Archive for January 2012
I will begin this blog entry with a warning to readers: I despise George Brinton McClellan more than any other historical figure of the Civil War era. He represents everything I detest in people, in general, but even more so in a military professional. McClellan was an imperious, obstinate, arrogant, pseudo-intellectual patrician who saw almost everyone as his inferior. He trusted no one, could not delegate authority, had a massive ego, and a messianic complex that allowed him to see himself as the sole savior of the republic. He was also a class-conscious prig, who considered his commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, as his social and intellectual inferior, and clearly unqualified for any national leadership role. He identified with the Southern aristocracy that led the rebellion against the government and, as a result, wanted a war that was limited, that respected property, including slaves, and that sought merely to restore the Union without inflicting emancipation, which he considered equal to inciting servile insurrection. Therefore, if you are seeking an objective opinion of the man, you would be wise to go elsewhere.
From that description, one might think McClellan would make an excellent subject for psychological analysis, and, indeed, he probably would. McClellan had issues with authority figures from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. He clashed with teachers, his West Point instructors, commanding officers, and even his bosses while working in the railroad business. He saw enemies everywhere, and anyone who disagreed with his wisdom was instantly labeled as evil, as a foe to be vanquished. However, McClellan was not without incredible professional talents. He had remarkable energy and focus, and could organize and train an army like no other general during the Civil War. But, of course, that was not enough to achieve military success.
He also possessed a remarkable and powerful intellect, but it was one that was purely linear. As a result, he tended to make snap judgments and refused to adapt when events changed conditions or proved his initial decisions to be erroneous. This characteristic also led him to see dangers everywhere, to become timid in battle, and always overestimate the strength of the enemy. This latter aspect dominated his command of the Army of the Potomac and caused him to be overly cautious, passive, and defensive. Lincoln once characterized McClellan as having a case of the “slows” and that was being kind. This malady was a product of McClellan’s constant obsessive belief in the strength of the Confederate army before him. He would overestimate their numbers by orders of magnitude and insist he could not move forward without more troops and resources. But, what he was actually doing was setting the stage for either a brilliant victory or a defeat that was someone else’s fault.
This can be clearly seen in his reports on the Seven Days Battles in 1862. Before the beginning of the first battle at Fair Oaks, he insisted that his army of 130,000 men was outnumbered almost two to one, when, in fact, he faced only about 50,000 of the enemy. Following a successful battle, he overstated the brilliance of the victory and claimed results that were, frankly, utterly dishonest. However, when the newly appointed Southern commander, Robert E. Lee, counterattacked and took the offensive, McClellan began to blame the Lincoln administration for his defeats—defeats that were only losses because he withdrew in the face of inferior numbers. Worse, as the fighting continued, McClellan withdrew from command as well, letting his subordinates attempt to coordinate the army’s actions on the field. Meanwhile, he focused on making a successful retreat and upon shifting his line of supply from the York to the James River, an act he would later proclaim as one of the most brilliant in the annals of military history. Meanwhile, he failed to defeat the enemy. However, in his mind, that was the result of poor support and a numerically superior enemy.
McClellan also fought a near constant battle with Abraham Lincoln, whom he told his wife, Ellen, was “the original Gorilla.” McClellan considered Lincoln to be a fool, a man ill-suited to lead. His arrogance did not allow him to see that, while his own mind worked on a basis of linear thinking, Lincoln possessed an incredibly multidimensional intellect. As a result, McClellan thought he would always be able to outthink and outmaneuver his commander-in-chief. Instead, Lincoln quickly surpassed him in terms of both strategic thinking and political prowess. Still, as McClellan sat on the banks of the James River, cowering before Lee and his army, he wrote a policy paper on the conduct of the war, which he placed in the President’s hand during a visit by Lincoln to the Army of the Potomac.
McClellan’s policy proposal, which he assured his wife would “save the nation,” called for a polite war, a restricted war, one only intended to defeat the Confederate armies in the field and make the Southern leadership see the errors of their way. There was to be no subjugation of the Southern people, no confiscation of property, and, above all, no emancipation of the slaves. McClellan was particularly pointed on the latter, stating, “A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.” In saying this, McClellan was not only demonstrating his sympathies for the Southern aristocracy, he also was showing that he did not recognize the rapidly changing dynamics of the conflict.
Following the disaster on the Virginia Peninsula, McClellan would quickly reorganize the Army of the Potomac and lead it forward in pursuit of Lee as the Confederate general invaded Maryland. Many had called for him to be sacked following the Peninsula Campaign but, with the defeat of John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia at Second Manassas, Lincoln could see that, once again, he badly needed McClellan’s administrative and organizational skills to repair the army and return it to fighting condition. So, he would give him one more chance.
McClellan would fail to deliver once more, although not as painfully as he had at the gates of Richmond. At Antietam, he faced a cornered, desperate Confederate army, badly outnumbered by Federal forces. However, once again, McClellan saw a nonexistent host of enemy forces and certain disaster at every turn. He believed Lee to have better than twice his actual strength and, at a crucial moment of the battle when his plan produced a desired situation, he hesitated. Lee’s entire center was open, utterly vulnerable to an attack that would split his battered forces in two. All McClellan had to do was launch an attack with a fresh reserve corps and Lee would be smashed. However, General John Fitz-Porter, a McClellan disciple, whispered to him that to do so would require committing the last remaining corps in the army to battle. McClellan quickly changed his mind, hoping instead that some other success might come without sending in his last reserves. That success did not manifest itself, as Lee was saved by the last minute arrival of A.P. Hill’s division on the field. McClellan would not renew the battle the next day, and Lee would slip across the Potomac into the safety of Virginia.
Lincoln’s attempts to prod McClellan into a pursuit failed, even weeks after the battle. However, ironically, McClellan’s bloody draw at Antietam allowed the president to issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, an action bitterly opposed by McClellan. It was now clear to everyone that McClellan could no longer be allowed to command the army or, in fact, serve anywhere in it. He was relieved on command and returned to civilian life. His last hurrah was his attempt to unseat Lincoln as President of the United Sates in the elections of 1864. Unfortunately for him, his plank calling for a peaceful reconciliation with the Confederacy did not ring true with either the voters of the North or the men serving in the army he once commanded. He was soundly defeated at the polls and disappeared into history.
But, I will end this essay by adding a few positive notes on the career of George McClellan. First, McClellan cared for his men, fed them and equipped them well. As a result, he was dearly loved by the soldiers he led in the Army of the Potomac, who lovingly referred to him as “Little Mac.” However, he cared for his men too much, perhaps, and could not bring himself to employ what Lincoln later called “the awful arithmetic” of war. Still, McClellan did leave us one truly positive legacy: Through his obstinate, arrogant, and insubordinate nature, he forced Abraham Lincoln to turn his considerable intellect toward the study of war. Almost singlehandedly, George McClellan caused Lincoln to see that war must not only be fought with vigor, with tenacity, and that it must have a moral basis in emancipation and “a new birth of freedom.” He also led Lincoln to see the true role of the Commander-in-Chief, which caused the President to eventually find the kind of general he needed to win the war and restore the nation whole.
So, perhaps, we actually owe him a somewhat perverse debt of gratitude.
I thought it might be interesting to write a series of what I will call “command profiles,” essays in which I will try to analyze some of the men placed in command positions during the Civil War. While these will certainly contain some biographic information, my intent is not to merely provide biographies. Rather, I want to see if I can give the reader a brief analysis of these men in terms of their abilities as commanders in the field. Each had his talents and his own limitations, and only the experience of war would bring either to light. Some of the men I will examine are household names, but many will be men known only to those who have studied the war closely, and they are, perhaps, the most interesting commanders of all.
This first entry in the series looks at Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill, who served in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Students of the war know Hill well, but he is generally unknown to most of the American public. Hill belongs to a small, unique group in Lee’s army that also includes Jubal Early and Richard Ewell. All three men might be referred to as a “characters” because, while they all played pivotal roles in Lee’s army, at the same time, each possessed interesting personality traits, some of which adversely impacted their ability to perform as commanders. As a result, each man would perform brilliantly on occasion, but then be just as prone to utter and seemingly inexplicable mediocrity.
In any case, despite solid or even brilliant performances, in the eyes of the public and historians alike, neither Hill, Early, nor Ewell would ever share the stature of lee’s other, more noteworthy commanders, such as Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, or even Jeb Stuart. Ironically, all three served under Jackson, and that may explain some of their lack of historical recognition. Perhaps because they were subordinates to the legendary Stonewall, they have always been seen as unworthy successors who simply never measured up to either the public’s or history’s standards and, thus, always remain in Jackson’s somewhat immense shadow.
A.P. Hill’s resume includes a solid Virginia lineage, West Point education, and the usual service pattern of an engineer in the pre-war Army. He served in Mexico as a young officer and performed capably, but not brilliantly, under fire. As the Civil War approached, he found himself an anti-slavery secessionist who supported Virginia’s secession purely from a state rights point of view. Like other former professional soldiers in the Confederate armies, Hill made a rapid ascent up the chain of command. A regiment commander at First Manassas, he was a brigade commander by April 1862 and a division commander only a month later.
During this rise, he demonstrated all the traits one would expect from a professional and desire in a field commander—he was organized, took care of his men, never risked them unnecessarily, had initiative, was courageous, and handled his troops well under fire. After all, in what was perhaps the zenith of his military career, it was Hill who led his division on a forced march from Harper’s Ferry to the battle field at Antietam, arriving just in time to stop Burnside’s attack on the Confederate right and save Lee’s army from potential disaster.
