On to Cold Harbor

For most people the confrontation between Grant and Lee at North Anna River was a moment of missed opportunities for the Confederates. An ailing Robert E. Lee was unable to spur his subordinates into action; meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant struggled with an unhappy George G. Meade as he revisited his command structure. Once Grant addressed those issues, he followed Meade’s preference to slide once more around Lee’s right, with Richmond now just a short distance away. By the end of May the armies had passed Hanover Junction and were on their ways to where, just two years before, Lee had taken over for a wounded Joseph E. Johnston to confront George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.

From the beginning of the Overland Campaign Grant had anticipated the possibility of making his way to Richmond, but it was not his preferred plan. He had hoped that Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James would have posed a real threat to Richmond; he had also thought that Franz Sigel would have done a better job of taking control of the Shenandoah Valley. In both instances he was to be sorely disappointed. Sigel’s foray southward through the valley had ended in a humiliating disaster at New Market: instead of forcing Lee to detach units to stop the Yankee advance, he was receiving reinforcements from that campaign. Butler had landed his men at Bermuda Hundred but had failed to pose a serious threat to the Confederates at Richmond and Petersburg. Thus Grant’s notion of fighting it out on the Spotsylvania line to pin Lee in place while Butler and Sigel inflicted serious damage had gone awry; if would be left to the Army of the Potomac to threaten Richmond itself. Indeed, Grant had decided that if William F. “Baldy” Smith’s Eighteenth Corps wasn’t doing much good where it was, then it could come up to reinforce Meade’s army.

What happened–and didn’t happen–at North Anna helps explain what would happen at Cold Harbor. Meade’s outburst that he was not being allowed to command his army had led Grant to relent from his increasing practice of looking over Meade’s shoulder or issuing orders himself. Thus it would be left to Meade and his subordinates to implement Grant’s general plans. At the same time, the failure of the Confederates to take advantage of their opportunity at North Anna convinced Grant that the Army of Northern Virginia had lost its edge and might well be on the point of crumbling. After all, how else would one explain Lee’s failure to attack?

It would not be long until everyone would understand that these perceptions were misapprehensions, and that the Army of the Potomac was just as worn out as its Confederate counterpart.

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.

Planning a Tour

This June I will lead an introductory tour of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields for Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute. I will have approximately four hours and thirty minutes for this tour in terms of time at the site (I’ve already subtracted bathroom and lunch breaks, so this is tour time).

What should I show people? Remember: each stop involves having people get off the bus and back onto the bus, so there is a “bang-for-the-buck” issue here (walking the short walk to Grant’s headquarters site, for example, is probably not a useful use of time). I do not know yet whether Ellwood will be open. I can imagine two walks (Saunders Field and the Bloody Angle/Mule Shoe), with several shorter dismounts. Remember: this is an introductory trip, and the time parameters are fixed … so don’t go off on what you might do if you had more time … because that’s useless to me and to the people going on the trip (and suggests that there’s an inner McClellan in you, asking for more of this and more of that).


Another Marvel in the Inbox

Every morning’s an adventure when I click on my inbox to see what’s there. Take this brilliant missive:

May 21, 2014

TO:  Department of History, Arizona State University

FROM:  Philip I, King of Virginia and Unofficial King

                 of Great Britain

For your information and for your historical archives … .

Yours Sincerely,

Philip Tinsley III, CC’85, YGS’93, House of York,

Stuart & Leicester (Lester)


May 9, 2014

TO:  Bruce Bartlett, Author

FROM:  Philip Tinsley III, Honorable Discharge,

                  USAR, 22 NOV 1994

 I have begun to read your book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, and I must say that you are definitely on the right track, but you are really missing the entire forest for the trees, and I mean that politely … .

 History always repeats itself, however, most of the American public does not know thetrue history of the American Presidents, nor the true history of America, Itself ; it is something that you will not be able to read in any texts books or in the encyclopedias … .

First of all, it is important to note that George H.W. Bush was from the House of Hanover, English and German royalty … .  In Presidential Election 1988, Ben Bradlee attempted to exploit this fact in The Washington Post by publishing Bush’s and Quayle’s relation to Queen Elizabeth II.  Furthermore, Mr. Bradlee also pointed to the fact the George H.W. Bush was a member of the famous secret-society, Skull & Bones (Knights of The Templar) … .  Naturally, George W. Bush was admitted to Skull & Bones because of his father (see the movie, ANIMAL HOUSE, which starred John Belusi).  Second, it is important to note that the majority of the so-called conservative Republicans of the Bushes Administrations attended Ivy league schools, e.g. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etc.  Third, I was so happy that you pointed out in your book that George W. Bush continued the crazyimmigration policy that was initiated by President William Jefferson Clinton (Blythe, see Thomas Jefferson’s descendants) who also attended Yale … .  Fourth, almost all of the cabinet members in the Clinton and Bush Administrations were young adults in the 1960’s and part of a plot that was born in the Ivy league out of what had occurred at Kent State … .  Finally, you should be able to see that not only was America being bankrupted by both political parties, Democrat and Republican, but both parties were/are working together to turn America into a communist country.  Vice-President Albert Gore Jr., a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was going to double the number of Chinese people in this country and lift the trade embargos for communist China (see comments by Rep. Henry Hyde, The Washington Post); eight (8) years of this would have turned this nation into a communist nation, but no presidential candidate in the history of the U.S. has ever lost the U.S. Presidential Election, being 96 points ahead in the polls, prior to the election … that is where We come in.

