Wilderness – A Tale of Two Permelias

6 05 2014

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness and The Overland Campaign, here’s the original version of my Collateral Damage article that ran in the August, 2011 edition of Civil War Times. For real time tweets of the tours this week, be sure to follow Sesqui tourist extraordinaire Craig Swain @caswain01 on Twitter and look for the Overland150 hashtag.

The Higgerson and Chewning Farms in The Wilderness: The Widows Permelia

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought in early May 1864, marked the beginning of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. For two days, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Ninth Army Corps battled Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a hellish tangle of thick, second-growth forest along and between the Orange Turnpike to the north and the Orange Plank Road to the south, in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County. Two farms, today located along Hill-Ewell Drive in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, were in 1864 situated at the center of the fighting; both were witness to singular events.

The northernmost farm, also known as “Spring Hill” and “Oak Hill”, was the home of Permelia Chewning Higgerson, 34. Her husband Benjamin, who was 20 years her senior, had died of smallpox in December 1862. One year later, Benjamin’s son from an earlier marriage, James, died in a Richmond hospital, also from smallpox, which he had contracted as a member of the Ninth VA Cavalry. Living with the Widow Higgerson were her five children – four boys and a girl aged two to eleven. In 1860, Benjamin Higgerson’s real estate was valued at $500, his personal properly was worth $1,370, and he owned two slaves. The house was a small, three room, one-and-a-half story frame structure which sat in a clearing about three quarters of a mile south of the Orange Turnpike.

Permelia Higgerson (umm, yeah, on the left)

Permelia Higgerson (umm, yeah, on the left)

About one mile to the south was the home of Permelia Higgerson’s parents, William and Permelia Chewning. Like her daughter, Permelia Chewning was a widow. William had died the previous June at the age of 73 as the result of an injury sustained in an accident at a local mill. In 1860, William Chewning’s real estate was valued at $1,500 and his personal estate at a respectable $14,400. He also owned thirteen slaves. The 72-year-old Widow Chewning lived with her 38-year-old daughter Jane and 30-year-old son Absalom in a two and one-half story frame house known as “Mount View”, situated in a clearing on a ridge on the 150-acre farm. The farm produced wheat, rye, corn, oats, potatoes, and tobacco. It also had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.

Both farms played prominent roles in the battle. On May 5, Union general James Wadsworth’s division struggled westward through thick underbrush to keep pace with the rest of Union 5th Corps attack on Confederate General Richard Ewell’s lines. Colonel Roy Stone’s brigade passed through the clearing around the Higgerson house, tearing down a fence and laying waste to the garden despite the Widow’s loud objections and predictions of their impending defeat. After passing the house the men entered swampy ground near a tributary of Wilderness Run: “That’s a hell of a looking hole to send white men into”, shouted one soldier; another advised his comrades to “label” themselves, as death was certain. Soon they found themselves mired in waist-deep water, causing a gap to open in the Union line just as Confederate troops crashed into the isolated Pennsylvanians. Heavy casualties forced them to retire, and as they poured past the house, the Widow Higgerson again pelted them with taunts.

Higgerson HOuse

Higgerson HOuse

Farther south, the placement of the Chewning house on high ground from which enemy positions were clearly visible made it desirable to both sides, and possession changed hands over the two days. At one point, a group of Union soldiers had taken over the house and was inside vandalizing it and preparing dinner when Permelia Chewning flagged down her relative Markus Chewning (a scout for Confederate General Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee), who was coincidentally riding alone along the road from Parker’s Store to the south. After the Widow Chewning filled him in about what was happening, Markus rode rapidly around the house to convince those inside that they were outnumbered and should give up. The ruse worked – leaving their weapons inside the Yankees surrendered to Markus. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall: Mount View was soon to become a hot place. The Widow Chewning gathered some things and left the house soon after.