However, both before and after Antietam, A.P. Hill also demonstrated the personality traits that would limit his abilities as a commander. While Hill was seemingly placid on the surface, he apparently teemed with temper and emotion inside. He had a disturbing tendency to be intemperate, impatient, and impetuous, and, as a result, he would occasionally take actions that were described as “imprudent.” Lee got his first taste of this at Mechanicsville during the Seven Days Battles of late June 1862. Here, Hill attacked McClellan’s right wing without orders to do so, while Lee was trying to avoid a fight through maneuver. Hill recovered his reputation in Lee’s eyes with outstanding performances during that same series of battles at Gaines’ Mill and Frayser’s Farm, but he ran afoul of Longstreet over articles concerning the latter battle, which were published in a newspaper whose editor was a former member of Hill’s staff. Hill was placed under arrest by Longstreet in the first of what be a series of squabbles between Hill and the officers he served.
Hill’s request that he be removed from Longstreet’s command was granted when Lee transferred him and his Light Division to Jackson’s corps. For Hill, this would be truly a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” While Hill knew Jackson from his cadet days at West Point and service in Mexico, the two feuded from the outset. Despite the fact that Jackson respected Hill’s fighting abilities, he would not tolerate his tendency to either loosely interpret orders or rigorously follow only certain commands. For his part, Hill chafed under Jackson’s secretiveness and uncommunicative nature. In addition, while Hill may have been impetuous, he still believed in order and organization, two things he either did not see in Jackson’s way of doing things or which, were seemingly never evident due to Jackson’s habit of not revealing his plans to his subordinate commanders.
Therefore, if Jackson’s orders appeared incomplete, Hill would take the initiative and operate based on his own judgment, which Jackson saw as insubordinate and which resulted in a series of charges against Hill. Perhaps the worst insult for Hill came on the march to Maryland, when Jackson ordered Hill to march at the rear of his division because he had not observed Jackson’s orders to rest his men ten minutes out of every hour. The feud was so bad that even Hill’s legendary performance at Antietam and Lee’s personal intervention could not stop the two generals from their quarreling. Jackson and Hill both continued to stoke the fire between them and only Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville ended the squabbling.
With Jackson’s death, Lee reorganized his army and established a new 3rd Corps under Hill’s command. From that point forward, one gets a general sense that, as a corps commander, Hill had probably exceeded his own capabilities. His performance as a corps commander became one more of mediocrity than of either brilliance or incompetence. In other words, it is not that Hill caused noteworthy disasters but more that he and his corps cannot be found delivering the smashing offensive blows that his division was once known for.
In his first action as corps commander at Gettysburg, it was elements of his corps that stumbled into John Buford’s cavalry and, eventually, the Union I Corps west of Gettysburg. While some criticized him for allowing the large-scale engagement to occur contrary to Lee’s orders and point to it as an another example of his imprudence, Hill was simply operating based upon the intelligence he and Lee had been provided, which indicated the Army of the Potomac was not yet in the vicinity. As the fighting started, Hill was not on the scene and his men went in slowly, developing the battle at a snail’s pace because they did not know what was in front of them. Eventually, they would put enough forces on the field to send the I Corps retreating back through Gettysburg, but at great cost. Once the battle was fully underway on July 2 and 3, Hill and his corps sank into obscurity and were simply not a factor. Again, some have said this was evidence that Lee had no confidence in Hill or that Hill was not yet able to grasp the role of corps commander. However, this probably was not Hill’s fault. In reality, some of his divisions were badly beat up on the first day and, as a result, Lee kept his men in reserve or called upon divisions and brigades piecemeal to support either Ewell or Longstreet. Therefore, he had no opportunity to really prove himself.
On the other hand, however, from Gettysburg until his death at Petersburg in April 1865, Hill performed adequately but never with brilliance. The sole exception, unfortunately, was the disaster at Bristoe Station, where his impetuous and impatient manner caught up with him. His ill advised attack cost thousands of lives and probably only the good graces of Robert E. Lee prevented him from being relieved of command. Had Hill lived to see the post-war years, perhaps he could have resurrected his career and, like others, written his own version of events, made his accomplishments seem greater than they might have been, and successfully emerged from Stonewall Jackson’s shadow.
I thought that I might stay on the topic of events that happened “on the margins of the war” and tell you a story closer to home for me. As a native-born Texan, any topic related to that state and the Civil War holds some fascination for me. Texas was referred to by one wartime Southern diarist as “the dark corner of the Confederacy” and this event certainly supports that view. At the same time, it is yet another tragic example of war’s inhumanity, especially when one lives on the margins of the war.
As I wrote earlier in an essay on Sam Houston’s fight against secession, Texas was totally unlike the rest of the Confederacy. Texas was a land of tremendous diversity, with a vast, isolated and uncivilized frontier region, which was constantly under the threat of attack by hostile Indian tribes. To be certain, Texas had seen remarkable changes in the years since its revolution against Mexico in 1836. Cities had sprung up where there was once nothing, plantations and farms had overtaken empty prairie land, and even railroads had begun to appear. But, it was also still a rugged and untamed place. However, what truly set Texas apart from the rest of the South was the presence of thousands of foreign immigrants.
Most notable among these recent arrivals to the state were the Germans. By 1860, nearly 10 percent of the state’s population was foreign born, consisting primarily of former Mexican and German citizens. In fact, of the 70,000 Germans living in the eleven states that would make up the Confederacy, nearly 30,000 lived in Texas, where they made up 7.5 percent of the free white population. Most of the Germans settled in the frontier region of the state, west and northwest of San Antonio in what is still referred to as the “Hill Country” region. Here, they established prosperous communities, such as Fredericksburg and Comfort, and cleared the rocky soil for their small farms.
However, with the arrival of the secession crisis of 1861, most Texans of German heritage found themselves aligned with Governor Sam Houston in opposing secession, and some of the heavily German populated counties would cast 95 percent of their votes against leaving the Union. Unfortunately for them, this would put them opposite most of their fellow Texans, and make them the targets of suspicion and open hatred once the state seceded.
The reasons these German immigrants voted against secession are fairly simple. First, the overwhelming majority of the German population did not believe in slavery, opposing it primarily for moral and religious reasons. They agreed with Governor Houston that the East Texas leaders of the state’s secession movement were primarily motivated by their desire to maintain the institution. However, they also remained Unionists because they were proud of their new citizenship and, unlike Texans from other states, they saw themselves more as Americans than merely Texans. Finally, the isolated German settlements and farms of West Texas were constantly under the threat of attack from marauding Comanches, who controlled virtually all the land west of the Pecos and Concho Rivers, as well as the Kiowas and Lipan-Apaches. As a result, the United States Government, in the form of the U.S. Army, played an important role in the lives of these Texans. First, the soldiers provided protection from the Indians, although, at times, with limited effectiveness. In addition, the forts that stretched along the borders of the western counties also provided a vital market for the farmers of the region who could sell their surplus grain, flour, and meat to the Army. Thus, the U.S. Army, which symbolized the Union to these Texans, became a crucial part of survival, and, therefore, the Union was not simply an abstract concept to the German population.
With the coming of the war and the withdrawal of the U.S. Army, the state’s government maintained a close watch on the Unionist counties of West Texas. Initially, the German populace managed to keep a low profile, but the beginning of mandatory conscription in 1862 changed that. The Confederacy’s conscription law required all males between 18 and 35 years of age to volunteer for, pledge allegiance to, and serve in, the Confederate States Army. The law was unpopular in all Southern states and it was violently opposed in Texas, so much so that, in May, 1862, the commander of the Confederate Military Department of Texas, put the entire state under martial law and appointed provost marshals to administer conscription. The administration of the law became “ruthless” and particularly so in the Hill Country.
Governor Lubbock appointed Colonel James Duff to enforce martial law in the Hill Country and he did so with brutal efficiency. Before the war, Duff had served in the U.S. Army, but was court-martialed and discharged. Quick to enlist in the new Confederate government of the state, Duff was a ruthless man who enforced martial law with a reign of terror. He employed nightriders who traveled the back roads of the Hill Country, terrorizing residents and even hanging numerous Germans on the mere suspicion of harboring pro-Union sentiments, then burning their crops and homes. One soldier, who served under Duff, would write, “Duff, in the preparation of his infamy, believed in hanging Union men as the best way of converting Union men to the true faith.”
The German populace did not lie down and simply take these actions. In Gillespie County, they secretly organized a defense organization, the Union Loyal League. The League’s purpose was to fight Confederate conscription and attempt to maintain Union loyalty within the Hill Country German communities. In response, the state’s Confederate military department declared Gillespie, Kerr, Kendall, Medina, and Bexar Counties, where the German protests were the strongest, to be “in open rebellion” and, in effect, declared war on them.
Fredericksburg was actually occupied by Duff’s troops. Duff declared himself provost, then stated in a letter, “The God **** Dutchmen are Unionists to a man…I will hang all I suspect of being anti-Confederates.” Hangings were, in fact, frequent. Letters from German residents of Fredericksburg attest that many of them would leave their homes at sundown and hide in the surrounding woods in fear of raiding Anglo “guerrillas,” or Die Haengerbaende, “the hanging band”, who rode up in the night, snatched young men from their beds, hanged their parents, and burned their homes for avoiding conscription. This drove hundreds from their farms, with many fleeing to Union states, Mexico, or even back to Germany. But, the worst act of Confederate retribution was yet to come.
By the summer of 1862, the Union Loyal League had actually raised three companies of supposed Confederate volunteers but, through bureaucratic maneuvering and stonewalling, had managed to keep the companies in Texas, ostensible as “home guard” units. This kept Germans from being conscripted into the army and kept them at home to defend against both Indians as well as Duff’s men. Duff discovered the ruse and warned the Fredericksburg mayor and sheriff, the key personnel of the Union Loyal League, that he was about to appoint his own slate of municipal officers. Instead, he arrested the League’s key officials and had them thrown into jail in San Antonio. Fearing further arrests, the League immediately disbanded the companies and sent word that all persons wanting to make a run for Mexico to escape actual conscription should gather at Turtle Creek in Kerr County (about 15 miles west of Kerrville). On August 1, 1862, 68 men, including 63 Germans, one Tejano, and four Anglos, gathered at the appointed place and time. The group comprised mostly older men and a few young boys from Mason, Kendall, Kerr, and Gillespie Counties, but all of them were targeted conscripts. They elected Fritz Tegener as their commander, with his neighbor, Henry Joseph Schwethelm, voted in as second-in-command.
