Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Gettysburg

 

Maps :

Gettysburg Campaign

Gettysburg Battlefield

Following Robert E Lee’s stunning victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, southern morale was on a high as the war entered its third summer. Yet from the standpoint of Davis’ government in Richmond the situation in late May 1863 for the Confederacy was anything but rosy. Military success in the eastern theatre had been bought at a heavy cost – the economy was in freefall, with the once lucrative seaborne export trade reduced to few hardy blockade runners. The casualties that had been incurred in a string of victories had been heavy, a resource that the south could scarce afford to lose with its much smaller population. Additionally all of the major battles (with the exception of Sharpsburg) had taken place in Confederate territory, many in the same small area of north Virginia, and a myriad of smaller scale battles in Kentucky and Tennessee leaving the farmlands stripped bare by the repeated passage of two very large armies.

Outside of the eastern theatre, the military situation was far worse; Confederate attempts to take the state of Kentucky had finally ended in failure at the battle of Perryville the previous autumn and a desperate struggle was now underway to retain control of Tennessee. At the same time that Lincoln replaced McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac with Burnside, he also replaced Gen Don Carlos Buell of the Army of the Cumberland for his ineffectual performance at Perryville, with Gen William Rosecrans. Whilst Burnside’s January offensive on the Rappahannock was stalling in the mud, Rosecrans defeated 35,000 Confederates of the Army of Tennessee under Gen Braxton Bragg at the 2nd battle of Murfreesboro (Stones River), 30 miles southwest of Nashville and Bragg was now holed up in the last Confederate stronghold in the centre of the state, the fortress of Chattanooga on the Tennessee river, just five miles north of the border with Georgia.

Further west, along the Mississippi, the situation was even more dire. On 16th May, just two weeks after Chancellorsville, the 32,000 men of the Union Army of The Tennessee under Gen Ulysses Grant had defeated 22,000 rebels under Gen John Pemberton at the battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi, sending the remnants fleeing back to the fortress of Vicksburg, the last remaining Confederate stronghold on the great river and placing it under siege. If Vicksburg fell, the Union would have unbroken control of the river, cutting the Confederacy in two.

Within the Confederate high command, a debate raged as to the best way to exploit Lee’s success. One party, including President Davis, favoured a redeployment of a significant part of Lee’s force to the west to either lift the siege of Vicksburg or to reinforce Bragg in a renewed attempt to drive Rosecrans from central Tennessee. Lee however favoured a second invasion of the north, believing firstly that the presence of a large Confederate army on Union territory would encourage the “copperhead” peace movement in the north that had gained ground since Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and secondly that the ravaged farmlands of north Virginia should be spared a further campaign, with the fight taken to the rich, and largely untouched agricultural lands of Maryland and Pennsylvania.  A successful campaign now that thrust north through the Shenandoah Valley then east to threaten Baltimore, Philadelphia or even Washington itself, might – just might – be all that was needed to force Lincoln to sue for peace and recognise the Confederacy.

The Gettysburg Campaign opened on June 3rd 1863; both armies were still gathered either side of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, when Lee began to quietly move his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to the northwest. The Union Army of the Potomac, still commanded by Gen Joseph Hooker despite the heavy defeat at Chancellorsville, began probing attacks across the river and soon established that a large force was moving. On 9th June, five miles up the Orange & Alexandria railroad from Culpepper Courthouse, the cavalry outriders from both armies met. At the battle of Brandy Station 11,000 Union cavalry under Gen Alfred Pleasanton who had been shadowing them along the north bank of the Rappahannock collided with 9,500 Rebel horseman under Gen JEB Stuart.   The Battle of Brandy Station was the largest cavalry engagement ever fought on the American continent, and ended in a bloody stalemate with 1,600 casualties. Although Pleasanton’s men didn’t discover the presence of Lee’s main force, now assembling near Culpepper, it at least confirmed to Hooker that Lee’s army was on the move.

After the standoff at Brandy Station, Lee divided his army into three columns, each led by one of his Corps Commanders for the march north. The first, under Gen Richard S Ewell struck out for Front Royal in the Shenandoah and marched up the valley towards Winchester, using the Blue Ridge mountains to the east to screen their passage. They had been ordered to thrust deep into Union territory, past the old Sharpsburg battlefield in Maryland and on into Pennsylvania to threaten the rail centre at Harrisburg.

In the days that followed further columns under James Longstreet and Ambrose Powell Hill struck to the east of the Blue Ridge then crossed over into the Shenandoah at Ashby’s Gap and Snicker’s Gap to follow Ewell on the march north, whilst Stuart and the cavalry remained on the eastern side of the mountains. By the 14thJune Gen Hooker realised that Lee’s main force was no longer at Fredericksburg; “Fighting Joe’s” natural instincts led him to contemplate a move on unprotected Richmond, but he was firmly ordered by Lincoln to pursue Lee northwards, keeping his own army at all times between Lee and Washington. Splitting his seven corps into two columns, he sent each north on either side of Manassas Junction in the direction of Leesburg whilst Pleasanton’s cavalry shadowed JEB Stuart as he attempted to cover the Blue Ridge Passes.

The previous day, Ewell and 12,500 men of the Confederate II Corps had reached Winchester at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley and attacked the 7,000 man Union garrison there, led by Gen Robert Milroy. Placed in a strategically critical location some 50 miles west of Washington, Winchester held the unenviable reputation of being the most fought over town in the civil war – estimated to have changed hands some seventy times by the end of the conflict. The Second Battle of Winchester lasted three days and resulted in complete victory for Ewell, who inflicted 500 casualties and took 4,000 prisoners for the loss of only 270 of his own men and also resulted in the dismissal of Milroy from his command.

On June 17th Stuart’s force arrived in the vicinity of the village of Aldie, 20 miles west of Washington, a strategic point on roads that led to Snickers Gap and Ashby’s Gap, two key passes over the Blue Ridge and met Pleasanton’s Union cavalry probing toward the mountains. The result was the inconclusive battles of Aldie and Middleburg, followed by a further clash on the 21st at the Battle of Upperville.  By the 25th Hooker, although in the dark as to Lee’s true intentions, now knew for certain that the Confederates were across the Potomac in force and heading for Maryland, so ordered his force into Maryland also and concentrated around Frederick and Middletown; but Lee was way ahead of him, having already crossed north into Pennsylvania, and was now near Chambersburg and Ewell at Carlisle.

Lee however, had problems of his own, if Hooker did not know what Lee’s intentions where, Lee had no idea where Hooker’s army even was. This was because Stuart had been ordered to use part of his force to cover the Blue Ridge passes, part to screen the army’s march north and keep them appraised of the position of Hooker’s army and with the rest of his force to raid eastwards to disrupt Union army’s march. When Stuart set out however, he found his way blocked by columns of Federal troops also moving north and was forced to veer south, around Manassas, before turning north himself and arriving at the outer defences of Washington on the 28th. In between Stuart and the main Confederate force, all seven of the Union Corps where massed around Frederick, Maryland intending to move north.

Hooker meanwhile, a few days earlier and under heavy pressure from Washington, had had a spat with Halleck over whether he should be allowed to re-deploy the garrison at Harper’s Ferry and in a fit of pique had tendered his resignation to Lincoln which, much to his surprise, was accepted. On the 28th, the same day that JEB Stuart’s cavalry skirted the outer defensive forts of Washington, command of the Army of the Potomac passed to Gen George Gordon Meade.

Born in Cadiz, Spain, Meade was the son of successful US businessman who had grown rich servicing contracts to the Spanish government in the early part of the 19th century. The family business collapsed during the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808 leading to financial ruin for his father, who died a few years later. After his return to the US he graduated from West Point and enjoyed a successful career, serving with distinction in both the Seminole and Mexican wars. After the Mexican conflict he went into Civil Engineering and was responsible for the design and construction of several lighthouses, and was, at the outbreak of war, a member of the Great Lakes Survey team, having published the first detailed hydrological survey of the Great Lakes. He served in the eastern theatre of the war in all the major campaigns and was badly wounded at the Battle of Glendale during the Seven Days. At Fredericksburg the following year his assault against the Rebel positions on Prospect Hill was regarded as the closest thing to a success that the Army of the Potomac had in that otherwise unmitigated defeat. Regarded as a strict disciplinarian and a with somewhat prickly temperament, Meade was known as “old snapping turtle” to his men. Establishing his headquarters at Taneytown, Maryland he began by writing to each of his corps commanders that they were authorised “… to shoot any man who refused to do his duty ..”,  before ordering a concentration further north in the vicinity of a small college town in Pennsylvania where all the local roads converged – called Gettysburg.

Stuart continued his ride north, and around, Meade’s vast army intending to link up with Ewell’s corps, then between Carlisle and Harrisburg. On the 28th he encountered and captured a large Union supply train near Rockville before pushing on Westminster the following day where he met and defeated a small Union cavalry force under Maj Napoleon Knight. On the following day, he again encountered Union cavalry, this time under Pleasanton and fought the inconclusive battle of Hanover, before finally reaching Dover on the morning of the 1st of July.

Lee, still out of contact with Stuart, had finally received some reliable intelligence as to Meade’s dispositions by way of a Confederate spy. The man was named Henry Thomas Harrison, an out of work actor from Mississippi who turned out to have a talent for intelligence gathering. Paid by Longstreet to hang around bars in Washington and monitor the local press he learned that the Union force was concentrating at Frederick. Riding out there in person, he discovered that the information was true and that two corps were already there, with the rest on the way and moving north. He rode north and passed on the information to Lee together with the news of Meade’s appointment. This was the first information that Lee had received that indicated that the Union army was even across the Potomac and he decided on a concentration of his army at Cashtown, with Ewell at Carlisle, intending to finally concentrate at the only point in the vicinity were all the roads converged – Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg came about, allegedly, due to the rumour that there was a supply of shoes there, always in demand for the famously ill-shod Confederates. Lee sent a division under Gen Henry Heth from DH Hill’s corps from Cashtown to investigate and it was there, on the morning of 1st July, that they encountered the first cavalry outriders from Meade’s army – two brigades (about 2,500 men) under Gen John Buford, who had entered the town the previous evening. Buford deployed his men along Seminary Ridge just beyond a Lutheran Theological Seminary to the west of the town as Heth’s men attacked; although the Union troops were heavily outnumbered, they were armed with the new breech-loading Spencer Carbines, and with their superior firepower held their position as both commanders sent out riders to summon reinforcements.