On May 6, Confederate General A. P. Hill and his staff rode into the unoccupied clearing. They dismounted and soon heard the sounds of a body of nearby Federal soldiers breaking down a fence. Hill remained calm, telling them: “Mount, walk your horses, and don’t look back.” Although the Rebels were within easy range, the Federals held their fire and the party made their escape at a leisurely pace. A captured Yankee later told one of the escapees, “I wanted to fire on you, but my colonel said you were farmers riding from the house.”

The Chewning house and farm was in a shambles after the battle. Absalom later testified: “Everything was gone – all the crops, all the stock, all the fences. Also, a tobacco house, a shop, and an ice-house were destroyed. I found some of the materials in the breastworks around the house.” The Widow Chewning filed a post-war claim with the Southern Claims Commission for just under $3,600, including lost fence rails, cordwood, and livestock. The disposition of the Chewning claim is unknown. Fire destroyed the Chewning house in 1947.

The younger Permelia – Higgerson – remarried in 1867. She and William Porter had two children, Cyrus and Ann, and moved to Missouri on the Mississippi River to a place they called “Higgerson Landing”, consisting of a house, a store, and a one-room schoolhouse that survives to this day. Permelia’s second marriage eventually fell apart. About 1871 William Porter ran off to Louisiana and Montana with Permelia Higgerson’s 16-year-old daughter, Jacqueline. After fathering four children with her, Porter deserted Jacqueline as well. The Widow Higgerson passed away in 1897 in Missouri. The Higgerson House disappeared in the 1930s, but remnants of its chimney survive today.

Higgerson House Chimney

Higgerson House Chimney

Thanks to Josef W. Rokus and Noel Harrison of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP for their assistance in preparing this article.





Interview: Diane Monroe Smith, “Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign”

11 09 2013

Diane Monroe SmithThis year Diane Monroe Smith, of Holden, ME, published Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign: Ambition and Animosity in the Army of the Potomac. I have to admit that I really had not heard much about this one, but a reader brought it to my attention and one thing led to another, so here’s Ms. Smith to fill us in.

BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

DMS: My first book, Fanny and Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, was published in 1999 by Thomas Publications of Gettysburg. It is a dual, whole-life biography of the Chamberlains. I know it puzzled some people why I would bother with Chamberlain’s whole life and/or his near 50 relationship with his wife, when his Civil War service is what most readers want to hear about. I confess to my own partiality to considering that part of his life, but I strongly suspect that, if one wants to know what makes a person like Chamberlain tick, one must look at the other 80 years of his life and the influence of his family and friends as well. The research I did on Fanny and Joshua led to my second book, Chamberlain at Petersburg: The Charge at Fort Hell, which is a previously unpublished, first person account of the Battle of Petersburg written by Chamberlain. My role in preparing it for publication was to set the stage by considering the 5th Corps’ and the Army of the Potomac’s role in Grant’s Overland Campaign in the weeks and months that culminated in the Battle of Petersburg. I also provided extensive annotation of Chamberlain’s account, considering other participants’ reports and testimony, and I began to find more and more seeming discrepancies in the way the 5th Corps and AoP role was interpreted by a number of commanders and historians, as opposed to what the OR (reports, correspondence & statistics) and the testimony of individuals and unit histories described. While finding Chamberlain’s account reliable, I experienced uneasiness with seemingly conflicting versions of what happened during the Overland Campaign, coupled with a emerging pattern of behavior when I considered Grant’s and “Grant’s Men’s” careers in the West and their rise to power. This led to my most recent book, Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign: Ambition and Animosity in the Army of the Potomac. In it, I found it was essential to consider Grant’s early service in the Civil War and those of the officers he carried with him on his climb to the top of the military establishment and beyond. While I considered a sizable portion of the copious amount written by Grant biographers and authors of the Western battles, I found myself often reluctant to depend on the analysis and interpretation of others, especially those who relied almost entirely on Grant’s reports, memoirs and correspondence, or the accounts given by Grant’s inner circle to the exclusion of all others. Other warning flags go up for me about the reliability of a witness’s testimony when it varies in important details depending on who is he talking to, such as Halleck’s falsely laying blame on others, essentially lying to Grant regarding why he was removed from command after the taking of Ft. Donelson. Another flag waves when an account changes substantially over the years. In that department, I’m hard pressed to come up with a better (or perhaps I should say worse) example than Ellis Spear and his vindictive campaign to discredit Joshua Chamberlain, much of it carried on after Chamberlain’s death. Although Spear himself wrote an enthusiastic letter to the newspapers right after Gettysburg describing how Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge at Little Round Top, that didn’t stop Spear decades later from telling anyone who would listen that his colonel hadn’t ordered a charge at all– it was someone else’s idea. Nor did it seem to bother Spear that the person he credited with initiating the charge endorsed Chamberlain’s account of how it all happened. Other easily verifiable facts didn’t stop Spear from declaring that Chamberlain’s Petersburg wound wasn’t a big deal– a suggestion which a Gettysburg Discussion Group member facetiously stated had earned Spear the “Most vindictive letter award.” Scoffing at Chamberlain’s penis wound, Spear implied that Chamberlain had made much of what was after all a trifling wound. Spear himself had previously written about how terrible Chamberlain’s wound was in his endorsement in 1899 of Chamberlain’s appointment to a Customs position. But beyond Spear’s changeable laymen’s assessment, we have the medical records that record descriptions of the wound and the unsuccessful attempts to repair it. At a field hospital at Petersburg, when the surgeons couldn’t find the ball in the wide wound that went almost clear through Chamberlain’s pelvis, they decided they would probe with a ramrod to find the offending piece of lead. The gunshot wound caused permanent injury that left Chamberlain incontinent and plagued with reoccurring infections for the rest of his life, and I believe that the many surgeons over the years who tried unsuccessfully to repair the damage would beg to differ with the malicious Spear. Yet mind you, you still hear Spear much quoted as offering positive proof that Chamberlain wasn’t an honest historian!!! As it has just been announced in the news that Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor has just been found stuck in the back of a book his granddaughter donated to a church, I’m also reminded that Ellis Spear was one of the three witnesses whose testimony to Chamberlain’s actions at Little Round Top led to him being award that MoH, but that happened in the 1890s, before Spear began his campaign to discredit his old commander. Talk about stories that change over time… But to return to Command Conflicts, I wrote it because of my own uneasiness concerning too much of Grant’s and his comrades’ reports and/or memoirs that didn’t stand up very well to scrutiny. I find it unforgivable for a writer to use one and only one source to the exclusion of all others that could have and should have been considered. Nor do I find it possible to consider the fate of any commander while remaining oblivious to what political machinations were taking place within the Army or in Washington. I believe my own research journey to be somewhat similar to that of Frank Varney as he prepared his new work, General Grant and the Rewriting of History. While Frank’s work is, of course, focused on the destruction of Rosecrans’s reputation and career, and my work focuses on the Army of the Potomac, Frank and I seemingly agree that relying on one source, or the testimony of only those who have a vested interest in the war being remembered in a certain way, is, it should seem obvious, a mistake. Grant and his men would control the American military for decades after the war, and with their control over the army and American politics, it is not difficult to find examples of their insuring that their and only their version of the war was perpetuated. They have been, I feel, all too successful in allowing one, and only one version of history to be told.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War?

DMS: When I was kid, it was the 100th Anniversary of the Civil War, and I couldn’t get enough of the accounts of the battles and the participants. I remember my Mom gave me a dollar (back when a dollar was a dollar) to purchase one square foot of the Gettysburg battlefield during a fund raising campaign. I was thrilled, and, of course, believed that I really owned that square foot. So Gettysburg… I want to know where my square foot is!

BR: Why the interest in the Army of the Potomac’s, and specifically its 5th Corps’, command issues under Grant?

DMS: As I mentioned above, having spent quite a few years looking at Chamberlain’s service with the 5th Corps, I spent a lot of time pursuing the 5th Corps’ experiences and record, and as with my previous books, I felt compelled to share with others what I was finding and considering. There was an awful lot that didn’t seem to be adding up… The accounts of Grant and “Grant’s Men” seemed too often to disagree with other reports and accounts, sometimes radically. Consider, for instance, Chattanooga, and the accounts of Grant, Sheridan and Sherman, and those of participants and witnesses such as Thomas and Hazen (and the delightfully sarcastic Ambrose Beirce).