Beyond escaping to Mexico, the exact aim of the group is something historians cannot agree upon. Some say that they wished to merely escape conscription and taking any part in the war, while others contend that they sought to reach Mexico so they could enlist in Unionist Texan regiments forming there. The men seemed to have been relatively well armed with both rifles and six-shooters. The group proceeded southwest towards Mexico at a leisurely pace. Tegener was apparently convinced that there would be no pursuit. Tegener may have been correct, except that, as the Unionist force reached a crossing of the Guadalupe River, they encountered another German immigrant, Charles Bergmann, and “relieved” him of his supplies. Bergmann, angered at his turn of fortune, rode away until he found a small Confederate detachment. Bergmann was either detained by the Confederates, or decided to cooperate with them. In any case, he reported that a force of German Unionists headed for Mexico had robbed him.
When word reached Duff that these men were trying to make a run for Mexico, he became infuriated. He immediately organized a 94-man detachment under Lieutenant C.D. McRae to track down and intercept the Germans at any cost. Despite the fact that the German Unionists had a lead on his men, McRae managed to catch up with them on August 9, 1862, as the group encamped on the banks of the Nueces River between present-day Brackettville and Laguna, only 50 miles from the Mexican border. At around 3:00 a.m. the next morning, the two groups would clash in a skirmish that has also long been the subject of debate among historians and descendants of the German Unionists.
The most credible accounts indicate that, at the time McRae and his men attacked, the Germans were down to only 40 men, with 28 having left to go home. The battle was brief and fierce. The Germans were camped in a bad defensive position and McRae’s men were able to overwhelm them quickly. Two Confederates were killed and 18 were wounded in the fighting and, according to the letters of one Confederate soldier, eight of the Unionists were killed, 11 were wounded, and the remainder escaped. Those who were wounded quickly surrendered. According to the account of R.H. Williams, an Englishman who was part of McRae’s detachment, the wounded Germans were initially treated with kindness. However, things would soon go terribly wrong.
Williams wrote that he and some others rode out to scout for the escapees. When he returned to the camp after an unsuccessful search for the remaining Unionists, he noticed immediately that the wounded were gone. Williams asked about their whereabouts and was told they had been moved to a “more comfortable location.” Then, the quiet of the prairie was interrupted by a loud, ragged volley of shots. Williams wrote that, at first, he thought “they were burying some of the dead with the honors of war, but it did not sound like that, either.” Running in the direction of the shooting, Williams met a fellow Confederate soldier who held up his arms and cautioned Williams, “It’s all done. You needn’t be in a hurry…They have shot the poor devils and finished them off.” Williams, shocked, said, “It can’t be possible they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood!” But, the soldier replied, “Oh, yes, they’re all dead, sure enough, and a good job, too.” In fact, the 11 dead Germans would later be found to have been shot in the back of the head.
McRae’s subsequent message to Duff listed no survivors, reading in part, “I have met determined resistance, hence I have no prisoners to report.” Of the surviving escapees who managed to flee for Mexico, seven or eight were killed by yet another patrolling Confederate force in October as they tried to cross the Rio Grande, and nine more were captured at various locations and hung. The Germans who were killed in the fighting and the wounded that were subsequently executed were left unburied on the banks of the river.
When news of what became known as the Nueces Massacre reached San Antonio and the German settlements, rioting and open resistance broke out. Duff dispatched a second force that rounded up another 50 men, including some of the 28 who had fled the camp before the battle and were now hiding in the hills. Within weeks, more lifeless German bodies would be hanging from tree limbs and scaffolds across the Hill Country.
The German dead on the Nueces were never buried, and, for the balance of the war, Confederate authorities prohibited anyone from visiting the area. Once the war was over, a group from Comfort went to the battle site to retrieve the remains of those who had been killed. Despite the fact that animals had disturbed the remains and scattered bones in all directions, they were able to collect what they could find, and bring them back to Comfort. They would bury them in a mass grave on a small hill in the middle of the town and erect a tall limestone obelisk next to it. This monument was among the first erected in the United States commemorating the Civil War and, ironically, it would stand in a state of the Confederacy, honoring those who had lost their lives resisting the Southern cause. On its sides are listed the names of those who died under the inscription “Trëue der Union”or “Loyal to the Union.”
The Civil War raged for four years, as massive armies led by great generals moved across the Eastern and Western theaters of war, engaging in famous battles. The outcome of these battles often seemed to have great weight, both political and military, and, just as often, the armies and the battles left thousands of casualties and physical destruction in their wake. At least, that is how most of us see the war in our minds, that is the focus of most Civil War historiography, and perhaps that is rightfully so. However, any war has margins, places where the great armies do not go, where no great battles are fought, and where no great outcomes are determined. Yet, these places still see fighting, and the lives of those that live there are forever altered. Here, the casualties and the damage may be smaller in scale, but, that makes them more individual, more personal and the pain of loss somehow greater because it is not lost in the enormity of the event itself.
In the case of the Civil War, there were hundreds of battles fought “on the margins.” They escape our notice and, yet, men died in these engagements fighting for the very same reasons as those who fought in the great battles. If one examines some of these battles, you find the same dynamics of command and leadership, success and failure, that determined the outcomes of Shiloh or Gettysburg. Plus, for me, the tragedy and the human loss is somehow greater in these battles because they did not have an impact on the war—there was carnage and death but nothing was gained. In the Civil War, West Virginia was one of those places that was on the margins of the war.
On June 20, 1863, the 39 northwestern counties of Virginia were admitted to the Union as the new state of West Virginia. Created by the furor over Virginia’s secession from the Union in 1861, West Virginia was a direct byproduct of the Civil War. Yet, despite this fact, this staunchly Unionist region was largely a backwater of the war in terms of military activity. While the major battles and campaigns of the war raged on in the two theaters of operation on either side of the Appalachians, West Virginia was, at best, a mere sideshow. Here, in this rugged, mountainous terrain, amid a scattered population of mostly poor subsistence farmers, with its few cities linked by a rough, patchwork system of roads, military operations consisted primarily of isolated skirmishes between small units, ambushes by guerillas and “bushwhackers,” and the occasional cavalry raid.
Yet, West Virginia did have some military significance because the new state was sandwiched firmly between two critical rail links: the Union’s Baltimore and Ohio and the Confederacy’s Virginia and Tennessee. Each of these rail lines served as irreplaceable lines of communication between both Union and Confederate sources of men and materiel located on the east coast and their respective armies waging war in the Western Theater. Therefore, the disruption of the opposing railway was also of great importance to each side. But, as the fall of 1863 approached, the Federal need to cut the Virginia and Tennessee became especially urgent. As a result, beginning in late October 1863, Union forces in West Virginia would undertake what became a series of small campaigns and raids all designed to disrupt that key Confederate railway.
The first of these campaigns would climax in a somewhat obscure engagement known as the Battle of Droop Mountain. Conventional historical wisdom has long described this fight as the battle which finally determined control of West Virginia. But, did the battle really have this grand impact or was it really just another meaningless skirmish fought in an isolated backwater of the war? Droop Mountain might have been the key engagement in severing the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, and might have, indeed, determined the fate of the new state—it might have been a small battle that actually meant something in the larger war. Sadly, however, in reality, the battle would accomplish little in any broader strategic sense, not because it was battle fought on the margins, but because of a failure of command. Droop Mountain was a success made meaningless due the actions of one officer who lacked the will to see it through. In this instance, that lack of will, combined with the total absence of the necessary moral courage required follow orders and achieve their objectives, would belong to General William W. Averell, commander of the Union army’s 4th Separate Brigade. Further, in a larger sense for Averell, it would also be one of the first signs of a character flaw which would eventual end what might have been a promising military career.
As the early fall of 1863 began, control of West Virginia and the rail lines it sat astride was weighing heavily on the mind of the Union General-in-Chief, Major General Henry Halleck. September had been a disastrous month for Union forces in the West with Rosecrans’ defeat at Chickamauga in September and Braxton Bragg’s subsequent siege of Chattanooga, where Rosecrans and his men were now bottled up. With Rosecrans’ army pinned down, Confederate forces began a series of ominous moves to threaten Federal control of Eastern Tennessee. Beyond their strategic value, the control of the counties in this region had strong political and emotional value as the local population was overwhelmingly Unionist in sentiment. Their “liberation” had long been a goal of President Lincoln and, now that had been accomplished, the prospect of surrendering the region back to Confederate forces was simply unacceptable.
As a part of the initial stages of this new Confederate campaign, General Sam Jones, who commanded the Confederate Department of Western Virginia and East Tennessee, was ordered to move a large part of his forces into Eastern Tennessee and, within weeks, Bragg would order General James Longstreet to move his corps north from the siege lines surrounding Chattanooga to make a major push at seizing Knoxville. Knoxville, which had been held by Union forces under General Ambrose Burnside since September 3, was considered the key point to the entire region by both sides, and Halleck felt that Union forces must cut the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad to prevent the re-supply and reinforcement of Confederate forces bent on its capture.
To that end, in October, Halleck sent a message to General Benjamin F. Kelley, commander of the Department of West Virginia, indicating that Kelley’s forces should conduct operations designed to cut the Virginia and Tennessee. On October 26, Kelley issued orders to Averell, commander of the 4th Separate Brigade in Beverly, West Virginia, to move on Lewisburg in Greenbrier County with most of his command and drive Confederate forces from the area. He would be assisted in this effort by forces under General Alfred Duffie, who would move in parallel with Averell from Duffie’s base at Charlestown, and link up with Averell in the vicinity of Lewisburg on November 7.
