Tiresome Challenges, Curious Assertions

You see it all the time: Confederate heritage advocates recycling the same old assertions and charges, many of which are carefully worded so as to lead to the answer they want (regardless of the relation of that answer to historical understanding). Here’s one from a George Purvis, who heads something called SHAPE, which is not Eisenhower’s command in World War II, but “Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education,” although it does nothing of the sort. Anyway, here’s George’s declaration, found in the comments section of yet another Confederate heritage blog:

In my honest opinion other students can and should protest the US flag being flown — if it is. After all, under the United States flag, slavery did start in this country.

Anyone want to challenge that statement here in an open debate? Brooks, Baker, Mackey, Hall????? Any of you willing to step to the plate????

Well, as it’s now MLB’s All Star Week, here I come.

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Ulysses S. Grant, Father

Ulysses S. Grant did not always have the smoothest relationship with his father. Indeed, old Jesse Grant could in turn berate his son, brag about him, embarrass him, and even try to take advantage of him.

Fathers are often shaped by their experiences as sons, for better and for worse. Sometimes, as sons know, the act of becoming a father sheds new light on what their own fathers did. In Grant’s case, he seems to have resolved to be a different sort of father than his own father was.

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Lincoln Renominated: A Sesquicentennial Moment Missed

Sometimes the best way to test a hypothesis is to test it without telling anyone. My hypothesis was that there would be minimal attention paid in social media to the 150th anniversary of the renomination of Abraham Lincoln (and the vice presidential nomination of Andrew Johnson). Writing about Cold Harbor–and so many did that, although most of the accounts were predictable and a few settled for perpetuating myths and failing to set that battle in broader context–that Lincoln’s renomination on June 8 would go by with fairly little commentary.

Seems I was right.

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June 11-12, 1864: Time To Get One’s Picture Taken

USG Cold HarborOn June 12, 1864, Theodore Lyman offered the following observation:

General Grant has appeared with his moustache and beard trimmed close, giving him a very mild air–and indeed he is a mild man, really. He is an odd combination; there is one good thing, at any rate–he is the concentration of all that is American. 

The general was getting ready to have his picture taken.

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Pride Goeth Before A Fall

May 1864 was a frustrating month for George Gordon Meade. Still the commander of the Army of the Potomac, he had growled as Ulysses S. Grant intervened more and more in the army’s operations. Nor was he pleased with the performance of Ambrose Burnside, who headed the independent Ninth Corps under Grant’s direction as a sop to Burnside’s seniority. Thus far Burnside has proved a disappointment in the field. Meade had predicted that if things went well, the press would laud Grant, while if things went badly, it would be Meade’s fault.

It was at the North Anna that matters came to a head.  When Charles A. Dana, the assistant secretary of war, read a telegram from William T. Sherman expressing the hope that Meade’s army would achieve the same successes thus far enjoyed by Sherman, Meade snapped. Sherman’s missive, he fumed, was an insult to his men and himself: the Army of the Potomac needed no one to tell it how to fight.

Grant had noted Meade’s temper and his frustration with his situation and several of his subordinates. However, he had fended off suggestions from his staff that he should dispose of Meade altogether. Meade still knew best the strengths and weaknesses of his command and its commanders, he reasoned, and Grant would find it too hard to run the Army of the Potomac while supervising operations elsewhere, especially as other aspects of his overall plan of operations in Virginia began to unravel in the Shenandoah Valley and by the James River.

Thus, on May 24, Grant altered the chain of command. Burnside would now report to Meade: gone was the cumbersome arrangement of the previous three weeks. Moreover, when Grant, Meade, and their generals discussed whether to continue to move around the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia or swing around its left for once, Grant deferred to Meade’s preference to continue as before. In short, Grant was going to allow Meade to direct the operations of his army, as originally intended. Meade had won this round.

June 3 was ten days away.