BR: What makes your study stand out – what does it contribute to the literature that has not already been contributed?

DMS: I think that looking at the Overland Campaign from the perspective of the 5th Corps, provides a very different view, one which had not been previous explored to the degree it deserved. The 5th Corps’ records and accounts provide a challenge to a number of histories as they have been previously written, and allow a new window to open on that tumultuous campaign. Also, considering the alliances among Grant and Grant’s Men and their supporters in Washington sheds light on why some military careers were seemingly indestructible, regardless of performance, while other commanders had their reputations and careers destroyed. While it seems silly to have to point out that the war was not won either in the West or in the East, there are still many who refuse to consider the contribution of the “band box soldiers” of the Army of the Potomac. James McPherson in This Mighty Scourge, did an admirable and startling assessment and comparison of the casualties incurred in the major battles in the West and the East, and shall we say, figures don’t lie? To quote McPherson, “The war was won by hard fighting, and the Army of the Potomac did most of that fighting.  Of the ten largest battles in the war (each with combined Union and Confederate casualties of 23,000 or more), seven were fought between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.  Of the fifty Union regiments with the largest percentage of battle casualties, forty-one [were] fought in the Eastern theater.”  And regarding casualties inflicted on the enemy, McPherson states, “Of the fifty Confederate regiments with the highest percentage of combat casualties, forty were in the Army of Northern Virginia.” Or as Chamberlain once said, many criticized the Army of the Potomac for not fighting enough, but never for not dying enough. Enough said.  While I wanted to look at the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign, I felt it was also time for someone to offer up a closer look at the 5th Corps’ performance.

BR: What’s your last word on Warren, Sheridan, Meade, Grant, and all that mess?

DMS: It is inexplicable to me why Grant not only allowed Sheridan to publicly defy Meade, but rewarded Sheridan’s insubordination with an independent command. While Grant had no problem with that, he also apparently had no qualms about leaving the Army of the Potomac to move blindly without cavalry through poorly mapped enemy territory. While Sheridan did draw some of Lee’s cavalry away, Lee was not so foolish as to send all of his cavalry after Sheridan, retaining roughly half of his troopers to continue to scout and screen for the ANV. Between these horsemen and the local lads who knew every road and river ford in the area, Lee had quite an advantage. Lest I place all the blame on the Western commanders, I also came to realize that the relationship between Meade and Warren, formerly one of a trusted subordinate and advisor to the AoP commander, foundered on the bitterness that Meade harbored regarding Warren’s decision not to attack at Mine Run, and the embarrassment and anger Meade experienced because of it. While Meade declared that he agreed that Warren did the right thing in calling off a senseless attack that would achieve nothing but casualties, he was still bitterly resentful toward Warren. I believe that the situation was also aggravated by Meade’s consciousness of his enemies in Washington, and his own precarious position as AoP commander. To retain it, I believe he felt he must agree with whatever Grant said and do whatever Grant ordered, regardless of his own opinion of the wisdom of those demands. Meade’s personal correspondence gives some indication of his real opinion of Grant’s conduct of the Overland Campaign, and his anger at having Grant watching over his shoulder. But to return to the culpability of Grant and his men, there’s an unmistakable pattern, beginning in the West, and coming with them to the East, of Grant, Sheridan and Sherman making short work of anyone who got in their way on their climb up the command ladder. While Warren is an obvious case in point, you can also point to Rosecrans, George Thomas, and ultimately, George Meade himself, as commanders who got pushed aside to make way for Grant’s Men. I hope I haven’t had my last word on Warren, Sheridan, Grant and all that mess, because I want to follow Command Conflicts with a book that considers the 5th Corps’ service from the siege of Petersburg to the last days of the war.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book and what you learned along the way? When did you know you were “done”?