However, the critical part of Kelley’s orders involved the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Once Lewisburg was secured, Kelley instructed Averell to leave any infantry behind and advance with the combined mounted forces from his own brigade and Duffie’s command “to Union, in Monroe County, and thence to the bridge on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad across New River, and destroy the same.”
Unfortunately, using a phrase that was to plague many a Union and Confederate general during the war, Kelley chose to caveat those orders by stating that this should be done if Averell deemed it “practicable” based upon any information he might receive once his forces reached Lewisburg. This license to exercise military judgment would end up costing the Union forces a chance to strike a potentially meaningful blow against the Confederate strategy in Eastern Tennessee.
In Kelley’s defense, on the surface, Averell appeared a good choice in whom to place such trust. A 29-year old veteran, Averell seemed a most capable cavalry officer. After graduating from West Point in 1855, Averell had served with distinction in the West, where he was badly wounded battling Navajos in the New Mexico Territory. When the war broke out, he was on the army’s disabled list, but he was soon appointed Colonel of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry and quickly rose to command the 2nd Division of the Cavalry Corps in the Army of the Potomac. However, he eventually ran afoul of Major General Joseph Hooker, who was looking for scapegoats in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville. Hooker blamed Averell for his leading role in General George Stoneman’s failed raid against Confederate communications prior to that battle, and he relieved Averell of command, exiling him to West Virginia, where he was given command of the then newly formed 4th Separate Brigade.
When Averell arrived in West Virginia in the early summer of 1863, he found his new command a somewhat motley mix of cavalry, light artillery, and infantry. Worse, Averell’s orders directing him to assume command included instructions to turn his infantry into cavalry as quickly as possible. This would be a complicated task under the best of circumstances but Averell’s problem was compounded by a lack of proper saddles, bridles, and other essential materials needed to train and equip a mounted force. Luckily, however, most of the regiments being converted consisted of West Virginia farm boys who at least understood how to mount and ride a horse. That fact, combined with Averell’s considerable talents as an organizer and trainer resulted in the rapid transformation of three complete regiments of infantry into “mounted infantry.” These men quickly proved to not only be adept at rapid movement on horseback, they also possessed the ability to fight either mounted or dismounted. Described by one visiting Union general as a truly fierce looking group of solders, the 4th Separate Brigade had been successful thus far, but, prior to Droop Mountain, their effectiveness had only been demonstrated in minor raids and skirmishes. Therefore, the coming campaign to cut the Virginia and Tennessee would be their first true test.
The plan developed by Kelly and Averell was complicated, involving two geographically separated columns linking up in the face of enemy opposition—a difficult prospect given the communications of the time and one made worse by the rugged country and poor roads of West Virginia. However, despite that fact, the initial phases of the campaign went off like clockwork, with Averell’s 4,500 troops departing Beverly on November 1 and Duffie’s 1,000 stepping off from Charlestown two days later. Both columns made good progress and Averell encountered the first Confederate opposition at Mill Point on November 5, some 34 miles from Lewisburg. Duffie, meanwhile managed to move undetected until November 6 when his men encountered Southern pickets in the vicinity of Meadow Bluff, a mere 15 miles from Lewisburg. Averell’s men quickly pushed aside the small Confederate force at Mill Point, as the Southern commander, Colonel William Jackson, sent word to General Echols that a Union column he estimated to number 3,500 men was moving south towards Lewisburg.
Jackson retreated seven miles south to Droop Mountain, where the road to Lewisburg climbed from an open valley below to the mountain’s densely wooded crest. Averell followed, but never closed to less than 200 yards from Jackson’s rearguard. As the evening approached, Jackson’s men began to dig in atop the mountain and place their artillery. Jackson aligned his men to block the road and cover the few open approaches to the hilltop, where the land had been cleared and cultivated. The terrain was such that Averell’s men would have to cross a series of rolling hills and ravines covering a distance of over two miles to assault the Confederate position. Jackson’s position was further strengthened when reinforcements under General Echols began to arrive in the evening hours. Being senior to Jackson, Echols assumed command of a combined force of over 2,000 men, which he believed was sufficient to hold Averell’s brigade given the strength of their commanding position. To augment the natural strength of their line, Echols’ had his troops construct breastworks of logs, stone, and earth, all designed to blunt Averell’s anticipated assault.
On the morning of November 6, Averell examined and studied the terrain as well as what he could see of Echols’ defensive line. At first light, he ordered three companies of infantry to advance as skirmishers and confirm the precise nature of Echols’ defenses. They returned to report exactly what Averell expected to find: a strong defensive position designed to disrupt a frontal assault along the axis of the main road. Whatever leadership skills William Averell may have lacked, his abilities as a tactician were excellent and he developed a solid plan for assaulting Echols’ formidable defensive position. Averell intended to attack the Southern line from multiple points, with the key element being an attack through difficult terrain against Echols’ left flank and rear, where the Confederates would least expect it.
The details of Averell’s plan called for dismounted troopers of the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry, supported by a battery of artillery to pressure the Confederate right, while the 2nd, 3rd, and 8th West Virginia Mounted Infantry demonstrated in Echols’ front. Meanwhile, the veteran Colonel August Moor would lead the flanking force, consisting of the 28th Ohio Infantry and 10th West Virginia Mounted Infantry, plus one company of the 14th Pennsylvania, in a march around the Confederate left. Once in position, Moor would attack the exposed Confederate flank, which would hopefully confuse the enemy and cause them to draw forces from their center. When that happened, Averell would assault the center of the Confederate line with his mounted infantry and, hopefully, overwhelm it.
At 9:00 a.m., Moor began the arduous task of moving his flanking force through the rugged forest and undergrowth, all the while trying to maintain some measure of surprise. His troops marched four miles to the northwest, zigzagging along ditches and fences, then turned back to the south, eventually covering over nine miles before reaching a position opposite the Confederate flank just before 2:00 p.m. Moor could hear firing from his left where Averell’s demonstration was taking place at the center and right of the Southern line. He moved his skirmishers forward and they quickly made contact with Echols’ pickets, who were rapidly driven back. Moor ordered the 28th Ohio forward at a double quick and they were met with a burst of rifle fire from Confederate infantry deployed behind the hedge-like defensive structures they had built during the night. The Ohioans lay down and began to return fire by file as Moor ordered the 10th West Virginia to now move forward and join on the left of the 28th. Together, the two regiments rose up and charged the Confederate line, sweeping to the hilltop, over the defensive embankments, and into the enemy’s rear.
Moor remembered the scene as a wild one, with his “men pouring a deadly fire into the moving rebels, killing and wounding artillery horses; rebel officers urging to make another stand, others cutting loose fallen horses, driving and pushing on cannon and caissons through their infantry.” Confederate opposition quickly melted away and their attempts to reinforce their left by drawing from the center were fruitless as the left collapsed too quickly to be supported.
Hearing the firing from Moor’s men and seeing what he described a “disturbed appearance in front,” Averell now ordered the remainder of his forces to press their attacks all along the Confederate line. The West Virginians attacking the center struggled up the steep slope but received no opposing rifle fire until they were only ten to fifteen yards from the Confederate positions. As a result, they quickly overran the breastworks Echols’ men had labored all night to build and the Confederate collapse was complete. As the defenders ran, throwing away arms and ammunition in the process, some Federal units stopped, exhausted from their climb, while others continued a disorganized pursuit of an even more disorganized foe.
Averell quickly gathered his forces but, rather than press a vigorous pursuit, he elected to encamp for the night and continue towards Lewisburg on the morning of November 7, where he expected to link up with General Duffie’s force and dispatch any remaining Confederate resistance. However, this final fight with Echols’ forces was not to be. The Southern commander, hearing of Duffie’s presence nearby, had his men retreat beyond Lewisburg and over the Greenbrier River, leaving large quantities of supplies behind for the Federals. General Duffie arrived in Lewisburg on the morning of November 7 and Averell’s triumphant brigade joined him a few hours later.
The first part of General Kelly’s plan had been accomplished. Both Union columns had reached Lewisburg on-time and had defeated a Confederate force in the process. Now, they could drive forward, easily push aside Echols’ demoralized units, and destroy the Virginia and Tennessee rail bridge at New River. But, this seemingly assured outcome did not materialize. After destroying all the Confederate supplies they found in Lewisburg, Averell ordered Duffie to begin the movement onward on the morning of November 8, but, contrary to his orders from General Kelley, he sent Duffie tentatively forward with only a small unit of cavalry.
The next morning, General Duffie and his cavalry troopers set out as ordered. After only a few miles march, however, his men encountered obstacles placed in the roadway by Echols’ retreating force, which were cleared as quickly as possible. Then, when they were only eight miles from Union, Duffie’s men ran into Confederate pickets and a brief skirmish ensued in which several Southern prisoners were taken. These men indicated to Duffie that Echols was still in full retreat and was heading all the way to New River, Averell’s final objective. The prisoners also told Duffie that Echols was being reinforced. Averell apparently heard similar stories in Lewisburg, as he stated in his after action report that he had heard “General Lee had promised Brigadier-General Echols ample re-enforcements at or near that point.” In actual fact, while General Jones was desperately trying to organize some form of reinforcement to Echols, there is no evidence any such forces ever materialized. All that can be found in the record of dispatches are a series of panicked requests for assistance from Jones and Echols, with a single response from Jefferson Davis stating that, “Unless local-defense men and militia can be had, there is no re-enforcement possible.”
