Sherman’s Forgotten General

30 10 2007


Right now I’m reading Sherman’s Forgotten General, a biography of Henry Warner Slocum by Brian C. Melton.  Slocum was the colonel of the 27th NY in Porter’s brigade of Hunter’s division at Bull Run, and Melton is an assistant professor of history at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.  I had some misgivings about this book when I bought it and mentioned them here.  So far, the book is more than fulfilling those expectations.  But here I’m going to focus on the Bull Run section of the book.

Slocum’s father was born in Marietta, OH, and prior to settling in the Syracuse, NY area spent some time in New Port, RI.  Apparently some Slocum roots were planted in the seaside community, but Melton is very vague.  I don’t know if that’s because he couldn’t nail the family tree down, or if he felt it wasn’t that important.  Dude, it’s a thread.  Pull that sucker!  This fact (or possibility) came into play at Bull Run when Slocum was wounded in the leg at Bull Run and the colonel of the 2nd RI, John S. Slocum (whom Melton also refers to as Joshua), was killed.  Resultant confusion led to some tense, unsure moments for Henry’s wife back home in Syracuse.

I take issue with Melton’s assessment that McDowell’s plan for the battle was sound on paper and broke down in the execution.  But I won’t take him to task for it: that is the conventional wisdom, after all.  He does make some errors of fact, however.

On page 44, when summarizing the plan, Melton writes that [t]he army near Washington would march quickly south and west to engage Beauregard, while Patterson would keep Johnston busy in the Shenandoah.  Each Union army significantly outnumbered its Confederate counterpart, so if McDowell could fall on Beauregard before Johnston could reach him, he might devour the Confederates in detail.

Despite conventional wisdom (again), the above is not true with regards to McDowell’s plan.  Patterson’s actions were designed and directed by Scott, not McDowell.  In addition, Melton’s analysis employs some hindsight.  While it was true that McDowell’s force outnumbered that of Beauregard in June, his plan considered that the Confederacy would forward all available troops exclusive of Johnston to Manassas.  McDowell’s plan can be found in War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (ORs), Series I, Vol. 2, pp 719-721.  In this plan, written about June 24, McDowell uses some sound logic to deduce how many men the Confederacy might muster to face him, and at the same time give the lie to the notion that the rebels would need to rely on intelligence from folks like Rose Greenhow to track the movements of the enemy (see the whole plan here):

We cannot count on keeping secret our intention to overthrow this force. Even if the many parties intrusted with the knowledge of the plan should not disclose or discover it, the necessary preliminary measures for such an expedition would betray it; and they are alive and well informed as to every movement, however slight, we make. They have, moreover, been expecting us to attack their position, and have been preparing for it. When it becomes known positively we are about to march, and they learn in what strength, they will be obliged to call in their disposable forces from all quarters, for they will not be able, if closely pressed, to get away by railroad before we can reach them. If General J. E. Johnston’s force is kept engaged by Major-General Patterson, and Major-General Butler occupies the force now in his vicinity, I think they will not be able to bring up more than ten thousand men. So we must calculate on having to do with about thirty-five thousand men.

So as you can see McDowell had no plan to overwhelm Beauregard’s smaller force – he didn’t anticipate confronting a smaller force.  In fact, his plan would be a turning movement, the favorite grand tactic of Winfield Scott’s smaller army in Mexico.  McDowell expected to face 35,000 Confederate troops.  As it turned out, once Johnston’s forces arrived from the Valley, that’s about how many men they would have on hand.  A force roughly equal to that of McDowell.

zelig.jpgI won’t go into detail on the rest of the book, other than to comment on its thesis, that Slocum was a dynamic version of Locke’s blank slate.  That is to say, he was a reflector of light, and tended to absorb the characteristics of his commanding officers.  Melton’s Slocum, in other words, was akin to Woody Allen’s Zelig (left): a human chameleon.  It’s an interesting construct, but falls apart when facets of Slocum’s personality or actions appear at odds with the author’s preconceived notions of the characteristics of those Slocum was supposed to be emulating.  Either he was a reflector, or he wasn’t.  So far it’s looking like he only reflected what the author saw as his commanders’ negative attributes – any positive features were Slocum’s alone.  But then, I’ve only read through McDowell, McClellan, Burnside & Hooker.  Perhaps once Slocum comes under the influence of someone to whom history and historians have been more kind, like, say, Sherman, things will change in this book.  I suspect they will.