Lee’s main force was moving toward the town from the west along the Chambersburg Pike, while Ewell was approaching from the north along the Carlisle Road. Meanwhile, the Union First Corps under Gen John Reynolds was just ten miles to the south, with a further corps under Gen Oliver Howard a few miles behind them. By midday, Reynolds had reinforced Buford and Howard had deployed north of the town across the Carlisle road as the first major clashes occurred. With more and more Confederate troops arriving on the battle field, a bitter fight for the ridge lines west and north of the town developed, with the Union force being pushed off the ridges and back through the town, to form a new defensive line by sundown along Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Both sides incurred heavy casualties, 15,000 in total, among them the Union I Corps Commander, John Reynolds, killed by a sniper. The remaining forces from both sides now began to arrive overnight to bring the total on each side to 94,000 Union, in seven corps, against 72,000 Confederates in three corps.

A debate raged among the Confederate command, with Lee wishing to capitalise on the successes of the days fighting by bringing on a full scale engagement, which he was convinced could be won. He was strongly opposed in this by Longstreet, who considered that Meade’s position on the high ground was too strong, and moreover, with the bulk of the Army of the Potomac committed here at Gettysburg, the roads to the south, on to Washington, were wide open. Surely, he argued, here was an opportunity to redeploy to the south and get between Meade and Washington, then pick high ground of their own choosing near to the Union capital and serve up another Fredericksburg – and possibly end the war there and then. But it was Lee who prevailed; little did he know it then, but Meade was about to serve up a Fredericksburg of his own.

By the morning of the 2nd July, Meade had deployed his force in the shape of a fishhook south of the town. The line curved south of Gettysburg along Culp’s and Cemetery Hills, before turning south along Cemetery Ridge, to terminate at a small wooded Hill called Little Round top; with the Confederates deployed north and to the west of the Union position.  Lee began to launch a series of probing attacks in sequence, like a firecracker going off, looking for weak points in the Union line, beginning at the southern end. His battle plan called for an attack in the south to capture the two Round Top hills (then unoccupied) by Longstreet’s Corps plus an assault against the Peach Orchard. Next came an attack on Cemetery Ridge by A.P. Hill’s Corps, followed by a final demonstration against Culp’s Hill by Gen Bushrod Johnson’s men.

The southern end of the Union line probably looked the weakest to Lee. Neither of the Round Tops were occupied at that point, the part of the line immediately north of them being occupied by the Union III Corps, led by Gen Daniel Sickles. Unlike many of his fellow Corps commanders, Sickles came from a political background, having no significant military experience when he was commissioned (as a Colonel) in 1862. Sickles was from New York and studied law as a young man in the offices of future Gen and Military Governor of occupied New Orleans, Benjamin Butler; becoming, in 1853, Chief Law Officer for the City of New York and later going on to serve as a member of the US Legation in London under future president James Buchanan. He went on in the late 1850’s to serve in the New York State Senate before securing election to the US Congress as a Democrat, a post he held until the spring of 1861. Sickles was best known before the war for a number of high profile scandals; these included being censured by State Assembly for entertaining a prostitute in his apartments, then taking her on a trip to London where he passed her off as his wife when presented to Queen Victoria at an official function; his real (and then pregnant) wife, allegedly only 15 years of age when he married her, was left behind in New York. In 1859, he shot and killed the US Attorney for the District of Columbia in a duel after accusing him of having an affair with his wife. The case is notable for being the first successful use of a temporary insanity plea to secure acquittal in US legal history. In 1862 he raised a regiment of volunteers in New York and was commissioned a Colonel at their head, eventually securing promotion to Brig Gen. He served in the Peninsula campaign, but missed both 2nd Manassas and Sharpsburg as his unit was assigned to the defences of Washington. His closest friend and ally in the army was Gen Joseph Hooker, with whom he shared a well known fondness for whiskey and women.

Assigned to command of the III Corps at Gettysburg, he had been ordered to deploy his troops along Cemetery Ridge at the southern point on the line, but disobeyed Meade’s orders and instead moved his troops forward 800 yards to the Peach Orchard which appeared to him a better position, but which created a dangerous salient in the Union line, just as Lee’s attack was beginning. Longstreet assigned the division of Gen Lafayette McLaws to assault the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field and the Devil’s Den as a fierce hand-hand fight ensued, with Meade pouring in reinforcements in the face of repeated infantry charges by the Confederates. Although McLaws’ assault was repulsed, the cost was heavy with the III Corps effectively destroyed as a fighting force and Sickles himself carried from the field on a stretcher after having his leg mangled by a hit from a canon ball – it would later be amputated – all the while coolly smoking a cigar and shouting encouragement to his men.

The remainder of Longstreet’s attack force was led by Gen John Bell Hood and was tasked with capturing the two Round Top hills; in fact he had a third division in his command, led by Gen George Pickett, but this was still in transit from Cashtown and would not arrive until the end of the day, after fighting had died down.

Originally from Kentucky, Hood had graduated from West Point in 1853 having been in the same class as James McPherson and John Schofield, and was a pupil of George Thomas – all of whom he would face on the battlefield during the Civil War. After graduation he served as a First Lieutenant in California and Texas, the latter becoming his adopted home; and it was in Texas whilst fighting the Comanche that he received the first of the many serious wounds of his military career – shot by an arrow through his hand. He quit the army immediately after the war started, dissatisfied with the neutrality of his home state, and served his adopted state of Texas instead, commissioned as a Colonel to lead an infantry brigade. In march 1862, he was promoted to Brig Gen and led the Texas Brigade with distinction during the Seven Days and subsequent campaigns, where he acquired a reputation for bravery bordering on recklessness.

When Meade saw the Confederate deployments he quickly realised the danger of losing the hills and rushed a brigade from V Corps under Col Strong Vincent to its summit, just as the Hood’s assault was beginning, with fierce fighting still raging in the Wheat Field and the Devil’s Den. Little Round Top was a small, steep, rocky, heavily wooded hill occupied by just four small regiments; on the very end of the Union line, right at the summit was placed a depleted regiment of just 400 men – the 20th Maine, led by a polyglot theology academic – Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Born in Brewer, Maine in 1828, he was the great-grandson of Franklin Chamberlain, a sergeant at the siege of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War, and the grandson of Joshua Chamberlain Snr, a Colonel in the War of 1812. Despite the family’s traditions, Chamberlain had no military background himself, his pre-war career being spent in academia. He attended Bowdoin College after self-teaching himself to speak Greek; and it was there that he met Harriet Beecher-Stowe, the wife of one of his teachers, and attended readings of early drafts of her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  After a stint at theological college he returned to Bowdoin and held a professorial chair in rhetoric; he would later be appointed Professor of Modern Languages, being fluent in no fewer than nine other tongues – French, Spanish, German, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin and Syriac. Strongly motivated both to maintain the Union and to see the abolition of slavery, Chamberlain volunteered in 1861, and was commissioned as Lt Col of Volunteers, soon rising to full Colonel of the 20th Maine; he also served for a time as chaplain to another Maine regiment. Present at both the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, his regiment saw little action in either, so were relatively un-blooded when thrust into the carnage at Gettysburg.

Despite being heavily outnumbered, Chamberlain’s men held their critical position against repeated charges up the boulder-strewn slope by swarms of Confederate infantry. Eventually, out of ammunition and in danger of being overwhelmed, Chamberlain ordered his men to thin the line to double its length, then fixed bayonets and charged down the boulder strewn slope, littered with Rebel dead and wounded. Incredibly, the courageous manoeuvre worked, and the Confederates broke – those who weren’t killed or captured, fleeing back down the hill; Gen Hood himself was among the wounded, receiving the bullet wound that left his arm paralysed for the remainder of his life.

With the failure of the attack on Little Round Top, the action switched to the north and centre of the Union line, where an assault was launched against Cemetery Ridge by AP Hill’s Corps and a further attack against Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill by Bushrod Johnson. The situation was particularly precarious on Cemetery Ridge, only lightly held after reinforcements had been sent to strengthen other parts of line, with the II Corps commander Gen Winfield Hancock desperately throwing in any troops he could find until eventually ordering a bayonet charge before the Confederates finally broke and retreated back across the Emmitsburg Road, and fighting died down for the day. At about mid afternoon on the second day, JEB Stuart finally arrived from Dover with the cavalry to receive a severe admonishment from Lee for failing to keep him informed and for encumbering the army with the large train of supply wagons that Stuart had captured a few days earlier at Rockville, near Washington.

At the overnight battle conference, both armies took time to re-group and to prepare for the next day’s fighting. Union troops were brought up to strengthen the line, particularly on Hancock’s front, in the centre, whilst Lee was strengthened by the arrival of George Pickett’s uncommitted division of Longstreet’s Corps. Having observed the day’s action, Lee became convinced that a determined assault against the Union centre, which had only just held against AP Hill’s assault was to attack the weakest point. Believing that the Union reserves were being used the bolster the wings on Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill, it seemed to him that their most successful fighting had been there and a massed artillery bombardment followed by an infantry charge against Hancock’s position on Cemetery Ridge would break the line, and destroy the Union position. Again, Longstreet was opposed to the plan, arguing that with the interior lines at their disposal, if the Union centre was weak now, it would not stay that way long. Moreover the massed Confederate infantry would have to traverse over a mile of open ground as it crossed the Emmitsburg Road, under artillery fire the whole way. Lee’s view carried the day however, with his belief that determined artillery fire, plus a demonstration by Ewell against Culp’s Hill, would clear Hancock’s troops from the ridge and effect a breakthrough in the Union centre. Unfortunately for Lee, Meade had also held a council of war that night, and had come to exactly the same conclusion – and consequently heavily reinforced his position in the centre, setting the scene for the third, climactic day of battle.