This unsubstantiated rumor of reinforcement, along with a report from Duffie complaining of his men being “foot-sore” and short of supplies, led Averell to abandon the key and essential part of his mission, which was the destruction of the bridge at New River. From his report, one gets a sense that Averell was satisfied with a small victory at Droop Mountain, along with some destruction of enemy materiel, and decided to go home without accomplishing more of substance. But, even more so, Averell seems to be trying to find a reason to turn back and, as a result, some elements of his report do not ring true. For example, if Duffie was short of supplies, one wonders why he and Averell were so keen to destroy the Confederate stores they found in Lewisburg. Further, Averell had a combined force of nearly 5,000 men, which was certainly superior to anything Echols and Jones could rapidly muster at New River to oppose him. It would appear therefore, that Averell was choosing to deem the move to New River as not being “practicable” so as to capture what little success had been achieved at Droop Mountain and avoid any potential for further risk, even if it meant sacrificing the entire objective of the campaign.
So, on November 9, the two Union columns headed back to their own garrisons and, in the days that followed, Confederate forces quickly moved forward to regain their lost ground, even returning to their entrenchments on Droop Mountain. Confederate reports of Averell and Duffie’s departure seem almost incredulous. General Jones’ dispatch refers to the Unions forces having left “in haste” and adds that Union wounded taken prisoner in Lewisburg informed him that “the reason for their retreat [was] the want of subsistence, and for their haste that they had information that our troops were advancing upon them with large re-enforcements.” He adds that the wounded Union soldiers “complained of their losses and the fruitlessness of the expedition.”
It is, therefore, ironic that, in the aftermath, Droop Mountain would be heralded as the battle that saved West Virginia for the Union and ended organized Confederate operations in the state. This simply was not the case. The truth of the matter is that, in the coming months, the emphasis of operations in the region would simply shift into the Shenandoah Valley as the larger war moved toward a new and climactic stage. Therefore, the operational tempo in the state would also decline. As for the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, Averell’s failure to decisively move to destroy the bridge at New River would require that his men make other attempts to cut the rail line. Within a few weeks, they would make an arduous and dangerous trek through the mountains in winter conditions in an attempt to destroy the Virginia and Tennessee rail facilities at Salem, Virginia. Again, the men would bravely accomplish all they were asked, but the results would be far less than conclusive. Averell could once more extol the success of his actions, but, despite his men’s sacrifice, the rail line would only be briefly disrupted and, thus, the raid would be of no military significance.
In the coming months, as operations shifted eastward across the mountains and were drawn into the war’s mainstream, Averell and his small brigade would move as well. His able mounted infantry became full fledged cavalry regiments, and both they and their commander would be assigned to fight under the legendary Phil Sheridan in his 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign. While Averell’s cavalry would go on to be known as some of the toughest and finest fighters in the Union army, his lack of aggression and inability to follow through would be his eventual undoing. In September 1864, at Fisher’s Hill, Sheridan would order Averell to pursue the retreating enemy in an attempt to destroy the remnants of Jubal Early’s defeated army. Instead, as at Droop Mountain, Averell would interpret his orders in a casual manner, and, rather than executing a full fledged pursuit, he would hesitate, pause, and then stop to encamp, while the battered enemy escaped. This time, however, he had failed to follow the orders of one of the most demanding and mercurial officers in the Union army. Averell was relieved of command by Sheridan and, devastated by this action, he resigned from the army in May 1865. He would spend the next twenty years of his life fighting to restore his honor and position. Had he possessed the moral courage, conviction, and professionalism required to effectively lead, he would not have needed to do so. And, had he possessed the strength to command, he would not have wasted his men’s courage and sacrifice at Droop Mountain, resigning it to be just another small battle fought on the margins of the war.
On any fall Saturday afternoon, if you turn your television to a channel carrying Big Ten Conference football, you might happen upon a game involving the University of Wisconsin Badgers. And, should the Badgers score, you will hear their band strike up the stirring Wisconsin fight song, “On Wisconsin!” That tune, which is also the official song of the state of Wisconsin, has become quite popular with high schools across the country and even my own high school fight song was based on it. But the cry of “On Wisconsin” has a history that goes well beyond the Badger football team. It was once shouted by a young lieutenant over the crashing of artillery and rifle fire, helping to turn the tide of a crucial battle. As such, it is just another example of how the actions of one man, a single officer, inspires others and plays a role in changing history. So, you ask, who was this young lieutenant? And now I will tell you his story.
The young lieutenant’s name was Arthur MacArthur, Jr. Born on June 2, 1845, he was the son of a prominent Milwaukee lawyer and judge, Arthur MacArthur, Sr. The elder MacArthur emigrated from Scotland as a youth, lived in Chicopee, Massachusetts for a time, before moving to Wisconsin when his son was four years old. He built a prosperous career as a lawyer, which he leveraged to gain political influence and power as a Union Democrat, serving as the state’s Lieutenant Governor. The younger Arthur, however, had little interest in following in his father’s footsteps and, with the approach of the Civil War, was sent to a military school in Illinois. When war did come, Arthur, Sr. did all he could to protect his son and prevent him from enlisting, which his son was most determined to do. The two fought over the issue and finally reached a compromise, agreeing that Arthur, Jr. would return school in Illinois while his father tried to get him an appointment to West Point. However, Judge MacArthur discovered that no positions were open until the summer of 1863 and his son let him know, in no uncertain terms, that was not acceptable.
Being only 17, Arthur was too young to enter the army as an officer, so the judge allowed him to lie about his age and exercised what influence he did have to gain his son a position as a second lieutenant and adjutant to the newly formed 24th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. The teenaged lieutenant had a rocky start to his military career, as the exuberance and immaturity of youth caused him many problems during training. At first, many of the soldiers under his command ridiculed the "boy lieutenant." His biographer, Kenneth Ray Young, wrote that, “When he shouted out his orders, the men laughed at his high, squeaky voice.” However, when the regiment moved out to join General Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland, these soldiers would quickly learn that the “boy lieutenant” became something quite different when the shooting started.
MacArthur and his regiment soon had their inaugural exposure to hostile fire, “seeing the elephant” at Perryville, Kentucky in October 1862. As the battle reached its climax, the 24th Wisconsin was ordered to assault Confederate positions on the far side of a broad cornfield. Looking at the open ground in front of them with what must have been severe trepidation, the men of the regiment heard MacArthur’s voice and turned their heads to see this young man, galloping on horseback up and down their line, exposed to enemy rifle fire, shouting encouragement, and conveying orders to them. In the resulting attack, MacArthur would remain at the front of the regiment, who broke the Confederate line and sent them into retreat. The 24th soon pulled back, having survived their first combat with the loss of only one man. But, more than that, the men now gawked in amazement at the “boy lieutenant,” whom they now affectionately referred to as “Little Mac.”
MacArthur and the regiment would next be tested in the bloody New Year’s battle at Stones River, Tennessee. In a three-day engagement that cost 24,000 casualties, the 24th Wisconsin helped fend off a horrific Confederate onslaught on New Year’s Eve, including holding the line in an area known as the Round Forest, which some combatants renamed “Hell’s Half Acre.” MacArthur’s regiment would lose nearly 30 percent of its men at Stones River and Little Mac was in the middle of the carnage, displaying what his regiment commanding officer described as “great coolness and presence of mind.”
The 24th Wisconsin and the Army of the Cumberland would eventually move south, driving Braxton Bragg and the Confederate Army of Tennessee south and out of Tennessee altogether. In the midst of this success, young Lieutenant MacArthur became very ill and was sent north to a military hospital. While he recuperated, his regiment and Rosecrans’ entire army were badly defeated at Chickamauga, Georgia on September 19-20, 1863. The army retreated back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Bragg effectively bottled them up and lay siege to the city. Arthur MacArthur would return to his regiment in October to find them running out of food, cut off from any regular source of supply, and awaiting Bragg to crush them.
The loss at Chickamauga had completely undone Rosecrans and he simply ceased to be an effective commander. Undersecretary of War Charles Dana had been dispatched to evaluate Rosecrans before the disaster at Chickamauga, and now was asked to assess the situation in Chattanooga, reporting directly to President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton on “Old Rosy’s” ability to deal with the crisis. In what was, perhaps, his most scathing assessment of Rosecrans, Dana said that he had “never seen a public man possessing talent with less administrative power, less clearness and steadiness in difficulty, and greater practical incapacity than General Rosecrans. He has inventive fertility and knowledge, but he has no strength of will and no concentration of purpose.” Clearly disturbed by what he was hearing, Lincoln would comment that Rosecrans was not behaving in a way that inspired any confidence in his abilities and that, indeed, he was acting “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.”
On October 16, Lincoln appointed Ulysses Grant as commander of all Union forces in the West and ordered him to fix the situation in Chattanooga. Grant immediately relieved Rosecrans of command, ordering George Thomas, who was one of Rosecrans’ corps commanders, to take over the Army of the Cumberland. Grant telegraphed Thomas, saying “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards. I will be there as soon as possible. Please inform me how long your present supplies will last, and the prospect for keeping them up.” For his part, the new commander of the Army of the Cumberland quickly responded with a summation of his current stores and bravely concluded, “I will hold the town till we starve.”
Once Grant arrived in Chattanooga, he assumed his characteristically energetic approach to command, personally meeting with all key officers, surveying the field, and immediately ordering actions designed to reopen the line of supply to the starving city. Once the supplies of food and military materiel began to flow, he turned his attentions to matters of strategy. Grant had little confidence in Thomas or his army, which included Arthur MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin. Grant would comment to Sherman that, “the men of Thomas’s army had been so demoralized by the battle of Chickamauga that he feared they could not be got out of their trenches to assume the offensive.” But, he would soon find out that he had misjudged both Thomas and his army.