#4 – McDowell’s Plan for the Movement on Manassas

30 10 2007



O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME 2 [S# 2] — CHAPTER IX pp 719-721


Arlington, June(*) –, 1861

 Lieut. Col. E. D. TOWNSEND,

Asst. Adjt. Gen., Headquarters of the Army:

COLONEL: I have the honor to submit the following plan of operations, and the composition of the force required to carry it into effect, in compliance with the verbal instructions of the General-in-Chief:

The secession forces at Manassas Junction and its dependencies are supposed to amount at this time to–

Infantry          23,000

Cavalry          1,500

Artillery           500

Total               25,000

We cannot count on keeping secret our intention to overthrow this force. Even if the many parties intrusted with the knowledge of the plan should not disclose or discover it, the necessary preliminary measures for such an expedition would betray it; and they are alive and well informed as to every movement, however slight, we make. They have, moreover, been expecting us to attack their position, and have been preparing for it. When it becomes known positively we are about to march, and they learn in what strength, they will be obliged to call in their disposable forces from all quarters, for they will not be able, if closely pressed, to get away by railroad before we can reach them. If General J. E. Johnston’s force is kept engaged by Major-General Patterson, and Major-General Butler occupies the force now in his vicinity, I think they will not be able to bring up more than ten thousand men. So we must calculate on having to do with about thirty-five thousand men.

The objective point in our plan is the Manassas Junction. This is covered by the enemy’s troops stationed at Centreville, Germantown, Fairfax Court-House, Fairfax Station, a place between Fairfax Station and Sangster’s, and on the Occoquan. The position at Manassas may be reached by four routes: First, by the Leesburg stone road, Georgetown turnpike, and Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad, via Falls Church and Vienna; second, by way of the Little River turnpike and Fairfax Court-House; third, by way of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad; fourth, by way of the road south of the Orange and Alexandria road.

There is a fifth approach, from Dumfries or Evansport, by way of Brentsville, a march of about twenty-two miles, but the starting point is too far from the main direct approach to admit of its being used in the first instance without a superabundance of force. The country lying between the two armies is mostly thickly wooded, and the roads leading across it, except the turnpikes and railroads, are narrow, and in places sunken by the wear of travel and wash of rains. This makes it necessary to have the fewest possible number of carriages of any kind, and our forces, therefore, though the distance is short, will have to move over several lines of approach in order to get forward in time a sufficient body to operate with success. The Loudoun and Hampshire road is in working order as far as within five miles of Vienna, and no doubt could soon be repaired to that place. The Orange and Alexandria road, which I propose to look to as the main channel of supply, is now in working order some seven miles out of Alexandria, and from Manassas Junction to within fifteen miles of Alexandria. In the intermediate space the road has been destroyed as effectively as possible, and a long deep cut filled in with trees and earth. Nevertheless, all these obstacles can soon be removed with plenty of force and an adequate supply of proper materials.

Leaving small garrisons in the defensive works, I propose to move against Manassas with a force of thirty thousand of all arms, organized into three columns, with a reserve of ten thousand. One column to move from Falls Church or Vienna (preferably the latter), to go between Fairfax Court-House and Centreville, and, in connection with another column moving by the Little River turnpike, cut off or drive in (the former, if possible) the enemy’s advanced posts. The third column to move by the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, and leaving as large a force as may be necessary to aid in rebuilding it, to push on with the remainder to join the first and second columns.

The enemy is said to have batteries in position at several places in his front, and defensive works on Bull Run and Manassas Junction. I  do not propose that these batteries be attacked, for I think they may all be turned. Bull Run, I am told, is fordable at almost any place. After uniting the columns this side of it, I propose to attack the main position by turning it, if possible, so as to cut off communications by rail with the South, or threaten to do so sufficiently to force the enemy to leave his intrenchments to guard them; if necessary, and I find it Can be done with safety, to move a force as far as Bristoe, to destroy the bridge at that place.

I cannot learn that the enemy has any magazines at the Junction, and I am under the impression he receives his supplies, except fresh beef, from the south by the railroad. I am told that on most of the approaches abatis have been made and other preparations to obstruct the advance of our troops, and, as the roads are mostly through woods, and are narrow, it will be necessary the Army should go, in the first place, as free from baggage as possible-no tents; provisions only in the haversack; the only wagons being those necessary for carrying axes, spades, and picks, and ammunition for the infantry, and ambulances for the sick and wounded. A subsistence train should be ready in Alexandria to go by the Little River turnpike in case the Orange and Alexandria road cannot be repaired, and another should be ready at Vienna, under the guard to be left there, for the use of the column moving from that point, in case it should fail to reach in time the Orange and Alexandria road or the Little River turnpike, or the latter should not in time be cleared of the enemy.