It might be worthwhile to review the events that led up to Eisenhower becoming president of the U.S., over Thomas Dewey who beat him … .  Nevertheless, there is still enough documented history in this country (see Treaty of Lancaster, 1744Treaty of Paris 1783; and the Naturalization Act of 1870) to prove that the English Crown still controls the United States of America … I am related to President Abraham Lincoln whose father, Thomas A. Lincoln, English nobleman, married Sarah Bush (George H.W. Bush’s relative) in a second (2nd) marriage.

Yours Sincerely,

Philip Tinsley III, CC’85, YGS’93, House of York, Stuart &

Leicester (Lester), former member of The Republican Presidential

Legion of Merit




May 21, 1864: Grant Moves South

Today, some 150 years ago, at Massaponax Church, Virginia, one of the most famous sequences of photographs was taken by Timothy O’Sullivan from the second floor of the church.

Here’s the church itself:

And here are Ulysses S. Grant, George G. Meade, and their staffs, conferring and planning on what to do next.

Grant consults with Meade (above), looking over his shoulder as Meade studies a map. Meade always felt that Grant was looking over his shoulder during this campaign, and that would soon lead to a typical Meade outburst.

Then Grant moves over to the bench, where he writes out something.

Finished with that task, the general shifts over on the bench and commences smoking a cigar.

At least that is the usually accepted order of these images (which coincides with their negative numbers). However, if you examine the benches and their occupants carefully, there was more than just a little moving around, and someone might offer a different ordering. I follow the suggested order offered in William Frassanito’s Grant and Lee (1983), pp. 120-21.

Here’s Grant with a little more detail:

grant 52164 closeup

Today people prefer to study the photographs, but look at these engravings:

Hmmm … there are several new generals here (Garfield?! Sherman?! Thomas?! Heintzelman?! Sickles–with both legs?!). And I don’t think Alexander Gardiner took this image. Then again, some bodies were definitely moved in this case.

Harper’s Weekly chose a different route:


Here’s a detailed look at Grant in this image:

More recently, there was an interesting attempt to render this scene with model soldiers, something like this:


… although the matching was less than perfect. That said, here’s Grant looking over Meade’s shoulder again:

DSC01094 Poor Meade.


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 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).

Quote of the Week: May 11-17, 2014

This is incredible … and incredibly funny:

Kevin Levin is representative of a certain faction of Civil War enthusiasts which would like to avoid a lot of issues about the Civil War. So it is instructive to observe him. As the the issues of historical memory regarding the Civil War move into the future he is reacting to it and his blog postings are very revealing. I next hope to blog on his coverage of the opposition to neo-Confederacy at Washington and Lee University by African American students. It is both hilarious and revealing.

Personally, I think this quote is hilarious. It’s quite revealing that it comes from Edward “no one is as pure as me” Sebesta. You know, the man who didn’t want his book considered for a prize. The guy who despises the very flag he used on the cover of his book for marketing purposes. The guy who really, really needs attention.

Congratulations, Kevin.


May 12, 1864: The Mule Shoe and the Bloody Angle

May 12, 1864, saw some of the most sustained, ugliest, and bloody combat of the American Civil War. In the early morning hours Ulysses S. Grant made good on his pledge to strike once more at the salient in the Confederate center, commonly called the Mule Shoe, by launching Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps in a massive assault. Other corps, notably Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps, would support Hancock’s initial thrust.

It must be said that the assault was poorly planned. Neither Hancock nor his division commanded knew much about the ground over which they were to advance or the nature of the position they were to strike, and they didn’t do very much to remedy that ignorance. Instead, Second Corps commanders and staffers alike shifted the blame to army headquarters, leaving one to wonder about what they thought they were supposed to do (Frank Barlow was especially outspoken in his unhappiness). For once, however, the Yankees stumbled into some good luck, for Lee had directed first the withdrawal and then the return of some two dozen or so cannon from the salient, so the guns were just being moved back into place when the blueclad juggernaut struck. Moreover, Lee had been outfoxed: he thought Grant was preparing to withdraw toward Fredericksburg. Apparently he had not yet heard of Grant’s May 11th pledge to fight it out on this line if it took all summer.