The lead unit for the attack was to be the remaining uncommitted division from Longstreet’s corps, led by Gen George Pickett.  A native of Richmond, Virginia, and son of one of Virginia’s oldest families of solid English stock, Pickett was best known before the war for his actions at the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican war, where, despite being wounded, he was handed the colours – by none other than his commanding officer at Gettysburg, James Longstreet – and carried them up onto the ramparts to announce the surrender of the fortress. He also once challenged to a duel the man who would command the forces ranged against him on Cemetery Ridge – Winfield Hancock. Pickett’s three brigade commanders for the coming assault where Gen James Kemper, a career politician who held the post of Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates; Gen Richard Garnett, a veteran of the Mexican and Seminole wars who had served under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah campaign and had been arrested by Jackson for alleged neglect of duty and was only spared courts martial by the intervention of Lee. A few days before Gettysburg, Garnett had had a severe fall from horse and was unable to walk, but insisted on leading his men in person from horseback during the attack. Finally there was Lewis “Lo” Armistead,  also a member of an English descended Old Virginia family, he was the nephew of Maj George Armistead who’s actions at the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 inspired the lyric for The Star Spangled Banner. A career army officer who, like his commander George Pickett, had been wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, he served in a wide variety of posts in the far west before fetching up as Captain in command of the garrison of San Diego in California where he formed a close and enduring friendship with unit’s Quartermaster. At the outbreak of war each of the two men left to join the two sides, Armistead to the Confederate army and his friend to the Union army. Armistead’s last words to his dear friend on parting were said to be “Goodbye; you can never know what this has cost me”. That man was none other than the commander of the troops he would fight that very day – Gen Winfield Hancock

Two other divisions would also take part –  one led by Gen Issac Trimble, a former railway engineer and executive who had been severely wounded at the 2nd Battle of Manassas; the other by a former academic, linguist, author and diplomat Gen Johnston Pettigrew. Like his colleague Trimble, Pettigrew had also been severely wounded earlier in the war, taking a bullet through the throat and almost bleeding to death at the Battle of Fair Oaks Station (Seven Pines) during the Peninsula Campaign. The total Confederate force for the attack was about 12,500 men, supported by 70 guns, massed on Seminary Ridge

Also present to witness the assault was an Englishman, Col Arthur Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards. Although travelling as a private citizen, he toured many areas in the western theatre, accompanied Lee’s army on the Gettysburg campaign and was regarded by many of the Confederate officers that he met as an unofficial British military observer. Described by many of those men as a charming and eloquent, if sometimes a little gullible, he is nonetheless regarded as the foremost among the foreign witnesses to the war, his work Three Months in the Southern States being widely read on both sides of the Atlantic and containing many portraits of the men he met, and a detailed description of the minutiae of life in the Confederacy during the civil war. He also witnessed, after Gettysburg, the New York draft riots shortly before his return to Britain. For all his gifts as a travel and military writer I’m sorry to have to tell you that Fremantle himself was something of a toy soldier, having never actually fired a shot in anger in his life – his country Great Britain having wisely chosen to stay out of every major European war since Waterloo. Although he enjoyed high rank later in his career,  serving as a General in the Sudan campaign of the 1880’s it is principally as a writer on the American Civil war that he is remembered, where he fulfils, at least to American eyes, the essential role as the representative of the former colonial power who is both the recipient of an education into how America saw itself and had grown since Independance as well as a, completely genuine, admirer of the armies of both sides, but particularly the Confederates who’s feats of bravery against more numerous foes struck a chord with his own country’s experience of war.

The assault opened with an artillery barrage from the Confederate guns on Seminary Ridge, with one of the opening salvoes slicing in two a Union orderly as he served breakfast to the senior officers.  Hancock however, by now heavily reinforced by Meade, answered with his own batteries which took a heavy toll of the Rebel crews, forcing their commander, Col Edward Alexander, to withdraw his ammunition caissons out of range, thus grievously reducing their rate of fire, just as the attack was commencing. Fremantle observed the barrage and noted his surprise at seeing a military band playing polkas and waltzes as the battle raged just a few hundred yards away. Hancock meanwhile, his dispositions made, had nothing left to do but mount his horse, draw his sabre and ride up and down the line shouting encouragement to his men; when asked by one of his aides to ride out of range he replied that “there are occasions when the life of a commanding officer simply doesn’t count”. He would be wounded shortly afterwards, by a rifle bullet, and sat out the remainder of the battle from the rear.

Always a desperate endeavour, the charge became an impossible one once the artillery had failed to clear Hancock’s men from the ridge and the Confederates took fearful losses as they advanced across the open fields and over the Emmitsburg Road; before being met by murderous volleys of rifle fire as they approached the Union line. A Union soldier recalled the first volley as it went in, remembering that a sound like a collective sigh went up from Rebels in the front rank as the first shots hit them, accompanied by hats, guns and body parts being tossed into the air. The Confederates only reached the wall in one place, close “The Angle” and all that made it over the wall were either killed or captured, the Union soldiers chanting “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg” as the remainder of the Confederate force fell back towards Seminary Ridge. Armistead was among the men who reached the Union position, but was wounded almost immediately; subsequently captured, he died later that day in a Union military hospital. Fremantle, who encountered Longstreet sitting on a snake rail fence as the attack failed remarked to his host that he would not have missed Longstreet’s men’s “magnificent charge” for anything. Longstreet laughed and replied “I would very much like to have missed it, we have been repulsed, see there ….”. Fremantle would later record seeing the hordes of Confederate wounded streaming back across Seminary Ridge “as thick as the crowds on Oxford Street on a Saturday”.

“Picketts Charge”, which should rather have been called “Robert E Lee’s charge” since he ordered it against all advice, was an unmitigated disaster for the Confederates, the attack force suffering 50% casualties. As well as Armistead, Garnett would also be killed, and many of the remaining divisional and brigade commanders were wounded; Kemper took a bullet in the groin that could not be removed and left him in pain for the rest of his life. He would be captured, then escaped, then was captured again during the retreat from Gettysburg and subsequently exchanged for a Union prisoner. Trimble was badly wounded, captured and had his leg amputated before being paroled; he would take no further part in the war. Finally, Pettigrew was wounded by a canister fire 100 yards from the Union line, but continued to lead his men until carried to the rear; he survived the battle only to be killed shortly after at the battle of Williamsport (Falling Waters) during the retreat from Gettysburg. George Picket survived the battle unscathed and served for the remainder of the war, but never forgave Lee for what happened that day, remarking in later life “that old man had my division slaughtered at Gettysburg”.

Lee attempted to rally his men in person, taking personal responsibility for the debacle and trying to prepare for a Union counterattack that never came. The day’s fighting concluded with two minor cavalry battles to the south and east of the Union position as mounted Rebel units placed to exploit any breakthrough were met and repulsed by Union horseman, as well as an separate cavalry engagement at the Battle of Fairfield, ten miles west of Gettysburg, fought at the same time that Pickett’s charge went in.

By now completely exhausted and having suffered combined casualties of 46,000 (23,000 on each side), there was no renewal of fighting the following day as heavy rain began to fall on the blood soaked fields. Lee ordered a retreat late in the day on the 4th July, at the same time as Ulysses Grant accepted the surrender of the fortress of Vicksburg on the Mississippi, cutting the Confederacy in two.

The Confederates drew off towards Cashtown and Chambersburg, then back towards Virginia via Hagerstown eventually reaching the Potomac a week later; the Confederate wagon train containing the wounded was said to be seventeen miles long. Meade’s force was almost as badly mauled as Lee’s and the pursuit was half-hearted, allowing Lee to reach the river virtually without incident. However on getting there, Lee found the Potomac swollen by heavy rain and had to fight the rearguard battle of Williamsport (Falling Waters) on the 16th, before finally getting his men across, and fighting the minor battle of Manassas Gap on the 23rd then finally re-crossing the Rappahannock and bringing the Gettysburg campaign to a close.

Much has been written about the two opposing generals at Gettysburg, with the common interpretation being that the Union had finally found the answer to Old Man Lee in the form of Old Man Meade – but that for me is wide of the mark. Meade certainly played his part in stiffening the resolve of his force, but the re-organisation and restoration of the army after the defeats of six months previously were more to do with Hooker and Halleck than with Meade, who was appointed only three days before battle was joined. The plain truth is that Lee had simply become overconfident after the victories of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Bold action had become his hallmark for the simple reason that with his smaller force, boldness was all he had available to him. Risk taking became a habit and a dangerous one, and at Gettysburg, Lee simply took one risk too many. For all his undoubted qualities, Lee fought the wrong battle, at the wrong place for the wrong reason; and it was the Confederacy that paid the ultimate price.

Although the war was to continue for another two years, the twin Union victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg effectively ended all Confederate hopes of victory. Never again would any significant Confederate incursion into Union territory be possible and the war took on a largely defensive character for them in the eastern theatre. Despite a final Rebel success, Chickamauga, in the western theatre the war now became just a matter of time before the military and economic facts of life asserted themselves in the bloody and long drawn out final phase of the conflict.