Believing the chances are greatly in favor of the enemy’s accepting battle between this and the Junction, and that the consequences of that battle will be of the greatest importance to the country, as establishing the prestige in this contest on the one side or the other–the more so as the two sections will be fairly represented by regiments from almost every State–I think it of great consequence that, as for the most part our regiments are exceedingly raw and the best of them, with few exceptions, not over steady in line, they be organized into as many small fixed brigades as the number of regular colonels will admit, these colonels commanding brigades to be assisted by as many regular officers as can be collected for the purpose, so that the men may have as fair a chance as the nature of things and the comparative inexperience of most will allow.

If the three companies of artillery in this department are furnished with batteries, we shall have with the three regular and three volunteer batteries here and in Washington a sufficiency of artillery; though, if the nature of the country did not make it embarrassing, I would, on account of the confidence it gives new troops, have still more. Fortunately, the country is so wooded that our deficiency in cavalry will be the less felt. We shall need all we have for the ordinary work of escorts, advance pickets, &c. I think every arrangement should be made, that when the columns take up their line of march no step be taken in retreat, but that they should press forward to the ultimate point steadily and determinedly. If they are well led I think they will do so, and with every chance of success.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Brigadier-General, Commanding

* About June 24, 1861

Tree Clearing at Manassas

29 10 2007


Here’s an older Washington Post article.  The area in question is associated with the 2nd Battle of Bull Run.

After an Exchange of Punts…

28 10 2007


After it sat mournfully on my bookshelf for many years, I finally decided to read The Twentieth Maine, by John J. Pullen (left).  I really don’t know what prompted me to read it, but I’m glad I did.  The style is not in vogue today, and frankly I would find certain aspects – particularly a lack of formal foot or end notes – infuriating in a work of more recent vintage.  But Pullen was so good at telling the story of the regiment: his work is literature.  In a field that is so sadly devoid of quality writing, these classics are welcome diversions.

A couple of passages in the book reminded me of a project – in fact the first project – I decided to tackle a few years ago.  On page 204, Pullen writes:

As the two armies moved with intermittent contact there would be dozens of skirmishes like this – unexplainable and forgotten fights completely mystifying the troops following the advance guards.  No historians for fights like these.  No markers, except upturned soles on the boots of dead soldiers lying on their backs beside the road, pathetic little monuments striving to the last to preserve the identity of a man.  No record.  No finding out whatever happened – unless, by chance, years later some old veteran might write an account of the affair on such-and-such a day at such-and-such a creek or crossroads.

Pages 207 & 208:

[T]he experiences of the past six weeks seemed, as one of them recalled, “more like a fearful nightmare to us than a reality.”  It was past all remembering.  There had been too many rivers, too many roads, too many days, too many deaths, too many stupid night marches.  Many of the rifle pits and graves they had dug would soon be overgrown with bushes and weeds; those who returned would not be able to find them.  Somewhere there was a plan, a reality, even a destiny perhaps, but a big part of the regiment had vanished in a dream.

Pullen was writing of the days leading up to the arrival of the army outside Petersburg in 1864, but in some ways he captured the anonymity of the period that interested me – the months between the end of the Gettysburg Campaign and the opening of the Overland Campaign.  I had a working title for the project, which at the time I thought of as a book simply because I hadn’t thought of any other kind of project.  I dubbed it An Exchange of Punts: With the Army of the Potomac from Gettysburg to Grant.  The title was much more critical of history and historians than it was of the army’s commander, George G. Meade.

The attraction to that period for me was a function of the lack of information, or rather the lack of summarized information – the lack of a narrative.  Other than Andrew Humpreys’ From Gettysburg to the Rapidan, the literature is pretty much non-existent.  Whether the format is biography, memoir, campaign study, unit history, even letters and journals, writers and editors over the years have given the period short shrift, leaving students with the impression that the opposing armies wandered aimlessly over the Virginia countryside for ten months.  Vast holes are left in most works covering events before and after these ten months, reminiscent of Lindsay Nelson on Notre Dame football highlights: After an exchange of punts, Notre Dame takes over on their own 35 yard-line.  It’s as if history and historians have taken Robert E. Lee’s advice to General A. P. Hill in the wake of one of the engagements that occurred during this time: Let’s bury these poor men, and say nothing more about it.

As I began my research, I asked the advice of some folks who have had success in Civil War publishing.  I was told that my approach was all wrong.  Rather than starting from square one and just letting the information lead me, I was assured that the only way to go about the project was to start off knowing what I wanted to produce (an article, a book), and to also have a pretty good idea of the story I wanted to tell.  Needless to say, I didn’t take that advice.  Even then, I guess I thought of these projects as not having a real end.  I just didn’t realize it.

