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.





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.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,154 other followers