“Fremantle”

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Overview

  Confederate POW’s at Gettysburg

Ten Biggest Battles of the Civil War (table)

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

Western Theatre of the Civil War  (map)

Some would say that the independence of the USA in 1776 with the institution of slavery still in place made later conflict inevitable; indeed Samuel Johnson once asked of the American colonists “why is it that the loudest cries for liberty come from those who drive negroes ?”. But whilst slavery was undoubtedly the issue that lit the fuse, the causes of the war (known also as the War Between the States) were more fundamental than that.  Just as in Britain at the time, where the USA was known as “the Republic in the West”, industrialisation was altering the economic and political landscape as well as the physical one. The conflict was reflection of a process already underway in countries like Britain and France, that of the emerging class of self made entrepreneur created by the industrial revolution – the holders of technological and financial equity – coming into political conflict with an older elite with their wealth based on agriculture and land. Rather like the English civil war of the seventeenth century, which is frequently represented as a struggle for popular democracy against despotic monarchy. In reality it was the interests of the most wealthy part of the country, the southeast of England vying for power with the Monarchy, versus the rest of the land. For the Americans, it was a newly industrialised north desperate to modernise, versus an agricultural south wedded to the past. As the economic and political balance shifted towards the North, it became more and more difficult to justify the South’s “peculiar institution”, although the fact remained that in 1861 the bulk (about 75%) of the USA’s foreign currency earnings still came from Southern agricultural produce, especially cotton and tobacco.

The election of the first president from the newly formed Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, a noted supporter of abolition, proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the slave states, and in early 1861, seven of them seceded – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas – to form the Confederate States of America. It president was Jefferson Davis, former Secretary of War in the 1850’s, with its capital at Mobile, Alabama – later moved to Richmond, Virginia.

The conflict began, at the lone federal outpost on the island of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour, in April of that year; a small garrison of Union troops deliberately left there by Lincoln, safe in the knowledge that when the inevitable war came, the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic would report that it was the South that fired first. The South duly obliged, in the form of firebrand political activist Edmund Ruffin, an advocate of States Rights, Secession and Slavery, who lit the fuse on the first canon shot on Fort Sumter. In the days that followed, four more States seceded –Arkansas, North Carolina and the jewel in the crown – Virginia; also, after a referendum, Tennessee. Crucially, the fertile agricultural Commonwealth of Kentucky declared itself neutral.

The war was fought on three fronts. A naval blockade choked off all shipping, and thus all trade to the Confederacy plus there were amphibious attacks against the major ports, plus offensives were launched on land in both the eastern and western theatres. After the fall of the port of New Orleans in 1862, cotton exports from Southern plantations had fallen by 95% – causing not only the collapse of the Southern economy but mass unemployment in Britain, where 350,000 Lancashire mill workers were put on the dole causing riots and calls for the Royal Navy to break the blockade.

There were three theatres on land. In the east the two capitals were just 100 miles apart with two huge armies in between glowering at each other – the Army of Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. As can be seen from the table, showing the top ten battles by number of combatants, most of the war’s major battles were fought in the east and mostly resulted in an uneasy stalemate, the Seven Days, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Coldharbor, Spotsylvania, Sharpsburg and Gettysburg all occurred there. In the western theatre, a different war was fought, with wide open spaces crossed by mountains ranges , rivers and railways. This theatre centred on the struggle for control of Kentucky and Tennessee, and culminated in the siege of Atlanta in 1864. Chickamauga and Shiloh were the largest battles of this theatre. Finally, in the Mississippi valley a series of campaigns where fought for control of the river, including battles with iron clad gunboats and paddle steamers on the river itself. This theatre culminated with the fall of the fortress of Vicksburg on the Mississippi river on 4th July 1863, the day after Gettysburg.

Nobody really knows how many men served in the American Civil War as records are incomplete, particularly on the Confederate side, and many men enlisted more than once to collect the bounty; a popular scam of time was to enlist in a town, collect the money, then move on to the next town to enlist again. This was later replaced by a substitute system whereby a rich man could pay someone else to carry out his service; the future presidents Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland both paid substitutes to avoid conscription, as did Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and the fathers of future presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.

What is more important than those enlisted however, is the total number who served – which comes to about 3 million – 2 million on the Union side and 1 million for the Confederates. Of that 3m, 600,000 would be casualties by the war’s end, 75% of them from disease. Civil War infantry were issued with bayonets and the cavalry with sabres, but they were rarely used. Most wounds were from gunshots – this was an infantry war, fought with percussion-cap, muzzle – loading rifles firing lead minie balls. In a typical civil war battle the two sides closed to 50 yards and popped away at each other until one side gave up. Cavalry were mostly used as the forerunners of mechanised infantry – they tended to fight mounted or dismounted with pistols and carbines, although by 1863, Union cavalry began to be issued with Spencer repeating rifles.

At the outset of war, the US army was tiny, barely 30,000 men all told, most of whom were deployed in the far west beyond the Mississippi river, defending against Native American incursions and guarding the communication routes to far-off California on the Pacific coast. The USA had not fought a foreign enemy since the Mexican war in the 1840’s and what little military experience it’s few officers possessed was learned there; although graduation through the military academy at West Point was a part of many a gentleman’s education. When war came most of the small army defected to the south, leaving the Union with the task of recruiting and equipping an army virtually from scratch.

There were something between 8,000 and 10,000 separate recorded incidents of hostilities in the conflict, but the majority of these were militarily insignificant. Of the battlefield engagements – from a skirmish involving a few hundred right up to a full scale battle involving many thousands – there were about 370. These range from the battle of Barbourville, Kentucky in Sept 1862 – an operation by 800 Rebels to destroy a training camp defended by 300 Union militia, up to the Seven Days – a complex series of interconnected battles where 92,000 Confederates led by Robert E Lee in his first major operation threw back the 104,000 man Union Army of the Potomac attempting to lay siege to the Rebel capital. Fully 35% of the battlefield engagements occurred in Virginia, with another 21% in Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky.

Two sets of historical records exist for the civil war – the Union records name the battles after the nearest body of water or river, the Confederates by the nearest populated place. Thus the first major battle of the war – the 1st battle of Bull Run, is known to Confederate historians as the 1st battle of Manassas; Since the first civil war author I read was Shelby Foote, Confederate nomenclature is adopted in this piece, with the Union name in brackets afterwards where appropriate.

“Fremantle”

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville

 

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War

Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (map)

With Lincoln’s dismissal of McClellan after Sharpsburg the post of commander of the Army of the Potomac again became vacant and Lincoln pitched around for a replacement – finally appointing Gen Ambrose Burnside into the position. Born in Indiana, of Scottish ancestry, Burnside had graduated from West Point in 1847 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Artillery. Posted to Veracruz during the closing stages of the Mexican war, he arrived too late to see any action and served only on garrison duty. After the war he was assigned to the western frontier, where he briefly served in the cavalry under Braxton Bragg, then a Captain, protecting  the mail routes to California.

He resigned from the Army in 1853 and, although only a minor figure in his military career,  set up a company to manufacture the product for which he became widely known in military circles before the war – a superior design of cavalry rifle known as the Burnside Carbine. Initially contracted to mass produce the weapon for the army, his business collapsed among accusations that government officials had been bribed by a rival to cancel the contract, even though he had already heavily invested in plant – leading to financial ruin for Burnside. In 1858, he ran for a Congressional seat in Rhode Island for the Democrats, but was heavily defeated and went on instead to secure a senior position with the Illinois Central Railroad, where he met and befriended the company’s Vice President – a certain George Brinton McClellan.  Tall and imposing in stature, and jovial and friendly by nature, Burnside’s most prominent physical features were the huge bushy side whiskers that he wore all his adult life and for which he became famous . Originally known as “burn-sides”, the fashion became popular on both sides of the Atlantic and gives us the modern word “sideburns”.

Burnside had been offered command of the Army of Potomac twice before, the first being after the collapse of Peninsula campaign. However, partly out of loyalty to his close friend McClellan, but mostly through a stark realisation that he was unqualified for so demanding a role, he refused. After the fiasco of Sharpsburg, Lincoln again offered and he again refused, before finally – after an appeal to his patriotism – accepting in Oct 1862. In the late autumn of that year, and under heavy pressure from Lincoln, Burnside hatched a plan for a winter offensive. His army was massed south of Washington, between Manassas Junction and Thoroughfare Gap with Lee’s main force to his south at Culpepper Courthouse, and Stonewall Jackson and the Shenandoah Valley army to his west, south of Winchester. Burnside rejected the favoured plan of Lincoln and the Cabinet – a crossing of the Rappahannock at  Rappahannock Station and a direct assault on Culpepper along the line of the Orange and Alexandria railroad, followed by a thrust towards Richmond. He was afraid that Stonewall would attack his supply lines from the west, just as he had done to Pope in the summer, plus he had – perfectly correct – concerns that the railway would be insufficient to keep his massive army supplied. Instead, he dusted off an old plan of McClellan’s for a rapid march southeast, and cross the river at the small town of Fredericksburg, 25 miles away, outflanking Lee and opening the way for a descent on Richmond along the line of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad. The plan, while bold, was also risky since it relied on a critical dependency – the bridge at Fredericksburg was inadequate for the passage of a large force, and at any rate led directly into the town on the south bank creating a single choke point. This was to be surmounted by the deployment of pontoon bridges at various points, to allow a speedy crossing.

Burnside set out on 15th Nov and his leading elements reached Falmouth, a mile upstream of Fredericksburg on the north bank 2 days later, finding only 500 Confederate troops guarding the town on the south bank. The first part of the plan worked – when Lee realised what Burnside was doing he thought that the Federal troops would certainly cross immediately, and so deployed his army 20 miles to the south along the banks of the North Anna river, the next realistic defensive line. From that point on however, Burnside’s plan began to unravel. Due to a catalogue of administrative errors the pontoons failed to arrive on the 17th. The officer commanding the lead elements, Gen Edwin Sumner, begged to be allowed to attempt a crossing immediately using the existing bridge and nearby fords – arguing that this was their only chance to take the town while it was lightly held and then push on to occupy a ridge to the west of the town called Marye’s heights before Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia arrived. Burnside refused, believing that the heavy autumn rains would render the fords impassable and leave Sumner stranded on the south bank. This decision was to have catastrophic consequences for the Union when battle was finally joined.