Upon Closer Review: Two Works by Winslow Homer

Homer 1864 One

Many of you may have learned that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently put a rather large number of images online, including this rather familiar one showing several Confederate prisoners being presented to Francis C. Barlow outside Petersburg on June 21, 1864 … or so they say.

Here’s a video discussing the painting:

I’m not sure I buy the Reconstruction angle (and Barlow was not exactly a fan of Reconstruction in later years, believing that Florida went Democratic in the disputed election of 1876). Moreover, there were no black units in the Second Corps.

Let’s take a look at it in some more detail.

Homer detail

Many of you know Barlow visually from one of several photographs or from this monument at Gettysburg (I took this picture on the afternoon of July 1, 2013, the day Barlow was seriously be wounded at Gettysburg).


Snazzy dresser.

Had the commenter looked a little more closely at the painting, he would have seen that the Union soldier in the foreground of the painting came from the 61st New York Infantry, which Barlow had once commanded (none other than Nelson Miles took over for him, although by 1864 LTC Oscar Broady was in charge, and the regiment’s final commander, George W. Scott, filed this report in August).

The 61st New York saw some action on the day in question (June 21, 1864); there’s also a claim that the proper date for this image should be May 12, 1864, during Barlow’s assault on the Mule Shoe (in which the 61st New York also participated), but the scene does not resemble that day.

As for the Confederates, well, outside of this picture …

… Homer’s Confederate POWs may be the best known trio in Civil War memory. One of them may still be alive:

ZThat was too easy.

Homer offered another image of Petersburg that raises some interesting questions.

“Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg” was done in 1864, according to its current owner. Look first at the central figure:

defiance 2

He bears some resemblance to this figure from the 1866 painting:

Defiance double

But that would be overlooking the real story contained in this painting:

defiance 3

Oh, no … here we go again …

As I was finishing assembling this post, I came across a discussion of the painting here. Much of it proves supportive of what I’ve presented above (you can download a PDF of the article from here).

Winning and Losing in the Wilderness

It’s always been a nice question as to who won (and lost) the battle of the Wilderness. Much depends on how you define the problem as well as how you define winning and losing. For those who think that Robert E. Lee won, they point to Lee fighting Grant to a standstill while inflicting heavy losses, just like he had at Chancellorsville the previous May.

However, it’s fairer to say that on the battlefield proper, Lee and Grant fought each other to a standstill. Had Hooker not withdrawn in May 1863, Lee would have attacked the Union position once more (and, given that the position was protected by earthworks, perhaps the outcome would not have been what some call Lee’s greatest victory). Thus, it may be fairer to say that the Wilderness was a tactical draw, as neither side held the advantage. Then again, if that’s true, many Civil War battles were tactical draws, with the winner and loser determined by what happened next. For example, this would be true of Antietam and Chancellorsville (as fought): it’s what happened next that leads us to pick winners and losers. One might advance the same argument for Gettysburg, although I think that it would be somewhat harder to make.

What is different about the Wilderness is that from the beginning Grant envisioned it as the first in a series of battles that together formed a campaign. Grant’s strategic objective would not be achieved in a single battle; moreover, at the time the Wilderness was fought, opportunity beckoned for Union success elsewhere (ten days later people would understand things differently). In truth, Grant had achieved what he had set out to do: he had taken the initiative, crossed the Rapidan, engaged Lee in battle, avoided defeat, and retained the initiative to fight again. Indeed, one might say that his initial instructions to Meade–that where Lee went Meade would go also–got things backwards. Where Grant went, Lee had to go, or he’d risk a major defeat.

In June 1863 Robert E. Lee launched a campaign to seek decisive battle through a series of engagements against portions of a strung-out and poorly-led foe. As we know, that did not quite turn out the way Lee had hoped it would. In Lee’s eyes, however, the campaign was the means, the battle the ultimate end. Grant reversed this in 1864: engaging in battles was a means (so was maneuver) to achieving the goal of the campaign. People might still expect a Waterloo, but Grant expected something different. Much like the Vicksburg campaign, where a series of battles served the larger ends of a campaign (and a campaign that looked far more like how Lee wanted the Pennsylvania campaign to turn out than the actual Gettysburg campaign), Grant sought to achieve certain goals in the Wilderness, and did so. When he broke off fighting, it was not because he was defeated, but because continued fighting did not serve his ends.

