150 Years Ago Today

2 04 2015

1506594_10202031686936001_8118502619450450512_nOn this day 150 years ago, my great-grandfather Pvt. John B. Smeltzer stepped off with his comrades of Co. C, 205th PA Volunteer Infantry, in their assault on Battery 30, part of the defenses of Petersburg near Ft. Mahone. John, of Hopewell Township, Bedford County, had enlisted on August 24th, 1864 at the age of 18 years 8 months, and served until mustered out with his regiment at Alexandria, VA, on June 2nd, 1865. He was wounded in the leg during the assault. After the war he was employed as a coal miner and steelworker, married Hannah Virginia Gates, and fathered 8 children including my grandfather, Harry Gates Smeltzer. He lived variously in Bedford County, McKeesport in Allegheny County, PA, and for 6 months at the Soldiers’ Home in Dayton, OH, before returning to Hopewell where he died on Sept. 22, 1923, at the age of 77. He is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Yellow Creek, Bedford County, PA, next to his granddaughter Pauline.

Update: Friend and Sesquicentennial tourist extraordinaire Craig Swain took this photo of the site of Battery 30 today:

Site of Battery 30, Petersburg, VA, 04/02/2015.

Site of Battery 30, Petersburg, VA, 04/02/2015.

Apparently, (and according to Craig who also took these snaps) great-grandpa had to charge past the dumpster by the Pizza Hut,

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and through the playground,

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to take that flower bed.

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Interview With Dr. Joseph L. Harsh

28 03 2015

Joe2Click here for the transcript of an interview with Dr. Harsh that appeared in a 1995 issue of Civil War magazine. Hat tip to Drew Wagenhoffer. Good stuff and, if you’re amenable, thought-provoking. If you know all there is to know, and are just looking for confirmation of same, don’t click.

When you’re done, click here for an  old old post regarding the influence of Dr. Harsh’s scholarship on interpretation at Antietam National Battlefield. Be sure to read the comments.





Review: Rafuse (Ed.) “Corps Commanders in Blue”

26 03 2015

My review of Corps Commanders in Blue, written for Civil War Times, is running in the digital version of the June 2015 issue. For whatever reason, the review was reduced in length. As I believe this book was one of the best of 2014, I’m posting the full version below.

517bM0P30PL._SL500_AA300_Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War, Ethan S. Rafuse, Editor

Sometimes, too much familiarity with how “modern” armies operate can be a hindrance when studying those that operated under more primitive circumstances. Such is the case with the armies of the American Civil War. At some levels, strict obedience of orders was required. At others, limitations of distance and communications required subordinates to exercise much broader discretion than that with which we have become accustomed. Outside of army chief, at no level was an officer’s initiative and ability to exercise prudent discretion more desired and expected than at that of corps command. As such, the men who held these positions present a unique study opportunity, one seldom specifically explored. In Corps Commanders in Blue, editor Ethan Rafuse has called in eight prominent Civil War historians, including himself, and put together an equal number of case studies of Union Corps commanders, most familiar, and some less so.

John Hennessy starts things off with a very strong, and balanced, look at the Army of the Potomac’s controversial Fitz-John Porter, one ultimately critical of the “too superficial” conclusion that Porter was “ruined by his devotion to [George B.] McClellan.” Instead, it was his commitment to a conservative war policy – one that the Lincoln administration officially, at least, endorsed – that put Porter out of favor with the powers-that-were. Thomas Clemens gives a flesh-out of a relatively shadowy Joseph K. F. Mansfield, whose long antebellum army career could not overcome the “leadership and combat-experience problems” that pre-existed his late arrival to the Army of the Potomac’s 12th Corps prior to the Battle of Antietam. If Mansfield is shadowy, the subject of Kenneth Noe’s essay, Charles C. Gilbert, is a virtual unknown to many. His assignment to the command of the Third Corps of Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio was the result of a process of elimination of other candidates based on Buell’s personal and political considerations, and Gilbert’s experience in that role through the Battle of Perrysville was “a textbook case of how not to direct a corps.” In what may be the collection’s centerpiece essay, Christopher Stowe profiles George G. Meade in his role as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps. Stowe sets Meade’s record as corps commander straight, as an aggressive leader, as one who was held in high regard by peers and superiors, and as one who was clearly considered a leading alternative to Joseph Hooker as chief of the Army of the Potomac prior to Meade’s promotion to that post. Recent publications notwithstanding, Stowe notes that “[t]hroughout his career, Meade viewed himself not as a policymaker but as a public servant beholden to obey orders regardless of his personal feelings or impulses.”