The pontoons finally arrived, two weeks late, on 30th of Nov, by which time both armies had had ample time to assemble; 114,000 men of the Army of the Potomac on the north bank, and 73,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia on the south, by now well dug in on Marye’s heights overlooking the town. It wasn’t until 11th of December that Union engineers constructed the first pontoons, on either side of the town and under a murderous fire from Confederate snipers. Attempts to suppress the sniper fire by Union artillery on the north bank were ineffective as the rebels simply took shelter in the cellars under Fredericksburg until a brigade of Union troops crossed the newly constructed pontoon and fought a street by street battle to clear the snipers from the town, supported by more than 5,000 artillery shells fired from Union batteries on the north bank – the first major incident of urban fighting in the war.

Burnside’s army began to cross in the mid afternoon, and by noon of the following day the main force was on the south bank. Lee had withdrawn from the town and divided his army in two wings. The left under Gen James Longstreet, was dug in along Marye’s heights overlooking the town, whilst the right, led by Stonewall Jackson was massed in woods on Prospect Hill, with a railway line running parallel to the river, a mile south of the town opposite the southern pontoon bridge, as a thick early morning fog carpeted this section of battlefield. Probing attacks by Union troops revealed a gap in the defences where a patch of swampy woodland 600 yards wide extended in front of the railway line, and 5,000 Union men under Gen George Gordon Meade moved forward to exploit it. An artillery duel followed by a hand-to-hand battle rapidly developed around the gap as both sides poured in reinforcements and at one point Meade’s men succeed in breaking through the gap and reaching the main defences on the wooded hill, but failure to adequately support the breakthrough meant that Jackson was able to stabilise his front, albeit at the cost of 3,500 casualties to 5,000 for the attackers. By late afternoon, Jackson was withdrawing to positions south of town as the main focus of the battle moved to Marye’s heights.

The Commander of Lee’s left wing, Longstreet, had his men along a 600 yard long stone wall that ran across Marye’s Heights, deployed three deep with 7,000 reserves behind them as well as his massed artillery batteries. In front of him an open plain sloped down to the town of Fredericksburg, cut by a canal with just three small bridges, meaning that attacking Union troops would have to be funnelled at each of these crossing points, all well within range of Longstreet’s artillery – in short, the Confederates had created a near – impregnable position. Burnside, who had expected the morning action to the south of the town to be the main fight now ordered his subordinate Gen Sumner to assault the ridge, but it was a hopeless endeavour. Under heavy artillery fire as they crossed the plain, and each wave was cut down about 100 yards from the stone wall by repeated rifle volleys. When Sumner’s men failed to carry the defences Burnside sent Gen Joseph Hooker’s corps up from the town to try as well, but with predictable results. In all fourteen charges were made against Longstreet’s men, but all were bloody failures – no Union troops got closer than 40 yards to the stone wall before the attack was called off as darkness fell and Burnside ordered his men to retreat back across the river, having lost 8,000 casualties to only 1,500 Confederate in an action that was originally intended to be a purely diversionary effort to draw the Confederates away from Jackson’s position on Prospect Hill.

That evening a distraught Burnside first tried to blame his subordinates, then declared that he would lead a fresh assault the following morning in person, before being talked out of it by his aides. The night of the 13 – 14th Dec 1862 was bitterly cold, with the aurorae playing in the clear skies above as thousands of wounded lay scattered across the battlefield. The author Louisa May Alcott documented their plight in the 1863 novel Hospital Sketches, based on her experiences as a nurse tending the wounded after Fredericksburg. In total the Army of the Potomac lost 12,000 casualties against only 5,000 Confederate, most of them on Jackson’s front.

The news of the defeat at Fredericksburg was received with consternation in Washington, with  Lincoln writing “If there is a worse place than hell, then I am in it”. Yet such was his desperation to find someone, anyone, to lead the Army of the Potomac, that he initially retained Burnside in his post. Three weeks later, in January 1863, Burnside made an abortive attempt at a further winter offensive by marching back up the north bank of the Rappahannock, intending to force a crossing at US Ford, close to Chancellorsville. The heavy winter rains however turned the roads to mud and, with some of his subordinates openly agitating against him, Lincoln was finally forced to act, and Burnside was stood down, to be re-assigned to the western theatre where, in command of smaller forces in a theatre with less political interference, he enjoyed a measure of success.

There can be little doubt, that of all the commanders of the Army of the Potomac, there can have been few more unfitted to the role than Burnside, indeed it was said of him that he should never have held any commission at all above the rank of Colonel. Yet in general, the judgement of history has been kinder to him than it might have been, for the simple reason that no-one was more aware of his shortcomings than Burnside himself, it was role he never wanted and, had it not been for his sense of patriotism, he never would have accepted it. After the war, he enjoyed a successful career in the railway business, served three terms as governor of Rhode Island, having switched parties to the Republicans, attempted mediation in the Franco – Prussian war whilst on a visit to Europe and served  two terms as Senator for Rhode Island; he was also appointed the inaugural president of the National Rifle Association.

Burnside’s replacement as commander was Gen Joseph Hooker. After graduating from West Point in 1837, he served with distinction in the Seminole wars of the 1840’s and 1850’s and in the Mexican war. After leaving the army in 1853, he worked in farming and made an unsuccessful attempt to enter politics in California. He returned to the army at the outbreak of war with the rank of Brig Gen and again served with distinction during the Peninsula campaign and at Sharpsburg. Like his earlier predecessor as commander of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan, Hooker was an extremely able administrator and a very effective motivator of his men; but where he differed was in his aggressive attitude to combat – his nickname among the troops  was “Fighting Joe”.

After re-organising, reinforcing, re-equipping and restoring the army’s battered morale after the debacle of Fredericksburg, Hooker went on the offensive. In late April 1863, while maintaining his main force before Fredericksburg, he sent 10,000 cavalry under Gen George Stoneman northwest to cross the river at Rappahannock Station, and thrust south to attack Confederate lines of communication back to Richmond. At the same time 40,000 men under Gen John Sedgwick would renew the attack on Fredericksburg while Hooker himself took the bulk of his force, some 70,000 strong back up the north bank of the Rappahannock, then across to the south bank and across the Rapidan river to the south, just west of the confluence to the two rivers, intending catch Lee in a pincer. Hooker took up position with his force around a small hamlet called Chancellorsville, in a broad clearing close to an area of dense woodland known as the Wilderness, a few miles south of the Rapidan, and ten miles west of Fredericksburg.  Although outnumbered two to one, and in a precarious position, Lee – still at Fredericksburg –  wasn’t fooled by the move and defied military convention by dividing his force, leaving just 10,000 men to hold off Sedgwick, while he rushed with his remaining 50,000 to confront Hooker in the woods south of Chancellorsville.

The main action of the battle of Chancellorsville opened on the 1st May with an attack by Hooker to the southeast, where he soon ran into Stonewall Jackson’s men advancing towards him close to an unfinished railway line at Tabernacle Church. Despite early success by his men, Hooker seems to have lost his nerve – perhaps believing after the failed attacks at Fredericksburg that the best way to take advantage of his superiority in numbers was to draw Lee towards a defensive position and wear him down. Whatever the reason, Hooker withdrew from the fight and by nightfall had his men dig breastworks around Chancellorsville and waited for Lee to come on to them.

That night, Lee consulted with his main subordinate Stonewall Jackson and, at his urging, hatched what is remembered as the most audacious manoeuvre of his career. The following morning, Lee split his force yet again and sent Jackson westward with 26,000 men on a broad flanking march along the narrow roads snaking through the dense woodland in front of, and then around, the huge Union army until they reached the extreme western flank of Hooker’s position. In the late afternoon, Hooker’s men were preparing their meal when their pickets reported that an unusual number of animals were bounding out of the forest, first squirrels and foxes then larger creatures such as deer. Within a few minutes the reason for every creature large and small being flushed out of the woodland became horribly apparent as Jackson’s 26,000 rebel infantry began to pour out of the forest at a right angle to Hookers entrenched troops. Pandemonium ensued as the Confederates formed into line of battle and opened fire; within minutes panic began to spread along the Union line, which collapsed like a house of cards. Within a few hours, the Confederates came within range of Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellor House. The confusion in the Union ranks was increased further when a stone pillar against which Hooker was leaning was struck by a canon ball, knocking him temporarily unconscious. Dazed, Hooker refused to relinquish command and, but for the timely arrival of Union reinforcements, his entire army would have disintegrated there and then.

Night fell with the Union troops having retreated two miles before the fighting died down. Lee’s great victory, often called his “perfect battle”, was tinged with tragedy however. That night Stonewall and few aides were returning from a reconnaissance of the Union positions when they were mistaken by Confederate pickets for a Union raiding party and fired at. Jackson was severely wounded and was carried to a field medical station where his arm was amputated. Although transferred to a military hospital the following day, pneumonia set in and eight days later he died; robbing Lee of his most able and talented subordinate. Still to this day, Stonewall Jackson’s sweep around the wing of the Union army at Chancellorsville is studied as the perfect example of how to carry out an outflanking manoeuvre.

Fighting resumed the following day, with the arrival of significant Union reinforcements, and the two armies clashed again at Salem Church and at the second battle of Fredericksburg, but by the end of the 4th of May, Hooker had had enough and withdrew back across the Rappahannock, robbing Lee of the chance to destroy the Army of the Potomac. The Union lost 17,000 casualties at Chancellorsville (out of 133,000 engaged) against 13,000 Confederate (out of 61,000). The two interlinked battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were the high watermark of Confederate fortunes in the eastern theatre. Although both were resounding rebel victories, never again would a numerically superior Union force be beaten so easily in the field.

