomac and daily harassment of shipping on the Potomac by batteries at Evansport [Quantico]. But skirmishes were not the full extent of operations occurring. December 6 provides a good example.

Brig. General George Meade spent the first few days of December contemplating horses. "The most important piece of intelligence I have to communicate is that I have bought another horse," he wrote to his wife on December 2. "He is a fine black horse that was brought out to camp by a trader, for sale. I bought him on the advice and judgment of several friends who pretend a knowledge in horse flesh, of which I am entirely ignorant."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Old Ravensworth

In which a skirmish occurs near Burke

A quick programming note: the internet has been almost unusable at home (it's Comcastic!) and work has kept me from having much time to write anyway, so we've missed several events in the area. Most importantly, in the "now" of 150 years ago, Congress was back in session. Disunion turned to Ted Widmore to not embarrass itself too badly and cover the event.

As November turned to December, the agitated calm that had characterized the relationship between the two armies continued unabated. On December 2 and December 4 two more skirmishes broke out in the no-man's land between the two armies, an arc of territory that ran from Dranesville on the Potomac, down to Vienna, on to Burke's Station, then Springfield Station, and finally followed the course of Pohick Creek back to the Potomac [the mouth of which is today at Ft. Belvoir].

For approximately five miles on either side of that line, cavalry patrols roamed. After that, the pickets of both armies were stationed, ready to run or ride back to the main armies if a sizable force appeared. Both sides' leaders assumed that any day a massive army would drive them in for a major attack, and both sides' leaders knew they wouldn't be ready for an attack until the spring. So the fighting was confined to cavalry patrols riding until they found the enemy's pickets, charging, then returning to their lines with prisoners to try to collect intelligence.

Central to this campaign of pickets and patrols were the fields of old Ravensworth. In 1650, Virginia's colonial governor (Sir William Berkeley) had made a land grant to Colonel William Fitzhugh, a wealthy Englishman, of a massive internal tract of land in the little settled tributaries of the Potomac. Today, this area is North Springfield, Annandale, Burke, and the surrounding area. Fitzhugh called this estate Ravensworth, after his family estate in England, but it would be another twenty years before he ever saw it. Even then, Fitzhugh preferred to live in King George County, though with the money he was making cultivating tobacco at Ravensworth, he was able to become one of the richest and most influential men in America. The road his property managers built to roll his tobacco hogsheads down to Accotink Creek is a link to this history. Today it is Rolling Road, evolved from the Ravensworth Rolling Road.