While the first four essays cover their subjects’ entire careers in corps command, the last four examine specific periods of longer lengths of service in that role. Stephen Woodworth’s coverage of James B. McPherson in the Vicksburg Campaign, and Mark Snell’s of William B. Franklin in the Trans-Mississippi perhaps got a little side-tracked in the weeds of the details of the respective campaigns. Ultimately, McPherson’s “remarkably limited amount of experience” in the campaign “did not subject him to the most severe of tests.” Franklin appears to have performed as well as could be expected despite the highly dysfunctional command structure with which he had to deal. Ethan Rafuse’s sketch of Joseph Hooker’s stint in command of the 20th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland in 1864 reveals a competent, effective commander doomed by his inability to play well with others including Grant and Sherman, and by conniving anglers like John Schofield. Brooks Simpson’s essay on Winfield Scott Hancock’s command of the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps in the Overland Campaign is a focused look at how “The Superb” performed those tasks peculiar to running and fighting a corps. While Hancock’s multi-layered command role at Gettysburg may be more well known, the author with good reason argues that the 1864 campaign is a better barometer of his performance strictly as a corps chief. In the course of a year, the nature of the fighting in Virginia had changed significantly. Those changes, along with failing health, limited Hancock in the use of the tactical skills and inspirational leadership for which he was best known.

Corps Commanders in Blue is an important contribution to the study of command in the American Civil War. Hopefully readers will be seeing more along this line coming soon.





Lil’ Help – Lincoln

25 03 2015

lincoln-sailorsI’ve determined to start a Resources category on soldier references to Abraham Lincoln. That is, references in the letters and diaries of officers and men of McDowell’s army written before and after First Bull Run, in an effort to examine how their views of POTUS evolved during this time. So, if you have or are aware of any soldier letters or diaries that reference the President from, say, June of 1861 through to the end of August 1861, please send me a note. The best way to do that is through the comments feature of this post. Thanks in advance for your help!





Hennessy on the Legacies of the Civil War

16 03 2015

Good stuff and important to view – John Hennessy this weekend at the Longwood University Civil War Seminar. Check it out here. Yes, like the issue of slavery in the past, there are issues today that have advocates on either side and which, 150 years from now, will be settled, with a right and correct view agreed upon.

I think all of us hope, as we sit here today, and ponder our grandchildren and great-grandchildren thinking back upon us and saying ‘Hunh?’, that they don’t interpret the issues that have permeated our lifetimes, and with which we have struggled as a society, as a testament on us as individuals, but rather as a testament on our times. And times change.

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T. E. Lawrence on Strategy and Tactics, and the Power of Ideas

13 03 2015

57936Right now I’m working my way through Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, T. E. Lawrence’s memoir of his adventures in the Middle East. I’m enjoying it a good deal more than I anticipated. Lawrence was, it appears to me, a jerk. For instance, he spelled the names of places and people differently intermittently, and on purpose. He explained that this was because they were frequently spelled differently, which doesn’t help the reader much. But I suspect he really wasn’t writing for the reader. In fact, he says:

There are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history.

The edition I’m reading includes the historiography of the book, which is an adventure in itself, as well as some correspondence between Lawrence and his editor, in which you can see that not only was Lawrence a jerk, but he knew he was a jerk, he knew his editor knew he was a jerk, and moreover he knew that the editor needed him so badly that Lawrence had no motivation whatsoever to curb his jerk tendencies.

Enough of that – let’s get to it. In Chapter 33 (there are many short chapters – Lawrence anticipated the People Magazine approach to article length), Lawrence recounted the thoughts running through his head as he lay prostrate with illness, or as he described it “in impotence upon my face in this stinking tent.” I won’t get into the insight provided regarding the situation in the area then and its applicability to the world today, but will say if you’re interested you should really check the book out. This is the pivotal chapter (I think) where Lawrence hits upon the secret to “victory.” Not really being a military man by his own admission, Lawrence nevertheless found himself in a position of high command. So, with time on his hands, he started to think back on what he had read, beginning at Oxford, from “Napoleon to Clausewitz and his school, to Caemmerer and Moltke, and the recent Frenchmen” to “Jomini and Willisen” to “Saux and Guibert” to “Kuhne and Foch.”

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about strategy and tactics and operations and goals and objectives, it’s that no matter how smart or well-versed you are, whatever your thoughts on them may be, somebody – somebody really smart and well versed – is going to tell you you’re thinking about it all wrong. If you’re really unlucky, they’ll toss about a few acronyms and initials to boot. So keep that in mind as you consider Lawrence’s thinking, which I’ve transcribed selectively.