“Fremantle”

 

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – The Seven Days

Inventor and entrepreneur Thaddeus Lowe in his balloon Intrepid deploying to observe Confederate troop movements at the Battle of Fair Oaks Station

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

The Seven Days (map)

The complex series of interlinked battles fought between 25th June and 1st July, to the east and south of Richmond, known as the Seven Days, were the decisive engagement of the Peninsula campaign of the eastern theatre of the American Civil war. Lasting from March to July of 1862 , this was the Union’s first major offensive operation in that theatre since the disaster of 1st Manassas (1st Bull Run) the previous year, the war’s first major battle. The Union forces numbered 104,000 and were commanded by George Brinton McClellan, and were opposed by 92,000 Confederates under Robert E Lee.

Robert Edward Lee was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia descended originally from an English settler, Richard Lee, who arrived in the colony in 1638, founding one of Virginia’s oldest families; his father was Henry Lee III, known as “Light Horse Harry”, a hero of the Revolutionary War. Lee attended West Point and graduated in 1829 second in his class; entering the Army Corps of Engineers as a second Lieutenant  the same year. After a successful career in the Engineers, he served with great distinction in the Mexican war as a Chief Aide to the expedition commander Gen Winfield Scott; he also met and served alongside the man who would one day be his battlefield nemesis – Ulysses Grant. In 1852 he became Superintendant of West Point, before earning promotion to deputy command of a Texas cavalry regiment, where he served under Albert Sidney Johnston, then a Colonel, fighting the Comanche and Apache; he also commanded the small force sent by President Buchannan in 1859 to apprehend John Brown at Harper’s Ferry after his failed attempt at fomenting a slave uprising.

Upon the outbreak of war the Lee family home was Arlington House (now Arlington National Cemetery) located just across the Potomac from the White House, its dome still then under construction. Initially accepting promotion to Colonel, Lee was an opponent of secession but, like many men of that time felt a greater loyalty to his state and had doubts about bearing arms against it should it secede. He initially rejected a post within the Confederate army, but on 18th April 1861 when offered promotion to Major General and command of the Washington defences, he rejected that also and resigned from the army two days later on hearing of the final decision of Virginia to secede. Three days later on the 23rd, he was offered, and accepted, command of the Virginia State forces.

His early service in the Confederate army was less than stellar – the defeat at the small battle of Cheat Mountain in Sept 1861 earned the derisive nickname in the press of “Granny Lee”; but by the time of the Peninsula campaign he had gained the confidence of President Davis who appointed him his Military Advisor; it was during this tenure that he supervised the construction of trench-works around Richmond – ridiculed by the press at the time, they were to play an important role in the latter stages of the Overland Campaign in the closing phases of the war.

After the shock defeat of the Union in the war’s first major battle, Lincoln dismissed it’s commander Irwin McDowell and introduced emergency legislation to recruit and equip and army of 500,000 for a period of three months. The forces around Washington were renamed the Army of the Potomac, with McClellan placed in command. A highly experienced officer who, just like Robert E Lee, had graduated from West Point second in his class and went on to serve in the Corps of Engineers during the Mexican war. After the conflict he went on to a peacetime career where, as a fluent French speaker, he was appointed official observer to the Crimean war and witnessed the siege of Sevastopol. After leaving the army, he enjoyed a highly successful career in business and held the post of Chief Engineer and Vice President of the Illinois Central Railroad company and was also president of the Ohio and Mississippi railroad. In addition, he developed his political connections during this period and was a noted supporter of Democrat candidate Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential campaign, won by Lincoln.

Although frequently criticised during the war as being overly cautious on the battlefield, there was no denying McClellan’s outstanding abilities as an administrator. He completely built up the Army of the Potomac from scratch turning it from a disorganised and defeated rabble after 1st Manassas into a well drilled and exceedingly well equipped force; plus he was hugely popular with his men, who dubbed him “little Napoleon”, a nickname he did nothing to discourage. This warm relationship however was not shared with Lincoln, whom he detested, regarding him as an upstart and rude mannered provincial lawyer hopelessly out of his depth in the White House – referring to him more than once as “the original gorilla”.

To break the deadlock that had set in on the eastern front, McClellan conceived an audacious plan to move the entire Army of the Potomac by sea down Chesapeake Bay to Fort Munroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, just 75 miles east of Richmond. Bounded to the north by the York river and to the south by the James river, the assault was intended to outflank the Confederate defences south of Washington and capture the rebel capital Richmond in a surprise attack. The Union force set sail from Alexandria, Virginia on 17th March 1862, just seven months after 1st Manassas, with 122,000 men and 15,000 horses, landing the following day at Fort Munroe and commencing the advance up the Peninsula on 4th April.

From the outset, the Union force was hampered by the excessive caution of its commander combined with wildly inaccurate intelligence as to the enemy. The US in the 1860’s possessed no professional military intelligence service and instead had to employ the Pinkerton Detective Agency in its place. The reports provided by the Pinkertons badly over-estimated the strength of the Confederate opposition; at the first engagements for instance, close to the old British defensive works around Yorktown, McClellan was informed that the enemy numbered at least 100,000, the same size as his own army – in reality there were barely 15,000 men manning the entrenchments.

As the Confederates, commanded by the experienced Joseph Eggleston Johnston, retreated up the Peninsula the first pitched battle occurred on 5th May close to Williamsburg, where 32,000 Confederates held off 41,000 Union troops for the cost of 4,000 casualties in total, before Johnston drew off, cautiously pursued by McClellan; with further clashes at West Point and Drewry’s Bluff; the port of Norfolk was also occupied on 10th May, the operation observed by President Lincoln, then on an inspection tour of the army’s progress.

As the Union army entered the thickly wooded valley of the Chickahominy river, swollen from the early spring rain, McClellan  soon discovered that not only were their own maps wholly inaccurate, showing rivers flowing in the wrong direction, but that no local maps of the area existed at all. Due to a decision to deploy on both sides of the river, his force was divided in two by the swollen river at the first major battle of the campaign, Fair Oaks Station (Seven Pines) just 5 miles east of Richmond, when Johnston attacked him on the 31st May. A three day battle ensued resulting in a stalemate, as McClellan withdrew from the vicinity of Richmond to re-group and relocate his supply base from White House to Harrison’s Landing, bringing the first phase of the campaign to a close. The confederates lost 6,000 casualties at Fair Oaks Station, but among them was Johnston himself, wounded by a stray bullet. His replacement, appointed a few days later, was Robert E Lee.

The stalemate after Fair Oaks Station lasted a month, while McClellan re-grouped and deployed his forces in an arc around the eastern side of Richmond, but still lying astride the flooded river, as he prepared for a siege, but Lee had other ideas. On the 10th June, he ordered a cavalry raid and reconnaissance in force by 1,200 troopers under Gen JEB Stuart.

James Ewell Brown (“JEB”) Stuart was Lee’s cavalry commander, and had a long personal association with his superior, going back to the early 1850’s, having known Lee socially before the war. He attended West Point during Lee’s superintendence of the Academy and earned several distinctions for his outstanding skills in horsemanship. Assigned to the cavalry after graduation he served with distinction on the western frontier and showed early leadership promise, soon achieving promotion to first Lieutenant and later Regimental Quartermaster. In 1857 he was wounded fighting against the Cheyenne, whilst serving under Edwin Sumner, then a Colonel, and in 1859 was one of the troopers serving under Robert E Lee when he captured John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. He defected to the  Confederates on the outbreak of war, and was soon promoted to Brig General, going on to serve in all the major campaigns of the Eastern theatre. Noted for the red-lined cape and wide felt hats adorned with an ostrich feather he habitually wore, Stuart cut a dashing figure, famed not only for his horsemanship but also his mastery of reconnaissance; although he was nonetheless thought by some subordinates to be a little too fond of showmanship and “military foppery “.

Stuart set out a few days later and conducted a circuitous ride by way of Hanover Courthouse, past Cold Harbor, White House, Charles City Crossroads and Malvern Hill, completing a circuit of McClellan’s huge army all the while raiding Union depots, destroying infrastructure, taking prisoners and generally disrupting McClellan’s carefully planned dispositions, pausing only to accept drinks and bouquets from admiring southern women. By one of those quirks of fate that crop up endlessly in the Civil War, the man assigned to pursue, and hopefully capture Stuart, was none other than Gen Philip St George Cooke, his own father in law. As with so many families in the Civil War, the conflict split them down the middle with members joining both sides. At the outbreak of war Cooke opted to fight for the Union, a decision that Stuart remarked he “would regret only once, but that would be continuously !”. Although the raid was of negligible value militarily as a piece of wartime propaganda it was a masterpiece, with Stuart returning to Richmond to a hero’s welcome.

The Seven Days battles began on the 25th June with a minor clash at Oak Grove, a small wooded area cut in two by the waters of White Oak Swamp and was the only offensive action McClellan took during the battles. Two Union divisions took part, one of them containing a brigade commanded by Gen Daniel Sickles, who would later famously defend the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg; the action was inconclusive leading to 1,100 casualties on both sides.

The main action began on the 26th of June when Lee attacked the northern flank of McClellan’s army at Mechanicsville, three miles northeast of Richmond. The original plan had been for the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah Valley led by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to outflank the Union position by an overnight march, but Jackson failed to arrive in time, resulting in a tactical Union victory with heavy Confederate casualties – but as was frequently the case with McClellan, he acted as if the battle had been a defeat, and withdrew his force to the southeast, surrendering the initiative to Lee, who never let it go from that point on.

As McClellan withdrew from the Mechanicsville area, with the rest of his huge force still deployed in an arc around Richmond, the two armies clashed again the following day, three miles to the east at the battle of Gaines Mill (Chickahominy) where 60,000 Confederates attacked a force of 35,000 entrenched close to the northern bank of the Chickahominy. As at Mechanicsville, confused orders led to the late arrival of Stonewall’s troops, allowing the Union force, led by Gen Fitz John Porter to escape to the southern bank, but at the cost of 7,000 casualties.