And yet the Confederates would benefit from some luck as well. According to Grant’s original plan of attack Hancock would look to Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps to provide crucial support during the opening assault, but, as on May 6th, Burnside was not up to the task, despite Grant having sent a staff officer, Cyrus B. Comstock, to ride herd over the hero of Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Hancock’s corps of some 20,000 men got into position, with Barlow’s four brigades lined up two brigades across and two deep, followed by John Gibbon’s division, while to Barlow’s right David Birney formed his men as did Barlow, with Gersham Mott’s men to follow — more men than had participated in the Confederate assault of July 3 at Gettysburg. They targeted the center of the salient, and within minutes they overran the Confederate position, swallowing up large numbers of prisoners, including two Confederate generals.

Back at Grant’s headquarters, reports of the initial success began trickling in. At first it seemed that at last the Yankees had scored a major success. “By God! They are done! Hancock will just drive them to hell!” exclaimed the usually sober if blunt spoken John A. Rawlins, Grant chief of staff.  The commanding general did not join in such histrionics. He did what he could to coordinate the movements of his corps, relying on a field telegraph service to issue orders and receive information.

For Robert E. Lee, it was another day where he had to ride to the front and hope that his personal presence would stave off disaster as his defensive lines dissolved. Once more soldiers shouted “Lee to the rear!” Once more they worked to blunt the Union assault, buying time to construct a second line of defense at the base of the salient. Meanwhile the initial wave of attackers had become disorganized and confused. Instead of managing his attack and regrouping his forces, however, Hancock and his divisions commander lost control of their men and in the process began sacrificing what they had done so much to gain. The divisions of Gibbon and Mott simply piled in behind their comrades, complicating matters still more.

Meanwhile Burnside had commenced his assault, with the lead brigade ramming into James Lane’s brigade of North Carolinians. To the west Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps was also beginning to apply pressure on the Confederate defenders. It was left to John B. Gordon to salvage what he could of Lee’s desperate situation, and he did so with verve, rallying the Rebels and launching counterattacks that stalled the Yankee advance. Burnside failed to support his initial success, and the momentum of the assault slowed as a brutal slugfest commenced, with both sides pouring in more men into the swirling chaos. It would be left to Wright’s Sixth Corps and not Burnside to support Hancock. Wright’s men made the Bloody Angle memorable; while Gordon would write movingly of his own role at Spotsylvania, channeling Joshua Chamberlain, Lane’s critical contribution in halting Burnside would not receive as much attention (shades of Culp’s Hill!).

For the remainder of the morning both sides fed the fight along the salient and the angle, with bullets filling the air and felling a famed tree nearly two feet in diameter. Warren pressed forward in strength to test whether the Confederates had stripped bare their defenses at Laurel Hill, but his heart was not in it, and neither were his men’s, so after some more tough fighting, that front fell silent … although Grant would have been willing to relieve Warren with Andrew A. Humphreys at that point, which might not have been a bad idea.

By late afternoon the fighting was over on May 12. Grant abandoned the idea of hammering away once more: the Confederate had finally completed their second line of defense. For all the damage done and blood shed, the fighting on May 12 had achieved little else.


May 11, 1864: Jeb Stuart Goes Down

Ulysses S. Grant’s decision to allow Phil Sheridan to take off on his own to seek battle with Jeb Stuart had significant consequences. Gordon Rhea argues that Grant’s planning over the ten days suffered significantly because he lacked the ability to gain information about the terrain and Confederate dispositions and intentions from reconnaissance conducted by cavalry. I agree with Gordon in theory, but I would add that I don’t think reconnaissance was Sheridan’s strong suit (it certainly wasn’t James H. Wilson’s). Besides, in taking off as he did, Sheridan forced Lee to strip away some of his own cavalry under Jeb Stuart, and that had consequences on May 11, when horsemen clashed at Yellow Tavern. A dismounted Yankee trooper shot and mortally wounded Stuart, who died the next day.

Stuart’s loss would be mourned, but it remains unclear as to exactly what was lost. Wade Hampton proved an able replacement, and, for all the talk of how Sheridan turned the Union cavalry into a mobile strike force, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Confederates more than held their own and even dealt the Yankee horsemen some embarrassing setbacks. If anything Sheridan’s raid accomplished little more than killing Stuart, because Sheridan failed to offer a significant threat to Lee’s rear or his supply link back to Richmond, either of which would have been a more telling result. Rather, by the time Sheridan showed up on the picket line of Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James, it was clear that things were not going as planned for Grant and his overall plan of operations in Virginia.