Lee may have fought Grant to a standstill, but that was all. The rate of attrition at the Wilderness over the long run actually favored Grant; Lee had failed to capture the initiative; and Grant advanced rather than retreated. What made Chancellorsville a Confederate victory was Hooker’s decision to retreat and regroup; what made the Wilderness a Union victory, in the end, was that Grant achieved his aims and continued to advance. The Wilderness served Grant’s ends: it did not serve Lee’s.

May 6, 1864: Grant Under Pressure

On the evening of May 6, 1864, a Confederate attack on the Union right flank achieved early success … enough to revive memories of Chancellorsville in the minds of some Union officers. Horace Porter described what happened next at Grant’s headquarters:

Just then the stillness was broken by heavy volleys of musketry on our extreme right, which told that Sedgwick had been assaulted, and was actually engaged with the enemy. The attack against which the general-in-chief during the day had ordered every precaution to be taken had now been made. Meade was at Grant’s headquarters at the time. They had just left the top of the knoll, and were standing in front of General Grant’s tent talking to Mr. Washburne. Staff-officers and couriers were soon seen galloping up to Meade’s headquarters, and his chief of staff. General Humphreys, sent word that the attack was directed against our extreme right, and that a part of Sedgwick’s line had been driven back in some confusion. Generals Grant and Meade, accompanied by me and one or two other staff-officers, walked rapidly over to Meade’s tent, and found that the reports still coming in were bringing news of increasing disaster. It was soon reported that General Shaler and part of his brigade had been captured; then that General Seymour and several hundred of his men had fallen into the hands of the enemy; afterward that our right had been turned, and Ferrero’s division cut off and forced back upon the Rapidan. General Humphreys, on receiving the first reports, had given prompt instructions with a view to strengthening the point of the line attacked. General Grant now took the matter in hand with his accustomed vigor. Darkness had set in, but the firing still continued. Aides came galloping in from the right, laboring under intense excitement, talking wildly, and giving the most exaggerated reports of the engagement. Some declared that a large force had broken and scattered Sedgwick’s entire corps. Others insisted that the enemy had turned our right completely, and captured the wagon-train. It was asserted at one time that both Sedgwick and Wright had been captured. Such tales of disaster would have been enough to inspire serious apprehension in daylight and under ordinary circumstances. In the darkness of the night, in the gloom of a tangled forest, and after men’s nerves had been racked by the strain of a two days’ desperate battle, the most immovable commander might have been shaken. But it was in just such sudden emergencies that General Grant was always at his best. Without the change of a muscle of his face, or the slightest alteration in the tones of his voice, he quietly interrogated the officers who brought the reports; then, sifting out the truth from the mass of exaggerations, he gave directions for relieving the situation with the marvelous rapidity which was always characteristic of him when directing movements in the face of an enemy. Reinforcements were hurried to the point attacked, and preparations made for Sedgwick’s corps to take up a new line, with the front and right thrown back. General Grant soon walked over to his own camp, seated himself on a stool in front of his tent, lighted a fresh cigar, and there continued to receive further advices from the right.

A general officer came in from his command at this juncture, and said to the general-in-chief, speaking rapidly and laboring under considerable excitement: “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” The general rose to his feet, took his cigar out of his mouth, turned to the officer, and replied, with a degree of animation which he seldom manifested: “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” The officer retired rather crestfallen, and without saying a word in reply. This recalls a very pertinent criticism regarding his chief once made in my presence by General Sherman. He said: “Grant always seemed pretty certain to win when he went into a fight with anything like equal numbers. I believe the chief reason why he was more successful than others was that while they were thinking so much about what the enemy was going to do, Grant was thinking all the time about what he was going to do himself.”

