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.

A good friend of Virginia's governor, Cocke was asked to command all the Virginia militia along the Potomac as a brigadier general. Cocke established the "Alexandria Line," 300 men stationed on Arlington Heights above the city of Alexandria. When the Union soldiers of Sam Heintzelman invaded Alexandria, Cocke gave orders to his local subordinate to fight from house to house, but instead the militia fell back without firing a shot. Heintzelman quickly seized Shooter's Hill [Masonic Temple], threatening the flank of the position on Arlington Heights.

Cocke was lambasted for losing Alexandria, and received even more grief when he abandoned Arlington Heights and fell back behind Bull Run. The move was probably recommended by Robert E. Lee, who visited Cocke's original line as commander of the Virginia militia and decided it was indefensible with the resources at hand. Either Cocke or Lee at the time recognized that the Bull Run position allowed the militia to use the Manassas Gap Railroad to support the force under Joe Johnston at Winchester. Cocke set to work building a camp near Manassas Junction to support an army he would lead there.

But when Virginia formerly joined the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis had sent Brig. General Milledge Bonham to Manassas to command the army there. Cocke was made only a colonel in the Confederate army, and believed that he had been unfairly punished for abandoning Alexandria. Bonham was just a stop-gap, though, but when G.T. Beauregard arrived things got no better for Cocke. Beauregard assigned Cocke the Fifth Brigade, placing four others ahead of him: Bonham, Dick Ewell, D.R. Jones, and Longstreet. Only Jubal Early and the tiny command of Shanks Evans was below Cocke.

At Manassas, Cocke was responsible for guarding intermediate fords between Stone Bridge and Blackburn's Ford. Longstreet won fame for defending the latter, and Evans the former. Bernard Bee and Francis Bartow died defending Matthews' Hill, and Thomas Jackson earned his sobriquet and immortality as the Stonewall of Henry Hill. Even Jubal Early and Kirby Smith turned the Union right flank to begin the route. Cocke, meanwhile sat guarding those intermediate fords, until he finally was called to lead part of his force to Henry Hill to support Jackson. Cocke's men were fed into the meat grinder there, after Jackson's stand, but before Smith and Early's arrival.

After the battle, Longstreet, Jackson, and Smith all were promoted to major generals to command divisions. Cocke received a promotion to brigadier general, but not a new command, while Evans was not promoted from colonel, but was given semi-independent command at Leesburg. When Beauregard's official report of the battle was published in the Richmond Whig as part of his ongoing effort to circumvent Jefferson Davis, who he believed was wrecking the south's chances of winning by not being aggressive enough, Cocke's name didn't stand out as much as the others.

On December 26, while at home on leave, Cocke shot himself in the head. Traditionally, historians have followed the interpretation of Cocke's contemporaries, that a man of honor was deeply upset at eight months of sleights and committed suicide rather than face his Richmond connections as the inferior of lesser men. However, mental health is only beginning to be understood and appreciated in the last two generations, and it's possible that Cocke had personal demons as well. And it's also possible that the dismal prospects for the Confederacy in December 1861 (on the retreat in the West and the Virginia mountains, losing ports to amphibious operations throughout the south) played a role in his depression.

Either way, Cocke's Fifth Brigade was without a commander, and would be until March when the man who whose name would be associated with its darkest hour would take command -- George Pickett.

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