Grant’s plan to break the siege and drive Bragg back into Georgia was based on both the terrain and his assessment of the men now under his command. Chattanooga was ringed by mountainous terrain, all of which was manned by Bragg’s troops. On his right, were the heights of Lookout Mountain, which merged with the steep slopes of Missionary Ridge. That ridge extended across Grant’s front to his far left, ending at a place known as Tunnel Hill. As for the men under his command, he had Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland, as well as the recently transferred XI and XII Corps from the Army of the Potomac, and General Sherman with units from Grant’s old command, the Army of the Tennessee. While he saw Thomas as slow and plodding and his army as unreliable, he considered the XI and XII Corps as only slightly better. He knew that they were merely cast offs from George Meade’s army and they were led my General Joe Hooker, an officer Grant loathed and even referred to as “dangerous.” The only forces he could trust were those from the Army of the Tennessee, led by his closest friend and comrade, William Sherman.
Therefore, Grant developed a battle plan that gave the most important assignment to Sherman, while Thomas and Hooker were to play supporting roles. Hooker, with XII Corps in the vanguard, was to make a demonstration on the Confederate left by pressuring Bragg’s forces on Lookout Mountain, while Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland demonstrated against the center on Missionary Ridge. Sherman, meanwhile, was to attack the Southern right at Tunnel Hill. From there, he was to roll up Bragg’s flank, at which point Hooker and Thomas could provide support by exploiting Confederate attention on the damage being done by Sherman.
As for his own position, Grant chose to remain near the center during the coming battle, with George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland. The center was, after all, the logical place from which to command. Further, given the distance from one flank to another, it would be difficult for Grant to practice his direct, on-scene style of leadership whenever an unreliable commander was in need a little command direction. So, perhaps, he decided to place himself nearest the force and commander he trusted the least.
The attack was launched on November 24, when Sherman crossed the Tennessee River, but the major fighting would start in earnest the next day. However, Sherman’s attack met stiff resistance and, because of an error on the maps, he soon found that the terrain on Tunnel Hill was not as favorable as believed. As a result, by mid-afternoon, the major thrust of Grant’s attack was going nowhere. But, at the same time, Hooker, rather than diverting Confederate attention, was rolling up Lookout Mountain and threatening Bragg’s right. In an effort to relieve the resistance against Sherman, Grant ordered Thomas to have his men go forward and seize the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, hoping that this little demonstration would pose enough threat to Bragg’s center that the Southern commander to pull forces away from his front opposite Sherman. However, just as with everything else in the attack, the demonstration would not proceed as ordered.
With the firing of a set of signal guns, Thomas’ army moved forward towards the Confederate rifle pits. As the signal was given, MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin, which now numbered fewer than 150 men, were crouched at the edge of the woods forming the no-man’s land separating the two armies, in the center of a two-mile line running between two rivers. Ahead of them, the ridge rose almost 600 feet, broken by ravines, gullies, and the rifle pits. The 24th crossed the three-quarters of a mile to the rifle pits at the double quick, crashing into the shallow trenches and fighting hand-to-hand with the defenders.
The Confederates finally retreated back up the ridge, but now the 24th and the other Union regiments found themselves pinned down at the base of the ridge by artillery and rifle fire from the crest above. Victory had now turned into a hellish nightmare. Then suddenly and without orders, the 18,000 soldiers caught at the base of Missionary Ridge seemingly decided to take matters into their own hands. One by one, they rose to their feet and began to climb the steep slopes of the ridge towards their tormentors. Grant, who was watching the attack progress, was horrified. He turned to Thomas and angrily demanded to know who had ordered the men forward up the ridge.
Thomas replied, in his usual slow, quiet manner: "I don’t know; I did not." Then, addressing General Gordon Granger, he said, "Did you order them up, Granger?" "No," said Granger; "they started up without orders. When those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them." General Grant said something to the effect that somebody would suffer if it did not turn out well, and then, turning, stoically watched the ridge. He gave no further orders.
At the center of this unplanned and unordered attack was Arthur MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin. MacArthur’s color bearer had been killed during the fighting for the rifle pits and, as men began to clamber out of the trenches and up the hill, his replacement was decapitated by a round of solid shot from a Confederate gun above. MacArthur himself was wounded but still standing. When the colors went down a second time, he climbed out of the trench, grabbed them, and turned to his men, who were still cowering in the rifle pits. Raising the now ragged, battle-scarred flag high above his head, he shouted "On Wisconsin!" and moved quickly up the ridge. In one of those rare moments when men are moved from terror to bravery, the men of the 24th Wisconsin rose up and began to follow Little Mac up the steep slope amid a hail of enemy rifle and artillery fire. As the Union soldiers up and down the ridge moved closer, the Confederate defenders abandoned their positions at the crest of the ridge in disorganized panic. As Arthur MacArthur reached the summit of Missionary Ridge, he firmly planted the staff of the flag in the ground for all to see. MacArthur, the 24th Wisconsin, and the Army of the Cumberland, who Grant had feared would not leave their trenches, smashed Bragg’s center in six places, sending the Southern army into full retreat. The siege of Chattanooga was broken.
That night, the 24th Wisconsin’s corps commander, General Philip Sheridan, reached the summit of Missionary Ridge. When he was told about young MacArthur’s action, Sheridan found him and embraced the teenage lieutenant. Sheridan turned to the men of the 24th who were looking on and, choked with emotion, he said, "Take care of him. He has just won the Medal of Honor.”
That medal would be presented some 27 years later, on June 30, 1890. MacArthur would eventually take command of his regiment, attaining the rank of Colonel at the tender age of 19, the youngest to attain that rank in the Union army. In the years following the war, he would remain in the army, fight in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, and retire from service in 1909 as a Lieutenant General. Along the way, he would father a son named Douglas, who would become a General of the Army (five stars) during World War II and also be awarded the Medal of Honor.
After retirement, Arthur MacArthur returned to Milwaukee to enjoy the last years of his life. In 1912, the 24th Wisconsin planned to hold its 50th anniversary, with some 90 surviving members attending. They invited MacArthur to be the keynote speaker and, despite ill health, he eagerly agreed. The reunion was held in Milwaukee on September 5, 1912. The evening was warm and the hall was uncomfortably hot as the men took their seats. Despite being very weak, MacArthur summoned all his strength and moved to the podium to deliver his address. As he was about to begin, some say he glanced over to the tattered flag on the wall behind him, the one he had carried up Missionary Ridge that November afternoon. He then looked out over the now elderly men he had once served with as a young man, as their “boy lieutenant,” their “Little Mac.” His voice cracked a bit as he said, "Your indomitable regiment…." Then, he paused, his head lowered to the podium, and, as a hush fell over the room, Arthur MacArthur collapsed to the floor.
The first man to reach his side was Dr. William Cronyn, who had been the regiment’s surgeon and had treated young MacArthur’s wounds during the war. He quickly examined the fallen hero of Missionary Ridge, then turned to what remained of the 24th Wisconsin saying, "Comrades, the general is dying." Quietly, the aged veterans gathered around their once brave leader, reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison. When they had finished, Arthur MacArthur was dead, felled by a brain aneurism. One of the men, Captain Edwin Parsons, then rose to his feet, took the 24th’s colors from the wall, and draped them gently over Arthur MacArthur’s body. As they lifted him up and carried his body from the room, the colors Arthur MacArthur had so bravely carried up Missionary Ridge as a boy, now embraced him in death, and he probably would have wanted it so.
No American president ever employed the power of words as well as Abraham Lincoln. In his skillful hands, they were as mighty as any weapon in the Union Army’s arsenal and he used them to consistently and clearly state the nation’s goals, its purposes and war aims, and his own vision for the country’s future path. Moreover, he was able to demonstrate this ability, this precious gift, in both the written and spoken word, and historians have long paid especially close attention to the latter. From his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas to his speech at Cooper Union, the first inaugural address, the Gettysburg Address, and his second inaugural address, they have studied his texts with great care, seeking all they reveal about his mind and his positions on the issues of the time, as well as their often powerful beauty.
Some historians consider the speech he delivered on the occasion of his second inauguration as President to not only be his finest, but to be one of the greatest speeches in America’s history. When it was made on March 4, 1865 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the war was in its final bloody weeks. Lee’s army was trapped in the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia and his nemesis, Ulysses Grant was devising his plan for the push that would drive Lee back into the final retreat to Appomattox. At the same time, William T. Sherman was driving northward through South Carolina, as the only other major Confederate army in the field, led by Joseph Johnston, retreated before him. Almost anyone could see that the war’s outcome was inevitable—it was simply a matter of time before this shared national nightmare was ended at last.
Therefore, it seems apparent that Lincoln sought to set the stage for that end, to clearly speak his mind and, just as much, his heart. He had carried the nation’s pain on his shoulders for four long years and that is evident in this address. More than anything, however, he may have wanted all to hear his vision for the spirit in which he wanted the war to end, one of true peace and magnanimity. The result is a speech that, once again and just as at Gettysburg, is a tribute to the power of a skillful economy of words—there is much said here in only 702 words. Further, it is a speech that seems to move from darkness into light, just as the nation itself was doing at the time Lincoln spoke.
Surprisingly, the speech does not open with a powerful introduction. The opening paragraph is brief, almost cursory:
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
Here, one might have expected Lincoln to offer a detailed review of war’s course and offer some perspective on its near-term path to conclusion. However, he only does so in the broadest of terms, offering no detail. It is as though he is acknowledging the nation’s grief, its numbness over the scale and scope of the tragedy that befell them by simply stating, in essence, all that could be said has already been said, that so dear a cost has been paid, and we have all lived this calamity together. Therefore, he seems to be saying there is no need to review the history of the last four years. Rather, he says, all that remains is only the hope for a swift conclusion.
Then, Lincoln remembers the time of his first inaugural address, reminding everyone that his focus then was on the potential for compromise, on the need to remain a whole nation, and to avoid war, if possible:
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
As can be seen, however, he reminds the audience that, at that time, some parties on both sides sought to destroy the Union via negotiation, seeking to avoid war, even if the death of the Union was the price. But, in the end, it came down to the simple fact that one side would choose to divide the nation, to end the Union so preciously created by the Founders, and do so even if it meant bloodshed, while the other would refuse to submit to the threat of violence and end humanity’s last, best hope for liberty and freedom without a fight. Therefore, the war came, no matter how hard some would try to avoid it. Here, it is as though Lincoln now saw the war as inevitable and, as we will see later, perhaps ordained by God.