But first, click on this link to give a little background music to the rest of the read:

When it grew too hot for dreamless dozing, I picked up my tangle again, and went on ravelling it out, considering now the whole house of war in its structural aspect, which was strategy, in its arrangements, which were tactics, and in the sentiment of the inhabitants, which was psychology; for my personal duty was command, and the commander, like the master architect, was responsible for all.

The first confusion was the false antithesis between strategy, the aim in war, the synoptic regard seeing each part relative to the whole, and tactics, the means towards a strategic end, the particular steps of its staircase. They seemed only points of view from which to ponder the elements of war, the Algebraical element of things, a Biological element of lives, and the Psychological element of ideas.

The algebraical element looked to me a pure science, subject to mathematical law, inhuman. It dealt with known variables, fixed conditions, inorganic things like hills and climates and railways, with mankind in type-masses too great for individual variety, with all artificial aids and the extensions given our faculties by mechanical invention. It was essentially formulable.

Lawrence went on to do the math with regards to the size of the area he wished to “deliver” and how his enemy was likely to defend it. Then he hits upon his true weapon, that of ideas:

…but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, and idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed.

(When it comes to Bull Run, I think this notion of an idea or ideal as a weapon needs to be explored. At this point of the war, the possibility of an ideological impact was greater than it would ever be again. In the north, some – even Lincoln – still held out hope that southern unionists were the key to bringing the wayward sisters home, so highly did they value the idea of “Union.” How, if at all, did this belief or hope affect Union strategy? There’s not much documentation to go on, but you have to wonder…)

Then Lawrence calculated the number of men his enemy would require to defend the ground, and the number required to achieve his aims. He moved on to the biological factor and makes some keen observations with regard to reserves.

[I] plunged into the nature of the biological factor in command. Its crisis seemed to be the breaking point, life and death, or less finally, wear and tear… A line of variability, Man, persisted like leaven through its estimates, making them irregular. The components were sensitive and illogical, and generals guarded themselves by the device of a reserve, the significant medium of their art. [Military theorist Colmer Freiherr von der] Goltz had said that if you knew the enemy’s strength, and he was fully deployed, then you could dispense with a reserve; but this was never. The possibility of accident, of some flaw in materials was always in the general’s mind, and the reserve unconsciously held to meet it.

The ‘felt’ element in troops, not expressible in figures, had to be guessed at…and the greatest commander of men was he whose intuitions most nearly happened. Nine-tenths of tactics were certain enough to be teachable in schools; but the irrational tenth was like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and in it lay the test of generals. It could be ensued only by instinct (sharpened by thought practising the stroke) until at the crisis it came naturally, a reflex.

This last bit touches on the popular belief, which some claim was predominant at least in the North, that great military commanders are born, not made. That a military education and experience might sharpen those with the innate ability to excel in command, but that it could not provide it. That the great, natural soldier who would lead the armies to victory could emerge from any walk of life. Some of this would come to a head in the debate over the value of West Point in the wake of the defeat at Bull Run.





Why Did Thomas Francis Meagher Get the Jerk? It’s Nobody’s Business…

9 03 2015

Donald Williams, author of Shamrocks and Pluff Mud, sent along this bit from the May 7, 1861 edition of the Charleston Mercury, explaining the actions of the Charleston Meagher Guards militia regarding the individual in whose honor they took their name (see here):

At a meeting of the Meagher Guards, held at the Military Hall on the evening of the 6th inst., the following preamble and resolutions were unanimously adopted:

The report of the committee appointed to inquire into the truth of the rumor that THOMAS FRANCIS MEAGER, Esq. (in honor of whose patriotic efforts for the liberation of Ireland this company was named) had joined the crusade against the Southern States, having been heard—

1. Resolved, That the same be confirmed.

And, whereas, from the said Report, it appears to be true that Mr. Meagher has been carried away by the fanaticism of the North, and has enrolled himself in the ranks of our enemies, taking arms against us in this most unholy war, in support of usurpation and oppression, thus proving himself recreant to the sacred principles of liberty, of which he was hitherto an uncompromising an advocate; therefore,

2. Resolved, That, remembering the services of Mr. MEAGHER in the cause of freedom in Ireland, this Company have learned with infinite disappointment and regret that he too, should have joined the oppressors of this their adopted land.

3. Resolved, That under these circumstances this company can no longer, consistently with its position and dignity, bear his name, and that the same be and hereby is repudiated by them.

4. Resolved, That the name of THOMAS FRANCIS MEAGHER be erased from the roll of the honorary members of this Company.

5. Resolved, That it be referred to a Committee to suggest some suitable name by which this Company shall hereafter be known.

6. Resolved, That a copy of these preamble and resolutions be published in the daily papers of this city, and in the New York, Day Book








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