DMS: You might say I’ve been looking at the 5th Corps and the Army of the Potomac since the early 90s, when I began writing the Chamberlain biography. Then my work on Chamberlain at Petersburg led me to focus on Grant’s Overland Campaign, which inspired a decided uneasiness on my part regarding what Grant was reporting at the time, as well as what he would say and write later, with all its contradictions to many other reports and accounts. A major stumbling block for me when starting this project was my notion that Grant was a well-meaning sort of fellow, though perhaps not the greatest of all possible commanders. I considered his major flaw his seeming inability to judge a person’s real character and motives. He did not, I was convinced, choose his friends wisely. But the more I read about Grant’s military career in the West, the more I began to realize a real pattern of behavior that was less than admirable. My distress increased at noticing an awful tendency for a number of historians to take Grant’s version of history as the one and only infallible record, to the exclusion of all other witnesses’ accounts and reports. I came to realize that Grant possessed a willingness to disobey orders if it suited him (Belmont), to habitually report victory no matter how dismal the real results of an action were (The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg), and to attribute the credit for successes to himself or his favorites regardless of who was really responsible for the strategy and implementation (Chattanooga and the Cracker Line). Likewise, if things did not go well, he would blame those he wanted to remove from competition with himself or his cronies (Shiloh). It was a pattern that would continue on into the Overland Campaign. If you read Grant’s reports from the Wilderness, you would think that the Army of the Potomac had experienced a considerable victory, and that the Army of Northern Virginia was on its last legs. That was far from the real case, was it not? As for knowing when I was done, I knew I had finished when the Army of the Potomac reached Petersburg, and the battle became the siege. The months that follow I feel deserve their own book, following the 5th Corps through the remainder of 1864, and through the last months and weeks of the war in 1865.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What online and brick and mortar sources did you rely on most?

DMS: The Official Records were by far my most frequently utilized source. I’m also grateful for the many works done by the historians of the Western war, which allowed me to begin my consideration of Grant’s and his men’s rise to power. Regarding the Overland Campaign, I’m particularly grateful to William Steere for his wonderful work, The Wilderness Campaign, with its great detail, many citations and well-constructed considerations. I also was very impressed by Bill Matter’s book on Spotsylvania, If It Takes All Summer. I was told by Bill, who was kind enough to discuss my research on the Overland Campaign with me, that he so admired Steere’s work (as do I), that he hoped to make his book on Spotsylvania a continuation of where Steere’s book left off. I can testify that I think, as I told Bill, that he accomplished that very well. Would that every battle I encountered had such comprehensive and even-handed treatments as Steere and Matter gave their work. Beyond that, I considered dozens and dozens of memoirs and accounts of both Federals and Rebels… anyone who would help me to put the puzzle pieces together for as accurate a picture of what happened as possible..

BR: How has the book been received so far?

DMS: While I was aware that fans of U.S. Grant would probably not be pleased with what I wrote, I am happy to say that reviewers, while taking issue with some of my conclusions, have nonetheless stated that serious students of Grant and the Overland Campaign should read my book– that it gave one plenty to think about. That’s most gratifying. Am I happy with how much promotion the book has gotten, or how many people have read the book? No, I am not. I mean to continue pursuing opportunities such as this one you’ve kindly provided for me in order to let people know that this work has something to offer by way of a different look at a period of the war which has suffered from too many works which have relied on limited, weak and unreliable sources.

BR: What’s next for you?

DMS: I’m raring to go on the book that will follow Command Conflicts, but I’m taking time to do a work on Col. Washington Roebling’s military service. Roebling, best known as chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, served as Gen. Warren’s aide and scout from Gettysburg through the last month of December, 1864. A top notch topographical engineer, he was a daring and intelligent soldier, and was delightfully outspoken. Laconic, except when he had something to say, he seemed to be not at all in awe of his commanders. For instance, when accosted by Meade on a battlefield, who was demanding to know who had put a battery in a spot Meade considered too “hot,” Roebling replied, “I don’t know. I didn’t put it there.” One can easily imagine Meade’s eyes bugging out at this flippant reply. I will definitely enjoy spending time with Washington Roebling in the coming months.








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