Next, Lincoln reviews what the respective positions of both sides as the conflict ignited in 1861. Here, he states simply and unambiguously for posterity that the cause of the war was human slavery, in the perceived right to own property in the form of a human being:
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
Reading this passage, it is amazing to me that, even now, some continue to claim that no one in the leadership of either side at the time of the Civil War saw slavery as the cause of the war, alleging that to do so now is nothing more than “politically correct” revisionism. Yet, look at what Lincoln says: “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” Furthermore, he goes on to make an equally clear statement of each position’s side of the issue: One wished to continue and even extend the practice, while the other merely sought to limit its extension to new territories. Here, Lincoln reminds everyone that, during the process of secession and the intractable march to war, he continually made it clear that he had no intension to unilaterally abolish slavery, that he sought compromise, and only wished to limit slavery from moving west.
Then Lincoln moves on to the most intriguing and even dark passages of the speech. Here, he also reveals much of his own tortured soul, of the pain he had been carrying, and what may have well been his own feelings regarding a divine role in the bloodshed the nation had suffered. Many had thought the war would be quick and the bloodshed minimal—they were so wrong:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
The quote from Matthew, chapter 18, verse 7 is especially telling, "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." Some Lincoln scholars believe that Lincoln had come to believe the length and cost of the war was God’s punishment on the American people, and this section of the speech seems to clearly convey that. Like many, the president seems to have been groping for a reason behind the sheer magnitude of suffering the nation had endured, and he found it in divine punishment for the sin of slavery. Now, he seems to say, that price has been paid and all we can hope for is that, with the sin excised, God will allow the bloodshed to end.
However, as I alluded to earlier, Lincoln then moves beautifully from darkness into light, into a hope for a better tomorrow and a bright future for his nation. The final paragraph is remarkable and it is both the most remembered and powerful part of the address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Here Lincoln expresses his hope and his vision for post-war America: forgiveness, recovery, and a peaceful land embracing the new birth of freedom he spoke of at Gettysburg. This passage also expresses the same sentiment he clearly communicated a few weeks later when he met Sherman and Grant at City Point, Virginia. Lincoln wanted the war ended as magnanimously as possible, without revenge and punishment for the conquered Southern foe.
His final words in the speech are truly beautiful and, in some ways, tragic, because both radical reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws would undo much of the spirit of his vision and delay true national reconciliation for more than a century. Still, after his assassination, Grant and Sherman would follow Lincoln’s wishes, ending the war on benevolent and generous terms. In doing so, both they and their Southern military counterparts would defy politicians on both sides, including those Radical Republicans who sought to punish the South, as well as those in the South like Jefferson Davis who sought to continue the war via a bloody, protracted guerilla conflict. Luckily for all of us, Abraham Lincoln had already laid the groundwork that would save the nation via the words of his Second Inaugural Address.
In the early morning hours of May 10, 1864, 12 regiments of Union soldiers from the Army of the Potomac crouched anxiously under the cover of some trees awaiting the order to assault an entrenched position occupied by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. These Confederate trenches were heavily fortified, occupying open ground near Spotsylvania Court House and, from all appearances, this would just be another costly frontal attack in a war that had already seen far too many. However, this attack would be different. Rather than going forward in long lines, advancing steadily but slowly, while exchanging volleys with the entrenched enemy, these Union soldiers would attack in a dense, concentrated column with great speed, and each regiment would have a specific assignment once the Confederate line was breached. In a war of utterly stagnated tactics, this would be an almost visionary approach and it was the brainchild of a young 24-year old colonel named Emory Upton. Upton would go on from Spotsylvania to become one of the greatest military minds this nation has ever produced and would be, in many ways, the father of the modern U.S. Army. Still, I will wager many of you have never even heard his name.
Upton was born in 1839 on his family’s farm near Batavia, New York, the tenth child of Daniel and Electra Randall Upton. He was a deeply religious young man and, at the age of 15, he attended Oberlin College, studying under evangelist Charles Finney. Sharing a small room with a childhood friend, he worked hard, studying and laboring at part-time jobs to pay his tuition and living expenses. Upton was always polite the closest anyone remembered him coming to a profane statement was an occasional “confound it” or a determined “by jiminy.”
While his years at Oberlin were happy ones, Upton had long harbored dreams of a military career and he made those dreams known to Judge Benjamin Pringle, the Congressman from the district surrounding Batavia. In March 1856, Pringle wrote young Upton to inform him that he was being appointed to the Corps of Cadets at West Point and that he would report to the Academy the following June. Upon arrival there, Upton threw himself into the life of a cadet and later wrote his sister saying, "I am passionately attached to West Point, and would not give up my appointment here for a million dollars.” He would graduate and receive his commission as a second lieutenant in May 1861, finishing eighth in a class of 45. Normally, a newly commissioned officer would be granted furlough to visit his family, but, with the firing on Fort Sumter a month earlier, Upton was immediately sent to Washington DC to help train the thousands of raw volunteers flooding into camps outside the capital.
He was assigned to the 4th U.S. Artillery but was transferred within days to the 5th U.S. Artillery and promoted to first lieutenant. He diligently helped train new recruits and went into action with them at the Battle of First Bull Run in July, where he received the first of three wounds he would suffer during the course of the war. The Union debacle at Bull Run made a deep impression on Upton and he clearly saw what happened when inexperienced volunteers soldiers were taken into battle too quickly. This experience would be just one of the things that lead him later call for a total revision in the traditional American reliance on untrained volunteer soldiers.
As the war progressed, Upton would move to command the 121st New York Infantry Regiment, leading them at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Here, he began to contemplate changes in the infantry tactics being used. These tactics, which were nothing but slightly modified formations from the Mexican War, were, in Upton’s eyes, both grossly ineffective and, worse, costly in terms of the lives being lost to enemy rifle fire. He also became acutely aware of the poor quality of leadership exhibited by many senior officers and their often equally poor knowledge of tactics and strategy. Worse, Upton, who was ambitious in his own way, could not garner promotion because he refused to develop purely political connections. While his talents had seen him rise to command of the 2nd Brigade of the VI Corps’ 1st Division, he was still only a colonel. Just before the start of Grant’s Overland Campaign, he wrote his sister saying,
My long-expected promotion is not forthcoming. General Meade has informed me that without political influence I will never be promoted. This consolation, however, remains, if justice has not been done, I have ever performed my duty faithfully and without regard to personal safety. The recommendation of those officers whose lives have been periled in every battle of the war have been overweighted by the baneful influence of the paltry politicians.
But it was during that very campaign that Upton came to the attention of Ulysses Grant and other senior officers. Grant had fought Lee to an unsuccessful, bloody draw in The Wilderness and tried to quickly shift his forces left to take possession of Spotsylvania Court House, drawing Lee into a fight in the open. However, the resilient Lee moved faster and, when the Army of the Potomac arrived, they found Lee blocking the way and well entrenched. Lee’s position stretched nearly 10 miles but, at its center, there was a vulnerable mule shoe-shaped salient. While this salient was well-defended by both infantry and artillery from Ewell’s Corps, it did offer an opportunity to break Lee’s line at its very center. If a breakthrough could be made, follow-on attacks might roll up Lee’s now exposed line in both directions. The VI Corps was given the assignment to achieve a breakthrough and Upton was chosen to plan and lead the attack.
Upton was given 12 regiments to execute the assault on the morning of May 10, 1864, a total of about 5,000 men. Upton developed a plan and approach that was both intricate but simple. The idea was to follow a massive artillery barrage on the salient, striking with speed and focusing all the attacking power on a very narrow front at the left angle of the salient. To accomplish this, he organized his force into a tight column of four lines, with three regiments to a line. The men would advance at the double quick with bayonets fixed, but they would not stop to fire any volleys. In fact, only the first line would go in with their rifles loaded and capped, ready to fire. The rest of the lines, meanwhile, would have their weapons loaded, but they would not cap them, removing any temptation to stop and fire at the enemy.
In addition, each line was given a specific assignment to accomplish once the works were carried. The first line had the toughest task. The 96th Pennsylvania and 121st New York would turn right down the line and capture an artillery battery while the 5th Maine went left and enfiladed the enemy with rifle fire. The second line, meanwhile, would enter the trenches facing forward and engage any enemy counterattack from that direction. The third line would then lie down behind the second and move forward to plug any holes resulting from Confederate counterattacks, while the fourth remained at the edge of the woods as a reserve. Once the breakthrough was made, men from the II and IX Corps would attack on either side of Upton’s force in an attempt to shatter Lee’s line completely.
At 5:00 a.m., Union artillery opened fire on the salient and kept up a severe barrage for an hour. Then, at 5:50 a.m., Upton was told to ready his men and move off as soon as the artillery fire ceased. Upon his signal, Upton’s men crept quietly forward to the edge of the pine trees and awaited the command to attack. Across the field, the soldiers of Rhodes’ Division from Ewell’s Corps had no indication that anything was amiss, except for what one described as an ominous “death-like stillness” following the Federal artillery barrage. Suddenly, Upton’s column emerged from the woods to their front and began to sprint towards the Confederate trenches with a loud shout. Rhodes’ men quickly began to open fire and some of Upton’s force fell. However, the rest surged forward like an irrepressible blue wave, rapidly closing in, then rolling up and over the Southern barricades in just a few minutes.