So I started off reading the aforementioned Humphreys book (which is very good, if very dry), and using reference works like Dyer’s Compendium, Long & Long’s Civil War Day by Day and Eicher & Eicher’s Civil War High Commands I started to construct a time-line.  After about 55 pages of said time-line, I learned a few things.  I learned that a lot more was going on than we have been led to believe.  I learned that numerous casualties were suffered, just about every day.  I learned that most of the freedoms the War Dept. had granted to Meade in the days after he took command of the Army of the Potomac had been revoked, which significantly restricted his operational options (see my earlier post on Dmitri’s blog concerning what Meade wanted to do after Mine Run, and why he couldn’t do it).  And I learned that this project, at least as a traditional, narrative print project, was too big for me.

But I also learned that the reason it was not for me was not so much the topic, but the medium.  I refocused my efforts on what I thought to be a less complex topic and a more flexible medium.  I think in the latter assumption I was right, but maybe not so with the former.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to revisiting Gettysburg to Grant.  I do hope that someone does the topic justice.  The men who served their countries during those days suffered and sacrificed no less than did those who served in any of the other operations which all seem to be known (by someone) as “THE battle that won (or lost) the war.”  But more important, I think we might just learn some things that may challenge conventional wisdom.

Colonels in Blue

18 10 2007


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Earlier this week I received the latest volume in Roger Hunt’s Colonels in Blue series, The Mid-Atlantic States.  This series has been invaluable in my research, as has Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue, which Hunt co-authored with Jack Brown, so I’m glad to see that, after a four year interruption, it has picked up pretty much where it left off.

The first two volumes, The New England States and New York, were published by Schiffer Military History of Atglen, PA.  Every officer to attain the rank of colonel and command a regiment, but was never promoted to brigadier general or brevet brigadier general, is profiled in a brief biographical sketch that includes a Heitman-like military chronology as well as birth and death facts, pre-war occupation, miscellaneous information and burial details.  And photos: lots and lots of wonderful photos, sometimes three or four for one colonel, from various phases of life.

The Mid-Atlantic States (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, & Delaware), follows the same format.  There are significant differences, however.  First and foremost, this volume is published by Stackpole Books of Mechanicsburg, PA.  While the dimensions of the book are the same as the first two volumes, the dust jacket is white as opposed to navy blue.  Stackpole also used lower quality paper than Schiffer, and for the most part limited the number of photos to one for each colonel.  The result is a shorter – 241 pages versus 315 pages for New York – and much lighter book.  But the gripe about the first two volumes was their price, a hefty $59.95 each.  The Mid-Atlantic States retails for $29.95, and I got mine from Amazon for $19.77.  You get what you pay for.  I would have paid the premium for more photos and quality materials, but I’m glad Stackpole at least provided a way for the series to continue.

Hopefully Ohio is next on Hunt’s list.  Lots of Ohioans at Bull Run.

A Few Charleston Civil War Sites

15 10 2007


Last week my family spent a few days visiting with my brother in Charleston, SC.  He lives on the water just off Ft. Johnson Rd., on James Island.  On April 12, 1861 artillery at Ft. Johnson opened fire on Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor to initiate hostilities between the Confederacy and the United States.  From my brother’s dock you can see the local landmark Morris Island Lighthouse.  Morris Island is the site (now submerged) of Battery Wagner.  Across the street from my brother’s house, on private property, is the remnant of a Rebel battery, which was part of the island’s defenses.  I believe this battery was Ryan, Tatom or Haskell, but I have to check into that more.  Only a few yards from his backyard is the site of one end of Hatch’s Bridge, which ran to Secessionville during the war.  And a quick jaunt across Clark’s Sound brings you to Secessionville Manor, used as a hospital after the Battle of Secessionville (here’s a picture…click the thumbnails for larger images). 


The long and the short of it is you can’t swing a dead cat in my brother’s neighborhood, or in Charleston for that matter, without hitting some piece of Civil War history.  I could literally spend weeks down there sightseeing.  While I only seem to be there for a few days at a time, I always manage to work in little CW excursions, not always an easy task when accompanied by a nine-year-old son and his mom who has little interest in my hobby.  This time we saw three Bull Run related sites.

As part of an hours long afternoon on the water we worked in a sea tour of Castle Pinckney, where Bull Run prisoners were briefly held (see here and here).  Below are three views, including a close up of the overgrown interior.  Note the curved wall which I believe gave the fort its medieval name.  Access to the island (Shute’s Folly) is restricted, but I hope to get permission to go ashore the next time I visit.   