Although McClellan’s force was still largely uncommitted, and the small part that had been engaged had performed well, Lee’s aggressive move completely unnerved McClellan and he ordered a general retreat to the southeast with the intention of concentrating around the Union base at Harrisons Landing on the James river. On 29th June, McClellan’s force was located around Savage’s Station on the Richmond and York River railroad, preparing to retreat to the southeast around White Oak Swamp when Lee attacked again with a force of 14,000 led by Gen John Magruder against 26,000 union troops under Gen Edwin Sumner. Yet again, confused orders on both sides led to a disjointed action with only part of Magruder’s force deployed, and part of Sumner’s force withdrawn. The action is notable for the first use of an armoured railroad gun, a 32-pounder rifled Brooke naval gun mounted in a sloping iron casement and pushed by a locomotive. This fearsome weapon however, which far outclassed anything the Union force possessed, was insufficient to overcome the Confederates numerical disadvantage, and the action ended in a bloody stalemate with 1,500 casualties, plus 2,500 Union wounded left behind as McClellan’s force withdrew again after the battle.

The following day, 30th June, with McClellan’s army now safely to the south of White Oak Swamp, Lee attacked again, but this time with a much bigger force. Ten miles southeast of Richmond, at the battle of Glendale (known also as Frayser’s Farm or Charles City Crossroads), he deployed 45,000 against 40,000 Union men. As with so many of Lee’s plans in the Seven Days, his orders were misunderstood, misread and in some cases simply ignored by his subordinates, resulting in a uncoordinated and disjointed battle, with units committed piecemeal to the fight, that ended in a bloody stalemate with 7,500 casualties on both sides. Yet again, although McClellan had succeeded in repulsing Lee and keeping his army intact, he treated the engagement as if it had been a defeat and continued his withdrawal to the south.

The final, and largest, battle of the Seven Days took place on 1st of July just three miles south of the Glendale battlefield where 55,000 Union troops had taken up a fortified position on the north bank of the James river, and were attacked by an equal number of Confederates at the battle of Malvern Hill (known also as Poindexter’s Farm). Lee’s complex plans to defeat the Union force were yet again poorly executed by his subordinates who also came up against a fearsome artillery barrage from the Union guns massed on the hill, supplemented by 50-pounder shells fired by three river gunboats; a feature of the conflict, virtually from the outset, was that the Confederates possessed better infantry, but the Union had far the better artillery. Despite this, Lee’s troops closed to within 200 yards of the Union centre, but by nightfall had been badly repulsed with 6,000 casualties, allowing McClellan to withdraw again to his base at Harrison’s Landing three miles to the southeast.

McClellan now established a strongly fortified base on the James river and Lee declined to renew the attack, retreating instead to the defences of Richmond. A golden opportunity to end the war in its second year had been wasted, and shortly afterwards the entire Union force was withdrawn, to be re-deployed south of Washington to reinforce the newly assembled Army of Virginia under Gen John Pope. President and General blamed each other for the defeat, with Lincoln accusing McClellan of caution bordering on cowardice and McClellan blaming Lincoln for failing to reinforce him against an enemy that he still believed to be twice the size of his own army. Northern morale plummeted after the embarrassing defeat, whilst southern morale skyrocketed, despite the clumsy performances of many of Lee’s subordinates, whilst Lee himself was now raised to the status of a military genius in the eyes of many. McClellan, for his part, would retain command of the Army of the Potomac, but was not retained in his other role, General in Chief of the Union forces, into which Lincoln promoted Gen Henry Halleck without consulting, or even notifying McClellan.

“Fremantle”

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Second Manassas and Sharpsburg

President Abraham Lincoln and General George Brinton McClellan

Ten Biggest Battles of the Civil War (table)

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

Second Manassas and Sharpsburg (map)

The second battle of Manassas (2nd Bull Run) on 28th to 30th Aug, fought over substantially the same ground as the war’s first battle, was the largest engagement of the Northern Virginia campaign of the eastern theatre of the Civil War which lasted from mid July to early September of 1862. In total the Union deployed the 78,000 troops of the newly formed Union  Army of Virginia under Gen John Pope, who were opposed by 50,000 men of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E Lee. The campaign is considered as a resounding Confederate victory.

The Army of Virginia had been established by Washington on 26th June 1862, the same day as Lee’s attack at Mechanicsville that began the Seven Days, with Gen John Pope appointed as its commander. Pope was a Mexican war veteran, who had also had a peacetime army career as a topographical engineer. At the outbreak of war he was assigned to the western theatre and despite a personality regarded as prickly and prone to bragging by his subordinates, he enjoyed the confidence of his commanding officer Gen Henry Halleck and led a number of successful actions. As commander of Union Army of the Mississippi, in Feb 1862, he was tasked with clearing Confederate obstacles from the river and as part of the campaign captured the rebel stronghold of New Madrid, Missouri in a surprise attack, then went on to capture the fortress of Island No. 10 on the Kentucky Bend of the great river, taking 12,000 prisoners and opening navigation of the river as far south as Memphis, Tennessee to the Union. For this success, Halleck promoted Pope to Maj Gen and placed him in command of one wing of his own army, then besieging Corinth, Mississippi, when Pope was summoned to Washington to be placed in command of the Army of Virginia.

After the embarrassing defeat of the Peninsula campaign, Lincoln had turned to Pope as a man more inclined to offensive intent than the over-cautious McClellan and tasked him with the defence of Washington and the Shenandoah Valley as well cutting the strategic Virginia Railroad connecting Gordonsville and Lynchburg in order to draw Lee out from the defences of Richmond. Campaigning in the Shenandoah had been in progress for 6 months, with the Confederate forces under the command of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a former mathematics professor. Despite his poor performance in the Seven Days, Jackson had enjoyed huge success in the Shenandoah, where his small force of 17,000 had defended the rich farmlands from three separate Union armies, each larger than his own, totalling  more than 53,000 men. At the battles of Kernstown, Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic Jackson’s tiny force had consistently out-fought, out-marched and out-thought the Union forces, inflicting many casualties and stealing so many supplies from the enemy that the commander of the largest Union force, the hapless Gen Nathaniel Banks, was known to the rebel troops as “Quartermaster Banks”.

From an early point in the campaign, Pope showed that he had very different ideas on the prosecution of war from McClellan, believing that the consequences of rebellion should be brought home to civilians found to be aiding or sympathetic to the rebels. He ordered that any house from which shots were fired at Union troops be burned and its occupants taken as POW’s and that his officers be given licence to arrest any male civilian they considered “disloyal”. In addition he ordered that his army subsist from the land when in rebel areas, handing over worthless vouchers in payment, a system that rapidly degenerated into a licence for theft by his men. This caused outrage in the South where the press dubbed him “Miscreant Pope”.

Pope opened the campaign by concentrating his forces near Cedar Mountain, preparing to attack Gordonsville, while Jackson marched from the Valley and attempted to interdict him by occupying Culpepper Courthouse and Lee prepared to take the Army of Northern Virginia north from the defences of Richmond to confront Pope. On the 9th Aug at the battle of Cedar Mountain, 16,000 confederates under Jackson met and defeated 8,000 Union men under Banks, inflicting 2,400 casualties, but had to withdraw to Gordonsville after Pope brought up his main force. On Aug 13th, upon hearing that McClellan was evacuating his force from Harrison’s landing, Lee made his move and advanced to the Rappahannock river in the hope of confronting Pope before McClellan could reinforce him.

As Pope moved south along the Orange and Alexandria railroad to confront Lee, resulting in a series of inconclusive skirmishes around Rappahannock Station, Stonewall succeeded in getting behind Pope’s force and on 27th Aug captured and destroyed the gigantic Union supply depot at Manassas Junction, causing Pope to abruptly disengage and move north to confront him. The following day, the 28th Aug, one whole wing of Lee’s army under Gen James Longstreet, 28,000 strong, attacked the small Union of force of 5,000 guarding Thoroughfare Gap, scattering them and allowing Longstreet to reinforce Stonewall – with dire consequences for Pope as he had now allowed two significant portions of Lee’s army to unite against him.

Two days later, Stonewall made an attempt to lure Pope into battle by attacking part of his army along the Warrenton Turnpike, about two miles to the west of the stone bridge over Bull Run, where the war’s first battle had been fought. As Pope brought up his main force, 62,000 strong, Longstreet approached from Thoroughfare Gap and brought the Confederate force to 50,000 setting the scene for the 2nd battle of Manassas (2nd Bull Run). Jackson deployed along an unfinished railway embankment and prepared for the attack. Unaware of how close Longstreet was, Pope was convinced he had trapped Jackson and launched an assault against the embankment, with heavy losses on both sides. As Longstreet arrived early the afternoon, he threw his 25,000 men against the Union forces recovering from the morning assault against Jackson and sent them reeling back across the old 1st Manassas battlefield and over Bull Run where they established fresh defensive positions. The Union lost 10,000 casualties, against just 1,300 Confederate – a crushing Confederate victory.

Pope withdrew his force to the northeast, concentrating around Centreville, but by Aug 31st, he had lost his nerve and decided to withdraw his army to the defences of Washington until directly ordered by Halleck to attack. Lee however had plans of his own, and on 1st September sent Stonewall and 20,000 men against a force of 8,000 Union men at the battle of Chantilly inflicting 1,500 casualties – including the two Union divisional commanders Philip Kearney and Isaac Stevens who were both killed. This brought to a close the disastrous Northern Virginia campaign, with Pope withdrawing to the defences of Washington under virtual siege. The campaign had cost the Union 16,000 casualties out of 78,000 engaged against 9,000 Confederate out of about 50,000 engaged. Union morale plummeted further after the disaster , whilst Lee’s reputation as a military genius was cemented. Modern scholarship regards the Northern Virginia Campaign as Lee’s finest achievement. Pope was removed from command shortly afterwards, and spent the remainder of the war on the western frontier, out of harm’s way.