Hancock came to headquarters about 8 p. m., and had a conference with the general-in-chief and General Meade. He had had a very busy day on his front, and while he was cheery, and showed that there was still plenty of fight left in him, he manifested signs of fatigue after his exhausting labors. General Grant, in offering him a cigar, found that only one was left in his pocket. Deducting the number he had given away from the supply he had started out with in the morning showed that he had smoked that day about twenty, all very strong and of formidable size. But it must be remembered that it was a particularly long day. He never afterward equaled that record in the use of tobacco.

The general, after having given his final orders providing for any emergency which might arise, entered his tent, and threw himself down upon his camp-bed. Ten minutes thereafter an alarming report was received from the right. I looked in his tent, and found him sleeping as soundly and as peacefully as an infant. I waked him, and communicated the report. His military instincts convinced him that it was a gross exaggeration, and as he had already made every provision for meeting any renewed attempts against the right, he turned over in his bed, and immediately went to sleep again.

Much has been made of this passage, including accounts that later claimed that Grant broke down and wept in his tent. Each account was framed in such a way as to tell the reader something about how the author wanted us to view Grant (complete with various interpretations of what, if anything, happened in the tent).

I don’t happen to believe that Grant was in any way intimidated by Robert E. Lee, although he gained a new respect for his foe’s generalship in May 1864. However, I do believe that he found the Army of the Potomac (as well as Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps) a difficult army to command, let alone master. This was most clearly manifested in the exchange with the staff officer: Grant wanted to remind him that Lee no longer commanded both armies, as indeed he did in the minds of some people. Indeed, Lee had never commanded both armies, but at times it seemed that he did so when he seized the initiative, especially when it came to launching counterattacks. Gettysburg had marked a transition in this regard: Meade had proven a superior field commander to his predecessors when it came to reacting in a moment of crisis. The Wilderness would also mark a transition to a new way of war, although that would not be evident until the evening of May 7.

Visions of Battle: The Wilderness

wilderness battle homerThe Wilderness is one of those battles where we believed how it must have looked, with two armies stumbling forward toward each other through the underbrush and woods that eventually took fire … a hell on earth. Winslow Homer’s representation suggests just how hard it was to move toward and fire upon an enemy that was hard to see.

wilderness battle 0Yet some early representations of the clash emphasized far more open terrain than one might assume … as well as offering images of battle lines surging forward (this image might well be of the opening action at Saunders Field):

Wilderness battle 01Other sketches and etchings, however, featured lines of infantry blazing away into the woods:

wilderness battle 4


Wilderness battle 3And, of course there were the efforts to rescue the wounded from the fires in the woods. Sometimes a sketch like this …

wilderness battle 6… became an engraving like this …

Wilderness battle 10… only to lose something in the translation, even when a similar scene appeared later:

wilderness battle 7Note the headgear worn by the stretcher bearers, suggesting that this is the same group of men being portrayed.

Of course, some artists offered scenes largely for domestic consumption. Soon after the battle one could have this image:

wilderness battle 5 Later, Kurz and Allison would present one of their typically whimsical portrayals of battle, with perfectly uniformed men … and, in this case, cavalry!

Wilderness battle 2How pretty. Fascinating to see Longstreet fall wounded as the Union cavalry come to the rescue along the Brock Road. Maybe Phil Sheridan served as the historical consultant for the image.

As for the Brock Road, its fortifications drew the attention of artists at the time …

Wilderness battle 8… and later for the Century Company’s famous Battles and Leaders series.

wilderness battle 9Most of these images conform to our impression of what battle must have looked like on May 5-6, 1864. Still, in some cases there seems to be too much order, and many of the figures seem somewhat stilted. With a few exceptions (you can see some of them in previous posts), modern artists have not taken up the challenge of representing what happened here visually, and indeed some of the most power impressions I have of the battle come from reading various accounts and letting my mind’s eye do the work.