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Toward the end of our cruise we looped by the Morris Island Lighthouse.  Though not constructed until 1876, the lighthouse has a pretty strong Bull Run connection.  Its foundation was designed and built by Major Peter Conover Hains, who as a lieutenant and graduate of the West Point class of June, 1861 fired the first shot of the Battle of Bull Run from a 30-pdr Parrott rifle.  The lighthouse is suffering the ravages of time and the sea, but an organization is actively trying to save it, and procedures are under way. 


The next day we had some time to kill, and to my surprise the family agreed to kill it by taking the cruise out to Ft. Sumter.  It was a beautiful day, if a little hot.  This time I got a picture of the storm flag, which flew over the fort during the bombardment.  The larger garrison flag, damaged in a storm earlier, is on display in the NPS visitor’s center near the aquarium, but flash photography of it is verboten and you can only view bits of it at a time.  Here are some images of the fort, the parade ground, the big guns, the storm flag, and my son.   

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To round out the afternoon, we drove over to Magazine St. to see the Old City Jail.  When the Bull Run prisoners were moved out of Castle Pinckney, the officers were sent to the City Jail and the enlisted men wound up at the Race Course on the outskirts of town.  During the fire of December, 1861, the guards abandoned the jail to help fight the flames, and the prisoners, including Colonel Michael Corcoran of the 69th NY State Militia, were left to fend for themselves.  They escaped out a window and spent the night huddled together for safety.  I don’t know if it was this window. 

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The next time I visit, I must try to find the site of the race course – as described in David Blight’s Race and Reunion, it was also the site of the earliest Memorial Day ceremony – and Magnolia Cemetery, where the only Bull Run prisoner to die in Castle Pinckney was buried.  But in Charleston, it’s always so much to see, so little time.

New Blog

14 10 2007

Friend Alyce Army has a new blog, History Thru the Looking Glass.  It’s not Civil War centric (yet), so I won’t be adding it to the blogroll (yet), but I think you’ll find it interesting, if somewhat eclectic.  And I don’t mean that in a bad way.

A Brief Foray to the Birthplace of the Rebellion

10 10 2007


I apologize for the lack of posts over the past few days.  I have once more ventured into the heart of Secessia –Charleston, SC – and again emerged unscathed.  While in the Holy City, I had a little time to CW sightsee.  We sailed around Castle Pinckney, where Bull Run POWs were briefly held, and drove over to where they were transferred, the Old City Jail.  We also took the ferry over to Ft. Sumter.  We didn’t have time to see much since we were only in town for three days, but we had some quality R&R on my brother’s boat.  I’ll post some photos later.

In the meantime, Brian Downey called me out.  Tantalizing stuff…I’ll have to dig into it.  But right now I’m swamped with my real job, in addition to family stuff and a couple of other CW projects I’m working on.  I’ll try to make regular posts despite all that.

Blast from the Past

4 10 2007

Thanks to Brooks Simpson over at Civil Warriors for pointing us all to this gem from the 80’s, Gettysburg performed by The Brandos:

Thanks to my buddy Larry hipping me to this a long time ago, I know that the lead singer of The Brandos is non-other than David Kincaid, probably known better to readers of this blog as the artist behind The Irish Volunteer: Songs of the Irish Union Soldier 1861-1865 and The Irish American’s Song: Songs of the Union and Confederate Irish Soldiers, 1861-1865:

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If you haven’t had a chance to hear this wonderful period music, you should check it out.  I also had the pleasure of seeing David perform live at the Pittsburgh Irish Festival.  Good stuff, and from what I gather he is a dedicated student of the war.  Here are a few snaps of him in action a couple of years ago (click on the thumbs for full size):

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What the Heck was THAT???!!!

3 10 2007


Sorry about that flurry of activity.  I decided to make all of the ORs into posts instead of pages.  It makes the sidebar more manageable.  Just click on Official Reports Union or Confederate, and you’ll pull up a page with links to all the reports I’ve put on the site so far.  As I said before, there are well over 100 ORs for the battle.  Entering them as pages means they will all show up in the pages list to the right, which would take up a lot of space and clutter up the sidebar.

This is all due to my inability to understand websites and data bases.  If you remember, this blog was meant to document by building a Bull Run website with data bases, a la Antietam on the Web.  Instead, in an effort to compensate for my small brain, I am using WordPress as a poor substitute, essentially writing static pages.  I’m less than optimistic that I will ever understand cyberspace well enough from a technical aspect to do what I really want to do.