Whilst the Union armies failed in the field, Lincoln had political problems of his own. Although an avowed opponent of slavery, he was also a realist. His principal war aim was to re-establish the Union; a precipitous move against slavery might damage the southern economy, but would have dire consequences for his own side too – “I would do it, if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms and three more states would rise” he said. Nonetheless, in June 1862, on the eve of the Seven Days, Congress, now controlled by the Republicans, outlawed slavery in the western territories, settling the principal issue that had triggered secession in the first place. Lincoln took a secret decision to emancipate all slaves in rebel held areas, believing that such a proclamation would extinguish any remaining support for the Confederacy in Europe, particularly Britain and France. He was persuaded however by his wily Secretary of State William Seward to avoid any public announcement until better news arrived from the battlefield. Unfortunately for Lincoln, there was worse to come. In the western theatre, Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had re-invaded Kentucky and attempted to establish a pro-Confederate government at Lexington. Meanwhile Lee, emboldened by his recent success, went on the offensive.

On the 3rd Sept, two days after the Confederate victory at Chantilly , Robert E Lee notified President Davis in Richmond that he intended to invade Maryland and attempt to raise the state for the Confederacy, then capture the rail centre at Harrisburg. The following day 40,000 troops crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford, near Leesburg, into Maryland and headed for the town of Frederick. A Maryland woman watched Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as they passed – “… the dirtiest men I ever saw … a most ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves. Yet there was a dash about them that our Northern men lacked.”; whilst another wrote “This body of men moved with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two men dressed alike, the officers hardly distinguishable from the privates … were these the men who had defeated again and again our splendid legions ?”.

Desperate to get the Army of the Potomac back into the field Lincoln reluctantly turned again to McClellan to take the lead, reasoning that if anyone could get the army back on  its feet again, it was him. The decision was highly controversial however and caused a split in Lincoln’s cabinet, the majority signing a petition opposing the decision; Lincoln, always the pragmatist, felt that he had no choice saying “we must use the tools that we have”.

Despite having only 55,000 men at his disposal, against 90,000 available to McClellan, Lee defied military convention, as he did many times in his career, and split his force by detaching Stonewall to attack the Union ammunition depot at Harper’s Ferry, where in 1858 Lee himself had captured the anti-slavery campaigner John Brown. Deploying 30,000 against just 13,000 defending the town, Jackson forced their surrender after a three day siege, the largest Union surrender of the war. Lee meanwhile had concentrated his remaining force at Hagerstown, 20 miles to the north.

McClellan meanwhile, who had assumed that Lee’s objective must be to swing around to the east and threaten Washington, and was pursuing with his usual excess of caution, was handed the most extraordinary piece of luck. On 13th of September, as Jackson was besieging Harper’s Ferry, the Union commander was handed a piece of paper, found by one of his men in a field near Frederick used by the Confederates as a camp a few days earlier. The paper was wrapped round three cigars, but when opened and read, turned out to be a copy of Lee’s battle plan. At a stroke, McClellan now knew where Lee was headed and that he had split his force into two. “Here is a paper .. “ he told his men “with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home …”. A similar enthusiastic message was sent to Lincoln promising that he would “send trophies”. Typically for McClellan however, he did nothing for a whole day before finally making his move.

On the 16th of September, Lee with 18,000 of his men, took up defensive positions along a three mile ridge, a few miles to the east of the small town of Sharpsburg, and overlooking a small stream called Antietam Creek. Writing after the war, Lee’s subordinate Gen James Longstreet recalled the day “ … the blue uniforms of the Federals appeared among the trees crowning the heights on the eastern bank of Antietam Creek. The number increased and larger and larger grew the field of blue until it seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see …”. McClellan had brought his main force, 90,000 strong, against Lee’s tiny, divided army. “There was but a single item in our advantage” one of Lee’s aides remembered “ … but it was an important one. McClellan brought superior forces to Sharpsburg, but he also brought himself …”.

Had McClellan hurled his force across the creek that day, the war would have ended there and then, but he did not attack until the following day, believing that he had a least 100,000 men opposing him, giving Lee the chance to order Jackson to force march through the night from Harper’s Ferry and also to call up further troops under Gen Ambrose Powell Hill stationed at Botelers Ford, who would arrive mid way through the following day, more than doubling Lee’s force.

The battle commenced the following morning with an attack against Stonewall’s corps, at the northern end of the Confederate line, with an assault by 9,000 men of Gen Joseph’s Hooker’s corps along the Hagerstown turnpike towards a plateau on which sat a small whitewashed German Baptist chapel named Dunker Church. Seeing the Confederates massed in a cornfield ahead of them, an artillery duel ensued followed by a ferocious hand-to-hand fight in the cornfield before Confederate reinforcements arrived and a back-and- forth duel ensued that lasted all morning and ended in a bloody stalemate. At midday action shifted to the centre of the Confederate line, where 2,500 rebels held a sunken lane against twice that number of Union troops, as another hand to hand fight developed and each side threw in reinforcements until another stalemate ensued.

The final action of the day occurred in the southern section of the battlefield, where Gen Ambrose Burnside and 12,500 men had been ordered to stage a diversionary attack across the creek to coincide with the morning assault in the north, but due to confused orders, Burnside started his attack late. Immediately in front of Burnside’s position was a stone bridge over Antietam Creek, beyond which a small force of Confederate sharpshooters and a few artillery pieces were hiding in woods on a hill overlooking the bridge. Burnside appears not to have known that the creek was only waist deep and could have been forded with ease, instead funnelling his men across the bridge, where the rebels picked them off at will, causing heavy casualties. Eventually, after three separate assaults, sheer weight of numbers told, and the bridge was crossed and the Confederates were pushed back into the town, until AP Hill’s force arrived on the battlefield in the nick of time and stemmed the Union advance. By 18:00 the fighting had died down and Lee’s battered force re-grouped for the final assault that must come the next day – but it never did. McClellan, still convinced that he was outnumbered paused himself and allowed Lee to escape to the south, back across the Potomac. Desperate pleas from Washington to pursue Lee’s broken army were ignored as they “would not be prudent”.

Sharpsburg had 22,800 casualties, not only the single bloodiest day in the civil war, but the single bloodiest day in all US history, before or since. Lincoln held McClellan solely responsible for a stalemate that should have been a decisive victory – despite the huge odds in his favour his excessive caution meant that fully one third of the Union force never fired a shot. Lincoln sacked McClellan, who took no further part in military operations for the remainder of the war. In 1864, he secured the Democrat nomination for the presidential election of that year to stand against him  – a battle which he also lost.

Although a disaster in many ways, Sharpsburg came to be regarded a turning point in the war. It wasn’t the victory that Lincoln was looking for, but it was as much as he was going to get; on 22nd September he issued the Emancipation Proclamation – finally ending any thought in the minds of the British or French governments of any intervention in the war in favour of the Confederacy.

“Fremantle”

 

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War

The largest battles of the civil war where approximately the same size as Waterloo (about 200,000), but that doesn’t even make it into the top ten European  battles of the century. The major clashes of the Napoleonic wars and the Franco-Prussian war were all significantly larger than any battle in the American Civil war. The battle of  Sadowa (Königgrätz)  for instance, the decisive engagement of the Austro-Prussian war fought less than a year after the Civil War had 430,000 combatants; that makes it bigger than the Seven Days and Chancellorsville put together. The conflict’s best known battle, Gettysburg, had 170,000 combatants and so was the same size as Austerlitz – although Gettysburg lasted longer, three days whereas Bonaparte needed only eight hours to annihilate Kutuzov in 1805.

Ten Biggest Battles of the Civil War

Location Year Troops Loss % Result
The Seven Days, VA 1862 196,000 18.4% CS Victory
Chancellorsville, VA 1863 195,000 15.5% CS Victory
Fredericksburg, VA 1862 188,000 9.5% CS Victory
Cold Harbor, VA 1864 167,000 10.4% CS Victory
Gettysburg, PA 1863 166,000 27.7% US Victory
Wilderness, VA 1864 163,000 17.6% Draw
Spotsylvania CH, VA 1864 152,000 20.9% Draw
Chickamauga, GA 1863 130,000 27.2% CS Victory
Sharpsburg, MD 1862 114,000 19.9% Draw
2nd Manassas, VA 1862 112,000 16.3% CS Victory

Ive classified the battles by the total number of combatants, and while this is a reasonable enough guide, it can sometimes be misleading. For instance the Siege of Corinth, Mississippi in 1862 had 185,000 combatants, which would have made it fourth on this list, but the majority of these never fired a shot and consequently the casualties were very small (about 1,000 on each side). Ive only included battles were the majority of the forces deployed were actually engaged. Therefore battles like Resaca, Georgia in 1864 and Yorktown, Virginia in 1862 which would have been seventh and eighth on this list, and 3rd Petersburg (tenth) have also been excluded.

Ten Bloodiest Battles by Attrition Rate

Battle Year Combatants Attrition % Outcome
2nd Murfreesboro (Stones River), TN 1863

76,000

32.89%

US Victory
Gettysburg, PA 1863

166,000

27.71%

US Victory
Chickamauga, GA 1863

130,000

27.15%

CS Victory
Shiloh, TN 1862

112,000

21.07%

US Victory
Spotsylvania Courthouse, VA 1864

155,000

20.86%

US Victory
Perryville, KY 1862

38,000

20.00%

CS Victory
Fort Steadman, VA 1865

25,000

20.00%

US Victory
Sharpsburg (Antietam), MD 1862

114,000

19.91%

Draw
Wilderness, Virginia 1864

163,000

17.55%

Draw
3rd Winchester (Opequon), VA 1864

52,000

16.54%

US Victory

This table shows the ten costliest battles by attrition rate, that is total casualties / total combatants. Ive excluded sieges and other battles where there were instances of mass surrender, ie where most of the “casulaties” were POW’s. Therefore Grant’s victories at Fort Donaldson and Vicksburg, and Stonewall’s capture of Harper’s Ferry are all excluded. On this measure, Rosecran’s victory over Bragg at 2nd Murfreesboro was the costliest battle on this measure, with nearly a third of those engaged as casualties; with Gettysburg and Chickamauga not far behind.

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John