The first line leapt into the trenches, pealing left and right as planned, fighting with bayonets and pushing all resistance aside. While few soldiers were killed or wounded by bayonet during the Civil War, this engagement was the exception. One Georgian counted at least 56 comrades felled by Union bayonets during the vicious struggle amid the Confederate entrenchments. Upton described the fighting as follows:
…at command, the lines rose, moved noiselessly to the edge of the wood, and then, with a wild cheer and faces averted, rushed for the works. Through a terrible front and flank fire the column advanced, quickly gaining the parapet. Here occurred a deadly hand-to-hand conflict. The enemy sitting in their pits with pieces upright, loaded, and with bayonets fixed, ready to impale the first who should leap over, absolutely refused to yield the ground. The first of our men who tried to surmount the works fell pierced through the head by musket-balls. Others, seeing the fate of their comrades, held their pieces at arms length and fired downward, while others, poising their pieces vertically, hurled them down upon their enemy, pinning them to the ground. Lieutenant Johnston, of the One hundred and Twenty-first New York, received a bayonet wound through the thigh. Private O’Donnell, Ninety-sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers, was pinned to the parapet, but was rescued by his comrades. A private of the Fifth Maine, having bayoneted a rebel, was fired at by the captain, who, missing his aim, in turn shared the same fate. The brave man fell by a shot from the rebel lieutenant. The struggle lasted but a few seconds. Numbers prevailed, and, like a resistless wave, the column poured over the works, quickly putting hors de combat those who resisted, and sending to the rear those who surrendered. Pressing forward and expanding to the right and left, the second line of intrenchments, its line of battle, and the battery fell into our hands. The column of assault had accomplished its task. The enemy’s lines were completely broken and an opening had been made for the division which was to have supported on our left, but it did not arrive.
Sadly, as Upton noted, the attack achieved its initial goal, but the supporting forces were badly managed and did not attack in a coordinated fashion. Upton’s men held their position until it was obvious no help was coming. At that point, he ordered his men to withdraw. As would occur so often in the war, it had all been for nothing. Still, Grant was impressed by what he had seen, writing later:
Upton had gained an important advantage, but a lack in others of the spirit and dash possessed by him lost it to us. Before leaving Washington I had been authorized to promote officers on the field for special acts of gallantry. By this authority I conferred the rank of brigadier-general upon Upton on the spot, and this act was confirmed by the President.
As the campaign continued, Upton despaired from what he saw as a mounting toll of lost lives resulting from poor leadership. Following the horrific slaughter at Cold Harbor on June 3, he wrote his sister two letters in which he poured out his anger:
I am disgusted with the generalship displayed. Our men have, in many instances, been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed. Assault after assault has been ordered upon the enemy’s intrenchments, when they knew nothing about the strength or position of the enemy. Thousands of lives might have been spared by the exercise of a little skill; but, as it is, the courage of the poor men is expected to obviate all difficulties. I must confess that, so long as I see such incompetency, there is no grade in the army to which I aspire.
We are now at Cold Harbor, where we have been since June 1st. On that day we had a murderous engagement. I say murderous, because we were recklessly ordered to assault the enemy’s intrenchments, knowing neither their strength nor position. Our loss was very heavy, and to no purpose. Our men are brave, but can not accomplish impossibilities…I am very sorry to say I have seen but little generalship during the campaign. Some of our corps commanders are not fit to be corporals. Lazy and indolent, they will not even ride along their lines; yet, without hesitancy, they will order us to attack the enemy, no matter what their position or numbers. Twenty thousand of our killed and wounded should to-day be in our ranks.
As the army moved to lay siege to Petersburg, Upton continued to rail against unprofessional officers and poor leadership. At one point, his men took a portion of the Confederate works, only to be ordered to fall back and then be asked retake them the next day. Infuriated, Upton wrote,
This morning we were marched outside of the works to support and participate in an assault upon the enemy’s works. The order was countermanded in time to prevent a deliberate murder of our troops. The line we were to assault was evacuated by the enemy on the 16th, and was occupied by our troops, who fell back from them without firing a shot. It was not till the enemy had reoccupied them in stronger force than before that it was discovered that their possession was of great importance to us. Brilliant generalship that, which would abandon voluntarily a line of works, allow the enemy to take possession, and then drive them from it by a glorious charge ! This kind of stupidity has cost us already twenty thousand men. It is time that it should be stopped.
While this might be seen as an officer merely griping under the strain of combat, for Upton, far more was happening than just idle complaining. These experiences were lighting a flame inside him and one he would carry forth into the post-war years.
Before the war ended, Upton would transfer to the Western Theater, ably serving as a cavalry commander under General James Wilson, who would become Upton’s lifelong friend. With Lee and Johnston’s surrenders in April 1865, Upton was one of only a handful of officers who could claim to have fought the war in all three branches, artillery, infantry, and cavalry, and had done so with distinction in each. Wilson urged him to leave the Army and come with him into the railroad business. However, Upton declined the offer, stating that he wanted to stay in the Army where he hoped to make a career in the study of tactics, administration, and military organization. He keenly hoped to reform some of the wrongs he had witnessed during the war.
Immediately following the war, Upton wrote a comprehensive report on infantry tactics, which recommended numerous changes in Army doctrine. The report was adopted by a special board overseen by General Grant, who described its “superior merit,” noting that, for the first time, the U.S. Army had a uniquely American doctrine and not one based on a translation of a European manual.
During this period, Upton fell in love with a young woman from his native upstate New York, Emily Norwood Martin. Up to this point in his life, Upton had little time for women or courtship and Emily turned him inside out. He adored her and the two were married in early 1868. Upton took a leave of absence for a year, going to Europe with his new bride. Tragically, the marriage, while happy, was short lived. Emily died in 1870 and, in some ways, Upton never recovered from her loss.
Throwing himself into work, he moved on to a five-year assignment as Commandant of Cadets at West Point, where he also taught infantry, artillery, and cavalry tactics. At West Point, he resumed his intense study of military history and policy. With the end of the Franco-Prussian War in Europe, he proposed to travel to Paris and Berlin to see what might be learned from those two recently bloodied armies. General-in-Chief William T. Sherman agreed but offered an opportunity for an even larger study. Sherman ordered Upton to proceed on a round-the-world journey of some 18 months, first going to Asia, then India, Russia, and, finally, Europe. He was to take two other officers with him and make a comprehensive study of the different military forces he observed.
Upton left San Francisco in August 1877 and returned in December 1878. At first, he saw the task of documenting his findings daunting, indeed, but he chose to take an approach that might get the attention of military and political leaders and alert them to the need for reform in the Army:
I might as well try to capture a flock of wild pigeons as to capture my thoughts and arrange them in logical order for official use. I shall, therefore, have to go to Washington, where I shall have access to books, papers, and figures, and other notes necessary for my argument. I shall devote most of my attention to the subject of officers, and to showing our reckless extravagance in making war. When Germany fought France she put her army on a war-footing in eight days, and in eight days more she had four hundred thousand men on French territory. It took us from April, 1861, to March, 1862, to form an army of the same size at an expense of nearly eight hundred millions of dollars. We can not maintain a great army in peace, but we can provide a scheme for officering a large force in time of war, and such a scheme is deserving of study.
He finally submitted a massive 400-page report that was published in 1878 entitled The Armies of Asia and Europe. His report used a comparative approach, comparing the relatively weak military forces of the United States to its foreign counterparts, and it concluded with 54 pages of recommendations for military reform. However, while the report generated a great deal of discussion within professional military circles, nothing came from his recommendations.
Upton decided to take a new approach by writing a detailed history of the nation’s military policies. As he completed each chapter, he sent them for review by a group composed of Colonel Henry DuPont, General Sherman, and James A. Garfield, then a member of the House of Representatives. Upton tried to demonstrate that traditional American reliance on a small professional military augmented by untrained volunteers was increasingly out of step with modern warfare. And, while the nation had no natural enemies and was guarded by the seas, he could clearly see this would not protect the nation forever. Eventually, war with a modern foreign power would come and the military policies we had employed for over a century would lead to disaster.
This new study followed on to those he made in his first book and urged reforms in both the administrative aspects of the army as well as its permanent composition. As to the former, he proposed creation of a general staff, compulsory retirement of officers at age 62, a formal system of regular evaluation and examinations to determine competence, interchangeable assignments between line and staff, and a system of advanced professional military education. These he saw as remedies for the incompetence he witnessed during the Civil War. Meanwhile, his recommendations for the Army’s composition were even more groundbreaking. He called for a standing Regular Army proportional to the size of the population with 1,000 men for every million in populace. This force would be augmented by units called “National Volunteers” who could be expanded in time of war or national crisis. Finally, there would be the state militias, which would be solely supported by the states. With this system in place, no longer would it take years to field an army capable of defending the nation.
By early 1881, Upton’s history was progressing rapidly and he had made it to the chapter on American policy at the time of the Civil War. However, that was as far as his work would go. On March 15, 1881, he committed suicide in his quarters at The Presidio in San Francisco. When one reads the words of his friends written in the years following his death, you can see that they were groping to understand why this brilliant man had taken his own life at the age of 42. While it still unclear exactly what prompted this tragedy, it appears that Upton was suffering great pain from what was almost certainly a brain tumor. However, he also seems to have been struggling with a growing depression over his lack of progress in military reform. Just two days before his death, he wrote a letter indicating his intentions in which he said, "God only knows how it will eventually end, but I trust he will lead me to sacrifice myself, rather than to perpetuate a method which might in the future cost a single man his life."
However, his ideas did not die with him. Henry DuPont had the completed chapters of Upton’s history published as The Military Policy of the United States in 1904. The publication’s timing was almost perfect, as the War Department was moving to reform the Army at last. Upton’s book was seized upon by Secretary of War Elihu Root and almost all of his proposed reforms were finally implemented. Today, they can be seen in everything from the Army’s promotion system to the existence of the Army War College and the National Guard. Tragically, Emory Upton did not live to see his innovation and vision come to life. But he was to the Army what Alfred Thayer Mahan was to the Navy, and left us a legacy that has served our nation well.